Mini Stories: Volume 6

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

Roman Mars:
This is Part Two. The 2018/2019 mini-stories episodes where I interview the staff about their favorite little design stories, and stories about the built world that don’t quite fill out an entire episode for whatever reason, but they are quintessential 99pi stories nonetheless.

Roman Mars:
We have stolen artifacts, mythical alleys, detached U.S. territories; machines that bring joy to people’s lives and a 50-foot, screaming monster that we will burn to the ground. If you are ever in need of a conversation-starter, the mini-stories are our gift to you. Stay with us.

Roman Mars:
Up first, producer Joe Rosenberg.

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay. Roman, imagine you’re watching a TV show set in New York, and let’s say it’s one of those buddy-cop comedies where they pair the rookie with the grizzled veteran.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
And it opens, let’s say, on a foot chase. You know?

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Rosenberg:
They’re closing in on their suspects, streets of Manhattan are whizzing by… Let me ask you: nine times out of 10, if the suspect ducks around a corner to get away from them, he usually ducks into a… What?

Roman Mars:
An alley. Is that what you’re looking for?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yes! Okay, yeah, I’m kind of leading you on.

Roman Mars:
Okay, okay, okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
You are correct. Yeah, and now, imagine another episode, same television show. The rookie cop is woken in the middle of the night because there’s a fresh body. There’s been a murder, they need him at the crime scene. Now picture the crime scene, the police tape, chalk outline.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. Sure.

Joe Rosenberg:
Where is this crime scene?

Roman Mars:
That is definitely in an alley.

Joe Rosenberg:
Correct! Yes. Again. And now, imagine… Humor me, just to complete the rule of three.

Joe Rosenberg:
In another episode, the grizzled cop breaks up a drug deal. It’s going to be-

Roman Mars:
In an alley, definitely.

Joe Rosenberg:
In the alley. Right. And that’s just for a television crime procedural. I mean, imagine, say, all the roles an alley might play in a movie set in a New York restaurant.

Roman Mars:
Sure, like if you’re a restaurant worker or a dishwasher, or you’re taking out the trash in the back alley.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
You’re having a secret rendezvous in the back alley, totally. An alley is where things happen.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, exactly. It’s all alley everything. But the point is that regardless of what’s happening in the film or the television show, all of these alley scenes help sell audiences on the same idea of New York, that New York is a city of 10,000 alleys.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Joe Rosenberg:
Each with its own secret history.

Joe Rosenberg:
There’s just one tiny problem with this, which is that there are no alleys in New York.

Roman Mars:
That can’t be true!

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s hard to wrap your mind around, because we’ve all been raised on this myth that New York has alleys. And there are some in the outer boroughs, but if you’ve spent time in Manhattan and you really search your memory, you will not remember passing by an alley.

Roman Mars:
Huh. (contemplative)

Joe Rosenberg:
At least, not a classic alley that leads between two streets, has the fire escape. Usually, maybe, at best, if there’s a glorified loading dock or something like that.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. I can’t specifically remember one, you’re right. That seems amazing to me.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. But proper alleys, they’re just not there.

Roman Mars:
So, why do I think there is, and then, why aren’t there? I guess is the question. Which is the right question?

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, right. First, why aren’t there? And this is because when the city planners laid out the grid for Manhattan north of Houston Street in 1811, something called The Commissioners’ Plan, they purposefully did not include alleys. They figured that they didn’t need alleys, because they thought the high frequency of the east-west streets, which are much closer together to each other than the north-south streets, kind of obviated the need for shortcuts. Or anything else that might break up their wonderfully perfect grid.

Joe Rosenberg:
But also, and this was probably the real motivation, it was a way to maximize real estate because this way, without any alleys cutting through the blocks, the landowners could squeeze in more housing, and the land was worth more. And after that, almost no alleys were built because, of course, why own an alley when you can own a larger building? So, the result is that today, Manhattan has, at best, a dozen things you might call alleys, but they’re all south of Canal Street in the oldest part of the city that was built before the grid.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s amazing. I mean, now that you mention it, the thing that I notice the most when I’m walking down the streets of New York is the piles and piles of trash, which, when I lived in Chicago, that’s put in the alley. That is not on the street.

Joe Rosenberg:
Chicago is the antithesis. Chicago has something like 2,000 miles of alleys.

Roman Mars:
Right. Totally.

Joe Rosenberg:
And it’s just so key to the idea of that city, but in that case, it’s actually true. But it’s weird. A lot of people don’t put this, two and two, together, including New Yorkers. The myth of the New York alley is so pervasive that even a lot of native New Yorkers have fallen prey to it.

Nick Carr:
One of my favorite things to do is just, I’d always ask people, fellow New Yorkers, I’d just say, “When was the last time you remember saying, ‘Ah, I really got to get somewhere, and the quickest way to get there would be to take the alley shortcut’?”

Nick Carr:
Because it’s not a thing. It’s only when you point it out to them, that they kind of step back and go, “Yeah, that’s right.”

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Nick Carr, and he’s a film location scout who worked in New York for many years on films like War of the Worlds, Wolf of Wall Street, more recently, the new Ghostbusters, the Smurfs movie…

Roman Mars:
I didn’t know that had a Manhattan section.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh, you got to know this. Of course the Smurfs go to New York!

Roman Mars:
Okay!

Joe Rosenberg:
I mean, what else would have happened when your television show’s turned into a movie?

Roman Mars:
It makes sense, yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
Or at least in the sequel, right? Anyways, Nick says that this belief that New York has alleys is the bane of his existence because he’ll tell a director, “You know, New York is not a city of alleys. New York does not have alleys.”

Nick Carr:
But if you were to tell a director that there are no alleys in New York, they’ll look at you like you have two heads, and think that you don’t know how to do your job.

Joe Rosenberg:
Invariably, he reluctantly winds up showing them the dozen or so alleys south of Canal Street.

Nick Carr:
And I would think of the film-able alleys in New York that look like how you want them to look, I’d say it’s five or six.

Joe Rosenberg:
And of those five or six, most of them are either privately-owned, so they’re very expensive to shoot in – or they have other permitting issues, logistical constraints, parking constraints – leaving only this one alley, just south of Canal Street and east of Broadway, in which almost everyone films.

Roman Mars:
And that is Cortlandt Alley, which is just… It is the alley.

Joe Rosenberg:
And Cortlandt, you have to understand this, it’s the alley you’ve been seeing your entire life. You just don’t realize it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Let me show you some photos.

Roman Mars:
It’s got the fire escapes, it’s got loading docks, it’s got bricks and graffiti, and it’s an alley! Really is. It is. It’s the perfect alley. It’s very archetypal.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is the photo. This is the one where I looked at it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
And I was like, “I have totally seen that alley!”

Roman Mars:
Yeah! I’ve seen 300 Law & Order episodes with that alley!

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly. And, yeah, it’s so archetypical to such a degree that if you walked by it, you wouldn’t actually notice it, because it would feel so intensely normal.

Nick Carr:
It’s almost like you’ve been there, you know? Even if you’d never set foot in it, you take it for granted, because you have already been there. So, I’m pretty sure that whenever the first time I walked down that alley, it might as well have been the hundredth time I walked down that alley.

Joe Rosenberg:
But here’s where things get especially weird, because the reason Cortlandt looks like the Platonic ideal of a New York alley is precisely because it’s been used in so many movies.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so, there’s this chicken-and-egg thing that happens where, once a filmmaker who wants to film a quote-unquote “classic New York alley scene” sees Cortlandt, they’re like, “This is perfect!”

Roman Mars:
That’s the one!

Joe Rosenberg:
And it lures them into contributing to this fantasy of New York.

Nick Carr:
Because when a director has a location in mind, he has created the perfect location in his head, and no location you ever find will ever match up to what it is, right? But Cortlandt is what you picture. The director pictures it in his head, and it’s not 80% of the way there; it’s not 90%; it’s 100% of what he had in mind. And that’s because the people, directors, see a version of New York in other movies and TV shows, and then go and want to recreate it when they do their own film in town.

Nick Carr:
The sad truth is that it’s sort of a stereotype that gets perpetuated from movie to movie.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so, now Cortlandt is forever caught in this loop, to the point where it can seem like it’s, all it’s used for is filming by basically everyone, all the time.

Nick Carr:
When I used to drive by, I mean, I swear to God, it was on a weekly basis. The Law & Order series would put a body in the alley every other week, but the thing is, they all did it. They all do it, and still do it. Every, every major crime show, cop show, superhero show, anything that is filmed in New York has filmed in Cortlandt. I would say that with 100% confidence.

Roman Mars:
Even the one alley in Manhattan doesn’t really function as an alley. It’s basically a film set.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly. And just to give you an idea of Hollywood’s… the degree to which it’s treated as a film set, and Hollywood’s zeal in pursuit of the Plutonic New York alley…

Joe Rosenberg:
A story often calls for an alley to be filled with trash. It’s part of the classic concept.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Joe Rosenberg:
Since that’s part of the archetype. But of course, real trash and grime would be hazardous to the cast and crew, so the first thing they do is actually clean the alley, with pressure hoses, to the point where it’s pristine.

Nick Carr:
And then, you buy movie trash, and movie trash is large plastic bags, like trash bags, that are filled with approved logo sort of trash. It’s generic milk bottles and cereal boxes. But I believe each bag of movie trash is about 40 to $60 a bag, so there’s an industry just in making alleys look like alleys.

Joe Rosenberg:
But what especially kind of interests me about all this is that I think with some cities, we don’t really know much about them, so they get to be their own thing. There might be cliches about San Francisco or Chicago, but no one outside of San Francisco truly thinks they know the city.

Roman Mars:
Hmm.

Joe Rosenberg:
But New York, perhaps more than any other city, in some sense, it belongs to everyone. Everyone feels that they know it.

Roman Mars:
Right, because they’ve seen it in a million movies. It is America’s city to so many people, and it is “The City” to so many people, in and of itself.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, and there’s a level of granularity when you talk about Uptown, Downtown.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Joe Rosenberg:
SoHo, Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn. There are more household names, in terms of the geography.

Roman Mars:
Totally. No, that makes sense.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s also kind of like, people think they know it but they don’t. And the result is that, at some point, the idea of New York has overtaken the reality of New York. It kind of takes cultural precedent, even in the minds of a lot of New Yorkers who never realized New York has no alleys.

Nick Carr:
And it’s just sad, because it’s almost like an actor that’s typecast, right? An actor that’s being asked to play the same old role, because, “Hey, you did that one role really, really well back in 1977! So, keep doing it for another 50 years.”

Nick Carr:
And I just think movies are just so much more interesting when you portray the locations featured for what they are, and let them be a real character instead of just a backdrop.

Roman Mars:
At any point in its film history, was it ever named or present as Cortlandt Alley?

Joe Rosenberg:
Almost never. But Nick says Men in Black 3 has a scene where Will Smith is tracking down an alien, and they actually do at least attempt to ID the alley properly.

Agent J:
“Knuckles, you know you’re not supposed to be north of Canal Street!”

Nick Carr:
So, he gets it wrong in that they’re south of Canal Street, but so close! So close.

Roman Mars:
Well, they tried.

Joe Rosenberg:
They did their best. They did their best.

Roman Mars:
I think that’s the most you can ask of Men in Black 3.

Roman Mars:
Well, thanks so much, Joe!

Joe Rosenberg:
Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
This is so cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
This has been a lot of fun.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
Okay, Sean. Composer Sean Real. What’s the story you have today?

Sean Real:
Well, first, I want to ask you a question, Roman. You’ve never done karaoke?

Roman Mars:
I’ve never done karaoke.

Sean Real:
How is that possible?

Roman Mars:
I’ve played the singing parts of Guitar Hero. That’s almost karaoke!

Sean Real:
Almost.

Roman Mars:
But not as performative in a bar with strangers. I’ve never done that.

Sean Real:
Yeah. Doesn’t count.

Roman Mars:
That’s fair.

Sean Real:
I want to tell you about the person who invented the karaoke machine.

Roman Mars:
Oh!

Sean Real:
His name is Daisuke Inoue, and as you can imagine, he loves music.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Sean Real:
I read this interview with him, and I found out that he started working as a drummer when he was still a teenager in high school, and after he graduated, he was perpetually in a traveling band that did cabaret music for nine years. And I think that’s a really big achievement, but in his interview, he likes to kind of talk smack on himself.

Sean Real:
He says, “One night, I realized that no matter how much I practice, I could never be as good as someone with God-given talent.”

Roman Mars:
Oh.

Sean Real:
“And that was enough to change my life as a band man. And after nine years on the road, many tales and no regrets, I went home.”

Sean Real:
I don’t know. It seemed like it was more than just his musicianship that took him out of road life. It seems like he wasn’t really compensated fairly all the time, and people he was working with, they partied a lot and they were drinking all their money away. So, he was 28 and living with his parents in Kobe, Japan after all that.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sean Real:
And so, 1968, karaoke is kind of already a social activity, but it’s done with live instruments. There are bars where you have a musician playing a single guitar or a keyboard or something, and people singing along to the hits.

Sean Real:
This was one of Daisuke’s regular gigs when he was living there with his parents, and he says…

Roman Mars:
Playing the drums?

Sean Real:
Oh, no, he learned how to play keyboard.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay.

Sean Real:
Yeah. He says that he taught himself 300 songs, which, once again, is just like, a humble-brag because then, he goes onto say that… “But every time I tried to learn more than 300 songs, I just would forget them, or I would start mixing them up…”

Roman Mars:
Wow. So, yeah, Daisuke is pretty down on himself.

Sean Real:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Poor guy. Okay.

Sean Real:
Yeah. I find it really charming.

Sean Real:
So, he’s working at these karaoke bars, and he’s got a bunch of regular karaoke singers. There was this one businessman who would always sing with him who kind of changed everything. This businessman was about to travel for work, and he wanted to be able to sing for his colleagues on the trip.

Sean Real:
And Daisuke recalls the businessman saying to him, “Your keyboard-playing is the only music I can sing to. You know how my voice is, and you know what it needs to sound good.” And Daisuke couldn’t take time off work, so he taped himself playing some of this guy’s favorite songs.

Roman Mars:
Hmm.

Sean Real:
And it worked! The guy was happy, Daisuke got paid, and… I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Sean Real:
After his success with this businessman, Daisuke, in 1971, commissioned a friend to build a machine out of three existing machines: an amplifier, a coin box, and an eight-track car stereo. And he called it the Juke 8.

Sean Real:
So, 100 yen, you’d put in 100 yen, and the machine would turn on for five minutes. You could put on a tape of instrumental music and sing through a microphone, and Roman, I want you to see one of these machines. They’re really beautiful.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay.

Sean Real:
If you just go into Slack…

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow! It really is beautiful.

Sean Real:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
It’s a cabinet, it’s red and white, it has great little analog knobs, and a place for the eight-track cassette, what I would call a cart machine in the radio business that you press in there. And then, a little red cabinet on the right that stores a little library of eight-track tapes. It’s lovely. Is that him smiling right next to it?

Sean Real:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, what a delightful looking man!

Sean Real:
Yeah. In every picture, he’s smiling like that.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love it. The music on these first eight-track tapes, were they the ones that… Did he composed those, or how did he get the music for those?

Sean Real:
They were popular songs, and Daisuke recorded them with his band. Actually, I guess, he recorded his band playing the songs. He says that early on in the process, they fired him from playing.

Roman Mars:
So, he… again, poor Daisuke!

Sean Real:
Poor guy.

Sean Real:
So, he just focused on recording and mixing the music, which is a really important part.

Roman Mars:
Oh, totally! Totally. Yeah, if it doesn’t get recorded, no karaoke machine.

Sean Real:
Yeah! Ugh, yeah, recording and mixing. Thank you, Sharif. Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Totally. Sharif does the really best job with it, for sure.

Sean Real:
Yeah. And it’s funny to me because, even though Daisuke was fired from his own band, he was a real hustler. He got bars all over Kobe to lease these machines from him. He got contracts with major record labels to use all these popular songs…

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sean Real:
But he didn’t patent the machine…

Roman Mars:
Oh, no!

Sean Real:
Yeah. He says, “When I first made the Juke 8’s, a brother-in-law suggested I take out a patent. But at the time, I didn’t think anything would come of it. I was just hoping the drinking places in the Kobe area would use my machine. Most people don’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t think karaoke would have taken off like it did if there had been a patent on the first machine.”

Roman Mars:
I think that’s actually a pretty fair assessment, honestly.

Sean Real:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
You know? It’s a really nice and joyful thing. Even though I’ve never participated in it, it’s a nice and joyful thing.

Sean Real:
A lot of people think so, yeah.

Roman Mars:
And this machine is really, really lovely, and it’s actually nice to think of it as it just existing in the world to make the world better, and not necessarily to make him money.

Sean Real:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. It does make some people money. This other person did take out a patent on a laser disc karaoke machine.

Roman Mars:
Oh… Oh, God.

Sean Real:
But he’s not part of this story.

Roman Mars:
No. God, no. Let’s write him out of history.

Sean Real:
Yeah. And then, Daisuke goes on, “Besides, I didn’t build the thing from scratch. The amp, the microphone, the eight-track player, even the 100-yen box machine all had patents on them.”

Roman Mars:
Yeah, but that’s not how patents work. He could have totally gotten a patent for it.

Sean Real:
You think so?

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Sean Real:
Yeah, I don’t know anything about patent law, especially Japanese patent law.

Roman Mars:
Well, I don’t know about Japanese patent law, and I actually am no expert of US patent law, but if you come up with a new use for even a known thing, and prescribed that use inside of the patent… It doesn’t have to be three machines. It could be one machine to do a certain thing, as long as you change a little bit something and change its purpose. So, he totally had the right to a patent, for sure.

Sean Real:
So, this is just more of him talking smack on himself!

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sean Real:
But yeah, what I really love about this story on a whole is that he seems pretty okay with how all of this turned out.

Roman Mars:
Good.

Sean Real:
He talks a lot about how glad he is that this brought so much joy into the world.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sean Real:
And he says, “I may not have the original patent. Some say I would have made 80 million dollars last year, and that was a bad year. But I have good friends and a family I love, and I can’t help but smile every day.”

Roman Mars:
Aw. Do you have a thing to sum up, or is that it?

Sean Real:
Yeah, I guess the last thing was. I just wanted to say that Daisuke says that to honor karaoke, he and his wife and daughter and three granddaughters get out a songbook once a week and see who can sing the most songs before going hoarse. Which sounds crazy.

Roman Mars:
That is so crazy!

Sean Real:
That’s way harder than I want to party. And, yeah. There’s more to his story, but I think it’s better told from him, so we’ll put a link to that on our website.

Roman Mars:
Nice. All right, thanks.

Sean Real:
Yeah. And we should totally go karaoke-ing some time.

Roman Mars:
Oh, totally. I think we could make that happen. Thanks.

Sean Real:
Thanks, Roman.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
About a year ago, our senior editor, Delaney Hall, moved from beautiful downtown Oakland, California back to New Mexico, where she grew up. She now works for 99pi remotely, and her mini-story is about this phenomenon in the new city where she lives, which is Santa Fe.

Roman Mars:
The phenomenon is called Zozobra.

Delaney Hall:
Zozobra is a big deal here in Santa Fe. Basically, every year, a group of people in the city build this enormous marionette that’s named Zozobra. And in Spanish, “zozobra” means anxiety. So, he’s all of the city’s collective sorrows embodied in this huge puppet.

Roman Mars:
Wow! That’s amazing. So, what does he look like?

Delaney Hall:
Well, he’s 50 feet tall. He is dressed in a long, white gown. He has these very dark, angry eyes, they’re usually rimmed with green or black. And what happens is that every fall, this group constructs a new Zozobra and about 50,000 people gather in one of Santa Fe’s biggest parks, and they burn him.

Roman Mars:
Wow! They burn him! A 50-foot puppet!

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a very intense kind of Pagan-feeling event. I mean, basically, the crowd chants, “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” And he’s set on fire, and he is slowly engulfed in flames.

Roman Mars:
And I assume they burn him so that they can burn their collective anxiety that he represents.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, yeah, exactly! Because he represents gloom, it’s this way that the city purges its sadness every year. And people get to participate in these interesting ways, and one of the reasons Zozobra is so flammable is that he is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper. And where that paper comes from is in the weeks leading up to the burning, anyone with an excess of gloom is encouraged to sort of write down their gloomy thoughts on a piece of paper, and to leave it in this thing called The Gloom Box. Which, at least in the past, has been located in the offices of one of the local newspapers.

Delaney Hall:
So, people contribute police reports and mortgage documents and divorce papers. I mean, just anything they might want to burn.

Roman Mars:
It reminds me of other sort of bonfire rituals, like Burning Man or something, which a lot of people go to around here.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. I mean, Zozobra’s been around a lot longer than Burning Man. It’s been around since the 1920’s. But there are definitely some similarities. Both were developed by artists. Both events began relatively small, like in someone’s backyard or on a beach, and then grew into something much bigger. And both actually draw on other traditions that go back even farther.

Delaney Hall:
But one thing that’s pretty neat about Zozobra is that because he’s a puppet, he’s capable of kind of rudimentary movement, so his arms swing around, his jaw is hinged, his mouth opens and closes. And he also makes sound. So, I’m going to play a little bit of sound of the event so you can hear it.

Zozobra:
(groaning sounds)

Roman Mars:
And I assume he’s flailing at the same time.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah! He’s flailing, his mouth is opening and closing… It’s actually a really troubling event to go to as a kid. It’s sort of seared into my memory. But this is actually the thing I most want to tell you about, because I recently learned, just in the past year or so, that the voice of Zozobra is performed live, and there is one guy who’s been doing the voice for about 20 years. And I learned this thanks to this gem of local reporting from KOET Action 7 News.

Michael Ellis:
Me, I see him as an old, grumpy old man. And that’s the character that I get into.

News Reporter:
This is the Zozobra you know.

Michael Ellis:
They want to get rid of him. They want to destroy him. They want to burn him, and the way I play the character is, I’m fighting to stay alive.

Zozobra:
(roaring & groaning)

News Reporter:
On Friday, Michael Ellis will take on the persona of our collective sorrow for the 19th time. And despite the title of Old Man Gloom, Zozobra’s voice battles several emotions.

Michael Ellis:
There are times when he’ll sound like he’s crying.

Zozobra:
(moaning)

Michael Ellis:
Protesting.

Zozobra:
(roaring)

Michael Ellis:
Adamant! “I’m not going to let you do this to me again!”

Zozobra:
(groaning)

News Reporter:
Ellis says the audience of 50,000 should always know what Zozobra is feeling.

Michael Ellis:
Not only do I want the crowd to hear him, I want them to feel it.

News Reporter:
And even after 19 years, for Ellis, the big night is always exciting.

Michael Ellis:
I’ll sit down and have a sandwich in the early afternoon. After that, I’ve got butterflies, and I won’t have anything until after it’s all over.

News Reporter:
On Friday night, those butterflies join all of New Mexico’s gloom up in smoke.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, I just, I love this news clip so much. I think it’s one of my favorites ever, and it’s the combination of the reporter’s seriousness or maybe mock-seriousness, and then just the sublime ridiculousness of what you’re seeing. Which, of course, people can’t see it, but to describe it. It’s Michael Ellis, the voice of Zozobra, performing the sounds of Zozobra but to this big, empty baseball field.

Delaney Hall:
Which, you know, probably later in the night will be filled with 50,000, 60,000 screaming people, but at the moment, is just entirely empty. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so good. So, you get a little taste of what Michael Ellis is about, but what is he really like?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. This was the only thing I could find on the internet about him. And from seeing this clip, I definitely wanted to learn more, so I looked him up and went to talk with him. And what I learned is that he was born and raised in Santa Fe, and… So Michael told me that as a kid, Zozobra was this figure, this monster, who almost seemed real, like, actually alive. And that sense of realness was this thing that the community continues to really play into and cultivate.

Michael Ellis:
Growing up, I remember there would be little stories in the newspaper talking about how Zozobra’s been spotted in the arroyos in the east side of town, and you would hear stories of sheep being missing from the area. Little things like that that play into trying to make this thing seem real.

Roman Mars:
And so, from there, how did Michael actually become the voice of Zozobra?

Delaney Hall:
As a high schooler, he started volunteering for the event. He would help with building the puppet, stuff like that, and he just kept being involved a little more each year. And eventually, he was asked if he wanted to help with the voice. It was just sort of a matter of hanging around for long enough, I guess.

Roman Mars:
Did Michael do it any differently? Did he add something special to the voice when he took over?

Delaney Hall:
Michael didn’t have any formal voice acting experience. He’s done various jobs throughout his life, including working at Lowe’s Hardware, and running a DJ business. But he told me that the main thing he wanted to bring to Zozobra was that sense of realness, the kind of aliveness that I was talking about earlier. And to do that, he said he had to find ways to really empathize with Zozobra – this grumpy old man – and to see the whole event unfolding from his perspective.

Michael Ellis:
Knowing that everybody wants his demise, they want to see it happen, so I do my best to try to fight, with just, you know, with my voice. And there are times when it’ll almost sound like he’s crying.

Zozobra:
(crying)

Michael Ellis:
When he begins to realize that there isn’t anything he’s going to be able to do to stop it.

Delaney Hall:
Of course, in our conversation, I was pushing to try to understand, is there some deep, gloomy memory or experience that Michael taps into in order to perform? I asked him about his personal history. I asked him about some health problems he’s had recently. But he said, you know, not really.

Michael Ellis:
It just comes when it’s needed.

Delaney Hall:
You’ve just got the readily accessible grumpy old man, right there.

Michael Ellis:
I guess. Maybe there’s a little bit of that deep inside.

Delaney Hall:
That’s the voice of Zozobra, and I really like thinking about the fact that, when I went to see Zozobra burn back in the ’80s, it was Michael performing the voice. And if I take Fiona, my daughter, next year, that it will probably be Michael again.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
Up next is our technical producer, Sharif Youssef.

Sharif Youssef:
Do we just go?

Roman Mars:
We’re rolling, so…

Sharif Youssef:
Okay!

Roman Mars:
Whatever you want to do.

Sharif Youssef:
All right. Roman, if I told you that I had another map story, how excited would you be?

Roman Mars:
Very excited!

Sharif Youssef:
Okay, cool.

Roman Mars:
I love a good map story.

Sharif Youssef:
Oh, I know. Maybe if you could just go to Google Maps real quick. The main thing we’re going to be looking at today is the border between the U.S. and Canada. And pardon my sibilants, I have some dental work.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
You’re excused.

Sharif Youssef:
Thank you. And the thing that you need to pay attention to is the 49th parallel in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Sharif Youssef:
Important thing that-

Roman Mars:
You mean here?

Sharif Youssef:
Okay, yeah. And you can probably, maybe now, can notice a little something that looks off.

Roman Mars:
Are you talking about Point Roberts? That sticks out right here.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yes.

Sharif Youssef:
Point Roberts, on that little peninsula.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
Tsawwassen Peninsula. Maybe you can just sort of describe what you’re seeing there.

Roman Mars:
So, Point Roberts is off a peninsula off of the area of Vancouver. It looks like it is completely cut off from the U.S., except by water. By land, you’d have to get to it through Canada. It’s got a few… some very, very gridded streets.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. A couple.

Roman Mars:
Just a couple! Yeah. It’s kind of like an exclave, but not quite.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. It’s a semi-exclasive space, but it is difficult to get into, so it’s an exclusive exclasive thing. So yeah, Point Roberts is actually in Washington State, part of Watkin County. I first heard about Point Roberts from a podcast called “Stop Podcasting Yourself”, hosted by Dave Shumka and Graham Clark – two Vancouverites – and they are saying that some Vancouverites go there, because it’s only 20 miles away or so, in order to pick up packages because shipping across the border is actually quite expensive. And also, to get cheaper gas.

Sharif Youssef:
It’s also rumored to be the site of a federal witness protection program. Like, where they relocate.

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow.

Sharif Youssef:
And I just happened to be in Seattle a little bit ago, and I also wanted an excuse to go to Vancouver and have you pay for it, so I decided to go… Shall I just play some border crossing, my first border crossing?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, sure.

Sharif Youssef:
All right! This is Peace Arch border from-

Roman Mars:
Washington State into Canada.

Sharif Youssef:
Exactly.

Sharif Youssef:
“Hi.”

Border Agent:
“How’re you doing?”

Sharif Youssef:
“Good, how are you?”

Border Agent:
“Good, thanks. What’s the purpose of your visit?”

Sharif Youssef:
“I’m going to Point Roberts to report a story. That was just a weird little part of America that you have to go through, two border crossings to get to.”

Border Agent:
“Yeah, yeah, it’s unbelievable.”

Sharif Youssef:
“Yeah, yeah. Exactly.”

Roman Mars:
You sound very nervous.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, could you hear my voice crack a little? Yeah. I think there’s an instinct that arises in every Arab when they are crossing a border.

Sharif Youssef:
Also, funny story, the last time I crossed a Canadian border, I was three or four years old going into the American side of Niagara Falls, and the border guard looked in, was like, “Is everyone in this car American?”

Sharif Youssef:
And my dad’s like, “I’m Egyptian, she’s American, and he’s American in the back.”

Sharif Youssef:
And I go, “No! I’m French! I’m being kidnapped!”

Roman Mars:
Oh, my God!

Sharif Youssef:
So, there’s some trauma around the Canadian borders.

Roman Mars:
Oh, God. Oh, my God. Oh, young Sharif!

Sharif Youssef:
I was a little…

Roman Mars:
You were a scamp!

Sharif Youssef:
Yep! Scamp is a much nicer word than I was going to use.

Sharif Youssef:
Okay.

Border Agent:
“Are you making any stops in between?”

Sharif Youssef:
“Not in between, but I’m spending the night in Vancouver tonight.”

Border Agent:
“Okay. You’re good. Have a good time.”

Sharif Youssef:
“Thanks, man!”

Border Agent:
“Bye.”

Roman Mars:
Unscathed.

Sharif Youssef:
Unscathed! Yeah, he was a very nice border-crossing guard. He did ask if I had been arrested, which apparently is a thing. If you’ve been arrested, you have to get special permission to get into Canada if you have a criminal record in the States.

Roman Mars:
Oh.

Sharif Youssef:
So, anyway, it’s another 20 or 30-minute drive to Border Number Two…

Sharif Youssef:
“Welcome to Little America. I just crossed the border into Point Roberts. Scenic Loop Gateway. That sounds like something I would do! I like scenics, loops.”

Sharif Youssef:
And basically, immediately, to my right, after I crossed the border, there’s a place that receives packages. Open 24/7, automated retrieval, vacuum-brewed coffee, parcel services. It seems like there are a lot of places for parcel service…

Sharif Youssef:
And that was the theme throughout the entire time in Point Roberts. Basically, any shop, no matter what it was selling or what it did, they offered to accept packages for you.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
“Uh! It’s good to be back to the familiar land of America. God. The gas is in gallons? Oh, maybe it’s not! Oh, interesting! You measure the gas in liters here, even in America. That’s nuts!”

Roman Mars:
Wow! Liters!

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, liters!

Roman Mars:
So, what else did you find, these little differences besides the liters revelation?

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. There wasn’t much. It wasn’t the most happening spot.

Sharif Youssef:
“Free wood.”

Sharif Youssef:
It’s about five square miles, a population of 1,314 according to the latest U.S. Census in 2010. But in the summertime, it can grow to about three or four times that because a lot of Canadian vacationers come in.

Roman Mars:
Hm.

Sharif Youssef:
I went to the post office.

Sharif Youssef:
“Oh. It’s closed because it’s Saturday. 1:15.”

Roman Mars:
Is there a school system, or…

Sharif Youssef:
I saw that there is one primary school. I believe it goes up to grade three or four. And then, everyone who is older than that has to go across four international borders every school day to go to school in Blaine, Washington.

Roman Mars:
Oh, my God.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. And I grew up in a fairly rural place with long school bus rides, so I very much empathize and feel for you, any Point Roberts school kids who are listening.

Sharif Youssef:
“Driving down this main drag. The biggest little store in Point Roberts. Hey.”

Sharif Youssef:
Eventually, I ran into their restaurant district.

Sharif Youssef:
“Aw, sh*t! It’s called The Reef Tavern? I have to eat there, right?”

Roman Mars:
Reef Tavern is calling to you! That’s what we call you, I don’t know if people know that.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. It was fate. And at The Reef Tavern, I had a wonderful server named Tony, and he was just the absolute sweetest person, and told me about how people from Canada go to that restaurant to get medium rare burgers, because apparently, the health codes in Canada are a little more strict about how… what’s the, I’m bad at meat terms…

Sharif Youssef:
Basically, in Canada, you have to cook it longer, so the real blood connoisseurs go to Point Roberts.

Sharif Youssef:
“I’m a journalist from Oakland, California.”

Tony:
“Huh! I used to live on the East Bay!”

Sharif Youssef:
“Oh, yeah?”

Tony:
“Yeah, I used to live right out-”

Sharif Youssef:
“Whereabouts?”

Tony:
“Right around Lake Merritt.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so cool that you ran into the other Oakland guy.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah! What are the odds?

Sharif Youssef:
And that’s not even the weirdest part. Hold on, let me play you a little something. Get ready to have your mind blown, Roman.

Roman Mars:
I’m prepared.

Restaurant Patron:
“Welcome to Point Roberts, then.”

Sharif Youssef:
“Yeah, thank you.”

Restaurant Patron:
“We’re from downtown Point Roberts right here.”

Tony:
“Beautiful downtown!”

Roman Mars:
Beautiful Downtown Point Roberts! (Chuckles)

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. You guys have the same catchphrase.

Roman Mars:
(Laughs) Oh, my God.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, I don’t understand how the stars of the universe aligned in such a way, but…

Roman Mars:
You were just supposed to go there.

Sharif Youssef:
I know!

Roman Mars:
It sounds like a lovely trip.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Did you ever figure out why the gas was in liters?

Sharif Youssef:
I didn’t do much sleuthing, but my guess is, mainly to market to Canadians.

Roman Mars:
Right, so they know how much gas they’re putting in their cars.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. Exactly. And actually, at The Reef Tavern, I saw two very lovely Canadians named Jason and Lisa. They had come in that very day to pick up a guitar loop pedal from a seller on eBay who didn’t want to ship it across the border.

Roman Mars:
Oh, perfect.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. Here.

Roman Mars:
So, it’s super common, common enough-

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That you would just run across a person who is doing the type of thing that you’re expecting.

Sharif Youssef:
Totally, totally.

Jason:
L”ooking into the town, Lisa saw that the average visitor spends less than 20 minutes. Only five percent of the visitors spend longer than an hour.”

Lisa:
“…Stay longer than an hour, yeah. Anyway, we’ve never been here before and it’s super weird. ”

Sharif Youssef:
“Cool! Thank you guys so much.”

Lisa:
“Yeah!”

Sharif Youssef:
“I’ll give you guys my phone number, in case you guys are…”

Roman Mars:
Making friends!

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. Making friends. And coincidentally, I showed them where I was staying in Vancouver, and it was basically right next to them. And they invited me to drink wine and decorate their Christmas tree, and it was just a really lovely evening.

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s so cool!

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Did you ever get confirmation about the witness protection thing?

Sharif Youssef:
Hmm. Well, I guess I can neither confirm nor deny it. I actually reached out to Gerald Shore, the founder of the Witness Protection Program, and he responded back and he says, “I have no information on Point Roberts, Washington.” Which I guess you can take to be anything you want!

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s awesome. Nice adventure, in the name of the show.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah! Thanks for the expense.

Roman Mars:
No problem! Thanks, Sharif.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. Thanks.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Nate Berg, Lawrence Bohr, and Pete Early for helping Sharif out with that story. We have one more mini-story coming up next with the King of the Coda, Kurt Kohlstedt, after this.

[BREAK]

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
So every year at the end of the year and the beginning of the next year we do these many stories. And the funny thing is is that the many stories were so popular that we began doing them curtain time in the studio with dirt curtain I started doing kind of a mini-stories almost every episode as like the coda because there’s always some story that Kurt has that relates to the story we just told. But this one we never found a place for it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah this one just never quite fit yet. And I really wanted to tell it, you know.

Roman Mars:
Then we have the perfect opportunity.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. So basically last year the Ford Motor Company made big news in Detroit and they said they were going to buy and renovate Michigan Central Station.

Roman Mars:
And this is like a big train station sort of the Grand Central Terminal type train station.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. It’s huge old beautiful. It’s like Grand Central but much much taller and it’s in downtown Detroit. Yeah it’s really visible when you’re coming in on the highway. It’s like one of the most visible, tallest structures on the side of the city.

Roman Mars:
And so Ford, based still in Detroit, bought this and they’re going to renovate it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And suddenly there is all this news around the fact that they’re going to come out and do this big press conference and explain to the city what their plan was for this old building that had been deserted for so long. And in the lead up to that big press conference someone anonymously approached the Ford Museum with this surprising artifact. It was this big round antique clock that used to hang really prominently on one of the walls of the station.

Archive Tape:
“Let’s face it. Train passengers needed to know the time. So the clock is huge. It’s been gone for a very long time now and Bill Ford says he couldn’t believe it when a secret approach was made to get that clock back. Somebody must have really loved it and loved the train station because they took very good care of it.”

Roman Mars:
So somebody stole this gigantic clock from a train station and then they returned it when they heard that the Train Station is gonna be renovated.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah it’s pretty remarkable. And we don’t really know much about the person who returned the clock. I mean maybe they just took it to try to help preserve it. Maybe they weren’t even the original thief. It’s possible they bought it or found it.

Roman Mars:
Ebay.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. Or inherited it. All we really know for sure is that they carefully wrapped it up and then told the folks at the Ford Museum where to find it.

Roman Mars:
What do you mean where to find it? Like they left it somewhere…

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, they left it like alongside of the side of a building. There are pictures of this. You can see it like they just kind of wrapped it up and like kind of strapped it in.

Roman Mars: And then hightailed it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And then hightailed it. And just texted them.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Just come and grab the clock but bring a couple guys and a truck.

Roman Mars:
Wow. It’s amazing that he felt so inspired to give it back.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I mean, I think this is sort of a civic icon. It’s this stunning massive Beaux Arts structure and it was designed by the same architects as Grand Central Terminal in New York. And the idea originally was that it would be the Grand Central of the Midwest. It would handle all this passenger and free traffic and be kind of, you know, this landmark in the city. So they put up these, you know, it’s filled with all these beautiful details – these marble walls, vaulted ceilings, copper skylights – and it’s huge. It’s 18 stories tall. So there are restaurants and shops down below and then office spaces above.

Roman Mars:
And so, but obviously it fell on hard times. So what went wrong with the Michigan Central Station.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well a lot of things arguably but the rise of the car definitely helped drive it out of business. You know more people were driving out to the suburbs and the city itself and the station founded disuse. And at first the officers cleared out and then the shops and restaurants started to close down. And then finally in the 80s the ticket booth shut down. And basically the whole place was just locked up.

Roman Mars:
Well they just abandoned it. It was left empty at that point.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And there was talk over the years of, you know, tearing it down but it had this status as a landmark and that helped protect it from demolition.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
You know, they came up with plans to try to re-use this, like ideas to turn into a police station or convention center or even a casino. And none of those panned out. So the building just kind of kept being sold and changing hands and the owners before Ford finally did do some work kind of like they drained the basement and they had some new windows and they put up a security fence.

Roman Mars:
Obviously that must have happened after the clock was stolen.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah, they definitely were aware that things were disappearing from the building. And I think they wanted to put a stop to that. I mean, a lot of people were visiting this building to take pictures or, you know, just explore it. But along the way hundreds of artifacts were taken too.

Roman Mars:
So the clock is really just one piece of the puzzle. There were lots of little things taken from this building I would imagine over the years.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, a really large piece they took multiple people to move but definitely one of many things. And returning it actually started this kind of bigger movement because once Ford had the clock in hand, they were able to put out a call and say “Hey, look smene returned this clock. If anybody else has stuff maybe you could bring it back too and, you know, you won’t get in trouble, no questions asked.’

Roman Mars:
Leave it on the side of the building.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. Right. And it worked. Dozens of people have now come forward to offer up old station artifacts including fountains and plaster medallions and light fixtures and all kinds of stuff.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Wow.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And Ford actually has a wishlist too. They want back things like the ticket window grills elevator transit panels, other clocks that have disappeared over the years and basically, you know, anything that is sort of considered critical to the historic character of the building.

Roman Mars:
Right. And what are they… are they planning to restore it as it was? What are they planned to do with all these artifacts.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well some things will probably go back into the building and others will end up in local museums. And one of the sort of side benefits is that some of these things can be used to model copies too, right? So if you have one plaster medallion you can make a bunch of other ones in the renovated building.

Roman Mars:
Well that makes sense. So is the idea that this thing is gonna be like a passenger train terminal again or is it something different.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
No, it’s gonna be something different. Basically, Ford hired Snohetta, this sort of famous international design firm, to help them build out a new campus. They’re calling it the Corktown campus. It’s going to be the center for Ford to develop, you know, autonomous vehicles and other urban road-related technologies in a nice, central area where they can do like actual on the road testing and the station itself is going to be at the heart of this and it’s gonna be repopulated actually with a lot of the same things they had before like restaurants and shops. And above there are going to be offices but also condos now. And the idea is that Ford can, you know, move some of its people and its partner organizations up into these spaces.

Roman Mars:
Have you seen pictures of the artifacts and the renovation at all?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, there’s some great images of the clock and it’s sitting outside wrapped up. And there are a lot of historic photos that kind of show what was there what’s missing and, you know, Ford’s plan for what this building is going to look like when they’re all done with this campus.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. Can you put them on the website for us?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah of course.

Roman Mars:
That sounds good. All right. Thank you Kurt.

Comments (9)

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  1. Kevin

    Loved the segment on alleys in NY. Reminded me of this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:

    “Chicago is a better city than New York because Chicago has alleys. The garbage doesn’t pile up on the sidewalks. Delivery vehicles don’t block main thoroughfares.”

  2. I remember walking narrow streets from my way to Tribeca to Chinatown.. Thought and still it is an alley.

    Now a friend of a friend film in NY and the alley parts were filmed in Lubbock TX alleys. I guess this makes sense now.

  3. Alison

    My grandparents lived about 4 or 5km from Point Roberts and one of my earliest memories is going across the border to get gas and groceries with them, without a passport or letter from my parents, and having no problem at all getting across. Just a verbal confirmation and a have a nice day.

  4. Daniel Grossberg

    re “Beautiful Downtown (your city here)”

    Made popular by the ground-breaking variety show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” from “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”.

  5. Budislav Basovic

    In Kotor, Montenegro, there is a tradition very similar to Zozobra – traditional annual Carnival ends with the “Burning of the Carneval”, where a large effigy of a villain figure, representing (and blamed for) all the bad things that happened in the previous year, is burned on the waterfront. Earliest records of the Carneval date back to 1508.

  6. Adam

    Great story about Point Roberts, Sharif! I lived in Tsawwassen when I was a kid in the 90s, and you’re absolutely right about the primary uses being package pickup and cheap gas. But other frequent usage included picking up cheap beer (or so my Dad tells me now), going out on friends’ boats (less expensive to dock in the states), and for the NHL Vancouver Canucks’ non-Canadian hockey players: maintaining a residence to avoid Canadian income tax. But it would be remiss of me to not point out that Tsawwassen is pronounced “Ta-wass-in”!

  7. Judd

    I immediately thought of the alley where Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed. I had assumed it was filmed in NYC—maybe Allen Ginsburg dressed as a Hasidic Jew gave me that impression—but no! It was apparently filmed in London.

    http://www.popspotsnyc.com/subterranean/

  8. Lane

    I’m on vacation in NYC, and I remembered this story, so I had to go see Cortlandt Alley myself. It’s not even a real alley! It has sidewalks, curbs, street signs at either end, and painted traffic directions.

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