Transcript

773: The Longest Distance Between Two Points

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Cassidy's 10, fifth grade. At the end of the school year, he's one of the talented extroverts singing in front of everybody, parents and kids, with his band.

Children

(SINGING) I love rock and roll. So come and take your time and dance with me!

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

OK, but here's something that's hard for him-- reading. He'll be OK for stretches, when he already knows the words.

Cassidy

One day the sun shone, so it was not cold-- so cold.

Ira Glass

But he has dyslexia. So reading an unfamiliar word, he has to decode it.

Cassidy

If it's a big word that I've never seen before, like that word-- I don't know what that says.

Ira Glass

OK, let's walk through that one.

Cassidy

Wait, deh, E. Deh, whip. Deh, eh, vu, ah.

Ira Glass

Here, talk me through what you're doing. So you're getting the deh.

Cassidy

Deh. I had to-- if you didn't-- in the recording, you might hear me say "bed."

Ira Glass

Thinking of the word "bed" is a way to keep B's and D's straight. This is actually one of the toughest things for Cassidy to learn, B's and D's, when they're not capitalized.

Cassidy

B's and D's, they look the exact same, but just flipped! If you take a B, it can also be a D. And it was just super annoying for a long while.

Ira Glass

So it's easy to get them confused.

Cassidy

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So there's this trick that lots of people with dyslexia are taught. They picture the word "bed," which, if you think about it, kind of looks like a bed. The posts of the B and the D are like the footboard and the headboard of the bed. And then the E is kind of the mattress.

Cassidy

I picture the letters. And I go buh for B, eh, and then duh. And then boom.

Ira Glass

There are so many little rules and tricks like this that some kids with dyslexia use. They have all kinds of names-- the fizzle rule, the floss rule, short vowel protectors, welded sounds. These are the rules of the English language that most of us somehow absorb, but we are not aware of-- the mechanics of when to use a long vowel or a short vowel, when G or G-H are silent. They learn dozens of these and then wield them like tools, one after another, to decode how our words should sound.

Cassidy

And then eh, E, vuh.

Ira Glass

Anyway, back to decoding this word.

Cassidy

Ah, deh, vuh, ah, ss.

Ira Glass

Which, by the way, the word he's trying to read is "devastating."

Cassidy

Devas--

Ira Glass

What is V-A-S-T? How would that sound?

Cassidy

Wait, oh, vast! Devast--

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm, then A-T.

Cassidy

And then at, in. Devastin. Hmm? I think I'm doing something wrong.

Ira Glass

He tries breaking the word down syllable by syllable, like his teacher taught him. Explains one part of the word is a CVC-- consonant, vowel, consonant. He looks for parts of the word that he recognizes.

Cassidy

I know ING from class and devasting.

Ira Glass

You're leaving out the middle one, though.

Cassidy

Devas, at, ing. Devast-- I really don't know.

Ira Glass

You're very close. You want me to give you a hint?

Cassidy

Sure.

Ira Glass

OK, this one is a long A. So it's a-ting.

Cassidy

Devast, ate, ing. Devast-ate-ing.

Ira Glass

Do you know that word, devastating?

Cassidy

Devastating! I do know that word.

Ira Glass

That is so much work.

Cassidy

It is. It really is.

Ira Glass

Later, I asked his teacher, what rule might have gotten him there? And she said, magic E. If you recognize that the ING in "devastating" might have been replacing an E on the end of the word, that final E would have told him how to pronounce the tate in "devastate." So many rules to remember and, irritatingly, so many exceptions to the rules you have to memorize.

Cassidy

For example, "salmon." It would be pronounced sal-mon, but it's salmon. Like, why? There's so many words that are like, deal with it.

Ira Glass

And so Cassidy is in this situation where things that seem to come so easily to other kids, he has to work so much harder at. Kids like him can become as fluent in reading as anybody else, but it's like, to go to the mile that other kids go, they go 10 miles and need every navigation tool and touch every blade of grass along the way before they get there. Other kids really don't understand this.

Cassidy

Yeah, they're like, why can't you read that? And I'm like, I have dyslexia. I mean, it doesn't feel terrible. It's not like, ahh, making me want to scream. But it's a little like-- I mean, I'm so used to it now that it's like, OK.

Ira Glass

You know what's so strange? It's like, you have to master stuff that's so much more difficult than those kids.

Cassidy

Definitely, definitely. I have to do a lot more just to get a simple word that everybody knows how to spell, except for me. It's just like, OK, well, have fun being able to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. And I'm over here like, how do you spell "there" again?

Ira Glass

Well, today, on our program, we have people like Cassidy who have to take the long road to get to a place that other people get to more quickly. It takes them more time. It's more effort. But the thing about doing it that way, you don't take anything for granted. You see so much more than other people do. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Voter...Reformed

Ira Glass

Act One, "Voter Reformed." So Mississippi is one of a small number of states where something like a robbery conviction can cost you your right to vote. Even after you get out of prison, even after you complete your parole, pay all your fines, all that, you still can't vote.

Mississippi is unusual in that regard. Most states do not permanently take away a person's right to vote. And if they do, it's usually just for crimes like rape or murder. But in Mississippi, there is one way-- one long, winding path that people can take that will let them vote again. This is the path that most states do not offer. Johnny Kauffman explains.

Johnny Kauffman

When I first learned about this, I was a little baffled. To get your voting rights back, you have to get your own personal bill passed by the state legislature. These bills-- they're called suffrage bills-- are just one page with your name, your conviction, and a line about being a, quote, "honorable citizen," kind of your own personal law giving you permission to vote. The bills have to go through committees and pass the House and Senate, all that stuff. And we'll get to that.

But the thing to know in general about this is, it's pretty hard to pass any bill, ever, about anything. So this is pretty hard. And the people that try, they tend to really care about voting, like this man, Gerald Laird. One of the main reasons he really wants to be able to vote again, the thing that drives him kind of crazy--

Gerald Laird

They consolidated the schools.

Johnny Kauffman

--local school board. He talked for almost 10 minutes about it, how they closed the high school.

Gerald Laird

And they moved the high school to Bassfield. Prentiss had the better facilities.

Johnny Kauffman

And the school board members, he says, OK, they have credentials, but no real experience with education.

Gerald Laird

I mean, come on. My degree is in psychology. But that doesn't mean I would make a great teacher.

Johnny Kauffman

Gerald lives an hour south of Jackson, Mississippi's capital, where he helps run the family business, a funeral home. Gerald told me he's an introvert, but he also said he's the person at church who will stand up and tell the deacon to get closer to the microphone. Gerald's the guy who sits in the back and records the service.

He's pretty open about, well, pretty much everything, including how he lost his right to vote. He robbed a bank back in 2002. He told me he was grappling with drug addiction, relapsed, and bought cocaine from a guy. It was that guy's idea.

Gerald Laird

He wrote a note, and he said, go give this to the teller. And she gave me the money. And tell you how dumb I was-- instead of running out, I casually walked out.

Johnny Kauffman

He wasn't wearing a mask. He didn't even know what was on the note.

Gerald Laird

I'm assuming it said, "Give me the money." That's what I'm assuming.

Johnny Kauffman

They got caught the same day. At first, he was charged with armed robbery. But then the prosecutor looked at the security footage and realized he didn't have a weapon.

Gerald Laird

And they were like, oh, OK. You're guilty of a lot of things. And being dumb is the most prevalent one. That's what my lawyer told me.

Johnny Kauffman

These days, Gerald watches after his mom and his uncle, who owns the funeral home. He's been out of jail for 16 years. He doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to vote. Gerald started on this long, strange journey to get back his right to vote one day in church. A friend told him about the suffrage bills.

So he decided to try. He filled out a form. A non-profit in Jackson passed it on to a state representative, who introduced his bill. Gerald hadn't actually seen it when we met, but I had a copy with me. It was wild for him to see it, House Bill 1721, an act to restore the right of suffrage to Gerald Laird of Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi.

Gerald Laird

Be it enacted by the legislature of the state of Mississippi, Section One, the right of suffrage is hereby fully and completely restored to Gerald Laird, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi.

Johnny Kauffman

To be clear, this bill hadn't passed. But just to see what could happen, there on the page--

Gerald Laird

The right is hereby fully and completely restored. This makes me happy. This makes me really, really happy. Wow. Just imagine. Fully and completely.

Johnny Kauffman

What do you think about this line at the end, "The legislature is informed that he has since conducted himself?"

Gerald Laird

"As a law-abiding and honorable citizen in a good and lawful manner." I agree. I have, except for speeding. I have a problem with speeding, but I'm getting better. Mm, this would be just so amazing. And all it has to do is pass. Can I have a copy of this?

Johnny Kauffman

You can keep that.

Gerald Laird

OK. Wow.

Johnny Kauffman

This year, Gerald was one of 23 people who got bills introduced, hoping to get the right to vote back. I tried to talk to as many as I could. It was a pretty determined group-- a dad and tool factory worker who had been on a union board; an older man who was sick in bed, used to be a county supervisor; and a guy who worked at a mental hospital. He showed me a news clipping about how his father was shot and nearly killed trying to register people to vote.

There's something like 44,000 people in Mississippi who can't vote because of a conviction. A disproportionate percentage, 60%, are Black, in a state that's 38% Black. Gerald is Black. So is Nsombi Lambright-Haynes. She's the person who took the form Gerald filled out and gave it to a legislator who introduced the bill. She helps a lot of people do this.

Nsombi Lambright-Haynes

When I first learned about the process, I understood that people didn't take advantage of it. And I felt like, hey, this is a way for us to really get in there. And I was excited about it, until I learned that it was a joke.

Johnny Kauffman

A joke because a bill can die with no explanation. There's nothing on any government website telling you how to get your vote back, even finding out when the bills are discussed.

Johnny Kauffman

How do you find out when the committees are happening?

Nsombi Lambright-Haynes

I would just text some of the committee members to see, have you heard anything about the suffrage committee? Oh, yeah. The chairman said we're probably going to meet next Wednesday. But it's never on the calendar. So then that next Wednesday would come. Are you guys going to meet today? Yeah, we're going to meet at 4:00 today. So it's just like, stalking people, basically.

Johnny Kauffman

Fortunately, when Nsombi stalks people, they like her. She's fun to talk to. They answer her texts. Nsombi was head of the Mississippi ACLU for nearly a decade. Now she leads a nonprofit called One Voice. The office is in an old Masonic building that the civil rights activist Medgar Evers used to work out of. Nsombi seems busy all the time. A friend gave her this mug once that says, "Fuck it. I'll do it." And this is one of those things. She's got lots of other stuff, but she makes time for these bills-- been doing it for over a decade.

The lifetime voting ban is enshrined in the Mississippi constitution. And the history of how it ended up there is pretty well documented and revealing. It starts after the Civil War. Black people could finally vote, and they were putting people in office, including the first Black US senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels.

But there was backlash. In 1890, white leaders like Senator James George said the state needed to hold a convention to write a new constitution. George said the new census was going to show there were more Black people than whites in Mississippi. And the goal of the convention should be to make sure whites controlled the government.

The president of the convention was a man named Solomon Calhoun, who said, quote, "Negro suffrage is an evil, and an evil to both races." In his opening speech at the convention, he said the voting scheme should be arranged to keep white people in power. They decided on a few things. There was a poll tax and this really vague test called the understanding clause that said a voter had to be able to interpret part of the constitution. One newspaper called it a gigantic fraud. Then there was the part of the new constitution about crime and voting.

Nsombi Lambright-Haynes

The constitution says that there are 11 crimes that take your voting rights away. And those are bigamy, timber larceny--

Johnny Kauffman

Timber larceny?

Nsombi Lambright-Haynes

Yeah, yeah, like stealing wood or something, stealing trees.

Johnny Kauffman

I talked to two historians who said the list was clearly meant to target Black people, crimes delegates at the convention thought Black people would be more likely to commit. And the novel idea that you could get your rights back if you get a bill through the legislature with your name on it, that was also in the 1890 constitution.

Historians don't know much about how it ended up in there. Maybe they were trying to keep the governor from gaining too much power. Or maybe they wanted a way to help their white friends and family if they happened to commit one of the crimes on the list. Whatever it was, this last chance is still there for anyone who wants to try. But most people don't even know about it.

Gerald's journey began where all epic journeys begin-- the subcommittee of the House Judiciary B Committee. Gerald wanted to be there when they discussed his bill-- which, it turns out, is difficult to do because you don't know when the heck they're meeting. Even the legislators don't know sometimes.

I managed to get the phone number of the lawmaker who chairs the committee, but it wasn't until the day before that he let me know when it was going to happen. Gerald wasn't going to be able to make it. He couldn't find anyone to cover for him at the funeral home. I visited him the night before. We sat in his living room.

Gerald Laird

It's kind of emotional for me because this is something that I would really, really, really like to see happen. And left up to a bunch of people that don't know me from a can of paint, I don't know what my chances are. If I were able to be there, I'd say I would at least have a 75% chance if I could meet them and talk with them.

Johnny Kauffman

Are you nervous about how it's going to go tomorrow?

Gerald Laird

Yes, extremely. I had a joke, but it's not appropriate. But yeah, very.

Johnny Kauffman

You can tell me the joke.

Gerald Laird

As nervous as a $2 whore on first Sunday.

Johnny Kauffman

It seemed like Gerald's bill stood a chance of passing. Sometimes the bill fails because the person has an unpaid fine they don't know about or because they only recently finished their sentence. Those weren't problems for Gerald. I told him I'd let him know how it went.

I went to the hearing the next day. Six state representatives, all but one of them white, sat around a couple of folding tables in a big committee room that was mostly empty. Off to the side, a red plastic coffee dispenser with Styrofoam cups. The legislators had background checks in front of them for everyone with a suffrage bill. Only like three other people were in the room. I set a microphone on the table.

Noah Sanford

Sam, you ready?

Sam

Yeah.

Noah Sanford

All right, we're going to start the meeting.

Johnny Kauffman

This is Representative Noah Sanford. They went through suffrage bills. The first bill passed. So did the next one. There wasn't really any discussion. Then Gerald's came up.

Noah Sanford

All right, 1721. This is Gerald Laird of Jefferson Davis County.

Johnny Kauffman

Sanford read through the bill.

Noah Sanford

So we're 13 years past at this point. Y'all have any questions? All right, motion is title sufficient do pass. All in favor?

Woman

Aye.

Noah Sanford

Any opposed? OK, 1721 passes.

Johnny Kauffman

House Bill 1721, Gerald's bill, made it out of the committee. The next day, it went to the full House for a vote.

Man 1

All right, that brings us to page 30, suffrage bills.

Johnny Kauffman

For a suffrage bill to pass, it takes more than a normal bill, like to adjust income tax rates or give teachers a raise. You need more than a majority. 2/3 of the House would have to vote for it. And then, if it passed here, 2/3 of the Senate.

Man 2

House Bill 1721 concerns Gerald Laird of Jefferson Davis County convicted of robbery in 2003, was released, and finished all the conditions of his sentence May 2009. That's the description of the bill.

Man 1

Questions? I don't see any. Open the machine, madam clerk. Question occurs on House Bill 1721. You favor the bill, vote aye. If you're opposed, vote nay. Has everyone voted? Close the machine, madam clerk. By a vote of 106 yays, 0 nays, the bill passes. Next item.

Johnny Kauffman

106 representatives voted for Gerald's bill. Nobody voted against it. It was through the House. It just had the Senate to go.

Johnny Kauffman

Hey, did you hear that your bill passed the full House?

Gerald Laird

Oh, wow. That's wonderful. OK. That's great! Wow. Man. Now, on through the Senate. I can't wait. Woo. They need to have some elections this summer so I can vote.

Johnny Kauffman

[LAUGHS]

Gerald Laird

Wow. I wish you could see this big cheese-eating grin on my face right now.

Johnny Kauffman

Next step, the Senate. It started the following week. Just like on the House side, Gerald's bill had to be passed by a committee before it could go to the full senate. He had been trying on his own to reach the chair of the committee, Senator Joey Fillingane. He thought it might help his case.

Gerald Laird

I tracked down his number today, the actual number that actually rings to his office. However, no one ever answers it. Because I think it rang somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and then it hung up on me.

Johnny Kauffman

You let it ring for 50 times? You stayed on that long?

Gerald Laird

I did, yes. I wanted to tell him my name and that I would appreciate any consideration that he would give my suffrage bill so that I could get my voting rights back.

Johnny Kauffman

The Senate committee met a few days later. Again, we only learned about it the night before. And like last time, Gerald couldn't go because of work. He had to watch it on YouTube from the funeral home. This committee room was slightly bigger, fancier than the first one. It was the end of the session. And only six of the committee's 15 members showed up. All of the ones who did were white. Here's Senator Fillingane.

Joey Fillingane

So our friends from the House who are here this morning, we have three suffrage bills that are before us. And the colleagues from down the hall were kind enough to come down and visit with us.

Johnny Kauffman

They were going to be considering just three suffrage bills. The first bill came up. It wasn't Gerald's. The sponsor from the House talked about it, and the committee passed it. Then another representative came to the microphone. She was there to talk about two other bills.

Representative

Good morning, committee, and thank you, Mr. Chairman, for allowing me to present on behalf of Ms. Leadbetter and Ms. Grant.

Johnny Kauffman

Neither bill was Gerald's. His did not even come up. It was dead. I looked into it, and this is how it goes a lot of the time. The House will pass a suffrage bill, but then Fillingane blocks it. So I put in a request to talk to him. Gerald called me the day after his bill died.

Gerald Laird

I did not call you yesterday because I was somewhat depressed and kind of a little bit just like, oh, well. I guess this wasn't meant to be right now.

Johnny Kauffman

What do you mean by that, just saying, oh, well?

Gerald Laird

I mean, that's kind of my way of protecting my feelings, by just saying, it's not in God's time.

Johnny Kauffman

Gerald had no idea why Fillingane killed his bill, why these other people made it and not him. Fillingane got back to me and was happy to talk. I met him in his law office. He's a real estate lawyer when he's not at the Capitol.

Joey Fillingane

I just finished my 23rd year in the legislature on combined House and Senate. And next year will be the end of the sixth term. So I mean, I've been doing it for a little while now.

Johnny Kauffman

I brought a copy of Gerald's bill with me.

Johnny Kauffman

His did pass out of the House. And then I don't think the Senate committee even brought it up for discussion.

Joey Fillingane

Right, I don't recall us bringing that one up, and probably because his disenfranchising crime was that of robbery, which is considered a violent offense.

Johnny Kauffman

Robbery is classified as a violent offense in Mississippi law. It doesn't mean the crime itself was necessarily violent, but Fillingane has a general rule-- doesn't consider any suffrage bills for violent crimes. He says that's what the lieutenant governor, who put him on the committee, told him to do. That's why Gerald's bill died.

But ultimately, it is up to Fillingane. He can do what he wants. And he said he does sometimes weigh information that sways him one way or another. But there's no part of this process set aside for people to come talk to him in the committee, introduce themselves, tell their story. I told them that Gerald's crime was almost 20 years ago and that he didn't have a gun at the bank.

Fillingane said, yes, those are the kinds of things that could persuade him in the committee. But he said he'd look at other things, too. Fillingane said it might hurt someone like Gerald if the police had been called to their home or if they'd been convicted of another crime. I wondered how Fillingane felt about enforcing this particular part of Mississippi's constitution, given how it disproportionately affects Black people and given its history.

Johnny Kauffman

The historians that I've talked to about this to try to learn more about it said that it was this 1890 constitutional convention that met, and that the goal of that convention was to keep Black people from voting, and that these criminal disenfranchisement, these laws, were a part of that plan.

Joey Fillingane

I don't know if that's the case or not. I wasn't there. I've not studied the history of the 1890 constitution. And certainly, Mississippi has a very checkered past when it comes to race relations. We treated African-Americans very poorly in some parts of our history. And I'm certainly not going to sit here and defend that or even try to. I wouldn't want to. But if you're asking me, is the suffrage right being treated differently based on your race in 2022 as it relates to suffrage bills that we consider in the legislature, absolutely not.

I don't even know the race of the person. I'm sure I could probably try to find out by asking Department of Corrections to print me a social history, the person's age, and racial background, and all of that if I wanted to. I've never done that. I don't intend to start. But I mean, it's not obvious to me, just by looking at a bill, what racial background someone is a part of.

Johnny Kauffman

I asked him about this rule more broadly. If someone does their time, they're out of prison, off parole, years have passed, why shouldn't they be allowed to vote?

Johnny Kauffman

What's the reasoning behind that?

Joey Fillingane

Well, I think not necessarily what I would think, but we--

Johnny Kauffman

Oh, but I'm curious about what you think.

Joey Fillingane

I mean, I think at some point, personal responsibility has to come into it. And you have to realize, if I'm going to break the social contract and commit a violent crime-- most of these are violent crimes that lead to disenfranchising your right to vote-- there are prices to pay for that. There hasn't been a groundswell of public support to change this particular aspect of our state constitution. Not to say that there won't be in the future, but certainly, there hasn't been as of 2022.

Johnny Kauffman

Of course, the thing about public support is that the people directly affected by this provision in the 1890 constitution, they can't vote. This year, just five people got their right to vote back, which is pretty typical. This year, it's four women and one man. I don't know much about them because I couldn't reach them, just what's on their suffrage bills. Two were convicted of forgery, two of embezzlement, and one burglary. Most of them finished their sentences before Gerald did. Some of them hadn't been able to vote for decades.

There's a lawsuit in the federal courts trying to argue that this whole process for getting the right to vote back is arbitrary, and therefore, unconstitutional, as in the US Constitution. But it's in the early stages. And any ruling could take years. Nsombi, the woman who helps get a lot of these bills introduced, told me she's basically stuck, trying to get as many of them through the House and Senate as she can, one by one, using the very process she doesn't think should exist in the first place. Gerald told me for sure he was going to try again. He still has the copy of his bill that didn't pass.

Gerald Laird

It's in my bedroom. I see it every day. Right now, it's attached to my mirror. But at some point, I am going to more than likely put it in a frame and keep it in my room.

Johnny Kauffman

Why did you put it on your mirror?

Gerald Laird

I want to see it so I can see the progress. See the progress. It passed the House. And to me, that's an accomplishment. That means that I'm still halfway there.

Johnny Kauffman

A few months later, we talked again. And he told me he'd been arrested for cocaine possession. He didn't have to tell me about it. But he did, just volunteered it. He said he was driving a friend, and they got pulled over. Gerald says his friend had the cocaine. The police report says both of them did. In any case, Gerald was angry at himself for having gotten into that situation.

Drug possession is not a crime that's on the list of things that will cost you your right to vote. It wasn't in the 1890 constitution. But based on what I learned from Senator Fillingane, Gerald's arrest might be enough reason to kill his bill. If the point of putting this in the constitution was to make it a long journey for people like Gerald, it's working.

Ira Glass

Johnny Kauffman is a senior producer at Campside Media. Coming up, a truck that's speeding down a California highway with 100,000 passengers inside. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Ill Communication

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, the longest distance between two points, stories of people who have to take the long and, sometimes, absurd way to arrive somewhere that should be so straightforward to get to. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, "Ill Communication."

In this act, we turn to a story of somebody who starts at home and then ends up at home with a long, time-consuming journey in the middle. This whole thing happens in China. I guess you've probably heard just how different and fantastically aggressive China's response to COVID has been. From the start, they shut down entire cities, and it got results. Best estimates are that China has had fewer than 20,000 people dead from COVID versus, as you know, a million here.

And when Omicron arrived, China treated it with the same severity as the earlier variants, even though 90% of the population is now vaccinated. They locked down all of Shanghai in April. And lockdown in this case means really locked down. Over 25 million people could not leave their apartments or homes. Grocery stores and food delivery was shut down. Lots of people couldn't get food or medicine. It was pretty awful. This lasted for two months.

And we still haven't gotten much of a glimpse of what it was like to live through that. So I was excited to talk to Yang Yi about this thing that happened to him and his boyfriend during that period. Yang is a podcast producer in China, lives in Shanghai. And one day, early in the lockdown, he did his daily required self-test, as usual.

Yang Yi

But that morning, I saw two lines.

Ira Glass

Two lines.

Yang Yi

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You had COVID.

Yang Yi

Yeah. I think, wow, that's bad. And I tell my boyfriend, Johnny. And he tests and is positive, too.

Ira Glass

Anybody in China who tests positive is required to report it to the government, which, in Johnny and Yi's case, means calling one of their neighbors, a very kind retiree who is the person in their apartment building designated to deal with government on all matters, getting new elevators installed, dealing with a blocked sewer, whatever. So they call her.

And then they figure, within a couple of hours, the government's going to send somebody to take them to a quarantine center that's part of China's zero tolerance policy. Unhealthy people are separated from the rest of the population.

And then, the next very urgent order of business-- they really don't have much time for this-- is figuring out where to send their dog while they're in quarantine. He's just a puppy, a five-month-old schnauzer. They had seen this video online that was being passed around of a corgi being killed, supposedly because its owner had COVID and had been sent to a quarantine center.

Yang Yi

So there's no way for a dog to go with them. And so I just cried. I just-- I don't know how to say-- I just crash, because I don't know what's next. It's such unpredictable. And the dog thing is a very clear thing we have to solve in several hours.

Ira Glass

It's actually harder than you might think because the whole city is closed up. Johnny calls lots of places before he finally finds an animal hospital that can take their schnauzer. But then they have to find somebody who's authorized to drive a car in Shanghai with all the streets shut down. So a friend knows some professional freight drivers, and they help with that. And then, they have to find somebody who's allowed to walk from their apartment building to the car to hand the dog to the driver. It takes a government official to arrange that. Finally, the dog is delivered into the car. Yi and Johnny can start packing, figuring somebody's going to come for them any minute to take them to the quarantine center.

Yang Yi

But things wasn't that simple. The truth is, no one came to us at first day.

Ira Glass

Or the second or the third. Someone calls from the Shanghai CDC to follow up, but didn't send anybody. Other officials call. More days pass. Finally, on the eighth day, they do their daily self tests, and they learn they do not have COVID anymore. And then that night, before dinner, they get the phone call.

Yang Yi

The phone call, yeah, informing us that it's time to go.

Ira Glass

Over to the quarantine center.

Yang Yi

Yes, in two hours, we should go to the curb with our luggage for the bus. And that bus would take us to the quarantine center.

Ira Glass

Oh, no. So do you tell them, that's fine, we're cured. We don't need to come?

Yang Yi

Yes, yes, of course. I say, OK, self-test is negative today. There's no need for it. And they say, oh, you guys have to go.

Ira Glass

What if you don't go?

Yang Yi

Who knows? I have no idea.

Ira Glass

Really?

Yang Yi

Yeah.

Ira Glass

They decide that it's smart to go because now they have this bureaucratic thing that they actually need to fix. China has these QR codes. Everybody has one on their phone. Red if you have COVID, green if you don't have COVID. Now theirs were red, meaning they wouldn't be able to go into any building or store or office or just anywhere when lockdown ended. That's the thing they thought the quarantine center could cure for them.

Yang Yi

And at that point, my thought is we want a healthy social identity back, not a healthy body.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Exactly. Even if your bodies don't have COVID, your QR code has COVID, and they can take care of that.

Yang Yi

Yes.

Ira Glass

So, after a week, you finally go to the quarantine center. What's it like?

Yang Yi

Actually, it is a high school gymnasium.

[DOCTORS SPEAKING IN CHINESE]

And this is sound I recorded for my own podcast. And this quarantine center is for people with very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Most don't even need a doctor. So they just come here and rest and wait to get better.

[DOCTORS SPEAKING IN CHINESE]

These are doctors telling us all where to go. You go to the first floor. You are first, you are second, you are third. OK, move forward.

Ira Glass

Then what happens?

Yang Yi

My boyfriend and I go inside. They issued us toiletries, a washbasin, toothpaste, toothbrush, towel, a cup, and two packet of tissues.

Ira Glass

Two packets of tissues.

Yang Yi

And a sleeping bag. And we wait for check-in.

Ira Glass

It's like you guys are joining the army or something.

Yang Yi

[LAUGHS]

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Ira Glass

Some people are sent to stay on the basketball court on the third floor. He and Johnny were pointed to the first floor, where they learned they'd be living in the swimming pool. There's no water in it. Instead, there were rows of cots, men in the deep end, women and children in the shallow end. Elderly people with mobility problems were on the edges of the pool. Because it was just a high school pool, there's only a tiny bathroom with one toilet in it for the men and another bathroom with one toilet for the women.

Yang Yi

But there are close to 200 people here now. So it's crazy. And there is no hot water in the shower.

Ira Glass

Yi and Johnny figured they'd be there for four or five days. The rumor was, you needed two negative PCR tests to get out. And they give the test every other day.

Yang Yi

It was late at night when we arrived. So we went straight to bed. So in a quarantine center, the lights do not turn off all night long.

Ira Glass

The lights don't turn off?

Yang Yi

And people around you watch TikTok all night long without headphones on.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Ira Glass

OK, so that's you.

Yang Yi

Saying it is now 10:40 PM on April the 17th. I'm laying on the cot. And you can hear what it sounds like around me.

[NOISE]

Ira Glass

Could you sleep? Could Johnny sleep?

Yang Yi

Well, frankly speaking, I can sleep, and I sleep well. But for Johnny, I think, oh, he's more sensitive during sleeping. So that noisy environment does not work for him. It's obvious he become more and more tired each day.

Ira Glass

That's not what really gets to Johnny, though. What kills Johnny about all this?

Yang Yi

When Johnny realized that there is only one men's toilet. He just-- he broke down. He crashed. [LAUGHS] He just feel, it's such disgusting. It is not healthy.

Ira Glass

He says that to avoid using the bathroom for, I'll just say number two, Johnny took steps, real steps.

Yang Yi

Every meal, he just eat half. He just eat half. And the breakfast, the worker give us the bread, eggs, and the milk. He just eat a piece of bread, no eggs, no milk, something like that.

Ira Glass

And is this typical of the two of you? He would get more freaked out about things, and you would be more calm?

Yang Yi

Well, he is born and raised in Shanghai. It's a big city. And everything is very clean, refined.

Ira Glass

Oh, right.

Yang Yi

Everything's fine.

Ira Glass

He's used to things being better.

Yang Yi

Yes, yes. So but for me, it's different because I come from a small town. So I have to say, I have to see more dirty toilet than this. So for me, I think it was fine. It would be fine. Because I've seen worse.

Ira Glass

You've seen worse.

Yang Yi

Yeah, I have seen worse.

Ira Glass

The daily routine at the quarantine center, every other morning at 7:00, everybody would line up at the edge of the pool for a PCR test. When you finish your test, you get breakfast. Young people usually go back to sleep, he says. 7:00 AM is a little early for them.

Pretty soon, their sleep is disturbed by housekeepers who come through spraying disinfectant everywhere, which is really, really loud, he says. He and Johnny would work, do remote meetings with their colleagues. And then when it's almost time for lunch, a nurse stands at the edge of the swimming pool and gets on a megaphone. And in that noisy, echoey room, people talking on their phones--

Yang Yi

And suddenly, it gets very quiet because everyone knows the nurses are going to read the names of everyone who are allowed to go home.

Ira Glass

And what's it like? What's the scene like?

Yang Yi

Well, that scene is very, very funny because the scene is a lot like a reality TV show. You know, those whose names are read cheer. And someone will say, woo! I get to go home! Something like that. And those who are not mentioned have disappointment, reaching all of their faces.

Ira Glass

After that, Yi says, everybody tries to figure out, why did that person get out? How many negative tests do you really need to get out?

Yang Yi

And there is some gossip is here. Oh, that guy, he already leave, but I don't know. Maybe he's only got one negative, and he's leave. Oh, and that guy. He got two negatives, but his QR code is still red. So that is the main topics in the quarantine center. Everyone will say, oh, how many negatives you get? How many negatives are you get? What's your result? What's your result?

Ira Glass

And so how does this feel to you and Johnny? You're in this absurd situation. You don't have COVID. But they're keeping you in quarantine. You can't go home. Were you angry? Were you frustrated?

Yang Yi

I think we're not angry and frustrated because-- well, Ira, I have to say, we have no choice. We have no choice. We have to face the reality.

Ira Glass

And the quarantine center, he says, wasn't all bad. In fact, a bunch of things were better than their life back home with the city on lockdown.

Yang Yi

I don't have to worry about food anymore. Since the beginning of April, with everything on lockdown, it was hard to find food anywhere. All the stores were closed. Food delivery was completely shut down. And nobody stored enough food. We are hungry.

Ira Glass

Really? You were hungry?

Yang Yi

Yes, I'm hungry. But here, three meals are served here every day. Pork, beef, eggs, vegetables, and unlimited drinks and milk.

Ira Glass

So that seems really important.

Yang Yi

Yes, and another benefit of being here, we can move around, get some exercise. We're not allowed to leave our homes. And our tiny apartment is only 20 steps at most to walk from one end to the other. But there is a standard swimming pool here to walk around. It is 140 meters. And after each meal, you will see many people walk around the edge of the pool.

Ira Glass

This is another thing. Back at home, Yi says, at their apartment building, people would only see each other when they went downstairs for the official COVID test. When they did that, everybody was pretty quick about it. Nobody would stay and chat, scared of getting infected.

Yang Yi

But here, everyone is infected.

Ira Glass

Well, everybody but them. And they were all stuck together, so people talked and hung out. And you can just watch people, which he likes.

Yang Yi

Yeah, I hadn't seen so many strangers in weeks! And what impressed me the most was a young couple.

[GIGGLING] [SPEAKING CHINESE]

This is me saying, they seem to be sunbathing. It's like, they're laying on the beach.

Ira Glass

Wait, because why? Explain their setup.

Yang Yi

Oh, because they moved their cot to the side of the pool. And for them, so they were like the beach chairs, you know. And each laying there by the pool with a book in their hands.

Ira Glass

Honestly, when you describe it this way, it doesn't sound so bad.

Yang Yi

Yeah, I feel that here in quarantine center, normal life is lived.

Ira Glass

Other people Yi observed-- a middle-aged businessman, big guy, big voice, very pro-government. He would spout off after breakfast every day about politics at length, for everyone around him, like his own political talk show. On the cot next to him, a skinny university lecturer who Yi saw try to argue with the businessman one day, which, apparently, did not go very well. The business man just kind of drowned him out.

And then there was the guy who slept on the cot next to Yi. He was a source of fascination because, more than anybody in the quarantine center, he seemed the most desperate to get out, the most upset each day when he was not on the list to go home. Yi didn't know his first name.

Yang Yi

I usually call him Wang. Clean cut, 26, worked as an English teacher in a kindergarten. And before I came to the quarantine center, he's already here for one week.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Yang Yi

And the day after I arrived, he had already gotten two negative test results, but they didn't let him leave.

Wang

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Yang Yi

That's Wang's voice, and he's saying he was getting desperate.

Ira Glass

One of the ways that Wang deals with his anxiety over this, he never changes his clothes. He says that he's in the same red shirt and white socks every single day, even though he has a big suitcase by his cot.

Yang Yi

But he never opened that suitcase. And I ask him why. He tells me, he just wants to go home. He just wants to go home when the nurse read his name, and leave immediately and pack the suitcase. Maybe it will spend five or eight or 10 minutes. He don't want to waste up time. So he think, OK, maybe I don't open that suitcase.

Ira Glass

Some nights, Wang stays up all night, worried that he's going to sleep through the PCR test at 7:00 AM.

Wang

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Yang Yi

Here's Wang's voice, and he's saying, "I can't sleep all night. I was waiting. My mind was thinking all the time, go home, go home, go home. I was not even in the mood to watch TikTok anymore."

Ira Glass

Finally, one morning, they read Wang's name. Yi says he was out of there in three minutes flat. Threw his sleeping bag and toiletries into the garbage, pulled his unopened suitcase out of there before Yi could get his phone number or say goodbye. Johnny and Yi got out the next day. They got the dog back. QR codes were fixed. They had started in their apartment, went on a six-day journey that was completely pointless, and delivered them back at the end of the road to the exact spot they had started, no better and no worse, though Yi says he's glad it happened.

Yang Yi

I have to say, it feel like an adventure. It's just like an adventure. We got food. We could talk to the strangers. And that is the only chance during those weeks we could go outside apartment. We could go on the street.

Ira Glass

When they're dropped off afterwards, it was at a crossroads near their place. And they walked through the empty streets to get home. Yi liked that. No cars, no people. Just cats, he says, just strolling in the middle of the street like they own the place. When would you ever see that? Or any of it? If he had a choice, Yi definitely would choose the experience they had. Johnny, however? No way.

Act Three: The Roe Less Traveled

Ira Glass

Act Three, "The Roe Less Traveled." So ladies and gentlemen, perhaps you remember the critique offered by a 10-year-old at the beginning of today's program about the way we spell the name of a certain fish, S-A-L-M-O-N.

Cassidy

It would be pronounced sal-mon, but it's salmon. Like, why?

Ira Glass

Fair point. This last story is about salmon doing something about as logical as that spelling, taking a ridiculous route to get where they need to go. And by that, I mean a ridiculous route that is different from the normal kind of ridiculous route they usually take. Jaime Lowe went to California to see it for herself.

Jaime Lowe

I have an above-average attachment to salmon, an obsession that began in college when I took a class with salmon guru Peter Moyle. He's famous in salmon circles, trust me. I think I was attracted to their epic migration and the macabre nature of their lives.

They're born, wiggle around in a cold stream, make their way to the ocean, then instinctually, against all odds, return to the place of their birth, hurling their bodies over waterfalls, flesh rotting, dodging bear claws, simultaneously decaying as they're pushing towards their exact nook and their exact birth stream to lay eggs and let the cycle begin again. It's like they're dying to live.

I mean, there's this whole industry of nature documentaries centered on dramatizing the species and their odyssey, films which feature the sound of raging water in the background while a serious narrator describes their majesty.

Narrator

It's a game of persistence and luck. And although they fail time after time, their desire to push on is so strong, they never give up.

Jaime Lowe

It's a staple of nature porn. But the world has changed. The climate has changed. There's been increasingly hot temperatures, fires, drought, pollution. And many of the rivers salmon used for their migration have run dry or have been blocked by dams. That's why today, in California, many salmon follow a radically different course. They make their way to the ocean not through rivers, but inside a fleet of tanker trucks with human drivers at the wheel.

When I first heard about trucking salmon, it seemed so dystopic, a cold, mechanical process. The idea of salmon stuck in traffic just made me feel sad, like nature had been hijacked. But I was also kind of curious. I really wanted to see this Rube Goldberg, tin-cans-and-rubber-bands environmental hack in person. So I decided to follow five silver trucks transporting about half a million adolescent salmon on a 120-mile drive to the San Francisco Bay, a migration that no longer starts with the sound of babbling water. It's got a different sound.

[MACHINERY HUMMING]

Late one Tuesday afternoon, I found myself at the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery, standing in front of a gas-powered machine that looked like it would be more at home on a construction site. The hatchery is about an hour northeast of Modesto in the Central Valley. It's rural and isolated, and so hot, the sun immediately burns, even in May. Mokelumne sits next to a river that was once known for thriving salmon and trout runs, but was dammed in the '60s. To offset the lost wild populations, the state built a hatchery and a parking lot close to the old stream bed.

I should say, hatcheries are controversial. The fish raised in them are not as prepared to survive in nature. And when they're released, they breed with native salmon, compromising the gene pool. There are people who think we shouldn't have hatcheries at all. But California has had them for decades at this point, a really long time. Mokelumne is not a massive operation, just a few bungalows and 20 concrete trenches packed with adolescent fish.

When I pull up, I meet the guy responsible for getting the salmon to the ocean. Bill Smith, the hatchery manager, greets me, then walks me over to this machine that's now so critical to salmon migration, and we try to talk over its roar.

Jaime Lowe

What is this?

Bill Smith

This is a fish crowder.

Jaime Lowe

A fish crowder?

Bill Smith

Yeah. It's what we use to crowd the fish down.

Jaime Lowe

Oh, I see them!

Bill Smith

See all the salmon?

Jaime Lowe

Yeah!

Bill Smith

Yeah.

Jaime Lowe

Bill's a big, bearded, burly guy. And the suspenders are not just for show. They hold up jeans which are tucked into waterproof boots. He's introverted, seems a little gruff. But there's a tenderness in the way he talks about the fish. In fact, he tells me, when these fish were just born, babies the size of fingernails, wriggling in the water, he would sometimes sleep at the hatchery overnight. He wanted to make sure their water was the right temperature, that the electricity stayed on. He wanted to make sure they were OK.

Jaime Lowe

Do you feel emotional attachment to the fish after, because you basically--

Bill Smith

I don't know if you would call it that, but yeah, definitely an attachment. Pretty amazing animals.

Jaime Lowe

Yeah.

It's comforting to know someone who cares is at the heart of this operation. Bill grew up in the area, a fisherman. His life revolves around raising these animals for harvest. But he rarely buys salmon in the store, says he can't afford it. He only eats what he catches.

He mounted the moving platform of the crowder and started in on his job. The crowder has a metal grate that dips below the water. It pushes the fish, each the size of a hot dog, to one end of the raceway. Then they're sucked up into a tube that's connected to the top of a truck. The tube was translucent. And I could see all these salmon whooshing by, like documents being transported in a pneumatic tube.

I wondered how they felt, if they felt. What did they think of the sudden rush of movement, the dramatic shift in their environment? One minute, shining in the sun, the next, dropped in a big, dark tanker. There was no way to really know. After Bill filled each truck with brackish water and fish, and bags of ice to maintain the temperature, we pulled out of the hatchery.

Jaime Lowe

Goodbye, fishies.

We're on the road, me and 500,000 fish, and it's weird. Bill's driving ahead in a pickup. I follow behind the caravan. The five trucks look like any other fuel tankers you would see on the highway. They blend in seamlessly. You'd never know how many lives were speeding by in the lane next to you.

What's amazing is that even though the fish are traveling by truck, they'll still be able to trace their way back to their birthplace, the hatchery. The fish are imprinted with hatchery water, Bill told me. So if they survive long enough at sea to reach spawning age, they can use their sense of smell to return to him, swimming up rivers till they're at the stream bed by the hatchery.

It takes 2 and 1/2 hours till the trucks finally pull in to their destination, Fort Baker. Nothing can happen until the dead of night because if the salmon are released when it's light out, seagulls, pelicans, and cormorants will circle, dive, and swallow as many of the 500,000 fish as they can. In front of us, the Golden Gate Bridge frames the San Francisco Bay, which glimmers against the skyline. They can't get very close to the water because the pier is a historic landmark.

So Bill sets up a chute, which extends about 100 feet. It connects the truck to the edge of the pier. Then there's a 20-foot drop from the pier to the bay. Darkness finally closes in, and Bill signals that it's time. As oblivious teenagers make out at the end of the pier, a slow trickle of water drips down into the bay. Then a steady stream flows with a few of the small fish. Then a cascade, a rush all at once, crowded and alive. The salmon are falling in a flurry to the bay below, crashing against the water, then making small waves of their own.

It's chaotic and beautiful, but everything about this is fucked up. It feels crude and kind of rude to the animals. I feel like we don't even deserve salmon, if this is the world we've made. But at the same time-- and I hate that I'm saying this-- it's not so bad. I love salmon, and I want them to survive. And if we're going to have salmon in California, this might be the only way. Bill repeats the process with each truck four more times. A few fish flop on the pier, and he picks them up tenderly and throws them in the water with the others. He's gotten them as far as he can.

Ira Glass

Jaime Lowe, her most recent book is called Breathing Fire, Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires.

[MUSIC - "I'LL TAKE THE LONG ROAD" BY NAOMI SHELTON & THE GOSPEL QUEENS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Chris Benderev and Nadia Reiman. The people who helped put together today's program include Bim Adewunmi, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Aviva DeKornfeld, Chana Joffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alix Spiegel, Laura Starcheski, Christopher Swetala, Marisa Robertson-Textor, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Paloma Wu and Blake Feldman at the Mississippi Center for Justice, Arthur Bass, Carson Jeffres, Autumn Bernstein, Steve Gough, Alicia Netterville, Patricia Trowles, Jay Jackson, Omar Travis, Sam Levine, Pippa Holloway, Dorothy Overstreet Pratt, Kerri Cleeland, Rebecca Vitali-Decola, America Billy, and Rebecca Kanthor.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite shows. There's tons of other stuff there, too. Seriously, it's good. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He is still bitter, bitter, so bitter over Julie Andrews leaving him long ago, to star in the movie, Mary Poppins. He remembers telling her--

Cassidy

Have fun being able to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Ira Glass

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