Transcript

539:

The Leap
Transcript

Originally aired 11.07.2014

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/539

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Now, a man who took a leap into the unknown, back in 1947. He was a New York City bus driver named William Cimillo. For a while, he became the most famous bus driver in the country. Though, I think what that really means is that he was the only famous bus driver in the country. He told his story on television.

Announcer

Pepsi-Cola presents Faye Emerson.

Faye Emerson

Hello again. Do you ever think of getting away from it all? A bus driver had that same feeling. And he made every headline in the country. So I asked him to come up here and tell us all about it. Hello, Bill.

William Cimillo

Pleasure to meet you.

Faye Emerson

Thank you. Come on. Sit down, and let's talk. Hey, Charlie, you got a couple of Pepsis here for us?

Charlie

Pepsis right here.

Faye Emerson

Thanks, Charlie.

Charlie

Yes, ma'am.

Ira Glass

OK. So I just want to describe what's happening here. It's black and white. The set of this TV show is a living room, but like a complete living room with everything. Window blinds, paintings on the walls, there's a credenza.

This was back before TV figured out that the only part of the living room that they actually need for a talk show is the couch. So OK. A butler-- yes, a butler-- hands the host, Faye Emerson, a silver tray with a bottle of Pepsi and two glasses. Faye pours her guest a soda and--

Faye Emerson

Will you tell us what happened, please?

William Cimillo

I don't [INAUDIBLE].

[GLASSES CLINKING]

Faye Emerson

Wonderful.

William Cimillo

Well, it's one of those things. I was on the job for about 20 years, and I really got tired of it all, you know. Up and down, every day, the same people, the same stops, nickels, dimes, transfers, and-- well, this morning, I thought I'd try something different. So I come out of my garage. Instead of making a right turn to go off to my route, I thought I'd make a left turn.

Faye Emerson

And that was the first thought you'd really given to it. Just, you did it on impulse.

William Cimillo

That's right. So I made this left turn, and I went west towards George Washington Bridge. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining. So I got on the other side of the Washington Bridge-- I was in Jersey then-- and I stopped for breakfast.

Ira Glass

After breakfast, Cimillo got back in his bus, and he didn't drive to the Bronx to pick up his passengers on his usual route. He headed south on US Route 1. Cimillo had been a bus driver with what was then called the Surface Transportation System of New York for 17 years, without any problems.

Went to work every day, never complained, people said. As he drove further and further away from New York City, and from his job, and from his, you know, life, he switched the destination sign from Subway to Special. Hours passed.

William Cimillo

I kept riding. Before I knew it, I was in Washington. And I was right in front of the White House.

Faye Emerson

You ever been to Washington before?

William Cimillo

Never been there. Never. So I decided to look around. I looked around for 15, 20 minutes. When I come back, there's a policeman standing by the bus. And he asked me, he says, what are you doing here with this great big bus in a restricted parking area?

Faye Emerson

Right in front of the White House, wasn't it?

William Cimillo

Right in front of the place. I said, I'm waiting for a delegation of union officials. They're up there on business. And--

Faye Emerson

Pretty fast thinking.

Ira Glass

Cimillo got back in his bus, kept driving south. He said he even picked up a hitchhiker, a sailor, who rode with him for two days.

Then, on the third day, Cimillo and his bus arrived in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami. It was late. He said he went for a swim.

William Cimillo

--moonlight bathing. I enjoyed that very much.

Faye Emerson

Oh, what a thrill.

William Cimillo

It was.

Ira Glass

William Cimillo was 1,300 miles from the Bronx. 1,300 miles from New York traffic, from the daily grind. And he was almost out of money. He went to the Gulfstream Park Race Track. He liked to gamble.

We do not know how much money he put down, but he left the track with $2.60. Same day, he also went to the closest Western Union and sent this telegram to his boss. Quote, "With disabled bus number 1310, stop. In need of $50, stop. Send money to Hollywood, Florida, stop. Cimillo."

William Cimillo

So I'm waiting at the telegraph office for the money, and two policemen come over. They says, you're wanted. I said, what for? They says, for stealing a bus. I said, oh no. I didn't steal that bus. I said, they gave it to me. Well, one word led to the other. They said, you're still arrested.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, what happens when you take a crazy leap into the unknown, having no idea if it's going to work out, or what's going to happen next. Will you end up on a beach in Florida, happy and carefree? Will you end up in handcuffs? We have three stories of people risking everything in their lives, including the surprising thing that happened next to this bus driver, William Cimillo. Stay with us.

Faye Emerson

You did what everybody always wanted to do.

William Cimillo

Just get away from everything. That's what I wanted to do.

Faye Emerson

Talking about getting away from it all. Well, if you are planning to get away from it all, you may like to know that no matter where you go, you're almost sure to find friendly, sparkling, Pepsi-Cola waiting for you.

Act One. Busman’s Holiday.

Ira Glass

And of course, feel free to pop open a delicious Pepsi as you listen to this next act, Act One. By the way, we are not getting paid for that at all. Act One, Busman's Holiday.

OK. So you remember where we left off. Cimillo had just been arrested in Hollywood, Florida, by two police officers. Joe Richman is the one who dug up this old TV interview, and he picks up the story from there.

Joe Richman

After the arrest, two New York detectives and a mechanic were sent down to Florida to bring Cimillo back, along with his bus. The mechanic drove the bus, but Cimillo told people later, the mechanic couldn't really handle it. His driving made the detectives nervous.

So the cops actually put Cimillo back behind the wheel. And then right before they arrived in York City, they switched drivers again. They put the mechanic back at the wheel of the bus, and Cimillo dutifully got into his handcuffs.

So here's what happened next. As the bus pulled up to the steps of the Beach Street Police Station in Manhattan, hundreds of people had gathered, and they were cheering.

In photographs, you see Cimillo being led through the crowd by the cops, and he has a huge smile. He's beaming. Over the time it took to drive back from Florida to New York, news had spread about the busnapping. William Cimillo had become a folk hero.

Newscaster

William Cimillo. The busman who took a holiday. And brother, what a holiday. Just wanted to drive, feel the tang of spring in the air. Busmen in the Bronx greeted their passengers today with a cry, all aboard for Florida! Ah, spring. But now, here is Don Elda.

Joe Richman

That was NBC. The Daily News wrote, "It must've been a wonderful trip, and we hope Bill's boss will try to understand." From the New York World-Telegram, "We know just how he felt. Who hasn't yearned for escape, for change, for fairer scenes?"

From as far away as Michigan, The Traverse City Eagle wrote, "Across the nation today, thousands of office workers and laborers went to their humdrum jobs with hearts a little lighter, because of what William L. Cimillo did to escape the same kind of boredom that fills their ordered lives." Cimillo was indicted on charges of grand larceny. He was facing up to 10 years in prison.

Cimillo's fellow New York City bus drivers-- who you'd think would be the least sympathetic people in the country to his whole joyride-- they organized a fundraiser to pay his legal fees. Letters and telegrams of support came in from around the country. The court of public opinion was delivering its verdict, and soon, the Surface Transportation System of New York decided to drop the charges.

Not only that, they gave him his job back. On his first day back on the route, a line of people waited to ride Cimillo's bus. One article reported that after school let out, 350 screaming high school girls tried to get onto his 44-seat bus, ignoring three other buses. They wanted his autograph.

In the end, William Cimillo was incredibly lucky. He took a huge leap, fled home, cut out on his job, committed a crime, and he got away with it, because people loved the story. For the rest of his life, he was that guy who took a city bus to Florida.

Richard Cimillo

He had his day in the sun.

Joe Richman

This is Richard Cimillo, the bus driver's son. His dad died in 1975.

Richard Cimillo

He just felt like a star, I guess. He was recognized wherever he went. He wasn't just another the bus driver, you know? He was somebody. I guess that's what he felt.

Joe Richman

You say it so begrudgingly, about him being a star. [LAUGHS]

Richard Cimillo

Because, you know, every time we went out, every place we went, there was always-- you know, it was like a movie star. Let me put it to you that way. And after a while, I think my mother got tired of it. And I got tired of it. You know what I'm saying? But he never got tired of it.

Joe Richman

Richard and his family never found the story as charming as most New Yorkers did, starting with the day their dad stole bus number 1310.

Richard Cimillo

Let me explain something to you. I was 12 years old at the time. And after I come home from school, my mother was crying.

And I was, well, Ma, why are you crying? And she said, well, he didn't come home. I wonder where he is. Why wouldn't he come home for supper, and all that. And next day, the same thing. He didn't come home. Not a phone call.

So she called the garage. They didn't know where he is. The bus never come back to the garage. It just disappeared. And so we used to gather together at my grandmother's house. My mother crying, my grandmother crying, it was like a wake.

Joe Richman

I mean, you're 12 years old at the time. What did you think might have happened?

Richard Cimillo

Either the bus ran off the road someplace, maybe went into a lake. This is me thinking, you know. Maybe it was a big accident that nobody knew about. So I really thought, deep down, that he must have died.

Joe Richman

It wasn't until his dad was arrested in Hollywood, Florida, that the family finally knew what had happened. Richard says he never sat down with his dad and really talked about why he did what he did, even as an adult.

Was it true his dad just got the idea one morning to spontaneously drive to Florida, like he'd said? He didn't plan that at all? Did he really think he'd get away with it? And the biggest question--

Richard Cimillo

I don't know if my mother ever asked, why didn't you call. I never asked. He never called. Not a word. You know, I looked up to him, he was my father.

But after the Florida incident, I had problems. I had problems looking up. That was a tough time for me.

Joe Richman

Even now, the word he uses when he talks about his dad's bus trip is "embarrassing." But there's someone else in the family who has a completely different take on this. Richard's younger brother, Dennis. Quick heads up, their voices are remarkably similar.

Dennis Cimillo

It's a good thing to me. To me, he's still my hero, you know?

Joe Richman

There's one simple reason the two brothers see this so differently. Dennis was just a baby when their father disappeared. He doesn't remember any of it.

He doesn't remember his mother and grandmother crying. He didn't think his dad had driven into a lake. He didn't picture him dead in an accident. Dennis' vision of the whole thing is closer to Easy Rider, if Easy Rider took place on a municipal bus.

Dennis Cimillo

I could just see my father [CLAP] putting the pedal to the metal and just go and keep on going. In the drive, just looking out the window and driving. The way my father was, being carefree and saying, you know what? I'm just driving.

I have nothing on my head. I have no pressure today. I have nothing going on. Let me keep on going.

Joe Richman

Dennis has a collection of memorabilia about the bus trip. He pulls out a large manila folder. On the front it says, Dad's Event. There are dozens of old photographs and articles, and a videotape with footage from 1947. We go down to the basement to watch it.

Dennis Cimillo

This is from an old newsreel that was taken at the time. It's really short. That's the bus coming in.

Joe Richman

It's his dad, arriving back in New York.

Dennis Cimillo

And right now he's being escorted into the courthouse, going in front of the judge, and being arraigned right now. That's it.

Joe Richman

Now, Richard, the older brother, he had told me about the same newsreel. He had seen it the week it was actual news, in a movie theater, when he was 12.

Richard Cimillo

I'm sitting there, and all of a sudden, boom. My father's picture is up on the screen. And I'm looking there, I was stunned. You see your father, as a kid, handcuffed, detectives on both sides of him, bringing him into the courthouse. I don't know anybody that would feel proud of something like that.

Joe Richman

So that's the older brother, Richard. But here in the basement with Dennis, his take on this--

Dennis Cimillo

I enjoy every minute of it. Just makes me idolize him. I wish I could do things like that sometimes.

Joe Richman

In a way, a small way, Dennis has done that. He sees himself as a free spirit. He says he got that from his dad. He doesn't worry about things too much.

He likes to gamble. He started his own businesses distributing beer and soda. He was his own boss, which meant no pension, no paid vacation, no security, no guarantees. He says it's different from the life his brother chose.

And Richard, the older brother, would agree with that. The lesson Richard took from his father's story was to be a responsible person, to think about the consequences of his actions.

Richard worked all his life as a fireman, which oddly, he calls a safe job. He's retired now. But as it turned out, when I interviewed Richard, he and his wife were getting ready to drive to Florida, as he said, the legit way.

Joe Richman

Did you ever want to do something like what your dad did? Did you ever want to--

Richard Cimillo

No, no, no. No. No. I knew I didn't want to do something as drastic as that. So that's the biggest difference between my father and me. My father never worried.

Don't worry, the rent will be paid. Don't worry, we've got this food on the table. Don't worry about it. I worry about everything. I worry about my kids. They had to go to school. They had to go to college.

I worry about the snow. [LAUGHS] My father never worried about nothing. My father never worried about nothing. He worried-- you know, I worry. I don't sleep nights. I toss and turn, I'm still worrying. [LAUGHS]

Joe Richman

So you wish you didn't worry as much?

Richard Cimillo

I wish I could've lived that-- yeah. I wish I could not worry.

Joe Richman

After Richard's dad, William Cimillo, got his job back in 1947, he went on to drive a bus in the Bronx for the next 16 years, with no detours. Once, a reporter asked him, do you still think about hitting the open road? Turning left and heading across the bridge again? Cimillo said, yes, he thought about it. But when you tell somebody a joke, he said, it's never as funny the second time.

Ira Glass

Joe Richmond. Sarah Kate Kramer produced that story with him. That's part of their podcast series, Radio Diaries, which you can find and subscribe to at radiodiaries.org.

Act Two. Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads. So now a story about people who want to take a different kind of leap, a kind of quantum leap, you could say.

There was this study done by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine back in February, published in April. The study was about future technologies. And basically, they called up 1,001 Americans.

I do not understand why it's 1,001 and not just 1,000. Maybe 1,001 just seemed sexier or something. Anyway, they called up 1,001 people. They asked them what new technological advances they expected to see in the future, and what technological advances they wanted to see.

So there were questions like, would you eat meat that was grown in a lab? Would you get a brain implant to improve your mental capacity? The answer is yes and yes to those, of course. And if you read through the whole thing, there's this kind of bizarre finding at the end, something small, something that caught the interest of producers Sean Cole and Jonathan Goldstein.

Sean Cole

So the very last question in the survey about future technologies, question 14-- it was a short survey-- was this. If there was one futuristic invention that you could own, what would it be? There was no multiple choice. This was an open-ended question. And off the tops of their heads, 9% of respondents, so roughly 1 out of 10 people, said they wanted some way to travel through time.

Jonathan Goldstein

One out of 10 came up with that on their own. That'd be roughly 30 million Americans. That's like the entire nation of Canada sitting around, wishing for a time machine. Which, speaking as a Canadian, I can say we secretly do. First stop, moments before making our national mascot a beaver and not an American woodcock.

Sean Cole

The desire for time travel, at 9%, ranked highest on the list, tied only with cures for diseases.

Jonathan Goldstein

People wanted time travel more than they wanted robot servants, which was 4%.

Sean Cole

More than they wanted world peace, a whopping 2%.

Jonathan Goldstein

Time travel was three times more popular than hover cars, holodecks, and jet packs combined.

Sean Cole

But the Pew study is just a study. It's just numbers. It doesn't explain why so many people want to travel in time. Is it our curiosity about the future?

Jonathan Goldstein

I wonder what new kinds of cutlets the world of tomorrow will hold?

Sean Cole

Regrets over the past?

Jonathan Goldstein

Boy, do I wish I hadn't eaten all those cutlets.

Sean Cole

And so we struck out into the world to try to answer that question. Why do you want to time travel?

Man 1

This is something I think about a lot.

Man 2

Oh, well, I've done a lot of thinking about this.

Man 3

Oh, there's a lot of things I'd like to accomplish.

Jonathan Goldstein

And even though they've been mulling this over for so long, many still reach for the most well-trodden sci-fi comic book staple.

Man 4

My first impulse about time travel is the same one that I would guess that everybody has. You know, thinking that I'm going to go back and I'm going to kill Hitler.

Sean Cole

What's funny is that they know it's kind of lame. You can hear it in their voices.

Man 4

Or kill Hitler when he's a baby, or kill his mother or something.

Jonathan Goldstein

They preface it with phrases like--

Woman 1

It's the thing everyone always says is--

Sean Cole

And then they say it anyway.

Woman 1

If there hadn't been a Hitler--

Man 5

Put a bullet in Adolf Hitler's head when he was still a student, I guess.

Sean Cole

We spoke to about 50 people, both friends and strangers we walked up to on the street.

Jonathan Goldstein

Most of them had more thoughts about traveling to the past, rather than the future. After all, you never know with the future. Teleport yourself hundreds of years from now, and you could land on an Earth devoid of people, where the only remaining structure is a monument to President Donald Trump, made out of eternium.

Sean Cole

Whereas with the past, at least you know the basic plot points. And there's a vast encyclopedia of calamities you could still fix.

Jonathan Goldstein

If you could go back in time and do anything you want, what would it be?

Man On Street 1

I have no idea. Warn people of disasters, I guess?

Sean Cole

Warn people of disasters?

Man On Street 1

Yeah. Like, September 11, or something.

Sean Cole

And how would you go about it, do you think?

Man On Street 1

Oh, I have no idea. [LAUGHS]

Sean Cole

And of course, no one imagines that they'll end up with an iron collar around their neck, working in a quarry. Instead, they have a starring role in the historical docu-drama. Like this guy, who'd set the controls for the Revolutionary War.

Man On Street 2

I don't think I'd be like, a general in the field or anything like that. But I'd probably be more of like an adviser to Washington. Like Alexander Hamilton was, right? And a few other folks. So yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

I love how you're already an officer in this.

Man On Street 2

Exactly. Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

But these ambitious, world-saving time travelers are just a small subset of the people we interviewed.

Woman On Street 1

I have a probably much more selfish kind of answer. [LAUGHS]

Jonathan Goldstein

Most of the people we talked to didn't want to change history. They wanted to go back in time to fix something personal, something in their own lives.

Man On Street 3

Probably wouldn't have asked my ex-wife out that first time.

Jonathan Goldstein

Really?

Man On Street 3

Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

And how do you think you would be different now in that case?

Man On Street 3

I'd have a hell of a lot more money.

Man On Street 4

There were some people that I wish I could have punched. One of them is deceased.

Girl

If I could time travel, I'd go back and fix all the awful, awful mistakes I'd done. Because there's so many stuff that you just think of, like when you're lying in bed, you're like, oh my God, that's so embarrassing.

Sean Cole

Well, wait. Hang on a second though. You're only 11.

Girl

Yeah. I've got a lot of things I want to change.

Jonathan Goldstein

She told me, number one on the list, the night she told a room full of adults a joke that began, a Canadian, an Italian and two Chinese people were standing on a roof.

Sean Cole

More than one person said they wanted to go back in time just to advise their younger selves, knowing what they know now. Like my friend Jimmy.

Jimmy

I think I would meet myself at whatever coffee shop I used to go to. It was like the Derne Street Deli on the back end of Beacon Hill. I'd be like, look, kid, come here for a minute. Come here. These are the five things you need to know that's going to help you in the next 25 years of your life. These are the five things you need to know.

Sean Cole

And what are those five things?

Jimmy

Bet on these sports games. Never ride this roller coaster. And sex moves.

Sean Cole

Two other things?

Jimmy

Oh, the sex moves was three things.

Jonathan Goldstein

And listening to both of these groups, the ones who want to save the world, and the ones who'd use the time machine to excel in the boudoir--

Sean Cole

Or to do anything else in their private life.

Jonathan Goldstein

--you can't help wondering, are the people who want to save the world just better people? We posed this question to everyone we talked to.

Man On Street 5

I mean, do I think they're better people? I think it's just-- those people are less self-involved. That doesn't make them better or worse.

Jimmy

I don't know. I think that that sort of grand delusion that you could ultimately change a big event, a big life-changing event, and that you'd be doing everybody a favor by doing this, is a little-- I mean, that's pretty crazy. As opposed to thinking, oh yeah. I could make myself not ride the J train that night when that dude threw up on me.

Sean Cole

When you talk to a large number of people about time travel, you tend to hear a lot about the butterfly effect. That idea that a little change can have massive repercussions as it echoes through history. You've heard of this. But with these small, little personal wishes, it almost feels like you can get away with it somehow. It's just you, after all, and maybe one other person.

Woman On Street 2

I'd probably go back in time to before my husband died. Maybe even the day or two before. Yeah. I wouldn't do anything necessarily different, but I might just enjoy that time a bit more than I actually did. Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

Would you say anything differently?

Woman On Street 2

Um, no, I don't think so. Except the last conversation, I might not have made about a stupid Tupperware order. [LAUGHS] I might make it about something a bit more about how I felt about him.

Jonathan Goldstein

What was the disagreement? I have to ask.

Woman On Street 2

It was-- the last conversation was, he was berating me for not putting the order in. And I said it was difficult to put the order in when the Tupperware catalog's on the dashboard of your truck. He was driving the truck at the time.

And he said, no it's not, no it's not. And I said, yes it is. And then he obviously looked on the dashboard, and seen the Tupperware catalog, and gone, oh. You're right. It is on the-- it's just stupid, isn't it? The stupid things that we realize afterwards, and we remember.

But yeah. I probably would have made that last conversation-- and we laughed, but I probably would have made that conversation about something else. So yeah. At least we laughed about it.

Sean Cole

This phone call happened when he was on his way to play cricket. This was in Australia. At the end of the game, he had a cardiac arrest.

Other folks we talked to said they wanted to go back in time and study harder in school or pick a different career path entirely. One said he wished he had picked a better roommate. Some people just wanted to go back and relive parts of their lives that they enjoyed.

Jonathan Goldstein

A few people said they didn't want to time travel. They already have too much they want to do in the present. And maybe everything would just end up worse if they changed anything, anyway.

And about that, these people who just didn't want to go back, it turns out there was another finding in the Pew study. Older people, people over 50, are less inclined to want to time travel. And people over 65 are way less inclined to want to time travel.

But why? Does one achieve a greater sense of peace in old age? Self-acceptance? Or maybe it comes down to an older person's concerns about the time machine itself. Will it have legroom?

Sean Cole

Clean bathrooms?

Jonathan Goldstein

Will meals be served?

Sean Cole

And if so, is there a low-sodium option?

Clearly, we needed to talk to some seniors. And so, like Al Pacino in a geriatric version of cruising, we set out at night, to a park, looking for old people.

Jonathan Goldstein

Oh, we've got these guys, here.

Sean Cole

Oh, which guys?

Jonathan Goldstein

These guys, right here.

Sean Cole

We found this Mutt and Jeff type pair of elderly guys sitting on a bench.

Jonathan Goldstein

We make them answer for their elderly brethren and sisteren. Is it true what the survey says? Are they not interested in time travel?

Elderly Man 1

No. I've divested myself from all fantasy.

Elderly Man 2

The only thing I believe up there is the UFOs.

Sean Cole

Seems consistent with the research. Sort of.

Elderly Man 1

Why would I believe in a fantasy like that? Why are you even interviewing me and putting that supposition to me? It's a waste of your time. It's a waste of valuable time--

Sean Cole

Because it's--

Elderly Man 1

--on the radio. This is all fantasy. Why are you even bringing that question?

Sean Cole

Did you always feel that way, or--

Elderly Man 1

The world is coming to and end. Why are you wasting my time?

Sean Cole

I mean, but don't you like to indulge in--

Jonathan Goldstein

But after a mere 8 and 1/2 minutes of cross examination, it turned out these two were just as ready to climb into a time machine as a person half their age.

Jonathan Goldstein

You don't just want to go back in time to like--

Elderly Man 1

What reason would-- the only way would--

Elderly Man 2

I would like it.

Elderly Man 1

The only reason I would want to go back in time is to be young, so I could have orgasm. Have you ever heard of the PTO movement?

Sean Cole

No.

Elderly Man 1

The Peace Through Orgasm movement.

Sean Cole

I have not heard of that.

Elderly Man 1

Well, now you've heard of it.

Jonathan Goldstein

So wait, you were saying that you would like to go back?

Elderly Man 2

Oh, sure I would. I would like to go into the future. Now let's talk about the UFOs. This is documented in the library. In 1947--

Jonathan Goldstein

But going back to time travel though, do you ever dream about going back in time? Do you wish you could?

Elderly Man 2

I don't dream it, but I would like to. Maybe see the dinosaurs.

Jonathan Goldstein

You want to see the dinosaurs, why?

Elderly Man 2

It'd be nice. Well, just to see how they are. I'd have to be equipped with some sort of a laser something. You never know.

Jonathan Goldstein

It was beginning to seem as though when you scratched the surface, even those opposed to time travel might soften their position and find some reason to go back. Perhaps this is the limitation of a cold, by-the-numbers survey. Scratching surfaces is exactly what Pew cannot do.

Jonathan Goldstein

Thank you very much. It's good to meet you.

Elderly Man 2

You believe in UFOs, don't you?

Jonathan Goldstein

I think I do, yeah.

Elderly Man 2

Good.

Elderly Man 1

And that's another form of insanity. You're a rube.

Sean Cole

So we went looking for senior citizens who truly have zero interest in time travel, like the Pew study found, so we could ask them why. Which is how we ended up at a senior center in Brooklyn.

Jonathan Goldstein

There was maybe a couple dozen people sitting around in the cafeteria after breakfast, watching Let's Make a Deal on a big-screen TV. The director of the Center turned the sound down and told Sean to introduce himself.

Sean Cole

Hi, sorry to bother you guys. My name's Sean Cole, and I'm a radio producer--

Jonathan Goldstein

Not so much the radio professional when you're being stared at by a room full of silent seniors who hate you for getting their game show muted.

Sean Cole

Meanwhile, Johnny just stood there, helping not at all.

Jonathan Goldstein

And because you weren't making any sense at all, the director, Rosemary Bland, had to step in.

Rosemary Bland

OK. So he's just going to be talking to you all about time travel, whether you enjoy time travel, or whether you do time travel, or whether you don't do time travel. OK?

Elderly Woman 1

OK.

Elderly Woman 2

OK.

Sean Cole

Of course, those were not our questions, nor anything like them.

Jonathan Goldstein

Nevertheless, we made our way from table to table.

Elderly Woman 3

Well, I'm not interested in time travel.

Elderly Woman 4

No, I'm not interested in that. I think going backwards is not helping us.

Elderly Man 3

When I was younger, but not now.

Elderly Woman 5

If it's going to cost them money, that's another no-no. [LAUGHS] You've gotta remember, you've got retirees. You know? [LAUGHS]

Elderly Woman 6

People that have Alzheimer's, they go back in time.

Sean Cole

People that have Alzheimer's?

Elderly Woman 6

Yeah. They go back in time. We don't have that yet.

Elderly Woman 7

Going up there to the moon, you know, exploring. They're probably already up there with time travel.

Jonathan Goldstein

Fun fact-- when talking with seniors about time travel, they sometimes throw the question into a big, science-fiction food processor with space travel. But the Pew finding did bear out. Most people at the senior center were pretty dismissive of the idea, some more emphatically than others.

Wallace Nottage

Hell, no. [LAUGHS]

Jonathan Goldstein

Why not?

Wallace Nottage

Why?

Sean Cole

This is Wallace Nottage, a stately 86-year-old-- it was his birthday actually-- with a cane, and he was wearing a colorful fez on his head. We were called over to talk to him by two women who said, he'd probably have a lot to say to you. And he did. We sat with him for about 20 minutes, until finally, he gave us what felt like the most plausible reason why old people wouldn't want to go back in time.

Wallace Nottage

It's not so much that you're at peace with the way things are. It's that you've come to the realization that ain't much going to change.

Jonathan Goldstein

Maybe the thing that much older people understand isn't that time travel is frivolous. It's that it's pointless. When you have half a century of past behind you or more, and you look at those decades in one swath, you realize that even if you fix one thing, something else will go wrong.

Sean Cole

Even some of the younger people we talked with felt that way about changing the past.

Girl

I mean, I'd love to do it. And I'm sure everyone would love to go back in time and change some things. But it'd ruin things a bit too.

Sean Cole

How do you mean?

Girl

Well, experiences that people might not call experiences, people might call mistakes. Even though at that time, they make you sad, if you go back and change everything like that, then you don't learn. So you're sad more often.

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah. So you're saying there's no getting around it.

Girl

No. There really isn't.

Sean Cole

Inevitably, in between things, when Johnny and I were interviewing folks together, we got to talking about whether either of us would want to go back in time for any reason. In Johnny's case, the answer would be--

Jonathan Goldstein

No.

Sean Cole

Too adventurous.

Jonathan Goldstein

Not for me.

Sean Cole

Whereas I'm one of those people who's thought about this a lot. Like, a lot a lot. There was this point when I obsessively wanted to go back in time to a very particular moment in time, to fix the past.

The facts are pretty standard. I was with a woman, and we needed to decide about our future. So I flew to Alaska for the weekend to visit her. And after talking for two days, I finally said that I wasn't ready to be with her.

And for a long time after that, I wished I had made the opposite decision, that I had told her yes instead of no. I would sit and pray that I could have that weekend to do over again. I'd picture it all the time.

And then, just little by little, there wasn't any big epiphany or anything, I came to see that things were never really right between us and that they never would have been. It took about two years, maybe longer, to understand that. And now she's married and I'm not, but I'm really happy we're not together.

And it makes me realize that I have been time traveling. It's just that I've been traveling into the future at 60 minutes per hour. And maybe that's how we fix the past.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole this one of the producers of our radio show. Jonathan Goldstein is the host of Public Radio Program and podcast Wiretap, which is distributed in the United States by PRI, Public Radio International, and also available on iTunes. Coming up, the glass of wine that could change everything. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Wisdom to Know the Difference.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Leap-- stories of people taking a huge jump into the unknown.

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, The Wisdom to Know the Difference. So Nancy Updike has this story about somebody considering a very big leap she might try in her own life.

Nancy Updike

Tina Dupuy has a story she's told dozens of times, in front of thousands of people. It's about herself at 13 years old, when she was being told by people around her, you have a problem. The problem landed her in AA and started early.

She remembers drinking sake when she was five years old at a family reunion. At age 12, pouring herself a big glass of tequila at 3:00 in the morning to drink by herself and watch TV. The kinds of things that can seem cool or no big deal when you're in it, until suddenly they're ruining your life. At a very young age, Tina became what she calls "AA famous" for telling her story at meetings and AA conferences like this one.

Tina Dupuy

I got sober when I was 13. And for a really long time, I thought that was my part. That was my identity and that was my thing that was going to make me different from absolutely everybody. Even in young people's meetings, I was like, oh yeah, you're 16, whatever. I got sober when I was 13, you know. And last year at ACYPAA--

Nancy Updike

ACYPAA stands for All California Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tina Dupuy

I was in the room I was staying in. There was this kid there, and he looked really young. And I was like, wow, how old are you? And he said he was 13. And I was like, wow, how long do you have sober?

And he says he has 90 days. And I was like, wow. You know, I got sober when I was 13. I'm cool. And he says, pfft. I got sober when I was 12.

Nancy Updike

So Tina got AA famous as Tina D, the girl who got sober when she was 13, and could tell the hell out of her story. And if you're wondering, yes, teenagers can be alcoholics. Almost 700,000 teenage alcoholics in the US, according to most recent government statistics. AA saved Tina's life by the grace of God, or whatever higher power you choose.

She quoted The Big Book-- that's the official AA book, so much, that people in AA called her a Big Book thumper. It's like a Bible thumper, except with The Big Book. And any teenager who shows up at AA today could be handed a Young People in AA pamphlet that starts with Tina's story.

That's part one of this-- Tina from age 13 up to 33. Two decades sober. At 33, she'd been married for several years, she'd become a columnist and a political commentator, a long way from the miserable, angry girl she'd been who dropped out of school and spent her time drinking and smoking pot with the older kids, running away from home.

AA and sobriety felt so thoroughly part of her by her 30s that she only went to meetings once a month or so to listen and to tell people who were struggling the things other people had told her. Keep coming back. Trust your higher power. Everything happens for a reason. After so much turbulence, her life was finally calm. And then an unwelcome and not at all expected thought.

Tina Dupuy

One day it occurred to me that everything doesn't happen for a reason. What it is is that everything happens, and then we assign a reason to it.

Nancy Updike

For someone else, maybe it wouldn't be big deal. For Tina, this was the start of a great slow unraveling. Next to go was belief in a higher power. And then she became fixated on a dangerous question.

Tina Dupuy

I would wonder what if. What if I drank? Really, what would happen? But I mean, in the Alcoholics Anonymous book, it says if you don't think you're an alcoholic, go drink. And if you can drink normally, awesome.

I'm paraphrasing. But it says that. It says, this is how you can find out if you're an alcoholic. Go drink.

Nancy Updike

Let's take a minute and consider the scale of what Tina was proposing. Tina had been a full-blown drunk at 13 years old. She found AA. And in every AA meeting, the first thing you say out loud to get started is, I'm an alcoholic.

Tina had been saying that her entire adult life and all of her adolescence. Asking herself, should I take a drink, was basically asking, should I turn my back on what I believed about myself for 20 years? There's only one reason to entertain a question that immense, which is, you can't help it.

Tina had doubted and questioned her way into a process that she could not stop. It was like she'd started restoring a painting and then realized, I think there's another painting underneath. I want to say one thing. Which is that, when I interviewed Tina, I saw that a lot of what she's talking about, her rethinking of her story, she's still in the middle of figuring it out right now, today.

Tina has a few key anecdotes she's told over the years at AA conferences. I've heard a bunch of recordings of her speaking. One story is about a moment when she was 12, with her mom laying down the law. Here's the recording.

Tina Dupuy

You know, she said, I need you in before 6:00 AM. So when I go to work, I can know that you're OK. And I was like, look lady, I don't need to deal with your rules. I'm out of here.

Nancy Updike

Notice in this anecdote, Tina is the problem. That's how it is in all the recordings. She's rude to her mom. She's self-destructive. It's a classic AA story about admitting bad behavior, taking responsibility for it. Anything else is just excuses.

But the questions Tina was having had stirred up the anything else. It made her go back and look at things she hadn't looked at since she was a kid, especially her relationship with her mom.

Tina Dupuy

This is so awkward for me to talk about, because I've spent the last 25 years convincing myself that it had nothing to do with that my mommy didn't hug me enough. I don't want anyone to think that I'm blaming my mommy. And I also don't want to feel like I'm ripping on her. Does that make sense?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, it does.

A central tenet of AA is taking responsibility, not going on and on about how other people are always the problem. So let me lay out some things. Tina's parents had been part of a new religious movement, which is the current term for what most of us would still call a cult.

They moved around a lot when Tina was little-- four different countries before she was three years old. Then her parents left the cult, and her dad was almost entirely out of the picture after that.

Home was a constant battle of wills between Tina and her mother, and she was a defiant kid. She talked back. She swore. She cut school. She'd harass her younger brother. The way her mom responded to the bad behavior, as Tina remembers it, was to tell her she was evil. She was rotten.

And when Tina was 11-- 11-- her mother had her committed to hospital under psychiatric care, sort of a kiddie mental ward. Locked up. A tough-love intervention to curb her rebelliousness.

Tina Dupuy

I kind of knew that she was trying to scare the crap out of me, because then I would do what she said. And I knew. I remember being in that elevator and just thinking, she wants me to cry. She wants me to beg. She wants me to bargain. She wants me to apologize.

And she wants me to say, I will do whatever you say. I'm so sorry, just don't leave me here. And I remember thinking, if I show her that, if I do that, then she wins. And so it was basically like I was calling her bluff.

Nancy Updike

Not to cry. Not to cry, but also to go like, OK, see you later. Whatever. Not to cry. Not to beg.

Tina Dupuy

Yeah. This is like, you don't scare me. Nothing you can do can hurt me. And when I got to AA, and people said that they felt dead inside, I felt dead inside. And I just didn't want her to win.

Nancy Updike

When you're 11, your parents are the casino. The house pretty much always wins. Your only move as a child is to screw up your own life and hope that it messes with theirs too.

Tina was in the hospital for 30 days. It did not make her less defiant. Two years later, her parents decided on a long-term solution to the problem of Tina, which was to make her a ward of the state. When she was 13, they put her into the foster care system.

She was sent to a girl's group home, and that's where she stayed until she graduated from high school. The head of the group home corroborated Tina's memory that her parents rarely visited her there. I talked to Tina's mom.

She didn't remember calling Tina evil, but she did remember the fighting. And she remembered committing Tina for 30 days to the hospital. She said she was trying to raise two kids on her own and went to a family therapist who gave her the book Tough Love and recommended hospitalizing Tina. Foster care, the group home, is where Tina regularly started going to AA.

So one pattern in Tina's AA stories is she's the bad guy. The only bad guy, even though she was a kid. But I noticed another pattern when I was listening through her old recordings of her speeches, which is she never gets drunk in the stories. Here's one of the recordings. Tina's talking about when she went to San Francisco to try and live with her father, briefly.

Tina Dupuy

I get on the plane and I sit next-- it's a crowded flight, and I sit next to this poor guy. And I start telling him everything about myself. My entire life story, which wasn't that long, about 15 minutes. I was 13. And so I keep on telling him my entire life story, about how I'm going to get back in school, and I'm not going to-- whatever.

And then the flight attendant comes by about 15 minutes into the flight with the beverage cart. And so I nudged this guy, and I'm like hey, can you buy me some Jack? And he looks me straight in the eye, and he says, if you're going to change your life, why don't you start now? I was like, the audacity, for this guy to tell me what to do with my life.

Nancy Updike

The way she told it in AA, this was yet another example of what an extreme case she was. A 13-year-old who was such a booze hound that she's bugging the guy next to her on a plane to buy her a drink. But notice, she asks for a glass of Jack Daniels, but she doesn't get it. She doesn't drink any Jack Daniels.

This is actually one of the reasons Tina was a popular AA speaker. People would come up to her afterwards sometimes, and say, thank you for not just getting up and telling a bunch of boring drinking stories. Here's another recording. Remember the glass of tequila?

Tina Dupuy

I poured myself a big tumbler of tequila. I was drinking by myself, 3 o'clock in the morning. I was watching Sarah T -- Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Linda Blair and Mark Hamill.

Nancy Updike

The glass of tequila makes a big entrance, and then nothing happens with it. The rest of the story is about the TV show she was watching. When I asked Tina about the tequila, she told me, right, when she really thought back on it, she could only remember taking a few sips, and that was it.

It was only when Tina started having the blasphemous thought in her head, should I take a drink, that she also began to seriously question how much she had drunk as a kid, really. What was true? For instance, that AA pamphlet with Tina's story in it. When Tina read it out loud during our interview, it was the first time she'd looked at the words she'd written in about 10 years.

Tina Dupuy

Have you read this?

Nancy Updike

I haven't read it.

Tina Dupuy

[EXHALES] OK. "I love how alcohol affected me. It numbed all the torment in my brain. I had new friends, the older kids. I was cool, finally. Very quickly though, I started getting into trouble.

When I was 11, I was put into what I assumed was a mental hospital. I was relieved to find out that I was crazy. Crazy is cool. I realized much later that the place was a rehab." Ugh. When I read it, I see where I was mistaken.

Nancy Updike

What was mistaken was, first of all, the place was not a rehab for alcohol or drug abuse. It was psychiatric hospitalization to fix Tina's attitude. And second, she didn't remember loving how alcohol affected her. She didn't remember it numbing the torment in her brain.

Maybe she was in denial or had forgotten, since it was so long ago, how alcohol made her feel. Which is why she now wanted to take a drink. She felt like she had to take a drink. This would be a referendum on her story. Was she an alcoholic or not?

And if she wasn't an alcoholic, then what was true from the stories she'd been telling on stage all these years. She had to know. So she and her husband talked through when and how she would take her first drink.

Tina Dupuy

Like, what happens if I get drunk, and everything falls apart, and it's horrible and whatever, and I am an alcoholic. And he's like, OK. We'll figure it out then. OK. Then we'll deal with it.

And I was like, well, what if I'm not? He's like, OK, then that's great. [LAUGHS] And that was basically-- we had that exact same conversation, I'm embarrassed to report, for about nine months, probably every night.

Nancy Updike

Good for him.

Tina Dupuy

I know, right? This is why-- [LAUGHS]

Nancy Updike

Sounds like a stand up guy.

Tina Dupuy

Yeah, right? He's like, it's OK. And he's like, you don't have to do it. You don't have to drink. Or if you want to, great.

Nancy Updike

I mean, I feel like one of the indicators of not being an alcoholic is having a casual take-it-or-leave-it relationship.

Tina Dupuy

Thank you. See? That's why I was an alcoholic. [LAUGHS] Because it was the mental obsession.

Nancy Updike

Right, right. So the fact that you're obsessively talking about, shouldn't I, should I, should I, I mean, did that-- is that the reason that you were having the conversation over and over again? Because every time you had that conversation, that would reinforce the idea that you were an alcoholic, because here you are, bringing it up again. And if you were not an alcoholic, you wouldn't need to be having this conversation as many times as you were.

Tina Dupuy

Absolutely.

Nancy Updike

Wow.

Tina Dupuy

Right. So and then the only way to get out of that is to really like, let's do this. We go to a wine store on the way home. We pay for it.

We go home. My husband makes a pasta dish with chicken. He lights two candles, pours two glasses of wine. And so I take a little sip--

Nancy Updike

And?

Tina Dupuy

--and I say, it tastes like the '70s.

Nancy Updike

[LAUGHS] Meaning?

Tina Dupuy

Meaning I had tasted white wine before, but I was like five. I was young. But I remember that taste. That taste immediately came back to me. And then I tried to eat my meal, and it was-- I didn't enjoy the taste. It was really acidic.

Nancy Updike

And were you waiting to--

Tina Dupuy

Oh yeah. So I was like, when am I going to want to like, go and do shots at the corner bar? I mean, who knows? And I went to sleep. You know. Had a glass of wine, and it was completely uneventful.

Nancy Updike

I just want to make sure I'm understanding. You are saying you don't think you're an alcoholic.

Tina Dupuy

I'm not an alcoholic. Not by any measure.

Nancy Updike

And now you drink--

Tina Dupuy

Now I drink. I'm new at this, right? So I've been drinking for about seven months now. And if I drink more than two, I go to sleep.

Nancy Updike

It hasn't changed anything else in your life.

Tina Dupuy

Not at all. I've had no personality change. I've had none of-- when I start to feel the effects of alcohol, I stop drinking. Now that I actually know what alcoholism is and what normal drinking is-- more importantly, I know what normal drinking is.

I'm average. Which is probably the most jarring thing that has happened, that after all of this, I'm incredibly average when it comes to my alcohol consumption.

Nancy Updike

Have you told everyone you care about?

Tina Dupuy

I've told a very select group of people that I'm drinking. Because one, I'm afraid that people who I have helped over the years in AA will be affected, and it'll make them question their alcoholism. And maybe if they drink again, then I'll feel responsible.

There's also the aspect of that I was lying. I mean, I was lying. I was lying to myself. But I was lying. And so I am embarrassed. It seems like I just took a long time to fig-- it's like, it's embarrassing that I didn't have this kind of self awareness.

Nancy Updike

The postscript to drinking for Tina has been getting straight in her mind why she thought she was an alcoholic in the first place. How does a non-alcoholic child come to believe that she's a stone drunk? Well, here's how she puts it together now.

She went to the first AA meeting just because, nothing else to do. This was in the place she was being held before going to the group home at 13. And one of the AA phrases that caught Tina's ear was, relate to the feelings. Because boy, did she relate.

In AA, she heard other people talk, one after another, about things that were so familiar to her. Feeling rejected by their families, winding up in hospital or rehab, feeling trapped and furious and desperate. People said to her, I used to be exactly where you are now. And they had all done what she had done. They had lashed out. They had acted badly.

Tina Dupuy

There was no other way of explaining at the time. And it wasn't until, I mean, this is very recently, there was no way for me to figure out why I kept on getting locked up. Why I kept on being sent away. Why my mother was fuming at me.

Nancy Updike

If Tina was an alcoholic, everything made sense. She was the problem. She was the only problem, and if she stuck with the program, she could fix the problem.

AA gave Tina a whole life-- goals, discipline, a belief system, people to call when things were bad, people to call when things were good. She graduated from high school at 17, emancipated herself from foster care, started her adult life.

Tina Dupuy

It's really liberating to find your people. To find people who you relate to. To find people that ask you to come back. And that was what I experienced. I didn't have people asking me to come back.

And they said at every meeting, keep coming back. And I was like, OK. I became a contributing member of society. I mean, that's a phrase that they use. But I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

I looked at other people whose lives were much more difficult, for whatever reason, and I stopped feeling sorry for the lot I was given. And being able to feel true happiness, just feeling like I was OK, and there was no crisis, that was what I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous. That is the irony, right? I'm not an alcoholic, but my life was saved by AA.

Nancy Updike

I asked Tina if any of her friends are worried about her now that she's drinking. She said, no, not anymore. But she said, sometimes she still has a little voice in her head, saying, yeah you're fine now.

But what if there's some threshold you just haven't crossed, and when you do, you turn into the full-blown drunk you always thought you were? But the voice has zero evidence for that scenario. It's just trying to keep the story going.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo and myself, with Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from JP Dukes. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager.

Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Research help today from Christopher Swetala and Michelle Harris. Editing help today from Joel Lovell. Music help today from Damien Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia.

You know, the other day, I walked into his office and caught him licking-- licking an old vinyl copy of Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive. I was like, Torey, what are you doing?

Tina Dupuy

It tastes like the '70s.

Ira Glass

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