Think for a minute about your first day. Not your first day on the job, or the first day with your spouse, or the first day in the neighborhood. I'm talking about your first first day. The first time you ever had a first day.
Up until the time that Tarpeley was three and a half, everything was always the same. She had been in the same day care since she was six months old. Her parents were still together. They lived in the same place.
Her house has these rooms in it. And her backyard is this way. And her teachers are the same teachers. Her friends have been the same friends for three and a half years, which in her time frame, is all of eternity. There are no other friends. There are no other people.
That's her dad, our contributing editor Jack Hitt. He says that all of this changed the day that he discovered that he could switch Tarpeley to a different school, a preschool that was a lot closer to their house. As he told Tarpeley, it was a school where the big kids go. There was suddenly an opening.
So I told her about this, and she-- the idea of moving on to the next stage in her life, the first time she had ever had that option, was so exciting. She literally jumped out of her chair and ran circles around this cafeteria. Screaming, dancing, just sending up hosannas of glee.
And we talked about it all weekend long. All the books tell you to do this. And it makes sense.
You talked about it all weekend long? What was there to talk about?
Well, just, you know, that there would be new people, and new teachers, and new everything. And that would require some getting used to. You say that to a three year old, and you think they understand what you're saying, but of course they don't. Because they don't have any experience at encountering anything new.
She had never had a first day before this. And comes the big day. They set out for school.
On the morning of her first day, this was Columbus setting off into the Atlantic, right? We walked up the block, and hung a right, and started down to this place that she had never seen before.
On the first day-- any first day-- we're expected to live by the rules and customs of the culture that we're entering. But we don't know those rules and customs just yet. It is a very particular time. And all the kids at the school that Tarpeley was entering, they already knew each other from the year before. She was the newcomer.
I can't remember if it was the first day or the second day. But I remember the gut-wrenching moment was when I came to pick her up one day and we were walking home. And she started to cry, and said that she wanted to go back to her other school. And the reason was that one of the little children there had told her that she couldn't play with them. That there was this little group, and my daughter wasn't invited to play with them, because they didn't know her, and that she should stay away from them. She had never heard that expression or that idea in her life.
And of course what's interesting is that the person who made that remark to her is now one of her best friends.
What do you make of that?
Well, I think that hazing is a natural part of defining any group. And I don't know why. But there's not a profession or a career or a group out there that, on some level, doesn't have some ritual in which the new member is either tormented, or tortured, or beaten, or humiliated.
Jack is kind of collecting examples. When he was a freshman at a military boarding school when he was a kid, the freshmen were called "rats." This is common. Upperclassmen would wake them up in the middle of the night, tell them to go warm the toilet seats for them. Jack's wife is a medical student. And you know residents, they work 40 hours without a break, taking the worst cases, doing the worst work, delirious from sleep deprivation. you have to do all that before the older doctors welcome you into the club, give you the keys to their Mercedes.
The whole thing reminds me of the way gangs work here in Chicago. Joining a gang here in Chicago, or really a lot of places around the country, means that you get jumped in. Your future gang brothers or sisters take you into an alley and beat the hell out of you.
There is just something primal and intimate about the entire thing, as if the existence of the first day, the simple presence of an outsider who wants to be an insider, is so profound, so disturbing to any group, that they have to crush you, prove you harmless, before they welcome you into the family. This is the disturbing aura that surrounds the first day.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, First Day, the story of outsiders who show up wanting to be insiders, and what it takes to make the jump.
Act One, Lost at Sea. How cussing can get you through moments when reason fails. The story of a lowly dishwasher who gets a job on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast. Act Two, Squirrel Cop. The story of a rookie cop that is so, so pleasurable that all week around the office, here at the radio station, we have been cracking each other up simply by walking up to each other and saying the words, "Squirrel cop." Act Three, Bad Sex with Bud Kemp. Sandra Tsing Loh with a story about the first day of new love. Well, an attempt at new love. Act Four, When Businesses Act Like Humans. The story of an entire corporation having its first day, and how it makes all the mistakes that any of us would make on our first day on the job. Stay with us. You will not be disappointed.
Act One: Lost At Sea
Act One, Lost at Sea. Well, regular listeners to our show may remember Dishwasher Pete. He is an actual dishwasher who, for over eight years, has been pursuing his quest to wash dishes in every state of the union. He is up to 33 states. To score at Louisiana, he thought that he would try to get a job on an oil rig out in the Gulf of Mexico, but there was one problem. It would mean breaking what Pete calls the fundamental rule.
Basically, the rule is this. Never work at a job where I can't quit and leave the moment the notion struck me. For 10 years, ever since I had established the fundamental rule, I had never broken it.
He wanted to try, though. If you could handle two weeks on an oil rig, maybe-- just maybe-- he could dare to head off to a bigger dream of his, to wash dishes on a fishing boat for months off the coast of Alaska. With that in mind, he set off to test the fundamental rule.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] the company that supplied galley hands for oil rigs in a small town outside New Orleans. I filled out a bunch of paperwork and sat around with a half dozen other applicants. When my name was finally called, I walked down a hall to where a guy greeted me.
Too stunned to catch his name, I could only stare at him and think, "My god, it's Bill Clinton." He was an absolute dead ringer for Bill Clinton. I couldn't take my eyes off him as he led me into his office. The resemblance was remarkable. He had the same puffy cheeks, the same dimpled chin, and the same salt and pepper hair and haircut. He even had that familiar Clinton smirk, only this guy's smirk seemed to say, I know you think I look like Clinton, and you're dying to ask me about it.
The Clinton clone said, I had left a couple things blank on my application, such as the make and license plate number of my car. "I don't have a car," I said.
"You don't? Why not?"
"Um, I guess I just don't need one."
"Well, you need one for this job. In fact, owning a car is the most important qualification for being a galley hand."
"I have to own a car to wash dishes on an oil rig?"
"That's right. When you're on call, and the dispatcher calls and tells you to be down at the coast in three hours, you have to be there. We can't wait for you to find a car to borrow or to find someone to drive you."
"Oh, well, in that case, I do own a car."
"Great. What kind?"
"It's a station wagon."
"And what's the license plate number?"
"I'm not sure."
"You don't know your own license plate number?"
"Well, I'd have to go outside and check on it."
"You go do that, then."
I stepped outside and wrote down the license plate number of a car that I hoped wasn't his, and then went back in and gave it to him. Minutes later, I was issued a hard hat, safety glasses, and two work shirts. I was now officially on call.
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking back to the city, grasping at my last fleeting moments of freedom. I was on the verge of breaking the fundamental rule, and could foresee only disaster. To make my fretting worse, the next day a friend of a friend, who claimed to be familiar with life on the oil rigs, told me I could expect to be hazed. As if overcoming my occupational claustrophobia wasn't enough, I was going to have to put up with idiots hazing me, as well.
Two days later, I was flown to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The helicopter approached the center of three connected platforms and landed on the roof of its uppermost structure. I asked the pilot, "Where would I find the galley?" "Go down those stairs, and someone will show you," he said. I took off my headset, put on my hardhat and safety glasses, grabbed my bag, and hopped out. I held the door open, reluctant to break my link to the outside world. "So where did you say the galley was?" I shouted over the roar of the whirling blades. "Just go down those stairs," the pilot shouted back. "Shut the door."
I shut the door and ran across the roof. As I dashed down the stairs, the helicopter revved up. I paused momentarily, but resisted the temptation to run back up to the roof. The fundamental rule had been broken. There was nothing left to do but face the consequences.
Down the stairs, I popped my head through an open door and asked a guy which way to the galley. "Go this way and that," he said. "Down these stairs and those. Can't miss it." I followed his directions and found myself out in the middle of the platform, surrounded by cargo containers and pipes and assorted industrial junk.
"You passed it. The door is back that way." A guy in a tiny window of one of the cargo containers pointed back the way I came. I looked, but didn't find any doors. Apparently, a little fun was already being had at the new guy's expense. Were they going to lead me all over the damn rig searching for the galley? I cursed myself for letting the helicopter leave without me.
Then I noticed a piece of cardboard that had scrawled handwriting written on it. It read, "Keep out. This means you. Wet floor. Signed, Redneck." The sign hung from what I realized was a door handle. I tugged and pulled and turned the handle every which way, but couldn't get the damn door to budge. I was so green, I couldn't even unlock a simple latch.
I was helpless until, almost magically, the door opened from the inside. In front of me stood the guy I had seen through the window. "[BLEEP], son," he said. "Don't just stand there playing with yourself. Come on in." He introduced himself as Redneck, the galley steward. My boss.
I stepped inside and asked him where the galley was. "Man, you're in the mother[BLEEP] galley," he scoffed. Looking around, I was pretty sure he had to be putting me on. Even though I could see a small kitchen, the whole space was barely bigger than the kitchen and dining room of a house.
"Where does everybody eat, then?" I asked.
"Right [BLEEP] there," Redneck said, kicking one of the two benches that faced the counter along one wall. Obviously, 100 employees couldn't fit on those two benches, but since he seemed to think I was gullible, I played along. "Yeah, OK," I said.
The rig clerk, acting as the official welcoming committee, arrived right behind me. He instructed me what to do in case of an emergency. "If there's an explosion," he said, "run to whatever platform isn't burning."
Redneck, as I would later learn he insisted on being called, introduced me to Cuz, the other galley hand, who was mopping the kitchen. My job instructions from Redneck were simple. "As long as you keep them [BLEEP] dishes clean, there ain't a mother[BLEEP] on this rig who'd give you [BLEEP]."
After a brief tour of the small kitchen, Redneck showed me to my station. I stepped up to the sinks and assumed by preferred dishwashing stance. Looking straight ahead, I saw heaven. Right there above the sinks, perfectly at eye level, was a porthole. I immediately knew that this little window to the world would play a huge role in helping me survive for two weeks without quitting. I looked out at the endless expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. There wasn't much to look at-- a whole lot of sea, a whole lot of sky, and dozens of rigs off in the distance-- but already, I felt at ease.
My gaze was broken by Redneck repeatedly saying, "Hey, pardner. Hey, pardner!" I didn't initially recognize my new nickname. "Hey, pardner," he said. "You don't [BLEEP] cuss much, do you?" "No," I answered. "Not really." "Well [BLEEP]," he said. "I'll have to mother[BLEEP] cuss for the both of us, then." And he did. Then it was time for lunch.
Redneck explained that, despite the fact that the rig was comprised of three connected platforms, the crew was actually pretty small. Altogether, there were about 30 people to be fed. Their mealtimes were staggered. So there were never more than five or six guys in the galley at any given time. This slow but steady pace applied to the dishes as well. There were always dishes for me to wash, but never any rush to get them done.
Several times during lunch, crew hands walked up to me in the kitchen with big grins on their faces and asked, "How's it going, bro?" "OK," I'd shrug. They waited. For what, I had no idea. They waited, and then they grew irritated with me and stomped out of the kitchen. One guy said, "What's this quiet-ass mother[BLEEP]'s problem, Redneck?" "He likes looking out that [BLEEP] window. What can I say?" I didn't understand. I washed the dishes, I looked out the window, I minded my own business, just as Redneck had instructed. Why would anyone have a problem with that?
After a few more of these encounters over the next couple of days, I finally realized what was going on. The rig hands, after working a gritty shift of roustabouting and roughnecking, expected to be greeted in the galley with some witty remark or joke, maybe even a song or dance. They expected the galley hand to provide some comic relief, like a court jester. What they got instead was me washing dishes and staring out at the sea.
Well, too bad. I wasn't there to entertain anyone. If I wanted a job shucking and jiving for diners, I would have become a waiter.
Redneck was never at ease. He raced back and forth across the tiny kitchen when he cooked, a constant stream of chatter flowing from his lips. He was a fun and funny guy, but he had a nervous edge that was attributed by all, including himself, to the seven years he spent as a CIA mercenary in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. I never saw Redneck sit down for more than 30 seconds before he jumped up again and resumed his frantic pacing.
He grew especially nervous when he and I were alone in the galley, and I stood staring out my porthole. "Goddamn, pardner! Say [BLEEP] something!" If I had nothing to say, usually I just cursed, since he got a kick out of that. "[BLEEP] it," I'd say. "You got that right, pardner," he'd laugh. "[BLEEP] it." Then, after further contemplation, he'd add, "Mother[BLEEP] it."
Not an hour passed without Redneck raising one of his favorite topics for discussion, sex with farm animals. Redneck was raised on a farm in Arkansas, and was quite knowledgeable about having sex with farm animals, and wasn't stingy with this information. He was also always prepared to discuss his other favorite topic whenever Cuz was around, the various ways to kill a man. Between Redneck's experiences in southeast Asia and Cuz's experiences in street gangs and prison, they had plenty of stories to share and information to exchange. Sometimes when I broke from my daydreaming at the window, I found it difficult to decipher exactly which topic Redneck was presently discussing. "You just sneak up behind them and get your arms around his [BLEEP] neck like that, and that [BLEEP] is all yours."
Every day, the Gulf went through a metamorphosis. For hours on end, I watched the endless expanse of water slosh up and down, back and forth, as the parade of fish, porpoises, seaweed, stingrays, driftwood, and jellyfish swam and floated past. Seabirds soared by on a fixed course to some unseen destination beyond the horizon.
I eyed the dozens of other oil rigs that stood 5, 10, 20 miles across the watery plain. Some appeared no bigger than a blip on the horizon. I wondered a lot about the galley hands on those rigs who were staring back at the blip that was our rig.
The more I stared out at the Gulf, the more transfixed I became by the water. There was water as far as I could see, in all directions. I was surrounded by it. I was trapped by it. My hands soaked in it. I drank it constantly. The more I stared at the water, the less I understood it.
The hazing I had feared as a greenhorn never materialized. As each day passed, I felt more confident I could last the full two weeks without quitting. The countdown to departure ticked away rapidly. Three days and a wakeup, two days and a wakeup, one day and a wakeup. Finally there was nothing left but a wakeup. No more shifts to work, no more dishes to wash. Just had to wake up and jump on the helicopter.
I thought back to the day I landed on the rig. At the end of my first shift, Cookie, the night cook, had asked me, "This your first day on a rig?" "Yeah," I said. "Well, the first day is the worst, and all the rest are just the same."
Dishwasher Pete's story was first published in the zine he writes and publishes, Dishwasher.
[MUSIC - "WORKING FOR THE MAN" BY RAY ORBISON]
Act Two: Squirrel Cop
Act Two, Squirrel Cop.
The first day, among other things, means human error. It means mistakes. It means mishap. It means fiasco. That is true on a job or anywhere else that the first day occurs. You don't know the ropes. What else could happen? We have this story from a police officer, now a veteran of the force, in a suburban community on the East Coast.
There was nothing, nothing going on. Saturday night in this village. Really quiet. Super cold. And this call came over for unknown animal in a house. And it was on my post. It was about five minutes away.
So myself and another car were assigned the call. And we show up there. And luckily for me, it was another guy who was pretty new. So we walk up to the door with all our stuff on. The nylon coat, the vest, the belt, the whole nine yards.
And the door opens, and the guy who is behind the door, he's about 30. I was 23 at the time. He's about 30. He looks like a broker, a lawyer. Just really well put together. A nice guy wearing glasses. He's wearing these silk pajamas with a monogram. Got my attention. And he's going, listen, I'm really sorry to bother you. Normally I'd handle this sort of stuff on my own. But my wife really insisted I call.
And so we ask him what the problem is. He says, well, we were having kind of a romantic evening down in the living room, and we heard this scratching upstairs. So I ran upstairs to see what it was. And it turns out it's coming from the attic. There's something up there, and it's just running around, knocking a few small things over. I can't tell what it is. It could be a squirrel or raccoon. I really don't know.
So the other cop that I was with said, well, you know, we really don't handle that. It's not so much a police function. But we do have numbers of these private contractors who will come in and they'll put a humane trap down, and they'll remove the animal for you. It's really not such a big deal. But it's really not our thing.
So right as he was in the middle of saying that and getting us off the hook, the guy swings the door back, and there is his wife, who was just beautiful. She was beautiful. She was probably about 26 or 27, but just really beautiful. Perfect skin, long blond hair, great teeth, brilliant blue eyes, a really nice smile. Just, like, beautiful and friendly. You know? If she had said, eat this broken glass, I just would have said, OK, broken glass it is. It's fine.
But she seemed really nice. So I was going to be, like, Galahad. So I just threw my arm back into this guy's chest, into my partner's chest. And I said, Mark, we can handle this. It'll be OK.
And she was just, oh, thank you so much. And she was really sweet. And I was, like, struck dead. So we walk inside. And she goes, I'm going to throw a pot of coffee on. And we go upstairs. We follow the man of the house upstairs. And we're underneath one of those trapdoors that goes into the attic with the staircase that folds out.
And we do hear an animal upstairs scratching away, just kind of scuttling around the floor. And there's definitely something up there. And it's making pretty good speed going from one end of the roof to the other. So I reached up, and I took the trapdoor down. We unfolded the ladder.
Now I have this big, heavy flashlight, your cop flashlight. The 4 D-cells, the metal case, the whole thing. I shine it up through the hole in there. And it's pretty black. I can see the rafters, but really nothing else around there. And I start up the latter. Now, the guy who owned the house is standing almost directly underneath me, just to the side of the latter, looking straight up at me. And my partner's at the base of the latter, right behind me.
So just before I stuck my head through this black hole, I just kind of pause. I crunch my body up underneath, because I'm realizing, gee, I don't know where this thing is. The second we pulled down the trap door, all noise upstairs just ceased. So I was kind of nervous. And I was like, well, you know, I look like an idiot, just crouched up here on the top of the ladder. So I took the flashlight, and I just popped my head up, turned the light on again.
And about six inches from the front of my face was this squirrel, at eye level with me, kind of reared back on its legs. And I swear, from where I was standing, it looked like Godzilla. It just scared the heck out of me. I thought, it's a squirrel. It's going to be hiding somewhere. It's going to be terrified of me. It was six inches away from me. And it really startled me. So I kind of went, "ah!" And jumped back.
And the flashlight slips out of my hands-- and it's heavy-- and it falls directly onto the nose of the guy who's looking straight up at me. And I don't think it broke it, but it did some damage. And his nose-- his hands up to his face, blood just started pouring out between his hands.
This is the homeowner?
This is the homeowner. I lose my balance and fall backwards, directly onto my partner, and I just pancake him. We're both our backs. He's on his back. I'm on his stomach, on my back, scuttling around like a beetle, trying to get up in this really narrow hallway. It's a mess.
The squirrel, while we're floundering around in the hallway, jumps down the stairs-- boink, boink, boink-- lands on me, and takes off down the stairs.
It was terrible. It was terrible. So we're wondering, gee, where is the squirrel? And right at that second, the woman who lived there, you hear her scream. So my partner goes, well, we found the squirrel. It's wherever she is.
So we go running downstairs. And the squirrel had come into the living room, where they had been having their romantic evening. They had a fire going. They had pillows arranged around one corner of the couch next to the fire, and they had champagne flutes out. Nice house. Really nice. I mean, it just smelled brand new. New carpeting, new rugs, new paint. They hadn't been there for that long.
So the squirrel, when it bolted down the staircase, took off into the living room and ran underneath the couch for cover. So we run downstairs. This guy is bleeding all over the place, on his carpets. His wife looks and says, what have you done to my husband? I start going, oh, it was an accident-- and then I just stop in mid-sentence. What's the point? We've only been there about two minutes.
So the squirrel is underneath the couch. And my partner is going, let's get out of here. This is just-- it's not going well. So I am not beaten yet. I always have another idea.
So the squirrel is under this couch, which in the middle of the room. So I have this bright idea. Why don't we move the furniture away from one of the corners? And we'll put the catch in the corner. And the squirrel will probably move along with the couch, because it's the only cover available to it. And once we get into the corner, we'll only have two open sides of the couch to worry about. So we did that.
That is so tactical.
Yes. Yeah, I was very proud of myself at that instant. But you know.
I asked her for a box. And she says, sure, we've got boxes. We just moved in. We have nothing but boxes. She runs out to the garage. And she comes back with a box. And the box is long enough. And it fits across the entire short side of the couch, where the armrests would be. So I start sweeping underneath the couch with my nightstick, trying to move the squirrel toward the box. Figuring we'll capture it and just get rid of it. And we'll be out of here. And there'll be no more mayhem.
So it's actually working very well. And the squirrel's moving down along. You can hear it. It's chittering. And I'm trying not to hurt it. I'm nervous about the thing. It might bite me. I don't want to hurt it, really. It's just an animal.
So I'm moving it along. And everything's going very well. And then with about eight inches to go, I took one more swipe, and the thing just bolted out from underneath the couch. It was lined with tassels. I couldn't really see under the couch. It bolted out from underneath the couch and ran directly into the fireplace, which is about three feet away. The fireplace was directly head of it, and it ran into the fire, and caught on fire, and ran directly back out, and directly back under the couch.
Is it on fire?
It was on fire. Yeah. The tail, the bushy fur, the whole bit. I mean, it wasn't, like, flaming or anything. But it was smoking. And there was a little bit of fire coming off the tail. So it runs back under the couch. And the couch catches on fire in seconds. I mean, in seconds. It must have had dust under there or something else. But it just caught on fire immediately.
And my partner and I just don't even talk. We just grab the couch, heave it upside down. And now there's plenty of oxygen for the fire to really get going. And it starts up. And we're patting it out. And it's sort of getting away from us. So we grab the only thing that's really available. And those are these really nice silk pillows. And we have one in each hand, the both of us. And we're just windmilling away at this fire on the couch. And we put it out.
But it's smoking terribly. And it was just a disaster. The couch is upside down. The bottom of it is burnt. The house is filling with smoke from the couch. The squirrel, when it went under the couch, in its death throes, just latched on to the bottom of the couch. It's like this smoking piece of gristle underneath the couch, latched on there with its claws. And we're pounding, smearing it all over the place. And the smoke alarms are firing away. The guy is standing with handkerchiefs and paper towels up around his nose, which is still bleeding. His pajamas are a mess. They're covered with blood, the front of them.
And we finally get the fire out. And we're both completely red. Sweating, because we're dressed for like zero degree weather, and it's hot there, by the fire. We're mortified. The house is full of smoke.
The wife just looks around and just starts to cry. She goes, what have you done? What have you done to my house? You can see her just clicking things off on the fingers. OK. The dead squirrel, ruined pillows, need a new couch, the walls are covered with soot, the fire alarms are going off, my husband's disfigured. And then she really kind of just lost it.
And he was just looking at us and shaking his head, like he couldn't believe that these two idiots showed up and did this to his house over nothing, really. And he just goes, you know, you really haven't done anything wrong. I can't point to any one thing that you did that I have a reason to get angry about. You really haven't done anything wrong. I mean, we did call you. But I just, I can't thank you for this. They call for a squirrel. They end up with $3,000, $4,000 worth of damage and a broken nose. And this is all within about five minutes.
Could that have happened to you now, 13 years later?
There's always a new mistake to be made. I don't think I would make that particular mistake. I mean, you make plenty of mistakes. That's just part of that job. You just try not to make the same one twice. But there's such variety that you're going to make hundreds, you're going to make thousands of mistakes, until you really get a handle on what you're doing.
That's interesting. That is a very particular thing about a new job. Is that in order to learn the job, you literally have to make the mistakes. There's no way around it.
Right. And with police work, they afford you plenty of space to make mistakes. But there are things that just aren't your responsibility-- if you get involved in things that aren't your responsibility, or that you're really not equipped to handle, or that you don't have a specific plan-- a plan that's thought through to a conclusion-- you probably should reevaluate what you're doing.
Yeah, now that you mentioned that, that's right. You walked into the house, thinking, OK. We'll get this squirrel. Like, how were you going to get the squirrel? What was the best case scenario?
That's a great question. I guess I was thinking that I would go up there in the attic, and find this cowering squirrel, and somehow kind of lure it into some kind of trap, and then walk out with it and be like a hero. But as it turned out, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the squirrel, but the squirrel definitely won. The squirrel really kicked our ass.
That is not what you want to be saying at the end of the day.
No, no. It took me a long time to even tell people about it, you know? I was so new. I didn't want to know what a bonehead I was when I first came onto the job.
Describe what you thought police work was going to be the day that you entered the academy.
What I thought it would be was one adventure after another, kind of. And that sounds childish. But that's sort of what I did envision. And then one of the very first days I was on, I had the school crossing where I used to go to school. So at 23, I was crossing these kids where I had went to grammar school and I went to high school. Freezing cold. And I knew just about every third or fourth car that went by. And everyone's beeping and honking. And there was some slush on the ground.
And my mother drove by. And she stopped in the middle of the intersection. And she goes, what are you doing out here without a hat on?
Loud enough for others to hear?
Not at all. Not at all.
Thank goodness for that.
You know, she just, what are you doing out here without a hat on? Mom, I have the hat I'm supposed to wear. She's like, but it doesn't cover your ears. It's freezing out here.
And that's when I started to realize, hey, this isn't all about car chases and everything else. It's just like living at home.
Our interviewee has two years to retirement. He has been on the force for 18 years.
[MUSIC - "FOX SQUIRREL" BY MUDDY WATERS]
Coming up, when friends try to act like more than just friends. When corporations try to act like high school freshmen. Bad sex, bad radio stations, and the power of a fuzzy navel. That's all in a minute, all of it, from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Bad Sex With Bud Kemp
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers and everyday people to come on and take a whack at that theme. Today's program, First Day. The story of outsiders arriving on the scene, trying to become insiders, and the peril inherent in that. We have arrived at Act Three of our show.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Act Three, Bad Sex with Bud Kemp.
How can you do a program about first days without some story about the first day of a new relationship? We have this story from Sandra Tsing Loh in Los Angeles.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Bud Kemp was a guy I'd known for eight years, first in college, then at the pharmaceutical corporation where I worked. I had always thought of Bud as a nice guy, and not unattractive. Not exactly attractive, either. I mean, he had good features-- tall, wavy brown hair, lanky build-- but there always seemed to be this kind of beaten quality to Bud-- in his sad smile, stooped shoulders, pear shape-- as though he were being flogged by life. Sexually, Bud Kemp was an inert object.
That perception changed dramatically one night early in the summer of my 31st year. Although not really intimate, Bud and I were in the habit of going to the movies every Thursday night. This movie night tradition had been started by a little dorm group in college, although of course as members drifted towards 30, pairing up or marrying people from the outside, they'd left Bud, I, and movie night behind.
No doubt, Bud had also tried to leave Bud, I, and movie night behind. I tried myself. But it was difficult. I mean, I've never been the sort of woman who walks into a room in a Lycra mini dress, hair moussed to staggering proportion, and the men just drop dead all around. No. My charms are more subtle. I'm the kind of girl guys fall back on. Tireless listener. Lender of money. Provider of Xanax. Ride to LAX. And so, as though held together by gravity, eight years later, Bud and I would still find ourselves sitting together in the darkened movie theater, clutching separate containers of popcorn, not saying a word. Hardly a date, I'd think.
But one night during the opening credits, I looked over at Bud. And for the first time I realized what a sharp profile he had. What relatively clear skin. And his hands clasped together over one big knee. They were nice, too. Suddenly a phrase popped into my mind. "The strong, capable hands of Bud Kemp." Strong. Capable. Silent. Could this Bud Kemp be used for sex?
So things are getting hot, if in kind of a lukewarm way. The coming of our pharmaceutical corporation's summer softball league in Torrance makes them even hotter. Oh yeah. Once a year, summer softball provides we who labor in sector D7 with an excuse to just go wild. Wear funny raccoon hats with our team names on them, yell "whoo, whoo" for no reason at all.
My team, the Fly Balls, is composed mostly of the four Fs of the softball universe. Skinny guys in Greenpeace teachers, reluctant wives and girlfriends, little [UNINTELLIGIBLE] from the mailroom. No wonder today we are being beaten, whipped dominated by Terminator 2000, the league leaders. Pitching for them today? Bud Kemp.
Oh, yeah. This is a little known fact about Bud Kemp. He did play a year of junior varsity basketball in college. So what if it was at a small science school with a 57-game losing streak? So what if Bud Kemp was thrown onto the court mainly for use as a human shield?
The point is, in sector D7, Bud Kemp is our sports stud. And a damned good-looking one, too. Hair faintly blonded under the sun, skin lightly tanned, and are those new glasses? God, yes. Instead of sad clown sideways teardrops, these are cool wire rims. Sting wears wire rims.
Bud steps up to the mound, pulls off his t-shirt, and his naked torso is-- OK. 33 and holding, is the triumphal message here. Although he is so Schwarzenegger, there are definite suggestions of biceps and pecs. More than suggestions. Announcements, even. Not very loud announcements, but the point is, situps are being completed, racquetball played, body parts attended to, secretly anointed, perhaps. Is it just my third fuzzy navel talking, or is Bud Kemp ready for sex?
We're at Pizza Hut now, talking and laughing. Sex is definitely in the air tonight for everyone in sector D7. Beers slosh, music thumps, lamps sway. People in funny raccoon hats worm up against each other. Bud Kemp and I are no exception. Underneath the table, thigh to thigh, sweatpant to sweatpant, we're doing kind of a sensual leg thing. Laugh and kick out. Laugh and kick out.
Obviously, it's driving him wild. "So, you wanna go somewhere?" he says. "Like where, Bud?" I say. It is so loud and wild in here, no one would notice if you tore your own bra off and used it as a lasso. My case would be the sexy black bra I'd slipped on in the bathroom for a guy called Bud Kemp.
"Away from here." "How about your place?" "Sounds great." "All righty, then." "All righty."
We are using secret code now. Bud Kemp and I are talking, moving as one. I sense almost by telepathy he wants to swing by the Lucky for a six pack. We skate effortlessly through the gleaming, luminescent supermarket aisles like Torvilll and Dean. We pause calmly, almost worshipfully, before the glass refrigerator cases, which present their dramatic panoramas. Endless vistas of possibility. Heineken, Dos Equis, Tsingtao, Kirin, Moosehead, Foster's. The whole world is ours, literally, through beer.
He chooses Coors. I say, "I like it too." "I guess we both like it," he says. We both like it.
And suddenly I have a vision of Bud Kemp and I together on a Sunday morning, reading the newspaper, drinking our favorite General Foods International Coffee, Amaretto Hazelnut, the one we both like. And instead of my weekends yawning empty, I will be spending them with someone, together, liking things. First it was movies. Now it is beer. Soon it will be cars, vacations, houses, children.
This is the vision I cling onto as we returned to his condo in Long Beach, drained the beer, moved to leftover Gallo, as I sit in the living room and rub and rub and rub Bud Kemp's shoulders, and Bud Kemp talks and talks and talks about-- what else?-- Bud Kemp. "So sometimes I wonder if I'm really, really suited for a career in pharmaceuticals marketing management. I mean, what if my calling is something a bit more in the applied plastics field?" "What kind of plastics did you have in mind, Bud?" "Oh, I don't know. Single cell liposome polymer blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, me, me, me, blah, blah, blah, me, me, me, blah, blah, blah, me, me."
He is making me lose hold of my vision. We need to escalate things to the next level. "Bud," I say, "let's go to bed."
The moon slants in through the shade, transforming everything into misshapen lumps. It is uncomfortably warm and stuffy. Bud is lying on his bed, fully clothed, frozen. "This is so weird," he says, "after all this time."
"I know," I say. "But I think you'll like it."
I sit on the edge of the bed, remove one shoe, then the other. Bud Kemp does not move, make any invitation. I shove in next to him. Suddenly horny, in a kind of confused, primeval way, we grapple each other like circus bears. Bud Kemp's head is buried in my shoulder. He is stroking my hair with these odd petting motions, making this kind of humming sound. [HUMMING]
I find myself energetically massaging his shoulders. I don't know why. Move down. Lower back. Move down. Buttocks. But it seems invasive to be massaging the buttocks of such an old friend, so I find myself merely patting them as though in congratulation.
Oh, if only we could get that sensual leg thing going again. Laugh and kick out. Laugh and kick out. But there is no laughter here. Only worry and sweat. How I long for Pizza Hut with its pepperoni-laced orgy-like ambiance. Sex between two people can be such a lonely thing.
Grimly pushing on, I tear my t-shirt off, revealing my sexy black bra, his cue to just go wild. But Bud Kemp is rubbing his eyes with both hands. Still I wait, with accusing breasts. Still Bud rubs, making that kind of faint humming sound. [HUMMING]
And I realize that Bud Kemp can not bring himself to face my breasts in all their terrible candor. They blaze in the darkness like headlights, illuminating the falseness of all of those movie nights. Eventually, Bud stops running and just lies there with both hands cupped over his eyes, as though expecting to be flogged. His nostrils quiver. Is that a snore?
My idea is that we will never speak of the incident again, see each other, or even continue to live in the same state. But no. The bouquet that arrived the next morning is the ugliest I have ever seen. It is a chaos of white baby's breath, purple lupin, pink carnations, yellow daisies, all stabbing against each other in frantic counterpoint. Even worse is the card, which reads, "I saw these flowers and thought of you. Love, Bud."
Love, Bud. One thing is for sure. He is not my lovebud, and this is not me at age 31, a frantic bouquet slowly wilting.
Sandra Tsing Loh's story "Bad Sex with Bud Kemp" is not collected in her books Aliens in America, A Year in Van Nuys, or any of her fine books. She has been happily married for years to a man who is not in any way, any way, Bud Kemp. They live in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC - "THE FIRST TIME" BY EYDIE GORME]
Act Four: When Businesses Act Like Humans
Act Four, When Businesses Act Like People.
We have this case study from Alex Blumberg, a radio listener-- a radio listener like you, a radio listener like me-- here in Chicago.
This is a story about a first day that's in denial that it's a first day. The story starts when I was in my car. And I just realized that I have my preset station buttons arranged in order of preference. One, two, three, four, five, six. And so I sort of go down. And this station number six was the classic rock station, Rock 103. And number six is often just awful. Every once in a while, they'll have a good Led Zeppelin song on, and that's why I have it set.
So I hit it, and there's that song, which I don't know the name of, but it's that one that goes, "ooh, child, things are going to get easier." And I think to myself, that's certainly an expansive definition of classic rock. So then I think, wow, this is great. And then another song comes on. And it's "Disco Inferno," or something like that.
And I think now, something must be wrong. So I look and I think, the first thing is that somebody's been messing with my dials. Like somebody got into my car and rearranged my radio stations. But then I look at the numbers. The numbers are the same.
And then I hear this announcement that comes on. And it's like, "You've found the new 1035, Jammin' Oldies." And I think to myself, what the hell is a jammin' oldie? And you have to keep in mind that the day before, this station had been playing Anthrax and Slayer, and every once in a while, like I said, a Led Zeppelin song, but basically heavy metal gearhead music. And now all of a sudden, there's just no mention being made of it. And it's just like the old station was disappeared.
You've found the new 1035. Chicago's new station for jammin' oldies. We don't play moldy oldies, and we don't play doo-wop--
Now what has happened is that this station had a format change over the weekend, basically. And they didn't mention it on the weekend, when I had been listening before. There was no mention of it. They were doing their concert promotions and having people call up to get Anthrax tickets or whatever. Nothing had been said.
And so obviously, everybody who has been tuning in before is expecting the classic rock. But they don't want to seem like they're a new station. They don't want to seem like the new kid on the block.
So what they do, is they do what everybody does on the first day. They pretend like it's not the first day. They want to establish this illusion that they've been around forever, so they have these little promo spots that come on, these little [UNINTELLIGIBLE] where they have people they've interviewed-- like, man on the street interviews-- where people are talking about how great jammin' oldies are, and how wonderful it is to have this station that plays jammin' oldies which has been on the radio for three hours.
Everybody's talking about the new station that plays Chicago's jammin' oldies.
You know, when you hear those songs, it brings you back, like you're right there.
You know? Like, what did they do? They just start broadcasting, and immediately send a squad of people out to find people who are accidentally tuned in? No.
And that also comes through. I mean, if you hear the spots, it's like this sort of desperately-- It's like they're trying too hard. And it's just exactly what happens when you're trying to fit in too hard, and you're pretending like you've around forever, and you know the ropes, and it just falls flat. And these spots just fall flat.
The one that I love is where they have, like, "This is the station that plays jammin' oldies." And then they cut to this voice of somebody going, "jammin' oldies!"
Now here comes more of Chicago's jammin' oldies.
On the new 103--
I don't quite understand what it is that is just so ridiculous about that particular "jammin' oldies." But it's just like it's so earnest and so wrong. It's just not right. It's just not what somebody would say if they were actually excited about jammin' oldies. They would never-- I can't imagine a situation in which somebody would authentically be shouting "jammin' oldies! Jammin' oldies!" A jammin' oldies pep rally? I can't imagine where it would be happening.
I mean, I have nothing in common with the station formerly known as Rock 103. And yet, all the behaviors that they are exhibiting on their first day are behaviors that I would exhibit on my first day anywhere. Like they are trying to fit in, they're expressing sort of this anxious enthusiasm, the false bravado. They're pretending to have experienced things that they have, in fact, not experienced. And they're failing miserably, just as I would fail miserably, and have, on many occasions, on my first day.
Well, it's This American Life, the radio program that can not resist a dare. Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and Emi Takahara. Our staff for this show includes Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Todd Bachmann, and Starlee Kine. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Marketing help from [? Marge Estrusco ?] and the friendly folks at PRI. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.
We've been meaning to thank Jorge Just for a few weeks now, so let's do it now. Thanks, J.
To buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. 312-948-4712. Or visit our website where you can order tapes. Or you can listen to our programs for absolutely free online at www.thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Funding for our show comes from the listeners of WBEZ Chicago. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who walks into our studio at the end of every single show to grimly assess the damage.
Dead squirrel. Ruined pillows. Need a new couch. The walls are covered with soot. The fire alarms are going off.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
You really haven't done anything wrong. I mean, we did call you. But I just-- I can't thank you for this.
PRI, Public Radio International.