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628: In the Shadow of the City 2017

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Prologue

Ira Glass

OK. This happens to be Chicago, but every city has a place like this. That weird, desolate area at the far end of town. We're a half mile west of the old abandoned steel mills. We're a half mile north of landfills where methane fires used to burn. Just south of the auto junkyard. Just east of the site of the old city dump, where there was a mountain of raw garbage that would stink up the neighborhood whenever the wind would blow in the wrong direction.

Everybody down here called it Mount Pacini for the alderman who let the city put it here.

Charlie Gregerson

You'll notice all these-- what would you call it-- tire marks. This street is used as-- for drag racing year-round.

Ira Glass

Really?

Charlie Gregerson

Yeah. Because it's basically far enough away from the police that they don't do anything about it.

Ira Glass

My guide is Charlie Gregerson, who grew up down here. He shows me where a lake-- Lake Calumet-- used to be back in the '40s when he was a kid. He'd go fishing on a rowboat with his dad. Then the city started filling in huge sections of the lake with garbage and incinerator ash. He'd come here in the '70s and see bulldozers pushing around the rubble of some of Chicago's great buildings, which had been recently demolished.

Louis Sullivan masterpieces, like the stock exchange building and the Garrick Theater-- this is where they ended up.

Ira Glass

Now, show me-- we're standing here-- where were all the buildings being dumped, and what did that look like?

Charlie Gregerson

Right here. Right here at what was the north end of the dump. And actually, we picked-- I picked up a few pieces of the stock exchange ornament right out of the lake. But of course, most of it had been ground right into the dirt, because they had bulldozers that would just-- they'd keep on-- they would dump the stuff in piles, and the bulldozer would just flatten it all out.

Ira Glass

And so there'd be this, like, Louis Sullivan, you know, terracotta ornament just sticking out?

Charlie Gregerson

Yeah, just laying out there. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And so walking around when there's these pieces of building sticking up, I mean, it just seems like it just must have been such a strange scene. Like this apocalyptic, you know, death of a city--

Charlie Gregerson

Oh, yeah. Well, there were-- I remember seeing one of these big Phoenix columns that I knew had come out of the Garrick Theater, was just sticking out of the ground. Two of those in the Garrick Theater distributed the weight of the upper floors that were over the stage. One of those was just sticking out right about a 45-degree angle out of the ground. And at that point, the Garrick had been gone for almost 10 years.

Ira Glass

There were once big plans for this area-- for canals and waterways, a harbor that never really worked out. There are zoning maps of the city that show streets and complete neighborhoods -- a whole grid of them-- that nobody ever got around to building. Instead, now, on top of all the trash stands a golf course. Charlie says that from the clubhouse, he gets exactly the same view that he used to get back when he and his dad took out the rowboat. It's the same spot. That's where the lake once was. You can see clear to downtown. So far away, it might as well be another city.

Well today on our program, we have stories from several places like this, in the shadow of the city. That weird, no man's land, where it always feels like secret stuff is happening, you know? Just out of sight. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today was first broadcast a few years ago. It's in three acts.

Act One, Brooklyn Archipelago. In that act, some passengers set sail one day on a three-hour tour-- a three-hour tour-- and end up getting lost in the wilderness. One fears for his life on a string of islands that is just outside a very, very big city.

Act Two, Troubled Bridge Over Water. A guy goes to a remote spot to help people who do not want to be helped.

Act Three, Please In My Backyard. Controversy over industrial odors coming from a factory. Odors that, for once, people want to keep coming. Stay with us.

Act One: Brooklyn Archipelago

Ira Glass

Act One, Brooklyn Archipelago. Brett Martin has this story which takes place on the outskirts of-- well, perhaps you've already figured out which city.

Brett Martin

Listen, it happens. You go out for a night with your friends and you wind up drunk, in your underwear, soaking wet, covered with blood, and shipwrecked on a desert island, all within sight of the Empire State Building. These things happen. Or at least they did happen to Alex Zharov.

Alex is 17 years old. He moved to the US from a small town in the Ukraine when he was nine. He's skinny and wears tie-dyed T-shirts, a unmanageable spray of frizzy blond hair, and a valiant-- if not altogether successful-- starter mustache. And-- well, he can probably introduce himself better than I can. Here's how he responds when I ask him to state his name for the record.

Alex Zharov

My name is Alex Zharov, and I love to have very radical experiences in life. And I consider myself to be a psychedelic artistically productive person.

Brett Martin

Here are a few other things about Alex. He lives with his cute older girlfriend and his exceptionally patient parents in a small apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Instead of going to high school, he's enrolled in an internet home schooling program. He's at work on a science fiction novel and has logged several hundred in-flight hours as a student pilot.

But most of Alex's time is spent as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter for his band, EBuffalo. When I went to see them play at a two-day Russian rock festival last fall, I learned several things. First, there are many, many ex-Soviet immigrants living in Brooklyn. Second, they all, very earnestly, want to rock. And third, Alex Zharov-- whether he's writhing on his back on stage or reclining in the dressing room with a beer and a cigarette-- is kind of a superstar.

Before we get to our story, the other key person you'll need to meet is someone who entered Alex's life at a crucial moment years ago when Alex first came to the States. Alex had an awkward adjustment. He fought in school and was kind of depressed. He was bored. Then one day, Alex was walking along the Brighton Beach boardwalk and saw a group of older guys collecting money for something called the Russian Punk Rock Club of America. Older guys, like 25 and 30 years old. Alex was 12.

One of the musicians he met that day was Roman Gadzhilov, who immediately took to the young Alex.

Roman Gadzhilov

Well, he had this blink in his eyes. It's sometimes you see extraordinary person, and, you know, you kind of know this. You know, he wasn't appeared to us as 12-year-old at that moment. At 12 years old, he was writing songs that I was writing at 18. And after this, we've been together all the time.

We called him Khryusha you know, that's--

Brett Martin

And what does that mean?

Roman Gadzhilov

Khryusha means [LAUGHING] little piglet. Little piglet.

Brett Martin

Under his new friends' tutelage, Alex began walking around in an old Bolshevik-style hat and trench coat. And his friends gave him books. Dostoevsky, Tolkien, guides to Slavic paganism, The Beats, and also Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Alex was particularly fond of those.

In our story today, our own seafaring tale happens on a boat that Roman owns-- a 25-foot white sailboat, which Alex likes to refer to as "the yacht." One cool evening last May, Alex, Roman, and another friend named Alex-- Alex Glubochansky decided to take a nice little boat trip in Jamaica Bay, the body of water that wraps around the southern end of Brooklyn. Here's Alex.

Alex Zharov

The three of us decided to just get, like, 10 gallons of gas. And my friend Roman, he got a bottle of rum, and we got two cans of food. And we just decided to have a cool trip on the yacht. And I started saying, oh, I'll go as the open ocean. Let's sail to Poland, I told him.

Brett Martin

Roman had a slightly less ambitious agenda.

Roman Gadzhilov

The plan was just to go to the bridge-- under the Rockaway bridge-- then turn around, and then come back. It should have taken about 40 minutes. Yeah.

Brett Martin

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Before they even left the marina, Roman, who'd been making headway through the bottle of rum, fell into the water, and they had to haul him back in. He was clearly in no shape to drive. This is Alex.

Alex Zharov

He got drunk. And he just was babbling something. Laughing, like he said, don't go there. Don't go there. And he was constantly saying, don't hit the shallows. He was already, like-- he didn't control the situation by that time.

Brett Martin

As a responsible journalist, I should say for the record that Roman does have one objection to Alex's version of events.

Roman Gadzhilov

It wasn't the rum, by the way. It was a cognac. I don't know why everybody puts rum. So it was a cognac.

Brett Martin

You're sure?

Roman Gadzhilov

It was Lautrec.

Brett Martin

OK.

Roman Gadzhilov

Yes. It was Lautrec cognac. I don't know why-- how come it's become rum. It's probably Alex told it was rum, but it was cognac. Not a little bit. It was a lot. We was out of commission, yeah. I was out of commission.

Brett Martin

Alex and Alex had had a few drinks themselves.

Alex Zharov

But we were perfectly sober and everything. We might have had a few drinks, but we were perfectly sober.

Brett Martin

But neither of you knows how to drive a boat?

Alex Zharov

No. No. But we got ahold of it. It wasn't that hard. So we knew how to drive it, so, like, it didn't seem pretty hard. You turn on the motor, you turn the boat, it turns, cool.

Brett Martin

Somehow, they managed to get out of the marina, gun the engine, and take off across the water toward the Marine Park bridge in the distance. Once there, they decided to try to sail to Brighton Beach and headed toward a land mass. But they got confused and turned back to open water. They drank some rum, or maybe cognac. One way or another, they drank a lot of it.

At one point, they almost crashed into a small island. Gas was running low. But they figured that if worst came to worst, they could always put up the sails and still make it home. Then they got caught in a strong current that turned the boat in circles. The perfect time, you would think, to begin to panic. Or-- if you're the kind of person who forgets trouble the moment you're out of it, or even while you're in it-- the perfect time to shoot off all the boat's flares into the water. Just for fun.

Finally, the series of mistakes reached a critical mass. They had no cell phone. Roman's had died when he fell in the water. No flares, no captain, and almost no gas. Even Alex had to admit they were in trouble.

Alex Zharov

We didn't know where we were. And then we realized we weren't going to make it anywhere. And we were like, in the morning, we'll figure out what to do. So we went to sleep.

Brett Martin

It was a glorious spring morning on Jamaica Bay-- sun glinting off the water, gulls calling overhead-- as our young pleasure cruisers slumbered. The light filtering into the boat's cabin woke Roman and Alex Glubochansky first, and they came up on deck. What they saw was not good.

After drifting through the night, the boat had come to rest in the shallows of a small bay alongside an uninhabited landmass. Stretching out behind them, they could see a long furrow where the tide had dragged them deep into thick mud. And as they stood there, blinking and wondering how this might have happened, the wind carried them another 10 feet inland.

They could see the skyline of Manhattan on the horizon, the runways of JFK airport a little closer, and signs of civilization in every direction. They could even see boats passing by in the distance, but these were too far away to take any notice. It was obvious that they were-- in a word-- shipwrecked.

The hungover sailors sat down to decide what to do. Roman and Glubochansky were in favor of waiting to be rescued, or for the tide to rise and pull them out again. Meanwhile, Alex was formulating his own plan. Beyond the island they were closest to lay another landmass, which Alex was sure led somewhere. His idea was to swim to it, walk to civilization, catch a bus somewhere, and bring back help for his friends-- who, as Alex remembers it-- thought the plan was, frankly, idiotic.

These are islands, said Roman, who, in truth, had actually been out on the Bay before and was in a position to know. But Alex was sure that Roman was wrong. So Alex stripped to his underwear. He put what he thought he might need in a waterproof plastic mayonnaise jar. He brought his MetroCard for the bus he was going to swim to, an expired passport for ID, and his favorite Buddhist medallion for luck. He wrapped his clothes in a cellophane blanket and bid his friends farewell. Roman watched him disappear into the surf.

Roman Gadzhilov

Of course, I tried to stop him. I tried to give him reasonable things, but he get a little bit too much excited. So I decide to give him a challenge in life. What? Should I just knock him down and say, stop it? You know? He wanted to swim. You know, he wanted to swim, and he swam.

Alex Zharov

I swam really violently to get myself warmed up. And by the middle, I got really tired, and it was really cold. I'm like, aw, this is much worse than I thought. And there's birds flying, like picking on me. I'm like, oh these crazy, strange, Far Rockaway birds are going to bite me or something, you know? And I got really lucky, because my legs suddenly hit the bottom.

And I'm like-- and I was so happy when I came out of there. I was so cold, but I was happy. OK. And I was definitely sure there was civilization, because tall buildings were right behind the trees. They were like-- and the bridge was right over there. And I'm like, oh, finally. And I was even singing a song walking. And the birds were screaming something to me. And I'm like, yeah, you know, I made it.

Brett Martin

I'm still not sure I understand why you left your friends, though.

Alex Zharov

Because I thought we were going to be stuck there for a really long time. Maybe for the whole day. The only thing I could do is just try to get to civilization. And especially-- these islands, they were pressuring me to go there, you know? They were so close.

And I'm like-- and I got really bored, you know. I wake up in the morning, and I don't want to stay in one spot on the yacht and, like, think about how are we going to get saved, you know? I really want to do something. And I'm like, OK. I'm going to have this little adventure. I'm going to go out and try to make it somewhere. And I did.

Brett Martin

Except he didn't. Soon, he realized that he was, indeed, on another island, with no way off except to swim back through the freezing water to rejoin his friends. And he wasn't about to do that. He was alone. So Alex set about doing all the things a good castaway should do.

He wrote a giant help in the sand for the benefit of the planes landing at JFK. He circumnavigated the island looking for supplies. He found a stick and a piece of red cloth and made a flag to signal passing ships. Then he found several big pieces of Styrofoam and some wood and spent an hour or two fashioning a raft, but it collapsed when he sat down on it. Undeterred, he went back to searching for something that would be his ticket off the island. And then he found it. It was the hollowed out carcass of a jet ski-- or as he calls it, a scooter.

Alex Zharov

I knew-- I 100% knew that it was going to float, although it was pretty badly dug into the sand. And as I was digging out the scooter, something really bad happened. Like there was pieces of glass under it, and I didn't see. I was just digging and digging. And I didn't have any shovel or anything. And I cut my finger really bad. I started getting huge amounts of blood was coming out. And I had this white T-shirt that was eventually all in blood.

Brett Martin

Now, there was really no way off the island, even by swimming-- because, well, you know, sharks. It was a galling situation. And it was made even more maddening because the city was right there.

Alex Zharov

I was thinking, how the hell did I get myself into this situation? I never believed that something like this could happen in, like, New York City, you know? Like, and it's such a huge city that you could see skyscrapers like 10 miles away. And on the other side, you can die looking at them, you know? And also, I got a little mad at the city of New York. Like, I could understand if they had just one payphone there. Or at least, I don't know, like a button to press to know that you're there, you know?

By probably 6 o'clock in the evening, it was getting a little dark. All my excitement has fled away, and I got very cold. So I was like shaking, you know? Shivering, and no help at all. So I'm like, wow, this is going to get really bad.

Brett Martin

Were you hungry at this point also?

Alex Zharov

I was very hungry, and I was very thirsty. And I found limes. I tried to open them up, but they tasted so nasty. I couldn't-- I didn't even think about eating them. There was no source of food other than the ducks.

Brett Martin

Ah, yes the ducks. You'll want to hear about the ducks.

Alex Zharov

If I wasn't going to get rescued in the next hour or two, I had a plan to kill a bunch of ducks to get some warm blood to warm myself, you know? So to drink some blood and to cut them open and use them, like to warm myself. I had this strange idea about use them as slippers.

I even had-- after that, I even had this psychedelic idea of floating on the ducks. Making a raft out of the ducks. Imagine a man with strings attached to the ducks, floating on the water, so it's like this duck rider, you know?

Totally normal for a Russian hiker to go and pick up a duck-- not just to kill it, but to eat it. Like--

Brett Martin

I'm still-- I can't-- I don't-- like you could just go over and pick up the duck? Like how did you catch the duck?

Alex Zharov

Oh you just go after it with a stick. I mean, you're a human being. You got more brains than a duck. You can catch it. But I wasn't really thinking about doing it. I wasn't, like, fantasizing about killing ducks or anything like that. I was just thinking that if it comes to that, I'll have to get some blood to drink, you know?

I know it sounds very violent, but I was fighting for my life, you know? Like, people might laugh when they hear about being trapped on an island that's so close to civilization. And the sharks, and the ducks-- I knew it was a funny situation. But I really got the feeling of what it was like being on a desert island. I felt like Robinson Crusoe, you know?

I knew what it was like to be by yourself, away from civilization, with no help, and you're facing this huge problem. And the only person that's near you is you and the ghost of your death close by, you know? So I could smell the-- smell my death in the air.

Brett Martin

It turns out that the island where Alex was stranded is called Ruffle Bar, and it lies only a 20-minute boat ride away from the coast of Brooklyn. Far from being traumatized or ashamed of his exploits, Alex wanted nothing more than to go back out there. And from the advantage of my overpriced, under-sized apartment, I wanted to see a place where you could be totally alone in the wilderness, smelling your own death in the air, while in at least theoretical commuting distance to Midtown Manhattan. So we hired a boat to take us to Ruffle Bar.

In truth, I wasn't as completely surprised as some might be to learn that such a place exists. I grew up near the islands of Jamaica Bay in a neighborhood called Canarsie. And when I was little, my friends and I would cut through the empty lots near my house to explore the mix of trash and nature on the shoreline. It was a place totally apart from the rest of my mostly urban childhood. A secret place that my friends who lived even 10 or 15 blocks away were unaware existed.

But then the smaller islands around New York have always occupied a weird place on the edge of the city. Home to all sorts of enterprise that the citizenry either doesn't know about or prefers not to see. Sanitariums and prisons, potter's fields, and grand failed schemes. Ruffle Bar itself had been the site of several of the latter. Since the Civil War, it had housed a ferry stop, a resort hotel, and even a short-lived dune community of some 40 buildings. We stop in front of a concrete foundation.

Brett Martin

A building of some kind was here.

Alex Zharov

Oh, look this is a cool thing. This is one of the World War II things that's here. Like, you open them up, and you can go inside. There's like a room in there. It might be something like a bunker or something. You see the rope here? And the rope is really old. Let me take a picture of this.

Brett Martin

There are no buildings left here. The island is returned to a deeply wild state. There's a wall of dense brush and a few trees around which sinister gulls are circling. We pass a flock of ducks who take one look at Alex and wisely move away.

Alex Zharov

Well I don't think it's-- I am really thinking about where the heck is this scooter, because it seems like it should be, like, as we turn, there should be more shoreline here. Maybe the--

Brett Martin

Is this it?

Alex Zharov

Yup, that's exactly it. Oh, wow. This is the scooter I tried to dig out. Let me show you. Maybe you'll see the glass and stuff. That's awesome.

Brett Martin

As we search for Alex's Buddhist medallion that he'd left in the excitement of the helicopter rescue, we walk across a plane of thick, dry grass, matted down like a carpet. Underneath, you can hear shells crunching and mysterious things scurrying around. Still, reminders that we are, in fact, in a major metropolis are always close at hand.

For one thing, there's the garbage. Piles of plastic and driftwood, but also shoes, steering wheels, prescription bottles, deflated balloons, a washer dryer, several refrigerators, and, oddly, boats. Three perfectly intact ones, complete with oars. I hesitate to point these out to Alex, though, to be fair, they're probably too heavy for him to have dragged to the water. And then there's this reminder of civilization.

[PHONE RINGING]

Alex Zharov

Hold on. [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Brett Martin

He was always close enough to the city that simply having a cell phone would have had him tucked safely into bed within half an hour. Alex was finally rescued after seven hours, thanks to Roman and Glubochansky. Back on the boat, they were having a fine old time. A police helicopter was performing drills nearby. And apparently-- no slouches in the clicheed castaway department themselves-- they had figured out that they could signal it with a mirror. But why rush?

Roman Gadzhilov

We really enjoyed the time staying there. We was just sitting in the boat and, you know, smoking the last tobacco that we had left. And we make a deal that we're not going to eat each other if we're really going to get hungry. So basically, it was having fun. You know, just a little bit. No hustle, no nothing. You know, very quiet. Nice weather.

Brett Martin

Oh, so you didn't-- so you were actually holding off signaling the helicopters while you had a nice day?

Roman Gadzhilov

Yeah, of course. It was a nice day.

Brett Martin

Still, as it began to get dark and the cigarettes ran out, the friends thought it was probably time to get a move on. The helicopter soon arrived and airlifted them off the boat. It wasn't until they were safely ashore, wrapped in blankets and being fed complimentary cookies, that either of them happened to mention that there had been a third passenger.

When the helicopter came back for Alex, cold, exhaustion, and dehydration had left him in a trance-like, almost wild state. And for him, this island will always be a place where maybe there'd be monsters.

Alex Zharov

And I was actually-- when I was here, I was wondering if it's like totally wild place. Are there any animals here other than birds? I was maybe hoping to see some cool animal, like a badger or something. I don't know. I like badgers a lot.

Brett Martin

Is that right?

Alex Zharov

Yeah, it's one of my favorite animals. You know, I like badgers for the same reason probably I like the state of Utah, where I never was. It's like something that has some kind of-- what's it called-- like a secret, or it's hiding, or it's like-- they attract me in the way that they might be hiding something cool from me.

Brett Martin

And that's what, after many hours spent with Alex, I find myself liking about him the most-- his insistence on finding mystery and adventure everywhere he looks. It's easy to laugh at that, to write it all off as adolescent stupidity. But what if it's more than that? What if it's also a kind of adolescent magic?

Alex Zharov

Actually, I'm thinking that this needed to happen, you know? I think if I was a boring person and I would just, like, stay at home all the time, and be, like, a nerd, I would never get into this situation. So I think this happened strictly because I was with the right people at the right time, like, in the right situation.

Brett Martin

Think about that. Every step of the way, by almost any measure, Alex could not have been more wrong. It takes a special kind of grace to turn that into right time, right place. And how can you help but envy that?

Who wouldn't rather live in a world where if you believe you should have an adventure, you do? In which each of your mistakes doesn't narrow your life, but expands it? In which the worst thing that could possibly happen is being bored, and you can go to sleep on stormy seas and trust that when you wake up, if you're very lucky, you'll be in Utah?

What I'm trying to say is this. Alex does something I never in a million years would have thought possible. He makes me think it might be cool to be a teenager again.

There's a story that back in the 1830s, a ship carrying $54,000 in Mexican gold was hijacked by pirates outside Jamaica Bay, and that the treasure was buried somewhere near Ruffle Bar. On our way back from the island, I tell Alex this, and he listens with great interest. If he found the treasure, he wants to know, could he keep it? Maybe, I say. If he didn't tell anybody. To which Alex answers-- precisely as I know he will, the only way he possibly can. He says, but what if I told everybody?

Ira Glass

Brett Martin. He's the author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution.

Coming up, the thing about Chicago that nobody outside Chicago believes about Chicago but that actually is completely and totally true. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Troubled Bridge Over Water

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, In the Shadow of the City. Stories about things happening out of sight from most of us, but very close to us. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Troubled Bridge Over Water.

In 2003, on the edge of a city halfway around the world, in Nanjing, China, a man named Chen Si-- Mr. Chen-- headed out to a bridge away from his wife and daughter. He was there for 10 hours a day. The bridge he chose is this concrete communist monstrosity, four miles long, covered with slogans that celebrate the worker. Four lanes of traffic and thousands of pedestrians on the top deck. Two train tracks on the lower deck, over the Yangtze River into Nanjing, a city of seven million.

Estimates are fuzzy, but the best guess is that one person per week commits suicide off this bridge. Quick heads up, by the way, that this story is going to discuss suicide. Mr. Chen decided he wanted to try to keep them from jumping. And he started to-- singlehandedly, at first, then with an occasional volunteer. The blog that he keeps about this is the most sober, taciturn, non-boastful account of saving lives imaginable.

Occasionally, Mr. Chen will insert his feelings. "Beware heavy thoughts," he declares to himself during one entry. "How I wish that he would soon be free of this shadow," he says about an old man he saved in another. But mostly it's just the facts. Here's a translation from the Chinese.

"On July 25 at 10:30 in the morning, I discovered a woman lying on the bridge railing, on her belly, weeping. I went to her. She wiped her eyes. She said she was just playing, and walked toward the center of the bridge. I went with her, and she-- very ordinarily-- dialed her cell phone. When I returned at 1:10, I discovered that she had already climbed up on the bridge railing. I restrained her and forced her onto a moped. She is from Nanjing's Jianye district.

"Her last name is Zhao, and today she's 45 years old. Because her husband, surnamed Li and 51 years old, is violent towards her and mistreats her, she thought killing herself would be better. However, she is silent when she thinks of her 15-year-old son.

"March 21, 2010. Yesterday at 3:05 PM, I saved a young man in the middle of the bridge. He had drunk a lot of alcohol and was planning to jump over the bridge railing. I at once restrained him and dragged him to safety. As we spoke, I learned the situation was actually quite funny. He was thinking about jumping because last year, his wife promised to start returning to him 200 Yuan of his monthly 1,400 Yuan salary to spend as he pleased. But she had not honored her promise.

"Yesterday afternoon, he started drinking with his friends. And the more he drank, the angrier he got. He believed that killing himself would make her realize that not one cent had come to him. He then said another funny thing. His mother's colleague said that the bridge is haunted and could take one's soul. I said, haha, it is haunted by drunk ghosts, and I took him home. This was the calmest, simplest rescue I've made in recent years."

Many of Mr. Chen's entries are about the people that he does not save. "February 15, 5:30 in the morning, a middle aged man jumped to his death. It is reported at this time that he was holding a photograph of his family.

"August 10, 2008, Saturday afternoon at 1:40 PM, a young woman 300 meters from the south end of the bridge climbed under the bridge railing. I immediately started my moped, but because they accelerated too quickly, the moped leaked oil and ignited. I had to run to her. But when I was 200 meters away, she jumped into the Yangtze. Her silhouette was visible in the water at a spot 50 meters away, and I could still hear her yelling for help until a large wave obscured her from view."

At the end of each year, Mr. Chen does an inventory of how things are going on the bridge. This one is from the end of 2009. He wrote that since he began back in 2003, he saved at that point 174 people from committing suicide, counseled another 5,150 on the bridge, and 16,000 on the phone.

51,000 people had texted him. Total days volunteering to that point-- 646. "With regards to the reasons for suicide," he writes, "emotional problems make up 60%, terminal illness 20%, sudden explosive crises 10%, and domestic violence 10%."

Mike Paterniti wrote a magazine article about Mr. Chen. He first heard about him years ago from news reports. He read a bit of his blog in Google translate. He felt like he had to meet this man, who, on his own, had decided to rescue so many people, and flew to China.

Mike Paterniti

I thought maybe-- maybe I'll see him in action. Maybe I'll get to see him save somebody. Just as back story, I mean, I actually came-- I had come from Cambodia. So I was covering these genocide trials, so I wasn't-- I didn't have the most optimistic feelings about humanity. And I thought I was going to find something there.

Ira Glass

You thought you were going to meet like, a hopeful figure?

Mike Paterniti

Yeah, I mean hope, perseverance, generosity. But as soon as I got on the bridge, I realized that all those notions were completely absurd. I mean I got instantly depressed. First of all, there's this four-mile long bridge, and this one man out there sort of trying to pick out who was going to jump. It just seemed, from a distance, like insurmountable odds to actually maybe pull somebody off the bridge.

Ira Glass

Yeah, you wrote in the article at one point, you said, first of all, there's the cars, and there's the trains, and the bridge is shaking, and then there's just like a sea of people-- thousands of people in the rain with umbrellas going back and forth on the bridge. And he's just one guy kind of walking up and down.

Mike Paterniti

And he has this little moped, and does a little cruise on the bridge every once in a while. But even that is a somewhat comical sight to behold. You know, he's on this little broken-down moped, putt-putting through the crowd with his big pair of binoculars around his neck.

You know, I sort of thought, maybe this isn't even real. Like, maybe this blog is a complete figment of his imagination, or a fiction that he constructs, you know, once a week. And I just don't see how this guy can save anybody out here.

Ira Glass

And you write in your article, he will he won't really talk to you when you're there on the bridge.

Mike Paterniti

Yeah. He is really grumpy and unwilling to acknowledge me.

Ira Glass

And so give me a typical exchange between the two of you on the bridge.

Mike Paterniti

I think I did ask, like, why are you standing here as opposed to any other spot on this four-mile-long bridge? And he turned and lifted his binoculars and focused out toward the river, and then brought his binoculars down, turned the other way, put his binoculars up, and focused in the other direction on the crowd.

Ira Glass

But that's it? He doesn't even respond.

Mike Paterniti

No. It wasn't like-- it was like I wasn't even there. It was like I was some ghost. And I sort of went through some of this. And then I said, maybe is there a better time for us to talk? And he said to the translator, you know, I can talk to you at lunch.

Ira Glass

So you go to lunch with him, and what happens there?

Mike Paterniti

Well, so we were in a little what they call family restaurant near the bridge. And there are no families present. I mean, it's just workers. And they're pretty hard-drinking-- in this case, grain alcohol and beer.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Mike Paterniti

And so we sit down at the table. And Mr. Chen has invited a man to join us whose name is Mr. Xi. And then we are served some food. And Mr. Chen and Mr. Xi start really drinking a lot of grain alcohol. And I started to, sort of, drink with them because it was the convivial thing to do. And then I just realized, I am going to pass out if I try to stay with these guys.

I mean, like, I'm literally-- I was-- my head was spinning and I was-- the whole room was revolving. I just was like-- and he was very disappointed. And so he sort of said, you know, just we're drinking here, this is what we do at lunch. And drinking loosens the tongue, and so get with the program. And if you can't, then why don't you put on a dress?

But then he-- you know, at lunch he definitely opened up a little bit more. I mean, he wasn't looking at me when he answered questions. But he was answering them, and he was speaking more expansively about life on the bridge.

Ira Glass

Did he explain why it is that he does this?

Mike Paterniti

He said he had read a newspaper article about the bridge, and about people jumping off the bridge. And he himself had grown up in the country outside of Nanjing. So he really related in particular to these people from the villages who came to the bridge to end their lives, and whose lives were hard and full of despair. And he completely understood that.

Ira Glass

So you go back up to the bridge, and he putters off on his moped. And then--

Mike Paterniti

Yeah, and then he jumped on his moped to go on his rounds. And I didn't have anything to do, but I turned to the translator, Susan, and I said, hey, let's take a little walk out on the bridge. And so we started walking out over the bridge. And we're chatting a little bit.

And this guy kind of came lurching by. And he-- I didn't pay any attention to him. But this guy is about 20 feet-- 30 feet ahead of us, and he seems to be climbing up on the railing. And at that point, I just yelled, hey! And then I said to Susan, he's going to go over. And I started running for him, and Susan came running. And I had that one little flash of Mr. Chen saying, some of these people will really take you with them if they can. They're that desperate.

And I had that little flash, like, this would be a stupid way to die. This would be ridiculous if I--

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mike Paterniti

--go down with this guy. But it didn't come to that because when I got to him, I had my foot on the inside of the, sort of, the concrete buttress. And I tried to flip him back toward me. And he was completely limp. He was like a bag of sawdust. He just flipped right back onto me. And I hadn't even really pulled him that hard.

It's hard to explain, but when I think of it, I just get-- I have to say, just I have just goosebumps all over my body right now.

Ira Glass

Because?

Mike Paterniti

Because he was going to kill himself. And because he didn't.

Ira Glass

So did you feel good?

Mike Paterniti

Um, no. I didn't feel good. I felt like kind of nauseous. I felt like, wow, you know, they're-- every week, somebody actually does this thing. And even if we were to clone Mr. Chen, and there were 200 of them out there, they'd probably still, one a week, someone would figure out how to do it. And then, like, oh my god, who's coming next. You know?

Ira Glass

And so Mr. Chen comes back, right?

Mike Paterniti

Yeah, well, it took Mr. Chen a while to come back on his moped. But when he came-- when he showed up, the crowd sort of parted. And I was holding onto this man, whose name was Fan Ping. And he said to me, step away, which I thought was a really bad idea because we're standing right next to the railing.

But he had such command of the situation and all the nuances of the situation that I just stepped away. I just let go and stepped away. And then he said, I want to take your picture, which seemed like, you know, I didn't even understand what that was about.

Ira Glass

He's taking the picture of the guy.

Mike Paterniti

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Mike Paterniti

So he pulls out his cell phone with the camera. Takes a picture. And then he says, and now I think I should punch you in the face.

Ira Glass

Holy--

Mike Paterniti

And then he said, you call yourself Chinese. How dare you? How dare you call yourself Chinese-- come up on this bridge with the intention of killing yourself today? You know, you are somebody's son. You know, how dare you? I'm going to punch you in the face. I'm going to punch you right now.

And the crowd, of course, is like crushing in because they think there's going to-- they think he's going to punch them.

Ira Glass

You know, I'm just sitting here, like, with my mouth open as you're saying this.

Mike Paterniti

So he kind of takes another step in closer. And Fan Ping says, look, I'm only doing this because my father was in the Red Army, and he's lost all of his disability insurance. And there's no way for him to live anymore. And I'm a lousy son because I can't provide for him. And all of our documents burned in a fire. And without those documents, we can't get any help.

And Mr. Chen says, there's nothing worth this, you know? There's no problem that we can't solve. And then he moves in a little bit closer, and he touches his arm. So he's sort of holding him by the elbow with his right hand. Mr. Chen says, I-- you know, I think I can help you. I don't like this. I don't like what you're doing here. This isn't the way to solve anything. And at that point, they have each other's word that they're going to meet on Monday morning at Mr. Chen's office.

Ira Glass

Do you get creeped out on any big bridge now?

Mike Paterniti

Yeah. Well, obviously, after having been on the bridge, I started looking at bridges for their suicide potential. And every bridge is that bridge in Nanjing. And every person is potentially Fan Ping. And every other person is potentially Mr. Chen. And, you know, it just-- you kind of look at it like, oh, I wonder if that is a bridge people would jump from. And I wonder if maybe someone should be out here.

Ira Glass

Mike Paterniti. He first wrote about meeting Mr. Chen for GQ magazine. There's a documentary out there about Mr. Chen and the bridge called The Angel of Nanjing.

Act Three: Yes, In My Backyard

Ira Glass

Act Three, Yes in My Backyard. Now this story about some of the mysterious things happening on the edges of the city, in the shadow of the city, right under our noses. And to put this story in some context, we're going to turn now to Jorge Just. You may remember Jorge. He's done some stories for our program.

He says that when you move to a new city, you cannot get into the regular conversations that everybody else gets into. He found this out a little while back, when he did the one thing that everyone in Chicago agrees is the very worst thing that anybody can do. He moved to New York.

Jorge Just

All New Yorkers want to talk about is what subway train to take to get from point A to point B. And it goes on and on. And you can't say anything. You can't be like, you know they discovered a tenth planet. And they would be like, well you would take the DMZ, you know?

Ira Glass

[LAUGHING] To get to the tenth planet.

Jorge Just

It's inescapable. And when that conversation finally peters out, it somehow-- and it doesn't fail-- turns into a conversation about cell phone reception. You can't get into the-- you can't get into the conversation. You don't know where the dead spots are. So you can't do any small talk. So what happens is the small talk becomes, oh, you just moved to New York. Where are you from? Oh, you're from Chicago. How do you like New York? How do you like New York?

Everybody wants to know how you like New York because they want you to say, New York is the greatest place that I've ever been to. And I've burned all of my connections to anywhere that I've ever been before because I love it so much here. When, in fact, people would say, so how do you like New York?

And you're like, well, you know, I like it. It's big and stuff, but I really like Chicago. You know? Oh really? What's Chicago like? Chicago is this wonderful dreamland where there's a bar on every corner and, you know, the bridges smell like chocolate. And then you'd pretty much have a silence. And the ice in your glass would clink a couple of times. And then they'd say, the bridges smell like chocolate?

And then I'd describe how wonderful it is that the bridges smelled like chocolate. And this is something that people in New York have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever believed. But if you get up early in the morning, and it's sort of quiet out, and you go to the right bridge, and it's just that sort of magic twinkling hour, where the sun is coming up, and you're in a big city, but nobody is around, every now and again, they smell like brownies.

Ira Glass

Yeah. That's actually true. That's very, very true.

Jorge Just

It's true.

Ira Glass

I can say it's true. And the reason why is because there's a chocolate plant on the west side that spews the smell of chocolate.

Jorge Just

Yeah. The smell of magic. To say, like, the bridge smells like chocolate doesn't convey like what actually happens. What actually happens is that when you're walking across a bridge, and you're dodging cars, and it's a bridge over a dead river, in the middle of a part of town that is industrial and totally unnatural, you just sort of walk into this cloud of, like, the sweetest memory you have of cookies being made as a child. Your sweetest childhood memory. You can walk into that, and you can walk into it by surprise in the middle of the day in the middle of the city.

Ira Glass

Now, you know that all this is ending, right?

Jorge Just

I know. I know. It's like 1,000 little stabs in the heart.

Ira Glass

Thanks to the federal government.

Jorge Just

It's like a million little stabs in the heart.

Ira Glass

What happened is this. Somebody complained about the chocolate smell. They complained to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the federal government, ever responsive to even a single complaint from any of its citizens anywhere in the country, leapt into action. They sent inspectors to the Blommer Chocolate Company, which has been making chocolate bars and other goodies on Chicago's west side since 1939.

Inspectors found that too much cocoa dust was going into the air-- more than is legal under federal standards. The plant installed filtering equipment. In fact, they say they'd been planning to get that equipment in place even before the EPA dropped by. In any case, fewer cocoa particles in the air means less delicious chocolatey aroma.

Brian Urbaszewski

It's kind of curious to think of, like, you know, one small chocolate factory has-- somebody complained, and they went out there looked. And, yes, there's a problem, and we're going to fix it. But yet, you know, we have thousands of times where it's happened at the power plants, and nothing's happened.

Ira Glass

That's Brian Urbaszewski, Director of Environmental Health Programs for the American Lung Association in Chicago. And as he points out-- it has been widely reported here-- the Illinois Attorney General's office has documented over 7,600 violations, similar to the chocolate company violation, at six coal plants in Illinois in the last six years. And the EPA has never gone after any of those coal plants.

Brian Urbaszewski

OK. Let's step back a minute, because chocolate factories are not a major source of this fine particle pollution. When you look at power plants, they're responsible for about a quarter of the problem.

Ira Glass

And chocolate? Is chocolate a quarter of the problem as well?

Brian Urbaszewski

No, no, no, no. It's probably far, far, far less than 1%.

Ira Glass

Oh. Now, there's a quote that you gave where you used an animal metaphor that I've seen quoted widely in a million articles that I just would like you to repeat here for our listeners.

Brian Urbaszewski

Oh, I don't know if I can. Actually, if this is the wolves?

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Brian Urbaszewski

And the ant thing?

Ira Glass

I'm afraid so.

Brian Urbaszewski

I'va actually got San Francisco animal activists after me for that thing, saying that wolves are not dangerous to humans.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

That being said--

Brian Urbaszewski

Um-- [SIGH] I--

Ira Glass

Well, I'll say it if you don't feel like you can. You said that-- hold on for a second. I have it here. You said the EPA-- what the EPA was doing with this chocolate factory and ignoring the coal plants-- you said, quote, "It's like crushing an ant when there's a pack of wolves around, then claiming you have saved people from harm."

Brian Urbaszewski

How about if we say-- all right-- you know-- it's like crushing an ant-- well, see.

Ira Glass

Don't be scared of those animal rights people.

Brian Urbaszewski

No, no. I'm just trying to think, I'm going to use sharks instead. Nobody likes sharks.

Ira Glass

I just feel like this is-- just like my entire relationship to government right now can be summed up by this story, OK? There's all these things that are throwing particles in the air. And the only one I like is the one they're getting rid of.

[LAUGHTER]

Brian Urbaszewski

Yeah. And, you know, that's my frustration as well.

Ira Glass

The federal EPA hasn't been talking to the press about the chocolate factory. When I called the Illinois state EPA, the Manager of Compliance and Enforcement for the Bureau of Air-- a cheerful public servant named Julie Armitage-- informed me that there has been a misunderstanding. Yes, she said, the coal plants had belched out too many particles 7,600 times.

But you see, these times was very, very short. At the least, a momentary spike. At the most, six minutes long. Each one was a blip, she said. Automatic monitoring equipment is going 24 hours a day taking readings. Add up all the blips per year, and you get 211 blips per plant per year, meaning that well over 99% of the time, the plants are in compliance with the law.

Julie Armitage

Yes. Taken out of context, it appears to be a very bad situation. Put into context, it's virtually a non-issue.

Ira Glass

And as for the fact that now there may be less chocolate smell in Chicago?

Julie Armitage

You know, [LAUGHING] I'm not really in a position. Would I prefer to not have had the hullabaloo that broke loose? Yes.

Ira Glass

And you don't feel any sort of twinge-- as an environmental regulator who's here to make our world a better place, as you are-- that that could be the upshot of the whole thing?

Julie Armitage

That the chocolate aroma disappears?

Ira Glass

Yeah. You don't feel any sort of twinge if that were to happen?

Julie Armitage

Well, you know, unfortunately, my job here is to ensure compliance with environmental laws and regulations. And-- and--

Ira Glass

Wherever this sentence is going, this is exactly not the answer we the people of Illinois want to hear.

Julie Armitage

Well--

Ira Glass

We don't want to hear about laws and regulations.

Julie Armitage

Well, but you know, they're there for a reason. And for the most part, you know,

Ira Glass

Everybody was following the rules, she says. The Feds inspected, just like they're supposed to. Blommers was, in fact, emitting too much chocolate. End of story. And then in the months after I had that conversation with her, the EPA says Blommer fixed the problem, stopped spewing particles into the air that violated the law. And good news, incredibly, what they're emitting still smells like delicious chocolate.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's episode of our show was produced by Diane Cook, Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Marie, Sarah Koenig, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer for this episode was Julie Snyder. Production help from Sam Hallgren, Thea Chaloner, Seth Lind, Tommy Andreas, and B.A. Parker. Matt Tierney is our technical director. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia, who asked me to tell you he can kick the ass of anybody in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx--

Jorge Just

And this is something that people in New York have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever believed.

Ira Glass

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