Transcript

56:

Name Change
Transcript

Originally aired 03.07.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/56

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When my grandmother, Mollie Politzer, was just 32 years old, she got sick. So sick that she was in the hospital for months. So sick that the doctors thought she would die. So sick that finally, when all else seemed to fail, they called for a rabbi, and he changed her name. As my mom explains--

Shirley Glass

The reason the rabbi said that they changed her name was so that when the Angel of Death came that he wouldn't know who she was. And he wouldn't take her.

Ira Glass

That's such a beautiful picture of what the Angel of Death is, that the Angel of Death could be so easily fooled. The Angel of Death is stupid. The Angel of Death is like the UPS man. Well, it says here the address. So I've got the name. Are you sure she's not here?

Shirley Glass

Well, it's sort of like if they put the wrong name tag on you in the hospital, then you get the wrong operation.

Ira Glass

So my grandmother changed her name to fool the Angel of Death. And it worked. She survived, got well, changed her name back to what it was, lived to the age of 87. There's something so medieval about this story, so unlike my family, actually, my family which basically discarded the Old World the day that they got off the boat.

But I think it's easy to believe that there's something magical when you change your name. You change your name, you become a new person. You take on a different identity. You start over again, clean slate.

In a way, it's a very American impulse. It's the New World. It's the move westward. It's divorce, and self-help, and 12-step programs, and Ellis Island all rolled into one. It's the story of Marilyn Monroe, and Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X, and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Name Changes, some done in innocence, some done to con people. Act One, The Procedure. Act Two, Baby Remember My Name, in which a 17-year-old tricks an entire resort town into believing that he is someone that he is not. Act Three, As Seen On Television, the story of a guy who got booked onto The David Letterman Show, didn't want to go, got a friend to take his name, and go in his place successfully. Act Four, Nom De Plume, how a guy named Tom became Camden Joy. And what he gained and what he lost when he did that. Stay with us.

Act One. The Procedure.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Procedure. In Los Angeles, to legally change your name, you show up at the LA Civil Courthouse at five minutes before 9:00, Thursday or Friday, and go to Room 208, Department 1A.

It works like this. You file a petition to change your name. That costs $189. You pay about $85 to publish your name change in the newspaper. If you're changing your kid's name, you need to prove that it's OK with the other parent or prove that you have searched for the other parent and you cannot find them. And you have to fill out a form, so they can check and make sure that you're not a registered sex offender.

Margy Rochlin

Imagine a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. That's what this line looks like. Several teenage girls in white or black jeans, long, nylon coats, heavy makeup, and long, long crimped hair. A few couples stand, holding hands, and look to each other for assurance.

Ira Glass

We sent writer Margy Rochlin to watch the proceedings last Friday. 17 people showed up. There was a youngish, black guy with an afro, baggy, plaid pants, and a battered briefcase, changing his name from Damon Washington to [? Damone ?] [? Ide ?] [? Sativa. ?] A Vietnamese man named Sonny The Ang changed his name to Sonny Thomas Wu.

A schoolteacher named Carol Ann Anderson became Devakar Anderson. Her yoga teacher gave her the name. It means "angel princess." But more than half the people who come here are mothers who want to change their children's names. Apparently, they don't want to be reminded of the ex, who isn't around. We asked Margy Rochlin to describe the scene, what she saw when she visited.

Margy Rochlin

Even without being told, people follow the rules of any legal proceeding. If they speak, they speak softly. For 15 minutes, I sit in this room, watching a line of people, one after the other, speak to the court clerk, a young woman who looks a lot like Kim Goldman, Ron Goldman's little sister, from the OJ Simpson trial.

Mostly, the court clerk asks and answers questions. She examines their papers and says things like, "Are you his mother?" The minutes tick by, and each of the people are addressed in the same kind, helpful tones. And then they walk out the door.

And then at a certain point, I realize something. This is it. There's no more to this proceeding. In my mind, I'd imagined that the filing of the papers was going to be followed by some kind of swearing in process, like the kind that happens when you become an American citizen.

I pictured a group of people standing up with their right hand raised, and a judge banging the gavel and then making them repeat some official oath. Although I'm not sure what that could be. "I," new name goes here, "solemnly swear that I will answer to my new name and no other, so help me God."

Where the judge sits, there's only an empty chair and a nameplate that says, "Murray Gross, Commissioner." Later, I asked the clerk why the judge isn't around. And she says, "Oh, he is. He's been here all day long. He's in the back." And then she waves her hand in the direction of a room behind her.

The thing is, I look through the open door and I only see a secretary wandering around. And immediately, I think of the great and powerful Oz. "There's no Murray Gross," I think. In Los Angeles, if you want to get your name changed, you deal with this clerk. Her name is Robin. She's a temp.

About five deep into the line, there's a tall, thin, elderly woman with a fuzz of gray hair, who stands as patiently as the rest. She wears all white, a long, white sweater, white, sheer stockings, white shoes, and an ankle-length, crisply ironed, pleated, white skirt. There is something about her that immediately catches your eye. She's the only one in line wearing a crown, a beaded one, gold and blue.

This is Her Holiness O'Bryant. Her name used to be Olivia, she tells me. But in 1981, God told her to change her name-- she wouldn't say why-- to "Her Holiness." And she respectfully complied. Ever since then, everyone at the retirement home, where she lives, calls her Her Holiness or nothing at all.

"What do they call you for short?" I ask her. And she smiles dreamily at me. That's it. No answer. Her Holiness has definitely dealt with bigger smart alecks than myself.

Somewhere, from the folds of her all-white costume, she pulls out a small, black, leather wallet. And she shows me her social security card and her driver's license. And they both say, "Her Holiness O'Bryant." Then she slides the cards back into the wallet, adjusts her crown with a tiny tap of her long, skinny fingers, and then she disappears off down the court hallway.

Watching this whole thing, it's hard to believe how simple it is to change something that has been so much a part of your life for so long, something that seems irrevocable, this thing you've had since birth. And when they walk out of the courtroom, people have an expression that I've only seen in one other place. It's the "what just happened?" expression of newlyweds after they've been married in a quickie wedding in Las Vegas.

So much anticipation has come before this. So much thought has been invested on the road to this moment. And it all happens so quickly, they don't know what to feel. They assume they're going to feel different, but they don't feel different, just numb.

Sometimes they actually say it out loud to Robin. They lean towards her and whisper, "Is that it?" "That's it," she says, moving on to the next applicant.

Ira Glass

Margy Rochlin in Los Angeles. More name changes coming up.

Act Two. Baby Remember My Name.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Baby Remember My Name. Well, to understand this next story, we have to return to American pop culture circa 1974. Writer Jack Hitt's gonna help us out.

Jack Hitt

It's hard for people to understand nowadays what National Lampoon was in 1974, where everybody had to read it for whatever reason, especially if you were a 17-year-old guy.

Ira Glass

For a certain group of American teenagers and college students, National Lampoon was what Saturday Night Live would be in the John Belushi, Gilda Radner years. In fact, some of the early Saturday Night Live staff came from the Lampoon. One of the Lampoon writers was a guy named Christopher Cerf. This next story is about Jack Hitt, now an adult, deciding as a teenager, to take Christopher Cerf's name in the year 1974 for himself. We invited Mr. Hitt into a studio and, to keep things fair, Mr. Cerf.

Christopher Cerf

You picked me out of all the writers you could have picked. It's startling, especially when you don't hear about it 'til 20 years later or so.

Ira Glass

Mr. Cerf's assignment for this studio session was to interview Jack Hitt about the incident. Up until this moment, the two had never met. Chris seemed very happy to be asked. Jack seemed very, very happy to tell his story.

Jack Hitt

The whole story starts in-- it's the summer of '74. And I was 17 years old, a rising senior in high school. And my friend Jimmy had a country house in the highlands of North Carolina, this little town called-- I think it's-- Brevard.

And on the way up, we were just talking about all the people that he had gotten to know over the years up there. He knew most of the families. And they're fairly wealthy, well-to-do people. And he knew a lot of the kids and stuff, the other teenagers up there.

And so somehow, between the two of us, we came up with the idea that I would just be somebody else. And we'd just have a couple of day's fun, hoodwinking everybody with pretending that I was somebody I wasn't. So we were reading a couple of different articles, and we came across one of yours.

All of those names, by the way-- you have to remember that your name, O'Rourke's name, Donoghue's name, all those names were, to a 17-year-old male in 1974, these were the names of gods.

Christopher Cerf

I'm honored. I'm honored.

Jack Hitt

At last, I'm here.

Christopher Cerf

At last somebody thinks I'm a god. It only took 23 years.

Jack Hitt

So anyway, so we decided that I would be you. We decided we weren't going to be too ham-fisted about it. We'd come into the town, we'd go out, see some of the people, and he would just introduce me as Chris Cerf. And no one would say anything.

And if it came up in conversation, slowly but surely, I began to retail this gigantic lie. And the lie was that I was a junior at Harvard. And in my spare time, I was freelancing as a writer for the National Lampoon. And of course, to say that, and to say Christopher Cerf's name at that time was-- everyone got it.

Everyone that we talked to up there, the minute I'd say that, they'd go, "You're Christopher Cerf?" I'd say, "Yeah, have you seen my stuff? I write occasionally in a little magazine called the National Lampoon. Maybe you've heard of it?" That kind of thing.

Anyway, it went over way too well. Within 48 hours, I was the hottest commodity on the mountain. It was fabulous. Let me just say, being you for those first three or four days was just absolutely the best for a couple reasons.

But mainly because I suddenly found out that being somewhat famous made people laugh at your jokes just a lot more quickly. I didn't have to do any work at all. I was used to being the guy that had to really put on a big, big show to get the smallest laugh. Now anything I said got an incredible reaction because, of course, everybody was trying to kiss up to me. Because I was Christopher Cerf.

Christopher Cerf

Yeah. But what amuses me is that you had absolutely no idea what I was like or anything.

Jack Hitt

No.

Christopher Cerf

Just that you made me up.

Jack Hitt

Right. And I was giving people publishing advice, too. That was the other thing. And I realize now that I've been a magazine writer for 22 years, and edited, and so forth, that advice was actually pretty right on.

Christopher Cerf

Is there anybody whose career that I helped a lot that you can tell me about now that made it?

Jack Hitt

I don't remember any of the names unfortunately. I do remember one time being at a party, and there were two girls vying for my affection in this really wonderfully aggressive, teenage way, where they're both trying to out-entertain each other in my eyes. And it was clear that one of these two girls wanted to be my regular date for the time that I was going to be up there. This was going to be a summertime fling. That night, one thing led to another, and I somehow fell in with the really good-looking brunette one.

Christopher Cerf

I'm amazed you picked her.

Jack Hitt

All I remember is that we did neck in the corner of the room late at night. And I felt-- that was a very strange moment. With your fame, I got to neck with this really beautiful brunette.

Christopher Cerf

That's what makes me so damn angry. Because that's my girl. I loved her, Jack. She's mine.

As I say, what amazes me about this story is that that never worked for me. I didn't say, "I'm Chris Cerf," and people didn't say, "Wow."

Jack Hitt

Well, the problem is you weren't hanging out with 17-year-olds.

Christopher Cerf

I should have gone to North Carolina. Well, that's true. I should have gone to North Carolina. I knew it. Did anyone ask you about particular articles that you'd supposedly written? Because that might have been tricky.

Jack Hitt

Well, first of all, I knew the entire magazine from issue one up until whatever month it was at that time. But there was one guy who figured me out. There was one guy who was even more of a National Lampoon freak than I was or than Jimmy was. He lived out of a VW bug-- I'm not even sure what he was doing up there-- he lived out of a VW bug with all the National Lampoons stuck in the slot in the back. And he read them compulsively. He was beyond any of us in terms of his Lampoon fanaticism.

But at first, he was very excited to meet me and was just going on. I signed copies of the magazine for him, the whole thing. And he would talk to me about different articles. And of course, I would always direct the conversation to articles of yours that I knew at the time. But he knew every one of your articles. And I remember this. We were on the porch of Jimmy's house, where I just kept slipping up. And I could see it.

Christopher Cerf

You mean he would say, "Do you remember this one?"

Jack Hitt

Right. Or "How did you get the idea for this article?" And then, at one point, he pulled something like that. And of course, it wasn't an article that I had written. It was an article that Doug Kenney had written. But there was definitely a moment where you could almost see it in his eyes, where he suddenly realized that he was being had.

Christopher Cerf

And he suddenly said, "You're not Chris Cerf?"

Jack Hitt

Yeah. He goes, "I know you're not Christopher Cerf." And I just told him, "You're right. I'm a complete fraud."

Christopher Cerf

He laughed.

Jack Hitt

And then he loved it. As soon as he was in on the joke, then that was cool. He was totally cool once he was part of the prank, then he played along.

Christopher Cerf

That, actually, I've always found is the best thing that happens with a hoax anyway. Once one person gets it, you bring them in on it. And then it gets better and better.

Jack Hitt

Well, having a confederate, yeah, definitely made it OK. Because then, of course, he was serving as a kind of front man too. He was going out into other parties and going, "See that guy over there? You know who that is? That's Christopher Cerf. Writes for the National Lampoon."

Christopher Cerf

What else did I do besides write for the Lampoon? Do you remember? I mean, in your view.

Jack Hitt

Well, I was a junior at Harvard. And I was majoring in English.

Christopher Cerf

That was right actually.

Jack Hitt

I remember saying things like, "I was studying with Harold Bloom," who, of course, doesn't teach at Harvard. He's Yale.

Christopher Cerf

Ivy League, what the heck. No, he came up to tutor me at Harvard.

Jack Hitt

Oh, yes. Right. Of course. Yeah. So where did you go to college?

Christopher Cerf

I went to Harvard. You had it right.

Jack Hitt

I got that right? I just made that up. Were you on The Harvard Lampoon?

Christopher Cerf

Yes, I was. And a lot of us were. So that wasn't a bad guess. And Henry Beard and Doug Kenney were from The Harvard Lampoon, who really started the magazine. Jack, was there any point at which you regretted this, where you felt, "Oh my gosh, I've misled people?"

Jack Hitt

There was a moment that was very Hitchcockian, where we all went off to play a round robin of tennis at the local club. And everybody on the mountain top has signed up for this. And from time to time over the loudspeaker, they would call the next pair to go play in this round robin.

And I remember it was a particularly strange moment when I was just wandering around this country club grounds with my tennis racket and, all of a sudden, hearing over the loudspeaker, "Christopher Cerf, Christopher Cerf, please report to court seven." And all of a sudden, I realized I was Christopher Cerf. I was more Christopher Cerf than you probably ever were.

Christopher Cerf

I think so. I was going to say, maybe I should just give it back to you.

Jack Hitt

At that point, I think, people I know started calling me "Chris." That was really unnerving for a while. And it was around that time that, I have to say, I began to resent being Christopher Cerf because the psychic weight of having to carry around all this huge collection of lies and trying to remember constantly to whom I had told which set of lies, I was just exhausted really.

I was just really tired of putting on the pretense. And I was tired of getting all these easy laughs. And I was tired of all these people hounding me for tips on how to get into Redbook and all the things that these 17-year-old girls want to publish in. I didn't have any real answers, and I felt like a complete ass by the end of it.

Christopher Cerf

Well, was there any friends that you made there that expected to see you after you left? Because that would've been a real problem, I would think. You would have told them, I guess.

Jack Hitt

I did tell the one couple that we'd gotten to know the most, the closest. It was a married couple. And they were probably about 27 or 28, 10 years older than us at the time. And we had really gotten to be really good friends with them. We'd spent almost every day of the two weeks with them, been out camping with them, done all kinds of stuff.

And at the end of the two weeks, we thought we'd tell them because we thought, "They'll really, really dig this joke." They didn't. It was horrifying.

We were sitting in their cabin. And I told them that I was just Jack Hitt, this junior in high school in Charleston, South Carolina. And I'd never published a thing in my life. And they blew. They went berserk. They cursed us and threw us out of the house. And we never saw them again.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt and Christopher Cerf. In 1974, when Jack Hitt was pulling this prank, Cerf was in his early 30s, living in Manhattan, going to parties where nobody ever, he says, gave him this kind of adulation. He became a writer for Sesame Street, author of the song "The Letter B," and many other well-known Sesame Street songs, and says that he was in on his share of pranks also.

Christopher Cerf

When I first got to Sesame Street, correctly so, everybody was very worried about whether our books and records and things would look like we were commercializing the program. And we wanted to make it very clear that we weren't. And everybody was being very careful to make sure everything was educational and priced at the right point.

And some people at Children's TV Workshop-- the producers were so fanatic about this that Joe Raposo, who was the main composer and music director, and I decided we would make the most commercial product that we could possibly imagine, as a joke, and give it to Joan Cooney, the founder of Sesame Street, for a Christmas present. Joe had a friend who was a butcher. So we made up Sesame Street Imperial Polish Kielbasas. We made 25 of them. And they had a little picture of Cookie Monster with a crown saying, "It's better than cookie" on it.

And we obviously had too much time in those days because Big Bird and Cookie Monster, Carroll Spinney and Frank Oz, made a series of radio spots, fake ones, and we had the band on them. We spent a lot of time on this joke. And we had labels printed. And it had a little disclaimer on it, saying, "This educational sausage," et cetera, "is being made for the good of your children." And we made up about 100 of them to give out at Christmas time.

And a few days before Christmas, we put them in the refrigerator in the lunchroom there. And lo and behold, that night, the janitor found them, and decided they were real, and that this was a real product, and it had been done illegally on the sly. And it was just like the hoax you were talking about. The minute that anybody found out about it, we just let them in on the joke, and they joined it.

And the lawyers for CTW went crazy. They thought it was real. They ran a D&B on the Imperial Sausage Company. And we were always one--

Jack Hitt

What's a D&B?

Christopher Cerf

A D&B. A Dunn and Bradstreet report. And they were looking for these guys. And we just kept staying one step ahead of them.

We found a guy in Mill Valley who claimed to be Dominick Imperiale who had founded this company. He called Joan Cooney to thank her for the license. Then we had a radio station send in our spots, saying, "Are you sure you really want to run these?" And then Joan got a call from Links, the sausage monthly magazine, asking her for an interview. And it just went on and on.

And finally, at the very end, we dressed the entire Sesame Street band up in lederhosen. And they came in with tubas and things and played "Merry Christmas" to her. And we gave her the sausages and fessed up. But it was a great hoax.

Ira Glass

Coming up, a story David Letterman doesn't want you to hear, as if there's only one. That's in a minute when our program continues.

Act Three. As Seen On Tv.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme with short stories, radio monologues, essays, the occasional radio play, whatever we can think of. Today's program, Name Change.

And when the radio staff and I started to assemble stories for today's show, all the stories seemed to divide off into two basic types, the stories about people who changed their name seeking a new life, a new beginning, and the stories about people changing their name hoping to perpetrate a con, a swindle. This next story falls into the second category, though it's a very small con, a very innocent con. Nobody gets hurt. No property is damaged. Nobody's feelings are wounded. It is about as innocent a swindle as they come.

What these guys do, essentially, is appear on The David Letterman Show under a false name and identity. We've arrived at Act Three of our program, As Seen On Television.

Dishwasher Pete

When I was first told to expect an invitation to appear on David Letterman's show, my only response was, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Ira Glass

This is Dishwasher Pete, author of a zine called Dishwasher. I just realized, do I have to explain what a zine is? OK, for those of you who have not seen what zines are, zines are these little self-published, often xeroxed magazines. This particular one recounts the real-life adventures of Dishwasher Pete on his ongoing quest to wash dishes in every state in the Union. It's a combination diary and philosophical inquiry into the nature of dishwashing, what it means to wash dishes for a living. And it's so well written, and funny, and evocative that it has gotten some attention from the mainstream media.

Dishwasher Pete

Back when reporters from newspapers and magazines first started contacting me, I did a couple of interviews. One resulting article was so hokey, "Hey, look at this wacky guy," that, naturally, it made its way into newspapers around the country. Before long, I began to get exasperated with media folks. Then came the final straw.

A producer from CNN somehow tracked down my parents' phone number and called them three times a week for nearly a month, urging my folks to have me call him. I made the call, but I happened to mention my apprehension towards the media. He took it personally and became defensive. He explained that he was "down with the cause," his very words, and didn't always work for "the man," but was forced to because he had a mortgage to pay, a family to feed, and, get this, had to put shoes on his children's feet.

I couldn't make this up if I tried. He was actually implying that if I didn't do the interview with him, then his two daughters were going to go barefoot. I had enough.

Ira Glass

From that point on, whenever a letter arrived in the stationary of some big media outlet from Los Angeles or New York, it went straight into the garbage can, unopened. But at some point, a friend of Pete's, Jess Hilliard, said that he would love to be in Pete's shoes. He'd love to be on TV. Pete figured, why deprive him of his dream? He promised that if another offer came in, he would call Jess, and Jess could go as his stand-in.

Soon a letter arrived from The Letterman Show. Like a prop in some sort of old, 1960s, Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal movie-- soon a letter arrives in the mail from The Letterman Show. Pete kept to his promise. Having Jess impersonate him on national television, as far as he was concerned, had two big appealing things to it. Number one, Jess could get a free trip to New York, where Pete was living at the time, and the two of them could hang out. And number two, free food. There'd be free food, an unimaginable quantity of it, backstage at The Letterman Show. Pete would just tag along on the taping.

Dishwasher Pete

Because if there was going to be free food, then I was going to be right there beside him.

Ira Glass

And here, our saga begins. The Letterman Show was so excited to book Dishwasher Pete-- they had heard, after all, that he was impossible to get on TV-- that they talked to Jess, thinking that he's Pete, every day for a week.

And when a guest cancels out at the last minute for the TV show, they fly Jess to New York that very day. He arrives. They tell him, "No, no, no, we don't need you." Put him up for a night in a hotel, send him back home. 10 days later, fly him to New York again.

Dishwasher Pete

I met him at the airport, and we rode into the city in a stretch limousine. At the hotel, Jess was greeted grimly by the staff at the desk. They remembered him from the week before when they had difficulties trying to squeeze a room deposit out of him.

They wanted a credit card. He didn't have one. They wanted $150 cash. Jess didn't have it. With both parties frustrated, they had agreed on a $20 cash deposit.

But this time, Jess was determined to not even give up that much. "Oh yeah, I remember you," the desk clerk grumbled. Jess told them that if they wanted a deposit, they'd have to get it from The Letterman Show. When they called the show, whoever was on the other end, while saying that they would cover the deposit, apparently explained that Jess was a dishwasher. The clerk snorted, "Oh, is that what he does?" I emptied the candy dish into my pocket, and we went upstairs to our suite.

We spent the rest of the night goofing around in the hotel's gym and roaming about in our complimentary, pillowy, white robes, raiding food service trays left in the hallways. I slept for only a couple of hours before getting up around 6:00 AM. Jess was still awake, writing letters. Later in the morning, I went downtown to pick up my disguise, a suit. I slowly made my way back up to Midtown.

When I reached the hotel room, Jess looked a bit worried, having just completed a series of phone calls with Letterman's staff. In the weeks prior, they had been asking Jess to send them more issues of Dishwasher. And while Jess kept telling them he would, he never did. The more issues they had meant the more material Jess would be responsible for knowing as his own.

But now, Jess had just learned, during the previous days, they had a researcher working to track down any information by or about me. So he had no idea what they had come up with, what Jess would have to answer to. And worst of all, we didn't know if they had found a photo of me.

Before the phone could ring again, we took a few beers and snuck up onto the roof of the 55-story hotel. We sat up there devising alibis to explain why Jess was Pete even if a photo might identify me as Pete. Satisfied with our arsenal of defenses and hungry from fasting all day in preparation for the free eats, it was time to go.

We went downstairs to the awaiting limo with its thick-necked driver and thicker-necked bodyguard. The studio is right around the corner from the hotel. The distance can be covered on foot in two or three minutes. And even I, with my slow pace and my need to check the pay phones for quarters, could have made the trek in five minutes. But with Midtown Manhattan's traffic locked in rush-hour gridlock and all the one-way streets working against us, it took a full half hour to make the trip in the limousine.

Outside the studio, a small crowd gathered around the limo, expecting a star to emerge. I had hoped Jess would appease the autograph seekers with signatures like Jacques Cousteau or Jesus Christ. But instead, he bolted from the car and blew right through the crowd, just like a real star.

Inside the building, we were shown around the stage before being led upstairs to the dressing room, where someone asked if we'd like a beer. "Sure," Jess said. "How does a bunch of imported beer sound?" The offer was supposed to impress us, and the sad truth is we were impressed. "Sounds good," Jess said.

"And what do you guys want to eat? I'll go down to the deli and get whatever you want." This offer caught us off guard, since we had assumed a full spread of food would have been awaiting us. So we were unprepared to place an order. And when Jess gave his simple request, "A cheese sandwich," I nearly screamed, "Anything. We could have anything from the deli."

"And a cheese sandwich for you, too?" she asked me. "Yeah," I said humbly, "but, you know, with a lot of things on it, vegetables and stuff." "Yeah, a lot of stuff on mine, too," Jess added.

As soon as she left, we closed the door, and I felt relieved that we survived that first hurdle with relative ease. Then, stealthily, Jess handed me a scrap of paper which read, "Hidden cameras, microphones," and gave me a "you never know" look. We were soon passing notes and whispering.

After only a few minutes of privacy, the talent coordinator entered. She walked right up to me and said, "Pete?" I shook my head and pointed her in Jess's direction. She shook Jess's hand, but then turned back to me. "Wait a minute. You're the guy in the photograph."

Damn, they had dug up a picture of me. "He just poses for the photos sometimes," Jess said. His explanation didn't dampen her suspicion, since she kept staring at me. All I could say was, "He's Pete, not me. My name's Jerry." She was far from convinced.

"Really, guys. What's going on here?" Simultaneously, Jess and I began rambling varied and conflicting stories. Apparently, we hadn't settled on exactly which alibi we would use. The whole mission was on the brink of doom, but somehow, we were able to confuse her to the point where she seemed resigned that, at this late stage, so close to show time, it was in her interest to remain ignorant.

The interrogation ceased, while she made small talk with Jess. After each question posed to Jess, she looked at me as if to gauge any reaction I may have had to Jess's responses. I did my best to disappear from her thoughts. I remained silent, stared out the window, and feigned boredom.

When the talent coordinator finally took a seat, she didn't sit on a chair like me or on the couch, proper like Jess. Rather, she straddled the arm of the couch. With the arm being much higher than the seat of the couch and with her wearing a miniskirt, there was suddenly plenty of eye-level, exposed flesh inches away from Jess's face. It didn't appear to be accidental.

When her chitchat with Jess turned flirtatious, I realized she was trying to use her sex appeal to get him to relax. This tactic backfired. Instead of being relaxed, Jess seemed uneasy with her presence and the attention she was giving him. He began to sweat.

The flirting continued for another 10 minutes until she unexpectedly turned her focus on me, asking about my life, who I was, what I did, where I was from. My alias was simple. Jerry, a graphic designer from Soho. But the questions kept coming as if to trip me up, and I found myself struggling to explain who this Jerry character was. When she finally seemed satisfied with my answers and returned her attention to Jess, I quietly breathed a sigh of relief.

Then the much-anticipated food arrived from the deli, and the talent coordinator left the room. We hoped to relax with our eats, but no sooner had she left then in walked the segment producer. The segment producer showed Jess six questions he had prepared for Letterman to ask and six prepared answers Letterman could expect to hear from Jess. To make sure Jess would know what to say on the air, the segment producer had Jess study the prepared answers and then conducted a pop quiz.

"OK, now say Letterman asks you question number three, how are you going to respond?" Suddenly, Jess was rehearsing lines. All the while, I quietly ate my sandwich, and drank my beer, and watched the show on the monitor.

With show time rapidly approaching, we left the dressing room and headed downstairs towards the stage. In the tiny green room beside the stage, we sat watching the show on the monitor until the segment producer announced it was finally time. Jess rose, winked, and then disappeared. I made quick work in devouring the strawberries and grapes in a fruit bowl and was moving in on a plate of gourmet cookies when the television screen faded from black.

Suddenly, there was Jess without the obligatory walk-across-the-stage entrance, already sitting next to Letterman. "Folks," Letterman said, "our next guest has spent the past 10 years working towards his ultimate goal, to wash dishes in every state in the Union. Here he is, a true American patriot, Dishwasher Pete." I dropped my cookie and laughed so hard, I slid off the couch.

One of the other two people in the green room asked, "Is that your friend?"

"Yeah," I cried between fits.

"And that's really his goal? To wash dishes in all 50 states?"

"Yeah."

"That's very strange."

"Yeah," I said again, but then realized this bozo was calling my friend Jess strange. No, wait, he was calling me strange. I was confused for a moment, but then the chuckling overwhelmed me again, and I no longer cared.

Laughing almost nonstop, I caught almost none of the interview until I realized Letterman was steering Jess towards doing his Fire Hand trick. While Jess had lobbied the staff all along to let him do this trick, they had been so skeptical, I was sure they wouldn't allow him to do it.

David Letterman

Now, Pete, as I understand, to while away sometimes the lonely hours in the kitchen, you've taught yourself sort of a little kind of a trick. And from time to time on this show, we have something called Stupid Human Tricks. And I think this falls right smack in the middle of that category.

Jess As Pete

Well, yeah, actually--

David Letterman

Licking the plates. That's what it is.

Jess As Pete

You got to get free food, too. They don't pay enough. Yeah, one of the tricks that I learned was-- well, after an accident I had when I sliced my hand open-- I don't know if you can see a slight scar.

David Letterman

Well, I don't know that we want to see the slice, Pete, but we'll take your word for it.

Jess As Pete

It's a five-and-a-half inch scar. It's from slicing my hand open. I had nerve surgery. And my hand is dead. But I can still move it.

David Letterman

So the story has a happy ending then.

Jess As Pete

But I can light cigarettes and cigars by catching my hand on fire and putting them up to the smoking--

David Letterman

He can catch his hand on fire. May we dim the lights, please?

Dishwasher Pete

The lights dimmed. Letterman put a cigar in his mouth and failed to notice Jess lighting not his scarred left hand, but his right hand. Jess thrust the flaming hand at Letterman's face who could only jump back in fright, his cigar unlit.

David Letterman

I got scared. I saw a guy with a dead, flaming hand lunging at me. I don't know. It put me off. Good luck to you, Pete. Seems like you're a very nice young man.

Jess As Pete

Thank you. Thank you.

David Letterman

Dishwasher Pete. We'll be right back.

Dishwasher Pete

And then before I knew it, the show was over, and I was alone in the green room. Immediately, I pounced on the refrigerator, but it held no beer. In fact, there was nothing edible in the whole room besides the gourmet cookies. I was searching for a container to stash the cookies in when Jess poked his head through the door just long enough to say, "Hey, let's get out of here." "But wait, Jess," I yelled, "cookies." But he was gone.

I grabbed as many cookies as I could cradle in my arms and caught up to him at the elevator. Back upstairs, I rushed to the bathroom while Jess retrieved his stuff from the dressing room. We charged down the stairs, past Letterman's office, past his waiting minions, and finally, outside.

Jess led the charge past the crowd, knocking aside at least one autograph book held out for him to sign. People were shouting my name. Excited, I assumed there was some friends in the crowd. But then I saw a pack of frat boys emerge from the mass and rush towards Jess. "Pete, Pete," they yelled. Terrified, Jess dove in the limousine and slammed the door.

The following day, Letterman's staff found out that they'd been duped when several curious friends called the show to find out what had happened. For a couple of weeks, we weren't sure if we were going to see the $500 they owed us for the appearance. But as it turned out, The Letterman Show was eager to bury the whole incident with as little fuss or publicity as possible. So we were paid without having to raise a ruckus. Now The Letterman Show officially has no comment about Dishwasher Pete.

Ira Glass

Dishwasher Pete's story about The Letterman Show appears in the zine Dishwasher. If you want to get a copy, you can write to this address. Grab a pen. Dishwasher, PO Box 8213, Portland, Oregon, 97207.

Act Four. Nom De Plume, Nom De Guerre.

Ira Glass

What do you sacrifice when you change your name? What do you give up when you take on another, more reckless identity? We carry this question with us into the next act. Act Four, Nom De Plume, Nom De Guerre.

One of the most original music writers in this country does not write for the mainstream magazines like Spin or Rolling Stone. In fact, he doesn't write for magazines at all. His "name"-- and I'm putting name in quotes here because it's not his real name-- is Camden Joy. He prints his opinions on posters which he plasters all over New York and publishes in little pamphlets with titles like "The Lost Manifestos of Camden Joy."

Regular listeners may remember hearing him on our Frank Sinatra show. He wrote a story for us about watching the movie The Manchurian Candidate on a TV in a kabob restaurant with a bunch of cabbies. Sarah Vowell, one of our contributing editors, is a music critic herself and went to New York to find out more about Camden Joy, the man, the myth.

Sarah Vowell

I'm a sucker for a condensed, exaggerated emotion. Its what made me fall for rock and roll in the first place. And Camden Joy's manifestos work like good pop songs. Each one short, crisp, and strange. Reading his bizarre claim that Paul Simon's Graceland was the best album of the 1980s, that a Mekon's cassette saved his life, that he, Camden Joy, should father Madonna's baby, that an obscure, little group called Yo La Tengo are "great, like Chinese food," I felt like there was no one in the world who cared more about what guitars and drums can do.

One of my favorites dealt with the global economic impact of the Indie band, Pavement. It goes like this. "I hereby suggest that the American president and all them trade reps haul Pavement to the trade talks. They are our grandest export, our finest product, infusable in hot weather, our best materials. Pavement should be carried on our shoulders, and emblazoned on our backs, and ushered onto waiting planes at the last minute with an almost effete, deliberate importance, their bellies bloated with our very best meats."

Charles Aaron, an editor at Spin, remembers stumbling upon the Pavement piece as an orange handbill on a telephone pole by his Brooklyn subway stop. It was the first time he saw one of Joy's posters. The headline just said, "Pavement."

Charles Aaron

And I couldn't imagine that it was really about the band, Pavement. I thought it was maybe about a paving company or something. But then I read it, and it was this impassioned review of, I think, their Crooked Rain album, and also about how magnetic and awe-inspiring Steve Malkmus, the singer, was. And it wasn't that well written a review, but it was so impassioned. And as it went to the end, it became more like a stalker letter.

And I knew that at one point Steve Malkmus had lived in the neighborhood, and I started to get worried that this was someone who was stalking him. And so I almost wanted to take it down. It was disturbing. It was funny though. It was possibly a joke. It seemed less like a joke. It seemed more disturbing than a joke.

Probably a couple weeks later, I was coming back home from the laundromat. And this time, I was staring down at the ground, and there was another one, long, impassioned review veering into stalker-like comments about Yo La Tengo. These were not the most well-known bands in the world. And I just couldn't understand where these handbills could possibly be coming from. I felt like I was one of, maybe, 5 to 10 people in this zip code who would actually know who these bands were. It got to the point where I felt like someone was planting them for me to find.

Sarah Vowell

And do you know his real name?

Charles Aaron

No, I don't. And people have refused to tell me. I guess because I seem interested. If I was disinterested, they would probably tell me right out. But they see that I'm semi-fascinated, so they want to keep the myth going.

Sarah Vowell

So Camden Joy or whoever you are, can you tell me how long you've been Camden Joy?

Camden Joy

I've been Camden Joy for about four years.

Sarah Vowell

What's your real first name?

Camden Joy

My real first name is Tom.

Sarah Vowell

Tom. How do I know you're telling me the truth?

Camden Joy

You don't. Oh, did you want the truth?

Sarah Vowell

He says he decided on the name Camden when he was visiting Trenton, New Jersey. He says he went there looking for the darkest, most depressing American city. But the locals had this advice.

Camden Joy

"You really should go down to Camden."

Sarah Vowell

Camden, New Jersey?

Camden Joy

Camden, New Jersey. And I said, "Why?" And they said, "Well, it's a lot like Trenton, but without all the thrills."

Sarah Vowell

He claims that calling himself Camden opened a window, that it gave him permission to experiment with his writing, to say whatever he wanted, to be whoever he wanted.

Sarah Vowell

Doesn't Tom have a real job?

Camden Joy

Yes.

Sarah Vowell

What does Tom do?

Camden Joy

Well, right now, Tom works as a word processor.

Sarah Vowell

I feel like I'm talking to Sybil or something. So at Tom's job, where does he process words? Tom?

Camden Joy

At a world-famous law firm in New York City.

Sarah Vowell

And do the world-famous lawyers, do they address Tom as "Tom"?

Camden Joy

Yes, they do.

Sarah Vowell

And do they know about Camden? Do they know Tom's dirty, little secret?

Camden Joy

They could care less. If I went in there and I said, "Yeah, I'll type your lousy deposition, but can I tell you while I'm doing this what a world-important artist I am?" That wouldn't really be conducive to a good work environment.

Sarah Vowell

Does Tom dress differently? Does Tom wear different clothes than Camden? I know Camden obviously must wear a cape.

Camden Joy

No, they share a lot. They share toothbrushes and clothes. They sleep on the same pillows.

Sarah Vowell

Now say you're at a party. And you're introducing yourself to someone. Who do you say? Do you say, "Hi, I'm Camden Joy," or do you say, "Hi, I'm Tom Doe," or whatever?

Camden Joy

I, ah-- I-- I ah-- hmmm.

Sarah Vowell

Joy is such a trickster and so accustomed to playing around with personae and hyperbole that by the end of the time I spent with him, I no longer trusted a word he said. His poster campaign while I was there sort of frightened me. It's one thing for a man to verbally stalk the lead singer of Pavement. It's something else to stalk his ex-girlfriend.

It was Valentine's Day. And the posters ranted against the phone company, claiming that his girlfriend broke up with him because he couldn't call her. He says he couldn't find a pay phone that worked. And when he did, he was out of change. We had a little debate in front of this poster in Soho.

Sarah Vowell

So it's your theory that you tape up all over town these paranoid rants against the phone company. And that's what brings the women to your door.

Camden Joy

It's never proven false yet. You go into bars. I see guys doing this all the time. They go into bars, and they explain that their hands are freezing cold and they're suffering from frostbite because they've been up all night postering to their last girlfriend. And time and again, these are the guys that leave the bar accompanied not just by one, but by many, many women.

Sarah Vowell

So this woman is going to read the phrase, what, "I was trying to use the pay phone, but my hands, slick from pizza grease, only shined the receiver and could not lift it from the cradle." You think women want boys whose hands are slick from pizza grease, that that's the boys they want?

Camden Joy

This last girlfriend of mine, pizza grease was a catch-all thing that we would-- I don't want to get too specific, but I would say that pizza grease, it's a lubricant, I think I could say. And it's certainly a lubricant of the heart in this case.

Sarah Vowell

A lubricant of the heart?

Camden Joy

Yeah, what I'm saying here is that I'm a man. I'm a man, and I have an appetite.

Sarah Vowell

Later, when I tell Joy that his stalker impulses towards his ex-girlfriend make me nervous, he tells me that the whole thing, even the weirdest poster called Camden's Conspiracy Hearts, was just a big put-on art project and that he and the woman parted amiably. Then when I ask if I could corroborate this with her, he says that there was no single woman, just a composite of several women. Here I was, drawn to Joy's writing because I thought it was so emotionally raw, so embarrassingly honest, when really, it's a web of fictions. This was interesting and exasperating. But it gets even more complicated.

Camden Joy

There's another name that I'm writing under right now, too.

Sarah Vowell

Now wait a minute. What does this person write? Is he a journalist, the other guy? The third man? The third man.

Camden Joy

There was a third man. He roams freely amongst the different things.

Sarah Vowell

What does that mean? Tell me what he writes.

Camden Joy

He writes poetry and some rather poetic music reviews, I suppose.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, poetic music reviews.

Camden Joy

Poetic music reviews. I know that sounds awful.

Sarah Vowell

What rhymes with Elvis? No, just kidding.

Camden Joy

Purple.

Sarah Vowell

Well, the other day you told me you were at a Pavement show, and you were picking up on some girl. What name did you give her?

Camden Joy

Camden.

Sarah Vowell

Camden. And she took your word for it?

Camden Joy

Yeah. We should point out that I wasn't successful in any way. And it could be that Tom could have been far more successful.

Sarah Vowell

Maybe Tom should have gone back and tried again.

Camden Joy

It wasn't just that I didn't successfully pick up on this woman, but that--

Sarah Vowell

Tom strikes out, the third guy comes.

One telling way to sum up the difference between Camden and Tom is examining their attitudes about Freedy Johnston. Camden devoted his cruelest manifesto to the folk rocker, spewing, "I would crawl through glass to claw your eyes. I would offer a hug if my suit were explosive."

Camden Joy

I think Tom would hear Freedy Johnston playing on the muzak of a store like Bed Bath & Beyond, and this sort of occurrence would just make his shoulders droop a bit. And he'd go, "Darn it, he used to be so good. Darn it, I wonder what happened to him." Tom is a person who has felt often absent of opinions and often a little bit excluded by things. And Camden is desperately trying to make up for that by coming up with rather fanciful and wild opinions often woven out of complete insanity.

Sarah Vowell

Good writing, which is to say, real communication, lies somewhere between Tom's lack of opinions and Camden's surplus of them. When you take on a new name, when you split yourself into two people like that, you think the new name's going to make things easier. But what actually happens is that your life becomes twice as complex. It's almost as if the two alter egos need an introduction, as if they need someone to walk up and say, "Camden, I'd like you to meet Tom. Tom, this is Camden Joy."

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Peter Clowney and Alix Spiegel. Contributing editors Sarah Vowell, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Production help today from Kristina Stevens and from WDUQ Pittsburgh. If you'd like a copy of this program, it only costs $10. Call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who reminds you--

Christopher Cerf

Imperial Sesame Street Polish Kielbasa, it better than cookie.

Ira Glass

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

Dishwasher Pete

But wait, Jess, cookies.