Transcript

475:

Send a Message
Transcript

Originally aired 09.28.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/475

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Josh Bearman heard this story as a kid. His dad is a physicist and told it to him. And it just stuck with him. He's a reporter. And he checked it out recently.

The story is true. It involves two scientists. One you have definitely heard of, Galileo. The other you may not know, you may just vaguely recall. He's one of the big iconic figures of early astronomy, Johannes Kepler. He discovered the laws of planetary motion. He figured out that tides were caused by the moon's gravity. He's a big guy.

And in the year 1610, Galileo is in Italy. Kepler is in Prague. And Kepler is further along in his career. He's a court astronomer. Galileo had just made his first telescope a year before.

And Josh says Galileo and Kepler, they're writing back and forth.

Josh Bearman

And Galileo, at a certain point, decided to communicate one of his very important discoveries to Kepler with an anagram, which is essentially a word scramble.

Ira Glass

Right. He just scrambles the letters. Wait, wait, why does he decide to do that?

Josh Bearman

Well, there's a couple of purposes. One is he's sending the message in code so that at some later date he can always unscramble the code and say, see, as of this date, I had made this discovery. Essentially, the anagram was some kind of, like, patent or copyright insurance on the idea or the discovery.

Ira Glass

Remember science itself is so new. There aren't scientific journals yet. Short of publishing a little book, this was the kind of thing you had to resort to to prove that you found something.

And the anagrams were publicity. They were a way for Galileo to generate interest in his work.

Josh Bearman

To get the attention of the great Kepler at the Royal Court. And they're kind of toying with poor Kepler.

Ira Glass

One of Kepler's guys in Prague even writes Galileo at one point, stop toying with us. Tell us what it means.

Josh Bearman

So the first anagram was about Saturn's rings. Galileo had seen that Saturn had rings. The anagram itself was just a jumble of letters, didn't make any sense.

And he sent it. And several months go by. And Kepler is thinking, OK, great. I'm going to decode the anagram. And then he's having trouble. And he actually keeps asking Galileo, like, come on. I want to know what's in here.

And Galileo refuses. And then Kepler decodes it himself and comes up with what he thinks the solution is and then publishes that solution. But he was wrong.

I mean, Galileo's message in Latin was, [LATIN].

Ira Glass

Meaning roughly, I've observed the highest planet, which was Saturn. That was the furthest planet they knew about at the time. And it's made of three bodies.

Josh Bearman

Meaning he thought that there were actually two. He thought the rings were two little orbiting-- he didn't quite see that they were rings yet. But then, ultimately, that's what they were discovered to be.

And Kepler decoded it thinking, with very sort of bad Latin-- he really had to kind of wrestle the Latin into place to make it work out. But he thought it was saying that Mars has two moons, actually. [LATIN]. So that's kind of some--

Ira Glass

And what's what mean?

Josh Bearman

--half Latin. That means, hail, double knob, children of Mars.

Ira Glass

You heard that right, hail, double knob, children of Mars. Which Josh says, even for the time, even in Latin, didn't sound so great.

Josh Bearman

You know the double knob, the children are Mars's two moons.

He sort of thought, based on the way he viewed the universe, which had this kind of mystical, numerological sensibility, that Mars ought to have two moons. So he thought, well, of course. That's what this must mean. And he sort of unscrambled the words to make Latin symbolic phrases that meant Mars had two moons.

So he sort of interpreted it how we wanted, essentially. But that was not what Galileo was trying to say at all. However, it turned out to be correct.

Ira Glass

Mars does have two moons.

Josh Bearman

Mars does have two moons. It was not known for another 200-some-odd years, quite some time, that Mars had two moons. But it does.

Ira Glass

These moons would be impossible for Kepler or anybody to see with the technology at the time. But Kepler just wanted them to be there. And he got lucky.

And not long after Kepler gets this first anagram wrong, though sort of weirdly right--

Josh Bearman

Galileo sent another anagram, saying, here's another great discovery. I've looked through my magical eye piece. And check this out.

In that case, what Galileo had seen was that Venus has phases. like the moon.

Ira Glass

In other words, there's a quarter Venus, and then half Venus, and 3/4 Venus, and full Venus. Which meant that it must probably be going around the Sun, which was a really big deal. Galileo was in the process of gathering evidence that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and not the Earth, which of course was not just in dispute at the time but actual heresy.

Josh Bearman

So that was a big discovery. That one, actually, the anagram itself, the words that Galileo sent, did mean something. And they were sort of like, oh, I'm not quite ready to say what I'm saying here.

Ira Glass

In Latin.

Josh Bearman

In Latin. Although it's funny, because there were just a couple of extra letters. Like, he made the anagram. And then there was O, Y. And he's like, I don't know what to do with these. And they're just hanging on the end.

And it looks like he's saying, I'm not quite ready to say this, oy. Like, you know, palm to the forehead, sitting there with some matzo ball soup and a telescope.

Ira Glass

So in Latin, this scramble message-- and you should write this down if you're trying to match wits with these guys at home-- was [LATIN]. Unscrambled, it delivers the news that Venus has phases, like the moon. But, shocker, Kepler does not figure that out.

Josh Bearman

An he thinks that what Galileo is saying with that anagram is that Jupiter has a red spot that moves according to a mathematical-- there's a phrase that's like, Jupiter's red spot moving mathematically, or something. Which, of course, also is true and also unknown for another 200 years.

Ira Glass

Jupiter does have a red spot on it.

Josh Bearman

And it moves around the planet. And so Kepler was right, even though he was wrong, sort of reading into this message something that he wanted to see.

Ira Glass

As Josh points out, this is a crazy guess. For Kepler to think that that other anagram meant Mars has two moons, well, having two moons is kind of a normal thing. The Earth has one moon. They could see four moons around Jupiter at the time. Mars might have two moons.

Josh Bearman

The red spot just sort of makes no sense. And that was as random a guess as you could imagine.

Ira Glass

Oh, right. We don't think that planets will have just, like, a big red spot on them.

Josh Bearman

Yeah. And I remember even when my dad was telling me about this, I asked him if he knew. And he said, no, he couldn't have known unless he was an alien, and he had visited Jupiter. Which is not likely.

And then my dad, who's a scientist, they always say things are never impossible. He says, it's not impossible. But it's also not very likely.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]. That is very rigorous.

Josh Bearman

Yeah, precision.

Ira Glass

This story stayed with Josh, that a guy would send a message that he probably hopes will never be decoded. And then it gets decoded, but incorrectly. And then the wrong message turns out to be right not once but two times.

It makes you feel like communication between people can misfire in such totally random ways. And that is what today's show is about. We have people trying to send messages of various sorts, including messages delivered through incredible means by questionable messengers, messages from beyond the grave. There's a message delivered entirely by swapping one statue for another in a classroom.

Some of these messages get through accurately, some do not. Some transmit information not intended by anyone.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. The Motherhood of the Traveling Pants.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Motherhood of the Traveling Pants."

We being today with a series of messages that have gone back and forth within one family for over 35 years. They are uncanny. They are mysterious. They are inexplicable in their accuracy. Brian Reed explains.

Brian Reed

A few weeks ago, I talked to a woman named Melissa Salpietra. She's pregnant, so she had a lot on her mind. But the thing she was obsessing over most-- more than baby names, or strollers, or the new house she and her husband recently bought-- was this package that had arrived in the mail with her name on it.

Melissa

I haven't seen it yet. I have been away from home. And the package came to me at my house in North Carolina. And I've been in New England for the summer.

But it probably is some sort of padded manila envelope that you get at, like, Staples or something. And my husband is going to bring it to me this weekend. And if I open it up and there's a pair of pants in it, I'm going to have a boy. But if I open it up and there is a little pink dress, I'm going to be having a girl.

Brian Reed

Now I've never been pregnant before. And I don't have kids. But it's my impression that this is not how an unborn baby's sex is normally determined.

From what I understand, there are these things called chromosomes and then some procedure known as a sonogram. But in Melissa's family, they don't bother with that stuff. Instead--

Melissa

You get sent the prediction of your sex in the mail. You get not even the prediction, you get sent the foretelling of what you're going to have, a boy or a girl.

Brian Reed

This is a longstanding tradition in Melissa's family. Three generations have participated in it, more than 20 babies. Family legend is the prediction has been right every time.

It all began more than 35 years ago with Melissa's great-grandmother, [? Carmela Calanni, ?] AKA, Nonna. Nonna had moved here from Sicily when she was a teenager. She made her living as a seamstress.

She was quiet, unassuming. She baked bread, and made lasagna from scratch, and went to church every day. But Melissa says there was more to Nonna than met the eye.

Melissa

The thought was Nonna had some sort of direct line to God. And her and God were like peas in a pod. And she could ask. And she would receive.

So whenever you wanted something, you would ask her. And she would go light a candle for you at the church. And then you'd get it.

Brian Reed

Hoping to nail that job interview? Talk to Nonna. Trying to buy a new house? Go see Nonna. She didn't even make you kiss her hand.

So years before Melissa was born, when one of Nonna's grandsons announced that his wife was expecting a baby, he went to Nonna and asked for a little favor. He told her he wanted a boy. Here's Melissa's mom, Mary Annette, who was around at the time.

Melissa's Mom

And so Nonna decided she was going to make sure he has the boy. So she showed up at a family function with this little pair of pants and just said, here. Make the first born be a boy.

Brian Reed

Nonna had sewn these pants herself. They were brown polyester with belt loops and a zipper. They looked like a pair of pants your great grandfather might wear if he was the size of a doll. Here's Mary Annette.

Melissa's Mom

You know, we joke. We laughed and thought, oh my God, look at this little polyester pair of pants, little old man pants. And at that time, you didn't do sonograms. You didn't find out the sex of babies before you were born. So we just waited. And when the first born was born, it was a boy.

Brian Reed

Did you guys have a moment where you said, oh, wow, Nonna was right?

Melissa's Mom

Yes. We all said that. Oh, hey, she picked it. Great.

Brian Reed

Now, just a heads up here. Nonna had this big Sicilian family. And their names are what one might call variations on a theme. There's Mary Annette, Mary Anne, [? Roseanne, ?] [? Joanne, ?] Melissa Anne.

So the woman who had this first baby boy was Mary Anne. She named her son Tony and stitched his name on the tiny pair of pants. And then for some mysterious reason, without even being instructed by Nonna, when the next woman in the family got pregnant--

Woman 1

She just automatically when she found out I was pregnant, she packaged it up and mailed it to me as a good luck charm.

Brian Reed

This is [? Roseanne, ?] the next of Nonna's grand-kids to have a baby.

Woman 1

You know, I just got the pants and assumed I was to have a boy.

Brian Reed

Why? That seems a little bit crazy.

Woman 1

I know. When I think bad it's like, I don't know, kind of weird. Because honestly, my husband and I never gave it a thought. I mean, we truly did not have a girl's name picked out.

Brian Reed

Because you got a little pair of pants in the mail, you just were sure you were having a boy?

Woman 1

It was meant to be a boy. It was meant to be. It was going to be.

Brian Reed

And what did you have?

Woman 1

I had my son, Tommy.

Brian Reed

Meanwhile across the Atlantic Ocean, Mary Annette was on the verge of having a baby. She was living in Italy at the time. And she was due just a few weeks after [? Roseanne. ?]

So [? Roseanne ?] stitched her newborn son's name on the pair of pants.

Woman 1

Packaged it up and mailed it to Mary Annette, thinking that that's what she would want, you know, a boy.

Melissa's Mom

I wanted the girl. I wanted to be the first one to have the girl in the family.

Brian Reed

There Mary Annette was, lying in a hospital bed back in the old country, about to go into labor any day, fantasizing about her new baby girl.

Melissa's Mom

And my husband comes in after work one day. And he says, I picked up the mail, here. It was this manila envelope.

I thought it was pictures of her baby. I thought it was, you know, newborn baby, they sent me pictures. So I opened the envelope. And out falls the little brown pants. And I screamed. I went, oh, bleep, bleep, bleep. [LAUGHS].

Brian Reed

You swore?

Melissa's Mom

I did. I said, oh, no. I wanted the girl.

Brian Reed

A few days later, Mary Annette had a son.

Melissa's Mom

After that, we all looked at Nonna. Then we asked. We all looked at Nonna and said, OK, how about a dress now?

Brian Reed

Nonna abided. She sewed a miniature pink satin dress and gave it to Mary Anne, who was pregnant with her second baby. And the rest was like clockwork.

Mary Anne had a girl. She sent [? Roseanne ?] the dress. [? Roseanne ?] had a girl. She sent Mary Annette the dress. Mary Annette had a girl, and then another girl.

Nonna wasn't directing this. But everyone knew where the power originated. Nonna was batting seven for seven.

A few years passed. And then Nonna's prediction powers reached a turning point. Because Mary Annette was the last one to have a boy and the last one to have a girl, which means she had possession of both the pants and the dress. So when Mary Annette's sister-in-law announced that she was having a baby, it was up to Mary Annette alone to decide which one to send. The power to determine the sex of this woman's baby was in Mary Annette's hands.

Melissa's Mom

And I'm sitting in my family room getting the pants, getting the dress, getting the envelope ready with her address, her name and address, to send. And then sitting there looking at these two items, I said, I have a choice to make. And I don't know how many times in and out that envelope went the dress or the pants, the dress or the pants, the dress or the pants.

And I said, I can't play God. I'm going to have to let her choose. So I put the dress and the pants in the envelope, mailed them to her.

Brian Reed

I called Mary Annette's sister-in-law, [? Joanne. ?] She vividly remembers tearing open the envelope, the pants falling onto her kitchen counter, the dress tumbling out right after it. A couple months later, the doctor told her she was having twins.

[? Joanne ?] waited until she delivered her twins to find out what sex they were. Though really, she knew all along.

Woman 2

First off, he says, you have a son. And he handed me the baby. And I was like, oh my God, my boy. I got my boy.

And then I think they were only born one minute apart. He immediately then said, and you have a daughter. And it was just, of course. It wasn't a surprise to me. [LAUGHS].

Brian Reed

And were you just blown away?

Woman 2

Actually, Mary Annette, I think, was more blown away. Because she freaked when I called her.

Melissa's Mom

Oh my God, a boy and a girl. Oh my God, what did I do? [LAUGHS]. And I apologized. I did. I said, I'm so sorry. I said, I know they're cute. I don't know if you wanted two at a time. [LAUGHS].

Brian Reed

Now Nonna was nine for nine. The statistical odds of getting the prediction right that many times are less than 1 in 500. Not to mention the fact that she predicted a boy girl set of twins.

And all of this rocketed Nonna from regular old clairvoyant grandma status to legend. The pants and the dress became an institution. Even after Nonna died in 1999, they kept working.

Kids who'd been predicted themselves the first time around were now having kids of their own. And Nonna kept getting it right. As the years went on, pants/dress protocol was codified.

For instance, if someone else got pregnant while you were pregnant, you could not send them your garment until you had your baby. You had to wait until you stitched your child's name onto the pants or the dress. It's just the way it was done.

And there were some close calls. There was one rogue baby, where the parents received neither the pants nor the dress. They had a boy.

And the dress was misplaced for a couple of years. Though naturally, only boys were born during that period. It then miraculously resurfaced just in time for the next girl.

I went through the family tree. And it turns out that of 21 predictions, Nonna was wrong two times. Most family members were vague about this. They kind of had a sense that something might have gone awry a couple times. But they were hazy on the details.

But when I talked to Rick Salpietra, who lives out in California, he was clear about it. He had two kids for whom Nonna's prediction wasn't right.

It happened 18 years ago. Rick's twin brother Ron sent him the dress. And it predicted Rick's first daughter correctly. But then his brother sent him the pants. And despite that, Rick's second child was a girl.

When Rick's wife got pregnant a third time, and they had sent the dress away but still had the pants in their possession, they had another girl. The family has theories about what went wrong here. Maybe it was geography, the fact that Rick lives in California, so far away from the rest of the family.

Or maybe it was because these two girls were the last kids in their generation. Nonna was at the end of her life when they were born and died not long after. It's possible her powers were diminished.

Still, the odds of Nonna predicting the sex correctly as many times as she did-- 19 of 21 babies-- are remarkable. I ran her record by several statisticians. And they said the odds are roughly 1 in 10,000.

Whatever the reason for her being wrong those two times, while lots of people in the family are still really into the pants and the dress, Rick, the father of the girls who were incorrectly predicted, says he purposely avoids talking to his daughters about the tradition, even though they're teenagers now.

Rick

My middle daughter is sort of the more quiet, sensitive one. And I think she might be a little upset if she actually thought that the whole thing sort of broke down when it came to us getting the pants or the dress on her pregnancy. And I don't know if I'd want to do that to her.

Brian Reed

Yeah, it's a weird thing to have to tell your kid.

Rick

It is. I mean, I don't know what to say. I wouldn't want her to feel bad. I really wouldn't.

Melissa

I had no clue up until I got pregnant that this would weigh so heavily on me.

Brian Reed

Melissa, the woman who's pregnant right now, is desperately hoping that she never needs to sit down with her kid one day and say, you were inaccurately predicted. You were a weak link.

At first she was really excited to get the pants or the dress, to take part in the tradition. After all, Melissa was predicted herself. Her name is on the dress. But now she's just really worried that it'll be wrong.

Melissa

I mean, I'm embarrassed to actually say how much anxiety that it kind of has caused.

Brian Reed

Melissa's due in about three months. Remember, the situation right now is that her husband has received the package with the pants or the dress in it. But they're waiting to see each other before they open it.

Melissa really wants a boy. So she requested the pants from her sister-in-law. And she's guessing that's what's in the package, the pants. Though it is possible that some people in the family conspired to send her the dress against her will. That has happened before.

To add to the pressure, when Melissa and her husband went for their last ultrasound, they asked the doctor to write down the baby's sex and seal in an envelope for them to open later if they want to.

Melissa

I don't know. It's like this, we put ourselves in this situation now where we have two envelopes to open. Not just one but two. And they can conflict.

Brian Reed

Would you rather have a boy but have the prediction be wrong? Or would you rather have a girl and have the prediction be right?

Melissa

I would rather have the prediction be right.

Brian Reed

You didn't even hesitate with that question.

Melissa

No. I want the prediction. I want the prediction to be right.

[PEOPLE CHATTING]

Brian Reed

A few days after I interviewed Melissa, I went to her baby shower in Ohio. She had the ultrasound prediction with her. And she and her husband were thinking about looking at it at some point during the day. The night before, they'd opened the package with Nonna's prediction. And drumroll, please.

Melissa

I got the pants. Opened up the package, and the pants were inside.

Brian Reed

Which should have been great news, right? Melissa wants a boy.

Brian Reed

Are you excited?

Melissa

Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I am. I'm glad to have them. I thought I was going to feel a lot more confident that it would be a boy. But I still don't.

[LAUGHTER]

Baby Shower Guests

Put a onesie on a onesie, on a onesie, on a onesie.

Brian Reed

Throughout the day, Melissa tried to just enjoy her baby shower and keep her mind off the very obvious question at hand. But it was hard to ignore the fact that many of the activities were aggressively gender neutral, like the designs that women ironed onto outfits for the new baby. There were giraffes, zebras, hats, umbrellas, but no pink ponies or blue dump trucks. There was the name game, led by Melissa's mom Mary Annette, Which had both a girls' round--

Melissa's Mom

The beginning of the day.

Baby Shower Guests

Dawn.

Melissa's Mom

Correct. This month is the first one of summer.

Baby Shower Guests

June.

Melissa's Mom

The night before a holiday.

Baby Shower Guests

Eve.

Brian Reed

And a boys' round. Though the boys' round was harder.

Melissa's Mom

Some people need ropes to climate it.

Baby Shower Guests

Cliff.

Woman 3

Cliff! Cliff!

Melissa's Mom

Cliff. Certain cut of beef.

Baby Shower Guests

Chuck.

Melissa's Mom

Chuck beef.

Woman 3

Oh, what about Angus?

Melissa's Mom

Angus?

Woman 3

Angus is a name.

Melissa's Mom

That's not a cut of beef. That's the name of the cow.

Brian Reed

Finally, later that night after most of the shower guests went home, it was time to tear off the Bandaid.

Melissa

Go get Mom and Domenic.

Brian Reed

It was time for the moment of truth. Melissa and her husband went into a bedroom with the ultrasound envelope and shut the door behind them. The family huddled anxiously outside.

Woman 4

Is it freaky that we're all just outside the door waiting.

Woman 5

Quietly talking.

Woman 4

I feel like the baby's actually being born right now.

Melissa's Mom

I feel like I'm waiting for the smoke, and the pope, and the whole thing. [LAUGHS].

Brian Reed

Minutes passed. Then, slowly, the door opened. Melissa emerged.

Melissa

It's a boy!

Baby Shower Guests

[CHEERING]

Brian Reed

Melissa went around hugging everyone. Her brother, Nonna prediction number three. Her cousin, Nonna prediction number five. Her sister, Nonna prediction number seven.

Finally, she could wipe the sweat off her brow and breathe a sigh of relief. Not only was she getting the boy she wanted, she could call Nonna's relatives all over the country without shame or disappointment and tell them that number 23 was right.

[PHONE RINGING]

Melissa

Laura.

Laura

Yeah.

Melissa

I'm calling to tell you that Nonna was right again.

Laura

Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. That is so crazy. I have goosebumps.

Melissa

Do you? [LAUGHS].

Ira Glass

Brian Reed is one of the producers of our program.

Act Two. Message in a Bottle.

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Message In a Bottle."

This is another story of people communicating not with words but with an inanimate object. Dave Hill has been on our show from time to time. He's a comedian and a musician.

He told this story onstage at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. A warning for the squeamish, he mentions pee in here.

Dave Hill

This is something that happened to me a few weeks ago right here in town. But backing things up a little bit. I moved here to New York in 2003 from Cleveland. Thank you!

[LIGHT APPLAUSE]

Thank you. Anyway, the time that I've been here-- maybe you guys can relate to this, too-- all I ever hear is, New York used to be so edgy. But now it's lost its edge. It's not edgy anymore.

Because I understand that there was a time in New York when you could walk down the street, and just crack open a beer, and just suck it down, and throw the bottle on the ground.

[LAUGHTER]

And you might get, like, a little raped, or whatever.

[LAUGHTER]

But it didn't matter. It was like a give and take. You took the good with the bad. And everyone was fine with it.

And now you can't really get away with any of that stuff. But you can get a really nice brunch at a lot of places. Just go with your friends, free refills on mimosas. It's great for everybody.

And the reason I bring this up is a few weeks ago I was doing a show out here in Brooklyn. It was a very classy show with all these people, and a sold out show. So I put on a fancy suit. And I spent, like, six to eight hours on my hair.

And the people putting the show on were like, oh, Dave, you've got to get out here on time. So I'm rushing to get out there. And I'm at 28th and Broadway. And the R train's right there.

So I'm like, oh, I'll take the R train. That's like a reputable train. And right before I'm going to go on the subway, I realize, oh, I'm so hungry. And then I look. And there's a gyro car right there.

So I go to the gyro guy. I'm like, give my a gyro. And then he's got all the sauces, like the yogurt sauce, and the chili sauce, and the garlic sauce. And I'm just like, sauce the [BLEEP] out of that thing. And don't hold back on me.

And he just starts just hosing down the gyro. Like, calm down. And then finally, he gives me the gyro.

And I go down into the subway. And the train comes right away. I get on it with the gyro. I start eating the gyro. And the sauces just start dripping all over my hands, and on the ground, and on my shoes and everything. And it's rush hour. And the train's, like, super crowded, and everything.

And I'm realizing, oh, I'm probably stinking up the whole car with this gyro. And people are probably looking at me thinking, that guy looks incredible. But it's not very cool what he's doing with that gyro.

So I'm thinking the best thing that I can do for everyone on the train, and for the city of New York in general, is just get off the subway at the next stop, finish the gyro, get back on, go out to Brooklyn. And so I get off at the next stop, 23rd Street. Lightning quick decision.

And then I walk all the way to the end of the platform to eat my gyro. Because I don't even want to bother anyone on the platform with my gyro. I do cool [BLEEP] like this all the time.

[LAUGHTER]

And so I go all the way down to the end of the platform. And you know how at the end of the subway they have the black metal storage bins? Not like a Norwegian black metal storage, which would be so cool. It's just like a regular black metal storage, almost like a dumpster or something.

So I'm stand next to it. And I've finished my gyro. And then I have the wrapper. And I'm looking around for a trash can to throw it out. And there's no trash can anywhere on the whole platform.

And it's too messy to put in my pocket. And I'm like, oh, I don't want to throw it on the ground. I don't want to throw it on the track.

So I think the best thing that I can do in this scenario is just set it down on the black metal storage bin. That way, whoever has to clean it up later, they don't have to bend over. They can just kind of swoop it into the satchel. I might be kind of fun for them. I don't even know.

And so I set it down. And as soon as I do, I start to hear this rustling, and rumbling, and [GROWLING SOUNDS]. And it turns out there's this homeless guy sort of camped out on the other side of the storage bin. And I woke him up.

And he's like this sleeping giant, just like, [GROWLING SOUNDS]. And he gets up. And his bones are creaking. And his hair is, like, all crazy all over the place. And he looks at me. And he just starts yelling. And he's like, back up! Back up!

And I move like a little bit. But I'm like, what's this guy going to do? So I don't really move that much.

But then he's like, back up! And get this trash out of here. And he smacks the trash out at me. And I'm like, that's rude.

And then he screams again. He's like, back up! Back up! And this guy, like, he was seriously homeless. It wasn't like a phase he was going through, where he's like, oh, that's Don. I'm sure he'll be back up in his place any day now. He is like this seriously crazy, caveman homeless guy.

So it occurs to me. It's like, this might not even be about me. He might be yelling at some other guy, imaginary guy, who's just like standing exactly where I'm standing. So I'm still not really moving.

So I'm like, oh, the train's coming, whatever. And then he goes, back up or I'll throw this bottle of piss on you! And then from out of nowhere, like a ninja, all of a sudden he's got this Gatorade bottle.

And it's a huge Gatorade bottle. It's not like the size you get, like, oh, hang on, I'm just going to the store to get some Gatorade. It's like the giantest size. The kind you drink if you're like, I only drink Gatorade. It's like huge, the hugest size. Only, instead of being full of delicious and refreshing Gatorade, it's full of pee, of urine.

And just real quick, has anyone here ever peed in a bottle before?

[APPLAUSE]

Oh, yeah. Of course. But yeah, I was just doing it before.

[LAUGHTER]

But the reason I bring it up is if you haven't peed in a bottle before, you think when you have to go really bad you're like, oh my God, I just went like nine gallons. It was crazy. But we don't, as humans-- and you know this if you've peed in a bottle-- we actually don't pee that much.

Now the reason I bring it up is because to fill a huge Gatorade bottle, that's like a week or two's worth of urine. Now if you factor in that the homeless are a historically dehydrated people, this is like three or four weeks of pee saved up.

And he's just like, back up or I'll throw this bottle of piss on you! And the way I'm saying it, it sounds like he's like, back up. That's the first option. And if you choose not to do that, I'll throw this bottle of urine that I just happen to have. I'll throw it on you.

But he doesn't say it like that at all. He's just like, back up or I'll throw this bottle of piss on you. And before he even finishes his sentence, he cocks his arm back and just launches it at me.

[AUDIENCE GASPS]

I know!

[LAUGHTER]

And oh my God, homeless or not, like, not a drop wasted. His aim was incredible. It was just coming right at me. The first blow nails me right in the head. Like all my hair, all that work for nothing. My hair is totally ruined.

It's going down my back and down my jacket. And it's soaking my pants. It soaks through my pants, soaks my underwear. He had effectively wet my pants with his pee.

And at this point in the story, I'm getting a bit irritated, right? And I'm thinking to myself, well, Dave, what would you do if a total stranger drenched you in his own pee? And up to that point in my life I would have thought like, oh, I'd kill that guy, and hurt his feelings, and really give him a real stern talking to.

But that wasn't my reaction at all. I was just like, I am getting the [BLEEP] out of here immediately. Because if you figure if your opponent's first move in a confrontation is to just drench you in his own pee, like, what's next? At the very least, he's got a couple more bottles of pee back there, you figure.

So I'm just like, all right, touche. You won this round, well played. I'm getting out of here.

And so I walk out of the subway station. And I walk up onto the street. And it's still light outside. And I'm walking down Fifth Avenue.

And I start thrashing around to get the pee off of me. And I'm like Jennifer Beals in hit movie, Flashdance. And it's flying all over. And then the sort of rivulets of hobo pee are running down my face and neck, and down my chest and everything.

And I'm looking up. And I see that. And the sun is kind of going through the droplets of pee. And it's forming these beautiful prisms and rainbows. And I'm just transfixed by them.

And all of a sudden, all that pain and anger just fell away. Because it was in that moment I realized, this mother [BLEEP] town is back.

[LAUGHTER]

Thank you.

[APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]

Ira Glass

Dave Hill, he's the author of the book Tasteful Nudes, and Other Misguided Attempts at Personal Growth and Validation.

Coming up, our program has been on the radio for over a decade. And finally, finally we have somebody in the second half of today's program for the first time ever who actually has a great voice for radio. I know you've been wondering if this would ever happen. And yes, it is not one of our contributors. It is one of their dads.

That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Soul Sister.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Send a Message," stories of messages sent and received, many of them not using words, or words that mean something different than what they're saying.

We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, "Soul Sister." Sometimes the impressiveness of the messenger is part of what makes a message so powerful. Sonari Glinton has an example of that.

Sonari Glinton

In the late 1970s, my family moved to a Chicago neighborhood called South Shore. Black families had been moving there for decades. And of course, as we moved in, all the white families moved out.

Which wasn't so bad, partly because when all those white families fled, they left behind all kinds of cool stuff-- golf courses, a few marinas, a gigantic country club, mansions. Mostly, though, they left behind their churches and synagogues.

One of those churches was my own, Saint Philip Neri Parish. It is a huge church. And it was also my grade school. Right there on 72nd Street, Saint Philip Neri was the beginning and end of my little Catholic universe. Between school, mass on Sundays, basketball, summer camp, I essentially spent my entire childhood there.

By the time I was in third grade, Saint Philip Neri's students were nearly all black. And just about half of our teachers were black. Each year, more and more black teachers replaced the white ones.

South Shore was kind of the same. There were just a few white families left. Sometimes during recess, we'd hear bagpipes coming from the church near the playground and watch as groups of white people left the funeral mass.

But it wasn't just South Shore. Chicago was going through this gigantic change, too. Race was at the forefront of everything. In 1983, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington, whose opponents tried to scare voters about a black man holding the job.

Harold Washington's election meant a lot to South Shore. It still does. In 1983, Lou's Barber Shop on 71st Street had a poster of Harold Washington hanging up. Lou's still has that picture of Harold.

But Harold was just the beginning. Soon after his election, Michael Jordan came to town, then Oprah. In 1984, Jesse Jackson-- the dude from our neighborhood-- was running for president.

But all of that was going on around us. The biggest thing for me happened at Saint Philip Neri. And it happened with Sister Rosemary Brennan.

Sister Rosemary was the principal at Saint Philip Neri. And principal is such a limp title, when I think about it. Because really, Sister Rosemary was the school. Her presence was big, even though by the fourth grade, I was taller than her.

Sister Rosemary wasn't a nun out of central casting. She'd clearly been a beautiful woman when she was younger. But she didn't wear a habit. She did carry a rosary. She was very Irish, serious, not angry.

Mainly, she took each of us seriously, which came across as love. Her love was fierce. She knew every single kid, every parent. Everything about each of us mattered.

Sister Rosemary didn't talk about race. But what she did, that's a story.

It was sometime after Christmas break. I was in the fourth grade in my reading class. I had Miss [? Sperling. ?] It seems important to note that she was white.

Anyway, we were sitting in reading class. So we're all broke up in groups. And in walks Sister Rosemary. Now Sister Rosemary didn't just walk into a classroom for no reason. Either one of the kids or the teacher was in big trouble.

So everyone stopped what they were doing. And she said, as she would always say, good morning boys and girls. And we said what we would always say, well, sing. Good morning, Sister Rosemary.

And then Sister Rosemary told us to go back to our work, which was a perfectly silly thing to say. Because when Sister Rosemary was in your class, you paid attention to Sister Rosemary. Even the kindergartners knew that. So our eyes stayed on Sister Rosemary as she grabbed the chair, dragged it across the floor to the front of the room. Then she stood on top of the chair with her back to the class.

In our classroom, just like in every classroom, there was a crucifix. The crucifix had a blond wooden cross with a figure of Christ suspended on it. Then with her back to the class, Sister Rosemary teetered on her tippy toes, firmly grabbed the bottom of the crucifix, and took it off the wall.

By this point, no one was reading or even pretending to pay attention to anything else. She placed the cross aside, reached up, again on her tiptoes, and replaced the old crucifix with a new one. And on this cross was a black Jesus. He was carved out of dark wood with a short 'fro, wide nose, full lips, and the same down-turned face as the white Jesus.

This little Irish woman straightened the cross, adjusted herself, climbed down off the chair, and began to leave the room. All of us were completely silent. Then one brave soul asked her what she was doing.

Without hesitation, Sister Rosemary turned around to us and said, boys and girls, we're not sure what Jesus looked like. But we know he probably looked more like you than like me. Then Sister Rosemary turned around and walked out of the classroom. That was it. No deep discussion. No sitting down and going over it.

In one moment, she turned Jesus from white to black. Kind of like, OK, boys and girls, Jesus is black. Deal with it on your own.

Sister Rosemary must have done the exact same thing in all the other classes, because from then on, all the crucifixes in our classrooms were black. I can imagine her starting out the day with a full box of black crucifixes and ending it with a bunch of white ones she had to put in storage.

There were 20 or so classes. So she would have replaced the white crucifix more than 20 times. Each time getting on her tiptoes. Each time meeting the stunned reaction. Each time saying the same thing.

She could have done it on a Saturday or during a break. But she did it while we were all there. She made the change, not the janitor or the teacher, Sister Rosemary.

Here's the funny thing. No sooner had she switched the crosses that I made the switch in my head. Just like that, Jesus was black. Didn't ponder it. No rolling it over in my head. It made perfect sense to me.

Everything and every one around me was black. So Jesus must have been, too. And plus, Sister Rosemary said so. The rest of my time at Saint Philip Neri, whenever I came across a white Jesus on a worksheet or in our religion book, I took out my pencil or crayon and colored him in to look like me.

When you're a fourth grader, everything is bigger than you. Everyone is smarter than you, older. But when one day you realize that Jesus is just like you, Jesus is black, then everything short of Jesus seems possible.

Even now when I close my eyes to pray, it's to a Jesus with curly hair and dark skin. That's probably the way it ought to be. Theologically speaking, I know it does not matter at all what color Jesus was. Who he is transcends what he looked like.

Scholars say the historical Jesus probably looked much like the people who live in the Middle East now, just shorter. Probably not much taller than Sister Rosemary. She knew exactly how God should look in my eyes. And luckily enough for me, she was able to show me.

Ira Glass

Sonari Glinton, his regular job, he's a reporter for NPR News.

[MUSIC-- "PERSONAL JESUS," BY NINA HAGEN]

Act Four. Not My First Time at the Rodeo.

Ira Glass

Act Four, "Not My First Time at the Rodeo."

There are conversations that you have with your parents that just stay with you your whole life-- what they said, what you said, back and forths that you know by heart. You repeat them to explain who you are to somebody else, or to yourself, and who your parents were. But what if you could re-hear that dialogue decades later? Not your memory of it, but the actual words that were truly spoken. Nancy Updike has this story.

Nancy Updike

Bill Lahey was in his early 20s and on the phone with his father in 1978 when he heard a faint pinging sound on the phone. He mentioned it. And his father said--

Bill's Father

When did that start?

Bill

It's been there all along.

Bill's Father

I never heard it.

Bill

No?

Bill's Father

Must be my bad ear.

Bill

There's a ping, like, every five seconds.

Bill's Father

Well, that's funny.

Bill

Yeah.

Bill's Father

Maybe we're being eavesdropped on.

Bill

Monitored or something.

Bill's Father

Yeah. Sometimes I wonder if this phone is tapped.

Nancy Updike

Two decades later, after his father had died, Bill was at his dad's house in Ohio cleaning out the office.

Bill

And I opened up a file cabinet and found 30 or 40 cassette tapes with his unmistakable handwritten notations of names and dates. And I knew instantly what they were, that he had been surreptitiously taping us.

Nancy Updike

Even at the time his father was recording, Bill had guessed what could be going on. It was the kind of thing his father might do. And he did. He recorded hours of calls with Bill.

And according to his own handwritten labels, he also taped his four other children, his wife, his mother, other relatives, his priest. He recorded calls at home and in the car.

Bill's Father

Recording test number four. Road noise, average to low. Speed, 60 miles an hour.

Nancy Updike

From the dates on the cassettes, Bill figured they were an archive of his father trying to get the people around him on to his side. Bill's mother had left his father after 37 years of marriage. Bill remembered the gist and tone of those conversations pretty well. They were memorable. And he put off listening to the recordings of them.

For 12 years, they sat in a black nylon duffel bag that he would move every time the family moved. This was a pile of information Bill wasn't sure he wanted from an era of his life he knew he didn't want to relive.

He'd sided with his mom in the divorce even before the divorce. Since junior high, he'd been lobbying her to leave his dad. As Bill saw his father, he was smart, tenacious, and a tremendous bully with a bad quick temper and huge blowups. He got worse over time. And he was worse when he drank.

What Bill remembered from the taped conversations were long calls where his father bullied him and he fought back hard. He saw himself as his mother's advocate and protector.

Bill

I remember him trying to recruit me in his campaign to keep his marriage together. And so my memory was me saying versions of, look, she doesn't want to do that anymore. You guys have tried for a long time. Let it go. You know, some version of face facts, it's over.

Nancy Updike

So you remember pushing back verbally, arguing with him?

Bill

Yeah, yeah. All the time.

Nancy Updike

After those 12 years of holding on to the tapes, Bill finally reached just about the age his father had been when he'd made the recordings. And suddenly Bill wanted to hear them. He felt ready but nervous.

Bill

Here was raw data about what I actually did in conversations with my dad. And I just took one of the tapes with me, with my name on, and went into our car in the back of our house. Partially because it was the only place that had a cassette tape recorder that I knew of.

And the first thing that came on was his voice pretty aggressively questioning me about something. And his voice was as clear as the day I heard it.

Bill's Father

So you got pretty involved there, didn't you, for somebody who didn't want to take sides?

Bill

Yeah, I did. Certainly did.

Nancy Updike

His father was talking about the fact that Bill and his four siblings all sided with their mother in the divorce in one way or another.

Bill's Father

So why did you do it? What, were you feeling sorry for your mother?

Bill

No.

Bill's Father

For being oppressed? You'd think she was going around in a wheelchair. How would you feel, Bill? And have that kind of a situation where the mother hen is being protected. From who?

She's got everybody believing that I'm a goddamn bully. She's so psychotic that she's got everybody believing that I'm a bastard. That's how psychotic she is. How would you feel if you were me, Bill?

Bill

And I listened for probably two minutes. And I was like, OK. That's what they are. This is just really intense. I took the tape out, went back and went into the house and told my wife about it. And didn't listen to them again for, I don't know, three or four months.

Nancy Updike

When Bill went back to listening for real, what he heard was his father pushing one main point with him hour after hour. Which was, how about you talking your mother into trying again?

Bill's Father

How do you feel about that assessment?

Bill

To give it a try?

Bill's Father

Yeah.

Bill

[SIGHS]. Well, just from talking to mother over the months, I see no real sign of changing her mind.

Bill's Father

But has anybody really tried to, Bill, forcibly, persuasively? Is it fair that she doesn't try, whether she wants to or not? And the answer, obviously, is no it isn't fair. To have it go down the drain and lose the war for a few battles without trying is, to me, absurd.

Bill

Yeah. Well, I guess because I see it more than just a few battles.

Bill's Father

No, I said there was a bunch of them. What the hell's the difference? There were a lot of good times. Why do you look at the black part?

Bill

Well, Dad, because I didn't that time that things worked well. I mean, maybe when I was very young.

Bill's Father

You have no-- remember anything? We had no happiness, Bill?

Bill

I didn't say none.

Bill's Father

You just said you never saw the times when we did.

Bill

A period. I mean, when I say things, you know, just generally.

Bill's Father

Oh, well, you have a short memory, Bill. I'm sorry to say that. We used to go up to Lake Erie. We had a lot of good times.

Bill

I'm not saying we didn't.

Bill's Father

Bill, are you saying that there's no use trying?

Bill

I'm not saying that. I just--

Bill's Father

What's the bottom line? Let's get down to it. This is a lot of conversation. Tell me what your attitude is. Are you advocating that we don't try?

Bill

I'm just taking--

Bill's Father

No, I want to know.

Why do you take so long to answer?

Bill

Kind of like, say something. You know, just don't sit there. I was less confrontational than I remember or expected. But I could remember that thought process that I went through.

You know, if I say X, he's going to blow up. If I say, Y, I'm going to throw my mom under the bus.

I know what Mother's-- at least from what she tells me, this has been something that she's obviously been thinking about a long time.

Bill's Father

Not no long time. Maybe four or five years. Bill, do you know that her mind might be affected? And she may not be herself psychologically.

Bill

Four or five years?

Bill's Father

Bill, do you realize that her mind might affected? She may not be herself psychologically.

Bill

But for that long of time?

Bill's Father

Yes. Would you like to see us happy if we can arrange to be together?

Bill

Sure.

Bill's Father

Why don't you say that?

Bill

Where was the warrior in me? Where was the stand up person that was willing to call a lie a lie, you know, willing to draw bright lines and say, I won't even put up with having a conversation about this?

Nancy Updike

And some of these conversations go on so long. I mean, 45 minutes, an hour. And he's just hammering away at you and at the points he's making. Why did you stay on such a long time? Why not just say, Dad, I got to go?

Bill

Yeah. So I was living in Wisconsin during a lot of this taping. I felt badly that my mom was back there, basically by herself dealing with him. And I think I had some notion that by staying on the phone with him, you know, it's like a little bit of the rodeo clown. You know, those old rodeo clowns would be sent out. The cowboy would be bucked off the bull.

Nancy Updike

To distract the bull?

Bill

Would go out to distract the bull.

Nancy Updike

Bill wasn't crushed by the difference between what he heard on the tapes and the tough line he'd remembered taking with his dad. But it did throw him off balance. He really had seen himself from the time he was a kid as a warrior standing up to the strong, protecting the weak, a sort of superhero when it came to arguing against his dad.

Bill

But I was less heroic. It was like I was more pragmatic. It was less of an epic struggle of right and wrong and more mundane than that.

Nancy Updike

I mean, what kid fantasizes about being a pragmatist?

Bill

[LAUGHS]. Right.

Nancy Updike

Bill says his mother thrived after the divorce. His father, he says, stayed more or less the same. He married again, divorced again.

Bill kept up a relationship with him his whole life. That had been his other goal during these calls. Besides protecting his mom, not losing his dad. He had thought about that even during the worst arguments. Better a long silence than words he couldn't take back.

Bill saw his father once or twice a year every year after the divorce. And he spoke to him by phone every few weeks until he died.

Bill

I'll call you back soon. Or you could call me in the evening.

Bill's Father

So your number's the same.

Bill

Sure.

Bill's Father

All right.

Bill

And any time you want to chat.

Bill's Father

All right.

Bill

OK. So I will talk to you soon.

Bill's Father

OK, I'm glad you called. Take care.

Bill

OK, Dad. Good night.

[CLICK]

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC-- "GET THE MESSAGE," BY SAGITARIUS"]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar and our senior producer Julie Snyder with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Production help from Tarek Fouda. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our office manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant.

[ANNOUNCEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International, WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. His friend Mars has been making these cute little radios. You know these little volume knob, and a tuning knob. And Torey cannot shut up about it.

Josh Bearman

Hail, double knob, children of Mars.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC-- "GET THE MESSAGE," BY SAGITARIUS"]

Announcer

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