Transcript

347:

Matchmakers
Transcript

Originally aired 01.18.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/347

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. And to explain the idea behind this week's radio show, I need to tell you about this date that one of the producers of our show, Jane Feltes, went on recently. There was this guy who she talked to briefly after a rock show, and then the guy called Jane's friend Ray for her telephone number. And Ray is a really good friend of Jane's, and Jane says that Ray was all for this. Ray saying things like, you really should date this guy.

Jane Feltes

Like this is going to be great. And he would use these arguments like, he went to BU. I don't know what that-- is that Boston University?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jane Feltes

Is that a good school?

Ira Glass

I don't know.

Jane Feltes

I don't know either. He's like, he went to BU, he's friends with Joe Biden's nephew.

Ira Glass

Right. Not Joe Biden.

Jane Feltes

Or Joe Biden's nephew.

Ira Glass

Jane is recently single, so she figured, why not, might as well see what happens. But comes the night of the date with a friend of the nephew of Joe Biden, and things start badly. She's about to leave work to go meet him, and she gets a text message that he's going to be late. About an hour later, she gets another one. She waits.

Jane Feltes

It had passed after, after-work drink time, and then it passed regular dinnertime to like, now, 10 o'clock. And I thought, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, because you never know. Maybe he would show up, and he would have like, a big shark bite or something.

Ira Glass

Just to name one of the common reasons why people show up late for dates.

Jane Feltes

I don't know. Well, that would-- I mean--

Ira Glass

It would totally explain it.

Jane Feltes

It would explain a couple of hours.

Ira Glass

When the guy finally arrives, he does not have a shark bite, but he is 100%, totally, completely stoned. They walk to a restaurant, where the guy does not try to be charming. He does not really talk much at all.

Jane Feltes

And then he kept doing this thing, I think because he was so stoned, but I'm not sure. But he kept doing this thing where I would be talking, and he kept like half closing his eyes, and then he would go-- he would like shake himself awake, an he'd be like, wait, sorry, what? I just tuned out just then. Over and over and over again.

Ira Glass

When the bill came, they each took out credit cards. Jane figured they'd split this. But when he saw her card, he put his away and let her pay for the whole thing. And then it was time to go. The guy asked if Jane wanted to smoke another joint. Jane pointed out that she hadn't been there for the first one.

Ira Glass

So when you leave this date, what are your feelings about Ray, who set you up?

Jane Feltes

I mean, all kinds of stuff went through my head like, do you see me as so desperate? I mean, I'm really close with Ray. He is one of my best friends. I couldn't see how he put the two of us together. I couldn't see how he thought we would make a good match. I started taking it personal like, oh, there must be something really wrong with me if one of my closest friend thinks this is the kind of guy I deserve.

Ira Glass

Well, you know, we should call your friend Ray.

Jane Feltes

I'd love that.

Ray

Hello.

Jane Feltes

Hi, Ray.

Ray

Hi, Jane.

Ira Glass

OK, I'll just summarize a little bit here of what happened next. Ray was apologetic about how badly the date had gone. And he reminded Jane that he really didn't know that guy very well. And then we got to the big issue at hand.

Ira Glass

Jane has a question for you, and, if I can paraphrase the question, the question is, why did you think that he would be a good date for her?

Ray

The answer would be threefold. First, he was friends with Joe Biden's nephew, who is like a pretty good guy.

Ira Glass

OK, you don't even need to hear the other two reasons. They made just as little sense as number one. But after talking for a while, Ray did finally explain the fix up this way.

Ray

You always get the guy who's too rough. This guy seemed like-- since he had like a clean-cut haircut, and he was like a college guy-- He was kind of like friends with the bad guys. So you could go out with the bad guy. He seemed like a normal guy too.

Jane Feltes

This is so crazy, because I had no idea you'd given it this much thought.

Ira Glass

Up until this point, Jane had no idea that Ray saw her this way, or that he felt so strongly about who she dates that he might actually try to fix it. When you set up your friends you can't avoid revealing what you really think about them. Things you haven't even told them. You're sticking your neck out more then they are when they go on the date.

And so we have for you today an entire show of people meddling, interfering, thinking they know what's best for others. We've got Yentas, we've got busybodies, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Our show today-- Matchmakers. We have three stories in three acts. Act one is a match done out of pure giddiness. Act two is somebody who matches up people who, the most important thing they'll ever do together, they'll do the first time they meet. Act three is matchmaking between real children and plastic children. Stay with us.

Act One. A Good Year For Grand Gestures.

Ira Glass

Act One, a Good Year for Grand Gestures. The matchmakers in this next story try to bring two people together who love each other. But there are different kinds of love, and different ways to think about love as they discover. Gregory Warner tells what happened.

Gregory Warner

Once upon a time in Afghanistan, a tall, curly haired man named Mohammed Sabir saw a short young woman at his brother's wedding. He never said a word to her, but he was smitten. And normally. that would have been the end of the love story. In Afghanistan, men aren't allowed to talk with strange women. But this one was different. As the younger sister of his brother's new wife, she could visit Sabir's house with her parents. Sabir could even manage to sit next to her on the couch, which he did three months later.

Gregory Warner

Was that the first time you talked alone to a girl that wasn't your sister?

Mohammed Sabir

Yes, that is my first time.

Gregory Warner

Sabir speaks some English, but he brought along his friend Dr. Wasai to help translate the rest.

Dr. Wasai

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] It was very delicious time for me.

Gregory Warner

He said it was sweet and tasty?

Dr. Wasai

Yeah, it was sweet and tasty, and his body also was shaking.

Gregory Warner

And while he sat there shaking, Sabir told the girl she was very beautiful. The girl, whose name was Kotsea , told Sabir he had nice hair.

Dr. Wasai

If it was possible, I will take your hair on my head.

Gregory Warner

She wanted to put your head on her head? What did that mean when she said that do you think?

Dr. Wasai

It means-- know he is in love with her.

Gregory Warner

All that flirting over the hair was racy enough by Afghan standards, but what happened next says Sabir, could have gotten him killed. He went over to his brother's house. And he found Kotsea alone in her bedroom. And then, violating every rule he'd ever been taught, they kissed.

Dr. Wasai

After that one kiss, our love became the stronger and the stronger.

Gregory Warner

The stronger their love got, the more secret they had to be. Sabir was then 28. Kotsea was 18. They'd steal looks over the dinner table. Quick glances, Sabir says, like camera flashes. They decided to get married.

Dr. Wasai

I said for she, I love you. She says, I love you, you can marriage for me? I said, OK, no problem. I wait for you.

Gregory Warner

She said, I'll wait for you?

Dr. Wasai

Yes, yes, she's wait for me.

Gregory Warner

Sabir needed about $10,000 to get married. $4,000 for her father for her hand in marriage, another $6,000 for the wedding itself. But Sabir doesn't make that kind of salary. He's a driver for a Dutch development organization. He saves maybe $30 a month. At that rate, it would take three decades to raise what he'd need. So each year, Kotsea would wait, and each year Sabir would tell her, he didn't have the money.

Four years passed. And then something happened which should have had nothing to do with either of them. Sabir's boss, Nikaj van Wees, went to a party at the Dutch embassy. There Nikaj met an American aid worker, and he fell in love with her. Her name was Miriam. Before that, Nikaj had a pretty regular work relationship with his driver, Sabir. They didn't talk about personal stuff. But when Miriam moved in with Nikaj the mood changed. Miriam talked to Sabir as a friend.

Miriam Van Wees

I was in the car with Sabir, and I asked Sabir, so are you married? Do you have a wife? Do you have kids? He says, oh no, sir. He calls me sir. Oh no, sir.

Gregory Warner

This is Miriam. She is sitting at the dinner table next to Nikaj.

Miriam Van Wees

And so is there a girl? Is there a girl? Oh yes, sir. Do you love her? Oh yes, sir.

Nikaj Van Wees

He's brownish, but he got a very red head.

Miriam Van Wees

He can blush. He is the only Afghan I've ever seen who can turn beet red. And I said, are you going to marry her? Oh no, sir. I don't have money, sir.

Gregory Warner

Here's how it usually works when a man can't afford the dowry to get married. He waits for his sister to get engaged, and then he uses the money she gets for her dowry to pay for his new wife. It's like a dowry recycling. But Miriam found out that Sabir's father broke that tradition.

Miriam Van Wees

Because his father doesn't believe in selling his daughters. So the fact that Sabir's father never charged a dowry for his daughters means that Sabir doesn't have any cash to pay for his own dowry.

Gregory Warner

And that seemed particularly tragic to Miriam and Nikaj, who were just beginning a fairy tale story of there own. Before they met, both of them were in unhappy relationships. The last place they expected to find their soulmate was Afghanistan. But Miriam had only been in the country a week when she met Nikaj. And a few weeks after their first kiss, she was flying back to America to divorce her husband. Nikaj flew to Holland to break up with his long-term girlfriend.

It wasn't just love, it was that giddy, you won't believe what I found, stage of love, when you think things like, gosh, wouldn't the world be perfect if everybody could find this? It's when lovers are at their most dangerous and prone to set you up with their friends. As Miriam planned her wedding with Nikaj, she was bugged by Sabir's story.

Miriam Van Wees

I wanted to give them something. A heart gift my mom calls it. I wanted to give them something that meant something to me that was more than a token. And so Nikaj and I chewed on this for a while. And that, along with the fact that we didn't want any gifts, gave us an idea. So we had the idea of passing the hat around, so to speak. Instead of gifts, they could donate to the Sabir wedding fund.

Nikaj Van Wees

If we marry, he marry.

Miriam Van Wees

If we get married, he gets married.

Gregory Warner

But their friends are all aid workers, and they don't have much money to give. So it fell to Miriam and Nikaj to scrape together the money Sabir needed.

But in giving $10,000 to an Afghan that you met six months before, Miriam was breaking one of the basic rules of development work. In all her years in the business, she'd never given away even $100 to someone. One of her jobs is to certify new aid workers. That includes teaching them not to fork over their own cash, because you don't want people to always be turning to you to fix their problems.

Miriam Van Wees

If one of my staff, if an ex-pat came up to me and said, yeah, I'm giving $10,000 to this family, because I really like them, I'd say, are you nuts? I would have said, you're crazy. Because I don't give money to beggars, not usually. I believe in the bigger plan, funding hospitals, and orphanages, and education centers. You don't just give money away. That's just not what you do. So don't mess with the system. Yeah, you don't want to set that precedent of I give, you receive. And so that's, I guess, in some ways, how this broke my personal rule.

Gregory Warner

But Sabir also broke the rules, she said, because he was the one who chose Kotsea. It wasn't a match made by his family, as almost all marriages in Afghanistan are. That appealed to Miriam. It felt like true love.

Miriam Van Wees

He doesn't want any girl. He's really fixed on this one, not anybody, this one. And I think that's what originally drew us to him. That's unusual in Afghanistan. And I liked that. I don't know. It felt like a good year for grand gestures. We were really excited about life in general, and we felt like spreading it out. And Sabir seemed to be the best direction to put it in.

Gregory Warner

So Miriam and Nikaj put $2,500 in an envelope, a sort of down payment on the girl, Kotsea, . And they gave the envelope to Dr. Wasai, Sabir's friend, who also works for Nikaj. And Dr. Wasai took the money to Sabir's house, and he sat down with Sabir's family to arrange everything. And that's when he found out they hated the idea.

Dr. Wasai

They ask me, his father and his sisters, they asked me, please talk with Sabir. We are not happy with that girl.

Gregory Warner

Turned out Sabir's family knew all about the secret fling. They'd suffered for years the googly eyes, the flash of the camera looks at the dinner table, and they thought Kotsea was a terrible match for Sabir. They didn't worry as long as Sabir didn't have the cash, but now he had foreign backers, international money from Nikaj and Miriam. The family marshaled against intruders. Even Wasai told Sabir to drop the girl. She was too short, he said.

Dr. Wasai

I told him, reject her, and dump the agreement with her, because Miriam and Nikaj, they are the same tall.

Gregory Warner

Miriam and Nikaj are the same height?

Dr. Wasai

Yes, and Me and my wife, we are the same tall. And when you're touching with your wife, all the parts of your body will be separate from each other.

Gregory Warner

Sabir is sitting next to Wasai on the couch. Not laughing, just looking down at his hands, giving me a full view of his thick, fluffy hair. In the end, it didn't matter how tall Kotsea was, her father said no to the marriage. Sabir was just a driver, he said, with a rented house. He wanted a better provider for his daughter.

And so it was over. Sabir was heartbroken, still single. And Miriam and Nikaj were left wondering what would happen to their $2,500. Two months passed. and then I met again with Sabir and Dr. Wasai. And Sabir told me this.

Dr. Wasai

And then I'm with a new girl.

Gregory Warner

Sabir had a new fiancee.

Dr. Wasai

She is a very good, beautiful girl. I like her.

Gregory Warner

The new girl's 22, he tells me, just like Kotsea is. But this one was chosen by Sabir's sister. She's Sabir's nephew's high school classmate, and everything else was done in accordance with tradition. Sabir met the girl's father, the father gave Sabir a bag of candy, Sabir gave the dad some of Miriam and Nikaj's money.

Dr. Wasai

She is taller than the first one. She has nice hairs. I know for they showed to me her photo.

Gregory Warner

You've never seen her? You've only seen her photo?

Dr. Wasai

Yes, I receive a photo, not see she.

Gregory Warner

Sabir hadn't even seen the new girl, which made this a very different kind of love story. No secret kisses, no stolen glances, no tortured tale of young love. It felt about as romantic as a mail order catalog. And Sabir sounded so practical.

Gregory Warner

Are you in love with the new girl?

Dr. Wasai

Yeah, now that she's my wife. I love her.

Gregory Warner

You do love her?

Dr. Wasai

Yeah, yeah, because she is now my wife.

Gregory Warner

I won't play you tape where I kept asking Sabir to compare the new girl to the old one. He got uncomfortable. I felt like a spoil-sport. And finally, Wasai told me to drop it. Look, he said, Sabir's 32 years old. He's never talked to any other women, let alone been in a relationship with somebody. Sabir thinks he was in love, Wasai says, but it was something else.

Dr. Wasai

Pseudo love. Pseudo love.

Gregory Warner

A pseudo love? Well, we would call it lust, I think.

Dr. Wasai

It means, the young boy get a little bit thirsty, especially in Afghanistan.

Gregory Warner

Wait, the boy is very thirsty, you said?

Dr. Wasai

Yes, and for example, when you drink some things more and more, you are not thirsty. In European countries or in your country, it's very easy to talk with a girl. In Afghanistan, maybe 90% of love is wrong love.

Gregory Warner

Nobody took Sabir's love very seriously, not his family, not Dr. Wasai, not even, apparently, Sabir himself. The only ones left to believe the love story were Miriam and Nikaj. Four months had passed since I'd last seen them. Nikaj had changed jobs, they'd lost touch with Sabir. They knew they were paying for a new wedding, but they didn't know the full story. So I sat them down on the couch.

Gregory Warner

I have good news and bad news. The good news is Sabir is getting married.

Miriam was eight months pregnant, balancing a cup of green tea on her stomach. I told her about the new fiance, and she looked so disappointed.

Miriam Van Wees

But does Sabir like this new girl?

Gregory Warner

Sabir hasn't seen her.

Miriam Van Wees

It's a crap shoot. That's not fair.

Nikaj Van Wees

He's going to be happy. His sisters checked the girl out. They talked with her mom, and they liked her, and thinks they are a match.

Miriam Van Wees

But that's the problem, is that Sabir is a romantic guy. I think he has high expectations. If he were Mr. Joe Schmo, who didn't cry when he told a story or get the bad case of giggles, it wouldn't really matter if she wasn't the love of his life, because he's just another guy marrying another arranged girl and with no expectations. But that's not Sabir. Sabir is a sensitive kind of guy. And I think he expects to be happily ever after. And what if he's not?

Gregory Warner

The way Miriam had seen it, Sabir was a man who had glimpsed the promised land, the promise was true love. And she just wanted to help him get there. But now she has to face the fact that he was fine with an arranged marriage-- not just fine, happy. And by the end of our conversation, Miriam decided she was happy with whatever made Sabir happy.

Miriam Van Wees

I wanted him to see something he liked, go after it, and have it be his.

Nikaj Van Wees

But baby, this is Afghanistan.

Miriam Van Wees

Exactly, that's exactly the point. He and she found what they wanted, and it was an usual, out of the ordinary way of doing, and they did it. They would have done it, if he had married that girl. But instead, they just went back to the status quo. And that's not really what we're looking for. We weren't looking to fund an arranged marriage. We were looking to fund two people who fell in love.

Nikaj Van Wees

Well, just to make Sabir happy as well. And he needs a wife.

Miriam Van Wees

We thought giving him Benjamin Franklins would make everything OK. And it wasn't just that, it was a little bit more complex. Sounds like a development project.

Gregory Warner

Sabir says he's not planning to tell the new wife where their wedding money came from, at least, not till well afterwards. For now, he doesn't want her to know that he's doing anything different from the way things are always done.

Ira Glass

Gregory Warner in Afghanistan, since we first aired this story last January, Sabir has gotten married in that arranged marriage, and says that he is a very happy man.

Coming up, fake babies, a fake nurse, and a bet that nobody wants to win. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Part Of Me, Why Not Take Part Of Me?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- Matchmakers. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act Two, Part of Me, Why Not Take Part of Me. The woman in this next story was on our show briefly, once before, talking about how she donated a kidney as a good deed, and lied to her own mother about it until after the surgery.

But after that experience, this woman, who's an orthodox Jewish woman named Chaya Lipschutz, started noticing all these ads where people were looking for donors, desperate people. And because she couldn't donate a second time herself, she decided to devote herself to rounding up potential kidney donors and matching them up with strangers in need of kidneys. She became, basically, a kidney matchmaker. Mary Robertson and Sarah Koenig co-reported this story which Sarah tells.

Sarah Koenig

It's really, really hard to do what Chaya was trying to do. She's trying to persuade people, alive people, to give their kidneys to people they've never met, who don't necessarily live anywhere near them, who have nothing to do with them. Needless to say, people like this are very rare. For almost a year, Chaya posted ads on Craigslist in every state, under the volunteers section, seeking kidney donors.

Chaya Lipschutz

Life is exactly the same-- Oh, I should say, do you know. Life is exactly-- OK, no I could just say, life is exactly the same with two kidneys as one--

Sarah Koenig

She updates the ads constantly, answers people who respond.

Chaya Lipschutz

Hope you-- able to do this great act. Just think of how proud of you everyone who knows you will be.

Sarah Koenig

But even when someone says they want to donate, maybe they don't follow through. And every hospital has different rules, so people get rejected all the time for different reasons. Or maybe there's a problem with their tests, or a family member talks them out of it. It can be constant frustration and disappointment. And for the first year of trying, it was. None of Chaya's matches went through.

An then Chaya got a break. This woman, Sandy, who heard Chaya give a talk about kidney donation at a synagogue, called Chaya up and said she wanted to donate and was all enthusiastic about it. And Chaya was thrilled. She matched her up with this guy, Max. The blood type was the same, and it was all working out.

Chaya Lipschutz

She was very excited about it, because she happens to know the family. And she's good friends with the daughter. I was like, ah, perfect. So even when I told her that I have a back up, she didn't want to hear of it. This was her beshert. This is the person who was meant for her.

Sarah Koenig

Beshert is a Yiddish word that means destiny. And it's almost always used for romantic matches. And that's kind of how Chaya sees what she is doing. Not that it's romantic, of course, but that she's connecting strangers in the most intimate way possible. She hopes the people will bond. Maybe Sandy and Max will become like family to each other.

Then on the day the surgery, when Sandy and Max were in the operating room, IVs in their arms and everything, they did a last minute blood test on Sandy. And it showed a problem, and the whole thing fell apart. Chaya was crestfallen. She left a message on my colleague Mary's machine, one of many, many, long messages about the Sandy situation.

Chaya Lipschutz

Hi, Mary-- Chaya. I spoke to the kidney transplant coordinator at the hospital. And it's just a mess, it's just a mess--

Sarah Koenig

And then, in the same message, Chaya is on to her next problem. This older guy, Abe Salem, had been waiting for kidney. But he'd gotten too sick for surgery, so she skipped over him. But now, he was ready, and she wasn't sure she had a donor. She'd originally offered up her brother to Abe, but then, when Abe got so sick, she matched up her brother with this other man instead, Mark Raymon. Now she's overwhelmed.

Chaya Lipschutz

I get clearance for Abe Salem. I didn't tell you that? Abe Salem is ready to have a kidney transplant. Good grief, what am I going to do now. Now they're all over my back with Salem's family. Oh, my goodness. It's crazy, it's crazy, so they want my brother now. Abe Salem wants my brother, Mark Raymon wants my brother. Bye.

Sarah Koenig

Chaya's an unlikely agent for this line of work. She's not connected to a hospital. She's not a social worker. She's never been trained in the subtle, ethical considerations that go into living donor transplants. To be blunt, she's eccentric. She's excitable. And she's emotionally involved with the cases on her list.

She doesn't strong-arm potential donors, but she does nudge and cajole. And she doesn't offer money, which is a illegal, but she does offer the promise that if you donate, people will think the world of you. You will feel gratified. It will boost your self-esteem. An expectation of quid pro quo which might horrify a professional transplant coordinator.

Frankly, some hospitals are wary of Chaya and won't deal with her. But here she is, dedicating almost all her time, unpaid, trying to save these kidney patients. Within days of the Sandy disappointment, Chaya has rebounded and she's trying to match her brother, Yosef, with Mark Raymon. Abe, by this time, had dropped out again. If this works, it'll be her first successful match.

Chaya Lipschutz

Mark, hi, good morning, it's Chaya. How are you?

Sarah Koenig

Mark is 56. A computer guy who's been unable to work since his kidneys failed. He has to be on dialysis for three hours, three days a week. Dialysis is pretty horrible. It's nowhere near as effective as a new kidney, and people die on dialysis all the time. So Chaya is constantly on the phone and the email, working out the details of a possible transplant for Mark. the problem with this case is that her brother is willing to donate, but he needs to do it by the following week, because he has to get back to work.

Chaya Lipschutz

You know what, if you want my brother's kidney you're going to have to go out to Staten Island, not wait until next Monday or Tuesday, because it might be too late. I'm just suggesting strongly, if you want a kidney by next week-- I'm sorry. Yes, yes, if they can-- tell them there's a possibility you won't get a kidney if-- huh?

Sarah Koenig

Mark Raymon and Yosef Lipschutz, Chaya's brother, go to the hospital in Brooklyn for their final round of tests, two days before the transplant is supposed to happen. Yosef, the donor, might be the sweetest man I've ever met. He's so nice, he thanks the nurses during routine questioning.

Nurse

All right, any problems with your kidneys?

Yosef Lipschutz

None whatsoever, thank you. Oh, thank you.

Sarah Koenig

He's never met Mark before, but they bumped into each other that morning at the admitting desk while they were signing in.

Yosef Lipschutz

He said that you're very kind to do this thing. I said, sure, my pleasure. And we discussed enough of the old neighborhood. He lives in Borough Park. I used to live in Borough Park. A little chitchat, nothing special--

Sarah Koenig

We found Mark upstairs, waiting for his tests.

Sarah Koenig

Did you have a vision in your head of what Yosef would look like, or how he would be, before you met him this morning?

Mark Raymon

Not really, but he looks OK. He's not overweight. He looks basically OK.

Sarah Koenig

So you were surveying him like for his health.

Mark Raymon

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Sizing him up like--

Mark Raymon

I'd like to get a healthy kidney so that I can get on with my life.

Sarah Koenig

Mark is pretty worried about the transplant. Not that it won't work, but that it won't happen. He's been through this before. About a year ago, he got to just about this stage of a transplant when the donor's family convinced her to back out. He was crushed.

Mark Raymon

Anything can go wrong. Even now, I mean, I coughed when I was being worked on by this lady inside, the nurse. She said, well if you're going to cough, that means you have a cold. If you have a cold, you can't be operated on. And if they try to postpone it, then my donor's going to run away, because he has a work schedule to keep up. So I'm not going to cough the next time. The next person I talk to, I'm not going to cough.

Sarah Koenig

So it's so tense.

Mark Raymon

Yeah, that's right.

Sarah Koenig

Chaya's at the hospital too, making sure everything is moving ahead, making sure her brother's OK.

Chaya Lipschutz

I have a yogurt for you, and I brought a couple slices of whole wheat bread. We have to make sure your kidneys are going to stay in good health till Wednesday at least.

Sarah Koenig

She's a little agitated. Every few minutes, she adjusting this bobby pin that's in the back of her long dark hair, but that doesn't actually seem to be holding anything in place. And she's writing notes all the time on these little strips of cardboard that she keeps in her purse. I realize there the things you pull off the top of a Kleenex box. The hospital administration arranges a photographer to take a PR picture of Mark and Yosef. It's a big thing for the hospital to have a stranger donate his kidney like this. So they put them next to each other on a bench, and it's incredibly awkward. They shake hands, pretend to meet again for the first time.

Mark Raymon

Nice meeting you, hopefully everything turns out all right.

Yosef Lipschutz

Got any hot tips on the stock market?

Mark Raymon

No, it's no fun that.

Sarah Koenig

Chaya is beaming. She's got her camera out too. Everyone's feeling good. And Mark is starting to relax.

Mark Raymon

Now I'm beginning to believe, God willing, that this is going to happen. Obviously, I've been disappointed before, but this time I believe this is, God willing, is going to be.

Sarah Koenig

Seconds after he says that, Vicki, the hospital's transplant coordinator, walks up and says she's got to talk to Yosef and Mark. She says, there's a little bit of a situation.

Sarah Koenig

Can I tape this?

Victoria Maursky

No, this is not good.

Sarah Koenig

OK.

A drug called Plavix showed up in one of Mark's blood tests. It's a blood thinner he takes. They'll have to postpone the surgery until the following Monday, when the Plavix will be out of Mark's system. But Monday is after Yosef's deadline, when he's supposed to be back at work. Chaya looks stricken. So does Mark. And then Vicki asks Yosef right there, in front of everybody, whether he'll still donate, even though he's said many times, he needs to have it done by the end of this week. Yosef pauses, and then says, he will.

Sarah Koenig

That was hard that they told you that right while he's sitting there. You can't refuse.

Yosef Lipschutz

I can't refuse, number one and luckily, I have an open date sort of like next week. I just hope that it's not postponed anymore.

Sarah Koenig

Too, just to have him sitting there like, what can you say.

Yosef Lipschutz

Well, I'm not going to break his heart. You know what I mean?

Sarah Koenig

Could you see that he was looking heartbroken?

Yosef Lipschutz

I felt it. I didn't have to look, I just could feel it.

Sarah Koenig

Chaya sometimes downplays what she's doing, but this is huge for her, maybe her life's purpose. And in her circles, Orthodox Jewish circles, it's crucial that she have a purpose. I didn't realize this until I asked her what I thought was an innocent question, how old she was.

Chaya Lipschutz

I don't want to say. I don't want to say. Ask me another time.

Sarah Koenig

Wait, how come you don't want to tell me how old you are?

Chaya Lipschutz

I don't want to say. I don't know, I don't want to say.

Sarah Koenig

You don't want, in the story, for anyone to know how old you are?

Chaya Lipschutz

Right.

Sarah Koenig

Do you feel uncomfortable with your age?

Chaya Lipschutz

Yeah, and you know why? Because I'm not married. And so it like looks strange. Someone my age should be married.

Sarah Koenig

In her world, a Jewish girl finishes high school and then gets married and has babies. It's what her sisters did, what her girlfriends did. Chaya came close, but it never happened. And now she's a woman of undetermined age, living with her elderly mother in a tiny, two room basement apartment in Borough Park, an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. Chaya's an anomaly here, and she feels it every day. She knows her landlady and the other tenants in the building probably talk about her.

Chaya Lipschutz

I don't know exactly what people are thinking, but I'm assuming like they see, they look at me like, oh, she's not married. And they probably say, oh, that's terrible. Or we feel bad for her. I'm sure they feel that way. I'm sure they feel that way. Yeah, you know, I kind of feel like an outsider, in a way, because I am different from them.

Sarah Koenig

That must be hard though to feel sort of different or even judged, or that people are out there like pitying you for something.

Chaya Lipschutz

Yeah, yeah it does, it does. I do feel kind of funny about it. Like sometimes I do wonder, what are they thinking when they see me, whatever. They also could think there's something wrong with me mentally. But I feel bad for my mother, because I'm sure she has people say, oh, so how many children do you have, and how many children are married, and this and that. And I'm sure she'd love to say, all them. I know she probably skips the subject. Sometimes she tells me, now I know why, what your purpose in life is. And so she sees that maybe this was my purpose in life.

Sarah Koenig

So because Chaya can't call herself a wife or a mother, it's almost like, to her neighbors, she has no identity at all. She's had to find one, kidney matchmaker. But for that title to make sense, she has to actually arrange at least one successful match. It helps explain why she's so worried that something's going to go wrong on Monday, the day of the surgery. That morning, they do a final blood test on Yosef.

Chaya Lipschutz

But what if they took blood from him now, what if they find out something is not--

Nurse

Like what?

Chaya Lipschutz

I don't know? What do they take, a CBC now and all that?

Nurse

I mean I don't think--

Chaya Lipschutz

No, because-- listen. Anything can happen, even at last minute.

Sarah Koenig

It's 6:00 AM and Mark and Yosef are in a pre-op room separated by a curtain. A team of medical people is getting them ready. A doctor puts an x on Yosef's left side to mark which kidney they're going to take. Chaya's checking in on both of them. She takes the opportunity to lecture Mark a little.

Chaya Lipschutz

Take good care of my brother's kidney when you get out of the hospital. Eat healthy, high fiber, low fat--

Mark Raymon

I plan on it.

Chaya Lipschutz

That's the condition. If you want my brother's kidney, you got to take care of it and yourself.

Mark Raymon

I'd plan on it.

Chaya Lipschutz

Otherwise, he's going to take it back. I'm only kidding.

Sarah Koenig

Mark doesn't say anything. Yosef's surgeon arrives.

Dale Distant

We're on it. This is it. The moment of truth. Yeah, just grab the IV for me. Tell your sister you'll see her later, OK?

Chaya Lipschutz

OK.

Sarah Koenig

The nurse just asked Yosef if he's ready to roll. Meaning, is he ready to have four small incisions to cut loose his kidney, and then a larger incision that the person with the smallest hand on the surgical team will reach into and pull out his kidney. The answer is yes. Yosef is ready to roll. Chaya hands over small holy book that she hopes will keep her brother safe.

Chaya Lipschutz

Say with me, [SPEAKING HEBREW].

Sarah Koenig

And as soon as Yosef is out of sight--

Chaya Lipschutz

You're going to be fine, don't worry.

Sarah Koenig

Chaya yells out to the surgeon. She's freaking out. She's still thinking this could all go wrong.

Chaya Lipschutz

How will I know when they start the surgery, can somebody come out and say it's started? No. What time is it starting?

Hospital Staff

Usually, it's going to start, I'd say in about 20 minutes from now.

Chaya Lipschutz

Because I don't want to leave. I want to know that it's started. I don't want to here that he backed out or something last minute.

Hospital Staff

I'll ask somebody to come out and let you know.

Chaya Lipschutz

Thank you very much, thank you, yes, thanks. You know what, don't-- I mean, it's not funny, because I know somebody who backed out the day of the surgery. I hope they lock the doors there.

Sarah Koenig

Yosef doesn't run out of the operating room, and now Chaya just has to wait. One of her older sisters is there too, Aliza. They talk about the things you talk about when you're trying to pass five or six hours. Aliza has no trouble with this, she can really, really talk. About her own operations.

Aliza

I remember when I had my tumor on my ovary many, many years ago. And they had to operate. They had to do so much cutting. Today, thank the Almighty, they do so much cutting.

Sarah Koenig

About her bus driver on the way to the hospital.

Aliza

He made a whole big deal about my shopping cart. Take the stuff out of the shopping cart. You can't come on the bus with a shopping cart. And I left, be well [SPEAKING YIDDISH] have a good day. I couldn't believe it. I don't know if he was Jewish. It doesn't matter. It was nice of him to say that.

Sarah Koenig

About the kosher joke book she's written.

Aliza

Two pelicans went into a restaurant, it's a corny joke, and they-- what do you call it-- they ate a meal. And they said where is the bill? The bill? They have a bill.

Sarah Koenig

Two pelicans go into a restaurant, they say where is the bill?

And then, finally, it's over. Everyone's fine. They can go visit Yosef. And it's at this moment that what Chaya has done suddenly becomes clear, most of all to her. For an instant, her single-minded kidney advocacy vanishes, and she's just a sister, looking at her brother, lying in the ICU.

Chaya Lipschutz

Hi, oh no, you look bad.

Sarah Koenig

He does look bad. He's barely conscious. And from the expression on his face, it seems like he's in too much pain to even speak.

Chaya Lipschutz

Are you in pain?

Yosef Lipschutz

Yeah.

Chaya Lipschutz

They tell you to squeeze some pain medicine?

Yosef Lipschutz

No.

Chaya Lipschutz

No? Should I ask them to do something?

Yosef Lipschutz

Yes.

Chaya Lipschutz

Excuse me, what are they going to do for his pain?

Sarah Koenig

Chaya had worried about this, about how much it would hurt him, how he would handle it when he woke up. She goes back out into the hall.

Sarah Koenig

Are you OK?

Chaya Lipschutz

Yeah, I'm OK. [CRYING] I'm going to be OK.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Sarah Koenig

he's in pain?

Chaya Lipschutz

Yeah. She says he's not in pain, and that he's just very tired. Looked like he's falling asleep, which is good. Let him sleep maybe.

Sarah Koenig

And just like that, Chaya has snaps out of it. If she had any doubts about her purpose after seeing Yosef, they were fleeting. She goes back into his room and spends the rest of the day with him in recovery. After a couple of nerve-racking weeks of complications the transplant took. Yosef went back to work, and Mark did too. A year later, they're not really in touch. For her part, Chaya is still at it. In the past year, she's made two other successful matches, saved two more lives. And now she is not so anxious about the whole endeavor. She's proved to everyone that she's a bona fide matchmaker. Her mother is very proud.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show. She co-reported that story with Mary Robertson.

[MUSIC - "STRANGER IN LOVE" BY JOHN HOLT]

Act Three. Babies Buying Babies.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Babies Buying Babies. Elna Baker always wanted to be an actress. But when she graduated from college, the only acting job she could get in New York City was at a toy store, FAO Schwarz, where they had salespeople put on costumes to demonstrate various toys. And this, is where Elna Baker accidentally got into the matchmaking game.

Elna Baker

For the first few weeks I rotated from toy to toy so that Chad, the FAO toy demo manager, could analyze my acting strengths before placing me on a specific product. I demonstrated anything from Robo-transformers to plush puppets. There was a preschool veterinarian kit, and it came with a stuffed puppy and doctor tools. For six hours I was supposed to fake diagnose an inanimate object and get other people excited about it. I would interrupt families as they strolled through the store.

Spot is sick, will you help me figure out what's wrong with Spot? And then I would hand the child a stethoscope, while the parents waited impatiently. I might as well have said, you and your family want to be left alone, but I'm an actor.

After two weeks of rotating, I was assigned to the Lee Middleton Doll collection. This was a coveted position. Lee Middleton Dolls were special. We were told that they were made with materials developed by NASA. They looked exactly like real babies, and they were weighted in the head and in the bottom so that they actually flopped like real babies. Every day I dressed in a nurse's uniform, and I worked with two other nurses slash actresses in the adoption center, a small cottage on the second floor of a FAO Schwartz.

A typical day of work would go as follows. Parents and their children would go from incubator to incubator admiring all the babies. If they decided that they were serious about adoption, we would open the gate to the white picket fence that surrounded the cottage and invite them inside. We would sit across from the perspective parent, usually a seven year old girl, in one of two rocking chairs and begin an adoption interview.

Do you promise to love and care for the baby? Will you read to the baby? Will you change the baby's diaper? Yes, the little girls would answer with sincerity. And then the final question, what would you like to name the baby? The girls always chose frilly names like Princess Tiffany of Fairy Flower Land. We would write Princess Tiffany on the doll's hospital bracelet, along with the date of birth, which usually happened to be the previous day. And then we would fill out a birth certificate. We would hand the birth certificate to the little girl's parents and say, now all you have to do is pay the adoption fee, wink, wink.

We were instructed by Chad never to use words like cost, purchase, or buy. He said that that would quote, break the illusion of the world, unquote. When work got slow, us nurses were not allowed to socialize. According to Chad that would also break the illusion of the world. Instead, if we weren't working with a customer, we had to always be holding, rocking, or bouncing the display baby doll.

The display baby doll is on display for a reason. It could not be sold. Something terrible happened in the factory on the day of its birth, because the dolls fingers were not like the other babies. They had been molded together making it look like it had flippers instead of hands. As if that weren't bad enough, it had curly red hair, scary green eyes, and its head weighed at least five pounds more than all the other babies' heads.

As a result, when you lifted the baby, its head would automatically flop back, and its little flippers would flip up like a monster baby. Which is how the doll earned its nickname. We called it Nubbins. And because Nubbins was for display purposes only, he didn't have an incubator like the other babies. Instead, he was kept in a cupboard. This was especially disturbing, because Nubbins had a knack for looking realistically dead. So when you'd open the cupboard, you'd find him slumped over onto his enormous head, with his arms flopped behind him like he died in a yoga class.

September and October are traditionally slow months at FAO Schwarz. And with no customers to attend to, we spent a lot of time holding, rocking, and bouncing baby Nubbins. So much time that we actually started to resent him. So to entertain ourselves we invented a game. Actually, I invented it, but the other girls went along with it. The object of the game was this, while a nurse was working with a customer, you had to try and get her to break character by doing something horrible to baby Nubbins.

For example, I'd open all the doors to all the cabinets in the adoption center, and while another nurse was doing an adoption, I'd carefully walk down the aisle and rock Nubbins's head into the jagged edges of each drawer, while humming a lullaby.

It was fun to torture Nubbins in front of each other, but it was even better when there was a crowd of people standing outside the adoption center. It took real comedic timing. You'd change Nubbins's diaper on the diaper changing table. Then you'd carefully lift him. You'd gently place him on your shoulder and burp him ever so slightly. And at just the right moment, you'd drop him.

It worked every time. Everyone watching knew Nubbins wasn't real, but when he hit the floor, they still jumped and gasped. And the best part was that they did it sync, so it looked like a minor earthquake had just occurred. That is how us nurses spent our time. We'd sell overpriced dolls when we had customers, and we'd torture Nubbins when we didn't. And then one day, everything changed.

A few months before I started working as a toy demonstrator, two girls from the MTV reality show, Rich Girls, came in to FAO Schwartz with a camera crew and adopted a baby. On November 15th the episode aired. By 9 o'clock the next morning, every mother on the Upper East Side had to have a Lee Middleton Doll for her child.

There was a line of anxious parents and spoiled children outside the store. We were doing adoptions left and right. Gone were the days of horseplay and pranks. This was real work, and it was exhausting. Do you promise to love and care for the baby? Will you read to the baby? Will you change the baby's diaper? What do you want to name the baby? Fill out birth certificate, repeat.

Business was so good that no one saw it coming until it was too late. Within a week of the episode's air date, we sold out of all the white babies. That's right, we sold out of all the white babies. All we had left were incubator upon incubator of minority babies.

The manager of FAO Schwarz had a conniption fit. With Christmas only five weeks away, the Lee Middleton factory was already on back-order. There was absolutely no way to get a new shipment in until mid-January.

Day after day, the same scenario would repeat itself. Eager mothers would rush to the adoption center. Is this the Lee Middleton Doll collection, they'd ask. Then they'd stop, dead in their tracks. I'd watch their heads go from incubator to incubator. They'd pause briefly at the Asian baby. Oh-- no. And then, trying as hard as they could be politically correct, the mothers would look at us and say, do you have any other shades of babies?

Chad, the toy demo manager, had prepped us with a response. He'd taped a memo in the women's locker room reading, if the mother's express a disinterest in the babies due to ethnicity, kindly inform them that while these are all the babies we have in stock, there's a wider selection available online. And they're more than welcome to order online.

But this is not what the mothers wanted to hear. These dolls don't look like my little Susan, they'd explain, pointing to their child. I want something that looks like Susan, wink, wink. Us nurses decided to make the most of the situation. And so we invented another game.

If a mother didn't want to adopt a doll because of its ethnicity, we worked on her child. It was pretty easy. First, we would ask the little girl if she wanted to hold one of the babies. Wow, we'd exclaim. This little baby has really taken to you. You look like you'd make an excellent mommy for her. The little girls would gently stroke the babies while the mothers would look at us in a state of panic. You could almost hear them thinking, why are you doing this to me? What did I ever do to you?

The other game we invented stemmed from Chad's memo. Instead of saying, there's a wider selection available online, we would try and say, there is a whiter selection available online, without getting caught or breaking character. In spite of these games, the situation still depressed me. I remember one mother in particular. She was in her mid-30s with blond hair and a pinched face. When I offered her an Hispanic baby, she looked at me and said, Oh, come on. We don't want a dark child. What would people think it Jessica was carrying a dark baby? She touched my hand and looked into my eyes. You know what I mean.

I knew what she was trying to say. She was saying that since we were both white, I understood her. But what she didn't know is that while I'm fair-skinned, I'm actually half-Mexican. And besides that, I did not know what she meant. Did she honestly think that if someone saw her daughter carrying a Hispanic baby doll that they would think that Juan, her gardener, had knocked her up?

There were so many things I wanted to say to these mothers. But that's when it sucks to be employed, because the customer's always right. So instead of speaking up, I took my hand out from under the pinched-face woman's and said, you are more than welcome to order online. There's a whiter selection available online.

But this was only half of the story. Technically, we hadn't sold out of all the white babies. Technically, we still had one left, Nubbins. As a result, when mothers would rush to the adoption center and realize there were only minority babies, they'd immediately notice Nubbins. They'd spot him in our arms, round and pudgy with a head of red hair. He was the answer to their prayers.

Can I see that baby? They would insist. All we ever had to do was turn Nubbins around. His head would flop back. His flippers would flip up. And the mothers would quickly say, never mind. This happened so often that eventually us nurses decided to make a bet. Who do you think will go first, baby Nubbins or all the minority babies?

To be honest, when I've told this story in the past, and I've told it a number of times, I've said that I bet on the minority babies, because I thought Nubbins would be the last to go, if he'd go at all. And then what I'd say happened was that Nubbins sold first, leaving behind an entire toy nursery of minority babies and isn't that crazy. But that wasn't exactly true. What actually happened was much harder to admit. It was this. The minority babies did start to sell, slowly.

First, we sold out of all the Asian babies. Then we sold out of all the Hispanic babies. And finally, all we had left was Nubbins and incubators of black baby dolls. This just made us all feel worse. Inadvertently, the bet had become, who do you think will go first, Nubbins or every black baby in the nursery. I stood by my initial bet. We'll never sell Nubbins, I insisted.

And then a week later, a mother marched up to the adoption center. Nurse, she yelled, is this some sort of a joke? Her face was frozen in disgust. In one hand, she was holding a Bergdorf shopping bag, with the other she was dragging a very solemn child. Where are all the white babies?

I wasn't used to the mothers being quite so direct. We're all out, I said. You have got to be kidding, she began. And then her eyes focused on Nubbins, who was nestled in my arms. What about that one, she asked.

I turned Nubbins around, slowly, for full impact. His head flopped back. His flippers flipped up. I waited for her horrified response. We'll take it, she said. What, I thought, Nubbins? You want to adopt Nubbins? Was Nubbins even up for adoption? I opened the white picket fence and escorted the mother and her daughter over to the rocking chairs. I sat baby Nubbins in the solemn little girl's lap, sat in the seat across from her and began.

Do you promise to love and care for this baby? The little girl looked up at me. No. I had been doing adoptions for two months now. I'd interviewed hundreds of little girls. No one had ever answered no before. Technically she had just failed the adoption interview. For lack of a better response, I ignored her answer, and I moved on to the next question. Will you read to the baby? No. OK, I said, moving to the next question. What would you like to name the baby? Stupid, she said.

While I wasn't exactly Nubbins's best friend, I wasn't about to write Stupid on his birth certificate. Why don't we try calling him-- Just name the baby Veronica, her mother interrupted. I scribbled Veronica in the name section of the baby bracelet and birth certificate and then I handed the paperwork to the mother.

As they walked away, I laid out a pink blanket instead of a blue one, and set Nubbins in the center. For the last time, his head flopped back, and his little flippers flipped up. That's when it hit me. Nubbins has been adopted. There will be no more Nubbins. A little montage in honor of the doll began to play in my head. There he was being tossed across the adoption center by Jenny. There was the time Carla had accidentally rocked on him with rocking chair, and a crowd gasping as he tumbled onto a marble floor.

It had never occurred to me before, but I loved Nubbins. And if I sold baby Nubbins, what it meant was just too depressing. I mean, after all the weird comments from our customers about our baby inventory, I still didn't want to face what it said if a factory reject monster baby was adopted before a whole nursery of perfectly cute black babies. I tried to think of ways to prevent this. I thought about lying and telling them Nubbins had already been purchased. I even thought about buying Nubbins myself. I imagined what I'd say to my dad when I called him to borrow the $120. Um, dad, there was this baby at the adoption center, and he was about to go to a bad family, and I think that I could be a good family.

And then I looked up. The woman and her daughter had returned with their receipt. Reluctantly, I placed baby Nubbins in the little girl's arms. I'm sure baby Veronica will have a wonderful home, I lied. As she and her mother walked out of the store, I watched Nubbins's head bobbing on her shoulder until I couldn't see them anymore.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker performs her stories on stage around New York City, and she has a book coming out, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, a Memoir.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes with our senior producer Julie Snyder, and with Alex Blumberg, John Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollack, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for a program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia who is always stopping me in the hallway to share his feelings about me.

Dr. Wasai

If it was possible, I will take your hair on my head."

Ira Glass

And um, what exactly does that mean?

Dr. Wasai

It means-- know he is in love.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

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