Hit the Road
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Full audio: http://tal.fm/494
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. And I could say a lot of things right now to explain what we're doing on the program today. But honestly, I think everything you need to know can be explained with this phone call.
Hey, Bill here.
Hey. I had a fellow-- he was walking across the country like a dummy. And it's cold weather. And I was going to put him up at the barbecue shed. But I got to thinking about it. And it was warm out here in my shop. So I just brought him on down to my shop.
He looked like a clean cut guy. And I didn't want no bum staying here. But I believe he'll be all right. Huh?
He just walking across the country. He said he's going to-- where you going to wind up at?
New Orleans and then California.
He's going to walk from New Orleans. And then he's going on to California. And he just bumming around. Look like his pants are pretty clean. Now, where'd you come from?
He come from Philadelphia. Got to [INAUDIBLE] this morning and walked to right here.
You don't know his name?
Yeah. What's your name?
Andrew Forsthoefel. Now ain't that a name? Andrew Forsthoefel. Yeah, you ever heard of that? Forsthoefel? Now that's a crazy name, ain't it?
That's different. We ain't got nobody around here that name, have we? I frisked him down. He ain't got no gun on him or no pistol. Huh?
I don't know why he's doing it. He's just crazy, I think.
So to hear Andrew Forsthoefel tell it, last year he found himself walking across America by accident. He took a job when he got out of college. Three months in, he got fired. Wasn't sure what to do next.
And he just figured he'd start walking. He didn't have much money, didn't have a plan. He walked out of his back door near Philadelphia down to New Orleans. And then he figured he would just see if he felt like going further. And he did, all the way to the Pacific. He walked 4,000 miles.
Today on our program, we have three stories of people hitting the road. And they're full of hope. And they're not sure what to expect. And they're launching themselves into the future.
And I will tell you truthfully, I am not so keen on this kind of story. On the radio, I think, this kind of story usually sucks, because where is the surprise?
What is there to say about the thrill of the open highway that isn't already in the lyrics to "Thunder Road," or in Jack Kerouac, or in every road trip movie ever made from Easy Rider to National Lampoon's Vacation.
Andrew did the thing that shouldn't work at all as a radio story. He started walking across America, didn't know exactly why he wanted to do it. But he did have a mission, sort of. He was 23. And he had a vague kind of sense that he was going to ask people what advice they would give their 23-year-old selves? And that's pretty good, actually.
He took a recorder with him just in case, and ended up recording 85 hours of stuff. When he got done, he got help from this website that exists to encourage people to make their own audio stories. It's called transom.org.
That's where to go, by the way, if you're ever thinking of making a radio story yourself. The guy who runs the site, Jay Allison, helped Andrew shape his 85 hours of audio into a story.
Some friends wrote and played original music. That's the music you're going to hear throughout. And what I like about it is you actually get a sense of what it would be like to walk across America. We had a story on our show a couple months ago about a guy who tried this and lasted only three days. That's actually what made the story interesting is that he quit so fast.
But Andrew did the whole thing, walked the whole country. His rule on the trip was no rides. He'd walk.
Act One. The Slowest Distance Between Two Points.
OK, so October 14, 2011, having my last breakfast at home. I feel my chest right now just racing. How do you feel, Mom?
I'm mad at you. I feel like I'm being blown open again, like when you were born. So something big is happening. You're taking risks.
No, I feel that.
And it's something-- and we-- you know. Oh, man. You're working me hard.
I walked out my back door that day with a 50 pound backpack, a mandolin, and a sign that said, walking to listen. I was on the train tracks. And about a half mile from my house, a car pulled off on the side of the road nearby. It was Bob, our landlord. I couldn't believe the coincidence.
It's not a coincidence, he said. Your mom's a wreck back at the house. You don't have to do this.
When I told him I was going to keep walking, he pulled a big knife out of his pocket and gave it to me. Don't trust anybody, he said.
Seven miles later, I saw some guys on the train tracks up ahead. There was no one else in sight, not even in shouting distance. I felt Bob's knife in my pocket.
They were four Latino men. And when I got to them, they looked me up and down and asked what I was doing. I told them I was walking across America, which sounded ridiculous because I'd been walking for about two hours. But they gave me apple juice and cookies. And when I played a song for them on the mandolin, they gave me some vodka, too.
Well, Martin, new friends.
Yeah, new friends.
Out of nowhere, it started raining on us. And the one named Martin said I could come with them to escape the storm. I thought, what the hell. Why not? I'm walking across America.
I followed them into the woods. And their camp was behind a shopping center I'd been to a lot. We waited out the rain in the shacks they had built there.
When it cleared up, the men gave me some home grown chilies and cactus fruit. Martin shook my hand. God bless you, he said, and be careful. Sleep with a knife by your side.
I am in Rising Sun, Maryland. Day two. My legs, my hips feel as if they have some sort of hot iron in them. I've got ungodly blisters on both heels now.
I was on the highway, the only person in sight who was not in a car. But it was just-- you know. I was in a place where it felt like no one else was. Oh, wow. What am I doing? What am I doing?
If you could go back and, taking all of what you've learned in your life, tell your 23-year-old self something, what might you say? What might be one of--
Yeah, I wouldn't worry so much. I used to worry myself to death. And then now I realize the things you worry about, how many of them come true? Very seldom.
I'd go barefoot more. I wouldn't be nice. I wouldn't be the nice little Southern girl. I'd be a bitch.
I wasn't passive aggressive. I was just passive.
All right, you all want to do [INAUDIBLE]?
Yeah, sounds good.
When you're walking across the country, you get a lot of questions. Where do you sleep? And what do you eat? How much money do you have? What are you carrying? Are you taking rides or walking the whole way? Why are you walking?
So for the record, I planned as little as possible. Although I never expected it, most of the time somebody would offer to put me up for the night. When that didn't happen, I slept outside, under bridges or in the woods, wherever no one would see me. I figured my $3,000 in savings would get me through a whole year if I didn't stay in hotels or eat in restaurants much.
I had a food bag I kept stocked with jerky, tuna fish, and PB&J. But people cooked for me all the time. And I never ate so well.
In my pack, I carried camping gear, my mandolin, an old laptop, a camera, and a recorder for taping interviews. Maps, no smartphone. My policy was not to take rides that would shorten the walk.
And as for why, well, I wanted to listen. After all, I was wearing a sign that said, walking to listen. And people told me about their lives, what they'd done, what they wish they'd done, whatever they thought I needed to hear. In Louisiana, a guy who let me camp out behind his trailer told me, all you're doing is reading a book, just with your feet.
I just want to raise him to-- I mean, if he wants to play sports, play sports. If he wants to sit there and be like me, a mechanic, welder, whatever, hey, I'm not going to sit you and force you into something you're not-- you don't want. Why?
Do you have any fears as a parent?
Honestly, no. Take it day by day. I mean, would you have fears?
I think, for me, in some ways, maybe it's kind of like this walk. It's like, I had a lot of fears before. But now that I'm doing it, I don't have too many fears. I think it'd be the same if I have a kid.
Well, the thing about it is, you know, you find out you had a kid right now. It'd make you want to drop everything and go back home.
That's cool, man. Part of me feels happy doing what I'm doing. But it's not how I want to spend my life. Like I want--
Just living alone, kind of wandering, searching, traveling. I love it all. But it feels, in the end, a little bit empty.
Oh, it is. But you know, after you've done walked this whole way, and have met different people, and learned so much about everything, and then took in all this knowledge, at the end, it's going to make you a different person. Everything that everybody tells you, it might be able to help you out to become this person-- a better father, a better husband, whatever.
Walking, walking, walking, walking, walking. Here's a little lumber truck. The lumber trucks have been zooming by on this road. It's a tiny, narrow little road. Oh, two cars now. All right. Got a honk. That is awesome.
He was driving the Humvee. And there was a roadside bomb, or IED. He got the worst of it. He was kind of like a cool dude. So he would drive with his leg propped up on the steering wheel, just cruisin'.
And I guess when it blew up, his leg gotten tangled. And in his words, it was like a noodle. When he woke up, it was completely backwards and flopped over his shoulder. But eventually, a year and a half later, infection set in. So he ended up having to amputate.
He was the life of the party. And even when I was 13, that was what attracted me to him, because I just felt like, you know, I was new. You have this person that has all these friends. And he just seemed so happy and bouncy. And he was just great.
And when he came back, it was like slowly but surely, you could just see his soul almost being sucked out of him, if it hadn't been already. Because he started out fairly optimistic about his injuries. But eventually, we had been in and out of hospitals for years because it just wasn't ending.
And he started to get mean. And he didn't care about much anymore. He wouldn't bathe for weeks.
He started getting addicted to his pain medications that he was on all the time. And he just-- I don't know. It's like he got lost somewhere in Iraq and never really came back.
And when he first died, all I could do when I first found out about it after realizing it had even happened-- because I had talked to him the night before. And everything sounded good. He sounded like he was getting things together. And everything was going to maybe get better. And finally a little ounce of hope.
And then, I found out he died. Didn't really believe it. Once I did, the next day, I was at my friend's condo. And I just sat out in the sun, no sunscreen or anything. I just laid there and was hoping that the wind was him, or the bird flying by was him. And I was trying to-- hopefully, he would hear me, because I just felt like I had to say I'm sorry. Sorry.
And there's a part of me that's like, why did he have to suffer for so long? And why did we have to treat each other the way that we did?
Like why couldn't it have just ended in Iraq? And he would have been a hero. And we wouldn't have all these crazy times, like all these struggles that didn't have to be there. I just didn't understand.
So yeah, I had a lot of guilt. But I've come to terms with it for the most part. Because again, I just feel like there's only so much you can do. And someone dying doesn't change that. It doesn't make them perfect.
After everything, there is a part of me that's kind of shut off a little bit, because there's a tiny fear. It's like the more people I get close to, the closer I get to someone, if they were to die, I would just hurt all over again. I know that's so morbid.
But on a day to day basis, I just try to appreciate things. You know, if I want to meet someone on the side of the road, I'm just going to do it. If I want to go somewhere, I just try to appreciate everything.
If you care about someone, tell them. Don't leave anything behind that you wouldn't want someone to see if you were to die. There's so many little lessons. But I don't now.
I don't know what the big life lesson is. But I definitely know to think before I speak. And when I talk to people, keep in mind that I might not talk to them again. And is that what I want to leave them with or them to leave me with? I don't know.
I loved the South-- the swamps and the farmland, getting called baby and sugar at the diners. It was winter. But the cold wasn't too bad. And people were taking me in all the time. It seemed like every day there was some moment of grace.
There was another side, too, though. A woman in Georgia told me I shouldn't walk through the next town because the whites had left, the help had stayed. And the southern black was a whole different animal than the northern black. Those were the words she used.
This would happen a lot, people warning me about those others. They're not friendly like us. They'll shoot you for the shirt off your back. Don't trust them.
I never knew how to deal with the prejudice, especially when it came from someone who took me into their home and fed me. More often than I'd like to admit, I wouldn't say anything. And I still feel ashamed of that.
What I wish is that these people could've experienced what I did, and seen that the people they warned me about were the very ones who took me in later on, and fed me, and told me their stories.
So what was it like back in the old days?
Oh god, honey. I've done got old and forgetful. And I've done forgot I used to know about that stuff. But all I can tell you is it was scary.
I never will forget, we were picking butter beans. And we had picked a bag that was in the garden for a white man. And the wife told us to go bring in some water.
And we got the buckets out of the kitchen and went sailing through the hole to the well. Got the buckets full. And when we got back to the steps, he said, you niggers, don't you all come back up those steps. Go and run in the house with that water to the kitchen. And we said, yes, sir.
Now what do you think about those people who are so mean and hateful? What do you feel about them?
I feel like they ain't looking for a great day. I'm looking for a great day, you know, when I see my Jesus face to face. You don't do evil for evil.
They hate you all. You all love them. And I thought, how could I love somebody tell me, you nigger, don't you come back up them steps, go round the house?
Now how could I love somebody, Lord? And he said, that's the rule. That's the golden rule. Love thy neighbor as thyself. And I got to do what he says. I've got to love them.
I've been traveling, traveling. That's enough.
Oh, come on. Come on. No, no, no. That was good.
I can play this one.
I saw my first mesa in April in central Texas. I couldn't believe it. I had walked into the West.
I bought a used baby stroller so I could push my pack instead of caring it. It looked strange. But this way, I could carry all the water I needed.
It was getting hot. And there were long stretches between towns now. But without a backpack on my shoulders, it felt like I could walk forever.
My friend gave me a hand crank radio. And I've been using it every once in a while. And I'm going to crank this baby up. There we go. So basically, there's one station. Yep. And that's all we got.
Through New Mexico and Arizona, I was walking 30, sometimes 40 miles a day. It was kind of magical to be so alone and tiny in this huge desert day after day.
I would lose myself out there. And I kind of liked it. But when somebody did take me in, I felt human again.
So being an older man--
Yeah, I'll be an older man.
And looking back, what's it like to look back? And you were saying before you can't do some of the things you used to be able to do.
Oh yeah. It breaks my heart, too. To put your foot up in a stirrup and just step up on a horse, I can't do that anymore.
And it's embarrassing to lead a horse to a fence, and get up on the fence, and get on the horse. You know, I hate to give up my independence that way. Dependent upon a fence to get me on a horse, that's dumb.
But I'm satisfied doing what I did, because I always tried to be the best hand in the pasture or the best hand in the pen. I could do the work. And I could pick sick cattle. And I could doctor them.
But as far as wishing I could do it again, sure I do. I wish I didn't get old. I wish my body would do what I tell it to.
And the reason I ask is because, God willing, I'll be there someday, too.
I understand. It hadn't been, I don't know, the day before yesterday or something, I was in my 20s. And it just goes by. Whenever you're young, and you're waiting to get 16 to get your driver's license, the years go by kind of like highline posts.
And then you get that. And you get out, and you go to work, and all that stuff. And then they get a little faster. They get like fence posts. And then pretty soon, you get up to 65 years old. And things change in your life so much so drastically, of putting your feet where you want them and your body where it needs to be. It's gone.
And time goes by like cross ties on a railroad track-- just tch-tch-tch-tch. These days are gone. So while you've got it, use it. Your mind, your strength, your agility, use it.
If I can call back forty years-- I'm looking forward to going to heaven. And I wouldn't want to go through all my youth again. But I miss what I could do. I miss it.
If I got 10 more years in me, that'll be plenty. I'll be 83. I don't want to live past 83.
I don't want to be where somebody has to take care of me or lead me around or slobbering all my belly in a restaurant somewhere from a stroke. I'd just, of course, fall. And I'd break my neck. I really would.
So you come back through here 10 years from now, I might be around. I might not. If I ain't, it's all all right. I've had a good life. I know 23, 73 looks pretty old. That's 50 years difference, son. 50 years makes a lot of difference. But I relate. I can remember 23.
Ho. It's amazing walking because I've never-- I'm just going to stop for a second.
Besides the wind, there is nothing, no sound. And when the wind dies down, it's complete silence, like nothing I've heard before. And it's incredible. I love it. It feels very freeing.
You can sing as loud as you want. You can say whatever you want. You can pull your pants down and moon the wind. You can dance around and make a fool of yourself.
[NAVAJO] is one of those words that's really difficult to translate. It's really a condition in your mind. It is when you are balanced.
You're living your life in the way that you're supposed to be, that the good Lord, the creator, had meant you to be, who you are supposed to be. And that is what [NAVAJO] is.
It is the ultimate goal of what Navajo people strive for. And it's something I struggle with every day.
With you right now, it would be like, you look around you. Everything's happy. You might not have enough to drink. Your shoes might be worn out. But you, yourself, inside you, you're feeling well. And you're happy. That's what [NAVAJO] is.
Hello. Hello. I'm camped out underneath a bridge in Nevada, just outside of Mesquite. This heat-- it's a totally different ball game than anything I've really had to deal with.
Basically, it feels dangerous. I feel like I'm on the brink, you know? And I could either fall into that sense of calm. Or I could freak out.
I see how the desert does what it does to people. Because if I didn't have this water-- well, if I didn't have this water, that'd be a whole other story. ,But yeah, I can see how it could drive you a little nuts.
I hit the wall in Nevada. It was near 110 degrees every day. So I started walking at night. I was sleep deprived and a little delirious.
Very few people stopped on the road to say hello. They must have thought it was best to just keep driving when they saw a man pushing a baby carriage in the middle of the desert.
There's all kinds of walking. There's float walking when it's the easiest thing in the world. And there's urge walking when you're just desperate to stop. There's high walking when you're high and hurt walking when you're hurt. I like weep walking the best, when all you can do is cry.
I was doing two types of walking at night in Nevada. The first was dream walking, which happens when everything seems like a hallucination. The second was fear walking.
I almost got lost one night in a long stretch of desert outside Mesquite. I took a back road, which turned into a dirt trail. And it kept splitting into forks. I had no idea where I was on the map.
I was low on water. And when the sun came, there would be no shade. But I kept going down the dirt trail.
Finally, it hit me. I could actually die out here. In fact, if I couldn't find my way back to the main road, I probably would.
Before dawn, I managed to find the main road again. But I couldn't get it out of my head, the image of that desert trail winding into the darkness. From then on, I was fear walking.
When I finally climbed up into the Sierras, I almost didn't believe it. There were trees and lakes. And the nights were actually cold.
The ocean was 200 miles away. So I could count on two hands the number of days I had until the end. I expected to feel some sort of euphoria in the last two weeks of the walk. But it wasn't that at all. I was terrified, especially when I realized there was no escaping the end.
I've always known I'm going to die some day, like we all do. But I think it was only in the last two weeks of the walk that I really believed it.
All the things people had been telling me about aging and grief and loss, someday my turn would actually come. And my turn with death would come, too. I had just turned 24. And death was as far away as the Pacific Ocean was from my home when I first started walking.
But someday I would get there, just like I was going to get to the ocean. I stopped recording audio and taking notes. I walked each day in a weepy daze of disbelief. This is it, I kept saying. This is it.
The last night I spent on the road, I was camped out in the forest 20 miles from the ocean. I set up the tent for the last time. And I ate my last dinner from the food bag.
There were cars passing me on the road. And I had this thought, if I were in one of those cars right now looking into this dark forest, I'd probably think it was a scary place. But I'm in the forest. And I know it's not a scary place. In that moment, I didn't feel so afraid of the end.
On the afternoon of September 8, 2012, I saw the Pacific Ocean. An hour more of walking, and I was there on the beach. Mom was waiting for me and Dad was, too. And so many friends, all of them surrounding me in a big circle.
Even some people I'd met along the way mad it. The men from Navajo country drove from the reservation. And they led me to the water, drumming and singing a chant. And I was weep walking.
I was in the water. I was floating in this dream. And there were so many voices, 4,000 miles of them.
It's been six months since the ocean and the end. I'm not walking anymore, or not like that. And so sometimes I find myself forgetting everything the walk was to me. When I listen, though, I remember. And then I forget again.
When I was on the road, I loved asking people what they'd say to their 23-year-old self if they could go back in time. I would tell myself three things. You know exactly what to do. There's no need to be afraid. Keep walking.
Andrew Forsthoefel. He spent 11 months on the road, wore through five pairs of shoes, spend a little less than $1,000. He's now writing a book about the trip.
He produced the radio story with Jay Allison, thanks to Viki Merrick. An hour long version of the story and photos of the trip are at transom.org. transom.org is a free, nonprofit website that explains how to record and produce your own stories.
Coming up, two more road trips. And they are nothing like Andrew's. They are in cars, one with a lady who's about to give birth, one with the kid who really, really, really needs to pee. We floor it. And we do not stop for anything, in one minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. Car Pool.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "Hit the Road," stories of heading out into the unknown during the time in your life when it means the most, specifically when you are still figuring out who you are. We have arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, Car Pool.
The actual distance covered by the car in this next story is not very far. But as you'll hear, the kid in the car really cares about how things work out. It was recorded by Sierra Teller-Ornelas in front of a live audience. She changed some of the names in this story.
Hello, everybody. Can you hear me OK? Awesome. Before I start, [NAVAJO].
I'm Navajo. And it is traditional in our culture to begin by alienating the entire audience. So you're welcome.
So I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. What up? When I was around 11, I lived in this apartment complex called Christopher City, which was like a dorm for families.
My dad was in college. And it was mostly international students who brought their families. So my neighbors were from Korea, the Middle East, Japan, all over. And then it was also single moms who couldn't live off campus, couldn't afford to.
So get home from school one day. And my mom is like, get ready. You're going out.
And I was like, who am I going out with? And she was like, my friend Jeanette, who had just moved into town, wants to take you to a baseball game, AAA, Tucson Toros, pretty exciting.
And I was like, wait a minute. And she's going to take her daughter, Candace, and her new boyfriend, Ahmed. And I was like, Candace Simms?
And Candace Simms was like the coolest girl. She had just moved into town. And she was just wild. She would flip off the teachers when they were writing, and you couldn't see.
And she wore nail polish. And she claimed to do downstairs stuff with guys. And she cursed. And it was just amazing.
I was like, oh my god, this is my chance. I'm going to be best friends with Candace Simms. This could happen. I just need to be around her. And I had a plan.
And so my mom was like, well, the plan was that you're going to go to this game. Then you're going to come spend the night at my house. And then tomorrow, you're going to go to Shandy Castelary's pool party.
And so I was like, this is the dream. When you're 10, that's like an 8-ball worth of fun. It doesn't get any better.
So I go. And it becomes immediately clear that the motivations that we all had were very different. Mine was clear, make Candace my best friend.
Jeanette was sort of constantly trying to find Mr. Can You Pay Half the Rent. She was just an exhausted single mom. She just wanted to get married.
And then Ahmed was this guy from Iran, nice enough. The long con was probably like a green card marriage. But the short con was definitely just [BLEEP] Jeanette, you know?
And he could not have hated us more. He was so disinterested in me and Candace, which I don't totally blame him for. Because every time he would be like, would you like a hot dog? I would be like, yes, whereas Candace would be like, [BLEEP] you, Ahmed. I [BLEEP] think you have AIDS.
And we'd just be like holy [BLEEP], because I had never heard a little girl talk like that. But she didn't have a lot of parenting. It wasn't a two parent home.
So anyway, the mom was just sort of like, I could marry a pharmacist. So she threw $20 at us. And we left, and drank a bunch of soda and ate a bunch hot dogs and enjoyed the game.
So we get back into Ahmed's car. And we're driving home. And I'm like, OK, Tuscon Toros were a bust. But we got the sleep over. We got the pool party. This is going to be awesome.
And it becomes clear that Ahmed doesn't know how to get back to the apartment complex. And so he starts going around and around. But Jeanette, being like the woman, doesn't want emasculate him. So she doesn't give him directions. And then it just is clear that he's lost. And he's frustrated.
And so from the back, Candace just starts doing this impression where it's like, I am Ahmed. I eat lentils. I don't know where I'm going. That was her, by the way. It was not me. No offense to the Middle Eastern community.
And now I feel super bad for this poor guy. But when you're 10, that is the funniest [BLEEP] you've ever heard. I could not stop laughing.
I laughed so hard. And I was trying so badly to stifle it. And I laughed so hard that I relieved 64 ounces of Pepsi all over Ahmed's Tercel.
And between the screaming and the impressions and Jeanette, nobody noticed. It was nighttime. And so I'm like, all right. All right, this has happened.
And I was peeing-- it was like minutes. I mean, it was so long that I went on a journey. I went from like shock to that ecstasy of how good it feels to pee to shame, and then back to the ecstasy, and then rounded out with some shame. It was just so bad.
So I'm sitting there. And I'm like, OK, hope is not lost. I can make this work. And so from the darkness, I'm like, oh no, Ahmed. I just spilled Pepsi on your car seat and my pants, like I was in some kind of commercial for a detergent that worked on clothing and upholstery.
And it just was bad. I didn't have a cup. I had no props to support my assertion. He immediately called me out.
He flipped on the light. And he looked back while driving. And he like flipped out, because he had been white knuckle driving this whole time. He'd kept it all in.
And he was like, you pee in my car. You pee in my car, you dirty American.
And I was like, no I didn't. No I didn't.
He's like, you are a car-peer, in exactly the same accent that Candace had been doing like three minutes ago. So I lose my [BLEEP] again. And I'm laughing uncontrollably.
It's a tough break, guys. So he pulls into Christopher City. I bolt to my mom's house. Obviously Candace is not spending the night.
And the next morning, my mom is like, well you gotta go to this pool party. And I'm like, oh no. I am a car-peer. That is what I am. Car-peers do not get to go to pool parties. They stay home and die alone.
But my mom was like, well, I may plans. So you're going to this [BLEEP] party. So I go. And I show up.
And I'm just like, this is my life. She's going to tell everybody. She's the popular girl at school.
And I get there. And she comes up to me. And before I could say I'm sorry, she was like, that was amazing.
For her, it was like the most baller move I could do. He freaking was sopping up for two hours. Dude didn't get any play. And thanks to her hatred for Ahmed, I was only a car-peer for one night. So thank you.
Sierra Teller-Ornelas is a TV writer in Los Angeles. Her performance was recorded at the LA Storytelling Series, Public School. Their website publicschool.com. It also aired on the CBC radio show WireTap with Jonathan Goldstein, which can be found at cbc.ca/wiretap.
Act Three. Let's See How Fast This Baby Will Go.
ACT 3, Let's See How Fast This Baby Can Go? So let's close on this story about hitting the road and needing to hit the road for a straightforward, maybe even a traditional kind of reason, to change every single thing in your life. This story is from Gloria Harrison.
I wake up before 7 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, June 4, 1996. And I know three things instantly. I'm in labor. I have to return the car to that awful man. And I have to go buy another car. If I don't, I won't have any way to get myself to the hospital. I am 20 years old.
The pain in my belly and lower back is intense. And I flop over onto my knees and bounce up and down, which wakes up my roommate, Tim, who sort of doubles as my boyfriend.
"I'm in labor," I tell him. "Are you sure," he asks, having just spent the last week listening to me declare the same concern regularly. Tim's on standby, as is my sister, Kim, who has a flight arranged from Kansas City. The moment she hears word that I'm at the hospital delivering, she will grab her packed luggage and the diaper bag she's had waiting probably since the moment I agreed to let her and her new husband adopt my child.
"Yes, I'm sure," I tell Tim. "I'm going to go buy a car." He considers me through half opened eyes for a moment, says, "OK," then rolls back over and goes back to sleep.
The first order of business is to return the used car that I picked up the day before. My contractions are about 10 minutes apart.
I discovered that I'd contracted an acute case of pregnancy within two weeks of moving to Albuquerque from Dallas, where I'd lived for the last five months. I made the decision to place the baby up for adoption not long after, having found myself homeless and broke and with no one to turn to.
I told my family that I wouldn't be keeping him. And within a week, my sister Kim called and asked if she and her husband could adopt him. She was 22 and had been married for three weeks. "Of course," I said, relieved.
Seven months later, I am no longer broke or homeless. On Christmas day, I walked into a fast food restaurant and told them I needed a job. They hired me on the spot.
I met Tim there. And he and I found an apartment together soon after. Neither of us had a car.
A week ago, I received a large portion of a $50,000 insurance settlement in the mail, my in-pocket amount from a lawsuit that has been ongoing since I was 17. I had to see multiple insurance companies, including the one belonging to the drunk with the 0.28 blood alcohol level who had crashed into my foster family's van nearly three years before.
Three people died in the accident, which mangled the rest of us. I've also had to sue my foster dad, who had collected an upfront check for $25,000, which was supposed to go for my medical care.
He kicked me out a week later, despite the fact that I was on a walker and had nowhere to go. We settled. And he had to pay back $15,000 of the money he'd taken. The money came out of his personal account. When his check eventually arrived, the memo said, Gloria's blood money.
I received my money a week ago. And I still haven't bought a car. All of the grown-ups in my life have an opinion about what kind of car I should drive. And I'm scared and not confident in my ability to make a decision.
And I actually really don't care. I just want mobility. Last night, at the behest of Tim's stepdad, I went to a car lot that sells used rental cars.
The slimy salesman delivered his spiel to Tim, not me, even though I made it clear that I was the one with the money. Still, he barely looked at me, and instead locked eyes with Tim while he explained the great benefits of buying this great car with low miles at this unbelievable price.
I am not interested in this car. And I told the salesman that. "Tell you what," he said derisively, finally looking at me, "you just drive it home tonight, free of charge. And think about it."
Now I have this burdensome car to deal with before I can buy my Nissan, which is what I have wanted from the start. Tim's stepdad was pushy and insistent about not buying a car new off the lot. And though I'm normally incapable of standing up for myself against aggressive men, I'm now currently in labor. And I feel a strength and self-composure I've never felt before. I don't want this [BLEEP] rental car. And I don't care who knows it.
I drive the car over to the lot, which is conveniently located on the same boulevard as most of the car lots in town. I walk into the office, find the swaggering salesman, hand him the keys, and tell him I have changed my mind.
His mouth drops open. And incredulous, he frantically begins negotiating with me all over again. He stands too close and speaks too loudly. The contractions are coming more frequently now, perhaps seven minutes apart. And the urgency to take care of the business at hand fills me with confidence.
I tell him I have to go. I'm going down the street to the Nissan dealership to buy the car I wanted in the first place. I begin walking off the lot. And he shouts after me, "that car will lose $5,000 in value the second you drive it off the lot."
By 9 o'clock, I'm walking the two blocks to Melloy Nissan, telling myself that walking is good for labor. I enter the building and look around. I see a customer service window, walk up to it, and ask the representative, "Do you have a female salesperson?"
A few minutes later, Carolyn walks up. I can tell right away that she's a nice lady. She makes eye contact with me, shakes my hand, and introduces herself. "Looks like you're due pretty soon, huh?" she says, gesturing towards my massive midsection. "Yes, today actually," I tell her "I'm in labor."
Next thing I know, Carolyn is showing me my options. I know that I want a Sentra. And I don't want any bells and whistles, just the basic package. This makes the decision easy. There are only two cars that meet my desires. And I just have to decide between teal and black.
I'm leaning toward black. But Carolyn explains that black cars are harder to keep clean since dirt shows up on them so easily. While we have this discussion, I am pacing in circles, holding my lower back and choo-chooing every few minutes.
"Can I test drive it?" I ask. Carolyn looks and me, startled and uneasy. "Sure," she says. And within three minutes, she has the keys. And we're on our way in the teal car.
We don't drive far. And to be honest, I'm not even sure why I want to test drive the car, other than, like always, I'm preemptively explaining myself to the overlords in my head. Test driving is something I understand is a necessary step in the car buying process. I know I'm buying this car. And I know I would buy it even if Carolyn had said no to taking it for a spin.
Carolyn tries to chat me up while we're driving, asking me about my pregnancy and the father. "I'm putting it up for adoption," I tell her. Carolyn talks to me about this for the duration of the drive. And when I answer, my voice rises an octave each time I have a contraction.
Next thing I know, Carolyn and I are in her office. And there's paperwork in front of me. I have a checkbook to hold an account that holds nearly enough money to buy the car out right. But Carolyn is trying to finance the whole amount.
She explains that if they take a personal check, they have to hold it for a week until it clears. And I won't get my car today. My contractions are now about six minutes apart. And I know I have to get to the hospital. Banks are called. Documents are faxed.
A man comes in and tries to discuss floor mat options with me. I am highly agitated. And I stand up every few minutes to pace and pant.
The frenzy of activity around me is intense. Suddenly all of the sales associates are in the room, each trying desperately to help the pregnant girl get the car bought before a head emerges from her vagina in the middle of the showroom floor.
Finally, my brain kicks into action. And I announce how it's going to be. I don't want to finance the whole amount. Even in my less than right mind, I know that 22% interest is a lot. And I just want to pay for as much as I can right there.
I tell them all that I know it's against their policy to take a personal check. But I need to get to the hospital. And if the check bounces, which it won't, they know where to find me. If they can't agree to this, then I'm just going to call a cab and come back another time.
I tell the floor mat guy that I don't give a rip about my options. I'll just take whichever mats come stock with the car. And if I change my mind, I'll come back and upgrade later.
Within 20 minutes, Carolyn has her manager's approval to take my check. And my car is waiting in the front lot.
Carolyn hands me my keys and tells me this is the quickest she's ever seen the car buying process happen in all her time in sales. One last thing, she says. You have to go get insurance. I've already called a local agent, whose office is located two blocks away. She's waiting for you and has your paperwork ready to sign.
I thank Carolyn. And she wishes me good luck. And I'm off.
I drive to the insurance agents office, only vaguely aware that I am driving my first new car ever. My manic obsession to buy a car, to buy this car, is now overtaken by my manic obsession to get to the hospital.
I'm not aware of it, but I need something tangible in place after I've had this baby that is fighting his way out of my body. I'm not yet aware that after he leaves, I'll transfer all of my maternal love onto this car, that this car will literally help me run away from all the [BLEEP] I've been through and am going through.
I don't know it yet, but the freedom this car will bring me will help put 130,000 miles of distance between the me that I've been and the me that I will become. I don't know it yet, but tomorrow the nurse will bring newborn Dylan into my hospital room right after Kim calls to announce that her flight has landed and she's on her way.
Dylan will come in. And I will look down at him. And I will cry. I will tell him, I'm so very sorry that I couldn't keep him, but that I'm positive that I've found a surrogate who's just right, and that I know he'll be loved.
I will tell him that I love him, that I will always love him. I also don't know yet that I will stare at him so long that my nipples will start tingling. I will have an almost crippling need to pick him up and place him to my breast and let him nurse. Just for a second, I'll tell myself.
But the moment I start to reach out, the exact moment, my sister will come walking in. And instead of picking Dylan up to breastfeed him, I will pick him up and hand him to his mom. And then-- then I will begin driving.
Gloria Harrison from Portland, Oregon. A version of her essay first appeared on the website The Nervous Breakdown. That's thenervousbreakdown.com.
[MUSIC -- "I FOUND MY WAY" BY DUSTY SPRINGFIELD]
Gloria Harrison in Portland, Oregon. A first of her essay first appeared on the website The Nervous Breakdown. That's thenervousbreakdown.com.
[MUSIC -- "I FOUND MY WAY" BY DUSTY SPRINGFIELD]
Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp,, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Phia Benen.
Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant.
Music for Andrew Forsthoefel's story in the first act of our program today by Mathias Bossi, John Evans, Carla Kihlstedt, and the band Tin Hat, with Andrew playing mandolin. Support for Andrew's story came from The National Endowment for the Arts.
Andrew's interviewees were Bill Guy in Shady Grove, Alabama, his own mom, Therese in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Ollie Ware in Franklin, Louisiana, Karie Fugett in Foley, Alabama, the late Emma Lou Dailey in Beatrice, Alabama, Otho Rogers in Melrose, New Mexico, and Chris and James Paisano in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
Special thanks today to Michelle Harrison, Johnathan Goldstein, Natasha Vargas Cooper, and Joshua Eisenberg. Our website, thisamericanlife.org where you can listen to any of our programs for absolutely free, day or night, week in, week out.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who became a vegetarian and, coincidentally, lost his GPS device on the very same day this week, meaning that he was driving around all day saying--
I eat lentils. I don't know where I'm going. I eat lentils. I don't know where I'm going.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.
[MUSIC -- "THUNDER ROAD" BY BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY AND TORTOISE]
PRI, Public Radio International.