Something for Nothing
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Prologue. Lottery Players.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
Woman With Microphone
Woman With Microphone
One more time.
It was one of those moments that play on your sense of hope. You start to picture it, easy money. The story went like this.
Al's granddaughter had this dream where she saw the devil. He looked it up for her in a book of lottery numbers that he got in New Orleans. The book said if you dream of the devil, play the number 171. Then he saw a pill that had rolled onto the floor. On the pill was written a number, 771.
And it wasn't that he really believed that he was going to win. But he thought if he doesn't play and the number comes up, he'd feel like an idiot.
And I want 771. Give me $30 straight on it.
Al buys 30 $1-tickets and then boxes it for $2. The place he goes, Hannah's Finer Foods & Liquors, a little store on 87th Street here in Chicago in a well-kept, working-class, black neighborhood, sells more lottery tickets than any location in the city. Al plays every day.
So do you think it's possible to get something for nothing?
Hell, yeah. Yeah, you can get something for nothing once in a while. Very few people. Not everybody.
How much do you think you invest in the lottery every year?
Oh, I don't know. Anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000, maybe $5,000 in a year's time.
No, $3,000 or $4,000 a year is what you're paying to the lottery?
You figure it come pretty close.
$3,000 or $4,000 a year. That's not something for nothing.
But if you hit it-- if you hit it--
This is the thing about something for nothing schemes. Once you get the details, once you get involved, it's not something for nothing. You pay. One way or another, you pay. And we all know that. But even though we all know that, we just want to believe.
A delivery guy named Leo stands in line in his delivery uniform. He spends $40 to $50 a week on the lottery. But he tells me, he believes the lottery is fixed. Fixed. The million dollar winners, he says, they're usually white people. Never blacks. He notices.
They tell you what suburb it came from. And sometime they show the people on TV. And like you say, this is the largest lottery place in Chicago. If they know this is the largest lottery place in Chicago, they ought to let some of these people win here once in a while. That's fair.
I know, but if you really don't think you can win, why would you play at all here?
Well, you try anyway. I keep playing. Maybe, like I say, once in a while, they let somebody win here. Maybe I'll be one of 'em.
This is just how strong our hope runs. Leo believes the lottery is fixed so black people cannot win. And he still plays every day.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, the dream of something for nothing. Act One, Hands on a Hardbody. A get-rich-quick scheme in Texas involving two dozen people, three nights without sleep, and a $15,000 Hardbody truck. Act Two, Guinea Pig Zero. A guy who makes his living by selling his body or, actually, renting his body to medical science, drug studies. Act Three, Tao of the Dumpster. How an everyday dad quit his 9-to-5 and decided to put food on the family table by diving into grocery store dumpsters for it. And how this something-for-nothing scheme affected his marriage. Act Four, somebody who actually does strike it rich and gets something for nothing, and how it drives him nuts. Stay with us here, at the only place you really can get something for nothing, listening to the radio.
Act One. Hands On A Hardbody.
Act One, Hands on a Hardbody. Well, every year a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, sponsors this contest. 24 people stand around a $15,000 Hardbody pickup truck. When the starting whistle blows, each person puts one hand on the truck. They wear white gloves so as not to mess up the paint job. And they stand there and stand there until, one by one, people get tired, they drop away. And finally, one person is left standing. That person gets to keep the truck. How tough could this be? Under the contest rules, you get a 5-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every 6 hours. And to the contestants at first, it sounds like easy money. Something for nothing.
Female Contestant 1
I think it's gonna be easy. Because it's all in the mind. And I have so many friends that are going to come see me. My boyfriend's going to come see me. My dad said he would get up every night at 12:00--
Female Contestant 2
I think I'll last because I'll look at it as payments. That's what's gonna kill you when you buy a new vehicle. When I think of getting no sleep, that's gonna be painful. But you can get rest later.
Female Contestant 3
So that's the first thing I'll do is sell the truck. I have so many bills to pay off. I have a car. I want to go back to school. And I want to get braces. There are just so many things I want to do that I really do need the truck. And I'm determined I'm going to win it.
These interviews are part of a movie about this contest. Filmmakers Rob Bindler, Chapin Wilson, and Kevin Morse take us through the contest hour by hour. And over the course of the documentary, we get to know several of the contestants pretty well, especially one guy, Benny Perkins.
Benny had actually won the contest a few years back and had returned to try and win again the year they made their film. Benny says emphatically that this is not easy money, though it all starts simply enough.
OK, on the first day, you're ready. You're up. It's just like a normal work day. And you go through the day being extremely bored. You're listening to the radio. There's people going around, walking around, coming up. And that takes away from some of the boredom.
But you're standing in one spot, and you're doing absolutely nothing. And so your mind is looking for input, anything, something. And everybody pretty well yacks around the truck. And we get to know each other.
The thing is this contest usually lasts for three days and nights. Three days and nights. Or even longer. At some point, your problem is no longer boredom.
What happens is you go slowly insane. The mind has got to rest. The body can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But your mind has got to rest. You have to have sleep. And when you deprive your brain of rest, then you start going slowly crazy.
It's an awesome thing. It really is. And it's something that if you haven't experienced it, try it some time. Try staying up in one spot. You feel like you get transported from town to town, place to place. You see things that aren't there.
For instance, there was one time when I thought I was at a piano bar. And the back of the cab was actually, in my mind, the back of the piano. And someone was playing it. I couldn't see them. I couldn't raise up high enough to see over it, to see who was playing. And I remember standing there, looking around, and saying, "OK, I'm in a piano bar, and somebody's playing the piano. Where's my drink? Somebody forgot to bring me a drink." And that type of thing goes and comes and goes. It comes and goes. And you get extremely sleepy. And you just get numb.
My son was there, and he and another young man were throwing a baseball. And as the baseball would arc through the air, I could see traces of it. I could see 1,000 baseballs go across the front. And I saw that, and I said, "Wow." I didn't see that. It wasn't real, but I saw it.
Now there at the second day, my feet hurt. They got to hurting pretty bad. And I had complained about it. I was going to drop out. Because I was really having some pain. Well, several hours passed. I hung in there. And my feet went numb. And I said, "I don't think I can stand here now." And then I got to thinking about that while I was there and running it through my mind. And I said, "Well, I don't think I like numb. I don't know what's going on." And so then I started working my feet around while I was standing and keeping the circulation moving. Because that's what it was. The blood was pooling in my legs.
And I got the notion that everybody's legs was swelling up. Of course, they were all standing there in shorts. I had on the tightest pair of blue jeans I could find. And I wasn't showing off. I just wanted that extra support. A fellow could wear support hose, but then everybody'd be calling you sissy or something on the truck. And you'd be wanting to punch them out. Be going with that. I did. I had on the tightest pair of jeans I could find.
I love to compete. I'm a competitor. And I'm also a little bit predatory. And to win at something like this, during the time that it's happening and afterwards, you've got to be a little mean. Because there's times when people-- when you're talking to each other's head, and you're messing with each other's head. And there's a lot of that goes on. And it's mind games is what it is. Head games. Be standing there and say, "Hey, man, my legs and feet are killing me." And somebody pipe up and say, "Well, hey, I'm not hurting anywhere." "Well, what are you taking? Cocaine?" That's what you want to say.
And that's what I said back to him. I said, "Well, if you're not hurting, then you're numb. And you're worse off than we are. Because when you go numb, you don't know what's going on." Well, that messed with him, I'm sure. But that's the kind of thing that goes on.
There was one gentleman that-- I think there was three or four of us left. And a friend of his came up to the chain and asked him what he wanted to eat on the next break. And he turned around and says, "I don't know." And he literally did not know what he wanted to eat. And I realized this. And I said, "Man," I said, "this is bad. You don't know what you want to eat." I said, "I know exactly what I want to eat, what I'm going to eat when we come off on this next break." I said, "And you're standing here, and you don't know?" I said, "That's really bad." I said, "You're losing." I said, "You may as well quit now."
I said, "I know exactly what I'm gonna eat. I know exactly what I'm doing. And I know exactly what I'm saying right now." And it just blew the guy's mind. He couldn't deal with that. It was more than he could deal with. And it wasn't very long after that that he dropped off. And then when he dropped off, I turned around to Dan-- that was the guy that was with me at the end-- told him, I said, "Look," I said, "you're standing next to the devil." And I said, "And you're riding the road to hell." I said, "I'll stand here 'til you die. You may as well quit now."
The only way that I can be beaten, as far as I'm concerned, is if there was someone that had just got out of the Marine Corps. That person could possibly beat me. They would have the mindset for it. It's a contest, they say, of stamina. But it's who can maintain their sanity the longest. And that's what it is. That's what it comes to. Because when you go insane, you lose.
Everybody starts feeling it the second night. And there were several that dropped off, on up until the sun came up. After the sun come up, it was a long time. The third day, it was a long time. I think there was about eight of us left, five of us left the beginning of the third day. It's really roomy. And you keep wondering, "Well, who's going to go down next?" And this is when you start getting the really big rushes. When it gets down to like five people and somebody drops off, you get this awesome exhilaration. And you feel like you could jump to the moon. It just [WHOOSH]. It comes up on you. You feel it all over. And you just get the shakes.
I would compare it to killing a deer the first time. The first time you kill a really big animal, it's an exhilarating thing. You get so excited. And you feel absolutely, totally human. You feel it. And at the same time, you feel really sad for this person. And you feel sad for them, you feel sad for their family. Because they've been up there all this time, and they lost. They don't get nothing. It's sad. You want to cry. But at the same time, you're pumped up.
When it gets down to the last two, that's when it gets really tough. Because he's got most of his friends and family there. Most of your friends and family are there. And then you've got fans, people that, by this time, they've picked out who they want to win. And everybody's rooting for somebody. And if you look over here into the friends and family and fans of this other person, they're looking at you like, "OK, you need to quit." Or if you're looking better than this other person, they're really upset with you.
And you can see it. And it deals with you. It really works on you. And you don't like it. You say, "Hey, man, I don't deserve that." And then you get to thinking about, "Well, hey, all these people are up here. And don't they realize that we're suffering, that we're hurting?" And you feel like they're bloodthirsty in a way. They're there to see this spectacle. And it seems so absurd, very absurd at the time.
There was a gentleman that was standing to my right. And he really needed to win the truck. I would say he needed to win it more than I did. And I had told him-- during the process we had become close friends-- and I had told him, I said, "If it comes down to just you and me," I said, "I'll lift my hand up, and let you have this truck because you need it. You need it more than I do."
And when he started losing it, he raised his hands up and he took his gloves off. You have to wear gloves, cotton gloves. He just threw them over there. And he's sitting there, rubbing his hands like this, looking at them. And it was this hand. I grab it, and I slap it down on the truck. And I said, "Man, what are you doing? Have you lost your mind? What's going on? You're supposed to stand here with me 'til the end. You better stay with me." And he snapped out of it.
Because he was losing his mind. He saw something on his hands or felt something that he just didn't like. And his little wife and family were standing over there. And they saw what I'd done. And they thanked me. But he went off. On the next break, we all took off, sat down in our various spots. And when I came back to the truck, he didn't get back up.
You experience a great camaraderie with these people because they have been through this. They've been there. They know what it's like. And it's like the guys that come back from the space program. The Right Stuff. They've got a camaraderie that they share. It's a closeness that nobody else can really understand. Because they haven't been in space.
After I won this truck, my self-esteem and my self-worth went through the roof. There was times I felt that I couldn't control it. I felt as though, at times, I was extremely conceited. And I've had a little trouble dealing with that.
I remember sitting in my front stoop, right in front of my door. And I'd just sit there and look at it. And I'd spend two or three hours just sitting there, looking at it in total disbelief that, wow. I really did that. I really won that truck. I really went through that. I'll drive it 'til the wheels fall off, then glue 'em back on, and drive it some more. If I have to clone a new engine in it, I will. Until it just falls apart and it won't drive no more, that's when I'll set it up. And I'm gonna set it up out at the farm. I'm not gonna haul it off to an iron yard somewhere that'll scrap it. It doesn't deserve that.
Later on, I experienced some awesome cases of deja vu when I would go to sleep and dream that I was back on the truck. And I couldn't leave. And I would say it was probably three or four months afterwards that my feet and legs recovered. At night, after I'd go to bed, my feet would tickle.
Benny Perkins was interviewed for the film Hands on a Hard Body, which shows many people, not just Benny, going through this ordeal. It's really something. And in the year since we first broadcast this story, the film has come out on DVD. The actual contest ended in 2005.
[MUSIC - "SIX DAYS ON THE ROAD" BY DAVE DUDLEY]
Act Two. Guinea Pig Zero.
Act Two, Guinea Pig Zero. Well, a few years ago, Bob Helms noticed how many of his friends were making money by volunteering for medical experiments. In a good medical study, they put you up for 10 days or so with 8 or 10 other guinea pigs. They feed you. They rent videos for you. You can read or write all day. Of course, they give you an experimental drug, take your blood. Typical pay for a good study like this? $200 a day. $200 a day.
Bob Helms' zine about this, it's called Guinea Pig Zero, rates various medical facilities for best food, staff attitude, best money, and all sorts of stuff like that. He says that there is basically a community of people who do this.
You're not gonna get rich. You could do it for a living if your expenses are very low. And you can do it for a living if you have another income. Or some people will actually book them very close together, so that they're doing them more often than they're telling the doctors that they're doing them. It's a little bit disgusting to do it too many times, I think.
When do you cross the line into disgusting?
Disgusting is when you're doing something very painful and getting very little money in return. Like the spinal tap studies. They have to train people how to do spinal taps. They're actually paying you $100 to take this spinal tap. This trainee drains the fluid out of your spinal cord. And sometimes you walk away half paralyzed, it's leaking, and things like this. This is disgusting. And I just don't want to-- I never go near anything like that.
The most painful and uncomfortable one I've ever done was actually the behavior of my stomach while a radioactively-traced egg sandwich was disintegrating. And they were taking photographs of my stomach from a gamma counter. And I had a tube down my nose into my intestine and a catheter in my arm. And I had to lay very, very, very still for about eight hours at a time. So that was a very uncomfortable deal.
How much you get paid for that?
$200 each time, and it was three times.
Compare yourself to other people who hire out their bodies.
Well, I sometimes think of it in comparison to, say, an art model, a nude model who models for art classes or artists. In a limited way, it's similar. You also could be compared to a sex trade worker, either a prostitute or an erotic dancer.
Let's go through a hierarchy of different people who sell their bodies, rent their bodies.
Well, on the top of the heap would be a professional athlete. But of course, that takes a very intense concentration. And it's different in a lot of ways. It's different in a million ways.
So the next one down from athlete would be?
Would be a very highly-paid fashion model. At the bottom would be probably a prostitute doing very dangerous and extremely unpleasant work for money. Guinea pig would probably be somewhere in the lower half, not in the middle or the upper half.
You're saying below fashion model but above prostitute. Above nude dancer? Below nude dancer?
Well, pay-wise, it's probably below nude dancer. It's probably well below nude dancer. But as far as the aggravation and the unpleasant interactions with people that one would need to go through, it's probably above, a Guinea pig being less stressful and less of a weird pain in the ass to do.
How would you compare this to, say, a job working for minimum wage, a McDonald's job, where, essentially, you're renting yourself out for a fee?
It's much, much, much better.
A fast food restaurant job, you're committed to eight hours every day or whatever number of hours. Say, eight hours every day. So that every day has got this gigantic hole in it that you can't do anything else. And all of that time, you're working hard. And you're getting very little, very, very little in return. That's not really enough for a day. A person should get more than that for a day's work.
Do you feel this job is easy money?
Yes. Ideally, that's all it is. It's easy money. But there's a danger in thinking about it that way too much. Because one should always understand that there is always a risk. It may be a very, very small risk. It may be a really great risk that you're taking. And I think one of the particular strong risks is in doing psychiatric drugs.
I know from reading Guinea Pigs, you do not do studies with psychoactive drugs. You call the people who do that-- you have a word for them, a phrase for them.
The phrase is "Brain Sluts." It's more harsh than most guinea pigs would use. It's disgusting because they're becoming retarded for money. I'm just very sensitive about the mind. I personally don't lay it out for rent.
Is your main experience of doing this just that it's boring? Is that the main downside of the whole thing?
It can get pretty boring sometimes. If it's a very long study, you start to feel like a caged animal. It's gets very aggravating. And you start to feel like you're in a fish tank.
Well, you are.
Yep. You sure are. You're under a microscope.
And you are.
When people describe a really bad job, the thing they say is, "My boss, he's just on me all the time. He's just watching me all the time. I can't get him out of my business." And that's the premise of this job.
Yep. That's it exactly.
And yet, somehow, you feel a sense of freedom when you're doing it?
Yes, when everything's going well.
Since we first ran this story, Bob Helms has stopped publishing Guinea Pig Zero and has left the world of drug testing. He has released a collection of stories from his zine called Guinea Pig Zero: An Anthology of the Journal for Human Research Subjects.
[MUSIC - "RUN ANOTHER TEST ON ME" BY KAIA]
Coming up, two people who succeed at getting something for nothing, big time, and the consequences. That's in a minute when our program continues.
Act Three. Tao Of The Dumpster.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a wide variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Something for Nothing. Stories of people who try to make easy money and what happens when they try. As everybody knows, you usually pay a price, some price.
We've arrived at Act Three of our program, Tao of the Dumpster. This is the story of Dirk Jamison's dad, a man who decided to seek something for nothing, mostly for his own pleasure, mostly for his own self-interest. But one thing that's interesting about this is that one consequence of him doing it is that he ends up a better dad, arguably, arguably. In fact, the family does argue about it.
Dad wasn't always in the trash. But by 1976, life had gone into an ugly holding pattern and nothing was adding up. He was counting weeks like he used to count days. To Dad, my mother was a pining walrus wrapped in polyester who couldn't take a single sentence at face value. If he said two words, she heard five or six. And they scalded her guts.
He once gave her a soap-on-a-rope in the shape of an aspirin because she swallowed handfuls at night in order to sleep. But she considered this over-sized pill a vicious hint that Dad wanted her to go to sleep for good. In a crowded mall, Dad let go of a door and it nailed her in the forehead. She stunned cheery Christmas shoppers with a high-decibel accusation. Her husband was trying to kill her with doors.
We kids made him happy, gorging on hot dogs and pancakes paid for by his hammer-and-nailing. But that didn't make a life. So he made a decision. He'd move us to Mammoth Lakes and teach us to ski. Screw all that empty labor and alienation. We would hike and have a serious blast, catch rainbow trout, and go sledding, and have snowball fights. All he had to do was get fired. Unemployment and food stamps would carry us through the winter. So he began a campaign to lose his construction job. He ignored his pouch of nails. He lounged. He made idle chat. He was fired.
After being laid off, Dad went straight to the supermarket for moving boxes, but instead found an old man grinning from inside the dumpster like a euphoric half-wit, eating cold spaghetti from a can. His face was covered with grime, and his teeth had rotted down to brown spikes. But Dad thought he was the happiest person he'd seen in years. He wanted to share his score with Dad. Some nice chicken, broccoli, mangoes, a mystery novel, and a bag of hard candy, most of which was going to his 60-year-old girlfriend waiting in a nearby trailer park.
"Very important to share." He offered Dad the chicken. "Plenty to go around and just thrown out that morning. All wrapped up tight in plastic. No worse than day-old bread. And Lord knows, the price is right." Dad got the hell out of there. But he spent the entire afternoon thinking about it, even took a half-assed shot at discussing it with Mom. That old guy had looked more relaxed and content, hip-deep in dregs, than Dad could remember ever feeling. Trashing made money obsolete. No reason to pay for food. It waits out back the same as on the shelf.
Mom was mortified. It was ludicrous to be envious of a homeless person. Freedom meant choices, and that old guy had none. But Dad had plenty and should be making something of his life instead of thinking low-class thoughts. Dad went back first thing in the morning. He watched an aproned kid carry out a gallon jar of pickled eggs like a football. And the passage from in to out was crystal clear. Nothing about the eggs had changed. But in 30 seconds, the jar had been transformed from top-notch product into utter swill.
Dad went over just for a look and found a split-open, 50-pound bag of dry dog food. Perfect initiation. He could test the water without sticking anything in his mouth. He could climb in for a loyal family dog and save the $5 her food cost every week. A few minutes in the dumpster would equal 5 smackers. That was about $100 an hour. He climbed in and spotted the jar, expiration date one day passed, lid snug. He opened it, the dumpster suddenly feeling like half foxhole-half goldmine, and hesitated only long enough to smell the top egg, then wolfed it down. Delicious.
He sped home, and fed the dog, and tried to pass out the eggs. But Mom was glaring at the menacing, felt-tip X marked in the jar lid. "That better not be what I think it is," she said, "so help me god."
Dad opened his mouth to deny it, but froze. "OK, fine," he said, deciding to try to be himself even if his wife didn't want him to. "It's trash."
Mom stomped into the bedroom, and Dad followed. He said he finally understood what he'd been doing with his life. He'd been working for furniture, and new shoes, and magazine subscriptions, making petty habits a priority and handing authority to some persona, who he thought he should be instead of who he was. But those eggs were undeniable. More trash meant less work. Less work meant more time and, finally, more life. Think of it. They could do whatever the hell they wanted. No work. Just skiing, sledding, snowballs, food stamps.
"No." Mom despised food stamps. People snickered in line, and checkers were condescending. Her father had raised 10 children and never once resorted to crummy welfare or scavenging. But she was missing the point. So Dad spoke slowly. "I don't want to waste any more days at all." Mom smothered herself with a pillow and blurted, "I won't do it." In three weeks, we would leave for Mammoth Mountain in California.
Dad had heard that Mammoth had the most square footage of terrifying slope in the country. Pine sap smelled like vanilla. And for $250 a month, we could live four miles below some 30 ski lifts and a space-age gondola that raced to nose-bleed altitudes and stopped at a cafeteria halfway down the run, where everyone collapsed and refueled on corned beef and cabbage and steins of beer.
Our house was an A-frame crowded by wild Christmas trees. And on the very day we moved in, a fish hatchery truck backed down our driveway to stock the backyard creek with brook trout. "Talk about a good omen," Dad said.
There was no time to locate fishing rods. We just blitzed in and started groping. And Dad cheered from the bank. My first fish ever was 12 inches long and nabbed with cold, bare hands. I raised it over my head, and we were all screaming.
At first, husband and wife shopped together. Mom headed for the electric doors, clutching those dreaded food stamps. And Dad called out, "The adventure's in back, Babe." He views this as a whole-hearted invitation, but even now, there's a taunting edge to his voice that he doesn't acknowledge.
The amount of food being cast out in Mammoth was astounding. The economy was tourist-driven, and fancy skiers preferred high-class eats. So the instant a piece of fruit showed age, it was ditched. Dad scored racks of papayas so ripe, they were oozing and split. If the corner of a cereal box got crunched, managers considered the cereal inside irrelevant. If a manager needed shelf space for granola bars and trail mix, he abandoned a slow seller. And Dad lugged home crates of onion-flavored potato chips, unfresh bagels, a dozen cottage cheeses. Finding enough to feed a family of five was a breeze. But afterward, when he wanted to compare hauls, mom looked at him with disdain and kept her bags away from his, afraid of contamination, setting her prediction of his death by poisoning at two weeks.
She warned us about the bins. Dad was immune to the filth because selfishness and spiritual corruption had made him thick-skinned. But we were angelic and frail, and might suffocate on the stink. Or worse, slip and bash our heads. Then literally drown in two inches of immoral muck. She said trash was a horrible thing, but it was difficult for us to believe. Dad was having big fun. And one thing children seem to understand, fun is not horrible.
Mom declared the refrigerator off-limits. Dad found an old fridge and stashed his booty in the garage. Mom banned trashing at her favorite stores, so Dad sneaked out at night and hid convenience desserts under our pillows. Mom found licked-clean pudding cartons and forbade us to eat "that." Dad picked us up from school, and we hit candy stores and pastry shops on the sly.
"Jackpot" became the code word when my sister found a jumbo pack of Twinkies designed to be carried like a backpack. She ran at top speed with a tube of decorative crepe paper, flailing her arms and sprinting a huge circle back to the Twinkies. The red paper unraveled behind her like a parade streamer. We made ourselves sick, cramming all of the Twinkies in the drive home, then laid around the house and groaned.
Mom put two and two together, then staged a protest. She wouldn't speak again until her children were garbage free. She wouldn't do a single chore. For a week, we saw her only twice a day. Straight to her room after work and stomping out to the car in the morning. Dad prepared all-trash meals. A sourdough culture thrived in a Mason jar above the stove. Dad mixed it in his second-hand flour and made humongous stacks of pancakes, referred to as "gooners," smothered with coconut syrup from behind the health food store. "Who wants gooners?" he would shout. "Me, me, me."
Mom packed her bags. She gathered us at the door to explain that Dad was a heartless son of a bitch whom she couldn't stand for another second. But she would come visit us on the weekends. And we could stay with her. "Whatever you want," she said. "It's up to you." We begged her to stay. We got on our knees and gradually convinced her that life would be pointless and crappy without her. And as she unpacked, I sobbed with relief. But when she packed again in four days, we barely glanced up from the television. And from then on, she had to convince herself to stick around.
I end up calling Mom to ask her about those years. She's a little perturbed by my questions. Why do I take such an interest in Dad when he's always been such a selfish jerk? She was the one. She was there for us. She paid the bills and kept the heat on. She crawled under the house and unfroze the pipes when Dad went on his damn winter vacations to Baja. She worked really hard for Christmases and new clothes for school. Dad only did whatever the hell he wanted. But he always got the credit for being such a great father.
And now I'm writing a book about him? Why? What did he do to deserve all this attention? She says, "He has less freedom than any man I've ever known. He can't go where he wants because he can't spend anything to get what he wants. He has to go worst class because he's not free enough to part with a dollar."
She's on the verge of crying now, but contains herself long enough to recount some bitter family folklore, husband eats heart of watermelon. "Now with me," she says, "I would cut a piece off. And everyone would have a piece. Burt's way was to cut down the middle and eat the heart out because that's the part he wanted. I said, 'But Burt, that's the best part. And you should only take your share of the best part.' But he said, 'No, I take what I want.'"
She warned him. "Do it again, and you'll be sorry." He did it again. So she grabbed the gutted melon and went after him. "I threw it and hit him right on the head on the apartment steps. As with most things, I didn't put my foot down soon enough. I just kept thinking he was going to evolve, that these weirdnesses in him were going to change. But it got worse instead of better. From the person I married to the person I divorced 20 years later, I couldn't recognize anything in that man."
Later, I asked Dad about the watermelon. "I wanted her to experience that same thing I did," he said. "You've got this really great part. I wanted her to experience the heart of life, I guess, or the heart of the watermelon. You give yourself that gift. You give yourself a gift of what happens. And that's what makes life worthwhile."
"What'd she say?" I ask.
"When I ate the heart? She was upset. She ran after me, and she threw it at me. I ran down the stairs. She threw it after me. But I got another watermelon. And I said, 'Now I want you to eat the heart.' But she wouldn't do it. I said, 'This is for you. You eat the heart.' If I cut it out and gave it to her, she couldn't eat it. She said, 'I can't. I can't eat the heart.' She didn't think she deserved it."
"So what did you do then?" I ask.
"I don't know." He breaks into a big laugh. "I may have eaten the heart."
Years ago, Dad was handing out mini jugs of orange juice when my sister spotted a boy from grade school, staring from his bicycle at the far end of the lot. Her expression made Dad think she'd cut her finger or smashed a toe. She ducked behind the dumpster and hissed, "I know him," eventually confessing to Mom that she had a crush on the boy. When he ridiculed her at recess, she sucker punched him in the throat and was suspended from fifth grade for three days.
She refused to leave her room. So Mom carried in favorite dinners on a big platter. Dad wanted to talk her through it, but took the wrong approach, suggesting she see shame as a concept and not just a feeling. It was replacement emotion, like anger, he said. We used it when we couldn't distinguish exactly how we felt. Dad drilled her with thematics, but was simply attaching a stigma to her reaction by implying that her feelings weren't real. So he finally shut up.
He tried to empathize instead. He squatted in dumpsters and pictured the person he'd least like to see him there. An old girlfriend, the president, John Wayne. He tried to humiliate himself, but couldn't. So he sat down again with my sister and tried to be on her side this time. If her heart hurt, hey, that's all that mattered. She should go for it, he said, feel as ashamed as she wanted. Shame held significance for her, obviously. So the only way to figure it out was to, as he said, take it to the limit. She said, "I don't want anymore trash, Dad."
I remind Dad of how, when we were young, he would spend an entire day playing with us. But he would never spend time making money if we wanted something.
"Well," he said, "the things that money could buy are not of great value. To me, love is a giving of time and attention. That's a real gift. Money's not a gift. It just gives you things. And they're OK. But they're not of primary importance. Money's OK. It's another adventure. So you go on the money adventure. How far can you go? You get a yacht or whatever people do with a lot of money. But then what do you do? Are you really happy? You've still got to do something with life. There's a certain searching. Everybody's curious and looking. You see people looking everywhere. What are they looking for? I think it's right in front them. Right there. The thing itself."
"What is it?" I ask.
He laughs. "Hell if I know."
Dirk Jamison's story Tao of the Dumpster first appeared in the LA Weekly. He's also made a film about the subject. And he has a book about his childhood called Perishable: A Memoir.
[MUSIC - "BUSTED" BY WACO BROTHERS]
Act Four. Another Case Study: How Someone Else Got Something For Nothing.
Act Four, Another Success Story. Well, Hollywood is our national capital of something for nothing and our dream of something for nothing. And of course, anybody who's ever seen any of those movies about Hollywood-- Barton Fink, A Star is Born, Day of the Locust-- anybody who's seen them knows that the classic story of something for nothing is about the price that you pay once you make your easy money, once you make your big kill. So with that in mind, we will end our program today with a variation on that theme from writer Sandra Tsing Loh in Los Angeles.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Do I believe in the magic of Disney? Yes, I do. One day, my friend Roger Cox was a 40-something, underemployed, actor, director, pet sitter. The next, he blossomed into a veritable industry mini-mogul, sporting capped teeth, brand new Isuzu Trooper, even health insurance. Sound miraculous? Cinderella-esque? Late '80s? It is. And it could only have happened in Glendale at the Walt Disney Corporation.
The story begins in a little, ramshackle bungalow sans air conditioning in Pasadena. The year is 1985. Our hero has just stepped off the plane from New York, penniless, with only a duffel bag. LA is a place where appearances mean a lot. And let us just say that in fall 1985, Roger does not look like a person who will soon be playing tennis in Encino. He is 41 going on 70, a battered 5 foot 3. A root-beer dwarf is his self-description. A chain smoker, a lousy dresser, and has bad knees.
Equity Waiver Theater can be a cruel mistress. And after 35, she can inflict a certain darkness of spirit. "She takes all your money and, after a while, won't even [BLEEP] you anymore," as my friend Mel says. Because 35 is an age when even the most die-hard bohemian begins to wish for life's little luxuries, one's own futon to sleep on, liability car insurance, dental care. Roger has none of these things, so add to the appearance a somewhat negative life outlook. But this is all soon to change. How is almost Hans-Christian-Andersen-esque.
Fast forward to 1987. Roger is tapped to direct an original play in a not-untypical, 77-seat LA run. That is, six weeks of rehearsal culminating in one weekend of performance. Meanwhile, someone loses $6,000, there are no reviews, and frantic efforts to videotape it at some tiny college in Pomona with hostile student cameramen come to nothing. The final insult? Monday morning, Roger, the director, is forced to drive all the props and furniture back himself.
Picture it. There our hero sits on a blazing Monday morning-- and how cruel those LA Monday mornings are-- at a stoplight, Western and Santa Monica, in his uninsured '79 Honda Civic. But then something makes Roger look to his left. And there, gesturing at him madly, is a well-groomed woman in a cream-colored Audi.
"Roger!" she calls out. He rolls down his window. "John is in town. He wants you to call him." A phone number is hurled into the shuddering Honda, followed by the screech of Audi tires.
One week later, boom! Roger is hired by Disney. And why not? Disney's amusement park division is expanding, expanding, expanding. They are building up Disneyworld in Orlando like crazy. Next is Euro Disney. Then there's Japan. They need creative thinkers. Roger is suddenly drawing $60,000 a year, perhaps four times what he's seen in those 40-odd years. Job description? Imagineer.
"Roger thinks up rides for amusement parks," I would tell other bohos, semi-employed 30-somethings, active in their various part-time songwriting, freelance recording engineer, jewelry design, $8 an hour word processing, unpublished novelist, studio-based trombone, pot-selling industries. "Wow," such creative types respond, their eyes glazing over. And at the end of the evening, Roger would unfailingly pick up the check. His triumphal cry? "It's on the mouse."
Roger came to have a dapper new look, too. Once on the Disney lot-- where you meet a better class of people anyway-- he had almost immediately met a fine new woman named Donna, who made it her mission to get the Tweeds catalog and buy Roger everything out of it. Soon Roger is resplendent in safari khakis, and beige linens, and crisp, white shirts.
He trades in the Civic for a Trooper. The hair is permed. Teeth are capped. New glasses are purchased. Roger begins to look positively sleek. In his Equity Waiver days, he used to call industry scouts, with great derision, "the IJS," which stood for "Important Jewish Suits." Now he is one. He quits smoking. He pays off some 20-odd-years of debt. Roger begins to hire his poorer artistic friends for Walt Disney imagineering gigs. He is Solomon, dispensing coins to the peasants.
Voice-overs flow from him. A music score for a three-minute, in-house film. $100 checks for two hours of concept consulting. Roger is absolutely in his element. Never was a job so suited to a person. Calls wore in from him Monday morning. "Asia," he exclaims in stentorian tones. "What do you find fascinating about Asia? Go." Apparently, this week's task is to think up rides based on the continents. But why stop there? Next week, his assignment is "The universe. Go."
But then the tide turns. Was it an angry look from Michael Eisner? One bloated Visa bill too many? A bad dream about a mouse? "Ayenbite of Inwyt" is Roger's three-word explanation. And when a Disney person begins quoting Joyce, that is the point where you know you will soon be paying for your own drinks.
Roger begins staying in over the weekend, reading Nietzsche, Boll, books about the Grand Guignol Theater. Ask him how Asia and his close friend Jeffrey Katzenberg are doing, and one gets only a curt response. "I'm tired of writing for robots." In the next breath, Roger goes into a wild tirade. Excitedly, he outlines his new project. To perform "Crap's Last Tape" in the Theatre Theater toilet, pants down around his ankles, for three people. He is smoking again.
You know he's finally gone over the edge when he tells you he is thinking of designing a new amusement park concept called "Crap Land." Here, terrible crap happens to people and uniformed Craplanders cheerfully abuse them. Fortunately for Roger, the world economy turns. And soon the amusement park industry is to go into a little bit of a bust. In short, in summer 1992, the unthinkable happens. Disney lays off some 400 of its 500 imagineers. Even though, oddly, the construction of new buildings and wings continues apace.
The nightmare is over. Roger is free again. He is at peace. After all, he's had five great years, thanks to his corporate fairy godmother. His debts are paid off. He's got a terrific wardrobe. He has money in the bank. He's got contacts both in his address book and in his eyes. He can collect unemployment now. Do nothing but dream for a year. For a guy who came here with nothing, that's pretty good.
Sandra Tsing Loh. Her most recent book, Mother On Fire, came out this month. Her friend Roger died last year.
Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Paul Tough, Nancy Updike, and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for this show Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and P.J. Vogt. Music help today from John Connors.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's always walking up to us in the hallway, standing next to us, and saying--
You're standing next to the devil. And you're riding a road to hell.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
I said, "I'll stand here 'til you die. You may as well quit now."
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