Transcript

79:

Stuck in the Wrong Decade
Transcript

Originally aired 10.10.1997

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

I was talking to a guy at a party, an older man. And this guy's opinionated and very charming. And we're talking about politics, and the guy lets on that he's a communist, an actual member of the actual Communist Party. "So, how's it going," I ask him, "the cause of world communism?" And he talks about the media not giving communism a fair shake. And he pulls out a pamphlet that he gives me for some talk that a fellow traveler is giving.

I ask him about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Didn't that put a kind of damper on the whole worldwide movement? And he said what communists have been saying for decades really, that the Soviet Union's not real communism, that no one's tried real communism the way that it's supposed to be tried. And, suddenly, I felt like I was talking to a time traveler, to somebody for whom the last few decades had not occurred or simply didn't matter.

Marcel Ophuls has spent years making movies about Nazis, The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice. His family was Jewish, escaped Germany before the war. "What's it like spending so much time interviewing Nazis," he was asked once. "Oh, I get along with Nazis," he said. "We share something in common, an interest in the past. I share more with them than I do with most people today, who don't care about the past."

Nearly a decade ago, I had a chance to interview the members of the band called Camper Van Beethoven. At that time, they were one of my favorite bands. But I blew my interview with them because I misunderstood them and their music so grossly. I was out of touch. I will just say that right now.

They were playing a kind of country-folk mixed with surfer music mixed with this sort of fake Egyptian-Russian music, whatever else came to mind, ska. They openly sang about drug use. And this is before our culture, before we as a people, had coined the words, "slacker" or "Gen X".

And I spent a lot of that interview alienating the guys in this band by asking were they hippies? Were they modern day hippies? That was the only phrase I had in my head to refer to what I was seeing. I thought they were stuck in the wrong decade. But, in fact, they were just carrying a few props from another decade into the present, which is, in fact, what I think we all do.

Walk down Michigan Avenue or State Street or Wabash here in Chicago and you'll see older guys in wide-brimmed hats from the '50s coming out of the off-track betting. They are the Art Institute students dressed in that fake '70s thing we've been suffering through as a nation for the last three years.

We all carry pieces of the past, some of us more than others, 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 program, people stuck in another decade.

Act One, The Wedding Game, two people who love 1970s television and how it affects their engagement and their wedding.

Act Two, Stuck As A Teenager, two people who get suspended in time as adolescents for very different reasons.

Act Three, Perv Walk, two smart, funny, '90s men who have no problem working with women or seeing women as their equals and why. They spend 10 minutes a day walking around scoping women and talking about them like they were Jack Lemmon in some 1950s movie.

Act Four, Working In Another Decade, in which our intrepid correspondent takes a job at Mount Vernon, George Washington's plantation home, doing a job they politely call field hand.

Act Five, Nostalgia, The Final Frontier, someone who is stuck in a decade that is as far back as you can possibly go, back in the day before back in the day, the day when all matter in the universe existed in a single point in space. You remember them. Stay with us.

Act One. The Wedding Game.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Wedding Game. One common way, perhaps the most common way these days, that people get stuck in other decades is that they get stuck in the TV shows of other decades. Consider, please, this extreme case example.

Karl began his life with the normal excessive relationship that most of us have with television. As a child, he watched six or seven hours a day. Wendy went even further, she actually watched TV to see herself. As a kid growing up in Chicago, she appeared in commercials that were shot here for McDonald's, for Sears, for Kellogg's. She was even in a Morris the Cat commercial. Wendy knows Morris the Cat.

Wendy Miller

I worked with Morrison. They actually showed my face, which was the first time for something like that.

Ira Glass

Did you have a speaking part?

Wendy Miller

Yeah, I had a line. It was, "Oh, already?" And Karl says he knows the commercial.

Karl T. Wright

I remember that. I loved that spot. I think that's so cute. Do it the right way, though. Do it.

Wendy Miller

The mother would say, "Morris, time for din-din." And I went, "Oh, already?"

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Wow.

Years of watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, and That Girl, and old game shows gave Wendy these kinds of skills. Karl says that once he turned on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show for five seconds, turned off the TV, and asked Wendy to identify the episode and tell him the plot. She described everything that would happen, scene by scene. And this turns out to be a marketable job skill.

Wendy Miller

It was for a station in Chicago that was launching, and they were going to run old shows. And I got the job by writing scripts for promos based on episodes and lines I remembered. So I didn't even have to see the shows, and I could write scripts for them. So, you know, I grew up inside the television. And I just kind of wanted to stay there, like Mike Teavee on Willy Wonka, that's me.

Karl T. Wright

And I always wanted to be there. I would watch Zoom and all the shows with kids and just want to be there so bad I could taste it. That's why I watched a lot of TV. I just wanted to do it.

Ira Glass

So many people like '70s era TV. But, the two of you have taken it further throughout the entire courtship process. Karl, can I just ask you to explain very briefly how you chose to propose to Wendy?

Karl T. Wright

Sure. Well, one of the reasons that Wendy said that she liked me was that I could recite the lines from a song that was on The Jetsons called "Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah". And that means I love you.

So, when it came time to actually get engaged, I thought well, maybe I could use something that relates to television to do it. And I was watching an episode of The Flintstones. And it was the episode where Barney buys a ring for Betty. And he gives it to Fred and says, "Could you please hide this for me?" So Fred hides it in his bowling ball. And Wilma finds it and thinks that it is her ring. So Wendy and I love to bowl. And I thought, well, I'll hide it in her bowling ball and we'll go bowling.

Wendy Miller

I knew exactly what he was doing when I found the ring in the bag. I knew what he was referring to because the whole day-- he had bought this Flintstones CD, like, music from the show. And he was playing it throughout the day and acting very strangely. And I obviously didn't know what was going on. But it all came together when I pulled the ring out of the bowling bag.

Ira Glass

And you saw the ring in the bowling bag. And you just know, oh, he's doing The Flintstones episode?

Wendy Miller

Yeah. Absolutely.

Karl T. Wright

We're so weird.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

But all of this was just prelude, just the hors d'oeuvre, just the 30-second promo that leads up to the very special episode of whatever, that all came before Karl and Wendy's wedding.

Karl T. Wright

The invitation was a great big TV set, and in the middle it said, "This is not a test, folks. Wendy and Karl T. are actually getting married." Dinner, dancing, and must-see matrimony is what we called it.

Karen

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to play The Wedding Game. Let's have a big hand for our host Judge Julian Frazin. Here comes the judge!

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Whatever this may sound like, it's Karl and Wendy's wedding video. They staged the ceremony as a TV game show.

Julian Frazin

We're going to ask 10 questions, and they're going to have to reach 100 points in order to get married here tonight.

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

Julian Frazin

And, Karen, where are you, Karen?

Karen

Here I am, Judge.

Julian Frazin

Who is our first contestant?

Karen

Well, Judge, we have, from Mar Vista California--

Karl T. Wright

Well, it was very simple. The night before-- and everybody can't believe that we did this the night before-- we asked each other a series of questions that we had to answer on cards, much like they do on The Newelywed Game. And we didn't tell each other what our answers were going to be.

And then we gave the Judge, who was going to marry us, who's a great guy, we gave him the questions. And he was to ask us these questions. And we were going to answer, truthfully, and see if we could get enough points to get married.

Julian Frazin

Anyway, and which one are you? Wendy?

Wendy Miller

I am-- is this on-- Wendy. Wendy.

Julian Frazin

And tell me something about yourself.

Wendy Miller

I'm a housewife. And--

[LAUGHTER]

Wendy Miller

So, now, we both knew that it was going to be funny. So we didn't even need to rig it or set it up because I just knew that whatever he put down or what I put down was going to make it entertaining. And I thought the element of suspense was also really good. So we didn't cheat at all. I didn't know what he was saying, and he didn't know what I was saying. And so it was totally played legitimately.

Karl T. Wright

Now, we did plan to do poorly, but I think we did more poorly than I expected.

[LAUGHTER]

Wendy Miller

Yeah. There were a couple of things I thought, for sure, we would've got right, but we didn't.

Julian Frazin

Oh, whipping along here, we're going to question number six. Karl, complete this sentence. My fiancee is great, but her blank leaves something to be desired. Karl, answer. What do you think you'd say?

Karl T. Wright

Well, you know, there's so many things that are great about Wendy.

Julian Frazin

Way to go.

Karl T. Wright

And I love her dearly.

Julian Frazin

Way to go.

Karl T. Wright

But her temper leaves something to be desired, sometimes, every once in a while.

Julian Frazin

Now wait. What do you say?

Wendy Miller

What?

Julian Frazin

He says temper.

Wendy Miller

All right. Well, I thought about that question, and this is what I thought I need to improve on.

Julian Frazin

Algebra.

[LAUGHTER]

Julian Frazin

Algebra, how could you miss that? How did you overlook that?

Karl T. Wright

I don't know. We actually talked about that.

Ira Glass

I have to tell you. Also, one of the things that's so odd is that at most weddings you never see people have any kind of discord.

Wendy Miller

Yeah. My dream would have been that we were just failing miserably-- which, oddly enough, happened-- and that everybody thought we weren't going to be able to get married. And the last question was just a truly impossible question that we both had to get it right in order to get married. And there were some people who didn't think we're going to pull it off. There were some people who thought we weren't going to make it.

Ira Glass

I mean, I've only seen the videotape of this, but I find it hard to believe that people would believe that.

Karl T. Wright

Well, you know, I thought it was going to be hard to believe too. But I looked at people's faces and they were really, "What are we going to do? What are you going to do now?"

Wendy Miller

Oh, they totally believed it. There are people who came up to me and they said, "I didn't think you guys were going to make it. And I thought it was just going to be a big party and nothing else."

Julian Frazin

Where are we at?

Audience

Aw.

Wendy Miller

We are still at 20, Judge.

Julian Frazin

Holding at 20. Uh-oh.

Ira Glass

Another unusual moment in your ceremony that is certainly not very traditional in a wedding is that you talk about the bathroom.

Wendy Miller

[LAUGHS] I don't remember this. What are you talking about?

Julian Frazin

Who spends more time in the bathroom, Karl?

Karl T. Wright

Wendy.

Julian Frazin

Wendy. I'd say that too. Wendy, what do you say?

Wendy Miller

Absolutely, Karl.

Julian Frazin

Karl, OK. Oh, wait a minute.

Wendy Miller

If you saw his bathroom and you saw how much cleaner it is than mine, you'd know he spent more time in there, at least, cleaning.

Julian Frazin

Well, that's good, Karl.

Karl T. Wright

Yes. But, if you saw all the crossword puzzles and books that were in her bathroom, you'd know.

Ira Glass

You know, it's definitely like an image that doesn't come up in many wedding ceremonies.

[LAUGHTER]

Wendy Miller

I don't know. So what are you saying? It's like this toilet taboo? It shouldn't have been mentioned?

Ira Glass

I'm just pointing out the facts. Look, I'm just being factual about what happened and what was traditional and what wasn't. That's all I'm interested in saying.

Wendy Miller

There was only one question about our sex life, you know, sort of.

Julian Frazin

Name the movie title that best describes your love life.

Karl T. Wright

OK, ready?

Wendy Miller

Go ahead first.

Julian Frazin

You go.

Karl T. Wright

I said, Best Friends.

Julian Frazin

Best Friends.

Audience

Aw.

Julian Frazin

Aw.

Karl T. Wright

Burt Reynolds, Goldie Hawn.

Julian Frazin

Burt Reynolds, Goldie Hawn. And, Wendy?

Wendy Miller

Gone With the Wind.

Julian Frazin

Well, that's gone with the 10 points too.

Wendy Miller

We've been together eight years. I mean, you know?

Julian Frazin

Right.

Wendy Miller

My main concern was that it was funny. That's all I cared about. As long as we got laughs, I was happy. So I answered questions that I knew would, hopefully, get laughs. And, luckily, they did.

But I wasn't nervous. I didn't care about marrying the wrong guy. I knew I was with the right guy, and I knew I was in the right place. So all I really cared about was the entertainment value of the game portion of the evening. Really, that's all I thought about.

Karl T. Wright

And the producer in me was worried that it was going too slowly, that he wasn't getting the right camera angles. And oh, yeah, the questions, yeah. I'm not worried about that, but it was the show part and that people were having a good time.

Wendy Miller

Yeah, I wish we had more cameras, actually.

Karl T. Wright

That would be good.

Wendy Miller

But you buy the hair stuff and the cleaning stuff and the moisturizer. You buy--

Julian Frazin

Guys, we're going to have to move this along. You've got to get married, come on.

Wendy Miller

OK. Well, maybe not.

Julian Frazin

Maybe not. That's true. This is true.

Ira Glass

When I heard what you were doing, I mean, there was a part of me that was just like, wow, they are amazing. And there was a part of me which was just like, are they nuts?

[LAUGHTER]

Wendy Miller

Well, what would be amazing about it? What would be nuts about it?

Ira Glass

Well, because a wedding, at some point, I mean, I think it has to be about love, just about this feeling between the two of you, you know? And the context of your typical game show doesn't usually make the space for that.

Karl T. Wright

Right. I mean, I've been to some weddings of some of our friends, and I just thought they were beautiful and romantic. And I thought, wow, I would love to do that. But I also thought that that really wasn't us. I mean, it's not how we deal with each other. Not that we're not romantic and love each other, but we just express it in a different way.

Wendy Miller

You know, I've been to some weddings that really sucked. I mean, come on. There've been some totally lame-ass weddings at a banquet hall in Lamont, Illinois or Joliet.

Karl T. Wright

They go on for an hour and a half.

Wendy Miller

Yeah, and people think they're romantic. And they're just boring. So anyone could do what it takes to quote, unquote, "have a romantic wedding." It's just like making soup, you know? You have the right ingredients. You throw in the flowers. You throw in the dress. You throw in someone playing a song from Fiddler on the Roof, or whatever.

Karl T. Wright

An essential in any wedding for my family.

Wendy Miller

Well, yeah. It's like you throw in all the usual crap, and that's supposed to be romantic. Well, that's not true. And I don't think anybody really said-- people actually said to me, "This is exactly the wedding I thought you would have." And that, to me, says everything right there.

Ira Glass

Was it romantic at all?

Karl T. Wright

I think the most romantic part-- and maybe it wasn't for the audience-- but for me and, maybe, for us, it was very romantic during the actual ceremony itself when the judge broke it all down to what it was really all about, when he said that the fact that we had found each other was a miracle.

I mean, it is unusual that two very different people found each other through the biggest medium in the world, which is television. And it brought us together. And it brought a whole bunch of people that we love together that wouldn't normally know each other.

Wendy Miller

I don't think you could say that there's a traditional romance. I mean, to make it romantic is kind of to do what you want to do and to do what means the most to you. And I think we achieved that. So, for me, it was very romantic because it's what we wanted to do.

Karl T. Wright

Yeah. The most romantic moment was just standing there when we were looking in each other's eyes.

Wendy Miller

You know what? I actually wanted to tell the judge to stop. I just wanted to tell him to stop. And I just wanted to stand there for a minute, just frozen, just remembering that moment because it was all going by too quickly. And I knew we were going to run out of videotape, so I didn't do that.

Julian Frazin

Remember this moment in time. Before this moment, you have been many things to one another, acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner, and even teacher because you've learned much from one another in the time you've known each other. Now you're going to say a few words that are going to take you across the threshold of life. And things will never be quite the same between you.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like doing a wedding like this purges '70s TV out of you?

Karl T. Wright

Oh, no. I think it kind of reinforces it.

Wendy Miller

What do you think? It's like an exorcism? We need to get it out of our body?

Ira Glass

It's sort of like, once you've been on The Newlywed Game, you never need to think about it again in a certain way.

Wendy Miller

So, if your theory holds true, then people who have a romantic wedding never need to be romantic again.

Julian Frazin

Do you, Karl, take Wendy to be your wife, to love and to cherish, to honor and to comfort in sadness or in joy, in hardship or in ease, to have and to hold from this day forward?

Karl T. Wright

I do.

Julian Frazin

And do you, Wendy, take Karl to be your husband, to love and to cherish, to honor, to comfort in sadness or in joy, in hardship or in ease, to have and to hold from this day forward?

Wendy Miller

Absolutely.

Julian Frazin

OK. I hope Karen's keeping score.

[LAUGHTER]

Wendy Miller

I'm actually developing a show right now that's similar to what we did at our wedding. And so it was kind of a trial run, the wedding, for the show I'm developing. In fact, the judge who married us, who's a real judge, and I have been putting together this show because he would be the perfect host for a show like this. And I've kind of created a format for it. And I would love to be able to produce it. I think it would go really well.

Ira Glass

Basically it would be in the vague ballpark of what you guys actually did. Would people actually end up married?

Wendy Miller

Yeah, people would end up married at the end of the show.

Ira Glass

And is it possible that people might not get married?

Wendy Miller

Yeah.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] Wow.

Wendy Miller

So there goes another idea that someone's going to make a million dollars off of.

Karl T. Wright

We did it first.

Wendy Miller

Well, the bottom line is I've got the guy who'd be perfect for it. And, you know, without him-- you know, this is a real live judge who also happens to be a comedy writer, so he's perfect.

Karl T. Wright

OK. Honey, you're selling.

Wendy Miller

Sorry.

Karl T. Wright

You're selling.

Ira Glass

Karl T. Wright and Wendy Miller work in television in Los Angeles. You can see Karl in about a month on ER, the November 6th episode.

Karl T. Wright

I get to stand up and say, "I'm Dr. Norris, Director of St. Joseph's ER."

Act Two. Stuck As A Teenager.

Ira Glass

And that is the most cheerful music I think we have ever put on this radio show. Act Two, Stuck As A Teenager. This is a program about being stuck in the wrong decade. And it is a truism among addicts and alcoholics that the year that you start using or start drinking is the year that you stay stuck at. So if you start using drugs at 15 in a very heavy way, in 1974, let's say, if you continue until you're 40 and you stop, you'll find yourself 40 years old but still stuck at the emotional age of 15, which brings us to Michael Stump.

Michael Stump

I had an embarrassing moment not so long ago. I was at a theatrical benefit, and there was a friend of mine. And we had done the adult thing of trying to get together and meet, and we hadn't really gotten it right. She was teaching and busy, and we just couldn't get together.

Now, I'm 43 years old and I know the proper way to behave is to just shrug it off. But I see her, however, at this event and I'm suddenly and inexplicably filled with rage. This feeling comes over me. I have a seizure. OK. Now, here's my behavior post-seizure. I see her. I'm filled with rage. She's hurt my feelings. I'm going to show her. Now, here's how I do this.

Tactic number one. Whenever we're both in the same room together, I let her see me and then I walk out. Here's tactic number two. She walks up and attempts to have a conversation with me. I grip my club soda a little tighter, say nothing, cast my eyes downward, purse my lips, walk over and start a conversation with someone that I know she admires.

I started drinking when I was, oh, 13. I started smoking pot and using speed somewhere around age 15. And I started using heroin at age 24. By age 25, 26, I was an intravenous junkie and remained so until age 40 when I stopped.

So back to this event for just a moment. I would step outside occasionally to smoke a cigarette. And the 43-year-old that I am was mortified by my behavior. Adults don't do these kinds of things. Adults do not handle interpersonal relationships, or something as simple as not being able to keep a date, like this. 15-year-olds do, especially really poorly adjusted, drug addicted, 15-year-olds. So I'm standing outside, smoking a cigarette, thinking, god, Michael, what are you doing?

Ira Glass

Darleen went to prison when she was 17 and came out in her early 30s. She says it was like being frozen in time. There was a way of dealing with other adults, as an adult, that she never learned. Shortly after she was released she went to get a state ID, and it was intimidating.

Darleen

They're moving people along, and you should have out the proper pieces of paper for this particular person and then swiftly move to the next person or whatever. And I really didn't know where to go.

So, anyway, I had to come back. And the guy was like, "You go around there. And go around, go down the hall to the left, and make a left," and blah, blah, blah. And so then I got in this other line, and the guy was saying to me that my birth certificate was not the original. And someone else just probably would've been more assertive, been more confident, more sure of their self in that kind of situation. And I didn't even know what to do. And I kept saying, "No, it is. No, it is."

Well, anyway, I got out of that line. And my mom was waiting for me on the side. And, I think, by the time I got through the doors, I just remember I was in tears. And she kept saying, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" I said, "I just want to go home. I just want to home."

And you just want to run and hide and cringe because, again, it's one of those situations where, by all appearances, you look like an adult. And you should be able to maneuver your way through this, handle this situation. So anyway, it took me about, I think, three days to work up the courage to come back.

Michael Stump

Let's look at my record collection, shall we? In fact, let's look at it twice. Let's look at it once in 1979, the year I started using, and again in 1997.

OK, here's a partial reconstruction, a list. Last night I sat down at the kitchen table and I made a list of as many records as I could remember of my record collection in 1979. Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones; Candles in the Rain, Melanie; Raw Power, Iggy and the Stooges; the first two Modern Lovers records; The Ramones' first record; Something Else, by The Kinks; The Village Green Preservation Society, by The Kinks; Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan; Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan, of course; The Velvets' third record, the eponymously-named, Velvet Underground; Blank Generation, by the Voidoids; and Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate.

I brought my record collection today into the studio so we can look at it here. Let me just unpack several of them. Nobody plays records any more and neither do I, but I have cassette tapes and CDs, OK? And here we go.

Between the Buttons, The Rolling Stones; Candles in the Rain, Melanie; Raw Power, The Stooges; the first three Modern Lovers records; Ramones' first record; Something Else by The Kinks; The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks; Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan; Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan; The Velvets' third record; Blank Generation, The Voidoids; and Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate.

I suppose, if I had any sense at all, I'd be embarrassed. But I don't, so I won't. Besides, I like Melanie. I do. I think she's cool.

Darleen

Another thing that happened was, I remember, I was going for a job interview. And the company, or rather the department, the woman had me come first for the interview with her. And that went pretty well. No big surprises there. But then she wanted me to come back for a second interview with the other people within that department I would be working with.

And they decided to make it a lunch interview. And so we went to one of these places where you pay and you get a buffet thing. Well, that was new to me. I didn't know these places existed. So they're, of course, being courteous and putting me first to go through the line. And I'm like, no, I really can't go first here because I don't know.

You know, the cashier had to give me the tray because I was just totally at a loss. If she picked up that I didn't really understand how to conduct myself in that environment, I don't know because I don't think those kind of things, really, average-day people think about that, you know? Well, will the ex-offender know how to come to Old Country Buffet and carry on? I don't think so. It's just not something you really think about.

Michael Stump

I have a car. Did I mention that? I have a car, and I know how to drive. Two months ago I did not have a car, and I did not know how to drive. I love my car. I'm 43 years old. I'm driving for the first time in my life, and I love my car. I'm 16 again. Or, to say it another way, I'm the 16 I never was when I was 16 and refused to drive for whatever pig-headed, stubborn, childish reasons I had stuck in my head.

You see, driving is a metaphor for me. It's the marker I use to check the progress I make on this adult planet that I inhabit now. It's another place. It's a parallel world where I can move freely with ease and grace. And it's one adult behavior I perform these days with some authority and command.

When I'm driving, I do something I never ever did as a junkie. I engage. I engage with the world around me in a very real, hands on and practical way. And call me screwy, but I like it. I like that car, a lot. In fact, when I'm done here I'm going to drive home in it, and I'm going to listen to a hopelessly out-of-date cassette tape in it too. Bye-bye.

Ira Glass

Well, coming up, stuck in pre-feminist decades, stuck in the pre-emancipation decades, and stuck in the decades before time and space and decades even existed. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Perv Walk.

Ira Glass

With This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Stuck in Another Decade, stories of people living in various pasts as we all do to one extent or another.

We have arrived at Act Three of our program, the story of two men who live most of their lives in a white-collar America where men and women are supposed to work and interact as equals. But, 10 minutes a day, several days a week, they retreat to a different America.

A quick warning to listeners before we hear this story. There are no nasty words or explicit deeds in this story, but it is a story that acknowledges the existence of sex and the fact that men are not always nice. Sarah Miller is a magazine writer in New York.

Sarah Miller

This is a story about two people. One is my friend, and one is my acquaintance. Both are relatively highly-placed editors at glossy New York magazines, the sort of magazines you might have on your coffee table or have read waiting to get your hair cut.

My friend, let's call him Rodge, is so charming that the first time I met him in his office we started talking and I literally couldn't bring myself to leave. He is funny and stylish in that slightly homosexual New York way.

Asked his opinion about something, he's as likely to reply "It's very Altamont meets Sotheby's," as to really tell you what he thinks. The last time I had lunch with him he said, "Don't you wish people could only communicate using proper nouns and the names of medieval diseases?" I've heard that his wife is lovely, but I have to admit that I'm a little sad he's married.

One afternoon, I called Rodge at work. We gossiped. He told me a funny story about basically hanging up on an interview subject, a famous pop star who had bored him. Then he said he had to go, that a friend of his, an acquaintance of mine, also a magazine editor, was meeting him downstairs. "We're just going on a perv walk," he said. "Perv walk," I said, "what the hell is that?"

Weeks later, I sat him down at a cafe on Green Street and made him explain on tape. It turns out that a perv walk is exactly what it sounds like. Rodge and his friend, Bill, meet a couple of times a week and walk around Soho commenting on the women that they see.

Sarah Miller

Who came up with the name perv walk?

Rodge

My colleague.

Sarah Miller

Your colleague?

Rodge

He used the term and I felt its quality of rightness instantly. It truly is a perv walk. And you can use it as a verb also. You can go into, say, a place like Banana Republic in perv broads because they tend to hang out in Banana Republic, you know? So one can go on a perv walk, or one can go perving, or one can simply perv.

Sarah Miller

The fact that Rodge went on perv walks didn't make me hate him. Not at all. In fact, for several days I'd be on the subway, taking a shower, eating dinner and I would just start laughing.

If I were with people, I might explain, "I'm sorry. It's just that I know these two guys. Well, actually, I only know one of them well. But, as far as I can tell, they're these perfectly nice, very sweet, interesting guys. And they do this thing where they walk around Soho and talk about women, and they call it a perv walk."

Some people looked at me blankly. Some used the word disgusting. Was there something wrong with me? I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard. I made Rodge do a demonstration for me.

Rodge

Take a look at the tube top, 3 o'clock. Tube tops are underrated, you know? I'd like to see a return to tube tops some day.

Sarah Miller

I guess I should explain the voice. Rodge grew up in Queens, Bill, in Northwest Chicago. Two working-class neighborhoods in different parts of the country, but both, as Bill pointed out, near airports and both home to a remarkably similar cast of characters.

As they became better friends and learned more about each other, Rodge and Bill started to get the idea that their neighborhoods, though 1,000 miles apart, were actually the same neighborhood. Now, they both work white-collar jobs but, when they perv, Bill told me they become guys from the neighborhood.

Rodge

It's people like we've heard all our lives, you know? And I've worked with people like that.

Bill

One can't really talk seriously about tube tops without taking on a certain persona.

Sarah Miller

I know that some of you, many of you, maybe even all of you find this disturbing. You don't find the idea of two men walking around saying lewd things about women funny. You find it juvenile, reactionary, a throwback to a time when it was permissible for a man to say almost anything, to almost any woman, at any time, just because he could. But I don't agree.

First, let me tell you why this is not horrible. None of the women they're looking at has any idea that these guys are talking about them. They never approach or touch anyone. It's not about cat-calling or looking for reaction. They're just doing it for each other. They were even reluctant to do it with me there. But I did manage to talk them into letting me record a 15-minute perv walk.

Rodge

See that Henna chick? You like that Henna stuff? You know, unnatural hair color, open mind, free-thinking, experimental? Oh, check out this chick with the guitar and the beret. Artsy type, right? Do you know what that means? Abuse.

Sarah Miller

It was so different from what I had imagined. Maybe it was a function of my being there, but they barely talked about actual body parts. In fact, they barely looked at the women they were talking about. They only looked long enough to find some distinguishing characteristic that they could riff on.

Rodge

We just saw a broad who was lost. I want to give her directions. You know what I'm saying? Yeah. Do you know which way you show them to go? North, do you know what I'm saying? It's like my magnetic compass. Do you know what I'm saying?

Sarah Miller

Let's walk gentlemen.

Rodge

Hey, this is the North Pole.

Sarah Miller

Let me describe for you this person who's talking about his North Pole. He's wearing one of those bright blue shirts that The Gap has turned into this year's urban uniform. He's shy looking, book-ish, and wearing little, round glasses. Rodge describes both of them as limp-wristed pencil jockeys. We keep walking. We pass a woman going into a post office.

Rodge

I'll teach you about postage. I will stamp your letter, huh? Why don't you come on back and lick the postage, and we can apply it. You know what I'm saying?

Bill

Oh, I'll wear your package.

Rodge

You get it. This guy's like--

Bill

Maybe you'd like to see a mailing tube?

Sarah Miller

Both of these guys work with women. They report to and have women co-workers, and there's no problem there. I asked Rodge if they go out on perv walks because they're not permitted to say these pervie things about women at work. And he said that was part of it.

They're using fake names here on the radio because they don't want anyone at their magazines to know that they do this. And there are enough blue-shirt-wearing, gay-looking straight men parading the halls of the New York publishing world that I'm confident they'll retain their anonymity.

They don't wish work was different. They don't wish they were back in a time where every day at work could be a perv walk. But they don't want to stop perving either. So they do it, as Rodge says, with silence, exile and cunning, a 10-minute jaunt into a little world where they can pretend that the last 30 years haven't happened.

Bill

Who's going to edit this stuff anyway?

Sarah Miller

My friend, Nancy.

Rodge

Is she a babe?

Sarah Miller

I guess what fascinates me most about the perv walk is that it's a perfect distillation of something I see in men all the time. Here, Rodge and Bill, in character, of course, are speculating on the physical attributes of a woman they've never even seen, a woman who is just the idea of a woman. And then they start flirting with her into the tape recorder.

Bill

Hey, Nancy.

Rodge

Hey, Nancy.

Bill

What kind of name is Nancy anyway?

Rodge

What is that, like Latin? Is she the one with the red hair? Mm. Hey, like the burning bush? I would enjoy such a thing.

Sarah Miller

This reminded me of the times in my life where I'd gotten a wrong number and a man had answered. "Oh, wrong number," I'd say and go to hang up. And, suddenly, the guy says, "Hey, are you hot?"

And it's not just strangers. My male friends do this to me all the time. I'll be telling a story about a friend, that she just moved to a new neighborhood, that she's writing a dissertation on French critiques of Dutch genre painting in the 19th century. And, suddenly, they'll need to know, right now, does she have a nice body?

The last 30 years have done their damnedest to clean up men's mouths. And, in some cases, in some contexts, it has succeeded. But even these guys, these hyper-educated, fully modern, and slightly nerdy guys need their 10-minute perv fix. And that, to me, seems harmless.

Ira Glass

Sarah Miller in New York.

Act Four. Nostalgia: The Final Frontier.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Working in Another Decade. Well, you know, we've all seen these people at their jobs, these people who have horses and carriages for hire near the fancy hotels in New York and Chicago, old-fashioned butchers in old-fashioned butcher shops, people whose jobs are out of another era and nearly extinct.

Well, at Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation owned by George Washington, they have an internship program in which college students spend a summer supposedly living the lives that slaves did 200 years ago. Well, sort of.

Using George Washington's own notes as a guide, they wear the same clothes, tend the same kinds of livestock, even wear reproductions of the same clothes. New Republic writer, Stephen Glass-- no relation to me, by the way-- signed up for a day.

Stephen Glass

My day as a slave started in a small trailer a short drive from the main visitor's gate. On the outside, the trailer resembles those reserved for the stars on Hollywood's film sets. The inside looks more like Loehmann's would have appeared 200 years ago. It's packed tight with racks of waistcoats, and petticoats, and bonnets. And everything has the feeling of being one or two planting seasons out of style.

Walter Laws

We have the hats, both the tri-corner and the field worker hat.

Stephen Glass

An older man named Walter Laws fits the interns with their outfits. One other thing makes this look a lot like outlet shopping. It's all clean, but not really. Nothing smells or is soiled, but on the stray sleeve or occasional collar there is the shadow of a stain. Water Laws tells me the controlled dirtiness gives the slave clothes a twist of authenticity.

Walter Laws

These, you know, they couldn't make all colors during Washington's time. And these, supposedly, are the colors that they could make.

Stephen Glass

These knickerbockers and undershirts and accessories are flown in from the Indiana-based seamstresses of James Townsend & Son. The company's the preeminent maker of slave clothes featuring hundreds of pieces in their 60-page catalog. For the internet-savvy slave, James Townsend now has the entire line posted on the worldwide web. I figured, to best understand this internship program, I'd better suit up.

Stephen Glass

Do the stockings go above the knee?

Woman

Yes.

Man

Yes.

Stephen Glass

Yes, they do. OK.

First things first. The slaves in Mount Vernon aren't really called slaves. Political correctness has, after all, come to the plantation. One intern told me the word, "slave", was classist. Another said it was imposed and Euro-centric. She argued that slaves should have the right to choose their own labels. That's hard to argue with. Still another said the word "slave" really keeps you down. The preferred term is field worker. You see, that term denotes the nature of the work, not the level of social standing.

There's been one other major change for Mount Vernon slaves since the 1700s-- progressive labor laws. Inefficient slaves used to be whipped or separated from their spouses. Today, at Mount Vernon, beatings are obviously frowned upon, and the slaves, being college students, aren't yet married. In fact, there's no hostility at all between the overseers and the slaves.

Kara David, a college student from Orange Grove, Texas, had so much fun being a slave last year, she came back for a second summer.

Kara David

This job, either you love it or you hate it, but, to me, it's fun. It's challenging. And whenever the harvesting starts, sometimes it's hard work, but everything else evens out. I mean, it's a blast. It's definitely an excellent opportunity.

Stephen Glass

Back home, Kara is an Ag and Communications major, and she works full-time at the feed store. Her other summer job option was to be a manager at the local water park, which would have paid more. She doesn't see slavery as a long-term career option.

Kara David

A lot of this also is public speaking, communications. Our main priority is the visitors here, to tell them what we're doing and to get them involved. So I hope to go into some kind of public relations, or sales, or something like that, but I will always remember this and always talk it up. I mean, I still do. No matter where I am, I talk the internship up.

Stephen Glass

For the students, all of whom are white, they don't merely learn about agriculture but also experience, first-hand slavery, the kind of culturally defining ordeal that, according to the practitioners of identity politics, whites might not otherwise grasp. But a really authentic slave experience is hard to find.

When I spend a day working alongside the intern slaves of Mount Vernon, one thing was clear. The founding father's field hands never had this good. These slaves work no more than eight hours a day. And they get weekends and evenings off. They have private rooms with indoor plumbing and television. The slaves even have access to the internet. And, oh yeah, they're paid $200 a week. Plus they can keep a portion of the crops they grow. One slave says she's not thrilled with the pay and might ask for comp time.

Over the course of a day, each slave works at about five different tasks. I started at the barn and quickly discovered I was not cut out to be a slave. For instance, I was asked to keep an eye on a lamb. Within a few seconds, the small animal bolted for the wheat fields. I thought about letting the lamb go free out of solidarity. After all, he was just trying to break free from his master and wasn't I supposed to be feeling the same? But the animal stopped after a few yards and wandered back. It turned out to be no better a run-away than I was a slave.

I didn't fare much better as a tour guide slave. As Jimmy Guckman, a junior tourist from Los Angeles, petted the lamb's soft pelt, I imparted a bit of knowledge. "That's where cotton comes from," I said. The five-year-old, a surprisingly well-informed young fellow, rolls his eyes at me. "Ya mean wool," he said. "Right, wool."

My lack of farm knowledge wasn't the only in-authenticity. Although the adults rarely mentioned it, kids quickly noticed the obvious fact that not one of the slaves was black. When I asked John Reilly, the Mount Vernon's Assistant to the Director, about the discrepancy, he pointed out that most of his field hands come from the Future Farmers of America.

John Reilly

Absolutely. I mean, it's an equal opportunity employer. And, quite frankly, I don't know what the percentage of FFA members are in terms of minorities, but we've had African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans as well as part of the program. We do not this year.

Stephen Glass

They're very clear about being an equal opportunity employer. Several officials told me this. It's even on the first page of the application. Of course, you might remember that was the main problem with slavery. It wasn't.

In 1997, it just seems Washington's farm has a hard time attracting black slaves. "We'd like to have minorities here," said one official. "I'm sure if we knew the applicant was black, we'd help him along. It would be great for us and great for them." So, it's come to this, affirmative action on the plantation.

Maybe the most bizarre part of the slave program is how fierce the competition is to get in. It doesn't need to be said that, in the 1700s slaves didn't apply to be slaves. That, of course, was central to the institution. But here, at Mount Vernon, as many as 400 students have applied in recent years for a handful of slots. Sandy Newton, the program's developer, explained the application process.

Sandy Newton

They have to get several recommendations. And we follow-up on those, call back. And then we do a telephone interview, several of them. And then pare down, to a select few, depending on how many we can have that year. And last year we had one girl from Ohio who had applied three times in a row and finally got selected on the last one.

Stephen Glass

They admit about 5%, making Mount Vernon's slave internship more selective than Harvard's freshman class.

At the end of my day at Mount Vernon, it began raining. The slaves made the historically inaccurate move of ditching their posts and running for cover, abandoning a family of tourists near the fields. After the rain subsided, the slaves eventually wandered back. A few confessed they had lingered away from the work because slavery can be boring. "I guess I can relate to them," one said. "For slaves, every day was just the same routine. Each day was just another day, another dollar." I told her, "Maybe so, only without the dollar."

Ira Glass

Stephen Glass.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Nostalgia, The Final Frontier. In this program about people stuck in the wrong decade, we bring you a story about somebody stuck as far back as anybody can possibly go.

This is a story from Italo Calvino's amazing little book, Cosmiccomics. It begins with this little scientific explanation. "Through the calculations begun by Edwin P Hubble, on the galaxies' velocity of recession, we can now establish the moment when all the universe's matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space." And after that, our story begins.

Jeff Dorchen

Naturally, we were all there. Where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space or time either. What use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines? I say packed like sardines using a literary image. In reality, there wasn't even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which is where we all were.

In fact, we didn't even bother one another, except for personality differences, because, when space doesn't exist, having somebody unpleasant, like Mr. Pber Pber underfoot all the time, is the most irritating thing.

How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart at least a little and, instead, we all occupied the same point.

Contrary to what you might think, it wasn't the sort of situation that encourages sociability. I know, for example, that, in other periods, neighbors called on one another. But there, because of the fact that we were all neighbors, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.

In the end, each of us associated only with a limited number of acquaintances. The ones I remember most are Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, her friend De XuaeauX, a family of immigrants by the name of Z'zu, and Mr. Pber Pber, whom I just mentioned.

There was also a cleaning woman, maintenance staff, she was called. Only one for the whole universe since there was so little room. To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting. Inside one point, not even a grain of dust can enter, so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.

Just with the people I've already named, we would have been overcrowded. But you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there, all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren't able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy, like the nebula of Andromeda, from what was assigned to geography, the Vosges, for example, or to chemistry, like certain beryllium isotopes.

And, on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z'zu family's household goods, camp beds, mattresses, baskets. These Z'zus if you weren't careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world. They even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.

But the others had also wronged the Z'zus to begin with by calling them immigrants on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z'zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice. That seems obvious to me because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from. But there were those who insisted that the concept of immigrant could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

It was what you might call a narrow-minded attitude, our outlook at that time, very petty, the fault of the environment in which we had been reared, an attitude that, basically, has remained in all of us, mind you. It keeps cropping up even today. If two of us happen to meet at the bus stop, in a movie house, at an international dentist's convention and start reminiscing about the old days, we say hello. At times, somebody recognizes me. At other times, I recognize somebody. And we promptly start asking about this one and that one, even if each remembers only a few of those remembered by the others.

And so we start in again on the old disputes, the slanders, the denigrations, until somebody mentions Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. Every conversation finally gets around to her. And then, all of a sudden, the pettiness is put aside, and we feel uplifted, filled with a blissful, generous emotion. Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, the only one that none of us has forgotten and that we all regret. Where has she ended up? I have long since stopped looking for her. Mrs. Ph(i)NkO, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown, we'll never meet her again in this system of galaxies or in any other.

Let me make one thing clear. This theory that the universe, after having reached an extremity of rarefaction, will be condensed again, has never convinced me. And yet, many of us are counting only on that, continually making plans for the time when we'll all be back there again.

Last month I went into the bar here on the corner, and whom did I see? Mr. Pber Pber. "What's new with you? How do you happen to be in this neighborhood?" I learned that he's the agent for a plastics firm in Pavia. He's the same as ever with his silver tooth, his loud suspenders.

"When we go back there," he said to me in a whisper, "the thing we have to make sure of is this-- this time, certain people will remain out. You know what I mean, those Z'zus. I would have liked to answer him by saying, "I've heard a number of people make the same remark, including, you know who I mean, Mr. Pber Pber." To avoid the subject, I hastened to say, "What about Mrs. Ph(i)Nko? Do you think we'll find her back there again?" "Ah, yes. She, by all means," he said, turning purple.

For all of us the hope of returning to that point means, above all, the hope of being once more with Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. This applies even to me, though, I don't believe in it. And in that bar, as always happens, we fell to talking about her and were moved. Even Mr. Pber Pber's unpleasantness faded in the face of that memory. Mrs. Ph(i)Nko's great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy among us or any gossip either.

The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well-known. But, at a point, if there's a bed, that takes up the whole point. So it isn't a question of going to bed, but of being there because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. If she had been another person, there's no telling all the things that would have been said about her. It was the cleaning woman who always started the slander, and the others didn't have to be coaxed to imitate her.

On the subject of the Z'zu family, for a change, the horrible things we had to hear. Father, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother, aunts, nobody showed any hesitation, even before the most sinister insinuation. But with her it was different. The happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me. It was, at the same time, vicious contemplation, thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of all of us in her, and also chastity, given her punctiform impenetrability. In short, what more could I ask?

And all of this, which was true of me, was also true for each of the others and for her. She contained and was contained with equal happiness. And she welcomed us and loved us and inhabited all equally. We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say at a certain moment, "Oh, if I only had some room. How I'd like to make some noodles for you boys."

And, in that moment, we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows.

We thought of the space that the flower would occupy, and the wheat for the flower, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce, of the space it would take for the sun to arrive with its rays to ripen the wheat, of the space for the sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn, of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet.

And, at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed. At the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)NkO was uttering those words, "Ah, what noodles, boys," the point that contained her and all of us was expanding at a halo of distance in light-years, and light-centuries, and billions of light-millennia. And we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe, Mr. Pber Pber all the way to Pavia.

And she dissolved into, I don't know what kind of energy, light, heat. She, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, she who, in the midst of our closed, petty world, had been capable of a generous impulse. "Boys, the noodles I would make for you," a true outburst of general love initiating, at the same moment, the concept of space. And, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nkos, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading the floury, oil-shiny, generous arms. And she, lost at that very moment. And we, mourning her loss.

Ira Glass

All at One Point, from Italo Calvino's book, Cosmiccomics, read for us by Jeff Dorchen.

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Alex Blumberg and Rachel Howard.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. This American Life was distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

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

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