Transcript

432:

Know When To Fold 'Em
Transcript

Originally aired 04.08.2011

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/432

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I was surprised this week, doing this interview I was doing, I sat down to talk to the guy-- Jim McManus is his name-- whose book, Positively Fifth Street, is the book that actually started me playing poker years ago. And we were going to do this interview about great poker hands. And you know that saying, know when to hold them, know when to fold them-- this interview was going to be about moments when players showed an almost supernatural ability, an uncanny power to know whether they should get out of a hand before they're crushed.

Jim Mcmanus

I'll tell you what I have-- I have four examples.

Ira Glass

One of his books is actually a history of poker called Cowboys Full-- he knows all kinds of poker lore. And so Jim shows up with four examples, and three of them were poker hands.

Jim Mcmanus

And then I have the Cuban Missile Crisis between Khrushchev and Kennedy, in which Khrushchev folded, thus saving the world from a nuclear exchange.

Ira Glass

Well, I think let's start with that one. So how does that lay out as a poker hand? Just just walk me through it.

Jim Mcmanus

Well, Khrushchev and the Soviets had bet that the young inexperienced Kennedy, who they had met in Europe and had read him as not quite as tough as the previous president, Eisenhower. They decided that they would try to put missile bases on Cuba. And Kennedy startled them by raising, by blockading the island and insisting that the bases be taken apart and putting our nuclear forces on highest alert. And Khrushchev made what is called an awesome lay down. He agreed to take the sites-- to take them apart-- there could have easily been a nuclear war over that.

Ira Glass

So in this reading of it, Khrushchev's original bet was really a bluff?

Jim Mcmanus

It was a testing bet. Kennedy needed to figure out whether he was bluffing or he actually was ready to commit all the way. So he raised by blockading the island, communicating to them-- bluffing-- that we were ready to make a nuclear strike. Whether or not we were bluffing still remains unknown. And Khrushchev's response was to fold.

Ira Glass

Of course, this is a perfect week to talk about politics as poker. All this week, Barack Obama's been in a high stakes game of chicken. The Congressional Republicans are shutting down the government. Each side firing what I guess Jim would call testing bets, insisting on their version of the federal budget, demanding the other side would fold. Each side calling the other's bluff day, after day, after day. Neither side willing to toss in their cards.

Well from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, to help our nation's leaders and the rest of us as well, know when to fold them. Stories about people who have to figure out when they should give up. When is it time for a tactical retreat? We have dictators, drunks, an ungrateful kid facing off with his parent, and a team of guys chasing a lone man through the Brazilian rainforest. None of them, on today's show, wants to fold their cards. And as Jim McManus points out, figuring out when to hold them and when to fold them isn't always so obvious, at least when it comes to real games of poker.

Jim Mcmanus

Well, the major hand of my life is an example of when a player either foolishly or brilliantly decides to hold them rather than fold them-- was a pot that the other guy in the hand was T.J. Cloutier, who was also the winningest tournament poker player in history.

Ira Glass

Jim calls it the major hand in his life because it's the hand that made the most serious players in the world take notice of him. This is back in 2000, Jim was covering the World Series of Poker for Harper's Magazine. And he entered the tournament, his first one ever, and he was terrified. He actually ended up at the final table, walking away with a quarter million dollars, which would have been impossible without this hand against one of his poker heroes, T.J. Cloutier.

Jim Mcmanus

I had studied, and even memorized, long passages of his book about how to play hold 'em. And the hold cards he focused most of his attention on were ace, king.

Ira Glass

So, in this crucial life changing moment, Jim's across the table from T.J., and that is the hand that Jim gets-- ace, king. Jim bets, just like it says to do in the book. Everybody folds but T.J., who raises.

Jim Mcmanus

You have to also bear in mind that he is a large former tight end in the Canadian Football League. So it's not just the size, the number of chips he's pushing forward, it's the growl and the snarl factor, and the physical intimidation that sort of go along with it.

Ira Glass

Jim says that he knew the relevant passage from T.J.'s book so well that he could nearly recite it. And he knew that he should either raise or he should fold. And then he does neither. He matches T.J.'s bet-- he calls-- thinking that T.J. is probably bluffing, but too scared to raise him. Next time T.J. bets, Jim calls again. And the next time after that, which puts Jim all in-- all his chips are now in the pot. And in the end, when all the cards come down, neither he nor T.J. even has a pair.

Jim Mcmanus

And when we turned over our cards, he had ace, nine, I had ace, king, and I won a pot that made me the chip leader in the tournament. But now, with 11 years of experience playing tournament poker, that's a call that I would never make. I would never call all in with no pair in a big tournament.

Ira Glass

So at that time, you're saying, in the end it worked out to be the right move, but you're saying it was a mistake?

Jim Mcmanus

It was probably a mistake.

Ira Glass

A mistake, because given the aggressiveness of T.J.'s bets, T.J. very well could have had at least a little pair-- even a pair of two's would have beaten Jim. But Jim was such an amateur at that point, he didn't fold the way an experienced player would.

Ira Glass

It's interesting because I've heard that professional players, they say, in some situations the hardest person to play against is an amateur, because they can't predict what the amateur is going to do when they put pro moves on them. And in a way, what you're saying is that's what happened right here.

Jim Mcmanus

That's exactly what happened. And my call was in one sense a brilliant call. Amarillo Slim who was the color commentator at the time, said, "That boy's got the heart of a cliff diver. I'm going to bet on him to win." And yet, other people, including T.J., said, "He played it more like a deer in the headlights. He was too scared to fold." My ability to suss out the situation was inadequate to realize that I was probably beaten-- even though I wasn't-- I was probably beaten. And then I made a mistake that just turned out to--

Ira Glass

Make you a hero.

Jim Mcmanus

Yeah, make me a hero. Sometimes the line between a foolish call and a brilliant one, it just depends on how the cards-- the rest of the hand gets dealt out.

Ira Glass

And the fact that so much of the time, you really are just kind of in the dark, and you have to figure out, "Should I raise, should I fold these?" Is that the thing you hate about poker, is that the thing you love about poker?

Jim Mcmanus

No, that's the thing that I love about poker. That's what makes it an art from. The thing that I hate about poker is that you can sit there, and puzzle it out, and think it through, and come up with exactly the right answer, and play the hand perfectly, and your opponent can play the hand as stupidly as he can and still get saved by the dealer on the river, and you lose. The fact that you can play the hand well and lose all of your money is really uncool.

Ira Glass

That's a rub. It's hard to know when to fold them and when to hold them, much less when to walk away and when to run. And even when you figure it out, even when you suss out exactly the right thing to do, the cards can come down in some crazy way that favors your opponent and you lose anyway. We have four stories of people navigating all of that away from the poker table. Stay with us.

Act One. Is This War or Is This Hearts?

Ira Glass

Act One, Is This War or Is This Hearts? David Dickerson has this story of laying down his cards, which includes one of the most exemplary pieces of parenting I think I have ever heard of.

David Dickerson

When I was 28 years old, I came back home for the first time in six years fully aware that I was the black sheep. I had rejected my faith. I had rejected Tucson, Arizona. I was the only one in the family who wasn't married. I was the only one who couldn't even speak Spanish.

And I was just sitting with my dad in a booth at a diner, and it should have been just this kind of innocent thing, where I'm visiting after six years, and it's nice to catch up. But it wasn't like that. We were facing each other. We both had, as it happens, cowboy hats and cowboy boots. And I remember thinking, this is a showdown. Because my dad and I were at war. My dad didn't know this, but I was at war with him. I was at war with all Christians, and I was just waiting for an excuse to fire a shot.

I'd been raised an evangelical Christian-- you know, conservative, Bible believing Christian-- and I loved it so much that I said, I'm going to be a pastor. I'm going to learn everything I can learn. And I went off and I majored in religious studies in college. And from my very first scholarly class in the history of the Bible, my faith began to crumble until there was nothing left. And I now had this game I could play, where if you open a Bible to any page, I could find five flaws in it.

So I'd spent this entire time, not just with my dad, but certainly this particular evening, just waiting for a chance. Just mention the virgin birth, just once, and I'll tell you it's a mistranslation from Isaiah. Just mention Second Peter and I can prove to you it's a second century forgery. You know, say anything at all, please, please, about the Antichrist, revelation, the end times, anything like that, and I have a screed set up that's so blistering it would make Billy Graham feel ridiculous. And I had all this ammunition, and I couldn't wait to use it. I was just looking for an excuse. And it sort of turned me into a jackass.

Now what my dad didn't know was that one of the reasons I was so excited is I actually was just coming off a victory. The previous night, I had argued my brother-in-law to a standstill. He had mentioned something about how proud he was about being a Christian, because everything in the Bible was so scientifically accurate. And I went a little nuts and I said, "Oh yeah, what about this thing?" And there's this tiny little section, just one sentence in like, Exodus, where the Israelites are fighting the Amorites or somebody, and God does a miracle where he makes the sun stand still for an entire day, in order to give the Israelites a chance to recover, and give them more time to fight.

And I told my brother-in-law, "You really believe this? You believe this actually happened? That God stopped the entire planet from rotating, stopped gravity, all of things that would have to happen for the sun to stand still? Is that the most sensible thing the most powerful being in the world can do?" And my brother-in-law said, "Well, OK, that's weird, and I wish it weren't in there, but if I doubt that, where do I stop?"

And that, I knew, was as close as I was going to get to him saying, "You're right and I'm wrong." I remember looking at the clock, and it was five in the morning. I had argued this one point for seven hours. And I realized, this is like my job. I just put in a full working day. Obviously, I was obsessed.

At the time I was 28 years old. I was also a virgin, and I'd been a virgin because the Bible says so, because I thought Jesus wanted it that way. And then Jesus vanished on me. I had spent all of my life trying to be good, trying to do the right thing, and, you know, trusting that this would be rewarded. And then my faith collapsed.

And there's no betrayal like losing 10 years of your life, you know, your sexual peak basically. I'm never going to get that back. And I was furious. And I didn't know who to blame. But I knew I could help other people from having the same horrible experience. And I was looking at my brother-in-law thinking, you know, we were arguing about Genesis, but in my mind I was thinking, there is no way you have a good sex life. You know, because the Bible doesn't care, and pleasure doesn't even matter in the Bible. But I can save you.

And with this kind of exciting, thrilling victory still kind of humming in the back of my head, I was sitting there with my dad in the diner. Because a brother-in-law is one thing, a dad is someone else. I needed to save him. And so I said, "So, dad, what's your life like right now?" And he said, "Well, I found a new church home." And I heard church, and I perked up, and I was ready to go. But I thought, eh, church, not much to argue about there, people go to church, OK, it's nothing biblical.

And he said, "You know, it's a small church, and the pastor found out that I play the accordion, and he made me the music minister, that'll be nice." And again, I was like, [? tightened, ?] but I thought, "Meh, music ministry, no, nothing there." And then he said, "You know, this other kind of interesting thing is happening, I've been praying about it, and I think I'm going to be a missionary." And that struck a chord. I sat upright, and I went, "Oh really? A missionary? Where are you going to go?" And then he said, "Oh, Spain."

And I snapped. I said, "Oh, of course. Of course you're going to go to Spain. That is so arrogant. Only an evangelical Christian would say, oh, those poor benighted Spaniards need to learn about Jesus." "You know," I said, "evangelical Christianity as a way, the whole model of salvation that you guys preach, wasn't even around till the 19th century. You claim to represent all of Christianity, and you're really just the tiny sliver at the end of the iceberg. And you know, the model of salvation you're even selling is so weird. Conversion should be the response of the whole person to a call from God on a deep personal level, and evangelical Christians have turned it into this transaction, like a merchandise, like a, try our God and your life will be better. Say this prayer, and now here's the merchandising table. It's just horrible."

"And dad," I said, "You're saving people? What are you saving them from? Hell, may I guess? Because let me point something else out to you. Hell is a mistranslation from the King James of four completely different words for the afterlife. Gehenna, and hades, and sheol, and King James just kind of rounded them all up to hell. And the idea of eternal torture has no precedent in the Old Testament. It has never made any moral sense. And the second you believe in hell, you're undermining everything good. Because a morality based in fear can only bring out the worst in people, and never their best."

And I just rambled on like this. And I knew, essentially, while I was doing this, I was also assaulting his dream. You know, saying everything he was excited about, that he was sharing with me, was misbegotten, was a bad idea, was morally corrupt. But all he had to do was admit I was right and then we'd be OK. And I really didn't know what was going to happen now, because I'd just fired the first shot.

And he just kind of quietly let me do my thing. And when I'd settled down and, you know, gotten my peace out, he said, "David, I'm really proud of everything you've done. And I'm really glad that you enjoy studying all these things, and thinking all these thoughts. But I've got to tell you, before I became a Christian, I was miserable. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to get a divorce from your mom."

And I remembered, suddenly, like I was six years old, and I was back in the car, and I remember driving in the station wagon with my dad from South Dakota to Tucson, because dad had had a miserable life, had a nervous breakdown, he was rebuilding everything. And he was holding a cigarette out the window the whole ride down. I remember, as a child, this had had a strong impression on me. About halfway through the trip, he simply threw away all of his cigarettes, never picked them up again. That was his conversion, that was the start of the change in his life.

And my dad continued, he said, "You know, when I first went to Grace Chapel," which was the church where he had converted, he said, "I thought those people were crazy." And when I was eight years old, I had gone to Grace Chapel with him. And this was a charismatic church. The kind where people raise their hands, and they speak in tongues, and they anoint people with oil, and they pray for miraculous healings, and people roll on the ground sometimes, or dance.

And my dad said, "You know, I was just staring at the stuff these people were doing, and I thought, this is crazy. But I could not ignore the love in that room, and the care they had for each other. And I kept going back, and I kept going back. And I wanted it to make sense to me. And finally one night, I prayed, and I said, God, if I have to cut my own head off to be happy, I will do it. So I know you've gone to college, and you've learned all these things, but here's what I know, David. I followed Jesus and the lord gave me a family."

My parents really had almost gotten divorced. I remember one time, I ran across a notebook where my dad and my mom had divided everything up on a piece of paper. You know, who was going to get the TV and that kind of thing. And they'd gotten that close. And then my dad converted, and he said, "No, we're sticking this out. I'm going to make this work." And it had.

And my brother too, you know, he's deeply conservative, listens to all the kind of, you know, right wing talk radio and so forth. And he's got to be convinced that I'm going to hell. But this one time, I was on this trip, and I was a student, and he gave me $300 and he said, "Don't bother repaying it."

And I remember looking at my dad, and I thought-- I had sort of expected to argue like I had with my brother-in-law. You know, not to win, but to come to some kind of armistice. You know, some kind of truce where we're like, "Well, we'll agree to disagree, but I see your point. It's a good point." I hadn't expected to lose completely, because you can't argue with decency. You can't argue with goodness.

The thing about the Bible is it's huge. I could poke at it because I could pick at anything I wanted-- you know, talking snakes, virgin birth-- but eventually, I came around to thinking, well, maybe religion doesn't have to be consistent. Maybe you can just like it enough for it to be good. You know, maybe religion can be something more like-- like I'm a big Star Trek fan, and if you asked me, I would say like, I love Star Trek. But if you asked me to defend individual episodes, I would be at a loss, because I can't go to bat for everything Star Trek did. I just love the concept.

And maybe religion could be like that. So what I said to my dad was, "Oh, look, here comes the waitress." And we got our Sprite, and had our hamburgers, and we looked at each other, raised the glass, had a bite, and my dad didn't know this, but we were having communion.

Ira Glass

Dave Dickerson. He's the author of a book of short stories, like this one, called House of Cards.

[MUSIC - "CHRISTIANS AND PAGANS" BY DAR WILLIAMS]

Act Two. Kings Do Not Fold.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Kings Do Not Fold. What's a dictator? Yes, an absolute ruler, yes, a tyrant, yes to all that. But a dictator is also, in the vast majority of cases, someone who is absolutely, fundamentally not leaving. 30 years in office, 40 years in office, these are not people who know when it is time to step aside. Witness the last few months of news from the Mideast, which Nancy Updike has some thoughts about.

Nancy Updike

Looking at one dictator at a time, it's easy to get caught up in what's unique about him, for instance, some specific brutality his regime favors-- Kim Jong-il's forced labor camps. Or you can get distracted by his eccentricities-- Muammar Qaddafi's very special no light reflecting black hair dye, Saddam Hussein's side career as a novelist.

But I've been pretty glued to the coverage of all these Middle East dictators who've been under siege for the last few months, and the other day after listening to yet another speech by one of them, I drew up a rough checklist-- I want to read it here-- I've been calling it, the 11 Stages of Mideast Dictator Damage Control. It's a working title. And not every dictator does them exactly the same way, or does them in exactly the same order.

But in general, it goes like this. Stage one, shut down the internet. Stage two, send thugs on foot, or on horseback if you're in Egypt. Stage three, attack and arrest journalists. Stage four, shoot people. Stage five, promise to investigate who shot people. Stage six, do a meaningless political shuffle. Stage seven, blame Al Jazeera. Stage eight, organize paid demonstrations in favor of your regime. Stage nine, make a condescending speech about how much you love the youth. Stage 10, threaten that the country will fall into chaos without you. Stage 11, blame foreign agitators. There is actually a stage 12, but it's the one the dictators never want to get to, because it is leave. Get out.

I called a guy named Marc Lynch to make sure I wasn't hallucinating these 11 stages repeating in one dictatorship after another. Marc runs the Middle East studies program at George Washington University. He blogs at foreignpolicy.com. When I started reading him my list, he got excited and put the phone down for a second.

Marc Lynch

Hold on, hold on, hold on, are you ready?

Nancy Updike

Yes.

He went over to his computer because he's actually been seeing a bunch of these lists in the Arabic language media, plus tons of comments about the weirdly similar script these dictators seem to be following. Every day, people are weighing in from Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen.

Marc Lynch

It's been all over Twitter and Facebook. Activists from the Middle East, they've all noticed it. And so you'll see people from Yemen saying, Ali Abdullah Saleh is now on stage three, he's begun to meet the protesters' demands, but he's refusing to resign.

When the unrest was beginning to get especially heavy in Syria, there were a lot of people asking, why hasn't Bashar al-Assad said anything, why hasn't he given a speech? And the joke that was making the rounds was, "Well, he doesn't want to give speech number one, because he knows that after the third speech he's gone."

Nancy Updike

And that joke raises the central question here. With two dictators, Egypt's and Tunisia's, already thrown out by their people, why would any other dictators keep plodding through the same 11 stages the previous ones did?

Marc Lynch

I think that Arab leaders have grown accustomed over decades to not having to respond to their people. And they're not used to having to really take seriously what their people say, and I think that decades of that really breeds this tin ear. When they're finally forced to listen, they're unable to hear.

Nancy Updike

The fact that they're unable to hear and take seriously their protesters' demands is clearest in the speeches these dictators have been giving. Each one is full of these bizarre echoes of the others.

Marc Lynch

The empty promises of reform that nobody believes. The promises to step down sometime in the future. The claim that we are with the people, we hear what you're saying. All of these have become so frequent and so repetitive, that as soon as people hear them, like, "Oh, there he goes again." He's saying the same things that Ben Ali said, the same things that Mubarak said.

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

So here is former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak making the speech that in retrospect seems to have become the template for other dictators, although no one's been able to reproduce Mubarak's exact blend of condescension and menace. Here he is doing step five on the list, promising to investigate who shot people.

Translator

I tell you that all those who're injured, their blood will not go down the drain. And I confirm that I will penalize all those responsible, and I will hold accountable those who committed crimes against the rights of our youth.

Nancy Updike

The youth, that's stage nine, talking about his love for the youth.

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

The citizens, the children of Egypt, men and women, I address you today. To the youth of Egypt, I address you all with a speech from the heart, a speech from father to his children, to his sons and daughters. I tell you, I take pride in you, dreaming of a bright future and shaping such a future.

Nancy Updike

Utter nonsense delivered with utter conviction. By the time Mubarak spoke these words, more than 300 people had been killed during the protests in Egypt. Of course, nothing Mubarak said saved him from progressing to stage 12 and leaving. But other dictators learned by watching what happened to him, and they've managed to hold on by just repeating and escalating steps two through eight-- the thugs, the political reshuffles, the paid counter demonstrations, the shootings and killings.

Marc Lynch

The big difference in a lot of the cases-- you know, between Tunisia and Egypt on the one hand, and what we're seeing now--is that for the most part, both in Tunisia and Egypt, the army refrained from carrying out massive violence against protesters. And one of the lessons that the Arab dictators learned is that that doesn't save them.

And so from Bahrain to Syria to Yemen to Libya, what we see in the next round, is the willingness to unleash deadly force to stay in power. And it's one of the reasons why the excitement of the Arab world back in January and February has given way to the grimmer realities that we have right now.

Nancy Updike

It is grim. There are dead and jailed protesters in six countries now. And most of these dictators aren't going anywhere.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike's one of the producers of our show. Coming up, they tried to make me go to rehab, and I said, no, no, no, I will go to Minnesota. That is in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bringing you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, know when to fold them, stories of people who wait way too long before folding their cards, dropping out, stepping aside, stepping down. Sometimes, to be fair, out of sheer confusion as to what's best. We've arrived at act three of our show.

Act Three. Gin Rummy.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Gin Rummy. One of the principles of treating alcoholism is that there's hope for everyone. Everyone still has the possibility of quitting, you're not supposed to give up on anybody, you never fold your cards. But in Saint Paul and a few other places too, they have something that clinically they call housing for chronic late stage alcoholics, but most people just call a wet house.

The idea is, alcoholics live there-- you have to be an alcoholic to get in, people are referred from detox centers-- and they let them continue to drink. Which is the opposite of most shelters. Most shelters, you're caught drinking, you are out, at least until you sober up. Same goes for rehab centers, treatment programs-- if you're drunk, you're gone.

This idea of a place where drunks can stay drunk and get housing makes a lot of people angry. The one in Saint Paul, called St. Anthony Residence, is run by Catholic charities, but with some state money in there too. Reporter Marc Sanchez visited St. Anthony House to see how it works.

Marc Sanchez

There're no guys passed out in front of St. Anthony Residence when I pull up. No broken bottles on the sidewalk either. The building itself looks like it should have a sign on the outside advertising loft apartments. Inside, it's surprisingly nice, free housing. 60 rooms, quite and orderly, every guy who lives here-- they're all men, by the way-- each guy gets his own room with a lock on the door.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served up by the kitchen staff, or if you miss a meal, you can grab a sandwich anytime you want. Each resident collects $89 a month in general assistance from the state, and after buying essentials like razors and toothpaste, several of the guys told me that at least half their money goes towards booze.

Nick

Well, I have to tell you, about 85% of my time I spend drinking.

Marc Sanchez

That's Nick. And for privacy's sake, I'm only going to use his and other residents' first names.

Marc Sanchez

On days that you are drinking, when do you typically start drinking?

Nick

Whenever. You know, when the liquor stores open usually is a good time for me. And if I have booze on me, it's always nice to have a drink when you wake up, and you're-- at 3 o'clock in the morning. It doesn't matter what time of day it is.

Marc Sanchez

You're not allowed to have booze in your room, so if it's three in the morning, he has to go to a little patio out back, the one place here where you can drink. If guys have any alcohol on them when they come home, they check it in at the front desk, where someone's on duty 24 hours. The staff member will take out a big black marker and tag the bottle with its owners last name. The alcohol is simply placed on a table in a room behind the front desk. There's no lock and key.

Bill Hockenberger

And you can see there is very little here-- one, two, three, four, five. Six bottles and two 12 packs, and they'll put your name on it, and when you come back you check it out, and you go out to the patio and have your drink.

Marc Sanchez

The guy showing me around is Bill Hockenberger. He's the program manager at St. Anthony. Bill's a recovering alcoholic, and he used to run with some of these guys in his drinking days. He's been sober for almost 16 years now, but he says he could have easily ended up living here.

We go to his office, and before I even have a chance to sit down, he goes to a metal filing cabinet and pulls out a yellow candy box with a picture of a cartoon cactus on it. It's filled with photos.

Bill Hockenberger

These here are just my daily reminders of some of my drinking days here. You can see where the-- a couple of the fights that I've been in, the results of some of that. You can see my jaw swollen out of shape there, my eyes totally black, and the whites of my eyes are colored with blood, bruised down the side there.

Marc Sanchez

Was that common for the time, getting in fights like that?

Bill Hockenberger

Not to be on the receiving end of it like that, no. No, that was why I think I took pictures of this, because this was pretty much one of the battles that I was never too happy with.

Marc Sanchez

I notice you keep the pictures in this candy box, is there a significance to that?

Bill Hockenberger

No, I just keep them close by me. This is for some time when I want to remind myself, or let a resident know that I've also been down the road with them.

Marc Sanchez

Bill's story rivals anyone's at St. Anthony. It wasn't until his body completely shut down-- his liver was failing, he fell into a coma for nine days-- that he quit for good.

Bill Hockenberger

And you can see how totally yellow I-- I look like a banana.

Marc Sanchez

Bill's quick to point out that St. Anthony's services aren't treatment. But there's an on-site nurse who administers preventative care twice a week. Residents also meet with counselors who set goals like getting a state ID or making a trip to the dentist. And if staff notices a pattern in someone coming in and falling over drunk, they'll step in.

Bill Hockenberger

We're not going to let a resident come in here and drink to excess here. We're here to monitor their drinking a bit and make sure that they don't endanger themselves by drinking rubbing alcohol. They're not drinking mouthwash. We try to get them to taper off onto some beer if they're drinking vodka and they have a hard time walking or being mobile.

We'll talk to them a little bit, and their goal is, "Listen, next time you go to the liquor store, instead of buying a half a gallon, why don't you try buying a pint. Try to drink in moderation a little bit here."

Nell Hurley

It seems like total hopelessness and just giving up on people. Like, you're not really worth fighting for. You're not really worth recovery anyway. So, bottoms up.

Marc Sanchez

Nell Hurley is another person who went from drinking to trying to help drinkers. She runs the Minnesota Recovery Connection. They're basically the yellow pages for recovery in the state. When word got out about St. Anthony in the recovery community, people were upset. She says it's hard for her to justify not stepping in.

Nell Hurley

I mean, I'm all about keeping people safe and giving someone a blanket. I don't at all want to come off like, you know, "If they're going to drink, let them be cold." Or whatever. But there should be more-- more of an attempt to rehabilitate or guide someone into recovery.

Bill Hockenberger

The minute somebody wants to go to a program, we have referral places for them.

Marc Sanchez

Again, Bill Hockenberger.

Bill Hockenberger

We have an AA right down the corner here, and I will drive you there personally and see that you make it to AA meetings. And we do have people that do recover out of here, that do take in their own programs, and we support them 100%.

You know, I can't help but not say this, the residents here, the clients here, have been through treatment so many times that they know the program better than the counselors do. I mean, they have the tools and what it takes to stay sober, but they just can't-- they can't do it.

I don't want to ever give up hope. I don't want to ever give up hope on anybody.

Marc Sanchez

I think people think that by letting them drink, you are giving up hope.

Bill Hockenberger

Well, I'm not certainly one of them. If they have a better plan, than I'd certainly like to hear it.

Marc Sanchez

The biggest argument for a wet house like St. Anthony is one I heard from a resident named Paul. And it comes down to this, before he came here, Paul used to sleep under a bridge, even in the winter.

Paul

Depending on who you know down there, it can be rough. If you know people down there who can help watch your back.

Marc Sanchez

I just don't understand, like a week like last week, where it was 30 below. Like I don't--

Paul

When it got that cold, I'd go over to Dorothy Day.

Marc Sanchez

That's another shelter?

Paul

Yeah. I don't like Dorothy Day.

Marc Sanchez

Why don't you like Dorothy Day?

Paul

Because if you sleep too hard, you end up having your backpack stolen, because you've got people right next to you, just like as close as me and you. And some people down there aren't the cleanest. But if we didn't have this place, we'd be in the streets, you know, causing problems. The police would have to deal with us, the emergency rooms, you know, courts. It helps a whole lot.

Marc Sanchez

Do you ever think that there's going to be a day that you'll leave here?

Paul

I don't know. I don't know. There isn't any other place to go.

Marc Sanchez

As for how many guys make it into treatment from St. Anthony, they tally that up once a year. In their 2010 report, out of the 87 guys who were served, only 10 went into treatment. After all, that isn't their goal here. And when I visited, I had this feeling-- it's nice and clean and everyone's respectful of each other, but it's really sad.

Walking down the hallway I could hear muffled TVs playing in their rooms, and I got the sense that people are slowly killing themselves behind their closed doors. During that year when 10 guys went into treatment, three of the residents died. When that happens, Deacon James Meyer comes in for services. Everyone calls him Deacon Jim.

James Meyer

For some, this is the end of the road for them. And they may die here. They're never going to make that choice and that connection, say, "I'm ready to get out of here." "I like drinking more than I dislike being here or giving up the things I've given up in my life."

Marc Sanchez

Is that hard for you, though to--

James Meyer

Yeah, it is hard. It is hard. But we care for them where they are. If they're ready to move, if they're not ready to move. That's really not our call here. Our call is to love them.

Marc Sanchez

Maybe this is obvious, but trying to care for alcoholics is messy. When I was in his office, Bill showed me a letter from a resident who had checked into St. Anthony in October of 1992-- almost 20 years ago. Last summer, Bill coaxed him into trying a treatment facility up north, but in the letter, the guy told Bill that he was done, and he wanted to move back to St. Anthony in the spring.

Bill wrote back and told the guy he was proud of him for getting as far as he had, and that he should try to stay where he is, he should stick with the program. But sure, he said, he'd take him back. A month later the guy moved back into St. Anthony. He's there now, drinking again.

Ira Glass

Marc Sanchez is a producer from Minnesota Public Radio, he normally works on a feature called Minnesota Sounds.

[MUSIC - "SORRY YOU'RE SICK" BY TED HAWKINS]

Act Four. Solitaire and Everything's Wild.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Solitaire and Everything's Wild. Now this story of tenacity and not giving up, and then, suddenly, I would say, kind of heroically giving up completely, and laying down the cards in an unprecedented kind of amazing way. This story happens in Brazil, in a part of Brazil that was all rainforest, almost nobody lived there until the 1970s.

Then development came very quickly, a million people in just a couple decades moved there, cutting down rainforest, replacing it with logging operations and ranching, building towns and cities. Monte Reel was the South American correspondent for the Washington Post when he first heard about what happened. It all started as a rumor going around logging camps back in the mid 1990s.

Monte Reel

And the scouts begin telling the story of a quote unquote, "Wild man," who lived out in the forest, and he didn't appear to have any tie to anyone else at all. He appeared to be completely alone. And the story of this started to go around these logging camps and into some towns, and it finally caught the ear of a guy named Marcelo dos Santos who worked for the Brazilian government for FUNAI, which is the equivalent of the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs.

And his job was to try to find any isolated tribes that remained in that area and protect them from development. So he heard this rumor and he started to investigate. And they would go out on periodic expeditions to try to find this guy.

The first thing that they found was a hut. The company cook at the logging camp took them to this hut that he had seen, and the hut was very small. It was made out of palm wood and thatch, and it was only big enough for one person to live in. And in the middle of this hut, the strange, kind of identifying feature, was a hole that was about five and a half feet deep. It was a rectangular hole.

Ira Glass

In this tiny, tiny space?

Monte Reel

Yeah. And none of these guys had ever seen anything like this among the other tribes. They really didn't know what it was or what purpose it served. And so they continued looking, and they spent, actually, a couple of months going out into this area of the forest. And they started to find other huts. He had basically built them quickly and abandoned them as the loggers got closer. So he was kind of on the run.

Ira Glass

So this team lead by Marcelo dos Santos would head out on these missions to find this guy. And they were scared that if ranchers or developers get to him first, they'll do to him what they usually do-- kill him. The team wants to reach the guy and then figure out a safe place where other tribes live that maybe they could relocate him to.

So they're heading out into the rainforest, but making first contact with any isolated tribe is incredibly dangerous. Often there is violence. Monte Reel says that 120 in this government agency FUNAI have been killed over the years. The team assumes that the guy that they're looking for, who they call the Indio-- the Indian-- doesn't speak any language that they know.

So as they walk through the jungle, they make these whistling sound so that he doesn't think that they're trying to sneak up on him. The leave gifts for the guy-- seeds, machete, stuff he might find useful-- hoping that he understands that they're leaving this as gifts specifically for him.

Monte Reel

It's really, really tricky, and there's no real guidebook for how to how to act in that situation.

Ira Glass

What's their plan on how they're going to communicate with him? Do you know what I mean? Did you talk to them about that?

Monte Reel

Yeah. In this particular case, they actually brought along Pura Kanoe. He was a member of the Kanoe tribe that they had discovered just months before. So they brought him on those early expeditions hoping that he might be able to communicate with the Indian if they had an encounter. Or at the very least, that he might make the encounter more friendly or more natural.

Ira Glass

Then in late 1996, they got their first break. Satellite photos showed a clearing in the rainforest where there was no reason for a clearing to exist. When they go there, they find the remains of a village-- over a dozen huts.

Monte Reel

But they were built in the same style as this particular Indian's, and they each had those holes, the same kind of holes inside the huts. So after investigating that, they believed that this was the site of the village that he had come from.

Ira Glass

The team assumed that everybody in the village had been slaughtered, which can make the guy even more wary of outsiders, less interested in being found.

Ira Glass

So talk about what happens when they finally see him in person for the first time.

Monte Reel

The first time that they saw him, it was a group of, I believe, three people. And they were walking through the forest, and they saw him kneeling down, sort of in a contemplative pose. They approached with their palms up. They walked very, very slowly, so as not to appear threatening at all.

Ira Glass

What does he look like? What can they see?

Monte Reel

He appears to be in his mid to late 30s. He's not wearing any clothes except for a breechcloth around his waist-- dried grasses that hang down. He has an arm band-- a vegetable fiber arm band. He doesn't wear body paint, and he has black hair, and he had a little bit of a mustache-- a very thin mustache that looked almost like a goatee.

But as they tried to get a little closer, he heard them, and he ran back into his hut. And it was sort of a stand off. And they didn't push it at that time, they didn't try to force contact. They figured, "Well, we'll have other opportunities for this." And they left. He went on the run.

Ira Glass

So you figure, a guy on foot who's technologically still somewhere in the Bronze Age, maybe, versus modern people with satellite tracking, and vehicles, and expertise-- how long could he evade them? Two years. It takes two full years before they spot him again. And they are tenacious, they do not give up, because they feel like time is running out. They've got to establish a relationship with this guy so he trusts them, before anybody else finds him and kills him.

Sometimes they find huts, sometimes they find signs of him. Finally, they see the guy himself. And they had an encounter that just was a stand off for hours and hours. And the Indian was inside the hut, and he had an arrow, and the arrowhead was pointing out of the hut. It's a thatch-sided hut, so the arrow could actually protrude out of the wall.

And every now and then, he would lower the arrow, but as soon as they tried to approach closer, he would raise the arrow again. So it was kind of this dance back and forth. They would try to get close, he would raise the arrow, they would back off. They tried to give him gifts of corn and seeds. They actually put some corn on the end of a long stick and pushed it up there, so that he could take the corn. He took the corn inside the hut and almost immediately threw it back out again.

They would sort of crawl up towards the hut saying, "Friend, please, we're friendly." And eventually, he shot an arrow at the guy with the camera-- at Vincent-- just narrowly missed his torso. And after that they decided to give up that particular attempt at contact.

Ira Glass

It's such a strange encounter because he's giving them such clear signals. He wants them to go away the entire time.

Monte Reel

Yeah. Yeah, it's funny because it was shortly after that that all of the members of the team kind of came to this decision to change strategy completely. They basically decided instead of pursuing him-- because he was on the run from them now, as well as from the developers.

Ira Glass

There's a letter that one of the guys writes at this point. Can I ask you to just read that? It's on page 134 of your book.

Monte Reel

We feel embarrassed by our insistence in trying to contact him. The face of the Indian, always sullen, anxious, worried, and permanently silent, had made it clear to us that he wants to be left alone. Despite clearly demonstrating our conciliatory intentions, we continued to challenge his obvious decision. We finally concluded that we were assailing his rights. We resolved to suspend the attempts to contact him and shift our work in another direction.

Ira Glass

So they not only fold their hand, they change the game. At the team's urging, the Brazilian government did this thing it had never done before. It set aside 31 square miles of forest for this one guy. For Rondonia, which was going through rapid development, this was incredibly controversial, and there was a political fight over it. FUNAI personnel assigned to the project became such lightning rods that one after another had to be replaced.

There was a feeling in Rondonia that was kind of like a state's rights argument in our country. The national government of Brazil-- bureaucrats and politicians from the capital-- was making them set aside this huge swath of land for just one man, which seemed crazy to lots of people. But not only did the 31 square mile refuge become the law, the law included the fact that if somebody went in and killed the lone tribesmen who lived there, the state still would not turn over the land to development, which removed the incentive to just go in and murder the guy.

Government teams periodically would go in and check on him to be sure he was still there and still OK. But they did not try to interact with him, which worked. He started taking the gifts they left. He used the machete. He planted the corn seed. At one point, they actually got into a hut that he had not abandoned and they saw that that weird rectangular hole on the floor had a hammock slung over it. And they speculated that digging the hole so deep was probably some kind of spiritual ritual.

One day, one of the team members, Paulo Pereira, was walking through the forest, didn't know the Indian was around.

Monte Reel

And he heard somebody yell out, "Ho." Just one word, very sharply, yelled out, "Ho." And Paulo stopped. He looked around, and he saw the Indian, and the Indian just casually left. He just walked behind a tree and disappeared into the forest.

Ira Glass

Paulo looked down and realized that he was standing right near the lip of a hole that the Indian had dug and lined with sharp spikes to capture animals. The Indian was trying to warn him. The Indian didn't want him hurt.

Monte Reel

And that really made an impression on them. It was really the first interaction anybody had had with him.

Ira Glass

Is it fair to just leave him out there alone? Is it fair to him? It seems sort of sad.

Monte Reel

Yeah, I mean that's one of the arguments that's made in favor of trying to force contact. That it's really hard to even just imagine-- to kind of wrap the head around-- what it's like to be that alone. He hasn't spoken to anyone for 15 years-- it'll be 15 years in this upcoming year. And I can imagine spending a day without speaking with anyone. But when you think about a week of that, and then a month, and then a year, and then a decade, it's just really hard to wrap your head around what that experience is like.

I just could not stop thinking about that. This kind of story-- there's like a whole sub genre of science fiction of last survivors-- it tugs at something I think kind of primal, almost mythical-- what is life like for someone who lives completely alone with no one else to fall back onto. And my mind originally went to one of two polar opposites. There's the Garden of Eden kind of idea, that he's alone in the middle of the forest--

Ira Glass

Where there's like ample food, and he goes and picks fruit and he hunts animals.

Monte Reel

Yeah, it's not reality, but that's one way to look at it. Another way is that he's trapped in this post-apocalyptic horror story.

Ira Glass

All this led Monte to look into the research on what extreme isolation does to people. He says there's been a few studies, and they show that it's not how isolated you are, it's how isolated you feel. It's a matter of perception. Different people in the same situation perceive it differently. He says isolation also tends to make people more spiritual, which then makes them feel less alone.

Monte's heard of one other example of a man in Brazil who was the last survivor of his tribe. The man's name is [? Cada Pirru ?] and he spent almost 10 years wandering after the rest of his people were massacred. He was found in a town hundreds of miles from where his village had been and was put into a reserve with a different tribe.

When he first arrived, it was almost like a homecoming-- everybody celebrated. But soon, he built a hut off by himself in the forest alone. After all those years of solitude, he didn't want to be around other people.

Monte Reel's book about the quest to find and save the one lone tribesman is called The Last of the Tribe.

[MUSIC - "THE GAMBLER" BY ELMER]

Our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Ship. Production help from Eric Mennel. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Jen Berman's filling in as our West Coast producer.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS] Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcast or find old episodes you've never heard and listen to them for absolutely free, thisamericanlife.org. We're on Twitter at thisamerlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who got so offended the other night as he was walking to his car in the radio station parking lot.

Man

And he heard somebody yell out, "Ho!" Just one word, very sharply yelled out "Ho!"

Ira Glass

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

Narrator

PRI. Public Radio International.