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239: Lost in America

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Prologue

Ira Glass

So many of us, we wander through this country. We wander through our lives. We wander in darkness. Often we feel lost. Like Chris. He was doing pretty badly. Living on the street. Hair to his shoulders.

Chris Sewell

I called it the Unabomber look. I was just living in the woods. Just an open wooded area at the corner of Pond Drive and Route 347. I'd have fresh clothes on usually, but I only could do the wash every so often, and they were outside, so I smelled like the great outdoors, whether I liked that fact or not. And I very much knew I needed medical help.

Ira Glass

So Chris needed this medical help, but of course, he had no money to pay for the medical help. He made money collecting cans and bottles on the street. Whenever he'd go to doctors or social services, he was so wacked-out looking that they wouldn't even talk to him like a person. They wouldn't even look him in the eye. It's a hell of a thing, isn't it? Wanting eye contact, not getting it. But then if you're lucky, somebody puts up the lights.

[AUDIENCE CLAPPING]

Welcome. WBEZ Chicago. It's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today recorded on a live tour of five cities: Boston, Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, Denver, and our hometown, Chicago.

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

So Chris was stuck. He needed money to go to a doctor. And then he got this idea. He remembered how a couple years before that, he had wandered off the street into a shopping mall to get warm, and there the State of New York had set up two laptop computers on a folding table.

Chris Sewell

And to see the lady just look at me, nod her head, and smile when I walked up to the booth, like I was just one of anybody, was great.

Ira Glass

So he sits down at the computers, and on these two computers you could look up your name and see whether the state was holding money for you that you did not know about. And there was all sorts of money. Utility bill refunds, tax refunds, lost checks, owed to all sorts of people and institutions. Lost money. Or not even lost, since most people didn't even know it was missing. This is like money in purgatory. This is money in limbo.

And thinking about all this, Chris Sewell realized how he could pay for his doctors. He would look online, find money of theirs that they did not know about, money that the state was holding for them, and then he would present that to them.

Chris Sewell

Well, I was hoping that I would suddenly get a couple of phone calls and a couple of checks, and people say, "oh, wow, thanks for having done this." And then I was hoping that these doctors would just even talk to me in a civil manner. And then work my way up from there.

Ira Glass

Now the crucial fact that I have to tell you about Chris Sewell at this point in the story is Chris is great at finding other people's money in these databases on the internet. And when he looked for money for the doctors at his local university hospital, not only did he find hundreds, hundreds of unclaimed Blue Cross Blue Shield checks, reimbursements, lost trust fund checks. He also found 100 checks that were owed to the hospital itself. It was a huge victory.

But when he went to the hospital to tell the doctors there that there was this money out there for them, he always got the same reaction.

Chris Sewell

There was a total wall of silence. Except for the people who were telling me to buzz off. I actually went out and I printed out the claim forms. And I had a cover letter for it. And tried, in my own humble fashion, to appear professional. I went to the Salvation Army, bought myself a blue pinstripe suit. Even with my long hair and my beard, I went around and hand-delivered all of them.

Ira Glass

And how did that work?

Chris Sewell

That was the one that-- it didn't work. I didn't get responses. There was no conversation. As soon as I talked, security people would just appear out of the woodwork.

Ira Glass

He tried letters. He tried emailing. Everybody just thought it was a scam. Eventually he got doctors to help him out through other means. And then he turned this talent elsewhere. He used it wherever and whenever he could. When his local public TV station was doing the pledge drive, he couldn't actually give money, of course, but he looked online, found $1,000 of theirs, called them up.

In setting up this interview for our radio show, he was talking to one of our producers on the phone, Julie Snyder, and while he's on the phone with her, he found $400 bucks owed to WBEZ, the radio station where we work. And using nothing more than a normal internet connection, he found $610,940 owed to the City of New York. So much money that the city comptroller honored him with an old fashioned letter of commendation. Who knew that that was a real thing, and not just something that Commissioner Gordon would give to Batman now and then?

And a press conference. It's impossible to overstate what that meant to him, that press conference.

Chris Sewell

I was extremely nervous. And there were big security lines. And I finally got there and walked into a room full of TV cameras. And I don't think I'd spoken to anybody before that in like two weeks.

Ira Glass

You hadn't spoken with anybody at all for two weeks? For two weeks you hadn't had a conversation with another person?

Chris Sewell

Yeah. Again, I don't have a lot of friends where I live. I'm, you know-- trying to just reach out in the middle of a social void is very difficult. I mean, on the street, I think my record one time was I don't think I'd spoken to anybody for something like three months.

And I just-- I sort of tried to put a party face and soak it all in and radiate it back as best I could.

The city comptroller actually recognized me. I feel that I've somehow helped create a place for myself in society, that I'm somehow a little less lost. I'm creating a purpose for my own life, and a direction.

Ira Glass

Our program today: Lost in America. Stories of people who are lost, and how they sometimes, temporarily, if they're lucky, get found. On our program today, Sarah Vowell finds a terrorist, hiding and lost in a patriotic song. Jonathan Goldstein tries to lose something and finds that it is harder than it seems. And there is an entire magazine devoted to writing that people have lost, dropped, thrown away, and tried to destroy. Its creator reads samples on stage. Plus Jon Langford of the Mekons, the band OK Go and more. Stay with us.

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Act One: Losing It

Ira Glass

Act One. Losing It.

Well, if you're going to do a program about people who are lost, you pretty much have to do a story about adolescence. Jonathan Goldstein is a regular contributor to our show. A quick warning before we begin, for parents listening with kids, he talks about sex in this story. Please welcome Jonathan Goldstein.

[AUDIENCE CHEERING]

Jonathan Goldstein

Dying a virgin happened to people. Hans Christian Andersen, Queen Elizabeth the First. My grandmother's prophetically named brother, Uncle Hymen.

And I knew it was the kind of thing that could happen to me. Days would turn into months, months into years, and eventually I would drop dead in a men's hotel and be buried sexless in a single cemetery plot squeezed in on my side between my parents. And so I began, at an early age, what I thought of as my life's work, the work of not dying a virgin.

At 10 I met Varid, my first crush. She was in from Israel with her family, and was staying with our neighbors. Since this was the summer Grease came out, I invited Varid upstairs to our living room, where I played the soundtrack on our stereo. While it played, I danced for her. My feeling was that you had to give girls everything you had-- your showmanship, your best moves, even your dignity.

As the music played, Varid sat there with quiet indifference. At one point, I tried to bring her soul to life by lying down on our coffee table and spinning around on my stomach like a spastic Lazy Susan. When I did the splits, I fell to the ground with a ferocity that almost tore my scrotal sac in two.

Before Varid went back to Israel, I handed her all 10 Archie digests that I owned. I stacked them so all the spines lined up perfectly. I wanted them to look solemn and substantial, like a package wrapped in rope from the old country. "It's how I feel about you," I wanted to say, but her English was not good enough to understand. For the next several years, I would say some variation of these words to many different people, but no one's English was ever good enough to understand.

At the age of 13, I entered the service industry. The self service industry. I spent all of my time listening to music like Yellow while fantasizing about the high school gym teacher play tether ball in her brassiere. Or Stevie Nicks strumming a guitar in her brassiere. Or in my darker moments, Golda Meir ruling a nation in her brassiere.

And then at 14 our family got one of those early model elephantine video machines. I rented early 80s teen sex comedies like Private Lessons, Private School for Girls, and Reform School Girl. I would make each 20-second shower scene last anywhere from six to seven hours. Pause, rewind, frame advance became my version of the holy trinity. One time, having lost the remote control to our VCR, I watched the entirety of Sorority Girls on Vacation lying on the basement floor with the VCR on my chest, hitting its buttons like a 70 pound accordion.

It was around that time, inspired by a potent cocktail of sexual desperation and movies starring Phoebe Cates, that I left the comfort of home for the streets. A 4 foot, 10 inch, pheromone-drenched Cabbage Patch doll with acne on the prowl. And thus at 16, I met Tamara. Everyone had a locker partner at our school, and I shared mine with Tamara. Just knowing that no matter what, our winter boots were alone in the dark together for six hours a day was enough to make me feel at least that something in my life was going all right.

One day I finally worked up the courage to ask her if she wanted to see the Eurythmics concert with me, because I knew she was a big fan, and she said yes. I don't know where I came up with the idea, but I had decided at some point during the concert that I wanted to hold Tamara from behind and sway with her back and forth to the music. It was all I could think about all night. It wasn't a kiss or a held hand I was after, but something else, something less definable. It was like I wanted to prove that I could get us into some kind of groove.

Finally, during a slow song, I snuck up behind her and put my sweaty pocket hands on her hips. I tried to ease us into it. My movements were halted and completely non-musical. Rather than dancing, it looked like I was trying to hoist a resistant woman into a mailbox while in the throes of a painful piles attack. Tamara freed herself, and for the rest of the evening, she was afraid to come near me.

At home that night I ate a bowl of cold cereal was staring at a bottle of my mother's nail polish on the kitchen counter. Carefully I painted my nails. In bed, my fingers spider-walked the length of my ribs. "Quit tickling me," I told myself. "I have to make this an early night." I grabbed my hand and flung it away from myself roughly. but it always crept back.

If early 80