Let us speak of our nation's monuments. When you're at the Statue of Liberty or standing under the Rotunda at the US Capitol, when you're at the Alamo, it is clear what they mean. But why do thousands of tourists go every day of the summer to Four Corners, that spot in the wilderness where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado-- four different states-- meet at one point.
I went this summer, drawn inexorably, magnetically, without quite knowing why, just like every other wandering tourist who strays within 250 miles of the place. Chances are, you have done this yourself. You've driven three or four hours out of your way. And you show up. And there's a marker on the ground, ringed by dozens, literally dozens, of t-shirt stands. And families come. And they stand on the supposed spot where the four states meet. And what? They hold hands, they sit on the ground. And then mom or dad or sis stands on a little platform they have there, built specially for this purpose, and takes a snapshot.
And then, often, there's this kind of aftermath moment where everybody sort of stands around haplessly like, what was that all about? We came for this? And then the next group comes in. The arbitrariness of it all, I think, is lost on no one. I saw one family with young kids who simply placed a teddy bear on the spot where the four states meet, and snapped a picture of that.
Couldn't any four corners hold just as much meaning as this place? And my friend, the answer, of course, is yes. And today on our program, we offer our own little national monument here on the radio, our own picture of life in America, our own four corners. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Today on our program, Four Corners, we tell the story of life in America through portraits of life on four different corners in four different states across this great nation. Act One, History. Act Two, Love. Act Three, Neighbors. Act four, How to Become an American. Stay with us.
Act One: History
Act One. Let us begin with the most epic of our four stories today. About a year ago, writer Sarah Vowell had a theory that she could tell the entire history of America by describing what happened on and around one single street corner. Specifically, the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive here in Chicago. She thought she could just swivel around and point at the whole dark and inspiring tale. Here then, her story.
When I started I had only a few things to go on, a couple of French explorers, a plaque on the bridge said, "Passed by in 1673." An Indian massacre in 1812 right there in front of the Burger King, vague notions of Abe Lincoln's debt to the Chicago Tribune, whose quaint Gothic tower looms over the bridge's north side. I thought, that's enough American history, and I'd just make up the rest.
Turns out my theory was only too right. The intersection of Michigan and Wacker, I found out, isn't just a corner, it's a vortex. The deeper I dug into the history of Chicago and its relationship to the history of the country, the more crowded the ghost traffic jam clogging up the Michigan Avenue Bridge got.
OK, I'm standing here right now on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the Chicago River is right underneath me. There are some ducks floating under there, and a boat just went by. And here's another one coming. Out there is where the river meets Lake Michigan to the east. And looking south, the place where the bridge hits land is the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, where you can get your vision checked or buy a nice fur coat, should you desire.
I'm swiveling around, and the view from the bridge is just picture postcard pretty, especially at night when the Wrigley Building is just lit up so soft it glows. Supposedly, the building so delighted Joseph Stalin that he had the University of Moscow designed in its image. And who can blame him?
The American national mythology revolves around the idea that the promise of America is best seen in the West. Home, home, on the range, et cetera. Existentially, that might be true. But economically, the real place to witness the promise of America is the Midwest, where for most of this country's history, the products of the range were manipulated for fun and profit.
When the cowboys sang, get along little dogie, they left out the part where the little dogie is railroaded to Chicago to be slaughtered by some underpaid, overworked immigrant en route to its manifest destiny as a New Yorker's supper.
The first person to grasp the significance of this place where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan was Louis Joliet, or as he's known around here, Joliet. Back when his name was still said with a French accent, Joliet was a 27-year-old fur trader who accompanied a Jesuit missionary named Jacques Marquette on a canoe expedition from Quebec in 1673. They were to map the Mississippi in the name of France, unaware that Spain had already claimed the river some 130 years before.
On the return trip, at the suggestion of their Indian guide, they traveled from the Mississippi into the Illinois River, and then the Des Plaines. They got out and carried their canoes a few dozen miles to the Chicago River, where they got back in their canoes and paddled to this very spot. Right where the river meets the Great Lakes, just below the corner at Michigan and Wacker.
And Joliet then had a vision. His map of North America-- an oddly pretty, delicate ink drawing he made in 1674-- is concerned with one thing and one thing only, water. His America is all Great Lakes and Mississippi. Look close, and you can see what he saw.
There's Lake Michigan and at only one spot, the future site of Chicago, does it connect to a river that connects to a couple of other rivers that could connect it to the Mississippi. This is what Joliet saw, that this place is a continental hub, the missing link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, and thus the Atlantic and the Gulf. All that was needed was a short canal spanning the miles of prairie between rivers.
He wrote, "We could go with facility to Florida in a bark, and by very easy navigation."
Thus, Joliet's map isn't so much a map as a prophecy. Stick your ear up against it and you can practically hear cash registers ring.
Surprisingly, they only built a bridge here in 1920. Engineers also straightened out the Chicago River and put in massive landfills over there, so the lake is further from the corner than it was in Joliet's day. And I like to picture Joliet sometimes walking up or down Michigan Avenue to the bridge, a go cup in his hand from either the Starbucks over there from the north side of the river or the Starbucks over there on the south side of the river, spitting coffee-laced saliva into the Chicago River, knowing it will float with facility all the way past New Orleans and to the ocean from there.
The first person to get cracking on Joliet's dream was Chicago's first permanent settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a trader who built a cabin here on the north side of the river in 1779, a century after Joliet paddled by. Du Sable's mother was an African slave and his father was French. He lived here on what is now the site of a 35 story office tower called the Equitable Building. With his Potawatomi wife, Catherine, Du Sable's marriage bed was itself a map of America, the mixing of European, African, and Indian blood to make a son and a daughter, true American children with three continents in their dark eyes.
Chicago school teachers like to impress upon their students that Chicago's first resident, Du Sable, was a black man. And just think, it only took 204 years for the town to elect its first black mayor.
In 1803, the United States established Fort Dearborn at what would become the corner of Michigan and Wacker to protect the portage of the Chicago River. During the War of 1812, hundreds of Potawatomi Indians descended upon the soldiers and their families and killed them, burning down the fort. The site of Chicago was then abandoned for four years. When soldiers arrived to rebuild the fort, they first had to bury the scalped human remains which still lay there.
Today, the site of the fort is weirdly commemorated here with these little bronze markers embedded in the sidewalk at Michigan and Wacker. So the tourists can dance around its former perimeter as if learning to cha, cha, cha.
And over here, there's a wildly racist relief sculpture commemorating the defense of Fort Dearborn, where a soldier from the fort is kind of battling off this savage Indian brave while a mother and child are kind of cowering behind him, basically waiting to die. And underneath that, is a plaque that says the people of the fort were brutally massacred by the Indians. They will be cherished as martyrs in our early history. What it doesn't say is that those Indians technically hadn't given over their rights to this land. But it looks like they ran out of room to put that on the plaque.
Now I'm going to walk around here back onto the bridge. And I'm looking west across the Chicago River. And if you look downriver at the turn in the river, a few blocks west, you can see the site of the old Sauganash Hotel right over there.
During the first half of the 19th century at the Sauganash Hotel, Chicagoans seemed to be play acting the juiciest bits of the country's spanking new Constitution every night. Historian Donald L. Miller writes, "At the Sauganash and its neighboring hotels, men and women of every color and class were welcome. And whiskey, song, and dance were the great democratizors.
Visitors from more civilized parts were shocked to see Indian braves spinning the white wives of fort officers around the dance floor of the Sauganash to the frenzied fiddling and toe-tapping of hotel owner, Mark Beaubien. Or white and Indian women drinking home-distilled liquor straight from the bottle. To add an edge to the evenings, local white traders would put on feathered headdresses and spring into the crowded tavern with war whoops and raised tomahawks, scaring the wits out of tight-buttoned easterners."
I can not overemphasize how much I love that story. Not just the metaphor of it, that it is the best ideal of America I can think of. The picture of liquored up ladies and dancing Indians, the strangeness of reenacting the Fort Dearborn massacre to scare the queasy easterners, turning what must have still been an open wound into a practical joke. I love that story as proof of the theorem that then, as today in Chicago, the mysterious equation of whiskey plus music equals what can only be called happiness.
The ladies of Chicago wouldn't be dancing with Indians much longer because there wouldn't be any Indians left to dance with. The city of Chicago was officially incorporated in 1833, the year the Potawatomi chief stood near the old Du Sable home and signed away their land in Illinois to the administration of Andrew Jackson, who found time in this busy schedule of relocating the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chicasaw to have the Potawatomi removed west to what US government surveyors had called, "Land too poor for snakes to live upon."
Three years after the Potawatomi signed away their land and the city was incorporated, construction began on that canal that Joliet had envisioned to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. The canal worked pretty much exactly as Joliet had imagined. So much trade moved past this corner that Chicago expanded from a muddy little Hamlet of a few hundred people to a city of over 100,000 in just 25 years.
Cyrus McCormick built his McCormick Reaper Works right here on the river in 1847. His machine, the reaper, turned out to be one of the most significant inventions in the history of history. Before McCormick, it took 3 hours to gather a bushel of wheat. And with the reaper, it took 10 minutes. Because McCormick helped mechanize agriculture, farms could take up more space and use less labor in less time. By speeding up and emptying out the country, McCormick populated the city. Not that the march of progress is necessarily benign, especially if you're one of those urban workers. Just ask the dead of the Haymarket riot who laid down their lives just 15 blocks from here for the 8 hour workday. Or read Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle, about what the stockyard employees went through on the south side.
By the Civil War, most of America's grain from the West and the vast prairie around Chicago was unloaded from trains here, traded on the commodities exchange, and then sent east on ships from Lake Michigan, all within a five minute walk of the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.
It could have been this very spot the poet Carl Sandburg was thinking of in his famous poem about Chicago, "Hog Butcher to the World." He called the city, "Tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads, and the nation's freight handler. Stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders."
So over here, tool maker. That was the reaper factory on the north side of the river. And over there, stacker of wheat on the south side. That was where these giant grain silos stood, where now is standing a giant Hyatt Hotel. The player with railroad and nation's freight handler, that's over there behind the Hyatt where the train tracks were. And look right there, the guy in the leather jacket, big shoulders.
It is my project to tell the whole history of America from this corner. And there's no telling of that history without the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president here in Chicago at the Republican National Convention in 1860, on the very site, by the way, of the old Sauganash Hotel, where the Indians and drunken ladies used to dance. And the Chicago Tribune, standing on North Michigan Avenue, a stone's throw from the bridge, not only campaigned for Lincoln, its editors talked him into running for president in the first place.
Lincoln was considering going for vice president. Maybe. The Trib's great editor, Joseph Medill, helped found the Republican Party to advance the anti-slavery cause. Medill was such a passionate abolitionist that he wrote in a Tribune editorial in 1856, "We are not unfrequently told that we crowd the Tribune with anti-slavery matter to the exclusion of other topics. We plead guilty."
Medill and company's access to the president wasn't necessarily always in their favor. At the height of the Civil War, they went to the White House and pleaded to get out of the president's new request for 6,000 more Union draftees from Cook County in Chicago. This after the area had already given up some 22,000 men. According to writer Lloyd Wendt, after Medill asked for mercy, Lincoln turned on him with that Lincolnesque biblical wrath, scolding, "It is you who are largely responsible for making blood flow as it has. You called for war until we had it. You called for emancipation, and I have given it to you. Whatever you have asked for, you have had. Now you come here begging to be let off from the call for men, which I have made to carry out the war you have demanded? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I have a right to expect better things of you. Go home and raise your 6,000 extra men."
Needless to say, Lincoln got his Chicago soldiers. And reporting the news of the president's assassination on April 15, 1865, the headline of the Chicago Tribune simply reads, "Terrible News."
Not long after the Civil War, the whole city burned to the ground, and Chicago became the place where every major architect in the country-- from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright on down to Mies van der Rohe-- worked on reinventing what a city skyline is supposed to look like. Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck revolutionized consumer merchandising with mail order catalog sales. Montgomery Ward was just two blocks from Michigan and Wacker.
In 1920, Al Capone came to town, the same year prohibition went into effect. One year after that, Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci, a member of the Dean O'Banion gang, chased by police, drove onto the Michigan Avenue Bridge just as it was opening to let a boat pass. He jumped the gap only to crash straight into the other side.
Decades pass. Manufacturing at the corner gives way to the service economy. Now it's all banks and advertising agencies and law firms. Skyscrapers, instead of warehouses. Railroads give way to the world's busiest airport on the north side of town.
If I may skip ahead in the interest of finishing this story before tomorrow morning's paper arrives-- for me, by the way, the Tribune, chock full of those anti-slavery screeds, as usual. Only an eight minute walk from the corner is the site of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, the place you could argue where modern televised democracy begins. Since that's the debate Nixon was said to lose not because of the issues, but because he looked so ghastly, sweating under the lights.
And just a short walk from there is the building where Hugh Hefner ran Playboy magazine during its heyday.
As long as we're on the subject of the decline of Western civilization, if you look over there to the second story of the NBC Tower, tucked between the Equitable and the Tribune, that's where they tape the Jerry Springer Show.
The Jerry Springer Show. It just wouldn't be the haunted landscape around the Michigan Avenue Bridge if some symbolic television apocalypse did not happen here each day. Booking guests whose near constant profanity makes this show into an unintelligible barrage of bleeps, watching it is like listening to a constant storm warning. Which is exactly what it is.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but one way you can measure the importance of this corner to our national psyche is the number of times it shows up in motion pictures, specifically the action adventure kind. Bruce Willis, Samuel Jackson, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey. There's barely an actor worth the cover of Entertainment Weekly who hasn't been in a film with a scene shot right at the corner. And why? Because these films are about the motion of planes, trains, automobiles, boats, helicopters, motorcycles, every modern means of transportation. And so where better to film them than the place that three centuries ago was spotted as our country's leading transportation hub by Hollywood's favorite unintentional location scout, Louis Joliet?
In one typical offering, Chain Reaction, Keanu Reeves plays a fugitive, motorcycle-riding University of Chicago machinist being framed for murder, treason, and terrorism. Being framed is usually a big part of all of these movies. Attempting to elude the police, he is chased down Michigan Avenue to the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The bridge starts opening and Keanu scurries up, a cop not far behind. He does a little better than Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci did in the '20s. But then, Keanu's a movie star, has a stunt double, and can do retakes.
As the angle of the raised bridge gets steeper, the cop slides to the bottom. Keanu's at the top. What should he do? He looks up. A police helicopter. He looks down. A police boat. He crawls into the bottom of the bridge as it's lowered and ducks into a garbage truck to safety. When he meets his fellow shapely fugitive who nervously awaits him at the train station, the conductor asks, what took you so long? To which Keanu deadpans--
The bridge was up.
Up, down, north, south, whatever. The point is that the bridge was right at the center of attention, in the middle of the action, at the hub.
We used to ship grain from this corner. Now that entertainment is America's second biggest export, the product we ship is Keanu.
I don't know what you're talking about. Jesus.
Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor to our program and a columnist for Salon, the online magazine.
Act Two: Love
Our program today about four different visions of America told at four different street corners across the country. We've arrived at Act Two, Love.
For Scott Richer and Julie Riggs, at the corner where South Fourth Street in Louisville, Kentucky, meets the alley behind the West End Baptist Church, things between them changed forever and irrevocably.
I think it built and built continually until it got to the point that brought us to the corner where everything was so outrageous, our emotions were so careening wildly out of control, that all we had to do was stand there and look at each other for it to be a monumental event in our lives.
The situation was Scott and I had been madly obsessed with each other for years, but we had always just been friends. And I was in a relationship at the time. So on this summer day, in this time in our relationship and our friendship when we were just friends, I stopped by his apartment or his house over on Broadway to visit him.
We had a really nice afternoon. I think we hadn't seen each other for a few weeks. But when we saw each other, we always laughed and always had fun and always made each other happy.
And then Scott, was this a day for you that was of particular torture?
A lot of days when she came over it was. It was fun, but it was bittersweet. She's always able to go away from it being happy. Being like, oh, that was so much fun. And meanwhile, I'm sitting there going, this is horrible. How can she be happy about what's happening here? It was almost like twisting the knife. It was like, ah.
So then I got in my little red Volkswagen and left and said goodbye.
I was sitting on the back porch of our house. This is a very Kentucky setting, a steamy, hot, summer afternoon. And my roommate, Jason, came out and sat down and could tell that I was affected by emotion. And he said something to the effect of, sometimes you would rather have a feast or famine.
I think it was something about a drought or a flood.
A drought or a flood, yes. So I decided, well, enough of this then. And I decided to take the gamble. And I got in my car and raced down Broadway in afternoon traffic, weaving in and out of cars trying to catch her.
And I'm just cruising along. I had left like 15 minutes before that, I think.
Yeah, I had promised myself, well, if I catch up to her before we get to Central Park, then I'll pull her over and I'm going to kiss her.
And I did catch her like right at Central Park.
Right at Central Park. I'm driving in my car and I look over and there he is. And he's like, pull over, pull over. I'm like, what's going on, completely confused. So I pull over into this parking lot right on the corner into this South End Baptist Church Parking lot, and we both got out of our cars.
And we just kind of stood leaning against our respective cars, just kind of making not even small talk. It was just like--
Everything around us kind of stopped and nothing moved. And it was impossible to describe.
Everything around you stopped and nothing moved?
You know like in a movie or in a dream. If you're having a dream, and everything's spinning really quickly. And then all of a sudden, just the one spot where you're standing stays still.
I have no idea what happened there. We both felt something tremendously powerful.
Our hearts were racing so fast. And all the background noise just kind of drops out, and all the colors get really saturated.
So then you kissed her?
Nothing happened. He just stood there.
Well, something must have happened, because we're here talking about it now. So what exactly did happen next?
I think what-- God. I don't know. Something happened. But it just seemed to me, it seemed like being there, that was my confirmation that there was something definitely still going on inside Julie that involved me. Everything wasn't hopeless.
Every time I'd drive by the parking lot-- and I actually went there at least twice that I'm sure Scott doesn't know about, just sitting in the parking lot thinking, God.
So here our story ends. Julie's old boyfriend lived a block from the corner. So she passed it every time she went to see him, and thought about that moment with Scott. And finally, ditched the boyfriend. She and Scott have been together for three years. They now live together.
The funny thing about the situation was it wasn't the first time that we were destined to have our first kiss and missed it.
Because we were in Paris together eight months earlier. And we're having a really great time and stayed up really late one night in the corridor of a youth hostel in Paris talking. And we should have kissed then, but we didn't.
Because you were with the other guy?
Because of the other guy.
Yes, even after I broke up with the guy. It still took so long.
I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted it to be something--
He wanted to wait till springtime upon a beautiful cliff somewhere. I don't know.
And you know, when we were in Paris, I thought, well, there's the other guy. And we're in Paris. And you're supposed to fall in love in Paris, so we can't do it here. It's so typical to be in Paris. Oh, our first kiss was in Paris. I didn't want to be a Hallmark card. You only have one opportunity to have your first kiss with someone.
And you missed so many of them.
They finally had their first kiss in Scott's living room. She had to make the first move.
Coming up, dogs, dead people, and a mystery. And what it takes to become an American. That's in a minute from Public Radio international. when our program continues.
Act Three: Neighbors
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Four Corners. We attempt to bring you a portrait of life in America by telling four different stories of four different street corners in four different parts of the country.
So far on our program we've heard about the past, we've heard about matters of the heart, and now we have arrived at Act Three, Neighbors. Mike Paterniti has this story of what makes a community in a cemetery in Portland, Maine, whose entrance stands at the corner of Vaughn and Clifford.
The West End Cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812. Kids that died of cholera and wives who, after 6 or 8 or 10 children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one's been buried here since the middle of this century. And so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shale headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention.
About 10 years ago, the cemetery was a popular hangout for prostitutes and junkies. But now it's just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend, Sarah, we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big, brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland.
He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents, and then raised in a little redneck town where people didn't really like Indians. He'd moved around a lot. And I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named [? Keana ?], with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifelong commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba diving outfit, and that's why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill netted in the rivers of Southeast Alaska, and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren't together anymore, and she had the house, and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me.
He didn't seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he had been the day before. And because of it, he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on [? Keana's ?] new collar or perfect shampoo while [? Keana ?] took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This was not the way things usually worked in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff's name was unusual. Usually people didn't interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was dalmatian man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was greyhound lady, regally walking her trio of greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads. And frisbee dude. And the lawn chair family, an old father and his 50 something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the pick-up artist around whom no one was safe. And there was crazy shouting man, owner of three rag-tag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery who when I finally talked to him wasn't crazy shouting man at all. His name was Al.
There are loads of people up there that I see all the time-- some of them I've been seeing for years-- and I don't know their names. I recognize them, they recognize me. We talk about all sorts of things. And it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog's name.
As a matter of fact, I've always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you've talked to a lot at the cemetery and you meet them somewhere. We were down at Granny Killam's when it was open one night. This woman came over and said, Al, how are you? How's the dogs? How's all this? And I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, and this is-- and I realized it wasn't that I had forgotten her name, it was that I'd never known her name. I knew her dog. I had no idea. This was not somebody that I just knew very casually. This was somebody I probably walked with three or four mornings a week.
But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which I think says something about who's worth knowing anyway.
Even today, what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years. And many of them just don't know each other's real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves, or hates. They just know each others' dog's name. So when they refer to one another they might say, Circe's mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own. Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping they'll say, Elroy's mom. And then with nothing left to say say, how goes it?
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet, every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben's mother, about this.
I think you really get sort of a window into people's-- I don't want to say-- well, into people's souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs, or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace, and every once in a while yelling for their dog.
I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog.
Here's Al again.
I mean, when I see people hit a dog, I'm really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that. I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn't. I know people who have got trophy dogs and people who have got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where more often than not I'd find Jeff and [? Keana. ?] The minute Jeff realized that I was a writer, he went to the library, and, over the course of the week, read everything I'd ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End Cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning, a photograph of [? Keana ?] and himself. He brought it up obsessively. About how [? Keana ?] was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped. And how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks. A good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor'easter hit. The need to time everything just perfectly so that [? Keana ?] would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for a picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect, their were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only ever saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba diving, later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears. He and [? Keana ?] in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War era husband and wife.
He in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind [? Keana, ?] who was perfectly coiffed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me. Literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks. And when I came back sometime after a massive ice storm, he was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn't seem to want to talk about it, didn't seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves. And Jeff, he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive.
What I learned was this. He'd had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He'd asked someone from the cemetery to put him up. Another line crossed, but that hadn't worked out. [? Keana ?] was taken to a kennel by [? Meeghan ?], Maddie's mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn't. Week after week, she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn't or wouldn't pick up [? Keana. ?] That he was gone. That's when [? Keana ?] was adopted by someone else. Here's [? Meeghan. ?]
You ?] start talking about this stuff with somebody, and then you realize, I didn't even know this person. Like with Jeff, it was like you knew everything about his life. But in the end, how much of that was actually true? And you didn't even know this person. It was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he had robbed a bank. Someone new someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast, maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed, betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He had become too intimate. Now he was gone. And it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else's eye.
During those dark winter months, the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived. Someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggie shampoo?
Sarah and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator, right up until a couple months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he'd been. For I was pretty certain he couldn't have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he'd been inches from a life he'd imagine for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love. With friends he was guaranteed to see every day. And he'd had a couple of bad breaks. Got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog, and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go, and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive. And every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they're in Mecca, circling the Kaaba. In general, I'd say things are back to the way they were. Intimate, but not intimate. We stand around in dumbfounded joy with 10, 20, 30 other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play.
Dalmatian man still flashes sign language at his deaf dalmatian. The pick-up artist still works his magic. The lawn chair family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day and cover their legs with wool blankets.
The fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers for long enough, eventually something happens that brings you together, sometimes something small.
The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers. And there were all these living people too, who only know me as Trout's dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me.
The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything. And we stood in a circle, watching it rise. For a minute or two, we just stood there, it glowing orange. The dogs didn't exist at all.
Mike Paterniti lives in Portland, Maine.
Act Four: How To Become An American
Act Four, How to Become an American. We have this story about a few of the things that are hard to understand, standing on a corner, when you come to this country. It's from Achy Obejas.
It was exactly noon, and the last of the weekend breakfast crowd filtered out of the diner. From the booth-lined back wall, a young woman made her way to the front to pay her check. She was tall, with reddish brown hair to her shoulders. She had a tattoo on her left wrist, a delicately etched silver and green double-headed ax. All around her, the bus boys and waitresses kept moving, the dishes clattering on the large trays.
Lupe, a voice called from behind her. She turned around, then frowned. Standing next to her was a dark, stocky young man, a few black hairs poking sharply out of his chin. He smiled sheepishly. He carried a tray of improbably balanced plates and glasses.
Hello, Raul, she said, resigned to his recognition. I didn't realized you worked here.
Yes, he said. His English too formal, crackling with Spanish underneath. He glanced at the ax on her wrist. Pedro got a job here, then he brought me. I've been here a few months already, so I should be a waiter soon. My English is much better now don't you think, he asked. The dishes on the tray rattled as he struggled to keep them from crashing to the floor.
Yes, she said, starting out the door the diner. Raul hurried to get rid of the tray and followed her out to the corner. She pulled on her sunglasses.
I haven't seen you in a long time, he said, now in Spanish. She noticed him studying her hands and made a fist, which caused the ax to expand.
I haven't seen you since, well, you know. You said some very cruel things, he continued. But I always look for you anyway, out in the streets, wondering how you are. You could've called.
Just then a pair of young men walked around them. One carrying a sheath of flyers, the other a roll of tape and a stapler. They stopped and put up some of the papers on the telephone pole next to them. The two men, young and girlish, left after they had layered the pole with announcements about an upcoming dance contest at a local club.
Lupe lowered her glasses enough to read and register the information. Raul watched her.
Well, you could call sometimes just to call. Not for anything in particular, but to let me know how you are. I worry about you, he said.
I'm sorry I didn't call, Lupe said. She pushed the glasses back up her nose.
It's just that, Raul said pouting, I mean, we're married after all. Lupe laughed.
No, Raul, you're married, she said. You knew damn well this was just a convenience for me, a business deal. I can't help it that you've spun all these stories for your family.
But it's not right, Raul said. I thought we would live together.
I never agreed to that. If it had been a condition, I never would have married you. She was squinting, her mouth was dry.
You paid me for something. All I'm doing is keeping my end of the bargain. And that doesn't include hanging around with you, your friends, or your family.
Well, I think you need me, he said, his lower lip jutting out like a fleshy ledge. I'm a good man. I can help you.
You don't get it, Raul, Lupe said, shifting her weight from one hip to the other. She stood at an angle, scratched her hand. I don't know that you'll ever get it. But suffice it to say, that I don't need you. We're not family. No matter how many justices of the peace we stand in front of.
But of course we are.
No, Raul. You have your people and I have mine.
But yours, that's not your family. You need me to help you stay in touch with your family. With your Latin self, he said angrily. He shoved one hand in his pants pocket and used the other to poke at the air. In Mexico, this wouldn't happen, and you'd have to do as I say. There are laws you know.
Lupe laughed again. In Mexico, we'd never have married, Raul. In Mexico, you wouldn't need to marry a nice American girl.
That you're American is an accident of geography, he said. You're running away from your Latin self he insisted. I know who you are. And I know who you think you are. I'm a man who has seen a little bit of the world. I may not have gone to college like you, but I know people and I know you.
Oh, please, she said, and started to walk away from the corner. He shook his head sadly and looked down at the tips of this grime-covered shoes. Then he took off, following a few steps behind her.
I didn't want to do this, he said. But you've given me no choice. Suddenly he grabbed her and threw her against the flyer-covered telephone pole.
What the [BLEEP] do you think you're doing?, she demanded, kicking and scratching at him.
I didn't want to hurt you, he said in a voice that cracked. I tried to carry this around with me all by myself. But now you give me no choice. He yanked her up, pressing his body to her's and forcing her face-to-face with him. She could see his pores. He held her like that for a moment. Then, seeing the men with the flyers across the street, he let go.
Hit me and I'll kill you mother [BLEEP]. Lupe tried to step away, readying her hands martial arts style for him.
Hey, she yelled in English to the two men across the street. This guy's trying to kill me. Can you call the cops?
The two looked at each other warily, then back across the street to Lupe in her battle stance. Raul was crying.
The things you accuse me of, they're all things that you do, he said, wiping his eyes with the back of his fists. Well, I finally went and did one of them. It hurt me to do it. But I'm a man. I couldn't put up with this any longer.
Hey, leave her alone, one of the men yelled from across the street. But it was lackluster. The second man walked slowly back to the diner where a blue metal flag advertised a public telephone inside.
Raul, I don't want you near me, do you understand, Lupe said, switching back to Spanish. I don't know what the [BLEEP] you're talking about. But I'll tell you this much. If you keep this up, I'll file a police report, and the government will figure out what we're doing. And you will be shipped back. Do you understand?
He didn't react to what she said. Instead, he took a deep breath and looked up at the sky.
I did it, you know, he finally said.
Did what, she asked, confused.
I cheated on you, he said. She stared at him, her fighting posture loosened as she struggled for comprehension.
I was with another woman, he said. Since you wouldn't act like a wife, I just couldn't take it anymore. And I had an affair behind your back.
Lupe wanted to laugh, but didn't. She was stunned by the hopeless sincerity of his unnecessary confession.
I think that's good, Raul, she finally said. I think it's good that you get out and get involved. After all, we're not really married. We're only legally married. She smiled a little as she talked, trying desperately to be supportive.
Raul closed his eyes, tears escaping from under the lids.
Oh, you are a cold, cold woman, he cried, his voice cracking again as he threw his hands in the air. Why did I have to marry such a cold woman?
Raul, you didn't marry a cold woman. You married a lesbian. He covered his ears with the palms of his hands. I don't want to hear that, he shouted. No, no, no. Lupe sighed and shook her head.
God, this is absolutely not worth it, she said, more to herself than to him. The cops are on their way, said the man who'd gone back to the diner. He strolled back across the street to his partner, who had been serving as witness to Raul and Lupe's argument.
Raul, she said, her voice softer now, if the cops get here and we're still fighting, you'll probably be in trouble. So let's just go our separate ways, OK?
Don't you care, he pleaded.
Yeah, I care, she said. That's why I'm telling you this. Please, go back to the restaurant. I'll just leave. And when the cops get here there won't be anybody to file charges.
We're still married, he insisted. As if nothing else mattered. For just one more year, Raul. So don't blow it for yourself, she said. And please don't bother me anymore. You're trying my patience. Remember that I can put you right back on the wrong side of the river.
They fell silent again.
What's that, he asked, nodding at her wrist.
An ax, she said. He smiled a little, but he had already given up.
To cut off men's balls, I suppose.
Yeah, she said. If necessary. They both laughed lightly, a little embarrassed. Raul shoved his hands in his pockets.
I hear you bought a house with Kate. With my money, he said, not meeting her eyes. She nodded. It was my money. I earned it. He looked up, but she refused to make eye contact.
You should get back to work, she said flatly. The cops will be here any moment, and I have to go.
Will you come by, see my mother, or maybe just call sometime, he asked.
You never give up, do you?
Well you should, Lupe said, then walked away. Her sharp strides put her across the street in seconds. Raul watched as she talked to the two men. After a moment, the men turned and left. Raul turned too, then quietly wandered back to the diner. By the time the squad car arrived at the corner, nobody was there.
Achy Obejas is a cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, that anti-slavery rag. This story is from her collection of short fiction, We Came All the Way from Cuba, So You Could Dress Like This?
Our program produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann and Sylvia Lemus.
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