This American Life in my life…

When I’d just gotten out of the Marine Corps, I got a factory job making sheet plastic. I spent the entire day watching molten plastic come out of an extruder in a column, and it rose up into a tower to cool, was folded by a set of molds, and then it came down, ran over a razor blade that opened the sheet and wrapped itself around a cardboard tube on a spindle machine.

It was not a good workplace. There was constantly carbon in the air from the melting plastic pellets. I almost got my arm caught in the machine several times. There were open circuit boxes with live wires hanging out. Some parts of the warehouse floor were actually caving in. For six bucks and hour I’d work 12-18 hour shifts, standing up, with two or three 10-minute breaks, and nothing but the sounds of the machines and the pneumatic system and idle conversation with my supervisor. Every so often, a buzzer would go off and I’d have to cut the plastic and start a new tube, take of the old roll, weigh it and write down the weight, dump the roll in a box, pull off some wet packing tape and seal the box, stick a label on it and stack it symmetrically on a wooden palette, make a new box and then turn back to repeat the process. If the plastic were thin, the whole thing would go FAST, and sometimes it was tough to keep up. I must have cut thousands of roles, and packed them, and sometimes I’ll still dream about it.

We had a beat-up stereo, the antenna of which I rigged with a length of wire and attached to the cooling tower, boosting the reception a bit. I used to float back and forth between WNCW in Spindale, NC, probably the best NPR station I’ve ever heard, and the local NPR affiliates around Anderson, SC. One Sunday, when the place was particularly quiet, I heard a show entitled Fiasco, with stories about a disastrous performance of Peter Pan, a badly planned corporate plot to pour boiling oil on invading Visigoths and intra-NPR conflict over car-talk programs. I laughed so hard that I lost track of the roller machine and had to cut the next roll almost a foot from the ground and get it over the new tube without breaking my fingers.

I found out the show was called This American Life, and after that I was hooked. It was a sort of story-journalism; each episode had a theme and the show would have several stories on that theme. I never missed it until, the next spring, I took off for a six-month hike on the Appalachian Trail and, as happens in life, time passed.

Three years later I’d finished my hike, worked a winter in Vermont and gone around the world on another six-month trip. I was so in debt from that latter that I worked 80-hour weeks at an inn in Vermont, with one day off (maybe) where I’d volunteer at a rock-climbing gym in Rutland. When winter ended and we were laid off, I had about two months of no work before I could go back to the inn as a gardener, and being that I was in so much debt I had to live on pasta and tomato paste and do NOTHING, except go to the rock-climbing gym and volunteer in the hopes that there’d be free pizza. The only splurge I allowed was a dial-up internet connection, where I almost exclusively listened to NPR, and I discovered that the three years of “This American Life” I’d missed were available for free on the internet. Other than the rock-climbing gym, that’s all I did.

I’ve been addicted to it ever since. I estimate that, if I were to stack up the hours I’ve spent with TAL in the background, I’ve devoted at least a month of my life listening to it, which is quite a bit if you think about it. I’ve heard almost every show, many of them several times. My favorites are the ones where the entire hour is devoted to a single topic, although there are many good stories on the multiple episodes, too.

In homage to all the lonely hours TAL’s stories filled, a list of my favorites…

  • Christmas and Commerce – David Sedaris’s describes working as an elf in Macy’s during Christmas
  • Dawn – Jack Hitt tells the story of the American south, of a man who became a woman and did voodoo
  • Harold – One of the best, the story of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor
  • Pray – Alix Spiegel goes to Colorado Springs, home of an American evangelical awakening, and finds it “medieval”
  • Niagara – A whole hour of melancholy stories about Niagara Falls
  • A Teenager’s Guide to God – Following a Christian youth group on a mission
  • 24 Hours at the Golden Apple – 24 hours at a popular diner in Chicago. Surprising depth.
  • Them – Act 3, Newfies, about two GI’s during WWII who end up in the German army.
  • House on Loon Lake – Spooky
  • Before and After – Before and after the September 11 attacks
  • Act V – Prisoners perform Hamlet
  • Teenage Embed Part II – Hyder Akbar follows his father to Afghanistan and keeps a record of his travels
  • Starting from Scratch – Acts I and II, about the Puppy Channel and Vegas Joe respectively, are great stories
  • Heretics – Carlton Pearson, an evangelical minister, stops believing in hell and loses everything
  • What’s in a Number? – 2006 Edition – John Hopkins University study estimates 650,000 civilian deaths in Iraq
  • After the Flood – Stories from post Katrina New Orleans
  • Godless America – Self explanatory
  • Habeas Schmabeas 2007 – Show about the Bush Administration’s effort to dismantle the right of Habeas Corpus

Hope you enjoy

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