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Hey there, podcast listeners, it's IRA with a quick message before we start today's show. So if you heard last week's show, you heard that we played a story from our new podcast, which is made by our co-workers had cereal.
If you haven't heard the podcast itself, I just want to say it has everything you expect from that team. It's storytelling done by the people who make the most popular podcast in the history of podcasting.
Chana Joffe Walt, who hosts captures incredibly candid and surprising moments and scenes on tape.
And because it's surreal, it's just a great story that stretches over six decades.
All these people who come across two or three dimensionally in this one school, it's often very funny. I have been sitting in edits of this thing for months, telling friends how exciting the show is, what Hannah finds just feels very new and I'm thrilled that it's finally out for you to hear. So just saying episode three just came out. The podcast is called Nice White Parents made by her co-workers at cereal distributed by The New York Times. Get it wherever you get your podcasts.
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A quick warning, there are curse words that are unleashed in today's episode of the show, if you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, This American Life Big.
From WBC, Chicago, it's this American Life, I'm Sean Cole, sitting in for IRA Glass, and our show today is about rules and when it might be OK to break them, when it's even right to break them.
About a year ago, summer 2013, my friend Benjamin Walker was in Nairobi in Kenya working on this project with some folks from the London School of Economics. And about four days into his trip, he found himself downtown, ideally walking past this big, huge recreation area called Kourou Park.
And boom, there was the protesters. How many of them were there? Like three hundred. There's, what, three hundred people? Yeah, just a mass of people like men. And the thing they were protesting was Uber. They were Uber drivers on strike. Like I said, two nineteen. You might remember there were a lot of uber strikes all over the world around this time.
Uber had been in Kenya for about four years and these drivers had the same complaint that followed the company. Wherever it's gone, Uber makes too much off the rides. They make too little. They wanted more of the pie and they were mad. Benjamin waded into the crowd of strikers with a microphone because that's what he does. He hosts a podcast you might have heard of called Benjamin Walker's Theory of Everything. And this story was right up his alley. He's done lots of stories about the gig economy and its discontents.
There's one driver, Jafa said.
One thing that would get them more money is rules, more rules.
It is just about regulations. No more no regulations, no regulations. We need regulations from the government because when you regulate it, you've got to come over here, make money, go to New York Stock Exchange, float to float, do whatever IPO and investor billionaires come and take. Yeah, and when we have regulations, we will never see a driver working 18 hours a day. I do.
How how do you win? That's what I want to know. How do you win? Solidarity. That was another driver there. Solidarity means everyone participating in the work stoppage. Except from what Benjamin saw that week, there were plenty of other Uber drivers still out working. In fact, even as they were all standing there, 300 strong protesting against Uber, we are not thinking about cutting down.
No, no, no. You see, that is guy here. So there is like a road that goes through this part of the park and some guy, Uber driver decided to go through the protest. Through the protest. Yeah.
And they know he's an Uber driver. How is like the little Uber sign in his window or something. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And they swarm his car and then they let the air out of the tires.
But that's how we're going to deal with them to step down now. That's how we deal with.
And what did the guy did.
He was he seemed pretty upset. He kind of sat there in shock for a while and he stayed in his car. He got out eventually.
Even some of the protesters helped him move it out of the way, of course, his brother in law. But he's still our brother. We we fight them and we help them at the same time. Yes.
This was one of two Uber drivers that tried to drive through the middle of the protest while Benjamin was there. And one of the protesters said, oh, the reason they're still driving is that with all of us on strike, the surge pricing kicked in because the ones who keep at it make more money, which is to say, it's hard to beat Uber at this game. House always wins. But then as they all stood around discussing this, one of the drivers told Benjamin about a kind of workaround they had up their sleeve, a cheat code.
So, all right.
Now I have a question for you. So the last two days, I took some Uber. I told you, you know, when I was here. So I'm here till Thursday. I'm not going to take another. How am I going to get what do I do?
Just find a taxi driver at the hotel like and he's like, oh, you know, you can just go Karara crazy, as they call it.
It's our language. Collura, you know. Yeah. You get a rider, you look at the estimate, you switch off the app you go with. So which means you won't get will not get the commission. So just to be clear, imagine you request a ride and it automatically shows you how much it's going to cost. And when the driver shows up, you say to them, how about I hit cancel on the app and just give you the estimate in cash, cutting out the middleman.
That is what we call Casula.
So if I was to say to a driver, I want to go right with that, how I would say yes, yes. Can you go? Cholula that's going to do what we want to continue.
Boccanegra These are just and yes I'm good and yes. Hold on. Wait wait wait.
So this ride. Hey where's my ride. My ride is three hundred and eighty. OK, I want to give you four hundred and we go karua and I cancel. Oh all right. Cool. So I cancelled it. Yep.
So how did it feel once you once you did that? It felt great. On the one hand, it solves all of my problems for the rest of this trip. But also, I almost feel like I've gotten the answer to my question because I wanted to know how you win. And there's something about going Karara, which is basically using the tools against the company. I mean, it's great and it's subversive. One of the protesters referred to it as economic sabotage, i.e., until we get more rules governing Uber, we're going to break some.
I asked Uber if I could talk to a company rep in Kenya about going Karara, a spokesperson for all of sub-Saharan Africa, wrote back, saying in part, I repeat, canceling by either a driver or rider could be flagged by our fraud technology, which will then result in an investigation. She also said it's not safe to go off app for the passengers or the drivers, which for the record, some of the drivers will tell you, too, that they don't like to do it because having a record of the trip is safer for them.
Of course, going under the radar like this isn't really anything that novel cab drivers in New York will sometimes say, hey, how about I turn off the meter and you pay me in cash, but they don't have a name for it?
Benjamin and I both wondered, you know, my Karara, it's the name of a forest in Nairobi, Corera Forest, but none of the drivers Benjamin rode with could really explain it beyond that.
OK, I don't know who came up with that memo, but and when I started calling around to drivers and transport officials in Nairobi, this funny thing happened.
Yeah, that's a decollete.
All of them giggled when I said it like, oh, that. You want to know about that? How do you know about that? And one of the drivers said, oh, you can go Corera.
You know, I look at the Garuda.
One of them told me before Uber came to town, those informal taxis that you haggle with, a lot of them stationed themselves around Karara Forest. So now it was a kind of catchall phrase for paying any sort of driver under the table. That's the most rational explanation. But there was this other explanation that came from a driver who I'm calling Roger Aruda a yes, I think of a clue.
He's 30 years old as a one year old son, been driving since Uber first came to Kenya, Kenya. He's also a graphic designer, has a degree in business, and it has worked in the hotel industry.
He's done a lot of things with the forest. So we assuming these are laws that we just got from the forest. So it's quote unquote, jingle jangle jungle. You're saying jungle law? Yes, jungle law.
So it's. It's something not allowed and again, it's something not in the constitution of something not in the laws of.
Yes, I'm jungle lawyer, your former self.
And I say, so if Uber or the authorities, then Karara is sort of skirting the authorities.
Yes, definitely got here.
And how does that how does that feel when you're going Karara versus using the app?
You see, it's a nice feeling, let me say that, because you having an extra coin, extra coin and you just feel like you've worked for it and you don't and nobody else deserves to get a shot of it.
I can say it's you feel empowered in terms of you feel like you're open minded into peignoir, entrepreneurial reason being the company wants this. This. So what do you do? You have to open up your mind and either to take the decision to make an extra coin or probably to listen to the company and go home empty handed.
Right. It's up to you at that point. You have to make. Yes, it's up to you. An independent decision. Yes, but it is breaking a rule.
Yes. Yes, it is.
I mean, I guess I wonder if that factors into the decision making. It's like, well, I know it's a rule. Should I break this rule? Like, we're supposed to follow rules and everything?
Because you see, at the end of the day, the reason why you get up and decide to get into business is at the end of the day, you get on with something, you see. So if you decide your priorities following rules, most of the days, you're going to get home empty handed. And, you know, most of us young families, you see we have LifeSkills kids in the house.
So if you decide that you're going to be to the to the latter, that you're going to follow the rules. Believe you me, your family is going to sleep hungry. It's not just empowering to break the rules sometimes.
Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules or anyway, it feels like it is.
And today on our show, we have stories of people defying regulations, violating the social contract to make a point and in one case, to strike out against the inequities of a sixth grade class.
Please stay with us.
In fact, one time bandit, there was a moment this year when I watched someone break the rules right in front of me, the most dramatic way dramatic is the operative word because it was during a performance.
It wasn't just in front of me. There were hundreds of people in the audience. This was during an event that I go to every year if I can make it on New Year's Day. It's a 10 hour long marathon of performances.
I call it a marathon at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in a 200 year old church in lower Manhattan. So imagine a soaring, cavernous sanctuary with a podium on the altar up front.
Mostly, the marathon is set up as a kind of churn. There are more than 150 people on the program and it's not just poetry readings, but bands play and they're choreographers and comedians.
I've seen Patti Smith perform there and Philip Glass and everybody only gets two to three minutes each to read or play or whatever. The time limits a big deal because they need to fit everybody in. Occasionally someone gets on stage in between acts and tells everybody to keep it short anyway. The sort of rules shattering moment that happened was not one of the famous is on stage. I was somebody I'd never heard of.
Drome Ellis is a composer, performer and writer. His recent Jerome Ellis composer musician.
But he didn't have an instrument with him or even anything to read off of. He just climbed up on stage, stood in front of the mic.
And I have to admit, I was really just looking down at my program and not paying attention when he started talking. The Brazilian state of. Mato Grosso.
The school has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50 percent.
And then he stopped talking. Like for a while. And I think it was at this point that I looked up and saw him sort of staring wide eyed, maybe trembling a bit. I'm playing this in real time, by the way. Normally, I'd edit these silences down, but I wanted to give you a sense of how confusing this was at first and uncomfortable. Fifty percent. I had no idea what was going on. So so far, he had said the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do suel has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50 percent discount to.
And then you can hear he's doing this kind of little breathy clicks and pops. And I was like, oh, it's some performance art thing, like cell phone companies, spotty coverage. In Brazil. To their customers with a 50 percent discount to their customers with. And then he breaks into Portuguese, which is tubules, not employees are so influential, they follow customers with. Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech, that is the customers who have speech impediments like myself.
So that's what was going on. They have to the customer has to present.
Jerome has a stutter, a signed statement from a speech language, a significant one, speech language.
Speech language pathologists to prove their pathology. I first encountered this law in a book about strange laws from around the world. The author of the book was mocking the law.
But I see in the law an attempt to address the issue of temporal, accessability, temporal accessibility when it comes to.
When it comes when it comes when it comes to disabled speech. So when I was first invited to participate in this magnificent event, I was struck by the two minute time limit, which later became a two to three minute time limit. And I understood intuitively that the purpose of this time limit was to create as non-hierarchical a space as possible.
But in removing one hierarchy, the time limits introduces another. A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time. Through their speech, which is not true. STUTTERING is very unpredictable. I can rehearse something as many times as I want, but I don't actually know how long it will take to say anything until I have to say it.
What you just heard is about half of Jerome's performance as he performed at that night night commentary notwithstanding, it clocks in at about five minutes, practically twice the length permitted itself. I'll play you the second half in a bit.
But in just those five minutes, I've gone from barely paying attention to being totally rapt.
Everybody was the pauses continued, some of them longer than what you just heard. And in an enormous room packed with people, there was barely any other sound.
I don't remember hearing a cough or paper rustle.
We're all just kind of spellbound. Partly, I think, because, as Jerome said himself, what was happening on stage seemed so very unpredictable.
That's what it felt like in the audience and in the weeks and months since then, I realized I just had all these questions for Jerome, the way you wish you could call up the person who made the weird, obscure movie you just saw that you can't get out of your head or who wrote the book you just read.
I just wanted to know how he thought of what he did, how it felt to do that. Jerome, Sean.
Hi, how are you? I'm doing well, so I called him on Skype. It's got the friendliest face and hadn't had a haircut in a while.
Like everybody in the room told me, he got the idea after the director of the poetry project sent him an email inviting him to perform and mention the time limit. I'm just reading that gave him this twinge of stress.
And I was like, this is like I noted the stress and I was like, oh, I think I'm interested in going towards that stress and like exploring that, he says.
That confusion I felt at first that's what he was going for, because it's so common for people to have that feeling upon meeting him. They don't know what's going on until he tells them it's not easy to bring hundreds of people simultaneously into an experience. You live every day, but he managed it. I also wondered if he had kind of improvised what he was going to say, but he says he wrote it all out ahead of time and rehearsed it, reading it off his phone while walking down the street, which was way easier than reciting it on stage.
He says what was the shortest amount of time that it took when you were preparing, when you were rehearsing it?
I would say. I would say two and a half minutes, two and a half minutes got. Yeah. And that was important to him, he says to write something that someone who didn't stutter could recite within the time limit.
So in that way, he was simultaneously adhering to the rules and breaking them at the same time. And since stuttering is unpredictable, Jerome says there was a chance the whole thing could have taken him only four minutes. Then it was a funny situation where stuttering less might have made it harder for people to understand the point he was trying to make. I figured simply being on stage would make him more likely to stutter.
But Jerome says no.
It's in fact quite soothing to be on stage because it's like, you know, it's like I actually feel that that I'm that I have the time and I, I and I in some ways, the stage the stage audience relationship is a more temporally accessible environment than other environments of verbal. Frebel. Verbal. Verbal communication that I engage was like when he worked at the Columbia Law Library, just to give you some background of his life stage, Jerome worked at the circulation desk.
And not only did he have to take in calls, but he had to transfer calls to other people. So answering the phone, that's one temporal expectation. And then having to explain to someone else who's calling. Well, the first person's on hold now. He's squashed between two temporal expectations.
It was stressful. Also, this show and radio in general is not usually an accessible environment for differently abled speakers. I'm leaving in a lot of Jerome stutters in the interview part of the story, but I'm still cutting out some of his pauses and repeats and mine, for that matter, as a group of professionals, we're biased toward more fluid talkers. I became acutely aware of that while editing our conversation. And just to let you know, I tried to, quote unquote, clean up his answers as little as possible because I want to bring you into Jerome's daily experience to.
Anyway, I think Jerome stuttered less than usual on the call with me, because I know he stutters, he says it helps to disclose it relaxes him. And then there are other subtler ways that he's able to tame it.
Sometimes when he's talking to people, sometimes I refer to it as my stutter, but sometimes I refer to a. As these stutter the stutter, because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to, like I like to think of it, like it's something that we share.
And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him. Exactly. Exactly.
One way of saying it, that's like, oh, he's stuttering.
But there's another way that's like there is a stutter happening, you know, and we are both contending with it so that we and his talk at the poetry project was that on a grand scale, that's what he wanted for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.
The reason for those long silences on stage is something that I didn't know either Jerome's particular kind of stutter is sometimes called a glottal block. The way he explains it, when your vocal chords are at rest, they're apart. And then when you go to talk, they come together and vibrate. But sometimes Jerome's vocal chords get stuck in the middle between being at rest and touching so he can still make little sounds with his teeth and tongue and lips, but not his voice.
And talking to him on Skype, the same thing would happen as when he was on stage. When the glottal block came, he got this look kind of frozen, wide eyed stare like he was stunned, except on stage it was more dramatic. His face would turn upward. And I remember thinking to myself, is that just effort?
Is it fear?
Yeah. And I know the look. You're. You're speaking about yeah, it's like some settlers will their their body will, in fact move a lot while they're studying their face, will won't move in certain ways. Which I do sometimes, but in general, my my body response is actually. Is a freezing and I and I stop breathing often, too, just like like it feels like everything stops for a second or five seconds so longer. So part of it is that is that I'm freezing.
Part of it feels like. My body goes into a kind of. Supplication or prayer, almost. I have a friend who who once referred to it as watching. Watching me ask for the word. And wait, you know, and wait for it to come. Wait for it to come, yeah. And Brianna, because I often look up, it's a very specific state. It's like this. There are some ways in which I, like, totally leave the room.
And I think that speaks to the looking upward. And I then just like I'll like I'll come back once the word arrives and it wasn't fair.
He says he does have a lot of fears in his daily life, taking too much of someone's time, not being able to order it Shake Shack when there's a line behind him. But this wasn't that.
If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he's blocked on for one. That's easier to say. They don't want to do that on stage.
And I didn't realize that until now that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times. And I. Regretted it afterwards. Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance? Yes. To their customers with.
So there's the Portuguese word with the G Steube, which is tubules, not employees, I assume, which I had literally translated to in my text.
I translated it. Translated, it's. Translated, it's. Translated, it's. Translated, it's. Translated. To the. To disturbance. And as you just saw, that word is still like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was customers with I said breaks, breaks, breaks and the timing, influence in the timing and fluency of speech.
And that was one that I didn't like that I did that I like I what I wanted to do was what I thought I just did with with with you is just wait wait for the what. But it was especially especially d it can be really painful. So I why I avoided that one and as frustrated as myself as soon as it happened, I like breaks to me it doesn't capture what I wanted to capture our names particularly difficult.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Because there's no synonyms for them.
You know, your own blocks on his own name has since he was four years old when his stutter started. So now trying to say his name or any name, he says it's like he's four again.
I even I even in some situations for a few years, I would say, John. John is my middle name, but very interestingly, I then begin stuttering on John and then I and then I would start saying, Sean and because sometimes the sound is like like the just sound has a has a heart attack.
And also, you know, obviously Sean is just an incredibly beautiful name.
And that was really I mean, that was my that was my main reasoning for doing so well. If I'm going to I'm going to choose a new name while I just go straight for the top, just goes for the top man. So, you know, and then I started stuttering on that, you know, I mean, I just find that that's so beautiful. It's like it's always outpacing me in a way.
You find that beautiful, that it's outpacing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I find it painful too. But I but I, I find it a deep beauty in that.
What is the beauty.
Well, for me it's this quality that it's like the stutter. It feels like this thing that is so deeply. Twine with my body, my mind, my emotions, everything, and yet I. I can't figure it out or I can't grasp it, and even more so, like when I think I have grass to like when I think of outsmarted it, even like by switching my name, there's something about just. How elusive it is, the second half of Jerome's performance was just one sentence, it took him four minutes and nine seconds to get through.
Partly because it had a name at the beginning, the black feminist. The sentence begins, the black feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw once wrote, and then a quote, climbing on top of Crenshaw's name alone, took him about a minute, 45 seconds. I haven't paused the recording of the performance, by the way, and still running underneath this. My chest was hurting so much, and while I was doing it, I was like, God, should I just like give up and leave?
And I was like, no. I mean, I've done that so many. Like I mean, there's so many moments in life where I where I just like I just stopped speaking because I don't want to put in in the labor of finishing my thought or finishing my sentence. I was like, no, I don't want to do that here.
I wanted to show the audience the labor that's involved and this is labor that I often or sometimes won't put in for black feminist scholar.
But it was around this moment that the feeling in the room started to change again. There was no more confusion, obviously, and any concern or tension was gone to black families scholar.
By this point, the importance of what Jerome was saying had landed on us and the marriage between the thing he was saying and the way he was saying it.
Like a poem elongated. So it just took us a little longer to catch up a Kimberle Crenshaw once wrote. I'm going to stop the recording for a second and just read you the quote so you can sit with it during this last part, it goes treating different things. The same can generate as much in inequality as treating the same things differently.
Did you feel kind of punk rock to be doing that or like bad ass to be like, yeah, I mean, I felt like it was an act of resistance and like and like I'm as a musician, my the first music I studied really deeply was jazz. And I remember very distinctly when I was in middle school that I would be I would have my my jazz CDs at home. And often they would be like four tracks because each track would be like nine minutes long.
And then I remember like looking at my friend's CDs of a punk rock, for example, as you mentioned, and like, you know, much shorter tracks. I remember I remember noticing that at that age and like thinking about what that meant.
And there would be this refusal to adhere to the length of a pop song, for example, you know.
And for me, there is always a racialized element there to that, that there's like a black resistance against certain structures of time that like, no, this track is 11 minutes long.
And like, if you don't want to listen to it, then they'll listen to it.
But like like I'm like like we're like our what we're trying to achieve in this music is different in some ways than than what's a three minute song is trying to achieve. Treating, treating, treating, treating, treating, treating, treating, cheating. As a black person, I'm also thinking about the way that time and access to time is racially inflected. You know, there are there are many moments in the world when they're treating.
A person of color is just not given as much time to speak, treating a different things the same way. May generate as much inequality as treating the same things in different ways. Thank you.
To learn more about Jerome Ellis and his many projects, visit Jerome Ellis Dotcom, that's Jérome e l l i. S Dotcom. You can also follow him on Instagram. It's at Ellis' Jerome.
Coming up, a story that perfectly encapsulates what my father always called the Golden Rule.
Them that's got the gold, makes the rules, and it was his joke and one minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
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It's this American Life, I'm Sean Cole, sitting in for IRA Glass. Today's show made to be broken stories about regulations, guidelines, proprieties that people up end for some just cause as opposed to just cause. Act two of our show today, it's all about The Jeffersons. When he was a kid, comedian turned Bill was a rule follower, but there was one time he got into really big trouble, broke the rules in a serious way.
And there's a Polaroid picture commemorating the moment. And his family became one of those iconic photographs, sort of family law. They just called it the Polaroid. He explained the back story to producer Ella Baker.
When Tony started sixth grade at a new school, he got MS. Dillard as his homeroom teacher. His neighbor, who were calling MPLX, told them, that's not the teacher you want. You want Miss Jefferson.
He definitely let me know that he had the better teacher, but I still didn't know why. I mean, I don't know if it is because she was young and it was math, but I quickly learned, like, why you want to Miss Jefferson.
Why do you want Miss Jefferson? Miss Jefferson ran her own bank.
Yeah, a bank. She was a math teacher and she gave out fake money to the kids, when you did well on your homework or tests, you'd earn what she called Jefferson bucks, as in Miss Jefferson, not Thomas. They came in denominations of one, five and 10 and were actually printed.
There was definitely a Jefferson myth. They were they were bills. They were straight up bills smaller than a small than a real dollar, bigger than Monopoly money. But it kind of had that feel of Monopoly money. And it was I mean, it looked like I mean, 12 year old money looked like it looked like money, you know, and know. I'm 99 percent sure her face was on it.
Tone wasn't in Miss Jefferson's home room like MP who go to her home in four or five times a day. But he had her once a day for math. So we got to earn Jefferson bucks, too. You can also make them for good behavior, like being quiet or helping her pass out papers.
I remember seeing one of my classmates like open open a door because one of the girls I like stuff in her hand and that was like chivalrous. So like he ended up getting some money. I was like, oh, should you open doors?
I mean, you're opening doors like, I don't know, I'm putting that on the list. Like, Oh, she's got open some doors now. I mean, she had to notice it.
So you're doing what you're going above and beyond.
I mean, you're not going to fall off tables knocking people's books off tables and then picking them up just so she can see a good deed. And then you looking back at it like you see what I just did right at the end of the week.
You could her Jefferson books in at the Jefferson Market, a little store Miss Jefferson set up at her desk here.
You could buy an extra ten minutes at recess, as in everyone's coming inside and you're like, here's five dollars. I'm going to keep playing right over by myself.
Or you could buy school supplies, cheap plastic toys like little green army men and candy, all sorts of candy. This was obviously the top seller. The kids even ranked in order of preference.
So like, you know, the fun dips in the blowpipes in the in the airheads were definitely like, I want to say, like the top two candy, maybe Skittles, like the long jolly ranchers. And you can you can tell, you could tell, especially with the Jefferson bucks, like if you only had two dollars. This is this is this is the Georgia because that's the cheap candy. That's the cheap. You don't have enough like this.
You got it. You got to pick from this bullshit candy tone loved it.
But then one day, a few weeks into the school year, this thing happened that changed how John thought about the Jefferson Bucks system and he couldn't get it out of his head.
He was sitting with me when he noticed something.
I mean, I remember him having, like, that plastic pencil case. You know, you just, you know, pestles, protractor, you know it, you know, ruler and all that kind of stuff that you needed, he and he was he had so much money. He has so much money. What that bag was used for turned into a wallet. I mean, it was just wads of Jefferson bucks. I remember him taking that out.
And it was almost like a seizure because he didn't want anybody. But, you know, he threw me a couple of dollars and I saw I was like, how do you have that much money? Like, it blew my mind.
And then hearing like, oh, I made eleven dollars a day. I'm like, you made eleven dollars today.
Today it ain't even two o'clock yet.
You got more time. Tony been working his ass off for weeks and all he had was six bucks, which was a tiny fraction of what MPLX had.
Tony was earning a minimum wage. An MP was Jeff Bezos.
He had to really sit with it before he understood how this could be. And he had Miss Jefferson for homeroom and for math, which meant that he saw her four times throughout the day. Tony only saw her once for math, of course, and she had way more Jefferson books.
But I remember seeing him and being envious and being jealous and wondering how I do that. And just like let me switch my energy up our study more, I'll be politer. I will talk about class and much tone, tried all sorts of strategies to make money.
But now that he saw the fire in the system, he couldn't unsee it. Everything was a reminder of how much more opportunity the kids in our homeroom had.
It was almost like they had on fur coats and shit and and and driving Cadillacs. It almost felt like it made them dress better. It was like they were in the capital and we were district twelve. We're just poor people trying to make it. And they are the elite and did that make you mad? Oh, it made me so fucking it made me so mad because because you don't know, like, you know, the rules and, you know, we're supposed to work, but then it doesn't work.
But you see, you work for others to town.
Having money also meant something really important to him impressing girls. There was one girl in particular he had a huge crush on. We'll call her Natasha. She didn't even know Tony existed, but he thought about her all the time.
Man Natasha. Her name was on the back of my notebook and stuff. She was active in just long hair, brown skin, just like beautiful. And like her maturity level was was up there to me. Her hair was always does she always wear cool clothes? And she just had the attention. And you saw two dudes who were getting her attention. And look, man, to be honest with you, they just. They had money, they had Jefferson Books and Worboys by Girls Things with the Jefferson.
Oh yeah. Yeah, we call that triggered off. Yeah.
So yeah, I mean you definitely Tone is 12, trying to figure out the whole girl thing for the first time and desperate to impress them. Luckily there were other ways to make money besides Miss Jefferson's class and way more ways to spend it. One of Tony's classmates explained to me that because Miss Jefferson store was only open on Friday, the kids came up with an underground economy of their own, a black market fueled by Jefferson bucks that was open every day of the week.
You could buy anything there if somebody had jello or chocolate or their dessert or like, hey, magni three bucks for the half of your slice of pizza on Friday. I mean, somebody might sell you a pencil half price. Well, Jeff is going to sell them, as Jeff said, might have been selling the pencil, a graphic pencil for two dollars and you might be able to get it for one. But like and now, I mean, it's it became a legal tender basically throughout sixth grade.
The kids did a lot of shady things all under the table. My kids, Thomas Jefferson's class would pay kids and Miss Dillard's 10 to 20 Jefferson bucks to do their homework. That's how the black market worked.
If you had money, if you didn't, you got to figure out how to leverage what they need so that you can get something that you're not getting, which is the Jefferson book. I mean, there were moments where I remember if you're not paying attention to your books, you might have a textbook stolen and you're going to need five Jefferson books to get your book back.
By December, the lopsidedness Thomas Jefferson system was clear to everyone in Miss Blair's home room.
They complained to each other about it and it's like this shit is rigged something. And I don't remember who it was, but I remember a lot of us being like, yo, what do we need to do? Did you ever say that to her? Yeah, we brought it up of how to. Like, how do we do more of you're not seeing it. I'm trying my best and it's like, hey, man, now we got it.
We got to have a town hall.
I kid brought it up one day in math class and several others, including town, immediately jumped on board. I wasn't able to find Miss Jefferson to get her side of this. But the way Tony remembers it, Miss Jefferson shut this discussion down. If they wanted more money, she said they needed to try harder. Period. End of discussion is like, hey, man, everybody has the same opportunity.
And it's like, no, they don't. Well, you got to work harder and you got to try harder. And then. After I'm saying months of doing that, nothing, still nothing. And I just had this moment where I was like, I, I got to I got to rob the Jefferson Bank, like, I'm going, I'm going. There's no other way. Again, Tone was a rule follower. His dad was really strict, so this was wildly out of character.
But as Bertolt Brecht said, in a very different context, who is the greater criminal? The man who robs a bank or the man who found one tomb figured if she can make believe a bank, then he could rob that Makefile bank without any consequences.
And then so I kind of just I mean, I guess I can kind of start a case in the, you know, Miss Jeffries's actions and, you know, a knew left a window open. I knew we had at this point we had a right before lunch. I knew where she kept that. I knew where the store was. I knew where the money was. So at lunch. So I decided, you know, a couple days before I'm going to start going to the bathroom during lunch, I would go to the bathroom, come back, spend like a little extra time, come back, you know, for a few days.
Just so this wouldn't look awkward.
He's testing out how long he can be away without people noticing. Miss Jefferson's classroom is locked during lunch, but she has a window that faces the courtyard. His plan is to slip in through the window, grab some money and head out.
So I was like, OK, today's the day. You know, I go I go to the bathroom and I said, you know, she's going to the bathroom real quick. I don't feel well.
He goes straight to Miss Jefferson's window in the courtyard, pushes it open and climbs in his heart is racing. And then he goes over to the one place every kid knows is forbidden. His teacher's desk. He knows exactly where Miss Jefferson keeps the money in the bottom right drawer. He opens the door and sees the metal cash box. It's unlocked and so open the box up. And, you know, I mean, just money like I mean it just even in that moment, I was like, oh, this is this was like a Scrooge McDuck moment.
Like, I am swimming in Jefferson books, but like, you can't get over zealous. Right? Because if if you take everything that's difficult to be noticeable, you have to take it enough to feel comfortable, but not enough to set off any alarms. And door opened up off the top of the box and grabbed out a nice I mean I mean, I must say, an inch thick of Jefferson books. I must say, like an inch, like a nice a nice probably equivalent to what he had in his, in his, you know, in his, in his and his pencil holder and you know, so I asked if that had happened and I stuff my pockets and I'm like, I got to get the fuck out of here.
Tone is running out of time. He does a sweep of the room, then he exits through the classroom door and locks it behind him. I'm good.
I'm home free, so I close the door back out, door's locked and I'm starting to walk around the corner and I've run into Nitasha, like, blew my mind also.
I'm also like, why is she in the hallway?
And I mean, she looks at me, she knows I'm not supposed to be out here, but also she's looking at me like, why were you and Mr. Jefferson's class? And I mean, I swear to you, she just looks me up and down and just notices. My pockets, because, I mean, I got a dollar bill, I got Jefferson bucks. I mean, just pop it out of my pockets and and she just looks me up and down.
And then she was like, oh, so you go, Oh.
I'm in need some of that, and I'm like, oh, my God, look like this, this girl who I'm infatuated with, like one is robbing me and but like, I got to not get caught. I have to give this bitch hush money.
So so, you know, I gave her like I think I give her my whole left pocket, if I'm not mistaken. I think because it was already already split in half. And, you know, I talk about a just. Do not say nothing about it. Are we good? Like, give me just and just like, hey, man, you know, we kind of had a cone of silence, like, can we keep this shit a secret?
Come back the middle class. By the time we start the next period, I mean, it's I mean, everybody knows about it. I heard you heard you took Jefferson like I didn't take any jobs. And I was at lunch with you the whole time I went to the bathroom. That's about it.
So you start to see the eyeballs come at you like, oh, man, too many people know within no time word spreads to Miss Jefferson and then the principal or vice principal, Tom can't remember which.
And they pulled me into the hallway. Mandela comes out. They're like, what were you doing? Lunch? And I was like, I went to the bathroom. I asked for permission. I know you didn't go anywhere else. I was like, no, I just went in, then I and I came back and they're like, OK, so. So what's in? What's in your pockets, and I was like, nothing. And then it's still in your pocket.
I didn't have time to put it up. You are the worst criminal I have done.
I could. My plan was getting foiled in front of me, in front of my eyes because I had too many eyeballs on me to take it out of my pocket. There's nothing I could do.
It's like it's I feel like I was wearing a wire and people knew about it, even with the money as evidence and still won't confess. So they turn up the heat into the hallway, mocks Natasha.
Yes. She comes out and she's like, wow. So I'm coming out of my Jefferson Room. And I was like, What? I mean, like it was it was unreal, like I think that's why I gave you the money not to talk like especially to these people. That's why I gave it to you, like if if you was going to tell the whole time, I would have just taken the whole cap, all of it like that.
This is how I was going. And like, that's what the money was for. And I go to the office and it's, ah, it's either our principal or vice principal, but it's definitely Miss Jefferson. And did she ask you anything?
She she was definitely disappointed. She was never disappointed. And then, you know, she's you know, the why why would you do that? And, you know, and I was real and I was like, look, man, it wasn't to be malicious. It was like we struggling out here and seeing people with three chocolate milks.
If I blow pops and ring pops, all that kind of shit and I can't do nothing. And it's like, well, there's a better way to go about it. I tried that and you can't tell me that. You don't remember. We we we kind of all talked about it. And I've tried everything. I've tried what you said to do. I tried to make better grades. I've tried to be more chivalrous. I've tried to not give my name.
I've tried all these things and they don't work. I've tried to be fair. And you're not being fair.
Tones, punishment, the worst possible outcome they call his dad, intones mind, this is his last day on Earth. He gets home, goes straight to the fridge, gets a bowl of ice cream and heads to his room to watch porn. He figures he might as well go out with a bang.
He's refilling his bowl when he notices something. There's a chair in the middle of the kitchen. His dad walks in, gestures to the chair and says, Oh, no, no, no, no.
No. You know what time it is and like I'm like, fuck, you know, I got to bend over the back of this chair and I'm just taking it and I mean, I'm just breaking down. And then and then my father just like he stops, I'm crying and everything. And then he goes, Hey, Tom. And I look back and my father. Takes a Polaroid. Me crying with the face, I mean, like it's pants around my ankles as just I mean, faces like, I mean took a Polaroid and what was the expression on your face?
The expression. Pain and defeat. Tony never got another spanking, he never went rogue again, and part of that has to do with the Polaroid. Anytime he started acting up, his dad would remind him of that photo. And Tom, of course, correct.
And I mean, it was like Pavlovian. It was like I mean, that photo made me break down.
One was ashamed he felt bad for robbing the bank, but the thing is, it actually got him what he wanted, not like he expected. He didn't get Jefferson bucks, but he got justice. Miss Jefferson changed the rules. No matter how many times a day you saw her, you could only earn money during the hour of math class. It became a level playing field.
I feel like I do remember people, you know, kind of being disappointed. There were people, Thomas Jefferson class that were pissed, I'm sure, but everybody wasn't. Thomas Jefferson class was like, yeah, about time. Mm hmm. Yeah.
But you know, what's interesting about what you're saying right now is just like the kids in Miss Jefferson's class are going to be pissed at you because they don't have the privilege they used to have. Right. But they also have no concept of how you've been feeling all school year.
So like. And that's exactly. You don't know. It's different for me. Well, I'm in her class and you get to take her class. And at the same no. I know it should be, but is not that doesn't matter to me. Well, then I have to do some. It felt unfair. Four tone, this was always just a funny story he told about his dad's awkward Polaroid, but he started talking to me about it a few weeks ago during the height of the recent protest, and that made him think about the story differently.
There's a parallel that I've that I've never noticed or look for, I guess, between how communities react when they don't feel like they're being treated fairly well.
You know, it's what it makes me think of is like Jesus always talked in parables. Right. And I feel like you're Deverson back story is such a perfect parable. I agree when the rules are the same for everyone and some people thrive and some people don't, but everyone's following them. Why is it not why is it not fair? And I don't even know if it's. Can be answered most of the time, but the question has to be asked.
If this is a parable, almost everything lines up, the systematic inequality, the unfairness has, sometimes you have to break the rules in order for them to change.
I see what I'm supposed to learn from everyone, but the one thing neither of us could figure out is what are we supposed to learn from Natasha?
Tony never told anyone she took half the money crashes a crash, so the real robber actually got away with it. Ella Baker is one of the producers on our show, Tony Bell performed a version of this story on the Comedy Central program. This is not happening. His first hour long special, Can't Cancel. This is now available on Showtime.
And Amazon Prime really moving on now to need to do a deal in the sky high. Our program is produced by Leave It to Kornfeld and Me, people who made the show today include my Rumi, Ella Baker, Emmanuel Berry, Ben Calhoun, Dan Chevis, nor Gil Damian Graves, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Stone Nelson, Catherine Reymundo, Nadia Raymon, Robyn Symeon, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Batalla and Matt Tierney are managing editors are Diane Wu and Sarah Abdurrahman, executive editors.
David Kestenbaum, special thanks to Gianluca Rosolino, Michael Cumani, Josephine Dorita, Wycliffe Alou, Talula Aitor Peralta, Monique Thompson, Kyle Deklin, Nicolle Wallace, Deepali Gupta, Patricia Spears Jones, Laurel Chor and all of the Uber drivers who agreed to talk with Benjamin Walker and me. Please check out the episode that Benjamin did called Going Career on his podcast Theory of Everything. You can find it at Theory of Everything podcast, dotcom or wherever you get your podcast.
Original music at the end of Act One was composed for us by Nicholas Payton.
Our website is This American Life Dog. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by parks. The Public Radio Exchange. Support for this American Life comes from 6am. Salmon shares a community supported fishery delivering seasonal shares of traceable sushi grade wild Alaskan seafood. Learn more about their small boat fleet. Find recipes and order at Sitka Salmon Share Dotcom.
Thanks, of course, to my boss, IRA Glass, a man who still goes trick or treating on Halloween. Except now when he gets his treat, he still toilet paper the family's house.
Oh yeah, yeah. We call that triggered off.
I'm Sean Cole. Join us next week for more stories of this American life. Next week on the podcast of this American Life, beaches are open in some places, but if you're worried about whether it's safe to go, we bring the beach to you with one man's fight against the Speedo.
And David Sedaris. I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the ship shape. Now, though, I had a better idea. We are going to call it the C section. Next week on the podcast on your local public radio station.