75: Kindness of Strangers (3)
It turned out, although I didn't know it at the time, that Canada Lee himself had grown up in a pretty strict, middle-class West Indian family. And he had, he told me, the same kind of dissatisfactions and mixed-up feelings that I'd had about his relationship with his family, what he wanted to do. And he ran away. And I think that experience may have had something to do with his kindness in taking this strange kid in and making a sort of second home for him.
The thing I've thought about-- a lot, without ever really finding an answer-- is what kind of clues did I have that said hey, this is a guy that I can approach in this way, a scrawny kid with a suitcase on a Sunday night, and have some kind of shot at getting taken in? I was either very insightful or very lucky. And I think it was mostly luck. Ira Glass Do you think there were clues that you were given though? Jack Geiger I think there must've clues, just in the fact that here was a Broadway star who was hanging around backstage talking with a kid about life and about his troubles. That's a signal that I don't think anybody could have missed. Ira Glass Jack lived with Canada Lee for a year. Sometimes Lee's teenage son would be there too. Jack went to college, enlisted in the Merchant Marines during World War II, serving on the only ship with a black captain and integrated crew of officers, the SS Booker T. Washington. When Jack would could come to New York, on school break or from the Merchant Marines, he would stay with Canada Lee. Then, on one of Jack's trips home, Canada Lee told Jack that he was pressed for cash, asked if he could borrow $1,000. Jack Geiger And I said, sure. And I loaned it to him, and I came back from the next trip, and he paid me back. And it took me a while, in retrospect, to figure out that he didn't need the $1,000. He was just changing the nature of the relationship between us and saying, hey, now you're grown up. Now you're an adult. And I'm not your dad anymore. We're partners. I can borrow money from you just the way you borrowed money from me. Ira Glass As a way of evening the scales. Jack Geiger Yeah. Ira Glass As he got older, Jack became a journalist, then a doctor, active in the Civil Rights Movement, went to Mississippi with the civil rights workers in the early '60s. Was a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and later Physicians for Human Rights, started community health centers in Mississippi and in South Africa. In this country, those health centers eventually led to 900 community health centers. They now provide primary care for more than 14 million low-income people across the country. Jack Geiger says he'd never had moved so deeply into these worlds so quickly if not for his experience with Canada Lee. Jack Geiger It's a relationship, very obviously, that has stayed with me ever since. Most of my life and work has, in one way or another, involved civil rights and human rights. It must be one of the reasons why I became a physician, of wanting to look out for people who were in trouble. Ira Glass Was it your impression that other people had extended this kind of act of kindness to him that he then extended to you? Or that he had yearned that someone would have taken him in the way that he took you in? Jack Geiger You know, what occurs to me now is something I learned in the Harlem community and in a lot of other work. There was a lot more experience in the black community of extended families. And I don't think, in that context, from that side of the divide, it felt like such a big deal. Ira Glass Well, you're saying, in a way, that black culture at that time was more conducive to extending a kindness to strangers than white culture. Jack Geiger I think so. And maybe still. Ira Glass Dr. Jack Geiger in New York. An interesting footnote to this story-- in 1949, just a few years after he befriended Jack Geiger, Canada Lee was in a movie where he did more or less the same thing. The film was Lost Boundaries. He played an African American police officer who befriends a confused, white teenager, takes him under his wing, shows him the kindness of strangers.
Coming up, good neighbors and bad neighbors in the same neighborhood, a street mob, a tap dancer, a PA system, and the Chairman of the Board. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the kindness of strangers and where the kindness might lead. All of our stories in today's show are from the supposedly least kind city in America, New York City. Act Three: Unkindness Of Strangers Ira Glass And we have arrived at Act Three of our program. And for this act, we figured-- nice, nice, nice, nice, nice. We figured we would need a change of pace after all this kindness and attempted kindness. And this is a story about the flat-out unkindness of strangers and how it could take two people who do not know each other and make them completely obsessed with each other. Paul Tough reports. Some names in this story have been changed. Paul Tough Helga's neighborhood used to be entirely Ukrainian, respectable with an Orthodox Church and a community center. And then things changed. Then people started arriving. And now the place is full of record stores and cafes and body piercing parlors. Starlee is one of the newcomers. She moved in two years ago, right next door to Helga. And the trouble between them started right away. Starlee says that at first it was just regular New York apartment stuff. Starlee Kine She would come and tell me not to make noise in the apartment. And she was like, I wear slippers at night, so you should be wearing slippers too. Paul Tough And she'd come and just knock on your door and tell you that? Starlee Kine No, she would tell me downstairs in the hall. I'd see her in passing. And she was actually really calm about it. And she looked like a helpless old woman back then. And I'd try to be quieter because of it. And I think I even helped her carry her groceries up the stairs once. I think I actually did do that. Paul Tough From Starlee's point of view, she tried to be quiet. She tried to be nice. But she was a college student at the time, and she had a lot of friends. And people would drop by late at night. So it was hard to be quiet all the time. From Helga's point of view, Starlee was a terrible neighbor, the worst. And Helga made sure that Starlee knew exactly how she felt. Starlee Kine She would occasionally sit in the hallway and talk to people about us. But there would not be anyone out there to talk to. She would just make up conversation and gossip about us. But we'd open the door and she'd be like, they all ran upstairs really quick. And she wasn't talking to anyone about us. Just so we'd know that she didn't like us. Paul Tough And so what sorts of things was she saying at that point? Starlee Kine Just that we were loud, bad kids. Just that we were loud and unresponsible. And she didn't believe any of us ever went to school. She refused to believe that. I think she didn't like that we were young. Paul Tough Helga wanted everyone else in the building to see the Starlee that she saw. So she started throwing garbage out into the little landing that they shared, apparently to try to make everyone think that it was people in Starlee's apartment, number three, who were responsible. Starlee Kine Cigarette butts and crumpled pieces of paper and orange juice cartons. Stuff like that. And it started off really small and it just got huge. And it just became so much trash in the hallway. And people smoke here, so it looked like we were doing it. And also, the type of trash she picked-- she would try to go out of her way to find kid trash, like Hostess Donut wrappers and candy bar things, and just the most creative garbage you've ever seen. And so people at first thought we were doing it. And they would come and talk to us and be like, don't put the trash. I'm like, I'm not putting the trash. Paul Tough Jake Bronstein, Starlee's roommate at the time-- she's had nine roommates, I should say, nine, in the two years she's lived there-- Jake decided to do something. Starlee Kine Jake wrote a note saying, please don't put trash in the hallway and put it outside in our hallway. We have a little square hallway. And he just taped it on the wall. And so then we hear her come out and we look through the key hole. And we see that she's put a sign up. And we come out there and it says, well then please don't sell drugs. And that's the first time we'd ever heard of it. We were just like, whoa. It was so out of the blue. We couldn't believe it. Paul Tough Ever since that day more than six months ago, Helga's put up at least one note about Starlee every single day, sometimes as many as seven or eight. They're mostly pretty small, maybe two inches by three inches. The notes are written in marker in block letters. Helga puts notes on the front door, over the mailboxes inside, on the window, on her own door, on Starlee's door.
The wording varies but the message is always the same. Starlee is a big-time drug dealer, she's selling drugs out of apartment number three, and she should stop or move out. Starlee actually collects the notes that Helga puts up. One whole wall of her apartment is covered with them. Starlee shows me a few choice ones. Starlee Kine See, she puts number three, selling drugs, business as usual. On Passover, she put, shame selling drugs on Passover. Let's see, Kine and Bronstein, drug dealers selling your way to the jailhouse. Kine and Bronstein, drug dealers selling illegal drugs here, like parasites. Paul Tough Starlee says that, in fact, she's not selling drugs. She's never sold drugs. No one in her apartment has ever sold drugs. It's all a big lie. Starlee Kine I asked her to come into the apartment. I'm like, come in the apartment, look anywhere you want. Honestly, we'll go to the cops together. I don't mind that at all. Paul Tough Helga doesn't just put up signs. She appears at her door whenever anyone comes to visit Starlee. She harasses Starlee's friends, accosts Starlee in the hallway, calls her a liar. And then there's this.
[TAPPING] Starlee Kine Now it's over there, though. See? It moves. Paul Tough We're inside Starlee's apartment, about 1:00 in the morning. Helga is sitting in her apartment, right next to the thin wall that separates the two of them. And she's tapping on the floor, just to let Starlee know she's there. She's always watching. I look up at the wall. For me, it's a very creepy moment. Starlee's used to it. Paul Tough I got to say, it's the-- Starlee Kine It's just to get our attention, just to remind us that even when she's not putting the signs up that the she's aware of our illegal activities.