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737: The Daily

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

The people on 118th Street in New York City are doing this thing that almost nobody in New York or around the country is doing. And to figure out why-- what's it about their block-- I asked a longtime resident, Ivette Rodriguez, to tell me about the place.

And she told me that, when she and her mom moved to the block back in 1965-- this is the very neatly-kept 400 block of East 118th Street, with brick houses and low iron fences where the property line hits the sidewalk. Back when she moved here, the south side of the street was mostly Latino. Her side of the street, the north side, was mostly Italian.

Ivette Rodriguez

And we got this apartment because I told my mother, don't say a word. Let me talk. Because if they would have found out that we were Puerto Rican, they would not have rented to us. So I just kept really quiet. She kept quiet.

Ira Glass

So you guys were passing as Italian.

Ivette Rodriguez

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Her mom now owns the building. These days, Ivette says most of the old Italians are gone, and the block is a mix of Latino, white, and Black. There are lots of retirees-- people who arrived decades ago, like Ivette. And younger people are moving in. So we're talking, and I glance at the clock in her apartment and realize the time.

Ivette Rodriguez

Don't worry. My husband has an alarm.

Ira Glass

Yeah, no. We're just at two minutes before 7:00 now.

Ivette Rodriguez

No, this is 10 minutes fast, just in case.

Ira Glass

Oh, it is?

Ivette Rodriguez

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK.

I was worried about the time because I was there to record something that starts at 7:00. You remember, early in the pandemic, how people would lean out their windows, or go out at 7:00 PM and cheer for the healthcare workers and other essential workers? OK, most blocks around New York City, most blocks everywhere, stopped doing that long ago. But for some reason, not this block. They stayed at it for over 400 days, everyday.

Ivette Rodriguez

Yeah, we've got to get ready, Ira.

Ira Glass

OK. What do we do to get ready?

Ivette Rodriguez

I've got to put on my jacket--

Ira Glass

OK.

Ivette Rodriguez

--because I stay out there a long time.

Ira Glass

Soon enough, at 7:00, we head outside, where some very prompt neighbors have already gathered with pans and noisemakers they use every night.

[CLANGING]

[CHEERING]

[CHEERING]

Want to guess at how many people it takes to make this much noise? OK, get a number in mind. Eight. From windows in the apartment across the street, some kids wave flashlights. Standing just inside her fence is one of the neighbors who comes out to watch this every night, Frances Mastrota, 83 years old.

Frances Mastrota

I came on this block in 1959 as a bride. I've been a widow since 1975. And I have a granddaughter that is the class of 2019 of Harvard and now is in Chicago.

Ira Glass

After Frances introduced herself to me in such a deeply grandmotherly way, I actually had to ask a bunch of questions to learn that Frances is Dr. Frances Mastrota, retired oncology researcher, happy to tell me about her work.

Frances Mastrota

Then as we got better and better, we began to do HLA, Human Leukocyte Antigens, and then look at the genetic code. I'm an old bird.

Ira Glass

In fact, this is one of the reasons that this block is still doing the 7:00 appreciation of healthcare workers. A bunch of them on the block worked in healthcare, including Frances, and the neighbor who organized the nightly noise party, Vivian, and Ivette, and Ivette's husband. But there are bigger reasons, I think, that this has continued here every night with all the retirees on the block.

Frances Mastrota

Because we are a very special block, and we watch out for each other. If they don't see I come out at 7:00, they look for me.

Ira Glass

So is one of the reasons why it's still going on because people are checking on each other?

Frances Mastrota

If I don't come out, this lady comes, that lady comes, the people over there come.

Ira Glass

Someone will knock on your door to see how you are?

Frances Mastrota

If I don't come out at 7:00, if I don't pick up my New York Times paper at 6:00 they look for me. They know I'm alone.

Ira Glass

Some nights, do you just feel tired, and you don't want to come out?

Frances Mastrota

I have to. I have to. They will come here! [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

In fact, Ivette and Vivian, who organized all this, do use it to keep an eye out for their neighbors to make sure they're doing OK. And when things quieted down, Ivette ran through her little mental checklist of neighbors for me.

Ivette Rodriguez

I saw Mastrota. I saw Severina. Paul came out from next door. That's Sugar. Beverly is here. Arlene is the one that I didn't see.

Ira Glass

One neighbor who Ivette checks on every night is her next-door neighbor Josephine, who got COVID and went to the hospital for a while. She's back at home now, but still bedridden, so she doesn't come outside.

Ivette Rodriguez

Josephine waved to the window, so she's not angry at me today. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

And which window was that?

Ivette Rodriguez

This window right here. It's hard to see. I know because I know what I'm looking for. But I can see her when she waves.

Ira Glass

Oh, she doesn't even raise the drape.

Ivette Rodriguez

No, no.

Ira Glass

You're seeing her through the drape.

Ivette Rodriguez

Right.

Ira Glass

Oh, that's very--

Ivette Rodriguez

[CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

You really have to know the neighborhood for that.

Ivette Rodriguez

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

It's just starting to get dark. A pretty night. And people hung out on the sidewalk, chatting in front of Monica Lehmann Gonzalez's house. She's a school teacher and the mother of three school kids.

Monica Lehmann Gonzalez

I think the beauty of this is that after all the banging is done, that there's conversations where we just linger, and talk, and kind of catch up. And I think that's so nice.

Ira Glass

And what will be the sign that the pandemic has gone away enough that you can stop?

Woman

We have no idea. We really have no idea.

Monica Lehman Gonzalez

I kind of don't want it to end, though. I don't want it to end.

Ira Glass

Now I'm imagining, COVID is going to end, and you guys are just going to be coming out after COVID.

Woman

I think that's a possibility. I think it's a possibility.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

It's the dailiness of the 7:00 get-together, the fact that it happens every single day. That's what's made it mean so much to all of them. They made this part of the day a little life raft that they gathered on during this terrible, dangerous last year that made it like a daily prayer.

I personally haven't prayed every day since I was a little boy. But somebody who does it as an adult told me that it's the fact that the words and rituals never change day to day that gives comfort. He has days when the prayers mean less to him and days when they mean a lot more. And feeling that difference from day to day also tells him something.

Today, we're devoting our program to other things that we do whose dailiness is what is important about them and gives them meaning, helps us see things more clearly. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Ira Glass

Act One, "How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?" So usually, if we do something every day, like exercise, or floss, or keep a diary, it's because we decide we're going to do it. But other times, it's because the world has chosen for us. This first story is a little bit of both of those. Ben Calhoun tells what happened.

Ben Calhoun

The way this story started, Lindsay was in the middle of changing her whole life around. She'd been living and working in Ireland, but she decided to take a leap. She was going to start a new chapter-- move to the other side of the world.

Lindsay

I had actually just accepted a job, and I was meant to move to Australia in April.

Ben Calhoun

Oh, so you were getting ready to leave Dublin. You were on your way out the door.

Lindsay

Totally. I was actually almost all the way packed, truly ready to move. And I was dating an Australian guy who had just moved to Australia. And I was meant to follow him a couple weeks later. And then the pandemic hit.

Ben Calhoun

Lindsay couldn't leave, and she had to scramble to find a place to stay. Eventually, she got an apartment on the south side of Dublin. It was actually this great place-- a one-bedroom in a really pretty row house. It looks like it was pulled out of 101 Dalmatians or something. The place was cozy. It had these pretty bay windows that looked out onto the street and a sunny little breakfast nook in the kitchen-- Not that things were going super great for Lindsay otherwise.

She and that Australian guy broke up. And her move, her new job, new life-- all that got called off in slow motion. And Lindsay, she was alone in lockdown. She says this was actually one of the more depressing times she remembers. And it was in the middle of all of that that she started to hear music three or four times a day.

Lindsay

I would notice when I was-- I'd be doing the dishes, or I'd be doing something so mundane. And then it would happen. Yeah.

Ben Calhoun

The music was coming from nearby. It was a saxophone, somebody practicing, pretty clearly a beginner. But the most notable part of it was the song. It was the same one everyday, again, and again, and again. It was the Pink Panther theme song.

[SAXOPHONE PLAYING]

What you're hearing is actually the sound of a video montage Lindsay put together. And the funny of this was not lost on her. In the video, you notice the range of time stamps-- morning, afternoon, 10:30 at night, "The Pink Panther Theme" always in the background. You'll hear it as Lindsay eats at her kitchen table or leans against the door frame in her living room, holding back a smile, as she lays on her yoga mat or walks through her hall.

Ben Calhoun

When he picked up the horn, and you first heard the notes come out, you were like, oh, I'm in for how long?

Lindsay

I'd say 45 minutes or an hour.

Ben Calhoun

45 minutes to an hour? Wow.

Lindsay

Or maybe-- oh, god, now I feel like, is that crazy? Maybe 20 to 30 minutes?

Ben Calhoun

No, I mean--

Lindsay

Maybe it was 20 to 30 minutes. It felt, to me, like it was never ending. It felt, to me, by the end, that I was just-- it was all day, all night.

Ben Calhoun

So it became a staple of your existence.

Lindsay

Yeah, and it was to the point where I was trying to work during the day. I was trying to get things done. And then I'd be in a meeting, and all my co-workers could hear.

Ben Calhoun

Lindsay was now working remotely from this Dublin apartment. And all the Pink Panther-ing became a running joke for the people that she worked with. It was so audible that Lindsay found herself constantly having to mute during video meetings.

Ben Calhoun

Because mics on phones vary so much, I couldn't totally grasp how loud it was in person. How loud was it?

Lindsay

Oh, it sounded like it was in my house. So when I posted this on Twitter, I got all kinds of responses. But people were wondering if I was playing a recording of it in my house. But it was so loud that it did sound like it was coming from inside the house. And I don't know if he knew how loud it was.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah.

Lindsay

And I don't think he did.

Ben Calhoun

Lindsay says this went on for weeks and weeks, several times every day. Just to point out, most days, this was actually her only real-life human contact-- the saxophone coming through the walls. The video montage that Lindsay made of all this, she eventually tweeted it, and it accumulated 5.4 million views. Just for scale, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue has sold 5 million copies.

The internet responded like the internet. Some of the 4.7 thousand comments-- "interesting how they got further from nailing it the longer they practiced." "Your neighbor's horrible playing should be a crime." "My condolences." "You'd think that the performance would at least improve over time." Someone chimes in, "Sounds like he's still shite, too." The insurance company Geico responded, "We feel your pain."

For a long time, Lindsay didn't know who the Pink Panther-er was. So when she'd see people in the halls of her building, it was a little like, is that them? Wait, is that them? Though eventually, her suspicions snagged on this one guy.

Lindsay

I would see this guy outside. He would always do this thing where he would walk outside to drink his coffee in his pajamas. And I had a feeling it was him, but I wasn't sure.

Ben Calhoun

For some reason, I feel like drinking coffee outside in your pajamas is kind of saxophone behavior.

Lindsay

Yeah, he had a vibe.

Ben Calhoun

It was a saxophone vibe.

Lindsay

He had a saxophone vibe, for sure.

[MUSIC - "THE PINK PANTHER THEME"]

So come with me, if you will, to the other side of Lindsay's wall, to the other end of the saxophone rainbow, where there was a young man named Rajat. At the time, he was 23. Like Lindsay, he was living and working in Ireland. As far as Rajat knew, his only audience was inside his apartment at this window where he would practice.

Rajat

I had a large window. And on the windowsill, I had three plants, a basil plant-- I just randomly had a potato that was going off, and I put it into a pot, and it started to grow. So that was my potted potato plant. And there was a coriander plant as well.

So I would play to them. That's my audience every day. And I still believe that that potted potato plant grew, and it took off. So I think I had something to do with it.

[CHUCKLING]

No joke. It was super tall.

Ben Calhoun

Rajat told me, for the record, he had no idea people could hear him like this. He said, some people in the building had remarked on how he was learning the saxophone. But he just figured, this building is old. It's got to have thick walls. Maybe they hear me faintly, off in the distance.

Lindsay did eventually come over at some point. She introduced herself, and she asked him to stop because she had a migraine. Rajat says Lindsay was super nice.

Lindsay says Rajat was genuinely surprised and very sweet. For my fellow rom-com fans, I will note that they are not engaged. But the point is, Rajat actually had no idea how loud his saxophone playing was for her until he saw Lindsay's video later.

Rajat

When I saw the video, I was like, wow, that's really loud in the house. I did not think it was that loud in her house. Because that was almost how loud it was for me when I was playing. And so when I heard it for the first time from her perspective, I was like, yeah, I would have had a problem as well if I was there.

[CHUCKLING]

Ben Calhoun

Rajat felt like, oh, shoot, I did not know I was bothering anyone. He asked Lindsay what would be a good time to play, and he started practicing during his lunch hour, though an hour was barely enough, he told me. Because what was unfolding on Rajat's side of the building was a love story, a budding romance with the alto saxophone that had started just a few months before this.

Turns out, before COVID hit, in December, Rajat was visiting India. He's from Bangalore. And he was visiting old friends. One of these friends lives on a farm. Rajat says his place is just beautiful. So all these friends, they're there, and they're hanging out.

Rajat

And one of them picked up a saxophone, right? And it was alto sax, this nice, cute little guy. And like, we were all just-- we were working. And he has a little wood shop. Then we were working.

And from the background, I hear someone playing the beginning riff of "Ain't No Sunshine." And I look out, and it's my friend. He's wearing slippers-- flip-flops and shorts-- sweating because the sun is out, even in December in India. And it's like the Pied Piper. There are a few dogs walking behind him, and he's playing the tune. And I was like, yo, that's amazing. What?

Ben Calhoun

Rajat's friend was like, hey, you should try it. He was like, OK. Almost immediately, he was able to get a sound out of the horn. So his friend taught him the first line from "Ain't No Sunshine," and Rajat was off and running.

Rajat

And I was just off by myself, playing out into the fields. Literally, I would stay for a good-- if not 45, at least 30 minutes or so, I was just constantly drilling, and drilling, and drilling, and drilling, and drilling it. And that was the moment.

I was getting into a flow. And I think, also, with the saxophone, because you keep blowing so much, there's some degree of-- and then you're like-- [GASPS] --and then you blow again. So there's a high degree of when you rapid breathe when you meditate. There's some degree of you getting kind of like, whoa, what's happening? And so I was getting into this flow state with that. And I was like, wow, this is so good.

[LAUGHTER]

Ben Calhoun

Getting that sound to come out of the saxophone right away, did you feel a little bit like, oh, I'm kind of a natural?

Rajat

For sure, yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Ben Calhoun

When he got back to Ireland, he researched carefully. And he bought a saxophone, an alto. And then he set about learning to play it.

He made this little notebook for himself. On the first page-- all caps-- he wrote, "CONSISTENCY IS KEY," meaning, practice everyday, a little bit, or a lot. On the second page, he made a list of songs that he wanted to learn, including, of course, "The Pink Panther." Rajat told me this was the song he maybe most identified with the saxophone. And so he found a video tutorial of it online, where a guy walks through the song phrase by phrase.

Rajat

And so I would have drilled that video 80-plus times, just hard, just again, and again, and again, and again. And just keep going, keep going, keep going.

Ben Calhoun

You're like, I'm going to get this into my muscle memory.

Rajat

Yeah, exactly. And because it was something I really wanted to get good, because it sounded so cool, the final product at the end of that video, that I was like, I need to get this. And I was not going to move on to anything else until I got this done.

[LAUGHTER]

So at one point in time, it was not in heavy rotation. It was the rotation, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

Yeah, but I was not getting tired of it. It was entertaining. And it was so nice to see. Because at the end of it as well, there's this beautiful riff. [VOCALIZING]

And oh, that's so cool! It's so funky when you get it right. So it would give me glimpses. I'd do the first three phases horribly, but I'd say, OK, play to the end. And just the one time-- one time-- if I get the nice little riff properly, I'd get like, oh, this is going so well.

Ben Calhoun

The thing I love about the situation is just how different the same song played day in and day out for months could feel in these two neighboring apartments by two people in their own little bubbles, like some kind of musical Rorschach test. For Lindsay, whether it was irritating or funny, it was an artifact of her confinement. But for Rajat, it was the exact opposite. It was an escape.

Rajat

Yeah, because there's only so much Netflix you can do until you start feeling sick of doing that. And yeah, so this was genuinely-- I got up. I was like, oh, I'm going to get to practice saxophone today. That got me through, you know?

Ben Calhoun

Looking back on this little chapter, for Lindsay's part, she told me, the main consequence of all this has been that, months after leaving that apartment, moving back to the United States, she's still hearing "The Pink Panther Theme" all the time. It's just coming through the walls of her memory now, like a phantom limb, a pink phantom limb. All of this has also stuck with Rajat.

Rajat

So believe it or not, but this 5 million view thing has scarred me to a certain extent. Because honestly, I've now moved to Italy, right? I'm staying here.

And I live in these apartments where you share a courtyard. So I have a balcony right here, and it opens out into this beautiful courtyard. You can see the sky, birds on top. Lovely.

But there's just everybody around here, and it echoes. So I cannot play the saxophone here because, at least in Dublin, if someone had an issue, I could speak to them and try to diffuse the situation. I cannot do that in Italian. [LAUGHS] I can't.

So I actually found a spot in. You know the storage rooms that are super dank, in the cellar? Everything is musty, where they keep the suitcases. I managed to go there once and clear out some space. And I was like, this will be my saxophone room.

Ben Calhoun

Rajat says, though, it's just so out of the way, he hasn't done it. For Rajat, lockdowning in Dublin, he had really been in this bubble where, true or not, he was so convinced no one could hear him. It was like he got to spend swaths of his day singing in the shower, dancing like no one was watching, loving "The Pink Panther Theme" like he'd never been hurt, if you know what I mean.

That became his everyday. And since then, well, he's been a little unsure how to get back to that spot where he can play and feel quite so free. He's been chasing that feeling. Aren't we all?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: So Nice to Hear Your Voice

Ira Glass

Act Two, "So Nice to Hear Your Voice." We now turn to somebody who had one daily routine that changed to a different daily routine. And I don't want to get ahead of the story too much but just to say what a vast effect it had on her and how quickly those effects kicked in.

The person with the daily routine in the story is Dee Brown. She moved into long-term care five years ago. And for four years, somebody would visit her everyday. Family or her best friend would come nearly everyday. They'd go out to eat, go on long drives into the mountains.

Then COVID hit. And the facilities she was in, following national guidelines, didn't allow anybody to have any visitors. Communal dining and group activities were also cancelled.

So Dee's family invented a new routine-- daily phone calls. Basically, they had made a schedule for everybody in the family to phone. And that way, Dee would get calls every single day.

They would chat. They would socialize. They would try to keep her spirits up, try to keep her from getting bored. Dee's granddaughter Cecilia Brown was one of the callers, phoning once a week or so. And she put together this story.

Cecilia Brown

When my family started this, we figured naively, we'd do this for a few weeks, maybe a month, until things got back to normal. And the calls were fun.

Cecilia Brown

Hello? Dee? Can you hear me?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

My first call, March 27, we were still getting used to the phone.

Cecilia Brown

Dee, I think you put me on hold.

But Dee was pretty happy. She'd start most calls by telling me about how nice her apartment was. She took her calls from her favorite lounge chair.

Dee Brown

Hello?

Cecilia Brown

Oh, that was weird.

Dee Brown

Cecilia, yeah, hello. How are you doing?

Cecilia Brown

I'm good. I'm good.

Dee Brown

Yeah, what's up?

Cecilia Brown

Dee loved to say the unexpected thing, make fun of herself if it meant making other people laugh.

Dee Brown

Oh, I have a real problem right now. I got some underwear, the kind that stretches, only it's too tight. And I sit down and they go, ugh, my stomach. [LAUGHS] Those are big problems, right?

Cecilia Brown

Yeah, I have that problem, too.

Dee Brown

Yeah, well, you just think of me as you're trying to pull your underwear down so it makes you feel very graceful.

[LAUGHTER]

Cecilia Brown

Growing up, Dee wasn't what I thought of as a typical grandma. For one thing, we call her Dee, not grandma. She also dressed like an old Colorado hippie-- tons of turquoise jewelry and tie dye. She always smelled like coffee, which she drank all day, even at midnight.

She never did the normal grandma stuff with my sister and me, like take us out for ice cream or whatever. Dee was a talker, so that's what we'd do-- sit in the backyard and talk for hours. It didn't matter how old you were.

And she was funny. Though my dad said she'd sometimes disguise something as a joke, just to get what she wanted. In her 40's, after raising three kids and getting a divorce, she ended up in AA. It became a huge part of her life, so much so she ended up sponsoring over 100 people. She'd still go to meetings a few times a week. Now, of course, all that was gone.

Dee Brown

Yeah, it's been kind of a boring day because I haven't been able to go to the store and call my friend who has my car.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah. Can you walk in the hallways?

Dee Brown

Yeah. Yeah, I walk through the hallways, and everybody else is walking in the hallway, too, you know? Because they're just trying to get a little exercise.

But this will pass. And we'll be OK. It's not going to kill me, sitting in here instead of going out and walking around.

Cecilia Brown

I taped these calls with her permission. Dee was going on 88. I'd done the same thing with my other grandmother when she hit her late 80's. It was just something to capture a little bit of their lives on tape while I still had them.

Dee had dementia, but it was pretty mild. She'd forget small things like where I lived, tell me stories she told me before. But she was still pretty with it.

This was another reason for the frequent calls. Isolation is really bad for anyone with dementia. You've probably heard people say the brain is like a muscle. You need to use it to maintain it.

With dementia, this is especially true. The more you use your mind, use words, the more those things stick with you. But when you're isolated, you stop practicing. Your mind starts to slip away. And once it goes, it usually doesn't come back.

In those first calls, I didn't worry too much about that with Dee. She had worked as a therapist for decades and would still kind of do informal therapy on everyone, including me. Without my asking, she'd just start working out my options with me on the phone.

Dee Brown

OK, what you do is, you get a big piece of paper, and you write down every one of them that you'd like to do. What do I want? What do I not want?

Cecilia Brown

I'd just finished grad school and wasn't really sure what to do with my life.

Dee Brown

See if you can find where you want to be and what you want to do when you grow up. I hate that one.

[LAUGHTER]

It's fun. That make sense?

Cecilia Brown

Just like that. Yeah. Yeah, I just have to just figure out what I want.

Dee Brown

Yeah, what do you want? You find out what you want to, and then you keep in touch. Because I love talking to you.

Cecilia Brown

I love talking to you too.

When I called her the next week, April 5, she was still joking about things. But 11 days after that, my third call with her, she seemed much worse. She'd always liked her apartment before, but now I got the feeling it was starting to feel oppressive.

Cecilia Brown

I mean, we've got some sunshine today.

Dee Brown

Uh, I guess we-- we didn't get sunshine. Well, maybe a little. Oh, it's that little dribble through that little crack in the window. It's just a little tiny crack of light, not much to pay attention to.

And my mouth is so dry. And the air is so dry. And my whole body is going, ugh. I'm just antsy, awful. I'm really just stuck here, it seems like.

Cecilia Brown

Two weeks after that call, Dee started needing round-the-clock care. And by May, it was clear to me parts of Dee were drifting away. Things she'd explained to me weeks ago no longer made any sense to her, like they were swirling together in her head, and I had to explain them back to her.

Dee Brown

I'm trying to find out where my mind went sideways or something. I know where I am. It's just nothing anybody's saying is making any sense.

And I can see some people walking along. And they're going up and down. And I don't know who's what or why.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that is happening is that, because people are stuck in their apartments, they're walking up and down the hallway because it's the only place they can go to get exercise.

Dee Brown

Yeah.

Cecilia Brown

I think that's probably what's happening. That's why it seems so weird.

Dee Brown

It does. Everything feels weird. And I don't know. I'm just going to try and get some orientation or something.

Cecilia Brown

Hm.

Dee Brown

And I have a television thing up in front of me, but it doesn't make any sense.

Cecilia Brown

Hm. What do you mean? Like the things that people are saying doesn't make sense?

Dee Brown

Yeah, the people in there. And I don't know. It just seems like I'm in a strange world. But I will work on it.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah. Yeah.

I will work on it-- that's so Dee, always sure there's a way to fix things if you just organized your thoughts correctly, even if the things she's trying to organize is her own dementia. I hated that she had to work this out alone, so I tried to work on it too. But I was kind of grasping at how to help.

Cecilia Brown

OK, well, let's talk about something that might feel grounding. Why don't we talk about when you were living in Kansas City?

Dee Brown

Oh, boy, that goes way back.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah, will you tell me about your house in Kansas City?

Dee Brown

Oh, I don't know if I can remember much about it. Oh, god, I just really feel like I don't know what they're expecting of me here. I don't know. I'm just off-center. That's all there is to it.

Cecilia Brown

It was so hard to comfort her. And it wasn't just her confusion. It was also that, the worse she got, the more physically uncomfortable she got too. There were basic things she needed that would have been so easy to do in person, but not over the phone.

Dee Brown

My mouth is so dry that if I try and move my lips, it's just hurtful.

Cecilia Brown

It hurts?

Dee Brown

Yeah.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah. What about water? Do you have some water you could have a sip of?

Dee Brown

I have some water right here. I've gotten a sip of water, but-- oh. Now I can't get any water through the straw. Huh. I can't get any water to come through this straw. Oh, boy.

Cecilia Brown

Are you sucking?

Dee Brown

Yeah, trying to. Mm, mm! [GULPING] Finally got a little water.

Cecilia Brown

Around this time, my family started talking about Dee's progression. Even though it should have been obvious to me what was happening, I didn't want to believe it. When I talked to my sister, we'd make excuses for Dee, say she was just having a bad day, or that it was her medication, which was always changing. We wanted to believe the old Dee would come back. My dad didn't think she would.

By a few months into the pandemic, the toll of isolation on people with dementia was clear. Medical examiners started listing social isolation related to COVID-19 restrictions as a cause of death for people in long-term care centers. Someone from the Alzheimer's Association told me people with dementia have been wandering more, that maybe they're looking for the people who no longer visit. Dee started doing this, too, opening people's doors in the middle of the night.

Cecilia Brown

Hello?

Dee Brown

Hello?

Cecilia Brown

June 2020, just three months into lockdown.

Cecilia Brown

Hello? Can you hear me?

Dee Brown

And who am I talking to?

Cecilia Brown

It's Cecilia.

Dee Brown

What?

Cecilia Brown

Cecilia.

Dee Brown

I'm sorry, who?

Cecilia Brown

It's Cecilia.

Dee Brown

Oh, OK.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah, your granddaughter.

Dee Brown

Uh-huh. Oh, and she's-- she's off somewhere, right?

Cecilia Brown

I thought a lot about whether it's OK to play these recordings on the radio. Talked about it with my family. Back when she was with it, Dee knew I might make a story out of these calls, and knew she had dementia, and was game to record. And I'm sure she'd want me to tell the true version of her story. That's Dee. By June, COVID death rates were starting to dip, and people were starting to meet up outside, emerge in small ways. Dee, though, felt almost completely out of reach.

Dee Brown

What would you like to know that I might know?

Cecilia Brown

Oh, nothing. I just wanted to talk to you.

Dee Brown

I don't have any idea what's going on.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah.

Dee Brown

Oh. Oh. Ugh!

Cecilia Brown

What happened?

Dee Brown

What?

Cecilia Brown

What happened?

Dee Brown

Oh, I tried to swallow things and look at things, and I don't know what I'm doing. Because everything's in the dark.

Cecilia Brown

Oh.

Dee Brown

And it's all kind of pitch dark.

Cecilia Brown

Are you having trouble seeing?

Dee Brown

I'm sorry. I'm having awful hard trouble talking.

Cecilia Brown

Oh, it's OK. It's OK. Why don't I call back later, OK?

Dee Brown

Well, I'm trying. Oh, I don't know what I'm doing here. I absolutely don't know what I'm doing.

Cecilia Brown

OK.

Dee Brown

So am I sounding silly?

Cecilia Brown

No, you don't sound silly. You don't sound silly. It sounds like you're having a tough day.

Dee Brown

Ah.

Cecilia Brown

So you can just put the phone down, and then it'll be over. And I'll say goodbye, OK?

Dee Brown

OK.

Cecilia Brown

OK, I love you, Dee.

Dee Brown

I mean, I taste OK. OK, I'll put it down.

Cecilia Brown

OK, I love you.

Dee Brown

Oh, it's on. It's sitting on the table. Ow. Ow. Ow.

Cecilia Brown

I hung up-- I was standing alone on the street-- and cried. I decided to stop recording all my calls with Dee after this. She was changing so quickly. I just wasn't sure it felt right anymore.

And I also, around this time, began to wonder if my calls were doing her any good at all, or if I was just calling to try to convince myself I was helping. I could tell from talking to her that my calls were making her more disoriented, more agitated. Everyone in my family felt that. To be honest, the calls were also pretty painful. So I started calling less and then stopped altogether.

The Alzheimer's Association found that 46,000 more people died from dementia this past year than on average in each of the last five years. They call these excess deaths, people who might not have died if it had been a normal year. We could have predicted this.

We've known for years that isolation can lead people living with dementia to rapid deterioration and death. And we isolated them anyway. Another term that's been used is collateral deaths-- people who didn't die directly from COVID, but as a byproduct of it. I hate those terms-- excess death, collateral death, like these deaths somehow fall outside the bounds of the deaths we care about.

Eventually, in September, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reversed their guidelines to allow in visitors in cases where people really needed them, for people who were having trouble eating or drinking and people in emotional distress, people like Dee. I think it would have helped her. I think her dementia wouldn't have progressed so fast, that she wouldn't have gone from where she was in the spring to where she got to by summer in just three months if she weren't so isolated. My whole family thinks so. These nurses think so, too.

But that change in guidelines came too late for her. Dee died just a few weeks before it, on August 18. She died alone. I ended up deciding to record one last call with Dee in late July, a couple of weeks before she died. It was the last time we ever spoke.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah, OK.

Dee Brown

Yeah, and so what is it that you're trying to do?

Cecilia Brown

Oh, it's Cecilia, your granddaughter. I'm calling to say hi.

Dee Brown

Oh, oh, OK. Okey-doke.

Cecilia Brown

It's good to hear you.

Dee Brown

Well, it's good to be here. Yeah.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah.

Dee Brown

Yeah.

Cecilia Brown

Yeah.

Dee Brown

That's good.

Cecilia Brown

Mm-hmm.

Dee Brown

Yeah, I have to--

Cecilia Brown

Hm?

Dee Brown

I have to sort of walk outside here and see what the temperature is.

Cecilia Brown

OK, so you have to hang up the phone?

Dee Brown

Yeah.

Cecilia Brown

OK. All right, well, I love you, Dee.

Dee Brown

OK.

Cecilia Brown

Love you.

Dee Brown

Love you.

Cecilia Brown

Bye.

Dee Brown

Talk to you later. Bye.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Cecilia Brown. She's a documentary filmmaker in Portland, Oregon. Coming up, a vast theater with a daily show, but there's a catch. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues

Act Three: It Had to Be YouTube

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, "The Daily," stories about the things that we do every single day and how their "everydayness" is what's important about them and can reveal things that we might not notice otherwise. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, "It Had to be YouTube."

So Johnny Dark is somebody with a very specific, very unusual, labor intensive practice that he does everyday, more or less. Each day, he shoots and posts a video on YouTube. Kelefa Sanneh writes a lot about music and about other things for The New Yorker and watched a bunch of them.

Kelefa Sanneh

The first thing I noticed about Johnny Dark's YouTube page is that it goes on forever, an endless scrolling grid of thumbnail images, the same face, row after row, an older guy with an unnaturally brown pompadour. There are hundreds and hundreds of videos, going back more than five years. Each one is Johnny Dark singing a song.

And for all that work, all that music, there's no one watching. You can see it in the view counts-- 10 views, 23 views, seven views. I almost felt guilty clicking on them, like, by increasing the numbers, I was spoiling this pristine place, leaving footprints in practically unfootprinted terrain.

I only ended up there because an old friend of Johnny's told me about it. He knew I had a taste for stubborn visionaries, for bodies of work that defy easy explanation. There's a simple formula to each video. Johnny Dark is all by himself, no instruments, nothing to sing along with, looking into the camera, dressed in a tuxedo, smiling, as if he were working a casino or a cruise ship, except he's standing in what might be a living room, though it might also be an antique shop. It's full of framed pictures and little statues. Often he's singing a classic, maybe a Sinatra song.

Johnny Dark

(SINGING) I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow. I've got the string around my finger. What a world. What a life. I'm in love.

Kelefa Sanneh

Sometimes he'll do something that swings, like "Mack the Knife," but it's a lot of ballads. Hank Williams.

Johnny Dark

(SINGING) Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?

Kelefa Sanneh

He went through a Carpenters phase.

Johnny Dark

(SINGING) Why do birds suddenly appear--

Kelefa Sanneh

In the most recent videos, he's not wearing a tuxedo anymore. It's even more surreal. Now he's tightly framed in a shadowy room, a floating head singing into a mirror, still smiling, but now his smile seems kind of intense.

And he's dressed in dark colors, often black. You can see his hands in black gloves, holding the iPhone that's recording the video. The scene looks less like a cruise ship and more like a seance, which makes the song sound that much spookier, especially the sad ones.

Johnny Dark

(SINGING) If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?

Kelefa Sanneh

The whole project seemed obsessive and haunted, as if some club had shut down in the 1970s, but the performance had kept going. Who was this for? Why do this? Why wake up every morning, get dressed, do your hair, and send another video out into the world, out into the void?

So I called him up. And I was nervous, to be honest. The videos seemed so compulsive, they made me wonder about his state of mind. But he was friendly, happy to explain.

Kelefa Sanneh

What is that room that you're in, in those videos?

Johnny Dark

That's actually my living room.

Kelefa Sanneh

OK. And there's all these statues and things.

Johnny Dark

Yeah, statues and stuff. That's sort of what I like, you know? Nothing is real expensive.

Kelefa Sanneh

It looks expensive.

Johnny Dark

Yeah, it does. It does. I always modeled my place after Buckingham Palace.

Kelefa Sanneh

You were dressed, what, in a tuxedo?

Johnny Dark

Yeah, the tuxedo was just a way of giving respect to what I thought the older folks would like to see. It's like wearing a tuxedo, working in Las Vegas, when you're opening for Tom Jones. It was just a way of giving respect.

Kelefa Sanneh

Johnny Dark has never actually opened for Tom Jones, the hit-making hunk who sang "It's Not Unusual." But he has worked with lots of other legendary acts. Long before he was singing on YouTube, Johnny Dark was performing for real audiences on stage and on TV, a busy actor and comedian. And so watching those videos, it's kind of like being visited by the ghost of showbusiness past, specifically Johnny's showbusiness past. He kept dropping all these names, household names, many of which weren't quite as household as they used to be.

Johnny Dark

Tony Bennett--

Kelefa Sanneh

In the course of a two-hour conversation, he told me about shining Tony Bennett's shoes in Wildwood, New Jersey, being best friends with Fabian, the '50s heartthrob.

Johnny Dark

My best friend Fabian.

Kelefa Sanneh

He toured with Ginger Rogers and also with the Righteous Brothers. At one point, he found himself up against Michael Keaton. They were both competing for a spot on Donnie and Marie Osmond's variety show.

Johnny Dark

And I got the Donnie and Marie show! And I don't know whatever happened to Michael Keaton.

Kelefa Sanneh

A spot on a variety show, that was kind of the perfect gig for a guy like Johnny Dark. He's an entertainer, which is the job that maybe doesn't even exist anymore. It means you get up in front of an audience and do whatever it takes to keep them happy-- songs, jokes, skits, dancing, impressions. Here he is on TV in the 1970s.

[APPLAUSE]

Johnny Dark

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you give me my impression of a rodeo auctioneer. Imagine this guy coming home to his wife at night. Hi, honey, how about a kiss? Another kiss.

Make that three kisses on the right cheek by the little lady with the checkered apron. What's for dinner? I said, what's for dinner? I hear hot dogs.

I hear hot dogs and beans. Do I hear baked beans or lima beans? I hear baked beans. Make that baked beans and butter. Make that Boston baked beans and butter. Do I hear bread? I hear brown bread.

Kelefa Sanneh

But by this point, in the 1970s, entertainers in tuxedos were going extinct. And Johnny Dark had that old school style, even though his career really began in a club where a new sensibility was emerging-- the Comedy Store in LA. The regulars there were not all purpose old school entertainers. They were performers with a point of view, unpredictable stand-up comics like Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, but also a young David Letterman and Jay Leno. Johnny Dark got a job there as an MC, introducing the comics. He'd open with a song. And eventually, he started telling jokes, too.

Johnny Dark

We were all part of one peer group. But we weren't all geniuses, you know? Robin Williams and people of that genre, how could I compete with those guys? They were geniuses.

I mean, Robin Williams, I used to pick him up in front of Chase's to drive him out to the Newport Beach Laff Stop. And I was the closing act. Well, he would get up and, in the middle, do 30, 40 minutes. It was killer stuff! I couldn't compete with that.

Kelefa Sanneh

It's true. I'm pretty sure you've heard of Robin Williams, and you've probably never heard of Johnny Dark. But he built a successful career, had small roles on a bunch of popular sitcoms, made good money on the road, supported a family. His most memorable role might be this one.

David Letterman

Ladies and gentlemen, please say hello to Johnny, the world's oldest page, I think.

Kelefa Sanneh

In the 2000s, David Letterman pulled his old friend Johnny Dark into the spotlight for a series of guest appearances on The Late Show, giving Johnny a little bit of the fame and recognition he had always wanted. The bit was that he was the world's oldest CBS page, an intern, basically, who'd been killing time in the bowels of the Ed Sullivan Theater for 38 years. The character was crappy and defiant. He had no interest in the show and mainly wanted Letterman, the big-shot host, to leave him alone.

David Letterman

Oh, I'm sorry, Johnny, you can't-- you're not allowed to smoke in the theater. I'm sorry.

Johnny Dark

Well, remind me to bring that up next time you blow smoke up a celebrity's ass.

[APPLAUSE]

Kelefa Sanneh

Before I talked to him, I sort of assumed that Johnny Dark was going to be a lot like that character, that he'd be bitter about his long and miscellaneous career, about never achieving real stardom, like maybe it had driven him crazy, and now he was sitting at home, compulsively making these videos every day, creating his own lonely, private Hollywood. But he said it's not like that. He told me over and over again in different ways that he wasn't bitter.

Johnny Dark

No, no, I was grateful. I was thrilled to be with David.

Kelefa Sanneh

He told me he was glad to have had the chance to entertain so many people. He said he was happy. He's 80 years old, living in LA in a house full of little statues, spending time with his grandchildren everyday, wandering around the park, cooking them dinner.

Johnny Dark

Making pizza for them.

Kelefa Sanneh

There was one moment, though, when he finally admitted that it has been frustrating sometimes.

Johnny Dark

I feel sort of a love-hate relationship with showbusiness in the fact that I've been close to so many big things that didn't come true. It couldn't come through. It's really tough.

Showbusiness is tough. But it's fun initially, and then it gets tough. And it gets tougher.

I wouldn't want my grandkids in showbusiness. I really wouldn't. I mean, I was born to it. But if you can do anything else in the world, do that. Don't get in showbusiness.

Kelefa Sanneh

So you're saying you didn't have a choice but to do this. Why? Just because you loved it too much?

Johnny Dark

It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife, I had no choice. I didn't want to get married. But that's what love is. Love doesn't give you a choice, I don't think. And neither does showbusiness.

I was always fascinated by guys that were so smart, like Jerry Seinfeld and people like that that could put the show and the business together. I always had trouble with the business. Even now, everything that I do, over 1,000 songs I've sang on YouTube, will I be paid for that work? Will I be paid for that effort?

No. Why do I do it? Because I have no choice.

Kelefa Sanneh

The word "entertainer" sounds maybe kind of casual. You do a little of this, a little of that. Do it well enough, everyone's happy.

But Johnny Dark is not a casual guy. And he's definitely not a casual singer. Thanks to these videos, his life is nonstop rehearsals, nonstop singing.

Johnny Dark

I made it sort of a discipline thing for me. I have to know exactly every line every single day. So every morning, I get up, and it's just like I'm taking a gig.

I get in the shower. I go over the song. I listen to the song on tape while I'm shaving.

But don't forget, I've listened to that song for 24 hours off and on with the kids. When I'm with the kids at the park, I sing the song aloud in a certain area where I don't bother anybody. But no, I rehearse all the time. I've got it down. So yesterday, me singing "Lollipops and Roses" didn't exist. Today it does exist.

(SINGING) Bring her nice things, sugar and spice things, roses and lollipops, and lollipops and roses.

Basically, I'm thinking about the song. I'm thinking about doing it right. I'm thinking about how I was terrible. I'm thinking about how that was good.

I'm just thinking about the art. And sometimes I'll do a song four or five times. I'll even post it on YouTube. And then I'll listen to it and I'll go, I don't hear it. I don't hear the music.

And I'll delete it. And then I'll do it again. And if I don't hear it, I'll delete that. And then I do it again, and if I hear it, then I'll post it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Kelefa Sanneh

I mean, is there a sense in which these songs are more for you than for anyone else?

Johnny Dark

They're as much for me as for anyone else, yeah. They're as much for me because I want to keep this working as good as it could possibly work, you know? I meant my brain by that. I was pointing to my brain.

Kelefa Sanneh

He also posts the videos on Facebook. And he gets more engagement there-- not a massive amount, but 30 or 40 likes per video. And people show up in the comments section, reminiscing about the old songs they loved growing up.

But Johnny still directs people to his YouTube page. He says that's his personal archive, the thing he's building. He wants to leave it behind for his grandchildren. I like to picture them decades from now, sitting around a laptop, listening to grandpa singing "Me and My Shadow" or "The Very Thought of You."

But there's one last reason Johnny makes videos everyday. He still has showbiz ambitions. He's currently pitching a sitcom, in fact, with a friend of his. But on YouTube, he doesn't have to pitch.

And I think that might be the main reason he's been doing it for so long. Maybe there aren't many people there watching. But at the same time, there's no one there to stop him.

Johnny Dark

I think the fact that I could sing and not have an audience, and not depend upon anybody-- I don't have to rehearse for anybody. I don't have to ask anybody's permission. I can greenlight myself everyday.

Do you know how hard that is to do after waiting for somebody to say, OK, we'll greenlight you. Let's go with Johnny Dark. OK, let's go with Johnny.

Of all the things that I've done-- and there are tons of things-- there are tons of other things I haven't done, where you go, oh, I wish I had that part. I came close to-- and that's what singing is. So I keep my self-esteem. I don't have to say, well, you walked away from it, man. You walked away from it. Well, I didn't walk away from it. I may not be getting big bucks for it, but I didn't walk away from it, man. I'm entertaining everyday.

I didn't walk away from it. I'm in the business. My toes are in the water.

Kelefa Sanneh

You see Johnny smiling in the videos, eager to please. But underneath it, this whole project is kind of aggro, defiant. He's going to decide when it's over, and it's not over yet.

Like, I don't need any of you. Sure, I want an audience, but I don't need one. I'm here to entertain. And I'm going to be here, whether you're entertained or not.

Johnny Dark

(SINGING) What a world. Man, this is the life. Hey, now, I'm in love.

Ira Glass

Kelefa Sanneh, he's a staff writer for The New Yorker Magazine.

Act Four: Here’s What Else You Need To Know Today

Ira Glass

Act Four. So the title of today's episode, "The Daily," is also the title of a podcast. If you're hearing us, you've probably heard them too. And so with them in mind, we end today's show with this.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Here's what else you need to know today. The atoms in your body replace themselves. So you are not the same person you were a year ago-- or anyway, around 98% of you is not the same person. The only atoms in our bodies that seem to stay with us our whole lives are buried in the DNA of some of the cells in our brain and our heart, and also in our bones and teeth.

Here's what else you need to know today. Fruit Loops-- they're all the same flavor. The yellow ones, green ones, red ones-- all the same. Here's what else you need to know today. We spend 10 minutes a day looking for stuff we've lost. That's the average person on the average day, of course. The number comes from a survey of 3,000 adults. 14 people in the survey said the amount of time for them searching for lost items was over an hour a day.

Here's what else you need to know today. 1 million species are on the verge of extinction. It's 1/4 of all mammals, 1/5 of all reptiles, 1/6 of all birds. So as we fix our hair and scroll through Twitter and try to figure out what movie we're going to watch next, that's still happening. Here's what else you need to know today.

And by "you" this time, I mean you. You need to know that last night, when you put that plate of food in front of me, it was hard not to stare at it like a character bonked on the head in a cartoon. An average Thursday, you take cabbage, onions, carrots, coconut milk-- I don't know what else-- the most ordinary stuff in the world and somehow give me something that is better than anything I could have imagined, like you always do with everything you do. Our life is so different from anything I thought would ever happen to me.

Here's what else you need to know today. When I was a kid, at night, sometimes after dinner, my mom and I would sit in the kitchen and talk. And I don't remember about what, but I remember the feeling of it was just, we were really listening to each other and hearing each other in that way that doesn't always happen.

It felt close. In my memory, the room is dimly lit. Sometimes my dad would come to the door of the kitchen, lit from the hall light behind him, and see us there, talking quietly, and not join in, but just stand there, apart from us.

And I remember a little panic, like, oh, I hope he doesn't feel left out. I hope he doesn't feel jealous. I hope he won't get mad.

I was-- I don't know-- seven or eight, feeling this mix of protectiveness towards him and fear, which-- I don't know-- is funny to think about today. My mom, long dead, my dad, getting up there, needing help with stuff that he never needed help with before. All that's left of that feeling is the protectiveness part. The atoms of our bodies replace themselves so many times over that things between us have become very simple, which I suppose is the best case of what can happen between parents and kids. But it doesn't always feel that way.

[MUSIC - "AIN'T NO PLACE LIKE HOME" BY MICHAELOUS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's show was produced by Diane Wu and Tobin Low. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Ari Saperstein, Alissa Shipp, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Noreen Rizvi, Farah Abbas, Xiangqian Wu, Emmet Newlin, Sam Dolnick, Chris Wood, Stuart Pimm, Logan McCarty, Janelle Hamaker, Eric, Tony, Laura, and the rest of the Brown family, Bruce Shapiro, Michael Lynch and the Alzheimer's Association, Don and Carrie Cole from The Gottman Institute. And thanks to Matt McGinley for covering "The Pink Panther Theme" for us. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. You can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite shows that we recommend. There's tons of other stuff. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He and I are were out at dinner. And I got up to go to the restroom. When I came back, he was eating my burger. I was like, Torey! What the hell? He said it was my fault.

Johnny Dark

You walked away from it, man. You walked away from it.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "AIN'T NO PLACE LIKE HOME" BY MICHAELOUS]