Transcript

59:

Fire
Transcript

Originally aired 04.11.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/59

Act One. Firestarter.

Ira Glass

Like a lot of kids, he liked to play with fire. He'd snap off match heads from matches, pile them up and light them. He'd make little paper boats, float them in the toilet and set fire to them.

Man

You know, I was fascinated by watching fire. It was silent. It was powerful. And I just liked the idea of things being consumed, you know? I liked to watch the paper turn brown and curl, and I liked to hear the crackle. I could watch it for hours, you know, nothing else in the world would matter.

Later on, at a job when I was bored, we would play with lighters, and Binanca, and fill up cans with lighter gas and like cause a flame jet to shoot out one of the holes and stuff.

Ira Glass

In her short story "Some Say the World," Susan Perabo has a character explain what's so thrilling to her about setting fires. "It's the moment when it may or may not go out of control," Susan Perabo writes. "The thing about fire is this-- it's yours for one glorious moment. You bear it, you raise it.

"The first time, in a record store downtown, I stood over the bathroom trashcan thinking I would not let it grow. That I would love it only to a point and then kill it. That's the trick with fire, for that 30 seconds you have a choice, spit on it, step on it, douse it with a can of Coke. But wait one moment too long, get caught up in its beauty, and it's grown beyond your control. And it is that moment that I live for, the relinquishing. The power passes from you to it. The world opens up and you with it. I cried in the record store when the flame rose above my head, not from fear, but from ecstasy."

Hello from WBEZ in Chicago. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, stories of people who are not appropriately scared of fire. Act one, Firestarter, why one teenager set fires and then stopped setting them. Act two, Centralia, an inextinguishable subterranean fire on the edge of a small Pennsylvania town, and why the few remaining residents are not afraid of it.

Act three, Firewalk. That act is about a guy who is not afraid of walking on burning coals, and how he might have been safer if he had simply taken the simple precaution of being afraid. Act four, The Big Picture on fire, the really, really, really big picture. Act five, The Fire Within. Stay with us.

Act Two. Centralia.

Ira Glass

Act one, Firestarter. Our firestarter is 29, lives in New York City, and he moved from a casual interest in fire to arson, to actual criminality. And what's striking about his story is that he wasn't motivated by anger, or revenge, or any mean feelings toward anybody. He just wanted to stare at a fire the way a child does, and he didn't want to restrain himself, the way an adult does.

Man

The serious stuff came when I went to college. There was a house on campus that got hit by a truck, by a drunk driver, and the rumor was that the house was going to be scheduled for demolition. So my friends and I decided that, since it was scheduled for demolition, they were going to tear it down anyway, that there wouldn't be much harm in setting the house on fire. And we decided to start a fire in the house one night. We went there. We pried the boards off-- the house had been boarded up-- we pried the boards off, climbed in the window, and lit it on fire, and then climbed out the window and took off.

I was giddy with excitement. My whole body was just like-- it was tingling. And we stayed away for a good hour or so to make sure we weren't caught at the scene of the crime, but I do remember coming back and seeing the fire trucks there.

There was this sense of disappointment because the fire had been put out before the whole house had burned down. I think the fire never really got out of the bedroom. So there was definitely a disappointment, because the whole house hadn't burned down, and that was our goal.

And if I could have done things the way I would have chosen to, we would have set the house on fire, and we would have sat up on a little hill at a safe distance watching it, drinking beers and watching it consume itself. Watch it slowly start to build, and then peak, and then watch the house fall down, and the fire eventually go out, and everything just turn to ashes. That would have been the way I wanted things to happen.

Ira Glass

In trying to find a pyromaniac to interview for today's program, one thing we discovered is that, first, it's actually very rare. A real mania, somebody with a real mania, psychological compulsion to set fires. Second, when it does occur, psychologists classify it as a sexual disorder, often as a sign of sexual abuse. That wasn't the case with this guy. He was mild compared to a real pyromaniac.

Man

My interest in fire did stop fairly suddenly. A couple years ago, I think someone mentioned that I used to be a fire bug, and I realized that I wasn't fascinated by fire anymore. And I started wondering why that was, and I started thinking back and realizing that my fascination with fire ended right around the first time I got laid.

And I was fascinated to find that, you know, that this was true. I was completely unaware of it at the time. It wasn't until like five or six years after it stopped that I looked back and realized that I had stopped playing with fire right around the time I started having sex. I think now I have a normal relationship with fire. I don't use fire to express myself anymore.

Act Three. Firewalk.

Ira Glass

Act two, Centralia. This is the story of a town decimated by fire.

Lamar Mervine

Oh, this was all built up along here. Our post office was right here at this corner, homes across the street, it was built up pretty solidly.

Ira Glass

Lamar Mervine looks out the window of the municipal building at Locust and Centre Street, what used to be the middle of town.

Lamar Mervine

Right here, on this side of the home, was a big store.

Ira Glass

Grocery store?

Lamar Mervine

General store, sold just about everything there. And the railroad used to run across here.

Ira Glass

So describe this now.

Lamar Mervine

Well, it's just mostly highways here now, a home here and there.

Ira Glass

Only one store now stands on Centre Street, vacant lots surround it. Perhaps two dozen homes are left out of the hundreds that used to be here. Centralia once had 3,000 people in it. Now there are 40. And the fire that decimated this town, that scattered its inhabitants far and wide, never touched a single home, never singed a building. This is a town destroyed by the idea of fire. And the fire itself never came.

The fire that led to the evacuation of Centralia began out on the edge of town in an abandoned strip mine pit in 1962. There are 30 underground mine fires like this burning around Pennsylvania right now. They can burn slowly, for years. Most don't endanger anybody. But Centralia's built over old coal mines, and the fear was that the fire would jump from mine to mine and end up under the center of town.

Helen Womer

The coal is burning one small section at the end of our borough, and it has never gone anywhere else, never.

Ira Glass

I met with five of the remaining residents of Centralia-- one eighth of the town-- in the town council's meeting room. John Comarnisky, a science teacher at a nearby high school, was quick to pull up various government charts and reports that prove, he says, that the subterranean fire is not a danger to the town.

John Comarnisky

This is off the government's website, apparently. That's what they told us back when. And this is from the Department of Community and Economic Development. That's the boys who are basically empowering this whole thing, running the whole program.

And you can see that basically you have the borough of Centralia here, and you have fire being spread in this direction, that direction, and all these other directions, southwest, and Centralia's the only place, the only direction it isn't going, and in fact, this federal study says that that's what should happen.

And because there's a mine pool underneath Centralia, right now, the coal underneath us is underwater. And there's no way that even the government will try and tell you that coal underwater burns, because it just doesn't.

Helen Womer

I was involved in this from 1969 on.

Ira Glass

Helen Womer says the reason the government has tried to convince the people of Centralia that their town is in danger and evacuated the town is because Centralia sits on as much as $3.2 billion-- that's billion-- worth of coal.

Helen Womer

This is what this whole entire situation is about. It's about our coal. And I don't care who you talk to, I don't care what they say, they are not telling the truth. They could talk till they're blue in the face about how we should get out of here because we are in danger from gases, from subsidences, from all these horrible elements, and that isn't true at all. If we didn't have any coal beneath us, Centralia would be right where it is, the entire community.

Ira Glass

They don't have a lot of hard evidence to prove this government conspiracy. No paper trail, no witnesses, no names they're willing to name on the record. But what they do seem to be entirely correct about is this-- in 35 years, the fire has not moved from the edge of town toward the center, and has not injured anyone.

What seems to have happened in Centralia is this-- the fire burned for 19 years, and then in 1981 came one of those turning point, made for TV events that can take your average, ongoing, unextinguished subterranean fire, and turn it into a state-wide media circus.

Narrator

On February 14th, 1981, Todd Domboski was walking across his backyard when the ground beneath him suddenly gave way, and he was knee deep in steaming mud.

Ira Glass

This is a video made by the state to brief its own policy makers on the history of the fire.

Narrator

Fortunately, a friend heard his cries for help and managed to reach into the hole and drag him out by the collar of his coat. Government officials, who were visiting Centralia that day, were summoned to the scene. Someone in their party dropped a large block into the hole, and no one heard it hit bottom.

Ira Glass

Before the story hit the TV news, the big political fight in Centralia was townspeople trying to get the government to block the fire or put it out. After the story hit the TV news, the government declared there was no way to tell where the fire might go next. They decided to evacuate. Bill Clank, who headed the location effort, says it was the only reasonable decision. Twice the state tried to erect barriers to block the fire, he says, and twice it jumped the barriers.

Bill Clank

They trenched and inserted fly ash. It's supposed to be an uncombustible material. And this was to keep the fire from crossing the road that is now closed off up at the top of the hill by the Catholic church. Well, the fire did it, it went through there, and it was on the other side of the road. And then they put a clay barrier on top of that and tried to keep-- because there were fumes.

And I honestly believe that when a fire gets to the magnitude that it is now, that it's like a hurricane or anything else. You don't tell the fire what it's going to do. It does what it damn well pleases.

Ira Glass

The government calculated that it would cost $42 million to buy everyone's home. The request was put into the federal government. Once people heard about the potential money, says Helen Womer, the town split. Lots of people were living in these old houses built by the coal companies decades before.

Helen Womer

Very, very few people moved out of this town because of the fire. I want to make that perfectly clear. The government came in with big bucks. A lot of the homes, their children had all left, they were raised. They were left with these white elephant big houses, a lot of them needed fixing, so they knew that where to make the most money was to sell your home to the government.

Ira Glass

Two community organizations faced off. One, to keep people in Centralia and the fire out; the other to sell out and get out. People in the other camp knew where Helen Womer stood. They would blow smoke in her face in public, throw their pass books at her when she worked her bank teller job. Somebody lit an M-80 firecracker on her lawn. Somebody else threw a cat at her.

Helen Womer

I know one thing. There are people that moved out of this town that can't wait till we're all out, because then, and only then, will they have peace of mind. Because as long as there is someone left in Centralia as adamant and committed as we are here in this town, they will never have peace of mind on what they did. Because many, many of them knew that they were instrumental in having Centralia in the condition that we are now.

They would stop talking to you. They would stop being friendly. And that moment, the very moment that occurred, you knew that they were going to be next. That was the main thing, they would just stop being friendly, they would stop being neighborly. And that was your first indication that they had turned the other way.

Jerry

It was the other way around, the people that had moved, the people that stayed there were mad at them. Oh yeah, there were a lot of people mad.

Ira Glass

Did that happen to you?

Jerry

Sure, a lot of them were mad at me.

Ira Glass

If you talk to former Centralia residents like Jerry Wasachanski, leaving town wasn't a grand betrayal, not at all. He says he had a heart attack, wanted to move into a house where he wouldn't have to shovel coal down in the basement into the furnace.

He and several other former residents did confirm what Helen Womer told me, though, that he was never scared of the underground fire reaching his house, never scared of underground gases seeping up and killing him. Mostly, he says, he moved because of the great deal the government gave him for his old house.

Jerry

I moved in, it was $3,000, but then when I moved out of there, they gave us $55,000.

Ira Glass

$55,000 on a $3,000 investment-- a 2,000% profit. Now Jerry lives with his son Rob, about a 10 minute drive from Centralia, in Mount Carmel, where lots of former Centralians live. Rob says they held out a long time before they moved, that Centralia changed.

Rob

We were being bombarded with 110 feelings at one time. It was just getting to be too much. The town wasn't like it was. And if it would have stayed that way, we probably would have stayed up there. But when more and more people were going, it was just time to go.

Ira Glass

As with most government operations on the scale of this evacuation, there are really two ways that people look at what happened in Centralia. As a conspiracy, the way the remaining townspeople see it, or as simple human incompetence, the way Jerry's son Rob sees it.

Rob

What would the government do now? They spent all that money, they're not going to say they were wrong. They're not going to admit a mistake.

Ira Glass

But all the guys who would have made the mistake, they're already probably gone now anyways. It was 20 years ago.

Rob

Yeah, but federal government's federal government. They're not going to admit to it 20 years ago, or 20 years down the line they won't admit that they made a mistake.

Ira Glass

They can't just say, fire moved, thought it was going to go this way, it went this way.

Rob

When there's $42 million involved, I guess. I mean, they'd spend a lot more money on different crazy things, but, you aren't going to see them offer the land back, or even just sell it and make money, or start the town over.

Ira Glass

Actually, there's a third way to view what happened in Centralia, the way that Bill Clank, head of the relocation effort, sees it, which is as a government program that actually worked. A rare example of government competence and generosity.

Bill Clank

Don't get me wrong, I agree with the people over there, that for a long time the government did not respond to this thing the way they should have, and that's why it's gotten to the point that it is. But when the government finally came through for them and said, look, we're going to give you a chance to get out of here, and not only that, we're going to give you a chance to build a new house, and make yourselves whole. We're not just going to give you the, maybe, if you're lucky, the $10,000 your property's worth, so that you can actually go out and afford to build a new home on the market, that's pretty hard to pass up for most people.

Ira Glass

In 1992, after a decade of voluntary relocation of the people from Centralia, the state condemned the remaining homes there, told everyone they had to get out, declared eminent domain. The mayor and town council back then took this to court. They appealed it all the way up to the US Supreme Court. They did not win one case.

Then the town council back then resigned, left town, saying it was over. They'd lost. Legally, no one has the right to stay in Centralia anymore. For the 40 diehards who still live there, like Helen Womer, these final departures were the bitterest betrayal.

Helen Womer

I had a neighbor who we fought shoulder to shoulder for years and years. And then she got involved with-- I mean, she turned. But not only that, it's not only she turned, she stopped talking. She turned into a different person, absolutely different person.

Ira Glass

And does she live nearby still?

Helen Womer

She lives in-- about four miles, I guess.

Ira Glass

So very close?

Helen Womer

Very, very close.

Ira Glass

But you're not social anymore?

Helen Womer

Well, I mean that was her decision. No, we're not social. I mean, we were neighbors, and we got along wonderfully, wonderfully together. That was sad.

Ira Glass

Now in the long stretch of grass that used to be the middle of town, someone put in some benches and a sign that says, we love Centralia. Jerry Wasaschinski and the other old men who left town because of the idea of a fire travel from their homes elsewhere, come back to Centralia, not for the town that it is, but for the idea of the town it was.

Jerry

Now I go up there, about seven, eight guys go up there at night time when the weather's nice. And we might have a little hot dogs, or a bottle of beer or something, something like that. And then we talk about the old town. But now they're fading away. Two of them died already, and their homes are being torn down. One lad is paralyzed now, and the other one, he can't drive anymore. So it's fading away up there, too.

Act Four. The Big Picture.

Ira Glass

Act three, Fearless. This is the story about somebody who wasn't scared of fire and who did get burned because of it. Ki Kim studied Buddhism, meditated, avoided red meat. When a friend sent him an email inviting him on a firewalk retreat, he thought, why not? He'd been feeling sort of low.

The idea of the retreat is that you go, meditate, and at the culmination of the weekend, walk across hot coals. To make a long story short, he ended up with near third degree burns that made it difficult to walk for weeks. He spoke with This American Life producer Nancy Updike.

Nancy Updike

Ki had read a lot about firewalks. He knew they were a common ritual practiced around the world, and the story was always the same, no one gets burned, never happens. The one person he knew who had gone on a firewalk didn't get burned. The leaders of the retreat were so confident no one would get burned, they didn't even bother to bring first aid supplies.

Ki Kim

The way the weekend started was we participated in a whole bunch of exercises that were designed to, you know, peel off these layers of personas that we build up and show to the world to protect our deepest selves.

Nancy Updike

How do you peel those layers off? We're all dying to know.

Ki Kim

Well, you know, one exercise had the people there pair off into groups, and one person would simply stare into the other's eyes while the person who is being stared at would have to answer questions like, who are you? And the whole idea was to gather together this group of strangers to share with each other their most intimate selves.

Nancy Updike

Why are you laughing?

Ki Kim

I don't know--

Nancy Updike

You participated.

Ki Kim

Well, I guess I ought to warn you that much of what I have to say could very well be replete with New Agey jargon, which I think is kind of funny, but I do believe in a lot of this stuff.

After the sun went down on that Saturday, we all formed a human chain with one part of the chain, or one person, standing at the pile of wood, and the other person at the point where the fire was going to be built. And so every single log that went into building this fire passed along this human chain. And, we surrounded the fire in this circle, and--

Nancy Updike

And is it hot on your face?

Ki Kim

It was unbelievably hot. We were standing a good four or five feet away from it, and you could still feel the heat.

Nancy Updike

And still, at the point where it's on your face, and it's so hot, and it's this huge bonfire, and you're looking at this orange--

Ki Kim

Inferno.

Nancy Updike

Inferno, thank you, you're still not scared, you're feeling-- what are you feeling?

Ki Kim

There isn't any fear, nor was there any concern. There was this kind of dull sense of contentment and peace.

Nancy Updike

Sure. The dull contentment and peace that precedes a third degree burn.

Ki Kim

Right.

Nancy Updike

So one explanation for why people don't get burned on firewalks is that they're so nervous they sweat, and that layer of moisture protects their feet. In other words, Ki got burned because he was too certain that he wouldn't be. If he'd been more scared of fire, if he'd been nervous and sweated, he probably wouldn't have gotten hurt.

Ki Kim

I had this conviction that I wouldn't get hurt. I can't really think of an explanation for why I had this, but I just simply didn't believe that it could hurt me. I mean, the moment that I stepped on the coals, I knew I was in trouble. And I could just feel my flesh sizzling.

Nancy Updike

Oh my god.

Ki Kim

And I don't know what it was in me that compelled me to keep walking, but I made it across, and collapsed into one of the co-leader's arms.

I was in a state of panic, and I was at a point where I felt like all my entire belief system had just collapsed from under itself. So I'm sitting off to the side, and the other people are also taking their turns going across the fire.

Nancy Updike

And are you saying anything? Do they know that you've been burned?

Ki Kim

Actually, the way that I'd composed myself, everyone thought, oh yeah, Ki just made it across, no problem. I didn't say or do anything to suggest to the others that I was in a great deal of pain.

Nancy Updike

Wow. You're perpetuating the racist cliche about your people, that you are inscrutable. You didn't say anything?

Ki Kim

Nobody had a clue. Earlier in that day, on these three by five index cards, we wrote down our three greatest fears. And we each took turns, one at a time, going up to the fire and tossed the index card into the fire.

Nancy Updike

What were those fears?

Ki Kim

I guess the simplest way to put it was a fear of speaking.

Nancy Updike

And that was what you put on the card?

Ki finally did tell everyone how badly burned he was. He forced himself to speak. And he looks back on that moment when he had to overcome exactly the fear he had named as a moment of revelation. Because he got burned on his firewalk, he had to speak.

Ki Kim

I feel like I got burned because getting burned was the appropriate experience for me to have at that point. Had I made it across unscathed, it would have made me think, oh yeah, I'm fine. Everything's cool. I'm on the path. Yeah, I'm getting there. Yeah, I think that if I didn't get burned, I can easily imagine that, if this makes any sense, I would have become less mindful in the way that I live.

Ira Glass

Man, oh man, oh man. Well, coming up we step back for the big picture on humans and fire-- the really big picture. That's in a minute, when our program continues.

Act Five. The Fire Within.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to contribute various kinds of stories on the theme. Today's show, people who are not afraid of fire.

We've arrived at act four, as promised, The Big Picture. Stephen Pyne, a professor, believes that we Americans as a people, as a group, are too afraid of fire. And he says that this has all sorts of practical consequences. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, Pyne says the Forest Service policy of suppressing fires for the last 100 years out of fear of fire has led to an incredible overgrowth of flammable material, which caused the fires in 1988 that destroyed half the park. In other words, by trying to avoid fires, we called them down upon us.

Pyne says that what humans have done throughout history is set fires in a controlled way, and that part of our problem today is the way that we think about fire, that we do not see it as a practical tool, that we're afraid of it.

Stephen Pyne

That's a very recent and, in some ways, a bizarre perception. There are good reasons to be afraid of fire. It's dangerous. It can be unpredictable. But people have always paired that perception of fire with the sense that it was necessary, essential, that it's what made the world habitable.

I mean, if you think about fire origin myths, and all cultures have them, almost always the story goes that humans are sort of a less capable or less well endowed species, then, through various means, usually by guile or theft, humans get it, or are given it, and then become powerful. Then, in a sense, they become human, and the essential features of who we are become apparent.

I mean, in many ways, we really are the keepers of the planetary flame. And the sense that somehow, if we could abolish fire, it would be in our interest or the earth's interest, is a very peculiar and very modern, and urban, one.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you, when you talk about societies where fire is valued, what societies are you thinking of? Are we talking about most agricultural societies?

Stephen Pyne

Well, we're talking about almost every society other than, basically, an urban and industrial one. And industrial societies have sort of sublimated fire into machines, and we're not burning living biomass so much as fossil fuels, fossil biomass.

Ira Glass

In other words, we've gone from actually having real bonfires to these tiny little combustions inside engines?

Stephen Pyne

That's right. And we have, essentially, particularly in cities, people's contact with fire is almost always negative. A city is not a nice habitat for fire. It occurs in wild forms, it's dangerous.

So people used to grow up-- if you were in a rural setting, you grew up burning off debris in the spring, burning off your fallow fields, burning off the pastures to get rid of the old grass and start the new, all kinds of little sort of spring cleaning fires, if you will, and fires for other purposes.

But it seems to me all that kind of personal contact with fire is gone, and what we have largely left is a kind of imagery, a kind of virtual fire-- fires as presented for their telegenic effect, or fires used to dramatize other phenomenon. And in almost every case, the fire is negative.

Ira Glass

Actually, as you describe this, I realized all of the movies, and all of the previews for movies I've seen lately, where fire is a huge element in those movies. There's a whole sequence of movies out now where volcanoes set cities on fire. I was at one of the Star Wars movies, and one of the things that struck me was just how much of the movie was simply about blowing things up.

Stephen Pyne

Blowing things up, and, at least, there is a more benevolent and ancient image in the last of it, where you have the funeral pyre for Darth Vader. But in general, you're right. Almost anything you can think of now, fire is used to sort of give visual and dramatic power to the story.

Ira Glass

But are you arguing, in some way, that we have this visual fetish for fire because fire is not a part of our everyday lives anymore?

Stephen Pyne

I think we're allowing that to remain unchallenged, because in our personal sense, we don't have a sense of fire as a good force, fire as a useful tool, fire as something that makes the world habitable.

Ira Glass

Well, what kind of iconography do you want to see?

Stephen Pyne

Well, I would just like to see hearth fires. I would like to see some agricultural fires. I would like to see the Forest Service pair Smokey Bear with a complementary figure-- Smokey's twin brother, separated at birth or something, and he's there with a drip torch, and now they're together again, arm in arm, a paired set. That's the way it should be.

Ira Glass

And children would sometimes follow the example of Smokey the one who sets the fires, the other Smokey?

Stephen Pyne

Right.

Ira Glass

I don't know if a lot of parents are going to go with you on that one.

Stephen Pyne

Well, it's not designed for urban environments, but I would like to have it in our consciousness that such things are possible.

Ira Glass

Are you arguing in some way we need to get back to fire? We need to embrace fire more than we are?

Stephen Pyne

Well, I would like to see us first intellectually embrace it, and recognize that it is really part of our heritage as a species. We have a species monopoly over it. And to sort of renounce that seems to me very strange.

Ira Glass

We have a species monopoly, meaning other animals have not mastered fire and we have?

Stephen Pyne

That's right. And I'm sure we will never allow any other species.

Ira Glass

I was going to say, if snakes get fire, what will we do?

Stephen Pyne

I think we're in big, big trouble. I mean, our whole premise is that we control it.

Ira Glass

If cows get fire--

Stephen Pyne

Well, suddenly, the whole thing comes undone.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Stephen Pyne

Actually I've written a novel on this. And it was a real mess, because I'm not trained to write novels, but the premise seems to me a legitimate one to think about. I mean, maybe we've done such a bad job as a species that nature finally turns the task over to somebody else who can do it right.

Ira Glass

Stephen Pyne is the author of the books Burning Bush, Fire in America, and World Fire.

Act 5.

Ira Glass

Act five, The Fire Within. To be honest, this next story isn't really about fire. It's called fire. It mentions fire. The writer's name is Rennie Sparks. But basically, we just really liked this story, and we thought we would end the show with it today.

Rennie Sparks

I was car sick from reading the Sun Times in the car, but I couldn't stop reading. There was an article wedged in next to a tight column of helpful household hints, right above Today's Chuckle. The article reported a study that proved that in emergency situations, people respond more seriously when someone screamed fire than when someone screamed help. Your average person just didn't respond to the word help anymore. The word had lost its punch.

The study coordinator suggested that people should scream fire even when there was no fire. Below that article was a piece about how putting a brick in your toilet could eventually conserve enough water to fill a kiddy pool. I stopped reading then because my husband Steven was yelling at me.

He was trying to yell at me and park the car at the same time. It was too much for him. That was obvious. He was yelling things like, "You know I told you," and, "God dammit, what did I say?" You could tell he was thinking about too many things at once, and nothing was getting done right.

We'd been driving around and around the cramped streets of Lincoln Park for over 40 minutes, searching for a spot. "Reading that junk is just wasting brain cells," he said. "You might as well sit an inch away from the TV." "Traffic makes me nervous, it helps if I read," I told him. "That's because you're not driving."

We'd been going back and forth like this ever since he picked me up after work. He was mad because I hadn't asked my boss for a raise. My annual review had come and gone and I hadn't, as he put it, made my move. Steven, on the other hand, had pulled a 20% raise out of his review, plus an office with a window. A major move up, he termed it, a personal best.

He was disgusted with me and the tiny cubicle in which I spent my days shuffling data, without any attempt at advancement. He'd wasted weeks before my review date, giving me pep talks to boost what he termed my corporate competitiveness. "You either step up, Pat," he said, "or you get stepped over. It's that simple. Let them know you're on the move. Walk faster down hallways. Make quality eye contact."

Judging from the way I'd silently nodded yes, yes, yes, to every new criticism my boss had cited as reasons for giving me only a cost of living increase, I hadn't managed much of a killer instinct. My secret dream, to breed golden retrievers out on two acres in the suburbs, seemed to be moving further and further away.

Steven turned the car into the alley behind our building. This was the sign that we were giving up our parking search for the day. He backed us in next to a dumpster surrounded by no parking signs and broken glass. We already had 15 outstanding $100 tickets from parking in this alley. 10 was the suggested limit before they towed, but Steven refused to take mass transit. He had a system. Every time he parked the car, he turned the wheels as far to the right as they'd go. He was convinced this made it impossible for the car to be towed.

Unfortunately, Steven was a man of many such theories. He insisted that light beer was 90% water, and that all TV networks were working together behind the scenes. He'd flip up and down the 10 o'clock news shows comparing anchor people, graphics, weather reports, until inevitably, he'd hit two shows doing a special report on the same subject, or two networks airing the same commercial at the same time. "See, look at this," he'd yell at the screen. "This is exactly what I'm talking about."

Steven parked so close to the dumpster, I had to crawl over the gear shift to his side to get out. We walked quickly up the alley to the street. Just as we turned onto our block, he grabbed my arm. "Pat, have I died and gone to heaven? Am I having a stroke?" A lone station wagon with wooden siding was pulling out a few feet ahead of us inch by inch, exposing pavement as dark as new tar and a gleaming white curb. The space hadn't seen sunlight in decades. It was like seeing a new $100 bill.

I swallowed hard, sucking my cheeks in in excitement. "Is that a spot or is that a spot?" Steven was grinning so hard his face began to leap and twitch, his fingers flexing in and out against my arm, like a cat clawing a blanket. "It's a spot, all right," I said. "A big one. You want to bet on how many seconds before it's gone?"

"Listen," he said in a quick whisper. "Go stand in it while I get the car. Don't let anyone in, not anyone."

"Steven, you can't save spots by standing in them," I said. "This isn't kindergarten. This is the kind of thing people get shot over."

"Just stand there. You've got to stand somewhere, am I right?" His voice reached a threatening pitch. Sweat was beaded up on his forehead. "Pat, get in that spot."

I stepped forward into the space, staring down at the indentations his burgundy loafers made in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. I curled my hands into firsts, and pressed my fingernails into my palms so hard I snapped off a nail. I felt like sobbing. These were acrylic nails that had cost a fortune at Lovely Lady, a nail salon by the lake. I forced my fingers out straight and dropped the broken nail, a flash of fluttering pink. Steven disappeared into the alley.

A minute passed in silence. I detected the faint smell of something green lurking underneath the city air. I closed my eyes for a moment, imagining a perfect lawn, a cement patio, and golden retrievers in a wire mesh kennel.

Headlights swept across me then, a car turning the corner, a big rumbling car, but behind the wheel, a delicate man so dwarfed by his car, I imagined him propped up on telephone books to reach the wheel. His window rolled down, his pushed his head out, carefully maneuvering a worn Cubs cap through the open window.

He said something, but I couldn't quite catch it. His voice was high and thin, freakishly feminine.

I stepped forward, but still I couldn't hear what the man was saying, even though I saw his neck straining, veins bulging as he raised his voice. I just couldn't quite catch it. Or at least, I hoped I hadn't, because what I thought he said was, "Are you going to move, or do I have to run you over?"

I glanced toward the alley, no sign of Steven. The man lurched his car into park and lifted himself up so that half his torso came up out of the window. This time I heard him clearly. "Are you trying to save that spot?" He smiled at me. I looked down around me at the space and nodded. "My husband is pulling up from the alley." We both turned, staring down the alley. Nothing.

"You think there's room for two?" The man asked. I stared across the empty space, measuring car lengths with my eyes. This was just the kind of spatial relationship task I'd done poorly at in school. "I don't know," I said, "I mean I guess." Before I could work on my reasoning, he smiled at me again. I sent him back a wide grin. He returned a soft, knowing stare.

Just as the man pulled into the parking spot, and I saw with a jolt of fear that there was definitely not going to be room for two cars after all, our car appeared at the mouth of the alley with Steven hunched over the wheel.

He looked at the spot being taken, looked at me, then squealed in reverse back down the alley. "Was that your husband?" The man asked. He was out of his car now. He had on a black t-shirt and shiny lycra bike pants. His arms and legs were pale and bony, and hung helplessly from his torso.

"He was here a minute ago," I said. "He backed down into the alley. I guess he thought there wasn't room."

"Well, what kind of car does he drive?" The man asked. "A Nissan," I told him.

"Oh, he can fit. He can definitely fit. Go get him. I can move up further. I'm sure of it." I had my doubts, but remembering our shared smiles, I moved up onto the sidewalk and cut across to the alley.

Just as I stepped away from the spot, a car turned up the block, a Cadillac. I looked back. "Go on," the man waved me forward. "I'll save the spot. Besides," he lowered his voice, "it's a Caddy. She'll never fit in a million years." I smiled. The man shot back a smirk. I headed down the alley.

Steven was double parked next to the dumpster again. I knocked on the glass. He held his finger on the window button. The glass hummed down into the door.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "I thought there was room. That guy says he'll try and move up if you want to pull in again."

"No one," Steven said, his voice arcing up towards hysteria, "on this entire planet, in any car, from any country, could fit into that spot. I'm not going to embarrass any of us by trying."

"Well, what do you want to do then?" I asked.

"OK, OK." He let out a long, theatrical burst of air. "I'll go through the motions. Why not? Why don't we just sleep in the car tonight? Hook the TV to the dashboard and just wait for the police to show up in the morning." He stepped on the clutch, the skin around his eyes and mouth quivering violently.

"Go on," I yelled, "you can do it." I turned and ran back up the street. Halfway there, Steven burst past me, motor roaring.

When I turned the corner, the man was in his car, pushing it up against the bumper of the car in front of him. There was the squeal of metal rubbing against metal. The car in front moved up an inch or two, and then slammed into the back bumper of the next car up. The man turned the car off, jumped out, smiling. He'd created at most another four or five inches of space.

Meanwhile, Steven had pulled halfway into the spot and pulled back out again. Finally, he screeched off again down into the alley for the third time.

The man and I stood in silence on the sidewalk as a Honda came around the corner and glided smoothly into the spot. Two girls jumped out. "Marla's apartment is that way," one of them said to the other. "She's got this new futon couch and faux marble." I caught their perfume in the air as they clicked away down the sidewalk, something between watermelon and lilies.

Steven said faux was for wimps. He liked earth tones. Everything had to be earth tones, so that our apartment ended up looking like a pile of dirt.

I walked down the alley. Steven was bent over the trunk of the car, pushing down hard enough to make the car bounce. "Damn this trunk," he said. "It's never worked right since we were broken into."

"I'm sorry I gave away our spot," I said. "I knew in a second we wouldn't fit," he snapped. "Not in a million years." He lunged one last time onto the trunk and it clicked painfully into the lock.

"I shouldn't have done it," I said. "I know that now." "It doesn't matter, Pat," he said, turning to face me, resting his weight against the car. "What's one more ticket at this point? We might as well start parking in bus stops and handicap zones."

There were footsteps behind us. It was the man who'd taken our spot. He stood a moment, staring at us, pushing his shirt down into his bike pants. "Your car is big for a Nissan," he said finally. "Yeah," Steven said, "and heavy. Burns a lot of oil."

"I'm sorry I took your spot," the man said. "My car is bigger than I thought. Do you live here?" He pointed to our building. We nodded. "I just moved in," he said. "Last week during the storm."

We headed up the alley and around to the front courtyard, the man talking as we walked, following a step behind. "I just moved in, like I said, and already I can't take the noise."

I held the gate open, and then the three of us were standing in the courtyard. We stopped, surrounded by our building on three sides, and behind us, the street. High above us, the third floor maybe, someone was practicing a clarinet, and in one of the open windows on the first floor I could hear a woman talking softly. "That's a good kitty. Mama loves a good baby kitty."

"Do you have a problem with the noise?" The man asked. "Sure," Steven said, "everybody does." "Frankly," the man said, "I don't know if I can take it. The woman above me walks back and forth all night long. That's not normal in my book." "You should talk to her," I offered.

We were standing in a circle, but suddenly, as if he'd made a decision, the man stepped forward towards Steven, putting his back to me. He kept talking.

"I went up there twice already, and she said she's going to call the police on me. 'Fine,' I told her. It's my peace being disturbed, not hers."

"Get a broom," Steven said. "I've used a broom." "What?" The man said, stepping closer. "On the ceiling," Steven explained. "Oh, so you do have noisy neighbors," the man said, excited. "We did." Steven told him. "They were old people, banging around in wheelchairs all day, then the man died. That ended it."

"You mean the woman quieted down without him?" The man asked, thrusting in front of me so I had to take a step back against the wall of the building. "Oh no," Steven said, "nothing like that."

"Well, like I say, I just moved in," the man said, interrupting. His voice was growing hoarse. "And I have friends on Bryer, you know, right around the corner. They have parking there, but you have to pay, and the waiting list is so long you practically have to kill someone to move up." His voice sped up. "The indoor's more expensive, but not so much, really, I mean, you have to realize outdoor is crazy. You're getting no protection at all. Zip."

He caught his breath and stepped back onto my foot. I slid along the bricks, out of his way. "You know," he continued, "I don't know too many people around here, but I'm making it a point to tell everyone I meet, my friends on Bryer tell me someone was robbed at gunpoint in the lobby the other night. I mean, the only reason I'm telling you this is that they're right around the corner, and if you look, they have the same kind of lobby we do. You know, an outer door, and then mailboxes, and then a locked door. They wait for you to come get your mail. I don't want to ruin your night, but robbed at gunpoint, that's the worst, isn't it?"

I looked up at the sky. A helicopter was clicking past in the darkness. It was one of those questions, would you rather be burned to death, or frozen?

"That's why I always carry $10 in my wallet," Steven said. "What do you mean?" The man asked, stepping forward now, towards Steven. "I haven't heard this one." "$10 is usually enough they won't shoot," Steven said. "They just want something." He spoke slowly, his face luminescent under the street lights.

I stepped forward, trying to catch Steven's gaze over the man's shoulders. "I just read something I think you'll both find interesting," I said. My voice sounded raw and crazy. They turned. Steven's arm was blocking his chest, the man swivelling around on the point of one toe.

"Actually, it's right along this vein of conversation," I said, pausing for breath, trying to think how Steven might tell it. "They say," I said, voice rising up high, "that is, the professionals, that when you're attacked, you should never scream, 'help,' because nobody listens. No one takes that word seriously anymore."

"Is this a joke?" The man asked. "I don't think I've heard this one. My roommate has a book of 1,000 space shuttle jokes. I mean, get a life, right?" Steven was staring at me as if I had completely broken with reality. Gypsy moths beat their wings noisily against the shining lamps over the doorway. The clarinet player had stopped. I felt like the whole building was silent, waiting.

"They have statistics that prove this, that in an emergency," I was gasping for air now, "it seems more people listen when you scream, 'fire,' even when there is no actual fire."

Steven's face was bright red, a vein pulsing in the center of his forehead. Suddenly the man spoke. "Fire?" He asked, "do I have this right?"

We stepped forward in unison, Steven and I, almost swallowing the man up. "Fire," we said, at precisely the same moment, with precisely the same inflection. I felt my insides leap up. Steven's eyes flashed to mine.

Ira Glass

Rennie Sparks.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program today was produced by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Paul Tough, Julie Snyder, Nancy Updike, contributing editor Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margie Rockland. Music help today from Steve Cushing. Susan Perabo's story originally appeared in TriQuarterly.

If you'd like a copy of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, phone number 312-832-3380, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says--

Rennie Sparks

You either step up, or you get stepped over. It's that simple.

Ira Glass

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