Transcript

314:

It's Never Over
Transcript

Originally aired 06.23.2006

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/314

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It happened a long time ago and Jonathan didn't really think about it anymore. It was over, as far as he was concerned, high school stuff.

Jonathan Gold

I was cello player. Every high school has the nerdy, soft kid who brings his cello to class, and that would have been me.

Ira Glass

Every high school also has bullies, and there was one guy who picked on Jonathan. Jonathan remembers him as a glad-hander, somebody with lots of friends. And also--

Jonathan Gold

A jock. He hung out in the weight room. He squatted something over 500 pounds when he was in high school.

Ira Glass

And you actually know the number?

Jonathan Gold

I believe it was 510 pounds, a number that I remember almost 30 years later.

Ira Glass

Because everybody knew the number.

Jonathan Gold

Because everybody knew this. I remember him, but I would be very surprised if he remembered me. he was the sort of person who would walk across the street to be unpleasant to somebody. Or, in my most notable instance, I was walking down the hall to history class, and he hip-checked me. I was carrying my cello. I went sailing down the stairs with my cello. You'd be surprised how many times a cello in its case can bounce.

It was a lot of money in repairs. He was laughing about it to his friends. I suspect he forgot about it five minutes later. I didn't.

Ira Glass

And so who was he? Who was this guy?

Jonathan Gold

That guy was Jack Abramoff.

Ira Glass

Jack Abramoff. Remember him? Big time lobbyist, pled guilty to multiple criminal felonies, now in prison, one of the poster boys in our congressional corruption scandals. Jack Abramoff.

Jonathan Gold

It's just beautiful. It's more than I could have wished for.

Ira Glass

Well, in a certain sense, thanks to justice department prosecutors, finally someone gets revenge on him.

Jonathan Gold

It's sort of sweet, isn't it? And to realize that it's the same person was sort of strange. It's like finding out years later that the person that punched you really hard in elementary school and made you cry ended up being the heavyweight champion of the world.

Ira Glass

Jonathan says that he had this feeling of, I knew it. I knew that guy was bad. And yes, it is petty to feel vindicated about that feeling so many years later. And yes, there is no dignity to that feeling. But there you have it.

Jonathan Gold

Who wouldn't feel satisfied that he was getting his comeuppance?

Ira Glass

This is so typical. We think the past is over. We're not thinking about the past, we're having no feelings about the past at all, and then a name pops up from years before, and suddenly we realize our old feelings are just sitting there, dormant, intact, recognizable, ready to be revived, like cavemen thawed from frozen arctic ices, as you know that often happens. Jonathan Gold went on to become a newspaper writer, the restaurant critic for the LA Weekly. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year, and he's going to his 30th high school reunion this weekend.

When we tried to reach Jack Abramoff for a comment, his spokesman Harry [? Cohen ?] sent us this statement. "This story is not true. Mr. Abramoff does not know Mr. Gold. And he has no idea why Mr. Gold would fabricate such a story. There is no point in commenting further on something that never happened." Gold says he stands by his story.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our program, It's Never Over, stories of stuff that will not end. Act One of our show today, Who Takes the Class Out of Class Reunion. Mr. Jon Ronson demonstrates what can possibly happen when you have a keen sense of injustice that will not end. Act Two, Life Without Leanne, Larry Doyle and a love that will not end. Act Three, Deal of a Lifetime, a real estate transaction that will not end. Act Four, One Word: Timing, a joke that will not go away, and what can happen when you hold onto a joke for years before you can find a conversation where you can say that joke out loud. Stay with us.

Act One. Who Takes The Class Out Of Class Reunion.

Ira Glass

Act One, Who Takes the Class Out of Class Reunion. Well, Jon Ronson has been on our show a number of times. He's written several books in England where he lives. He's on television doing these funny and also rather revealing documentary stories on Channel Four. And you might think that, with all that success, he'd be feeling pretty good about things. Well, you'd be wrong.

Jon Ronson

I wake up in the middle of the night. I find I'm still angry with the boys who threw me into Roath Park Lake in Cardiff in the summer of 1983 when I was 16. I log onto Friends Reunited. I find one of them, and email to inform him that I'm now a best selling author. He emails me back. He says that the reason why they did it was because I was a pain in the ass. He says the tenor of my email leads him to suspect that I haven't changed, and that throwing me in the lake again today would be an appropriate response. I email him back to say I earn more money than he does. He hasn't yet emailed me back. Touche.

I told my friend Graham Linehan about the time I was thrown in the lake, and it turns out he's got a story just like mine. Graham wrote Father Ted, which was Britain's biggest comedy show for 10 years. Graham's a big success, but he says he can't stop dwelling on a few weeks he spent in France one summer 20 years ago with a boy called Christoph.

Graham Linehan

He was my French correspondent.

Jon Ronson

Exchange student?

Graham Linehan

Yeah. So I went to his place for two weeks, got to know him, and then, just a gradual thing, just realized after a couple of days that he didn't like me at all.

Jon Ronson

How did you first spot that?

Graham Linehan

He was talking to his parents, and he was saying-- even though I couldn't understand French, he was always saying, quoi, quoi? I was like an Irish Manuel. I was basically walking around going, quoi? every time anyone said. It was the only word I could understand. So I could sense he didn't really like me. And he was too mature for me, so rather than placing me with, say, a nerd who loves Dungeons and Dragons, who I'd still be friends with now if I'd met him, they place me with a bloke who got a motorcycle for his birthday.

Jon Ronson

And you began to get the sense that he didn't like you.

Graham Linehan

No, he didn't. You're constantly the subject of jokes, and I had a terrible time, really miserable. And he was a horrible bully, and his friends all hated me, and I nearly had a fight with one of his friends in his school. And then he was going to come over to Ireland, so I just thought, well, he'll be on my home ground, I'll have a bit of control. It won't be so bad this time. So we'll see what happens next. So he came to Ireland, and he just had complete control over my life in Ireland as well. He was immediately friends with all the cool kids in my school, and he was just horrible. He beat me up in the swimming pool with his friend once. It was just a complete nightmare.

This odd hell that childhood is, where you can be going through something in very close proximity to your parents, and they still can't help you. You still can't really tell anyone about it. It's obsessed me, not just him, but generally that problem of childhood.

Jon Ronson

So you decided to murder him?

Graham Linehan

Not that I would murder him, but if I chose to murder him, it would be the perfect murder, because every murder needs a motive, means, and opportunity, isn't that it?

Jon Ronson

Yeah.

Graham Linehan

But it needs motive. Now, if someone came, Magritte or whoever-- what was the name of that-- Maigret?

Jon Ronson

Maigret.

Graham Linehan

Was that the name of the detective? The French detective? If he came and found Christoph dead at his front door with a big butcher's knife through his heart, he wouldn't have a clue, because I'm back in England or Ireland. I just got on the plane, I went straight to his house. I rang his doorbell. He opened the door. There's a few flaws, I realize in this, but anyway.

Jon Ronson

Like if someone else opened the door?

Graham Linehan

Exactly. And how do I recognize him, and all that sort of thing. But he opens the door--

Jon Ronson

You mean now that he's grown up?

Graham Linehan

Exactly. It doesn't really stand up. But anyway, I stab him in the heart. He dies. I get back in the taxi, which I've asked to wait a few doors away. I go to the airport. I go back home. And then Maigret comes around, and where's the motive? There's absolutely no motive. He's just found someone killed in the middle of the afternoon, and everyone loved him, because he's probably turned into a nice person.

Jon Ronson

And because he beat you up 25 years ago?

Graham Linehan

Well, yeah. I have to say that this fantasy was particularly strong before I got successful. As soon as Father Ted took off, I kind of dropped it. The worst thing about it, though, is that he'll never know that all these things happened.

Jon Ronson

He'll never know you wrote Father Ted.

Graham Linehan

Yeah. Maybe instead of killing him, I should just learn how to say, I wrote Father Ted. Get on a plane, go over, ring the doorbell, he comes to the door, [SPEAKING FRENCH]. Run away.

To be honest with you, in the end, it's a mug's game, isn't it? It's like answering critics, which I've done once or twice, very stupidly. You can't, as I think Oscar Wilde said, roll around in the mud with them. And you can't roll around in the mud with your bullies. You can't let them know that you still have these things. But it was a real problem for me. My sense of injustice was so keen that I just couldn't sleep sometimes.

Jon Ronson

But you know I've been invited to the school reunion, and they'll be there, the boys who threw me into Roath Park Lake.

Graham Linehan

I'd bring a knife.

Jon Ronson

I've got a better idea than that. They've asked me to donate something for the raffle. So I'm going to put together a package called My Fantastic Life. And in the package will be my two best selling books, a note saying, "Dear Jon, sorry I missed you, hopefully we'll meet up soon, best, Nick Hornby," and a photograph of me with my arm around Zoe Ball. What do you think?

Graham Linehan

Well, the Nick Hornby thing isn't great.

Jon Ronson

That's the best I've got, I'm afraid. I can do no better.

My six-year-old son says to me, were you thrown in a lake? Yes, I say, I was thrown in a lake when I was 16. Why, he asks. Because I was fat, I say. And there's two lessons to be learned from this. Don't be a bully and don't be fat. Will you show me what it looks like, he asks. Me being fat or me being thrown in a lake? Both, he says. I puff up my cheeks, waddle comically around, fall over and say splash. Will you do it again in slow motion, he says. So I do. This time I add some dialogue. Please don't throw me in the lake. No. Splash. Will you sound more scared, says Joel, and put a cushion under your shirt? And so I do. Please, I shout, waddling grotesquely, I might drown. Please no, no. You were so fat, says my son.

I spend two hours putting together the package for the raffle, My Fantastic Life, but I couldn't decide what to include. Should I add a copy of my bank statement, or would that be taking it too far? So I dump the idea, and instead I brought along Simon, my producer.

Jon Ronson

This is the spot where it happened. This is exactly where. We were walking down here. Nobody said anything. They just all at once picked me up and threw me in, which leads me to suspect that it was preplanned. And then we all went back to one of their houses and watched Top of The Pops. Should we go? It's just up there.

Simon

I'm just wondering why six people that you could go and sit in a room and watch Top of The Pops with afterwards would want to conspire to throw you in the lake?

Jon Ronson

What are you saying?

Simon

I'm not saying anything. I'm just asking why you think that they decided to throw you in the lake?

Jon Ronson

I don't like the tone of your question.

Simon

Shall I rephrase it a different way?

Jon Ronson

Yeah, rephrase it.

Simon

Why do you think that they threw you in the lake? What had happened? What went wrong?

Jon Ronson

You're not rephrasing it, you're just putting a different tone on. You're putting some [? claring ?] tone onto it. It's still the same bloody question. I have no idea what you're talking about. No, there was no reason at all. That's my answer.

Simon

So six of your friends from school, for no reason at all, decided to throw you in the lake?

Jon Ronson

Are you trying to rile me?

Simon

I'm not trying to rile you. I'm just trying to find out what happened.

Jon Ronson

I told you, they picked me up and threw me in the lake.

Simon

That's the action. What's the reasoning behind it?

Jon Ronson

I don't know. I'm the one who was thrown in the lake. I wasn't the one who planned it.

Simon

So basically you're saying it's an inexplicable act, and it happened for no real reason at all.

Jon Ronson

But it might be because I was fat.

Later I tell Simon that I can't help thinking that, had he been there, he would have thrown me in the lake. And Simon says, if I think that about him, then I don't know him very well.

It was with trepidation that I approached the back room of the Discovery Pub on Lakeside Drive for the reunion of the Cardiff High School Class of 1985. I had a mental picture of a room full of thugs just jumping on me the minute I walked in, but instead I bumped into Sarah Thomas, who'd been, without any doubt, Cardiff High's most attractive enigma from the age of 14 upwards.

Jon Ronson

How are you?

Sarah Thomas

Very well.

Jon Ronson

20 years.

Sarah Thomas

I'm very well, Ronson.

Jon Ronson

Nervous?

Sarah Thomas

Stressed. I'm a lawyer. I shouldn't be stressed, but I am.

Jon Ronson

Does it feel like the last 20 years of your life just haven't happened?

Sarah Thomas

They have. I've got wrinkles to show.

Jon Ronson

No, you haven't.

Sarah Thomas

You look better.

Jon Ronson

Yeah, I've aged well. Why were you nervous?

Sarah Thomas

The people I was going to see. And I hoped I was going to see you. That was a big thing. So you see, it wasn't all bad, because I really wanted to see you again.

Jonathan Audrey

Jon. John Audrey.

Jon Ronson

Jonathan Audrey.

Jonathan Audrey

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Hey, Sarah.

Sarah Thomas

How are you, sweetie?

Jon Ronson

That was Jonathan Audrey. I remember nothing about him except for his name.

Sarah Thomas

Yeah. He hasn't changed.

Jon Ronson

No, he hasn't. Still cheeky.

Something unexpected happens at the reunion. I have a lovely time. What I don't remember, it turns out, are the good times. Really, I keep saying, we did that? It's bizarre you don't remember that, people keep replying. It's as if I've scrubbed from my memory anything that contradicts my image of school as the worst days of my life.

Jon Ronson

Do you think I've given myself false memories?

Sarah Thomas

Yeah, I think you--

Jon Ronson

You think things weren't as bad?

Sarah Thomas

They weren't as bad. You've never talked about my house, and I think you had a nice time at my house.

Jon Ronson

Yeah, I did. Very much so.

And then Dai Lewis, the man I thought had thrown me in the lake, comes over. He says I've got it all wrong, very wrong.

Jon Ronson

Do you remember it as a good time?

Dai Lewis

I remember it as a very good time, school.

Jon Ronson

What do you remember of the day of the lake incident?

Dai Lewis

Just good time.

Jon Ronson

That we all went down to the lake, and what? We all jumped in together?

Dai Lewis

Yeah.

Jon Ronson

That's how you remember it?

Dai Lewis

Do you?

Jon Ronson

No, I remember being picked up and thrown. Is that really how you remember it?

Dai Lewis

Do you remember anyone else going in the lake?

Jon Ronson

No.

Dai Lewis

Just you?

Jon Ronson

Yes.

Dai Lewis

Wrong.

Jon Ronson

Did we all go in the lake?

Dai Lewis

Everyone.

Jon Ronson

Everyone? Like who?

Dai Lewis

Garret, Dick.

Jon Ronson

Paul Morris.

Dai Lewis

Yeah.

Jon Ronson

What, we all jumped in, in a kind of joyous, youthful frenzy?

Dai Lewis

I would say so.

Jon Ronson

What do you remember of being in the lake?

Dai Lewis

It was really disgusting. But it washed off.

Jon Ronson

Was there any pushing going on at all? Did we all jump in of our own free will?

Dai Lewis

I don't think there was any pushing. Do you really think there was pushing? Jon, really, honestly?

Jon Ronson

The way I remember it is that we were all walking along, and then--

Dai Lewis

Because obviously, this is a really big thing in your life.

Jon Ronson

No, it's not.

Dai Lewis

No, it is. It obviously is. Go on, tell me.

Jon Ronson

And then some look passed between you, and you picked me up and just threw me in.

Dai Lewis

How could I have picked you up? You were massive. There's no way. Jon, come on. You could've picked me up. Pregnant silence.

Jon Ronson

When you remember our time together, what do you remember?

Dai Lewis

I remember it as being really good. I remember you, John Morris, Garrett, Dick as a really good time. No other thoughts.

Jon Ronson

Do you look back on it as being the happiest days of your life, which is what people say about their school days?

Dai Lewis

No, I do. Don't you?

Jon Ronson

Really the happiest days of your life?

Dai Lewis

Apart from my kids being born? Yes. You?

Jon Ronson

No, for me it was like the saddest days of my life.

Dai Lewis

Oh, that's really bad. That's really bad.

Jon Ronson

Well, I've had very happy days since then.

Dai Lewis

You were one of the group. There was never any bullying. If you say differently, I think you're fantasizing. You really are.

Jon Ronson

Fantasizing?

Dai Lewis

Absolutely.

Jon Ronson

I'm beginning to wonder whether I should be trusting my memory. Do I get a hug, Dai?

Dai Lewis

Yeah. Don't stress about it. There was nothing. I was in the lake, too.

Jon Ronson

And so I go back inside to the disco, amazed at the fragility of memory, and startled that I've spent so long being angry about something that probably never happened. And Simon, my producer, stays outside.

Paul

All right, well, Jon's not here now, so I can tell you the truth. I remember the evening vividly. I threw him in the lake-- I was 15-- because he was being an ass. And then somebody else threw his scarf in afterwards, and he had to climb back in and get it. The humiliation of that, I'm not entirely surprised he's still having sleepless nights.

Simon

But why did you do it?

Paul

Because I was 15 and because he was an ass. That's all the reason I can remember. In a very similar, though more sort of pubescent way, that he is still an ass.

Simon

What do you think Dai is saying that you all went in the lake? Is he falsely remembering it, do you think? Because you seem to remember it very clearly.

Paul

I do remember that Dai was there, but I think Dai's memories have been clouded over the years. Why it seems to have festered over the past 20-something years for Jon, I have no idea, but it obviously has. You want the truth on this? I think he was somebody who desperately wanted to be popular. And because of that desperation, he wasn't.

Jon Ronson

That was Paul. And I'd just like to point out, I make more money than him.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson, he's the author of the book The Men Who Stare At Goats and other books. A version of this story originally appeared on a radio show that he's been hosting lately for BBC Radio 4, called Jon Ronson On.

[MUSIC - "DON'T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR GRIEVANCE" BY DANIEL JOHNSTON]

Act Two. Life Without Leanne.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Life Without Leanne. Our program today is about things that never seem to end. And I think there are certain feelings that, at some point or another, all of us have felt and been unable to shake. These feelings stick around for months, they stick around for years, and there are some people in this situation who find it useful to talk about it.

Larry Doyle

Good evening, and welcome to Life Without Leanne. I'm Larry, and this is day 683. That's nearly 98 weeks since Leanne and I broke up.

We're going to start out, as always, with our Leanne Watcher of the week. My kudos go out to Mike of Evanston, Illinois, who called in with this eloquent report on a brief encounter he had with Leanne on April 28th.

Mike

Hey Larry, I love the show. Listen, I ran into Leanne last week. She lost some weight, but she's still beautiful, you know. She said she's been exercising, taking classes, doing this, doing that. But it appeared to me that she was struggling to fill some void. Your name didn't come up. But it wasn't so much what she said as what she didn't say.

Larry Doyle

Thanks, Mike. I think we all know what she was trying to say. I wish it all could be such good news, but unfortunately, Operation: Terrible Mistake has not been the success that we anticipated. And I'm afraid we may have to rethink our strategy. As you may recall from our April 20th program, the objectives of Operation: Terrible Mistake were to, one, apply societal pressure; two, foster emotional uncertainty; three, precipitate reevaluation; and ideally, four, achieve reconciliation.

When I brought up this plan, I suggested the following conversation starter when you would run into Leanne on the street or something. I suggested that you say something like, Leanne, I was so sorry to hear about you and Larry. You make such a wonderful couple, so I don't mind telling you, I think you are making a terrible mistake. This is my own personal opinion on the matter.

Now, unfortunately, a number of well-meaning individuals took this suggestion rather more literally than I intended, and repeated it verbatim to Leanne. And some of it sounds like you were practicing it, and it created an effect other than the one I desired. I've now received word through an intermediary that Leanne requests that I quote, "Call off the zombies", unquote. We will honor her wishes as always, but I must emphasize I cannot be held responsible for the behavior of individuals acting on their own initiative.

I've got the minutes of the most recent Leanne Anonymous meeting, which I'll read to you now. It was our first meeting at Gatsby's. The bartender, Mark, gracefully accommodated us by closing off the back room and supplying extra folding chairs. The meeting started out, we ordered a first round, and it proceeded immediately to old business: the continuing debate on Leanne's eyes, and whether they are turbulent sea green, or sand-flecked moon blue. They are, by the way, sand-flecked moon blue. And conversation turned naturally to the rest of Leanne, her quirky, perky nose, her funny, sunny smile, the perfect curve of her neck, her soft shoulders, and so on, until petty jealousies precluded further discussion.

Soon thereafter, we took a break to order some refreshments, and then it was time to welcome new members. This stubby and not particularly attractive man, who had been spotted with Leanne as recently as mid-January, stood up, and he said, my name is Harry, and I love Leanne. Harry then related his long, sad tale, the details of which we are all too familiar with. He ended with that same old refrain, she met this guy, she says she's deliriously happy.

That prompted Gunther, who really doesn't speak very often, to speak up. She's deliriously happy, eh? he said, staring into his beer, that guy is doomed. Those of us who could still laugh about it did, and we voted to adjourn.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

We all know what that music means. It's time for this week's Leanne Challenge. Leanne is what she eats, but how well do you know what she eats? Everybody knows Leanne likes horseradish on her hamburgers, but what kind of horseradish? OK, here's a hint. She received a case of it last Christmas. The answer to last week's challenge was, you guessed it, from left to right. Now, I know a lot of people thought there was a trick to that question, but there wasn't.

[MUSIC - "PLEASE MR. POSTMAN" BY THE MARVELETTES]

It's time for the mail. The mail ran heavy this week with entries to the candid Leanne photo contest. I think I need to remind everybody that the rules clearly state that Leanne must be the only person shown in the photograph. In case any of you want to resubmit, I'm going to extend the deadline for two weeks until May 23rd. Please remember entries can't be returned.

First letter, one of our far flung correspondents, Reggie of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, who writes in, and I think this is very interesting. We've gotten a number of letters like this. He writes, "Larry, isn't it time you got on with your life? It's been nearly two years since Leanne broke up with you--" actually, we're a couple weeks short of that, but anyway, he says "it's been actually two years since Leanne broke up with you, and I hate to tell you, pal, but it's over. O-V-E-R. But listen," he says, "there are a lot of other chicks in the sea, my friend, and they are yours for the picking. Go for it."

Well, Reggie, I don't know quite how to answer that. It's difficult to determine exactly what it is you're driving at. I mean, I'm afraid I don't share your bitter perspective, and I don't really get all of your playground aphorisms, but please understand when I suggest this: you know nothing about love. But thanks for the letter, Reg. Your Larry Loves Leanne t-shirt is in the mail. That's it for Life Without Leanne this week, and let's hope it's the last week. I'm Larry, and I love Leanne.

Ira Glass

Larry Doyle wishes it known that he now loves Becky. They have three kids together.

[MUSIC - "IT'S ALWAYS YOU" BY CHET BAKER]

Coming up, an inhuman situation made human through sheer force of politeness. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Deal Of A Lifetime.

Sarah Koenig

My stepsister, Rue, wanted a house in Sag Harbor, New York, badly, and she couldn't really afford it. Then one day, she found out about a lovely house on Main Street listed for two prices. The more expensive listing included a house, a shed, and a little garden. The cheaper listing included a house, a shed, a little garden, and Ned.

Rue

Well, the way I identify Ned is my man. People laugh at this, but he really is mine. He's the man that came with the house.

Sarah Koenig

The deal was this: Rue moved into her dream house at $110,000 discount. The catch was Ned, an elderly, sick man, who sold the house cheap on one condition, that he never have to move out. Rue lives in the upstairs apartment. Ned lives in the more spacious downstairs, where he will stay until he dies. While Ned is working in his little downtown shop which sells classical music CDs, Rue gives us a tour.

Rue

We're coming into Ned's portion of the house, which is where he's lived for, I think, maybe 20 years, I'm not sure. Which is good for him too, because he's older, it's all on street level, he doesn't have to climb any stairs. And also, he's lost a lot of his sight, which is one reason why he really didn't want to leave this house.

Sarah Koenig

Unlke the mansions across the street, this house isn't big or fancy. It was built perhaps 100 years ago for the workers in the local watch case factory. When she bought it, Rue was 36 and single. The idea that she could inhabit only two rooms of her new house didn't seem problematic. What she did not foresee was that, in the space of a year, she would acquire a puppy, a husband, and a baby. She tries to focus on the deal's advantages. The cramped quarters have taught her to resolve fights with her husband rather than flee them, she says. Still, she can't deny that the population boom in her apartment has made Ned's downstairs look especially attractive.

Rue

And this is the living room.

Sarah Koenig

Is this where you would have the bedroom if you were down here? Would you use that as the master bedroom?

Rue

Well, actually, I think I would change the whole back of the house if I were down here. As you might guess, I've had a few imaginings of what I would like to do with the space down here, but not too many. I don't like to get carried away with myself prematurely. You know, terrible things to think of.

Sarah Koenig

Why are they terrible things to think of?

Rue

Well, I don't know. There's this vulture-like aspect of it when you start talking about what you'd like to do. I mean, there's no getting around that. How can I talk about what I'd like to do? I'd never get to do it until he's moved on from this world.

Ned

Well, we are now standing in the second parlor of this house on Main Street in Sag Harbor, and I've lived here since 1985. I sold it to Rue, I think, in '95. And I never expected to be alive this long. Poor Rue.

Sarah Koenig

To Ned, who is 78, selling his house from under himself was an ingenious way to stay in a place he considers home. A pianist who made his living as an editor, Ned has spent his life getting money and then spending it all. By the time he put his house on the market, he was sick and broke. He didn't have the will to move. The Main Street house is the only one he's ever owned. It's crammed with antiques and oriental rugs, and reminders of his elegant New Orleans upbringing. A large romantic portrait of him from 1951 hangs in the parlor. In the kitchen is a framed photograph of Stillwood, his grandmother's plantation house.

Ned

The little silver coffee set, this set right here, a coffee pot, a cream pitcher, and a sugar pitcher, and a tray, my mother said was from the Civil War down in New Orleans, and had been buried in the garden to keep General Butler, Spoon Butler they called him, to keep it from him. And I said, oh, mother, on the bottom of each piece in here it says 1893. And she said, well, that's a stock number. In reality, my mother was not to be moved by this. And when I took the tray to a silversmith in New York to have it redone, he said, has this tray ever been buried in the ground? Because there are all sorts of minerals in it that you only find in the ground. And I told him the story, he said, well, I bet your mother was right.

Sarah Koenig

Besides the house and its occasional ailments, a leaky skylight, an overflowing garbage can, what unites these two households is the anticipation of Ned's death. Back when they first negotiated the deal, nobody thought he would still be alive today.

Rue

He had had a heart attack, and he had had a history of heart disease. I don't know how long a history. He had had bypass surgery, and then, right after the closing, two weeks after the closing, he had another heart attack, and I talked to him from the hospital, and he sounded quite authentically sick, I have to say. And that was six years ago.

Ned

The trouble is I all of the sudden began to get better, and was going around full of energy, and I feel perfectly good most of the time. I mean, I wake up and I embrace the day, so to speak. Well, not the early day.

Sarah Koenig

The contract that binds Ned and Rue has led them to live together separately. They don't consider each other family, or even friends. They don't invite each other over for dinner or drop by each other's apartment for a chat. When they do talk, their conversation is almost exclusively about the house. Like considerate roommates, they try not to offend each other with their habits.

Ned

I try to figure out when maybe nobody's upstairs, and that's when I play. But sometimes, I realize they are upstairs, but then I go ahead and play anyhow. I'm sure it must bother them. It would bother me. I've played the piano ever since I was nine years old, and very sad by the fact that I can no longer read music, because I've forgotten all those pieces that I learned all those years ago. But I now can sit down and simply play what comes out. And oddly enough, sometimes what comes out is very, very nice. It's always very sad. Oh, there have been moving evenings here, let me tell you, not a dry handkerchief in the house.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Sarah Koenig

In fact, Rue likes his playing. She's never told him so, but she finds it soothing when the music drifts into her bedroom when she and the baby are taking a nap. And he has never told her that he finds her presence upstairs comforting. Still, there are complicated feelings on both sides.

Rue

I do like Ned. And I do feel kind of benevolent towards him, like I'm taking care of him sometimes. He just inspires that in people. But then, I'm not going to be terribly, terribly sorry when he dies. I'm going to be sorry, but I'm also going to feel some relief. It's very strange.

Every time I ask him how you are doing, or take care, I always get this little twinge, because it's-- there's a twinge. A twinge of like, how are things going, or how are you doing, and it's just this wicked twinge comes over me, because I think that I'd a little bit like to hear, not so great.

Sarah Koenig

Do you think he's keyed in to this other conversation in your head?

Rue

Well, as I said, Ned's no fool.

Ned

I'm aware that the other side can't be all that thrilled that I'm still there. But she's been very nice to me. And I think I've been very nice to her, I think.

Sarah Koenig

She obviously likes you.

Ned

Well, I hope so, because I like her.

Sarah Koenig

But she's also waiting for your demise.

Ned

Oh, I'm sure.

Sarah Koenig

Does it make you feel guilty that you got better?

Ned

I don't think I feel guilty. Maybe I do. I'm just sorry that there is Rue sitting up there. She can't help but wait, biting her fingernails, probably. It sounds heartless put this way, and I guess it is. When one begins picking it apart this way, it sounds really quite awful, as though I'm just squelching the life of a young couple, and now a brand-new life.

Sarah Koenig

A lot of people would say that Rue looks like the heartless one in this arrangement, that there she is, waiting for a gentleman to die.

Ned

That's why I think this kind of speculation is-- there's a certain falseness about it. That, yes, these thoughts flicker across every mind, mine as well as hers, I'm sure. But we're civilized beings, and I did what I thought I had to do, and I also think that she did what she felt she, maybe not had to do, but she did what she wanted to do.

It's been very civilized, I think. Rue and I are polite to each other. We don't let our feelings carry us into territory that is uncharted, and really will always be uncharted.

Sarah Koenig

What territory is that?

Ned

The territory that she resents the fact that I'm still alive, and I resent the fact that she wants me to die. Better to be on the surface than not, because it's unanswerable. And it's territory that I'm unable to explore. And I don't think Rue is able to explore it to any benefit either. It's supposed to be that total honesty is examining every scrap of the brain, our emotions and whatnot, is supposed to advance something, but it usually depresses rather than advances, I think.

Sarah Koenig

Because of his upbringing, Ned comes to this position naturally. But it's remarkable to me that my stepsister, a '70s wild child still known to say things like virtue is a load of crap, has come to understand the power of polite restraint. In private, of course, away from Ned, she's unapologetic about what lurks beneath their relationship.

Rue

I don't feel so very guilty of that, because I don't feel anything that anybody else wouldn't feel. I know how people are. I'm not worse than anybody. There's no person-- Mother Teresa could be living in this apartment if she were young, with a baby and a husband, and not have those thoughts. OK, I know that. It seems to me that people waste an awful lot of time having pretenses about what they're supposed to feel, when what they really feel is what they really feel. Why not just-- you can't tell life to be something that it's not going to be, that it isn't. You can't argue with it. I don't mind being just a human being. That's fine.

Sarah Koenig

Both Rue and Ned moved into this house hoping it would be the last place where they'd ever unpack. Ned got his wish, but if he survives for more than another year, a strong possibility, Rue will have to move out. Her two small rooms will become too small once her baby starts to crawl. For now, though, Rue's proud that the five souls living under her roof are getting along so well. And when Ned finally does die, she says she'll be sad. Along with twinges of wickedness, it's a sadness she bought along with the house.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Ned

There you have my Rachmaninoff period.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our program. It's been seven years since we first broadcast this story, and incredibly, despite everybody's predictions, both Ned and Rue are still living in the house. Ned's doing very well, running his music store. He recently recorded a CD of his piano music. Meanwhile upstairs, Rue's son Emmit is now seven years old. Rue says things are mostly very friendly between her and Ned, and that she doesn't wish him dead too often.

[MUSIC - "THE LOVE NEST" BY THE HI LO'S]

Act Four. One Word: Timing.

Ira Glass

Act Four, One Word: Timing. This is the story of a joke that would not die. Tami Sagher had just gotten this job that she really wanted, and she was in that position where she was working with people who she really, really respected, and she wanted them to like her. And this job was something that she had never done before. It was to write a script for a television show, to write a situation comedy. And she had finished her first draft, and they had this meeting to go through the draft with her and tell her what changes they wanted. And this is the very first time they were reviewing her work, and she tape-recorded the meeting, so she would get all of their comments, all of their notes, not lose anything.

And they get to the end of going through the script, and then everybody's still sitting around, and they start making small talk, and it's the two people who run this TV show, and the comedian who is the star of the TV show, this guy Louie C.K., incredibly funny guy. In fact, they're all really funny. And somehow politics comes up, and the three guys in the room are talking about it, being funny, and Tami is just trying to think of something interesting to say. We've all been in the situation at work, or socially, or wherever, she wants to say something funny and smart, and time is passing. And she's getting a little anxious.

Tami Sagher

I'm just scared that it's going to end on this note of them having this really sparkling political debate with funniness, and then like, all right, Tami, go home and write your episode, see you later.

Ira Glass

Right, and you won't get a chance to prove to them that you are one of them?

Tami Sagher

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Just listening to the recording of it, what you sent us, it seems like you're trying to get a word in edgewise, and maybe not always succeeding. But let's play a cut of that.

Man 1

And that's where we belong.

Man 2

Right.

Tami Sagher

Or--

Man 1

And then the dream is over.

Ira Glass

Or. You're about to go somewhere with that, and you don't really do that. Here's another one.

Tami Sagher

Maybe one--

Man 1

And apart from another Republican President.

Tami Sagher

You can just hear-- like it's a person trying to get on a highway at the ramp, and that sort of like, can I merge? No? OK, OK.

Ira Glass

So what happens?

Tami Sagher

OK, so to really get what happens next, you have to know that, four or five years ago, I came up with this joke while I was walking my dog about Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader, like, four years ago said, that 9/11 wouldn't have happened if he'd been elected president, because he would have done something to the cockpit doors as soon as he was elected that would have prevented it from happening.

Ira Glass

Right, his group, Public Citizen, had been lobbying to actually strengthen the cockpit doors so nobody can bust into the cockpit doors, but nobody listened to them, basically.

Tami Sagher

Exactly. Exactly. And so, when he said that, I came up with a line about it while I was walking my dogs, but I don't do stand-up. But it's a total stand-up line. And so I never actually said the line, because it's sort of impossible to toss off in conversation. And so it just was there. It was just sitting there.

Ira Glass

So you have this four-year-old joke that really has nowhere to live?

Tami Sagher

Right, and has never been said. And then Louie brings up Ralph Nader.

Louie C.k.

I voted for Nader in 2000, or whichever one. Yeah, 2000.

Ira Glass

What he does is he basically talks about the fact that he voted for Nader, and what people said to him about it. And while he's talking about this, what are you thinking?

Tami Sagher

All I'm thinking is, how can I bring up the cockpit door thing? That's really all I'm thinking.

Ira Glass

Can I bring this around to 9/11, so I can say this joke.

Tami Sagher

Exactly. But in the meantime, they're talking about other stuff about Ralph Nader, and then I'm sort of biting my tongue, and then Louie brings up the thing about the 9/11 and the cockpit doors. And all of a sudden, there's this organic opening for this line.

Louie C.k.

No, it's like somebody said to Ralph Nader after 9/11, what if that had been you in the White House? Wouldn't even you say now that we wouldn't want Ralph Nader in the White House after 9/11? And he said, sorry, but my organization has been trying to get the airlines to bolt their doors.

Tami Sagher

Yeah, he said 9/11 wouldn't have happened--

Louie C.k.

Wouldn't have happened if I was president.

Tami Sagher

I am thinking, just wait, just wait. Let him do it, let him do it. And then he's not quite getting it out, so I'm kind of like trying to help it along, like just maybe walking into a pitch, like c'mon, here we go baby.

Ira Glass

Because you know if you can just get this out, you are sitting on pure gold. You're sitting on this thing, and finally.

Tami Sagher

Yeah. It's had four years to hatch.

Louie C.k.

And the federal government won't enforce them.

Tami Sagher

If he'd been elected, he would have been too distracted by all the flying pigs. [LAUGHTER] Come on. Come on.

Tami Sagher

It's so sweet. And then they even riff on it for a little while, which is like the best thing that can happen. I think Aaron is doing other sort of hell freezing over jokes.

Man 1

We wouldn't be spending all our money heating hell.

Ira Glass

And so for you, did you feel a sense of triumph? Or did you feel instantly a sense that it doesn't count, because you were using a joke that you had made up four years ago?

Tami Sagher

I felt a total sense of triumph. Well, I felt, like, a 95% sense of triumph, and then a 5%, but it's a lie. And then, whatever, yeah, so's makeup. Makeup is a lie.

Ira Glass

And so are you done? Are you in? Is that it? That's it, you used that joke to kind of get you over the hump, and now is it through?

Tami Sagher

I felt like I'm more in, yeah. I don't know that I'll ever feel like I'm in with anybody. But no, I have felt like I'm more in. I have felt a marked difference. I mean, do you ever feel like you're totally in with anybody?

Ira Glass

Dude, I'm married to somebody who I feel like I'm constantly in a situation of having-- she doesn't feel this way, but I totally feel like every day I have to prove myself anew.

Tami Sagher

Really? Well, here's one more thing though that is kind of sucky about it, though, is by constantly checking in with what the other person's opinion of you is, you're not just being with that person. There's a level of removal there that is sad.

Ira Glass

Totally. That's totally my personality. For me, I think that something went wrong when I was a kid, where I think that other people, they just accept that they're in. They accept that this other person likes them, and they don't have to keep proving themself. Whereas for me, it's entirely temporal. I'm constantly judging the whole thing moment by moment, and it could always fall apart. For me, it never ends.

Tami Sagher

I remember when I was a kid, and I think I was probably, like, four maybe, so my sister was nine, and my brother was 14, and we were doing bits around the table. I remember them acting stuff out that I didn't quite understand what was going on. And I remember going up and trying to imitate them, and acting something out. And I remember only my mom laughing. And I remember even then being like, she's just trying to make me feel better, and just knowing it wasn't a real laugh.

Ira Glass

Tough room. [LAUGHTER]

Tami Sagher

And also, I was the jerk, too, like whatever Mom, I don't want your unconditional love. Give me some of that-- my father has actually said to me, doesn't my approval mean more because it is conditional? I once was on stage. They asked for a volunteer, and this guy put a blindfold on me, and he danced me around the stage, and all this stuff. And at the end, they take the blindfold off, and they said, how about applause for the volunteer? And everybody in the audience clapped except for my father. And afterwards, I was like, Papa, what's up? And he goes, you didn't do anything. You were a human prop. What?

Ira Glass

Tami Sagher. She now writes for the NBC show, 30 Rock. She says that having a storeroom of old jokes, used and unused, inside of her head, sometimes very great and useful, other times, does not serve her so well. A quick warning to listeners in what she's about to say. The jokes that she is about to tell, they aren't explicit or anything, but they might not be appropriate for children.

Tami Sagher

I was on a trip to Switzerland, and I was with 18 people. It was one of these walking tours. And this hotel in Switzerland, somebody says, hey, the professional has a joke. And nobody knows me in this group. We've been together two or three days, and the average age is, like, 60-something. And I was about to tell my favorite child molester joke, which is, did you hear about the Jewish pedophile? He's the one who says, hey, kids, easy on the candy. So in my head, I was like, I can't tell the Jewish pedophile joke, because I'm Jewish, so I can say that. But we're in Switzerland, and there's already weirdness there.

But at the same time, this group is cool enough. So I tell this other child molester joke, which is that a little boy and a child molester are walking through the forest. And all of a sudden, I can just feel the temperature of the table just go down, like, 10 degrees. And one woman goes, oh. And then I'm like, no, I got to go through with it. I'm going to win them over. And so I was like, it's literally a dark and stormy night, and the little boy says I'm scared. And the child molester says, you're scared? I got to walk out of here by myself. And total silence, like total horrible, horrible silence.

And then the guy down at the end of the table, the one who says, hey, the professional has a joke, now he goes, what do you call a cow that doesn't give any milk? A milk dud. And [CHEERING] we love you, like hilarious joke. And that was just-- It's like a Dixie Cup joke. But totally pandering, because we are in Switzerland, so we're around a lot of cows. And here's my other problem with that joke. It's like nine words long, and he says milk in the question and the answer.

Ira Glass

I was thinking of that.

Tami Sagher

Exactly. That's a really poorly phrased joke. It's a low-level joke. Huge laughs, compliments to him. And I'm sitting stewing in the corner, like whatever, a little bit mad even. But my favorite joke, and this is what I always say when people are like, oh, you're in comedy? Tell me a joke. And this always disappoints, always, but I still love it, is, what did the snail say on the turtle's back? Wheeee. Are they're just like, oh, that's what you do for a living? And then I want to be like, no, but you can't handle the truth. You can't handle the Jewish pedophile.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollack, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Shiow-Jiau Yung runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, Bruce Wallace, music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcasts, or listen to our old shows for free, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program, Mr. Torey Malatia, who does not understand why we did Act Four today, no matter what I say.

Simon

So basically, you're saying it's an inexplicable act, and it happened for no real reason at all?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.