Full episode
Transcript

655: The Not-So-Great Unknown

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue

Ira Glass

OK, so let's begin today with this story about two people. These are two people with two very different perspectives on the world. And the one thing these two people have in common, the only thing that connects them, is a can of olives that one of them sends to the other. Diane Wu, one of the producers of our show, she looked into this. Hey, Diane.

Diane Wu

Hello, Ira.

Ira Glass

So?

Diane Wu

So the first person in the story is named Caroline. She was a year out of college when this package arrived to her parents' house, a place she hadn't lived for many years. Her mom texted her.

Caroline

What do you want me to do with this box from Walmart.com?

Diane Wu

Which was weird because Caroline hadn't ordered anything from Walmart, like ever, so she just texted her mom back to say, well, just open it up and see what's inside.

Caroline

And then she texts me that it's a can of black olives. It's just like this can of black olives and an empty box. No note, no nothing.

Diane Wu

So Caroline starts texting her friends and asks them, did you send me these olives? Is there, like, an olive inside joke that we have that I forgot about?

Caroline

And people are like, I don't know what you're talking about. Like, I didn't send you any olives.

Diane Wu

One of her friends wrote, oh, the classic oliving. So Caroline then goes to urbandictionary.com and types in "oliving." Nothing comes up.

Ira Glass

So her friend was kidding?

Diane Wu

Yeah. Caroline thinks, OK, maybe Walmart just made a mistake. This was a random computer glitch. Or maybe her friends were lying and one of them did send it. So she calls Walmart. There's no receipt but the order number was on the box.

Ira Glass

And?

Diane Wu

And they told her it was not a random computer glitch. There was a person who ordered it and sent it to her, like a real person, and he's the other person in the story.

Caroline

And they gave me the name. They said it was this guy named Christopher Fouts, and I don't know anyone by that name.

Diane Wu

She thinks, why would a total stranger send me a can of olives? So she Google's Christopher Fouts, looks for him on Facebook, but she can't figure out who he is.

Diane Wu

Who do you think Christopher Fouts is? How do you imagine him?

Caroline

I imagine that maybe he has, like-- this is a very specific thing that I'm imagining.

Diane Wu

Go for it.

Caroline

OK, so I imagine that, I don't know, he has a day-to-day office job where he comes in to the cubicle every day, and grinds away. And so on the side, he likes to pull these pranks and whatnot.

Diane Wu

Caroline really liked the whole idea that there was this stranger out there somewhere in the world sending random packages to people, just to surprise them.

Caroline

I think it means there's hope, you know? If some random person is just going to send you olives to make you smile when you open up-- you know?

Ira Glass

OK, so after that conversation, you set out to find Christopher Fouts, right?

Diane Wu

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

To ask him why he sent her the olives. Was it hard to find him?

Diane Wu

It was a little bit hard. He isn't easily Google-able. I had to write him a letter, like in the mail. And it got forwarded to Germany, because that's where he lives now. So a couple weeks after I started looking for him, he sent me back an email.

Ira Glass

So did you tell him Caroline's theory that he's out there sending random stuff to strangers to make them smile?

Diane Wu

I did. I ran that by him. And he told me--

Christopher Fouts

That was not my motivation whatsoever.

Diane Wu

So it turns out Christopher Fouts sells stuff on Amazon as a side gig. He runs the whole operation out of his basement. He sells household goods. And Caroline was one of his customers.

Christopher Fouts

Miss Caroline had placed an order on December 30th for a 12 piece dining ware set.

Diane Wu

But when he went to his basement to send the dining ware set to her, he found out he didn't have it in stock. So Christopher went online and bought it from Walmart, had them send it to her at the address she gave, which was her parents' house. But there was a snag.

Christopher Fouts

The dinner ware set was below Walmart's threshold for free shipping.

Diane Wu

Enter the star of our show, the can of olives.

Christopher Fouts

Adding the can of black olives put the order at above the threshold for the free shipping.

Ira Glass

How much did he save?

Diane Wu

$3.70, by adding the olives.

Diane Wu

Is there any part of you, when you did this, that thought about Caroline opening the box and getting the olives?

Christopher Fouts

No, actually. I was just thinking about minimizing my losses on this order.

Ira Glass

So basically she has thought about him a lot. He has never given her any thought at all. And the answer to Caroline's question about where her olives came from? It is the least romantic answer you could possibly come up with.

Like, it's less romantic than just a random computer glitch. A guy trying to save $3.70 in shipping costs. So Diane and I called Caroline, and we explained how Christopher Fouts saw their whole transaction. Her reaction to this, I think, cut to the heart of the matter succinctly.

Caroline

I think we're just very different people.

Ira Glass

True enough. And the way you see a can of olives depends on your perspective about things in general. Like, do you choose to see life as an adventure or do you see it as a guy trying to reduce shipping costs? Caroline, of course, knows where she stands.

Caroline

Life's an adventure. I mean-- yeah, it's like-- I feel like if I had the mentality that life was a guy reducing his shipping costs, that would be just so sad.

Ira Glass

I have to say, I'm with you. I also think life is an adventure, but I do acknowledge the stunning amount of information that we get all the time, letting us know that a lot of it is a guy reducing his shipping cost.

Caroline

Yes. Most of the data points are a guy reducing his shipping cost, I would say.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show we meet some people who are going into remarkable situations, and I mean true adventures. We have a space explorer who went to the moon, a professional basketball player, people embracing big dreams. Except all these people are Christopher's. They are not Caroline's.

They are all about keeping shipping costs low. They are practical people in situations so many of us would find deeply thrilling. How they managed to be who they are in the face of spectacular wonder and the vast unknown-- from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: So Over The Moon

Ira Glass

Act 1-- "So Over the Moon." So a man takes a trip to a place that a lot of people dream of going. The food's not the best, but the scenery is pretty great. Anyway, the experience of it for him was not what you usually hear. David Kestenbaum tells the story.

David Kestenbaum

I found out about this guy entirely by accident. I was watching this short documentary that just came out about the Apollo 8 mission. This is the 50th anniversary.

It was a beautiful film with all this footage from the launch and from space. So I reached out to the filmmaker, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, thinking maybe we could do some version of it here on the radio. Maybe we'd do a show about space.

And it turns out Emmanuel had done these very long, multi-day interviews with each of the three astronauts. He sent me raw recordings. And listening through, I heard something I was not expecting at all.

One of the astronauts, Frank Borman, was saying things I had just never heard an astronaut say. Like this--

Frank Borman

Space science fiction still bores me. I've never seen-- what's the name of that-- that very popular--

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

2001?

Frank Borman

Yeah, all that crap. I've never seen any of that.

David Kestenbaum

Emmanuel, the filmmaker, also seemed amused. He pressed on. What about when you were a kid?

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

And what about the stars or astronomy?

Frank Borman

No.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

None of that?

Frank Borman

Airplanes.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Frank Borman

Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

Wow. Wow.

Frank Borman

And a certain particular girl.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

Susan.

Frank Borman

Yeah. So--

David Kestenbaum

Susan is Borman's wife. They fell in love in high school. Borman was game to answer any question Emmanuel put to him, though he particularly seemed to like the ones he could easily dispatch answers to, like a little problem he had solved.

Frank Borman

In 1945--

David Kestenbaum

He was very matter of fact. When Emanuel asked if being in the cramped spaceship was like being in a submarine, Borman said, "I don't know. I've never been in a submarine." My sense reading press accounts from back in the day is that Borman wasn't this blunt about it all back in the '60s, when astronauts were supposed to be playing the part of America's heroes. But now, time has passed. He's 90 years old. He says he doesn't give a damn.

Frank Borman

I never knowingly altered it, but it was very difficult for me to be as candid now, I think, as I was then-- I just didn't cover some things as in-depth as you're doing here today.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

And when you have been this candid and honest as you are now, what's been people's reactions?

Frank Borman

I haven't had any reaction, because I'm just being it with you. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

When I was a science reporter, I covered NASA for years. So I've interviewed my share of astronauts. But I always felt like I wasn't really getting it what it was like to be in space.

Don't get me wrong. They were polite and smart. But there was a sameness to it all. They talk about how amazing it was to be weightless, about how it was humankind's destiny to leave the planet and explore.

But I always felt like of course they'd say that. They want to get picked by their bosses to go into space again, and it's the polite thing to say. It's what people want to hear. And I imagine it's what they felt. After all, that is exactly the kind of person who ends up becoming an astronaut.

I've always wondered what someone else might make of going up there, experiencing the vastness of the universe and coming home again. Borman seemed different. He was the astronaut I had always wanted to hear from.

Borman lives in Billings, Montana. He agreed to block out a couple of hours so we could talk. I flew out there. We met in the lobby of the hotel with no real plan for how to recognize each other.

There were a lot of retirees around, and I kept wondering is that the guy who's been to outer space? Maybe that guy? We eventually found each other.

He was walking slowly, shirt tucked in. I'd read that when he was an astronaut they'd had to spend $45,000 to make a special helmet for him because his head was larger than others. But I don't know, it seemed normal to me.

We sat down in a little conference room. I'd half wondered if we should use our time together to watch 2001-- A Space Odyssey. I thought if he actually saw it, he might like it. But it's a long film. I went with something shorter.

David Kestenbaum

Can I show you something and see if it speaks to you at all?

Frank Borman

Star Trek. Yeah, that's what I was-- I've never seen that.

Star Trek Narrator

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise--

David Kestenbaum

I looked at Borman as he watched, but I couldn't read his expression.

Star Trek Narrator

--to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Frank Borman

Nonsense to me. I-- it doesn't interest me. I'm sorry.

David Kestenbaum

To go where no man has gone before, that doesn't do anything for you?

Frank Borman

No.

David Kestenbaum

But you did it.

Frank Borman

[LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

He really did. When Borman became an astronaut, only eight people had ever been into space. Apollo 8-- the mission he was commander of-- it was the very first time humans had ever left Earth's orbit.

Borman and the two other crew members in this tiny spacecraft went all the way to the moon. They didn't land. It was kind of a dry run for the moon landing.

But in some ways, it actually seems more exciting to me and terrifying. It was the first time anyone had gone that far from the earth, really ventured out into space, seeing the moon so close up. This other celestial body right there, outside the window. He was 40 years old.

How did Borman-- the guy who didn't really care about space-- end up being one of the first people to go to the moon? It's true. This was the beginning of the space program, and a lot of the early astronauts were test pilots.

But still, the other two guys Borman flew with-- they were the type of people who might have gone to space camp as kids. If space camp had existed back then.

One of them, Bill Anders, loved geology. As a kid, he had decided he wanted to own a piece of every rock in the world. The other, Jim Lovell, while in high school, had tried to build a model rocket, one powered by liquid oxygen.

Frank Borman

Lovell was mesmerized by space and exploration, and wanted desperately to explore the moon. I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War. I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that's the only thing that motivated me-- beat the damn Russians.

David Kestenbaum

I've always known we were in a race to beat the Russians, but I didn't realize how intense it could have felt back then. The Russians had launched the first satellite, Sputnik. They were also the first to put a man in space, the first to put a woman in space.

The Russians did the first spacewalk. They landed a probe on the moon before we did. The US always seemed a step behind. As Borman saw it, a freedom loving democracy was being beaten by a dictatorship. And whoever put a person on the moon first, that was going to be in the history books forever.

Borman was an Air Force pilot who'd gone to West Point. He had a reputation for being blunt, and also kind of serious. He didn't like anyone messing around.

He'd never been in battle, but he thought this is where the real fight is now. So he applied to be an astronaut. The psychiatrist who evaluated him later said Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met.

David Kestenbaum

What do you think he meant by that?

Frank Borman

I don't-- I have no idea. I have no idea. I don't-- whether I'm complicated or uncomplicated.

David Kestenbaum

What would Susan say?

Frank Borman

Susan says this. I was the most uncomplicated man she ever knew.

David Kestenbaum

Are you a romantic person?

Frank Borman

I think in some ways I am. I get emotional at good movies at times, and things like that.

David Kestenbaum

What movies do you watch?

Frank Borman

Probably the best movie that I've ever seen is Casablanca. I love Casablanca.

David Kestenbaum

Why do you like Casablanca?

Frank Borman

Casablanca was a wonderful wartime story of the recognition that a good cause is more important than the human being relationship.

David Kestenbaum

Oh.

Frank Borman

Win the war and lose the woman was what that was all about.

David Kestenbaum

That's the opposite of romantic.

Frank Borman

No, it's very romantic.

David Kestenbaum

I asked Borman to walk me through the mission, what it was like for him at each stage.

Man

T-minus seven minutes, 30 seconds--

David Kestenbaum

On the morning of the Apollo 8 launch, December 21, 1968, Borman and the two other astronauts sat atop the Saturn 5 rocket, which had only been tested twice, not with anyone on it. The Apollo 1 had caught fire on the launch pad, killing three astronauts. Borman's left hand was on an abort switch.

He told me he wasn't scared. But Susan, his wife-- she was. She and their two kids had come to watch the other time Borman had gone into space for the Gemini 7 launch. But this rocket, the Saturn 5 rocket, was way, way, way bigger-- 36 stories high. So with this one, they didn't come.

Frank Borman

Rockets-- you know, it's a very loud and frightening thing. And to have your husband and father in the nose of the thing is-- I think it was difficult for them.

Man

--and the pressure's still building up--

Frank Borman

She said it was. That's why she stayed home.

Man

--45 seconds. Final reports coming from Frank Borman at this time.

David Kestenbaum

I wasn't going to play you the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 tape, but then I listened back to it. It's pretty good. It's like you can hear how big the thing is.

One of the astronauts said it felt like being a rat in the jaws of a big terrier.

Man

We have ignition sequence start. The engines are on. 4, 3, 2, 1, 0-- we have connect. We have--

Man

Lift off. The clock is running.

Man

We have lift off.

Man

[INAUDIBLE] looking good.

David Kestenbaum

OK, so after the launch-- and please, don't feel compelled to answer yes to any of these questions, you know.

Frank Borman

Oh, I won't. I'mma tell you the truth. OK.

David Kestenbaum

Was it cool to float around weightless?

Frank Borman

[LAUGHS] No.

David Kestenbaum

I think everyone thinks it would be amazing to be weightless and floating.

He said his main observation about being in zero g was just the obvious thing. When you let go of something in midair, it would stay there.

Frank Borman

Turn loose of this and it would stay there. Except when turning loose of it, you'd probably impart a little motion to it so it would float around. But--

David Kestenbaum

Was that interesting to observe?

Frank Borman

Maybe for the first 30 seconds, then it became accepted.

David Kestenbaum

I think of explorers as the people who push into new territory, bring back exotic experiences to the rest of us in the ordinary world. But I like the idea the opposite might also be true. That after a while somewhere new, it starts to feel familiar, even outer space.

Man

[INAUDIBLE] coming up on 20 seconds to ignition.

David Kestenbaum

After they reached orbit, Borman and the two others fired the rocket engine again and did what had never been done before. They headed away from the safety of the planet, and out toward the moon. It was going to take them two days to get there. Two days in the middle of nothingness.

Borman says interviewers always ask if it felt lonely. He feels like everyone wants him to say yes. But the answer was no.

David Kestenbaum

I can't tell if you're the best person or the worst person to have gone to the moon, in terms of describing what it's like.

Frank Borman

I'm probably the worst.

David Kestenbaum

Did you say, at some point, they should have sent a poet?

Frank Borman

No, I didn't-- if I did, I didn't-- the last thing I would have wanted on our crew was a poet. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

The trip seemed like it was this weird combination of something intense and romantic and otherworldly, but also a little like a long car ride. At one point in the transcripts, one of them says, "I'm warm now. How about you?" Borman says. "I'm hot." The other guy says, "Man, I'm still cold."

And this happens on long car rides. People sometimes get sick. In this case, it was Borman.

David Kestenbaum

How does throwing up work in space?

Frank Borman

Same as it does on Earth. Uncomfortable and I tried to capture it in a disposal bag, but I didn't get all of it.

David Kestenbaum

Still I just could not swallow the idea that none of this had moved him. You're in space going over 20,000 miles an hour, stars everywhere. The first people to really leave the Earth.

Man

[INAUDIBLE] is coming to you approximately half-way between the moon and the Earth. We've been 31 hours, about 20 minutes into the flight, we have about less than 40 hours left to go to the moon.

David Kestenbaum

Borman says there was really just one moment where he felt something stir in his uncomplicated self. It happened while they were circling the moon, which as a destination, he says, did not look like a place you would ever want to live or work.

Frank Borman

Oh, devastation. Meteor craters, no color at all. Just different shades of gray.

David Kestenbaum

And then peering out the small windows, over the gray landscape of the moon, they saw something coming up over the horizon. It was the earth, and it was beautiful. This blue and white marble, the only thing that had any color. Here's how he described it to Emmanuel, the filmmaker.

Frank Borman

It's 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth-- my family, my wife, my parents. They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.

David Kestenbaum

It's like the high point of being in space was the Earth.

Frank Borman

The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth, and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.

David Kestenbaum

They'd been taking hundreds of photos of the surface of the moon, because, you know, no one had ever been there. NASA wanted to pick out a future landing site.

They took so many photos of the moon that Bill Anders, the astronaut who was doing it, said it got boring. There was nothing in the mission plan to take pictures of the Earth. It's like it hadn't even occurred to anyone it might look interesting.

But Borman and the crew, when they saw the Earth rising over the moon, they were like, whoa, that is a photo. There's actually audio of this moment.

Bill Anders

Oh, my god. Look at that picture over there. There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty!

Frank Borman

Hey, don't take that. It's not scheduled.

David Kestenbaum

That's Borman there, saying, don't take that. It's not scheduled. He was joking.

Frank Borman

Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?

Bill Anders

Oh, man this [INAUDIBLE].

David Kestenbaum

It ended up being one of the most famous photos of all time. If you Google "Earth rise," you'd be like, oh, yeah. That one.

It's like the first selfie of us all, the whole planet, and it's remarkable. It's exactly other worldly. Humans have been watching the moon rise from the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. This was the first time someone had seen the reverse-- us, our planet, rising over the moon's horizon.

The other thing that strikes me about this photo is just how truly dark space can get. Only half the Earth is lit up. The other half is in complete blackness, like it's been consumed by something. I asked Borman if that was just the exposure of the photo. He said no, it's exactly how it looked.

It took a couple of days for Borman and the others to travel a quarter of a million miles back here. It was mostly uneventful. At some point, Jim Lovell punched some wrong buttons on the computer, which reset the guidance system.

The spacecraft had no idea where it was. Lovell had to measure the position of stars by hand, just like sailors used to do at sea. They eventually splashed down in the ocean.

They were elated. The mission was over. Everything had worked. Borman says it felt like he imagines winning the World Series might.

He had a quick phone call from the president while on board an aircraft carrier. And then he went home to his kids and his wife, Susan.

David Kestenbaum

How did you describe the mission to her? Like, what you'd seen. I mean, you'd just been on this incredible--

Frank Borman

I really didn't talk about it very much. As a matter of fact, I can't remember talking to her at all about it.

David Kestenbaum

You don't remember saying, you won't believe what the moon looks like. I was up there?

Frank Borman

No, we didn't talk a lot about it. No.

David Kestenbaum

Why not?

Frank Borman

It was more important to see the boys and see her. And what have you be doing? We're back. It was a wonderful time of reunion and emotion, and the last thing from my mind was to tell them what the moon looked like.

David Kestenbaum

Didn't they want to know?

Frank Borman

No. Nobody asked. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum

What do you think you did talk about?

Frank Borman

How glad I was to be home, how glad they were to have me back, and how the boys are doing in school, and why the dog's dish was still full. We got right back to the nitty-gritty's.

David Kestenbaum

Just seven months later, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The Russians gave up, which for Borman had been the point of the whole thing. So he did something that today seems kind of amazing. He quit. He left the job so many kids dream about.

David Kestenbaum

If you had stayed, could you have walked on the moon?

Frank Borman

Oh, yeah. I could have. Probably. I probably could have walked on the moon. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Did you want to?

Frank Borman

No. Why? Look, the answer to your question-- I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn't mean that much to me.

Somebody else wanted to do it. Let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers simply for me to be an explorer.

David Kestenbaum

How often do you think of the Apollo 8 mission? Just when you're on your own, doing your normal stuff.

Frank Borman

It never occurred in our lives much at all, really.

David Kestenbaum

I was looking up at the moon the other night, and it still feels crazy to me that you were there. If you do think back to it, is there a particular part that you tend to remember?

Frank Borman

The thing that reminds me, that I recall till the day I die, was the Earth, looking back at the Earth.

David Kestenbaum

I wouldn't say Borman hated space. He was just indifferent to it. Or put another way, he has a strong preference for the Earth.

I've written a bunch of endings for this story. About yes, it's in our nature to explore. It's also in our nature to want to be home. But I'm very aware of the fact that so many historians and journalists and thinkers have tried to read particular meanings into that time that we went to the moon.

I'm just going to end this the way the world's most uncomplicated man might-- the facts of the present, what he's doing now. It's as earthbound as it gets. Here it is. His wife, Susan, has Alzheimer's, for nine years now.

Frank Borman

I'm with her every day, and she can't walk or talk or feed herself. So that's where I come in. So that's very, very difficult-- very. And that's it.

David Kestenbaum

Which is either the least romantic thing you can think of or just the opposite.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum. He's one of the producers of our show. The documentary he mentioned about Apollo 8 is called Earthrise. The film is opening this weekend in New York at the Maysles Documentary Center, New Yorkers, and will be released on the TV show, POV, and the New York Times' Op-Docs website in October.

Coming up, when in doubt, when your life's out of whack, there's always Switzerland. Some pros and cons of that solution in a minute from WBEZ Chicago when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- "The Not-So-Great Unknown." We have stories today of unromantic, unadventurous people in deeply adventurous situations.

Act Two: Traveling Violation

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act 2 of our program, Act 2-- Traveling Violation.

Jared Marcelle knows a guy, a friend of his, who-- this very week that we're making this show-- is heading out into the unknown, embarking on the kind of trip that for most people would be a great adventure. And this guy is doing it for entirely practical reasons. Or anyway, that's how he sees it. He is sure this is the right choice, that it's what he needs to do. Jared, however-- he is not so sure.

Quick warning that there's a curse word in this story that is not beeped here on the podcast of the program. If you prefer a beeped version of our show-- maybe listening with kids-- it's at our website. Here's Jared.

Jared Marcelle

Joel Wright and I are close. We grew up together in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. Back then, Joel was a small and goofy kid.

We got together recently, talking about those days. We were always trying to figure out how to make money.

Joel Wright

Making $0.50 stretch. You know, making $0.85 stretch. Taking care of each other, making sure we ate.

Jared Marcelle

Bro, I remember there were times where we would meet in front of my house or your building. And we would say, OK, I'm going go in and look for change I got. I'll come back with like $0.50, $0.75. You come back with whatever you have-- a dollar, $0.75. I looked for the change in the couch. You come back. And now we got to eat.

Joel Wright

Yeah, I remember-- I was going to a pizza shop and splitting that pizza down the middle.

Jared Marcelle

We'd always divide stuff in half. One time, we only had enough to buy a single chicken wing. We split it down the middle. It was a rule. We had to make sure each other was fed.

Joel was an average student and didn't really excel at anything, except maybe video games. Love you, man, but it's true. I was more of a hustler, and always found new ways to get paid, like shoveling snow.

Because I did it he gave it a try, but ultimately he was just too lazy to follow through. I ended up shoveling for him when he got tired. Joel meant well, but he just needed to find himself, find his thing.

And then it was like overnight he did. We'd always play basketball together, but he wasn't good. Then I went away to school for the ninth grade and when I came back, Joel stood about 6'5".

Frankly, I was jealous. And he'd become a local star. People were now calling him Air Jamaica-- he's Jamaican. Joel was now practicing twice a day-- at 6:30 AM before class and as well as after school ended. Basketball had changed him.

Joel played all four years in college, and eventually the pros. He went undrafted but played in the NBA D League. That's the NBA's version of the minor leagues.

Joel Wright, Number 15. One article called him the D league's most underrated player. In one game, he scored 41 points.

Sportscaster

Ahead to Covington. All alone-- right. He is now 18 for 18.

Jared Marcelle

It didn't pay very much-- $13,000 a year, a penny to an NBA star. Then he got an offer to play overseas. The money was great. One team paid him $25,000 a month for two months.

He asked me if I would go with him, all expenses paid. It was a foreign land and he wanted someone to make him feel comfortable. But I was trying to make my own life. I couldn't do that following him. He went to the Philippines.

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Also Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Joel Wright

You remember times where I was calling you from Saudi Arabia? Like, ah, damn me. I had goat, bro.

Like, goat-- I'm eating-- I'm Jamaican. So often time, I eat curry goat. But I never had the real goat, like-- you see what I'm saying? Bro, yo--

Jared Marcelle

What's real goat?

Joel Wright

Yo, I had the whole goat. Like, I had the whole goat in front of me, bro. Like, the tongue, the eye, the teeth, everything. It was just weird over there.

Sometimes in the middle of the game, you got to stop because it's praying time. But I like it though. The people is nice. It's genuine people, you know?

Jared Marcelle

Everyone on the team had to pray, even if they weren't Muslim?

Joel Wright

No, only basically, like, Saudis. When I went, I started praying with them. I started learning the first prayer.

I started studying, and it was very interesting. You know, because I got so equipped with the people over there, man. Like, I'm a people's guy. You know me well--

Jared Marcelle

OK, that's how he talks about it now. I remember that story a bit differently. And his time in Saudi Arabia was especially tough on him.

Joel was home sick. He'd call me almost every night, saying he missed his family. Eventually, he did come home the following March, and spent the summer playing in basketball tournaments as he prepared for his next job.

A team in Belgium was interested. The deal came just in time, as Joel's funds were low because he was too generous with his money, something I'd always warned him about. But he felt it was his job to help everyone.

And this is when Joel really entered the great unknown. There's something I haven't told you about him, and it's something he didn't even know until he was in high school. Joel is not a US citizen. His mom brought him here illegally when he was little. He's one of the DACA kids.

Right now under DACA, people like him could stay here, work, and go to school. So Joel got the opportunity to play in Belgium, which he was going to take. But then on TV one night, he saw that President Trump was trying to cancel DACA. He talked to his lawyer, who said leaving the country now would be a bad idea. He might have a hard time getting back in again.

Joel Wright

So it's like, you leave now, it's like you just leaving the country. You just leaving America and that's it. You see what I'm saying? Once you leave, it's nothing for you to come back. Nothing at all for you to come back.

So that's when it got to me. That's when I took a step back. I'm like, yo, I'mma have to really evaluate this. And then that's when I got out the contract.

Jared Marcelle

Joel told the Belgian team he wasn't coming, which ruined his reputation with them. His agent dropped him as a client. Joel ran out of money, slept on friend's couches and floors.

He got irritable and stopped training for a bit. Everyone was asking why Air Jamaica is still home. It must have been because he couldn't get a job, right?

Shame and embarrassment kept him from ever telling people he was out of money and living out of his suitcase. It kind of broke him. Here he went from being a made man to living at the mercy of others.

It had almost been two years since he played professionally, which can kill a career. Younger, fresher athletes are streamed into the talent pool every year. Then one day this spring, I got a call from him.

He'd signed a new contract. Joel was going to play for a team in Switzerland. It seemed like a terrible idea. The courts, for the moment, have kept DACA alive, but the government has stopped giving DACA recipients permission to travel abroad. So if he left, it was now totally unclear how he'd be able to get back in.

Joel Wright

I'm basically, in other words, taking my own deportation from my family, from my loved ones, from America, period. And I'm basically going to start a new life somewhere else, not knowing how I'll be able to get back in the country, not knowing if I'll ever see America again.

Jared Marcelle

One Thursday night, I went to go see Joel play at a tournament at West 4th. An older guy called the game on a megaphone.

Announcer

Gentleman, do not get hurt. Gentleman, do not get hurt.

Jared Marcelle

This is a game with a bunch of guys who make a living playing basketball. I hadn't seen Joel play in a while.

Jared Marcelle

How you feel right now?

Joel Wright

Good as shit. I just finished a great game.

Jared Marcelle

He finished the game with about 25 points, but he looked a little rusty. At least, to me he did. He's still working his way back, and I worry what if he has a bad season? The Swiss team has only guaranteed him a contract for a year.

If he gets hurt, then what? They could drop him. Then where would he be? He probably can't come home.

But whenever we talk about this, he doesn't want to hear it. He stands by his decision.

Joel Wright

You can't-- I can't name 10 people on my finger that would make that decision, but I'm happy with my decision. I'm comfortable with my decision.

Jared Marcelle

But do you understand why I'm not that comfortable with it?

Joel Wright

Yeah-- of course, I understand why you're not that comfortable with it. I mean, you, my friends, my loved one, my mom, nothing-- nobody is comfortable with it. But it comes to a time in your life when you've got to make important decisions for the things you love. You've got to make sacrifices for the things you love. And I'm just ready to sacrifice.

Jared Marcelle

Like, what's the worst case scenario? I think we both know the worst case scenario, though-- you getting hurt. And we don't know if they'll stick by you, right?

Like, we don't know if this team will stand by you and keep you around. Like, they're shipping Americans overseas like this, like a supermarket. You just buy another one.

Joel Wright

I'm not thinking about getting hurt. That's never been on my mind.

Jared Marcelle

No, of course, you're not thinking about it. But, like, these are possibilities that I feel like we have to talk about.

Joel Wright

This is possibility that's not on my mind. Because if I put that possibility in my mind, it's like I'm putting that energy in the air. That's not the energy I want in the air. That's not the vibe I want to put out in the atmosphere.

I don't want to put that, because the stake is so big for me. That can't be on my mind. Being hurt can't be on my mind.

Jared Marcelle

In sports, this is a great mentality to have. Losing isn't an option. This kind of thing is going to help him make game winning shots.

But in life, it seems like a dangerous way to live. I reminded him that last time he went abroad, it was tough on him, and he was only gone eight months. This time, it could be years.

Joel Wright

You know, this time I'm mentally prepared. Like, I'm mentally ready to fit in and to know what I'm moving towards.

Jared Marcelle

But my thing is this though, because you definitely weren't happy. You were very homesick. Like, what could have really happened in the past two years that could have you not only ready to leave, but you're leaving under the understanding that coming back here is going to be damn near-- I'm not going to say damn near impossible, but it's going to be tough.

Joel Wright

Two words-- ambition and pride. For the past two years, I felt like I haven't had control over anything, and I think that's what drove me to the worst. I feel like that's what put me in depression stage. I feel like that's what did a lot of those things to me, because I just felt like I was out of control of everything, out of my life. I felt like everything was wild.

So that makes it much easier. It makes it much easier to make decisions like that, when you deal with certain stuff. And I know I've got on the phone with you millions of time, and I express all of this stuff to you, man. Pride is a crazy thing.

Jared Marcelle

I'm scared for you. That's all I'm saying.

Joel Wright

Yeah. Me scared for me too. My mom is scared for me. Everybody's scared for me. But is scared then covering what I've got to take care of. 28 years old. What's being scared going to do to me now?

Jared Marcelle

I get it. Joel has a lot of people like me in his life, telling him this is a bad idea. But we're not offering him anything that seems better.

If it were me, I'd get a 9 to 5 job, settle into the world. But Joel doesn't want an ordinary life. His approach to dealing with adversity is to just work even harder at the thing he's good at. And that's basketball. He wants to be a basketball player again.

He just wants these last two years to be over. The risk is too great for me to cosign this move, but maybe that's my problem. Maybe in some ways I've subconsciously become a pillar of uniformity.

I asked him what he knows about Switzerland. And he said he doesn't know anything. I told him to at least Google the weather. I know he doesn't like the cold.

Joel's flight was scheduled for Thursday-- yesterday. We spent the day together. He went to the barbershop and got a haircut, then visited his mom at the restaurant she works at. She was in the kitchen cooking. She said a little prayer for him.

Joel's Mom

I'm going to miss you, man. I pray everything you do may prosperous and success. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and his Holy Spirit to guide you and protect you upon your journey.

Joel Wright

Yeah, yeah.

Joel's Mom

And guide you upon your--

Joel Wright

On this sacrifice.

Joel's Mom

It's a journey, OK?

Joel Wright

It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Joel's Mom

American and a sprint?

Joel Wright

It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Joel's Mom

Oh.

Joel Wright

It's not a sprint. It's no rush.

Jared Marcelle

After that we drove to the airport and said goodbye.

Jared Marcelle

If you happy, I'm happy. Not really, but yeah.

Joel Wright

All right, man.

Jared Marcelle

My dog, B.

Joel Wright

All right, bro.

Jared Marcelle

Air Jamaica has left the building. I just hope he can come back.

Ira Glass

Jared Marcelle lives in New York.

Act Three: A Fly On the Call

Ira Glass

Act 3-- A Fly on the Call. So there are all kinds of experiences that people avoid because they are just too far out there-- too daring, taboo. This next story is a work of fiction about somebody who gets up the nerve, and tries something that he's always wondered about.

Quick warning that this story has nothing explicit in it at all, but it refers to some grown up activities that probably aren't right for kids to hear about, and won't make much sense to lots of them anyway. This piece of fiction was written by Neil Drumming. It's read for us by an actor, Dorian Missick.

Dorian Missick

Cassie answered the phone all sharp and bothered-- "Hello?"-- like she wasn't expecting anyone, which technically I'm not anyone to her. "You're late," she said. That I was, about two minutes late. She wasn't usually this particular though.

"Yes, mistress. I'm sorry, mistress." I usually don't have much to say. Cassie and I have a routine. OK, let me back up for a minute.

A few months ago, I decided to go see a dominatrix. Like, a real one, at a dungeon and everything. It was something I'd always fantasized about and I'd just gotten out of a relationship, so I didn't have to try to hide it from anyone.

I got excited, left the office two hours early on a Tuesday, took the train to this place I had heard about in midtown. Inside, it wasn't what I was expecting, but it was a lot. The smell of leftover sweat on the leather. Muffled sound of some poor bastard down the hall getting berated. The paperwork, like, literally checking boxes next to taboo desires I don't actually have-- foot fetish, medical play, jeez.

I passed a couple other customers. White dudes under the dim, red lights. They looked me up and down like I couldn't possibly be into this stuff too. Huh, even here. They were was sort of right though.

I ended up in a room, blindfolded, with my hands cuffed behind the back. This woman with a vaguely European name and accent shut the thick wooden doors and started in with the humiliation, barking at me to kneel. I paid for the session up front, so I was trying to commit-- to submit, I should say.

I was still too much in my head, involuntarily dissecting the fantasy piece by piece. Sure, the handcuffs were real enough, but nothing else was. This woman couldn't possibly be this angry. I mean, I just got here.

She just got me down on my knees when there was a knock at the door. The mistress was called out into the hallway to deal with some dungeon-related clerical issue. So she left me there-- no explanation, no sorry, I'll be right back.

I wasn't alone. She was right outside, squabbling with the house mistress. But the point is she wasn't paying attention to me. I was there, but I wasn't considered important enough to be considered. It felt somehow great.

I felt like it didn't matter what I had to say or what I did next. She come back when she decided to come back and that was it. I don't know if that makes sense, but it was like being reminded that the world would just keep going on without me, that I was nothing, that I was weightless.

I mean, it might sound dark to some people. But I don't know, to me, it just felt like the truth. I was into it. That was it, my pervert origin story. No gamma radiation, no meteor shower, just me in a room, powerless and forgotten.

And just like anything else that feels good to you and seems weird to other people, there's a whole cottage industry dedicated to it. After only a minimal amount of research on the topics of abandonment fetish and neglect fantasy, I found myself nervously browsing online for phone sex workers who would gladly ignore me for an hourly rate.

Mistress Cassie wasn't the first woman I called for this service, but she was the one who figured me out. With the others, I'd call up and they'd make a big ruckus of running a hot bath, unwrapping some expensive gift chosen from an Amazon wish list by a wealthy admirer. I'd hear them cooing about new lingerie, clomping around their apartments in high heels.

And that was intended to be my cue to, I guess, get off somehow? For the record, it's not sexual like that for me. For me, it's a mental thing.

With Cassie, there was no, "god, it's so warm in here," or, "I got to get out of these wet clothes," exaggerated bullshit. She kept it 100% real. Most days, I'd just focus on the sound of her fingernails dragging against her laptop as she lazily surfed the web.

Sometimes she watched Netflix, smoked weed until she fell asleep, and I'd sit silently through whole episodes of Black Mirror and Archer with no responsibility other than to think about her-- what she might be wearing, was she dreaming-- knowing that I had absolutely no impact on any of it. I was a nonevent in her uneventful life.

When I was on the phone with Cassie, I could feel my muscles relax. The demands of my own existence faded away. My will disappeared into the silence between us. I breathe easier.

It's funny. I spent my whole life working twice as hard to show the next man that I'm at it, only to reach a place where I was happy being utterly beside the point. Progress is weird.

Anyway, like I said, today with Cassie was different. She was agitated from the moment she got on the line. "What exactly is it that you want to hear from me?" she asked bluntly and loud. I was used to Cassie being herself, but this was more.

"Well," she snapped, "What do you want me to say?" I froze. I didn't know how to respond. And then someone else spoke, someone else in the room with Cassie that I hadn't realized was there, some guy.

I almost laughed into the phone. I should have recognized the question right away. "What do you want me to say?"

I asked somebody the same thing in the same tone less than a year ago, and again six or seven months before that. "What do you want me to say?" It's never actually a question, is it?

Cassie had apparently answered my call while in the middle of a fight with some guy and decided to take it anyway, because that's our deal. Whatever happens, I listen. And so I heard the guy say that he thought she was being stubborn, and that was obviously something they needed to talk about.

She insisted that they were talking. They were talking right now. There was a long pause. And then he said her name, her real name. And I thought to myself, that doesn't sound right. I prefer Cassie.

Cassie let the phone hang by her side, and I felt like a kid trying to make sense of his parents arguing. But the gist of the conversation was that Cassie was planning to go away this weekend with some friends. These friends included an ex-boyfriend of hers. Cassie insisted she had no intentions of hooking up with him, but he was still an important part of her life.

The guy was not at all OK with this plan. There was some pleading and cross-talking and a lot of shouting. And at one point, a door slammed. And I stood up, alone in my own apartment.

And then it was over. "Hello?" It was Cassie, alone, in her apartment. And this time, she was definitely talking to me.

"Did you hear all of that?" she asked. Her voice was low and hoarse. She'd been crying. "Yeah," I said. "Are you OK?"

"Let me ask you something," she said, taking one of those deep, shaky breaths. "If you love someone and you know they love you, no question, wouldn't you just trust them?" "Of course," I said, because that's the answer I would have wanted to hear.

"Are you just saying that to get me to stop crying?" she asked. I suddenly became aware of all the heavy things in my apartment-- the furniture, the TV, the desk stacked with bills, and the phone in my hand with Cassie on the other end. It was exhilarating feeling her there, closer, more real than she had ever been to me before. It was also kind of freaking me out.

"That's sweet," she said. "You could have hung up a long time ago." "Don't worry about it," I said. "I'm not giving you a refund," she said.

I had to laugh. We talked for another 20, 25 minutes after that. And I mean, we did actually talk.

Turns out, Cassie and I have a lot in common. Both from Jersey, both like house music, think that Black Mirror is overrated. She was funny. I hadn't thought of her as funny. She says she had that trip coming up, and then a doctor's appointment, and then some thing at her kid's school-- something else we also had common-- but that she'd be around in the middle of next week for another session.

After we hung up, I sat down at my desk, went online, and found Cassie's Amazon wish list. I picked out something tasteful-- sexy but not too provocative. And I sent it to Cassie, two day delivery. The next week, I booked a session with someone else, someone I didn't know.

Ira Glass

Dorian Missick reading a short story by one of our producers, Neil Drumming. The two of them, by the way, made a feature film a few years back called Big Words. Neil wrote and directed, Dorian starred. It's on iTunes and Amazon Prime.

Act Four: Act Four

Ira Glass

So we close out our show today with this last story, a true story of an unadventurous explorer. The rapper Aesop Rock grew up in New York and lived in cities most of his life. And a few years ago, he decided he was going to pack up his gear and moved to the country into an actual barn to work on music. So there he is, writing lyrics and making beats in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by unfamiliar stuff, including wildlife. And he has thoughts about it.

[MUSIC - "RABIES" BY AESOP ROCK]

Aesop Rock

(RAPPING) Hey. Warm cider, barn full of spiders. Orange moon, starry night, particle exciters in a pageant rivaled only by the origin of fire. Now add an organism from alternative environs.

A dozen pair of cartoon eyes in the thicket to see a neophyte get sliced into ribbons. I'm here to pick lice off each other and assimilate, duck a suit, troubleshoot his moody user interface. True and sucker-proof, grew to fully disengage.

Float his only vanishing point away from the picture plane. Go to where the radio trails off and people catch rabies on the way to their mailbox. Under a sideways rain cornering the brier, still pull a broad sword from a hoarded synthesizer.

Nap in a hole in a tree. Cat leaving voles at my feet. Talking Master P, memory foam, everything. Jettison the rest and roulette us a new trajectory. Spinal Tap 11, tapping resin out the evergreen.

Designated dark horse, headless independently. Sidewalks end with ponds and frog eggs. Buried bones, and his very own blurry Sasquatch vids.

Led like field ants to a hot lens. 8 o'clock kittens vs. cobwebs-- fight! Maps won't work here.

Ira Glass

Aesop Rock from the album, The Impossible Kid.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Neil Drumming. People who helped make our program today-- Elna Baker, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Jared Floyd, David Kestenbaum, Anna Martin, Miki Meek, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

Special thanks today to Brent Sayers and Charlotte Taillor. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. 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. You know, we were watching The Matrix, and I look over at him, and he's cheering for the robots! For the robots! He explains to me later--

Caroline

I think we're just very different people.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "RABIES" BY AESOP ROCK]

Serial Season Three is here. Listen Now