714: Day at the Beach
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Me, I'm not crazy about the beach. It's hard to think of a less comfortable place to read a book than flat on a blanket under the scorching sun. Going in the waves-- totally fine for a little bit, but, like, all day? And like many people over 40, I have no desire to ever be seen in a bathing suit by anyone ever for the rest of my life.
But know how many times I've been to the beach this summer? OK, there were two quickie day trips and a seven-day beach vacation. I don't like the beach, but because we live in a world with no movies, or plays, or live music, or family get-togethers, I think maybe socially distanced beachgoing has been my number one recreational activity for the year.
And why? Well, because people I love love the beach. Hating the beach during summer-- and I believe I can say this with authority from personal experience. Hating the beach in summer is like being a Jew at Christmas. You can try to sit it out, but it's just too big. At some point, you're going to drink some eggnog.
And you know what? When I go to the beach, I try-- I really try-- to get into it, to have a nice time, to appreciate the waves, and the sand, and the heat. And I think about the many hundreds and thousands of years that families have brought their kids to the water's edge to play pretty much exactly the same dumb way that we play in the sand and waves today. How many ways are there to do that anyway? And you know, some people really love it so much.
A while back, here on our radio show, we also had this article about somebody like that. At the time, he was a 66-year-old lifeguard who was suing New York state for age discrimination. And I just want to pause on that for a second-- a 66-year-old lifeguard.
All of us here on our staff, we had no idea that could even exist. We all thought lifeguarding is something you do when you're in high school, maybe a couple years after, into your 20s. Like, who's still lifeguarding at 66?
And then it was even more of a question when we realized that the lifeguard in the story, he has another job. He's a lawyer. He's a working lawyer. His name is Roy Lester. He's a bankruptcy attorney. He's got his own firm on Long Island. And then he lifeguards every weekend in the summer. And can I just say, today on our program we have stories about people like him-- people who love the beach, not people like me.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We prepared today a program to listen to with the sun beating down on you, the humidity through the roof, a show of people embracing the beach, people who are sons of the beach. And let's just get right to it with Act One.
Act One: Grapes of Wrath
Act One, the Grapes of Wrath. So one of our producers, Dana Chivvis, she went out to Long Island and met that guy, Roy Lester, the 66-year-old attorney lifeguard who was suing New York state. Basically the deal is that they tried to make him wear a Speedo. He refused. He lost his job. Here's Dana.
If you asked Roy, why are you still lifeguarding at 66, he barely understands the question. It's so self-evident to him. It's been his life since he was 16. He and his buddies were kings of the beach. He lived with other lifeguards. His best man at his wedding was a lifeguard.
Their kids grew up playing together on the beach while they were on duty. He never wanted to leave this job. Even when he went to law school in California, he came back to lifeguard every summer.
In law school, aren't you supposed to have an internship in a law firm or something like that?
You're supposed to.
Did you not do that?
No, I did not do that. I never took it quite that seriously. The idea of giving up the summer was something I just couldn't do.
He's not alone. At Jones Beach, where he worked for 40 years, there are dozens of guys-- teachers, firemen, police-- who stayed with it into their 60s. Lifeguarding at Jones Beach is such a thing that a former lifeguard made a film about it. It's called Jones Beach Boys. Roy insisted I watch it. I did. It was awesome. Here's my favorite song from it.
(SINGING) We're going for the rescue and getting to the victim.
"We're going for the rescue and getting to the victim." I never really appreciated how thrilling lifeguarding is until Roy talked about rescues. We were sitting in his law office.
The exhilaration of a good rescue is unlike anything you've ever had. And you don't get that. I sit here, and I shuffle papers. I wouldn't call it exciting. I wouldn't call it rewarding.
But this is-- you're actually accomplishing something. You're up there, and all of a sudden you're going out in the water, and the rest of world is behind you. There's nothing else except between you getting from your stand to that victim. That's the only thing, and it's great. It's a great feeling.
How many people do you think you've rescued in your career?
Yeah. You have to remember, there were times we would have 40 rescues in an hour.
What? Why? What? Why?
Because you have people that come down to Jones Beach who really don't know about swimming. So-- especially when you have a current. And you can get a very strong current at Jones Beach.
1,000 rescues, that's way more rescues than David Hasselhoff did on Baywatch. I figure two rescues per episode, 10 years on the air, Roy would still beat him by 560 rescues. Which is to say, Roy is one of the lifeguardiest lifeguards there is. He had two wins at the national lifeguard competition. He served as an expert lifeguard witness in court cases.
And all was well in his happy lifeguarding world until the Speedo mishegoss began in 2007. Here's what happened. If you're a lifeguard at Jones Beach, you have to take a physical fitness test every year to prove that you're still able to do the job. It includes a speed test in a pool. You have to swim 100 yards in a minute 20, which is actually pretty fast. A lot of these guys train all year for it.
For 15 years, Roy took the swim test in his preferred swimsuit, a pair of jammers. They look like bike shorts without the butt cushion. If you're watching the Olympics right now, all the male swimmers are wearing them. They're tight, and they go down to just above the knee.
But when Roy showed up for the test in 2007, he was told no jammers. His bosses at the office of parks and recreation said, you can only do the test in one of the official Jones Beach lifeguard swimsuits, which means you have three choices-- board shorts, trunks, or Speedo.
Board shorts and trunks are loose, so nobody really takes a swim test in them because they create more drag and slow you down. So in effect, state officials were saying to Roy, you have to take the test in a Speedo. Roy said, no way. I won't do it. And he hasn't been a lifeguard at Jones Beach since.
It was one of those feelings like, am I making the right decision? I'm throwing away a 40-year career over a principle. It was a difficult decision, a very difficult decision.
How long did it take you to decide?
I really need to point out he would only have to wear the Speedo for the test, which lasts a minute and 20 seconds. On the job, he'd wear board shorts. Most of the lifeguards do, young and old.
Why not just put it on for the test, though?
Why didn't Rosa Parks just go to the back of the bus? There were plenty of seats.
Of course, what Roy was fighting for is quite different from what Rosa Parks was fighting for. But to Roy it's the principle of the thing, standing up to age discrimination. When I read about all this in The New York Times, I really didn't understand. What's the connection between a Speedo and age discrimination? I've certainly seen older dudes in Speedos.
So I went out and met Roy on a beach not far from his house in Long Island. It was 6:45 in the morning. He was about to go for a mile swim before work.
So Roy, can you describe what you're wearing right now?
Well, it's a wetsuit. It's a short-sleeve wetsuit. And I have my jammers on underneath.
Roy brought one of his official Jones Beach Speedos to the beach to show me.
Just describe it for me.
It's an exaggerated thong, for lack of a better word.
But it's full coverage in the back. So it's not quite a thong, right?
No, not quite a thong, right.
But to Roy and lots of guys, it might as well be a thong, which is why the Speedo has earned a stable of nicknames-- the weenie bikini, the dingaling sling, the Speed-don't, the banana hammock, the grape smuggler, the Miami meat tent, the Saint-Tropez truffle duffle, the scrote tote.
The reason the jammer is preferred by older lifeguards is that you're saying it's more discreet?
--than the Speedo.
Because it covers your thighs.
I don't want to get graphic, but you're-- the word begins with B. Basically you're hanging out with the Speedo.
I get it now, I think.
And you don't really-- with the jammers, it's not like that.
There's like a little bit more of a roof over your house.
This is the nut of his argument. Roy says once he passed 50, he felt self-conscious in a Speedo. And nobody should have to feel self-conscious to get a job.
So Roy refuses to put on the grape smuggler to take the swim test. A few weeks later, there's another chance to take the test. He shows up, and this time he is wearing the official Speedo. He's just got it on over his jammers.
He showed me a video of a conversation he recorded on the pool deck that day. It was a little windy, so the sound isn't great. But he's standing in front of Sue Giuliani, who was the director of Jones Beach State Park at the time. And there he is in his jammers plus Speedo outfit, challenging her to turn him away.
I've made a compromise.
That's not going to be acceptable.
You're not going to let me swim like this?
Because you still have jammers on. So that you cannot wear.
All right. And is there any reason why they're not allowed?
We're not going to-- how many times do you want me to repeat it?
You know why they're not allowed.
No, I don't. I've never been able to--
I've pretty much--
Joe Scalise, the director of water safety for the state beaches, cuts in.
Are you going to comply or not?
I am complying. I'm wearing my official suit.
Are you complying with what we want or not?
I'm wearing my official suit.
So you're not swimming now?
All right, let's go.
Did you just go home then?
Basically. Well, I stayed around, and I watched everybody take the test.
Were there other people taking the test in jammers?
No. No, nobody was allowed to take the test in jammers. So everybody else either put on a Speedo or put on the board shorts, something like that.
Now, Roy says he could have worn board shorts or trunks and still passed the test. He says he could have worn dungarees and passed. The guy is in ridiculous shape. He does triathlons now, coaches a swim team. In 2012, he had a hip replaced, and seven weeks later he came in first in his age group in Bermuda's Round the Sound swim race, a 1.2-mile open water swim. He was still using a cane to walk.
So the easy thing for Roy to do would be just take the test in board shorts or Speedo and keep the job he loved. Let bureaucrats be bureaucrats. Just get on with it.
That's not Roy. Roy does not back down from a fight. So he sued. He sued the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for $5 million.
Now, the easy thing for the state would have been to just let Jones Beach lifeguards wear jammers. Presumably, if they're good enough for the Olympic swim team, they're good enough for New York's lifeguards. But that's not New York state. It decided to fight.
The lawsuit has worked its way through the lower court, which dismissed it to the appellate court, which ruled in May that it should go to trial. This has been going on for seven years-- seven years. Roy sent me a PDF of his exhibits in the case. It was 1,300 pages long.
And the thing I really want to know-- because I live in New York and pay taxes in New York-- is, why is the state using taxpayer dollars to fight the Speedo suit? This could all have been resolved very easily years ago if they just changed the rule, allowed the jammers. Why are Roy and the state fighting each other when they should unite against the real enemy, jellyfish?
Officials from the state of New York wouldn't talk to me for this story. The attorney general's office wouldn't talk. Neither would parks and rec. But they did send me the affidavit of a guy named George Gorman. He oversees all the parks in Long Island. And it lays out their side of the story.
Around 2006, some of the Jones Beach lifeguards started taking the swim test in full-body swimsuits. Management became concerned that those guys were only passing because they were wearing the full-body swimsuits. So they decided to change the rules. Starting in 2007, lifeguards could only take the test in one of the three official Jones Beach uniform swimsuits-- no more full body suits and also no jammers, because jammers aren't part of the uniform.
In his deposition, George Gorman said, quote, "We determined it was best that the lifeguards wear the uniforms that they're assigned to wear while they're on duty." Seems reasonable, right? Not if your Roy. He points out, if jammers really are significantly faster, wouldn't you want your lifeguards to wear a faster suit, get them out to drowning victim sooner? And as it happens, New York Parks and Rec allows lifeguards to take their qualifying test in jammers in the rest of the state.
Upstate! I went upstate to take the test, and I wore my jammers.
You took the test upstate?
Yes, and I wore my jammers. And people wore their jammers, and I have pictures of that. And that's part of the exhibit, of guys taking the test in their jammers.
Yes, the same employer. New York State Department of Recreation, the same employer, allows the jammers.
So your theory about this is that they're targeting Long Island because why?
Because 90% of the older, the over-50 lifeguards work on Long Island. It's the biggest group of older lifeguards anywhere.
For what it's worth, the state told me that the rules are different on Long Island because it's a more strenuous job lifeguarding on the ocean. Upstate, it's all lakes and pools.
Why do you think it is that they don't want older lifeguards?
Well, I think they don't like the fact that older lifeguards have influence over the younger guys. And when you're a member of management, you don't want anybody having influence over your employees except you. And when you have to deal with a union and you have to deal with the officers of the unions who are all older guys and they know the beach, you don't want that.
Yep, there's a lifeguard union. Roy was the president of the union for years. And at that point in 2007, when he refused to wear the Speedo, he was the union's chief negotiator. When Sue Giuliani tells him to follow the rules--
So that you cannot wear.
--she knows him. He's the guy the union sends to argue its side. And these guys telling him he can't wear his jammers, they're management. This is a scantily clad labor dispute. I asked some other older lifeguards about this, and three out of the four of them agreed. This is about the union, which actually has a history of fighting age discrimination.
In 1966, they went on strike because the state tried to impose an age limit of 35 for Jones Beach lifeguards. So they walked off the beach. A week later, the state caved.
Knowing this, that the suits and the swimsuits have a history with each other, that helped me understand what Roy's fight was really about. Roy told me one reason he took a stand was that management was supposed to tell the union if they wanted to change a rule like this. And this time, they didn't.
Roy's got a weekend job now at a private beach club, but it's not the same.
I like where I'm working now. I really do. But you get one rescue a year if you're lucky. And then it's what's called a puddle jumper.
What is a puddle jumper?
A puddle jumper is where you really don't even need to get your head wet. And at Jones Beach, in the old days, we would have these tremendous rescues, just these great rescues.
His friends from Jones Beach tease him that he's in exile now.
How often do you go visit them?
Not that often. I keep in touch with them constantly. But I don't go down there that often. To be honest, it does hurt. It hurts to go down there. That was my beach. It was my home for so many years.
If Roy's theory is true, then the state is trying to get rid of the older lifeguards on Long Island by forcing them into Speedos. But if that's true, as far as I can tell, the only lifeguard they've managed to get rid of is Roy.
Dani Chivvis is one of the producers of our program. Since we first broadcast this story, Roy is back at Jones Beach. After 12 years of fighting them over his right not to wear Speedos, New York state has granted him an exception. He passed his test, and he's back working as a lifeguard. He is 70 years old.
[MUSIC - "SPEEDO" BY THE CADILLACS]
Act Two: Beach Doctor
Act Two, Beach Doctor.
Oh, hello? Yep, I'm here now.
Hello, little buddy. How are you?
Hi, other little buddy.
This next story takes place on a beach in Mexico. Shane DuBow told it to producer Alex Blumberg a couple years ago. They're old friends.
And basically as we were putting our show together, Alex remembered this thing that happened to Shane decades before when Shane was out kayaking on a trip in Mexico down in Baja, California. Shane and his friends took a month-long vacation. And every day, they would head out into the Gulf of California and go sea kayaking. They were really kind of in the middle of nowhere.
There's little beach communities and some little tourist centers. But mostly what we were doing was finding deserted open beaches and camping. So there was nobody around for most of the time.
Wow. So it was just like-- it was you, and there was like-- how many of them was it you said? Seven? Six, seven?
There was six or seven. And some people might go fishing. Some people might play cards. Some people might snorkel. I think we slept outside a lot. It felt like we were 12 years old, pretending to be Robinson Crusoe living off the land. So we carried all our own water, all our own food, camping supplies, tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies,
Sunscreen, I hope.
Sunscreen? No, we were young then. We just figured it would be fine.
[LAUGHS] Are you serious? You didn't bring any sunscreen?
I'm sure I didn't.
So we're in Baja. We are on a layover, which means we are just camped somewhere, and we're not trying to kayak right now. And we've been clamming all day. And my neck locks up, and I can't turn my head to one side. And this is bad for lots of reasons. But when you're kayaking, you have to be able to paddle. You got to be able to use both arms.
And this neck locking up, this is something that's happened to you periodically throughout your life.
Yeah, this happens six to eight times a year. It usually lasts three or four days. But so no one wants to be stuck on the beach while I'm working out my neck for three or four days.
So we had run into a little expat community on a beach pretty close to where we were camping, these folks who were living in campers and had set up little cantinas, which are really just sort of stakes with a tarp over them. And they would serve beers, or, in our case, they showed us how to clam. And then they made us a clam feast.
So we went back to the guy that had shown us how to do that, to his camper on the beach. And I said, there's not any chiropractors anywhere nearby, which was just a ridiculous question because there was nothing nearby. I mean, this is where it kind of gets apocryphal, but is actually true, because he gets this sort of wistful look in his eye, and he says, no, there's no chiropractor. But there is an amateur chiropractor who helps some of the local people. And his name is Johnny Tequila. And he lives on a boat two coves over from where you're staying. And if you go to this man, he may help you. It was very mystical.
And you were like, well, you had me at amateur chiropractor, but once I find out that his name is Dr. Johnny Tequila--
So you said, how do you get there?
How do I get there? I don't want to miss it. And he's like, you won't miss it. I was like, well, tell me where he is. And so he grabs a bar napkin and in black ballpoint pen, I think, sketches me a rough outline of the coast, and puts an X. There's an X marks the spot. That's where Johnny Tequila is two coves over. No one wants to go with me. They're all going to chill out, play cards.
Oh, so you had to kayak up to this guy?
Yes, so I have to kayak to him.
My friends had taken to teasing me about my paddle stroke, which was at this point one-armed and half-crippled, and they were calling it the chicken wing.
Because of your neck.
Because of my neck. So I chicken wing for two coves worth, maybe a mile paddle. And you're really close to the shore. And the beach is right on your right, and the open ocean is on your left. And you're chicken winging-- one cove, OK. And I'm looking at my-- and my napkin gets wet, so my map gets all destroyed, comes apart.
Because the water is running down your paddle handle?
So I chicken wing on over. And there, in the second cove, is a catamaran in the middle of an empty cove. And I don't want you to get the idea that this is a harbor, or a dock, or anything man-made-- nothing around. And it's docked in the water maybe 20 or 30 yards from shore.
And as I paddled closer, I don't see anyone. It's got a cabin. But the mast is up. No sail is up. And as I get closer and closer, I can see around the mast, lined up are empty Cuervo Gold tequila bottles, but kind of orderly. That was the weird thing. Usually, you don't associate empty tequila bottles with order, but these had been meticulously kind of lined up.
Ringing the mast.
Ringing the mast. And again, I'm paddling up on a boat in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. And I don't really know how to even start. And from some deep place, the word that comes to me is ahoy, which I've certainly never used in normal conversation.
So I say, ahoy. And from out of the cabin comes a completely naked woman. She looks American, and blond hair, tanned so deeply. It's like the tan that goes to your liver. It's just tan all the way through. Really muscly-- her shoulders looked like she was probably a rafting guide in Colorado.
So she's completely naked and completely unfazed about being completely naked, just greets me and talks to me as if she were wearing clothes. And she's above me, so I'm just looking up at her being naked from my kayak, holding onto the side of their boat.
And I'm in my kayak. And I said, is Johnny Tequila here? And she's very nice. And she goes, no, he went to town for supplies, but he'll be back shortly. Why don't you wait until he comes back?
And then eventually Johnny Tequila, we see him on the beach near us. And he's got a little rowboat. And he rows back to us. And he looks exactly like her. I mean, he's got on shorts, but he's got that tan. He looks kind of muscly in his shoulders and chest. And they both have kind of wild, bleached out blond hair and real scruffy-- maybe 30s, although the sun makes everyone look older, so who knows?
And I tell him my story. And he's like, yeah, of course I'll perform some amateur chiropractory on your neck. He didn't say that. He said just, yeah, of course, I'll help you. Follow me to shore. So he rose, and I chicken wing to the shore. And we pull our boats up.
And then he said, follow me. And now we are going-- I want to say jungle, but it was not jungle. But it's dense scrub. I mean, there's bushes all around us. There's cacti winding around in the middle of Mexico with no one else for miles. And I'm following him on this path, a really faint path. And we come to a clearing.
And in the clearing there is a table exactly like a massage table or a chiropractic table you'd see in a real chiropractor's office with the center part that's open. And you can put your face down there, and the neck part articulates and comes up. It's the real deal. And a life-sized human skeleton hanging from a tree, which I assume is a replica, but it looks like it-- a skeleton and the table in a clearing in the middle of the desert in Mexico.
And then he has me lie on my back, looking up at his face and his crazy hair. And he's shirtless. Did I tell you my chiropractor was shirtless? He's shirtless. And he puts his hands around my neck in the middle of Mexico in a clearing with a skeleton. My amateur chiropractor now has my neck in his hands. And he gives me a chiropractic exam that resembles every other chiropractic exam I've received.
And then he does an adjustment that also passes as any other chiropractic adjustment I've received. And I say, Johnny Tequila, thank you for adjusting my neck. Can I pay you? And he said, no. I just do this to help people. There will be no payment. But if you ever see me in a bar, you can buy me a shot of tequila.
Then the next day, was, in fact, your neck better?
Well, it's possible I'm collapsing time, but the way I remember it, I chicken wing back, and over the next few hours I start to feel much, much better. And my neck is OK.
Do you think that Johnny Tequila-- when you think of Johnny Tequila, is he an argument for chucking it all and moving to some quiet beach in some distant land, or is he an argument against it?
He's 100% an argument for. I can't believe you asked me that question. A simpler life-- just crack people's necks, drink tequila, sing in the cantina, and go home to my naked lady. Did I not tell the story to make it seem good? It seemed great.
Shane DuBow talking to Alex Blumberg. Alex, by the way, has a brand new show that he is co-hosting. It's a podcast that launches next week. It's called How to Save a Planet, about climate solutions, on August 20. Look for it wherever you get your podcasts.
[MUSIC - "JOHNNY" BY AB AND THE SEA]
Act Three: The Beachcomber
Act Three, The Beachcomber. OK, so the absolute beachiest radio show, I think, maybe that has ever been made-- I believe, anyway-- was done by my first boss at NPR, this documentary producer named Keith Talbot. He made this back in 1979. It was called Ocean Hour.
And I love that show. Like I say, I think it's the beachiest radio show mankind will ever produce. And here is one of my favorite parts. Before I play this, I should say, this is such a piece of 1970s-era public radio that there's no narration on the show giving the name of the interviewee who you're about to hear or where he is. That's how we rolled back then. Anyway, I hope you like this.
Here is a scrounger's life, just like a beachcomber. I have lived as poor as a man can live and still survive in the United States of America in the 1970s because everything comes here somehow sooner or later-- wood, oysters, the various other fish that you can get for the asking-- mullet, which is the big, good eating fish around here, along with trout and catfish, which come from the rivers. You have the river cat and the saltwater cat. They seem to be cousins, but they taste a little different.
And in addition to all of that, you get the kinds of things that the sea brings, which is from boats. There's always a certain amount of movement of cargo in boats, as well as fish. And firewood around here is for the asking. In a city like New York or Washington, firewood, I'm sure, costs $100 a truckload, $200. Around here, you can go out and fill it up for nothing.
There is a theory, for example, in archaeology that all of the early settlements were on the coast of man, that that's where the easiest life has always been, where everything was for the taking. And you had the sea, and you had the land together, and the various mutations between them. And that's where food chains like to start, where you have that melting land or that solidifying water. That's where the organisms get their start, especially if you have the right climate.
As a poor man, it means that things are coming to me, which don't happen very much on the prairie or in the big cities. Nothing comes to your door in a big city except a cop, or a taxi driver, or something. But here, things actually come to your door.
An excerpt from Ocean Hour in 1979. A link to that entire program is at our website, and I do recommend it. It's thisamericanlife.org. Coming up, David Sedaris and his family go to the beach, except for one of them. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
Act Four: Now We Are Five
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, for everybody who is far from the beach, for everybody who's avoiding the beach because of coronavirus, for everybody who needs the beach, we take you there with stories about the beach. We've arrived at Act Four-- Act Four, Now We Are Five.
OK, so if you're a beach family, you go to the beach every year. Good years, bad years, whatever happens in your family that year, it's just what you do. David Sedaris has this story about his family heading to the beach together one year. This was first published in The New Yorker a few years back. And here at our program, we all really loved it. So here's David.
In late May of last year, a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down. I was given the news over a white courtesy phone while at the Dallas airport. Then, because my plane to Baton Rouge was boarding and I wasn't sure what else to do, I got on it.
The following morning, I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta. And the day after that, I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever-shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die, but a sibling? I felt I'd lost the identity I'd enjoyed since 1968 when my brother was born.
"Six kids!" people would say. "How do your poor folks manage?"
There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three. When they'd leave several hours later, every last part of me would feel violated.
Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV-- that's what my parents had to deal with. Now, though, there weren't six, only five. "And you can't really say, 'There used to be six,'" I told my sister, Lisa. "It just makes people uncomfortable."
I recalled a father and son I'd met in California a few years back.
"So are there other children?" I asked.
"There are," the man said. "Three who are living and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born, 18 years ago."
That's not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what's a person supposed to do with that?
Compared to most 49-year-olds or even most 49-month-olds, Tiffany didn't have much. She did leave a will, though. In it, she decreed that we, her family, could not have her body or attend her memorial service.
"So put that in your pipe and smoke it," her mother would have said.
A few days after getting the news, my sister, Amy, drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany's room-- family photos, many of which had been ripped into pieces, comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts. The bed, a mattress on the floor, had been taken away, and a large industrial fan had been set up. Amy snapped some pictures while she was there. And individually and in groups, those of us left studied them for clues-- a paper plate on a dresser that had several drawers missing, a phone number written on a wall, a collection of mop handles, each one a different color, arranged like cattails in a barrel painted green.
Six months before our sister killed herself, I had made plans for us all to gather at a beach house on Emerald Isle off the coast of North Carolina. My family used to vacation there every summer, but after my mother died we stopped going-- not because we lost interest, but because it was she who always made the arrangements and, more importantly, paid for it. The place I found with the help of my sister-in-law, Kathy, had six bedrooms and a small swimming pool. Our week-long rental period began on Saturday, June 8, and we arrived to find a delivery woman standing in the driveway with seven pounds of seafood, a sympathy gift sent by friends. "There's slaw in there too," she said, handing over the bags.
In the past, when my family rented a cottage, my sisters and I would crowd the door like puppies around a food dish. Our father would unlock it, and we'd tear through the house, claiming rooms. I always picked the biggest one facing the ocean. And just as I'd start to unpack, my parents would enter and tell me that this was theirs. "I mean, just who the hell do you think you are?" my father would ask.
He and my mother would move in, and I would get booted to what was called the maid's room. It was always on the ground level, a kind of dank shed next to where the car was parked. There was never an interior stairway leading to the upper floor. Instead, I had to take the outside steps and, more often than not, knock on the locked front door, like a beggar hoping to be invited in.
"What do you want?" my sisters would ask.
"I want to come inside."
"That's funny," Lisa, the eldest, would say to the others, who were gathered like disciples around her. "Did you hear something, a whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that? A hermit crab? A little sea slug?"
Normally, there was a social divide between the three oldest and three youngest children in my family. Lisa, Gretchen, and I treated the others like servants and did very well for ourselves. At the beach, though, all bets were off, and it was just upstairs against downstairs, meaning everyone against me.
This time, because I was paying, I got to choose the best room. Amy moved in next door, and my brother, Paul, his wife, and their 10-year-old daughter, Maddy, took the spot next to her. That was it for oceanfront. The others arrived later and had to take the leftovers. Lisa's room faced the street, as did my father's. Gretchen's faced the street and was intended for someone who was paralyzed. Hanging from the ceiling were electric pulleys designed to lift a harnessed body into and out of bed.
Unlike the cottages of our youth, this one did not have a maid's room. It was too new and fancy for that, as were the homes that surrounded it. Traditionally, all the island houses were on stilts, but more and more often now the ground floors are filled in. They all have beachy names and are painted beachy colors. But most of those built after Hurricane Fran hit the coast in 1996 are three stories tall and look almost suburban.
This place was vast and airy. The kitchen table sat 12, and there was not one but two dishwashers. All the pictures were ocean related-- seascapes and lighthouses, all with the airborne V's that are shorthand for seagull. A sampler on the living room wall read, "Old shellers never die. They simply conch out." On the round clock beside it, the numbers lay in an indecipherable heap, as if they had come unglued. Just above them were printed the words, "Who cares?"
This was what we found ourselves saying whenever anyone asked the time.
The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany's obituary ran in the Raleigh News and Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old and had a house, but what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper's website, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody's trash can. He said she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the 1960s that included a photo spread titled "The Ass Menagerie."
This was fascinating, as we didn't really know our sister very well. Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives. We'd had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to our own specific Sedaris. Tiffany, though, stayed away. She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there'd always be some excuse-- she missed her plane, she had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations. "The rest of us managed to make it," I'd say, aware of how old and guilt trippy I sounded.
All of us would be disappointed by her absence, though for different reasons. Even if you weren't getting along with Tiffany at the time, you couldn't deny the show she put on-- the dramatic entrances, the non-stop, professional-grade insults, the chaos she'd inevitably leave in her wake. One day she'd throw a dish at you and the next she'd create a mosaic made of the shards. When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out, she'd take up with someone else. At no time did she get along with everybody, but there was always someone she was in contact with. Toward the end, it was Lisa, but before that we'd all had our turn.
The last time she joined us on Emerald Isle was 1986. "And even then, she left after three days," Gretchen reminded us.
As kids, we spent our beach time swimming. Then we became teenagers and devoted ourselves to tanning. There's a certain kind of talk that takes place when you're lying, dazed in the sun, and I've always been partial to it. On the first afternoon of our most recent trip, we laid out one of the bedspreads we had as children and arranged ourselves side by side on it, trading stories about Tiffany.
"What about the Halloween she spent on that Army base?"
"And the time she showed up at Dad's birthday party with a black eye?"
"I remember this girl she met years ago at a party," I began, when my turn came. "She'd been talking about facial scars and how terrible it would be to have one, so Tiffany said, 'I have a little scar on my face, and I don't think it's so awful.' 'Well,' the girl said, 'you would if you were pretty.'"
Amy laughed and rolled over onto her stomach. Oh, that's a good line. I rearranged the towel I was using as a pillow. Isn't it, though? Coming from someone else, the story might have been upsetting, but not being pretty was never one of Tiffany's problems, especially when she was in her 20s and 30s, and men tumbled helpless before her.
"Funny," I said, "but I don't remember a scar on her face."
I stayed in the sun too long that day and got a burn on my forehead. That was basically it for me and the beach blanket. I made brief appearances for the rest of the week, stopping to dry off after a swim, but mainly I spent my days on a bike, cycling up and down the coast and thinking about what had happened.
While the rest of us seemed to get along effortlessly, with Tiffany it always felt like work. She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me. And at the time of her death, we hadn't spoken in eight years. During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville. And though I'd always toy with the idea of contacting her, I never did, despite my father's encouragement.
Meanwhile, I'd get reports from him and Lisa. Tiffany had lost her apartment, had gone on disability, had moved into a room found for her by a social service agency. Perhaps she was more forthcoming with her friends, but her family got things only in bits and pieces. She didn't talk with us so much as at us, great blocks of speech that were in turns funny, astute, and so contradictory, it was hard to connect the sentence you were hearing to the one that preceded it. Before we stopped speaking, I could always tell when she was on the phone. I'd walk into the house and hear Hugh say, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh."
In addition to the two boxes that Amy had filled in Somerville, she also brought down our sister's 1978 ninth grade yearbook. Among the messages inscribed by her classmates was the following, written by someone who had drawn a marijuana leaf beside her name. "Tiffany, you are a one-of-a-kind girl, so stay that way, you unique ass. I'm only sorry we couldn't have partied more together. This school sucks to hell. Stay cool, stoned, drunk, [BLEEP] up. Check your ass later." Then there's, "Tiffany, I'm looking forward to getting high with you this summer," and, "Tiffany, call me sometime this summer, and we'll go out and get blitzed."
A few weeks after these messages were written, Tiffany ran away and was subsequently sent to a disciplinary institution in Maine called Elan. According to what she told us later, it was a horrible place. She returned home in 1980, having spent two years there. And from that point on, none of us can recall a conversation in which she did not mention it. She blamed the family for sending her off, but we, her siblings, had nothing to do with it. Paul, for instance-- Paul was 10 when she left. I was 21.
For a year, I sent her monthly letters. Then she wrote and told me to stop. As for my parents, there were only so many times they could apologize. We had other kids, they said in their defense. You think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?
We were at the beach for three days before Lisa and our father, who is now 90, joined us. Being on the island meant missing the spinning classes he takes in Raleigh, so I found a fitness center not far from the rental cottage, and every afternoon he and I would spend some time there. On the way over, we talked to each other, but as soon as we mounted our stationary bikes we'd each retreat into our own thoughts. It was a small place, not very lively. A mute television oversaw the room, tuned to the weather channel and reminding us that there's always a catastrophe somewhere or other, always someone flooded from his home or running for his life from a funnel-shaped cloud.
Toward the end of the week, I came upon my father in Amy's room, sifting through the photos that Tiffany had destroyed. In his hand was a fragment of my mother's head with a patch of blue sky behind her. Under what circumstances had this been ripped up, I wondered. It seemed such a melodramatic gesture, like throwing a glass against a wall, something someone in a movie would do.
"Just awful," my father whispered. "A person's life reduced to one lousy box."
I put my hand on his shoulder. "Actually, there are two of them."
He corrected himself-- "Two lousy boxes."
One afternoon on Emerald Isle, we all rode to the Food Lion for groceries. I was in the produce department looking at red onions when my brother sneaked up from behind and let loose with a loud achoo, this while whipping a bouquet of wet parsley through the air. I felt the spray on the back of my neck and froze, thinking a very sick stranger had just sneezed on me. It's a neat trick, but he also doused the Indian woman who was standing to my left. She was wearing a blood-colored sari, so got it on her bare arm as well as her neck and the lower part of her back.
"Sorry, man," Paul said when she turned around, horrified. "I was just playing a joke on my brother."
The woman had many thin bracelets on, and they jangled as she brushed her hand against the back of her head.
"You called her man," I said to him after she walked off.
"For real?" he asked.
Amy mimicked him perfectly-- "For real?"
Over the phone, my brother, like me, is often mistaken for a woman. As we continued shopping, he told us that his van had recently broken down and that when he called for a tow truck the dispatcher said, "We'll be right out, sweetie." He lowered a watermelon into the cart and turned to his daughter. "Maddy's got a daddy who talks like a lady, but she don't care, do she?"
Giggling, she punched him in the stomach, and I was struck by how comfortable the two of them are with each other. Our father was a figure of authority, while Paul is more of a playmate.
When we went to the beach as children, on or about the fourth day our father would say, "Wouldn't it be nice to buy a cottage down here?" We'd get our hopes up, and then he would bring practical concerns into it. They weren't petty. Buying a house that will eventually get blown away by a hurricane probably isn't the best way to spend your money, but still we wanted one desperately.
I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house, and then it would be everyone's, as long as they followed my Draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it. Thus it was on Wednesday morning, midway through our vacation, Hugh and I contacted a real estate agent named Phyllis, who took us around to look at available properties. On Friday afternoon, we made an offer on an oceanfront cottage not far from the one we were renting. Before sunset, our bid was accepted. I made the announcement at the dinner table and got the reaction I had expected.
"Now wait a minute," my father said. "You need to think clearly here."
"I already have," I told him.
"OK, then how old is the roof? How many times has it been replaced in the past 10 years?"
"When can we move in?" Gretchen asked.
Lisa wanted to know if she could bring her dogs, and Amy asked what the house was named.
"Right now it's called Fantastic Place," I told her, "but we're going to change it." I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the Ship Shape. Now, though, I had a better idea. "We're going to call it the Sea Section."
My father put down his hamburger. "Oh, no, you're not."
"But it's perfect," I argued. "The name's supposed to be beachy, and, if it's a pun, all the better."
I brought up a cottage we'd seen earlier in the day called Dune Our Thing, and my father winced. "What about naming it Tiffany?" he said.
Our silence translated to, let's pretend we didn't hear that.
He picked his hamburger back up. "I think it's a great idea-- the perfect way to pay our respects."
"If that's the case, we could name it after Mom," I told him, "or half after Mom and half after Tiffany. But it's a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn't fit in with the names of the other houses."
"Aw, baloney," my father said. "Fitting in-- that's not who we are. That's not what we're about."
Paul interrupted to nominate the Conch Sucker.
Amy's suggestion had the word "seaman" in it, and Gretchen's was even dirtier.
"What's wrong with the name it already has," Lisa asked.
"No, no, no," my father said, forgetting, I think, that this wasn't his decision. A few days later, after the buyer's remorse had kicked in, I'd wonder if I hadn't bought the house as a way of saying, see, it's just that easy-- no hemming and hawing, no asking to look at the septic tank. Rather, you make your family happy and iron out the details later.
The cottage we bought is two stories tall and was built in 1978. It's on proper stilts and has two rear decks, one above the other, overlooking the ocean. It was rented to vacationers until late September, but Phyllis allowed us to drop by and show it to the family the following morning, after we checked out of the house we'd been staying in.
A place always looks different-- worse, most often-- after you've made the commitment to buy it. So while the others raced up and down the stairs, claiming their future bedrooms, I held my nose to a vent and caught a whiff of mildew. The sale included the furniture, so I also made an inventory of the Barcaloungers and massive TVs I would eventually be getting rid of, along with the shell-patterned bedspreads and cushions with anchors on them.
"For our beach house, I want to have a train theme," I announced. "Trains on the curtains, trains on the towels-- we're going to go all out."
"Oh, brother," my father moaned.
We sketched a plan to return for Thanksgiving. And after saying goodbye to one another, my family splintered into groups and headed off to our respective homes. There had been a breeze at the beach house, but once we left the island the air grew still. As the heat intensified, so did the general feeling of depression.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, the road back to Raleigh took us past Smithfield and a billboard on the outskirts of town that read, "Welcome to Klan Country." This time we took a different route, one my brother recommended. Hugh drove, and my father sat beside him. I slumped down in the back seat next to Amy, and every time I raised my head I'd see the same soybean field or low-slung cinder block building we'd seemingly passed 20 minutes earlier.
We'd been on the road for a little more than an hour when we stopped at a farmer's market. Inside an open air pavilion, a woman offered complimentary plates of hummus served with a corn and black bean salad, so we each accepted one and took seats on a bench. 20 years earlier, the most a place like this might have offered was fried okra. Now there was organic coffee and artisanal goat cheese. Above our heads hung a sign that read "Whispering Dove Ranch." And just as I thought that we might be anywhere, I noticed that the music piped through the speakers was Christian, the new kind, which says that Jesus is awesome.
Hugh brought my father a plastic cup of water. "You OK, Lou?"
"Fine," my father answered.
"Why do you think she did it?" I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that's all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Musn't Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she'd taken wouldn't be strong enough and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us of all people?
This is how I thought of it, for though I've often lost faith in myself, I've never lost faith in my family in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It's an archaic belief, one I haven't seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I'd ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn't imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you'd take your own life?
"I don't know that it had anything to do with us," my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn't the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?
At the far end of the parking lot was a stand selling reptiles. In giant tanks were two pythons, each as big around as a fire hose. The heat seemed to suit them, and I watched as they raised their heads, testing the screened ceilings. Beside the snakes was a low pen corralling an alligator with its mouth banded shut. It wasn't full grown, but perhaps an adolescent, around 3 feet long, and grumpy looking. A girl had stuck her arm through the wire and was stroking the thing's back while it glared, seething. "I'd like to buy everything here just so I could kill it," I said.
My father mopped his forehead with Kleenex. "I'm with you, brother."
When we were young and would set off for the beach, I'd look out the window at all the landmarks we drove by-- the Purina silo on the south side of Raleigh, the Klan billboard-- knowing that when we passed them a week later I'd be miserable. Our vacation over, now there'd be nothing to live for until Christmas. My life is much fuller than it was back then, yet this return felt no different. "What time is it?" I asked Amy.
And instead of saying, "Who cares?" she said, "You tell me. You're the one with the watch on."
At the airport a few hours later, I picked sand from my pockets and thought of our final moments at the beach house I'd bought. I was on the front porch with Phyllis, who had just locked the door, and we turned to see the others in the driveway below us. "So is that one of your sisters?" she asked, pointing to Gretchen.
"It is," I said. "And so are the two women standing on either side of her."
"Then you've got your brother," she observed. "That makes five. Wow. Now, that's a big family."
I looked at the sunbaked cars we would soon be climbing into, furnaces every one of them, and said, "Yes. It certainly is."
David Sedaris. This story appears in his book, Calypso, and in his forthcoming collection, Best of Me. We want to share the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That number is 1-800-273-8255. Again, 1-800-273-8255.
[MUSIC - "DAY AT THE BEACH" BY ATLANTIC THRILLS]
Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder.
Production help on this rerun from Sarah Abdurrahmana, Noor Gill, Katherine Rae Mondo, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney. Research help today from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damian Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Willow Yamauchi, Craig Desson, and the Factory Theater in Toronto.
Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, or as we like to call him--
The grape smuggler, the Miami meat tent, the dingaling sling, the Saint-Tropez truffle duffle.
I'm Ira Glass. Don't forget the sunscreen. I'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.