Transcript

518:

Except For That One Thing
Transcript

Originally aired 02.14.2014

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/518

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When Mike and Sara bought their house, they were in their 30s-- been renters all their lives, not married, no kids yet, but heading there.

Mike

We had saved some money for a down payment, and we used all of that. So we had no money to furnish the house with.

Sara

And we were two people who had been living like grad students, basically. So yeah, we moved in our futon, and we moved in our--

Ira Glass

They had a little table that they got from Mike's dad's garage. Their chairs were these plastic stacking deck chairs-- the ones from Kmart. They had two desks. And that was about it. So most of the house was empty. Most of the rooms had nothing in them.

And so on the weekends, they would go looking for furniture. At first, they tried yard sales. And then they learned about estates sales, barn sales. They live in Maine.

The thing that they wanted more than anything was to get a dining room table. If they had a dining room table, they could have friends over for dinner, and they really wanted that. But the problem was they never had enough money to win at these barn auctions. Somebody would always outbid them. And Mike says he was seeing a side of Sara he had never seen before.

Mike

She turned into an absolute different person at these barn auctions. They would hand her a paddle, and she would have to win-- which is not good when you don't have any money.

Sara

Yeah, you give me a paddle, and I'm not going to sit there with it on my lap the whole time. And so then I would get a little wound up.

Ira Glass

After this one time when she spend hundreds of dollars that they did not have on something that looked from the back of the room where they were sitting like it was kind of a table but did not actually turn out to be a table, the two of them decided, OK, no more barn auctions. But Sara was not done.

Sara

Well, then I discovered this little thing called eBay.

Ira Glass

Now, this is, like, 1998, 1999. EBay is really new. They had just gone public. People like Sara are calling on dial-up modems. And Sara said that the first thing that she did when she got onto eBay was enter "dining room table" into the search box.

Sara

And then I was amazed because suddenly there were all these pictures of tables, and you can just get them. Today it seems kind of old hat, but back then it really was exciting.

Ira Glass

So at first, bidding on eBay was a lot like the barn auctions. Sara would bid on some piece of furniture and then ultimately did not have enough money to win. But she says that she was able to get a nice side table for $20. That gave her hope. Then one day--

Sara

The listing was "round walnut table and two chairs." And I clicked on it, and the starting bid, it was, like, $10. But then the shipping was really low.

Mike

I remember seeing a picture of it. It was kind of fancier than something we might normally go for. And the chairs looked great. It looked like what grown-up people would put in their house. Like, if we could put that table in here, that's it. That's the beginning. You could kind of see your kids sitting around that table someday.

Ira Glass

So there's a brief bidding war and Sara wins the table. She remembers it costing $20. Mike remember it as $40. But the moment she won, that she's totally clear on.

Sara

Are you kidding? On that front, I was elated. That felt great. It just felt like, wow, I could furnish our whole house for $400. I felt like suddenly, oh, we've been looking in the wrong places. We've been going to these barn auctions, but people already know about that. But nobody knows about eBay yet. So yeah, I was really fired up about it.

Ira Glass

So a couple of days pass. And one day Sara goes out to the mailbox, and there's a package. It's a box, like, half the size of a toaster.

Sara

I'm sort of like, oh, what's this? I brought it inside and I came into the kitchen and I opened up the box. And there was my walnut table and two chairs. And it was just as beautiful as it had been in the picture, but it was about 2 and 1/2 inches high. But it had the little velvet cushions, and it had a crocheted top on it. And it was from some guy in Maryland who makes doll furniture.

And I sat and I stared at it, dumbfounded for so long, trying to decide how I felt. That was the first thing when I was staring at the doll table. You know, it was one of those "do I laugh or do I cry" moments. And then I do remember getting back on eBay and realizing that when you put in a general search term, there are still categories, because I went and found the listing, and it was under doll furniture.

Ira Glass

Next, she showed it to Mike. And Mike says that when she show him the toy table, at first he couldn't even understand what it was that he was looking at. Like, his brain could not process the information-- like, what is this?

Mike

But then we were like, OK, that's fine. So we set it up in the dining room. So we have this big empty house and this tiny doll table with doll chairs set up in the dining room. And our friends started buying us little, you know, doll dishes and glasses.

Ira Glass

So it was a perfect transaction except for that one thing.

Mike

Yeah. Yeah, until the cardboard box arrived.

Sara

I do remember wanting Mike to see what a beautiful table it was, even if it was the wrong size. Like, that didn't matter. It was a nice table. And I remember when our friends came over and they would all mock me, it really was important to me that they saw. I mean, it was a beautiful-- the guy who made it is an artist. I'm going to give him that. And it was walnut and it was hand-carved and it had a nice little rim around it. And it was a miniature version of exactly what I wanted.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, "Except For That One Thing," we have stories today where everything is just like you would dream, right, just like you would wish for except for one pesky detail, one flaw. And the people involved, they have to decide if they can live with that flaw, that one problem in how things worked out, or if they cannot live with it.

That's what growing up is about, right, living with things not being absolutely perfect. Am I just talking for myself here? Hope not. OK. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Not Okay Cupid.

Ira Glass

Act one, Not Okay Cupid. So we start today with a piece of fiction by BJ Novak-- a piece of fiction that, with his help, we have turned into a little radio drama. It takes place in a restaurant. Hold on, let me bring in some restaurant sound.

[CHATTER]

There we go. OK, here's our story.

Julie

OK, now, you, sir--

Bj Novak

Julie finished the second-to-last half sip of her third complicated cocktail.

Julie's Date

Yes?

Julie

You, sir-- now, I am-- OK, I feel like we've only talked about me, but I don't know anything about you, other than that you're very, um, charming and, well, very cute, of course. Don't let that go to your head. Shouldn't have said that. Shouldn't have said that.

Julie's Date

Thank you.

Julie

OK. If-- if this is my-- [LAUGHS] OK, what do you do?

Julie's Date

What do I do? You mean, what is my job?

Julie

Sorry. I hate that question too. It's like, is this a date or an interview, right?

Bj Novak

He finished his bite of sauce-soaked broccolini and answered.

Julie's Date

[MUMBLING] Lord.

Julie

Mm? All I heard was lord.

Julie's Date

Yes.

Julie

Oh, OK. OK, this is fun. Are you a-- landlord? Because I do not have the best history getting along with landlords. My first apartment--

Julie's Date

I am not a landlord.

Julie

Are you a drug lord?

Bj Novak

Julie stroke-poked the side of his face with her finger.

Julie

Because that could be a problem.

Julie's Date

No.

Julie

You're not the Lord, are you? Because I haven't gone to temple since my bat mitzvah. Don't tell my grandma.

Julie's Date

[CHUCKLING]

Bj Novak

She could tell he was laughing just to be nice, and she liked that more than if he had laughed from finding her funny. A nice guy-- now, that would be a real change of pace for her.

Julie

Then what kind of lord are you anyways, huh?

Bj Novak

God, she was a bit tipsy, wasn't she?

Julie's Date

I'm a warlord.

Julie

Interesting. Now, I don't know exactly what this is, but I want to learn. So what exactly is a warlord?

Bj Novak

She rested her chin playfully on a V of two upturned palms.

Julie

Educate me.

Julie's Date

OK. Can you picture where the Congo is on a map?

Bj Novak

Julie exaggerated.

Julie

Kind of.

Julie's Date

This is Africa.

Bj Novak

He pointed to an imaginary map in the air between them.

Julie's Date

This is the Indian Ocean. This is the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is just regular Congo.

Julie

Wha-- what? Hold up.

Julie's Date

I know. That's just how it is. I didn't name them. Anyway, this, all this here, this is what I control.

Julie

So you're like the governor of it?

Julie's Date

No. There are areas of the world, Julie, where it will show up on your map as a certain country. But in reality, no government is in control of that region in any real way. They cannot collect taxes. They cannot enforce laws. Do you follow?

Julie

Mm-hmm.

Bj Novak

Julie nodded.

Julie's Date

The people that are in charge are the warlords. They-- we-- bribe, kidnap, indoctrinate, torture, and, uh-- what am I forgetting? What's the fifth one? Oh, kill. (CHUCKLING) It's weird that I forgot that one. We kill the population of any region that falls above a certain threshold of natural resources but below a certain threshold of government protection.

It's not exactly that simple, Julie. But basically that determines where I'm based. Once those conditions reach that level, me and my team, we show up and terrorize that area until the entire population is either dead, subdued, or ideally one of our soldiers. Ideally-ideally, dream scenario, a child solider.

Julie

But that does not sound legal.

Julie's Date

No, it isn't legal at all. Have you been listening?

Julie

Oh, um--

Bj Novak

Julie blushed and rotated her fork on her napkin in a four-point turn so she would have something to focus on besides her embarrassment.

Julie's Date

This is a show of force outside the ability of any government to enforce its laws.

Bj Novak

He went on and on. The words rape and limbs came up more than on any other date she could remember.

Julie's Date

Have you ever seen a picket fence made of limbs?

Julie

No. But what about, like, the international community? Don't they ever pressure you to stop, or-- or something?

Julie's Date

Yes, sure. For example, there was this thing about me on Twitter a while ago. Are you on Twitter?

Bj Novak

She said she was but didn't check it often.

Julie

Yeah, I am, but I don't check it often.

Julie's Date

Same here. I have an account but I can never figure out if it's a thing I do or not. Anyway, I was trending. Do you know what that is?

Julie

Yeah.

Julie's Date

I'll be honest. It weirded me out. I got into this pattern where I was checking my name every two seconds, and there were, like, 45 new mentions of me-- all negative.

Julie

You can't let yourself fall into that.

Julie's Date

Exactly. Anyway, it passed. You know Twitter. Before long, everyone's on to the next thing.

Julie

What about, [GULP] um, the ethics of it? How do you feel about that? Doesn't that trouble you?

Bj Novak

The warlord gestured to Julie with his fork.

Julie's Date

That top you're wearing-- Anthropologie?

Julie

H&M, but thank you.

Julie's Date

Even better. Do you know the conditions in the factories that made that top you're wearing? Do you ever think about that?

Julie

Yeah, OK-- no. That's not-- nice try. But just because-- no, no. And yes, I know this phone right here that I use every day-- but no. No, you can't-- it doesn't help anything to equate-- look, there's no excuse. But that also does not mean--

Waitress

(WHISPERING) Just in case you're thinking about dessert.

Bj Novak

The waitress dropped off too stiff sheets of artisan paper in front of Julie and the warlord.

Julie's Date

Remember when they used to ask first if you wanted to see a dessert menu? Now everyone just ambushes you with a dessert menu without asking. When did that start?

Julie

I know. Everyone started doing it at the same time too.

Julie's Date

Yes.

Julie

How does stuff like that happen?

Julie's Date

I don't know.

Julie

Everywhere just [SNAP] changing their policy at the exact same time.

Julie's Date

I have no idea. Better get Malcolm Gladwell on that.

Julie

I know, right?

Bj Novak

They both scanned the menus, each pair of eyes starting in the unhelpful middle of the dinner menu for some no-reason, then tipsily circling around and around until most of the important words had been absorbed.

Julie's Date

I have never understood flourless chocolate cake. Is flour such a bad thing? I mean, compared to the other things in chocolate cake.

Julie

You want to split that?

Julie's Date

Flour is probably the least unhealthy thing I can think of in a chocolate cake. Is that supposed to be a point, that the whole cake is just all eggs and sugar and butter? And anyway, who cares? It's chocolate cake. We know it's not a health food. Use whatever ingredients you want. All it has to do is taste good. We don't need to know how you did it. Just make it.

Julie

You want to maybe split that?

Julie's Date

We shall split the flourless chocolate cake.

Julie

Great. So do you get to travel a lot?

Julie's Date

Not as much as I'd like. Now and then we'll reach some ceasefire, especially after some big massacre, and things get quiet for a bit. That's what allowed me to take some time off, travel, meet you, stuff like that. Oh, I meant to say, you look even better in person than in your profile picture.

Julie

Oh. Thank you.

Julie's Date

Yeah, I've been meaning to tell you that. It's a nice surprise. Rare that it goes in that direction.

Julie

Well, thanks. Um, same. Don't let it go to your head.

Julie's Date

Thanks. So I lost my train of thought.

Julie

Ceasefires?

Julie's Date

Right. So you know, ceasefires, they never stick.

Julie

Yes, I think I saw something about that on Jon Stewart. That must be frustrating.

Julie's Date

It is. Thank you, Julie. That's exactly the right word. It's very frustrating.

Waitress

Flourless chocolate cake?

Both

Thank you.

Waitress

Can I get you anything else? Another drink?

Julie

I really shouldn't. Are you OK to drive, by the way?

Julie's Date

I have a driver.

Bj Novak

Julie ordered a fourth and final cocktail.

Ira Glass

BJ Novak. That story, "Julie and the Warlord" is from his new book of short stories called One More Thing-- Stories and Other Stories. Our amazing actors-- Allison Brie played Julie, Tunde Adebimpe was the warlord.

Act Two. Hungry Hungry People.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Hungry Hungry People. There was a period in the early 1900s in our country when meat was actually scarce because of huge waves of immigrants coming in. Plus, there was also a growing demand for us to export meat to other countries. And meat was scarce enough that the thinkers and journalists and politicians of the day didn't just call it a meat shortage. The problem was commonly referred to by this loftier, more zen-like name, the Meat Question.

Jon Mooallem wrote a long story about this for the Atavist online. He says that there would be newspaper editorials about what are we going to do about the Meat Question? It pops up in congressional testimony on unrelated subjects. People will say, well, you know, that's just like the Meat Question-- the question being how are we going to raise enough meat for all the people here? Jon Mooallem talked to This American Life producer Alex Blumberg about all this. He said, it wasn't like American industry wasn't trying to produce more meat.

Jon Mooallem

This is like Upton Sinclair, The Jungle era. So you have the industry just ramping up and trying to become as efficient as it can, but it's just not happening. The supply was still being dwarfed by the demand.

Alex Blumberg

No matter how many rats and human fingers they added, they just couldn't produce enough meat.

Jon Mooallem

Well, right. And people were actually a little bit worried. There were rumors that Germans were eating dogs and all this stuff, and could it happen here too? And in that way, it was also really an existential crisis for the country at the same time, because literally, we had gone all the way West. You had people talk about the frontier being closed. There wasn't a sense that there was more to scoop up in America.

Passenger Pigeons and buffalo had been decimated. You had forests that had been over-logged and destroyed. And then suddenly, about 1900 or 1910, this kind of regret started to seep into the culture where people were kind of looking around and wondering, well, what have we done? And what did that say about the country at the turn of the century, if no one could come up with some innovative idea to kind of hit this problem head on and solve it?

Alex Blumberg

OK, so there's the problem. It's a problem that's crying out for bold solutions. And lo and behold, somebody comes forth with the bold solution.

Jon Mooallem

Right. It was a very bold solution. The solution was hippopotamuses.

Alex Blumberg

Explain further. How are hippopotamuses going to fix the problem?

Jon Mooallem

OK, it was really going to be cool. The problem basically is we don't have any more land. We've hit the Pacific Ocean. So what we need to do is look at land that right now looks completely worthless and find a way to extract the energy that's hidden in that land and turn it into meat.

The swamps all on the Gulf Coast, you can't have a cow trudging through a swamp eating muddy water. It's not going to survive. You can't graze it there. But you could take a hippopotamus and put it in that landscape, and it would eat aquatic plants. So the hippopotamus was this-- today we'd call it a very disruptive technology. It was going to turn something that seemed worthless and leverage it into millions of tons of meat to solve this big crisis.

Alex Blumberg

And there's two main characters at the center of your story who were behind this-- Frederick Burnham and a man named Fritz Duquesne. And both of them have very sort of colorful back histories, but they both had spent time in Africa, were sort of very, very talented outdoor guide, survival guide scouts.

Jon Mooallem

Yeah. Someone had called Burnham the "most complete human being who ever lived," I guess you would say, like a shorthand.

Alex Blumberg

And these guys were actually, you write-- for much of their lives, they were mortal enemies. For a large part of their lives, they were actually spies. They fought against each other. But they had actually come together at this point over this idea, the hippo idea. And then at a certain point, this idea with their help makes its way to Congress.

Jon Mooallem

Yeah. So a congressman named Robert Broussard from Louisiana-- his constituents called him Cousin Bob. He insisted he was cousins with half the people in his district. And Broussard brought a bill to the Agriculture Committee of the House of Representatives to ask for $250,000 for the importation of useful animals, the hippopotamus being-- that was the example they felt ready to go ahead with, the common hippopotamus.

Alex Blumberg

And John writes that everyone involved in this idea had their own motivations. For Congressman Bob Broussard, it was to solve a problem in his district-- the water hyacinth. It came to New Orleans during the World's Fair, which was also known as the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial, when a group of Japanese visitors had given a bunch of water hyacinths away as gifts.

Jon Mooallem

And the water hyacinth basically was a plague in the bayous of Louisiana. It was choking all these rivers and stopped shipping. Boats couldn't get through with cargo. Fish died because there was no oxygen left in the water. And there were all sorts of attempts to kill the flower, none of which worked. The US War Department was on the job, just even pouring oil all over the flower hoping to kill it.

So the idea was the hippos could be brought in, put in the rivers. They'd suck up all this aquatic vegetation. And so they'd literally ingest one problem and convert it into the solution for the other problem, which was the meat crisis.

Alex Blumberg

Two birds.

Jon Mooallem

Exactly. I say it was a perversely elegant win-win, the hippopotamuses.

Alex Blumberg

It makes a lot of sense, except that it's utterly ridiculous, right?

Jon Mooallem

Uh-- OK, so right, it's utterly ridiculous. But can you tell me why?

Alex Blumberg

Well, it's just-- hippopotamus is just a ridiculous thing.

Jon Mooallem

OK, so I don't disagree with what you're saying, but you're telling me why it sounds ridiculous. You're not telling me why it is ridiculous. And I'm not saying that it's not ridiculous, OK? I'm just saying that I can't yet locate exactly why it is ridiculous.

Alex Blumberg

And actually, as you looked into it, there's a lot of reasons why this plan should actually work.

Jon Mooallem

Maybe not even why it would work, but there's a logic to it. I was surprised by how much logic there was to it. That was what drew me in.

Alex Blumberg

And you can really see this logic on display in the congressional hearing about this idea. Back in 1910, testimony is heard for Broussard's bill, HR 23261, also known as the Hippo Bill. One of the main people called on to testify? Fred Burnham.

Jon Mooallem

Burnham did a really good job of making this sound normal. He made the point that OK, what are the animals that Americans eat? Chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, lambs. None of those, really, are native to the US. They were all brought centuries before by people from other parts of the world. But they had been here so long that we took them for granted as American cuisine. Really, the only thing that was native was turkeys, and we only ate that once a year.

So why did we suddenly stop feeling free enough to change the landscape that way? And so the idea of solving the Meat Question this way, this is sort of where the beautiful poetry of it is. It was this key that unlocked all these other feelings of optimism and ambition and sort of stick-to-it-iveness that America wanted to feel again, because it was a way of saying, we have the smarts and the courage to solve this in a bold way.

Alex Blumberg

What about, though, the other reaction, which is just sort of, like, yuck? That's disgusting. I'm not going to eat hippo meat. Yuck.

Jon Mooallem

Right. There was a lot of that. There was a kind of campaign to nudge people past that. You had this guy, WN Irwin, at the Department of Agriculture who was helping Burnham and Duquesne promote it. Apparently he had a supply of hippopotamus jerky that he offered to reporters here and there in his office. I found a story in the Washington Post, he had actually given it to a Washington Post reporter as he showed the Washington Post reporter a photo of that very hippo being skinned in Africa by a crowd of men. And that reporter liked it. "Toughness is only skin deep," is what he wrote.

Alex Blumberg

So obviously the state of Louisiana is not covered in hippo ranches. We don't have hippo bacon on the menus of fancy restaurants. So what happened? What got in the way of this vision?

Jon Mooallem

Yeah, that's a really good question. What got in the way of this vision? Frankly, a lot of the problem was administrative. They're all writing letters to each other all summer, all three men, trying to get this new food supply society up and running, which was going to be a lobbying firm to promote the idea in the next session of Congress.

And I said to my editor on the story, I said, I'm starting to get the impression that if they had had email, this might have actually happened. It's just so infuriating. Like, Duquesne writes to Broussard and says, what can I do for you? But Broussard is in South America. And then when he comes back, he gets the flu. And so you have back and forth with his secretary.

Or Burnham is traveling in Mexico and can't be reached. Or someone misses a letter. They never got the letter, so then they write back two weeks later, I never received your reply to my last letter. So it got really messy and sloppy.

Alex Blumberg

You tell this story at the very end of-- there's this scene at the very, very end of this piece that you wrote, where Frederick Burnham is now an older man. It's 1944.

Jon Mooallem

Yeah, 34 years after all this. At this point he's a very distinguished man. He's become very wealthy. And he was preparing his papers for posterity at both Stanford and Yale. I guess that's how you know you've had an impressive life, when both Stanford and Yale libraries want your archives.

And he finds this speech that he had given to a civic organization in Pasadena in 1910. And he reads over the speech. And there he is in 1910, 34 years earlier, making the case to the general public of why this is going to work, why it's necessary, and just urging these laypeople to understand that what he calls "the complacent belief in the unending plenty of our natural wealth" was now so totally false. It was so obvious that wasn't true anymore.

But that here he was, humbly with this idea. He's assuring them, he's saying, the idea made sense. It makes sense. But it's going to require working against what he calls "overwhelming difficulties" and "the loud guffaws of the ignorant" to make it a reality. And here he is, he reads this over. And still, he takes a pen and he writes in this very shaky, old man hand, he writes, "the facts are still unrefuted." And he signs it, FRB, 1944. And then he sends it off to the archives, which is where I found it.

Ira Glass

Jon Mooallem, talking to Alex Blumberg from our Planet Money team. You can read Jon's full account of the American hippopotamus, including everything on the crazy rivalry between Fred Burnham and Fritz Duquesne that we were not able to get into, at theatavist.com. It's also an Amazon Kindle single.

Coming up, Tig Notaro tries to introduce unknowing sixth graders to a band called the Rolling Stones. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Start Me Up.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Except For One Thing," stories where everything is perfect except for one inconvenient detail. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Start Me Up.

When comedian Tig Notaro was in sixth grade, she took this music class, and it was the kind of class where they would talk about Beethoven and The Who. And they would play instruments, and they read books. She described what happened in that class in front of a live audience at Largo in Los Angeles.

Tig Notaro

It was so much fun. I just-- I loved it. I was a huge Beatles and Rolling Stones fan. And at the end of every class, the teacher would let one kid play their favorite song for the whole class to hear. And I always brought in Beatles and Rolling Stones albums.

And the coolest kid in our entire school, JD-- of course-- he came up to me after school one day, and he said, if I bring in my dad's Rolling Stones album, will you tell me a cool song to play? I said, absolutely. No doubt.

Next day, he brought in the Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed. I looked it over. I said, this song. Play this one. And I pointed at "You Can't Always Get What You Want." He said, are you sure? I was like, I couldn't be more positive. This is the coolest song that you could possibly play. And he was like, OK.

So the teacher asked if anyone had a song. And JD raised his hand. She called him up to the front. He pointed out that song. And at that point, this is what the entire classroom heard.

London Bach Choir

I saw her today at the reception, a glass of wine in her hand. I knew she would meet her connection.

Tig Notaro

JD was furious. He's looking at me like, what is this? And I'm, like, frantically signing-- no, no, no. This is an amazing song. It gets better.

London Bach Choir

You can't always get what you want. You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.

Tig Notaro

And then the bell rang.

[LAUGHTER]

Nobody got to hear any more of that song. And the coolest kid in school just, like, marched down there, grabbed his record, and turned to me and was like, thanks a lot, and then just bolted out of the classroom. I was like, no! It gets better! And I guess-- I guess you can't always get what you want.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you so much.

Ira Glass

Tig Notaro. Her latest comedy albums and her podcast, Professor Blastoff, are at her website, tignation.com.

[MUSIC - "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT" BY ROLLING STONES]

Act Four. Run On Sentence.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Run On Sentence. So lots of us have things about ourselves that we keep to ourselves that we assume people would see us differently if they knew about. And Mike Anderson had something like that, one thing about him in particular that he kept a secret, until one day it came out. Jessica Lussenhop explains.

Jessica Lussenhop

Mike Anderson was 36 years old, married, a suburban father of four. He owned a contacting business and built his family's modest, three-bedroom house in St. Louis from the ground up. He volunteered at church on the weekends and coached his son's football team. That changed last July. He was home alone with his two-year-old daughter while his wife was away on a business trip.

Mike Anderson

I was sleeping. I was awoken. I was about 6 o'clock in the morning, woken by knocking at the door. And it was unusual knocking. It was the consistent knocking-- you know, the hard knocking.

So I knew something-- what is going on? So I just stood at the top of the stairs for a moment. And finally I said, who is it? I'm in my boxers. And they said, marshals. Open it up or it's coming down. Opened up the door.

As soon as I opened up the door, it was a small army. I mean, it was about eight of them. They had the shields. They had the helmets. They had the AR-15 style machine-looking guns. And they had the street blocked off. And I said, hey man, you got the wrong person. And he just looked at me. He said, no, you're the right person.

Jessica Lussenhop

The officer handcuffed him and asked, do you remember 13 years ago?

Mike Anderson

I broke out in a sweat. They had to sit me down. And the only thing I could think about, what's my wife going to say, what she's gonna think, you know. So I called her. As soon as I called her, she was crying. What's going on? And I told her what's going on. I said, baby, this is from 13 years ago.

Laqonna Anderson

I'm freaking out-- I mean, screaming, crying.

Jessica Lussenhop

This is Mike's wife, LaQonna. They've been married for six years.

Laqonna Anderson

I could hear the marshals in the background telling him he has to go. So he told me he loved me, and that was it.

Jessica Lussenhop

And when you heard "something from 13 years ago," did you understand what that meant at all? Or what were you thinking?

Laqonna Anderson

I didn't understand what it meant until the next day, when we had a talk with the attorney. Then I just passed out, hit my head on the concrete.

Jessica Lussenhop

Here's what LaQonna learned. In 1999, Mike was arrested for armed robbery but never served his time because of what amounted to a clerical error. He was 22 years old when he a friend held up a Burger King manager making a night deposit at a bank. This wasn't a case of mistaken identity or wrongful conviction. Mike was there.

Although his attorney instructed him not to discuss the details of the crime with me, Mike says he got caught up with the wrong crowd that night. Until then, he had no prior convictions and worked a full-time job at AT&T. In court, Mike testified that the robbery wasn't his idea and that the gun his friend was holding was just a BB gun.

The police never actually recovered any weapons, but Mike was convicted of armed criminal action and robbery. The judge sentenced him to 13 years in prison. Mike filed a series of appeals. But in the end, the courts decided, nope, he had to serve his sentence. At the time, Mike was out on bail.

And here, something strange happened. At this point, Mike's bail should have been revoked, and he should have been arrested and taken to prison. But a warrant was never issued for that. Mike's attorney and the prosecutor appeared before a judge. Mike wasn't actually there himself.

Mike Anderson

From what I understand, the judge asked, where is Mr. Anderson? My attorney handed her the briefs and told her Mr. Anderson is currently out on bond. But the prosecuting attorney at that time hopped up and said, no, he's not out on bond. I checked. My office checked. He's currently in prison. And so that was it.

Jessica Lussenhop

It was the prosecutor who told the judge that Mike was in custody even though he wasn't. He was at home. Mike's attorney didn't say anything because he hadn't actually talked to Mike in a few days, and he thought maybe he really was back in prison-- until he talked to Mike on the phone.

Mike Anderson

He was shocked. He said, you aren't in jail? I said, no, I'm not. And so I was like, well, what are we supposed to do? Am I supposed to turn myself in? And it was just like, well, at this time, it's a mistake. They'll figure out their mistake. You know, he said, it's temporary. Expect to be picked up. They're going to pick you up.

Jessica Lussenhop

It wasn't unusual for it to take a couple of weeks for a warrant to get issued. But months, then years passed. No one ever came and picked up Mike.

Mike says he never really considered turning himself in. He figured they'd either come for him or they wouldn't. And if they didn't, OK. That was God's plan for him. His lawyer was vague about what he should do next. He left it up to Mike.

But after the arrest, the trial, the months he spent in prison before bonding out, Mike decided to turn his life around. He went back to school and became a master carpenter. He got married and became a family man who checked homework and got his kids ready for bed every night. Mike never had another run-in with the law.

Jessica Lussenhop

Did you feel like a fugitive during that time?

Mike Anderson

No, I never felt like a fugitive, because a fugitive's someone that's running from the law. I never ran from the law. I was there. I registered my business through the state, you know, with a social security number, address, everything. I'm four streets over from the address that they had on file, built a house over there. So there was never any running or strategy of, hey, I don't want to go here because there's going to be authorities. No, I lived a normal life.

Jessica Lussenhop

Did you feel relaxed right away? What was it like to sort of acclimate to this feeling that you're out and you may get to stay out?

Mike Anderson

It was 13 years of somewhat relief, but was it always in the back of my mind? Of course it was always in the back of my mind. Is that day coming any day now? So you get pulled over for a traffic ticket. You run a red light, run a stop sign, or you didn't come to a complete stop. And they're running your information, and your heart's beating fast, like, man, are they going to know? And they come back, hey, Mr. Anderson, get your tail light fixed. Get your tags renewed. And that was it. And I was just like, wow, what's going on?

Jessica Lussenhop

In the end, the only reason that the Missouri Department of Corrections realized Mike was missing was because they were preparing to release him from prison. I called the Department of Corrections, the county's warrant officers, the original court where this happened, Missouri's Attorney General, and the state's Supreme Court, and no one would say anything about how there was a record claiming that Mike was one of their inmates when he was, in fact, free.

Meanwhile, Mike and his wife still have not had a frank conversation about all this either. They haven't discussed the fact that Mike knew all those years that he might someday go back to prison but never told her.

Jessica Lussenhop

Do you feel any sense of anger or wished that he had told you this earlier on?

Laqonna Anderson

I mean, that question arose in my head, just like, why he didn't tell me. But I can't get mad at him, because I understand why he hid it from me. He just wanted to protect me. So he didn't want to put too much on me that I couldn't handle. And that's just the type of person Mike is, too. He'll try to juggle everything by himself.

Jessica Lussenhop

It feels a little strange that you guys haven't had that conversation.

Mike Anderson

It's uncomfortable for me because I'm always embarrassed about it. That's not who I am now. It's not who I'll ever be. I just want to forget it.

Jessica Lussenhop

When I first visited Mike in November, he had to stay in his cell for about 22 hours a day in a huge penitentiary called Fulton Reception and Diagnostic, a gray building planted in the middle of farmland about two hours west of St. Louis. Usually clean cut, Mike had several months worth of beard on his chin.

Mike Anderson

August, the kids went to school, their first day of school. Missed that. September, missed me and my wife's anniversary on the 26th. November, my son turned 7 on the 5th, and my daughter turned 11 on the 10th. I've missed a lot-- missed a lot.

Jessica Lussenhop

13 years without going to prison did exactly what you'd hope 13 years in prison will do for a person. Mike reformed, became a model citizen-- which raises the question, do we want to send him to prison? It will cost the state of Missouri about $20,000 a year to house and feed him.

And if Mike's no longer a danger to society, what's the point of having him sit in a cell, when he could be out working, paying taxes, and raising his kids? Tim Lohmar is the prosecuting attorney in St. Charles County where Mike was sentenced-- although he's not the one who jumped up in court and said Mike was in prison. That prosecutor has passed away.

Tim Lohmar

It still baffles me how this could have happened. But I think the state's interests are that this sentence has to be served.

Jessica Lussenhop

So he's had this life. He's had children, started a small business, hasn't had any run-ins with the law. Some people would say that he's been rehabilitated. He shouldn't have to serve this sentence because it took so long.

Tim Lohmar

Well, I can't say that that's an unreasonable thing for those people to think, especially his family, people who are close to him. Anybody who doesn't have sympathy for Mr. Anderson, I think, is not being genuine. It's a horrible tragedy for he and his family. So whether that spurs somebody at a higher pay grade than me to figure out a better way to do this, I don't know.

You open Pandora's box if our system allowed for people to somehow, whether it was their doing or somebody else's doing, to delay their incarceration, to see if they can rehabilitate and become a productive member of society, become a family man. I don't know how we would do that. I don't know where you stop. Where do you draw the line? That's not a precedent that I feel that we can set.

Jessica Lussenhop

Mike's family hired a lawyer who filed a brief arguing that when the state forgot about Mike for 13 years, they violated his constitutional right to due process or speedy punishment, that now suddenly taking Mike away from his life because of the state's, quote, "utter and complete failure to act defines cruelty," end quote. If that fails, Mike can petition Missouri Governor Jay Nixon for clemency. He's only granted that once. Then there's the victim from the robbery. You'd think if anyone would have an opinion about whether Mike should serve his time or not, it would be him.

Mike Anderson

I hope someday that man can forgive me for what I was a part of. So I've always wanted to someway, somehow, reach out to him, but I always feared that it would be an intrusion. And all I can do is just-- I'm sorry. I should have never been there that night.

Jessica Lussenhop

I first reported this story last summer for the St. Louis Riverfront Times. At that time, I couldn't find the victim. But then, right after my article published, he found me. His name is Dennis.

Dennis

I was sitting there back at work, eating my lunch and reading this magazine. Something about, oh, the guy was a Burger King manager on the night shift, and he got robbed out in St. Charles. And that's when I was like, wow, man. This is really trippy. It almost sounds like something that happened to me. And then when I got on down farther, I was like, crap, they are talking about me.

Jessica Lussenhop

When he first contacted me, Dennis sent me an email saying, I was that victim. Why don't you talk to me, and I'll tell you how bad it screwed up my life. When we finally met, Dennis told me that getting robbed at gunpoint left him deeply paranoid. He even moved a few times, thinking the robbers might come looking for him to keep him from testifying.

Dennis

It started kind of getting to me a little bit, to where I wasn't sleeping at nights. And it kind of just escalated from there. I didn't want to be there at work no more, refused to take any money back to the bank-- not night time anyway.

Jessica Lussenhop

Did you keep that job? Or did you stay there? Or did you quit?

Dennis

I stayed there for another three or four months, and it just got to where I just-- I ended up transferring out to a different county. It was going to be either that, or I was going to quit. I told them I had to get away from there. I just didn't trust anybody, didn't want to do anything, didn't want to be anywhere. I just pretty much wanted to just be by myself.

Jessica Lussenhop

Dennis said he had problems in his life before the robbery-- with his marriage, with drinking. But he says after, they got worse. His marriage fell apart. And so when Dennis found out that Mike never served his sentence, he got pretty angry.

Dennis

But then the more I thought about it, it was like, what you're doing to him is not right. He wasn't out robbing other people, doing this, that, and the other. He seemed to have gotten his life together. You've got to give the guy a little bit of slack. I mean, yeah, he screwed up when he was little. But the law dropped the ball. The law ought to drop it completely. They need to leave the man alone.

Jessica Lussenhop

When you tell people that that's how you feel about it, does it surprise them?

Dennis

You know, it's the weirdest thing. As I was sitting downstairs rereading that article one day for my daughter, she goes, Dad, we read this in school the other day. I was like, oh yeah? I said, oh. At the time, she didn't know it was me, because I just never talk about it. She said that she didn't think it was right, what they're doing to him now. And pretty much her whole class agreed with her.

Jessica Lussenhop

Then Dennis told her that he was the Burger King manager in that article and that he felt the same way she did. Two days after that conversation, I went back to the prison to talk to Mike. I told them what Dennis and his daughter said, that the state should let him go. He was overwhelmed.

Mike Anderson

Wow, that's-- all I can say is praise God. Thank God for that, and-- I don't know what to say. (CHOKING UP) I don't.

Jessica Lussenhop

He told me he was really sorry to be bothering Dennis by reminding him of the past.

Mike Anderson

I appreciate him. I never wanted him to ever be-- this brung back to him. And that's my fault, and I appreciate him for that-- you know, his daughter in the class and how his daughter could be affected by that. You know, that's not something that I ever-- that's never my intent, and I don't want that.

Jessica Lussenhop

Mike is afraid of falling into the daily routines of prison. So aside from his church group, he doesn't interact much with the other inmates. He won't do things like watch TV with them or play cards. He also doesn't like writing his family letters.

Mike Anderson

You know, I try not to write anybody, because I don't want to get used to this. I don't want my wife coming up here to visit me. She wanted to come up here the 1st of this month, and I said, no, don't do it. For eight years, we've never been apart. And I don't want her getting this image of me. I don't want anybody thinking this is who I am.

Jessica Lussenhop

If you could go back, would you turn yourself in at 22?

Mike Anderson

If I would have known this, yes. Yes. If it would have been something-- oh, definitely. Like I said, I would rather done it then. I was 22, 23 at the time. Didn't have any children, didn't have a wife, didn't have a mortgage, didn't have a car payment. The hurt would have been less then. No one financially or physically depended on me. It's almost like I feel like I've abandoned my job as a man and as a father, you know? Because my mom, my wife, my kids, they're doing the same time I'm doing.

Jessica Lussenhop

As it stands now, Mike's sentence will keep him in until 2026. He'll be nearly 50 when he gets out. His two-year-old will just be starting high school. Accepting all that is just too crushing to consider.

Mike Anderson

I have to look at it like, no matter what, God's got me. I wake up every time the doors pop, every time the intercom comes on, every time my name is called. I feel it's my time, I'm going home.

Jessica Lussenhop

How long do you think you can kind of keep up that mindset?

Mike Anderson

I'm going to keep up that mindset till the day I walk out of here. I have to. I can't sit here and think that I'll be here for 13 years. There's no way. Everything that I've been allowed to do, that I've accomplished. It just seems like it'd be all for nothing.

Jessica Lussenhop

In November, Mike and his wife both expected he'd be home for Christmas. Now she just assures herself it'll be very soon. They talk on the phone almost every day, but they both told me they figure they'll finally discuss Mike's original crime and the fact he kept it from her all those years face to face, once this is all over, once he gets home.

Ira Glass

Jessica Lussenhop, she's the managing editor at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis.

Act Five. Happy Accident.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Happy Accident. Etgar Keret always had a good relationship with his dad except for one thing. The story is true. It all happens in Israel, where Etgar lives, and was read for us in English translation by actor Michael Chernus.

Michael Chernus

30 years I'm a cabbie, the small guy sitting behind the wheel tells me. 30 years and not one accident. It's been almost an hour since I got into his taxi in Beersheba, and he hasn't stopped talking for a second. Under different circumstances, I would tell him to shut up, but I don't have the energy for that today. Under different circumstances, I wouldn't shell out 350 shekels to take a taxi to Tel Aviv. I would take the train.

But today I feel that I have to get home as early as I can. I spent last night at Ichilov Hospital with my wife. She had a miscarriage and was bleeding heavily. We thought it would be OK until she passed out. It wasn't until we got to the emergency room that they told us that her life was in danger and gave her a blood transfusion.

Three days before that, my dad's doctors told me and my parents that the cancer at the base of his tongue, which had been in remission for four years, was back. And the tumor was at such an advanced stage that the only way to fight it was to remove his tongue and larynx. The oncologist said she didn't recommend having the surgery, but my dad said that he was for it.

The oncologist told him that the operation would leave him seriously handicapped, unable to speak or eat. At my age, my dad said, all I need are my heart and my eyes, so I can enjoy watching my grandchildren grow. When we left the room, the doctor whispered to me, try to talk to him. She clearly doesn't know my dad.

The taxi driver repeats, for the 100th time, that in 30 years, he hasn't had a single accident and that all of a sudden, five days ago, his car kissed the bumper of the car in front of him, traveling at 20 kilometers per hour. When they stopped and checked, he saw that except for a scratch on the left side of the bumper, the other car hadn't really been damaged at all. He offered the other driver 200 shekels on the spot, but the driver insisted that they exchange insurance information.

The next day, the driver, a Russian, asked him to come to a garage. And he and the owner, probably a friend of his, showed him a huge dent all the way on the other side of the car and said the damage was 2,000 shekels. The cab driver refused to pay, and now the other guy's insurance company was suing him. Don't worry. It'll be OK, I tell him, in the hope that my words will make him stop talking for a minute.

How will it be OK, he complains. They're going to screw me. Those bastards are going to squeeze the money out of me. You see how unfair it is? Five days I haven't slept. Do you get what I'm saying?

Stop thinking about it, I suggest. Try thinking about other things in your life, happy things. I can't, the cab driver groans and grimaces. I just can't.

Then stop talking to me about it, I say. Keep on thinking and suffering, but just don't tell me about it anymore, OK? It's not the money, the taxi driver continues, believe me. Yesterday I went with my son to the graves of the Sadikim. We bought blessings for 1,800 shekels, and I didn't mind paying. It's the injustice that gets me.

Shut up, I say, finally losing it. Just shut up for a minute. What are you yelling for, the cab driver asks, insulted. I'm an old man. It's not nice. I'm yelling because my father is going to die if they don't cut his tongue out of his mouth, I continue to yell. I'm yelling because my wife is in the hospital after a miscarriage.

The driver is silent for the first time since I got into his taxi, and now I'm suddenly the one who can't stop the stream of words. Let's make a deal, I say. Get me to an ATM, and I'll take out 2,000 shekels and give it to you. In exchange, it'll be your father who has to have his tongue removed and your wife who's lying in a hospital bed getting a blood transfusion after a miscarriage.

The driver is still silent, and now so am I. I feel a little uncomfortable for having shouted at him but not uncomfortable enough to apologize. To avoid his eyes, I look out the window. We missed the exit to Tel Aviv. I tell him that politely-- or I shout it angrily. I don't recall anymore.

He tells me not to worry. He doesn't really know the way. But in a minute, he'll find out. A few seconds later, he parks in the right lane of the highway after managing to convince another driver to stop. He starts to get out of the taxi to ask for directions to Tel Aviv.

You'll kill us both, I tell him. You can't stop here. 30 years I'm a cabby, he tosses back at me as he gets out of the taxi. 30 years and not one accident. Alone in the cab, I can feel the tears rising.

I don't want to cry. I don't want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be positive like my dad. My wife is fine now, and we already have a wonderful son. My dad survived the Holocaust. That's not just a half-full glass. It's an overflowing one. I don't want to cry, not in this taxi, not next to this driver that I yelled at. The tears are welling up and will soon begin to flow.

Suddenly I hear a crashing boom and a sound of windows breaking. The world around me shatters. A silver car veers across the next lane, completely smashed. The taxi moves too, but not on the ground. It floats above it. Towards the concrete wall on the side of the road, after it hits, there's another bang. Another car must have hit the taxi.

A second before the ambulance drives away, they load the taxi driver into it. Deep in my heart, I was hoping they'd send us in separate ambulances, but it just wasn't my day. The driver, looking revitalized and happy, lights a cigarette. The paramedic wears a yarmulke and tells me I was very lucky. An accident like that with no deaths is a miracle.

The minute you're discharged from the hospital, he says, you should run to the nearest synagogue and give thanks for still being alive. My cellphone rings. It's my dad. He's only calling to ask how my day at the university was and whether the little one is asleep yet. I tell him that the little one is sleeping and my day at the university was great. And Shira, my wife, is fine too. She just stepped into the shower.

What's that noise, he asks. An ambulance siren, I tell him, and try to sound casual. One just passed by in the street.

Once, five years ago when I was in Sicily with my wife and son, I called my dad to ask how he was. He said everything was fine. In the background, a voice on a loudspeaker was calling a Dr. Shulman to the operating room. Where are you, I asked. In the supermarket, my dad said, without a moment's hesitation. They're announcing on the loudspeaker that someone lost her purse. He sounded so convincing when he said that, so confident and happy.

Why are you crying, my dad asks now from the other side of the line. I force myself to smile, hoping he can sense it too. It's nothing, I say, as the ambulance stops next to the emergency ward and the paramedic slams the ambulance doors open. Really, it's nothing.

Ira Glass

Michael Chernus, reading a story by Etgar Keret. Etgar's most recent book is Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

[MUSIC - "HOW ARE YOU DOING" BY THE LIVING SISTERS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Miki Meek and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Alison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help today from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help today from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia, or as he always refers to himself--

Jon Mooallem

The most complete human being who ever lived.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "ONE MORE THING" BY THE LITERARY GREATS]

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