67: Your Dream, My Nightmare
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Your House, My Nightmare
I can describe the furniture store in one word-- shiny. Shiny purple leather sofas, iridescent mirrored pictures of the sphinx, and King Tut, and panthers, chandeliers and ornamental elephants made of glass and mirror.
Look at that, the china, this thing. These sofas I like over here, I'll show you.
Claudia Perez and I stopped into the store while we were working on a radio story in between interviews. We were on 26th Street in her neighborhood, Little Village, one of Chicago's big Mexican neighborhoods.
This white sofa. And there's a little table shaped like a piano, and there's glass.
And the piano table is all mirror.
Is all mirror. And the glass table and glass chairs.
With glass legs on the glass table.
Claudia is 19, has done a few stories for our radio show. She's one of those teenagers who's on a perpetual plan for self-improvement, switching from job to job, trying to earn enough to keep paying her way through school, struggling. She and I walked past the shiny living rooms, through the shiny dining rooms, and into a dark and shiny bedroom, where she stopped dead and said, "Oh my god."
This is-- oh my god. Look at this. This is what I want. This is what I'm going to school for.
We were staring at a bed with mirrored columns that rose from the headboard and lights built in around the baseboard. There was a mirrored chandelier, a matching white-and-mirror bureau and side table with gold-colored handles, all of which matched each other and matched the bed.
So which parts of this do you like?
Everything. I like the rug, the little Chinese rug, the chests. Oh, it's just so nice. I shouldn't have come in here. This is what I'm going to have. I'm gonna have myself a nice house.
She tells me her family's always rented. Her dream is to own a house, filled with furniture like this. We walked from room to room, looking at gaudy lamps, and cabinets, and chairs. And finally, Claudia turned to me and asked, "So, which do you like best?" and looked into my eyes.
Now I grew up in the Jewish suburbs outside of Baltimore. I am no stranger to furniture like this. It filled the bright, lime-green, carpeted living rooms of a good number of the people who I grew up with and loved. I have personally had as many big moments in my life while sitting around glass-top tables with shiny, mirrored legs as anyone you have ever met. I've had important conversations leaning on iridescent silver pillows, my feet on super long, white shag carpet. I feel at home in this setting.
But-- and I say this meaning no disrespect-- I have not chosen this for my adult life. It is not my dream. So when Claudia asked, "Which do you like best?" I paused, and I said, "I like the plainer stuff." And she looked at me, did not say anything.
I think that this answer just did not make sense to her. My taste does not make much sense to her. She and I were in that situation, that situation that two people find themselves in now and then, that situation of thinking, "Yeah, your dream, my nightmare."
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a wide variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Your Dream, My Nightmare. Act One, Noise. A serious-minded music critic gets sent on her nightmare vacation to Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp. Act Two, Color, in which an interracial couple traveling through Tennessee cannot agree on one tourist destination, an antebellum mansion plantation.
Act Three, Motion, in which radio producer Jay Allison decides that all the news stories he ever covers are essentially one story, one story whose theme is-- do we even have to tell you? Act Four, Blood. Some of the biggest your-dream-my-nightmare scenarios occur when parents try to impose their dream upon their children. Writer David Sedaris provides us with a case example on the golf course. Stay with us.
Act One: Noise
Act One, Noise. Well, here is someone's fantasy. A cocktail party about 7:00 in the evening in an old hotel in Miami Beach, where, by the swimming pool, there's Bruce Springsteen, draft beer in hand, making polite small talk. Actually, it's not Bruce. It's his old side men, Clarence Clemons and Nils Lofgren. Oh, and there's Billy Joel. Well, not really Billy Joel. It's Billy Joel's drummer, Liberty DeVitto.
This is Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp. It really exists. And this April, 33 campers got their dream, to come to the Eden Roc Hotel in Florida for five days, drink nervously through cocktail parties like this one, play nervously in celebrity jam sessions. All in all, for most of them, a dream come true.
Well, Sarah Vowell has different dreams. Sarah is one of our contributing editors and a music writer for Spin, The Village Voice, and Salon. She dropped in on Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp.
My rock and roll fantasy is this, that occasionally, every now and then, a song I like comes on the radio. It's a simple dream, I know. And every so often, once or twice a year, it actually comes true.
I get all I need from pop music song by song. And that's how I like it best, two or three minutes of speed or sorrow coming out of speakers with so much something that the world stops cold. I rarely daydreamed of befriending my rock idols. Maybe it's because I tend to admire cranks. Like I really want to toast in the New Year with Jerry Lee Lewis, or go shoe shopping with Courtney Love, or build sand castles with a peach like Lou Reed.
My musical heroes are mostly snotty weirdos who didn't become famous because of their social graces. Just because I have them in my heart doesn't mean I want them in my life. So the very idea of spending five whole days couped up in Miami, taking guitar workshops from moldy rock big shots and paying upwards of $3,000 to do it at something called Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp isn't my fantasy. Try my worst nightmare.
Male Camp Attendee 1
My rock and roll fantasy is to get those lessons from Mark Farner, and Leslie West, and Felix Cavaliere.
Hopefully, you have no idea who these people are. And you never did if the years 1970 to '75 are underrepresented in your record collection in both the chronological and spiritual senses. Mark Farner is the scary, born-again, lead guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad. You know, Grand Funk Railroad?
[MUSIC - "WE'RE AN AMERICAN BAND" BY GRAND FUNK RAILROAD]
Guitarist Leslie West played Woodstock with his band, Mountain.
[MUSIC - "MISSISSIPPI QUEEN" BY MOUNTAIN]
And Felix Cavaliere's from The Young Rascals. I actually like this song.
[MUSIC - "GOOD LOVIN'" BY THE YOUNG RASCALS]
Bet you didn't think you'd be hearing these songs when you turned on public radio today, did ya?
Male Camp Attendee 1
Anybody who's here is from my '70 dreams.
Male Camp Attendee 2
My fantasy for this camp would be to have Nils Lofgren teach me a few tricks in open G.
Male Camp Attendee 3
I guess I would compare my voice to that of Lou Gramm of Foreigner. And there he is, right there.
And who are these rock and roll fans, whose dreams, whose entire conception of rock and roll is so different from my own? Joe, who markets sound equipment in Detroit; Connie and Maxine, sisters from Minneapolis who left their husbands and kids back home; and Rob, the math teacher from Long Island who heard about the camp on Howard Stern's radio show.
I love famous-- I like famous people. I love to see and meet famous people. And this is hanging out with famous people.
Just take a beat like that when you're in G. You can keep the low string on the third fret. Just pump it with your thumb.
That's Nils Lofgren's guitar workshop, probably the most low-key, sensible seminar of the camp. He's a kind, respectful man. And even though he knows what he's doing, he doesn't get all curlicued about it. He pumps out a chug-a-lug rhythm, advising his students to try to "stay in the back pocket of the beat" and to "think like a drummer, real rhythmic."
Watching them lurch along doesn't look like any fantasy I've ever had. It would almost be boring except that watching nervous people in any given situation is always at least slightly engaging. And also, as the only girl in the room, I keep cracking up, watching an arrangement of men sitting in a circle, stroking their instruments. A phrase comes to mind, one I'm not sure I can say on the radio, but includes the word "jerk."
Usually, what I do is when my hand starts cramping, I'm getting really frustrated and angry, stop and play something that's fun. And if you learn major and minor scales--
When Lofgren mentions scales, it seems like everyone can play the do-re-mi one. But no one knows the blues scale he plays, the most basic downward spiral imaginable. It seems like something you should be paying Kenny down at the Guitar Shack $10 to teach you instead of bothering the man who pinch-hits for Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Lofgren informs the class that he's going to take a solo, and they should try and "keep the rhythm strong for me." Good luck. What's apparent isn't so much the gaping difference between skill or the lack of it, but rather the chasm between confidence and self-doubt. Lofgren plays tough, spare riffs and looks so easy-does-it cool. Meanwhile, all the campers around him are tapping their feet like they're marching off to the front lines, and all their eyes are fixed on their fingers, trying not to screw up.
This seems like a good moment to pause and talk about what is and isn't rock and roll. As a believer in the anyone-can-do-it, all-or-nothing-at-all ethic of punk rock, I think real music's not about technique, or virtuosity, or knowing your scales. It's about believing in what you have to say and wanting to say it so badly that you'll scream your guts out if that's what it takes to get people to listen. Later on, when I ask Lofgren if he met anyone in the camp he thought had real talent or anything to say, his answer was gracious, diplomatic.
Well, I heard a love for music in everybody.
Over the course of the camp, I'll sit through nearly a dozen such seminars. And it becomes painfully obvious that rock and roll high school is a lot like real high school. Subject matter doesn't matter as much as the personality of the teacher. Everyone wants to be Lofgren's pet. But Rick Derringer leads his guitar session like the nitpick who takes points off for bad penmanship.
Let's see if everybody's on the list. John Ralder? Is he here? That's you. John, how do you do? Marian Green?
She's not here.
Is not here today. Marian Green. Peter--
Yes, Derringer is the only instructor who actually took attendance. Attendance. After showing off for a while, he proceeds to spend nearly 10 whole minutes spreading crackpot ideas, such as--
And I like my guitar to be clean. I find that if you get the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] grungy, and stuff in between the frets, and dirt up here, all of a sudden your arm starts sticking up here. And it just doesn't feel the same. I see people sometimes playing, and their guitars are all dirty, and the strings are all out of whack, and things are real high. I think the most important thing is making your guitar playable. So clean the thing. Clean it real good. I do things like Pledge. Pledge. Pledge. You know why?
I can't imagine anyone I admire talking this way. He is literally holding up a can of furniture polish like he's doing a TV commercial. Would Keith Richards display a spray bottle of 409? Would Neil Young, asked to discuss his craft, even use the word "cleanliness?"
And the thing is while I was gagging at Derringer's dopiness, most of the campers found him hilarious. In fact, these people sat through their workshops, and jam sessions, and lunch buffets with these serene smiles. And watching them, I got jealous. To me, music has always been an ideological battleground, where you hate-hate your enemies and save-save your friends. To them, music seems like this uncomplicated part of their lives that simply makes them happy.
Female Camp Attendee
So I'm just here for fun, and to have some fun, and to get some exposure to some of the instruments. And I really just like the music.
For me, the problem with hanging around the campers was this. They were so gosh darn nice, sweet even. My job as a grumpy commentator would've been a lot easier to stomach if they'd been the self-satisfied yuppies I'd come to make fun of. But they kind of ruined my fun by being so likable. I couldn't even mutter Peter Frampton insults under my breath without feeling guilty. And you know you're in some kind of parallel universe when the most punk rock person there is the reporter from Forbes.
The campers came all this way. They paid all this money. It's their dream to meet these rock stars. So when they finally get to hang out with them, what do they talk about? What's at the heart of their dream? I cornered Joe, a guitarist from Detroit, one night after dinner.
So Joe, when I was pulling back up to the hotel, I saw you getting out of a limo.
It's the only way to travel.
And whose limo were you traveling in?
That was with Rick Derringer and also Lou Gramm.
You went out to dinner?
Yeah, we went out to dinner at Gloria Estefan's restaurant.
And so what was that like, having dinner with those guys?
They were so congenial. We had a sing-a-along in the car. We were doing some Foreigner songs. And we were doing "Hang On Sloopy." And it was all a capella. And our little kids all joined in too to help out. So it was a group thing, the wives, the kids, the guys.
"Hang On Sloopy." I'll admit, I love that song, which came in handy for my sanity. Since Derringer played on it a million years ago with his old band, The McCoys, it was constant jam session fodder at the camp. And one night, all the campers gathered on stage to perform it with Derringer singing lead, sparking one of the rare moments when the music they made together felt real and sounded exciting to them and to me.
That kind of excitement didn't last. For every second of participatory, palatable noise, there were three hours of rock star war stories. And while I gave myself headaches from rolling my eyes, the campers ate these anecdotes up, egging on people like keyboardist Bobby Mayo to fill their heads with behind-the-scenes insights into Frampton Comes Alive, an album they had apparently memorized note for yucky note.
We had gotten together as a group in January of that year, '75. And we started touring. We were opening for everybody. We opened for ZZ Top, J. Geils, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath. You name it, we opened for these guys.
Male Camp Attendee 4
So that was all done as an opening act?
Pretty much. About 75% of it was done as an opening act.
And if you think listening to these tall tales once was boring, try twice. On the camp's last day, goofball Mike Love of The Beach Boys showed up. Every time he opened his mouth was a defamation of The Beach Boys' greatness. He insulted his audience by telling the same stories at his afternoon lecture as he did on stage the very same night. Here's the afternoon.
I was in India. McCartney's in one bungalow, I'm in the other. We used to have conversations up on the roof at night, under the stars. It was pretty cool. He said, "Mike, you oughta take more care with your album covers." He was the mastermind of Sgt. Pepper's.
Here's the evening.
He would say, "Mike, you should take more care of your album covers." This is the guy who conceived Sgt. Pepper's.
"So sensible you should say that." I said, "Yeah, well, with all due respect, we've always paid more attention to what goes in the album than on the cover," which is a touche remark, I have to admit.
So I said, "Paul, we always took more care of what went in them." It was a [? touche event. ?] You got to forgive me.
And the sad thing is some people laughed both times. Maybe they were just being nice. They were nice people.
Then it hit me. Sitting there watching them drink in all those, no doubt, enhanced rock star tall tales with such obvious glee was like watching new myths being born. Because anyone with relatives can tell you, rehashed, souped-up stories are not the sole property of washed-up rock stars. I bet Joe from Detroit's going to be telling his Lou Gramm limo story for at least as long as Mike Love's been dissing Paul McCartney.
And I actually found this kind of reassuring. Once the camp ended, I could go back to my beloved punky malcontents. My nightmare was over the minute I boarded the plane home. But I knew that for the spouses and children and co-workers of the campers, the nightmare had just begun.
Sarah Vowell is the author of the book Radio On and a music columnist for the online magazine Salon. She first wrote about Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp for Request Magazine.
You said at the beginning of your story that your own rock and roll fantasy is that occasionally, every now and then, a song you like would actually come on the radio.
So I did. Ira, can you make my dream come true?
Indeed, I can, Sarah Vowell. What song would you like to hear on the radio?
Well, there's this song that I played in my hotel room every night during the camp to remind me of my ideal, the thing I was looking for. It's the sixth song. This is by a little band called Sleater-Kinney. The song's called "Words and Guitar."
[MUSIC - "WORDS AND GUITAR" BY SLEATER-KINNEY]
Why this song?
Because it's about the two most elemental things of rock and roll, words and guitar. And the way the band sings and plays the song, it's like those are the only two things you'll ever need.
Act Two: Colors
Act Two, Colors. Well, that feeling of your dream, my nightmare can happen with the people you're closest to, not just strangers. For instance, Marvin Tate was traveling with his wife, Lucy, and their two-year-old toddler, Ivy, to visit his sister in Tennessee. And they could not agree on what sightseeing they wanted to do.
He wanted to go to the Ernie Tubb country music store. That is her nightmare. She wanted to go to the Belle Meade plantation. That was his nightmare.
He's black. She's white. And he could just not understand what possible interest she could have in this. But she insisted.
I could tell by the determined look on Lucy's face that there wasn't going to be any turning back, not now or ever. Lucy thumbed her way through a travel guide, looking for directions to the Belle Meade plantation. I went inside the gas station to ask the guy sitting behind the register, a beef-jerky-chewing, Snapple-drinking Leon Russell type in overalls, a baseball cap, and a coffee-stained "I hate New Yorkers" T-shirt on. Well, I thought, maybe he'd be too dumb to have ever heard of the Belle Meade. And then I'd be off the hook, and we wouldn't have to go.
"Excuse me, sir. Sir, excuse me. Could you please tell me how to get to the Belle Meade plantation?" How ridiculous I must have sounded. Plaaaaaan-tation. A contemporary brother, man, asking for directions on how to get to some plantation turned museum.
Back in the car, Lucy drove like a maniac as if there was a pot of gold at the end of our destination. And then there we were, at the old Belle Meade plantation. I looked at my family. It was becoming quite obvious that this trip had taken its toll on me and the way I talked.
I said to them, "I'm an ooold Negro from the ooold South. And I welcome you here to the ooold Belle Meade. You might recognize me from the ooold Negro League. My name is Sonny Jackson. And this here-- this here is my teary-eyed, mulatto baby, Ivy. And seated next to her is the oooold massa's daughter, Lucy."
I took a deep breath, and swallowed, and climbed out the car. Dammit, I thought, here I go again. The only brother at an all-white affair.
At first, no one seemed to notice me. Not until Lucy kissed me on the cheek did all the double- and triple-takes begin. One woman, losing sight of what she was doing, nearly knocked over the torso of a commemoration statue. A balding man, who looked like an employee, walked into an old barnyard, quickly stepped back out, took off his glasses, and wiped them clean with his shirttail. It was that brief moment that I knew. I knew that I had to change history. No more camouflaging and going with the program, so that everything could be hokey-dokey OK.
I had made up my mind that whoever that tour guide was going to be that I was going to show them that I wasn't just another token black guy who can take an extra shot, decaf, vanilla latte with no foam. Or the brother who had integrated into the mainstream by marrying someone white. This time, I was determined to drop the bomb, P-Funk style, by asking questions that the other tourists would be too afraid to ask.
Going back in time is going to be cool, the way Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, used to do. The only difference would be that I was not going to be stepping in the time machine. And the past I had to conquer was staring me right in the face.
Lucy and I got in line for the tour. I clutched my ticket and whispered in Lucy's ear, "Now you lissen here, Miss Lucy. I's ain't about to go in no massa's house without his permission." Lucy kissed Ivy on the head and said, "Daddy's pretending to be a slave."
From out of the front door came our tour guide, Gussie, waifish-like with a Scarlett O'Hara number on. "Welcome to the Belle Meade," Gussie said, ringing that tiny bell to gather everybody's attention. "As you can notice from the three magnificent rocking chairs that sit behind me on the porch, the Belle Meade's owners had a lavish appetite for space and anything big. These rocking chairs were all carved by local artisans of the day. They were designed to look like thrones."
Gussie acted like she and the rest of her Civil-War-cladded patriots had the coolest summer job in the world, telling useless historical anecdotes to white tourists, nostalgic for the days of Southern chivalry. She told us stuff about the curtains, china patterns, silverware patterns, carpet patterns. And for some reason-- now, maybe there's something wrong with me-- but for some reason, everyone was eating these trivial tidbits up. I couldn't believe it.
One excited tourist, who looked like he had just stepped off the sandy beaches of Miami, shot his hand up in the air. "How did they keep the rodents out the house?" "Why, with a straw broom and lots of cats," responded Gussie. "Why are the walls painted in such pale blues and greens?"
While everyone continued with these small, trivial facts, it seemed there was one big, important fact of life here that everyone was not talking about. I'll spell it for you. S-L-A-V-E-R-Y. Now does that sound like a four-letter word to you? Thank you.
I knew now that I was in the past. I had gone beyond the past. I was in the ooold South. And there was no turning back. My patience with this Twilight Zone episode was ending. I thought that if I could just figure out the perfect question to ask, well, I could turn this whole thing around, and history would no longer be from Gussie's point of view.
"OK," I'd say, "by the way, Gussie, did General Harding ever rape one of his slaves?" Nah, that would sound more like an accusation more so than an intelligent question. OK, I'd say, "So Gussie, are you the descendants of slave owners? And if so, how did you benefit from it?" No, that sounded too much like a Farrakhan rip-off.
I had to go someplace. I had to go someplace where I could concentrate, put it all on paper, so that it could sound perfect, like it was just another matter-of-fact question out of curiosity. I couldn't make them think I was some kind of overly sensitive black guy who couldn't take the past for what it was.
An older man with an intellectual face, the beard and glasses, raised his hand. And I thought, "Well, here's a guy who looks like a professor. He probably sees that there's a black guy here. Maybe we should ask the most important question." He cleared his throat, stroked his beard, and asked his question. "How the dickens did General Harding manage to keep the place so magnificently brilliant with all those horses?"
I didn't know what to say. So I left the group and went to the next room to prepare my question, the question that was going to end this tour. I needed to concentrate.
I carried Ivy into the next room, closed my eyes, and I thought. "Well, Gussie, you never mentioned anything about slaves. Did Nat Turner ever visit your plantation?" "Gussie, where did the slaves eat? Where did they sleep?" "Gussie, did you ever see the movie Mandingo? The part where Ken Norton sleeps with the master's wife?" "You ever tried to do a field holler?" Or "Gussie, who invented the blues?"
Suddenly, they all entered the room. "How's the baby?" Gussie asked. Immediately following her was Lucy, snapping pictures of the beautiful chandelier that hung like a giant earring from the ceiling. "Enjoying yourself?" she asked. "Isn't this beautiful?"
Suddenly, I realized that Lucy, my dear wife, was one of them. God save us. I took a deep breath and waited for my moment, my question, my reasons for being. Not even sure what I was going to say, I raised my hand. Gussie looked my way.
I could hear the voices of my ancestors telling me to keep going. "Go, Marvin. Go, Marvin. Go, original black man." All the injustices of the black race were now on my shoulders. My responsibility was clear. Gussie paused before pointing to me. We locked eyes.
And then Ivy let out the most ferocious scream she had ever made in her short life. "Why-- What--" I couldn't get it out. Ivy continued to sob and cry out piercing yells. It must have sounded like we were trying to kidnap her.
"Let's go," I said. And like a team of emergency paramedics, we were out that door. The sun shined like lemon skins. And Ivy returned back to her smiley-faced innocence.
I still don't know what've been the right thing for me to do at the Belle Meade. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to be a militant, arty Afrocentric or a well-adjusted, integrated black guy. And one day, when Ivy gets into one of these situations, I'm not quite sure what advice I'd give her.
A few hours later, after we visit the Belle Meade, I made Lucy go with me this time to the Ernest Tubb Record Store. I've always liked country music. In fact, you could say country music was a part of my life, if you could believe that.
So in the Ernest Tubb store, for some reason, I wanted to show the good old boys that I knew a little something about country music, too. So I asked him. I asked him about an obscure and eccentric fiddle player named Stringbean. Neither one of the clerks seemed impressed.
And while I talked to one of them, the other one handed Ivy a Confederate flag to play with. Maybe he was trying to be friendly. Maybe he was trying to be nice. Sometimes I think I'm a bit too sensitive about all this race stuff. But maybe, maybe he was trying to send me a message. Maybe he knew exactly how I feel about the old Stars and Bars.
I don't know about these situations. Lucy and I headed out the door, arm in arm, our baby happily waving the Confederate flag.
Marvin Tate is a performer and a poet living here in Chicago.
Coming up, David Sedaris on the golf course, the news story to end all news stories, and more, in a minute when our program continues.
Act Three: Motion
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a wide variety of writers, performers, and documentary producers to take a whack at that theme with radio monologues, original reporting, found tape, anything they can think of. Today's program, Your Dream, My Nightmare, stories of people simply not agreeing on what is good at some fundamental human level.
We've arrived at Act Three, Motion. Well, while putting this show together this week, I picked up one of the local papers here in Chicago, and I realized that nearly every story on the front page was a narrative basically along the themes of your dream, my nightmare. I have the paper here.
The lead story is about the transit authority here in Chicago phasing out subway train conductors. Taxpayers' dream, saving $4 million a year. Train conductors' nightmare. Just below that story, a piece about Rupert Murdoch achieving one of his many dreams, I assume, making his own sports cable network. ESPN's nightmare.
To the left of that, with a very odd, I have to say, picture of Hillary Clinton kind of holding her fingers together in one of those little church shapes, her fingertips touching, looking both pious and extremely nervous, there's a story about one of Kenneth Starr's dreams and her nightmares. She has to turn over notes of her conversations with lawyers to the Whitewater independent counsel, and so forth, and so on. You get the idea.
Well, Jay Allison is a seasoned newsman, does stories for ABC's Nightline and for all sorts of big public radio programs. And a while back, he realized that all the stories he was doing basically boiled down to one plot line, told over and over in various ways with different characters. Someone, somewhere, had the dream of moving to a new neighborhood. And that dream was somebody else's nightmare. Well, after he figured this out, he took the taped interviews he'd gathered on a number of stories, and he concocted this composite story to prove his point.
It started up last night. I had taken the kids to the carnival, and we all got back around 9:00. And I wanted to water the lawn before I went to bed, but Artie Davis had borrowed the sprinkler. So I went across the street to get it back from him, and I saw the light was on in his garage. Inside were Artie and his wife, June, Sam Lawson, and Reverend James. They were talking about the new people in the neighborhood, and they were pretty worked up.
The people in this town just don't want 'em here. They want 'em out. And from the word that's around, they'll do about anything to get 'em out.
Everyone was upset. They had been since these people moved in two weeks ago. Sam Lawson said there was no reason we had to put up with this. He said, "These people are freaks." He called them "garbage."
"They're just garbage," he said.
They're just garbage. And there's no reason that garbage like that has got to intimidate decent people because they think they're defenseless.
And even Reverend James didn't have a kind word to say about these new people.
Ignorant, repulsive, and evil.
And we just don't want 'em here. And that's what it's all about. Get 'em out of here. They don't belong here, and we don't want 'em here.
Well, this afternoon, things hadn't calmed down too much. The whole neighborhood was on edge about these new people. Artie Davis said they didn't scare him, but they scared his wife.
They don't frighten me, but they do her.
Artie said his wife, June, had a dream about these freaks last night. And he wasn't gonna stand for it. In June's dream, one of these freaks tried to make June look into his eyes.
--to get me to look in his eyes. And I wouldn't do it because his eyes were real--
But June wouldn't do it because the whites in his eyes were real big.
--the whites in his eyes were real big, and they were shiny.
And they were shiny, like the devil's or something.
Early this evening, the four of us gathered at my place to decide what to do. June stayed home because, Artie said, she was frightened. All day long, Artie and Sam had patrolled outside the house the freaks moved into. And the freaks never came out. They just stayed inside, which was strange in itself. Reverend James arrived around 8 o'clock. He was still upset about the situation.
But he had an idea.
I would get me 100 good men, give them each a baseball bat, and dare one of these freaks to stick his head over the edge of the sidewalk.
Well, that didn't sound too bad. But the rest of us couldn't figure out where we could come up with 100 men.
Men? Listen, I know at least 500 men who would be only too happy to serve. Happen to be all Christians in my church that I had in mind.
Still, we wondered if 500 men were really necessary.
Then make it 25. Make it 10 men. Make it five men.
So we talked it over and decided that just the four of us could take care of things by ourselves. On our way, we stopped by and told June what we were going to do.
I feel like I'm sitting on pins and needles just waiting.
Then we checked to see that we had everything we needed.
All we need is some good old-fashioned guts and morals.
And so at 10 o'clock, we marched on over to the freaks' house. We were ready for anything. From our position in their front yard, we could see them moving around inside their house. We tried everything we could think of. I think they knew we weren't kidding around this time. But they wouldn't come outside.
Sam thought maybe we should try setting fire to the place or something. But Reverend James pointed out that that would be destruction of property. So we waited. But by 12 o'clock, it started to get cold, and we were hungry. So we came on home.
But tomorrow night, we're going back. June says she'll pack some food for us to take along. Sam's bringing his portable TV set and some blankets. Reverend James is bringing the baseball bats again. And I'm bringing the beer.
Jay Allison's story is part of his series Life Stories produced with Tina Egloff.
Act Four: Blood
Act Four, Blood. Well, some of the biggest your-dream-my-nightmare situations happen between parents and children. One of the central tensions, I believe, between parents and their adult kids is the adult children not living up to their parents' dreams for what they should have turned into and who they should have been.
In this light, thinking about our show this week, I realized this about my own family, that, when I was a kid, my mom had this dream for my older sister. She wanted my older sister to play the piano. My older sister was actually really wonderful at playing the piano. But my mom really thought she could be a professional.
And my mom's dream for me was-- if she had to articulate it, I think she would have said-- and she did say sometimes-- that she wanted me to be a doctor. Neither thing really worked out. My sister went to business school. Here I am.
And as it turned out, as my mom got older, she became a doctor. She's a psychologist now. And just recently, in the last two years, she started playing the piano, too.
Well, not everybody is lucky to have parents who basically transfer their own dream back onto themselves and off the kids. One of those people is David Sedaris. He has this story of parents and children.
My sister, Lisa, became a woman on the 14th hole of the Pinehurst golf course. That's what she was told by the stranger who led her to the women's lounge. "Relax, sugar, you're a woman now."
We had gone unwittingly, shanghaied by our father who had offered to take Lisa and I for a ride in the second-hand Porsche he'd recently bought. His sherbet-colored pants should have tipped us off. But seeing as there were no golf clubs in the backseat, we thought we were safe. There was nothing worse than spending an afternoon on the golf course, especially for Lisa, who was troubled that day by unexplained cramps.
"Just a short, little jaunt," my father said. He folded back the car's canvas roof and crouched into the driver's seat. "Hell, maybe we'll just tool up to the fairgrounds and back. Maybe we'll go get ourselves some ice cream. Who knows?"
The map, the nervous glances at his watch. It soon became apparent that this was no joy ride. Our father knew exactly where we were headed and had it planned so that we'd arrive just in time for the tee off.
"Well, what do you know?" he said, pulling off the road and into the crowded golf course parking lot. "I wonder if there's not some kind of a tournament taking place. What do you say we take a quick peek? Gosh, this is a beautiful place. Wait'll you get a look at these fairways."
Lisa and I groaned, cursing our stupidity. Once again, we'd been tricked. We knew what was in store for us and understood that the next few hours would pass like days or maybe even weeks. Our watches would yawn, the minute hand pausing to nap before sluggishly completing its rounds.
First, our father would push us to the front of a large, gaily-dressed crowd. Robbed of their choice spots, these spectators would huff and grumble, whispering insults we would pretend not to hear. "They're kids," my father would say. "What do you want them to do, stand on my shoulders? Come on now, pal, have a heart."
The big boys were playing that day, men whose names we recognized from the magazines my father kept stacked beside the toilet and heaped in the backseat of his car. We'd seen these players on television and heard their strengths and weaknesses debated by the maniacs who frequented the pro shop of our country club. Seeing the pros in person was no more interesting than eating an ice-cold hamburger. But it meant the world to our father, who hoped their presence might kindle a passion, inciting us to take up our clubs and strive for excellence. This was, for him, an act of love, a misguided attempt to enrich our lives and bring us closer together as a family.
"You kids are so damn lucky," he said, placing his hands on our shoulders. "These are the best players in the PGA. And here you are with front-row seats." "What seats?" Lisa asked. "Where?"
We stood on the grassy embankment, watching as the first player teed off. "Lisa," my father whispered. "Go get it. Go get Snead's tee." When Lisa refused, it was up to me to wander onto the green, searching for the spent wooden peg that might have traveled anywhere from 6 to 20 feet from its original position.
Our father collected these tees as good-luck charms and kept them stored in the goldfish bowl which sat upon his dresser. It was forbidden to wander onto the course during a tournament, so our father sent us to do his dirty work, hoping the officials might see us as enthusiastic upstarts, who decorated our rooms with posters of the masters working their way out of sand traps or hoisting a trophy after a stunning victory at Pebble Beach. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
No matter how hard he tried to motivate us, the members of my family refused to take even the slightest interest in what was surely the dullest game ever invented. We despised golf and everything that went with it, from the ridiculous tam-o'-shanters right down to the cruel spiked shoes.
"Oh, Lou," my mother would whine, dressed for a cocktail party in her muted, earth-tone caftan. "You're not going to wear that, are you?" "What's wrong with this?" he'd ask. "These pants are brand new." "New to you," she'd say. "Pimps and circus clowns have been dressing that way for years."
We never understood how a man who took such pride in his sober, tailored suits could spend his weekends in Day-Glo pants patterned with singing tree frogs or wee kilted Scotsmen. You needed sunglasses in order to open his closet door, what with all the candy-colored sweaters, aggressive madras sports coats, and painfully bright polo shirts all screaming for attention.
"I don't feel so well," Lisa whispered to my father, as we marched from the sand trap to the putting green of the eighth hole. "I really think we need to leave."
My father ignored her. "If Trevino bogeys this hole, he's screwed. That last bunker shot pinned his ass right to the wall. Did you see his backswing?" "I'm concerned right now about my back," Lisa said. "It's aching, and I want to go home and lie down." "We'll be just another minute," my father said.
He fingered the collection of tees in his pocket. "The problem with you kids is that you're not paying enough attention to the game. First thing tomorrow morning, I'm signing you up for some more lessons. Then you'll see what I'm talking about. Jesus, this game is just so exciting, you won't be able to stand it."
We had serious doubts that it was exciting, but he was right when he said we wouldn't be able to stand it. The driving range, the putt-putt courses-- he just didn't get it. We didn't want advice on our swing. We only wanted to be left alone to practice witchcraft, or deface fashion dolls, or sit in the privacy of our rooms, fantasizing about anything other than golf.
98 degrees on the second hole, and we'd crumpled to the green, listening as children our own age shouted and splashed in the country club pool. The tournament dragged on. And by the time we reached the 14th hole, Lisa had begun to bleed, the rust-colored spot visible on her white culottes.
She was close to tears, sunburned and frightened when she whispered something into my father's ear. "We'll just go get one of the gals," he said. "They'll take care of you." He turned to a handsome, white-haired woman, wearing a lime green visor in a skirt patterned with grinning pandas. "Hey, sweetheart, I'm wondering if you could help me out with a personal problem."
Like my father, this woman had followed these players from hole to hole, taking note of their every move. She had come out that day to bask in the glow of the masters. And now a strange man was asking her to accompany his daughter to the clubhouse and outfit her with a sanitary napkin. The woman nodded her head and, taking my sister's hand, reluctantly led her towards a distant cluster of buildings.
I didn't understand the problem, but very much wanted to join them, thinking perhaps we might talk this person into giving us a ride home, away from this grinding tedium and the fierce, relentless sun. With Lisa gone, it would become my sole responsibility to fetch the splintered golf tees and pester the contestants for their autographs. "Lou," I would say, holding out my father's scorecard. "My name is Lou."
The game finally over, we returned to the parking lot to find Lisa stretched out on the backseat of the Porsche, her face and lap covered with golf towels. "Don't say it," she threatened. "Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it." "All I was gonna do was ask you to take your lousy feet off the car," my father said. "Yeah? Well, why don't you just go [BLEEP] yourself?"
The moment she said it, Lisa bolted upright as if there still might be time to catch the word between her teeth before it reached our father's ears. None of us had ever spoken to him that way. And now he would have no choice but to kill her. Some unprecedented threshold had been passed. And even the crickets stopped their singing, stunned into silence by the word which hung in the air like a cloud of spent gunpowder.
My father sighed and shook his head in disappointment. This was the same way he reacted to my mother when anger and frustration caused her to forget herself. Lisa was not a daughter now, but just another woman unable to control her wildly shifting emotions. "Don't mind her," he said, wiping a thin coat of pollen off the windshield. "She's just having lady problems."
Throughout the years, our father has continued his campaign to interest us in the sport of golf. When Gretchen, Amy, and Tiffany rejected his advances, he placed his hopes in our brother Paul, who found the sprawling greens an excellent place to enjoy a hit of acid and overturn the golf carts he stole from the parking lot beside the pro shop.
He bought a wide-screen TV, an enormous model the size of an industrial-sized washing machine, and uses it only to watch and record his beloved tournaments. The top of the set is stacked high with videocassettes marked "'94 PGA" and "'89 US Open-- Unbelievable."
Before our mother died, she put together a videotape she thought Lisa might enjoy. The two of them had spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, drinking wine and watching old movies on the black-and-white portable television that sat beside the sink. These were just a few favorites my mother had recorded. "No big deal," she'd said, "just a little something to watch one day when you're bored."
A few weeks after the funeral, Lisa searched my parents' house for the tape, finding it on the downstairs bar beside my father's chair. She carried the cassette home, but found she needed a bit more time before watching it. For Lisa, these movies would recall private times, just her and her mother perched on stools and reeling off the names of each actor as they appeared on the screen. These memories would be a gift that Lisa preferred to savor before opening.
She waited until the initial grief had passed and then, settling onto her sofa with a tray of snacks, she slipped in the tape, delighted to find that it began with Double Indemnity. The opening credits were rolling when suddenly the video skipped and shifted to color. It was a man squatting on his heels and peering down the shaft of his putter as though it were a rifle. Behind him stood a multitude of spectators shaded by tall pines, their faces tan and wrapped in concentration. "Greg Norman's bogeyed all three par-fives," the announcer whispered. "But if he eagles here on the 15th, he's still got a shot at the Masters."
David Sedaris's story "Women's Open" is from his new book of autobiographical stories called Naked. His latest play opens as part of the Lincoln Center Festival July 8. It's called Incident at Cobbler's Knob.
Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Paul Tough. Musical help today from John Connors and Sarah Vowell. Original musical scoring during Marvin Tate's story by LeRoy Bach and C.J. Bani. To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our email address, [email protected]
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who turned to me after our first time on the air and said--
Relax, sugar, you're a woman now.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.