Rumble Strip

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

Every year in the spring, small towns throughout New England host their annual town meeting. Town meetings take place in high school gyms or town halls, and anyone can come. In fact, in Vermont, Town Meeting Day is a public holiday. Everyone gets the day off work to make sure they have the chance to participate. It’s a moment when everyone who lives there can come together to talk out the issues facing the town and decide how they want to spend their money.

Erica Heilman:
My parents used to drag me to Town Meeting. It’s a remarkable institution.

Roman Mars:
Erica Heilman is a radio producer who lives in Vermont. She’s been going to town meetings since she was a kid.

Erica Heilman:
And so I would go and everyone looks terrible because it’s the time of year when everyone’s been inside. They’re smeared with salt and they look awful. But you know. People in a town become legislators for a day.

Roman Mars:
Erica is loath to romanticize life in Vermont, but she gets pretty romantic about Town Meeting.

Erica Heilman:
Every year I am moved by Town Meeting. Because every single person has something to bring that is unique to them. And we may not need it that year. But it could be that we do, and they stand up and say their piece and we say, “Oh my God. I didn’t know that.” So everyone is deeply equal in that room.

Roman Mars:
It’s not always easy. There are lots of disagreements, but Erica says that people learn to disagree civilly because in a small town you have to rely on one another. A lot of these small towns depend on volunteers to function, and Town Meeting is the place where those roles get decided.

Erica Heilman:
Somebody’s gotta be on the cemetery commission. And somebody’s got to be on the zoning board or whatever. So everybody does a lot of boring slow work to keep things going, and boring democracy – boring slow democracy – is actually the fastest most effective democracy… that was a little histrionic but I am a lover of Town Meeting.

Roman Mars:
Erica is the host of a beautiful unique jewel of a podcast. She’s been making it for a long time, but I heard it for the first time pretty recently and I was blown away. It reminded me of everything I liked about radio when I started in radio. It’s sound-rich, it’s meaningful, it’s transportive. It’s essentially about life in Vermont but it’s kind of more about life in general. It’s called Rumble Strip.

Erica Heilman:
So a rumble strip is one of those things on the side of the road that wakes you up when you’re about to have a major accident. You know, it’s essentially “slow down and listen,” is like the idea. So it’s a very clean, clear message. It’s a little bit trite if you actually spell it out like I just did.

Roman Mars:
The stories that she tells are anything but trite. And the one that we have for you today is all about Town Meeting, a Vermont tradition that anyone, anywhere interested in how government functions can learn from. It was produced in 2021 for Rumble Strip. Here’s Erica Heilman.

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Erica Heilman:
This is Rumble Strip: Chapter One. Vernon, Vermont Town Meeting. What to do about trash?

Moderator:
Please state your name.

Jeff Khosa:
Jeff Khosa’s. Some of us in this town already have a dumpster, so we don’t have to walk out with those puny bags. They don’t hold anything. They’re darn expensive. And I don’t feel like having to pay twice because in fact, when you go to Triple T Trucking, they tell you to recycle it. This needs to go away. We don’t need to… I don’t need to pay twice for my rubbish. So, thank you.

Moderator:
Jury recognizes Mr. Gilligan.

Patrick Gilligan:
Patrick Gilligan. I believe the pay-as-you-throw program is a great benefit to the town of Vernon…. My grandfather worked at Triple T. He gave the town of Vernon a very good rate to do this, and I hope we all vote yes on this.

Moderator:
Further discussion on the motion — the gentleman walking up to the microphone.

Andrew Gant:
Andrew Gant. I’ve heard a lot of people mention about how cheap pay-as-you-throw is. And I am sure for our older families in town it may be. But as a father of a family of three kids and a wife, once you have a handful of diapers in those bags, they break as you go down the driveway.

Erica Heilman:
This is a recording from Town Meeting in Vernon, Vermont, about trash removal and what the residents want to do about it. And it’s not over. It goes on for another 20 minutes or so.

Woman (unidentified):
Between the diapers for the children and the diapers for the elderly and all the little under pads in between, those things are recyclable and can be put in the cow bin.

Erica Heilman:
Town Meeting is not glamorous. Sometimes it’s boring. We sit on hard chairs. We talk about things like trash removal, but it is also the most civilized and surprising social gathering of the year. Every year. In most of New England, town citizens become legislators for one day a year. They vote on issues that affect them directly. Road conditions and property taxes and zoning laws. And sometimes they talk about more global concerns like immigration and climate change and what they can do about these things on a town level. It’s not perfect. A lot of local power has eroded and is in the hands of the state and the federal government now. But every item that is on the agenda is voted on publicly and in person by town residents. It’s one of the last examples of direct face-to-face democracy and this century’s long practice of towns doing the slow and hard work of disagreeing and arguing and compromising on how to govern themselves. This has a profound impact on a place and what it means to be from a place.

Man (unidentified):
The problem is we’re not selling enough bags…

Erica Heilman:
In Vermont, a Town Meeting is the first Tuesday in March. Everyone looks pretty bad. After a long winter, everyone’s coat is covered in road salt. A lot of people seem to be sick of their spouses. Some people bring their knitting. They sit on bleachers in the school gym or in the town hall and the select board – which are elected townspeople – they’re sort of like the town’s executive branch, they’re usually sitting behind a table at the front of the room. And then there’s the moderator who runs the meeting or runs it as soon as the people of the town vote to select them. Sometimes for the 50th year in a row.

Moderator:
Further discussion on the article. Please state your name.

Erica Heilman:
Most of us won’t have Town Meeting this year because of COVID. Most towns will vote by ballot instead, or Australian ballot, as we call it here. So I figured this would be the year to make the show to remember what we’re missing. And even though this is a show about where I live, which is maybe not where you live, we are all living through a time of awful division, terrible public discourse. There aren’t a lot of opportunities anymore to disagree civilly in public, and maybe there should be. I talked to Town Meeting moderators from all over Vermont about Town Meeting culture and what it’s like to moderate these meetings. Here is some of what they said.

Kelly Green:
My role is to ensure that the meeting remains the people’s meeting.

Erica Heilman:
This is Kelly Green, defense attorney and Randolph Town Moderator.

Kelly Green:
It’s my job to ensure that the townspeople get to transact the business that they want to transact. So this process recognizes that it is the people who run the town. We hold the power to get things done and do things. The people in the government are our servants. We direct the select board and the town to do our bidding. It’s unbelievable if you think about it. I mean, I don’t know that people really understand that they have this authority and power. I’m not sure everybody understands it. You are literally legislating from the floor. It’s beautiful.

Susan Clark:
Most Vermonters understand that government is a “we” not a “they.”

Erica Heilman:
This is Susan Clark, author and Middlesex town moderator.

Susan Clark:
It’s a thing that we do together or if we don’t, it’s by choice because we’re definitely invited and somebody is always going to call you and ask you to be on some darn committee. If you’re not on one, it’s because you’ve avoided them, you know, and that’s what it means. I think it’s going to make us less likely to want to storm the Capitol if we understand that, you know, we all are part of what makes the democracy tick.

Stephen Magill:
Good morning. It being nine a.m. on the 3rd of March 2020 in the town of Richmond, Vermont, I call this 225th annual Town Meeting to order.

Susan Clark:
This is Stephen Magill — ski patrol, beer brewer and Moretown town manager and we went to high school together.

Erica Heilman:
Is there a story related to how you became moderator or did you just– it seems like all the people I’ve talked to, they kind of back into it.

Stephen Magill:
Oh no. No. I fronted into it. I’m probably one of the only people in the state that’s ever actually run against an incumbent moderator and won.

Erica Heilman:
What was your rationale for running against this incumbent?

Stephen Magill:
The people in town were ready for somebody different. It was a challenging decision because the guy who was the incumbent is a really good guy and he’s still active in town politics. He’s an old dairy farmer. And people were just ready for somebody different, and they asked if I would be willing to run, and they asked the right person because I think it’s fun. But about three years after that, we got– there was a particularly challenging meeting. Lots of interesting questions. And that’s what makes it fun. You know, lots of good back and forth and amendments. And at the end of the meeting, when we get to other business, the guy who had formerly been the moderator raised his hand and I called on him and and he – from the back of the room – said, “I just want to thank the moderator for doing a really good job today because I know that this is a really hard thing to do, and he’s done a splendid job and I just really want to thank him.” It was a blessing from the previous moderator for what I have to do now, so it was a great moment.

Kelly Green:
I often actually don’t know what anyone’s talking about. I really have no idea what the, you know, what the Capital Budget Fund is about. I do not… I do not understand any of it. People could be speaking Greek, but what I do know how to do, what I am good at is empathizing with the person speaking. And because I don’t really know all the ins and outs of all the stuff that goes on in town. I have to listen carefully to them and understand what they’re saying. And, you know, if necessary, help that person get their thought out or use the rules to take some action, whatever. Some people are really excellent speakers. Some people are not. Some people are terrified. Some people talk too much. But it seems like as a body, the people have room for it all.

Erica Heilman:
This is Paul Doton, dairy farmer and Barnard town moderator

Paul Doton:
And my management “so-called” of the town meeting, I really don’t have total control. I just try to keep it within the railings, I guess, of what needs to be. And one of the things I point out is that everybody addresses their comments to the moderator and then the moderator will ask the questions. So there aren’t two people that are going across the room, which can be and has been sometimes a problem because emotions get in the way. And I try to make sure our emotions are set aside, usually with success. But not always.

Stephen Magill:
It frequently will happen that somebody will talk out of turn. Just a gentle reminder, you know, “Hey, Joe has the floor right now.” That works great. You’re snickering. You were like, “It’s like, so easy.” It’s so easy. But you just have to be there and be ready and not let it get out of hand. And the minute it starts to happen, you got to say, “No, you don’t have the floor.” I don’t care if you’re agreeing or disagreeing or what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you do not have the floor. That’s the important thing, okay? I’ve only once had to really use my stern voice, and I’m not really a stern person so it kind of have to make it up. But we had somebody that tried, well, he— somebody who had the floor and while he had the floor, somebody else raised their hand and he turned and said, “Put your hand down, I’m talking.” And that’s the only time I ever used my gavel. And I said, “You are not in charge of the meeting. This is my meeting and anybody who wants to put their hand up is allowed to put their hand up.”

Erica Heilman:
Is that your stern voice?

Stephen Magill:
That? No, that is not my stern voice.

Erica Heilman:
You can’t do your stern voice?

Stephen Magill:
No.

Erica Heilman:
Just so I can hear it.

Stephen Magill:
I’m going to wait just a second.

Erica Heilman:
What’s going on? Snowmobiles?

Stephen Magill:
Snowmobiles going by! (Audio of snowmobiles passing) This is what you get when you have an interview in the garage.

Erica Heilman:
This is Bobby Starr, ex-truck driver, Vermont legislator and Troy Town moderator for 50 years.

Erica Heilman:
I think it’s the moderator’s job to make people feel comfortable enough so they don’t give a hoot if they say it, if the words come out wrong. We’ll get it figured out. (inaudible) And you know, you have all types of people that show up. You go from the poorest person in town or the least-educated professors and doctors. And a lot of times that person with the least amount of education makes more sense than the professor made. So, you know, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. The important thing is to participate.

Erica Heilman:
This is John McClary, political policy adviser and Kirby town moderator for 55 years.

John McLaughry:
Everybody’s got something to contribute that they know that most people don’t. And it may not be something that comes up, in which case they take it with them and leave the room at the end of the meeting. But sometimes people got something to say. And then he says, “Well, I happen to work in home care for twenty seven years and I can tell you what really happens with the state agencies and the hospital and so on. And that’s one of the great things about Town Meeting is that it reassures the people that come here that– where they have something to say and are not just blowing hot air. People are grateful to have that input. When you stand up, make your speech, you’re not petitioning a higher power to do your work, you’re not going to a hearing. Many of the hearings the legislature has heard, I hate to say shams, but they’re pro forma exercises which have very little impact on the actual legislature. But here you have a right to be here. You have a right to be heard. Your voice is as good as anybody’s voice. And although you may not be on the winning side every time, you know that you’re exercising your right to democratic self-government and have and can make a difference.

Man (unidentified):
How did Bolton respond last night? My understanding is they offered two hundred and seventy five dollars.

Woman (unidentified):
The report that we got from the town clerk, you are correct.

Man (unidentified):
So I think it’s a little disproportionate here. This number is just… I don’t understand how it can be justified. Volunteerism? I’ve done my share. I’m still doing it. I don’t see where we need to have it turned over to the taxpayers. I think, raise your money. You’re getting enough now. That’s my opinion. I think that’s just too much. Too much. Thank you.

Paul Doton:
If you have a real disagreement with somebody, you don’t have to be disagreeable. You can agree to disagree and move on because in a day or two, you may come upon that person at the store, at the post office or someplace, and you have to come to a time of reckoning that we cannot continue to be as vile to one another as the internet, and that whatever the other media is that people can just spout off and not have to worry about the repercussions.

Erica Heilman:
This is Gus Seelig, executive director of Vermont Housing and Calais town moderator.

Gus Seelig:
The other thing that is special about it is it is a way to get to know people that are outside of your normal social circle, see people and learn from people and hear people that may not be part of the group that they would usually hang around with. And in an age where, you know, everybody’s going to their own television station that just reinforces what you already think, the opportunity to go someplace and have people with whom you disagree speak to you is, I think, something that’s still worth investing in. I think there was an article warned on whether Vermont should pay livable wages. And one person got up and said, “If I have to pay people,” I can’t remember what the number was this much an hour, “then I’m going to have to raise my prices and you folks won’t be able to afford my services.” And the next person got up and said, “And if the people you pay don’t make enough and they’re on food stamps and they need heating assistance, I’ve got to pay for that.” So within three minutes, we had the whole debate about livable wages and we didn’t resolve that that day. But again, it was a great opportunity for people to have to listen to each other and hear from each other about what was important to them.

Kelly Green:
There is a civilizing aspect of Town Meeting. You’re both comfortable, largely comfortable. It’s the same people, it’s your town, you’re largely comfortable, your knitting, your, you know, like you’ve had a donut. You’re comfortable. You know, these people. You know these people well, so you’re comfortable. But it’s also public and there is some formality to it. People feel safe to say what’s on their mind in their own way of saying things. Sometimes it gets heated. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s funny. There is this beautiful balance that happens right? It’s not sanitary. It’s not boring. It’s not sanitary. It’s not, you know, it’s real. It’s authentic. But it’s always civil.

Erica Heilman:
I am never more nervous speaking publicly than I am at Town Meeting. Why? Why are the stakes so high when I stand up at Town Meeting to say something?

Susan Clark:
That’s so true, you can’t go home afterwards, you already are home. And so here you are being yourself. It’s high, high, high stakes. On the other hand, it should be the lowest of stakes because these are your neighbors who have got your back. It’s not that we necessarily are going to love each other at Town Meeting, but we do want to succeed. The worst thing that can happen at a meeting – and it’s very rare – is that we come out without an answer. That’s a super easy thing to happen with ballot box voting. “Let’s just vote now.” You know, “We’ll tell them.” Well, then you don’t have a budget. The thing about meetings is that you just have to stay until you find it, until you work to get it. We’re never going to, you know, completely agree with each other, but to be able to understand what are the points that we can move forward together on? What’s the — in the Venn diagram of ideas, where’s the overlap?

Susan Clark:
If you lose a town meeting, what kind of conversations do not happen?

Gus Seelig:
Well, what happens is you don’t have any discussion. You do everything by Australian ballot. How do you alter? How do you discuss things like your budget or the road budget or the fire budget or the school budget? All you’re going to do is mark an X on a paper at your leisure and put it in a little box, but you’re never gonna be able to discuss the real issue. Well, is it too much? Is it too little? You miss that whole debate. It serves no purpose. Australian balloting ought to be outlawed. As far as I’m concerned.

Erica Heilman:
People will say sometimes that it’s inefficient. That takes long, sometimes to talk through the answers. They’ll say, wouldn’t it just be so much more efficient to just have a ballot and vote yes or no? And not only efficient, by the way, but more people will vote if you ask them to vote than if you ask them to come to a meeting. So isn’t that better? That’s more democracy. But every year it happens that people rely on the meeting to inform their vote. You know, I remember that year when we talked about whether we were going to switch to Australian ballot or not. And I went into that meeting and asked one of my neighbors, you know, how are you going to vote? And he said, “Yeah, I’m not sure I’m going to listen to the debate and decide.” I just laughed and I said, “I think there’s your answer, my friend.”

Man (unidentified):
You know, right now the house, the old Mangus house, right by Tobbin’s old garage there? Every time it floods, it fills the basement with water. I talked to Pat Meal, where Pat Meal grew up. He said that was nothing. He said our house was always full of water. I said “Jesus, you know, we turned around to build that road up, you think about it. Something else is going to pay for it.”

Kelly Green:
I remember Town Meeting where our town… a child had gone missing in our town and the FBI came to town to investigate immediately and had gone to the library. They had a tip and wanted to seize and search the library’s public computers. And the librarians told the FBI that they needed to get a warrant. The town was grief stricken and was enraged that the library would, at a time like that, demand that the FBI get a warrant. Like everyone in town was like, are you kidding me? A child is missing and you’re– and what? This town meeting afterwards, the library budget, of course, is up for discussion as it is every year, and the people were still really angry with the library, but a patron and I think trustee of the library – again, a volunteer, someone living in town – an elderly woman stood up and gave the most passionate defense of the Fourth Amendment and civil liberties to the people on the floor that I have ever witnessed. And you know, I’m a criminal defense attorney. I spend all day trying to make speeches about the Fourth Amendment. And this woman who also had been, you know, moved with grief about this crime could also give this smart, compassionate speech where people applauded afterwards. She really persuaded people to understand why, at that moment was when our civil liberties did matter. Everyone was sad but was moved by her speech.

Erica Heilman:
Did the Library budget pass?

Kelly Green:
The library budget passed? I’m always surprised and in awe and bowled over by a neighbor who shines.

Man (unidentified):
The second announcement is I’m on a committee of people called Hope and Action that has been putting on dinners and entertainment here at the town hall. If you missed karaoke this past year, you missed a great performance.

Man (unidentified):
I don’t think people understand how much local volunteerism is involved in Town Meeting and the whole governmental process of towns. I mean, take for instance, the auditors. Townspeople are auditors, not the official audit firm that does the books. The auditors are the ones that put together the town report, and that takes a lot of effort. They aren’t qualified as auditors, their profession might be– I’m not sure what it is, but two of them, I know are retired right now that are on there because I had an email from one of them the other night asking if he could leave town reports here in our summer shed where we sell corn. But people just surface and do whatever they need to do. Some of these companies that don’t seem– you don’t think are real important or high level, sometimes turn out to be much more than that. I mean, the cemetery commissioners, two of them have been working on this cemetery where my maternal grandfather is buried just behind the farm here, straightening up stones and bringing all that type stuff. I mean, those, that’s one example of how local people get involved

Susan Clark:
Again and again, we’re asked to be involved in small decisions over years, over decades, over literally centuries. What changes is the culture. We actually have a town meeting culture. And even if you have never attended a town meeting, maybe you live in a city, we have expectations in Vermont of civility. We have expectations of inclusion. We expect to be asked about things before decisions come down. We have democratic expectations in Vermont that other places might not have, that I think many other places do not have because of a town meeting culture that we have created over centuries.

Kelly Green:
When we talk about town meeting day, we’re not just talking about one day. Town Meeting day is a culture. So in every town in Vermont, the people have to be involved in town affairs. Literally, the people run the town in every town, almost every town. To get the work of town done, whether it’s managing the lawn mowing at the town cemetery or running recreational programs or figuring out the budget, it takes hundreds, thousands of volunteer hours. So everybody has to pitch in and we don’t all agree at all on everything or even anything. But as a result of having a town where everyone has to participate or nothing gets done, we’re very interdependent. So it’s a chicken and egg question like, I don’t know if, like Vermonters were like this and then we invented town meeting or if town meeting made us like this. But we live in our community. We are very interdependent. If there’s a problem, if there’s a crisis, people have each other’s phone numbers already. People have each other’s email addresses. For those of us with email. You know who to call with your problem or your offer of assistance.

Susan Clark:
Sometimes when people hear the term “Social Capital,” they think it means social like, “Oh, we have lots of potlucks,” you know? And we think that if we just socialize together, then we’ll have a rich social capital. But a big part of building that– I mean, it’s earned, it’s earned. It’s something that we put into our Social Capital Bank account, and you don’t just do it through picnics. You do it through the hard work of disagreeing with each other and then working to find the way to move forward together, anyway. It’s what makes us a society. It’s what makes us a community is investing in the hard work of self-governance so that when the hard times come, you know, something really difficult is going on in our town — how are we going to pay for flood damage? — we have invested over the years in that social capital so that we are ready when the hard times come for the hard work of self-governance, where we have to sit through a long meeting and hear different points of view and then find the way forward together.

Kelly Green:
So much of what goes on in the nation’s capital feels like it has nothing to do with me whatsoever. I know that’s not true. I know that that’s not true. I’m a lawyer, so I know that what happens in Washington has effects here. But for some reason, there is a disconnect between what happens on those bigger stages in my life. My town is really my reality. Day in and day out.

Man (unidentified):
I guess I’m kind of a unique individual because my wife and I, we use one green bag every three months, and a big part of that is we don’t throw garbage in our trash can. We put that in a bag. We keep it in the freezer. And then once a week, I take it down to the cow. I can put three 13 gallon trash bags….

Erica Heilman:
That was “Town Meeting.” If you want to see some pictures of Town Meeting, you can visit my website RumbleStripVermont.com. Also, Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark co-authored a book called “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community and Bringing Decision-Making Back Home.” It’s about all of the things that they talked about here and a lot more, and it’s really good. I’ll put a link to it on the website, also. If you want to make a comment on the show, I would love to hear it. Just go to the show page, and at the bottom of the show page, you’ll see a comment box. If you want to make a donation to the show, that would also be great. It puts gas in my car. And thank you also to all of the people who already make and have made donations. I want to thank Tobin, Kelly and Amelia for their help on this show. And thanks to Calais musician — and also furniture-maker — Brian Clark for his music. I have links to his music and his furniture on my website. Thank you to Angela for digging into her tape bin. And thanks to Brattleboro Community Television and Mount Mansfield Community Television for their recordings of Town Meeting and also all the brave people who get up and talk in those meetings. It’s weirdly intimidating. Rumble Strip is a proud member of “Hub & Spoke,” a collective of excellent and independent and wicked smart podcasters from all over the country. You can find them at hubspokeaudio.org. This is Rumble Strip. I’m Erica Hileman. Thanks a lot for listening.

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break, Erica and I talk about how she makes her show and she tricks me into talking a little bit about how we make ours.

Roman Mars:
So tell me a little bit about the origin story of Rumble Strip.

Erica Heilman:
Well, it started out as a Rumble Strip Vermont. But I– you know, it’s funny when you make us when you make a show anywhere but New York and L.A. and Seattle and Toronto…. You know, if you make a show in Topeka, people kind of expect that your show is about Topeka. It’s weird. It’s like if you don’t live in a major city, then you– if you live in a small place, it must be that you’re making a show about that place. I don’t get it, but that’s kind of why I dropped the Vermont. It might mean my show features almost exclusively people who live here, but you know, really, it’s a selfish venture. I mean, I think I do the show to figure out how to get through my day better. Right? And so every single person that you talk to knows something that, if you knew it, you could get through your day better. I mean, I think I believe that, right? So, and I think that that’s, you know, not just about for, I think, somebody in Ohio might find something edifying in the show. Even though the person lives in Hardwick, you know, so it’s not really about Vermont, but you do feel Vermont in it pretty strongly.

Roman Mars:
Well, I feel like I do. And it’s one of the things I actually love about it, that it’s deeply local. And I think that it’s intimate because of your association with the place and you wanting to talk to people and having access to people that it is rooted in a community. But it absolutely does speak to a wider audience. I mean, it’s funny that you… you bristle at the idea of, you know, it being located in like, you know, not New York and not L.A.

Erica Heilman:
Maybe that’s what I should have called my show. I should have called it, “Not New York and not L.A.” It would have been a great name.

Roman Mars:
It would. Tell me a little bit about this association with Rumble Strip in Vermont and like, is this a show that could be made anywhere? Like, what is your… what is that association like? Is it just where you are, and therefore that’s where your stories are. Or something?

Erica Heilman:
I think it’s that. Or I mean, I don’t know, because I think that part of the reason for the show is this very, very deep love-hate relationship with where I live. You know, it’s like I’ve never been married, but I imagine that you hate your spouse on some level or it’s that, you know, I mean, you see their blind spots, right? And you sort of gently look away and indicate it’s sort of over there, my friend, right? But I think that I didn’t hear my state on the radio. I didn’t get the feeling that the dark parts were ever being heard or the confusing or banal parts of this place. It was very covered bridgeified way that Vermont is covered, right? So I have this unending fascination with the place where I live. And so it’s partly about my relationship to the place and all the parts I love and hate. But I think I’m also compelled to make stuff. And so if I lived in Topeka, I’d probably do this there in the same, you know, in the same way, although it would be trying to figure out what the hell is Topeka? I mean, I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here to.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, that makes sense.

Erica Heilman:
But I am definitely of this place. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
But it really is the strength of the show in a lot of ways, where it is. Are you someone who… I have found that I have a hard time talking to people in my normal life, and so I created a job that would force me to talk to people.

Erica Heilman:
You’re an extroverted introvert.

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Erica Heilman:
That’s what I am. I’m an extroverted introvert and I have never, ever had — including this one, I’m just going to be honest — I’ve never done an interview that I didn’t really hope was going to get canceled. Because I’m so nervous all the time. I mean, if you’re knocking on somebody’s door and it’s a perfect stranger, I’m just praying they’re going to like, you know, today’s not going to work out. Because it’s the scariest thing. It looks like you’re asking a lot of somebody to stick a mic in their face and have an intimate conversation. And that’s very high stakes. And I’m very not an extrovert, you know?

Roman Mars:
Mm-Hmm. But you ask really intimate questions. I mean, you really get into people’s lives. How do you overcome that?

Erica Heilman:
Well, I think that you just fall into someone. And that’s the I mean, I guess in the beginning, you just sweat it out until you get everything set up, right? But then you fall in. I think Ira Glass said this too, and I really agree with it, which is I don’t think I’ve ever not fallen in love with the person that I’m interviewing. And maybe you feel that way, too. It’s just–

Roman Mars:
Always.

Erica Heilman:
You just fall in love with them. You know, nine year olds and 13 year olds and everything in between. So I think that once the light switch goes on, I think that when you get to a place in an interview where you’ve asked a question that you’re both kind of stumped by, I feel like, you know, you’re in that third place together that… like its own country. And I don’t think there’s anything more exciting than that.

Roman Mars:
Right. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It’s the greatest.

Erica Heilman:
It is. It is. And I worry sometimes. I have been worrying lately about feeling as though I’m taking. I don’t ever want to feel that I’ve left an interview– I want somebody to feel more than they felt before.

Roman Mars:
Oh, totally. Yeah. You want them to leave like, “oh, they got the job.” You wanted to feel like, “I did it!”

Erica Heilman:
Exactly, right. Or that they would’ve said, “Oh my God, I never knew I thought that.” But then there are some times I feel like I’ve taken and that’s very upsetting. Or I mean, I think, I don’t feel that way often. I guess, I worry sometimes that I could slip there.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I get that. So your subjects are mainly around your geographic area in Vermont. Where do you picture your listeners as being from? Like, how much do you explain about where you are based off your image of who your audience is?

Erica Heilman:
It’s hard because I know that there are Vermont listeners who already know the backstory of it. Well, actually though, you know, I mean, Burlington, Vermont is another country from where I live in Vermont. I mean, entirely. I mean, they’re worlds away. So they need some context also. But I feel like it’s so gestural if you can just get… I mean, even if you use the person’s first and last name, like John Smith told me, like you get at a sense of what the place is, very just really without having to say, “in this area, people know one another,” you know, and “so-and-so knows his name” or whatever, you know. I feel like I’ve gotten better at not worrying about how much I need to explain about this place. And that always, less is more. I mean, I write these long intros that turn into four sentences, which takes an entire day and sometimes two. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. We sit in a room and edit basically everything that comes out on the show. There’s like at least seven or eight of us in a room going through line by line, and we call it, “99PI writes a sentence” and usually the result of it is just cutting the sentence almost like a good half the time. You know, we’ll hone it and hone it…. and like, wait a minute, what if we just not say this?

Erica Heilman:
Absolutely. Yeah, there’s a profound relief. Like, nobody cares. Nobody needs to know that part. You know, eight people. I’m trying to even imagine what that’s like.

Roman Mars:
You know, it’s really, you know, like, I started my show as a single person alone in a room. It got more and more and more. And one of the things it does is it sort of gives it a different kind of life where I can inhabit the genius of others, you know, rather than just, like, struggle through it all all alone. And it’s a different skill, but it’s super fun and it does kind of– it changes it a little bit like if I were to listen back to my early awful shows, I’m much more likely to make a broad generalization joke, because it’s just a single point of view and it doesn’t get like run through a group of people who go, “ahh, that’s not working for me.”

Erica Heilman:
We’re not liking your jokes so much.

Roman Mars:
So there’s a change in it. But the robustness of, you know, the collective genius of all the people I work with who are getting… you know, they’re just better at so many other things than I am. Yeah, makes it so much better. And so, you know, so yeah, it changes. And you learn how to sort of roll with it in different ways. But I like each… I’ve liked each phase in different ways.

Erica Heilman:
Well, and there’s a way, and this is a part of not having eight people in the room, there’s– Being alone, you know, there is a way in which I do worry. I always have to ask myself: am I romanticizing this place? You know, am I slipping into tropes? Will anyone tell me when I am, will someone make a bird sound that says, it’s time to get off the bus, you’re done! I mean, like this farmer I interviewed recently, Forrest Foster, he’s from another century, right? And there is, I mean, it is easy to other-ify him, right? But what I do trust is I have much less interest in talking about the past than I do about talking about how do you get through today? Like, how do you think about this? Like, “what’s going on” is really the operating question. And that brings it back to… I think that steers me away from romanticizing somehow. And again, selfishness, always selfishness. Like what do you know that I want for myself that I want to have, right? So that’s not making something pretty for other people. It’s like, what do I get from knowing you, what have I learned here? And hopefully that is what I focus in or focus on when I make a show. I just, you know, the idea is to invite people into the sort of front seat of other people’s lives. And if you find a thread, even if you really dislike the person, if you find a thread of logic to how they’ve come to where they are, then you can’t dissociate from them somehow. You find yourself in them, even in the people that you most dislike. And I guess that seems like a useful thing to be doing right now. You know, that’s the goal.

Roman Mars:
That’s a good goal. Well, thank you so much for sharing the story and your podcast with us, Erica.

Erica Heilman:
Thank you.

Erica Heilman:
You can find Rumble Strip wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like a suggestion of where to start, I recommend listening to the episode called “Finn and the Bell.” It’s about a young man named Finn who killed himself in 2020, but the story isn’t about suicide, it’s about who he was as a person and how the small community around him staggered forward after such a tragedy. It didn’t quite fit the purview of 99PI for us to feature it here, but I think it’s probably in contention for the best audio documentary I’ve ever heard. It can be a tough listen, especially if you have teenage kids. I actually avoided it for a while, even though it was recommended to me by everyone who works on this show. But once it started playing, I realized that I was in really good hands and it is so rewarding. That episode again is called “Finn and the Bell” from Rumble Strip. You should listen.

——————

CREDITS

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald. Mix and Tech production by Martín Gonzalez. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Sofia Klatzker, Swan Real, and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

  1. Rachel

    Rumble Strip is an absolute gem of a podcast and Erica Heilman is one of the most poignant storytellers I have ever heard. I am a native west coaster but found her podcast in my twenties when I followed my romantic notion of moving to Vermont. For the few years I lived there, her well-crafted stories helped me make sense of where I was living. Her interviews made the towns and histories and the people come alive as if she was translating their meanings for me as a listener. Its about Vermont, and its not.

    I am so glad to hear Erica’s work on 99pi. My favorite episodes are Finn and the Bell, The Museum of Everyday Life, Last Chapter, and any of the episodes in which she interviews her neighbor boy, Leland.

  2. Sean

    No, not everyone gets a day off. It is a state holiday but businesses are allowed to not consider it a paid, closed for business holiday.

  3. Connie and Louis Patterson

    It’s a nice idea, and I know you’re not a news program, but… a little fact checking could have gone a long way in the framing of this show. Town Meeting Day is a public holiday, so schools and public offices are closed, but most people do not get the day off work. So, this is great for people who work in public office. And for retired people. And for parents of schoolchildren with flexible work schedules and with children who are willing to sit still through hours of meetings.

    For the rest of us, it means unpaid time off from work if we want to be part of “local democracy.” Which means, as fluffy and gee whiz as Town Meeting sounds in this audio, local government outcomes are almost always determined by a tiny fraction of a town’s population, representing retirees and the independently wealthy. In other words: there might be reasons this whole Barney Fife concept hasn’t taken off elsewhere. I’d love to hear the other side of this argument, from those working and parent voices silenced by the time constraints of Town Meeting Day.

  4. Connie Willard Godin

    Everyone does not get the day off only the State of Vermont employees. It’s outdated, most $ issues decided by ballot and most citizens cannot or do not attend. Large towns don’t do it all anymore. Cute idea in 1800 not 2022. imo Thanks

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