Transcript

311:

A Better Mousetrap
Transcript

Originally aired 04.14.2006

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Andy's grandfather ran the business. Then his father ran the business. They make mousetraps, Victor brand mousetraps with the big red V on them. But also glue traps, and electric traps, and those humane catch and release things. And traps that only professionals use. Andy's in charge of the part of the company that develops the new products and the job suits him. I called him in his office.

Andy Woolworth

I remember coming out here on Saturdays when I was very young and seeing the mousetraps being made and just being intrigued by the business.

Ira Glass

So I understand that because you guys are the number one mousetrap company in the world, people pitch you ideas on how to make a better mousetrap, right?

Andy Woolworth

All the time.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just talk about some ones that were especially bad?

Andy Woolworth

Oh my. One that we rejected was one that is basically a pail that, in essence, the mouse can run up the side of. Up a stairway, and then between one side of the bucket and the other, there's a dowel. And in the middle of it, a little cup of bait. So they run across the dowel, and once they get to the cup, it turns over and spills them--

Ira Glass

Into the bucket.

Andy Woolworth

Into a pail of-- and since they wanted to be environmentally friendly, a pail of antifreeze that was environmentally friendly.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait.

Andy Woolworth

Right, and I believe that the antifreeze would also keep the scent problem down of a dead rodent. You might have a whole 20 drowned mice in this thing. And so it's incredibly ingenious and very clever.

Ira Glass

So do you think that actually could work?

Andy Woolworth

Oh it does work.

Ira Glass

It does work, but it's not the sort of thing that you think many people are going to want to buy?

Andy Woolworth

Right, people really don't want a pail, to end up with a-- I mean having a dead mouse for a lot of people is a problem. Having a dead mouse in a pail of antifreeze and dumping it out, or in this case having maybe six or seven, just is not commercially, in our opinion, a great opportunity.

I mean people are incredibly creative. I mean I've got a book of patents that were just from the late 80's to 1950. And there are thousands and thousands of tanks and cages, all sorts of weird looking shaped boxes and things that look like medieval torture chambers.

Ira Glass

Can you tell me one where you totally admired the ingenuity, but you just thought, no way.

Andy Woolworth

Well, yeah I sure will. This one is alarming in its ingenuity. A mouse went into a little box area, and when it nibbled at the bait, the door shut behind it. OK, nothing too abnormal about that. But it dropped a pill into a little bit of water. And the pellet dropped into water and it gave off a gas the killed them. And it would die of carbon monoxide poisoning. In other words, it went into a gas chamber.

Ira Glass

And was this ever sold anywhere?

Andy Woolworth

In Germany.

Ira Glass

Oh come on.

Andy Woolworth

I am not kidding.

Ira Glass

I'm sitting here literally stunned. As as a Jewish person, I actually am stunned.

Andy Woolworth

I was horrified. We didn't think that had very good commercial liability in the United States. And we were surprised that it was available, that people were trying to market it in Germany.

Ira Glass

So with all of these people trying to invent a better mousetrap, the dirty secret of trapping mice is, mice are really easy to catch. That's why every inventor thinks that he can do it. Catching a mouse is basically playing against a casino where you always win. The regular, old-fashioned, cheap little mousetrap, Andy says, will usually catch the mouse in 24 to 48 hours. It will kill it 88% of the time. Other traps that aren't much more expensive have 100% lethality. Mice are easy to kill because mice, unlike rats, are incredibly inquisitive animals.

Andy Woolworth

They investigate anything that's new. Anything that's in their normal territory for the evening, and that's typically-- most people don't know this but most mice only stay within 10 feet of where they are, max. And oftentimes it's less than that. And they may investigate that area 30 times during the night. They're not just going out once.

Ira Glass

Well in a way what you're describing is almost the ideal animal to be caught.

Andy Woolworth

Exactly.

Ira Glass

And so the problem for the mousetrap inventor is the world actually does not need a better mousetrap. The world will not beat its way to that person's door. Andy sells two mousetraps for $0.99 that do the job just great, 88% lethality. That is the reality of what a mousetrap inventor is competing with. Whereas the inventors almost never understand.

Andy Woolworth

Well they are always persistent, whether it's letters, or phone calls, or stopping here. They are passionate about their idea and are so disappointed when we turn them down.

Ira Glass

Like they can't believe it.

Andy Woolworth

They can't believe it.

Ira Glass

Because for them, there is the magic of the moment of invention, right? They actually came up with a new idea.

Andy Woolworth

That's right.

Ira Glass

And it turns out that's just not enough in this cold, cold world.

Andy Woolworth

It's very hard. It's their baby. Again, they have nurtured this thing.

Ira Glass

Well today on our program, we have four stories of inventions in a world that does not always need or want new ideas. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. We have four stories for you of ingenuity and heartbreak. Stay with us.

Act One. Mother Of Invention.

Ira Glass

Act One, Mother of Invention. So we start with somebody inventing a new way to do something and in an area of life where you might not think there could be any new ways to do anything left. Karen Sosnoski tells the story. Her son Anton was born with Mosaic Down syndrome, which is this very rare form of Down Syndrome. Essentially some of his cells have the extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome and the other cells don't. So as he grows, he could actually end up having all the health risks and challenges of Down Syndrome or very few of them. There's no way to know.

Some kids with MDS look totally normal but then have all kinds of learning disabilities. Others have all the physical features of a person with Down Syndrome but then have a high IQ. It's a diagnosis that's so vague it can drive a parent crazy. And Karen had no idea what the diagnosis would mean for her son's future. So she started doing some research. She found a Mosaic Down Syndrome website. And on that website, she started reading about a boy named Tim. A boy who, in a bunch of different ways, was not what she was expecting, and whose mom had invented a radical way of dealing with the diagnosis, something Karen had never heard of. Here she is.

Karen Sosnoski

Tim was 13 when I first saw his picture on the internet. He had geeky, blunt-cut bangs and a wide, innocent smile. He had the same diagnosis as my son Anton, but he had the happy face of an ordinary boy. And when I looked at this photo, my heart raced with hope. Here was a kid I could imagine as my own. "A late bloomer," his mom wrote, but so what? He had hobbies and friends. He was a bookworm like I am.

To be honest, Tim's bio made me feel less guilty about Anton. Part of me blamed myself for what had happened. Everyone knew advanced maternal age was a major risk factor for having a baby with Down Syndrome. And here I'd waited until 40 to have him. But maybe if I played my cards absolutely right from here on in, he could still turn out just fine.

Tim's mother, Kristy, was like a role model for me. She founded an international support group for parents of kids with Mosaic Down Syndrome. She wanted us to be sure the world gave them a fair shake, and I like this. But to make this happen for her own son, she did something I could never have imagined, something that shocks people every time I tell them. For years, she kept her son's diagnosis a secret. She didn't tell his teachers. She didn't tell her neighbors. And most incredibly, for the first 14 years of his life, she didn't tell Tim.

I first heard Kristy talk about her secret at a conference. Then, a couple months ago, I left my one year old son Anton for the first time and travelled down to Texas to find out more from Kristy and Tim. How had Tim turned out so well? How much of it was because she had kept his diagnosis a secret? She told me she didn't start off planning to deceive anyone. When Tim started kindergarten, Kristy did what most parents do. She didn't keep his disability a secret. She explained to the teachers that he had Mosaic Down Syndrome. She asked the teachers to treat him like any other kid, and she crossed her fingers. But it didn't work out as she had planned. This is Kristy.

Kristy Colvin

I know one time I went in there to visit the classroom, and all the little children are sitting up in their nice little story time circle. And he's lying in the middle of the carpet, rolling around and lying around. And I asked the teacher, why is he laying when everyone else is sitting down? And she said, well he likes to do that. And we just want to make him happy. And so it was because he had Mosaic Down Syndrome. And so I knew then, maybe it's not a good idea for everybody to know because they are going to make excuses for him. And I wanted him more than anything to just be as normal as normal is, to have the same opportunities that everyone else had. So the next year when school began, I didn't tell his teacher.

And then we thought, if he knows that he has Mosaic Down Syndrome, he's going to use that for a crutch, big time. So we decided, we're just not going to tell him until he gets a little bit older.

Karen Sosnoski

Which could get kind of complicated. She had to talk behind Tim's back and over his head. She had to tell family members never to mention Tim's condition in front of him.

Kristy Colvin

And it's OK if you people know it, but I don't want him to know it. I turned into a tricky person.

Karen Sosnoski

Were there times when you were tempted to tell him?

Kristy Colvin

One time stands out really, really deeply in my mind. He was around 10 years old, and he had a little treehouse. And all the kids would come over to be in his treehouse with him. And this one little boy in our neighborhood had Down Syndrome. And I looked outside. All the kids are playing. And Tim pushed this little boy down. And I was like, "No, you don't push him down. That's not nice." And I made him come inside and I said, "Why did you push this little boy down?" And he goes, "I don't like him. He looks different." That crushed me. That crushed me. And I said, "Well, why don't you like him? Just because he looks different? Everybody looks different." And he said, "No, he talks funny. I don't like him." And I wanted so much at that point to say don't you know that you have the same chromosomes as him?

Tim Colvin

When I was a lot younger I used to think that because I was different I thought maybe I was from another world, that I was an alien or something.

Karen Sosnoski

This is Tim. He's almost 20 now but he doesn't look much older than his picture at 13. It's not super obvious that he has a medical condition, but if you're at all tuned into Down Syndrome, you can probably guess. His eyes have those extra folds, and he talks in a slow careful way like he's having to work to shape his words.

Academically though, Tim blows any stereotypes about Down Syndrome out of the water. His IQ is 110, higher than the national average. He got A's and B's with no special help at a mainstream school. But by junior high, Tim was starting to have a hard time fitting in with other kids. He would do weird things like burp or rock on his heels in class. He'd say inappropriate things, like the time he got so excited about a slasher movie that he confused himself with the main character. "I started shooting people," he told the kids at his lunch table. As you can imagine, he didn't make a lot of friends this way.

Tim Colvin

All I knew is that I was different because people were bothering me all the time.

Karen Sosnoski

Can you give an example?

Tim Colvin

Insults, being picked on, teased, hazing-- if you know what that is.

Kristy Colvin

Tim started realizing that there was something different about him. And when Tim was around 12 years old, we were on our way to the grocery store. And I was driving and Tim was sitting in the front seat next to me. And we hadn't been talking at all. I mean the radio is going. We're not listening to-- talking to each other. And all of a sudden--

Tim Colvin

I asked my mom, "Do I have a medical problem that you don't want to tell me about because you think I'm not mature enough to handle it?"

Kristy Colvin

We pulled over at the park. And I stopped the car. And I looked at him and I said, "Why do you want to know this?" And he said, "You know, I just know that I'm different."

Karen Sosnoski

But she couldn't bring herself to tell him the truth. She didn't know if Tim was ready, and she didn't feel ready. She said nothing.

Kristy Colvin

I was really-- probably lost sleep over it because I kept going back and forth with, have I done the right thing keeping this from him? But at that time I wasn't sure. No matter how hard I tried to make his world so great, still kids picked on him. And so as years progressed, one day he came home and he was about 14. And he came home and he said, "Mom, I feel like I'm the only person in the whole world who has the same problems as me." And it just broke my heart.

My husband came home from work that night. And I said, "We're going to have to probably pretty soon tell him."

Karen Sosnoski

But they didn't. For another six whole months. It seemed so difficult. Here Kristy had to tell Tim that she had kept the fundamental truth about his identity from him for most of his life. What's more, it seemed that her efforts to protect him might have actually made things worse.

Kristy Colvin

I think that we just worried how he was going to react. We didn't know how he was going to. We didn't know what to expect at all whatsoever. We didn't know if he would be happy or mad or sad or what. We just didn't know what to expect at all. And so I think that was our main worry. So we sat down on the couch. My husband tried to leave. And so Tim comes in from his bedroom and sits down. And I said, "We've got something to tell you." And he said, "What?" I said, "Remember how a while back you asked me if you had a medical problem that I didn't want you to know about?" And he said yes. And I said, "Do you remember when you said you felt like you're the only person in the whole world who had the problems that you had?" And he said yes.

Tim Colvin

She told me I had Mosaic Down Syndrome. I don't know her exact words, but that's what she said.

Karen Sosnoski

What came into your mind when she told you that?

Tim Colvin

Storm, Cyclops, Rogue, X-Men.

Karen Sosnoski

Why did X-Men come into your mind?

Tim Colvin

Because the X-Men are mutants, genetic. They gain those genetic problems. And that's what I felt like. I felt like an X-Men. I thought that was kind of cool.

Karen Sosnoski

And just like that, the truth was out. Ironically, what happened next was exactly the opposite of what Kristy had feared. Tim didn't seem angry. He didn't stop trying in school. The diagnosis actually made him more conscious of his strange behaviors, like the rocking on his heels, so he could work harder at controlling them. Mostly he was relieved. He had spent so many years feeling like there was something wrong with him that finding out there was wasn't so bad.

In his junior year, Tim came out to his classmates during a presentation on genetics. After that, the kids started cutting him some slack. He wasn't the weird kid anymore. He was a kid with that Mosaic Down thing. And you couldn't blame him for that.

Kristy Colvin

So that was a real big turning point. He got a bunch of friends, real friends. And it was our first time to have real friends. And then all these three big teenage boys came back to our house to spend the night. Never had such a thing, I mean never. And so they're going to spend the night. And so we've got all these boys and I'm going, we have to make popcorn. We have to watch movies. And after I got them settled, I came in the bedroom and I bawled my head off because it was just so wonderful. In fact it was 10:30 at night and I'm calling my mother, "I have teenage boys in the house."

Karen Sosnoski

You would think, given how things turned out, Kristy might have had some regrets about waiting so long to tell Tim the truth. I kept waiting for her to crack or something during our interview, to admit she had made a mistake. But she didn't. And frankly, I was relieved. I don't want to cast judgment on Kristy. Tim's a great kid. Whether that's because of what Kristy did or in spite of it, I don't think anyone can say. And anyway, Kristy and Tim have moved on to other issues like teaching Tim how to balance a checkbook, how to drive, how to get ready to live on his own. And from Tim's point of view, Kristy has her own learning to do.

Tim Colvin

My mom is being a control freak right now. I'm going to be 20 this May. It's time I started to be a bit more independent.

Karen Sosnoski

How will you have to change to be more independent?

Tim Colvin

When I leave this house, I plan to never wash the dishes again.

Karen Sosnoski

Who's going to wash them?

Tim Colvin

My wife. I'm kidding. I'll have the kids do it.

Karen Sosnoski

It's funny, or maybe just typical. Tim's critical of his mom, but when I ask him how he thinks I should raise Anton, his advice to me is to do just what she did. "Let people get to know Anton first before you tell them anything," Tim says to me. "Tell Anton when he's a teenager, when he's old enough to handle it." I know I probably won't do this. After all, Kristy's secrecy didn't protect Tim from pain, which is what I want for my son. So I'm back to square one with no trick to give Anton the perfect future, any more than I could give him those perfect chromosomes. I'm like any other parent, waiting to see who my son becomes.

Ira Glass

Karen Sosnoski in Alexandria, Virginia.

[MUSIC - "I KNOW WHO I AM" BY BUNNY RUGGS]

Act Two. Everything Must Go.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Everything Must Go. In the early 1990's, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh was researching the underground economies in the city of Chicago. He was a grad student back then. He wanted to know how people made money off the books, and he spent a lot of time in the poorer areas of the city where people had to invent ways to make their own livings. He hung out with women selling food from their homes, car mechanics who ran their business from an alleyway, store owners who hosted late night gambling and dice games. None of them was reporting their income to the government. Then there was Nellie, who had a problem that not many people faced. Here's Sudhir.

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Nellie Thomas was a hustler who worked in and around his South Side neighborhood. And over the course of his life, he was a pimp, drug dealer, car thief, extorter, jack roller, prostitute and burglar. I met Nellie because I wanted to know how people bought guns in Chicago. By the time I met him, Nellie had made a name for himself, not because he sold guns but because he sold ammunition.

It's illegal to buy handguns in the city of Chicago. For guns and ammo, people usually have to trek out to the suburbs, which isn't so easy. Most gun stores are in white suburbs, and the black people in Nellie's community don't like to go there. So they buy guns in their own neighborhood for the most part. Now, in the South Side where Nellie lived, if you have money and a little patience, you can probably find a gun within a few days. But it's a lot harder to find ammo.

Nellie understood this, and he capitalized on the demand by becoming an ammunitions trader. Nellie would drive to the suburbs or he would hire people to go there and buy boxes of ammo for a few dollars each. Back in his own neighborhood, it might cost you a $100 for a box. He sold bullets to gang members, robbers, drug dealers, prostitutes and just regular people who liked to have a weapon around. And when the gang wars heated up in the mid to late 90's, people bought several boxes at a time and Nellie was flush with cash. "Good money, no hassle," he liked to say. "Cops don't care much about me."

When I started hanging out with Nellie, he was becoming bothered by his success. He was making so much money that he didn't know what to do with it. His needs were pretty minimal. He had a beat-up old truck that he fixed himself, and his parents had long ago paid off the mortgage on the bungalow where he was born and where he still lived. The house was a modest, two-story and basement and backyard design that you could see all over Chicago. Nellie was hardly a big consumer. He liked to listen to a pocket-size radio, and although he had a fancy TV, he usually watched a little black and white in his bedroom. And he never traveled.

For 20 years, he'd been eating at the same soul food restaurant every day. He wore the same three or four pairs of clothes. And almost every day you could see him walking or playing golf-- very badly he said-- in the park next to his house. Nellie also lived in a world of cash. Like most underground traders, he couldn't take large sums of money to the bank. And for small sums, he simply didn't trust banks. So he put his cash in mattresses and in large, black trash bags that he hid inside his house or that he buried outside in the backyard.

But Nellie was losing sleep because he was running out of places to keep his cash. He worried because there were other people living in his home, a girlfriend and her two children, a niece, his grandmother, an aunt and a brother with his girlfriend and two kids. Nellie was scared he'd be robbed. And so he began staying up all night with a big shotgun next to his window. His anxiety grew so bad that he started taking medication and drinking more. He was restless and fidgety, and he said he was yelling at his family for no good reason.

Sometimes he would call me early in the morning. We both knew many of the local gang leaders, and he wanted me to tell him whether they were planning to raid his house. He also asked me strange questions, like whether squirrels could smell paper money and whether they would dig in his backyard and eat his holdings. He admitted he was going to the hospital nearly every two weeks due to panic attacks.

At first I wondered why Nellie didn't just give his money away to his family or to a charity. But it wasn't so simple for him. He said he was ashamed of how he had earned it. He didn't want to tell people that he sold ammo to gang members for a living. I suppose Nellie could have bought some property or found a way to launder his money, but that really wasn't in his character. Nellie didn't think in terms of the future, at least not in that way. And because he was very depressed and his job was so dangerous, Nellie didn't think he'd live long enough to spend his money on anything worthwhile.

One morning I went to Nellie's house and found him in tears. No one was home, and he was lying on his bed with his money all over the room. He kept saying he couldn't take it anymore and he wanted a way out. I noticed a few large bills, but there were mostly piles and piles of $1 and $5 bills crumpled up like waste paper. He was pleading with me to help him to do something with all of his money, which he estimated was about $15,000 or $20,000. He asked me, "What do your people do when they have all this stuff that they can't use?" I'm Indian, but I assumed he meant middle class folks. "Well," I said, "when my family has a lot of stuff, we give it away or we have a garage sale." His eyes lit up. "That's it. I'm going to have a garage sale."

I wasn't sure I understood what he meant. "Let me get this straight. You're going to sell your money?" He grinned, stood up, hugged me and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for getting me out of this mess."

So I made myself a cup of coffee, sat on the couch and watched as Nellie put some of the money inside a television. Then he dumped a handful of bills inside a vacuum cleaner. Then he shoved bags full of cash inside his couch cushions and in a mattress. He picked up a basketball, examined it, looked over to me and agreed when I shook my head no.

And then with my help he dragged everything out to the front lawn. He ran into the garage and came back with a hammer, nails and cardboard. He made several For Sale signs and tacked them onto the trees and on the windshield of his car. He was so happy. He was running around like a child building a treehouse. For his final gesture, Nellie ran back inside the house, grabbed two chairs and a six-pack of beer and brought them outside. He told me that I couldn't tell anyone what he just did.

I exchanged my coffee for a beer and sat on Nellie's well manicured front lawn, unsure of exactly what was supposed to transpire. We sat on the lawn for about 10 minutes. I was getting a little agitated. My cell phone rang. Nellie looked at me and said, "Remember, you can't say what's in them things. You can't mention the money."

It was a friend of mine, Autry. He had three children, and he had been looking for a job for about a year. And now he was living off food stamps and was about three months late on his car and rent payments. Autry could definitely have used the money, not to mention the nice TV set sitting in front of my feet. "I'm at a garage sale," I told Autry, checking with Nellie to see if that was OK. Nellie nodded approval. "You should come over," I said, checking with Nellie again, who didn't nod. "Autry, listen, you should really come over and see if anything interests you."

Autry asked me why the hell would I want him to come to a garage sale when I knew he didn't have any money. I kept telling him to come anyway. Nellie began shaking his head. I sank in my chair, lowered my voice and told Autry to call me if he found some cash and wanted to buy some appliances. And then I hung up.

Nellie and I waited for what seemed like hours, though my watch said only 20 minutes had passed. Every so often I asked him again whether he really wanted to do this. He would just stare out and tell me that he'd never been more sure about anything in his life. "I feel like the Lord gave me a sign," he said.

Just then a woman came by and looked at the couch. I leaned forward as if to pounce out of my chair. And I could see that Nellie was doing the same. "Nice couch," she said. "Yes," said Nellie, "you ain't never gonna find another one like it." "That's right ma'am," I chimed in. "This is certainly a one of a kind couch. You can take my word for it." "$20," she said. "For a couch?" said Nellie. "Ma'am, I need to make a little more than that." "But sir," she said, trying to be polite, "it ain't worth more than that." "Ma'am," I said, "I think on that count you are mistaken. It is certainly worth more." "Hey, shut up," Nellie yelled at me. The woman watched as Nellie and I began bickering. "You two need help," she said and walked away.

As the morning turned to afternoon, more people came. The first successful sale was to a man pushing a shopping cart. He eyed the vacuum cleaner. "What do you want for it?" he asked. "Give me 15," said Nellie. "15, are you nuts?" I said. I couldn't believe Nellie would charge so little. Nellie shot me a glance and I put my head in my hands. "15 my man and it's all yours," Nellie said calmly. "All right, that'll work," the mad said. He paid Nellie with some bills and a lot of loose change. The he grinned and said within an hour he could sell the vacuum cleaner down at the thrift store for $30, double his take just like that.

"You might want to take it home first," I told the man as he started walking away. Just clean it out. Put a fresh bag in. Try it out. Take it apart maybe." "Home," the man said looking at me. "Boy, are you blind or something? I live out of this cart. I live under the L tracks. Home? [BLEEP] I ain't got no home. What the [BLEEP] am I going to do with a vacuum cleaner?"

A Saturday morning church service must have ended because a line of black women wearing beautiful dresses and hats was coming our way. They looked at the items on the lawn and liked what they saw. One played with the television set, hitting it every so often while a few other sat on the couch. "A little soft, and well, not so even," one said to me and Nellie. "These cushions are a little old, aren't they? How old are they?" "Oh, they're fairly new," I said. "Made fresh this morning actually." "Boy," Nellie yelled at me. This time he threw some beer on me. "Don't mind him, ma'am. He's not the God fearing sort. You understand." The woman cast a disparaging look my way and said, "Mm-hmm. I understand. And Jesus do too. OK, I'll take this couch. Probably throw these cushions away. The other parts are fine, but I can't have people sitting on these raggedy things all day."

"I would rethink that strategy," I shouted. My voice crackled and beer spilled down my shirt. "I would probably not throw them away just yet." "What he means to say," Nellie interrupted, "is that you may want to take it home first. Don't do anything so quick. You know, take your time." "Not sure there's really anything to think about," a second woman said, feeling the cushions stuffed with America's legal tender. "Eunella, you could replace these for $5. Ain't no need wasting your time with these cushions. Smell like cat piss anyway. Just throw them out."

"Oh Lord, I would really think twice about that," I said bending over in frustration. I was starting to feel delirious. "Why don't you go inside for a while?" Nellie said, pushing me over and making me fall on the ground. I got up and walked toward the house. "What is wrong with that young man?" I could hear the woman ask Nellie. "Oh, nothing that a little religion couldn't fix," Nellie said. Then he told them, "Listen, the truth is ma'am that I'm trying to buy my family all new furniture before they get home. And I really need to sell this stuff and get rid of it so that I can surprise my wife."

"Oh, isn't that sweet?" one of the women said. "Well, I'll take the television." "Yes," another one chimed in. "And I could use an extra bed." "I would keep that mattress," I shouted from inside the house. "Don't throw away the mattress, please." "That is the strangest young man I have ever seen," one of the women said. "Yes, said Nellie. He twirled his finger in little circles next to his head. "He has a little bit of trouble, you know."

The woman then turned to me and spoke very slowly. "You be careful now young man. And beer probably isn't very good for your health." "Neither is throwing away that mattress ma'am."

Nellie asked the women for their address and he loaded the bed into the truck and drove off. I drank the rest of the beers and stared out into a warm blue sky. Nellie sold almost everything on the lawn that afternoon. The only thing that was left was a torn up pillow that couldn't attract anyone's interest. I tried for a while to find the people who had bought some of Nellie's furniture and appliances. But I didn't have any luck so I'm not really sure if any of them found the cash.

Nellie didn't have any more garage sales. He was still making money by selling ammo. And he still kept the money in those big, black garbage bags. He just stored them all in the attic where nobody ever went. And Nellie's depression didn't end. For most people, all that money would have been a sign of success. But for Nellie, it was just a bunch of paper that he couldn't get rid of.

His problem was that he liked his job. He liked the fact that he worked and that he earned a living. The part he didn't like was the actual profits. They made him feel ashamed and he had to hide them from almost everyone he knew and loved.

A few years later, Nellie's girlfriend left him. His kids married and moved out, and there was no one else living in his house. He started going to church to ease his depression. It wasn't really helping, he said. But he did start talking a lot about charity and how he wanted to do something good for people. And he did it in his own peculiar way. Nellie would leave a bag of money on a street corner, or late at night, he would quietly put some cash in front of a homeless person sleeping outside in the park. He would tell me that it was the only pure thing you can do on this earth. Help people without taking credit for it.

I know of only one person who actually found Nellie's money, my friend Darrell. Nellie had stuffed $800 into the bottom part of a toaster oven. And he left it near a dumpster where Darrell picked it up. Darrell figured some drug dealer had hidden the money there so his wife wouldn't find it, and she accidentally threw the toaster out.

A day before his 45th birthday, Nellie was found dead inside his house. He'd had a massive stroke. No one was quite sure exactly how long he'd been lying there. I went to his funeral. Not many people were there and I felt sad for Nellie. I hoped that maybe the homeless man who had bought the vacuum cleaner would come pay his respects. But he didn't show up. In the middle of the room there was a casket, but it was closed. Nellie's body was too decomposed for us to view.

In the end, Nellie's family got all his money when they cleaned out his house. That's when I finally met them. They told me that they had known all along the thing that Nellie was ashamed for them to find out, how he made his money. But they could never figure out a way to tell him that it didn't matter.

Ira Glass

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. This story is from his newest book, which comes out later this year and tells the story of the neighborhood in and around the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago. He is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

Coming up, the celebrity who most reminds us of God and the music that we really want to hear in church as determined by scientific research. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "MY IMMORTAL" BY EVANESCENCE]

Act Three. What Would Fill-in-the-blank Do?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Make a Better Mousetrap, we have stories of people trying to make inventions in the face of a world that does not care, does not want what they are making. We've arrived at act three of our program. Act Three, What Would Fill-in-the-Blank Do?

Among other things, America is a place where people invent religions, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Scientology. And then of course all kinds of very American brands of Protestantism. But despite all that, a lot of Americans still are not part of any organized religion. A 2002 USA Today Gallup poll found that 33% of Americans consider themselves quote, "spiritual, but not religious," while 10% consider themselves neither of those. That is nearly half the country.

What would a church have to be to be appealing to those people? What do those people want? Well Brett Martin got the idea that somebody could actually create a religion to meet the needs of those people, a modern religion invented using the principles of modern marketing.

Brett Martin

It used to be so easy. Back in the good old days, who cared what people wanted? If you had a new religion, you just sacked some villages, burned one or two folks for heresy and that was that. But nowadays, what with a saturated marketplace, media fragmentation and so few budgets allowing for sacking, a new faith would need much more than mere truth. It would need a clear sense of what the market demanded. It would need guidance on the most minute details, from what God looked like to what color robes the clergy would wear. In short, it would need to be focus-grouped. So that's what I set out to do.

To guide me through the process, I turned to Paul Parton, the head of planning for the Brooklyn Brothers, a small advertising collective that's created witty campaigns for clients as diverse as CNN, Bath and Body Works and the United Nations Anti-Landmine task force.

At 5:00 PM on a weekday night, we gather at a facility called Focus Plus in downtown Manhattan. The offices contain three focus group rooms, each equipped with wraparound, one-way mirrors, plasma TVs and high tech audio and video recording equipment. The scene is so much like a movie version of a focus group that, watching from behind the mirror like the great and powerful Oz, I fully expect the group to burst out laughing as they file in.

But these are old hands. All but one have participated in focus groups before, and Parton asks them to tick off what they discussed. "Makeup," says one. "Beer," says another. Toothpaste. IBM. Lung cancer.

Parton assures the group that there will be no cult recruitment following the session, that Tom Cruise is not lurking behind the mirror. Then he asks them to start talking about what they believe, 24 citizens who identified themselves as either dissatisfied with their current religion or unattached to any religion at all.

Michael, a 29 year old bartender wearing a Mets jersey says, "I have this funny little thing called the tip god, where when I'm out, I tip a lot because things always come back to you." Everyone nods their heads and seems to agree that the tip god is a sound principle. Aside from this basic notion of karma though, it seems that it's hard for our panel to describe what they believe in. It's much easier to rail against what they don't believe.

Derek, a thin, black lapsed Catholic who clearly has one or two mean nuns lurking in his past, begins to talk about the inconsistencies in the Bible. "Like, it will contradict itself one phrase after another," he says. "Yeah," chimes in Lynn, who identifies herself as a Mennonite turned Taoist. "And if you ask questions--" "--then you're going to hell," someone else finishes. Clearly, a nerve has been touched.

Speaking of hell, the focus group tends to agree that it's a little harsh. "Burning is cruel," someone else says. They want a religion to take into account the sliding scale of sin, the fact that some transgressions are worse than others. Killing and stealing, it's generally agreed, should probably be banned. Not mixing meat and milk, avoiding meat on Fridays, facing Mecca to pray, these rules and dozens more, they say, are just too onerous and arbitrary for today's world.

"The Bible says that you're not allowed to spill your seed, except for reproduction," says Micheal. "That's what it says." "And in today's modern society--" he trails off. "That's just not going to fly," finishes a woman. After a while, the discussion has devolved into such a dorm room bull session that I'm looking around for the bong and the Georgia O'Keefe print.

But Parton definitely steers the group back toward the concrete. And the consensus is simple. Just do good. Stick to the basic moral principles but streamline them. Cut out the fat. But as Parton leads the discussion, I can't help but notice that just do good is subtly shifting to just do what feels good. As the group keeps talking, it becomes clear that any new religion would have to avoid any recognizably religious traits. For instance, at one point Parton plays a selection of religious music that could be played in our new, hypothetical church. The group loves the opening bars of this--

[MUSIC - "HALLELUJAH" BY HANDEL]

--but when it gets to this part--

[CHOIR SINGING "HALLELUJAH]

--they nearly recoil in horror. I'm sad to report that they hate this--

[MUSIC - SOUL SPIRITUAL]

--but like this.

[MUSIC - NEW AGE]

Likewise the church itself. If feeling good and doing good are one and the same in this new religion, the place of worship will have to be designed to make one feel as good as possible. They imagine an open, airy space with plenty of natural light and flowing water. There would be individual napping pods equipped with customizable music and plasma TVs showing scenes of natural beauty, like a spa. The space would be filled with warm, inviting smells. The focus group likes fabric softener and freshly baked pies. And there would also be puppies. Priests and priestesses in simple, modern robes would mingle with parishioners, look after their needs and then move on. Imagine the sales staff at Banana Republic.

"Now, is there anything else you need to know about this new faith?" Parton asks carefully. I find myself holding my breath. This is our Emperor's New Clothes moment. I wait for the lone voice to pipe up, but what are the rituals? The rules? What do I have to do? What do you people believe? But for the first time in two hours, there was silence around the table.

When asked to essentially create any theology they wanted, the universe carried on the back of a chihuahua perhaps, a female god, a turtle god, multiple robot gods, they weren't exactly interested in breaking any new ground. In the end, it seemed they wanted the new church to do more or less exactly what the old church is supposed to do, encourage good behavior, provide a sense of community and ceremony, be a place of refuge. They just wanted to be less churchy.

Now that we had the makings of our new religion, the next equally important step was how we were going to market it. Obviously, you start with a celebrity. So Parton throws the question out to the group. "Is there anybody," he asks, "who you can see endorsing a religion that you would respect?" "Bill Maher," says one man emphatically. "He doesn't believe in anything, so you know that if he's endorsing something, it's not BS."

Parton shows the panel a selection of head shots. Among the rejects are Scarlett Johansson, too young. Charlton Heston, too angry. James Gandolfini, "though there's a certain roundness that I like," one woman allows. The rock, too Mayan. Brian Dennehy, blank stares.

But the overwhelming choice for the public face of our religion is someone altogether different, a man whose voice we've heard proclaiming calmly from on high so often in the movies that it's almost hard to believe that he's not up there somewhere narrating the action as we go through our daily lives. The man who reminded our group most of God himself was none other than Morgan Freeman. Wise, kindly supportive and perhaps not coincidentally, invariably a secondary character.

Next up was developing an ad campaign. Armed with our focus group data, Parton and Brooklyn Brothers creative director Guy Barnett went to work focusing in on the anachronisms our group found in the Bible. I called it the seed spillers campaign. Here's how these ads would sound in drive time.

John Viener

Think about it for a second. Does God really care which way you face when you're praying? Is he really offended by the thought of a ham and cheese sandwich? Some beliefs don't make sense anymore. Some remain universal and true. Live well. Be kind. Don't kill anyone. Think about it for a second. A modern society needs a modern religion.

Brett Martin

By the way, that's not actually Morgan Freeman. It's actor John Viener from The Family Guy doing an impression. Freeman, a very busy man, is off working on other projects including the sequel to Bruce Almighty, in which he plays, well, God.

The focus group really comes alive at these ads. "Anything that takes potshots at organized religions, I'm going to like it," one man says approvingly. Above all, it seems they're reassured by the form of these ads, by their recognizable ad-ness, that winking tone that says, you and I both know the deal here. And this makes sense. Conversion is a radical, subversive act. It helps if the evangelizing assumes a familiar form. And what could be more familiar and comforting than a man trying to sell a product? By the end of Parton's presentation, a woman named Lee says the six sweetest words a founder of a religion could ever hear, "I would totally visit that website."

At first the focus group results bothered me. These people wanted all the benefits of a faith without any of the suffering, any of the sacrifice, without believing anything. On the other hand, they invented a vision of religion that, I have absolutely no doubt, would sell. And a few weeks later I have my burning bush moment.

I find myself, improbably, in a room with none other than Morgan Freeman himself. He's sitting across the room sagely consulting a copy of The New York Times through half-glasses. We're in a space filled with comfy chairs and soft couches. Relaxing music is playing. There is wifi access, and the aroma of warm snacks and a cool, authoritative and solicitous staff. Sunlight streams through huge windows and I can see that it is good. Here it is, I think, the scales falling from my eyes. The man in his church. We're in the first class waiting lounge at Newark Airport.

Ira Glass

Brett Martin in New York.

[MUSIC - "MY GOD IS A MIGHTY MAN" BY ANTHONY BUTLER]

Act Four. Squashing The Creative Spirit.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Squashing the Creative Spirit. We end our program today with a tale of creativity, ingenuity, the internal striving for something better and the forces that want to stop it all at the dinner table. Andy Raskin has this story, which begins at his family's last Thanksgiving.

Richard Raskin

I'm serving the soup.

Woman

What story is this?

Richard Raskin

Michelle, everybody sit down please. Everybody sit down please.

Woman

The soup story.

Mother

Everyody, OK pay attention. Those that don't know the soup story have to pay attention.

Andy Raskin

That's my mom, last Thanksgiving, just before she was going to tell everyone at the table, our entire family, the story about the soup that Richard, my dad, made for the meal.

Mother

We decided that we were going to make butternut squash soup for this meal. We had made it before from a recipe in the Silver Palate Cookbook and it was very good. So I told Richard to make it. He decides that he's going to create his own version of the recipe, which I told him not to do, by the way. And I'm not going to tell you what he put in it yet, but we'll get to that as you eat it and see what's there.

I guess I'll tell you. He also decided to put in candied ginger. Out of nowhere. How do you think that that belongs in curried soup?

Andy Raskin

Actually, a cursory internet search yields plenty of curry recipes that call for candied ginger. But because it's so concentrated, it's usually used sparingly. My dad threw in six huge cubes. What also made my mom mad was that he substituted hot curry for mild curry, and that when he pronounced the soup done, he hadn't even tasted it.

The soup was a big deal to her because they were planning to serve it in these special soup bowls. They had actually bought little pumpkin squashes and hollowed them out, one for each guest. Each one probably cost $1 or $2, but the way my mom was carrying on about them, you would think she'd she had ordered a new set of fine china to be shipped in for the occasion. I interviewed them about it.

Mother

He totally messed up the soup because he didn't listen to me. And that was a shame because now we have all these elaborate, I would say or interesting soup bowls to fill with what should be a soup commensurate with its bowl. But it's not.

Richard Raskin

It sounds to me that you are upset about the investment you made in the soup bowls--

Andy Raskin

That's my dad.

Richard Raskin

--and you're not even concerned about my investment of time, money and effort in creating this soup.

Mother

I thought about that. But then I thought, you're the one who messed up. That's your problem. I told you to start all over again. And I thought that that would be apt punishment and maybe stop you from doing this kind of thing in the future. You see, it is salvageable to be OK, but it can never be the original recipe, which was excellent the last time we made it. So it is not going to be excellent. It may be OK. It may even be between OK and good. But it will never be excellent.

Richard Raskin

This discussion is reminiscent of the inflexibility and rigidity of your mother, which is a historical issue in this family. End of story.

Andy Raskin

When I was growing up, my parents had this fight a million times. My dad would do something mildly inventive and then my mom would get on him for it as if he had exposed the family to life or death peril. We had a little boat and he liked to maneuver it really close into beaches so that my sister and I could go swimming and clamming. But sometimes he would run aground. And then my mom would yell at him. And her eyes would squint, and her muscles would tense up.

Or when my dad was driving us all in the car, he would sometimes take what he called shortcuts, which typically involved minor traffic violations. My mom would yell at him and get all squinty again, but I could see how afraid she was.

Richard Raskin

Watch this. Watch this.

Mother

Wait. First taste it without the sherry because you have to compare.

Andy Raskin

This Thanksgiving, in the late morning, my mom demanded that my dad throw away his soup and start over. He refused. So my mom proposed making a small batch of the original recipe and mixing that in with his version. For some reason he agreed to that, but it was still too spicy. So my dad doctored it up with even more improvised ingredients, which included apple juice, half and half, pumpkin seeds and Harvey's Bristol Cream.

Richard Raskin

Watch the soup come alive.

Mother

Too much. I'll tell you something else. If he had followed the pure recipe in the book that I gave him, this would have all been unnecessary.

Andy Raskin

Finally it was dinner time and time to test the soup.

Mother

OK so now we've heated up the squash bowls and we're going to fill them with the quote, unquote, soup. OK, soup is on, let's go.

Andy Raskin

My relatives, fully briefed about the controversy over the soup, had their personal squash bowls put in front of them. What were they going to say? Nobody wanted to take sides. Finally, Aunt Andrea said she liked the soup, which my dad took as a vote for him. But then she remarked that it was so spicy that he could probably sell the leftovers to an Indian restaurant. Point for mom. Uncle Robert said he liked the soup, but then we noticed the beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. All my brother-in-law would say was that the soup exceeded his expectations, which was his way of staying on good terms with both his in-laws. And me, I thought the soup had been muddied by too much compromise.

But then, a few weeks after I got home, I got an email from my mom. It was one of those lists that gets forwarded around with rules for good living, like be gentle with the earth and spend time alone every day. My mom had received it from a friend. And when she forwarded it to me, she had written on the top, "Look at number 17." It was odd because my mom doesn't usually open those kind of emails. But I skimmed down and read number 17.

Mother

It said exactly, "Make love and cook with abandon." When I saw that, number 17, it just flashed in my mind, oh my god this is so right. And let him be. And right then I said, you know what, why should I restrict your father's artistic pleasure in creating whatever he's creating when he cooks?

Richard Raskin

It was nice. That's about all. It was nice. It was nice that she got the message. I don't have to-- this is friends and family. I can give them a soup. If they don't eat the soup, we throw away the soup. It's not the end of the world.

Andy Raskin

For her I guess it was.

Richard Raskin

I guess it was for her, but for me it wasn't.

Andy Raskin

For the record, number 17 in the email my mom sent me said exactly, "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon." How she got "make love" I'm not sure. And let's not go there. I don't know if she's really changed, if a single cheesy email could alter the way my parents relate to each other after 42 years of marriage. And my dad says that her first reflex is still to criticize him for things. But now, sometimes, he sees her catch herself and stop.

Ira Glass

Andy Raskin in San Francisco.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help form Thea Chaloner, Sam Hallgren and Seth Lind.

[ACKNOWLDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them, www.thisamericanlife.org. Or you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia, who I walked in on this week in his office.

Kristy Colvin

And he's laying in the middle of the carpet, rolling around and laying around.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.