Transcript

514:

Thought That Counts
Transcript

Originally aired 12.20.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/514

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Last year, Kevin got his mom gloves for Christmas and a hat. And his twin sister, Karyn, what did she get their mom?

Karyn

I got her a pair of leather gloves, I think. Yeah. I got them before Kevin, so I was kind of angry with him, because--

Ira Glass

Oh, because you knew that she got leather gloves?

Kevin

No. I didn't know. So then she asked me what I was getting my mom. And then I was like, I got her gloves. And she was like, no, I got her gloves. And I'm like-- yeah. So that's why I got her the hat was because she got gloves, and then I had to go get something else.

Ira Glass

Now, to be clear, he still gave her the gloves. So basically, he gave their mom the same present that Karyn gave her mom plus a hat, which might sound like he totally trumped Karyn's gift for the mom, except--

Karyn

I got leather gloves, though. So it's kind of different.

Ira Glass

Oh, yours were nicer.

Karyn

Yeah, mine were nicer. I got leather.

Ira Glass

He had to add a hat to rise to the level of her leather gloves. The French essayist Roland Barthes once wrote that when people say I love you, it usually doesn't mean the thought, I love you. And I think what he was saying was that more often when we say I love you, what we mean by it is, I need to get off the phone right now, mom. Or let's stop fighting. Or I'm not loving you right this very second, but I definitely do feel love in a more general and bigger way that I want to acknowledge with these words.

And giving a Christmas present, I think, is a lot like that. Sometimes it means I love you, right? I want you to have this. I love you. But a hat that you get from your teenage son, it can mean all kinds of things.

I bought the LEGO Star Wars Defender Class Cruiser for a little kid this year. And what I meant by it was I love you. I definitely meant I love you. But I also meant I know that your mom and dad just split up, and I feel like I should be flying out to California more often to see you. And I feel guilty about not doing that more. And I know that that is a lot of feelings to be putting on to 927 little plastic bricks. Or, you know, take the gift that Kevin got his dad last year.

Kevin

I got him some hammers because he was low on hammers. And he's good with his hands, and he likes to build stuff. So I got him some nice hammers.

Ira Glass

How'd that go over?

Kevin

He likes them.

Ira Glass

I don't have to take his word for this. We're at the Arundel Mills Mall outside Baltimore, and Kevin's dad, JD, is standing right there. They're doing Christmas shopping.

Ira Glass

Do you remember the hammers?

Jd

I do. He lost all the other ones, so his mother made him buy me hammers to replace the ones that were all gone. But they were all gone. So he brought me an assortment of hammers.

Ira Glass

And have you used them?

Jd

Yes, I have.

Ira Glass

Are they nice?

Jd

They're hammers, you know.

Ira Glass

Not that JD is ungrateful. JD likes the hammers. JD has five kids. He loves all the presents that his kids get him, all the presents. Karyn remembers a present that she made for her dad back when she was eight or nine.

Karyn

I had these two pieces of wood. I chopped them up into little squares. They weren't really good squares. And then I painted little dots on them and made them into dice.

Ira Glass

Are you sure he was disappointed in them, or did you just feel like it was a crappy present?

Karyn

It was a crappy present. He couldn't just throw it away. I think that he was trying not to hurt my feelings.

Ira Glass

Well, now years have passed. She's almost twice as old. Like, do you want to say what you honestly felt about those dice?

Jd

Very unique. Very unique.

Karyn

Isn't it crappy, though?

Jd

Oh, no. It's not. They're handmade. I'll never let go of them, OK?

Ira Glass

Where are they?

Jd

In my library in a display case.

Ira Glass

OK. This sounds like it can't possibly be true. But both kids insist that, yes, he is not being sarcastic. He saves everything, has big display cases with old presents and toys in them. But, you know, if your parents are fine with any crappy gift, that poses another problem.

Gage Ross

We got some stuff for our parents. My mom, she got lotion. My dad, he got some lanyard for his keys and some bottle openers.

Ira Glass

Gage and William Ross are at the mall on this particular Sunday before Christmas. They're brothers, and their parents went to the casino that's part of the mall-- yes, there's a casino-- and threw them out here, Gage says, with $60 and instructions to buy them Christmas presents.

Gage Ross

We spent about $20 on their stuff, and then the rest was ours.

William Ross

Key chains.

Gage Ross

Candy.

William Ross

Lanyard. Chewing gum.

Ira Glass

Like the twins, like a dozen other teenagers that I interviewed at the mall, they said that it is just really hard buying for your parents.

William Ross

Because they never tell you what they really want.

Gage Ross

They just want you to be there and want you to be happy on Christmas morning. They really-- they don't want anything.

William Ross

That seems kind of bad, but it's true.

Gage Ross

I could take that $60 and put it in pennies, and they'd be the happiest people in the world.

Ira Glass

And then they don't care either way. You can get them anything.

William Ross

Anything at all.

Gage Ross

I can get them a bag of chew toys, and they'd like it.

Ira Glass

I dare you.

William Ross

It's already done.

Gage Ross

I've done it before. Her birthday, I got her a bag full of dog chew toys, yeah, and Milk Bones.

Ira Glass

And what'd she say?

Gage Ross

She was like, is this for the dog or for me? And I said, it's for you. And she was like, OK, thank you.

Ira Glass

I could not reach his mom to get her side of the story. But I think, come on, any parent tearing off the wrapping paper and seeing that gift, like, I just think that they just think, like, huh? In this season of gift giving, if it is the thought that counts, OK, what exactly are the thoughts behind most presents?

Well, they're complicated. Sometimes they're really, really complicated. And today on our radio show, we have stories of people giving gifts, and we have stories especially of people receiving gifts, some of these quite spectacular, and trying to divine the motives of the people who gave them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International, a special holiday show. Stay with us.

Act One. Replacement Claus.

Ira Glass

Act One, Replacement Clause. So we begin today's show about giving gifts with the gift givingest person that there is. Of course, Santa Claus is that person, a man who wants for nothing, that is, until some things change for him. Jonathan Goldstein explains.

Jonathan Goldstein

Each life was a lonely tumble down a cold, dark chimney, falling, falling, then blackness. These were Santa's thoughts as he prepared snickerdoodles in the kitchen. In the other room, the elves performed Christmas tunes and do-si-doed.

Carefully, he carried the tray of sweets into the living room. His wife, Martha, had been dead five years now, and he was alone, alone in a house full of elves. Jesus had dignity, apostles. All he had was high blood pressure and a communal toilet the size of a cereal bowl.

He sat down on the couch and watched the elves dance to "Feliz Navidad." Jingles broke from the group of dancing elves and approached him. "You're killing yourself with the doodles," Jingle said, slamming down his Gin Rickey. And lately, he'd been on Santa's case to stop overeating, to get out of the house, and to get himself a girlfriend.

Glenda, the good witch of the north, lived only a few miles away and had just been left by her boyfriend, a walrus hunter who looked somewhat like a walrus himself. "Glenda's into the Wilford Brimley type," said Jingles, "so you've totally got a chance." "Glenda," said Santa, "but she's so sparkly. I miss Martha," Santa said quietly.

He knew this was true, though not the entire truth. There was missing, of course, but there was also fear. "Look, I miss Martha too," said Jingles. "But it's time to move on."

"She was the only gal for me," said Santa. Jingles put his tiny hand on Santa's knee. "To be frank," Jingles said, "I always thought your relationship a little narcissistic. Mrs. Claus was like your twin but with bosoms. Did you plan your outfits together?"

"We just had the same taste," Santa sobbed. "Jingle Bell Rock" started up on the squeeze box, and Santa took that as his cue to head to bed. He never could stand rock and roll Christmas songs.

He liked Christmas songs, and he liked rock and roll. He just didn't like them together. Martha had felt the exact same way. On their first year anniversary, Martha presented him with a pen, the fancy kind that came in a box.

"Oh, for the love of Saint Nicholas," Santa had said, "what good is a pen? I'll just end up losing it. Save your money and buy yourself something nice, or let me buy for you. That would make me most happy of all."

For a man famous for his giving, Santa was terrible at receiving. Martha took the pen back and apologized. And that was the end of the gifts.

After she had died and Santa was cleaning out her stuff, in a jewelry box filled with the old love letters he'd sent during their courtship, he found the pen. He clutched it on the edge of the bed and wept. Jingles took it upon himself to just go ahead and arrange a date for Santa unbidden.

"Glenda's expecting you at eight," said Jingles, sidling up to him in the reindeer stable one morning. "And do me a favor. Trim your whiskers and put on your spanx." As instructed, Santa appeared at Glenda's doorstep that evening, a paper bag of roasted chestnuts in his hand.

"Come on in, Mr. Claus," said Glenda with a sweep of her arm. She was dressed all in white, and the house smelled of fresh gingerbread. Santa observed with a smile that there were several magic wands, gold and sparkly, in the umbrella rack.

For most of the evening they sat by the hearth and made clumsy conversation about the loneliness of living at the North Pole, mostly. "Unless I absolutely have to, I don't even bother going outside," said Glenda. "And when the cable goes out, it is out," said Santa.

After a beat of silence, Glenda looked at him, a smile across her face. "Is this a good conversation?" she asked. Santa laughed and assured her it was.

They played cribbage, drank eggnog, and watched the snow outside the window fall. And in the vestibule, before leaving, Glenda placed her hand on Santa's shoulder and kissed him right beneath his eye. As she did, Santa felt as though his chest were a chimney, and inside a sleeping dove was stirring awake.

They made a date for the following weekend. And just before he left, Glenda gave him a container of cranberry mini muffins she'd baked. Santa told her he could not accept such a gift, at which point she thrust it into this chest with surprising force. "Take it," she said. On the sleigh ride home, Santa realized with mixed feelings that he'd hardly thought of Martha the whole night.

When he showed up the following Saturday, Glenda was all apologies. "Change of plans," she said, stopping him in the vestibule. "Sheila's here, flew in this afternoon from Tampa."

"Sheila?" asked Santa. "AKA, the wicked witch of the east," she said quickly, "My old college roommate." "College?" asked Santa. "For witches?"

"She's always showing up like this," Glenda went on. "Every time there's trouble in Tampa, I get a knock at the door." In the den, Sheila was lying on the couch in a kittenish tangle, all in black and smoking what smelled like European cigarettes.

She studied Santa while playing with her hair. "Hey, chubs," she said. "I told you to smoke outside," said Glenda with exasperation. She went into the kitchen to get some fruitcake as Santa made his way over to the couch.

Sheila didn't move. So he squeezed into the corner, her black stocking toes touching his thigh. "So what do you do, fatso?" Santa began to stammer. "Oh, I--"

"Relax, [BLEEP]. I know you are. You're famous," she said, taking the last cookie from the serving tray. "So how do you know Glenda?"

"Oh, we're neighbors," said Santa. "And you buy this good witch [BLEEP]?" she asked in a whisper. "A downward turn in the black arts, and all of a sudden she's moved to the North Pole and rebranded herself a good witch. Whoever heard of a good witch, am I right? It's an oxymoron, like baby grand or jolly fat man. Everyone knows fat men are sad. Look at you, totally depressed. Am I right?"

"I mean, maybe a little," Santa said. "My wife recently died." "And what's with this Glenda [BLEEP]?" interrupted Sheila. "Her name's Linda."

Often, when Santa didn't know what else to say, he'd break into a jolly sounding chuckle. He tried it just then, but the chuckle got caught in his throat and came out sounding sweaty and choked. Sheila stared at him.

"You have this weird crap in your beard," she said. She reached in to pull it out, and as she did, she brought her face in close enough for Santa to smell her. Whereas Glenda smelled like baby powder and cinnamon, Sheila smelled of something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Cigarettes, of course, but something else, too. It set the chimney in his chest ablaze, ashy black doves trying to flap out their flaming wings.

As Sheila rummaged through his beard, the look on her face was all little girl concentration. "You have nice bone structure," she said. "You should try wearing black. It would have a slimming effect."

Withdrawing a tiny shriveled raisin from Santa's beard, Sheila crinkled up her face and flicked it on the carpet. "Eww, gross," she said. Glenda walked back into the room with drinks. And when Santa reached for one, he realized his hand was shaking.

He excused himself to use the bathroom, where he thought he might hum a few carols to calm himself down. Everything inside the bathroom was glittery and white, white glittery soaps, shampoos, curtains. But there, hanging from the white shower curtain rod, was something black.

Strung there for all the world to see were a pair of silky black stockings, Sheila's black stockings. For years, Santa had dealt intimately with stockings, stuffing them with coal or presents, and never thought about it twice. But just then, seeing those black stockings of hers, being alone with them, something came over him. And suddenly, he was on his toes biting the tips like a playful pup, like a fat old playful pup.

Returning to the living room, Santa sat back down on the couch and listened, enraptured, as Sheila encouraged him to revise his policy on naughtiness. Santa nodded his head as though giving her suggestion some thought. In bed that night, Santa replayed each of Sheila's words and gestures.

Sheila said whatever she felt like, touching and smelling everything like an animal. She was not afraid to take, avail herself of the world, drinks, cigarettes, hospitality. Without so much as asking, she'd even plunged her hand into Santa's Shirley Temple, plucking the maraschino cherry right out and using his hat to wipe her hands.

For Santa, one so in love with giving, he could not help but see before him a kind of black hole, a sexy and sublime black hole into which he could deliver forth his greatest gift. In Sheila, he saw an insatiable hunger for life. With such a woman to give to, to give himself to, it would feel as though every day was Christmas.

When they had made plans for the following weekend, Glenda had asked if Santa could bring along a friend for Sheila. And so he showed up with Jingles. Anything to help a brother out, Jingles had said. Strolling into Glenda's living room, Jingles did that thing where he jumped onto the couch while crossing his legs in midair. He landed right beside Sheila.

"You are just too cute for words," exclaimed Sheila. "Try anyway," said Jingles, snipping the tip of his cigar. It was the length of his forearm.

"I'd prefer to keep the house smoke free," said Glenda. "More like fun free," said Sheila. "Say, what do you call people who live around here anyway? North Pollack's?"

"We call ourselves Cold Poles," said Jingles. "Ever put your tongue on a cold pole, honey? Tends to get stuck there." Sheila slapped him on the head. "Dork," she said, laughing.

Sheila and Jingles had a million things to talk about. All the while, Glenda and Santa just sort of sat there smiling awkwardly and watching the snowfall. "It's an uninhabitable wasteland," Santa heard Sheila say. "Tampa sounds awesome," said Jingles. "If only I could convince El Jefe over there to move the operation south."

Jingles looked over at Santa, and seeing his bro struggling with his date decided to kick things into gear. "Come on y'all," said the elf, addressing the group. "Gather around for a little spin o' the bottle."

"I've got just the one," said Sheila, downing the last of the red wine straight from the bottle. "Spin the what?" asked Glenda. Sheila rolled her eyes, placed the bottle down on the carpet, and spun.

Santa watched the bottle spin with an anxiety that bordered on mania. What if the bottle dictated that he was to kiss Sheila? He would almost certainly die.

But he did not have to ponder such a kiss for very long, for soon the bottle slowed to a halt, pointing directly at Jingles. And when Sheila licked her lips and leaned her face downward, Jingles grabbed her head in his small hands and planted his tiny mouth on hers. Santa felt the chimney fire in his chest snuff out.

He and Glenda watched them kiss. Then after a while they watched the snowfall. Then they went back to watching them kiss. Eventually Jingles led Sheila into the vestibule where he said he wanted to show her the secret to getting the tips of his shoes so curly.

Left alone, and at somewhat of a loss, Glenda got up and fished around in a cabinet drawer beside the couch. Santa thought she might be looking for a game of some sort. But then she said," "I have something for you."

She held out a glistening package. "No way, Jose," Santa said. "I'm the gift giver around here. And it's not even Christmas yet."

Santa was about to really kick up a fuss. But then, as a downright witchy look fell across Glenda' face, he trailed off. "It's nothing that big," she insisted, thrusting the present at his chest. "Besides, it was fun trying to find the perfect something for you. And then to actually find it, there's no greater feeling in the world. But look who I'm telling this to."

Hearing her words and seeing the look of excitement on her face, Santa had a puzzling thought. Perhaps he'd somehow misjudged things. Perhaps he'd somehow gotten it wrong.

By refusing the gifts people wished to bestow on him, he'd consistently failed to give the experience of giving. He'd hogged that particular pleasure all to himself. And so he took the package. It was flat and square.

Tearing the wrapping paper open, he saw it was a record, Rocking Christmas Party Songs, Volume One. He absolutely hated it. Not just because the thought of listening to it made him feel like one of those old white haired hippies who had to make everything, from getting their prostate checked to celebrating Christmas, not just a good time but a rocking good time. But it was also one of those gifts that said something about the recipient, something that was hard to swallow, like the gift of a back scratcher that says you're alone in this world and must fend for yourself or the gift of a warm house coat that says your days of party dresses are over.

The gift of a perfectly awful Christmas album being handed to you by a woman who liked you said loud and clear, you must learn to compromise. For after all his years of giving, Santa knew better than anyone that we don't always receive what we want nor even what we deserve. We receive what life brings us. And when it comes to life, we haven't a choice but to open our arms.

"I love it," said Santa with a half smile. Unpeeling the plastic, they placed the album on the record player. Santa held out his arms, and Glenda entered his embrace. And together, they danced about the room as Chuck Berry belted out "Run Rudolph Run." And it was almost enough to drown out the sounds in the vestibule.

[MUSIC - CHUCK BERRY, "RUN, RUDOLPH, RUN"]

Ira Glass

So do you know what you're getting your parents for Christmas?

Larry Daniels

Not yet. I've never been good at this kind of thing. As I'm getting older, it's like I'm supposed to have some money so I can actually buy them a nice enough gift where it's not just, you know.

Ira Glass

Do you remember what you got them last year?

Larry Daniels

I believe I got my dad a Sons of Anarchy t-shirt.

Ira Glass

This is Larry Daniels, 19 years old, goes to community college, doesn't have a job. He got his mom Cowboys memorabilia last year.

Larry Daniels

I believe it was lounging pants.

Ira Glass

That's like sweatpants?

Larry Daniels

Yes, kind of. They're like sweatpants, only made of a thinner material, I believe.

Ira Glass

And you've seen her in them?

Larry Daniels

Yes, I have. She loves to lounge.

Ira Glass

Did you see him in the Sons of Anarchy t-shirt?

Larry Daniels

I don't believe I've ever seen him wear it. But he may have worn it-- as I'm getting older, I'm starting to realize my memory's fading as it goes on. But they were generally happy with the present that I got them because-- yep.

Ira Glass

You have no idea what you're going to get them at all.

Larry Daniels

No, I do not. I feel like I may never find something in time, you know? I'm just so lost.

Ira Glass

Could you just ask them what they want?

Larry Daniels

I could.

Ira Glass

But it sounds like-- it's funny talking to you. It sounds like it's never occurred to you just to ask them.

Larry Daniels

That's true. I'm not a question asking person. I'm just usually-- I get nervous.

Ira Glass

So you've never asked them, what do you want for Christmas?

Larry Daniels

No, I don't think I have. I don't know. It just feels like if ask them, they'll tell me. And, like, OK, they'll expect to get it, you know?

Because a lot of times when you watch, like, TV shows or movies where a kid-- their birthday is coming up. And they're like, oh, I want this. I want this. I'm probably going to get it, because I've said I want this.

But then they don't get it. They're disappointed. I'm, like, OK, maybe they'll be the same way. But I don't know.

Ira Glass

But wait. But you could get them what they want.

Larry Daniels

I could. Yes, I could. Actually, yeah, I probably could. Maybe. Yeah, maybe.

Ira Glass

Do you think that they would ask you for something that you wouldn't be able to get them?

Larry Daniels

I don't know. They might, actually. But I've never been in that situation. Or I may have been. Maybe once or twice I've been in that situation, and I got them something else, like, say, a mug, like a coffee mug or one of those kind of mugs that you see in a bar almost, only plastic, like a freezable mug, I guess.

Ira Glass

You mean like a mug for beer?

Larry Daniels

Yes.

Ira Glass

So wait. So this is a present you actually got them.

Larry Daniels

Yes, I did get my mom a mug one year.

Ira Glass

How'd that go?

Larry Daniels

She loved it. I mean, I just thought, this is cool. I'll get her this, you know? That's usually what I do when I see a present. I'm like, this is cool. I'll get them this. That's kind of how I go through things, you know?

Ira Glass

So you're here at the mall. You're going to wander around until something hits you?

Larry Daniels

Yes. It's worked well so far. Usually. But hopefully it'll work this time again.

Ira Glass

Coming up, over 600 boxes, gifts from decades ago opened one by one. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme.

Today's show, "The Thought That Counts." For this holiday season, we have stories of gifts and what people intend when they send them, which can be very, very complicated. We have arrived at Act Two of our program.

Act Two. It's Your Junk In a Box.

Starlee Kine

When I was in fifth grade, my class buried a time capsule in the grass that jutted against the school parking lot. We didn't feel like being generous with our gift giving towards future generations. Why should they get our best toys?

So we only tossed in the Garbage Pail Kid cards that we had doubles of, or jelly bracelets, a 10-year-old's most disposable possession. I can picture the people who will one day stumble upon our capsule. They'll turn our junk over in their hands. It'll be easy to figure out it was buried by children in a spot where there once was a school. But why we chose this crap, what we could have possibly meant by it, that will be the stumper.

In a museum in Pittsburgh, there's a group of people who spend their days opening time capsules and trying to piece together the original thinking behind each one. These time capsules were all left by one person, Andy Warhol. There are 621 of them.

He didn't bury them, and they weren't capsule shaped. There were just cardboard boxes filled with his stuff. And what makes them so different than the regular archives left behind by famous artists when they die-- because he also has those-- were that these time capsules, and he did call them time capsules, were deemed one big piece of art.

All 621 go together as a set. The contents have to stay together, too. Warhol started the project in 1974. He'd fill boxes up with various objects. Each one is packed to the brim, and they take longer to open and go through than you may think.

The first capsule was opened in 1991. And two decades later, there are still ones that haven't been gotten to yet. The day I visit, the museum has three full-time cataloguers whose jobs are just to open and sort through the boxes, five days a week, eight hours a day, Elaina, Erin, and Marie.

All three look like they stepped out of a '40s screwball comedy, pencil skirts, black glasses, soft curls. When I arrive, they just opened a new capsule. There's this long conference room table completely covered with the items they found inside.

Cataloguer 1

We have some items signed by Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran lead singer? Guitarist? Somebody in Duran Duran.

Letters from Liza Minnelli. There's also her wedding invitation. There's an invitation to President Reagan's inauguration, which is next to an ashtray that has some Keith Haring artwork, I believe, on it.

Starlee Kine

There's a Christmas card from John Waters with a dollar bill in it. There's a note from Bianca Jagger signed with a lipstick kiss. It's so close to what I would imagine Andy Warhol's house being filled with that it feels set up.

It's as though his friends just walked from room to room drawing on or pressing their lips against anything that was the least bit ordinary. There's also two small drawings by Basquiat just lying there on the table with everything else. One is a portrait he did of Andy while he slept.

The girls say that this just happened sometimes. All of a sudden they'll stumble upon some priceless art that has never been seen or pieces of Warhol's that were believed to have been lost forever. And then there are the wild cards. This is the museum's director, Eric Shiner.

Eric Shiner

Did you see this yet?

Starlee Kine

No, what is it?

Eric Shiner

I believe that would be Rob Lowe, naked, wrapped in a huge stuffed animal snake. Is there anything on the back?

Cataloguer 2

Yeah, there's a note.

Eric Shiner

Let's see. Oh, it's actually signed Rob Lowe. "Andy, thanks so much for all the fun. Don't forget I would love something from you. This is a trade. Thanks again. Call me in LA," with Rob Lowe's phone number. And he's sending this photograph in hopes of getting something from Warhol as a gift in exchange.

Starlee Kine

I can't put into words how badly I wanted that Rob Lowe photo. The degree of willpower it took to not slowly, over the course of the afternoon, slide it more and more off the table until it fell to the ground, where I would then stand on it until I was able to drop something else, something less valuable-- my scarf, the microphone-- so as to then be able to stoop down and transfer the photo from the floor to my bag. It wasn't because it seemed worth a lot of money.

I wanted it for, like, my house, to hang on my fridge. I couldn't understand how we weren't calling the number. When you come across a wallet-size photo of a naked Rob Lowe wrapped in a giant toy snake, which you can tell was done in complete sincerity because of the look on his face, a look that no one but me and the other people in this room would ever see, you do as the photo says and call the number.

I had questions that needed answering, such as, did he take the photo himself with a timer, or did he have a friend do it? But like everything else, the photo was just put down on the table. And once it was catalogued, back into the box it would go.

Andy Warhol was a major hoarder, known for it. For every original Keith Haring or Basquiat or Rob Lowe, the girls will find piles and piles of junk mail. There was a box full of Eddie Bauer catalogs. And they found actual garbage, like finger nail clippings and rotten sandwiches.

Cataloguer 3

I found some hair and underpants.

Starlee Kine

Whose?

Cataloguer 3

I don't know. But they were dirty. They were horrible, yeah. They were, like, Jockey small briefs.

Starlee Kine

How do you know they were dirty?

Cataloguer 3

It was visible.

[LAUGHTER]

Cataloguer 3

They were stained.

Starlee Kine

All of this makes more sense because of how the boxes started. The story goes that in 1974 Warhol was moving his studio from one building in New York to another. The problem was he was notoriously tight with his money, loved buying stuff, hated paying people. And so he didn't hire a moving company.

Warhol told his assistant don't worry about it. He'd just pack everything up himself. But the assistant, fearing that he and the other members of the staff would end up having to do it all themselves, came up with an idea.

He suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won't eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time.

Even after the move, Andy kept making the capsules. He kept open cardboard boxes on his desk, in his studio, in his house, filling some up right away, taking years to fill others. He was hooked. He'd found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.

Cataloguer 3

We get a lot of confetti and potpourri because the time capsules happened partly in the '80s, and people were fond of mailing invitations with potpourri or confetti.

Starlee Kine

Confetti and glitter just line the streets in the '80s.

Cataloguer 3

Yeah. I feel like once a week, one of us opens something with confetti in it, and we're like oh, crap.

Starlee Kine

Then you have to go and, like, pick up all the individual pieces of confetti?

Cataloguer 3

Oh, yeah.

Starlee Kine

You do? Really?

Cataloguer 3

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Starlee Kine

Every piece of every object is part of the art and has to be officially catalogued. So glitter gets scooped up and put into a container like a film's party scene being rewound. Plastic bags go into other plastic bags. Cassette tapes go unplayed so as not to damage the physical audiotape.

A sealed deck of cards from Penn and Teller with the secret to a magic trick concealed inside isn't opened so as to preserve the plastic wrapping. The museum's chief archivist, Matt Wrbican, says normally archivists will throw out staples and paper clips. Not here.

Matt Wrbican

The paper clips get numbered.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Matt Wrbican

Really.

Starlee Kine

Do you guys ever feel like suckers for doing it, for buying into it?

Cataloguer 3

Matt once-- he recently said that this was Andy's joke on the art world. And the three of us were like, that's our job.

Cataloguer 1

So this is typical. We have a few boxes that are like this, that just have vitamin bottles that he was taking at the time, just, like, the empty packaging, 20 or 30 of them in here.

Starlee Kine

In this room that's so antiseptic, where the procedures are so set and paperclips become museum objects, we're still dealing with a man's stuff. It's very personal. The girls know that Andy's dry cleaner's name was Danielle and that she was always sending him bills, which he ignored. He did the same with the surgeon who saved his life after he was shot, who they found a note from that read "pay up, you blow hard."

But they also know that along with unpaid bills, he would send art donations to charities. They know there were letters from fans asking him to sign an enclosed photo, and the photo will never be there, which means he sent it back to them signed. They know what he looked like without his wig on, that he had a comb over.

They know that there's a whole box he made devoted to his mom and how that one felt extra personal because some of her clothing was inside, and that can connect you to a person more than anything else. They found Andy's clothing in the capsules too. They know there are certain things you can't learn about a person just through reading, like the actual size of their waist.

None of the girls say they knew much about Warhol before this job. They're young. One of them says, "um, I knew his name." And so watching them feels like watching three really nice people tenderly unpack a stranger's house.

Cataloguer 3

And there's more gift wrap.

Cataloguer 2

It's cute.

Cataloguer 3

There's a lot of gift wrap.

Cataloguer 2

Do you want to open that?

Starlee Kine

Under the gift wrap, the girls discover some photos of Andy taken outside.

Starlee Kine

[GASPS].

Cataloguer 3

Oh, these are--

Eric Shiner

Oh, nice.

Cataloguer 1

Oh, neat.

Cataloguer 3

It's a photo of Andy on a wood pile.

Starlee Kine

The pictures are just casual snapshots. The girls lean in closer, touching shoulders.

Cataloguer 1

For Andy from--

Cataloguer 3

John?

Cataloguer 1

John, oh. From John Gould?

Starlee Kine

Who was John Gould in his life?

Cataloguer 2

He was his boyfriend.

Cataloguer 3

And-- oh. I'm swooning.

Starlee Kine

Are you?

Cataloguer 3

Yeah, little bit.

Starlee Kine

Those are actual dreamy sighs you're hearing. It's nice. After all the stuff they've gone through, the exciting stuff, the gross stuff, it's still Andy himself that gets the strongest, most affectionate reaction.

Starlee Kine

Why? Do you like-- are you guys attached to John and Andy together?

Cataloguer 3

I'm more attached to Andy and Jed, I think, to Jed Johnson.

Cataloguer 2

I don't have a favorite partner, no. I like finding photos of Warhol just hanging out, not at a party, not at an event. He had this friend Joan Quinn who was out in California. And I'd always just love when she sends stuff.

She sends these great photos of them all just hanging out together. He always looks like he's having fun and relaxed in the photos that she sends. Maybe because it's California and it's laid back. I just like the idea of Andy-- I don't know-- having people around him that care about him.

Starlee Kine

Whatever Warhol intended when he packed these boxes, I think it would have been hard for him to imagine this, that strangers would open them and go through his stuff and be the last people on earth to get to know him this intimately and end up liking him even more than when they started.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine in New York.

[MUSIC - BRAINPOOL, "JUNK"]

Act Three. Christmas or Bust.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Christmas or Bust. Now this story of a Christmas present and a teenager at Christmas trying to do right by his parents. It's a work of short fiction from Russell Banks.

Russell Banks

I didn't go to jail for it or anything. But I think of the time I got caught shoplifting at the lingerie store up at the Champlain Mall in Plattsburgh as the beginning of my life of crime. It was supposed to be the first Christmas after my mother and stepfather kicked me out of the house when I was still 14 and crashing at my friend Russell's place with the bikers down on Water Street in Au Sable Forks.

They were letting me sleep on this ratty couch they had, because I was dealing weed then and kept them supplied on credit. But mostly when I hung out there, I stayed in Russell's room. The bikers were older than us and were heavier into drugs. I saw one of those guys once rub a line of coke straight into his eye, which kind of grossed me out. Plus they drank a lot.

Russell was 16 and worked days part time at The Video Den. At nights we used to ride up to the mall in his Camaro so I could deal a little weed to the other kids. And we would hang out until the stores closed and hit on the girls. But mostly nothing was happening, so we'd sit around on the benches and watch all these cheesy couples doing their Christmas shopping, which was pretty depressing.

At Christmas the malls are filled with people who feel rotten because they don't have enough money, so they fight a lot. The carols and blinking lights and the guys in Santa suits are supposed to make you forget your troubles. But it's the opposite. At least for me it was, which was one of the reasons I liked to get high before we went there.

This one night, about 10 days before Christmas, I didn't have any weed. And I was thinking about my mother and stepfather, how it would be the first time they would be alone. And I wondered what they'd do on Christmas Eve.

What they usually did was get smashed on this eggnog and bourbon mixture my mother said was her mother's secret recipe and watch TV specials. Around 11:00 when the news came on, we'd open the presents we got for each other, hug, and say thanks. And then they'd go into their room and pass out. And I'd smoke a joint in the bathroom and watch MTV with Willy, the cat, until I fell asleep.

It was OK but not exactly ideal. But we had a tree and lights in the windows and all. And last year was cool because I got this excellent suede shearling jacket from my mom. And my stepfather gave me a Timex watch so I could start coming home on time, he said.

I got her one of those long silk Indian scarves that she seemed to like a lot. And for him I got a pair of lined driving gloves. Everybody was happy in spite of the eggnog.

But a lot happened since then. For one thing, the main thing, I guess, I got kicked out of the house for stealing and pawning my mother's coin collection that she had inherited from her mother and that she was someday going to pass on to me. But it also had to do with my getting a mohawk and my ears pierced and screwing up in school.

And even though they never caught me at it, they knew I was heavy into weed, which was why I had stolen the coins in the first place. When I left, it was sort of by mutual agreement, I guess. They would have let me come back if I wanted but only if I could be a different person than I was, which was not only impossible but unfair because I didn't know how to keep myself from getting into trouble anymore.

I must have crossed the line back when I was a little kid, like five or six, after my real father took off and my stepfather moved in and married my mom. My stepfather was OK. But I know he didn't mind at all when he and mom found out I stole the coins and they got to boot me out of the house. I knew my mother wanted me to come home. But no way I was going back as long as it didn't make the both of them happy to see me.

So I started imagining this scene. I get Russell to drop me off at my mom's and stepfather's house, which is really only a mobile home except it's got a foundation under it and a deck in back like a regular house. All my stuff, including my trademark dirt bike, is in Russell's car. And we unload and set it on the sidewalk.

But also, I've got this huge bag of presents for my mom and my stepfather, truly excellent items like a toaster oven and a Crock-Pot and maybe some jewels and a fancy nightgown for mom. And for my stepfather, a Polaroid camera and a portable sander and a Polo ski sweater. Then Russell takes off and I'm alone.

The house is dark except for the string of lights around the front door and the electric candles in the windows. And I could see the Christmas tree lights blinking through the curtain in the living room where I know they're watching The Cosby Show or something. It's Christmas Eve. It's snowing a little.

They're really sad because I'm not with them, and they don't know how to let me come home without acting like what I did to them doesn't matter, stealing the coin collection, smoking grass, getting a mohawk and all, and living with Russell and the bikers, and not going to school anymore, which they probably know about by now, and dealing weed for Hector, the Hispanic guy at the Limbo, which they don't know about. Although, I wonder what they think I've been living on all these months, charity? Also, they don't know that so far I haven't gotten a tattoo, even though Russell has two very cool tattoos on his arms and is always after me to get one.

Anyhow, in this scene, I go up to the door and knock. And when my mom comes out, I say Merry Christmas, mom, just sort of flat and normal like that, and hold out the bag with all the presents wrapped in this incredible shiny paper with bows and everything. She starts to cry, and my stepfather comes to the door to see what's the matter. I say the same to him. Merry Christmas, Ron, which is what I call him, Ron. And I show him the bag of presents, too.

My mom opens the door and takes the bag from me and passes it to Ron and gives me a big hug. Ron shakes my hand and says, come on in, son. We go into the living room, and I distribute the presents to them. And all is forgiven.

They don't have any presents for me, which embarrasses them, naturally, and they apologize. But I don't care. All I care is that they really like what I got them. And they do.

Later, we're drinking eggnog and watching TV. And Ron looks out the window and sees my bike and all my clothes and things out on the sidewalk with the snow coming down. And he says to me, son, why don't you bring your stuff inside?

When I got busted for shoplifting, it was in this fancy lingerie store called Victoria's Secret. And I was already out of the store with a green silky nightgown stashed in my jacket pocket. A black security guard, a dude I actually knew and had once sold some grass to, put the arm on me and turned me around and took me into an office in the back where the manager of the store and the head security guy were.

And after they hassled me for a while, I told them my mom's name and telephone number. The black guy who busted me had to go back on patrol. And when he left the office, I looked real hard at him. But he didn't care. He knew I couldn't pin him for anything without pinning myself worse.

And then, of course, a half hour later, here they come, my mother and my stepfather, her looking frightened and upset and him just burned, but neither of them talking to me, only to the store manager and the head of security. While they talked, they made me sit by myself in a storeroom next to the office where I stared at the no smoking sign and kept wishing I could get high. And a few minutes later, my mother came out wringing her hands with her face all red from crying.

They want to arrest you, she said. And Ron agrees with them. He thinks it would be good for you, she said. But I'm trying to explain that we've all had a lot of troubles on the home front this year, and you're just reacting to that. I'm trying to get you off, do you understand? Do you? I said, yeah, I understand.

Then she said, if you'll go in there and say you're sorry and say that you'll come home with us and stay away from the mall, I think they'll forget about the shoplifting. And Ron will go along. This could be your last chance, she said. Come on.

And she took me by the arm and led me back into the office where my stepfather was joking with the store manager who was a bald, middle aged guy, and the head security guy who had a gun strapped to his waist. The three of them were buddies now, and they looked at me and my mom like we were insects. Go ahead, my mom said to me, and she pushed me forward a step. Tell them what you told me.

I hadn't told her anything. But I knew what she wanted me to say. I felt weird, like I was in a movie and could say anything I wanted and it wouldn't make any difference in the real world.

They were all staring at me, waiting. So I looked down at my feet and said, My friend was going to lend me $50, but he didn't get paid in time. See, there you go, my stepfather said. The kid doesn't know right from wrong.

What the hell did you want with a woman's nightgown? he laughed, holding up the gown with his thumb and one finger like it was porno or something, like he thought I was going to wear it myself. No way I was going to answer him. So I just stood there.

And after a minute or two with no one saying anything, my mother took my arm and led me back out to the storeroom. Listen, mister, she said, really upset. I'm going back in there one more time. And, remember, I'm the one putting myself on the line for you. If I get them to let you go, you have to promise me that you'll come home with us and that things will be different. Do I have your word on that?

Yeah, I said. And she left and went into the office. I could hear them arguing through the wall, my mother's voice high pitched and pleading, my stepfather's voice low and grumbling, and once in a while some comments from the store manager or the security cop.

It seemed like hours, but it was probably only a few minutes before my mother came back out all sad smiles now. And she gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheeks. She held both my hands in hers and looked up at me and said, It's all right. They're going to let you go.

Ron finally came over to my side on this. He's going to meet us out front by the Sears entrance with the car. My goodness, she said, smiling. You're getting so tall, honey. It was true. I was taller than she was now.

When we walked out into the mall, I saw Russell sitting on a bench over by the fountain goofing with a kid I didn't know and a couple of girls from Plattsburgh High who were smoking cigarettes and pretending that the guys weren't there. Listen mom, I said. All my stuff's over at Russell's place. I'll go by there with him and bring it over. You and Ron go ahead without me.

She seemed a little confused. What? Why can't we just stop off there with you and get it now?

No, no, I said. The place is locked. I got to get it with Russell. I don't have a key. Besides, I owe him $20 for the rent. I can't get my stuff until I pay him. Can you give me $20, mom?

I was already thinking about getting high with him and the girls he was talking to and riding around Plattsburgh in his Camaro. No, she said. No, of course I can't give you any money.

I don't understand. Don't you know what just happened in there? Don't you know what I just went through?

Listen, mom. Just give me the money. I need the money.

What are you saying?

Give me the money.

She looked at me in a strange way, like she didn't recognize me but almost did. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a $20 and passed it over.

Thanks, I said. And I gave her a kiss on the cheek. I'll be back later after I get my stuff from Russell's.

She seemed shocked and put her hand to her mouth and took a few short steps away from me, then turned and disappeared into the crowd of shoppers. And as I crossed over towards Russell and the other kids, I remember saying to myself, now I'm a criminal. Now I'm a real criminal.

Ira Glass

So do you know what you're getting your parents for Christmas?

Girl

I'm getting my father some new clothes and some cologne. And I'm getting my mother some jewelry, expensive jewelry.

Ira Glass

Expensive jewelry? How expensive?

Girl

Like, around $200, $500.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god. That's so nice.

Girl

Yeah.

Ira Glass

This 16-year-old was going to pay for the necklace for her mom with the money that she was earning at the Orange Julius Dairy Queen at the mall, which is where I talked to her at Arundel Mills in Maryland. She started there just three and a half weeks before Christmas. And she said that she'd pretty much be spending nearly everything she earned, about $100 a week after taxes, plus her birthday money, to afford this gift for her mom, who works at a nail salon.

Ira Glass

Have you ever bought her anything this expensive?

Girl

No.

Ira Glass

Have you ever bought anyone anything this expensive?

Girl

No. This is like my first time I bought something really expensive.

Ira Glass

What made you want to do that for her?

Girl

I mean, she's like the world to me, you know? She's always been there, thick and thin. She does so much for me.

Ira Glass

But your dad is getting kind of short shrift compared to your mom it seems like.

Girl

Yeah. It's just my father hasn't been-- like, he's a father. But he's just, like, he's just not part of the family like my mother is. She's, like, always here supporting us and stuff like that. He's always off somewhere.

Ira Glass

So you're closer to her.

Girl

Yeah.

Ira Glass

What do you think she's going to say?

Girl

I think she's going to be more surprised. So, yeah, my mother, she loves all the presents I give her, even if it's, like, homemade. She appreciates all the things I give her.

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course, she does.

Girl

Yeah. There's not a lot of pressure, because she loves anything.

[MUSIC - BAD RELIGION, "ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH"]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by our senior producers, Julie Snyder and Ben Calhoun, with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Jonathan Goldstein, who you heard in the first act, is the host of the radio show Wiretap, which is heard on the CBC in Canada and on many public radio stations in this country. It is also a free and great podcast.

Russell Banks, whose story was Act Three, is the author of several books. His most recent is a short story collection, A Permanent Member of The Family. Production help today from Dana Chivvis.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.

Research help today from Michelle Harrison. Music help from Damien Graef, from Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks, as always, to our show's co-founder Torey Malatia. Over Thanksgiving-- maybe you heard this-- he was arrested in Las Vegas. It was some incident in a casino. I finally got him to explain.

Karyn

I had these two pieces of wood. I chopped them up into little squares. They weren't really good squares. And then I painted little dots on them and made them into dice.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - BAD RELIGION, "ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH"]

Announcer

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