We think of our lives as a series of events, of things happening one after another. But, you know, it's just as accurate to see our lives as a series of things that don't happen to us. There's this story where all the crucial action takes place within just a short bike ride from the spot where I speak to you from right now, here in Chicago. The setting, a summer, much like the one we're living through even as I speak, on this humid, midwestern day. It's a piece of fiction, a really, really great piece of fiction actually, by a writer named Stuart Dybek. We Didn't.
We didn't in the light. We didn't in darkness. We didn't in the fresh-cut summer grass, or in the mounds of autumn leaves, or in the snow, where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn't in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you'd slept in as a child. Or in the backseat of my father's rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa that he delivered on weekends for my Uncle Vincent's meat market. We didn't in your mother's Buick 8, where a rosary twined the rear view mirror like a beaded, black snake with silver, cruciform fangs.
After this opening paragraph, Stuart Dybek has 11 pages, thousands of words, describing all of the things that two people can do when they're not doing something. Turns out, that not doing something is every bit as vivid and complicated an experience as doing something. But, my friend, where are the stories of the things that we do when we're not doing the thing itself? Well, we bring those to you today, right here. Part of our ongoing quest to document our actual lives in this country. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Today's show, We Didn't.
Act One, You Come And Go, The Waiters Remain in which we hear a few words from the D.H. Lawrence of not doing it.
Act Two, Dance. A scientific investigation by Mr. Danny Hoch into what exactly is happening between two people, step by step, moment by moment, when they're not falling in love.
Act Three, Same Time Next Year. A couple nearly gets together, but does not. And then an uncanny coincidence intervenes, as in a fable, as in a dream, as in a movie. But what does it mean?
Act Four, Saying No For 75 Years. The story of what happens when you say no to exactly the wrong person at the wrong time when you're 21 years old and looking at prison. Stay with us. Don't say no now.
Act One: You Come And Go, The Waiters Remain
Act One, You Come And Go, The Waiters Remain. We begin today's program with this story. It's a part story, part philosophical inquiry into the nature of not doing things from Geoff Dyer.
For years, I wanted to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, a homage to the writer who'd made me want to become a writer. It was a cherished ambition. And as part of my preparation for realizing this cherished ambition, I'd avoided reading anything by Lawrence so that at some point in the future, I could go back to him, if not afresh, then at least not rock-stale. Then after years of avoiding Lawrence, I moved into the phase of what might be termed "pre-preparation."
I visited Eastwood, his birthplace. I read biographies. I amassed a horde of photographs, which I kept in a once-new document wallet, blue, on which I had written "D.H.L. Photos" in determined, black ink. I even built up an impressive stack of notes with Lawrence vaguely in mind.
But these notes, it's obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the writing of a book about Lawrence, but to defer and postpone doing so. There's nothing unusual about this. All over the world, people are taking notes as a way of postponing, putting off, and standing in for. My case was more extreme. For not only was taking notes about Lawrence a way of putting off writing a study of and homage to the writer who'd made me want to become a writer, but this study I was putting off writing was itself a way of putting off and postponing another book.
Although I'd made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence, I'd also made up my mind to write a novel. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable. And so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out. As soon as I thought about working on the novel, I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence, I realized I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel, which, more than any other book I'd written, had to be written immediately before another protracted bout of labor came between me and the idea for what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardtian rant of a novel.
It was now or never. So I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel. Because all of this to-ing, and fro-ing, and note taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book. All I did was switch between two empty files on my computer, one conveniently called C:\DHL, the other C:\NOVEL, and sent myself pinging back and forth between them until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer.
Because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way. The best thing was to do nothing, to sit calmly. But there was no calm of course. Instead, I felt totally desolate because I realized that I was going to write neither my study of D.H. Lawrence nor my novel.
One of the reasons that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere. There were no constraints on me. And because of this, it was impossible to choose. It's easy to make choices when you have things hampering you. A job, kid's schools. But when all you have to go on is your own desires, then life becomes considerably more difficult, not to say intolerable.
Even money wasn't an issue since, at this stage, I was living in Paris. And nowhere could have been more expensive than Paris. The exchange rate got worse by the month, and Paris became more expensive by the month. What the money situation in Paris did was to emphasize that although I had settled in Paris, really, I'd just been passing through extremely slowly.
That is all anyone English or American can do in Paris, pass through. You may spend 10 years passing through, but essentially you're still a sightseer, a tourist. You come and go. The waiters remain.
The longer I stayed, the more powerful it became, this feeling that I was just passing through. I'd thought about subscribing to the cable channel, Canal Plus, as a way of making myself feel more settled. But what was the point in subscribing to Canal Plus when, in all probability, I would be moving on in a few months? Obviously, the way to make myself more settled was to acquire some of the trappings of permanence. But there never seemed any point acquiring the aptly-named trappings of permanence when, in a couple of months, I might be moving on, might well be moving on, would almost certainly be moving on?
Because there was nothing to keep me where I was. Had I acquired some of the trappings of permanence, I might have stayed put. But I never acquired any of the trappings of permanence because I knew that the moment these trappings had been acquired, I would seized with the desire to leave, to move on. And I would then have to free myself from these trappings. And so, lacking any of the trappings of permanence, I was perpetually on the brink of potential departure. That was the only way I could remain anywhere, to be constantly on the brink, not of actual, but of potential departure.
These were all issues I intended to address in different ways, either in mediated form in my study of Lawrence, or directly in my novel, or vice versa. But there was an additional practical complication too. Since I was obliged to spend a certain amount of time away from wherever I lived, and since the rent on my Paris apartment was so high, and because of the exchange rate was becoming higher every month, I was frequently obliged to sublet it. Strictly speaking, to sub-sublet it since I was subletting it myself. And since if you are subletting your apartment, you do not want to acquire too many valuable or personal items, which might get destroyed, it then comes about that you, yourself, are living in conditions arranged primarily for those subletting from you.
Effectively, you are subletting from yourself. That's what I was doing, subletting from myself. Strictly speaking, sub-subletting, living in an apartment devoid of anything that might have made it my apartment in the sense of "my home." I'd conspired to arrange for myself the worst of all possible worlds. And my days were spent in this unbreakable circle of anxiety, always going over the same ground again and again, always with some new variable, but never with any change.
I had to do something to break this circle. And so I decided to sign a contract that would make me the official tenant, as opposed to the illegal subtenant. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to stay in an apartment where I'd actually been extremely unhappy for 90% of my stay, where 90% of my stay had been dominated by anxiety about, A, whether I was going to stay, and B, whether I was going to start a novel or start my study of Lawrence. But as soon as the managing agent said that they were unwilling to let the place to me, a foreigner with no job and no steady income, I became convinced that I had to stay in this apartment where I'd actually been sublimely happy. That there was, in fact, nowhere else on earth where I could hope to be as content. Eventually, my rich friend, Herve Landry, "Money Landry," as I like to call him, agreed to stand as guarantor.
The managing agents relented, and I signed the lease that made me the official locataire. I was ecstatic for about five minutes. Then I realized I'd taken on an awesome, not to say, crippling responsibility. And far from solving the problem of where to live, I'd actually put a lid on it, so that now my uncertainty was boiling away under pressure, threatening to blow me apart. The one thing I could be sure of was that I had to leave this apartment where I'd never known a moment's peace of mind as soon as possible. If I stayed here, I saw now, I would fail to write both my novel and my study of Lawrence. That much was obvious.
Round and round I went, making no progress, resolving one thing one moment and another the next. I wrote to the agents and officially renounced the flat, claiming that "professional reasons" had obliged me to return to England. The agents wrote back, acknowledging my decision to leave the apartment. I wrote back, saying that, "Professional reasons now oblige me to remain in Paris. Could I, therefore, unrenounce my apartment?" Relieved to be free of the trouble of re-letting it, the agents agreed to let me remain in the apartment, which I had just renounced.
And so it went on. I wrote again to renounce the apartment definitively. They sent a somewhat curt acknowledgement of my decision. I wrote back, changing my definitive decision to leave to a definitive decision to stay. But it was too late. I had to leave.
Now that I did have to leave, I was faced with the terrible prospect of having nowhere to live, of having to decide where to live without delay. And only then did I realize how much this apartment meant to me, how it had actually become my home. Although I believed that I'd hardly any of my things in this apartment, there were actually many of my own things that I now had to find a place for.
Over the years, I'd actually acquired quite a few of the trappings of permanence. I even owned a surprising amount of furniture, some of it rather nice. Where was I going to store it? And what about me? Where was I going to store myself?
Rome was a possibility. Laura, my almost-wife, had a lovely apartment in Rome and was always arguing in favor of our settling there. I fretted and wondered. Why was I even prevaricating like this? I was mad not to go to Rome. Rome was in Italy, the country where the Lawrences had spent more time than any other. If I was to stand any chance of making any progress with my study of Lawrence, it was probably the very best place I could be.
As soon as I arrived, I knew I'd made the right decision. My mind was made up. I was ready to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence. The only trouble was the heat. The heat was tremendous. And nowhere in Rome was hotter than Laura's apartment.
Even the light was hot. We tried to keep the light at bay, but it drilled through the keyhole, squeezed under the door, levered open the smallest of cracks in the shutters. My mind was made up. I was ready to work. But it was too hot to work. It was so hot, we spent our waking hours dozing and our sleeping hours lying awake, trying to sleep. We were in a kind of trance.
The perfect life, the perfect lie, is one which prevents you from doing that which you would ideally have done, painted, say, or written unpublishable poetry, but which, in fact, you've no wish to do. People need to feel that they've been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted. Whereas the life they really want is precisely a compound of all those thwarting circumstances. It's a very elaborate, extremely simple procedure, arranging this web of self-deceit, contriving to convince yourself that you were prevented from doing what you wanted.
Most people don't want what they want. People want to be prevented, restricted. The hamster not only loves his cage, he'd be lost without it.
That's why children are so convenient. You have children because you're struggling to get by as an artist or failing to get on with your career. Then you can persuade yourself that your children prevented you from having this career that never looked like working out. And so it goes on. Things are always forsaken in the name of an obligation to someone else, never as a failing, a falling short of yourself.
I've devoted more of my life to thoughts of giving up than anyone else I can think of. Nietzsche wrote that the thought of suicide had got him through many a bad night. And thinking of giving up is probably the one thing that's kept me going. I think about it on a daily basis, but always come up against the problem of what to do when I've given up. Give up one thing, and you're immediately obliged to do something else.
Let's suppose, for example, that I decided to call it a day, to give up, to abandon any attempt not just at earning a living, but having a life. But what then? What would happen next? Within five minutes, I'd be thinking about listening to music and would put a CD on the stereo. Five minutes after that, I'd be up again because I would have grown fed up with that piece of music and would be scanning the shelves and shelves of CDs, searching in vain for a piece of music that I was not heartily sick of, thinking to myself that if I had more CDs, there would surely be one that I would like to listen to. And before I knew it, I'd be out of the house and on my way to the megastore, looking for a new CD.
Should anyone flatter us by asking what we're looking for, what we are searching for, then we think immediately, almost instinctively in vast terms. God, fulfillment, love. But our lives are actually made up of lots of tiny searches for things like a CD we are not sick of, an out-of-print edition of Phoenix, a picture of Lawrence that I saw when I was 17, another identical pair of suede shoes to the ones that I'm wearing now. Add them together, and these little things make up an epic quest, more than enough for one lifetime.
Thinking specifically of the search for CDs, let's assume that after deciding to give up, after sitting around listening to CDs and going out to buy a new CD, I found a CD I liked the idea of listening to. Still, at some point, I would not simply grow tired of listening to this new CD, but would actually become heartily sick of the idea of listening to CDs and would think to myself that sitting around listening to CDs is a much more enjoyable activity, a much more enjoyable inactivity if it is a relief from something else, anything else. And so I would resign myself to picking up my pen and trying once again if for no other reason than to render listening to my CDs a little less dispiriting, to make some progress with my study of D.H. Lawrence.
And there you have it. One way or another, we all have to write our studies of D.H. Lawrence even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions. Still, we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D.H. Lawrence. The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set foot in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.
Geoff Dyer reading an excerpt from his amazing, little book Out of Sheer Rage. He's also the author of Paris Trance and But Beautiful, a book about jazz.
[MUSIC - "WHEN I WRITE THE BOOK" BY NICK LOWE]
Act Two: Dance
Act Two, Dance. What do we do when we're not doing something? Not writing a book, not doing our jobs, not falling in love. Sometimes, we just feel self-conscious. Sometimes, we spend a lot of time explaining ourselves. And sometimes both. We have this from Danny Hoch. As he tells this story on stage, he limps back and forth across the stage on a cane of some kind.
Hi. How you doing? Excuse me. So nice to meet you. So what's your name? My name's Victor. Right? Nice to meet you.
So you come here often? Ha-ha, I didn't think so, right? So what you doing here? Wait, let me guess, let me guess. You're visiting your grandfather, right? I was close though, right? Is she sick? Oh, I'm sorry.
So you know I'm not here all the time. Nah, I just have to see the doctors like this week and next week because I have sort of like complications. Not really like complications. But like somebody shot me two years ago. It's complicated. Ha-ha. Don't worry. You didn't shoot me, right?
So so you're very pretty. Know that? So you live around here? You sure? I'm saying 'cause I seen this really pretty girl on 149th Street. I thought maybe that was you. But that wasn't you? You sure? I'm just making sure. Ha ha.
So you want me to talk to the guard to see if they'll let you upstairs quicker? Nah, 'cause like they make you wait a really long time just to visit somebody. It doesn't matter how sick that they are. And if you want, I can ax them because like, you know, I know him. 'Cause like he's a friend of mine 'cause like I have to come here like every week. So like, you know, we kind of know each other.
I mean, I don't have to come here like every week. But, you know, like every now and then, I come here for like rehabilitation. I mean, not rehabilitation like I'm a drug addict or some [BLEEP] like that, but, you know, for like therapy. I mean, not therapy like I'm crazy or some [BLEEP] like that. But, you know, for like physical therapy.
Oh, nah, I can't really talk about it. I can't really discuss it 'cause like I can't get into it. Nah, I can't really mention it. Because like my mother, she doesn't like me to talk about it 'cause like it's just, you know, it's not cool.
I mean, I mean, not like I do everything my mother tells me to do. I'll do what I want, you know, but. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, ha-ha, ha, nah, nah. Ha, ha-ha, nah, ha.
Aight, aight, aight, aight, aight, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, aight, aight, aight, aight, nah, aight. Like, it was two years ago, and I was outside my house. And my friends that came by, and they asked me if I want to go for a ride, right?
But like I didn't know the car was stolen. I mean, I thought it might have been, but, like, I wasn't sure. I mean, like, my friend, like, he could have bought it, but he didn't, right? And like, in one block, the cops stopped us, and they made us get out.
And then, like, I don't know what happened. I guess, like, my friend had moved or something. I mean, you have to move when you get out the car, right? But I guess, like, this one cop had panicked 'cause like he thought that my friend had a gun or whatever. So he, like, just started, like, shooting or whatever.
But like I told you, I can't really talk about. I can't discuss it 'cause, like, if my mother-- it's not right. I can't be talking, you know, about this situation. But I mean, that said, it was an accident.
No, like, I was really in the New York Post. And they were talking about, like, 12 different reasons why it could have been an accident. No, I mean, I was there. I got shot. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying, like, the more I read about it, the more I think it might have been an accident.
But man, you got a nice smile. Where you live at? Staten Island? That's far.
But you speak Spanish though, right? You're Dominican? But you're Dominican though, right? You're Dominican. You're Dominican. You're Dominican. I know you're Dominican.
Czechoslovakia? Damn. I'm kinda off, right? For real? Nah, I thought she was Dominican.
So Czechoslovakia. Where's that at? That's, like, near Germany, right? I'm close though, right? Nah, I know it's like, it's right in that area.
Matter of fact, I think it, like, borders it because I look at maps a lot, like, in my room at home. I just kinda like-- I have maps up in the walls and everything. Nah, just, like, to look at different places or whatever.
So what they eat over there? Like, cheese? Oh, you never been there? Oh, my bad. Oh, your parents? Oh, my bad. My bad.
So you go to school? I could tell. I'm saying. 'Cause you got that look. I'm not saying you look stupid, like a nerd or something like that. I'm saying, like, you look smart.
Like, you definitely got plans for your future or whatever. Like, you know, mission or something. What you study? Oh, that's good. We need more business people, right? Ah ha ha.
Like, me, personally, I would like to go into the Air Force if they let me. I heard it's still possible, right? Nah, 'cause I would like to protect this country. From like whoever. From evil dictators, or like from Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro, or whoever.
Nah, 'cause you don't realize. I'm not saying you. But, like, it's people out there. They don't realize, like, this is the greatest country in the world. And, like, other places, you don't know what could happen. Like, people could just be savages or whatever.
Like, the government, they just, like, shoot you for whatever reason. But at least here, you know, we have democracy. Everybody's protected. But mostly, I would like to fly, like, a F-15 or a stealth bomber. Because I would just kind of like to like fly over all the different places in the maps.
Nah, I wouldn't really start nowhere. I would just kind of like fly over, look at it, maybe drop a few bombs, or whatever. Nah, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I mean, not really but.
Man, they make you wait a long time. See? I told you. So you sure you don't want me to talk to him? It's not a problem.
I mean, like, it's messed up. Your grandmother got cancer and everything. You know, they shouldn't make you wait down here for, like, four hours. Are you sure? Alright. I'm just making sure.
So would you like to go out with me some time? I'm saying, you know, I'm not Tom Cruise or nothing, but I'm Puerto Rican. You know what they say about Puerto Ricans, right? You didn't watching The Discovery Channel entertainment special? Nah, they did a whole report. They discovered us.
They said that Puerto Ricans are the best dancers in the world. I mean, like, they didn't say it. But, like, that's what they were saying.
I bet you like to go to the clubs dancing, right? What you dance to? Oh, yeah? That's it? Nah, I go almost every weekend. Like, and my friends take me. I dance to whatever, merengue, salsa, hip-hop, classical.
Nah, like, even like grunge. I don't even think people can dance to grunge, but I could do it. You don't think I can dance, right? Nah, I been practicing for the last two years. And plus, they said on The Discovery Channel, it doesn't matter as long as you're Puerto Rican.
You don't think I can dance, right? Girl, you and me could practice right here. There's nobody looking. There's nobody looking though. Oh, all right.
No, that's all right. I understand, understand. Nah, it's all right. I understand, understand, understand.
Well, tell her I hope she feels better, all right? All right. Um, nice meeting you. All right. Bye.
It's the fourth floor. Push the button. You're very pretty. Man, I thought she was Dominican, word.
Danny Hoch. That series from his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop. CDs of his show are available at his website, www.dannyhoch--with an H--.com. Coming up, making a deal with the prosecutor means 25 years in prison and not making the deal means 75 years. Why you might say no to the 25 years. And other stories of what we do when we don't do something. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Same Time Next Year
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, We Didn't. Stories of what it is that we do when we're not doing all of the things that we think of as our actual lives. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Same Time Next Year. This is the story of a couple that did not fall in love, did not get together, did not form a future, and some other stuff that'll be clear as this story unfolds.
It all begins simply enough when Amanda Marks is 13, going on 14, and she goes to Madison Square Garden to buy tickets to the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You tour in the early '80s. And she stands in line next to a cute 21-year-old for three hours. And they get to talking and talking some more.
So we go and get our tickets. And the way they did the system was it was completely randomized. And so he was right behind me in line, or right in front of me, but I ended up getting much better seats than he did. So basically, we made this deal that we would go to the concert together, and sell his pair, and split the money.
Do you remember what exactly was attracting you to him?
I was a teenage girl. And he was this really cute guy paying attention to me. What wouldn't have been attractive about him?
So it's raining. We share a cab uptown. I'm going back to school. I've taken the morning off. I'm trying to catch my English class. And we start kissing in the back of the taxi. And the rain's hammering down. And it's just-- it's like the movies. It just couldn't be more romantic. I'm feeling so grown up at this point, just thrilled.
So I go back to school, and I'm all excited. And I tell my friends. And one of my friends gives me this look like, "He's how old? He does what? He's an out-of-work actor? Like, ew." And I was like, "No, no, he's really great."
I love how he's an out-of-work actor is a turnoff even if you're 13. Even if you're in junior high school, it just doesn't play.
Like, oh, yeah, out-of-work actor. Out of here.
So your friends are skeptical.
Yes. Yes, they are. And it was weird because I wouldn't go to his house. I didn't really want him coming to my house. So we'd meet in public places, have these long, intense, involved conversations.
Instead of making out.
Yeah, basically. Yeah.
Taking the place of, using the energy that could be devoted to--
Well, but I was very serious. I was very excited that he liked me for my mind, that we had this connection, that it wasn't about that. But finally, the sexual side got a little sticky. And my last encounter with him was just uncomfortable. The fact was he was 21. I was 14. I wasn't going to go to his house alone. And that was pretty much a deal breaker.
OK. It's about 12 years later. I'm back in New York City for some family stuff. I'm wandering through Central Park. I don't really have anything to do that night. And suddenly, I get this flash.
I'm like, it's summer. It's about 5 o'clock. Shakespeare in the Park. So I wander over to the Delacorte.
And there's just this endless, endless line. It's just huge. And I get all the way on the end of it. And it's clear to me that I'm not going to get in. And so I come up with this scheme to cut to the front of the line. So I go from the end to fourth.
And I see this really, really, really cute guy pull the exact same line-cutting ploy that I did. The exact same thing. And he's really cute. And so I catch his eye. And I walk over, and I say, "You know, I did the exact same thing." And he goes, "Yeah, I don't know why anybody waits in line. I always do this. It's great."
So we start chatting. He's got a blanket. I've got some fruit.
And we're chatting and eating away, perfectly comfortable conversation. He asked me my name. I tell him. He tells me his name. And then he tells me his last name. And I recognize it.
I can't not recognize it. Because his name was always really uncomfortable for me. His name is a synonym for the male anatomy. But he pronounces it differently. And it just always made me really uncomfortable when I was 14.
I pause, and my heart starts pounding. My mouth dries up. And I say, "Over 12 years ago, you and I picked each other up in line for Rolling Stones tickets." And he stares at me.
And he totally knows who I am. His jaw drops. He completely remembers. He can't believe it. I can't believe it.
And it's just so romantic. What could be more romantic? We're in Central Park. We're on a blanket. We're about to go see Shakespeare in the Park. It's like it's destiny.
Oh my god, and the play? All's Well That Ends Well.
So it's all symbolic. It's all coming together. It's all magical. And all forming around one thought.
Oh, it just could not be more perfect. I'm thinking, this is the story you tell the grandchildren. I love romantic comedies. I write romantic comedies. It's just like this is what happens in the movies. I'm so excited.
And we see the play. And we leave, and we walk back to his place. And then the sleaze factor of this 21-year-old who dated this 14-year-old starts to rear its head. What was this guy doing dating me when I was 14? That's not acceptable.
The tip-offs, there were just so many little things. We go back to his apartment. His apartment was really this mess. Oh, it seemed like he was kind of a pot head. He was smoking out the whole time. He was growing weed on his balcony. He was constantly smoking out.
Was he still an out-of-work actor?
Yeah. He hadn't really done much with himself.
That's interesting because when there's that kind of coincidence of running into somebody again, we think automatically that it should turn out to be romantic. But it could be that you just meet some people again, just have exactly the same experience over again.
Yeah, yeah. In case you didn't learn that lesson once. So it just got yuckier. I left eventually. And he would call me randomly, drunk, at 11:30 at night, from some bar, like, "What are you doing?"
And so this whole thing stayed in the "We didn't" stage. You just never went forward out of "We didn't." It was sort of like you were reunited to re-experience the "We didn't."
Yeah. At first, it seemed like there was this big cosmic thing keeping us apart, age. There's so few things to actually keep couples apart anymore. You know what I mean? I write romantic comedies, and it's really hard to come up with a reason that people don't just jump into bed in the first 20 minutes.
Oh, come. Are you serious?
Yeah, it's hard. Sure. When you're doing the whole "It's kismet, and we know that they're meant to be," yeah, sure, that's hard to sustain dramatically. That's why most romantic comedies are so boring and predictable.
Because there's not enough keeping them apart.
It's like, oh, he's engaged to some other girl who's really stuck up and comes from this rich family. And we know that he's never going to end up with this stuck-up girl. Do you know what I mean? But they go through the motions of he has to figure it out that she's not right for him. And you know I mean? That's why most romantic comedies are so middling and why it's really hard to make a good one.
So we had that. We had age. It was pretty dramatic. It was very real then.
I'm surprised at what you're saying about romantic comedies.
But I guess what I mean when I say it's hard now, compared to the heyday of Hollywood-- when you think of the classic romantic comedies, those were written under the Hays code. And you could not have two people going to bed together unless they were married. And so it was an obstacle in that very direct, obvious way. And you needed parent approval, and you needed to be of the same class, and all of that.
And now, with sexual mores so changed, that's really the thing. It's like, well, what's stopping these two people from going to bed?
But what you're saying somehow is that we, as a people, spend less time in the realm of "We didn't" than we used to two generations ago.
Yeah, I think now we spend time in "I wish we didn't," "I wish we hadn't."
In other words, people actually get involved, but then regret it.
Yeah, sure. That's really the story now.
Amanda Marks, a screenwriter in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC - "'TIL THE NEXT GOODBYE" BY THE ROLLING STONES]
Act Four: Saying No For 75 Years
Act Four, Saying No For 75 Years. For most of us, the stakes of not doing something on any given day are so low that as soon as the moment of decision passes, we never think of it again. It doesn't even linger as a memory. But sometimes, the stakes are so staggeringly high that we spend the rest of our lives in the shadow of that one decision, of one no. No, said at exactly the wrong moment to exactly the wrong person. Steve Bogira is a journalist who stumbled onto a story exactly like that about a guy named Vincent Bogan.
I met Vincent 18 years ago when he was 15, when he was about to become a freshman at Bogan High School. Bogan is just a coincidence. It's the same as his name. Bogan is a high school on Chicago's Southwest side.
At the time, it was all white, and Vincent was going to be one of the first black kids to go to this school. And I wanted to write a story for the Chicago Reader about what it'd be like for a black kid to come to that high school. So I rode the bus with him one September day in 1981 and followed him during his first day at Bogan.
What kind of kid was he at 15?
The previous spring, he had been voted "Most Dedicated Student" in his eighth grade class, won $50 for that. He wanted to be an architect. And he was just a nice kid. He had a father who worked as a welder. His mother had been killed in a car accident a couple of years before. And he was the kind of kid who cuts the grass and sprinkles the lawn, wasn't the greatest student, but he did graduate.
So when did you hear of him next? How many years passed?
I think it was in 1989. I saw a headline in the Tribune that caught my eye. It said something like, "An armed robber gets 75 years," which is a real long time for someone to do for armed robbery. And I read this story, and it said Vincent Bogan had been charged with 17 armed robberies committed in a six-week period in 1988.
So I thought this is the Vincent who I wrote about. And I decided to find out what had happened.
What had happened, he found out, is that while Vincent was in high school, his father was laid off from his job as a welder and started dealing cocaine out of the house. He taught Vincent the family business. Not long after that, he died. Vincent became addicted to cocaine, stole to support his habit, and was caught. He was offered a deal by the state's attorney, a typical kind of deal for American courts today.
If he would admit that he was guilty on all 17 counts of armed robbery, which would make a full trial unnecessary, there would be no trial, then he would get a 25-year sentence. This is called-- as anybody who watches cop shows on TV knows-- copping a plea, taking a plea bargain. And this is where Vincent said, no, said, no in a way that changed his life forever, said, no against the advice of everybody in his life. He wanted to go to trial.
His lawyer said it was a mistake. He tried to convince Vincent to take the deal, said, "Vincent, you're going to get hammered if you go to trial. You'll get much more than 25 years."
He went to trial on 1 of the 17 counts of armed robbery. The judge gave him the maximum sentence, 30 years. He still had 16 counts left, 16 crimes.
At some point, it may have been just before sentencing, the state came to Vincent again and said, "Plead guilty to all the rest of these, and we'll give you just a total of 30." Vincent, again, said, "No, I want to go to trial." So he went to trial a second time, got found guilty again by a jury, and got sentenced to another 30.
After that, he went to trial again, got 15 years, bringing his total up to 75. Then he went to trial again, got 60 years. Though in one of those weird legal things that make very little sense to anybody outside of the court system, he serves the 60 at the same time as he serves the 75. Basically, the idea is that if he overturns one of his convictions, someday, on appeal, he still has to serve tons of time.
This was an unusually long sentence for armed robbery. So much time that the state simply dropped the other 13 counts against him. Why bother? He'd be away 'til he was an old man.
The day the judge gave Vincent the second 30 years, he also sentenced another defendant in his courtroom for murdering two people to 60 years. This defendant had strangled one person with a telephone cord and stabbed the other person 21 times. He got the same 60 years that Vincent had at that point. The difference was the murderer pled guilty.
Vincent, at the time, had found Jesus in the jail. And I think he felt that Jesus might help him win some of his cases. And I also feel he didn't like the idea of pleading guilty to some crimes which we hadn't done.
Even though he had done many of those crimes, he hadn't done them all.
Now you've written about this for the Alicia Patterson Reporter. And just a few weeks ago, you went down to Joliet where Vincent is in a maximum security prison. And you talked to him about why he said no to the plea bargains, why he said no to the deal for 25 years.
How old were you at this time?
At the time, I was 21.
So what was going through your head?
It was so many things going through my head, I can't really-- as far as the sentence was concerned, I was looking at 25 years. Half of that time would be 12 and 1/2 years.
With day for day good time, 25 means you serve 12 and 1/2.
Exactly. And I couldn't really see 12 and 1/2 years of my life going by without me putting up a fight. I'm fighting for my life, what I felt at that particular time. I was 21 years old. I couldn't remember back 12 and 1/2 years.
I believe that the Lord had touched my heart and was directing me not to take this cop-out. And that was a strong conviction on my part. My family didn't understand. My attorney didn't understand. But I felt like that's the way I was being led at that time. And I still feel like that was the way that the Lord had led me to go as far as not copping out to these crimes.
Why did you think that? You were guilty of some of these armed robberies, right?
So why do you think that Jesus wanted you to go to trial?
Well, I don't think it was so much that he wanted me to go to trial. But I felt secure in whatever I did. Whatever decision I made, I felt that the Lord was going to be with me.
And I don't believe that the Lord has put me here to leave me here. But I know this. That I learned a serious lesson, a serious life lesson about being in a maximum-security penitentiary. If I woulda took the cop-out, I woulda went straight to a medium-security penitentiary. I never woulda seen behind the walls of these type of penitentiaries. And I believe that, in my particular case, I needed that. I needed to know the crimes I did can call for this particular punishment and for a long period of time.
Now in the courts here in Illinois, there's something called "the tax?"
Well, it's not an official term, but it's one that everyone down at 26th Street in Cook County at the courthouse recognizes. And what it is is a penalty for asserting your right to trial. In other words, if you're offered a certain number of years, if you decide to take a trial and you get found guilty, most likely, you're going to get more time than you would have if you had pled. Seems to make sense on the surface at least. Because if you didn't have that kind of an incentive, everybody would be going to trial, taking a chance on getting found innocent. And with a huge number of cases to deal with, the courts could not possibly deal with that.
They couldn't deal with everybody going to trial. They need people to take the plea.
Well, last year in Cook County, just under 40,000 cases were disposed of by jury, by bench, and by plea. About 33,000 of those were disposed of by plea. I might add that the tax is usually greater if you insist on a jury trial instead of just a bench trial. In a bench trial, the judge decides whether you're guilty or innocent. A jury trial takes a lot longer because you have to pick a jury, you have to instruct the jury, and you have to make sure that certain evidence does not appear before the jury.
So jury trials-- they're a nuisance for the system. They take up a lot of time. So if you go to trial and you insist on a jury trial, you're likely to get a little bit more time if you're convicted than if you just had a bench trial. So last year, as I said, 33,000 pleas. Of the other 7,000 cases, there were about 6,300 bench trials. And I believe there were just under 400 jury trials, less than 1% of the cases that were disposed of in Cook County were disposed of by a jury.
And is this necessarily a bad thing?
Well, I wouldn't say it's necessarily a bad thing. It depends on your philosophy. If you feel that the criminal justice system is a healthy way to deal with behavior that we don't condone, you'd probably be in favor of a tax. Because it allows the criminal justice system to work and to work even if it has rising caseloads. If you feel that society maybe should look for other ways to dissuade people from participating in activity that we don't condone, then you probably think that we should do the radical thing and abide by the Constitution, especially the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees everybody a right to a jury trial. And that's a right that's not supposed to be fettered by a tax or a punishment if you assert that right.
And in Vincent's case, did he ask for a jury trial? Or did he get a bench trial?
So all of these were jury trials?
Right. He was a particular nuisance for the courts. His cases were taking up an awful lot of time.
How many days are we talking about it?
Well, it's not that many days. It's probably a day to pick the jury and a day or two of trial. But the judge in that courtroom could have disposed of many cases in the time that he had to pick juries for Vincent's cases. In that courtroom afterward, some of the regular lawyers, the lawyers assigned to the courtroom, talked about some of the prosecutors would talk to the public defenders and warn them that "You don't want your client to get Boganized, do you?"
"Boganized," after Vince Bogan.
That's right. Vincent was a poster boy for what happens if you assert your right to trial.
When I really look back at, OK, you offered me 25 years. Vince, you shoulda took it. Then I say, OK, if I woulda took it, I don't know. God may have had even a better blessing in store for me to take that 25 years.
I may have went down to a medium-security penitentiary. I may have been able to continue to do the things I'm doing here in this penitentiary. My faith may have been even stronger in the Lord from that point. But I don't know. I don't know.
But I know that God know. And I know that all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and called according to his purpose. And that's how I was looking at this situation.
When Vincent talks about how perhaps God had him refuse the plea, it's like he's throwing himself on to a kind of a pure fatalism. Whatever will happen, will happen.
Well, I think that's right. And I think the same kind of fatalism was evident in the run Vincent had been on, the armed robberies he was pulling. I'm convinced that he wanted to get caught. He did get caught the last day after pulling three armed robberies in a row several blocks apart in the afternoon. He wasn't wearing a mask or anything. It was not intelligent work as an armed robber if that's what he was trying to do. But I think that there was an element in Vincent that wanted to be caught. Without doing much psychologizing, I'm certain that the deaths of his mom and dad played a role in that. Exactly how it led him to be doing what he was doing, I'm not certain.
In all of your talks with him, did he ever say that he felt like he wanted to be caught? Did he ever admit to that?
No, I've asked him about that. He said it was a relief when he was caught.
I thank God for the prosecutors and judges. Romans 13 says, "Submit yourself to those who have authority over you." I believe that. If I'm wrong, that wrong should be corrected.
Just to get back to the way that he explains to himself what happened, if you think about somebody who made one decision at 21, who said, no, at 21 once essentially-- or in this case, four times in rapid succession-- and then has to live with that for the next 39 years, now that he's had a decade to think about it, it seems like there are only two ways that a person could think about it. One is, I made a terrible mistake and just be racked by that. Or the other, there was a reason, there must be a reason. In this case, God has a reason, and I will just accept that and move forward. And in a way, it's so much healthier or more life preserving for him to believe that there must be a reason that this worked out this way.
Yeah, I think that Vincent is a remarkably healthy person now. And by healthy, I mean he's really adapted to his destiny. That doesn't mean that this is a success story by any means. I think it's tragic and it's mind boggling to think about someone spending the next three decades in prison who really doesn't need to be there.
Vincent went into prison and very quickly started to do positive things. He's never been in any discipline problems at all in the prison since he's been incarcerated. He's worked as a photographer and the editor of The Pen News, the pentitentiary news, when he was in Pontiac. He worked jobs. He went to school. He's a painter. He does oil paintings mostly of classic cars, and he's very good at it.
Vincent was back on the right track within probably a year or two. And I don't think it was because he had a 75-year sentence hanging over his head.
If he had just 12 and 1/2 years ahead of him, probably the same thing, you're saying.
It may have been regardless of what he had hanging over his head. He needed some time out. And most guys don't do positive time like Vincent has. There's no doubt in my mind that Vincent could have come out a few years ago and gotten a job and been a productive citizen.
I was stubborn when they offered me that time really out of ignorance. I don't know why I didn't see the need to cop out for that 25 years. But I didn't. Now if I was offered that cop-out today, of course I'd take it.
Even if it meant pleading guilty to 17?
Of course. Even though that can never happen.
Steve Bogira is working on a book about a year in a courtroom here in Chicago. Vince Bogan's 75-year sentence will probably last 37 and 1/2 years because of good behavior. He'll get out around the year 2025, nearly 60 years old. If he hadn't said no to his plea bargain, he'd be out next year.
Well, our program was produced by Susan Burton and myself with Alex Blumberg, Julie Snyder, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Starlee Kine, Todd Bachmann, Sylvia Lemus, and Jorge Just, who ends his internship with our program today and who we wish the very best for.
To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you know, you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who struggles valiantly every day--
I've devoted more of my life to thoughts of giving up than anyone else I can think of.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.