Back in 1991, a guy in Florida named Arnold Abbott started a charity helping the homeless. They gave out blankets and shoes and soap, served 1,100 meals a week. Helped people get jobs. He called the charity "Love Thy Neighbor." A few years later he was contacted by a woman in Michigan named Catherine Sims, who runs a ministry and business there called "Love Your Neighbor."
She has a cable access show that's on from time to time in Detroit, and a prayer line she advertises in USA Today. She sells t-shirts and bracelets. She had actually trademarked the name "Love Your Neighbor" as the name of her business and ministry. Love Thy Neighbor just seemed too close to Love Your Neighbor to her. People might want to donate to her, but then give the money to him instead. She tried to convince him to change the name. First politely. Now, she's suing him.
She demanded that I cease and desist using the name Love Thy Neighbor. Turn it over to her and turn over all profits I've made.
Wait, she wanted profits you had made?
Yeah, all the money I'd make taking money away from her since she owns the name, she said.
At this point, I have had to hire an attorney in Detroit, Michigan to represent us. I had to send a retainer of $5,000, which translates into over 13,000 meals for the homeless. That's what it amounts to. We can put together a beautiful meal for about $0.38. So that's where you have it. And right now it's taking money out of-- food out of the mouth of the homeless to defend this kind of lawsuit.
She, herself, is religious. Does follow the precepts of Jesus Christ. And she is trying to do God's work, following her very strong scruple.
Catherine Sims wouldn't talk to us. Julie Greenberg is her attorney. She points out that US Trademark Law requires anybody who holds a trademark on a name to go and fight off other people who try to use the same name, even if it's a homeless shelter with 100 volunteers serving 6,000 needy people on a budget of $50,000 a year.
In Trademark Law, the only real issue is who used it first in general. And in this case, Reverend Sims used it by 10 years first.
When did Reverend Sims first use it?
If your opponent in this case, if the charity Love Thy Neighbor down in Florida, were to employ the principle, love thy neighbor as thyself, in your view, what would they do?
He's causing trademark infringement by using this particular choice of words. Pick any other words. Any other words that don't cause confusion and everybody would be better off.
But if the idea of the principle is that you treat your neighbor as you would be treated, the way that she would want to be treated is that he would give up the name. Why doesn't she just give up the name?
Well, because she has far too much to lose. And I don't think any doctrine of either biblical or civil law requires people to give up something of value to avoid a conflict.
Both sides in this dispute claim that they are only trying to love their neighbor. Each side prays to the same God and quotes the same Bible. Neither side wanted a result as astonishing as a lawsuit, but the lawsuit came.
Today on our show, people who think that they are good people, good neighbors, who ended up doing the least neighborly things possible. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We bring you three stories today of three neighborhoods.
Act One, Mr. Rothbart's Neighborhood. That act is a story from a few years back in which an average Chicagoan decides to appeal the disputes and problems in his neighborhood to a higher authority, Mr. Rogers. Yes, that Mr. Rogers.
Act Two, The Little Girl Next Door. So a neighbor kid wants to befriend you, talks to you. She gives you presents, she hangs around. What if you don't want a very young new friend?
Act Three, The Ratman Cometh. The story of a close-knit neighborhood. People who only want the best for all concerned. And coming from the house of a favorite neighbor, dozens and dozens of rats. And there is nothing they can do about it. Stay with us, my friend.
Act One: Mr. Rothbart's Neighborhood
Act one, Mr. Rothbart's neighborhood.
Davy Rothbart lives on Chicago's west side. But our story with him today really begins before he knew any of this current neighbors. Back long ago when he had one special neighbor.
When we were kids, my brother Mike wrote a letter to Mr. Rogers. My brother was six, I was three.
On a recent show, a deaf woman had paid Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood a visit and my brother wanted to tell Mr. Rogers about our mom because she's deaf too.
A few weeks later an envelope addressed to Mike appeared in our mailbox. It was a letter from Fred Rogers. My whole family was pretty excited. Mike wrote to Mr. Rogers again, and they began a little correspondence. The next summer my family was headed to Massachusetts for a week's vacation and Mr. Rogers invited all of us to chill with him for a day at his summer home on Nantucket Island.
Here's what I remember. A long, long car trip. An afternoon's ride on a great big ferryboat. And then we were clattering down a gravel road and my mouth said, there's Mr. Rogers' house. We knocked on his door and there he was. The way I remember it, Mr. Rogers had in his house the entire set from the neighborhood of make believe. King Friday was there, Lady Elaine, X the Owl, Daniel Striped Tiger.
We played way past dinner time and into the night.
I can't say I'm a grown-up now, but I have grown up. And there's some things about that visit with Mr. Rogers that just don't quite make sense to me now. I mean, why would a guy-- even Mr. Rogers-- interrupt his vacation to hang out with a couple of kids? Were we the only kids he'd ever invited to visit him, or was this a standard practice? And what was up with the whole Neighborhood of Make-Believe at his house? Could that really be true? I wanted to see Mr. Rogers again and ask him some of these questions.
So the day before my 26th birthday, This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and I flew to Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers hometown, for another visit. We got picked up at the airport by his PR director, a guy named David Newell. You might known him as Mr. FcFeely, the mailman on the show.
One speedy delivery later, we're in the same room with Mr. Rogers.
Hi Mr. Rogers. Hi. Good to see you.
Welcome. I'm glad to see you after all these years.
It's been a while.
I should say. You were about this big.
Well, the last time I saw you, you could lift me up in your arms. I don't know if that'd be possible now.
Well, I could try. How's your mom?
She's doing real well.
It's taken six months to arrange this meeting. Mr. Rogers is an incredibly busy man. And his staff, though they're kind and well meaning, is protective of his time. There had been some debate about where we'd meet with Fred. We finally settled on the WQED studios, where Mr. Rogers has filmed his show for the last 30 years. Because, as his chief assistant told me, Fred feels most comfortable around a piano.
Welcome to this neighborhood. Oh, is this it?
This is me visiting you on Nantucket.
I show Fred the pictures of my family visiting him when I was four. In one of them he's in beach clothes holding me in his arms, my parents on either side. I ask him what he remembers about our visit, but it was a long time ago. He's met thousands of kids since then. And though he's too polite to say it, I don't think he remembers me specifically. Or what we did that day.
But ordinarily I would play and ask the children to sing, It's a beautiful day in-- you know? And sometimes I would ask children-- I don't know whether I ask you. But I would ask them if they could recognize different characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
That's what I remember.
Do you remember that?
Yeah, I remember us-- I thought, well, this can't be right. I remember there being the entire set of the Land of Make-Believe in here in this building in this picture. But then, you didn't have all the set and the cast and everything. But just the fact that the puppets were probably there.
They may not have even been there. The sound of them could have been there.
Meow, meow, beautiful meow. Meow, meow, Henrietta meow, meow cat.
Now that's Henrietta Pussycat.
And I'm X the Owl, I was just flying around looking for all of you. Hey, welcome to this neighborhood.
Up till now, I've never interviewed a dude who punctuates his points by pulling puppets out of a little gym bag and talking in the voice of an owl. But with Mr. Roger's, it doesn't seem weird. It's hard to describe his presence exactly, the strength of it. When you talk with him, he's utterly engaged. He asks a lot of questions and he seems to actually care about what you say. He let's the feelings come right to the surface. I've never been around someone who's both so vulnerable and so fearless about showing you who he is. Still, playing pretend with him, sometimes you just don't know what to say. It was Daniel Striped Tiger that finally tripped me up. Listen for when I lose it.
I'm still pretty shy.
Hi, how are you Davy?
Good to meet you.
Thanks and this one stripe of mine is awfully itchy. I wonder if you could scratch it?
I'd be happy to.
That's it. Oh boy, that feels so good. I was a factory reject.
What do you mean by that Dan? You look all right to me.
The thing is, I never looked like a fierce tiger. And hardly any tiger lives in a clock. But that's who I am. And after a while, if you get to know me, you probably accept me exactly as I am. The way I accept you.
When I told people at my neighborhood I was going out to visit Mr. Rogers, they kept wondering the same thing. What would Mr. Rogers do if he had to deal with the problems in our neighborhood? Fred agreed to talk to me about what goes on there and share his thoughts.
So come with me, won't you, to my neighborhood. A very special place I call the 1800 block of West Augusta. Our first stop, Julie, who doesn't like the loud music from the apartment below.
I get the broom, the weapon of choice, and I come out and I pound it on the floor.
Show me how that sounds.
OK, the truth is her loud downstairs neighbor-- it's me.
Just a few little--
Well, Davy, you know it wasn't just a few. That's a leading question. You're leading the witness. It can be more if the music doesn't get turned down immediately. I've only done this twice. I've only done it twice. Haven't I?
Actually, the way I remember it, they were banging on the floor a couple nights a week for a month. Finally one night I went upstairs, acting all innocent. Look, what's going on up here? We're trying to get some rest downstairs, but there's this constant hammering sound. Is everything all right? I think I had Julie's husband, Greg, kind of discombobulated. He was like, I think that's my wife. The music.
The turf war actually began the first day my roommate and I moved in. We'd play music. Julie would send Greg to knock on our door. Or sometimes just bang that broom on the floor. We eventually worked out that quiet hours would start after 10 PM. But still, sometimes we'd have friends over and yeah, we'd play our music anyways.
Me and my roommate, we both figured Julie was crazy. And actually, we kind of felt sorry for Greg. But I guess our music was pretty rough on her.
It's like if you're being tortured in a prison camp. They do something to you enough. After a while, you're like, ah, stop the madness. It's just the bass sound. It's just kind of a thumping sound. And I don't know why, it just drove me insane. And so even it was a little bit, Greg wouldn't even be able to hear it and I'd be like, oh my God, do you hear that?
Let's check back in with Mr. Rogers for a quick second. Here's his take on things.
Good for you, Julie. I hate loud music.
Hey, you're taking her side. You haven't even heard the whole story.
Well, no, that is the whole story. OK, you're on her side? But Fred, it's my space. Can't I listen to loud music in my space? I mean, what's wrong with that?
You can, but you can put headphones on. Now silence, we started with silence and I will always uphold a person's right to silence. But I'm super sensitive about this stuff. I am so sensitive that sometime-- I was in Florida not too long ago and the traffic was so loud that I slept in the closet. I took the cushions from the couch and made a bed in the closet.
That's what I should suggest to Julie.
Go into the closet.
I have a feeling you're getting to know Julie though. And once you do know her, then either your music isn't going to bother her so much or you're going to care so much about her that you'll probably turn it down a couple notches anyway.
How'd you know that?
Mr. Rogers had broke it down perfect. That's exactly what's happened between me and Julie. We're not fighting over music anymore.
I think for a lot of people, the only way they come in contact with their neighbors is through conflict. I might not have even gotten to know Greg and Julie if she wasn't always banging on the floor. But while the three of us were hanging out that night in their apartment, they told me a story that, at the time, I didn't pay any attention to. But later, made me see something.
There's an invisible architecture that links together the folks who share a neighborhood. Greg and Julie were talking about our landlady's dog. Not the one she has now, but her old dog, the one that disappeared mysteriously. Greg had the inside scoop from the landlady.
I had asked her what had happened to the dog and she said she let it out and somebody stole it.
So we were kind of like, you know what? Nobody would have stolen that dog. Nobody would have stolen that dog. That dog was so old it was-- what is that word when you can't-- incontinent.
A few days later I ran into my neighbor from across the street, Mike. A guy who makes his living fixing cars. Not in a shop, he just lines them up by the curve in front of his apartment. And my landlady's dog came up again out of nowhere. We were just BSing about something totally different, the meaning of the word "neighbor."
To me, a neighbor is a friend, like family. But there's some people that no matter how much you try to be nice, they're unappreciative. Like the landlady from here. She accused me one day of stealing her dog. It sounds a little funny, but it's true. And the dog was just about as old as she is. What would I want with a dog-- he was so old he couldn't even hardly walk or see.
Mike's a good guy. He's like the unofficial mayor of my neighbor. He knows everybody. He's always waving. His daughter asked him once if his arm gets tired by the end of the day. Now and then I see Mike going up and down the street with a big broom, a one man volunteer cleaning brigade. He's not the kind of guy who steals dogs from old ladies.
But she's 80 something years old, so I understand. She's a little senile. So my sister had a beautiful dog. She had the shots for it, paid for the shots. She had the license, everything. I went out of my way. I gave it to my neighbor Jeannie and told her to give it to her, the landlady here. And I gave it to Jeannie to give to her because if I would have gave it to her, she probably wouldn't have taken it. And to this day, she does not know that I gave her that dog.
I don't need to tell you, this is the kind of story Mr. Rogers likes to hear.
My, what a tender heart. And that'd be somebody that you'd like to know. Is this somebody that you know?
Oh, I know him well, yeah. He lives across the street from me.
What a fine young man.
Across the street from my apartment there's a boarded up building that everyone says used to be a brothel. The next building over belongs to a kid named Hoppy and his blind grandfather, Pete. About 15 or 20 folks stay at their place. More than once I've seen the cops go in there and bring someone out in handcuffs. Hoppy and Pete keep a kind of used car lot going on the street in front of their building. Cars that Mike fixes up. In fact, I bought my car from them, a '73 Ford LTD. Every time I pull up Mike whistles and shakes his head and says, "It's a cruiser, man. It's a cruiser."
These days, there's not as many old Cadillacs and Lincolns parked on the block at night. More Saturns and Explorers and shiny VW Jettas. Old buildings are being demolished. In their place, three storey condominiums sprout right up.
The condos are taking over all our neighborhood. Our neighborhood ain't even here no more. It's gone.
On the corner of [? Anre ?] and Iowa, just after dark, three teenagers were hanging out sipping duece deuces-- 22 ounce bottles of beer. Gustavo, Isaac, and Hernando, whose nickname is "The Mouth." And who has probably lived at 10 different apartments in a four block radius.
Everywhere in this neighborhood, March Field and Cortes, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Cortes, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Cortes. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Walcot. Chicago and Wood, everywhere, you name it. I lived all around here and I know more. I can't afford the rent. Papa's got to move out. But I still come back. I'll always be here. Regardless what? Who moves in, I'll always be here. You can take the gangbanger away from the hood, but you can't take the hood away from a gangbanger.
As gangmembers go, these guys are pretty low-key. They sell weed and hang out drinking. I had decided to talk to them because when I roaming my neighborhood talking to my neighbors, the same thing kept coming up. A lot of people were afraid of their neighbors. Who exactly are you afraid of?, I'd ask. They all answered the same way. The gangbangers. The kids in baggy jeans and basketball jerseys who cruise the neighborhood with their stereos bumping.
The gangbangers, they said. Those are the bad neighbors. I guess it's no surprise The Mouth had his own idea about who the bad neighbors are, the ones who fear and distrust him.
There was a neighbor in the neighborhood that he didn't agree with what we did so much. So he's stand in his house with a video camera and record what we were doing. Try to bring it to the beat meetings. He used to follow us around with cameras. Literally, follow us around the neighborhood with cameras. And say, I'm going to call the cops on you. For what? We ain't bothering you. That's what I think the worst neighbor is. They come in here fearing us and maybe thinking that we're going to do this and do that. But we'll talk to you, you know what I'm saying, bro? We ain't animals, bro. We're normal people like you.
Someone like me and him who don't have everything. We were drinking a Heineken. In their house, what do they do? They drink maybe some wine or something. And to us, where we're standing on a pavement, this is our house. I got an older relationship with his neighborhood than the building they live in.
[SINGING] You are the only one like you, like you, my friend. I like you.
Here's the bridge. In the daytime--
Back in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, we talk things over. Whether it's music, or a dog that's vanished, or neighbors who fear each other. It becomes clear that what he'd do in any of these situations is pretty much the same.
I can tell you what I would hope that I would do. I would hope that I would be brave enough to visit. It's so easy to condemn when we don't know. And if I would visit you and find out that you are a reasonable person, I could tell you about my sensitivities and see if it would make any difference to you.
It's funny, a lot of the things, like--
Producer Alex Blumberg comes in with a questions.
You said if you were in Davy's neighbor situation, you said that you hoped you would have enough courage to go down and visit. And a lot of what you were finding when you were talking to people had to do with that same sort of notion. And I'm wondering, what is it that we're afraid of do you think?
Perhaps we think that we won't find another human being inside that person. Perhaps we think that, oh, there maybe are people in this world who I can't ever communicate with. And so I'll just give up before I try. And how sad it is to think that we would give up on any other creature who's just like us.
Half the people around here wouldn't even-- if they would listen to this tape they wouldn't put that three faces that are behind the talking. They wouldn't put it together because they wouldn't sit there and think that we're intelligent enough to think. To sit there and think about stuff like that that happens in everyday life. They look at us as kids that are just probably doing bad. They don't need to do that because we don't look at them and say, oh, they're rich snobs. We say it's a person carrying their life, doing what they're doing. Minding their business. Just because I carry my life in a different way, you don't have to fear me. We'll talk to you, have a good time. Maybe we got stuff in common.
A few weeks ago in the middle of the night there was a huge fire in the building next door to Hoppy and Pete's. Nobody seemed to be hurt. Every one on the block came out of their buildings and stood on the sidewalks, watching the blaze and looking around at each other. Everyone in t-shirts and bathrooms and nightgowns, blinking their eyes, the light from the fire on their faces. In a moment like that, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard for everyone to just see each other as people, the way Mr. Rogers and The Mouth both talk about. But you know how it goes.
After an hour, the firemen rolled up their hoses, the trucks drifted away, and everyone disappeared back into their own apartments.
Davy Rothbart. He's the creator of Found magazine. His new book, Found Two comes out this month as he heads out on a 36 city tour. Details at www.foundmagazine.com.
[MUSIC- "DEAR HEARTS AND GENTLE PEOPLE" BY BING CROSBY]
Act Two: The Girl Next Door
Act Two, The Girl Next Door.
So you want to be a good person, you want to be a good neighbor. But most of us have gotten into a situation at one point or another when that was just not very easy. Cheryl Wagner tells this story.
The little girl next door is driving me crazy. I think she wants something from me. Tucker says I'm just imagining it. She must be about 11 now, a medium brown, black, maybe Spanish girl with hair tied back in a perfect bun.
In the time that I've lived next door to her. she's grown about two feet and gotten her first real bike, a Walmart mountain bike. At first she only turn circles in her small front yard and navigated the cracked sidewalks between our houses. But now she's gone biking for hours at a time. I'd tell you her name, but I've blocked it. She knows mine, though I don't remember ever telling it to her.
We both live in shotgun, so the alley between our houses is about five feet wide. Maybe smaller. Sound ricochets up, amplified and bouncing between our houses into my windows. I hate that.
Since I started growing tomatoes, bananas, eggplant, whatever I can get to sprout in my backyard, the little girl has been hanging around on the wood stoop outside her bedroom door overlooking my backyard. Ariella. That's her name. It just snuck up on me when I wasn't trying to think of it. I had just turned 30 and I'm already losing my mind.
OK, so first Ariella liked my dog, Buster.
Is that a hot dog?, she'd ask.
A basset hound, I'd say.
Why is he so short?
He was made like that so he could sneak under bushes in the woods better when he's hunting foxes in another country. France maybe.
No. Well, yeah. But just chicken bones and beer and French fries and stuff when we go on walks. No foxes here.
Is he a pit bull, the boy cousins would say when they came over. He mean?
No, Ariella would boss.
Sometimes I would hear her through my back screen door whispering Buster's name over and over through the chicken wire fence I made so he wouldn't escape and go eat stuff under people's houses.
Ariella's cousins would come over and I think maybe they were slipping my dog candy and chewies and bubble gum. Because I would find wrappers all around Ariella's little stoop by my fence. She and Buster fell in love because he wags himself in half when she says his name. Wish I was like that.
Here comes the bad part. This spring Ariella gets a plant and puts it out of her side stoop by where I'm gardening and waters it when I'm gardening. And her plant does OK for a while. But she doesn't water it every day, so it starts to brown and curl. So I begin watering it for her.
One day I give her six Miracle-Gro sticks to bury near its roots. Because it looks so wilty I feel bad for her. Other than that, I try not to get involved because I know how attached kids around here can get. Does that make me a bad person?
Ariella's mother has this terrible boyfriend. He's tall, wide, imposing, bushy hair and beard. Old work truck. Brings craw fish, crabs, and fish by in burlap sacks that sit and steep in the sun in our alley. Drinks Miller tallboys until he's yelling on the front step. The works. Though in his defense I should say that he does toss the tallboys in our recycling bin, instead of on the ground or under the house.
The boyfriend and the mother, a wiry woman in her late 30s, get drunk on Saturdays. Sometimes Fridays, Thursdays, and Sundays. And scream and yell and throw things while Ariella hides in her bedroom near my backyard. Which brings me to, is it just fighting or more?
I'm not opposed to calling the police when I hear what sounds like beating. No one has any visible bruises, but it sounds like chairs and couches against walls. Ariella's whole world being ransacked. I hear the fighting in my living room and in my bedroom even with mine and their music turned up. I hear fighting over my friend's band practicing next door. I hear fighting over their friend's screaming drunken 60 soul hits. The soundtrack to my life is Fats Domino, sad, old motown, all wailed against the other side of my wall, trying to submerge the neighborhood in dreamy water songs. Calm things down.
Last spring, Ariella's mother sat with her on our side stoop and helped her with her homework. Ariella make straight A's. Some days I'd hear her mother calmly chiding her to clean up her room.
This summer rolled around quick, and now the lunkhead boyfriend's around all the time.
What would I tell the police? I don't think Ariel should have to listen to all that? You are not going to stand there and talk to me like a bitch and use that language in front of my daughter.
One day I came home and there was a small manila envelope in my mailbox. It said, cheer up. Have a good day. From Ariella, the little girl next door.
I opened up the envelope and there was a smiling wooden clothes pin with googly eyes glued to it. And I panicked. I called my mom and asked her what I should do.
She said, thank her.
I said, I'm afraid she wants something.
Don't scrutinize everything my mom said.
I didn't know what I wanted to give her in return. I couldn't just knock on her door and thank her face to face. I wound up picking some flowers I had grown and leaving them with a note on her front step one morning before I left for work. I don't know if she ever got them.
Recently I've stopped seeing her on the side stoop so much. She got her bike and started riding. Her mother casually says to me one morning, sorry if I was beating on your door and ringing your doorbell and screaming for help last night. My boyfriend had too much to drink and got a little crazy. I thought he was going to kill me. That's why the police were here. I told him not to come around anymore, but I don't know.
Sometimes I want to take Ariella for an ice cream, but then I think how possible that is. An ice cream? I showed her a tiny wood Buddha once for a report she was doing for school and her mother was jealous.
Ariella's father drove in from out of town in a Mercedes SUV with this new wife and kid straight out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad last summer and picked Ariella up.
While she was gone, the mother kept stopping me on the sidewalk in front of our houses. She said that Ariella was excited because on her way home she was going to get to ride in an airplane. She said that Ariella had been scared to leave because she thought something bad was going to happen to her mother.
I told her mother to call on the phone if she needed anything because my doorbell doesn't work. She said thanks, but she didn't ask for my phone number.
A couple of weeks ago, Tucker hammered some rotten railings off the Ariella side of the house. Our slumlord was about to kick us out and sell the place. And all four of us were thinking about getting a low income loan and pitching in $200 each for the mortgage, so we wouldn't have to move to a dangerous neighborhood. We were trying to fix up the place for the government inspectors.
One of the rotten railings had a message penciled on it in a child's round handwriting. "You were not good neighbors," the railing said. "You never say hello."
When my old roommate loaned a little boy down the street from us a bike pump, the boy never brought it back. And then one of his cousins got shot. So my friend didn't want to ask for his pump back, even though he didn't have the money for a new one. Maybe that's how I feel.
Last night I cracked open the door because I heard slamming and cursing and someone yelling, is it going to be 911? I saw the mother's brother throw a 10-speed at her. I saw him shove her into the street. Ariella was standing on the front sidewalk near them the whole time holding a portable phone with her finger pointed at the dial. Ariella's in charge of dialing 911. She looked up over her shoulder at me.
I shut the door. Tucker said, do not call the police. He'll know it was you. I said, I can't stand it. But I didn't call that night.
Why did the police always tell when they say they won't?
The brother left and the shouting stopped. I called the YWCA 24 hour crisis line. They said, does the woman want help? We can't help people unless they want to be helped.
What about if there's a kid?, I said.
Do you have any reason to believe the child is being physically harmed in some way?
Not physically, I said.
Well, then no.
The next day the mother stopped me and said Ariella was worried about me worrying. I said I never know if I should call the police. She said only call if her boyfriend is trying to hurt her, not if her brother is trying to hurt her. Just the boyfriend. Then call. She kept apologizing.
I want to get rid of my chicken wire and put up this big fence between our houses. I think about it whenever I go outside. Yesterday I went to the green project salvage place and picked out some metal grid. The week before, I bought one of those cheap rolls of bamboo.
The other afternoon, Tucker helped me put it up, but none of it was tall enough. And this morning when I went outside, a breeze had knocked everything down.
Cheryl Wagner, a version of her story originally appeared on the website openletters.net.
Coming up, who let the rats out. Why that's never going to be the words to a hit song. In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: The Ratman Cometh
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Class Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, neighbors and how even people who want to love their neighbors, want to love their neighbors as themselves, end up in confusion and in trouble with their neighbors. We have arrived at act three of our show.
Act three, The Ratman Cometh. Katie Davis has this story of people wanting to do the right thing on the block where she grew up in Washington, DC. The block where she still lives now.
Mostly coming up my block I get this cozy claustrophobic feeling. Two and three story row houses are squeezed together. There's the Nelson's house where I first got drunk playing cards. Next to it is Erica's dad's house where I heard about Nixon's enemy list. Two doors down is 1773 where Frank Sanchez's mother shot his father in the bathtub. We stayed up all night that night.
And then, in the middle of the block, right before you get to the fire house, the light opens up. A low stucco house stands apart, setback from the street. It's an old farmhouse really, painted peppermint green and surrounded by a saggy picket fence. The oldest house on the block, built when there were just fields here.
Bobby, who grew up a block over says, it's the kind of house he and his friends went to on purpose on Halloween to scare themselves. We stand on the sidewalk looking through the pokeweed and overgrown bushes, which come up to our shoulders.
It's closed up. There's no sign. It looks like no one lives there. And there's sheets in the windows. There's no lights hardly ever on in there. So it's just a spooky place.
The house belongs to Mrs. G. She's 85 and has lived on my street since the 1940s. Although she acts like she's still on the farm she grew up on in North Carolina. I see her scatter food scraps for the birds like her yard is a chicken coop. But the bread crumbs and fish heads draw more rats than sparrows. It stinks so bad that the UPS man, Gancy, he won't go to the door anymore and he just leaves her packages in the yard.
Neighbors wonder about it all the time.
I've seen the backyard. I've seen the front yard. I've never seen anything inside the house. Only rumors. The only thing I know about the interior of that house I believe is all rumor.
I stood at the front door and I saw a beautiful painting inside the entry. And there were cockroaches, literally crawling around the painting.
Her stepson showed me pictures of the interior. It was filled, filled, filled with debris.
Mrs. G will sit on a cement bench in the middle of the pokeweed all day. She used to be there with her worty looking dog, Morgan. But he died a few years ago. She took a bad turn after that. Started looking raggedy and wearing pants and shirts with big tears.
I find myself looking away when I'm talking to her because it feels wrong to get a glimpse of her pale, creepy skin.
Around the time that Morgan died, the rats really started taking over. Marin lives three doors down in 1773.
I have seen these rats. I'll be talking with Mrs. G on the sidewalk and behind her, the rats will be in front of her door just hopping. Like playing tag in broad daylight, my goodness. They're very bold. They felt very well at home because she ignores them, chooses not to see them. Or maybe she even feeds them. Perhaps they're her pets. I don't really know.
Rats act different at Mrs. G's house. Out of the blue about a year ago, Judith my neighbor, the lawyer, she called to say Mrs. G pets the rats.
Have you seen her, Judith?
No. She said, but Bebe has.
When I asked Bebe, Bebe said, I didn't see her, someone else did. No matter, Mrs. G is now the lady who pets the rats.
On the one side and Mrs. G's there's the fire house and on the other, there's Bebe and Fernando and their three kids. They've lived next door for 20 years. And in the last four, it's become horrible.
A few months ago, the family cat and dog, Gata and Tinkerbell started to sit like statues in the kitchen pantry. Just sit there, staring at a big bag of pet food. At first, Bebe and Fernando thought their pets had suddenly becomes really smart, able to communicate that they were hungry. When they moved the pet food though, they found a huge hole in the pantry floor. Rats had gnawed through the brick, through the mortar, and electrical wiring, right into their kitchen. That same day, Fernando went out and bought a bunch of rat traps.
The first time that I got one, there was like-- this was a six inch big rat over there.
You caught one in the house?
Oh yeah, right here. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] the sink.
Mrs. G is lucky that her next door neighbors are Fernando and Bebe. They are both community activists. They believe in compromise and working things out. Sit with them a while and they'll tell you that it hasn't been all bad living next to her. That she's great with their kids and their pets.
She's part of this community. One of the best community member that we have. She walks the street all day. She talks to people. She's very friendly to all the people on the block. She say hi to everyone. She knows who is who on the block. And every one of us talk to her. We are not walking away from her. We don't screaming to her.
It's true. Every month Mrs. G brings me a $20 bill for the neighborhood fund that helps pay rent for an elderly carpenter who can't afford the rising rents on our street. That's much more than some of the high-powered lawyers on the block have ever given.
For years, Bebe and Fernando have tried talking to Mrs. G about the rats. They've talked to her over and over. They offered to help her cleanup up her yard and the house. Mrs. G always says, I'll take care of it. But nothing gets done. And the rats keep multiplying.
We really feel very much caught. This is an elderly person who clearly needs help. Our way and who we are does not allow us to impose certain kinds of things that would put her in a position that she would lose property or even her own freedom.
This really drives Bebe crazy. She can fix most anything. I go to her when I'm stuck on tough problems. Tenants facing eviction, a suicidal teen, or a kid who can't read. Bebe always knows what to do. She started to feel trapped though, in her own house. She couldn't sit on her porch or leave her windows open because of the stench of the rats and the cats.
It's not our nature to use enforcement. But here, this is a situation where there's very little we can do. We've done the talking. We've done the conversation. We try not to be the angry, mean neighbors. Let me tell you, I hear it from every neighbor on the block. And very often I hear, so why don't you do something about it?
So three years ago, Bebe finally called the Department of Housing and the Department of Health for an inspection. Nothing happened. Bebe called again, knowing full well that if the system ever got triggered, serious things could happen to her neighbor.
For a long time, Mrs. G was blessed with the amazing incompetence of the DC government. The sluggish workers charged with enforcement would get a call, put it on their list, and now and then get around to sending someone out. One day an instructor knocked on Mrs. G's door and was apparently chased away by rats. Or, I think she was swarmed by a pack of rats. That's what people say anyway.
Every time I asked Mrs. G if I could get her version of all of this in an interview, she said no. Sometimes nicely and sometimes not so nicely.
Seeing the government failing, Judith, the lawyer, made a calculation that money might be the thing to move Mrs. G. She dispatched a developer to buy both her houses. With the DC housing boom, they're worth-- even in their terrible shape-- at least a million dollars. The developer called me to find out what I knew. And after a while, he laid his cards on the table.
I just put my grandmother in a home he said and I can help Mrs. G get into one.
I was beside myself. I couldn't imagine anyone but Mrs. G in that house, rats and all. And what was this developer planning anyway? To whitewash the house? Maybe bulldoze it and build condos. You see, that's how rumors get started. I actively, viciously, spread rumors about this developer because I didn't like the way he said, "She deserves to live in a nice place."
I got my neighbors riled up. I dangled the gentrification threat, which worries old-timers on the block. I even got Fernando going. Even though a developer could be his salvation and his key to fresh air.
I think that this anti-neighbor approach, that's really jeopardizing the neighborhood and the community. Because see, that developer coming is affecting every one of us. And that's the problem. Because I, as a neighbor, if I see that you're bringing in 50 unit building next to my house, I will scream and I will prefer to keep her.
In the end, it was Mrs. G who stonewalled the developer. Wouldn't talk to him, even after he left her flowers. She is masterful at sidestepping people.
It's hard. I want Mrs. G to change. I want her to quit creating problems for my neighbors. And yet, I admire her stubbornness and tenacity. But you know, what is she holding onto? A big pile of putrid garbage and wet newspapers pasted thick with cat piss? This is something both Bebe And Marin have thought about.
Clearly from conversations with her son and others, something drastically changed when her husband died. And somehow, a part of her has stood still.
She's talked about her husband a lot. It was a real love story. They were, I guess, sweethearts in high school. But then they married different people. And years later, they reunited and married. And it sounded like they were very much in love. I've heard neighbors say they used to walk down the sidewalk hand in hand.
My Claude is what she calls him. My Claude could fix anything. There was a time when the Green house had all its shutters up, every picket in place.
I don't think Mrs. G counted on the DC government ever reforming. But two years ago, people elected a new mayor here and he set about coordinating city services. They started keeping a record of complaints and cross referencing them, getting the Department of Health to talk to the Department of Housing. And then, just when all that was in place last summer, Bebe took advantage of a windless day to sit outside on her porch to discuss a project with a colleague. And well, the rats started doing their thing.
When Bebe's colleague got back to her office, which happened to be the office of the mayor, she made a few phone calls. That same day, Jose [UNINTELLIGIBLE], the new neighborhood services coordinator, got an assignment. Fix the problem at 1767.
Hey, Katie, this is Jose. You know that business about the mountain and Mohammad and like that? Let me tell you a specific reason for calling among many.
It's funny how we're all connected. I've known Jose since I was a teenager at dance parties. He knows Bebe too. Their sons play together. So you can see where Jose might take the rats personally. Probably the most important thing to know is this. Jose has only had this job as a neighborhood fixer for a few months and he likes it. He has his own cellphone, a government car, and a really good salary. No way is he going to blow this job. He has to fix the problem at Mrs. G's house.
The situation at 1767 has reached what they call critical mass. Even the fire people next door are now complaining about the amount of rats in that house. And she's going to have to do something. I don't exactly know how we're going to approach this, but it's not going to be as kindly and careful as before because it really is--
So Jose went out to talk with Mrs. G and he kept on going, pressuring her, pressuring me to pressure her. So I pressured Jim, the pastor up the street, to talk to her because Mrs. G will listen to a preacher over any of us.
I think it was the preacher who convinced her to let Jose clean up her yard. We were all impressed. Mrs. G never lets anyone help her. She actually said, OK, come on Friday. And we did. Three fire marshalls, Gerard the rat man, Jose, two neighbors, and myself.
Would you like us to help you out with the back of your yard?
No, that's what [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].
She doesn't want our assistance now. How you doing?
How you doing, lieutenant?
It's also her birthday today too.
When we get there, Mrs. G has beat us to it. The pokeweed, her beloved pokeweed is cut down to the ground. The bushes trimmed, all with her kitchen scissors.
Mrs. G stands in her yard, the front door fully visible for the first time in six months. She lets me record this day, maybe because she thinks it will shield her from the city officials.
Well, I just enjoy doing it myself. And I did it. And I was proud that I could do it myself.
Mrs. G is hoping she's done enough to make us go away. But everyone keeps offering to do more.
You all must have been boy scouts.
Mrs. G is laughing, but I can tell her teeth are clenched. She never sounds this high pitched. She's really softer. Robbed of their mission, the city workers poke around for something they can do. Can we rake? No. Can we put a smoke detector inside your house? No. No thank you.
Jose is trying not to notice that his party is a bust. That he got us all here for nothing. He leans over to inspect a drain with Mrs. G.
You're a tough, old lady.
I've had to be.
I still don't get it. I really don't. Because I mean--
Well, you're used to be people wanting help. I don't.
Even what you've done in the garden, I mean it seemed to me-- I'd like to get some guy to help you trim the rest of it and clean the rest of it down. But you don't want to do that. You want to do it yourself.
Out on the sidewalk I pulled Gerard aside. He's a city rat exterminator and he is gentle, almost courtly with Mrs. G. He'd love to kill the rats in her yard, in her house. He'd be a legend in the rat world, if she would just let him.
I feel that she do't want us to do too much for her because she don't want people to know her. And the more she let people do for her, the more you'll know her.
And what would we learn? That she doesn't mind roaches and rats? We already know that. I keep thinking about what Mrs. G said to Jose, "You're used to people wanting help." It's true, we all are. We figure if someone's alone and struggling with things, then all they need is their neighbor's help. And if a neighbor offers help, well, problem solved. It bugs us when people say no. It bugs me anyway.
I want to say to her, Mrs. G, you help Paul every month with his rent, why won't you let us help you?
Three weeks ago, I went down to Bebe and Fernando's house. They're all dreading what's going to happen this summer. It's been eight months since the city came out and the weeds and rats are out of control again. Bebe says the cleanup was purely cosmetic. That no one ever makes a real dent in the problem.
One of the things that I'm afraid also, is that at one point the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] rat is so big in that house and the house is too old that at one point the rats will eat one electrical wire and that will cause a major fire. And she will die and everyone will feel guilty for a couple weeks, and life is going on.
We should call and get the house condemned Fernando says. Bebe looks at her husband and answers, OK, do it. Make the call. There's a pause and then he mutters, I feel too guilty.
Mrs. G goes to the grocery store every day. I look out my window and see her coming back from the Safeway dragging a cart full of cat food for the strays.
On Sundays though, Mrs. G combs her white wavy hair to the side, puts on a skirt-- the blue one usually-- and walks up to the Baptist church on 16th street. After the service, Sarah, the secretary at the church, comes and visits a while. They sit outside on the bench and talk. Never inside. Not even Sarah goes inside. If it's cold, they just zip their coats up.
Next door, Fernando has come up with a new approach to his neighbor problems. Talking failed, government failed, and real estate money failed. He just installed an anti-rat device. An electronic box that sends out a signal painful to a rat's ear. From Mrs. G's yard with the pokeweed coming back, you can barely hear it.
Katie Davis lives on her block in Washington, DC.
Well, our program was produced today by Starlee Kine and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Blue Chevigny and Jonathan Goldstein. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Annie Baxter. Music help from Mr. John Connors.
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