Transcript

598:

My Undesirable Talent
Transcript

Originally aired 10.07.2016

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Biba Struja was in high school in Serbia when he learned he was different from other people.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Ira Glass

We talked about it through an interpreter. He was on the phone from Serbia. He said it was a rainy day. They were going in to weld gates and fences. And his friend touched the fence they were working on and got a shock.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Interpreter

He told me not to touch anything because there was electricity there. But I touched it with my bare hand, and I didn't feel anything. Nothing happened.

Ira Glass

Nothing happened.

Interpreter

So he didn't believe me that I didn't feel anything, that there was no electricity in the fence. So he touched it again, but he was shocked again.

Ira Glass

Then another guy touches the fence, and he was shocked. Biba sees this, and he thinks, oh, it's a prank. They're pretending.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Interpreter

So I touched the fence with both hands again, and I didn't feel anything. And we started fighting. I didn't believe them, and they thought that I was lying.

Ira Glass

Biba has a genetic mutation where he doesn't sweat. That means his skin has a lot less water and so a higher resistance to electricity. He says he does not feel currents that would shock most of us. And scientists say, yeah, that might be possible. This super power does come with that huge downside of not sweating, ever. Having a body that cannot cool itself is really, really miserable.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

From May until September, I'm a dead man, basically.

Ira Glass

Because of the heat.

Interpreter

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Interpreter

Yes. I need to be next to an air conditioner all day, or I need to be in a wet t-shirt or next to water or something.

Ira Glass

But the biggest problem with having a special talent like a high resistance to electricity is figuring out what exactly you do with that talent. You can't just put on a costume and join the X-Men. Until the day that mankind is threatened by an alien race whose bodies are electric charges, you really aren't much use as a superhero. Biba's brother has the same genetic mutation, and he decided to do nothing with it. He stayed on the family farm.

But Biba was sure there must be a way to monetize this. So he went into show business, created a little act doing electricity tricks, like this one-- he sticks a fork in each end of a hot dog, holds the hot dog in midair in front of his face, one hand on each fork, and then-- OK, it's not clear exactly what's going on or whether you actually need a genetic mutation to do this trick, but electricity is pumped through the forks and cooks the hot dog.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Ira Glass

This is from a really good film that was made about Biba called Battery Man, Biba saying, am I the fastest grill or not? It just takes a minute or so to cook a hot dog this way. He toured around Europe doing this act, mostly in discos, he says, sometimes on TV. It's not much of a living. He's got kids. So he supplements that with a job that also sounds like it's kind of a grind for him-- he does therapeutic massages with electricity, up to 20 a day.

Biba Struja

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].

Interpreter

I have a certificate as an electrobiotherapist.

Ira Glass

In English, anyway, this word "electrobiotherapist" has the unusual distinction of producing not one hit when you Google it. Mostly, you're probably getting the picture-- Biba's special talent does not seem to make him very happy. When we talked, he complained about the injustice of being born in Serbia, where people don't understand his special gift. In the movie about him, he says sometimes his talent feels like a curse. But when I asked him about that, he said, we're all cursed.

Interpreter

All of us on this planet are in some kind of jail, doing time here. It just depends how long. It depends on the punishment you get, how long you're on this planet.

Ira Glass

That's what having a talent like this does to you. You end up saying stuff like that. It seems sometimes like our entire culture is about glorifying people who have incredible special abilities. We have superhero films. We have magazine articles on inspiringly great musicians and writers, then tech billionaires who invent whole new kinds of businesses.

Today, we are not going to be talking about those people. For once, let us look at the less fortunate super-talented-- and by that I mean people who are gifted, but gifted with skills that just don't help anyone that much. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "My Undesirable Talent." Stay with us.

Act One. Climb Spree.

Ira Glass

Act one, "Climb Spree." So we begin today with a man whose special skill was in the criminal arts. Is that a phrase? Like, I said that, suddenly it felt very Hogwarts School. Anyway, I'm trying to say he had a real gift for committing crimes. Karen Duffin explains.

Karen Duffin

Lou Bronfeld was a cop in San Francisco for 42 years. He spent 16 of those in the burglary unit. And when he talks about his most memorable cases, there's the one where two teenagers stole koalas from the zoo to impress their girlfriends, and there was a series of remarkable burglaries that all happened in the spring of 2002. They all fit the same pattern.

Lou Bronfeld

The suspect would get into a variety of businesses at night via a skylight or the loft or the attic and then lowering themselves down in some of these businesses, and would take the valuables, and then raise themselves back up, almost like right out of a James Bond movie.

Karen Duffin

He appeared to be a career criminal, often left no trace. Businesses sometimes didn't even know they'd been burglarized until they opened the safe or cash register. But it wasn't just his methods. It was the volume. Within a month, he'd pulled off dozens of burglaries.

Lou Bronfeld

You know, we're asking ourselves at work, how is this guy pulling this off? He must be something. I mean, he must be Spider-Man.

Karen Duffin

They assigned more cops later at night to the neighborhood Spider-Man mostly hit. It took two months to catch him. But in those two months, he'd done 63 burglaries. Lou thinks it was the largest burglary count ever charged by the San Francisco DA's office. Spider-Man had done so much so unusually and in such little time the cops were anxious to finally meet him. They had a sense for who he'd probably be.

Lou Bronfeld

Really heavily addicted to a narcotic or he's criminally sophisticated, maybe on parole with a lot of priors. We meet this guy, and he didn't fit any of that.

Karen Duffin

The guy had no prior arrests, didn't appear criminally sophisticated at all-- rather, a little naive. Lou says he was a gentleman-- quiet, polite, seemed relieved to have been caught. They had a hard time connecting the Spider-Man in their heads with the person in front of them, which is a feeling I understand.

Spider-Man is a friend of mine. During his crime spree, we knew each other from church. I was Mormon at the time. He still is. The idea that the guy who sat next to me singing "Choose the Right When a Choice Is Placed Before You" was going out every night and lowering himself into stores on ropes? How did that make any sense at all?

Karen Duffin

You were, like, last on the list of people I would peg for this, you know?

Peter

Yeah. Everyone was surprised. I was a missionary for my church just over a year before this or so. Like, a year and a half before this. It was the furthest thing from everyone's mind.

Karen Duffin

Yeah.

Karin Duffin

I know everyone always says, I didn't see it coming. But nobody who knew him saw it coming. He's super capable in this effortless way-- cooking, singing, dancing, sports. If he wasn't so nice, it'd be easy to hate him for it, which is to say, it just felt so unnecessary. He had so many ways to make money. Why would he steal it? He was so well dressed, so perfectly put together, that the one clue his best friend Juliann spotted that something might be wrong was this--

Juliann

I noticed that he had dirt under his fingernails. And I asked him about it because it was very uncharacteristic of him.

Karin Duffin

She was alarmed because he had dirt under his fingernails. At church, people called him the guy with the Italian shoes.

Juliann

He's extremely detailed. He's more put together than most people feel like they need to be. Even when he was living in his car, he would have his clothes dry-cleaned.

Karin Duffin

He doesn't want to use his name here on the radio, so we thought we'd call him Peter Parker, or maybe Peter Parkour, since that's his MO. He proposed Peter Park. Sounds more Korean, he said, which he is. We decided to go with just Peter.

Peter

Hey.

Karen Duffin

Hi.

Peter

I'm on the second floor.

Karen Duffin

OK, cool.

Karin Duffin

I've been friends with Peter for 15 years. And all that time, my understanding of him has had this gap, like a blurry patch on a photo, when it comes to Spider-Man. There are so many things I've wondered and just never asked. Now, I'd finally get my chance.

Peter

Hey.

Karen Duffin

Hi.

Peter

Hi!

Karen Duffin

This is so beautiful!

Peter

Thanks.

Karen Duffin

We're in his apartment in San Francisco-- floor-to-ceiling windows, open kitchen, great neighborhood. He works in sales now, makes good money, has a girlfriend. Peter and I talked for hours. And even before this conversation, I knew he became Spider-Man because he had a gambling problem and wanted money for it. But I had no idea how extreme his gambling was.

A week before he left for college, he lost his entire college fund, thousands of dollars. In his early 20s, he was going to the casino almost every day, losing every last penny.

Peter

My whole mindset was what am I gonna eat? How will I pay my rent? Can I still put gas in the car to get to the casino? That became a baseline necessity for me.

Karen Duffin

Food, water, gambling.

Peter

Food, water, gambling. And food and water went away. At least I still had gambling. If shelter went away, at least I'd still have gambling. That honestly became the center and the focus of my life.

Karin Duffin

Of course, lots of people have gambling problems, and lots of people resort to stealing to feed that addiction. But lots of people do not embark on crime sprees so spectacular the cops give them a superhero nickname.

Peter explains what happened this way-- he found himself penniless and weeks behind on rent. One night, he was closing up at the health club where he worked, and he went to transfer the cash to the safe like every night. But that night, he thought, oh, I could just borrow this, gamble it, win enough to pay back my landlord, and then replace it by morning.

Peter

And so I took it out before I put the money in the safe, and took $200 to the casino, and promptly lost it. So that night, I walked out of the casino thinking, am I going to jail?

Karin Duffin

For taking the $200.

Peter

That was a big turning point. So I was driving home, probably around 2:00 AM. The bridge was really empty, and I'm thinking, do I jump off the bridge and just end this now? Or can I figure out a way of scraping together $200? How can I do that?

So I started-- I don't know how the idea entered my head. But Mission Impossible came to mind, the scene of Tom Cruise entering from the rooftop and being lowered down on some ropes.

Karin Duffin

And then he remembered this concession stand at his school, the City College of San Francisco. He'd bought snacks there. It's remote, probably easy to break into. He also remembered that when he worked at a restaurant, they didn't lock the safe. He hoped the concession stand didn't, either.

Peter

And so I went home, got dressed in dark clothes, grabbed mittens because I didn't have any gloves. So I was wearing these-- basically like snowboarding mittens.

Karen Duffin

Like without fingers?

Peter

No fingers. No fingers. Just mittens.

Karen Duffin

Are you nervous? Are you excited? Are you scared?

Peter

Oh, I'm incredibly nervous. Never done anything like this. This idea has never crossed my mind, to do anything of this nature.

Honestly, I haven't been back here since that burglary.

Karen Duffin

Really?

Peter

Yeah.

Karen Duffin

Wow.

Karin Duffin

We're driving up to the concession stand.

Peter

We're looking down into the stadium. And so just ahead of us now is this concession stand. We can probably just pull over right in front of this thing.

Karin Duffin

It's a one-story building, maybe 15 by 15, fully concrete with a rolling window in front where vendors hand out hot dogs and beers during games.

Peter

And I had always been a really good climber, climbed tons of trees as a kid and always loved climbing things. So I thought, I can probably find a way to climb on top of this building.

Karin Duffin

He did. He found a hatch on top, like a skylight, but it's steel. He turned the handle. It was unlocked. He opened it, and he dropped 10 feet into the darkness. No rope, just jumped. Had no idea what he was dropping into. He'd never been in there before. Pretty soon, bingo.

Peter

There was the safe. And it was open. And there was $5,500 in cash and coins. And so I bundled it all up, and I took the sweater off that I had brought. I hadn't brought a backpack with me. Poor planning. Took my mittens off so that I could actually grab all the money, bundled all of the money up in the sweater that I kind of tied the sleeves of the sweater together. And my heart was pumping out of my chest.

Karin Duffin

He climbed on a table and out the hatch, drove straight back to his work, put the $200 he'd stolen earlier that night into the safe, and went home.

Karen Duffin

What's going through your head as you lay down to sleep that night with $5,500 in your bundled-up sweater?

Peter

I was really excited. I mean, I'd figured out a way of doing this. Also thinking, that's the only time that I'm going to do this because now I'll go back to the casino, and I'll win all kinds of money. And I'll just be able to probably not even gamble again. It kind of felt, I guess, at that moment like all of my problems had been solved.

Karin Duffin

This plan, of course, is crazy. When he took the money to the casino, it did not turn into permanent financial stability. He lost it, all of it. But now, he had a way to get it back.

Peter

Now this door had been opened, and I knew that I could do this thing to get money.

Karin Duffin

And with this thought, everything changed. The transformation from being one of us to being Spider-Man was as simple as he stumbled onto something that worked. And once he found it, he didn't let it go. He started looking at the city with different eyes.

Peter

I was now being more observant as I was driving around the city. I would just take a look at the one-story shops.

Karin Duffin

Places he could easily climb on top of.

Peter

Like, in the next five or so blocks, I did a bunch of burglaries.

Karin Duffin

We're in the Sunset District. And I knew how many places he'd robbed, but seeing him point to one after another after another kind of blew my mind, made the scale of it seem so much bigger-- a flower shop, a burger joint, a comic book store, a kickboxing gym he climbed into through the skylight.

Peter

Yeah, I just imagined all of the students being very angry and coming and kicking my butt with Thai kickboxing.

Karin Duffin

Further down the block, he points to a series of buildings.

Peter

One of these places, I had to jump across an alleyway from one building to the other.

Karin Duffin

Almost every news article mentioned that one. They say he leapt 10 feet between the two buildings. And on the side of one of those buildings--

Peter

I was hanging onto a pipe with one hand, and then trying to climb in through these really thin windows that could probably not support my weight. And I thought I'd probably fall and die.

Karin Duffin

He's pointing at places I've been to in a neighborhood where I used to live, including a cafe we used to go to together. I had no idea he'd stolen something from that place. Somehow, that never came up. At the Noriega Produce Market just a few blocks away--

Peter

I actually took a break in the middle of this burglary to eat an ice cream bar. I guess I had gotten so comfortable at this point where I'm like, union break, right in the middle of this thing. But they wrote it in, actually. Yeah, they wrote it into the police report that I had taken an ice cream bar.

Karin Duffin

Peter's police report says that, quote, "The manner in which the crimes were carried out indicates planning and sophistication." But if you ask Peter, his primary method was winging it. He wore whatever he had on, didn't case the interiors of the store in advance-- just chose a place and figured out how to break in. He assembled a backpack of misfit tools he'd picked up at random-- garden hose, a carjack, a meat cleaver he used to cut through walls.

Karen Duffin

Was there any part of it that was also exciting? Like, fun? Like, you're good at this.

Peter

It wasn't, honestly. What I remember about that time in my life is fear, constant fear. And I didn't want to have to wake up to do these. Again, every time I did this, it was feeling like, I don't want to do this again. This is the last time. This is it. I'm done. I'm done.

Karin Duffin

He built himself a double life-- worked at the health club during the day, church on Sundays with us, friends on weekends, and an alarm set for 1:00 or 2:00 AM almost every night, when he'd become Spider-Man. If he found money, he'd come home, shower, and go straight to the casino, immediately. If he didn't, he'd go back to bed and sleep all day. As his friend, it was hard to hear that he'd trapped himself in this terrible life. He says he didn't see it.

Peter

I don't recall taking a step back and just asking myself, what the heck are you doing?

Karen Duffin

How's that possible? Like, how is it possible that at no point were you like, what am I doing?

Peter

That's a good question. I'm not really sure. What I know is I didn't want to look at it, honestly. I think that was such a frightening thought, to even look into that chasm because there wasn't another option. It was just keep doing this, and do as many of these as you have to get some money so that you can go back to the casino. And this time, maybe you can win enough money so that you can stop doing this.

Karen Duffin

But there were so many other options, actually.

Peter

No, it's true. I think I wanted the easiest way possible. I mean, I certainly wanted to take the path of least resistance.

Karen Duffin

But do you hear what you're saying? Because the path of least resistance does not include climbing through skylights. That's not the path of least resistance.

Peter

That's true. It took a lot to get me there. That wasn't something that I just wanted to go do. But once I was there, that became the path of least resistance.

Karin Duffin

It became like a job, but not a good job. He got injured all the time.

Peter

That's Hotei.

Karen Duffin

Oh, this is the old Japanese restaurant.

Peter

Yeah. That's the Japanese restaurant right there.

Karin Duffin

One night, he got into this restaurant with another ad-libbed tool. He cut the cord off a vacuum cleaner he found, tied it to the roof, and used it to climb down through the skylight. He landed on the floor, looked out the window, and saw a police car.

Peter

So there are two really large windows in the front of the restaurant.

Karen Duffin

Those are huge windows. This isn't just like, oh, if you peeked out the window-- and the restaurant isn't big, either. So you're screwed.

Karin Duffin

He crawls to the register, gets the cash. Worried he's tripped a silent alarm, he tries climbing back up, but loses his grip and falls 10 feet, breaking a table and some chairs. His only option now is the front door.

Peter

And so I walk over to the front door. I unlock it and open it up. I take a step out the door. And to my left, there is a police officer. Immediately, I just reach into the pocket of my jeans, pull out my keys, and act like I'm locking the door. And I say, hey, good evening, officer. And then I walk down the street.

Karin Duffin

As he told me these stories, I could see why Peter would be good at this-- the guy who thinks quickly on his feet, cool under pressure, intuitive. That night, he went to his best friend Juliann's house, the one who'd notice the dirt under his fingernails.

Peter

I showed up at her house limping and hunched over and just told her I just need to sleep on your couch. And so she knew there was something going on. She just didn't know what it was. And I wasn't about to tell anyone what I was doing.

Karen Duffin

Did you want to?

Peter

I didn't. I didn't want anyone to know.

Karin Duffin

He didn't want anyone to know for all the obvious reasons. He was ashamed. But also, he told me he was used to pretending he was in control, to pretending he was like everyone else. Peter was adopted from Korea into a tiny town in Iowa, mostly white, raised by white parents.

Peter

Honestly, I'd forget that I was Korean until someone would point it out and just kind of snap me back into reality sometimes.

Karin Duffin

It left him always feeling like an outsider. He put on the Italian shoes, kept his feelings to himself, and hoped no one would notice he was different. And this is the thing that struck me, talking to him about all this. At church, we were all so impressed by how composed Peter was, how well put together, without realizing it was because he was trying so hard to be composed and well put together.

Peter was a really great thief in some ways, and a really dumb one in others. He never stopped to think, five dozen burglaries in a row in the same neighborhood during the same hours every day-- wouldn't the cops catch on? They did, and caught him. He confessed everything immediately. He served some time, came out.

And now, of course, we all knew he was Spider-Man, and we rallied around him and rooted for him as he built this new life and went to meetings for his gambling addiction. He was more involved in church than ever. But within a year, secretly, he started going back to the casino. He started stealing again. And this time, he really started to unravel.

Any kind of stealing is pretty tawdry. But because Peter never saw his victims face-to-face, the crime felt a little abstract, like robbing a business and not a person. But one afternoon, he finally committed a crime where he couldn't ignore how ugly it was.

After a failed burglary the night before, he drove around looking for something to swipe in broad daylight. He hoped to find a stray purse or wallet, but he couldn't. So when he spotted a young woman walking down the sidewalk with a purse, he made a decision.

Peter

And so I started walking up behind her. And the sun was shining towards us. So she couldn't see my shadow as I came up behind her. And I was just walking quickly to try and catch up with her, the whole time just kind of having this inward battle, where I was getting close, and then I slowed down a little bit, and then speeding up. And so finally, I just walked up right behind her. And it's almost as though the second before I touched her purse, it's almost as though I was not in my body when this happened. And I observed this from another angle.

Karin Duffin

He grabbed the purse, and to his horror, she wouldn't let go. So he spun her around, and she fell to the ground, and he ran off with her purse.

Peter

This is really awful. The fact that I victimized another human being, it's still such a source of shame.

Karin Duffin

The next day, he tried to steal another purse from a table at Canvas Cafe, the restaurant that he and I used to go to together sometimes. He was arrested and thrown into jail a second time.

While Peter was behind bars, the guards had heard all about his escapades. They were a little enamored of him. So they took him to an empty corner of the jail one day and dropped a rope down from the ceiling. They wanted to see Spider-Man climb. He was in, he says, the best shape of his life, was doing hundreds of pull-ups and sit-ups every day.

Peter

But I could not climb up this rope. And it shocked me, actually. It shocked me based on how strong I was at that point, that I couldn't do something that simple when I had climbed much, much more than that.

Karin Duffin

When I asked him what he thought the difference was, he said desperation. Sheer desperation. That's how he was able to climb up and down ropes and into buildings. That's how Peter became Spider-Man.

Ira Glass

Karen Duffin is one of the producers of our program. Her friend Peter, by the way, got heavy-duty treatment for his addiction. He hasn't gambled since 2004. Coming up, discovering you can out-Eddie-Murphy Eddie Murphy. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Uganda Be Kidding Me.

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 program, "My Undesirable Talent," stories of people who find they have a special skill that has some upsides, but in the end, vexingly, more bad than good. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, "Uganda Be Kidding Me."

So in this act, as in the first act, we have another guy who tried something once, kind of almost by accident sort of stumbled onto his special skill, and then ran with it for a while until the problems with it became clear. Neil Drumming explains.

Neil Drumming

This story begins when Zora Bikangaga is about to start at a new college.

Zora Bikangaga

My roommate emailed me first because he was really eager to get to know me. And the first question he asked was, your name is awesome, man. Zora Bikangaga. Where does it come from?

Neil Drumming

Uganda. Zora's parents are Ugandan. Zora was born in Fresno. It was the summer before he transferred into Westmont College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Santa Barbara. Zora was sitting around with his high school buddies talking about this enthusiastic email he had received. The guy was apparently very excited to meet someone like Zora. Zora's friends, who'd known him for years, found this hilarious.

Zora Bikangaga

They were like, dude, he probably thinks you're an international student or something. You know? Zora Bikangaga. Who has a name like that? You should totally act like you're from Africa. And so he called me. I answered the phone. (AFRICAN ACCENT) Hello? Reed! Reed Stoker? You are my roommate, huh?

Neil Drumming

The accent was sort of a hybrid of Zora's dad and Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, Zora's favorite movie. Up until then, Zora had only used it to toy with waiters and crack his friends up. It was a joke. Quick comparison-- here's Eddie Murphy.

Eddie Murphy

Hello. I am Akeem. I'm a student.

Neil Drumming

And now here's Zora.

Zora Bikangaga

(AFRICAN ACCENT) Hello? Reed!

Neil Drumming

Anyway, back to our story.

Reed

Wow, this is crazy. This dude is straight out of Africa.

Neil Drumming

This is Zora's roommate. His name is Reed. Even now, he's pretty stoked when he remembers the call.

Reed

I was like, check this guy's accent. He's like some prince of some lake region. So I was excited that I got a very unique roommate to go alongside of my general excitement for going away to college.

Neil Drumming

Zora could have shown up on the first day of school speaking in his regular voice. But his friends back home wanted to see if he could fool Reed face-to-face. For that, he'd need more than an accent.

Zora Bikangaga

I had this shirt on that I got in Uganda. It was a very traditional, vibrant print shirt that I got in Kampala. And I was like, all right. I'm gonna wear this shirt and these sandals that I got in Africa to look the part.

Neil Drumming

He figured he'd mess with the guy for a few minutes at the most. But when Zara got to the dorm, Reed wasn't alone.

Zora Bikangaga

He was there with his dad and his little sister, this white family from Orange County. And immediately, they were so warm to me and so friendly. And I remember his little sister was 13 or 14 at the time. And she was so interested in Uganda. And she was so endearing and fascinated by my background. I had never had someone react to me in that way.

Neil Drumming

Zora pulled from his parents' experiences and his limited knowledge of Africa to dazzle Reed's family with descriptions of tribes and exotic animals. Again, it could have stopped there. But it was the first day of school, and there were a lot of people who wanted to meet him.

Zora Bikangaga

Everyone's around you. My RA came in. The neighbors came in. We were meeting so many people to where I didn't have time to drop the character. It snowballed.

Neil Drumming

Zora stayed in character. He met a bunch of people, all of whom seemed delighted to get to know him. He was enjoying the warm reception so much that he felt a pang of regret when he was introduced to two Kenyan students, actual African students. He knew the game was over.

Zora Bikangaga

And I was like, all right. This is it. I was introduced to them. And they're like, oh, man, you're from Uganda. I went to Kampala. And we started to talk about Nairobi. And I know about Nairobi because my mom lived there as a teenager. She actually went to school there. And I spoke a little Swahili. And they knew a little bit of Luganda, which isn't even my parents' language, but it's the main language in Uganda.

And I guess I knew enough about Uganda to the point where it's like, yeah. They were like, all right. Yeah, he's from-- OK. He's from Uganda. And I look like I'm from Uganda. That's when it got real to me. And I was like, these two guys think that I'm from Uganda, these two Kenyans. This is a real thing. I can do this for a long time. Actually, I could probably get away with this forever.

Neil Drumming

Zora was thrilled and also a bit terrified by his new superpower. He was part Storm, part Mystique, but a dude. He needed to talk to the only people who knew his secret identity.

Zora Bikangaga

The first thing I did was I called my best friends back home. And I was like, they bought it. And they're like, oh, that's hilarious! And I was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You don't understand. Everyone thinks that I'm this guy. I was kind of freaking out on the phone with them. And they were like, no this is-- they thought it was so funny.

And I was like, no, you don't understand. This is a small school. And the orientation leaders think that I'm this guy. I met like a couple professors. You don't understand. And they're like, you got to keep going with this. You can be a completely different person. You can have so much fun with this. Do you understand what you've done? You've got to see how long you can do it.

Neil Drumming

This is not good advice. These are your good friends?

Zora Bikangaga

Yeah. Yeah, I mean these were guys that I grew up with, that I was close with. But again, they were 18. I mean, I saw the fun in it. Did I want to have the same experience as I did in high school? No, of course not. High school was rough. It was rough for me.

Neil Drumming

Zora spent most of his childhood in a small, very white town in wine country, northern California, called Healdsburg. His father was a cardiovascular surgeon. And Healdsburg was exactly the kind of place where you'd expect the son of a successful doctor to blend in and thrive. Zora spoke like the other kids in the neighborhood. He played like the other kids in the neighborhood. He just didn't look like the other kids in the neighborhood.

Zora Bikangaga

And then there was one other black kid in the town that was adopted, Ben Jackson. And he had one arm. We always used to joke that I was the black kid with two arms, and he was the black kid with one arm, like we didn't have a name. You know? It was like, what up, one arm? What up, two arms? That kind of thing. I felt bad for him.

Neil Drumming

As one of the few black kids around, Zora stomached his share of snubs. He was called colorful names like porch monkey, coon, and spear chucker. Oh, and [BLEEP]. Once, a playmate refused to let him use his bathroom for fear his skin color would rub off in the toilet.

These slights baffled Zora because for the most part, he didn't see himself as being different from his friends. And because he never talked to his parents about this stuff, it sometimes weirdly fell to his white friends to explain to him exactly what the hell was going on. Like that time in middle school when he was hanging out with his buddies at a neighborhood store, and the clerk made Zora-- only Zora-- empty his pockets to see if he was stealing.

Zora Bikangaga

My best friend at the time was like, I can't believe he did that because you're black. And it dawned on me-- that was because I was black. I really didn't see myself as different than everyone else in that way. And it was just moments like that that was like, you're black. You're black. You're black.

Neil Drumming

In high school, Zora hit it off with a white girl, but the romance was over before it started.

Zora Bikangaga

She told her dad that she liked me or whatever. And her dad said, if you go out with him, don't ever bother coming back home. And I was like, wait, she would be disowned for talking to me? I'm just like my friend Brian. If she went out with my friend Brian, it would have been fine.

Neil Drumming

Zora went from being frustrated by all the indignities and exclusion to being guarded and distrustful of most people.

Zora Bikangaga

Personality-wise, I'm naturally very extroverted. But I had to put this barrier around me, I think. I mean, not that I was losing my temper all the time or anything like that. But I was more closed off, for sure.

Neil Drumming

Zora wasn't happy with this unhappy person he'd become. So when he got to Westmont and the opportunity arose to become yet another new person, someone who drew others to him rather than repulsing them, Zora seized it.

Zora Bikangaga

I could be extroverted. I could be open and friendly and talk to a lot of different kinds of people and be gregarious and funny, make people laugh. And people loved this guy. And as it went along, I felt conflicted about it. But I was also kind of like, this guy is me. There's a part of me in this guy in that whatever people love about this guy, they love me.

The way that I say my name in American English would be Zora Beacon-gaga or Zora Be-con-gaga. But the way that I would say my full name would be (AFRICAN ACCENT) Zora Bikangaga or Muzora Bikangaga, which is the full name. Muzora Bikangaga.

Angie

I remember seeing him walk into campus. And I was like, yes! Because we always feel that way. Yes, another black person! A black guy! That's awesome!

Neil Drumming

This is Angie. She says everyone at Westmont College seemed to love Zora.

Angie

He had this regalness about him, in bulk. Everyone was quiet and listened. 'Cause with that accent comes a lot of pauses and a lot of thoughtfulness. So it was very, like, what is he gonna say?

Neil Drumming

Even as a fellow black student, Angie was not immune to thinking of Zora as someone unusual and exciting.

Angie

Oh, he's from another country. That resonated more with me because it was more interesting to me that he just wasn't an American black guy. I can learn about his culture, where he's from. That'd be amazing.

Neil Drumming

So Angie and Zora got very close over the course of the semester. She says they were full fledged BFF's. When they weren't in class, they spent days exploring Santa Barbara together. They watched movies. They played basketball. And they listened to a ton of hip-hop. On Angie's 18th birthday, Zora surprised her with a copy of Common's Like Water for Chocolate.

Angie

I was so excited. It made my whole birthday that he got me this CD. And we would just talk about the lyrics and stuff. And I was like, it's so cool. Because I'd be like, in Africa, you guys have this? You know about Common? How did you see him? On TV? I was so fascinated.

Zora Bikangaga

Yeah, she was fascinated with my background. And so I felt so guilty about that. But also, I was really into her, as well. She was beautiful. She was outspoken. And she was this amazing girl. And we got really close.

Neil Drumming

BFF close, but not more.

Eddie Murphy

I want a woman that's going to arouse my intellect as well as my loins.

Neil Drumming

Sorry. That was Eddie Murphy again. I couldn't help myself. Zora says he didn't get physically intimate with anyone the entire time he was in character. He figured if he ever got found out, that would just make his shenanigan seem infinitely more sinister. Zora kept the facade up for months, almost the whole semester, and no one had a clue. They may have even been predisposed not to have a clue. Here's Zora's roommate, Reed, again.

Reed

It wasn't just the accent. It's the fact that he's 6' 7". He was a really dark black guy in a white, rich-kid college. And so I think people kind of wanted to know him and were intrigued by him. And I think in a way, at a Christian school like that, I think people were motivated to proactively show how accepting they were to different kinds of people.

Neil Drumming

And Zora encouraged them to believe he was different, the right kind of different.

Neil Drumming

So that was part of your persona, was international student. There was no Healdsburg. There was no American home. You came from Uganda to go to school.

Zora Bikangaga

Well, so here's what happened-- yes, but I had this old '73 Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible. And it was this old boat. And we would drive down to the beach. So I had a bunch of people in the back seat. The car was packed. And there was a yearbook that I forgot under my seat.

And there was a girl back there that saw the yearbook. And she started flipping through it. And I was like, oh, man. I'm done. I'm done. They found out that I'm from Healdsburg. And she was like, Zora, why are you in this yearbook? And I was like, (AFRICAN ACCENT) oh, no. I was a foreign exchange student for a year. I was with a family.

And so I said I'd been in the States for a year. And that's why I had the car. And they're like, oh, OK. And it just went on.

Neil Drumming

Were you in college at one point-- this is the first semester-- thinking, God, this is so much better than it used to be? Or did you think, this is worse in a different way?

Zora Bikangaga

No, it was better.

Neil Drumming

It felt better.

Zora Bikangaga

100% better. Yeah. I was having a blast.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Zora Bikangaga

I was getting to know people. I was hanging out with girls. I like to dance. And so people got a kick out of that, me going in the circle and doing the Roger Rabbit or something like that. They're like, where did you learn that?

So everything was just way cooler as this guy, where I was like, if I did that in high school, they'd be like, all right. The black kid can dance. We know that. But it was just so cool for me to go in there and do the running man. They just got a kick out of that.

Neil Drumming

OK, because I remember doing the running man surrounded by white folks. And to this day, that is not a good feeling. That's not a pleasant memory that I have. And I'm just wondering, at any moment, did you think, I don't like the fact that I'm performing? Or was it just too much-- like, people were nice, and it didn't bother you?

Zora Bikangaga

I didn't see it as me purely entertaining them. I felt very, very in control of the situation. So if I felt like going in and dancing, that was because I wanted to. You never want to be that token black guy. Like, all right, well, I'm the good dancer.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Zora Bikangaga

But it was different as an African. It was different. It was shocking to them that I knew how to do those things. I mean, it was funny to me. I was like, (AFRICAN ACCENT) yeah, I've seen House Party. You know, this is one of my favorite movies.

Neil Drumming

As much fun as it was being universally adored, Zora started to get annoyed by how little anyone at his school knew about African culture. He found that he could tell them anything, and they would believe it.

Zora Bikangaga

With the people that would ask me stupid questions, I'd push it. I would straight up say, (AFRICAN ACCENT) yeah, the rose petal thing in Coming to America, that's based on-- it's a thing. It happens.

Neil Drumming

He's talking about that scene in the movie where the scantily-clad servants sprinkle rose petals at the prince's feet wherever he walks.

Zora Bikangaga

And they're like, no. And I'm like, yeah. And they're like, oh. I just would really push it. I remember this girl was asking me about my background. And she was like, do you have any exotic pets at all? Is there something? And I was like, (AFRICAN ACCENT) yeah, like, everyone gets a lion, a cub. And you grow up with it, and it becomes your lion.

And she was like, are you serious? That's so cool. I was like, (AFRICAN ACCENT) yeah. Do you have a dog? You know, that kind of thing where I was like, wait. They believe me? I can push this-- she thought that everyone gets a lion? That's insane. This is an educated adult or someone that is in college.

Neil Drumming

So why did you decide to come out as a regular black person?

Zora Bikangaga

I know, right? That's such a ridiculous thing to do. Because I didn't want to do it forever. It got old to me after a while. I wanted people to know who I was.

Neil Drumming

So you stopped telling yourself that this was part of who you were. That didn't fly with you forever.

Zora Bikangaga

That can only go so far. And especially when I started to learn the pitfalls of being this guy, of the condescending nature, the undermining, the ignorance of Africa or Africans. That got old to me.

Neil Drumming

Zora decided to end the prank with a prank. He started with his roommate.

Zora Bikangaga

And so he came in one day. And he was checking our messages. Because back then, the dorm rooms had landlines. So he was checking the voicemail. And I was like, yo, did anybody call for me? Did my homies call for me? I did this sort of exaggerated American accent.

Reed

He was like, hey, yo, any of my chicks call for me or what? And I was kind of like, what'd you say? And then he goes, (AFRICAN ACCENT) oh, my American accent. It's very good, no? I've been practicing.

Zora Bikangaga

(AFRICAN ACCENT) Was that convincing?

Reed

Yeah it was really good. Wow. And then he came back and was like--

Zora Bikangaga

Well, what if I told you that I grew up in Healdsburg. And--

Reed

No, but seriously, Reed, I'm not from Africa. I'm from Fresno.

Zora Bikangaga

I was born in Fresno, and I'm not from Uganda. And he just stared at me for-- it seemed like 30 seconds. And he's like, I got to go. And he left for, like, an hour.

Neil Drumming

Call it the resilience of youth, but Reed was over it by the time he got back to the dorm room. Zora broke the truth to the rest of his guy friends the same way.

Zora Bikangaga

One by one, they came in. And so I sort of flipped back and forth, like, (AFRICAN ACCENT) how was my accent? Was it good? Yeah, but what if I talk like this? I'm totally from Healdsburg. And I revealed myself. And the person would stay to see the other person's reaction.

Neil Drumming

Eventually, he outed himself in the school newspaper. Half the school thought it was the brilliant final act of a grand performance art piece, thereby giving Zora another role to play.

Zora Bikangaga

This is before Borat came out. But they saw me that way, of, like, man, he's a comedic genius. This was a giant parody and social experiment. And maybe I played into that a little bit. I was like, yeah, yeah. I learned a lot from this. And for sure, maybe I leaned into that a little bit.

Neil Drumming

The president of the college called Zora into his office to interrogate him. He wanted to know if he was somehow taking advantage of the school financially. Was he receiving some scholarship or financial aid package for foreign students that he didn't deserve? It was like that store in Healdsburg all over again. Zora wasn't stealing. He was guilty only of being black. When it came time to tell Angie the truth, Zora decided to do pretty much exactly what he'd done with his roommate, but a little more tenderly because, you know, he liked her.

Neil Drumming

So you let her in. Like, you opened the door or whatever. She comes over, and you're speaking to her in an African accent. And then you stop?

Zora Bikangaga

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I just was like, Angie, I'm not from Uganda. And I tried to tell her. I was like, look, you know, we got along as people. You know what I mean? And whatever you liked about me is me. I wanted to be really honest with Angie because she was the one that I felt the most bad about.

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Zora Bikangaga

And so I tried to be more sincere about it.

Neil Drumming

Angie doesn't remember it that way.

Angie

He said something like, oh, I think you're hot or cute or something. It was something really American, stupid American boy, which to me decreased your level of regalness, in my mind. It made him a whole new person just because of-- I can't remember exactly what he said.

But whatever he said made him a whole new person to me on top of the fact that your voice is different, on top of the fact that when I'm asking you all these things about where you just came from, none of those have been your experience. They may have been your parents' experiences, but you're making all this stuff. All this is made up. Because it was like, you've been acting like an-- and I told him, you should be a professional. You've been acting this whole time.

Neil Drumming

Zora Bikangaga went from being rejected by a white girl because he was black to being rejected by a black girl because he was just black. And that's not even the end of it.

Zora Bikangaga

And the last thing that she said before she stormed off, she was like, and you sound like a white boy, which was her final dagger that she stuck in my heart.

Neil Drumming

Identity can be funny at that age. Maybe you don't like the way people see you. You want to try something new. You experiment. College kids do it all the time. But being black in America is not like being awkward or having the wrong clothes or being bad at sports. When you're black and someone makes up their mind about you the moment they see you, without you ever having a chance to speak up and announce yourself, it can be so diminishing. It can be heartbreaking. Hell, it can be life-threatening.

Zora wasn't thinking about any of that when he went all Prince Akeem on a whole university. He certainly didn't anticipate that being perceived as fresh from Africa would come with its own set of wild assumptions. He was just goofing around. He stumbled into a place where he suddenly felt welcome and accepted, and he went with it. He clung to it, even if it meant he had to perpetuate a lie.

This new lie felt better than the ones that had been written about him long before he was born because, at least for a while, it felt like it was his to control. It's something any of us might have done, if we had the chops to pull it off.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of the producers of our program. Zora Bikangaga, by the way, just this year quit his teaching job and is trying out a new career-- acting.

Act Three. Disbarred.

Ira Glass

Act three, "Disbarred." So one of the things that we realized here at the radio show when we were talking about this week's theme amongst ourselves-- this theme "My Undesirable Talent"-- we realized that most talents have some undesirable side to them. Case in point, if you're an athlete or a dancer-- and especially if you get to the point where people pay you to do it, you're in the elite, you're that gifted. Of course, that is fantastic. But one deeply undesirable part of having that kind of talent is that you age out of it. And depending on what you're doing, you can age out of it in your 20s or your 30s.

Wendy Whelan

I remember teachers saying, dance this like it's the last time you're gonna dance.

Ira Glass

This is Wendy Whelan, one of the greatest dancers in the world, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet starting in 1991. She left the New York City Ballet in 2014. And she talked about the experience of walking away from this job that she loved, that she was a master of, in this radio documentary that I heard. And to close out today's show, they gave us permission to play a little excerpt of it here. Here we go.

Wendy Whelan

The day I slipped-- I slipped in class. And I knew I had done something dramatic to the back of my hamstring or hip. And I went ahead, and I went to rehearsal. And I thought, OK, I'll just see how this feels. And I started rehearsing. And my partner and I slipped again, again re-pulling the same injury in my body that had just happened two hours previous.

And I was just like, oh, my god. Fate is absolutely stepping in right now and giving me a message. And then I had another rehearsal. And I told the powers that be, my ballet mistress and my boss-- I just said, I pulled my hamstring today. And so I'm going to do this, but it's a little bit sore. And I'm kind of being a little careful. And then I pulled myself out of other repertory that I knew I couldn't do.

And I was doing the one piece, and the administrative team was like, can you do that bigger and with a little more clarity? And I was just like, uh, actually, no. I can't. And it was really just the first time I had to say no. I've always been able-- yes, I can do that. Yes, I can do that. Yes, I can do that. No, I can't do that anymore.

It's terrifying. Yeah, terrifying. I watched many people retire before me. And I've felt the energy of losing them and them cutting themself away from the company. And there's a lot of feelings that go in that. And I think being the one that's leaving somehow-- I don't know. I imagine it like death a little bit, whereas you look at it, and you're afraid of it. And then you're actually experiencing it, and there's no pain. And it's out of your hands.

Ira Glass

Wendy Whelan, from a documentary called A Dancer Dies Twice, produced by Eleanor McDowall, originally a Falling Tree Production for BBC Radio 4. We have a link to the full half-hour documentary. I have to say, I usually hate documentaries where there's no narration. But this one is so, so good. It's at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar. Our production staff includes Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, [INAUDIBLE], Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Robyn Smien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our show's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he showed up at the office this week with a new haircut, kind of a retro one-- really tall, hi-top fade.

Zora Bikangaga

(AFRICAN ACCENT) Yeah, I've seen House Party. You know, this is one of my favorite movies.

Ira Glass

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