Transcript

428:

Oh You Shouldn't Have
Transcript

Originally aired 03.04.2011

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/428

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hi, it's Ira Glass. Leave a message.

Nancy Updike

Hey Ira. It's Nancy. I'm calling you from the studio and I'm going to hang up and try you back. Bye. [PHONE RINGING]

Ira Glass

Hello, Nancy Updike.

Nancy Updike

Hello.

Ira Glass

You called just like you said.

Nancy Updike

I did.

Ira Glass

So how may I serve you?

Nancy Updike

Well, let me first explain to listeners what's going on, which is that you, Ira, have found this great story. You need to spend a couple of weeks reporting it. And you asked me to guest host the show. It's only the second time since we started the show in 1995 that we've had a guest host. But we thought it would be a lot nicer than having two weeks of reruns. So--

Ira Glass

Here we are.

Nancy Updike

Right. So any last dos and don'ts?

Ira Glass

No. Let me say, first of all, I just want to acknowledge you're in kind of a tough position. I think in any show on radio or television since the media began, when the host goes away, we all want what we're used to. Nobody wants change. Nobody wants the guest host.

Nancy Updike

That is a terrible pep talk, Ira. Was that even supposed to be a pep talk?

Ira Glass

I acknowledge it is kind of the anti-pep talk. But you are going to be great. You'll be great. Don't think about that part.

The only thing that you actually have to know, Nance, is that there are certain things that must be said at certain moments in the show under our contracts with WBEZ Chicago and with PRI. Three times in the show, you have to say their names. And going into the break in the middle of the show, you also have to say, "when our program continues." Because the phrase "when our program continues" is the one that local stations are listening for. And when they hear that phrase, then they play their local promos.

Nancy Updike

And just out of curiosity, if I didn't do any of those things, any one of those things, what would happen? Just curious.

Ira Glass

You know, truthfully I don't own know, Nancy. But I honestly don't want to find out. I'm giving you the keys to the car, and I want you to just obey a few simple rules, and everybody's going to get home safely.

Nancy Updike

But wait, how fast does it go?

Ira Glass

OK. So do you have the contractual language in front of you that I left for you to read now and kick off the show? Do you have it there?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, I got it.

Ira Glass

All right, so let's kick it off.

Nancy Updike

From WBEZ Chicago, it's still This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Nancy Updike.

Ira Glass

That's great.

Nancy Updike

See you in two weeks.

Ira Glass

OK, have fun.

Nancy Updike

I want to tell you that there wasn't some long, behind the scenes build up to this guest hosting gig. I found out about it not that long before you did. And I'm excited to be doing it. The stories this week are great. But really what I feel is mixed. It's a little nerve wracking. I feel like I got handed one of those gifts that when you tear off the wrapping paper and see what's inside, you say, "oh, you shouldn't have." And part of you means it.

But what are you going to do? A lot of gifts are complicated, if not flat out bad. I'm picturing-- and you can picture your own pile-- misguided sweaters, noise makers for children, lingerie for coworkers, et cetera, anything creepy. Some gifts, good gifts, say I thought of you. But plenty of others say, I thought I was thinking of you, but really I was thinking of me.

Today on This American Life we will be rummaging deep into the oh, you shouldn't have gift pile to see just how fraught it all is. The giving, the receiving. Four stories. I'm going to call them stories, not acts today-- see how that feels. Four stories, four gifts.

First, a story about a gift that was given out every week in front of 40 million people. Next, a cautionary tale about how anything you give may be used against you, sometimes in a court of law. And what to do if a certain women in Minnesota offers you an orange. Stay with us.

Act One.

Nancy Updike

OK, our first story is from Allison Silverman. You probably know her work. She's written for The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and other famous funny TV shows. She also knows a lot about TV, not just shows that are on now, but also older shows-- That Was the Week That Was, Saturday Color Carnival, The Jack Paar Show. One of the older shows she's been watching lately was built around the idea of giving people what was supposed to be the gift of a lifetime. Allison had heard of the show, but once she started watching it, she was very, very surprised by what she saw. Here's Allison.

Allison Silverman

What if someone, without your knowledge, was researching your life, organizing it, throwing out the boring bits, playing up the dramatic bits, fitting it all into a classic narrative? And one day he surprised you by putting you on live television and sharing your personal, streamlined story with, say, 40 million Americans. It happened to hundreds of people in the 1950s on a show that ran on NBC.

Ralph Edwards

This Is Your Life, America's most talk about program.

Allison Silverman

There's not much talk about This Is Your Life today. If you don't know the show, here's how it worked. Every week an unsuspecting guest, often a big name celebrity, would be lured to LA's El Capitan Theater under false pretenses.

Ralph Edwards

I've all you other panel members, but until this moment I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you and saying to you, Dick Clark-- Hi, Dick. Musical star-maker, America's number one disk jockey. Tonight, Dick, This Is Your Life.

Allison Silverman

Ralph Edwards was the host of This Is Your Life. At the beginning of every episode, he shows the stunned guest a leather-bound book with their name and the words "This Is Your Life" on it. Then he treats them to a half-hour retrospective and then reunites them with influential figures from their past. Edwards was a radio announcer who made it big when he came up with the game show Truth or Consequences. He also taught Sunday school. The combination made him the perfect host for a show designed to be inspirational entertainment.

After giving Dick Clark his first glimpse of the book, Edwards holds it up and reads from it. Every now and then interrupted by an off-stage voice like this one.

Andy Grass

Dick, do you remember the Green Hornet?

Ralph Edwards

The voice of your pal since childhood, today an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission of New York City. Here from his home in Mount Vernon, New York is Andy Grass.

Dick Clark

Hello, Andy.

Allison Silverman

There's an archway stage right with a curtain. And through it come old friends and family. Each one talks about Dick Clark, shares a memory, and a hug.

Ralph Edwards

What was this Green Hornet, Andy?

Andy Grass

Well that was a 15 year old sedan, Ralph, that Dick and I used to have, drive around town, and pick up records for his record collection.

Allison Silverman

It turns out Dick's childhood in Mount Vernon, New York was bright and full of mischief. But there was adversity ahead. Dick had to drive from Syracuse University to State Teachers College in Salisbury, Maryland in the middle of winter in a convertible with no heater. Still, he persevered and eventually beat the odds, marrying his high school sweetheart, landing a gig hosting American Bandstand, and blossoming into the person we know today.

Promise, struggle, triumph. That's pretty much how all the episodes go. But watch enough of This is Your Life and you start to wonder. Putting people's past on display without warning, is it such a good idea? Because clearly some struggles are more struggly than others.

Ralph Edwards

This Is Your Life Hanna Bloch Kohner.

Hanna Bloch Kohner

Oh, no.

Allison Silverman

Oh, disturbingly, yes. In May 1953, Ralph Edwards surprise Hanna Bloch Kohner, whose apparent dismay at having her life story told could have something to do with the fact that a lot of her life was a staggering nightmare.

Ralph Edwards

May I say, Mrs. Kohner, that looking at you, it's hard to believe that during seven short years of a still-short life you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler's cruel purge of German Jews.

Allison Silverman

Hanna Bloch Kohner is a Holocaust survivor, although the word Holocaust wouldn't be used to commonly describe it for another eight years. And Ralph Edwards is right, Hanna is gorgeous and poised. For her episode, the This Is Your Life format is the same as ever. Like Dick Clark, she's supposed to remember something. Only it's not the Green Hornet.

Ralph Edwards

You and your husband are seized and shipped off to the concentration camp at Westerbork near the German border.

Eva Herzberg

That's where I first met Hanna. We spent about eight months in that camp and though it was very tough, it didn't compare with the camps that followed.

Ralph Edwards

Do you recognize that voice, Hanna? It belongs to a girl who was your friend and companion in four concentration camps. Eva Herzberg, now Mrs. Warner Florsheim.

[APPLAUSE]

Ralph Edwards

Were you and Hanna moved from that first camp together, Eva?

Eva Herzberg

Yes, together with a lot of others. We were packed into cattle cars and shipped off to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Then we were sent off to the extermination camp at Auschwitz in Poland.

Ralph Edwards

You were each given a cake of soap and a towel, weren't you, Hanna?

Hanna Bloch Kohner

I don't remember the soap.

Ralph Edwards

Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. And even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others have liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.

Allison Silverman

Now if I was surprising someone and sharing the murder of her parents and husband on national television, I would do it differently. I wouldn't do it. But somehow, in some way, Hanna's half-hour goes by without a hitch. She's reunited with her brother who she hasn't seen in 10 years.

Hanna's Brother

This is my happiest day in all of my life.

Allison Silverman

As the show's winding down, it takes a left turn. After all the excruciating details of Hanna's life in Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, Edwards sums up her story this way.

Ralph Edwards

This is your life, Hanna Bloch Kohner. To you in your darkest hour, America held out a friendly hand. Your gratitude is reflected in your unwavering devotion and loyalty to the land of your adoption.

Allison Silverman

It seems out of nowhere at first. But this is May 1953. It's less than a month before the execution of the Rosenbergs. Calling anyone a patriot in front of 40 million Americans is nice. Calling a Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia, a communist country, a patriot is more than nice. It's one of the best presents she can get. And Edwards gives Hanna other presents too, the kind you can bring home.

Ralph Edwards

Oh yes, so that you and Walter can relive this memorable night again and again, Hazel Bishop is presenting you with a 16 millimeter sound film of this program, you see, together with a 16 millimeter sound projector. Now, as a lasting memento of your appearance here, Marshall Jewelers, 5th Avenue at 56th Street, New York City, have designed for you this lovely 14 karat gold charm bracelet. Now, each charm represents an important event in your life.

Allison Silverman

Can't be easy to design a Holocaust charm bracelet. To their credit, Marshall Jewelers played it safe, with a 14 karat map of Czechoslovakia, a mountain house, a Jeep, a sergeant's hat, a suitcase, a star of David, the Statue of Liberty, the flags of Luxembourg, where Hanna was married, and the United States. It was actually nice. It's the kind of Holocaust charm bracelet you pass down to your kids.

There's something undeniably strange about all of this. The overworked language, the wholesome, all-American spirit forced into a foreigner's tragedy, the game show tactics, a Holocaust survivor asked to guess who's next to come through the curtain. But Ralph Edwards was trying to do good. His model for the show was love thy neighbor. And though Hanna Kohner's episode was, well, blunt, it was the first national television show to have a Holocaust survivor tell her story. There were just no rules for how you do it.

The show was huge. One in four Americans watched This Is Your Life every week. And Edwards used the attention to help people. When Hanna's episode aired, This Is Your Life donated to United Jewish Appeal and set up a fund for viewers to donate to.

Of course, the show didn't tackle epic tragedy just once. They went even bigger two years later.

In 1955, This Is Your Life surprised Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister from Japan who was in the States on a humanitarian mission. He had been flown from New York to LA and brought to the El Capitan Theater for what he thought would be a straightforward interview about his work.

Ralph Edwards

You though, of course, you were going to be interviewed as a part of the work you're now doing, didn't you? What is that work, sir, that you are doing right now at the present moment?

Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Well, I brought a group of girls who have terrible disfigurement on event of atomic explosion in Hiroshima.

Ralph Edwards

And you have accompanied these girls over?

Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Yes. And we are hoping to have plastic surgery for them.

Allison Silverman

Tanimoto was a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and he had brought 25 young women disfigured by the bombing to the US. They were called the Hiroshima Maidens, and they were scheduled to have reconstructive surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Tanimoto had come up with the idea. He had two of the Maidens with him at the theater. He was trying to raise money.

Ralph Edwards

Now Reverend Tanimoto, are you ready to turn the pages in this book and share with us your experiences? All right, then, August 6, 1945, Hiroshima, Japan.

Allison Silverman

This is the first time I've heard the words Hiroshima, Japan and expected them to be followed with "Come on down."

Edwards wastes no time. He starts with the day a nuclear bomb on Tanimoto's city. As for Tanimoto, he sits on the couch next to Edwards, confused by what the leather-bound book has to do with any of this. As Edwards opens it, Tanimoto looks down at the book, then up at Edwards. Then back to the book, and back to Edward again. But in fact, in this episode, the book plays second fiddle to a lot of actual fiddles and horns and various sound effects.

Ralph Edwards

The morning is quite and very peaceful.

[DRAMATIC MUSIC]

Ralph Edwards

The time has come, that split second of eternity which comes in one way or another to every man in his lifetime. What did you do when you heard that bomb?

Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Well, I didn't hear any sounds, but I saw strange flash running through the air. And took a couple of steps into the garden and lie down on the ground. And I felt strong blast of wind. And then I wake up, I mean I got up and saw many houses behind me destroyed.

Ralph Edwards

You were between two rocks?

Kiyoshi Tanimoto

I saw the whole city on fire and many people running away from the city in silence. Their skin peeling off, and hanging from face, from arm. But, strange to say, in silence, it looked like procession of ghosts.

Allison Silverman

Edwards cues the jingling Buddhist temple bells and the show jarringly flashes back to Reverend Tanimoto's youth.

First through the curtain is an old woman, the Methodist missionary who introduced him to Christianity. Then it's an old buddy from seminary school who tells a story about Tanimoto chasing girls. After him, a man appears in silhouette behind a screen. Tanimoto hears this voice.

Man

Looking down from thousands of feet over Hiroshima, all I could think of was, "My God, what have we done?"

Ralph Edwards

The voice of a man whose second of eternity was woven up with yours, Reverend Tanimoto. Now you've never met him, have never seen him, but he's here tonight to clasp your hand in friendship. Captain Robert Lewis, United States Air Force, who, along with Paul Tibbets, piloted the plane from which the first atomic power was dropped over Hiroshima.

[MUSIC AND APPLAUSE]

Ralph Edwards

Captain Lewis, come in here close. And would you tell us, sir, of your experience on August 6, 1945?

Captain Robert Lewis

Well Mr. Edwards--

Allison Silverman

Captain Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, shares a handshake with Tanimoto, who then backs, up putting him at an awkward distance between Lewis and Ralph Edwards, who's still consulting his book. Captain Lewis explains haltingly how they got the order to target Hiroshima, how the bombardier aimed, how they dropped the bomb and then turned fast to avoid the blast.

Captain Robert Lewis

And then the two concussion waves hit the ship. Shortly after, we turned back to see what had happened. And there in front of our eyes, the city of Hiroshima disappeared.

Ralph Edwards

Now you entered something in your log at that time.

Captain Robert Lewis

As I said before, Mr. Edwards, I wrote down later, "My God, what have we done?"

Ralph Edwards

And so, Reverend Tanimoto, you on the ground, and you on your military mission, Captain Lewis, in the air, both appealed to a power greater than your own.

Allison Silverman

Lewis is the one you're most worried about watching this bizarre blind date. Ralph Edwards is pleased. Tanimoto is respectful, but Captain Lewis looks like he's breaking down. People say he went to a bar before the show and came back drunk.

Ralph Edwards

Thank you, Captain Robert Lewis, now personnel manager of Henry Heide Incorporated in New York City.

Allison Silverman

In 1971, Lewis sold his famous log from the flight and used the money in part to buy Italian marble for his new hobby, sculpture. The piece he's known for is a mushroom cloud, with streams of blood flowing down the side.

Edwards then introduces the two Hiroshima Maidens, who are only seen in silhouette, brings on Tanimoto's wife and four kids.

Ralph Edwards

Koko, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Allison Silverman

And gives viewers at home an address to send their donations.

Ralph Edwards

The address again, Maidens, Box 200, New York One, New York.

Woman

And if you'll accept a change of mood now, I'd like to tell you a bit about wonderful, extra rich, liquid Prell shampoo. That's the thrilling new companion to Prell in the tube.

Allison Silverman

Even in its heyday, This Is Your Life raised hackles. Time magazine called Ralph Edwards a "spiritual prosecutor" to his guests. And Jack Gould at the New York Times accused the show and others like it of exploiting the raw and private emotions of the unfortunate. But the unfortunate, they liked it. This Is Your Life might have exploited your story, but it also told you your story, gave it to you. And once you had it you could do whatever you wanted with it.

Hanna's daughter, Julie Kohner, told me that her mother spent the year after the show traveling around the country with a copy of her episode, raising money for United Jewish Appeal. On Passover, the Kohner family would play it on the gift projector they got on This Is Your Life. Years later, Hanna and her husband, Walter, even published a joint autobiography, Hanna and Walter: A Love Story.

And as brutal as his episode seems today, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto had fond memories of his appearance. His daughter, Koko Kondo, who was on the telecast as a 10-year-old told me when English-speaking guests would visit, Tanimoto would play them the episode on his gift projector. He wasn't horrified by meeting Captain Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. In fact, the two of them started writing each other after the show. And Koko Kondo says Captain Lewis changed her whole attitude about the old enemy. Seeing him tear up on stage at the El Capitan, she stopped hating American soldiers.

And sometimes the show did even more. Once in a while, getting your life story from This Is Your Life actually changed the story of your life. And if you'll accept a change in mood now, our last example from the show is Lillian Roth, a vaudeville singing star who made it big on Broadway and then in movies like Animal Crackers with the Marx brothers. She was America's top jazz baby.

But in 1953, when she came on This Is Your Life she was pretty much forgotten. The leather-bound book starts in a sad place.

Ralph Edwards

This is the Bloomingdale Hospital for Nervous and Mental Diseases, now known as the New York Hospital, Westchester Division. The year is 1946. You're a patient of this mental hospital. Why, Lillian?

Lillian Roth

Well, I had a problem. Alcoholism, which led to a mental breakdown.

Ralph Edwards

For nearly 16 years, right? Up to 1945, there'd hardly been a day or a night that you drew a sober breath.

Lillian Roth

That's right.

Allison Silverman

Edwards later calls this time "a stupor that was to last for 16 years." And as he recounts Roth's past, we cut to a shot of a placard with the date plus an empty whiskey bottle. The next time we cut it's two empty whiskey bottles. Then two empty whiskey bottles, plus another lying on its side. And finally, the two empty whiskey bottles, the one lying on its side, and a huge whiskey bottle made for a giant.

But you still may not have gotten the idea about Lillian.

Ralph Edwards

1932, your first marriage, consummated while under the influence of drink, is dissolved in drink. You're married again to a distinguished young New York judge. On your honeymoon to Miami, Florida, he opens your trunk and finds it filled with liquor.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Allison Silverman

I think that tune is called "Trunk Full of Liquor."

Lillian Roth was the first and one of the only This Is Your Life guests who knew she'd be on the show ahead of time. She was asked by Ralph Edwards if she would let him share her story. And she did, because she thought it could help someone. The episode was a smash, and among the people it helped, happily, was Lillian Roth.

Following her reintroduction to America on the show, Roth wrote an autobiography that spent 44 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. It's called I'll Cry Tomorrow. And in it, she calls her appearance on This Is Your Life a miracle. I'll Cry Tomorrow was made into a movie starring Susan Hayward, who was Oscar nominated for her nuanced, understated, and minutely observed performance.

Susan Hayward

I don't want a drink, but I need a drink. I need a drink! Now!

Allison Silverman

The action builds to its final triumphant scenes, a dramatic dramatization of the moment Roth decided to allow her life to be dramatized.

Susan Hayward

They want me on a national television show.

Man

How wonderful.

Susan Hayward

But they don't want me to sing.

Man

Well, what do they want you to do?

Susan Hayward

They want me to come out to California and get up before 40 million people and tell the shameful, disgusting story of my life.

Man

The story of your life?

Susan Hayward

I couldn't tell the story of my life, I'd be too ashamed.

Allison Silverman

These days, confessional culture is everywhere. It's easy look down on it as nothing but a bid for publicity. But it's not really just about the person confessing. It's about why we're paying attention to their story. When we hear someone lay it all out there, there's a reason beyond voyeurism that we like to listen.

In 1958, Lillian Roth was interviewed by Mike Wallace. She said it best.

Mike Wallace

Have you ever wondered, though, why the American public seems to be so fascinated with this kind of story? Is it possibly just the desire to look across the courtyard into somebody else's open window?

Lillian Roth

Well, I think where my story is concerned, it goes back to an old philosophy that I read that said, "In each man's heart, there's a secret sorrow that the world knows nothing about." And I think that humanity feel that their sorrow is for you and their compassion is for you. But it has touched a part of their heart that they will not open the door themselves. They won't even peek in. And in the subconscious, the tie is there.

Allison Silverman

What she's saying is, when you watch me discuss my sad life on This Is Your Life it's not me who's revealed, it's you.

Nancy Updike

Allison Silverman.

[MUSIC- "I"LL CRY TOMORROW" BY LILLIAN ROTH]

Act Two.

Nancy Updike

OK, turning to our next story of gifts and their aftermath, here's a headline that caught my eye a while back. I've got the newspaper here. Big, screaming headline above the fold, "Medical Marijuana Outlet Nabbed for Overselling in Sting Operation."

This is not a US newspaper, by the way. I've been living in the Middle East for a lot of the past year, and one of the newspapers I read is called Haaretz. It's an Israeli paper. You can look it up online. It has an English edition. And I'll be honest, my interest in this story was entirely escapist. I needed a break from reading about the politics in the region and "Medical Marijuana Outlet Nabbed for Overselling in Sting Operation." I was looking forward to drug deals and scandal, and people getting nabbed.

So here I am, I'm reading this story. And it turns out the sting consists of an undercover policewoman going to a government licensed medical marijuana center and pretending to have cancer. It says here she had a prescription for medical marijuana and she went to this place several times to get her allowed dosage. But she kept saying she was still suffering, her dose wasn't enough. She needed more.

According to one unnamed source in the story she, quote, "begged repeatedly for more cannabis, saying she could not stand the pain." Finally, someone at the place caved and gave her more. About a third of an ounce, according to the paper. Picture around half a baggy, a couple of handfuls. That was the drug deal caught by the sting. Someone giving a supposedly sick person who had a prescription a bit more marijuana than she was prescribed after being begged by the person who was pretending to have cancer.

When I finished the story all I could think was, wait, really?

Gal Cohen

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Nancy Updike

This is Gal Cohen. She's the one who gave the undercover police women the extra medical marijuana. Through an interpreter, Gal described meeting the policewoman.

Gal Cohen

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Interpreter

I met her for the first time three months ago. She described suffering from cancer and that her condition was so severe that she doesn't leave the house much. And I remember telling her that it would be good for her to leave the house. And I even remember her coming back at some point and saying, "Thank you for telling me to come to the shop to leave the house. It has been good for me to see people."

Nancy Updike

Quick background here. Medical marijuana is pretty new in Israel. Like the US, the country has a serious illegal drug trade to worry about. And with marijuana they're in that awkward stage of trying to figure out exactly how they want to make this still illegal drug available as medicine in some harsh cases-- cancer, AIDS, MS, chronic pain. About 6,000 people in Israel have prescriptions now.

The police wouldn't answer questions for this story, just said it was an ongoing investigation. So I went to the medical marijuana center, called Tikun Olam, to hear their version of what happened.

Gal, the woman who gave extra to the policewoman, is 20-years-old, maybe five two, long, dark hair, reserved. In the raid, she was taken into police custody, along with her brother, who started the medical marijuana company, and another employee, Shmuel [? Desolet Mushasha. ?] As Gal was describing the undercover policewoman, Shmuel came over and jumped in.

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Interpreter

She looked like a lot of other people who come in who are having a hard time or in pain and maybe financially having a hard time finishing the month on whatever salaries they have.

Shmuel

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Nancy Updike

You're showing Gal her sweater is, what? It's askew, and she's got-- she's wearing a big sweater.

Man 2

Big sweater, clumsy sweater.

Nancy Updike

Hairs everywhere. And weird glasses or something.

Shmuel

The glasses was OK.

Nancy Updike

The glasses was OK?

Shmuel is 27. He's Ethiopian. His family emigrated to Israel when he was a baby. Natural storyteller. He says lots of people ask for more. And some of them push hard, like the policewoman did.

Shmuel

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Interpreter

I can't even tell you the kinds of episodes that we've seen here. And I'll give you one example. There are times where people will fake a heart attack. We had a guy who said he's going into cardiac arrest. You know, he was shaking and he was faking this heart attack. And I was on the phone with the ambulance. And we were so far along that the woman on the other side of the phone was saying, "Well, should I send one or not?" But as soon as he saw that I was calling the ambulance, he said, "Actually, I'm fine. Don't call the ambulance." So people go to great lengths to try to get us to give them more than they are allowed to get.

Nancy Updike

Were you there the day of the fake heart attack?

Shmuel

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Interpreter

He even took his false teeth out.

Nancy Updike

Why? To add to the drama, why?

Shmuel

The drama.

Nancy Updike

Why this man thought a fake heart attack would get him more medical marijuana is not clear.

The undercover policewoman's drama succeeded where the heart attack man's failed, maybe because it was more subtle and had a good supporting cast. Once during the two and a half months she was going to the dispensary, she brought in a distraught husband.

Shmuel

[SPEAKING HEBREW]

Interpreter

He talked, the husband, about the fact that she was-- when the pain was strong she would just lie on the coach, and she wouldn't want to move and she wouldn't want to leave the house. And here she got a little bit better and this was good, but now she's having a regression. And once again, she doesn't want to leave the house. She doesn't want to get up off the coach. That was the way he was pressing us to give her more.

Nancy Updike

Shmuel didn't give her more. He says he told her the same thing he tells everyone. If your dose isn't enough, talk to the health ministry and get them to increase your prescription. He says he explains to people exactly how to do it, so they don't get tangled up in the bureaucracy. And he knows the procedure because he's done it. He lost the lower half of his leg serving in the army, and he's got a prescription for medical marijuana himself. It took six months of surgery and a year and a half of rehab for him to be able to walk with a prosthetic limb. But he still has pain. Marijuana dials it down without turning him into a zombie, like morphine did. So Shmuel told the policewoman, "Go back to the health ministry." But Gal gave in.

Interpreter

She came back after she had run out of her supply, she said. And she said that she's desperate. She really needs it. She can't function. She said, "I'm sitting at home crying. I'm not functioning with my children and I need more." And that's when I picked up additional grams and give it to her.

Nancy Updike

Gal says this wasn't a financial transaction, by the way. No money changed hands. People with medical marijuana prescriptions in Israel pay a fixed amount per month, around $100, whether they're dose is 30 grams or 100 grams. Gal just not gave it to the woman. It was an impulsive, illegal gift. Two weeks later, police showed up.

Interpreter

They took me to the police station in a big van, a big Savana van with two policeman, one at each side, two in the front, and three behind me. It felt like I was some big time drug dealer.

Nancy Updike

It wasn't until the police officer who interrogated Gal pulled out a picture of the undercover policewoman that she understood what was going on and why she'd been brought in. He asked her why she gave the woman more.

Interpreter

I told him that I felt sorry for her. And that I had mixed up my emotions with my job. I told him it was very hard for me as a 20-year-old young woman to say no to this woman who was like my mother or my grandmother. My intention was to help her. She was an older woman.

Nancy Updike

The day I went to the one-room dispensary where Gal and Shmuel work, almost all the patients who came in were women who fit the description of the undercover officer. All past 50, bundled up, moving slowly. Shmuel asked one of them, "How's it going?" And she said, "not good."

I've always thought the expression you can't cheat an honest man was off base. Of course you can. The way you do it is to appeal not to their greed, but to their pity. Convince them they're doing something for your gain, not theirs. Government prosecutors are deciding whether to indict anyone in the case.

Coming up, gold fish and a battle over dried fruit. That's in one minute. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International when-- say it with me-- when our program continues.

Act Three.

Nancy Updike

Welcome back. I'm Nancy Updike sitting in for Ira Glass, who's out reporting a story for two weeks. It's This American Life and we have a theme this week, like we do every week. And today it is, "Oh, You Shouldn't Have." We're looking at some of the hazards and joys of giving and receiving gifts, from huge ones like a TV special about your life, to ones as small as a lowly orange.

Let's talk for a minute about etiquette. I think there's something almost un-American about etiquette. I know there are people who will disagree with me on this, but I think for a lot of Americans the idea that there are rules out there about the proper way to behave, rules more elaborate than just common sense, seems pretentious, European, like one more thing we fought the British to be free of. Not that we're rude, we just don't like to be fancy.

The meantime, we're full of immigrants from much older, fancier countries. Nazanin Rafsanjani was born in Iran, grew up in Minnesota, and she's steeped in both worlds. She still has family in Iran she goes to see. She's got her family here. But then, American friends. She went to school here. Her husband is American. And she says there's one key Iranian concept that is way beyond even the most party manners American notion of please, thank you, and oh, you shouldn't have gone to all this trouble.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

OK, so it's called tarof. And it's basically this social custom of never saying what you want and offering things to people that you may or may not really want to give them. What happens, like, millions of times a day in Iran, probably is that you-- you know, you go to someone's house and they say, "Are you hungry? What can I get you? Do you want some tea? Do you want some fruit? Cookies?" And you say, "No, no, no. I'm just here, I just want to see you. I'm not here for any of that stuff. I'm not hungry. I don't want any tea."

And they're like, "No, you have to have some tea. You have to have some fruit. Just one orange. Just have an orange. Have an orange and an apple." So you may or may not want the tea, you may really want the tea. They may be on their way out the door and not expecting you, and not want you at all to stay for tea or fruit or anything, but it doesn't matter. They've come out of their kitchen with a giant bowl of fruit, which ever Iranian has. And you're like, "No, no, no, I don't want anything. I'm just here to talk for a second. Please, please, please. No, no." And there may be some physical altercation where they're like grabbing your hands as you try to put fruit on their plate. And what I see happen a lot is that the person who the food and tea is being forced on will take a sip of the tea, or peel the orange and eat a slice and leave the rest on their plate.

Because if you eat the orange, then they have to start tarofing again. You know what I mean? If you finish the orange or drink the tea, they're not going to just let your plate be empty.

Nancy Updike

What happens if they say, stay. Have some tea. You have to have some tea. And you say, great, I would love some tea?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

I don't know. I mean, that just never happens. I'm sure it does happen from time to time, but it just is so rare for someone to say, "Do you want some tea?" or, "Are you hungry?" and for the other Iranian to say, like, "Yes, sure." That's so embarrassing. That would be really embarrassing. It happens to me a lot.

An uncomfortable thing that would often happen to me growing up is that I'd have all these American friends coming over to our house, and it always makes me slightly uncomfortable when someone's at my parents' house and they compliment my parents on something. Because the custom is, if you go to my parents' house and you say, like, "That's a beautiful painting on the wall," they'll offer it to you. They'll just be like, "Take it. It's yours. It's not good here anyway. It would look better in your house. Take it. It's not worth anything to us. It's much more important that you have it."

Nancy Updike

Are people then overwhelmed? Like, oh, I didn't mean--

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Yes, exactly. Definitely yeah, it catches people off guard. People are like, no-- what? I'm not going to take your-- what? It's really confusing to somebody who doesn't know that they don't want you to take their picture on the wall. They just have to say that. You just have to say it.

It permeates every single-- like, for example, my parents were just visiting us. And I'd see Alex, my husband, doing this, where he'd pour them a glass of water and he'd say, "Do you want ice in the water?" And my mom would say, "No." But she wanted ice in the water. Like, I knew she wanted ice in the water. She knew she wanted ice in the water. But she'd say no, and so he wouldn't put it in the water. So then I would have to go and get the ice cubes and put it in her water.

Nancy Updike

It sounds tiring actually. It sounds--

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Yeah. I mean, when I describe it to people, it's really time consuming. Because it's not just-- this happens like in Iran, when you go into a store and you're going to buy-- I think we were buying dried fruit or something. And you take what you want up to the counter and you'll go to pay. And the store owner says, like, "It's worthless. This is worthless. You shouldn't even-- it's worthless to you. Your value is so much more than this thing that you're trying to buy." And and then you have to say, "No, no, no. Really, how much is it?" And then they say, "No, no, no. Just take it. Just take it. You shouldn't have to pay for it." And you're like, "No, no, no. Please, tell me how much it is." And then finally you get to a point where they are going to tell you the price. And then the funny thing that happens, that I've seen happen so many times, is like-- and then they quote you a price that's like way more than the thing is actually worth. So then you have to shift.

Nancy Updike

So it flips? It flips completely and becomes a bargaining session?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Exactly. Then it becomes the sort of like haggling, a haggling session.

Nancy Updike

So who's the person in your family who's best at this? Who's the expert?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

In my family, I would say the expert is my great aunt. She will wear you down. You'll say no, and you'll really mean no. And you'll be like, no, I'm not hungry. And she just puts the food in front of you. To the point of like-- I don't know if this is going to translate. But I would like wake up in the middle of the night and see her in my room about to put like a blanket over me, even though I told her a million times like, I'm not hot. I don't get hot. Please don't put a blanket over me. And she would just come in in the middle of the night and throw a blanket over me. And a couple of times I would catch her. Be like, what are you doing? What are you doing in here? And then she reduces you. With the tarof thing, she literally reduces you to begging. You're like, please, don't do this. Please.

Nancy Updike

There's no way to shortcut it? There's no way to say, "I know what you're doing. You know, I know what you're doing. We know what we're doing. Let's just do the short version." You can't do that? Like, it has to play out?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Yeah. And I mean, you could cut to the chase and be like, stop tarofing. But that's kind of rude. Because then you're implying that the person is being fake.

Nancy Updike

Does it make it hard sometimes to even know what you want? Because you have to do all the responses, there are all these consequences no matter what you do. Does it make it hard to even understand, am I hungry? Am I not hungry? Do I want to stay here? Do I want this person here?

Nazanin Rafsanjani

I don't know if it makes it hard to know what you want. But I think what happens is that you end up not caring what you want. If you're like me, you just want the tarof to stop.

Nancy Updike

That becomes what you want.

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Exactly. All you want is the tarofing to stop. That's all you want.

Nancy Updike

Nazanin Rafsanjani works at the public radio program On the Media.

Act Four.

Nancy Updike

Our last story is about the hardest kind of gift to give, one that requires sacrifice. Not just giving, but giving something up. It's a piece of short fiction by writer Etgar Keret. He's been on our show before. You'll remember him if you've heard one of his stories. They don't sound like anyone else's.

This one takes place in Israel where Etgar lives, and is read by actor Michael Chernus.

Michael Chernus

Yonatan had a brilliant idea for a documentary. He'd knock on doors. Just him, no camera crew, no nonsense, just Yonatan, alone, a little camera in his hand, asking, "If you found a talking goldfish that granted you three wishes, what of this goldfish would you wish?"

Folks would give their answers and Yoni would edit them down. Make clips of the more surprising responses. Before every set of answers, you'd see the person standing stock still in the entrance to his house. Onto this shot, he'd superimpose the subject's name, his family situation, his monthly income, and maybe even the party he'd voted for in the last election. That, together with the wishes, and maybe he'd end up with some real social commentary. A testament to the massive rift between all our dreams and the often unpromising realities in which we live.

It was genius, Yoni was sure. And if not, at least it was cheap. All he needed was a door to knock on and a heart beating on the other side. With a little decent footage, he was sure he'd be able to sell it to channel eight or Discovery in a flash, either as a film or as a bunch of vignettes, little cinematic corners each with that singular soul standing in a doorway followed by three killer wishes. Precious, every one.

Even better, maybe he'd cash out, package it with a slogan and sell it to a bank or cellular phone company. Maybe tag it with something like, "Different dreams, different wishes, one bank." Or, "The bank that makes dreams come true."

No prep, no plotting, natural as can be, Yoni grabbed his camera and went out knocking on doors.

In the first neighborhood, the kindly folk that took part generally requested the foreseeable things-- health, money, bigger apartments, either to shave off a couple of years or a couple of pounds. But there were also the powerful moments, the big truths. There was one drawn, wizened old lady that asked simply for a child. There was a cocky, broad-shouldered ladykiller who put out his cigarette and as if the camera wasn't there, wished he were a girl. "Just for a night," he added holding a single finger right up to the lens.

Yonatan knew if the project was going to have weight, he'd have to get to everyone. To the unemployed, to the ultra religious, to the Arabs and Ethiopians and American ex-pats. Maybe some beleaguered Arab man would stand in his doorway and, looking through Yonatan and his camera, looking out into nothingness, just pause for a minute, nod his head, and wish for peace. That would be something to see.

Sergei [? Garalik ?] doesn't much like strangers banging on his door. Less so is he amenable to it when those strangers are asking him questions. In Russia when Sergei was young, it happened plenty. The KGB felt right at home knocking on his door. His father had been a Zionist, which was pretty much an invitation for them to drop by any old time.

When Sergei got to Israel and then moved to Jaffa, his family couldn't wrap their heads around it. They'd ask him, "What are you looking to find in a place like that? There's no one there but addicts and Arabs and pensioners." But what is most excellent about addicts and Arabs and pensioners is that they don't come around knocking on Sergei's door. Like that, Sergei can get his sleep and get up when it's still dark. He can take his little boat out into the sea and fish until he's done fishing, by himself, in silence. The way it should be. The way it was.

Until one day some kid with an earring in his ear-- looking a little bit homosexual-- comes knocking. Hard like that, rapping at his door, just the way Sergei doesn't like. And he says, this kid, that he has some questions he wants to put on the TV. Sergei tells the boy, tells him in what he thinks is a straightforward manner, that he doesn't want it. Not interested. Sergei gives the camera a shove to help make it clearer. But the earring boy is stubborn. He says all kinds of things, fast things, and it's a bit hard for Sergei to follow. His Hebrew isn't so good. The boy slows it down. Tells Sergei he's got a strong face, a nice face, and that he simply have to have him for this movie picture.

Sergei can also slow down. He can also make clear. He tells the kid to [BLEEP] off. But the kid is slippery, and somehow between saying no and pushing the door closed, Sergei finds that the kid is in his house. He's already making his movie, running his camera without any permission. And from behind the camera, still telling Sergei about his face. That it's full of feeling. That it's tender.

Suddenly the kid spots Sergei's goldfish flitting around in its big glass jar in his kitchen. The kid with the earring starts screaming goldfish, goldfish. He's so excited. And this, this really pressures Sergei, who tells the kid, "It's nothing. Just a regular goldfish. Stop filming it. Just a goldfish," Sergei tells him. Just something he found flapping around in the net, a deep sea goldfish.

But the boy isn't listening. He's still filming, and getting closer, and saying something about talking and fish and a magic wish. Sergei doesn't like this. Doesn't like that the boy is almost at it, already reaching for the jar.

In this instance, Sergei understands the boy didn't come for television. What he came for specifically is to snatch Sergei's fish, to steal it away.

Before the mind of Sergei [? Garalik ?] really understands what it is his body has done, he seems to have taken the burner off the stove and hit the boy in the head. The boy falls. The camera falls with him. The camera breaks open on the floor, along with the boy's skull. There's a lot of blood coming out of that head. And Sergei really doesn't know what to do.

That is, he knows exactly what to do, but it really would complicate things. Because if he brings this kid to the hospital, people are going to ask what happened. And it would take things in a direction Sergei doesn't want to go.

"No reason to take him to the hospital anyway," says the goldfish in Russian. "That one's already dead."

"He can't be dead," Sergei says with a moan. "I barely popped him. It's only a burner, only a little thing." Sergei holds it up to the fish, taps it against his own skull to prove it. It's not even that hard.

"Maybe not," says the fish. "But apparently, it's harder than that kid's head."

"He wanted to take you from me," Sergei says almost crying.

"Nonsense," the fish says. "He was only here to make a little nothing for TV."

"But he said--"

"He said," says the fish interrupting, "exactly what he was doing but you didn't get it. Honestly, your Hebrew, it's terrible."

"Yours is better?" Sergei says. "Yours is so great?"

"Yes, mine's super great," the goldfish says, sounding impatient. "I'm a magic fish. I'm fluent in everything."

All the while, the puddle of blood from the earring kid's head is getting bigger and bigger, and Sergei is on his toes up against the kitchen wall desperate not to step in it, to get blood on his feet.

"You do have one wish left," the fish reminds Sergei. He says it easy like that, as if Sergei doesn't know. As is either of them ever loses count.

"No," Sergei says. He's shaking his head from side to side. "I can't," he says. "I've been saving it. Saving it for something."

"For what?" the fish says. But Sergei won't answer.

That first wish Sergei used when they discovered a cancer in his sister. A lung cancer. The kind you don't get better from. The fish undid it in an instant, the words barely out of Sergei's mouth. The second wish Sergei used up five years before on Svetia's boy. The kid was still small then, barely three, but the doctors already knew something in her son's head wasn't right. He was going to grow big, but not in the brain. Three was about as smart as he'd get. Svetia cried to Sergei in bed all night. Sergei walked home along the beach when the sun came up and he called to the fish, asked the goldfish to fix it as soon as he'd crossed through the door. He never told Svetia. And a few months later she left him for some cop, a Moroccan with a shiny Honda.

In his heart, Sergei kept telling himself it wasn't for Svetia that he'd done it. That he'd wished his wish purely the boy. In his mind, he was less sure. And all kinds of thoughts about other things he could have done with that wish continued to gnaw at him, half driving him mad.

The third wish, Sergei hadn't yet wished for.

"I can restore him," says the gold fish. "I can bring him back to life."

"No one's asking," Sergei says.

"I can bring him back to the moment before," the goldfish says. "To before he knocks on your door. I can put him back to right there. I can do it. All you need to do is ask."

"To wish my wish," Sergei says. "My last."

The fish swishes his tail back and forth in the water, the way he does, Sergei knows, when he's truly excited. The goldfish can already taste freedom. Sergei can see it on him.

After the last wish, Sergei won't have a choice. He'll have to let the goldfish go. His magic goldfish. His friend.

"It's fixable," Sergei says. "I'll just mop up the blood. A good sponge and it will be like it never was."

That tail just goes back and forth. The fish's head steady. Sergei takes a deep breath. He steps out into the middle of the kitchen, out into that puddle.

"When I'm fishing, while it's dark and the world's asleep," he says, half to himself and half to the fish. "I'll tie the kid to a rock and dump him in the sea. Not a chance, not in a million years will anyone ever find him."

"You killed him, Sergei, the goldfish says. "You murdered someone. But you're not a murderer." The goldfish stops swishing his tail. "If on this you won't waste a wish, then tell me, Sergei, what is it good for?"

It was in Bethlehem, actually, that Yonatan found his Arab, a handsome man who used his first wish for peace. His name was Munir. He was fat with a big white mustache. Super photogenic. It was moving the way he said it. Perfect, the way in which Munir wished his wish. Yoni knew right while he was filming that this guy would be his promo for sure.

Either him or that Russian. The one that looked straight into the camera and said if he ever found a talking goldfish, he wouldn't ask of it a single thing. He'd just stick it on a shelf in a big glass jar and talk to him all day. Didn't matter about what. Maybe sports, maybe politics. Whatever a goldfish was interested in chatting about. Anything, the Russian said, not to be alone.

Nancy Updike

Etgar Keret's newest book in English is called The Girl on the Fridge and Other Stories. This story was translated by Nathan Englander.

Today, while Ira was in Georgia, our program was produced by Jane Feltes with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sara Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Eric Mennel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Management oversight for our show by our boss, Torey Malatia, and editorial oversight by our other boss, Ira Glass, a man who is scrupulous about staying well-hydrated, but somehow is also tragically conflicted about it.

Woman

I don't want a drink. But I need a drink. I need a drink! Now!

Nancy Updike

More stories from This American Life next week, like we always do about this time.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International