Transcript

71:

Defying Sickness
Transcript

Originally aired 08.01.1997

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/71

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's the part of you that's healthy, and there's the part of you that's sick. And sometimes the healthy part doesn't want to admit there's a sick part. Well, back in 1945, Walt Strommer was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He was permanently blinded, sent home.

Walt Strommer

For the next year or so, when I was back home going to college, I would dream that I was driving a car. And then in the dream I would think, "You shouldn't be doing this. You're blind."

Ira Glass

In fact, he realized, in his dream, he was always able to see. And even to this day, over 50 years later, he still has these dreams from time to time.

Walt Strommer

Sometimes I will dream of myself as I was as a teenager. And those dreams are almost completely as I would have been then, seeing. Or occasionally, I will still, in dreams, see a page of a book and read it, and absolutely clearly, and I may even remember a sentence or two when I wake up.

Ira Glass

Mr. Strommer says it took 10 or 15 years of blindness before he showed up in his own dreams as a blind person. And at some point, he started to wonder, "Why the delay?" He wrote a letter to a publication called Paraplegia News asking if anybody else had the same experience. He got a handful of letters from people who had.

Walt Strommer

Some of them started seeing themselves as in wheelchairs or paralyzed-- whatever-- within a few months. Others it was years before it was incorporated. And I think almost all of them say it's inconsistent. Sometimes they will see themselves as in a wheelchair, the next time not. I think one of the more amusing ones was the man who said he would go along in his wheelchair and he gets to a curb that the chair won't get up on. So he gets out of the chair, lifts it up on the curb, and then he gets back in and goes on his way. Or one woman wrote about she will dream that she's walking with her husband, and he's pushing her wheelchair. And then he sees somebody coming. He says, "Quick, get back in your wheelchair. People are coming."

Ira Glass

Here's a letter that you were sent. An older man writes, "I've been in a wheelchair since October 6, 1966. And during the dream state, I've never visualized myself in a wheelchair. I've been impotent since 1962, but in dreams, I see myself as a stud that can go out with any of the cute, young things."

Walt Strommer

Yes. That comes through in a couple of the letters. And as I recall, one of the people wrote-- I guess I had raised the question, why doesn't the dreaming brain catch up and show you the reality? And she said, "Why should it? Why should it be in a hurry to show us the unpleasant side of life? Maybe part of the function of dreams is to give us a few minutes of respite and happiness so we can come out of it and say, 'Hey, that felt pretty good.'"

Ira Glass

One man, a wheelchair user, wrote, "This is better than just a harmless fantasy. It means I can re-experience walking and running temporarily. I wake up mentally refreshed, at ease." Mr. Strommer was a college professor, and he spent some time researching why our subconscious minds would take so long to absorb the new facts about our lives, why his brain took a decade to admit to itself in dreams that he was blind. He says nobody really knows why. It might be chemical, or it might simply be that it's common for us all to see ourselves one way when in reality we're not that way at all.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Defying Sickness. Act One, Road Trip. A father and a son go on a long car ride to figure out what parts of the father's brain have not been lost yet to Alzheimer's disease and to try to jump-start his memories. Act Two, My World Record, a hemophiliac's adventures at motocross racing and at setting another world's record. Act Three-- well, just stay tuned for Act Three. We'll launch Act One after some music.

Act One. A Trip Down Memory Lane.

Ira Glass

Act One, Road Trip. Joel Meyerowitz is a photographer, grew up in New York City. But for the last two decades, his parents have lived in Florida. Joel would see them, visit for a few days at a time. But over the past 10 years, Joel's father, Hy, developed Alzheimer's. Before he retired, Hy was a salesman for 40 years and did a few years as a comic in a vaudeville act before that. He was a boxer, won his weight class in the very first Golden Gloves competition. But now that he had Alzheimer's, the doctor said that he should stay inside, avoid a lot of stimulation. His son Joel thought, "What if we try, just for a brief time, something different?"

Joel Meyerowitz

I was visiting my father. We were driving someplace and he was babbling on, as he does. His great skill is that he can talk. And in the middle of one of these riffs, he turned to me with a look of panic, really, and he said, "The trouble with me is I never get to the point where I get to the point." And that was so pungent an observation about his predicament that it entered my consciousness in a way that made me say, now. That's it. I'm going to make a film about him. He's at a place in this disease where, before he's completely gone and while he has some consciousness about his situation, I'm going to take him out into the world again and see what happens to him and how he handles himself.

Ira Glass

They got a camera and went on a three-week trip, driving from Ft. Lauderdale back to New York City. Joel Meyerowitz's son Sasha did most of the filming. You hear his voice only a few times in the footage I'm about to play you. When they set out on the trip, Sasha was 27, Joel was 57, Hy was 87.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you know what ocean this is?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I'll be honest with you, Joel. I don't remember. Not the Catskills Ocean--

Joel Meyerowitz

The Catskills are mountains. This is an ocean. Which one?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I don't know.

Joel Meyerowitz

Is it the Pacific or the Atlantic?

Hy Meyerowitz

I will take that as Pacific.

Joel Meyerowitz

Really?

Hy Meyerowitz

Wrong.

Joel Meyerowitz

Wrong?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, wrong.

Joel Meyerowitz

So which one is it then?

Hy Meyerowitz

It's the permiss- permission of--

Joel Meyerowitz

The Permishic. Right.

Hy Meyerowitz

The Permishic!

Joel Meyerowitz

The Farshimmelt. The Farshimmelt Ocean.

Hy Meyerowitz

I am a bissel farshimmelt! What are you asking me so early in the morning a question like that?

Joel Meyerowitz

Where were you born?

Hy Meyerowitz

1-0-9-2-- 1-0-9-2-0-7-- no. 1-5-9-0-5-9 East--

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, it was East 100th Street, right?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

He taught me all the street-smart things. He set up a punching bag for me. And he taught me how to fight, how to take my stance, how to throw a punch, how to put your body behind it. He had me work out on a light bag too, like this. He always felt that if you got into a scrape in the neighborhood that you shouldn't run away. His motto was, "Step in and deliver the first blow." And he said, "Take the biggest guy down."

And that was his attitude. He wouldn't stop and run away from anything. On Morrison Avenue, the block we lived on, he was considered the mayor of the block. Anytime there was a dispute that had to be settled, they would actually come and ask him, "What do you think, Hy?" Or if there were strangers coming through the neighborhood and they needed to be told to get out of there, they'd get him. And the scenes I remember of it, people would gather in front of our window, and they'd yell, "Hymie? Hey, Hymie?" And he'd come to the window and he would adjudicate from the window. He would say, "No, no. You shouldn't do that. And he should do this. And you get that. Let him alone." And it was like The Judge.

Hy Meyerowitz

Here we come, baby. And I want you to know-- hey you!

[BIRD CHIRPING]

Hy Meyerowitz

Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!

Joel Meyerowitz

Hey, Pop?

Hy Meyerowitz

What?

Joel Meyerowitz

You know what this reminds me of?

Hy Meyerowitz

No.

Joel Meyerowitz

Does that remind you of Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

That's what I was thinking.

Hy Meyerowitz

I didn't think of the name at that time.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. Sure I remember him.

Joel Meyerowitz

What was Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

He was a little Chinese little bird.

Joel Meyerowitz

A parakeet.

Hy Meyerowitz

A parakeet. Right. I didn't think--

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember the things that Melvin said?

Hy Meyerowitz

He called us, he spoke to us, and he also called his name out a lot.

Joel Meyerowitz

Yeah, but how did he say it? Do you remember?

Hy Meyerowitz

"I'm Mel-- I'm Melvin!" Isn't it, isn't it, "Hi, Belvin?"

Joel Meyerowitz

No, he said, "I'm Melvin--" what?

Hy Meyerowitz

Melvin Belvin?

Joel Meyerowitz

"I'm Melvin Meyerowitz."

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Joel Meyerowitz

Can you tell me the story of the time he got lost--

Hy Meyerowitz

I can't tell you about-- look at this. I can't tell you about any-- look at this. Another one comes. Hiya, boys! Hello! Hello! We know you! We know your grandfather!

Joel Meyerowitz

Pop, remember how he used to say "My name is Melvin Meyerowitz. I'm a Jewish bird."

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

That comes back to you?

Hy Meyerowitz

I know it. It didn't but that--

Joel Meyerowitz

"Good morning, Dr. Goldberg."

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Whenever Dr. Goldberg came to visit Mom when she was sick?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

And do you remember the time the bird flew away across the Bronx? He went out the door on Mom's shoulder and he flew away. And we were all so heartbroken that the bird was gone. And then some woman called up. Do you remember? She called mom, and she said, "Do you have a bird named Melvin?" My mother said, "Yeah, we have a bird. It was a green and yellow parakeet." And the woman said, "Well, the bird landed on my window and said, 'My name is Melvin Meyerowitz. I'm a Jewish bird.' And I looked you up in the phone book, and I called the Meyerowitz's, and they said, 'No, no. That's my brother Hy's bird.'" We went and we got the bird back. Do you remember that?

Hy Meyerowitz

No.

Joel Meyerowitz

I'm surprised.

Hy Meyerowitz

Come on! You don't want to go? Don't fall! Take it easy, take it easy. Do you want to go?

Joel Meyerowitz

With the onset of memory loss, it's not only his memories that are fading away, but it's the memories that I shared with him that are fading away. So I could no longer say to him, "Hey Pop, remember we did this?" And have him say, "Yes, that was fantastic. Remember it?" So I found myself progressively left alone with my memories. And then you look at your own memories and you realize, I got this handful of really insignificant things, and I've made them my world, my world of memory.

And it's astonishing how the few things that I recall to share with him are minor notes. The bird or the handful of things that I ask him. So that was really-- that was a lesson for me about what it is that rises up out of our experience that we hold onto.

Joel Meyerowitz

Pop.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes?

Joel Meyerowitz

I want to ask you a few questions about the family.

Hy Meyerowitz

About our family?

Joel Meyerowitz

About our family.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

You've got three sons.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

What are their names?

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel, Ricky--

Joel Meyerowitz

And who's your youngest son?

Hy Meyerowitz

The youngest one is-- I think it was David. I don't remember the name anymore.

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel, Rick, and--?

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel, Ricky, and-- yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Stevie.

Hy Meyerowitz

Stevie. Oh, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

OK. Do you know what Rick does to make a living? what his career is?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, he tries to do a lot of stuff for you. If he were following me, he would be doing it on the crook. But--

Joel Meyerowitz

What's he famous for?

Hy Meyerowitz

Ricky? Well, in the first place, he's my kid. You are also. And because that alone gives you enough fame.

Joel Meyerowitz

So you don't remember what Rick does?

Hy Meyerowitz

Ricky? Rick is a half-time, or part-time book-- I don't know the trade names.

Joel Meyerowitz

You're getting closer, Pop. Just try. Try to think about what Rick does.

Hy Meyerowitz

Rick? Rick is an artist.

Joel Meyerowitz

Right! You got it.

Hy Meyerowitz

Not what?

Joel Meyerowitz

You got it right. And I'm Joel. What do I do?

Hy Meyerowitz

You're a doll. You're my best number one!

Joel Meyerowitz

I know. Come on. Get serious, Pop. Do you remember what it is I do? What do I do?

Hy Meyerowitz

You make money. I'll tell you what, I'll give it to you straight off the street.

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

What's what?

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

What's your most attachment?

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

Your profession. Now I've got to figure out-- I don't know. Crook or thief or whatever. You're known as an artist. Serious artist in the art field.

Joel Meyerowitz

OK, what about Stevie? What's Stevie's business?

Hy Meyerowitz

Judy?

Joel Meyerowitz

Stevie.

Hy Meyerowitz

Stevie? I don't know.

Joel Meyerowitz

Does it bother you that you can't remember your kids' names sometimes and you can't remember what they do?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I'll tell you, yeah. I see them-- "Hello, goodbye." And that's it. I'm not complaining.

Sasha Meyerowitz

Is it hard to see him like this? Does it feel painful?

Joel Meyerowitz

Honestly, it's sad. I have a feeling of sadness, but I also have a feeling of acceptance. We've been apart for 20 years in the mutual prime of our lives when I was raising my children and he was a grandparent. We weren't together.

And so I guess I'm just accepting of where he is. If we had been together for 20 years and I had seen the decline and I had been relating to him emotionally and lovingly all that time, I might feel a deeper sadness. But even though he's my father, the distance that we've been apart all these years has put some kind of a buffer in there. So this is the guy that I know now.

We have a much closer relationship, the way we see each other and talk to each other and have continuity.

Sasha Meyerowitz

I just know at one point, you said to him he was your hero, which I thought was so sweet and I thought it must be hard to see--

Joel Meyerowitz

A hero fall.

Sasha Meyerowitz

Right.

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, he was my hero. My childhood hero. But that's so far away, I can't relate to the sadness of that. I love him in that unequivocal way that a child loves a parent. And I feel when I care for him a kind of renewal or a rebirth of feeling in this period.

I know when I take him after a shower and I rub him down, I actually feel his head in my hands and I feel his flesh in my hands. It's been many years since I had that kind of contact with my father. And it was a little strange at first. I thought, "What's it like to rub this other person's body? Touch this other person's body?" It's like deference. And then I realize it's my Pop. And he's in need. He can't take care of himself this way.

Mom? OK, here's Papa, Mom. Hold on. OK, here comes Dad.

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel? Is it my Joel? Don't you know who I am? Who? What do you mean, "How come I'm on the phone?" Don't get mad at me. Don't get mad at me. It's very important because I've been traveling. I didn't--

Joel Meyerowitz

I think my father had a classic marriage of his generation. He loved my mother. She was beautiful and hot tempered, an exciting person to be with. But he wanted something from her that either he didn't know how to get or she couldn't give. And that was a kind of mother-love that he himself hadn't experienced.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes, I'm OK. No, I'm not having a good time. Are you having a good time? You are, really? OK. I want you to be healthy and strong and smile, Sally.

Joel Meyerowitz

His mother had been bed-ridden after his birth. And then she died soon after. So he never really knew her. That's the deepest groove in his memory, which is, I think, unrequited love.

Hy Meyerowitz

Don't go down the judge's because right now I'm beginning the first one of Joel's tests. And I will be back at home maybe-- who knows? A couple of months from now. I don't know, Sally. Would you go with me the next trip? Would you go with me the next trip? OK. All right, May. Take care, sweetheart. Be careful, will you? Be careful. Bye bye.

Joel Meyerowitz

And I think from my point of view now that if he had really just loved my mother without demanding something from her, or needing something from her, which was that childhood need, that she probably would have just loved him back for the kind, warm, funny man that he was. But because there was something that he was demanding, she couldn't give it to him. A kind of perverse logic of relationship occurred.

Hy Meyerowitz

She's mad. She's mad about something. Mad about me. I didn't do nothing.

Joel Meyerowitz

Why is she mad?

Hy Meyerowitz

She's mad, that's all. She sounded very, very mad. She sounded like she didn't care.

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, she probably was caring a lot--

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, sure.

Joel Meyerowitz

--which is why she was mad. That we didn't call.

Hy Meyerowitz

I waver also when I think of her being by herself. And I would rather be there than be here.

Joel Meyerowitz

But you're having such a good time here.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, to my limit, I'm having what I like and I would love to do, love to be involved with. But the idea is that I always have to include Mama.

Joel Meyerowitz

Throughout the trip, he asked for Sally every single day-- "Where's Sally? Where's Mom?"-- thinking that she should have been in the car next to him.

Hy Meyerowitz

Sally? Did you leave Sally upstairs there?

Joel Meyerowitz

Yeah, Pop. We said goodbye to Mom.

Hy Meyerowitz

No kidding. Right. Because I noticed right here that this is no Sally. I thought this was Sally all bundled up and I see it's that bundled up.

Joel Meyerowitz

It's your pillow. That pillow's going to have to be your Sally--

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, yeah. The pillow.

Joel Meyerowitz

--for at least two weeks now.

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, you guys are starting to pull tricks on me now. I know, I know, I know. Well, is she here?

Joel Meyerowitz

Nope. That's your pillow, Pop.

Hy Meyerowitz

Jesus Christ almighty. I know she's not in the trunk. You wouldn't do that to her. I'm not able to come to this, Joel. I'm not the smartest and the cutest and the swiftest. I--

[LAUGHTER]

Hy Meyerowitz

If my Mommy--

Joel Meyerowitz

The swiftest!

Hy Meyerowitz

If my Mommy don't come up and then don't come down in five minutes, I want to know where she is. This is my wife.

Sasha Meyerowitz

So we better check the trunk.

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, the bed is in the trunk?

Sasha Meyerowitz

No.

Hy Meyerowitz

I wouldn't be surprised.

Joel Meyerowitz

There was a time when we were driving with her in Florida, before we made the film. And she was sitting right next to him. And he leaned over to me and he said, "Where's Mom?" And I said, "Well, who's sitting next to you?" And he looked over at this person sitting next to him. He said, "Where's Sally? That's not Sally."

Hy Meyerowitz

You can see better with this.

Joel Meyerowitz

Good morning.

Hy Meyerowitz

Good morning to you!

Joel Meyerowitz

Good morning, Pop.

Hy Meyerowitz

Hiya, Sonny.

Joel Meyerowitz

How are you doing?

Hy Meyerowitz

I don't really know.

[LAUGHTER]

Joel Meyerowitz

His real intelligence is to live in the moment. He knew where he was and he was just enjoying the experience. But he couldn't really look back at what he had done even an hour before and remember it. And I tested him all the time, because I wanted to see if stimulation could actually enliven his mentality and bring him back at all. But that was sort of a hopeless hope. But it didn't stop me from having it anyway.

Joel Meyerowitz

I just want to review a few things with you. I have a few questions for you.

Hy Meyerowitz

Uh, I'm not-- I don't have to call my attorney?

Joel Meyerowitz

No.

Hy Meyerowitz

No. OK.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember any of the things on the trip so far?

Hy Meyerowitz

But will you-- I'm just going to say. Don't ask me about anything I did.

Joel Meyerowitz

Why?

Hy Meyerowitz

Why? Because that's gone, man.

Joel Meyerowitz

It's gone.

Hy Meyerowitz

Not that-- it wasn't so many things going on. But I just don't remember. It's jumbled. I've been to a car. I went to the automobile. I've been to the train. I was going in every direction. And I was losing sight. I was losing sight for no reason whatsoever. Everybody was going around us. Turmoil. Turmoiled.

Joel Meyerowitz

To moil?

Hy Meyerowitz

To moil?

Joel Meyerowitz

To moil?

Hy Meyerowitz

To moil is not to moil, but to moil is to have and to kiss and to love, to moil!

"Respect the old man who--" wait, wait. I can wear glasses.

Joel Meyerowitz

No, you can do this without glasses.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes? OK. "Respect the old man who has forgotten what he learned from a broken table-- from a broken table tablet. Have a place in the urk--"

Joel Meyerowitz

"Ark."

Hy Meyerowitz

"Ark. Ark. Besides the tablets of the law."

Joel Meyerowitz

OK, now read it again. And for the first sentence, "respect the old man who has forgotten." Just read it that way.

Hy Meyerowitz

"Repsect the old man who has forgotten what he has learned. For broken tablets have a place in the mind-- in the ark, excuse me-- the ark besides the tablets of the law." Didn't I have my glasses here?

Joel Meyerowitz

OK, now read it-- do you want my glasses?

Hy Meyerowitz

I wanted to try it.

Joel Meyerowitz

Read it one more time. At the end say, "the Talmud." Because it says--

Hy Meyerowitz

The Talmud?

Joel Meyerowitz

It says it comes from the Talmud. "Respect the old man who has forgotten what he has learned." Come to a rest. OK? Ready? Read.

Hy Meyerowitz

With my glasses.

Joel Meyerowitz

We don't have your glasses here, Dad.

Hy Meyerowitz

Take--huh?

Joel Meyerowitz

You don't need your glasses. You read it perfectly without your glasses.

Hy Meyerowitz

All right. Because I thought maybe--

Joel Meyerowitz

Just do it one more time.

Hy Meyerowitz

All right. "Respect the old man who has forgotten what he learned." [CLEARS THROAT] "For broken tablets have a place in the ark besides the tablets of the law." The Talmud. It was a little skimpy.

Sasha Meyerowitz

It was?

Hy Meyerowitz

It was a little skimpy, a little jumpy.

Joel Meyerowitz

Yeah. Put these glasses on and just see if they help you to read it.

Hy Meyerowitz

Maybe so.

Joel Meyerowitz

Maybe so. One last time. This is it. This is your chance.

Hy Meyerowitz

All right.

Joel Meyerowitz

Otherwise you don't get the job.

Hy Meyerowitz

I don't have a-- I don't have--

Joel Meyerowitz

This is a casting session.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, but maybe he's cock-eyed--

Joel Meyerowitz

You've got enough light there, Pop. All you've got to do is try to read it.

(SUBJECT) HY MEYEROWITZ: Yeah. I know I-- where is my-- didn't I bring my glasses up?

Joel Meyerowitz

I don't know. They're away somewhere in a bag.

Hy Meyerowitz

OK.

Joel Meyerowitz

Ready? Here goes. This is your screen test.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes. "Respect the old man who has forgotten-- been-- who has forgotten what he learned. For broken ta--" only one thing. It was still shaking, my eye. That's why I was loose.

Joel Meyerowitz

Take 11 for Hy Meyerowitz reading from "The Forgotten."

Hy Meyerowitz

No. Take 11.

Joel Meyerowitz

Dad, this is-- no, no. Read that. No, no. This is a joke, Pop. Read those few words there. And then with the words "the Talmud." Nice and slow, take this one.

Hy Meyerowitz

"Repsect the old man who has been forgotten, what he learned. For the broken tablets have a way place in the ark besides the tablets of the law." The Tablund-- Talmud. Ah, twice I made a mistake.

Joel Meyerowitz

OK.

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I-- now that I know what I was doing--

Joel Meyerowitz

I guess as a legitimate actor, you would have a hard time reading your lines. But as a comic actor, you can deliver your lines flawlessly--

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, yeah. An economist, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

--without even having to read anything.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. Well, this one, I imagine, would have to be. Because this is the Talmud.

Joel Meyerowitz

Your career as a Talmudian actor--

Hy Meyerowitz

It just ended.

Joel Meyerowitz

--is kaput! You're finished. Out! Next! Bring in the next old man.

When my father was young, he was a wonderful dancer and athlete and a natural comic. And I guess Charlie Chaplin was the rage, and just as there were Elvis imitators, there were Chaplin imitators. And my father, he became a Chaplin imitator. And he had that act that I guess he took on the road, or around the vaudeville circuit in New York.

Hy Meyerowitz

I was trying to fit in myself, through all the years with the joking. I was trying to be a Chaplin. I didn't know if I was doing that right or wrong, but I saw that poor little guy, that he bent down, picked something up, everybody'd give him a kick in the ass. That was what I used to see. That is what I didn't want to happen to me.

Joel Meyerowitz

What was it that you liked about Charlie Chaplin that made you want to do the Charlie Chaplin act?

Hy Meyerowitz

He was a giant in the height of a little midget. He was a little guy, went righting all the wrongs, helping others as he passed by. We'd pat him on the top of the head. He was remembered out there, just for a minute. He'd have a little [UNINTELLIGIBLE] with a little person hat and no money or no nothing. And he would go inside and he'd come out here like this. Like, shake his shoulders, and then travel around.

And that was what I loved, the goodness, the goodness. And not everybody understood him. But those that understood him, they would put their arm around him and he would do the same with them. It was a beautiful deed for the day.

Joel Meyerowitz

Did you feel connected to him in that way?

Hy Meyerowitz

Always. [CHOKING UP] Always. Always.

Joel Meyerowitz

Aw--

With Alzheimer's disease, most memory finally dissolves. And even though he was a man who was easily lovable, I think he forgot that these were his qualities. And that he was, in fact, loved by people faded from his memory. And at the end of his life, he remembers a few of the more painful things-- that he's a motherless child, that he was not loved the way he wanted to be loved. And it's amazing that with the murkiness of Alzheimer's clouding everything, that something as primal as being an unloved child stayed with him.

Hy Meyerowitz

When anybody would show a little bit of something to me that I was accepted, and they would talk to me, and they'd pat me on the top of the head of put their hands around me, I'm home. I loved everybody. I loved everybody. But nobody saw me. Nobody remembered me. Nobody knew me. Nobody saw me. But I was there. To this very day, I have the same fear. I have poor Mommy, I have. And she doesn't see me. She doesn't see me.

Joel Meyerowitz

Oh, Papa. Well, your boys saw you. We all saw you. I loved when you were the strong man in the neighborhood. I loved when you were the Chaplin figure and the comic. I loved the way you drove the car. You were such a great driver.

I love the way you talk to people. You could talk to the big guys or the little guys, and you made them all the same, Pop. I used to think of you as the great equalizer. You could take a guy who was a doctor or a principal of the school or a business man, and you can take another guy who was just an ordinary worker, and you would treat them the same. And you would bring them all to the same level, and that would be the level of laughter.

Hy Meyerowitz

You saw me. You saw Papa.

Joel Meyerowitz

That's right.

Ira Glass

Joel Meyerowitz. His father Hy, his son Sasha. Their film has the working title The Mayor of the Block and is looking for a distributor. Coming up, people do what they shouldn't. In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. My World Record.

Ira Glass

We have arrived at Act Two of our show, My World Record. This is from a book by Tom Andrews called The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle.

Frank Melcori

On November 15, 1972, one week after Nixon was reelected, I clapped my hands for 14 hours and 31 minutes.

[CLAPPING]

I was listed in The Guinness Book of World Records. I was 11 years old.

[CLAPPING]

My record was published on page 449 of the 1974 edition of The Guinness Book, landlocked between the listings for largest circus and club swinging in the chapter entitled "Human Achievements." The listing read, "Clapping. The duration record for continuous clapping is 14 hours, 31 minutes by Thomas C. Andrews at Charleston, West Virginia on November 15, 1972. He sustained an average of 120 claps per minute at an audibility range of at least 100 yards."

I'm writing this from my bed at the University of Michigan hospital. It is 3:00 AM. It is the half-dark of hospitals at night. I've had an accident. I have been in an accident.

[CLAPPING]

"That your scrapbook?" Ellen, the night nurse, asked. When I mutter that technically it's my mother's who brought it to the hospital to cheer me up, Ellen glances at the Inquirer headline and says, "You did that, clap your hands?" I nod. "Lord! Did you have a major bleed, or what?"

[CLAPPING]

"Dear Tom, it was certainly nice to read that you had broken the world record in clapping. We used to enjoy seeing how your dad recorded you and John in your annual picture for Christmas. The last few years, we had lost contact. Congratulations again. Everyone is very proud of you. Sincerely, the Ripley-Fishers."

[CLAPPING]

"Dear Tom, try to come out if you can. But if you can't, that's OK. I can play until about 4:00 or 5:00. I hope you come out. Will you walk with me today? Circle yes or no. I think you are the nicest boy over in Rolling Hills. I'm going to try to get you something. Love, Diane. PS-- write back if you want to. Don't let anybody else see this except Nan. If you want to. Or Laura. I just showed Nan and Laura. Do you mind? Circle yes or no. Answer questions and give back please."

[CLAPPING]

I have had an accident on the sidewalk. I watched my feet come out from under me on the iced concrete with a kind of anecdotal perspective. The bleeding inside the joints, the infusions of factor VIII, the weeks of immobility, the waiting for codeine, the inventions with which my mind would veer in the direction of solid ground. As my weight drilled into the twisting leg, I saw the whole pantomime emerge with the clarity of blown glass.

[CLAPPING STOPS]

When I told my hematologist that as a teenager I had raced motocross, that in fact in one race in Gallipolis, Ohio, I had gotten the holeshot and was bumped in the first turn and run over by 20-some motorcycles, she said, "No. Not with your factor level. I'm sorry but you wouldn't withstand the head injuries. You just like the sound of yourself being dramatic."

[CLAPPING]

"Does he have to do that?" the waitress at the Pizza Hut asked. She passed out glasses of ice water from a tray, then set the tray down on the table.

"He's breaking a world record," John said flatly.

"Does it bother you?" my mother said. "I can't make him stop, but we can leave."

The waitress looked up. "You're joking, right? Let me see." She gestured for me to pull up my hands out from under the table. I showed my hands.

"He has to sustain an audibility range of at least 100 yards," John said.

"I'm getting the cook," she said. "He's got to see this."

A minute later, a man with botched teeth wearing a blue, dough-smeared apron was glaring at me. "Well?" he said, impatiently. Again I showed my hands. I speeded up just a little the rate of clapping. "Right. Unbelievable," the cook said, shaking his head and disappearing.

I said, "Can we order?"

"What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?" the waitress asked.

"I'd like a root beer," I said. "Do you have root beer?"

"He's trying to go the whole day without going," my mother said.

"Good luck," the waitress said.

I said, "Do you have root beer?"

"Yeah, they have root beer," John said.

I said, "I was asking her, thank you very much."

"I don't think I could go the whole day," the waitress said. "I think I have a weak bladder." I leaned over to John and whispered, "Help."

"Hey," said the waitress, "how are you going to eat pizza?"

"I'm not," I said. "I'm just sipping some root beer. If you have it."

"They have it. They have it," John said. John buried his head in his hands.

"I'm going to feed him," my mother said.

"No way," I said. For a second I forgot to clap, then caught myself and reestablished my rhythm.

"We'll have a large mushroom and pepperoni," my mother said, "and I'd like a glass of iced tea. What do you want to drink?"

"I want a Coke," John said.

"Root beer," I said.

[CLAPPING]

There are times in the last minutes before I am allowed-- or allow myself-- more codeine when the pain inside the joint simplifies me utterly. I feel myself descending some kind of evolutionary ladder until I become as crude and guileless as an amoeba. The pain is not personal. I am incidental to it. It is like faith, the believer eclipsed by something immense.

[CLAPPING]

After the waitress left, my mother lectured me about not participating in events we scheduled on John's off days, days when he wasn't on the dialysis machine. "You've known for a week that we were coming here. You could have picked another day for this clapping business." She said this in front of John, who grimaced and began looking around the room.

My argument was that just being there at Pizza Hut while I was in the crucial early hours of breaking a world record was sufficient participation, and that sipping a little root beer under the circumstances put me solidly in the off-day spirit of things. She didn't see it that way.

[CLAPPING]

What surprised me was how easy it was to keep a precise and consistent rhythm. Two hours into the record, I felt as if my hands, like the legs of runners who have broken through the wall, could hammer away at themselves effortlessly and indefinitely. At that point, I knew I would not start a bleed. I had no doubt. And yet my hands kept hammering at themselves, hammering.

[CLAPPING]

"Nixon's problem is he's not eating right," my mother said. "It's as plain as day. Anyone can see it. Just look at the man." It was 5:30 PM and I was still at it, 120 claps per minute.

"Care for a drink?" my father said to himself. "Don't mind if I do. Thank you for asking."

[CLAPPING]

For a long time, I asked John to come and watch me race. Again and again, he refused. Finally, he agreed to come to a race at Hidden Hills Raceway in Gallipolis, Ohio-- to shut me up, I think, as much as to satisfy his curiosity about his hemophiliac brother racing a motorcycle across the gouged wilderness. I knew John would have to wear a plastic bag over his shunt arm to keep the dust out. We were lucky it rained. Dust usually billowed wildly after the start of a race, a huge rolling wave breaking over the hills and shrouding the spectators. Rain would keep the dirt moist and on the track.

Midway through the practice sessions, however, the rain stopped. By the time of the first 125 moto, dust forced John into the cab of the pickup. That is the image that attacks me now-- John in the truck, windows rolled up, reading a book to pass the time while I kicked up the dust all around him.

Random symmetries. Days when John's shunt clotted and he required I forget how many cc's of heparin to get his blood to stop coagulating. Meanwhile, I'd start a bleed and would need cryoprecipitate or factor VIII to get my blood to clot.

More x-rays. I've stopped bleeding into the spinal muscles. Soon enough, my hematologist says my body will loosen and break down and absorb the hardened blood surrounding the spine, as it had been doing in my leg. There has been no intraspinal bleeding, no bleeding into the kidney or liver. I look at Carrie. I look at my mother and father. We are inside a sudden, astonishing calm. I seem to levitate and hover over the white sheets.

[CLAPPING]

Once when John was dialyzing, I tripped into the machine and jerked a tube clean out of its socket. John's blood pumped and sprayed into the air, splattering across the carpet and splotching our skin and clothes. My mother worked frantically to reconnect the tube and to stabilize John's blood pressure. Later, I noticed that some of the blood had seeped inside a picture frame in the wall besides the dialysis chair. The frame held a photograph of John and me. We were wading in the Kanawha River, staring hard at the gray water.

[CLAPPING]

Ira Glass

Excerpts from Tom Andrews' prose poem "Codeine Diary." It's in his book The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle and was read by Frank Melcori.

Act Three. Iron Man.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Iron Man. All of our stories today have been at one level about yearning briefly fulfilled. And we thought this last story would be a perfect way to end this show. Mark O'Brien is a writer living in California, but because of a childhood case of polio, he lives most of each day in an iron lung, on his back. He's the subject of the documentary film Breathing Lessons by Jessica Yu. The film is remarkable because it's about a guy in an iron long, but it is completely unsentimental. There are even parts where it's funny.

This is a brief scene from the film. Because he's in the iron lung, Mark O'Brien has attendants. They cook and they help him out during the day. And during the film, he explains that nowadays he always has men do this job. Because back when he had women do the job, he kept falling in love with these women, and the love was never reciprocated. He wrote about one of these women, "Her pale, perfect skin, her strong, fleshy legs drove me to ecstasies of despair. See, she talked to me as a human instead of her savagely crippled employer."

A quick warning before I play this very brief scene. It contains mild sexual content that may not be suitable for every listener.

[IRON LUNG RESPIRATION]

Mark O'brien

I hired a sex-surrogate in-- '87 or '86. I forget when. I just-- felt very crazy. I was-- angry at all women for not falling in love-- with me, because I had fallen in love with several-- attendants. And they-- all said it was a business rela-- tionship.

A sex surrogate's a person who has some of psychological training that-- works with their body, having sex with a client who's recruited by a therapist. The surrogate had this big mirror and she-- saw me naked and aroused. And-- at the time, I thought I was the ugliest man in the world. I looked just like something someone-- wouldn't want to have sex with.

And Cheryl was very kind to me. She kissed me on the chest after-- we had intercourse. I felt my-- chest was very unattractive, but-- she kissed me right there. And-- the intercourse was so quick, it just-- I hate to say it, but it was wham, bam, thank you ma'am. And it-- wasn't as great as I thought it would be, but-- being naked in a bed with a woman who's being extremely friendly was the-- most fun I've ever had. I think I'd like to do it again.

Ira Glass

Usually Mark O'Brien can't be outside of his iron lung for more than 45 minutes. But when the sex surrogate was with him, he was outside his tube for longer than that, longer than he almost every goes out. And he didn't even use his portable respirator.

Mark O'brien

I didn't need it for an hour. I went for-- an hour without it. It makes you think of sex as respiratory-- therapy. Maybe Medi-Cal would pay for it. About a year after I last saw her, I just felt terribly depressed. I expected somehow that seeing the surrogate would change my life. I had started wearing cologne. And I thought everyone would be able to tell if I was sexy and handsome.

Nothing happened. They tell us to think of ourselves as-- sexual and beautiful, but it doesn't do any good-- unless someone else sees us as sexual and beautiful. You just can't demand love. You-- have to be lovable, and-- I'm still trying to figure out how to do that.

Ira Glass

Mark O'Brien in Jessica Yu's film, Breathing Lessons. O'Brien has a new book of poems called The Man in the Iron Lung published by the Lemonade Factory in Berkeley.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Music help, as always, from Sarah Vowell. To buy a tape of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who can be heard in his office every day, saying--

Hy Meyerowitz

Don't you know who I am? Who? What do you mean how come I'm on the phone?

Ira Glass

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

Joel Meyerowitz

Next! Bring in the next old man.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.