174: Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Milestones
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With the holiday season about to begin, it's a show about holidays and milestones of all kinds. Today's This American Life was taped a few years back in front of a live audience.
When the big day finally arrives, the day you've been waiting for, it's like the invisible is made visible. And sometimes you look at it and you think, that's it?
For weeks before his 11th birthday, Jason wanted a party at a roller rink with all his friends. He had never had a birthday party, so he invites 11 friends, gets their RSVPs, and comes the big day, the party room at the roller rink is his.
And we waited around, we waited around. And we're waiting there for around a half hour, and none of my friends, none of the invited guests had arrived. And so they put us in the room and my mom asked me, well, where is everybody? Where is everybody? And I say, Ma, I don't know where everybody is. Well, didn't they say they'd be here? Yeah, they said they'd be here.
I have this vivid, vivid image marked on my brain of a table and 10 chairs around the table and all of these sundaes, these white sundaes with hot fudge on them. 10 empty chairs. 10 uneaten sundaes.
It's like The Last Supper but if none of the apostles made it.
To this day, Jason still cannot explain it. He had friends at school, he was always picked first for kickball. The next year his cat, a cat that was the same age as he was, died on his birthday. Another year, his aunts and uncles accidentally set fire to the back of his house.
In preparing for today's program, I have heard lots of horrifying birthday stories. Matt was robbed on his birthday. Lynn's home was destroyed by an earthquake. Sarah had a tree that was planted the day she was born. And on her 17th birthday, lightning hit the tree. It burned to the ground. How do you not see that as symbolic of something?
Years after Jason's party at the roller rink, the one where nobody showed up, his girlfriend still asks him about it. And she asks him about it a lot. It must explain something about who he is today.
And I have to point out again that I don't think, at least, that I was a loser when I was growing up. But the thing is, as much as I say that, it happened. I had this birthday party that only one person went to. And that's going to hold stronger than anything that I could possibly say to convince you that I was not a loser.
Certain days have symbolic meaning whether we want them to or not. That's why it's important, I think, to overcompensate, to go big, throw a huge party, surround yourself with people, make a lot of noise. That is why, my friends, today, on the fifth anniversary of our radio show, we have come out here to be with you in this huge theater. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Our program recorded today on a four-city tour of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A co-production with radio stations WNYC, WBUR, WBEZ, and KCRW. Many, many thanks to them.
Today on our program, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones of all sorts, and what do they really mean anyway? Act One, Pilgrim's Progress. Sarah Vowell takes over the family Thanksgiving dinner by bringing everyone to New York City. Babies cryin', birds a-dyin', people sighin', Ellis Island. Islan'. Act Two, Kodak Moments of the Dead, the story of a young funeral director who is updating one of our most sacred and oldest rituals of commemoration, doing something that even other funeral directors find very, very strange. Act Three, Birthday Gift. Russell Banks has a story that unfolds so cleanly and pleasingly that really, I have to say, the less said about it at this point, the better. Music throughout our hour from Chicago pop music sensation OK Go. Stay with us.
Act One: Pilgrim's Progress
Act One, Pilgrim's Progress. We are a nation whose national holidays are usually more about getting together with family and friends than actually commemorating the past. When Labor Day rolls around, I do not think that many of us review the history of Haymarket Square or the fight for the eight-hour work day. Even in this crowd.
I will confess that I was actually well into my 20s before I fully understood that Veterans Day and Memorial Day are actually two separate holidays with separate meanings and not just one holiday that comes around a lot. This does not mean that our big national holidays do not contain deep, commemorative meaning to us. It's just, I think, that the meaning is often personal. Sarah Vowell is one of our contributing editors, and she says this year, her family broke with all its traditions on Thanksgiving and launched into an entirely new era as a family. Please welcome her.
When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes. Not only had they never been to New York, they had never been east of the Mississippi, nor had they ever visited me. I've always had these fantasies about being in a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends their entire visit daydreaming of suicide. I'm here to tell you that dreams really do come true.
I was terrified we wouldn't have enough to talk about. In the interest of harmony, there's a tacit agreement in my family. The following subjects are best avoided in any conversation longer than a minute and a half-- national politics, state and local politics, any music by any person who never headlined at the Grand Ole Opry, my personal life, and their so-called God.
Five whole days. When I visit them back home in Montana, conversation isn't a problem because we go to the movies every afternoon. That way, we can be together but without the burden of actually talking to each other. Tommy Lee Jones does the talking for us. Bless his heart, that is a public service.
But my sister Amy is bringing her, shall we say, lively seven-month-old son Owen along, so the cinema is not an option. Which means five days together, just us, no movies. We are headed into uncharted and possibly hostile lands, pioneers in a new world. It is Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims had the Mayflower. I buy a gravy boat.
It's lucky that Amy's coming with Mom and Dad. Amy still lives six blocks away from them in Bozeman. She would act as interpreter and go-between among my parents and me. Like Squanto.
Amy's husband Jay has decided to stay home in Montana to go deer hunting with his brother. Everyone else arrives at my apartment in Chelsea. Amy and Owen are bunking with me, so I walk my parents around the corner to check them into their hotel on 23rd. "Here we are," says Mom, stopping under the awning of the Chelsea Hotel. There she stands, a woman whose favorite book is called, simply, Matthew--
--right on the spot where the cops hauled Sid Vicious out in handcuffs after his girlfriend was found stabbed to death on their hotel room floor. "No, mother," I say, taking her arm and directing her down the block to the Chelsea Savoy, a hotel where they go to the trouble to clean the rooms each day.
It is around this time, oh, 20 minutes into their trip, that my dad starts making wisecracks like, "boy, kid, bet you can't wait 'til we're out of here." My father, a man who moved us 1,600 miles away from our Oklahoma relatives so he wouldn't have to see them anymore, makes a joke, on average, every two hours he is here about how much I'm anticipating the second they'll say goodbye. I find this charming, but so disturbingly true I don't know what to say.
By halfway through the first day, I discover I needn't have worried about what we would talk about with the baby preventing us from seeing movies. When you have a baby around, the baby is the movie. We occupy an entire entertaining hour just on drool, non-narrative drool. Then there's the sightseeing. First stop, Ellis Island. The thing about going to Ellis Island is that it's a lot like going to Ellis Island.
Perhaps to help you better understand the immigrant experience, they make you stand in line for the crammed ferry for an hour and a half in the windy cold. By the time we step onto the island, we are huddled masses yearning to be free. Our great-grandmother Ellen passed through here on her way from Sweden. We watch a video on the health inspections given to immigrants, walk past oodles of photos of men in hats and women in shawls.
Though no one says anything, I know my father and mother and sister are thinking what I'm thinking. They're thinking about when we moved away from Oklahoma to Montana, how unknown that was, how strange and lonesome. I read a letter in a display case that says, "and I never saw my mother again." And I think of my grandfather, how we just drove off, leaving him behind, waving to us in the rear-view mirror. And here we are in New York, because here I am in New York. Because ever since Ellen's father brought her here, every generation moves away from the one before.
It is curious that we Americans have a holiday, Thanksgiving, that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parents' lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents. It's as if on the 4th of July, we honored our independence from the British by playing cricket and nibbling on crumpets.
Thanksgiving morning, my parents take Owen to see the Macy's parade while Amy and I start making dinner. Let me repeat that. My mother leaves while I cook, specifically cornbread dressing, a dish my mother has made every Thanksgiving since before I was born. To her credit, she has not inquired about my process since she phoned to ask me if she should bring cornmeal in her suitcase. As an Okie, my mom only uses white cornmeal processed by the Shawnee Company in Muskogee. She does not even consider my cornbread to be cornbread at all, because I make it with yellow cornmeal and-- heresy-- sugar. "You don't make cornbread," she told me in the same deflated voice she uses to describe my hair--
--"you make Jonnycake."
I'm standing at the cutting board chopping sage, and it hits me what it means that she's letting me be in charge of the dressing-- I am going to die. Being in charge of the dressing means you're a grown-up for real. And being a grown-up for real means you're getting old. And getting old means you are definitely, finally, totally going to die. My mother is a grandmother, and my sister is a mother, and I have decided the dressing will be yellow this year, therefore we'll all be dead someday. Happy holidays!
I have invited two of my New York friends to join us for dinner, and I was a little nervous about how everyone would get along. To my delight, the meal is smooth and congenial. My friends and I talk about the West Nile Virus killing birds on Long Island. My father counters with a lovely anecdote about an open copper pit in Butte that filled up with contaminated rainwater and killed 250 geese in one day. There's nothing like eating one dead bird and talking about a bunch of other dead birds to really bring people together.
The next morning, right about the time Owen starts to cry while simultaneously my mother jams the bathroom door and my father's on his hands and knees prying it open with a penknife, a cloud passes over me. Once or twice a day, I am enveloped inside what I like to call the impenetrable shield of melancholy. This shield, it is impenetrable, hence the name. I cannot speak. And while I can feel myself freeze up, I can't do anything about it.
Everybody in the family goes through these little spells. I just happen to be the spooky one at this particular moment. When people ask me if I'm the black sheep of the family, I always say that no, we're all black sheep. Every few hours they're here, I look over at my dad nervously crunching his fingers together. If he were at home for Thanksgiving, he'd be ignoring us and spending all his time in his shop. The thing that unites us is that all four of us are homebody claustrophobes who prefer to be alone and are suspicious of other people.
So the trait that binds us together as a family, preferring to keep to ourselves, makes it difficult to be together as a family. Paradoxically, it's at these times that I feel closest to them, that I understand them best, that I love them most. It's just surprising we ever breed.
The next day, we do the most typical thing we could possibly do as a family. We split up. By the time we all reconvene on Saturday evening, my ragged mother becomes so ambitious with her sightseeing that I can tell she's decided that she's never coming back. "You guys want to go to Rockefeller Center?" I ask. And she says, "yeah, because who knows when I'll be back again? Ditto the Empire State Building, because who knows when I'll be back again?"
If any of you are visiting the Empire State Building, may I offer some advice? If you are waiting in the very long line for the very last elevator, and an attendant says that anyone who wants to walk up the last six flights may do so now, right away, and you are with your aging parents and a sister who is carrying a child the size of a fax machine, stay in line for the elevator. But if you must take the stairs, go first and do not look back. Otherwise, your parents will look like one of those Renaissance frescoes of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, all hunched over and afraid.
So we make it to the observation deck, Brooklyn to the south of us, New Jersey to the west. Places that people fled to from far away. Places that people now run away from to make another life. It's dark and cold and windy, and we're sweaty from climbing the stairs. It's really pretty, though. And there we stand, side by side, sharing a thought like the family we are. My sister wishes she were home, my mom and dad wish they were home, I wish they were home, too. Thank you.
[MUSIC - "BYE BYE BABY" BY OK GO]
Act Two: Kodak Moments Of The Dead
Act Two, Kodak Moments of the Dead. Not long ago, one of our producers, Starlee Kine, went to the funeral of a relative of hers in Los Angeles. There were four eulogies, and it was Starlee's grandmother, Goldie, who did a grand stem-winder of a speech, inspiring and moving and heartfelt.
So Goldie finishes and sits back down between her 88-year-old sister, Viv, on one side and Starlee on the other. And then, on a big TV screen in front of the chapel, a video begins. The grandmother cannot believe it. She nudges her sister Viv, stage whispering, "have you ever?"
On screen are pictures of the deceased. Black and white on the beach is a young man, a wedding shot with his wife, the obligatory goofy shot of him in a dress with his buddies. The photos were selected by the family and set to a musical soundtrack, which was also selected by the family. These being Jews-- my people-- as you might guess, there's only one real choice about the music, really no choice at all.
[MUSIC - "MEMORY" BY BARBRA STREISAND]
Barbra. Auntie Viv audibly exclaims, "oy vey!" Grandma Goldie responds, "oy, Viv!" But here's the thing, people are crying. They're crying more than they cried during the eulogies. And later, after the burial, back at the house, everybody watches the video over and over. They laugh, they cry, they rewind, they replay. Barbra hasn't had a hit like this since Yentl.
So I want to visit the cemetery where all this happens, where the cost of a grave or a crypt includes a personalized video to be shown at your funeral, to be posted for eternity on the internet, to be viewed on video screens scattered semi-tastefully throughout the cemetery grounds.
This whole scheme is the brainchild of the impossibly young and impossibly handsome Tyler Cassity and his brother Brent. They grew up in St. Louis, their dad was also in the funeral business, and they bought a rundown Hollywood cemetery three years ago, when Tyler was 27, and renamed it Hollywood Forever. Funerals, mind you, present the same questions that any anniversary or milestone presents. How do you mark the passing of time? How do you capture the span of a life so it can be commemorated and remembered?
And Tyler says that the way that most American funerals address this question is with a ritual in technology that had not really changed very much since the Civil War. The big innovation during the Civil War was embalming. Embalming preserved a person's body for a week or so while you shipped them home from a battlefield. But during the Civil War, it became widespread, and it popularized this kind of funeral, the kind that we know today, where the body is dressed up and put on display during the service.
You want to pump fluid into that body so it seems kind of life-like, pink fluid. And you want to paint the face. A mortician feels like he's succeeded if the family says, "look, he looks so alive." Whereas our enhancement to that is that you show video of the person, media, media that in some way has captured life. And that media is 100 times stronger than an altered body.
Our colleagues rebelled at the idea of having any type of screen in a chapel or near a body. And yet they were holding tight to this tradition of embalming and face painting and extreme doctoring of the body to try and make it look alive. The moment we put a screen in there, from that moment on, there was always a huge increase in the emotion of that service. That's when you started to have everyone crying, that's when you started to have laughter, tears, celebration. That screen, once you put that in there, the whole thing changed.
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Whenever you listen to this, you will hear the voices of your ever-loving mother and your dear father, normally known as Mom and Dad.
This is a video made of a kindly and endearing couple named Dorothy and Lester Schaffer They're sitting on lawn chairs in their backyard. It's not bad. They're affectionate, they goad each other on, they are genuinely funny. We hear, for example, the story of how the Schaffers met, on a school trip to the zoo.
Really. On the path between the bear pits and the monkey cage.
Right between the bear pits and the monkey cage. Well, we started dating then. And every time we'd have a date--
--it rained. I used to call her "my raindrop."
As it turns out, in deciding to make videos which somehow capture what somebody is all about to preserve for eternity, Tyler and his brother have accidentally stumbled on a rather difficult artistic project. You get a sense of the Schaffers on their video, but only because of their own force of personality. They're charming. Most of the videos made at the cemetery lack this kind of character, so much so that it reminds you just how hard it is to do, to capture somebody on film.
At times, your heart goes out to the people in the videos. For instance, when they're asked by the filmmakers to leave a message to the future, you can almost see the flop sweat from the other side. What would you say on the spot, really? This next clip is from a video made by a 40-ish man, who's actually still alive, named Steve Goldstein, who was asked to leave a few words of wisdom to the future.
I guess if I had to say something along those lines, it would be the most important thing in life is to learn to love each other, learn to get along, respect each other, respect each other's differences, appreciate your differences, celebrate your failures as much as your successes because that's how you grow. You can't succeed without failing.
He continues with aphorisms like this for a while, ending with--
My life's been great. I have no regrets. I honestly have no regrets. Except for some mistake I made on a game show once, a long time ago. I could have won a lot of money. Aside from that, I have no regrets.
Doing these, it's kind of like a robot. They come, they go. I do the next one. It's kind of like I'm a machine. I just do it. So our emotions are kind of gone.
Norman Brown is one of three editors who assemble these videos at computer workstations in a big, high-ceilinged room on the cemetery grounds. The feeling part of the job is done by women, four women, who talk with the families, gather photos, and give shot-by-shot instructions to the editors. As video production goes, this is factory work. 90% of the videos are cut-and-paste jobs, just a series of photos which appear on screen for 10 seconds each with a pop song on the soundtrack, thrown together in a few hours after somebody dies to play at the funeral service. Often a family member narrates, explaining what the pictures are.
Do people ever say, "well, my dad was a drunk?"
No. Nothing like that. Nothing at all.
"We had a hard time seeing eye to eye. We didn't always get along. I think they were disappointed in me sometimes."
No, none of that. We don't get any, "oh, he was a drug addict, he was an unfit father."
"He wasn't always faithful to my mom."
No. We have no affairs. We've had none of that. They don't say, "yeah, he was a horn dog," or anything. Just everything is positive.
Which seems, I have to say, completely appropriate to the occasion and the task at hand at any milestone event-- an anniversary, a birthday, a funeral, even a national holiday. I think we do not want the whole picture. I think we want a pretty picture.
I don't we're dealing with honesty in this. This is not the whole. You've got to look at the purpose of, what is the purpose of your going to this funeral?
At that moment, at that funereal moment, at that moment of death, we do want as much good as we can. And we do want as many good memories as we can.
Tyler Cassity says that it's hard enough to get through the death of someone we love. Of course this is what we want. Tyler and his brother have only been making funeral videos for a few years. And they definitely see it as a work in progress, something that they're still figuring out. But all this thinking about how you preserve memories has led Tyler to start collecting his own scrapbooks, documenting his own life. He keeps two of these photo albums in his office. And when I ask him to flip through the pages, he comes to one photo which leads him to tell this story.
It's a story which starts off at a family vacation and ends up at this cemetery, at his job, at this video project. The photo is of a fishing boat called La Victoria, taken on vacation when Tyler was just a teenager.
And that's my father that you can make out there. And unknown to me, my mother had found a letter from a girl I know. And she was writing this long plea to me to realize that I wasn't actually gay, because I had told her that I was gay. So for the first three days of this trip, everyone in the family was treating me as though I had died or something. They would just kind of not speak directly to me, and they were having difficulty looking at me.
And so my mother concocted this plan to get my father and I on this all-day fishing trip in which he was supposed to ask me at a certain point. And so here we are, being all macho on La Victoria.
He's supposed to ask you, "are you gay?"
Yes, on this fishing expedition. Which was funny in itself because it's this Hemingway-esque test of manhood to be out here. And I actually was the one to get the giant tuna. I was reeling in the tuna. It was exactly as you see in the movies. It was really hurting my hands. And people are gathered around me, wanting me to reel this in and egging me on.
And then I finally get it up, and it's this big, beautiful, huge tuna-- actually, the one in this shot-- that's almost human-sized. And it was gorgeous. And it falls on the floor, and everyone gathers around it and stabs it. And I shriek, "don't kill it!" And it seemed like this very telling moment. And I don't know if that answered my father's question.
Tyler had moved to New York for college and stayed, partly to flee the family funeral business.
Yeah. It was kind of ironic. I thought I was going to leave death finally. And a father's business who was all around caskets and death. And I went much deeper into the heart of death when I got there. I was gay, and I went there to come out, and New York seemed like a good place.
But I arrived in 1988, which was kind of the apex or the heart of the epidemic.
The AIDS epidemic.
The AIDS epidemic. Everyone was in the mourning. Everybody knew someone who was dying. There was always the thought that we could be dying because everyone was.
And so I think for a good six years, I was more obsessed about dying and death than I had ever been. And yet at same time, there's more people who didn't follow any type of tradition I had seen. Maybe some people threw a nightclub party, and that was in their will. You know, "I want you all to have fun. I want you all to dress in drag." Someone else had a dance ceremony, a poetry reading. The form kind of seemed broken.
The form of a funeral?
Of a funeral. And being broken, it was much more powerful and it served a purpose again. And I didn't ever think I was going to go home and return to the business, but it affected completely how I looked at it.
You mean literally, you came to feel like the traditional funeral wasn't powerful enough to contain people's feelings?
Yeah. Definitely. The traditional funeral in terms of clergymen, one eulogy, and some last rites of some sort.
In Los Angeles, he couldn't have chosen a better spot for adding movies to funerals. The run-down cemetery he and his brother bought is where lots of luminaries from the first generation of motion pictures are buried-- people like Rudolph Valentino, Peter Lorre, Cecil B. Demille, Bugsy Siegel-- on a huge piece of land just next door to the Paramount Studios backlot. Just a short walk from where Norman and his colleagues edit these sort-of fake, sort-of real videotapes for eternity are the sound stages where the pleasingly sort-of fake, sort-of real worlds of Frasier and Moesha are filmed.
As you walk through the cemetery, you see the intrusion of new technology here and there. Recent headstones made with photographs engraved right into the rock, made possible by a new kind of laser and computer technology. So far, it's mostly Russian and Armenian immigrants who go for this. A man named Simon King, in a jacket, no tie, stares out from his own tombstone with this bad-ass glare like, even though he has passed over to the other side, if you mess with him, he can still take you down.
Not far from there is one of the video touchscreens, in the shade by a wall. You can call up any video they've made. And we choose a name. It turns out to be a young woman, maybe 30. As the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" plays, from The Lion King, photos flash by, 10 seconds each. Here she is in the hospital. Here she is in shot after shot with a baby that must be hers. Then more hospital photos, holding her baby, trying, trying to smile.
It is impossibly sad, sadder than I can even convey to you here. There we are, in the bright Los Angeles sun, cars going by just yards away from us, a dead young mom on the TV, and we're mourning somebody we've never met. I think Tyler's right about all of this. I think if you were just walking by a stranger's tombstone and saw their name chiseled there on the rock, you'd never get this feeling. Coming up, it's my birthday and I'll lie if I want to. Or is it a lie? In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Happy Birthday to Us
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, to commemorate our fifth year on the air, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones of all sorts, how we mark them, what they mean even when we want them to mean nothing. Our program today taped on our fifth anniversary tour of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. And I have to say that we are honored at this point to have a special birthday greeting for the show, recorded by one of my radio heroes, Terry Gross of Fresh Air--
--which incredibly is celebrating its 25th year on the air this year. It makes us just look like little kids up here. She recorded this special message for us from her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia.
[MATCH STRIKING] [CIGARETTE PUFF]
Five years, huh? I suppose after five years I was still all bright-eyed and optimistic. You know, kid-- [CIGARETTE PUFF] --after 25 years in this crazy public radio game, you see a few things. And you see a side of people you sometimes wish you hadn't. Don't get me started. The booze, the drugs, the crazy parties, the fundraisers.
[STIRRING AND SIPPING A DRINK]
Five years, huh? Well, you've got a lot to learn still, I guess. Yeah, congratulations. Whatever.
Hope you enjoy your cake.
Thank you, Terry Gross, for that kind message.
Act Three: Birthday Present
Act Three, Birthday Present. There's a hotel in Salt Lake City called The Anniversary Inn. Before this building became an institution devoted to commemorating years of marriage, the building was the Salt Lake City jail. Insert your own cheap joke here. The idea of the hotel is on an anniversary or a birthday or other big day, what we want is fantasy. There's a room with a drawbridge and a knight in armor, designed to look like Sleeping Beauty's castle. There's a hayloft room and a Swiss Family Robinson tree house and a Treasure Island suite. That one has a ship's mast and a crow's nest and sails stretching across the room. You walk the gangplank to jump into a jacuzzi.
I bring all this up because I think of The Anniversary Inn as a testament to the difficulty of introspection. It's as if when a big, commemorative day arrives, the notion of using that moment to look back, to take stock, to try to gain a perspective on who we've been and who we are, that notion is so inherently difficult and possibly painful that many of us, we prefer to leave reality completely. Looking back, though, can be what we need more than anything. Russell Banks has this story. He is the author of numerous books. We are honored to have him. Please welcome him.
It's about 10:00 PM, and I'm one of three, face it, middle-aged guys crossing South Main Street in light snow headed for a quick drink at the Greek's. We've just finished a 32nd degree induction ceremony at the Masonic Hall in the old Capitol Theater building and need a blow. I'm the tall figure in the middle, Warren Low. And I guess it's my story I'm telling, although you could say it was Gail Fortunata's story, since meeting her that night after half a lifetime is what got me started.
I'm wearing remnants of makeup from the ceremony, in which I portrayed an Arab prince-- red lips, streaks of black on my face here and there, not quite washed off because of no cold cream at the hall. The guys tease me about what a terrific nigger I make. That's the way they talk. And I try to deflect their teasing by ignoring it, because I'm not as prejudiced as they are, even though I'm pleased nonetheless. It's an acting job, the 32 Degree, and not many guys are good at it. We are friends and businessmen, colleagues. I sell plumbing and heating supplies, my friend Sammy Gibson is in real estate, and the other, Rick Buckingham, is a Chevy dealer.
We enter the Greek's, a small restaurant and fern bar, pass through the dining room into the bar in back like regulars, because we are regulars, greeting the Greek and his help, small comforts. Sammy and Rick hit uselessly on one of the waitresses, the pretty little blond kid, and make a crack or two about the new gay waiter who's in the far corner by the kitchen door and can't hear them. Wise guys.
The Greek says to me, "what's with the greasepaint?"
"Theatre group," I tell him. He's not a Mason. I think he's orthodox Catholic or something. But he knows what we do.
As we pass one table in particular, this elderly lady in the group looks me straight in the eyes, which gets my attention because otherwise she's just some old lady. Then for a split second, I think I know her, but decide not and keep going. She's a large, baggy, bright-eyed woman in her late 70s, possibly early 80s. Old.
Sammy, Rick, and I belly up to the bar, order drinks, the usuals, comment on the snow outside, and feel safe and contented in each other's company. We reflect on our wives and ex-wives and our grown kids, all elsewhere.
I peek around the divider at her. Thin, silver-blue hair, dewlaps at her throat, liver spots on her long, flat cheeks. What the hell, an old lady. She's with family, some kind of celebration. Two sons, they look like, in their 40s with their wives, and a bored teenage girl, all five of them overweight, dull, dutiful. In contrast to the old woman, who despite her age, looks smart, aware, all dressed up in a maroon knit-wool suit. Clearly an attractive woman once.
I drift from Sammy and Rick, and ask the Greek, "who's the old lady? What's the occasion?"
"The old lady's 80th," says the Greek. "We should live so long, right? You know her?"
"No, I guess not." The waitresses and the gay waiter sing "Happy Birthday," making a scene, but the place is almost empty anyhow from the snow, and everybody seems to like it, and the old lady smiles serenely.
I say to Sammy and Rick, "I think I know the old gal from someplace but can't remember where."
"Customer," says Sammy, munching peanuts.
Rick says the same, "customer," and they go on as before.
"Probably an old girlfriend," Sammy adds.
"Ha-ha," I say back. A Celtics-Knicks game on TV has their attention, double overtime. Finally, the Knicks win and it's time to go home, guys. The snow is piling up. We pull on our coats, pay the bartender, and as we leave, the old lady's party is also getting ready to go. And when I pass their table, she catches my sleeve, says my name, says it with a question mark. "Warren? Warren Low?"
I say, "yeah, hi," and smile, but still I don't remember her.
Then she says, "I'm Gail Fortunata. Warren, I knew you years ago," she says, and she smiles fondly. And then everything comes back, or almost everything. "Do you remember me?" she asks. "Sure, sure, I do. Of course I do. Gail. How have you been? Jeez. It's been a while."
She nods, still smiling. "What's that on your face? Make up?"
"Yeah, been doing a little theater. Didn't have any cold cream to get it all off," I say, lamely.
She says, "I'm glad you're still acting." And then she introduces me to her family, like that. "This is my family."
"Howdy," I say, and start to introduce my friends Sammy and Rick, but they're already at the door.
Sammy says, "so long, Warren. Don't do anything I wouldn't do." And Rick gives a wave, and they're out.
"So it's your birthday, Gail. Happy birthday."
She says, "why, thank you." The others are all standing now, pulling on their coats, except for Gail, who still hasn't let go of my sleeve, which she tugs, and then says to me, "sit down a minute, Warren. I haven't seen you in, what, 30 years. Imagine."
"Ma," the son says, "it's late. The snow."
I draw up a chair next to Gail, and letting go of the dumb pretenses, I suddenly find myself struggling to see in her eyes the woman I knew for a few months when I was a kid, barely 21, and she was almost 50 and married, and these two fat guys were her skinny teenage sons. But I can't see through the old lady's face to the woman she was then. If that woman is gone, then so is the boy, this boy.
She looks up at one of her sons and says, "Dickie, you go without me. Warren will give me a ride, won't you, Warren?" she says, turning to me. "I'm staying at Dickie's house up on the heights. That's not out of your way, is it?"
"No, I'm up on the heights too. Alton Woods. Just moved into a condo there."
Dickie says, "fine," a little worried. He looks like he's used to losing arguments with his mother.
The Greek and his crew start cleaning up while Gail and I talk a few minutes more. Although her eyes are wet and red-rimmed, she's not teary. She's smiling. It's as if there are translucent shells over her bright, blue eyes. Even so, now, when I look hard, I can glimpse her the way she was, slipping around back there in the shadows. She had heavy, dark red hair, clear, white skin, smooth as porcelain, broad shoulders. And she was tall for a woman, almost as tall as I was. I remember exactly, from when she and her husband once took me along with them to a VFW party, and she and I danced while he played cards.
"When we knew each other, Warren, I was the age you are now."
"Yeah, I guess that's so. Strange to think about, isn't it?"
"Are you divorced? You look like it."
"Yeah, divorced. Couple of years now. Kids. Three girls, all grown up. I'm even a grandpa. It was not one of your happy marriages. Not by a long shot."
"I don't think I want to hear about all that."
"OK. What do you want to hear about?"
"Let's have one drink and one short talk, for old time's sake. And then you may drive me to my son's home."
I say, "fine," and ask the Greek, who's at the register tapping out if it's too late for a nightcap.
He shrugs. "Why not?" And Gail asks for a sherry and I order the usual, vodka and tonic. The Greek scoots back to the bar, pours the drinks himself because the bartender is wiping down the cooler, and returns and sets them down before us. "On the house," he says, and goes back to counting the night's take.
"It's odd, isn't it, that we never ran into each other before this," she says. "All these years you came up here to Concord, and I stayed there in Portsmouth, even after the boys left. Frank's job was there."
"Yeah, well, I guess 50 miles is a long way sometimes. How is Frank?" I ask, realizing as soon as I say it that he was at least 10 years older than she and is probably dead by now.
"He died. Frank died in 1982."
"Oh, Jeez. I'm sorry to hear that."
"I want to ask you something, Warren. I hope you won't mind if I speak personally with you."
"No. Shoot." I take a belt from my drink.
"I never dared to ask you then. It would have embarrassed you then, I thought, because you were so scared of what we were doing together, so unsure of yourself."
"Yeah, no kidding. I was, what, 21. You were, well, not scary, but let's say impressive. Married with kids, a sophisticated woman of the world, you seemed to me. And I was this apprentice plumber, working on my first job, away from home, a kid."
"You were more than that, Warren. That's why I took to you so easily. You were very sensitive. I thought someday you'd become a famous actor. I wanted to encourage you."
"You did?" I laugh nervously, because I don't know where this conversation is going and take another pull from my drink and say, "I've done lots of acting over the years, you know. All local stuff. Some of it pretty serious. No big deal. But I kept it up. I don't do much nowadays, of course. But you did encourage me, Gail. You did. And I'm truly grateful for that."
She sips her sherry with pursed lips, like a bird. "Good," she says. "Warren, were you are virgin then, when you met me?"
"Oh, jeez. Well, that's, that's quite a question, isn't it?" I laugh. "Is that what you've been wondering all these years? Were you the first woman I ever made love with? Wow, that's-- hey, Gail, I don't think anybody's ever asked me that before. And here we are, 30 years later." I'm smiling at her, but the air is rushing out of me.
"I just want to know, dear. You never said it one way or the other. We shared a big secret but we never really talked about our own secrets. We talked about the theater and we had our little love affair and then you went on. And I stayed with Frank and grew old. Older."
"You weren't old."
"As old as you are now, Warren."
"Yeah, but I'm not old."
"Well, were you?"
"What, a virgin?"
"You don't have to answer if it embarrasses you." I hold off a few seconds. The waitress and the new kid and the bartender have all left, and only the Greek is here, perched on a stool in the bar, watching Nightline. I could tell her the truth or I could lie or I could beg off the question altogether. It's hard to know what's right.
Finally, I say, "yes, I was. I was a virgin when I met you. It was the first time for me," I tell her. And she sits back in her chair and looks me full in the face and smiles, as if I've just given her the perfect birthday gift. The one no one else thought she wanted.
The gift she never dared to ask for. It's a beautiful smile, grateful and proud, and seems to go all the way back to the day we first met. She reaches over and places her small, crackled hand on mine. She says, "I never knew for sure. But whenever I think back on those days and remember how we used to meet in your room, I always pretend that for you it was the first time. I even pretended it back then, when it was happening. It meant something to me."
For a few moments, neither of us speaks. Then I break the spell. "What do you say we shove off? They need to close this place up and the snow's coming down hard." She agrees, and I help her slide into her coat. My car is parked only halfway down the block, but it's a slow walk to it because the sidewalk is a little slippery and she's very careful.
When we're in the car and moving north on Main Street, we remain silent for a while. And finally, I say to her, "you know, Gail? There's something I've wondered all these years myself."
"Yeah, but you don't have to tell me if it embarrasses you."
"Warren, dear, you reach a certain age, nothing embarrasses you."
"Yeah, well, I guess that's true."
"What is it?"
"OK. I wondered if except for me you stayed faithful to Frank. And before me."
No hesitation. She says, "yes, I was faithful to Frank before you and after. Except for my husband, you were the only man I loved." I don't believe her, but I know why she has lied to me. This time it's my turn to smile and reach over and place my hand on hers.
The rest of the way we don't talk, except for her giving me directions to her son's house, which is a plain brick ranch on a curving side street up by the old armory. The porch light is on, but the rest of the house is dark. "It's late," I say to her.
"So it is." I get out and come around and help her from the car and then walk her up the path to the door. She gets her key from her purse and unlocks the door and turns around and looks up at me. She's not as tall as she used to be. "I'm very happy that we saw each other tonight," she says. "We probably won't see each other again."
"Well, we can, if you want to."
"You're still a very sweet man, Warren. I'm glad of that. I wasn't wrong about you." I don't know what to say. I want to kiss her, though. And I do. I lean down, put my arms around her, and kiss her on the lips very gently. Then a little more. And she kisses me back with just enough pressure against me to let me know that she is remembering everything too. We hold each other like that for a long time.
Then I step away and she turns, opens the door, and takes one last look back at me. She smiles. "You've still got makeup on," she says. "What's the play? I forgot to ask."
"Oh," I say, thinking fast, because I'm remembering that she's Catholic and probably doesn't think much of the Masons. "Othello," I say.
"That's nice. And you're the moor?"
"Yes." Still smiling, she gives me a slow, pushing wave with her hand, as if dismissing me, and goes inside.
Driving home, it's all I can do to keep from crying. Times come, times gone, times never returning, I say to myself. What's here in front of me is all I've got, I decide. And as I drive my car through the blowing snow, it doesn't seem like much, except for the kindness that I've just exchanged with an old lady. So I concentrate on that. Thank you.
Russell Banks. His story, "The Moor," is published in his latest collection of short fiction, The Angel on the Roof.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Todd Bachmann, Starlee Kine, Alex Blumberg, Blue Chevigny, and Jonathan Goldstein. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Erin Yanke.
OK Go. Damian Kulash, the cynical one. Tim Nordwind, the happy one. Dan Konopka, the solid one. Andrew Duncan, the quiet, George Harrison type.
You can listen to our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says to us at the end of each and every show--
Yeah, congratulations. Whatever.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
And at our website this week, we held a contest for listeners to remix, re-perform or re-imagine Starlee Kine's break-up song from a few months back. Well, the polls have closed, the votes are in, the ballots are counted. The winners are now at thisamericanlife.org for your listening heartbreak pleasure.
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