Transcript

287:

Backed Into A Corner
Transcript

Originally aired 04.15.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/287

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Joe said he really had no choice even though he made a decision that most of us would be horrified to make ourselves. Here's what happened. He was in prison. He had served eight years on a robbery conviction. And he got accused of killing another prisoner, which in many states can get you the death penalty. He was innocent. This was later proven definitively. But his lawyer wasn't very good.

Joe Amrine

When I first met him, I asked him have you ever represented anyone before in a capital murder. And he told some, I'm going to be honest with you. He said, I represented seven people so far. He said six of them got the death penalty and one had received life and 50 years without the possibility of parole.

Ira Glass

The actual details of Joe's trial are not my concern here today. The fact that a guard witnessed the crime and named the real killer on the stand but was ignored. The fact that all the witnesses against Joe were prisoners whose testimony radically contradicted each other's. All you need to know is that justice wasn't done. The jury found him guilty, which brought Joe to make a decision that he never told his lawyer about.

When it came time for sentencing, which was the next thing that would happen in this case, the penalty phase where they had to determine the sentence now that he's been found guilty. The jury was going to have to rule if Joe would get the death penalty or get life in prison.

Joe Amrine

Those were my two choices. And I went back to the prison telling myself that I only had one option. And the only option I had was to make sure I received the death sentence. And I came to the conclusion that night just between and the guys that was in what they call the unit with me. We all talked about it. And they all came to the same thing I said, which was there was too many guys in prison who had life and 50 years without parole. Or life without parole. Who might be innocent or whatever but they are stuck in prison because they don't have a lawyer and they can't get anybody's attention.

So I figured if I end up getting life in prison without the possibility of parole, I'm stuck. Any legal work that we did on my case, I've had to do it myself. Or any publicity I'm going to get, where am I going to get it from? I don't have a death sentence. So what if a guy got life and 50 years? We hear about them every day.

So when the penalty phase came and he put me on that witness stand, I had made my mind up that I'm going to think of every bad act I've ever done as far back as I can remember. Every bad act my sisters, and brothers, my father, my mother, my neighbors. Everything bad I could think to tell them. Everything bad I could think that I could tell them I did while I was in prison, I told it. Because I wanted to make sure I received the death sentence. Because I figured if I received the death sentence, I'll have a lawyer. And I might be able to get some publicity. And I might be able to overturn this wrong conviction I have.

And if you read my penalty phase transcript, you'll see in there that I went out my way of making sure I received that death sentence.

Ira Glass

I actually have a transcript of your testimony right here. And it's really amazing what you say when you're on the stand. Like you say that you're not against the death penalty. You say, here we go, I'm just going to quote directly.

You say, "I'm not speaking to keep from getting the death penalty. I still have certain beliefs. I still believe that I should be held accounted for whatever I do. If I rob, I'm not necessarily ashamed of it. And if I get caught, I'm not mad because I get some time because I knew what I was doing. You know I'm sitting up here being tried for capital murder, which I was found to be convicted of. Which means that it was proven I did it I guess. But I'm still sitting up here saying that I agree that if I'm found guilty for a crime, then I'm supposed to be punished for it. And I believe in this society, I believe that I've been judged by my peers. And I believe all that. And I know right from wrong. You know I know all of this."

Joe Amrine

You see I was trying to get that death sentence. I wanted that. I mean everything I could think about that probably would hurt me, I said it. I said it.

Ira Glass

Here is a part in the transcript I'm just looking through. Hold on. Where you say-- this is just a really amazing thing to say to a jury. You say, "Well as far as me being convicted of capital murder, I don't hold no hard feelings toward the jury at all. Let me say this here. As long as they took the evidence and felt me guilty in their own minds as the evidence was presented to them, I don't hold no hard feelings towards them. I'm not against the death penalty." How much of a risk did you think you were taking?

Joe Amrine

Where was the risk? There was no risk involved.

Ira Glass

Well how much of a risk, how much of a chance did you think you had that you might get executed?

Joe Amrine

I probably had a 99.9% chance of being executed. Just like I had a 99.9% chance of spending the rest of my life in prison.

Ira Glass

So Joe gets what he wants. They sentence him to death. And then his gamble begins. He's on death row five years, 10 years, 15 years. Watches friends there sent to die. And how close did he get to dying?

Joe Amrine

Oh man, don't even ask me that one. I got denied the District Court. Then i got denied the 8th Circuit. But once you get denied by the United States Supreme Court, you have no more appeals. There's nobody else to appeal that to. And I had got denied by them.

The same day I was informed I was denied, my lawyer told me then that the attorney general's office has already petitioned the Missouri Supreme Court to set me an execution date.

Ira Glass

And so you felt--

Joe Amrine

I felt like I was history. Yeah, I was history. No doubt in my mind. I knew I was history. Everybody else knew I was history. Actually there was an article here in The Pitch Weekly in Kansas City that said "So Long, Joe."

Ira Glass

Well that's what you want to see.

Joe Amrine

That was the cover of their article, "So Long, Joe."

Ira Glass

Yeah, wow. And at that point, did you think maybe I made a mistake choosing the death penalty?

Joe Amrine

It probably went through my mind 1,001 times. But I guess the bottom line-- probably I came right back to the same conclusion. It's done. I can't undo it. Don't get me wrong. There were many times where I wanted to just give up, lie in the middle of the floor and just say, I give. Come and kill me.

Ira Glass

In the end, his plan worked just like he thought it would. A lawyer from a nonprofit group that does wrongful conviction cases took him on. He got some press. There was actually a documentary film about him. And the Missouri Supreme Court took another look at the evidence in the case and freed him from prison in 2003 after 17 years. All because he went for the death penalty in the first place, he says.

Ira Glass

So if you hadn't taken this risk during that trial, do you think you'd be free right now?

Joe Amrine

No, no.

Ira Glass

You'd still be in there?

Joe Amrine

Yeah, with life in prison without the possibility of parole. I mean where would I to be able to gain some relief at? I mean I come from a very poor family. I didn't really know anything about the law. Who's going to come and represent me free? That was the only route I could go. I had no choice.

Ira Glass

Well today on our program, we bring you three stories of people who got backed into a corner. And who, like Joe Amrine, made very counter-intuitive choices, choices most of us would never make. Sometimes, as you'll hear, it works out great. Sometimes it works out not so great. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our program today takes place in a nearly bankrupt sub shop in Seattle, a place where desperate action was necessary. Act Two, in a truck moving across the entire United States. The truck is suffering from what would seem like a nearly unworkable problem. Act Three unfolds in an interrogation room at a top secret government agency. Stay with us.

Act One. Working Class Hero Sandwich.

Ira Glass

Act One, Working Class Hero Sandwich. Dawna Lentz was 25, working at a Mexican restaurant for $8.60 an hour, which wasn't enough to pay her share of the rent and save for school. And keep her 1986 Honda from falling apart. So when she noticed a Quiznos franchise opening up across the parking lot from her job, she filled out an application.

It was supposed to be an easy second income. Making sandwiches part time seemed simple enough. But she ended up backed into this corner where she had to make the kind of decision you or I would probably never make. Shirleen Holt tells what happened.

Shirleen Holt

The first hint that this store might run into problems was the job interview, or in Dawna's case, the lack of one.

Dawna Lentz

I went it. And he handed me the handbook. And he goes, OK, I'll call you when we open the restaurant. I'm like, OK, that was the easiest interview I've ever been on.

Shirleen Holt

The restaurant was owned by three immigrants from India. One was a likable but nervous man named Navi. He was supposed to manage the place but he never ran a restaurant before. The others were a husband and wife team who were supposed to be silent partners. To Dawna, Navi seemed to be doing well at first, but the partners didn't think so.

Dawna Lentz

They would call him and say that he was spending too much money on food and not enough money was coming in. Just nit picking about things. We would get wonderful scores on our evaluations when corporate would come in. And they would pick them apart on him. He didn't smoke for five or six years. He stopped smoking. And then once he started at the restaurant, and they started giving him a hard time, he was smoking. He was throwing up before he was working. He couldn't come into the store without getting sick. He just was done with it.

Shirleen Holt

One Sunday night about a month after the store opened, Navi pulled Dawna aside.

Dawna Lentz

And he was like, Dawna I can't do this anymore. They're making my life hard. I miss my family. I want to go home to my wife. And it's not worth it. I'll give up all my money that I put into this. I'm just going to go. And I was like you can't go yet. You're leaving me here. I haven't been trained to do anything in this store for this company. I don't know what they want. And he was like I can't do it anymore. And so he says I'm sorry, I am leaving. I quit. So that's when things started going bad.

Shirleen Holt

Dawna called the other owners and told them what happened. And they took over, which only made things worse.

Dawna Lentz

The wife came in and started pushing the employees around. And saying they're not doing things right. And we need to do things like this. And she hung out for probably about an hour, if that, every day for a month. And then she was gone. I called her and I was like, what am I supposed to do with this store? Are you guys coming in? Or what are you leaving me?

And their exact words were, "Dawna, we're giving this store to you. Take care of it." And I'm like, I don't know how.

Shirleen Holt

Dawna still doesn't know why the owners abandoned the store. Maybe they were too busy with their other businesses. Maybe they had money problems. Whatever the reason, suddenly she and her crew were alone. By now, Dawna was working there full time. It was her only job.

She called Quiznos' regional office every day, sometimes more. They told here there was nothing they could do. They didn't own the business, the franchiser did. But Dawna and the other employees stayed, figuring help would come. Her first duty as unofficial manager was to order food.

Dawna Lentz

So I started talking to these distributors and stuff. And I called them and I'm like, I've never done this before. Help. And people are like, Oh don't worry. It's OK. We'll work with you.

Shirleen Holt

This is how Dawna learned how to run the business. She asked questions. She improvised. And things were OK at first. Food was coming in. The payroll service was sending checks. Every day she'd deposit more money in the store's bank account than she was spending. But what Dawna didn't know was that the account was being bled dry by automatic withdrawals. Quiznos corporate was taking its cut. Then the lenders. Then even small things like the laundry service.

Dawna Lentz

It took about not even a full month for us to start going really rapidly downhill. Things started bouncing through checking accounts. So food wasn't coming in. And they started making it pay on delivery. And then we started getting, if you don't pay, we'll turn it off notices. Or, we'll stop serving you notices. And also we got stuck with checks not being paid, bouncing checks.

Our payday was on December 24, Christmas Eve. Everybody wants to go Christmas shopping. So I gave them their checks. And they all went over to the bank and tried to cash their checks. And all the bank tellers laughed at them because there was no money in the account. And so that's when we have to start taking money out of the drawer.

Shirleen Holt

She pad employees out of the drawer. She paid suppliers out of the drawer. She paid the rent out of the drawer.

Dawna Lentz

That got very, very slim pickings there. My deposit turned into like $200 a night. And so probably after money started running dry, I was probably earning maybe $1 a day. And so that's when the employees started getting paid maybe every other night or every three nights. And that's when I lost the majority of my employees.

Shirleen Holt

Still, Dawna didn't quit. Not because she felt so loyal to Quiznos, and not because she loved the challenge. She stayed because the economy was tough. And she was worried she might not find another job, even a job that paid $1 a day was better than no job at all. Also--

Dawna Lentz

I thought there was hope somewhere. Maybe this is just a phase. But I didn't think it would ever get to the point that it did.

Shirleen Holt

I visited the restaurant when things were at their worst. And it was like walking into a store in Russia after the ruble collapsed. Nothing on the shelves, hardly any customers, so quiet you could hear the appliances humming. It's weird to be in fast food place with a clean floors, and the brightly colored tables, and everything in its place except the food.

There were little handwritten signs all over the store. Each nozzle on the soda dispenser had its own "Out Of Order" note taped to it. Except for Vanilla Coke. People hate Vanilla Coke. One customer, a tall professional woman, looked at the soda machine, laughed, and asked for a large, Out of Order. "With ice or without?" Dawna deadpanned.

Dawna Lentz

We started writing signs to warn them beforehand, OK, they were out of this, this, this, this. Because how do you explain to somebody, I don't have any bread even though I'm a sub shop? Like, I'm sorry, I don't have any bread? I don't even know where to start from that.

Shirleen Holt

At the prep table, they only had that processed lunch meat turkey you get at a grocery store, some roast beef, but none of the normal Quiznos sauces. No honey bourbon mustard, no zesty grill sauce, no creamy bacon Alfredo, no raspberry chipotle. In the back room, it was just as bad.

Dawna Lentz

This is going to be cold. This is our freezer. There was one box, and that was Philly cheese steak. And that was it. I had no cookies, no soups, no nothing. Right here is where soups are. When we were out of stuff, we didn't have soups, so there was nothing there. There were no pots, no pans, no dishes, nothing. it was just empty. Right over here is where we would prep. And it was usually empty because there was nothing to prep.

Shirleen Holt

Dawna made a spreadsheet on her home computer. Every night, she'd subtract the day's costs from sales. The numbers always came up negative. It frustrated her, kept her up at night. Every morning with money from the till, Dawna bought lunch meat at Cash and Carry. Then she'd drive to other Quiznos stores around Seattle for the special bread. She bought a few bags at a time, rationing the supply so the night crew would have enough for their shift. Not that the customers appreciated it.

Dawna Lentz

At first people would just walk out. And then it got to the point where people are like, why are you even open? Why do you stay here? And then after the first couple times of people getting irritated, I put up another sign telling them not to be mad at us. It's not our fault.

Shirleen Holt

This is what the sign said.

Dawna Lentz

"Due to bad owners, we are out of a lot of things. Please do not be mad at the employees or manager. We're really sorry, and please be patient."

The day that we didn't have I think chicken or something, a customer came down and was like, you know what, you're good for nothing, incompetent. What's the purpose of you even being here? And I just looked at him and I was so shocked for words. I had nothing to say to him. And it hurt me. It hit me really hard.

Shirleen Holt

Why?

Dawna Lentz

Because I was trying so hard and that people couldn't see that I was trying so hard. I mean my employees saw it. But the customers were just blowing it off like this was an everyday thing. And it wasn't.

Shirleen Holt

So what sort of person comes to a sandwich shop that doesn't have any food? When I visited the store back then, I saw a lot of first time customers, plus other people who worked in the strip mall who were curious to see how bad things were getting. Then there were customers liked Tim, a local delivery man. For him, habit and convenience were apparently more important than quality, variety and freedom of choice.

Tim

I walk in the door, and whatever's left she made me to eat. I still showed up. I was here every day. And then every day it was one thing short of another. Out of bread, and then it was out of meat. And then it was one thing or another. Yeah, I was wondering if I was going to get a napkin with some lettuce on it. So I wasn't for sure.

Shirleen Holt

Dawna kept calling the Quiznos people. One Sunday, she told them she'd run out of bread. Again, they told her they couldn't step in. Bread or no bread, she had to keep the store open. Then the media got a hold of the story and suddenly, everything changed. Quiznos headquarters sent in reinforcements, brought in food, paid the workers back wages.

Tim

I never saw more people here in my life.

Shirleen Holt

Again, Tim, the customer and delivery man.

Tim

They were so over-staffed it was unbelievable. They had people just standing around just to ask you, Hey, how are you doing? And they were blowing smoke talking about, Oh, as soon as we heard, we rushed right on down here and took care of it. And I lose my job if I took that long to get a package to somebody, you know what I'm saying?

Shirleen Holt

I tried to speak with one of the Quiznos people Dawna dealt with, but was redirected to a spokesperson, Stacie Lange, Quiznos vice president of public relations.

Stacie Lange

Unfortunately, we had a glitch in our system where the regionalized people did not communicate the information back to corporate about what was going on. Otherwise we would have stepped in a lot sooner with support. The best we can ascertain of why it didn't communicate back to corporate is that the regional folks were aware that we had a new franchise owner in the system who is supposedly only weeks away from assuming responsibility of this store. And they recognized that Dawna and the team had things going very well at the store from their perspective.

Shirleen Holt

Very well? Is that how they put it?

Stacie Lange

Well in their case, they were keeping things operating by their standards. Clearly not by corporate standards.

Shirleen Holt

Stacie explained that after all this happened, Quiznos flew Dawna to its headquarters in Denver. She got to meet the company president, and she went through formal management training.

Shirleen Holt

Did she get a raise to manager salary?

Stacie Lange

Absolutely. What had happened is there's a bump in pay, hourly pay, for a manager position versus a line employee. So she was able to reap the benefits of that.

Shirleen Holt

The benefit was a $1 raise to $8.60 an hour, the same that Dawna was making at the Mexican restaurant five months earlier. She wasn't paid overtime for the 12 hour days she worked. She wasn't compensated for the customer abuse or the pressure from vendors who wanted their money. But in a weird way, those struggles brought their own kind of reward. After years of minimum wage jobs, getting ordered around by all sorts of people, it's useful to learn that the bosses and owners don't know anything you couldn't figure out on your own. Dawna had stopped thinking of herself as a line worker. And she'd started thinking of herself as a manager.

Dawna Lentz

I didn't need anybody else. I needed money, but who doesn't? But I didn't need anybody else. I was on a major test of my whole life. And taking on something like that was a big responsibility. And it was dropped on me. And I do understand that. But I chose to stick it in there. And so therefore I chose that responsibility. And I feel it would look good on an application, voluntary work for a sub shop. Where else could you get something like that?

Shirleen Holt

Eventually the publicity died down. And when it did, the corporate people left. And again, Dawna and the others were on their own, still paying themselves out of the till, still coming up short. For a while it looked like the company had found a buyer. Then the deal fell through. Dawna thought about buying the place herself. She even talked to people at the bank. But she didn't earn enough to qualify for the loan. So six months after it opened, Quiznos shop on Holman Road, "My Store," as Dawna used to call it, shut down.

Dawna took a manager in training job at Radio Shack making $8 an hour plus commission. She's still waiting for her last paycheck from Quiznos.

Ira Glass

Shirleen Holt is a business reporter at the Seattle Times.

[MUSIC - "INVINCIBLE" BY OK GO] Coming up, backed into a corner on thousands of miles of interstate highway. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Don't Drive Like My Brother.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Backed Into a Corner, stories of people who are forced into making decisions they really do not want to make. We've arrive at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Don't Drive Like My Brother.

Like our story in Act One, this is a story about somebody who just needed a job. And that is what put him into the position where he ended up doing things that most of us would probably avoid. Charles Johnson had a wife and daughter. And he was out of work, and he looked around. And he was so desperate that he ended up in a job where he lacked one crucial qualification, a critical qualification you'd think. And yet somehow he made it work for years. Jonathan Menjivar explains.

Jonathan Menjivar

Charles Johnson was a trucker, a long haul trucker who went everywhere. And he did it without knowing how to read. Couldn't read highway signs. Couldn't read a map. It got him into all sorts of trouble, like when he was hauling stuff to New Jersey from New York and had no idea how to decipher the signs on the George Washington Bridge. Hundreds of feet in the air, 12 lanes of traffic, and he's hauling 80,000 pounds, enough weight that you never forget it's there.

Charles Johnson

So I got mixed up. So I had to call a truck, Mayday, mayday. I'm up on the bridge. I'm stuck. Get me down. Get me down. I'm trying to go Jersey. If I miss it, I have to go all the way back around. And I always thought of that, I said here I am up here and can't read. Would anyone believe this?

Jonathan Menjivar

He was just one of those kids who never caught on to reading. He grew up poor in Clarendon, Arkansas, where his family worked as sharecroppers. Charles had asthma, was a sickly kid. And he stayed home from school a lot. And by the third grade, it was pretty clear he wasn't keeping up. As he got older he was so good at sports, pulling in 30 points a game for the basketball team, they just passed him from grade to grade.

By his 30's, he'd moved to St. Louis and got married and did a bunch of different jobs. He washed dishes for a while. For about six months he ran a gas station his brother owned. But it never seemed like he could support a family on any of those jobs. His brother Paul was making good money as a truck driver. And it seemed to Charles like it was something he could do too. He found out that this trucking company, JH Ware, was training and hiring drivers.

So he signed up. The details he didn't understand, like the words on the truck's instrument panel, he just ignored.

Charles Johnson

The gauges, whatever they were saying, you really, really didn't pay that much attention. They was just there. You just know that you have to work and make a living. You know what I'm saying? I mean you aren't going to let no gauges stop $400 or $500 coming in your home for a week.

And I just knew I could do the manual part, how to shift a 21-speed, 9-speed. But then we'd go in the classroom and I would flunk. I would fail everything. I didn't know what they were talking about. How to get this stuff off of paper and put it down. I couldn't do it.

Jonathan Menjivar

What made this even harder is that at the time, no one knew Charles couldn't read. Not his wife, not any of his friends, nobody. So it's not like he could just ask for extra help from a teacher because he'd risk outing himself. Luckily for him, he did have an older brother, a really, really nice older brother.

Paul Kelly

A lady from the personnel office at JH Ware called me.

Jonathan Menjivar

This is Paul Kelly, Charles' oldest brother, the one who had always found jobs for him and helped him out. Paul's also been driving a truck for 30 years.

Paul Kelly

OK she says your brother is trying to get a job with us. And asked me if there was any way that I could come and attend the class that he was taking for a week. And she says, I would sure give him a job if you come down and help him. And I said well I'm working right now. So what I did, I took a week's vacation off. I got my gear together. And I went down to Fullerton, Missouri and I spent a week in class with him. The orientation did require some reading. I was sitting right there basically by him and making sure that everything that he checked was correct.

And what they would do is give you a world map and ask you the closest route to a certain place in the United States. How would you get there? And I had to teach him the straight line is the closest route to any place.

Jonathan Menjivar

Did it seem like he was reading along with you even if he was slow?

Paul Kelly

Exactly.

Jonathan Menjivar

Once the week of classes was done, Paul took Charles on a trial run down to Atlanta. They drove back through the Carolinas, up over Black Mountain in Tennessee, where Paul taught Charles how to ride the air in his brakes properly so that they wouldn't burn up. How to put it in grandma to slow down. Miraculously, Charles passed the written part of the driving test, which was multiple choice. He used a special technique.

Charles Johnson

I just guessed. Eenie meenie miney mo.

Jonathan Menjivar

He got the job. So there he was, license in hand and really no idea how he was going to pull it off. The job worked like this. The dispatcher gave him what truckers call a bill, which listed the address he was supposed to deliver to and when they expected him. That's it. No directions, no advice at all about how to get there. Sometimes if he had seen the name of the state before, Charles could make it out on the bill. Sometimes he couldn't but his dispatcher would say enough so they knew we had to go to Kansas City, and that he should head west.

Charles Johnson

And then you go around truck drivers and you say, I'm going to Kansas City. Anybody going? And then one person would say, yeah come over here. And so I'd say, man, when are you going to take off? He'd say, I'm going to take off in about two hours. I'd say can you wait on me? I'll try to go with you. He'd say, well yeah I'll wait on you. You'll be my back man. We'll talk on the radio all the way up. That's how you get there too.

Jonathan Menjivar

But still, those methods only work some of the time. And that's where his brother Paul came in.

Paul Kelly

So what Charles would do if he had a problem with his directions, well he would call me and say, hey Paul, I'm going to this place. How do I get there? The first time he called me, I believe it was about the second or third day.

Charles Johnson

I sad hello Paul. And he said, yeah, what's going on?

Paul Kelly

Paul, I have a load going to, I want to say, Philadelphia.

Charles Johnson

And then he said you going to Philly. Well you take route boom, boom, boom.

Paul Kelly

You're going to take Interstate 70 to New Stanton. New Stanton you pick up Interstate 76. And you take 76. You get over to Breezewood, Pennsylvania.

Jonathan Menjivar

All right, let's stop that right there. Now if you're a person who reads, you'd be writing all this down. And Paul always assumed that's what Charles was doing.

Paul Kelly

I want to say he was writing it down. Because he would repeat it. Let me tell you now, I'm sitting at home, I don't know. He got there.

Charles Johnson

I had my ABCs down.

Jonathan Menjivar

Charles couldn't read, but he knew his alphabet. He just had to coax someone into spelling the words for him.

Charles Johnson

Then I'd tell him, how do you spell that again? Or something like that. And he'd tell me, C-I-T-Y, city. I could write that down.

Paul Kelly

He wasn't a worrisome person that had to get me out the bed 24/7. But I got up quite a bit. So actually I was his man map by phone. Matter of fact, I had a map out just for him. Yeah I had a map at home just for Charles on my dinner table.

Jonathan Menjivar

Paul says Charles would call him three or four times a week. And sometimes as often as 10 times a week. But even with Paul's help, Charles had a hard time making sense of the route. He still had to make the place names correspond to what he was seeing on those big green signs over the highway, which he calls boards. He could read numbers. And sometimes he could recognize a word. But it wasn't exactly reading.

Charles Johnson

It was like matching up. Pennsylvania on my paper. Then it would be on the board there. You are now on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And it would match up so I knew I was there. As far as reading it, no.

Jonathan Menjivar

But even when he got to the city or town on his bill, he still wasn't done. Now he had to find out the exact address. On his bill for instance, it would say 1925 Light Road. But Charles didn't know that, so he'd have to ask somebody. Usually his best bet was to find a cop.

Charles Johnson

I would give it to the police officer. And he would say, oh Light Road right down there. Then I got Light Road in my head and I don't forget it. And so he said go here. I said, could you write it down for me?

Jonathan Menjivar

So Charles figured out a way to do the job. But the way he was making it work was also making him fail at the job because he was always late.

Charles Johnson

And when you are late, they take late payments out of your check. And so I'd call my wife, say, you get to check? She said, yeah I got it. It was so small. I didn't say honey I can't read. I had to shut my mouth. It was a nightmare. I couldn't read. I was confused on the road. Wasn't bringing enough money in. The loads was always late. Confusion, confusion, confusion. What can you do?

Jonathan Menjivar

Did you ever feel like you should just quit?

Charles Johnson

Every day, no matter what Jonathan-- I'd say I have to do it. I took the bills. I told the old lady and my daughter that I would be going to New York. And I had to get to New York.

Jonathan Menjivar

So he was only driving a truck to keep his family together. But he never made good money at it. And being away from home so much ended up hurting his marriage. Before long, he and his wife split up. He quit trucking after he fell asleep at the wheel and drifted into a ditch. His brother Paul was glad he finally quit. He'd worried about him every day he was on the road. And when he looks back on it, he's not sure why he never figured out that Charles couldn't read.

Paul Kelly

And why I felt like that, I don't have a clue. That's strange, isn't it? Charles was-- I don't know if you spent much time around a person who's not that intelligent as far as books go and reading. Growing up in our environment, there was quite a bit of this around. And it was something that we didn't pay special attention to. So Charles is news I guess to your guys' ears. But like I say, I worked around it all my life. And these guys can fake you out. I mean you don't really have a clue that they don't really understand how to read. And he actually got away with it.

It frightens me more now than it did then because I didn't know much about it. But now when he told me that he was having such a problem, then I have feelings for him.

Charles Johnson

So where are we going to go? I know the direction. This is south we're headed. Charles reads now. So driving is different for him. And so he took me for a drive to show me what that was like.

Jonathan Menjivar

So before when you would drive down, would you be able to tell what--

Charles Johnson

I wouldn't notice any of those signs. All I did was notice my target from A to Z. Now as far as reading the signs like "For Sale" right here, I didn't read that. I didn't read no "For Sale," it just was a blank. Now when I travel along the expressway and I'm going down the road, which I've been down there blind. Now I got some eyes. I'm seeing some I'm reading like, Kentucky, 40 miles away. When you get there it says "Welcome to Kentucky." I said I passed this place over and over and I just came on in. So it's is so much different today. It's so much different today.

Jonathan Menjivar

We go to make a right turn, but then Charles sees a familiar black and white sign.

Charles Johnson

Now I see "One Way." That means I can't go there. I would have gone in there when I couldn't read. Yeah, I've been on plenty one ways. And it says "One Way." And the police come down. And I said, "Officer, I'm so sorry. I didn't see the signs."

Jonathan Menjivar

How much easier does it make getting around the city?

Charles Johnson

Oh man, it's just that you're alive. I don't know if it's so much easier, it's just that you are alive.

Jonathan Menjivar

After he quit trucking, Charles went through a really rough period. And then 10 years ago, he sort of pulled himself together. He applied for a civil service job, but he failed the entrance exam so badly that it was finally clear to someone that he couldn't read. He was 45 years old. That's how long it took. Instead of a job, they handed him an address for a literacy program. He still goes there all the time. He tells me he's reading this book for a class there. And when he pulls it out of his briefcase, it's not what I expected.

Charles Johnson

What book am I reading now? I have to do a report on this simple book, this simple book called Dr. Seuss. "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish." If I were to show that to people, they will say, wow. I don't know. They would really try to embarrass you. But at home by myself, I'm happy with just reading this. This is better than reading anything at all. Just a simple book.

It says, "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish." And then it has the colors. That's what helps me a whole lot. I look at the pictures. That, no. "The fat one has a yellow hat."

Jonathan Menjivar

Charles told me that his whole life he felt like a fake. And that that was frightening and exhausting. Now he says he feels liberated. And even just being able to read this little bit, or being able to make out his phone bill or follow the instructions on his prescription bottles, makes his life so much easier. Like he'd been traveling in a foreign country all this time and now he's home Everything is different. Now when he gets lost, he says, he can read his way back.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar in Chicago.

[MUSIC - "BIG TRUCK DRIVER" BY MYSTIKAL]

Act Three. Confessions Of A Not-so-dangerous Mind.

Bbrian Montopolis

In high school, Matt wasn't one of those perfect kids who never made a resume-tarnishing wrong move. For one thing, he was a pothead, a big one. And it wasn't just pot he was into. He tried mushrooms, acid, Ritalin, even air fresheners. Pretty much anything he could get his hands on. But in his freshman year of college, everything changed. He decided what he wanted to do with his life, intelligence work. And he quit the drugs cold turkey. He studied international security, and picked up a language that would help him get a job.

Matt

I actually flipped a coin between Chinese and Arabic knowing that those two languages were both in high demand for the intelligence community. And it came up Chinese. This was before 9/11 so I've been kicking myself ever since.

Bbrian Montopolis

He ended up at one of the best graduate programs in the country for foreign relations. And the hard work paid off. He was offered a job as an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency. Now all that stood between him and his dream job was a background check and a grueling three day battery of tests. The first day was an IQ test. The second, a psychiatric evaluation. And the third was a polygraph, a lie detector test.

The first two days went really well. He felt great. But the night before the polygraph, he started getting anxious. He'd heard horror stories about what it'd be like. And he's an anxious guy to begin with. And he lay in bed that night worrying about any possible lies that might accidentally blow it for him, taking the questions apart and putting them back together. And over-thinking everything. For instance--

Matt

One of the questions that came up while I was talking to a psychiatrist was "Have you ever looked at child pornography?" And right away I said no without even thinking about it because I've never looked at child pornography. And I basically started obsessing about that question, thinking OK, first of all full disclosure. I'm gay. I'm a 21, 22 year old guy. I have looked at pornography on the internet. Like anyone who's looked at anything on the internet, there is the possibility that I've seen something illegal that I thought was legal.

But I got nervous because I was thinking, am I now getting myself so stressed out about even the possibility of having accidentally seen child pornography-- someone who was 17 and a half instead of 19-- that I'm now going to fail the test. The polygraph, it doesn't just register lies. It's a test-- a measurement of your stress level.

Bbrian Montopolis

He got pretty worked up, and not just about this.

Matt

But basically here's a conundrum that a person like myself would find themselves going into. And I'm sure other people would have less of a problem because they're less neurotic than I am. But you know this test is a measurement of stress. And yet what is it that even a totally innocent, average person would be incredibly stressed out about going into this test? Failing the test. So yeah, I was nervous. And to be honest, what I was most worried about going in was the whole drug thing.

Brian Montopolis

But their whole thing is if you disclose everything you've done, then you're fine, right? I mean if you say, yeah when I was in high school I smoked a lot of pot. Then that what you're supposed to do.

Matt

That's one side of it. I mean I've heard that too, that it's like, well it's not so much what you've done. It's whether you've lied or not. Because what they're really worried about is blackmail and extortion and other countries turning you by threatening to reveal your secrets.

I mean on the other hand, if you have murdered three people but you go ahead and tell them in the pre-polygraph interview, it's not like they're going to be, oh well thanks for the candor. When can you start?

Bbrian Montopolis

When Matt showed up at the NSA building in Maryland for his test, he was taken to a tiny room with a table and two chairs. And he met his interrogator, an African American woman in her 40's. She was very nice and seemed to be going out of her way to make him feel more comfortable. The first part of the session was pretty casual. Matt wasn't even hooked up to the machine. The idea was, if he'd ever done anything wrong in his life, this was the time to confess it.

Matt

You know, and this is the part of the test that people have this running joke like, make sure you admit that you in kindergarten smashed little Timmy's bees wax sculpture. Basically me having the opportunity to expunge every guilty secret I could possibly have. Even at one point, she's like, OK, what crimes have you committed? And I was like, well I'm gay. And she's like, uhh. And I was like that's illegal in some states.

So obviously I was going out of my way to tell them everything I could. I mean we spent an hour and a half on drugs alone where I was trying to even think of specific dates, which was sort of absurd. I mean if you smoked pot three times a day for your entire senior year of high school, what's the point giving dates?

Bbrian Montopolis

After a couple hours like this, Matt was finally hooked up to the lie detector. And that's when things started going downhill. The questions, mostly about whether he'd been hiding anything from her in the pre-polygraph interview, were straightforward enough. But Matt could tell from the start that it wasn't going well.

Matt

There were a lot of problems with how I was I guess sitting in the chair or breathing. And she kept stopping the test to give me new instructions that actually made be much more anxious because they seemed to be very contradictory. She would tell me that I was breathing too hard or something, right? And then three minutes later, she would stop the test again and say, Matt, stop trying to control your breathing.

Brian Montopolis

Were you trying to control your breathing?

Matt

I think I was because I was trying to make sure I wasn't breathing too hard. So that was I guess starting to make me feel like there was a problem. And then finally, she just turned the machine off and said, "You're failing. You are failing this test." And I said, well which question? Immediately thinking the drugs question has totally screwed me over.

And she says well "I'm really getting a bad physiological response on every question." And I'm thinking, every question? And I even said to her, "Does that include the one about me having ever tried to overthrow the US government?" I mean, I'm pretty sure I'd remember. And she was like, yeah, every question.

The machine is off at this point. And it never got turned back on. And I guess the first thing that we started talking about was the drug question because I guess in my mind, I just assumed this must really be the problem. And that's when she was portraying herself as wanting to help me give up some sinister secret. Like this test will all be over once you tell me what it is you're keeping to yourself.

Brian Montopolis

But at this point, you had nothing to tell her?

Matt

I didn't think that I had anything to tell her. But again, being told that I'm failing the test and that I have something that I still have to tell her, I'm thinking to myself, my god, I'm so screwed. It could be anything. It could be little Timmy's bees wax sculpture. It could be something that I'm not even-- it's not even on my conscious level that I can tell her.

And I'm thinking to myself, as she's going after me more more, OK, obviously she's not going to take no for an answer. I have got to pass this test. I have to get this job. I need to say something to placate her, which I guess was probably the beginning of me really going down that slippery slope of irrationality. Where I'm doing something that is really, really stupid that I'm somehow starting to convince myself is the strategic thing to do the time.

And so, I reached deep inside myself like she wanted me to. And I basically said, oh, you know what it might be? Maybe I was still hung up about the whole child porn thing still. I don't want to say she had a gotcha look on her face, but she definitely did the whole, leaning forward and, well now I'm very interested in what you have to say.

And then she said, "Well what do you mean by that?" And I'm like, well maybe I'm still worried that I've seen it unknowingly or unwittingly. And maybe it really bothers me, the idea that I've seen someone even who was a little but underage like 16 or 17. And her mantra for the next hour and a half was, "Look, things are black or white. You either did it or you didn't do it. Stop telling you don't know."

Brian Montopolis

Did she start getting really aggressive with you at that point?

Matt

She was getting so aggressive but-- I mean at one point she slammed one of her fists into her palm and said, "I don't have time for this! We're at war!"

Brian Montopolis

Wait, wait.

Matt

War? I mean obviously we have been here for four and a half hours now. How can I take what is obviously becoming the worst case scenario for this polygraph and come out on top? And apparently, my conclusion was to go from saying, "Well I just don't know. I don't know what I've done." To saying, "OK, I guess I may have looked at some child porn at some point in my life."

Brian Montopolis

So you gave her an absolute, "Yes, I've looked at child porn."

Matt

Yes, she got me to eventually say that yes, I've looked at child porn. We really started entering The Twilight Zone in terms of how I was rationalizing what I said to her. And it was at this point when I really began entirely making things up. So she's like, how many images? And I said-- in my mind I'm like, OK, just for my own sense of self-esteem, I'm going to give an answer that makes some sort of sense. So I'm going to say some number that I think maybe represents the highest possible percentage of images that I've seen on the internet that could have possibly been someone who was under 18.

And so I say 10. And she immediately responds with, "Now listen to me. If it's just one more than 10. If it's 11, then that means you're still lying to me. So you better come up with a number that absolutely includes the maximum number of images that you've seen." And I'm thinking to myself, well what should I say? 2,000? 12? What do I say? So I think I came up with 50.

Brian Montopolis

So you said to this woman, "I have looked at exactly 50 images of child pornography in my lifetime."

Matt

I think I said I've looked at no more than 50.

You know the funny thing about this whole thing is growing up, I had looked at almost no pornography in my entire life. I had straight friends. I mean most of friends were straight guys. You live with them in the dorm. They all were downloading porn off the internet all the time. And I was feigning interest. And once I came out of the closet, I immediately ended up in a monogamous relationship with someone who I'm still dating today. And I've actually, more so than almost anyone else I know my age, I mean friends of mine, I'm not interested in porn, adult or otherwise.

So for the record, I'm an aficionado nor connoisseur of kiddie porn. So it was totally arbitrary, totally random. And we're joking about it now. But at the time, I'm shaking like a leaf. I feel like I might have a nervous breakdown. It's like blubbering in my seat. And I was like, oh you know could maybe just jot it down that I'd like to have a second test? And she's un-hooking me. And she's like, "Yeah sure, whatever. I'll talk to them."

Bbrian Montopolis

It'll come as no surprise that Matt didn't get the job. Instead, he got a letter from the NSA saying that his application had been discontinued on the basis of his quote "involvement with child pornography." Getting a rejection letter is one thing, but getting a rejection letter from the United States government saying they know you're into kiddie porn is quite another.

Child pornography is a felony. Matt was scared. He hired a lawyer, who told him he wasn't alone, that other people taking polygraphs have admitted to all sorts of things they'd never done. The lawyer arranged for Matt to take new polygraph test. And he passed with flying colors. But the NSA wouldn't change its decision or clear his name. And Matt was haunted by the fact that he'd falsely confessed to an act that repulsed him.

Matt

It's a pretty awful thing to know that people out there think that you've done this kind of thing. And maybe this sounds weird, but for several months afterwards, whenever I was standing on a subway platform or something, and there was somebody there with their little kids, I felt kind of dirty. I felt like, you know what, there's someone out there who thinks that I want to see pictures of these kids naked.

Brian Montopolis

Matt was still in grad school when all this happened. And it was hard to drag himself to class every day knowing he was preparing himself for jobs he probably could never have. He gave an intelligence career one last shot and applied for a job at the CIA. But not long after he told them about his NSA interview, they dropped his from the process.

Matt

I mean in my mind, without sounding too dramatic, it was basically the end of me working in the career that I wanted to work in.

Bbrian Montopolis

Of course there's a reason for that. Matt cracked. They asked him some questions, and he implicated himself in a crime he never committed. And maybe that's not the sort of person who should be given our nation's security secrets.

Brian Montopolis

Do you think that your performance in the interrogation speaks to how well you would have done your job?

Matt

No. Well I mean, if you want me to be totally honest, if I was going to say-- and this could be true-- if my performance in the interview said anything negative about my ability to do the job, maybe it said I was too immature. In the sense that I was the neurotic, overly introspective kid who gave up all this information in the first place when I didn't need to. But I also think there's something wrong with a system that decides that I committed a felony that I didn't commit and keeps me from ever being able to do the job, but it allows in Aldrich Ames, who once they found out that he was a Soviet spy, they got a warrant for his house and they found a statue of Lenin in his back yard. I mean how come they missed that when they got me?

Bbrian Montopolis

He's given up intelligence work for now and moved across the country to begin a new career. I'd tell you where he went and what he's doing, but he doesn't want me to. These days, Matt would rather say too little than too much. And keep some things to himself. Brian Montopolis.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well our program is produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Kevin Clark. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for absolutely free. Or buy CDs of them. And you know you can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who sat me down at the mixing console in our radio studio years ago and explained to me how he runs the controls.

Charles Johnson

The gauges or whatever they're saying. You really, really didn't pay that much attention. They were just there. You just knew that you had to work to make a living. You know what I'm saying?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Charles Johnson

You know what I mean? You aren't going to let any gauges stop $400 or $500 coming in your home for a week.

Announcer

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