Transcript

358:

Social Engineering
Transcript

Originally aired 06.27.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/358

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Tim wasn't always perfect at his job. A couple years ago, not long after he got the job, he heard about these two gang members who had gotten into a scuffle at a club. It began when one of them jumped in front of the other in a line of people who were going to have their pictures taken.

Tim White

And they got into a big fight. And one of the guys got a black eye and was kind of messed up. And he was looking for the other guy to shoot him.

Ira Glass

Which is how Tim got involved. Tim, I have to say, has one of the greatest job titles ever. In a world where job titles often obscure what the hell a person does for a living, his is remarkably direct. He's an interrupter.

Tim White

An interrupter means to interrupt violence, to intervene, or to mediate potential violent conflict.

Ira Glass

Years ago, Tim had been a gang member. He'd risen through the ranks, until finally he got to call the shots for his area on the West Side of Chicago. He became an interrupter when he got out of prison a few years back. So he gets these two guys together. They both knew him from the streets. They both respected him. But he was so inexperienced at being an interrupter that he held the meeting outside on a corner. And each guy brought friends.

Tim White

What I messed up was, I didn't have control of the environment. I mean, they was instigating. Man, you let him hit you in your eye? You should do this to him. I lost control of the mediation. I was OK as long as I had them two there, right? But when everybody else started putting input in, and everybody starts saying, he ain't going to do nothing to me. And they start up in guns, I was the only one there without a gun. And I said, man, I don't have control.

They talking, and they was just about to pull it. Man, you should shoot him, man. And I was like, man, nah, don't shoot him. Man, don't shoot him. Please don't shoot that gun. And they were like, man, I ain't scared of you. I got a gun. You ain't the only one got no gun. And I was like, I ain't got nothin'. And so I was like, hey listen. Let's just get in our cars. Get in your car, get in your car. Man, get in your car. Man, the police are going to come. Get in your car. They finally got in their cars, and they pulled off. I said, this mediation ain't going right.

And so about two days later, I called these same two individuals. But this time, I had them meet me at the office, individually, one-on-one. And I explained to them, man, listen, man. You don't need to make these decisions that you're making, man. You're doing well out here in the streets. You're not starving. But if you make these decisions that you're going to make, you're going to bring a lot of heat on yourself. You don't want to hurt dude, he don't want to hurt you. Y'all was both drunk that night at that party. Ain't nobody dead. You got a black eye. People get black eyes when they get into fights. But you still can salvage this, man. And he listened. He had cooled off for a while. A couple of days had passed, he cooled off.

And I had already talked to the other guy. And he said, man, I don't got no problem talking to him. He the one that want to act like he want to-- we had to fight last night. He lost. What he want to do? He want to kill me now. And I ain't scared of him. I mean, if he trying to kill me, I'm trying to kill him.

So we got to the table, and we talked. And we squashed it. Because they really both didn't want to hurt each other. They knew each other from school and everything, but their pride was in the way. Their reputation was in the way.

Ira Glass

What do you think they go back and tell their friends about why the fight's over? What do they say?

Tim White

That's what I mean about keep their reputation and their face value. They go back and say, man, I let it go, because Tim, man, you know? You know Tim stand for peace now, man. So he caught up with me, man. So I told him I'd do it for him. I gave dude a pass. And the other dude will tell his crew, I gave dude a pass for Tim, man. And so that's what they do.

Ira Glass

It's a favor to you.

Tim White

Yeah. They just give me some favors some time. And I stand on what I say. I'm not here to arrest you. I'm not here to talk about nothing. We're not there to put them in jail for whatever they're doing. We don't want to know nothing about your criminal activities, how you get money, how you making your money. Our component is totally to stop you from shooting each other.

Ira Glass

I met Tim through one of the contributors to our radio show, Alex Kotlowitz. He'd written about Tim and some other interrupters for The New York Times Magazine. Tim works for a group called CeaseFire, which this year has stepped in to mediate 78 potential shootings in Chicago. Tim's in his 40s. When he was in prison, he found God. When we came out, he was ordained as a minister, like his dad, actually, who has a church on the West Side. And though Tim loves the work he does now, he understands how hard it is for the guys he talks to not to take revenge. He's been tested too. Not long ago, he was in his car. He'd just dropped his son off.

Tim White

I was riding down Pulaski, and I was behind this young man and a woman in a car. He had to be doing like 20 miles an hour on a busy street. And he was swerving, just like listening to his music, bouncing up and down. I was kind of tired, and I wanted to get past him. And he wouldn't let me pass. Purposely, he wouldn't let me pass.

Ira Glass

He was like cutting you off when you try to go around?

Tim White

Yeah. So I caught myself going try to get past him, and he hit his brakes real hard and made me almost run into the back of his car. And when he jumped out, he started cussing me. MF, get away from my-- don't be riding so close to my car. I'll beat your woo, woo, woo. And I said, hey man, I just want to get past. He said, F you. Say something else and I'll slap you. And I was like, slap who? And he said, I'll slap you. Say something else. And I wanted to whoop him. I believe in my heart I could whoop this guy. I could take him. And I looked at him, I said, man, it's not that serious, man. We ain't got to go there. And he said, man, shut up.

I said, shut up? I said, all right, man. I just looked at him, and he looked at me. And he seen that he had punked me, so he walked away. And then he jumped in the car, and he called me a B. And then he got in his car and pulled off. And I stayed there and just sit for a minute. And tears started welling up in my eyes, and I was thinking about going on the block and getting a couple of guys. I know the car and stuff. I wanted to go and ride back around his neighborhood and see could I find him.

And I was riding that way, and I'm riding that way. I said, man, I should kill this guy. He just disrespected me like that. Nobody never disrespected me like that. And then I pulled over, started to cry a little bit. And I said, nah, I'm going home.

Ira Glass

Tim and the other interrupters are trying to do a kind of social engineering on the West Side, trying to change people's behavior on a mass scale, alter deeply ingrained social rules, make things better for everybody. And challenging as that is, it can be even more challenging to do that kind of retooling on yourself.

Tim White

It's hard to do a mediation on yourself. That's harder than doing a mediation for someone else. Because I was on the outside, I didn't have the emotions.

Ira Glass

When you're doing it with other people?

Tim White

When I'm doing it with other people, when they be mad. I had emotions that flared up in my throat. It was all up over me, it was everywhere. And I didn't know how to deal with it.

Ira Glass

And that brings us to today's program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, we have several stories of people who are trying to social engineer their own lives. Act One, we have guys who remake their lives in this way that I think very few of us would ever dare. In Act Two, a parent tries to teach a kid a simple lesson, but does it in a way that he regrets for decades later. In Act Three, a mom understands that sticks and stones will, in fact, break your bones, but is not so clear if names will ever hurt her kid. Stay with us.

Act One. Choosers, Not Beggars.

Ira Glass

Act One, Choosers, Not Beggars. Gregory Deloatch and Daniel Canada met in a bookstore, and they've had the kind of long-standing friendship where, at the center of things for the last 20 years, they've had a shared goal: to write something great. But all the normal stuff got in the way of that goal, marriages, jobs. And the dream to write something great became a lower priority, something more like a hobby. When Gregory was in his 20s, he write a sci-fi novel. And in their 30s, Gregory and Daniel co-wrote a big historical novel set in ancient Babylon and a second novel together called The Noise. None of these books were published.

And it wasn't until their 40s that things really started to change, and they got serious about their writing. And they did this by re-engineering their lives in a pretty unusual way. Lu Olkowski explains.

Lu Olkowski

It wasn't that Gregory and Daniel decided to become homeless so they'd finally get enough free time to write. They slid into homelessness gradually. Gregory was making good money as a computer tech for a Wall Street firm, but he was drinking way too much, and finally his wife walked out. He found himself living alone in an apartment in New Jersey. His best friend, Daniel, meanwhile, was between jobs and divorced.

So Gregory offered his couch to Daniel, and for a long while, things were all right. Daniel would write some during the day. Gregory worked nights, until Gregory lost his job. And he'd never been unemployed before, not really, not like Daniel. He began missing rent payments and couldn't see a way to catch up, and he was freaking out. And at this point, he could have gotten another job, or gone to his family for money. But he did nothing. And then it was the day before they were going to get evicted. Here's Gregory.

Gregory Deloatch

I'm like, dude, we're about to hit the street. And mister cool as a cucumber here was just relaxed. He wasn't stressed about anything.

Lu Olkowski

Daniel felt this way because he'd lived on the streets before.

Gregory Deloatch

And then he said, that's survivable. For the first time, it didn't really key in, because you don't think you can survive the streets. When someone says, being homeless, I don't think you can do it. I'm like saying to him, where do you use the bathroom?

Daniel Canada

I remember that.

Gregory Deloatch

Where do you take a shower? How do you get clean? Where do you get new clothes? I had a million questions, and he carefully answered every last one of them. This is what you do. This is what you'll do. This is what you'll do. So that when the last day came and just before the county sheriffs came to lock me out, we left. I grabbed what clothes I had on my back and a bag, and we headed to the Port Authority.

Lu Olkowski

Up until he lost his apartment, the Port Authority bus station in New York was just a transfer station on Gregory's route to and from work. But on that night in May 2006, it became shelter. A few nights sleeping in the Port Authority turned into weeks. But somehow, because they had each other, being homeless in New York City didn't seem as daunting as it might have. It was kind of an adventure. Gregory and Daniel treated it like a game, spending the last of Gregory's money on going to the movies and bars. They wanted to shed the baggage and stress of their old lives, no full-time jobs, no wives, no hassle. They wanted to live a little, reevaluate things.

And it was during this time that Gregory and Daniel forged a plan, an experiment. They'd use homelessness to finally get serious about their writing. Here's Daniel.

Daniel Canada

We wanted to eliminate the distraction and maximize the time that we spend in pursuing this. We are devoting all our energy to it. This is our life. This is our career. This is our nine-to-five. Our particular talent is poetry, open mic, spoken word.

Lu Olkowski

And so Gregory and Daniel, without jobs, without homes, got to work. They had a routine. If they were writing something together, like their novel or screenplay, they'd work at the New York Public Library. Otherwise, they'd split up during the day, but meet up every morning for breakfast and every night before bed, just to check in on one another. They'd stay on each other to be productive. Daniel is more likely to wander the city, hoping to get an idea for a poem. Gregory has a laptop, so he spends most days at a Midtown Starbucks, where uses free wifi to write his blog.

And a month after they went on the streets, they hit the poetry circuit. Two months in, their schedule was packed enough to include three different readings a week. Saturday's at Stark on West 43rd Street, Sundays at Smith's Bar in Times Square or at ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side, Mondays downtown at the Nightingale. On stage, Gregory became Hobo Bob, Daniel was Obsidian. They were the homeless poets. That was their schtick on the poetry circuit.

Woman

Next up, please welcome our wonderful homeless poet, Hobo Bob.

[APPLAUSE]

Lu Olkowski

And this is where I first encountered them, over a year ago in 2007. It was Obsidian who knew the places they could perform, and Obsidian does most of the MCing when they're on stage together. He's the outgoing one, the one who works the room at intermission. Gregory's more thoughtful, introspective. And at the beginning it was Obsidian, you know, Daniel, who showed Gregory how to live on the street, how to keep warm on a cool night by stuffing their clothes with crumpled up newspaper, where there was a storefront in Midtown with planters that hid them from view, so they could sleep without anyone bugging them. Also how to stock up on free necessities. Here's Daniel.

Daniel Canada

Go into McDonald's, and get you a handful of them. And put them in your bag or your pocket when you need napkins.

Lu Olkowski

Why do you need so many napkins?

Gregory Deloatch

They're amazing.

Daniel Canada

They do everything.

Gregory Deloatch

They do everything.

Daniel Canada

You'll find so many uses of just a napkin.

Gregory Deloatch

If you use a public toilet and can't shut the door you just-- you know some of those stalls, they kind of like swing like swinging doors. The locks are broken, so you need to use it, and the door keeps running open. So you take a couple of napkins, and you just wedge them right in the door.

Lu Olkowski

Daniel also taught Gregory the importance of socks.

Daniel Canada

Socks. Your feet go first. When you're in the street, you keep your feet in your shoe all the time. It doesn't get any air. And once it smells like hell like that, it contaminates your shoe. Now your shoe stinks. You could hold the bank up with them. You notice that if you smell an odor around a homeless person, the odor you're smelling is the feet. So you always got to constantly make sure you have a pair of socks on your feet, a pair in the bag.

Lu Olkowski

They get fresh socks at the Bowery Mission, which also provides new clothes and showers for the homeless. Every Tuesday, Gregory and Daniel go there, throw away the old clothes they've been wearing for a week, and each gets a whole new outfit. It matters to them that they look good. They're clean-shaven with proper haircuts, no grime under their nails, dark chinos, and button-down shirts. In other words, they pass. You wouldn't know they were homeless unless they told you.

Which is not true for a lot of the homeless people they see around town, guys they've privately nicknamed Adolph, Scurvy, Coat, Buzzard, Frank 'n Beans, the Marlboro Man. They classify the bags homeless people carry from large to small into class A, B, C, or D Starfleet. Gregory has a solid class D Star Cruiser, a sensible black wheelie suitcase with a matching computer bag. The longer you're on the street, the bigger your starship tends to get, and the class A Star Destroyer is one of those giant canvas postal carts, overflowing with stuff, with more stuff tied to the sides and on poles.

Gregory Deloatch

Well, there's three types of homeless people. There's homeless people who are just homeless, and they're trying to make the best they can. And some of them, you can't even tell they're homelessness unless you follow them around. They change their clothes. They upkeep themselves. You see them in the library reading a book or something. That's one. That's us. Then there's a Skeksis, where they'll be very dirty.

Daniel Canada

Dressed in all kinds of clothes, sometimes many layers and layers of clothes.

Gregory Deloatch

They'll wear heavy coats in the wintertime-- I'm sorry, in the summertime. You don't want to smell them when they open up those coats. And they even talk differently. Their language has devolved. They don't speak in words anymore. They speak more in sounds, more like [SCREECHING SOUNDS].

Daniel Canada

[SCREECHING SOUNDS]. Honest to God.

Gregory Deloatch

But that's Skeksis. He's talking Skeksis.

Daniel Canada

He's on his way.

Gregory Deloatch

He's talking Skeksis.

Daniel Canada

And then there's the last one, recently classified.

Gregory Deloatch

Skels.

Daniel Canada

Skels. Or Skelsis.

Gregory Deloatch

Skelsis. Skelsi is the living dead. It's the undead. It's a person who, they're gone, mentally gone. And you'll just see them like sitting on the floor with their feet out maybe, and they're just really filthy. And they're just scratching themselves, and they're just talking to themselves loud. And they're just gone. That's it. That's the last level. That's called Skel. And Skell is the terminology that police use for homeless people. They call them Skells, which is short for skeletons. So whenever they go on the mocrophone, they say we have a Skell here. They're referring to a homeless person. They refer to all homeless people as Skells. They don't see a difference.

Lu Olkowski

Maybe the most remarkable thing about Gregory and Daniel is how upbeat they were about all this. It's hard to imagine being so happy living on the street. But when I first met them a year ago, they'd been on the street for a year already, and they were almost always like this. Though Gregory said there was one thing he definitely did not like about living on the street.

Gregory Deloatch

No one told me that being homeless meant celibacy. That was the biggest thing. I didn't think about it. I didn't think about it at all. I'm like, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. But you know what? Obsidian picked up some. It's the magic of Obsidian. Yeah. He had two girlfriends since he was homeless. Two. It's the Obsidian suave, suave, sua-vay, charisma. You know, he's handsome. He's young. He's got it going on. He's not afraid to say it. But I'm more rugged looking, more pie-faced, more out of shape. The two of us standing together, women are going to gravitate to him, and I'm going to be the one going to get the drinks.

Lu Olkowski

They squeaked by with a little money from occasional odd jobs. Gregory wrote reviews of porno films. He didn't get paid, but he got to keep the DVDs, which he sold for $2 apiece to video stores. Obsidian would take a day here and there doing small construction jobs. And Gregory's mom sent him $100 every month. And they started to make some money from poetry. When they were featured together at the East Orange Public Library in New Jersey, they got $100 each. As for food, they're eating well, gaining weight even.

Daniel Canada

There's no such thing as a hungry homeless person.

Gregory Deloatch

In this city?

Daniel Canada

You can't be hungry.

Gregory Deloatch

That's a joke.

Daniel Canada

Too many places to eat.

Gregory Deloatch

Anyone that has a sign that says, I'm hungry and haven't eaten in three days--

Daniel Canada

That's a joke.

Gregory Deloatch

--is lying.

Daniel Canada

It's a scam.

Gregory Deloatch

It's a scam.

Daniel Canada

The city is littered with soup kitchens, littered. And the quality of the food is good. They have good quality food, fresh vegetables. Incredible. It's the churches. Most of them are the churches. If it wasn't for the churches, the homeless people would starve to death.

Gregory Deloatch

Federal programs suck.

Daniel Canada

Suck. Even the quality of the food sucks at the federal program. And they give you so little bit of it. The churches, however, on the other hand, the people go out of their way to cook good food for you, serve you.

Gregory Deloatch

They want you there. They treat you differently.

Daniel Canada

They perform music for you.

Gregory Deloatch

Breakfast there is wonderful. It's always something great.

Daniel Canada

Corn beef hash, beef stew.

Gregory Deloatch

Chicken, fish, salmon, fresh salmon, fresh whitefish. Oh man, lamb, steak, beef.

Daniel Canada

They let you go around and get more.

Gregory Deloatch

Go around as many times as you want. Knock yourself out.

Daniel Canada

They give you a bag of food on the way out.

Lu Olkowski

Are you the person this food is meant for? You could have made a living, you're competent.

Gregory Deloatch

Is it meant for us? I mean, do all homeless people have to be disabled? Do all homeless people have to be crazy?

Daniel Canada

It's for the hungry. There are people who have jobs that eat there too.

Lu Olkowski

But do you think people would want to be donating to you?

Gregory Deloatch

We're donating to these guys' experiment? Would they donate if they knew it was coming to us? No, no.

Lu Olkowski

Though Gregory and Daniel are the rare homeless people who got into homelessness as a lifestyle choice, there's not such a clear line dividing them from some of the more hardcore cases at the soup kitchens. After all, it was alcohol that got Gregory fired from his last job and brought him to the point that homelessness became an option.

Gregory Deloatch

I was making 60 grand a year, 60 grand not working hard. If I wanted to push it, I could push it to 70. They want you to do overtime in Wall Street. Wall Street judges you by overtime. So yeah, I was raking it in. I was spending it just as fast on alcohol. I was downing alcohol like nobody's business. I would get up around 8:00 at night, take a shower. Have a pint of Jack Daniels on me when I got into my car and drove to work. Finished that pint by the time I got out of Port Authority. Stop, get another pint, go into work.

Don't want to drink the pint, because I don't want to blast through it. Put the pint in the drawer, go to the Dakota Road House, and drink shots all night. Eight hours later, come back, grab my pint. Get off work, and go to another bar, Smith's, and drink all day until I got tired, shots.

Lu Olkowski

Counterintuitively, he does less drinking now that he's homeless. He doesn't have the money to keep up his rigorous Jack Daniels routine. And Gregory and Daniel don't beg. It's a rule. Begging is Skeksi. Here's Gregory.

Gregory Deloatch

Most benefit to me of being homeless is the fact that it kept me from drinking, kept me from smoking.

Lu Olkowski

And that's not the only self-improvement perk homelessness gave him.

Gregory Deloatch

Therapy, therapy. The state gives it to you. You must be nuts if you're on the street. So the state has--

Lu Olkowski

So you say I'm homeless, can I have therapy, and they'll just give it to you?

Daniel Canada

You're homeless, we'll give you therapy.

Gregory Deloatch

You're homeless, we'll give you therapy.

[LAUGHTER]

Lu Olkowski

All of this is paid by Medicaid, which also pays for his eyeglasses and his prescriptions. Once he started treatment, Gregory learned that the voices he hears in his head sometimes, loud, insistent voices, which he assumed came from drinking so much, were signs that he's bipolar and schizophrenic. And now he gets meds to keep that under control, all free. So there were benefits to being on the street, including for their poetry.

After a few months, Gregory and Daniel decided to start their own open mic night called "The Times Square Shout Out" at one of Gregory's old drinking haunts on Eighth Avenue. They co-hosted, and it was popular enough that they started to dream of being discovered. A lot of their poetry has to do life on the streets or the lives they left behind. Here's Obsidian.

Daniel Canada

This one's entitled "Where's Daniel?" Of course, you know my real name is Daniel. Where's Daniel at? In alleyways and sleazy barbacks, on cheapened soup lines with hands in pockets against the wind. Where's Daniel at?

Lu Olkowski

Daniel, Obsidian, comes on stage with his poetry on scraps of newspaper and napkins. But Gregory, Hobo Bob, is the one with the computer. And he comes onstage with all the poems printed out in crisp sheets, protected in plastic.

Gregory Deloatch

This one's, "I'm Hobo Bob." I'm Hobo Bob. And they call me that because I own nothing, insolvent, collateral-less, without liquidity. Me? Ha ha, I laugh. They say Bloomberg owns Gracie Mansion, but I don't see him out there when I'm sleeping on his lawn. I'm Hobo Bob.

Lu Olkowski

Neither of these guys will be the next Poet Laureate, but at their readings, and other people's too, they really stood out. They were popular, and not just because they were homeless. A lot of the readers at these amateur open mics, frankly, are pretty boring. But Gregory and Daniel are natural performers who play to the crowd. And the crowds love them.

Daniel Canada

The first one's entitled "A Few of My Favorite Things."

Gregory Deloatch

[SINGING TO THE TUNE OF "MY FAVORITE THINGS" BY RICHARD RODGERS] Waking up achy and out in the open. Guard dogs are barking before words are spoken. Wrought iron benches that causes suffering--

Gregory Deloatch And Daniel Canada

These are a few of my favorite things.

Daniel Canada

Taking a shower with four dozen others. Moving around in a stench that could smother. Finding that you are the source of the stink.

Gregory Deloatch And Daniel Canada

These are a few of my favorite things. When the bottle's dry--

Lu Olkowski

Then about a year after they hit the street, they suffered their first big setback. The bar where they hosted the shout-out got tired of it and canceled the show, and their dream of being discovered suddenly seemed a little less realistic. And being on the street was getting old. Here's Daniel.

Daniel Canada

You know what? It's getting to be tiring. At first it started off, it was kind of simple. But then, as you continue to be out there, it wears on you actually. It wears on you psychologically. It wears on you physically in various ways. So now, we're at the point where it's tiring, and we are working our way to get out of it. But now, the interesting thing about it is once you go into the streets, it's not so easy to extract yourself. It's easy to get in, but not easy to get out. It's like roach motel.

Lu Olkowski

And it was Daniel, Obsidian, the one with more experience on the streets, who took off. He bailed for his mom's place in South Carolina, leaving Gregory by himself. I caught up with Gregory then. This is August of last year. He looked spent and needed a haircut and fresh clothes.

Gregory Deloatch

Yeah, I'm in Skek mode. Yeah, I'm in Skek mode.

Lu Olkowski

Skek mode, one step down the homeless ladder.

Gregory Deloatch

Oh man. It's been a rough one with Obsidian leaving. We never really had a chance to sit down and talk about it because I don't really talk about a lot of things. But he packed up and had to go. I can understand, it's a tough life. It's not easy. I could tell, as we were going along, he was complaining about every little thing. There was more and more discussion about sleeping in a bed. Oh man, crawling into a bed, there's nothing like it. You need your eight hours of sleep, and it has to be contiguous. It can't be broken sleep. You have no one waking you up. You know, da-da-da-da. OK, we know this. I mean, you're preaching to the choir here.

[LAUGHTER]

But yeah, he would go back and forth with that. And then he's like, my mother, she says she can get the internet for me, and she can do this for me, she could do that for me. So then plans were being drawn.

Lu Olkowski

When Daniel had been around, everything seemed hopeful. They were a team, and somehow that made the difference. And when Daniel left, Gregory felt abandoned. He was hurt. And finally, in November of 2007, alone after a year and a half on the street, Gregory found permanent shelter at a halfway house in the East Village called the Bowery Resident's Committee with the help of one of his doctors. He got his own bunk. And now he wouldn't shut up about the comforts of a warm bed, about being able to look out the window at people trudging through the cold, while he watches the morning news and eats Cheerios.

BRC has been around since 1971 and screens and monitors the people staying with them. There are rules to living there. Residents have to help with chores. There are regular community meetings to attend, mandated curfew, and regular drug and alcohol testing. Any violation of the rules risks getting kicked out, which seemed fine with Gregory, even welcome. And when Daniel got bored in South Carolina and moved back to New York, he started taking construction jobs, hoping to work much more regularly, so he could finally get off the street and into an SRO, a single room occupancy hotel.

And so Gregory and Daniel's experiment to use homelessness as a way to dedicate more time to their poetry is over. And just last week, I asked Daniel and Gregory if it worked. Here's Daniel.

Daniel Canada

Not the way we wanted it to. Like I said at the beginning, we wanted to take this open mic venue beyond Russell Simmons or Def Poetry Jam.

Gregory Deloatch

We thought that by now we'd be sought by television and driving around in fancy cars, be millionaires. That was success for us. We didn't know better. You're going to make a living off of being a poet? I don't think so. We were like, well hey, hard smack of reality there, you know?

Lu Olkowski

Being homeless, was it worth it?

Gregory Deloatch

That's a good question. Being homeless, was it worth it? Being homeless, was it worth it? Being homeless, I would say, making the choice to spend that time doing something, which is writing poetry and getting into the poetry circuit, that was definitely worth the choice. We got, I guess you can say, the joy of being poets. Read our poetry in front of a lot of people, be heard by a lot of people, that's an adrenaline rush. And we did so well that the experiment worked.

Lu Olkowski

If you look back to three years ago, when you were making money, you had a real job making real money, 70 grand, and you have skills. Does it surprise you that now, three years later, you are dependent on other people to help you find housing and a job, things that you did for 40 years on your own?

Gregory Deloatch

Three years ago, looking in, I would never believe that I would be in social services or have a committee looking for an apartment for me, because I could do all that myself. But I wasn't happy. I wasn't genuinely happy. I was going through the motions of working a job, and I didn't feel fulfilled. I'm homeless, I'm in the circuit. I'm writing poetry. This is a different life. But, to me, it's a far better life than going back to working in computers and networking and all that. I mean, I wouldn't like to go back to that lifestyle. And if it takes going through social services and all that to avoid that lifestyle, I would choose no other way.

Lu Olkowski

But in the last few months, something else has changed for Gregory. Having Daniel back from South Carolina, seeing Daniel drink and stay out late was a catalyst, he says. It made him question whether he should stick with a life of curfews and breathalyzers and drug testing. And two weeks ago, talking to Gregory, I learned that hanging out with Daniel has had an effect. He started drinking secretly, and planning to drink a lot more.

Gregory Deloatch

Oh, I know I'm going to slip back into my old habits. That's a given. That's what I'm waiting for. That's the party after the war. No, I'm totally waiting for that day when I can close the door and lock it. And I don't have anyone saying, come here for a minute, I want you to blow into this tube. And then I'm going to go outside, and I'm going to buy a nice quart size-- or family size. I'm going to get the family size, which is a little bit bigger, of Jack Daniels and sneak it upstairs. And just pound on that thing for hours and hours and hours and hours.

I'm going to an alcohol therapist too. She gives me insight into why I drink, and reasons why I drink, and why I shouldn't drink anymore. And I told her that basically I want a healthy relationship with alcohol, if that's possible. I want to be able to drink sociably like everyone else. And she's led me to believe that I can't. I can no longer drink like everyone else. I don't care. And it's not that I don't care. I really do care, but I can't care.

Lu Olkowski

This really stunned me. Just a couple of months ago, he was talking to me about the possibility of enrolling in college. I think it's easy to assume that what you or I would want for Gregory is what he would want for himself: sobriety, a full-time job. But Gregory has had full-time jobs and doesn't want them anymore. And he doesn't want to be sober either. His new dream is to have it all. A roof over his head, like he has now. A job, but only part-time so he has lots of freedom to write. And booze.

And Daniel's dream is pretty much the same, though without such a serious commitment to drinking. And because Daniel and Gregory have each other, they make each other believe these dreams are possible. That's the great thing about their friendship. And maybe the worst thing.

Ira Glass

Lu Olkowski in New York. Coming up, a kid is sent off on his bike with one simple instruction, just one thing that he has to do for his own good. But can he do it? The answer in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "SOWER OF SYSTEMS" BY LUNGFISH]

Act Two. Take My Bike...please.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, social engineering. We have stories of people who are trying to re-engineer their own lives. Though actually, in this half of the show, we have parents trying to engineer the lives of their children. Basically, parenting is actually one long exercise in shaping your children's lives. In this next act, for instance, which we're calling "Take My Bike, Please," Dave Dickerson recalls a particular bit of parenting that went down in his boyhood home in Arizona. He was 12. His little brother had just gotten his first bike. Now Dave was getting one too.

David Dickerson

I was really excited. This was the most money we'd ever had spent on us. And I never had dreams of biking everywhere, like doing wheelies or all the things that junior high kids, I guess, are supposed to be thrilled about. It was just-- Tucson is a sprawling town. And there's a lot of walking, and a lot of bus riding. And it would just really save time. I was really excited about that. More free time to actually play video games, or whatever it is that I wanted to do, rather than wasting all my time in transit. And at the same time, there was the implied responsibility, like you'd better not mess this up.

Dad said, hop in the car. Me and my brother got in and went to this used bike store with both my parents. So it was sort of a family outing. And I got the bike. It was this nice green bike. Dad said, so do you want to put this in the back of the car and drive home? Or do you want to ride it home? And I said, oh, I want to ride it home. And he said, OK, but don't stop anywhere because we don't have a lock for this thing. And I said, OK, yeah, no problem. And I drove off while Dad was still paying. And Dana went with me, and he was walking along beside me.

And we got maybe a block, two blocks, whatever, when we passed this convenience store that we'd gone to a lot of times and thought, oh my God, we have to play Asteroids, this is so cool. Because I'm kind of an adult now, and I can make decisions like this. This was sort of the way I pictured my life with this bike, where I would get my allowance and bike to the store and play this game, and so on. And I couldn't wait for that to happen. So on that basis, I went, OK, let the fun begin.

But we knew we weren't supposed to stop. We didn't have a lock for the bike, but we decided we'd just take turns looking. We'd do a two player game, and when I was playing, Dana would watch. And when Dana was playing, I would watch. So I leaned the bike up against the front of the store. But what actually happened, of course, is that it's really hard to have someone playing a game right next to you, and you have to go on the second they die, and not look at the game. And then of course, you have to go, oh, be careful with the-- oh look, shields. We stopped looking. We would glance up occasionally. And when we came out, the bike was gone.

And we looked at each other utterly horrified. I remember we cried. And then almost without a word, I remember we just walked home. We realized this is it. We've got to walk the same path we've walked before, but it's going to be in the dark. And I do remember thinking, we're never going to get allowance again. We had been entrusted with this great gift at great expense, and we had screwed it up before we had even gotten the bike home. The one time, the one time I stepped outside the lines, the worst calamity possible happened.

As we got into our actual neighborhood, about half an hour, 45 minutes later, I just had to sort of walk toward my doom, walk toward judgment. Oh, God. We waited outside the door for a little while, gathering the courage to go in. And I opened the door, and my dad was there.

Father

So when you came in, and before you could really say much, I just said, the bike is in the back. I brought it home.

David Dickerson

Right.

Father

You had gone inside a Circle K or something and left the bike sitting out. And I decided to then make the object lesson of stealing the bike, which I just told your mother to take the car home. And I went and grabbed the bike and ran off with it. And what's more, somebody saw me do that. And they stopped me and said, why are you stealing this bike? I saw you steal that bike, they said. And then I'm talking to this stranger trying to explain why I'm stealing a bike.

David Dickerson

So you were riding my bike home?

Father

Right. I just rode your bike home.

David Dickerson

Oh my God.

Father

And this guy stopped me. And then I had to explain to him, and he didn't really buy my story.

David Dickerson

That's funny.

Father

Normally nobody pays any attention to somebody stealing a bike, right?

David Dickerson

Right.

[LAUGHTER]

Father

I was always bothered about that. I thought I had overdone things.

David Dickerson

Why? In what way?

Father

The issue for me was you had to come out of this store and discover the bike that you'd gotten an hour before is now gone and that you had to walk home for an hour, a mile and a half. And the regret then is just that this took away the pleasure of getting a new possession. It just sucks all the joy out of what should have been a really fun, exciting, new thing. And it just puts a black cloud over it.

David Dickerson

One of the things I learned from that was that I had been-- obviously, I was taking the bike for granted. It was that long walk home that made me realize-- I had time to think how much money I had squandered and lost by being foolish and gee, walking sucks. But I've always told people is that after that happened, I felt safe, safer than I had before. And that I realized that even if you screw up, sometimes you get a chance to-- that it's not over. You get second chances in life, even when you can't possibly imagine how they could happen.

So I told my dad this on the phone, and he was surprised. It certainly wasn't what he was trying to teach me. In fact, it was the opposite of what he was trying to teach me. He was trying to demonstrate the world isn't safe. And what I learned was yes, it is. Or really I learned both things. Be careful, and sometimes you do get a second chance.

David Dickerson

Knowing what you know now, do you think it worked?

Father

Oh yeah.

David Dickerson

So are you more OK with what you did?

Father

Yeah, I'm feeling-- just as you felt safer, I'm feeling the same kind of grace, you see, towards me.

David Dickerson

Of course. You could also do what you think is a screw-up, and you get another chance, a different--

Father

Yeah, right.

David Dickerson

Aw, I love you Dad.

Father

OK, I appreciate it.

Ira Glass

Dave Dickerson.

Act Three. Educated Guess.

Ira Glass

Act Three, "Educated Guess." Amy Silverman is like most parents. She wants whatever's best for her kids. Except in her daughter Sophie's case, sometimes it is really hard to figure out what is best. Here's Amy.

Amy Silverman

When Sophie was born, the nurses on the maternity ward all remarked on how mild her features were, that she barely looked like she had Down Syndrome. It means she'll be really high functioning, one of them said. And so for a long time, I held out secret hope that Sophie would be some kind of Down Syndrome genius. How sweet, I thought, when Sophie showed a particular interest in the kiddy doctor's kit someone gave her as a gift. OK, so not a surgeon, but maybe something else in the medical profession?

My dream of Sophie being an over-achiever persisted, even as I signed her up for all the therapies I could find and wrote Down Syndrome and mentally retarded on countless school, medical, and insurance forms. Even so, I was unprepared for the following scene. In early February, I perched my butt on a tiny, navy blue plastic chair in Sophie's preschool classroom and faced her team, Team Sophie: the preschool teacher, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, principal, and school psychologist.

The shrink was the first to talk. We've called you here today to ask you to sign some paperwork, so we can test Sophie. We don't think she qualifies as mentally retarded. You don't think she what? We don't think Sophie qualifies as mentally retarded, the psychologist repeated. We want to test her to find out. He shuffled a pile of paperwork. Immediately, I knew this had to do with money. Almost all of Sophie's services are paid for by the government. These days, that means two hours a week with a physical therapist, one each with speech, occupational, and music specialists, and more at school. I asked a question I knew the answer to, and what if she doesn't qualify anymore as mentally retarded? Then, he said, she'll lose her early intervention services. But why? Why wouldn't Sophie be retarded? He answered, early intervention services boosted her IQ.

So here I was, sitting in front of Sophie's team of early intervention specialists while they were saying to me, we intervened in your retarded child's life so early and so well that she may no longer be retarded. And as a result, we may stop helping her. The whole thing was absurd.

But I couldn't get the questions out of my head. What if Sophie somehow really isn't mentally retarded? What if? I started to worry. Maybe I'm not pushing her hard enough. Are my expectations too low? What if I'm underestimating my own kid? Could she have a much different and better life if I acted like there wasn't anything wrong with her, if I treated her like her sister?

After a few weeks, Sophie's teacher emailed me to say the test results were in. Could we meet again? I emailed back, yes, I could meet. I couldn't wait, I had to ask. She still qualifies as mentally retarded, doesn't she, I wrote. I know you can't say. That's just my prediction. Services aside, of course, that will still make me a little sad. This whole thing has been a little like Flowers for Algernon. Did you ever read that story in school? Yes, she'd read the story. It made her really sad. And no, she told me, Sophie does not qualify as retarded. We scheduled the meeting, and the teacher sent home the test results.

Sophie's IQ is 83. The cutoff for mentally retarded is 70. Sophie, the test said, was able to correctly identify the color of her shoes, pink, and her pants, black. When asked her age, she said four, almost five. The test said a lot more and concluded she had below average intelligence. That startled me. I was so used to seeing the word retarded, it had lost meaning. But how dare someone say my daughter was below average. Retarded you can't do anything about. It's genetics. But below average? Below average is like she's not trying. Or I'm not trying.

I sat at the table facing Team Sophie and looked at the psychologist. Instead, the principal spoke first. We all know what will happen if Sophie isn't labeled as mentally retarded, she said. She'll lose her services, services we all believe got her where she is today. Then she floored me. And so you have a decision to make, she said. You tell us what to do. You can label Sophie as mildly mentally retarded, and she can keep her services. Otherwise, she'll lose them. You have to decide today.

My jaw dropped. Then I clenched it, pushing back the tears. It's got to be one of the most bizarre moments in a parent's life, being offered the chance to insist, my kid is too retarded. I thought of a little girl I know who's one grade ahead of Sophie. Like Sophie, she's got Down Syndrome, and she's smart. She didn't test as mentally retarded either. That mom didn't hesitate. She was happy to lose the mentally retarded label. Will that little girl have a better life with no label and way fewer services? Would Sophie?

This discussion was futile, and I knew it. For this moment in time, yes, Sophie is smart. She knows her ABCs. She can count to 20. She can even count to 10 in Spanish. But that's kindergarten stuff. Her vocabulary is good, but the low muscle tone associated with Down Syndrome makes her almost impossible to understand. And the occupational therapist isn't sure she'll ever be able to write. She hopes someday Sophie will be able to sign her name. In another year or two, I know she'll fall behind. The mild facial features she was born with will become more pronounced. She'll look more and more like what she is, a person with Down Syndrome. And whatever we decide today about whether or not to label her as mentally retarded, it won't change any of that.

I signed the paperwork. The principal was nice enough to write on the forms that the team, including the mother, agonized over the decision. The psychologist left the room and edited the test results. The numbers stayed the same, but he added a part about how it was believed the results were inflated due to early intervention services. I bit my lip, wishing he could write something else.

My husband, Ray, had a different reaction. Well, he said, that was a no-brainer. Sophie is retarded. I don't know, I said tentatively. I think she's pretty smart. You know how I know Sophie's retarded, he asked. Because when you play a memory game with her, she gets as excited about the last match when there are only two cards left as she does at the first. It's true.

Last month, my mom took the girls and me to see the live Sesame Street show downtown. When the lights went down and the characters came on stage, Sophie was beside herself, squealing, shouting, about as excited as a human being can get. It was more fun to watch than Elmo. My mom, Annabelle, and I all grinned at each other. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, it hit me. I'll probably be taking Sophie to see Elmo when she's 20, and she'll be just as excited as she is today. I sat back, a little winded.

I swear I'm not making this next part up. A moment later, I looked up. And there, in the dim light, I saw the silhouette of a short, squat, adult person. The features were unmistakable, the tiny nose, the flat head, the bent posture. The person disappeared down a row and into the crowd, but not before he or she had confirmed the future.

Ira Glass

Amy Silverman. She's the managing editor at the weekly paper Phoenix New Times in Arizona.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our show today was produced by Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Special thanks today to Alex Kotlowitz, Julie Miller, Katie Rolnick, and Andrea Silenzi.

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where this week we are starting a contest where you design our next t-shirt. Details at thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says it was just one thing that he did not know was inevitably going to be part of running any big public radio station.

Gregory Deloatch

Celibacy. That was the biggest thing. I didn't think about it.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.