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# 101 Minka

A man takes on an impossible job: fixing the place you go before you die.

July 13, 2017
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PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.


PJ: And Sruthi’s here with us.

SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: Yes, I am.

PJ: What have you got?

SRUTHI: I have a story for you guys, and this one is about a man named Bill Thomas, he’s a doctor, and he has this very wild story. I went up to Ithaca to meet him, that’s where he lives.

SRUTHI: Hey Bill.

BILL THOMAS : How are ya?

SRUTHI: Good.

BILL: Good to have you here.

SRUTHI: Yeah, good to see you too, I hope this…

SRUTHI: And he picked me up, uh, he was–he cut an interesting figure–big beard, tie-dyed t-shirt, no shoes.

SRUTHI: Um, I love, are you actually driving barefoot?

BILL: Yeah! Why not?

SRUTHI: Um, and he rolled up in his electric car with his peace-sign bumper sticker, his wife Jude was there.

JUDE: I love to drive, he hates to drive. It shows you my control side.

SRUTHI: And the reason I had come up here to meet Bill, uh, is that he–he’s this like towering figure in the world of nursing homes. He’s known for being this like, incredibly creative person who has spent his life trying to make nursing homes better.

PJ: Uh huh.

SRUTHI: And now he’s decided that he wants to destroy them all.

PJ: Ok.

SRUTHI: (laughs) So the first thing I said was, “Hey can we go see a local nursing home? I want to see what you see.” And he said, “Sure, I’m not exactly welcome inside, but we can do that.”

BILL: I’ve been to this one. We make noises…

SRUTHI: He jumps in the passenger seat. Jude’s driving. I’m in the back.

BILL: Stop! Back up if you can, Jude. Alright, listen. Here’s the thing. We’re in the parking lot. Watch it, Jude! Looking at your thing–we’re in the parking lot of a nursing home. And it deserves to go away. Um, and I’m not even gonna get you out, because if they see you out here with headphones on, they’ll freak out.

SRUTHI: Oh, really?

BILL: Oh yes. So what we have is a 1960s-era brick building.

JUDE: And this lady is looking at us all the window.

BILL: Uh huh. Oh yes. That has not been changed in any substantial way in 50 years. Now, look here, this is an activity, we’re looking in, we’re driving by…

SRUTHI: We’re looking into the window of this activity room, and it’s empty and there are these cheesy cardboard decorations.

SRUTHI: I see butterflies, they have butterflies!

BILL: It is butterfly time.

SRUTHI: There’s a Memorial Day. I see some flags for Memorial Day.

BILL: Exactly. Memorial Day. Every holiday has a ritualized cardboard representation. And the reason I bring that up is because it’s like that with the food and with everything.

Inside this building, nothing is real.

PJ: What’s he so mad about?

SRUTHI: He means that basically here’s a building where everybody inside, like everybody who is living here is really unhappy, but there’s all this like pageantry of happiness and joy.

BILL: People are compelled to inhabit roles that are totally artificial. So, if I moved in here tomorrow, my, the fullness of my personality would be shaved off. I’m Dr. Thomas, author of these books. I move in there, and the lowest-ranking staff member has total authority over me. And can make me do anything.

SRUTHI: (sighs)

BILL: That’s true. So–we’re in the front of this building now. And when people come to live here they go in through that door. When they die, they go out through the loading dock door in the back.

SRUTHI: Oh, okay.

BILL: So when a person moves in here, the great likelihood is that they will never leave again. In physics we have a name for that: black hole.

SRUTHI: Bill says that this black hole, this is what he’s been fighting his entire life. You know, he’s come up with these ingenious innovations, and every single one of them has failed. And the whole process has turned him into this like radical, desperate person, but that’s not how he started. Back when he first got into the nursing home game he was a young idealist.

It was 1991. He’d just turned 30. He was done with his medical residency and he moved to the middle of nowhere, upstate New York, he was homesteading, like building a house and raising animals. And the closest place that he could get a job was a nursing home. They were looking for a medical director and Bill said, “How hard could this be?”

BILL: I brought all of my sort of turbo-ER-new-resident-Harvard-doctor stuff to the nursing home. So I’m running around trying to get everybody cured of everything.

SRUTHI: (laughs)

BILL: And there was this wonderful director of nursing, who was like, “Come here, come into my office.” Sat me down and just said to me: “You’re hurting people,” you know? You’re ordering too many tests, and you’re sending people out for too many x-rays. Settle down.”

SRUTHI: Because he’s treating everybody as a case that he can like, cure.

PJ: Like, you’ve got old age! Get over here!

SRUTHI: (laughs) Exactly. And Bill, he actually takes this nursing director’s advice, to settle down, and he starts coming to the nursing home, on his days off, like when there’s nothing to do. And he shows up with a notebook, and he says that he would park himself in a room and just like, take notes of whatever he was seeing.

BILL: And I remember, you know, sitting in what used to be called the solarium, which was really a room with windows in it (laughs). But sitting in the solarium, and you know, 10 AM, I would just say, “Mr. Smith is sitting a wheelchair across from me; 10:30, Mr. Smith is sitting in a wheelchair across from me. 11 o’clock…” This man was like, suspended in time, just waiting for the next thing to happen.

SRUTHI: Everywhere that Bill looked, he just saw loneliness, helplessness. Like, he’d see a woman just waiting for someone to wheel her to lunch and she’s sitting there under the hum of fluorescent lights, there’s no actual conversation between people. And it’s just the noises of a hospital, like, the beeping of medical devices.

BILL: A steady din of people calling out sort of instructions and commands to each other, overhead paging. I started to think of the nursing home almost a strange kind of spaceship that was traveling outside of the earthly biosphere, it was just humans and their machines. That’s all it was. And you could, you know, the–it was the absence of the sound of insects or birds or wind or rain. I mean there was no indication, no auditory indication that this place was even on the, our same planet, really.

I felt a powerful sense that even though the people I was working with, I respected them, they were good at their jobs, the system I was immersed in was not good for elders or other living things.

SRUTHI: Bill thinks: all these people living here, they’re just so cut off from the world that I come from, the world that’s just alive and exciting, and so he comes up with this plan to just shake things up. He applies for a government grant, and when they ask him what he needs the money for, he says, “Animals.”

BILL: Four dogs, eight cats.

SRUTHI: (laughs)

BILL: Four hundred birds.

SRUTHI: No!

BILL: Yeah.

SRUTHI: Why 400?

BILL: Well, it’s healthier to have a pair of parakeets in a cage.

SRUTHI: (laughs)

BILL: Yes, now you see where this is going, yes.

SRUTHI: (laughs)

BILL: You can’t just have one–it’s not fair really to the parakeets, so.

SRUTHI: Back then, in New York State, you couldn’t, you were not allowed to have more than one animal per facility, so that means like one dog or one cat.

PJ: Well they don’t have a birdaterium–like I don’t know what the room, that are like they don’t have a bird–not like a birdhouse but like a bird house in a zoo.

ALEX: Like an–

SRUTHI: Uh, you mean–an aviary.

ALEX: Aviary.

PJ: Sorry I didn’t know the word aviary, guys!

ALEX: It’s cool, a birdaterium–it’s good–good enough for me.

SRUTHI: (laughs) And, I’m like–so by, by some like, some miracle or some oversight, they approve his application. And so he goes out and orders these animals and he also puts up an ad in a local newspaper.

SRUTHI: Do you remember what the ad said?

JUDE: I do indeed. It said, “If you love plants, animals, and children, this job is for you! Apply at Chase Nursing Home.” And, of course, I was absolutely certain that they had messed up two ads, one for a nursing home and one for like, some kind of animal shelter. And so I think perhaps that really stirred my curiosity more than anything.

SRUTHI: Bill ends up hiring this woman, Jude Meyers, as a nurse. And their big day arrives. They were waiting outside the nursing home when the birdman shows up with this giant van.

BILL: He shows up and we’re like, “Great the birds are here!” And you know we had arranged, the cages arrive. And the nice bird man is like, “Where do you want them?” And we’re like, “What do you mean, where do we want them?” And he’s like, “I’ve got to drop him off. You know we can’t, can’t keep them here. They gotta come inside.” So we took the beauty shop at the nursing home and we just let all of the birds loose in the beauty shop.

SRUTHI: What about the cages?

BILL: They all arrived flat–in flat boxes. They all had to be assembled. We didn’t know this. I don’t know why I thought the bird cages would come assembled but they didn’t. So you’d have them–you’d have to take out, open the box, assemble the bird cage, open the door to the beauty room, and go in. (laughs) This is not–I am not kidding. Go in. Get two birds, male and female was best, so.

SRUTHI: (laughs)

BILL: Get two parakeets, get them into the cage, come out. What happened, and this

was one of the very first signs we knew we were on to something, so the beauty, like a lot of nursing homes, the beauty room, salon, has these glassy doors and you can see in. Well the elders started coming and laughing their heads off.

SRUTHI: Bill and Jude told me that the residents themselves were actually changing. Like, Jude described this one man who hadn’t spoken for months, and how he would sit in the cafeteria near a group of ladies that just loved to talk about their birds.

JUDE: And these three women who all had birds, would talk day after day, “My bird…”

SRUTHI: Mmhmm.

JUDE: And I think the man just realized that he was missing out on something really awesome. And so, he was able to articulate to a nurse in the hall one day on the

way back from a meal: “I want a bird.”

SRUTHI: How–do you remember how he articulated it?

JUDE: Verbally, he was able to say that.

SRUTHI: Oh.

JUDE: And then he would talk to the bird. There’s–there’s dozens of stories like that.

SRUTHI: Bill and Jude were so excited about all these things they were seeing, and they decide to give this whole project a name. They call it “The Eden Alternative.”

PJ: But, so, like, in the movie version of this there’s like a stern disciplinarian who is like–

ALEX: Yeah, there’s a Nurse Ratchett.

PJ: Who is like, “Hey now!” Was there that dynamic?

SRUTHI: Yeah. He said people were of course, some of them were upset about the extra work. He got one call in the middle of the night, a nurse who was like, “The dog has taken a shit in the middle of the TV room. I am going to put a chair over it so you can deal with it in the morning.”

ALEX: (laughs) That’s messed up.

SRUTHI: Well he says the reason that he didn’t have a full-scale mutiny is because pretty soon it became clear that it wasn’t just like, fun and games.

BILL: Hang on one second. [door opens]

SRUTHI: He showed me this graph which I found completely incredible.

BILL: I have not looked at this in many years. Look at the death rate that happened at the Eden–where we were doing Eden.

SRUTHI: So, it’s dropping precipitously.

BILL: Precipitously. Now I just want to say as a physician–you never get that. Never–it’s never like that. It’s always like oh it’s a little better we’re doing a little better. This is like a death rate is dropping off a cliff.

SRUTHI: These people just keep on living! And Bill says they’re using less meds, like 30 percent less medication.

ALEX: Just because of the pets?

SRUTHI: Well you know, Bill says that it’s not about the animals per se, it’s more about like this thing that they bring to the nursing home, which is just–almost randomness and excitement.

BILL: If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it–it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity–crushing it. And so when you see a person at a nursing home station where they’re kind of slumped over and everybody is doing their thing, that elder has the potential to be sitting up and looking around. The reason they’re not sitting up and looking around is there’s–there’s no cause.

SRUTHI: Bill feels like he’s figured out this really big thing. And he ends up, you know, doing this same experiment in a few other nursing homes, has the same results, and suddenly there’s all these like news crews showing up.

ARCHIVAL NEWS: True to its name, the Eden Alternative floods a nursing home with a life. “Want to play with her a minute, Rica?” “It’s not like the animals aren’t in a certain place. They are everywhere. We have one dog that knows how to operate the elevator now.”

SRUTHI: Bill and Jude actually end up going on the road with their ideas. And you know, a lot of times when they go visit a nursing home, it’s like Beatlemania. Like, people just love them. And these are some of the best years of Bill’s life. He and Jude fall in love, they get married, they have kids. And they’re travelling the country.

JUDE: We were so thrilled–we thought that whoever grasped a hold of this

concept could take this, and take it back to their home, and make a difference.

SRUTHI: And in that first heady year, they said a thousand nursing homes, like, more than a thousand, joined their Eden revolution. And it felt like a surprisingly easy victory, until…

JUDE: But we would have people who would say, “Oh my gosh, we walked in there, and if this is what Eden’s about, no thank you!”

SRUTHI: Yeah.

JUDE: People didn’t want to do the down and dirty, really make the meaning stick.

SRUTHI: So they would, they would say, “Yeah we got a, we got a cocker spaniel,” you know? “And we, we like take them from room-to-room, once a day. Everyday.”

PJ: From 1 PM to 2 PM.

ALEX: Chaos isn’t chaos if it’s planned.

SRUTHI: Yeah. Exactly. And so at this point Bill is like, “We’re right back where we started!” You know people are dying who don’t have to be, people are sad and lonely, they don’t have to be. And so, he thinks, let’s just change the whole nursing home itself. Like, we can stop warehousing people. In 1999 he comes up with this utopic version of what a nursing home could be, and it’s basically a place that feels like home.

BILL ON INFOMERCIAL: This is a Green House, and it’s designed to be like a house…

SRUTHI: There’s this video where he’s showing a model of this greenhouse that he built in Mississippi.

BILL ON INFOMERCIAL: …wonderful porch. Great front yard. You can imagine it in the summer time with the flowers in bloom…

SRUTHI: It just looks like a suburban home, there’s a garden where people can hang out. You go inside, there’s like a hearth that you can sit around, it’s like Brady Bunch house.

ALEX: How many people are living there?

SRUTHI: So Bill says between 10-12 people, that’s it.

ALEX: Ok.

SRUTHI: So that’s the thing that’s going to actually let you be human in this house. And he spends 15 years trying to get these kinds of nursing homes built. Some of them are.

TAMMY MARSHALL: Every home has a mezuzah, which has a prayer inside…

SRUTHI: I actually went to see one of them, it’s in West Chester, Upstate New York.

TAMMY: So, right away it doesn’t look like a traditional nursing home.

SRUTHI: Yeah, there’s music!

TAMMY: Yeah.

SRUTHI: And the reason I’d gone was to meet this woman, Luisa.

SRUTHI: Hi, Luisa!

SRUTHI: Luisa is 78, she had just moved into the Green House, like very recently, about six months ago, and before that, she told me she was living on her own, in Florida.

LUISA: And I was living all by myself. I drove. I cleaned. I washed. I did everything myself, I had no–I was just normal. And one night I got up from the sofa and I just don’t know how one foot went in front of the other one, I fell forward with my head into the wall. And snapped my spine.

SRUTHI: Luisa had surgery after surgery, ended up losing the use of her arms and her legs, and that’s how she ended up here.

LUISA: It’s been very hard. I don’t know how to sit doing nothing. It hurts. The first couple months, this was horrible. I used to run to the room and cry.

SRUTHI: This Green House, you know, this special nursing home that Luisa lives in, it’s a really nice place. For a nursing home. You know, there’s a really attentive staff, she has her own room. Um, but–the only thing she really thinks about, she says, is her own home. Like, she just renovated her kitchen, and she just keeps thinking, like, this is not the place that I was supposed to end up in.

LUISA: Want to hear something strange? Same thing to happen to my mother happened to me. Fell. Couldn’t walk. Became quadriplegic. And I had to find a place to place her. And I really never–never ever in my life did I feel that something like this would happen to me.

SRUTHI: Right.

LUISA: What am I going to do? It’s happening to me! No–no choice whatsoever.

PJ: It’s just weird. It makes me realize that everybody thinks everybody else is going to a nursing home, nobody feels like they’re the person. Like everybody feels like they’re always going to be able, they’re always going to be fine.

SRUTHI: Yeah, it’s something that you reserve for The Other, right? But, you know, the thing about Bill, is that he doesn’t have that, like advantage. Like he’s never been able to ignore the reality of existence in a nursing home, because Bill and Jude, had, back in the ’90s, they had two daughters, Haleigh Jane and Hannah, and both of them were born with this very rare neurological syndrome.

BILL: Haleigh and Hannah were born with something that’s given the name Ohtahara Syndrome, where the young people are born with cortical blindness, meaning they can’t see, constant seizures, the inability to move their body.

One of the great ironies of life is that I, before Hannah and Haleigh were born, had already committed to to a titanic struggle on behalf, for my part, of people who were very frail and vulnerable, many of whom who could not speak or move or talk to you. And then Haleigh and Hannah were born and in essence two frail elders moved into my house. And not children, not changing, not growing in that way. And it was almost as if, karmically, it was like, “Well, let’s make sure that you don’t forget how important this is.” (laughs)

SRUTHI: When I talked to Bill about the Green House, he said, “Yeah, it didn’t change things the way I wanted it to.” But for him and Jude, there is no way out. And so they said, “You know what, we’ve tried Eden, we’ve tried the Green House. Nothing worked, so screw it. The only way to fix this is by breaking it.”

PJ: After the break, Bill’s last, desperate shot.

[BREAK]

SRUTHI: So Bill’s grand plan that he’s come up with to abolish the nursing home system, it’s motivated by his two daughters. A couple years ago Hannah, his younger daughter, she died from complications and Bill was completely heartbroken. And he says he just poured all his time into thinking about how to make life better for his other daughter, Haleigh Jane. She lives with him, actually she has her own apartment which when you walk into his home there’s a door to the right that goes into her place.

JUDE: Hi Janers!

BILL: So, I want to just introduce you to Haleigh Jane.

SRUTHI: Hello!

BILL: This is Haleigh Jane’s apartment, and Haleigh Jane, my friend Sruthi!

SRUTHI: Hello.

BILL: Came to visit. Oh, and your hair’s still wet.

SRUTHI: She’s 23, looks young. And she was, at that moment, kind of staring off into space. She was in a brace that was essentially forcing her to stand up.

BILL: Standing up helps because it helps her circulation, it’s like a–

SRUTHI: So it’s like, oh I see, so it’s not a chair, it’s a stand-up.

BILL: Yeah, they call it a stander.

SRUTHI: Most kids with Ohtahara die very young, like before they’re even two years old. The fact that Haleigh Jane is in her early twenties is extraordinary. And Bill thinks that part of the reason might be because of the fact that they’ve been able to keep her at home, out of institutions. You know, they take her to the lake house on the weekends, he plays her guitar. They’ve been able to give her, like build this custom life for her to keep her comfortable. And BIll worries that if he and Jude are what’s making this work, then what happens when they’re gone?

SRUTHI: You know, after Hannah’s death, I wonder if you guys were even more worried about what would happen to Haleigh, like if something happened to you guys, do you feel like, “Oh!”

BILL: Sruthi, it terrifies me so much. I cannot speak of it. And I will speak of a lot of things, but if something happens to Jude and I… Uh–that, that’s not a road I’m ready to go down. ‘Cause, you know, we, Jude and I, want to make sure somebody like Haleigh has a choice or has options, and isn’t condemned to an institution. And that gives the minka a great urgency for us.

SRUTHI: So, the minka.

ALEX: OK. What’s the minka?

SRUTHI: So Bill’s big final idea, the minka, which is essentially a house. It’s a small, special house that Bill has designed for one person to live in if they can’t live in their own home. So say they’ve had a fall, it’s actually very expensive to take a regular home and make it accessible. You have to add ramps, you have to change the entire bathroom. So the idea is, here’s a tiny accessible house. Here, let me show you a blueprint. It looks like a tiny –

PJ: It’s neat.

SRUTHI: What an IKEA house would look like.

PJ: Totally. I was going say it looks like a Swedish, you’d be out on like the grounds of a beautiful like modernist space and then you’d just like find this little. It looks, it’s like bigger than a big sauna.

SRUTHI: Yeah, exactly. And Bill took me through his plan.

BILL: So this house is for Haleigh Jane, so there’s a small ramp that’s like built into the earth here. And then this is on a slab. She comes into the house, kind of a sitting area, a small kitchen. Really, honestly what many people would recognize as a studio apartment. But instead of it being a studio apartment, it’s your house. And you can put it where you want and live where you want.

SRUTHI: So Bill’s basically thinking, this is for Haleigh Jane, but it could be customized for anybody. Like say someone who’s older, needs an accessible space. And they can just plop it, say, I don’t know, in their backyard.

ALEX: I’m I’m– My question is, I think about my relatives who are reaching the age at which they need to have round the clock care. And, and this to me just feels like being isolated in a tiny little hut in your backyard. What is the draw for the person who would be living there?

SRUTHI: The idea is basically you can have your own small space and also just live right by your family. You know when he actually was telling me about the minka I thought about Luisa, the woman that I met in the Green House, the nursing home. Because she had mentioned to me that when she first had her big fall and was in a wheelchair, her daughter wanted to put her in her house. And Luisa didn’t want to go there even though she’s close to her daughter because she didn’t want to be a burden. And I feel like that’s a completely understandable feeling.

ALEX: Right.

SRUTHI: And the alternative would have been, like if the minka is a thing, you can create this little space for a person where they can live with their family but not be in that person’s house.

ALEX: It’s sort of like, it’s sort of like the apartment above the garage. But. But wheelchair accessible.

SRUTHI: Yeah exactly. Exactly. But in order for this whole plan to work, the minka–you know Bill has to figure out how to mass produce this like customizable thing. And the way he’s hit upon to do this is by 3D printing the minkas.

ALEX: That makes it sound like it’s made of like very cheap polymer that will fall over if you touch it lightly.

SRUTHI: Uh, It’s not. I actually saw it being printed.

[MACHINE SOUNDS]

SRUTHI: So what pieces is it printing right now?

BILL: We’re printing out, looks like roof rib pieces…

SRUTHI: So the way it works is there’s just regular old construction plywood, all this like insulation foam. And he went online and bought like $15,000 worth of 3D printing equipment, which takes the plywood and foam and like cuts his blueprint designs into it.

PJ: And then does it assemble like Lincoln Logs?

SRUTHI: Yeah.

[MACHINE TURNS OFF]

SRUTHI: But the thing that really stumped me about this whole plan of his is the cost of it. Bill said that the minka, to buy the materials to print it, and to have it installed, it would cost $75,000. That doesn’t include the cost of home care which I assumed would be very expensive. So the whole thing seemed pretty prohibitive. And I just wanted to understand like who could possibly afford to do this. And so I called Tammy Marshall who is the Chief Experience Officer at The New Jewish Home, which is the Green House-style nursing home where Luisa lives.

SRUTHI: You obviously deal with people every day who’ve had to leave their homes for whatever reason.

TAMMY: Every hour.

SRUTHI: Every hour. And the question is like for who would this minka have been a good alternative?

TAMMY: Well there isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. I mean there’s people here that don’t belong here. You know that have been here–this, all that we’re doing here can be done in your home.

ALEX: What??

SRUTHI: Exactly. I mean here is the person who runs a nursing home and she’s saying, “You know what, everybody could be in their home, a minka, whatever.” Like, “Nobody has to be here.” And it’s so crazy to hear that because I think I always assumed that nursing homes existed because they’re cheaper or more efficient. And what I’ve learned is that they’re not they’re actually very, very expensive. They’re far more expensive than home care.

TAMMY: Just think about this. I mean when you’re in a nursing home the average certified nurse assistant who works in the institution–this is always what just blows my mind–they’re paid $15 to $17 an hour. It’s not a huge wage and they’re doing good work. If I’m a home care aide, a home health aide, I’m making $10 to $11 an hour.

SRUTHI: Really?!

TAMMY: Yes. They make almost nothing and they’re schlepping all over, they’re in people’s homes, but their wages are gouged compared to the person who works in the institution. But who’s profiting from that, my dear?

SRUTHI: But wait. So so you’re saying– so, so why don’t more people do home care then? Is it because–

TAMMY: EXACTLY!

ALEX: Why have we stumbled upon such an incredibly broken system and that is the one we’ve chosen?

SRUTHI: It gets wilder! So nursing homes take up a huge chunk of Medicaid costs. So, in New York State, your average nursing home bed costs $135,000 a year. And you know that feeds a lot of different types of companies, there’s like pharmaceutical companies, food companies. You know, it’s just, it’s just a giant system.

PJ: The nursing home industrial complex.

SRUTHI: That’s exactly what people called it. I didn’t want to say it because it sounds a bit…

PJ: Crazy?

SRUTHI: …conspiratorial.

PJ: Well it’s not a conspiracy to be like, we’ve built up a lot of systems. Maybe they weren’t a good idea, but now they have stakeholders. It’s like a bunch people who are like, “You’re telling me that I need to shutter my company so you can build a bunch of houses in your backyard? I don’t think so.”

SRUTHI: Yeah like you have against all of this you have one Bill.

PJ: One Bill. Yeah.

SRUTHI: With his crappy 3D printer.

PJ: The guy with the parakeets? Like he’s going to do it? Like no.

SRUTHI: Yeah I mean, you know but Bill is actually pretty optimistic.

SRUTHI: Can–like do you think the nursing home system, like do you really think it can be broken? Do you really think you can beat them?

BILL: Yes. And I’ll tell you why. Go get the data that shows you the number of nursing homes in America–

SRUTHI: I know the number, I think it’s some 15,000 something.

BILL: Yeah. Used to be 19,000.

SRUTHI: Oh.

BILL: Yeah. 4,000 have already closed.

SRUTHI: This is actually true. You know, it’s not happening quickly, but every year more people are finding a way to get out of the system.

BILL: And the reason I believe that my abolitionist dream will come to pass is, nobody’s going to go on a crash program to rebuild america’s nursing homes. (laughs) So we’re at the end of an era, and it’s our job to figure out what comes next.

[MACHINE STARTING UP]

BILL: Power up, here we go.

SRUTHI: Bill thinks that his minka is going to be the first of many better options…

MAN BUILDING MINKA: …don’t lose your fingers on the last panel…

SRUTHI: …but this minka…

[POWER DRILL]

SRUTHI: …he calls it minka number one…

MAN BUILDING MINKA: …down she goes…

SRUTHI: …it’s for Haley Jane…

BILL: …and right now we’re getting ready to put in the last panel of this minka to make it complete…

SRUTHI: …and the idea is she’s going to be there, she’s going to have full time nursing care. And no matter what happens to Bill and Jude, it’ll be hers.

JUDE: We’re ready!!

BILL: 1…2…3…

JUDE: Please go “ka-ching.”

[THUMP]

JUDE: Yay!! Wow! Awesome! Last panel!

PJ: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is Reply All’s senior reporter.

CREDITS:

PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. The show is produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti and Austin Mitchell. Our editor’s Tim Howard. More editorial help this week from Jorge Just and Pat Walters. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Matthew Boll.

Special thanks to Jules Beal, Sheryl Zimmerman, David Grabowski and Zach Thomas. Also Sruthi says if you want to read more about aging and the medical system, she really loved Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. Go check it out.

Matt Lieber is a book you read in one sitting.

Reply All is now available on Spotify, go check us out there. You can also listen to the show on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, wherever you listen. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you soon.

Introducing Mogul

Today we bring you episode one of Gimlet’s new show, “Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty.”

July 5, 2017

#100 Friends and Blasphemers

An online diary used by American teenagers finds a strange and terrifying enemy.

June 29, 2017
View show transcript

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, This is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ: Okay, so Alex…

ALEX: Yeah?

PJ: I have a story for you today.

ALEX: Alrighty.

PJ: It’s a story about LiveJournal.

ALEX: (sighs) LiveJournal.

PJ: LiveJournal.

ALEX: Okay.

PJ: So I… So… LiveJournal obviously popular early aughts blogging platform based on the idea of like signing onto the internet and putting your diary on the internet. Which I remember when like, as a high school student I was like, “That is nuts. I would never do that.” And what I didn’t realize is like, actually it was like fairly social. Like people were writing and they were like, becoming friends with other people who were writing.

ALEX: Uh yeah I was a frequent denizen.

PJ: You were?

ALEX: Oh yeah I was all over it. I I um… I started my LiveJournal in 2001…?

PJ: What was it called?

ALEX: Uhh. It was just- It didn’t have like a name…

PJ: It had a name. Did it not have a URL? It was just…?

ALEX: Oh uh… it was… This is so embarrassing. All right here we go…

PJ: Yeah..

ALEX: It’s- It’s happening. Um…

PJ: I like that you tried to convince me that it didn’t have a name.

ALEX: Well it’s not like it was like- it was like, “The Unlocked Secrets of Alex Goldman’s Psyche.”

PJ: What was the name Alex?

ALEX: The URL was- It was, um.. It was a- It was a portmanteau of the word “blasphemy” and the word “ephemera.” So it was “blasphemora.”

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX: Yeah it’s- it’s super embarrassing.

PJ: What was your self image that, that was what you were… Why did that appeal to you?

ALEX: Um.. I was going to college to be a journalist. I was convinced I was going to be an iconoclastic, uh, madman in like the style of like Lester Bangs and Hunter Tho- Hunter S. Thompson. Like I thought I was gonna be, um, just this person who had really strong opinions about things and expressed them in very concrete ways..

PJ: So what type of stories did blasphemera concern himself with?

ALEX: Oh god. Um…

PJ: I’m just going to look.

ALEX: Don’t look please don’t look. Please!

PJ: It’s still up?

ALEX: No it’s not. No. Just don’t look. Come on dude. Don’t look! Seriously! Oh God don’t look! Oh I feel like I’m going- I’m gonna die.

PJ: Why? I don’t know if I can find it.

ALEX: Oh thank God. Oh Nooooooooo! (laughing)

PJ: I think I found it. Oh you’re so young. There’s a picture of you and Sarah. Here is like a thing that you wrote in 2009 that at least shows that your personality is static. “Hilarious name for an actual person: Doodoo Topaz.”

ALEX: (laughing)

PJ: Alright you wanna hear September 15th 2008 how you were doing at 4:02 PM?

ALEX: Sure..

PJ: “So hey. Dear diary. I know this place is basically my emotional chamber pot where I drop all my MacGuffins and let them coagulate into sadness stew, but all those internet people who read this are really important to me. Not like you know I want to send you Xmas cards but at least you tolerate it and sometimes comment on it thereby validating my wish to exist. Thanks for helping me exist. I’m sorry I got fat. I’ll try to slim down.” Is that a Wesley Willis lyric?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: And then somebody said, “I like reading about your life and feelings. I hope mine aren’t too irritating to read. You seem like a good egg. And then you said, “The thing I like the best about jive urinal” – funny joke Alex – “..is that I get to piece together personal histories through their verbal subterfuge and those brief, precious moments of candor.”

ALEX: Yeah see. That’s- That’s what I- That is a perfect distillation of everything terrible about me.

PJ: But you’re also being nice to somebody. “In your case it’s especially riveting. I wonder though as you grapple with something that I too seem to grapple with, which is sort of a bottomless negativity and lack of faith in other people, if you think this will ever work itself out.” And then somebody else said , “You still rule!”

ALEX: (laughing) “Have a cool summer!”

PJ: Did you have- Were your Li- Were the people you were talking to on LiveJournal.. Were they people from school or were they people you didn’t know?

ALEX: They were mostly people I didn’t know. I mean, like, so, we all thought of ourselves as profoundly literary.

PJ: Uh huh.

ALEX: And there was like this boosting of one another.

PJ: I’m basically picturing like a bunch of like 15 year old boys wearing tweed jackets and like fake mustaches dressed up as professors having a book club.

ALEX: Were it only that I were 15, but I was 20- I was 21.

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX: Um. I mean.. I think about the connections that I made at that time. I think about, like- They like burned bright in a way that I don’t feel like I replicate in my current life. Like, we were all so.. We were all like just leaving our homes for the first time, our parents’ houses. We were all pretty lost. Like eh- There was something um.. That connection was like extremely important to me.

PJ: Hm.

ALEX: Alright. Come on. Let’s just close it up. We can close it up now. Go ahead and close it up. You can close it.

PJ: Okay, so the actual reason why I brought you here.. So I wanna talk to you about this: Okay, how much do you know about what happened to LiveJournal after you stopped using it?

ALEX: Here’s what I know: While I think user numbers dwindled in the United States, it became really, really really popular in Russia.

PJ: That is also what I had always heard. It’s true but it’s like so insufficient to what actually happened. Like, the same way like Russia somehow is just like- seems to be like infiltrating many strange parts of American society. Like, Russia ate LiveJournal in a way that is wild. Um. Can I tell you the story.

ALEX: Absolutely.

PJ: Okay so, I talked to this journalist named Alexey Kovalev. He lives in Moscow. He says like, he still remembers when LiveJournal got to Russia. It was like, world’s most exciting website, and he knows when it was because he was part of the first group of people to get on.

ALEXEY KOVALEV: I’ve been an active LiveJournal user since 2003–2003. Eh, at the time when it was a, a invite-only based blogging platform. So you had to know someone, uh, to send you an invite code to start an–an account.

PJ: And did it- Was it- At that point was it like, um– Was it kind of cool?

ALEXEY: Oh yeah, surely, Yeah. Uh, it was the kind of thing that, uh, you- You were part of an elite club.

PJ: What’s it called- What’s LiveJournal.. Wha- What does it translate to in Russian?

ALEXEY: ZheZhe! “Th- The Journal of Life.” [CHUCKLES].

PJ: Okay, so, Alexey says like, in the very beginning, his experience of LiveJournal was very similar to your experience, Alex. Like, he made friends with other nerds online. Sometimes they’d meet up in person. He actually met his wife through the site. But things take a really different turn for one big reason:

[MUSIC]

Vladimir Putin.

NEWSPERSON 1: In Russia today the clear winner of the Russian presidential election, Vladimir Putin, began to establish the Putin era.

NEWSPERSON 2: Vladimir Putin, the career spy, talks about establishing what he calls “a dictatorship of the law.”

So Vladimir Putin’s first year in office, 2000. 2001 he immediately starts shutting down the media.

NEWSPERSON 3: Publication of the newspaper Svodnia was suspended and the editorial staff of the magazine Toge was fired….

PJ: Even NTV, which is like the big independent TV network, that gets taken over by the government-run oil company Gazprom. And so for Alexey and like all of his online journalist friends, they’re just watching as all the places they used to write either disappear or get taken over by Putin.

 

ALEXEY: They literally micromanaged the uh- the media. They, uh, call up the editors in chiefs of, uh, TV networks, and tell them what- what to cover, from which angle, what not to cover, etc. So you could- You couldn’t just go to a T.V. station to- to express yourself. Uhh. So the web was the only place.

PJ: There was this one LiveJournal user who was just super pissed at the Kremlin. This guy named Alexey Navalny.

ALEX: Is this a different Alexey than the one you’ve been talking with?

PJ: Yeah, so, this is Alexey Navalny. And Navalny decides he’s gonna use his LiveJournal as a weapon against the government.

ALEXEY: Like, look, there’s, like, the-th- There’s this crazy corruption going on in– these state-owned companies in Russia. And, people are just wasted billions and billions of rubles on these projects that are going nowhere, and getting miraculously rich in the process.

PJ: Everybody knows that the government’s corrupt, but he wants to use his LiveJournal to expose exactly how it works, like how people get paid and how much money they’re taking. And he has a plan to do this. So first step: he buys stock in the big government run oil company.

ALEX: Gazprom?

PJ: Gazprom. And he’s like, “Okay, I’m now a shareholder of Gazprom, and so I’m entitled to see a bunch of financial documents. Send ’em on over.”

ALEX: Oh! (laughing). That’s brilliant.

ALEXEY: And he s- started like, posting, uh, documents that he was entitled to as a shareholder in– in these companies.

PJ: Oh wow. And he’s putting them up on LiveJournal?

ALEXEY: Yeah! Yeah!

PJ: This LiveJournal starts picking up thousands and thousands of readers who tune in every week to see which corrupt government agency Navalny’s gonna get the documents of. And so it’s becoming this big thing, and the government is like, “Huh, we do not like this.”

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: And so if you’re the Russian Government, here’s what really sucks about this: You can’t shut down LiveJournal. Because it’s a US company. The servers are based in the US. IF you want to stop LiveJournal you are going to have to go to war with the website and that is what they do this massive war between an autocratic Russian government and a bunch of geeks with online diaries.

The details of that war after the break.

[BREAK]

PJ: Welcome back to the show. Okay, so the Kremlin wants to destroy LiveJournal, but they already have another problem. Besides the fact that it’s based in the U.S., it is very quickly becoming a super super popular website in Russia, like, millions of Russians are opening accounts. It’s one of the top sites. Everybody loves it. And so, what they have to do is they have to find a way to ruin it.

ALEXEY: They started s-s- infiltrating LiveJournal. Uh. They-

PJ: What do you mean infiltrating?

ALEXEY: Uh. With pro-Kremlin comments and blog posts.

PJ: So like the kind of thing that people were talking about in the U.S. during the election? Like- like –paid political operates showing up and- eh and just writing, like-

ALEXEY: Yeah!

PJ: Really…

ALEXEY: Yeah. “Putin is great.” uhh, uh, th- these people would say. And they were paid for it.

PJ: These trolls were coming from a Kremlin office called the Kremlin Federal Youth Agency. It was a propaganda wing, and messing with LiveJournal was like an entry-level propaganda job in the Russian Government. So, Putin sticks all these people on paid trolls on people’s blogs.

PJ: Did everybody have a sense immediately of like “Oh gee a bunch of like really pro-Putin people just showed up all at the same time..” like, did you kind of know what was probly going on?

ALEXEY: Yeah it was really, really obvious.

PJ: Emails actually leaked out later that had the rates that these guys were getting paid to troll Alexey and his friends. It would be 85 rubles for a comment, and then a bonus: 200 rubles if you could trick somebody into arguing with you.

ALEX: (laughs) That’s so funny because I think of it as just being pure noise. I think of it as the equivalent of those people who, um, who hack fa-, who trick fax machines into just printing out a bunch of ink until they run out of ink. It’s like they’re trying to distract people in such a way that they’re like, “Well it’s not worth engaging.”

PJ: Yeah. Alexey calls it “black noise.” But, it didn’t matter, actually, because, LiveJournal was growing and growing. There were all these Russian who were coming to it because they were depending on LiveJournal instead of the government for really crucial information.

ALEXEY: My favorite story from 2010… There was, uh, like a- a massive catastrophic heat wave in Russia. And, uh… There were wildfires uh, around Moscow, and uh, all of Moscow was engulfed when- in toxic smoke.

PJ: Actually, the videos are still online. Can I show you one of ’em.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Okay.

[VIDEO SOUND]

PJ: Just look at this. These guys are like driving through it.

ALEX: Oh my god!

PJ: Right. Like it looks like a movie about people driving through the sun.

ALEXEY: And, it was actually one of the first times when, uh, people, uh, realized that the government cannot help them because it’s just really not equipped to. And uh people start buying like fire hoses and organizing on LiveJournal, and going to these, uh, wildfire sites and putting fires out, helping the victims.

PJ: That’s so cool.

ALEXEY: -Uh- Yeah.

PJ: So the other thing that all this does is it makes the government look terrible. Like all these people on LiveJournal are being heroes and the government’s being left behind. And so this one really young guy from Putin’s political party, he has a bright idea.

ALEXEY: Uh, and he it thought, “Why don’t I just, you know, jump on the bandwagon?”And he’s- he and his, uh, pro-government friends went to a place outside Moscow where there weren’t any wildfires. So they set a bush on fire.

PJ: Oh my god.

ALEXEY: Yeah. And pretended to put it out. So..(laughs).

PJ: (laughs). That is so dark.

PJ: And so this guy made a video to show how brave he and his friends are. Alexey actually sent it to me afterwards. Can I just- Can I show it to you?

ALEX: Yes.

PJ: Okay so uh we are in a forest.

[WIND SOUND]

ALEX: Th-We’re..(laughs) It sort of looks like someone turned a fog machine on in the woods.

[YELLING]

PJ: I know it’s like such a tiny fire and there’s so many men putting it out.

[FADES]

PJ: So the dude in the video, he posted it online.

ALEXEY: And they were- Two seconds after he posted this, he was exposed by activists who were actually keeping a- an online map of all the active fires around Moscow. And they said, “Dude. Nothing’s on fire in that entire region.”

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: And what did they do? Was it a scandal? Did they get caught out or is it impossible to scandalize folks in like, a propagandistic country like that?

PJ: Uh, well the guy who actually orchestrated the whole thing, he ended up being elected to parliament.

ALEX: Of course. Of course he did.

PJ: So… Russian government still controls all of the real world. But LiveJournal is this one little place where, when they go on, like, things do not turn out well for them. And so you’d think they’d keep trying to destroy it, but, they’d like, stop posting on it. And instead the exact opposite happens. All these really high level Russian politicians start their own LiveJournals. And that’s actually where things get really ugly. Like this is where things turn bad. Because, one of those politicians, his name’s, Andrey Turchak.

Turchak’s reading LiveJournal one day, and he finds this post by a journalist named Oleg Kashin. And the post is not nice. Kashin is talking about how the only reason Turchak’s governor is because his rich Dad is friends with Putin, and it’s guys like Turchak who are destroying federalism in Russia. And- and then Kashin really insults Turchak.

ALEXEY: He used a- an epithet like “Yeah if, uh- This guy is just a piece of shit. He’s not a, eh, he’s not a real politician.”

PJ: The literal translation is “covered in shit.”

ALEX: [laughs] That’s a pretty sick burn.

PJ: Yeah. And so Turchak within minutes of Oleg’s original post is in the comments, and in his comment, he’s like, “Young man, you have 24 hours to apologize. You can do it here. You can do it with a separate post. But the countdown has begun.”

PJ: And so what actually happens next is there’s a video. There’s security camera footage. So it’s a little bit hard to see. But, here. This is nighttime in Moscow, where Oleg lives.

ALEX: Okay.

PJ: He’s by his apartment. It’s black and white, but like you can see that’s him walking.

ALEX: Can you turn it toward me?

PJ: Yeah here. So this is him walking. He’s getting approached by this guy.

ALEX: Mhm.

PJ: The guy taps him and he’s holding what looks like a bouquet of flowers. He pulls an iron rod out of the bouquet and just starts beating him.

ALEX: Oh my god.

PJ: This other guy comes up. He starts beating him.

ALEX: Oh this is so brutal…

PJ: Um an- and this was like- Like Oleg is certain that these guys were sent by Turchak. They’d been sent by the governor.

ALEXEY: He hired hitmen and paid them several million rubles to get this, uh, this guy beaten with the, uh, specific instructions to break his fingers, so that he knows that, uh, uh, what to type and what no-not to. And that’s- that’s what they did with a- with an iron rod.

PJ: Jesus.

ALEXEY: Yeah.

PJ: He ended up in a coma. He had to have one of his fingers amputated.

ALEX: Oh my god, that’s horrible.

PJ: But weirdly like, political violence, like, what happened to Oleg, that’s not the kind of thing that eventually defangs LiveJournal. In the end, the way the Kremlin is able to finally beat LiveJournal, it’s like, it’s depressingly simple. So here’s what happens:

One day a Russian businessman shows up and makes a surprisingly generous offer to buy LiveJournal from its American owner. The site gets sold, and now it’s a Russian company. And so now, all the censorship laws that are applied to Russian newspapers are applied to LiveJournal. Big anonymous accounts are banned, and people who say the wrong thing on LiveJournal, they’re fined or they’re thrown in jail. And so people stop saying the wrong things on LiveJournal. They leave. The final death blow was actually delivered just this past winter.

ALEXEY: LiveJournal became a Russian hosted website.

PJ: Like, moved the servers out of the U.S.?

ALEXEY: Uh yeah. It’s- it’s owned and, uh, managed by Russians and hosted in Moscow.

PJ: Which I assume means that…

ALEXEY: All of your data are available to, uh, the Russian Security Services.

PJ: Russian Security Services have access to everything now. Like they have Oleg’s blog, they have Alexey’s blog, they have other Alexey’s blog. But also, like, they have like, like George R.R. Martin has a LiveJournal. Russia has George R.R. Martin’s LiveJournal. They have your LiveJournal. Like, blaspherema exists in a place where if like, Putin for some reason really wants to read it, he can.

ALEX: So they just can walk in and do whatever they want on the servers there.

PJ: Yeah. But the silver lining according to Alexey is that while nobody he knows is writing on LiveJournal anymore, they’re all still writing. Like, they’re writing things that the government doesn’t like. It’s just, they do it in English language papers, or they do it on their own personal websites. Actually, Navalny, the guy who bought the shares in Gazprom, and had the anti-corruption blog, he’s now the leader of the opposition party in Russia. The Kremlin just banned him from running for President. So dissent still exists, it just- it doesn’t exist on LiveJournal. I actually- I asked Alexey, like, if he even still had his own LiveJournal just cause I- I wanted to see it. And he said he absolutely could not show it to me.

ALEXEY: My personal one is in private mode now.

PJ: Oh, Okay.

ALEXEY: So you- you cannot see it.

PJ: And is that for reasons of journalistic safety or is it for reasons of like LiveJournals are embarrassing?

ALEXEY: I mean if you eh-you-uh- If you look back at eh-uh at things you posted online, uh, fifteen years ago (laughing) and all, eh, all of it is still online. So, uh, couple of years ago I just put it in private mode just to save myself the embarrassment.

PJ: (laughing)

PJ: You know, in the end the thing that’s really interesting to me is what these guys were posting in a way, it was like blasphemy but it was also like ephemera.

ALEX: Get the fuck out of here.

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX: I hate you so much. I can’t believe you did that.

PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. We were edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is an all-mango fruit basket. You can visit our website at replyall.limo. You can find more episodes of the show on Spotify. We’re also on Apple Podcasts, and anywhere else that you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.

#28 Shipped to Timbuktu

An email to the wrong address sends us hurtling into the world of professional cookie advisors. Plus, a new Yes, Yes, No. This is a rebroadcast of a story.

June 22, 2017
View show transcript

PJ: So I’ve got this friend, let’s call him Dale. Dale has a gmail address that’s pretty generic, like dsmith@gmail.com. And people who have email addresses like these get a lot of emails that aren’t meant for them, like email wrong numbers. And this happens to Dale all the time. Last time I saw him, he’d just gotten an email written completely in Spanish from a kid somewhere asking if he can turn in an assignment late. Another time, he got a letter congratulating him on the low insurance rate for his two-door Chevy Cobalt. He doesn’t have one. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Dale’s a nice guy but he likes to mess with people. He likes to play pranks. So Dale answers the emails. Here’s one he got a while back.

DALE: I think it started off, “Hey Ladies, to all Calgary area district commissioners and district cookie advisors:” and then it it started talking about how they had a bunch of stale cookies that they didn’t know what to do with, and we gotta move them off the shelves, if they’re past the expiration date then we can’t use them in the next cookie campaign.

PJ: The emails continue and Dale learns that the world of professional cookie advising is surprisingly bureaucratic. At the top, there’s a national cookie advisor, and then beneath her there are provincial cookie advisors who report up, and then beneath them, there are district cookie advisors. He was picturing a corporate office building with a lot of people in fancy business clothes talking about cookies all day. And Dale decides that what he should do is send an intentionally stupid email detailing all these asinine solutions to their stale cookie problem. He says the advisors should sharpie over the expiration dates on the packages. Or he says they could just eat all the stale cookies themselves.

DALE: In my mind I was thinking no one’s gonna believe this, what a stupid email to write to somebody. Who would hire a person with suggestions like these?

PJ: Instead, Cynthia, who’s the Calgary area cookie advisor, responds to Dale’s email with complete polite cheerfulness. She sends him a cookie freshness calculator to help him sort his stale cookies from fresh cookies. So Dale responds with even stupider responses. He was trying to make it more obvious that he was just kidding.

DALE: I said, “What’s the status on the cookies? Yarr, me so hungry” with a picture of cookie monster. and I think she responded with something along the lines of, “Those orders were supposed to go in a month ago, or did I misunderstand your question?”

PJ: Rather than clarifying, Dale asks her, why are we even in the cookie advising business? He said his clients, they’re all about chocolate bars now.

DALE: And Cynthia responded, “Chocolate bars,” question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark. All of my other suggestions were met with like, “Oh maybe I misunderstood or something,” but this one was very emphatic, it was like, “Chocolate bars?!!!”

PJ: It actually seemed like Dale had touched a nerve, because after that cookie advisor world went quiet.

DALE: There was radio silence after that. I felt bad. I felt like I was in a little bit too deep maybe.

PJ: The original email he’d gotten had been meant for a woman named Debbie. What if he’d gotten Debbie in trouble, or even just made her look bad.

DALE: I’m a little afraid. I’d like to think that, oh they just got it sorted out and now it’s funny and Debbie is in on the joke and everybody can laugh at me and I hope that they’re not laughing at poor Debbie. They’re just people trying to do their cookie job.

PJ: Hello?

CYNTHIA: Hello.

PJ: Hi Cynthia?

CYNTHIA: Yes, it’s me.

PJ: Hi it’s PJ. How are you doing?

PJ: I wanted to find out if Dale’s prank had hurt anybody, so I tracked down Cynthia. She lives in Calgary. Cynthia has multiple sclerosis, so it can be hard for her to talk. Her friend Sheila volunteered to help out and I read them the emails.

PJ: “And of course the obvious solution is to eat them during our next member meeting. Please discuss with the rest of area and I will forward your decision on to national. Thanks so much.” Do you remember getting that?

CYNTHIA: You know, I don’t but-

SHEILA: We get a lot of questions all across Alberta at cookie time. Often they have suggestions that don’t always fly. So we find a way to respond to them as best we can.

PJ: Cynthia and Sheila explained that they were part of Girl Guides. In the US, we have Girl Scouts. Most everywhere else they call them Girl Guides. Like the Girl Scouts, they wear uniforms, collect merit badges, and sell cookies to their parents’ friends. Coordinating the thousands of underage cookie salespeople can be a logistical headache, and so some adults volunteer as cookie advisors. Those advisors frequently field confused emails. And they’re used to handling them diplomatically. That’s why Cynthia was so patient with Dale. It was her job. But she was very patient with me. Even as, for reasons unclear even to me, I explained to them the whole pattern of events that had led Dale to email her.

PJ: Yeah I guess the email was meant for a Debbie but it went to a Dale.

CYNTHIA AND SHEILA: Ohhhhhhh.

CYNTHIA: Now it’s starting to make a little bit of sense.

PJ: The thing about talking to Cynthia and Sheila on the phone, is that they had this tone of voice. It had been in the emails too. And I was starting to think of it as girl guide voice. Girl guide voice is cheerful and patient, unrelentingly so.

PJ: Is there like a cookie general?

CYNTHIA: Cookie general?

SHEILA: No. We have advisors and commissioners but that’s about the extent of the military terms.

PJ: And when I started reading about Girl Guides, I found out that that helpful, sunny tone is hardwired into their original mission statement, which reads, “A girl smiles and sings under all difficulties.” So, all difficulties. When I first read this I’m thinking that this is hyperbole.

JANIE HAMPTON: Hello.

PJ: Hi, can you hear me okay?

JANIE: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

PJ: It’s not. I talked to this woman named Janie Hampton. And she told me about this thing that happened that I literally found unbelievable. So a few years ago, Janie decided to write a book making fun of the Girl Guides.

JANIE: I have to admit that when I started writing the book I thought, you know I’m gonna make this a bit of a satire, and laugh at them.

PJ: Honestly it was sort of a Dale thing to do. And Janie says most people think about girl guides the way she did. They’re not considered cool.

JANIE: What we call naff nowadays.

PJ: What’s naff?

JANIE: Sort of unfashionable. Nerdy. Do you use the word nerd?

PJ: Oh we absolutely use the word nerd. I’ve had it applied to me.

JANIE: Right.

PJ: So, Janie sets out to tease some nerds. But then she starts researching and one day she’s deep in the girl guides archive in their London headquarters. And she finds this old notebook. It’s small. Seven by ten. And the book is a handwritten log of everything one Girl Guide troop did, years ago.

JANIE: And it said, we did skipping and we did knots and we did all sorts of jolly things. And then I came across this song that they’d written. And it said, “we sang our song yesterday, and it went: ‘we might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It’s not repatriation. Nor is it yet starvation. It’s simply concentration in Chefoo.’” And I thought, what on earth does that mean? Concentration in Chefoo?

PJ: Janie doesn’t know where Chefoo is, but she’s sure it’s not in England. So she looks it up. Chefoo is – was – a place in China. A coastal city. It’s a good seven thousand miles from London. According to the guides’ logbook, the song had been written and performed by a group of girl guides for a concert on Christmas Day, 1942. This Christmas concert, Janie discovers, was held in Chefoo. But not at a school. The girl guides sang their song in a concentration camp. Janie was baffled. Why would a concentration camp in China have a singing girl guide Troop? So Janie starts digging, and she finds another, more complete log of what happened to these girl guides. It’s a website, run by an an old Belgian man named Leopold.

LEOPOLD PANDER: Leopold Pander. I’m seventy four years old.

PJ: So, the good news: Leopold was an actual witness, he was born in China, ended up in the same camp as these Girl Guides. The bad news:

LEOPOLD: I try to remember something but nothing comes back to me.

PJ: He has absolutely no memories, except for this nightmare he used to have when he was a kid. At the time it hadn’t made sense to him, but later he thought it must’ve taken place at the camp.

PJ: What was the dream that you would have?

LEOPOLD: Well, I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope, it’s a brown earth and there are big stones next to myself. Dirty earth and people running all over the place.

PJ: Are there sounds?

LEOPOLD: No sound. Absolutely no sound. Somebody picks me up and then I wake up. That’s all I remember. But the problem is, the curiosity is that that dream came back very often!

PJ: Leopold grows up, and as an adult, he wants to know about this place that he used to dream about. And so he builds a website. He invites people to write in with memories of the camp. And the story he learns is pretty crazy.

NEWS: Japan’s latest invasion of China which has already lasted two years is war on a huge scale.

So I did not know this, but during World War Two, when Japan occupied China, they built concentration camps that were filled with American and British and other European civilians…

NEWS: Japanese put their prisoners of war to work.

PJ: …civilians who’d been living in China. One of those camps was called Weihsien. That was Leopold’s camp. And among the inmates at Weihsien were a group of children. They were American and British. They were mostly the kids of missionaries. And they’d been studying at a boarding school called Chefoo. Japanese troops invaded Chefoo and captured the kids and eventually brought them to Weishen.

JANIE: With their teachers but no parents. So about a hundred and fifty children, who for four years were in this camp. And the teachers had very sensibly taken with them books, paper, musical instruments…

PJ: And, of course one more thing:

JANIE: Brownie uniforms, guide uniforms, all the things they thought, we’re going to need this sort of thing to keep the kids occupied.

PJ: In the Japanese camps, there was very little food. Prisoners died of starvation. Take Weixen, imprisoned monks would smuggle in eggs and then everyone would share them, and then they’d also have the kids eat the ground up eggshells just to get some extra calcium. And the camp had almost no infrastructure. The prisoners had to build their little world from nothing, their own kitchens, their own lavatories, their own hospitals and their own Girl Guide Unit. The logbook Janie had found was the record kept by one of the girl guide’s leaders. The leaders were called Brown Owls.This one was a woman in her twenties. And the tone of her writing was the exact same cheerful, impervious to bad news tone that Dale’s Cookie Advisor email thread had had. This is the entry from the day they were marched into the camp: “Hullo. What’s this? Behind bars? Yes. It’s Weihsien camp! Well I guess there’s a good deal of fun to be got out of this. Just the place to earn some badges.” According to the logbook, The Brown Owl ran the troop as if it were any other girl guide unit. Concentration camp or not.

JANIE: They were all told: It doesn’t matter how disgusting the food is, we still want good table manners. It doesn’t matter how hungry you are, you’re not going to steal. You’re still going to do a good deed every day and help other people.

PJ: Obviously, the grim sadness of life in a concentration camp should have overpowered this miniature world that the Brown Owls were trying to build for their young girls. But according to Janie, that’s not what happened. Instead, it was the girl guides who started to exert an influence on the adults around them. They led by example.

JANIE: It made a difference to all the adults in this camp and kept them going. The whole atmosphere was better because they had this very strong promise that they wouldn’t stop smiling. They wouldn’t give up. They would carry on singing songs. They would insist on everybody washing.

PJ: This is the point where I wondered, was this true? I didn’t think that anyone was necessarily lying to me, I just thought probably the Brown Owl had left the bad stuff out of her log book. I figured she’d put the best possible spin on an awful situation. That’s what girl guides do, right?

PHIA BENNIN: Oh and the door’s open? Oh, hello!

MARY PREVITE: C’mon in!

PJ: Fortunately, there’s a woman who’s still alive and remembers Weihsien.

PJ: It’s the first time I think I’ve been right on time.

MARY: You timed that out. I mean from New York!

PJ: Her name is Mary Previte. She lives in New Jersey. I visited her with my producer Phia Bennin.

MARY: Oh by the way, can I pour you some tea? I am so bad about this.

PJ: Mary Previte is a small, beautiful eighty-two year old woman. She’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I don’t know if anybody I’ve interviewed has ever fully broken into song, unprompted. Mary did. Seven times. She’s like a real-life Mary Poppins or Maria Von Trapp. Also, unlike Leopold, Mary has a phenomenal memory. She told me about the day that Japanese troops arrived at her boarding school.

MARY: The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese showed up on the doorstep of our school. They put seals with Japanese writing on everything, the tables, the chairs, the pianos, the desks, everything belonged to the great Emperor of Japan. And then they put armbands on us, everyone had to wear an armband, A for American, B for British, whatever our nationality was.

PJ: The girls were eventually transferred into Weihsien. And Mary became a concentration camp girl guide. This was over seventy years ago, but when Mary talks about the camp, it sounds like she’s still there, like she’s twelve years old again. She said the story about the Brown owls insisting on good table manners, absolutely true.

MARY: So you’re eating some kind of glop, out of maybe boiled animal grain cause goulain is a broomcorn that the Chinese feed to their animals, was often what they fed us, and you’re eating it out of a soap dish or a tin can, and here comes Miss Stark up behind us, one of our teachers: “Mary Taylor, do not slouch over your food while you are eating! Do not talk while you have food in your mouth! And there are not two sets of manners, one set of manners for the princesses in Buckingham Palace and another set of manners for the Weishen concentration camp!”

PJ: Mary was separated from her parents, unsure of when she’d be released, surrounded by attack dogs and men with guns. She says that she spent a lot of her time just thinking about earning merit badges. In the winter, it would get cold, freezing. But no heat was provided to the prisoners by the guards. Instead, Mary and her friends had to go collect left over coal shavings from the guard’s quarters.

MARY: I remember now the ritual of going to Japanese quarters to get the coal dust and carry it back.

PJ: Like making a new pencil from pencil shavings. Except the coal was heavy, and it had to be passed bucket by bucket in a line of girl guides. Then the shavings had to be mixed with dust and water and dried into balls of coal. It was long hard work. And then at the end of it, you still had to go use the recycled coal in a pot bellied stove, and keep the stove lit so that everybody would be warm. It sounded horrible. Like a childhood from a Charles Dickens novel. Except Mary remembers it as being surprisingly fun. A game she could win.

MARY: I and my partner Marjorie Harrison, we won the competition in our dormitory of which stove lighting team made the pot bellied stove in the winter turn red hot more times than any other girl in the camp. Well, you know here I am eighty-two years old and what do I choose to tell you? I won the pot belly turn red more times with me and Marjorie Harrison than any other girl in our dorm!

PJ: When you describe it it sounds like you’re describing summer camp instead of describing like a concentration camp. Did it feel like summer camp?

MARY: Well I never was in a summer camp so I can’t give you a, no. No, no. Absolutely, not. When you had guard dogs, bayonet drills, electrified wires, barrier walls, pill boxes with guards, armed guards in them, you know, you weren’t in a summer camp. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying this was fun city. I’m telling you we lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.

PJ: There’s reference in the logbook to the trouble the adults were having keeping it together, but you’d have to know to look for it. A scout leader writes one entry that reads “Dear me! What a tragedy! Brown owl had an attack of neuralgia — let’s hope she better for our meeting.” Neuralgia is a nerve disease, but what that actually meant was that the Brown Owl was having a nervous breakdown. Years later, Mary went and tracked down one of the grown ups.

MARY: I said Miss Carr, what were you feeling when we were in a concentration camp? Well, all the grown ups in the camp knew about The Rape of Nanking.The atrocities the guards, the soldiers had done when they came to the southern city of Nanking.

PJ: Japanese soldiers went door to door systematically raping and killing tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.

Mary: So they knew what could happen. The teachers knew what could happen. So I said to Miss Carr, What were you feeling? She said, Well I would pray to God, that when they lined us up along the death trenches, and they were outside the camp, when they lined us up to shoot us so our bodies would fall into the death pits, that I would be one of the first, so I didn’t have to see it.

PJ: So there were two sets of prayers. At night, the grown-ups, many of them not much older than the kids themselves, prayed grimly for a fast death. And then they woke up in the morning and they sung psalms with the kids, set to bouncy camp melodies.

MARY: It was like you weren’t going to be afraid if you could sing about it. We would sing, “day is done, gone the sun, from the sea, from the hills, from the sky, all is well, safely rest, god is nigh.” How can you be afraid when you’re singing about “all is well, safely rest, god is nigh?” How could you be afraid of that? So we were constantly putting things into music. Often, there was a little bit of a twist of fun to it. One of the songs that we sang was, “We might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo, It’s not repatriation, nor is it yet stagnation, it’s only concentration in Chefoo.

PJ: There probably aren’t many places on earth where you have less reason to be cheerful than a concentration camp. But it turns out in a place like that, being able to be cheerful, to have a positive outlook, it’s not dopey or silly. It’s how you survive. How you tell the story matters.

MARY: I can still, for example, one of the things that we sang when the Japanese were marching us into concentration camp was the first verse of Psalm forty-six: “God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength” and on it goes, “in trouble we will not be afraid,” all of these words, just sung into our hearts, that sticks. It’s like you’ve got a groove, sticking in the gramophone record. I am safe, I am safe, I am safe. That was just profound.

PJ: The first Chefoo brownies warded off despair for four years. Until finally, on August 17, 1945, they were rescued.

MARY: It was a windy day.

PJ: Mary remembers the American plane flying low over the camp.

MARY: Then the parachutes falling from the sky. All I knew was I was running to find whoever it was that was dropping out of the sky beyond the barrier walls.

LEOPOLD: I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope. It’s a brown earth.

MARY: And the people went berserk.

LEOPOLD: People running all over the place.

MARY: People were crying, screaming, dancing.

LEOPOLD: Somebody picks me up and then I wake up.

PJ: Leopold says the nightmare that used to haunt him is just his memory of that day, of being a four year old, lost and wandering around a riot of freed concentration camp survivors. Most of the people who were there on liberation day are now dead. One of the dormitories at Weihshen’s a memorial, but mostly, the place exists as a footnote in some books, on a website designed by a Belgian man, and in the memories of the remaining survivors. It’s a half disappeared world with a strong pull on the people who do still remember it. A couple weeks ago, at the grocery store, I watched a gang of brownie scouts rush down the pet food aisle. They had their uniforms on, covered in merit badges for public speaking and backyard astronomy. They were happy and safe in their own world, well-fed and rich and a million miles from Weishen. I wondered if they knew what they might be capable of.

Coming up after the break: The Riddler.

AD BREAK

 

ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to “Yes Yes No,” the segment on the show where our boss, Alex Blumberg, comes to us with stuff that he finds on the internet that he doesn’t understand and we explain it to him. And then afterwards he’s like, “That’s it?”

PJ: Okay, so this is like, this is not typical in that this is a thing that I found on the internet that I don’t understand.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mixin’ it up.

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX: Go for it.

PJ: I don’t want to be agist or whatever, but I did look at it and I was like, “Maybe this is a thing that’s like a reference Alex knows that I don’t know.

ALEX: Oh.

PJ: Because of agism.

BLUMBERG: Oh.

ALEX: Which Alex?

BLUMBERG: Happy to help you out, sonny.

PJ: That one. Okay.

BLUMBERG: This is a tweet that you don’t know.

PJ: It’s not only do I not know, but like a lot of people are reacting to it so it means something. So you guys know who Adam West is.

ALEX: Yes.

BLUMBERG: Yes.

PJ: He played Batman on the old campy Batman.

BLUMBERG: Yes.

ALEX: Mmmhhhmm.

PJ: So I was looking up his Twitter account for other reasons and. . .

ALEX: Hold on, can we just like have a break out session here? What does other reasons mean?

PJ: It’s not like embarrassing or anything. It just feels like a long story. There’s this Twitter account that just tweets that Batman, like from the 60’s or whatever. They just tweet the labels from that show. It’s called like Batman Labels and it’s so funny, cuz they’re really specific. It’s like, “Anti-theft Joker spray” or whatever. Like they’re, they’re, they were clearly the sign designer on that show was having a lot of fun.

BLUMBERG: Yeah.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: So they tweet that so I’ve just been like

BLUMBERG: : by the way i used to watch that show i had no idea it was comedy.

PJ: Me ,too!

BLUMBERG: Yeah, yeah.

PJ: So Adam West, that Batman, I was looking at his Twitter cuz I’ve been like thinking about it a lot and having weird Batman dreams because of it. And this tweet, like he tweets stuff and people like are whatever. This tweet like went crazy and it makes no sense to me. So, he says, “At my age I try not to let myself get bored. No nincompoopery allowed.” And then there’s a picture of him and he looks kind of plaintive. And in one hand he’s holding a bunch of grapes and the other hand he’s holding a garlic head.

What does that mean? Like I’ve never felt more profoundly “no” in my life. Like the old grapes and garlic joke? There,. . .you don’t look in @ replies and get more. . .

ALEX: Clarity?

PJ: No, cuz it’s all people who are just responding to a famous person. “You sure aren’t a nincompoop in my book. You look great for your age!?” Like he didn’t ask that question. Like, that sorta thing.

BLUMBERG: What’s crazy is like how much, how many people are coming on to him in his @ mentions.

PJ: What did they say?

BLUMBERG: “Are you modeling for a still life Mr. West? You’re still such a fine figure of a man.” And then there’s another one, like, “Wow, you’re a real hottie.” Stuff like tha. . .it’s just weird.

PJ: It’s not the the point of the thing.

BLUMBERG: “No nincompoopery allowed.” I have no idea.

PJ: But here’s what I wonder is if this actually a pure “No No No” tweet? Like if this was something like a joke he had with his wife or like his kid and he was like, “Brawp, put it on Twitter. People will just tell me I look hot. It doesn’t matter.”

ALEX: Heh.

PJ: Like, did anyone ever get this?

ALEX: I wonder if it’s somehow a joke about like a classic painting featuring a still life.

PJ: Called like “The Nincompoop”?

ALEX: Called like, “Still Life with Nincompoop, Grape, and Garlic.”

PJ: I looked up the definition of “nincompoop” to make sure it didn’t mean something I didn’t know about. It means exactly what you think it means. This is one where like I want. . .if we don’t know, I want to call Adam West.

ALEX: All right. So we have to call Adam West.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Alright.

PJ: Alright.

BLUMBERG: Bring me back here when you find out.

PJ: Hold on a second. Okay. Alex. So it’s been 24 hours and I have news. So, Phia was able to get contact information for Adam West in under an hour. And I called him to find out what his tweet meant.

BLUMBERG: Huh . .

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: : What?

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: : Shut up.

PJ: Seriously.

BLUMBERG: : That’s why you brought me back into the studio?

AG/PJ: Yes

BLUMBERG: : Oh my god.

PJ: And I am now at a “yes” for this.

ALEX: I’m dying to know what it means.

PJ: You said that sarcastically but I know you mean it.

ALEX: No, I, I was not being sarcastic. I so desperately want to know what this means. Now more than ever because I just don’t like you having info. . .having knowledge that I don’t have.

PJ: Oh, get used to it. Anyway, so I called him.

ADAM WEST: Desert bat cave.

PJ: Hi, is this Adam West?

ADAM: It is.

PJ: Hey, it’s PJ. How’s it going?

ADAM: It’s going great.

PJ: Did you just say “desert bat cave?”

ADAM: Well it’s – you’re, you’re calling me in Palm Springs.

PJ: Oh, I’ve been there once, it is a beautiful beautiful place. It is not like New York in spring which is gray and cold and horrible.

ADAM: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I like New York in … what, what was the old song? “I like New York in June?”

PJ: What song is that?

ADAM: That was an old Cole Porter song, I believe. You see. . .

PJ: He sounded like the most normal nice man in the world. We talked for, like, probably 35 minutes and then at the end I was like, I hung up and I was like, “Wait I never really asked him about the tweet.” And then I called him back and was like, “Hey Adam West. I’m so sorry to bother you again.”

So…okay. So the tweet. . .the deal is, it’s a joke about vampires. The reason he’s holding garlic and grapes, is the joke is like, “Oh what if you’re such a nincompoop you that didn’t know like which of these things warded off vampires, garlic or grapes.”

ADAM: Yes.

PJ: Ah.

ADAM: What if you were such a nincompoop you didn’t know and you thought it would be grapes and not garlic.

PJ: That makes sense to me. And So it was almost like a skit, but then the caption is being like, you’re saying like, “Oh, I don’t mess around.” But obviously you’re messing around.

ADAM: Yeah, I think was too obtuse.

ALEX: He’s like describing a joke that he made to himself.

PJ: Yes. It’s an Alex Goldman tweet.

ALEX: Oh, it’s totally an Alex Goldman tweet.

BLUMBERG: : I still don’t get it. He’s describing a joke that he made to himself about vampires? What?

ALEX: All right, all right. Here’s the scenario.

BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX: Imagine a guy. A guy who is so old and dumb, he doesn’t know whether grapes or garlic ward off vampires. And he thinks to himself, “It’d be super funny to tweet this, but not give people the vampire reference, so they have no idea what I’m talking about.”

PJ: It took me 40 minutes to get where Alex just got in half a second.

ALEX: Except vampires were never mentioned in the tweet, so .

BLUMBERG: : But then, “At my age I try not to get bored.” What is that, what’s that, so I come up with amusing scenarios to amuse myself and take pictures of them?

PJ: I think exactly.

BLUMBERG: : Ok – Alex Goldman, so you’ve, you’ve sent tweets like this?

ALEX: On April 12th, I was just looking through my Twitter feed.

PJ: I’m sorry.

ALEX: On April 12th I tweeted the words “Elk Neck”.

BLUMBERG: : … So anyway, PJ

PJ: Yeah yeah yeah.

ALEX: It got 8 favorites.

PJ: Yeah, and similarly, if people really liked you like they like Adam West, like, that got like 100 retweets. There’s a, there’s a, a point where people were just like, “Adam West is just goofing around. I don’t need to full. . .I don’t need understand this on a 1-1 level. I like him and he’s goofin’ around and I support it.”

BLUMBERG: Well that’s what, so that was so confusing. So it was like sort of like, so like, you’re looking at that tweet and looking at all the, all the responses to that tweet. Like we were sort of looking for meaning.

PJ: Yes.

BLUMBERG: And there was no meaning to be gotten.

PJ: The meaning was –

BLUMBERG: Like what percentage of the people commenting understood what his joke was?

PJ: I’m gonna say like maybe zero.

BLUMBERG:  There’s no signal in that whole thing.

PJ: It was all noise.

BLUMBERG: It’s all noise.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: I love this tweet so much.

PJ: I think I mentioned, but like, we talked for a very long time. Like longer than I talk to most people.

ADAM: The. . .a podcast is like a radio show isn’t it?

PJ: Yeah, exactly.

ADAM: I started in radio.

PJ: You did?

ADAM: Yeah.

PJ: What kind of radio?

ADAM: Well, it was AM at that time and I. . .

BLUMBERG: He has a beautiful voice.

PJ: He really does.

ALEX: Yeah, he really does.

PJ: And he said that his like big breakout hit was Batman. And that role actually created a lot of problems for him. So the thing that everybody already knows about Adam West’s Batman is it was like  a very goofy version of Batman.

VILLAIN: Ho ho, ha ha. Remember me old chum.

BATMAN: You jolly devil. Harm one hair of that boys head.

THE RIDDLER: Riddle me twice Batman. What kind of pins are used in soup?

ROBIN: Terrapins, Batman.

BATMAN: Right.

THE RIDDLER: Very good.

PJ: And this was supposed to be funny. Like, Adam West thought it was funny. The people making the show thought it was funny. But some of the viewers thought that Adam himself was not in on the joke. That he was trying and failing to play a very serious Batman. And that he was a dope. And so when Batman was over it was hard for him to get other jobs. Like other, particularly serious acting jobs.

ADAM: You know, there were times when I was so poor and desperate to work that I was shot out of a cannon.

PJ: Really?

ADAM: With my cape flying behind me.

PJ: Wait, not really though. Not really. I. . .

ADAM: Yes, once. In order to survive and take care of family and so on, I had to do a lot of stuff I didn’t want to do.

PJ: So he kept trying out for all these serious roles, but he couldn’t get them because nobody took him seriously. And then finally he was just like, “You know what? Fine. I will just embrace the joke that everybody’s making about me.”

ADAM: I realized that everybody loves Batman so why the hell shouldn’t I love Batman. I am Batman.

PJ: So he started allowing himself to be typecast as Adam West, the guy who used to play Batman and used to make us all laugh.

BLUMBERG: Right

PJ: And he credits that with saving him.

BLUMBERG: : I still don’t quite get the “no-nincompoopery allowed.”

PJ: Yeah, and everytime I asked him about that he, he, he’d be like, “Oh, well, a nincompoop. . . ” And I was like, “No, I know what a nincompoop is. . .” But I feel like. . .Erase that sentence in your mind, and just hear it as, like, “JK,” or like, “Here’s a joke.” Or like, “Smiley face emoji.” Like, you know what I mean? It’s like. . .

BLUMBERG:  Oh, right. “No nincompoopery allowed” is like a smiley face emoji.

PJ: Yes.

ADAM: Anyway I better, I better run and not take too much. . .

PJ: Thanks so much. And, yeah, just thank you for existing in the world. You are a very wonderful person.

ADAM: Well you sound like a great guy, and my best to all your pals and fellow workers there.

PJ: I’ll pass it on.

ADAM: Ok, Kiddo.

PJ: Alright, have a good one.

ADAM: You, too . Thank you.

PJ: Bye.

ADAM: Bye.

PJ. That conversation you just heard was originally recorded last year. This month, Adam West died. We feel very lucky to have gotten to talk to him.

 

You can find more episodes of the show at itunes.com/replyall. You can also find us on Google Play as of this week. Our website is replyall.fail.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

#99 Black Hole, New Jersey

A mysterious thief has been using the internet to steal a bizarre array of items – watches, scooter parts, clown costumes. This week, Alex heads straight towards his hideout.

June 15, 2017
View show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ VOGT: I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: And this week, PJ–

PJ: Super Tech Support’s back–

[SUPER TECH THEME]

BRINA: Hello?

ALEX: Hi, is this Brina?

BRINA: Yeah.

ALEX: This is Alex Goldman, how ya doin?

BRINA: Pretty good, how are you?

ALEX: Good.

ALEX: So, recently, I spoke to this girl named Brina. She’s 16 years-old. She lives in Pennsylvania. She works at a gas station. And she had a pretty odd tech support issue. So, awhile back, she decided to save up to get an Apple Watch.

ALEX: Why did you want an Apple Watch?

BRINA: Um, I don’t know. I guess I thought it was cool. And like it’s better when you’re driving instead of having to look at your phone for directions you can just look at your wrist.?

ALEX: It must have been like six months that you had to save up for that thing.

BRINA: Yeah. It was like a while I worked at Subway making $7.25 an hour, so I don’t know. I guess you have to do the math on that, but like, I worked a lot of hours.

ALEX: I did the math: 55 hours. After she got it, she was not too into it, and so she decided to sell it on this auction site called Poshmark.

PJ: It’s like one of those sites that’s Ebay, but it’s not Ebay.

ALEX: Exactly. And someone bought the watch, which she was super excited about. And they asked her to ship it to this address in a town called Port Reading, New Jersey. 600 Markley Street.

PJ: Is that supposed to mean something to me?

ALEX: It’s not! But it will.

BRINA: So I had my Apple Watch, and someone bought it, so I did like what I would usually do, shipped it right away, because I like to ship it as fast as possible.

ALEX: You don’t actually get paid on poshmark until the buyer receives the package, so Brina wanted to ship it fast. And then a couple days after she shipped it, the person who bought it said, “Hey, my Poshmark account has been hacked. Some hacker ordered that Apple Watch. I don’t even live at 600 Markley Street.” And Brina was just like, “Oh, god.”

So she’s freaking out a little bit. She gets in touch with the post office and does a thing that I didn’t know you could do, which is, you can pay 13 dollars to have a package intercepted.

PJ: Cool!

ALEX: Basically what that means is they flag the thing, so when they, you know, swipe it with a bar code reader, it will say, uh, “This package should not go out, keep this at the post office, or return it to the sender.”

BRINA: And I called the USPS, like the post office that it was going to, and they said it’d be intercepted, and then all of the sudden on my tracking it said it was delivered.

ALEX: God, you must be really pissed off.

BRINA: Yeah. (laughs) $400 watch. Kind of pissed. (laughs)

.

ALEX: So this Apple Watch is long gone. And the company that she sold it through, Poshmark, they tell her they’re not going to refund the money.

But she knew the address where the hacker had the watch sent, and so I start looking into 600 Markley Street, and the first thing that I notice is that whoever is getting stuff sent there is insanely brazen and prolific–

PJ: What do you mean?

ALEX: So I Googled the address, 600 Markley Street, and a LOT of people complain about having their Ebay or Etsy or Poshmark accounts being hacked, and having their stuff sent to this address. And there’s just no rhyme or reason to the stuff that’s being sent there. Like, there were scooter parts, a Fitbit, uh–$545 dollars in designer clothes. Someone on Twitter said that a bunch of clown costumes were bought?

PJ: That is so weird.

ALEX: (laughs) Yeah, it’s a–it’s a weird mix. And Brina has a theory, which is, she’s convinced that this is not just one guy who is hacking peoples’ accounts and keeping all of this stuff, but that this is some kind of organized crime, like, it’s a hacking ring. And that it even has a fake company serving as a front. And the reason she says this is because 600 Markley Street isn’t like a street address, it isn’t somebody’s house. It’s a warehouse owned by a company called Meest.

PJ: M-E-E-S-T? Sounds like something Gollum would say.

ALEX: (laughs, then, in Gollum’s voice) Meest.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: And Meest has a website. And, if you look at it, it says that they ship to Eastern Europe, Middle Asia, and the Caucuses.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: But when you Google Meest, you find tons of people saying it’s a scam, about how their accounts got hacked, about how stuff is disappearing to this address, and it has like, a Better Business Bureau rating of a D-. It does not have a good profile on Google.

ALEX: And Brina started talking to the other people who were victims of these hacks, and started hearing all kinds of crazy rumors.

[MUSIC – RUMORS]

BRINA: People online are saying it’s an abandoned warehouse, someone comes and picks it up at the post office, they don’t actually deliver it to this place.

Like she’s saying, the post office is pulling the packages aside and were getting kickbacks from this fake company to send these packages somewhere. And she wanted to go investigate.

BRINA: I–I wanted to go check it out, but my parents wouldn’t let me (laughs).

I just want like, this whole–the whole scam to stop, that’s what I was trying to do, but no one’s really doing anything about it.

ALEX: So, Brina’s parents wouldn’t let her go investigate this. But, um–I’m a grownup. And I have a car.

[Alex driving]

GOOGLEMAPS: In 800 feet, turn left onto Port Reading Avenue.

ALEX: So, the first place that Brina wanted me to go was the the Woodbridge post office, which is the post office where they were supposed to intercept her Apple Watch, just to see if they were somehow involved, like if anything shady’s going on, if they are taking bribes. This is an idea I was skeptical of, but I wanted to just go make sure.

[Car door slams, Alex enters the post office]

ALEX: Are you in line?

MAN: No, yeah, I’m in line.

ALEX: (laughs) So, I got there, and I just walked up the counter, and I had my, my recorder rolling, and I said:

ALEX: Hi.

POSTAL WORKER: What’s up?!

ALEX: Uh, I’m a reporter. And I am work–working on a story about a bunch of packages that seem to be getting delivered to an address in the Port Reading area.

POSTAL WORKER: Oh, I know what–I bet you it’s 600 Markley.

ALEX: Yeah (laughs).

POSTAL WORKER: How bout that? Did I get–did I get it right?

ALEX: Yeah, yes. You got it exactly right.

POSTAL WORKER: Hey! Yeah, Boy, I must be–I must–I’m psychic.

ALEX: Do–do packages get delivered there all the time?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah. We get a lot. A lot. A large volume. More than, total more than Woodbridge gets all told.

ALEX: That, that specific address gets more mail than all of Woodbridge?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah. Yeah.

ALEX: Oh my god, go ahead, I’m sorry.

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. Overnight. Insane.

PJ: That’s great. It’s like the haunted house in the neighborhood.

ALEX: And so I said to the–to the guy who was working the front desk.

PJ: You were like, “Are you dirty?”

ALEX: I said, “You know, someone told me they got, they sent an intercept, and the package went out anyway.” And he said, what, to my mind seemed like a pretty plausible thing to say.

PJ: Uh huh.

ALEX: “We deal with lots of packages. People make mistakes!”

PJ: Yeah, that’s what I assumed the whole time.

ALEX: Yeah, me too, but the interesting thing was that the post office–they’re also suspicious of 600 Markley Street.

POSTAL WORKER: The inspectors, they were down here checking it out. Someone, somebody in there must be hacking the credit cards or something.

ALEX: Like the post inspectors were down here?

POSTAL WORKER: Yeah.

ALEX: Do you know when that happened?

POSTAL WORKER: Oh they’ve been going all on and off, for a long time.

ALEX: So, I decided to go check it out for myself. I drove to 600 Markley Street.

[MUSIC – EYES OPEN]

ALEX: I passed a bunch of strip malls, through some suburbs, uh, and then down sort of this like, industrial park, and there were a bunch of different companies there, one was like a gypsum company.

PJ: Gypsum. Is that a–?

ALEX: It’s like a mineral.

PJ: Mineral?

ALEX: Mineral.

PJ: God we know–

ALEX: We’re very stupid–

PJ: Nothing about the world. There’s all these gypsum miners listening, like, “You idiots.”

GOOGLEMAPS: Turn left onto Blair Road.

ALEX: And uh, at the, at the very, very end of this of this road is 600 Markley Street, which is just like this gigantic warehouse.

PJ: Is there a sign?

ALEX: There is a pretty utilitarian sign that says, “Meest – America Incorporated.”

[GETTING OUT OF CAR WALKING SOUNDS]

ALEX: So I go in, and there’s like a very small waiting area. A couple chairs, there’s a table with some magazines on it. And then there’s window, like at the doctor’s office, where you sign in. And, um, I just walk up to the window, I’m wearing my headphones, I have this gigantic microphone. And um, I’m pretty nervous.

ALEX: Hi.

ALLA: Yeah, hi.

ALEX: Um, I’m a reporter? And I was hoping that I could talk to someone here, um, about a story that I’m working on. Apparently a lot of packages are ending up being sent to Meest, that, are … somehow being purchased on hacked Ebay accounts, and I was wondering if there was anyone I could speak to.

ALEX: Her–her expression totally didn’t change. She picked up the phone. Said like 1/2 a sentence in what I assume was Russian, and put it back down.

PJ: Huh.

ALEX: And then another a woman came out and said:

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: I think that you’re supposed to talk to our general manager, Natalia, but she’s not in today.

ALEX: Ok.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: So she will back on Tuesday.

ALEX: Sure.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah, because um, it’s not usually, you know, we have some kind of reporters coming.

ALEX: (laughs) Right, I understand.

ALEX: And then she said something I think she really wasn’t supposed to.

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah. Usually police or FBI is here.

ALEX: Oh really? You have the police and FBI visit?

FEMALE EMPLOYEE: Yeah.

ALEX: And as soon as she said that, the receptionist, the one who did–who maintained a totally, uh, neutral expression, kind of looked at her with a, “Please shut up,” face.

PJ: (laughs) Well yeah. [pause] Wow!

ALEX: So I left. I emailed Natalia, and she told me that I could come back for an interview. So, I went back, and I brought producer Phia Bennin.

ALEX: You ready?

PHIA BENNIN: No.

[MUSIC – “Driving to Meest”]

ALEX: Phia was nervous.

PHIA: Yeah, cause we were going to like some weird warehouse in the middle of New Jersey. Like nowhere, New Jersey, where all of these stolen packages were disappearing and we were going to confront some complete strangers to find out what the hell was going on.

ALEX: We arrived at about 5 pm, just as the company was, like–the company was closing for the day.

ALEX: Hello! We’re back, we have an appointment this time!

[Muffled talking in the background.]

ALLA: Yeah, take a seat please.

ALEX: Oh, sure.

PHIA: So, we both sit down in this little like waiting area, and we’re just staring at this black door that’s in front of us that Natalia’s going to come out of.

ALEX: And it also happened to be the end of the day, so there were people pouring out that black door,

[Sounds of employees leaving the office for the day]

ALEX: And every time the door opened, I was like, “Maybe THIS is going to be Natalia.” But it was uh, a lot of people, mostly women who spoke Ukrainian or Russian and they were saying goodbye in another language to the receptionist. And then, finally–

Natalia: Hello!

ALEX: Hi.

PHIA: Hi!

ALEX: Alex, nice to meet you.

PHIA: Hi!

ALEX: This is my producer–

ALEX: Natalia came out into the lobby.

PJ: What’d Natalia look like?

ALEX: She was um, very put together. She was very well-dressed, she seemed very professional, she was very polite.

PJ: How old?

ALEX: Uh, maybe early 40s? She bought us back into her office, which was a very big room with a conference table in it, and we sat down at her desk. And the first thing that she says is, “You’re not recording this.” And Phia’s like, “Ok. But if you’re voice isn’t in this piece, it’s going to make it seem like you have something to hide.” And Natalia thinks it over and says, “Ok. Turn on the recorder.”

ALEX: And the first question I ask her is just, “Can you tell me what Meest does?”

NATALIA: Meest America is a mail-forwarding company. We are a freight-forwarder, a shipper. Uhhh.

PHIA: What does that mean, what is a freight forwarder?

NATALIA: A freight forwarder is basically a shipper: a company that ships. (laughs)

ALEX: So, according to Natalia, here is how Meest makes money: They ship packages to former USSR countries and they do this at a much cheaper rate than like, FedEx or UPS. And one of the ways they do this is by taking packages that are sent to them in the US and consolidating them.

NATALIA: For instance, I live in, let’s say, in Lithuania, and I want to buy goods from three online stores, different goods. Well, we offer, we receive the goods here. We, um, repackage the goods from these three stores, into one box, and a customer saves on shipping as well.

ALEX: So, according to Natalia that’s how Meest makes its money. But I wanted to know: if that’s the case, why are there so many reports of fraud?

ALEX: Is something that you guys are aware of, is this something that you’re trying to deal with, and if so, how are you trying to deal with it?

NATALIA: Yes, of course this is something that we are aware about (laughing). And, uh, what we do when we found out that this happens and let’s say the owner of that account calls us we immediately return the good to that store or the owner, but unfortunately it often happens late, and the goods are already shipped or even delivered. And it’s damaging our image, the image of our company.

Obviously, I’d seen all the pages of people complaining about Meest when I Googled the company, but there was this other thing that I found. It was a website, it was in Russian, and there was a post on there that basically instructions on how to use Meest to steal stuff. And I wanted to show it to her.

ALEX: I found a website that was in Russian that was basically like, it was, it was … um, it’s basically like a hacker saying, like this how you, how steal from people. I don’t know–

NATALIA: Oh boy–(laughs). I-I don’t know about this. What is that called? It’s a blogger?

ALEX: It’s a, it’s a forum for hackers, it’s like instructions, and if you go down to the bottom, it says like–

PHIA: Do you read Russian? Is this–?

NATALIA: Yeah. Mm. Mhm. It, it looks like it’s instructions, yeah. (gasps) Oh my god! And they put our address. That’s horr–

ALEX: I mean, how does that make you feel?

NATALIA: Terrible (laughing) Terrible. I have to go there and um, and give them instruction that every package that arrives here with a hacked account or stolen credit cards will be reported to FBI and sent to Interpol. Oh boy (laughs). Can I have this link sent to me? Please send me this email.

ALEX: Yeah sure, I’ll—

ALEX: She was very upset.

PHIA: She was rattled.

ALEX: She was super rattled.

NATALIA: Uh, we, we try to be reliable and honest, we are honest with our customers, but this online fraud that’s happening at the online stores, um, this has to be fought. What you showed me right now upsets me a lot.

ALEX: The reason that these frauds are so upsetting for Natalia even though this fraud represents an incredibly small percentage of the thousands of packages they send a day, if eBay or Poshmark or Amazon decides to stop shipping with them, like–they could shut down. And even just trying to approach these companies, she’s worried that’s going to put them on their radar and just, they’ll blacklist Meest and not let people ship to them anymore.

PJ: Which seems like a totally reasonable concern.

ALEX: And she said it’s happened before. That some companies just don’t send to the address anymore.

PJ: Huh.

PHIA: At one point, Natalia actually reached out to the FBI to get help from them, and the only thing that ultimately came of it is that they did an audit of Meest.

PJ: That sucks!

ALEX: So she’s reached out to the FBI and (laughing) has not had a lot of luck.

PJ: Huh.

[MUSIC – Sad Marimba]

ALEX: We talked with Natalia for about 45 minutes. And, toward the end of our conversation, I told her about Brina and the missing Apple Watch. And I said, “Would you be willing to give us like the name or the phone number or any kind of contact info for the person who stole her watch?” And she was like, “We have a whole list of accounts we’ve closed because of fraud. Would you like us to give you that contact info?” And we were like “Yes, of course we would.” And so, she said she’d send it along.

ALEX: But in the meantime, we were trying to come up with other ways we could get to Brina’s watch thief, and Phia came up with a brilliant idea. She was like “Why don’t you send a package to Meest, care of Brina’s hacker’s account, and put a tracking device in it, and see where it goes?”

PJ: What?!?! That is brilliant.

ALEX: It is brilliant. Right?

PJ: I mean the other thing that you could do, do they have a weight limit on packages that they’ll send?

ALEX: I don’t think so. [long pause] You want to send me?

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: (laughs) Um, my battery life is not 12 days.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: But–

PJ: You can put some water and some food pellets.

ALEX: I will say you are not the first person to make that suggestion.

PJ: Oh man, I think it could be really good.

ALEX: (laughs) Um, so, on Tuesday, me and Phia and Tim and Sherina, decided to buy five GPS tracking devices.

PHIA: These are the cutest little GPS devices in the world. Looks like it could be like, a cute little bleep-blorp thing in Star Wars.

ALEX: (laughs) Phia means a droid.

[Box taping noises]

ALEX: We sent one to Brina’s hacker, and then four to other accounts we know were used in hacks. And, we sent each of them with an account number associated with it. With a Meest account number.

PJ: And you sent them to account numbers that had shown up in frauds before.

ALEX: Yes. Put them in boxes. And we got um, a Russian-speaking friend to translate a note for me, that uh-so–

PJ: “Hello criminal!”

ALEX: I mean, honestly, it’s very close to, “Hello criminal!” I basically wrote like, “Hi, I’m a reporter. I wanted to know how you hacked the account, how easy it was, why you chose Meest, and also I was curious about where this package was going, so I put a GPS device in it. Please get in touch!”

PJ: Oh man. (laughs) It’s so funny to imagine a bunch of freaked out criminals reading your note angrily.

ALEX: So um, we sent them out. So here is the web interface, I’ve got the password typed in.

PJ: So now I log in?

ALEX: So yeah! Just press login.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: And it’ll tell you where all five of them are that moment.

PJ: I’m at Spytech, login. This is exciting. Ohhhhhh! Six hundred Markley Street. They haven’t left the reshipping place.

ALEX: Right. So we’ll uh, tell you if they go somewhere.

PJ: Cool.

[MUSIC – Basement Marimba Loop]

ALEX: After the break, the case goes international.

[BREAK]

ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So it’s been a week since we send out the GPS devices, and I’ve been checking in on them intermittently, and um, while I’ve got you in the studio, why don’t we, just check in to see how far they’ve gotten. Let me just log into the um, the tracking site. [typing noises]

PJ: Weird. Ok. So. (laughs) How many–we sent five?

ALEX: Five.

PJ: The fifth, the third, the second, and the first are all at Meest. And their batteries are all either like dead or nearly dead. The fourth package, on the other hand, made it all the way to the airport.

ALEX: I think that that package actually is going to get delivered.

PJ: The battery’s at 38%.

ALEX: Unfortunately, that’s not the package that was headed to Brina’s hacker. And, on top of that, I think the battery’s probably going to die before it reaches its destination.

PJ: So …

ALEX: Some person is going to receive a thing that says, “Hey, uh, this was purchased from a hacked account. Here’s a dead GPs–(laughs)–here’s a dead GPS.”

PJ: What a stupid waste of money. What a stupid, stupid waste of time and money.

ALEX: Kinda, yeah, I mean.

PJ: No not kind of.


ALEX: Ok, totally. Yes. But I actually have some good news. Natalia got back to me with info on the specific hacker who stole Brina’s watch. She gave me everything. She gave me his name, his email address, his phone number, and his mailing address.

PJ: Where was the address?

ALEX: The address is in a City in Russia called Izhevsk.

PJ: Ihzevs [sic].

ALEX: Izhevsk.

PJ: Izhevsk.

ALEX: It’s the home of the Kalashnikov.

PJ: The Kalashnikov rifle.

ALEX: Yes. Um, it’s a pretty big city, there’s about 600,000 people, um, it is known as the electronic music capital of Russia.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: I feel like electronic music is big in Russia, too. At least in the stereotype that I have’t really filled in in my head.

ALEX: In my head, I was thinking like, um, very minimalist Kraftwerky stuff, but you’re probably right, it was probably like EDM music.

PJ: Hold on, Izhevsk, electronic music [typing sounds]. Do you want to hear? The sound of Izhevsk?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Ok. This is from Ildar Spacehealer. [moving around] He was, just for the record, he was born in Izhevsk, but now he lives in Inner Izhkar.

ALEX: Ok.

PJ: This song’s called “Old Computers.”

ALEX: (laughs)

[“Old Computers” plays]

ALEX: This is way more what I was imagining!

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yes.

[Music stops playing]

PJ: Ok, so that’s Izhevsk.

ALEX: Uh, yeah, the point is that’s where our hacker lives.

PJ: And what is our hacker’s name?

ALEX: Abdullah Maskim.

PJ: M-A-X-I-M, like the magazine?

ALEX: It was M-A-K-S-I-M. But I think that is, since it’s written in Cyrillic originally, there are a lot of different spellings, including, like, the magazine.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: Um, you wanna see where he lives?

PJ: Yes, I do.

ALEX: It’s on Google–it’s on Google Street View.

PJ: (whispering) What a weird world we live in.

ALEX: Yeah.

ALEX: So, um, here’s a picture of it.

PJ: It is a big … sad, it’s just like a big block apartment building, like it looks like a, it looks like uh– looks like familiar–in–the–Russia-scenes-of-The-Americans type apartment building.

ALEX: So, we obviously wanted to call a guy. And, to do that, we brought in a hired gun.

PJ: Who?

ALEX: Uh, uh, a reporter named Ashley Cleek, who also speaks Russian.

PJ: And?

ALEX: And, she’s a great. And she came into the office, and the first thing she said to us was “Listen, here’s what I can tell you. Abdullah Maksim: made up name.”

PJ: Why?!

ASHLEY CLEEK: Because Abdullah is like the most generic, like, Muslim-sounding name.

ALEX: Huh.

ASHLEY: And Maksim is one of the most generic Russian names, I mean I know it doesn’t seem like it to us, but–

ALEX: Ok. (laughs) So it was like, “John Smith lives here.”

ASHLEY: Yeah. Except for it was like–it was like, um, Hussein Bubba.

ALEX: (laughs) It was–?

ASHLEY: You know? Like John Hussein–two first names.

ALEX: Ohhhhhh.

ALEX: So, Ashley took all the information that Meest gave us–the phone numbers, the physical address, and she started searching online. And eventually, she found some accounts that were connected to the phone number, and they were associated with this guy name Nikita.

PJ: Nikita?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: Not Abdullah Maksim.

PJ: Nikita?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Also sounds like it could be just like a made-up, generic Russian name.

ALEX: Sure.

PJ: But it’s not.

ALEX: No, it’s not. And we know that because we called him.

[Sound of dial tone]

NIKITA: Hello?

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: So, Ashley told us that he was super polite and sweet. And when she asked him, “Have you ever used this company Meest?” He was like, “No,”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian] He said he doesn’t have an account with Meest, “I don’t work with Meest.”

ALEX: Wait, if he doesn’t work with Meest, then why was his phone number on there?

ASHLEY: Exactly. I said they gave us your number, your phone number and your account number. That’s why we’re calling you. And he was like, “I–I don’t know why.”

ALEX: But Nikita had a theory. He told Ashley that back in March, someone had hacked his bank account and his email, and he thought that maybe someone was using his identity on Meest, and his best guess was that it was someone in Ukraine.

ASHLEY: I said are you in Izhevsks [sic]–in Izhevsk? And he said, “No, I don’t even live near Izhevsk, I live in a town that’s many kilometers away.” And I said, “Where do you live?” And he said, “In Orenburg.”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: He said, “I’m 17, I don’t go to school, my mom cleans floors in the hospital.”

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: “I’m trying to get work cutting wood in the forest,” because apparently there’s a lot of forests around there. And after 10 minutes or so, he told us that he had to go. So after he got off the phone, Ashley relayed to us everything that he said and we just sat in the studio, sorted through it, tried to figure out whether he was telling us the truth or not.

ALEX: I don’t believe him. What do you think?

PHIA: I believe him.

ALEX: You trust him.

PHIA: I trust him.

ASHLEY: I don’t believe him. I did until the forest.

ALEX: Ashley just felt like he was laying it on too thick.

PJ: The only thing I’ll say in favor of like, maybe telling the truth. I mean first of all, like, you just don’t know. But if you are him and you are a scammer, you could just hang up the phone, too. You know what I mean? Like you don’t necessarily need to tell a story.

ALEX: Right. So we called him back.

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: And Ashley said, “Can you prove to us that you were hacked recently? You said your email address was hacked. Can you give us your email address?”

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: He said, “Oh I don’t remember it.”

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: (laughs) And–and she said, “How can you not remember it?”

PJ: Did–did the hacker steal his memory?

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ALEX: We said, “Can you give us your email address?” He said, “There’s very little internet in Russia.”

PJ: (laughing) It doesn’t make any sense.

ALEX: “It’s very hard for me to remember stuff like that because I don’t use the Internet very much, so I just have it saved into my browser.”

PJ: God, that is–not credible.

ALEX: And then, we said, “Ok, so you know, we’re not the police, we’re reporters. But we’re going to send someone to this address, and we’re going to ask for you, and see if people know–know you.”

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: And his response was to say, like, uh, “When are you going to send someone? Is going to be tonight? Is going to be tomorrow? Are you going to send the police? Um, is it going to be you that’s coming?” And this is a person who just a moment ago claimed they’d never heard his address. They live 400 miles away.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: So, Ashely says to him, “Look, we want the watch.” And he says, “I don’t have the watch!” And so Ashley says, “Fine, all we want is an apology.” And he says, “Well if you find the hacker who was the watch, tell him I want an apology, too.” And finally, it just wasn’t going anywhere, so we hung up.

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

NIKITA: [Speaking Russian]

ASHLEY: [Speaking Russian]

[Ashley hangs up phone]

ALEX: We got off the phone with him and, um, we actually found his Facebook page.

PJ: (gasps) Really?

ALEX: Yes.

PHIA: Well, we found a Facebook page also associated with that phone number.

ALEX: Yes.

PHIA: Also with the full–Nikita’s full name.

PJ: Is he wearing an Apple Watch in his profile picture?

ALEX: Uh, let me just show you. Let me just show you.

PJ: Let me see. (laughing) He’s got the stupid Anonymous mask. Oh! What a dork. He’s got an Anonymous mask that’s like actually in plastic packaging, like he just bought it, his–his Anonymous mask.

ALEX: Yeah, so at this point I thought it was time to just call Brina and let her know everything we’d found out.

ALEX: Hey, is this Brina?

BRINA: (laughs) Yeah.

ALEX: How’s it goin?

BRINA: Um, pretty good. How are you?

ALEX: I was super excited to tell Brina about everything that I had discovered because like, I knew everything about this guy! I knew everything about where her watch had been. Um, I knew the name of the person who’d taken it, I knew the final destination of it.

ALEX: So I’m curious, (clears throat), given all of this information, how you’re feeling right now?

BRINA: Um. Like kinda bummed that like that guy won’t send my Apple Watch back or even like, apologize or anything. But I guess like, kind of like relieved that like Meest isn’t like, a big hacker company our anything.

ALEX: Right.

BRINA: But it still like, kind of like bums me out a lot that the person–because I could have sold it to someone who actually like, really wanted an Apple Watch, but instead it was given to someone for free who doesn’t even deserve it.

ALEX: Right.

[MUSIC: SIMPLICITY]

PJ: Do you feel like this is solved?

ALEX: (sighs) I felt like a conquering hero (laughs), who managed to figure out all of this stuff, but then, um, I guess didn’t think for like, two seconds, that the thing that I didn’t come back with was … the watch.

PJ: The thing that she lost?

ALEX: Yeah. But what she did say was, she was like, “You know, now that we have all the info, like maybe I’ll go to the local police in Izhevsk, and see if I can get this guy in trouble.”

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: She’s just going to call the Izhevsk PD?

ALEX: If it weren’t for her parents, she would’ve driven (laughs) to this warehouse, and been like, “Where’s my watch?” It doesn’t seem like Brina’s really afraid of anything

ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. Our editors are Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to Brandon Garcia, Bobby Deaton, Vitaly Kremez, Yelena Batchko, Julia Meter, Runa Sandvik, Emily Kennedy, Efrain Dieppa, Greg Kleinisch, and a huge extra special thanks to Dalia Wolfson, and Denis Vitchevsky. Matt Lieber is a potluck dinner at a picnic table in the shade on a balmy evening. Fellow Gimlet podcast Science Vs. just released the last episode of their season, and um, it features me and PJ talking about our addictions to artificial sweeteners. Uh, you should check it out. And you should check out their entire catalogue. That’s Science Vs. And you can get it wherever you can get podcasts. The song that played us out at the end of the episode, is “Simplicity,” by Macroform, also known as the greatest hold music in the world. Reply All is now available on Spotify, go check us out. You can also listen to the show on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get our podcasts. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in two weeks.

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