Transcript

346:

Home Alone
Transcript

Originally aired 12.21.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/346

Prologue.

Announcer

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Ira Glass

When holiday season began last November, Yvonne started getting it from all sides, friends, family.

Yvonne

I think people look at me sometimes, because I live alone, and think that I'm lonely. Like, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I had to really convince everybody that it's OK. I'm going to be home alone on Thanksgiving. Go to Virginia, go to auntie whomever. Do your thing. And I'm going to be fine. Well, you know. No, I'm really going to be fine.

Ira Glass

Yvonne talked to researcher Allison McKim and our producer, John Jeter. She's lived alone since her kids moved out 12 years ago, and she says it took her five years before she came to actually enjoy it.

Yvonne

I like the fact that it is self-indulgent. What I want to eat, whether I choose to talk to anybody on the phone, if I want the TV and the radio going at the same time. And I'm not looking at or listening to either one.

I enjoy cooking, so cooking is not an issue, per se. But I don't want to have to do anything. And so, I would want to cook when I want to, and I don't even want to compromise on it. OK, so you do Wednesday and Thursday, and I'll do-- No, I'll do it when I feel like it. I want to do everything I feel like doing when I feel like doing it.

It's like killing a waterbug. I'm going to run from it if I'm here by myself. But if, like you two are here, I was like, oh, no. I'll get it. I'll get it. Where's the spray? I can do that with other people, but I can just be the coward that I am when I'm alone.

Allison Mckim

And you don't have to save face.

Yvonne

Right, exactly. Exactly.

Ira Glass

When she gets involved with men, they're perfectly fine, she says. But eventually she always decides that she would enjoy being alone more. Though, at first, she was scared to live alone, scared that somebody was going to break in, scared about how she was going to fill her time. That took some getting used to. And these days, she's afraid what's going to happen to her when she gets older, which is something her daughter worries about, too.

Yvonne

Yeah, she's worried that I'm going to be old, broke, possibly sick, and maybe unhappy that I've made this choice. Like, the rest of them, they want to see me happy, and they don't believe that I can be happy unless I have a companion.

Every now and then, the thought occurs to me, what if they're right? It does happen every now and then. What if they're right? If this is as good as it gets, right now, and then I'm on to steady decline. You'll have to interview me in 20 years, when I'll say, why didn't you stop me then, when I had a chance? I don't know. I'm good right now.

Ira Glass

Today in our radio show, Home Alone. We have three stories today of people living alone. Act One is the story of detective work in the homes of those who live by themselves. Act Two is about a teenager who ends up living all alone. Act three is about a woman who has to trick an armed man into doing the right thing. It's This American Life, from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. Stay with us.

Act One. Plot Without A Story.

Ira Glass

Act One, A Plot Without a Story. You may remember a couple years back in Chicago, in 1995, over 700 people died after a massive heat wave. And hundreds of them died alone, at home. Well, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote a book about all this, called Heat Wave. And he says people die alone like this all the time, all over the country. In fact, big cities have special personnel to deal with those deaths, who travel, Eric says, in the secret society of those who live and die alone.

In Los Angeles, the county has an entire department, 100 people, just to manage the bodies and belongings of the deceased. And we sent Eric to LA, to watch what they do.

Eric Klinenberg

Mary Ann lived alone, and she died that way, too. She was 79 years old when she called herself an ambulance and went into the hospital. Her life ended there two weeks later, after a full cardiac arrest. She didn't have a friend or relative at her side. In fact, the only person she'd even listed as an emergency contact was this woman, Sue, who delivered drugs for her pharmacy.

Sue

I was really surprised when they called me and said that my name was on there as the person to contact. I went, oh, really. OK. I didn't even know if she had a brother or had family.

Eric Klinenberg

Sue last heard from Mary Ann on a phone call from the hospital. She left an urgent message, pleading with Sue to feed and look after her dogs, who were chained up outside the house.

Sue

When she called, she was just crying, because she said, if somebody doesn't pick up the mail, they'll take her dogs away. And she said, they're all I have. She goes, I promise I won't cheat you. I'll pay you. I wasn't worried about that. It just broke my heart a little bit, you know, she would think that that's all she had. That's what she said.

Eric Klinenberg

This is the hospital where Mary Ann died. It's been two weeks, and her body's still here. No one's planned a funeral, or even picked up her things.

Emily

The only personal property left at the hospital, according to their records, is a purse with glasses.

Eric Klinenberg

This is Emily [? Issa ?]. She's a deputy investigator for the Los Angeles County Public Administrator, which means she's sort of like a detective for people who die alone. Emily combs through the remains of people's lives, trying to figure out what they left behind and who should get it, searching for next of kin. Emily and her colleagues get 3,000 cases each year.

Emily

Hi. I'm here to see Carla Moreno in Patient Services, to pick up some property for a decedent.

Eric Klinenberg

In this case, Mary Ann was single, with no known siblings or children. But she owned her house. She had a bank account, and who knows what other valuables in her home. Now someone stands to inherit it, and it's Emily's job to find out who. She's looking for someone who knew Mary Ann, to lead her to a relative. There's also the question of who's going to bury her. Before Emily's finished, she wants to resolve that, too.

We start our search at the Patient Services Office. There's a nun working there. And, at first, we think she might know something helpful, because when she sees Mary Ann's name on the case file, her face lights up.

Nun

Oh. I know her.

Emily

How well did you know her?

Nun

I just met her a couple of times, was able to visit her. Yeah. Just when she was here. Anyway, so let's just have you--

Emily

She ever mention anything about family to you? Did she ever--

Nun

No.

Eric Klinenberg

The nun hands Emily a big plastic bag. Inside is everything Mary Ann brought with her to the hospital, and Emily starts combing through it, looking for clues. There's a fluffy blue robe, a small black purse.

Emily

There's some medication, some baby powder, just some glasses, typical things you'd find in a female's purse. These are coupons. Here's the ads that she got the coupons from.

Eric Klinenberg

None of this is of much use to Emily. She needs contact information, an address book, a cell phone with some names on the speed-dial. There's nothing like that in the purse. She finds a notebook, and she flips through it in search of a personal note, maybe a list of last wishes. But every page is blank. What she does get is a set of keys to Mary Ann's house. And Emily tells me that the best-case scenario is that, once we get there, we'll find a will or some instructions. That only happens rarely, and in her line of work, it's like hitting the jackpot.

Emily

I've been out to a case where I walked in, and on the night stand next to the bed, it said "In case of emergency." And I opened the envelope, and it had listed everything that I would want to know. And I'm like, wow. That's five minutes and I'm done.

Eric Klinenberg

Mary Ann's case isn't that easy. When we get to her house, the two dogs are still chained up in the yard, so Emily calls animal control to take them away. The outside of Mary Ann's house is a mess. The wood panels are rotting. There's powdery gray dirt where grass should be. An old Volkswagen minibus with flat tires sits in the dusty driveway.

The inside's even worse. It's dark and dusty, cluttered with stacks of video cassettes, empty juice cans, boxes from the Home Shopping Network, many never even opened.

Emily

I'm putting on my gloves so that we can start looking through the house.

Eric Klinenberg

Emily, who seems completely unfazed by all this, declares it mildly pack-rat.

Eric Klinenberg

This seems really pack-rat to me. There's not an inch of--

Emily

You can walk on the ground. You can still see the ground. We see plenty of cases where you can't even walk on the ground. There is no floor, because it's packed with stuff where you're climbing over.

Eric Klinenberg

Emily is so used to places like this that she never goes on a search without gloves and tennis shoes, not to mention a mask, in case the person died at home and wasn't found for awhile. Usually, she has to dig around.

Emily doesn't just open drawers and medicine cabinets. If she has to, she climbs to the attic. She breaks down locked doors. She once found someone's business records in a refrigerator.

Emily

OK, so let me start poking around here.

Eric Klinenberg

Emily is searching through Mary Ann's living room. You can tell she has basically condensed her life into this one area. There's an unmade makeshift day bed in front of the dusty television.

Emily

So right now I'm just lifting up all of the different layers of the bed, the padding and blankets that are here. You'd be surprised how many times we actually find people that hide money and things under their bed.

Eric Klinenberg

But there's nothing under there, just stacks of egg crates and musty blankets.

Emily

Oh, back here. This is a table and chairs.

Eric Klinenberg

There's an entire dining room set hidden under the clutter. Emily seizes on a stack of mail and canceled checks and starts rifling through it, but she doesn't find what she's looking for. No business card from an attorney, no photos of friends or relatives, not even a personal check, just payments to AARP, Ladies Home Journal, TV Guide. In fact, there's not a single sign that there was another person in Mary Ann's life, and I find that much stranger than the mess.

Eric Klinenberg

Is this unusual? I mean, we've now been here for maybe 45 minutes and we've not found a single personal item.

Emily

Not at all.

Eric Klinenberg

It's not unusual?

Emily

Not at all. It's hard to describe, but there is a common thread that runs through a lot of our cases, where it's just like this, people surrounding themselves with things, things rather than people. But she's surrounded herself. She almost built herself into a little cave here, behind all of her stuff. And you can tell that this is where she spent most of her time.

Eric Klinenberg

Emily's just looking for contact information, not to piece together someone's life story. But sometimes she gets those stories anyway. She tells me about one case that she can't stop thinking about. A woman's husband died in World War II. She survived another 60 years, but her personal correspondence was a record of how she'd tried to avoid moving on.

Emily

I found the letters from the military telling her that his plane went down and that they couldn't find him. I found the letter that said, we found his plane now and he's still missing. And then I found the final letter that said, we found your husband's body. And she stopped living. Never remarried. They never had children. I mean, she just was-- it was like a time warp. She just completely cut off the rest of the world.

Eric Klinenberg

It's remarkable how little we find out about Mary Ann. We learn that her mother once lived with her at this address. There's lots of mail to her. Her father married four times. Her mom was the third marriage. She was into herbal medicine and natural remedies. She had microchipped the dogs. Emily tells me she doesn't want to make a personal connection with the people she's investigating. She doesn't usually try to figure them out, because there are just so many of them. It would be hard to take. But I have to ask.

Eric Klinenberg

Do you ever wonder who she thought would clean this up?

Emily

No. It's never even crossed my mind to think of. Most of the time, you see these people don't want anybody in here. People who knew them never knew that they had this part of their lives that existed.

Eric Klinenberg

She must have known that someday she would die, and someone would come in and find all these things.

Emily

Maybe it's just part of her knowing that she has no one to leave it to. Where, who cares about my mess? Because I don't have anyone to leave my stuff anyway, so I might as well leave a mess.

Eric Klinenberg

After nearly two hours, the only thing we found that might help Emily find a relative is a 30-year-old Christmas card addressed to Mary Ann and her mother. It's from a family in Virginia, and they must be related, because in the card they ask for help with the family tree for the kids. Emily deposits it in a clear plastic bag she'll bring back to the office.

Emily seals the front door and walks outside. A few neighbors are looking at us curiously, and she asked them what they know about Mary Ann.

Emily

Did you ever see her? Did she have family?

Luis

After more than 20 years, I had never seen no visitors.

Eric Klinenberg

This is Luis, who owns the house next door, and he says Mary Ann was never all that friendly.

Luis

She doesn't seems to be very happy lady. Lonely. A lonely person is not a happy person. She was very lonely most of the years.

Eric Klinenberg

George, another neighbor, had a different take. He thought she was happy.

George

Yeah, all the time she talked with us. She talked with my son. And every day I come from work, about 3:30, 4 o'clock, and she sometimes on the porch. Hi, Mary. Hi, George.

Eric Klinenberg

So George thinks Mary Ann was happy. Luis thinks unhappy. Emily tells me this probably says more about Luis and George, and their personal feelings about people who are alone than Mary Ann. There's a stigma against living alone, and an even stronger one against dying alone. I think one reason Emily is so well-suited for her job is that she believes most people live the way they want to live. She may be right, but I'm not so sure. When someone keeps to herself, there's no way to know whether she lived and died outside the reach of friends and family because she preferred it that way or because of things beyond her control.

Emily

Good afternoon. My name is Emily [? Issa ?]. I'm a deputy calling from the Los Angeles County--

Eric Klinenberg

Back in her cubicle, Emily makes a bunch of phone calls. She tracks down the number of the man whose name was on the one clue she found in Mary Ann's house, the 30-year-old Christmas card. His name is Terry. He asked me not to use his last name. But when Emily gets him on the phone, there's a problem. He's got no idea who Mary Ann is. Terry tells Emily to call his ex-wife. She's the one who actually wrote the card. Moments later, Emily's talking to her.

Emily

Oh, he's the one that gave me the phone number for you, and he said he had never heard of her. So you think that she was his aunt. I see.

Eric Klinenberg

The ex-wife was partly right. Mary Ann was a relative Terry's, but a distant one. Her mother was Terry's great aunt. But Terry had never met Mary Ann, never even spoken to her. And he knew virtually nothing about her.

Terry

We've been just going back and forth on this, trying to figure out, who is this person? And meantime, I went back to the genealogy records, and I found all these Christmas cards. And lo and behold, it was Mary Ann and her mother.

Eric Klinenberg

Terry doesn't hesitate to admit that it was hard to feel emotional about Mary Ann's death.

Terry

My only feeling towards this right now is I feel responsibility to try to resolve her situation, to tidy up her life, I guess.

Eric Klinenberg

One month after Mary Ann died, Terry and his cousins were still deciding whether they wanted the county to settle the estate or handle it themselves. Emily told me that, because Mary Ann's assets total more than $6,000, the Public Administrator would arrange for her to be buried in a local cemetery. But what if she didn't have $6,000? LA County would still take care of things.

Chaplain

Honored guests, on this day we are gathered here for the annual mass burial, committing to this earthly resting place 1,918 brothers and sisters of humankind who passed away--

Eric Klinenberg

When people die alone here without the money for burial, their bodies are cremated, and their ashes are stored in individual boxes for four years. After that, if no one claims them, the ashes are removed from the boxes and buried together in a mass grave. The burial takes place once a year. This year's ceremony happened just a couple weeks ago.

Chaplain

We desire to honor these lives and the deaths of our unclaimed and seemingly forgotten people. Just as--

Eric Klinenberg

We're in the corner of a massive cemetery, right next to a construction site that's torn up the whole street. The service is heartfelt, but a little empty, too. Besides the chaplain, only 10 people, all county employees, showed up for the service. One of them pointed out the tiny plaques that mark each year's grave site. The remains of 1,900 people fill a hole that's 10 feet long, eight feet wide, eight feet deep.

Man

Look right over here. Half covered in dirt and sand, you've got 1984, and then three feet away is 1969. And there's 1966. And if we walk up this road, the numbers are going to keep dropping off and off and off, and go decades back. And you think about right here, in the span of just three feet, are the remains of thousands of people. And from 10 feet away, you would never know that these plaques are here.

Eric Klinenberg

Right here. All these thousands of people who lived alone and died alone aren't alone anymore. Of course, being mourned is a kind of privilege, one that only comes to people who are actually close to other people. Whether they lived alone by choice or by accident, Mary Ann and those 1,918 dead won't get that luxury.

[MUSIC - "TENUOUS GEARS" BY MICALAVERA]

Ira Glass

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at NYU and is working on a book called Alone in America. Thea Chaloner did the reporting at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. In the end, Mary Ann's family said that they're going to step in and take care of everything after her death. They'd be responsible for burying her or cremating her. And they'd clean out her house where, a month after her death, there was still a working phone line, and an answering machine.

[PHONE RINGING]

Mary Ann

This is a message phone. No name, no number, no message, no answer.

[MESSAGE BEEP]

Ira Glass

Coming up, so you're 15 and living by yourself in an apartment, and you need money. So you and a 12-year-old named [? Moochie ?] go in on an investment scheme. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Boy Interrupted.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Home Alone. And we have, in the second half of our show, two adventure stories of things that happened to people who were home alone. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Boy Interrupted.

Before we get to what Clevins Browne actually did once he was living completely on his own as a teenager, a couple words about how he ended up that way. Sarah Koenig talked to Clevins.

Sarah Koenig

When he was little, Clevins Browne moved all around New York with his mother, to different apartments or homeless shelters. He says a few months was the longest they ever stayed anywhere. His mom would get in a fight with someone, or have a bad experience in a neighborhood, and they were off.

But all that changed when Clevins was 12. That's when they finally got a subsidized apartment in Brooklyn, in a public housing complex known as the Pink Houses. Clevins says it was the first time he felt like maybe he could be a normal kid. He could invite friends over. He could decorate his own room.

Clevins Browne

I was putting up posters of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. And I also had posters of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit decorating our refrigerator, stuff like that, stuff that we never really got to do, because since we didn't really own the house we can't really do that. But I just felt a sense of pride to say, hey, this is my wall. I can put whatever I want on my wall, because I own this will. Like, wow, I've never owned a wall before.

Sarah Koenig

Clevins says he was happy in the Pink Houses. He liked school, and he had a couple of good friends in the project. And then one day in the spring, when he had just turned 15 and was about to graduate from eighth grade, his mom got sick.

Clevins Browne

We were just watching television. We were watching WB. That's basically what my mom and I do every night. We watch the WB, or we watch UPN. And we were watching this one episode of The Fresh Prince. My mother and I have seen this episode a million times. And a joke came on. I forgot exactly what Will Smith said, but it was just one of those jokes that Will Smith said that we would always laugh at, and I just found myself, that I was the only person laughing.

And then my mother was just staring at the television blankly. And I said, Mom, you didn't think that was funny this time? And she just remained quiet. And then she asked me to make her some tea, which really, in my house, with her is really skeptical, because my mother never makes me do anything for her. So when she asked me to make her tea, I felt something was wrong. So while I was making her the tea, I just heard her-- I just heard, like, a boom sound. Like, she just hit the floor.

Next thing you know, I walk into the room and then my mother is just holding her stomach. And she's closing her eyes and clenching her teeth. She's screaming and everything. Now my first initial reaction is to call 911 and run to the house phone, but then I realized that the house phone is disconnected. So I run downstairs and I find a pay phone, and I called 911. The operator responded by saying, 911, what's your emergency?

It took me about 10 seconds to respond to her. I mean, I wanted to tell her that there was an emergency upstairs, but at the same time I didn't want to speak up about that. Because I felt that if I spoke up about that, some way, somehow, Child Services would be involved. And that's really the last thing I wanted.

Sarah Koenig

Why did you think that?

Clevins Browne

I mean, because I felt that if my mother was going to the hospital, then I would basically be upstairs by myself. And I know pretty sure well that I might be taken away or something like that. Like, the law would not allow a minor to be in the house by themselves.

Sarah Koenig

Had you ever been in Child Services before?

Clevins Browne

No.

Sarah Koenig

So you had no experience with that system. It wasn't like, I'm not going back to the foster care, or something like that.

Clevins Browne

I was in foster care, actually, before. But Child Services, I got so many myths about. Like it's just the worst thing in the world. You just don't ever want to be there. So I dialed 911, and the operator on the other line was saying hello three times. And I pretended to be someone else. And I said to the operator, "Um, hello, ma'am. There seems to be an emergency going on in apartment 8D, 1165 Stanley Avenue."

Sarah Koenig

Is that a character you had done before?

Clevins Browne

Oh, you want to know the inspiration for the voice?

Sarah Koenig

I do.

Clevins Browne

When I was younger, I was always fascinated at the fact that you can be sitting in a movie theater, and there's always this one voice that you always hear. This summer, coming to a theater near you. And I'm like, who is this guy? Somebody tell me who he is. And growing up I always thought he was this huge muscular dude, like this really, really large man, something like Paul Bunyan almost.

Sarah Koenig

So when you call 911, you're essentially pretending to be Paul Bunyan.

Clevins Browne

Pretty much. I guess you could say that I'm pretending to be Paul Bunyan making an anonymous tip.

And the operator asked me. She was just asking me all these probing questions.

Sarah Koenig

Because she doesn't believe.

Clevins Browne

I think she thought it was a prank phone call. So then she asked me again, is there anyone else inside the house with her?

"Oh, no. It's just this lady. So I just figured I should just call you guys and let you know." So I run back upstairs, and the situation with my mother is a little bit tenser. She's not screaming at this point. She could actually speak to me. She was like, you need to stop crying right now. Don't worry.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, you were crying.

Clevins Browne

I was crying. And then moments later I'm hearing sirens, and I'm looking out the window. So I told her that the ambulance are here for you. Don't tell them that I'm here. And at this point I just ran into the closet. I was really panicking right now, because I said to myself, Here they come. I can hear their footsteps, and I'm hearing walkie talkies and static. So I just closed the door in the closet. And then, at that point, I was pretty much home alone. They were gone. I'm looking out the window, watching them drive along and everything. And I'm just like, I actually pulled this off. I don't believe that I did that.

Sarah Koenig

Clevins' mother had a serious stomach illness. Clevins says it was a cyst. But after that was taken care of, she ended up in the psychiatric ward. Clevins doesn't like to talk about it much, but his mom has a pretty long history of mental illness, depression, which accounts for all the moving. She'd been hospitalized for it before. This time, she'd be away for about five months, but Clevins had no way of knowing that or anything about her condition. She couldn't call. Their phone wasn't working. And so he really had no idea what had just happened, where they'd taken her. He barely slept that first night. The next morning, everything just seemed weird.

Clevins Browne

I remember leaving the apartment, and everything just looked new to me. In front of my project building there was a sign that says "Hi, you're stepping into Louis H. Pink Houses." And that's a sign I see every single day, but that one day it just looked new to me. I felt older. I just felt like, there's no one here. There's no one that's going to do things for me from this moment on. I have to find out some way to do things on my own.

Sarah Koenig

So you didn't want any of your neighbors to know you were there.

Clevins Browne

No.

Sarah Koenig

Because why?

Clevins Browne

I felt that they would call someone, like a Child Services representative. Because I really didn't want to go anywhere else. Another thing that was really fearing me is that I felt like if I just got up and left, then maybe we would be evicted. But I also knew that I didn't have any money to pay rent, so either way I was sort of stuck.

Sarah Koenig

And then how do you-- at what point did you run out of food?

Clevins Browne

A little bit a half month later. And then, there has been a point where I just haven't been eating for days upon days.

Sarah Koenig

Were you hungry?

Clevins Browne

Very hungry. So what I would do is-- during the summer, different schools would have breakfast and lunch every single day-- so what I would do, I would just go to schools, any schools within the area, and just have breakfast and lunch there. And then there were some Saturdays and Sundays where I didn't eat anything at all. Or, if I'm lucky, I would probably get dinner from a friend of mine, like [? Everoll ?], for example, or my neighbor Marie. But there was some Saturdays and Sundays that would pass by, and I'm not eating anything at all.

Sarah Koenig

Wow. How long were you without any money at all?

Clevins Browne

Two months.

Sarah Koenig

Two months?

Clevins Browne

Mm-hm.

Sarah Koenig

So were you literally-- like, you did not have a dollar?

Clevins Browne

Nothing.

Sarah Koenig

How did you do anything? You live in New York City. How did you get on the subway?

Clevins Browne

Never really got on the subway.

Sarah Koenig

Did you take the bus anywhere?

Clevins Browne

No.

Sarah Koenig

So what did you do all day?

Clevins Browne

I was basically just isolated to where I was at, just on my block. That's where I was at every day. Didn't really have any desire to go anywhere, really.

Sarah Koenig

And what did you do at night?

Clevins Browne

I would just be outside, just hanging out. It was summer, and there's no one that's going to tell me that you have to be home at a certain time. So I would just be out. I spent my entire summer just riding my bike, really.

It really was difficult for me to adjust to the fact that my mother's not here. There's no one for me to talk to. Where is she at at this very moment? Is she OK at this very moment? Is she thinking about me at this very moment? And, at times, I would even listen to radio stations that my mother would listen to, even though I totally hated them. They'd play old music from way back in the day. Sugarfly honey bunch. They played The Temptations and all this stuff. So while my mother was gone, I'd just start listening to WBLS. That's the best way I could really make the house lose its emptiness.

So I really had no money in the house and everything. So [? Everoll ?] and I and a couple of our friends were walking in the street one day, and we found this garbage bag that had boxes of cigarettes inside there. So I have a stick, a little twig, that I'm just walking by, dragging it along the fence. So I see the garbage bag and I started poking it, and just started poking the bag and everything. So then, all these cigarettes, I don't know where they came from, just fall out of the bag.

Sarah Koenig

Individual cigarettes, or packs?

Clevins Browne

In packs. And then [? Everoll ?] and I made a-- [? Everoll ?] made a joke, actually. He said, How many packs of cigarettes does it take to kill one person? And then I just said, Maybe this is it right here. And then we go home. And then I'm inside my house, just watching TV, and I realized to myself-- I remember on my way upstairs, I saw people smoking cigarettes. And I'm saying to myself, people are wasting their money buying these cigarettes. So I just had to go back and get them.

Sarah Koenig

And so did you?

Clevins Browne

Mm-hmm. As much as I could. I didn't grab every last one, but I grabbed as much as I can.

Sarah Koenig

And then what did you do?

Clevins Browne

I went to Marie and I asked her if she would like to buy some cigarettes. And she's like, What you doing selling cigarettes for? I'm like, It's not like I'm selling drugs. These are cigarettes. If the store can sell it, why can't I? So she buys it. And she's like, how much do you want for them? I'm like, $2. So she bought one box. Next thing you know, I have a whole line of people just knocking on my door, asking for cigarettes. And in that one night, I made about $100.

Sarah Koenig

Like any good businessman, Clevins invested some of that money into a new venture, and made a profit of $150, with the help of his friend, [? Moochie. ?] [? Moochie ?] was about 12, but he was shrewd. And he convinced Clevins, the way to make more money was to throw a party at his house and charge people $7 to come. [? Moochie ?] arranged the whole thing, the boom box, the food, which his mom cooked. The clean up and security detail, all [? Moochie's ?] little friends. And it worked, and Clevins was getting by, mostly staying out of trouble.

And then at about the two-month mark, he found a permanent solution to the food problem.

Clevins Browne

There is this thing called an EBT card. EBT cards are food stamps.

Sarah Koenig

How did you find the card?

Clevins Browne

Going through my mother's stuff.

Sarah Koenig

Where was it?

Clevins Browne

It was inside her purse that she left.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, so she didn't even have her purse with her.

Clevins Browne

No.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my God.

Clevins Browne

So basically my mother had this card, and basically that's where all our food was coming from, like she would take this card, go to supermarkets. So I was always under the impression that the code-- because there's a code, a four-digit number code-- I was always under the impression that it was my mother's birthday, 9763. So I took the card to a supermarket, and I swiped the card and I have all this bunch of food and everything.

Sarah Koenig

What had you picked out?

Clevins Browne

I had picked out tons of pop tarts, cereal, peanut butter and jelly, bread, and all that. And I just throw it on the counter, and I swipe the card in. And I type in 9763. But then the card said, "invalid entry. Read error."

And before I figured out the access code, I would always go down to the supermarket and just run a test. I would take one item, and see if I could possibly pay for it by entering this access code. So I'm trying to figure it out, and I'm just scavenging through all of her stuff.

And my mother has this leather jacket that is a unisex jacket, and I always wanted to wear this jacket. I personally think the jacket looks better on me than it does on her. And I would take this jacket. I would pretend that I'm Shaft. And I had these two cap guns, these two black toy cap guns that I had. So what I would do is I would go in front of the mirror and put the guns inside my coat pocket and pull them out and just start shooting them. And I'm just going through the rest of the pockets. So then I found an envelope that I was about to throw out. And I read it, and it was a letter from the food stamps company, reminding my mother that her access code is this, this, this.

And to my surprise, I went down to the supermarket and purchased some food, and it was actually the correct number. Now, what the food stamps card does is that they give you cash and they give you food stamps. I had about $200 in cash and $200 in food stamps. So I was really excited and grateful that this happened.

Sarah Koenig

All this time, his mom's close friend, a woman Clevins calls Aunt Elizabeth, one of the few adults he'd told about his situation, had been calling around to different hospitals trying to track down his mother. Eventually, she did. Clevins found an old prescription of his mom's, and Aunt Elizabeth called the number and there she was, at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. Clevins rode his bike to go see her. It was pretty upsetting.

Clevins Browne

There were some other people in there who had some really serious mental issues in there. And it really just made me feel uncomfortable. The people that she's in the ward with, those people are talking to themselves. And I'm always asking myself, why is my mother even with these people? She's really nothing like them. Why is she considered to be one of them? My mother's pretty sane, but these guys are the total opposite.

Sarah Koenig

Did you ask her that?

Clevins Browne

No.

Sarah Koenig

Do you feel like you know why, now?

Clevins Browne

Not really. Still trying to figure that out.

Sarah Koenig

By this time, the summer was almost over. And even though this whole thing had been hard on Clevins, still, in another way, he had lived the 15-year-old's dream summer. Unlimited freedom, nothing to do but hang out with his friends.

But now he had to start high school all on his own. He was supposed to go to South Shore High School, which he knew nothing about, not even how to get there. He'd never even really been on the subway without his mom. That first day, he asked the train conductor directions to his school, as if the guy was his personal tour guide. He never made it.

But on day two, once Clevins did get there, he was immediately miserable. The place was huge. He says it was like a jungle. And it was so easy to cut classes, which he did, sometimes to go visit his mom. His grades slipped. Most of all, he hated how people at his school saw him.

Clevins Browne

I didn't want to walk in to school being this panicky kid with problems. That's not who I wanted to be. I just wanted to be a regular student.

Sarah Koenig

Did you feel like people would look at you and know, oh, that kid. Nobody's taking care of-- did you look different from other kids? Did you feel like you looked different? Were your clothes dirty or something?

Clevins Browne

My clothes were dirty, actually. And I was really antisocial. I didn't really mix myself with other students and all that.

Sarah Koenig

Because why?

Clevins Browne

I just didn't feel like-- it just wasn't in me. I felt like I didn't know what direction I was going in. It's like you're being teased. Like, you have something in front of your eyes, but you can't get a hold of it. I'm always able to see my mother and talk to her, but I don't know when she's going to come out. I don't know how long she's going to be there. And that really just drove me insane. I don't know what to do right now. And I never talked to anyone. Never talked to my teachers. There could be times where a teacher-- I'm sitting in a class and a teacher would call my name-- and I would just ignore them, like they're not even there. Like, don't talk to me.

Sarah Koenig

Were are you feeling self-conscious, that people would find out?

Clevins Browne

Yeah. I was barely washing my clothes.

Sarah Koenig

Could you tell? Could people tell?

Clevins Browne

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Did anyone ever say anything about it?

Clevins Browne

My guidance counselor. She just said, what's going on? I could obviously see something's wrong with you. That's really a sign of something going on wrong at home, when people don't wash their clothes.

Sarah Koenig

What was your response to that?

Clevins Browne

I was just like, are you just attacking me? Is that what it is? Until now, I didn't see it-- I saw it as a way, oh, she's just attacking me. She's just trying to judge and disrespect me. So I'm just going to leave her alone. Forget about it. Forget you, too.

Sarah Koenig

So did you not go see her again?

Clevins Browne

No, I didn't.

Sarah Koenig

And it was because she said that?

Clevins Browne

Mm-hm.

Sarah Koenig

And then, one day, the hospital called Aunt Elizabeth and told her Clevins' mom was ready to come home.

Clevins Browne

Prior to that day, the house was extremely messy, and my mother comes home.

Sarah Koenig

Were you worried?

Clevins Browne

Yeah. I thought she was really going to freak out with the way the house looked. Actually, right before I opened the door, I'm like, Mom, you have to brace yourself for what you're about to see. There are just so many unholy things going on in this house right now that you do not want to look at.

Sarah Koenig

Describe how messy we're talking.

Clevins Browne

If you opened the door, imagine you're walking outside on a snowy day, and you have to struggle your ankles to get through the snow. Just substitute the snow with clothes and potato chip bags. And I thought she was just going to be really upset. I was like, Mom, I'm going to take care of this. This is my mess. I'll take care of it. No need to get mad or anything. She didn't get upset. But I looked in her eyes and I felt like this is probably her way, a small way, of making up for the time she spent gone. So that's why she really, really wanted to clean. I've left you alone for this long. This is the least I could possibly do for you.

So I came back just to check up on her. The house is completely spotless. There was no evidence of my five months of garbage piling up in there. She just got rid of it all. The clothes were neatly packed up, the garbage is gone, the floor is mopped and swept. I'm like, what?

Sarah Koenig

Did she ever say anything, directly, about the time you'd been alone? Did you guys ever have a conversation about it?

Clevins Browne

Yeah, she kept on apologizing. I said, there's no need for you to apologize. You didn't intentionally say you want to leave me for five months. So it's not your fault.

Sarah Koenig

Was there any part of you that sort of-- Like, obviously, you love your mom and you wanted her to come home, but did you worry that certain things would become harder if she came home, too?

Clevins Browne

I felt that, when she comes home, I felt like I'm just going to be in the same predicament again one day. I don't know when. But I just knew and felt that it's going to happen again one day. And I just felt like I just want to be more prepared the next time it happens.

Sarah Koenig

A few years later, it did happen again. His mom disappeared. Clevins was evicted. But this time, Clevins was 18, and he did handle it a lot better. Since then, Clevins has been living in a friend's apartment. He's working now, and he's planning on going to college next year.

[MUSIC - "SPACE KEY" BY DANIEL LANOIS]

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three. The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Well, we end our show today with the story of a mother who was home alone with her two small children, when one of the scariest things that can happen actually happens. This was in the early 1980s. Jennifer Schaller was one of the two little children at the time, and she tells the story.

Jennifer Schaller

There's a story that my mother doesn't like to tell, because it brings back too many bad memories for her. But I love to hear her tell it. It captures her perfectly, how fierce she is. It also shows what was really going on when I was a kid, and I didn't even know it.

We were living in Hightstown, New Jersey, in a one-bedroom apartment in a big courtyard building. It was fall. My brother Alan and I were home from school playing outside. I was five or six, and Alan was a year younger. My mom, Ezra, picks up the story from here.

Ezra

I was in the house by myself. And then, he knocks on the door, and I open it up. And he identifies himself as one of Raymond's friends, or associates, as they call each other.

Jennifer Schaller

Raymond is my father. He wasn't around much. My parents told me that it was because of his job as a salesman. I imagined he was a traveling salesman who pushed appliances. I found out later that he was a pusher, but his job had nothing to do with vacuums or dishwashers. When my mother and father first met, he was a legitimate jewelry salesman. Then he traveled to Peru for his father's funeral, and while he was there his half-brother introduced him to the world of cocaine trafficking. The drugs were a constant source of tension between my father and mother, who begged him to stop selling. He promised he would, but never did.

At the time this story takes place, Raymond had been gone for more than a week, and my mom didn't know where he was. The man at the door told my mother he had business to discuss with Raymond. He wasn't going to leave until they had settled the matter.

Ezra

And at that moment, both you and Alan run up behind him to see who it was that was at the door. And I really didn't know what to say to you guys. So he said that he was actually going to be staying with us for a while. And you guys were satisfied with that. And, you know, Oh, cool. And you just take off and you start playing with your cousins again.

And so, at that point, he comes inside the apartment, and he shows me the gun.

Jennifer Schaller

The gunman said he had to make a phone call, so my mother took him to the phone in the kitchen. She listened to his conversation. It became clear that he was on the phone with his boss in Florida. She overheard him report that Raymond was not around. He said my mom didn't know where my father was or how to get a hold of him. Then he turned to my mom and said his boss wanted to speak with her.

Ezra

The man from Florida never identified himself, never actually gave his name. He just proceeded to tell me that he was very disappointed with Raymond, and that Raymond had disappeared. It'd been four or five days already. Absolutely no communication with him. He had a kilo of coke on him, and it belonged to the man from Florida. So he was concerned about his merchandise and his money. So this is why that man wound up at our doorstep, to help smoke Raymond out.

I hang up the phone with the guy from Florida, after he had told me that he was going to kill my children and me if Raymond didn't show up. I hang up the phone with the guy and I tell him, well, I guess we might as well get comfortable, because it looks like you're going to be here for a while, because Raymond isn't going to show up anytime soon.

Jennifer Schaller

When my mom tells the story today, there's a lot of bravado. But at the time, she was terrified, mainly for us. She wanted to keep me and my brother physically safe, but she didn't want this episode to scar us emotionally either. And so she made a decision. She would continue with the ruse as long as she needed to. She carried on normally, as if the gunmen really was an old friend, staying with us for a short time.

Ezra

That evening you guys came in, I made dinner for us. And you and your brother just joked around, because you thought he was a friend of your dad's. So you guys were just being yourselves and joking around and stuff. And I put you guys to bed. And after I put you guys to bed, I went into the bathroom, and I grabbed a towel and I bunched it up and put it on my face. And I started screaming into it, as quietly as I could. And then I started crying. And then, I thought to myself, OK, that's it. This guy can't know that you're upset or that you're fearful. Because the moment he sees fear, he's going to think he's got control. So he's not going to get that control from me.

Jennifer Schaller

But how does a single mother with two small kids gain control over a hired gunman? Moments after her tears in the bathroom, my mother saw an opportunity brought about by the television.

Ezra

I wash my face, and I go back out into the living room, and I sat down. And, at that time, it was probably about 8 or 9 o'clock, a movie started on TV, and it was The Godfather.

Jennifer Schaller

I know. The Godfather. Can you believe it?

Ezra

I started conversing with the guy, and I tell him. I says, yeah, you know. I have an uncle that's in the mafia. As I was telling him this story, his eyes got bigger. And he gets up quietly, and he goes over to the telephone, and he calls the guy in Florida. He's explaining to him, you know, I'm not sure that we should be here in this place with this woman, because she has connections. And he was very nervous. I could see that. And then he comes and he sits down. And I just kept talking, like nothing. And I saw that I had the upper hand at that moment, so I was going to just go with it.

Jennifer Schaller

My mother's uncle actually wasn't in the mafia, but his family all believed he was because that's what he told them. He was actually hiding a girlfriend, and later on another family, from his wife. He was a polygamist and not a goodfella. This lie struck a nerve with the hired gunman, who had settled in and slept nights on the sofa. My mother waited on him, bringing him things to eat and drink.

Ezra

The next day, you guys go to school, and I spend the whole entire day with this guy in our apartment.

Jennifer Schaller

What did you guys do? Just watch TV?

Ezra

Pretty much just watched TV, yeah. And, every hour or two hours, the man from Florida would call and try and intimidate me and harass me, asking me where Raymond was and threatening to kill us. And I said, well, I don't know what to tell you, man. But you do what you got to do. If you feel that you got to kill us, then I guess I don't have any control over that.

Jennifer Schaller

This is the point my mother says where her fear turned to rage. She was enraged at my dad for getting us into this mess, at her captor for his intrusion, and at the man on the other end of the phone for his constant threats. So she amped things up a notch. While watching an episode of Miami Vice, she casually mentioned a cousin who was a police detective. This, my mother said, made her captor seem even more nervous. Then she began working on an excuse to see my aunt and uncle who lived in the apartment next door.

Ezra

I had run out of milk. And the guy was insisting that I couldn't go anywhere, and that he had to watch me at all times. And I said well, cool, that's fine, but we need milk for the kids. And I asked him, I said, OK, you won't allow me to go to the store. Can I go right next door to my aunt's house and just ask her for a container of milk? And he just thought about it, and thought about it, and he waves his hand at me and says go ahead, go ahead, but you better be fast. Come back, and you better not be longer than five minutes.

So I go next door, and I tell my uncle what's going on. And my uncle right away grabs his rifle, one of his rifles, and he says, well, I'm going over there and we're going to take care of this. And I said well, no, I don't want you getting involved in this. I don't want anything to happen to you. So I said, can I use your phone? Let me call Tito real quick.

Jennifer Schaller

Tito was an old family friend. He was working as a delivery man at the time. My mother didn't call the police for two reasons. She didn't want my father to go to jail, and she also feared that her children would be caught up in a violent mess. She called Tito to ask him to drop by so that our captor would know that we had people, that we were not alone. Things ended up working out better than she thought. The gunman mistakenly assumed that Tito was the police detective my mother mentioned earlier.

Ezra

I guess it was because of the clothing that he was wearing. He had on a dark navy blue t-shirt and dark navy blue pants. And he didn't have any type of insignia on his clothing. And so, Tito comes in and he sits down. I introduce him to the guy from Florida. And Tito's, you know, Hi, I just thought I'd come by and see how my comrade's doing, and find out how the kids are doing. I haven't talked to them in a while. So the guy kind of slowly weens his way back towards the telephone in the kitchen, and he's on the phone again. And I tell Tito. I says, Tito, shh. Listen to what he's saying. And he was in a panic. He says, I'm leaving. I am not staying. You do whatever the hell it is that you need to do, but I'm getting the hell out of here because now her cousin, who's the detective from New York City, is here. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Jennifer Schaller

The man on the other end of the phone somehow talked him into staying, and he did for three more days, with me and my brother coming and going to school and my mother waiting on him hand and foot. But by this point, the only person in the house who seemed afraid was the man with the gun, which brings us to what might be my mother's greatest triumph.

My brother and I never suspected any of this was going on. When I think back on this time, I remember going to kindergarten every day. I liked to hug my teacher. My favorite food was pizza, and I was the best speller in my class. I have no recollection of being held hostage by a gunman. Neither does my brother. As a child, I was never angry at my dad for running off with someone else's cocaine. And I don't think this memory is repressed. I think my mother wanted more than anything for my brother and me to believe that our household was like any other, and she succeeded. I only learned what happened that week years later, when I was grown.

Ezra

I didn't show or demonstrate any anxiety. Whenever you guys were around, I was my normal self with you. I would play with you. I would feed you guys. I would read a book to you before you went to bed. And I went about business normally, our daily lives as I normally would. That was pretty much it. That's maybe why you don't remember it ever happening.

Jennifer Schaller

On our fourth day as hostages, my father showed up with the money and an explanation which seemed to placate the man who took us hostage, but not my mother. This ordeal stamped out any hope she'd had of reconciling with my dad. The man with the gun was about to leave when my mother went into the backyard.

Ezra

I had stepped outside into the backyard. I mean, after so many days of being stuck inside the house, I needed fresh air. So I stepped outside, and so the man steps outside. And he says to me, you know, senora, I am so sorry. I hope that you are not going to hold this against me and tell your cousins or your uncle to come after me, because I really didn't want to be a part of this. I was forced into this situation, and ma'am, I really, really, really am sorry about this whole thing. And he grabs my hand, and I thought he was going to shake my hand. He grabs my hand, and he kissed it. That was when I thought, damn, I'm good.

That was the moment, truthfully. That was it. That was when I thought, damn. And to this day, I think about it, and my palms get all sweaty. I was really in the zone. I had my control back. I had taken it back. And it felt great. It really did. It felt really good.

Jennifer Schaller

My father went on selling drugs for years. When I was 11, he went to prison. But my mother says this experience changed her. Nothing rattles her even now, she says. Not long ago, a client-- my mom's an insurance agent-- became irate with her, and, from across the desk in her office, threatened her with bodily harm. My mom, all of five foot two, says she stood up, stepped out from behind her desk, and said calmly to the man, Well, have at it. The man walked out of office in a huff and never bothered her again.

Ira Glass

Jennifer Schaller lives in New Mexico.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by John Jeter and our senior producer Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Bruce Wallace. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Yvonne, the woman at the top of our program today, was originally interviewed for Eric Klinenberg's forthcoming book. That research is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcast, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who-- this is so weird. He kept pledging over and over to public radio, hoping that he was going to win a big stuffed doll, until he spent all his savings.

Yvonne

Why didn't you stop me then, when I had a chance?

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.