Transcript

307:

In the Shadow of the City
Transcript

Originally aired 02.03.2006

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/307

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, this happens to be Chicago, but every city has a place like this. That weird, desolate area at the far end of town. We're a half mile west of the old abandoned steel mills. We're a half mile north of landfills where methane fires used to burn. Just south of the auto junkyard.

Just east of the site of the old city dump, where there was a mountain of raw garbage that would stink up the neighborhood whenever the wind would blow in the wrong direction. Everybody down here called it Mount Pacini, for the alderman who let the city put it here.

Charlie Gregerson

You will notice all these-- what would you call it-- tire marks. This street is used for drag racing year-round.

Ira Glass

Really?

Charlie Gregerson

Yeah, because it's basically far enough away from the police that they don't do anything about it.

Ira Glass

My guide is Charlie Gregerson, who grew up down here. He shows me where a lake, Lake Calumet, used to be back in the '40s when he was a kid. He'd go fishing on a rowboat with his dad.

Then the city started filling in huge sections of the lake with garbage and incinerator ash. He'd come here in the '70s and see bulldozers pushing around the rubble of some of Chicago's great buildings which had been recently demolished. Louis Sullivan masterpieces like the Stock Exchange Building and the Garrick Theater-- this is where they ended up.

Ira Glass

Now show me-- we're standing here-- where were all the buildings being dumped? And what did that look like?

Charlie Gregerson

Right here at what was the north end of the dump. I actually picked up a few pieces of the Stock Exchange ornament right out of the lake. But, of course, most of it had been ground right into the dirt, because they had bulldozers that would just dump the stuff in piles, and the bulldozer would just flatten them all out.

Ira Glass

And so there would be this Louis Sullivan terra cotta ornament just sticking out?

Charlie Gregerson

Just laying out there, yeah.

Ira Glass

And so walking around when there's these pieces of buildings sticking up. It just seems like it must have been such a strange scene. Like this apocalyptic death of a city.

Charlie Gregerson

Oh, yeah. I remember seeing one of these big phoenix columns-- that I knew had come out of the Garrick Theater-- was just sticking out of the ground. Two of those in the Garrick Theater distributed the weight of the upper floors that were over the stage. One of those was just sticking out at about a 45 degree angle out of the ground. And at that point, the Garrick had been gone for almost 10 years.

Ira Glass

There were once big plans for this area-- for canals and waterways, a harbor that never really worked out. There are zoning maps of the city that show streets and complete neighborhoods, a whole grid of them, that nobody ever got around to building. Instead, now, on top of all the trash, stands a golf course.

Charlie says that from the clubhouse he gets exactly the same view that he used to get back when he and his dad took out the rowboat. It's the same spot. That's where the lake once was. You can see clear to downtown. So far away, it might as well be another city.

Well, today on our program we have stories from several places like this. In the shadow the city, that weird no-man's land where it always feels like secret stuff is happening just out of sight. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today in three acts. Act One, Brooklyn Archipelago. In that act, some passengers set sail one day on a three hour tour, a three hour tour, and end up getting lost in the wilderness. One fears for his life on a string of islands that is just outside a very, very big city.

Act Two, The Thin Gray Line. In that act, a tour bus takes out-of-towners into areas where tourists never tread. To see destruction, tragedy,

Act Three. Please, In My Backyard. A controversy over industrial odors coming from a factory. Odors that people actually want to keep. Stay with us.

Act One. Brooklyn Archipelago.

Brett Martin

Listen, it happens. You go out for a night with your friends, and you wind up drunk, in your underwear, soaking wet, covered with blood, and shipwrecked on a desert island, all within sight of the Empire State Building. These things happen. Or at least, they did happen to Alex Zharov.

Alex is 17-years-old. He moved to the US from a small town in the Ukraine when he was nine. He's skinny and wears tie dyed t-shirts, an unmanageable spray of frizzy blonde hair, and a valiant, if not altogether successful, starter mustache. And, well, he can probably introduce himself better than I can. Here's how he responds when I ask him to state his name for the record.

Alex Zharov

My name is Alex Zharov, and I love to have very radical experiences in life. And I consider myself to be a psychedelic artistically productive person.

Brett Martin

Here are a few other things about Alex. He lives with his cute, older girlfriend and his exceptionally patient parents in a small apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Instead of going to high school, he's enrolled in an internet home schooling program. He's at work on a science fiction novel and has logged several hundred in-flight hours as a student pilot.

But most of Alex's time is spent as the guitarist, singer, and songwriter for his band, Ebuffalo. When I went to see them play at a two-day Russian rock festival last fall, I learned several things. First, there are many, many ex-Soviet immigrants living in Brooklyn. Second, they all very earnestly want to rock. And third, Alex Zharov, whether he's writhing on his back on stage or reclining in the dressing room with a beer and a cigarette, he's kind of a superstar.

Before we get to our story, the other key person you'll need to meet is someone who entered Alex's life at a crucial moment years ago, when Alex first came to the States. Alex had an awkward adjustment. He fought in school and was kind of depressed. He was bored.

Then one day, Alex was walking along the Brighton Beach Boardwalk and saw a group of older guys collecting money for something called the Russian Punk Rock Club of America. Older guys like 25 and 30-years-old-- Alex was 12. One of the musicians he met that day was Roman Gadzhilov, who immediately took to the young Alex.

Roman Gadzhilov

Well, he had this blink in his eyes. And sometimes you see extraordinary person, and you kind of know this. He wasn't appear to us as 12-year-old at that moment. At 12-years-old, he was writing songs that I was writing at 18. And after this, we've been together all the time.

We call him [? Krusha. ?]

Brett Martin

And what does that mean?

Roman Gadzhilov

[? Krusha ?] means "little piglet."

Brett Martin

Under his new friends' tutelage, Alex began walking around in an old Bolshevik style hat and trench coat. And his friends gave him books-- Dostoevsky, Tolkien, guides to Slavic paganism, the Beats, and also Robinson Crusoe & Treasure Island. Alex was particularly fond of those.

And our story today, our own seafaring tale, happens on a boat that Roman owns. A 25-foot white sailboat which Alex likes to refer to as "the yacht." One cool evening last May, Alex, Roman and another friend named Alex, Alex Glubochansky, decided to take a nice little boat trip in Jamaica Bay, the body of water that wraps around the southern end of Brooklyn. Here's Alex.

Alex Zharov

The three of us decided to just get 10 gallons of gas. And my friend Roman, he got a bottle of rum. And we got two cans of food, and we just decided to have a cool trip on the yacht. And I started saying, oh, our goal is the open ocean. Let's sail to Poland, I told them.

Brett Martin

Roman had a slightly less ambitious agenda.

Roman Gadzhilov

The plan was just to go under the Rockaway Bridge, then turn around and then come back. It should have taken about 40 minutes.

Brett Martin

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Before they even left the marina, Roman, who'd been making headway through the bottle of rum, fell into the water, and they had to haul him back in. He was clearly in no shape to drive. This is Alex.

Alex Zharov

He got drunk, and he just was babbling something, laughing. Like he said, don't go there, don't go there. And he was constantly saying, don't hit the shallows. He already didn't control the situation by that time.

Brett Martin

As a responsible journalist, I should say for the record that Roman does have one objection to Alex's version of events.

Roman Gadzhilov

It wasn't rum, by the way, it was cognac. I don't know why everybody puts rum. So it was a cognac.

Brett Martin

You're sure?

Roman Gadzhilov

It was a Lautrec. Yes, it was Lautrec cognac. I don't know how come it's become rum. Alex told it was rum, but it was cognac. Not a little bit, it was a lot. I was out of commission.

Brett Martin

Alex and Alex had had a few drinks themselves.

Alex Zharov

But we were perfectly sober and everything. We might have had a few drinks, but we were perfectly sober.

Brett Martin

But neither of you knows how to drive a boat?

Alex Zharov

No. But we got a hold of it. It wasn't that hard. So we knew how to drive it, so it didn't seem pretty hard. You turn on the motor. You turn the boat. It turns, cool.

Brett Martin

Somehow they managed to get out of the marina, gun the engine, and take off across the water toward the Marine Park Bridge in the distance. Once there, they decided to try to sail to Brighton Beach and headed toward a land mass. But they got confused and turned back to open water.

They drank some rum, or maybe cognac. One way or another, they drank a lot of it. At one point, they almost crashed into a small island. Gas was running low, but they figured that if worse came to worse, they could always put up the sails and still make it home.

Then they got caught in a strong current that turned the boat in circles. The perfect time, you would think, to begin to panic. Or, if you're the kind of person who forgets trouble the moment you're out of it, or even while you're in it, the perfect time to shoot off all the boat's flares-- into the water, just for fun.

Finally, the series of mistakes reached a critical mass. They had no cell phone-- Roman's had died when he fell in the water-- no flares, no captain, and almost no gas. Even Alex had to admit they were in trouble.

Alex Zharov

We didn't know where we were. And then we realized that we weren't going to make it anywhere. And we were like, in the morning we'll figure out what to do. So we went to sleep.

Brett Martin

It was a glorious spring morning on Jamaica Bay. Sun glinting off the water, gulls calling overhead as our young pleasure cruisers slumbered. The light filtering into the boat's cabin woke Roman and Alex Glubochansky first, and they came up on deck. What they saw was not good.

After drifting through the night, the boat had come to rest in the shallows of a small bay alongside an uninhabited land mass. Stretching out behind them, they could see a long furrow where the tide had dragged them deep into thick mud. And as they stood there, blinking and wondering how this might have happened, the wind carried them another 10 feet inland.

They could see the skyline of Manhattan on the horizon, the runways of JFK Airport a little closer, and signs of civilization in every direction. They could even see boats passing by in the distance, but these were too far away to take any notice. It was obvious that they were, in a word, shipwrecked.

The hungover sailors sat down to decide what to do. Roman and Glubochansky were in favor of waiting to be rescued or for the tide to rise and pull them out again. Meanwhile, Alex was formulating his own plan.

Beyond the island they were closest to lay another land mass which Alex was sure led somewhere. His idea was to swim to it, walk to civilization, catch a bus somewhere, and bring back help for his friends, who, as Alex remembers it, thought the plan was, frankly, idiotic. These are islands, said Roman, who in truth had actually been out on the Bay before and was in a position to know.

But Alex was sure that Roman was wrong. So Alex stripped to his underwear. He put what he thought he might need in a waterproof plastic mayonnaise jar. He brought his Metro card for the bus he was going to swim to, an expired passport for ID, and his favorite Buddhist medallion for luck. He wrapped his clothes in a cellophane blanket and bid his friends farewell. Roman watched him disappear into the surf.

Roman Gadzhilov

Of course. I tried to stop him. I tried to give him reasonable things, but he get a little bit too much excited. So I decided to give him a challenge in life. What? Should I just knock him down and say stop it? He wanted to swim, and he swam.

Alex Zharov

I swam really violently to get myself warmed up. And by the middle, I got really tired, and I was really cold. And I'm like, oh, this is much worse than I thought. And there's birds flying, like peeking on me. I'm like, these crazy strange [INAUDIBLE] birds are going to bite me or something.

And I got really lucky, because my legs suddenly hit the bottom. And I was so happy when I came out of there. I was so cold, but I was happy.

And I was definitely sure there was civilization, because tall buildings were right behind the trees. And the bridge was right over there. And I'm like, oh, finally. And I was even singing a song walking, and the birds were screaming something to me. And I'm like, yeah, I made it.

Brett Martin

I'm still not sure I understand why you left your friends though.

Alex Zharov

Because I thought we were going to be stuck there for a really long time, maybe for the whole day. The only thing I could do is just try to get to civilization. And especially these islands-- they were pressuring me to go there. They were so close.

And I got really bored. You know, I wake up in the morning, I don't want to stay in one spot on the yacht and think about how we're going to get saved. I really want to do something. And I'm like, OK, I'm going to have this little adventure. I'm going to go out and try to make it somewhere, and I did.

Brett Martin

Except he didn't. Soon he realized that he was, indeed, on another island, with no way off except to swim back through the freezing water to rejoin his friends. And he wasn't about to do that. He was alone.

So Alex set about doing all the things a good castaway should do. He wrote a giant "help" in the sand for the benefit of the planes landing at JFK. He circumnavigated the island looking for supplies. He found a stick and a piece of red cloth, and made a flag to signal passing ships. Then he found several big pieces of Styrofoam and some wood and spent an hour or two fashioning a raft, but it collapsed when he sat down on it.

Undeterred, he went back to searching for something that would be his ticket off the island. And then he found it. It was the hollowed out carcass of a jet ski, or, as he calls it, a scooter.

Alex Zharov

I 100% knew that it was going to float, although it was pretty badly dug into the sand. And as I was digging out the scooter, something really bad happened. There was pieces of glass under it.

I didn't see. I was just digging and digging, and I didn't have any shovel or anything. And I cut my finger really bad. I started getting huge amounts of blood was coming out. And I had this white t-shirt that was eventually all in blood.

Brett Martin

Now there was really no way off the island, even by swimming. Because-- well, you know-- sharks. It was a galling situation, and it was made even more maddening because the city was right there.

Alex Zharov

I was thinking, how in the hell did I get myself into this situation? I never believed that something like this could happen in New York City, you know? It's such a huge city that you could see skyscrapers like 10 miles away, and on the other side you can die looking at them.

And also, I got a little mad at the city of New York. Like, I could understand if they had just one payphone there. Or at least, I don't know, a button to press to know that you're there.

By probably 6 o'clock in the evening it was getting a little dark. All my excitement has fled away, and I got very cold. I was shaking, shivering, and no help at all. So I'm like, wow, this is going to get really bad.

Brett Martin

Were you hungry at this point also?

Alex Zharov

I was very hungry, and I was very thirsty. And I found limes. I tried to open them up, but they tasted so nasty. I didn't even think about eating them. There was no source of food other than the ducks.

Brett Martin

Ah yes, the ducks. You'll want to hear about the ducks.

Alex Zharov

If I wasn't going to get rescued in the next hour or two, I had a plan to kill a bunch of ducks to get some warm blood to warm myself. So to drink some blood and to cut them open and use them to warm myself. I had this strange idea about use them as slippers.

After that, I even had this psychedelic idea of floating on the ducks. Making a raft out of the ducks. Imagine a man with strings attached to the ducks, floating on the water. So it's like this duck rider.

It's totally normal for a Russian hiker to go and pick up a duck, not just to kill it, but to eat it.

Brett Martin

Like, you could just go over and pick up a duck? How did you catch the duck?

Alex Zharov

You just go after it with a stick. I mean, you're a human being. You got more brains than a duck. You can catch it.

But I wasn't really thinking about doing it. I wasn't fantasizing about killing ducks or anything like that. I was just thinking that if it comes to that, I'll have to. I'll have to get some blood to drink. I know it sounds very violent, but I was fighting for my life.

People might laugh when they hear about being trapped on an island that's so close to civilization, and the sharks and the ducks. I knew it was a funny situation, but I really got the feeling of what is it like being on a desert island. I felt like Robinson Crusoe, you know?

I knew what it was like to be by yourself away from civilization with no help, and you're facing this huge problem. And the only person that's near you is you and the ghost of your death close by. So I could smell my death in the air.

Brett Martin

It turns out that the island where Alex was stranded is called Ruffle Bar. And it lies only a 20-minute boat ride away from the coast of Brooklyn. Far from being traumatized or ashamed of his exploits, Alex wanted nothing more than to go back out there.

And from the vantage of my overpriced, undersized apartment, I wanted to see a place where you could be totally alone in the wilderness, smelling your own death in the air, while in at least theoretical commuting distance to midtown Manhattan. So we hired a boat to take us to Ruffle Bar.

In truth, I wasn't as completely surprised as some might be to learn that such a place exists. I grew up near the islands of Jamaica Bay, in a neighborhood called Canarsie. And when I was little, my friends and I would cut through the empty lots near my house to explore the mix of trash and nature on the shoreline. It was a place totally apart from the rest of my mostly urban childhood. A secret place that my friends who lived even 10 or 15 blocks away were unaware existed.

But then, the smaller islands around New York have always occupied a weird place on the edge of the city. Home to all sorts of enterprise that the citizenry either doesn't know about or prefers not to see. Sanitariums and prisons, potter's fields and grand failed schemes. Ruffle Bar itself had been the site of several of the latter. Since the Civil War, it has housed a ferry stop, a resort hotel, and even a short-lived, doomed community of some 40 buildings.

We stop in front of a concrete foundation.

Alex Zharov

A what?

Brett Martin

A building of some kind was here.

Alex Zharov

Oh look, this is a cool thing. This is one of the World War II things that's here. You open them up, and you can go inside. There's a room in there. It might be something like a bunker or something. You see the rope here? And the rope is really old, I think. Let me take a picture of this.

Brett Martin

There are no buildings left here. The island is returned to a deeply wild state. There's a wall of dense brush and a few trees around which sinister gulls are circling. We pass a flock of ducks who take one look of Alex and wisely move away.

Alex Zharov

I'm really thinking about where the heck is the scooter. Because it seems like as we're turning, there should be more shoreline here.

Brett Martin

Dude, is that it?

Alex Zharov

Yep, that's exactly it. Oh, wow. This is the scooter I tried to dig out. Let me show you. Maybe you'll see the glass and stuff.

Brett Martin

As we search for Alex's Buddhist medallion that he'd left in the excitement of the helicopter rescue, we walk across a plain of thick, dry grass, matted down like a carpet. Underneath, you can hear shells crunching and mysterious things scurrying around. Still, reminders that we are in fact in a major metropolis are always close at hand.

For one thing, there's the garbage-- piles of plastic and driftwood, but also shoes, steering wheels, prescription bottles, deflated balloons, a washer/dryer, several refrigerators. And, oddly, boats-- three perfectly intact ones, complete with oars. I hesitate to point these out to Alex. Though, to be fair, they're probably too heavy for him to have dragged to the water.

And then there's this reminder of civilization.

[CELL PHONE RINGING]

Alex Zharov

Hold on.

[CELL PHONE RINGING]

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Brett Martin

He was always close enough to the city that simply having a cellphone would have had him tucked safely into bed within half an hour. Alex was finally rescued after seven hours, thanks to Roman and Glubochansky. Back on the boat, they were having a fine old time. A police helicopter was performing drills nearby. And apparently no slouches in the cliched castaway department themselves, they had figured out that they could signal it with a mirror-- but why rush?

Roman Gadzhilov

We really enjoyed the time staying there. We were just sitting on the boat and smoking the last tobacco that we had left. And we make a deal that we're not going to eat each other if you're really going to get hungry. So basically we were having fun. Just a little bit, no hassle, no nothing, very quiet, nice weather.

Brett Martin

Oh, so you were actually holding off signaling the helicopters while you had a nice day?

Roman Gadzhilov

Yeah, of course. It was a nice day.

Brett Martin

Still, as it began to get dark and the cigarettes ran out, the friends thought it was probably time to get a move on. A helicopter soon arrived and airlifted them off the boat. It wasn't until they were safely ashore, wrapped in blankets and being fed complimentary cookies, that either of them happened to mention that there'd been a third passenger.

When the helicopter came back for Alex, cold, exhaustion and dehydration had left him in a trance-like, almost wild state. And for him, this island will always be a place where maybe there be monsters.

Alex Zharov

And when I was here, I was wondering if it's a totally wild place. Are there any animals here other than birds? I was maybe hoping to see some cool animal like a badger or something. I like badgers a lot, actually.

Brett Martin

Is that right?

Alex Zharov

Yeah, it's one of my favorite animals. You know, I like badgers for the same reason probably I like the state of Utah, where I never was. It's like something that has some kind of-- what's it called? Like a secret it's hiding? Or it's like they attract me in the way that they might be hiding something cool from me.

Brett Martin

And that's what, after many hours spent with Alex, I find myself liking about him the most. His insistence on finding mystery and adventure everywhere he looks. It's easy to laugh at that, to write it all off as adolescent stupidity. But what if it's more than that? What if it's also a kind of adolescent magic?

Alex Zharov

Actually, I'm thinking that this needed to happen. I think if I was a boring person, and I would just stay at home all the time and be like a nerd, I would never get into this situation. So I think this happened strictly because I was with the right people, at the right time in the right situation.

Brett Martin

Think about that. Every step of the way, by almost any measure, Alex could not have been more wrong. It takes a special kind of grace to turn that into right time, right place. And how can you help but envy that?

Who wouldn't rather live in a world where if you believe you should have an adventure, you do? In which each of your mistakes doesn't narrow your life, but expands it. In which the worst thing that could possibly happen is being bored. And you can go to sleep on stormy seas and trust that when you wake up, if you're very lucky, you'll be in Utah.

What I'm trying to say is this-- Alex does something I never in a million years would have thought possible. He makes me think it might be cool to be a teenager again.

There's a story that back in the 1830s, a ship carrying $54,000 in Mexican gold was hijacked by pirates outside Jamaica Bay and that the treasure was buried somewhere near Ruffle Bar. On our way back from the island I tell Alex this, and he listens with great interest.

If he found the treasure, he wants to know, could he keep it? Maybe, I say, if he didn't tell anybody. To which Alex answers precisely as I know he will, the only way he possibly can. He says, but what if I told everybody?

Brett Martin, in New York.

Ira Glass

Coming up, the thing about Chicago that nobody outside Chicago believes about Chicago, but that actually is completely and totally true. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Thin Gray Line.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme, Today's show, in the shadow of the city. Stories of things happening out of sight from most of us, but very close to us.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Thin Gray Line.

Sometimes things in the shadow of the city should just stay in the shadow and sometimes not. Right after Hurricane Katrina, a bus tour in New Orleans started called Hurricane Katrina-- America's Greatest Catastrophe. It has since been named America's Worst Catastrophe, but same kind of idea. It is designed for out-of-towners who have come to New Orleans, so they can see for themselves, among other things, the wreckage and the devastation.

And we thought, you know what would be really interesting? What would be really interesting for this tour is if we could send a local. If we could ask a local to take the tour and give us their impressions.

Well, Cheryl Wagner's house was ruined by the levee breach. Seven feet of water on the first floor, her roof got blown off-- she seemed perfect for the job. And so one year ago, when we first heard about this, she agreed to get on the bus. And she put together this story, which we first broadcast a year ago.

Cheryl Wagner

By the time Gray Line starting running its Hurricane Katrina-- America's Greatest Catastrophe tour, I was already sick of disaster tourism. I had flipped off hippie photographers who mountain biked through the garbage of my flooded street to take close ups of my neighbor's Virgin Mary lawn grotto, ardently speckled with muck and debris. I had endured holy rollers stepping onto my porch when it was blazing hot, and I was trying to bleach what I could of my belongings, offering me a gallon of water and a mold mask, a good one, an N95, if I would sit and listen to a scripture.

And at a time when some New Orleanians were still coming home to find their mother's bodies, I watched white families thoroughly enjoy a morning outing in the ruins of a black neighborhood. I saw them lift their children onto the back bumper of a small yellow school bus that had floated into the barge that crashed through the levee. I saw these children smile and say cheese.

But even though I'm sick of disasters and their hangers-on, I'm also not immune from touring. I didn't spend Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy's Day Parade or making oyster dressing. I went over to the breach in the 17th Street Canal to see the hole that flooded my house. I was surprised to see lots of other people spending their holiday doing the same thing.

Even my mother, who now, oftentimes as not, cries when she comes to see me in the city, for some reason recently crossed the state line for a Saturday morning jaunt through the wreckage in Mississippi. She came back saying, you really should go see Biloxi. So I haven't made it to Biloxi yet, but with mixed feelings I decided to fork over my $35 to the professionals at Gray Line and check out the official tour of my own city.

Tour Guide

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Pat [? Dupuis. ?] I'm going to be your guide for this Katrina tour. The tour is going to mainly be based on three things, and that is the vastness of the devastation that occurred here, the importance of the city of New Orleans, and its rebirth.

Cheryl Wagner

We're on a Gray Line mini bus, pulling off from the fake lighthouse where we all met in the French Quarter. The brochure made big promises to "drive past an actual levy that breached, and see the resulting devastation." But the tour gets off to a dullish, field trip-like start.

Tour Guide

On your right is an earthen levy. A levy comes from a French word meaning to raise.

Cheryl Wagner

There's maybe 20 of us on this tour-- relatives of disaster workers, some retirees, a couple from Denver in town for a wedding. Even a few unlucky folks who got bumped to our bus because their first choice, the cemetery and gris-gris tour, sold out.

Tour Guide

This is the Ernest N Morial Convention Center. This was another thing that you saw on the TV.

Cheryl Wagner

In the short time it takes us to get to the convention center, some people already seem bored. A few are busy flipping through the photo album the tour guide passed of flooded houses, but that's because the outside of the cleaned-up convention center with just a few workers shining windows is boring. It would never be part of any normal city tour.

After a perfunctory drive past the now spit-shined exterior of the Superdome, we get on the interstate and head out towards Lakeview where the tourists are promised more current and less historical misery.

Tour Guide

Now I want to prepare you a little bit. If you've haven't been back here, if you haven't ridden around the city, we're going to start going through some of the more devastated parts that we're allowed to go in. Like I said, we can't go into the Lower Ninth Ward, which is really bad. But you'll see enough devastation here, I think, so you'll get the whole idea of what it might have been like.

You'll see some of the houses. Like this one right here-- you see it's got that red thing on it? That's tagged for demolition.

Cheryl Wagner

We drive past ruined houses and askew cars, and some of my fellow passengers snap photos. A few expressed surprise that anyone in New Orleans has middle class-looking homes. These were nice houses, I hear one woman say to her husband, as if this makes a family's suffering worse.

No one I talked to tells me that they're particularly surprised by what they see. Maybe it's the remove of looking out the windows, or the months of pictures they've already seen on TV. All in all, despite the lurid promises made in the brochure, the Gray Line tour is a lot of driving around and wishing you could get out and take a close up look at that hole where someone hacked their way through their attic and onto their roof. But you can't, you just sit there gazing through a glass barrier, trying to absorb factoids.

Tour Guide

This is where they perfected perma press fabric, orange juice concentrate, low-fat peanut butter.

Cheryl Wagner

After a while I start to feel bad for our tour guide. Pat has already informed us that she and her bus driver, Sly, were out of work and tips for four months. That her house flooded, and Sly is stuck living on a cruise ship he is about to get put off of.

I realize she's in a no-win situation. Gray Line has promised an all-out grisly disaster tour, but expects its tour guides to focus on rebirth as well and be a civic booster at the same time. That's why every house that's off its foundation needs to be countered with a FEMA trailer of hope nearby.

Tour Guide

But, here you have some hope. There's a FEMA trailer. There's somebody that's getting ready to work on their house. They want to move back. So it's a little ray of hope when you see these trailers.

Cheryl Wagner

Never mind that the FEMA trailer won't have any electricity for months. This tour is not about accuracy, it's about getting to the rebirth that was promised when we first got on the mini bus. It's about presenting a grand narrative that takes all the terrible stuff that has happened and makes it OK. A bad thing happened, and then it kept happening, and then it kept happening, and then it kept happening. But now it's getting fixed, so you can go eat your beignet.

But despite all the talk of hope, what comes through is a palpable feeling of desperation.

Tour Guide

You are our best ambassadors. You can go home. You can tell people that yes, you can come to New Orleans. You can breathe the air. You can drink the water. You can eat the food. You can take a tour and see the tomb of Marie Laveau.

Cheryl Wagner

On what tour in the history of this city did any tour guide have to beg people to come to New Orleans?

Tour Guide

You can stroll through the Garden District and see the beautiful home of Nicolas Cage and John Goodman. You can go to the plantations, plantations were high and dry.

Cheryl Wagner

I understand what Gray Line is trying to do. It's just depressing that they have to do it and that they're choosing to do it that particular way-- trying to get help by sugarcoating the problem. If you really wanted people to understand Hurricane Katrina-- America's Greatest Catastrophe, you'd have to give a completely different disaster tour.

And with that in mind, as a public service I'm about to save you $35 and take you on my own tour. It won't go near the French Quarter, it won't be on a bus, and it starts here.

Man 1

I want you to know that we talked [INAUDIBLE] about FEMA this and Federal this, and I'm sick and tired of Federal anything! I'm sick of it.

Cheryl Wagner

Our first stop, the perpetual public meeting. The one I've been attending nonstop since I got back in September. This was recorded at the public comment portion of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's Urban Planning Committee final report presentation held at a downtown hotel a few weeks ago. But it could be from any number of official and unofficial state, local and neighborhood meetings that go on in New Orleans now almost every day of the week.

Man 1

I am a working person. I pay Federal taxes. Because I want everybody to hear what I'm saying-- FEMA comes out of my damn paycheck.

Cheryl Wagner

There are economic planning meetings, arts planning meetings, education planning meetings, government effectiveness meetings, city council meetings, neighborhood meetings, SBA information seminars. Since the storm, there's even a new section in the Times Picayune that lists the locations and times of that week's meetings.

These meetings are overwhelming-- not only because of their frequency, but also because of their intensity. At some of the early public meetings back in October, old women would step up to the mic and cry. Old men would address the mayor as if he were a young man, saying things like, I don't believe we've had the opportunity to meet. Countless New Orleanians drive hours from other towns and other states to come to the meetings with the same message. My grandmother, my auntie, is in Texas getting sick from this stress, and I'm here today to find out what you're going to do about it.

Man 2

The people on this commission, I thank you very much for your time. If you can't give us direction, get the hell out of the way. That's all we're asking for.

Cheryl Wagner

Now that some of these meetings seem to be lurching toward a final decision phase, people listen to them on the radio, watch them on the news, read about them in the paper, or see them whole on public access. Weeks ahead of time, rumors fly about whether or not the city is going to declare your neighborhood viable or not. Whether or not you'll be allowed to fix your house. And if you do fix your house, whether the government will try to acquire it by eminent domain anyway and wipe your neighborhood from the face of the Earth.

After certain meetings, people go around saying things like that Joe Canizaro wants to put a big green dot on my house. Over my dead body.

This perpetual public meeting spills out into everyday life. In line at the grocery store, strangers tell me the exact dollar figure they owe on their ruined homes. Grown men wander into my backyard and tell me how much they miss their pet parrot they had to let go the night before the storm. Once a week, a stranger starts crying in front of me.

Sometimes the perpetual public meeting turns surreal. The other day I was taking a walk along Bayou St. John and the police scuba divers were out there dragging the water for another suspected suicide. A man stopped his car, got out and walked over to me. His first question was quick, what are they looking for? But his second question, the real reason he stopped, was pure public meeting.

Did you get any water? Meaning, was I flooded? Good, him, too. Then you've been down to City Hall to deal with that permitting? Can you believe that crap? I live in the East, those guys were talking about making a park out of my house. I'm been staying out in River Ridge now, but we're getting it together.

Next stop, City Park, near the police department horse stables. One of the many places that has been transformed by the levy break. Not just ruined, but fundamentally altered.

Lots of different people used to use this area. Near the back, hikers, bird watchers, dog walkers and gay cruisers used to share a shady wooded trail. Nearby, a soccer field sometimes filled with the battle cries of military reenactors. My boyfriend and I went to City Park one day recently and stumbled into a Hooverville, complete with guys who look like carnies rubbing their hands over trash can fires. Streets next to the soccer field are now clogged with flood scum encrusted cars and limousines that someone towed there to strip before bringing them to the crusher.

Nearby, there are sad sack teepees fashioned of blue roofs tarps. Teepees with people living in them. Some asking around turned up that these were a bunch of Apache Indians who'd been promised work and then abandoned by their contractor.

The back of City Park has turned to a place of chaos and filth that doesn't give you the Saturday barbecue feeling it did before the flood. It gives me the feeling I got right after the storm. After we first got back to the city and we saw an old man riding a bicycle, pulling a laughing old woman on a hospital gurney behind him. There were not many people around. The old gurney couple did not seem like a good sign.

Next stop on my tour, my house. Outside, the picket fence is gone, and there's a water line. Inside, it's gutted to the frame and studs.

Since I've had to sleep upstairs in a room with the walls cut open and siding blown off, when I open my eyes in the morning, like the Apache Indians, I see blue tarp. I brush my teeth at a spigot in the backyard with a Dixie cup. Friends come to see me and accidentally drive past our house, say the place unrecognizable now.

My boyfriend Jake and I are getting a little unrecognizable, too. There are ways in which we have grown strange to ourselves. Gone a little south, like City Park and the gurney couple.

One afternoon, after a long day a prying lath off walls and carting wheelbarrows of plaster and rubble to the curb, I heard laughter and breaking glass from what used to be my backyard garden. Jake and his friend, the carpenter, were swinging their legs off the back balcony. They had found a BB gun and were shooting out the few windows that were left on our shed.

Check this out, they said, and shattered another window. Don't do that, the old me, the pre-gurney me said. Why not? I looked around, the tin roof of our shed was peeled up. The gardenia, angel trumpet and sweet olive that I had planted almost a decade ago were all dead.

The fence was down. And behind us, the neighbor's wall had fallen off of his second story leaving their upstairs kitchen exposed like a dollhouse. With the kitchen clock still on the wall, open to the sky.

At night now, we can see downtown hotels shimmering across the dark and flooded blocks, like Emerald City in the distance. Why not shoot our shed windows out? OK, said the post-gurney me, but don't miss and hit the neighbor's China cabinet. They might want those plates.

Female Recording

You have reached the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Cheryl Wagner

Next stop, 1-800-621-FEMA. Welcome to the utterly exhausting soul crushing grind that is having to juggle city, state, government and insurance bureaucracies for five months straight with no likely end in sight.

Our first FEMA battle was over our roof. It blew off, and so we needed a tarp. FEMA wouldn't tarp it, so we climbed up a few stories and tarped it ourselves. A month or so later, FEMA sent someone over who untarped our tarping, but only retarped half of it. So we had to call and fight and explain and call, then give up and reclimb and retarp a, by then, even slicker roof.

Everyone has stories like this. People accidentally bumped from FEMA's trailer list. People with keys and no trailer. People with trailers and no keys. Trailers blocking doors of houses people are trying to renovate.

Meanwhile, teams of contractors come and go. Recently, an article in the paper confirmed what everyone suspected-- that the government pays at minimum almost $60,000 a trailer. The same amount it would likely cost to rewire and re-sheetrock many someones' house.

Add to this phone books that no longer work, since half the people and businesses in them are now gone. The constant stream of misinformation, correction and re-misinformation. And the garbage piles which get shuffled back and forth as dozens of crews argue about whose job it is to pick up shingles, and whose job it is to pick up the fridges, and whose job it is to pick up that dead dog still in the pink toy box.

But like Pat at Gray Line, I feel compelled to throw in that FEMA trailer of hope, because there is some hope. I catch glimpses of it in the new-found engineering wonkiness among Louisianans who now speak of sheet piling ratios and Dutch hydraulic engineering over coffee. And the blond Southern women strapping on work gloves over their manicures and donning orange vests to pick up garbage in neighborhoods that they never set their SUVs in before. And then the folks who drive by and honk and cheer these ladies of garbage on, who sometimes pull over, get out and help.

It's in the growing number of "apolitical" rallies. A strange new Southern phenomenon where moms strap their schoolgirl daughters into life vests whenever Bush comes to town to run his mouth. The trailer of hope is also where you least expect to find it-- right on my own wrecked street, in the gutted house on the corner where a man lives upstairs with a lantern.

And the moment the other night when Jake and I walked our dogs by and he invited us to lay our hands on the side of his home. He said that two roofers had just fallen 40 feet off the top of it, bounced on the flood-wrecked grass and survived. That we should touch his ruined house because it was blessed.

And last month, while Americans flew into one of the most ludicrous nationwide fits of reverse-racism hysteria I've witnessed in my lifetime over our mayor's hapless deployment of a parliament lyric, over Chocolate City, people who live here were working things out. A conversation I overheard between a Middle Eastern store clerk and his black customer about some shootings at a second line parade made me glad to be, however imperfectly, home.

That cutting up at the second line Sunday, the customer said, get that out of here. That's nothing but foolishness. Yes, the store clerk nodded, it is foolish. It is not very chocolate.

Ira Glass

Cheryl Wagner, she lives in mid-city in New Orleans. She did that story for us a year ago. She says these days her house does have walls. And the main difference with New Orleans now, she says, is that it's so violent. She says she still believes in a trailer called hope, except now she says she's scared she might get shot in it.

[MUSIC - "CHOCOLATE CITY," ROGER TROUTMAN]

Act Three. Yes, In My Backyard.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Yes, in My Backyard. Now this story about some of the mysterious things happening on the edges of the city, in the shadow of city, right under our noses. And to put this story in some context, we're going to turn now to Jorge Just.

You may remember Jorge. He's done some stories for our program. He says that when you move to a new city, you cannot get into the regular conversations that everybody else gets into. He found this out a little while back when he did the one thing that everyone in Chicago agrees is the very worst thing that anybody can do. He moved to New York.

Jorge Just

All New Yorkers want to talk about is what subway train to take to get from point A to point B. And it goes on and on, and you can't say anything. You can't be like, you know they discovered a 10th planet? And they'll be like, well, you would take the DMZ.

Ira Glass

Take it to the 10th planet.

Jorge Just

It's inescapable. And when that conversation finally peters out, it somehow-- and it doesn't fail-- turns into a conversation about cell phone reception. You can't get into the conversation. You don't know where the dead spots are. So you can't do any small talk.

So what happens is the small talk becomes, oh, you just moved to New York? Where are you from? Oh, you're from Chicago? How do you like New York? How do you like New York? Everybody wants to know how you like New York, because they want you to say, New York's the greatest place that I've ever been to. And I've burned all of my connections to anywhere that I've ever been before because I love it so much here.

When in fact, people would say so how do you like New York? You're like, well, you know, I like it. It's big and stuff, but I really like Chicago. Oh really? What's Chicago like? Chicago's this wonderful dreamland where there's a bar on every corner and the bridges smell like chocolate.

And then you pretty much have a silence, and the ice in your glass would clink a couple of times. And then they'd say the bridges smell like chocolate? And then I'd describe how wonderful it is that the bridges smelled like chocolate.

And this is something that people in New York have never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever believed. But, if you get up early in the morning, and it's sort of quiet out, and you go to the right bridge. And it's just that sort of magic twinkling hour where the sun's coming up, and you're in a big city but nobody's around. Every now and again they smell like brownies.

Ira Glass

Yeah, that's actually true. And the reason why is because there's a chocolate plant on the West side that spews the smell of chocolate.

Jorge Just

Yeah, the smell of magic. To say the bridge smells like chocolate doesn't convey what actually happens. What actually happens is that when you're walking across a bridge and you're dodging cars. And it's a bridge over a dead river in the middle of a part of town that is industrial and totally unnatural.

You just sort of walk into this cloud of the sweetest memory you have of cookies being made as a child. Your sweetest childhood memory. You can walk into that, and you can walk into it by surprise, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city.

Ira Glass

Now you know that all this is ending, right?

Jorge Just

I know. It's like 1,000 little stabs in the heart.

Ira Glass

Thanks to the federal government.

Jorge Just

It's like a million little stabs in the heart.

Ira Glass

What happened is this-- somebody complained about the chocolate smell. They complained to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the federal government, ever responsive to even a single complaint from any of its citizens anywhere in the country, leapt into action. They sent inspectors to the Blommer Chocolate Company, which has been making chocolate bars and other goodies on Chicago's West Side since 1939.

Inspectors found that too much cocoa dust was going into the air, more than is legal under federal standards. The plant installed filtering equipment. In fact, they say they've been planning to get that equipment in place even before the EPA dropped by. In any case, fewer cocoa particles in the air means less delicious chocolatey aroma.

Brian Urbaszewski

It's kind of curious to think of one small chocolate factory. Somebody complained and they went out there and looked. And yes, there's a problem, and we're going to fix it. But yet you have thousands of times where it's happened at the power plants, and nothing's happened.

Ira Glass

That's Brian Urbaszewski, Director of Environmental Health Programs for the American Lung Association in Chicago. And as he points out-- it has been widely reported here-- the Illinois Attorney General's office has documented over 7,600 violations, similar to the chocolate company violation, at six coal plants in Illinois in the last six years. And the EPA has never gone after any of those coal plants.

Brian Urbaszewski

OK, let's step back a minute. Because chocolate factories are not a major source of this fine particle pollution. When you look at power plants, they're responsible for about a quarter of the problem.

Ira Glass

And chocolate-- is chocolate a quarter of the problem as well?

Brian Urbaszewski

No. It's probably far, far, far less than 1%.

Ira Glass

Oh. Now, there's a quote that you gave, where you used an animal metaphor that I've seen quoted widely in a million articles that I just would like you to repeat here for our listeners.

Brian Urbaszewski

Oh, I don't know if I can. Actually, if this is the wolves--

Ira Glass

Mmm-hmm.

Brian Urbaszewski

--and the ant thing?

Ira Glass

I'm afraid so.

Brian Urbaszewski

I've actually got San Francisco animal activists after me for that thing, saying that wolves are not dangerous to humans.

Ira Glass

That being said-- well, I'll say it if you don't feel like you can. You said that what the EPA was doing with this chocolate factory and ignoring the coal plants, you said, "it's like crushing an ant when there's a pack of wolves around, then claiming you have saved people from harm."

Brian Urbaszewski

How about if we say it's like crushing an ant--

Ira Glass

Don't be scared of those animal rights people.

Brian Urbaszewski

No, I'm just trying to think-- I'll use sharks instead. Nobody likes sharks.

Ira Glass

I just feel like my entire relationship to government right now can be summed up by this story. There's all these things that are throwing particles in the air, and the only one I like is the one they're getting rid of.

Brian Urbaszewski

Yeah, and that's my frustration as well.

Ira Glass

The federal EPA hasn't been talking to the press about the chocolate factory. When I called the Illinois State EPA, the manager of compliance and enforcement for the Bureau of Air, a cheerful public servant named Julie Armitage, informed me that there has been a misunderstanding. Yes, she said, the coal plants had belched out too many particles 7,600 times. But you see, these times was very, very short. At the least, a momentary spike, at the most, six minutes long.

Each one was a blip, she said. Automatic monitoring equipment is going 24-hours a day taking readings. Add up all the blips per year, and you get 211 blips, per plant, per year. Meaning that well over 99% of the time, the plants are in compliance with the law.

Julie Armitage

Yes, taken out of context, it appears to be a very bad situation. Put into context, it's virtually a non-issue.

Ira Glass

And as to the fact that there's still chocolate smell in Chicago, but now it is less chocolate smell.

Julie Armitage

You know, I'm not really in a position. Would I prefer to not have had the hullabaloo that broke loose? Yes.

Ira Glass

And you don't feel any sort of twinge as an environmental regulator who's here to make our world a better place, as you are, that that could be the upshot of the whole thing?

Julie Armitage

That the chocolate aroma disappears?

Ira Glass

Yeah. You don't feel any sort of twinge if that were to happen?

Julie Armitage

Well, unfortunately, my job here is to ensure compliance with environmental laws and regulations, and--

Ira Glass

Wherever this sentence is going, this is exactly not the answer we see the people of Illinois want to hear. We don't want to hear about laws and regulations.

Julie Armitage

Well, but you know, they're there for a reason. And for the most part--

Ira Glass

Everybody was following the rules, she says. The feds inspected, just like they're supposed to. Blommers was, in fact, emitting too much chocolate, end of story.

She said the fact that the coal plants emit more pollution than Blommers, well, it's like when you're driving 68 in a 65 zone, and the cop pulls you over. You broke the law. It doesn't matter that other people might be doing 70, or 80, or 90, or dare I say 7,600.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, the program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.

Production help from Sam Hallgren, Thea Chaloner, Seth Lind and Tommy Andreas. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website where you where can get our free, absolutely free podcast, or listen to our old shows by audio streaming, www.thisamericanlife.org. Also there this week, details about our live tour. Tickets available in some cities, but they're going fast. We're there this week.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. This American Life is brought to you by Volkswagen, safe happens.

WBEZ management oversight for our program provided by Torey Malatia, who asked me to tell you that he can kick the ass of anybody in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx.

Jorge Just

And this is something that people in New York have never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever believed.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.