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Act One. How To Get Famous.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
So Sandra thought she knew how to beat the system. She thought she knew how to get her name into the art magazines, and be respected, and be quoted, and be looked up to, just like Laurie Anderson. Here was her scheme. She had her piano set up next to the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour.
Sandra Tsing Loh
And that is a super-congested part of the freeway, and it was on the afternoon of Labor Day weekend, on Friday.
And you were on the median of the freeway there, right?
Sandra Tsing Loh
I wanted to be, but I ended up-- I couldn't get permission for that-- on a parking lot that just abutted the freeway with a third of the amplification they use in U2 concerts. Marshall Stax next to me just booming out over eight lanes of freeway.
It got her attention, but not the right kind, not the Laurie Anderson, someday you will meet Lou Reed kind.
Sandra Tsing Loh
I had come into this trying to just be a performance artist in the Italian futurist, Dadaist style. I was in my 20s and reading those kinds of materials about those types of artists, which always makes you want to run out and do guerrilla art. And so that's what I thought I was doing, but in fact, after I did the first event, it became this huge media blitz with People magazine and all that kind of stuff.
There were jokes about you on The Tonight Show.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Exactly, and CNN, AP, Newswire, whatever.
Now, this brings us to the theme of today's program. From WBEZ in Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, we choose some topic, invite various writers, performers, and documentary producers to tackle that topic. Today on our program, four stories about people struggling at the very margins, the very edges of our nation's media, music, infotainment, newsfotainment, industry complex. Act One, How to Get Famous. Act Two, Whoring in Commercial Radio News. It's a story by Scott Carrier. Act Three, Doing a Personal Act for Money. Act Four, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Stay with us.
Act Two. Whoring In Commercial Radio News.
Act One, How to Get Famous. So Sandra Tsing Loh is now a writer. Now she's a regular contributor here on This American Life. Now she's author of a new book. Now she was star of a one-woman show that got rave reviews this summer.
But back in the 1980s before she became the master of all media, she lived this little parable of fame in America. After her first media success, after she did the big thing by the highway and was featured in every media outlet, everybody who she knew became an expert and told her to hire a publicist. A publicist would cost $1,000 a month. And Sandra thought about this and figured she could get just as much publicity, she thought, if she would just give away $1,000 in $1 bills as she played the piano. And to test this scientific theory, she schemed out a second public event, which she called, self-promotion.
She had intended this title ironically. The event was supposed to be a critique of self-promotion, but nobody took it that way.
Sandra Tsing Loh
So of course, in fact, a crowd did appear. All the news stations showed up, and did this actually very beautiful piece of videotape of me playing the piano. And then, my assistant who was handcuffed to his briefcase, threw the $1,000 in $1 bills over me, and they floated in the air. And you saw all these hands in the air, reaching up, and then the wind shifted and carried the bills about two feet the other way. And all the hands shifted after the bills, much like underwater sea creatures. It was really quite beautiful. And I got, in fact, a bit trampled, which was my point. I thought it was a morality tale in Los Angeles that if you pay people to come and see you, they've just come to see the money. So when the money comes, they will grab for the money, and the artist is trampled underneath.
Do you think that actually people got that message?
Sandra Tsing Loh
No, and I knew for sure that they didn't get it, because driving from that event, I heard a live KNX Newsradio broadcast that said, "We just got reports that performer Sandra Loh, an aspiring actress in Hollywood, did this publicity stunt so that she can try to get parts in movies." So in other words, no matter what you do as a performance artist, I had this naive notion that I was a cutting edge Dadaist or one of the yippies making happenings and living theater stuff happening. When, in fact, the media story would always be reduced to struggling performer trying to get noticed in Hollywood. That's the only story that applies to any of this.
From her experience, years later, she actually wrote a little primer on how to get famous. She says that there's something called the wacky news circuit, and the wacky news circuit will pick up your story if you stage an odd event that provides sensational video on a slow news day, at a time and location convenient to reporters and TV crews. She says it helps if you do it in Hollywood, which is the capital of wacky news, or in front of a symbolic national monument.
Sandra Tsing Loh
The wacky news circuit is-- at the time that I was doing my freeway piano piece, there was a guy who could paint sunsets in five minutes and had a very funny rap about that. There was a doctor who claimed that he knew what sounds dinosaurs made, which was a great radio story blurb. And there were these racing pigs in Iowa. They raced pigs in Iowa and fed them Oreo cookies to keep them going around the track.
Now, these were the stories that were on the wacky news circuit the same week you were with that piece.
Sandra Tsing Loh
That's that particular week.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Right. It's like an affable eccentric. They're not actually dangerous or demented. They just have a kooky little obsession that they can speak charmingly about in simple, straightforward language that either has some good audio or some good video along with it.
Can I ask you to read the paragraph in your manual about the ideal, wacky person?
Sandra Tsing Loh
Yes. "The ideal, wacky person is naively unselfconscious, very enthusiastic, and deeply sincere. He or she provides a lot of unintentionally hilarious details and seems unaware that the reporter is making the best jokes. A lot of these people seem to flourish in places like the Midwest. A lot of them make it onto The Tonight Show."
So let's say that you do achieve this level of fame. You grab for the cheap, easy fame. Where's it get you?
Sandra Tsing Loh
The only thing that happens to you career-wise, and "career" is in big quotes, is that colleges and places will start calling you to see if you can put on one of your stunts at their school. There is no budget. Do a stunt at your own expense to draw media people for their event. So you become kind of a no-budget, publicity, wacky stunt director.
I could just see that this was not proceeding in the right fashion. So I quit. I was hoping that I would be profiled in art magazines and photographed in a black turtleneck, but that destiny never followed me when I did these pieces. It was like more a morning radio host in Kansas City would call me and say, "Sandra, are you as wacky as people say? What makes you go? Are you nutty?" So my dreams of becoming a hip, downtowny, guerrilla artist in these art books by doing these pieces faded rapidly.
In fact, if you were to choose where you would end up, you couldn't actually arrive further from hip and downtown than a guy from Kansas City calling you up and saying, "Are you wacky?"
Sandra Tsing Loh
It's true, and I think when people start out, especially when you're younger, you think it's all going to come in one incredible ball. And then, you'll be famous, and you'll get a lot of people who want to sleep with you, and great book offers, and a house in Connecticut, and all those things together. But in fact, it never comes in the right order. It never comes at the right time, and it's never the right kind of fame. And pretty much by the time you get something, in a word, it's always five years too late. And people who you don't respect have gotten it, so it cheapens it. And in fact, nothing ever feels like you think it will feel.
Well, thank you for these cheerful and uplifting words, Sandra Loh.
Sandra Loh's book is called, Depth Takes a Holiday. No offense, please, to our listeners in Kansas.
[MUSIC - "SHOW BUSINESS" BY A TRIBE CALLED QUEST]
Act Three. Doing A Personal Act For Money.
Act Two, Whoring in Radio News. Now, this story from the fringes of the media industries. Scott Carrier was a radio reporter in Salt Lake City who did not seek fame. He did not want to be on the cover of People magazine. He did not want to be on Johnny Carson or mentioned in the monologue. He just wanted to have a steady job with bosses who he did not hate and who did not hate him. And he found that job, for a short time, in commercial radio.
There are a lot of bad ways to wake up, but surely one of the worst is by looking into the floodlight from a police car. I was in a field, some farmer's field next to a power plant just outside Lawrence, Kansas. I was sleeping there, next to my car, before driving into Kansas City in the morning. The policeman somehow saw my car from the road, and they pulled up right in front of it. And I didn't even wake up.
I was lying on the ground on the passenger side of the car, and when I did wake up, one of the policeman was in the front seat, I guess looking for drugs. And the other was 40 feet away in the hay field. And I don't know why he was out there, unless he had his gun pulled, covering his partner. He said I scared him when I woke up so suddenly. I sat straight up-- boom-- awake. And I bet he nearly shot me dead.
They wanted to know what I was doing sleeping in the field, and I told them that I didn't like motels, which was only partly true. So I decided to tell them that I was born here, in Lawrence, but that I don't live here anymore, which was completely true, but somehow didn't achieve the level of meaning I hoped it would. They asked me what I was going to do in Kansas City, and I said I was going to interview the mayor at 11:00 in the morning.
I told them I was a producer for a radio program. I told them the name of the program and the name of the host, and they'd heard of him. You'd know who he is as well if I were to say his name, but I've decided not to say his name and call him The Friendly Man, instead, because this is his persona. I told the policemen that every weekday morning, The Friendly Man has a five-minute feed on one of the networks, and 12 million people listen.
His stories are, as a rule, upbeat and positive. Their general theme is people taking responsibility for their lives, their community, their country. The Friendly Man always has good news, and the good news is always that America just keeps getting better and better. Both policemen said they'd heard of the program and that they like The Friendly Man. And so they decided they liked me as well, and it was OK to sleep in the field. Sorry to have bothered you.
I was hired by one of The Friendly Man's executive producers. Her job was to wrangle and corral radio producers, like myself, from around the country into conducting interviews and writing scripts for stories that had been found by her flock of computer researchers, also from around the country. Some people are surprised to hear that The Friendly Man doesn't actually produce the stories he tells, but in reality, he just doesn't have the time, what with the television show now, and the specials, and so on. It's not that he doesn't want to write his stories, not that he can't, it's just that he's really busy now being The Friendly Man. And you shouldn't expect him to come up with all of his own material.
The way it works is that The Friendly Man is in New York with maybe a couple of editors and an engineer. And his executive producer is in San Francisco, with fax machines and email, and the researchers are all over the place looking for story ideas through computer searches. When the researcher finds what looks like an appropriate story, he calls the people in the story on the phone and talks to them for a while. Then, he writes out a story synopsis, which is sent to The Friendly Man for approval.
Once approved, the story goes to a producer, and the producer is in charge of conducting, basically, the same interviews all over again, on tape this time, and then editing the tape, and writing the script, which is reviewed by the executive producer in San Francisco, and sent to The Friendly Man in New York City so he can read it on the air.
The first story I produced for The Friendly Man was in Tucson, Arizona. It was about some people in Tucson who were helping to make America a better place. It doesn't really matter what the story was about. What matters is that I had to do all the interviews over the phone. There wasn't enough money to send me to Tucson.
So I found an audio engineer in Tucson and had him go to the locations and hold a microphone up to the subjects while I talked to them on the phone. Then he sent me the tape, which I edited, and then wrote the script, without ever meeting the people I was writing about or the person I was writing for. When I made a suggestion for changing the story, a change that I thought would make it better, the executive producer said that she would try not to get upset with me because this was my first story, and maybe I didn't understand my role.
The story had been approved as written in the synopsis. There were to be no changes, no additional narratives or discoveries. I was but the writer/producer, one of many cogs in the wheel. I apologized and did the story as ordered.
After this first story, I asked the executive producer if I could go on the road, drive around, and collect interviews, actually meet the people and see what they were doing, and then come back and produce the stories. She gave me four stories at a distance of 3,000 miles. They'd pay the mileage, but would give me nothing up front. The food and lodging were to be my expenses, and so I was sleeping out. It was the first week of July, and so warm at night you could sleep on the grass without a bag or a blanket.
At 11:00 AM on the morning after the incident with the police, I was standing in the mayor's office on the top floor of the Kansas City, Missouri, municipal building. It's a tall building, built on one of the highest hills in the area. So looking out of the window, I could see most of the city, buildings, and railroad tracks, and the river, the Missouri River, making a big oxbow right through town. We sat at a long, wooden table, a conference table, in tall chairs. Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, also a Methodist minister, a black mayor in a black town-- I'd come to ask him about a summertime midnight basketball program.
The program, like all midnight basketball programs, was designed to reduce the crime rate by keeping juveniles off the street. And like with some of the other programs, the crime rate hadn't gotten any better, except for the time that the kids were actually playing basketball. Whenever there was a game going on, the crime rate in the neighborhood was lower. The mayor's opponents were saying that the program was pork, that the $100,000 a year could be better spent somewhere else.
I asked the mayor about this, and he was adamant, even passionate, about the value of teaching kids to play basketball or any team sport. He said that team sports teach kids the best values, that they learn to cooperate and play by the rules. They learn to problem-solve through cooperation. And by playing, they learn to love the game. And through the love of the game, they learn to love themselves and each other.
He said that a few of the kids had gone to college on basketball scholarships, and this gave hope to everybody in the community, a community where hope was like a foreign language. And that, alone, was worth it, even a bargain at $100,000. He said, you go to the games. It's mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, you'll see the whole community there.
He was right. Over on the east side, the poor side of town, there are games going on in a community center, and the place was packed. And the games were good. Little eight and nine-year-olds passing the ball, and making plays, and running hard the whole game. They love the game. I interviewed coaches, kids, and parents, and everything was going fine. Things really were getting better and better in America.
But then, just before I left, I was talking to a father about his son, and somebody-- I think probably a little kid-- took my three rechargeable batteries and a digital audiotape with the mayor's interview on it out of my bag and out of the building. And they were gone. The batteries were worth $250 and could be replaced, but the interview with the mayor was lost for good. Some little kid looked in my bag, and these things were like eggs in a basket. Anyone older would've just taken the bag.
I walked around the neighborhood for a while, trying to figure out what to do. The next day was a Saturday, and I doubted the mayor would be in his office, which would mean that I'd have to wait until Monday. But I had appointments for interviews Monday morning for another story in Saint Louis, 300 miles to the east. And then, there was the fact that I'd been robbed while doing a story about a program that reduces juvenile crime.
The story, as it was written by the researcher in the synopsis, was all about how black people were improving their lives and making things better by playing basketball. But the reality of the situation, at least the way I saw it, was that these people were poor, that they'd been for a long time, and that they were probably going to stay poor for a long time. So I called the executive producer and left her a message saying that maybe she should consider scrapping the basketball story, and that I was going on to Saint Louis, and would call her from there.
The story in Saint Louis was also about poor black people. Only in Saint Louis, it was about old poor black people. Old poor black people who lived in a nursing home and had started their own private economy, wherein they'd get paid for helping each other out by washing clothes or cooking meals, or even reading books and stories out loud at bedtime. But they didn't get paid in real money. They got paid in what they called Time Dollars, which could only be exchanged between themselves or cashed in at a special community store for food, clothing, and other necessary items.
The old people liked the Time Dollar Program. They were much happier than before they had the Time Dollar Program. At least, this is what the researcher had written in the synopsis. And this is how things seemed for most of the morning I was there doing interviews.
My first interview was with a woman who'd set everything up. She was a well-educated, upper middle class white lady who worked for a large charitable organization as a local manager of its programs. This woman was very nervous, and I couldn't tell if it was because she was just nervous being interviewed, or if she was nervous being surrounded by poor black people, or if she was just nervous by nature.
I talked to her for a while, and then she introduced me to some women who actually participated in the Time Dollar Program. And they told me that they do things like call up old people around town and ask them if they feel OK, if they're sick or something. Or they clean and dry a neighbor's clothes before he goes into the hospital, or cook for someone who has bad asthma. And then, they could use the Time Dollars to buy stuff they needed. They were friendly ladies, and it was just like it said in the synopsis, neighbors helping neighbors and getting paid to do it.
So I asked them if we could go over and see the store, the place where they actually buy everything. And they sort of hemmed and hawed about it, said there was a key, and they'd have to get it. And then we were talking about grandchildren, arthritis, the weather in Mississippi. I was wondering if maybe they didn't really want to go to the store.
So I asked again, and they said it was a couple blocks away, and it was raining so hard. I was a little worried at this point, because the store was in the synopsis. And so there had to be some tape of the store in the story. And so I explained my predicament to the women and begged them, as best I could, if we could go there.
We borrowed some umbrellas and walked over to the building that housed the store. It was a one-story warehouse, brick and concrete, a few windows. Inside, we went down a hallway that separated two large rooms, each packed with desks and office people, stacks of papers, stacks of folders, desk fans, lots of desk lights, people typing on real typewriters, old adding machines. It was very suspicious. One side looked like the Bulgarian Foreign Trade Department, the other side like the Lithuanian Shipping Commission.
Down at the far, dark end of the hall was a large metal cabinet with two full-length doors closed by a padlock. One of the ladies opened the lock, and inside were four shelves. The top held bottles of fabric softener. The next was full of baby wipes. Another had some paper plates and plastic silverware. And the bottom was full of bathroom deodorizer. That was it. That was the store.
I'd imagined something between a 7-11 and a thrift store, and I didn't understand. I didn't understand how any of this was working. I stood there and looked at the cabinet, and the story disintegrated into baby wipes and picnic forks.
I thanked the ladies and left the building, and called the executive producer. I didn't want to tell her about the baby wipes and the fabric softener. There was no use in telling her that something was wrong, that maybe the whole story was a sham. But I did want to ask her if it would be OK if I left the store out of the story, that maybe the story should be that these people just like helping each other, and that the time money thing wasn't so important. But she never let me get to it.
She was upset, very upset, about the message I'd left on her machine Friday night. It had ruined her whole weekend. She was distraught and nearly hysterical. Everyone was distraught and nearly hysterical, and it was my fault. My fault to have taken my eyes off the equipment. My fault to have been robbed. My fault to have left town without completing the story assignment.
She said that I'd led her to believe that I was a professional, but no professional would ever behave in such a manner. She said this twice, the subtext being that The Friendly Man can only use professional producers, and that, therefore, I was fired, unless maybe I went back to Kansas City to re-interview the mayor. My job was to do what I was told, just as their job was to do what they were told, just as The Friendly Man's job was to do what he was told. Because the audience, the 12 million listeners, had something they wanted to be told, that America is a good place with decent people. Never mind the screaming coming from the basement.
So I got in my car and drove 300 miles west to Kansas City. I could've told them to go [BLEEP] themselves, but I didn't. I went back because I didn't want to be fired by The Friendly Man. I had been fired by other less well-known friendly men. That's always like being branded, scorned as the one who ran. I was tired of that, tired of being broke and not having any work. My wife, my family, they were tired of it too.
I decided that I wanted to be a professional. I wanted to be a team player. I wanted to take responsibility for my life, my community, and my country. I wanted to get ahead and go someplace with my career, and be happy.
I drove back to Kansas City and got in late at night. I drove through the big buildings downtown, the streets lit yellow and vacant. I drove through the poor neighborhoods, the streets lit yellow and vacant. I drove along the parkways, past fountains and parks, and I drove past my grandmother's house and down to The Country Club Plaza, where I slept without a bag or a blanket on the lawn, on the long esplanade in front of the Nelson Art Museum. If I was to be bothered by the police, I would tell them that I am a radio producer working for The Friendly Man and that I have a meeting with the mayor in the morning.
Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City. Music by Tim Rutili and Red Red Meat.
[MUSIC - "WHO LISTENS TO RADIO?" BY SARAH VAUGHN]
Well, coming up, the least likely get-rich-quick scheme in the world, and ever, ever, ever so much more. That's all in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Four. Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you radio monologues, documentaries, found tapes, anything we can think of on that theme. Today's stories are all about people on the fringe, the very edge, of our nation's media, news, entertainment industry. We've now arrived at Act Three, a small personal act.
Sarah Vowell is a columnist for Salon, the online magazine, author of the book Radio On, and a music writer. And she has these thoughts about the uses of music by those who are not musicians.
Long distance love affair by cassette tape. It happened to me. While digital romance is growing increasingly common, our strange fling was quaintly analog. Oh, we talked on the phone for hours and enjoyed the occasional mushy rendezvous in the flesh at airports and bookstores and bars. But mostly, we wore out the heads on our respective tape decks compiling Memorex mash notes.
I'm not really the scented envelope kind of girl, preferring instead to send yellow Jiffylite Mailers packed with whatever songs on my mind. The most interesting thing about the correspondence was that we rarely, if ever, agreed. He sent me this.
I sent him this.
[MUSIC - "IN THE FLESH" BY BLONDIE]
He sent me this.
OK. I sent him this.
Perhaps you're anticipating what I'm about to say. I think my scrappy little pop songs got on his nerves, and his ambient soundscapes left me impatient for something, anything, to happen. But I gritted my teeth through them all, groaning over every last spacey sense jam as if I was doing him some kind of personal favor. Since he went to the trouble of making the tape, the least I could do was sit there and take it. Not that I miss those songs of his-- and I use the word "songs" loosely-- since we parted ways, not by a long shot, but what I did get out of the entire, sad situation, besides big phone bills and a box of cassettes I'll never touch again, was a lingering sentimentality about the act of taping itself. A homemade tape is a work of friendship.
I was reminded of that when I was reading English writer Nick Hornby's novel, High Fidelity. One of the subtexts of his story is the emotional complexities of the taping ritual. Much of the story takes place in a London record store. Clerks Barry and Dick are emotional cripples stuck in that male pop culture circle of hell, in which having seen a film, the right kind of film, or owning a record, the right kind of record, act as substitutes for being able to express what these things mean to them. Since they are incapable of really talking about human feelings, they get by on standing next to each other at rock shows and making each other complicated tapes of obscure songs.
In the book, Rob, their boss at the record store, met his girlfriend, Laura, when he was a deejay at a dance club. She first approached him because she liked a song he was playing called "Got to Get You Off My Mind." Rob woos Laura by making her a compilation tape. I asked Nick Hornby to read the passage in which Rob slaves over his audio valentine.
I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter. There's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do.
You've got to kick off with a corker to hold the attention. I started with "Got to Get You Off My Mind," but then realized she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway. So I buried it in the middle of side two.
And then you've got to up it a notch or cool it a notch. And you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music. And you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs. And there are loads of rules.
While I was reading Hornby's book, I happened to glance at an ad in the San Francisco Weekly that read, "I'll tape record albums for you. Reasonable rates, excellent service, pick up available. Bob." And it gave a phone number. Prostitution, that's what I thought anyway. Paying someone to make a tape for you seems a whole lot like paying someone for a kiss. I asked Nick Hornby what his music-mad, record clerks would think if they saw Bob's ad in the paper.
Their public view would be that it's a terrible, awful job for a grown man to do, and why haven't all these people got their own turntables and stuff. But I think maybe they'd think secretly it was kind of a neat job, and that they'd like to sit at home all day taping other people's records.
I called the number in the ad and talked to Bob, a very nice, sane person, actually. I expressed my reservations about his work, using subtle, professional phrases such as, "What a weird job."
In my business, what I'm doing is I'm taking music that people already own and taping it for them. I see it as providing a service that people are happy to pay for. They think it's worth the money. So I feel great and make a little money on the side, and no problem.
So Bob's business is much more, well, businesslike than I imagined. He doesn't make the kind of painstaking compilation tapes you make for someone you have a crush on.
Actually, people call me, and they're so delighted to find out that this service exists. They're super happy and almost not even that price sensitive.
Bob's rates vary depending on the quantity of taping his clients demand, but he says each tape costs, on average, about $10. I thought this sounded sort of steep, myself, but the producers of This American Life found the price quite reasonable, considering it's what they charge for their tapes, which they'd like me to remind you may be ordered by calling 312-832-3380.
So after mulling over the unsavory idea that someone might be willing to pay someone else good money to make a compilation tape for his or her loved one, I decided I wanted the job.
I had heard that my friend, Dave, has a new lady in his life. So I roped him into hiring me to make a tape for her.
Honestly, it would be a good idea. Our relationship could use--
You're at the tape stage?
Well, it could use a spark, I guess.
So tell me about her. Let's try and get at who she is. Is she a femme fatale kind of girl, or is she more of a My Funny Valentine?
She's really, in a sort of a scary way, maybe too much of a carbon copy of me.
And are you a femme fatale Dave?
No. I wouldn't say either one of those. It's not like a saccharine sweet kind of thing. It's kind of low key.
So I want to know how intense you feel about her, and I need to run some songs by you. And you tell me whether some of these songs are kind of going too far-- how ready you are to say some of this stuff. "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Are you OK with that kind of feeling?
OK. Let's say the Stones, "Let's Spend the Night Together."
Well, yeah, that's been done. Sure.
OK. "Kiss" by Prince.
Yeah, that's nice.
Frank Sinatra singing, "Love and Marriage."
Nah, well, yeah, no. It's not like-- I guess if we're trying to reflect the spirit of our little relationship so far, it's not like sentimental, I guess, if that makes any sense. The "I love you, I need you" kind of genre would be out, I think. I think it would be more of the upbeat, fun stuff than "Love Me Tender" kind of stuff, at this point.
Once I started making Dave's tape, I discovered something I had never suspected. Choosing the songs and their order was sweaty, arduous toil. Making a mix tape isn't like writing a letter. It's like having a job. Without love as the engine of my labor, it was not fun.
And I discovered something else. I did not want to follow Dave's instructions. Sure, I had worked in the service industry before, and I understood its abiding principle, "the customer is always right." At first, I was committed to following Dave's wish not to get too sentimental. But I don't know if you've listened to much popular music recorded in the last, oh half century, but it's pretty gushy stuff. Even though Dave hired me to choose love songs that didn't say, "I love you," there aren't that many out there. And even if there were, I'm fully confident that his desire for them is dead wrong. My reasoning-- he's a boy, I'm a girl, I know better.
Certainly, in making the tape, I exercised restraint. After all, they've only been together for two months. We want to reassure her, not scare her off. I steered clear of the heavies, avoiding the serious courtship crooner, Al Green, and vetoing Elvis, who should, in my opinion, only be employed when you really mean it. And when I did invoke Sinatra, I played it safe, not "Taking a Chance on Love," or even "I've Got a Crush on You," picking, instead, cheerful, subtle "Let's Get Away From It All" as a low-key, "you and me baby, just the two of us out of town" sort of thing.
[SINGING] Let's grab a kayak to Quincy or Nyack. Let's get away from it all.
Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" found a place too, but I went with urbane jokester Noel Coward's Live in Las Vegas rendition in which he moons, "Each man out there shooting craps does it. Davy Crockett in that dreadful cap does it." Still, despite Dave's "hold the sugar" request, the word "love" does pop up something like 98 times over the course of the tape. So I dropped off the tape at his house, and the next day, we got together to talk about it.
So Dave, you have the tape. What do you think?
I do. I like the tape a lot, personally.
Yeah, I like it a lot. There isn't really anything that I don't really like.
I don't know if you noticed or not, but I sort of ditched your instructions. Because you told me not to be too sentimental, and to keep it light and upbeat.
I thought it was light.
The word "love" is used a lot. It's bandied about, let's say. Yesterday, you said quote, "'The I love you, I need you' genre would be out."
I did, and I don't know where they say that in this--
In the song?
--tape. Do they? It's still all kind of light.
"I love you" is certainly in there.
Really? I don't think it is.
I think it is.
I don't think it is.
[SINGING] I need you. Come on. I love you. Come on. I need you.
This song is on the tape, along with Chic's "Give Me the Lovin'" and James Brown's "Hot- I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved." I don't know what he's talking about. Anyway, the argument might be moot.
We got in some kind of fight this morning. So I haven't--
You got into a fight this morning about another issue?
Yeah, a different thing. So she hasn't seen this.
So now you need a tape.
Yeah, maybe. I don't know what's up actually.
Don't spoil my narrative here Dave. See what happens is you give her the tape. She falls for you even more, and she forgives you for all of your trespasses, past and future, knowing you. And this kind of saves your relationship, and you live happy ever after.
I like it. OK.
That's what happens.
That would have happened if he had made the tape himself. Unfortunately, he's just enough of a bad boyfriend to pay someone to make a tape, but not enough of a bad boyfriend to lie about it. She already knows where that tainted cassette comes from, and it's not going to save their romance.
As for me, I'm getting out of this dirty business. Don't call the radio station inquiring about my services. Save your $10. Consider me reformed.
See if I ever give it to her though.
You're not going to give it to her, Dave?
I will. I will, I guess. I'll give it to her. It's actually a really good tape. If I had made it, it probably would mean a lot. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. That's why you hired me.
Right. You can be the buffer.
Because I have the guts to tell her what you feel--
That's exactly it.
--even if you don't.
[MUSIC - "MIX TAPE" BY THE NONCE]
Act Four. This story of near proximity to the news, media, entertainment, megalith industry comes from Chicago writer and performer Cheryl Trykv.
It's just a week or two before sixth grade graduation. My parents decide to celebrate early with a weekend family trip, just the three of us. I tell them to save their money. I'm not interested. They insist that all my hard work should be rewarded. "Yeah?" I say. "Then buy me a horse."
My mother smiles, sips her martini and tells me, "Spoilsports are unattractive." I tell her I'm not a spoilsport. I just don't feel like spending the weekend trapped with the same old parents I live with every day. I tell them it doesn't sound like much of a reward at all. As a matter of fact, it sounds more like punishment. I say if they really want to reward me, they'd go away themselves and leave me at home, where I could stay up late and watch Dick Cavett if I wanted.
My father becomes irritated. He tells me to go to my room and not come out until I decided on a place the three of us could go and all have a good time. In my room, I draw on my sketchbook pictures of a beautiful me riding a flying horse up and away from my parents who had shackled themselves to a wet bar. My mother's face is tired and pleading, as my father teases her empty glass with a bottle of Wild Turkey.
I listen to the radio, rearrange my closet. At dinner time, I return to my parents and tell them I decided, very carefully, that San Francisco seems a reasonable choice. We could drive there from our little home in Los Angeles in just under a day, if they were careful not to lollygag. The route is scenic, and they could visit Alcatraz while I took in the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. Later, we could all meet for lunch on the wharf.
My mother looks at my father. She looks down at her hands and smiles at them. My father says he's sorry, but that I'd taken too long to decide and that arrangements have already been made. We'd be staying for the weekend at Aunt Rita's place in Palm Springs while she was away in Hawaii.
Palm Springs? I tell them I'm not going to Palm Springs. The place is a cemetery, and I'd rather go to Hell. My father tells me to watch my mouth. My mother looks up from her hand and stares off into the space just over my head.
"Aunt Rita has a pool, dear." "We have a pool here, Mommy." I tell them I'm not going to Palm Springs. I'm going to San Francisco. End of story.
When we get to Palm Springs, we take the tram ride up into the San Jacinto Mountains where there is still snow on the ground. My mother calls it "a miracle of nature that one minute we'd be in the middle of a blazing desert, and the next minute, up high in the mountains where gentle beds of snow lingered bravely under God's mighty sun." I call the place "a waste of time."
For lunch, we eat at Trader Vic's. At Aunt Rita's, Dad takes a nap on the living room couch while Mother and I change into our bathing suits. I swim for a bit in the pool, then rest on a patio lounge next to my mother who is groggy and only half awake.
"Oh, my," she says. "It certainly is an oven out here." "What did you expect?" She leans over and asks me in a throaty whisper if I know who lives on the other side of the hedge that runs along the far side of the yard.
"How should I know?" I say. "Shirley Booth," she says. "Shirley Booth? Who's that supposed to be?" She tells me Shirley Booth is a famous actress. "If she's so famous, how come I've never heard of her?"
"Shirley Booth is the actress who played Hazel on TV, dear." "Oh, her. I know her. She's not so famous. Vivian Vance is more famous than her."
My mother leans back down into her chaise and places her tall bourbon and water between her legs and closes her eyes. I go inside for a ginger ale. Off the kitchen at Aunt Rita's is a service porch with a door leading into the garage. I open the door and peek around. I find a three-speed Schwinn bicycle with large metal cargo baskets over each side of the back wheel.
It's an old lady's bike, but I check it for flats and take it out for a spin. The neighborhood is quiet. It sizzles with quiet, like the quiet baking soda makes on a grease fire. It's hot, maybe 110, but I don't care. I'm devil-may-care in the belly of Hell. I'm free.
I turn up a street named Vista Mirage and imagine myself starring in a made-for-TV movie called "Teen Getaway." As I ride, I look back over my shoulder as if someone were chasing me. "Where you going to run to," I ask myself. "Lost in a ghost town or a town of fools, why is she running? Nobody knows. 'Teen Getaway'."
Somebody's front yard is a rock garden with red and green yard elves peeping through clusters of poinsettia, their faces curly and prankish. The wind is at my back, and I coast around another corner and down another street. I'm on the run. I pass new housing under construction and imagine, "This may be where I will need to camp for the night."
After a bit, it occurs to me as I ride that I should've checked the time before leaving Aunt Rita's or changed into a tee shirt or shorts, or at least put on a pair of shoes. I feel naked riding a bike in public wearing only my swimsuit, no one around in their swimsuit to make me feel less nude. The sun bakes the top of my head, burns my lips and I'm thirsty. So I circle back.
I'm not sure what street I'm on. I circle left and cut through the construction site. The path I take leads out into an open stretch of desert highway. A station wagon filled with boys wearing baseball uniforms drives by and honks. One of the boys leans out the window and howls like a wild coyote. "Stupid little coyote boy, go ahead. Laugh." Out in the heat of the day, riding a goofy old lady's bike, nude, not even wearing a hat, I feel like an idiot and circle back.
My head hurts from the sun, and I'm tired and thirsty. And now, I have to go to the bathroom also. A terrible, hot wind blows against me, and the gears on the bike seem to be stuck in third. Each street winds, and bends, and twists, and it seems that every other one of them is a cul-de-sac with a sign posted reading, "No way out."
I feel weak, like I might collapse in the heat and blister to death. My mouth is dry. "Can't get no spit." I remember Mr. [? Pallone ?] at school telling the class that if we were ever lost at sea and dying of thirst, the only chance we'd have of surviving was to drink our own blood or urine. The class booed the choices, and Mr. [? Pallone ?] threw his head back and laughed and said, "Take your pick."
I passed the yard elves again and can hear them laughing and chanting, "Drink your pee. Drink your pee." I keep riding and wonder if I should try it, seeing as it would serve a dual purpose, but can't quite picture in my mind how it would happen.
I imagine how embarrassed I'd be when they find me, heaped over on the side of the road in some whacked out, hooey guru, yoga position, dead and wet in a puddle of pee. A tarantula would be crawling out of my mouth also when they found me. And I imagine they'd bury me right here in Palm Springs on a lonely plot of desert. And what a mystery it would be when my grave was covered all year round with a gentle bed of snow.
I see my parents crying as the camera pans out from my grave. The TV credits for "Teen Getaway" roll up the screen in my mind, and I see that Linda Purl has played me. Someone named Hitch was a gaffer, and soft and handsome, I hear the voice of Glen Campbell sing the theme song to the story of me.
In a panic, I ride up somebody's lawn and can't stop without falling off the bike, my legs are so trembly and weak. I run to the door, ring the bell. No answer. I run to the next house, ring the bell, knock on the door. "Dammit! Answer, somebody!"
An old woman comes to the door. It's Hazel. [LAUGHTER] I'm delirious, laughing and crying at the same time, so happy to see the face of a woman who looks so kind. I've never seen a kinder face. I tell her I've gotten lost on my bike, and I'm thirsty and need to use her bathroom. "Oh, my," she says, "come in."
"Come in." The words so carefully chosen, so simple, so meaningful, so correct. "Come in," as if to say, "Hello, little friend, brave bird of passage, welcome. You have landed. Come, let me foster your repair."
She takes me and leads me down a cool hall to a small guest bathroom with little shell soaps and tells me to take my time. And I cry and pray as I wash my hands and feet, and splash water on my face. "Thank God for her," I say to myself. "God bless Hazel."
When I come out of the bathroom, I find Shirley Booth in the kitchen slicing lemons. "Do you take lemon in your water," she asks me. "Yes, I do," I say, never having tried it before. "Are you Shirley Booth?" "That's me," she says, and invites me into her living room where we sit and drink our waters next to a large aquarium filled with tropical fish.
I tell her about my idea for "Teen Getaway." "That's a snappy idea for a TV film." Snappy idea, how playful. Coming from my mother, "snappy idea" would only sound spastic, but coming from Hazel, the words are fresh and reinforcing. "That's a snappy idea for a TV film," as if to say, "Teen Getaway, yes! You should go with that!"
We sit and talk about New York City and American theater. We talk about Hollywood, and movies, and the whole business. I ask her if the rumors I'd heard about Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball being lezzie lovers were true. She says she hadn't heard that, but that once, at a party for then Governor Reagan, Lucille Ball was drunk and tossed a grape down Shirley Booth's bosom. [LAUGHTER] We laugh. "That's a good one," I say.
On my way out, I thank Shirley Booth for letting me in. She says it was all her pleasure and thanked me for stopping by. What luck, knocking on Hazel's door like that. If the first door I'd knocked on had answered, it would have been some anonymous old man who would have told me there was a hose on the side. His wife would've let me in, but their house would have smelled like a cat box. And while I was in the bathroom, she would have peeked her little head in and asked if everything was all right. Her lips would be covered with frosted pink lipstick and white sugar from a powdered doughnut. But Shirley's lips are pretty, like the cherry lips of a friendly elf.
I bike around the block to Aunt Rita's. The car out front is gone, but a note from my father says he's left to play golf. My mother is passed out in the den.
The fabulous Cheryl Trykv.
Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Peter Clowney and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Other production help from Julie Snyder, Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus.
To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. You know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website at www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who reminds you please do not--
"Drink your pee. Drink your pee."
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories from This American Life.
Public Radio International.