From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
This is my detective book. I would go to the library and get all these books out on the FBI, take notes, learn words.
So this book, just to describe it, it's an old, loose-leaf notebook with 1960s-era flowers all over it and stickers all over the cover.
Really tacky stickers.
How many of us today have had a moment where we entertained that dream of being a private eye, of being Kojak or Columbo or Rockford or-- there are just so many. Well, I'm Ira Glass. And, of course, every week on this program we bring you a variety of stories documenting every day life in these United States. And on today's program, we're going to hear a number of stories about people who want to be detectives, adults and children.
And we'll begin with one of the purest expressions of this desire you could possibly find. And that is a child's handmade detective notebook. Andrea DeFotis brought it in. And one of the things that's interesting about it-- and I think this is probably a typical problem for many armchair, wannabe detectives-- is that it records her desire to gather clues and solve cases. But sadly for her, she was leading a life where there were really not that many cases to be solved.
OK, here's "Mystery Update File, June 6, 1981." How old were you?
You were 11. OK, "June 6, 1981, 4:33 PM. No new mysteries. How depressing." Next entry, "June 7, 1981, 5:34 PM. No new mysteries. June 8, 1981, 6:07 PM. No new mysteries." This goes on.
But I change the words to make myself feel better. "No new cases."
"No new cases." [UNINTELLIGIBLE] OK.
The book is divided up into sections with names like Solved, Unsolved, though if you look inside it, you cannot tell the difference. The things inside Solved and the unsolved stuff, they're exactly the same. There's a section on how to secretly code messages. There's the record of a successful case where Andrea found her sister's necklace, a very tough case. It was on the ground, behind a bureau.
There are pamphlets on the FBI on subjects like fingerprints, a pamphlet called How You Can Help the FBI Stop Embezzlement and Fraud. There's a vocabulary section, something that many adult detectives really don't spend enough time with, I think. The vocabulary section has tough words and phrases in it like "Treasury Enforcement School."
Officially, at some point, I had a club with my friend, Tammy. And so this is the Q and A of qualifications for Tammy.
Qualifications if she could get in the club?
I guess to be sneaky, or to be a detective or part of the FBI club, something like that. The first question is "Do you know who Agatha Christie is?" Her answer was, "I have heard of her." Number two, "Do you know who Donald J. Sobol is?" Answer, "No way."
I don't either.
Neither do I. But I knew in 1981. But I don't know now.
Number three, "Do you think you are sneaky?" Answer is yes. Why? "Well, I sneak snacks. And spying is fun, but I'm too tall for it."
"Do you know what the four types of fingerprints are? Do you have a magnifying glass? Do you have talcum powder? Do you ever look at wanted posters? Do you ever read Alfred Hitchcock mysteries?"
And then there was scoring. And the tie-breaking question-- I guess she needed it, yeah, because she tied-- "What are the three things you should take on a mystery?"
What are the three things you should take on a mystery?
Well, of course, Ira, it's a flashlight, a compass, and a magnifying glass.
And at age 11, Andrea DeFotis wrote to the FBI and got an application to become a special agent. She's still got it in the notebook. It's 11 pages long.
It asks if you've ever had an alias. 11-year-old Andrea wrote, "Yes, Peanut," her nickname at the time. Employment history for the 11-year-old Andrea-- "None." "Are you interested in the fingerprint examiner position in Washington, DC?" 11-year-old Andrea says, "Yes."
"Are you willing to proceed to Washington, DC, or any other duty station at your own expense?" 11-year-old Andrea says, "Yes." References-- Anne Fotzikis, turns out to be her godmother. The application asks, "Number of years acquainted?" Andrea writes, "11."
I thought that I would be a great FBI agent because I had 20-20 vision. And I read that that was one of the things you needed.
You're not allowed to have glasses.
Right. And I don't know if I still have 20-20 vision, but I did. But then I read-- I got really depressed. In fact, here it is, quotes from The Story of the Secret Service. "A man who wants to join the Secret Service must be between 23 and 30 years old, at least five feet eight, and not over six feet two in height."
Must be a man?
Yeah. And then I got upset because I realized I wasn't going to probably be tall enough. But listen to this--
And you're not a man, not to put too fine a point on it.
What is it about this dream of being a g-man, a detective, a spook, a sleuth, a private eye? Fill in your own-- there's so many words for this. It's like Eskimos having so many words for the word snow. Well, today on our program, the dream of being a private eye, and how that dream measures up to reality.
Act One, Wannabes. Writer David Sedaris tells the story of two armchair detectives in his own family, and how they handle a crime wave that occurs right under their own roof, in their own home. Act Two, Real World. I go on a stakeout, me, with a real private eye, right here in Chicago, in a location so profoundly sinister that I cannot even disclose it to you on our program. Stay with us.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "RAYMOND CHANDLER EVENING" BY ROBYN HITCHCOCK]
Act One: Wannabe
Act One, Wannabe. Detectives are just one of those things, like amnesia, or asteroids hitting earth, or talking animals, or seven-year-olds with the wisdom of adults, one of those things that just seems to occur a lot more in the movies then they ever do in real life. But I suppose so many things fall into that category. Why detective stories, though?
Somebody once said-- and I would agree with this-- that every good story is a detective story, meaning every good story in any genre raises some big question at the beginning, some thing that we want to find out. And then the process of the story, the reason why we keep reading or watching is that we just want to know. We want to know what is going to happen. What is the thing? We want the answer.
Mysteries are just the purest form of this. They offer the satisfaction of this kind of story in the purest possible way. The question couldn't be clearer. There's a crime. Who did it? And by the end, all is revealed. Light is shed. We know the answer.
So they're hard to resist. The problem, of course, is if you see so many detective stories, if you read so many, see so many TV shows, that you start believing that you can actually do what the fictional characters in the shows are able to do. We have this story from writer David Sedaris about his own family.
My mother had a thing for detectives, be they old, blind, or paralyzed from the waist down, she just couldn't get enough. My older sister shared her interest. Detective worship became something they practiced together, swapping plot lines the way other mothers and daughters exchanged recipes or grooming tips.
One television program would end and the next one begin, filling our house with the constant din of gunfire and squealing tires. Downstairs, the obese detective would collect his breath on the bow of the drug lord's pleasure craft, while up in the kitchen, his elderly colleague hurled himself over a low brick wall in pursuit of the baby-faced serial killer. "How's your case coming?" my mother would shout during commercial breaks. Cupping her hands to the side of her mouth, Lisa would yell, "Tubby's still tracking down leads, but I'm betting it's the Chinesey guy with the eye patch and the ponytail."
Theirs was a world of obvious suspects. Looking for the axe murderer? Try the emotionally disturbed lumberjack loitering near the tool shed behind the victim's house. Who kidnapped the guidance counselor? Perhaps it's a 30-year-old 10th grader with a gym bag full of bloody rope.
It was no wonder these cases were solved so quickly. Every clue was italicized with a burst of surging trumpets. And under questioning, the suspects snapped like toothpicks, buckling in less time than it took to soft boil an egg.
"You want to know who set fire to the skate ranch? All right, it was me. You satisfied now? That's right, me. I did it, me. Give me a pair of skates and a book of matches, and I'll burn this whole town down. Do you hear me?"
It's easy to solve a case where none of the suspects were capable of telling a decent lie. It seemed that anyone could solve a murder, just so long as they had a telephone, a few hours of spare time, and a wet bar. My mother had all three ingredients. The more suspects she identified over the course of a season, the more confident she became.
Together, she and my sister would comb the local newspaper, speculating on each reported crime. "We know that the girl was held at knifepoint on the second floor of her house," Lisa said, tapping a pencil against her forehead. "So probably, the person who robbed her was not in a wheelchair."
"I'd say that's a pretty safe assumption," my mother answered. "While you're at it, I think we might as well eliminate anyone confined to an iron lung. Listen, Sherlock, you're going at it all wrong. The guy broke in, held her at knifepoint, and made off with $300 in cash, right?" "And a clock radio," Lisa said. "$300 and a clock radio."
"Forget the clock radio," my mother said. "The important thing is that he used a knife. All right now, what kind of a person uses a knife?" Lisa guessed that it might have been a chef. "Maybe she was at a restaurant, and the cook noticed she had a lot of money in her pocketbook."
"Right," my mother said, "because that's what cooks do, isn't it? They crawl around the dining room floor, looking through purses, while the food sits in the kitchen, cooking itself. Come on now, think. Who uses a knife to commit a crime? In a world of guns, what kind of person would use a knife? Give up? It's just two little words, drug addict. It's just that simple. A professional thief would use a gun. But even a second-hand gun costs money. A drug addict can't afford a gun. They need all their money for their dope and smack, the hard stuff. These dopers have a habit to feed every minute of every day, which means they're always on the lookout for their next mark. This was a heroin addict who followed the girl home from the bank, parked his car around the corner, broke into the house, and robbed her at knifepoint."
"If he can't afford a gun, what's he doing with a car?" Lisa asked, "And what about the clock radio?" "Screw the damn clock radio," my mother said. "And as for the car, it was stolen. He took it last Thursday from that couple on Pamlico. You saw the report in the paper, the brand new Ford Mustang, remember? You thought it'd been stolen by gypsies. And I said we don't even have gypsies in this part of the country. I said the car had been taken by a dope addict who'd use it for a couple of burglaries before selling it to a chop shop. Bingo, there you have it."
She crushed her cigarette and used the butt to trawl an X through the residue at the bottom of her blackened ashtray, her way of pronouncing that this particular case was closed. "What's next on our roster?"
Vandalism at 318 Poole Road, breaking and entering at the Five Points Pharmacy, a hit and run traffic accident in the parking lot of Swain Steakhouse. It was always the work of a drug addict or a former police officer, a renegade, a rogue. To hear my mother talk, you'd think the sunny, manicured streets of suburban Raleigh were crawling with heroin addicts, the needles poking through the sleeves of their tattered police uniforms.
It embarrassed me to hear her use phrases like "copping a fix" and "pusherman." "I have to go now," she'd say to the grocery clerk. "My mother-in-law's back at the house, jonesing for her lunch." "I beg your pardon?" they'd say, "Come again?" Only on network television did people talk this way.
"I call the TV," they'd say. It didn't matter what you were watching when my mother or sister laid claim to one of the televisions. You surrendered it the same way cars gave up the road at the sight of an advancing ambulance.
I couldn't bear the detective shows but made it a point to regularly check in with The Fugitive. This was the story of Dr. Richard Kimble, a man on the run. Falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, we were told in the opening credits that "he changed his name and his identity." The notion of identity was illustrated by a can of shoe polish sitting on what appeared to be the scuffed surface of a motel dresser.
This had me stumped for months. "What?" I asked. "Would nobody recognize him with freshly shined shoes? Did he use it to blacken his face? I don't get it." "His hair, stupid," my sister Lisa said. "He used it to dye his hair."
Lisa liked The Fugitive because, she said, "He's easy on the eyes." The way she saw it, Dr. Kimble needed only two things, a one-armed suspect and the love of a good woman. She failed to understand that despite his brooding good looks, a man of his nature could never be happy. Unlike her nightly lineup of swinging gumshoes, the Fugitive had both a soul and a memory, and would remain a haunted man long after his wife's true killer had been brought to justice.
Most programs discouraged you from concentrating on the hero's dark inner workings. If the girlfriend was gunned down at her makeup table, you knew there'd be another one next week to replace her, no questions asked. The Fugitive had no fancy convertible or stylish wet bar. He was cut from a different cloth, my kind of cloth, the itchy kind. Lisa wouldn't know a sensitive loner if he crawled into her lap with a fistful of daisies. And it annoyed me when she labeled The Fugitive as "my kind of show."
It was one thing to sit in front of the television, second-guessing a third-rate detective program, but quite another to solve a real case. We were well into our summer reruns when our household was shaken by a series of very real crimes no TV detective could ever hope to crack. Someone in our family had taken to wiping their ass on the bath towels.
What made this exceptionally disturbing was that all of our towels were fudge-colored. You'd be drying your hair when too late, you'd notice an unmistakable odor on your hands, head, and face. If nothing else, life in the suburbs promised that one might go from day to day without finding stool samples in their hair. This sudden turn of events tested our resolve to the core, leaving us to wonder who we were and where we, as a people, had gone wrong.
Soul searching aside, it also called for plenty of hot water, gallons of shampoo, steel wool, industrial scrub brushes, and blocks of harsh, deodorizing soap. The criminal hit all three bathrooms, pausing just long enough to convince the rest of us that it was finally safe to let our guard down. I might spend 20 minutes carefully sniffing the towel, only to discover that this time, they'd used to washcloth.
"Well," my mother said, thumbing through the newspaper one Sunday morning, "the person doing this is one sick individual. That much we know for certain." "And they eat corn," Lisa said, patting her head with a T-shirt. The most recent victim, she had washed her hair so many times it now resembled the wiry, synthetic mane of a troll doll.
Everyone had their theories, but no one had any hard evidence. Discounting my parents, that still left six children and my grandmother, all possible suspects. I eliminated myself. And because the towels were carefully folded, I excused my brother, who, to this day, cannot manage such a complex activity.
It must smart to use a towel for such a delicate purpose. And I watched as my family took their seats at the table, waiting for someone to cry out or flinch. But nothing came of it.
My mother and sister had always thought themselves so wily and smart. But when pressed for a suspect, they said only that this case was beneath them. If someone were to be murdered or kidnapped, they'd rise to the occasion and finger the guilty party within an hour.
This particular case, however, fell under the category of aggravated mischief, and was therefore unworthy of their professional attention. Whoever it was would listen to their conscience and confess sooner or later. And in the meantime, my mother would stock the linen closet with white towels. Case closed.
Later that month, someone went through my father's top drawer, stealing a knee sock packed with 112 liberty silver dollars. I knew my father's drawers as well as I knew my own. Everyone did. That was how you occupied your time when you had the house to yourself. You rifled through my father's drawers before moving on to his second hiding place in the shed.
I had seen and counted these coins many times. We all had. But who would go so far as to steal them?
My father gathered us together in the dining room and listened as we each took turns denying any involvement. "Dollars come in silver? I never knew that. Does the government issue them in a knee sock, or was that your idea?"
"OK," my father said. "all right. I understand now. Nobody took my coins. I guess they just got tired of living cooped up in that dresser and decided to roll out the door and spend themselves on candy and magazines. That's what happened, isn't it? Oh, they're probably out there as we speak, having themselves a grand old time, aren't they?"
His voice visited its highest register, and he rubbed his hands together as if he were considering a tray of rich desserts. "Free at last. Free at last, with their whole lives ahead of them. Can't you just feel the excitement? Doesn't it make you just want to throw up your hands and scream?"
He lowered his voice to deliver a series of ultimatums I didn't quite catch. My mind was snagged on the thought of those jubilant silver dollars, raucous and dizzy with their first feelings of independence. I pictured them splitting into groups and traveling by night to avoid any excess attention. It might prove difficult to roll over grass and leaves, so I imagined them huddled in the carport, deciding it best to stick to the roads and sidewalks.
The thought of it made me laugh. And when I did, my father said, "You think this is funny? You're getting a chuckle out of this, are you? I'm glad you find it so amusing. Let's see how funny it is when I search your room, funny guy."
On television, a search warrant guaranteed that your home would be trashed. And this was no different. Mine was the only clean room in the entire house. This was my shrine, my temple, and I watched in horror as my drawers were emptied and my closets brutally divorced of order.
While searching my desk, he came across a gold-plated mechanical pencil my father recognized as his own. It had once occupied the same drawer as his coins. And I admitted that, yes, I had taken the pencil. But I hadn't really stolen it.
There was a big difference between the two. You steal things that you covet, while you take things the original owner is incapable of appreciating. The pencil had spoken to me of its neglect, and I 'd offered to put it to good use.
Taking is just borrowing without the formality. I'd planned on returning it once it ran out of lead. What was the big deal?
The moment my father and his pencil were reunited, I became the prime suspect, tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence. There was nothing I could say to change his mind. Falsely convicted of a crime I didn't commit, there was only one thing I could do. The shoe polish was kept in the linen closet. I chose black.
The Fugitive's hair always looked perfectly natural. It blew in the breeze created by oncoming trucks as he stood beside the lonesome road, bidding farewell to a town unable to appreciate his unique gifts. My natural hair looked pretty much the same way. But once the polish dried, my hair hardened into a stiff, unified mass that covered my head like a helmet.
I went to bed and found my sheets and pillow smudged and ruined. My face and arms were bruised-looking, and everything stank with the rigid, military odor of a buffing rag. It was no wonder the Fugitive was a loner. I liked the sheen and color of my new hair, but found I needed to slick it back in order to maintain a clean forehead.
This hair of mine was bulletproof. Perhaps that's what the Fugitive saw in it. You could've pounded my head with a golf club, and I wouldn't have felt a thing. I carried my soiled sheets into the woods, knowing that from here on out, things were going to be different. I had crossed over the edge, and there was no turning back.
Having changed my identity, my next step was to find the real thief and clear my name. My mother and sister were fond of saying, "The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime." This was a bit of dime store wisdom picked up from one of their television programs, but I thought it might be worth a try.
It was certainly true of whoever was wiping their ass on the towels. But then again, they had no choice. The bathroom was where we kept our toilet. And even if the criminal had changed their ways, they'd still need to use the john.
Aside from the silver dollars, my father's drawers were home to several pocket watches, a pair of cuff links shaped like dice, tie clips, fine cigarette lighters, and a deck of playing cards picturing an assortment of confident women wearing nothing but tool belts. Figuring the thief had good reason to return for more, I undertook a stakeout. My father's closet had shuttered, louvred doors which afforded a view of the entire room.
I took my place, waiting a full hour before my mother entered the room, shouting, "I don't give a tinker's damn what they do on Mount Olympus. In this house, you don't boil a $7 steak." My intuition told me that she was talking to my grandmother.
Slamming the door behind her, she took a seat on the edge of the unmade bed. She stared down at her bare feet and then, as if she expected them to apologize for some trouble they'd recently caused, said, "Well, what have you got to say for yourselves?"
She picked at her toenail for a moment before crossing the room to fetch a bottle of glossy polish from the top of the dresser. This was a new shade, the color of putty. Rather than highlighting the nails, it caused them to disappear into the surrounding flesh, creating a look both freakish and popular.
I'd never understood why anyone bothered painting their toenails, especially my mother, whose crusty, misshapen talons resembled the shattered, nugget-sized Fritos found huddled in the bottom of a bag. She stood before the mirror, shaking the bottle and frowning at the sight of her brittle, frosted hair, arranged into a listless style she referred to as "the devil's stomping grounds." I watched then as she rummaged through her closet, returning with a tall, plastic box secured with the sort of latches you might find on a suitcase.
I'd been through my father's closet thousands of times, but never my mother's. "If I have something of value, this is the last place I'd put it," she'd say. "The goddamn moths don't even want what I've got." My father's closets offered clues to his inner life.
I enjoyed uncovering what I thought to be his secrets, but felt it best to honor my mother's privacy, not out of respect so much as fear. I didn't want any possible handcuffs or hooded leather mask interfering with the notion that this woman was first and foremost my mother.
She carried the box to her dresser and unfastened the latches, lifting the lid to reveal a pale Styrofoam head supporting a sandy blonde wig, the hair sculpted into a series of cresting waves. This was a magnificent crown of hair, so perfect it might have been styled by God himself on one of those off days he was feeling creative, rather than vengeful.
After carefully removing the pins, my mother placed the wig upon her head and studied herself in the mirror. She nodded her head this way and that, but the curls, defying all laws of nature, held their position. I knew the feeling, except that my rigid hairstyle was by this time basically cemented to my scalp. Fumes from the shoe polish were making me nauseous, and I had begun to perspire, the inky sweat running down my forehead and staining my shirt.
"What do you say to that, missy?" my mother asked herself. She applied a coat of lipstick and brought her face close to the mirror, cocking her had and arching her eyebrows in a series of expressions that conveyed everything from heartfelt concern to full-throttle rage. Then she stepped away from the mirror, re-introducing herself slowly, as if her reflection were a guest she were meeting for the first time.
"What do you say we paint those toenails?" she asked. "Now?" she answered. "Sure," she said. "Have a seat. It won't take but a minute. What's you're hurry? Sit down, for christ's sake. They can get along without you for half an hour. Sit."
My mother sat and opened the jar of polish. "This is a new shade we call strained chicken," she said. "All the girls are just crazy about it." I watched as she parted her toes and set to work, pausing every now and then to regard herself in the mirror.
"Pretty, isn't it?" she said. "You'll probably want to wear it with a sandal. That's what I'd do, a sandal or an open-toed boot, whatever feels right for you. This is a good color for those quiet times when your weekend guests have finally passed out, and you've got the pup tent all to yourself. I'm assuming from the shape of these feet that you do a lot of hiking, am I right? No? My mistake. Ever walk over hot coals to earn yourself a little extra pocket money? I thought so. Well, you just sit back and relax. I'm not here to judge."
She finished her right foot and held it out for inspection. "The good thing about this color is that it's forgiving. A little on the nail, a little on the toe, a little on the carpet, and everybody's happy."
When the left foot was finished, she tossed the polish onto her dresser and fashioned a mound out of pillows, something so high that she could lie on her back without crushing her wig. It looked uncomfortable, but she seemed used to it. Spreading out her arms and legs, she closed her eyes and reclined as best she could. The unmade bed, the clothing and empty cigarette packets littering the floor, the room resembled a crime scene.
Televised stake outs tend to condense the hours of monotonous waiting into a single moment of truth. The detective arrives just in time to overhear the ransom instructions or watch the jewel thief study blueprints to the bank. I stood for an hour with a headful of shoe polish, a fugitive, watching my chatty, harried nail stylist of a mother asleep in her wig. I waited and waited for something to reveal itself.
After she'd and left the room, I crept downstairs and washed my hair three times, taking care to rinse the tub with Comet and destroy my soiled shirt. At the sound of my father's footsteps coming through the front door, I darted into my bedroom, slapping my face and examining the glow on the darkened window. I wanted to be apple-cheeked, fresh and innocent when he rounded up the usual suspects, gathering us together in the dining room to solve the most troubling mystery of all. Who smeared his shirts and jackets with shoe polish?
I take my seat beside the same people who had stolen the coins and wiped themselves on the towels and say, "Did you say nail polish or shoe polish? On your suits? Today? No, sorry. I wouldn't know anything about that."
David Sedaris. That story, "True Detective," is in his book, Naked. His latest book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "PUSHERMAN" BY CURTIS MAYFIELD]
Coming up, speeding through a car chase, sitting through surveillance, that all happens during two days I spent with a real private eye. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's program, Detectives, wannabe detectives, real detectives, and the difference between the two.
Act Two: The Real World
Act Two, The Real World. You know, a reporters isn't supposed to go out on a story with big, preconceived ideas. And so I'm just going to admit up front that when I had the chance to go out with a real life private eye, this is what I expected. I expected that contrary to what you see on TV and in the movies, real detective work was going to turn out to be mundane, dull, long hours, not terribly glamorous.
And in fact, the first day I spent with detective Jonathan Rosenberg of Tower Investigations here in Chicago, I was not disappointed. When I arrived at his office, he was statementizing. That was the word he used, statementizing, meaning typing up statements from witnesses he'd interviewed. Example.
"OK. So the Mazda, the black Mazda had a green light?" That was the investigator. The witness answered, "A green light, correct." Investigator, "Do you know how fast the fire engine was traveling?" Witness, "Oh god, I have no idea, but it was 40 miles or maybe more." Investigator, "OK. Do you know how fast the black vehicle was traveling?"
Not exactly The Rockford Files. Later, we drove out to an accident scene, where Jonathan took pictures and looked for witnesses, but didn't find anybody useful, which was unsurprising, really, because the accident had happened six weeks before. Also, Jonathan went to the federal courthouse to run background checks on the computers there. Jonathan says he wasn't one of those kids who read detective books and stories about g-men and dreamed of being a private eye.
I find generally, those people, one, they're totally disappointed what the profession really entails. It's a lot more work. It's a lot less exciting as it's portrayed.
In fact, Jonathan got into detective work by accident. His father was a lawyer. And from the time Jonathan was 19, he'd go out for his dad, take pictures to use as evidence, track people down so they could be served legal papers. And from there, it wasn't much of a leap to a real job as a detective.
Now he's 29, dressed for work in a black T-shirt and jeans, his hair starting to thin, but just long enough to be pulled into a little ponytail. A steady supply of Newport Lights and Diet Cherry Cokes gets him through the day. And unlike the hard-boiled detectives that you see in the movies, Jonathan Rosenberg is strikingly uncynical. The main impression that you get when you meet him is a decent, level-headed guy, someone who'll talk straight with you, treat you fairly. It's an impression that comes in handy in his line of work.
Day two. The first thing you have to do before you go on surveillance, Jonathan tells me, is fill up the gas tank. You don't know how far you're going to have to drive tailing people.
About 40% of Jonathan's business is surveillance work on domestic cases, people who think their spouses are cheating on them. The rest of his work is accident investigations, tracking people down, serving them legal papers, and then various insurance and unemployment fraud cases. Today's client is a husband who's become suspicious of his wife and was willing to put up $50 an hour, plus expenses, to have her followed, 10 hours paid upfront. She's been going out a lot, with excuses that don't seem plausible.
She's out on weekends. She leaves early on weekends. She started dressing a little bit sexier, you could say, when she's going to work. That's usually a signal. Also, if they start losing weight, if they had a weight problem, or if they start working out a lot.
Today, she's supposed to be going out after work with her girlfriends from her job. We're going to wait by the store where she works and follow her to see if that's were she goes.
This is what we're going to do. When I first get there is I'm going to look for the vehicle that the client described to me that his wife drives.
Now, did he give you her picture or something? Do you know what she looks like?
Yes, I have a photograph here.
I have to admit here that when I saw the photo, I was completely floored. Somehow, based on a thousand detective stories, I'd assumed that these would be middle-aged people, mature people, in a marriage that had gone stale over years. But the woman in this photo was 25 years old, beamingly happy, a suburban girl on vacation in Disneyland or someplace like that. And suddenly, it hit me, looking at this picture, the human tragedy of what was about to happen. If she were cheating on her husband, and we caught her, one way or another, her life was about to turn completely upside down, starting tonight.
OK, now the trick here is looking for the vehicle.
We circle the store where she works. And we find her car easily enough. It's out back. But finding out where we should go turns out to be surprisingly tricky. We can't just park in the alley, because she'll see us. So we have to park at one end of the alley. But then which end?
If we choose the south end and she drives north, she could lose us. And then there's the fact that we need to see her without her noticing us. Fortunately, the client chooses that moment to call on Jonathan's cellular phone.
Uh-huh? OK, so you're saying that she'll probably be heading south is her normal-- OK. All right, sir. OK. You're welcome. Bye.
We find one position. But then a truck blocks our view. We move two more times. Who ever thought that this would be this complicated? Also, it's boring. I smoke one of Jonathan's Newport Lights simply to stay awake.
Jonathan watches in his rear view mirror for the woman. He takes notes on the case. I take notes on him. And sitting in a car like this, in a way, it's just like you've seen in those cop buddy movies. You really do start to talk about everything.
Scarface, I didn't see Scarface. Was Scarface that good?
Yeah, I liked it a lot.
I like Al Pacino a lot, that's why.
All I heard about Scarface was it's just real violent, right? That's all I heard was it was just real violent.
Yeah, it's real violent, but the story was really good, I thought. And the acting was excellent. I just thought it was a really well-made movie.
So you know what they call a Big Mac in France?
Yes, I do.
Le Big Mac.
The Royale with cheese is what threw me. I ordered one just to see what it was.
What was it?
It's just a quarter-pounder. I was disappointed. I thought it was something different that's not in the States.
A half hour passes, and another half hour. Someone who might have been the woman comes out, smokes a cigarette, goes back in, later, comes out again, goes back in again. If this woman was having an affair, she was in no hurry to get to the affair. Or possibly, the woman who we were waiting for left long ago through the front door of the shop, which we cannot see. Anyway, finally, after all the boredom, something happens.
OK. That's our vehicle. And it looks like it's coming this way.
We spin around to follow her car, and we tail her for 15 minutes. Often, we are driving directly behind her, sometimes on nearly deserted streets. And still, she does not seem to notice, which Jonathan says is typical.
And if this sounds incredible to you, OK, try this test. If you are hearing the sound of my voice in an automobile right now, let me ask you-- now don't look in your rear view mirror-- let me just ask you, what kind of car is behind you? And how long has it been there? No one pays attention to stuff like this.
Hello? OK. Your wife has just left about 10 minutes ago. We're in pursuit right now.
Finally, she pulls into a strip mall. She parks. We park a little down the way. Jonathan opens up a map, so we don't look so suspicious sitting there, though of course, with cameras and tape recorders, we are the most suspicious-looking car imaginable. Then he pulls out binoculars, which only helps the whole effect.
And sitting there, suddenly, I realize I have no idea what is about to happen. The woman is sitting in front of a store like the same kind of store she works for. So, I think, perhaps it is possible she is going to be meeting friends who she knows from her job. On the other hand, all the women back at her job left separately in separate cars at separate times. So could they really be going out together?
Why were we at this strip mall? Where were we headed next? In most jobs, you know pretty much what is going to happen when you arrive at work that morning. And it occurred to me at that moment that for Jonathan, that is simply not true.
I got to tell you, you're blowing the premise for my story. I was going to come out with you. I was going to say, well, this private investigative work, you think it's really glamorous and really interesting if you see it on TV and the movies. But really, if you hang around with the guys, it's kind of boring. But now, I'm out with you, and I think I'm wrong. It is actually pretty interesting.
It is. But when you're comparing it to Magnum, P. I. or Simon & Simon, it really doesn't compare to that kind of excitement.
And at that moment, the car we're following pulls out, and we pursue. And then she does something kind of strange, actually. She pulls into an alley. And she waits.
She went straight down the alley, right?
Yeah. Do you think she's trying to lose us?
Well, actually I don't know.
We can't follow her without her noticing. So we circle the block. She backs up, then drives back into the alley. Then she circles the block.
And finally we solve the mystery of what she's doing. Jonathan, the trained detective, is the one who figures this out. She is not on to us. She's looking for a parking space. She gets out of the car, heads into a restaurant. It's a big, cheap, family-style restaurant.
You know something, I don't think that she's having an affair. And I tell you why. It's because if you were having an affair with somebody, you would not go to this particular restaurant. It's just not romantic enough.
If you were out really for sex with somebody, and you've only got a couple hours, you're not going to go here.
But looked at another way, maybe she is going to be meet a guy here, quickly, where no one would suspect them.
I feel like I keep just going back and forth on whether I think that she's seeing somebody. Are you doing that, too, or are you--
Well, no. I'm just--
I'm just trying to find out the information and report it.
Yeah, I know. But from moment to moment, don't you feel like you decide, "Yes, she must be. No, no, she can't be. Yes, she must be. No, she can't be"?
Not 'til I see it.
See, this is the clinch. This is the clinch right now. Because we know what we're here to find out is inside there. And I know the answer's inside, so why start guessing? I could just walk inside and tell you what the answer is.
And so we head into the restaurant. Jonathan leaves his cameras and his notepads in the car. I leave my tape recorder. Jonathan says we'd be too conspicuous with that stuff.
And when we walk in, we're pretty much convinced that she is meeting girlfriends from work, just like she told her husband. So we go in. And we spot her right away in a booth with a man.
The way the restaurant is laid out, we can sit at the bar with our back to the couple and then watch everything they do in this big, plate glass mirror that's behind the bar. They don't serve Cherry Diet Coke at this bar. So Jonathan orders a regular Diet Coke. And we sit there.
His cell phone rings. And it's the woman's husband. Jonathan gives him the news this way. He says, very quietly, "Apparently, your suspicions were correct." The husband gets angry, which Jonathan says is unusual. For some reason, men in this situation, when they get this news, usually cry. Women get angry, in Jonathan's experience.
I watch the couple in the mirror. She's telling the guy a story, gesturing with her hands. He laughs. And I think, "You have no idea what's about to hit you."
I watch. Someday, that woman's going to look back on this night. And she'll think, "So when I drove to the restaurant, when I was driving there, I was being followed. When we sat talking that night, we were being watched. And I didn't know."
She'll try to picture it, put it together in her mind. Where was the detective? Where did he wait? Where did he sit? What did he see her do?
In the mirror, Jonathan and I watch the woman get a call on her cellular phone. And she pulls back a little bit from the man who she's with and withdraw into herself a little bit, talks on the phone. And we wonder, is that her husband? Is he just messing with her?
She talks and hangs up. 30 seconds later, Jonathan's cell phone rings. It was him. He was messing with her.
He's like, "So, are you out with the girls? Uh-huh. Where are you guys. Yeah, who's there? What are you guys talking about?" "That lying bitch," he said to Jonathan. For some reason, it's hard at this moment to feel much sympathy for him.
I have to tell you about the strangest thing about this entire scene. And that is that there's no sex vibe between these two people. In fact, the man is shoveling food in his mouth with a kind of circular motion of his hand that is the least sexy thing possible. It's just crude.
You watch him, and you think, "She is not going to bed with you, if you're going to eat like that." And in fact, when they come out of the restaurant, they go their separate ways without even a kiss, without a hug. Jonathan snaps a few pictures of them outside.
Is that him? Yeah.
We follow the guy home, get his license plate numbers, get his address. It's an unusual case, because 90% of the time, Jonathan says, when somebody suspects the spouse of having an affair, the detective catches them the first time out. This case, he's not very sure what's going on. He follows the woman for five more days, over $1,000 worth of surveillance, before finally, he catches her actually going home with the guy. In the car, later, I ask him if his job ever gives him the creeps, following people around, secretly watching them in these vulnerable moments, photographing them and videotaping them, gathering evidence that will probably destroy their marriages.
Well, that's always upsetting. You never really want to see that happen to people. But if it came to be that way, it did. It was through no fault of my own.
And these people made their decision to partake in the activities they chose to partake. And if they're not being faithful to each other, then maybe they really shouldn't be married. It's that old saying. It's better to find out now than later.
Hello? I should be home about 9:30, 10 o'clock. But if I'll be home later, I'll call you. OK. Love you, too. Bye. That's the wife.
Jonathan's actually a newlywed. He's been married for only eight months. And he says, yes, having this job has affected his view of marriage.
How can it not? You're more careful about it, because you see it. But it really hasn't affected me in a negative way with my relationship with my wife.
You were saying when we were inside that you guys joke about it, in fact.
Oh yeah, we do, we do. If I ask her, "What time are you going to be home?" And then she'll be like, "Well, I'm not going to tell you. I got to go meet my boyfriend." And we're like, "All right. That's all right. I'll find it out anyways. I know it anyways, you don't need to tell me." Like I have a surveillance or a tail on her at that minute anyways. But we have a really good relationship.
As for me, for the next few days after the surveillance, I had this experience I have never had in my life. I was completely suspicious of everyone. At one point, I was waiting for somebody outside a McDonald's. And a guy in a black Corolla zooms in, just tears into the parking lot, tears around the curve, pulls into a space.
And I don't know why, I felt like, "OK. I better start taking notes." I have them, right here. "Man wore sunglasses, has crew cut. Loud music blares from car. Jumps out, beefy guy, gives me suspicious look. I give him suspicious look." And then below here, on the notes, I have his license plate number, just in case.
Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, Julie Snyder, Alix Spiegel, Peter Clowney, and Dolores Wilber. Our senior editor for this particular show, Paul Tough, with contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Shiow-Jiau Yung runs our website.
Production help from Todd Bachmann, Jane Feltes, Seth Lind, and Vija Navarro. Original musical scoring for David Sedaris's story by Michael Zerang. He played that music with Fred Lonberg-Holm. Mary Gaffney recorded the music here in the WBEZ studios. Music help elsewhere in the program by Mr. John Connors and [? Terry West. ?]
We are informed that Donald Sobol is the guy who wrote Encyclopedia Brown. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can get all of our weekly action-packed shows in podcast form, or you can listen to old programs online. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia, who has something he wants to say to the Sedaris family. He's been carrying this around for years. It's just been killing him.
All right, it was me. You satisfied now? That's right, me. I did it, me.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.