517: Day At The Beach
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You know how it's been. In the Midwest, temperatures have been lower than at the South Pole. In Alabama, kids slept in schools. Highways shut down in Florida and Louisiana 'cause of ice.
Drivers in Atlanta ditched their cars and slept inside grocery stores. And in Southern California, it was just lovely.
Look at this! This is January! It's like 80! It's beautiful!
Sharon Jacobucci moved here from New York City years ago specifically to escape the cold. And she does not understand why the rest of us have not moved.
She has a job which puts her next to the beach all day long. A job that frankly, does not sound like a fun job. She gives out parking tickets. She's a meter maid. But 'cause it's on the beach, it makes her very, very happy.
I work all of Venice Beach. Villa Marina all the way to Navy Street.
And I write tickets. I impound vehicles. I hug people. I say hello. I socialize.
I write more tickets. I impound vehicles. I answer radio call, and hug people some more.
I work at the beach and get paid to go to the beach! You can't beat it!
Sharon was saying all this to one of our producers, Ben Calhoun. They were looking out onto the sand.
I like it. And the water. Look at that water! Look at the sand!
It's very therapeutic, especially when you're writing tickets. Sometimes you just go stand out there and you look and you go, God is good.
What do you feel when you look out that way? Out to the beach?
What cute guy is out there? [LAUGHS] What cute guy is out there!
What do you want me to say? I'm looking at the men! We're at the beach! What else would I be looking at at the beach? [LAUGHS]
And right then, right on cue, maybe 10 feet away, a young surfer starts taking off his wetsuit.
Just look at that! I get to watch the men strip! Look at him over there! Come on, honey! This is a great gig! [LAUGHS]
Sharon lives five blocks from the beach. She told Ben that she knows everybody on Venice Beach. And then he walked with her on her rounds and it was like total love fest, nonstop greetings, blowing kisses.
Don't listen to a word she says!
I love you, baby. My honey bunny.
Good morning, baby! How are you?
Fabulous. How are you?
All right, darlin'.
You do know everybody.
I just told you that.
Have you been watching the weather the last month or so with what's been going on in the rest of the country?
I think nothing of it, baby. 'Cause I'm enjoying my sunshiny view in Venice.
I don't think anything about it. Could care less. That's why I moved here.
If they don't like that, move your butts to Venice. Come to California. Hell, even go to Florida!
That's your message to them?
Yes! Pack your bags and move! Come to California! Come somewhere sunshiny beautiful!
Well, there's a lot of sympathy for you. Today on our radio show, we thought it would just be nice as we shiver, as we take our dogs for long walks in freezing temperatures, as we feel cold air leak in the windows and seep under our skins, we just thought it would be nice to get away from all that. For all of us who cannot take Sharon's advice and move to Venice Beach right this second, we can at least spend one hour thinking about places where it's warm. We can use the power of the radio to have a midwinter beach visit.
And so today on our radio show, let's just get away. Let's all get away. Let's go to the beach.
Friends, at Huntington and Malibu, they're shooting the pier. At Rincon, they're walking the nose. They're going on safari on the islands this year. So if you're coming, get ready to go.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. David Sedaris later this hour. Stay with us.
[MUSIC - "KING OF THE BEACH" BY WAVVES]
Act One: Mexican Beach Doctor
Act One, "Mexican Beach Doctor."
Oh hello? Yep, I'm here now.
Hello, little buddy. How are you?
[LAUGHS] Hi, other little buddy.
This first story takes place on a very warm beach in Mexico. Shane DuBow told it to our producer Alex Blumberg. They're old friends.
And as we were putting together this week's program, Alex remembered this thing that happened to Shane decades ago when Shane was on a kayaking trip in Mexico down in Baja California. Shane and his friends took a month long vacation. And every day, they would head out into the Gulf of California and go sea kayaking. They were really kind of in the middle of nowhere.
There's little beach communities and some little tourist centers. But mostly what we were doing was finding deserted open beaches and camping. So there was nobody around for most of the time.
Wow. So it was just you--and there was how many of them was it you said? Seven? Six, seven?
There was six or seven. And some people might go fishing, some people might play cards, some people might snorkel. I think we slept outside a lot.
It felt like we were 12 years old pretending to be Robinson Crusoe, living off the land. So we carried all our own water, all our own food, camping supplies, tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies.
Sunscreen, I hope.
Sunscreen? No, we were young then. We just figured it'd be fine.
[LAUGHING] Are you serious? You didn't bring any sunscreen?
I'm sure I didn't.
So we're in Baja. We are on a layover, which means we are just camped somewhere. We're not trying to kayak right now. And we've been clamming all day.
And my neck locks up and I can't turn my head to one side. And this is bad for lots of reasons. But when you're kayaking, you have to be able to paddle. You have to be able to use both arms.
And this neck locking up, this is something that's happened to you periodically throughout your life.
Yeah. This happens six to eight times a year.
It usually lasts three or four days.
But so no one wants to be stuck on the beach while I'm working out my neck for three or four days. So we had run into a little ex-pat community on a beach pretty close to where we were camping. These folks were living in campers and had set up little cantinas, which were really just stakes with a tarp over them and they would serve beers. Or in our case, they showed us how to clam and then they made us a clam feast.
So we went back to the guy that had shown us how to do that, to his camper on the beach. And I said, there's not any chiropractors anywhere nearby? Which was just a ridiculous question, 'cause there was nothing nearby.
And I mean, this is where it kind of gets apocryphal, but is actually true. 'Cause he gets this wistful look in his eye, and he says, no, there's no chiropractor. But there is an amateur chiropractor who helps some of the local people. And his name is Johnny Tequila.
And he lives on a boat two coves over from where you're staying. And if you go to this man, he may help you.
It was very mystical.
Right. And you were like, well, you had me at amateur chiropractor.
But once I find out that his name is Dr. Johnny Tequila--
So you said, how do you get there?
How do I get there? I was like, I don't want to miss it. And he's like, you won't miss it. I was like, well, tell me where it is.
And so he grabs a bar napkin and in black ballpoint pen I think, sketches me a rough outline of the coast, and puts an X. There's an X marks the spot. That's where Johnny Tequila is, two coves over. No one wants to go with me. They're all gonna chill out, play cards.
Oh, so you had to kayak up to this guy.
Yes. So I have to kayak to him.
And my friends had taken to teasing me about my paddle stroke, which was at this point one-armed and half crippled. And they were calling it the chicken wing.
'Cause of your neck?
'Cause of my neck.
So I chicken wing for two coves worth. Maybe a mile paddle. And you're really close to the shore, and the beach is right on your right and the open ocean is on your left. And you're chicken winging.
One cove, OK. And I'm looking at my-- and my napkin gets wet, so my map gets all destroyed, comes apart.
[LAUGHING] 'Cause the water's running down your paddle handle?
So I chicken wing on over. And there in the second cove, is a catamaran in the middle of an empty cove.
And I don't want you to get the idea that this is a harbor or a dock or anything man made. Nothing around. And it's docked in the water maybe 20 or 30 yards from shore. And as I paddle closer, I don't see anyone.
It's got a cabin. But the mast is up, no sail is up. And as I get closer and closer, I can see around the mast, lined up, are empty Cuervo Gold tequila bottles.
But kind of orderly. That was the weird thing. Usually you don't associate empty tequila bottles with order. But these had been meticulously lined up.
Ringing the mast.
Ringing the mast. And again, I'm paddling up on a boat in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. And I don't really know how to even start. And from some deep place, the word that comes to me is ahoy.
[LAUGHING] Which I've certainly never used in normal conversation. So I say, ahoy!
And from out of the cabin comes a completely naked woman. She looks American. Blond hair, tanned so deeply, it's like the tan that goes to your liver. It's just tan all the way through.
Really muscly. Her shoulders looked like she was probably a rafting guide in Colorado. So she's completely naked and completely unphased about being completely naked. Just greets me and talks to me as if she wearing clothes. And she's above me, so I'm just looking up at her being naked from my kayak holding on to the side of their boat.
And I'm in my kayak and I said, is Johnny Tequila here? And she's very nice, and she goes, no, he went to town for supplies. But he'll be back shortly. Why don't you wait until he comes back?
And then eventually Johnny Tequila, we see him on the beach near us. And he's got a little rowboat and he rows back to us.
And he looks exactly like her. I mean, he's got on shorts, but he's got that tan. He looks kind of muscly in his shoulders and chest, and they both have wild, bleached out blond hair and real scruffy.
Maybe 30s? Although the sun makes everyone look older, so who knows? And I tell him my story and he's like, yeah of course I'll perform some amateur chiropractory on your neck.
He didn't say that. He said just yeah, of course I'll help you. Follow me to shore.
So he rows and I chicken wing to the shore, and we pull our boats up. And then he said, follow me.
And now we are going-- I want to say jungle, but it was not jungle. But it's dense scrub. I mean, there's bushes all around us, there's cacti. Winding around in the middle of Mexico with no one else for miles, and I'm following him on this path, a really faint path.
And we come to a clearing. And in the clearing, there is a table exactly like a massage table or a chiropractic table you'd see in a real chiropractor's office.
With the center part that's open and you could put your face down there. And the neck part articulates and comes up. You know, it's the real deal. And a life size human skeleton hanging from a tree. Which I assume is a replica. But it looks like it.
A skeleton and the table in a clearing in the middle of the desert in Mexico. And then has me lie on my back looking up at his face and his crazy hair. And he's shirtless. Did I tell you my chiropractor is shirtless? He's shirtless. And he puts his hands around my neck.
In the middle of Mexico, in a clearing with a skeleton, my amateur chiropractor now has my neck in his hands. And he gives me a chiropractic exam that resembles every other chiropractic exam I've received. And then he does an adjustment that also passes as any other chiropractic adjustment I've received.
And I say, Johnny Tequila, thank you for adjusting my neck. Can I pay you?
And he said, no. I just do this to help people. There will be no payment. But if you ever see me in a bar, you can buy me a shot of tequila.
[LAUGHING] Then the next day, was in fact your neck better?
Well, it's possible I'm collapsing time. But the way I remember it, I chicken wing back and over the next few hours, I start to feel much, much better. And the neck is OK.
Do you think that Johnny Tequila-- when you think of Johnny Tequila, is he an argument for chucking it all and moving to some quiet beach in some distant land or is he an argument against it?
He's 100% an argument for. I can't believe you asked me that question. A simpler life. Just crack people's necks, drink tequila, sing in the cantina, and go home to my naked lady.
Did I not tell the story to make it seem good? It seemed great!
Shane DuBow talking to Alex Blumberg in Chicago.
[MUSIC - "JOHNNY" BY AB & THE SEA]
Act Two: Long Talk on a Short Pier
Act Two, "Long Talk on a Short Pier." Sam Mullins' friend Stesha was born in same month as he was, in the same hospital. Their moms were best friends.
So of course, when they were little kids, they became best friends. You know those bathtub pictures that parents take of their kids? There are bathtub shots of Sam and Stesha back when they were little toddlers growing up in this town called Vernon in Canada.
Anyway, one day his best friend Stesha moves away. He's devastated, talks to her now and then. A couple of years pass, until one summer.
Sam told what happened that summer on stage at a storytelling event called "The Flame." It was the summer before he started high school, before he turned 13.
Which is a really big summer. Because if you think about it, you need to prepare yourself to go from a building with finger paintings on the walls to go into a new building with anti-drug ads, and there's like condom dispensers in the bathrooms. And when you're sitting in the classroom looking out the window, instead of the familiar jungle gym with a slide, there's four guys wearing bandannas hot boxing in an Acura Integra.
So my plan for the summer was pretty clear. I needed to get cool fast. I wanted to wear the right things, to think the right things, to do the right things. I wasn't even concerned about having my own unique style. That first year, I just wanted to walk in already the epitome of what a high school boy was.
So I went out and I bought a skateboard. And I was really bad at it, so I just carried it around with me everywhere. It was more of an accessory than anything.
And I started listening to some new music. And I was doing push ups and sit ups and learning some guitar. And I was learning how to handle my voice cracking. The secrets to not having your changing voice crack is to just not be excited or enthusiastic about anything, ever.
I needed to learn how to play it cool, so that I'd be ready to talk to girls. Pardon me. To talk to women. So it was in the middle of this get cool fast regimen when one day my mom burst in. And she's like, hey Stesha's on the phone! Pick it up!
So I pick it up and Stesha's like, hey Sammy! Guess what? I'm coming to visit for a few weeks, and I'm actually going to be in town for my birthday! And I was wondering, since I don't have a house in Vernon anymore, and since you live on the lake, I was thinking maybe I could have my birthday party at your house.
And my mind was reeling. This was perfect. Because the best part of having a girl for a best friend is the birthday parties. At every one of Stesha's birthday parties growing up, I was always the only guy. And I used to act like it was a drag, but it was the best.
It was wonderful. So now Stesha's asking me if I wouldn't mind if she brings her 20 beautiful friends over to my-- her beautiful French immersion friends. Which in Vernon, that's as exotic as it gets.
So they're gonna come over and put on their bathing suits and swim at my house? And I don't have to lift a finger? This was perfect to me. And this whole birthday would serve as a test at the end of the summer where I can prove to myself that I am cool, and I am ready to talk to girls.
So it's the day of the party and all the pretty girls are showing up. And everything's going great. I'm playing them a burnt CD I just burnt on my new CD burner. It was all the coolest music I could think of. It was mostly just Blink-182.
And we were all swimming in the lake and eating barbecue. And I was talking to the girls and catching up with Stesha. And I was doing my best to sit in a semi-reclined position with the sun hitting me at the right angle to accentuate my abdominal muscles.
So it's a little bit later on, and all the girls are out on the dock and they're all laying in the sun. And two of them are at the end of the dock and they're hitting a volleyball back and forth and they hit the ball into the water.
And they're all like, ugh, I don't want to go in the lake! I'm all warm and dry now! And I'm like, oh my God, this is my chance! Time to be a hero. So I stand up and I'm like, "I'll get that for you." And I dramatically take off my sunglasses.
And my plan was not to merely just hop in the water and retrieve the ball. No, no, no. My plan was to run, to sprint as fast as I can and jump as far as I can. Because even at that age, I knew that that's what women really want is someone that can run and jump far.
Right, girls? So I took off. And I'm running down the center of the dock and there's girls on both sides and everyone's watching me. And I might as well have had a cape on I felt like such a hero.
I'm running down the dock, and with a few feet of dock left, trouble. Because we were swimming for a couple of hours, so the surface of the dock was really wet and slippery. And I slipped and I hit the deck, literally. But I had enough momentum from my heroic sprint that I was now sliding on the surface of the dock.
Now had I just slid off the edge and into the water, it would've been totally fine. I would've been like, "Pshaw! That didn't even hurt. I'm gonna go and get the ball now."
But that isn't what happened. Because there was a nail up. And the nail cut me. From here to about here. And about here, it caught on to my bathing suit.
Now had the bathing suit ripped and then I fell in, it would've been OK. Or even if it fully caught my suit and it ejected me from the suit naked into the lake, I truly believe that I could've brought it back. That would've been OK.
I would've been like, "Wow, what a freak accident! Could you pass me my trunks? I'm gonna go and get the ball now."
But that isn't what happened. Because the good people at Quicksilver make too fine a product and my trunks didn't rip. So what happened was I went over the edge and I swung and I hit my head on the pillar. And my legs were straight up in the air kicking like mad. And I'm splashing around. My head is half underwater, and my penis is out.
So I'm upside down and I think I'm drowning and I don't know what's happening. I'm in fight or flight, I'm splashing. And what does one do when you're in what you perceive to be a life and death situation?
"Mom! Mommy! Help Mom! Help Mom!"
And what happened next I have to give to you second hand, because I was underwater. But legend has it that my mom was inside making a potato salad. And she heard me calling for help and she snapped into action and she knocked the screen sliding door off the track and she was hurdling over lawn furniture and weaving through girls. And she got to me and she pulled me to safety in a matter of seconds.
And I was so confused. I was like, what, what the [BLEEP]? [BLEEP]. What the [BLEEP]? And I'll always remember, my mom whispered in my ear, "Honey, quit cursing."
And I'm covered in blood and I'm shaking. And I remember I turned my attention to the girls halfheartedly trying to conceal their laughter. And I looked out at the lake and I could see the ball. And it was long gone, it was floating away. Thank you.
Sam Mullins. He's a comedian and comedy writer in Vancouver.
[MUSIC - "POOL PARTY" BY THE TWO MAN GENTLEMAN BAND]
Act Three: The Beachcomber
Act Three, "The Beachcomber." OK, so the absolute beachiest radio show I think maybe that has ever been made-- I believe, anyway-- was done by my first boss at NPR, this documentary producer named Keith Talbot. He made this back in 1979. It was called Ocean Hour.
And I love that show. Like I say, I think it's beachiest radio show mankind will ever produce, and here is one of my favorite parts.
Just before I play this, I should say this is such a piece of 1970s era public radio that there's no narration on the show giving the name of the interviewee who you're about to hear or where he is. That's how we rolled back then. Anyway, I hope you like this.
Here is a scrounger's life. Everything is like a beachcomber.
I have lived as poor as a man can live and still survive in United States of America in the 1970s. Because everything comes here somehow sooner or later.
Wood, oysters, the various other fish that you can get for the asking. Mullet, which is the big, good eating fish around here, along with trout and catfish, which come from the rivers. You have the river cat and the salt water cat. They seem to be cousins, but they taste a little different.
And in addition to all of that, you get the kinds of things that the sea brings, which is from boats. There's always a certain amount of movement of cargo in boats as well as fish.
And firewood around here is for the asking. In a city like New York or Washington, firewood I'm sure costs $100 a truckload, $200. Round here you can go out and fill it up for nothing.
There is a theory, for example, in archaeology that all of the early settlements were on the coast of man. That that's where the easiest life has always been, where everything was for the taking and you had the sea and you had the land together and the various mutations between them.
And that's where food chains likely start, where you have that melting land or that solidifying water. That's where the organisms get their start, especially if you have the right climate.
As a poor man, it means that things are coming to me which don't happen very much on the prairie or in the big cities. Nothing comes to your door in a big city except a cop or a taxi driver or something. But here things will actually come to your door.
I have a houseful of found objects, and they get more beautiful all the time. And every day I pick up something. All kind of shells and driftwood, trees. There's an enormous number of things that nature presents to you.
This coast gives a way of life that is really almost-- this is like a myth to me. If you can imagine living like the 19th century, 18th century. Thoreau could've lived here. Thoreau could still live here. And yet most people in America think that that has gone.
And yet we're in a time warp here. Temporarily, because as you see, it's going. It's going hourly right now.
An excerpt from Ocean Hour in 1979. A link to that entire program is at our website, ThisAmericanLife.org.
Coming up, David Sedaris and his family go to the beach. Except for one of them. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today after these awful weeks where we have all had to learn the phrase "polar vortex" to describe daily life in the United States, we have decided that we're going to spend an hour getting away from all that with stories of places where it is hot, with stories from the beach.
Act Four: Now We Are Five
We've arrived at Act Four of our show. Act Four, "Now We Are Five."
OK, if you're a beach family, you go to the beach every year, even bad years for your family. That is just what you do.
David Sedaris has a story about that happening in his family. The story was recently published in The New Yorker. I'm guessing that some of you may have read it. Here at our show, we really loved this story and know lots of you have not seen it, so here it is. Here's David Sedaris.
In late May of last year, a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday, my youngest sister Tiffany committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down.
I was given the news over a white courtesy phone while at the Dallas airport. Then, because my plane to Baton Rouge was boarding and I wasn't sure what else to do, I got on it. The following morning, I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta. And the day after that, I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever shrinking family.
A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I'd lost the identity I'd enjoyed since 1968, when my brother was born. "Six kids?" people would say. "How do your poor folks manage?"
There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous.
A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come together with their wrecking crew of three. When they'd leave several hours later, every last part of me would feel violated. Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV. That's what my parents had to deal with.
Now though, there weren't six. Only five. "And you can't really say there used to be six," I told my sister Lisa. "It just makes people uncomfortable."
I recalled a father and son I'd met in California a few years back. "So are there other children?" I asked. "There are," the man said. "Three who are living, and a daughter-- Chloe-- who died before she was born 18 years ago."
That's not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what's a person supposed to do with that?
Compared to most 49 year-olds, or even most 49 month-olds, Tiffany didn't have much. She did leave a will though. In it she decreed that we, her family, could not have her body or attend her memorial service. "So put that in your pipe and smoke it!" our mother would've said.
A few days after getting the news, my sister Amy drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany's room. Family photos-- many of which had been ripped into pieces-- comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts. The bed, a mattress on the floor, had been taken away and a large industrial fan had been set up.
Amy snapped some pictures while she was there. And individually and in groups, those of us left studied them for clues.
A paper plate on a dresser that had several drawers missing. A phone number written on a wall. A collection of mop handles, each one a different color, arranged like cattails in a barrel painted green.
Six months before our sister killed herself, I'd made plans for us all to gather at a beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina. My family used to vacation there every summer, but after my mother died we stopped going. Not because we lost interest, but because it was she who always made the arrangements and more importantly, paid for it.
The place I found, with the help of my sister-in-law Kathy, had six bedrooms and a small swimming pool. Our week long rental period began on Saturday, June 8th, and we arrived to find a delivery woman standing in the driveway with seven pounds of seafood, a sympathy gift sent by friends. "They's slaw in there too," she said, handing over the bags.
In the past, when my family rented a cottage, my sisters and I would crowd the door like puppies around a food dish. Our father would unlock it and we'd tear through the house claiming rooms.
I always picked the biggest one facing the ocean. And just as I'd start to unpack, my parents would enter and tell me that this was theirs. "I mean, just who the hell do you think you are?" my father would ask. He and my mother would move in and I would get booted to what was called the maid's room. It was always on the ground level, a kind of dank shed next to where the car was parked.
There was never an interior stairway leading to the upper floor. Instead I had to take the outside steps, and more often than not, knock on the locked front door like a beggar hoping to be invited in.
"What do you want?" my sisters would ask. "I want to come inside."
"That's funny," Lisa, the eldest, would say to the others who were gathered like disciples around her. "Did you hear something, a whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that? A hermit crab? A little sea slug?"
Normally there was a social divide between the three oldest and three youngest children in my family. Lisa, Gretchen, and I treated the others like servants and did very well for ourselves. At the beach though, all bets were off. And it was just upstairs against downstairs, meaning everyone against me.
This time, because I was paying, I got to choose the best room. Amy moved in next door, and my brother Paul, his wife, and their 10-year-old daughter Maddie took the spot next to her. That was it for oceanfront. The others arrived later and had to take the leftovers.
Lisa's room faced the street, as did my father's. Gretchen's faced the street and was intended for someone who was paralyzed. Hanging from the ceiling were electric pulleys designed to lift a harnessed body into and out of bed.
Unlike the cottages of our youth, this one did not have a maid's room. It was too new and fancy for that, as were the homes that surrounded it.
Traditionally, all the island houses were on stilts. But more and more often now, the ground floors are filled in. They all have beachy names and are painted beachy colors. But most of those built after Hurricane Fran hit the coast in 1996 are three stories tall and look almost suburban.
This place was vast and airy. The kitchen table sat 12. And there was not one, but two dishwashers.
All the pictures were ocean related. Seascapes and lighthouses, all with the airborne Vs that are shorthand for seagull. A sampler on the living room wall read "Old shellers never die, they simply conch out."
On the round clock beside it, the numbers lay in an indecipherable heap, as if they'd come unglued. Just above them were printed the words "Who cares?" This was what we found ourselves saying whenever anyone asked the time. "Who cares?"
The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany's obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old and had a house. But what else could you do?
People were leaving responses on the paper's website, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody's trashcan. He said she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the 1960s that included a photo spread titled "The Ass Menagerie."
This was fascinating, as we didn't really know our sister very well. Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives. We'd had to, in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to our own specific Sedaris.
Tiffany though, stayed away. She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there'd always be some excuse. She missed her plane, she had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations.
"The rest of us managed to make it," I'd say, aware of how old and guilt trippy I sounded. All of us would be disappointed by her absence, though for different reasons.
Even if you weren't getting along with Tiffany at the time, you couldn't deny the show she put on. The dramatic entrances, the nonstop professional grade insults, the chaos she'd inevitably leave in her wake. One day she'd throw a dish at you and the next she'd create a mosaic made of the shards. When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out, she'd take up with someone else.
At no time did she get along with everybody, but there was always someone she was in contact with. Toward the end, it was Lisa. But before that, we'd all had our turn. The last time she joined us on Emerald Isle was 1986. "And even then, she left after three days," Gretchen reminded us.
As kids, we spent our beach time swimming. Then we became teenagers and devoted ourselves to tanning.
There's a certain kind of talk that takes place when you're lying dazed in the sun, and I've always been partial to it. On the first afternoon of our most recent trip, we laid out one of the bedspreads we'd had as children and arranged ourselves side by side on it, trading stories about Tiffany.
"What about the Halloween she spent on that Army base? And the time she showed up at Dad's birthday party with a black eye."
"I remember this girl she met years ago at a party," I began when my turn came. "She'd been talking about facial scars and how terrible it would be to have one. So Tiffany said, 'I have a little scar on my face and I don't think it's so awful.' 'Well,' the girl said, 'you would if you were pretty.'"
Amy laughed and rolled over onto her stomach. "Oh, that's a good line."
I rearranged the towel I was using as a pillow. "Idn't it, though?"
Coming from someone else, the story might have been upsetting. But not being pretty was never one of Tiffany's problems, especially when she was in her 20s and 30s and men tumbled helpless before her. "Funny," I said, "but I don't remember a scar on her face."
I stayed in the sun too long that day and got a burn on my forehead. That was basically it for me and the beach blanket. I made brief appearances for the rest of the week, stopping to dry off after a swim. But mainly I spent my days on a bike, cycling up and down the coast and thinking about what had happened.
While the rest of us seemed to get along effortlessly, with Tiffany it always felt like work. She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me. And at the time of her death, we hadn't spoken in eight years.
During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville. And though I'd always toy with the idea of contacting her, I never did, despite my father's encouragement. Meanwhile, I'd get reports from him and Lisa. Tiffany had lost her apartment, had gone on disability, had moved into a room found for her by a social service agency.
Perhaps she was more forthcoming with her friends, but her family got things only in bits and pieces. She didn't talk with us so much as at us. Great blocks of speech that were in turns funny, astute, and so contradictory it was hard to connect the sentence you were hearing to the one that preceded it. Before we stopped speaking, I could always tell when she was on the phone. I'd walk into the house and hear Hugh say, "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh."
In addition to the two boxes that Amy had filled in Somerville, she also brought down our sister's 1978 ninth grade yearbook. Among the messages inscribed by her classmates was the following, written by someone who had drawn a marijuana leaf beside her name.
"Tiffany, you are a one of a kind girl, so stay that way, you unique ass. I'm only sorry we couldn't have partied more together. This school sucks to hell. Stay cool, stoned, drunk, [BLEEP] up. Check your ass later."
Then there's, "Tiffany, I'm looking forward to getting high with you this summer." And "Tiffany, call me some time this summer and we'll go out and get blitzed."
A few weeks after these messages were written, Tiffany ran away and was subsequently sent to a disciplinary institution in Maine called Elan. According to what she told us later, it was a horrible place. She returned home in 1980, having spent two years there. And from that point on, none of us can recall a conversation in which she did not mention it.
She blamed the family for sending her off. But we, her siblings, had nothing to do with it. Paul for instance. Paul was 10 when she left. I was 21.
For a year I sent her monthly letters. Then she wrote and told me to stop.
As for my parents, there were only so many times they could apologize. "We had other kids," they said in their defense. "You think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?"
We were at the beach for three days before Lisa and our father-- who is now 90-- joined us. Being on the island meant missing the spinning classes he takes in Raleigh, so I found a fitness center not far from the rental cottage and every afternoon he and I would spend some time there. On the way over, we'd talk to each other. But as soon as we mounted our stationary bikes, we'd each retreat into our own thoughts.
It was a small place, not very lively. A mute television oversaw the room, tuned to the Weather Channel and reminding us that there's always a catastrophe somewhere or other, always someone flooded from his home, or running for his life from a funnel shaped cloud.
Toward the end of the week, I came upon my father in Amy's room, sifting through the photos that Tiffany had destroyed. In his hand was a fragment of my mother's head with a patch of blue sky behind her. Under what circumstances had this been ripped up, I wondered. It seemed such a melodramatic gesture, like throwing a glass against a wall. Something someone in a movie would do.
"Just awful," my father whispered. "A person's life reduced to one lousy box."
I put my hand on his shoulder. [CLEARS THROAT] "Actually, there are two of them."
He corrected himself. "Two lousy boxes."
One afternoon on Emerald Isle, we all rode to the Food Lion for groceries. I was in the produce department looking at red onions when my brother sneaked up from behind and let loose with a load "Achoo!" This while whipping a bouquet of wet parsley through the air.
I felt the spray on the back of my neck and froze, thinking a very sick stranger had just sneezed on me. It's a neat trick, but he also dowsed the Indian woman who was standing to my left. She was wearing a blood-colored sari, so got it on her bare arm as well as her neck and the lower part of her back.
"Sorry, man!" Paul said when she turned around, horrified. "I was just playing a joke on my brother!"
The woman had many thin bracelets on and they jangled as she brushed her hand against the back of her head. "You called her man," I said to him after she walked off.
"For real?" he asked. Amy mimicked him perfectly. "For real?"
Over the phone, my brother, like me, is often mistaken for a woman. As we continued shopping, he told us that his van had recently broken down. And that when he called for a tow truck, the dispatcher said, "We'll be right out, sweetie!"
He lowered a watermelon into the cart and turned to his daughter. "Maddie's got a daddy who talks like a lady, but she don't care, do she?" Giggling, she punched him in the stomach, and I was struck by how comfortable the two of them are with each other. Our father was a figure of authority, but Paul is more of a playmate.
When we went to the beach as children, on or about the fourth day, our father would say, "Wouldn't it be nice to buy a cottage down here?" We'd get our hopes up and then he would bring practical concerns into it.
They weren't petty. Buying a house that will eventually get blown away by a hurricane probably isn't the best way to spend your money. But still, we wanted one desperately.
I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and then it would be everyone's. As long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it.
Thus it was on Wednesday morning midway through our vacation Hugh and I contacted a real estate agent named Phyllis, who took us around to look at available properties. On Friday afternoon, we made an offer on an oceanfront cottage not far from the one we were renting. And before sunset, our bid was accepted.
I made the announcement at the dinner table and got the reaction I had expected. "Now wait a minute," my father said. "You need to think clearly here!"
"I already have," I told him. "OK then, how old is the roof? How many times has it been replaced in the past 10 years?"
"When can we move in?" Gretchen asked. Lisa wanted to know if she could bring her dogs, and Amy asked what the house was named.
"Right now, it's called Fantastic Place," I told her. "But we're going to change it."
I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the Ship Shape. Now though, I had a better idea. "We're going to call it The Sea Section."
My father put down his hamburger. "Oh no you're not!"
"But it's perfect!" I argued. "The name's supposed to be beachy, and if it's a pun, all the better." I brought up a cottage we'd seen earlier in the day called Dune Our Thing, and my father winced.
"What about naming it Tiffany?" he said. Our silence translated to let's pretend we didn't hear that. He picked his hamburger back up. "I think it's a great idea. The perfect way to pay our respects."
"If that's the case, we could name it after Mom," I told him. "Or half after Mom and half after Tiffany. But it's a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn't fit in with the names of the other houses."
"Oh baloney!" my father said. "Fitting in! That's not who we are. That's not what we're about."
Paul interrupted to nominate the Conch Sucker. Amy's suggestion had the word seamen in it, and Gretchen's was even dirtier.
"What's wrong with the name it already has?" Lisa asked. "No, no, no," my father said, forgetting I think, that this wasn't his decision.
A few days later, after the buyer's remorse had kicked in, I'd wonder if I hadn't bought the house as a way of saying, see, it's just that easy. No hemming and hawing, no asking to look at the septic tank. Rather you make your family happy and iron out the details later.
The cottage we bought is two stories tall and was built in 1978. It's on proper stilts and has two rear decks, one above the other overlooking the ocean. It was rented to vacationers until late September, but Phyllis allowed us to drop by and show it to the family the following morning after we'd checked out of the house we'd been staying in.
A place always looks different-- worse, most often-- after you've made the commitment to buy it. So while the others raced up and down the stairs claiming their future bedrooms, I held my nose to a vent and caught a whiff of mildew.
The sale included the furniture, so I also made an inventory of the Barcaloungers and massive TVs I would eventually be getting rid of, along with the shell patterned bedspreads and cushions with anchors on them. "For our beach house, I want to have a train theme," I announced. "Trains on the curtains, trains on the towels. We're gonna go all out." "Oh brother," my father moaned.
We sketched a plan to return for Thanksgiving. And after saying goodbye to one another, my family splintered into groups and headed off to our respective homes. There'd been a breeze at the beach house, but once we left the island the air grew still. As the heat intensified, so did the general feeling of depression.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, the road back to Raleigh took us past Smithfield and a billboard on the outskirts of town that read "Welcome to Klan Country." This time we took a different route, one my brother recommend.
Hugh drove and my father sat beside him. I slumped down in the back seat next to Amy and every time I raised my head, I'd see the same soybean field or low slung cinder block building we'd seemingly passed 20 minutes earlier.
We'd been on the road for a little more than an hour when we stopped at a farmer's market. Inside an open air pavilion, a woman offered complimentary plates of hummus served with a corn and black bean salad, so we each accepted one and took seats on a bench.
20 years earlier, the most a place like this might have offered was fried okra. Now there was organic coffee, and artisanal goat cheese. Above our heads hung a sign that read "Whispering Dove Ranch."
And just as I thought that we might be anywhere, I noticed that the music piped through the speakers was Christian. The new kind, which says that Jesus is awesome.
Hugh brought my father a plastic cup of water. "You OK, Lou?" "Fine, " my father answered.
"Why do you think she did it?" I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight, for that's all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Mustn't Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she'd taken wouldn't be strong enough? And that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us of all people?
This is how I thought of it. For though I've often lost faith in myself, I've never lost faith in my family. In my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It's an archaic belief, one I haven't seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it.
Ours is the only club I'd ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn't imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable. But to want out so badly that you'd take your own life?
"I don't know that it had anything to do with us," my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn't the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?
At the far end of the parking lot was a stand selling reptiles. In giant tanks were two pythons, each as big around as a fire hose. The heat seemed to suit them, and I watched as they raised their heads, testing the screen ceilings.
Beside the snakes was a low pen corralling an alligator with its mouth banded shut. It wasn't full grown, but perhaps an adolescent, around three feet long and grumpy looking. A girl had stuck her arm through the wire and was stroking the thing's back while it glared, seething.
"I'd like to buy everything here, just so I could kill it," I said. My father mopped his forehead with Kleenex. "I'm with you, brother."
When we were young and would set off for the beach, I'd look out the window at all the landmarks we drove by-- the Purina silo on the south side of Raleigh, the Klan billboard-- knowing that when we passed them a week later, I'd be miserable. Our vacation over, now there'd be nothing to live for until Christmas.
My life is much fuller than it was back then, yet this return felt no different. "What time is it?" I asked Amy. And instead of saying "Who cares?" she said, "You tell me. You're the one with the watch on."
At the airport a few hours later, I picked sand from my pockets and thought of our final moments at the beach house I'd bought. I was on the front porch with Phyllis, who had just locked the door, and we turned to see the others in the driveway below us.
"So is that one of your sisters?" she asked, pointing at Gretchen. "It is," I said. "And so are the two women standing on either side of her."
"Then you've got your brother," she observed. "That makes five. Wow, now that's a big family."
I looked at the sun-baked cars we would soon be climbing into, furnaces, every one of them, and said, "Yes. It certainly is."
David Sedaris is the author of many books, most recently, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls.
[MUSIC - "USED TO BE" BY BEACH HOUSE]
[MUSIC - "DAY AT THE BEACH" BY ATLANTIC THRILLS]
Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Alison Davis.
Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.
Research help today from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damian Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Willow Yamauchi, Craig Desson and the Factory Theater in Toronto.
Our website, ThisAmericanLife.Org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
Thanks as always to our show's co-founder Torey Malatia, who remembers meeting Hillary Clinton-- incredible--at some crazy beach party back in the '70s. There she appeared--
A completely naked woman. Blond hair, really muscly. Her shoulders looked like she was probably a rafting guide in Colorado.
I'm Ira Glass. Stay warm. Wear a hat. And I'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.
[MUSIC - "DAY AT THE BEACH" BY ATLANTIC THRILLS]
PRI, Public Radio International.