Transcript

572:

Transformers
Transcript

Originally aired 11.06.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/572

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

[SCREAMING]

Tess

I used to be really scared of roller coasters. I didn't like them at all. If I just looked at them, I'd start to feel upset and kind of sick.

Ira Glass

Tess is 12, and back when she was 10, she and her dad were driving by Six Flags Magic Mountain. And she told her dad that when kids at school talked about going on roller coasters, and which ones they'd ridden, and how awesome they are, she always felt kind of dumb because she was so scared of them.

Tess

My dad was like, let's go there sometime so you can conquer your fear. At first, I thought he was joking, or he was crazy, or something.

Ira Glass

He wasn't, of course. And he made this recording of the trip that I heard on this podcast called Unfictional that I want to play you some of now, because this recording is great. Her dad is Bob Carson, who hosts that show, Unfictional.

Tess

Magic Mountain Parkway! Wait, is that something we're going on?

[CHUCKLING]

Bob Carson

I don't know. I don't know what that one is.

Tess

That better not be something we're going on.

Ira Glass

So they get to the park, and they start with the easy roller coasters, right? They'd watched videos of the ones they would go on to prepare. And so after they do the Road Runner Express, and the Gold Rusher, they advance to the Ninja, which turns you sideways. And then they came to the big challenge.

Bob Carson

All right, next stop, Revolution, Tess's first looping roller coaster.

Ira Glass

So they approach this huge, frightening-looking steel contraption. Can I just say, looping is a fantastically bland way to describe what this thing does. It is an enormous loop, nine stories high, like a giant Hot Wheels loop that flips you totally upside down. Anyway, here's the recording of what happened.

[CREAKING]

Bob Carson

Are you a little nervous now?

Tess

Yeah, a little.

Bob Carson

Relax, relax.

[SCREAMING]

Tess

Here comes the loop!

Bob Carson

Here we go.

[SCREAMING]

Tess

I just went through a loop! I just went through a loop! And it wasn't even that bad!

Bob Carson

OK, what just happened, Tess?

Tess

I just rode a looping roller coaster for the first time in my life. And it was so exciting, and it wasn't even that bad. I am a different person than I was a minute ago.

Ira Glass

Ladies and gentlemen, when does it ever happen like this, right? That you change so fast? You were one thing, now you're another. Change usually takes time. Psyching yourself up, and self-help books, and advice from friends, and one tentative step after the next. This is about as efficient as it ever gets.

Tess

I am a different person than I was a minute ago.

Ira Glass

Today on our show, it's the new year. People are making resolutions. We have stories of people deciding they are going to totally transform themselves, overcome their fears, finally change the things about themselves that have dogged them and held them back their entire lives, things that, in some cases, it's hard to believe could ever change. Stay with us.

Act One. Optimus ... Way Past Her Prime.

Anthony Devito

My grandma Vicki is 90 years old. She lives in a nursing home, and lately she can't stop talking about her new boyfriend, Frank. They're very much in love, and their dialogue is straight out of a romantic comedy. I mean, this is what it sounds like when they're drinking tea.

Vicki

Have enough sugar?

Frank

Not as sweet as you.

Vicki

You are one of a kind, you are.

Frank

I also told you they broke the mold.

[LAUGHTER]

Anthony Devito

That's the way Frank talks. He's like an encyclopedia of love cliches, but totally sincere about it.

Vicki

What do you want to do, hon?

Frank

Stay close to you, gorgeous. I've been in love before, but never like this.

Vicki

Yes. That's how I go to sleep at night, with those words in my ear.

Anthony Devito

Again, Grandma is 90. Frank's 62, which makes him 28 years younger than my grandma. That's not even a cougar. That's a different animal. It's like a water buffalo. Also, she's partially deaf, while Frank is blind, he's got one leg, and it's an interracial relationship. As a stand up comedian, I've never felt more pressure to write a joke.

This is in no way the grandma who raised me. She's not a lovestruck, soft hearted kind of girl. She's a tough Italian lady from New Jersey, right out of central casting. If you've ever seen a mob movie in the last 30 years, you got the picture. Her eyebrows are drawn on, but not at the appropriate height, so she always looks shocked. It's all there, the opinions, the accent, and yes, even the racism.

So a relationship with a blind, one legged black guy, not the thing you'd expect from grandma. And yet, none of that's the most surprising part. What's most surprising is that she has anything to do with a man at all. The grandma I've always known, she despised men. Like, she was fundamentally against them as a concept. So all this lovey dovey Frank business, it's like she's been inhabited by an alien.

In order to understand how opposed my grandma was to men, I need to tell you the very weird story of the tenant who lived with my family when I was growing up. This was in Bloomfield, New Jersey. My dad died in a car crash when I was a baby, so my mom and I moved in with my aunt, grandma, and great grandma. We lived in a two story house with a basement. Each floor had a different set of women.

The only other guy in the house besides me was our tenant, John. He rented out our living room. John was always there, lying on the rug, shirtless, in black sweatpants, eating waffles, and watching animal shows.

My grandma didn't like John. She treated him like a second class citizen. Whenever she walked through the living room, she'd look at him and grunt. She was fixated on keeping him away from all our food.

I'd open the fridge and there'd be stickers on everything there. Milk, cold cuts, leftover pasta. They all said "Not for John." Then one day I thought I overheard my aunt saying John and Grandma Vicki were married. And I'm like, what?

Mother Devito

And you said to me "John is married to Grandma Vicki? That's her husband?"

Anthony Devito

That's my mom.

Mother Devito

I was like, "Yeah, who did you think he was?" You actually didn't know that they were married.

Anthony Devito

No, I didn't know that we're married. You know why? Because nobody told me.

Anthony Devito

Why did you tell me he was the tenant?

Mother Devito

I only said it maybe one time. Because that was a joke to us. They weren't a happy couple any longer. But I didn't realize that you gave it a category in your head like that.

Anthony Devito

Nobody ever--

Mother Devito

I was shocked when you said that to me, because how could you not figure that out? He was our father.

Anthony Devito

Because he lived in the living room and nobody ever called him, this is my father, or this is my grandfather. No one ever said that.

Mother Devito

But it didn't hurt you.

Anthony Devito

No, it didn't hurt me, but that is weird to just one day be like, oh, the tenant is my grandfather.

Mother Devito

Since you put it that way.

Anthony Devito

So how many years just about was he living there before, you know, he eventually gets kicked out or whatever?

Mother Devito

I don't know.

Anthony Devito

OK.

Mother Devito

It's too far back.

Anthony Devito

Right.

Mother Devito

And plus, when I don't like something, I block it out. So I can remember some of it, but if I don't want to remember it, it's gone. It goes.

Anthony Devito

OK, OK. But how long, just approximate from when he moves into the living room till he gets out of the house?

Mother Devito

15 years.

Anthony Devito

About 15 years?

Mother Devito

Yeah, mhm.

Anthony Devito

That is insane. 15 years he lived in the living room?

Mother Devito

It was bizarre.

Anthony Devito

Yeah.

I'm 33 now, and two and a half decades have passed since I learned that John was my grandpa. And you know what? This conversation that you're hearing right now, this is the first time my mom and I have ever talked about it since that day when I was eight.

Anthony Devito

There were so many lies happening in the house at one time, do you know what I mean? Because nobody was just saying what was going on. It was like a corrupt government or something. I don't even know.

Mother Devito

It seemed normal to us. Whatever the situation is, you want to make it seem as normal as can be.

Anthony Devito

Think about that for a second, what that says about my family's aggressive lack of interest in processing feelings. So being a DeVito, I learned John was my grandpa, and then I didn't change anything about my behavior at all towards him. And he didn't act any different with me either. He stayed the tenant.

Here's how my grandpa ended up in the doghouse. One day, years before I was born, Grandma goes out to move Grandpa's car in the driveway. She pulls down the sun visor.

Vicki

And all these on the envelopes fell on me. I said, what the heck? These are apartments that he rented that he-- I don't want to really go into this crap. Not now, and I don't want to remember. I really don't.

Anthony Devito

I got you.

My mom filled me in on the details my grandma couldn't bring herself to say. The envelopes contained pictures of Grandpa with another woman-- the one he was renting secret apartments for. For Grandma, the marriage was over. But Grandpa John refused to move out, because he always denied ever having an affair. And Grandma never filed for divorce because she didn't have the money to move herself and four kids. There was a total standoff in the house.

Vicki

So then he took upon himself to sleep on the floor in the living room, because he never was going to sleep in my bedroom.

Anthony Devito

Right. Didn't he ever want to get back together or try to win you back in any way?

Vicki

No. No, I don't think so. Because I know he thought it was hopeless. Because what he did was more than I can ever understand.

Anthony Devito

So did you guys establish any ground rules between the two of you, places he was allowed to go? Did you talk at all? Because you were in the same house.

Vicki

No, never.

Anthony Devito

No?

Vicki

No, never. He only came in late at night. Then he'd be gone in the morning. So we didn't connect. No.

Anthony Devito

I remember all the food in the fridge was marked "Not for John."

Vicki

Yeah. Well, yeah, because I felt I wasn't going to pay to feed the bum.

Anthony Devito

Would you just in your head just pretend he wasn't there?

Vicki

You have to. What are you going to do? He's not worth me going to the crazy house for, no way. No way.

Anthony Devito

They hadn't always been unhappy. She says he was this charming, funny guy who loved to dance and bought her beautiful gifts, rings, necklaces, a blue fox fur coat. They had four daughters together, big family dinners every night, vacations at the Jersey Shore. It was nice.

But now she ignored him. She chose not to recognize her husband sleeping under the same roof. She never explained to my mom or sisters why their dad had moved into the living room. So sometimes they'd sneak him a plate of food or give him some extra money.

Finally, when I was in seventh grade, they forced him out. My aunts and great grandma were fed up he wasn't helping with the mortgage. I never saw him again. And soon after, he died of a heart attack. When my grandma heard the news, she was blank, absolutely no emotion. He'd already been dead to her for years.

There were some other guys who tried with Grandma. I mean, really tried. Seriously courted her.

First, there was Mr. Bill, our fix it man. He'd always try to kiss her, and she'd wiggle out of there. Then there was Gene, a school crossing guard. He wanted to marry her, and proclaimed his love over and over.

And her? There's no other way to say it. She took huge pleasure in turning them down. It was the one activity that gave her pure joy.

It was hard to watch. I was in high school then, and I feel bad for Gene. I wanted to pull him aside and be like, dude, just walk away. You're a crossing guard. You of all people should know when to stop. I remember he used to leave these sobbing voicemails, private outpourings of emotion. And Grandma would play them for me, laughing while she cleaned the kitchen.

Anthony Devito

Gene would call up crying.

Vicki

Oh yeah.

Anthony Devito

Do you remember that? "Vicki, I love you. Vicki, I miss you. Vicki, I want to marry you."

Vicki

That's enough. Oh, he was unbelievable. I didn't need that.

Anthony Devito

Yeah.

Vicki

I don't need you in my life. That's the way I felt.

Anthony Devito

Yeah.

Vicki

I don't need this commotion in my life.

Anthony Devito

Yeah, that makes sense. I always took it as, I don't know, I guess you were more guarded, or they were paying for what Grandpa did. Do you know what I mean? Whereas, he wronged you, he cheated on you, he hurt you so bad that you wouldn't open up to them because of that. Is that accurate at all or no?

Vicki

I lost a lot of trust in men, huh? Yeah.

Anthony Devito

So when my mom walked into the nursing home one day and she saw this guy pulled up next to my grandma in his wheelchair, needless to say, she was surprised.

Mother Devito

And she introduced me to Frank to say that's her boyfriend, and they found one another. How nice that they found one another in this place.

Anthony Devito

Right.

Mother Devito

And I'm like, huh. I thought I was hearing things. So I said, how nice. Nice to meet you. I didn't know what to say. I just tried to hide my surprise because I was startled, wondering what frame of mind she was in.

Anthony Devito

My mom wondered if she messed up her medication. No, really. She worried about that. We all did. Since then, it's been an adjustment, the thought that Grandma could ever have feelings for a man.

My grandma moved into the nursing home for health reasons a year ago, and it was brutal, the way those things often are. She'd been living with my mom and my aunt. Their life at home was so close, everyone sitting around the table, up in each other's business in a good way, every day. There were always multiple conversations happening at the same time. You jump in and out of them like double Dutch.

And Grandma was the center of it all. She held court. Her laugh would fill the room. Now she was alone, and she hated it. She didn't talk to anyone, wouldn't leave her room for months. Every time we visited her, she begged for us to take her home. That is, until she met Frank.

Vicki

Frank was walking toward me, and he said hello. And he says, "What's your name? I'm Frank." And I told him my name. Then I find out this guy is blind, totally blind. I felt very bad. And I told him if there's anything that you need or you want me to-- just don't hesitate. Let me know.

Frank

And I asked her not to let me fall.

Anthony Devito

My grandma had wheeled up to him and held out her right arm. Frank had lost his leg and was struggling to make it down the hallway. That day, he was wearing a prosthetic leg and using a cane.

Frank

Your grandmother would hold me on one side. She said, I won't let you fall. She said she's going to be my eyes.

Anthony Devito

After that, my grandma always sat next to Frank in the cafeteria.

Frank

She used to take charge. She would tell me my juice is here. Whatever I'm getting ready consume is here, on my left, on my right.

Anthony Devito

I see them do this all the time.

Vicki

Wait, hon. I'm going to turn the dish around so that you can eat the fish, because the fish is in front of you, and the fish is very good. Over that way. That's it. OK?

Frank

As long as I can find my mouth I'm all right. I get a lot of help from you.

Anthony Devito

They're like a couple of cozy cellmates, playing cards, watching Family Feud. Frank can't see anything, so Grandma gives him the play by play. They talk about what life was like on the outside. She loved a beer at the end of a long day. For Frank, it was rum and Coke.

Frank told my grandma he used to work at a factory, wrapping products and plastic. And like her, he was married and had his heart broken. He said his wife fell in love and left him for another man. Then he lost his eyesight to macular degeneration, then his leg to blood clots.

And now he lives in this place. It's not the Ritz. As soon as you get off the elevators, there's just ambient screaming, a full chorus of wails and moans.

There's a smell of sickness which attaches itself to everything. It's a real playground for all five senses. But somehow, Grandma and Frank together make it all a little more tolerable.

[SHOUTING]

Vicki

Good Lord.

Frank

No matter how much goes on, you never get used to that, right?

Vicki

Another day in paradise.

[SHOUTING]

Anthony Devito

You know that feeling when you hang out with someone a lot and you just want to be with them all the time, like going home at the end of the day feels like a tiny loss? That happened to Grandma and Frank. It was just they had to go to their separate rooms.

Frank

I would realize how much I miss her, and I said to myself, something's going on here. Soon as I wake up, I'd been looking to hear her voice first. And I told her. I said, I never missed anyone the way I miss you when we're apart. So I must be falling for you. And evidently, you for me. I tell her, you can go ahead and admit it.

[LAUGHING]

Because she knew I was right, and I knew I was right. So I told her, I love her, and she told me she loved me back. I said, ah-hah.

Anthony Devito

It slipped out.

Vicki

He's beautiful. And a lady my age being-- you know, that's magical. Lord.

Anthony Devito

What about the first kiss? Tell me about that.

Vicki

It wasn't bad.

[LAUGHTER]

Vicki

That was a toot. I was surprised.

Anthony Devito

I mean, you have to be more surprised than anybody by this.

Vicki

Yeah, but I think it's beautiful. I really do. I really do.

When it comes to Frank, I want to please him. I want to make him happy. Frank, he's special. And then for two people to be so happy and good with one another, to be finding pleasure and comfort in a place like this, I find a certain contentment being with Frank all the time.

Anthony Devito

I kept asking her to explain this huge transformation, but it's pretty simple, actually. She's 90 years old. She lives in a nursing home, and she fell in love. Recently, Frank asked my grandma to marry him. She said yes.

Ira Glass

Anthony DeVito is a comedian in New York. His website, anthonydevitocomedy.com

[MUSIC - "LOVE REALLY CHANGED ME" BY SPOOKY TOOTH]

Act Two. Streetwise.

M

This is my first time. I have never, ever used this bus pass and the bus system. I heard it's terrible. Let me see. I think we have to cross.

Ira Glass

One Monday, she rode a bus as the next of those many steps that she has to do to become an American. This was a year ago. Today's show is a rerun.

This woman is from Afghanistan, but she lives in Detroit now. There are currently a record number of people-- over 60 million, according to the United Nations-- displaced by violence and persecution and needing to start all over elsewhere, change their lives, transform themselves. M is one of them.

She's right now living in a temporary home for asylum seekers called Freedom House. And at Freedom House, they've taught her how to put together an American style resume and go to the doctor in America. Today's lesson is how to get around the city independently. This turns out to be one of the most critical skills if you're going to get a job or really do much of anything in this country, right?

And the Detroit buses are chronically late and confusing. And in the past, other Freedom House refugees have gotten lost for hours when they've been sent out on their very first bus ride. One of them circled around and around and around on the route, not getting off, until finally the driver asked where the guy was going and then drove the bus to Freedom House, which is actually a couple blocks away from the route, to drop the guy off.

Since then, to minimize mishaps, usually a volunteer goes with. And, because I wanted to record this, Freedom House decided not to send a volunteer. They informed me when I arrived, basically, I would be the volunteer.

M

I have you with me, so I'm not afraid that I will be lost.

Ira Glass

Unfortunately for both of us-- well, mostly unfortunately for her-- I've never ridden a bus in Detroit. I really know nothing about Detroit.

Ira Glass

OK, so let's look at the map and just see when we're supposed to do our next thing.

M

OK, we will arrive to Outer Drive. Then we have to change and take another bus, bus number 125.

Ira Glass

So wait, we get off here and then we walk to here? Is that what that means?

M

No, no, no. We don't walk. This is the bus.

Ira Glass

We're heading to southwest Detroit, to a neighborhood called Lincoln Park, to an apartment complex called Indian Village Apartments as just practice reaching a destination. We ride the number 19 bus for over half an hour.

M

We have to get off here?

DRIVER: Yeah, this is the last stop.

M

Thank you so much.

Ira Glass

Thank you so much.

We're supposed to transfer to another bus, but it's not so clear where we're supposed to do that. This is a moment that sometimes trips up other refugees, the transfer points, because they're afraid to approach strangers and ask for help. M does not pause. She sees two young guys sitting on a railing at a convenience store in front of a shiny black Mustang, and strides purposefully up to them. She's not very tall, 40-ish, wears squarish glasses and a hijab, a scarf covering her head.

M

Excuse me. I'm going to this area, Indian Village Apartments. So I have to get bus number 125.

Man

125?

M

Yeah, where should I go?

Man

Right here.

M

Shall I wait here?

Man

Yeah. If you want to get the bus, but if you want a ride, we can take you.

Ira Glass

He and his friend smile at her. It's a smile that says they're flirting with her, but that also says that they know this is not going to work with this devout Muslim lady standing in front of them. They know that they're going through the motions of hitting on her, because, well, that's just what you do, I guess.

M

No, thank you so much. I have to wait for the bus.

Man

No problem. No problem.

M

Thank you so much. So it means I have to wait here, yeah?

Man

Yeah, let me see if it's the right stop. Yeah, I think you got to wait right here.

M

Thank you so much.

Ira Glass

M, maybe you can tell, is this super capable person who seems to have no problem in any situation I see her in, finding out what she needs to know and making things happen. In other words, figuring out how to ride a bus is child's play to her. She's a college grad with a bachelor's in business administration. Back home in Kabul, did project management for an international organization, humanitarian projects.

M

I was responsible, for example, to make need assessments and then to check every stage of that project with the implementing part.

Ira Glass

It's not unusual of course, but this immigrant who's used to a job in her own country managing things and doing PowerPoint presentations and looking at Excel spreadsheets is hoping here in America, that she'll get work as a seamstress if she she's lucky. She got her papers to work legally a month ago, and looking for work so far has landed nothing.

Bus Driver

OK, these two cards? This one's always first.

Ira Glass

The driver on the second just shows M how to use the transfer.

Bus Driver

Slide through here. This one comes behind it and slide this through here. This is only worth $1.50.

Ira Glass

On the second bus, we're hoping to get off at the corner of Ford and Brest. The driver tells M that he's just filling in, so he can't help us. He doesn't know the stops. There's an automated system that calls out the stops as the bus approaches each one. It's pretty quiet.

Computer

Ford and Brest.

M

I think next stop.

Ira Glass

You heard it?

M

No, I didn't.

Ira Glass

He just said Ford and Brest.

M

It was too loud. It was not too loud.

Ira Glass

We wait for the bus to pull over. The automated system names other streets, Oakdale, Wesley, Birrell. And suddenly I realize--

Ira Glass

We need to ring it. We need to ring it to make him stop, don't we?

M

Sorry?

Ira Glass

We need to pull the thing to make him stop.

M

I don't know.

Ira Glass

No, she doesn't know. Because in Kabul, that's not how you get the guy to stop the bus. That's why she has an American with her. I pull the cord.

You know, she doesn't even know the English word for "cord" yet. She knows rope, sure but cord? That's a more subtle one. She hasn't heard that one yet. A guy in a trucker hat hears us talking about how we're looking for Ford and Brest.

Ira Glass

We want Ford and Brest.

Man

It's like six blocks that way.

Ira Glass

We passed it?

Man

Yeah, it's six blocks that way.

Ira Glass

We climb off the bus.

Ira Glass

OK, so here's what we learned.

M

Yeah, we are lost.

Ira Glass

No.

By "no" of course, what I mean is "yes."

M

We missed our stop?

Ira Glass

We missed our stop.

M

So what should we do now?

Ira Glass

We walk back six blocks.

M

OK.

Ira Glass

Like I said, for somebody who lived through Taliban rule, whose previous job was humanitarian relief in the middle of a war, this is still not much of a challenge. Because learning to do concrete tasks, like using a bus transfer, that is not the hard part of turning yourself from an Afghan into an American.

The hard part is that M is here alone. She came here for a conference a year ago. But while she was here, word got to her that certain people back home did not like what she was doing, working and traveling with foreigners. And if she came back, she and her family could be killed. That's, by the way, why I'm not saying her name.

So she's been apart from her children and her husband for over a year. The youngest don't even know where. They think she's in Afghanistan, because it would be dangerous if they would blab to people that she's in America.

The oldest are teenagers. The littlest is now just three. The last time she saw him, he was two. And he doesn't recognize her. He has no idea who she is when she talks to him on Skype. And the others?

M

Yeah, of course, they are asking me when are you coming back? So I just tell them, I don't know when. For me, it's very difficult because I have never been away from my children. And I was very active with work. I was a mom for my children. But here, I'm kind of idle, you know? Staying at home and doing nothing.

Ira Glass

Oh right, of course. You were busy every second before.

M

But I hope that I will find a job soon.

Ira Glass

It can take years to get asylum in the United States. The systems been especially backed up recently, because of the flood of children coming in from Latin America. M used to have control of her life. And now the most important thing to her in the world, getting to bring her family here, is on a time she cannot predict or control, and really may take four or five years.

The three-year-old could be eight. He's not doing well as it is. He's acting up. He's a handful for his dad. But today, the sun's shining. It's unseasonably warm. We finish walking the few blocks back to where we're supposed to be.

M

This is our final destination. These are the Indian Village Apartments.

Ira Glass

This is our final destination. You said that just like it says on the little computer map. "You've arrived. You've arrived at your final destination."

M

You've arrived. Go down that road and your destination is on the left. So this is left, so it totally matches what we see on the map.

Ira Glass

The tiniest of tiny victories. And since we first ran this story a year ago, she's had some more. She has a job, a place to live. She does not ride the bus anymore. She drives. One more step to becoming a real American.

Coming up, shy man makes himself unshy without the aid of powdermilk biscuits, because you cannot get powdermilk biscuits in prison, and of course also they don't exist. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three. Afterburner.

Ira Glass

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 for the new year, as people make resolutions, we have a show that we first ran a year ago about transformers-- people willing themselves to change from one kind of person to another, trying to alter something fundamental about themselves. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Afterburner.

So there are things I think lots of us think we might fix about ourselves. You know, like, someday, when we get around to it. And then for some of us, that day arrives, and we try to rise to the occasion. Keith O'Brien met a guy like that.

Keith O'brien

Richard Pierce caught my attention the moment I met him. Rich is a prisoner of the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility, way up by the Canadian border, the North Country, people call it. He's unusually open, way more than most prisoners. There's a good chance he's going to be released next year. And he talks frankly about how much that scares him. But he's trying to prepare himself for that moment by joining a club called Toastmasters.

At Toastmasters, people give speeches. Here in the prison, it's supposed to help inmates learn how to speak when they're in front of the parole board or in a job interview, say. And he needs to practice, because for years in prison, Rich said nothing to no one. He worked out alone, walked the yard alone, ate in the chow hall alone. Even for prison, Rich was weirdly quiet, no conversation, no give and take. He was a ghost in a green uniform.

Richard Pierce

Because that's a good way to do time. And before you know it, the calendar is going by. And before you know it, it's almost time to go. And you realize that you don't really know how to talk to people anymore. And that's kind of a scary thing.

Keith O'brien

What do you mean? What have you realized about that?

Richard Pierce

Well, it's really freaking me out just talking to you.

Keith O'brien

You're doing a great job.

Richard Pierce

And that's not normal, though. I mean, you want to be more comfortable with people. And that's my goal for the next year, is to get away from how I used to be. That's what led me to prison in the first place, not dealing with normal situations and holding back from people, not reaching out for help when you need it. And that's one of the things I need to change. It's not fun to be alone all the time. So I have to change that.

Keith O'brien

Rich is 52 years old, a big guy, thick and muscular, with a long history of arsons. He's been locked up for 28 of the past 30 years, actually. But before a recent Toastmasters speech, this prison lifer, he looked like he could barely breathe.

Keith O'brien

How are you doing, Rich?

Richard Pierce

I'm a little freaking out right now. Do I look OK?

Keith O'brien

You look great. Freaking out how?

Richard Pierce

I'm very anxious. My heart's beating out of my chest. I'm very nervous.

I'm taking a lot of deep breaths. Everything will be fine. I'm nervous, but everything will be fine. I've been preparing for this for a couple of weeks.

Keith O'brien

Toastmasters is part of Rich's master plan. It's all about re-engaging with people, with the world. He feels like if he can stand up in front of people and talk, he'll be OK in normal conversation. He'll be OK everywhere.

Richard Pierce

What do you think of that?

Keith O'brien

I think it's a great plan.

Richard Pierce

Really?

Keith O'brien

I do.

Richard Pierce

Wow, OK. And you're a real person and you think?

Keith O'brien

I'm a real person.

Richard Pierce

Well, that's good then.

Keith O'brien

I'm a real person.

The way Rich isolated himself in prison, he wasn't so different before he was locked up. When I ask why, he explains his mom drank, and she'd hit him, belittle him in front of his friends.

Richard Pierce

She would say, "What the hell do they want to go out with you for? You ain't got friends. They don't want you there. They're just saying they're your friends. You're an idiot. You're stupid. You're this. You're that."

And before I know it, I'm like, "Yeah, why do they want to hang out with me?" And especially girls would come over to the house, "Hey, is Richard home?"

My mom would say, and very loudly so they could hear, "What the hell is she doing here? She doesn't want to go out with you. Look at her. She's cute. She's ain't got nothing to do with you. You're an idiot. What makes you think that she wants to go out with you? She's just trying to trick you somehow." And before I know it, I push them away because I'm not sure what they're up to.

Keith O'brien

Totally isolated, Rich started setting things on fire, abandoned cars, abandoned houses. No one ever got hurt. He says he just had to do it.

Richard Pierce

I'm trying to put my finger on it. I can't. Well, when you're told bad things so many times, over, and over, and over, and you're getting hit, and you're getting beat, and you can't get out of the house, you can't go nowhere-- when you finally get out, it's such a release just to throw things on the fire and watch it get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until it consumes everything.

And it felt like what it was consuming, it was consuming everything inside me so I didn't have to deal with it anymore. And the bigger they were, the more things it consumed out of me. Because when I walked away, even though I smelt like smoke, I felt so much better. I was ready to take on anything life had for me after that. Whereas the day before that, I couldn't take another thing. I couldn't. I just couldn't bear another thing.

Ira Glass

He burned up a bulldozer and got arrested. He burned down a vacant restaurant and got arrested again. But his big crime happened on July 17th, 2000. He'd been released from prison just 45 days earlier. Rich burned down a restaurant in a big condominium building near a ski resort. He was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison.

He earned parole in 2010 on one of his two arson charges. And he knew he'd come up for parole on the other arson charge five years later. That's when Rich decided he couldn't be alone anymore.

Richard Pierce

5 years, that's right around the corner. I got 10 years in already.

[BLEEP]

I might get out after all. It's only one more president away. [BLEEP] What am I going to do? Where am I going to live? Where am I going to work?

I'm going to be real pretty soon. I can't just not talk to people anymore. I can't be isolated anymore. And that's when the realization hit me that I need to start practicing.

Ira Glass

He joined the prison chess club. He began eating with others, forced himself to do it. And the prison psychologists, the mental gals, Rich calls them, gave him a challenge. Speak to three people, three, in a single day. One morning, Rich woke up, got dressed, and approached a total stranger on the cell block thinking, "OK, I'll try."

Richard Pierce

I said, "Hey, mind if I sit down for a minute?" And he looked up at me really quizzical. He says, "I've been on this pod six months, and that's the first time I ever heard you speak." That's like a slap in the face. It's a realization of how isolated you really are. I mean, it's a pod with 70 people. It's like a fishbowl. You're all intermingled, and how can you go that long without even hearing your voice?

Keith O'brien

And how long did you sit there talking with him for?

Richard Pierce

Oh, about 10 or 15 minutes. You know, where are you from, what do you do for work? How long you are here? You know, things like that. I'm from Littleton. Where's that at? Oh, it's right around here. Oh, is it near woods? I like the pond or this or that.

Yeah, yeah, there's these trails, and this lake, and some other small talk. And as I'm talking, I realize that this isn't nowhere near as difficult as I thought it would be and maybe the mental gals are onto something, because if I can do this here, people don't know they're experiments that I'm practicing for freedom. They just think it's a normal conversation, but to me it's a lot more. It's like practice.

Keith O'brien

Rich was on the hunt now for two more people.

Richard Pierce

I got to find a communication victim. I looked over and seen somebody by himself. Ah-hah. He's going to be my experiment.

Keith O'brien

He found victim number two working out. They talked about push ups and pull ups, guy stuff. He cornered victim number three on the basketball court, ended up playing hoops for a while. And when the day was over, Rich figured he'd spoken for 45 minutes, a Richard Pierce record.

The mental gals, the chess, these conversations, they were working. But none of them prepared Rich for Toastmasters, the key, he thought, to real change. Because of course, in Toastmasters, he couldn't just sit there. He had to talk.

Richard Pierce

They said, "You want to do an icebreaker speech?" And I'm like, "Icebreaker speech? What are you talking about, icebreaker speech?" That's how freaked out I was, just right then and there.

Keith O'brien

Your hands were trembling.

Richard Pierce

Yes, the anxiety came that quick. I'm like, "OK, if I think I'm just going to get up there, I'm going to fall over and die. I'm going to have a heart attack. I'm going to fall over and die. That's what's going to happen."

Keith O'brien

You really thought you would die.

Richard Pierce

Well, that was my first thought. Get up, your heart's going to burst and they're going to die.

Man

OK, on to the speaking portion of our program tonight.

Keith O'brien

Rich, of course, didn't die that night, or the night after that. He's been coming to Toastmasters for a few months now, slowly building up the courage to speak and the skills to do it. I was at the meeting the night he got up and gave a speech for the second time. He was introduced by another prisoner.

Man

Speaker number one, title to his speech is "Yet Another Reason Why It's not a Good Idea to Dress Up as a Police Officer." Mr. Pierce, welcome.

[APPLAUSE]

Keith O'brien

Rich's assignment tonight was get to the point. Give a well-structured speech in five to seven minutes. Rich chose to talk about the time 30 years ago he decided to dress up as a cop for Halloween.

Richard Pierce

And I worked on myself in the mirror and I was quite impressed. I was confident I would scare the wits out of my friends and my coworkers. What could go wrong?

Keith O'brien

Watching him talk, I just didn't want him to fail. Here was Rich, standing in front of a dozen people, palms placed flat on the podium.

Richard Pierce

Then she says, hey, I've got a great idea, her face brightens. How about if you was to stick your-- point your--

Keith O'brien

He's lost his place, snapping his fingers, trying to remember the words.

Richard Pierce

Point your cap guns at me? And I'll raise my hands and I'll give you the cash out of the drawer. Wouldn't that be a gas, she says?

Keith O'brien

He recovered. Then his story wandered a little, but he got a lot of laughs. He connected with the room, a real victory.

Richard Pierce

The end.

[APPLAUSE]

Keith O'brien

After the speech, Rich was really hard on himself. In his self-evaluation, he wrote down three words-- "Horrible, needs practice." But his peers were more forgiving. "Excellent job," they wrote. "Great progress, very good eye contact, very welcoming." They called him "Winning and funny." One inmate said they should have storytelling every Saturday night on the cell block with Mr. Pierce. Another told Rich he had nothing to fear. He was just as good as anyone else.

Rich had been nervous, trembling even. And no one noticed.

Richard Pierce

So my insides don't match up my outsides. But that's probably true for many people, don't you think?

Keith O'brien

I do, actually. In that way, it's very, very normal.

Richard Pierce

Yeah, so that's comforting, that I can always portray myself as confident when I'm not, until it comes naturally, anyway.

Keith O'brien

I got news for you, Rich. A lot of people on the outside, a lot of quote unquote "real people," they do that all the time.

Richard Pierce

Really?

Keith O'brien

Absolutely.

Richard Pierce

How do you know? Are you sure?

Keith O'brien

I'm quite sure. People put on airs all the time. People often will act like they're more confident than they really are. It's normal.

Richard Pierce

Yeah, I suppose so. I suppose so. Well, that's comforting to know, that I'm not like a total washout.

Keith O'brien

No, he's not. He doesn't accept it, but it's true. He's way more normal than he thinks.

Ira Glass

Keith O'Brien in New Hampshire. Since we first ran this story a year ago, Rich got out on parole and is now married and living in Colorado. His wife first heard him on our radio show and started writing to him. They wrote to each other. One thing led to another.

Act Four. Trailbreaker.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Trailbreaker. So it's not just that deciding to change your life can be completely momentous. Telling people about the decision can be a big deal too. Sean Cole has an example.

Sean Cole

The beginning of this story is as ordinary as you can imagine. A kid comes out to his family during Thanksgiving break from college. The kid was Andy Greer. It was 1989. He said it like this.

Andy Greer

Mom and Dad, I'm sure it won't surprise you, but I'm gay and I'm really happy about it.

Sean Cole

His mom, indeed, was not surprised. His father, he remembers, was very surprised, which was kind of amazing given all of the years Andy spent at musical theater camp.

Andy Greer

Well, of course he thought about it.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Andy Greer

I later discovered a book in my house called Growing Up Straight that had all these rules underlined about how to bring up your child heterosexual.

Sean Cole

Wait. How to bring up your child as a straight child?

Andy Greer

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was things like take them camping at Civil War sites and collect arrowheads. And I'm like, oh I remember doing that.

Sean Cole

That seems very particular.

Andy Greer

It was very particular. Yeah. Play mumblety-peg was one of them.

Sean Cole

What is mumblety-peg?

Andy Greer

It's where you throw a knife at a stump.

[LAUGHTER]

Which we did that, yeah. It was fun.

Sean Cole

How is that supposed to straighten you?

Andy Greer

It doesn't seem like even the wrist movement would be helpful.

Sean Cole

Andy says that night he announced to the mumblety-peg hadn't worked, his dad responded with "I have to think about this a while." And then Andy did what you do in 1989 suburban Maryland when you've just come out to your parents. He drove to the mall and wandered in and out of stores thinking about what just happened. And when he got back to the parking lot, he realized he'd locked his keys in the car. His mom's car that he'd borrowed in order to drive off in a strident blaze of glory.

Andy Greer

Because I ran out of the house like I'd won this round. So I found a payphone. It's 1989, right? So I called my mom mortified. And I thought, "Well, now I've really screwed it up. Locking my keys in the car has proved how I I'm not a responsible adult at all. How could I even know that I'm gay?"

Sean Cole

So Andy's in a snowy parking lot alone. Finally his mom drives up in the family's other car, gets out, and if this were a much shorter story, she would have simply given him the spare set of keys and driven home.

Andy Greer

But instead she unlocks the car and then gets in the other the passenger side and sits in the car with me.

Sean Cole

And closes the door.

Andy Greer

Closes the door.

Sean Cole

And you're like, "What are you doing?"

Andy Greer

Well, I'm thinking, "Oh, no. Now we're going to have the talk." That I fled. [GROANING]

She looked not happy. I was ready for that whole thing. "I can't believe what you just did to our family." Something like that.

Sean Cole

And what did she say?

Andy Greer

She said, "About what you said earlier. I think I'm gay too."

Sean Cole

What?

Andy Greer

Yeah. I was really surprised.

Sean Cole

I don't know--

Andy Greer

Really, the emotion I felt was, "I am completely off the hook now." Oh, I thought. This, oh my God. This is way bigger than my story. No one's going to care about me. Like, once I really understood what she was saying--

Sean Cole

You're like, I have nothing to worry about.

Andy Greer

I have nothing to worry about.

Sean Cole

That was the first thing he thought. The next thing was more like, what the hell's going on here? After all, Andy was a 19-year-old college sophomore at this point. He still thought that once you reached middle age, you didn't change anymore. Like his parents were these two paintings hanging in the house, paintings that cooked him dinner when he came home.

Andy Greer

I hadn't considered you could actually propose a completely new life, and that you'd been thinking about it all along. All along? My whole life she'd been waiting for this?

Oh, I did forget to say, after she said "I think I'm gay too," long pause, and then she says, "Don't tell your father."

Sean Cole

So you have to keep this secret from your dad.

Andy Greer

Right.

Sean Cole

Which is the hugest secret.

Andy Greer

I just couldn't bear it. It was such a huge secret.

Sean Cole

I'm trying to think of a bigger secret you could keep from your dad.

Andy Greer

Murder.

Sean Cole

You murdered somebody.

Andy Greer

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Or your mom.

Andy Greer

My mom murdered somebody.

Sean Cole

Your mom murdered somebody. That would be bigger.

Andy Greer

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Or your mom is Spider-man.

Andy Greer

Yes.

Sean Cole

That would be bigger.

Andy Greer

That's kind of how it felt, like my mom was Spider-man in some way, because to me it was also exciting that I knew her secret identity. The things were all together in my head.

Sandra Greer

Well, it was not Thanksgiving. It was January of 1990.

Sean Cole

This, of course, is Andy's mom, Sandra Greer. She remembers the story a little differently than Andy in places-- not only that it wasn't on Thanksgiving, but also that she and Andy's dad started wondering if Andy might be gay when he was four years old, hence the Growing Up Straight book. So it wasn't much of a shock.

And one other thing you should know about Sandra before we continue is that she's an experimental chemist. Not just by profession. That's how she thinks about everything. For instance, she told me that when Andy announced he was gay, she had already started this long, slow process of coming out herself.

Sandra Greer

And it is true that his coming out probably catalyzed my coming out. It would have happened, but it would have taken maybe a little longer. I choose the word "catalyzed" carefully. A catalyst changes the rate of things but does not change the final state of equilibrium. And so when I say his coming out was a catalyst, I mean exactly that.

Andy Greer

You see what I have to live with?

Sean Cole

Believe it or not, Andy and his mom actually haven't talked about any of this in the quarter century since it happened. And one of Andy's burning questions has been about Sandra's state of mind in between his big reveal in the kitchen and the moment she hopped in the car with him. What was going on in her head? He figured-- in fact, he told her when we were all talking about it. He says you must have been in some emotional turmoil during that hour or so. But again, Sandra is a pragmatist and very much a mom.

Sandra Greer

I was thinking that I needed to find a way to say this, and that this was about the only time that he and I would be alone, and that his coming out to me-- not only did it give me permission to say this, but that it might be helpful to him to know that I knew what he was going through and for him to give me some support.

Sean Cole

But were you nervous?

Sandra Greer

Yes, I was. Yes, I was. I mean, this was a pretty big deal. So I was nervous, and at the same time a little relieved that I could talk to him about it.

Sean Cole

And as they were sitting there in the car, Andy quickly realized, wait a second. This means we aren't going to be a family anymore. Not in the same way, which wasn't a relief and wasn't exciting. Plus, it's just that he figured he was the gay one in the family.

Andy Greer

Yeah, and then mom takes over the show.

Sean Cole

Oh, so you felt like she was stealing your thunder a little bit.

Andy Greer

Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. And after that she did a little, because she would start to tell relatives that I was gay.

Sean Cole

And this is where the story becomes not a story about the secretly gay mother of an openly gay son, but the ingeniously clever secretly gay mother of an openly gay son. The way Andy tells it, his mom basically took to the phones like a pollster in a boiler room, spreading the word that someone they knew very well had come out of the closet.

Andy Greer

Well, because of course, she was trying to figure out how people would react, her mother would react to someone being gay at all, kind of test the waters for herself. But my mom was telling all kinds of people, my great great aunt, and Aunt Dot, and all these people I didn't really know.

Sean Cole

Wait. And you're like, "Wait, Mom."

Andy Greer

Yeah, it was spiraling out of control. Yeah, the Coopersteins knew. Yeah.

Sean Cole

Who are the Coopersteins?

Andy Greer

They were our next door neighbors since i was a kid. Because I didn't think about those people except at holidays. So when I went back to school, I didn't think, well, I'd better call the Coopersteins now, because they were out of my mind. And then a week later, I hear that the Coopersteins, Myrna Cooperstein has something to say about it.

Sean Cole

And were you mad?

Andy Greer

No, she needed my story more than I did. Because she needed to test these people out. And it was the perfect way to do it before she dropped her own bomb, probably a year or so later.

Sean Cole

Actually, it wasn't a year or so later, says Andy's mom, Sandra. She remembers this part differently too. She says she told Andy's twin brother Mike just a couple of days later, and told their father only a couple of months after that, and then moved out in the spring. Also, she says she doesn't remember calling around to anybody about Andy except for her mother and her sister. And yes, she probably told Myrna Cooperstein. But her coming out and Andy's coming out, they aren't as connected as that, she told me.

Sean Cole

I guess the way that I think they may be connected-- so you're a chemist. And in a way, it seems like telling folks around you that Andy is gay, it's like the perfect litmus test, in a way.

Sandra Greer

Ah, very good. Well done.

Sean Cole

Thank you.

Sandra Greer

I don't know that I consciously thought of it that way, but it certainly gave me more information. It gave me more information for my process, which was going to come later.

Sean Cole

So what information did it?

Sandra Greer

The sky did not fall down. Life went on as we know it. Nobody disowned anybody. Nothing really bad happened.

Andy Greer

You've got to wonder what it must have been like for Sandra. She was 45. She says she hadn't so much as kissed a woman yet, and here comes her 19 year old son just boldly saying the very things she's been hiding about herself, like he was speaking her secret out loud. Did she feel some kind of twinge in her gut or some chill or something?

Sandra Greer

I would say that he was more a role model for me.

Andy Greer

Oh, Mom.

Sandra Greer

That he could show me how you could do this and live your life with integrity. He just flat out came out, and there was no hedging about it, and he didn't screw around about it. And the result was that people who loved you still loved you.

Andy Greer

Well, that's a completely different way of seeing it. Wow.

Sandra Greer

Yeah, I think that's the way I felt about it, that he was showing me how to do things.

Sean Cole

The funny thing is that Andy, for all his role modeliness, again, he was still a kid. And he still had a thing or to learn from his mom about being open minded.

Andy Greer

I had gone into this situation and basically said, "I'm not who you think I am. I'm my own person, and you're going to have to deal with it." And then my mom said, "I'm not who you think I am. I'm going to be my own person."

I was like, "no, no, no, but you have to. You're the mom. Not fair." And then you also have to think about your parent as a human being. No, I was not ready. I was not open minded enough to consider some golden rule about how you're supposed to act at coming out stories.

Sean Cole

Do unto others.

Andy Greer

Yeah.

Sean Cole

But he got over it. And within a year or so, Sandra was living as a fully out gay person. Of course, we all have these catalytic people in our lives. Usually, it's an older sibling or a friend, the first person we knew who got us listening to cool music for a change, or kissed somebody, or left home and moved to a new city. Or it's your parents you're fashioning yourself after somehow. How often is it that a person you created and raised is the one who leads you over a threshold?

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our program. Andrew Sean Greer, the guy in that story, is a novelist. His latest book, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

[MUSIC - "CHANGES" BY LANGHORNE SLIM AND THE LAW]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek, with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for this episode is Brian Reed. Our editor for this episode was Joel Lovell. Editorial help for this episode by Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our staff includes Elise Bergerson, Whitney Dangerfield, Kimberly Henderson, Seth Lind.

Research out help from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damian Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Richard Davis and Debra Drennan, Marty Heresniak, WBEZ's Collin Ashmead-Bobbitt, Marketplace's Stephen Cologne, and Cornell University's Bert Odom-Reed.

The podcast, Unfictional, that you heard some excerpts from at the beginning of today's program comes KCRW. 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, who dressed as Chicken Little for Halloween this year. And no, he was disappointed how it worked out.

Sandra Greer

The sky did not fall down.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "CHANGES" BY LANGHORNE SLIM AND THE LAW]