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I'm in the office of Dr. L. J. Drakovich, who examines dead bodies for the police in Pontiac, Michigan. And he's running through this carousel of slides, all of the murder victims, they're close ups of body parts. They say, as you just, like, flip through these things. This is the grizzliest slideshow I've ever seen. It's just like every slide is some.


There's another other story.




Every crime scene is a story of its own, is a novel, and it opens up in every direction.


To illustrate, he tells me this story back when he worked in the Wayne county coroner's office in Detroit. There was a young woman. This story, by the way, probably is not suitable for younger children. Okay. Anyway, there's this young woman. She apparently killed herself by taking her boyfriend's gun, putting it on her mouth and firing. It was ruled as suicide. That's what the police thought. That's what the other medical examiners thought. But Dr. Djokovic wondered, this woman didn't have a history of depression. There's no note.


My colleagues tease me as being paranoid and seeing things where they were not.


So he does the examination, including the inside of the woman's mouth.


In this particular case, the tongue showed two holes.


Two holes, he says, is very strange in this kind of case because usually he told me, this gets a little explicit again, usually, he says, when people shoot themselves in the mouth to kill themselves, they kind of point the gun upward toward the brain. The tongue doesn't get involved at all, doesn't get injured. The only way this could have happened, he realized, is if the tongue was all bunched up, kind of pushing against the tip of the gun, the muzzle of the gun, when the gun went off. But why would you do that? Why put your tongue there if you were killing yourself?


In my assessment of this, this was a homicide. Now, do I know for sure? No, I did not. But that's the logic.




So I told the detectives that that was my finding. They went back to interview the boyfriend, and they said, we know that you shot her. They said, no, I didn't. I said, yes, we know. The doctor told us. He said, what doctor? This is the doctor that did the autopsy. He said, what autopsy? I called the coroner's office two weeks ago, and they told me they never did autopsies.


And course, you know, why call the coroner's office to ask that question if you're not planning on killing anybody? It did not take very long after that, he said, for this guy to confess. As Dr. Drakovich says every crime scene is a novel. Today on our radio program, we dive into those crime scenes and the novels that led to them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's this american life. Myra Glass and you know, the thing that makes a crime scene such a strange kickoff to any story, any detective's investigation, is that the crime scene is filled with details, but it is totally unclear which ones are the important ones. Years back, I was talking to this former forensic criminologist, Enrico Tonieri about this, and he said, sure, at a crime scene there's all the stuff you would imagine from watching crime shows on tv. The way the blood splattered on the floor, broken glass fell, can give helpful information. Yeah, there's certain routine things that you would look for. And let's say you get into a scene where there's still some food on the table. You want to see if it's still warm. You want to see where the placing of the utensils might be.


That might give you a clue whether it's a right handed or left handed person that was last there. A smell could be important. You never know if you can remember. Can you think of a case where an utterly ordinary object ended up being the piece of evidence that clinched it?


Well, as a matter of fact, it.


Was a burglary with a piece of cheese that had a tooth mark in it. And we were able to match the bite mark to the individual that did the burglary. What, just a piece of cheese left in her refrigerator? The individual decided to help himself with some food, and he took a bite.


Out of a piece of cheese.


For what it's worth, often a bite mark is not good evidence, but in this case, he had a unique enough bite mark that we were able to identify it. When the police are done with a crime scene, who actually cleans up the crime scene? Usually the person who owns the property, we would mark it as a possible biohazard, and then the individual would hire whoever he wanted to hire to have it cleaned up.


Other drivers stare at Neil Smither's truck and sometimes take pictures. On the sides and back of it, in big red letters is the company name. Crime scene cleaners specializing in homicides, suicides and accidental deaths.


Well, that's Nancy Updike, and this is act one of our program. Act one, grime scene. Back when we first broadcast today's program, this was a few years back, Nancy went to a town near San Francisco to see Neil Smither, who cleans up crime scenes for a living. Quick warning, some of this might not be suitable for younger listeners, the squeamish and wimps. Also, we have unbeep, the curse words here on the podcast. If you prefer a beeped version of our show, it's at our website.


After spending two days with Neil Smither, I was this close to signing up to open his Los Angeles franchise. I'm not joking. Neil spends all day, every day, speeding around in a huge white pickup truck with a cell phone glued to his ear, making sure his company gets to dispose of every drop of blood within driving distance of Arinda, California, and his franchises in Utah, Kansas, Texas, Las Vegas, and Alabama. Mostly he doesn't leave the truck. He's had this one for about a year, and it's got 90,000 miles on it. Neil is absolutely blunt about his job to the point of crassness.


I did a job one time. An old guy dropped dead, decomposed on his kitchen floor. So when we got there, we had about a ten x five foot square pool of just gore. No power in the house, so it's dark, it's very quiet. I'm in there with a respirator because it was just humming. It smelled. Hearing this noise, and I shouldn't be hearing a noise. There's no power in this house.




I get a flashlight. I'm hearing this funky noise, man.


What the fuck is that?


So I get closer to Gore with my light, and it's just a bowling ball size thing of maggots. And they're riffing around in the blood and the gore. And it sounds like when you need.


Hamburger, the maggots were making a sound.


That you could hear so many of them, just so many of them riffing around in this pool of Gore that, yeah, you could hear them.


The only time he speaks gently about what he does is on sales calls.


Hi, there.


This is Neil. May I help, sir? Yes, sir. All righty. That's all you need to tell me? Let me kind of walk you through how we work. We'd have a crew to you within the hour. They'd write you up a free estimate. If you like the estimate. They'd rock and roll on that job right then and there. Our services are all.


By the way, have you noticed Neil's southern accent? He made it up. He borrowed it from his Arkansas grandparents so he could play steel magnolia during business negotiations. He grew up in Santa Cruz. He has no problem admitting the accent is cultivated.


Something about a southern voice, it just kind of opens up a trusting vein, which is great. I mean, that's what I want.


Neil has that tightly wound energy. Like Jim Carrey. He's five five with short brown hair under a baseball cap and sunglasses. He smokes, cools, does not stop for lunch, and drives way too fast. The directness, the crassness is all deliberate. It's his marketing strategy.


Gore sells. Look at the truck. We're pretty upfront. I hope I don't offend too many people. I try to be honest with know. I mean, we're dealing with death. How do you sugarcoat death? You can't.


Neil describes for me the outline left on a pleather couch by a body that has decomposed into it over the course of 60 days. And I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is gross. It is. It's gross, but it's interesting. And to me it's much more interesting than it is gross. I mean, think of it. A melted person. Four years ago, Neil had never seen a dead body. He was a laid off mortgage broker, for God's sake. Then he saw pulp fiction. Remember that scene where John Travolta blows the guy's head off in the back of the car by mistake and they have to call in Mr. Wolf to fix?


Everything you two fellas to do is.


Take those cleaning products and clean the.


Inside of the car.


You need to go in the backseat, scoop up all those little pieces of brain and skull, get it out of there.


Neil is possibly the only person in America who saw that scene and thought, wow, I want that job. And it turns out it is a real job. If someone dies in your house, it's up to you to get it clean. But doing it yourself, even if you wanted to, raises all sorts of problems. Are you complying with the state and federal laws governing the disposal of bodies and bodily fluids? Do you have the proper permits and liability coverage? No, you don't. So you call Neil. Here's how his job breaks down. Murders are the least of his business. Most of the cleanups are either decomps, bodies that have sat for a while and started to decompose.


I did a decomp on the very end unit upstairs there.


It was bad.


How long had it been going?


He sat for a good long while. He was all humming. Maggots everywhere.


Typical decomp or suicides. Suicides and attempted suicides are a surprisingly big part of his job. The rest of Neil's business consists of meth labs and kitty houses. Kitty houses are those places usually full of old newspapers and other garbage that have dozens of cats everywhere, eating and peeing and crapping. Meth labs are usually hotel accounts. Neil has a few national chains on contract. Hotel rooms get used all the time to cook methamphetamine. Neil says he does a lot of business with hotels. He claims, hyperbolically, that there's no hotel in the country that hasn't had a murder or suicide in one of its rooms. The second day I spend with Neil, he gets called out to a jail to clean up after a woman who tried to kill herself in the bathroom off the prisoner's waiting room. I'm not allowed to record anything. I have to just watch. I hold open the bathroom door with my foot while Neil sets up his stuff. Next to the sink are several thick, dark red drops of blood, and there are a few streaks of blood on the wall. Inside the sink is more blood. It isn't a lot, maybe a third of a cup overall, but clearly she did some damage.


Then, while Neil is getting into his protective suit, a woman in the waiting room behind us, a tweaker, Neil confided to me later, meaning a meth user, reads the back of Neil's shirt out loud. Crime scene cleaner. As she says, you cleaned my mother's house? Neil turns around. Yeah, which one was that? Without any emotion, the woman says, her mother and cousin were murdered by her mother's boyfriend a while ago. You guys cleaned the house? She repeats. Oh, yeah, I remember that one. That was on the news, Neil says. The woman nods and doesn't say anything. So Neil goes back to cleaning. He whips through it in about ten minutes like it's spilt milk. In fact, it's exactly like cleaning up a mess at home, except with industrial strength cleansers and equipment. He snaps on some rubber gloves, sprays the whole area with a special enzyme to neutralize the blood and kill any bacteria or viruses, scrubs any tough spots with a little brush, and then wipes everything clean with heavy duty paper towels. It isn't hard, just depressing.


Bottom line?


I'm a businessman. I'm an entrepreneur. I want to make money and build my company.


Were you like this as a kid?


Well, I was the kid in school who would buy boxes of blow pops and bring them to school and sell them at lunch. I was a kid at school who ran a lunch ticket scam.


What was the lunch ticket scam?


I had a girlfriend in the office, the head office in high school, and she'd kick me down with lunch tickets for a discounted price and then I'd sell them for an increased price, but it was still lower than what the mexican kids or whoever could buy them from. The school. So figure I beat the school by twenty cents a ticket. I bankrolled my whole high school career on blow pops and lunch tickets. It was a beautiful thing. I always had money, and I didn't break any laws. Didn't sling dope, none of that shit. Bought my own car. And I bankrolled it with blow pops and lunch tickets.


Neil's plan is to retire in seven years at 40 and be rich. But in the meantime, the job is changing him. Seeing so many crime scenes, seeing the way so many people die. He's also seen how they live in houses filled with old newspapers, dirty dishes and too many cats. Never cleaning the bathroom.


I think more than anything now, most people are just dirty motherfuckers. We live like animals, man. You have no idea. I'm a clean freak. My place is spotless. So when I got into this, I was shocked by the way people live. And it's amazing. I went into a bathroom yesterday at a car wash, right? Guy in there doing his business. And I walk into the thing and this guy had thrown his garbage on the floor and didn't flush the toilet. Just common. No common courtesy at all. And he was in a tie and a clean cut. Nice looking guy. Didn't your mom teach you anything, you 40 year old dirt bag? Are you just a dirt bag? That's dirt bag. Straight up. That is a dirt bag.


Did you think people were this big? Dirt bags before this job?


Had no idea. I had no idea. I thought everyone was normal. Believe me, the normal is the dirt bagginess. Fuck.


But now you see more dirt baggery everywhere.


Oh, it's 80 20, dirt bag. You bet. I swear to God.




Now I'll go home and take a hot shower. Then I'll convert to a bathtub. Read my book, not think about dirt bags. Wait for my girl to get home. Wait for death. Death or my girl?


I love them both.


Neil's thought a lot about his own death in the last few years. Not surprisingly. He says he wants to die slowly so he can say goodbye to everyone. He doesn't want to be found by a company like his. And cleaned up with his family off somewhere wondering what happened. He doesn't even care if it's a painful death. He says as long as it's slow, cancer would be fine. He says he'd take cancer. When was the last time you heard someone say that?


Nancy Abdegg is producer for our program. We heard about Neil Smither from the book gig, which is a kind of unofficial sequel. Slash tribute to studs Turkel's classic book about Americans and their jobs working. Neil is still working. He has not retired since this episode was first broadcast years ago. He says business is booming what police cannot do. So the clues at a crime scene are not always conclusive, of course. Lots of crimes are forever unsolved. People die, and it's never explained why stuff disappears and is never found again that we want it to be. Fiction writer Amy Bender has this story about a boy who would be handy to have around at lots of crime scenes. I have to say, this is one of my favorite pieces of fiction we've.


Ever put on the radio show.


Her story was read first by actor Matt Malloy.


Once there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things. Both his parents had been killed when he was eight years old. They were swimming in the ocean when it turned wild with waves, and each had tried to save the other from drowning. The boy woke up from a nap on the sand, alone. After the tragedy, the community adopted and raised him. And a few years after the death of his parents, he began to have a sense of objects even when they weren't visible. This ability continued growing in power through his teens, and by his 20s, he was able to actually sniff out lost sunglasses, keys, contact lenses, and sweaters. The neighbors discovered his talent accidentally. He was over at Jenny Sugar's house one evening picking her up for a date, when Jenny's mother misplaced her hairbrush and was walking around complaining about this. The young man's nose twitched, and he turned slightly towards the kitchen and pointed to the drawer where the spoons and knives were kept. His date burst into laughter. Now that would be quite a silly place to put the brush, she said, among all that silverware. And she opened the drawer to make her point, to wave with a knife or brush her hair with a spoon.


But when she did, boom, there was the hairbrush, matted with gray curls, sitting on top of the fork pile. Jenny's mother kissed the young man on the cheek, but Jenny herself looked at him suspiciously all night long. You planned all that, didn't you? She said over dinner. You were trying to impress my mother. Well, you didn't impress me, she said. He tried to explain himself, but she would hear none of it, and when he drove his car up to her house, she fled before he could even finish saying he'd had a nice time, which was a lie anyway, he went home to his tiny room and thought about the word lonely and how it sounded and looked so lonely with those two. L's in it, each standing tall by itself. As news spread around the neighborhood about the young man's skills, people reacted in two ways. There were the deeply appreciative and the skeptics. The appreciative ones called up the young man regularly. He'd stop by on his way to school, find their keys, and they'd give him a homemade muffin. The skeptics called him over, too, and watched him like a hawk. He'd still find their lost items, but they'd insist it was an elaborate scam and he was doing it all to get attention.


Maybe, declared one woman, waving her index finger in the air. Maybe, she said, he steals the thing, so we think it's lost, moves the item and then comes over to save it. How do we know it was really lost in the first place? What is going on? The young man didn't know himself. All he knew was the feeling of a tug, light but insistent, like a child at his sleeve, and that tug would turn him in the right direction and show him where to look. Each object had its own way of inhabiting space and therefore messaging its location. The young man could sense, could smell an object's presence. He did not need to see it to feel where it put its gravity down. As would be expected, items that turned out to be miles away took much harder concentration than the ones that were 2ft to the left. When Mrs. Allen's little boy didn't come home one afternoon, that was the most difficult of all. Leonard Allen was eight years old and usually arrived home from school at three five. He had allergies and needed a pill before he went back out to play that day.


By 345 alone, Mrs. Allen was a wreck. Her boy rarely got lost. Only once had that happened in the supermarket, but he'd been found quite easily under the produce tables, crying. The walk home from school was a straight line, and Leonard was not the wandering kind. Mrs. Allen was just a regular neighbor, except for one extraordinary fact. Through an inheritance, she was the owner of a gargantuan emerald she called the Green Star. It sat glass cased in her kitchen, where everyone could see it because she insisted that it be seen sometimes as a party trick. She'd even cut steak with its beveled edge. On this day, she took the green star out of its case and stuck her palms on it. Where is my boy? She cried. The green star was cold and flat. She ran weeping to her neighbor, who calmly walked her back home. Together they gave the house a thorough search, and then the neighbor, a believer, recommended calling the young man. Although Mrs. Allen was a skeptic, she thought anything was a worthwhile idea, and when the phone answered, she said in a trembling voice, you, must find my boy. The young man had been just about to go play basketball with his friends.


He'd located the basketball in the bathtub. You lost him, said the young man. Mrs. Allen began to explain, and then her phone clicked. One moment, please, she said, and the young man held on. When her voice returned, it was shaking with rage. He's been kidnapped, she said. They want the green star. The young man realized then that it was Mrs. Allen he was talking to and nodded. Oh, he said. I see everyone in town was familiar with Mrs. Allen's green star. I'll be right over, he said. The woman's voice was too run with tears to respond. In his basketball shorts and shirt, the young man jogged over to Mrs. Allen's house. He was amazed at how the green star was all exactly the same shade of green. He had a desire to lick it. By then Mrs. Allen was in hysterics. They didn't tell me what to do, she sobbed. Where do I bring my emerald? How do I get my boy back? The young man tried to feel the scent of the boy. He asked for a photograph and stared at it. A brown haired kid at his kindergarten graduation. But the young man had only found objects before, and lost objects at that.


He'd never found anything or anybody stolen. He wasn't a policeman. Mrs. Allen called the police, and one officer showed up at the door. Oh, it's the finding guy, the officer said. The young man dipped his head modestly. He turned to his right, to his left, north, south. He got a glimmer of a feeling towards the north and walked out the back door through the backyard. Night approached, and the sky seemed to grow and deepen in the darkness. What's his name again? He called back to Mrs. Allen. Leonard, she said. He heard the policeman pull out a pad and begin to ask basic questions. He couldn't quite feel him. He felt the air, and he felt the tug inside the green star, an object displaced from its original home in Asia. He felt the tug of a tree in the front yard, which had been uprooted from Virginia to be replanted here, and he felt the tug of his own watch, which was from his uncle. In an attempt to be fatherly. His uncle had insisted he take it, but they both knew the gesture was false. Maybe the boy was too far away by now.


He heard the policeman ask, what is he wearing? Mrs. Allen described a blue shirt and the young man focused in on the blue shirt. He turned off his distractions, and the blue shirt came calling from the northwest like a distant radio station. The young man went walking and walking, and about 14 houses down, he felt the blue shirt shrieking at him, and he walked right into the backyard, right through the back door, and sure enough, there were four people watching tv, including the tear stained boy with a runny nose eating a candy bar. The young man scooped up the boy while the others watched, so surprised they did nothing, and one even muttered, sorry, man. For 14 houses back. The young man held Leonard in his arms like a bride. Leonard stopped sneezing and looked up at the stars, and the young man smelled Leonard's hair, rich with a memory of peanut butter. He hoped Leonard would ask him a question, any question. But Leonard was quiet. The young man answered in his head. Son, he said to himself, and the word rolled around a marble on a marble floor. Son, he wanted to say.


When he reached Mrs. Allen's door, which was wide open, he walked in with quiet. Leonard and Mrs. Allen promptly burst into tears, and the policeman slunk out the door. She thanked the young man a thousand times, even offered him the green star, but he refused it. Leonard turned on the tv and curled up on the sofa. The young man walked over and asked him about the program he was watching, but Leonard stuck his thumb in his mouth and didn't respond. Feel better? He said softly, tucking the basketball beneath his arm. The young man walked home, shoulders low in his tiny room. He undressed and lay in bed. Had it been a naked child with nothing on, no shoes, no necklace, no hair bow, no watch, he could not have found it. He lay in bed that night with the trees from other places rustling, and he could feel their confusion. No snow here. Not a lot of rain. Where am I? What is wrong with this dirt? Crossing his hands in front of him, he held onto his shoulders. Concentrate hard, he thought. Where are you? Everything felt blank and quiet. He couldn't feel a tug.


He squeezed his eyes shut and let the question bubble up. Where did you go? Come find me. I'm over here. Come find me. If he listened hard enough, he thought he could hear the waves hitting.




Amy Bender's short story is called Loser. It's from her collection of short fiction called the girl in the flammable skirt. It was read for us by Matt Malloy. Coming up, what does it mean when you get out of prison, kick your drug habit, return to the scene of your crimes, and little kids make fun of you? Kindergarten con in a minute on Chicago bubble radio when our program continues. Just american life from Ira Glass. Each week in a program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, crime scenes and the stories they tell. So today's episode first aired years ago, and at some point we realized here at our program that we had a question, an actual question about crime scenes, something we wondered about from watching the news. All right, I'm Bennett Amalu. I'm a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist. A question was about police shootings and the way the crime scene evidence could be interpreted after the fact so differently by different people. So, for example, after Stefan Clark was shot by Sacramento police back in 2018, the county coroner did an official autopsy for the state.


But in addition to that, the family also hired a well known forensic pathologist. This man you're hearing right now, Bennett Amalu, to do an autopsy for them, confirmed he announced his findings at this press conference. And I don't know if you remember that case, but Stefan Clark was 22 years old, unarmed, shot by police multiple times. Dr. Amalu's analysis came out before the county coroners, and he was definitive about a number of things. There were a total of eight gunshot ones, meaning that he was hit by eight bullets. The first shot, Amalu said, hit Stefan Clark in the side and then spun him around. So his back was to the officers. Then six of the eight shots were to his back. That is a different story than the police had told. Police had said he was advancing towards them when they fired. So the proposition that has been presented.


That he was assailing the officers, is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence.


Weeks later, the county released its report. It was different, Dr. Amalu's report, in some significant ways. First it said there were seven bullets, not eight. It said only three shots were to the back, not six. And as for the first shot, the county said it was probably to his thigh, and the Clark probably was walking towards the officers when it happened. And we wondered here at our show, how could something so basic be in dispute? The number of shots, whether they entered from the back or from the front, does that indicate that one of the autopsies was deliberately spinning the results? Or are these actual honest scientists simply disagreeing about the evidence that's in front of them? I asked Dr. Judy Melanick, a veteran forensic pathologist who performed autopsies in the Bay area for 15 years, and she said these kinds of discrepancies happen all the time when there are two autopsies of the same person. She said, in these kinds of cases, the official autopsy, the coroner's office, usually happens first, and then the family gets to do their autopsy after that. That's true, even though the family usually goes public with their results first, as happened in this case.


So Dr. Melanick says, picture, okay, two autopsies by two doctors.


The first autopsy done by the coroner's office, alters the body and changes the evidence. So it makes it a lot more difficult for the second pathologist.


When the second pathologist gets the body, it's already been washed clean, so it doesn't have any blood stains or trace residue. The first pathologist has already cut open the body, has already removed the bullets.


So when Dr. Umalu got the body, he didn't have the bullets anymore. They had been taken out by the first autopsy, and he didn't have access to the x rays of the body from the first autopsy, which would have.


Shown him where the bullets had been.


He also didn't have the organs in their proper orientation in the body. The organs had been taken out by the previous autopsy pathologist and sliced up to identify the wound tracks and then put in a plastic bag inside the body cavity. So the first pathologist has that advantage because they got the body pristine and.


It wasn't altered in this way. Dr. Melanick says, there could be lots of disagreement, and it can be honest disagreement between pathologists. There are people looking at different sets of data, so they come to different conclusions. And with that, we have arrived at act three of our program. Act three, return to the scene of the crime. You know, there's this truism in detective fiction that a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. It turns out in real life, that actually is not very common at all, except among arsonists. Arsonists apparently like to see the fires they've set, and then some of them are actually caught. When police look at pictures taken of crowds at fires, and then, okay, maybe this is rare, maybe not. Nobody really keeps track of this kind of thing. There are the people who circle back to the scene of the crimes to undo, to erase something, or at least to promise that it's never going to happen again. Katie Davis discovered that one of her own neighbors in Washington, DC, an old friend of hers, was trying to do just that.


Bobby comes up my street one afternoon in March. I haven't seen him in a few months, and he's kind of gliding along, smoking a Marlboro. That's the way he's carried himself since 6th grade, when I first met him, one of the bad boys from over on Calvert Street. Bobby tells me he's going to coach a little league team with some neighborhood kids. Great, I say from up on my porch. Inside, I'm thinking, who's he kidding? He's rail thin. He's sweating. It looks like he's been using all winter. Bobby flicks his burning cigarette into the street and watches me, waiting for more reaction. This is the same Bobby I loved and tried to save for a whole year. Bobby, who stole $60 from my house to buy heroin and swore to God, swore to his own dead daughter that my dog purdy ate the money. And this is his latest plan to get clean coaching. A bunch of 1011 and twelve year olds rounded up by the DC department of Recreation. All I can say is, that's great. A week later, Bobby's back, this time on my machine.


You have two messages. Message one. Hey, how you doing? Just calling to say hi. When I get off, we'll probably walk Bailey. Maybe we'll run up and see if we can say hi to you. Katie, you got to see these darks I got are unbelievable. One of them tried to spit on me yesterday at practice. I mean, a couple of them I don't think even I can handle. It's like they're too much of a disruption.


My machine cuts him off, but now I know Bobby's clean because if he were still using heroin, nothing could puncture his detached haze. He's sounding awake and rattled. Bobby, who spent two and a half years in Lorton prison on assault and possession charges, rattled by a bunch of kids at their first baseball practice.


First day was just crazy.


We went to Harrison playground between 13th and 14th on V Street. And that's a rough neighborhood. And as soon as we got on the field, my kids started to act up right away. Right away. And I think they were afraid. I was a little afraid, okay?


He was like picking who was going to be right field or whatever. But then everybody was just yelling at each other and jogging on each other.


I tried to get them to chill, to relax and play ball, focus on the game. They started cursing me, a few of them cursing me and cursing each other. One kid spit at me and he.


Got mad and said practice was over.


And I cursed them and I told him they didn't fucking impress me. Before they were born, I was in penitentiary. So if they're trying to act like they're bad, they're not impressing me. And right when I did that, I felt in my gut that I had just screwed up. I felt right then that, you know what? You just laid all of your cards on the table. You don't have a whole card anymore. Now they know you.


The Shannon said, maybe he got pumped in the butt by lots of men that way. Everybody was laughing.


One kid says, well, while you were in prison, were you getting humped then I knew I'd screwed up. I said, no, that didn't happen to me. Oh, because you were the Humper, right.


Three days later, they hold a second practice, this time at a field in our neighborhood. Bobby's back for more salvation through little league.


What's your strategy? Or do you.


Maybe you're formulating.


I'm formulating it, but my strategy short term is to. My strategy is to remember I'm the go go. Run it out. He might fall, he might break his ankle. All right, good stick. Good hustle. Hey, every first baseman don't play as good as him.


This second practice is going a lot better. The only tantrums being thrown are by the kids. Bobby stands by the backstop in our park, pushing away a locust sapling that's grown up through the fence. There are no bases and only a warped piece of rubber for the pitcher's mount. That's how it goes around here. Anyone with any money drives their kids to the wealthier neighborhoods to play, leaving this misshapen field for Bobby's team.


Come on, man. I'm not going to tell you where it's going, but I wanted you to bring it home when it comes to you. Wake up. Wake up. That's what I'm saying. See the guy in the game, the batter is not going to tell you where the ball is going. Guys, talent level. Bad news, bears. They're horrible. As far as talent. I think they're wonderful kids and I'm not going to give up on them. But, God, man, they can't throw a ball, they can't catch a ball, they can't hit a ball, and they've never learned. No one's ever taught them. Bring it home. Okay, you've got good stop. Good throw. That's the way to play, fella. That's the way to play. Hands up.


The third practice starts around 05:00 on a humid April afternoon. Kids are scattered around the field, squatting down, twirling their gloves. Joey is throwing rocks at his brother. Joey is always throwing rocks. Benjamin thinks he should be pitching. Bobby tells him to stay right where he is and keep catching.


That's what I'm talking about right there. Come on, Benjamin.


Come on, now.


Get that ball.


You know?


Get in front of that ball.


Oh, you didn't know?


I do know. You need to learn. Get in front of that ball. Bring it home.


After a half hour, things start to spin out of control. Benjamin, the most volatile of the Kids, throws a rock at Joey. Bobby tells him to run a lap. You must be trippin'says, Benjamin. I might be tripping, but you need to be lapping, says Bobby.


You gonna make me want to lap, and I ain't throw nothing.


Maybe you need exercise, Benjamin.


He's my favorite because I just see me more so than any other child on that team. I don't know what his home life is like, but from what I can see, he's emotional. And when he feels cheated or done wrong, he reacts exactly like I always reacted, violently, verbally, with the violence. And he just goes off and fuck you, and fuck the team. Well, that's me. That was me. And in ways, it still is. When I get my feelings hurt, I don't always. Well, you really hurt my feelings. I say fuck you, motherfucker. And you know what I do? What I've done for a lot of years is I would hurt myself because someone hurt me. Well, Benjamin does that at practice.


Nah, man, he always getting up on my nerves.


Bobby finally asks Benjamin to go home and come back next practice. Instead, Benjamin stands over my microphone and starts calling the game as he sees it.


He think he right all the time.


Who are you talking about?


The coach.


I've been in the penitentiary.


I know all this stuff, man. Buff all that, man.


Bobby pauses as Benjamin mimics him, then throws the ball up and cracks it to the outfield.


Bring it home, fellas. Bring it home.


A few minutes later, Benjamin finally does a lap, but he walks it.


Watch the hop. You still got him. Good throw now, Monty. Thank you, thank you.


When he was these kids'ages, Bobby ran wild at night taking money, stealing bikes. Most kids were afraid of him, but he never messed with me and my brothers. I even remember Bobby and his sister eating with us a couple of times because his mom never made dinner. When Bobby was 13, his mother caught him stealing change out of her purse and kicked him out of the house. The only place Bobby knew to go was right here to this field where he now coaches baseball. It used to be an abandoned lot full of old cars and refrigerators. Here in the left outfield where Joey's pacing and muttering because Bobby told him to quit looking for a fight. Right here, there used to be a white 69 Ford Falcon. That's where Bobby went when his mother threw him out.


I spray painted all the windows black so no one could see in. And I would shoplift food from the corner store, the maddie's delicates in neighborhood deli like stuff like Vienna sausages and bottle of wine to go to sleep with at night and sardines, and that was dinner.


Bobby says that alcohol helped him feel less afraid late at night in that old Ford. Soon he found pot, then PCP. In his 20s, he started shooting heroin.


He saw your little big headed little kid, like a whole bunch of little leprechauns running around.


Trash is talked at every practice, and Bobby is teased relentlessly for wearing pay less shoes, which the kids would never be caught dead in. Brandon, the eight year old, calls Bobby powdered donut because he's white and he likes to lean into Bobby and whisper punk. Mostly. Bobby laughs. Other times, though, especially when the kids start in on each other, it can get to him.


Fellas, fellas, I can't talk. If you're talking, I'm about ready to put the gloves in the bag and go home. Give me this stuff. Let me roll.


No, man. No, man, I'm serious.


Well, shut up. Everybody shut up, please.


Bobby picks up the bat bag and slams it against the brick wall.


Chill, okay? Chill. I can't talk if y'all talking, okay? Look here, I'm sorry about. What's up, fellas? What's happening?


Somewhere around the third or fourth practice, without announcing it in any way, the boys start calling Bobby coach. Coach, can you fix this glove? Coach? Which bat should I use? What's it like when the kids call you coach?


You know, it didn't really hit me at first. You know, I took them to a picnic a couple of weeks ago, weekends ago, that some recovering alcoholic and addict friends of mine through. And to hear people there, hey, Bobby. Hey, Bobby. And then to hear this group of kids that I came with. Hey, coach. Hey, coach. That's when it sort of hit me, man. You know, this is who you are. And these people now see me as coach, not just Bobby, the recovering drug dop. Know, he's coach. So that makes me feel good to have these kids call me coach. So I don't know. Now I have this, like, little small part in shaping what their. What their day is going to be like.


You know, when he told me that he had come from prison, he got shot in his neck. I thought he was just another one of them people who like to talk about their life and didn't get over it. But I learned to understand them.


How do you understand him?


He don't want no trouble. He just want us to listen to him. But I guess as you roll into people, you start to have more patience.


As you roll into people grow.


Start to have more patience. And I think that's what's happening.


The department of Recreation gives Bobby an id badge, which he wears around his neck when he comes down to the neighborhood. Like a sign. I am no longer a dope fiend. I'm doing something good. Most people might keep it in their pocket. Bobby wears it right on his chest.


I just walk around with my head high and feeling proud. For the most part, very proud of what I'm doing.


The skeptics are everywhere, though. Neighbors who gave him advances for paint jobs he never did, people he stole bank cards from, people he actually spit on. What is that like for you to walk around in the neighborhood and you might even walk by somebody that you owe money to or conned money out of.


It's hard to explain, really. It's a roller coaster of emotions. There's times and I'm feeling like the world is wonderful when everything is going my way. I'll see someone that I had conned out of a few hundred bucks, and the voice in my head will immediately say, see there? You're still a scumbag. Remember? What? Look. That's who you really are.


So what do you do when you see that person?


It depends. It depends on how I feel. And there's times when I might be feeling real insecure, and I'll put that macho thing up, and I'll put the cocky thing up and hope they say something wrong to me so that I can go south with my.


Do you do that?


No, but I want to. I mean, there's a part of me that still wants to be a thug. There's a part of me still very capable of being a thug. I just wouldn't be able to be a real good thug with my hands because I'm older. I have to get a weapon now, you know.


I ain't wearing no girly joints.


It's early May, and after ten practices, the kids are finally stepping into their uniforms at the local recreation center. This is the first new thing they've seen all season. Their bats and gloves are splintered and old, but the uniforms are bright blue and gray. Texas Ranger uniforms with red caps. Bobby is tanned and relaxed, dancing around, faking jabs, counting the kids to see if he can field the team. Never a sure thing. Today, there are exactly nine boys the day of their first game against another team. The recreation bus is an hour late to take the team to their game. So some of us go in a taxi. Six kids and I all squish together. Bobby and the others are hailing a cab. When the bus finally shows up, we all pile out at what is supposedly the best little league field in the city. The grass is shin high. There's a pile of dirt in the outfield. No fans, no parents. Just Bobby and the team.


I don't even have a feel. I can slow. What time is.


Five and.


Oh, the other team, 450.


The other team never shows. So Bobby's team wins by default. Some other kids are in the same boat. So there's an impromptu scrimmage. And official or not, this is the first baseball game that most of these kids have ever played.


They too dead small, man. We would tear them up. Okay, shut up.


The other team is small, but very fast, and they have three coaches who tell them when to steal bases. So a line drive becomes a run, then another run and another run, and it's 50 he stole home on y'all.


We'll see what we need to work on today instead of looking good in our uniforms. Come on, let's get out. We got a force a second. Get the force a second.


The season lurches forward with DC recreation, canceling games for no reason, never rescheduling rainouts. The uniforms are not washed for three weeks. And one day, no one shows up to let the boys in to suit up for a game, so they have to forfeit. By June, Bobby's team has only played r1 game. One game in four months. In this inconsistent world, Bobby is someone the kids can count on. He never misses practice, coming in his painter's pants most days to hit the ball to them. And while it might seem like Bobby's keeping the kids in line, he'll tell you that's what they're doing for him.


I don't want to have to avoid my neighborhood. I don't want to have to avoid my community playground because I let these kids down, because I'm a drunken, dope fiend fucking bum, which is what I become. If I go have a beer right now or some dope right now, tomorrow, I'm a bum because all the good feelings are gone. I don't want to feel the shame which I felt from relapses. And it's big time shame. It's shame I won't be able to look these kids in their eyes and their faces. I'll duck them. God, I'm 42 years old and I would have to come in my own neighborhood and duck children because I'm ashamed. I don't want that. Don't ask smoke. Don't ask smoke. Don't ask smoke. You're the man out there. You're the man.


By June, Bobby's team gets its first win with some great pitching from Donald and a catch by Ricardo in the third inning that looks more like a football.


I don't make catches like that.


And while they wait for their bus to take them back home, the boys start tussling with each other, rolling around on a grassy hill.


Hey, they're celebrating their win.


They are celebrating their win by wrestling. I'm about to myself.


This is easily the sweetest moment of the season. Not only because of the wind, but because it's amazing to see the boys so happy. And this is what Bobby will remember when Justin and Ricardo get in a real fight an hour later, when he has to suspend Benjamin not once, but twice. And when Joey threatens to beat up a kid from another team. Always that delicate balance, fragile like sobriety.


I always thought I was going to be a loser forever, man. First of all, being clean makes me feel like, okay, I got a chance to be a winner. But the kids especially, it's something about kids. This is something I never thought, man, that I'd be able to do. It's like, man, I was walking after a practice like a week or two ago, I swear to God, I walked across Duke Ellington Bridge to the subway and I started crying. I started crying because I was so fucking happy. So happy that, damn, this is probably going to work out. I'm probably going to be able to pull this off.




By the end of the season, the kids have a record of two wins and no losses. Playoffs never get scheduled, so there's no reason to practice anymore. No one knows where Benjamin is these days. And just this week, I saw Joey stealing a soda from the corner store and I made him take it back. Bobby still comes around, though, and hangs out in the park, talks with the boys. And he sometimes shoots one on one with them. And he says, stick with me. I'm going to have tryouts for a twelve and under basketball team. I'm going to still be coming around here.


Are you going to get in there, Brittany? Come on, Brittany. Hey.


Katie Davis throws that smoke in the neighborhood she grew up in in Washington, D. C. It's been years since we first broadcast this story. Over a decade ago, Bobby did go on to coach a basketball team and they took first place at a local boys and girls club. But Bobby also relapsed. He started doing heroin again, and then he would get clean, and then he would relapse again. Then he moved to a halfway house, a sober house, where a few years back, he died. He was clean. His counselor said that one of his few possessions when he died was a CD with his story on it. My problem was produced today by Alex Bloomberg and myself with Susan Burton, Blue Chevrony and Julie Snyder. Tributing editors for today's show, Paul Tuftjack hit, Margie Rockland, Elise Spiegel, Nancy update, and consul Yuri Seroval. Production help today from Todd Bachman, Mary Wiltenberg and Anna Martin mixing help from Matt Tierney, Michael Comete, Catherine Raymondo and Stone Nelson. Production Help on today's rerun from Alvin Amella and Safia Riddle. Special thanks today to Marion Roach, Cheryl Miller, Bob Cargi, Robert Kirschner, Wesley Lowry, and John O'Leary. Enrico and Tonieri, the forensic criminologist you heard near the top of the show.


He died years ago. Our website,, we can listen to our archive of over 800 episodes for absolutely free. This american life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co founder, Mr. Tory Malatea. You know, he was showing me around his gardening shed. He showed me his shears, his hand pruner, his shovels. And I don't know, this thing filled.


With soil that is a dirt bag. Straight up.


I'm Eric class back next week with more stories of this american life. Close.