Transcript

75:

Kindness of Strangers
Transcript

Originally aired 09.12.1997

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/75

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Brett was standing at a subway platform, afternoon rush hour. It was crowded. And he noticed this guy-- didn't seem homeless, decent clothes-- stopping in front of each person, looking into his or her eyes, saying something, and moving on to the next person. Turns out the guy was telling people--

Brett

They could stay or they had to go. They were in or they were out.

Ira Glass

Literally, what would he say?

Brett

Well, literally, it would be, you, you're out. You're gone. You're gone. You're OK, you can stay.

Ira Glass

And then do people leave?

Brett

No, not at all. And no one argued with him.

Ira Glass

Brett wrote about the incident on his personal website, BRETTnews.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to read a little bit of your account of this from your website. You write about who he decided to keep and who he decided to go.

Brett

Right. These are the last few people before he reaches me. The 50-ish woman in the business suit and thick glasses is summarily dismissed. The homey in the baggy shorts and Chicago Bulls jersey makes the cut. The young immigrant mother who seems not to grasp the import of this moment is given the OK.

Ira Glass

Oh, versus you who's grasping just how important this is.

Brett

Right. The bookish man in the maroon cardigan sweater with balding head and red face is cut loose with particular relish.

Ira Glass

There is something about the judgment of strangers. When the clerk in the record store seems unimpressed by your choice of CDs. When the one cute person on the bus gives you a look like, out of my way. It's as if, by their status as strangers, they have some special instantaneous insight into who we are. Their vision isn't clouded by our feeble attempts to charm our friends and the people we work with. The guy got closer to Brett.

Brett

And I'm starting to feel a little nervous and aware of the fact--

Ira Glass

Will I make the cut?

Brett

It sounds so silly. We all like to think that we're evolved enough or mature enough. But when push comes to shove and a guy's going down the line rating, I found that you can't help but kind of hope that he gives you the thumbs up when your turn comes.

Ira Glass

But Brett, he's not choosing you for anything.

Brett

No, he's not. And he didn't even look like anyone I particularly wanted to hang with, as much as one can tell from someone's appearance.

Ira Glass

You didn't really feel any need to impress this guy.

Brett

No, no.

Ira Glass

To me, I think you're right, because this is the purest case I've ever heard of. Literally, he's picking you for nothing.

Brett

Right, right.

Ira Glass

And yet you want to be chosen.

Brett

Exactly.

Ira Glass

So the guy walks up to Brett, stands actually a little too close to him, looks in his eyes and says, you can stay. And Brett felt euphoria, a small euphoria sure. In his mind, he knew there's no reason to feel so good about this, but in his heart, it made him feel really, really happy.

Brett

It was like, all right.

Ira Glass

You wrote in your account of this, I find myself against my own better judgment, now looking with some disdain and perhaps a tinge of pity upon those who didn't make the cut.

Brett

Sure, If you can't make this guy's cut, come on.

Ira Glass

How terrible, you write, to be excluded, to be found unworthy. But no one has ever claimed life to be fair.

Brett

No, they haven't.

Ira Glass

In a sense, this guy on the subway was committing a perfect act of kindness. The people who he gave the thumbs up to felt good. People who he told to get lost simply ignored him. No one was hurt. It was a simple act of kindness from a stranger. Which brings us to today's radio program. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our show, stories of the kindness of strangers and what it leads to. And for the best perspective on the subject, all of our stories today take place in the city that has the reputation for being the unkindest city in America, New York City. Act One of our show, Tarzan Finds a Mate, in which a good deed is done with the hope of a small reward. Act Two, Runaway, in which a small good deed leads to much bigger things. Act Three, the Unkindness of Strangers, a story about a neighbor who tries to make life hell for the person next door. Act Four, Chairman of the Block, a story of 150 people who don't know each other, a tap dancer, New York cops, and Frank Sinatra. Stay with us.

Act One. Tarzan Finds A Mate.

Ira Glass

Act One, Tarzan Finds a Mate. This true story of a good deed someone tries to do for a stranger comes from Joel Kostman who is a locksmith in New York.

Joel Kostman

It's a little past midnight and I'd just returned home from dropping my girlfriend Deborah off at the airport. Late at night is the only time of day I like the way my block looks. There are no panhandlers. The parking lots are all empty. And the constant noise you hear in the daytime from the exiting Lincoln Tunnel traffic is minimized. It almost looks like a real street, a place where people live.

Remarkably, I find a parking space right in front of my building. I sit in the car with the motor running listening to the radio and thinking about Deborah. We live together. This morning, I thought we were in love. Tonight, I'm not sure if I'm ever going to see her again. The DJ plays a Freddie and the Dreamers tune, "I'm Telling You Now."

Suddenly I hear someone across the street yell something. I look up and a young woman is standing next to a red sports car, her head resting on the roof. "Damn, damn, damn," she moans, pounding an alternate fist down with each word. She steps back, her hands on her hips, and looks around as if for a lost child. She has straight blond hair which hangs down to her shoulders. She's wearing tight blue jeans, a yellow shirt unbuttoned down to her cleavage, and black spike heels. She's got on bright red lipstick and gold interlocking circles for earrings. They jangle when she turns her head.

"Oh damn," she says again, and throws her bag at the car. It's a Porsche. I shut off my engine and get out. I don't want to scare her so I call from across the street.

"Excuse me, you need some help?" She's bending down on the sidewalk, picking up some things that fell out of her bag. She looks up and for a second I think she's going to scream. Then she smiles.

"I locked my [BLEEP] keys in the car," she says as she stands up. "I can't believe I did this." Her hands do a kind of Betty Boop thing. I decide that she's Jersey, here for a concert at the Garden. She just has that Jersey feel.

"You're in luck," I say, still from across the street.

She purses her lips and nods. "Why, you going to take me out for a drink until the tow truck gets here?" She laughs but starts coughing in the middle. I go to my trunk and remove my car lockout stuff. A pretty, stranded Jersey girl with a sense of humor no less, I say to myself. There's something in her face that reminds me of a young Jessica Lange.

I cross the street with my slim jim in one hand. It's a thin, silvery piece of metal about two feet long with some notches cut out at the bottom used to open car doors. I carry it at my side like a sword, like a knight would. In my other hand I grasp my tool kit. In my shirt pocket is the little leather case that contains my picks, which I bring just in case I run into any trouble. I step up on the sidewalk next to her. "I'm a locksmith," I announce. I love these moments when I get to play the hero.

She has a loopy smile on her face which stays there even as her expression slowly changes. I can smell the alcohol on her breath. She looks at the slim jim and then back at my face. "No [BLEEP]," she says. "Well, I guess it's my lucky day." She lays a hand on my shoulder like we're old pals. She squeezes and then leans on me a little. Her head floats around in front of my face. "You open it up and the drinks are on me," she says in a kind of half growl.

I peer into the car window and see the keys dangling from the ignition. There are a couple of empty beer bottles on the floor on the passenger side. I look back at the woman. She's got a cigarette going now. At that moment, from behind us, we hear a long, clear Tarzan call. It's a perfect imitation, lasting about 10 seconds, complete with the jungle yodels in the middle. "What the hell was that," the woman asks.

She steps out toward the street and leans her head way back. She looks up at the parking structure that's a block north on 31st Street. I get a real good look at her then. "That's Tarzan," I say.

She tilts her head to the side, half closes her right eye, and raises her left eyebrow. "Friend of yours?" she asks.

"I think he works in the parking structure," I say.

"Oh," she says, with a look on her face that says that explains everything. She puts her hands behind her and leans back. I momentarily think about Deborah. The woman in front of me couldn't be more different in appearance. She's as tall as I am with an accent out of a Stallone movie. She looks like a wild, fun-loving gal, good working-class stock. I wonder what she's like when she's sober.

"So you going to do your thing, or what?" the woman asks. I hold up my slim jim. "Action," she says. I dip my slim jim into the car door, feeling around. I try different angles, different depths. Nothing happens. she hops off the hood of the car and stands next to me. "No luck?" she asks.

"Not yet."

It's a hot night. She takes a tissue from her bag and says, "here, you're sweating buckets." I wipe my forehead. The tissue smells like perfume. She removes another one and dabs at her neck and chest. She flaps her hand in front of her face like a fan. "I've got air conditioning in there once you get it open," she says.

"I'll have it open in a minute," I say. I start thinking about her behind the wheel of the car and where we'll go. She rummages around in the bag again and produces a pack of cigarettes. She lights one up, takes a drag, and blows the smoke up toward the sky. I haven't smoked in 10 years, but it still resonates for me, how it feels, how sexy it looks, which is why I think people do it. She offers me one. "No thanks," I say.

"Sorry I don't have anything stronger." She smiles. I smile back.

She strikes a pose that smokers do, right arm bent at the elbow, forearm across the body. The left elbow rests on the right wrist and the forearm goes straight up, the fingers at the lips. I pull the slim jim out. "Harder than you thought, huh?" She says.

"Some foreign cars are tough," I say.

"Can I try?"

"You want to try?"

"Yeah. Who knows? Maybe it'll be like beginners luck. It looks like fun."

I don't know why, but I say, "sure." I slide the slim jim through the space between the window and the rubber stripping. She takes the end of it.

"Like this?" she asks, moving it back and forth like a slot machine handle.

"No," I say. "Actually, you kind of go like this." I take her hand, move it up and down slowly, bobbing the end of the tool slightly from side to side. We're doing a kind of slim jim tango, dipping in and out and up and down. The car door won't open, but she doesn't even seem perturbed. It's like we're playing a game. "I'm going to try to pick it," I say.

"Can I still do this?" she asks.

"Sure. I'll work on the other door." As I step away, we suddenly hear Tarzan again. It's louder this time. He must be on a lower floor. It's a particularly beautiful call, and he really trails out the last note.

The woman bends over double and slaps her thighs in rapid fashion. "I love that," she cries. "That is just fabulous."

"Local color," I say. I take my can of WD-40 and lubricate the cylinder.

"That guy should be on TV, or something." I squat by the other side of the car. I insert the tension bar in the cylinder and hold it down with my thumb. And then I work the rake through several times.

After a couple of minutes, I'm starting to get frustrated. I say, "I'll be right back. I'm going to get something else." I run to my car and remove the metal doweling I bought on Canal Street for this very situation. It's long and sturdy but pliable. I bring it back across the street. "Here," I say, "you hold this." She lays the slim jim down on the sidewalk. I insert a large screwdriver between the door and the body of the car. "Just put a little pressure on it. Like this," I say as I push back. "That'll give me room to maneuver."

She stands behind me and pushes back on the screwdriver. I bend the end of the dowel into an L and slide it in. I push it toward the button which is in an impossible spot on the door panel, just behind the handle. I'm thinking, this car really is a pain in the ass. I wiggle my end of the dowel and poke at the area of the button, but I keep missing. "How does that button work?" I ask. "Do you push it forward, or in, or what?"

"Gee," she says. "I don't know. Let me think." She bobs her head slowly side to side and finally says, "in, I think. I think." I keep poking at the button. Once I hit it square on and let out a whoop. But when I try the door it doesn't open.

"Damn," I yell and slam my fist down on top of the Porsche.

"Hey," she says, "come on. We'll get it." She puts her hand on my arm. "You know, you're really a sweet guy for helping me out." She leans forward and kisses me on the cheek.

When Deborah said goodbye to me at the airport, she said, "maybe you and I should take the next few days to reevaluate." Then she put her hand on my upper arm and kissed me on the cheek.

"Let's try it again," the woman says. "Listen," I say, "I'm sorry. I'm just frustrated. I usually don't have this much trouble."

"It's OK," she says. "I know we're going to get it this time." She punches the air like a cheerleader.

We try again. I twist the dowel around to get it in just the right position and then push it forward with my hand so it will come smashing into the button. The door doesn't open. I do it again and again. As my body bumps into the woman's and rubs up against her, I get more and more crazy. I can feel my hero status evaporating. Finally, after about 15 minutes, she says, "you know, I think if I push this way with the screwdriver, it'll make more room. I think it'll be a lot easier for you."

Before I can stop her, she leans against the car and pushes. There's a loud crack. The window shatters into pieces which fall on the sidewalk at our feet. I look at her face. Her mouth is wide open, her shoulders raised in embarrassment. Then, suddenly, she opens the door, brushes the glass off the seat with her bag and gets in. "Well, I got to go," she says. She starts the car. "I don't know how to thank you." She speeds off toward Eighth Avenue. "Goodbye," she calls out.

I am stunned by the swiftness of her departure. As I watch her drive off, her hand waving out the window, Tarzan gives his grand finale. His voice is so strong that it sounds like he's right behind me. His call begins with one beautiful, long, sustained note. He holds it longer than I have ever heard before. Then he leaps into a spectacular trill which ends with another gorgeous full note and follows this with a second trill, which trails off into a final, eerie, haunting tone.

I turn to face the parking structure. I'm standing in the middle of a pile of my discarded tools and broken glass. I lean my head way back, looking up at the sky. I cup my hands around my mouth, take the deepest possible breath, and yell at the top of my lungs, "shut the hell up!"

Ira Glass

Joel Kostman's stories of his life as a locksmith are in his book Keys to the City.

[MUSIC - "BOLT" BY BEN LEE]

Act Two. Runaway.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Runaway. When you commit an act of kindness for a stranger, where can it lead? In 1940, Jack Geiger was 14 years old, not getting along with his parents. Because of the odd rules of the New York City schools at that time, he had actually finished high school, but no college would let him in so young. He wasn't getting along with his parents, fought with them all the time, and then he went to see a play.

Jack Geiger

Native Son, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Production of the Richard Wright novel which starred a black actor named Canada Lee. And I was very moved by that. And with the brashness of a 14-year-old, I went backstage afterwards and found Canada Lee and hung around and talked with him a while. And I liked that so much that I did that three or four more times.

Ira Glass

Do you recall what it is that you were talking to him about, what you wanted to him about?

Jack Geiger

Well, we started out talking about the play and Richard Wright and the main character, Bigger Thomas, and race relations in the United States. And pretty soon we got around to-- by the second or third conversation at least-- what was going on in my life and what I wanted to do and my conflicts and so on. He learned a lot more about me than I did about him, I think, at that point in those conversations.

And then one day when the conflict at home just a lot tougher, I waited until a Sunday when I knew there was no performance of Native Son. And my folks were out, and I packed a bag, and I took a subway up to the top of Sugar Hill in Harlem, 555 Edgecombe Avenue, where I knew that Canada had a penthouse. And I went up and rang the doorbell. And he was home and opened the door. And I said, Lee, the stuff at home is just getting too much and I thought maybe I could stay here for a while. Cold, just like that. And he kind of looked around and pointed to a couch in the living room and said, well, I guess you could sleep over there.

After I had gone to sleep that evening, I later learned, he called my folks and said, look, I'll send him back in the morning. But why don't you let him stay here, because I'm not sure where he's going to land the next time. And my parents must have been so exhausted by all of this that they agreed, at least tentatively. And that was the beginning of a whole year that I really lived there and had one of the great educational experiences of my life.

Through that apartment, over that year that I remember, came the kind of the cream of the Harlem theatrical, sporting, civil rights, political, and intellectual world. And I had the chance to sit around evening after evening, many weekends, listening to Langston Hughes, William Saroyan, Adam Clayton Powell, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's arranger, Richard Wright, who came back once from exile and stopped in. And what I remember most is listening to people, listening to the conversations about World War II and race and democracy, segregation in the armed forces, what was happening in the South, what was happening in New York City.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to assess what you think your parents' reaction was when they got this first call from Canada Lee, to have their white, Jewish, middle-class son suddenly up living with a black man in Harlem in the early '40s.

Jack Geiger

Well, I think they were exhausted. We had had so much struggle. A little later, I remember, further on, when we were talking to each other again, Lee was giving a party and invited my parents, who, with great trepidation, came up to Harlem at night-- I don't think they had ever done that before-- and came to this party. And Canada, I remember, turned to my mother and said, hey, I'm a bachelor. Do you think you could help us out in the kitchen? It was a big party. And my mother said, sure.

The next day, I talked to my mother on the phone and she said she had had the most wonderful time, had spent a couple of hours in the kitchen with this wonderful man, and they'd had all this conversation. And I said, who was it? She said, well, she didn't know. She'd never gotten the name. And I said, well, describe him. And she discovered that she had spent two hours chatting with Langston Hughes and was mortified that she had never realized it.

Ira Glass

What did they talk about?

Jack Geiger

You had to have met Langston Hughes to know. He was as comfortable as an old shoe. And I'm sure they talked about cooking. And I'm sure they talked about whatever else my mother wanted to talk about. And she never quite got over it and still recalled it.

During that year, he was kind of an informal, surrogate father. And I was in that stage where I wasn't going to take anything from the parents I was fighting with. So he staked me to a good bit of my first year at college when I found a place that would finally let me in. And--

Ira Glass

So he paid for your school?

Jack Geiger

Well, he loaned me the money.

Ira Glass

Instead of your parents?

Jack Geiger

Yeah. It wasn't until a little later that I figured out why, unconsciously maybe, I had made the choice that I did. It turned out, although I didn't know it at the time, that Canada Lee himself had grown up in a pretty strict, middle-class West Indian family. And he had, he told me, the same kind of dissatisfactions and mixed-up feelings that I'd had about his relationship with his family, what he wanted to do. And he ran away. And I think that experience may have had something to do with his kindness in taking this strange kid in and making a sort of second home for him.

The thing I've thought about-- a lot, without ever really finding an answer-- is what kind of clues did I have that said hey, this is a guy that I can approach in this way, a scrawny kid with a suitcase on a Sunday night, and have some kind of shot at getting taken in? I was either very insightful or very lucky. And I think it was mostly luck.

Ira Glass

Do you think there were clues that you were given though?

Jack Geiger

I think there must've clues, just in the fact that here was a Broadway star who was hanging around backstage talking with a kid about life and about his troubles. That's a signal that I don't think anybody could have missed.

Ira Glass

Jack lived with Canada Lee for a year. Sometimes Lee's teenage son would be there too. Jack went to college, enlisted in the Merchant Marines during World War II, serving on the only ship with a black captain and integrated crew of officers, the SS Booker T. Washington. When Jack would could come to New York, on school break or from the Merchant Marines, he would stay with Canada Lee. Then, on one of Jack's trips home, Canada Lee told Jack that he was pressed for cash, asked if he could borrow $1,000.

Jack Geiger

And I said, sure. And I loaned it to him, and I came back from the next trip, and he paid me back. And it took me a while, in retrospect, to figure out that he didn't need the $1,000. He was just changing the nature of the relationship between us and saying, hey, now you're grown up. Now you're an adult. And I'm not your dad anymore. We're partners. I can borrow money from you just the way you borrowed money from me.

Ira Glass

As a way of evening the scales.

Jack Geiger

Yeah.

Ira Glass

As he got older, Jack became a journalist, then a doctor, active in the Civil Rights Movement, went to Mississippi with the civil rights workers in the early '60s. Was a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and later Physicians for Human Rights, started community health centers in Mississippi and in South Africa. In this country, those health centers eventually led to 900 community health centers. They now provide primary care for more than 14 million low-income people across the country. Jack Geiger says he'd never had moved so deeply into these worlds so quickly if not for his experience with Canada Lee.

Jack Geiger

It's a relationship, very obviously, that has stayed with me ever since. Most of my life and work has, in one way or another, involved civil rights and human rights. It must be one of the reasons why I became a physician, of wanting to look out for people who were in trouble.

Ira Glass

Was it your impression that other people had extended this kind of act of kindness to him that he then extended to you? Or that he had yearned that someone would have taken him in the way that he took you in?

Jack Geiger

You know, what occurs to me now is something I learned in the Harlem community and in a lot of other work. There was a lot more experience in the black community of extended families. And I don't think, in that context, from that side of the divide, it felt like such a big deal.

Ira Glass

Well, you're saying, in a way, that black culture at that time was more conducive to extending a kindness to strangers than white culture.

Jack Geiger

I think so. And maybe still.

Ira Glass

Dr. Jack Geiger in New York. An interesting footnote to this story-- in 1949, just a few years after he befriended Jack Geiger, Canada Lee was in a movie where he did more or less the same thing. The film was Lost Boundaries. He played an African American police officer who befriends a confused, white teenager, takes him under his wing, shows him the kindness of strangers.

Coming up, good neighbors and bad neighbors in the same neighborhood, a street mob, a tap dancer, a PA system, and the Chairman of the Board. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the kindness of strangers and where the kindness might lead. All of our stories in today's show are from the supposedly least kind city in America, New York City.

Act Three. Unkindness Of Strangers.

Ira Glass

And we have arrived at Act Three of our program. And for this act, we figured-- nice, nice, nice, nice, nice. We figured we would need a change of pace after all this kindness and attempted kindness. And this is a story about the flat-out unkindness of strangers and how it could take two people who do not know each other and make them completely obsessed with each other. Paul Tough reports. Some names in this story have been changed.

Paul Tough

Helga's neighborhood used to be entirely Ukrainian, respectable with an Orthodox Church and a community center. And then things changed. Then people started arriving. And now the place is full of record stores and cafes and body piercing parlors. Starlee is one of the newcomers. She moved in two years ago, right next door to Helga. And the trouble between them started right away. Starlee says that at first it was just regular New York apartment stuff.

Starlee Kine

She would come and tell me not to make noise in the apartment. And she was like, I wear slippers at night, so you should be wearing slippers too.

Paul Tough

And she'd come and just knock on your door and tell you that?

Starlee Kine

No, she would tell me downstairs in the hall. I'd see her in passing. And she was actually really calm about it. And she looked like a helpless old woman back then. And I'd try to be quieter because of it. And I think I even helped her carry her groceries up the stairs once. I think I actually did do that.

Paul Tough

From Starlee's point of view, she tried to be quiet. She tried to be nice. But she was a college student at the time, and she had a lot of friends. And people would drop by late at night. So it was hard to be quiet all the time. From Helga's point of view, Starlee was a terrible neighbor, the worst. And Helga made sure that Starlee knew exactly how she felt.

Starlee Kine

She would occasionally sit in the hallway and talk to people about us. But there would not be anyone out there to talk to. She would just make up conversation and gossip about us. But we'd open the door and she'd be like, they all ran upstairs really quick. And she wasn't talking to anyone about us. Just so we'd know that she didn't like us.

Paul Tough

And so what sorts of things was she saying at that point?

Starlee Kine

Just that we were loud, bad kids. Just that we were loud and unresponsible. And she didn't believe any of us ever went to school. She refused to believe that. I think she didn't like that we were young.

Paul Tough

Helga wanted everyone else in the building to see the Starlee that she saw. So she started throwing garbage out into the little landing that they shared, apparently to try to make everyone think that it was people in Starlee's apartment, number three, who were responsible.

Starlee Kine

Cigarette butts and crumpled pieces of paper and orange juice cartons. Stuff like that. And it started off really small and it just got huge. And it just became so much trash in the hallway. And people smoke here, so it looked like we were doing it. And also, the type of trash she picked-- she would try to go out of her way to find kid trash, like Hostess Donut wrappers and candy bar things, and just the most creative garbage you've ever seen. And so people at first thought we were doing it. And they would come and talk to us and be like, don't put the trash. I'm like, I'm not putting the trash.

Paul Tough

Jake Bronstein, Starlee's roommate at the time-- she's had nine roommates, I should say, nine, in the two years she's lived there-- Jake decided to do something.

Starlee Kine

Jake wrote a note saying, please don't put trash in the hallway and put it outside in our hallway. We have a little square hallway. And he just taped it on the wall. And so then we hear her come out and we look through the key hole. And we see that she's put a sign up. And we come out there and it says, well then please don't sell drugs. And that's the first time we'd ever heard of it. We were just like, whoa. It was so out of the blue. We couldn't believe it.

Paul Tough

Ever since that day more than six months ago, Helga's put up at least one note about Starlee every single day, sometimes as many as seven or eight. They're mostly pretty small, maybe two inches by three inches. The notes are written in marker in block letters. Helga puts notes on the front door, over the mailboxes inside, on the window, on her own door, on Starlee's door.

The wording varies but the message is always the same. Starlee is a big-time drug dealer, she's selling drugs out of apartment number three, and she should stop or move out. Starlee actually collects the notes that Helga puts up. One whole wall of her apartment is covered with them. Starlee shows me a few choice ones.

Starlee Kine

See, she puts number three, selling drugs, business as usual. On Passover, she put, shame selling drugs on Passover. Let's see, Kine and Bronstein, drug dealers selling your way to the jailhouse. Kine and Bronstein, drug dealers selling illegal drugs here, like parasites.

Paul Tough

Starlee says that, in fact, she's not selling drugs. She's never sold drugs. No one in her apartment has ever sold drugs. It's all a big lie.

Starlee Kine

I asked her to come into the apartment. I'm like, come in the apartment, look anywhere you want. Honestly, we'll go to the cops together. I don't mind that at all.

Paul Tough

Helga doesn't just put up signs. She appears at her door whenever anyone comes to visit Starlee. She harasses Starlee's friends, accosts Starlee in the hallway, calls her a liar. And then there's this.

[TAPPING]

Starlee Kine

Now it's over there, though. See? It moves.

Paul Tough

We're inside Starlee's apartment, about 1:00 in the morning. Helga is sitting in her apartment, right next to the thin wall that separates the two of them. And she's tapping on the floor, just to let Starlee know she's there. She's always watching. I look up at the wall. For me, it's a very creepy moment. Starlee's used to it.

Paul Tough

I got to say, it's the--

Starlee Kine

It's just to get our attention, just to remind us that even when she's not putting the signs up that the she's aware of our illegal activities.

[TAPPING]

Starlee Kine

We watched I, Claudius on PBS and it was three hours. From the first credit to the last credit, it was continuous tapping the entire time. She just sat in her door and banged her cane for the entire time. And she'll do it. She does not get tired. And that's what she does with her day. Instead of eating, she just bangs her cane.

Paul Tough

That's kind of sad.

Starlee Kine

It is sad. I know it's sad. It's hard, though. Because it's hard to know what the right thing to do is and to be confronted by such meanness. Sometimes you'll just be coming home, and you'll be like, god, this woman is the saddest woman in the world. You'll pass by her door and get feelings of pity and affection. And then she'll open it and she'll yell at you. And you're just like, man. She makes it so hard to do the right-- to just be a good person about it.

Paul Tough

A couple of years ago, there actually was a drug dealer in the building up on the top floor. It was a bad scene. Junkies being dragged downstairs and out to the front stoop, people sleeping on the roof. And everyone else in the building banded together and went to court and actually got the drug dealers kicked out. Helga was one of people who testified. And Starlee thinks that that might be connected to what's happening now. Helga got a lot of attention and support from that campaign. And so now she's trying to do it again with Starlee.

I tried to speak to Helga about all of this, to get her side of the story, but it wasn't easy. The way Starlee described her, she's suspicious of strangers. She never lets anyone into her apartment. She doesn't answer her buzzer. So I decided that I'd try to speak to her out on the street. One night I waited outside the building for about an hour. And finally, she came out.

Paul Tough

Excuse me. Do you live in this building here? I'm trying to find out--

It was a very strange interview. She wasn't what I expected. She seemed completely normal. I told her that I had heard something was going on with apartment number three, and I asked her if she knew it was. Yes, she told me, they're selling drugs. I asked her if she'd talk to me about, and she said that she would, but she didn't want me to use her voice on the radio. Too dangerous, she said.

She led me across the street, behind a van, where she said it would be safer to talk. She was deadly serious, very intense. She clearly felt that she was in a dangerous situation. She was willing to give me a few details, but the rest, she told me, I'd have to dig out myself. Here's what she said. The building is full of students. The people in apartment three sell to the students in the building. They also use the students as couriers to sell drugs in the bars all around the neighborhood. It's a big operation, and it's all being run by that short girl, she said, meaning Starlee.

If Helga were to hear this story on the radio, she would tell you that I've got it all wrong, that I've been duped, that everything Starlee told me is a lie. And some of what Helga says makes perfect sense. She says that people are coming and going all the time from Starlee's apartment, which is, in fact, true. She says the phone rings at all hours of the night, and it does. For Helga, that points to one thing, drugs. For Starlee, it's just that she's a student. She stays up late. She's got a lot of friends. There's no middle ground for Starlee and Helga. They see absolutely everything differently.

From Starlee's point of view, there was a period at the beginning where this whole thing was sort of funny, where it was just a good story. But as time went on, things changed. And Starlee became as serious as Helga.

Starlee Kine

There would be times when I wanted to catch her in the act so badly, because I never caught-- she's so quick. And you could never catch her putting the signs up. I wanted to just open it so badly that I just wouldn't leave for an hour. I'd be like, no, you guys go ahead to the movie. I'm just going to stay here and just wait by the door for a little longer. And it was hard.

Paul Tough

There's a way, especially at that period, where the two of you were sort of inextricably linked. That she's sitting there waiting in her apartment for you, and you're sitting here--

Starlee Kine

Right. Well, that's what it was. It was me lying in wait of her lying in wait for me. Absolutely. Yeah, the bond was strong.

Paul Tough

Most of the time, the unkindness of strangers is a barely conscious thing. You cut someone off in traffic. You take the last doughnut. You bump into someone running for a train. You don't even think about it. With Helga and Starlee, things are different. They're unkind to each other, they spy on each other, they bicker, they yell at each other in the hallway. But for each of them, those unkindnesses are part of a bigger picture. They're mean because they have to be. Starlee's trying to clear her name. Helga's trying to clean up the neighborhood.

Starlee Kine

If someone had gotten to her first-- if you were writing a history of the East Village or writing the history of this building, and then someone just interviewed her, it would go down that this heroic old lady tried to get these drug dealers out. She'd be the martyr, or whatever. And I guess that could become fact then. I told you, it almost is fact sometimes. I'm questioning myself sometimes about it. I used to.

Paul Tough

You used to question whether or not you were a drug dealer?

Starlee Kine

No, but just am I right? Am I doing something wrong? Is there something wrong I'm doing like that? Is she a little bit right? Not that I'm a drug dealer, but am I--

Paul Tough

Like just are you a bad neighbor?

Starlee Kine

Yeah, bad neighbor, bad person. Am I abusing her?

Paul Tough

Starlee always thought of herself as a basically good and neighborly person. She never thought she was the kind of person who would do something like yell at an old woman in the hall. And yet she does. Unkindness breeds unkindness. Still, Starlee can't help wishing that things could somehow be different.

Starlee Kine

I've been having these dreams-- very, very clear dreams, like long, epic dreams-- where she'd come over, and we've chatted on the bed, and we've been giggling in the dreams. And I've had dreams where we've come to terms with a lot of things. I've explained it. Like, this summer. Before, they used to be-- they were only violent. I was at her funeral. I was a little sad at that point. I was visiting her in jail. But this time, I've had these friendship dreams all summer long.

And they're really realistic. She acts like herself and I say the thing I'm supposed to. I can't figure out what I'm supposed to say when I'm awake. And I say it. And then all of a sudden, really, logic comes into her eyes. And she has sat down on my bed, and we've started to giggle and just talk about things and make jokes to each other.

Paul Tough

What do you mean, the thing that you're supposed to say that you can't figure out?

Starlee Kine

Whatever I'm supposed to be saying, whatever I could possibly say to her in real life to make her see the light, you know.

Paul Tough

Well, how do you think you'd feel if the notes just suddenly stopped one day?

Starlee Kine

I don't know. I'd probably wait a couple days and I'd see-- I don't know. I can't imagine they would stop, though.

Paul Tough

So when was the last time you talked to her?

Starlee Kine

I talked to her yesterday. She called me a pathological liar.

[MUSIC - "LOVE TO ANNOY" BY JULIE DOIRON]

Act Four. Chairman Of The Block.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Chairman of the Block. This story takes place almost around the corner from Starlee's apartment building, just a few blocks away. It's about one small act of kindness leading somewhere completely unexpected. A resident of the neighborhood, Blake Eskin, tells the story.

Blake Eskin

About a month ago, I went out one Friday evening with a friend in the East Village, where we both live. On the street, we heard Frank Sinatra music blasting loud enough to wake the neighbors.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING "YOUNG AT HEART"]

Blake Eskin

As we reached Fourth Street, I saw 100 people huddled around the stoop of a sixth floor tenement. Most of them were post-college, pre-childbearing types. Plus there were some older people who probably lived on the block. Everyone seemed to have forgotten where they were headed, whether to a party or to another bar or back to bed.

A short, dark-haired guy in a suit stood at the top of the stoop holding a microphone. At first, I thought maybe the guy was lip syncing because he sounded exactly like Sinatra. But after a few seconds, I realized he was doing the crooning himself. The guy looked a little like Sinatra, and he moved like him too. But this was no run-of-the-mill Sinatra impersonator. It was as if he was possessed by the spirit of Sinatra, channeling the Chairman of the Board, that Frank himself had emerged from retirement, dyed his hair black again, and was with us on Fourth Street.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING "THE LADY IS A TRAMP"] Come over here, Susan!

Blake Eskin

At the bottom of the stoop was someone you would not ordinarily see with Frank Sinatra. An older woman with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a leopard print vest was doing a spirited if slightly awkward tap dance on a piece of wood she had dragged out onto the sidewalk.

After my initial confusion, and my subsequent bliss, my next reaction was to wonder how this was possible. Where were the cops? The 9th Precinct is a block away, and New Yorkers are quick to complain about noise. And Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has made it a priority for the police to crack down on what he calls "quality of life violations" like these, noise, crowds, blocking traffic, drinking in the street.

But on Fourth Street, everything was copasetic. And it still is. Somehow, by some quirk of fate, the show outside 124 East Fourth Street has happened five Fridays in a row. The singer, Nick Drakides, lives on the first floor of the building. And the tap dancer, Laraine Goodman, lives on four. Gary and Wanda, who run the garden-level thrift shop, put their merchandise, the chairs and overstuffed couches, on the sidewalk for the audience's comfort.

Nick Drakides and Laraine Goodman are neighbors. And like most people who live in the same building, they didn't know much about each other. Laraine did know, however, that Nick had a big jazz record collection. Five weeks ago, Laraine decided she wanted to tap dance in front of the building, as a sort of therapy, she says. And she reached out to Nick, asking him to play some tunes while she tap danced that weekend.

Nick Drakides

What happened was, I was coming home-- I'll tell you exactly what happened. I was coming home that Friday evening around 9:00 and I forgot her name. And I'm walking down Fourth Street from Second Avenue. And I'm like, oh, there she is tapping, and I don't want to do this. I'm tired. I'm like [SIGH]. And then I had to reach for her name in my little-- what's this thing-- pocket day timer. And I'm like, OK, it's Laraine.

Then I walk down the street, and I say, hi, Laraine, how are you? And she goes, oh come on out Nick and join me, blah, blah, blah. And I think she assumed I'll bring out some music. That was it. I don't think she was expecting a suit and microphone stand and the PA, the CDs, the cassettes, the whole number.

Thanks to Laraine Goodman. This is the brains behind this wonderful event here. Say good evening, Laraine.

Laraine Goodman

Good evening, Laraine.

Blake Eskin

Nick's initial gesture of kindness to Laraine, a near stranger, made her into a local celebrity and made himself into an even bigger one. There were only a handful of people watching Laraine tap dance when Nick went outside with his instant Sinatra kit, which includes a few CDs from a series called Pocket Songs. The discs have the full Sinatra arrangements without a vocalist. The slogan is "You Sing the Hits."

Nick began with "I've Got the World on a String." The crowd built steadily. And right away, Nick had the crowd on a string, standing on the stoop, had the string around his finger. What a world.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING "I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING"]

Blake Eskin

Nick showed me a picture taken when he was 15. He's wearing a tuxedo, his hair parted to the side, standing at a microphone and pointing back at the camera. It is a picture of a 15-year-old boy from Poughkeepsie, New York in Frank Sinatra drag.

Nick Drakides

Basically, what I'm doing right now, I have been into since I was a kid, since I was 10 years old.

Blake Eskin

Nick trained as a jazz vocalist at Boston's Berklee College of Music, moved to New York, and after a while he found a job with the Starlight Orchestra, a 16-piece band that performs at high society weddings and corporate events. The Starlight Orchestra has five vocalists, and Nick is their Sinatra specialist.

Each of us in the audience had been lured by the improbability of the situation, but Nick's stage presence kept us there. Most street performers in New York go where the tourists go, since most of us natives are too busy to stop and listen. Nick singing from his stoop, however, was a gift to his own neighborhood. Nick really knows how to work a room, even when it's not a room. He weaves his neighbor's names into the lyrics.

Nick Drakides

--anytime he moves his-- that's Brendan, our lovely neighbor here. Lucky me-- how ya doin' Richie-- can't you see I'm in love?

Blake Eskin

He plugs Gary and Wanda's thrift shop and thanks them for their help. He salutes a couple watching from a nearby fire escape. He dedicates "Witchcraft" to a pretty blonde standing in the back row and flirts with her at the end of the song.

Nick Drakides

[SINGING "WITCHCRAFT"] Ooh! I got a crush on you too, baby. Ooh, you're a fine witch!

Blake Eskin

Just like Frank would have done. Now, it's a safe bet that if Nick and Laraine had been break dancing or playing conga drums, the police would have shut them down in 20 minutes, tops. But the officers of the 9th Precinct fell under the same spell as the rest of us. And they couldn't bring themselves to get out of the patrol car to enforce the mayor's quality of life rules.

Nick Drakides

The first week they would circle around the block, speak through their megaphone. They would say, people, please don't block the streets. Please keep the streets clear. And that was it. That was the first week. The second week they requested "Summer Wind."

Blake Eskin

They requested "Summer Wind" through the megaphone?

Nick Drakides

Yes, through the megaphone as they were passing. The third week, the police came and they stopped their car, held up traffic, and they said, OK, "Summer Wind." They wanted to hear "Summer Wind." So I finished "Night and Day." I put "Summer Wind" on. And I went up on the steps. They manipulated their lights on the top and threw a white spotlight on me. And I started singing "Summer Wind." The crowd went crazy. They went nuts. And they were really into it. it's that whole New York, macho Italian, police, Irish, street-- it is, man. And evidently, what I'm doing, they connect with that.

[SINGING "SUMMER WIND"]

Blake Eskin

Of course they do. So do the black men with dreadlocks, the young white guys in Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts, the teenagers immersed in the swing lounge scene, the pot-bellied Italian men of a certain age smoking cigars. And sitting front row center, wearing a party colored muu-muu, Nick's next door neighbor Jean, who has lived at 124 East Fourth Street for the last 48 years. For all of them and for me, there is something about Frank Sinatra and something about how Nick Drakides interprets Frank Sinatra that bewitches us, that touches us.

Nick Drakides

There's a guy who lives next door. And he embraced me. He hugged me, this old Chinese guy, man, with a hearing aid. I'm like, I touched this guy. And I don't how I did it, but I did it.

Blake Eskin

For any New Yorker to do something as big as this for his neighbors again and again is more than an anomaly. It is as rare and unstable as the elements at the bottom of the periodic table. The key ingredients of this event, neighborliness, generosity, free time, good weather, cooperative police officers, are hard to come by in this city. And they are nearly impossible to find together in the same place week after week. The Nick and Laraine show has had a longer run than anyone could expect. And something-- rain or the first frost or the 9th precinct or a Friday night gig with the Starlight Orchestra-- will soon bring it to a halt.

There's a gossip columnist in the New York Post named Cindy Adams. And it is tempting to resort to her mantra "only in New York folks, only in New York" to explain this phenomenon. But in Nick's case, the wisdom of Cindy Adams does not suffice. This is not the stuff of New York, not of the real New York or even of the New York of a bygone era, but of a mythical movie New York, a lower east side block built on a studio back lot. It is the first reel of an unknown MGM musical from just after the war, and it stars Nick Drakides. What happens in the rest of the film is anyone's guess.

[MUSIC - "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Ira Glass

Blake Eskin in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor for this episode of our show is Paul Tough. Seth Lind is our production manager. Production help from Rachel Day, Aaron Scott, and WHYY in Philadelphia.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says, no, no, no, no. Do it like this.

Joel Kostman

Move it up and down slowly, bobbing the end of the tool slightly from side to side.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.