Getting and Spending
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Marti was 22, just out of college, working as a waitress, living in LA, with vague ideas of getting into the film business, but no idea of how to do that, when a customer hooked her up with a job in the movie business, on the kind of fringes of the movie business actually, at a product placement company. These are the people who help companies get their name brand products into Hollywood films.
And this was a job I didn't even know existed. But our big client was Budweiser. And I think one of the reasons I was really impressed with this job was that they took me to the breakroom, and they had a giant refrigerator shaped like a Budweiser can. And I just thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
You were 22.
I was 22. It was full of beer.
It was the kind of job where you could drink as much beer as you wanted on the job. It was the kind of job where somebody regularly injected fish oil, which stank, into the upholstered chair of a boss that everybody hated. Marti had never actually worked in an office before, and she just thought, well, I guess this is what all office jobs are like. And she got to read scripts of movies before they were made, which was exciting, to look for places where characters could be drinking Budweiser or using other clients' products. And things went along like that for a while. And one day, the office manager tells Marti to wear a dress the next day and show up on time because auditors from Budweiser were going to be coming to the office.
And I showed up the next morning, and there's this guy in a suit sitting in my office at my desk. I think he introduced himself. And he said, I'm going to pretend to be your boss today. And you're my secretary.
I guess at that point it was explained to me that my boss-- the big boss, the guy I never saw-- had been cooking the books and that, according to the books, there were 15 more employees over in our office than there actually were. So somebody's solution to this was to hire a bunch of actors to come in and play the employees who were supposed to be working there, including the person who was supposed to be running the quote unquote, "script department," who was someone who was not me, who was paid a whole lot more than me.
In fact, Marti was told, she was doing, for $200 a week and still keeping her waitressing job, the work of three people, an entire department, that her company was actually billing Anheuser-Busch for. And, 22 years old, Marti never thought, OK, that's it, I'm walking. In fact, she was all, let's go, best day of work ever.
Now we're comrades. We're in on a scheme together. So I'm like, hey, I'm Marti. And he introduced himself. And I believe his name was Gary. And Gary was like, yeah, usually my gig is I'm a regular extra on All My Children. And I was really impressed. I just thought, wow, this guy is on TV. And he's all, so tell me how things really work here, and what should I say when they come in, and how does this computer work? And it was like we were getting ready to do a little play.
Did it seem like it might work to you?
Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely. Well, they were actors. They were a day player on Days of Our Lives. It was really impressive to me. I couldn't believe they'd hired the caliber of performers. I thought, wow, I can't believe they got people-- There were a bunch, one of whom was the cue card guy usually for Wheel of Fortune.
They were on real shows.
They were on real shows. They were on television, and they were here in our offices.
And then the office manager gives the word, the auditors have arrived.
So yeah, she's all, they're here, they're here. And everybody started looking efficient.
And at that point, people start bustling around, boxes are being carried from place to place.
Yeah, in my mind, it was like we're busy, happy employees. And everybody got busy because they were all those guys in the stockroom. And Gary is typing. God knows what he was typing. We're trying to look busy. And I remember they walked past us first. And your heart kind of skips, like, oh, they're coming to see us. And so all of a sudden, there's like four or five people standing around the door of this little office--
These are the people from Anheuser-Busch.
--kind of looking at us like we were an exhibit, the story department exhibit. And the guy who was pretending to be my boss was telling them about our projects. But he kept stopping because he'd sort of forget. And I would, of course, couldn't help myself. I'd start jumping in and going, bu-- ah-- ge-- and no, that's a Spike Lee project and stuff like that.
And I remember he was talking and fumbling his way through some explanation and looking at all these guys-- there was probably two or three men and this one woman-- and this one woman was looking at me. We kind of locked eyes. And I knew that she knew. It was this look like, I'm very disappointed in you. This is pitiful. And yeah.
The auditors left without saying anything at all. But within weeks, the company was coming apart. Paychecks were bouncing.
But what's so crazy about the whole scheme is that it's the sort of thing that somebody would do in a sitcom. Do you know what I mean? Oh, I know what we'll do. We'll hire actors to pretend to be the office workers.
No, it was like somebody had seen The Sting and thought, genius, I've got the plan. I'm surprised that they didn't just wheel the walls away of the whole place afterwards because it was just like that. It was a con.
Which brings me to today's radio program about people doing some pretty extreme things to make money and some less extreme things to spend money. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today, a program about getting and spending and the things that people will do, as in Marti's story, because they feel they have no choice.
Act One of today's show, Mothers of Invention. In that act, Alex Kotlowitz and a half dozen people on how they felt they had to act to survive. Act Two, That Guy. In that act, we hear part of the psychology of spending money that is rarely discussed. Act Three, Mall Rat. John Hodgman and the alleged secret tunnels under the Mall of America. Stay with us.
Act One. Mothers Of Invention.
And let's begin with Act One. Alex Kotlowitz has found that lately when he's been talking to people about money, what everybody seems to be coming back to is how money changed them, and how they feel ashamed of that. And how they feel all sorts of other feelings that they aren't so proud of. Here's Alex.
Not long ago, I got taken for $250. I know it's not a huge amount of money, but it's embarrassing. We all like to think we're too savvy to be had. But here's why I really hesitate to share this story. I was had by a minister, a man of God.
This pastor has a storefront church on Chicago's South Side, and he kept some of the money I'd given him to help bail a mutual friend out of jail. I don't know that he planned it. He was clearly struggling financially. He'd been a terrific mentor to my young friend, helping him through some tough times. But the opportunity presented itself, and too often, money gets in the way of even our best intentions. It exposes us.
I've been talking to a lot of people lately who thought money exposed them. Like my friend Marty Oberman. He was a Chicago Alderman for 12 years, and he got into politics out of a 1960s idealism. He'd been involved in the anti-war movement, and he earned a reputation as a reformer, as an opponent of the city's political machine. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, money began to change him starting when he first took office.
Two or three weeks after I was elected in 1975, a neighbor of mine-- I was out walking my dog, and he came up to me. And he was a good friend and supporter. And he said, boy, you have really offended so and so. And I was stunned. I didn't know what he was talking-- I said, what are you talking about?
He said, two days ago, you walked right past this guy on LaSalle Street and didn't say hello, didn't even acknowledge him. And he gave you $100. I didn't know what he was talking about. I'm sure I did walk past him on LaSalle Street. I was probably in a conversation or in thought. And this friend of mine really chewed me out.
Well, that doesn't have to happen too many times before you reflexively start smiling and shaking hands and sounding phony to everybody you meet. You don't know if they gave you money, if they're going to give you money. You become a glad-hander, but you don't have a choice. This is what it does to you.
One time, a real estate developer had $1,000 check delivered to Marty. The developer needed a favor. The check sat in Marty's desk for a month before he finally decided to tear it up. He eventually ran for statewide office and had to ask people for contributions of $10,000 and $15,000. He always feared what favors they'd be asking in return. Then one day, he found himself asking someone for $50,000.
Why would a person write a check like that? One had to assume that he didn't give the $50,000 not thinking that someday, he might want to ask for something. And I knew then that I did not want to be doing this.
Marty told me he thought he could be a politician unaffected by money, that he could do it differently. But instead, he got out of politics.
Ted Fishman thought he could do it differently too. For nine years, back in the 1980s, Ted, now an accomplished journalist, was a trader in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. There, money is everything. But Ted figured he'd always be able to keep his perspective.
I remember just before I traded for the very first time, I had a meeting with the head of my clearing company, which is the organization on an exchange that acts sort of like your bank and does a lot of your bookkeeping for you. And this was an experienced trader, a pretty glamorous guy. He had a big shock of hair and was always wearing Italian suits.
And he invited all the new traders in who were going to use his clearing corp, and he gave us a little talk. And his message to us was that we should fight for every single dollar. Don't give anything up. Out on the street, he said, people kill for $5. You should act like every $5 means something to you. And I was duly charged.
My first day on the Merc was humbling to say the least. People who hear my voice know that I have kind of a high voice, kind of a Topo Gigio type voice. And it can be really grating. Well, when I screamed in the pits for the first time, the other traders around actually held their ears. And because I was trained to just keep announcing prices of this and that, and where I would buy, and where I would sell-- I'll pay 100 on 12, 30 at 1,000, I'll pay 12 on 100. Then you'd have to check it. You'd say, I'm checking, 12 on 100, 12 on 100.
And so here I was with my loud, screaming voice. And a guy came up to me, and he said, why don't we just write you a check, and you can shut up and go home. And then actually, a guy who I had befriended on the exchange came up and made the first trade with me. And it was kind of my initiation. The hazing was done, and I made that first trade.
Once I made the commitment to trade, I had the most grandiose visions of my future. I would be one of the rich guys with a big mansion. I would earn enough money to run my own philanthropy because I was a do-gooder. And I made a lot of money. I made more money than I knew what it was really. I would go to Neiman Marcus and buy two Armani suits after a good day and fantasize about all the other things downtown that I would buy. And I did pretty well for a while.
One thing that happened that was very sobering for me was waking up one morning to the news on the radio. And the news that morning in April 1986 was that there had been a terrible nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. And this was the Chernobyl disaster. And I just heard about this irradiated cloud that was floating over Europe, and I didn't want to get myself to work. The news was too sad.
But when I did get to work, I noticed that there was more energy on the floor than usual. And I thought, well, what's going on here? Is there something I don't know? What was going on was that the whole exchange was giddy over the prospects of this nuclear disaster. And I was in the cattle pit at the time. And one of the first things somebody said to me was, well, all the pigs in Denmark are going to be dead. So the cattle price went sky high.
And that's when I learned the dictum that disasters are good for commodity trading. As soon as I got in the action, all of that sadness disappeared. And I just jumped into the game. And that disaster made me more money in one day than I had made in my entire life up to then.
It was like you show up every day to work hoping that everyone in your pit dies, and you get all their money. At the exchange, you create these castles of rationalization for your job. You've come to think, along with everybody else in those pits, that you're doing something essential to the operation of the world. But the truth, of course, in the end is it's all about money.
Several years after I quit trading, of course, the United States was attacked by terrorists in 9/11. And the exchanges in the nation were closed. But my brother was still trading on the CBOE at that time, Chicago Board Options Exchange. And I went back with him to help him out on the day that the exchange opened for the first day. And there again, I saw the very same giddiness that existed after the Chernobyl disaster. Here we were with the worst domestic attack in the United States history, and the traders were running around as happy as could be. And they would stop each other in the hall saying, you know, I don't feel good for what happened, but I'm doing great. You hate to be doing great, but I'm doing great. And they may be doing great, but I was pretty glad that I wasn't doing great that day.
The bottom had fallen out of everything in my life. So I'm thinking, well, where can I walk in where there's a cash register, where they have a couple hundred bucks so I can make my car payment?
Bill Thompson was desperate. Like Ted Fishman, he had traded commodities. And though he wasn't as successful, he made a pretty good living at it. He bought a home in Winnetka, a tony suburb north of Chicago. And when he was in his mid-30s, he married for a second time and had a son. Things were going pretty well.
But then he lost his job, and he didn't bounce back. He tried all sorts of things to make ends meet. He sold home security systems. He put up a 976 line for a guy, so he could talk to girls on the phone. He worked sales jobs on the phone, earning $8 an hour. He half-jokingly would say he was part of the working poor, but still living in Winnetka.
Soon, the bank began threatening to foreclose on his home. He got behind on his gas bill. And his relationship with his wife became volatile. Then his seven-year-old son got hit by a car.
As I go and try to get his medical bills paid for, the insurance company says to me, it's contributory negligence, we don't owe you anything. You're on your own. We were virtually empty. I've got no money. I've got $3,000 in hospital bills at the emergency room. I've got probably another $3,000 to $4,000 for his dental.
All his teeth were cracked, and they didn't know how they were going to put them back together. And there was a reminder every day of his injuries when I saw him. To see this kid suffering like he was, the pressure that I was under and the guilt I felt for not providing for him and not knowing what I was going to do about that, that was the part that really put it over the edge for me.
So Bill Thompson made a plan. He finds his son's plastic toy pistol, which he and his wife had taken away from him because they didn't want him playing with guns. He steals a license plate from a parked car and, with magnets, attaches it to the rear of his van. And he puts on his Burberry raincoat and a Chicago Cubs cap.
The first time, I was just scared to death. And I went into a dry cleaners. And I wait 'til everybody leaves, and I pretend like I've got some garment or something. And I say, "I've got a gun." And she looks at me, and she just looks quizzical. And she goes, "what?"
And then I realized she doesn't speak English. She calls somebody up to the front of the register that speaks English. And now, the whole thing's blown, so I turn around and walk out. Well, nothing happened to me at that point. I said, well, next time, you should stick around to get the money.
So the first one that's successful, I walk into a cleaners. I said, I had a gun, open the drawer. It was sort of like a learning process as I went along. It was scary. You could tell I was nervous. I didn't use any voice. I didn't act like I was going to jump the counter and pistol whip the guy or anything like that. It was more like I was panhandling. I think I got $180. It was enough to placate my wife at the time, as I recall. And it was just that simple. It wasn't simple emotionally or anything. But physically, it was a very simple thing to do.
I think I did two cleaners, a bakery store, and a cigar store. There was all sorts of things that can-- what they call-- go wrong. One time, I went in a dry cleaners down on Fourth and Linden in Wilmette. And I saw my neighbor in there. And I just ducked my head and walked out.
Of course, Bill could have sold his house or his van, but he didn't. He was a doctor's son, raised with lots of money. He didn't want to disappoint his wife. And at the time, frankly, it was hard to imagine living anywhere else, which, in hindsight, he acknowledges was crazy.
It's totally irrational. My thinking is so twisted that I'm thinking that I've got to do it, or everything's going to come tumbling down. It doesn't really matter what happens to me. If I get caught, I get away from this terrible situation I'm in. What do I have to lose? To me, it was never really about money. It was just about surviving. And survival, then, meant maintaining a certain lifestyle that I couldn't maintain.
So I decide I'm not getting enough money, so I'm going to stick up a bank. I'm looking for something where I can pay the bills for a couple of months instead of $150 to go down and buy groceries. There's this bank in Wilmette on the corner of Ridge and Lake. It's a storefront bank. It's not really a bank with big pillars and all that stuff. It's in a strip mall.
And I go in there. And I walk up to the teller, and I hand her the note. The note says, this is a bank robbery, I have a gun, put the money in the bag. And I had her put the money in the bag. And I walk. I'm not running or anything like that. I'm trying to be as calm as I can be. Nobody stops me.
I walked out and drove away. And I think it was something like $900, which gets it so that I can pay some bills. And I remember, at that point, right after that one, I remember being a little bit happy. But the pressure is still on. So I got to go do another bank.
So I go, and I find a little storefront bank. And so I finally muster up enough courage to go in there. And I make out the note and everything in my cryptic handwriting. And I walk in to the teller, and I hand her the note. And she looks at me, and she goes, "don't be ridiculous." She laughs at me. She says, "I'm not giving you any money."
And so I'm just totally shocked. I said, well, aren't these people supposed to do what you say when you're robbing a bank? And this woman says, "dpm't be ridiculous, get out of here." And so I leave. I was told what to do, so I just leave.
And so I get out, and I started driving, thinking, well, that was bad. And so it's only about four blocks away from the police station or five blocks or whatever. Evidently, they spotted the van. And so I was arrested, and it was over.
I was just relieved that my life was going to change at that point. And I didn't know whether it would be for the worse or the better or anything else. It was one of those things where I was just relieved.
Bill Thompson spent four years in prison, where the gangbangers nicknamed him Homer because they thought, with his pot belly and bald head, he looked like Homer Simpson. Bill's now trying to get on with his life. He got divorced. And last I spoke with him, he was involved in a business, exporting sporting goods to China. He's ashamed of this episode in his life, though he does mention it on his resume, presumably because employers will eventually find out anyway. But the hardest thing has been trying to rebuild his relationship with his children. To admit what he did without having it define him forever.
When I spent a couple of years in a Chicago housing project researching a book, I was struck by the power of suburban status symbols. Even there, the local gang's car of choice was a Chevrolet Suburban Blazer. At the time, teenagers were wearing Tommy Hilfiger and Guess. Hush Puppies and Coach wallets came and went. But while there was this yearning to appear prosperous, what was also clear is that for those without money, a little cash-- and I'm talking $10, $20, $50-- can go a long way to making life bearable.
People come to me, they need money. If you have nowhere else to turn, if you need $50, you can't go to your bank and get a loan for $50. You can't go to your mother or your sister or your cousin or your friend. If you got nowhere else to go, I'm your last hope.
This is Dan Lebo. He helps run the family business, Chicago Pawners and Jewelers. It's in a pretty rough neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. Here's how a pawn shop works. People bring in items to pawn, like jewelry or stereos, and then, to retrieve them, they have to pay back the cash they originally got for their item plus interest, which is regulated by the state. All transactions are reported to the police so that stolen goods can be detected.
The stereotype is 90% of my customers are criminals. Everything we take in is stolen. It's dark and dim, and it's a seedy place, where people do seedy things. People don't know that 80% of my customers come back to get their stuff. People don't come to pawn once. Sometimes they pawn the same item 20 times. Sometimes they pawn it 50 times. Sometimes they pawn it once a week. Many of my customers are repeat customers. They come once or twice a month over a course of years. I get to know them pretty well.
My name is Mike. I do a lot of business with these guys over here. I've been dealing with them for about 30 years, maybe, 30, 40 years.
Michael is in his 40s. He's got a wife. He works in the maintenance department at public schools. I am his Sears Roebuck. He buys a television if he needs it. If he needs a birthday gift, if he needs some money, he buys his jewelry from me. There's a lot of people who use my store almost like a convenience store. It's close.
What's up, Vernon?
Hey, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
I know that.
I know Joe is a bus driver. I know Steve works in the public schools. People come to my window, and I would hear their stories.
I'm going just down to a funeral down in Kentucky. And I just figured I needed some gas money. I ain't getting paid yet.
Female Customer 1
Now how much would you give me if I sell this back?
What is that, an Uzi?
Female Customer 1
No, it's a violin. Don't play with me. Today is Precious' birthday. I need some money. I'm want to go buy her some bookbags, one of the roller caddies that you put the books in.
They would tell me, this is what I need, this is my problem. My car broke down, or my lights are going to be turned off. Or my son is in jail, I have to bail him out. I need clothes for my kids to go to school.
Female Customer 2
I'm going to National Louis University. So today is the first day of class, and I need to buy a bus pass for school. And the financial aid hasn't kicked in yet.
Female Customer 3
I wanted to know how much I will get for these.
How much you trying to borrow?
Female Customer 3
I don't know. What's the most I can get for them?
Those were one of those instances where it tugs at your heart a little bit. A woman came in at first, and there was a pair of hoop or little cluster earrings that they had. The question was, well, how much do you need. And she had no idea. It was one of those things. She's never done this before.
Well, I won't make you an offer. I like to have an idea of what you're trying to borrow. Give me an idea.
Female Customer 3
I'm going to tell my boyfriend to come in here because he's the one who paid for them.
She just goes, let me go get my husband.
Well, you need money. Do you need it for a bill or whatever?
Female Customer 3
It's for a funeral.
Oh. Basically, how much more money do you need for that?
And the husband comes back in.
How much did you want to borrow?
He says he needs $800.
Husband Of Female Customer 3
I don't know, $800 maybe. But I want to see how much-- I don't know how much you could borrow.
And they were something that I would sell in my store for probably less than $200. I'm thinking this in my head.
What'd you say? $800?
Husband Of Female Customer 3
Yeah, I was.
I just tell them, I'm sorry, I can't help.
Husband Of Female Customer 3
That's OK. Thanks.
Husband Of Female Customer 3
Thanks a lot.
Those are the things that hurt because you can't help them. Because they were just nothing of substance, nothing that I could really loan money on to help them or get them anywhere close to what they needed. And they went on their way. And I don't think they came back.
Let's see, you had $50. You had $80, is that right?
Female Customer 4
Please, could you spring me another $10? Please? I'm coming back to get it in two weeks.
What'd you want? Another $10?
Female Customer 4
Yeah, give me another $10. I'll work with that. I love you. Thank you.
She gets more than most people do just because she's been coming here for 1,000 years, in and out.
Female Customer 4
But I know my stuff's safe. You know what I'm saying? Can't leave it at home. I'll walk around with the stuff in my purse. That's bad.
I find all too often that people don't like leaving their jewelry or their valuables in their house. For them, they think it's safer to be in the store. It's almost like a safety deposit box. Unfortunately, in the business, a family member taking from another family member happens all the time. Some customers, their son has a problem. Their son's friend has a problem, their nephew, their cousin.
This was probably 8, 10 years ago. This particular gentleman would pawn a guitar. Didn't think anything of it. But a couple days later, an older gentleman would come in with the pawn ticket and pick up the guitar. He would pawn it and be picked up, pawn it and be picked up. This would go on.
And we would say, who's the person who pawns it? Well, that's my son. Oh, he stole it from the church, and I'm getting it back because we need it. And part of the question we would ask the father, we'd say, well, what would you like us to do? Because we could say, we don't have to take in the guitar. Because what ends up happening, the son gets the money. The father then has to come in and pay his money to get the guitar back.
And the father would say, you have to take the guitar. Because otherwise, my son will sell it to some guy on the street, and then my guitar is gone. Take the guitar. I'll get it back. And that's pretty much the way it went.
You remember the story I told you about the minister who took me for $250? Well, I conjured up ways to take revenge. I thought maybe I could publicly humiliate him by writing about the episode. Or better yet, I could show up at a Sunday service and expose him to his parishioners.
I thought about leafletting outside his church. I even went so far as to write the material for the leaflet. I shared all these possible tactics with my wife. But she rolled her eyes. Because in the end, I did nothing. I just walked away.
Part of it, I was just too ashamed. I'm too easy a mark. Why advertise that? But the worst of it, I began to feel sorry for the guy. And I thought his stealing from me shouldn't nullify all the good things he did for my young friend, which brings me to my final story about money.
This is not an easy story to tell about myself because I fancy myself as one of those guys who is not taken easily. I should've seen this guy coming, and I didn't. Because I wanted to believe this was it.
This is my friend Tony Fitzpatrick. He's a successful artist who draws and paints these exquisite, boisterous prints inspired by his experiences in Chicago. You may be familiar with his work. He's done the album covers for Aaron Neville and Steve Earle. Well, early in Tony's career, when he was still struggling, Tony got seduced by a big time art dealer, a man named Vrej Baghoomian. He owned a gallery on Broadway in New York.
Boy, he was smooth. He smoked Dunhills. You know what I mean? This guy was European. I thought, this is it, this is my shot at making the majors. So I worked, and I worked, and I worked. And I kind of pushed away everything except the show.
It was very difficult because my wife was more and more pregnant. And she was alone all the time. My big New York show was more important than anything. Because in my own rationalizations, that was what was going to take care of our newborn son and help buy us a home. And that's what was running through my head the whole time I was making this New York show. That all of a sudden, this chunk of dough was going to make me more respectable.
So the show opens. Vrej isn't there. All of his staff, instead of being out in the open, talking to people, helping to sell stuff, is standing around Vrej's fax machine, staring at it. My Philadelphia dealer was there. And he said, let me take a look in the back room.
So he went by the back room, looked in there. There were no paintings. There were no pieces of art back there. It was empty. That's when I knew the whole thing was circling the bowl. And we saw it coming. There was nothing we could do.
Now, in the meantime, me, my wife, and my Philadelphia dealer sold 21 pieces out of the show, probably about $50,000 to $60,000 worth of work. We flew back to Chicago.
And three days later, I got a call from a kid named Eric who worked at Vrej Baghoomian as just an art installer. And he said, look, the federal marshals are coming to padlock the gallery. Vrej has fled the country. All of the checks and all of the money that was paid for your work was taken by the staff and by Vrej. By this point, we had a three-week-old baby. I had to go home on a Saturday evening, and I had to tell my wife we didn't have any money. We were broke.
I was out $40,000. And I let it be known to anybody who cared or anybody in the art world that eventually I was going to catch up with Vrej Baghoomian. Five years ago, I'm on Green Street in New York with my buddy Mickey [? Carton. ?] And this kind of older, Middle Eastern guy walks up, and he goes, Tony, Tony, good to see you, Tony. Shakes my hand, gives me a little European hug, and walks away.
It took me about 20 seconds to realize, that's Vrej. Now, I've been telling everybody in the art world, when I see him, I'm going to kick his ass, I'm going to pound $40,000 worth of misery out of his hide. I didn't do any of those things. I said, hey, Vrej, wait up. And he turned to me, and he looked really old.
I was the least of his problems of guys he owed money to. He had borrowed money from loan sharks, guys who were barely legal in that business, guys who would send guys if you didn't pay up. He was really beaten down, and he looked it. So I said, Vrej, how are you? And he said, I've been ill. And I said, I heard that. And he said, some day, we should really talk. And he shook my hand again and ran off.
So I got back to Mickey. And Mickey said, yeah, there's your pal. There's Vrej Baghoomian. Yeah, this is the guy you're going to kick his ass, you're going to pound him up one side of Broadway and down the other. And you didn't do anything. And I didn't.
The more and more I thought about it, the more my anger was tempered by just feeling stupid for wanting those things, the grand prize, the big New York art world. I can never, ever again let this be about money. I learned that the real value of making art is everything you go through while you're making it. And the long and short of it, I still had the show. I was still the author of all those pieces. I still had an opening night full of the best work at that point in my life that I'd ever made.
When I go to the Art Institute, I run to one place. I go to Gallery 236 and 237, and I look at the Joseph Cornell boxes. They're these tiny things with little glass pipes in them and star charts and sand and dolls and cutouts of birds and chicken wire. He took all of this inert stuff and made these magical, little environments. And I have never-- never once when I looked at that work did I ever wonder what it costs.
Tony Fitzpatrick. Alex Kotlowitz is a reporter. Amy Drozdowska-McGuire, the producer. Alex is the author of many books, including There Are No Children Here and now, most recently, Never a City So Real. Versions of these stories originally appeared on Chicago Public Radio's series Chicago Matters, which gets funding from the Chicago Community Trust. Executive producer of that series is Julia McEvoy.
Coming up, John Hodgman gets on the wrong side of an entire mall. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. That Guy.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Getting and Spending, stories about what people think they have to do to make their money. That was the first half of the show. And in this half of the program, what they think they have to do to spend their money. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two-- That Guy.
Now, I think about this next story as a story about spending money. Though I have to say, the person who did this story, one of our producers, Diane Cook, hates it when I say that that's what this story is about. She points out, and I guess I agree, that this story is about so much more than just how you spend your money. It's about a phenomenon that she notices all the time with people that she knows and people that she doesn't know. Here's Diane.
When my boyfriend, Jorge, was a teenager and started to use deodorant, he had to choose which kind to buy. He tried a bunch of different brands. But Old Spice reminded him too much of sailors, Right Guard made him feel like he needed to be playing basketball all the time, and Arrid Extra Dry was way too intense of a name for the moderate climate he lived in. So he settled on an innocuous, nondescript brand, Mitchum.
It's old. It's been around forever. And the reason it's been around forever is because people use it. And not enough people use it that there's a kind of person that uses it. And not too few people use it that you're making a statement. It's just deodorant. It doesn't make me feel cool. It doesn't make me feel uncool. Makes me feel like I'm putting deodorant on.
Fast forward 15 years. Jorge lives in New York. He boards a subway car one morning. And with nothing to read, he turns his attention to an ad on the train.
I start reading it, and it's just this ridiculous ad. It's a ridiculous message about being able to kick in the windows of a train in an emergency. And it's like, you're a tough guy if you can do this. I'm reading it. I'm like, this is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid.
And so I get to the punch line or whatever. This is about Mitchum. What it actually says is, if you're pretty sure you could kick in a window in the event of an emergency, then you're a Mitchum man. And you look around, the entire train is plastered with ads. And they're all ads for Mitchum.
And they're all like, if you've ever vaulted over anything in order to catch a train, you're a Mitchum man. If you are a total prick, then you're a Mitchum man. It's just completely and utterly embarrassing because I'm not that guy. I don't think that. I think, shoot, I missed the train. You know what I mean?
Everyone stay seated and remain calm while there's an emergency.
I'm sure we'll be moving soon. There must be a reasonable explanation for this.
So OK, his deodorant has a lame ad campaign. So what? And it didn't matter to Jorge until he found himself standing in the deodorant aisle at the supermarket a week later and staring at the Michtum, unable to reach his arm out, pick it up, and put it in his basket.
I thought that if I bought the Mitchum, I was going to take it to the checkout line, and I was going to put it there, and the person at the grocery line was going to think that I was trying Mitchum for the first time because of the advertising. There's nothing about Mitchum that it would be obvious to somebody that, hey, he's been using Mitchum for 10, 15 years. You know what I mean?
If it was-- I don't know-- Old English shaving cream, and I'm wearing a top hat, and I'm 70 years old, and they started a marketing campaign, they could be like, oh, that guy has been using that stuff forever. The beauty of the brand is that there's nothing associated with it. So as soon as they make this whole Mitchum man campaign, all of a sudden, you cannot help, but be like, anybody you see buying Mitchum is just going to instantly be like, hey, they must love those Mitchum man ads.
He left the store deodorant-less, which in and of itself is pretty embarrassing. He doesn't want to be the guy who buys Mitchum because of the ads. But does he really want to be the guy who boycotts Mitchum because of the ads? How far do you want to go to make sure you're not that guy?
I think of this as the that-guy phenomenon. It starts with someone you're repulsed by or simply never wanted to be. And then one day, you realize you are that guy.
My friend Mike was a troublemaker in school, and he hated the authority figures who caught him breaking the rules. Now he's the vice principal in charge of busting kids like him. And another friend of mine, who I hadn't heard from in years, emailed me to let me know that she was getting divorced. She's young, 29, and she couldn't believe the course that her life had taken. The last line in her email was, I can't believe I'm that girl. Or take Brett. He has steadfastly resisted one of the travel industry's greatest inventions, wheeled luggage, because he doesn't want to be a wheeled luggage guy.
The people who have wheeled luggage are assistant sales managers going to conferences someplace or old ladies, and they're not real travelers.
For Brett, the only thing a real traveler needs is a backpack.
I don't need no wheels. I can carry everything. It was years and years that I would be lugging this huge backpack through airports, sneering at the people who were wheeling their thing behind them. If you can breeze through the airport, pulling your thing without breaking a sweat, somehow you're not having the full experience.
The backpack he used was the backpack of his youth. He had taken it on trips to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Every scuff or stain on it had a story. He'd even slept on it.
It's not going too far to say that from Brett's perspective, his backpack is what made him an individual. He was different from the sea of look-alike businessmen, running through the airport with their wheeled luggage. And he liked being different. But then, at age 30, he realized, the thing that made them different from him is that they were getting everywhere faster and without leg cramps.
If this dilemma sounds a little ridiculous to you, remember, for a moment, your own attitude, once upon a time, about cell phones. You were never going to be that guy yapping away on his phone. But now you are. And why? Because at this point, the only reason not to have a cell phone is to be that guy who refuses to join the club, which isn't cool.
At some point, the embarrassment of becoming that guy who worries about becoming that guy outweighs the ego of carrying your thing. Because we're talking about the wheel. It's the most basic caveman technology imaginable. It's like saying, I'm not going to use fire to cook my meat because it's too bourgeois or something like that. A monkey can figure out that it's easier to use a wheel to pull something than it is to carry it on your back.
I've had a lot of that guy moments. But possibly, the most sobering one went like this. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in model homes and open houses. My mom would drag me to them every weekend. We'd wander through, surrounded by other women my mom's age and their unfortunate children.
But none of it ever made any sense to me. I knew for a fact we weren't moving, totally not in the market for a house. And yet, we were there, my mom running her hand over the newly upholstered sofa or marveling at their gleaming, white kitchen.
I hated these afternoons. The houses were so different from ours. And I knew that my mom thought that they were better. We were there to covet what they had, and we didn't. I vowed to myself I'd never be the kind of person who did this.
Then one sunny day, at the ripe age of 26, driving down my street past a condo for sale, I spotted an open house sign. And for reasons I can't explain, I was overcome with delight. I squealed. I actually squealed, an open house. Then turning to my boyfriend, let's go in and see what it's like. Then I froze. I had become that guy, and that guy was my mom.
You can only fight so much what you're going to become. It's going to be there waiting for you in the end because it's just true, some of it. Wheels are better. Although I have to say, it's a little embarrassing. But I still don't have the classic, black pull-along. Mine are cooler. I've got some kind of flaps or color on it or something like that. So I haven't entirely given in.
I've been battling my own little open house problem too. But it's useless. I'm too ashamed to bring myself to actually walk through an open house. So instead, when I need to blow off a little steam, I just look through the online real estate section, at all the pictures of ornate bathroom faucets and sunny, colorful living rooms, pouring over it like it was ladies' porn.
Diane Cook is one of the producers of our program.
[MUSIC - "THAT GUY", THE FAMILY GUY]
Act Three. Mall Rat.
Act Three, Mall Rat. And we close our program on Getting and Spending with a trip to a place where gobs of that is happening. To take us there, here's John Hodgman.
Some years ago, I was a contributing editor to a national magazine of men's fitness and adventure, where I wrote about food, drink, and cheese, which is a kind of food. In my several years as a professional food journalist, I wrote exactly two stories the magazine refused to publish.
The first was on ultra-hot hot sauces. An example of an ultra-hot hot sauce is Dave's Insanity Sauce, which I ate on a little cracker once. And then my head hurt, and then I had to lie down. And then I was crying for a day or so.
Dave's is actually on the milder end of the ultra-hot hot sauce spectrum. There is an entire category of ultra-hot hot sauces that promises death. I recognize that death is a part of life. Still, I could not bring myself to endorse death by ultra-hotness, which is perhaps why my magazine found my piece quote unquote, "overly gay."
The second article of mine that was never published was about the food court at the Mall of America. I was excited to visit the nation's largest mall, but what I discovered there shocked me. It also apparently shocked my magazine, which refused to publish it on the pretense that quote, "Most of it was made up," and that quote, "It did not involve perfect abs, or sea kayaking, or the best hamburgers ever, or incredible sex tips for having sex with Jessica Alba, or the fighting of polar bears," unquote, which I knew was their nice way of saying, overly gay. But you, dear listener, shall not shy from what is revealed in this, my unedited private diary of the secrets of the Mall of America with all of the made up parts intact.
Day one, at 200 million square feet, the Mall of America is the largest mall in the United States. In addition to 520 shops, 2/3 of which are devoted to the sale of FDNY and NYPD baseball caps, it has a chapel, and a school, and a post office, and an amusement park, called Camp Snoopy, inside of it. It is not, I should point out, the largest mall in North America. That distinction belongs to the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, which contains 7,000 baseball cap shops, and a sausage factory, an entire medieval castle, 12 monorails, and the entire township of East Edmonton, preserved like Pompeii at the exact moment it was devoured by the West Edmonton Mall.
Still, the Mall of America is large enough that I can see it from my hotel room, literally hundreds of feet away. Its phosphor lights obliterate the Minnesota evening. It is so bright, I don't know how they get the giant bats to keep circling it.
Day two, the Mall of America is filled with elderly people, always walking, circling the mall like sharks, they say, for exercise. When they collapse, mall security discreetly removes them and props them up in the booths at Johnny Rockets. One elderly woman has agreed to show me her favorite places to eat. Her name is Elaine.
She takes me into the Odyssey Cafe. It is a restaurant with four dining rooms, each decorated in the style of a lost civilization. I'm not very impressed by the Atlantis room, which is just a blue room with pictures of fish on the wall, not a single porthole, which, to me, just seems obvious.
But the Machu Picchu room is stunning with beautiful murals of mountain tops and very thin air, which makes it hard to breathe. And all the hard boiled eggs are undercooked. Also, the room is staffed by actual Incas, looking sad and doing their sad little math with knots of string when they are not serving you omelets. Elaine says, this is all that remains of their once-great civilization.
Day three, The Minnesota Picnic is a stand run by three brothers, all of them Egyptian. They serve traditional favorites of the Minnesota State Fair, pike on a stick, corn dogs on a stick, fried cheese curd, and bamya matboukha, the famous Egyptian okra stew, which unfortunately cannot be served on a stick. The brothers implore me to try their new invention, deep-fried cheesecake on a stick, a stunning breakthrough in food-on-a-stick technology.
Then they admit they are sad, sad like the Incas are sad. After 10 years, the Mall of America is kicking them out, and they don't know why. Suddenly, this reporter smells more than frying oil. He smells a story. I ask if they think they are being discriminated against. Oh no, they say, oh, no, no, no, no, no.
Day four, I call the mall PR people to ask why they are exiling the Egyptians and also to ask about the secret tunnel I found that leads from Camp Snoopy to Pottery Barn and is lined with human skulls. This is when the Mall of America stops returning my calls. It happens sometimes when professional journalists ask the wrong questions. I'm frozen out. From here on in, I'm going rogue.
Day five, Elaine takes me to Cereal Adventure, which is a mini theme park run by General Mills, makers of Trix and Lucky Charms and Cookie Crisp. There is a mini golf course there, as well as an interactive exhibit on how Lucky Charms are made. Here it is shown how the leprechauns are first flayed and then pulped to be turned into marshmallows. Off to the side is a waist-high pile of abandoned little green hats that will be shipped back to Ireland under international treaty. "Am I the only one here who finds this a little creepy," I ask aloud. Elaine ignores me. "You can have your picture taken and put on a box of Wheaties," she says. "That's insane," I say. I can't be aroused by a picture of myself. Where are the Mary Lou Retton boxes?
We then go to the Cereal Adventure Cafe which claims to have all of the General Mills cereals for sale. They have the monster cereals, Boo Berry, Count Chocula, Frankenberry. But I am surprised to learn that they have never even heard of Fruit Brute, which featured a werewolf. They have never even heard of Yummy Mummy, who was a mummy that was fruit flavored. I wonder if they really have any business running a cereal adventure cafe at all.
Day six, my last interview is with a Minnesota woman who has just opened a pastry shop using her grandmother's original cheesecake recipe. The shop is called Granny's Squeeze Cakes. I ask her if she's tried the deep-fried cheesecake on a stick that the Egyptians serve at The Minnesota Picnic. And she just smiles in a sort of sinister way that makes me think she knows that their days are numbered, and soon, she will be the cheesecake queen.
Day seven, by day now, I roam the halls. By night, I drink from the log flume in Camp Snoopy, the water all coppery tasting from the pennies. I purchase nearly nothing. Commerce suddenly seems the least interesting thing about the Mall of America for I have seen its greatest attraction. Like barnacles growing on a rock, somehow an actual living community has clung to this barren thing.
Every time I went by the Minnesota Picnic Stand, the Egyptian brothers were smiling, waving at Elaine and her fast-walking elderly cronies as they walked by, or getting some cheese curds ready for a regular, or gossiping with one of their favorite customers, an Hispanic gentleman in a puffy jacket with epaulets, who stopped working here years ago, but later told me he drove here once a week just to hang out with his old friends at the food court.
I check in with one of the Egyptian brothers on my way out of the Mall of America. "Did you ever discover why they are kicking us out?" he asks. "No," I say, "the mall officials are stonewalling me." "I have gone rogue," I explain. And he nods as only a sad Egyptian about to lose his deep-fried palace at the Mall of America can nod. "Perhaps this is for the best," he says. As I go, he gives me something fried on a stick, and I promise to eat it someday. But for him and for me, the Minnesota Picnic is over.
John Hodgman. A version of his story about the Mall of America appears in his book The Areas of My Expertise. The paperback edition is out this month.
Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Chris Ladd, Seth Lind, Steven January, and Cathy Hoang. Special thanks today to Dan Pipski. Our website www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who is constantly trying to buy me out of my contract here.
Why don't we just write you a check, and you can shut up and go home.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week. Until then.
PRI, Public Radio International.