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713: Made to Be Broken

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Prologue: Prologue

Sean Cole

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole sitting in for Ira Glass. And our show today is about rules and when it might be OK to break them, when it's even right to break them. About a year ago, summer 2019, my friend Benjamen Walker was in Nairobi, in Kenya, working on this project with some folks from the London School of Economics. And about four days into his trip, he found himself downtown, idly walking past this big, huge recreation area called Uhuru Park.

Benjamen Walker

And boom. There was the protesters.

Sean Cole

How many of them were there?

Benjamen Walker

Like 300.

There's, what, 300 people here?

Just a mass of people-- like, men.

Sean Cole

And the thing they were protesting was Uber. They were Uber drivers on strike. Like I said, 2019. You might remember there were a lot of Uber strikes all over the world around this time.

Uber had been in Kenya for about four years, and these drivers had the same complaint that's followed the company wherever it's gone. Uber makes too much off the rides. They make too little. They want more of the pie. And they were mad.

Benjamen waded into the crowd of strikers with a microphone because that's what he does. He hosts a podcast you might have heard of called Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything. And this story was right up his alley. He's done lots of stories about the gig economy and its discontents. This one driver, Jafar, said one thing that would get them more money is rules, more rules.

Jafar

It is just about regulations, number one, number two, regulations, number three, regulations. We need regulations from the government. Because when you are regulated, you cannot come over here, make money, vote in New York Stock Exchange, flow to your whatever-- IPO-- and investor billionaires come and take. Yeah?

Benjamen Walker

Yeah.

Jafar

And when we have regulations, we will never see a driver working 18 hours a day. Are we together?

Benjamen Walker

How do you win? That's what I want to know. How do you win?

Driver

Solidarity.

Sean Cole

That was another driver there. Solidarity means everyone participating in the work stoppage. Except from what Benjamen saw that week, there were plenty of other Uber drivers still out working. In fact, even as they were all standing there, 300 strong, protesting against Uber--

Driver 1

We are now on strike, and there's another guy carrying passenger around--

Driver 2

No, no.

Driver 1

You see, there is car here packed with passenger.

Driver 2

Oh, no.

Benjamen Walker

So there is, like, a road that goes through this part of the park. And some guy, Uber driver, decided to go through the protest.

Sean Cole

Through the protest?

Benjamen Walker

Yeah.

Sean Cole

And they know he's an Uber driver how? He has the little Uber sign in his window or something?

Benjamen Walker

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And they swarm his car. And then--

[AIR HISSING]

--they let the air out of the tires.

[WHISTLING]

Driver 1

That's how I'm going to deal with them. Let the car stay down, eh?

Driver 2

That's how we deal with traitors.

Sean Cole

And what did the guy do?

Benjamen Walker

He seemed pretty upset. He kind of sat there in shock for a while.

Sean Cole

He stayed in his car.

Benjamen Walker

He got out. Eventually, even some of the protesters helped him move it out of the way.

Driver 1

Of course. He's still our brother, anyway. Good or bad, he's still our brother. We fight them, and we help them at the same time.

Driver 2

Yes.

Sean Cole

This was one of two Uber drivers that tried to drive through the middle of the protest while Benjamen was there. And one of the protesters said, oh, the reason they're still driving is that with all of us on strike, the surge pricing kicked in. So the ones who keep at it make more money, which is to say it's hard to beat Uber at this game. House always wins.

But then as they all stood around discussing this, one of the drivers told Benjamen about a kind of a workaround they had up their sleeve-- a cheat code.

Benjamen Walker

So, all right, now I have a question for you. So the last two days, I took some Ubers, I told you, when I was here.

Driver

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Benjamen Walker

So I'm here till Thursday. I'm not going to take another Uber. What do I do, just find a taxi driver at the hotel?

Benjamen Walker

And he's like, oh, you can just go karura.

Driver 1

Karura is the way we normally call it. It's our language. Karura, you get a rider. You look at the estimate. You switch off the app. You go with the estimate, which means Uber will not get the commission.

Sean Cole

So just to be clear, imagine you request a ride, and it automatically shows you how much it's going to cost. And when the driver shows up, you say to them, how about I hit cancel on the app and just give you the estimate in cash, cutting out the middleman?

Driver 1

That is what we call karura.

Benjamen Walker

So if I was to say to a driver, I want to go karura, is that how I would say it?

Driver 1

Yes, yes, can you go karura? [LAUGHS] Yeah, you can tell the driver, can you go karura? He'll understand.

[CAR DOOR OPENS]

Driver 2

Mr. Benjamen.

Benjamen Walker

Yes.

Driver 2

How are you?

Benjamen Walker

I'm good. And you?

Driver 2

Fine, fine.

Benjamen Walker

Hold on. Wait, wait, wait. I want to-- all right, so this ride-- hey, where's my ride? My ride is 380, OK?

Driver 2

Mm-hm.

Benjamen Walker

I want to give you 400, and we go karura. And I cancel.

Driver 2

OK.

Benjamen Walker

All right, cool. So I canceled it. Yep.

Sean Cole

So how did it feel once you did that?

Benjamen Walker

It felt great. On the one hand, it solves all of my problems for the rest of this trip. But also, I almost feel like I've gotten the answer to my question, because I wanted to know how you win. And there's something about going karura, which is basically using the tools against the company. I mean, it's great.

Sean Cole

And it's subversive. One of the protesters referred to it as economic sabotage-- i.e., until we get more rules governing Uber, we're going to break some.

I asked Uber if I could talk to a company rep in Kenya about going karura. A spokesperson for all of sub-Saharan Africa wrote back, saying, in part, "Repeat canceling by either a driver or rider could be flagged by our fraud technology, which will then result in an investigation." She also said it's not safe to go off app for the passengers or the drivers-- which, for the record, some of the drivers will tell you too that they don't like to do it, because having a record of the trip is safer for them.

Of course, going under the radar like this isn't really anything that novel. Cab drivers in New York will sometimes say, hey, how about I turn off the meter and you pay me in cash? But they don't have a name for it. Benjamen and I both wondered, you know, why karura? It's the name of a forest in Nairobi, Karura Forest, but none of the drivers Benjamen rode with could really explain it beyond that.

Driver

OK, I don't know who came up with that name.

Sean Cole

And when I started calling around to drivers and transport officials in Nairobi, this funny thing happened.

Man

Karura, yeah. [LAUGHS] That's what we call it.

Sean Cole

All of them giggled when I said it. Like, oh, that. You want to know about that? How do you know about that? And one of the drivers said, oh, you can go karura.

Driver 1

Yeah, it's called-- [LAUGHS]

Driver 2

Yeah, karura. I know karura. [LAUGHS]

Driver 3

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Karura.

Sean Cole

One of them told me before Uber came to town, those informal taxis that you haggle with, a lot of them stationed themselves around Karura Forest. So now it was a kind of catch-all phrase for paying any sort of driver under the table. That's the most rational explanation. But there was this other explanation that came from a driver who I'm calling Roger.

Roger

Karura, yes. I think I have a clue.

Sean Cole

He's 30 years old, has a one-year-old son, been driving since Uber first came to Kenya. He's also a graphic designer, has a degree in business and IT. He's worked in the hotel industry. He's done a lot of things.

Roger

Karura is a forest.

Sean Cole

Yeah.

Roger

So we're assuming these are laws that we just got from the forest. So it's quote, unquote, "jungle law." Let me call it jungle law.

Sean Cole

You're saying jungle law?

Roger

Yes, jungle law. So it's something not allowed, and again, it's something not in the constitution of Uber.

Sean Cole

Something not in the laws of Uber.

Roger

Yes, a jungle law we formed ourself.

Sean Cole

I see. So if Uber are the authorities, then karura is sort of skirting the authorities.

Roger

Yes, definitely.

Sean Cole

Got you.

Roger

Yeah.

Sean Cole

How does that feel when you're going karura versus using the app?

Roger

You see, it's a nice feeling. Let me say that, because you're having an extra coin.

Sean Cole

Extra coin.

Roger

And you just feel like you've worked for it, and you don't-- and nobody else deserve to get a share of it. I can say you feel empowered in terms of you feel like you're open-minded entrepreneur.

Sean Cole

Entrepreneur, yeah.

Roger

Reason being, the company wants this, and the client wants this. So what do you do? You have to open up your mind and either to take the decision to make an extra coin or probably to listen to the company and go home empty-handed.

Sean Cole

Right, it's up to you at that point. You have to make--

Roger

Yes, it's up to you.

Sean Cole

--an independent decision.

Roger

Yes.

Sean Cole

But it is breaking a rule.

Roger

Yes, yes, yes, it is.

Sean Cole

I mean, I guess I wonder if that factors into the decision making of like, well, I know it's a rule. Should I break this rule? Like, we're supposed to follow rules and everything.

Roger

Because, you see, at the end of the day, the reason why you get up and decide to get into business is, at the end of the day, you get home with something, you see? So if you decide your priority is following rules, most of the days you're going to get home empty-handed. And most of us are young families. You see, we have wives. We have kids in the house. So if you decide that you're going to be strict to the letter, that you're going to follow all the rules, believe you me, your family is going to sleep hungry.

Sean Cole

It's not just empowering to break the rules sometimes. Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules-- or anyway, it feels like it is. And today on our show, we have stories of people defying regulations, violating the social contract to make a point, and in one case, to strike out against the inequities of a sixth grade class. Please stay with us.

Act One: Time Bandit

Sean Cole

Act One, Time Bandit. There was a moment this year when I watched someone break the rules right in front of me in the most dramatic way. Dramatic is the operative word because it was during a performance. It wasn't just in front of me. There were hundreds of people in the audience.

This was during an event that I go to every year, if I can make it, on New Year's Day. It's a 10-hour-long marathon of performances-- I call it a marathon-- at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in a 200-year-old church in Lower Manhattan. So imagine a soaring, cavernous sanctuary with a podium on the altar up front.

Mostly, the marathon is set up as a kind of churn. There are more than 150 people on the program. And it's not just poetry readings, but bands play, and there are choreographers and comedians. I've seen Patti Smith perform there and Philip Glass.

And everybody only gets two to three minutes each to read, or play, or whatever. The time limit's a big deal, because they need to fit everybody in. Occasionally, someone gets on stage in between acts and tells everybody to keep it short. Anyway, the sort of rule-shattering moment that happened was not one of the famouses onstage. It was somebody I'd never heard of.

Announcer

Jerome Ellis is a composer, performer, and writer. His recent work--

Sean Cole

Jerome Ellis, composer and musician, but he didn't have an instrument with him or even anything to read off of. He just climbed up on stage, stood in front of the mic. And I have to admit, I was really just looking down at my program and not paying attention when he started talking.

Jerome Ellis

The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50%--

Sean Cole

And then he stopped talking, like for a while. And I think it was at this point that I looked up and saw him sort of staring, wide eyed, maybe trembling a bit. I'm playing this in real time, by the way. Normally, I'd edit these silences down, but I wanted to give you a sense of how confusing this was at first, and uncomfortable.

Jerome Ellis

50%--

Sean Cole

I had no idea what was going on. So far he had said, "The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50%--"

Jerome Ellis

--discount to--

Sean Cole

And then you can hear he's doing these kind of little, breathy clicks and pops.

[SOFT POPPING SOUNDS]

And I was like, oh, it's some performance art thing, like cell phone companies' spotty coverage in Brazil.

Jerome Ellis

To their customers--

Sean Cole

"With 50% discount to their customers."

Jerome Ellis

With--

Sean Cole

And then he breaks into Portuguese.

Jerome Ellis

[SPEAKING PORTUGUESE]

--customers with breaks in the timing and fluency of speech. That is, the customers who have speech impediments, like myself.

Sean Cole

So that's what was going on.

Jerome Ellis

They have to-- the customer has to present--

Sean Cole

Jerome has a stutter.

Jerome Ellis

--a signed statement from a speech language--

Sean Cole

A significant one.

Jerome Ellis

Speech language-- speech language pathologist to prove their pathology. I first encountered this law in a book about strange laws from around the world. The author of the book was mocking the law. But I see in the law an attempt to address the issue of temporal accessibility--

Sean Cole

Temporal accessibility.

Jerome Ellis

--when it comes to-- when it comes-- when it comes-- when it comes to disabled speech. So when I was first invited to participate in this magnificent event, I was struck by the two-minute time limit, which later became a two- to three-minute time limit. And I understood intuitively that the purpose of this time limit was to create as non-hierarchical a space as possible.

But in removing one hierarchy, the time limit introduces another. A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time through their speech, which is not true. Stuttering is very unpredictable. I can rehearse something as many times as I want, but I don't actually know how long it will take to say anything until I have to say it.

Sean Cole

What you just heard is about half of Jerome's performance as he performed it that night, my commentary not withstanding. It clocks in at about five minutes, practically twice the length permitted itself. I'll play you the second half in a bit. But in just those five minutes, I'd gone from barely paying attention to being totally rapt. Everybody was.

The pauses continued, some of them longer than what you just heard. And in an enormous room packed with people, there was barely any other sound. I don't remember hearing a cough or a paper rustle. We were all just kind of spellbound-- partly, I think, because as Jerome said himself, what was happening on stage seemed so very unpredictable. That's what it felt like in the audience.

And in the weeks and months since then, I realized I just had all these questions for Jerome, the way you wish you could call up the person who made the weird, obscure movie you just saw that you can't get out of your head or who wrote the book you just read. I just wanted to know how he thought of what he did, how it felt to do that.

Sean Cole

Jerome.

Jerome Ellis

Sean, hi.

Sean Cole

Hey. How are you?

Jerome Ellis

I'm doing well.

Sean Cole

So I called him on Skype. He's got the friendliest face and hadn't had a haircut in a while, like everybody. Jerome told me he got the idea after the director of The Poetry Project sent him an email inviting him to perform and mentioned the time limit. And just reading that gave him this twinge of stress.

Jerome Ellis

And I was like-- I was like-- I noted the stress. And I was like, oh, I think I'm interested in going towards that stress and exploring that.

Sean Cole

He says, that confusion I felt at first, that's what he was going for. Because it's so common for people to have that feeling upon meeting him. They don't know what's going on until he tells them. It's not easy to bring hundreds of people simultaneously into an experience you live everyday, but he managed it. I also wondered if he had kind of improvised what he was going to say, but he says he wrote it all out ahead of time and rehearsed it, reading it off his phone while walking down the street, which was way easier than reciting it onstage, he says.

Sean Cole

What was the shortest amount of time that it took when you were preparing, when you were rehearsing it?

Jerome Ellis

I would say-- I would say two and 1/2 minutes.

Sean Cole

Two and 1/2 minutes, got it.

Jerome Ellis

Yeah.

Sean Cole

And that was important to him, he says, to write something that someone who didn't stutter could recite within the time limit. So in that way he was simultaneously adhering to the rules and breaking them at the same time. And since stuttering is unpredictable, Jerome says there was a chance the whole thing could have taken him only four minutes. Then it was a funny situation, where stuttering less might have made it harder for people to understand the point he was trying to make. I figured simply being on stage would make him more likely to stutter, but Jerome says no.

Jerome Ellis

It's, in fact, quite soothing to be on stage because it's like-- you know, it's like I actually feel that I'm-- that I have the time. And in some ways, the stage-- the stage-audience relationship is a more temporally accessible environment than other environments of verbal-- verbal-- verbal-- verbal communication that I engage with.

Sean Cole

Like when he worked at the Columbia Law Library, just to give you some background of his life offstage. Jerome worked at the circulation desk. And not only did he have to take in calls, but he had to transfer calls to other people. So answering the phone, that's one temporal expectation. And then having to explain to someone else who's calling while the first person's on hold, now he's squashed between two temporal expectations. It was stressful.

Also, this show and radio in general is not usually an accessible environment for differently-abled speakers. I'm leaving in a lot of Jerome's stutters in the interview part of this story, but I'm still cutting out some of his pauses and repeats-- and mine, for that matter. As a group of professionals, we're biased toward more fluid talkers. I became acutely aware of that while editing our conversation. And just to let you know, I tried to quote, unquote, "clean up" his answers as little as possible because I want to bring you into Jerome's daily experience too.

Anyway, I think Jerome stuttered less than usual on the call with me because I know he stutters. He says it helps to disclose it, relaxes him. And then there are other subtler ways that he's able to tame it sometimes when he's talking to people.

Jerome Ellis

Sometimes I refer to it as "my stutter," but sometimes I refer to it as "the stutter."

Sean Cole

The stutter.

Jerome Ellis

Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

Sean Cole

And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

Jerome Ellis

Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

Sean Cole

And we are both contending with it.

Jerome Ellis

Exactly.

Sean Cole

And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The reason for those long silences on stage is something that I didn't know either. Jerome's particular kind of stutter is sometimes called a glottal block. The way he explains it, when your vocal chords are at rest, they're apart. And then when you go to talk, they come together and vibrate. But sometimes, Jerome's vocal chords get stuck in the middle between being at rest and touching. So he can still make little sounds with his teeth and tongue and lips, but not his voice.

And talking to him on Skype, the same thing would happen as when he was on stage. When the glottal block came, he got this look-- a kind of frozen, wide-eyed stare like he was stunned. Except on stage, it was more dramatic. His face would turn upward. And I remember thinking to myself, is that just effort? Is it fear?

Jerome Ellis

Yeah. And I know the look you're-- you're speaking about. Yeah, it's like some stutterers will-- their body will-- will, in fact, move a lot while they're stuttering. Their face will-- will move in certain ways, which I do sometimes. But in general, my body response is actually-- is a freezing. And-- and I stop breathing often too. Just like-- like it feels like everything stops for a second or five seconds or longer.

So part of it is that-- is that I'm freezing. Part of it feels like my body goes into a kind of supplication or prayer almost. I have a friend who once referred to it as watching-- watching me ask for the word and wait, you know.

Sean Cole

And wait for it to come?

Jerome Ellis

Wait for it to come, yeah. Yeah, because I often look up. It's a very specific state. It's like this-- there are some ways in which I, like, totally leave the room. And I think that speaks to the looking upward. And I then just, like-- I'll, like-- I'll come back once the word arrives.

Sean Cole

And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life-- taking too much of someone's time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there's a line behind him. But this wasn't that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter-- synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he's blocked on for one that's easier to say. He didn't want to do that on stage.

Jerome Ellis

And I didn't realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

Sean Cole

Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

Jerome Ellis

Yes.

To their customers with--

So there's the Portuguese word--

With.

"Disturbio."

[SPEAKING PORTUGUESE]

--which I had literally translated to-- in my text, I translated it-- translated it-- translated it-- translated it-- translated it-- translated it to just-- to disturbance. And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was--

Customers with--

I said breaks.

--breaks--

Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.

--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn't like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I-- I just did with-- with you, is just wait.

Sean Cole

Wait for the word.

Jerome Ellis

Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D's, they can be really painful.

Sean Cole

Wow.

Jerome Ellis

So that's why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened-- like breaks to me, it doesn't capture what I wanted to capture.

Sean Cole

Are names particularly difficult?

Jerome Ellis

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Because there's no synonyms for them, you know.

Sean Cole

Jerome blocks on his own name. Has since he was four years old, when his stutter started. So now trying to say his name or any name, he says it's like he's four again.

Jerome Ellis

I even-- I even, in some situations-- for a few years, I would say "John." John is my middle name. But very interestingly, I then began stuttering on John. And then I-- and then I would start saying Sean, because sometimes the "sh" sound is easy. Like, the "juh" sound has a harder attack.

Sean Cole

And also, you know, obviously Sean is just an incredibly beautiful name.

Jerome Ellis

And that was really-- I mean, that was my-- that was my main reasoning for doing it. I was just like, well, if I'm going to-- if I'm going to choose a new name, why not just go straight for the top, you know what I mean?

Sean Cole

Just go for the top, man.

Jerome Ellis

So, you know. And then I started stuttering on that, you know. I mean, I just find that-- that so beautiful. It's like it's always outpacing me in a way.

Sean Cole

You find that beautiful that it's outpacing you?

Jerome Ellis

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I find it painful too, but I-- but I find a deep beauty in that.

Sean Cole

What is the beauty?

Jerome Ellis

Well, for me it's this quality that it's like-- the stutter, it feels like this thing that is so deeply entwined with my body, my mind, my emotions, everything. And yet I can't figure it out, or I can't grasp it. And even more so, like when I think I have grasped it, like when I think I've outsmarted it even, like, by switching my name, there's something about just how elusive it is.

Sean Cole

The second half of Jerome's performance was just one sentence. It took him four minutes and nine seconds to get through, partly because it had a name at the beginning.

Jerome Ellis

The Black feminist--

Sean Cole

The sentence begins, "The Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw once wrote," and then a quote. Climbing on top of Crenshaw's name alone took him about a minute 45 seconds. I haven't paused the recording of the performance, by the way. It's still running underneath this.

Jerome Ellis

My chest was hurting so much. And while I was doing it, I was like, god, should I just, like, give up and leave, you know? And I was like, no. I mean, I've done that so many-- like, I mean, there's so many moments in life where I just like-- I just stop speaking because I just don't want to put in-- in the labor of finishing my thought or finishing my sentence. And I was like, no, I don't want to do that here. I wanted to show the audience the labor that's involved. And this is labor that I often or sometimes won't put in.

The Black feminist scholar--

Sean Cole

But it was around this moment that the feeling in the room started to change again. There was no more confusion, obviously, and any concern or tension was gone too.

Jerome Ellis

Black feminist scholar--

Sean Cole

By this point, the importance of what Jerome was saying had landed on us. And the marriage between the thing he was saying and the way he was saying it-- like a poem elongated. So it just took us a little longer to catch up.

Jerome Ellis

Kimberlé Crenshaw once wrote--

Sean Cole

I'm going to stop the recording for a second and just read you the quote so you can sit with it during this last part. It goes, "Treating different things the same can generate as much an inequality as treating the same things differently."

Sean Cole

Did you feel kind of punk rock to be doing that or, like, badass to be like--

Jerome Ellis

Yeah. I mean, I felt like it was an act of resistance. And like-- and like, I'm-- as a musician, the first music I studied really deeply was jazz. And I remember very distinctly when I was in middle school that I would be-- I would have my jazz CDs at home. And often, they would be like four tracks, because each track would be like nine minutes long.

And then I remember like looking at my friends' CDs of-- of punk rock, for example, as you mentioned, and like, you know, much shorter tracks. I remember-- I remember noticing that at that age and, like, thinking about what that meant. And there would be this refusal to adhere to the length of a pop song, for example, you know.

And for me, there was always a racialized element there too, that there's, like, a Black resistance against certain structures of time, that like, no, this track is 11 minutes long. And if you don't want to listen to it, then don't listen to it. But like-- like, I'm like-- like, we're-- like, our-- what we're trying to achieve in this music is different in some ways than what a three-minute song is trying to achieve.

Treating-- treating-- treating-- treating-- treating-- treating-- treating-- treating--

As a Black person, I'm also thinking about the way that time and access to time is racially inflected. You know, there are many moments in the world when--

Treating--

--a person of color is just not given as much time to speak.

Treating different things the same way may generate as much inequality as treating the same things in different ways. Thank you.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Announcer

Jerome Ellis, Jerome Ellis.

Sean Cole

To learn more about Jerome Ellis and his many projects, visit jeromeellis.com. That's J-E-R-O-M-E E-L-L-I-S dot com. You can also follow him on Instagram. It's @ellisjerome.

Coming up, a story that perfectly encapsulates what my father always called the Golden Rule. Them that's got the gold makes the rules. That was his joke. That's in one minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: It’s All About the Jeffersons

Sean Cole

It's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole sitting in for Ira Glass. Today's show, Made to Be Broken, stories about regulations, guidelines, proprieties that people upend for some just cause, as opposed to just 'cause. Act Two of our show today, It's All About the Jeffersons.

When he was a kid, comedian Tone Bell was a rule follower. But there was one time he got into really big trouble, broke the rules in a serious way. And there's a Polaroid picture commemorating the moment. In his family, it became one of those iconic photographs, sort of family lore. They just called it the Polaroid. He explained the backstory to producer Elna Baker.

Elna Baker

When Tone started sixth grade at a new school, he got Ms. Dillard as his homeroom teacher. His neighbor, who we're calling MP, told him, that's not the teacher you want. You want Ms. Jefferson.

Tone Bell

He definitely let me know that he had the better teacher, but I still didn't know why. I mean, I didn't know if it was because she was young and it was math, but I quickly learned why you wanted Ms. Jefferson.

Elna Baker

Why do you want Ms. Jefferson?

Tone Bell

Ms. Jefferson ran her own bank.

Elna Baker

Yeah, a bank. She was a math teacher, and she gave out fake money to the kids. When you did well on your homework or tests, you'd earn what she called Jefferson bucks, as in Ms. Jefferson, not Thomas. They came in denominations of one, five, and 10, and were actually printed.

Tone Bell

There was definitely a Jefferson mint. They were bills. They were straight up bills-- smaller than a real dollar, bigger than Monopoly money, but it kind of had that feel of Monopoly money. I mean, it looked like-- I mean, 12-year-old money. It looked like money. I'm 99% sure her face was on it.

Elna Baker

Tone wasn't in Ms. Jefferson's homeroom like MP, who'd go to her homeroom four or five times a day. But he had her once a day for math, so he got to earn Jefferson bucks too. You could also make them for good behavior, like being quiet or helping her pass out papers.

Tone Bell

I remember seeing one of my classmates open a door because one of the girls had stuff in her hand. That was like chivalrous, so he end up getting some money. I was like, oh, should you go open doors? I didn't know you could just be out here opening doors. Like, I don't know. I'm putting that on the list. Like, oh shit, I got to open some doors now. I mean, she had to notice it.

Elna Baker

So you're doing what?

Tone Bell

Oh, you're going above and beyond. I mean, you're knocking stuff off tables. You're knocking people's books off tables and then picking them up just so she can see a good deed. And then you're looking back at her like, you see what I did, right?

Elna Baker

At the end of the week, you could cash your Jefferson bucks in at the Jefferson Market, a little store Ms. Jefferson set up at her desk. Here, you could buy an extra 10 minutes at recess, as in everyone's coming inside and you're like, here's $5. I'm going to keep playing Red Rover by myself. Or you could buy school supplies, cheap plastic toys like little green army men, and candy, all sorts of candy. This was obviously the top seller. The kids even ranked it in order of preference.

Tone Bell

So the Fun Dips and the Blow Pops and the Airheads were definitely, I want to say, like the top-tier candy-- maybe Skittles, like the long Jolly Ranchers. And you can tell. You could tell, especially with the Jefferson bucks-- like, if you only had $2, this is the drawer she opens because that's the cheap candy. Like, you don't have enough. Like, you got to pick from this bullshit candy.

Elna Baker

Tone loved it. But then one day, a few weeks into the school year, this thing happened that changed how Tone thought about the Jefferson bucks system, and he couldn't get it out of his head. He was sitting with MP when he noticed something.

Tone Bell

I mean, I remember him having that plastic pencil case-- you know, pencils, protractor, ruler, all the stuff that you needed. He had so much money-- he had so much money, what that bag was used for turned into a wallet. I mean, it was just wads of Jefferson bucks.

I remember him taking that out. And it was almost like a secret because he didn't want everybody to-- and he threw me a couple dollars. And I saw-- I was like, how do you have that much money? It blew my mind. And then hearing like, oh, I made $11 today. I'm like, you made $11 today? Today?

Elna Baker

[CHUCKLES]

Tone Bell

It ain't even 2 o'clock yet. You got more time.

Elna Baker

Tone had been working his ass off for weeks, and all he had was six bucks, which was a tiny fraction of what MP had. Tone was earning a minimum wage, and MP was Jeff Bezos. He had to really sit with it before he understood how this could be. MP had Ms. Jefferson for homeroom and for math, which meant that he saw her four times throughout the day. Tone only saw her once for math. Of course, MP had way more Jefferson bucks.

Tone Bell

I remember seeing it and being envious, and being jealous, and wondering how I do that. And just like, let me switch my energy up. I'll study more. I'll be politer. I won't talk in class as much.

Elna Baker

Tone tried all sorts of strategies to make money. But now that he saw the flaw in the system, he couldn't unsee it. Everything was a reminder of how much more opportunity the kids in her homeroom had.

Tone Bell

It was almost like they had on fur coats and shit and driving Cadillacs. It almost felt like it made them dress better. It was like they were in the capital and we were District 12. We were just poor people trying to make it, and they are the elite.

Elna Baker

And did that make you mad?

Tone Bell

Oh, it made me so fucking mad. It made me so mad because you don't know-- like, you know the rules and you know what's supposed to work, but then it doesn't work. But you see it worked for others.

Elna Baker

To Tone, having money also meant something really important to him-- impressing girls. There was one girl in particular he had a huge crush on. We'll call her Natasha. She didn't even know Tone existed, but he thought about her all the time.

Tone Bell

Man, Natasha. Her name was on the back of my notebook and stuff. She was active and just long hair, brown skin-- just, like, beautiful. And her maturity level was up there. Her hair was always done. She always wore cool clothes.

And she just had the attention. And you saw the dudes who were getting her attention. And look, man, to be honest with you, they just-- they had money. They had Jefferson bucks.

Elna Baker

And would boys buy girls things with the Jefferson bucks?

Tone Bell

Oh, yeah. Yeah, we called that tricking off. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, definitely.

Elna Baker

Tone is 12, trying to figure out the whole girl thing for the first time and desperate to impress them. Luckily, there were other ways to make money besides Ms. Jefferson's class and way more ways to spend it. One of Tone's classmates explained to me that because Ms. Jefferson's store was only open on Friday, the kids came up with an underground economy of their own, a black market fueled by Jefferson bucks that was open every day of the week. You could buy anything there.

Tone Bell

If somebody had jello, chocolate, or their dessert, we're like, hey, Maggie, three bucks for the half of your slice of pizza on Friday. I mean, somebody might sell you a pencil half price what Ms. Jefferson's going to sell it. Ms. Jefferson might have been selling the pencil, a graphic pencil, for $2, and you might be able to get it for $1. I mean, it became a legal tender basically through our sixth grade.

Elna Baker

The kids did a lot of shady things, all under the table. Like kids in Ms. Jefferson's class would pay kids in Ms. Dillard's 10 to 20 Jefferson bucks to do their homework. That's how the black market worked if you had money. If you didn't--

Tone Bell

You've got to figure out how to leverage what they need so that you can get something that you're not getting, which is the Jefferson buck. I mean, there were moments where I remember, if you're not paying attention to your books, you might have a textbook stolen, and you're going to need five Jefferson bucks to get your book back.

Elna Baker

By December, the lopsidedness of Ms. Jefferson's system was clear to everyone in Ms. Dillard's homeroom. They complained to each other about it.

Tone Bell

And it's like, this shit is rigged. I don't remember who it was, but I remember a lot of us being like, yo, what do we need to do?

Elna Baker

Did you ever say that to her?

Tone Bell

Yeah, we brought it up, of how to-- like, how do we do more if you're not seeing it? I'm trying my best. And it's like nay, man. We got to have a town hall.

Elna Baker

A kid brought it up one day in math class, and several others, including Tone, immediately jumped on board. I wasn't able to find Ms. Jefferson to get her side of this, but the way Tone remembers it, Ms. Jefferson shut this discussion down. If they wanted more money, she said, they needed to try harder, period, end of discussion.

Tone Bell

It's like, hey, man, everybody has the same opportunity. And it's like, no, they don't. Well, you got to work harder, and you got to try harder. And then after-- I'm saying months of doing that-- nothing, still nothing. And I just had this moment where I was like, I-- I've got to rob the Jefferson bank. Like, I'm going, there's no other way.

Elna Baker

Again, Tone was a rule follower. His dad was really strict. So this was wildly out of character. But as Bertolt Brecht said in a very different context, who's the greater criminal, the man who robs a bank or the man who founds one? Tone figured, if she can make-believe a bank, then he could rob that make-believe bank without any consequences.

Tone Bell

And then so I kind of just-- I mean, I guess I just kind of started casing Ms. Jefferson's actions. I knew we left a window open. At this point, we had her right before lunch. I knew where she kept it. I knew where the store was. I knew where the money was.

So at lunch-- so I decided a couple days before, I'm going to start going to the bathroom during lunch. I would go to the bathroom, come back. Spend, like, a little extra time, come back. You know, for a few days, just so this wouldn't look awkward either.

Elna Baker

He's testing out how long he can be away without people noticing. Ms. Jefferson's classroom is locked during lunch, but she has a window that faces the courtyard. His plan is to slip in through the window, grab some money, and head out.

Tone Bell

So I was like, OK, today's the day. You know, I go the bathroom. And I asked the-- you know, excuse me, can I go to the bathroom real quick? I don't feel well.

Elna Baker

He goes straight to Ms. Jefferson's window in the courtyard, pushes it open, and climbs in. His heart is racing. And then he goes over to the one place every kid knows is forbidden, his teacher's desk. He knows exactly where Ms. Jefferson keeps the money, in the bottom right drawer. He opens the drawer and sees the metal cashbox. It's unlocked.

Tone Bell

And so I open the box up. And, you know, I mean, just money. Even in that moment, I was like, oh-- this was like a Scrooge McDuck moment. Like, I am swimming in Jefferson bucks, but you can't get overzealous. Because if you take everything, that's definitely going to be noticeable. So you have to take enough to feel comfortable, but not enough to set off any alarms.

And drawer opened up, popped the box, and grabbed out a nice-- I mean-- I mean, I'm going to say an inch thick of Jefferson bucks. I'm going to say, like, an inch, like a nice-- probably equivalent to what MP had in his pencil holder. And so I split that in half, and then I stuffed my pockets. And I'm like, I got to get the fuck out of here.

Elna Baker

Tone is running out of time. He does a sweep of the room, then he exits through the classroom door and locks it behind him.

Tone Bell

I'm good. Like, I'm home free. So I close the door. I back out. Door is locked. And I'm starting to walk around the corner, and I've run into Natasha. Like, blew my mind. I'm also like, why is she in the hallway?

And I mean, she looks at me. She knows that I'm not supposed to be here. But also she's looking at me like, why were you in Ms. Jefferson's class? And I mean, I swear to you, she just looks me up and down and just notices my pockets because, I mean, I got dollar bills-- I got Jefferson bucks, I mean, just popping out of my pockets. Oh, man.

And she just looks me up and down. And she was like, oh. [LAUGHS] She's goes, oh, I'm going to need some of that. And I'm like, oh my god. Like, this girl who I'm infatuated with, one, is robbing me. But like, to not get caught, I have to give this bitch hush money.

So I think I gave her my whole left pocket, if I'm not mistaken, because it was already split in half. And right before I go back to lunch, I'm like, hey, just do not say nothing about-- are we good? And just like, hey, man. You know, we kind of had a cone of silence. Like, can we keep this shit a secret?

Come back to Ms. Dillard's class. By the time we start the next period, I mean, everybody knows about it. I heard you took Jefferson bucks. I was like, mm-mm, I didn't take any Jefferson-- I was at lunch with you the whole time. I went to the bathroom. That's about it. So you start to see the eyeballs come at you like, oh, man, too many people know.

Elna Baker

Within no time, word spreads to Ms. Jefferson, and then the principal or vice principal. Tone can't remember which.

Tone Bell

And they pull me into the hallway. Ms. Dillard comes out. They're like, where were you during lunch? And I was like, I went to the bathroom. I asked for permission. And they're like, so you didn't go anywhere else? And I was like, no, I just went, and I came back. And they're like, OK, so what's in your pockets? And I was like, nothing.

Elna Baker

It's still in your pocket?

Tone Bell

I didn't have time to put it up.

Elna Baker

Oh, you are the worst criminal.

Tone Bell

[LAUGHS] I didn't have time to-- my plan was getting foiled in front of my eyes because I had too many eyeballs on me to take it out of my-- there's nothing I could do. I felt I was wearing a wire and people knew about it.

Elna Baker

Even with the money as evidence, Tone still won't confess. So they turn up the heat. Into the hallway walks Natasha.

Tone Bell

Yeah, she comes out. And she was like, well, I saw him coming out of Ms. Jefferson's room. And I was like, what? I mean, like, it was unreal.

That's why I gave you the money, not to talk, especially to these people. That's why I gave it to you. Like, if you was going to tell the whole time, I would've just kept all of it. Like, if this was how it was going to end-- like, that's what the money was for. And I go to the office, and it's our-- it's either our principal, the vice principal, but it's definitely Ms. Jefferson.

Elna Baker

Did she ask you anything?

Tone Bell

She was definitely disappointed. She was definitely disappointed. And then, you know, she's-- why would you do that? And I was real. And I was like, look, man, it wasn't to be malicious. It was like, we struggling out here.

I'm sick of seeing people with three chocolate milks, and five Blow Pops and Ring Pops and all this kind of shit, and I can't do nothing. And it's like, well, there's a better way to go about it. I tried that. And you can't tell me that you don't remember. We kind of all talked about it.

And I've tried everything. I've tried what you said to do. I've tried to make better grades. I've tried to be more chivalrous. I've tried to not get my name on the board. I've tried all these things, and they don't work. I've tried to be fair, and you're not being fair.

Elna Baker

Tone's punishment, the worst possible outcome. They call his dad. In Tone's mind, this is his last day on Earth. He gets home, goes straight to the fridge, gets a bowl of ice cream, and heads to his room to watch porn. He figures he might as well go out with a bang.

He's refilling his bowl when he notices something. There's a chair in the middle of the kitchen. His dad walks in, gestures to the chair, and says--

Tone Bell

Oh, no, no, no, no. No. You know what time it is. And like, I'm like, ooh, fuck. You know, I've got to bend over the back of his chair, and I'm just taking it. I mean, I'm just breaking down.

And then my father just like-- he stops. I'm crying and everything. And then he goes, hey, Tone. And I look back, and my father takes a Polaroid of me crying with the-- I mean, like it's-- pants are at my ankles, ass just-- I mean, face is like-- I mean, took a Polaroid.

Elna Baker

And what was the expression on your face?

Tone Bell

The expression-- pain and defeat.

Elna Baker

Tone never got another spanking. He never went rogue again. And part of that has to do with the Polaroid. Anytime he started acting up, his dad would remind him of that photo, and Tone would course correct.

Tone Bell

I mean, it was, like, Pavlovian. It was like-- I mean, that photo made me break down.

Elna Baker

Tone was ashamed. He felt bad for robbing the bank. But the thing is, it actually got him what he wanted. Not like he expected-- he didn't get Jefferson bucks. But he got justice. Ms. Jefferson changed the rules. No matter how many times a day you saw her, you could only earn money during the hour of math class. It became a level playing field.

Tone Bell

I feel like I do remember people kind of being disappointed. There was people in Ms. Jefferson's class that were pissed, I'm sure. But everybody who wasn't in Ms. Jefferson's class was like, yo, about time.

Elna Baker

Mm-hm. Yeah. But you know what's interesting about what you're saying right now is just, like, the kids in Ms. Jefferson's class are going to be pissed at you because they don't have the privilege they used to have, right? But they also have no concept of how you've been feeling all school year.

Tone Bell

Exactly. You don't know it's different for me. Well, I'm in her class, and you get to take her class. Isn't that the same? No. I know it should be, but it's not. That doesn't matter to me. Well, then I have to do something. It felt unfair.

Elna Baker

For Tone, this was always just a funny story he told about his dad's awkward Polaroid. But he started talking to me about it a few weeks ago, during the height of the recent protests. And that made him think about the story differently.

Tone Bell

There's a parallel that I've never noticed or looked for, I guess, between how communities react when they don't feel like they're being treated fairly.

Elna Baker

Well, you know, what it makes me think of is, like, Jesus always talked in parables.

Tone Bell

Right.

Elna Baker

And I feel like your Jefferson bucks story is such a perfect parable.

Tone Bell

I agree. When the rules are the same for everyone and some people thrive and some people don't, but everyone's following them, why is it not equal? Why is it not fair? And I don't even know if it can be answered most of the time. But the question has to be asked.

Elna Baker

If this is a parable, almost everything lines up-- the systematic inequality, the unfairness, how sometimes you have to break the rules in order for them to change. I see what I'm supposed to learn from everyone. But the one thing neither of us could figure out is, what are we supposed to learn from Natasha? Tone never told anyone she took half the money. A crush is a crush. So the real robber actually got away with it.

Sean Cole

Elna Baker is one of the producers on our show. Tone Bell performed a version of this story on the Comedy Central program This Is Not Happening. His first hour-long special, "Can't Cancel This," is now available on Showtime and Amazon Prime.

Credits

Sean Cole

Our program was produced by Aviva DeKornfeld and me. People who made the show today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Robin Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney. Our managing editors are Diane Wu and Sarah Abdurrahman. Executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks to Gianlucca Iazzolino, Michael Kimani, Joseph Ndiritu, Wycliffe Alutalala, Eyder Peralta, Monique Thompson, Kyle Dacuyan, Nicole Wallace, Deepali Gupta, Patricia Spears Jones, Laurel Chor, and all of the Uber drivers who agreed to talk with Benjamen Walker and me.

Please check out the episode that Benjamen did called "Going Karura" on his podcast Theory of Everything. You can find it at theoryofeverythingpodcast.com or wherever you get your podcasts. Original music at the end of Act One was composed for us by Nicholas Payton. Our website is thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, of course, to my boss, Ira Glass, a man who still goes trick or treating on Halloween-- except now when he gets his treat, he still toilet papers the family's house.

Tone Bell

Oh, yeah. Yeah, we call that tricking off.

Sean Cole

I'm Sean Cole. Join us next week for more stories of This American Life.