Transcript

58:

Small Towns
Transcript

Originally aired 04.04.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/58

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The question isn't, can you go home again? The question is, do you want to? From the day he left the small town he grew up in, David thought he did. He left Allendale, South Carolina for Princeton, then law school.

David Sneed

I really see myself as being a black Matlock or something like that. I mean, I'm into that idea. I'm into the idea of being the lawyer in town.

Ira Glass

Just recently, he was offered a job with a country lawyer back home. And so he and his wife have to decide, what are they going to do? She grew up on a farm outside Allendale. They were childhood sweethearts. And deciding where to go, it's the biggest question in their marriage.

Letta Sneed

I try to conceptualize myself. Could I really live in a community that small? Could I live in a town with two traffic lights? And I could not see it. I could not visualize it. And I think that only a couple of weeks ago, I told David that I could definitely never live in a town like Allendale.

David Sneed

That's pretty strong language, Lee.

Ira Glass

In a sense, their dispute comes down to a difference over how they view a central fact of small town life, that feeling that comes when you know everybody knows you and knows your business. He likes that feeling.

David Sneed

People knowing your business or wanting to know your business, I mean, it sounds like a horrible thing. But that, whatever, nosiness, in some respects, keeps you in line. People knowing that my car was potentially parked at Letta's house at a time that it shouldn't have been keeps me in line. I mean, so you don't do that. You don't do the things that you know the neighbor next door can report back to your mom. You just have to be a good boy. And that's the way that I see myself in Allendale. I'm Allendale's little, good boy.

Letta Sneed

And I think that I always bucked against being a good girl. I mean, don't get me wrong, I was not a mischievous child. I didn't have any discipline problems. But I think that, at a very early age, I was fiercely an individualist. And I think that, when you want to take stake-out, and behave in your own way, and have a personality that may not be assimilated to everyone else's, it's just painful in a small town, because it sticks out.

Ira Glass

Her views on abortion and race relations didn't square with the prevalent opinions in Allendale. The speech she gave as high school valedictorian, a speech critical of the school system, was a minor town scandal. People apparently talked about it for months. And so, for now, they're stuck living in Manhattan, trying to decide if they see small town life as cozy or as claustrophobic.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Small Towns, the claustrophobia and freedom and yearning for small towns. Act One, Country Mouse, City Mouse, a family moves from a tiny town to the big city, or what seems to them, anyway, like the big city.

Act Two, a get-together of single farmers who are trying to get other farmers to stay in rural America by marrying them. Act three-- Three Chicago teenagers make the argument that the public housing project that they live in, a high rise building here in one of the biggest cities in the country, is actually a small town. Stay with us.

Act One. Country Mouse, City Mouse.

Ira Glass

Act one-- City Mouse, Country Mouse. One of the classic American stories is the migration from small town to big city, and all the personal growth, and dangers, and freedom that happen when you make that move. Our contributing editor, Sarah Vowell, went through that change yourself, with her family, but with one small catch. The big city that her family moved to wasn't New York, or Los Angeles, or Boston. It was Bozeman, Montana, population 30,000. Which sounds like a small town to anybody who lives in a city, but it was, in fact, 30 times larger than Braggs, Oklahoma where they started.

Sarah Vowell

We were hopeful immigrants from small town Oklahoma who set out for a better life in small-town Montana and became new people. Where else but America can an okra-eating, twang-talking, God-fearing, good girl like me be given the opportunity to turn into the liquored-up, opinion-mongering heathen I am today?

My twin sister and I were born Okies in Muskogee, because that's where the nearest hospital was. But we lived in Braggs, a dusty little Muskogee county nowhere, home to a 1,000 people, four churches, one school, a couple of stores, and a much vilified bar called The Little Oklahoma.

Our mother took us to Braggs' Pentecostal church three times a week, where I got saved, got baptized, and prayed with her and the others in the ladies prayer meeting for The Little Oklahoma to be shut down. And I sang, sang in church, sang at home, sang along with my transistor radio to the Tulsa country station. I sang for God, because I knew God was listening. When I was six, I got a tape recorder for Christmas. And here's the first song I sang into it.

Sarah Vowell

[SINGING] I will be a helper at home, at church, at school. I will be a helper, obeying Bible rules. When there's work for me to do, I'll do it happily. I will be a helper to everyone I see.

I hate that song more than any other. Every time it pops into my head, I shiver, because it's a spooky reminder of the docile woman I might have become had I stayed in that town, in that church, where there are so many rules and so many eyes upon you. Not to mention the fact that God himself ran the biggest stake-out of them all, and you knew that, come Judgment Day, you'd account for every last slip your preacher and his minions had somehow missed.

Small towns are always hotbeds of surveillance, but when you add fundamentalist religion to the mix, the things you can't do outnumber the things you can. Sex is bad. Drinking's bad. Smoking's bad. Women standing up to their husbands is bad. Questioning scripture is bad. Not attending church is bad. Cussing is pretty damn bad. And, as my father would soon find out, moving away is really, really bad.

If you ask him why we left Braggs and moved to Bozeman-- and believe me, my mother's family has never stopped asking-- he'll launch into this whole song and dance about his health.

Sarah Vowell's Father

One of the main deals was my asthma, health problems.

Sarah Vowell

Now, Dad, you've been giving us the old, health line for years.

Sarah Vowell's Father

Yeah, that was one of the reasons for leaving there.

Sarah Vowell

Yeah, what was the real reason?

Sarah Vowell's Father

The real reason, I wanted out of there.

Sarah Vowell

Why?

Sarah Vowell's Father

Go somewhere that was a lot cooler, and--

Sarah Vowell

And any other reasons? I mean, what, specifically--

Sarah Vowell's Father

The hunting is real good here.

Sarah Vowell

Dad, you're not answering the question. Tell me what you hated about Oklahoma.

Sarah Vowell's Father

Mainly, kind of the heat in the summertime.

Sarah Vowell

My dad's being diplomatic. No matter how many times I reassured him that this radio program is not on any stations in Oklahoma, and that no one in our family would listen to it if it were, he still didn't want to come right out and say why he wanted to leave Oklahoma.

It was to get away from family, his and my mother's. They were nosy, and they were everywhere. Every summer, itching to get away from them and Braggs, he'd drive us to the Rockies. Oh, look at the pretty mountains, Mom would say. That Old Faithful sure is something. My mother, my sister, and I just thought we were on vacation. Turns out Dad was scouting out an escape route.

He still wanted to live in a small town. It's just that he wanted to live in a small town where he didn't know anyone. So he picked Bozeman. It was the right size, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, and best of all, had the vital statistics he was after-- Vowell family, 4, acquaintances 0.

Arriving in Bozeman at the age of 11, I felt like we had just moved to Paris, a town of culture and ideas, of libraries, and movie theaters, and record stores. I still celebrate the first day we got there, June 5, as a birthday of sorts. Bozeman had miles and miles of cement for us to rollerskate around on, instead of the stunted 50-foot strip of sidewalk in our Braggs backyard. My sister Amy remembers pulling into town.

Amy Vowell

I remember coming over the pass, and we'd been driving through the mountains or whatever, and it seemed really, super huge. It was weird being around so much concrete and just organization. We were just set loose out in the world, too. Where, in Oklahoma, we could wander around, but it was always like in the front pasture, or the back woods, or walk over to our pa's house or something. None of this like, just cruise around a whole town. And it kind of freaked us out.

Sarah Vowell

But it was exciting, too.

Amy Vowell

It was.

Sarah Vowell

One of the things I liked about living in Bozeman was that there was a library. Remember in Braggs, the whole school, wasn't it like a shelf with some books on it for 12 grades of people? And Bozeman had separate buildings that were libraries, and how fun that was to just go and look at all the books we wanted.

In Bozeman, I thrived, my sister blossomed, my father found his thrill, but the move was hard on my mom. She missed her epic family. The thing that made my father squirm about small town life, being surrounded by people who know you, was exactly what she'd loved about it. Her family is huge and hilarious, with big mouths and bigger hearts.

And up north, she missed her fiery, southern-style church. There weren't any other Pentecostals in Bozeman, so we ended up at the most frigid, watered-down, nondenominational Protestant house of worship possible. We were used to this wrathful, angry, Old Testament Creator. And sitting through week after week of God is love got pretty bland. And after a few years, our church visits tapered off, which was fine by me. Mom, on the other hand, had to deal with not only her own loss of spiritual guidance and community, she had to sit by and watch her children losing Christian steam.

Sarah Vowell

Well, let's talk about something we generally avoid talking about.

Sarah Vowell's Mother

OK.

Sarah Vowell

Do you think-- Well, as you know, at some point, I basically lost my faith and never got it back. Is that a regret of yours? Do you think if we had stayed in Oklahoma, I would still be right there by your side at church with you?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

That's interesting, Sarah, because I do think about that a lot. I used to just really think, especially when I found out that you had lost your faith, I thought, if we would have stayed in Oklahoma, this wouldn't have happened to Sarah. I feel really guilty and really bad that we moved to Montana, and Sarah has lost this. But over the years, as I've seen you grow up and realize and know what kind of person you are, I'm wondering, even in Oklahoma, would you have began to search in different areas and maybe doubt?

Sarah Vowell

Are you calling me a bad seed, Mom?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

No, no. I'm not. No, I'm not. I'm not. I love you very much, and I'm very proud of the person you are, and that's your choice. But it don't keep me from praying every night that you'll return to your faith, Sarah.

Sarah Vowell

Amy told me-- I don't remember this-- but Amy said that once, when we were about 13 or so, when we were in Bozeman, you sat us down, and you asked us if we wanted to go back to Braggs. And I would assume the reason for that is, that if we would have said yes, because you obviously wanted to go back, then we would have ganged up on dad or something. Do you remember that?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Yes, I do remember that.

Sarah Vowell

Were you really? How was it for you when we said we didn't want to go back?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Oh, I was totally devastated. Yes, I remember that very well. I think you were pretty quiet. And it was really neat what Amy said to me. She said, Momma, we understand that you're very unhappy here, and that you miss home, and if you feel that you need to go back, that's OK with Sarah and I. But we want to stay here. And I looked at you, and I said, do you want to stay here, Sarah? And you said, yes, I do.

And so, I mean, I immediately wanted to burst into tears, but I thought, I need to compose myself here. And later that night, as I thought about it, I guess it was a real turning point for me, actually, to start being happy here in Bozeman. Because I thought, OK, I can't leave my children, so I better get it together.

Because-- and I know you really don't like to hear me say this, Sarah-- because you and Amy have been and are the most important thing in my life. And so there's no way I could have ever gone away and left you.

Sarah Vowell

There's so much mother-daughter history in the way my Mom says, I know you don't like hearing me say this, because she knows I don't like hearing her say that I'm the most important thing in her life sometimes because of the guilt that involves. And before I started working on this story, I'd always felt badly about the way she sacrificed her happiness for mine. I grew up believing she would've been better off in her little Oklahoma hometown, surrounded by family, embraced by the church. But I found out I was wrong.

Sarah Vowell

Now, do you still want to go back to Oklahoma?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Oh, no. No, I could never live in Oklahoma again.

Sarah Vowell

Why not?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

I really think that I've changed too much, Sarah. I mean, I love my brothers back there, dearly, and my best friend, Cathy, and there's lots of wonderful people that I just adore and love so much back there, but I do feel that I've changed so much in the 15 years that we've lived here that I could not live in Oklahoma again.

Sarah Vowell

So now, do you think then that Braggs is just too small?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Yes, I do.

Sarah Vowell

And when you were growing up there, and when you were living your whole life there, before you moved to Montana, would you ever imagine that that would be true for you?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

No, no. Growing up there, I never even dreamed in my wildest dreams about moving away from there. I just always thought, I'll just meet someone here, and get married, and live the rest of my life here.

Sarah Vowell

Really?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Yes.

Sarah Vowell

I guess your dream didn't come true. Is that OK with you?

Sarah Vowell's Mother

Oh yeah, yeah. As difficult as it was moving to Bozeman the first few years and all the changes, it really, for all of us, was a good move.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell's move to big-city Bozeman was so successful that she decided to repeat the experience. She move to Portland, population 500,000, Washington DC, population 600,000, San Francisco, population 700,000, and then, finally, Chicago, population 2.8 million.

Act Two. How you gonna keep em down on the farm?

Ira Glass

Act Two. How do you keep them going down on the farm? Marry 'em. All across America, people are moving away from small towns and rural areas in steady streams. So if you have stayed in a place where there aren't many people, and the ones that are there you've know since birth, how are you going to find somebody to marry? Well, you might join Singles In Agriculture. They hold get-togethers for singles all over the country. Reporter Liz Weil went with This American Life producer Alix Spiegel to a recent get-together in Galveston, Texas, at the Flagship Hotel on the beach, jutting out onto the water. There were about 250 people from 26 states at meals and meetings, day trips, and dances.

Liz Weil

Jim's an extreme case-- smart, charming, 52, looks 40, living on a farm outside Iona, South Dakota, population four. It's 30 miles to the nearest grocery store. The weather is so punishing, cows freeze solid standing up. His dilemma, nobody wants to move to his ranch, and he doesn't want to leave.

Jim

This is not bragging on myself or anything, but I have had a girl offer to buy me a farm in another state if I would move and marry her, but I just can't leave it.

Liz Weil

Was that a hard choice?

Jim

Yes, yes it was. I couldn't see why, if I meant that much to her, why she couldn't move there to my place and stuff. And yes, her land had been in her family for a long time, I guess it's--

Liz Weil

This is a typical problem for people in SIA. They're all farmers, all tied to their land, though Jim's situation is particularly harsh. He tells me he realized that a few years ago when the group's director went out to visit him. Even she was stunned by how isolated he was. She said it would take a remarkable woman to move to his ranch.

Liz Weil

So do you, realistically, think that you're going to get married?

Jim

I would like to. I guess it's always in the back of your mind, you would hope to. But you want an honest answer. I don't think it's going to happen. It's going to take a special girl. You're a city girl, both of you are. I'd ask you, would you be willing to live out, even give the consideration of living out, and trying something like that?

Liz Weil

Jim's own mother even admitted that, had she known where she'd been moving, she might not have married his father and moved to the land. It's Thursday night, the first night of the get-together, and we're all at a dance in a Victorian gazebo, with wood floors so old, women have been asked to wear boots, not heels. Everyone's so happy to be here. I have the sense I'm talking to people who don't get to talk to other human beings enough.

About 10:00, I sit down next to Martha, a twice-widowed woman from Indiana. She's small and nearly 60, wearing a sweatshirt she has decorated with glitter and beads. SIA is the focus of her life.

Martha

It gives me something to live for, because I'm very lonely, and I need this to keep me going. Because the first camp-out I went to, I cried when it was time to go home. And they was singing church music, and I couldn't sing, I was crying so hard. And I was giving everybody hugs. I love hugs. Then this one guy just held me, and held me. He said, are you OK? He just held me, and held me till I got calmed down. I said, it just shows how lonely I am, I guess.

Liz Weil

Martha tells me that her favorite dance is The Waterfall. How it works is that the women form one line, the men form another, and the two meet in the middle like a zipper, couples dancing up the floor. Martha tells me she likes The Waterfall because you don't need a partner. You just stand in line, and the line moves. You pull a body close, get hugged.

The next day is Friday. Half the farmers board yellow buses for the NASA Space Center. The other half trek to Houston for a World's Fair-style livestock show. About every 15 minutes, over the course of the day, somebody tries to convince me, no, this group isn't about hooking up, it's about friendship, camaraderie, everyone's one big family. But later in the afternoon, I bump into a group of SIA women who are clearly on the make. One's just bought a t-shirt that reads, cowboy butts drive me nuts.

Sia Woman 1

Maroon shirt ladies, maroon shirt, to the left.

Kate

Oh, when we were eating, oh, jeez did they walk past us.

Sia Woman 3

No, no, the best one was the guy that was showing the palomino horse. He was good.

Sia Woman 4

I'm looking at the guy in the black hat right here.

Liz Weil

So what do you look for in the jeans, Lee's, Levi's, Wrangler's?

Kate

What's in them.

Liz Weil

These girls are a rowdy, hardcore bunch. They're youngish, around 30, loud, constantly making cracks. Kate, the most vocal of them, is broad and strong, a dairy cow wrangler from Wisconsin. In this crowd, she plays the tomboy. She brags about telling the men she dances with that if someone wants to pick a fight, she'll do the punching. But once alone in her hotel room, her tough girl attitude fades away.

Kate

I think of myself as a lady. If you treat me like a lady, I mean, I treat them well. I guess, I'm more traditional, older-fashioned, I guess they call it.

Liz Weil

She goes on to tell me about a friend of hers, a woman who prayed every night to meet somebody and eventually did.

Liz Weil

So do you do that? Do you pray about what the kind of person--?

Kate

What? Well, yeah. I mean, you pray that God leads you or guides you to, or guides him and you to meet sometime, and what kind of guy you would like. And she told me, be specific. You can't just say a guy that's got two legs, a hat, and whatever, a belt buckle.

Liz Weil

So are you following her directions? Are you being specific?

Kate

No, I mean, I do this, like, every night.

Ernie

This going to smell terrible.

Sally

Oh, it does.

Liz Weil

Down the hall from Kate are Ernie and Sally, a couple who met through SIA. He's 50ish, from Oklahoma, grows sesame and delivers mail. She's a school teacher from Kansas, incredibly hot, in a short, tight dress and baby-doll tee. At this point in their relationship, they only book one hotel room. And right now, Ernie is in there fixing Sally's boot. The smell of epoxy is mind-numbing. They detail their first date.

Ernie

We were going to a dance, Halloween dance, and I got to her house.

Sally

Driving six hours to get there.

Ernie

Drove six hours to get there, and in less then 15 minutes, she was begging me to take her dress off.

Liz Weil

OK, let me explain. Ernie had brought over a blue flapper dress. His former wife had made it. Sally wanted to look at it, maybe wear it as a costume.

Ernie

I get there, and she's, oh, I got to try that dress on. She looked at it. She ran in the bathroom and put this dress on. And I waited, and I waited, and pretty soon I heard this, Ernie.

Sally

Well, I put the dress on.

Ernie

Help me.

Sally

And it was tight. It was really tight. So we kind of stand there and talk awhile, and I'm just thinking--

Ernie

And I said, well, what do I do? And I was, where do you grab?

Sally

He goes, where do you want me to get a hold of you?

Liz Weil

Both Ernie and Sally lost their spouses. They both felt sparks five or six months ago when they first met. They live a reasonable distance apart by SIA standards, but, and this is the problem with a national organization of rural singles, the logistics make it nearly impossible to date.

Sally

404 miles from my door to his door.

Liz Weil

And how often do you get a chance to see each other?

Sally

About every two weeks we get together, every couple weeks. It's a good six-hour drive. I don't care how you go. Phone bills are pretty high, too. Be a lot cheaper if you married me, wouldn't it? He says I push him a little bit. Can you believe that?

Liz Weil

I can't believe that. Do you feel like she pushes you a little bit?

Ernie

No, not a little bit, a whole lot.

Liz Weil

Sally and Ernie have this little routine. Like most set pieces couples have, it's only half in jest. She ribs him constantly about getting married, he hedges. They love each other, but they're at different points in their lives.

Ernie

How long you been single?

Sally

11 years. Husband died, had a heart attack.

Ernie

And I've been a year and eight months. So I've got about a year before I might decide whether I'm going to do anything and who with.

Liz Weil

Ernie didn't expect to meet somebody so quickly. In fact, he wasn't sure he'd meet somebody at all. He married young, didn't have many girlfriends before that. Right now, this is his first round of dating. It's a heady experience, and one he's not ready to give up yet.

Ernie

Women knew, if you're widowed, they're interested. It's definitely a plus over someone that's divorced.

Liz Weil

Friday night is the second dance. And when I bump into Ernie, he's passing out these business cards. They have rainbows on them, and they read, Ernest Ernie W. Schmidt, married 32 years, widowed, I'm attracted to you, let's be good friends. Sally, as you might imagine, is not so thrilled about this. She has enough good friends, at least for the time being. While Ernie mingles, we talk to her in the back room.

Sally

Oh, I would marry him. I mean, if we break up, I'm going to just be heartbroken. It's going to be really bad, because my husband's been gone for 11 years, and I haven't met anybody that I would marry but Ernie.

Liz Weil

Sally stops her interview, saying she better get back to Ernie. She's worried that he'll miss her. A moment later, we head out from the back room. I see Ernie with a blond woman, two-stepping on the dance floor. Half an hour later, we run into Ernie and Sally kissing on the veranda. Sometime after this, Sally sends me a note. On the envelope she writes, in all capitals, I WILL MARRY ERNIE SOMEDAY.

The night starts winding down, at least I think it starts winding down until I realize something, nobody's planning on going to sleep. The people who come to SIA spend a lot of time alone. They crave company, affection, basic human contact. It's past midnight when the farmers leave the gazebo and return to the Flagship Hotel. Everybody's tired, but they don't go to bed. The hit the beach.

Jim

Come on, I got to show you something out there.

Sia Woman 2

Just remember, I'm a very strong girl.

Liz Weil

Jim, the first guy I talked to back at the first dance, drags a fully clothed women into the water.

Sia Woman 5

Ah, you're crazy. Is it cold?

[SQUEALING AND PLAY SOUNDS FROM THE SURF]

Liz Weil

There's something really high school-esque about the whole SIA experience. Like right now, the moon is out, the air is salty, and we're in this huge awkward group. And what do people do to cash in on the moment? Pair off? Nope.

Sia Group

[SINGING] Germs, germs, go away--

Liz Weil

They sing.

Sia Group

--never, never come to play. I call you ick, you make me sick.

Liz Weil

Note, none of them has had a drop to drink.

[GENERAL APPLAUSE, HOOTING]

Ira Glass

Evening winds down, and the couples at SIA head toward the climactic night of their weekend, in a minute, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week we choose a theme, of course, and invite a variety of writers, and reporters, and documentary producers to take a whack at that theme. Today's theme, Small Towns. Liz Weil's story continues about a four-day get together of SIA, Singles In Agriculture.

Liz Weil

Saturday, we wake up to some incredibly tedious meetings, which, by some heroic faith, people manage to love. It completely undermines all critical standards of what's compelling, what's fun.

Sia Speaker 1

Event financial record be forwarded to the national office within 90 days of the last day of the activity.

Liz Weil

Later Saturday afternoon, I catch up with Martha, the woman who told me that SIA gives her reason to live. She's in her room, sewing the final beads on a sweater she's making for tonight's banquet and flag ceremony. The handiwork seems to relax her. She's got this other sweatshirt, her hug sweatshirt, that she wears at the end of every SIA retreat.

Martha

I met this friend, and she sent me this bookmark about why God made hugs. And I don't remember it, but I had my daughter enlarge it on the computer and put it on a scroll. And I put it on the sweatshirt. And I tell people that I didn't invent the hugs, God did, because he gives a reason in this poem why. And you've seen pictures of how much he loves us, and stretches out his arms. And I like hugs.

Liz Weil

Martha tells me she's a recovering alcoholic. She tells me that one of her children, her daughter, died in 1981. She works evenings at Kmart, because she can't stand to spend her nights alone.

Martha

It seems like I've had so many bad things happen in my life that now something good is happening, meeting these people. My friend in Florida thinks I ought to go to AA and tell my story, Because she said, Martha, you've been through wars.

Liz Weil

Martha goes on to tell me that before SIA events, she gets so excited that she worries that she'll have a heart attack or a stroke. People spend a lot of time getting ready for Saturday night's banquet. Women wear dresses with slits and sequins. Men wear jackets, bolo ties. This is the big event, the final showdown. The evening starts with a prayer.

Sia Speaker 2

We take pause before you God, acknowledging we can rest quietly in your arms, with confidence and assurance of your love, grace, and mercy, as we walk through this season called singledness, as we ask, hope, and believe all things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. OK, flag bearers, here we go.

Liz Weil

What's going on here is really rather incredible. There are 50 men and women lined up in long aisles by twos. Each person is bearing a flimsy, nylon handkerchief-sized flag on a long, thin pole. It would be campy if people's eyes weren't so reverent, so serious. They march towards the front of the room. After dinner, a man gives a very boring talk on Russian agriculture. Plaques are awarded to old board members. Election results are announced for the new. At the end of the banquet, Eldon, the outgoing president, gets up to make a speech. He's good-looking, jovial, in his 40s. He beats the podium nervously with his hand. A smile creeps across his face.

Eldon

So I guess I got one more thing I got to say, or I'm going to be a dead duck before this night is over. A year ago, I could not find hired help to go on harvest. I was ticked off, I don't mind telling you. My income was just plummeting like a rock. Well, I got to go to Indiana. We got a board meeting. And I'm not harvesting, so I don't have an excuse. I met somebody there that, she probably won't like this, but at the time, didn't really help my mood that much. Fortunately, she didn't give up, and she stayed in contact with me. So you people, you got to remember, I've been in this thing a long time. And I guess I wouldn't say that I had given up, but I really wasn't searching that hard. And I found somebody, and it's going to result in a wedding dance April the 5, and anybody--

[APPLAUSE]

Liz Weil

Everybody stands up and claps and hollers for what seems like a good 10 minutes. People are so exquisitely happy, wistful, jealous, and proud. The scene feels oddly like the end of a Miss America Pageant. Women cry and clasp hands over their mouths. When the ovation fades, they gather around the bride-to-be.

Sia Woman 6

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] I'm so proud. I'm so glad.

Eldon's Fiancee

So am I. I'm so happy.

Sia Woman 6

I bet you are.

Sia Woman 7

I'll bet you are. Whoo hoo.

Liz Weil

In the crowd, I see Martha looking overwhelmed. She embraces Eldon's fiancee.

Martha

Oh, quite a shock. Oh, but you're so lucky.

Eldon's Fiancee

I think I'm lucky, too. No, I'm not lucky, I'm blessed.

Martha

I know I'm not supposed to envy people, but I do.

Eldon's Fiancee

I'm blessed. Keep looking, Martha.

Martha

I want love so bad.

Liz Weil

By tonight at the dance, any reserve the farmer's had has pretty much faded away. There's more winking, more flirting, more moving of hips, less chat about seed corn around the edges of the room. When the "Macarena" cues up, Jim shakes his South Dakota booty with heartbreaking deliberateness and intent. Meanwhile, Kate, the tomboy with the eye for cowboy butts, remains in the back of the room. She spent most of her evening tangling with Rod, a tall, crazy-haired rancher who apparently does not like to dance. From 10:00 to 11:00, they pull and punch each other, get to know one another's bodies by yanking skirts and stealing hats. It's classic mating, junior high style. When they head out on the veranda, my producer and I follow.

Liz Weil

So how is your night going?

Kate

How's my night going? It's all right.

Liz Weil

Any excitement?

Kate

[LAUGHTER] Any excitement, depends whose excitement we're talking about.

Liz Weil

Yours.

Kate

Well, it's different.

Liz Weil

Kate's been working on Rod since early this morning. They have similar ages, energy levels, goofy karmas. While Kate's been talking to us, Rod's been leaning on the railing, a couple of yards away. Just now, though, a tall brunette walks over and starts chatting him up. Kate doesn't move. She just gets quiet, and loses interest in our interview entirely.

Kate

Listen, I can't [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]. I got to listen to this girl talk over here, because she's like, she's saying, you're the most handsome guy here. That's what she's telling him. I can sure see that. I mean, I don't have to look at people, but I can hear what the hell they're talking about. And when I hear my name mentioned, I perked up a little bit.

Liz Weil

She's talking about you over there?

Kate

No, she's not talking. She's after that guy. I mean, I knew that. She was with us today.

Liz Weil

She's after Rod? That guy? She's after that guy?

Kate

Shh. See, I can just stand over here and make like I'm talking to you guys, and I can hear everything.

Liz Weil

Tell us what she's saying.

Kate

She says-- she said something about play into this. Listen. Oh, she's going back. She ain't going to talk to him anymore. I'm going to see-- Oh, he's not going back.

Liz Weil

Kate snags Rod, and the two of them walk back into the gazebo. It's clear that this is only a minor glitch. The dance ends at midnight. Kate and Rod hop in a cab and head downtown. We make for the hotel. Jim offers us a ride in his van, which he bought especially for SIA events, and which feels like a huge babe trap. The van is dark red and finely upholstered. Riding shotgun is Marie.

Sia Woman 8

We're going to the hospitality room.

Jim

Where you going?

Marie

We're living it up. Where are you going?

Sia Man 1

Don't know yet.

Marie

Don't know yet?

Sia Man 1

We'll find something.

Jim

We'll go back to Marie's room and party, huh?

Marie

Yeah, let's go to my room and party.

Liz Weil

Major plans decided, the moment gets more personal. This is the time for putting on moves, to make something happen tonight.

Jim

This is my kind of music. What kind of music do you girls like?

Marie

Well, this is OK, but I--

Jim

It's just OK, huh? Cat got your tongue?

Liz Weil

Later people, mostly men, sit around the hospitality suite. Jim pokes his head in. He grins and tells us that he's going upstairs with Marie. At 5:00 in the morning, Rod and Kate sheepishly come back from downtown. In the morning, the weekend ends with an egg and sausage breakfast, "Amazing Grace," and the SIA tradition of everybody hugging everybody else in the room.

Everybody looks exhausted, like students after exams. Martha spends a long time crying at the window, watching the cars pull out, talking about how she already misses the hugs. She's wearing her special hugs sweatshirt, the one with the poem sewn on the front. The loop appears to be starting over. Martha's returning to her empty trailer in Indiana, where she'll be lonely, and work evenings at Kmart, and save up her money for the next SIA event. But then something happens. A man pulls a game store coin out of his pocket. He gives it to her. She reads aloud.

Martha

Good for a hug and a kiss anytime, anywhere. It doesn't say, any place. Can I have it?

Sia Man 2

No, it's the only one I got.

Martha

Will you make a copy?

Sia Man 2

OK.

Martha

Well, give me my kiss.

Sia Man 2

Here, in front of everybody?

Martha

Yeah, God too. God's watching.

Sia Man 2

Oh, my gosh.

Liz Weil

When the two come out of the kiss, they both seem surprised. At the outset, they both expected a peck. But in the middle, something else kicked in. Something so basic, that when it hits you, you don't ask why.

Martha

Hey, it's been a long time since I had a kiss.

Act Three. 4120.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Small town in the big city. The fact is a small town can be anywhere, even in the heart of what many people see as one of the harshest urban environments in the country. Paul Johnson, Carlos Appleby, and Sanantonio Brooks are teenagers living in public housing on Chicago's South Side at 4120 South Prairie. People who live there just call the building, 4120. It's a highrise building, 16 stories tall, 10 apartments on each floor, with an open air hallway on each floor that people who live there just call a porch. We sent them out with a tape recorder to their building to record what happens there, and then talked to them in our studios about how their building is like a small town.

Sanantonio Brooks

You can get haircuts there. Girls can get their hair done, their nails done in there.

Paul Johnson

Clothes, somebody that make clothes in the building.

Carlos Appleby

There's a candy store on five.

Paul Johnson

Yeah, there's a candy store on five.

Ira Glass

A real candy store?

Paul Johnson

Yeah, a candy store.

Ira Glass

A real candy store. There's a real candy store.

Paul Johnson

There's a couple of candy stores in the building.

Ira Glass

And is it like a real candy store? It's like somebody's apartment, they have a little fix-it-up?

Paul Johnson

Right, they sell food too. It's like our own community inside the building.

Now that we are on the 12th floor at the candy store. They have, like, six different varieties of potato chips, all for $0.25 each. They have penny candy, meaning white candy, Laffy Taffys, and chews and things of that sort. They sell food too. They got Italian [? beefs ?], pizza puffs. The people on the 12th floor, they don't want to do our interview, because they refused. Because they ain't licensed. They didn't have, so we're going down to the fifth floor right now.

Ira Glass

Compare the two candy stores, 5th and the 12th, which is the better one?

Sanantonio Brooks

The 12th.

Paul Johnson

The 12th.

Carlos Appleby

The 12th.

Ira Glass

Why?

Paul Johnson

The food.

Carlos Appleby

They sell food. They sell, like, everything in a real grocery store.

Sanantonio Brooks

Everything.

Carlos Appleby

Every type of game.

Sanantonio Brooks

Almost everything you need, pencil, paper, cards. That's really the grocery store of the building.

Ira Glass

So what happens on the other floors? Tell me about what happens on six. What's it like?

Paul Johnson

Six, it just--

Sanantonio Brooks

That's the place for them little kids. That's where the little kids meet.

Paul Johnson

That's where all the little kids be at.

Sanantonio Brooks

That's where all the crumb-snatchers run and play.

Paul Johnson

[YELLS]

[SQUEALING KIDS]

Paul Johnson

What games do you all play? You all play, it?

Little Girls

It, yeah, It. Ghosts. We play hopscotch. We play Bingo. Bingo. Bingo was his name oh. And And we play the Mario game.

Paul Johnson

You all don't hang with no boys?

Little Girls

No! No!

Paul Johnson

What, boys yucky?

Little Girls

Yeah!

Paul Johnson

They nasty?

Little Girls

Yeah!

Paul Johnson

That's why you all don't like boys?

Little Girls

Yeah! No!

Paul Johnson

12th floor--

Sanantonio Brooks

13 might as well be the Twilight Zone, don't nobody live up there.

Carlos Appleby

Right, no, nobody ever.

Sanantonio Brooks

And it's always dark.

Ira Glass

Nobody's living in any of those apartments?

Carlos Appleby

Yeah, they live there, but it seem like they don't.

Paul Johnson

It's just dark.

Sanantonio Brooks

And on nine and eight, that's where, eight and seven, that's where all the fights at. You want to see a fight, for sure, there's going to be a fight on one of those floors.

Ira Glass

And why those floors?

Sanantonio Brooks

Because that's where most people hang out, on the nine, eight, and seven.

Paul Johnson

Right, there's a fight, or you can play games or whatever you want to do.

Man In Building 1

So what we want to do, play cards while you all get tea? [SINGING] In love with Mary Jane.

Ira Glass

OK, now you guys should explain where we are.

Paul Johnson

Right now, we're on the eighth floor, in apartment 801.

Ira Glass

And is this a card game that happens all the time?

Paul Johnson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Now, are these guys your age or are they older?

Sanantonio Brooks

Older.

Paul Johnson

Yeah, 21, 22, and up.

Ira Glass

What card game are they playing?

Sanantonio Brooks

Spades.

Ira Glass

Of the three of you, who's the best card player?

Sanantonio Brooks

Me.

Paul Johnson

Me.

Carlos Appleby

Me.

Ira Glass

OK, let's play a little more of the tape.

Man In Building 1

You ain't got no [BLEEP] job. How the [BLEEP] can you get fired on your day off? Man! What you got to be? You got to be a stupid [BLEEP] to get fired on your day off.

Ira Glass

Now, I've got to say, now when you first played this tape, when you first gave this tape to producer Nancy Updike and I, we heard this and we thought, yeah, how do you lose your job on your day off? Like, what is this with these guys? But in fact, there is something else going on here, isn't there?

Carlos Appleby

Yeah, they was acting out the movie, Friday. That was like one of the scenes in the movie. So they was like, re-acting it.

Ira Glass

Let's hear that scene.

Scene From Friday

You ain't got no job? How the hell you going to get fired on your day off? God damn. You got to be a stupid [BLEEP] to get fired on your day off.

Ira Glass

You guys all act out scenes from movies a lot while you're playing cards?

Paul Johnson

Yeah, everybody acting silly, cracking a jokes. That's when you play your best game, when you are relaxed.

Ira Glass

Now, you actually tried to interview these guys while you sat there playing cards. And you tried for, like, an hour.

Paul Johnson

Well, we kept asking them questions over and over, but they pretty much tried to tell nothing, because they thought we was trying to help the law out or something.

Carlos Appleby

Yeah, they thought we was with the police.

Paul Johnson

Trying to get indictments out on them, so they ain't want to say nothing.

Man In Building 1

How long you been living in this building?

Paul Johnson

Like, 10 years.

Man In Building 1

10 years?

Paul Johnson

Do you consider this building a small town?

Man In Building 2

Yeah, that kid's a [BLEEP] news. Is you a news reporter for real, man?

Man In Building 1

Working for the white man.

Paul Johnson

I'm just trying to get this story.

Man In Building 2

What the [BLEEP] is this?

Man In Building 1

I think we better go get the radio and play a song. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] that white man's world.

Paul Johnson

So you all calling me white just because I'm asking --

Man In Building 2

No sir.

Man In Building 3

We not, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Ira Glass

You think in some ways it is like a small town?

Sanantonio Brooks

To me, it is.

Paul Johnson

It is like a small town, because a small town, it's like everybody is family. And a lot of people, like Sanantonio, he got a lot of family in that building.

Sanantonio Brooks

I believe, we got the most family in there.

Paul Johnson

Like on every floor, you'll find somebody in his family.

Sanantonio Brooks

Right, I got the most family. I think I got the most.

Ira Glass

All right, run it down. Let me hear. Who and who floor, give it to me from top to bottom.

Sanantonio Brooks

The 16th, let me see, I don't really got nobody on the 16th or the 15th. 14, I think I got a cousin. A cousin that's down on 12. 11, I got a grandma that's on 11. The 10th, I got an auntie that's down on the 10th. Well, I stay on the eighth, auntie on the sixth. I stay on the fifth. And my other grandmother stay on the third.

Ira Glass

And just let me be sure. When you stay on the fifth, who are you staying with?

Sanantonio Brooks

My mother.

Ira Glass

And on the eighth?

Sanantonio Brooks

My grandmother.

Ira Glass

And you interviewed your grandmother, right?

Sanantonio Brooks

I interviewed my other grandmother. I stay with the one on eighth. But I interviewed the one on the third.

Ira Glass

And she grew up in a small town, right?

Sanantonio Brooks

Yes, in Mississippi.

Sanantonio Brooks

Do you get homesick to go back down to the South?

Grandmother

No, you get homesick, I'd go down and visit my mom. But I don't get homesick near as bad anymore. I grew up in the South. I had a rough time in the South. I picked cotton, chopped cotton, picked for a little amount of money. And I chopped cotton from sun-up to sundown and didn't really make very much money. And we didn't have very much down there.

Sanantonio Brooks

If you had a choice, which would you think would be better to raise your children in, this building or back in the South?

Grandmother

Well, like I said, basically it's the same now, because down South, there's about as much going on down South as there is here, because they learn here how to sell drugs, although they take it back down South. Now there's as much drugs down South, almost, as there is here.

Ira Glass

Now, Paul, you also interviewed your own mom.

Paul Johnson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, let's hear that.

Paul Johnson

What is your name?

Linda Johnson

Linda Johnson.

Paul Johnson

How do you feel about the building?

Linda Johnson

Well, I think the building is kind of nice. There's just too many rowdy kids.

Paul Johnson

Do you feel like it's like a small town?

Linda Johnson

Yes, because every damn body in here has got a damn child by somebody's man.

Paul Johnson

Does like, everybody know everybody?

Linda Johnson

Yes, everybody [BLEEP] everybody.

Ira Glass

Is this the way she talks all the time?

Paul Johnson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Now, Carlos, you're on the second floor, right?

Carlos Appleby

Right.

Ira Glass

And what's your floor like?

Carlos Appleby

My floor is just plain boring, because all the people down there--

Sanantonio Brooks

They're hypes. They're hypes.

Carlos Appleby

Yeah, I got drug addicts on the left, drug addicts on the right.

Ira Glass

You're living around a bunch of drug addicts and it's boring?

Carlos Appleby

Well, it depends on if they had their daily medication. And the real definition for a hype is a person that smokes every day but don't have no money. They're dirty, have one pair of pants, no shirt, and maybe a half a pair of shoes or something, the people that'd do anything for the drugs.

Paul Johnson

Now we see hypes coming up the street [UNINTELLIGIBLE] some rocks.

Man On Street

Have you got some work, brother man?

Carlos Appleby

No sir.

Ira Glass

Let me just ask you to explain what work is?

Carlos Appleby

It's the drug, the crack cocaine.

Man On Street

You know who working?

Carlos Appleby

I don't know.

Sanantonio Brooks

Check around by the store, in the back of the building.

Man On Street

All right, man.

Ira Glass

What would you guys say is the biggest problem at 4120?

Sanantonio Brooks

Biggest problem?

Ira Glass

Yeah, for you all, anyway.

Sanantonio Brooks

It's the female situation. You got to leave the building just for you to have a female, because there isn't any your age. You either date 25 and up, or they a little kid like 10 years old and down. So that's pretty much the problem.

Ira Glass

Explain where the girls go.

Sanantonio Brooks

They just leave for some reason. They'll come in and stay a little while, and then all of a sudden, their family decide it's time to move on, so they leave.

Ira Glass

Now, do you just think it's a coincidence that girls leave? Or do you think it's one of these things where the families say, well, this building, it's kind of rough, and we don't want a girl around in this environment, we're going to take our girls out? Whereas people with boys, they just stick around.

Sanantonio Brooks

I think that's what it is. They just want to get their daughters away from the building. If it is some girls in there that are our age, we don't want to mess with them, because of the situation that they be in, and the situation that they be causing.

Ira Glass

You just don't feel that the girls in the building, there aren't that many who are doing that much that's positive?

Carlos Appleby

Right, most of them don't even go to school no more.

Paul Johnson

Right. There's females that's dropped out that's younger than me. And I'm only 17. And they are, like, 14, 13.

Ira Glass

If 4120 is a small town, is it one where you guys would choose to live if you had a choice?

Carlos Appleby

It's OK to live there to me.

Sanantonio Brooks

It is OK to live there, but--

Carlos Appleby

I want to live in my own house, to tell you the truth, a place where I have upstairs and downstairs.

Paul Johnson

Yeah, a basement.

Carlos Appleby

Yeah, and all that.

Ira Glass

Why a basement, of all the things to name? Why a basement?

Paul Johnson

You could throw a party down there, have card games.

Sanantonio Brooks

My auntie, she got a house with a basement in it, that's where she go when she don't want to be bothered with the people upstairs. She go downstairs in her basement. She got a nice little TV down there. There's some furniture down there. I'll always come back and visit the building, because that's where I grew up. It's fine there, but I wouldn't want to be there all my life.

Ira Glass

If their building is, in fact, a kind of small town, then when they move away, Sanantonio, and Carlos, and Paul will probably experience what Sarah Vowell's mom experienced, what the couple I interviewed at the beginning of this program experienced when they moved away from their small towns, which is, they find they don't exactly fit into the new worlds they move to, but they no longer fit in their hometown anymore, either. As Letta Sneed, the wife of the couple at the beginning of the show said--

Letta Sneed

So I do feel uncomfortable with living the city life, but on the other hand it's very hard for me to conceptualize going back to a small town. And I've often wondered, I often question myself, where do I fit? And I think for the past eight years, the sad truth is, that I feel in a way, a bit homeless, like I don't fit in either world.

Ira Glass

It's like you ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

Letta Sneed

Exactly.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike, Julie Snyder, and Paul Tough. Contributing editor Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margie Rochlin. Production help from Christina Stephens.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who could be heard most days wandering around the office singing this song.

Sarah Vowell

I will be a helper at home, at church, at school.

Ira Glass

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