Transcript

325:

Houses of Ill Repute
Transcript

Originally aired 02.02.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/325

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Randall Bell's got a kind of weird job. He's an economist who specializes in damaged real estate of all kinds. And in practice what that means is that he is the guy that you call when a house becomes notorious for some reason and you have to figure out, how in the world are you going to sell it?

For instance, he's consulted in some homes where some pretty grisly murders have happened. Nicole Brown Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, the Heaven's Gate home where 39 people committed suicide, and what he says is that it takes a little longer to sell these home. It takes a year or two. And they sell for a little bit less than they would otherwise. But really, it's not that much of a discount.

Randall Bell

10%, 15%, 20% discount will do the job. You don't have to go really too much beyond that.

Ira Glass

And he says it doesn't take long for the houses to be back at their full real estate value, like nothing ever happened there.

Randall Bell

Typically, it takes three to seven years.

Ira Glass

That is just shockingly fast.

Randall Bell

Well, people move into the house, people see that life goes on. The property gets changed around, it gets lived in. For example, the Manson property where Sharon Tate was murdered and others, that property sold for full value in about 1989.

Ira Glass

What happens to the people who move in? I would wonder especially if a family had kids growing up in the house that was the murder house.

Randall Bell

Well, I've dealt with people who do have kids and I would not advise someone to buy one of these houses with little kids. I'm familiar with a case that I was consulted on with a really hideous murder up in New Jersey, and very smart people bought the house and they had little kids. And, at the school, the kids were teasing them and asking them questions like, is there blood on your pillow when you sleep? Birthday parties, or neighborhood get-togethers, the kids would not come inside the house. The friends would come to the doorstep and the kids would have to come out of their house to play. So they started trying to put the birthday parties in the backyard, and the kids wouldn't even come in the backyard for a birthday party. So it became so problematic that eventually the family moved.

Ira Glass

So while the real estate market might be willing to forget a house's reputation, third graders never will.

Randall Bell

I think you nailed it. I had an opportunity myself, personally, to buy the Heaven's Gate mansion where the 39 people killed themselves. And when I suggested it or mentioned it to my wife, she looked at me like I was the village idiot because we have four little kids.

Ira Glass

People never forget what happened in most of these houses, he says. They just get used to it. Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Houses of Ill Repute. All of our stories today are about houses with terrible reputations. And in every one of these stories, in every one of these houses, actually, there's a truly astonishing level of badness that kind of sneaks up on people, and then they just get used to it. You know, they get stuck there and they get used to it and they live with it.

Our show today in three acts. Act One, It's not a Crack House, It's a Crack Home, in which we see what happens when bad houses happen to good people. Act Two, The Crisco Kid. I bet Act Two is one of these stories which has an actual moral. There's an actual moral to the story. And it's kind of a simple moral, and I don't think I'm going to spoil anything here by telling you what the moral is. The moral of that story is, kids, stay in school. Act Three, The Bully's Pulpit, in which we visit with a house, and we ask, is there any hope for this house, this house with one of the worst reputations of any house in the country? I refer to the US House of Representatives. Stay with us.

Act One. It's Not A Crack House, It's A Crack Home.

Ira Glass

Act One, It's Not a Crack House, It's a Crack Home. Maherin Gangat has this story.

And before we start, a quick warning to sensitive listeners that the story mentions the existence of prostitution and of drug use. Here's Maherin.

Maherin Gangat

Originally, I was trying to do a story about drug use in Brooklyn, and I was looking for prostitutes to interview. And on Starr Street in Brooklyn, there's a notorious house, a gathering place for prostitutes and addicts. So when I saw the house I knew exactly what it was. Broken windows, missing shingles, garbage thrown all over, women heading in and out at all hours, shiny new Escalades parked in front, young men draped in gold chains. This was not just a house of ill repute, this was a full-on den of inequity. So when the front door of the house opened, the person who came out was not what I expected. An 80-year-old man with white, messy hair.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I can't give you my real name. It was too atrocious. I had to Americanize it.

Maherin Gangat

What was your real name?

Joseph G. Amedeo

[? Gerlando ?] Guisseppe Amedeo. I simply read Joseph G. Amedeo. No one could pronounce it. Amedeo, a simple name. They call me Yamamoto, which is a Japanese admiral. Armadillo, which is a rodent with an outer shell. What else? Amarillo, which is a city in Texas.

Maherin Gangat

It's the summer, but Joe's wearing a grungy sweater. You could easily mistake him for a homeless person. But when he talks, he's lucid, chatty, which has the perverse effect of making everything he says seem even weirder, like when I ask him about the prostitutes who live in his house.

Joseph G. Amedeo

They offered to bring me food, but I keep telling them I'm on a special diet. They eat all kinds of oily things and things that are heavily sugared, which I will not touch. I've relaxed a little bit. I will eat some corn muffins now and cookies and Oreos. Not too many. The body tells me when I've had enough. I said, this is too sweet. I don't like it.

Maherin Gangat

If you don't mind my asking-- it's somewhat of a personal question--

Joseph G. Amedeo

Quiet. Go ahead.

Maherin Gangat

If you don't mind, do you take drugs?

Joseph G. Amedeo

Absolutely not. I have diabetes, for which I take a pill, and I have hypertension, for which I take another pill. I don't like needles of any kind.

Maherin Gangat

For three months, I kept going back to Joe's house, to try and figure out exactly how and why this courtly, 80-year-old man ending up turning his home over to prostitutes and junkies.

Sylvia

OK, this is how I came to know about the house. I was over here prostituting.

Maherin Gangat

This is Sylvia.

Sylvia

And. One of the girls was like, I [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I want somewhere to go get high because I'm the one-- so she brought me here. And after she brought me here, I kept coming back. I never stop coming back here.

Maherin Gangat

Before Sylvia ended up at Joe's house back in 2001, she'd been living on the street. She said there were around seven women in Joe's house when she was there, all of them finding Johns to make money, using the money to buy drugs, bringing the drugs back to the house to get high, and hanging out. And Joe was their unlikely patron, a World War II veteran, never married, former mortuary caretaker, and lifelong rare book enthusiast.

Joseph G. Amedeo

The excitement of finding a rare book that you bought it for $0.25 and you sell it for $25.

Maherin Gangat

What was the best deal you ever got?

Joseph G. Amedeo

A letter from John Foster Dulles. I bought it for $0.50 in a famous bookshop. They had it outside tucked into a book, some silly book, and that was about $60.

Maherin Gangat

Here's how Joe ended up so far from the book business. He's lived in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn his whole life, the last 50 years in this house on Starr Street.

Bushwick started changing in the 1970s and '80s, back when Joe's house was still just a normal, neat, middle class home. Back then, as one hyperbole-inclined former junkie I talked to put it, over 200 different types of heroin could be bought at a corner just three blocks from Joe's house. As the neighborhood declined, people started breaking into Joe's house regularly. He'd get home from work and find his belongings rifled through. Joe didn't have much worth stealing. There's not a lot of street resale value in the letters of John Foster Dulles. But the constant break-ins unnerved him. He didn't believe the police would help, so he came up with a plan.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I picked some girls that are always walking in front of the house that I would see. I didn't know them. And for a free pack of cigarettes every day, they would watch the building, just let me know who's coming into my house.

Maherin Gangat

His plan worked, and it continued this way for years, with Joe gradually getting to know the women outside, until one cold day.

Joseph G. Amedeo

November came along, 1995, and they say, hey, we're cold. We're cold. We're cold. Can we come in?

Maherin Gangat

Perhaps it was just an especially cold night. Perhaps it's because 1995 is the year Joe retired and he was spending all his time alone in his house. But for whatever reason, he let them in. And this was a pivotal decision. The women stayed upstairs that night, and he became friends with one of them. Her name is Jean, and she took care of Joe, including once when he was very ill.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I had diarrhea. And I told her, I feel very sick. My legs are weak. I can't walk. I said, I soiled my pants with this diarrhea that I'm having. She says, well, if you have to do it in your pants, do it in your pants. I'll clean it. Now, what person-- I mean, isn't this something? It's a person that tells you that, not even my mother would do that maybe if I were ill as a baby. But that was impressive. And that's the first one I brought in to stay. But the drug habit was there and there's nothing I could do.

Maherin Gangat

Jean started to tell her friends, other prostitutes and addicts, about Joe's kindness. And some of them moved into Joe's house. And for a while, it worked really well, even for Joe. Some of the people who showed up, including the Johns, were useful.

Joseph G. Amedeo

One of the girls had an attorney which helped me without charging me the fee. We had a dentist. There was another fellow there, Bill. He did repairs on the house. He can fix storm windows or anything, repair anything about the house. I was so happy I had them [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Maherin Gangat

But then the house started attracting more than just lawyers and handymen. Scarier types began showing up, and more people overall. And men moved in, and people who didn't even talk to Joe. And whatever lingering normalcy was left in the house vanished. Joe became a tenant in his own house, cramped into one room on the ground floor while anywhere between half a dozen and 15 other people just took the place over.

Joe never let me see the inside of the house. He would only talk to me outside. I think he just didn't want to see my reaction to how he was living and what his house had become. Joe's project, as he calls it, had spiraled out of control.

Joseph G. Amedeo

The project as it is today is a failure. The thing I started doesn't exist anymore. Now we're getting in the criminal-- the criminal set is coming here. There's a pipeline among criminals and they all find their way to this house, you see.

Maherin Gangat

Do you feel a little isolated or scared inside the house?

Joseph G. Amedeo

It's too late to be frightened.

Maherin Gangat

Do you have your own room here?

Joseph G. Amedeo

I had all of the rooms were mine. Now I have just a little tiny little space here. The entire upper floors were empty at that time and very neat. Today, you'll find hell. Actually, wholly hell. This is the foretaste of hell. I haven't been up there since 2002. I know what those rooms used to look like. I don't dare, I just don't want to see it. I don't want the memory picture.

Sylvia

A lot of people didn't even want to go in there. A lot of Johns didn't want to go in there. But they do.

Maherin Gangat

This is Sylvia again, describing that upper floor where Joe stopped going in 2002.

Sylvia

There was like rats moving around and the rats are almost as big as the people. I never seen a cockroach. I only see rats. There's no bathroom. I used to hold it and try to go to the restaurant on the block, but if I couldn't hold it, I couldn't hold it. But all the time I used to hold it.

Maherin Gangat

And so, I mean, are there buckets in there?

Sylvia

Mmm-hmm. Of waste.

Maherin Gangat

Besides the buckets of human waste and the rats, Sylvia said there were holes in the roof, so when it rained, it rained inside the house. There was no running water, only one room had electricity. It'd been divided up into cubicles. This is where the women slept and sometimes brought Johns.

Lisa

I wound up at Joe's house after I had quit working for the escort service.

Maherin Gangat

Lisa is 27, really skinny, though she tells me her weight's not as low as it used to be. She's got sores on her lips. Even though Joe's house is a step up from the street, it's one of the last stops on a long, downhill journey for a lot of the women there. Before moving into Joe's, Lisa worked as an escort, making around $1,000 a night, she says, and moving in upscale circles.

Lisa

We would go everywhere, basically. There were clubs we went to. Some of them would take you out to eat. Well, I'll put it like this, I've been to the Waldorf for a few calls, and it is a big hotel. The biggest chandelier you could ever see.

Maherin Gangat

That was two years ago. Today, Lisa says she makes a lot less, between $100 and $400 a day. Though she spends $250 a day on heroin and crack. I ask her about her relationship with Joe.

Lisa

He doesn't care what we do. He just likes the fact that's there's people with him.

Maherin Gangat

Does he interact with you guys a lot? Because I know he doesn't go upstairs.

Lisa

Sometimes. No, he don't come upstairs at all. He doesn't deal with what we do. He gives us our space. And he socializes. I mean, as soon as company does come, he gets lifted up. Like, when I'm around, I give him attention and affection, you know what I'm saying? Like a father to a daughter. And it lifts him up. It's like, when you give him attention, it's like he's happy that someone's talking to him. And he could talk to you for hours.

Maherin Gangat

So one reason Joe let his house turn into a brothel, he's lonely. And I honestly couldn't figure out the exact nature of his relationship with these women. Joe was always forthcoming with his answers, except this one. When I asked him point blank about whether he considered any of the women a girlfriend, his non-answer was revealing.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I can't answer that question. I can't answer that question. Sorry, I can't. It's just that I don't want to fabricate if I can avoid it.

Maherin Gangat

This is how I see it. Joe's living in a house full of prostitutes, many of whom are very fond of him. I wouldn't be surprised at all if in the 10 years since the women first moved in, Joe occasionally went from the downstairs tenant to a client. Then again, the thought occurred to me, he might be gay. Joe's a lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother well into his 30s and loves rare books.

But what was clear to me the longer I spent with Joe is that, even though he liked having company in his house, he felt trapped. I asked him over and over again, why don't you just call the police? How could you let this happen to your house? Joe could never answer those questions. I think there's a lot of reasons. I think part of it is that the changes happen incrementally over time. There was never one clear moment to draw the line. And partly, Joe likes having people to take care of. It's nice to still have the power to do that, especially if you're vulnerable and needy yourself.

Joseph G. Amedeo

These are homeless people. Take them and put them in your house.

Woman

Hi Jojo.

Joseph G. Amedeo

Hello. I fought with them. I didn't quite fight with them, but I spoke to the neighborhood groups. They're afraid. You have prostitutes here, and this and that, which is true. They says, we have to raise our children here. I says, well, these girls go out at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. Do your kids go out at that hour?

Maherin Gangat

Not that Joe doesn't have problems with the things he sees the women do.

Joseph G. Amedeo

When a girl might have a needle syringe sticking out of her neck and hanging down, or another would jab her neck once and become frustrated she couldn't get the vein. She try a second time and put a second hole in her neck. I says, get away from your neck, please. Don't do that. Don't do that. Then I had to realize that one of them said, if I have $5, I'll do $5 worth of drugs. If I have $500, I would do $500 worth of drugs.

In other words, they wanted this so much that it was futile for me or anyone else to try and stop it, until the girl comes to the realization, I don't want this anymore, I don't want this kind of life anymore. And some of them did that.

Maherin Gangat

This is true. During the time I was reporting this story, Lisa quit using drugs. She said she's glad the house was there for her.

Joseph G. Amedeo

Good evening, gentlemen.

Cop 1

What's up, mister? Are you the elderly man?

Joseph G. Amedeo

I'm afraid I am.

Maherin Gangat

It's a rainy night, around 7:00 PM, and two police officers show up at Joe's house. Joe seems calm, not surprised or worried. His house has been raided before.

Joseph G. Amedeo

As long as somebody holds the light for you.

Maherin Gangat

Joe struggles to unlock the gate, so one of the cops does it for him. Then we all go inside. The cops tell Joe to sit down.

Cop 1

Who's up there?

Joseph G. Amedeo

The man who helps me with the house. [INAUDIBLE].

Cop 1

Joey, come on out for a minute.

Cop 2

You got lights in here? You don't have any lights, do you?

Joseph G. Amedeo

I cut them off.

Maherin Gangat

It turns out, this visit isn't a raid. The cops are here at the request of Adult Protective Services. It's all part of a plan by the district attorney to clean up the neighborhood. Step one, get Joe out. Step two, get the prostitutes and everyone else out. A caseworker wants to take Joe to the hospital. Joe doesn't want to go. So the caseworker has asked the cops to remove him.

Sergeant Zegilla

Joey.

Joseph G. Amedeo

Yes, sir.

Sergeant Zegilla

How are you, buddy?

Joseph G. Amedeo

Not bad.

Sergeant Zegilla

You feeling better? I know you had a cold last week.

Maherin Gangat

This is Sergeant Zegilla of the 83rd Precinct. He's been at the house before. Nine cops are milling around inside Joe's house. Some go upstairs. Sergeant Zegilla stays downstairs with Joe.

Sergeant Zegilla

Let me ask you a few questions.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I'm in my 80s.

Sergeant Zegilla

What's your date of birth?

Joseph G. Amedeo

And if you want me to survive, then I remain here.

Sergeant Zegilla

Joe, Joe. We're going to calm down. We're not to that point yet at all.

Joseph G. Amedeo

Oh, you're not?

Sergeant Zegilla

I just want to ask you a few simple questions.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I am not worthy of your attention.

Sergeant Zegilla

Oh, you most certainly are Joe. Everybody--

Joseph G. Amedeo

--babies and children out there.

Sergeant Zegilla

Everybody in Bushwick's worthy of my attention. All right, Joe. You know what year it is?

Joseph G. Amedeo

2006.

Sergeant Zegilla

There you go. You know who the president is?

Joseph G. Amedeo

What's his name? Bush.

Maherin Gangat

Sergeant Zegilla asks Joe when he last ate. Joe tells him he had turkey for lunch. He tells Sergeant Zegilla he wants to stay in the house, but I don't hear the rest of the conversation, because that's when the cops kick me out.

Around 10 minutes later, Joe walks out and into a waiting ambulance. None of the women living in the house full-time are around. The next day, I visit Joe at the hospital. He's on the phone with his niece. She lives in New Jersey.

Joseph G. Amedeo

They're just running tests right now.

Joseph G. Amedeo's Niece

Are the people nice there?

Joseph G. Amedeo

Very. Very polite. They look like they have training.

Joseph G. Amedeo's Niece

They have training?

Joseph G. Amedeo

I would say so, yes.

Maherin Gangat

Joe gets a lot of visitors at the hospital during the 12 days he's there. People from the house, social workers, cops. Everyone has the same conversation with Joe. What's next? Where is he going to go? The city is threatening to condemn the building. One cop is particularly concerned.

Cop 2

I'm just wondering what the next step is when you're released from the hospital.

Joseph G. Amedeo

Well, that's a good question.

Cop 2

I read the Times Newsweekly that there's a big article in the paper about the problems over there on Starr Street. They actually mention your building.

Joseph G. Amedeo

If there's anything you can do to delay bringing the building down, because I lived there 50 years and this could be my last gasp.

Cop 2

I don't know about that, Joe. I'd feel a lot better if, like, at the end of this, you were somewhere where you could live without having the walls coming down around you and prostitutes shooting up. You know, I mean--

Cop 3

A functioning bathroom.

Cop 2

Yeah. Running water. This might help.

Maherin Gangat

The day before Thanksgiving, the city condemned the building and started to board it up. The city had been threatening Joe for years, but this time a sign on the house said, quote, "Conditions in this premises are imminently perilous to life." I went inside for a few minutes with the inspector from the Buildings Department. I'd never been upstairs before. As I headed up now, the building inspector got my attention and pointed something out.

Maherin Gangat

Sorry? Oh, he's pointing out a rat to my right. Going into Joe's room. Thanks.

The second story was a mess. Every inch of the floor was covered with stuff. Bikes, sheets, mattresses, dozens of buckets, and books from Joe's collections scattered everywhere, on the floors, in the halls. The Buildings Department crew was sealing up the windows with boards.

Maherin Gangat

What are you guys doing? You're clearing it out?

Crew Member

Yeah, we got to close and seal up the window.

Maherin Gangat

So is this as bad as other houses that you've done or worse?

Crew Member

That's the worst one.

Maherin Gangat

This is the worst one?

Crew Member

Yep.

Maherin Gangat

I headed downstairs to Joe's room. It's the first chance I've had to look around.

Maherin Gangat

I'm just peeking my head in because I can't even step inside. What I see is packages, packages of books, just all sealed up, just ready to be mailed.

Oh, my God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. I'm moving my feet because I know there are rats here. I can hear them and I just want to keep moving. There's a beer can on the bottom here. There's a bucket. Oh, dear God. I guess that's what Joe used.

After Joe heard about the house, I visited him in the hospital. I was surprised, he looked well rested. His face had filled out. He seemed calm, resigned.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I think it's a good thing, personally. Not good for me, but for the general welfare, I think it's good. And especially for the people who live around the area, it's a good thing.

Maherin Gangat

But as he said, not good for him. In fact, a huge loss. His friends disappeared. And he lost his home and everything inside it. The house was sealed before he could get any of his papers or books. He said he felt homeless. He said he'd probably go live with his sister and her husband in Florida, even though he hates the heat.

Joseph G. Amedeo

I should somehow go with them because they ran out of money, and the thing for me to do is go there and have my address changed to hers and give them my pension money to help along. That'd be the sensible thing to do.

Maherin Gangat

The sensible thing. Sounds unappealing, doesn't it? For the last 10 years living in his house, Joe has not been doing the sensible thing. And I think he liked that. He liked that everything he was doing was unexpected for a man of his age. It made him feel young. And in a weird way, in spite of everything that went wrong in the house, I think it made him feel in control of his life.

When I met him, one of the first things he said to me was that he had to live in the house because it was the only way to have the lifestyle he wanted. I never understood what he meant, what lifestyle he was talking about exactly, till that last visit in the hospital. Then I realized, every day he stayed in that house was one more day he wasn't in Florida, living with his sister, being a sensible retiree.

Ira Glass

Maherin Gangat in New York City. Well, coming up, when your starter apartment actually has a starter, and a spare tire, and a steering wheel. How could the next place you live in possibly be any worse? Well, we have answers in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Crisco Kid.

Ira Glass

Well, it's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Houses of Ill Repute. We have stories about places that are notoriously bad, and about how living in these places can actually be very different than most people assume it would be. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act two, The Crisco Kid.

You know, when you're young and you move out of your parents' house and you're just starting out, you want to act like you're a grownup. And you know what that's supposed to look like on the surface: a job, your own place to live. And then you get those things and you have to pretend that you know what the hell you're doing, even though you really don't. This happened to lots of us this way, including David Wilcox.

A quick warning before we start this story for sensitive listeners, this act, like our first act, mentions sex and drugs.

David Wilcox

When I was in high school, I never bothered looking at different colleges. From the start of my senior year I knew where I was going, the University of Houston, because my girlfriend was there. Most alumni don't look back fondly on U of H. It's a commuter school. There's no campus life, no identity.

If you lived in the dorms, you went home every weekend because student services shut down late Friday afternoon. But going home wasn't an option for me. My family had sold their house in the Houston suburbs a few months after I graduated and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where my dad's company was based. The spring of my freshman year I roomed in the dorms with a guy named Bill, who was 25 and fresh out of the army. He'd shown up at my front door with nothing but a duffel bag and a double-chambered bong.

Our routine was pretty simple. We'd stay up until dawn getting stoned, eating frozen chicken sandwiches out of a vending machine, and watching late night game shows. If we didn't pass out, we'd hit the cafeteria breakfast buffet as soon as it opened, then go to bed and sleep until mid-afternoon. Eventually, two of Bill's friends, who made money selling ecstasy and building lasers for raves, started sleeping on our floor two or three nights a week.

I'd stopped going to class midway through the semester and got a minimum-wage job in the receiving department of a chain bookstore. The dorm was like a squat, a hovel occupied by too many people where I didn't have to pay rent. There were no responsibilities, no chores, no pressure, but it was utterly depressing. As the months passed, I decided it was time to grow up and get out on my own, make a life for myself, though I had no idea what that might look like.

By the time summer rolled around, my parents and I were barely speaking. They were furious that I'd given up on school, and I refused to listen to anyone who thought I was making a mistake. But that was just part of it. I also didn't want to talk to them because I was afraid they were going to yell at me.

When the dorms closed up and I moved out, I didn't even bother telling them where they could find me. But it just so happens that they knew my first residence quite well, a white Chevy Beretta my dad had given me. I showered at friends' houses and occasionally crashed on their couches. Otherwise, I curled up like a cat on piles of dirty clothes in my backseat.

By early June, after being turned away by a dozen landlords, I finally found an efficiency in a two-story complex called Westmoreland Square. The property manager had no problem renting to a minor with no credit, no rental history, and no money. When I filled out my rental application, he even told me about a friend of his who could get me a half ounce of weed for $40.

It took a few days for the paperwork to go through. In the meantime, my dad got word to me through my girlfriend's parents that he was coming to town on a business trip and wanted me to stop by his hotel. We met for lunch. He had a note pad in front of him with a list of things he wanted me to consider, all of them variations on two themes: what are you doing, and how do you think you're going to accomplish it? The thing is, he was so calm and so reasonable. That threw me. I didn't have a good answer, but I also didn't think he knew what he was talking about. All I could do was stammer and repeat the same thing over and over. I'm doing this because I have to.

I'd been unhappy at school and I didn't want to do it anymore. And I finally was in a position for the first time in my life where, if I didn't want to do something, I could just stop. I made this decision because I could.

When lunch was over, my dad told me he'd have to take the Beretta back if I wasn't going to stay in school. Do what you have to do, he told me, but I won't pay for it. Then, just as I was giving him the keys, he gave me a check for $4,000. It was more money than I'd ever seen. I'm paying you for the car, he explained. Make sure you spend it wisely.

Most of the money went toward a '67 Volkswagen, and the rest went into the $350 apartment I'd just been approved for. It had a low ceiling with exposed beams, carpeting that was old but stain-free, and a plate glass window that ran floor to ceiling in the living room. Everything seemed to work OK, except the garbage disposal. Pretty early on, I flushed some leftover spaghetti down the kitchen sink and the noodles somehow wound up in the bathtub.

My first month in the apartment was relatively quiet. I didn't know any of my neighbors and I kept to myself. Then, one day, the starter in my car went out, and I spent the afternoon underneath it in the car port. I was trying to get a screwdriver across the solenoid when I heard a soft, cheery voice.

That your Type 3?

Vintage Volkswagens fall into four types. Mine was a square back, a Type 3. You can always tell a VW nerd by their insistence on referring to a car by its type, never its name.

Yeah, I said, scooting out from under the frame. The guy introduced himself as Steve. I guessed he was in his late 30s. He'd been living in the same apartment for over a decade. We wound up spending the next couple afternoons fiddling around with my car. He was nice, kind of shy, a little mysterious. He worked from home, building some sort of toy for men out of vacuums and cylinders and selling it through classifieds and gay porn mags.

I think we were replacing my battery connectors when he brought up our current residence. You know about this place, right? What people call it? I had no idea what he was talking about.

Crisco Corner, he said. Everybody calls it Crisco Corner.

A name like Crisco Corner might speak for itself, but Steve broke it down for me anyway.

Basically, as soon as the bars let out every night, randy gay men would start circling the complex over and over looking to pick up a resident. If they got impatient, they'd park their cars and wander through the courtyard. Anyone interested in company would just leave their front door open and these strangers would walk in and join them.

Really, it's no big deal, Steve said. It's not like it used to be in the glory days, not since this new company but the security gates up. And then he paused. But, it's probably not a good idea to hang out at the pool by yourself. And you might want to lock the laundry room door behind you if it's late.

Suddenly, I saw everything going on around me. It was as if Steve had dropped a token in an arcade machine. The complex sprang to life. Gangs of drag queens paraded through the courtyard at all hours of the day and night. Guys in leather bondage masks grilled burgers on their front stoops. Maintenance men made service calls in short shorts and roller skates.

Still, I didn't mind calling Crisco Corner home. Sure, I got hit on. Every now and then, I'd go out on my porch to smoke a joint and some strange man passing by on the street below would ask me for the code to the security gate, so we could hang out in the pool together. But after an initial period of shock, it seemed like a perfectly normal way to live.

Every week or so, my mom called. She'd ask how work was going, how I was getting along, and I'd say fine. Things were fine for the most part. My lights had been cut off. My car kept breaking down. But I was making rent and feeding myself, if nothing else. Regardless of how bad it got, I wasn't going to ask for help. And regardless of how worried she might have been, my mom wasn't offering. She'd ask how it was going, and I'd say fine, and that would be that.

A couple days before Halloween, around midnight, I was sprawled out on my living room floor in my boxer shorts. The lights were out, the TV was on mute, and I was listening to a Replacements record through headphones. Alex Chilton had just queued up when I noticed the shadow of a man pass by my window. Based on the shoulder length hair, I knew who it was. A middle-aged bean pole I'd taken to calling the Nuge, though he looked nothing like Ted Nugent.

The record played through. I flipped it over. Just as side two started, The Nuge passed by again. A few minutes later, he came back. This time, he stopped. He was facing my window, moving his head around as if a guy with a tall hat had just sat in front of him in a movie theater. I got up to see what was going on and The Nuge squatted down. Without even thinking about it, I opened the blinds to get a better look.

When I was a kid, there were a few things my parents taught me about taking care of myself, things I had to understand before they'd leave me alone for a night or a weekend. Basic stuff, the number for poison control, keeping doors locked, not telling anyone on the phone that I was home alone. We never went over what I was supposed to do should I discover a six-foot hippie enjoying the sight of me in my underwear way, way too much. Nor did we discuss the best emergency hotline to call should that same hippie confuse my panic with excitement, move away from the window with his pants undone, and start lightly rapping on the door.

So I stood there, paralyzed, a shell-shocked teenager trying to figure out the best way to let a pervert know I wasn't that kind of guy. I finally did what I thought any self-respecting adult would do. I went to the kitchen, grabbed the biggest knife I could find and walked back to the window. The Nuge lurched back over into his squat just as I jerked open the blinds and pressed the blade against the glass. He immediately gave me two OK signs, zipped up his pants, and scooted away. I spent the rest of the night huddled on the couch with the knife right beside me on the arm rest. Then something really bad happened.

A few weeks after my night with The Nuge, Crisco Corner was hit by a tornado. It was 8:30 in the morning, and I woke up to what sounded like a freight train roaring through my apartment. That's a cliche, I know, but it's not just how the tornado sounds, it's how it feels. Fast and ferocious and gone before you know it. You close your eyes and 10 seconds later, when you open them, you expect everything around you to be rubble.

Amazingly, my apartment was untouched, but everything on the other side of my bedroom wall, including the apartment next door, was completely demolished. The property manager wound up moving me and my girlfriend into a two-bedroom in the courtyard. If you have any interest in seeing what it looked like, you can rent a movie called Rush that came out in the early '90s. It stars Jason Patrick and Jennifer Jason Leigh as narcs who get addicted to drugs and fall in love. There's a scene about halfway through where Patrick comes home to find Leigh crawling around frantically searching the carpet for stray dope.

Nothing he does to get her to calm down works, so as a last resort he tosses her face down on a bed and violently sodomizes her. Let me repeat that. He violently sodomizes her so she'll calm down. That scene was filmed in my bedroom.

I kept trying to tough it out at Crisco Corner, but things only got worse. The property manager was so desperate to keep the place occupied after the tornado that he gave up even pretending to screen tenants. Most of my new neighbors looked like they were hooked on drugs far more serious than anything I'd ever touched. The cops started showing up on a regular basis. And the scarier it got, the more trapped I felt.

Up until all of this, the idea of living on my own had seemed liberating, fun. But I'd never realized what I was signing up for. The possibility that when something truly horrible happened, no one was going to step in and save me, that's what hit me for the first time the morning the tornado struck.

I'd started looking for a pay phone so I could call my parents. At one point, I crossed under some police tape and a cop threatened to take me to jail. Telling him I was trying to get home to my apartment didn't matter. Giving him a hangdog look that said I was just a kid who needed someone, anyone, to make life a little easier didn't make a difference. To this cop, I was just another guy standing around in his pajamas, kicking shingles with his slippers, wondering where to go from here.

I wound up calling my mom from a grocery store a mile away. The conversation was short and matter of fact. But if there was ever a point at which I was willing to admit that I wasn't fine, that was it. She didn't ask how I was doing. For the first time in months, the only thing she asked was, what are you going to do now? I told her I didn't know. And then there was a long pause.

Mom, I could have died.

But you didn't, she said. You're OK.

As I was getting off the phone, she told me to call if I needed anything. I hung up knowing I wouldn't. Then I went home and spent the rest of the day by the pool, staring at a dresser that had sunk to the bottom of the deep end.

Ira Glass

David Wilcox in Chicago.

[MUSIC - "STRANGLEHOLD" BY TED NUGENT]

Act Three. Bully's Pulpit.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Bully's Pulpit.

Well, we now turn to one of the biggest houses of ill repute on the planet, the US House of Representatives. And, yes, you've heard about the corruption, you've heard about the lobbying scandals, you've heard about the notorious inability to address some of our most serious national problems. Why is it so dysfunctional?

Well, for the last few years, Democrats blamed all of this, every part of it, on the Republicans who were running the place. As the majority, the Republicans were-- it is hard to deny this. They were pretty ruthless. They kept Democratic Party voices out of the debate. They rammed legislation through. Because they could. They had the votes.

And now, of course, the tables have turned. The Democrats are the majority in the House of Representatives. And the question is, will things run any better? Will they run more fairly? Well, one of our producers, Alex Blumberg, went to DC to visit the House of Representatives to ask these questions.

A warning to sensitive listeners, he's actually going to be describing the legislative process of the United States of America.

Alex Blumberg

Back when the Republicans still ran Congress this past summer, I spent several hours with Peter Defazio, a Democratic representative from Oregon. We talked mainly about how much it sucked being in the minority. The Republicans, Defazio said, would wait until the last minute to make bills available so that the minority Democrats had to vote on legislation they hadn't even had a chance to read. They'd hold meetings in the dead of night, where they'd take bills that had already been voted on and rewrite them. They wouldn't let the minority bring any of their own legislation to the floor. Even if it had broad bipartisan support, it would almost certainly pass. And the minority couldn't even offer amendments without visiting a special committee, called the Rules Committee, and getting their approval, which they almost never gave.

Peter Defazio

You know, you come in and sometimes there will be a fair number of people. Other times there will just be one or two people there. And generally, the Republicans act very bored. The Democrats try and be helpful and make points about your amendment. But the Republicans just act bored. I've had the chairman of the committee turn his back on me when I was testifying just to chat with his staff, just to show his contempt and the fact that I'm insignificant. He's not going to allow my amendment. You might as well leave now.

Man 1

Parliamentary inquiry.

Alex Blumberg

And then, there was this trick, holding the vote open.

Speaker

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] inquire.

Man 1

The speaker, I have a plane to catch in about one hour. Am I going to be able to do it? Will the vote be ended by that time?

Speaker

Not a proper parliamentary inquiry.

Alex Blumberg

You're listening to the House floor debate on an oil refineries bill from October of 2005. The guy saying he has a plane to catch is a Democrat. And what he's really doing is trying to get the speaker to stop holding the vote open.

See, it's the speaker's job to ask members to cast their votes and to tally those votes up. This casting and tallying is supposed to take a couple of minutes, enough time for everyone to press their yea or nay button. But occasionally, like on this bill, all the votes will come in, the speaker will see that the legislation hasn't passed, and instead of tallying and certifying the results, he does what's called holding the vote open.

He and his colleagues go around and try to convince wayward Republicans to change their votes. Frustrated Democrats, who can see on the big tally screen that they've won, have to just sit and wait. For 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, while the majority tries to undo their victory.

Speaker

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] inquire.

Man 1

Is the discretion of the chair or the abuse of the discretion of the chair and the abuse of power subject to a vote of the House?

Alex Blumberg

This all happened for the first time when Democrats were in power. Once, in 1987, Speaker Jim Wright kept a vote on a budget bill open for 15 minutes while one of his colleagues came back to the floor to change his vote. At the time, it almost sparked a riot among the minority Republicans. Trent Lott smacked a chair in anger so hard that he almost broke it. And then congressman Dick Cheney described it as, quote, "The most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I've ever seen in the 10 years that I've been here."

The Republicans pulled this move repeatedly in their last couple of years in power. The most extraordinary example was in 2003, during the vote on the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Republicans held the vote open for three hours, and this was well after midnight, at the end of a long day in session.

Peter Defazio

They do these things really late, both to avoid the press, and also it's like a torture technique.

Alex Blumberg

The whole Congress was on the floor, including Peter Defazio.

Peter Defazio

Their own members are tired. They want to go home, and everybody wants to go home. And they figure, well, we can pressure some people when they're more tired. You know, it was pretty chaotic on their side, because they brought in some cabinet secretaries who were working out of the Republican cloak room. They were dragging people off the floor to take phone calls from George Bush and Dick Cheney. You know, it was pretty--

Alex Blumberg

All while the vote is being held up?

Peter Defazio

Oh yeah. And on our side, we're just sitting there staring at them. And every once in a while, we'll just try and say, point of order. Point of order is the rules say no vote should be held open more than 17 minutes. What's going on? And then they overrule our point of order.

Woman 1

Mr. Speaker.

Speaker

For what purpose does the gentlelady rise?

Woman 1

Mr. Speaker, for the parliamentary inquiry.

Speaker

The gentlelady may inquire.

Woman 1

Mr. Speaker, my parliamentary inquiry, is it not bringing dishonor to the House of Representatives for this body to act--

Speaker

Gentlelady is not stating a proper parliamentary inquiry.

Woman 1

This is not part of the culture of corruption of the Republican Party.

Speaker

Does this gentlelady parliamentary inquiry?

Woman 1

To dishonor the wishes of people who have spoken.

Speaker

Does the gentlelady have a parliamentary--

Woman 1

I have a parliamentary inquiry. When are you going to honor--

Peter Defazio

So we would occasionally try and do that. Or every once in a while, yeah, we would break into a chorus of shame. Because it was shameful. It was incredibly shameful.

Speaker

Without objection, the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.

Democrats

Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Peter Defazio

It would be different people at different times. I mean, you're sitting there. It's 5 o'clock in the morning, you've been sitting there for three hours. You know, something to do. Raise your fist and yell shame. Come on, you guys have no shame.

Patrick Mchenry

Those Democrats that were here in '93 and '94 before the Republicans took control, they put the screws to the Republicans on a daily basis. They didn't allow for amendments on large pieces of legislation and they shut Republicans out.

Alex Blumberg

As you can imagine, Republicans disagree with Peter Defazio's assessment that their behavior is at all unusual. This is Patrick McHenry, Republican from North Carolina. He says what a lot of Republicans say. They learned everything they know about majority rule from the Democrats, who abused their Republican counterparts throughout the 40 years that they held the majority in Congress. Republican amendments were routinely denied, Republican voices barred from the debate. And that whole keeping the vote open thing? They learned that from a Democrat too, don't forget.

Now, generally, a discussion about who started it never gets anywhere. Just ask the Israelis and the Palestinians, or your mom for that matter. And it can be a dispiriting exercise talking to representatives about this stuff. The tactic on both sides seems to be deflect all criticism with attacks of your own, as if this were a game, which you win by never once admitting your side might have behaved badly.

Patrick McHenry is particularly good at this. He's a rising star in his party, in just his second term. He's young, charming, and very good at offense. When I spoke to him, he had two of his press aides in the room, and it was clear that their strategy was to counter every question I asked about Republican strong arm tactics with an equally egregious Democratic abuse.

Why did the Republicans hold the vote open for three hours in the middle of the night? Well, Democrats, when they were in power, wouldn't even allow a motion to recommit with instructions.

Then, of course, you don't know what a motion to recommit with instructions is. And so you have to ask and, boom, you're deflected. Or even worse, you do know what a motion to recommit is, and you say, but wait a minute, a motion to recommit is a token parliamentary procedure in which the minority offers a substitute, but which is invariably voted down since votes on parliamentary motions are generally considered to be tests of party loyalty and proceed almost always along party lines. And then you get into an argument about whether or not a motion to recommit is a meaningless formality or a cornerstone of democracy. And, boom, you're deflected even more.

At one point, after a particularly dexterous verbal parry of this kind. I saw McHenry glance over to one of his aides, who sort of closed his eyes, smiled, and gave a little fist pump, the same gesture a pitcher makes when he strikes a batter out.

But fortunately, the recent midterm elections have created a perfect laboratory for the study of majority versus minority behavior. As we all know, in 2006, the Democrats came to power, and it didn't take long for roles to reverse.

Nancy Pelosi

And so in our first 100 hours of legislation, which will begin next week, we will begin by making America safer by passing the 9/11 Commission recommendations.

Alex Blumberg

This is Nancy Pelosi, the newly elected Democratic speaker of the House, of course, in early January, announcing her party's legislative agenda for its first 100 hours in power. The Democrats passed all the bills in their agenda by pretty wide margins. But in doing so, they bypassed the committee process. They waited till the last minute to make their legislation available. And they didn't allow amendments, or any input really, from the Republicans, who, by the way, had also switched roles.

Patrick Mchenry

Good afternoon, thank you for joining us today. A group assembled here today are leading the fight for the minority bill of rights, encouraging honest, open, and fair legislative debate.

Alex Blumberg

That's Patrick McHenry, who also made a brief appearance on TV recently at a press conference with a handful of other Republican congressmen. And he didn't deny that what he was asking for might sound familiar. Pelosi asked for the same things in a letter she sent back when she was in the minority.

Patrick Mchenry

The bill we offer today, the minority bill of rights, is crafted based on the exact text that then minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, submitted in 2004 to then speaker of the house Dennis Hastert.

Alex Blumberg

The point being that if Pelosi wanted open debate and minority participation then, she had to grant it now. Although it's hard not to note that when Pelosi asked for it in 2004, she was utterly ignored by the Republican leadership. McHenry says, there's no inconsistency.

Patrick Mchenry

Well, because Republicans, that wasn't a key part of our campaign, talking about openness and fairness. It was a key part of the Democrat strategy and Democrat campaign. So for them to come in on their first days in power and say, we actually are going back on our campaign pledge for openness and bipartisanship in their first hours, that is hypocrisy. That is the height of hypocrisy for them to campaign on openness, but govern in a closed fashion.

Alex Blumberg

It takes a lot of chutzpah to make this argument. Essentially, it's worse for the Democrats to act imperiously because they said they wouldn't, whereas the Republicans never even claimed they'd be fair. Democrats say, look, this is just for the first 100 hours. And besides, all that legislation had been debated over and over again. Here's Peter Defazio.

Peter Defazio

Everything we're voting on in the 100 hours, we have proposed previously, we've attempted to trigger votes on the increase in the minimum wage. We begged them. We tried parliamentary maneuvers. We tried a dozen ways to bring that bill up in the House. They know exactly what they're voting on. In fact, half the Republicans wanted to vote for it in the end. I think it's an aberration from how we will treat them consistently after we get through the first 100 hours.

Alex Blumberg

How do you keep, though-- how do you make sure that that actually happens? You know, because I think human nature is, well, wow, it was really easy. If we just keep limiting debate. It seems to me like there must be quite a powerful incentive as the majority to limit debate and to sort of make it easier for yourself.

Peter Defazio

Well, that will remain to be seen. I mean, going from this point forward. I have heard very little discussion from anybody, even the hot heads, on my side of the aisle saying, no, we should just abuse them day in, day out the way they did us, and abuse the process. Not in the caucus, not in the gym, not anywhere. I haven't heard it.

Alex Blumberg

What's strange is, everyone I talked to, on both sides of the aisle, said exactly the same thing about the way things should be. One party doesn't have a lock on good ideas. Minority input almost always makes legislation better. And they both seemed upset, honestly so, when talking about their treatment as the minority. It made me realize something.

Leaving aside the question of what shutting out the minority does to democracy, to the people in the minority, it hurts and it makes them mad.

Imagine, you're being told that, though you represent nearly half the country, your vote will never count, your ideas will never be considered, no one will ever listen to you, you don't matter at all. It's an utterly demeaning feeling. And it's a feeling the Democrats felt for the last 12 years, and the Republicans felt for the 40 years before that, which partly explains why this behavior can perpetuate, even though nobody really wants it to. It's hard to let go. You may look like a majority, but you still feel like a minority.

Peter Defazio

Well, there is a lot of pent-up anger. I mean, 12 years of being abused. 12 years, or at least, I think, 8 years of having the rules chairman sneer at us and turn his back. Now he's down their whining that they're not getting open rules and all these sorts of things. There is some tendency to say, yeah, this is payback. And boy, it's tough, isn't it? So I think that actually the 100 hours could be healthy. If for the first 100 hours, we treat them somewhat the same way they treated us for 12 years, and then, after that, we restore some of what I think are proper rights and privileges to the minority. Perhaps if they take back over again, they'll be a little more respectful.

Alex Blumberg

The other thing about arguments over who started it, once they get going they're hard to stop. No one knows this better than Jim Wright, the democratic speaker who held the vote open back in 1987, cracking the door that the Republicans burst through two decades later.

Speaking in 2004 at a ceremony in his honor, he had this to say about that day. "The bottom line is that what I'd done that day did not contribute to harmonious relations. Although the maneuvers were legal and in keeping with the rules, my mind was too determined, my attitude too insistent. I believed that I offended a number of my Republican colleagues. I won the vote, but sacrificed a more precious commodity: good will. In the end, it wasn't worth it. If that day were to do over again, I like to think I'd do it differently."

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg.

Credits.

Ira Glass

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

Our website, where not only can you get the absolutely free podcast of our program or listen to any of our old programs online, this week on the website there is information about our upcoming six-city national tour. That's New York, LA, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle. We are coming to your town if you live in one of those six cities. And we are doing our show live on stage. Live.

Now, the lineup of performers is going to vary from city to city, but they include, depending on where you are, Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Jonathan Goldstein, John Hodgman, Dan Savage, Alexa Junge, Mates of State, plus outtakes from our new television show. To see who is playing in your city and to find out about tickets, go to our website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who called me into his office the other day with a question.

David Wilcox

You know about this place, right? What people call it? Crisco Corner. Everybody calls it Crisco Corner.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.