Jonathan has lunch in a cafeteria.
Starlee: From Gimlet, I’m Starlee Kine and this is Mystery Show. Every week I solve a new mystery. Mysteries that can’t be solved online. Mysteries you can’t solve yourself. Up until now, there hasn’t been anyone to help with this. That person is now me.
(Theme song starts)
Jonathan: Shall I start from the beginning?
Starlee Kine: Does the beginning mean childhood?
Jonathan: Not that beginning.
Starlee Kine: This mystery belongs to my friend Jonathan.
Jonathan: A couple weekends ago I I went to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, I didn’t do any of the smart things like go see documents, i looked at Dorothy from Wizard of Oz shoes, Archie Bunker’s chair, the dumbass part of the museum. Saw that stuff and ten minutes later went to cafeteria to get something to eat
Starlee: How many minutes spent at lunch and how many spent at museum.
Jonathan: I probably spent more time at the cafeteria. It was a good lunch etc.
Jonathan: And on the way in behind glass they have all these lunch pails and what caught my eye was a Welcome Back, Kotter lunch pail, the sitcom from the 70s starring Gabe Kaplan, John Travolta. It was about a group of four guys from high school, i guess they were learning disabled? Youth at risk?
Starlee: Juvenile delinquents?
Jonathan:Yes, they were juvenile delinquents I guess. With learning disabilities. Definitely Arnold Horshack either had a learning disability or was just Jewish. But back then it was funny and they called them Sweathogs.
Jonathan: I was a huge fan of Welcome Back, Kotter. I loved it so much that not only would I watch it I would tape record, I had an audio tape recorder and I would tape episodes and listen to them again later as though they were radio plays.
Jonathan: And I would memorize lines that I thought were cool I could use in school. Like “Your mom is so low so could play handball against the curb.” There was a lot of mother jokes. Like John Travolta’s character Vinnie Barbarino would say “Not about my mother. My mother was a saint.” Remember that?
Starlee: Nope. Absolutely not.
Jonathan: In fact I think I just used that line on you last time I saw you. I said “hey” like you brought up my mother and I said “my mother was a saint.” I was quoting Vinnie Barbarino.
Starlee Kine: At this point it seemed harder to believe that Jonathan had ever said anything to me that wasn’t from Welcome Back, Kotter.
Jonathan: So I was studying the scene depicted on the lunchpail and there was something in the image that made no sense to me. And I just stood there for quite a while holding my tray full of food just staring at this lunchpail.
Jonathan: Trying to figure out what the image was. What I’m going to do is summon it up. I took a photo of it for you.
Starlee:A photo? On Jonathan’s phone? Now that peaked my interest.
Jonathan: I can show you my iphone. I have only taken like four pictures, one of my niece, one of my nephew. Maybe a picture of parking sign so I remember where I parked and then this Welcome Back, Kotter lunchpail. I don’t like to waste memory.
Starlee: Said the man whose childhood memories are filled to capacity with Welcome Back Kotter episodes.
Jonathan: In the scene you see all 4 Sweathogs and Mr. Kotter, they are all standing outside locker bank and Juan Epstein and Vinnie Barbarino look as though they are about to get into a fight. And that is the moment immortalized on this lunchpail. I was like that is really odd Juan would never fight with Barbarino they were all friends. I looked at it more closely and I realized Juan Epstein was holding a jacket, a jean jacket, kind of jacket a juvenile delinquent in the seventies might wear and the sleeves of the jacket have knots in them. Like someone has taken the length of the sleeve like a length of rope or shoelace and has tied knots in it.
Starlee Kine: Epstein is dangling the jacket in front of Barbarino accusingly, as though it were a dead pet left on his porch by a mad man.
Jonathan: Freddy Boom Boom Washington is behind them and Arnold Horshack is behind Barbarino and looks like he is holding Barbarino back.
Starlee Kine: If you need a visual, picture one of those huge Renaissance paintings of Christ being taken down off the cross, crown of thorns on his head, lifeless body cradled by his disciples. The lunchbox scene is a lot like that. Except instead of Christ, it’s a jean jacket. With knots in the sleeves.
Jonathan: What makes it so inscrutable to me is the presence of the sleeve knotted jacket. Have you ever heard of that? Like jacket sleeve knotting. What is that about? Was that a thing, a prank that people pulled in the 70s.
Starlee Kine: Jonathan had thought museums were places you go to grab a nice lunch. Turned out they also contained mysteries.
Jonathan: I can’t find it on the internet. I looked up all kinds of permutations: knotting jacket sleeves, knots in coat sleeves, knot sleeve joke.
Starlee Kine: While the knots in the sleeves might have been what most confounded Jonathan, it was the injustice that most wounded him. Millions of years from now when the world has turned to dust and nothing but the wall of lunchboxes is left standing, this is how Welcome Back Kotter would be regarded by future civilizations.
Jonathan: I don’t think it was an image taken from the actual tv show, whoever the artist was who created the picture might never have seen the show.
Starlee: Have you seen all the episodes?
Jonathan: Yes, many times over.
Starlee: And listened to the audio
Jonathan: And listen to the audio after.
Starlee: You dont remember the sound of denim being pulled taught
Jonathan: What would that sound be?
Starlee Kine: And like all the great armchair lunchbox designers before him, Jonathan had some ideas of his own about how it should’ve gone.
Jonathan: They could have put Freddy Boom Boom Washington doing the air bass, boom boom. Could have put Arnold Horshack raising his hand, ooh ooh ooh. Barbarino doing the Barbarino dance…why this? I’m wondering where does this come from. Was it a thing, a national craze like the Charleston in the 20s, jacket knotting in the 70s and just lost to us. So I’m curious about that and also curious about whoever the artist was who created the picture on the lunchpail whether it was drawn from his own history or something he invented wholesale. So I am imploring you to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Starlee: Doesn’t sound like you are imploring me?
Jonathan: I’d like you to help me get to the bottom of this
Starlee: There you go.
Starlee Kine: As someone who’s been in the mystery business for weeks, this case, frankly, seemed a little beneath my experience level. The knotted jack had probably been on the show and Jonathan had just forgotten. Just like how would have forgotten where he parked that one time if he taken a picture of the space. Or just like how he’d forgotten to document the rest of his whole entire life. But nonetheless, I agreed to take on the case. I’d spend a few hours on it, you know a favor for an old pal. Besides I’ve always been a sucker for a good imploring.
Starlee Kine: Welcome Back, Kotter was on for four seasons but the last season was shot in 1979 and the lunchbox came out in 1977. That meant the scene couldn’t be in season four. So I was making brisk work of this already. There were twenty two episodes a season, each episode twenty four minutes long without commercials. That’s fifteen hundred and eighty four minutes. Or a little more than one full day. I didn’t have that kind of time. Not without it cutting into my watching other television shows. So I enlisted the help of two of my investigators.I told them ideally they’d find the scene itself but they were to be on the lookout for other clues too. Anything knotted. Anything denim. And of course any pranks, hijinks, escapades, capers, antics or larks of any kind. If there was so much as a banana peel out of place, I wanted to hear about it.
Lisa: Whatever is going on in that picture on the lunchbox is way too complicated for the typical plotline of a Welcome Back, Kotter episode.
Starlee Kine: Lisa took the first shift: season one. Did she spot the knot tying prank?
Starlee: Do they wear a denim shirt.
Lisa: Oh my god, denim is so pervasive in Welcome Back Kotter.
Starlee: Now we are getting somewhere
Lisa: When they have all the extras and Sweathogs in the room its just a sea of denim, I made notes on this. There are denim jackets, denim jeans, denim shirts, bellbottoms that are denim with patches of other kinds of denim. People who wear outfits where the top is denim shirt and bottom is jeans. Lot of them have jeans with not back pockets. That’s weird. Vinnie Barbarino has denim jacket that is actually, I didn’t know that was ever cool, but more like barn style jacket cut with bigger pockets, like mom jean jacket, you know what i am saying? But he has such a long torso I don’t know if they had any choice. I have to say, one of the top ten things that stood out to me was length of John Travolta’s torso.
Starlee: Are pranks a significant part of the show?
Lisa: They are definitely there. There are pranks, so a typical prank from season 1, we took signs off bathroom and put sign for girls on boys bathroom and put sign for boys on girls bathroom.
Starlee: That is a solid prank.
Lisa: (laughs) you like that. Let’s see when watch your season.
Starlee: Believe me I will.
Starlee Kine: Wait. Because first I had to check in with Eric about his season.
Eric: As far as I can tell that jacket thing never happened in season 2. I’m a little afraid it is going to be a situation where i am watching it so closely I was going to miss it. I finished them at 12:15 at night and go to the end and was like, alright I didn’t see it. …did I?
Starlee: I can’t believe you are not sure.
Eric: I know. I got really excited, I think it was episode 3, the vice principal character was rummaging through sweat hogs lockers and get to Barbarino’s locker and they open it up and he pulls out jacket. And i’m like this has got to be it, there has got to be something here. I’m watching it really intently, so close to the jacket
Starlee: Did you lean in closely for that one?
Eric: So close
Starlee: Was your nose pressed to the screen.
Eric: It was not pressed to the screen.
Starlee: Thats what watching intently looks like
Eric: Sorry to have let you down again.
Starlee Kine: It was my season. Season three. By season three the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter were some of the biggest stars in the country. In interviews from that time, the Sweathogs acknowledged the danger of becoming so famous so young. They knew they wouldn’t be twenty six playing sixteen years old forever. The trick to staying relevant said Robert Heges who played Epstein, was to do it all, act, direct, produce. He’d already started a film production company called Sativa, which was Latin for marijuana. Sort of. That year John Travolta starred in both Saturday Night Fever Grease. I kept looking for indications of lack of commitment to the role of Barbarino now that he’d become a movie star, such as in the phoning in his catchphrase, only doing the who and the what but not bothering with the where. Welcome Back Kotter takes place on four sets, more or less. The classroom, the hallway by the lockers, the school yard and the Kotter’s living room. The same articles of clothing appear over and over again. One shirt in particular, a t-shirt with a bald eagle ironed on, kept showing up on different Sweathogs, as though they were real life friends who shared each other’s clothes. There was no knotted jean jacket in Season Three. I did find, however, an important bit of Kotter pranking philosophy. In episode 18, a new girl, Angie, enrolls in their one room schoolhouse. James Buchanan High. She walks into class and the Sweathogs go nuts. I’m pretty sure you can see Epstein’s heart beat out of his chest, through his shirt, all Bugs Bunny like. But Angie’s not interested in dating the Sweathogs, she wants to become one of them. She drops paint on the vice principal as a way of impressing the guys but calls her an amateur “Our stunts always have two things,” he tells her, “They’re original and they leave no evidence.” The knotted jean jacket prank satisfied both criteria. It was so original no one had ever heard of it. And apparently it left not a shred of evidence behind.
I needed to talk to someone who worked directly on the show. Maybe the lunchbox image came from something that happened on the set, like an inside joke. But five out of six of the main Welcome Back, Kotter cast members were either dead, turned me down when I asked for an interview, or, were John Travolta dealing with the release of Going Clear on HBO. The sixth was Gabe Kaplan, who played Kotter himself. As in Welcome Back, comma. I was given his cellphone number but didnt hear back. So I tried the man he co-created the show with, Alan Sacks. “Dear Mr. Sacks,” I wrote, “There’s an image on the Kotter lunchbox that we just can’t understand.” Alan got back to me right away and gave me his address so I could come talk to him about it in person.
Alan: How are you doing?
Starlee Kine: He had just one question though. Who was we?
Alan: So before we get started, though maybe we are started, I wanted tell you something.
Alan: When you said we in the email, and I responded to you, who is wee. It struck something that was really one of the interesting events in my life. I was held at gun point by Phil Spector for like 5 hours.
Alan: When was this, it was 1980. I was producing this pilot for abc and who better for me to get to do music than Phil Spector and I got him on phone and he says great-come over. So we set up time, he and I and his secretary calls me to confirm and she said “who’s coming?”, and I said “I’m coming myself” and she says “ok I’ll let phil know that, come at 7:30.” But as I am leaving office the casting director is there says “what are you doing-lets get some japanese food.” I said “Okay lets do that but have to go to Phil Spector’s house tonight why dont you take ride with me, we will go up there, we will listen to some music and then out to eat afterwards.” We get in my car, start driving down the sunset strip, smoking joint, listening to Dire Straights on radio, on the way to Phil Spector’s house, very excited. So we get to the end of Sunset he lives up cul de sac in Beverly Hills, as getting closer there is barbed wire , signs that say no trespassing protected by Smith and Wesson, press buzzer, gate opens up, drive my car in, park it, we get out, two dogs come charging at us, oh my god. , The door opens up and there is a guy standing in karate suit, a giant, he says “Hi i am George I am Phil’s man.” “Hi George, I’m Alan, this is Cathy.” “Come on in.” George closes door and locks with key from the inside, click,click, click and puts key in pocket. So I look at Cathy and the only way I know we can get out of there is that George has to open the door. He brings us into this beautifully appointed living room, tiffany shades, leather bound books, leather chairs, pictures of Lennon, the Ramones, pictures of Ike and Tina, the Righteous Brothers and suddenly at very far end of the room, this huge huge room, we hear rustling then Phil Spector comes down steps and he looks over at cathy and I and screams at the top of his lungs “There is too many people here ahhhhhhh. There is too many people in my house.” See he wasn’t expecting Cathy. This is the we. He is screaming “too many people here.” I go “no no wait it’s just me and Cathy she works for me.” He goes running out. He comes down about half hour later, sits down at coffee table, shakes my hand, and looks at me and says “what are you doing here.” I said “you know what I am doing here, I called you, we spoke on the phone. I want you to do the music this pilot i am doing.” He says “no no no, you are here because you want to go back and tell people I drink to much, I take drugs and play with guns.” With that he stands up, he takes off jacket and he is strapped with biggest gun i ever been in a room with in my life. And now the gun comes out and I say “put that shit away I got to get out of here.” He said “no no we are not ready to go yet” and for the next six hours, all sorts of waving the gun around insanity. He asked me if I knew karated. He says “come on I’ll show you karate.”
Alan: And then he says “Do you like Leonard Cohen?” I say “I love Leonard Cohen.” He says “Good I want to play you some tracks.” So now we have to go and lay down in his music room. I am on the floor, he is on the floor, Cathy is on the floor, the gun is between us, we have the headset on, and we are listening to Leonard Cohen singing, you like Leonard Cohen Death of a Ladies Man, that album? I’m listening to tracks of Death of a Ladies Man, you know with Spector with a gun between us.
Music: Leonard Cohen
Alan: He says “come on I wrote the music for you.” “You wrote the music for me, are you kidding?” So we go up to the piano room and he starts playing on the piano a dirge. And I can’t sing but it goes like-we’re all rock and rollers, rock and rollers all, trying to earn a living before final curtain call. And the gun is on piano and he would pick it up every once in a while and go hahaha, come on Alan sing it with me-we are all rock and rollers, rock and rollers all, trying to earn a living before the final curtain call. Hahahahha. This went on for hours. Till finally some guy who worked at radio station, working the lobster shift and was getting off and called Phil and said “Hey I want to come by, with this woman I am with.” Phil said,”yes, come on by.” So when this guy came were able to scurry out of room like kittens and then we were gone. The next day he sent me all sorts of gifts, Phil Spector cocktail napkins and the note that said – Hey Al, I really had a swell time with you last night, let’s do it again soon.
Starlee: Did you use the song, the dirge?
Alan: No, but the president of ABC said to me “Well did you get Phil Spector to do music, does he want to do it. I said, “You know what,he does, but I will tell you something, Marty, you have next meeting with him, cause i am not.” So when you said we, who is we, I didn’t want a surprise. I was doing my Phil Spector. So now we can talk about Kotter.
Starlee Kine: I decided to get right to the point. Lest I let another cheerless pronoun slip out. I asked Alan if it wasn’t too much trouble would he please tell me every single thing he knew about the Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox.
Alan: Oh that i don’t remember.
Starlee Kine: Of course he didn’t.
Alan: i didn’t really care about the merchandise in Kotter.
Starlee Kine: Didn’t care was one way of putting it. Another was…
Alan: I got screwed on that show.
Starlee Kine: Alan had sold the pilot for Kotter within six months of moving to Hollywood. He had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t get syndication rights. He didn’t get merchandising rights. He did get a lot of hotel pool lounging time in though. But until that counts as legal tender, as I’ve often petitioned for it to, there wasn’t much he could do with that now. I showed Alan the image on the lunchbox.
Starlee: What do you think is happening in that?
Alan: This is Epstein’s jacket. He is accusing somebody of doing something to his jacket.
Starlee: Okay, do you see the knots in the sleeves?
Alan: Oh yeah. What is that all about. I don’t know why that happened. He is saying to Travolta “you tied this up, tied knots in my shirt.”
Starlee: Why would they tie knots in the shirt, was this a thing in your childhood?
Alan: I have no idea.
Starlee: By the way, you are wearing what is on the lunchbox. You are wearing a denim button down shirt and jeans.
Alan: This is from Japan.
Alan: This is Japanese denim shirt.
Starlee: It is very nice
Alan: I haven’t even worn this shirt in like four years. It was in the back of my closet.
Starlee: So you didn’t dress for the lunchbox, you just happened…
Alan: I didn’t dress for the lunchbox. (laughs) That would have been fucked up. That is funny. It is spring, I wanted to wear a transitional shirt that will get me from winter to spring in a subtle way. And I wanted it to be soft.
Starlee Kine: I left Alan’s house no closer to understanding the purpose of putting knots in a jean jacket’s sleeves but much more opened minded about the versatility of denim in general as an option all year round. Alan was still in touch with Gabe Kaplan and he connected the two of us by email. I updated my client.
Starlee: I talked to Alan Sacks, co-creater of Welcome Back Kotter. Great guy.
Jonathan: What about Gabe Kaplan? Unavailable? What? You spoke to Gabe Kaplan? No you didn’t.
Starlee: From Gabe Kaplan to Starlee email right here. Sent at 1:02 am. “Hi Starlee, I think you’re making way too out of this. The images are solely from the mind of the illustrator. He probably saw a couple of shows and came up with his ideas. If you asked me to guess what action the picture is trying to detail, my guess is that as Kotter and the Sweathogs look on, Epstein is challenging Barbarino in some way.” I like that he refers to him as Kotter. “There’s nothing behind the grassy knoll,” Gabe. There is definitely something behind the grassy knoll.
Starlee Kine: Nice try Gabe Kaplan but your clever attempt to call me off the case had backfired. I now had a new direction to head in. Toward the mind of the lunchbox’s illustrator. It was none too soon either. As the lunchbox mystery seemed to be tightening its grip on Jonathan’s already Kotter clogged mind.
Jonathan: When i’m on the subway going to work I’ll look at people sitting across me and I think which of them has jackets whose sleeves would lend themselves to being knotted the easiest. Like I see someone in a fur coat and think, that would be a really hard one to jacket sleeve knot.
Starlee: But an interesting challenge.
Jonathan: An interesting challenge yes. See someone with an overcoat or one of those sleeveless jackets and think we’ll what are you going to do with that?
Starlee Kine: What am I going to do with that? Find out. After the break.
Commercial Break: Squarespace, Kind Bars (Blueberries)
Starlee Kine: Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome Back. I’d moved onto my next person of interest, the creator of the lunchbox. I needed to find this outsider, this dilettante who’d waltzed in and got Jonathan’s role models all wrong. I quickly found his name online – Elmer Lehnhardt. Not the author of Get Shorty. Lehnhardt with a “t”. And Elmer with an “er”. Elmer work for thirty years at Aladdin Industries. Aladdin made lunchboxes, lots of them. If you were a child before you were an adult and you relied on food for sustenance, chances are good that you carried a lunchbox illustrated by Elmer. Interrogating Elmer about the Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox, though, would be difficult. If not, impossible. Elmer wasn’t alive. I take back the part about calling him a dilettante. To solve the mystery I would have to assemble a dossier based on eye witness accounts.
Starlee Kine: If Elmer was the Don Draper of lunchboxes, which he was, i just said it….Beverly, was his Peggy.
Beverly: When I first started working with him I was twenty three. He loved doing lunchboxes. His sketches and concepts were just unbelievable. He was just good.
Starlee Kine: So I understand you lived across the street from Elmer Lehnhardt.
Joe: I did.
Starlee: This is Joe, the neighbor kid.
Joe: My family built a house right across the street from his house when i was four years old. These were big southern neighborhoods, big lots. His house was up on a big hill in clear sight from my home. Had a paved driveway and above the garage was his studio and I remember going into his studio as a kid walking over there on my own. I don’t even remember if he invited me or if I invited himself. He would let me watch him paint.
DAN: at the time I was married to a woman that it didn’t work out in the long run. But I was freelancing and she wanted me to have a regular job.
Starlee Kine: This is Dan, the late in life friend.
Dan: And I went down to interview for Aladdin, they were looking for an illustrator. And I actually met elmer the first day.
Beverly: Elmer was a very unique, very talented individual.
Joe: He was not unpleasant but he wasn’t gregarious at all.
Beverly: He was very demanding.
Joe: He was very quiet.
Beverly: He was gruff.
Joe: Very reserved.
Beverly: Some people had a hard time with him but Elmer and I got along great. Really in fact Elmer was a teddy bear.
Joe: I unlike, Mr. Lehnhardt, am very talkative, very verbal kind of personality but I don’t recall him acting annoyed by my questions and he certainly talked to me a lot.
Dan: One of the first things he asked me was “did you carry a lunchbox when you were a kid?” I said, “Yes, I carried Davy Crocket.” And he said “I did the artwork.” That is one of the reasons i took the job – I liked the idea of working with Elmer. Here is the guy that illustrated the lunchboxes that I admired as a child. Made me feel like in the presence of something.
Joe: I actually owned the Dr. Dolittle lunchbox so I brought him my lunchbox and mom says you did this painting. And he goes “I did.” And he pulled out the illustration boards with those paintings on them and the illustrations had litle tick marks and instructions.
Starlee: And did it look just like your lunchbox?
Joe: It did but I don’t know if you’ve seen a poster of a Monet painting and seen it in person. The vibrance of the real thing is incredible. But I loved my lunchbox but here was this original painting that was the same size but much more vivid. He spent so much time and took so much pride in what doing, he very much loved his work. That really sent me on a path ultimately. I can attribute the fact that I wanted to become a commercial artist because of him.
Beverly: He said “Don’t run away from something you are good at. Go at it, learn it.” Like when I was building my house, I said “Elmer I need to build a retaining wall.” So Elmer brought me in a book how to lay block and brick. And so then I studied how to lay brick. One night my dad was calling me about midnight saying “what are you doing, Bev?” And I said “I am pouring footing for my retaining wall.” And he went “you are doing what.” My father went through WWII, the man was the head of the household and I never resented my father for that it is just that is the way he was brought up. But when Elmer came along in my life he convinced me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.
Starlee Kine: One time Beverly told Elmer that she was terrible at drawing hands. He told her that she should practice drawing them fifteen minutes every morning, over and over again. You could always tell an Elmer lunchbox by the characters’ hands. While other artists only showed fists or hands that were one meshed together unit, on Elmer’s, each finger was individual, defined. It’s true, on the Kotter lunchbox you can see every last Sweathog digit. Mr. Kotter’s hands are on his hips, his fingers splayed, as he shoots his students a “what are youse guys up to now” look. Epstein’s left hand grips the knotted jacket sleeve while his right hand points its index finger at it. The pointing finger, in fact, seems to have been one of Elmer’s go to moves. On the Beverly Hillbillies lunchbox, Jethro points out the family’s fancy new digs as they pull up in their jalopy piled high with everything they own. On the Adam 12 box, a terrifying little girl clutching a teddy bear points gleefully at her brother who’s gotten his head stuck in a gate. And it goes without saying that Elmer was the perfect artist, to capture in tin, the most famous pointing finger of 1982: E.T’s.
Starlee Kine: Since the lunchboxes were commissioned before the actual film or TV show came out, the Aladdin illustrators were sent footage that they then chose images from. Sometimes they were invited to secret screenings. It was Elmer who created Aladdin’s signature style, to have the images on the lunchbox tell a story, so that the kid who it belonged to would want to look all over it. Like miniature, portable versions of the films and shows they loved. And Aladdin, based in Nashville, was a miniature version of the Hollywood studio system. There were trips to LA to meet with big wigs.
Beverly: I went in this huge off and it was all glass.
Starlee Kine: That is Beverly again.
Beverly: In walks this guy, he was all really disheveled. He looks like someone who had been cleaning up, you know what I mean. And he turned around and it was Spielberg.
Starlee: Spielberg himself had to approve the lunchbox?
Starlee: He wanted to?
Starlee Kine: There were the fragile egos of movie stars to consider.
Dan: Rex Harrison was on every surface of the lunchbox because he was Dr. Dolittle. So five different instances of Rex Harrison standing there with a push me pull you and the big giant snail. And we spent some time looking at it and he showed me a few things and says “you see the color of his eyes?” and I say “yes”. This tiny little dot of paint and he says “I had to redo that several times because Rex Harrison told me that his eyes were not that color.”
Starlee Kine: As well as the fickle, impossible to please taste of network executives.
Dan: Every year I had to come oup with a new concept for Mickey and Minnie lunchboxes. I had Mickey and Minnie in Paris, Mickey and Minnie in a nostalgic soda fountain, Mickey and Minnie cave man, Mickey and Minnie. It was a long process doing one illustration because there is approval from Disney at every stage, you would send concept after concept and no let’s see some more. One one I ended up doing about 30 different concepts til I got so frustrated I did Mickey holding the leash looking down at Pluto squashed on the road with tire tracks down his back.
Starlee: You killed Pluto.
Dan: (laughs) Yeah I ran him over. He had the little crosses on his eyeballs. And I sent it to Disney and the art director at the time, she said ” you know we are not going to approve that but all the artists here passed it around and had a good laugh.”
Once the art for a lunchbox was done, Elmer and Beverly would often hand deliver the illustrations to the set of which TV show or film they were working on. They used to fly to LA all the time back then.
Starlee Kine: There was the ever present risk of producing a flop.
Beverly: Dukes of Hazzard. When we first saw that show out in California we thought, oh my God, that is the stupidest show and all of a sudden it became one of our top sellers.
Starlee Kine: Or of passing on a hit that could then go to a competing studio, or in Aladdin’s case, a rival lunchbox manufacturer, Thermos.
Beverly: When Star Wars came out me and the girl from marketing said we got to go with Star Wars. Space has never done well for us, Star Trek didn’t do that well, Lost in Space didn’t do that well. Black Hole, Black Hole was and bomb and we kept saying, but this is different, it’s different. We ended up not taking it.
Starlee: You passed on Star Wars.
Beverly: We passed on Star Wars and Thermos took it and it was one of the most popular of all time lunchboxes.
Starlee Kine: And in between there was the lounging by of hotel pools. A few years ago, Beverly also visited the Smithsonian cafeteria.
Beverly: And I was looking at all the TV stuff straight out and then I turned around and then here’s just this wall of lunch boxes. Here’s my Sesame Street, there’s Gremlins, there’s Goonies. My brother, he lives in Knoxville, but he is a banker and he always saw my art as a hobby, you know. Because my father, he would say we can’t afford for both of you to go to college so your brother will go cause he will be the breadwinner of the family and he needs to go. And my brother, he finally said to me, he said “Bev, why don’t you to and get a real job and I said “I have a real job I got to illustrate lunchboxs for almost 30 years, I got to do something I really loved doing. Besides I’m in the smithsonian and you’re not.” And he just kind of stopped.
Starlee: Did you like doing it?
Dan: I loved it – thats the only job working for somebody else that I looked forward to going to work every day, especially when I was working on an illustration. It was merchandising and licensing and all that stuff but at the same time it was smiling faces on a ½ million kids.
Dan: Elmer and I did the last one together. That last year was when he seemed to really need a friend. He was kind of being pushed into pasture and there was no work for him. He called me and asked if there was anything he could do down here and I think that was maybe two weeks before he died.
Beverly: It was in July of 1985 and I had gone to Florida with a bunch of girls and right before I left Elmer and I were talking and I said “you always do a portrait of other people and when I get back I want you to do a portrait for me.” And he goes “OK”. The day before I came home he died. He had been out mowing his lawn that day and he came and sat down in the chair to rest up on the porch, the patio, and that’s where he died. He left me over 400 of his books. He said he wanted me to have them because he thought I would use them.
Starlee Kine: Elmer was a private person. When he died, there wasn’t an obituary published at his request.
Starlee: When did you go to high school? What decade?
Joe: The 70s. I’m 52 now
Starlee: Was jacket knotting a big prank in your day.
Joe: No. I don’t think so.
Starlee: Elmer painted the Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox
Joe: Did he really? He did that one too?
Starlee Kine: So I guess the neighbor kid wasn’t going to help me solve my mystery. Dan had no memory of it either. But Beverly, she was working with Elmer the year he got the Kotter account. I was sure If anyone would know why he chose to put the knotted shirt prank on the lunchbox, it would be her. But when I asked her about it she said she had a vague memory of him working on it but couldn’t recall any actual specific details beyond that.
Starlee: There is an image on it, the lunchbox that has one of the characters holding up this denim jean jacket with knotted sleeves. I can’t figure out what the jean jacket means.
Beverly: It might be a joke.
Starlee: But what is the joke?
Beverly: The joke is that if you try to put on your jean jacket and the knots are in the sleeve and you can’t get it on.
Starlee: Do you think that’s a good joke.
Beverly: I think it’s a joke. (laughs) There were times when you didn’t question Elmer.
Dan: I don’t think i’ve got the Kotter box.
Starlee: Do you have a lot of lunchboxes?
Dan: When I first went there I started saving each one that I illustratated.I’ve probalby got 50 or 60 hanging from the rafters in the kitchen.
Dan: Yes, I live in a old log house. It’s 150 years old and the rafter runs across the room and just has nails with rows of lunchboxes. (laughs) Looking at them right here, most of them.
Starlee: Can you see a bunch of Elmer’s right now?
Dan: Yes several. Let’s see, there is Mousketeers. I don’t know if you ever saw the Bicentennial lunchbox. The little cartoon characters of signers of the Declaration of Independence. Those characters he based on himself and his wife.
Starlee Kine: Aha! Elmer painting himself into the Bicentennial image was the first tangible piece of evidence I had that he’d made something up on a lunchbox. Unless he really was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Dan: I’m reaching up here, I’m getting it right now. That’s Elmer and that’s his wife as Betsy Ross. She is sitting there sewing stars on the flag and he is holding up his shirt with star shaped holes in it with a gruff look on his face. And that is his sense of humor.
Starlee: What the cut stars?
Dan: Yes. That is the kind of humor he put in his illustrations.
Starlee: I can’t help but point out another shirt based gag just like Welcome Back Kotter.
Dan: Hadn’t thought about that.
Starlee: Maybe that is his wheelhouse.
Starlee Kine: Elmer’s son was on the Dr. Doolittle lunchbox, as an islander holding a rope attached to the giant snail. Beverly posed as the bionic woman, standing in Elmer’s office pantomiming ripping a phone book in half. It’s her body in the final image with Lindsay Wagner’s face.
Starlee Kine: In The Land of the Giant lunchbox, Elmer apparently just went for it. The stars of the show are so tiny, you can’t even make out who the actors are. They’ve been captured by a giant and it is his face that takes up most of the image. That’s Elmer’s face, it’s huge. The only thing that takes up more space are all ten fingers of his giant hands. At Aladdin, illustrators weren’t allowed to sign their boxes. Everything you did at Aladdin, belonged to Aladdin. Perhaps the Kotter scene was another way for Elmer to insert himself into his illustrations. By creating an image that was both original and left no evidence. But if that were the case, where had he gotten the idea for the knotted sleeve prank in the first place? Had it come from his own life?
Beverly: He was one of TV first wrestlers.
Beverly: He’d go wrestling at night and then he would draw during the day. He had a big nose from all the getting beat up all the time. Starlee, he used to bring film in, 8mm film and he would put it on there, against the wall in the back. And this was him in Chicago wrestling. Back then there was always the good guy and bad guy and he was the bad guy. And he was hilarious because he would stand there with his kind of shuffle, like a rooster getting ready to attack. And I would say “Elmer, you were so mean, you were the one who sneaked up behind the referee and pinched him and made faces” and he goes “That is what I get paid to do, Beverly. I was the one who was supposed to cause the trouble.”
Dan: We grew really close. We had a lot of fun. One time we went to North Carolina together. We had a printer over there and went over for a proofing run and while we were there I wanted to go to the art museum and he didn’t want to go to the museum he wanted to go to a mud wrestling. He was not a fan of modern art and that is to put it mildly. (laughs) He was a devoted craftsman. When you lay a line on an illustration board with a #2 sable brush with the confidence to be able to make it a good, clean, sharp line that thins where you want it to and thickens when you want it to, it takes a masterful stroke to do that and then you have somebody tying a bucket on a string and poking a hole in it and swinging it back and forth over a canvas. It was all just garbage to him, you know. It was a scam that somebody had sold, you, know, to the public.
Starlee: Unlike professional wrestling?
Dan: (laughs) Exactly. And so we decided go to the museum early and go to the mud wrestling afterwards.
Starlee Kine: You know what they say. One man’s mud wrestling is another man’s cafeteria lunch.
Starlee: If I say professional wrestler, do you think of Elmer?
Joe: When you say professional wrestler?
Joe: I do not.
Starlee: Well that is what he was before…
Starlee: Yes, before he was painting lunchboxes.
Joe: (laughs) That is awesome. I never knew that. You are full of wonderful information.
Starlee: (laughs) The prank,it doesn’t seem to have happened on the show and doesn’t seem to represent the show.
Joe: It never happened on the show. So it could have come completely out of the creative imagination of Elmer Leonhart.
Joe: Now that I know he was one of these professional wrestlers, he probably did that very prank.
Starlee: Oh, you think it’s a wrestling move.
Joe: Just the fact that he went into that world which is full of pranks. You gotta to come up with creative ways of combatting your opponents.
Starlee: Wrestling move.
Starlee: I like that. Okay, I am going to look into that.
Starlee Kine: You did good neighbor kid, you did good. Okay so I just needed to find a wrestler who was equally conversant in both pranks and clothing.
Starlee Kine: That wrestler was Colt Cabana.
Colt: I make my own outfits.
Colt: Yep. It is a great craft to have as a wrestler. We deal with lycra and materials and outfits a lot. And even though I am 6′ 1″, 240 lbs. I sit at my little sewing machine and I sew away.
Starlee: That is adorable.
Colt: Thank you.
Starlee: You know that is adorable.
Starlee Kine: While the rest of us have been just going on with our lives… buying clothing in stores, cracking cases, restoring wonder to an otherwise drab universe, there’s been this whole world of competitive professional wrestling happening out there. Perhaps to fill the chasm left behind by the demise competitive lunchbox manufacturing.
Starlee: Have you ever seen a wrestling move that involves knotting a jacket?
Colt: I can’t say that I have. There is wrestling moves where you can actually put a person in a physical knot.
Starlee Kine: With some weariness I showed Colt the image.
Colt: What’s happened it’s been tied in knots at the sleeves so you can’t put your hands into the sleeves.
Starlee Kine: That part I didnt need a professional to tell me. Colt thinks the jean jacket that Epstein’s holding actually belongs to Barbarino, a belief I find confusing and wrong. But I allow him to proceed.
Colt: In this situation Travolta was in class, in a hurry and he had to leave and then he left his sweet denim jacket behind, right? So what I am going to do is tie both of his sleeves in a knot. There has got to be consequences for him leaving this around.
Starlee Kine: Wrestlers pull pranks on each other so often that they have their own word for them-ribs.
Colt: If I leave my phone in a wrestling locker room and I come back in 20 minutes and it hasn’t been tampered or screwed with I am singing to the gods.
Starlee: In wrestling world I like that putting anything down qualifies as you asking for it.
Starlee Kine: Let us never forget the cautionary tale of a prank done to a friend of Colt’s, by Colt, on the night the friend won a big championship.
Colt: So he just won the title and he was so happy, like it was a dream come true and everything he had ever wanted in his life. I would have thought sleeping with his title belt and would never let go of it but for some reason he left his championship on the desk in the back and so of course I took the belt and snuck into the wrestling right itself, climbed up the scaffold and cascaded my way up to the top of the building and hooked that title belt up there.
Starlee: When you say you climbed up the scaffold…
Colt: There were ladders and tables and chairs.
Starlee: Did you just stack 20 chairs on top of each other and climb up those to the top.
Colt: You know it is wrestling.
Starlee: It is donkey kong
Colt: (laughs) It is the greatest. And he was so upset.
Starlee: He was genuinely upset?
Colt: Genuinely upset. Yelling where’s my title? And there is a room with 50 people just casually looking up to the sky and we all look up and look down and eventually, I think after threatening to punch somebody, basically almost crying, we let him have his belt back. Those are the guys that get ribbed. Because why rib somebody who’s not gonna care. There is no fun.
Starlee: And they never learn do they?
Colt: Never (laughs)
Starlee Kine: I still hadn’t found anyone who had ever done the knot tying prank. Or anyone who had ever had it done to them. Or anyone who had ever heard of it being done. But who better than a wrestler to find out for Jonathan whether or not it worked as a prank.
Starlee: You can borrow that rib. You can use it when you’re on tour
Colt: I mean I’ll take requests, you know. I’m gonna give this a try and let you know how my opponent enjoyed it or did not enjoy the rib.
Starlee: You are really going to try it?
Colt: I wrestle for 10 min a night and I have so much time to waste.
Starlee Kine: With my partner out on the streets, I shifted to desk work. One of my investigators Eric disappeared down a rabbit hole of pranking library research. I probably should have called someone. But instead it gave me an idea.
Starlee Kine: Beverly had told me If Aladdin wasn’t sent enough source material to work from, the illustrators would use outside material to fill in details of their drawings. What if Elmer hadn’t gotten the knot tying prank from Welcome Back, Kotter itself but from another show and then had just transplanted it onto the Kotter lunchbox? I found a ten minute clip of Family Feud where the cast of Kotter competed against the cast of Love Boat cast. It was immediately apparent would be of no help but which I nonetheless watched from beginning to end and then sent to Jonathan who also watched it from beginning to end. It was oddly hypnotic. Horshack wears a leisure suit in it and Richard Dawson at one point sucks his own thumb. And then finally I caught a break, via another half hour sitcom about four misfits and the “just who’s the adult and the who’s the kid here” authority figure in their lives: Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show hadn’t even come close to existing when the lunchbox, or for that matter when Welcome Back Kotter was on but aside from that one little technicality, everything else tracked.
Starlee: The episode I want to talk to you about is in Season 5, Episode 12, the season finale.
Dave: Yeah sure, it’s the first episode I ever wrote. It’s the first anything I ever wrote.
Starlee Kine: This is Dave Chernin. In the episode he wrote, the character played by Glenn Howerton and Danny Devito, have a rivalry with a local bar. They break into the bar owner’s house and start pulling pranks.
Starlee: What were those pranks?
Dave: I remember they did his taxes, I remember they nailed his shoes to the ground of his closet. I believe they cut his shower curtain at waste high.
Starlee: Good one.
Dave: They tie his shirts in knots. They tie his shirt sleeves in knots.
Starlee: Now where did you get the idea for Frank to tie the shirt sleeves in knots?
Dave: Oh man. Honestly, I have no idea.
Starlee: So you wrote a scene with a knotted sleeve prank and you don’t know where that came from?
Dave: No, it came from my mind…I guess.
Starlee: Did that make sense to you why that is a prank?
Dave: I’m not going to sit here and say it was an amazing prank but yeah I think I got.
Starlee: What are your feelings about Welcome Back, Kotter?
Dave: You know, it’s a distant memory.
Starlee: There is a lunchbox that Welcome Back, Kotter had and on the lunchbox Epstein is holding up a jean jacket, the sleeves of the jacket are tied in knots. There has been a mystery about what that jean jacket means and your episode is one of the only pieces of evidence that I have ever seen that it is a prank. What does it mean?
Dave: Yeah I can’t help you there but I swear I’m going to go back and watch Welcome Back, Kotter. I would love nothing more than to hold the key to your mystery but it sounds like I’ve made your life even harder than it was before you started this phone call.
Starlee: I’m beginning to suspect conspiracy.
Starlee Kine: Before starting this case, I had never realized Kotter was so dangerous to the establishment. Of course the real question was why? Ask yourself was it no one at Aladdin remembered a single detail about the Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox getting made. Ask yourself why did Jonathan appear to be the only person who’d ever wondered about the knotted jacket? Ask yourself why didn’t anyone seem to know there was a comma in the title of the show? To quote Donald Sutherland paraphrasing a fictional amalgam of real life people in the film JFK, there was an air of – I don’t know – make believe to the whole thing. How else do you explain what happened to one of my investigators Alex, in the midst of us working the case.
Alex: I have something to show you. So I was at a coffee shop near my house this morning. I was meeting somebody to talk about something. We don’t need to get into the details.
Starlee Kine: And that’s the least suspicious thing he said.
Alex: Anyway, I looked up and saw this, just above the espresso machine just sitting there.
Starlee: So weird.
Alex: The exact Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox where he knotted the jacket up. Just randomly perched on top of an ice machine in this coffee shop I happened to go to this morning.
Starlee: Did you ask them about it?
Alex: Yeah I did. I asked what was it? They were like “it was this show back in the seventies.” I was like “no no no what about the lunchbox?” Since they started working there it had just been sitting there. They didn’t know where it came from. Yeah were like “yeah I have no idea.”
Starlee Kine: Or so they said. Who knows what they found out before their minds were erased.
Alex: It was really like, you know the Led Zeppelin album, Presence, like this big double album with all these domestic scenes, sort of Norman Rockwelly sort of scenes like people eating breakfast in stiff poses and then there was this weird little black monolith that was just placed in different places all around it. And that was what this felt like, oh my god it is tracking me. The weirdest thing, trying to remember now what it was…
Starlee Kine: Just as I’d feared.
Alex: Yeah I totally forgot.
Starlee Kine: They’d gotten to Alex. How else do you explain the email I got shortly after from Alan Sacks that read, quote, “Just received this from a fan in Missouri, asking for my autograph. Have never received a request via mail asking me to sign a picture. What kind of voo doo you working?” The picture he’d been sent to sign was, naturally, of the lunchbox. But you already knew that. It had been scanned onto a piece of paper, the lunchbox just floating, without comment, without explanation, in the middle of the page. How else do you explain the following exchange between me and the company that held the original merchandise license for the lunchbox, Wolper Productions. Wolper Productions is no longer but I wrote to the curator of it’s archives asking for any information related to the lunchbox. She responded that she’d done a search of the quote “Kotter merchandising binder” but hadn’t come across any mention of the lunchbox at all. She’d be happy to set up an appointment for me to come visit the archive in person, though, to look through “larger sets of folders pertaining to publicity, marketing and miscellaneous for Kotter at large.” Terrific, I said and suggested a date. At which point I received another email,, “I actually had a chance to go through the [other] Kotter files in question. I wrote back again saying, basically, that my idea of a good time. Sadly, I was not able to find any documents that addressed the specific question you were seeking to have answered. I will keep an eye out for you, however. I’m really sorry for this news.” as combing through files that more than likely led to nothing and could I please still set up an appointment. “Sure,” wrote back the curator, “except the reading room would be closing in a couple weeks for some months.” “Well, then, could I make an appointment before it closed?” “Unfortunately”, came the reply, “the reading room was all booked up for remaining days it was open.” “Maybe there’d be a cancellation?” I tried, I asked, “Could she let me know if so.” That was the last I heard from her. I doubt she was ever heard from by anyone ever again. I did get an email from her colleague though: “The material that you originally requested is not part of the collection. I’m not sure what you are expecting us to produce for you to look at.” I had no idea emails could make the sound of a slamming door.
I had arrived at the point that all investigators come to when confronted with a mass conspiracy: the obsessive revisiting of evidence, while your family moves out. I found myself returning to the Kotter episodes, hunting for that one clue I must have missed.
And that’s when I saw them: lunchboxes. You could just barely make them out, they were perched on a shelf in the Sweathogs classroom back and to the left of John Travolta’s hair: Planet of the Apes and the Disney bus. Both Elmer’s. In the next episode, a third box appeared. And then a fourth. I watched more episodes, fast forwarding until I got to the classroom scene. Sometimes the boxes moved to the window. Sometimes they went back to two. The Disney bus was a constant. Always there. Always watching. Never learning.
Still think there’s nothing behind the grassy knoll, Mr. Kotter.
(Music: Wrestling Announcer)
Starlee Kine: Meanwhile, somewhere in a sea of spandex, some of it handsewn.
Colt: This is Colt Cabana, I am in a locker room right now. With Marty Squirrel. You don’t know what we are doing right?
Marty: I have no idea really, no.
Colt: You agreed to play..
Marty: Going to end up getting me in a lot of trouble, ends up quite a lot anyway.
Colt: Here is what we are going to do, Doug Williams, 22 yr veteran of professional wrestling.
Marty: I used to watch him when I was like 12.
Colt: Will you bring that over to us. Rob has brought back his coat.
Marty: His new coat.
Colt: Just bought this.
Marty: Just bought this nice robe, lovely British union jack robe, only worn twice.
Colt: So we are going to tie this in a knot.
Marty: Oh no.
Colt: And we are going to have to get his reaction.
Marty: I feel bad already.
Colt: I’ll take all the blame.
Marty: You say that know, feel like that is going to backfire on me.
Colt: Here we go.
Marty: Oh god.
Colt: You have one end, I have the other. Now we are both going to pull kind of tight.
Marty: I am worried we are going to break it now.
Colt: It’s not going to break cause it is out of spandex.
Marty: The stitching I am worried about.
Colt: This pretty tight.
Marty: Maybe we should do more.
Colt: You want to do three knots?
Marty: Yes, there we go.
Colt: That is Doug talking about his match afterwards. He doesn’t know yet.
Marty: He looks like he is blowing up, hot and sweaty so he might be mad.
Colt: Yes, we will see.
Doug: Someone messed with my robe. I’m not impressed.
Starlee Kine: I now knew the knotted sleeves could be done as as a prank but the mystery was where the prank had come from and I still didn’t have proof that anyone besides Colt Cabana had ever done it before. And Colt could not have been the inspiration for the lunchbox because that is not how time works. And then there came the day that my investigator Eric resurfaced, pale and unshaven, clutching a page from a book called “The Modern Cowboy”.
Starlee: I have a question for you about a prank that is done that involved tying shirt sleeves in knots.
John: I’ve done it many times. Uncountable times.
Starlee Kine: This is John, the cowboy comma modern.
Starlee: So what is the prank?
John: First they struggle to get their arm in, not expecting it to be tied in a knot.
Starlee: Is it a satisfying payoff when somebody can’t get the shirt on?
John: All of us think in simple cause and effect. Arm won’t go through the sleeve.
Starlee: It is a disruption to the normal flow of events.
Starlee: And that is enough to produce laughter.
John: They just can’t get there arm in it. When cowboys go out on a round up day they usually start at daylight and as the day gets war, guys shed their long sleeve shirt and that makes it easy.
Starlee: You just lie and wait.
John: I am a patient man.
Starlee: First person I have ever spoken to who has not only heard of the know tying prank but who has done it. As far as I know you invented this prank.
John: I probably learned it from an old rancher. Most of them were jokers who had impish senses of humor and we are all capable of pulling pranks.
Starlee: If you see an article of clothing just laying there it is hard for you not to think of tying that in knots.
John: Yes, you must seize the opportunity. You can tie a knot in a church choir robe pretty easily. The ladies in our soprano section are never suspecting a prank.
Starlee: How do they react?
John: Well, they always know who did it.
Starlee: (laughs) Is it easier to tie a choir ladies robes in knots or a cowboys shirts.
John: Shirts are easy, choir robes are more difficult. The ladies in the choir, they are not vengeful.
John: Although one of them did staple my music folder together and I didn’t know it.
Starlee: Your sheet music together.
Starlee: That is a good prank.
John: That is a good prank.
Starlee: Do you think this is a distinct cowboy prank, the knotted sleeves?
John: There are the only people I ever knew who did it.
Starlee: Now it could be considered a church choir prank.
John: I guess so. Seemed a pretty good addition to my repertory.
Starlee: So you are satisfied it is a prank?
Jonathan: I am satisfied that this knotted sleeve prank has a history in this country that is as old as the cowboys who tilled the soil with there pranks. Makes sense that cowboys would think to do that because they are always thinking of ropes and knots and lassos and stuff, so I guess they are the ones to really see a rope in a sleeve where other people don’t. Do you think the cowboys made the knots so tight, if you get 2 guys to play tug a war with that sleeve and make the knot as tight as you possibly can maybe you could never get it out again. Then maybe it would not be such an innocent prank because, let’s say you do it in both sleeves and the person freezes to death cause they can’t get their coat on.
Starlee: Like if you were stranded on a mountain.
Starlee: If you were climbing Mt. Everest and someone removed their coat and then you chose to do it then.
Jonathan: And then your friend would be like “why would you do that?” And they would be so angry. And then they would continue to climb and have to cut it off. Then their arms would get frost bite and they would have to lose their arm. That is a terrible prank.
Starlee: Truthfully, do you find this satisfying?
Jonathan: Not at all. (laughs) Just kidding. No this is very satisfying – this is great.
Starlee: I did this all for you.
Jonathan: Normally lunch pails are filled with just sandwiches you throw in the garbage cause your mother makes bad sandwiches.
Starlee: We are talking about a generic mother her right?
Jonathan: Yes, not my mother. My mother was a saint.
Starlee: I get that reference now.
Jonathan: Thank you. Wow. Do I get to keep this?
Starlee: You do.
Jonathan: Wow, come on. I was just being obnoxious saying that. Really? Are you kidding?
Starlee: I would it wrapped it but it is already kind of in a box.
Jonathan: This is fantastic. It is going to turn my home into the Smithsonian.
Starlee Kine: Mystery Show is produced by Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Eric Mennel and me. Producing help for this episode from Kaitlin Roberts and Melinda Shopsin. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. John Delor engineered this episode. Thanks also to Matt Lieber.
Original score for this episode by the band White Dove, who are so talented I need all of you to make them famous immediately. Emmy the Great did my tremendous closing song which is available on spotify for all of you who have been asking.
Opening song by Sparks. Thank you to the Smithsonian, Laurence Weschler, Kent Bochlin, Kurt Leonard, Ann Wyatt, Emily Condit and Heather Rowe.
Arthur Jones made our logo which is now on a t-shirt. You can get the Mystery Show t-shirt if you sign up for a Gimlet membership. The front of the t-shirt has Arthur’s logo, the back has a Jake Gyllenhaal height chart in case you see him while you are wearing it and need a handy way to measure him. The sleeves of the t-shirt are probably too short for knot tying purposes but hey if you are feeling confident who am I to stop you. And if you haven’t listened to the Gimlet show Reply All you should.
Okay now this is the hard part, guys, this is the last episode of Season 1 of Mystery Show. Did you think I was going to say last episode, period. No way. I will be back soon with new mysteries for Season 2 as quickly as I can. Some of those mysteries might be yours so keep sending them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know you all waited a while for this one and I threw out some dates that turned out to be, I guess, red herrings. But you guys were all very kind and very patient and I wanted to you to know how much that meant to me. I read every tweet, every email, every message and I will miss you guys while I am gone.
There isn’t a new clue this time but I did want to give you an explanation for the old one. The opening credits to Welcome Back, Kotter featured a sign: Welcome to Brooklyn, 4th Largest City in America. Honorable Sebastian Leon, Borough President. None of you guys got it, which is okay, your guesses were even better.
While watching the movie Source Code David becomes consumed with a height related mystery.
Starlee Kine: From Gimlet, I’m Starlee Kine and this is Mystery Show. (music - why is there you?) Every week I solve a new mystery. (music - why is there me?) Mysteries that can’t be solved online. Mysteries you can’t solve yourself. (music) Up until now, there hasn’t been anyone to help with this. That person is now me.
This week’s mystery belongs to David. David is a former political cartoonist who runs an Artisanal Pencil Sharpening company out of his home in the country. You send him your unsharpened pencils and he sends them back to you sharpened. I am telling you this so you’ll understand that David is both a man who appreciates the more nuanced details of life and a man with a lot of time on his hands.
One afternoon David rang me up and said he had something pressing he needed to speak with me about. I caught the 3:18 train up to his house and sat in the second car from the front, in the window seat.
Upon my arrival, David greeted me warmly: “How are you?” I said cordially, gripping his hand with a strength I would’ve hardly been given credit for, David quickly ushered me into his study and after brushing off the pencil shavings from his sofa, gestured for me to sit down. Then he explained his predicament to me:
David: So, it all started when I went to see the movie Source Code and Jake Gyllenhaal was the star, and I thought it was a really good movie. But there was one thing about it that struck me as a little uncanny. It was that sometimes in the movie, Jake Gyllenhaal looked kind of short, and other times he looked really tall, which didn’t seem like part of the movie. It didn’t seem like it was a plot point element or anything, and I never notice
things like that with celebrities.
Starlee Kine: So David turned to every amateur sleuth’s jealous, undermining best friend: the internet. He typed in “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal” and a website called “Celeb Heights Dot Com” popped up. David thought it would be the end of the investigation.
David: But it was just the beginning because the printout of Jake Gyllenhaal, I have it here, and it’s a contested piece of data, I think is the only way to say it. So the entry begins: “Jake Gyllenhaal height, US actor from Brokeback Mountain, he is quoted at age 23 as saying ‘I’m happily six feet tall.'” And then the remaining eleven pages are devoted to people arguing and screaming at each other about whether he was speaking truthfully when he said he was happily six feet tall.
Starlee Kine: David says it’s the Infinite Jest of Jake Gyllenhaal heightrelated discourse.
David: The disputants are, as far as I can tell, from all over the world. It’s an international debate.
Starlee: And are they people who know him? Why, how are they
David: Well, that’s a great question. I’ll give you an example if I can find one. So here’s an entry:
“I met Jake at the Weinstein Oscar party. We were both wearing dress shoes and
standing four inches away from him. I was looking him in the eye. I had no need to even slightly angle my eyes upwards. I’m five foot eight and Jake was an inch taller than me. Period. He has a pretty tall cranium, which gave him the extra inch over me.”
So there are first hand accounts. And then there’s people who watch him on tv:
“Just saw Jake on Jimmy Fallon. He was an inch and a half shorter than him, in the scene where they are dancing about a hedgehog doing karate. Funny skit, but it proves to me, Jake is 5 foot 10 and half inches at the most. They were both wearing the same air force ones/converse shoes for the skit. It showed the whole body. There’s no way he is six foot. This entry needs to be changed.”
So that’s that guy, and this is very common on celebheights.com, if you see Jake or any celebrity, standing beside a celebrity of known height, then you just extrapolate based on that. It’s never like, “Oh I have a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal standing beside three yardsticks with his back to the wall.” For instance, there’s an infamous picture of Jake with the rapper Xzibit, and that is referred to a number of times here. Because Xzibit’s height, I think, has been nailed down.
Starlee: Nailed down how?
David: Xzibit is actually the moderator of celebheights.com. It’s Xzibit’s website. The address used to be “mystream.com/music/xzibit.” But yeah, there are all kinds of celebrities on the site, anyone from Danny Devito to Liam
Neeson, to use two height extremes.
Starlee: Danny Devito would be a good comparison.
David: You could probably measure Jake’s height in DeVito’s. “I was standing beside him at an Oscar party…”
Starlee Kine: Celebheights homepage specifies that all stats are “barefoot estimates,” as opposed to “running shoe estimates” or “pajamas with feet estimates” or “the pair of socks that everyone in your office always says the same thing about “oh aren’t those fun,” when you wear them on casual Fridays estimates.” Celebheights was interested in facts, not frivolity. Definitely
not a fun sock crowd.
David: So here’s an entry:
“I have met him. We were very close in height. No more than .75 in difference. I believe his six feet claim. He might measure five foot eleven and three quarters of an inch at 7pm. His absolute lowest will be my height: five eleven and a quarter, but nothing suggests that he was really under six feet” which is unusual because this guy just said he was under six feet.
Or this guy writes:
“I see a five eleven max morning height guy in those pictures.”
So this is something I had never heard of before: the term is, “max morning height,” which is that people are tallest in the morning, and then as the day goes by and this is true for myself you slump more and more, you’re getting more and more tired, you’re getting beaten down by the world. So a lot of people talk about max morning height.
When I first read that, I was like this guy has got to be a doctor or something, or an orthopedic surgeon. I have never heard of this concept. But as soon as I heard it, ithat makes sense to me.
Starlee Kine: Then there’s the ethnographic take on the question.
David: This guy writes,
“he doesn’t look like a typical six foot guy with long arms and a long neck. His body is like a Peruvian guy: large, oblong head, short neck. Hmmm. At least, he is maybe around five foot eleven. I don’t think he’s around six feet. I should see him shaven.”
I should see him shaven, denuded of hair, like a lizard.
Starlee: But he doesn’t say, “if only we could see him shaven.”
David: No “I, none of you other people should see him shaven. I have my own test, but it requires Jake Gyllenhaal to be fully shaven. I should see him shaven.”
It’s the should. It’s not as emphatic as, “I must see him shaven,” it’s “I should see him shaven.” It’s like “yeah I really should eat more fiber.”
Starlee Kine: One commenter points out that Jake was supposed to play the Joker and so mystery solved….since, as everyone knows, the Joker is six foot three. That commenter is immediately attacked by other commenters, as the Joker’s height is too contested.
Of course Jake never did play the Joker, perhaps because of this very controversy. Instead he went on the play the role of Army pilot Colter Stevens in Source Code, who is sent back in time in eight minute intervals to try and prevent a bomber from blowing up Chicago:
David: Although at the end of the movie, it’s revealed he’s actually just a grown up torso which makes calculating his height even that much more difficult because he doesn’t have legs.
Starlee: How important is it to you to get to the bottom of this?
David: Well I’ve invested more time in this than most of my peer group, I think.
Structurally, it’s almost analogous to Source Code, in that Jake is returning again and again to the scene of the crime to try to solve the mystery over and over again, with incremental additions of information. And I am having my own mystery where I am returning again and again to celebheights.com, with each visit trying to gain a little more information about the height of Jake Gyllenhaal. It kind of messes with your mind after a little while. There is one guy here, one maniac on this board, who is like: “huh. That’s surprising. I always thought he was six foot five. I loved you in Prince of Persia, Jake.” That’s in here somewhere.
I’m like, I’m pretty sure Jake Gyllenhaal is not six foot five. If you’re six foot five, there’s no debate about whether you’re five eleven and three quarters or a weak six foot. Six foot five kind of stands out.
Starlee: What’s the lowest they go with?
David: This goes from 5’9″ to someone saying he’s 6’5″ That’s a huge– that’s eight inches.
Even accounting for max morning height and shrinking over the day, you’re not going to lose eight inches in one day.
Starlee: So we are working with an eight inch spread here?
David: Right. I have a feeling he is not six foot. I have a feeling that if he was six foot, he would have said “I’m happily 6’1″‘ I have a feeling he is five foot eleven and a half.
Starlee: Here’s what I think I should do for you. What if I found out how tall Jake was, once and for all?
David: Well that’s good. I think you have a better chance of doing it than I would.
Starlee: So what is the bare minimum you will settle for?
David: Um… I would settle for word from Jake himself, and if he’s like… “It’s like I wrote on my website, I’m happily six feet tall. I’m happy with it. I’m right in the middle of it. Boom, just lounging in the middle of six foot.” He seems like an honest guy. I would accept that. I would take him at his word.
Starlee: So, word from the man himself. Ok. I can do it. I can do it.
Starlee Kine: I promised David I’d send word once I had any news and set off on my search. I decided to begin where this whole mess had started: the internet. It felt like using a brick to clean up a spill. I posted a call on Twitter for anyone who saw Jake to let me know. I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
But almost immediately, the tweets started pouring in. Jake was in New York, like me. One person had seen him in her Spin class. Someone else said it was just the two of them in her coffee shop the other morning. She reached for the sugar and there he was. Another girl was ordering a burger when Jake walked by outside. She was so startled that she threw the burger away, just chucked it in midair.
Not to sound creepy but by the end of the week, I had a pretty good idea of his entire schedule. I knew where he bought his shirts, where he unwound with a beer. I knew which shifts his brotherinlaw and sometimes costar, Peter Saarsgarrd, worked at the food coop. But even so, I was always one step behind. The closest, and most frustrating call, came from my friend Dan.
Dan: It’s very sad, actually. I had no idea that you were doing this Jake Gyllenhaal story.
Starlee Kine: It was a leisurely Saturday afternoon. Dan had just finished up brunch and was browsing at a store that I went to all the time and which was no more than ten minutes by train, five minutes by mad dash, from my house.
Dan: Jake Gyllenhaal was standing out on the sidewalk and talking to a group of maybe four or five women. He was just standing there, I mean, he was there in my presence for 30 or 40 minutes.
Starlee: So it’s definitely conceivable that if you had called me I could have gotten there in time to have measured him?
Dan: There was plenty of time for you to get on the subway, come over…
Starlee Kine: Jake Gyllenhaaal was becoming my celebrity Moriarty, or to put it in terms that my peer group would understand… my Snuffleupalogous.
And now let’s take a short break.
And we’re back. Hi.
My friend, Jeb, is a film producer. We met at the top of a mountain in Utah,
but that’s a story for another time. Jeb was actually one of the producers of Source Code. I called him up, and he said he was going to see Jake in a week they were going out to dinner. Did I want him to ask Jake if he would tell me how tall he is. I tried to play it off, all casual like. I told Jeb, only if it comes up naturally in conversation. The dinner happened, and then Jeb called me, and then I called David to relay the findings.
David: Hey what’s up. So you’re calling to report on your findings?
David: I’m excited.
Starlee: I did find Jake Gyllenhaal.
David: Where is he?
Starlee: He knows you are looking for him.
David: Good. My name is out on the street, that’s good.
Starlee: But he won’t tell you how tall he is.
Starlee Kine: Jake had been intrigued, but wouldn’t give a number.
David: Did he say why?
Starlee: He’s trying to lay low.
David: What does that mean? He won’t stand up? He’s lying down?
Starlee Kine: I had failed, at the very moment when success seemed most guaranteed. No matter which way I looked at it, no matter how hard I thought about it, I simply couldn’t go higher than Jake Gyllenhaal to get to Jake Gyllenhaal. And now that I had set this thing in motion, I didn’t know how to make it stop. Twitter was giving celebheights.com a real run for its money when it came to Jake Gyllenhaal minutiae.
People were now not only giving me reports about where he was, but also where he wasn’t.
“He’s not here putting my very cranky baby to sleep.”
“Sick in bed today. He is not making reassuring jokes while dapping my forehead with a cool washcloth.”
“I checked in the cubicle next to me. Alas, no Jake, just Susan from accounting, who is dreamy in her own right, but not the same.”
“He’s not on this bench in Battery Park, watching the harbor, sun on his face, the wind in the leaves.”
All around me was Jake Gyllenhaal. The Earth was comprised of surfaces where he had either just been or could one day be. The molecules in the air were in a perpetual state of arranging and rearranging themselves around his presence or absence. Trying to determine his true height was like asking how wide is the sky, how deep is the sea. It occurred to me that perhaps Jake himself didn’t know how tall he was.
Seasons passed. Winter came. Planets rotated. Stars died. Innumerable gallons of ice cream were consumed. Countless spoons were bent. Babies learned how to crawl. Teenagers learned how to kiss. Podcasts went from being popular in a niche way to being popular in a mainstream way.
But still, older people could not figure out how to listen to them on their phones.
Heavy televisions were replaced by thin televisions. The outdated models were put out on the street, picked up by couples in love and then, after some time had passed, put back out onto the street.
It might be helpful to imagine a wall calendar for this part, with the pages dropping off one after another after another, the time just falling away until…
Starlee: How impressed are you that I stayed on the case?
David: Well, I have to say as an investigator, you are tenacious, and I really admire I mean I assume you’re here today to close the case, that we’re going to solve this case, move it from red to black. I don’t know. Maybe this is just your update where you are like “I have no idea who Jake Gyllenhaal is, or how to measure human height. Just wanted to let you know, I’m still plugging away.” But if you are here to bring closure to this, I’m excited because this has been a long time coming.
Starlee: Do you remember who you saw Source Code with?
David: I saw it by myself. Yeah. I think I saw it at the Fishskill Regal Cinemas, which is just like a local multiplex, and I think it was before they redid their floors, because they have an insanely large and empty lobby area, and they put it very brightly patterned industrial tile, and I think it was before that.
Starlee: So in the marking of your life, it’s like postdivorce, prefloor change of that cinema?
David: Something like that. Postdivorce, prefloorchange, as are so many of our precious moments in this life.
Starlee: So recently my friend Sloane texted me and said, “Jake Gyllenhaal is in this restaurant. He’s having dinner with his Mom. Should I go ask his height.”
Starlee Kine: I texted Sloane back, “yes!” Then I remembered how Jake Gyllenhaal had reacted the last time I sent someone on a similar mission. Had history taught me nothing? Clearly, Jake Gyllenhaal hated being asked how tall he was while in a restaurant. I got nervous that Sloane’s badgering would scare him off, and then I’d never solve the case.
Starlee: I wrote another text saying, “no! no! abort! abort! abort!” And then Sloane’s phone died, so she never got that message.
David: She only got the yes. Oh my gosh.
Sloane: Hello? Hi! How are you?
Starlee: What happened?
Sloane: I don’t even know where to begin.
Starlee Kine: As soon as she was out of the restaurant, Sloane found a place to charge her phone and called me with her update.
Sloane: You have to understand the layout of the restaurant is such that there is one table for two that is sort of on an island in the inside, and the rest are family style tables, circling it. I was sitting at that middle table with my friend Chris, which means that everything I’m about to tell you was in an amphitheater.
Starlee Kine: Sloane and her friend deliberated for an hour about whether she should approach Jake.
Sloane: Chris kept turning around, and thinking he was being very slick. I was like, “you are not being slick!”
Starlee Kine: Before finally landing on, well hell here goes nothing.
Sloane: Just as I sort of get the balls to do it, some beanpole blonde lady approaches their table and starts talking to them. I was like, “oh my god. I did not see that coming.”
Starlee: Oh my god. This woman is going to ask him how tell he is first.
Sloane: Finally, it was like, that’s it. I have to do it. Starlee has been looking for this information for a very long time. I’m going to go ask him. That’s it. I’m going to go ask him. And so, I walked over him and said I’m so sorry
David:Are you serious? Your field agent really went over to him. Oh my god. What did I put in motion?
Sloane: I said, “I’m sorry I don’t mean to interrupt. I know you’re eating dinner with your family.” And they looked at me exactly how I thought they would, which was like, you know slightly deer caught in the headlights. And then I said, “I know this is totally strange, but I have to ask, how tall are you?” And Jake Gyllenhaal said, “why does everyone want to know this?”
David: (laughing). That’s so amazing. Oh my gosh.
Sloane: And he sort of hemhawwed. He’s like, “I can’t say.”
Starlee: He wouldn’t?
Sloane: He wouldn’t. He was really hedging about it. And then his mother looked me and she holds up
Starlee: I think happily.
Starlee: Did he nod when she did six feet? Did he confirm?
Sloane: No! He did not confirm. He did not confirm. I’m like, “so you’re six feet tall.”
And he said, “I’m 6’8″.” I was like, “oh come on!”
David: Yeah, see a guy like that is savvy. He knows he has all the leverage. Not only is he a famous hollywood movie star, he’s a favorite hollywood movie star and the only person who knows how tall he is. And that’s what everyone wants to know.
Starlee: How tall do you think he is?
Sloane: I think he’s 5’9″ No I’m kidding. I don’t know. I stood up next to him, the problem was I was wearing a slight heel so it’s hard to say. But anyway, I should go and do this thing. I’m coming I’m coming I’m coming!
Starlee: Ok bye.
Starlee: What did you think I was going to come here and tell you?
David: My fantasy would be for Jake Gyllenhaal in a state of true transparency and honesty and oneness with the universe, to just announce his height, with the
understanding that he wouldn’t be judged for it and it would have no effect on his personal or professional prospects. It would just be almost a statement of principal, visavis the unknowability of certain things in the age of information. And then it does seem like, for so many things, we still do need to go to the source, right? Because so many ways of finding out the objective truth of this information would have been unethical. You can’t go to his doctor and find out. That’s not the type of people we are, unless that’s what you did, in which case, that is the type of people we are. I wanted
Starlee: You wanted the man himself?
David: Well now I’m excited. Do we have to ask? I mean, did we get to the man himself?
Starlee: I hope you’re not disappointed, but the answer is…yes. Jake Gyllenhaal told me how tall he was.
Starlee: How are you?
Tape: I’m well. So I’m going to connect you to Jake.
Amazing. Thank you so so much.
(beeping). Starlee can we call you back in like four minutes?
Tape: Ok. Thank you.
Jake: Hi Starlee?
Starlee: Hey, Jake?
Jake: Hey. How you doing?
Starlee: At last, we meet. Should I ask you the question?
Starlee: Are you sure?
Jake: I mean, I think so.
Starlee: You’re so nervous about being asked the question, that I’m positive you already know what it is.
Jake: No, I’m not nervous about it at all. I’m worried for you. I just fear that ultimately, the answer will be totally unsatisfactory, you know? I don’t want to devastate you with this.
Starlee: Or destroy my career.
Jake: You may be doing that already. That I have nothing to do with.
Starlee: I’m trying really hard to do it.
Jake: Oh good.
Starlee: I’ve been very disciplined about it.
Jake: One thing I have learned: when you try to destroy your career, it only brings wonderful things. Don’t ever use that advice. That’s the worst piece of advice anyone has ever given. But my hint to you: I will say, I’m taller than my sister. She is three years older than me, so she had a good head start, but I caught up and got taller.
Starlee: What age did you surpass her?
Jake: I would say when I hit 16, 17, I was taller than my sister. But, as any younger sibling would tell you, they always do sort of feel taller than you. It really is about what we project onto other people. There are days when I’m sure I seem taller than I am, and there are days when you wake up and you’re just like “ugh, man.” It’s cold out, or there’s something going on in your life, and you’re shorter, I think.
Starlee: I know what you’re saying, because I think I’m taller than I am.
Jake: How tall are you?
Jake:That’s not fair. That’s totally
Starlee: Right. Who is interviewing who here, right?
Jake: I’m sorry. I didn’t think I would apologize during this interview.
Starlee: Oh I did.
Jake: I’m not doing it again, I just want you to know.
Starlee: Ok. We will see about that.
Starlee: I’m going to ask you the question. Are you ready for it?
Jake: How can anyone be ready for this question. There’s no right time.
Starlee: It’s like having a baby. You just do it, and then you figure it out.
Jake: And then it grows up!
Starlee: To some undetermined height.
Jake: Totally relative height.
Starlee: That changes depending on whether it’s morning or midday
Jake: Or how you feel about yourself. Wait. Just because I laugh, doesn’t mean I think it’s healthy.
Starlee: To me, it’s less about the answer to the question, and more about the quest.
Jake: I feel a little uncomfortable with you calling it a quest. I’m surprised at myself that I agreed to do this. But, like you, I am inquisitive. And let me just say this, I’m not a scientist.
Starlee: Wait a minute.
Jake: Let me just explain. Speaking of shrinking, Innerspace have you ever seen that movie?
Starlee: Yes, I’ve seen Innerspace. Great film.
Jake: Ok well, this is the irony of Innerspace, Dennis Quaid is tiny teeny small shrunken in Innerspace, but in reality is taller than Martin Short, his costar in that film, who is bigger than him in the film, but in reality happens to be smaller than Dennis Quaid.
Starlee: That is true. So the answer is yes, you’re ready, that’s what you’re saying?
Jake: Yeah I’m ready. Of course I’m ready.
Starlee: Of course. Ok.
Jake: Should I even answer this question?
Starlee: I see no downside to you answering it.
Jake: Can you tell me about the upside of this?
Starlee: Is it time for me to ask you the question?
Jake: (sighs) I feel like once I answer this question, that will be it. There will be no mystery in your mind, because I will have told you what is true. Right?
Starlee: The mystery will be solved.
Jake: I just want you to take a minute, before we cross over to the other side, and I just want you to ask yourself, are you willing and ready to walk into reality, because this is the end of the journey. No more fantasies that you have been living under. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the moment, for you. Are you ready?
Starlee: Yes. How tall are you?
Jake: I am
David: So what did he say? You know what? Let’s do this right. Starlee, it’s been a long time coming. How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?
Jake: I am actually five foot eleven and one half of an inch. That’s how tall I am.
Starlee: Five eleven and a half.
David: That’s the best possible answer. Five eleven and a half. That’s amazing.
Starlee: Why is it the best possible answer?
David: Because it’s like, it could have been so easy for him to say, “yeah I’m happily six feet.” I had to get a physical the other day and they asked, “how tall are you?” I said “six two,” but in my mind I was thinking I was six two and a half, I’m brushing against six three. But how am I, a 42 year old man, going to say “I’m six foot two and a half inches.”
Do you know what I mean? Once you pass six feet two, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter is you’re six three or six sixteen. So I admire in the spirit of our inquiry, which was to get some hard facts, that Jake Gyllenhaal gave us that half inch of significant digit.
Starlee: Case closed.
David: Case closed. I love it.
Starlee: Should I tell you my real height? Doesn’t that seem fair?
Starlee: I always say I’m five feet. But I think I’m four eleven.
Jake; Yeah, see. That’s what we’re talking about right there. Doesn’t it feel so much better to say, “oh I’m five feet,” as opposed to like “no I’m actually four eleven.”
Starlee: No because you’re tall. My thing is very understandable.
Jake: What are you talking about? Tell that to LeBron James. It’s all relative. I’m tall. You’re tall to Dennis Quaid in Innerspace or to Martin Short in general. Does some of this, or all of this, just really have to do with you and how tall you think you are?
Starlee: It really didn’t until this conversation.
Jake: Yeah but that’s kinda great. That’s kinda great. Because I’ve been sitting here, let’s be honest, thinking “I’ve never met her. I’ve never even seen her.” You could be seven foot six
Jake: You could be one of the tallest women in the world, in fact, talking to you on the phone, you seem like it.
Starlee: That’s why I’m saying. It’s the projection right!
Jake: That’s what I was saying. You’re stealing my thing. Maybe we can all go out to dinner, and then you can officially measure me, and you can make sure.
Starlee: Ok, I mean…
Jake: Or not. Forget about it.
Starlee: No my pause was not that was a bad idea.
Jake: No nevermind, I didn’t want to anyway.
Starlee: I actually have it on tape.
Starlee: He wants to go to dinner with all of us, me, you, him and Sloane.
David: That will be an amazing photo, and we will line up according to height.
Starlee: Oh dammit, that means I’m on the end.
David: What is Jake Gyllenhaal’s favorite restaurant?
Starlee: Is that my new mystery?
David: Exactly. Jake, my inquiry has only just begun. Expect my agents in every grocery store, every car wash, every church service, every book reading, every awards gala. We will understand you, Mr. Gyllenhaal. Just kidding.
Starlee Kine: Mystery Show is produced by Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin, Eric Mennel and me. Producing help for this episode from Chris Neary and Phia Bennin. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor.
Thanks also to Matt Lieber.
Original score for this episode by White Dove. Additional original scoring by Emmy the Great, and Devin Dare. Closing song by Emmy the Great. Opening song by Sparks. Arthur Jones made our logo. Miss you pal, come visit. Thank you Elna Baker, Mark Sikes, Jen Snow and Sara Zebrack.
Now I don’t want you guys to get all nervous but there won’t be a new episode of Mystery Show next week. We’re taking a little break until midJuly. But in the meantime, you can tweet at us and at me all you want.
And now I have a confession. I’m slightly worried that I gave you an unsolvable clue last week. I thought it was real but now I’m thinking it was maybe only celebheights.com real. All I know for sure is that no one guessed Jake Gyllenhaal. So it’s sort of like, you all guessed Jake Gyllenhaal. That makes sense right? Here is the clue for the next episode: borough president.
The Case: Starlee and her friend Miranda get stopped at a red light and see something shocking. The Facts: Mystery Show is produced by Starlee Kine, Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin and Eric Mennel. Producing help from Phia Bennin. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. Engineering help by josh Rogosin. Thanks to Matt Lieber. Logo by Arthur Jones. Thanks…
Starlee Kine: One afternoon, My friend Miranda and I were driving around Los Angeles one afternoon.
Starlee: What were we doing that day?
Miranda: I was getting my shoes fixed.
Starlee: And I was with you.
Miranda: Like a good friend who’s willing to do errands as a way to hang out.
Starlee Kine: It was the kind of day where everything felt fun and a little charged, even shoe repair.
Starlee: And then we stopped at a red light.
Starlee: How long do you remember that red light being?
Miranda: I want to say maybe 12 to 15 minutes. In my experience of that light, we’re still there. That’s how long it was.
Miranda: It was the kind of thing you realized it was long, commented on it, forgot about and then hours later were like, “oh my god, you know what I just realized? We’re still at that light.
Starlee: Right, right.
Miranda: Here’s the thing, when you’re stuck at a light, you’re kind of just looking for anything to read and look at. We were just very willing to jump down any rabbit hole we could find. And there one was right in front of us.
Starlee Kine: A mystery.
Starlee: What did we see?
Miranda: We saw a license plate that said ILUV911.
Starlee: Yes we did. That’s exactly what we saw.
Starlee Kine: To be technical, we saw a license plate with the letter “I” followed by the letters “LUV” and then followed by the number 9 and 1 and 1. ILUV911.
Miranda: And we were looking at the cars around us and the people, like is anyone seeing this? How can this be? Right here in broad daylight.
Starlee Kine: The plate was attached to an old buick wagon, half beige, half a sort of orangey tan, colors that cars don’t come in anymore. We couldn’t stop talking about it. We would try and move onto a new topic of discussion but we kept just coming back to that plate.
What could it mean? The most obvious explanation, that the driver was a terrorist, that didn’t even make sense since the last thing a terrorist would do is get a license plate that said: “I’m a terrorist.”
We had the distinct impression that the driver was trying to communicate something powerful to us. I mean just think about the steps involved in getting a vanity plate that says “iluv911.” Standing in line at the DMV to get the wrong form, standing in line at the DMV to get the right form, standing in line at the DMV to turn in that form. The person would have had so many opportunities to reconsider and yet they powered through, determined to declare their love to a world that couldn’t possibly relate. We didn’t know if we’d ever understand that love but we felt a need to at least decipher it.
When the light finally turned green, at a point so far into the future that everything that is in fashion now returned to fashion again until the world seemed exactly the same, we got into the left hand lane. We were now directly alongside the buick. The driver was an elderly woman. In my memory, she was wearing the kind of hat you might wear to church. The idea of not finding out the answer felt crazy. I wanted to get out of the car, make the universal gesture of “roll down your window, and tell me what your inscrutable vanity plate means.”
Instead, we turned left, and the woman and the answer went straight. Back then, I didn’t think there was anything else I could do about it. But now I do.
￼(music - why is there time?)
From Gimlet, I’m Starlee Kine and this is Mystery Show. (music - why is there space?) Every week I solve a new mystery. Mysteries that can’t be solved online. Mysteries that can’t be solved yourself. (music - Why are there dogs and cats and trees and the human race?) Unless you’re me. Because this week on Mystery Show, the mystery is mine. Curveball, I know.
Miranda: So you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Starlee: I’ve got a lot of work.
Miranda: Oh my gosh. I don’t know how you’re going to find her. What I’m picturing is, you’re going to go back to that light and she’s going to still be there.
Starlee: Well it was a very long light. So what’s going to happen is I’m going to run the plates, I’m going to investigate all the leads, then I’m going to give you a report.
Miranda: Oh I love that. I, for my part, will just wait.
Starlee Kine: My first task was to head to a police station to ask a cop if he could run a complete stranger’s license plate and give me her personal contact info.
Once inside the station, I met a police sergeant who wasn’t allowed to talk to me on tape. But he was permitted to just shoot the breeze with me for a while.
He told me how much he was looking forward to retiring, three years from now. He planned on moving to the country, so that his daughter could grow up riding horses and he and his son could sit around all day, playing guitar.
I asked him if he could run a license plate number for us. He said he could have, if the plate was right in front of him, where he could see it. Or if he had an official reason to do so. he’d be able to do it. I had a feeling that didn’t include because I just really want to know.
I wished the sergeant good luck on his future life and left to pursue other options.
￼Darren: How are you?
Starlee Kine: This is Darren. He’s an investigative journalist. I thought he might have some advice for me about how to get a cop to run a plate. He said it wasn’t a matter of asking the right way. It was a matter of asking the right cop. He knew one who owed him a favor.
Darren: I don’t want you to get your hopes up too high, because the last time the car had a valid registration was from August 2010 to 2011.
Starlee: That matches up with my timeline of when I last saw it.
Darren: The problem is, because it’s not registered, we can’t get a name on it.
Starlee: Really? That’s how that worked?
Darren: Yeah. I asked him if he could see who it was previously registered to and he said couldn’t get that information. Right now it’s a bit of a dead end.
Starlee: Did it show when the license plate was first got? Is there any record of that?
Darren: I don’t see that here.
Darren: It doesn’t say anything Well it does say… Hmmm I’m just noticing this now. It does say Nov 18, 2008, previous license, and there’s another number here of that previous license. I wonder if we run that number.
Starlee: Ooh! Yeah.
Darren: Well let’s find out. You got me curious now too, so we’re going to see. I’m going to follow up on the previous license plate.
Starlee Kine: Darren told me he’d have to go through a cycle of nonfavored related phone calls to his guy, before he’d be able to hit him up about the second plate. I understood and told him I would wait for him to get in touch.
There’s something that might have already occurred to you but that never once occurred to Miranda and me while we were stuck at that light that day. What if we were reading the license plate ILUV911 all wrong.
Let’s consider some alternate theories:
￼Perhaps her favorite bible passage was “Sing praises to the Lord, which dwelleth in Zion: declare among the people his doings.” Psalm 9:11.
Or perhaps it was simply a matter of improper punctuation. We were inserting a forward slash, 9/11, where there should’ve been a period: 91.1 tape: 91.1 commercial
Eric: So it could be 91 X in San Diego.
Starlee Kine: This is one of my investigators, Eric.
Eric: Which as implied by the X, like all X stations across America, … it’s like an alt rock station.
(music from station)
Eric: And it’s not because I love 91.1FM in San Diego but I think my brother would. The X station where I’m from in Tampa Bay is 97x and my brother has this really lucky streak of winning all their onair competitions. We tallied it up at Thanksgiving last year and he’s won something like $7000 worth of gifts and trips from the “Caller 97”
Eric: I think they know him. He’s on their facebook page. He won a trip to New Orleans. He wins concert tickets, like backstage passes, all the time. So I think my brother is the kind of person who would get “I Love 97.1” in Tampa Bay. I’m going purely on gut here.
Starlee Kine: Even so, Eric still only gave it a twenty percent change. 91X was a broadcast out of San Diego which he worried was too far away from LA.
Starlee: Do they have contests?
Eric: I’m sure they do.
Starlee: What’s playing now?
Eric: If I were to pull it back up, it is…
tape: contest and music.
Starlee: That was a contest.
￼Eric: That was a contest.
Starlee: I don’t know. I feel like you’re gonna have to pump that percentage up.
Eric: 20% is a lot for someone who doesn’t live in San Diego and who would love Daft Punk.
Starlee: And do you think there’s a difference between LOVE vs. LUV?
Eric: mmm… At one point in my life, I would have said no.
Starlee: You mean like when you were a teenager, luv meant…
Eric: Yeah, like all you know is luv, therefore it is love. Right? Then as you get older, there’s a more distinct separation between the two. That’s sad too, isn’t it?
Starlee: Like for yourself?
Eric: Yeah, it probably was nice to just luv something. There wasn’t so much weight attached to it, like the weight of a moving vehicle.
Starlee Kine: What seemed more likely than a psalm, more likely even than a radio station that was barely affiliated to the radio station where Eric’s brother kept winning contests, was that the numbers 911 meant 911.
Everyone I knew seemed to think so. First I would tell them about the plate, pronouncing it as “iluv 9/11” and they’d be shocked. Then, I would bring up the possibility of it being “iluv 911” and they’d say, “oh yeah. That’s probably what it is.”
Miranda: Now, in hindsight I think it could be that she works for either just the police, or they work specifically for 911, like an operator. Or 911 saved her life, or the life of her child. And so, yeah, she loves them.
Starlee Kine: I didn’t know when the women had gotten the plate. I did know that Miranda and I had seen it ten years after the event that forever made the plate very easy to misconstrue. Whatever it was that this woman loved, she had to love it enough to be okay with that. Would a 911 operator feel that way?
Carol: I started in 197–oh wow–1974.
Starlee Kine: This is Carol.
￼Starlee: So you were one of the first of what we know of as 911 operators.
Carol: Detroit was one of the first big cities to have it.
Starlee Kine: When 911 began, the idea of just one number that would service all of your emergencies, was such a novel concept, that a typical call would go like this: A person would dial 911, the dispatcher would answer, the caller would say “oh it works!” And hang up. Eventually, people figured out the system, and then they started calling in about everything.
Carol: There was one situation I just picked up the phone and this person said there’s a German Shepherd dog driving the car. He gave me the description of the car and the location and I hung up and it’s like, “how do I say this without sounding like a complete lunatic?” You know? But I didn’t have much choice so I gave it out. And within 2 or 3 minute, an officer comes on the air and says “yeah, you’re right, I’m sitting behind this car and there’s a dog sitting in the driver’s seat, and he had his paws up on the steering wheel and he is aiming the car.”
Carol: Yeah. So he pulls it over and the guy had taught the dog how to steer and he was sitting in the passenger seat, working the foot pedals, the brake and the gas. And apparently the dog did pretty good, as far as steering.
Starlee: I have a lot of questions. If you teach your dog how to drive, is that illegal?
Carol: Well we joked around about who was going to get the ticket, but the guy got the ticket. We cited him for allowing an unlicensed driver to drive the vehicle.
Starlee: Wait a minute! If the dog got a license would it then be legal? Carol: Probably.
Starlee: This is probably not the lesson I’m supposed to learning from this, but I want to teach my dog to drive as soon as I get off the phone.
Carol: Well don’t do it on a busy road, that’s all I have to say.
Starlee Kine: Carol tells me she would sometimes be the only dispatcher working and would have to figure out how to juggle the different calls coming in. The most urgent ones were labeled hot calls. She remembers one night getting three hot calls all at once. There had been a traffic accident with injuries; three guys in ski masks were hanging around outside a convenience store; and a man was drowning his wife in a swimming pool. And then:
Carol: In the middle of this, a lady calls to report that there’s a dead squirrel in her yard. This is really low on my priorities list at the moment.
Starlee: Does your mind now prioritize things in a certain way because of the years spent doing that for emergencies?
Carol: I think so. I think you look for ways to fix things, to be more selfsufficient. Some people are always trying to turn to somebody else to fix their problems.
Starlee: Having a job where people call and ask for help has turned you more selfsufficient and makes you ask for help less?
Carol: Yeah. Does that sound backwards?
Starlee: Well, yeah kind of. Well, counterintuitive. I would think the lesson would be it’s good to ask for help.
Carol: It is good to ask for help, but I’ve heard so much that happens to people, good and bad, that it helps you put into perspective what is really something that’s important and urgent and what’s just life and you deal with it as it comes.
There are some calls that linger forever. It snows a lot in Michigan if you didn’t know. So, it was winter time and it was snowing and this woman was driving to work and she lost control of her car, hit a snow plow headon and was killed. She happened to be my age, she had young children. It took on a personal tone. And it’s just a call I’ve never forgotten.
I got all this information because I looked at the police report after it came in. After. And saw all the details. And I wish I hadn’t.
At that point, I learned I probably didn’t want to read most of the police reports because I didn’t want to know that much about what happened.
Starlee: the story I’m working on is about a license plate I saw that said ILUV and the numbers 911. I’m trying to figure out what it is. Do you think it’s possible to love 911?
Carol: I do. My guess would be it’s someone who works for it that would put that.
Starlee: Really? Why?
Carol: My license plate was 109. That was the police code for “repeat your message.”
Starlee: That was your license plate? Really?
Carol: Yeah, it was a personalized license plate. When we saw those police radio codes on people’s licenses plates, we generally knew that meant they worked for an agency.
Starlee: So you see other license plates that have police codes, radio codes or 911 references in them?
Carol: Yeah, it’s not uncommon.
Starlee: So you love 911?
Carol: Yes, I would say I do. You really and truly can help people. Most days, you go to work and it’s just a job. I’ll be really honest. It is. It’s just a job. But every once in a while, you get that call where you get the police and the fire in time to save somebody. It’s exciting.
Starlee: You’re definitely nudging it firmly over to the I love 911 license plate argument.
Carol: That’s what I would think if I saw it, yes. I think they’re proud of it.
Starlee Kine: ILUV911 had just edged ahead as the most convincing theory. One I felt compelled to believe unless I found the buick’s driver and she told me otherwise.
Darren: I have news for you.
Starlee Kine: Here’s Darren again.
Darren: Can I tell you something really funny that happened on the way to getting
Darren: So I sent the new license plate to my friend, and while I’m waiting for him to get back to me because he wasn’t at a computer at the time, I’m sitting in my office, and all of a sudden I hear a crack outside. And I look out my window and some guy has sideswiped my car and knocked the sideview mirror off. He takes off and I go chasing the guy down the block like a lunatic in my slippers. He gets away. He blows through the light.
￼But the guy has a vanity plate.
So my friend comes back with the answer to your plate and I had to write him back and say, “actually do you have time to run one more?” And it turns out he lives down the block from me. I just drove by it this morning.
Starlee: And the car was there?
Darren: It was there. I have to go back. It was after a run, I was all sweaty, I didn’t want to show up looking like an animal. I’ll take a shower and then go back.
Starlee: Is his vanity plate easier to understand than “iluv911.”
Darren: Yeah definitely.
Starlee: It’s like, “I love sideswiping rearview mirrors.”
Darren: Exactly. It was “I wreck cars.” In the course of a couple of weeks, I’ve run a bunch of license plates. I’ve only done it once before in my entire life, and now I feel like I’m running license plates all the time. So, do you want to know about your license plate?
Darren: I got a name.
Starlee: Really? Wow.
Darren: Yeah. I’ll tell you the name and you can bleep whatever you need to bleep. So the name is (bleep). Now the bummer is, there’s an address here, but it’s a P.O. box. This person doesn’t want to be found.
Starlee: No kidding. This person is so the opposite of the person who sideswiped you.
Darren: I know.
Starlee: If only that person was the person I was looking for, the case would be closed really easily.
Darren: Just walk down the block.
Starlee: Ok, we’ve got a P.O. box so I can send a letter, and we have a name.
￼Darren: The only thing now is that there is a lot of pressure on you to write a letter that they’re going to respond to. I can tell how much this means to you. And I would say, just don’t over think it. I always overthink it. As you know, my last letter, I wrote the letter over and over for two months before I sent it. And then in the end, I was replied back, “yeah let’s talk.” So don’t overthink it. Don’t overthink it.
Starlee Kine: Iwrite a letter and mail it to the PO Box address, feeling like, I was back where I started… once again, waiting.
Want to know what that felt like? Here’s your chance, during this short break.
Starlee Kine: Ihad thought that the hard part of solving what ILUV911 meant would be finding out the driver’s identity. Once I had that, I assumed that everything that followed would be as easy as teaching a dog to drive a car. But, incredibly, the driver let’s call her Margaret was becoming more of a mystery to me with every attempt I made to reach out to her.
I waited weeks for a response to the letter I sent, but never heard back.
I searched public records for every possible combination of her name and then called every number that came up. No one ever answer. Each number had some version of an anonymous outgoing message. This was a woman who had put such a personal message on her license plate, but you couldn’t leave a simple “Hi, I’m not in right now,” on her voice mail.
I would have just knocked on her front door, but I couldn’t find another address for her, beyond the P.O. box. But then finally, another one of my investigators, Melinda made a discovery.
Melinda: I just did a crossreference thing that excited me, where I figured out married name, I think.
Starlee Kine: Searching under this new name, Melinda found a new house address that had the same phone number listed as the P.O. box. We now knew where Margaret lived, or at least once lived.
Melinda: I did a search to see if she was still getting utilities billed there.
Starlee: Mhmm. You did? What?
Starlee Kine: Even if Margaret wasn’t living at this address anymore, it was still the best lead I had.
Matt: We’re getting close. This is our exit.
￼Starlee: I know, six minutes.
Starlee Kine: Being as how it was my first stakeout and all. I wanted ot do it right. Stale coffee: check. Red vines: check. Stakeout partner: check.
Matt: You’re driving real slow. Is it this block?
Starlee: It’s coming.
Starlee Kine: This is my friend Matt. His main stakeout partner qualifications are that his schedule is flexible and that he is prone to grumbling.
Matt: I think we should call and complain because that was ridiculous. Imagine rush hour, forget it, you’d be there forever.
Starlee Kine: It’s after 8 when Matt and I arrive at Margaret’s neighborhood. As we turn onto her street, it dawns on me that ok, maybe I hadn’t taken everything into account. Like, at nighttime, it’s dark.
Starlee: Can you see anything?
Matt: I don’t know. I can’t even see any numbers.
Starlee Kine: After much squinting, and significantly more grumbling, we figure out which house is hers.
Matt: Look, that’s it.
Starlee: This one?
Matt: Wow, this just got really real.
Starlee Kine: If an anonymous voicemail message was a house, it would look like
Margaret’s. Matt: There’s no lights, no car in the driveway.
Starlee Kine: There was also no sign of the car on the street. My plan had been to use the car as an entry point into a conversation with Margaret. Without the car in sight, though, I didn’t know what the next step was. And Matt and I couldn’t stakeout the house, because all the good stakeout spots had been taken.
Matt: If there was a spot right in front of the house, we would be on easy street.
Starlee Kine: But we weren’t on easy street. We were on hard street, at the intersection of frustrating and questionable. But wait,
Starlee Kine: Was that a glint of metal I saw?
Matt: Yeah there’s a car back there. Should I make a uturn? Starlee Kine: Idon’t know why we were whispering. The windows were closed.
Matt: Alright, watch what I’m going to do.
Starlee Kine: Matt and I pull into the driveway as though we’re making a uturn. There’s a low gate and our headlights shine through it, illuminating the back of the driveway and then from behind the house, with just its nose poking out we see
Matt: Is that it? Do you see it?
Starlee: Matt, that’s it! That’s it. That’s definitely the car. Now, are you feeling disappointed?
Matt: No, wow, this is a great success.
Matt, that’s it! That’s it! Holy shit!
Starlee Kine: We pull back into the street. The car is swallowed up by the darkness once more. Having confirmed that I had the right house, I set out the next day on my own. I pull up outside Margaret’s. Of course, now that I wasn’t on a stakeout, there are plenty of choice stakeout spots available. Typical.
I open the gate, and walk up to the front door. I take a deep breath and knock. (music)
I knock again.
I knock again.
A slight shifting of the curtains, followed by a voice: “who is it?”
Here was a detail I hadn’t thought through beforehand.
“Starlee?” I say.
“Um, do you have a license plate that says i luv” I pause again. “The numbers 9, then 1, then 1.”
“Oh, that’s my manager, Margaret’s car,” says the voice, “I’m Sheila. Margaret lives in the house outback. I think she’s home right now. Just go and knock on her door.”
I thank Sheila and step away from the door, relieved by how smoothly this is all going.
“Wait a minute,” says Sheila, “when did you see the car?”
Here we go, I thought. I’d have to explain the whole story: the running of the plates, the calling in of favors, how it was a dog’s owner and not the dog itself who controlled the gas and brakes while driving.
“A few years ago.’
“Oh, that makes sense,” says Sheila. “The car hasn’t been driven since then.” The curtain falls back into place.
I had left my recording equipment in the car, and also my phone, in order to feel out the situation. When I went to open the gate to go get it, Sheila called out like a video game wizard and said I was going the wrong way. So I let go of the gate latch and walked down the driveway to Margaret’s house in the back.
Between me and her front door was the car. Its colors were a little more faded than I remembered, but otherwise, it was the same. There was a little plush stuffed animal dog perched on the backseat. I circled around until I was standing behind the trunk, and looked at the license plate. It was the same too: “iluv911.”
I went up Margaret’s steps so I was standing in front of her door. There were tchotchkes in the windows, a sculpture of a little boy riding a scooter, and another one of a woman dancing, windchimes twisted in the breeze. There was no doorbell, so I knocked on the metal gate.
I knocked again.
Next door, the neighbor’s dog barked.
From the main house, I heard Sheila call out, “she’s not in there? I thought for sure she was. You’ll have to come back another day then.”
￼On my next visit, I wanted to bring Margaret a gift: proof of my friendly intentions. So I pulled over at the first flower shop I saw. Inside, the store was nearly empty, except half of a dozen orchids. I chose a purple one.
The man who worked there seemed so surprised that I was actually buying something that he pulled out all of the stops. He offered to transfer it to another vase; he added moss and tied a big ribbon around it. All the while, he talked to me, about where he was from Mexico City and how he loved to travel.
He said, though, that he hadn’t yet been to the place he most wanted to go: the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
He felt that he really needed to pay tribute to it in person.
I pull up to Margaret’s house, open the gate, walk down the driveway. Windchimes. Tchotchkes. No obvious place to knock. I rap on the metal gate, holding the orchid in my other arm.
I knock again. No response.
Next door, the neighbor’s dog is losing his mind. I put the flowers down on the stoop. Then, I knock again, louder, longer.
From inside, a voice. It is so faint, I have to press my ear against the door in order to hear it.
“Who is it?”
Oh boy. Here goes nothing.
“Years ago, I saw your license plate and it made such an impression on me, that I’ve been wondering about it ever since.”
“Sweetheart!” says the voice. “My secretary gave me your letter. I’ve been meaning to call you.” I like that she calls me sweetheart. Her voice is so soft. “I can’t talk right now, sweetheart. I just got out of the bath. I’m wearing only a towel.”
￼Who was this nice sounding woman with the secretary that gave her letters? What was it that she loved?
“Sweetheart, after this, I have a doctor’s appointment. Can you come back another day?”
“What about later tonight,” I ask.
“I’m busy sweetheart.”
“Sweetheart, I have church.”
I tell her I brought flowers that I’ll just leave them on her stoop. “Thank you, sweetheart, thank you.”
It feels like instead of two doors separating us, there’s a hundred. It feels like even if those two doors were to open right now. She would still be just a voice. A voice somehow wrapped in a towel. I get back in my car and start driving.
I’m in such a daze, that I keep missing the streets I’m supposed to turn on. And then, my phone rings. It’s a Los Angeles area code. I pull into a parking lot and pick up.
“Sweetheart.” It’s Margaret. “I only have a few minutes but I wanted to tell you the story behind my plate. Also, thank you for the flowers. They’re beautiful.”
Here is where I tell you that Margaret and I talked for eight minutes before her ride came to take her to her doctor’s appointment.
Here is where I tell you that I recorded the conversation on my phone, but when I later played it back, it was eight minutes of silence.
Here’s where I tell you the story of why Margaret got a license plate that said “iluv911.” Not psalm 9:11, not “iluv 91.1,” not “i luv 911.”
In 2001, Margaret was living in New York. Her mother was living in Los Angeles. That year, Margaret had a feeling. She doesn’t know how else to put it. No one ever believes her about it, she says, but that’s ok. She had a feel she needed to go to LA for her mother’s birthday, so she booked a flight. Her Mother’s birthday was September 11th. Because she went to see her Mother, Margaret wasn’t in New York on the day of the attacks.
She believes that her life was saved by doing that, saved by her mother’s life. She got the license plate shortly after 9/11, to honor her mother’s birthday and also to commemorate the victims who died.
“I lost a lot of friends that day,” she tells me.
She says she knows when people see her plate, they think it’s 911, especially cops she says, they always remark about it.
She asked me where I saw it and I tell her which intersection.
“Oh yeah sweetheart, that’s where I used to live. My children went to school over by there.”
Here’s where I tell you that Margaret couldn’t have been warmer or more likable.
And here’s where I tell you that she promised to call me again, so that we could do a proper interview but when she did call, she said she’d been feeling under the weather and had to reschedule and then the next time, she said she had just been so busy trying to get her house ready to sell.
We never did do the interview.
I updated Miranda on what I had learned.
Miranda: Is the case solved?
Starlee: Yeah the case is solved. Do you think the case is solved?
Miranda: Deeply. Profoundly. We were right, there was something up with that plate. You know? More and more, I believe there is no accuracy in communication. There are only mistakes. It is so hard to communicate love, you know, or sadness combined with love. That’s a very complex thing. And that’s what brings us grace you know, it’s not accuracy. And she trusted that when she made the plate, that somehow the most confusing, contrary message in the world, would speak to people’s hearts because her intentions behind it were so clear and so strong, that it was effective. All the things that made our heart beat turned out to be relevant, and I feel like we got her message.
￼Starlee Kine: Mystery Show is produced by Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin, Eric Mennel and me. Producing help for this episode from Phia Bennin. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. Engineering help from Josh Rogosin. Thanks also to Matt Lieber.
Original score for this episode by White Dove. Closing song is by Emmy the Great. Opening song by Sparks. Arthur Jones made our logo with the toaster that now makes so much more sense to you.
And thank you, Jonathan Goldstein, Jorge Just, Sloane Crosley, Laura Kraft and Jon Ronson, you all helped more than you even realized.
Apparently, my clue last week was too easy since tons of you guessed “Stop in the name of Love.” William Hutson was the first one to send me his correct guess. Good job, William. Take the rest of the weekend off. I will obviously need to start making my clues harder. Starting possibly with this week’s clue- let’s just see how it goes: could’ve been the joker.
The Case: A young boy finds an enchanting object in the street. The Proof: SPOILER ALERT, Click with caution: See image proof here. The Facts: Mystery Show is produced by Starlee Kine, Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin and Eric Mennel. Producing help from Chris Neary and Wendy Dorr. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. Thanks to John…
Starlee Kine: From Gimlet, I’m Starlee Kine and this is Mystery Show. (music – why is there you, why is there me, why does my Mother kiss my Father occasionally). Every week I solve a new mystery. Mysteries that can’t be solved online. Mysteries you can’t solve yourself. Up until now there hasn’t been anyone to help with this. That person is now me. (music – ’cause mysteries, tomorrow I’ll find out all I should know, those mysteries, I don’t even know what I don’t even know. Those mysteries, they’re hiding around and around and round and round.)
Carson: Okay, so what two words do you know about my mystery?
Starlee: Belt Buckle
Carson: That is a good title for it.
Starlee Kine: That’s Carson. He knew me even before I was solving mysteries. That’s how far back we go. When you have a mystery, you carry it around with you always. Usually that happens in your head but in Carson’s case, his mystery fits in the palm of his hand.
It’s an object that came into his life when he was nine years old, in Phoenix Arizona:
Carson: There was this kid in our neighborhood named Jimmy Turk, who was like maybe a year older than my brother, who is two years older than me and he was like a troublemaker. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a bad kid but you know he had a single mom so he could get away with more stuff than me and my brother ’cause she had to work and he just had a lot of unsupervised time.
Starlee: Likable, affable trouble-maker?
Carson: Yeah – good guy. He never really did anything that bad, you know? I remember he had found a stick of dynamite somewhere, and he had emptied out all the gunpowder.
Starlee: From the stick of dynamite?
Carson: Supposedly. The stick of dynamite was never seen, just the gunpowder was seen. (music)
Carson: One day, I went over to Jimmy’s house. and he showed me this belt buckle that he had found in the gutter. That was what he said. He went for a walk and he found it in the gutter. And, it is beautiful. On the front of it, there is a chef’s hat, front and center, flanked by a corkscrew, a pan of eggs that are frying and a toaster. The pan of eggs – the eggs are painted very carefully with some kind of enamel – so they are yellow and white. This is the coolest part of it. Ready?
Carson: That is the toaster.
Carson: Yeah. There is a tiny tiny switch and if you flick the switch, the toast pops up.
Starlee: There is little tiny toast that comes out?
Carson: Yeah little tiny toast like as big as your pinky nail. They have like a crust and bread texture on the bread, and then you can push them right back down. It is the coolest belt buckle I have ever seen.
Starlee Kine: Think back to when you were a little kid, how badly you wanted to believe the world was full of hidden treasures. Now, imagine seeing that belt buckle.
Carson: I was hypnotized.
Starlee: Yeah, as you should have been.
Carson: (laughing) I just sat there in his bedroom playing with it for half an hour, just popping the toast and putting it back, to the point where his mom took him out into the hallway and was like, “you know Carson loves that thing so much. I think you should give it to him.”
Starlee: What did he say?
Carson: He gave it to me. He was like, “yeah you’re right.” He was like, “hey man you can have that.” He didn’t really care about it.
Carson: Well you know, he had dynamite and girls and stuff.
Starlee: Why did he get girls and you didn’t? Because you were too young? Carson: Too young, too tiny, obsessed with miniature toasters. (laughing)
Starlee Kine: Every lost object comes with a mystery that seems hopelessly impossible to solve. The single glove found on the train. The wedding band found on the beach. But the belt buckle was different. It came with clues.
On either side of the buckle was a name.
Carson: The name on the front is Hans Jordi: H-A-N-S J-O-R-D-I. And, then the name on the back, it says: “In appreciation, Bob Six.” B-O-B S-I-X
Starlee Kine: Hans Jordi. Bob Six. They were the kind of names that demanded to be etched into silver. Who was Hans Jordi? What did Bob Six appreciate him for?
Carson has a theory which he inherited from his Dad.
Carson: My Dad’s theory, which is funny, just because he said it, it stuck with me. Bob six is a cowboy. He’s organized these trail rides for older guys in their 40s and they would go on the trail and eat breakfast and get drunk. Hans was there as the cook. He was a blast and they all loved him. Bob Six was just wealthy enough that he had this belt buckle made for him.
Carson: I started to feel guilty because there is a name on it that I should get this belt buckle back to him or to his kids or to somebody, right ?
Starlee: But normally, when you find stuff – like there is stuff in thrift stores: a picture, someone’s wedding album – and the urge is not really to return it. Why have you felt the urge to return it at all?
Carson: Because it wasn’t found in a store. It was found in a gutter. It’s like a lost thing, you know. I just thought that it’s the right thing to do.
Starlee: how do you imagine he lost it? Carson: That’s your job to figure out.
Starlee: Oh I will figure it out. (laughing) When I find Hans and Bob Six. what do you want to tell them?
Carson: I want to say, “sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.” But, I mean do you ever want to spend your leisure time … I guess you do. (laughing)
Starlee Kine: I would find Hans Jordi and return his buckle to him, even though this case made my stomach hurt a little. The buckle was that rarest of things – an object as enchanting in actuality as it was as a story. What were the chances that the real life Hans Jordi and the real life Bob Six would be that too?
I wasn’t in the preserving whimsy and wonder business, though. I was in the mystery solving business. I had my work cut out for me. There were so many gaps to fill in. For example, I already knew Hans Jordi’s position on miniature toasters, but nothing at all about how he felt about regular sized ones.
Starlee: Hello is this Donna? Donna: Yes.
Starlee: Hi my name is Starlee, and I was calling to ask you a question about an art class that you teach.
Donna: Oh, okay.
Starlee: Do you remember a student named Hans Jordi?
Donna: Oh yeah, Hans Jordi. I remember Hans Jordi.
Starlee: You do?
Starlee Kine: This is Donna Beers. I discovered a newspaper item written ten years ago, about a seaside painting class in San Diego that Donna had taught. The class had been free and had taken place on the beach. Donna gave lessons on how to paint the horizon. Included in the article is a group photo, showing the students who had taken the class that day, and in that photo’s caption, third from the left, is the name Hans Jordi. So I called Donna up to see if her Hans Jordi was Carson’s Hans Jordi.
Donna: You know I’ve had, I don’t know, maybe a couple thousand people come to those classes, and I remember Hans more then I remember a lot of the other people.
Starlee: What do you remember about him?
Donna: He’s German. He was an interesting student. I just liked him a lot. I was very happy to see him in my classes.
Starlee Kine: The photo accompanying the caption is grainy. The students are crouching on the sand, holding their canvasses. There’s only one man in the photo, who I assume is Hans. He’s wearing a hat and mirrored sunglasses.
I know a disguise when I see one and ask Donna for a better description of Hans:
Donna: I can see his face. I can see his body. I can see him drawing. I can see him sitting in my class. I can hear his voice. I can hear the sound of his voice. There is an actor that he seems like, this German actor that usually plays like a father kind of role or an in- charge kind of guy, and he has that kind of a look
Donna: I could picture him with a monocle, but not a skinny faced guy with a monocle and a mean face with a monocle, like a rounder face, like a know-it-all kind of guy.
Starlee: So the monocle was more like professorial kind of monocle?
Donna: Yeah. He looked professorial. That’s a very good term. He would be like Dr. Finklestein.
Donna: How about Armin Mueheller Stall?
Starlee: How did you just find that? What did you just type in to get that? Donna: (laughing) Look in the article, just type www.imdb.com
Starlee: Okay. Let me look, hold on. That’s the guy?
Donna: This is the guy.
Starlee: Where have you seen this guy before? I don’t think this is the guy. I think now that you’re seeing him you have decided that he is the guy. But I don’t feel like this guy was in your head.
Donna: Click on the picture where he’s sitting behind a desk.
Starlee: Sitting behind a desk, okay. I am looking… that’s the vibe that Hans had?
Donna: Yes. He had that kind of demeanor. Okay, there is one with him with the wife and he cuddling the wife.
Starlee: Okay. let me look at the cuddling the wife picture. Yes. Right. This man is very classy looking.
Donna: Remember I told you? He was fatherly and professorial, and here are these pictures of this guy and he’s exactly those things.
Starlee: That’s true. He is matching up to what you’re saying. Donna: Yeah that’s the guy.
Starlee Kine: Thanks to Donna, I now had a description of Hans Jordi. Hans Jordi was Swiss German. Hans Jordi was memorable. Hans Jordi was great in the film Avalon and robbed of his Oscar in the film Shine.
But I still didn’t know what accounted for all the chef stuff on the buckle? It couldn’t just be random. I asked Donna if her Hans been a chef. She said she didn’t know because she hated to cook, which I had to admit was airtight logic. I’d have to decipher this clue some other way. I bid my first witness goodbye.
Donna: Anytime you come to California, shoot me an email and I will meet you somewhere and I will actually show you how to do horizon because it is really hard to translate that over the phone without the visuals that go with it.
Starlee: I appreciate that. I want to know how to see the horizon.
Donna: We’ll hook up. One thing that you can do is that if you have a pen just hold it right on your nose. Half of what you see is above the pen and half of what you see is below the pen. Then, pick up an object – like a glass or something – and then tilt your whole head down so that you see the pen from the bottom you know of the line and (music) then with the glass up so that you see it above the pen and then you will see what I am talking about.
Starlee: I feel like you are telling me a new way of seeing whether a glass is half full or half empty. (laughing) This is going to change everything for me.
Starlee Kine: My next lead I found on a food blog called The Sated Epicure. On April 14 2010, the Sated Epicure, had written about a meal he’d had, that awoke a long ago memory from his earliest days as a cook. The post said, quote, “In 1986 I was on my internship at a casino in Lake Tahoe and tasted my first classical beef daube prepared by Chef Hans Jordi. At 6’6″, Chef Hans was so tall that he had to take his chef hat off to walk around the kitchen. His stride was wider than the wingspan of a small aircraft and he spoke as fast as he walked.” end quote.
A chef so tall that he grazed the ceiling, with a stride wider than the wingspan of a small aircraft? That’s the language used to describe a superhero, not a human man. Could it be possible that the real life Hans was even more fantastic than the one Carson had imagined as a kid?
Maybe I was in the preserving whimsy and wonder business. I wrote Sated Epicure and told him we had to talk.
Sated: I was 19 when I first met Hans. In walks this guy, 50 years old, starched perfect chef whites, and he takes us running through the main kitchen with these 80 gallon steam kettles going with soups and stocks, all of these various sauces and chowders, things happening all at once, people dicing and chopping and noise and steam and heat. “This is the main kitchen.” Boom. Then he swings back through the stairway, and he is taking two or three stairs at a time. He is flying. We’re tripping down the stairs behind him, all seven of us, bumping into each other. I’m like, “oh my gosh,” he’s at least twice my age and I can’t keep up with the guy.
Starlee Kine: Twice well, everything.
Sated: Twice as fast in the kitchen and twice as capable of putting out two thousand dinners at a pop. Twice as capable of standing on his feet til two in the morning on a
￼￼twenty hour shift. Twice as capable about being in the next morning at 4 like nothing ever happened, twice as capable of having a spotless white chef coat while I was covered from head to toe. I know that sounds a bit overboard but it is the truth.
Starlee Kine: My stomach was hurting again. Sated kept bringing up Hans’ chef whites, how perfectly starched and spotless they always were. It was hard for me to imagine Carson’s buckle fitting into that ensemble. I tell Sated about the buckle, and describe for him the pan of eggs, the corkscrew, the toast that pops up.
Starlee: When you hear that, does that sound like Hans?
Sated: It jogged a memory in my mind of us seeing him for the first time in civilian clothes. Back then when you got your pay check, they put three drink tokens in your paycheck. So we’re sitting at the bar after we got our paychecks, consuming our three free drinks, when we see Hans. (music) It’s like reverse Superman, you know, Clark Kent coming out from the booth after changing into his regular attire. We didn’t recognize him at first. I remember saying to Burns, “hey Mike, that’s Hans.” “That is not Hans.” “Mike, I swear to God, that’s Hans. He’s going to walk towards us.” He is in this white sort of Stetson-y looking shirt. He’s got cowboy boots and jeans. And he walks towards us, kind of nods and then keeps going and I said, “oh my god, he is a Swiss cowboy.”
Starlee: Did you ever see him again in civilian clothes.
Sated: No, there is a reason I saw him then and it’s 30 years later that I know why. If we didn’t catch him coming out of that door that one time. I would have been no use to you. Isn’t that funny?
Starlee Kine: Funny had nothing to do with it. Was Sated destined to be a clue that helped me solve my mystery? Is that really how fate works? Or was that simply how drink coupons work?
In Sated’s life, this actually wasn’t the only time fate had converged with Hans.
Sated: I was in a situation then where we were running out of tuition money. I come from a working class family. Nobody ever went to college. Either I get scholarship money to continue or I need to withdraw from college. We had nothing left. We had nowhere to go.
Starlee Kine: In order to get the scholarship, Sated had to get an A from Hans. Sated didn’t tell Hans about the scholarship or his financial problems all and he didn’t hold out much hope of getting his A. Hans seemed to be so perfect at everything that he had very little tolerance for the limitations of mere mortals. Still, Sated had to try. He worked so hard. After two months, Sated returned home knowing he was a better chef but doubtful that he was still a college student. He met with his advisor who told him Hans had given him an A. Even his advisor was surprised. He told Sated, Hans never gave A’s.
Sated: I was told in June that I had gotten the A and I had received full scholarship, including housing, for the following year. I went back so happy in September, and a new batch of teaching assistants started and my wife-to-be was in that group.
Starlee: So you might not have met her if you hadn’t gone back to school?
Sated: Oh, I would never have met her. That’s the whole point. It’s one of those either-or events in life that we experience everyday. You either get it all, or you get nothing. This one I won. It happened. I got it at all. I didn’t just meet my wife, she is my soulmate – really unusually great marriage. If I hadn’t earned an A, that wouldn’t have happened. Ever. There’s no way. And Hans was that piece.
Starlee Kine: My conversation with Sated had filled out my profile of Hans quite nicely. Hans Jordi was a cowboy. Slash chef. Slash superhero. Slash manipulator of space and time.
And while we’re on the subject of space and time, Sated hadn’t seen or spoken with Hans since his internship ended. That was in 1986. I needed more recent intel, which came to be via a message board posting, called webfoodpros.com. The subject heading of the message was this: “Looking For Hans Jordi.”
The message was from 1998 and had been posted by a man named Chef Karl, who wrote: “Swiss Chef Hans Jordi has been missing from my address book for years. I searched online and he doesn’t exist there. Help! Please!”
I stared at the message suspiciously. I was looking for Hans Jordi. How many belt buckles had this guy lost?
Starlee Kine: I found a Chef Karl who owned a restaurant in Houston and called him up.
Karl: We were all working at the Biltmore hotel. I started in ’62 there, and he was the sous chef at that time and actually I was his helper the first time.
Starlee Kine: Chef Karl knew Hans when they were both starting off as chefs and cooking at one of the swankest joints in Phoenix, the Biltmore Hotel.
Starlee: And so you guys were like really close?
Karl: Pretty close, yeah. We were an all European troop that’s why you know we stuck together. Say like on a Sunday night, when you finish work most the time around 9 o’clock, and the whole crew actually went up to a bowling alley and we were bowling till about three o’clock or four o’clock in the morning. And we all had to start work at eight o’clock in the morning.
Starlee: Was he a good bowler?
Karl: You have some good games and then you have some lousy games. Especially when
you had too many beers.
Starlee Kine: Chef Karl’s “Looking for Hans Jordi” posting had been a bust. It didn’t help him find Hans. Mainly this had to do with Chef Karl never logging onto the site again. If he had, he would have seen this comment from a man named Chef Renee: “Hi Karl. I know Hans. Last time I saw him he was working for a Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. You should call Bob Bland.” I read Chef Renee’s message to Chef Karl over the phone. He knew Bob Bland too and agreed he was a good lead.
Karl: Robert Bland, in the ’60s, he was the vegetable cook at the Biltmore and he is still somewhere in Phoenix. He maybe could help you.
Starlee Kine: Let’s contemplate for a moment, the name Robert Bland? What kind of name was that for a chef? No wonder he had to use a pseudonym. I pulled out my notebook and wrote Bob Bland equals Bob Six. Period.
Starlee: Wait one more question did Bob Bland have a nickname?
Karl: We just called him Bobby.
Starlee Kine: I added a hook above the period so that it became question mark.
Karl: Anyway, Good luck with your hunting.
Starlee: Okay and maybe I might use some of this on the show.
Karl: Ok. Whatever.
Starlee Kine: Meanwhile my phone was blowing up with texts from my client, wanting an update.
Carson: I’m kind of too interested for small talk if you just want to jump in.
Starlee: I mean, yeah this is the only thing I can talk about these days anyway. So what do you want to know?
Carson: Who is Hans Jordi?
Starlee: He’s a chef, a great chef.
Starlee: With the soul of a cowboy.
Carson: That’s what my dad thought!
Starlee: I know. Your dad was right. Oh, and I know who Bob Six is.
Carson: Oh. Who is Bob Six?
Starlee: He is a man named Bob Bland.
Carson: Oh wow, and what does he do?
Starlee: He is a chef.
Carson: Wow. So does Bob Bland go by Bob Six just because Bob Bland is the worst name for a chef?
Starlee: Maybe. I don’t know why he goes by Bob Six yet.
Starlee Kine: But I knew how I’d find out. Karl had told me that Bob Bland still lived in Phoenix and sure enough I discovered there was even a competition called the Robert Bland Culinary Salon, put on by the Phoenix Culinary Association. On their website was a page that listed all its members who had made donations. Two long columns with hundreds of names. Toward the top of the first column, I spot Bob Bland. (music) Towards the middle, Hans Jordi.
The association had a board meeting coming up.
It could not be more clear what I had to do. It was time to return this buckle to where it came from. Looked like I was going to Phoenix.
But first, let’s take a quick break.
And we’re back. Did you miss me?
Here was the plan. I was to fly to Phoenix to return Hans’ buckle to him. But before I could do that, I needed to get it from the person who kept it safe, for all these years, in a special place.
Starlee: What do you call it? The jar of- Carson: Junk.
Starlee: I was trying to be polite.
Carson: I’m going to dump it (clang clang). The good stuff is at the bottom.
Starlee Kine: Much like theory about how Hans got the buckle, Carson’s storage system for it came from his dad too.
Carson: My dad had these junk collections when he was a kid, that have now become my junk collections. That are just like every tiny object that we’ve accumulated through our youth.
In order words, it’s a scrapbucket.
Carson: That’s from Aladdin’s Castle, that was our arcade growing up. That was from homecoming, 1996. This is off my first girlfriend’s underpants. It’s just a weird rose, but she gave it to me.. kind of gross… The belt buckle is definitely the crown jewel.
Starlee Kine: Obviously. It was in the bottom of the scrapbucket after all. Starlee: How do you feel about letting it go?
Carson: I’m fine with that. Starlee: Really?
Carson: Yeah, I mean I think the part of me that wouldn’t be okay with that is the part of me that I want to kill. It wasn’t made for me. It’s Hans’ belt buckle. I’ve just had it for twenty-some years.
Starlee: It’s time.
Carson: Yeah I think it’s time. I can’t wait.
Starlee Kine: I slip the buckle into my backpack. On the flight to Phoenix, I keep the bag on my lap the whole time and even then, check constantly that the buckle’s still in there. After all these years, it’d be so like me to lose it.
I’m at 40th street and Camelback Road. This is where the buckle was found by Jimmy Turk. The Phoenix Culinary Association meeting that I was hoping Bob Six would be at wasn’t for another day. So, in the meantime, I decided to pursue another of the buckle’s mysteries: How had Hans lost it? Maybe I’d get lucky and spot an obvious clue nearby. Like a belt buckle factory.
Jimmy: What are you looking at?
Starlee: Well, I just walked around the corner and now I’m looking at Dental Specialty, now I’m looking at a cupcake place.
Jimmy: I’m getting out of the car right now.
Starlee Kine: I didn’t know exactly what to expect grown up Jimmy Turk would be like, but at the very least, I thought he’d greet me with a lit stick of dynamite in his hand. Instead, he was trying to keep his voice at a whisper, so as to not wake his sleeping daughter.
(a baby’s voice)
Jimmy: Emily that’s not mommy, that’s Starlee. … say hi.
Starlee Kine: In retrospect, he probably wasn’t talking to me.
Jimmy: I wonder if I could pull up right there, just park…
Starlee Kine: In Carson’s version, Jimmy had found the buckle in a gutter, which to me had made its own sort of sense. A gutter is where lost or unwanted things wash up. Instead we were standing on a sidewalk next to a busy, four way intersection, on the outskirts of a Phoenix subdivision. Who would’ve thought an object this unique could be found on a street this aggressively familiar.
Jimmy: I don’t know where I was going or what I was doing but we were coming down and just happened to see it. Right over by the bushes, right over here, i remember just walking around and finding it right next to the wall over by the bushes.
Starlee: Closer to the wall then the sidewalk?
Jimmy: Yeah definitely.
Starlee Kine: Jimmy hasn’t seen the buckle since that day in his room when he gave it to Carson.
Jimmy: Hans Jordi. Look at the toaster. It will be interesting to know if he remembers where he left it.
Starlee: He won’t know exactly where he left it because if you know where you lost something, it’s not lost.
Jimmy: Unless he did go back and I had already found it.
Starlee: Oh wow. What if? You could have just missed each other. `
Starlee Kine: If Jimmy had walked by at any other moment, instead of the buckle he would’ve just found some Swiss guy rooting around in the gravel.
Just like if Sated hadn’t been in that bar that night, I wouldn’t have known Hans was a cowboy.
Jimmy : Yeah, matter of fact, the house right here, I tried to show off and do a backflip and hit my chin and had some stitches when I was a kid. Then that telephone pole down there, I jogged into trying to teach my grandpa how to jog and I jogged right into a telephone pole, so I have two sets of stitches.
Starlee Kine: A couple questions here: how do you teach someone to jog? Why didn’t Jimmy’s grandpa already how to jog? And-
Jimmy: My grandpa my dad my uncle and I. We all have to sets of stitches up under our chin.
Starlee: What? It’s a scar in the same place?
Starlee: When your dad saw your chin, did he say “the family line continues.”
Starlee Kine: What is it with this belt buckle and fate? (music)
I head to my next appointment.
I’ve arranged to meet Chef Rene, the chef who answered Chef Karl’s query on webfoodpros.com. We’re meeting at an Italian restaurant that is known for having the best pizza in the country. Like, it’s not just people in Phoenix who call it that.
Chef Rene is waiting for me outside. He recognizes me because of my microphone. I recognize him because of the twinkle in his eye of someone who is about to help me break this case wide open.
We order a pistachio pizza. I pull out the sheet of paper where I’ve printed out his webfoodpros.com comment which had brought me to Phoenix.
Rene: I wrote that?
Starlee Kine: Chef Rene doesn’t remember writing the post and has no idea who Chef Karl is. Neither of which have deterred him from meeting with me. Apparently, helping people who are looking for Hans Jordi is just sort of his thing.
Rene: It was 1976, I think, when I met Hans.
Starlee: What’s Hans like?
Rene: Typical Swiss.
Starlee Kine: Chef Rene is from Ecuador by way of Germany. He was part of a sort of mass migration of European chefs to the American southwest in the fifties and sixties.
Rene: You know when I came to this country in ’69 and landed in Houston, Texas I thought somebody was picking me up on a horse. And when I looked out, it was all cars. And I was so disappointed. I expected to see cowboys, but it wasn’t like that.
Starlee: Like you thought like down the runway, a horse would be coming?
Rene: Yes, maybe.
Starlee Kine: By now, I’ve grown accustomed to stories of Hans from the past. What I’m not used to is what chef Rene tells me next.
Rene: He’s here. Maybe tomorrow we have a chef’s meeting maybe I see him over there.
Starlee: Oh, I am going to that chef meeting.
Rene: Are you going to that?
Rene: Oh maybe I see you over there.
Starlee: Do you think Hans will be there?
Starlee: Whoa… whoa…okay, okay, got a lot of planning to do.
Starlee Kine: Chef Rene says that at the meeting tomorrow, he’ll pretend not to know me, so as to not tip Hans off. I tell him that I want Hans to know I’m looking for him, that’s the whole point. Chef Rene gives me a look like, don’t worry, he can keep a secret.
tape: I’m going to get to the managers’ part. Stop me for any questions, feel free to add input.
Starlee Kine: Back in the day, the Culinary Association of Arizona’s gatherings took place in the elegant hotels and resorts where the chefs worked. There were fancy spreads, multi-course dinners, ice sculptures. Now the meetings are held pretty much where ever the association can call in a favor.
tape: First of all, I want to thank – for his office today, for hosting us. If you know places that would host, country clubs, hotels, whatever…
Starlee Kine: About a dozen chefs are gathered in the conference rooms. I take a seat next to a man who looks to be in his late 60s, height: tall.
tape: If anyone has the name of a pastry chef, or would like to work for a big company, let me know.
Starlee Kine: Accent: German.
This had to be Hans. I’d finally found him. I look over at the man and smile shyly.
TAPE: What I’d like to do is recognize a member’s birthday, send them a birthday card. Starlee Kine: Now wait a minute. This was a whole different guy.
Tape: So they have it in their hand. Not have to go on the screen and then it is gone.
Starlee Kine: I was suddenly knee deep in elegant European chefs. Hans Jordi could have been half the men there.
My hand shoots up.
Tape: Do you have a question?
Starlee: I do. I have a question about a particular chef in Arizona, he might be a member I think. Hans Jordi. Do you guys know him?
Tape: Oh yeah, we know Hans. He is one of the old guards.
Starlee Kine: Oh yeah, sure sure, Hans Jordi, no one easier to find. Hans wasn’t at the meeting after all. But a lot of these guys had seen him not too long ago, on his birthday.
tape: He had a big party
What was his birthday? The 70th.. 80th! 80th birthday we were there.
His wife yeah invited people. He didn’t know about it.
Quite a few people there.
Old Swiss guy you know they know how to party.
Starlee: How long have you known him?
Tape: 30 years, 40 years, who knows. I mean every year, inventory Hans Jordi. Okay.
Starlee Kine: It’s time to eat. We shuffle to another room. I hear my name called out. It’s Chef Rene. He’s saved a seat for me. So much for our plan, that was really his plan, to pretend like we didn’t know each other.
Chef Rene starts pointing to different chefs, telling me who each one is. I’m not interested in hearing about anyone under the age of sixty.
Rene: He’s a German. Peter, is next to him, you know. The gentleman on the end is Bob Bland.
Starlee: Oh really. Oh I wanna talk to him. See if he ever had a nickname.
Starlee Kine: If I had a mustache, this is when I would twirl it.
The meeting ends and the group of older Chefs head to the back to load up on free condiments. I make my move.
Starlee: are you Bob Bland?
Starlee: My name is Starlee. Do you know someone named Hans Jordi?
Bob: Yes … Oh him and I, we worked together at the Biltmore. He was my roommate because we lived in dorms back in ‘60, well ’59 I came to town. ‘59, ‘60, ‘61 I have known him since then.
Starlee: What is Hans like?
Bob: Oh, typical Swiss.
Starlee: That’s what Renee says! Was it hard being a chef with your last name? Bland? Bob: (laughing) Tell me about it.
Starlee: Do you have any nicknames?
Bob: Not really.
Starlee: Were you ever called Bob Six?
Bob: Bob who?
Bob: No, I’m sorry.
Starlee Kine: All along I’d been sure that Bob Bland was Bob Six.
As I was getting closer to one side of the buckle, it seemed I was getting farther from the other. (music)
Starlee Kine: Chef Rene has arranged to have me and Hans meet up at his house. He has even found an old belt buckle of his own to wear for the occasion. It has a horse head on it made out of pieces of turquoise.
Rene: I called him up and he recognized my voice right away. I said, there is somebody from New York that wants to interview you and say I can not tell you what it is all about but…
Gloria: He did not ask anything. Starlee Kine: That’s Chef Rene’s wife, Gloria.
Gloria: If it was me, I would say “who? why? how?”
Starlee Kine: Oh those were good questions. I’d need to remember those on the next case.
Starlee: He’s probably coming any second. Right?
Starlee Kine: Chef Rene can’t sit still. He keeps looking out the window to see if he can spot Hans’ car.
Rene: I don’t think he drives a sports car.
Starlee Kine: Hans is supposed to be there at 5:30. At 5:31, Rene takes out his cell phone and calls him.
Rene: Are you on your way here? Ok bye bye. [hangs up, to
Starlee:] I’m excited. This was something that wasn’t in our program today.
Starlee Kine: and at 5:32… Gloria: He’s here.
Starlee: He’s here
Starlee Kine: Hans Jordi walks through the door.
Hans: Hi how are you. Hi Gloria.
Starlee: I’m Starlee.
Starlee: This is all going to be cleared up very soon.
Starlee Kine: Hans is exactly as everyone has described. He’s tall and lean. If I had to sum him up: typical Swiss.
We go out back to Chef Rene’s garden. There’s a table and chairs. Hans sits down and everyone turns to him expectantly. I pull out the case with the buckle inside.
Starlee: I have something that I think belongs to you. You’re Hans Jordi, right? Hans: That’s right. I’m Hans Jordi. What would you like to know?
Starlee: I want to know so much. But let me give you this back first. Hans: Do I know what’s in it?
Starlee: I don’t know.
Hans: I don’t know. Oh! Yeah. Oh my god. Wow. How did you find that? Starlee: So this was yours?
Hans: Yes. Yes, even my name is on it.
Starlee: That’s how I found you. Do you remember when you lost this? Hans: We had a break-in at the house.
Starlee: This was stolen from you?
Hans: Yes. You know, I even went to some pawn shops to look for it, but I knew I probably could not find it again. Bob Six, he gave me that as a present. He had it specially made. He was the chairman of Continental Airlines.
Starlee Kine: Turns out, Bob ran Continental Airlines for fifty years. He was married to Ethel Merman and then later to Audrey Meadows, who played Alice on the Honeymooners. From the day he and Audrey were married, they never took a flight without one another.
Bob Six’s ancestors were from Holland, where they were pawnbrokers. In the sixteenth century, a struggling artist pawned some of his work and never came back to reclaim it. And that’s how the Sixes wound up with the largest collection of original Rembrandts in Europe.
Bob Six was pals with John Wayne and kept a collection of six shooters. To unwind, he would practice his fast draw. He loved gimmicks and stunts. In the seventies, he hired magicians and Playboy bunnies and baseball players to entertain the passengers on flights to short to show movies. He once received, as a gift, a little jaguar cub, from a Continental pilot. Box Six named the cub Whiskey and brought him to work with him.
Every summer Continental went on a staff retreat at a ranch in Wyoming. Hans Jordi was the chef.
Hans: All those airline executives, you know there were 150 of them, I cooked for them. Long hours, long days. They had actually six meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midday snack, afternoon snack, midnight snacks. It was a lot of sleepless nights. I did that every year for 10 years, 10 summers. So out of appreciation, he made that for me when we had the farewell dinner. He was at the head table with a bunch of bigwigs. He was a big shot compared to me. And then he called me out, and wow. I always wondered where it would be. Who took it? And was it ever going to be found? I can’t believe it. Thank you.
Starlee: Do you have any messages for my friend who had it this whole time?
Hans: Yeah. I want to thank him for being honest about it, and giving it back. I wish him well.
Starlee: He always felt bad that he had it, but he didn’t know how to find it. The only thing he could guess, he thought you were a chef and he thought you were a cowboy.
Hans: That’s probably true.
Starlee: You’re a chef and a cowboy?
Hans: I was then. The ranch I worked on, we had 150 guests and they had 20,000 head of cattle. We were riding horses almost every day and chasing cattle around.
Starlee Kine: It’s getting dark out. We go inside and have dinner. Hans and Rene reminisce about the old days. Hans keeps taking out the buckle and staring at it, shaking his head. Then he and his wife Peggy head home. I help Rene and Gloria clear the table.
Starlee: Are you going to be sad that the mystery is over now? Rene: Yeah.
Starlee: But we all agree, case closed. Right?
Gloria: Case closed.
Rene: Case closed.
Gloria: Happy ending.
Rene: I knew it was going to be his.
Rene: I get that feeling because it said his name.
(music – You go far. You go far. Now come the day you walk through that day. Finally see what you’ve always been sure. Hope that you find what you’re looking for. I hope that you find what you’re looking for. Open your eyes).
Starlee Kine: Mystery Show is produced by myself, Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin and Eric Mennel. Producing help from Chris Neary and Wendy Dorr. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. Thanks to John Delore and Matt Lieber. White Dove made the original score for this episode. Closing song is by Emmy the Great. Opening song by Sparks. Arthur Jones, I’ll never get tired of your logo. Thank you to Larry Lewis, and to our littlest helpers Zazie, Calvin, Samira, Winona and Leo.
If you haven’t heard the great shows Startup or Reply All, we have less in common than I thought. Find them or itunes or at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com.
And congratulations Mr. Woobers, whoever you really are, you were the first to get the Honeymooners clue from last week’s show. Or at least the first to tell me about it. Now for next week’s clue: Think It Over.
The Case: Andrea’s a writer no one reads. Then she makes a shocking discovery. The Proof: SPOILER ALERT, Click with caution: See image proof here. The Facts: This episode was produced by Starlee Kine, Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin and Eric Mennel. Producing help from Chris Neary and Wendy Dorr. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor. Thanks to…
Starlee Kine: From Gimlet I’m Starlee Kine and this is the Mystery Show. (music-why is there time, why is there space, why are there dogs and cats and trees and the human race) Every week I solve a new mystery. Mysteries that can’t be solved online. Mysteries you can’t solve yourself. Up until now there hasn’t been anyone to help with this. That person is now me. (music- those mysteries, tomorrow I’ll find all I should know, those mysteries, I don’t even know what I don’t even know, those mysteries, they’re hanging around and around)
This mystery is from Andrea. She’s a writer.
Starlee: Can you give a little background on what kind of writer you are. Andrea: yes, (sign) I’m like a writer, I don’t sell well at all.
Starlee Kine Well, her first book sold okay. People magazine wrote about it. Then Andrea’s second book came out. It was called To Feel Stuff.
Andrea: No one read my second book really. It didn’t do well commercially, it didn’t really get reviewed or coverage.
Starlee: You don’t see people carrying it around and reading it. Andrea: Never
Starlee: Is it face out in bookstores?
Andrea: NO. I mean this is a thing where I would go and try to buy it in a bookstory, I would be applying for fellowship and need a copy for them and I couldn’t, couldnt get a hold of it.
Starlee Kine A writer who no one reads. There’s pretty much nothing less mysterious. But that’s not Andrea’s mystery.
Andrea: So I have a google setting on myself. Because i’m a Kardashian.
Starlee: As do I.
Andrea: It’s important. And I got a google alert one morning in 2008 from this website and they had a picture of Britney Spears coming out of a restaurant in Malibu, exiting back door of restaurant and paparazzi in it and she’s holding this collection of intimate things, pack of cigarettes, phone pressed to pack of cigarettes and then she’s got my second book (music) and I just lost my mind. I really went nuts. When I get excited I don’t know what to do with myself, I can’t believe I have a body I’m responsible for, what do I do. I start emailing everyone I knew. I don’t think I’ve had this level of excitement that many times in my life. I
Starlee: Were you as excited when you had your baby? Andrea: No. (laughs)
Starlee: Why do you like Britney?
Andrea: Yes. A lot.
Starlee: And this is not since you saw her with the book.
Andrea: No, I got into her when she started dating Justin Timberlake and I have it in my mind where they are wearing matching denim outfits. If you ever seen this picture, just head to toe full denim and she seems really really happy. This is my guy and we are so much alike, we’re even wearing denim together. Then knowing later she cheated on him and she broke up that relationship and supposedly been upset about that event ever since is really interesting to me.
Starlee: And he went on to be so respectable.
Andrea: Yes, but I still find her to be the more interesting of the two. Him I would want to have nothing to do with, but her I would love to talk to. Unless he has current email address for her.
Starlee: The idea of her having an email address, you are making her seem more of this world than I believe she is.
Andrea: You don’t think she has email. (laughs) Starlee: It’s hard for me to believe.
Andrea: She has email. I like to imagine she has secret personality email she can just go on facebook and interact with people not as herself.
Starlee: Facebook account that I can believe.
Andrea: Maybe she is one of these weird people who keep liking pictures of my baby and I don’t know who they are. And it’s just Britney Spears. I’m sending you this picture right now so you can take look at it.
Starlee Kine: I examined the photo of Britney holding Andrea’s book for clues. Britney herself only makes up one little corner of the photo. She’s walking through the back exit of the restaurant, surrounded by men with cameras. Paparazzi tend to work in a triangle, with the celebrity at the center and a shooter on three sides. That way, when the celebrity turns away from one camera, they are facing another, and when they turn away again, they’re facing a third.
In the photo, Britney is wearing a white dress, that Andrea read was one she wore a lot while pregnant. Britney’s not pregnant in the photo, she gave birth to her son a few months before. But Andrea understood why she was still wearing the dress. She also wore her maternity clothes a few months after having her baby.
Andrea: It’s so crazy to think you know something about a celebrity that you don’t know. I’ve always had this distinct sense she is introvert and I really identify with that.
Starlee: Because you are an introvert.
Andrea: Right. I think she likes performing and likes that aspect of her job and she hates everything else.
Starlee: This is one of those pictures we see all the time coming out of 7 Eleven holding slushie or candy not usually carrying books at all, right?
Andrea: No, this she took out to dinner with her. Dinner with her parents, they were celebrating her mom’s birthday.
Starlee: And that’s her dad?
Andrea: This is her dad, he is her legal conservator. He very much manages her life. He is in charge of finances and in charge of her decisions.
Starlee: Do you think she brought it to dinner with her parents because her parents giving her hard time about not reading enough.
Starlee: That is a very firm no.
Andrea: She doesn’t look very happy and kind of era they started discussing the conservatorship with her. She might have been angry with them at this point in her life and maybe just reading through dinner while her parents tried to engage with her.
Starlee: So what you want to know from Britney about your book.
Andrea: I want to know how she got it and then i really want to know if she liked it. If she didn’t I’d be open to hearing her critique of it. If someone could kind of get these answers for me i‘m not a person with a lot to offer materially but I would do anything for them if anyone could bring me closer to this we could strike some kind of deal. (laughs)
Sounds like i’m offering sex. I’m not not. i think my boyfriend would understand. He knows how badly I’ve wanted to get an answer to this.
Starlee Kine So this case boiled down to two things: a book and a person who was seen carrying that book. The person was one of the most notoriously unreachable celebrities on the planet. I decided to start with the book.
Was Andrea’s book really as unknown as she made it out to be? Maybe she was being modest.
Bookseller: Thank you for calling the Open Book at the Oaks.
Starlee: I am calling about the book To Feel Stuff
Bookseller: What is it called?
Starlee: To Feel Stuff
Bookseller: To Steal Stuff
Starlee:To Feel Stuff
Bookseller: Not seeing it.
No. Starlee: Have you ever heard of it?
Bookseller: No I haven’t.
Starlee: What do you think it is about based on the title? Bookseller: Probably stealing stuff?
Starlee: Even the it is to feel stuff not steal.
Bookseller: Oh ok
Starlee: What do you think it is about if it is to feel stuff?
Christina: Thank you for calling Book World, this is Christina how can I help you?
Starlee: I’m looking for the book To Feel Stuff
Christina: Ok. To Feel Stuff
Starlee: To Feel Stuff, kind of weird title, huh?
Christina: We have had weirder.
Starlee: Oh yeah. Like what?
Christina: Well, some good ones couple of months ago. Let’s see if I can find a good one. Never Surrender to a Scoundrel. That’s not too bad.
Starlee: It is so true. Never should.
Christina: In Your Wildest Scottish Dreams. The Echoes of Scotland’s Streets.
Starlee: Is that the same person who wrote the Scottish dreams one?
Christina: No wasn’t the same author. Lot of ladies like to go to Ireland and Scotland to hear the accents so they think the men over there are probably really sexy.
Starlee: Is that your type?
Christina: I like the accents but actually went to Australia and I had an Irish bartender. That was really fun.
Starlee: Wait, you were in Australia and the bartender was Irish. Christina: Yep
Starlee: That was the story, you once had a bartender that was Irish? Christina: I don’t know what it is about Irish accent….
Starlee: Here is a thought what if you went to Ireland and you would probably hear the accent all over the place.
Christina: I would probably die of happiness if I went to Ireland. Starlee: Really?
Christina: That is the dream place to go.
Starlee: Because of the accents only.
Christina: I want to see the land. All the castles and the fairy circles and a bunch of other things that go on over there too.
Starlee: Did you say fairy circles? Christina: And I want to drink.
Starlee: This is an attainable dream. I think you could go. You went to a much further place, much harder to go to Australia.
Christina: It was good because my mom actually won the lottery and we have family there and we didn’t have to pay so much for hotels and it was easy to get flights because my parents won the lottery.
Starlee: How much of a lottery, the big lottery.
Christina: They won a million dollars on the powerball a couple of years ago. Starlee: Seriously?
Christina: Yes, me and my ex boyfriend were sitting with my mom on their couch and it showed on tv there was a million dollar winner from Chilton Wisconsin, and I was looking at numbers and she said this was the number she usually played and got ticket and made us all read through it. The first thing they bought with their money was a lawn mower.
Starlee: But if your mom wins a million dollars and you have a dream
Christina: But the thing is it’s a dream I want to attain myself and I don’t want use my parents money, I want to save for it because I am an adult.
Starlee: You are very responsible with your dreams.
Christina: Well you know if you ask your parents for everything and when they cut you off you won’t be able to do anything for yourself. You said the book To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel?
Christina: We wouldn’t actually have it in the store. Was there anything else you needed?
Starlee: No. There is a lot of new things I have questions about but you definitely answered my original question.
Starlee Kine The odds of finding a bookseller whose parents had won the lottery were better than finding a bookseller who’d heard of To Feel Stuff. Andrea was right. Her book had tanked. I crossed that item off my list and stared at the next one. Find Britney Spears. I quickly eliminated going the official route. Britney’s manager said no to an interview. I would have to enlist the help of civilians. You would be surprised how many people you pass every day on the street who have a hidden connection to Britney Spears. One it turns out they are very skittish about revealing.
A friend who worked in fashion slipped me the email of Britney’s stylist, along with a note that said, “you didn’t get this from me.” Another friend knew her former bodyguard who stopped responding to my friend’s emails as soon as Britney’s name came up.
A flurry of tips poured in from an internet forum I posted on. One message I received read, “Britney is supposedly marrying my husband’s first cousin. I don’t know him and they are all crazy. Will inquire.” Inquiring meant getting word to the supposed husband’s Aunty Mary, who had neither a cellphone nor email. The message arrived to Aunty Mary by quote “basically carrier pigeon” and from there the trail went dead.
Herein lies the paradox of Britney Spears: she’s impossible to talk to and yet her every movement is tracked. In 2008, the year Andrea’s photo was taken, Britney was the number one celebrity search on the internet. Fifty to a hundred paparazzi members would follow her wherever she went. Even now, when she’s settled into a more domestic life with lots of time spent at home with her two young sons, paparazzi still photograph her on an almost daily basis. It is because of this that my path forward is now clear. If I can’t arrange a meeting with Britney, my only hope is to run into her in public. And thanks to the crazy amount of paparazzi photos out there, I actually know the place where that’s most likely to happen. The mall. Or to be more specific The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks, California, a few miles from Britney’s house.
She’s been photographed here hundreds of times. Britney at the Oaks Mall with an iced coffee. Britney at the Oaks Mall with her kids. Britney at the Oaks Mall in a dress that makes you go she looks good. Britney at the Oaks Mall in a dress that makes you go, whoa she looks good (note: these are pronounced differently.)
The photos of Britney at the Oaks are always taken in the parking lot never inside the actual mall. I soon find out why. The minute I pull out my recorder, a security guard approaches me.
tape: mall sound
Guard: To do interviews and everything need to talk to management quick in mall itself
Guard: Elevator here go back and see the management office and talk to the receptionist
Starlee Kine Feeling like I got sent to the principal, I find the management office and tell them I’m working on a beat the heat story. They tell me there’s no recording of any kind allowed inside the mall.
Everyone in the mall looks like her. Everyone in the mall has seen her.
Poor girl, says the Starbucks guy. She can’t even leave her house without being mobbed. The last time he saw her, he wasn’t even able to see her. He just saw the crowd of people around her, blotting her out like a dust cloud.
She loves the attention, says The Cheesecake Factory waitress. It was just so obvious. For example, one time Britney received a call on her cell and walked outside to take it. Why would she do that if she didn’t want photos taken of her? The waitress says she would never have done that herself, she hates when people stare at her. Her wedding had been very small, with only fifty guests.
She’s so nice, say the Topshop sales clerk. His co-worker nods slowly and adds, and tan. They’ve met her mom. They have opinions about her boyfriend. They lead me to the sales rack and pull out a romper with straps that cross like an x in back and show me the tag. There’s a
tiny B drawn on in ink, with a circle around it. B for Britney. This is what she tried on when she was last there. It was on actual body.
They also show me a blue crop top that she bought in another size. The sales people say Britney loved the top so much, she wanted to wear it out. They told her they had to remove the security tag and she draped herself across the checkout counter so they could do so. One of the salespeople lays his own body down to demonstrate. I buy both the romper and the top.
I told my client about all the promising leads I’d run down. And how all I had to show for them was a lousy crop top. Just kidding about the lousy part. I’m actually wearing it right now.
Andrea: Have you guys ever looked into seeing if she’s ever been photographed with other books
Starlee: Let me text that to Eric.
Starlee Kine: I text one of my investigators, Eric, back in the office.
Starlee: We want to ask him can we do a search on other books Britney’s been seen reading if any. Okay. He used to be a Britney fan.
Andrea: Used to be?
Starlee Kine: It took thirty seconds to send the text. It took thirty minutes to convince Andrea that Eric had a lot of other good qualities.
Starlee: Look at this- eric did a quick search. She was on a read poster telling kids to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. Also read Lion Witch and the Wardrobe.
Andrea: Next two are no surprise to me.
Starlee: Next ones i hesitate to say out loud it seems like little bit of a barb against her. Power of Now, The Secret, Horse Whisperer, My Way, Four Agreements, that’s got to be religious.
Starlee: Taming Chaos, self-help, Pride and Prejudice
Andrea: So she reads fiction.
Starlee: Yes. Eat Pray Love, Candide that is a curve ball. Andrea: That is.
Starlee: She’s always seen holding books. One Hundred Years of Solitude. They’re never in her bag.
Andrea: Right now that I see she carries around books makes me feel more like she read it. If it was just that one time I would be more likely to think that something that got foisted on her that one time. It is a thing she does, she reads.
Starlee Kine Back at headquarters, there’s a development. It comes in the form of an old lead that’s been regifted as a new one.
Eric: It’s only got 64 views.
Starlee Kine It’s a video of the very night that Britney was seen holding Andrea’s book.
Starlee: How do you know it’s from the same night?
Eric: Because she is wearing the same clothes as in the picture and same white dress. Starlee: And that is her dad.
Starlee Kine It was posted on YouTube by a member of the paparazzi. Even though it was filmed in 2008, he only posted it last year.
The photo with the book was just a captured instant, frozen in time. The video is all the other seconds that followed. (noise-cameras flash flash flash) Britney is leaving the restaurant, with her parents. The throng of paparazzi is so thick it seems possible that she’s being carried by them to the car, that her feet aren’t even touching the ground. If you watch this video and don’t feel sad, you’re not a good person.
Once inside the car, Britney places Andrea’s book on the seat beside her. Her mother holds up her coat in front of her daughter and keeps holding it there until the car drives out of frame of the video camera. It reminds me of putting a sheet over a birdcage so that your bird can get some sleep.
The video and the photo were taken at a restaurant called Paradise Cove. Eric tells me that Paradise Cove is also where Britney shot her music video, Sometimes, in 1999, when she was just seventeen. Suddenly it felt like the whole case had been cracked wide open.
Of course they came back here for her mom’s birthday. They probably wanted to rekindle the memory of simpler times. Why would Britney bring a book to dinner? She wouldn’t! Someone at the restaurant must have given it to her!
I drive to Paradise Cove. As advertised, it’s a little slice of you know what. Not only does the staff not know anything about the book. None of them had ever seen Britney there. I ask everyone I see. One of waiters who’d been there forever ask me what day of the week the photo had been taken and so I pull out my phone and scroll and scroll and scroll through the calendar app until we arrive at March 18, 2008. Oh, yeah, that explains it, he says, that was a Tuesday. I don’t work Tuesdays. And then does a quick poll of the busboys. Have any of you ever worked a Tuesday? They all shake their heads no.
Not only was Paradise Cove a bust, it made me feel grossed out with myself. I was becoming part of the reason Britney Spears didn’t want to leave her house. As much as I wanted to find her, I didn’t want to be someone trying to find her.
It was clear that I needed to stop dancing around the problem but toward it. The key word here being dance. Find out what I mean by this after this short break.
Starlee Kine We’re back. I tried to get to Britney through people she knew. Nothing. Then I tried to get her though strangers. More nothing. The only option left was to get to her the most old-fashioned way of all: by paying for access.
Britney Spears is now thirty three. For the past year, she’s been doing a residence in Las Vegas for her Piece of Me tour. It’s been hugely successful and is being billed as her “second act.”
You can buy tickets to that show. And for more money, you can also purchase a meet and greet.
Meet and greets are a standard part of a pop star’s tour. The prices are all the over place. Miley Cyrus’ costs $1000. To meet and greet Rihanna or Kanye will cost you 10 grand. Put in this context meeting Justin Bieber is actually kind of a steal: just $650.
Britney’s meet and greet costs $2500. The exact sum that it looked like it was going to cost me to solve this case.
Melinda: I was going to make try and buy these Britney Spears tickets and then one of those security things that you have to enter the phrase and it is a Robert Frost quote you have to complete.
Starlee Kine I asked another one of my investigators Melinda, to look into the tickets.
Starlee: So you have to know the next line.
Melinda: Multiple choice. . …two roads diverged in a wood.
Starlee Kine I knew it was hard to get to Britney Spears but this was ridiculous.
Melinda: The options are “swear not by the moon” “for you tread on my dreams” “fine is right out” “violets are blue” “shivering sweet to the touch” the last one is “I took the one less traveled by”
Starlee: Has to be the one less traveled by. I feel like shivering sweet to the touch, not saying that is the option but it is good.
Melinda: I feel like swear not by the moon might be quite nice as well. Feel like we might be timed out at this point but should we try it.
Starlee Kine We hit purchase.
Melinda: We chose right.
Starlee Kine It was done. 1 VIP meet and greet at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas. I would spend Valentine’s Day with Britney Spears. Immediately a confirmation email arrived that informed me “the event countdown was on.” I would be sitting in Row A, seat 14. But there wasn’t any information at all about the meet and greet itself. I needed to know how long I’d have with her, whether it would be enough time to ask Britney about Andrea’s book.
Ticketmaster: Thank you for calling ticketmaster. Are you calling about an existing order?
Ticketmaster: Now you can say change my delivery, refund my order or you can say its something else
Starlee: It’s something else.
Ticketmaster: Okay please hold while I transfer you to a representative. (hold music)
Dennis: Thank you for holding this is Dennis from Customer Service. Who am I speaking with?
Starlee: Starlee Kine
Dennis: How are you doing Ms. Starlee Starlee: Starlee. I’m good how are you? Dennis: Starlee
Starlee: It’s a hard one
Dennis: Once you see it. Star – Lee. See you have one ticket Britney Spears February 14th, at 9 at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. For VIP meet and greet package and everything that comes with it.
Starlee: Can I ask you a few questions about it.
Dennis: Yes you can although I only know so much information. What are we calling about?
Starlee: Wondering do you know how long I get with her? Dennis: I dont have that information
Starlee: Do you think I could bring a book she could sign. Dennis: I wouldn’t be able to guarantee it.
Starlee: If you were to guess a genre of book that Britney Spears would read, what would you guess? This is what I am going to ask her when I go. I think I get one question.
Dennis: I would think you would get more than one question.
Starlee: I know right, for that amount of money. You can say it. We can all agree this is a crazy amount of money to spend on this.
Dennis: Yes. I do believe you have the best VIP if you would.
Starlee: oh okay.
Dennis: That means it would come with the most amenities and everything.
Starlee: Maybe I get 2 questions.
Dennis: Quite possibly. Don’t quote me on that.
Starlee: If one question is-I want to ask her about this one book. But then what should my other question be do you think if I get two. What do you want to know?
Dennis: Something about her success. See if success changed her as helped her. I have seen some of the stuff in the media and I know she started off real successful and role model for some people if you would and then she had downslide. Then she picked herself back up and now she is kind of like rising back up. I would ask how feels that inspiration to know you can mess up and make mistakes and go and change way life is.
Starlee: Do you have role models in your life that inspire you?
Dennis: Sort of. My mom probably be the closest. Did raise me and all my brothers by herself. I have 6 brothers total. My dad passed away when I was 5.
Starlee: Oh really.
Dennis: Yes, so she had to raise all of us. She had to work 2 jobs, worked a lot. And we all reminded her of my dad, and she loved my dad. It takes a toll on you, losing someone like that.
Starlee: Do you remember him?
Dennis: Slightly. I remember playing games, like dog pile and couple of other things like that.
Starlee: You guys must have had good dog pile if so many of you. Are you the youngest?
Dennis: I am the second youngest.
Starlee: You are pretty close to the top of the dog pile or the bottom. How does it work? The little ones get all piled on right?
Dennis: Random game, sometimes you are at the top, sometimes you are at the bottom.
Starlee: That is kind of like Britney. Sometimes she is at top sometimes she is at the bottom.
Dennis: Yes I guess so.
Starlee: Maybe life is one big dog pile
Starlee: Did I just blow your mind?
Dennis: That is pretty deep. Wow. Okay.
Starlee: Are you being sarcastic or do you mean it is pretty deep?
Dennis: For real. I didn’t even think how that applied when I said that. Sometimes you are at the top, sometimes you are at the bottom. It refers to everything we were just talking about. I don’t think this applies to customer service.
Starlee: I like to ask questions.
Dennis: I got that feeling. You are curious. More people should be curious about other people and not focus on themselves. I believe the purpose of life is each other. If everyone cared about everyone else, then no one would have to care about themselves. When i was younger I got in a lot of trouble. You have to be the sort of person you would want someone to be attracted to.
Starlee: That is true because if you are not even if that person attracted to you at first, if you don’t believe you are worthy of that person they are not going to stay interested.
Dennis: That is my problem right there in a nutsell.
Starlee: You don’t think you are worthy.
Dennis: In a sense, no.
Starlee: You are. You have to believe that.
Dennis: But I have made a lot of mistakes too.
Starlee: Who hasn’t? I think you think you are not going to get happiness and so the only way to feel stuff is if it is sad stuff.
Dennis: Yes, you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. And what about you?
Starlee: What about me?
Dennis: What about you? You don’t have any of those problems.
Starlee: I do have those problems. That is why I am able to talk about it. I feel I can relate. Plenty of times I don’t feel worthy and I say mean things to myself and loose perspective and get depressed and I totally understand. Everyone does and that’s why you have to start little bits telling yourself-I am worthy. I do deserve that. I am just as good as other person who is getting it. You have to trick yourself.
Dennis: Subliminal messages to yourself.
Starlee: Act as if there are commercials flashing at you that keep
Dennis: You’re awesome.
Dennis: I’ve worked here for 8 months and this is the most interesting phone call I have had. Ever.
Dennis: Ever (laughs) So you go around changing other customer service reps lives. Different companies and stuff. Is that what you do in your free time. Let me go change someone’s life.
Starlee: I just want you to feel worthy. Is that too much to ask? I’ll be first person to tell it to you and then you can take it from there.
Dennis: Thank you very much I appreciate it. Ok Starlee. I hope you have a great time seeing Britney you take care.
Starlee: Ok thank you.
Ticketmaster: Please answer the following questions on a scale of 1 to 6 based upon your experience today how satisfied were you with overall service provided by this representative.
Starlee: Very satisfied
TM: Do you think our representative was helpful? Starlee: Yes.
TM: Thank you for completing this survey…..
Starlee Kine On the morning of February 14th, I flew to Vegas to meet Britney Spears. On the night of February 14th, I called my client from my hotel room to tell her what had happened.
Andrea: Hello. I had so much anxiety. I was like if starlee was really excited I would sense it.
Starlee: Well okay.
Andrea: Oh god oh god. Oh no. Walk me through it.
Starlee Kine Because it was Valentine’s Day I had to book a hotel far from the Strip. It didn’t feel like I was staying in Vegas. The lobby didn’t even have slot machines in it. The concierge called me a cab. I was anxious to get there on time.
Starlee: Everyone was checking in. A whole flood of tourists came in at that time. Finally cab came and I got in the car and he was like how are you doing. I said I am a little stressed. He said why. I said I am on my way to meet Britney Spears and….
Cabdriver: Had her in my car. Starlee: You did?
Cabdriver: When she was just a kid, 12 or 13, about 12 years ago. Very nice girl. Total sweetheart. Very respectful and just -how are you? You enjoy yourself in Vegas. All enthusiastic, still like a kid. Think maybe a kid like that is a little snotty, or whatever, not even close. Very nice.
Starlee: And he had Magic Johnson and Kiefer Sutherland and Britney in his cab and she was his favorite.
Andrea: Of course.
Starlee: Then I got there and gave them the ticket. I said I am here for the meet and greet. The girl is like you are going to have such a good time. It’s so fun. It was packed.
Andrea: How many people?
Starlee: All together think 50 people by the end. Andrea: That is a lot of people.
Starlee: It was nuts.
(meet and greet announcer)
Starlee: Only had 1 friend there. An entrepreneur whose husband told him he was doing meet and greet minutes before he did it.
Andrea: Like it was a surprise to him.
Starlee: It was a surprise. They flew here from New York to go to the show and the husband was like you can do meet and greet.
Starlee: When did you find out?
Husband: 5 minutes ago.
Announcer: Okay everyone form a semi circle … behind me. Starlee: And then the woman who hosts the tour, her name is Fe. Andrea: Is it Felicia?
Andrea: Yeah it is her. Long time sidekick.
Starlee: Felicia is very fascinating to me.
Andrea: How much is Felicia getting paid to be the warm-up guy?
Starlee Kine: Felicia – or Fe as she tells to call her – is a family friend of Britney’s from back home. It’s hard to tell Fe’s age. Even in 2004, when she was on featured on Britney’s reality show – Britney and Kevin: Chaotic – she seemed neither old nor young.
Around the time of the Paradise Cove photo, Fe and Britney briefly parted ways. As Fe explained on her personal website “there’s just so much you can do to help a person… I cannot love her enough for the both of us.” During their break, Fe became a flight attendant and a substitute preschool teacher.
Fe’s dressed in a Dickies jumpsuit, like the kind auto shop mechanics wear, except they’ve been specially hemmed into shorts. The words Team Britney are bedazzled on the back. It’s a uniform she’s designated for herself to wear, a uniform she loves.
We’re taken out onto the empty stage, so we can get a sense of what the world looks like through Britney’s eyes. It looks like rows and rows of audience seats with lights so bright you can’t see any faces. Next Fe shows us where Britney’s dance outfits are kept. She wants us to know we have to go up several flights of stairs. Just when you think you are there you are not. Tell me about it I think. The wings that Britney wears during the song Everytime are Fe’s very favorite prop. One of Fe’s very favorite fun facts is that it takes hundreds of silk and cotton feathers and that no birds were harmed in the process.
It’s right about now it become apparent we have all paid $2500 to hang out with Fe.
We’re led into a parking lot. Fe stops and says she will now demonstrate how the meet and greet will go. She will play herself and a security guard will play Britney. She stands in front of him, smiling cheerfully and says “Hi, I’m Fe.” “Hi, I’m Britney” says the guard. Fe laughs and tells us, “Yes, sometimes Britney may say who she is even though you already know.” But the important thing to remember is that Britney doesn’t know who you are. I’m sorry, says Fe, but it’s true. You are a stranger to her.
We are not to touch Britney. We are not to hug Britney. If we feel a hug coming on that we cannot stifle we are to hug Fe, not Britney. Fe loves a good hug. We are not to make any sudden movements when we meet Britney. If our hands are in our pockets and we discover that we’d prefer that they weren’t, that’s okay. All we have to do is let someone know and then we can take our hands out, slowly, so slowly.
Starlee: And then Felicia said you’re going in there. Britney’s very shy. If you seem cared she will seem scared. Try make your energy not communication that.
Andrea: Like a fucking animal at the zoo. If you are quiet koalas will come down but if you make noise. It is crazy.
Starlee Kine: I wait for Fe to get to the part where we ask Britney our question but that part never comes. So I raise my hand and ask if we were going to be allowed to actually talk to Britney.
Fe says there won’t be much time but if we have something to say to Britney, we should say it. If I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman helped us in our time of need then by all means we should tell Britney that.
Starlee: And that was the entire demonstration.
Starlee Kine: We form a line. There are TSA style bins set up that we have to put all our stuff in.
Starlee: The actual meet and greet happened on the stage
Andrea: I didn’t picture that at all. I thought would be in blank white room. Starlee: Totally on the stage and there is a screen.
Andrea: So you can’t even see her while you are waiting for her.
Starlee: You cant she is behind the screen and you can see the silhouette of Britney and can see the shadow and you are watching everyone go up and you can time it and I am seeing 3 seconds, 3 seconds. Taking picture, taking picture, not chatting happening.
Andrea: Oh god.
Starlee: Two people in front of me, right my turn in 2 people and then it was my turn. I see her, I walk across the stage.
Andrea: You must be so nervous.
Starlee: I feel I have much stronger purpose than everyone else Andrea: Right
Starlee: My friend was like I don’t know what to tell her. He had just found out he was doing a meet and greet. So you go up to her and she immediately faces the camera. She is expecting a picture to be taken and I go “hi Britney I am Starlee” and she smiled and I said “look I just have to ask you” and she kept trying to turn to the camera and I
say “look my friend wrote this book called To Feel Stuff and you had a picture taken with it in 2008. Do you remember this book?”
Andrea: Oh my god.
Starlee: She looked at me really hard and she goes “I think it rings a bell.” I’m like “it’s a ghost in an infirmary” and she goes “yes, i remember it” and I said “how did you hear about it?” and she goes “my assistant gave it to me” and then I said “did you like it?” and she goes “yes I loved it.”
Andrea: What, I am dipping upside down in my chair.
Announcer: Welcome to Britney Spears Piece of Me
Andrea: Do you feel like it was genuine? You feel she wasn’t just telling you that cause she was telling you that.
Starlee: I know it was cause I talked to everyone else and she didn’t give anyone anything.
Andrea: All this makes me love her. She doesn’t turn it on for people or she can’t turn it on for people. It’s sword and the stone, only a valid person can pull it out.
Starlee: Pure of spirit true of heart.
Announcer: Ms. Spears wants each and every one of you to have the night of your life and would like to encourage everyone to get out of their seats and dance until the world ends. It is showtime!!
Starlee Kine: Mystery Show is produced by myself, Alex Blumberg, Melinda Shopsin and Eric Mennel. Producing help from Chris Neary and Wendy Dorr. Eli Horowitz is contributing editor.
Thanks to John Delore and Matt Lieber. Closing song by Emmy the Great. Opening song by Sparks. Original scoring by Emmy, Nick Thorburn, the bands White Dove and Devin Dare. Matt Carlin was my bagman. Arthur Jones made our logo and now you can’t stop staring at it.
Before I give the clue for next week’s mystery, I want to say Lee, if you’re listening, congratulations, you guessed right. And for everyone else who has always wanted to be more like Lee, here’s your chance. Next week’s clue is: to the moon.
Starlee Kine is an American public radio producer and writer. She is the creator and host of the podcast Mystery Show, which was done in production with Gimlet Media. Her other work has been featured on This American Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and California Sunday.