Transcript

306:

Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time
Transcript

Originally aired 01.13.2006

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/306

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Paul's a cop in New York. Paul Bacon. Officer Bacon. No jokes please. And one night, he did his regular 4:00 to midnight shift. And then he was told that they needed him to cover a second shift in another part of the city in a little security booth in an area they were protecting from terrorists, basically.

At 2:00 AM, the other officer who's working in this booth with him takes a lunch break. Goes and takes a nap. And then at 3:00 AM, it's Paul's turn for a break. He's exhausted. Remember, he had already worked a full shift as a patrolman. And he decides that he's also going to take a nap.

So he gets into his patrol car and he drives it out into this parking lot, a little ways away from the security booth.

Paul Bacon

I parked my car in the one available spot thinking, no, this is a parking lot. Nobody's going to be coming by here. It's going to be fine. So I turned off the ignition and just sat there. And I realized I don't think I'm going to be able to fall asleep sitting up.

So I got out of the driver's seat, got in the back, and closed the door. And I was asleep within seconds.

I had set my alarm watch to go off so that I would get up in plenty of time to go back on post so my partner wouldn't worry where I was, and everything would be fine. It would be smooth.

But I woke up a few seconds before my alarm with this terrible realization, which is that I was locked in the back. I just like, [GASPS], I'm trapped. That was my first thought. Because you don't get out of the back of a police car. The back of a police car is for prisoners.

Ira Glass

I mean, I never really thought about it, that a police car is really just like a rolling jail cell.

Paul Bacon

That's exactly right. And also, it's hermetically sealed. I remember it was very cold that night. It was February. And I had closed the grating to the front, and the windows were up. So really, you could just feel there was less oxygen in the air. And also, all the windows were all fogged up, so I could barely see out. And I started to panic.

I reached for both of the door handles. Neither of them worked. And so I rolled over on my side, and I pounded against the door as hard as I could with both my feet. And there's just no way out of this car.

Ira Glass

It's dark. It's cold. But he's only 60 feet away from security booth where his partner is. And he's right next to a sidewalk. All he needs is for somebody to see him, come over, and lift the door handle from the outside.

And he gets lucky. A Pepsi truck parks right on the street right in front of him. He waves frantically at the driver. He pounds on the glass. He can see the driver peering in at him. And then, the driver flees. He flees. Who is going to help some maniac trapped in the back of a police car?

Paul Bacon

My next thought was, well, maybe somebody else will come by. And in the steam on the window, I wrote the word help. And I did it backwards. But then I got to thinking, well, that's not going to be any more convincing. So underneath help I wrote, I'm a cop. But unfortunately, nobody came by to read my message.

Ira Glass

His radio's in the front seat, out of reach. And 3:00 in the morning, exhausted, panicked. It takes him 25 minutes to remember that he is carrying a cellphone. A cellphone he says he almost never uses.

But here's the problem. He's working with an officer that he's never met before in a place he's never been before. He has no idea what the phone number is of that little booth just 60 feet away from his parked car. That little booth where right now, his partner is expecting him back on post, wondering where he is.

His first great idea of the night was to take a nap. Now he had a second great idea.

Paul Bacon

I did what I thought I would never have to do you ever in my life. And that is to call 911 as a cop. When the operator came on very shortly, she says, well, don't worry. We'll put this through to your central dispatcher.

And she was about to get off the phone with me. And I said, well, wait. There's this very, very important thing to tell the dispatcher. And that is that this needs to go over the radio as a non-emergency. Because any time that a cop requests help and it's not qualified in any way, it sends out the cavalry.

Everybody drops everything they're doing and comes very quickly to that location. And that's a dangerous situation. And all because I made this stupid mistake. So I said, please, make sure that you specify it's a non-emergency. I swear, within a minute, lights and sirens coming from all directions.

Ira Glass

Now part of the chaos is coming from the fact that Paul wasn't really exactly sure where he was. Remember, this was not his regular precinct. So cops are zooming around just trying to find him. This seems like way too much commotion, even for that. Something has gone very, very wrong.

So Paul dials 911 again. They tell him that his call had gone out as a 1013. 1013-- officer down.

Paul Bacon

Like, as if a cop was being beaten or had just been shot. And that's why everybody was going all over the place. My call had basically woken up the entire midnight squad. Probably half that squad was also sleeping. And now I had gotten everybody's blood going. So my partner up in the booth finally got up and started walking down into the parking lot.

And I saw him coming, and I took my flashlight off my belt. And I'm shaking my flashlight like crazy, just to show him that this is not a headlight of some car. This is a person being very creative and very emphatic about letting you know that this is somebody stuck.

And he sees me from about 50 yards away. And he takes his flashlight off and jingles it back at me, and then starts to walk away. He's just thinking I'm having a good time, you know? Like, ha, ha, ha.

He was walking away. So I had to rap really hard on my window again. And I rapped so hard that I cut my knuckles. But he got the point. And he came down to my car, just lifted the door handle. It took him two seconds to let me out.

Ira Glass

So he's free. And they call off the cavalry. Nobody in his regular precinct ever found out about it. Tonight on our radio show, we bring you stories like this one. Stories that begin with a bright idea-- like, for instance, you're going to park your car 60 feet from your partner and climb in and take a nap. And then, things happen. More than you bargained for. More than you wanted.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, we bring you a bunch of stories organized around a single thought. And this week that thought is, "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time."

Our show in four acts today-- each of which starts off with great hope and a shiny new idea. Act One, Luck of the Irish. In that act, a bunch people become very convinced that with one simple purchase, they can change their lives forever.

Act Two, Taxation Without Inebriation. In that act, how to make a decision to hire somebody who absolutely positively is going to do you no good-- and you can tell they're going to do you no good-- and why you may never fire that person.

Act Three, Bad Morning America. Davy Rothbart goes into morning television and does a little experiment on his hosts.

Act Four, The Function of the Heart. An 11 year old girl comes up with a simple scheme on how she can finally get to really know her dad-- her dad who is not so keen on being known. Stay with us.

Act One. Luck Of The Irish.

Ira Glass

Act One, Luck of the Irish.

This first story takes place far from the New York City police force. This is about a very different kind of job. Maybe about as different as you can get.

Katie Else

Well, I was in Riverdance. But I don't actually dance. I just sing. There's like a lead female singer.

Ira Glass

It must be a terrible thing to be the singer in Riverdance, because nobody actually-- it's all about the dancing, right?

Katie Else

No, exactly. And every now and then, someone will say something like, it's called Riverdance, not Riversing.

Ira Glass

Mr. And Mrs. America, please meet Katie Else. Katie was touring with Riverdance doing eight shows week, working every day. Any day that they weren't on stage, they would be traveling. 70 people in the company. That's four singers, a band, tech guys and support people, and 40-- yes, 40-- dancers doing that Irish step dancing thing they do.

I don't even know if it's called step dancing. You know what I'm talking about here? The Michael Flatley-- of course you do. Because you've seen television. Anyway, two months into the tour, a time when working every day they're getting kind of tired with the monotony of working every day. And they needed some excitement. And this idea spread through the company like wildfire.

Katie Else

I think it was the idea of the lead dancer and dance captain. He has this ridiculous luck with raffles. We have a raffle every Friday, and he has won it five times.

He just has ridiculous luck with this. And he just happened to notice on the internet, I guess, that Mega-Millions had gotten up to like $360 million or something like that. So he suggested that we all do a syndicate ticket. It's like you pool your money. So $5 gets five tickets, but everybody has a share in all the tickets.

Ira Glass

Not too complicated, right? They're playing the lottery. So the company's physical therapist, who's a guy named Scott-- he is the one who organized the whole thing and collected everybody's money. And the reason why it's him is-- OK, if you picture this company of 40 dancers-- and I hate to bring up this analogy, but honestly, it's very, very apt-- the Starship Enterprise.

I always thought that it was really a little weird that the one job besides actually flying around and exploring space, the one set that they bothered to build on this television show that wasn't actually adventure related, was the doctor's office. I mean, of all the things, right?

And basically, it's like that with Riverdance. Scott, the physical therapist, has a very big role behind the scenes in Riverdance.

Katie Else

Well, his office is like a center for gossip. And people gather there during the show.

Ira Glass

And how'd the pitch go? Give me the pitch.

Katie Else

He was just basically like, everybody's doing this. We want everybody to get involved. Because then our chances will be better. Which is kind of a ridiculous thing to say when you're talking about the lottery, because your chances are so slim, that you're one more person.

But we figured out the stats. I guess the stats on the Mega-Millions at that point was 1:760 trillion. But we figured we had like a 340:760 trillion chance, which sounded better than one.

Ira Glass

Because you guys would buy 340 tickets?

Katie Else

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But did it seem in some way reasonable? I'm sitting here, actually, and you're saying these numbers, and I'm writing it out on a piece of paper-- 760. And I realize I don't even know-- wait, is trillion the next one up from billion?

And then I'm writing 340. And then, honestly, then you start to cross off a zero, and a zero, and then you get the 34 and the 76. And then there are a lot of zeros. It still seems like there's a lot of zeros there. You're still up in the billions, aren't you, to one.

Katie Else

Yeah. I mean, the chances are so unreasonable at that point. We just kind of forgot about the stats. I don't even know. I mean, it just got unreasonable. We just thought for some reason if we focused all our energy on this, we were going to win it.

People even brought up theories of quantum physics and how we're all energy. And if we just focus our energy on winning this lottery we'll be able to create our own destiny. If that makes any sense.

Ira Glass

It does, indeed. Because when math fails, what do you have left but sheer faith?

Katie Else

Faith, yeah. There'd be dissenters. They would be like, you know, the chances of us winning this-- we'd be like, no. No, no, no. You're the chink in the chain. We need to focus all our energy on winning the lottery.

Ira Glass

And then it just became like a group psychology thing, right? Like everybody's holding everybody else up.

Katie Else

Yeah. It's kind of bizarre how worked up you can get yourself. And one of the girls even said-- she'd been reading Deepak Chopra or something, and she was like, "We can't say we're going to win the lottery. We have to say, we've won the lottery. And then we'll win."

Ira Glass

How far did this go? They all started planning what they were going to do with the money. Katie, for example, was going to pay off her parents' house. She was going to buy a house for herself. She was going to put a little recording studio in the house for her singing career.

As it came up closer to the night of the Mega-Millions drawing, that Tuesday night, it was clear what most of the cast wanted. And I have to say it's kind of touching. It tells you so much about them and their lives-- what it is that they wanted.

Katie Else

See, a lot of people are quite young in the show. So they're like, I'm quitting Riverdance and going to school. Everybody was quitting.

Ira Glass

I'm going to stop that tape right there. Can I just say this is such a sad statement about the state of education funding in America, that if you're young-- OK, you're young. You're in your 20s. You think, OK, how can I get to college? What might be a good way that I might be able to finance that? What would be a good plan?

And the plan that seems reasonable to you-- and not just you, but to you and several dozen of your peers-- is, I'm going to play the lotto.

Katie Else

Everybody was quitting. But we decided that we would stick out the rest of the tour. Because at first, people were like, this will be our last show. This will be our last show. We realized we wouldn't get the money for a while. And so we decided that we'd stick out the rest of the tour, and then I'll quit after that.

Ira Glass

Well, that's sporting of you to honor your commitment to Riverdance.

Katie Else

Yeah, isn't it? Because we were just going to call our producer the next day and tell him we were done. Well, we also had a plan too, because we had a break a week later of a few days. And he's like, "Well, I'll just go pick up the money in Georgia during the break. I'll bring somebody else with me." And he's like, "First things first. We've got to hire ourselves a lawyer." We had the whole game plan.

Ira Glass

You know, that's important. Because anybody who's ever been to the movies knows you have to have a game plan. Because somebody has to go with the physical therapist to Georgia to pick up the money, or suddenly you're in a whole Billy Bob Thornton movie where things are going wrong and people running off. And you definitely want to avoid that. OK.

All right, this brings us to the big night. All right, let me cue some big event music here. OK. Here we go.

[BIG EVENT MUSIC]

All right. It's the big night. Mega-Millions drawing, Tuesday night. Backstage before the show, they all gather for what amounts to basically the same Vitus Day speech from Henry V.

Katie Else

The dance captain, whose idea it was originally-- he kind of made this speech and said, "We want you to put all your energy into this show, and maybe we can win this thing."

Ira Glass

You mean while you're dancing, you're dancing--

Katie Else

For the lottery.

Ira Glass

And you're focusing that dance at those little balls somewhere.

Katie Else

Exactly.

Ira Glass

You're sending that dancey energy through space.

Katie Else

Yes. Towards winning the lottery.

Ira Glass

So it's sort of exciting.

Katie Else

It was quite exciting. And I mean, we kind of got worked up into a frenzy almost. People were just going insane. There's one point where I actually dance. I dance for about 30 seconds. And we're kind of like spinning in this circle in the middle. And usually you're kind of like, yip, yoo, woo. But people were like screaming. And they were yelling things like, "Do it for the lotto."

Ira Glass

Do you think the audience could hear, do it for the lotto?

Katie Else

I really hope not.

Ira Glass

You can see why they would get so worked out about this. They had been working every day for two months. Which actually brings us to one of the difficult things about doing theater, especially a show like Riverdance.

Katie Else

You have to find ways to break up the monotony of doing something like that. Because it's not even like you have a role to throw yourself into. And half of what I sing is nonsense anyway. So to have something else to add to the show or spice up the show I think helps a lot. Because otherwise, you can just easily be going through the motions.

Ira Glass

That's right. I hadn't thought about that. It's actually a job where you don't get a day off. And every single day, you do exactly the same thing.

Katie Else

Yes.

Ira Glass

And, like, exactly same thing. It's not like other jobs where you're working the cash register, and it seems like you're doing the same thing, but you're actually talking to different people, and you're doing this and that. But you're actually literally making exactly the same motions around the stage and uttering the same sounds out of your mouth. It's exactly the same every day.

Katie Else

Yeah. But see, we try to find other ways to try to spice up the show. Like, OK, in this number, you have to do as many random 360 degree turns as you can.

Ira Glass

Really?

Katie Else

Yeah. Or, in this one you have to do as many head twitches as you can fit in.

Ira Glass

It's just a universal thing with performing, I guess. I mean, I feel like I-- even I, in my limited way-- I understand this. For our radio show, I spend a lot of time on stage each year. And 10 or 15 times a year, I go out and I give these little speeches in theaters and on stages. And I have clips of tape from the radio show. And I've got music. And I have to basically get up there and perform and tell these different stories.

And I'm on stage talking about these things that are incredibly important to me. They couldn't actually mean more to me about what we're doing here on the radio show, and why we're doing it, and all of that.

And years ago, when I started doing this, I would be on stage-- sometimes I would do like five or six nights in a row. And I'd be saying this stuff over and over night after night. And really, by the fourth or fifth night, it's like a piece of chewing gum that you've been chewing for too long, and it loses all of its flavor.

And by the end of the tour, I'd be on stage. I'd find myself on stage saying these things. You know, honestly, these things that mean so much to me, right? And the words are completely empty. You know, they had just been totally robbed of feeling by repetition.

And honestly, I began to hate theater. I felt like theater-- OK, this is the problem with performing live. It robs you of the very feeling that was the point of it to start. You know? Theatre takes something that means so much to you and makes you repeat it until then it doesn't mean anything at all.

And to prevent that, I actually have to change what I say every time I give a speech. I am actually not a good enough performer to do the same show night after night. Which is a luxury you don't have if you're somebody like Katie Else in a big, professional production. You have to do something else to keep your energy up on stage.

Katie Else

Sometimes if you're on stage and the dancers are dancing and I'm not singing, I'll just be like talking to people.

Ira Glass

Talking to people. Smoking a cigarette. You get a cell phone call.

Katie Else

Excuse me, I got to take this. And I feel bad in the same regard with the audience-- when we perform, and they think you're giving them all this energy and this amazing performance. And you're really just like, where are going to go tonight? What are we going to do?

Ira Glass

Though on the night of the big Mega-Millions drawing, that was definitely not a problem.

Katie Else

The audience was really reacting to the amount of energy that we were putting out. They were going nuts. They'd be breaking out into applause in the middle of numbers. And just like the amount of volume coming from the audience. You could just tell.

Definitely the best show on tour. So much energy we were giving them. But it was because we wanted to win the lottery. think It wasn't because we necessarily wanted to give them a really good show. It's because we were greedy.

Ira Glass

Was it the actual best night of Riverdance you ever were in?

Katie Else

Yeah. At that end of the show, I almost felt like I was on some kind of crazy drug. Because I was like, yes, do it for the lottery. You've gotten yourself so worked up at that point.

At least for me, I've never had so much energy on stage. I'm usually a little bit lethargic. I basically just kind of stroll around, turn my head out to the audience and sing.

Ira Glass

So they come offstage. It's 10:15, 10:20-- something like that. And it's like they are stoned. They are buzzing. They are totally hyped up. And the lottery's at 11:00. And they gather at the hotel bar.

And Scott, the physical therapist, actually went to the trouble to type the numbers of all their lottery tickets out onto a page, which he duplicated and handed copies to everybody. So that's all over the bar. And he also had the original tickets sealed neatly in these little plastic bags in numerical order. Such care.

Katie Else

And pretty much everybody was there. We're all at a bunch of different tables, and every table has a different computer printout to read over the lottery numbers. So we get the numbers. And we're just pouring over these sheets. And we're just getting nothing. Nothing. Not even anything remotely close.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Katie Else

So then someone's like, "I want to see the originals. What if he made a mistake on the computer?" So we're going through the originals, and--

Ira Glass

I love the instinct of that, though. The instinct is, this must be wrong. I mean, clearly we won.

Katie Else

Exactly.

Ira Glass

There's been some sort of mistake here.

Katie Else

He made a mistake. But it wasn't even like there was one that was close. And someone actually posed the idea that maybe Scott had put the numbers in wrong and he had won the lottery and was going to take all the money.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Katie Else

It's amazing how worked up you can get yourself. And especially-- it's like a gang mentality, how worked up you can get each other. And then you just crash.

Ira Glass

Nobody even hung around, she said. They all went straight to bed. And the next day, they did a lousy show. Incredibly low energy. And here's the disturbing thing. The audience loved it. Couldn't tell at all. Which either means that a, they are such solid performers, and this material, the Riverdance material, is so solid that even on their worst day, they are pretty damn good.

Or b-- and it's kind of ugly to say, but I'm just going to say it-- when you and I and a lot of people get together in a mass group, when we get together in an audience and we're sitting in the theater in an audience, we just get stupid. And it doesn't matter if the performers try. Katie actually sees it somewhere in between those two.

Katie Else

They're going to see what they want to see. They came wanting to see this thing. They think you're giving them all this energy and this amazing performance. And that's what they're going to see.

Ira Glass

Which in a way, is just people being nice, assuming the performers are doing their best on stage. You know? We want to laugh at the comedian's jokes. We want them to be funny. It's a nice thing. This whole experience raised some very basic questions about performing.

Katie Else

And in theory, I guess, we were talking-- we were like, I guess that's how much energy you're supposed to give the audience, ideally every night. But you can't. After we lost the lottery, obviously, I turned to one of my friends and I was like, "I don't think I could do another lotto show. I don't think it would be possible. It's just too draining."

Ira Glass

Because I would think it's more fun to perform if you're more hyped up, you know?

Katie Else

It definitely is more fun. It kind of puts performing in perspective. I don't know. Maybe some people just get themselves really hyped up and can do that every night. And good for them. But eight shows a week-- that's a lot of shows. I don't think I could.

Ira Glass

One of the conclusions that you all could come to is that, although you were dancing your hardest and trying to direct that energy towards the Powerball, that perhaps that isn't really what determines how the Powerball falls.

Katie Else

Perhaps.

Ira Glass

Or possibly, you weren't dancing quite hard enough.

Katie Else

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Or there was like a touring company of Chicago that really danced.

Katie Else

Well, I think the people who ended up winning was-- it was another syndicate ticket, but it was nurses. So I don't know what they did. They like put as much energy into changing bed pans and putting in IVs as they could.

Ira Glass

Or saving lives.

Katie Else

Or saving lives.

Ira Glass

Well, you're in a dance troupe. Can't compete with that, man. They get in there and they save a couple lives for the lottery-- that's some energy.

Katie Else

That's true. I bet they saved a life. Damn it.

Ira Glass

Singer Katie Else. Since doing this interview, she quit Riverdance. She now lives in Chicago.

[MUSIC - "LOTTERY" BY MARKY RAMONE AND THE INTRUDERS]

Act Two. Taxation Without Inebriation.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Taxation Without Inebriation.

So you need help. You're in over your head and you turn to a professional. Often that is a good idea. It just depends on who the professional is that you turn to. A couple years ago, Joel Lovell and his wife had financial problems. Tax time was coming around. And for once, he says, they got the bright idea to take appropriate steps.

Joel Lovell

The first time we went to see Len, he spent an hour and a half talking about movies and musicals and the actors he'd had as clients way back when nobody knew their names. "F. Murray Abraham owes me," he said. "I've saved his ass for years."

Eventually, my wife Kate called in and explained that we were pretty worried, that the bulk of our income that year had been untaxed and that we hadn't paid any quarterly estimates. Kate made most of her living then as an improv actor. And I made most of mine as a freelance writer. And the truth was we'd spent everything we'd earned and more. Len looked at us incredulously.

"Can one of you explain to me," he said, "how the hell Ordinary People beats out Raging Bull. Does that make a lick of freakin' sense?"

It's a little hard to explain now. But at the time, it seemed charming rather than worrisome that our accountant was more concerned about what won best picture in 1980 than about our unpaid taxes.

On the subway ride from Len's Manhattan apartment back to Brooklyn, I went on and on about how reassuring it was to take our financial mess to a guy like him. His whole attitude was comforting, I kept saying. Even the fact that he was drunk while we sat there in his office-- it helped put things in perspective.

When we got home, there were three messages on our answering machine, each one more slurred than the one that come before it. "It's Len," the first message started. "You kids are screwed. I'll do what I can, but this is a horror show. You should know that." Then a beep and, "It's me, Len. I don't know what the hell we're going to do here."

And finally this, which we had to play over a few times to understand. "Kate, you're a comedienne for Christsake. If you go out to drinks with Steve Martin, you can write that off. That sort of crap-- that's legit." Kate, who had never met Steve Martin, stared at the answering machine for some time. Eventually she looked up at me and said, "We can't ever go to Len again."

The next year, I went to Len again. I know it doesn't make any sense. I knew it even then. But the thing was, he saved us a ton of money. And while he did it in a way that was not technically legal, he made it all seem perfectly justified.

When I went to pick up our return and paused for a moment over some figures that were utterly fictional, Len scoffed at me. "Look," he said. "They want to screw you. And I'll lie up the walls to make sure you don't get screwed. [BLEEP] 'em. That's how you have to think about these things."

It was more than just the money, though. There was something, I don't know, kind of cool about having a tax preparer who couldn't have had less regard for the government's rules. Len did the taxes of artists, and writers, and actors. And the thing he valued about them had nothing to do with their money.

At a time when a few of my friends had become suddenly, inexplicably rich, just sitting in Len's shambles of an office, looking at his albums and books, at the paintings and sculptures he'd accepted from clients in lieu of actual payment, it made me feel like I was a part of this creative community.

It was about 10:00 in the morning when I saw Len, a week before the filing deadline. And he was chain smoking Parliaments and drinking scotch from a stainless steel tumbler. His desk was covered with manila folders-- dozens of them. They were coffee ringed and cigarette stained, his calculations scratched across them in a tiny, illegible hand.

There was a drum kit in the corner of the room piled high with even more folders. And next to Len's desk on a metal cart was a computer that looked like it had just come out of the box. "They told me this freakin' program would make it easier," Len said. "But I don't know what the hell--." He looked exhausted and distracted.

"There's this kid they keep sending over to help me out. But everything he says just confuses me more." He slouched in his chair and rubbed his fists in tight circles around his eyes, then gave his head a little shake. "Ah, crap," he said. "Your old lady's a kick in the pants. She's a funny chick. I'm sorry she's not here."

He started to chuckle. But the chuckle turned into a coughing fit. And Len hacked away for a solid half a minute, waving me off with one hand and resting his forehead on the edge of his desk. Eventually, a tremendously thin and wrinkled woman appeared in the door.

"You OK, Lenny?" she asked. He lifted his head. "Yeah, good," he said. And the blood began to slowly retreat from his face. The woman handed him a handkerchief. And Len pulled a wad of crumpled bills out of his breast pocket. "Go buy us some steaks," he said. "Wine, too, if there's anything left over."

Then he looked at me and smiled. "My ex," he said. "She's helping me out of a jam here." I nodded and held onto my folder filled with another year's bad news. I said something about how great it was that they could still work together, he and his ex, especially under the gun like this.

"Yeah, we've been through it," he said. And then he went on to tell me about how the two of them went on this trip to Puerto Rico years ago, shortly after they were married.

"We drank rum drinks and sat around burning our asses off all week. It was great. On the last day, we barely had two nickels to rub together. So this is what we did. We went down to the pool for a few last drinks. You know, just left all our crap in our room, right? Then called a cab to the airport, and got on a plane with nothing but our towels and sandals." He started laughing again, hard, and I braced myself for another coughing fit, but it didn't come.

"Ah, Christ," he said. "Those were good days. You could do stuff like that back then." I just sat there trying to take in what that meant. 30 years ago, you could check into a hotel in Puerto Rico for a week, and not pay and leave all your belongings in your room, and go to the airport in your swim trunks and fly back to New York City?

While I considered this, Len pulled himself upright and surveyed the mess on his desk. He let out a long, dramatic sigh and said, "Ah, crap. There's no use putting it off any longer, right? Let's have the mess." I thought of my wife, the funny chick, back home in Brooklyn. She was really tired of us being jackasses about money. And I couldn't believe that she'd look kindly on this scene.

"I don't know, Len," I said. "It looks like you have your hands full this year. Why don't I take all this to someone else this time?" "Just give me the freaking folder," Len said. I started to make an excuse. But before I could get anything out of my mouth, Len heaved himself out of his chair and fell across the width of his desk.

He grabbed my folder with one of his hands. And I watched his face go crimson. "Come on," he said. "I need this." I let go. Len fell back into his chair with my folder in his hands and closed his eyes. I knew I shouldn't leave it at this, that I needed to stand up and maybe get a little mean and self-righteous, and tell him to give me my folder and then walk out of there.

But I couldn't. I'd like to believe that it was out of some sort of compassion, that I was looking at a broken man and choosing not to break him further. And maybe that was part of it. But it also had something to do with my own private disgrace-- at how little money I had and how badly I managed it. It felt to me like it was just a facet of something larger and more troublesome, an inability to take much of anything very seriously.

Without Len, I'd have to show that folder to someone else, who'd probably look down on me. Len was less my accountant than the guardian of my shame. And in that respect, I still needed his services. So I said, OK, and walked out and waited for the elevator.

When it arrived, Len's ex-wife stepped off with their steaks and wine. We smiled at each other, embarrassed. And she said, "He'll be better next year. This one's a toughie." Len never called us to sign our return. I assumed he filed for an extension. And I called him a few times and left messages trying to find out, though I didn't try very hard.

Several months later, we received a letter telling us that Len had died in April, days before the filing deadline. I called the accountant who'd sent the letter. And he told me they had taken over a bunch Len's clients. Our return had never been filed, he said.

My wife and I owed a lot of money. He'd do what he could to explain the circumstances, but there were going to be some fines and penalties to pay. I understood that, right? I thanked him and hung up and called the IRS.

"I know I should have done something," I found myself admitting to a woman who repeatedly insisted that I and no one else was responsible for my taxes. I know I should have taken care of it differently. And then I thought of the bulk of Len's body on top of his desk, the wad of bills he handed to his ex-wife, the thousands of dollars we owed that we couldn't possibly pay. I imagine that figure circled in marker, sitting on the pile in Len's office after he died.

"Can you tell me," I asked her, because I genuinely wanted to know, "Can you tell me how someone else would have handled this?"

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell-- he's no longer a freelancer. Now, he is an editor at GQ magazine.

[MUSIC - "LEN" BY COLIN MACINTYRE]

Coming up, can garbage to be a force for justice? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Bad Morning America.

Davy Rothbart

Early on in the tour, I took these gigs pretty seriously. But by the third week of the trip, I was starting to wonder who exactly, if anyone, was watching the local news at 7:00 AM? Also, while a couple of the hosts of these shows were real cool and genuinely excited about the book, most of them didn't get the whole idea behind it.

For some reason, this only increased their chipperness. "Those pants are so fun," they'd say, looking me up and down. "Plaid pants. You're fun, huh?" The one thing that kept me excited about these morning TV gigs was getting to meet and hang out with my other fellow guests.

These were local chefs with recipes of the week, mayoral candidates, a team of Irish dancers, a kid with an 80 pound pumpkin. On Fox 45's Good Morning Baltimore, I did my little song and dance. Then the anchor asked me to stay on her couch while she brought out the next guest, Baltimore's Best Mom, an 87 year old woman named Darnelda Cole.

She sat next to me on the couch. And on the far side of her sat her 50 year old son, Dice. Darnelda had no idea why she'd been asked to come on TV. They'd plotted this as a surprise.

The anchor asked Dice Cole to read the letter he'd written. Darnelda grew weepy. At last, the anchor declared our Darnelda Baltimore's Best Mom and produced an oversized plaque from somewhere and presented to her, at which point Darnelda fell sobbing into my arms.

I gave her a wild bear hug, caught up in the moment. A moment later, the anchorwoman joined our embrace. Dice, meanwhile, had lit up a cigarette, which an alarmed producer raced over and doused with a splash of sparkling water. Darnelda took this in and began hollering at her son and whacking him with their new plaque. "Dice, you can't smoke in here. This is TV we're making. Put that damn thing out."

There were other high points. And by high points, I mean low points for the stations and their guests. In Cleveland, two city parks employees showed off an injured hawk and falcon they'd rescued. Then the falcon got loose and started flapping about, peeing on everything. The anchors had to forge on through the local news and sports and weather while the falcon continued to dive bomb them, rationing its urine so it could drip a few drops on them with every sortie. It was [BLEEP] amazing.

In Chicago, a young soccer champ, demonstrating his fancy moves, booted a ball off the wall of the set, knocking it over backwards-- revealing the fact that we were not actually in the host's living room, as it might appear, but in the middle of a big, dank concrete hanger.

In Phoenix, I was sandwiched on air between Cedric the Entertainer and the governor of Arizona. Cedric came on right before me, dropped a couple f-bombs, and then sheepishly left, telling his chaperone, "I didn't mean to say that [BLEEP]. It just came out, I swear to God."

I was travelling with my little brother in a van I'd bought off eBay. Often, we would do a Found event in one city, take turns driving all night to the next one, and get to the TV station parking lot around 4:00 AM. I could get a couple hours of sleep before it was time for me to unfold myself, plomp inside all rumpled and bleary-eyed, and do my thing for 90 seconds on air.

In the wee hours, security guards in the station lots would poke flashlights in our van windows and roust us. And I'd explain that I was going to be a guest on the morning show. And they'd disappear for 20 minutes to check into it, then come back and wake us again to tell us that things had checked out and everything was cool.

In Seattle, after a young security guard played this game with us, I asked him if I could come inside to use the john. We ended up talking for a while. His name was Pico. It turned out that the station was moving soon to brand new larger digs, and that Pico was going to be replaced by an automatic gate with a swipe card.

Pico asked why I was going to be on the morning show. And I explained to him the Found book, all notes and letters and photos that folks around the country and found and sent in to us-- little scraps that gave a glimpse into the lives of strangers.

Pico got excited. He told me that earlier that very same night, he'd been sifting through boxes that were being tossed out before the station's big move. And he'd found a bunch of racy notes written by the morning show's old, dour anchorman to a young camerawoman.

Pico and I-- we galloped out back to the dumpsters and mucked about until we found the stack of steamy pages. "You should read some of these on the show," Pico cried. I thought this could be a terrible idea. But Pico was vehement. "This guy's a class A [BLEEP]," he said. "I'm telling you. He got a janitor fired for throwing out his lucky tie that he left on the bathroom floor. She had worked here eight years."

Three hours later, we were on the air. And the anchormen was turning to me with a grumpy look. "So tell me about this book. You collect trash, is that it? You like trash, trashy trash? One person's treasure's is another's treasure?" He might very well have been drunk at 7:15 in the morning.

"Yes, sir," I said. "People are finding this stuff all over the country, all over the world really, and sending it in to us. It's amazing how powerfully you can get a sense of someone just from a little written piece of paper you pick up off the grass. Like this one, for example. Seems like it's a guy who's trying to woo a girl by describing what he'd like to do with her breasts."

I held his note up high and read it out loud. "Stacy, you've got a rack on you. Now that's a pair. I will [BLEEP] and [BLEEP] on them. Quit playing hard to get."

What an expression that fellow had on his face. For a moment, his mouth, his nostrils, his eyes, and each eyebrow seemed to burst with separate looks of stunned confusion, outrage, remorse, and panic. Then in an instant, he recovered-- a true professional.

And he asked me, "So, did you bring any other kinds of notes?" I had to admit, Pico was right-- great idea. Back in the lobby, Pico stood with two janitors by a big TV set. And as I walked out into the bright, blurry morning sun, they applauded, and whistled, and called after me, "Good job, man. Good job."

Ira Glass

Davy Rothbart. He's the author of Found magazine and author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas." Found magazine is at www.foundmagazine.com.

[MUSIC - "OPPORTUNITY" BY THE JEWELS]

Act Four. Function Of The Heart.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Function of the Heart.

When you're a kid, and you're frustrated with something in your life, your strategies are kind of limited for how you fix what's wrong. When Elspeth was a kid, she saw an opening. She got an idea. And she got results. She definitely got results. Mainly, she wanted to get closer to her dad, who was a doctor.

She says that what she knew about him already was mostly, well, he worked in a hospital with a lot of old men.

Elspeth Carruthers

It was always a relationship where I was always just desperate for attention and for knowledge of him. I wanted to know what he was like, what he did, what he was interested in. And he was extremely unforthcoming on every front.

So I would ask him things like, where are you going? And he would say, "Out." And I would say, "Out where?" And he would say, "Just out." And it would turn into that kind of incredibly frustrating word game. He would he would sort of treat it as though this was playful fun. And I just remember by the end of it, I was just enraged.

Ira Glass

Was he actually around? Would he be home at night?

Elspeth Carruthers

Yeah, he was home. But it was important to him to have quiet. So when he'd come home, he would want quiet. And of course, we would scream with enthusiasm that he would be there. And he would be clearly kind of affronted with all the noise.

So I was 11 and sort of at the height of, I would say, desperation to get something from him. And this was a thing that was set up by the Unitarian church. Parents would come in and they would teach a little class in their specialty. And so, my dad had volunteered. Being a doctor, he was going to give a class on the function of the heart. It was going to be on the function of the heart.

And so I, of course, decided I was going to sign up for my dad's course. Because I really wanted to finally figure out what he did. So one of my good friends, Ruthie, also signed up. So there were the two of us. And so, he had gone out, and he bought this-- he'd gone to a butcher and bought this massive, raw, bloody cow heart in to demonstrate the function of the heart.

Ira Glass

So the class begins and you see this bloody heart. And automatically, are you horrified to start because you thought it would be something else?

Elspeth Carruthers

Oh, no. No, I was quite riveted-- you know, very cool looking-- and actually genuinely interested in the topic as well. And so, he had sliced open the heart. And he opened it up. And we went through the various functions of the heart.

And then he would ask questions. And there are two of us in the class. And even so, I raised my hand every time. And I don't just raise my hand. I raise my hand like, "Uh, uh, uh. It's me. I know the answer. This is the question. This is the question." Yeah.

And then he would pause. And Ruth would be sitting there quite quietly. And then, he would ask for what my question would be. And then, I would ask the question. And then he would explain and go into a long, long explanation. And he's a very quiet man. He's a very, very quiet person, not used to speaking. So the explanations would go on for quite some time. And then he would ask another question.

And I would, again, raise my hand. And not just raise it, but pump it. I would pump my arm. And so the whole class was just me dominating the classroom over Ruthie, my very dear friend, who was the soul of discretion throughout. You know, very subtle, kind of acute reading of the room dynamic, I would say, for an 11-year-old. Stayed right out of it. And that was the class. And after that class, I felt great. I loved it. I felt like I'd had this great class with my dad.

Ira Glass

That he saw your smart questions, and that he actually answered your questions and gave you the attention.

Elspeth Carruthers

That's right. And that I finally had some evidence about what it was that he actually did. It was a great moment. And I felt afterwards like I had really finally connected with my dad.

Ira Glass

Just like the poetry of it, of like you in this classroom, this formal setting, with your dad, and your best friend there for protection, basically, and a bloody heart cut open, sitting there between you.

Elspeth Carruthers

No, it's quite the tableau. Yeah. But then, a couple of days later, my mother took me aside. And she raised the issue about how important it was to be a quiet person. You don't want to be the loud person. This was the message. You don't want the loud person. You want to be the quiet person.

And by the time she's saying that, I know exactly what she's telling me. I had offended the sensibilities of my father, who would prefer that I was like Ruthie, the quiet person in the classroom. So, here I thought that I was doing the right thing. And then, what I learned after the fact was that I had been loud and vulgar somehow. And that I should have just shut up and been the quiet person.

Ira Glass

So you must have been completely mortified.

Elspeth Carruthers

I felt like a fool, I think, afterwards in some sense, that I had been so deluded that I had gotten it so profoundly wrong.

Ira Glass

And so, was it helpful that your mom gave you this information? Or was it not so helpful in retrospect?

Elspeth Carruthers

It was helpful, but not in the sense that it was intended to be helpful. What my mother was telling me was to become quiet. And I never did. And so, that advice was not helpful. But knowing that I should be quiet was helpful.

Because I knew that my dad was wrong. And I knew that my behavior was completely acceptable and, in fact, was a good thing. And that was a moment when I realized I have to kind of strategize around this relationship in a way that a child shouldn't have to. I've got to be more crafty about this in order to get through this childhood thing.

Ira Glass

I mean, it's funny because the thing you're describing is this moment of a kid understanding that their parents really don't have it together all the time, and are doing the wrong thing. Everybody has gone through that moment with their parents at some point. And in a way, that's an amazing thing to have happen at 11.

Elspeth Carruthers

Yeah. And I did finally get to the point where I accepted the fact that I'm never going to be the quiet person. I'm always going to be an enthusiastic person. If I have a great question, I will pump my arm. And I will continue to offend him for the duration.

And then, of course, I took up the trumpet, which is the world's loudest, most vulgar instrument-- at 11, now that I think of it. So, very shortly after this, I took up the trumpet. I thought, what is the loudest possible instrument I could choose? So, yeah, I went right for the trumpet.

Ira Glass

Elspeth Carruthers, assistant professor of medieval history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Credits.