Kate Aurthur became the rat columnist for New York magazine because she believed, in some way, that rats were at the heart of life in the Big City. Every New Yorker, she says, has a story about a rat. The singer and actor, Ru Paul, found an alley near City Hall with, he said, a thousand rats in it. If he'd fallen off his bicycle, he swore they'd a killed him.
I think he was exaggerating. But I did go to that alley at night and it was, by far, the most rats I've ever seen in one place.
I'm picturing like a carpet of rats.
I was with a friend of mine who was driving, and we stopped at the end of the alley and turned out her lights. There's so much garbage, first of all, so they were just climbing all over the place. So it was very disturbing, because they were actually at our eye level. And I mean, it was terrifying. We're in a big truck and it didn't seem safe enough, like to be in an Isuzu Trooper. It seemed like they had the advantage. I mean, she was screaming so loudly that I became afraid of her. It was terrible. I was like drive, drive! It was terrible.
Well from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, stories of nature creeping into the most man-made environments possible. Nature sneaking in places where it's very existence is a rebuke to the notion that we, as a species, have it under control. When vermin infiltrate your house, or my house, there's this feeling of it's us versus them. It's a contest with nature where it suddenly feels like nature might actually win.
I'm from Brooklyn. I mean, I'm from the streets of Brooklyn. I was born, raised, and probably will die.
This is from this great documentary by Mark Lewis called-- simply enough-- Rats.
And I mean, I know what a mentality is, a street mentality is. I know when somebody takes on that type of a role. And I when I looked into the eyes of the rats, I mean, I could see that they had an intelligence just like in the street where it's not just one kid, you're facing up to 20 kids. They all have the single-minded presence of mind to do what they have to do to you.
Usually, when we talk about man versus nature, and we build these urban environments and we quash nature and we control nature, there's a part of us that believes that we should be rooting for nature. That nature means beautiful greenery and the clear blue sky and the deep blue sea. But when weeds breakthrough our perfectly paved sidewalk, when the cockroaches march in, when the rat arrives, we remember why we wanted to tame nature in the first place.
Rats showed up at this guy's house, and he tried ceiling walls and he tried poisoning them, he tried chasing them and killing them with a two by four, and still they came, and multiplied. Terrorizing his family, finally forcing them to move.
I really do believe that they knew that they won. Because remember, when you do look inside of his eyes, you can see he's got a soul. He's got something inside of him, and he's looking right back at you. He wants you just as bad as you want him. It's you or him. I know when I was there I wished the rats dead. If I could of, I would have killed each one by hand myself personally. It brought my family terror, horror, economic grief. So yeah, I definitely held a grudge against them. They scarred me and they scarred my family, and will always be with us.
Well today on our program, five stories of nature seeping into man-made environments, stripping the veneer of civilization off of us in the process. Act one, Interpretation of Dreams. In which we hear how an entire nation has coped with the sheer trauma of what it means to knock down trees, rip into the earth, and all the other things you have to do to nature when you build a modern, industrial city. Act two, One Brave Man Stands Up For What's Right. In which one of America's best known politicians goes mono a mono on behalf of human beings against the untamed wilderness.
Act three, Church of Latter Day Snakes. Scott Carrier tells the true story of one family experiment at bringing the outdoors indoors. Act four, God Bless the Hamster Who Has His Own. In which an average high school student explains why it is bad luck for any animal to become her pet. Act five, Waiting For the End of the World. The writer Iggy Scam hits the road to test a theory about the men who fish. Maybe you've seen these guys right in the middle of the Big City. Stay with us.
Act One: Interpretation Of Dreams
Act one, Interpretation of Dreams. Building everything that we think of as modern life, cities and suburbs both, means trammeling nature. And that bothers some people, they want to keep nature at hand. Even if they're living in the heart of the city. Even if the part of nature they're trying to preserve is something most of us can't see and never notice. David Rakoff brings us this case example.
Grasteinn, literally gray rock, is a famous boulder in Reykjavik, Iceland. It sits cracked in two, fat and satisfied on its own square of sod. On two occasions in the last 30 years, plans were underway to expand the road and detonate the rock. Both times, locals came forward and protested the destruction, claiming that the rock was inhabited by "hidden people." Invisible beings from another dimension who, along with elves and trolls, are a mainstay of Icelandic folklore.
And both times, despite a complete lack of concrete evidence, indeed despite a complete lack of even a history of tales attached to that rock, the Icelandic Public Roads Administration heeded these protests and spared the boulder.
Prior to my arrival, Victor Ingolfsson, chief of the publishing unit for the Public Roads Administration-- their PR guy-- had sent me an article he had written that explained the decision. It is titled, "The Public Roads Administration and the Belief in Elves." It turns out to be quite beautifully written. In addition to his day job, Victor is a novelist. His third book has been on the national bestseller list for months. But its tone is an interesting mixture of exasperation and respect for the feelings of others.
He writes, "A lot of time goes into answering the same old questions. It is hope that this text will rectify the situation and it can be looked upon as the author's interpretation of the PRA's view on the issue. It will not answer the question of whether the PRA's employees do or do not believe in elves and hidden people because opinion differs greatly, and it tends to be a rather personal matter. However, you may assume that the author severely doubts the existence of such phenomena."
In person, I ask him about this.
This belief in these hidden people is primarily a quaint folk tradition, not really believed by many people.
Yeah that's right.
I wonder why you guys make any concessions?
Of this? Because the people who do believe, they are pretty serious about it.
But certainly we have people who believe in a lot of things that nobody else believes in, in the larger community, and we would never even think--
But this is a small community. So basically, everyone knows everyone, almost. So you really have to listen to everyone because you are probably going to meet them at a party after awhile. You know, when you scream at someone in traffic in New York, you know you're probably not going to meet them again, so you do it. But not so much here I think.
I heard stories as a child, yes. But I don't think that people took it seriously.
Arni Bjornsson is a cultural anthropologist and head of the ethnological department of the National Museum. He is a sweet-looking, beetle-browed grandfatherly type. A man in his 70s, who, like Viktor, also seems wistfully regretful that the pretext that gets someone like me onto an airplane and over to Iceland is to scrutinize this daffy, essentially non-representative aspect of their society.
Imagine you were outside of a jazz club, a place devoted to a quintessentially American art form, and a reporter from another country comes up and microphone in hand, starts quizzing you on why so many high-rises here don't have 13th floors.
Now, but when you were a child, did you believe in them?
I didn't believe in them, but I didn't exclude the possibility. In my own farm there were two cliffs, and there was said that there lived some hidden people in there. And you should not cut the grass near the cliffs, because it belonged to the hidden people. Those were the stories.
This turns out to be a paradigmatic model, which I hear over and over again. The story of the grass belonging to the hidden people that must never be cut.
The other model of story that keeps coming up is one of benevolent wish fulfillment. Mortal women fall into slumbers from which they cannot be woken. In this dream state, they are visited by hidden people. And having performed some service or having been fallen in love with, these mortal women are given pieces of fine cloth. Much finer than anything available to them in their waking lives.
The world of the hidden people is a sort of a dream world. They are like human beings, but if anything, they are more beautiful. They had better houses in the hills and the cliffs. They had better furniture. They had better clothes. They had better food.
Freud's theory of dreams is ultimately that they are at heart, disguised versions of unacceptable wishes, of infantile desires whose fulfillment is necessarily unhealthy or unattainable. In a country as physically inhospitable as Iceland, its cold, seemingly endless winter with only five hours of smudgy daylight. Things as basic as warmth, clothing, sufficient food and companionship, might all be seen as inappropriate eruptions from the id. But it still begs the question, what possible purpose do these stories serve today?
Present day Reykjavik is a completely modern city, essentially immune to the nasty brutishness of nature. Still, the stories that hearken from that hardscrabble time are fondly remembered and closely guarded by nearly everyone I talk to.
When I was about 10 years old, I saw an elf.
In my house.
Let me interrupt here and paint a picture. This is not some sod hat-dwelling yokel I am talking to. This woman works in a trendy clothing store on Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street. She is wearing a long black skirt, a shiny dark red top, a glittery boa, and black felt platform boots. This is one hip chick.
What did he look like?
You know, like you see on the drawings of them. Small, a little hat.
Do you believe in them?
Yes, of course.
Have you seen any?
No, I have not seen any.
There's so many stories, and people talk a lot about them, so they must be true.
I think it's nice to believe it.
That's one thing that I like about Iceland.
It is that yearning quality. That sense that it's at least nice to believe in hidden people that comes up again and again, even from a skeptic like Arni. The tales are a vestige of a pre-urban Iceland. They are a holdover from what came before. And the physical record of what came before seems to be disappearing at an alarming rate in Reykjavik. Everywhere I look there is new construction. And the city itself, despite being over 200 years old, is counter-intuitively new. I had been expecting a baby Amsterdam, whole spun sugar, northern European architecture, spires, gables, cobblestones.
Reykjavik, however, turns out to be very Bauhaus kind of town. A lot of it looks not a little like a vast Audi dealership. Urbanization is intrinsically a violent process. It elicits a terrified nostalgia and perhaps a little bit of guilt. It makes us want to hold fast to what we feel we are destroying. This was at the heart of the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century, with its concentration on handiwork, on the non-industrial.
In part, it what's made the Brothers Grimm decide to compile their oral ethnography of indigenous German folktales when they did. Even Martha Stewart's monomaniacal obsession with the homemade is born of a similar impulse, an impulse to, if not stop time, at least slow it down some and preserve some sense of the past.
We are here in the library now. We have about 5,000 different books about psychic and spiritual things and also on hidden people. And here we have a classroom, and there are some students here studying as you can hear.
This is Magnus Skarpheoinsson, founder of The Elf School, which offers four hour courses, mostly for foreigners. The course includes a bus tour of the main elf and hidden people sites in Reykjavik, followed by a typical Icelandic coffee and pancake breakfast. It's all pleasantly low rent. The sign on the door is a paper flyer with a drawing of a cartoon ghost.
Within that demographic of those who yearn for hidden people to exist, Magnus, it seems, yearns the most. But he covers this yearning with a veneer of science. He calls himself a scientist. He is convinced that with properly funded scientific research, the existence of hidden people could be proven conclusively. Magnus speaks about hidden people as an anthropologist or census taker might.
The main population of hidden people, he tells me, number some 20,000 to 30,000 individuals.
I just would love to see them. Especially I would be wanting to see them and being invited to one cliff. Because I would ask 5,000 questions inside there. Where did you get the carpet? Where did you get the table? Where did you get the stove? Where did you get this? Have you been abroad? That's probably the reason why they haven't invited me.
It clearly rankles him a little bit that Erla Steffansdottir, a piano teacher and one of Iceland's most noted elf communicators, claims she has been seeing elves and hidden people her whole life. Magnus has led me to believe that my chances of meeting Erla would be slim to none. That she is difficult. That she will not be helpful. That she traffics in arbitrary rivalries. But when I call without having to push, she tells me to come the next day at 4 o'clock.
Erla's maps of hidden people sites around Iceland are on sale in tourist shops in Reykjavik. I was expecting a Stevie Nicks type, wild hair, clanking jewelry, a tatterdemalion velvet cape, cats. Instead, I found a friendly if somewhat shy woman in her 40s living in a lovely apartment on the top floor of a Reykjavik townhouse with a bay window. Erla's house is decorated in the tasteful middle class aesthetic one might expect of a piano teacher-- landscape paintings, old furniture. Erla's friend, Bjork [UNINTELLIGIBLE] is there to help translate Things began a little awkwardly.
When did you first see or realize that you could see hidden people?
It's a little stupid to ask when I see.
Erla says she has always been able to see the various beings who live in dimensions other than our own. Like that one right there she says, indicating a place on the coffee table beside a Danish modern glass ashtray. She then catches herself. Oh, that's right. You can't see it. She shakes her head slightly, amused at her forgetfulness that others do not possess her gift. It's a somewhat disingenuous moment, like when your friend, newly back from a semester in Paris says to you, it's like, uhm, oh, I forget the English word, how you say fromage?
When I am playing on the piano they come. They are everywhere.
The music attracts them, so when she's playing they come. They gather around her.
Are they moving around right here?
One sits there. Two are walking over here. One is sitting there.
I am suddenly overcome with a completely inappropriate urge, the barely suppressed impulse to slam my hand down on the coffee table really, really hard, right where she's pointing. Obviously, I refrain from doing so.
She said, in every home there's a dwarf or an elf who is like the size of a three-year-old child. Every home has it and with those beings, you can communicate.
So every house has a house elf? In New York City too?
So you have one in your home too.
But Bjork points out that house elves are a privilege, not a right. When the energy of a given house gets too negative, she says, when there is drinking or fighting, the elves will leave. Suddenly, mysticism, new age philosophy, recovery speak, and elves our conflated as one.
Erla says that elves are a manifestation of nature. They are inherently good. Without them we were choke on our own pollution. There's almost no more urban point of view of nature than this pastoral idyllic one. Humankind bad, nature good. As in, drinking and fighting bad. The elves and flowers good. But it's a false dichotomy. After all, following this logic Sistine Chapel bad, Ebola virus good?
The next day on my way to Keflavik Airport, I get a sustained look at the landscape outside the city. In the weak afternoon light, it is an unrelievedly monochromatic view. Flat, vaguely undulating, black rock, cracked all over with a tracery of fissures. To the right, the vast gray sea and to the left, in the distance, the strange hills, looking like whales resting on their sides. Each one isolated against the horizon.
At one point, we drive within half a mile of the perfect cone of a young volcano. The rain falls all the while.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare describes the Athenian wood that lies just beyond the gates of the city as "A place where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows. Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and eglantine."
It's crowded in that Athenian forest. You can't take two steps without having to push aside some blossom-heavy branch concealing countless magical fairies. By contrast, Icelanders were frequently all alone in the wilderness. The spaces yawn open, wide and disconnected. And it is our nature to connect, to create for ourselves a fully formed community where none exists. We are hardwired for it. As Oberon says, "The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. And as imagination bodies forth, the form of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name."
David Rakoff lives in New York, where despite his best efforts, he does not believe in magic. He's put a version of this story into his upcoming book, which is called Fraud.
Act Two: One Brave Man Stands Up For What's Right
Act two. OK, so let's review. In Iceland, the government moves massive boulders because a handful of citizens believe that invisible hidden people live near those boulders. As we look around the world, not every city government is quite as accommodating of people's idiosyncratic wishes. Take this example.
This is Rudy Giuliani, back again on the air. Now we're going to go to David in Oceanside.
Hello, Mr. Guiliani. We speak again.
Let me introduce myself again. David Guthartz, executive president of New York Ferrets' Right Advocacy. Last week when we spoke, you said a very disparaging remark to me that I should get a life. That was very unprofessional of you. Here we're trying to get something seriously done-- without you talking over me-- we're trying to get something very seriously done.
David, you're on my show. I have the right to talk over you.
But here's the thing. You talked over me the last time.
OK, let's just stop the tape right there. They're on my show and-- so I guess I have the right to talk over them. This is the mayor of New York, of course. This was recorded July 23, 1999. He was doing his weekly call-in show on WABC AM.
This exchange made the news because the mayor got so exercised about whether New Yorkers should be allowed to keep ferrets in their homes. Mr. Giuliani, of course, is famous for having transformed New York City. Sweeping everything, including the homeless people, off the streets. In his view, New York versus ferrets is just a reiteration of the basic question, civilization versus chaos. And he knows where he stands.
If you follow the news very, very closely, you may have read about this exchange in the paper. Very few of us actually heard it. We decided to get a copy of the tape.
David, you're on my show. I have the right to talk over you.
But here's the thing. You talked over me last time.
And the fact--
We are trying to get--
--important issue taken care of where the city is violating state law. And I had asked you last week if you care about the law.
Yes, I do care about the law. I think you have totally and absolutely misinterpreted the law, because there's something deranged about you.
No there isn't, sir. The law states--
The excessive concern that you have for ferrets is something you should examine with a therapist.
Sir, understand that-- well, first of all--
Not with me.
--don't go insulting me again.
I'm not insulting you. I'm being honest with you. Maybe nobody in your life has ever been honest with you. But there's an incessant--
Sir, I happen to be more sane than you.
David, there is--
First of all, let me explain to you something--
There is a serious--
This conversation is over, David. Thank you. There is something really, really very sad about you. You need help. You need somebody to help you. This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness. I'm sorry, that's my opinion. You don't have to accept it. There are probably very few people that would be as honest with you about that. But you should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist and have him help you with this excessive concern. How you are devoting your life to weasels.
There are people in this city and in this world that need a lot of help. Something has gone wrong with you. Your compulsion about it, your excessive concern with it, is the sign of something wrong in your personality. I do not mean to be insulting. I'm trying to be honest with you, and I'm trying to give you advice for your own good.
You have a sickness. And I know it's hard for you to accept that, because you hang on to this sickness. And it's your shield, it's your whatever. You've got to go to somebody who understands this a lot better than I do. And I know you're real angry at me and you're going to attack me. But actually, you're angry at yourself. You're afraid of what I'm raising with you. You need help. And please get it.
Now we're going to move onto Richard in the Bronx.
Yes. Mr. Mayor, my name is Richard--
Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City. At the time when we first broadcast these comments on our program, he was a candidate for the US Senate. When we contacted the democrat who eventually won that senate seat, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to find out her stance on the ferret issue, her staff never returned the call.
[MUSIC- "RAT TRAP" BY BOOMTOWN RATS]
Coming up, a story involving Scott Carrier, some explosives, a newspaper reporter, a bunch of kids, and a rattlesnake. Also, can a hamster come back from the grave to haunt you? And other urgent, yet curiously unanswered questions, in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Church Of Latter Day Snakes
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course, we chose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program is about those cracks and crevices where nature insinuates itself into environments that are completely man-made, and what that does to people.
We've arrived at act three of our program. Act three, Church of the Latter Day Snakes. This is the story of people who want more of nature than the chance to occasionally hike and goof around outside. These are people who bump up against the question, how far should we go in our love of the great outdoors? Can you bring it inside the house? Scott Carrier tells this story from Salt Lake City.
We had already brought home the dynamite and blasting caps we found abandoned in the gully by the freeway. Now we prepared to set out for the foothills to capture a rattlesnake. Our father had not let us keep the explosives, and I doubted he would allow a rattlesnake in the house, but my brother, my older brother, had seen the snake and knew where it lived, and he wanted it. He needed it, to study for science.
He'd read a book on herpetology and had made a snake catching stick by carving a small fork at one end to pin down the snake's head against the ground. We'd practice with the stick-- my brother, myself, and my best friend, Lenny-- jabbing at imaginary snakes in the backyard. We had a pocket knife sharpened on a whetstone to use to cut open the wound and suck out the poison in case one of us got bit. We felt pretty sure we knew what we were doing.
My brother said, we'll keep it in the cage in my room downstairs and feed it mice and toads. As long as we keep it a secret, everything will be fine. He said this looking at me, because the dynamite and blasting caps had also been a secret until I blabbed the whole story one night at dinner.
How we found the wooden crates in the cottonwoods along the river. How we recognized the contents because, in those days, they were public service commercials on television during the cartoons, warning kids never to touch blasting caps that might be lying around discarded or forgotten. Kids had died. Kids had had their arms blown off, their faces removed, and so on. So when we found the boxes it was like finding buried treasure. We weren't going to touch the contents, but we weren't going to leave them there either.
We were careful, very careful, carrying them home. Walking slowly, smoothly. One false step and it would be all she wrote. Kabloom, sayonara, kiss our own sweet asses goodbye. We brought the boxes home and hid them in the basement where they'd be safe, thinking that there would be endless possibilities. I told this story at dinner hoping that our dad would recognize these possibilities, but he immediately called the cops, and they came and took it all away. Then the next day, the reporter showed up and we were the paper, and it just didn't come out at all like I thought it would.
I admitted it was a mistake to talk about the dynamite. I said I'd learned my lesson, and I swore I would not say anything ever about the rattlesnake.
Do you swear to God, my friend Lenny said.
There is no God, my brother said. Swear on your honor.
I swear to God. I swear on my honor, I said. I can keep a secret. But we all knew that I couldn't. I was the type of kid who would try to wrap the truth tightly inside my body only to have it eventually emerge from my mouth, like a hairy moth from a cocoon.
We headed out with our knapsacks, the three of us, down the street of our brand new subdivision on the far eastern edge of town, next to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, a place of natural forces, the line where civilization ended and the wilderness began.
Some of the homes in the subdivision were newly occupied, and some were still under construction with piles of scrap wood in the yards, the asphalt black and smooth, the sidewalks and driveways white and shiny and floating six inches above the native sand and gravel, waiting for sprinklers, topsoil, and sod. We cut through a neighbor's backyard, jumped the fence, and then crawled through a three foot diameter drainage pipe under the freeway on-ramp, and we are out of the city walking up into the scrub brush.
We didn't know it then, but the entire city was, and still is, surrounded by rattlesnakes. The Salt Lake Valley is shaped like a bull 20 miles in diameter with the Salt Lake itself resting like a pool of mercury at the bottom, and the peaks of the mountains forming the rim 7,000 feet above. The rattlesnakes live at a particular narrow band of elevation on the inside of this bull and their habitat, their niche, is continuous around the contour, like a poisonous belt. A deadly ring of serpents, constricting the City of Saints. As if the battle for the Garden of Eden were still ongoing, which I know the Mormon's believe, and maybe the snakes do as well.
But all we knew then was that my brother had seen one rattlesnake and knew where it lived in a crack in an outcrop of rocks.
Walking up to the rock outcrop, Lenny was telling us how his cousin, Marlin, had told him that some scientists from the University of Utah had implanted radioactive pellets in the stomachs of some rattlesnakes, and then released them in the foothills. Only to discover them months later down by the Great Salt Lake. That's 15 miles, my brother said. Rattlesnakes don't migrate. How would they get there? By sliding along the streets? They'd get run over by cars.
That's just it, Lenny said. The scientists couldn't figure it out either. Until a woman was taking a leak in a toilet and got bit in the butt and died. That's when the scientists realized the snakes were in the sewers.
That's ridiculous, my brother said. Rattlesnakes don't like water. They don't swim in sewers. They like to stay in one place and sit in the sun. Lenny said, well, that's what the scientists said. It's not true, my brother said. You don't know that much, Lenny said. You may have read a book, but you're not a scientist. Not yet anyway. Well, my brother said, I know enough to know your cousin's lying to you.
When we got close to the rock outcrop, we got down on our hands and knees and crawled to a position where we could look down and see the rattlesnake, right where my brother had said it would be, lying in the sun just outside an off-width crack. It was a little rattlesnake, maybe only two feet long. My brother took the stick and slowly inched his way around to where he was just underneath it. And then he jumped up and jabbed at it. He missed and the snake lunged at him, and he jumped back and fell over. And then he got up and jabbed again. This time, pinning down the snake's tail. It whirled and lunged to bite his hand and my brother jumped back again, releasing his hold.
Lenny and I were on our feet yelling, get it, get it, get it. But the snake was quick and slid back into the crack out of reach. The whole thing took maybe five seconds, but I'd never seen anything like it. We were jumping up and down, jumping nearly out of our bodies, wild and insane with excitement.
We waited for the snake to come back out of the crack, but we'd scared it pretty bad. And then Lenny and I couldn't be quiet, even though my brother kept telling us to shut up. He was mad at it, and even more upset with himself for missing his chance. I didn't care. My brother had abandoned his fear and faced death, or at least severe injury. In a way we'd seen in movies and read about in books, but had never experienced firsthand. My brother was brave. And if my brother was brave, then maybe I could be brave. And I knew then I wanted to be brave more than anything else in the world.
So at that point my life changed. All our exploits of ringing doorbells, getting chased by the security guard on the golf course, throwing snowballs at cars, all these seemed childish. The true object, the true endeavor in life, became the pursuit of the bold initiative. The coming face to face with fear in whatever form or manifestation, and doing battle with it.
We waited for the snake for a while and then gave up and went home, telling ourselves that we'd come back the next day. But we never did, and maybe it's just as well. Some things don't belong in the house. Our father would have said that, and now at least I can see his point.
My brother, however, has never really given in on this. He continued to hunt and catch snakes as a kid. Not rattlesnakes, but plenty of other ones. And he did grow up to become a scientist. A biologist, in fact.
Just last week, at the age of 43, after his wife brought home their firstborn son, he put up a six foot high chain link fence, the kind you normally see outside, right across the middle of their kitchen to keep his pack of wild, neurotic lab dogs from jumping the baby. The dogs have already torn up the grass in the backyard, so it's all mud and dirt. One attacked a neighbor's cat.
I haven't actually seen the fence yet. My dad told me about it. But I can picture it. The baby on the kitchen floor, sucking on a pacifier. The five dogs sitting just on the other side of the fence, staring intently at a meal they will never enjoy.
Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City. His first book, Running After Antelope, will be in stores any day now.
Act Four: God Bless The Hamster Who Has His Own
Act four, God Bless the Hamster Who Has His Own. Is it right to bring nature in the house, and then put it into the hands of children? Nearly everybody you meet has the story of some pet, usually a gerbil or a hamster, a tiny fish or an amphibian, where something went terribly, terribly wrong. For the pet, anyway. And if this story didn't happen to your friends, it happened to their brothers or sisters. It is sadly common.
So when I was six years old and my younger brother was four, we were at the only hamburger place in my hometown. And he had his pet toad in his left hand, and he had his hamburger is his right hand. And unfortunately, he got his hands mixed up.
I had a turtle who died in the fall, and they buried it in the backyard. And then, the following spring they were planting bulbs in the area of the yard where the turtle was and they dug it up and it was alive. It had been hibernating.
I don't know. I didn't start out really wanting to kill my fish, but I was cleaning their tank and they were in these little Cool Whip containers. And I just didn't like the way that they looked in the little containers. And then, I don't know, I just flushed them all down the toilet.
When Starlee Kine went out talking to people about this, there was one girl, a high school freshman here in Chicago, who seemed just somehow to stand out when it came to these stories.
I got my first hamster and I named her Bubbles. Then I had a boy, and he was brown and white. And I named him White Sox. And they had six kids, but she killed them. I don't know. They were smushed. And then she had another set, and she bit one's head off. She smushed four of them, and she ate the other one. But shortly after that, she was getting thin. I noticed that she was getting thin. But we didn't feed her like her hamster food. She always ate table food. It was like, shrimp, lobster, crab, potato chips. They drunk pop, juice, pudding, jello. I mean, like everything except for tofu and sushi. Except for that.
I don't know if that would cause her to lose so much weight, but then one day we come home and she was real small. And then when she walked, she would like wobble. And one day me and my mom went to go see my brother. When we came back, she was dead. But I just threw her out. I didn't cry, but I just threw her out.
There were crayfish. I had some crayfish. And I was doing a project. Does pesticide have an affect on-- affect the growth on crayfish. And they ate blood worms. They were in my mom's freezer. And I didn't think she liked the idea of worms. Especially blood worms in the freezer. So I just took them out of the freezer and they all melted. It was blood and worms. It just melted.
So what I did was-- it was like a big bag of blood worms. And I just dumped the whole thing in the tank. But then I overfed them and they died.
I think I'm a pet killer. I don't know, because I had fish. My fish died. I had an amphibian. It died. A snail. The snail, he just kicked over too.
After my other pets died, I told my brother and my neighbor, because they did a lot of bad stuff to them. Stuff like with the hot sauce and they used to just flick them in the nose, and they were like scared. So I said, they coming back to haunt you. And they actually got scared. They was like, don't say that. Don't say that. I was like, OK. You think I'm kidding? White Sox and Bubbles are coming back to y'all. And I'm not playing. I actually said I wished they would come back and just haunt them. I mean, I don't believe in all them ghosts and stuff, but I really want them to like just be scared.
The next pet I'm getting is a cat. This cat I'm going to get, it'll last, hopefully.
Typical high school freshman. She spoke with Starlee Kine.
[MUSIC- "RABBIT ACTION" BY JUNIOR THOMPSON & RABBIT ACTION]
Act Five: Waiting For The End Of The World
Act five, Waiting For the End of the World. Well, we end our program today with this story of city life and the natural world coexisting peacefully-- sort of-- from Iggy Scam.
Take the 22 Fillmore bus in San Francisco south away from downtown to the end of the line. Get off there on the street of dead end railroad tracks where shopping carts drag in the fog. Go down the hill at 20th, past the empty lot on your right, past the old port complex on your left, and past the people living in their cars. When you get to the impound lot, you can see the bay.
A walkway takes you past some abandoned warehouses and then abruptly stops at a fence at a no trespassing sign. There is a hole in the fence. On the other side is a rotten dock where on many nights you can find a mysterious group of men. They're not loading smuggled drugs or dumping bodies. They're fishing.
The EPA says this rotten dock is one of the most polluted parts of the entire San Francisco Bay. The fishermen say it's a great place to catch halibut.
It never fails. The more filthy and polluted a body of water in a city is, and the harder it is to access, the more guys you'll see fishing in it. And this isn't exactly scientific, but it seems like I'm seeing these urban fisherman more and more these days, hearing tales about them as I travel across the country. Men with poles, camped out on a railroad bridge over the Sacramento River. Dark figures with nets in a creek behind a Florida strip mall. And then there's those guys that congregate at the lake in Cleveland where warm water from an electricity plant guarantees good fishing even in the dead of winter.
Once a trucker who picked me up when I was hitchhiking on I-75 spent the whole ride excitedly pointing out the roadside ditches where he'd often stop and catch fish.
Wherever a ripple breaks the placid, smooth surface of the constructed world, there have been fisherman in there to stick a hook in. Last year, I went out on the road looking for them.
Miami. According to the WPA guide to Florida, early settlers to Biscayne Bay described waters, "Of every delicate shade of blue and green and tinged with every color of the spectrum. A sort of liquid light rather than water, so limped and brilliant is it. By all accounts, the fish are practically jumping into the boat."
Today in Miami, it's still possible to live that early settler life. Orange, mango, and avocado trees, their branches heavy with fruit line many residential streets. And anyone with a machete can harvest the coconuts that grow wild, even on Flagler Street in the heart of downtown. And of course, despite the official health warnings about lead poisoning and the occasional leak of raw sewage into the bay, there's still plenty of fish.
Most of the Miami River isn't publicly accessible. It runs through some boat yards and past residences. But still, I found a group of Latin guys fishing behind the old Shiners' temple. The had no fishing poles, but they had rigged up some pretty inspired do-it-yourself gear.
They had tied their lines through holes that they had punched through empty tall cans of malt liquor. And then they had wrapped the slack line around their cans. Then they unraveled their lines, held their cans with both hands, and waited.
I walked up and said, [SPEAKING SPANISH]? One guy, rapidly rolling up his line said in a thick Spanish accent, yeah, I got one now. And sure enough, he pulled up a small, black and white spotted fish and laid it out on the concrete seawall.
All five of us gathered around it for a couple excited moments as a ripple of joy spread among us-- strangers. The guy who caught it declared, este for fry pan and dropped it into the bucket.
But even more sought after in Miami than the free spotted fish dinner are pink gold-- Biscayne Bay shrimp. Shrimping works like this.
First you drive the boat to where you think the shrimp are going to be. Which is often in the warm water around the Turkey Point nuclear reactor south of Miami. Then you put the huge net in the water and drive the boat in a circle. Guys called pickers sort the stuff the net brings in and the shrimp go into buckets, and broken glass and tires go back into the water. It's illegal to sell the shrimp for anything but bait. But back on the docks, shrimp are like money. In Miami, it is still possible to buy car parts, new shoes, and tickets to basketball games with a bucket of shrimp.
Detroit. The best way to see Detroit and all its glorious decay is to hop a fence and climb 14 flights of stairs to the roof of the abandoned train station just west of downtown. From this height, the city appears oddly green, as empty lots and wilderness slowly overtake the old metropolis. Trees grow out of the remains of crumbled houses. Seeing how nature has begun to reclaim the Motor City, I could only think of Henry Ford's famous line, "History is bunk."
My friend, Mitchell, and I drove into Detroit on a bitterly cold morning. It was a lonely day in a lonely town. We went over to Riverside Park. I had been there once last summer when the sea wall was lined with guys drinking beer and tossing lines. On one side of the park there were the old-timers, listening to radios playing soul tunes. And on the other side, there were kids who had pulled up and left their car radios on, blasting bass.
But today the park was frozen and empty. Mitchell and I took turns halfheartedly tossing our line into the slushy river. I wondered what kind of stuff you'd find at the bottom.
Detroit makes today's obsession with the Millennium and the end of the world seem absurd. What are people talking about when they talk about the end of the world anyway? I've begun to realize that they're not talking about the actual destruction of the planet. They're talking about something more or like Detroit, the end of a certain way of life. The end of the world means no more CNN, no more air conditioning, no more ATM machines. And what of the scattered survivors who are already pushing their shopping carts around toxic devastated cities do while they wait for this end of the world? Go fishing, of course.
Chicago. My friend, [? Joaquin, ?] and I arrived in Chicago and decided to test my theory that the urban fishermen will instinctively find the most polluted waterway in any city. We got out a city map and traced the course of the Chicago River south into Lake Calumet, down near the Indiana border.
Lake Calumet has been used as a garbage dump and now serves as a port for ships navigating the St. Lawrence Seaway. On the map, it's surrounded by huge, mysterious, blank white spaces, the real life home of a sewage treatment facility, rail yards, a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, and the now mostly unused sites of an entire century's steel production.
The blank white space was exciting. It was like the [? Yee ?] dragons here of ancient maps. We hit the 94 and headed south. Nearing Lake Calumet, we past blackened smokestacks and iron pipes belching a sick blue flame and came to a dead end at the base of the lake. Getting out of the car, we saw that the road appeared to crumble directly into a river of thick black muck. The stench of sewage was overwhelming. On a fence was a sign that said sludge drying trough. Looking around at what appeared to be miles of such troughs, I thought, here we are, the blank white space on the map. And of course, at the tip of the dead end was a parked car and two guys drinking beer and fishing.
[? Joaquin ?] went over and did the talking, but it wasn't much of an exchange. The two guys seemed nervous that we were going to try and steal their secret spot. Anything you can catch in Lake Michigan you can catch here, one guy said, as if that explained everything.
Sure, why go all the way to Lake Michigan when you can just mosey on down to your neighborhood sludge drying trough.
San Francisco. The city of San Francisco's official fishing pier is Pier 7 downtown. Every morning the benches at the end of the pier fill up with old Asian guys who come down the hill from Chinatown and spend all day there on the pier, doing some of the most breathtaking, artful fishing that I've ever seen. With absolute concentration, never saying a word, they race back and forth between three or four poles as they slowly fill their buckets with fish.
The stocks are trading a couple blocks away in the financial district, cars and crowds of tourists race by on the Embarcadero. But at the end of the pier, all is quiet. It's almost as if the fishermen themselves create silence. The fishermen seem so out of place in today's downtown San Francisco, that it's almost like they've been patiently fishing on the spot for centuries, while the city's great buildings rose and fell around them like the tides.
I watched one guy who hadn't made a catch all day. Almost imperceptibly, he started working it. His face was as calm and distant as a large ship on the horizon. Suddenly, he stood up with a flourish and reeled it in, a small two-foot shark. It went into the empty bucket.
In the buildings all around us, this decade's fabled economic boom is written in concrete and glass. But the fisherman's near empty bucket suggested that there are some who will remember this time differently.
As he leaned his arm back for another cast of the line, the Transamerica Pyramid stood directly behind him, confident of its own indestructibility. Seeming to say, the big one will never come. These buildings will always grow taller. The fisherman's bucket will always be empty. But as the late afternoon fog surrounded us and the line hit the water, you couldn't help but think to yourself that anything could happen.
Iggy Scam writes a zine called Scam.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Starlee Kine. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann. Musical help from Marika Partridge and [? Terry Hecker. ?] Marketing by [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and the friendly folks at PRI. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.
If you would like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. The phone number 312-832-3380. Or you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website www.thislife.org.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who reminds you--
White Sox and Bubbles are coming back to y'all. And I'm not playing.
I'm not playing either. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.