Transcript

309:

Cat and Mouse
Transcript

Originally aired 02.24.2006

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/309

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, one sign that you and your high school nerd friends are pulling a lot of pranks, you give yourselves a name. And it's an acronym.

Adam Stein

We were called the SCUM club. SCUM was an acronym for the Society for the Corruption and Undoing of Morals.

Ira Glass

Another sign your prank-life is rather rich? You have a nemesis, and not only does he have the perfect job to be your nemesis-- assistant principal-- he has the perfect name, in this case--

Adam Stein

Merle Power.

Ira Glass

Mr. Power.

Adam Stein

He reminded me a lot of that principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I don't know if you know that character. But it was the same kind of thing, I'm going to get you. I'm going to get you, Mr. Stein. One of these days, I'm going to get you.

Ira Glass

Would he literally say to you--

Adam Stein

Oh yeah. Yeah. There was a cast of usual suspects. And we would get called into the office.

Ira Glass

Mr. Power's office?

Adam Stein

Mr. Power's office. And he would say, this happened over the weekend. And we'd go, yeah, wasn't it great? And he'd say, well, what did you have to do with it? And I'd say, well, nothing. I was at home studying my mathematics.

Ira Glass

As the head of the SCUM club, Adam Stein says Mr. Power never had any evidence. And nobody ever squealed.

Adam Stein

But he set himself up to be tortured. A perfect example is, the prank was to stack lunch benches. And they stacked them 18 benches high in the middle of the center quad. He gets on the intercom the next morning and says, this is a bad prank. You know, blah, blah, blah, had you stacked it two more, we would have had to get a crane to come in and it would have cost blah, blah, blah. So guess what's happened the next day? We come into school and it's stacked 20 benches high. So they have to bring a crane in. And this is the sort of thing that happened all the time. He would set us up for the next step.

Ira Glass

So one next step leads to another, and that leads to another. And finally, it is the last month of senior year. There's time for one last caper. The SCUM club gathered a wheelbarrow, concrete, shovels, pick axes, maybe 15 people in all. And then, in the dead of night-- 1:00 AM-- they go to school, spread out to their pre-assigned spots, lookouts on the perimeter of the school grounds, and they got to work planting a toilet in the middle of the school grounds, right in the middle of the yard, cementing it in place and then writing on the seat, the seat of power-- for, you know, their nemesis.

And everything's going great--

Adam Stein

When we hear this, "Stop, freeze, police." We took off running in all directions. And almost within a minute, a police helicopter was over us with the lights on. And the beams were following us and the helicopter was yelling, "Stop, this is the L.A. Police. Stop."

Ira Glass

Everybody scatters. From afar, they watch the helicopter land. They watch the police disembark. They watch the police examine the toilet. And then the police go. The next day, they deduce that the helicopter just happened to be on another call in the neighborhood. This is L.A., there was a suspect at large. None of Adam's friends were caught. In other words, best possible scenario. They got scared. They got chased. They got adventure. Nothing bad happened.

And the next day, of course, was the greatest day of their lives-- hundreds of kids milling around this toilet. And early in the morning, Adam is called into Mr. Power's office.

Adam Stein

And I was in there and he said, I know you did this. The usual thing. I know you had something to do with this. It's two weeks before graduation. You're not going to graduate. And of course, like every single time, he had no proof. And he basically said, but I will prove this before you graduate.

When we got to graduation, which was a couple weeks later-- and it was southern California, sitting out on the lawn of our football field, 800 kids in my graduating class. So I go up, cross the stage, shake the principal's hand, get the diploma folder. And I go back to my seat and, sitting with my friends, open up to see what's inside and there are two sheets of toilet paper slid into the little plastic holder for the certificate.

Ira Glass

It's like he was winking at you.

Adam Stein

Yeah, exactly. That's exactly right. It was like a wink. And it completely, completely changed who he was for me at that moment.

Ira Glass

Like suddenly you liked him?

Adam Stein

I don't know if I'd go that far.

Ira Glass

Suddenly he seemed like a person.

Adam Stein

Yeah, he seemed like a person.

Ira Glass

Did it feel like you were in a cat and mouse game with him for that year?

Adam Stein

Absolutely. You needed a nemesis. Had he been kind of a gentle, understanding sort of guy, it would have taken the wind out of our sails, I think. It's fun to do those sort of things. It's fun to do the cat and mouse. It's fun to tease that cat and see if he can get you, while staying within reach of the hole so you can escape into it.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, Cat and Mouse, stories of people caught in a perpetual chase, doomed to it, or sometimes-- like with Adam and his high school friends-- the chase just makes their lives more interesting. From WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our show today, El Gato Y El Ratoncito. A guy embeds with an armed, quasi-vigilante group for a cat and mouse game on the Mexican border. Act Two, Hello Kitty. David Sedaris explains how it really goes between mouse and cat when both are locked up in prison together. Act Three, Lookings for Loveseats in All the Wrong Places, what happens when a cat is confronted with hundreds, actually thousands of possible mice and can't choose one. Act Four, Spray My Name, Spray My Name, the story of cops, graffiti writers and the graffiti writer that we believe possibly evaded the police longer than any other. Stay with us.

Act One. El Gato Y El Ratoncito.

Ira Glass

Act One. El Gato y el Ratoncito. Well, at this point, most of us have heard of these guys who call themselves the Minutemen. They're a volunteer militia. They station themselves at the US-Mexican border and they try to intercept illegal migrants. The founder of the California Minutemen put out a call for, quote, "All those who do not want their family murdered by Al Qaeda, illegal migrants, colonizing illegal aliens, illegal alien felons, alien barbarians, ninja-dressed drug smugglers."

Well, this guy who's not a professional radio reporter or anything-- in fact, in his real life he works for a pest control company-- decided to buy himself a tape recorder and just hang out with the California Minutemen for a few days on their missions to the border. The guy's name is James Spring. And what he found was completely surprising.

He found a cat and mouse game at the border that happens night after night after night, but not between the minutemen and the illegal immigrants. No, no. The minutemen have another nemesis, protesters, groups like Angels of the Desert and Border Angels, who drop food and water for the migrants trying to help them. Hundreds of people die trying to cross the border each year, from heat, from cold, some starve. And in fact, in this nightly cat and mouse game, the Minutemen really see themselves as the mice. Here's James' story.

James Spring

My gear? A RadioShack walkie talkie that a minuteman named Larry handed me before we left the VFW. My companions? Almost all in their 50s or 60s, dressed in cammies or khaki. They have Top Gun styled call signs: Big Bob, Little Dog, Big Bird.

Minuteman 1

Big Bob.

Big Bob

You got Big Bob.

James Spring

I drive my own truck in the middle of a convoy of a dozen SUVs and one Toyota Corolla. As we pass a shack, somebody identifies it as a drug house. Somebody else calls it a signal house, an observatory that alerts smugglers when the coast is clear. Every vehicle on the road is suspect, too. A Chevy with sagging leaf springs surely belongs to a drug trafficker. So does the empty flatbed that reeks of dung.

Minuteman 3

It's probably got about 50 kilos in it.

Minuteman 4

No doubt.

James Spring

Tonight, our objective is to spot illegal immigrants and drug traffickers and to radio Big Bob, who will be at the top of a hill where he can get reception with his cell phone to call the Border Patrol. The convoy's main concern is that we're going to be followed by the goons, the protesters. The goons, in fact, are the number one topic of the radio chatter. The goons are not do-gooders, they say, not humanitarians. They're in league with the bad guys, on the take from the drug lords and coyotes. And then, as if summoned by fears, the goons appear.

A red Suzuki Sidekick with a white cross on the door and a ratty sign that says, Rescate-- Rescue-- passes us going in the other direction and flips a quick U-turn. We're being tailed.

Minuteman 5

I see them right there.

Minuteman 7

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Minuteman 5

They made us as soon as we drove by. They know where we are now.

Vehicle, drop your tacks.

Minuteman 7

Going down.

James Spring

Wow. That seemed a little harsh, telling the rear vehicle to drop their tacks so that the search and rescue vehicle which spun around to follow us is now apparently going to run over tacks and have a flat tire. That can't be legal.

The Sidekick keeps coming. The command about dropping the tacks-- it turns out-- was only a ruse in the hopes that the enemy was listening in on our frequency. It's only when the Suzuki gets stopped by a random US Border Patrol checkpoint that we're able to lose 'em. We leave the main road and race down a bumpy dirt track that cuts south toward Mexico. 10 minutes later, we arrive at a wide desert valley with a two-foot-high rail fence marking the border.

Minuteman 8

OK, Roger. We're out of here. Let's go, guys.

James Spring

Each vehicle is directed by radio to park 100 yards apart, creating a half-mile line of SUV sentry posts. I park beside Larry Morgan, the guy who loaned me the walkie talkie, not just because he loaned me the walkie talkie, and not just because I want to find out where I can get a T-shirt like his that says, "Undocumented Border Patrol Agent." I park next to Larry because he wears a big, floppy hat and he's the spitting image of my grandfather.

Larry tells me that he's a retired longshoremen from Los Angeles, an ex-marine, just like my grandfather was. I ask him what the deal is out here. How do we do this thing? Larry explains that different minutemen have different styles. Some guys flood their posts with light. But not him. Larry prefers stealth.

Larry Morgan

I go completely black. I go dark. And I just go quiet. I don't talk. Sometimes I turn my radio off. That way you can hear anything within-- your voice travels about a half a mile, maybe a mile, out here. People can hear us talking, OK? And at night, this would be a dead giveaway.

Minuteman 9

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] [? Bird, ?] Rescate Angels are back on the road behind us. They've found us.

Larry Morgan

Damn.

James Spring

We see a car approach from about a mile away with its horn honking. It's the Suzuki sidekick. Larry is walking in tight circles with his hands on his head.

James Spring

So what are they going to do? Are they just going to go up and down-- I thought this was a [UNINTELLIGIBLE]--

Larry Morgan

They're going to get on the radio and call all their goons. And they'll probably--

Minuteman 9

They're coming up on the east end. They just found the whole line, guys. This is down at my end.

Larry Morgan

Probably get four or five car loads up.

Minuteman 10

I don't think they have anybody to speak of.

Minuteman 11

If they've got a cell phone, they've got friends.

Minuteman 9

Roger.

Larry Morgan

It just makes it harder for our mission. Jesus, what a bunch of numbskulls, knuckleheads. If they can't see that we're out here trying to help the Border Patrol-- which is a government agency-- why would they want to interfere?

Minuteman 9

They're yelling warnings across the border.

Larry Morgan

Yup. So any chance that we had of being stealth just went out the window. You can see how they'll just get on their bullhorns and yell and make noise all night, so everybody here won't even attempt to cross and we might as well just go home.

James Spring

The Sidekick makes its way down the line. When it reaches our post, Larry flags it to stop. He introduces himself very pleasantly. And the driver smiles and tells Larry that his name is Rafael. He explains, in fractured English, that he is a volunteer with Border Search and Rescue. Larry crouches down so that he's eye to eye with Rafael, and tells him that they both believe in helping people. I don't want to see anybody get hurt either, Larry says.

And then he tells Rafael to follow his heart. You just do what you have to do. And Rafael says, I believe we are both on the same side, because you love this country and I love this country. The one difference is, I've got two countries. I watch Larry nod again, interesting way to look at it. Larry pats the hood of the Sidekick and says, nice to talk to you. Rafael continues down the line. After this exchange I'm thinking, the cold war is over. The wall has come down. But instead, Larry offers this analysis.

Larry Morgan

You talk to this fellow and he appeared to be reasonable, rational. It turns out that he's a suspected drug dealer and human smuggler. That's what he does and he doesn't like us here. That's the reason he's down here with his goons and they're trying to run us out of here. Amazing. And here he comes. I almost shook his hand.

James Spring

I ask Larry how he knows the protesters are working for drug dealers. He says the Minutemen's founder, Jim Chase, says so. And Big Bob said exactly the same thing. That's two sources, he says. Without the headlights of the Sidekick, it's really dark now. Larry settles into a lawn chair for the night.

Larry Morgan

See, there's the Big Dipper. Isn't that the bottom of the Big Dipper? And then you follow that over to the North Star.

James Spring

You know, I don't think that's the Big Dipper. I think that's our problem.

Larry Morgan

That's our problem. Well, OK, Magellan.

James Spring

I think that's the one they call Cassiopeia.

I walk back to my truck for a pair of binoculars, not that they'll do any good. There's no moon. And the entire desert is now as black and flat as a tar pit. When I get back to Larry's truck, he's pretty much abandoned the idea of stealth. I hear perhaps the strangest sound I could have ever imagined at this moment.

Larry Morgan

What do you think of that? Isn't that pretty? You probably never heard of them. Luis Miguel. Romantico Musico.

James Spring

You have Mexican romantic music in your truck?

Larry Morgan

I have six CD's that I have-- oh, I have another one, too. I can't think of his name. You'd love this stuff. It's really neat. I fell in love with this little Mexican girl about five years ago. And she introduced me to the culture. And it got me interested in it. I'd never dated a cute, little 100-pound Mexican girl. She was like a Hollywood movie star. I met her walking her dog in the park across from my home, back just before 2000. And we started seeing each other. And I was 57 and she was 28. And it was fun. I really enjoyed it.

James Spring

Was she a Mexican from Mexico, Mexican?

Larry Morgan

She was a Mexico Mexican, illegal, no green card.

James Spring

Do any of your pals out here on the line know? Do they know this story?

Larry Morgan

Yeah, I've shown them pictures of Christina. She's a really cutie. Anyway, I haven't met anyone quite like her. And now, I don't know what I'm doing here today. She broke my heart and dumped on me. So this is my way of getting even. Just joking.

James Spring

Truthfully, his heart doesn't seem to be in this game. Here he is, an hour before midnight and a couple hundred miles from home and he's barely paying attention. When the Sidekick rattles by again slowly, Larry misses it. He asks if I've seen the Border Angels even as they're passing us, not three car lengths away. He sees lights that don't exist and misinterprets the ones that do. I wind up pointing things out to Larry.

James Spring

I just saw, up on the hill there-- see that bright light?

Larry Morgan

Oh yeah. Yeah, you know what? Look at that. Yeah, he was signaling, wasn't he? You'd be surprised how many people might be out here looking down at us. There, he's signaling again. I wouldn't know how to guess, but I'll bet there might be 20 people out there looking at us right now. In April, we stopped groups of 16, 14. I caught eight myself one morning, a family.

James Spring

This was last spring when he was volunteering with the Arizona Minutemen. Larry helped a Border Patrol agent catch a Mexican family.

Larry Morgan

They sat down on the side of the road behind the truck while he did the paperwork. They'd bring out a clipboard-- the border patrolman-- gather information from these people. Little children, a couple of them were six or seven years old, girls. And they were frightened. They were afraid of either me or the border patrolman or both of us. But I went to my truck and brought out a case of water, small bottles of water, and shared it with them. And after a few minutes, the girls started to relax. The little ones were giggling.

And he was working his way down the group. And then finally, he handed a clipboard to this one little girl and she looked at me for some reason. And I just motioned an x in the air, because she didn't know how to sign her name. And she just thought that was the funniest thing. And then her mother laughed and her father giggled. And it became a light moment there. But I'll never forget that.

Anyway, they loaded them in the back-- in the cage part-- of the Border Patrol vehicle. And I just turned and left. I never saw them again. And I assume that they were taken back to the border and released. And maybe they came back the next day. Who knows?

James Spring

Was there any-- when they were taken off-- they're loaded into a cage and you're watching a couple kids. I mean, that must have grabbed your heart a little bit.

Larry Morgan

Of course it did. I was responsible to a large extent for that, and it was sad. I was touched by it. I thought, what am I doing this for? Because it just was sad to see these people. It did dawn on me that, if I'm going to do this, I have to be a little stronger.

James Spring

When Larry talks about why he's doing this, he gives the standard pitch that all these guys give. Illegal immigration has ruined the public schools, hospitals have closed because they were forced to provide free emergency care to Mexicans, then there are all the Mexican drugs that have destroyed America's children. He says he just felt like he could make a difference. "You'd be surprised," he says, "When you find something you really believe in. We just can't let any more of these people into our country."

Larry Morgan

It's like going to the dog pound, or the pound. And you go in and you look at the little puppies and you look at the little kittens, and you just want to load your car and take them all home. Well, I don't go to the pound because I don't want to put myself through that. And in a way, it's the same thing here. These people, they're wonderful people, they're hardworking, but we just can't absorb them anymore. I think we've reached the point now where there's just a limit to what we can allow.

James Spring

Suddenly, we see a stream of headlights descend into the valley behind us. The rest of the goons have arrived. It's five compact cars. A dozen or more people pile out. And one of them shouts into a bullhorn in Spanish, "Poor people of Mexico, please do not attempt to cross here tonight. There are armed men waiting for you." One guy makes fun of the Minutemen by humming the theme to Mission Impossible into a bullhorn as they pass.

[MAN HUMMING]

The protesters park their cars in kind of an arc and the battle begins. We're in the middle of the High Desert and ideological enemies are facing off over one of the most contentious issues in the country, in two countries. And the weapons they use are about the same as you'd find in a disco, loud music, big lights.

The protesters blast Mexico's national anthem and then a mix of enthusiastic Latin music. The goons, it turns out, look like college kids, boys and girls, and they're dancing and laughing in a triangle of light created by their head lamps. A couple of the protesters wave high-powered flashlights. When I reach Big Bob's truck, I find him ducking behind the cab for cover. Somebody hisses at me to get down. Big Bob is getting steamed. The scene escalates into a battle of flashlights, a kind of flash off. When one hits you in the eyes, it's blinding.

Minuteman 12

Should we refrain or not from hitting them with the light first, or wait till they do it?

Big Bob

We're going to refrain until they hit us and then we're going to knock the hell of out them with it.

James Spring

The protesters flash us and Big Bob slams them with his zillion candlepower flashlight. But the protesters hold their ground. Most of them just mug it up for the spotlight, pumping their fists in the air. Some are doubled over with laughter. They turn up their music. We turn up our music.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Our patriotic assault has no effect, which leads another of the minutemen to the conclusion that we have only one choice. Our version of shock and awe.

Minuteman 13

I could play the minuteman theme song.

Big Bob

How loud?

Minuteman 13

Huh?

Big Bob

How loud?

Minuteman 13

Real loud.

Big Bob

OK, turn it on. Crank it on.

James Spring

He cranks the minuteman theme to full volume on the stereo of his Toyota Corolla.

[MUSIC- "THE MINUTEMEN" BY GIANLUCA ZANNA]

The words go, "We're the minutemen. We're going to stand for our country. We'll fight 'til the end." It's pathetic. The protesters have to turn down their own music in order to hear our fight song. Then they get on their bullhorns and pretend to be rednecks drawling, "Yeehaw," and "Giddy up." I'm just embarrassed for us. But next to me, a minuteman clutching a rifle is seeing the scene very differently. He's crouched against the wheel well of the truck and looks ready to radio for air support. I try to remember his name.

James Spring

You go by Big Dog, is that correct?

Robert Crooks

Little Dog.

James Spring

Little Dog.

Robert Crooks

Big Dog's on his way down from Phoenix with more [BLEEP.] The party's just getting ready to start.

James Spring

Little Dog's real name is Robert Crooks. He's a retired commercial fishermen from Santa Barbara. The reason he's expecting sniper fire any minute, he tells me, is that L.A.'s 18th Street gang has put a bounty on their heads, because minutemen patrols have virtually stopped the flow of drugs, shutting down the gang's business.

Robert Crooks

The bounty on our badges is $25,000 cash. And they don't even have to present the badge or the carcass because the media will cover it. They'll get their reward. And one sniper shot, that's $25,000. That's a brand-new Harley for one of these guys. You know what I'm saying? Scary, huh? In America. Man.

James Spring

Reportedly, no one's ever been hurt during these rallies on the border. The only news story of protester violence was a single incident in which one protester allegedly kicked the shin of a minuteman. No charges were filed. The two sides square off for more than an hour. Then a car load of protesters makes its way down the minuteman line to deliver a message, which is interrupted every few seconds by minutemen air horns.

Protester

Buenas noches, senores y senoras. Gracias para the show. We'll be back again tomorrow night. It would be better if you just left, then we wouldn't have to do this every single night.

[AIR HORN]

Protester

You are not stopping immigration. You are not stopping drugs.

[AIR HORN]

Protester

You are furthering this. You are furthering everything you are against. Please go home and rethink all your--

[AIR HORN]

Protester

Have a nice day and this is for you.

[SIREN]

James Spring

Please go home and rethink all your values, the protesters tell us. And then they all line up their cars and leave. I wonder if this isn't exactly what the Minutemen had hoped for, a good five hours until sun up to bust some Mexicans or drug smugglers. But a few minutes later, Jim Chase crackles through on the radio and says that we're to pick up stakes, too. We're needed in a town called Jacumba.

Listening to the walkie talkie on the way down, I gather that Jacumba is considered a hostile village, and that intelligence indicates that something big is going down tonight, involving a drug smuggling cartel based in the town. By now, it's after 2:00 in the morning, and I don't know how much longer I can stay awake. When we get to Jacumba, each vehicle stops at a different street corner along the main drag, which seems to be the only paved road in town. Larry and I park by the sign that says, "Welcome to Jacumba, Population 654."

We're supposed to write down the license plate numbers of all cars that pull onto the main road. Big Bob will call them into the Border Patrol. Larry and I stand on the corner and watch a lot of nothing. I think about how most of these guys are Vietnam vets. I think of a friend of mine who was a corpsman, how hard it was for him to return to normal life after the war. What experience has ever been as intense for them? Besides this.

Larry Morgan

This is like Tikrit, Tikrit in Iraq. We could be taking incoming at any moment. I haven't seen a roadside bomb yet, but that's not to say they don't have that set up. This is a drug town. What you see is very dangerous. I'm not sure what to expect next.

James Spring

Now all we need is a car to pass.

Larry Morgan

All we need is for some drug dealer dumb enough to drive out onto this highway and try to do a drug deal in front of some of my eager friends.

James Spring

Eventually, the sheriff shows up. He tells Larry that it's great that we're here and asks if we wouldn't mind doing him a little favor. Some kid's been stealing bicycles in Jacumba, taking them right off porches. The sheriff asks if we could keep an eye out, and hands Larry a card with a phone number.

Soon, the border has been forgotten. The drug dealers are forgotten. Larry radios Big Bob, and within 30 seconds, all the minutemen have abandoned their posts and converged at our corner to offer the cop their support. Big Bob and another minuteman devise a plan to set out a decoy bicycle to entice the thief. They're on the case. They're watching. They're waiting. To protect us from the bad guys, they're drawing a line in the sand.

Ira Glass

James Spring lives in San Diego and is looking for a publisher for his first book, a true life adventure story in the jungles of Panama and Colombia, in which among other things-- and I know how this is going to sound-- he's captured by Indians.

[MUSIC- "WAKE UP, AMERICA" BY GIANLUCA ZANNA]

Act Two. Hello Kitty.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Hello Kitty. Well, as we've already seen today, sometimes it is hard to predict who's going to chase whom when it comes to cat and mice. David Sedaris has this story.

David Sedaris

It was the stupidest thing the cat had ever heard of, an A.A. program in prison, like you could find anything decent in here anyway. But if it would get his sentence reduced, well, all right. He'd sign up, dance the 12 step, do whatever it took to cut out early. Once he was free, he'd break into the nearest liquor store and start making up for lost time. But between now and then, he'd sit with the sad sacks and get by with a little after-shave.

The only thing he wouldn't do was speak at one of the meetings. As a rule, they were pretty boring. Yammer, yammer, yammer. But every now and then, someone would tell a decent story, this mink, for example, who'd swapped his own pelt for a bottle of Kahlua. The cat didn't know you could live without a pelt, but it was possible. Not pretty, that was for damn sure, but it could be done. And this mink was living proof. It helped that he had a sense of humor about it and told the story with a little pizazz, complete with sound effects and different voices. When he came to the bit about his wife mistaking him for a beef tongue, the cat laughed so hard he fell out of his chair.

"Thank you," the mink said at the end of his little speech, "You've been a great audience." After the meeting, the alcoholics congregated for treats washed down with burnt coffee. The cat was just going back for a second cup when he overheard a mouse talking in a low voice to the bull frog who served as the prison chaplain.

"He might be amusing, but I don't give that mink a snowball's chance in hell. In here all right, but out in the real world he's a ticking time bomb." The cat didn't know what this mouse was in for, but he was willing to bet it was something boring, fiddling with his taxes maybe, or telling some lie about some junk nobody cared about in the first place. He wouldn't know a good time if it came up and slapped him between the ears. But here he was, ragging on this hairless mink.

"Refuses to take his recovery seriously. A classic example of a dry drunk."

Give the guy a break, the cat thought. The poor bastard is permanently naked. His wife left him, his chop shop was confiscated. So who the hell cares if he starts drinking again? It beats sitting around and listening to the likes of you for the rest of his miserable life. The cat didn't say any of this stuff, but he thought it. And it must have shown on his face.

"Do you have a problem?" the mouse asked. And the cat said, "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do." Sensing trouble, the chaplain moved between them and held out his webbed hands.

"All right, gentlemen" he said, "Let's just take this down a notch."

"I got a problem with certain rodents," the cat continued, "The kind who think that unless you're as pompous as they are, you're going to wind up on the trash heap."

"Yeah?" The mouse said, "Well, I got a problem with cats who try to take someone else's inventory before they've taken their own." He was a spunky little thing. You had to give him that. Here he was, no bigger than a hair ball, yet he was more than willing to mix it up, and with a cat no less. "Don't think I'm going to forget this," he said as the chaplain pulled him back.

And the cat said, "Oh, I'm so scared."

When dinner time came, the cat joined the mink for burgers and fries in the prison cafeteria. The mouse was on the opposite side of the room, sitting between a rabbit and a box turtle at the vegetarian table. And every few seconds, he'd look up from his plate and glare in the cat's direction.

"I don't know what's going on between you two," the mink said. "But you'd better find some friendly way to straighten it out. I'm telling you brother, you do not want that mouse as an enemy."

"What's he going to do?" the cat said, "Steal the cheese off my hamburger?"

"I don't know what he's going to do, but I know what he did do," the mink said. And he leaned his raw, seeping head across the table. "They say it was arson, chewed through some wires and set a police building on fire. Four German Shepherds killed on the spot, and two more so burnt their own mothers wouldn't recognize them. Now I don't know what all you think, but in my book, brother, that's cold."

The cat dragged a fry through a puddle of ketchup. "Dogs?" you say. The mink nodded.

"One of the burnt ones was two weeks from retirement, had a party lined up and everything."

"You're breaking my heart," the cat said.

The next A.A. meeting was par for the course, not a decent story to be had. Someone said he was dying for a drink and then someone else said the same thing. When that got repetitive, a member told the group why he wanted to drink.

"Anyone else like to share?" the chaplain asked. "Any new voices we haven't heard from?" And the cat closed his eyes. He usually drifted off to sleep and came to during the serenity prayer. But today he stayed awake, waiting for the mouse to pipe up and say something stupid like "easy does it" or "fake it 'til you make it," aphorisms he couldn't go 10 minutes without repeating.

"Boys," he'd say, "When things get tough, I just have to remind myself to let go and let God." Then everyone would act as if they hadn't heard this 5,000 times already, as if it wasn't printed on flea collars, for Christ's sake.

Today though, the mouse skipped the slogans and talked about a recent encounter that had tested his resolve. "I won't name names. But this was between myself and the sort of individual I call a pustule, the kind who likes to creep around and listen to conversations that are none of his business. That's how he gets his kicks, see.

The cat said, "Why I oughtta--" And the chaplain pointed to a sign reading, no cross talk. Of all the rules, this was the lousiest, because it meant you couldn't respond directly to someone, even if he was obviously trashing you.

"Now, I didn't know this individual from Adam," the mouse continued. "I'd seen him around, sure. But aside from being ugly, there was no reason to notice him. He was obviously no smarter than this chair I'm sitting on. But that didn't keep him from running his mouth. In fact, it was just the opposite. This pustule pushed every button I have. And just as I was about to rearrange his face, I remembered my fourth step and let it slide." There was a general murmur of congratulation and the mouse acknowledged it. "I can't say I'll be so forgiving the next time. But I guess I'll just cross that bridge when I come to it."

Then a goat raised his hand and recalled getting drunk at his nephew's bar mitzvah. The animals shook their head in sympathy. And the cat joined in, biding his time until a couple more had spoken. Then he could call the mouse a few names of his own.

Next, a guinea pig said some crap about insecurity. A leech wondered if the Big Book came in an audio version. Then just as he had finished, the cat stuck his paw into the air saying, "Hey everybody, I got a little story to tell."

"That's not the way we do things here," the chaplain said. "Before you speak, you have to introduce yourself."

"OK," the cat said. "I'm a cat and I got a little story to tell."

"You know what I'm talking about," the chaplain said. "Come on now, it's not going to kill you." The cat stared across the table at the mouse and saw the same expression he'd observed the night before in the cafeteria. Smirky, defiant, the look of someone convinced that he had already won.

"All right," the cat said, "I'm a cat and-- aw, to hell with all of you."

The mouse put his little hand over his heart as if to say, oh you're killing me. And the cat pounded his paw on the tabletop. "I'm a cat, all right? I'm a cat and I'm a-- and I'm an alcoholic. You happy now?"

Then everyone said, "Hello, cat," and waited, their eyes politely downcast as he began the long business of recovering himself.

"So that's how I met my first sponsor," the cat would later say. This at meetings in damp church basements and low-slung community centers, years after he was released from prison. "That little SOB saved my life. Can you beat that? A murderer, an arsonist, and not a day goes by when I don't think about him."

It maybe wasn't the best story in the world. But as the mouse had told him on more than one occasion, it wasn't the worst either.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books, most recently Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. He also has edited a collection of favorite short fiction called Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Coming up, cat and mouse with a mouse that cannot even move. Why, oh why would it take 10 decades to catch? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Looking For Loveseats In All The Wrong Places.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme. We bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Cat and Mouse. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three.

In most games of cat and mouse, you've got the chaser and you got the chased, right? And both of them are pretty much in constant motion. But here's a story where the mouse is not moving at all. In fact, the mouse is an inanimate object. And yet, somehow it cannot be caught. David Segal reports.

David Segal

I've known Eric for just about 20 years. And for nearly the entire length of our friendship, he's been hunting quarry that everyone else cornered a long time ago, something nobody really thinks of as the sort of thing you hunt.

Eric

I've been looking for the right sofa for about 18 years.

David Segal

Yes, he said 18 years. And yes, he said sofa. All of this started after Eric left graduate school. And briefly, it looked like it would be a fairly conventional shopping experience. He spotted a sofa he liked at Pottery Barn, an off-white number with a slip cover. And he had a matching pair delivered. But once they arrived, he knew he'd made a big mistake. The lines were all wrong. The fabric wasn't right. He returned the goods within a week. And after that, the shopping experience was never conventional again. His quest moved into what I call its "Ahab/Moby Dick" phase. He began to stalk his couch.

For years he'd subscribe to these high-end furniture magazines. And slowly, he started to build a clip file of advertisements and photographs. He learned the ins and outs of couch construction, the proper materials for the frame--

Eric

What they call kiln-dried hardwood.

David Segal

Invisible stitching. Cushion filling.

Eric

There's a firmness but a softness, which is actually not all that easy to achieve.

David Segal

The fabric for the covering--

Eric

The kind of the boucle that they do, which is the fabric that I was keen on.

David Segal

And of course, all important, the springs.

Eric

What's called eight-way hand-tied, I think, which is, they do eight-way hand tying of the coils.

David Segal

I should say, Eric's not this way when he's buying clothes. He's not this way when he's ordering dinner. He's not this way with a lot of things. But when it's something he cares about, he's methodical and he's relentless. But with the sofa, he went further than he ever had before. By the time his search entered its 10th year-- that's more than twice as long as it took scientists at the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb-- Eric was honing in.

He'd started shopping in these swanky boutiques, places that don't even have storefronts, places where someone has to tell you the address and then buzz you in. He had his eyes on the work of a sofa superstar named Jean-Michel Frank. And there was one piece in particular that he decided was the couch of his dreams. It was a $12,000 three-seater of Italian nutwood in a beeswax finish. Eric found the one place in the country where it was for sale.

Eric

A place called Ralph Pucci.

David Segal

So you walked around this place, and did you fall in love with any of the sofas? Did you hear the church music you were looking for?

Eric

Yeah, well, it's interesting. The short answer is, I didn't, which was kind of dismaying. When I saw it in person, I was actually a little underwhelmed.

David Segal

So you ultimately passed on all of the sofas that you came across during your 15- to 18-year search for the perfect sofa.

Eric

Right.

David Segal

Could you describe your current sofa?

Eric

That's just plain mean.

David Segal

Where did you get your current sofa?

Eric

So I got my current sofa for free. It was a donation from a friend that I was helping move out of his apartment. The polyester fill cushions have gotten flattened to the point where if you plop down, if you just kind of collapse into my sofa, you will actually hurt yourself.

David Segal

More than a few times in these past 18 years, Eric and I have tried to figure out what this sofa thing is really about. Perhaps it won't shock you to learn that Eric is single. He's had a fair number of girlfriends. With some he's even shared the story of his never-ending couch adventure. And guess what, they don't seem very amused.

Eric

Yeah. I mean, it kind of drives them crazy.

David Segal

To review. Just after college, he found something he liked, lived with it briefly, and then decided it wasn't good enough and sent it packing. He started pursuing exotic specimens that conformed to a narrower and more unattainable ideal. He subscribed to glossy, photo-rich magazines, which only reinforced his yearning for this unattainable ideal. And then, after years of searching, he finally came face-to-face with that ideal. He found it lacking. Do you see where I'm going here? Often, when I talk to him about his quest, I want to say, wait, are we still talking about a couch?

Eric

Do I hold out for one that really knocks me out or do I just settle for something that is-- that I can live with, but really doesn't knock me out?

David Segal

But does it not worry you that you might live a sofa-less, single life?

Eric

Yeah. I mean, absolutely. This is probably the thing that causes me more concern and dismay and questions as anything in my life. I really, really like being together. And I'm not all that crazy about being alone.

David Segal

One thing that's interesting about the tale of Eric's nonstop sofa safari-- which I've heard him tell more than a few times-- is that it ticks off nearly as many people as it amuses. Some are actually angry when he's done with the story. And I think I know why. Two radically different world views are clashing here, one in which life is all about seeking perfection, and the other in which you make normal compromises and settle for good instead of great. The settlers consider the perfection people to be babies and whiners. The perfection people see the settlers as strangely hostile milquetoasts who've given up, who aren't striving for greatness, who've been cowed into lowering their standards.

Personally, I know that part of me wants to tell Eric, don't yield. Do not surrender. Hold fast. Wait for that transformative moment, even if it means you're alone and drooling on a frat house futon for the rest of your life. And another part of me wants to tell him exactly what a former girlfriend once told him, and I quote, "Just buy a [BLEEP] couch."

Ira Glass

David Segal is a reporter for the Washington Post.

[MUSIC- "A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME" BY LUTHER VANDROSS]

Act Four. Spray My Name, Spray My Name.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Spray My Name, Spray My Name. Over the years, Brian Thomas Gallagher has followed the cat-and-mouse struggle between graffiti writers and the people who notice their work more than anybody else, the cops who are trying to bust them.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

So this is how it works. Some teenager decides he's going to start writing his name on things-- buildings, vans, windows-- and then 75 NYPD officers have full-time jobs trying to hunt him down and arrest him. They can get downright obsessive.

Steve Mona

A lot of the officers in the unit will say, I want this guy.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

This is Lt. Steve Mona. He's been with the Vandal Squad for 19 years. He knows the feeling.

Steve Mona

It becomes like a disease. You hear it when the cops come into work at night. They don't just drive down the parkway to get to work. They drive down the parkway and looking at the bridge abutments and everything. And the minute they come into work-- it's not even roll call time yet-- and you hear one cop saying to the other one, hey, did you drive down the Bronx River today? No, I didn't, why? It was clean yesterday and so-and-so and so-and-so hit it last night. They must have been out there. Damn, I was there. We passed there around 2 o'clock in the morning. I don't remember the graffiti.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

As cat and mouse games go, this is classic. You have the writers, more nimble but less powerful, dashing out, doing their work, almost taunting. And then you have the cops, watching and waiting, and occasionally catching them. The 75 Vandal Squad cops call themselves the vandals. Some cops will get fixated on a certain writer. Officers have been known to keep snapshots of graffiti taped to their computer monitors. And for a while, Lt. Mona's screensaver was a piece by a notorious writer named Lee. They study a writer's work, learn his style and habits. They follow them to and from their houses. They know where they work. They keep thick dossiers full of photos of different tags.

Tags are what a graffiti writer writes, their graffiti alias. To most people, they barely look like English. Vandal Squad cops are pretty much the only people in the city besides the writers who can read them. In an odd way, a Vandal Squad cop can become a writer's biggest fan. But the writers know the cops, too. Steve Mona is famous. Although they don't keep files on him.

Steve Mona

They actually took my I.D. card photo, which was on the NYPD website and made a stencil out of it. And that was getting stenciled all over the place. I've had stuff written about me, about my sexual orientation and things like that. The first time it happened, I was offended by it. And then a chief who I worked for at the time said, if they're writing your name instead of their own, you're doing a good job.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

And that's not all. I was talking about Mona with a graffiti writer that goes by the appetizing tag of Earsnot when this came up--

Earsnot

I've seen his Friendster thing. I know somebody else did that. I'm sorry.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

He has a Friendster page?

Earsnot

There was a Friendster page of this cop with a mustache that looked-- and it said Mona. Somebody was putting up stencils of that. It was obviously a character that somebody else created about him.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

After he told me about the Friendster page, I looked it up. It is actually a photo of Mona lifted from the Vandal Squad website. Among his listed hobbies are spray paint, markers, Rikers Island, and ruining a kid's life who just wants to have some fun.

Graffiti writers actually give specific cops nicknames, like Bongos, whose name is a play on his actual name, Bogliole. Or Iceman, who looked like the character from Top Gun. And then there were Tom and Jerry, because their names were, in fact, Tom and Jerry like the cat and the mouse.

Earsnot

First of all, let me just say, every time I've gotten chased, I've gotten away. So I have a 100% record of running and getting away.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

Is there an enjoyable aspect to the fact that the cops are looking for you and after you?

Earsnot

It feels good to be wanted. No matter what anybody says, no matter how-- what kind of want it is. It's dope. They want to get me. It's Bonnie and Clyde, it's Wilt Chamberlain. They just want you.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

One strange thing about this game is that it's actually really hard to convict anyone for writing graffiti. The police can't just know who you are. They have to catch you in the act. And if they do, they can only charge you with that one offense, even if they know you've blanketed all of Brooklyn with that exact same tag. Once you're in court, most judges don't take graffiti very seriously. Even the biggest cases tend to end in community service or probation. Still, every major graffiti writer has been arrested multiple times.

Not long ago, Earsnot gave the cops a little gift by giving an interview in a graffiti documentary called Infamy. It hasn't been released. And even the director doesn't know how it ended up in the Vandal Squad's hands. Here's the clip that got him in trouble.

Earsnot

Do it in day time, midtown, easy. People in suits are like, mmh, I didn't see that.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

He's walking down the street in broad daylight, tagging mailboxes, windows and doors with a fat silver marker.

Earsnot

I like it, especially when I can see the cop and I'm like, catching my tag and then, uh-huh, and done. Circle. Underline. Star.

Steve Mona

We knew who he was. He's doing his tag in the video.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

That's Lt. Mona.

Steve Mona

We have him doing the graffiti on video.

Earsnot

This is the nature of me and most of the [? freedom ?] writers. You don't want anybody telling you what to do. You want to [BLEEP] break the law. You want to take that chance of getting caught and you love it. And you love [BLEEP] with them and being like, I'm going to do it again and again.

Steve Mona

The officers watched and then they stopped the video. OK, we got a street sign. OK, I know the neighborhood. And then just let me drive. I drive up one street then down the next street and up the one street until they found those particular locations.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

And they did.

Steve Mona

And they did.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

And you arrested him at work?

Steve Mona

And he was arrested.

Brian Thomas Gallagher

The case is still open, though, and Snot's holding out. I talk to him in the same exact store that he walks into on the video, the same exact store where he was arrested. And he explained it all this way.

Earsnot

They saw someone who looked like me doing something in a movie and they just assumed that they were going to arrest me and everything was going to be all right.

Earsnot

I can see where you are. So I know that I'm not getting caught. You know what I'm saying?

Brian Thomas Gallagher

The person in the video is either Earsnot or someone wearing a meticulously well-realized Earsnot costume. Then there's a graffiti writer who managed to evade the police longer than anyone else. The guy whose tag was Revs. Revs accomplished one of the most extensive and sustained graffiti projects of all time. He didn't just bomb as many walls as he could. He didn't just write his name. He wrote his entire autobiography on New York City itself, on the walls of the subway tunnels.

Down there, between the stations, he would paint a swath of wall white, say 4 feet by 10. And then on the white patch, he would write in black spray paint-- page after page-- telling his life story in the dark, in a place where no one would read it. The pages are signed, numbered and dated. There are 235 of them, one between almost any two stations in the city. I've seen a few dozen and they are quite moving and impressive. Even Lt. Mona thought they were interesting. Little poems, he called them.

For years, it was a mystery, even to the cops, how he did it and who he was, how he got a roller, a ladder, and a bucket of paint into the tunnels at night, all while dodging trains and cops and track workers. Cops would read the pages for biographical details, like page two, where Revs gives the date of his birth and the name of the Brooklyn hospital where he was delivered, Victory Memorial in Bay Ridge. He was 8 pounds, 13 ounces. A C-section.

This went on for years, the Vandal Squad chasing him the whole time. Finally, he was caught in the act, arrested, charged, and convicted, not only with graffiti and trespassing, but also possession of stolen property, which he was wearing. A stolen subway worker's uniform, that's how he was able to evade the police all those years. Everybody who saw him with the buckets of paint just thought he belonged down there.

The officer who caught and interrogated him, James Bogliole-- the one graffiti writers call Bongos-- has probably read more of his pages than any non-writer. He told me he'd spent so long chasing Revs, piecing him together, sort of forming him in his mind, that it came to be that he understood him a little.

Revs turned out to be a 33-year-old ironworker from a working class neighborhood, not so different, really, from any of the cops pursuing him.

Ira Glass

Brian Thomas Gallagher is a senior editor at Topic magazine.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program today was produced by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Diane Cook, 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, Tommy Andres. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

[FUNDING CREDITS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

David Sedaris

Hey, everybody, I got a little story to tell.

Ira Glass

Oh, WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who, I guess, has something he wants to share with everybody.

David Sedaris

I'm a cat, all right? I'm a cat and I'm a-- and I'm an alcoholic. You happy now?

Ira Glass

Hello, Torey. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.