Got You Pegged
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OK, as adults, it's pretty rare to have a moment where you're talking with somebody in your own country, in your own hometown, in your own language and you have no idea what is actually happening, when things become confusing, and not in that "oh, what did he mean by that" sort of way, but in an I Love Lucy, "how did I get myself into this situation" kind of confusion.
Like, for example, Amy was back home in Indiana on a break from college, and she was accompanying her brother's high school class on a trip to this health and science museum they have in South Bend called the Health Works Kids Museum. And just to give you a sense of who the characters are in this story, Amy's brother is autistic, and he is developmentally disabled.
If you had to picture Ben, I would say picture this really handsome, star-athlete looking guy, who sort of has an age of maybe five to eight years old and loves dinosaurs.
As for Amy, aside from the fact that she's very close to her brother, you can get a good sense of who she is by the conversation that she had with Ben's teacher on the bus with all the developmentally disabled kids, driving to this museum. Amy was talking to the teacher about her schoolwork, which frankly seems very, very hard. Amy was majoring in physics and studying in Germany.
In Germany, not only were the classes in German, but we were also using all of these graduate textbooks. But she was really nice, and she just listened to me the whole way over.
So they get to the museum. And after some videos and some science experiments where they blow things up, it was time to walk around the exhibits.
So during all of this, one of the things that they had been really pushing, they had these new computers that were installed. They were computers designed to walk kids through making a really neat identification card. And they were all really excited about this.
I think they must have just gone live like the day before we came, because they were all just, make sure you use our ID computers. We're so excited about this. And you get print out your ID and pick it up at the front desk.
And so when we walk out onto to the actual museum part, my brother and I walk around, and he shows me some of his favorite exhibits. And this staff member comes up to me, and he says, have you made your ID yet?
Now, for a second, it seems a little weird that he would ask one of the adults to make an ID card. But Amy figured it's new. They're excited for everybody to try this thing-- kids and adults. So her brother ambles off, and she sits down and starts answering the questions on her computer screen. And the guy doesn't go away. He keeps finding ways to help her.
Then it occurred to me, oh, well, maybe he's hitting on me a little bit.
Which would make sense, but the help that he's giving her keeps getting stranger and stranger. He's giving her instructions for things that no fully functioning adult would ever need instructions for. And Amy wonders, does he think that she is one of the developmentally disabled kids who are wandering all over the museum?
But at the same time, Amy thought it was completely obvious that she wasn't-- the way she moved, the way she expressed herself. And the guy's manner, his tone of voice, was unmistakable. He talked to her like a peer.
I mean, I almost wonder if maybe that was why I was almost paralyzed with confusion. It's really rare to meet people who don't use some kind of special voice with the mentally disabled-- this slightly higher pitched, slightly "I know you're a special person" kind of voice. So it was so strange.
And then, luckily, the very next question that comes up computer screen is one that Amy realizes can resolve all of this confusion once and for all, definitively, for the both of them.
So the question is, type in your age. OK, so I'm 21 years old at the time. So I'm thinking, I can type in 21, and he'll realize that I can't be a student. And we can just both pretend like we understood what was going on this whole time. So I type in 21. And he looks at me, and he looks at the age, and he says, oh, Amy, you know, if your age is a number that ends in teen, then that number starts with a one.
So he just assumes you've typed wrong.
Yeah. But I haven't. So at that point, I decide that instead of saying, OK, actually, I am 21 and then letting that fold out however it would have, I erase what I typed, and I type in 18.
Ah, I don't know. I mean, I thought, how many more questions could there possibly be? I've already told them everything about myself-- how much I weigh. And I thought, well, this is just going to be a couple more questions, and then it will take a photo of me, and then I'll be done. And then he'll never have to know.
He's a stranger. You're in a museum. Like, this will be over in like a minute. You can walk away. Like, who cares?
Exactly. I felt like it was the lesser of two evils at that point.
But she is not near the end of the questionnaire-- far from it. It continues for pages and pages. Then there's a set of paragraph-length questions which require actual concentration.
And fast as I can, I'm skimming these questions, trying to get through these. He starts reading them to me out loud, word for word. And I'm sort of melting into my chair, and I'm thinking, this is too much. This is way too much of a deception. I have to somehow stop him.
So I did. I said, oh, I can read. And he looks at me. He puts his hand on my back, and he says, your parents must be so proud of you.
So as you might imagine, I'm working really hard to skim through these questions quickly. I'm a blur of activity. I'm just trying to get through these questions so I can get out of this room and escape. And as I'm working through these questions as fast as I can, I see my brother's teacher walking towards me. And she says, hey, Amy, how's it going?
And you're thinking like, oh, my god, what's going to happen?
Oh, yeah. And then it happens. He points to me, and he says-- again, voice full of admiration and pride-- and he says, Amy was just telling me that she can read.
And how does the teacher take this news?
Oh, my gosh! So this teacher, who I'd been complaining to about these graduate-level classes in German, she looks at him, and she says, of course Amy can read.
And then the truth pours out. There begins a flurrying of apologizing on all sides. Amy apologizing to the guy. The guy apologizing to Amy. Both of them, she says, clutching their own hearts as they do this.
Turns out he's so careful not to talk down to developmentally disabled students because he himself had a learning disability. And so she had misread what he was doing and why he spoke the way he did. And he misread who she really was. And in this case, they both discovered the truth.
But just as often, people meet and walk away and never straighten this stuff out. They assume. They get it all wrong. And that is the subject of today's program.
From Chicago Public Radio, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show "I've Got You Pegged," stories of people assuming all kinds of things about other people, usually in error. Our show today in four acts, and it is quite a lineup. Richard Price, Chuck Klosterman, Shalom Auslander, and Nancy Updike. Stay with us.
Act One. The Fat Blue Line.
Act 1, "The Fat Blue Line." We begin today with a story about something that happens all the time in all kinds of places, something that is so common that it's not even big enough to make it on the local news. Richard Price tells the story, the novelist and screenwriter.
He often writes about cops and crime. He wrote Clockers. He wrote Sea of Love. He wrote for the TV show The Wire. He told this story on stage at The Moth in New York. He describes it as a tale taken from real life and dramatized.
In the last novel I wrote, I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side. And as is my wont, I wound up in the back of police cars a lot. And the Lower East Side is a very low-crime area right now. It used to be the worst. But Giuliani and real estate pressure took care of that. And now they basically have nothing to do down there in terms of crime.
So what they do is they sort of sit in fake taxis. Four beefy, white guys sit in a fake taxi by the side of the Williamsburg Bridge, and they eyeball what's coming over from Brooklyn. And if the car looks like a $200 [BLEEP] box or somebody's got an Afro or a ponytail, they pull in behind the car, and they wait to see if the guy's going to go all polite in his driving, like put on lane change signals. Then they know he's dirty.
And you know, so worst comes to worse, it's fishing, really. It's a big fishing hole, Delancey Street. And so I spent all night in this bogus taxi with about 850 pounds of white beef.
And it's the end of the night, they made their collars. And there are two cops up front, and I'm sitting in the back. When I arrived with these guys, I don't really comment about what they do. I don't engage them in any kind of debates. It's I'm there to bear witness and then see what I can do with it in my work.
Anyway, they were riding up Essex Street. It's kind of Miller time.
And as they're going up, they pass a black guy about 30 years old with dreads on a bicycle. And on the cross bars, he's got a white kid about 9, 10 years old. And the black guy and the white kid, they're kind of chatting. The kid's looking up at the guy. It looks like they're sort of familiar with each other. And the cops drive by, and they're dead silent.
After about a block, one guy says to the other, he says, hey, big guy, does that look fishy to you? He says, it's [BLEEP] midnight. What's going on here? They said, well, what do you want to do, big guy? So I'll tell you, big guy. All right, make the light, pull over. Let's see what's what.
So they pull over. Bike's coming up Essex. One of the cops steps in the road, puts his hand out and says, hey, how you doing? Get off the bike, please. And the black guy gets off the bike, and he goes, hey, officers You know, like it's an unexpected treat-- you know, hi! You know, what's up?
And he says, did you ever hear of helmets? Oh, yeah, gee, I'm really sorry. At which point, the other cop says to the little white kid, he says, hey, big guy, what's your name? He goes, um, Noah Rosenberg? You know, like he's not sure.
He says, hey, Noah, come here, buddy. Come on over here. And he separates the two. And I'm sort of hopping in between the two conversations at this point. And the black guy tries to follow the white kid, and the other cop puts his hand on his chest. And he says, no, you stay over here. Let me see some ID.
He says, what? He says, some ID. Don't look at him. Look at me. He said, no, I was just picking him up from a play date. Did I ask you that? No. No, you don't understand. I work the bar at Schiller's.
Again, did I ask you that? Well, no. He said, why are you trying to divert me? Go down the same road as me. He goes, OK, OK. And he gives him the ID, at which point, he sort of waves to the kid, and he goes, oh, what did I just say to you?
He says, no, no, I'm really sorry. It's Noah. He's kind of wound a little tight. And he says, oh, really? Have a seat, and he points to the curb. He makes the guy sit on the curb with his feet in the gutter.
And he says, so where were you going? He says, well, I had the late shift. And he says, it's kind of late to be driving around with a kid on a bike, isn't it?
At which point, I leave those two, and I go over to Noah and the other cop. And he says, so your name's Noah, huh? And the kid says, yes, and for the millionth time, I don't have an ark.
And the cop says, boy, you must get that a lot. The kid says, oh, my god, you have no idea.
And he says, so Noah, how old are you? He says, well, next week I'll be a decade old. He said, well, that's great, great. And where do you live? He says, 333 Avenue B. He says, and you go to school around here? He says, yes, I go to the Earth School. And he says, oh, cool. And who do you live with? He says, I live with my mom. And he goes, who's that over there?
He says, well, I don't know who your friend is, but my friend is Cleve. And he says, oh, do you know what Cleve's last name is? He says, yeah, Carter-- Cleve Carter. Sometimes I call him Coca-Cola. Sometimes I call him Carbon Copy.
He says, oh. Do you know him for long? I said, well, yeah, like one, one and a quarter years. He's kind of like my godfather since my other godfather died. Oh.
And what do you guys do? Well, he was taking home from a play date to my mom's. He says, so he knows your mom? And he says, well, yeah, he and my mom are kind of like friends. And he says, well, "kind of like?" He said, well, they have like sleepover dates.
And he says, so your mom knows that you're with him now? He says, well, my mom sent him to pick me up. My dad lives in Woodstock. He says, OK.
At which point, I'm going, OK, let's see what's happening with Cleve. I walk over there. Cleve's sitting. He's sitting on the curb, and he's got his feet out there. And he's trying to make it look like it's natural. So he's like massaging his deep thigh muscles, like he's limbering up for the marathon or something. You know, this is as humiliating as [BLEEP].
And he's kind of smiling, because you can't win. You've got to like play through. And he's sitting there, and the other cop is hitting his driver's license with a mag light, one of those big, powerful flashlights. And he goes, so Cleveland, I see you're from Ohio.
And he says, yeah. He says, Cleveland from Ohio. He says, well, actually it's from Oxford. And the guy goes, oh, Miami College. And he goes, yeah, that's where I went. And the cop goes, oh, Wally Szczerbiak, who's this big basketball player. And he goes, well, yeah. Wally was a little before my time. He said, oh, did you play ball for them too? He said, well, not basketball. I played soccer. He said, oh, that's amazing because I teach soccer. I coach soccer out on the Island, you know, the kids league. And he says, you know, it's amazing. I keep waiting for that sport to blow up, but I don't think it's-- and Cleveland's going, yeah, yeah, that's amazing.
He's sitting like this. At which point, a Mustang comes by with two black guys in it, up Essex. And the guy in the shotgun seat looks out the window, and he sees Cleveland sitting on the curb. And he starts yelling out, homeboy to base! Homeboy to base! We got a black man down! I repeat-- a black man down!
And he's like laughing his ass off, and the Mustang floors it. You know, Cleveland's kind of squinting, and he's just kind of looking the other way. He's just like mortified, you know?
And then hopping back to the other cop with the kid, he says, so, Noah, does Cleveland live with you? He goes, no, Cleveland lives at 444 Avenue D. We live at 332 Ave B. He says, well, you ever been over to his house? He says, only about a million times.
And he says, mostly with your mom, I guess, huh? He says, and by myself. He said, oh, really? What do you do there? He says, well, sometimes we walk his dog. It's a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Mars. And one time he tried to teach me how to make scrambled eggs, but I don't really like his oven because you light pilot match and it goes, fwoosh, and it scares me.
And he says, one time, my mom had to go to court in Woodstock, and I stayed with Cleveland for three days. And he said, in court, huh? He said, three days? He said, yeah. He said, but mostly I'd say 82 and 1/2% of the time we watch television.
You and Cleveland? He said, yeah, me and Cleve. And the cop said to him, do you ever do anything else with him? And he goes, what? What do you mean? He goes, do you do anything else with him? And all of a sudden, the kid's eyes get really big and kind of wet, like steel, and the kid starts kind of like breathing kind of heavy. And the cop starts shaking a little bit, and the cop says to him, he says, hey, Noah, look at this. And he pulls his jacket back, and he shows him his detective shield on his belt.
He says, you know what that is? The kid says, yeah, it's a police badge. He says, you know what this means? He says, what? He says, that means you can tell me anything you want, and you'll be perfectly safe. Do you understand that?
And the kid looks at him and goes, oh, my god, are you going to arrest him? And the cop, his heart's pumping Kool-Aid, and he's starts moving over, and he says, why? And the kid goes, if you [BLEEP]-holes arrest him again one more time just because he's black and I'm not, I'm going to kill myself.
You came into my apartment and dragged him out because the crazy lady next door said he was a rapist. You put him in handcuffs when he came to pick me up at school. You pulled him away from me at the street fair and made me wait for my mom. I swear to god, I'm going to lose my mind. And the cops go, whoa, easy, easy, easy.
At which point, both cops are looking at each other like, well, what's going on? And all of sudden, Cleveland sees the kid's losing it, and he goes, hey, Noah, buddy. And the cop goes, what did I just say to you? Stop talking to the kid.
At which point, Cleveland says, Officer, do you want to put this to rest? I tell you what. I'm reaching for my cell phone in here. He says, why don't you call the kid's mom and just see what's going on.
He says, I'll call the kids mom. He says, what's her name? He goes, Idina And he calls across to the other cop, get the kid's mother's name. And the kid, through sobs, is going to Idina.
And Cleveland gives the cop the mother's number. The cop calls, and he says, hey, how you doing? This is Sergeant Daley from the 7th Precinct. Who am I speaking to? And she goes, oh, my god, Idina Rosenberg. What happened?
Here goes, no, nothing happened. I just need to know, do you know where your son is right now? At which point she freaks. And she goes, where is he? What happened? He's supposed to be with Cleveland! He's supposed to be taking him home from a play date! What happened? What happened? What happened?
Well, no, no, no, he's fine. OK, at which point, the kid goes, my mom says if I get any more nervous, I'm going to live with my father in Woodstock, you [BLEEP].
And the cop's going, no, no, no. The kid's great. The kid's fine. The only thing is they were riding without helmets, you know? And it's a serious safety violation.
And she's going, oh, my god. Oh, Jesus. He says, no, no, OK, don't worry about it. All right. Good night. Have a good night. And he hangs up. At which point, they bring Cleveland and Noah together again, and they give them this half-assed lecture on bicycle safety. And he says, you know, I'm supposed to write you up. But I'm going to give you a pass this time.
And Cleveland's still kind of smiling, but the smile doesn't go past here. It never reaches his eyes. And he gets back on the bike. And the kid gets on the handlebars. And the kids going through that post-crying jag, shudder withdrawal. And Cleveland's kind of talking him down, as he sort of pushes off, and they go disappear up Essex.
And we get back in a police car. And I'm sitting in the back. I'm not saying a [BLEEP] thing. And they go in dead silence for about two blocks. And one cop finally says to the other, he says, you know something, big guy? And the other guy says, what's that, big guy? He says, still feels fishy to me.
And the other cop says, hey, we gave it a shot, man. That's all we can do. Thank you.
Richard Price. His latest novel is called The Whites, written under the name Harry Brandt. He was recorded The Moth, which is a free podcast with all kinds of stories like the one you just heard, there at themoth.org.
Act Two. Stereotypes Uber Alles.
We all hate stereotypes. Stereotypes are killing us, and they are killing our children. And they are putting LSD into the water supply.
That is writer Chuck Klosterman. And this is Act 2 of our show.
Stereotypes like rogue elephants with AIDS that have been set on fire by terrorists, except worse. We all hate stereotypes. Seriously, we hate them, except that we don't. We adore stereotypes, and we desperately need them to define who we are or who we are not.
People need to be able to say things like, all stereotypes are based on ignorance, because expressing such a sentiment makes them enlightened, open-minded, and incredibly unpleasant. Meanwhile, their adversaries need the ability to say such things as, like it or not, all stereotypes are ultimately based in some sort of reality, because that kind of semi-logic can justify their feelings about virtually anything. And here's what I suspect is the truth-- neither side is correct.
Stereotypes are not based on fact, and they are not really based on fiction. Whenever a given stereotype seems right or wrong, it's inevitably a coincidence. The world is a prejudiced place, but it's prejudiced for the weirdest, least-meaningful reasons imaginable.
A few years ago, I toured six German cities over a span of nine days. I was primarily struck by two points. A, the citizens of Germany are friendly and nervous. And B, the citizens of Germany perceive Americans to be obese, puritanical, nonsmoking imbeciles. Their opinion of the United States is mind-blowingly low, even when compared with how the US is viewed by France.
Now, I can see that my reason for viewing Germans as friendly is completely unsophisticated. I believe Germans are nice because they were nice to me, which is kind of like trying to be a meteorologist by looking out a window. But at least from what I could gather, the reason German citizens assume Americans are barbaric and vapid is almost as unreasonable, even though they're usually half right.
During a weekend in Frankfurt, I went to an exhibit at Schirn Kunsthalle Art Museum called "I Like America." This title, as one might expect, was meant to be ironic. It's taken from a 1974 conceptual art piece called "I Like America, and America Likes Me," in which German artist Joseph Beuys flew to New York and spent three days in a room with a live coyote and 50 copies of The Wall Street Journal. This piece was a European response to the destruction of Native American culture, which made about as much sense to me as it did to the coyote.
The bulk of "I Like America" focused on German interest in 19th century American culture, specifically the depictions of Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and the artistic portrayal of Indians as noble savages. But it was curious to read the descriptions of what these paintings and photographs were supposed to signify. Almost all of them were alleged to illustrate some tragic flaw with American ideology. And it slowly dawned on me that the creators of "I Like America" had made one critical error.
While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi, I can't think of any modern American who gives a [BLEEP] about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are want to criticize war-hawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne. But no one really believes the movie Hondo affects policy. It's just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand.
But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that's a specious relationship, even during moments when it almost makes sense. As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do.
A sardonic German teenager told me what she thought the phrase "the American dream" meant. I assume it means watching Baywatch 24 hours a day, she said. She was sort of joking. But I've heard similar sentiments in every foreign country I've ever visited. There is a widespread belief that Americans spend most of their lives watching Baywatch reruns and TMZ.
But what's interesting about this girl's insight was her reasoning. She thinks Americans love Baywatch because Joey Tribbiani on Friends loves Baywatch. And this does not mean she viewed Friends as an accurate reflection of life, nor does it suggest that she saw Matt LeBlanc as a tragic spokesman for the American working class. This was just one random detail she remembered about an American TV show she barely watched. She didn't care about this detail and neither do we.
As I rode the train from Munich to Dresden to Hamburg, I started jotting down any random details I noticed that could prompt me to project larger truths about Germany. An abbreviated version is as follows. One, no matter how much they drink, nobody here acts drunk. Two, late-night German TV broadcasts an inordinate amount of Caucasian boxing.
Three, heavy metal is still huge in this country. As proof, there was astonishingly high interest in the most recent Paul Stanley solo record. Four, when addressing customers, waiters and waitresses sometimes hold their hands behind their backs, military style.
I suppose I could use these details to extrapolate various ideas about life in Germany. I suppose I could create allegorical value for many of these factoids, and some of my conclusions might prove true. But I am choosing not to do this because now I can't help but recognize all the things people do that A, have no real significance yet B, define how outsiders see them.
When I returned from my tour, many people asked me what Germany was like. I said, I have no idea. But weren't you just there, they inevitably asked. Yes, I told them. I was just there. And I don't know what it's like at all.
Chuck Klosterman. A version of this first appeared in Esquire magazine. He's the author of many fine books. His newest is But What if We're Wrong?
Act Three. Yes, No or Baby.
Anyone who's not a megalomaniac feels daunted by the prospect of having to separate a group of strangers into a yes pile and a no pile. Kim Schwary is seven months pregnant, and she's facing, on her coffee table in Seattle, dozens of one-page letters from couples who want to adopt her baby. Individually, each letter seems like not enough information, and collectively, they are way, way too much. The first time she read through them, they melted into an indistinguishable mass of thoughtful, intelligent, fun-loving, mutually-supportive, healthy, active, outdoorsy couples.
A lot of the hobbies are similar, just hiking. Couples from the Northwest, too, I'm sure that's common, so. Like even just this page, hiking, snowshoeing, camping.
And if you turn to the next page, is there also a hiking part?
Let's see. Probably. Oh, yes, hiking, there you go. [LAUGHING]
Kim's doing an open adoption, which means that she will have a relationship with the family who adopts her child for the rest of her life. The cover letters are just the beginning of a long, long process. The whole thing is sort of super high-stakes online dating. Judging people is required. Kim goes back and forth between practical considerations and pure gut checks.
Here's something. This couple has another child. They're talking-- I don't know. They use kind of like child talk when they're talking about him. Like it says something about kissing his boo-boos or something. And that kind of-- I don't know. I don't like that very much.
Kim ends up liking a different couple that already has a little boy. She likes the idea that her baby would have a sibling. She weeds out a family that seems to her too religious. And later she frowns on a couple who both have high-powered jobs that they write about at length. She wonders if they'd be home enough for the baby.
These guys, I could see them working 50, 60 hours a week because of their careers.
A few pages later, Kim makes a face when a couple says they're "relational" people.
I'm wondering exactly what that meant. Like there's this whole packet of information, and then I'll focus on this sentence that maybe I don't like. And that makes me feel like I'm really kind of judgemental when I do this. And sometimes that doesn't always feel good.
See, and this is something really small, but for some reason-- it says, "the opportunity to have a relationship with the child's biological heritage is very important, including medical history." That feels kind of weird to me.
It's a little clinical.
Right, it is a little clinical. I want to be more than medical records, so--
So that kind of put you off right there?
Yeah. It goes back to that judgemental thing, because, I mean, I've written things, and maybe that's not how they meant to portray themselves. But it does, like you said, sound very clinical, and yeah.
Just like Kim's having to quickly peg these families, extrapolating all sorts of important things from just words on a page and a few pictures, she's finding that, as a single woman, pregnant, people are making all kinds of assumptions about her. Coworkers assume she's married and starting a family. Those are awkward conversations. And if she tells someone what's really going on, that she's putting the baby up for adoption, she'd better be prepared for a lecture.
I mean, you're really kind of vulnerable when you're pregnant. You're vulnerable to judgment, I guess. People are very prone to, once you say what you're doing, they tell you what they would do and not do. And they want to be like, oh, I think you're going to be really upset, and I think this. And I'm like, no, I think maybe you're the one who's upset, not me.
She says some people are utterly convinced that adoption is just a bad idea all around, which Kim takes personally, since she was adopted. It's one of the reasons she didn't want to get an abortion.
People feel that if you're adopted that you have this great sense of loss, or you just don't know who you are, and there's an identity crisis, and you feel abandoned. And that's not how I felt with my experience.
Being adopted, exactly. I felt very loved by my parents. The baby's father told me that he thought that-- I don't know why he said this. But he said that, or he kind of assumed and said this, that he was so much closer to his parents than I was to mine, which isn't true at all. And it's, just, that's how he felt things must be.
I waited till just about the end of my interview with Kim to confess that I'd had her pegged all wrong before I spoke to her. I thought she'd be a teenager, confused. But Kim is 27, has her own apartment, a good job.
Right, I'm in a situation where it would be very feasible that I would raise the child on my own. So it's probably harder to understand.
OK, so people are making that judgment about you. What don't they know about you that would make them understand?
I don't know. I kind of have these unusual kind of circumstances that I was engaged, and my fiance passed away. And after that, I kind of think I was lonely and looking for someone. And I feel like I made a mistake, you know? And I still miss my fiance and think about him all the time, and I just I don't feel like I'm emotionally ready to raise a child. I feel like I could, but I just feel like it's not the right time. And you know--
Especially if it's something that you guys talked about doing together, and here you are.
Right, exactly. I mean, we were always going to have kids together. And here I am being all single and pregnant with some guy, who is just a kind of insignificant fellow. And certainly things aren't going in the way that they were supposed to or as planned. Right.
Kim doesn't go into her reasons with most people, so they make assumptions about her that she doesn't bother to correct, and she flips through dozens of letters from couples and makes assumptions about them that they'll never get a chance to respond to. It's the way of the world. Everyone's a judge, and everyone's the accused. And every day, things aren't going the way they were supposed to or as planned.
Nancy Updike. Coming up, proof that some people simply should not go on vacation. They can't hack it. They cannot handle the mellow. That is in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.
Act Four. Paradise Lost.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Got You Pegged," stories of people making grand assumptions about other people-- sometimes correct, sometimes deeply incorrect. We've arrived at Act 4 of our show. Act 4, "Paradise Lost." Shalom Auslander has our story.
ruin vacations. That's just what I do. In Greece, I was sure the hotel had stuck us with the worst room in the building, even though every room was identical. I know that because we switched three times the day we got there. We switched again the morning after and went home two days early.
A year later, I spent four days in a Jamaican rainforest complaining about the weather. We're in a rainforest, my wife said. So? So it rains. We went home two days early.
And so last year when my wife informed me that she had booked us a six-day vacation in Anguilla, a remote island in the British West Indies, I decided that this time would be different. It was our first trip in a while, and I'd been doing a lot of work on myself. With the money I'd spent on therapy, I could have bought the whole damn island of Anguilla. So I was anxious to see how far I'd come. The resort was far more expensive than we could afford.
I suspected that my wife was hoping that an exclusive resort would minimize the number of disappointments that could inevitably set me off. There was no need for her to worry. This time would be different. This time I would be different.
The resort we flew to sits tucked away on the eastern end of an utterly pristine inlet of blue-green water on the southern tip of the island. The bellman brought our bags into our room, warned us not to feed the iguanas, wished us a happy stay, and left. My son started jumping on the bed. My wife joined him, and I pulled open the wooden louvered patio doors that led out to the beach.
Wow, I said, as I stepped out onto the patio. For once, the view looked exactly as it had on the website. Pelicans circled above the calm, still waters. The owner's golden retrievers slept peacefully in the shade beneath a gentle spreading palm.
My wife came up behind me and put her arms around my waist. It's Eden, she said. Paradise, I answered. Not a cloud in the sky, she said. Not a single cloud, I said. And then she went inside.
When I came in, she already had her beach bag packed and was pulling a t-shirt over our son's head. We're going to the beach, she said. You coming? I'll come down after I unpack, I said. They hurried out the door, dropped a cracker for the iguana waiting in the shade at the bottom of the steps, and headed down to the beach.
I quickly put away our clothing, grabbed the room key, and locked the patio door as I closed it behind me. Hello, said the old man. He was standing at the foot of our patio holding on to the rail for support. Oh, hello, I said.
His name was Marvin, and he'd been coming to the resort for 25 years. Oh, 25 years, at least, he said, maybe more-- such a long time ago. Let's see, I'm 81 now. Yeah, the first time I came here was in, oh, let's see, 1980, I believe. Really? I said, backing my way towards the beach.
Here's the thing about people-- I don't really like them. That's why I find racism so curious. There are so many reasons to dislike people. You're going to go with color? So I avoid the people whenever possible, try to keep my distance. It's really better for everyone.
Could've been 1982, Marvin continued, or maybe even 1978, now that I think about it. No, no, it was 1980. I remember because I was arguing with my wife about Reagan. Hoo, boy, did she hate him. Uh-huh, I said. I looked toward the beach and could see my wife and son running down to the water with his pail and shovel. Well, I, uh, better go. Family's waiting for me and all.
She's dead now, he said. He gently cleared his throat and looked to the ground. Damn it, I thought. I'm sorry, I said. She was a good woman, he said. I nodded. I'm sure, I said. The hotel was very different back then, of course, Marvin continued, very, very different.
The restaurant wasn't where it is now, no, sir. That building wasn't even built until 1990 or so-- maybe '92 even. A fellow named Jeremiah built it with his own two hands, by gosh. Nobody builds like that anymore.
As Marvin rambled on, I began to wonder, was there any way I could switch rooms without upsetting my wife? But I stopped myself, pulled myself together. Not this time, I thought. We are having a pleasant vacation.
Is that your wife? Marvin asked. Yeah, I said, waiting for me. She's beautiful, said Marvin. Yeah, I said, well, I better skedaddle. My wife was beautiful too. Uh-huh, I said with a wave. Well, I'll see you later. Marvin waved back, walked up the steps of the villa directly adjoining ours, took out his key, and walked inside. The door closed, and the expectorating began.
[HACKING AND SPITTING]
Damn it, I thought.
The trip had exhausted our son, so we had an early dinner and went for a short sunset stroll on the beach. Thanks, said my wife, putting her arm through mine. For what? I asked. For being so good about things.
I smiled and squeezed her arm. Our son ran through the gentle surf and shrieked with joy. Soon he grew tired, climbed into my wife's arms, and we reluctantly climbed the patio steps back to the room.
Good night, said Marvin. He was sitting on his patio next door. Goodnight, whispered my wife. Where in New York you from? asked Marvin. Upstate, she whispered as she carried our exhausted son into the room.
I spent a lot of time there, said Marvin. Hudson Valley I think it was, might have been the Catskills. Yeah, I think it was the Catskills. My wife and I used to take our kids up there when they were younger. OK, I whispered.
We don't talk much anymore. My kids, I mean, not my wife. She's dead. Sure, I whispered. Well, goodnight. I closed the door behind me and locked it. Jesus Christ, I said. You OK? asked my wife. I'm fine, I said with a smile.
We put our son to bed, crept quietly out the back door, and lay down together on a lounge chair underneath the stars. I love you, said my wife. I love you, too, I answered.
Came the sound from next door.
We lay there a while longer, holding hands in the cool tropical night breeze, watching the shimmering lights of long-dead stars, and pretending we weren't listening to an old man drowning in his own phlegm.
I awoke the following morning in a dark mood. I didn't want my wife to see it, so I crept out of bed, quietly dressed, and went for a walk. I made my way to the open-air restaurant that overlooked the sea and sat down for an early breakfast.
OK, I thought. So there's an old man next door. Was that worth ruining our whole vacation? I'd worked too long and too hard on myself to be derailed by this.
I decided to view Marvin as some sort of a test. Maybe it was God's test. Maybe it was just fate. But I was stronger than Marvin. I was stronger than 1,000 Marvins. He would not defeat me. I finished my breakfast and walked back to the room.
Good morning, said Marvin. He was sitting at his patio table finishing his breakfast. Good morning, I said. A lovely day, isn't it? Oh, it is, he said. Mornings like this, my wife and I used to get up early and go for a long swim. That sounds nice, I said. She's dead now, he said. Hey, I said, who isn't? That's true, said Martin. I looked out over the beach and smiled. Check and mate, Marv. I was unflappable.
Auschwitz, said Marvin. I turned around, sorry? My wife, she died in Auschwitz. We were quite young, only married a few years. Auschwitz, I said. Marvin nodded. We were sent to Dachau at first. But after a few weeks, they sent us to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz? I said. Sure, my mother too. She was sent to Bergen-Belsen, but that's not where she died. She died in Auschwitz with my father, probably had pneumonia. That's what I heard. My father was shot. The Nazis shot him. I know this from some people in Miami who knew him in the camps-- Ethel, Morris Goldstein. They died a while ago.
I should have been compassionate, I know. I should have taken a pad and pen and committed history to paper for future generations. But I didn't. Instead I seethed. 20 minutes of genocide stories later, I went into our villa, closed the door sharply behind me, and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips.
What? Asked my wife. I threw my hand into the air. Auschwitz, I said. Pardon? Auschwitz. What are you talking about? she asked. Au-freaking-schwitz-- he's a survivor, hon, a Holocaust survivor.
I don't have anything against Holocaust survivors. Some of my best friends are Holocaust survivors. OK, that's not actually true. But I don't have anything against them. But if I want to relax and forget about life for a while, maybe hit a bar and have a drink, I'm not going to call Elie Wiesel. Hey, Elie, how's it going? I had a tough day. Why don't you come over, and we'll watch Schindler's List? Bring beer.
A Holocaust survivor, I said, pacing back and forth across the room. The place is half empty, and the guy next door is a Holocaust survivor. I think I've been pretty good about this. I didn't let the travel upset me. I didn't let the hacking next door all night long get to me. But this is too much. It's too much. I'm standing in paradise talking about gas chambers.
My wife was sympathetic, but she'd seen this before and insisted I was blowing it out of proportion, as usual, she said. And I said, what's that supposed to mean? And she said, you know what that means. And I said, no, I don't. And less than 24 hours after our plane touched down in Eden, we were fighting.
It's your decision, she said to me, as she gathered her beach things together. He's not ruining our vacation. You are. No, I'm not! I shouted. Goebbels is! Blame Goebbels! She walked out and stomped down the patio steps.
My son began to cry. A dozen iguanas sat on the deck. Two of them ran inside and hid under the bed. Damn it, I thought.
I spent the next few hours avoiding my wife, hoping that a little time would settle things down between us. I took my son and walked over to the front office. Did you feed them? the man asked. We told you not to feed them. They're in our room, I said. They're under our bed.
I heard laughter coming from the lobby and poked my head around the corner. Marvin was sitting in a wicker chair, surrounded by half a dozen adoring hotel employees. A waiter from the bar brought him a rum punch. Let me pay you, said Marvin. No, no, Mr. Marvin, said the waiter, no, no.
If there's anything worse than hating someone, it's discovering that everyone else loves them. Oh, Mr. Marvin, an attractive female chambermaid cried. He's terrible! The man at the front desk smiled in Marvin's direction. What a sweet man, he said, and then shook his head. And what he's been through.
At dinner that evening, Marvin sat at the resort owner's table. My wife and I sat nearby, barely talking. Marvin told funny stories, and everyone laughed. Marvin told sad stories, about the Holocaust, I guessed, judging by the horror on the face of his dinner companions, and everyone hugged him. And when the bill came and Marvin reached for it, again, they refused to let him pay. That was when I decided, with absolute certainty, that the son-of-a-bitch was faking it.
Holocaust survivor, my ass, I thought. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. I've known Holocaust survivors, OK? And they don't go on and on about it. Elie Wiesel doesn't go on about it. Marvin was no Holocaust survivor. He was just an old chatterbox looking for a meal ticket.
There's no such thing as a free lunch, until you tell everyone sitting next to you at lunch about your stay in Bergen-Belsen. Marvin was faking I was sure of it, and I was equally sure that if I could just prove that to my wife, all would be forgiven. And I knew just how to do it.
We came back from dinner, and I put my son into his pajamas and read him some stories. My wife sang him some songs and put him to bed. And after that she put on her shoes and said she needed to take a walk. Fine, I said. Good, she answered. Great, I said. Whatever, she replied.
I went outside, sat down on the patio steps, and watched the ocean, hoping it would calm me down. Suddenly I heard a groan coming from Marvin's patio. I stood up, peaked over the fence that separated our two patios, and saw him asleep on one of his lounge chairs. This was my chance. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, went over to his patio, and crept up the stairs.
He rustled, and I froze. After a few seconds, I tiptoed over to where he was sleeping. His left arm was propped behind his head, but his right arm was stretched out along the arm of the chair. Bingo. I made my way back to our room and waited anxiously for my wife to return. A few minutes later, the front door opened. Well, well, well, I said, as she came into the room. Well, well, what? she asked.
Well, well, well, I guess Mr. Auschwitz isn't such a survivor after all. What are you talking about? She asked. I held my arm out and pointed to my forearm. No numbers, I said with a smile. At last I'd gotten a clean look at his forearm and no numbers. What? asked my wife. No numbers. If he was in the Holocaust, where are the numbers?
Her face dropped. What did you do? She asked. What? What did you do? I didn't do anything. Did you ask him to show you his numbers? Bloody hell, Shal, did you ask him to show you his numbers? I didn't ask him to show me his numbers! I said. He was sleeping.
She pressed her fingertips against her eyes and shook her head. And why exactly would he lie about being in the Holocaust? Why? I asked. Free stuff. They pay for all his meals. They probably pay for his room. He's faking it. This is ludicrous. Why would he pick the Holocaust? What's he going to say, Bataan Death march? It was a hike. Get over it. You want free stuff, you go with Holocaust.
Which arm? she asked. What? Which arm did you check? I paused. The right one, I said. She looked at me. They tattooed the left? She nodded. And they didn't tattoo everyone. How do you know? My neighbors were survivors, she said, both neighbors. None of them had numbers. She kicked her shoes off and headed for the bathroom. This isn't about Marvin, she said. This isn't about numbers or concentration camps. This is about you.
All that night and into the next morning I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed imagining that I proved to everyone what a fraud Marvin was. I pictured finding a photo of him circa 1940, somewhere in Miami. I pictured calling the Holocaust Museum in DC. Marvin? They would say. We have no record of a Marvin. I pictured confronting him at dinner, catching him out on some esoteric German historical fact. Wrong! Himmler didn't take over the Gestapo until 1934! Ha!
But mostly, I just felt awful. A full third of our first family vacation was over, and we'd spent most of it fighting. I was sure our son sensed it, sure that he would hold it against me, sure I was wrong, but sure I was right. At the first sign of daybreak, I got out of bed and went down to the beach. I walked south along the entire length of the shore before turning around and heading back.
As I grew closer to the beach across from our villa, I saw something dark and heavy in the shallow water. I thought it was a log or a mass of seaweed. But then I saw it was moving. It was kicking. It was a person. And as I grew closer still, I realized it was Marvin.
It was Marvin, and he was struggling to get to shore. I hate to admit it, but even as I ran to help him, I was pissed off. It was bad enough I had to put up with this pain in the ass. Now I had to save him?
I grabbed Marvin around his chest, lifting and pulling as I swung his arm across my shoulder. He was coughing, spluttering, trying to catch his breath. I'm all right. I'm all right. I helped him onto the beach. I was breathing heavily. That, I said, was the most pathetic cry for attention I have ever seen.
Marvin laughed and took a moment to catch his breath. My wife, he said. Yeah, I said, Auschwitz. He shook his head. Second wife, he said. We came here together for 25 years. We used to get up for early morning swims. As I got older, it got harder for me to get back to the shore, undertow and all. She would stand at the edge and wait for me to come back.
She sounds great, I said. She was, said Marvin. I shook my head. Such a shame she wasted all those years with you. Marvin laughed again.
We have the same sense of humor, he said. We should spend more time together. I stood up, wiped the sand from my legs and hands, and uttered the most honest thing I'd said to Marvin since I met him, that sounds awful.
Marvin smiled, and we walked back to our rooms. And after that moment, he never bothered me again. I'd wasted three days trying to be polite to someone I couldn't stand and nearly ruined another vacation.
But by finally being the ass I really am, I'd saved it. I was cordial enough. Marvin waved when I saw him in the TV room, telling Holocaust stories to the young couple who checked in that evening, and I waved back.
He nodded when I saw him at breakfast the following morning, telling a pair of young waitresses about mass graves in Sobibor. And I nodded back. And then we finished our breakfast, and my wife took my hand in hers, and she smiled at me, and I smiled at her. And together we walked arm-in-arm to watch the sun still rising over the unspoiled beach below.
Shalom Auslander, he's the author most recently of the novel Hope-- a Tragedy and creator of the Showtime series Happyish.
Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show, Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Ira Smith, music help from Jessica Hopper.
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. He joins me right now in the studio today.
Torey, get a little closer to the microphone, OK? Hey, are feeling OK?
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.