Transcript

407:

The Bridge
Transcript

Originally aired 05.07.2010

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/407

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, It's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

[TRAIN SOUNDS]

There's this bridge that's part of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive that crosses the Chicago River. You can see this bridge from the offices of WBEZ. It's really close. But unless you're really looking for it, you would miss the hole that is halfway across the bridge. It's at the foot of some steel girders, in between lanes of traffic, just 12 inches by 36.

Richard Dorsay

I'd cross the two lanes and then I'd go to where the hole is, and when there was no cars coming at the time I'd slip in.

Ira Glass

Richard Dorsay became momentarily famous in Chicago, in December 2004, when police learned from one of Richard's friends that Richard and this friend had been living down there, inside the frame of the bridge, tucked way in the rafters underneath the roadway, for years. Authorities kicked him out from this space that Richard says was probably 14- or 18-feet long, and about as wide as two lanes of traffic, with the steel frame of the bridge for walls and a concrete floor. The ceiling was the roadway. Where, out of wood that Richard and his friend mostly took from a construction site, they built three rooms in the dank space, a supply room and two bedrooms. There was electricity from a long extension cord that they hid with piping, and plugged into a regular electric socket in the bridge down below.

Richard Dorsay

They made a big stink out of this when actually it hit the papers. I had like a 20inch TV, which was a pain in the butt to get in, but I did it. And I had a little heater and various other things, like a PlayStation, video games, videotapes, VHS. And I'd come back towards the evening and sit back and play the PlayStation and, you know, maybe have some beer, drink some beer and see how far I can go in a driving game before I end up crashing.

Ira Glass

But this wasn't just an adult treehouse, hidden away inside an old bridge. It was an adult treehouse inside in old drawbridge, a working drawbridge over the Chicago River, that every now and then would raise, turning the entire three-room apartment on its side, pulling the extension cord out of the outlet.

Richard Dorsay

The only thing that was actually a little on the scary side was the first time the bridge went up. Everything would tilt, literally. It'd be like a one-sided earthquake. And instead of it shaking, it'd be like the ground just lifting up and tilting.

Ira Glass

And then, when that bridge is vertical, that bridge really is like vertical.

Richard Dorsay

You're standing straight up when in a laying-down position.

Ira Glass

Some of his stuff was bungee-corded down. The heavy stuff, like the TV, he kept against the back wall of his room, the wall that tilted to become the floor.

Richard Dorsay

And sometimes I'd move things just before the bridge went up, because you can hear the motors unlock.

Ira Glass

And there's a bell on that bridge?

Richard Dorsay

Yeah, there's bells.

Ira Glass

So the bells go off, you hear the motors start.

Richard Dorsay

I'd just sit back and ride it. And I'd just lay there, and then as the bridge went up, I slowly slid towards the wall, and then, when it was totally standing straight up, then I'd be standing straight up on that back wall

Ira Glass

With the mattress next to you?

Richard Dorsay

Yes. And after that first time it was kind of like a rush going down a hill on a roller coaster. You know, where you get that laugh and you feel all relieved and it's real great, you know?

Ira Glass

Richard's been out of there since 2004. He lives with friends in a house now, in the suburbs. And when he talks about his little nest in the bridge today, he is surprisingly unsentimental. It was hot as hell in the summer, he says, and freezing in the winter. And the ceiling was just low enough, five feet and change, that he used to hit his head. But as we talked about it, there was also this.

Richard, if your friend hadn't turned you into the cops--

Richard Dorsay

Would I still be there, is that the question?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Richard Dorsay

Probably. Probably. To me, it's a world of safety and comfort, where to someone else, they see it, oh, another drawbridge, whoopadeedo.

Ira Glass

The bridge connects point A to B, but there can be a whole life on a bridge. And today, on the radio show, we stop there and stay for an hour and see what happens there. We have three stories of people at three bridges on three continents. Act one is in China. Act two is in the border of Egypt. Act three in Florida. Stay with us.

Act One. Troubled Bridge Over Water.

Ira Glass

Act one, Troubled Bridge Over Water.

In 2003, a year before Richard Dorsay got kicked out of the bridge at the Chicago River, halfway around the world, in Naan-jing, China, a man named Chen Sah, Mr. Chen, took up residence in a bridge, or anyway he spent his weekends there, 10 hours a day away from his wife and daughter. The bridge he chose is this concrete communist monstrosity, four miles long, covered with slogans that celebrate the worker, four lanes of traffic and thousands of pedestrians on the top deck, two train tracks on the lower over the Yangtze River into Naan-jing, a city of seven million.

Estimates are fuzzy, but the best guess is that one person per week commits suicide off this bridge. Mr. Chen decided he wanted to try to keep them from jumping, and he started to, single-handedly at first, then with an occasional volunteer. The blog that he keeps about this is the most sober, taciturn, non-boastful account of saving lives imaginable. Occasionally, Mr. Chen will insert his feelings. "Beware heavy thoughts," he declares to himself during one entry. "How I wished he would soon be free of this shadow," he says about an old man he saved in another.

But mostly just the facts. Here's a translation from the Chinese: "On July, 25, at 10:30 in the morning, I discovered a woman lying on the bridge railing, on her belly, weeping. I went to her. She wiped her eyes. She said she was just playing and walked toward the center of the bridge. I went with her, and she, very ordinarily, without her cell phone. When I returned at 1:10, I discovered that she had already climbed up on the bridge railing. I restrained her and forced her onto a moped. She is from Naan-jing's Jianye District. Her last name is Jiau, and today she's 45 years old. Because her husband, surname Lee, and 51 years old, is violent towards her and mistreats her, she thought killing yourself would be better. However, she is silent when she thinks of her 15-year-old son."

"March 21, 2010. Yesterday at 3:05 PM, I saved a young man in the middle of the bridge. He had drunk a lot of alcohol and was planning to jump over the bridge railing. I at once restrained him and dragged him to safety. As we spoke, I learned his situation was actually quite funny. He was thinking about jumping because, last year, his wife promised to start returning to him CNY 200 of his monthly CNY 1,400 salary to spend as he pleased. But she had not honored her promise. Yesterday afternoon, he started drinking with his friends, and the more you drank the angrier he got. He believed that killing himself would make her realize that not one cent had come to him. He then said another funny thing. His mother's colleague said that the bridge is haunted and could take one's soul. I said, ha ha, it is haunted by drunk ghosts, and I took him home. This was the calmest, simplest rescue I've made in recent years."

Many of Mr. Chen's entries are about the people that he does not save. "February 15, 5:30 in the morning, a middle-aged man jumped to his death, as reported at this time, and he was holding a photograph of his family."

"August 10, 2008, Saturday afternoon at 1:40 PM. A young woman 300 meters from the south end of the bridge climbed onto the bridge railing. I immediately started my moped, but because I accelerated too quickly, the moped leaked oil and ignited. I had to run to her, but when I was 200 meters away, she jumped into the Yangtze. Her silhouette was visible in the water, at a spot 50 meters away, and I could still hear her yelling for help, until a large wave obscured her from view."

At the end of each year, Mr. Chen does an inventory of how things are going on the bridge, this one the end of 2009. He wrote that, since he began back in 2003, he'd saved, at that point, 174 people from committing suicide. He counseled another 5,150 on the bridge and 16,000 on the phone. 51,000 people had texted him. Total days volunteering to that point: 646.

With regards to the reasons for suicide, he writes, "emotional problems make up 60%. Terminal illness: 20%. Sudden explosive crises: 10%. And domestic violence: 10%." Mike Paterniti recently wrote a magazine article about Mr. Chen. He first heard about him years ago from news reports. He read a bit of his blog in Google Translate. He felt like he had to meet this man who, on his own, had decided to rescue so many people, and flew to China.

Mike Paternini

I thought maybe I'll see him in action. Maybe I'll get to see him save somebody. Just as back story, I mean, I actually came-- I had come from Cambodia, so I was covering these genocide trials, so I wasn't, you know, I didn't have the most optimistic feelings about humanity. And I thought I was going to find something there, like there some--

Ira Glass

You said you thought you'd find a hopeful figure.

Mike Paternini

Yeah. I mean, hope, perseverance, generosity. But as soon as I got on the bridge, I realized that all those notions were completely absurd. I mean, I got instantly depressed. First of all, there's this four-mile long bridge and this one man out there sort of trying to pick out who was going to jump. It just seemed, from a distance, like insurmountable odds to actually maybe pull somebody off the bridge.

Ira Glass

Yeah, you wrote in the article, at one point, you said, first of all, there's the cars, then there's the trains and the bridge is shaking, and then there's just like a sea of people, thousands of people, in the rain with umbrellas, going back and forth on the bridge, and he's just one guy kind of walking up and down.

Mike Paternini

And he has this little moped and does a little cruise on the bridge every once in a while, but even that is a somewhat comical sight to behold. You know, he's on this little broken-down moped, put-putting through the crowd with his big pair of binoculars around his neck. You know, I sort of thought, maybe this isn't even real, like maybe this blog is a complete figment of his imagination, or a fiction that he constructs once a week, and I just don't see how this guy can save anybody out here.

Ira Glass

And you write in your article, he won't really to talk to you when you're there on the bridge.

Mike Paternini

Yeah, he was really grumpy, and unwilling to acknowledge me.

Ira Glass

And so, give me a typical exchange between the two of you on the bridge.

Mike Paternini

I think I did ask, like why are you standing here, as opposed to any other spot on this four-mile long bridge? And he turned and lifted his binoculars and focused out towards the river, and then brought his binoculars down, turned the other way, put his binoculars up and focused in the other direction on the crowd.

Ira Glass

Oh, that's it? He doesn't even respond?

Mike Paternini

No, it was like I wasn't even there. It was like I was some ghost. And I sort of went through some of this and then I said, maybe, you know, is there a better time for us to talk? And he said to the translator, I can talk to you at lunch.

Ira Glass

So you go to lunch with him, and what happens there?

Mike Paternini

Well, so we were in a little what they call family restaurant near the bridge, and there are no families present. I mean, it's just workers, and they're pretty hard-drinking. In this case, grain alcohol and beer. And so we sit down at the table, and Mr. Chen has invited a man to join us whose name is Mr. Shi. And then we are served some food, and Mr. Chen and Mr. Shi start really drinking a lot of grain alcohol. And I started to sort of drink with them, because it was the convivial thing to do. And then I just realized, I'm going to pass out if I try to stay with these guys, like I'm literally-- my head was spinning and I was-- you know, the whole room was revolving. I just was like-- and he was very disappointed, and so he sort of said, just, we're drinking here, this is what we do at lunch, and drinking loosens the tongue. And so get with the program, and if you can't, then why don't we-- you know, why don't you put on a dress.

But then he, at lunch he definitely opened up a little bit more. I mean, he wasn't looking at me when he answered questions, but he was answering them and he was speaking more expansively about life on the bridge.

Ira Glass

Did he explain why it is that he does this?

Mike Paternini

He said he had read a newspaper article about the bridge and about people jumping off the bridge, and he himself had grown up in the country outside of Naan-jing, so he really related, in particular, to these people from the villages who came to the bridge to end their lives and whose lives were hard and full of despair, and he completely understood that.

Ira Glass

So you go back up to the bridge and he putters off in his moped, and then--

Mike Paternini

Yeah, and then he jumped on his moped to go on his rounds, and I didn't have anything to do, but I turned to the translator, Susan, and I said, hey, let's take a little walk out on the bridge. And so we started walking out over the bridge, and we're chatting a little bit, and this guy kind of came lurching by, and I didn't pay any attention to him, but this guy's about 20 feet, 30 feet ahead of us, and he seems to be climbing up on the railing.

And, at that point, I just yelled, hey, and then I said to Susan, he's going to go over. And I started running for him, and Susan came running. And I had that one little flash of Mr. Chen saying, some of these people will really take you with them if they can. They're that desperate. And I had that little flash, like this would be a stupid way to die. This would be ridiculous if I go down with this guy, but it didn't come to that, because when I got to him I had my foot on the inside of the sort of the concrete buttress, and I tried to flip him back toward me. And he was completely limp. He was like a bag of sawdust. He just flipped right back on to me, and I hadn't even really pulled him that hard. It's hard to explain, but, like, when I think of it, I just get-- I have to say, I have just goosebumps all over my body right now.

Ira Glass

Because?

Mike Paternini

Because he was going to kill himself. And because he didn't.

Ira Glass

So did you feel good?

Mike Paternini

No, I didn't feel good. I felt like kind of nauseous. I felt like, wow, there, every week, somebody actually does this thing, and even if we were to clone Mr. Chen and there were 200 of him out there, they probably-- still, one a week, someone would figure out how to do it. And then, like, oh my god, who's coming next? You know?

Ira Glass

And so Mr. Chen comes back, right?

Mike Paternini

Yeah, well, it took Mr. Chen a while to come back on his moped, but when he came, when he showed up, the crowd sort of parted, and I was holding onto this man, whose name was Fan Ping. And he said to me, step away, which I thought was a really bad idea, because we're standing right next to the railing. But he had such command of the situation and all the nuances of the situation that I just stepped away. I just let go and stepped away. And then he said, I want to take your picture, which seemed like, you know-- I didn't even understand what that was about.

Ira Glass

He's taking a picture of the guy?

Mike Paternini

Yeah. So he pulls out his cell phone with a camera, takes a picture. And then he says, and now I think I should punch you in the face.

Ira Glass

Holy--

Mike Paternini

And then he said, you call yourself Chinese. How dare you? How dare use call yourself Chinese, come up on this bridge with the intention of killing yourself today? You are somebody's son. How dare you? I am going to punch you in the face. I'm going to punch you right now. And the crowd, of course, is, like, crushing in because they think there's going to-- they think he's going to punch him. And I'm just sitting here like with my mouth open as he's saying this.

So he kind of takes another step in closer and Fan Ping says, look, I'm only doing this because my father was in the Red Army and he's lost all of his disability insurance, and there's no way for him to live anymore, and I'm a lousy son because I can't provide for him, and all of our documents burned in a fire, and without those documents we can't get any help. And Mr. Chen says, there nothing worth this. There's no problem that we can't solve.

And then he moves in a little bit closer and he touches his arm, just sort of holding him by the elbow with, like, his right hand. Mr. Chen says, I think I can help. I don't like this. I don't like what you're doing here. This isn't the way to solve anything. And, at that point, they have each other's word that they're going to meet on Monday morning at Mr. Chen's office.

Ira Glass

Do you get creeped out on any big bridge now?

Mike Paternini

Yeah. Well, obviously, after having been on the bridge, I started looking at bridges for their suicide potential. And every bridge is that bridge in Naan-jing, and every person is potentially Fan Ping, and every other person is potentially Mr. Chen. And you kind of look at it like, oh, I wonder if that is a bridge people would jump from. And I wonder if maybe someone should be out here.

Ira Glass

Mike Paternini. His account of meeting Mr. Chen is in the current issue, the May issue, of GQ Magazine.

[MUSIC - "THE BRIDGE" BY DOLLY PARTON].

Act Two. Bridge and Tunnel.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Bridge and Tunnel.

We've been talking about bridges so far in the show, but now we're going to turn to tunnel. Same idea, just underground. Tunnels are natural for smuggling, and there's a place that's in the midst of a kind of tunnel fever right now for smuggling, the Gaza Strip. Gaza's the piece of land, of course, on Israel's southwestern corner at the border of Egypt. About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza.

And Gaza has had smuggling tunnels for a long time. They were built years ago along the southern border of Gaza, the border it shares with Egypt, to bring in weapons. But in the last couple of years, after Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has blockaded the goods that come in and out of Gaza, severely restricted, and so now all kinds of stuff is going through those tunnels. That's the tunnel fever.

Nobody knows exactly how many tunnels there are now, hundreds, possibly 1,000, more being built every day. They've become central to Gaza's economy. One of our producers, Nancy Updike, recently moved to the Middle East. She says they're now how a lot of basic goods get into Gaza.

Nancy Updike

Clothing and flour and milk and cheese, cement, live animals, cigarettes, chocolate, oil, toothpaste, fish, prescription drugs, generators, computers, also gas and diesel, which are sometimes carried in by hand in cans, but are also pumped through the tunnels in these big hoses. There's an organization called PalTrade. It's this economic data gathering group. The World Bank quotes their statistics. And according to PalTrade, about 100,000 litres of gas, and another 100,000 litres of diesel are being pumped into Gaza every day through these tunnels.

The PalTrade guy, also, by the way, sent me a QuickTime video of a car, a whole car, being driven through one of the bigger tunnels in Gaza.

Ira Glass

So Nancy, so you've talked to this guy who owns his own tunnel?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, I read about people dying in the tunnels, and I made a phone call with the translator, just to see what we could find out. And we reached this guy who was very forthcoming. He talked to us for a couple of hours. He just kind of took us along with him on his errands. You can hear him in the background as he's walking around. There are cars honking, occasionally he talks to people he runs into. He puts us on hold a couple of times. We agreed to call him by a sort of classic Palestinian pseudonym, Abu Muhammad.

And he started out by telling us about the first tunnel he worked on, not the one he owns himself now, but the very first tunnel he dug a few years ago.

Nancy Updike

How long did it take to start building the tunnel and to finish it? How long did that take?

Translator

[TRANSLATING IN ARABIC]?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

One whole year.

Nancy Updike

Did anyone die or get injured building the tunnel?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

Two died.

Nancy Updike

How did the people die?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

The first one died when the digging that we have being doing in the tunnel fell on him, buried him. Number one. And the second one died when the Egyptians put gas in such a way to poison the whole atmosphere.

Nancy Updike

They did that to try to shut the tunnel down and stop the smuggling?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

It is a correct assumption on your part. This is why they did it. There was a time when we could not go inside out tunnel for three months. We had to evacuate it for three months in order for the gas to go out. Once it was out, we resumed work.

Nancy Updike

And does the gas have a smell? How do you know that the gas is in the tunnel?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

It does not have a smell. We find out in two ways: when people start fainting, losing consciousness, we know that the Egyptians have put this gas. Secondly, we find out about this gas from the amin. Amin means the person from whom we buy on the Egyptian side. He is the one who notifies us about the coming of the Egyptian officials and in terms of gas or other things. Sometimes they put bombs as well.

Ira Glass

So this is just very dangerous work?

Nancy Updike

Yes, lots of things can go wrong and do go wrong. I mean, since I've been here, I think there have been stories every single week about Palestinians dying in the tunnels. Just last week, four guys died in a tunnel. The Palestinians are accusing the Egyptians of gassing them. Egypt denies using gas in the tunnels ever. Tunnels sometimes collapse on their own. And there are always a lot men underground working in the tunnels. PalTrade, that organization I was talking about earlier, estimates that the tunnels employ 30,000 people.

Ira Glass

Oh my god.

Nancy Updike

Yeah. They don't all work underground, but there are a lot of people under the border between Gaza and Egypt at any given time.

Nancy Updike

How old were the people who died?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

One was 19 years old and one was 24 years old.

Nancy Updike

When someone dies in the tunnel, is there any compensation to the family?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

Yes, there is compensation. For a married man, the compensation is $11,000. For an unmarried man, for a bachelor, it's $9,000. These are the conditions put upon the tunnel owner. He has to comply with the government's laws and orders.

Nancy Updike

So the government enforces the rule?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

This is correct.

Ira Glass

So the government knows about this and the government has rules for this sort of thing?

Nancy Updike

Absolutely. The government is Hamas in Gaza now, and it controls all of Gaza. And Hamas controls the tunnels. They own some of the tunnels outright and operate them themselves, but they control all of them. They shut them down when they want. They tax whatever goods they want at whatever rate they want. I've also heard about licensing fees the government's been charging to open tunnels, somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000.

Basically, what all this means is that smuggling through the tunnels in Gaza is becoming, in some ways, more and more a regular import/export point, taxes, licenses, regulations. It's nowhere near as regulated as an actual import/export would be, but these are holes in the ground covered by tents, just being dug by whoever can pull it off.

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

He has to disconnect for a very important issue for one minute.

Nancy Updike

Oh, so he's putting us on hold?

Translator

Putting us on hold. [PHONE BEEPING ON HOLD] [SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

There was a problem.

Nancy Updike

What was the problem?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

I was notified that there was a problem with the electrical power inside the tunnel.

Nancy Updike

Was the person calling to ask what he should do or to get permission to do something?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

I was told, I was asked to contact the person in charge of repairing the electricity. There was a breakdown in electricity at a time that my workers were bringing in merchandise.

Nancy Updike

This guy started out a few years ago. He was 19 years old, and he was just another tunnel digger. And he said when he was digging it was 15 diggers at a time, making about $20 a day, working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. And once they're finished digging the tunnel, the workers get a percentage of what the tunnel brings in once it's operating as a smuggling operation.

Ira Glass

And it's $20 a day, is that a lot of money, a little money?

Nancy Updike

It's better than joining the 39% who are unemployed.

Ira Glass

And so if I'm a laborer and I work in a tunnel, and then I get a percentage once the tunnel is functioning, like how much money can that mean?

Nancy Updike

This guy said, when he started to get a percentage, he was making about $70 a day. That was his cut.

Ira Glass

And he's getting that $70, not because he's working, carrying stuff through the tunnel, but simply for the work he did in building the tunnel?

Nancy Updike

No, when the tunnel is finished being dug, then those workers become the workers who bring the goods through, so he is doing the work of bringing the goods through. He's still going to work for it, but it's a better wage for still a very difficult, dangerous job.

Nancy Updike

How did you make the transition from being a worker to owning your own tunnel?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

I used to take a percentage from working in the tunnel. Then I sold my land, my family's land, in order to work more into the tunnels.

Nancy Updike

Was that a big decision, something that you'd thought about for a long time?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

It was a very difficult decision; however, there was no alternative to this. I had to do it.

Ira Glass

So that's unusual, right?

Nancy Updike

The translator and I were both very surprised when he said that he sold his family's land. This is not something that Palestinians do.

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

I started as a worker, and then I realized that more tunnels were being dug. And I also realized that the money I was getting as a worker was not enough. Therefore, I decided to do my own tunnel.

Nancy Updike

How big is your tunnel? Can you stand up in it? Can you touch the sides if you hold out your hands?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC]. tunnel

Translator

My tunnel is 1.6 to 1.7 in height, 1.2 to 1.3 in width.

Ira Glass

Hey, Nancy, I'll just stop the tape there. What do those numbers mean?

Nancy Updike

It's 1.6 meters and 1.2 meters. 1.6 meters is just over five feet, and 1.2 meters is over three feet, almost four feet.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait, so it's just over five feet tall and just over three feet wide? So this is, like, it's tiny.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, there are tunnels of all different sizes. Some tunnels are massive. I mean, like I was saying earlier, there are tunnels you can drive a car through.

Ira Glass

And how deep are the tunnels?

Nancy Updike

Around 30 feet. It varies.

Ira Glass

30 feet deep?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, and, from what I've seen, there's sort of a swing that the guy sits on that's on a winch, and he's kind of lowered down into the tunnel.

Nancy Updike

Excuse the personal question, but where do you go to the bathroom in the tunnel?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

A worker, if he needs to urinate, then he can do it only in a bottle. However, if he needs to do much more than this, he has to leave the tunnel.

Ira Glass

Nancy, you're asking about that, like needing to use the bathroom, it occurs to me, somehow I pictured these tunnels being like, OK, they go, there's a tent, they go underneath it like a fence or something on the edge of, like, the border, and they come up right on the other side of the fence.

Nancy Updike

No.

Ira Glass

Like, so they're not very far, but you saying this makes me realize, like, how far are these?

Nancy Updike

Well, the length varies. I've heard of tunnels 250 feet, and others less than that. But it's not just popping under a fence. I mean, these guys are underground for a long time. This guy, Abu Muhammad, was saying that they have an intercom system set up, you know, what you would have in a multi-story house for the person on the first floor to talk to the person on the third floor. And as we were talking about his tunnel and how it operates, I asked the obvious question:

Nancy Updike

Have you ever brought in weapons?

Translator

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

No.

Ira Glass

Do you believe him that he hasn't ran any guns through the tunnel?

Nancy Updike

No, I think whatever people pay to bring in through the tunnels, he and everyone else brings in. And, again, Hamas is the one ultimately in control of the tunnels, so even though this guy owns his own tunnel, if Hamas wants to bring in weapons or cement or anything else, it's coming in through whichever tunnels they dictate. This guy, though, did go on to say something very surprising about weapons smuggling in the tunnels.

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

A strange thing happened concerning weapons. Because weapons are not allowed in the streets of Gaza, therefore there's no need to have weapons. So weapons became extremely cheap. What we have done is to transport weapons to Egypt. We are making $100 per weapon by selling it in Egypt, vice versa. And this, to me, is extremely strange.

Nancy Updike

What weapons are you sending to Egypt?

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

We are sending guns and Kalashnikovs.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, Nancy, so in other words, he's saying that they're not bringing weapons into Gaza, basically, they're exporting weapons from Gaza into Egypt and making a profit?

Nancy Updike

Well, he's saying that's what he's doing. And, again, I don't know. He may be bringing weapons in, too. But I believe him that he's also sending them out.

Ira Glass

So this guy's making this huge economic gamble. He's selling off his family's land to invest in this tunnel. Is it working for him? Is he getting rich?

Nancy Updike

Well, here's what he said.

Abu Muhammad

[SPEAKING IN ARABIC].

Translator

Before, we used to make between $5,000 to $10,000 dollars a month. And the money we were making was good. But now it has decreased from $5,000 to $1,500 a month. Now there's an abundance of tunnels all over the area. And therefore, the work has not become unique. There's a lot of tunnels, and therefore, you make less money.

Ira Glass

Nancy, doesn't he face one other economic risk, and that is that if there were peace, if peace would break out between the Israelis and the Palestinians, these tunnels wouldn't have a reason to exist, and his whole investment would go to hell? Does he worry at all about peace?

Nancy Updike

I didn't ask him, but I don't think he's worried about peace. I think he's a lot more worried about his tunnel collapsing than he's worried about Israel making peace with Hamas.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, city and county laws that force possibly dangerous ex-cons to be homeless and move under a bridge. If I asked you to guess which state, which sunny, sunny state would do that, which would you guess? Answers in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Throw the Book at Them.

Male News Anchor

South Florida is known for sun, sand, and surf, but the welcoming committee on your Miami beach is now this: convicted sex offenders. They are pitching tents and camping out by the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Female News Anchor

You may have seen them when you drive by and wondered why they're there.

Ira Glass

Why they're there is because, in 2005, Miami Dade County passed a law that required sex offenders who were coming out of jail to find housing at least 2,500 feet from any school, playground, or daycare. You probably heard about these residency restriction laws. Communities all over the country have them, but Miami's was, at the time, probably the strictest law of its kind.

If you think about it, 2,500 feet, that's half a mile, eight football fields, in a densely packed city, from any school, park, or daycare. The entire city of Miami Beach, one of the cities that's in that county, is barely a mile wide at its widest point, was now effectively off limits to sex offenders, which its mayor acknowledged. So under this bridge was one of the few spots that sex offenders in Dade County could legally live.

Isaiah Thompson broke this story in 2007 for the Miami New Times. He's been closely following it ever since. He says the fact that they ended up at the bridge is really just the beginning.

Isaiah Thompson

What's happened under this bridge all came to pass because of one man, and he's probably the only one who can fix it, too. He's a man with a mission, and his job is to get missions done, Ron Book.

Ron Book

I use my soap box. I use my forum. I use my skills. I have a skill set that makes me the number-one ranked guy in this business.

Isaiah Thompson

Ron Book's business is lobbying. He's one of the most powerful and influential lobbyists in Florida, a man who refers to the local sheriff as my sheriff, and the state attorney as my state attorney. He can be charming and gracious, but when he has a point to make, he doesn't hold back.

Ron Book

See that sign? See that sign right there?

Isaiah Thompson

He points to two plaques on a wall that's otherwise covered with awards and pictures of him shaking hands with famous people.

Ron Book

See that sign right there? It says it can be done. See that sign? Nothing is impossible. What sets me out from the others is I'm driven. What sets me out from the others is I've got more passion. What sets me out from the others is I get up earlier than most everybody else in this business and I stay up later and I get it done. Don't take my word for it. Go out there and ask my colleagues. Pick up the phone, call the other five or six or eight super-lobbyists in this business, and ask them who works harder than anybody else. That's what sets me out.

I'm tenacious. I'm nasty if I have to be nasty. I'm firm if I gotta be firm. I'm direct if I gotta be direct. You know, my job is to get it done. And right now, right now, the victims of sexual abuse, the victims of sexual assault, got a guy who is the worst enemy of abusers and offenders and predators and pedophiles, because I am obsessed, because I will spend the rest of my life working to protect people. That's my job. That's my job.

Why is it my job? It's my job because, unfortunately for me, I have a daughter who suffered at the hands of a no-good-for-nothing, no-good-for-nothing, no redeeming qualities, no redeeming social values, no redeeming humanistic values, who raped my daughter, who beat my daughter. I am the predators' and offenders' worst enemy. I am their worst nightmare, and I will be that forever until the day I die when they put me in a pine box and put me in the ground.

Isaiah Thompson

Around 15 years ago, Ron Book hired a nanny who started molesting his daughter. It's an awful story. The nanny was arrested, brought to trial, and sent to prison, but that was just the beginning for Book. When he found out there was no law compelling convicted sex offenders to provide blood samples for HIV tests, he wrote one and got it passed. When the nanny started writing letters to his daughter from prison, and Book found out there was no law explicitly against it, he simply went ahead and got that law passed, too. It's now called the Lauren Book Protection Act, after his daughter.

But Book didn't stop there. He and his daughter went on a kind of tour of Florida, pushing residency restrictions. In 2005, he helped write and pass the law in Miami Dade County that required sex offenders to find housing at least 2,500 feet from any school, playground, or daycare, leaving sex offenders with very few places to live. They ended up under that bridge, homeless.

And the person in Miami Dade that's in charge of helping homeless people like these find homes and jobs, the person with the resources, the manpower, and a budget of $40 million to help them also happens to be Ron Book.

Ron Book

I am chairman of the Miami Dade County Homeless Trust. I have been the chairman of this body for 16 years. This particular population is a piece of the homeless population and I have a responsibility to find them housing and jobs. That's what my homeless trust does. And these guys are a component of that.

Isaiah Thompson

So the one person who could possibly help the sex offenders find a place to live is their biggest enemy, the person who got them there in the first place.

[CAR DRIVING] For as much press as this bridge has gotten, it's surprisingly hard to find.

Isaiah Thompson

We're looking out for some kind of opening in the fence here. You're going to have to-- we might miss it the first time, because we're going so fast.

My producer and I drove there one late and particularly cold night in February. The bridge is part of a six-lane highway, the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which crosses the Biscayne Bay.

Isaiah Thompson

Put on your turn signal and then see if you can get over. I know it sounds crazy.

Woman

And drive on the shoulder?

Isaiah Thompson

Yeah, drive on the shoulder.

Woman

God, it's hard to do this in the dark.

Isaiah Thompson

Wait, wait, wait, what's this? Yeah, this is it. This is it. Go slow, because it's real rough terrain.

Woman

Oh, my god.

Isaiah Thompson

We're on a tiny island in the middle of the bay. It's about a mile long, until recently, uninhabited. There are no exits on to the island, just a narrow opening in the guard rails, just before you get to the bridge, and a bumpy dirt path that leads underneath it. Here, hidden from the traffic above, we find a kind of post-apocalyptic outpost, scattered between the giant concrete columns that hold the bridge up are half a dozen wooden shanties, bicycles, and a makeshift fishing peer, a mound of rotting trash. Tents that have been fitted out with lights and furniture are tucked into little concrete alcoves high above us, in the rafters of the bridge, as if a particularly modern group of cavemen lived here.

The roar of electric generators blocks out almost every sound but the cars whooshing across the bridge overhead.

Isaiah Thompson

Hello, Patrick. It's Isaiah. I first met Patrick Wiese three years ago, sleeping in a cardboard box. Patrick had just come out of prison, where he'd spent two years and received 10 more years probation for molesting his nine-year-old stepdaughter, a charge to which he pled guilty after turning himself into the police at his wife's request. Considering his circumstances, what was surprising wasn't so much that he had ended up living in a box under a bridge, but how he had come to be right there precisely.

His probation officer, he said, had ordered him to live there.

Patrick Wiese

I had a woman probation officer at that time, and she told me that I have to live underneath a bridge. I said, wait a minute, you're going to make me homeless? This is crazy. And she let me out the door, told me I have to be there by 10 o'clock at night. So for two or three months I lived, basically, out of a cardboard box.

Isaiah Thompson

For proof, Patrick extracted a few ratty sheets of paper. One was an official document, a department of corrections letterhead, indicating Patrick's address. Bridge, it said. There are a handful of other places to live 2,500 feet from schools, playground, and daycare centers in the county. They include expensive gated communities most ex-cons can't afford, and the Everglades, where it's illegal to live, and a random apartment building here or there, but they're few and far between. So here's Patrick today. He has a girlfriend and a cell phone, and for a while, a job working at a sub shop making sandwiches.

Patrick Wiese

And I've been here almost three years now. When I first came down here I had nothing. I acquired a tent, and I lived up on underneath the bridge. Now, I lived there for a little over a year in one tent. In that year's time, I accumulated, let's see, a TV, lighting, a generator. As you can see, I have my radio. I have my DVD player. Right here is my shower. It has like a--

Isaiah Thompson

Wow.

Patrick Wiese

--a hot bag. What that is a thermal shower. You fill it up with water, you put it in the sun for two hours and it heats up, so you have hot water instead of taking a cold shower. You know, the essentials.

Isaiah Thompson

What began as three men living here became a kind of colony, a microcivilization. Tonight, it's nearing most people's curfew, 10 o'clock. An occasional car pulls in under the bridge, briefly lighting the place up and then rumbling off to park somewhere by the water. Other than that, it's dark and seedy. An occasional cigarette cherry reveals people hunkered down in the shadows, talking quietly, drinking.

Sex offenders getting out of prison are dropped off here like it's the most normal thing in the world. Voncel Johnson ended up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in 2009. She walks up to us in slippers and a bathrobe.

Voncel Johnson

When I got out of prison, I go-- they told me to go screening report to my probation officer, so I go to her. She tell me, well, I'm sorry, Ms. Johnson, you can't go live where you were supposed to live at. Now I have to go to the Julia Causeway bridge like, what the [BLEEP] is that? I'm thinking, it's OK, it's a treatment. You know, I didn't know.

Isaiah Thompson

So, in other words, you thought that the bridge was actually just the name of like a halfway house or a treatment.

Voncel Johnson

Yes, I was thinking it's a treatment center or something. I didn't know the difference. I'm saying, and then you bring me down on this bridge. He just told me and aunty to follow behind her, and she was going to take us to this place.

Isaiah Thompson

So you actually, the night that you showed up, she was with you, your probation officer?

Voncel Johnson

My probation officer brought me here and told me it's going to be OK. Here it is about 10 o'clock at night, it's pitch dark here, no lights. I see a 1,000 people coming up to my aunt's car like, are you going to be OK? No, I'm not going to be OK. I broke down. I almost had a nervous breakdown. I told her I'd rather go back to prison and do my time and then get out and go where I can live. But they told me I can't do that. I have to sleep under this bridge.

Isaiah Thompson

Like Voncel, a lot of the people living under the bridge have family more than willing to take them in, but whose addresses don't comply with the law. From the start, there were questions about whether the 2,500-foot rule that put all these people under this bridge actually accomplished what it was originally supposed to do, which was protect children. For example, the law only restricts where sex offenders sleep, literally between the hours of 10 at night and 6 in the morning, when no kids are on the street, anyway. They're free to come and go during the day.

Some of them spend the day back at their own houses with their families, including their kids. Jill Levenson is a researcher and social worker at Lynn University in Boca Raton, who specialized in studying sex offender policy, and is as close to a nemesis as Ron Book has in Florida. She says researchers have studied residency restrictions all over the country.

Jill Levenson

From Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Iowa, their conclusions about residence restrictions are remarkably consistent. The results are consistently that there is no relationship between where a sex offender lives and whether or not he reoffends. Sex offenders who live closer to schools or parks or daycare centers do not reabuse children more often than those who live farther away.

Isaiah Thompson

Meanwhile, the practical difficulties of housing the sex offenders was gumming up the works at a number of government agencies, who began pointing fingers at each other and suing. Maria Kayanan from the ACLU represents a number of the former residents from the bridge.

Maria Kayanan

Everybody blames everybody else. The Department of Corrections blames the County for its residency restriction. The County blames the Department of Corrections for having its probation officers tell released offenders that there's no place for them to live in the county other than the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The City of Miami sued the Department of Corrections, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety and Licensing-- I may have that backwards-- because they were putting Julia Tuttle Causeway as the official addresses on folks' driver's license and ID cards.

Isaiah Thompson

So you're saying the City of Miami sued the DMV for putting Julia Tuttle Causeway on driver's license.

Maria Kayanan

That's right. It's like, if we click our heels together three times and just make their ZIP codes a string of zeroes, the problem will go away.

Isaiah Thompson

As government agencies struggle with all the repercussions of the rule, officials who are pointing fingers at each other started to point them at Ron Book, the man who got them into this mess and the man with the connections to fix it. And Ron stepped into the fray, happy to lead the charge. Again, Maria Kayanan of the ACLU.

Maria Kayanan

I just know that he is a force of nature. When he speaks, when he appears, he commands the room. He is omnipresent. No matter whether it's a county commission hearing, whether it's a court hearing, whether it was in our litigation or the city's litigation, [SMACKS THE TABLE] there he was with this Italian suit.

Isaiah Thompson

The most obvious way to fix the problem at the bridge would be for Ron Book to go back to the legislators who originally passed the 2,500-foot rule and roll it back, and that's something Ron is uniquely qualified to make happen. But that's the one thing that's off the table, as far as Ron Book is concerned. He stands by the 2,500-foot rule. In fact, he won't even admit it's the reason people moved under the bridge in the first place, an issue I've been arguing with him going on three years now.

Ron Book

I don't believe the ordinance made them homeless. I don't believe the ordinance put them under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. I disagree that the ordinance put them there. Their crimes put them there. Their crimes put them their Their unemployability put them there. Their lack of financial resources put them there. I don't truly believe 2,500 feet made them there. And I will not--

Isaiah Thompson

That's crazy, Ron. There was no one living under the Julia Causeway.

Ron Book

You're not going to get me to accept that, because I don't, I don't. As a premise, I just don't.

Isaiah Thompson

And so, instead, Book concocted a complicated and fabulously expensive plan, using the resources and staff time at his disposal as the head of the Miami Dade Homeless Trust as well as federal stimulus dollars meant primarily for housing people made homeless by the recession and the foreclosure crisis. His staff began working full-time, trying to move the sex offenders one by one into any legal housing they could find.

Ron Book

I will promise you this, that it is the 19 of February-- and I know that I told you this place was going to be closed a little sooner than now-- I assure you that you get to be the 1 of April, the 15 of April, there won't be any more people there. There'll be a piece of guardrail up on the eastbound side and a piece of guardrail up on the westbound side. They're not going to be able drive their cars down there anymore. And those people that continue to have a registration address under the Julia Tuttle Causeway will likely have their doors knocked on and they will be taken back to jail for violating the law.

Isaiah Thompson

On April 1, The Miami Herald reported that the bridge, at last, had been cleared out. All Sex Offenders from Miami's Shanty Town in Housing, said the headline. It was over, except it wasn't over. The day after the bridge had been cleared out, some 30 sex offenders who Book's people had moved into a hotel by the airport were suddenly evicted when one of the men living there was arrested for lewd and lascivious molestation of a minor.

Just two days after the bridge had been cleared out for good, its former residents were sleeping on the floor of their probation offices. Asked if some of the men will be going back under the bridge, Book told reporters, that is not an option. So where were they supposed to go? And where were other sex offenders coming out of prison this year and next year supposed to go? The few pockets of Miami Dade County that had housing that complied with the 2,500-foot rule were already filling up disproportionately with sex offenders.

Mucking through the sex offender database, I stumbled on a little patch of houses in the middle of miles of farmland, in the middle of nowhere, where, according to the most recent count, 14 sex offenders live alongside families with children. By now, Ron Book has to see all the trouble the 2,500-foot rule is causing. At every turn, he's responded to events by taking on even more responsibility for the lives of these sex offenders. Now he's their landlord, their lawmaker, the arbiter over their fate. But as things have gone wrong, Book has refused to back down or lose face. There have been a few attempts to clean up the current mess by forcing every community in Florida to obey the same statewide residency restriction of 1,000 feet, or maybe 1,500 feet.

Book says that's not good enough, throwing numbers out like he's bargaining for a car. 1,750, he'll sometimes say, might be OK for other communities, not his though. For Book, for Book's community, only 2,500 will do.

Ron Book

There's a rational, responsible distance somewhere between 1,750 feet and 2,500 feet.

Isaiah Thompson

What's the difference? It's 250 feet. I mean, what difference does it make?

Ron Book

It's another football field away. And when one looks at 1,000 feet, it's three football fields. Well, I can see three football fields. You're in my 10th floor office having this interview with me. I can see three football fields right now. I can see children three football fields away. I have a powerful set of binoculars I will show you on your way out of my office. I could see five football fields with those binoculars. I don't want a predator and offender, somebody convicted, that has been determined to have committed sexually deviant acts on our children, I do not want that person looking out of their bedroom windows, out of their living room windows, down into a park, down into a playground, that had this person who has a predilection to offend against a child scouting out their next victim.

Isaiah Thompson

The irony, of course, is that Book doesn't need his binocular to see sex offenders anymore. Now he has to deal with them every day.

Ira Glass

Isaiah Thompson, he's the former host of The Common Rabble. These days, he's a reporter and columnist at the Philadelphia City Paper.

[MUSIC - "THERE'S NO HOME FOR YOU HERE" THE WHITE STRIPES].

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Production help from Brian Reed. Special thanks today to Jim McDonough

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can get our free weekly podcast, or this week read a translation of Mr. Chen's blog about the Yangtze River Bridge and get a link to his Chinese blog, which has tons of pictures. Thanks to Paul Rand by the way, for that translation.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. I went to his office this week and asked for a raise and-- I don't know, I think I've been an OK employee. His reaction was kind of weird.

Torey Malatia

I am going to punch you in the face. How dare you? I'm going to punch you right now.

Ira Glass

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

(HOST) ANNOUNCER. PRI. Public Radio International.