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233: Starting From Scratch

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Things are just starting to look up for Jorge, when the thing with the TV happened. He had just moved to a new town, started his life over, found some work, got a place. Years of searching around in vagueness were ending.

Jorge Just

It's going well. Like the way that I'm procrastinating now is by-- like doing work. You know? Coming into my home, I feel good. I'm paying bills relatively on time.

Ira Glass

He'd moved to New York City, which was scary. And walked into an apartment that real New Yorkers told him was a find-- a little studio in the East Village. One room. Good location. Cheap. And then one night he's sitting at his table, watching The Bachelorette on TV. And it's the episode where the bachelorette has whittled it down to four guys that she's going to pick one from, eventually. And she's in New York City visiting one of the potentials.

Jorge Just

And you know, she goes out to dinner with his family. And they eat, and you know, they've got the shifty-eyed sister. And you know, like everybody's family acts the exact same way. You know?

Ira Glass

Right.

Jorge Just

And then they get in the limousine, and they decide to go back to his apartment. Now I'm on the edge of my seat. Because I moved to New York-- it's an enormous city. And I would be so excited if I could recognize the street. I would be so excited. It would just make me so happy. And so I'm totally-- I'm totally excited. So they get out of the limo, and he hugs her in the street. And they pan and they show a building. They show an awning. And it's my awning.

Ira Glass

It's your building?

Jorge Just

It's my building. It's the awning to my building. It says the address. It says the street. It's-- you know-- it's possibly the only place in New York I actually know. (both laughing) And then he opens the door, and she comes in, and it's my lobby. You know? There's my lobby. There is the row of mailboxes, you know? And I'm just like-- I'm out of my chair. And I'm-- I can't talk. I'm like-- you know-- like pointing at the TV.

Ira Glass

If it were me, I would think like, are they here right now? Like in the building?

Jorge Just

You're too smart. I couldn't think. I was just like, aaah. [Ira laughs] You know? You know what I mean? I was just like-- I was just flabbergasted. It just couldn't be happening, you know?

Ira Glass

He watches them take the elevator up to the fourth floor. Jorge goes on the fifth. They walk down the hallway door. And then Jorge realizes something else.

Jorge Just

You know, he doesn't just live in the city as me. He doesn't live on the same street as me. He doesn't just live in the same building as me. He basically lives in my apartment. He lives in the exact same apartment. This exact same layout.

Ira Glass

So wait a second. So the camera goes inside this apartment, and you see your apartment, basically.

Jorge Just

A much better version of my apartment. His is much better. The walls are wider. The place is cleaner. The furniture is nicer. He has a half wall. He's got a half wall.

Ira Glass

A half wall with brick, glass, blocks?

Jorge Just

It's like drywall, you know? But it seems like it has some sort of counter top kind of thing on it.

Ira Glass

And at that moment Jorge gets this flash. He is not really doing all that well. His apartment is a kind of dump, compared to this guy who's on TV. Plus he's watching Trista Rehn, the bachelorette, on TV, looking uncomfortable in his apartment on national TV. In fact, she bails on the guy.

Jorge Just

She leaves the apartment, and they cut to like that head-on interview. You know? And she's looking into the camera. And she says, I've dated guys with really bad apartments before. I can't judge him on that. I have to-- I have to find out why he feels like he can live in an apartment like this.

Ira Glass

She ditched him because of the apartment?

Jorge Just

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait. He lost out on the bachelorette because of the apartment?

Jorge Just

Oh yeah.

Ira Glass

And it was your apartment?

Jorge Just

But better.

Ira Glass

[laughing]

Over the next few days it all sort of goes to hell for Jorge. He's depressed. His new life does not seem so shiny. His New York friends console him. Look, they say, the bachelorette had never seen a New York apartment before. She does not know how people here live. This means nothing. Which helps him for a while, until one day Jorge picks up the New York Post, and right there is an article about his neighbor, Todtman-- the guy from The Bachelorette-- getting busted for cocaine.

Jorge Just

Third paragraph. "Todtman's fate on The Bachelorette was sealed the moment Rehn set foot in his squalid Avenue A studio apartment."

Ira Glass

[laughing]

Jorge Just

Do you understand the weight of that? Squalid. "Squalid Avenue A studio apartment."

Ira Glass

So this isn't just like people from outside New York.

Jorge Just

This is the New York Post. Nobody knows New York apartments like the New York Post. These guys have been in the most squalid New York City apartments. It's squalid, you know? It's squalid. Squalid. Squalid. You know? There's not that many definitions for squalid. There's not many ways to look at the word squalid and think, mmm, maybe they mean kind of hip. You know?

Ira Glass

Somehow, without ever meaning to, Jorge had the experience that a person would have if he actually went onto one of the reality shows, and then got booted off the show. National television came into his apartment, and then kicked him off the island, by proxy. He was like collateral damage to a reality show.

Jorge Just

You know, I never-- I didn't want to be-- I didn't want America to judge me and tell me my apartment sucked, you know? I didn't want that. But that moment when they came into my building, and they opened that door, and it was my apartment, I thought I was-- you know-- I thought that I was hot. I thought that it was-- you know.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jorge Just

And then all of a sudden it's like-- byoo byoo boo. [Ira laughs] You know?

Ira Glass

What was it?

Jorge Just

Byoo, byoo, byoo, byoo, byoo. You lose, you lose, you lose, you lose. You know?

Ira Glass

Jorge says that if he hadn't just moved to New York City, if he hadn't just started this whole life, it would not have been the kick in the stomach that it was, which brings us to today's radio program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, starting from scratch. Stories of people in that period of their lives when everything is up for grabs. They're starting over. Everything is tenuous.

Act One, Puppy Love, the Business Model. Act Two. Making Money the Old-Fashioned Way. In that act, the story of a man-- a limo driver, in fact-- who begins each day from scratch with just a few bucks, and builds it to hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands by the end of the day. Act Three. The First Starting From Scratch. In that act, Jonathan Goldstein revisits a possibly familiar tale of a man, a woman, a garden, and a snake. Stay with us.

Act One: Puppy Love, the Business Model

Ira Glass

Act One. Puppy Love, the Business Model. OK. You know There are mom and pop grocery stores, mom and pop newspapers. But could you throw everything away, change your life, start your life over, and create a mom and pop cable network? Molly FitzSimons' own father tried. And she has the answer.

Molly Fitzsimons

Some people's fathers quit their jobs and become teachers. Some maybe retire early and start a new hobby, like model building. My father, after turning over the reins of the business he'd owned and operated for 25 years, started a cable channel. From scratch.

It was February 1995, and he was looking for something new to do, but he didn't know what. Then came the O.J. trial. He had just had back surgery, and the day they sent him home for bedrest happened to be the day that the trial began. During the long breaks in the action he would flip through the channels.

Dan Fitzsimons

There was so much downtime in the trial I had a chance to see everything that was on television all day long for weeks.

Molly Fitzsimons

You mean you just surfed around while--

Dan Fitzsimons

The slow points of the trial were most of the day. And I spent the time surfing around daytime television and seeing what it was.

Molly Fitzsimons

What it was was mostly soap operas, talk shows, reruns, game shows. Things that my father had no interest in. My father is a problem solver, and this was a problem.

Dan Fitzsimons

So I thought, something else is necessary. There's a need for a parking place on television. If you don't want to watch something that is there you could have the TV set on, and it'd be playing something that didn't bother you, and would hold the place until your favorite show or what you chose to watch.

Molly Fitzsimons

For my father, like for a lot of people, simply turning off the television isn't an option. So he's stuck flipping through a bunch of shows that he hates waiting for the O.J. trial to come back on, when a little light bulb goes off in his head.

Dan Fitzsimons

I recalled my wife and I walking to lunch on a Friday in downtown Cleveland, walking into a building where the Animal Protective League had puppies up for adoption. And the crowd of people standing around these puppies included men in three-piece suits, and women in fancy outfits, and shoppers, moms with kids in strollers, the UPS man.

And they stood together smiling and chuckling, and even sometimes addressing one another in the middle of a big city building, all because there were puppies. The puppies made them feel better. And so my thought jumped to if television needs some other kind of programming, what would be wrong with one channel, out of the hundreds that there are, that showed nothing but puppies. All day, all night, every day.

The initial idea was all puppies all the time. You would turn to the Puppy Channel and you would see-- 24 hours a day, seven days a week-- footage of puppies fooling around like puppies do, acting the natural comedians and cuties that they are. With no people, no talk, accompanied only by relaxing instrumental music-- would be the Puppy Channel concept.

Molly Fitzsimons

What are you looking for here?

Dan Fitzsimons

I'm looking for Ted Turner's letter, where he very nicely refused me in writing this time.

Molly Fitzsimons

My father's home office in Clearwater, Florida, is all decked out with family photos, artifacts from his years in the ad business. And an entire wall of file cabinets, which has the complete Puppy Channel archive.

Molly Fitzsimons

What's that?

Dan Fitzsimons

This is a demo that is on the way to being the pilot show.

Molly Fitzsimons

He shows me a banker's box filled with videotapes, and pulls out the one-hour pilot he made early on in the Puppy Channel development. It's professionally packaged. There's a closeup of a puppy on the cover with the word "Woof." And two exclamation points.

Molly Fitzsimons

OK. So it's a really-- it's a cute cover. Let's put it in. When's the last time you watched this?

Dan Fitzsimons

I think it's been years since I watched this. [singing on video] Puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies. Puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies.

Molly Fitzsimons

You may recognize this voice. It's my dad. He also wrote the lyrics.

Dan Fitzsimons

Puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies. Puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies. Puppies! [puppies bark in the background]

Molly Fitzsimons

The scene fades up to a family of old English sheepdog puppies playing and barking in a wood-paneled suburban den somewhere, with mellow guitar music in the background. After a couple of minutes the scene changes to a corgi puppy running in circles on a snow-covered lawn. Soon border collies are fighting over a sock on somebody's linoleum kitchen floor. It's exactly what you'd expect from my dad's description of the Puppy Channel.

And what's so surprising is that it really is nothing more than that. Throughout the hour-long pilot, puppies waddle around and sniff things. Puppies wrestle and nuzzle each other adorably. It's a soft focus world of indescribable cuteness. Occasionally, my dad's singing interrupts the relaxing instrumental soundtrack.

Molly Fitzsimons

Wait. This is your voice, right?

Dan Fitzsimons

[singing] Puppies are everywhere. Puppies go anywhere. Watch the Puppy Channel now for puppies on TV.

Molly Fitzsimons

That's like the, um, theme song?

Dan Fitzsimons

That's the third Puppy Channel theme.

Molly Fitzsimons

Aww. Look at that one, with the big ears flopping up in the air.

At some point while we're watching, my dad's wife, Carol-- who's been listening quietly to our conversation from the other side of the room-- comes over and starts cooing at the television. Carol went with my father on most of the Puppy Channel shoots, and actually had the idea for what became the big climactic final scene of the pilot.

Dan Fitzsimons

Here's a scene of all 10 of the dogs on a sofa, and how they get off. Some of them are vigorous in getting off. Some of them are a little reluctant.

Molly Fitzsimons

This was your idea, Carol?

Carol

I thought it would be cute.

Molly Fitzsimons

It's not just cute. It's also suspenseful. Most of the puppies immediately jump or tumble off the couch onto the carpeted floor. But a couple of them stay up there looking sort of confused. It's a pretty long sequence. I glance around the room during it, and realize that all of us are smiling. And we're watching with rapt attention to see if the two cowardly puppies will ever find their way down off the couch. One of the two finally does, leaving only one puppy left. And to give you an idea of the drama of the moment, let me put it this way. We all find ourselves talking to the TV.

Carol

Come on.

Molly Fitzsimons

Come on. You can do it.

Carol

You can do it. Come on. No. Wrong way.

Molly Fitzsimons

Finally, after a good three or four minutes, the last puppy sort of half jumps, half falls off the couch. And all of us cheer.

Carol

The moment. Yes. Success.

Molly Fitzsimons

Nice move into slow-mo there.

The whole time my dad was doing the Puppy Channel, I could never decide if I thought the idea was genius or totally insane. And the thing that made it seem super smart was the same thing that made it seem kind of crazy-- namely, puppies. Suddenly my businessman dad was talking so much and so fervently about puppies it was kind of weird. And my question was always how would the Puppy Channel possibly make any money.

When I asked my father this question, he was so convincing that I started to wonder why it's not on television right now. Here's how it would work. There'd be fees from cable operators, and there'd be product placements and sponsorships. You'd see a bunch of puppies tearing into a bag of puppy chow, for example. Or a scroll across the bottom of the screen saying, this hour of the Puppy Channel brought to you by Milk Bone. In focus groups it did well-- 37% preferred it to TBS. 41% to CNBC. And remember, my dad didn't need a huge audience to succeed.

Dan Fitzsimons

At the time we created the Puppy Channel, television channels with the tiniest little sliver of audience were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Court Television sold one third of its stock for $100 million, which presumably means the thing was worth $300 million. And their primetime ratings was 1/10 of 1% of the TV audience at that time. Based on our research, that even though the Puppy Channel would appeal to a very small segment of people, that segment would be big enough to make it a success.

Molly Fitzsimons

But even a small cable channel was a huge venture compared to anything my father had done before. By his reckoning, he needed to raise $17 million to get on the air. Or he needed a big cable company to buy his idea.

And so he and Carol started hustling. And after 25 years of being at the center of their own small familiar world, they suddenly found themselves in middle age, on the fringes of a much larger and stranger one. There were cable conventions.

Carol

We had a little tiny booth way in the corner. And we had a million people coming around wanting to get our video.

Molly Fitzsimons

And what was your role there?

Carol

Um, dog. [both laughing]

Molly Fitzsimons

What?

Carol

I dressed as a dog. And I painted my nose black. Yeah. And couldn't get the black out of the pores of my nose for days.

Molly Fitzsimons

Whose idea was it for you to wear a dog suit?

Carol

I think it was-- I think it was your father's. Of course it was your father's. Would I have voluntarily done that? These are the things you do for love. [laughing]

Molly Fitzsimons

Fortune magazine published a photo of Carol in her dog suit. The media loved the Puppy Channel. There was an article about it on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter. There were favorable blurbs in Entertainment Weekly and USA Today. Everybody loved it. Everybody except the ones who, at this stage, mattered most. People like Ted Turner, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch all got the Puppy Channel pitch. But my father couldn't make the sale.

Dan Fitzsimons

One of the TV professionals that we talked to was talking about the amount of space on a satellite-- they call it bandwidth today-- that it takes to have a commercial TV network shown. He said something like, you'd ask us to give up six megaschlocks of gooberschnapp to put just puppies on there? And the answer is yes. But if you are the guy who owns the six megagoops of schlockendock, you're maybe not gonna give it up for puppies.

Molly Fitzsimons

But why? He doesn't like puppies? Or--

Dan Fitzsimons

No. It's a foreign concept to want to go way far off the beaten path. The Puppy Channel is way off the beaten path. It has no people. It has no talk.

Molly Fitzsimons

Usually when you describe this, you do mention that there would be no talk, and that seems to be a big part of what you liked about the idea. Why do you think that is? Why were you so interested in a channel where nobody talked?

Dan Fitzsimons

Having a human being in the picture talking about what the puppies were doing, or talking about something, struck me as against the concept originally of just having a quiet place on television that was all relaxing, all comfort, all easy and pleasure-giving in a very, very low-key way.

Molly Fitzsimons

One person my father talked to characterized the Puppy Channel as the antidote to television. And in the end, I think that's probably why it never worked out. My dad hadn't just imagined a new cable network. He'd imagined a new way to think about what television can be.

What you'd get from watching the Puppy Channel would be very different than what you get watching the Food Network or QVC. Or Law and Order, for that matter. In his business plan, along with all the spreadsheets and financial outlines, under the section titled "Vision," it says only "to make television more helpful." And under "Mission," "to help people relax and feel better."

My father conceived of the Puppy Channel as a refuge from regular TV. But implicit in this notion is the idea that regular TV is something you need a refuge from. And that's a tough sell to the people who make it. After five years of hard work, my father decided to pull the plug. I'm just going to put it out there and say I think the world wasn't ready for the Puppy Channel.

Dan Fitzsimons

If there were 1,000 television channels, the Puppy Channel might be in there. If there were 600 television channels regularly being sent out by the satellites, the Puppy Channel might be there. There's a number where the puppy generally fits in. We just don't know what that number is.

Molly Fitzsimons

When we find out what that number is I'll be there with my dad. And we'll be singing this song. Take us out, Dad.

Dan Fitzsimons

[singing] I love the little puppies, pretty little puppies. I love the little puppies on the Puppy Channel, every little pup on TV.

Ira Glass

Molly FitzSimons and her dad.

Since we first broadcast this story back in 2003 we have obviously seen the incredible demand for cute puppy videos on YouTube. There's the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. There is Dog TV, a channel intended to be watched by dogs. Molly's dad, Dan FitzSimons, died in 2016, but obviously was far ahead of his time. Molly says that he delighted in the fact that his idea, a cozy corner of the world for watching puppies, caught in the act of being cute, flourished in all these other forms.

[MUSIC - "NOTHING FROM NOTHING BY BILLY PRESTON]

Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. You gotta have something if you wanna be with me. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. You gotta have something if you're gonna be with me.

Act Two: Making Money The Old Fashioned Way

Ira Glass

Act two. Making money the old-fashioned way. Well, now we bring you the story of someone who starts from scratch every single day with next to nothing, and tries to build it up to something. Mary Beth Kirchner tells the story.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Every day Joe plays this game. He starts with enough small bills to make change-- lots of fives and ones-- then the clock starts. It's 1:30 in the morning.

Joe

I go out with almost nothing in my pocket in the morning. And sometimes I end up with thousands. Sometimes I end up broke at the end of the day.

Mary Beth Kirchner

So how much do you have in your pocket today?

Joe

I got $32 in my pocket today. By six o'clock I should have at least a couple hundred bucks. And you know, I take it from there.

Mary Beth Kirchner

By 6:00 AM, he means. Joe, who doesn't want me to use his last name, drives a super stretch limousine in Las Vegas. Joe says he prefers starting in the middle of the night. Doesn't like crowds or traffic. Here's how his game works. By driving his limo to and from the airport mostly, Joe slowly earns enough-- a few hundred dollars-- to play blackjack in the casino. And then pretty much the sky's the limit.

Joe

Sometimes I end up with 10 grand, you know? One time I started out with like 32 bucks or $33--

Mary Beth Kirchner

Like today.

Joe

Like today. And I wound up with $84,000 at the Gold Coast.

Mary Beth Kirchner

$84,000?

Joe

$84,000.

Mary Beth Kirchner

How do you turn 32--

Joe

I try and build it up to like $1,000, then I play with the $1,000. I build it up to three, four, and then you get on a run.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe is a bit of a legend in Las Vegas gambling circles. I'd heard about him from a pawnbroker south of the strip who said Joe was a regular customer who came every month for about a year. Among the stories he told me, which led me to Joe, that he'd never worked a day in his life. That he lived only on a trust fund until he was 50, controlled by his father who despised his love of gambling.

On his 50th birthday, the legend went, Joe inherited six million. He instantly spent the first million on a house. The remaining five he gambled away. It took him five hours. Joe says not true, but based on the truth. He did inherit millions of dollars from his family, and did lose a big piece of it gambling. But over years. Not hours.

Joe

People tell me, oh, look at the kind of life you lead. I mean, one day I could have a million dollars. The next day I'd be broke. But I love it. I love the action. I love the adrenaline. I get an adrenaline rush from it.

Mary Beth Kirchner

One day you have a million dollars and the next day you're broke? Is that an exaggeration, or really--

Joe

No. It's not an exaggeration. I mean, I had days where I went in and I won-- like at the horseshoe I won $680,000. I started the day out with like 50 bucks in my pocket. And I went out and I bought two homes with some of the money. Then I ended up losing the other money. Then I needed money so I borrowed on the houses. And then I lost the houses. I couldn't pay.

I go up and down. It's like a roller coaster. But I really enjoy doing it. You know? I think without it I'll just wilt away and die. See, this is one of the hotels. The Barbary Coast won't let me in. If I go in there and sit down for two minutes they'll tell me to get up and leave.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe has a long history of winning big at the casinos. So much so, and this is clearly true, about a dozen of them in Las Vegas have kicked him out. He says most of them think he cheats. Nobody could be that lucky, they say. Among the places where he's still allowed to play, none wanted their names mentioned, or would allow me to record in their casinos today. So we were limited to taping outdoors, where most of Joe's game happens anyway.

Joe

Sometimes you'll stand here for like half hour and nobody will come out. But as soon as they come out to take a cab I approach them.

Mary Beth Kirchner

First stop. His favorite nameless hotel and casino, where the doorman lets him approach potential customers from the circular driveway out front. Joe tips the doorman for each ride he gets, so he gives Joe first dibs on every person who walks out the door. You guys need a cab?

Man

Yes.

Joe

How about this? 15 bucks.

Man

15 bucks?

Mary Beth Kirchner

With the approval of the doorman, lots of people say yes.

Joe

Isn't this a lot nicer than a cab?

Woman

A lot nicer.

Joe

See.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's 2:00 AM, with our first $15 coming in. Joe says he started waking up at these hours when he worked in New York operating vending machines and coffee carts, gambling in Atlantic City on weekends. There, too, he says most of the casinos kicked him out.

By the time he came to Vegas 14 years ago, he says he was ready to retire, but he gambled full-time for the first eight years he was here.

George

Well, he's not a dishonest man by no means. But, you know, he is an opportunist. He's the type of guy if there's an opportunity for him to, you know, work the odds or make a dollar he'll make ten. He's one of them guys.

Mary Beth Kirchner

George-- please don't mention my full name, either, or where I work-- is a casino manager in one of the few places where Joe now plays. We met in an empty hotel ballroom, far from the casino floor.

George

They think he counts cards. He doesn't. He's very good at knowing when the deck goes cold-- when there's not a chance of winning. If I would own a casino and have 1,000 Joes walking around in my casino I'd be out of business in short order.

Molly Fitzsimons

Well, maybe not. Joe walks away with his winnings, but then he always comes back for more play. And that combination, George says, does to Joe what it does to everyone.

George

I see the numbers. There's not a player in this place, like in any casino I've ever been in, that has won more than they lost.

Molly Fitzsimons

Never?

George

I'd say never, when you see the cumulative numbers.

Molly Fitzsimons

And that's one reason why Joe is driving a limo.

Joe

If these guys are going to a strip club that would be great. That's $100.

Mary Beth Kirchner

5:00 AM, and we've got $180.

Joe

Where are you guys going to?

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe has his eye on a group of guys who've clearly been out on the town for most of the night.

Man

Whoo!

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe's hoping these four are looking to go to a strip club, because he gets a kickback of $20 a person.

Joe

Are you guys having fun?

Man

We planned it. Turn the radio up.

Joe

You want the radio on? Radio is optional. It's more money. I got anything you want, as long as you got money.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe tells me he also takes guys to the brothels a half hour drive from Las Vegas, and collects even more. [men singing]

Joe

We take people out there and we usually get 30. Now for the holidays they're doing 40% of what the person spends. If a person spends $1,000 we get $400 kickback for bringing them out there.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Now, what do you mean, "for the holidays?"

Joe

Till December. They're doing like a special. Instead of 30% they're giving us another 10%. Because I have pictures of everything in my trunk. I have a menu also. They have a menu of all the stuff you could do.

Man

Yeah, I love Vegas!

Mary Beth Kirchner

As we drive, the stories keep coming. There was the day Joe won big at the race track and flew to London on the Concorde just for dinner. Or the two-day stretch he was playing $20,000 a hand at the Hilton, and walked away with over a million dollars. These kinds of stories can't be confirmed, but I wanted to believe them. So he offered to show me what's in his trunk.

Joe

See this? This is about a half a million dollars in markers right here.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe hands me a three-inch stack of receipts from casinos all over town totaling about a half million dollars. Evidence, he says, he wants me to see that these can't all be lies.

Mary Beth Kirchner

And what are those 20,000?

Joe

Yeah. They loaned me $20,000 to sit and play with.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Oh.

Joe

You know? If you lose you've got 30 days to pay it back.

Mary Beth Kirchner

These are $20,000, $20,000.

Joe

Yeah, they're all like--

Mary Beth Kirchner

$25,000.

Joe

Yeah.

Mary Beth Kirchner

And what's this?

Joe

This is my uncle in Forbes magazine. He made like close to a billion dollars.

Mary Beth Kirchner

He's your uncle?

Joe

Yeah. That's my uncle.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Billionaire?

Joe

Yeah.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Later when I look into it that story checks out, as does the one about his aunt, who Joe says sits on the board of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He says she's the one who bails him out when he gets over his head in debt. Joe admits he's the black sheep in the family.

Mary Beth Kirchner

How much did they give you?

Joe

$41.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's 7:30 AM and we're up to $350 from the run to the strip club, and five trips to the airport.

Joe

And we just keep going around and around.

Mary Beth Kirchner

There's a brief lull. Joe says it's time to go into the casino.

Joe

I'm gonna go play a little blackjack. The only thing is I don't know if they're gonna let you--

Mary Beth Kirchner

Of course they're not.

Joe

They won't.

Mary Beth Kirchner

The casino won't let me record his play, of course, but I watch.

Joe

I'm going to play with $100 now. I'm making $50 or $60 in like 15 minutes, or less.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe sits in front of a woman dealer with an empty table. And he's got that look, almost like a drinker who bellies up to a bar every night. Like he belongs there. He signals the woman for cards and chips in quick short-cut hand signals. Each hand takes less than a minute. He plays a few, and easily wins his $60 in 10 minutes or less. Before I know it we're out again. 8 AM with $410. He says it's getting to be peak time for airport runs.

Joe

See now it gets busy, so I don't have a chance to get to really go in and gamble because I'm, you know-- As long as I keep the cash coming in. If it's slow I supplement it with gambling. If it's not I just, you know.

Mary Beth Kirchner

But you wouldn't rather be gambling?

Joe

I'd rather be working.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Really?

Joe

Yeah.

Mary Beth Kirchner

What happened to your feeling about the gambling?

Joe

I just do it to, you know-- because I'm so hyper I have to have something to do. I used to sit-- like I was at the Flamingo one time, and I had about $40,000 in chips in front of me. And I was playing like $2,000 a hand. And I told the doorman if you get a good ride, like to a golf course, come and get me. So it was like a $75--

Anyway, he came up to the table, and he told me I got a ride for $75. And people in the pit, they all think I'm nuts. I just stopped. I left, took my money, and I ran down to take a guy for $75. And here I am playing two grand a head. And I try and separate the two. One has nothing to do with the other, you know?

Mary Beth Kirchner

I don't understand that.

Joe

Nobody does. But that's how I am. You know?

Mary Beth Kirchner

But do you understand that?

Joe

Just gambling to me is gambling. Work is work. You know?

Mary Beth Kirchner

10:00 AM, and we've got $650. We've had three more airport runs, and the last customer just gave him a $25 tip.

Joe

Only in America.

Mary Beth Kirchner

But Joe says today his game is subdued compared to the past. At age 54 he's had some heart trouble, and that's changed the stakes. A year ago his daughter was home from college, and noticed he didn't look well and called for an ambulance. Joe was having a heart attack.

Joe's Daughter

It was pretty scary just to see him in-- I think he might have been in a casino but I'm not there.

Mary Beth Kirchner

I guess that's enough to really get your heart rate up.

Joe's Daughter

Yeah. If you ask me, I think he probably was, but he never told me for sure.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe's daughter knew what she was doing. She's studying to be a doctor in medical school in the Middle East. I talked with her via her cell phone while she was working at a hospital in some remote spot in Israel. She asked that I not use her name. Not even her first name.

Mary Beth Kirchner

What did you tell your friends your dad did?

Joe's Daughter

Now or when I was growing up? Because now even I don't-- only a few people in my class really know, of my good friends even.

Mary Beth Kirchner

What did you tell them then?

Joe's Daughter

Then I would say, well, he's not really doing anything now, but he has real estate in New York. And sometimes I just make things up. I'd say he's a chef. But it was always funny, because it was a running joke between me and my dad that when I was growing up I couldn't tell people, because nobody else had a dad like that. And so I felt like they would either not believe me, or I would sound ridiculous. And they just wouldn't understand. But he had never had a problem with me saying to anyone what he does is that he gambles.

Mary Beth Kirchner

When Joe moved to Las Vegas, his daughter was just entering high school. He raised her practically as a single parent, starting from the time she was born, when his ex-wife had a breakdown. It wasn't until they moved to Las Vegas that she says she really understood just how much her father gambled.

Joe's Daughter

I guess what always blew me away in the beginning is we would walk in and everybody would know him. And they would know me too, because he would talk about me. And I would say to him, how do these people know you? I was amazed by that. And they would joke with him, and they'd say, are you back again? And they'd say, well, what do you need today? Because he would go in sometimes and he'd say I need a pool today.

Mary Beth Kirchner

How much money does it take to build a pool?

Joe's Daughter

$20,000? I don't remember how--

Mary Beth Kirchner

How long did that take?

Joe's Daughter

Literally 10 minutes, maybe. One, two, three. And that was it.

Mary Beth Kirchner

But as much as she knows her dad's wins, she remembers the times when they were broke. Really broke.

Joe's Daughter

We would have to search for quarters on the floor. And my uncle-- this was really funny-- to buy a hamburger, or something like that.

Mary Beth Kirchner

Search for quarters on the floor in your uncle's--

Joe's Daughter

Yeah. He would search. We would pick them up. And I would go and get a hamburger. But that was in the very beginning. I mean, even when things are really bad he can always find a way out of it. And even I would be amazed. Because I would say to him, there's no way-- that how are you gonna do that? And he'd say, don't worry. We'll find a way. And there was always a way. And he can just laugh about it.

Joe

Which airline are you going to?

Woman

Southwest.

Joe

Southwest?

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's noon, and Joe has $1,100. The limo business has been steady for hours. It's a good time for business, but Joe wants to take a break to call his daughter.

Joe

I talk to her like five times a day.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's late night in Israel. He just wants to hear about her day.

Joe

Hi, honey. It's me. I just called to say hi.

Mary Beth Kirchner

So what's happened since your daughter is gone?

Joe

Well, that's when I started to work. I never worked while she was here. This like filled up my void, maybe, in a way. [INAUDIBLE] just think about it. I miss her so much. When I see her it's like-- it's the greatest feeling in the world. And we're at the airport now. This is zero level. I'm going to go upstairs and see how busy it is-- if people are looking for rooms.

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's 1:30 PM and we're up to $1,300. We've just dropped off yet another ride at the airport. And for a little variety, Joe says he's going to show me how he also sells hotel rooms. These are hotel rooms the casinos give him for free because he gambles so much.

Joe

So I got to make it seem like I'm just walking casual. [whistling]

Mary Beth Kirchner

Joe's carefully checking out a middle-aged couple in shorts and tennis shoes. Just as he's about to approach them-- [phone ringing]-- we're interrupted.

Joe

Hi. This is Joe. Oh. How you doing, Dave? What's up?

Mary Beth Kirchner

A lucrative job has come up. He says some high roller wants to charter his limo for three hours. For three hours? Did you tell him it's $75 an hour, though?

Joe says these guys are seldom big tippers, but it's worth the gamble. This customer-- a handsome, mid-thirties Middle Easterner-- says no recording, please. So Joe tells me to take a break, and he'll catch up with me when he's done.

Joe

Since my family lost their homes when the Jews took over Israel--

Mary Beth Kirchner

It's 5:00 PM, and I have no idea how much money Joe has. When we reconnect he looks exhausted, but hyped up. Since I left him he's finished with the charter, been to the casino to gamble, where he won $500. But there's more. He's anxious to tell me about how he's ended the day.

Mary Beth Kirchner

So tell me this again. So this guy at the end of the day-- you thought this was gonna be the end of the day.

Joe

I just asked him-- I asked him-- I said to him, where are you from? So he says, Lebanon. And I said, oh, I speak Arabic. I said, I was born in Baghdad. I was really born in Baghdad, Iraq.

Mary Beth Kirchner

What Joe didn't tell the guy is that he's Jewish.

Joe

I said, are you Muslim? He says, yes. Yes. I said, oh, those Jews-- I said, what they're doing is terrible to the Palestinians. And then he just-- his adrenaline just started going. He wanted to go out with me tonight. He wanted to hire the car for five hours tonight. And then I said, no. I said, I'm too tired. So he says, well, I'll call you tomorrow. I said, fine. He's like buddy-buddy. But he gave me 500 bucks. I said, all right. That's what I call a perfect day. You go out with like 32 bucks, you go home with two grand.

Mary Beth Kirchner

As we take off, Joe's still hanging on to today's winnings in a wad of bills, folded up like it's a double cheeseburger in one of his hands on the steering wheel.

Joe

$232 he gave me as a tip, which is not bad.

Mary Beth Kirchner

But think of it. If Joe just worked five days a week, making $2,000 a day, and never lost it back, that'd be a half million dollars a year.

Joe

It's a wonderful country. [laughing]

Ira Glass

Mary Beth Kirchner lives in Washington, DC. Coming up, when the creator of the universe starts from scratch. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- Starting from Scratch. Stories of people starting over, with all the vulnerability and rawness that comes with starting from nothing.

Act Three: The First Starting From Scratch

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three. The first starting from scratch. Well, before there was money, or gambling, or TV, or puppies, or even the idea of before, there was this story about when everything started from scratch. Here's Jonathan Goldstein.

Jonathan Goldstein

In the beginning, when Adam was first created, he spent whole days rubbing his face in the grass. He picked his ear until it bled. Tried to fit his fist in his mouth. And yanked out tufts of his own hair. At one point, he tried to pinch his own eyes out in order to examine them. And God had to step in.

Looking down at Adam, God must have felt a bit weird about the whole thing. It must have been something like eating at a cafeteria table all by yourself, when a stranger suddenly sits down opposite you. But it's a stranger who you have created. And he is eating a macaroni salad that you've also created. And you have been sitting at the table all by yourself for over 100 billion years. And yet still, you have nothing to talk about.

It was pitiful the way Adam looked up into the sky and squinted. Before he created Adam, God must have been lonely. Now he was still lonely. And so was Adam.

Then came Eve. Since the Garden of Eden was the very first village, and since every village needs a mayor as well as a village idiot, it broke down in this way. Eve. Mayor. Adam. Village idiot. And that is the way it was from the very beginning. Sometimes when Adam would start to speak Eve would get all hopeful that he was about to impart something important and smart. But he would only say stuff like, little things are really great, because you can put them in your hand as well as in your mouth.

Eve would ponder how one minute she was not there or anywhere, and now she was. Adam would ponder nothing. In her dreams Eve danced in the tops of trees. Her beautiful thoughts flew out of her ears and lit up the sky like fireflies. And there were all kinds of people to talk to and hug. And then she would hear snoring. She would wake up and there would be Adam, his yokel face pressed right against hers. His dog food breath blowing right up her nostrils.

Eve stared up at the sky. Adam draped his arm across her chest, and brought his knee up onto her stomach. God, watching in heaven, feared for Adam's broken heart as though the whole universe depended on it. Adam was close to the animals and spent all day talking to them. Except for God, Eve had no one. She would complain to the Lord any chance she got.

Adam is a nimrod, she would say. And the Lord would remain silent. God was the best and all that, and she loved the hell out of him. But when it came to trash talk, he was of no use. Adam was constantly trying to impress her. Look what I have made, he said one bright morning, his hands cupped together. Eve looked into his hands. She pulled away and shrieked. Adam was holding giraffe feces. I've sculpted it, said Adam. It is for the Lord. He opened his hands wide to reveal to her a tiny little giraffe with a crooked neck.

On some days Adam galloped about exploring. His hair was wiry, and when it got sweaty it hung down in his eyes. Adam was cute this way. On one such day he saw a snake. Adam made the snake's acquaintance by accidentally stepping on his back. Wow, that's smart, said the snake through gritted teeth.

Their eyes locked. And in that very moment the snake concluded that, indeed, Adam was a lummox. And that as king of the Earth, his reign would very soon end. There was a new sheriff in town, and it was he. It was no longer the story of Adam, but the story of the snake. He could tell all of this just by simply looking into his idiot eyes.

I've seen you around with another one like you, he said to Adam. But instead of the dead legless snake between the legs she has chaos there. That's Eve, said Adam, all animated. I named her that myself. God made her from out of my rib. He showed the snake the scar on his side.

The snake looked at him in silence. The idea of Adam-- Adam the shlemiel, Adam the fool-- being God's favorite was enough to give the snake a migraine. You weren't at all like I imagined, the snake said. I thought you'd be closer to the ground. More pliant. Greener. I tried to explain to God that to make you balanced up on your hind legs was architecturally unsound. I don't know why I bother.

Adam sat and listened wide-eyed. Eve hadn't the patience to sit and chat like this. So when the snake suggested they get into the habit of meeting every once in a while to talk Adam was very excited to do so. As they lazed on their backs staring up at the sky the snake would brag about how he was older than the whole world, and that he used to pal around with God in the dark back before creation.

He said that in the darkness, it was a truer, freer air time. That in the darkness was the good old days. He told Adam that back in the very beginning he had all kinds of thoughts on how to make the Garden of Eden a better place, but that God was just too stubborn to listen to reason. Make the earth out of sugar, I told him. Instead of stingers, give bees lips they can kiss you with.

Adam didn't always agree with the snake. In fact, a lot of what the snake said went straight over his head. But there was still something about him that made him get into a very particular mood. He made the world feel bigger. Sometimes when Adam was with Eve, sitting there in icy silence, he would think to himself, I sure could go for a good dose of snake.

You would think that after all the time they spent together the snake would finally find it within himself to start liking Adam just a little bit. But instead, he only grew to hate him more. He took to comforting himself with thoughts of Adam's wife, Eve. From what he heard from Adam, she was hot and smart. Often he would imagine running into her, and the instant synergy they would have. Adam neglected to tell me how leggy you are, he would say, wrapping himself around her calf.

The snake had no idea what he looked like. He was hairless, bucktoothed, four inches tall, and he spoke with a lisp. Adam had the IQ of a coconut husk, but he was still human. The snake, in his arrogance, was unable to grasp this, and so he daydreamed. Sometimes I think you were watching me, the snake imagine saying to Eve, because I felt like there were ribbons wrapped around me. Ribbons made of raw pork intestines. I would turn around to catch you sneaking a peek at me from behind a tree, but all I'd see were the hedgehogs which mocked me. Come my dear. Let us eat from the tree of knowledge.

On Eve's very first day Adam explained to her the rules of the garden just the way God had explained them to him. He had lifted his head up and had made his back stiff. He had spoken the way a radio broadcaster from the 1940s would. Another kind of woman-- someone softer than Eve-- might have found this charming. He explained that except for the tree of knowledge every tree in the garden was theirs to eat from.

I am a fan of the pear, Adam said. It is not unlike an apple whose head craves God. Tell me more about this tree of knowledge, said Eve. She enjoyed the sound of it-- the tree of knowledge. It sounded very poetic. There's not much to tell, said Adam. If we eat from it we will die.

From then on Eve talked about the tree of knowledge all the time. It was tree of knowledge this, and tree of knowledge that. It's like it wasn't a tree at all, but a movie star. Sometimes she would just stand by the tree and stare at it. It was on such an occasion that she met the snake.

When Eve first caught sight of him she brought her hand to her mouth and gasped. She had seen some repulsive animals in her day. A booby that percolated her vomit to just beneath her tonsils. A dingo that instilled in her a sublime sense of nature's cruelty. And a deathwatch beetle that filled her with existential dread. But still, there was something about the snake that made her realize in a flash that the world was anywhere from 60% to 80% oilier than she would have ever imagined.

Hi, said the snake. In the mood for some fruit of knowledge? It's fruity. We were told not to eat from that tree or else we would die, said Eve. Die? What an ignorant thing to say, said the snake, all chewing on a blade of grass on the side of his mouth. If there is an escape hatch from paradise then it isn't really paradise, is it? The snake made interesting points. That appealed to Eve. He could see he was making an impression.

All I'm saying is to give it a try. Many things will be made immediately clear to you once you partake. I could talk about it all day and you still won't get it. You have a right to at least try it, right? I'm not saying go out and eat an entire fruit. Have a nibble. A nibble isn't really eating, is it?

Eve found arguing semantics exhilarating. She looked at the tree. The way the sun shined through its leaves was beautiful. Everything seemed to point to nibble the fruit. Then the snake said, think about it. Does God want companions who can think for themselves, or does he want a bunch of lackeys and yes men? Wouldn't God want a few surprises?

It would seem to me that God's telling you not to eat the fruit was just a test to see if you could think for yourselves, to see if you could exist as equals to God. The day you taste the fruit is the day God will no longer be lonely. At least give it a lick. Eve looked at the fruit, then she looked at the snake. Then, slowly, she parted her lips and pushed out her tongue-- all wet, and warm, and uncertain.

She ran its tip along the smooth flesh of the fruit. The snake smiled. Has anyone died? he asked. Now take a tiny little nibble. Just a speck. Just to see. The fruit was squishy and tart. She smushed it around in her mouth. She squinted her eyes. It was a bit like trying on new glasses. It was a bit like an amylnitrate popper. It was a bit like a big wet kiss on the lips, right at first when you weren't sure if you wanted to be kissed or not. She felt 1,000 little feet kicking at her uterus.

The idea of her own nudity, as well as Adam's, had always felt more like a Nordic coed health spa thing. Now, with the fruit of knowledge, it felt more like a Rio de Janeiro carnival thing. Her breasts felt like water balloons filled with blueberry jam and birds. Her nipples were like lit matchsticks. Her thighs, the way they squished against each other, were like scissors cutting through velour.

With her lips still glistening in tree of knowledge fruit juice, she ran off to find Adam. The snake watched her as he chewed on his slimy blade of grass. And as she receded into the distance, he thought something along the lines of, now that's what I'm talking about.

Kiss me Adam, said Eve. Taste my lips. Adam, like any lummox truly worth his salt, could smell the minutest trace of knowledge coming his way. And thus, he knew how to avoid it like the plague. But yet, there was also this. Eve had never sought him out in the middle of the day before just to kiss him. It felt like a very lucky thing. When he took her in his arms he told her that he loved her with his whole entire heart. He closed his eyes tightly and brought his lips to hers. Then he squinted. Then it started to rain, and Eve began to cry.

During the darkest days ahead, with the fratricides and whatnot, Adam would often think back to his brief time in Eden. As he became an old man, he would talk about the garden more and more. A couple of times he had even tried to find his way back there, but he very soon became lost. He didn't try too hard anyway. He didn't want to bother God any more than he already had. When Adam met someone that he really liked, he would say, I so wish you could have been there. It didn't seem fair to him that he was the one that got to be in Eden.

This sunset isn't bad, he'd say. But the sunsets in Eden, they burned your nose hairs. They made your ears bleed. He couldn't even explain it right. When you ate the fruit in Eden it was like eating God, he would say. And God was delicious. When you wanted him you just grabbed him. Now when he ate fruit he can only taste what was not there.

But it wasn't all bad. After Eden Eve became much gentler with Adam. After getting them both cast out she decided to try as hard as she could to give Adam her love. She knew it was the very least she could do. She sometimes even wondered if that was why God had sent the snake to her in the first place. Adam would tell his grandkids, his great-grandkids, and his great-great-grandkids about how he and Nana Eve had spent their early days in a beautiful garden naked and frolicking. And the kids would say, eww.

The children would swarm into the house like a carpet of ants. The youngest ones would head straight for Adam, lifting his shirt to examine his belly for the umpteenth time. They smoothed their hands across his flesh and marveled. Where is grandpa's belly button? they all asked. He stared at the children. They were all his children. And as they slid their little hands across his blank stomach, he wondered what it was like to be a kid.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein. This story appears in his book where he rewrites bible stories, called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible. Jonathan is also the writer and host of the really wonderful podcast Heavyweight.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Bloomberg, Diane Cook, David Kestenbaum, and Starlee Kine. Production help for today's show from Todd Bachmann, Jane Marie, Aaron Scott, and Alvin Melathe. Mixing help today from Catherine Raimondo. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Special thanks today to Mr. George [? Lara. ?] Thanks also to Kevin Scully, Dave [INAUDIBLE], and Tony Mancini. Some of the funding for Mary Beth Kirchner's story about the gambler came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's radio fund.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to any of our over 600 shows for absolutely free. Or if you want to download those shows you can get our app. This American Life is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who got all angry this week when I told him that we were going to be putting a story about puppies onto the Public Radio satellite.

Dan Fitzsimons

You'd ask us to give up six megaschlucks of gooberschnapp to put just puppies on there?

Ira Glass

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