Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
Support for this American life comes from Squarespace, make your website your own with the ability to customize, look and feel settings, products and more for a free trial of your new Web site, visit Squarespace Dotcom, slash American and enter American.
Squarespace, think it. Grimmett make it. Support for this American life comes from, indeed the most visited job site in the world, indeed can get you the important hire you need, just like they have for over three million businesses for a special offer visit. Indeed, dotcom, American terms and conditions apply offer valid through September 30th.
Me, I'm not crazy about the beach. It's hard to think of a less comfortable place to read a book than flat on a blanket under the scorching sun going in the waves. Totally fun for a little bit, but like all day. And like many people over 40, I have no desire to ever be seen in a bathing suit by anyone ever for the rest of my life, but now many times I've been to the beach this summer, OK, there were two quickie day trips and a seven day beach vacation.
I don't like the beach, but because we live in a world with no movies or plays or live music or family get togethers, I think maybe socially distant beach going has been my number one recreational activity for the year.
And why? Well, because people I love of the beach hitting the beach during summer and I believe I can say this with authority from personal experience, painting the beach in summer is like being a Jew at Christmas.
You can try to sit it out, but it's just too big. At some point you're going to drink some eggnog.
And you know what, when I go to the beach, I try I really try to get into it to have a nice time to appreciate the waves and the sand and the heat. And I think about many hundreds and thousands of years of families and brought their kids the water's edge play pretty much exactly the same dumb way that we play in the sand and waves today. How many ways are there to do that anyway?
And, you know, some people really love it so much. A while back here on a radio show, we all saw this article about somebody like that at the time.
He was a 66 year old lifeguard who was suing New York State for age discrimination. And I just want a pause on that for a second. A 66 year old lifeguard, all of us here on our staff, we had no idea like that could even exist. We all thought lifeguarding is something you do when you're in high school, maybe a couple years after into your 20s, like Giusto lifeguarding at 66. And then it was even more of a question when we realized that the lifeguard in the story, he has another job.
He's a lawyer. He's a working lawyer. His name is Rory Lester.
He's a bankruptcy attorney. He's got his own firm in Long Island. And then he lifeguards every weekend in the summer. And I just say today on our program, we have stories about people like him, people who love the beach, not people like me. Chicago, it's this American Life, I'm IRA Glass, prepared today, a program to listen to with the sun beating down on you, the humidity through the roof, a show of people embracing the beach, people who are sons of the beach and just get right to it.
But act one like one, The Grapes of Wrath.
So one of our producers, Janet Shivers, she went out to Long Island and met that guy, Rory Lester, the 66 year old attorney lifeguard who was suing New York State.
Basically, the deal is that they tried to make him wear a Speedo.
He refused. He lost his job. Here's Dana.
If you ask Roy, why are you still lifeguarding at 66? He barely understands the question. It's so self-evident to him. It's been his life since he was 16. He and his buddies were kings of the beach.
He lived with other lifeguards. His best man at his wedding was a lifeguard for kids, grew up playing together on the beach while they were on duty. He never wanted to leave this job. Even when he went to law school in California, he came back to lifeguard every summer in Alaska. Aren't you supposed to have like an internship in a law firm or something like that?
You're supposed to. Did you not do that? I did not do that. I never took it quite that seriously. You know, the idea of giving up the summer was something I just couldn't do. He's not alone at Jones Beach, where he worked for forty years. There are dozens of guys, teachers, firemen, police who stayed with it into their 60s. Lifeguarding at Jones Beach is such a thing that a former lifeguard made a film about it.
It's called Jones Beach Boys. Roy insisted. I watch it. I did. It was awesome. Here's my favorite song from it. That's how you get into it.
So we're going for the rescue and getting to the victim. I never really appreciated how thrilling lifeguarding is until Roy talked about rescues. We were sitting in his law office.
The exhilaration of a good rescue is unlike anything. You've ever had you know, and you don't get that I sit here and I shuffle papers. I wouldn't call it exciting, I wouldn't call it rewarding. But this is you're actually accomplishing something. You're up there and all of a sudden you're going out in the water and the rest of the world is behind this. Nothing else except between you getting from your stand to that victim. That's the only thing.
And it's it's it's great. It's a great feeling.
How many people do you think you've rescued in your career?
Over a thousand thousand. You have to remember, there were times we would have 40 rescues in an hour. That's why.
But why? Because you have people that come down to Jones Beach who really don't know about swimming. So this especially when you have a current and you can get a very strong current at Jones Beach, a thousand rescues.
That's way more rescues than David Hasselhoff did on Baywatch figure two rescues per episode, 10 years on the air, Roy would still beat him by 560 rescues, which is to say, Roy is one of the lifeguards. Lifeguards there is. He had two wins at the national lifeguard competition. He served as an expert lifeguard witness in court cases. And all was well in his happy lifeguarding world until the Speedo Michigan began in 2007. Here's what happened.
If you're a lifeguard at Jones Beach, you have to take a physical fitness test every year to prove that you're still able to do the job. It includes a speed test in a pool.
You have to swim 100 yards in a minute, 20, which is actually pretty fast. A lot of these guys train all year for it. For 15 years, Roy took a swim test in his preferred swimsuit, a pair of jammers. They look like bike shorts without the butt cushion. If you're watching the Olympics right now. All the male swimmers are wearing them. They're tight and they go down to just above the knee.
But when Roy showed up for the test in 2007, he was told no Jammer's. His bosses at the Office of Parks and Recreation said you can only do the test in one of the official Jones Beach lifeguard swimsuits, which means you have three choices board shorts, trunks or Speedo board shorts and trunks are loose. So nobody really takes a swim test in them because they create more drag and slow you down. So, in effect, state officials were saying to Roy, you have to take the test in a Speedo.
Roy said, no way, I won't do it, and he hasn't been a lifeguard at Jones Beach since it was one of those feelings like am I making the right decision? I'm throwing away a 40 year career over principle. It was a difficult decision, a very difficult decision. How long did it take you to decide? A second. I really need to point out he would only have to wear the Speedo for the test, which lasts a minute and 20 seconds on the job, he'd wear board shorts.
Most of the lifeguards do, young and old. Why not just put it on for the test of. Why didn't Rosa Park just go to the back of the bus? There were plenty of seats.
Of course, what Roy was fighting for is quite different from what Rosa Parks was fighting for. But Roy is the principle of the thing standing up to age discrimination. When I read about all this in The New York Times, I really didn't understand what's the connection between a Speedo and age discrimination. I've certainly seen older dudes in Speedos. So I went out and met Roy on a beach not far from his house in Long Island. It was six, 45 in the morning.
He was about to go for a mile swim before work. So, Roy, can you can you describe what you're wearing right now?
Well, it's a wetsuit. It's a short sleeved wetsuit.
And I my jammies on and Roy brought one of his official Jones Beach Speedos to the beach to show me just describe it for me.
It's an exaggerated song, for lack of a better word, but it's full coverage in the back.
So it's not quite a thong, right? Not quite right.
But Roy and lots of guys, it might as well be a thong, which is why the Speedo has earned a stable of nicknames. The Weeny Bikini, the ding a ling a ling, the speed don't. The Banana Hammock, The Grapes Mugler, the Miami Meat Tent, the Centropa Truffle Duffle, this great tote. The reason the jammer is preferred by older lifeguards is that you're saying it's more discreet, modest. More modest. Yes. Than the Speedo.
Yes, because it covers your thighs.
I you know, I don't want to get graphic, but. Yea, the word begins with B. Basically A hanging out with the with a Speedo.
I get it now I think I don't really with the jam is it's not like that. There's like a little bit more of a roof over your house.
Yes. Yes. This is the nut of his argument. Roy says once he passed 50, he felt self-conscious in a Speedo and nobody should have to feel self-conscious to get a job. So Roy refuses to put on the grape smuggler to take the swim test a few weeks later, there's another chance to take the test. He shows up and this time he is wearing the official Speedo.
He's just got it on over his jammer's. He showed me a video of a conversation he recorded on the pool back that day. It was a little windy, so the sound isn't great. But he's standing in front of Sue Giuliani, who is the director of Jones Beach State Park at the time. And there he is. And his jammer's plus Speedo outfit challenging her to turn him away.
I made a compromise. Not going to let this happen like this. Now, how come you still have guests so that you can chat with. All right. And is there any reason why they, not me, try to let you know why they're not allowed to. No. No, I don't. I've never met Joe Scarless, the director of water safety for the state beaches cuts in.
Are you going to comply or not? I am complying when my officials are complying with what we want and I'm wearing my special say, not swimming. So did you just go home then, basically?
Well, I stayed around and I had, you know, watched everybody take the test.
And were there other people taking the test and jammer's? No, no. Nobody was allowed to take the test in germs. So everybody else had to put on the Speedo and put on the board shorts, something like that. Roy says he could have warned board shorts are trunks and still pass the test. He says he could have worn dungarees and passed the guys in ridiculous shape. He does triathlons now, which is the swim team. In 2012, he had a hip replaced and seven weeks later he came in first in his age group in Bermudas round the sound swim race, a one point two mile open water swim.
He was still using a cane to walk.
So the easy thing for Roy to do would be just take the test and board shorts or Speedo and keep the job he loved. Let bureaucrats be bureaucrats. Just get on with it. That's not Roy. Roy does not back down from a fight. So he sued. He sued the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for five million dollars. Now, the easy thing for the state would have been to just let Jones Beach lifeguards wear Dammers, presumably if they're good enough for the Olympic swim team, they're good enough for New York's lifeguards.
But that's not New York State. It decided to fight. The lawsuit has worked its way through the lower court, which dismissed it to the appellate court, which ruled in May that it should go to trial. This has been going on for seven years, seven years. Roy sent me a PDF of his exhibits in the case. It was thirteen hundred pages long.
And the thing I really want to know, because I live in New York and pay taxes in New York is why is the state using taxpayer dollars to fight the speed of suit? This could all have been resolved very easily years ago. If they just changed the rule, allowed the Dammers, why ruin the state fighting each other when they should unite against the real enemy jellyfish?
Officials from the state of New York wouldn't talk to me for this story, the attorney general's office wouldn't talk. Neither would Parks and Rec. But they did send me the affidavit of a guy named George Gorman. He oversees all the parks in Long Island and it lays out their side of the story. Around 2006, some of the Jones Beach lifeguard started taking the swim test in full body swimsuits. Management became concerned that those guys were only passing because they were wearing the full body swimsuits.
So they decided to change the rules. Starting in 2007, lifeguards could only take the test in one of the three official Jones Beach uniform swimsuits. No more full body suits and also no jammers because jammers aren't part of the uniform. In his deposition, George Gorman said, quote, We determined it was best that the lifeguards wear the uniforms that they're assigned to wear while they're on duty. Seemed reasonable, right? Not of your Roy, he points out, if Jammer's really are significantly faster, wouldn't you want your lifeguards to wear a faster suit, get them out to drowning victim sooner?
And as it happens, New York Parks and Rec allows lifeguards to take their qualifying test in Jammer's in the rest of the state upstate.
I went upstate to take the test and I wore my jammies. You know, you took the test upstate? Yes. And I wore my jammies and people wore the Germans. And I have pictures of that. And I that's part of the exhibit of guys taking the test in their jammies upstate. Yes. That same employer. New York State Department of Recreation, the same employer, allows the jammer's, so your theory about this is that they're targeting Long Island because why?
Because 90 percent of the older the over 50 lifeguards work on Long Island. It's the biggest group of older lifeguards anywhere.
For what it's worth, the state told me that the rules are different on Long Island because it's a more strenuous job lifeguarding on the ocean upstate. It's all lakes and pools.
Why do you think it is that they don't want older lifeguards? Well, I think they don't like the fact that older lifeguards have influence over the younger guys. And when you're a member of management, you don't want anybody having influence over your employees except you. And when you have to deal with the union and you have to deal with the offices of the unions who are all older guys and they know the beach, you don't want that.
Yep, there's a lifeguard union.
Roy was the president of the union for years. And at that point in 2007, when he refused to wear the Speedo, he was the union's chief negotiator.
When Sue Giuliani tells him to follow the rules so that you not where she knows him, he's the guy the union sends to argue its side.
And these guys telling him he can't wear his jammer's, they're management. This is a scantily clad labor dispute. I asked some other older lifeguards about this, and three out of the four of them agreed.
This is about the union, which actually has a history of fighting age discrimination. In 1966, they went on strike because the state tried to impose an age limit of 35 for Jones Beach lifeguards. So they walked off the beach.
A week later, the state caved, knowing this, that the suits and the swimsuits have a history with each other that help me understand what Roys fight was really about.
Roy told me one reason he took a stand was that management was supposed to tell the union if they wanted to change a rule like this, and this time they didn't. He's got a weekend job now at a private beach club, but it's not the same, I like where I'm working now. I really do.
But you get one rescue a year if you're lucky. And then it's at what's called the puddle jumper.
What does a puddle jumper puddle jumper is where you really don't even need to get your head wet and you get Jones Beach. In the old days, we would have these tremendous rescues, just these great rescues.
His friends from Jones Beach tease him that he's in exile now. How often do you go visit them? Not that often.
I keep in touch with them constantly, but I don't go down there that often. To be honest. It does hurt. It hurts to go down there. That was my beach, you know, it was my home for so many years.
If Roy's theory is true, then the state is trying to get rid of the older lifeguards on Long Island by forcing them into Speedos. But if that's true, as far as I can tell, the only lifeguard they've managed to get rid of is Roy.
Dana Chavez is one of the producers of our program since we first broadcast this story. Roy is back at Jones Beach after 12 years of fighting him over his right not to wear Speedos in New York State has granted him an exception. Pass this test. He's back working as a lifeguard. He is 70 years old.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. My heart is beating, but my real. Back to each doctor. Oh, hello. Yep, I'm here now. Hey, Alex. Hello, everybody. How are you? My other little buddy.
This next story takes place on a beach in Mexico. Shane to go talk to producer Alex Blumberg a couple of years ago. They are old friends. And basically, as we were putting our show together, Alex remembered this thing that happened to Shane decades before when Shane was out kayaking on a trip in Mexico down in Baja, California. Shane and his friends took a month long vacation and every day they would head out into the Gulf of California and go see kayaking.
They were really kind of in the middle of nowhere.
There's little beach communities and some little tourist centers. But mostly what we were doing was finding deserted open beaches and camping. So there was nobody around for most of the time. Wow.
So it was just like it was you. And there's like how many?
Everybody except the seventh there was six or seven. And some people might go fishing, some people might play cards, some people might snorkel. Think we slept outside a lot.
I felt like we were 12 years old pretending to be Robinson Crusoe living off the land.
So we carried all our own water, all our own food, camping supplies, tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, sunscreen to help sunscreen.
Know we were young then. We just figured it would be fine. Are you serious? You didn't bring any sunscreen? I'm sure I didn't.
So we're in Baja. We are on a layover, which means we are just camped somewhere and we're not trying to kayak right now. And we've been clamming all day and my neck locks up and I can't turn my head to one side. And this is bad for lots of reasons. But when you're kayaking, you have to be able to paddle. You got to be able to use both arms and neck locking up.
This is something that's happened to you periodically throughout your life.
Yeah, this this happens six to eight times a year and usually last three or four days. Right.
But so no one wants to be stuck on the beach while I'm working out my neck for three or four days.
So we had run into a little expat community on a on a beach pretty close to where we were camping. These folks who had were living in campers and had set up little cantinas, which were really just sort of stake's with a tarp over them and they would serve beers or in our case, they showed us how to clam. And then they they made us a clam feast. So we went back to the guy that had shown us how to do that to his his camper on the beach.
And I said there's not there's not any chiropractor's anywhere nearby.
And which was just a ridiculous question because there was nothing nearby. And he said, I mean, this really this is where it kind of gets apocryphal but is actually true because he gets this sort of wistful look in his eye and he says, no, there's no chiropractor, but there is an amateur chiropractor who helps some of the local people. And his name is Johnny Tukwila, and he lives on a boat to coves over from where you're staying.
And if you if you go to this man, he he may help you. It very mystical. And you're like, well, you have an amateur chiropractor. But once I find out that his name is Johnny Tequila.
So you said, how do you get there? How do I get there? I said, I don't want to miss it. And he's like, you want me? So I was like, oh, tell me where he is.
And so he grabs a bar napkin and it's like black black ballpoint pen, I think sketches me a rough outline of the coast and like puts an X, there's an X marks the spot.
That's where Johnny Tequila is to Cove's over. No one wants to go with me. They're all going to chill out.
So you had to kyak up to this guy. Yes. So I have to kayak to him.
So I and my friends had taken the teasing me about my paddle stroke, which was at this point one armed and half crippled, and they were calling it the chicken wing because of your neck and because of my neck.
So I chicken wing for two coatsworth worth like maybe a mile paddle and you're really close to the shore and it's, you know, the beach is right on your right in the open ocean is on your left and your chicken wing one cove.
OK, and I'm looking at my my and my my napkin gets wet so my map gets all destroyed, comes apart because the water is running down your paddle handle.
So a chicken wing on over. And there in the second cove is a catamaran in the middle of an empty cove.
You know, I don't want you to get the idea that this is a harbor or dock or. Anything manmade, nothing around, and it's docked in the water, maybe 20 or 30 yards from shore, and as I paddle closer, I don't see anyone.
It's got a cabin, but there's the mast is up, no sale is up. And as I get closer and closer, I can see around the mast lined up are empty Cuervo Gold tequila bottles, but kind of orderly. That was the weird thing. Like, I usually don't associate empty tequila bottles with order, but these had been meticulously kind of lined up, ringing the mast, ringing the mast.
And again, I'm I'm paddling up on a boat in the middle of nowhere with no one else around.
And I don't really know how to even start and from some deep place.
The word that comes to me is ahoy, which I've certainly never used in normal conversation, so I say ahoy.
And from out of the cabin comes a completely naked woman. She looks American and blonde, hair tanned so deeply.
It's like the tan that goes to your liver. It's just tan all the way through, really. Like, muscly, like like her shoulders looked like she was probably like a rafting guide in Colorado.
So she's completely naked and completely unfazed about being completely naked.
Just greets me and talks to me as if she were wearing clothes and she's above me. So I'm just looking up at her being naked from my kayak, holding onto the side of their boat. And I'm in my kayak. And I said, Is Johnny Tequila here?
And she's very nice. And she goes, No, he went to town for supplies, but he'll be back shortly. Why don't you wait until he comes back?
And then eventually, Johnny Tequila, we see him on the beach near us and he's got a little rowboat and he rose back to us and he looks exactly like her.
I mean, he's got on shorts, but he's got that tan. He looks kind of muscly in his shoulders and chest. And they both have kind of wild, bleached out blond hair and real scruffy, maybe 30s, although the sun makes everyone look older.
So who knows?
And I tell them my story and he's like, yeah, of course I'll I'll perform some amateur chiropractor on your neck. He didn't say that. He said just. Yeah, of course. I'll help you follow me to shore. So he rose and I chicken wing to the shore and we pull our boats up and then he said, follow me. And now we are going, I want to say jungle. But it was not jungle, but it's it's dense scrub.
I mean, this is where there's bushes all around us. There's cacti winding around in the middle of Mexico with no one else for miles. And I'm following him on this path, a really faint path, and we come to a clearing.
And in the clearing, there is a table exactly like a massage table or a chiropractic table, you see in a real chiropractor's office with like the center part that's open and you can put your face down there and like the next part, you know, articulates and comes up, you know, it's the real deal and a life sized human skeleton hanging from the tree, which I assume is a replica, but it looks like a skeleton.
And the table you a clearing in the middle of the desert in Mexico.
And then he has me lie on my back, looking up at his face and his crazy hair, and he's shirtless.
Did I tell you my chiropractor is shirtless, he's shirtless, and he puts his hands around my neck in the middle of Mexico clearing with a skeleton.
My amateur chiropractor knows my neck in his hands and he gives me a chiropractic exam that resembles every other chiropractic exam I've I've received. And then he does an adjustment that also passes as any other chiropractic adjustment I've received. And I say, Johnny Tequila, thank you, uh, for adjusting my neck. You know, can I can I pay you? And he said, no, I just do this to help people. There will be no payment. But if you ever see me in a bar, you can buy me a shot of tequila.
Then the next day was, in fact, your next better. Well, it's possible I'm collapsing time, but the way I remember it, I chicken wing back and over the next few hours, I start to feel much, much better and the neck is OK.
Do you think that Johnny Tequila, like when you think of Johnny Tequila, is he an argument for chucking it all and moving to some quiet beach in some distant land, or is he an argument against it? He's 100 percent an argument for I can't believe you asked me that question, a simpler life, just crack people's necks, drink tequila, sing in the cantina and go home to my naked lady. Did I not tell the story to make it seem good?
It seemed great.
Tim Tebow talking to Alex Blumberg, Alex, by the way, is a brand new show that he is cohosting, it's a podcast that launches next week. It's called How to Save a Planet about Climate Solutions on August 20th.
Look for it wherever you get your podcasts.
Johnny said that back in the States, everyone shake because they all got the polo fever.
Do the sick and handsome sweat short sleeves, everybody shake because they all got the polo fever.
Do the second hand some sweat shirt sleeves, shake up the polo fever. The second had some shots. Factory the beachcomber.
OK, so the absolute biggest radioshow I think maybe that has ever been made, I believe anyway was done by my first boss at NPR, this documentary producer named Keith Talbot. He made this back in 1979. It was called Ocean Hour. And I love that show.
Like I say, I think it's the biggest radio show mankind will ever produce. And here is one of my favorite parts. Just before I play this, I should say this is such a piece of 1970s era public radio that there's no narration on the show giving the name of the interviewee who you're about to hear or where he is. That's how we rolled back then. Anyway, I hope you like this. Here is a scrounges like everything. If I can beachcombing, you can.
Actually, I have lived as poor as a man can live and still survive in the United States of America in the nineteen seventies because everything comes here much sooner or later would oyster's the various other fish that you can get for the asking Mollet, which is the big good eating fish around here, along with trout and catfish which come from the rivers. You have the river cat and the saltwater cat. They seem to be cousins, but they taste a little different.
And in addition to all of that, you get the kinds of things that sea brings, which is from boats. There's always a certain amount of movement of cargo in boats as well as fish and firewood around here is for the asking. In a city like New York or Washington, firewood, I'm sure cost a hundred dollars a truckload of two hundred dollars around here. You can go out and fill it up for nothing. There is a theory, for example, in archaeology that all of the early settlements were on the coast of man, but that's where the easiest life has always been, where everything was for the taking and you had the sea and you had the land together in the various mutations between them.
And that's where food chains like to start, where you have that melting land or that solidifying water. That's where the organisms get their start, especially you have the right climate. As a poor man, it means that things are coming to me which don't happen very much. The prairie or in the big cities. Nothing comes to your door in a big city except a cop or a taxi driver or something. But here things actually come to your door.
An excerpt from Ocean Hour in 1979, a link to that entire program is at our website and I do recommend it. It's this American Life dog. Coming up, David Sedaris and his family go to the beach, except for one of them, that's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
Support for this American life comes from Squarespace providing designer crafted website templates that are mobile friendly e-commerce ready and customizable. Squarespace websites offer analytics to help you grow in real time with free and secure hosting an award winning customer service. Make your idea stand out with a new Web site from Squarespace.
Start your free trial and receive a special offer on your first purchase at Squarespace Dotcom American and use promo code American. Squarespace.
Think it. Dream it. Make it. Support for this American life comes from, indeed, in 2020, most small businesses have to be more resilient and efficient than ever. Indeed, gives you full control and payment flexibility over your hiring. You only pay for what you need. You can pause your account at any time and there are no long term contracts.
Plus indeed, provides powerful tools to make your search that much easier, like sponsored jobs, which are shown to be three and a half times more likely to result in a hire for a special offer visit indeed dotcom. American terms and conditions apply offer valid through September 30th. It's this American Life from IRA Glass today for everybody who is far from the beach, for everybody who's avoiding the beach because of coronavirus, for everybody who needs the beach. We take you there with stories about the beach.
We've arrived at Act four act. For now, we are five. OK, so if you're a beach family, you go to the beach every year. Good years, bad years, whatever happens in your family that you're just what you do. David Sedaris has this story about his family heading to the beach together. One, you're this is first published in The New Yorker a few years back. And here at our program, we all really loved it.
So here's David. In late May of last year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room and a beat up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guest for at least five days before her door was battered down. I was given the news over a white courtesy phone while at the Dallas airport. Then because my plane to Baton Rouge was boarding and I wasn't sure what else to do, I got on it.
The following morning, I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta, and the day after that I flew to Nashville thinking all the while about my ever shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die, but a sibling, I felt I'd lost the identity I'd enjoyed since 1968 when my brother was born, six kids. People would say, how do your poor folks manage? There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in, every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult and my friends started having children.
One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple here and I knew enormity would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three.
When they leave several hours later, every last part of me would feel violated. Take those kids, double them and subtract the cable TV. That's what my parents had to deal with. Now, though, there weren't six, only five. And you can't really say there used to be six. I told my sister Lisa it just makes people uncomfortable. I recalled a father and son had met in California a few years back. So are there other children?
I asked. There are the man said, three who are living, and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born 18 years ago.
That's not fair. I remember thinking because, I mean, what's a person supposed to do with that?
Compared to most 49 year olds or even most 49 month old Tiffany didn't have much, she did leave a will, though.
In it she decreed that we, her family could not have her body or attend a memorial service. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. Her mother would have said. A few days after getting the news, my sister Amy drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany's room family photos, many of which had been ripped into pieces, comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts, the bed, a mattress on the floor had been taken away and a large industrial fan had been set up.
Amy snaps in pictures while she was there and individually and in groups, those of us left studied them for clues, a paper plate on a dresser that had several drawers missing, a phone number written on a wall.
A collection of mop handles each one a different color, arranged like cocktails in a barrel painted green. Six months before our sister killed herself, I'd made plans for us all to gather at a beach house on Emerald Isle off the coast of North Carolina. My family used to vacation there every summer, but after my mother died, we stopped going, not because we lost interest, but because it was she who always made the arrangements and more importantly, paid for it.
The place I found with the help of my sister in law, Kathy had six bedrooms in a small swimming pool.
Our week long rental period began on Saturday, June 8th, and we arrived to find a delivery woman standing in the driveway with seven pounds of seafood, a sympathy gift sent by friends. They slaw on there, too, she said, handing over the bags.
In the past, when my family rented a cottage, my sisters and I would crowd the door like puppies are on a food dish, our father would unlock it and we'd tear through the house claiming rooms. I always pick the biggest one facing the ocean. Just as I'd start to unpack, my parents would enter and tell me that this was theirs. I mean, just who the hell do you think you are? My father would ask.
He and my mother would move in and I would get booted to what was called the maid's room, who was always on the ground level, a kind of dank shed next to where the car was parked. There was never an interior stairway leading to the upper floor. Instead, I had to take the outside steps and more often than not, knock on the locked front door like a beggar hoping to be invited in. What do you want, my sisters?
When ask. I want to come inside, that's funny, Lisa, the eldest would say to the others who were gathered like disciples around her, did you hear something, a whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that? A hermit crab, a little sea slug. Normally, there was a social divide between the three oldest and three youngest children in my family. Lisa, Gretchen and I treated the others like servants and did very well for ourselves.
At the beach, though, all bets were off and it was just upstairs against downstairs, meaning everyone against me. This time, because I was paying I got to choose the best room. Amy moved in next door and my brother Paul, his wife, and their 10 year old daughter Maddy, took the spot next to her. That was it for oceanfront. The others arrived later and had to take the leftovers. Lisa's room faced street, as did my father's Gretchen's face the street and was intended for someone who was paralyzed hanging from the ceiling where electric pulleys designed to lift a harnessed body into and out of bed.
Unlike the cottages of our youth, this one did not have a maid's room. It was too new and fancy for that, as were the homes that surrounded it. Traditionally, all the island houses were on stilts, but more and more often now, the ground floors are filled in. They all have big names and are painted beachy colors. But most of those built after Hurricane Fran hit the coast in 1996 are three stories tall and look almost suburban, this place with vast and airy kitchen tables at 12.
And there was not one but two dishwashers. All the pictures were ocean related seascapes and light houses, all with the airborne waves that are shorthand for Siegle. A sampler on the living room wall read Old shellers never die. They simply can't go out on the round clock. Beside it, the numbers lay in an indecipherable heap as if they had come unglued. Just above them were printed the words. Who cares? This was what we found ourselves saying whenever anyone asked the time.
The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany's obituary ran in the Raleigh News and Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper's website and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville when his glasses broke.
She offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody's trash can. He said she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the 1960s that included a photo spread titled The Ass Menagerie. This was fascinating because we didn't really know our sister very well. Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives. We'd had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a sideris to our own specific sideris.
Tiffany, though, stayed away. She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there'll always be some excuse. She missed her plane. She had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations. The rest of us managed to make it, I'd say, aware of how old and guilt trip I sounded. All of us would be disappointed by her absence, though, for different reasons. Even if you weren't getting along with Tiffany at the time, you couldn't deny the show she put on the dramatic entrances, the non-stop professional grade insults, the chaos she'd inevitably leave in her wake.
One day she throw a dish at you, and the next she'd create a mosaic made of the shards. When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out, she'd take up with someone else that no time did she get along with everybody. There was always someone she was in contact with. Toward the end it was Lisa.
But before that we'd all had our turn. For the last time she joined us on Emerald Isle was 1986, and even then she left after three days, Gretchen reminded us.
As kids, we spent our beach time swimming, then we became teenagers and devoted ourselves to tanning. There's a certain kind of talk that takes place when you're lying dazed in the sun. And I've always been partial to it. On the first afternoon of our most recent trip, we laid out one of the bedspreads we had as children and arranged ourselves side by side on it, trading stories about Tiffany. What about the Halloween she spent on that army base and the time she showed up at Dad's birthday party with a black eye?
I remember this girl she met years ago at a party I began when my turn came. She'd been talking about facial scars and how terrible it would be to have one. So Tiffany said, I have a little scar on my face. I don't think it's so awful. Well, the girl said you would if you were pretty.
Amy laughed and rolled over onto her stomach. Oh, that's a good line. I rearranged the towel I was using as a pillow a little. Coming from someone else's story might have been upsetting, but not being pretty was never one of Tiffany's problems, especially when she was in her 20s and 30s and men tumbled helpless before her. Funny, I said, but I don't remember a scar on her face. I stayed in the sun too long that day and got a burn on my forehead, that was basically it for me in the beach blanket, I made brief appearances for the rest of the week, stopping to dry off after a swim.
But mainly I spent my days on a bike cycling up and down the coast and thinking about what had happened while the rest of us seemed to get along effortlessly with Tiffany.
It always felt like work. She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me. And at the time of her death, we hadn't spoken in eight years. During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville, and though I'd always toyed with the idea of contacting her, I never did, despite my father's encouragement. Meanwhile, I get reports from him and Lisa Tiphanie had lost her apartment, had gone on disability, had moved into a room found for her by a social service agency, perhaps she was more forthcoming with her friends, but her family got things only in bits and pieces.
She didn't talk with us. So much is at us. Great blocks of speech that were in turns, funny, astute and so contradictory. It was hard to connect the sentence you were hearing to the one that preceded it. Before we stop speaking, I can always tell when she was on the phone, I'd walk into the house and hear Hugh say, Aha, aha. Huh? In addition to the two boxes that Amy had filled in Somerville, she also brought down our sister's 1978 ninth grade yearbook.
Among the messages inscribed by her classmates was the following, written by someone who had drawn a marijuana leaf beside her name. Tiffany, you are one of a kind girl, so stay that way, you unique ass. I'm only sorry we couldn't have partied more together. This school sucks to hell. Stay cool, stoned, drunk, double check your ass later then there's Tiffany. I'm looking forward to getting high with you this summer and Tiffany call me sometime this summer and we'll go out and get blitzed.
A few weeks after these messages were written, Tiffany ran away and was subsequently sent to a disciplinary institution in Maine called Allen. According to what she told us later, it was a horrible place.
She returned home in nineteen eighty, having spent two years there. And from that point on, none of us can recall a conversation in which she did not mention it. She blamed the family for sending her off, but we, her siblings had nothing to do with it. Paul, for instance, Paul was ten when she left.
I was twenty one for a year. I sent her monthly letters. Then she wrote and told me to stop us from my parents. There were only so many times I could apologize. We had other kids, they said in their defense, you think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?
We were at the beach for three days before Lisa and our father, who is now 90, joined us, being on the island meant missing the spinning classes he takes in Raleigh.
So I found a fitness center not far from the rental cottage. And every afternoon he and I would spend some time there. On the way over, we talk to each other, but as soon as we mounted our stationary bikes, we'd each retreat into our own thoughts. It was a small place, not very lively. A mute television oversaw the room tuned to the Weather Channel and reminding us that there's always a catastrophe somewhere other, always someone flooded from his home or running for his life from a funnel shaped cloud.
Toward the end of the week, I came upon my father in Amy's room, sifting through the photos that Tiffany had destroyed in his hand was a fragment of my mother's head with a patch of blue sky behind her. Under what circumstances had this been ripped up? I wondered. It seemed such a melodramatic gesture, like throwing a glass against a wall, something someone in a movie would do.
Just awful. My father whispered, a person's life reduced to one lousy box. I put my hand on his shoulder. Actually, there are two of them. He corrected himself two lousy boxes. One afternoon on Emerald Isle, we all rode to the food line for groceries.
I was in the produce department looking at red onions when my brother sneaked up from behind and let loose with a loud to this while whipping a bouquet of what passed through the air. I felt the spray on the back of my neck and froze, thinking a very sick stranger who just sneezed on me. It's a neat trick, but he also doused the Indian woman who was standing to my left. She was wearing a blood colored sari, so got it on her bare arm as well as her neck and the lower part of her back saw a man, Paul said, when she turned around, horrified.
I just playing a joke on my brother.
The woman had many thin bracelets on and they jangled as she brushed her hand against the back of her head.
You called her man? I said to him after she walked off for real here.
Amy, mimic them perfectly for real. Over the phone, my brother, like me, is often mistaken for a woman as we continue shopping, he told us that his van had recently broken down and that when he called for a tow truck, the dispatcher said, We'll be right out, sweetie.
He lowered a watermelon to the car and turned to his daughter.
He's got a daddy dance like a lady, but she didn't KDC giggling. She punched him in the stomach. And I was struck by how comfortable the two of them are with each other. Her father was a figure of authority. McPaul was more of a playmate. When we went to the beach as children honor about the fourth day, our father would say, wouldn't it be nice to buy a cottage down here?
We'd get our hopes up and then he would bring practical concerns into it. There weren't petty. Buying a house that will eventually get blown away by a hurricane probably isn't the best way to spend your money. But still, we wanted one desperately. I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and then it would be everyone's, as long as I followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it. Thus, it was on Wednesday morning, midway through our vacation, Hugh and I contacted a real estate agent named Phyllis, who took us around to look at available properties.
On Friday afternoon, we made an offer on an oceanfront cottage not far from the one we were renting before sunset. Our bid was accepted. I made the announcement at the dinner table and got the reaction I had expected. Now, wait a minute, my father said, you need to think clearly here.
Already have I told him, OK, then, how old is the roof? How many times has it been replaced in the past 10 years? When can we move in? Gretchen asked. Lisa wanted to know if she could bring her dogs and Amy ask what the house was named. Right now, it's called fantastic place, I told her, but we're going to change it. I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the ship shape.
Now, though, I had a better idea. We are going to call it the C section. My father put down his hamburger. Oh, no, you're not, but it's perfect I argued the name supposed to be Beechy and if it's a pun, all the better. I brought up a cottage we'd seen earlier in the day called Doing Our Thing, and my father winced.
What about naming it Tiffany?
He said. Our silence translated to let's pretend we didn't hear that he picked his hamburger back up. I think it's a great idea, the perfect way to pay our respects. But that's a case we can name, and after mom, I told them or half after mom and half after Tiffany, but it's a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn't fit in with the names of the other houses. Abalone, my father said, fitting in. That's not who we are.
That's not what we're about.
Paul interrupted to nominate the cocksucker Amy Suggestion had the word semen in it, and Gretchen's was even dirtier.
What's wrong with the name it already has, Lisa? No, no, no, my father said, forgetting. I think this wasn't his decision a few days later, after the buyer's remorse had kicked in. I'd wonder if I hadn't bought the house as a way of saying, see, it's just that easy.
No hemming and hawing, no asking to look at the septic tank. Rather, you make your family happy and iron out the details later. The cottage we bought is two stories tall and was built in 1978. It's on proper stilts and has two rear decks, one above the other overlooking the ocean. It was rented to vacationers until late September, but Fellus allowed us to drop by and show it to the family the following morning after we checked out of the house we'd been staying in.
A place always looks different, worse, most often after you've made the commitment to buy it. So while the others raced up and down the stairs claiming their future bedrooms, I held my nose to event and caught a whiff of mildew. The sale included the furniture.
So I also made an inventory of the Barcalounger and massive TVs I would eventually be getting rid of, along with the shell pattern bedspreads and cushions with anchors on them. For our beach house, I want to have a trained theme. I announced trains on the curtains, trains on the towels. We're going to go all out. Oh, brother, my father moaned.
We sketched a plan to return for Thanksgiving, and after saying goodbye to one another, my family splintered into groups and headed off to our respective homes. There had been a breeze at the beach house, but once we left the island, the air grew. Still, as the heat intensified, so did the general feeling of depression. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the road back to Raleigh took us past Smithfield and a billboard on the outskirts of town that read Welcome to Klan Country.
This time, we took a different route, one my brother recommended, he drove and my father sat beside him, I slumped down in the back seat next to Amy and every time I raised my head, I'd see the same soybean field or low slung cinderblock building we'd seemingly passed 20 minutes earlier.
We've been on the road for a little more than an hour when we stopped at a farmer's market inside an open air pavilion, a woman offered complimentary plates of hummus, served with the corn and black bean salad.
So we each accepted one and took seats on a bench 20 years earlier.
The most a place like this might have offered was fried okra. Now there was organic coffee and artisanal goat cheese above our heads hung a sign that read Whispering Dove Ranch. Just as I thought that we might be anywhere. I noticed that the music piped through the speakers was Christian, the new kind, which says that Jesus is also. He brought my father a plastic cup of water, you OK? Fine, my father answered. Why do you think she did it?
I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight, for that's all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news, Muhsin Tiffeny of hope that whatever pills she'd taken wouldn't be strong enough and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold. How could anyone purposely leave us, us of all people? This is how I thought of it. For though I've often lost faith in myself, I've never lost faith in my family.
In my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else, it's an archaic belief, one I haven't seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I'd ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn't imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable. But to want out so badly that you'd take your own life. I don't know that it had anything to do with us. My father said.
But how could it have not? Doesn't the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?
At the far end of the parking lot was a stand selling reptiles in giant tanks were two pythons, each as big around as a fire hose. The heat seemed to suit them and I watched as they raised their heads testing the screen. Sailing's beside the snakes with a low pen growling and alligator with its mouth bandaged shot. It wasn't full grown, but perhaps an adolescent around three feet long and grumpy looking girl had stuck her arm to the wire and was stroking the things back while it glared, seething.
I'd like to buy everything here just so I could kill it. I said my father mopped his forehead with Kleenex. I'm with your brother. When we were young and would set off for the beach. I'd look out the window at all the landmarks. We drove by the Pierino silo on the south side of Raleigh. The Klan billboard, knowing that when we passed him a week later, I'd be miserable. Our vacation over now there'd be nothing to live for until Christmas.
My life is much fuller than it was back then, yet this return felt no different. What time is it? I asked Amy, instead of saying, who cares? She said, You tell me you're the one with the watch on at the airport. A few hours later, I pick sand from my pockets and thought of our final moments at the beach house. I thought I was on the front porch with Phyllis, who would just lock the door and we turn to see the others in the driveway below us.
So is that one of your sisters? She asked, pointing to Gretchen. It is, I said, and so are the two women standing on either side of her. Then you've got your brother, she observed, that makes five wow, now that's a big family. I looked at the sun-baked cars and would soon be climbing into furnaces, every one of them. And said, yes, it certainly is. David Sedaris, the story appears in his book Calypso and his forthcoming collection, Best of Me.
We want to share the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That number is one 800 273 eight two five five again, one 800 two seven three eight two five five. And. Obama's speech today by Robin Semion with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig Mikuni, Jonathan Mann Kivar, Brian Rita Listenership and Nancy Updike, senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Production up on this rerun from Sarah Abdurrahman or gilpatric Raimondo's Nelson and Matt Tierney?
Research up today for Michelle Harris' music from Damian Grey from Bob Geddis, special thanks today to William Auchi, Craig DSN and Factory Theatre in Toronto, our website, This American Life Dog, This American Life, distributed to public radio stations by PRICK'S. The Public Radio Exchange spoke for this. American Life comes from Hakem. He has a new take on email allowing you to screen emails just like you can screen calls, get some of the thumbs up and they're out in thumbs down and you never hear from them again.
Try it for free at h e y dot com. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr Troy. Malatya, or as we like to call him, the great smuggler. The Miami meat tent, the dangling ceiling, the Centropa Truffle. Dufault, I'm IRA Glass. Don't forget the sunscreen. I'll be back next week with more stories of this American life. Next week on the podcast, This American Life at 15, and he was miserable in school, he was miserable at home, his only escape was into the world of science fiction.
So he decided that he was going to go live with his favorite science fiction writer. I kissed my mom goodbye and said, I'm off to school. And instead of going to school, I walked to the airport. I mean, it was at least eight miles seeking help where maybe you shouldn't. Next week on the podcast or in your local public radio station.