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74: Conventions

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Convention worker

Ira Glass

Back before the pandemic, Andrea worked at a bakery under the convention hotel. At first, it was fine, waiting on the conventioneers.

Andrea

But then you start to dread them. I mean, absolutely. You're like, no, not another convention. They just flipped me out. I was just listening and watching them. I'm getting them their croissants and their coffee.

Ira Glass

Fact is, when people are together with others of their own kind, they act differently.

Andrea

This thing happens. I mean, you're so focused into this one aspect of your life that you just sort of become-- that you just absorb into that whole facet of your life.

Ira Glass

You become that facet of your life.

Andrea

You become that facet of your life, yeah.

Ira Glass

If one Mary Kay saleswoman walks up to your bakery counter, you don't think twice about it. But 90 of them? That's something completely different.

Andrea

And so there's this excitement. They're really bubbly. And they've got all this bright colored makeup on-- pinks, blues. Just--

Ira Glass

Oh, of course. Because they're in the convention with their peers. So they have to impress each other. It's not even like they're--

Andrea

Oh, yeah.

Ira Glass

You're right.

Andrea

It's not like they're undercover, like, oh, we can go to a convention and not wear makeup. I mean, they were just made up to the nines. I mean, it was crazy. So I'm just looking at them in line. I have never seen more makeup in my entire life. But they were just covered. And just the most awkward-- I mean, everything looked like it was a mistake. Just the most awkward, strange colors. And just things I would--

Ira Glass

Oh, Andrea, that just goes to show how far from the light you are, just how far you are from the Mary Kay way.

Andrea

I know.

Math teachers make me particularly nervous because math is my nemesis. I'm awful at math. And I thought, OK, you're working at the bakery counter. They can't hurt you. They're not going to quiz you. You're not going to have algebra. No, I tell them their amount. And then they give me their money. And I'm sitting there, trying to figure it out. And then all of a sudden, they're like, well wait, let me give you $0.05, and then you can give me this back.

And totally, by the end of the day, my drawer was totally off because they'd just blow my mind at the last minute. Plus I hate math, so then I'm getting really nervous. I'm like, I can't do this. I can't do this. I'm having flashbacks from seventh grade. failing math. And I'm like, I can't do it. I just can't do it.

Ira Glass

Was that the worst they did? Did they do little math tricks with the change, like, oh, that's a prime?

[LAUGHTER]

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and performers to take a whack at that game. Today's program, Conventions, and who we become when we attend them. Today's program was first broadcast in the early days of our show, back in the 1990s.

Act One, Dark Shadows. So back in the '90s, when TV fans wanted to geek out with other TV fans, most were not online. And so it was a big deal to leave their homes and meet in person to do that. We go with one.

Act Two, A Professional Dishwasher. Dishwasher Pete decides to attend the national convention held by the restaurant owners and managers and bigwigs who employ workers like him.

Act Three, When Worlds Collide, a story that starts in a convention center where two different conventions happen to be taking place, where two different people from two different worlds happen to meet, and big things happen as a result. Stay with us.

Act One: Dark Shadows

Ira Glass

Act One, Dark Shadows. Well, it was Katherine who really wanted to go to the Dark Shadows convention. Katherine was the one who was the fanatic. At least, that's what John says.

John Connors

It filled something in her. It was almost like she was an empty glass, and Dark Shadows filled her glass. Whatever was missing in her life at that moment, filled her glass. And she could watch it continually and would laugh and roar and got so involved with the characters and--

Ira Glass

How many would she watch? Let's just get that fact out there.

John Connors

She would watch eight hours a day.

Ira Glass

Eight hours of Dark Shadows a day.

John Connors

Eight hours a day. Approximately eight hours a day.

Ira Glass

Damn.

Eight hours a day, every day, of the slowest, creakiest TV show ever. Dark Shadows, you might recall, is the Gothic soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971. The main character is an avuncular vampire named Barnabas Collins. The storyline shifts from the 19th century to groovy '60s America at its most mod. Its kind of Wuthering Heights meets Austin Powers. Much later, years after we first broadcast this story, in fact, Tim Burton did a film version. It starred Johnny Depp. Anyway, eight hours a day of it, 1,275 episodes in all, beginning on a train.

Victoria Winters

My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widow's Hill, a house called Collinwood, a world I've never known with people I've never met.

John Connors

Dear Katherine, it's now 3 o'clock in the morning. And I'm on an Amtrak train heading towards New York. I think right about now, I'm in Syracuse, Ohio. I'm thinking about you. I'm thinking about how this was all your idea to go to the Dark Shadows convention. True, I introduced you to the show. But you're the one who really took it to heart. I feel like I'm going on a journey somehow, the journey to meet people that-- I don't know-- maybe they'll have something in common with me.

When she said she wasn't going to go, I had to think, do I really want to go to this convention? Is this something I still really need to do? And I thought about it. And I thought, I have been thinking about going to this convention since December. It's August now. I have been talking about going to this convention. It's been on my calendar. I've been preparing. I've been buying clothes for the convention. I've been saving money that-- like, I've been eating ramen noodles for lunch. And I'm going, of course I'm going to go to this convention. Even though this show is just a show to me, I really want to go. I want to talk about Dark Shadows with other people that like Dark Shadows.

Ira Glass

Regular listeners to This American Life may remember one Halloween, producer Nancy Updike and I visited John and his friends, Thax and Erica, during their weekly ritual of watching Dark Shadows. And I'm here to tell you, when you watch several hours of this, it's boring, it's slow. The acting is terrible. The plot lines are preposterous. And apparently, they take months, sometimes years, to resolve.

But it's live TV. And it feels like live TV, which means that if you watch long enough, you see people forget lines. Scripts are left on beds during scenes. Prop guys get caught on screen. You can see them through doorways. Flies settle on the actors' faces during close ups. And this is part of what John and his friends love when they watch. At the time when we did that story, John was watching six hours a week.

John Connors

You notice the littlest things you wouldn't notice in a regular show. We noticed tonight that people have stopped knocking on the door three times. They're now knocking on the door four times.

Woman

I'll go out the back way.

Bethel

No, no, you won't. You'll stay right here.

Woman

But Bethel, they'll make me go back if they find--

[KNOCKING]

Thax

So John thinks they had a lengthy meeting deciding that you have to have four knocks instead of three to spice up the plot a little bit. It's more exciting.

John Connors

The new director said we've got to get rid of the old ways. Things are going to change around here. No more of this three knocks stuff.

Woman

Oh, Glenda, it's happening again.

Ira Glass

So John goes to New York on the train, alone, to a convention hotel on Times Square. Katherine doesn't go because she got a job, which tends to cut into people's Dark Shadows habit in a rather major way.

John Connors

I'll be honest, I was really petrified because I was alone in New York. I don't know anybody. And there are probably about 400 people all waiting in line to go into this banquet hall to start the ceremonies, the opening Dark Shadow convention ceremonies. And I'm walking around, and I know that everybody here, I can walk up to them and start talking about Dark Shadows. But I don't know if I want to at this point.

And the last time I'd actually remembered that feeling was when I had first gone into a gay bar by myself and felt like this was something I had to do by myself. I was all alone. And there I was, in this room of people that we all had something in common.

Ira Glass

You had just come out.

John Connors

I had just come out. We all had something in common. I knew that all these people, we had a similar life experience.

Ira Glass

You have one thing in common.

John Connors

We have one thing in common.

Ira Glass

For example, with the gay bar, you can't just walk up to somebody and say, so you're a homosexual too. Me too.

John Connors

Testing. I'm now at the convention. And-- hold on.

Man

You use that word. Not yet.

John Connors

Right now, I'm in the grand ballroom at the Marriott. It's opulent beyond belief. I mean, there are four large chandeliers. And there are probably about, I would say, a little bit over 500 people here right now. And they're doing a retrospective on some of the Dark Shadows actors who had passed on. It's just funny. There are 500 people sitting in this grand ballroom watching TV.

Man

Not yet. That's how Humbert makes his vocabulary.

John Connors

We all go into the ballroom to watch TV.

Andrea

What?

John Connors

That's the opening ceremony.

Ira Glass

So it's 500, and there's a little tiny TV on the stage?

John Connors

No, no, no. This is huge. The TV is huge. I mean--

Ira Glass

Oh, it would be like a--

John Connors

There's a little black and white 12 inch at the front that we all gather around.

Ira Glass

Because when you think about it, it is a convention about watching TV.

John Connors

Yeah, and I hadn't thought about that until that exact moment. I was going, it's just sort of something to talk to people.

Ira Glass

Then it occurred to you, I'm here to watch TV.

John Connors

I'm here to watch TV, and I'm here to talk to people about watching TV.

Man

Even terrifying perhaps.

John Connors

The other thing I was there for was to watch-- this was so amazing. People make Dark Shadows videos. They make their own Dark Shadows videos.

Ira Glass

You mean like using footage from the original--

John Connors

No, no, no, they create new Dark Shadows videos.

Ira Glass

New Dark Shadows episodes-- they make new episodes themselves?

John Connors

Right, they make new episodes themselves.

Ira Glass

They get costumes and build sets?

John Connors

Oh my god, there was this one thing. It was amazing. It was a parody of the show, but a parody like if you watched it right now, you would go-- it could be funny. But it's all inside jokes if you watch Dark Shadows. It's the only way you would think this is funny. But it was so elaborate. They had completely rebuilt the set of Barnabas's drawing room-- completely. And then another set was in a graveyard. And they had completely done the graveyard.

This one man played three different characters. And it was edited like it was completely professional. I mean, they must have spent a ton of money. They had gotten one of the original cast members to come and be in the video. It was so incredibly elaborate. And it was like 45 minutes long, and it was good. And then it was like, to think I'm sitting there, going, this is really good.

Ira Glass

Your outfit at this point?

John Connors

Well, I had put on my red burgundy, crushed velvet Pierre Cardin jacket that I'd gotten at the Salvation Army for 5 bucks. It had a little water spot on the back of it. I had put on my rhinestone brooch that looks sort of like a flaring sun with this big, huge rhinestone which I--

Ira Glass

Right in the middle of your collar.

John Connors

Right in the middle, which I had pinned to my silk shirt and black pants and my shoes, which were Quentin Collins shoes from the 1960s show. I mean, I found these--

Ira Glass

John was the only one there dressed up, at least the first day. Everyone else was in shorts, summer clothes, casual clothes, which makes the person wonder, am I the weirdo? John would get on the elevator wearing his convention name with non-convention hotel guests.

John Connors

And they would look at me. Then they would look at my badge. And then they would look at me again. I felt at that moment, I'm like, I'm the weirdo. I'm the weirdo in the elevator. I'm at a Dark Shadows convention.

Ira Glass

This feeling may be more extreme at a Dark Shadows convention, but frankly, it is common to any convention, standing on the elevator, with your badge, separated from the rest of your tribe, surrounded by civilians. It's easy to feel like a freak, even if you're just a math teacher.

But there are freaks, and there are freaks. John, for example, would not get in the 800-person five-hour line to get autographs from the stars. On the other hand, in three days, in the world's most exciting, vibrant city, he never left the hotel. And then he went to this panel where all of these issues were resolved. Stars from Dark Shadows were there, answering detailed questions from the audience.

John Connors

But this woman gets up at this panel discussion. And she has a pre-prepared statement. And the statement is-- it was like, I want to thank all of you for all the joy you've given me through my years. And she said, "When I watch Dark Shadows, I want to take the high road. I want to think of the things Dark Shadows has given me, how it's taught me to forgive, how it's taught me the joy of friendship, how it's taught me that you need to go on from bad situations."

And then she said, "And most people will listen to this, and they will think that I'm a crackpot. And if I'm a crackpot, so be it." And then she screams into the mic, "Dark Shadows lives!" And you see this look on all the actors' faces, like, fear, like a little bit of fear. [LAUGHS]

But it dawned on me, this was the statement that I had felt, that I had been feeling a little bit. And she is standing up in this room full of people and proclaiming, "I am a crackpot." And I was thinking, well, I'm sort of a crackpot, too. And here she was. It was sort of like the alcoholic getting up at the alcohol convention, saying, "I am an alcoholic." [LAUGHS]

And I thought. I love that. And I was just like, God, this is what this whole convention is about. We're like all these misfits. And at this point, I was feeling the sense of community. And I was feeling, in the sea of crackpots, I'm a crackpot with them. I am brother. I am with you. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

But John, I mean, but you sort of saw her as being nuts.

John Connors

Right.

Ira Glass

But you felt she was speaking for you when she said that?

John Connors

I felt an empathy with her. And just not that I'm going to be the one going up there screaming, "I am a crackpot. Dark Shadows rules."

Ira Glass

No, you've chosen to say it to 400,000 people over the radio.

[LAUGHTER]

John Connors

Oh god, I'm going to pass out. Dark Shadows rules. I've said it. I've said it, Ira.

Ira Glass

Do you want to say it louder, John?

John Connors

No.

Ira Glass

You can.

John Connors

I don't want to say it any louder.

Ira Glass

Oh, come on.

John Connors

I don't want to say it any louder.

Ira Glass

Do you want to stand up? We can--

John Connors

No, I don't want to say it. It's OK. I've said it. That's all I want to say.

Ira Glass

I spoke with Chris Crowley, who worked as a facilities manager at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, one of the biggest convention centers in the world. And he told me that there's a kind of life cycle to conventions that happen in predictable phases. The first day, everybody's disoriented. People get lost. People are still individuals at that point. They're not a group just yet.

The second day, people start to group and begin to bond, form those little packs of people. And by the third day of the convention, there's definite friendships that are made and groups of people that are following each other. And you start to recognize who your peers are. And you kind of-- you create or they create their own little herd mentality, if you will. And all this happened to John. On the first day, he didn't want to talk to anybody. He felt like a loner. By the second, he found some friends at the volunteer desk and the costume ball.

John Connors

And these people seemed like they were pretty fun. So some of the people I had talked to during the day, I said, let's all go back to my room. I've got two bottles of Merlot, and let's all get drunk and talk about Dark Shadows.

Ira Glass

But then, sadly, John discovered the inevitable third phase of any convention. He got sick of it. In this case, too much TV, too much merchandise, too many pictures and videos of Dark Shadows going everywhere all the time, too much sharing. He woke up the morning of the third day with a cheap wine hangover, never wanting to talk about Barnabas Collins again, or at least, for the foreseeable future. He had to force himself to go downstairs to the final banquet, which he had already paid $45 to attend.

John Connors

And this other guy was sitting next to me. And we talked a little bit about the show. And it was like he started talking to me. And he was from Long Island. And he asked me where I was from. I said Chicago. And he said he had gone through Chicago. And he changed the subject to sports and about the Bulls. And I don't talk about sports ever. I don't know anything about sports. I don't even follow the Bulls when the championships are going on.

Ira Glass

Which actually is very, very hard. It's like trying to ignore Christmas if you live in Chicago.

John Connors

It's everywhere. And I found myself sitting with this person at this convention, talking about the Bulls, talking about the Bulls in Chicago. And-- [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

In your normal life, if somebody were trying to talk to you about sports, you'd be thinking to yourself, I wish I could be talking about something like Dark Shadows.

John Connors

Right, and there I was, I was engaging him in talking about the Bulls. And I was saying, when you were in London, did the Bulls championship go on? Where were you? Are you a Bulls fan? Are people talking-- and I was changing the subject. Then we talked about the Cubs. I don't talk about the Cubs.

Ira Glass

When John Connors got home after a 24-hour train ride, he opened the door and heard the click of his video machine. He had recorded six hours of Dark Shadows. The day he returned, he said he wasn't sure he'd be able to watch them. Three days later, he watched five.

Act Two: Dish Out Of Water

Ira Glass

Act Two.

Dishwasher Pete

I'm a dishwasher. And having worked in restaurants for over a decade, it would only make sense that I attend the National Restaurant Association's annual gathering. But it's not an organization that welcomes restaurant employees-- quite the contrary.

Ira Glass

That's Dishwasher Pete, writer and publisher of the zine Dishwasher, which is this original and very funny account of his life as a dishwasher traveling from place to place on a small mission to wash dishes in all 50 states, plus whatever dishwashing topics and stories he feels like writing about. He's visiting the National Restaurant Association, which is made up of restaurant owners, managers, and suppliers, and a force to be reckoned with in Washington, DC.

When we first aired this story, when he actually made this visit, it was actually 1997, a long time ago. Bill Clinton was president. And at the time, the National Restaurant Association had fought hard against Bill Clinton's national healthcare proposal. Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House back then-- you may remember-- stated that their lobbying-- the National Restaurant Association's lobbying was key to defeating the Clinton health plan. The National Restaurant Association was also an important opponent of the minimum wage, which it still is today.

Dishwasher Pete

So if this group that works so hard against the interests of me and my restaurant colleagues were going to hold a powwow, I felt it my responsibility to be there.

Riding up the escalator into the middle of Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center, I was immediately overwhelmed. On display was everything imaginable concerning the food service industry, every sort of cooking and serving appliance utensil, food products, menu designs, everything. Each booth was highly specialized. If they didn't have an impressive array of napkin rings, then they were peddling theme outfits so that restaurant staff could dress up like pirates or clowns.

I had come expecting to find groupings of restaurant owners smoking their cigars, rubbing their bellies, and exchanging tales of how they'd stuck it to their employees. So where were they? In the meantime, there was something on my agenda, something that's always on my agenda-- free food. Plenty of food products were available for sampling. I nibbled my way along-- a hunk of chocolate here, a veggie burger there, waffles, chicken tenders, stir fry, jelly beans. This part didn't seem so bad.

That was, until I arrived at one of the booths giving away free beer. There was fierce competition to reach the bar. Being jostled from both sides by guys in suits was a bit unsettling. I hadn't planned to be so informal with these people. I came to the show to be inconspicuous and to inspect, not to socialize and rub shoulders with folks who might otherwise be my boss.

After I was finally served, I stood back and watched the boss types push and shove their way to the free beer. I turned and watched another crowd of boss types clamoring to receive free plastic key chains at another booth. This, to me, was weird. I had expected that with this many boss types in one hall, the air would be thick with authority. Instead, these authority figures were giddy over receiving plastic trinkets. It was disturbing to see all these boss types away from their restaurants, like being in the sixth grade and seeing your teacher walking down the street, holding her boyfriend's hand. It's just something I don't care to see.

But while the gathering of the boss type seemed rather innocuous, I assumed the capitalist parade would be in full swing, as I headed to the convention's keynote address, given by Republican Senator Bob Dole.

Bob Dole

So we shouldn't forget for a moment that we live in the greatest country on the face of the Earth.

Dishwasher Pete

By the time I took my seat at the back of the room, Dole was well underway. I listened. I became confused. I think Dole was confused, too. He was supposed to be giving the keynote address to a group of restaurant tourists. Instead, he gave what amounted to be a campaign speech.

Bob Dole

And we shouldn't forget for a moment, the people who came ahead of us made sacrifices for us.

Dishwasher Pete

I was desperate for any morsel related to restaurants to come from Dole's mouth. It never came. I began to sense that Dole wasn't quite sure where he was. I had assumed he was yet another political lackey of the National Restaurant Association. But now, he seemed more like the grandfather at a family dinner who babbles incomprehensibly, while the rest of the family is too polite to draw attention to it.

As Dole droned on, streams of people, apparently having heard enough, headed for the exits. Then Dole took questions from those remaining. I had hoped to ask him something like, hey, man, why are you and the National Restaurant Association always trying to keep the dishwashers down? But in each of his responses, as he drifted away from the question, I realized, I couldn't ask a snot-nosed question of this absentminded old man, thinking instead, maybe he could provide some grandfatherly advice. Mine was the last question.

Dishwasher Pete

Hello, Mr. Dole. Here at the National Restaurant Association show, I was wondering if you had any words of advice for the dishwashers of the nation.

Bob Dole

Just keep washing them, would be my advice.

Dishwasher Pete

Thank you.

I was excited because mine was the only question he actually answered. Just keep washing. At first, it seemed like a good-natured slap on the back, thumbs up piece of advice. But as the band played on, Dole's words kept echoing through my head. Just keep washing. Yep, just keep washing. Day after day, just keep washing. Week after week, month after month, just keep washing, year after year after year. What the hell kind of advice is that?

Ira Glass

While Dishwasher Pete searches the National Restaurant Association for traces of the American dream, one that Bob Dole would actually approve of. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a wide variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Conventions. We are in the middle of Act Two, Dishwasher Pete, a real life dishwasher at the convention of the National Restaurant Association.

Dishwasher Pete

Working as a dishwasher, I'm often told, start here and someday you may own your own restaurant. Bosses tell this to dishwashers all the time. And if that's true, that'd mean I was surrounded by tens of thousands of former dishwashers at the restaurant convention.

Dishwasher Pete

Do you have much experience washing dishes yourself?

Man

I can't say that I have.

Woman

Only at home.

Dishwasher Pete

You haven't done that in the past?

Man

No, that's really not that effective.

Dishwasher Pete

Dishwashers are invisible to most restaurant customers. But why was such an important part of the industry being ignored at this gathering that celebrated every aspect of the restaurant world? I set out to find some of my fellow dishwashers. I stopped passersby, asking them if they've seen any dishwashers walking around. I received one negative response after another. One restaurant owner snidely told me she wouldn't think of bringing her dishwashers to the show.

But then I realized there was one place I was sure to find some of my dish brethren. Like a moth to the flame, I headed straight for the Hobart display. As the largest manufacturers of commercial dishwashing equipment, Hobart is legendary amongst those of us who wash dishes for a living. Their model dish machines would surely be staffed by real-life dishwashers. Hobart's display was quite a spectacle, buzzing with activity, with free beer and dozens of trippy sales reps wearing matching bright blue shirts. I half expected there to be bikini clad women, lounging atop their display dish machines.

But my hopes for finding dishwashing camaraderie didn't pan out. First of all, there were no dishwashers operating the machines. In fact, the machines sat idle. And I didn't find much kinship with the Hobart Salesforce. Hobart's Barry Baylock showed off their new sink, the turbo wash, that circulated water to enhance the soaking of pots and pans.

Barry Baylock

With a dish machine, you've got to have somebody to man it. With this, you don't. So you're able to destaff your kitchen, so to speak. So it's a big labor saver. Yes, it's more expensive than a three-compartment sink. But it's less expensive than having a full-time employee. This shows up every day. A full-time employee doesn't.

Dishwasher Pete

What do you think about the dishwashers who may be facing layoffs because of a labor saving device such as this?

Barry Baylock

This does not take a very qualified person. It allows one person to do several jobs within a dish room activity, instead of having two people to do two separate jobs. So it actually is going to help out, giving more job security to the person that is working in that dish room area.

Dishwasher Pete

Now why would that be?

Barry Baylock

Well, because they can do more within the dish room. They can operate the dish machine.

Dishwasher Pete

Both Hobart sales reps that I talked to told me that not only have they never held dishwashing jobs, but they hated doing the chore at home. What sort of machine representatives were these? To me, they were like surgeons who hated the sight of blood.

I let the Hobart display a bit dejected and checked out some of their competitors. The Champion machine companies couldn't have been more different than the Hobart display. They were, unlike the massive bright and chirpy Hobart crew, just a couple of middle-aged guys wearing drab brown suits. I spoke to a guy named Peter for a while, asking if any dishwashers had visited the booth. None had.

As I was about to walk away, he asked if I was Dishwasher Pete. It was kind of spooky. My cover was blown. Peter introduced me to Hank Holt, the president of Champion. He had written me a year prior, requesting a copy of my publication Dishwasher. I kind of can't believe that the company's head honcho would bother to attend such an event. But I was even more surprised that he remembered who I was.

Hank Holt

Dishwasher Pete goes all-- he goes all over the country, washing dishes. And he writes about them and puts out this little book every week. It's funnier than the devil. The problem, we wanted to put some of his articles on the web page and send them out to some of the consultants and all that. But we have to edit them. They're a little bit spicy for some of them.

Dishwasher Pete

How's the show been going for you?

Hank Holt

The show's been fine. We're not overwhelmed with--

Dishwasher Pete

While Hank and I talked dishwashing, I snuck peeks over at the Hobart group. It seemed ridiculous that I had previously scoffed at the Champion guys and thought that I'd find solidarity among the Hobart crew. The Hobart folks now look like the in crowd at high school, the jocks and cheerleaders who were popular, yet shallow. Meanwhile, here were the nerdier Champion guys, who could relate more to where I was coming from, though not entirely.

But Hank and I did have a good conversation. We were from opposite ends of the spectrum. He, the president of a dish machine company. Me, dishwasher. I still needed to find an actual fellow dish dog.

As the show was winding down, I left the crowds and commotion, descending three flights of stairs, heading deep down into the bowels of the convention center until I came upon a door. I push a button next to the door, and moments later, it buzzed open. I wandered through the labyrinth of corridors, peeking around corners, and acting as if I belonged there whenever I encountered someone. Then I heard a familiar hum in the distance.

Dishwasher Pete

How are you doing?

Jesse

How are you doing?

Dishwasher Pete

All right. So you're the man behind the scenes, huh? You're the man behind the scenes washing the dishes?

Jesse

Yeah, yeah.

Dishwasher Pete

His name is Jesse, and he was working alone in the cavernous dish room, unloading dishes from a huge 30-foot long conveyor belt style machine, just like the ones on display upstairs.

Dishwasher Pete

Well, do you think there's anything our radio audience should know about the man behind the scenes down here in the dish room?

Jesse

No, I've really got nothing to say, except that I like the job. It's keeping me out of trouble out there on the streets and everything, you know? It's kind of hard work. The employers are nice people, you know? They're easy to get along with.

Dishwasher Pete

As Jesse returned to the head of the machine once again to load dishes into it, I felt at ease for the first time all day. I watched Jesse loading the machine from afar, feeling like I needed to speak with him more, that our bond needed to be acknowledged. But then I noticed the clean dishes exiting the machine, and I knew what to do. I put down the tape recorder and got to work. I walked over and unloaded the clean dishes.

Ira Glass

Dishwasher Pete a.k.a. Pete Jordan, his original zines about washing dishes in every state were collected into a book called Dishwasher. These days, he lives in Amsterdam and runs Radical Honesty workshops all over Europe. His website, www.honestyeurope.com.

[MUSIC - "BORN TO DO DISHES" BY THE QUEERS]

Act Three: When Worlds Collide

Ira Glass

Act Three, When Worlds Collide. So this next story begins at a convention. Well, really, two conventions. John Perry Barlow was at a convention in 1993 for the NeXT computer. That's the machine that Steve Jobs created after he co-founded Apple computers. The other convention going on at the same time was the American Psychiatric Association.

And our story starts at the border between those two. John Perry Barlow was a former rancher, song lyricist. And when we first heard the story back in the day, he was head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He traveled everywhere, talking about computers. And that is what brought him to the Moscone Center in San Francisco for this convention in 1993.

John Perry Barlow

And I was supposed to be giving a-- I was supposed to be the MC at a Steve Jobs celebrity roast. And across the way, the psychiatrists were having a seminar or something. So--

Ira Glass

Before we even go anywhere, I mean, it really does sound like a when worlds collide sort of thing.

John Perry Barlow

Oh, totally. Yeah, yeah, it was.

Ira Glass

Because the thing about a convention is that each world is so distinctly its own world with its own concerns and its own priorities and its own paradigm.

John Perry Barlow

Oh, yeah, and both of these groups of people were so distinct from one another. I mean, psychiatrists, as a group, have a look. And NeXT users-- NeXT was one of the only computers I've ever been around where the whole notion of design was really important to the product-- elegance of design. And it attracted the strangest kind of hybrid, which was sort of like UNIX weenies by Armani combination.

Ira Glass

OK, and describe what the psychiatrists tend to look like. What was their look?

John Perry Barlow

Well, the psychiatrists were all the sort of Jules Feiffer cartoon psychiatrists, tweed jackets, slightly rumpled, and no distinct difference between the men and the women, really, except for this one person. I was standing outside the entrance to the ballroom where I was going to supposedly roast Mr. Jobs. And the psychiatrists were all milling around over there in their corner. And I saw a woman standing with her back to me. And she actually looked dressed to be more one of us than one of them in the sense that she had this very crisp Armani look from behind-- long blond hair.

And she turned and looked over her left shoulder and looked right at me. And I've never had an experience like this before or since. I mean, I've always thought that the whole idea of love at first sight was one of those things that was invented by lady novelists with three names from the south, right?

Ira Glass

Right.

John Perry Barlow

Because how can this work? What's the process by which you would recognize something that profound? She looked, and we started looking at each other. And we didn't avert our gaze, either of us, for probably 45 seconds. I mean, we just locked on the beam. And I felt like I was having a hallucination. I mean, I felt like I was hearing voices. It was the strangest thing. And I kind of stepped back and rubbed my eyes and tried to figure out what I was going to do about this.

Ira Glass

You literally rubbed your eyes?

John Perry Barlow

Literally. No, it was an odd-- the whole thing just felt really dreamlike.

Ira Glass

I was going to say, it's like in a story.

John Perry Barlow

It went into this surreal state. And so finally, I thought, well, whatever's going on between this person and me, I am definitely not going to let this moment pass without investigation because I haven't experienced this before. So I circled her a couple of times. And then finally, I came over to her, and I said, "You're something." And she said, "So are you."

And I said, "Well, where are you from?" And she said-- I mean, I didn't know. I assumed that she was part of our show. I thought that, actually, what she was-- it didn't occur to me that she was associated with the psychiatrists because she didn't look anything like them. And I thought that what she probably was what is-- I wish there were better term for this, but the general computer trade show term for this is booth bimbo, which is somebody who stands in the booth selling the incredibly difficult to use software, who's actually a model or an actress or something who doesn't know anything about the software, but the marketers sort of dangle her out as bait. And then once she's gotten these poor innocent hackers to wander over so they can talk to the beautiful girl, then, wham, they get them.

Ira Glass

Right, geeks move in.

John Perry Barlow

Right, the geeks move in and hustle them off and sell them software. And-- but I just assumed--

Ira Glass

Time honored practice.

John Perry Barlow

Right, exactly. It works. And so I just assumed she must be a booth bimbo because she was much too beautiful to be, well, a computer hacker.

Ira Glass

Or a psychiatrist.

John Perry Barlow

Oh, and that didn't even dawn on me that she was a psychiatrist, which, in fact, she was. But I said, well, where are you from? And she said, well, I'm from a little town in British Columbia. And I said, well, that's interesting. I'm from a little town in Wyoming, which is kind of like British Columbia. Where do you live now? And she said New York. And I said, well, that's even more interesting because that's where I live. I said, where do you live in New York? And she said 19th and Third.

And I said, well, that's not too far from where I live. I'm down at the lower end of Fifth Avenue. And she said, where? And I said, well, Fifth and Ninth. And she said, really, which building? And I said it's the old Fifth Avenue Hotel. It's 24 Fifth Avenue. And she said, really? Well, it turns out that I just got an apartment in that building. In fact, she had just gotten an apartment precisely two stories above mine in the same building.

So there I was with this woman that I had an instantaneous and inexplicable attachment to who was about to move into my apartment building. And we just went off together and, actually, moved in together, really, literally, a week after we met.

Ira Glass

So when you're at the convention with her, you just spent all your time together basically.

John Perry Barlow

Uh, yeah, from that point forward. And it was a great opportunity for me to introduce her to my world in a lot of its other dimensions, because the Grateful Dead was having a concert in Sacramento one of the nights of these giant conventions. And so we went over, and she saw her first Dead concert. And this is a person who would never have been caught dead at a Dead concert.

Ira Glass

Explain your connection with the Grateful Dead.

John Perry Barlow

Oh, I spent many, many years as their sort of junior varsity songwriter. There were two songwriters, and I was the lesser of the two.

Ira Glass

And so what did she think of the concert? What did she make of it?

John Perry Barlow

She liked it a lot. She thought the Deadheads were fascinating. She thought the music was great. I mean, but the other thing was that we were just completely hopelessly besotted with each other. I mean, I could have taken her to a dogfight, I think, and she would have thought it was OK. It was just one of those completely unexpected acts of providence, where two worlds collided, and something wonderful came from the point that they touched.

Ira Glass

Do you think that if you would have met this woman in some other setting, just on the street or seeing her in the lobby of the apartment building that you lived in after she had moved in there, do you think that you would have had this moment quite so powerfully?

John Perry Barlow

Well--

Ira Glass

Or do you think that there was something about being at a convention where one is just open to experience in a way that one wouldn't be elsewhere?

John Perry Barlow

Actually, I think, at that moment, she was more inclined to judge things more on the basis of their appearance. And what she mainly saw was a guy in a real sharp suit. The next day when I returned to my normal style of dress, she said, well, wait a second. Is this how you usually dress? And I said, yeah. And she said, oh, well, all right.

Ira Glass

But do you think that if you had seen her just walking into your building three weeks after that for the first time--

John Perry Barlow

I think--

Ira Glass

--do you think that this moment would have happened?

John Perry Barlow

I think that it probably would have happened anyway. There was something about this particular connection that would have overridden any of the surrounding noise in the data. I mean, I felt like I had finally met another member of my tribe and felt that before I said anything to her or she said anything to me.

Ira Glass

What happened with her finally?

John Perry Barlow

Well, what happened was we had both had the flu. And she was a young woman, I mean, quite a bit younger than me. And very healthy-- took extremely good care of herself. Athletic and-- but we both had the flu, and it had been a real nasty flu. And it had us both kind of hitting on maybe five out of eight for close to a month.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

John Perry Barlow

And I had gone out to Los Angeles to give a speech. And Tim Leary had gotten some tickets to a Pink Floyd concert at the Rose Bowl. And she was going to come out and join me to go to this Pink Floyd concert with Tim. That all got bollixed up. We ended up going by ourselves, having a very long, complicated evening with a lot of waiting in traffic and looking for a car and whatnot and--

Ira Glass

Going off by yourselves, you and Timothy Leary or you and her?

John Perry Barlow

Cynthia and me.

Ira Glass

OK, yeah.

John Perry Barlow

And over the course of this evening, we decided that even though we had been sort of the opinion that we didn't want to think about the future that much, she said, well, I know that we're not supposed to think about the future. But I think that you and I should have children. And if we're going to do that, I would love to start soon. And if we're going to do that, then we should be married. How do you feel about those things? And I said, fine, sure. No problem.

Anyway, the next day, I had a meeting, and the next day was a Sunday. And I had a red eye back to New York that evening, and Cynthia was going to go on then. And I said, look, you've been sick, and you've got patients tomorrow. Why don't you just take an afternoon flight? And I'll be home to see you before you go off to work. And so she took an afternoon flight, and I took her down to the airport and gave each other a great big kiss. And she said, nothing can keep us apart, baby. We were made for each other.

And she just walked onto the plane and went to sleep, took a nap, and it turned out that the virus that we both had, the flu virus, had attacked her heart and had been chewing away on it for the previous 10 days or so. And it pretty well consumed the pericardium. And so, eventually, it was so compromised that as she was sleeping, she started to fibrillate and just died. And she was two days short of her 30th birthday. And they went to tell her to put her seat belt on coming into JFK. She was dead and had been for a while.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god.

John Perry Barlow

So I mean, this whole episode from the moment I saw her there in the hallway of the ANA to the moment where I watched her walk onto the aircraft was one of the really central passages of my life. And after that, everything was different.

Ira Glass

And smaller.

John Perry Barlow

Well, no, actually, I wouldn't say that. In many ways, not at all, because one of the things that came out of it was that prior to this, I didn't believe in the soul. I mean, I think that within us were two spirits that had all-- I mean, there's really just no way to say this without sounding incredibly sappy. But we were the same soul. And having seen that, that changes everything.

Ira Glass

Now that you had this experience with her, do you find that you have this experience all the time in a smaller forum, where you'll meet a group of strangers, and there'll be one whose eyes strikes you, and you think, OK, I could see a part of this thing?

John Perry Barlow

Absolutely. I mean, I feel an ability to attach on a moment to moment basis that is completely unlike anything that I felt prior to that. And I think it's sometimes a little disconcerting to other people, because it's genuine on my side. And people are not used to having somebody just dock emotionally that instantaneously. For one thing, I feel like I can see their souls. Their souls are visible to me.

One of the things that happened as a consequence of this is that, for a while there, if I had stopped moving, the pain got so bad that I couldn't stand it. So I fell into a lifestyle of continuous motion. And that gradually became an economic adaptation. And now I just simply live on the road pretty much. I mean, I flew 270 some odd thousand miles last year just on one airline.

Ira Glass

God damn. I mean, I'm just hearing you say it. It's like you want to die on a plane, too.

John Perry Barlow

Well, it's a funny thing. No, I'm not particularly interested in dying on a plane. But I mean, that's kind of like, I really feel like the stratosphere is my church.

Ira Glass

That's where you feel like you can contact her.

John Perry Barlow

Well, kind of. I mean, I feel there's something about being up there that makes me feel like I'm closer to her, yeah.

Ira Glass

No, I totally understand that, because it's the last place where she was.

John Perry Barlow

Yeah, but it's more than that. I mean, last night, I was flying here to Salt Lake from New York. And I looked out, and it was just-- I don't know that I believe in heaven or anything quite like that. But I mean, it looked exactly like heaven in the paintings of that period of the late Renaissance when they really started to get light and understand how to do light and clouds.

Ira Glass

Yeah, that really clear kind of blue.

John Perry Barlow

Yeah, exactly.

Ira Glass

They're like pale, clear blue.

John Perry Barlow

There were layers and layers and layers of different colors of clouds. And they were all catching the sunlight in golds and blues. And I thought, well, what a great life it is that puts you in this unbelievably holy environment on such a regular basis.

Ira Glass

For me, that would be the additional thing-- and I wonder if this is for you, too-- that I mean, maybe this is going off now because you fly so much. But I mean, every time I would get on a plane, I would just think, OK, this is her setting. You know what I mean? It's like, this is where I left her. And she could be in any one of these seats. And it would be very hard for me to not be picturing her in one of those seats and just sleeping.

John Perry Barlow

Yeah, no, I mean, she's there.

Ira Glass

Even now. Even just--

John Perry Barlow

Oh, sure, yeah. No, I mean, as I say, it's not something that goes away, as far as I can tell. It's a permanent fixture. And that's OK. I mean, I'm glad to have it. But anyway, it was a hell of a convention, you know? I mean, I'm sure glad I went to that Steve Jobs celebrity roast.

Ira Glass

John Perry Barlow. I am so sorry to say that he died back in 2018.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's program was produced back in the 1990s by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, senior editor for today's show, Paul Tough, contributing editors, Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, and consiliere Sarah Vowell. Additional production help on today's rerun from Stowe Nelson, Ari Saperstein, and Matt Tierney. John Conners, who you heard in Act One going to the Dark Shadows convention, is in the band Bric Brac. You can find them on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you get your music.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Torey, just, why don't you say it?

John Connors

No, I don't want to say it any louder. I don't want to say it any louder. No, I don't want to say it. It's OK. I've said it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

John Connors

Dark Shadows lives!

[MUSIC - "BLACK-THROATED WIND" BY GRATEFUL DEAD]

Ira Glass

Next week on the podcast of This American Life, for lots of us, when we try to describe our siblings to people, we have a story we tell to illustrate what they're like. And Emanuele's sister has a story like that about her.

Sister

It's not that flattering.

Emanuele Berry

It's not that flattering?

Sister

No, I mean, it's just-- it was just the time that you punched me in the eye. You were like--

Ira Glass

Sisters and the very particular things that happen between them. Next week on the podcast or on your local public radio station.