Give the People What They Want
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From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
All right, you're going to flip your collar up. All right, that's going to look real nice, don't you think? Going to look nice?
The groom's ready. The bride's ready. They have never kissed, not even one time. She only asked him to marry her two weeks ago. In they march-- flower girls, three bridesmaids, three groomsmen, the grey-haired pastor who's done this dozens of times, the groom, who has known the bride since fifth grade, and finally the bride. They both just graduated from high school this month. We're in Davenport, Iowa.
Our guests may be seated. A truly blessed, happy occasion brings us here. I hope that your hearts are happy.
All of this is fake. Absolutely, completely fake, every single part of it. We're in a home for elderly people with Alzheimer's and the staff is staging a phony wedding because, well, it makes the residents feel good. They enjoy picking out hats and jewelry to wear. They enjoy talking about their own weddings, those who still remember them. They have all sorts of confusions and perceptual problems and they cannot tell that it is fake.
--At a wedding. We all love a wedding, don't we? Ashley William Poust--
Over on the side, two old women whisper excitedly about the bride's dress. A woman in the first row cries. There are three men who stare straight ahead in space, not registering anything. But nearly everybody else is much more bright-eyed and engaged than unusual, the caretakers all say. This is Judy Rader.
It's amazing. All these people are patients and usually can't focus on the same thing at the same time.
Do you solemnly declare--
They're looking at the minister which again, they're focusing on the person that's delivering the speech, which oftentimes isn't.
In fact, it all looks real enough-- the pastor's homily, the vows, the rings. The only signs that this is a complete sham are that the bride barely looks at the groom. When she delivers her vows, she fixes her eyes on the pastor. The couple does not hold hands.
You may now kiss the bride and there's no limits.
And when they kiss, these two friends-- just friends-- from high school, go in once for a quick peck and then, suspecting that that was not convincing enough, they quickly kiss a second time.
We don't consider it lying. We consider it organizing special moments for them. Because Alzheimer residents have short-term memory loss. So their special moments are sometimes all they have.
This is Judy Dejong who organized the fake wedding. It is her fourth one for Alzheimers patients.
Could you do this wedding again next week and most of them wouldn't remember that it had happened this week?
We could do it tonight even and they wouldn't-- may not have remembered that. Absolutely. So we have planned a special moment, a moment in time for them.
It must be so odd for you to work creating moments for them that are instantly gone.
Well, so many people say, why do you go to all that trouble when you know they're not going to remember? And I just think, as a caregiver, that is our role for them is to provide these special moments.
Today on our program, giving the people what they want, we bring you five stories of people who went to extraordinary lengths to give people what they wanted. It's interesting what people want and what they would do for those who will give it to them. Act One, Let Them Eat Cake, Wedding Cake. You've probably already gotten a sense of what that act is going to be about. Act Two, God Shed His Grace on Thee. In that act, the astonishing story of how an entire country-- a big country, a country that you have heard of-- got named after somebody who was a fraud, but the kind of fraud that people love, the kind of fraud who knows how to please a crowd.
Act Three, Have Paint Will Travel, a man who does murals for hire on the living room walls inside Chicago public housing units reveals what it is that people want on their walls now that black and gold panthers are sort of played out. Act Four, Handing People Their Dreams, a clerk at a humble midwestern video shop tells all about handing people adult videos for a living. Act Five, What Daddy Wants. In that act, a family tries to give Daddy what he wants, even if he does not seem to want it sometimes. Stay with us.
Act One. Let Them Eat Cake, Wedding Cake.
Act One, Let Them Eat Wedding Cake. It turns out, the hardest part of staging a fake wedding at the Country House Residence in Davenport was finding a groom. The bride's real life boyfriend did not own a suit. And they're kind of on-again, off-again anyway. So he was out. He spent the day fishing. Somebody suggested the bride's brother play the groom but even the thought of that gave the bride the willies. I'm not kissing him, she told her mother.
For a while it looked like one of the certified nurse's assistant, Jason Allender would step in. But as fate would have it, he had another wedding-- a real one-- in which he would also be the groom, planned for the week after the fake wedding. And his real fiance had a few thoughts about him going through the motions in a separate ceremony with a cute high school girl.
She didn't like it. She did not like it at all.
What did she say?
I understand. It kind of takes the shine off the other wedding if you're doing a wedding the week before.
Yeah, a little bit. And she said, they want you to kiss her? And I was like well, yeah, probably on the cheek. And she said, no you're not.
The groom they got, Ashley, had done a lot of high school plays and was charmingly unflappable. The kiss, he told me, was just another stage kiss.
Residence Woman 1
That's what got me, that good-looking guy.
The women at the Residence got into the wedding more than the men, as happens even when people are not Alzheimer's patients. I talk with them about the bride's dress, the cake, the presents. These conversations wove in and out of coherence. When I sat down with these two women, they were passing back and forth a pair of eyeglasses, each of them unable to remember if it was hers.
Residence Woman 2
This is my glasses. But they don't fit right on my ears, see? It's a whole different pair of glasses. Do you have another pair of glasses that you--
No, these are mine.
Residence Woman 2
--Those are yours. Well, I don't know.
Are those hers?
Residence Woman 2
No, I thought that I was getting--
Residence Woman 3
Are they broken already?
Residence Woman 2
I don't-- I hope not. No, they're not broken.
So, what did you think of the wedding?
Residence Woman 2
Well, it's all right now. But for a while I didn't like it too good at all.
Why is that?
Residence Woman 2
It was cold and slippery.
This is some old memory, not our wedding. This happened a lot.
Residence Woman 3
It was a real nice wedding. It really was. I love her dress.
Residence Woman 2
I think they're pretty great kids. I don't know them real well. I don't know if she just has one little girl or what, but they stopped up at our house one night, the father and her, and man is she smart. She was really smart. But every so often her mother had to go, psst, [SNIFF SNIFF] on the seat of her pants.
If I had to guess, I would say that the one person who is going to remember this day is the bride, 18-year-old Lisa Arret. She was working her regular shift at Country House when Judy Dejong invited her to play the part.
It was actually-- I was screaming, I was so excited. I was like, yes, yes. Because in school and stuff like that, I've never been really the center of attention when it comes to-- or being even the main character in a play. And it was just like wow, this is it, this is it and stuff like that. And I, of course, didn't realize how big it would be. Actually, when I had the dress on and I was standing-- after I put it on I was waiting for them to say, you can come out now-- and I was standing in front of the mirror with the veil and everything. And then I sat on the bed, and I see the veil next to me. It's just like, oh my god, I'm in my wedding dress. It's just like, I don't know if I'll ever be in a wedding dress again.
There was one resident that-- she kept looking at me in the dress. She kept looking over at me. And she kept looking like she was going to stand up and come over to me so I went over to her. And she had tears in her eyes. And she was like, you look so beautiful. I'm like, thank you so much. And I'm like, you look beautiful too. And times like those, I kind of know that when I change back into my clothes and you go back up to them, they're not going to know it was you in the wedding dress. They're not going to recognize me or not know who I am anymore, but it's still living in the moment, it's still appreciating the moment.
To Lisa, the whole experience was one of those things that you don't even know you want until somebody gives it to you, which in a way is what the wedding was for the residents too.
[MUSIC- "TIME ENOUGH FOR ROCKING WHEN WE'RE OLD" BY THE MAGNETIC FIELDS]
Act Two. God Shed His Grace On Thee.
Act Two, God Shed His Grace on Thee. In our radio story, 500 years in the making, a fable of giving people what they want in a global scale, the story of-- stay with me here-- how America actually got his name, from Mr. Jack Hitt.
I got clocked in the head the first time I ever delved into the mystery of how America got its name. It was third grade, Porter-Gaud, South Carolina. Mrs. Poulnot had just explained that Amerigo Vespucci was a noted explorer. And from the back of the class I observed, "What'd he do that was so great?" After all, who wasn't a noted explorer back then? Mrs. Poulnot had this little trick, turning her enormous wedding ring around on her finger and thumping you in the head. When the pain receded, I stepped into the library on my own. By then I was 30 and lived in New York City.
Think about it. A third of planet Earth is named for Amerigo Vespucci. But why? Why aren't we named for the European who first landed here? The United States of Colombia. Try it out. God bless Columbia. Death to Colombia. This Colombian Life. It works.
I finally did figure it out. And it comes down to this-- it had nothing to do with exploration but everything to do with salesmanship. Columbus returned to tell us about the New World the way it really was. Vespucci described a different New World altogether, not the one he saw from the railing of his ship but the one he knew the folks back home wanted to believe in, the imaginary world they were certain had to exist somewhere. It's a tabloid rendition of the New World starring the usual cast-- hot naked girls, cannibals, dragons, pygmies and an island of giant women.
So, what happened? You ask. First off, get the old Amerigo out of your mind-- the noble map-maker pondering the stars with his astrolabe-- now replace him with a ne'er-do-well rich kid who flunked out of school and whose father landed him a job with another rich guy.
Amerigo was born into a family of great prominence in 15th century Florence. Remember Botticelli's painting, The Birth of Venus? The blond on the clamshell, that's Amerigo's cousin, Simonetta. Still, he couldn't master his Latin study so his father got him a position with one of the richest and most powerful people on the earth, Lorenzo de Medici. According to one Spanish historian, a Vespucci enthusiast, Amerigo, quote, "Was in charge of everything, dinner services, silver, the chests of damask, hangings, tapestries--" what we might call an entry level position.
Eventually, Lorenzo trusted Amerigo enough to send him as a scout to Spain. There were lots of business opportunities there at the time, mainly because Queen Isabella decided to unify the country by throwing out all the Jews and Arabs in that very busy year, 1492.
No one really knows what Amerigo did during this time. But as one writer put it, he "resolved to abandon trade and to aspire to something more praiseworthy and enduring." So he learned astronomy and managed to sail as navigator and map-maker on at least two voyages bound for the New World-- one from Spain and one from Portugal.
We still read Amerigo's writings every time we look at a map. In one harbor, Amerigo noticed that the natives elevated their huts on pilings above the water. Amerigo was reminded of Venice and wrote "Little Venice," or in Spanish, "Venezuela." While traveling from Portugal, Amerigo entered a huge river during January, plumbing the shallows of his imagination he wrote in Portuguese, "Rio de Janeiro."
At this point in the story, the standard explanation in the grade school textbooks starts to crumble. We all learned that Amerigo's maps launched his fame. But that's not true. It's what accompanied them. Amerigo wrote several long letters home, one to his employer, Lorenzo de Medici. And without them this glorified steward would have disappeared into the vapors of history. So why didn't Mrs. Poulnot mention these letters? You only have to read them. Amerigo's letters are laced with crazy adventures and lewd encounters that are outrageous even by our jaded standards.
If your children can understand the prim syntax of the Victorian era, you might want to send them out of the room for a minute. Here's one description of the free-spirited savages of the New World.
Quote, "they do not practice marriage. Each man takes all the women he desires. And when he wishes to discard them, he repudiates them without discrediting himself or disgracing the woman. They are excessively libidinous, and the women much more than the men. For I refrain, out of decency, from telling of the art with which they gratify their immoderate lust."
Now imagine you are your average Venetian doge in 1505, eager to learn of the New World and you read this, "It was, to us, a matter of astonishment that none was to be seen among them who had a flabby breast. And those who had borne children were not to be distinguished from virgins by the shape and shrinking of the womb. And in the other parts of the body, similar things were seen of which, in the interest of modesty, I make no mention." No mention, except in the very next sentence. "When they had the opportunity of copulating with Christians, urged by excessive lust, they defiled and prostituted themselves."
Amerigo wields this time honored literary device constantly, resisting, trying to resist, and then yielding, baby, to more and more descriptions of a paradise of eternally youthful women with timeless breasts and nothing but eyes for a big, strong caballero. These essential themes may ring vaguely familiar because they are, in fact, the very same ones used today to sell Penthouse magazine.
Dear Penthouse forum, I never thought it would happen to me. But one day, some explorer buddies and I were hugging the coast of the New World in our caravel when some comely natives signalled to come on board.
Me, I don't even believe that Amerigo Vespucci wrote the letters. The originals disappeared long ago. What we have are copies published on a newfangled machine called a printing press. Amerigo's originals, by whatever path, found their way to the new media of the day. These Ur journalists lived during the infancy of this new technology and printing was reshaping the Old World as rapidly as the computer has transformed our own. When Columbus set sail, for instance, there were 268 registered printers working and competing in Venice alone, even though Johann Gutenberg's Bible was not yet 50 years old.
At this time there was no First Amendment, no copyright law, and no tradition of authorship. These entrepreneurial printers, I believe, simply re-wrote Amerigo's flat prose and exaggerated his plodding descriptions of the New World, knowing it would sell better. The sloppy hand of the hack journalist is evident everywhere. One transatlantic route Amerigo describes would have plowed him straight across the continent and landed him in Seattle, Washington.
But what really gives away the scriveners who edited Amerigo is just how well they knew their audience. The prevailing mythology of 1500 held that beyond the setting sun existed a strange and turbulent world, inhabited not just by exotic beauties, but also by every kind of oddity imaginable. So Amerigo visits an island of giant women, cracks open a huge oyster to find a 130 pearls, and meets the iron man cannibal of all time, a guy who claims to have eaten 300 people.
There are many violent adventures and more sexual encounters, including one tribe that possessed a most unusual sex potion, which, in the interest of modesty, I will make no mention. See how nicely that works?
Then you read Columbus' letters, which were not rewritten. They are long on descriptions of big leaves and friendly natives. A typical racy passage reads, "There are on the island seven or eight kinds of palm trees, which far excel ours in height and beauty. There are also excellent pine trees, vast plains and meadows. The convenience of the harbors in this island and the remarkable number of rivers contributing to the healthfulness of man exceed belief."
Needless to say, that kind of prose didn't quite have the same box office that Amerigo's letters did. One academic study of all the explorer's best-selling publications has Columbus' letters in second place with 22 editions. Amerigo? 60 editions, including a blockbuster in Czech. Strange, none was published in Spain where Amerigo lived.
As Amerigo's letters move swiftly across Europe, one copy found its way into the hands of a small group of academics living in France in 1507. They were working on publishing a grand edition of the most respected geography text of the day, Ptolemy's Cosmographia. In this edition is a large map drawn by a cartographer named Martin Waldseemuller. This man's name you should remember. This is the man who named America. Martin Waldseemuller. On this enormous map, stamped across a few continental chunks, it reads-- for the very first time-- America. Beneath it, in the deep blue sea, Waldseemuller added an explanation.
"I see no reason why we should not call it America, that is to say, land of Amerigo, its discover, a man of sagacious wit."
Apparently, a poet friend intoxicated by Amerigo's prose had talked Waldseemuller into it. Later he changed his mind and never again included the name on any of his maps. But the name began to catch on. And 31 years later, when the great cartographer Gerard Mercator became the first person to write North and South America on a map, the issue was settled. America was a place.
Nowadays, historians tell two stories, pro and con, about Amerigo. Some struggle to rewrite his thin resume to make it match up to his name. The others, they just scream. The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison called Amerigo, quote, "A liar and the stupid boy of his class who flunked Greek and so had to go into business."
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Strange that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle dealer at Seville, who managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name."
Amerigo died broke and without ever knowing that a third of the globe would bear his name. But I've come to think it's the perfect name. Columbus may have discovered the New World, but Vespucci sold it to us. How poetic is it that the future home of skywriting, ballyhoo, and P.R. would be named after someone so willing to give folks what they wanted? Hype and spin permeate our every institution, our politics, and our movies. The things we sell and the stock market that underwrites them. Vespucci's letters totally oversold the whole place with a bunch of preposterous lies that became a blockbuster best seller. He really had no idea what he was doing and never earned a doubloon himself from the whole thing. And then dying unawares, had the entire mess rewritten one more time, this time as a stately tale of a great navigator, high up in the crow's nest in every third grade textbook, peering nobly at the stars. The naming of America wasn't a mistake, it was prophecy.
Jack Hitt lives in New Haven.
[MUSIC- "IN AMERICA" BY FASTBACKS]
Act Three. Have Paint, Will Travel.
Act Three, Have Paint, Will Travel. Well, now we move from giving people what they want on a continental scale to giving them what they want on the most local level possible, namely in their own living rooms. Milton Reid paints murals for his livelihood inside people's apartments in the public housing projects here in Chicago, specifically in the Robert Taylor Homes, which are high-rise buildings on the city's south side. A neighborhood, by the way, where the city has recently been tearing down public housing buildings. Around the neighborhood, Reid is known simply as the artist, as in, hey artist, how much do you charge for a mural? Reid charges between $50 and $200.
When he started painting apartment walls, the thing that most people requested were panthers, often in black and gold to match their furniture. But soon, Reid got other requests.
And I said, "Uh oh. Another good idea."
She said, "I don't want no panthers," she told me, "I want just a sky here with water and trees."
I said, "Okay, you want something like a landscape, right? Something like that."
"And I want the sun coming off the water, all the shininess."
I said, "I understand, I know exactly what you're talking about. Let me try to make you feel good. So all my customers started doing it.
Most of the people take pictures of them and their girlfriends standing by the landscape like they're out there. They say, "Oh, it looks so real. Look at the--" I come to their house, they show me a photograph. They say "Don't let nobody else see." I look at it. I say, oh no. Here she is, her and her man standing up naked by the landscape. Or you'll see the man lying down like they're at the lake or something.
They say, "It looks so real, doesn't it?"
I say, "Yeah." OK, front room.
You either want a panther or you want a landscape. In a kid's room it was always a cartoon. In a bathroom, it was always dolphin, fish, or ducks. It couldn't be anything else. I hate to tell you, but some people have some weird imaginations. I'm sitting up here doing some work and this girl had me draw this guy standing by a tree taking a leak, right? Now OK, I did this, right? But the oddest thing happened with this girl. She called me back down the next day. "I want you to draw Jesus Christ on that wall right there. I want that in color. And I'm giving you $50."
I said, "Yeah, but can't you understand? You've got a guy right here peeing on a wall and you got Jesus right here."
She said, "I'm paying you $50. You going to do it or not?" Let me do what the customer says. So I do it, right?
Then I have people come out with, "Ohh, I saw that Jesus Christ you drew on her-- can you draw Jesus for me?" So I start putting Jesus on people's wall. Then they'll say, "Why did you draw my Jesus that dark? I want my Jesus white." Most people want-- most of them wanted Jesus white, right?
And I said, "Well really, Jesus really wasn't white. He was a--"
"Look, I'm paying you. You do it the way I say to do it. I know how he looked."
I said, "OK, I guess you're right." Because see, they probably met Jesus in person, so.
I had a guy mention something like-- he told me it really hurt me when I found out. And he said, "Remember you drew me and my wife on the wall?"
I said, "Yeah, I remember that."
He said, "I want you to draw it again in the other room, me and her and a kid, because we've got a kid now."
OK, I've got to drawing it, right? I didn't know until I finished. He told me, "My wife passed. She died." A lot of people started having me do that, of their people that died. You know, around the Robert Taylor there were so many deaths, where young people just shooting each other, killing each other.
The oddest request I ever had in my life-- here goes. We're in the Robert Taylor standing up and we're on about the 10th floor. She said, "I want you to paint my whole wall like there's no wall here at all, like you can look right outside.
I say, "OK, I understand what you're saying. You want me to draw where it's like a whole wall's been busted out right here, so you can walk in your house-- when you open her door and look in her house it'll be just like you're looking right outside. You'll see the clouds, you'll see the highrises downtown. OK, now, that's not what really makes it odd. It's what she had me do when I came back the next week. And this is what she had me do.
"Now, I want you to draw me standing right here on the side. Just draw me, you're going to draw the back of my head, something like this. You're going to draw this part of me doing this." Her right hand is going forward and her right feet, everything is forward, right? It's just like a wrecking crew came along and just tore that part out and she has her arms sticking out there like that outside the window. And I couldn't understand her. Why would you want me to draw you doing like this? Maybe she's dancing. Or maybe she wants me to draw her, making it like she's pushing her hand out there so she can feel the air out there. So I did it and I charged her. And guess what she wanted? She didn't tell me until I finished painting her.
She said, "OK, down here, I want you to draw my man. So it should appear that he's further away from me. So you make him small."
I said, "I know how to draw. I know about perspective. His feet were sticking up to the sky. And his hands were going down. You could see his mouth open real wide and in perspective, a foreshortening, you'll see one of his feet coming this way in a big shoe. Because he has one leg going way back and the other leg going further, closer to you. That lady-- I actually drew this lady pushing this man out the window.
Once they tear all the Robert Taylors down, which they're going to eventually do, it won't decrease my business. It will only increase. I know that. I'm working. I'm doing more work now than I've ever done in homes. Most of them are getting are Section Eight, and I'm going to other new row houses in Milwaukee and Calumet. They have me paint exactly the same thing they had in their house before. They say, "I want the same thing from where you had my house looking. I want it just like that."
The real trend that's really going on now-- since they are tearing down the Robert Taylors-- they want me to come to their home and paint the Robert Taylor Homes in their front room. When you first walk in that door-- when you first open the door up, the first thing you'll see is the projects. And you say, "Ah, they've been torn down a long time ago." And the first that comes to your mind, "You used to live in a Robert Taylor." And they want everybody to know this.
Milton Reid, he spoke with reporter Alex Kotlowitz whose most recent book is The Other Side of the River. His story was produced by Amy Dorn. Coming up, porn. You heard me. Porn. That's in a minute from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
Act Four. Handing People Their Dreams.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Give the People What They Want, stories of people whose thankless job is to do just that. We have arrived at Act Four of our show-- Act Four, Handing People Their Dreams.
For over a year, Ali Davis has been working at a video store for $6.50 an hour, giving people their fantasies. What I mean by that, of course, is that there is a huge porn section downstairs and she helps people get their porn. She watches customers in the security cameras, she has this "Voice of God" microphone she can use to boom her voice down there when she needs to-- and she does sometimes. She has these true tales to tell.
A note to listeners, there is nothing explicit in these stories. No sex acts are mentioned at all. Nothing. But it is about porn.
We all abuse the hand sanitizer. I know that over-the-counter antibacterial products are bad. I know that they actually give rise to hideous, resistant strains of bacteria. But still, we all abuse the hand sanitizer. We just can't help it. I use it so much that I lose all finger traction and can't open our plastic bags. I've had days when I've used it so much that I can't even make fingerprints on the glass countertop. It freaks me out. But the thought of not using it is worse.
Contamination is everywhere. I see people sneezing onto the tape cases. They cough wetly into their palms right before handing me change. But the worst thing is when the tapes come back slippery, or worse yet, sticky. Repeat offenders get a note on their file that says, "Lube Warning." The first time, we discreetly but firmly remind the customer that the tapes need to come back clean. The second time, we hand them the tape, a bottle of Windex, and a paper towel and tell them to clean off the tape in full view of whoever else is at the counter. Other than that, there's not much we can do except acknowledge the destruction of the polite fiction.
The polite fiction is something nobody really believes but we all pretend to because it makes life so much easier. An anthropology professor once told me a story about a pygmy couple. Pygmy divorce involves, quite literally, breaking up the home. The couple tears apart their house and once it's down, the union is dissolved. One anthropologist was watching a long-married couple have a fight. It escalated until the wife threatened to leave, and the husband yelled something along the lines of "Fine." And so, there was nothing the wife could do but start tearing down the house. She began tearing off the leaves that made up the roof, clearly miserable. The husband looked wretched too. But at this point, neither could back down without losing face. And by now, the whole village was watching.
Finally, the husband called out the Pygmy equivalent of, "You're right, honey, the roof is dirty. It'll look much better once we get those leaves washed." The two of them started carrying leaves down to the river, soon with the help of the whole village, and then washed and rebuilt the roof-- a whole village happily indulging each other.
The polite fiction of our village, the porn section village, is that while people do generally use porn for the purpose of self-pleasuring, there is no reason to believe that this particular customer will be doing so. For all we know, he's taking them to a stag party, or watching them as a joke with his girlfriend, or using them for research on his master's thesis. When it becomes graphically, tangibly, clear that that's not the case, we all get uncomfortable.
The destruction of the polite fiction is what creeps me out about one of my weekend regulars. He comes in when I open at 9:00, then chooses and rents two movies. He leaves for exactly two movies worth of time, then comes back and returns them. I hate it because there's no way to pretend he's been doing anything else. Even a grad student has to stop the tape to take down notes occasionally.
I'm convinced that porn is like alcohol. Some people can stop at just one every now and then. Some people binge on weekends. And some people are genuinely, horribly addicted. Most of my customers skew towards light porn rental. I see maybe half of them enough to sort of know who they are. And of those, maybe half again are heavy renters. A few tip into the danger zone-- six movies, every single day. Even with specials and frequent renter cards they end up spending thousands of dollars a year. On weekends, the store fills up almost immediately. The store opens at 9:00. I usually do about 20 minutes of set up and hit the front door at 9:00 on the dot by the store clock. There is always someone waiting to get to the porn.
Twice I've had a problem to deal with and opened the door at, say, 9:02. In both cases, a guy was actually pounding on the door when I got to it, not the same guy either. Both guys almost flipped out when I took the time to slide the sign from "Closed," to "Open" before turning the lock. When I first started at the store, this scared the hell out of me. I assumed that anyone who needed porn before noon was automatically a pervert. That was until I got to know them. If you don't count the porn addiction, they're really not such bad guys.
Mr. Orange Hat is a registered nurse and leapt to my defense when another customer pitched a fit at me. Mr. Glasses is always announcing stuff like, "It's that kind of personal service that sets your store apart from Blockbuster." The over-friendliness itself is sort of creepy, as is the way he sort of doesn't blink enough and doesn't know that most business transactions don't really involve sustained eye contact. But I know that he's just trying his hardest, in his own mutant way, to be friendly.
Mr. Creaky was old and feeble but would rent a stack of disturbingly violent cartoon porn from Japan at least once a week. He always had the same patter as he came up to the register, "Do you watch that show, The Sopranos?"
"I hear it's pretty good."
"Yes, sir. That's what I hear too."
"I'd like to watch that show but I can't. There's too much cussing."
And then, clever ruse in place, he would put in his request for Demon Beast.
There is an interesting phenomenon that I've witnessed happen over and over again in the store. I call it the porn trance. We have two rooms of floor to ceiling boxes. People in the porn trance methodically look at every single one in their section. I see people look at box after box for two hours at a stretch all the time, and three hours is not uncommon. They don't hear announcements over the "Voice of God" microphone until you get drastic.
"You in the red jacket with the baseball cap, you-- we're closing. Bring up your movies right now or you don't get to rent anything at all."
Lone porn renters go into the trance almost immediately and resent being pulled out. Couples do not go into porn trance. There has already been a great deal of negotiating in getting both parties down there together. If either partner gets even a tiny fraction more interested in a porn star body than the other, the delicate balance-- and quite possibly the relationship-- is destroyed. For what it's worth, straight couples are rare in the porn section.
Group renters never intend to go into the porn trance. They start out laughing together, pointing at the boxes and reading particularly ludicrous copy out loud. And then one by one they see something that really strikes them. And one by one, they get sucked in until the porn section is quiet again.
Our store is deliberately designed to make the porn section hard to get to. We want people to have to pass the register so the clerk can see them. And we make them snake through the shelves a bit so it's hard for kids to get down there. Turns out, though, it was a nearly impossible gauntlet for a wheelchair. The guy in the wheelchair was surprisingly nice about it. This guy had to wait more than an hour for a special cab to pick him up. Then he had to get over our doorstep, which is wheelchair accessible in a theoretical sense at best, and weave his way through two tight aisles and around three corners.
The first path he tried ended up being too narrow and he got stuck and had to back up and try another route. And then, after all that, he hit a staircase. Luckily, he could walk a bit. He took the railing with one hand and my arm in the other and we went down. Then I went back and brought the chair down for him. I was torn between sticking around to help and giving the poor guy some privacy. I went with moderate privacy, leaving him alone and checking out the security camera every now and then until it looked like he was done, then going down to help him back up. And then he had to wait over an hour yet again for another taxi, which never showed.
We finally hailed him one, and a friend of mine helped me help him into the cab, bringing the total number of people who had helpfully intruded on his porn rental to six. I think the whole trip took him about four hours. Except to return the videos he hasn't been back. And I can't say I blame him. To do what most of our customers do with complete privacy and no thought, took him four humiliating hours.
Before he came in, I didn't think of the ability to rent porn with speed and discretion as a basic human right, but now I sort of do. It's stupid, but I do still feel an odd swell of pride about what I'm doing every now and then. Immigrants from repressed nations sign up for memberships, go downstairs, and for the first time in their lives see porn. Elderly gay men suddenly have an outlet. Guys who have had a rough day at the office are going to have a relaxing evening, if not a quiet one. If I make it to the security monitor in time, I can see their faces light up.
Ali Davis. When she's not doing her day job, she is in the improv troop, Baby Wants Candy, which does an improvised musical every Friday and Saturday night at the Improv Olympic Theater in Chicago.
Act Five. What Daddy Wants.
Act Five, What Daddy Wants. A family is a complicated ecosystem when it comes to giving people what they want. Often, as with any gift, people give each other the things that they would want themselves. Curtis Sittenfeld has seen it all at work in her own family.
In January, 1999, under the supervision of doctors, my father began a liquid diet. For five months, he ate no solid food and all he drank were chocolate flavored protein shakes. It was exciting and disorienting to see how rapidly a thinner, quicker, younger-seeming man emerged from inside my father's padding. The diet loomed so large in all our lives that my sister, Tiernan and I dreamt about it regularly.
By June, my dad had lost more than 100 pounds and it was time to switch to normal food. Within a year and a half, he gained back all the weight. It seems like my father has tried every weight-loss scheme there is. He's done 12-step programs and hypnosis, and one diet that consisted of eating all bananas one day, all tuna fish the next, and so on.
Early last winter, my father called to tell me he was tackling his weight problem once again. After all the diets in the past, I was skeptical. But this plan sounded a little different. He had been referred to a woman known around Cincinnati as "The Diet Nazi." For reasons that are too complicated to go into, this woman has asked me not to use her real name. Or more precisely, she told me if I did, she'd slit my throat. Therefore, I am calling her Doris.
As my father explained to me, Doris is not a nutritionist, not a physical trainer, and not a therapist. She's a 68-year-old woman who lost 160 pounds on her own, 35 years ago and ever since then has been helping other people who are seriously overweight. She tells them exactly what they can and can't eat, down to the quantity and brand, and how much they should exercise. She also requires them to call her every night and come to her house to weigh in once a week. Basically, she's a nag for hire.
All right, so Paul, you did everything I told you last week?
I haven't been exercising twice a day, I've been exercising once a day.
That's not good. You've got to give up some of your workload--
My father and Doris are meeting, as they do every week, in the living room of the suburban house she shares with her husband. Doris sees all her clients in individual meetings on Thursdays. So in the morning, she brings out a scale and sets it on a special white square of carpet.
Is your choice still the flakes in the morning?
Yes, I've been having that. The flakes, some Grape-Nuts, a banana, and skim milk.
OK, you could also have oatmeal.
I don't like oatmeal.
OK, do you like egg whites?
No, not with the yolks.
You can have three egg whites with some green pepper and some--
I hate green pepper. It makes me belch.
Well, that's too bad. What you hate is good for you.
The first time my dad met Doris, she greeted him at the door wearing a Snoopy night shirt and no shoes. At the time, my dad was afraid she'd forgotten he was coming over. Later, he learned that she always wears night shirts when she sees clients.
You have your bottles and make sure you get your gallon to gallon and a half of water down a day.
That I've been doing. In fact, I may have an accident sitting here.
Well, that's OK, I'll help you up.
When my dad started seeing Doris, the thing that excited me was the fact that he seemed intimidated by her. Finally, here was someone who would stand up to him. One night, my dad called Doris for his mandatory check-in and he confessed to her that he hadn't had the chance to exercise that day. "Bullshit to that," Dorris cried. "Put on your shoes and go to the gym right now." The amazing part was that my father obeyed her. He changed his clothes and drove to the gym with my sister Josephine and me. In his first month working with Doris, even though it was the holiday season, my father lost 14 pounds.
This might be an appropriate place for me to tell you that I don't know exactly how much father weighs, and I don't want to know. What I can tell you is this: he's 5'11" and he said recently that if he lost 150 pounds he would not be excessively thin. In a way, the fact that my dad struggles with his weight is utterly ordinary. It often seems like the majority of Americans are either obese or on a diet or both. But my father's weight problem never feels ordinary to me. Instead, it feels sad and specific and incredibly complicated.
The part I feel most confused by is what my role in the situation should be. When I try to get my father to eat better, is it an act of love or is it just nagging? And if it's nagging, isn't it justified when so much is at stake? Not only does my dad face serious health risks like a heart attack or stroke, but he also has trouble with his back, gets cramps in his legs, and is easily winded. He also sleep apnea, which means that to regulate his breathing at night, he uses what looks like a beige scuba mask attached by a tube to an air machine.
All of this would be enough to make me worry, but I also am bothered by something else. When people meet my father for the first time, I'm afraid that all they see is a fat man. You know when you're on a plane and you see an obese guy heading down the aisle and you're hoping he isn't coming for the seat next to yours, and then he does stop at your row and he sits down beside you and maybe he needs to ask the flight attendant for a seat belt extension, and you're either cringing or trying not to cringe as he spills over the armrest into your space. I don't like it that the man you're having those feelings about is my father.
[SINGING IN OPERA STYLE]
Here's my dad on a typical evening at home. He's sitting at the kitchen table opening the mail while my mom cooks dinner. Even if my dad weren't big, he'd stand out. He's loud and he likes to tell jokes and stories. He genuinely loves doing things for other people. He'll invite you over for dinner if he suspects you're lonely or take soup to you when you're sick. He's a volunteer on about 15 boards, which is actually fewer than he used to be on. And he works as an investment adviser. He's incredibly busy, which is one reason he eats too much.
It's a coping mechanism. And I guess it's when somebody else would take a drink, smoke a cigarette, kick at the cat, whatever kind of not very productive and wholly irrelevant response. This is nothing that I pre-plan.
My family members deal with my dad's weight in different ways. The one person who never nags him is my mother, who is perpetually optimistic. My father appreciates this.
If I've been dieting, she'll say-- within the first three or four hours-- I think you're already beginning to look a little bit thinner. My two sisters ask about my dad's diets and exercise, but they don't push it. My brother P.G. and I are considered the confrontational ones. It especially gets under our skin when my dad kids himself about what he's eating.
You can't knock someone when they believe something's true. It's kind of like, well, OK, I'm not going to have rib roast for lunch. I'm having lobster. It came from the sea. And it's this natural food. But when you dip it in a mayonnaise sauce, it's like, I'm having lobster and half a jar of mayonnaise. And that's not so healthy anymore.
Recently, we went out for breakfast and P.G. and my dad got into it.
Here is a 55-year-old man in his own kitchen. I go to get something out of the ice box and P.G.-- what is he, 17 years old-- says, I'm going to call Curtis. He calls his 26-year-old sister in Iowa to tell her that I've been eating-- it's like I've been stealing money or snorting cocaine.
All right. Let me put this story in context. The way things went down is that this was after he'd just gotten home from dinner and he decided he wanted to have some Parmesan walnut spread. Right after dinner.
It's none of your business.
Actually, I feel like it is our business, like my father has made it our business for my whole life. I remember going to the track with my dad and my sister Tiernan when I was six or seven, to walk with him in the morning. Even then I knew two things: that the goal was for him to lose weight and that I was part of a larger family campaign to make it happen.
And where are we going for lunch?
What do you want to eat? You want to go to the Cactus Pear?
I feel like Cactus Pear might--
It might-- would you get that cheese and shrimp thing?
My dad and I are driving around doing errands when the subject of lunch comes up. In my family, the cheese and shrimp dish at Cactus Pear is somewhat legendary. And I'm not sure if I was asking my father if he would get it because it's oily and I didn't want him to, or because it tastes wonderful and I was hoping he'd share it with me. This is the major conflict I feel about my dad's weight. I hate the fact that he's so heavy and I love eating with him. In situations like this one, I try to put us on the right track. But maybe I don't try as hard as I could.
Actually, I wonder if there's a Bob Evans. There's a delicious salad I had at Bob Evans.
If it's a truly healthy salad, I'll go. But if it's a fake healthy salad with like--
It has red onions, fresh pineapple, fresh strawberries, grilled chicken, different kind of salad greens, blue cheese, did I say that?
What ended up happening was a worst case scenario. We went to an Indian buffet. You know the phrase, all you can eat? Well, my family takes it literally. Recently, I told my brother P.G. that I thought the definition of a good meal was when you had to unbutton your pants afterward. P.G. said he thought it was when your pants unbutton themselves. And this is my family's dirty little secret. For us, eating is practically a sport. We bribe each other with food, and we definitely compete over food. Here's my brother, PG.
Sometimes-- and I feel like this is where Daddy is not necessarily far and away the most guilty-- sometimes Mommy will bring over a salad dressed and there will be a lot of avocado sitting on top and blue cheese. And there'll be this sixth sense among maybe-- let's just say you, me and daddy-- of like I need to get to that salad first so I can get all of the avocado.
And when you're actually having a conversation with another family member, out of the eye in the back of your head you'll be checking out the salad bowl as another member of the family takes salad from it, to make sure they're not taking too much avocado. And if they do, you'll definitely call them on it.
When we're not consuming a meal, we're probably planning when we next will or holding a postmortem on a meal we just finished, deconstructing it course by course. Which brings us to the really tough question about my father's weight: how can our favorite activity, the thing that truly brings us together as a family, be so wrong? Sometimes I think we should just give in to what makes my father happy.
I do. I had a good day and I ate carefully all the way through. I had a little bit of turkey for lunch. I had cereal for breakfast and a banana. I had lots of water. I exercised. And I had salad for dinner.
Before bed, my dad makes his nightly call to Doris. When he first met Doris, she told him if he missed a night she'd call him first thing the next morning and wake up the whole family.
The market? You pay too much attention. Just get me thin and stop worrying. I know. We'll talk tomorrow. Take care. Bye.
So I think a good starting place might be the fact that I feel like you just totally glossed over what you ate today. Like when you said that you had a salad for dinner, it had blue cheese in it, or that it was what I would describe as generously dressed.
Well, I didn't do the dressing. Yeah, I would say it was not a particularly dietetic salad. But what I think probably-- and that's of course, part of the issue-- that I am not altogether realistic about portions. But I would guess, essentially to think about it, that I think I had less than one ounce of blue cheese. Now that's more than no blue cheese. But it's not like eating-- which I could also have done-- eight ounces of blue cheese.
Of course, I also didn't mention what I had at the reception I went to at 5 o'clock today. I hadn't thought about that. They had really quite big, delicious shrimp. And it was a fellow's retirement party, so I figured he wouldn't be retiring again probably. So I had several shrimp. But again, I didn't have any mayonnaise or anything like that, I just used cocktail sauce, which is basically ketchup and horseradish.
See, I've got a whole ability to rationalize, to deal with any-- I probably ate about 12 large shrimp. I mean, they weren't as big as your fist. But they were certainly-- they were not shrimpy shrimp. And maybe there were a few more than 12. Maybe it was 14 or 16.
My dad has been meeting with Doris for seven months now. And these days, even she's showing signs of discouragement. She must know he's not following her recommendations. And I'm guessing she knows he doesn't tell her the whole truth about what he eats. After losing and gaining several times, my father is down a total of 12 pounds, which is two pounds less than he'd lost in the first month with her. Recently, she told my father that because she attracts clients through word of mouth, the fact that he's lost so little weight makes him a bad advertisement for her services.
The situation is basically impossible because all of us want such contradictory things. My dad wants us to leave him alone and he wants to please us. My siblings and I want him to be healthy and we want him to enjoy the food he loves. At every level, our wishes conflict. No wonder he continues to pay Doris, even though she gives him advice that he doesn't take. She's a kind of inoculation against the rest of us. He can point to her and say, look I'm trying, now leave me alone. By seeing Doris, he's giving us what we want. And I think that's what he wants most of all, maybe even more than he wants to lose weight.
Our production manager, Todd Bachmann, invited me to the Alzheimer's wedding and did some of the interviews there. You know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even the New York Times all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
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I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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