Transcript

750: The Ferryman

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

When Amy and her dad were loading her mom into the car, Amy didn't think this would be the very last time her mom would go to the hospital. But her dad did. In fact, he called a priest, a priest who Amy's mom, Janet, was friends with, to hear her mom's confession and administer last rights, just in case. Her mom had been diagnosed with cancer two years before, and Amy says it was clear she didn't have much time left.

Amy D'Addario

So we got in the car, and I set the GPS for Weill Cornell, and we got on to the Long Island Expressway, and--

Ira Glass

Amy had driven this trip dozens and dozens of times over two years of treatment-- to Weill Cornell Hospital in New York City from out in Long Island. It was a straight shot up the expressway. Amy knows the way by heart, but she always uses the Waze app, because it reroutes when the traffic's bad.

Amy D'Addario

And I've become, like, such a slave to the GPS, I just follow it like I'm a robot. And I'm following it, and at one point, my dad's in the backseat. My mom's sitting next to me in the front seat.

And at one point, my dad said, like, where are you going? Like, why are you going this way? And I don't even know exactly where I was. I think it had taken me to the Cross Island, and then an exit in Queens.

And he was like, why are you going this way? And I was like, the GPS says-- I'm just following the GPS-- (LAUGHING) like I always do. And then it told me to make a left on Broadway in Queens.

I made the left, and dad was like, oh my god, Janet, we're going to go right by-- Janet, do you know where we are?

Ira Glass

It had taken them right to the neighborhood where her parents were first a couple, working together in his family's business. The GPS told them to make a turn.

Amy D'Addario

On that corner is a bakery. It's an old Italian bakery. It's been there. And I think I have the name of it somewhere. Yeah, it's called Parisi's Bakery. And it's right on the corner there. It's been there forever.

And my parents used to always pick up their bread for their big Italian meals with my grandmother. She would be like, get the bread at Parisi's. Go to Parisi's. Get the bread.

Ira Glass

Wait, when they were how old?

Amy D'Addario

When they were, you know, teenagers. Like, when they were, like, 19 and 20, and they were working in Queens. And my dad was freaking out about the bakery, and so I pulled over, and I said, Dad, why don't you get a loaf of bread? And he jumped out of the car, and he went and got a loaf of bread and some cookies for my mother.

Ira Glass

Amy drives on, and the GPS next routes them right past this diner, the Bel Aire Diner.

Amy D'Addario

--that they had breakfast at every morning when they were in their 20s. Before they would go to the factory, they would go with my grandfather, sometimes with my uncle, too. And they would sit at the counter, and they would have, like, a doughnut and coffee, or, like--

And my dad was pointing at everything, like, and this is where-- and Janet, do you remember? We used to go here, and look, I can't believe this is where we are right now. This is crazy.

And there was a restaurant around the corner that's no longer there, that is where my father had proposed to my mom. It was weird. Their little-- that was the world of their beginning. Those were the blocks they spent the most time on when they were starting out, you know. It was very strange to just end up right there.

Ira Glass

And how many times had you driven them from their house to this hospital?

Amy D'Addario

Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I mean, Oh, god, it's not a number I can even count.

Ira Glass

How many times had it sent you this way?

Amy D'Addario

Never, never. No, we never went that way.

Ira Glass

Did you say much? Or was it really, like, between the two of them for most of it?

Amy D'Addario

No, he was-- it was really him. It was really Dad just being like, Janet, look at this. Oh my god, do you remember when we used to walk down this way every night after work?

It was like he was like a kid. He was really excited. He was really excited to be there, like visiting a museum of your childhood or something, you know.

Ira Glass

Yeah, well, it's like that cliche almost, like that when you're dying, your whole life will flash before your eyes, except you guys were actually, like, doing it on location for real, thanks to the GPS.

Amy D'Addario

(LAUGHING) Yeah, exactly. Waze really had it planned for us. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

Amy says once they got to Queens, she suddenly found herself in this moment that was really about the two of them as a couple, the couple they were before she was born. Her parents got together when they were 16. And she says the older she's gotten, the better she's understood how well suited her parents were for each other, in all kinds of ways.

Growing up, she says, every night, they would pull out a guitar after dinner and sing together, the two of them, harmonize on Beatles or Bob Dylan songs just for themselves, because they liked it. Amy says she didn't realize how unusual it was for parents to do till she got older. This is a home recording of them from just a few years ago.

[MUSIC - "I'LL FOLLOW THE SUN" BY THE BEATLES]

Amy's Mom And Dad

And now, the time has come, and so my love, I must go. And though I lose a friend, in the end you will know. Oh, oh.

Ira Glass

Amy's mom, Janet, died a week after that ride to the hospital. But in the car that day in Queens, her mom looked around at the stuff her dad was pointing to, and she was in it with him, smiled and said, yes, when he asked, did she see? Meanwhile at the wheel was Amy, the driver.

Amy D'Addario

I'm trying to keep both their spirits up, like a maniac, you know. So I'm basically, like, reflecting my father's enthusiasm, and you know, I'm the one that pulled over in front of the bakery and said, just jump out and get a loaf of bread. You know, it's fine. We're OK.

Like, we weren't-- she was not in pain, and we were there, and it was going to take as long as it was going to take. And you know, we're Italian, and bread makes us feel better. So get some bread.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, by the way. I'm Ira Glass. Today's episode, we're calling "The Ferryman." It's about people who transport other people to some destination. And in preparing for the show today, a bunch of us were looking at the old Greek myth of the ferryman, you know, whose boat carries souls across the river to the afterlife.

His name is Charon, and he's just, like, awful. It's this frightening figure, the way that Virgil and Dante write about him-- just unruly, white beard, terrifying eyes. Doesn't seem to talk hardly ever, but when he does, it's pretty aggro, ordering people around. Kind of, exactly who you would not want to be ferried by in a frightening moment.

Who you'd want, of course, is someone like your own kid, somebody who's actually worried about you, wants to make it as OK as possible. Today on our program, we have a bunch of stories of people going from one place to another who need safe passage.

And if you picture, like, a long lineup, like a continuum of ferrymen, where at one end is Amy, who's trying to be kind, and at the other end is the immortal ferryman, Charon, who is definitely not, all the ferrymen in today's episode fall at different paths between the two on that lineup. We hear about who they are and what gets them through their jobs, where they see so much along the way. Stay with us.

Act One: I Was A Teenage Smuggler

Ira Glass

Act One, I Was a Teenage Smuggler. So the first story is about a very particular version of the job of getting people from point A to point B. You've probably heard of all the people trying to illegally cross the Mexican border into the United States recently. It's the most in two decades.

Here's what you might not know. I didn't know this. Many of the guides ferrying them across the US-Mexican border are kids. This is mostly because of us, because of the United States.

The US government, as a general matter, does not prosecute smugglers who are under 18. So those kids can lead migrants into the country, get caught, and they don't get charged with smuggling or illegally crossing into the United States. They're just sent right back to Mexico.

Needless to say, this makes them very attractive for the cartels, who run these big operations crossing migrants. Some kids get coerced into doing the job or into staying at the job. And it can be dangerous getting so close to the cartels.

But for lots of kids, it's just a job. It's just money, good money. Kevin Sieff, a reporter for The Washington Post, spent months with a bunch of these kid smugglers, and got to know them, talked to them about what it was like to do this particular kind of ferrymen's job. Here's Kevin.

Kevin Sieff

In parts of northern Mexico, human smuggling almost feels like Little League. The kids boast about who's better-- faster up the border wall, more skilled at hiding from the border patrol. They post on Snapchat about the migrants they cross.

On Facebook, one kid I know changed his profession to "smuggler." That's how this other kid, Israel, learned that this was even a job-- on Facebook.

Israel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

He was 15, with chubby cheeks and a wispy mustache. He liked posting pictures of cute miniature horses. One day, he was at his grandma's house, and some clips another boy had posted of his exploits popped up on his feed.

Kevin Sieff

And what did you think when you watched these videos?

Israel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Israel Through Interpreter

That I wanted to do it, too. I saw he was getting a lot of money, and I said, I want to do it, too.

Kevin Sieff

He messaged the guy out of boredom and curiosity. Can you take me along? The guy said, sure. Meet me in my house. And so Israel got dressed the same way he did for school-- jeans, cross trainers. What are smugglers supposed to wear anyway, he thought.

And he headed out. Again, he was 15. They picked up a handful of migrants who were hiding in a house nearby, and took them to the Rio Grande. It was night when they waded into the river.

The migrants followed behind them in inner tubes. Israel helped lead them, pretending he knew what he was doing.

Israel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Israel Through Interpreter

I thought, what am I doing? But I was already there, and I thought, OK, let's just continue forward.

Kevin Sieff

Once they got to the other side, it was a quick climb over the border wall, about four minutes. The other smuggler told Israel the technique-- sort of, like climbing a tree, just a little harder. They helped the migrants get over, one by one. Israel remembers being like, wait, that's it? We did it?

Israel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Israel Through Interpreter

It felt great. It was easy. I mean, there were no complications at all. There was not even immigration. I thought, this isn't even hard.

Kevin Sieff

The people they had crossed looked up at him, this little kid, like he was a boss. The next morning, Israel, 15 years old, walked across the international bridge to get home, like he was just another tourist returning from shopping in Texas. When he got back to Mexico, the cartel paid him a wad of cash for helping out. The normal rate is about $100 per migrant.

Israel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Israel Through Interpreter

When I was a little kid, I used to wash cars. I made what a worker makes in two weeks-- I made it in one night. You feel like money is never going to run out, that you're always going to have money, always, always.

Kevin Sieff

Once he started doing this more regularly, he'd post pictures of the money he got on Facebook, with emojis of a smiley face with dollar signs for the eyes. This is the engine behind one of the world's largest human migrations. People are handed from smuggler to smuggler, like links in a chain, until they get to the border.

And when they get there, the last guides who take them on the last mile of the journey are teenage boys doing teenage boy things. Like, there are these two brothers, Jassiel and Alfonso. They're like the class clowns of the smuggling world. Here's Alfonso.

Alfonso

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Alfonso Through Interpreter

The funniest, well, is my brother, because he's, kind of, crazy. He does things that you shouldn't-- you shouldn't really do at the border patrol. He'll get naked and start running.

Kevin Sieff

Like this one time, Jassiel had crossed the river with a group of migrants. Border patrol agents showed up, and he started to run. He knows he can beat them, no problem.

Jassiel Through Interpreter

I already have-- I already have, like, a record for running. They're older. They already have, like, wrinkles.

Kevin Sieff

He got back to the riverbank, with them still in pursuit. One of the agents shouted at him. He said the patrol boats were coming. The agent was like, you're stuck. There's no way to escape.

Jassiel Through Interpreter

And I said to him, I said, no way. There's always a way out. He told me that, you think you're so-- and I told him, no, well, it's just too bad. I'm not going to let myself get caught. I said, you do your job, and I'll do mine, and we'll go home happy.

Kevin Sieff

That's when Jassiel took his clothes off, jumped in the river, and swam across to safety.

Jassiel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jassiel Through Interpreter

You need to come back, and we need to catch you. And I said, yes, but today was not your day, man.

Kevin Sieff

Sometimes Jassiel videotapes his crossings and his narrow escapes. It's like proof of how good he is at the job, and a chance to show off. Even though the job is illegal, they post the stuff all the time on Snapchat and Facebook, like this one video Jassiel sent me. It's of him crossing a big group of migrants.

Jassiel

[SHOUTING IN SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

They're running through a farm on a dirt road. He's yelling, go, go, go, you didn't come here to stay, at the slowest one, a young woman with short brown hair. Her arms are flailing, like she's at the end of a marathon.

She's running barefoot, holding her shoes. But even though this whole thing feels so intense, Jassiel stops to crouch down on his knees. It looks like he's going for a more dramatic camera angle.

Jassiel

[SHOUTING IN SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

A white Jeep Cherokee pulls up, and about 15 migrants pile in. And then, the video cuts off.

Jassiel

[SHOUTING IN SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

I asked Jassiel if word of his exploits had spread. Like, is he famous among the other smugglers?

Jassiel

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jassiel Through Interpreter

Yes. Yes, there are a lot-- I mean, there are two songs about me and my brother.

Kevin Sieff

First, I was like, yeah, right. And then, he sent me a link. It was a slickly produced song with a video. Like some of the other kid smugglers, he'd commissioned a local rapper to write it. Because if you're 15 and making thousands of a day, why not? Every day, we're crossing the whole border, the chorus goes.

[SONG IN SPANISH]

Here's the part where they name-check Jassiel and his brother.

[SONG IN SPANISH]

I spent six months talking to dozens of these kids. And there was one in particular who everyone kept talking about. He's the one who's been at it the longest, who's crossed the most people. And he's just, kind of, fearless about how he does it. He asked me to change his name, so I'm calling him Antonio. We're also altering his voice.

He's become a master of his craft, the Michael Jordan of smuggling. He learned about the job when he was 12 when he was just a little kid with a buzz cut, wearing a school uniform.

Antonio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Antonio Through Interpreter

Well, I was coming out of school-- I was in, like, the sixth grade, and I was walking. And well, I bumped into a friend who was older than me, and he said, I'm headed to work. He was dressed in full camouflage, like a soldier, and I said, damn, you're going to work? What kind of work?

And he said, I take goats to the other side. And I said, [BLEEP] you take animals over there or what? He said, nah, man, I take people over there. They pay me. They pay me in dollars.

Kevin Sieff

He's been at it five years now. The way some kids study game tape, that's how Antonio approaches migration, even if his tactics can sometimes sound, kind of, callous.

Antonio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Antonio Through Interpreter

I always ask for, like, the skinny immigrants, know what I'm saying?

Kevin Sieff

Wait, why skinny?

Antonio Through Interpreter

So that they can run like I can. Because if immigration is chasing me or something, I'm not going to wait for anyone. Well, I've always worked with a big number of people. I've never worked with a small group of persons, know what I'm saying?

Kevin Sieff

He learned all the curves in the river, and all the tricks, how to brush away the footprints, wear camouflage. He memorized the patrol schedule of the immigration agents. One day, we were talking about his favorite crossing points, and he started describing the map of this part of South Texas that he'd built in his head, street by street.

He'd memorized the city parks, the local high schools, the places where the mesquite trees are thickest, in case he needs a place to hide. Antonio was never great at school or sports, but this, he'd found his thing. Even his stepfather asked him to smuggle him across.

Antonio was 17. And despite a couple of new tattoos, he looks like a kid. Many of the migrants are decades older than he is, tired from the thousands of miles they've already traveled.

So he tries to puff himself up to seem taller than 5' 5". He thinks of Al Pacino's character in Scarface, his favorite movie. Before the trip even begins, Antonio sits the migrants down and launches into a pep talk. He tries to sound commanding.

Antonio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Antonio Through Interpreter

You see, I say, in a little while, in the forest, we're all gonna walk along my path, all very hidden, crouching down, without making a peep. Now, in less than 10 minutes, we're going to go over the wall. And when we go over the wall, the guys picking us up will be waiting for us. And after climbing down, we're going to take you to a warehouse, and we soon will be on the other side, eating some really good food.

Kevin Sieff

Antonio loves to brag about how good a smuggler he is, how hard he is to catch. Some of the other kids roll their eyes at what a loud mouth he is. He dropped out of middle school to focus on smuggling.

With his earnings, he bought a closet full of Air Force Ones and a car, a Ford Focus. He gave his mom an allowance. She told me it helped pay the rent and cover household expenses.

But Antonio and the other kids are aware that they're doing the work of the Gulf Cartel, which controls the border. The Justice Department calls it one of the most violent and brutal drug-trafficking organizations in the world. Antonio knew who those guys were, the big bosses.

They yelled at him when he screwed up and got caught. Sometimes they pressured him to do more dangerous work, like take drugs across in big bags. They sent him text messages. come on, man, do another run for us. Every time he says yes, Antonio gets closer to them.

The border patrol are watching this play out every day. The agents spend much of their days chasing around juvenile smugglers, and then just spitting them back into Mexico hours later. Some have been caught more than 100 times, but they just keep going.

The agents even put photos of the top kids on the walls of their office. I learned that from a senior border patrol agent in South Texas and his partner. He asked that we not include his name.

Border Patrol Agent

We have our list. So we have our list of top 10 kids.

Kevin Sieff

Wait, you have, literally, a list of 10 kids? Like, the 10 most wanted-- not most wanted, but 10 most productive kids?

Border Patrol Agent

Yes, sir.

Kevin Sieff

Why? What does that do for you guys?

Border Patrol Agent

I mean, we just keep track.

Kevin Sieff

Can you tell me, like, is the list on the wall of the office somewhere? Or like--

[LAUGHTER]

Border Patrol Agent

(CHUCKLING) In my office, yeah.

Kevin Sieff

Is it really?

Border Patrol Agent

Yes.

Kevin Sieff

We were sitting in a conference room in the border patrol office, about 30 feet from the Rio Grande. The agent was across the table from me. And when he talked about the teenage smugglers, it was with a kind of mix of amusement and annoyance.

Like, I can't believe this is my job, chasing a bunch of kids. I asked the agent if he knew the kid we were calling Antonio. He just smirked.

Kevin Sieff

Like, there's one kid in particular that I've been spending time with, who I feel like you probably know. His name's [BLEEP]

Border Patrol Agent

What about him?

Kevin Sieff

Is he on the top 10 list?

Border Patrol Agent

I wouldn't really want to answer that, to be honest with you. Yeah.

Kevin Sieff

Is there anything you can tell me about him?

Border Patrol Agent

Just that he-- I mean, he's good at what he did, you know.

Kevin Sieff

You think he's out of the game?

Border Patrol Agent

I'm not sure, to be honest with you.

Kevin Sieff

Yeah.

Border Patrol Agent

I mean, he was careful at what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He was one of those kids maybe that it's like, hey, I got you three days ago, and you will laugh it out, and it was, kind of, like that funny but annoying. Like, you were just like, man, you know, we got you next time, or we got you this time, kind of deal.

Kevin Sieff

To him, it, kind of, feels fruitless. The border patrol's mission is to stop illegal migration, and here he is in the front lines, just catching the same kids every day. He gives them food.

Sometimes the kids lose their shoes in the mud, so he gives them these border patrol flip-flops. Then the kids are just sent back home. And it's like, OK, see you in a few days.

Border Patrol Agent

I mean, you're hoping that-- kind of, like a teacher, right? You're, kind of, hoping that when you talk to these kids and tell them, hey, man, you know, next time, this can happen.

You can end up drowning. You can end up-- something bad can happen, you need to start behaving. And you're hoping that maybe it sinks to one of them.

Kevin Sieff

The massive record of apprehensions each of these kids has, it's only relevant when they turn 18. If they're caught then, prosecutors can try to use that history against them. One agent told me his colleagues celebrated the 18th birthdays of the most prolific kids, and high-five them in the office. Until then, there's not much that they can do.

The agent, after he catches the kids, takes them to Mexican authorities, who take them to the small shelter about 400 yards from the border. I was at the shelter one day, and in walked Alfonso, one of the brothers from the song, with a bunch of other smugglers who had just been apprehended and released by border patrol.

They were all sitting on plastic chairs in the shelter's lobby. It felt like high school detention-- a group of boys, kind of, proud of themselves for getting in trouble, punching each other in the shoulders, waiting for their moms to pick them up. A woman at the shelter named Perla Sustaita processed Alfonso the same way she had many times before.

It was his 13th apprehension. She had the blasé expressions of a very tired assistant principal, asking questions from a script she had memorized. She typed up the answers in the shelter system.

Perla Sustaita

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

How did you cross the river? When did they detain you? Why did you cross? She asks, while Alfonso answers flatly. And then, he waited for his mom to come pick him up.

All these kids know that they have only until their 18th birthday, and then their loophole disappears. So they all have to decide what they're going to do next. Israel, the one with the wispy mustache, was 17 when we spoke. He told me that even though he still had time left before turning 18, he was definitely done.

Israel Through Interpreter

No. Not again. I'm fine with my girlfriend, you know what I mean? Getting caught, and losing seven, eight years of being with my family, with my grandmother, with my dad-- my grandmother is old.

Like, can you imagine if they locked me up, and suddenly I get a call telling me, your grandmother died? No. I'd rather spend my time here, calm. I prefer not to have money and be free. I'm at peace now.

Kevin Sieff

He hasn't crossed the border for months now. Most kids stop when they're 17. They move on with their lives. Instead of bringing people across the border, they get jobs in the giant factories that send windshield wipers and steering wheels to the US.

Some try to smuggle themselves to the United States and stay there. That was Alfonso's plan, the brother from the song who I'd seen getting processed at the border. Then, there's Antonio, the one that the border patrol told me they were tired of chasing.

As he got closer to his 18th birthday, he started posting photos of himself holding an assault rifle on Facebook. He talked about his links to the Gulf Cartel and the methamphetamines he was taking. I'd been talking to him for months, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone.

Often, I'd call, and he'd puzzle through his next steps. Maybe he'd work fixing laptops, he said. Maybe if he walked away from the cartel, his sisters would help him with some money.

Oh, and did I know any American girls he could marry? He asked me once. Another day, bored at home, he changed his profession on Facebook to border patrol agent. He just seemed kind of unmoored.

Then, one day, not too long ago, I called to see how he was doing.

Kevin Sieff

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Alfonso

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

That sound in the background there, he told me that was a pistol.

Alfonso

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Alfonso

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Alfonso

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Kevin Sieff

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

He told me he was going to kill someone, and that he was getting paid to do it. A truck arrived to pick him up, and the call ended abruptly. I didn't know where he was, or where he was going, or any details of his plan.

I called Antonio the next day to see what happened. He told me he'd gone on the hit and fired his gun, but missed. His friend was shot, but survived, and they ran off.

Then, a few days later, Antonio was taken by armed men from his mother's house in the middle of the night. He was handcuffed and beaten for three days. I went to visit him at his house, a one-bedroom apartment about a mile from the border, not far from the industrial corridor that has sprouted up since NAFTA.

He sleeps on a mattress in the kitchen, under a poster of The Last Supper. There were still scars around his wrists from where he'd been handcuffed. No one could explain why he'd been targeted.

Antonio told me it was because he was high on pills, and the cartel doesn't allow that. But it seemed likely to me that it had something to do with his shift from teenage smuggler to hit man, and the botched mission. He's still getting messages beckoning him back to smuggling.

The other day, he got one. Do you want to cross another group? He turns 18 in February. These days, he catches himself looking at his snapshots, like an old man looking through photos of vacations he took when he was young.

I asked him why they were so important to him. Just to remember what I did, he said. To remember what I did in life.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. He also did a print version of this story, with pictures and videos, and they're great. And you can find it online.

If you want to hear more of Kevin's stories, he's often on Post Reports, The Washington Post's daily news podcast. You can find it at postreports.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

Act Two: Last Ride

Ira Glass

Act 2, The Last Ride. So reading up this week about the best-known ferrymen in the world, the one from Greek mythology, Charon, what's striking about him is, it's really hard to find many details about what that trip across the river was like, with Charon guiding the boat to the Underworld. Like, what happens in that boat?

Conversations, fistfights, acting out, sullen moping? Like, what happens? And what's it like for Charon, making that same trip over and over for all eternity, transporting everyone who has ever lived?

Well, the writer Marie Phillips was kind enough to sketch it out for us. Her story is read by actor Noma Dumezweni.

Noma Dumezweni

Deep in the belly of the Underworld, the River Styx oozed like a deadly snake, black water glistening like scales. All around was darkness, heavy and sulphurous.

The gloom echoed with the wailing of doomed souls, those unable to pay the single coin demanded by Charon, the ferryman, who'd pluck it from his passengers' mouths with a thick, crooked finger. Charon's oar propelled the boat through the water, lapping and lapping like a-- like a cat, drinking milk, thought Mrs. Ruth Langley of Basingstoke, Great Britain, recently deceased at 83 from a stroke suffered while dusting her husband's collection of miniature model warplanes.

Mrs. Langley had never had a cat, let alone listened to one drink. Her husband had allergies. Mrs. Langley believed in being prompt. She'd been the first on the boat, taking her seat at the very front, next to the mysterious oarsman, a hulking giant with a furrowed brow, his hooded eyes fixed on the horizon.

He seemed, she thought, a little ill at ease. "This is nice, isn't it?" She said. "I always wanted to go on a cruise." Charon said nothing. "The Mediterranean or the Greek Islands. You must know all about them, of course. Are they wonderful?" Charon said nothing.

"I always pictured myself sunbathing on deck while a handsome waiter brought me glasses of amaretto. I wonder what amaretto tastes like. Have you ever had it? It sounds so romantic, amaretto. I suppose there'll be plenty of opportunity to try new drinks once we get there." Charon said nothing.

"Well, anyway, my husband hates boats. Oh, I don't mean to offend. I'm sure when his time comes, he'll think this one is lovely." She glanced behind her to the cowering mortals weeping and screaming and clutching at one another in despair, then turned back to her host.

"It's really motion sickness that's his problem. And this is a very smooth ride. You have a wonderful technique. You should be very proud." Charon said nothing.

"Is it exciting, meeting all the famous people? It must be. Did you speak to Princess Diana? What was she like? I've always thought she seemed so compassionate, like Mother Teresa, but chic." Charon said nothing.

"You know what I think is a really nice touch? No first class. We're all literally in the same boat. You never know who you might end up sitting next to, though it looks like nobody famous died today. Oh, well. Oh, but I'm very happy up here with you, no complaints." Charon said nothing.

Mrs. Langley gazed out into the murk. Her hands twitched in her lap, where her handbag ought to be. "I don't suppose," she said, "you remember a man called John Farmer?

About mid-height, sandy hair, died in 1994 after a bus hit him? It made the local paper. He used to take me to dances when I was a girl. He made me laugh, held my hand.

He wanted to marry me, but I thought there was more out there. I always wondered, what if? So I thought maybe if you drop me off where he is-- oh, of course, he moved on. But his wife, Linda, is still alive.

She remarried a software engineer from Penzance. Younger man. And then, there's my husband, not here yet, but soon enough. Probably enjoying the silence up there, haha.

Always did say I talk too much. But he loves me. I suppose that will all be quite complicated here. Love." Charon said nothing.

"John probably wouldn't look at me twice now anyway. I'm an old lady." Charon said nothing. Mrs. Langley looked up at the ferryman.

There was something so dignified in the way that he stood there, rowing implacably onwards. "You're a really good listener," she said. Charon turned towards her.

The woman talked. They always did. Every trip without fail. One of immortals would detach itself from the group, attach itself to him, and start chattering. It never changed.

Sure, they were different mortals, but how different were they, really? It was like a swarm of rats. You could probably tell them apart if you look closely, but who'd want to do that? The woman talked.

Most of the time, they were begging and pleading. They were so desperate to be returned to that thing they called life. They hadn't caught on yet, that life, or existence at least, was the one thing that they had in abundance. For all eternity, in fact.

Charon had some things to say on the subject of eternal life, should he ever feel inclined to speak. Notably, that it went on for a very long time. But Charon did not feel inclined to speak. Who would he speak to? The rats?

The woman talked. Love was the other thing they never shut up about. Each of them thinks that their own love is so special, so unique, that their love never dies. They're about to get a lesson in undying love, all right.

There was a reason the gods specialized in transient passions that burned hot and fast, and usually ended up with the other person turned into an animal. But maybe it wouldn't be so bad, a companion. A still, silent presence in this maelstrom of mortal jibber jabber, someone to share the long nights, the glide of the boat through the water, the velvet embrace of the darkness, the sweet music of abandoned souls sobbing in misery.

A few words floated out from the talking woman. "He made me laugh, held my hand." Charon's hand was so callous from manning the oar that it resembled stone. Someone to hold his hand. Yes. He could see the value in that.

"You're a really good listener," she said. He looked down at her, small, frail. Her hair puffed up in a piteous attempt at prettiness. Wide eyes searching his, lips softly parted.

He gently took her chin, then shoved his finger into her mouth and felt around. No coin. He tossed her into the water. Never any coins these days. Still, he had to check. He reached out his hand and beckoned the next mortal towards him.

Ira Glass

Actor Noma Dumezweni, reading a story by Marie Phillips, who has, by the way, a whole novel about the Greek gods, living in contemporary London, behaving badly, called Gods Behaving Badly. Her latest book is Create Your Own Midlife Crisis. Coming up, somebody whose job it is to get living people from one place to another, past a massive barrier put in place by a dead man to stop them. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Better Call Dave

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, "The Ferryman," stories about people whose job it is to transport us from point A to point B and what that's like for them, what happens along the way. We've arrived at Act 3 of our program. Act 3, Better Call Dave.

So this next story, the point A and point B that the person has to travel between are not far apart at all. And yet, it's a really hard job. It requires a lot of special knowledge and specialized skills, particularly this one time when he was hired to take the living across to get to the treasures of the dead. David Kestenbaum explains.

David Kestenbaum

I met Dave McOmie because I had a bank vault I needed opened, just for fun. My friend worked in a building that had once been a bank, and it happened to have this abandoned vault in the basement. It was locked, and we wanted to see what was in it.

We still haven't gotten to that. But in our search for someone to open it for us, I met Dave, who had this one, kind of, amazing story I wanted you to hear. Dave is a safecracker, one of the best. He keeps his tools-- where else? A safe.

David Kestenbaum

How long would it take you to break into your own safe?

Dave McOmie

Well, the problem with that is that my tools I would need to break into the safe are in the safe. So that's a bit of a conundrum, I guess.

David Kestenbaum

Dave told me he got interested in opening things that were not supposed to be opened when he was 15. A neighbor had lost her car keys, or had her purse stolen with the keys in them, so she'd called the locksmith. The guy came over. Dave watched him work and was like, that's a job?

He was fascinated, ended up as a kind of apprentice in the man's shop. In Dave's telling, he was, kind of, a gentleman safecracker.

Dave always called him, Mr. Corey. He did locks, safes, vaults. Dave says he was not a natural at it at all. He still, kind of, feels that way.

Dave McOmie

Well, the truth is, I'm still not very mechanical. I take much longer to figure things out than most of my friends do.

David Kestenbaum

So what do you think makes you good at it?

Dave McOmie

Persistence. Just refusing to give up.

David Kestenbaum

Dave learned how to open safes just by feel and listening. Yeah, that's really a thing. Turning the dial slowly, click by click.

Dave McOmie

Sometimes you get into a trance, and you wake up hours later when the safe opens, and you realize, oh my god, three hours passed. It felt like 10 minutes. Finally, it pops. And it's a great feeling.

David Kestenbaum

Is that the thing you love about the job? Just that it is so satisfying when the thing actually opens for you?

Dave McOmie

Yes. There's nothing like it, really. The closest thing would be sex.

David Kestenbaum

That's a terrible comparison.

Dave McOmie

I know, but it's true. Opening safes involves--

David Kestenbaum

I feel like you're doing damage to both safe cracking and sex with that comparison.

That's Dave. Dave lives outside Portland, Oregon with his wife and kids, edits a magazine called International Safecracker, teaches safecracking classes. When other safecrackers need help, he's one of the people they ask.

Dave's hard of hearing, so he likes to text. And his phone is filled with requests from people looking to hire him, to break into a bank vault or safe that won't open. Dave has lots of stories.

There's the time he had to open a Bank of America vault, so that the guy who's going to get married the next day could retrieve the wedding rings, or the time a teller locked herself in a vault. There are locked safes that people have bought at auction that he's opened-- mostly empty, though one was filled with jewels.

He told me a friend once opened a gun safe and found a body inside. In this job I'm going to tell you about, it wasn't clear what it was at the start.

Dave McOmie

Well, the first email was pretty cryptic. I didn't know what they were talking about, and I ignored him. I didn't even respond. And--

David Kestenbaum

What did it say?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Dave McOmie

I don't remember. I get a lot of emails from cranky people wanting information on a safe or a vault. Well, this one was so cryptic, it didn't even warrant a response, I thought.

David Kestenbaum

He gets a follow-up email, saying, please respond.

Dave McOmie

Then, I get emails from two different companies in the safe and vault business in the Midwest, asking me to please respond to them. Well, at that point, I'm like, what the hell? What's going on here? One of my colleagues said, Dave, think famous person, sudden death, Minneapolis area.

David Kestenbaum

It was Prince's vault. Yes, Prince, the musician. He died, and apparently, no one had the combination.

Dave McOmie

Well, I got instantly very nervous.

David Kestenbaum

Did they tell you what kind of safe it was?

Dave McOmie

I already knew.

David Kestenbaum

How did you know what kind of vault Prince had?

Dave McOmie

I keep track of these things. Just my job, really. One of his friends had put a photograph of it on the internet a decade earlier.

David Kestenbaum

Of course, he recognized the model.

Dave McOmie

And I was impressed. It's not very often you see a full-blown bank vault in a residence.

David Kestenbaum

That's what it was?

Dave McOmie

Yes.

David Kestenbaum

Prince's vault was a Mosler American Century. Dave says Mosler had been the top manufacturer of safes in the United States for 100 years. This was one of the last ones they made. The vault door he was going to have to open was a formidable thing.

Dave McOmie

It's 6 and 1/2 feet tall, 3 and 1/2 feet or 4 feet wide, depending on which version. Weighs in at about 6,000 pounds.

David Kestenbaum

Whoa.

Dave McOmie

It's a monster.

David Kestenbaum

You write that it was designed to withstand drills and torches, to repel sophisticated attempts at entry, and brutish forms of attack as well.

Dave McOmie

That's right. No burglar has ever defeated a Mosler American Century, not once, ever.

David Kestenbaum

The best safes and vaults have gotten harder to open over the years. When people got good at opening by listening and feeling for little clicks as you turn the dial, manufacturers fixed it so you couldn't do that anymore. When people drilled through the doors, safe and vault makers put in hard plates, a layer in the door that's very hard to drill through.

One inventive iteration of this? A layer of, basically, ball bearings. When the drill hits them, they spin, grab the drill bit, and can break it. This vault, Prince's vault, the Mosler American Century, has an additional layer of protection, even more devious, called--

Dave McOmie

The mousetrap relocker.

David Kestenbaum

The mousetrap relocker.

Dave McOmie

It's an ingenious way to defeat the burglars.

David Kestenbaum

Basically, if the vault senses it's being tampered with, a spring-loaded mechanism fires like a mousetrap, snapping this metal block into place, that physically makes it so the door can't open, even if you have the combination.

Dave McOmie

And when it fires, it goes, bang! It shoots over, and you cannot turn the handle. And I was really nervous about the mousetrap relocker in this particular door.

David Kestenbaum

If you're a Prince fan, you maybe know the story of this vault and how it all turned out. But Dave back then, of course, had no idea how it would go. The night before, he was anxious. He reviewed his plans, made sure he had all his tools together.

On Sunday morning, he flew down to Minneapolis, his gear in a couple of suitcases. There's something intimate opening the safe of someone who has died, an intrusion into the sacred, like you're entering a place you're not supposed to be. In addition to valuables, money, jewelry, once a million baseball card, people keep secrets in safes-- photos of people they aren't married to, letters.

Dave got picked up at the airport and taken to Paisley Park, Prince's home, an estate, really. There were scores of balloons and notes attached to the fence around the property, a wall of purple. The guard waved them through the gate. They parked, and entered this big magnificent building with a huge atrium, large pictures of Prince on the wall, two purple couches, sunlight coming down from above. The vault was on the floor below.

Dave McOmie

Well, we couldn't take the elevator, because it was still walled off, because that's where they had found him. So we had to take the stairs down to the lower level. And the archivist from New York who was there-- just a sweet man-- he led the way down the stairs.

David Kestenbaum

Dave says, even after years of doing this, his hands shake sometimes with nerves. He prefers it when he's alone with the vault. But when he goes into the room, there are over a dozen people there. And weirdly, someone has covered everything in plastic-- the art on the walls, all the stuff in the room-- in case, you know, he has to use explosives, which Dave politely explains is not how he works.

Dave starts to examine the vault, very aware of all the eyes on him. The door looks like something out of James Bond-- shiny, stainless steel, with black dials. He gives them a spin and notes that they are what in the business are called manipulation-resistant, meaning you can't figure out the combo by feeling how the dial turns.

The next thing he does is try some default combinations. Sometimes if a safe has been opened for maintenance, they'll reset it to something simple. And sometimes, the owner doesn't bother to change it. Worth trying.

Dave McOmie

I tried 50-25-50. It didn't work. I tried 25-50-25. It didn't work, et cetera, et cetera.

David Kestenbaum

A kind of amazing aside here-- Dave says banks often have several of their combo numbers on their vaults set to end in 5 or 0, just because they're easier to dial. That's why the big hash marks are on the dials. But if you're thinking of trying to break into a bank vault, you should know a few things, he says.

One, there are still tons of possible combinations. Two, bank vaults have a time lock, so they can't be opened after hours. Three, even if you did get in, you'd find the money isn't out in the open. It's inside another safe inside the vault. By that time, the police would be there. Don't try it, he says.

Anyway, back to Paisley Park and Prince's vault. Dave turns to the thing he's known he was probably going to have to do from the start-- a technique called microdrilling. He's going to try to drill a small hole through this giant, thick door in just the right spot, so he can look in through that hole and see the combination lock from the inside.

If he can see the lock tumblers from the inside, he should be able to figure out what combination the vault is set to, and open the door. How do you look in such a small hole? A doctor's endoscope, the thing used for colonoscopies and other procedures. Think very small periscope. Dave always has one with him.

But for this to work, he has to drill in just the right place. Only a small number of people know the spot. And Dave is one of the people who has worked out the best way to do this for lots of vaults. He has the coordinates for drill spots for scores of safes and vaults on a laptop.

David Kestenbaum

And how big is this spot?

Dave McOmie

Oh, it's literally about the size of a frozen pea. It's tiny. And it's a long ways from you. It's deep in the door. There's always a certain amount of trepidation, because if your drill bit veers off at all in any direction other than exactly where you need it to go, you miss.

David Kestenbaum

And if you miss, the manufacturer has put the mousetrap relocker right there at this magic spot. If it heats up from too much drilling, it'll blow. Dave measures out the right spot on the front of the vault door, puts a dot there with a black Sharpie, checks the position three times, and starts to drill. The drill goes through the outer steel layer, then into some very hard concrete. And then--

Dave McOmie

We're drilling away, and then all of a sudden, the sound of the drill motor increases. Zzzzzzzzzz! It's not cutting.

David Kestenbaum

Dave looks through the hole and can see why. They've hit the hard plate. Vaultmakers give their hard plates all kinds of names. There's one called Impervium.

The one on Prince's vault, it's the first time he's seen it on this vault. It's called Relsom, which is the vault company's name, Mosler, spelled backwards. He wonders if Prince asked for an upgrade.

Dave reaches into his bag and takes out another drill bit, this one with a diamond tip. He lowers the drill speed. He has to go slow. If he doesn't, the metal in the door will heat up, and the relocker will fire.

10 minutes pass, 20, 30, an hour. He's made less than half an inch of progress. Everyone's standing around watching, Dave nervous. And then, the drill sound changes. He's through. His only question-- did the relocker fire while he was drilling, or did he slip past it?

Dave McOmie

Once the hole was in, I grabbed an endoscope, and you're sweating bullets at that point.

David Kestenbaum

Dave threads it through this tiny, long hole in the big door.

Dave McOmie

I could see that we'd just skimmed over the top of it, and didn't even graze it, but we were very close to it. The scope goes on inside the lock, where the tumblers are. I could see the-- each of the four little tumblers, they looked like little grindstones, turning this way and that. It was a beautiful sight to see.

David Kestenbaum

Dave turns the combo dials on the front of the safe until he can see everything is aligned on the inside. That should do it. It occurs to him that Prince might have been the last person to open the vault. He turns the big wheel and pulls. The giant door swings slowly open.

David Kestenbaum

What was the reaction in the room?

Dave McOmie

Applause. Everybody-- everybody clapped. I was a little embarrassed. When the door came open, the archivist looked inside before I did. I've just been trained, through decades of doing this, not to look.

David Kestenbaum

Dave heard someone gasp.

Dave McOmie

And I looked inside and realized why. Very large vault-- I don't know the exact dimension, but approximately 20 feet by 40 feet. Now, by bank standards, that is on the large side. And yet, there was hardly any room in the vault, because it was just jam-packed with these industrial shelving units, and every one of them was packed bottom to top with tapes.

David Kestenbaum

The vault was filled with music, thousands of recordings, most of it never released. One small detail I hadn't heard before-- it seemed, kind of, sweet. Dave has a picture of this.

There was a piece of paper hanging in the vault by a very old computer. It apparently functioned as a database, because the paper had instructions. "Introducing Mr. Vault Guy. That's right. No more messy papercuts. To use Mr. Vault Guy, follow these simple instructions.

One, choose The Vault. Enter. Two, choose Search, slash Update, Enter twice." Like I said, it was an old computer. "Press F10, and voila. Continue pressing F10, and all tapes under these categories will appear."

And at the end, it read, "dig it? Dig it. Any questions? Ask Chuck." Dave looked around the vault. Prince was famously prolific, constantly making and recording things.

The two of them were about the same age. Prince was 57 when he died. Dave was 59.

Dave McOmie

Well, it's just sad to be cut down relatively young, still full of things to offer the world. It's super sad.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, it was like you were there in the presence of all the stuff he hadn't finished, you know.

Dave McOmie

Right.

David Kestenbaum

They've started to release some of that stuff from inside the vault. The first recording was called "Piano and a Microphone." It was Prince, just playing a piano and singing.

I wanted to play you one of the songs. But you know what's even more difficult than opening up a bank vault? Licensing a Prince song for use on the radio. Prince, throughout his life, was famous for wanting to control the music he made. There's a reason he kept it in a vault.

David Kestenbaum

When you hear one of these recordings from the vault, is there any part of you that feels like, I helped make that happen, in some small way?

Dave McOmie

No, not at all.

David Kestenbaum

There are all kinds of people who are excellent in what they do. They are the types of people who can write so many songs, they fill a vault. There's a quieter kind also. The kind who can get those songs out so smoothly, you don't know how hard it was.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is our senior editor. Dave McOmie has written a memoir. It's called Safecracker, A Chronicle of the Coolest Job in the World.

[MUSIC - "ARE YOU GOING MY WAY" BY THE ESSEX]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Bim Adewunmi. The people who put together today's program include Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Chana Jaffe-Walt, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Alix Spiegel, Jessica Suriano, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, Chloee Weiner, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman, our senior editor is David Kestenbaum, our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Scotty Anderson, Matt Dittman, Charlie Vela, Josiah Kosier, Maureen Meyer, Rafael Garcia, Rochelle Garza, Kerry Glencorse, Steve Gough, and Chris Crawford. The voice actors for the smuggler story, Act 1, in order of appearance-- Isaiah Zavala, Ezekiel Pacheco, Gilberto Ortiz, and Elijah Rodriguez.

Our website-- ThisAmericanLife.org, This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr Torey Malatia.

You know, I was in a long line at the coffee shop this week. And I got to the front, I was about to order, Torey walks in, cuts the line, comes right up to me. I told him, "Torey, you can't jump in front of all these people!"

He wouldn't listen. Put his hands over his ears says to me--

Dave McOmie

"Zzzzzzzzzz! It's not cutting."

Ira Glass

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