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721: The Walls Close In

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

There's this thing that happens in the first episode of the TV show Watchmen, which I finally saw last month. I'm behind. A woman is driving with her son on a sunny day, and suddenly the sky darkens and squids drop from the sky, like a hailstorm or something. But they're little squids, each one-- I don't know-- the length of your finger.

Cars on the road pull over and wait. Squids land on them and on the ground, making this soggy layer of squid on the road. And then soon enough-- again, like a hailstorm-- it stops. Sun comes back up. Everybody starts their car again, heads to wherever they're heading, just like the most normal thing in the world. No big deal, just another squid drop.

And when I saw that, I felt like that is exactly how things happen. That's how things feel. That's what everything feels like right now. Inconceivable stuff goes down all the time these days. And it's like, you can get used to anything. You know what I mean?

Every few days, more Americans die from COVID than died in 9/11. Wildfires are raging and continue to just rage. The president won't disavow white supremacists in a televised debate. I'm used to all that. That's just daily life, you know?

Or there's this example of "you can get used to anything." Jay was having a normal, stressful day for 2020, meaning he does his job from his apartment on a computer at his kitchen table on Zoom. But he's also got to deal with his children during the workday.

So a couple weeks ago, he's a college professor and he's preparing a lecture for a class. And he's anxious about that, and he wants it to be good. And then at 3 o'clock, he has to go run, get his kids, and bring them home. And he and his kids get back to their building at 3:20. And he's trying to move quickly because his class starts at 3:30. And he and his two kids get on the elevator to head up to their apartment.

Jay

And then all of a sudden, I feel the elevator start to drop. It's like a half-second feeling, like when you're on a roller coaster. And thankfully, it stops.

Ira Glass

How far do you guys drop?

Jay

I don't know, just probably a couple of stories.

Ira Glass

You dropped a few stories?

Jay

Yeah, and I look, and it's stuck at the third floor.

Ira Glass

They push a button to call for help. And they're told somebody is going to be there to fix things, but it's going to take a little while. And they wait.

Jay

And my kids are starting to bicker with one another. And my daughter starts getting upset.

Ira Glass

She's eight years old. And part of what's happening, Jay says, is that her big brother, who is 10 years old, has actually been stuck in an elevator once before when he was little. So he's being all, what's the big deal?

Jay

He was not rattled at all. And in fact, she starts to get upset. He starts to tell her that she's overreacting, and that makes her more upset. And so I had to calm her down and tell him to stop teasing her. And then we took a couple selfies. And I tried to make it like a fun thing we're all going to remember and look back on and laugh on. And so that kind of changed the mood in the elevator a little bit, at least briefly.

Ira Glass

So, kids momentarily OK, Jay gets back to the other urgent matter that's on his mind-- his class. It's over 300 students, this big intro psychology class, which still has not started. There's still just enough time for him to quickly tap out a message on his phone-- "Dear class, I am currently trapped in an elevator in my apartment building. So I'll join the Zoom call and start teaching once I'm safely out of here."

Push Send, message goes out, and then-- nothing, right? They just stay put. And Jay starts to worry about his students, who are waiting for him on the Zoom call. 10 minutes pass, 20.

And half an hour in, he decides he's going to try to teach the class on his phone from the elevator, which takes a little technical wrangling. He has to download Zoom to his phone with barely one bar of service, blah blah blah. OK, this part is boring. But after a while, OK, no video, voice only, he's in!

Jay

And I join the Zoom class. And I'm trying to talk to them. And I can hear their voices. And the students are all chit chatting with themself. And I can hear them kind of speculating about what might be happening to me, and they're laughing. And I am trying to get their attention. And they're all talking, and they couldn't hear me. And so I'm shouting at this point. "It's me, it's Jay. I'm here. Hi, guys." [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

So in the elevator, what's happening is, you're a grown man shouting into his phone. Is that right?

Jay

Yeah. And eventually I can hear someone say, "Hey, wait, shh. I think I hear our professor. I think he's back."

Ira Glass

He has a moment of panic, like what am I going to say. And then he launches in. With no notes, none of his slides. He gives the lecture that he'd planned.

Jay

And I can't see them, and they can't see me. But it was working. It was all kind of coming back to me. And I was able to deliver it, and I had their attention.

Ira Glass

So it started to seem normal?

Jay

Yeah, it starts to seem normal. Yeah, eventually, I had adapted. My kids are being quiet. They're listening.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you, do you remember how long it took? How many minutes did it take before this started to seem normal?

Jay

I would say about four or five minutes.

Ira Glass

Four or five minutes! We are very adaptable creatures. Soon enough, the elevator jolts and starts to move again. Jay gets back to his apartment, sits down at the kitchen table, logs onto Zoom, and teaches a couple hundred kids from his kitchen, which, of course, is also totally weird, but after months of doing that, it feels totally normal.

Ira Glass

Hey, did you consider not doing the class? Did you consider canceling?

Jay

It's funny because that night, when I told my partner about this, she was like, why didn't you just cancel? And she's a professor, but it's one of those things where it didn't cross my mind when I was in the situation.

My mind, early in that day, had been focused on being able to navigate this complex situation that was going to be stressful-- getting my kids and getting home, and then getting the lecture ready, which I had been prepping all day. And so that had determined each little step I made. And I never really stopped to think that I just shouldn't do it.

Ira Glass

That's all of us right now. Our lives this year are so strange. And we just do the next task and the next one after that and the next one after that, and we do not think about how weird things have gotten.

Jay

Each little step naturally led to the next step. And then it wasn't until I left the situation hours later, I was looking at it and realizing how absurd it was.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, on our program, people trapped in small spaces, stuck in a situation, and coping because they have no choice.

Jay, I think it's pretty clear, was not too bothered by his short time in the elevator, but in our other stories today, it is people who are stuck in a small space for way longer. In the first half of our program, we have a story where things get pretty dire. And in the second half, it's not nearly so difficult. It's musicians who are confined to a tiny space for years, an uncomfortably tiny space. And can I say, things get pretty weird there, too. Stay with us.

Act One: The People Up the Stairs

Ira Glass

Act One, The People Up the Stairs. So we start today with a couple who've been penned into a small space for months now, hiding in an attic because their lives are on the line, surrounded by musty furniture and stacks of old paintings that are collecting dust. Kevin Sieff talked to them about the truly jaw-dropping story of how they got there.

Kevin Sieff

The attic has creaky wood floors and one small window, but they try not to go close to it. They don't want to be seen. The ceilings are low. Moises, who's 6'1", has to crouch, but Jessica's fine. They spend their time obsessing over not being heard. They try not to talk above a whisper or walk on the creaking floorboards. Even sleeping is stressful.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

When we sleep, Moises snores, and it scares me. And sometimes I wake him up in the night when I hear that he's snoring. I say, "Moises, try not to snore." But I don't think it's something that is under his control. But it still bothers me because it's something that I don't think he should do.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

Do you have to worry about every noise that you guys make?

Interpreter

Yeah, we have to be like ghosts in this house.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

How Moises and Jessica ended up in this attic, it goes back to how they met. It was 2016 on an anti-government WhatsApp group. They were both activists against the regime of Daniel Ortega, who has ruled Nicaragua on and off for 40 years. Then they started seeing each other at protests and meetings.

Jessica saw the nerdy guy, unafraid to go on national television, wearing a mask with the president's face on it and an x over the mouth, demanding freedom of expression. Moises saw the woman with the big brown eyes, often the last person to back down when the police showed up.

At one protest, when 200 police closed in on a group of maybe 20 protesters, Moises looked for a place to run. But then he saw Jessica and another woman walk right up to the armed officers and start yelling in their faces.

Moises

So I kind of got brave also. I went to the frontline and stand with them, shoulder to shoulder, doing the same thing.

Kevin Sieff

It's kind of a crazy moment to start a relationship with someone. You're in the middle of basically a firing line, with this girl that you just started dating.

Moises

Yeah. What I thought was, if they're going to kill me, I'm going to die happy right now, at least.

Kevin Sieff

They got married and Moises adopted Jessica's daughter, Camila. He got a job at a Sprint call center, talking to people from the States all day. Jessica worked for a company that made solar panels.

But still, their relationship was built around their activism. One parent picked up Camila at school, while the other organized a rally or held a press conference. At home, near the little girl's pile of toys, they kept masks for tear gas.

But the government's response got harsher. The regime began kidnapping its opponents. Moises was grabbed by four or five men in unmarked cars and taken to El Chipote, an infamous prison documented by human rights groups as being a state-run torture site. A warning-- this next bit includes descriptions of violence.

Moises

They were hitting me in the head, in the stomach, in the legs, and they said, we're going to kill you, motherfucker. You're never going to get out. Now we got you. Now we got you. And they stripped me naked, did some things that they did to me that I will-- that my wife doesn't even know that they did to me because I don't feel like I want to tell her.

They do all horrible things over there. They put electric shocks to your body. They put a-- I don't know if you know what a-- a police stick they use to beat you up. They introduce that into your anal cavity, so make sure they make you talk.

Kevin Sieff

He was held for two days. Not long after they released him, Jessica went to a protest that was broken up by police. Officers kicked her in the stomach and hit her with the butt of a gun. She was pregnant. She lost the baby.

Late last year, they realized they couldn't stay anymore. They needed to escape, and their plan was to go to the US. And they had a good reason to think they would be welcomed there. Jessica and Moises' brand of activism, it was championed by Republicans, including the Trump administration, for its defiance of a left-wing autocrat. They were called freedom fighters. "We stand with you," Republican senators said in statements and tweets.

In 2018, Ted Cruz gave a whole speech about US support for Nicaraguan activists like them.

Ted Cruz

To the people of Nicaragua, the American people stand with you in your fight for freedom and for the rule of law. To the half million protesters who risked your lives, I say thank you. Thank you for your courage. And remember, truth has power.

Kevin Sieff

That support, it's part of what made their asylum case seem winnable, because it fell under the category of political persecution. It was one sliver of the asylum system left intact, after years of dismantling.

In all sorts of ways, getting asylum in the US has become almost impossible. Asylum seekers are being turned away at the border, told, "Nope, we're closed." Cases are incredibly hard to win even when they do get to the courts.

But the Trump administration did leave at least one window cracked. One of the few categories of asylum seekers that it purported to accept-- people who were threatened, tortured, jailed for their politics. Especially when their politics overlapped with US interests-- people like Moises and Jessica.

Moises and Jessica were a perfect asylum case for another reason. Their persecution was documented, and it was public. As activists, they had become famous. Their protests had been televised. They'd held nationally-broadcast press conferences. People recognized them in the streets all the time. Even the State Department had tweeted about specific confrontations they'd had with the paramilitary.

At any other time in recent US history, they would likely have been admitted. But instead, they're in hiding. I wanted to understand why. I've been covering immigration for the last few years, and this, to me, felt like the last chapter in the disintegration of asylum. So I called Moises and Jessica in the attic to hear about their journey from start to finish, to learn what happened.

In late 2019, they started to get ready. Moises studied the US government website for the asylum requirements. He read about the importance of supporting your case with evidence. So he bought a black backpack, and he filled it with all the evidence he could gather-- videos of their protests and press conferences, reports from the Human Rights Commission and the State Department, statements from the White House and the Republican senators.

Moises also wrote a five-page declaration, a long essay enumerating every threat, every beating he'd received from the government. He included the names of his torturers. He'd read online that the details could help his family's asylum case, so he was as specific as possible.

The backpack took on a kind of sacred role for them. It was their proof that they were deserving of the sliver of asylum that remained available in the US. Then Moises and Jessica talked to Camila, their eight-year-old daughter. Camila is outgoing, loves LEGOs and TikTok videos. They sat her down, and Moises described all of the dangers they would face on their journey across the border. Camila told them she was ready to go.

At 3 o'clock one morning, they left their house outside of Managua and headed 2,000 miles north. By early July, they were moving through the desert of northern Mexico. It was scorching, and COVID cases were spiking. Moises had gamed everything out. He wrapped some of his asylum evidence in plastic in case it got wet. And he picked where they would cross the border-- Texas.

Moises

Since we heard so many things about the Texas senator Ted Cruz, which is a guy that always talk about the Nicaraguan regime and everything. We thought, oh my god, it was a good place because we're in Texas, which he is from.

Kevin Sieff

During tough moments on the journey to the border, Moises and Jessica had tried to convince Camila that the whole trip was a game. "It'll get more fun," they said. "Soon we'll be in Disney World. You'll eat a McDonald's hamburger." Camila played along at first, but by the time they got to the border, she was exhausted and scared. Jessica scouted out the Rio Grande. Neither she nor Camila could swim, so she nervously looked for the shallowest part.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

So as we were walking into the river, it was as if fate had intervened. Because every time we took a step in the water, there was always a rock that we could see. That is, it was as if God had placed stones there so that we could walk and nothing would happen to us. The water never got that high. I don't even think it got above our knees. And so when we got to the other side, we saw the people from Border Patrol.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

Jessica felt a rush of relief. That's it, she thought. The hardest part is over. A Border Patrol agent got out of a truck. Moises had been planning for this moment, and he knew exactly what to do. And Moises speaks fluent English, which is incredibly unusual for an asylum seeker. He took off his backpack, and he spread out the pile of evidence supporting his asylum claim.

Moises

I say right away, we're from Nicaragua. We apply for asylum. We're seeking political asylum. Here are these, including we have our passports. And they took notes and everything.

Kevin Sieff

The border patrol separated Moises from Jessica and Camila. They took his bag with all the evidence in it. For 12 days, they were detained in small, crowded tents. They were just sitting on the ground, waiting, in the same clothes they'd worn on the trip north.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

When we got there, we were wet. When we crossed the river, our shoes and our pants got wet, and they did dry off, but they dried off on our bodies. And the shoes gave me a fungus on my feet because I didn't take them off. When we got there, we couldn't bathe. Our clothes were itching us so much, my underwear especially.

Kevin Sieff

Moises kept repeating himself to janitors, guards, anyone. When can we apply for asylum, he asked. Where is my backpack? Finally, some guards came to get them. The guard said, "Everyone, get your stuff. We're taking you on a bus."

They handed Moises his backpack. It seemed to Jessica like they were about to be released and allowed to apply for asylum.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

We were all happy. We were all hugging each other because the rumor was that when that bus arrived, it was going to take us to wherever we were going to be, like Miami or wherever the people meeting you were. And so we were happy because we thought that this entire bitter journey was going to come to an end.

Kevin Sieff

She looked at Moises to see if he was also feeling hopeful, but Moises was more skeptical, and Jessica noticed. The US, it turns out, had used coronavirus as an excuse to shutter what was left of the US asylum system. In March, the Centers for Disease Control wrote an order saying that asylum seekers could be expelled because they pose a risk to public health during the pandemic. It later turned out that the order was conceived of by immigration officials at the White House, not medical experts.

And even though Moises, Jessica, and Camila tested negative for coronavirus while in custody, they could be deported. But they didn't know that. They were kept in an information black hole for a few days and then put in a van. No one would tell them where they were going.

Kevin Sieff

At what point do you realize that the van is going to the airport?

Moises

When after-- and when they stop the first time and then continue the trip, my wife told me that, oh, look, there's some signs, street signs that say "Airport," "Brownsville." Then we realized, oh my god, we're going to the airport. Then we're going back to Nicaragua.

Well, I started thinking, my god, what am I going to do? They're going to put me in jail again in Nicaragua. They're going to arrest me. They're going to shoot me in the head. They're going to disappear myself and my wife. They're going to send me to another Chipote for the rest of my life. Now they really make sure they're going to kill me.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Well, Camila was sleeping, and Moises was very nervous. I think it's one of the few times I've ever seen him cry. And it's really only a few times that he has, because I can tell you that I can count them on one hand and still have fingers left over.

But that day, I did see him cry. And he was crying a lot because, obviously, he was very scared.

Kevin Sieff

And when you saw Moises crying, what did you say? Did you say anything?

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Not really. I didn't say anything. I just looked at him, and he told me, "What are we going to do? What's going to happen? I'm scared that they're going to take me to the Chipote." And I didn't say anything. I kept quiet because I also thought that that was going to happen. So I couldn't tell him that that wasn't going to happen when, deep down, I felt that it would.

Kevin Sieff

Moises and Jessica first tried not to believe what was happening. In all of their planning, they'd never considered that this could happen. Never before in the modern history of the US asylum system has the US sent political dissidents back to the country they fled without first allowing them to open asylum applications.

Yet there they were, being sent back to Nicaragua, delivered into the hands of their torturers. Police would be waiting for them at the airport. And they weren't alone. Dozens of Nicaraguan asylum seekers were herded onto a charter plane, destined for a country whose treatment of political prisoners, the State Department said, demonstrates the regime's utter disregard for human life and democratic freedoms.

Not only is it a break from US policy going back decades, it's also a clear violation of international refugee law. I talked to people at the UN, and they were like, yeah, this is definitely illegal. US Customs and Border Protection did not respond to my request for comment. They claim that people seeking asylum still receive credible fear interviews, though I didn't find any evidence to support that.

The pilot comes on the intercom and calmly tells people to put their seatbelts on, like it's a normal flight. Meanwhile, the passengers are freaking out. They're still not completely sure where they're going.

Moises

Well, this time when we took off, the pilot said, well, the time expected to Nicaragua is three hours, something like that. And I say, oh my god, then we-- oh, now we're really going back, you know? It's, like, you feel unsecure, and you feel like there's nothing I can do. I cannot jump from the plane.

Kevin Sieff

The passengers were whispering to each other. "If they take me straight to prison, call my mom," one man said. "Whoever disappears, we should all assume he's in Chipote," said another. Moises recognized some of the other activists. He told me and my producer Nadia Reiman about it.

Moises

And everybody was in shackles. Everybody was in handcuffs. We were pretty sure. Oh, man, this is a-- I remember this movie Con Air. Everybody was running in the plane. Everybody was fighting with the officers about, I don't want to go back to Nicaragua. I don't want to be sent to Nicaragua. And--

Nadia Reiman

Wait, people are saying that on the plane?

Moises

Yeah.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Camila was sitting beside the window, Moises beside the aisle. And I was in the middle because I'm afraid of flying. But I was so scared from the uncertainty from not knowing what was awaiting us that I wasn't even scared of flying. I told Moises that I couldn't even feel what the pilot was doing. I didn't even feel like I was flying on an airplane.

Kevin Sieff

While they're mid-air, Moises realizes something-- the backpack. This bag full of evidence, he's about to land with it, and the police are going to see it. He can't think about anything else. The US immigration agents put it with the checked luggage, so it was somewhere in the belly of the plane. Moises couldn't even hold it, couldn't look at what was inside, and come up with a plan.

If the police find it, they'll see that he listed the names of specific torturers and what they did to him. Maybe they would decide to kill him just for that. Maybe they rape his daughter, he thinks. His mind is spiraling out of control. Next to him, Jessica is busy trying to soothe Camila, feeding her Doritos.

Moises

When we left, that backpack for me was the hope that I had, so I can make it to the US and apply for asylum. It was like my savior, my ticket to freedom. And when I was coming back to Nicaragua, it was the opposite. I was thinking, oh my god, that is the reason why they're going to shoot me or they're going to kill me. Because that's where I have all the evidence and the proof that I had. So the same backpack that was going to take me to freedom is the one that's going to kill me right now.

Kevin Sieff

When the plane lands, Moises looks out the window at the fleet of Nicaraguan soldiers and police waiting for them. Everyone gets in line, walking down the steps of the plane. Moises and Jessica and all of the others are led into a garage-like office, where the government is conducting interrogations. They're patted down, their government IDs are confiscated. The whole time, Moises is thinking about his backpack.

One officer snapped pictures of them. Another addressed them by name and asked what they were doing in the US and why they were deported. Moises tried to avoid answering. "They got me in Texas," he said, shrugging it off. They're led to another area full of police. Jessica and Camila walk hand-in-hand.

But Moises' eyes dart around, frantically searching for some sign of his backpack. Finally, he sees the luggage cart pull up, and there it is. Moises grabs his backpack and turns to face the wall of a building. It's the closest he can get to hiding. He reaches into the backpack and feels for the pages. He finds a statement, the document that outlines in explicit detail everything that happened to them.

Moises

And I knew that the first paper that I touched, I knew it was that statement. So when I noticed that they were not looking at me, I grabbed it and I put it in a fist, inside my fist. Then after that, I did it like I was wiping my face with the paper, like I was sweating because it was a lot of-- it was very hot when we got there. So I was sweating a lot.

So what I did is I made them think that I was using the paper to clean my sweat. Then when they were not looking, I was going to throw it in the trash can, actually. I thought about it. But I said, oh my god, I'm not going to throw it in the trash can. They might see me, or they might find it, you know? So what I did is the first thing that I thought, which was going to start eating it, real fast.

Kevin Sieff

Oh my god.

Moises

And it was wet because of the sweat, and so it was easy to swallow.

Kevin Sieff

Wait, so how many pages that you actually eat?

Moises

There were five pages.

Kevin Sieff

How did you eat five pages of this paper?

Moises

I don't know, man. I think it was real scary. I just started swallowing. My wife says that I have a big mouth. I think that helped. So when I realized in a couple of seconds, I really had everything, and choking through my throat, so I started swallowing.

Kevin Sieff

And what did the paper taste like?

Moises

Well, because of the sweat, it was very, very salty. It was terrible.

Kevin Sieff

As they walk through the crowd of police, he kept waiting for them to take him away. He kept waiting for them to open his bag. They never did. Instead, the police drove Moises, Jessica, and Camila to Jessica's mom's house in a patrol truck. When they got there, the police started taking more photos, like they were scouting a crime scene.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

So when we got out, Camila was very skinny. Since we left, she had lost weight. So my mom didn't recognize her. When she saw the three of us, she didn't even recognize us. We got out of the van, and they said, "We're going to hand over your family members now, and we'd like to take a picture so that there's evidence that the people who were deported were handed to their family members."

Kevin Sieff

This is how Nicaragua's para-police often work. They make note of where you live, and when they want to, they go after you. Moises and Jessica had to figure out what to do next. After a few days, they noticed that the police were circling the house. The police called it random and asked about Camila.

Staying at a known address was too dangerous. They didn't think the police would hurt Camila, but what if they came for Moises or Jessica while Camila was there? She could be swept up in the violence. So Moises and Jessica relocated to the attic of a safe house and left Camila. They told her, "We'll see you soon," but truthfully, they had no idea when.

It was brutal to say goodbye, but what was the alternative, they thought. If Camila was attacked on their behalf, that would be much worse. Jessica cried when she said goodbye. That was about two months ago. She's cried most days since.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

I still do. I still feel guilty. We're in hiding. I can't always see my daughter. And I can't keep every promise that I made. I feel like I failed as a mother.

Kevin Sieff

Their days are now about hiding. They spent weeks in the attic, sleeping on the floor. And now they're a floor below in a tiny, mostly empty bedroom. But they're still just as afraid of being found. The landlord warns them when someone is downstairs so they can remain extra quiet. When one of them drops something or accidentally makes a loud noise, they're like, did anyone hear that? Is that the thing that's going to give us away?

Sometimes, Jessica wakes up and, for an instant, has no idea where she is. She has to remind herself, I'm back in Nicaragua. I'm in hiding in my own country. They're back where they were a year ago, asking the same questions. Should we leave? And when? This time, the answers are harder to agree on.

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Sometimes, we have very intense arguments because, right now, we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know how long things are going to be like this. It's like being in jail without the torture. But I think there is torture psychologically, emotionally, because you can't be near the people you love.

Kevin Sieff

How many times a day do you think about what you're going to do, about your plans for what to do next?

Jessica

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

I think up until a few days ago, it was up to 20 hours a day. But I've decided that I need to wait. One day this month, Moises made it very clear that the door was closed, that we just needed to wait for the door to open, that we just needed to have patience because I don't know what else we can do. We can't think about leaving if we don't have the economic means. But we can't think about staying here because I don't know how much longer we can.

Kevin Sieff

Most of the people arriving at the US border these days know that the asylum system has been whittled away. Like Moises and Jessica, they knew it wasn't going to be easy, that it could take years.

But they believed in their case. That pile of papers in Moises' backpack-- anyone who saw them would be convinced, they thought. What they didn't believe-- and why would they-- was that no one would even look and that the backpack would end up back in a safe house next to Moises' head when he sleeps. Everything's still inside the way it was when they left for the first time.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff is the Mexico and Central America Bureau chief for The Washington Post. A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post and in their daily podcast, Post Reports.

Coming up, people who work in a field where it is really hard to find a good, steady job. These people find one, and then the only problem is, they have to actually come in and do the job every day, exactly the way they did it the day before. And I mean, like, exactly the way they did it. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Music of the Night after Night after Night

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Walls Close In, stories of people trapped in small spaces and what that's like. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Music of the Night After Night After Night After Night After Night After Night After Night After Night-- [FADES AWAY]

We now turn to people who've made a choice, a conscious choice to stick themselves into a cramped, uncomfortable space for years inside the theater. You know, the old saying "hell is other people" actually comes from the theater. It comes from a play, No Exit. That play was not written by a member of a theater orchestra. But Jay Caspian Kang has this story about how many musicians in theatrical orchestras might understand the sentiment.

Jay Caspian Kang

Nick Jemo moved to New York in 2006 to try to make it as a musician. He had just finished up college and had all these dreams of playing the trumpet for a living. But it was a struggle. There just aren't many jobs for trumpet players anymore.

So he mostly waited by the phone for gigs. Korean megachurch services, experimental plays, and the occasional substitute job with Mary Poppins on Broadway. And then a spot opened up at his favorite show.

Nick Jemo

This might be TMI, but I remember I was in my apartment. I was on the toilet. And [CHUCKLING] I got a phone call, and I didn't recognize the number. And I listened to the voicemail, saying, "Hi, this is Kristen," and freaked out.

Jay Caspian Kang

This was one of the conductors for Phantom of the Opera. She offered him a job playing shows six days a week and twice on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Nick Jemo

I'm not sure I probably even let her finish her sentence. Yes, I'm very interested and available. It was life changing, really.

Jay Caspian Kang

Did you feel you'd like won the lottery?

Nick Jemo

Oh, yes. Actually, I remember the next day, I had to go grocery shopping. And I remember buying coconut water. I don't know why. That was my treat because I always wanted to buy coconut water, but it was always too much of a-- it was like, you know what? This is-- I just don't need to spend. And I remember buying coconut water and feeling like such a badass. And I just felt like I can buy anything here.

Jay Caspian Kang

It wasn't just a steady income Nick was excited about. Phantom of the Opera was the show Nick had loved since he was 11 years old. He had just started playing the trumpet and would lay on his living room floor listening to The Music of the Night. You know it-- (SINGING) "Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendor."

That call changed his life. He had finally arrived, Phantom on Broadway. On his first day, Nick entered the majestic theater on 46th and 8th Avenue. He walked through a back alley, past a giant tub of dry ice, down a flight of stairs into a locker room where he changed into all black. He then headed into the pit to play the music he had loved as a child. He had his own seat there now and a music stand.

So he played the first show. Next day, he went back and played it again, and then again. His brain started to adjust to playing the same show eight times a week. And then he started to notice, it wasn't just the music that repeated itself.

Nick Jemo

I'm seeing the same actors in the exact same time and the same musicians at the exact same time, and seeing the same people in the bathroom at the exact same time. [LAUGHS] Every time one of the dancers comes through to put her wig on, she says to one of the other dancers, "Good job, Erica," like, every single day. It's very Groundhog Day.

Jay Caspian Kang

At first, this was funny, almost charming. Nick was 30 and the youngest person in the pit. Not by a few years, but by a few decades. He'd never been in a situation like this where everyone seemed so locked into routine. His colleagues would sit down in their chairs at the exact same minute every day.

There was the cellist who would say, "Marvelous," every time Nick asked him how he was doing. There was the first horn player who would pull out a stopwatch every single night to time how long the second horn player held the note in one of the songs. Some days it would be 17 seconds, other days 16.2.

Nick Jemo

You definitely start to notice, people are talking about each other and complaining about the same people are late every single week. If you bump into a stand by accident, you'll get a "what the [MUTED] are you doing" kind of look. Like, [INHALES] take a deep breath, you know? Like, [EXHALES]

Jay Caspian Kang

What is it like being the youngest guy there, the young guy?

Nick Jemo

Basically, I'm not as jaded as the rest of them. If I say anything that's not like, [SIGHS] "It sucks to be here," they're like, "You haven't been here long enough. You're still new. You're still new." People kind of walk in there, like, [SIGHS] OK, I've got to do this again. And some of it's just in their body language, the way they walk in the door. They're kind of trudging in. Or when someone says, "Do I have to do this tonight?"

Jay Caspian Kang

Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway in January 1988. It was an instant hit.

Barbara Walters

Everyone who has seen this musical comes away enchanted.

Newscaster

The show is virtually guaranteed to run well into the next decade.

Jay Caspian Kang

It did. And then another decade. And another. The musicians in the pit signed contracts with a provision which guaranteed their jobs until the show shut down. They expected two, maybe three years. But the show kept going, as three years turned into five years, which then turned into 32. That's over 13,000 performances.

Phantom is now the longest running show in the history of Broadway.

Melanie Feld

There is almost a feeling, I think, of nausea that you have to do it again and you have to do it again.

Jay Caspian Kang

That's Melanie Feld, an oboist who's been in the pit for 28 years now.

Melanie Feld

I don't know how to describe it-- a physical sensation that I get of literally that I'm jumping out of my skin. It's a leg thing. I can't stay in my skin. I'm going crazy. Oh, no, that thing is happening.

Jay Caspian Kang

I first heard about the pit at Phantom through a friend whose wife had recently subbed in the violin section. She described what she had seen as a horror show, like Waiting for Guffman, but 30 hard years down the line. I couldn't quite get it out of my head.

Pete Reit

So one of the first things people ask, how can you possibly stay sane and play the same music every night?

Jay Caspian Kang

Pete Reit has been playing Phantom since opening night. He's the French horn player who times the notes on a stopwatch every night.

Pete Reit

There is something in that where I would look at the music sometimes, and it would just literally look like shapes. I would just see circles and lines and dots. And I would have no idea. I wouldn't even know what page I was on.

Jay Caspian Kang

It's like a disassociative feeling, almost.

Pete Reit

It's sort of like hearing yourself speak, and you aren't sure it's English.

Jay Caspian Kang

[LAUGHS] Well, I don't think that's ever happened to me, Pete.

Pete Reit

And then the funny thing is, you see someone else do it, and you immediately know what's going on with them.

Jay Caspian Kang

What does their face look like?

Pete Reit

Oh, they're just-- it's as if they don't even know where they are. They're, like, waking up in another room. It's like, what happened? Where am I? What day is it? What week is it?

Jay Caspian Kang

When I started talking to the pit musicians a couple of years ago, I wanted to know how they found meaning in the mundane and inevitable repetitions of life. In lots of jobs, people do the same thing every day, but nothing quite like this.

You're hearing the exact same lines from the stage, playing the exact same notes for the same songs. Even the guy sitting next to you breathes in the exact same rhythm. Every day, the Phantom kisses Christine for the first time, and the same chandelier comes crashing down in the same spot on the stage.

I assumed the orchestra members were like Zen archers who pull back the same bow with the same motion until they die. I talked to a trumpet player named Lowell Hershey. Lowell has been at the show since day one, and everyone says he's the sanest person in the pit.

Lowell Hershey

And it kind of drives you nuts for the first few weeks. And then after that, your mind deals with it and just flushes it out. So when you're not there, you don't think about it.

Jay Caspian Kang

Do you know the words to the songs that you're playing?

Lowell Hershey

No, not entirely.

Jay Caspian Kang

"Where in the world--"

Lowell Hershey

"Think of me fondly--" whatever. I mean, I remember one time after the show had been running for a while, somebody asked me to play a little bit of a tune from the show, and I couldn't even do it. I couldn't even think of one. I had submerged this much.

Jay Caspian Kang

I feel like your brain has basically just rejected being cognizant that the music is going on.

Lowell Hershey

But I think that's typical of people who do shows.

Jay Caspian Kang

What do you think the right type of personality is that can handle this job?

Lowell Hershey

I'm descended from a long line of serfs and peons, people who are still laboring in the fields for hardly any money and are relatively happy with that.

Jay Caspian Kang

The Phantom players aren't exactly serfs. They're well-paid, they play a beloved show, and they get to play in small orchestras on the side. But these are highly-trained musicians who went to the fanciest music schools in the world.

Andrew Lloyd Weber wanted the best of the best for Phantom, which means the pit will always sound good, though it also creates some creative and spiritual problems for the players, who have to get through the score night after night after night.

Kurt Coble

I'm a violin operator.

Jay Caspian Kang

Is that how you describe that?

Kurt Coble

That's how we describe it, yeah. It's very technical. I have no emotional connection with it.

Jay Caspian Kang

That's a violinist named Kurt Coble. He's a composer. His dream was always to write scores for horror films. He's now been at Phantom for 22 years, long enough to see three people in his section die.

Kurt Coble

When I'm playing the show, nobody's interested in my creative input. I've often compared it to working in a hospice. It's just, we just keep the show alive as long as we can.

Jay Caspian Kang

So here they all are, in this weird social experiment, trapped together for decades, 27 musicians crammed into this tiny space. A trumpet player told me it's like playing in a submarine.

I've been down there, and you can barely turn around without knocking into something. In the pit, you notice everything-- the way your neighbor blows out his spit valve, the way someone brags about their kids, the smell of someone's perfume. Every little annoyance, every perceived slight accumulates.

One of my favorite stories, which should drive anyone who has ever played in a band crazy-- there's this bassoon player who has sat next to the same clarinet player since 1988. She's convinced he plays half a note flat on every note he's ever played. He denies this.

The person I talked to the most in the pit was Melanie, the oboist. She's one of the rare people you meet who has no real filter.

Melanie Feld

So I was complaining about something, which I imagine was that it was really cold. It's always really cold. And then someone else from the orchestra said, [SIGHS] I'm just so tired of the sound of your voice. You know, and I'm tired of the sound of my voice, too. So I kind of sympathize with her.

Then there was a violinist who got mad at me because I said I used Roundup in my garden. She was like, [HUFFS] and she wouldn't speak to me for-- I don't know-- weeks.

Jay Caspian Kang

During most of our talks, Melanie was making reeds. It's an extraordinarily meticulous process. There's all sorts of medieval-looking tools and tiny bits of wood everywhere.

Melanie Feld

Oboists are the most optimistic people in the world because every time they make a reed, they think that it might work. They usually don't, but anyway. This part-- oh, no, I'm skipping the most important part. You need to pick your color of thread! And it just makes all the difference. And I never know what color to pick. But this is the only fun that I have, so.

[HIGH PITCH REED]

That god awful noise.

Jay Caspian Kang

Melanie studied at Juilliard. She dreamed of being the principal oboist in the Metropolitan Opera or the Philharmonic. But she kept bombing her auditions. Her nerves got the best of her every time she was up for a big seat. And then life and bills intervened.

Phantom, in that way, is a very good job in a field where there aren't a lot of good jobs anymore. It put Melanie's kids through college, paid her mortgage, and provided security while the music industry collapsed around her. But at the end of 30 years sitting just inches away from your co-workers, you lose all sense of proportion. Your enemies turn into monsters.

For Melanie, the monster in the pit was always a trumpet player named Francis Bonny. Everything he did drove Melanie nuts, from the black biking shorts he wore in the pit to always eating his dinner in the locker room with his back turned to her.

Melanie Feld

Francis was a miserable son of a bitch. And at a certain point, he started wearing-- he put this black shade on the side of his glasses. And he's wearing those things because he doesn't want to see me, right? That's why he's wear-- I really truly believe this.

Jay Caspian Kang

I wanted to run this all by Francis. It just seemed so unreasonable. Francis was the only person I had talked to who had actually escaped from the pit. He got in a truck and drove out to the middle of nowhere in Colorado. He says he's much happier now.

Francis Bonny

You spoke with Melanie! Oh!

Jay Caspian Kang

Yeah, yeah, we did. I understand that you two did not have the best relationship. One of the things that she told us was that you basically made an eyepatch so that you wouldn't have to look at her. Is this a true story that she's telling us?

Francis Bonny

I did do that at some point. But that wasn't just because of Melanie. She's taking it too personally. It was actually anybody that was on my right. [LAUGHS]

Jay Caspian Kang

She told us for a long time that you sat in the locker room and that you would turn your back to everybody because you didn't want to look at them.

Francis Bonny

Yeah, yeah, it was in the locker room. I came there, I ate my dinner. Looked at the white wall, went and played the show, and then left the theater. Left the premises as fast as I could, and it worked beautifully.

Jay Caspian Kang

Can you compare the relationships that you have with other relationships?

Francis Bonny

It's family. [LAUGHS] It's the spouse you can't stand and putting up with people that you just don't want to hear their voice again. You sit there thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of hours. This is like a quarter of a lifetime.

Jay Caspian Kang

The musicians in the pit don't play the whole time, which means there are thousands of hours where they're not actually doing anything. And during those rests, they read books, spy thrillers and mysteries, and do the crossword with their neighbors. A trumpet player has taught himself three languages. Another musician ran a woodshop business on his laptop during the show.

And socially, it's a bit like middle school. There are the loners, the jocks, and the French horns. They're like the boys in the back of the bus. They bring in fart machines and run the same practical jokes over and over. Sometimes they even mess with the audience. The front row is right up against the pit, so close that their feet sometimes dangle next to the musicians heads. Occasionally, one of the French horn players would take out a bottle of whiteout and write little messages on the soles of the audience's shoes.

Melanie Feld

Those guys, they're sitting right behind me. They're always chattering and laughing. I, being me, if I play badly, I think, oh, god, they're saying how terrible I am. Oh, god, I don't want to humiliate myself.

Jay Caspian Kang

This, more than anything, Melanie told me, is what makes her want to sound good every night. She's worried the French horn guys will make fun of her.

Melanie Feld

I'm not playing for the audience because the audience doesn't-- and so I'm playing for those French horn players. I do want to say, one of the compliments I've gotten over the years is, how do you still play so well when you've just been doing Phantom for all those years? I said it's is a choice that I've made. My choice is to play this music like it's any other music that I play and make it beautiful.

Jay Caspian Kang

Can you just play something from Phantom?

Melanie Feld

Well, I can play the really hard one. If it's really bad, though, I beg you not to--

[PLAYS OBOE]

Jay Caspian Kang

Nobody is in the Phantom pit right now. The show temporarily closed in March because of COVID-19. The unstoppable show had finally been put on pause. I recently checked in with Melanie again. She wasn't doing very well. Her mother had died in a nursing home in New Jersey, presumed COVID-positive. She wasn't getting paid by the show anymore. And she missed Phantom.

This was surprising to me. Melanie and all the other musicians had told me about their fantasies of finally leaving the show. And I had believed them. But now that it had actually happened, she missed the routine.

Melanie Feld

You know, Phantom, I miss the comradeship, the repetition of the silly jokes and watching everyone eat and-- I don't know-- the routine. I kind of like routine in my life.

Jay Caspian Kang

This, of course, is the opposite of what she'd said in the past, before COVID.

Melanie Feld

It was always easy to complain that it was boring, and to complain about driving into the city, and wasting all that time in the car, and playing the same music and going home again. And I just thought, I knew I was lucky back then, but it becomes very real now. I mean, what can I say?

Now I really know what it's like not having this job. It's just so much fun to complain about things that don't matter. Oh, the women in the bathroom, they're just always talking about their expensive hair and makeup. And I miss the women in the bathroom. And yeah, I'd be happy to complain about that again.

Jay Caspian Kang

Before the pandemic, every time I talked to Melanie, I would ask how she was doing. Her answer always depended on parking. It's hard to park in midtown Manhattan. A good parking spot was a good day. A bad parking spot was a bad day. This is how she made sense of her life.

I think about this all the time. Most of our lives are spent finding parking for the job we don't want to do. Melanie is not alone in that. And after any number of years, those routines accumulate. And that's more or less your life.

Of all the people I talked to in the pit, one musician dealt with the mundane and inevitable repetition of life in a way that really stuck with me. For the past two decades in the pit, Kurt, the musician who described himself as a violin operator, had been dreaming up the most elaborate and metaphorically perfect coping mechanism. It's a band made up entirely of automatons. I met these robot musicians in a warehouse in Yonkers.

Kurt Coble

The PAM Band!

Jay Caspian Kang

The PAM Band stands for Partially Artificial Musicians. Kurt's automatons are made up of scraps of metal and string all wired up to a soundboard that Kurt can program to create whatever sounds he wants. There's Magnus, an electric chord organ, Krieg, the bass guitar, and then there's Rosie, the theremin.

Kurt Coble

This is Jack, a solid body electric violin using the exoskeleton design. This is what helps alleviate the boredom of the redundancy of Phantom, because I'm constantly thinking about this project and how I can improve the automation and the kind of music that I would like to create.

Jay Caspian Kang

Why did you decide to do this?

Kurt Coble

If I ever see a therapist, maybe they will help me understand this.

Jay Caspian Kang

Well, pretend I'm a therapist.

[LAUGHTER]

Was there part of it where you're like, man, I am playing in this orchestra. It's not the expressiveness that I want. I also kind of feel like an automaton, you know? And maybe I'll just make an automaton as a violinist.

Kurt Coble

Yeah, I mean, I can see exploring that. Am I looking for some kind of soul healing from this dehumanization of being in a violin section? Possibly.

Jay Caspian Kang

I asked Kurt if the PAM Band could play "The Music of the Night," or "All I Ask of You," or any of the Phantom classics. He wasn't into that at all. This band was not designed to play Andrew Lloyd Weber.

But something inside him just couldn't get away from Phantom of the Opera. Back when he was sitting in the pit, he'd composed, just in his head, both the prequel and the sequel to Phantom, both which involve Indiana Jones type characters. And years ago, he got a copy of the 1925 silent film version of Phantom and wrote an entire score. He wanted to play it for me. He turned off the lights in the warehouse and projected the film onto the wall. The PAM Band started to play.

The score features him, Kurt, as the solo violinist and the star of the show. The automatons all play the same thing, but Kurt always improvises. None of his shows are ever the same.

[KURT PLAYING WITH PAM BAND]

Ira Glass

Jay Caspian Kang, he's making a documentary about the Phantom pit and is co-host of the podcast, Time to Say Goodbye.

[MUSIC - "FOUR WALLS" BY EDDIE HOLMAN]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Aviva DeKornfeld. The people who put our program together today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Noor Gill, Damien Grave, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Katherine Rae Mondo, Stowe Nelson, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sara Abdurrahman, senior editor, David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to our interpreter, Gabriela Munoz. Also David Lai, Grace Paradise, Isabel Castro, Gleb Mikhalev, Cameron Dennis, Carissa Henderson, Alex Neumann, and Jean Hannah Edelstein.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Plus, there's videos. There's lists of favorite programs. There's all kinds of other stuff there. Again, the website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He and I were talking the other day, and he let slip he hasn't been listening to our program for weeks. I was like, what? Totally confronted him about it. And-- I don't know. I guess he had a good reason.

Melanie Feld

[SIGHS] I'm just so tired of the sound of your voice.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week. I told Torey, I get it.

Melanie Feld

You know, and I'm tired of the sound of my voice, too. So I kind of sympathize.

[MUSIC - "FOUR WALLS" BY EDDIE HOLMAN]