Broken Window

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Melissa Lee:
My name is Melisa Lee and originally I’m from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

[THIS IS A SMALL TOWN, I SUPPOSE YOU HAVE TO MAKE YOUR OWN FUN.]

[EVERYBODY MAKES THEIR OWN FUN. IF YOU DON’T MAKE IT YOURSELF, IT AIN’T FUN. IT’S ENTERTAINMENT.]

Melissa Lee:
I guess the big activity would be walking downtown after school and you could hang out by the wall and watch people that you knew go by.

Roman Mars:
So not a lot going on in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Melissa Lee:
It’s about two square miles but it’s right outside New York City. So it’s sort of like you know there’s a lot out there to do but there’s not actually a lot to do right where I was.

Roman Mars:
Besides people watching, Melissa and her friends would also collect geodes.

Melissa Lee:
We did collect geodes, yes.

Roman Mars:
You know about geodes, right?

Melissa Lee:
Break your own geodes.

Roman Mars:
The rocks are brown and lumpy on the outside but when you smash them apart….

Melissa Lee:
Inside would be some crystalline structures. And you have no idea from the outside what you’re getting, so you kind of take a chance on it, that inside you’ve got something great.

Roman Mars:
Usually, Melissa and her friend Liz would buy a few geodes at the store downtown and take them home and smash them apart with a hammer. But one day, when Melissa was thirteen…..

Melissa Lee:
We were too impatient. We just want to know what was inside. There was a parking lot nearby and it was an apartment building, and we decided to just throw it against the side of the wall as hard as we could and hope that it would crack open that way. And I think that was the first time that we had tried to open them that way without a hammer. Just by throwing it. So I threw mine a few times and finally, it did crack open against the wall. Liz kept throwing hers and it wouldn’t crack open. There’s only one little window in the whole back of this apartment building. My friend Liz kept throwing hers and-

[JUST A BIG EXPANSE OF BRICK.]

Melissa Lee:
And Liz kept throwing hers and it wouldn’t crack open. So I threw mine and we saw it going towards the window and then…

[I MEAN, IT FELT LIKE IT WAS SLOW MOTION.]

Melissa Lee:
Her aim just went wild and I’m kind of like, “Noooooo!” Then the geode went right through the window, breaking the glass and shattering it everywhere. We heard this huge crashing sound. Glass had broken and was now lying all over the parking lot floor and the geode was inside. My first reaction was just pure full-on fear. I hated doing things wrong. I hated getting in trouble and I just got that terrible, sinking, feeling in my stomach, and I just want to get out of there. We were such good kids, I mean this is what we did for fun. We broke open geodes. We never did anything wrong and now we had committed this heinous act. It was sort of like the quintessential wrong thing that kids can do. I mean, I always saw tv shows or read comic books where kids would break a window.

[I GOT IT! I GOT IT!]

[GLASS SHATTERING.]

Melissa Lee:
And then they’re faced with the dilemma, do they go back and tell the guy that they did it or not?

[HEY LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!]

Melissa Lee:
We froze for about ten seconds and then my friend Liz ran forward. She reached into the broken glass and grabbed the geode, and we both ran. After initially running, some sort of moral compass started up and we realized that we had to go back and we had to find this person and tell them what we did.

Roman Mars:
Melissa and Liz went back to the apartment building.

Melissa Lee:
And we tried to figure out where the window led to but when we went around to the front, it was very confusing which door might lead to that window. So we knocked in a few doors. Everyone whose door we knocked on said it wasn’t their window. You know, we probably did that for ten minutes and then I think we were like, “Well, I think we did all that we can do,” and we were probably really glad that we tried but we weren’t able to find out whose window it was in the end.

Roman Mars:
Still feeling guilty Melissa avoided downtown and ‘the window’ for a couple of months. Which wasn’t easy in a small town.

Melissa Lee:
I thought that we would just go about our business and somebody would fix the window. And I would never have to think about it again.

Roman Mars:
But when Melissa finally did go back to the window, it was still broken.

Melissa Lee:
Like a cartoon. Just like a jagged edge hole that was sitting there. Even the glass shards that had fallen into the parking lot were still lying there. It was pretty much in pristine condition from the day that we had broken it until months and months later. It stayed almost exactly the same.

Roman Mars:
But it was clear that the apartment was occupied.

Melissa Lee:
Actually, we could see a tv on inside sometimes, so we knew somebody did live there. And sometimes the window would be raised up or lowered down. So someone was moving this window around but the hole was always still in it. We just could not even imagine who this person was that wasn’t doing anything to fix this window. They weren’t even putting tape over it. And we’d even go by in the winter and see that the hole was still there.

Roman Mars:
The window stayed broken as Melissa finished middle school and finished high school….

Melissa Lee:
It just hadn’t gone away like I wanted it too.

Roman Mars:
They went away to college….

Melissa Lee:
And I was shocked to find that it was still broken, even after I’d left town.

Roman Mars:
And this became the pattern for Melissa. She’d go away, do some growing up, but when she came home she’d see that window and feel exactly like the thirteen-year-old kid she was when she broke the window.

Melissa Lee:
When I think about thirteen that’s like my most awkward, horrible age. The sight of this window would just bring me right back the feeling like a middle schooler again.

Roman Mars:
Melissa is 36 now. Think about the milestones you pass between 13 and 36.

Melissa Lee:
I went away to college for four years and by the end of that, I felt pretty grown-up…

Roman Mars:
Came home, saw the window, felt like a thirteen-year-old.

Melissa Lee:
And then after that, I’ve traveled the world for nine months…

Roman Mars:
Came home, saw the window, felt like a thirteen-year-old.

Melissa Lee:
I went to graduate school.

Roman Mars:
Came home….

Melissa Lee:
I moved to Washington, DC…

Roman Mars:
Saw the window…

Melissa Lee:
I got married…

Roman Mars:
You get the idea.

Melissa Lee:
As much as I was changing, this part of my past was completely frozen. As soon as I saw the window, I was just brought right back to those middle school days when we had broken it.

Roman Mars:
So in 2011…

Melissa Lee:
When I’m about 35 years old….

Roman Mars:
22 years after she and her friend broke the window.

Melissa Lee:
I decided to find out, once and for all, whose window it is and apologize. And I guess, offer to pay for it as well. Now I’m recording this time for real.

Melissa’s Sister:
“I don’t want to be mean to you.“

Melissa Lee:
So I go downtown with my sister accompanying me for courage. The hole is still there in the window and my heart is beating so fast.

Melissa (on tape):
“Should I just say, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to upset you. I just believe that I know who broke the window. “

Melissa’s Sister:
“He’s right there.”

Melissa Lee:
“Okay.”

Melissa Lee:
And I very very nervously blurt out, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to bother you. I’m just trying to actually make amends for…. um… I think that years ago, I’m not sure but I think my friend and I broke that window and so I kind of just wanted to make amends for it.”

Male Owner:
“You broke it?”

Melissa Lee:
“I think so.”

Male Owner:
“And you’re telling me now?”

Melissa Lee:
“Well, I actually tried to find you at the time and I couldn’t find you. And then twenty years later I came back to my hometown that I had left. I haven’t been back since then, and basically, that’s what happened. So I just wanted to kind of find out, you know whose it was.”

Male Owner:
“Hi. How you doing?”

Female Passerby:
“Hi. How are you?”

Male Owner:
“Good. She just said she’s been looking for me 20 years and she just said she found me! You believe it?”

[LAUGHTER]

Male Owner:
“For 20 years!”

[LAUGHTER]

Melissa Lee:
“Well, I left town for a while….”

Melissa Lee:
But he didn’t want to talk to me. He thought it was amusing that I was now fessing up, and when I offered to pay for it he said….

Male Owner:
“Nah. Don’t worry about it.”

Melissa Lee:
“No…? I’m surprised.”

Male Owner:
“It’s been like that for so long.”

Melissa Lee:
“I know.”

Male Owner:
“Everybody likes it.”

Melissa Lee:
“Why did you just decide to leave it like that? Get a nice breeze in the back there?”

Male Owner:
“The landlord had never fixed it.”

Melissa Lee:
“The landlord had never fixed it.”

Male Owner:
“He never did. Well, he looked for the person that did it.”

Melissa Lee:
And when I offered to pay for it he said no, that he’d gotten used to it. He just left it.

Male Owner:
“I grew with that broken window you did. In fact, I love it.”

[MELISSA LAUGHS]

Male Owner:
“I wouldn’t get a fix for nothing.”

Melissa Lee:
“Anyway, I’m sorry but I’m glad that you’ve come to like the broken window. My name is Melissa, by the way.”

Male Owner:
“Okay. Good luck.”

Melissa Lee:
“Thank you. It was nice to meet you after all these years. I’ve wondered about it.”

Roman Mars:
That’s kind of an understatement.

Melissa Lee:
Whatever it was that was keeping me stuck in middle school there was sort of keeping him stuck with this broken window. And he just was content to live with it.

Roman Mars:
The broken windows theory proposed in 1982, says that a seemingly small act of vandalism, if it goes unfixed, can precipitate further vandalism and even more serious crime. That really didn’t happen here, except for Melissa’s life on the lam for twenty years. But the broken window did weigh on Melissa and I’m guessing that it affected the man in the apartment more than he’s letting on. And a random passerby, less so. And Hastings-on-Hudson, New York shouldered on without missing a beat. Architecture is personal. The strangest part of our interaction with the built environment is what can be so evocative and meaningful for you, can mean absolutely nothing to someone else.

Melissa Lee:
This time when I was in town, I just didn’t really even… I think I was even in town for a few days before I even thought about the window. I didn’t really even wonder about it very much. And then, in the end, I didn’t even go down and look.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. This episode was brought to you in part by Shutterstock.com where you’ll find over 20 million stock photos, vectors, illustrations, and video clips. Start your search at Shutterstock.com to find the perfect image for your website publication or any other creative project and when you find the images you like and decide to purchase, use the offer code “Invisible11” and get 30% off any package. That’s Shutterstock.com and use the code “Invisible11”. Support is also provided by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. Science-boy Carver Mars always has something to say. What do you have to say, Carver?

Carver Mars:
“Tree frogs. They’re called tree frogs because they climb in trees. They also have little balls on the ends of their fingers that stick to the trees so that they can climb up.”

Roman Mars:
Tinyletter.com, it’s free, easy, minimal, and powerful. The simplest way to send an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and “like” the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars but this week, you have to see the original by Emile Holmewood from “The Caravan” illustrating this story that you just heard. It just makes me so happy. Check it out at 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Rob

    That’s why you’re supposed to leave a note. Saves you the grief and guilt, and then you can actually make good on repairing the damage.

  2. AaronW

    LOL… Hastings On Hudson… “upstate” New York? Really? It’s about six miles from Riverdale, in the Bronx…

  3. SteveD

    I should get some kind of Most Delayed Comment award.

    But AaronW’s comment got me thinking about geographic areas as neighborhoods, in the sense that no matter how small an area you select, there will always be sub-areas that distinguish (discriminate?) among themselves.

    I grew up in Madison County, near the middle of the state of New York, and when I was young and heard people talk about “upstate” I assumed they meant the Adirondacks; or at least, the part of the state North of I-90. We called our “neighborhood” Central New York. As I grew older and met people from other parts of the state, I realized how much variation there was in the term Upstate. As AaronW points out, for many people in the New York City metro area, anything North of the Bronx (or maybe Yonkers :) is Upstate.

    While it’s true that New York is a large state, and extremely varied in geography and demographics, I suspect that states and regions of all sizes subdivide themselves in this way, indicating through language which sub-region is “us” and which is “those other guys”. I lived for several years in Rhode Island, and found that even in that very small state there were many sub-regions with their own subcultures (and even accents), distinguishing between coastal and inland areas, Providence and Not Providence, East (Narragansett) Bay and West Bay, etc.

    In the end, no area is all that homogeneous if you look (and listen) carefully, most dividing lines are more or less arbitrary.

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