Transcript

573:

Status Update
Transcript

Originally aired 11.27.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/573

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Julia's 13. Jane and Ella are 14. And when they came to our studio for an interview, they did this thing they do all the time when they hang out. They take pictures of themselves. And-- no surprise-- they post them to Instagram.

Ira Glass

There you go.

Jane

No, retake it. It's really bad.

Ella

Jane, calm down.

Julia

It doesn't matter, OK? This is what happens every time.

Ella

I'm just gonna post it and we'll see--

Jane

We'll see what happens.

Ella

--how quickly everything comes in.

Ira Glass

So what's your prediction on what's going to happen?

Ella

Usually there's at least-- usually there's two likes in a minute. But I don't know, because people might not be up yet.

Jane

People aren't-- there's--

Ira Glass

It was 11:00 in the morning on a day with no school, not prime time for posting photos at all. Nighttime is usually when you get the most likes and comments. But, you know, 11:00 AM. A minute passes. No response on the photo they took in the studio. And then?

Ella

Oh, wait, three likes.

Julia

Oh, three likes.

Jane

From Ro--

Ella

From three people. No one's commented yet. One of these is my best friend. OK, another person liked it. Two people.

Jane

Two people. OK, we're getting a lot of likes now.

Ella

Three. Another person.

Jane

How many likes do we have now?

Ella

Six, I think.

Jane

OK, we have one, two, three, four, five, six likes in a minute. That's actually good, Ella.

Ira Glass

What they're waiting for is not just likes and comments but a specific kind of comment. This is probably not going to be news to any of you who have teenage girls in your lives, but I bet lots of you do not know about this. They want comments from other girls, and they say the wording is pretty much always the same.

Jane

Gorgeous. Pretty. Stunning.

Ella

Stunning? Yeah.

Jane

You kill it. You're so pretty. So beautiful.

Ira Glass

OK, just to be clear, they say this about everybody's selfies, whether or not the selfies are, in fact, stunning or beautiful. This is super-affirming language that is applied equally to every girl, universally. You've heard of bullying online? This is the opposite.

Ella

A lot of people don't just say pretty. You either say like, Pretty, WTF? Gorgeous, WTF? Perfect.

Julia

Like all caps sometimes.

Ella

Um, some people say, like, model. You can add OMG after anything.

Jane

Cutest, like--

Julia

Yeah.

Ella

Something "-est."

Ira Glass

The one word you don't say? "Sexy." They explained you could say "hot," but never "sexy."

Jane

They are-- there's a different--

Ella

They're the same thing, actually.

Jane

There's a different connotation to "sexy" than there is to "hot."

Ella

'Cause, like, it has the word "sex" in it. Sex.

Julia

Yeah, I think it's the word.

Ella

Like, intercourse.

Jane

Ella!

[GIRLS GIGGLE]

Ira Glass

This is not about sex. It's not about boys. It's about girls, and friendship. And it's very repetitive-- the same phrases, over and over. I asked them each to pick a selfie that they'd posted and read the comments.

Jane

So I have gorgeous, pretty.

Ella

You're so pretty, OMG.

Jane

So pretty.

Ella

This is so pretty, OMG.

Jane

Heart eyes. So pretty. Heart eyes. Gorgeous. Gorge.

Ella

You're so pretty, bye.

Jane

Cutest.

Ira Glass

They say their parents don't understand this. Ella's mom has Instagram, so she sees the pictures and the comments.

Ella

She's just like, why? Why? Why is everyone doing this? Like, why are 50 people feeling the need to tell you that you're pretty?

Ira Glass

Julia's mom? Same thing.

Julia

She's like, why? Why are all these people saying, like, oh, you're so perfect? And my dad just thinks it's funny. He's like, why are these people doing this? Like, it doesn't-- it's kind of stupid. They think it's, like, stupid.

Ira Glass

So what's it about? Well, the answer to that question is complicated, and it involves going deep into an intricate language that's going on in the comments. Welcome to WBEZ Chicago. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today's program is about status updates of various kinds-- the literal kind, like on Instagram. But most of our show today is about the kind of slow changes in status that happen to adults, that happen usually when people get money or they get recognition, where what happens is, you know, quiet, and slow, and really, is sometimes kind of rude to talk about. Like, when do you say to anybody, "Hey, you're making a lot more money than you used to." Or, "Hey, you're making a lot less money." Or, "You're making a lot more money than me."

And that's why I wanted to talk to Jane and Ella and Julia. Because for them, this stuff is not gradual or vague or shameful to talk about. It's happening out in the open, online. They're online all the time, constantly getting updates on the social standing of everybody they know, in detail and at incredible speed. And that's what these Instagram comments are all about, if you know how to read them.

Act One. Finding the Self in Selfie.

Ella

It's definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Ira Glass

Then, of course, when you do post a comment about a picture, there's the whole politics of whether your friend is going to comment back to your comment. And subtle differences in the wording when they comment back could mean something, even though, to an outsider, the words basically look the same. Julia says that she'll comment back, oh my god, I love you so much, to a close friend who compliments a picture of hers. But she says with somebody you don't know so well, it goes differently.

Julia

If they say, like, oh my god, like, you're so pretty, you say, OMG, but that's you. You know, like-- like you're the pretty one? I feel like that's something that I say to someone who's like-- who I'm not super close with, but I feel like-- like I have to say something back.

Jane

Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we're meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone's photo who you're not really super close with or that you don't know really well. And it's sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you're cool.

If someone that you don't know very well commented on your photo, you-- it's sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you're making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

Ella

It's like a chain reaction.

Ira Glass

Another thing you don't see if you don't know this language of comments and commenting back-- let's say that you comment on somebody's photo. When they comment back, do they comment to you individually? Or do they group you in with 20 or 30 other people and send just one big group comment back to all of you? That tells you where you stand with the person.

Then there are all those situations where somebody choosing not to comment is a really big deal. Like for example, if you post a picture of yourself with a friend and then the friend does not comment on that picture, that's just cold. That is leaving you dangling. Or if you post a selfie, close friends are expected to chime in with support. When they don't?

Ella

You definitely feel insecure. Because, like, you expect them to comment, and they don't, and you're like, why?

Julia

This isn't even good enough for, like, my best friend.

Ella

Yeah.

Julia

Then you're like, oh, wait.

Jane

Like, what if they've seen it and they're just not liking it on purpose, or like, what if everybody who's seeing it thinks that we're not actually friends because they're not commenting on it. They haven't commented yet. It's been X amount of time and they still haven't liked it.

Julia

It's this kind of shallow-- like, why are you not responding to something that I never said you had to respond to in the first place?

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

And tell me about how quickly people have to respond. Like, what's the normal amount of time?

Ella

Within 10 minutes, I think.

Jane

Yeah, usually.

Julia

People are always on Instagram. Everyone's always on Instagram.

Jane

There's definitely a weird psychology to it.

Julia

Yeah.

Ella

Definitely.

Jane

It's just sort of the way it is. It's like unspoken rules that everybody knows and follows.

Ira Glass

But can I ask you, have you gotten caught up in weird mind games where somebody commented or liked or didn't comment or didn't like, and then you're just like, I don't-- what does this-- what does this one means?

Ella

Yeah. Someone like--

Julia

Ella has an example. I mean, these girls that went to our middle school, they--

Ella

Yeah, this is not my picture, but someone said, what even? You're perfect. I hate you. Eff you. You suck. And then like someone else, like-- WTF? You're perfect. I hate you.

Jane

Because people-- what they're trying to say is, like, you're still perfect and you're so beautiful that I, like, hate you for it, and I wish I was like you so much that I dislike you for it.

Ella

And how do you respond to that? Like, I'm sorry?

Jane

Because you don't say, like-- you don't say, like, thank you, because it's not really a compliment. You don't really know.

Julia

We've all gotten those comments of-- last year, like, this girl even said it to my face. She was like, you're so pretty, like, I'm going to throw you into the train tracks. Like things that-- like it doesn't even make sense. Like it's--

Jane

Like on my photo right now-- I'm looking at it-- this girl commented, I hate you.

Julia

Um, I've also, like, been, like, caught in the situation where someone's like, you're so pretty, and I'm like, oh, thank you. You're really pretty too. And then we've gotten into this whole thing, and I remember, like magical mirrors came up, like potions.

And I was just like, wait, this is way too deep. Like, you must be looking in a mirror then, because you must be talking to yourself, because you're so pretty. She was like, we should switch bodies with, like, a potion. I was like, what?

Ira Glass

Ella and Julia and Jane say that usually, they'll get 130 to 150 likes for any selfie they put up, and anywhere between 30 and 50 comments, which is a good response. And overwhelmingly, these comments are these super-positive, you're so pretty, OMG, you're so cute kind. And a lot of it is heartfelt, girls just trying to be good friends to each other. When you see your friend put herself out there, it's nice to tell her she's pretty.

Ira Glass

Can I ask, like, does it work? Because you know, when you're getting over 100 likes and comments and things like that, like, you know, a lot of it is just rote, right? A lot of people are just like, they see a thing, and they just automatically--

Jane

Yeah, you're scrolling through.

Ella

It's mindless.

Jane

That's how--

Ira Glass

It's mindless. And so since it's mindless, does it still work? Does it make you feel good?

Jane

Yes.

Julia

Um, actually, if I get a comment from someone I care about, I think it makes me feel good, like it lifts me up.

Jane

A lot of it is just scrolling, too.

Julia

But a lot of it's just, like, I literally just scroll through my Instagram feed and I just, like, click, like double-tap.

Jane

Yeah.

Julia

And like, it doesn't--

Jane

I like everything on my feed.

Julia

You know, like it just doesn't-- and that's what people are doing to your photo. But, like, it still makes you feel good, because you're getting all these likes.

Ira Glass

Yeah, but when you think about it, it's so strange. Because you know how superficial it is.

Julia

It is.

Ira Glass

And yet--

Julia

You know, but yeah.

Ella

Yeah. You know that you're doing it to other people, but--

Ira Glass

And yet it's still--

Ella

Then other people are doing it to you.

Ira Glass

And it still feels like something, though.

Ella

Like, it does make you feel good. You're like, oh, I'm getting all these comments. Like, people like my photo. They think I'm pretty. Like, they're saying that you're pretty. And if someone comes up to you and says you're pretty, like, you're obviously going to be like, thank you, if it makes you feel good. Because it just does. Like, that's like human nature. Like, you're going to feel good.

Ira Glass

This is really not so different from anybody's life on social media. When I tweet something and a friend favorites it, and another friend retweets with a funny comment, that is totally them saying to me, you're so pretty-- just in a more adult kind of way. And it feels nice.

All three of these girls told me they don't need 50 people telling them that they're pretty all the time. But you know, it's there for the taking. It's like free candy. Why not?

Ira Glass

Do you feel like this is a situation where, like, girls are so judged all the time on how they look, and this is a way to counteract that, by you guys saying to each other, like, you're pretty, you're pretty?

Ella

Well, no. It just gives more opportunities for people to judge. They're not going to--

Julia

Yeah, posting a photo of yourself is putting yourself out there.

Ella

They're not going to do it on social media, obviously, because you will see it. But they'll do it behind your back.

Ira Glass

When a girl posts an unflattering selfie, or just a selfie that makes her look uncool, other girls will take screenshots to save the image and gossip about it later. Happens all the time. And so even though they're old hands at posting selfies-- they've been posting since sixth grade-- it can be nervous-making to post one. So they take precautions.

Ella

We all ask people before we post it, like send in like a group chat, or like, send to your friends, like, should I post this? Do I look pretty? And they say, like, all the same stuff that they would say in a comment. Like, oh my god, yes, post it. Like, you're so pretty. You're so perfect. So like--

Ira Glass

And so it'd be like you run it by like four or five friends.

Jane

Yeah. If I send it to my friends, I'm not nervous about it, because then I have--

Julia

OK.

Ira Glass

Jane looks at her phone. There's a message.

Julia

Like someone just texted in a giant group chat, go like my photo on Instagram. It just shows that it happens every--

Ella

It happens every second.

Julia

It happens all the time.

Ella

Yep. I got it, too.

Julia

Yeah.

Ira Glass

I have to say, like, oh my god, this is such a job.

Girls

Yeah.

Julia

It's like I'm-- I'm a brand, and I am like--

Ella

You're trying to promote yourself.

Julia

The brand. I'm the director of the--

Ira Glass

And you're the product.

Jane

You're definitely trying to promote yourself.

Julia

To stay relevant, you have to--

Jane

You have to work hard.

Ella

Relevance is a big term right now.

Ira Glass

Are you guys relevant?

Ella

Um, I'm so relevant.

Jane

In middle school. In middle school, we were definitely really relevant.

Ella

(SARCASTICALLY) We were so relevant.

Jane

Because everything was established. But now, in the beginning of high school, you can't really tell who's relevant.

Ira Glass

Yeah. And what does relevant mean?

Jane

Relevant means that people care about what you're posting on Instagram. People--

Julia

Care about you.

Jane

--want to know what you're doing. People will open your Snapchat stories.

Ira Glass

They're only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia

One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn't, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she's, like, really good friends with, just 'cause we're in high school and there's that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass

Do you have people who you're jealous of?

Jane

Yeah.

Julia

Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see-- like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane

Yeah.

Julia

Just to see, like, the whole-- like, the whole social like map.

Jane

Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who's with who, who's hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia

If you didn't have it, like, I feel like I'd be missing so much. And it would just--

Jane

Because you wouldn't see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass

Well, no, that's, I feel like, the thing that I'm understanding from this conversation, is like-- it's actually like, you're getting a picture of your entire social world and who's up and who's down and who's close to who, and it's like you're getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane

Yeah.

Ella

Yeah.

Jane

Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass

As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella

Yeah.

Jane

Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia

It's crazy.

Ella

You see these comments. You screenshot them. You show them to your friends at school.

Jane

Yeah, I will screenshot things, and be like, look what she said, look what she said. Like even if it's funny.

Julia

I didn't know that these people were close. When did this happen?

Ira Glass

This is the main thing they get from Instagram, they say. After all, each of them only post a couple pictures a week. Not that much of their time on Instagram is being told they're pretty. Most of it is this, dissecting and calibrating the minutiae of the social diagram.

[MUSIC - "YOU'RE SO BEAUTIFUL" BY JUSSIE SMOLLETT & YAZZ]

Act Two. Mon Ami Ta-Nehisi.

Ira Glass

Act 2. Mon Ami Ta-Nehisi. Well, our show today is about status updates. And you know, it's weird when a sudden change of status happens to somebody who you're close with. And that's true whether their status goes up or their status goes down.

One of our producers, Neil Drumming, is best friends with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I think a lot of people heard of for the first time a couple years ago when he wrote this article arguing the case for reparations for black Americans. That article was nothing compared to the attention that Ta-Nehisi got when his latest book was published this summer. The book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List ever since. He's been interviewed all over the place. He's been called the next James Baldwin. Ta-Nehisi Coates was suddenly famous and rich, and Neil, our co-worker, definitely was not. He does fine, but, you know. Anyway, it got Neil thinking.

Quick warning-- there's some cursing in this story that we bleeped on the radio version of our show. Here on the podcast and the internet, we are unbleeping it. If you're somebody who prefers the bleeped version-- maybe you listen to the show with kids-- you can find it at our website.

Neil Drumming

One of the weird things about having a famous friend is that even when he's too busy to hang out, he's sort of around all the time. I hadn't seen Ta-Nehisi in a few months. But in the last year or two, it seemed like everyone was reading his work and talking about it-- everyone on the subway, the President of the United States, my ex who texted me out of the blue to see if I could get her into one of his speaking engagements-- everyone.

But by July, I was cat-sitting just 15 blocks from Ta-Nehisi's apartment and he and I still hadn't connected. We tried, but it just didn't work out. I was walking past a newsstand on Broadway, thinking I should try texting him again, that I had so much to tell him. And when I looked up, he was right in front of me, his big-ass disembodied head staring at me from the cover of New York Magazine.

By the end of the summer, Ta-Nehisi had turned 40 and moved his family to Paris. He won the MacArthur Genius Award. He was across the ocean, and coworkers were congratulating me for him. It's wild having the world talk so much about someone you know and with whom you share so much history. It's exciting and, oddly, kind of gratifying. I'm happy for him.

The thing I'm having trouble with is harder to explain. I know Ta-Nehisi's the same guy-- warm, funny, curious, loves comic books. But he's also a famous writer who lives in Paris, accepts prestigious awards in a tuxedo that he owns, and gets shout-outs from Toni Morrison and Jay Z. He's changing in ways that I'm not. And when people change, they grow apart. And it makes me worry about our friendship.

Like when we're making plans. A couple of months ago, Ta-Nehisi, our other buddy, Rick, and I were supposed to meet for Sunday brunch at our old West Side haunt, The Half King. The Half King is a pub, not a dive, a respectable pub with good service, good beer, and decent food. The morning of the scheduled meeting, he texted to ask if we can meet at the swanky Hotel Marlton instead. His explanation? "I'm becoming that dude."

Rick was understanding. He joked that since eating in Paris, everything back home must taste like dog food. Ta-Nehisi's response? "It's close."

Sometimes he ends emails with unnecessary French interpolations of everyday phrases. In this country, we have a word for such behavior, and it's the same word in Ta-Nehisi's newly adopted language.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Je suis snob.

Neil Drumming

That's how you say, "I'm a snob" in French?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Je suis snob. Snob. I gotta get my accent right. Je suis snob.

Neil Drumming

I tease him about becoming a snob, but we've never really talked about it. And so, cautiously and nervously, a couple weeks ago, I asked him if we could. We texted back and forth to set a time when we could sit down. At one point, he suggested that I go through his assistant.

Ta-Nehisi was tired from a long day of meetings and signing books, so he and I ended up at the bar of the hotel where he was staying. It's a lavish joint with a rooftop pool deck and big, cushioned banquettes in the lounge. We sat up on the mezzanine, overlooking the low-lit bar.

Neil Drumming

Is this the best hotel you ever stayed in?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

No.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHTER]

Ta-Nehisi Coates

This ain't that good of a hotel. But it's perfectly decent. I got a nice room here.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

How's this feel to you? Does this feel like a nice hotel to you?

Neil Drumming

Ta-Nehisi knew we were here to talk about his snobbery, and he wasted zero time getting into character. He told me a story about the other night when he'd had dinner in the restaurant of this very hotel.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

And I was sitting at the bar. And the food was OK. It's like one of these OK food restaurants. But it was decent. I was having a good time. And there was a couple like down the bar, and they had ordered this big-ass thing of oysters. It might have been 24 oysters. It was huge.

Neil Drumming

Ta-Nehisi was fine with that. He loves oysters. It was what happened next that offended him.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Then the bartender started making drinks, right? And he makes the woman a sangria and the other dude some sweet something, some red, sweet something-or-other that no one should ever drink. And he took it over there, and I was like, you're going to drink sangria and eat oysters? Like, we're doing this now? Like, this is a thing you're going to do? Oh, come on.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHTER]

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Come on. Just order a Hi-C. Get the Capri Sun. Just get the Capri Sun with your oysters.

Neil Drumming

See, this is what I'm talking about.

I met Ta-Nehisi in the late '90s when we were both working at an alternative weekly newspaper in DC. He was still a student at Howard. I had recently graduated from college.

I'm pretty sure neither of us had ever even tasted an oyster back then. Instead, we bonded over hip hop, two-for-one happy hours, the enduring craziness of white people, and wanting to be better writers than the ones in our favorite rap magazine. We bopped around U Street drinking rail liquor and debating the merits of Ghostface, Buckshot, and Brother J.

We did growing-up stuff, too. We paid rent. We met girls. I remember the day Ta-Nehisi came by the cubicle where I worked to tell me his girlfriend was pregnant. I thought, at 24, his life is over. But soon, I'd have a godson.

We also got pretty serious about writing. Eventually, we both ended up in New York. We got jobs. We got married. Our wives became best friends, as well. We stayed close.

During all those years, I honestly don't recall fine dining being a big part of our lives, so it's kind of bizarre to hear Ta-Nehisi go on about it now. The guy talks about food with almost as much passion and conviction as he writes scathing critiques of American institutionalized racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

There's this joint in Chicago called the Girl & the Goat, and they made this asparagus last time I was there, and I think about it. Like I actually think about the vegetables.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, what is this? [LAUGHS] Like sex or something. Like, I think about it. Like god, that was awesome. That was great.

Neil Drumming

I can't imagine feeling so strongly about vegetables. But we're laughing and drinking adult beverages. This is fun and kind of familiar.

Neil Drumming

You know what this makes me think of?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What?

Neil Drumming

The New Year's Eve parties at the place you used to live in--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, yeah, yeah, in Brooklyn.

Neil Drumming

In Brooklyn, yeah. Was it Flatbush?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, yeah.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Lefferts Garden.

Neil Drumming

Lefferts Garden, which is a completely different place now.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah.

Neil Drumming

But I remember, we used to have those-- remember we'd have those wine parties, and you had to bring a bottle of wine.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, I didn't like that.

Neil Drumming

You remember this? You didn't like that? Why? Why didn't you like that?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

That felt status-y to me.

Neil Drumming

Really?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, what are we doing? We're tasting wine and doing-- I mean, what is this?

Neil Drumming

But remember, it was like you could bring-- everybody brought kind of cheap wine. People were just--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, [INAUDIBLE] now we're getting to why one wouldn't like it. So we're, like, swapping cheap wine?

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Like, what are we doing? Are we just-- I think like my read on that was, are we doing this just to say we're the kind of Negroes that eat cheese and drink wine? There was a point where we didn't go, like, really nice places, right?

Neil Drumming

Yeah, of course not. I mean, remember--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

We used to go to like Lucky Burger.

Neil Drumming

Yeah. And we just--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Isn't it call Lucky's? Isn't that who it's called?

Neil Drumming

Yeah, the joint on the--

Ira Glass

Like 50-something? It's like Hell's Kitchen.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, we used to go there a lot. We used to get burgers. I mean, what's-- OK, listen. I've known you, what, 19 years? 20 years?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Long time.

Neil Drumming

The majority of that time, we ate wings and burgers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Right.

Neil Drumming

Pretty much the majority of that time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

And I did eat that stuff then, and I was fine.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, all the time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

So what happened?

Neil Drumming

This is the reason that you're sitting here, as I'm asking you. OK, well, this is the question.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Well, I made more money, right?

Neil Drumming

Yes.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

That's all it is.

Neil Drumming

I mean, but-- I mean, how much would you attribute it to that?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

A lot.

Neil Drumming

Yeah? Was that ever uncomfortable for you?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The money's uncomfortable.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The money's uncomfortable. Um-- why is the money uncomfortable? Because you have the money, but like, in your mind, you haven't changed. Like you still rock a hoodie.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, yeah.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The food is not uncomfortable. The food feels like some bringing to fruition of something that was always there.

Neil Drumming

Mm.

Maybe it is bringing to fruition something that was already there. Ta-Nehisi was always a little picky about what kind of beer he drank. And he'd get anxious whenever his hair got a little bushy, even back in the broke DC days when a regular haircut was an extravagance. I started to wonder if maybe there had been snobbiness under the surface all along and I just missed it.

Still, those are small things, right? He appreciates a nice meal and a trim. So what?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Well, I go to a really nice gym.

Neil Drumming

OK. You would go, or you do?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I do.

Neil Drumming

You do.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I go to a really nice gym.

Neil Drumming

How nice is your gym? What gym could be that nice?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don't want to name the gym. But I can tell you about the gym.

Neil Drumming

Is it not, like, a consumer gym?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

It is, but it's like really nice.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean when I'm in America. Which--

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, that was the ultimate snob statement right there. I go to a nice gym in Paris, too.

Neil Drumming

But they're different gyms, obviously.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, different gyms.

Neil Drumming

They're not the same brand.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

No, no, no. But it's just, like, very nice.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have personal training.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHTS

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Which is snobbery.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, I can sort of see that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, which is-- you know, I mean, I can defend it for you, but it is. It is. It's like privileged to be able to pay for that, right? Like that's some amount of something, you know? I started getting my hair cut every week, too.

Neil Drumming

Well, that was something you always wanted, though.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Oh, I did always want that.

Neil Drumming

You used to talk about that a lot.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, I always wanted that.

Neil Drumming

You used--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

But is that a kind of snobbery?

Neil Drumming

I don't know.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think I'm a snob, but I don't think I'm bougie.

Neil Drumming

OK. That's like-- I feel like for This American Life, you're going to have to explain that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

OK, what bougie means?

Neil Drumming

Yeah. You're gonna have to--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

So "bougie" is a term that black people use-- and I guess white people have used it now, 'cause I see white people using it-- which I think people think is interchangeable with "snob." But I actually don't think.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

OK. So like [INAUDIBLE] say, you know, a bougie's a person who's snob, looks down. But see, bougie people want to be part of a crowd.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Like, they want to be part of the right crowd. So for instance, I don't want to put my son in some exclusive club or something, literally like some sort of societal something or other. Do you know what I mean?

Neil Drumming

So bougie is a status thing. It's about--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, I don't care about any of that. I actually don't care about my status.

Neil Drumming

OK. All right, all right.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, I don't go to a nice gym so that I can then tell you I go to a nice gym. I don't have any concern about being seen with the right people. You know what I'm saying? Like, I don't have that. I don't need to be at the right parties.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Like, I don't need any of that.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

And I don't really look down on people who aren't, like, around the right people. Like, I don't have that. That's bougie.

Neil Drumming

OK.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Snobbery, to me, is about, like, things. [LAUGHS] And not about people at all. In fact, it's much worse than bougie. 'Cause it's--

Neil Drumming

Maybe Ta-Nehisi doesn't care about being with the right people. I've seen him blow off invitations to hang out with TV stars and dodge the attention of world-famous rappers. But he does move in elite circles these days, hanging out with Michael Chabon, collaborating with David Simon, lunches with David Remnick. For the record, that's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the creator of The Wire, and the editor of The New Yorker.

Me, I work at home. I cut my own hair. And I definitely prefer burgers to oysters. And that's cool. This isn't about envy for me. I don't feel jealous. I've thought about it, and it's not that.

But it does feel weird, and I'm not sure why. And I just kind of wanted to understand that.

Neil Drumming

I guess in some ways, I have, like, fretted that, like, maybe we were losing pace with each other. Like I was kind of like--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

(SHOCKED) For food?

Neil Drumming

No. I mean-- but the food goes with a lot of other things. It's like, you know, it's not just the food. But it's like, thinking that-- you know, it's like maybe like lifestyle stuff.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What else was I doing?

Neil Drumming

I don't know, like--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Going to France?

Neil Drumming

Staying at Chabon's house, stuff like that, just having these experiences that seem like--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, he's a people, but it just-- I don't think I've changed, actually. So I just want-- like, how does this go? I stay at Chabon's house, and then I do what?

Neil Drumming

Nothing. That-- it's just--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

[LAUGHS] Like who do I come back as [INAUDIBLE]?

Neil Drumming

But here-- OK, but see-- I think that--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What happens?

Neil Drumming

The embarrassing part about it is that it actually has more to do with, like, me. I don't know if I can communicate or, like, relate anymore.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

But we never had that problem, did we?

Neil Drumming

No, we never did. You just--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

How much of that is the divorce, though?

Neil Drumming

I don't know. Why-- explain. How do you mean?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Well, you had this huge rupture in your life, right?

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

And your lifestyle changed. I mean, your lifestyle changes.

Neil Drumming

That's true.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, you're out dating and doing, you know, whatever you're doing.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Things did get a little crazy for me after my divorce a couple years ago, more so than I'd like to admit. But it hadn't occurred to me that he would think I was the one who had changed, that that might be the reason for the distance between us. And after the divorce, Ta-Nehisi did keep reaching out. He'd call to talk about writing, or to get feedback on what he was working on, which was always kind of confusing to me.

Neil Drumming

I have to admit, I'm kind of like, well, you could also call David Simon, or any of these people who you have on speed dial--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yeah, but my friends haven't really changed, you know that? Why would I call them? First of all, they're not smarter than you. I mean, I'm not trying to flatter-- like there's no evidence that they're smarter than you. Like the fact that they've gotten more, or had more accolades, it doesn't mean they're smarter than you.

Neil Drumming

In anyone else's perception in the world, right, they are. You know what I'm saying? They are. They would be. Those people would be. Those are--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

But I don't think-- I haven't talked to them. Out of respect for them, I don't think they think they are. But I don't think that's their perception of themselves.

And I'm gonna-- I am sensitive to this right now, like right now, because of what's going on. People put shit on you, man. They put shit on you.

Neil Drumming

What do you mean?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Well, the world talks about you in a certain way, and it becomes very easy to confuse what everyone says about you with how you actually think of yourself.

Neil Drumming

M.. I think it was wanting to feel like we're still on the same level, which has not-- it's not an intellectual thing as much as it is, like-- it is an intellectual thing because our friendship is intellectual.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Right, right, right.

Neil Drumming

That friendship is heartfelt and true, but also, like, the way we come up is ideas. Like you and I have a kinship of ideas, you, me, and Rick.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Right.

Neil Drumming

And we've always had that. And so when I feel-- so like having an intellectual disparity makes that friendship feel tenuous to me. I think I was afraid to say that to you, because I was afraid that would actually upset the friendship.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don't know, man. You know, like the other part of that is it's just not-- I'm happy to be at The Atlantic. I'm happy that this book got published. I gotta tell you, all the other shit don't make me very happy.

Neil Drumming

OK, now this is probably not for the tape. But this is some shit I thought of, and it really hit me this weekend, or last weekend. Because I realized that I was doing a lot of intellectual gymnastics in my head about how I felt about us, and I realized I've seen you a bunch of times since then, and you're going through something, and I'm not asking you if you're OK. And I haven't asked you, like, if you're--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

No, I'm not OK. [LAUGHS]

Neil Drumming

And that's the thing that hit me, literally, like this weekend. I was like, wait a minute. I've been really selfish about this.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

No, it's all right. No, I'm not. I mean, I don't want to-- look at this shit. I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Look at this shit.

Neil Drumming

OK, so for the tape, just for the record, I'm looking at a billboard of Ta-Nehisi Coates-- that's a young pic. You're, like, 12 in that picture.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

No, it was like-- they took it when I first got to The Atlantic.

Neil Drumming

Oh, OK. So this is a picture--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Maybe I'm 33.

Neil Drumming

--of a young Ta-Nehisi Coates hanging over a freeway in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "Ta-Nehisi Coates, November 3, Miller Auditorium." Holy shit.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

She must want to know, is she seeing that?

Neil Drumming

OK, so what's the good in that? What's the good in that and what's the bad in that?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I mean, the good in that is that, um-- the message is going to a lot of people. Like, what you write is clearly, on some level, being received by a lot of people. The bad in that is my face.

Neil Drumming

Ta-Nehisi doesn't like having his face on a billboard. He doesn't like being recognized in the street. I know the guy. I don't have many people in my life I know as well as him. He's never wanted to be famous or celebrated. In that way, he's right. He hasn't changed.

He and I talked for two more hours, and it felt like it always has. But we've lost a lot of the other stuff, the stuff that makes most friendships work. We don't go to the same parties or eat in the same restaurants. We don't share as many friends. He's raising a kid, and I just quit Tinder. We don't even live in the same country. Without all of that, what we have left feels more delicate.

So now I have another worry. I worry that the conversation that I just forced us to have, where I made such a big deal out of our differences, has in some way screwed with that friendship even more.

I went to see Ta-Nehisi speak at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. It was the first time I'd been to one of his public appearances in a very long time. The line outside was around the corner. When the audience was let in, they spilled over into a different room. 9,000 people had RSVP'd for 350 seats. Ta-Nehisi was engaging and provocative on stage. I felt proud. He was nice on the mic, and the crowd loved him.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's very, very important to me that I remember to go back to that and not enroll myself in my own judgment.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

I've been thinking about it. I've been thinking about it.

Neil Drumming

Afterwards, I waited outside the green room with Ta-Nehisi's wife and a handful of his friends, some from his Howard days. Celebrities like Common and Usher were there as well, pressing to get backstage to meet him. I chatted with his son, Samori, my godson, about how he was liking Paris. He was having girl trouble. Like his dad used to, I joked.

We had dinner reservations at Red Rooster in Harlem, but it was live jazz night and they wanted us to pay to be quiet. Ta-Nehisi wasn't having it. Later he'd say the joint was bougie. So we went down the street to Sylvia's and had a great time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

We gotta go, babe.

Kenyatta Matthews

Bye, guys.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

All right, talk to you.

Neil Drumming

I'm not gonna see you for--

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hey, man, thanks for hanging, man.

Neil Drumming

Of course, man.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

You had a good time?

Neil Drumming

Yeah, of course, man.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

OK. All right, cool. OK.

Kenyatta Matthews

All right, let me give you a quick hug. It was good seeing you.

Neil Drumming

[INAUDIBLE].

Kenyatta Matthews

Oh, you are.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Catch you soon, brother.

Neil Drumming

All right, man. Let me know when you get back.

Ta-Nehisi climbed into a black SUV, went back to his hotel, and hopped on a plane the next morning. I stood on the street, fumbling with my recorder. For some reason, it took me a really long time to figure out how to turn it off. Then I headed home to Brooklyn. I don't know what's going to happen next.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, an entire town gets a status update, and they are not super stoked about it. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three. There Owes the Neighborhood.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on the program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- "Status Update."

Today's program is about people whose position in the world changes, in one way or another, and how they deal with it. So far on our show, we've had a literal status update, the social media kind. We've heard what it sounds like inside a friendship where there's been a major shift in status.

And now we've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, There Owes the Neighborhood. In this act, we're going to look at an entire city getting a status update. And the man who gave this city the news about itself was named Paul Kiel. Before the city knew, Paul Kiel knew. And before Paul Kiel knew, nobody knew.

Here's what happened. Paul's an investigative reporter with ProPublica. And he discovered that over the last 15 years, this new kind of debt collector has become more prevalent. These are companies that go after people who owe on their credit cards, or car loans, or hospital bills, or whatever.

And these companies, what they do is they garnish people's wages. They garnish their wages. They take the money right out of their paychecks. Sometimes they go straight into their bank accounts and take the money.

They got this power by taking these people to court. Way more consumers who owe money are being taken to court. These companies sue those consumers, which used to be rare. They sue, and they win. And because they win, they get the power to garnish these wages.

OK, so figuring out that part was just the beginning. Chana Joffe-Walt talked to Paul Kiel.

Chana Joffe-walt

It was a struggle to get numbers on wage garnishing. How many people? How much money? Where were those people? Paul Kiel loves this kind of thing. He's an even-measured guy who enjoys the grunt work of tracking down which file cabinet in which municipal building of which small town has the information he needs.

Eventually, Paul and his colleague Annie Waldman had managed to track down the names and addresses of every single person who'd been sued for not paying their debts in three cities-- Newark, Chicago, and St. Louis. They put all that information into the computer, and then Paul looked at what they had.

Paul Kiel

Without doing a fancy analysis, if we sorted our neighborhoods so that the ones that had the most lawsuits were at the top, it was all black neighborhoods.

Chana Joffe-walt

In Newark, Chicago--

Paul Kiel

In Newark and Chicago and in St. Louis.

Chana Joffe-walt

All of them.

Paul Kiel

All of them.

Chana Joffe-walt

So there were way more lawsuits in black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

Paul Kiel

Yes. That was clear no matter how you looked at it. In neighborhoods that had the same income level, the same household income, on average, we were finding twice as many lawsuits in the mostly black neighborhoods. And then it was a real question of why.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul knew people would look at this and think what I thought. This is just discrimination-- companies targeting black people and black neighborhoods.

Chana Joffe-walt

Did you think this was just racism?

Paul Kiel

No, I didn't. No, I didn't jump to that conclusion, just because I know how it's such a large and impersonal system. You know, debt-buying companies and other banks might never meet their customers. You're literally a name on a spreadsheet to these companies. So it was immediately like a puzzle that we needed to find an answer to.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul's first clue to the answer came when he went to a place called Jennings, Missouri. Jennings is a suburb of St. Louis, home to an astonishing amount of wage garnishing. And Jennings is where Paul met Cori Winfield.

Cori Winfield

Oh my god. OK, so like an example.

Chana Joffe-walt

Cori was the first person to show Paul her paycheck. She works for a brokerage services firm in St. Louis.

Cori Winfield

I just got paid Friday. And my check is usually, gross, around $1,100, $1,200, something like that. But when I got my-- when I got paid Friday, I had $691 on my check. My rent is $750.

Chana Joffe-walt

Here's how this happened. Cori was married-- four kids and a neat brick bungalow under a shady tree with a patch of grass just large enough to be called a lawn. She had a mortgage on that brick bungalow, and she had a van she bought in 2009 for $8,000. The loan on that van is the one that got her in trouble. That's the loan Cori's now paying for out of her paycheck.

So the lender in this case was Midwest Acceptance, which is like a St. Louis-based, mostly subprime auto loan company.

Chana Joffe-walt

Midwest Acceptance.

Paul Kiel

Midwest Acceptance, yes.

Chana Joffe-walt

Subprime meaning high interest rate. Really high-- 30%. In 2010, Cori stopped paying the car loan. And she stopped paying it for a bunch of reasons. Her husband left, so she had to carry the car loan and the mortgage on the brick bungalow with the small patch of grass all by herself.

Also, Cori's stepfather died. She got a new boyfriend. Her boyfriend was killed. She took a brief absence from work. One of her dogs died. She describes herself at this time as very distracted.

Cori Winfield

So I wasn't keeping up with court dates. I wasn't paying attention to the notices they were sending in the mail.

Chana Joffe-walt

And they were sending lots of notices. They were calling, too.

Cori Winfield

Midwest Acceptance. And they'd be like, um, when are you going to be in to make a payment? I'll be in, um, on my next pay period.

Well, we need you to come in before then. You're going to have to do something. You don't got a grandma you can call? You don't got a mama you can call? Or little stuff like that.

Chana Joffe-walt

The grandma. This turned out to be Paul's answer. Cori did have a grandma she often called, but her grandma was already trying to help Cori save her house. And she was helping Cori with car rides once Midwest repo'd Cori's car.

Her grandma was also helping Cori's mom and her uncle. And she was doing all that on a pension. Cori's grandma was the only person she'd ever been able to call in this kind of situation.

If you ask people, could you borrow $3,000 from a friend or family member in an emergency? White people are much more likely to say yes. Poor whites, a white person living in abject poverty, has roughly the same ability to borrow $3,000 in an emergency as a middle-class black person. That's according to the largest national survey of consumer finance. If you compare Jennings, where Cori was, to white towns where people make the same amount of money?

Paul Kiel

In that income bracket, whites, on average, have five times the wealth as black households.

Chana Joffe-walt

So wealth meaning home ownership and savings and investments and all of that stuff?

Paul Kiel

It's like everything you have that you could turn into money, whether it be equity in your home, or your car, or whatever. It was right in front of me. So if people in the same income level have five times the wealth, it seems very credible that that would have a major impact on whether they're able to deal with a debt. That, to me, is-- the answer's right there.

And you were asking me, like, well, is this because of discrimination? And we don't have direct evidence that these suits are happening more often in black communities because of discrimination, but the racial wealth gap is definitely because of discrimination.

So why do we have a racial wealth gap? Because we had centuries of racist public policy. And even in the 20th century, blacks were prevented from buying homes in certain areas, and there were a lot of policies that helped whites build wealth at the same time they were preventing blacks from doing that. So it was-- it's a wealth gap that was fostered by racist policy, which we really haven't recovered from. Because wealth takes time to build over generations.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul knew all of this before he started looking into wage garnishing. He knew this history, from Jim Crow laws all the way up through restrictive covenants in housing. He knew the data. But it wasn't until Cori that he considered it the answer to his puzzle.

Which is interesting. The wealth gap is such a basic old fact about America that it's become a saggy, meaningless phrase. "The widening wealth gap." "How to narrow the wealth gap."

Paul Kiel

It's kind of an abstract concept.

Chana Joffe-walt

And this is what it looks like.

Paul Kiel

Right. Yeah. And so this is one good illustration of that.

So I'm standing on a street. Standing on a street in the middle of Jennings, not too far from the high school.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul found himself in a peculiar situation. He had a detailed spreadsheet, with addresses, listing everyone who hasn't paid their debts, how much they owed, and for what. Basically he had a map of the neighborhood he was standing in that included intimate details about people's financial lives.

Paul Kiel

About half the homes on this block have had a lawsuit against them.

Chana Joffe-walt

On some blocks, it was every other house. Sometimes there were a few in just one house. It was a social map of the neighborhood that was the opposite of the carefully curated status updates you usually see.

What Paul could see was something real and messy-- what was going on with people's finances. And he wondered, if you live here, do you just know about this? Or do you actually need to see the map to picture it?

Paul Kiel

There's a street-- there's a house at the end here.

Woman

How did you get my name?

Paul Kiel

Well, it was court records.

Woman

OK.

Paul Kiel

So--

Woman

They are public.

Paul Kiel

They are public, yeah. And--

Chana Joffe-walt

This woman, Devorah, had been sued for money she owed the Metropolitan Sewer District. But she did not know that they'd sued her next door neighbor, too. Up the street and around the corner, Paul finds a block party going on. He sees a guy barbecuing in front of his house, and he knows this guy was sued, too. But the guy doesn't feel like talking about it.

The next few people did talk to Paul about it, and the disruption that led to them being sued-- a health incident, a family issue. For Latanya Graves, it was when she lost her job.

Latanya Graves

At the time, I was just trying to get back on my feet. I was laid off from Western Union.

Chana Joffe-walt

And how they had no one to call who could help.

Paul Kiel

Well, I would say, did you know that there was essentially one lawsuit for every four people? And they would say, no, I didn't know that.

All these suits on this block.

Latanya Graves

Oh, on this block?

Paul Kiel

On this street.

Latanya Graves

Wow.

Chana Joffe-walt

This is a neighborhood where one in four people had been sued, and nobody knows that they're not the only one.

Paul Kiel

Definitely nobody knew. [CHUCKLES] Nobody knew the numbers, and definitely, there was universal surprise at how prevalent it was.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul stopped by a brick bungalow, Cori Winfield's house. Only it's not her house anymore, because Cori lost the house to foreclosure after the car loan. It is now Rosalyn Turner's house. Rosalyn also has had her wages garnished. She was working at Walmart, and suddenly a quarter of her paycheck started disappearing.

Rosalyn Turner

Yes. After they started garnishing me, Walmart gave me a number to call. And I called them, and they wouldn't tell me much.

Chana Joffe-walt

And Paul learned something else.

Paul Kiel

She had been sued by Midwest Acceptance, as well. It was the same company that Cori had been sued by.

Chana Joffe-walt

Who used to live in the same house.

Paul Kiel

Who used to live in the same house. So it was like, jeez.

Chana Joffe-walt

Rosalyn didn't know about Cori. Cori didn't know about Rosalyn. Paul was giving an entire neighborhood a status update on itself. Not that he'd set out to do that, but there he was, letting people know where they stood, relative to one another, even sometimes within the same family.

Paul Kiel

It happened twice where I was like, who is X? And they're like, oh, that's my daughter. I was like, do you remember them dealing with a lawsuit from so-and-so? No. I mean, I found that-- yeah, even in the same house, people don't know.

Chana Joffe-walt

Like here, in Dora Byrd's house. Paul asks, who's Camille Lee?

Dora Byrd

That's my granddaughter. What's Camille Lee got to do with-- what's going on with that?

Paul Kiel

Uh, sorry.

Chana Joffe-walt

In this one family, Dora Byrd had been sued for debt, her daughter had been sued for debt-- now she was learning her granddaughter had been sued for debt. Dora Byrd would try to help her granddaughter, now that she knows, but it will be hard, because a third of Dora's savings was garnished, too.

On his last day in Jennings, Paul stopped by a brick house with three lawsuits.

Paul Kiel

Yeah, so I went and knocked on the door, and a woman answered the second time we tried.

Chana Joffe-walt

Miranda Jones. She welcomed him in.

Paul Kiel

We went around her backyard. Then I learned that she is a councilwoman. She's a council member in Jennings, which was a surprise.

Chana Joffe-walt

Although it made sense, given the fact that she seemed to be commanding various operations by cellphone on a Saturday.

Miranda Jones

It's on my desk. It's on my desk.

Chana Joffe-walt

Paul tells Councilwoman Jones about his data.

Paul Kiel

She said, you know, you should talk to the mayor. And so she texted the mayor while I was talking to her.

Chana Joffe-walt

The mayor called right back.

Miranda Jones

Hey, Yolanda. Hey. I got a question for you. So there's a reporter that knocked on my door. He's from the--

Chana Joffe-walt

The mayor said she'd be happy to meet Paul in her office.

Paul Kiel

And then I drove right over to City Hall.

Chana Joffe-walt

They sat down in the council chambers.

Paul Kiel

I thought we were going to have like a kind of broader, 30,000-foot-- sort of the broader issues, like, what is this doing to my community as mayor? Like, that's the conversation that I thought we were going to have.

Chana Joffe-walt

And what happened?

Paul Kiel

So we started that way, and then she just kind of casually threw in the conversation that "I've been sued by the sewerage district, too."

Yolanda Henderson

I'm going to be honest with you. I was one of the ones that was sued, as well, falling behind because I didn't have-- you know, I lost my job.

Paul Kiel

And I tried not to-- I don't think I reacted in any way, because I try not to. But yeah, I was surprised, and I was-- it's almost like unbelievable at this point. And then at that point, I turned around and I wrote down the names that I saw, like on the name-- so we were in the city council chambers. It shows what all the names of all the city council members are. So I wrote all their names down and I was like, OK, when I get home, I'm going to look at the database and see how many city council members had actually been sued.

Chana Joffe-walt

How many?

Paul Kiel

So it was five of the eight city council members had been sued over a debt. It's to the point where, yeah, it's unbelievable how common it is.

Chana Joffe-walt

This should not be unbelievable by this point, right? Because Paul knows the data, has walked the streets. He's stared at the map. But still, it feels unbelievable. To the mayor, too, the mayor who has detailed knowledge of this particular community, who has experienced this herself. When Paul showed her her own block on his laptop?

Yolanda Henderson

Wow. See, that's my neighbor across the street. [INAUDIBLE] is right--

Paul Kiel

You get a sense that literally like--

Yolanda Henderson

Every other house.

Paul Kiel

Yeah. It's funny--

Yolanda Henderson

They're just suing all of us.

Chana Joffe-walt

"They're Just Suing All of Us." That was the front-page headline of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Paul wrote a story for the paper about all this last month. So now, this thing that no one ever talks about, no one wants to talk about, that everyone is just keeping as their own private shame, was out. What happens then? How does this unusual and sudden sort of status update change things?

Yolanda Henderson

It was kind of like-- it was sad, but then it was kind of like a relief. Because I'm like, oh my goodness, you know?

Chana Joffe-walt

This is the mayor, Yolanda Henderson.

Yolanda Henderson

To see that long list, it was just-- wow.

Chana Joffe-walt

But you haven't talked to people about it?

Yolanda Henderson

No. You know, it-- that's not like a common thing you just start talking about. Hey, my wages are getting garnished. How about yours?

Chana Joffe-walt

I heard this from a few people. Now that they know their neighbors are in the same situation, they still don't want to talk about it. It's embarrassing. Mayor Henderson had her mayor's wages garnished just six months after she was elected. A very awkward finance person had the unlucky job of telling the new mayor that she'd be seeing a deduction in her next paycheck.

And Mayor Henderson had some questions about what that meant, which she was too embarrassed to ask, for weeks. The mayor. Not some disempowered nobody-- the mayor. It wasn't until she was giving me a tour of City Hall that she decided to finally stop by the finance office again.

Yolanda Henderson

All right. She's going to interview-- I got to ask you a question. My question is, on the MSD part, is it every pay period, or once a month, that 25% taken out of my pay?

Finance Employee

That is--

Yolanda Henderson

Do you remember? I forgot to ask you. Was it every pay period, or just once?

Finance Employee

Every--

Yolanda Henderson

Every pay period. Mm-hmm.

Finance Employee

Every pay period.

Yolanda Henderson

See, if that's the case, that's not right. That's two weeks, every two weeks. That's $300 and some. Mm-hmm.

Finance Employee

It's standard. It's standard. It's a percentage of the income after all deductions. So it is standard.

Chana Joffe-walt

It is standard. Unsurprising. That was actually the most consistent reason people gave for why they don't talk about this. It wasn't that surprising.

They did find it surprising when they learned how many of their neighbors had been garnished. But then, just a few minutes later, it stopped feeling surprising. They already knew everyone around them had very little to draw on. It wasn't really a status update. It was just status quo.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our program. You can read Paul Kiel's reporting about all this at ProPublica.org.

Act Four. 76-Year-Old Quarterback Throws Hail Mary Pass.

Man

She was very popular. She was one of, you might say, the queens in high school, right?

Ira Glass

Do you know where you're going to do this? Do you know where you're going to ask the question?

Man

Yeah. Yeah, I know where and when.

Ira Glass

Where is it going to be? What can you say about that?

Man

At her home. Next week.

Ira Glass

And right before he left to fly and ask her the big question, he changed his plan. He decided that instead of asking her to marry him, he would just tell her his feelings and ask her if she wanted to be in a real committed relationship with him.

And he did it. And OK, I'm just going to cut to the chase. She turned him down. Turned him down flat. No interest at all.

She'd been married for 50 years. She didn't want it again, with him or anybody. Her life was full of friends. Didn't need it. That's what she said. Though, of course, that's basically the senior citizen way of saying, you know, it's not you, it's me.

He says, right at the beginning of his visit, he got a sign of where her feelings were when he made the suggestion for the week together.

Man

I said, the one thing I would like to do is to shut down the evening, if you didn't mind, by just dancing together, closing the evening down with maybe just 15 minutes or so of dancing. She didn't agree to that. She said, well, I'm not certain about that. That's something I'll have to think about.

And of course, she didn't agree to that. And I know why. She didn't want any emotions to be involved, perhaps even her own, you know?

Ira Glass

He was less sad about it than you might think, because he finally knew the truth, knew it was hopeless with her. He could move on. And he's kind of excited to move on. He says he knows now. If you meet somebody who's truly right for you, it shouldn't take years for both of you to recognize it and feel it.

Man

And if you don't, then it's time to cut it and run.

Ira Glass

Life's too short. He's hoping his status is going to change one more time.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Chana Joffe-Walt and Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robin Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our editor is Joel Lovell.

Julie Snyder's our editorial consultant. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Lilly Sullivan. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elyse Bergerson's our business operations manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator.

Research help from Christopher Swetala. Music help today from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Annie Waldman, Tracy Webber, Jacob Goldstein, Ricardo Gutierrez, and Lila Margolis. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torrey Malatia, who looks into the bathroom mirror every single morning of every single day and says--

Julia

You're so pretty, like, I'm going throw you into the train tracks.

Ira Glass

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