Transcript

329:

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Transcript

Originally aired 04.06.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/329

Prologue.

Ira Glass

First of all, is your last named pronounced Ivv-ins or Eye-vins?

Marsha Ivins

Eye-vins.

Ira Glass

And what's your correct title now?

Marsha Ivins

Astronaut.

Ira Glass

Like, on your business card, it says, "astronaut?"

Marsha Ivins

It actually does.

Ira Glass

That is the most glamorous thing I've ever heard.

OK, here's a question. We've got 95 active-duty astronauts in our country, but they almost never go into space anymore. Some years, there's just one shuttle mission. The most we ever do is three or four. So if you're an astronaut, OK, you show up for work at Johnson Space Flight Center every morning. What do you do all day?

Marsha Ivins

Monday's are the days from hell. So Monday, I go to meetings all day long.

Ira Glass

Marsha Ivins is a veteran of five space missions between 1990 and 2001.

Marsha Ivins

We have the astronaut office meeting. We have the staff meeting. Because I support the new constellation program, they have a staff meeting.

Chris Cassidy

We've got to sit in a lot of conference rooms.

Ira Glass

Chris Cassidy was chosen to be an astronaut in 2004.

Chris Cassidy

And sometimes I find that tedious. And as a new guy astronaut, we go to a lot of those meetings.

Cady Coleman

I would say the worst part is probably the meetings.

Ira Glass

Cady Coleman flew space missions in 1995 and, most recently, 1999.

Cady Coleman

There is also the paperwork. When you work for the government, you have to go to a security refresher and ethics refresher.

Ira Glass

OK, so it's the day you get back from a shuttle mission, are there special weird forms that you have to fill out on that day?

Cady Coleman

Well, there is a travel voucher. You know, we work for the government, all of us. And there is some government thing that says, when you're traveling, you will be paid for just the fact that you are gone from home, and there must be something you had to buy.

Chris Cassidy

Oh yeah, the $3.50 a day thing.

Ira Glass

It's $3.50 a day?

Chris Cassidy

I think that's the government, what they call meals and incidentals rate.

Marsha Ivins

So if I'm going to Washington, DC to go to NASA headquarters, it authorizes me the mode of transportation, you know, commercial air, or train, or taxi, or whatever when I'm there. So when we go to space, we get travel orders that authorize us to go from Houston to the Kennedy Space Center to Earth orbit and return.

Ira Glass

Wait, and is there a place on it where it says, like, taxi, jet, space shuttle? Like, is that an actual box you fill in?

Marsha Ivins

It's government air.

Ira Glass

Government air?

Marsha Ivins

It's government air. And then lodging is provided, transportation is provided, meals are provided.

Ira Glass

The astronauts all have offices, three or four of them to a room, on the sixth floor of a nondescript office building. They do some public speaking. Cady, for example, had just talked to a ninth grade biology class. Chris had welcomed the Farm Credit Bank of Texas Annual Stockholders Meeting to Houston just a couple of hours before our interview. If they have a mission coming up, they train all the time, but they almost never have a mission coming up.

Most of the time they spend on the ground seems to be helping design the gear that's used in space, and teaching others how to use that gear and practicing on that gear. They have to do a lot of studying. It's like grad school, one of them said, the operating systems of the space shuttle.

And once a week, each of them has to practice flying a real jet, which is to say it's like any good job. For all the stuff that's kind of interesting and sort of fun, there's lots of stuff that you just kind of have to get through. Cady and Chris both estimated they spend maybe one day a week doing the things that they really love.

Cady Coleman

That is the stuff, like, being physically in a big white spacesuit and getting lowered into a giant swimming pool and practicing spacewalking.

Ira Glass

Now, here in civilian life, when we try to say that something's really difficult, we say, well, it's not rocket science. If you're actually in rocket science, what do you say?

Chris Cassidy

You say it's not rocket science, the same thing. And everybody laughs about it, just like we are right now.

Ira Glass

Here's something else. Many astronauts are just incredible super-achievers. Chris Cassidy was a navy seal. He led operations in the caves on the Afghan-Pakistan border. He was awarded two bronze stars at a presidential unit citation.

Cady Coleman has a PhD in polymer science. Before she was an astronaut, her official NASA bio says, she used to quote, "synthesize model compounds to investigate the use of organic polymers for third order nonlinear optical applications, such as advanced computers." These are people who are used to accomplishing big, big things. And the main thing they do as astronauts is not go into space. 44 of the 95 astronauts have never been in space. 19 of the astronauts, like Chris Cassidy, aren't even scheduled for a mission. And time is running out on them. The space shuttle is going to stop flying in 2010. And the next space vehicle isn't going to be ready until 2020. Here's Marsha Ivins.

Marsha Ivins

Most people are pretty realists about the nature of things now. I was very fortunate to be selected and assigned to flights in an era where you could actually fly every two or three years. That's never going to happen again. The guys that are in the office now realize that they'll be lucky to get one flight in the 10 or 15 years they spend in the office, maybe two. And so, yes, there's a huge level of frustration and it's not just with astronauts, but with the NASA administrator, with the program managers. You look at the moon every night like a big giant tease out there because it's not any closer.

Ira Glass

And so she does what us non-astronauts do, she gets some of her space exploration on TV.

Marsha Ivins

I do watch Battlestar Galactica and Farscape and all of them. I watch them all.

Ira Glass

And what do you think when you see them flying around there in space? What's that like if you're an astronaut?

Marsha Ivins

Hugely jealous. You know, they have left earth orbit. They have left the solar system. They have developed technologies that enable them to do that. So if you want to talk about frustrating, it's like the commercial, where were those cars of the future that you promised us back when I was a kid? Well, where are those spaceships? Where is that? I want that. You know, I made it through my entire career at NASA, where is that? There's frustration for you.

Ira Glass

Does it actually remind you in any real way of being in space?

Marsha Ivins

Absolutely none.

Ira Glass

None, it doesn't?

Marsha Ivins

Absolutely not. Well, all of those shows assume that there are some sort of magical gravity things, so that when you're in your vehicle, everybody's all walking on the floor. Well, not in our space program. They've got fighter jet flying. They have pointy noses and wings and they make them look like fighters. None of that is any advantage when there is no atmosphere. You don't need a wing. You don't need a pointed nose. You could be a box and have the same maneuverability as you do-- you know, the Borg had it right. They're a big cube. They're perfectly maneuverable, as opposed to the little Star Fighter with a pointed nose and the wings and the engine in the back.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, we have stories of dream jobs and how all those jobs, of course, have certain aspects that turn out to be not so perfectly dreamy.

Our show today in four acts. Act One, I'm Not a TV Star, But I Play One on TV. John Hodgman ends up on a dream job that he never even dreamt of himself. Act Two, Show Me the Annuity. In that act, a dream job that you have almost certainly never heard of, unless you have won $1 million in the lottery. Act Three, The Homesick Explorer. Sarah Vowell tells that story. Act Four, Just One Thing Missing, in which a girl is stopped from getting her dream job by one of the most powerful forces on this earth. Stay with us.

Act One. I'm Not A Tv Star, But I Play One On Tv.

Ira Glass

Act One, I'm Not a TV Star, But I Play One on TV.

John Hodgman was a magazine writer and he was a contributor to our radio show, and then he started appearing on television. He now appears about twice a month on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and he appears about one million times a month on a series of ads for Apple Computers. You've probably seen these ads, one of the most noticeable ad campaigns in the country. There's two guys against a white background, one's a Mac, one's a PC. John is the PC.

At one of our live shows in Los Angeles-- Los Angeles, of course, the epicenter of American television production-- John talked about what it is like to have this strange new job.

John Hodgman

Good evening. My name is John Hodgman. Thank you for meeting me here in Los Angeles. I've been enjoying getting to know your city of Los Angeles. Until recently, my only experience within LA had been as a child. I had come here in the early '80s with my dad. He was on business. He took me along. And we went to the Universal Studios tour, and this was traumatic.

What happened was we were sitting on some kind of a bench when I was approached by a small human dressed as Charlie Chaplin. At this time in my life, I had very long hair. I was 10 years old, but I had very long hair. It was a really stupid affectation, but the problem was that people routinely thought that I was a girl. And this would lead to occasional embarrassing situations. Double takes as I entered the men's room, for example. Or being expected, say, to kiss Charlie Chaplin on his white powdered cheek.

And so, after some predictable and annoying cane and bowler hat shenanigans, the moment came. Charlie Chaplin sat next to me and indicated that he was ready for me to kiss him. He waited me out. It was clear what was expected of me and what was going to happen. And finally, I let it happen. So that was my introduction to your city, a traumatic, gender-confused silent comedy date rape.

At the time, I had no idea why someone would expect a complete stranger to want to kiss them on the cheek. But now I understand, because now I am on television. Now my life has glamour.

There is an original definition of the word "glamour" that I did not know about until I read fantasy novels. A glamour is a kind of magical spell originally, to where glamour is to surround yourself with a kind of aura that causes people to see you in a different way, to see you as you are not. It's a disguise. And being on television, I've discovered, is sort of like wearing a disguise, one that you didn't necessarily choose to put on, and only other people can actually see it.

Over the past year, I've been trying to make sense of exactly how this all came about. I had written a book and I had been asked to be a guest on The Daily Show. And next I was asked to audition for a series of ads for a computer company. And I got that job, too. And just like that, I was on TV, pretty much by accident.

And as a result, I am an older, and fatter, and more jowly person than most people who are making their careers on TV, who are starting out on television now. Here are some of the words that blogs have used when describing me on television. "The pudgy John Hodgman." The chubby John Hodgman." "Round John Hodgman." "Stout John Hodgman." "Tubby John Hodgman." "Portly John Hodgman" and "Cutie." There's always an outlier. That last one came from a website that includes a regular feature mapping out celebrity sightings in New York City. And in this an anonymous tipster reported accurately that I was taking the B train south from my home in Manhattan. And I remembered this. I remember this exact thing happening. I was on the subway and I was wearing my brown jacket and my brown pants, and a neighbor had earlier said, you know, you look like a UPS guy in that outfit. And I was sort of thinking about that, and a woman got on the subway and sort of looked at me like, I know you. But then she just immediately started typing on her BlackBerry.

And then, a guy got on and did sort of the same kind of double take look. And which one of those people is the anonymous tipster? Which one thinks I am cutie?

So highly subjectively, the tipster reported that I was cutie. And then, returning once again to accuracy, the tipster reported I was dressed like a UPS man.

After that these strange brushes with fame, in which I bizarrely was the famous person, started coming about fairly frequently. Dateline, the Radio Shack, Big Y Plaza, Greenfield, Massachusetts, the young guy at the counter asked me to autograph an old receipt that he pulls out of the garbage.

What are you doing here? He asks in a way that conveys several more questions. What are you doing in Massachusetts? In Greenfield? At Radio Shack? At the Big Y Plaza?

I am buying speaker wire, I tell him.

The West Side Highway in the 20s, two men in a brown Chrysler pull up alongside my car. When spotted, double thumbs up.

The Apple Store, SoHo. General storewide freakout.

There are waves of double takes as I walk to buy a cable. The store greeter cannot believe it is me. She jumps up and down. The staff starts to play the ads that I'm in on a giant video screen.

Suddenly, I am like a mascot walking around a theme park. I'm Charlie Chaplin at Universal Studios, and everyone is rushing to kiss me.

Not long ago, I was spotted at the airport in New York on my way here. A successful looking businessman passed by me as I was waiting in line. He immediately smiled and said, what, no corporate jet for you?

Ha ha, I said.

Then the businessman said, whatever they're paying you, you ought to tell them, keep the cash and pay you in flights.

Ha ha, I said.

Beyond ha ha, I didn't know what to say, really, for two reasons. First, because prior to my being on television, businessmen in airports did not generally ever speak to me, or even see me. Second, I have to say I was a little confused. As best as I could make it out, this businessman's financial plan for me was as follows.

I should give up all payment for my work and instead, barter my services for free airfare. I wondered if he had taken his own advice. Had he given up his paycheck for a trip around the world? Had he left his family behind, the children he could no longer feed, and the wife who could not understand his weird decision? Did he now spend his days forever ascending and descending, buckling and unbuckling? And now was he trying to trick me, like a fairy in a fable, into joining his strange, lonely, floating world?

Still, I said, ha ha. In a way, that said, that's a good idea. Because I almost instinctively wanted to please him even though he was clearly insane.

Only much later, like, weeks later, would I consider a different explanation for his behavior, that the businessman was starstruck. He knew me from TV, he wanted to make a connection, and said the first thing that came to his head, a very, very bad business idea that made no sense. And I had to consider for the first time the possibility that I didn't need to please him, the successful businessman was trying to please me.

Not to complain, but this has been something of a difficult adjustment in my life. When you are in your 20s, it seems inevitable, somehow, that you will be on television, or an astronaut, or the president. It is hard-wired into every gland, this ambition to be known and renowned. And then, of course, you grow older, pudgier, stouter, more portly.

Then, just when you've discarded the last shred of a shred of a shred of the fantasy of, say, being an astronaut, to then have someone knock at your door one day and say, it's time. Suit up. It's time to go into outer space. It's exciting, but also unsettling. You think, why now? And your idea of yourself never really catches up. You put on the space suit and you learn to eat dehydrated food and poop while floating upside down or whatever. You adjust, but you never really feel like you're supposed to be up there, orbiting the earth. Thank you very much.

Ira Glass

John Hodgman recorded at Royce Hall in Los Angeles. He's the author of the book, The Areas of My Expertise.

[MUSIC - "FAME AND FORTUNE" BY MISSION OF BURMA]

Act Two. Show Me The Annuity.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Show Me the Annuity. Alex Blumberg has this story of a guy who ends up in what turns out to be the perfect job for him.

Alex Blumberg

Ed was working in a bar in Portland, Oregon, where he'd just moved with a bunch of friends from college, when he ran into trouble.

Oregon at the time had pioneered an innovative new method of playing the state lottery. They'd come out with these video poker terminals that you played five card stud on for money, just like if you're playing online or at a casino. The difference was that all the money you won or lost came in or out of the Oregon state lottery fund.

They were incredibly popular. Almost every bar in Portland had a few of these video poker machines. And Ed found them very hard to resist.

Ed Ugel

If I had to be some place, let's say, at 7 o'clock, and I had an hour to kill, then I'd play for an hour. If I had $50 in my pocket, odds are I'd play those $50. And so, for me, I was so embarrassed of the fact that I was doing that, that that's really how I was spending so much of my free time, that I would tend to seek out bars in parts of the city that I knew my friends would be least prone to be in. And those bars that I often went to were strip clubs. And the fact that there were naked girls dancing around was bonus. It was a nice treat, but it really wasn't why I was there. I went to the strip clubs because I figured that odds are no one else would be at a strip club at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday.

Alex Blumberg

So you went to the strip clubs to play the lottery?

Ed Ugel

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

It's like saying I read Playboy for the articles.

Ed Ugel

I know, but meaning it.

Alex Blumberg

And is it safe to say that one of the main reasons that you left Portland was because you were playing the lottery too much?

Ed Ugel

Absolutely. It was just better for all parties involved if I cut my losses and packed my truck and drove home, which is specifically what I did.

Alex Blumberg

Deep in debt and feeling pretty bad, Ed spent the next 14 months living in his parents' basement, stuck in a mid-20s career malaise. Until one night, he got a call from a friend saying that she'd met this guy. He owned a company and that the company was hiring.

Ed came in for an interview, and lo and behold, he got the job, a job that, before the interview, he hadn't even known existed, but for which he was strangely well prepared.

Ed Ugel

The company buys and sells long-term payment streams from lottery winners.

Alex Blumberg

The firm where Ed was hired was one of the first entrants into a fledgling industry, which called itself the lump sum industry. And to understand how it works, you have to understand a little about the lottery.

Most lottery winners, especially in the '90s, when Ed started his job, didn't get all their money up front, but got paid in installments, annuities.

So for example, if you won $1 million, that was actually only $50,000 a year for the next 20 years. 50,000 times 20 is a million. And with taxes, it's not even $50,000. It's more like $35,000.

Ed Ugel

One of the big problems that comes as a result of that is that the way these winners are marketed to and the way, when they win, they say, $1 winner, millionaire, millionaire in all these different capacities. And on their billboards and in their radio advertising and TV advertising. And even though they know that they just got a check for $35,000, they go out and they start acting like they think a millionaire should act. And so, even though they've only got $35,000 in the bank, they go out and they buy a Porsche or they buy an Escalade, or they buy a new house, or two new houses, or six cars, or whatever it might be. And almost instantly, they get themselves in real hot water financially because they're living how they think they should, or think they can.

Alex Blumberg

If you think you're a millionaire, and in reality what you're getting is an extra $35,000 a year, not only are you not a millionaire, you've barely cracked the next income level, basically. You know, you're barely in a different tax bracket.

Ed Ugel

You're absolutely right. And believe me, broke lottery winners or financially troubled lottery winners are the rule. They are hardly the exception.

Alex Blumberg

Ed's job was to find these broke lottery winners and offer them cash up front, a lump sum, in exchange for the yearly checks they'd be getting from the lottery. Of course, the lump sum would be less than the total value of the long-term payments. So if you won $1 million, your lump sum would be about half that.

Ed Ugel

The industry advertises. They advertise on television, Judge Judy or all the daytime People's Court kind of things.

Alex Blumberg

And then, generally, somebody will see an ad and then they'll call in to the firm.

Ed Ugel

Yeah, and back when I first started there, we got so many call-ins that you could literally cherry pick. I mean, it was as competitive as the industry became. Back then, it was like the Wild Wild West. And not to mention, of course, there was a tremendous amount of cold calling out to them.

Alex Blumberg

Jus pretend that I'm a lottery winner. You got me on the phone. What would you say as a cold caller? What do you say to me?

Ed Ugel

Well, you know, anything you can do not to get hung up on is a good place to start. Any question that you could ask that was going to give you a nugget to be able to work off of. You're trying to figure out, are they in any type of financial hardship, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, a financial hardship might be that their daughter's getting married in the fall and they want to throw her a big lottery-winner wedding. And it could be something as sad as the fact that they're going bankrupt or they opened a restaurant and-- like, so many lottery winners open a restaurant, and they don't know the first thing about opening restaurants. And I mean, there's so many failed bars and restaurants that lottery winners sank money into. But anything that you could do to try to find out what they need money for, even if it hadn't occurred to them.

Alex Blumberg

Ed quickly worked his way up, eventually becoming the best salesmen in the company, with a corner office and a multiple six-figure income.

One thing to keep in mind. Ed was a middleman. He wasn't buying the lottery payments for himself, but on behalf of investors who put up a lump sum of cash now for a guaranteed income stream over the next 20 years. So if an investor was willing to pay, say, $500,000, and Ed got the lottery winner to agree to $480,000, then the firm made $20,000, A big portion of which went to Ed.

The smaller the amount Ed got the lottery winner to agree to, the more money Ed made. And so the last thing Ed wanted to do was get into a deep discussion about the ins and outs of every deal, which, surprisingly, most lottery winners didn't want to do either.

What Ed found was that, if lottery winners felt like they could relate to him, could trust him, then they'd be much more willing to do the deal, no matter what the terms. And Ed found it wasn't hard to get them comfortable because they actually had a lot in common.

Ed Ugel

It was just a natural fit for me. One of the biggest things that helped me was my intimate understanding of the mind of a gambler.

A fellow I did a deal with in Florida, we went to a notary to get certain pages of the contracts, all the contracts needed to be signed. Some of the signature pages needed to be notarized. And this notary happened to also sell lottery tickets. And when we went and got these pages notarized, he whipped out a wad of bills out of his pocket and bought 1,000 scratch tickets while the notary slash lottery ticket salesperson was notarizing the signature pages on his contract to sell me his annuity from the lottery win. He was sitting there. He didn't even look at the contracts. He's just scratching away. He couldn't even wait to get away from the booth. I'll never forget the way the notary looked at me sort of in awe. And yeah, it was a little daunting, a little bizarre seeing it. But I knew just who this cat was. I'd been that guy. And I would like to think that maybe I was a little bit better than scratch tickets in the airport, but I don't know that scratch tickets in the airport are that much classier than video poker machines in the strip clubs of Oregon.

Alex Blumberg

Do you think that that was part of what made you good, that you could see yourself making the exact same choices that they had made?

Ed Ugel

I think it was my secret weapon. Forget about what I pretended to be in the office, but I knew who I was when I looked in the mirror. And I knew I was a lottery winner. I just never bought a ticket.

Alex Blumberg

We've all heard stories about how winning the lottery can be a mixed blessing, with the unwanted attention and the cousins of friends of coworkers looking for handouts. But when Ed discusses lottery winners, it can sound like he's talking about someone getting cancer. Because in his experience, it's not even a mixed blessing. It's a catastrophe.

Of the winners he's met, he figures 80% of them wished they'd never won. More money often just intensifies your own worst tendencies and allows you to get in much worse trouble, be it through gambling, philandering, drinking, or just plain boneheadedness than you ever could have at $15 an hour. And, he says, it makes you paranoid.

He did a deal with one woman. He showed up at her house for their appointment.

Ed Ugel

I get into her front yard and the second I opened-- there's a gate to her front yard. And she opened her front door, purposely letting out maybe seven or eight huge dogs that cornered me. I'm a dog person. I grew up with dogs. I love dogs, but not these dogs. These dogs literally cornered me in the corner of her yard. And I kept this sort of smile on my face thinking that, OK, this is a little awkward, but I don't want to ruin the deal. She's obviously coming out to deal with the dogs. She's going to come and she's going to pull the dogs off me. But she just sort of cracked her head outside. And I'm sitting there. I have my hands up and I have my briefcase over my shoulder. And she says to me, she says, do you have an offer?

I thought she was kidding. At first I did. I laughed. I remember nervously laughing. But it kind of quickly occurred to me that maybe these dogs out in the yard wasn't fully a mistake on her part. If nothing else, it surely got my attention. And I will tell you, it worked. It did. I mean those dogs made her at least $10,000.

Alex Blumberg

But the dogs were just the tip of the paranoia iceberg. The woman agreed to Ed's figure from her doorway, grabbed her keys, and said, let's go. They headed to the notary, she in her car, Ed in his rental. But when Ed pulled into the parking space at the notary, the woman zoomed away. Eventually, she called Ed from a pay phone and told him that she was reconsidering. Ed tried to talk her down over the phone, but this was a little difficult.

Ed Ugel

I guess she had watched too many cop shows or too many movies, because even though I'd been at her house, and I'd spoken to her on the phone, and I knew what her phone number was, and I knew where to find if I wanted her, she was afraid, somehow, that on my cellphone that I would be able to figure out where she was if she stayed on the phone with me for more than 30 seconds at a time. Because in the movies-- and who knows if it's true-- but classically, that's how long it takes to tap a phone or to do a search, or whatever it, where you find out their location.

So for the next two days, I'm down in this town in Virginia. And we developed a whole new relationship on the phone, sort of starting from scratch and going through the entire sales process. But now, we'd be talking and you could literally set your watch to it. And we would talk for-- you know, 30 seconds isn't a hell of a long time when you're try to get a deal done. And every 30 seconds, boom, she'd hang up again. And she'd call right back. Or she'd wait a minute or two, or whatever it was. But the one thing I tried to do was not to talk too fast. I didn't want to seem like I was fazed by the fact that I only had 30 seconds. And so I'd be very casual. And I'd ask her how she's doing and if she's thought anymore about it.

And then sometimes in the middle of a sentence she'd just hang up. And sometimes even when she was feeling, I guess, a little bit more relaxed, she'd forget about the 30 seconds and I'd even remind her. And then she'd hang up. And I'd sit there and wait and then she'd call me back on my phone. And this went on for two days. That's the way, in the end, that we were able to get our deal done, is if she was able to regain a sense of control that she somehow felt she had lost pulling into the notary.

Alex Blumberg

Do you think that she was that paranoid before, or do you think this was all because she was a lottery winner?

Ed Ugel

I think that it was as a direct result of the lottery. I think that it was an absolute cause effect.

Alex Blumberg

Ed left his job after seven years, partly for reasons anyone leaves a high stakes, high pressure sales job: the stress, the competition, the constant travel. But there was another part, too. Ed believed in the lump sum option. Still does. It makes more sense to take the money up front and invest it, than it does to let the state hold onto it interest free for 20 years. But it doesn't necessarily make sense to buy the lump sum from Ed, the middle man, because he's taking a cut for himself. And this was the inescapable truth to Ed's job, a truth that, because he identified so much with lottery winners, he found it especially hard to ignore.

The more the lottery winners liked him, the less likely they were to notice how big a cut he took. And the more desperate they were for cash, the more lucrative Ed's deal was likely to be.

Ed Ugel

There was a fella who needed to do a deal and needed to do a deal right away. And in the lump sum game, that's real good. But the reason that it gave me sort of the heebie-jeebies was why he needed to do the deal.

This fella, who's a terrific guy, but he needed to sell his entire prize in five minutes, so he could put a half million dollars into a very famous defense attorney's bank account so that he, the attorney, would defend his son, the lottery winner's son, in a murder trial. And the son, as we speak, was found guilty. He was found guilty in his appeal. A young kid, 18, 19 years old, killed a woman. And this winner, he had to get in bed with the lump sum industry and he had to sell his payment under very rushed circumstances, which, of course, is to his detriment. And he had to do all that because he was trying to save his son from going to prison for the rest of his life.

And in the end, he got a good deal, but we made a few dollars, too. And I think that that sort of ambiguity was always present in a lottery deal. It was always there. It was always sort of riding shotgun in the car with me, that, yeah, I might be solving his problem, but I'm sure as hell not hurting mine.

Alex Blumberg

And it's also sort of like in a way you're profiting from his problem.

Ed Ugel

Not in a way, absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with that, but isn't there? That's OK. I mean, people profit all the time from other people's problems, but it never made me feel great. You know what I mean? Like, you were looking for people that were in bad shape because people who are in bad shape put me in good shape.

Alex Blumberg

In the year since Ed first got into the business, the lump sum industry has gone through huge changes. New companies entered the field, increasing competition. The states themselves got into the action. A decade ago, almost none of them offered a lump sum option to their lottery winners. Today, almost all of them do.

And they offer pretty much the exact same terms Ed was offering, roughly $0.5 million up front on a $1 million win, but minus, of course, Ed's commission. The state has effectively cut out the middlemen like Ed. The overwhelming majority of winners take their deal.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our program. Ed Ugel has written a book about his time in the lottery industry. It comes out in September and is called, Money for Nothing.

Coming up, out on the frontier, treading the new world. The only thing lacking is a salt shaker. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "WORK SONG" BY VINCE GUERALDI]

Act Three. The Homesick Explorer.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Nice Work If You Can Get It, stories about people who land dream jobs, and how even dream jobs have parts that aren't really necessary so dreamy.

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, The Homesick Explorer.

When we think of the Fremont expeditions to map the American West, as we so often do, we think of epic men, the kind of men who don't call their jobs jobs. They call their jobs destinies. Well, Sarah Vowell has some thoughts about one of the lesser-known guys on that trip, and the job he did.

Sarah Vowell

John Charles Fremont was the spirited flashing light of a man from whom Las Vegas' flashy, lit-up Fremont Street would one day get its name.

In 1842, the United States government sent him to lead one of the most important expeditions of the 19th century, a mission to make maps and issue reports on what would come to be called the Oregon Trail. He hired the famous fur trapper and mountaineer, Kit Carson, to be the expedition scout. To make maps and drawings along the way, Fremont employed a German immigrant named Charles Preuss.

Fremont's lively report to Congress of his findings, illustrated with Preuss's drawings and maps, became a bestseller. And Preuss's map of the Oregon trail Congress published in 1846 was soon crammed into the glove box of every Conestoga rolling West.

If you ever had to reach across a copy of the Book of Mormon blocking the Parmesan cheese at a pizza place outside of Provo, it's because Brigham Young was so intrigued with Fremont's description of the bucolic area surrounding Utah's Great Salt Lake, he promptly moved his Mormon brethren there.

So Charles Preuss was one of the most important, influential, and talented cartographers of his generation. Problem was, this excellent mapmaker just so happened to loathe pretty much every minute of actual exploring. Preuss's diaries from his three trips out West with Fremont seethe with manly, gung-ho cowboy bravery like--

Dermot Mulroney

I wish I were at the market with a shopping basket.

Sarah Vowell

Or, mulling over the roasting mule meat that is to be his dinner.

Dermot Mulroney

What a treat it would be with a bottle of wine. But stop, that thought is too beautiful.

Sarah Vowell

Preuss's boss on the trip, John Charles Fremont, was manifest destiny's advance man. As a young surveyor, he'd cut his teeth mapping the Cherokee lands in the southeast in the 1830s, so the US government had an accurate account of the real estate it was about to steal.

Later on, Fremont came home from his expeditions out West a hero and celebrity. His nickname, "The Pathfinder." He went on to become the first presidential candidate of the Republican party. And the signature image used for all his later self-promotion, including his presidential campaign, was one incident from his Western journeys. It became the iconic moment of his life, what crossing the Delaware was for Washington, what tripping over the ottoman was for Dick Van Dyke. Fremont climbed alone to what he thought was the highest peak in the Rockies, stood up straight and tall and jabbed an American flag into the mountain top, Old Glory whipping defiantly in the icy wind.

Think about the kind of person you have to be to do that, to be so unapologetically grand.

Preuss, meanwhile, was farther down the mountain, striking a less Neil Armstrongy pose.

Dermot Mulroney

I slipped, sat down on my pants, and slid downhill at a great speed. Although I made all efforts to hold back by trying to dig my fingers into the icy crust, I slid down about 200 feet until the bare rock stopped me again. When I arrived, I rolled over twice and got away with two light bruises, one on my right arm, and one on my arse. The pain made me sit still for a few minutes.

Sarah Vowell

Fremont wrote of this climb that, standing where never a human foot had stood before, that he "felt the exaltation of first explorers."

Preuss put it this way.

Dermot Mulroney

All my pants are torn.

Sarah Vowell

Preuss's resentment of the bugs, the landscape, the Indians, and the monotony, pales compared to his many varied flipouts about food. His entry for June 12, 1842 cheers up with the slaughter of an ox. Preuss thinks that after the meat ages overnight--

Dermot Mulroney

Tomorrow, to be sure, it will taste excellent.

Sarah Vowell

June 13.

Dermot Mulroney

It did not taste excellent.

Sarah Vowell

Preuss has an entire subset of food complaints involving salt and the lack thereof. One of his happiest entries takes place in the Sierra Mountains on February 15, 1843, near what is now the California-Nevada border.

Dermot Mulroney

The great good news is that the men have bartered rock salt from the Indians. Just now, Taplin is bringing in a big lump.

Sarah Vowell

Preuss was so giddy about the salt that he doesn't mention what the expedition was doing while they were waiting around for the seasoning to show up: discovering Lake Tahoe.

It makes sense that Preuss, a man who was outstanding at measuring and drawing and using barometric data to construct a two-dimensional topographical representation of a mountain, might suck at climbing said mountain. Cartography was Preuss's calling. But in order for him to do the job he loved to do, he had to live a life he hated.

The thing I admire most about Charles Preuss is that Fremont, his boss, apparently had no idea just how miserable the cartographer was on the job. Preuss' diaries were meant for one reader, his wife, and they weren't published until 1958, after Preuss and all his colleagues had been dead for a century.

In fact, Fremont commended Preuss for "his even temper and patient endurance of hardship," noting Preuss had a "cheerful philosophy of his own, which often brightened dark situations."

I respect that. Preuss had a job to do and he bucked up and did it.

The other people on these expeditions, John Charles Fremont, and his legendary scout, Kit Carson, are the sort of grand, hardy, how-the-west-was-won figures who are easily made into colossal statues. But there's something comforting, even heroic, about a human scale footnote like Preuss, a man who made history even though all he ever wanted was to make maps.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell. She's the author most recently of Assassination Vacation. Charles Preuss' diaries were read by actor Dermot Mulroney.

[MUSIC - "DESERT BLUES" BY JIMMIE RODGERS]

Act Four. Just One Thing Missing.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Just One Thing Missing.

Well, we end our show today with somebody who was blocked from getting their dream job, blocked by the government of the United States of America. Douglas McGray has the story. He's changed the name of the woman in this story to protect her identity.

Douglas McGray

Martha doesn't like to talk about her future anymore. She'd wanted to go to med school, become an OB/GYN. And she's exactly the kind of kid everyone roots for.

She grew up in a poor, mostly immigrant neighborhood in east LA, where most people didn't graduate from high school, and nobody talked about college. But Martha got into UCLA. She couldn't believe it, UCLA.

She majored in chemistry, threw herself into six-hour lab sessions, ran a volunteer organization on campus. But the fact is, she can't become a doctor. She can't work at all in the United States, not legally, anyway. She's an undocumented immigrant. Her mother brought her to the US from Mexico when she was nine.

So now she's a waitress, earning minimum wage, working off the books. And it may be the best job she can hope to get. The worst part?

Martha

Well, first of all, I suck at it. My boss always gets these complaints for me. Oh, she takes too long to get my drinks. She forgot to put this on my order. She changed my order. I asked her well done and she brought medium. And I'm extremely clumsy. I really suck at it. I can't multitask. I'm horrible at that. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm very clumsy by nature and you can't be a clumsy waitress. You know, that's like an oxymoron. And that's one thing.

And the other thing is I am a very proud person. I don't like people treating me a certain way. So many people have come and told me, oh, here, here's $20 for the milk for your baby boy. People look at me and right off the bat assume that I have a bunch of children, I'm probably a single mother. And that bothers me. And I don't know. I think being a waitress bothers me because people don't see my potential.

Douglas McGray

When Martha arrived at UCLA, she figured she'd be the only undocumented kid there. But she was wrong. She found others. A high school valedictorian and prom queen from Compton who went to UCLA when the Marines rejected her. Only legal residents can enlist.

Another valedictorian, brought to the United States as an infant who spoke her first word in English. A shy girl who arrived as a toddler and took 11 AP classes in high school. They're a tiny, close community. They actually have a small student club. They go out and mentor undocumented high school kids and raise money for scholarships. And they understand each other in a way that no one else can, like what they go through to stay in school.

Most live really far from campus. Two and a half hours in Martha's case. And they have to be creative to survive.

Martha

Being on hobo mode is something that we students, undocumented students, specifically, that's what we call it. It's living on campus because we don't have a home near campus because we can't afford it. It's really expensive. So we'd stay here days at a time. Sometimes a week. Or sometimes, in my case, I did it weeks at a time. I would stay in the library and sleep in the library. I would store my food in, like, a lounge in a building. I would take showers in the locker room. And I would store all my clothing because I'd bring underwear. I'd bring a change of clothes for every single day and store it in the locker room. It's really difficult to do that. And also, it's kind of stigmatizing because you kind of get ashamed if people find out you're in hobo mode.

Douglas McGray

20 years ago, California allowed undocumented kids to go to state universities with financial aid and everything. Five years later, the courts reversed that. Kids like Martha would have to pay huge out-of-state fees. Four years after that, a ballot initiative barred undocumented kids from college altogether. Then the courts got involved again.

Today, the laws for someone like Martha are different in every state. 10 states, including California and Texas, allow undocumented kids to go to state schools and pay in-state tuition, but no financial aid, no Pell Grant, no work study job, not even a student loan.

To apply for a green card, which would solve all their problems, Martha would have to quit school, move to Mexico, wait in a line that can stretch 10 or 15 years, and most likely get rejected.

Last year, Martha found a perfect job to support herself, on campus even. But she couldn't accept it. A UCLA professor needed a research assistant, someone to help her interview Spanish-speaking families in East LA. Martha knew the neighborhood, spoke Spanish fluently. The professor called Martha to say she got the job.

Martha

And I got the phone call. I was so excited. I was like, oh my God. This is a really good job. But it didn't click to me that I was going to be on the payroll. I thought, oh, well, maybe she can just pay me cash or whatever. I was very naive. And I was really bummed out. But I try not to think about it too much.

David McGray

What kept you motivated through all of this?

Martha

Med school. I want to go to med school. I wanted to be-- I still want to. I mean, there's still a possibility it could happen, it's just not now.

David McGray

Why do you want to be a doctor?

Martha

I want to be a doctor because I've always seen myself as a public servant. But I also see myself as a scientist. And to me, that's the only thing that I see myself doing. Because it gains you respect from people. And well, right now, I try not to think about it because it depresses me that I can't do it right now.

David McGray

Listening to you, I get the sense that you think that respect is something you have to fight for.

Martha

Yes. Unfortunately, not everybody gets respect just by being a human being. I'm not the kind of person that seeks power. I don't like that. I don't want to rule people. You know, that's not what I want. I'm not ambitious in that sense. I just would like to be someone whose opinion people respect. Someone like, say, oh, there's this really important issue that we need to solve and we need your help. Or someone that people will say, oh, look, there she is. Let's go talk to her because we really like her work. We really like what she does. That kind of thing.

Douglas McGray

When Martha and I talked, she kept calling herself a quitter. She said the word like it was the worst word she knew. She said it over and over. I told her she was being ridiculous. I've known Martha for almost two years and I've never seen someone put so much pressure on herself.

When her grades were mediocre, she wouldn't blame her home life, or her commute, or the pair of double waitressing shifts she worked most weekends. She would just say she hadn't tried hard enough.

One quarter, desperate to find more time to study, she actually started driving to school even though it scared her to drive without a license. As an undocumented immigrant, she's not allowed to get one.

I kept asking her, what do you mean, quitter? Finally, she explained.

Martha

Fall quarter, I just gave up on myself. I dropped all my classes and I withdrew from the quarter, because I felt so tired. I felt like, I don't want to do this anymore.

David McGray

That was the quarter that you were going to graduate at the end of that quarter?

Martha

Right at that quarter. Can you believe that? It was the last quarter. I could have just worked harder, but I didn't. I was just so overwhelmed. My future is so uncertain and so unbelievably sad that I think to myself, well, why should I try, like, harder? I just gave up on that. [CRYING] Sorry. I shouldn't give up because a lot of people don't and the fact that I do really hurts me.

None of my friends know. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't talk to anybody about it, because it's really embarrassing for me to say that I'm such a quitter.

Douglas McGray

What happened to Martha is she saw graduation approaching and after it, nothing. The blankness of her future, suddenly only weeks away, drained the fight right out of her. Her entire college career seemed like a mean joke. She had exhausted herself working twice as hard as most of her classmates to get a UCLA education, Plus waitressing, plus the commute, plus cooking and cleaning when her parents were working, which was most of the time. And for what? She had no way to pay for a medical degree, and no hope of becoming a licensed doctor if she did.

There's a very simple solution to all of this. A bill called the Dream Act would offer conditional citizenship to those few kids, like Martha, who grow up in the United States and make it to college or the military.

If they get a degree, or finish their service, they become full citizens. By 2004, the Senate version of the Dream Act had actually picked up 47 co-sponsors. But the Dream Act keeps getting bogged down in immigration politics, tacked onto a bunch of big, messy immigration proposals that nobody in Congress could agree on.

Earlier this year, the Dream Act was introduced again in the House and Senate.

David McGray

How would your working life change if you became a legal resident or a citizen tomorrow?

Martha

Wow, the possibilities are endless. The sky's the limit. I mean, I could take any job I wanted. And I'm good at a lot of things. I mean, I could take any job at any lab. I could work for UCLA.

Sometimes I think, well, what if it's not enough, that I'll still be unhappy? But the more I think about it, that's not a possibility. I mean, yes, a green card's not going to buy you happiness, but it's going to buy you a lot of peace of mind. It really is. Just being able to work with dignity.

Douglas McGray

Martha went back to school a few days ago, and I don't think her temporary dropout counts as quitting, no matter how she sees it. She hasn't given up hope. Maybe the laws will change. Maybe there'll be a normal life for her here after all. She graduates in June.

Ira Glass

Douglas McGray. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Seth Lind and Tommy Andres. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Our longtime webmaster, Elizabeth Meister, who created our website, is retiring from the website to go make radio herself. She has done an amazing job thinking through what it is that we would do on the internet in the first place and then making it happen for so many years. I do not know what would be doing on the web without her. Elizabeth, we all wish you the best.

You can see the latest incarnation of our website, souped up now with podcasts and free video, at www.thisamericanlife.org.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who cannot wait to slip into his monogrammed silk bathrobe, ease into his leather chair and listen to this week's shows.

Dermot Mulroney

What a treat it would be with a bottle of wine. But stop, that thought is too beautiful.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.