295: Not What I Signed Up For

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Ira Glass

It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

OK, the first thing you need to know is that the nuns came to Todd. Todd did not go to the nuns. His wife worked with these nuns at a Catholic charity.

The Todd in the story actually is Todd Bachmann, who works on our radio show. He's our production manager, which means that he sees the bills get paid and that the equipment works and everything runs smoothly.

Anyway, a couple years ago, these nuns that his wife worked with asked him to help out with this big black-tie charity event that they were throwing, this annual event. Donors pay a lot of money. There's a meal in a big hotel ballroom. And at some point during this thing, there's a presentation on stage about what the charity does. That's the part that the nuns wanted Todd to work on. One of the nuns actually asked him to direct this part of it.

Todd Bachmann

And I remember I just had all these delusions of grandeur. I was so passionate about it and so ready. And I just had it in my mind where these people in their tuxedos, they're at this event, and maybe there'd be some activity like chinking of the silverware and some hushed, mild conversation that's like almost whispering. And then my work turns on, and then pow! Silence. People actually listen. And they're moved. Like, yeah, this is totally what I can do.

Ira Glass

In previous years of this event, for the presentation part of it the nuns had some of the people who the charity had helped-- elderly people and young mothers-- come up onto the stage and read these little essays. And apparently, it felt a lot like school. You know, they got real nervous. It just felt like class somehow.

And Todd thought that he could do better. He had a vision. He had a vision, I'm telling you. He had just started working at our radio show at the time, and he thought, OK, you know he could do? He could interview these people on tape and then choose a couple of really, really great moments and play those to the crowd. And then people would come on up and take a bow or something. And on the tape, they would sound all relaxed and natural, and it would totally get to people.

Maybe they'd even make more money out of it this way. And the sister in charge of the whole thing agreed with all of his ideas. But as the event got nearer, something strange slowly became clear.

Todd Bachmann

She kept on really overemphasizing, "well, you're the director. So whatever you say, you're the director."

And what was funny about it is she never told me. It was so deft of her because she never clearly said, "no, no, no-- we're never going to do your idea." It was kind of like always hinted, like, "yeah, yeah, yeah-- we'll get to it. We'll get to it."

Ira Glass

But they never did get to it. And finally, after weeks and weeks of meetings, at the rehearsal, Todd's responsibility at the event were finally made clear to him, and they were not at all what he expected.

Todd Bachmann

It came down to there was a CD player, and she wanted me to just hit play on this CD song, which was 'Thank You," by Natalie Merchant.

Ira Glass

You got played by a nun.

Todd Bachmann

I got played by a nun. Here I thought that she actually wanted my input, and I remember being really frustrated and conflicted because I was really mad at this nun. And I just felt really guilty for being mad at this nun. And so I just felt really petty.

Ira Glass

I just think that if you can be used by a nun, man, you can be used by anybody.

Todd Bachmann

Yeah, exactly. I was coddled, like massaged, like, director, director.


Ira Glass

There's a whole of experiences like this. You're asked to do something, you think it's go one way, it turns out to be something completely different, and then you're stuck. You can't do anything about it. It's too late to quit. It's too late to get out of it. This can happen to you at work. It can happen to you with friends. It can happen on a plane. It can happen on a train. It could happen on a run. It can be caused by a nun.

Today on our program we hear two rather dramatic examples of this phenomenon. Our program today, Not What I Signed Up For. Act One of our program, The Double Whammy, a story of someone who gets into two situations where things work out very differently than she thought they would. One of those situations with the president of the United States. Act Two, Small Fish, Smaller Pond. We have a story by Nick Hornby. Stay with us, and we will thank you.


Act One: The Double Whammy

Ira Glass

Act One. This story is one of those stories that starts off as a tragedy and ends up not exactly as a comedy, but it's one of those things where it just sort of sits there, you know, halfway between tragedy and comedy. It starts sad.

Marian Fontana. Her husband was a firefighter. He dies at the World Trade Center. And then after 9/11, she finds herself embroiled in a series of political fights with the city. The first one is to see that her husband's firehouse isn't shut down by the city. And then it goes on to how the cleanup is going on at the ground zero site. And in the course of this she starts an organization with some of the firefighters' widows.

And she talks a lot to the press. She talked about these issues. She talked about the conditions that firefighters were working under when the World Trade Center attack happened. Her husband was earning less than $26,000 a year.

Anyway, so she's getting maybe 100 calls a day from all kinds of press. From Polish TV to Newark Radio. And she had to choose.

Marian Fontana

My criteria for doing media was that I needed to be able to talk about the organization and the site recovery. And that's really all I want to speak to. I didn't want to go on any tabloids or talk shows or anything like that.

Ira Glass

Did you find yourself in the situation, though, where in order to actually get out the message that you wanted to get out that you would be doing shows and would be giving interviews where a part of the interview would be, "well, tell us your sad story," and then another part would be, "OK, so now, what are you here to talk about?"

Marian Fontana

Yes, yes. In fact, almost all of them do that. Because a lot of them were focused on the fact that my husband died on our anniversary. It was our eighth wedding anniversary, and they wanted to kind of give them a blow by blow of the day and how-- and I could understand that. I mean, it's human nature, I think, to want to know what happened. But I can understand why an interviewer would want to hear that, as well.

Ira Glass

Another firefighter's wife, who was a PR person, helped her field the 100 press calls a day and figure out which interviews to do. Which leads us to this story, about a time when Marian ended up in a very different situation than she thought she was signing up for.

Marian Fontana

I was usually running on the cell phone from one place to the next, and that's when my PR person called and told me that there was a news show that I had never heard of called E-Online, and would I want to go on that and speak about the organization. And I said, "sure," not knowing what it was.

Ira Glass

And what did you understand about E-Online?

Marian Fontana

At the time, I just figured it was some kind of web news thing that I didn't know about, not being very computer savvy, and that they'd get their little byte about what I do and that would be it. And whenever I did these news shows, there would be a tiny little green room and a tiny little makeup room. You know, the new shows are all five minute interviews. You're brought into sometimes the newsroom itself, and they sit you in a chair and you talk to a camera, you never talk to a person.

So I was very startled to arrive outside of these studios where there were about 100 Puerto Rican girls in down coats and giant earrings kind of lined up to go into the Fox studios. And I figured, "oh, they're probably going to see Ricki Lake or something." And then got ushered into this back room, and there was a huge maze of doors, and we stopped at this door that had my name on it. And that was in itself kind of startling and not protocol for what I was used to.

I opened the door and there was a fruit basket and a phone and makeup mirrors. And I went, "my, my, my-- what is this?" And they said, "make yourself comfortable. We'll come in and get you into makeup."

And I said, "OK." so I started making phone calls. I was supposed to be at an Eliot Spitzer meeting, and I was missing it.

Ira Glass

Eliot Spitzer the attorney general?

Marian Fontana

Right. We were dealing with the victim's comp issue at the time.

And so next thing you know, I'm being ushered into the hallway. And I start to hear the audience, and they're going "whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo." Like the Arsenio Hall Show used to do. And then I really started to get worried. I said, "what is this?" I said, "what is going on?"

Ira Glass

What is E-Online?

Marian Fontana

Well, I misunderstood. It was the Iyanla show. They walked us from the back across the stage, and I saw these big giant letters spelling Iyanla. I Y A N L A. I quickly realized I was definitely in the wrong place, or completely misunderstood what the show was about.

And so I leaned over to the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] woman next to me, and I said, "what is this?" And she said, "oh, it's Iyanla." She's like, "the late-night Oprah." And I said, "oh, oh, OK." And I'm trying to turn to the other woman on the other side of me and find out more when they ushered us to be quiet. And they did a countdown, and the cameras rolled. And out comes this very pretty African American woman with tightly cropped hair.

Television Host Iyanla

How's everybody?

Television Studio Audience

[AS A GROUP] Good!

Television Host Iyanla

Good! I know you! Don't I look gorgeous? Tell the truth.

Marian Fontana

She's like, "today's show is about people who've been to hell and back." And I said, "oh, OK. This is going to be interesting."

And you know, this was in December. And they had just found my husband, actually, on December 6. And so I had just had a funeral for him, I had just had a burial. And you know, I was really not back from hell, clearly.

Television Host Iyanla

Today you're going to meet people who, when they were backed up against the wall, hmph! They learned something about themselves. And they've taken the scars and they've turn them into lessons, positive lessons.

Marian Fontana

And so I was kind of sitting there, and they brought up the short, very fit guy first. And they showed this the video that he had made that looked like the lens had been smeared in Vaseline, you know. And it was this sad music, and they showed a close-up of a liquor glass. And they said, "Tim had a happy life until he fell into drugs and alcohol and was arrested for drunk driving." And you know, the sad music plays.

"But he turned himself around when he started to do triathlons, and then teach other kids the power of being physically active." And you know, everyone starts to be very moved. And the girls, the Puerto Rican girls behind me who were outside start crying, and they're all very touched by this video. And then the lights come up and Iyanla introduced him about his role coaching teenagers.

Television Host Iyanla

I'm always so grateful that God is god of a second chance. Any moment can be the moment.

Marian Fontana

She was using all these platitudes. I just remember her saying, "you know you hit rock bottom because God made the rock."

Television Guest

And I knew this time, that was it.

Television Host Iyanla

When it's time, it's time.

Marian Fontana

There was an insincerity there.

Television Host Iyanla

I'm being inspired.

Television Guest

I used to sit and I'd think, "I want to do that someday. I think it's neat."

Television Host Iyanla


Ira Glass

Did the thought occur to you, "I can just leave, I can walk out the door?"

Marian Fontana

Well, we were sitting in the front row, and there were a lot of cameras on stage. And I guess we were [? miked up. And I kind of felt trapped. I really didn't feel like I was in a position to leave. And I couldn't even talk. They kept silencing us and telling us, it's "quiet on the set."

Television Host Iyanla

We're back, and we're talking to people who've been to hell and back.

Marian Fontana

Then we came back from commercial, and they brought up a very large woman with gray hair. And she also had a film. And she was from Boston, so she had this very thick Boston accent. She's like, "Mark was a shy and beautiful boy."

Television Guest

But on Christmas Eve, 1997, my life as a wife and mother of three was tragically turned upside down when--

Marian Fontana

It's all about her son and how he went next door, and there was a gun, and he accidentally shot himself.

Television Guest

So instead of celebrating the holiday, we were faced with picking out a casket and planning our--

Marian Fontana

It was very sad. And they showed all these pictures. And, again, the girls were crying behind me. And I was crying at this point, because it was just very sad. And she's crying on stage. And Iyanla was sitting, and she's still making all these platitudes.

And the woman, the big African American woman next to me starts shaking and she's like, "oh, Lord, I'm so nervous. I'm next, I'm next." And I'm about to ask her, "what did you do?" And they start with a video of how her son was killed, I guess eight years before, and was shot in front of her. And she "couldn't get over the death of her son. And she started drinking, and she started smoking, and she gained 150 pounds."

And then she interviews her, and she's crying, and, again, everybody's crying. And it's very sad, she can't get over her son. And Iyanla starts saying, you know, "why can't you get over Earl? You've got to get over, girl. You know you do, you know you do." And she's like, "I can't. I see his face. I see his face in my dreams, and he used to call me shorty."

Television Guest Yvonne

I didn't get a chance to say goodbye.

Television Host Iyanla

Say it now. Tell him. You've got to say goodbye.

Television Guest Yvonne

I just don't want to.

Television Host Iyanla

Well, you have to my darling.

Marian Fontana

You know, they're having this very intense interaction, and everyone's crying. And then they cut to commercial, and she says, "when we come back, we have a 9/11 widow who's going to help Yvonne come back from hell." And that's when I really started to panic.

Television Host Iyanla

And you'll hear about her brave battle through the grief, and we'll talk about her road to recovery when we come back.

Marian Fontana

And the bring me up into the chair across from Yvonne, who's crying.

Ira Glass

Oh, my.

Marian Fontana

You know, she's a mess. She just can't stop sobbing. The makeup people are running out and trying to reapply her foundation.

Ira Glass

Oh, my.

Marian Fontana

Yeah. And I start trying to wave to the director, who is this kind of guy with a Caesar haircut. And him and Iyanla are going over cards, and I'm trying to get their attention, like, "excuse me, excuse me, I'm"-- you know.

Ira Glass

And at that point, are you trying to plan out something to say to her?

Marian Fontana

Yeah, I felt like, you know, what can I possibly say to this woman who lost her son? And especially since I have a son.

And next thing you know, we start, they go to silence and they countdown again. And she starts to introduce me as a 9/11 widow who started an organization, and her first question was, "Marian, what advice can you give to Yvonne?"

And I completely froze. I was looking at her face, she looked so sad and heartbroken, and I was so sad and heartbroken that I just felt completely incapable of speaking. I felt completely inept, and so I really fumbled. And I said well, um--

Television Guest Marian

I would just say reach out. Reach out to people who've gone through what you've gone through. I know it's hard to, you know, you think it's always going to be sad, but we tell funny stories of staying up at night and obsessing. And there's a lot of different ways to be with other-- and comiserating is just so healing.

Television Host Iyanla

Well, let's call it group healing, not comiseratin'.

Marian Fontana

You know, I could tell Iyanla was not happy with my response because she was flipping through her cards. And she actually stopped for a second when we went off air, and said, "I just don't know if I'm really clear on what I'm supposed to be doing here." And she's like, "well, I just want you to give her some advice." And I was like, "OK."

And they go back on and I said, "you know, I just think maybe being active or joining an organization or"-- you know, so it was really clearly uncomfortable. And after a while, Iyanla just gave up on me and turned back to Yvonne and just said, "Yvonne, I'm going to give you an exercise," and made her start speaking to her as if she were Earl.

Television Host Iyanla

Tell me what he would say to you. Right now.

Television Guest Yvonne

I think he would say--

Television Host Iyanla

No. Tsst. You say it, because you know what he would say.


Television Guest Yvonne

I think, I know, I know that he would say that he's in a better place.

Television Host Iyanla

So, "Mama, shorty, I'm in a better place." What else?

Television Guest Yvonne

Take care of his baby girl.

Television Host Iyanla

"Mama, take care of my baby girl. But most important, Mama, I want you to take care of yourself. You know I don't like to see you like this. If you know I'm in a better place, and if you know I'm watching, do it for me."

Marian Fontana

I think the whole time I was in there, this show, To Hell and Back, just kept echoing in my head, going, I'm in hell right now. Right here, right now, watching this play itself out.

Ira Glass

What's so crazy about that is you're saying you weren't sure what to say, but who would know what to say? It's a situation were, what can possibly be said to somebody, you know?

Marian Fontana

Yeah. I really felt for this woman. She was so heartbroken. And yeah, it's hard. It's hard for people on both sides. I've been on both ends of it.

At my husband's wake there were 3,000 people who came up to me. And there is nothing to say, and people feel so uncomfortable because, "I'm sorry" is all we have really. And that is all we have to say about death. So I don't think there's anything better to say.

Ira Glass

You know, one of the things about this whole experience you had that's so strange is that somehow, like, if you think about the people who they were bringing up, like, there was the guy who was the alcoholic. And then there was the woman who lost her son. And then there's the woman who had had both things happen to her. And then they bring you on as like, here's the very worst thing we can think of.

Marian Fontana

Yeah, I didn't even think of it that way. Yeah.

Ira Glass

You know what I mean? Like you're trumping all of these other tragedies because of 9/11, right?

Marian Fontana


Ira Glass

And then you're going to be the expert who's going to step in and heal and solve the problem of the people who are sort of less expert than you because you've gone through something so much more intense than they could even understand somehow. Do you know what I mean?

Marian Fontana

Yeah, I do. And then ironically, I felt the complete opposite because they had the benefit of time passing so that they could heal a little bit. And I felt so fresh in my wound that I really felt like I was completely incapable of giving them insight. But I felt that way a lot about 9/11 in general. People really wanted to learn something from it or connect to in some way or understand it through us, and it was a very strange, and continues to be a very strange experience.

Ira Glass

At that point, you're sort of like a walking symbol. Do you know what I mean?

Marian Fontana


Ira Glass

Has that worn off over time?

Marian Fontana

No, actually. It makes it very hard to date. [LAUGHING] It makes it hard to do a lot of things.

Ira Glass

Like what happens when you date?

Marian Fontana

Well, you know, I've had guys say, "I'm never going to fill your husband's boots" and things like that. So I think it's hard to meet people, and who are not intimidated by that.

Ira Glass

So at some point in the weeks and months after 9/11, you really became a kind of spokesperson through a series of accidents, almost.

Marian Fontana


Ira Glass

Were there other times that you found yourself as a spokesperson in just very strange situations?

Marian Fontana

Yes. I mean, I've always been outspoken. I have a very political family. We're all very opinionated people.

Ira Glass

Oh, wait, and you're New Yorkers, so you're probably Democrats.

Marian Fontana


Ira Glass

Did you find yourself in a situation where you were meeting, like, high level administration officials? Did you meet the president? Did you meet--

Marian Fontana


Ira Glass


Marian Fontana

Yes. I met the president three times. And it was very surreal. I went down for a bill signing, which was a bill he was signing to help the victims families with taxes for that first year. And that is where I met Hillary Clinton, who then invited me down to the State of the Union address, where I met the president again. And then in the second anniversary, which I think was the oddest time for me to meet the president.

My vice president of my organization, who, his name is Lee, and he lost his son, who was a firefighter. And he was a firefighter himself, so he was among all the fathers down at ground zero who were looking for their sons. And his best friend, John Vigiano, had lost two sons-- one was a police officer and one was a firefighter, and they had made a short film about him that won an Academy Award. And for the second anniversary, President Bush was supposed to come up to ground zero and do the whole anniversary thing and he couldn't, so instead they had a small viewing of this movie and a kind of party for John Vigiano. And I don't know why.

And so I told Lee I didn't want to go down because not only was it the day before the second anniversary, but I did not feel comfortable with this administration at all and what they were doing. And so--

Ira Glass

This was in the run-up to Iraq by then.

Marian Fontana

Right. Oh, yeah. We were already in Iraq.

And so I felt very uncomfortable. I said, "oh, you don't want me to go." He always teased me about having a big mouth and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. And he said, "no, I absolutely want to go with you because Governor Pataki is going to be there." And we just had a rally that day about the memorial and wanting ground zero to be sacred ground and it to be treated as such. Pataki had kind of backpedaled on some things he'd said before, so we had this big rally. And he was going to be at this small dinner party at the White House.

And so once it was presented that he was going to be there and it was a chance to talk to him about this, then I said, yes, and we went down on the train. And the rally lasted so long we were literally running for the train, trying to make this dinner. Stopped at my friend's house. He told me it was formal, so I put on this sparkling blue gown.

And we arrive at the White House and go through this elaborate security system, and I walk out into the Rose Garden, and everyone's wearing business attire, black suits, included the women in brown suits, and I am in this sparkling blue dress that I wore at my sister's wedding. And I just saw all the secret service men kind of, I could just imagine what they whispering into their lapels. Like, "whore in the blue dress has just entered the garden." And I was furious at Lee, who's, you know, he's in his late fifties and short, and I felt like I looked like his hooker, basically. So we went in, and--

Ira Glass

Which is really not a good feeling in the Rose Garden.

Marian Fontana

No. I was so self-conscious. I'm wearing completely the wrong thing. And I get a glass of wine, and all I really want to do is look at the White House, because I'm like, "wow, I'm in the White House, and so I want to look at the architecture." And literally, if I took two steps out of the garden, there were about nine secret service men following me.

And so I was playing with the dog because Lee made me promise not to do anything inappropriate, not to talk to anybody about my liberal politics. And so I was just waiting until Governor Pataki came. And then, you know, I'm looking around this odd conglomeration of people including, Maury Povich, and Condoleezza Rice, and the Rumsfelds. And it was just a very-- and I felt so uncomfortable. I just wanted to go home. I really was feeling kind of emotional about the anniversary and feeling like a hypocrite being there.

And so we got up to Governor Pataki, and he talked to us about how hurt he was that we had this rally. And I talked to Libby Pataki about some widows that she knew. And you know, we chatted for a while and said what we needed to say, and then I was ready to go home.

But then there was a buffet dinner and a film to see. So we had our buffet dinner, and I sat all the way in the back of the garden at the farthest picnic table in the back. And I'm eating quietly, waiting for Lee to join me, and I hear someone say, "is this seat taken?" And I look up and it's Donald Rumsfeld and his wife, and they want to sit at the table with me. And I was like, "no, nobody's sitting here, go ahead."

So they sat down, and Lee joined me. And, of course, Lee having served in Vietnam and having about 28 medals on his class-A firefighter uniform immediately got into a conversation. And Donald Rumsfeld has just gotten back home from Afghanistan, so they were chatting about all this stuff. And I decided I would be a good friend to Lee and just talk to his wife Joyce about his daughter's rock climbing.

So that's what I was being good, but half an ear was listening to their talk. And I was getting more and more upset, and I could feel my face turning red. And then finally, Rumsfeld turned and said, "Marian, what do you think about all of this?" And I said, "oh, you really don't want to know what I think." And he's like, "no, no, actually, I really do. I'm curious what you think."

And I look at Lee to get permission if this is OK. And he nods. And I said, "well, actually, I think you used the death of my husband to go into a country we have no business being in." It felt kind of like a cop-out at the time because there was so much more I wanted to say.

Ira Glass

Is there some more direct thing that you can say than, "you're taking the death of my husband and using to start an inappropriate war?" What is the mean version of that? What were you holding back?

Marian Fontana

No, I think I was actually being good. I think if Lee hadn't kicked me under the table, I probably could have said more. And he just kind of-- everything kind of got quiet. Rumsfeld nodded, and he said, "thank you," and turned back to Lee and they continued their conversation. At which point they called us into the screening room to see the film that was made about John Vigiano.

And we got up and President Bush and his wife were standing there kind of receiving like a receiving line. And Lee introduced me to the president and said, "this is Marian Fontana. She lost her husband. Tomorrow is also her wedding anniversary." And he said, "oh, that's terrible, you got the double whammy." That's what he said. "the double whammy." And I was like, "yeah, the double whammy. That's right."

Ira Glass

And what did you want to say? What does a person say to that?

Marian Fontana

I just thought it was truly one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. You know, there were some politicians that I felt were very sincere in their compassion for the families, and then there were some that I don't think understood what we were really feeling.

President Bush introduced me to Laura and I said, "Hi, Libby." Because I had just been talking to Libby Pataki-- kind of screwed the names up. And Lee elbowed me again, and we slid into the row behind the president in this tiny little screening room. And so then I was kind of up against the wall and Lee was sitting next to me. And Condoleezza Rice and some other guy.

And then the film began, and I didn't even think about what the film was about. And the screen opens and it's the towers burning, and the shaky cameras filming it. And I lost it like I've never lost it publicly in my life. I just started almost like having an epileptic seizure of grief. I just couldn't-- I was hysterical. I was sobbing really loud, and I had to get out of there. And so I literally just stood up, like a hysterical woman, which I'm not but suddenly became, and started clawing my way out of the row. And I stepped on Condoleezza Rice's foot. And they had pulled a curtain over the door and I couldn't find the knob. And I'm at the door shaking the curtains, and Lee is behind me trying to find the door.

And the secret service men are just, you know, "the whore in the blue dress is on the move." And I ran out to the hall and I was just sobbing. And I couldn't stop crying. They were following me down the hall, these secret service men. I was screaming at them to leave me alone. It was just really terrible. And they got some young intern to show me into a small bathroom that was, like, hidden behind a bookcase and I sat in there for about half an hour just sobbing my eyes out. And that was my last meeting with President Bush. [LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

And do you think it's just the combination of being in the most alien environment possible and then suddenly just like missing your husband so intensely, like it's all coming together once? Like, that's why?

Marian Fontana

Absolutely. That's exactly what happened. And it was the anniversary, and I really wanted to be home with my son. And I had that feeling in my stomach like I made the wrong choice. I shouldn't have come down.

Ira Glass

Did you feel protected by your public role in that sort of situation? That is, you're there as somebody whose husband died, and in a way that it gives you a sort of protection. You know what I mean?

Marian Fontana

Yes. I mean, I really have never in my life felt more free to speak the way I want to speak. Because I felt like I lost everything, anyway, so there was really nothing to lose.

Ira Glass

Marian Fontana. She's written a book about her experience called A Widow's Walk: A Memoir of 9/11.

Coming up, who'd have thought? Two stories in one program where somebody meets their president. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program: Not What I Signed Up For.

Act Two: Small Fish, Smaller Pond

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Small Fish, Smaller Pond. For this act, we wing our way across the Atlantic for this story from Nick Hornby.

Nick Hornby

I was six or seven when I found out how small our country was. I was the last one to know in my class. The teacher pinned a big map of Europe up on the wall and show us the countries around us. France, Switzerland, Italy. And I put up my hand and said, "where are we? Where's Champagne on the map?" And everyone, even the teacher, laughed at me.

"You can't see [? Champagne ?] on the map, Stefan," she said.

"Why not," I asked.

"Because we're too small."

"But we must be there somewhere."

"Of course, we are, but you can't see us," the teacher said.

"How can you not see a whole country on a map," I asked her. I could feel my ears getting red. The other kids knew something I didn't, I could tell.

"Do you know why we're called [? Champagne," ?] the teacher asked me.

I shrugged. "No, I thought it was because we were champions of something." All the other kids laughed again.

"And what would we be champions of," said the teacher. "No, champe is French for field. We're called Champagne because our whole country is no bigger than a field. [? Champagne ?] used to be a field until we built the village on it."

"You mean we're the only village in the country?" I couldn't believe it. Our village is tiny.

"The other side of the stream is France," the teacher said. "Italy is behind the fence at the back of the village shop, and Monsieur Petit's garden is half in [? Champagne ?] and half in Switzerland. You could walk across our country in less than a minute. You could do it while holding your breath if you wanted to. You could even throw a stone across it so long as you threw high and didn't hit Monsiuer Petit's bedroom window.

"Why didn't you tell me we lived in the smallest country in the world," I asked my mum when I go home.

"I thought you knew," she said.

"How am I supposed to know," I asked her, "if no one tells me."

"What difference does it make, anyway," she said.

"I know everyone who lives in our whole country," I said.

"Well, that's nice, isn't it," my mother asked me. I wasn't sure about that.

"Anyway, don't countries have presidents and prime ministers and things?"

"Of course," said my mother. "We're no different."

"OK, so who's the president of [? Champagne?" ?]

"I am," she said. I looked at her face to see if she was joking, but she wasn't.

"You're the president of [? Champagne? ?] You?"

"Yes," she said. "I thought you knew that, too."

"You don't-- you don't do anything. You just make our sandwiches and do the washing."

"I go to a meeting once a month in Monsieur Gramonde's bar," she said.

I knew about those meetings. All the grownups in the village talk about litter, and mending the fences so that the cows don't wander into the road.

"Well, what about saluting soldiers," I asked her. You have to remember, I was very young.

"We don't have any soldiers," she said.

"And what about putting people in prison?"

"We don't have a prison," she said.

And we went on like that for a little while until I understood that [? Champagne ?] isn't really a country in the same way that Italy is a country, or France, or America. It doesn't have its own stamps or money or television or prisons or soldiers or air force or navy. Anyone could invade us tomorrow if they wanted to, but no one wants to. There wouldn't be any point. No big countries need an extra field, a shop, and a cafe.

But even though we didn't have most things you'd kind in normal countries, we did have our own soccer team.

My dad broke his leg because of soccer. He wasn't playing, though. What happened was that he was watching a game on TV and the TV suddenly started flickering and then smoke came out of it and the screen went black.

I wasn't watching. I was reading on the sofa. I hate all sports, especially soccer, because soccer is the one that people talk about the most. He was really annoyed that the TV was broken. He stood up and he kicked his chair.

"What about the old one," my mother said. "The little one worked perfectly well." She was angry when my father bought a new TV. She said we didn't need a big screen, but that's because she only watches programs where people talk. She doesn't watch sport. If you need to see a tennis ball or a soccer ball, then a small TV is no good.

"Where is it," my father said grumpily.

"It's in the attic," said my mother.

He was in too much of a hurry because he didn't want to miss any of the game. He got the ladder, climbed into the attic, and then fell when he was trying to carry the TV down again. We all heard the crack. We knew straightaway that he had broken something.

Three days later, when he was pushing himself into the kitchen on his crutches at breakfast, he said to me, "you know what this means, don't you?" And I pretended I didn't, but I did. It was the first thing I thought of the moment he fell out.

"What does it mean," I asked him.

"It means you have to play," he said. I didn't say anything. "You have to," he said again.

"I don't," I said. "There's no law that says so."

Including my dad, there are exactly 11 men and boys in [? Champagne ?] who can run up and down a soccer pitch, and they all play for the national team. No one has ever refused, even though it's torture. We should be playing against other villages, but because we're a country, then we play against other countries.

They're not big countries. We play against San Marino and the Vatican and places like that. But all these places have more than 11 players to choose from, and they all beat us hollow. San Marino, for example, usually lose their games against Italy or France by 9 or 10 goals. But when they play [? Champagne, ?] they beat us 30-0.

No one had ever asked me to play before because I was too young, and because I wasn't any good at sports anyway. And, I'll admit it, I was a little bit fat. Not gross, just chubby, I suppose you'd call it. I spent a lot of time reading books and playing chess, and not so much time running around like a lunatic, which is how the other kids around here behave.

But now I was 14, and I knew that if anything happened to any of the other players, I was the next in line. And now something had happened, to my dad, of all people.

"How many kids of your age can say they've played soccer for their country," my dad asked.

"It's not really much to boast about, is it," I said. "You're only asking me because there's no one else. If there was one other boy or man of the right age in the whole of Champagne, you wouldn't be asking me."

"Everyone plays," said Dad. "Nobody has ever said no. It's your duty, Stefan, your duty as a citizen of [? Champagne." ?]

"You always have to have 11 players in a soccer team," I asked him. "I mean, everybody does?" Dad looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. "I can't do it, Dad," I said. "I'll just make an idiot of myself."

"But if you don't, none of us will be allowed to play," he said. "There are rules about this sort of thing. Anyway, we'd look bad. We'd be the country that didn't have enough players for a soccer team.

"We're already the country that didn't have enough players for a soccer team. I'm not a player."

"Play as a favor to me," he said. "To make me feel proud of you."

"But that's just the thing," I said. "If I play, you'll be ashamed of me." And then I went into my bedroom and shut the door and read a book.

A few days later, I was at home watching TV when there was a knock at the door. Mum and Dad were in the cafe having one of their meetings, but in [? Champagne ?] it's safe to leave your kids at home without a babysitter, and it's safe to answer the door. You'll always know the person standing on the other side. It was Monsieur Gramonde.

"The president wants to see you," he said.

My mom was still the president. No one else wanted the job, so people kept voting for her. There didn't seem to be any rules about how long you could stay president.

I laughed. "I'll see the president later," I said.

"It's not funny," he said. "She wants you to come to the cafe. Immediately."

"She can talk to me when she comes home."

"She'd be your mother then," Gramonde said. "This is presidential business, not family business."

"And what happens if I refuse?"

"Then I'll have to take you there by force. The president has given me permission to do so. She was worried that you'd be unhelpful."

I didn't want to be dragged down to the cafe by Monsieur Gramonde, so I put my shoes on. All the grownups were in the cafe. My mother was sitting on her own in the middle of the room like the teacher used to do in kindergarten when she read us a story, with everyone else arranged around her.

"Ah," she said. "Stefan, take a seat."

Someone got a chair for me and put it inside the circle so that everyone could watch me talking to my mother.

"This is so stupid," I said. Somebody tutted, probably because I'd been rude to the president.

"I'll ignore that last remark," she said.

"Is it right that you gave Monsieur Gramonde permission to bring me here by force," I asked.

"I knew he wouldn't have to," she said. "You're a sensible boy."

I looked at her. I didn't want to have an argument in front of everyone, but I wouldn't forget it.

"You know why we've asked you to come here," she said.

"I wasn't asked. I was ordered."

"I'll ignore that, too," she said. "Do you know why you're here?"

"I guess because of the soccer," I said.

"You guessed right," said my mother, the president. "Because of the soccer. You've been given the honor of representing your country and you said no, is that correct?"

"That is correct."

"And you're aware that if you don't play, nobody can play?"

"I suppose."

"And you haven't changed your mind?"

"No! I hate soccer, and I'm rubbish at it, as you know," I told her. I noticed my shoelace was undone, so I spent as much time as I could tying it up again.

"Sometimes," the president said, "we have to do things we don't want to do. In wartime, young men have to go to war but they don't want to."

"This isn't a war," I pointed out. "It's a dumb soccer match, and soccer sucks."

"Right," said my mother. "OK, then. Will you wait outside for a few moments, please, Stefan? The council needs to talk in private."

I stared at her, saw that she was serious, and left the cafe. They closed the door behind me so I couldn't hear anything.

When I was let back in, I could see that my mother had a very serious expression on her face, and for a moment, I almost believed she was a president.

"Stefan," she said. "We respect your decision not to play for our national team, but you must understand that living in our small country-- well, as a citizen of [? Champagne, ?] you are entitled to many things, things you probably take for granted. You attend our school. You use this cafe. You buy candy and cookies in the shop. You walk on our roads and paths. Those rights are now withdrawn."

For a moment, I couldn't understand what she was saying.

"You mean, I can't go to school?"


You might think that was no big deal, but it was. The only library was in the school, for example, and if I wasn't allowed to borrow books, I'd go crazy.

"You're not joking?"


"You're not going to let me walk on the roads?"


I'd been given a prison sentence. I'd be stuck in my house forever.

"I'm sorry if this seems unkind or unfair," my mother said. "But when you live in a small place, you have responsibilities. What you choose to do or choose not to do has much more of an effect than it would in a bigger country. We don't think you should be allowed to take without giving something back."

My other shoelace had come undone. I tied it up.

"OK," I said. "I'm in. I'll play, but only because no one gave me a choice." They didn't hear the last part, though, because they were all clapping.

I didn't have to train. I told him that I wasn't going to, and that was the one thing they let me get away with. The rest of the team met every Tuesday evening. They always ran a couple of miles first. They usually jogged up the hill into Switzerland. We can't even go for a run inside our country because it's too small, unless you want to run random round the field.

I mean, I know I should have gone to training. I hadn't kicked a ball since I was about three, and anyway, it wasn't like I was super fit. But I didn't want to have to think about soccer until I actually played the stupid game.

When you play for a team for the first time, they call it your debut. Well, I made my debut against San Marino, is if you couldn't have guessed. [? Champagne ?] hardly ever played anyone else. The last time we played them we had lost 28-0, but the general feeling was that it might be even worse this time. No one said this was because of me, but I could tell that's what they were all thinking.

It was a home game, which meant that we changed in our homes. The San Marino players changed in the toilets of the cafe. My father gave me his red and white striped shirt, and I found a pair of white shorts. I didn't have any boots so I wore sneakers. Then I put on my denim jacket and walked down to the field with dad.

"You might enjoy it," he said. I laughed.

"You don't have to watch," I told him. "It's going to rain. Why don't you go home?"

"Everybody watches," he said. "The whole village, the whole country."

"I've never watched before," I told him.

"No," he said. "You were the only one."

That made me feel bad. I felt bad that I didn't know everyone else always watched the team, and I felt guilty that I'd never made the effort. It wouldn't have killed me to do something everyone else did once in a while. When we got to the field, Dad patted me on the back and wished me luck, and I went to stand with my teammates in the middle of the pitch.

I was the youngest player, and Monsieur Gramonde, who was a bit younger than Dad, was the oldest. The only one who really looked like a soccer player was Monsieur Blanc, who worked at a fitness center in Italy. He was tall and slim, and he could do that thing with the ball where you keep kicking it and you don't let it touch the ground. He was our captain.

"Stefan," he said. "Welcome." He shook my hand. "We thought we'd play you midfield, wide right."

I didn't understand a word, and I stared at him with my mouth open.

"Well, you know your left from your right, don't you?"

"Yes, of course."

"So you see Michel, there?" He was pointing at Monsieur Flammeny, who's a painter and gardener. "He's the right back. Stand about 20 meters ahead of him and try to help him if he needs help."

I nodded. I didn't think it was a good idea to ask any more questions, though, and in any case, it was time for the game to start.

We let in a goal after about a minute. It wasn't my fault because everything happened over the other side of the field. The tall chap who played in the middle of their defense sort of wandered forward with the ball, and then gave it to another man who was standing right from the edge of the pitch near where my dad and the rest of the country were standing. And this edge man ran very fast with the ball towards our goal, passed it sideways, and someone else, a little guy who didn't seem to do much apart from score goals, kicked the ball into an empty goal. About three minutes after that, the same thing happened. Tall chap to edge man to little goal-scoring going guy-- goal. And then again and again.

San Marino scored 13 times in the first half of the game, and nine of these goals came in the same way. I only touched the ball once in the first half. Monsieur Flammeny got the ball and passed it to me very gently because he knew I wouldn't be able to do anything if he kicked the ball hard. I stopped it with my right foot. Well, I nearly stopped it, anyway. And the next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground and every single part of me was ringing as it I were a bell.

My head hurt, my back, both my legs, one of my arms. I knew that in a soccer game, people could sometimes be told they weren't allowed to play anymore. It seemed to me that this man, whoever it was-- I hadn't seen him coming or going-- might not be allowed to play football ever again. He would probably have to go to prison for a week or two. I almost felt sorry for him. But when I picked myself up and looked around, no one cared. Everyone was just playing on as if nothing had happened.

When there was a break in the play, I said to Monsieur Flammeny, "did you see that?"


"What happened when you gave me the ball."

"Yes. You lost it. You gave it away."

"I didn't give it away. Someone came in and smashed me to the ground and took it from me."

"It's called a tackle, Stefan. Get used to it."

"So that's what it's like being grownup," I thought. "People can just knock you down whenever they feel like it and no one says anything" It made me wish that I was getting younger every yearn, not older.

At halftime we stood on the pitch because there was nowhere to go. Monsieur Blanc gathered us round him.

"Well," he said, "it's obvious what's going wrong-- we have to stop that little guy from scoring all the goals somehow. We're not marking him properly. He's got too much room."

I didn't say anything. I just listened.

"I know what we should do," he said. "We'll have to stop worrying about the left side and pull Michel into the middle." Michel Gaurde was an accountant who lived in the village with his mother.

I suddenly realized that even though I was the worst player in the team, the rest of them didn't understand what was happening in the game. They really couldn't see it. So what was I supposed to do? I was new to the team and useless at the game, so nobody would listen to me. But if I kept quiet, we'd let in even more goals. If I kept quiet, we could lose by 50 or 60 goals, and everyone would say it was my fault.

There was something else I'd noticed. Monsieur Blanc was our captain and our best player, but he didn't do anything. He was always standing too far away from the action with his hands on his hips. I couldn't understand it. He was 26 and tall and very fit, and he was happy to watch everyone else do all the work.

He saw me looking at him. "Something on your mind, Stefan?"

"Not really, no," I said.

"Any tactical changes you want to make?" Everyone else laughed at his joke, and that annoyed me.

"Yes," I said. What did it matter? The worst that could happen was they wouldn't ask me to play again. "It's not the little guy who scores all the goals we should be worrying about," I said. "It's the edge man."

"The edge man," he asked. "Who's the edge man?"

I looked over to where their players were standing chatting and laughing and spotted him. "Him there, the one drinking out of the water bottle now."

"Why is he the edge man?"

"Because he plays on the edge of the pitch."

"The winger," said Monsieur Blanc as if I was stupid. "What about him?"

"He's the one that gives the goal scorer the ball. Without him, the goal scorer couldn't do anything."

Monsieur Gaurde nodded. "He's right. He's been running past me all game, and I can't stop him. I need help."

Monsieur Blanc looked annoyed. He thought I was going to say something ridiculous, and instead, I'd seen something he hadn't.

"Anything else, Stefan, seeing as you're the expert?"

"I'm not an expert," I said. "I just noticed some things."

"Oh, well, tell us some other things you've noticed."

I shrugged. "OK. I'm not being rude, but what do you do in this team?"

"I'm the striker. That means I'm supposed to score the goals."

"But we're never going to score a goal," I said. "We never have the ball, and we're never at the right end of the field." This time a couple more people nodded, and I saw Flammeny smile to himself. "But if you wanted a job to do, you could stop the tall man."

"Which tall man?"

"The tall man who plays in defense. He's the one that gives the ball to the edge man every time. So if you, I don't know, got in the way or something, it might make it harder for them." It was weird, I knew I was right, but there was still no reason for Monsieur Blanc to listen to me.

Just when I was about to give up and tell them to forget it, my mother, the president, walked onto the pitch to give us some encouragement. "Bad luck, lads," she said. "Your're playing well."

We all looked at her as if she was mad.

"Any plans to change things in the second half," she asked.

"We're going to double up on the right winger," said Monsieur Blanc. "And I'm going to work harder to close down their center back, cut off his supply."

It took me a little while to work out that these were my ideas because I didn't understand the words he was using. But when I understood, I looked at him to see when he'd tell her that these were my ideas.

"Very good," said my mother. "Sounds very sensible." And then she walked off again. I tried to catch Blanc's eye, but he wouldn't look at me.

The second half was really exciting because we didn't let in another goal for ages and ages. Every time the tall defender got the ball, Monsieur Blanc went over to him and stood right in front of him, and quite often he had to turn and give the ball back to the goalkeeper. And even though San Marino were winning 13-0, the longer they went without scoring again, the more embarrassed they became. The tall defender and the winger even have an argument.

And we all started to run faster and jump higher and tackle harder. The crowd got excited, too, when they saw things had gotten so much better. They knew we couldn't win, and they knew that they weren't even going to get a goal, but as we went 15 minutes and then 20 minutes, even nearly 30 minutes of the second half without letting the other team score, you could tell that they were proud of us. They even started chanting and clapping.

We made three stupid mistakes in the last 15 minutes and let in three goals. But when the referee blew the whistle for the end of the game, there were a lot of smiles on our team. Losing a second half three to nothing was [? Champagne's ?] best ever international results.

"Just think," said Gramonde. "If we could play like that in the first half and the second half, here we'd lose every game 6-0 [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Flammeny."

I knew what Gramonde meant, though. 6-0 felt like a soccer score. Good teams, teams you've heard of, lose 6-0 sometimes. Nobody ever loses 26-0, though.

As we walked off the pitch, the whole crowd, the whole of my country, cheered us. And then my teammates did something I will never forget. They walked quickly to the side of the pitch, stood in two lines, and clapped as I walked between them. Even Monsieur Blanc joined in.

That was the last time I ever had to play. The next game, they used Gramonde's 10 year old son Robert in my position, and he was better than me. I was told to watch and tell them where they were going wrong. I became the coach.

"You've got brains," Gramonde said. "We haven't."

In my first game as coach, we lost 12-0. At the end of the game, the team did a lap of honor.

Ira Glass

Nick Hornby. Hi lives in London, and normally calls it football, not soccer.

His story appears in a collection of stories for children and young adults that is a fund raiser for the literacy program 826NYC. The book is called Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't As Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures in the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish so Maybe You Could Help Us Out. That would be the name of the book right there. That's the entire name. Lemony Snicket's in the book, too.

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself without Alex Blumberg, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Diane Cook, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production from Todd Bachmann, the Catholic.


Ladies and gentlemen, this is very last week when you can call in and get on the radio by telling us your true, honest to God, it really happened scary stories for our Halloween show, which is just around the corner. To get on the radio, call our hot-line. 1-866-66-SCARY.

You know, you can download today's program in our archives at This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.


WBEZ management oversight from Mr. Torey Malatia, who came up to me earlier and asked, [VOICE OF NICK HORNBY] "OK, I'm not being rude, but what do you do in this team?"

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


PRI. Public Radio International.