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588: Mind Games 2016

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Prologue

Ira Glass

The first thing you need to know about Lori is that normally she's not the kind of girl who does this sort of thing at all. She doesn't write to strangers. She doesn't do fan mail. But she's looking at-- you know the page in certain magazines where they have the little pictures of the people who write for the magazine? She was looking at that, and she saw the photo of this writer who she liked. The picture was blurry, but he had this intense look in his eye. And you could tell he was smart and cute, both at the same time.

Lori Gottlieb

But I saw this picture, and I was like, that guy's my soul mate. And I know that's completely insane. But I knew that I could not not contact him because I would always regret it if I didn't.

So I wrote this letter to the magazine, to him care of the magazine. And I made up a story. I said, I think that-- I know this is gonna sound really weird. But I saw your picture on the contributors page. And you look exactly like this guy that I met in the airport years ago. This is a complete lie.

Ira Glass

Right.

Lori Gottlieb

So I said, I was changing planes. And you were going into one gate, and I was going into another. And we struck up this conversation. And you were talking about how you wanted to become a writer.

And I said, you know, I'm not sure if it's you. I know this sounds really strange, but if you remember this, let me know. And if it's not you, let me know also, just so that I know that it wasn't you.

Ira Glass

She figured that in the extremely unlikely event that they actually sort of got along and it lead to something bigger, well, then she would admit the truth, and no harm done. Remember, she had never done this kind of scam before. She had no idea how complicated it could get.

Lori Gottlieb

So I don't hear from him, which I was relieved by, actually. After I sent the letter, I really regretted actually sending the letter because I was really sort of just embarrassed that I had done this. So then one day, like three months later, I get a call. And I was actually waiting for the cable guy. I'd been waiting for, like, three days for the cable guy. So I'm on the phone with the cable company, and they're saying, the guy in the field is going to call you any second on your call waiting. So we're gonna hang on with you while we contact him, and he's going to call you.

So then my call waiting beeps in. And I say, hello? And the person says, is this Lori? And I say yes. And the person says, I'm the guy. And I think he's the cable guy. So I say, where have you been? And he says, I know. I'm really sorry. I meant to contact you earlier. And this whole thing goes back and forth until I realize that he's not the cable guy. So I said, you're not the cable guy? And he says, no. I'm the guy from the airport.

And I'm floored because I can't believe that he's calling me, that I'm actually on the phone with him, that I'm talking to this guy that I was momentarily obsessed with. And it's him. And he starts to tell me that he's really glad that he heard from me because, yes, he's the guy from the airport. And what a coincidence, he's coming to LA to do a story the next day, and can we see each other again? And I'm thinking to myself, again? This didn't happen.

And I'm really worried that he thinks that I'm somebody else. Like, maybe he met some other girl in the airport a long time ago, and he thinks that I'm that girl. And when he meets me, he's going to be really disappointed that I'm not whoever he was thinking of.

Ira Glass

Right.

Lori Gottlieb

But I also don't want to correct him because then I think if I tell him, you know what? Actually, I made the whole thing up, and I just wanted to get to meet you, he'll think I'm insane, and he won't want to meet me. So I decide that I will meet him, but I will tell him the truth immediately upon meeting him.

Ira Glass

Wait. You know, there's a third option. And that is that he knows he didn't meet you, but he just wants to meet a girl.

Lori Gottlieb

You know, I thought about that. And there was actually a fourth option, which was he knows that I'm screwing with him, and he's just getting back at me by kind of playing the game.

Ira Glass

Wow. I have to say, like, you were meeting him-- like, for him to be the person on the phone when you're expecting the cable guy, did that make it seem more romantic? Like, you guys were meeting so cute. Or did it make it feel like you didn't even want to deal?

Lori Gottlieb

Oh, no. The minute I found out that it was him, I completely regressed back into my state of obsession. And in terms of meeting cute, actually, he was coming to LA, and I was going to New York. And we were going to miss each other completely. It was like a romantic comedy, but it turned out that my flight back to LA was an hour before his outgoing flight back to New York. So it turned out we were going to be in the same terminal at the same time at LAX. So he said, wouldn't it be great to meet in the airport again?

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

Which, of course, was the single most confusing thing that he could possibly say. Because on the one hand, you know, how fated, how romantic comedy can you get? Both at the airport, right? And then on the other hand, what the hell is he talking about? They've never met.

Well, today on our radio show, we have three stories of mind games, situations where a simple deception goes way out of hand and leads to all kinds of things that it was never intended to lead to. You're listening to This American Life, by the way, from Chicago Public Radio. I'm Ira Glass.

Later in our program today, we have the story of self-appointed secret agents going around New York City hoping to serve the forces of good and not evil till get more emotional than they planned. And a musician talks about a very unusual, slightly mind-bending request by one of his fans.

But before we get any of that, consider what happened to Lori. Her travel plans change. She can't meet the guy at the airport. And so instead, she shows up, and she has a drink with him at his hotel. And the first surprise is he looks nothing, nothing like his picture.

Lori Gottlieb

And I didn't quite know what to do about that because he looked so unlike his picture that at that point, I wondered if he was actually the guy or if he had sent-- like, he was playing a mind game with me. And he had sent some other guy to kind of go on the date with me.

Ira Glass

Wow. I love how because you're running a con, suddenly you believe everybody's running a con.

Lori Gottlieb

Well, your sense of reality gets turned upside down. It's like you think, I'm an honest person, and I did this. So who knows what other people are doing?

Ira Glass

So she sits there. And the longer she sits there, the more that she could see that, yes, when he turns his head this particular way, he probably is the guy in the photo. Not that that helps anything. She is not liking the real him, not attracted.

Lori Gottlieb

And because I'm not interested, I'm kind of deciding, do I need to even tell him that I made this up? Or can I just leave?

Ira Glass

Oh, right.

Lori Gottlieb

He doesn't need to know that I made up the story. But then, on the other hand, it was sort of strange because he kept talking about our encounter in the airport. And it was kind of frustrating to me because I felt like, why is he doing this? I couldn't understand why he would do this. It wasn't just that he had seen my letter and kind of went with it. It was like he then took the letter to a whole new level of deception.

First he said, when I met him at the bar-- the first thing he said to me was, oh, I recognized you immediately. You look exactly the same as you did in the airport. Then, when we were talking, he'd come up-- he'd just, like, pepper the conversation with all these little lies, like he said that when we were in the airport, he remembered that I was confused about what I wanted to do with my life.

So he says to me-- you know, the bar closes. And he says, do you want to come up and continue talking? And I wanted to leave really badly at that point. But because I'd been there for so many hours, I thought, I cannot leave and not find out, not get to the bottom of this story. And I feel so guilty at this point that I really feel like I have to come clean.

Ira Glass

Right.

Lori Gottlieb

So I go upstairs. And I say to him, you know, I have to tell you, I really don't think that you're the guy from the airport. It's been really nice meeting you, but you're not the guy. And he says, no, no, no. I am. And he's very insistent about it. And it's sort of like once he had his own position, he didn't want to change his position.

So I say to him, you know, actually, it really wasn't you because I made the whole thing up. And he is stunned into silence. And I think, oh, god. He thinks I'm a freak. And I'm sitting there thinking, I just want to crawl into a hole right now. I should never have told him the truth. And then he just looks at me very calmly and says, no, you didn't. I remember this.

And I look at him like, what is he doing? I can't imagine what he's doing. Why is he doing that? Is he trying to save face for me? And he wasn't, like, sort of excited about it. He was, like, cool as a cucumber. He was like, no. It happened. I remember. And it was like it made me seem crazy.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lori Gottlieb

You know, like, all of a sudden, you know how you appear crazier when you're trying to prove to somebody that you're not crazy?

Ira Glass

Yes.

Lori Gottlieb

And basically, I said, look, I got to go. And oddly, then he said at the door, he's like, can I kiss you? And I just gave him my cheek. And then he gave me his card. And I left.

Ira Glass

But there are only two possibilities. Either he actually believes that he met you or he knows he didn't. Right?

Lori Gottlieb

Right. But let's say that he believed that he met me. Reverse the situation. If somebody said to me, you know, I think I met you in the airport, and I believed them, and then they said, I made it all up, I would believe them. I would say, oh, huh. You know, I thought that actually you were telling the truth. But if you say you made it up, you must have made it up. Like, what would be my motive for telling him I made the whole thing up?

Ira Glass

Yeah. I find that very convincing, actually. I wasn't actually sure what I thought up until you said that. But actually, now I actually believe that he completely knew that he was lying. I actually believe there's no chance that he actually thought he met you.

Lori Gottlieb

There's no reason for him not to believe me except for the fact that I've already established myself as a liar because I'm telling him I lied and sent you this note that was a complete lie.

Ira Glass

I love how this started off as, like, this innocent little romantic lie. And then, before it's done, you yourself are caught up in this whole world of where you can't even figure out how to convince him, and you can't figure out why he's saying what he's saying. Like, your mind is so messed with by the end of this story.

Lori Gottlieb

Yeah. I don't know what to make of it. I mean, years later, I don't know what to make of it. It's this thing that I sort of-- whatever went on in that room that night, it's like it stayed with me for so many years because it was so confusing to me.

Ira Glass

Lori Gottlieb. She's the author of "Marry Him-- The Case of Settling for Mr. Good Enough." She's now a psychotherapist in Los Angeles.

Act Two: The Spy Who Loved Everyone

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Spy Who Loved Everyone. We have this story of good intentions and where they lead from Jorge Just.

Jorge Just

It's a Saturday in January, dead of winter, a crowded subway car, New York City.

Male Speaker

"Stand clear of the closing doors, please."

Jorge Just

At the Canal Street Station, a guy walks onto the car. He's wearing a hat, gloves, scarf, and coat, but no pants. At the next stop, Spring Street, someone else gets on with no pants. This continues for a half dozen stops.

The car's filling up with pantsless people who don't seem to know or even notice each other. Reactions vary. Some riders avert their eyes. Some laugh out loud. Some stare, turn away, stare again. Finally at 33rd Street, somebody new comes through the car. It's a vendor. She's selling pants.

Vendor

"Short pants! Medium pants. Anyone need pants? $1."

Jorge Just

It won't shock you to know that this whole scene was staged. The pantsless people are part of a group called Improv Everywhere led by a New Yorker named Charlie Todd. He pulls stunts like this all over New York. He calls them missions. The people that carry them out are called agents. Here's how Charlie explains it.

Charlie Todd

It's always hard for me to describe it because I always want to use the word prank. But prank always has that negative connotation of in order for there to be a prank, there has to be a victim, somebody who has been fooled and has been embarrassed or humiliated or had the best of. And what we try to do is really the opposite. We try to make people happy.

Jorge Just

For Charlie, happy means fun, and fun means making strange things happen in boring locations. Take mission 27, the Mobius.

Charlie Todd

The Mobius mission was a time loop in a Starbucks.

Jorge Just

It worked like this. Charlie and six friends choreographed a five-minute sequence of events to repeat over and over again. They planned it at a Starbucks, and they performed it at another, the one across the street. Each agent had their own action. Charlie and his girlfriend started off. They walk in and get in line. Charlie notices a pack of cigarettes in her purse and confronts her about her smoking.

Charlie Todd

She says, don't tell me what to do, and storms out of the Starbucks. And I run out after her yelling her name-- "Katie, come back." And then, four minutes later, we walk back into Starbucks, get in line again. And so that's our loop.

Jorge Just

Agent number three spills his water, stands up, gets napkins, comes back to clean up the mess, and repeats. That's his loop. Agent number for answers a phone call, walks to the window for better reception, then goes back to his chair. Agent number five gets up to go to the bathroom, decides the line is too long, returns to his seat. Agent number six simply sneezes at a precise moment.

Charlie Todd

And the capper was my friend Ken would walk through the Starbucks with a boom box playing "Shiny, Happy People" by REM. And he would walk in one door, go through the entire restaurant, walk out the other door. We repeated that sequence 12 times in a row, for an hour total.

Jorge Just

Charlie says that for the first few repetitions, nobody noticed a thing. It was the argument between Charlie and his girlfriend that finally caught people's attention.

Charlie Todd

By, like, the third or fourth time that I had run out the Starbucks chasing after my girlfriend, people were starting to say, like, well, if I was him, I'd just break up with her. But it wasn't that they thought that they were in a time loop. It was that they thought that we really just kept getting into a fight.

And then by, like, the fifth and sixth time that we did it, people kind of started to get freaked out. There was one woman in particular who we had on the hidden camera who called her friend and said, "you have to come down here. I'm at the Starbucks in Astor Place. I don't know what's going on."

Jorge Just

I don't know if you've ever been in a Starbucks, but if you do go, you'll notice lots of people doing the same sort of thing over and over again-- sip the coffee, read the paper, update the blog. Stare hard enough, and everyone looks like they're in a time loop. It took people almost an hour to find the line between staged scene and reality.

Charlie Todd

By the end of it-- by, like, the 9th and 10th time we're doing it-- the whole Starbucks is talking to each other, participating in this thing. It's almost as if everybody in that Starbucks felt like they could predict the future. And they started kind of, like, conducting it. Like, they would point at Chris and say, "oh, and he's going to sneeze right now. And here comes the boom box guy again. And oh, that means the couple's coming back. And there they are!" And then, after the 12th time, we just left.

Jorge Just

In a way, this might be the most surprising part of the Mobius mission. After going to that much trouble just to provide a roomful of strangers with an unforgettable memory, the members of Improv Everywhere get up and they leave, and not just because you can't close a curtain on a coffee shop time loop. Charlie posts pictures and descriptions of the missions on his website, but that's as close as he gets to a standing ovation. He's got loftier goals, anyway.

Charlie Todd

I want to live in a world where anything can happen. I guess what I mean by that is-- I don't know. I guess we shouldn't have to rely on, like, television or movies to show us fantastic things and fantastic stories. Let's attempt to bring some of that excitement to the real world, I guess.

Jorge Just

Charlie's missions are cool, but it's his objective that's intriguing-- to create fun, inexplicable experiences for random strangers. It's like giving people a small, unexpected gift and, in the process, making the world seem a bit more enchanted. But as anyone who's read a children's book can attest, mess with the forces of enchantment and things can go terribly, terribly wrong. That's what happened with a mission Charlie calls the Best Gig Ever.

Charlie Todd

The Best Gig Ever, an idea. My friend Mark Lee came up to me one night. And he came up to me and said, let's find a rock band, a struggling rock band, and give them the greatest gig of their life. So I researched on the internet for the next couple of weeks trying to find the perfect gig, the perfect band who I knew was setting themselves up for just a horrible audience.

And I found this band, Ghosts of Pasha, from Vermont. Never heard of them before. Nobody in New York had probably heard of them apart from their friends because it was their first tour ever. And they had just recorded some songs this summer, and they were gonna tour in October. And they were playing a gig in New York on Friday night at 8 o'clock for a $5 cover. Then they had a gig two nights later on Sunday night at the Mercury Lounge for an $8 cover at 10 PM.

So I knew, even if they had friends in New York, those friends would come to the Friday night show, and they would not come back. No matter how good the show was, they're not coming out at 10 o'clock on a Sunday night to support their friends again.

Jorge Just

Charlie recruited 35 agents to act as hardcore Ghosts of Pasha fans. They downloaded the six songs on the band's website, and they memorized the lyrics. Some agents made T-shirts and temporary tattoos using the Ghosts of Pasha logo. They timed their arrival, getting to the club as the next-to-last band was getting off the stage.

Charlie Todd

People entered separately or in pairs, didn't act like we knew each other. And by the time they were doing their sound check, all of us were in the room. Not only were they getting ready to perform, we were getting ready to perform, too. And everybody from the previous gig had left. They had three paying customers that night not counting us. But instead, they had 38-- the 35 of us and the three paying customers. And once they got on stage and said, hello, Mercury Lounge or whatever they said, we definitely exploded.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Milo Finch

We're Ghosts of Pasha.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Jorge Just

You're listening to footage from a video camera that one of Charlie's friends snuck into the Mercury. The club was dark, and the camera was hidden in a bag. At first, you can't make anything out, but then the camera goes into night-vision mode, and it's all there in black and pale green and white. 35 people isn't much of a crowd, but somehow, they make it seem like the place is packed.

I sat and watched the video with Charlie, who pointed out his favorite moments and showed me how the agents reacted to the music in their own particular ways, some pushing to the front, others hanging back. He points out another guy near the front of the stage. He's dancing spastically, flinging his arms, shaking to the music.

Charlie Todd

At a show, there is always that one guy who's dancing too much. And the guy we're looking at now, he's that guy. You know? So it's appropriate. We're not all doing it, but he is.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Jorge Just

Charlie spends most of the show taking pictures. Each rock crowd has one of those kids, too. But at a certain moment, even he gets swept up in the excitement and starts acting more like he does when he's seeing his favorite band, The Cure.

Charlie Todd

And then I will say that at this moment right here, I am definitely, like, into the show.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

We were requesting songs. You know, we only knew the names of, like, six songs because they only had six songs on their EP, which they had on their website. And I was screaming for-- they have a song called "What About the Shut-Ins." It's like [SINGING] what about the shut-ins of the Second World War? And I was screaming for "Shut-Ins." I just yelling, "Shut-Ins!" "Shut-Ins!"

And they played it. I think probably coincidentally, they were playing it next in the set. And I just went crazy when they started. When I heard the first notes, I was like, yeah! I got my request.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Jorge Just

Where is the difference in really, really being into a band and pretending to be really into a band?

Charlie Todd

Yeah, there's not much difference for that night. It felt just like I was at a Cure show singing along to "Just Like Heaven." You know, I was at Ghost of Pasha singing along to "What About the Shut-Ins." Whatever. It was the same thing, basically.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

[CROWD CHANTING "PASHA"]

Milo Finch

Thanks a lot. Audience, audience, audience, audience!

Jorge Just

The band gets offstage, and Charlie and company leave the bar to go celebrate another mission accomplished. A couple of days later, he puts up pictures and reports of the evening on his website. Charlie figured the band would find his page in a month or two. It's basically inevitable once he's posted everything online. What he wasn't sure of is how they would react.

Charlie Todd

When I would tell people this idea, like, as I was preparing for this event, one of the main responses I got was people saying, like, that is so cruel. You know, what's going to happen when this band does their next gig in New York City and nobody shows up? That is the cruelest thing I've ever heard.

And I just-- I really don't buy into that logic. I think-- I mean, it's kind of an interesting thing to think about. Like, is it cruel to give somebody the best day of their life just because they'll never have another day like that again?

And I don't think so. I mean, it's kind of like you have a wonderful dream, and you wake up. And do you wish you just had bad dreams every night? And I think it's great to have wonderful dreams. And yeah, it kind of sucks for a second. But you always have that moment.

[CROWD CHANTING "PASHA"]

Chris Partyka

We got punked. That show at the Mercury Lounge was a fake. And it just seemed like a blow. Like, it was like a blow to my heart.

Jorge Just

This is Chris Partyka, the guitarist of Ghosts of Pasha. It turns out that finding Charlie's website was a bit worse than waking from a dream, and it happened faster than Charlie expected. Lead singer Milo Finch found out only three days after the show. His discovery was a disturbing capper to an already long and bizarre few days.

To understand how weird this was for the band, you need to hear the story from their perspective. They hadn't even wanted to play the Mercury show in the first place. They were exhausted.

They'd just driven from Vermont to Boston for a show Thursday, and to New York for a show on Friday. Ezra, the drummer, and Brad, the bassist, had then driven the six hours back to Vermont on Saturday, and then turned around and returned Sunday. Milo stayed in New York, but he'd been up all night partying.

Milo Finch

I remember being on the street before the Mercury Lounge show completely exhausted, just sitting on the street waiting to play. We didn't even want to do it. But you know, I remember just sitting there. And it was pretty dead. And we thought it was just gonna be dead. And we were like, cool. It'll be dead. We can just go up there and play and just get out of here.

Chris Partyka

Get it over with.

Jorge Just

It turns out that the band Charlie picked wasn't just obscure. It was practically brand new. They'd only been together a couple of months. This was their fourth show ever, the third on their tour.

Milo Finch

It was really weird because we knew this was our third show. I remember turning to the drummer, to Ezra, and being like, what's going on? Like, in the middle of a song, like a drum break.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Jorge Just

What started weird soon got weirder. Keep in mind, they hadn't put out an album. Nobody anywhere had ever heard of them. But somehow, a crowd of New Yorkers knew their lyrics.

Milo Finch

The first song we noticed it was in "New York, New York." It's one of our songs, and right off the bat is the chorus. And they came right in with it. Like, I think they came in with it on better timing than I did. They came right in. And they nailed it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Honestly, it was really odd. I mean, there was moments where guys were ripping off their shirts and swinging them over their heads in, like, a helicopter fashion. There were girls that were pointing at the stage and interacting with me as we were pointing back. It was just-- it was bedlam.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

The exclamation point on the whole evening for me was how creepy it was when the guy jumped up on stage with no shirt. And I just remember him being up front the whole time punching the air and spinning in circles, and he was all sweaty. And he jumped up on stage at the end of the last song and hugged me. He's all sweaty and clammy. And he's like, thank you. Like, he just kept saying thank you in my ear. And I was just like, all right. Thank you.

Chris Partyka

Agent V.

Milo Finch

Yeah, Agent V. He seemed like he wasn't really acting, just getting it out, you know?

Jorge Just

The band got into it, too. Milo's favorite moment came at the end of the set.

Milo Finch

During the solo in "Power Bitch," I had kind of just laid on the stage. And the crowd rushed the stage was grabbing my hands like this because I was right on the lip of the stage. And I put the microphone out into the audience, and they were screaming and grabbing at my hand and touching the microphone. And I made sure I slapped every hand that came up, just so no one felt like they didn't get it.

And however the act was going on or whatever they were pulling or whatever they were doing, I felt that at that point in the show, we answered it back with something real. And at that point, everybody in the room was on the same page.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

[CROWD CHANTING "ONE MORE SONG"]

Jorge Just

The show was exhausting. They played the tour's first ever encore and left all the energy they had on stage. Like Milo said, when a crowd screams at you like you're The Beatles, you act like you're The Beatles. Only this crowd stopped screaming the moment the last notes were played. Chris remembers unplugging his amp, looking up, and being shocked that the place was empty. Ghosts of Pasha were suddenly alone.

Milo Finch

I remember we were all standing out on the street smoking our cigarette after the show, and totally confused.

Chris Partyka

Oh, yeah.

Milo Finch

Kind of speechless for a little bit. I think I remember Brad broke the silence. He's always good for breaking the silence. He was like, what the [BLEEP] just happened? What the hell was that, I think was the-- what the hell was that? As he was lighting his cigarette. It was just creepy.

Jorge Just

Creepy, but also pretty sweet.

Chris Partyka

You know, we just had nothing in our heads, so we just decided to fill it with, well, OK. We're really excited, and we're in a really good mood. So this is great. Finally, 35 people from New York City randomly came to our show and knew our words and stuff. And that's a good feeling.

Milo Finch

You know it was? I think some of the talking was we were addicted to it. We were like, that felt really cool. Let's play like that all the time. Let's get shows like that all the time.

Jorge Just

That warm feeling lasted exactly three days, until somebody emailed them a link to Charlie's site. The band met up at the local computer lab and read it together. The next 48 hours were the worst. Email poured in mocking Ghosts of Pasha. Their website's bulletin board was flooded with people making fun of them. It got so bad they had to shut it down.

The band felt like the butt of a big joke. They struggled to take it all in stride, but inevitably, one member would get mad, and the others would have to talk him down. A couple of hours later, they'd be on the phone with each other again, making each other angry, calming each other down.

The guitarist, Chris Partyka, was most affected. He got teased a lot as a kid, which is why he started playing music in the first place. It was something he could do by himself in his room, where nobody could make fun of him. News of the prank hit Chris pretty hard.

Chris Partyka

It's the worst thing I could possibly think of ever happening to me in my life because I'd been avoiding confrontation my whole life so I wouldn't get made fun of. And the moment I decide that I want to try and be real and do what I really want to do, all of a sudden, it's reacted in the same way as it was when I was in kindergarten. And it's just like, what is the difference? You know? I'm 30 years old now, and I'm still getting made fun of by people.

Jorge Just

Knowing all this, it's surprising how Chris feels about it now, six months after it happened.

Chris Partyka

It was a gift. It was the gift of, like, yeah, everything's OK. At this point, I don't really feel like anything can hurt me because I've dealt with what I've never thought that I could deal with before. It was like psychotherapy for my childhood. You know what I mean?

Like, everybody in the world look at Chris. And everyone was like, duh! Look at him! Duh! You know? And then what am I supposed to do with that but be like, hey, how you doing? I'm Chris. I play the guitar, and I like it.

Jorge Just

After mulling it over for a few days, the band decided what to do. They wrote into Charlie's website with their own enthusiastic reports of the evening. Brad, the bassist, was terse. Chris, the guitarist, was thoughtful. And Milo, the lead singer, was the lead singer. Here's Charlie.

Charlie Todd

The lead singer was really enthusiastic and upbeat about the whole thing. But you could tell that he definitely had, if not an ego, definitely had a lot of pride in the band and made that clear, too. And he had one line in his report that said, like, no matter what happened, we rocked the house that night, and you knew it. So there were elements of, like, we realize that it was a prank. But just so you know, we did rock it. And I agree with him. They did. They rocked it.

Jorge Just

They rocked the show and snatched the opportunity. Bands need publicity, and Ghosts of Pasha knew a happy story sells better than a sad one. And they were right. The band was interviewed in Spin magazine. An A&R guy gave them a call. In other words, Ghosts of Pasha played along. They took Charlie's story about what happened that night and made it their own.

But not everybody's ready to make themselves at home in Charlie's world. Some people prefer their life just the way it is.

Christopher Rawson

All right. My name's Christopher Rawson. I am a fine art student going to New York University. And they basically threw me a fake birthday party.

Charlie Todd

The idea was to throw a birthday party for a stranger-- go up to someone in a bar, at random, and act like it was his birthday.

Jorge Just

Charlie gathered about 30 Improv Everywhere agents and headed to a bar called Dempsy's to pick the evening star. He decided on Chris, who was sitting with a friend and a full pitcher of beer. It looked like they were settling in for the night. Charlie called the other agents and described Chris, and then he walked over and started the party.

Charlie Todd

And I said, hey, Ted. How's it going? Sorry we're a little early for your birthday party. But thank you for inviting us.

Christopher Rawson

They came up to me, and they just really addressed me as this other person, as Ted, and were just like, hey, what's up, buddy? Happy birthday.

Charlie Todd

You know, he looks at me. And at first, he thinks it's just a case of misunderstanding. He's like, I'm sorry. You got the wrong guy. I'm not Ted. And I just laughed and said, ah, that's really funny, Ted. You did invite us to your birthday party. We got the Evite.

Christopher Rawson

A few minutes later, more people started coming in, and everybody was wishing me happy birthday and calling me by Ted. And everybody seemed to have this memory or this experience that they had with me in the past, which, obviously, was completely foreign to me.

Charlie Todd

I had sent out an email to everybody involved with some specifics about this guy, Ted Hine, and said that he was 25 years old, that he went to UNC Chapel Hill, that he worked at Oppenheimer Funds, that his favorite band was Dave Matthews. Like, we came up with all these specifics about him. And I told everybody, pick out what your relationship is to Ted. Figure out what your story is, and stick to it.

Christopher Rawson

People were giving me hugs and being like, "oh, I haven't seen you in so long. What have you been up to?" And they had all kind of brought in little gift cards. And on all of them, they said, remember spring break, things relating to school. A few of the people thought I worked for some sort of bank or something.

Charlie Todd

And he got really freaked out, which I didn't necessarily anticipate. But looking back on it, I guess I probably should have anticipated that that would freak somebody out.

Christopher Rawson

I was definitely freaked out and suspicious. I mean, it seemed very confrontational and very grotesque, even, I would say. So yeah, it was kind of like a really bad dream.

Jorge Just

Chris, it turns out, wasn't the brash 25-year-old East Villager that Charlie thought he'd chosen. He was actually a college student, a very young one, who'd recently transferred to NYU. If Charlie's the kind of guy who goes out in the world and makes things happen, then Chris is the kind who stays closer to home. He's thoughtful and sensitive and shy. Chris likes to have things in a certain understandable order, and Charlie wasn't part of it.

Christopher Rawson

There was no sense that it was kind of a charade. I mean, it all felt very natural. It felt really close to reality. But yet, it was so strange and different that it couldn't be. So there was definitely the worry, too, on my part, I guess, that I was going insane maybe. Because it made no sense, so I kind of felt like I was losing my mind, in that sense, like, the ability to rationalize what was happening because I really couldn't.

Jorge Just

He showed them his driver's license, but they laughed it off. And Chris couldn't shake the feeling that a guy named Ted, the real Ted, could show up at any moment to find Chris drinking Ted's free drinks and, even worse, blowing out Ted's candles and eating Ted's cake. But every time he tried to leave, a fake friend would stop him, beg him to stay, buy him a drink. And eventually, he just became Ted.

Christopher Rawson

It was pretty much my only option. And I think that was the moment of the shift, was kind of realizing that. I was like, OK. Well, if they all think I'm Ted, then what the hell.

Charlie Todd

He starts answering to Ted. He starts introducing himself as Ted to kind of the latecomers. And in the end, he was not only just agreeing that he was Ted. He was corroborating all of our stories.

Christopher Rawson

People are like, oh, remember this? And I was like, oh, yeah. That was great. What a great time. And just kind of played along with it. And I think I just kind of decided that maybe I could, by assuming that identity, have some control or some say in the situation.

Charlie Todd

It was disappointing at first, to see this guy get freaked out. And I was like, oh, no. My whole idea is to make this guy's night. To watch that transformation to the guy playing pool, doing shots, and getting phone numbers was really a blast to watch. And I can't decide in the end whether I picked the perfect guy or whether I picked the worst guy.

Jorge Just

There may have been a worse Ted somewhere in the world, but probably not in that bar. Sure, he'd had fun. He even let them convince him to take the gift cards home. Chris rose to the challenge and became Ted. But by the next morning, he was Chris again, only he was Chris with another man's gift cards.

Christopher Rawson

I don't know, it became kind of this weird collection of sacred objects almost. For a year, I kind of saw them as this other-- these empowered things.

Jorge Just

Right. It's sort of like in the sci-fi movie when you come back from being back in time.

Christopher Rawson

Right.

Jorge Just

And you reach in your pocket, and you still have the arrowhead or whatever.

Christopher Rawson

Right, exactly. Or when Tom Cruise wakes up in Eyes Wide Shut, and the mask from the night before is on his pillow. As much as I wanted to forget it, I woke up and those gift cards were there. It was like, oh, I guess that did happen.

Jorge Just

Chris's response over time was different from Ghost of Pasha's. They came to appreciate the idea in their own way, but it just left Chris feeling vulnerable and a little paranoid. He hated the thought that all those strangers at the bar could just pop up again at any moment. One day, he was sitting on a bench in Union Square when a guy walked up to him and said, hey, Ted. He waved him off, but it was freaky.

It didn't help that his memory of the whole thing was a little hazy. For example, he didn't remember giving his phone number out to anyone that night. So you can imagine how he felt when Charlie called him a year later.

Charlie Todd

And I said, hey, Ted. It's Charlie. How's it going? Your birthday's coming up in a few weeks. We want to know when you want to celebrate it. We want to throw you another party. Wanted to know what you wanted. Last year, we got you those Best Buy gift certificates. Do you want that again, or is there a different store? Give me a call back. And I gave him my number. And I didn't hear from him.

And as it turns out, a friend of mine knows someone who's a bartender at Dempsy's, where we did Ted's birthday. And Ted is still a regular at that bar, I assume. And he told this bartender, he went up to her and said, "do you know the people who did that birthday thing to me last year?" And he said, "well, could you tell them to stop calling me. And if they're going to be coming around this bar, I'm gonna have to stop coming here."

It really kind of broke my heart because it had been such a wonderful night and a wonderful experience for us. And it seemed like it had been a wonderful experience for him.

Jorge Just

But is it? I mean, did it go well? Is it a success if a year later, Ted's story has changed?

Charlie Todd

Well, it does kind of-- that response definitely made me sad. But regardless of how he feels about it now, I do know that that night was awesome.

I kind of sound like the lead singer of Ghost of Pasha now. I want to tell him and kind of say the same things to him that that guy said to me, you know? Like, whatever you say, you had a blast that night.

But he did. He did get his $300, and he did get completely drunk and make friends, even if for only a night. So that night, as it exists in my memory and in the memory of everybody who was there, was a success.

Jorge Just

In the end, Chris did to Charlie which Charlie does so well to other people. He pretended to have an experience that he wasn't actually having. And Charlie thought the fake-out was real. And when he found out the truth, Charlie reacted the way other people do to him in that situation. He was sort of upset, a little hurt. And then he comforted himself by deciding that some part of the fake-out was real.

And that's the danger of what Charlie does. He believes you'll enjoy sharing his fantasy world, whether you do or not. He asks you to leave your own reality and step into his, just like every crazy pantsless guy on the subway.

Ira Glass

Jorge Just. We first aired this story in 2005. Ghosts of Pasha is still a band. In fact, they performed at an Improv Everywhere anniversary show recently. Milo, the lead singer, actually went out to join some missions as an agent with Improv Everywhere.

Coming up, when the most romantic possible thing you can do is also the least romantic possible thing you can do. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Lonely Hearts Club Band...Of One

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, mind games. We've arrived at Act Three of our show-- Act Three, Lonely Hearts Club Band of One.

So a musician named David Berkeley was requested to play a concert that was a very mind-bendy, mind-game kind of experience, more than any other concert he ever played. Berkeley is a singer-songwriter on the indie music circuit. He gets showcased at South by Southwest. He's toured with Rufus Wainwright and Billy Bragg and Ben Folds, people like that.

And though he's played tons of shows all over the country, this one was different, like I say. The idea is that he would fly to San Diego and play inside an apartment for just two people. And his goal would be to reunite the two as a couple. Now, of course, most songwriters wouldn't believe that their music has the power to move people's hearts. But I got to say, rarely does anybody get to test just how far that goes in such a clear-cut, goal-oriented way.

The deal was the guy in the couple wanted to be together. In fact, he was the one who reached out to David in the first place. He and his girlfriend were on the rocks. And he was hoping that a private concert with David, maybe that would change her mind.

David Berkeley

He had sent me a long email with kind of the battle plan, which the more I read, the more absurd it sort of seemed. The couple had either met at one of my concerts in California or their first date. I think their first date was at one of my concerts.

And he was gonna do everything he could to get her back. And I think that he decided that one huge gesture was probably what it would take. And so he planned this night from start to finish, which included going to their favorite restaurant, and the wine that they were going to order. And then the culmination was going to be the nightcap in their apartment, where I was going to pop through the door and sing them their concert.

And then he just sort of gave me the plan for how I was going to sneak into the apartment without them knowing, and how I was going to have to actually sneak into the garage, which literally involved me following a car in and trying to get through the gate before the gate closed and then up a back elevator onto the eighth floor, where I would then knock on his apartment door.

Ira Glass

Not to ask a kind of dumb question, but couldn't he just send you a key?

David Berkeley

Yeah. I guess that didn't cross his or my mind. But yeah, he should have. And I was actually nervous. I play a lot of concerts, and rarely have I been nervous like this.

And I guess it was because I had no idea what I was walking into. And I was about to knock on the door, and I started to think about, what is she going to do when I walk in? And I guess I expected that she was-- despite feeling like things weren't going well, I thought she was going to be really excited to see me. And she would-- I don't know what. She would give me a hug, or she would laugh, or something like that.

And in fact, I opened the door, and she just sort of kind of crumpled. She sort of collapsed. Her head kind of fell into her hands, and I think she might have said, I can't believe you did this. He shouldn't have done this.

And it was hard for me, at this point, not to take that a little personally, you know? Because without sort of knowing it, I had kind of joined sides with this guy. I was on his team. We were coming in to do a job.

Ira Glass

OK. So what do you do?

David Berkeley

I think I said something like, hi. I thought I might play you a few songs. And it just felt gross. I felt, why was I even here? And the guy asked me if I wanted to sit or stand, which I normally stand when I perform. But that seemed completely absurd to me, that I was going to stand and perform to these two people in their living room. So I said I would sit. And he pulled a chair up for me.

And I was across a small coffee table from them. And they sat down on the couch. And I sat down in my chair, and I started to play.

Ira Glass

And so they're on the couch. And are they sitting close together?

David Berkeley

God, no. I think it was just a three-cushion couch, and they were on the left and the right cushions. And there was a big cushion in between.

Ira Glass

Now, you have your guitar there. You and I are speaking to each other from different locations. You want to just play a couple lines of the song so we have a sense of what this was?

David Berkeley

Let me just tune real quick.

[TUNING GUITAR]

OK.

[PLAYING GUITAR]

I should stop right there because I got about that far in the song and glanced up. And that was enough for her to recognize the song. And she started to cry, which wasn't what I had hoped would happen.

[PLAYING GUITAR]

(SINGING) A couple on a bridge, a stone bridge in some European town. After all the years, I see we all fall down. The knock at the front door, the crack in the wall.

And right when I sang that part of the chorus-- the knock on the front door-- it seemed like suddenly, I was actually singing a song that was the story of this night.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah. This is a song about a couple for whom things are not going very well.

David Berkeley

Yeah. And why I didn't know that and think about that before I started to play it, I don't know. But it was too late. And this happens at times in a performance, where you recognize you've made the wrong choice of a song. And you can never really go back. I had to just barrel through.

Ira Glass

And so where do you go? What do you play next? What do you do?

David Berkeley

Well, I think I played a song that was a story song that was more lighthearted. And I got through that. But the night wasn't getting any easier. And also, you have to understand that after a song finishes, two people kind of clapping a couple of times after you finish a song, it sounds really, really depressing.

Ira Glass

I guess I didn't really stop to think about the fact that the song would end, and they would either have to clap or not.

David Berkeley

Well, that's why this was so weird, because the time in between the songs became as painful as the songs themselves.

Ira Glass

And so what do you do to try to turn the situation around?

David Berkeley

Well, let me first say that, as I'm singing that song, right after I sang the first lyric, I regretted the choice. And I started thinking ahead. And when I started racing through in my mind the other songs that I was going to be able to play this night, I started to get really scared because I realized that not only might it not have been a good idea to hire a musician to come across the country and sing to get back your girl, but I was probably the wrong musician to have hired.

Ira Glass

Because of your melancholic repertoire.

David Berkeley

Exactly. And he knew this because he knows my music. So maybe on the third or fourth song I played, the song "Straw Man," which is one of the ones that he had asked for-- and I'll play a little bit of it.

[PLAYING GUITAR]

(SINGING) Never quite so clean, she makes the world around me seem lavender and wintergreen when we're side by side.

And that chorus repeats several times. And after about the second chorus, I looked up, and I felt like she softened a little bit. And it seemed like the song was doing a little bit more of its job.

And by the end of the song, it really did feel like it had changed something in the room. And she kind of was sitting up a little straighter, maybe. And she was looking at me more. And I even kind of saw her look at him a little and give a little smile. And that was a tiny gesture, but it was so good to see.

Ira Glass

And so from there, was it better?

David Berkeley

Well, so then we got on a little bit of a roll. But with each song, and even smaller increments, with each verse, it seemed like they were symbolically and literally moving closer together. And in fact, by maybe song five or six, they actually were sitting next to each other.

And I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I really didn't think there was any chance. And certainly from the beginning of the night till that point, there seemed like there was zero chance.

But they started holding hands. And at one point in a song, she lay her head on his shoulder. So it's working. And I play a song that actually, they kiss. And that was a shock. And at that point, I thought, this is it. We've done it. I wanted to slap the guy's hand. I felt great.

But the mood had changed, but it was still painfully awkward and, if anything, more so now because I was now right across the coffee table from a couple who's making out as I'm singing. And now it felt totally wrong that I was there, just for different reasons. At one point, they kissed, and I locked eyes with her right as they're kissing. And we both looked away immediately, but it happened.

And at one point, he and I met eyes at just a really badly-timed moment, where he was giving her one of these looks like, I'm your man. And I will be there for you forever. And we'll have beautiful children together. And there I am. And he and I are looking at each other suddenly for a second, but a very, very bad second of my life.

Ira Glass

So things move from horrible to exuberant to straight out creepy, it sounds like.

David Berkeley

I think that's fair. But at least when I'm singing, I can just sort of get lost in the fact that the music is sort of working for them. And so as I finish the concert, she hugs me, and he walks me out of the apartment and down to the elevator. I get to take the main elevator down this time.

And he tells me something to the effect of, you never know how things are going to work out. But I think that you may have been the tipping point tonight. And that felt great. I was so happy.

Ira Glass

Right. Your music brought these people together.

David Berkeley

Brought them together in the first place, maybe, brought them back together now. It was perfect. Even when I had tried to serenade ex-girlfriends to get them back directly, that hadn't worked.

Ira Glass

A few months after all this, David Berkeley was back in California doing a show in Los Angeles, and the guy emailed him, asking if David would give him two spots on the guest list. But the guy did not bring the girl. He came with a buddy.

And he told David afterwards that things didn't work out. Incredibly, David says that he would do this all over again if somebody else asked him to do it. And as for the guy-- OK, after this failure, would he try another concert in his apartment?

David Berkeley

I know he would. And in fact, I know that he would do it again with me because he's made that clear.

Ira Glass

What?

David Berkeley

He's made it clear that if he has another girl, he hopes the situation will arise where he can have me come and do another serenade.

Ira Glass

But wait, would you go?

David Berkeley

What would be funny is that my exclusive knowledge of him is related to this other episode that we wouldn't be able to talk about, this other girl where I did the same thing. And of course, the new girl isn't going to want to know about the old girl and is certainly not going to want to know that he did the same trick.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Yeah, I was just thinking that. It definitely takes the romantic idealism off the whole thing.

David Berkeley

Yeah. Then it starts to get bizarre in a whole other way because now I'm sort of his guy. And I'm not sure about that.

Ira Glass

David Berkeley. He's recently released a book of 10 short stories called The Free Brontosaurus and an accompanying album, 10 songs called Cardboard Box. This story was produced with the help of Marshall Lewy.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Marie and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show, Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Lyra Smith. Our website, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Special thanks, as always, to our co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who reminds me all the time--

David Berkeley

I'm your man, and I will be there for you forever. And we'll have beautiful children together.

Ira Glass

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

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