Transcript

323:

The Super
Transcript

Originally aired 01.05.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/323

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Peter's been on the job for 20 years. He's got the uniform, he's got the office in the basement behind the laundry room, he's got the keys.

[JINGLING KEYS]

Peter Roach

There's a lot of crap on there, but hey.

Ira Glass

Let's just count them.

Peter Roach

It's basically-- count them?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Peter Roach

All right, so you got your 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11--

Ira Glass

This is a key ring that is so big that it not only has tons of keys, it also has smaller, baby key rings, subsidiary key rings hanging off of it, each with its own keys. And almost none of these keys has any kind of label indicating what it is that it opens. And have you ever seen a guy carrying this kind of thing and you've wondered, OK, well, how does he remember which key goes to which lock? Oh, wait a second. Peter's nearly done counting.

Peter Roach

--45, 46, 47, 48, 49. There's about 50 keys.

Ira Glass

He actually skipped a lot of keys. Anyway, I was saying. If you ever wondered how he remembers which key goes to which thing, Peter says 3/4 of these keys, he has no idea what they're for.

Peter Roach

Every time I change a lock or I get a new key to this or that, it just gets added on there. I never took the time to take the old ones off.

Ira Glass

Practical. Above all, Peter is a practical man. In his line of work, that's essential. He's a super, in charge of keeping the elevators humming and the boiler going and the roof from leaking and the sidewalks clean and 100 other things every single day. He works at a fancy building on New York's Upper East Side. Or maybe I should say it's a medium-fancy building, fancy enough that Woody Allen and Mayor Giuliani shopped for apartments there, but not fancy enough that they actually moved in. To hold a job like this for very long, even in a medium-fancy building, you have to sweat the details of everything.

Peter Roach

My compactor room, a woman could give birth. No infection would set in. Come, I'll show you.

Ira Glass

He uses a key from the part of the key chain where he knows what's going on. And suddenly we're in an immaculate room with concrete floors.

Peter Roach

Oh my God. It's so wonderful in here. [SMELLS AIR] And this is the garbage room.

Ira Glass

It doesn't smell like garbage.

Peter Roach

No. You want to go up to the roof and oil the circulation pumps with me?

Ira Glass

That really has to be the worst pickup line ever. We drop by the pump room to check some gauges. And then we head back into the elevator and pass one of the doormen who works with Peter.

Peter Roach

Martin, your parole officer called. Give him a call.

Ira Glass

Martin smiles. The doors close.

Ira Glass

So can you joke around with the tenants in this building?

Peter Roach

Not like that. No, you don't want to go there. I'm pretty friendly with some of them, but there's a line. Yeah. I tell these guys, you've got to to keep it short and sweet. Good morning. Good evening. How 'bout them Knicks? Happy holidays.

Martin's kind of new. He wanted to say, happy Hanukkah to a few people. I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No merry Christmas, no happy Hanukkah. It's happy holidays. Oh, but, uh-- I said, no. You're going to miss. You're going to miss. I'm telling you you're going to miss. You're going to throw one the wrong way and it's going to come back.

Ira Glass

It's delicate, dealing with the tenants, surprisingly delicate. People in the building gossip about him. And then he's got his own secret thoughts about them, too. Well, today on our program, we have stories of the super. He sees everybody come and go. He knows way more about the tenants than they know about him. I mean, Peter has a security camera, for God's sake. He's on call 24 hours a day. He is both a figure of authority and kind of an in-house servant.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in three acts, three very dramatic acts, actually. Let's just get right to it, starting with this one from Jack Hitt.

Act One. The Super Always Rings Twice.

Ira Glass

This act is like one of those mystery novels that they sell at the airport with plot twists, unforeseen danger, bizarre coincidences, unlikely heroes, even more unlikely bad guys. And at its heart, of course, a super, a super named Bob. And like any airport novel, the story begins with a crime. Here's Jack.

Jack Hitt

During New York City's great crime wave of the 1980s, getting an apartment was simple. All you had to do was commit a crime.

Kevin

We had heard from a friend of a friend that if we went down and gave key money-- that is to say one month's rent; it was the going fee-- to this superintendent-- that is to say Bob-- that we would be able to get an apartment.

Jack Hitt

This is my friend Kevin. He and I got our apartments in the same building on 99th Street in the early '80s by bribing the same superintendent, a guy named Bob. These were old, beat-up flats with screaming radiators and warped floors and exposed pipes. A city engineer once inspected the building and declared that it was six stories of dust held up by 100 years of paint.

These were our first New York apartments. We were there to start our lives. New York was all romance, and everything was out-sized and outrageous, the buildings in Midtown, our ambition, the night life, and as we quickly discovered, our super, Bob. All sorts of things about him were truly spectacular, like, for example, the way he repaired our apartments. Here's Chris, another tenant in the building.

Chris

After we got burglarized, Bob put in safety gates for the fire escape, which he welded so that nobody could get in. But you couldn't get out in a fire, either. There was no way to open them. He told us that they were installing sliding revolving doors. He never explained what those were, but I do remember thinking to myself, how can he say they're sliding revolving doors? But he said it was such a totally straight face.

Jack Hitt

Bob's work habits were a thing of wonder. I remember one time Bob showed up with his assistant, a generally talented guy named Smitty. My sink was backed up, and Bob started pouring this heavy black liquid from a gallon jug into the standing water. Smitty started backing up, and with experience as my guide, I started backing up, too. One cup, Smitty yelled, just one cup. Shut up, Bob explained.

And he emptied the entire jug into the water. There were nasty rumblings, hot chemical reactions were happening somewhere in the walls. I was very scared. And suddenly, the doors below the sink where I kept my cleaning stuff, they blew open with an explosion. And this unspeakable, oily sludge poured out across the kitchen floor. Bob was so much more than just a bad handyman.

Chris

Very early on, I began to perceive Bob's talents as a fabulist. It was really painful to go down and pay the rent every month, because you had to give it to him, which meant you had to stand there and listen to 10, 15, 20 minutes of completely insane stories. A big running theme was Bob's importance in the world in general, and particularly in Brazil.

Anne

I definitely remember his cattle ranch stories.

Jack Hitt

This is Anne, another tenant during those early days, and now married to Chris.

Chris

He had seven cattle ranches, four cattle ranches he owned in Brazil, and the seven vineyards he had in Italy. Or it might have been seven cattle ranches in Brazil and four vineyards in Italy.

Anne

If you actually took him-- after he left the room and you thought about what he said, you'd think, why is he living here? Because he was like basically a king, and the village people would just welcome him.

Chris

He claimed that there was a clause in the constitution of Brazil that gave him immunity from any prosecution whatsoever. And that, in fact, he could, as he put it, go and kill the president of the Brazilian state and he would still be immune from prosecution.

Jack Hitt

Of course, Bob, being Bob, had an explanation for how he went from being a South American cattle baron to a New York City super.

Chris

He had had two heart attacks. And his doctor had-- this is an actual story.

Jack Hitt

I remember this one.

Chris

His doctor had prescribed that he gain a lot of weight and move to America. So probably the first time in medical history that enormous weight gain was prescribed for a heart condition.

Jack Hitt

In his own way, Bob united the building. All of us, the elderly black businessman, the Puerto Rican grandmother, the handsome Bombay immigrant, me, the Southerner in exile, we all had our favorite Bob stories. We all did our own impersonations of Bob. It was impossible not to try to out-Bob whoever was talking with an even more outlandish Bob story of your own. We collected and traded Bob stories, comparing versions, analyzing his technique.

Chris

He was remarkably unfazed by any show of skepticism about these stories. There was a story about how he had once hung a bag of acid from the roof of the building to chase away the various homeless men who would, in those days, often come and congregate by the corner of this building. Bob had supposedly hung a bag of acid from the top and it would drip down steadily on them.

Now, I have no idea how you hang a bag of acid, how you get the acid in the bag and put that up there. That's no small feat in itself. But of course, the best part is Bob is telling us this story at the very same time that you could lean out of the office where he's talking and see the three or four homeless guys sitting on the corner.

Jack Hitt

Sitting right there.

Chris

Apparently completely unscarred or bothered by dripping acid.

Jack Hitt

The other story that I always found really captured just all of Bob's essence for me was when-- every kitchen in this building has these funny, circular, fluorescent bulbs, very specialized light bulbs. They're also in the hallways out on the first floor. And mine, after 10 years of noble service, finally burnt out. And I looked at it and I thought, huh, where do you buy one of those? So I trotted on down to Bob's office one morning. And I said, Bob, the light bulb in my kitchen is burned out. And I'm just wondering, do I buy that and replace it? And if so, where do you buy them? Or do you all just replace that for me?

And of course, he went into this total Bob tear. He's like, yes, that's right. You, let me tell you something, mister. Don't try to steal one of the light bulbs in the hallway. I know what you're thinking. But I've booby trapped them. And if you climb up there and you try to take the light bulb, it will blow up and shoot the glass in your eyes. And you will be blind for all time. And I said, I remember saying, so I take that to mean that I have to buy the bulb myself.

The very opposite of Bob was Allan, the landlord. If Bob was larger than life, Allan was smack in the middle, the average percentile. He had a family. He lived in White Plains. I had met his wife. Doing business with Allan was a completely routine experience. If it was a toilet to be fixed, he'd make sure the crew got there on time and got it done. Even in our biggest blowouts, he was always reasonable, civil even.

One time, things got a little testy when Allan started neglecting the old Puerto Rican folks in the building. I'd become friendly with one grandmother who showed me her tub full of green, stagnant bathwater. Allan and I had some tense words. And I and some others even held meetings to start a rent strike. But in the end, Allan gracefully withdrew, and we all went back to normal business. Back to Bob, the inscrutable, endless mystery that was Bob.

Fast forward to 1989. I had been in my apartment eight years, I had a steady job, and I was walking to work one morning. Somewhere along the way, I saw The Daily News blaring the latest tabloid crime story. Headline, "Terror Landlord." I look closer and realized it was Allan. My Allan, the landlord. The nice guy whose kids I knew.

The story was incredible. He had been arrested for murder, for hiring hit men to kill his brother-in-law, Arthur Katz, in 1980. And as the story got out, it quickly became clear that Bob was the one who had ratted Allan out. Allan was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, where he remains today.

More time passed. I got a new apartment in the West Village. Then I got married, had children, and later moved to another state, where Allan and Bob became memories, proof that I had lived in New York back when crack was king and the murder rates topped 2,000 a year. In the late '90s, almost a decade after I'd last seen Bob or Allan, I was working on an investigative piece about money laundering. And a source at the Treasury Department had suggested I call this really smart prosecutor in New York named John Moscow.

So I rang him up and started just yakking the way you do. I asked him if he'd handled financial crime a lot. And he was quick to say that he'd worked homicide in New York, back in the '80s, during the crime wave, when crack was king and the murder rates topped 2,000 a year. Yeah, I said, I lived there, too. I told him I was actually involved in one of those tabloid stories, mine involving a landlord who'd hired contract killers to murder his brother-in-law and then gets ratted out by the super.

There was a peculiar pause on the phone. Then Moscow said, Allan Stern, West 99th Street? I'm the guy who put him behind bars. Right away, of course, we started talking about Bob. I told him the light bulb story. Moscow had a good laugh. And then I went on, in the way we residents of 99th Street can do, and finally got to the one about Bob claiming that he had a special exemption from the Brazilian constitution and could murder anyone in Brazil. Again, there was that odd Moscow pause. And then he said, yeah, the thing is that one's kind of true.

John Moscow

I asked him, when you were in the military, where were you assigned? I was in the military police.

Jack Hitt

Here's John Moscow, describing Bob's testimony on the witness stand.

John Moscow

And what was your job? My job was to locate, interrogate, and execute politically unreliable persons.

Jack Hitt

Get out of here.

John Moscow

Bob had been in the death squad in Brazil. And he was asked, did you kill any people while you were there? Yes. Was it more than one? Yes. Was it more than five? I don't know. What do you mean you don't know? Well, if you shoot somebody at long range and they go down, you don't know if they're dead or wounded.

There's comes a point when you realize that beneath all of the fanciful stories, there usually is a substantial amount of truth. He said he came North for his health, and perhaps to protect his heart. But he was thinking about high-impact lead poisoning. He was in his 20s when he was in the death squad. And he realized, at one point, that a substantial number of people in his squad were dead of violent causes, which would be consistent either with their being suicidal in the risks they took or with somebody having a list of the names and where they were located, someone whose relatives had been mishandled. So he decided that leaving was good for his health.

Jack Hitt

All those crazy Bob stories we swapped for years, who'd have thought that the truth about Bob would be just as crazy? According to Moscow, not only had Bob been in a death squad, but he had been a key figure in the murder of Allan's brother-in-law. Bob was crucial in securing the talents of the two hit men, named Sammy Feet and Crazy Joe. And according to the court documents, Bob was in the boiler room with some of his crew when news of the hit came down. They celebrated with Martini & Rossi. And things really got going when a portable radio just happened to belt out that Queen song. You know the one.

[MUSIC - "ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST" BY QUEEN]

The hit was just one of numerous crimes-- brilliant crimes, really-- that Bob and Allan pulled off from that little office. It turns out that when it comes to crime, Bob was incredibly competent. He and Allan set up dummy construction companies. They defrauded the state with counterfeit charges. To force out one tenant, they rewired the electrical outlets to high voltage lines to fry all the apartment appliances.

My favorite was their natural gas scam. They put fake cones out on the street and actually jackhammered through the asphalt to a working gas line. They bypassed the meters and in time, eliminated more than $800,000 of Allan's gas bills.

On top of all of this, Bob helped the prosecution snare Allan. Bob tapped Allan's phones. Bob wore a wire. And in court transcripts, Allan calmly weighs the relative merits of buying off some people versus having them killed. And this is what really comes across when you talk to Moscow, just how wrong all of us were at sizing up Bob and Allan.

John Moscow

We had 2,200 homicides in New York as opposed to fewer than 500, which is what we're on for this year. You had a lot of people talking about killing people. There was a certain rationality and cold-bloodedness about this murder that was just plain different. Bob testified under oath at trial. I watched him when he was being cross-examined.

And I don't think I'll ever forget. Defense counsel asked him, did you torture men or women? And he said, my specialty was men. And the way he said it, my blood felt about 10 degrees colder. And there was just absolute-- the courtroom, everyone was persuaded that he meant it.

Jack Hitt

So how did Bob, former Brazilian death squad officer, rat out Allan?

John Moscow

Bob, I think, called tips to report the murder.

Jack Hitt

Tips?

John Moscow

Right.

Jack Hitt

You mean the 1-800 number? Or one of the local crime reporting--

John Moscow

The 1-877-TIPS, or whatever? Yeah. So he calls that. And then he goes and makes an appointment and meets with the Major Case Squad.

Jack Hitt

What drove him to turn Allan in?

John Moscow

Allan and his family had discussed selling the building and moving to Florida. And in the course of that, Allan had discussed having the president and the vice president of the Tenants Association murdered. And Bob figured that Allan was going to have these two guys whacked and blame Bob.

Jack Hitt

What year was this?

John Moscow

This was 1988.

Jack Hitt

Now, I only bring that up because at one point, there was a rent strike that was going to be put together in my building. And I was the tenant leader of that. I mean, was that the rent problem that Allan was upset about?

John Moscow

Unless there was another rent strike.

Jack Hitt

Wow. So Allan might have actually tried to get me whacked.

John Moscow

Ultimately, Bob went into the police station and admitted his own role in a murder, and thought he was going to prison, because his perception at the time was that Allan would cause these murders to take place. And so he protected himself by ratting Allan out first.

Jack Hitt

So Bob turning state's evidence basically saved my life, or the life of the tenant organizers.

John Moscow

That was Bob's thought.

Jack Hitt

Listening to Moscow explain all this to me was like passing out on a plane and coming to, only to find out the plane had crashed and I had survived. It was just all unbelievable on some existential level. Yes, murders happened, but not to me. That guy who advised me during my little rent strike, his head was found in a garbage can. But he'd been a real rabble-rouser and had lots of enemies. It seemed ridiculous to believe I could have ended up like that tenant organizer. But I could have, if not for Bob.

I found Bob. I reached him on the phone, and we had a nice chat. He remembers me as the tall, blond guy on the first floor. He wanted to talk to me for this story, but his lawyer told him not today, or ever. And then Bob suggested that I not bother to call back. I wanted to ask him about the cattle ranches and being written into the constitution and give those stories a fresh listen, knowing what I know now.

And of course, I wanted to know whether I was the one who was going to get whacked. I wasn't the only tenant organizer in the building at the time. But I'll never get that answer now. All I have is another Bob story, full of details I can't confirm, but so delicious that I can't wait to go back to my old pals and tell it to them.

Chris

Holy [BLEEP]. You've taken it to a whole new level, sir. Holy [BLEEP].

Anne

That is scary.

Chris

Whoa. That is so-- but it does make you sort of go back and rethink the whole pattern of exchanges you had with him. I never said to myself, there's some reality to who this guy says he is.

Kevin

It doesn't surprise me, in a way.

Jack Hitt

Again, here's Kevin.

Kevin

I mean, it's talking about the banality of evil. He strikes me as one of these Eichmann-type characters who would, in certain contexts, do completely awful, disgusting things, and then, if removed from them, if put in some more peaceful banal surrounding, would settle back and just be a windy superintendent of a building.

It was kind of interesting, though. After this was all over, after he had testified and Allan was put away-- of course, Allan's daughters, I believed, then owned the buildings. So of course, Bob lost his free apartment and his super's position. And it was almost like he kind of deflated. Like, nobody had to talk to him anymore.

So he would walk around-- it was almost pathetic-- he'd walk down the block and say hi and people would just kind of go by, nod to him and go by. And then, a short time after this, he just wasn't around anymore. He was gone. And I have no idea where he went to. Where is he, anyway? Did you find out any of that?

Jack Hitt

He's an elevator inspector in New York City.

Kevin

Good God. We're all in trouble now.

Jack Hitt

I found Allan also, at his website, allanstern.net. He's been appealing his conviction for over 15 years. He makes the case that he's innocent. His argument is that the entire story of Sammy Feet and Crazy Joe and the explanation of the brother-in-law's murder and all the rest of it is hearsay, a grandiose fiction. In other words, Allan is saying he can top us all, that he's the victim of the most outlandish Bob story ever told.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt. He now lives in New Haven in a house, where he is his own super. Coming up, a super gets a crush. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Super Duper.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Super, stories about the guys who don't just do the maintenance and handle the emergencies in buildings, they also live there which can be a very strange combination of things in practice.

We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Super Duper. We now move from a story about an East Coast super to a story about a West Coast super, from one of our producers, Alex Blumberg.

Alex Blumberg

Josh lives in a Spanish-courtyard building in Los Angeles, a city in which even apartment buildings act like they're on TV.

Josh Bearman

It's a little bit like Melrose Place, a lot of communal activity. And presiding above it is the super. He's not really a super like you would have in, maybe, a larger building or a larger city. He's--

Alex Blumberg

A larger city than LA?

Josh Bearman

Right. Right. I guess not like a dense, urban city is what I meant to say. So he doesn't have a tool belt and show up and fix things. But he'll call the guy who does that. And he takes the rent. And he is a solitary guy for the most part. He likes to spend a lot of time reading and stuff. So he just hangs out up there in the building.

Alex Blumberg

Josh and the rest of the tenants in the building liked their super, whom we'll call Dave, and hung out with him. And at the time of this story, Dave was going through chemotherapy for leukemia. And occasionally he'd call different residents to ask for help with things. One Christmas, he contacted Josh.

Josh Bearman

He calls and he says, you know, this really weird thing happened. And I came over to his apartment. He had this orchid that was sitting on the table next to him. And he said, well, I had this visitor, and it was a very strange visit. And he started to tell me that, a couple months ago, in between chemotherapy treatments-- he had had two chemotherapy treatments-- and so he was out somewhere.

And he was in his Land Cruiser, I think he has. And he was at this gas station. And he sees this woman pulls up in a big, black Escalade. And she's on the opposite side of the pumps as him. She was an older woman, but, he said, very elegant and attractive in the elegant, older-woman way. And she had fancy clothes and furs. And I think he mentioned that she had espadrilles on. And she was in this black Escalade. So she would seem to be classy or something, or well-off.

And so they're standing there at the pumps, and they start chatting. She initiates a conversation with him. And they're getting on very well. And then he told me that she said something about him being bald, which was from the chemotherapy. And she said, are you bald from the chemotherapy? Or are you just bald because you think it's sexy? Something like that.

And he was not offended by that. He thought it was this romantic repartee or something. And then she gives him a card. And the card was an old style carte de visite that just had her name. It wasn't a business card that had a company or information on it. It was just sort of like a calling card that you used to leave at the door of, you know, Count Vronsky's estate when you would stop by or something. And so he remembered thinking that that was kind of a classy touch.

Alex Blumberg

And very mysterious.

Josh Bearman

Very mysterious. And so then he gave her his information. And they parted ways.

Alex Blumberg

Until Christmas, two months after their first meeting at the gas station, when the mysterious lady called out of the blue. She'd asked how Dave was. And he told her about his recent health problems. An infection from the chemotherapy had turned serious. And he'd spent a couple of weeks in a hospital in a near coma.

That's terrible, the lady said. Is there anything I can do? Can I come by and visit? Dave said yes. And so she'd arrived that morning, dressed in the same elegant manner as at the gas station, bearing the orchid which Dave now had on his table. And they'd sat and chatted.

Josh Bearman

Somehow the topic of fate came up. And that was the point when she said, I know this is kind of a weird time, but I actually have something I wanted to share with you. And he says, what's that? And she says that she was abroad with this group of investors who had developed this really interesting investment opportunity. And she says, I know that this is a weird time, but this is very exciting, so I feel like I should just let you in on this investment opportunity right now.

He was a little surprised. But he said, oh, all right. So what's the investment opportunity? And she said, well, I've gotten involved with this very canny group of investors. And it seems that they have located this snowman that can bench-press 400 pounds.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex Blumberg

What?

Josh Bearman

Yeah. So then I'm asking, OK, well, what do you mean? What kind of a snowman?

Alex Blumberg

It's hard to exactly figure out what the proper follow-up question is.

Josh Bearman

Yeah. So then I said, well, OK. So it's the abominable snowman. He's like, no, no, no. She said it's a totally normal snowman, like with the carrot nose and the coal for the eyes and a top hat and everything. It's just that this snowman can bench-press 400 pounds. And so I'm saying, well, OK, but what's the investment opportunity? Like, is he running a hedge fund, or what? I mean, I don't understand.

And then he said, no. See, what happened is the investors, they've got it all worked out. They're going to put together a variety show with the snowman as the lead act. And then they're going to take the snowman show on tour. And so the investment opportunity is the geographic territorial rights to the show. So when the show goes to different states, you get to reap the rewards if you've bought into the rights to the show.

So the woman said that she had already got in on the ground floor with this thing. And so she got California and Nevada, like the West. So he said that the United States was all snapped up, but now Indonesia is wide open.

Alex Blumberg

For the variety show starring the weightlifting snowman?

Josh Bearman

The weightlifting snowman. So the price for Indonesia's territorial rights to the snowman show were not cheap. It was, like, $30,000 or something.

Alex Blumberg

OK, so what I don't understand, though, is if you actually discovered a snowman that had somehow become animated, it seems like the last thing that you would do is then design a variety show for it.

Josh Bearman

I know. Well, right. This is what I was asking him. I said, well, listen. Wait, hold on a second. There's going to be a lot more important things happening than publicity for your variety show, because the whole world is going to change. Science will have to readjust everything it's ever known. All the various theologians of the world are going to have to deal with the new animated snowman world. They'd have to really sort a lot of things out. Just even a basic question of like, well, did the snowman roll himself up into three balls and find a carrot nose?

And how did the investors find the snowman? That's the other thing that I was curious about. Were they driving around the woods and they just saw this snowman lifting logs and they high-fived each other and said, all right, we've got our variety show? Like they're in a caravan of black Suburbans with their cigars, like, we did it?

Alex Blumberg

The weird thing was, even though Dave found the story of a weightlifting snowman just as preposterous as Josh did, he seemed somehow persuaded by this mysterious woman. He said, it was hard to explain, but he felt like he'd known her his entire life. And he looked at life differently now, anyway.

Josh Bearman

He said something about how after when you get cancer, or something like that, a serious illness, you just start to reevaluate things. What might have seemed risky beforehand isn't now. And so, he said, I kind of just felt like maybe there was a reason to take a risk. Like, maybe there's a reason I met the woman at the Shell station. And maybe this is a kind of a risk to take. And then that's basically when he said, so I wrote her a check for $30,000.

Alex Blumberg

Oh my God. What did you think?

Josh Bearman

I was alarmed. And I was worried that it was a con, obviously. But I actually was a little bit convinced by his whole theory. I was thinking like, maybe it's not so bad.

Alex Blumberg

Right. Thinking that it's his money, and--

Josh Bearman

Right. If that's how he's going to embrace life after cancer, then who am I to say? So I kind of felt like I had to accept that.

Alex Blumberg

Over the next year, Josh told the weightlifting snowman story to everybody he could. He loved it. And his audiences seemed to love it, too. At one point he decided, with Dave's consent, to write it up for a magazine humor section. The final step in publishing it was to have it fact-checked. And so the magazine called Dave.

Josh Bearman

He called me and said, so the magazine's fact checkers called. And I told them what I'm about to tell you, which is that I actually made that whole story up. And there was no lady with the carte de visite or espadrilles or furs or the snowman.

Alex Blumberg

Did you ask him why?

Josh Bearman

He just thought that it would be a story that would amuse me. And he was absolutely correct. I guess he had no idea how successfully that story was going to appeal to me. And so, I mean, I kind of bought it. I mean, the idea of like, you live to be in your middle ages, and you never took any risks, and then totally the perspective refocuses in such a way that a weightlifting snowman makes as much sense as anything else, I kind of like it.

Alex Blumberg

You kind of like it that he created a world in which it made sense to spend $30,000 on a weightlifting snowman.

Josh Bearman

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

Huh. In a weird sense, you were the con.

Josh Bearman

Yeah, it was like a double-reverse reveal at the end of some movie, where I would have been writing some check for $1 million at the end, because somehow I got sucked into the whole thing.

Alex Blumberg

But you did get sucked into it. You wanted it so bad. I think part of what I love about it, and maybe you do too, is just the image of this snowman, this stick-armed, carrot-nosed snowman actually just lying on a weight bench in the middle of the Siberian wood.

Josh Bearman

Well, also bench-pressing, in particular, requires a bench. So I still don't understand-- let's say they found a snowman in the woods. Then did he have his own bench? Was it made out of snow? You know, he wasn't doing squats.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg talking with Josh Bearman, who writes for The Believer and Wired and GQ and other publications.

[MUSIC - "BLUE ORCHID" BY WHITE STRIPES]

Act Three. Please Re-lease Me.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Please Re-Lease Me. That's Re-Lease Me. We changed the names of the people in this story to protect the tenants involved. Sometimes somebody tells you your future and you do not want to believe it. You can't believe it. When Dennis was 21, he became the super of this apartment building that his dad owned, a big hundred-unit building in what was once a rough neighborhood. And his dad gave him this warning, father to son, super to super, about the tenants.

Dennis

They will make a good person bad. Maybe you go into the landlording business, and you have good intentions, and you're a good person, but people, the lies they tell you, the tricks they play on you, the damage they do to your property, you will eventually lose that innocence and become a meaner person. And I was like, wow, that kind of sucks. I hope that never happens to me.

Ira Glass

Dennis always figured he'd be a different kind of super than his dad anyway. His dad had been a plumber. Nothing made him happier than fixing the plumbing and the washing machines in the building. And his dad had some old-world ways of doing things. If somebody was causing trouble, selling drugs or making a ruckus, he'd pound on doors and get in their face if they had to.

The neighborhood was slowly improving. But when he first bought the building, people didn't care what the lease said or didn't say. And he had to deal with a lot of things man to man. Dennis, meanwhile, was just out of college. His dad had scrimped and sacrificed to put him through Catholic schools, all the way from elementary up through his undergraduate degree. And his mom-- his parents were split up-- his mom had always been a devout Catholic, communion every day. And all that stuff that the Jesuits taught Dennis in school about being a good person. He took it to heart.

Dennis

One of the things, going to the Jesuit university, is they want you to be men and women for others. Not that everything I did I tried to live up to that high standard, because I know I couldn't. But that was definitely in the back of my head.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to our story. At first, the super job went great. People liked Dennis. He got Christmas cards from families in the building. But there was this one couple. They'd lived in the building for almost 20 years, since back when his dad first bought the place.

Dennis

They were long-term tenants. They were good tenants. They were nice people. In the beginning, there wasn't too much bad you could say about them.

Ira Glass

And your dad liked them?

Dennis

Yeah, my dad liked them. Yeah. He lived below them, actually, so he liked them. Literally lived right below them. In my freshman year of high school, I lived with my father. So I lived below them too, for a year. And so I saw them. And they knew who I was. I mean, even before that, even before high school, when we were little kids, we'd be running around, playing in the courtyard, hanging from the trees. But yeah, they were a regular fixture.

Ira Glass

But everything for this couple changed when their daughter died. The woman quit her job to go to school. They threw all of their savings into that. But she had trouble with the classes, couldn't make the grade. And things just kept going downhill from there. She started drinking. They got behind on their rent.

Dennis

She'd drop off a check to me. And then, a day later or two days later, she'd call me and say, hey, did you deposit that check yet? And I was like, no, we haven't deposited it yet. Well, could you tear up that check, and I'll give you another check? Forget about that check. And so we'd tear up that check and she'd bring down another check. And then that check would bounce.

And I think they got to maybe $4,000 in the hole.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow. So they were behind $4,000 in--

Dennis

Like, six months.

Ira Glass

Six months. Yeah, they were a half-year behind. Wow.

Dennis

You know, I was like, dad, we've got to kick these people out. I've got to get rid of them. And my dad was very reluctant to do that. He was like, work with them. Work it out. Work it with them.

Ira Glass

Now, why? Like, why?

Dennis

Well, he knew that her husband had a good job. And he knew that they had money coming in and that you could get money out of them, basically.

Ira Glass

Oh, so I didn't realize that. So it becomes a test of you. The problem wasn't them, because they've got the money. The problem is you, his son.

Dennis

Yeah, so it's like, how good are you?

Ira Glass

Now, Dennis wanted to do right by his dad. But when it came to this couple, he also remembered his Jesuit teachers.

Dennis

I thought to myself, I'm like, it wasn't my job to ease these people through this or get them through it. But I know that if I was in that situation, if I was down on my luck, that I would want somebody to cut me that break, or cut me that slack.

Ira Glass

So he sat down and he created a payment plan for them, $300 every paycheck. But it was incredibly hard to make them stick to it. They had excuses. They couldn't do it. So he sat them down again, and they made up an agreement. And this time, they put it in writing. And then after month upon month of struggle, it took over a year, they finally paid it all back.

Dennis

Then things were OK for a while. But slowly but surely they started falling back into their own ways. And basically what I think it was was the alcohol, basically. I remember vividly that she would come down to the laundry room-- the laundry room was just outside the office-- and she would go to the vending machine and buy can of pop after can of pop after can of pop.

And I always thought that was so weird. I was like, why is she buying eight cans of Sprite or Coke when we're right next door to Walgreens and she can just go buy a 12 pack? And I think what it was was she was just getting Cokes to mix drinks with up in her apartment. I just remember that being so weird.

Ira Glass

So Dennis watched and worried. He worried a lot. Anybody who knew Dennis at that time will tell you. It was all he talked about. He'd go out with his friends and this is what will be on his mind. What should he do? Was he being a sucker? What was going on with this couple? It was the kind of worrying that you might expect from a family member or something.

But of course, he was just the super, the property manager. And things got worse. At one point, another tenant found the wife passed out in the hallway of the building, lying there like she was dead, covered in vomit. Dennis ran to her side.

And I was like, oh my god. What's wrong here? What happened? And she was like, rah-rah. She can't talk to me. She can't put a sentence together. She's just slurring all her words. And so I was like, what do I do? I'm like, do I take her to the hospital? Do I call an ambulance? What do I do? And anyway, she's like, I just need to go to bed. She was too drunk to basically open her door. So I got her into bed.

And she's in bed. And she's laying on her back. And I'm like, you know, I've heard stories like this is how Jimi Hendrix died, or something like that. And I'm like, what if she pukes again? Is she going to choke on her puke? Finally, I get a hold of her husband. And he's like, all right, I'll take care of it. I'll take care of it. But he's at work, and who knows when he's going to get home to take care of this.

I'm like, I don't know. And so I was down in the office. I'm trying to do work. And so I went back up and checked on her a couple of times. And she's sleeping. And she's breathing. And so then I go back down. And I can't get any work done, because I was like, God, if this lady dies, I'm never going to forgive myself. I just remember that being a really terrifying experience.

Ira Glass

It's so weird. Because part of it is that you have this business relationship with these people, but you're there in their building. You're there in their house. You own their house. And so it's so personal.

Dennis

Yeah. Well, you definitely can't avoid it. You've lived side by side with them. It becomes more of a neighbor-to-neighbor relationship.

Ira Glass

They were slipping on the rent. They'd plead with him. And it was always something. They had to pay other bills, Christmas or Thanksgiving coming up. They'd ask for extensions. And he was so inside their lives that at one point he said, sure, they could pay a little later if he could see their tax forms to see what it is that they actually earn. And they showed him. $50,000 a year, which totally got under his skin.

Dennis

I was like, you know what? Why can't they pay me? And I started basically putting pen to paper and running some numbers. And I say to the lady, look, come down to the office, bring your bills, and we'll do a budget. And I'll show you that you can afford to pay your rent. And after we literally picked every little nitpicky thing there could be money that they could spend money on, like kitty litter, laundry, transportation to and from work for her husband, we had $3,000 left over. And I was like, look, you can afford this apartment.

Ira Glass

So did that help? Did they end up paying their rent on time for the few months after that?

Dennis

No, it didn't help.

Ira Glass

Wow. That's quite a lesson right there.

Dennis

It ended up getting really frustrating. She started running out of excuses. And then she'd be like, well, my husband borrowed money from people at work, and he's got to pay them back. And that made me really mad. I was like, look, that is ridiculous. Where are your priorities here? Would you want a roof over your head or do you want to pay the guy back at work? You guys get caught up, you start paying on time, or I'm going to kick you out.

Ira Glass

Can I ask what is going to be a really naive question? If you have a hundred-unit building, in reality, how important is it that you get the rent on one unit?

Dennis

Well, I guess in the grand scheme of things, it's not going to make you or break you. But I mean, that's the deal. If you can't afford it, then I told them, look, if you can't afford it, move to a smaller apartment. I'll give you a smaller apartment. But they didn't want to move. They did not want to move.

Ira Glass

By the time Dennis was drawing up a budget for this couple, he'd been at it, on and off, for six years with them. And his feelings would vacillate all over the place. But his dad, the very man who told him how running a building hardens you, his dad never wavered in his support of the couple.

Dennis

My dad and I would have battles. Like, we should kick them out. We should kick them out. My dad would be like, no, I don't want to kick them out. And I'd be like, look, these people are way behind on their rent. You've got to kick them out. Dad, just get rid of these people.

And we'd talk. And he'd reminisce about the stories. And one of the stories he tells me is that he went to the wake for the child that passed away. And he said to, I think it was the sister of the lady's husband, he's like, you know, I used to hear the baby crying all night long, just crying and crying and crying. And the gentleman's sister is like, well, you're not going to have to hear the baby crying anymore. And she turned around and walked away from him. And--

Ira Glass

Oh, she took it completely wrong?

Dennis

Yeah. My dad didn't mean it like, that kid was keeping me awake all night. Thank God. Now I can sleep. What he was telling her was like, he's had kids of his own. And so he might know what it's like to see your kid in pain. So that, for him, was very, I think, just an emotional bond, where it was like, these people have just been through too much. I can't kick them out.

Ira Glass

In the end, he decided to sit down one more time and have a heart-to-heart with the couple. He told them he knew that they were good people. They just had a problem and they needed help. He would wait for the money they owed if the woman would just get help and go to rehab.

Dennis

If you do this, we'll repaint your apartment. And you tell me what colors you want. And when you come back from rehab, we'll have this done for you. She wanted her kitchen painted yellow or something like that. And so she went to rehab. And I have a letter from her from August.

Ira Glass

OK, why don't you read that?

Dennis

You want me to read it?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Dennis

Sure. It says, well, I'm incarcerated and writing you from cell block C. You have no idea how touched I was by our talk, your caring and generosity. The group here is very nice, as is the facility. I'm imagining what our apartment will look like upon my return. I'm so excited. I feel part of your family. You are in my prayers. Which reminds me, get your ass to church and make your ma happy.

Ira Glass

And when you got this letter, did you feel good?

Dennis

Yeah, I felt really good. I was like, this is great. She's in there. She's getting help. But then-- I don't know when it was, a day or two or three later-- I'm walking down the courtyard. And who do I see coming towards me but her? And this was supposed to be a two-week or a month-long stay. I was like, I can't believe it. Why is-- and so that was the beginning of the end. Shortly after that is when I filed the court papers for eviction.

It was just devastating. It was like, ugh, you have to stand in front of the judge, looking at this person who I ran up and down the courtyard, and maybe they threw the ball to me when I was eight years old. And now I'm sitting here in front of the judge, telling them, your honor, please remove these people forcibly from the building. I'm like, that's what it comes down to. I have to do what I have to do to win this case. I was mad. I wanted to win. I wanted them out.

Ira Glass

And do you feel like this changed you?

Dennis

Definitely. Yeah, it definitely changed me. Now I don't like to get personally involved with tenants. I can't handle it. It's just too hard. One time, these two guys moved into a two-bedroom apartment. And they were like, ah, you guys are great. Why don't you come and have a beer with us? I was like, you know what, I got something to do tonight. I'm sorry. Maybe some other time, though. I'd really love to get a beer with you. But I had no intentions of ever going out for a beer with them.

I would just make up an excuse or avoid it at all costs, because you can't be their friends. What I try and do now is I try to never have to kick somebody out. And the way I do that is by screening and screening and screening.

Ira Glass

But that's the thing that I find interesting about this. Like, I never thought about that, as like that it has anything to do with your feelings. This goes beyond the business stuff, that you're checking out all their credentials and all that sort of stuff. What you're saying is actually it's too emotional.

Dennis

Yeah. It really is. For example, I do remember somebody coming in and applying for an apartment. And they're like, look, my credit's all messed up. I'm going through a divorce. And I don't know if my wife messed up my credit. And I was like, I don't care. Maybe that's the truth. Maybe that guy would have been a fine tenant. Maybe he would have paid his rent on time. But I just can't take that chance anymore.

Ira Glass

What would your Jesuit teachers say about that?

Dennis

I don't know. Maybe they would be disappointed in it.

Ira Glass

And do you care?

Dennis

Um, no. If they were mad about it, I would say, well, the next person who rents out that apartment, Father, I did try to treat them justly and fairly and ethically.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, Bruce Wallace, and Emily Youssef. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who has this message for any WBEZ employee who's listening to the radio right now.

Jack Hitt

Don't try to steal one of the light bulbs in the hallway. I know what you're thinking. But I have booby trapped them.

Ira Glass

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

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