ALEX GOLDMAN: Hi PJ!
PJ VOGT: What was that?
ALEX: Me being happy to see you!
PJ: Hi Alex! Why are you clutching your microphone?
ALEX: (laughs) I don't know!
PJ: Like you're either like a blues singer or you're drowning.
ALEX: I'm a drowning blues singer. I'm just happy to see you. Is that – I feel like – here's the deal.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: Last week you were working on your story. You were busy.
ALEX: This weekend–
PJ: We didn't get quality time.
ALEX: This weekend you had a birthday party and you were very warm and happy to see me, but you were also busy. You were – you were working the room.
PJ: You're just glad – you're just glad we have some time together.
ALEX: I'm glad we have some one-on-one time together. That we say into a microphone and then gets broadcast. (PJ: Ok) To the world.
PJ: It's hard to be mad at that. Tell me your story.
ALEX: So this whole story started with a tip that I got that sounded less like a Reply All thing and more like, I don’t know, an X-files case?
ALEX: It’s from this listener named Andrew.
ALEX: Hey Andrew.
ANDREW: Yes, hi.
ALEX: Hey, it’s Alex.
ALEX: I happened to catch him while he was sewing.
ANDREW: I'm trying to finish sewing this backpack for my sister. I'm teaching myself how to pattern and design bags.
ALEX: What prompted you to decide to get into sewing?
ANDREW: You know I think I've always had kind of a propensity for stuff like that. And then I just finally picked up a sewing machine. And then now I'm going crazy.
PJ: I – It's one of those things – there's like three life skills that I think are probably not that hard to learn that I would like to learn, and sewing is one of them.
ALEX: What are the other two?
PJ: Dancing – in the sense of dancing at parties, like if you could take a weekend class, I would take it. Like, non-awkward gyration class.
ALEX: I can make that happen.
PJ: (laughing) I don't – I really don't want one-on-one dancing at parties class from you.
ALEX: I know that – I know you're trying to like – I know you're trying to mock me but –
PJ: I'm not trying to mock you. I'm just saying that –
ALEX: I'm a good dancer.
PJ: I know you are. I just don't – I just – I think this is a problem with the class because I don't want to go to it.
ALEX: Well I think that — I honestly think there'd be like a therapeutic aspect of – to it for us.
PJ: Tell me more.
ALEX: I just think that there would be like – there'd be a level of very bizarre but very real intimacy to us dancing together.
ALEX: (laughs) I'm really into this idea now.
PJ: And then the third thing, just so you know, is casual, singing-in-car singing. On key. I would like to be able to do that.
ALEX: I feel like for some people it's just singing on key is tough.
PJ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
ALEX: And, and you're one of them and I have no disrespect.
PJ: No, it's true.
PJ: Sewing, dancing, singing. Anyway, he sews.
ALEX: Uh huh. And the sewing thing is germane to the story. Because, as he said when we talked, Andrew was making a backpack and he wanted to make it out of leather.
ALEX: So he's like – goes online, looks for a leather store, finds this place called SavMor Leather, S-A-V-M-O-R leather. Um, and he drives over there and he's look–he’s sitting in his car, looking at the listing for it to make sure it's open. And he notices something very odd.
ANDREW: The first photo that comes up on Google has something very strange about it and I – my heart kind of almost stopped beating. And I stared at this photo for a very long time.
ALEX: The main picture for SavMor Leather when you go on Google Maps – is this.
PJ: Okay. So yeah, it's like a short, squat industrial building under an overpass. But it does have a sign that says...
ALEX: What are you missing, PJ, in that picture?
PJ: What am I missing?
ALEX: (laughs) Keep looking at that photo.
PJ: It says SavMor Leather... Oh my God! (ALEX & PJ laugh) There's a giant UFO in the sky over it?!
PJ: God, I have like UFO blindness. (ALEX laughs) I mean, in my defense it's sort of – sky colored. Like it's sort of like a UFO with a cloaking device that's coming off, but it's definitely a UFO. It's not like – it's like a big slow, like classic, definite Independence Day UFO.
ALEX: You saw this before you went into the store.
ANDREW: Oh yeah. You better believe I looked up in the sky. And you better believe (ALEX laughs) that you know I was look – I sat there in my car in the same approximate spot this photo was taken from. I looked up at that light pole – I took a photo of myself and checked it to see if a UFO showed up in my – on my cell phone screen, you know?
ALEX: So what is your theory? What do you think is going on here?
ANDREW: You know, Alex, I'm very torn between thinking that actually there was, a gigantic UFO hovering over downtown LA, with some kind of cloaking device (ALEX laughs) and somehow flickering right when he took this photo or I don't know. It just doesn't make sense.
PJ: But it seems the – like just to really not be the fun guy here, seems like what is up with this picture is like, somebody uploaded a picture of a storefront, and they Photoshopped in a fake UFO. And like the – and like to this person's credit, what I like about these hijinks, is I like, I like when people put in a joke that’s like doesn't announce itself.
PJ: You know what I mean? It's like, a person paying close attention will find this, and no one else.
ALEX: Yeah. The other thing I figured out though, is that the person who put the UFOs in the photo is also doing like all sorts of reviews on Google Maps.
PJ: Like, I went to this hamburger place and my hamburger sucked and here's a picture of the hamburger.
ALEX: Yeah. I went to this Del Taco and they didn't put enough meat on the taco. It's funny that you and I both immediately go to complaints, because the only time I ever give a review is when it's a one-star review and I'm mad about something.
PJ: What have you reviewed?
ALEX: Let me look at my Google Maps profile.
PJ: You do it on Google Maps?
ALEX: Uh huh. Street view, bicycling, your locations, your places, your contributions. Let's see – (PJ: Your contributions…) Reviews. “This scumbag was my landlord. He tried to cheat me out of my security deposit. I eventually had to file a small claims case against him to get it back. Yeah, I suppose that doesn't have much bearing on how he practices law, but if he'll cheat a struggling kid out of money he's entitled to, don't you think he'd do the same if he was representing you? Avoid like the plague!”
PJ: It's really funny because every time I read reviews like that I'm like, “I'm so glad I don't know this person.” But I know you. (laughs)
ALEX: I reviewed the vitamin store I used to work at and got fired from and I wrote: “The manager's a dick.”
PJ: That feels like a real conflict of interest, man. (laughs) Wait, here's an important question. What was the gap between them firing you, and you posting that review?
ALEX: That's a great question. It was – eight or nine years. (laughs)
PJ: Also, just so you know, manager turnover at the Vitamin Shoppe –
ALEX: (laughs) He was a career guy. I'm sure he's still there. Unless he retired.
PJ: Well I'm sure you showed him, I’m sure he saw that and he was like: “I should be nicer to people.” What else you got?
ALEX: I've got a five-star review of Greenpoint Heights, RIP. And then a one-star review of the, of the eyeglass place.
PJ: And what does that say?
ALEX: Well, “If I could give these guys negative stars, I would. They gave me a prescription that actually made my eyes worse. I asked them to recheck my glasses and they told me that it was a result of working in front of a computer screen, in spite of the fact that I've never had any issue with a computer screen before. They suggested looking out the window every 25 minutes or so to relax my eyes, (PJ laughs) something I never had to do prior to getting this new prescription. When I told them this did nothing to help, they told me that I had to either get a specialist or–to give me a new prescription or there was nothing they could do for me and then proceeded to hang up the phone.” And then I also said “Avoid them like the plague.” Apparently that’s like a thing for me–
PJ: It's kinda–it’s kinda your tag.
PJ: So how did we get here?
ALEX: Well (laughs) okay, I was alerted to a weird picture of a UFO, you remember that?
ALEX: Um, I wanted to learn more about whoever put it there
PJ: And so you were looking at their Google reviews
PJ: Did you find a thing?
ALEX: There’s a username attached to the account which is John R E
PJ: John. R. E.?
ALEX: So I looked at John R.E.'s account.
PJ: To see if he posted other reviews or other photos?
ALEX: Yes. And the first thing I figured out is that he did post other photos that featured the UFO.
PJ: Okay. Are they also sort of nominally photos of small businesses?
ALEX: It’s mostly small businesses and generic chain stores.
PJ: Does the UFO look the same in every one?
ALEX: It looks pretty similar. Umm, where's the CVS? Here you go.
PJ: It looks like it's kind of parked on top of the CVS. It's weird that he's doing it on like totally nondescript businesses.
ALEX: Yeah, totally. But can I tell you what really caught my attention about this guy?
PJ: Uh yes.
ALEX: He is just an insanely prolific Google Maps reviewer. Like he's posted thousands of photos, hundreds of reviews. It looks like he's based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And it feels like he's on a mission to review every single business in the city. Like he reviews like glass repair shops, um cannabis dispensaries. Um... He reviewed like his local Kohl’s, he's reviewed a parking lot downtown.
PJ: And what are–what are the reviews like?
ALEX: They’re actually really detailed. You know, he’s just like the world’s foremost Santa Fe-ologist. Like he will tell you with Baskin Robbins is the best in the city, which hardware store has fresh popcorn. There’s one where he talks about who the most helpful employees are at the antique store. He’s just like Mr. Santa Fe.
And he’s obviously really opinionated, like sometimes he can actually be pretty anal in his reviews. Like this is a review of Ralph’s.
PJ: What's Ralph’s–?
ALEX: Ralph’s is a grocery store that’s owned by Kroger.
ALEX: “Dogs in the grocery store? Like pajamas, dogs appearing inside stores is a phenomenon. And it happens here. Kroger does a good job keeping their prices lower than the competition. Organic produce, friendly service, ample yogurt and a large selection of adult beverages that make the grocery store more than convenient. And the dogs? According to the US code of federal regulations, 36.202, they're legal, unless out of control or not housebroken. If you experience otherwise, service dog or not, you're within your rights to ask that the dog be removed.”
PJ: Sounds like a crotchety old man.
PJ: It's just weird, it’s like weird how quickly you draw a character in your head.
ALEX: I mean there’s also moments where he’s got this almost like Erin Brockovich vibe. Like this is a review of a place called Shoko Cafe:
“Sadly Shoko Cafe has lost its day in court. The owners have been ordered to pay overtime to three employees after being convicted of wage theft. This is not an establishment that can be recommended. Let the Fukuda family know how you feel about workers not being paid properly and the Fukudas pocketing their employees’ overtime.”
PJ: Okay, so pro labor rights, (ALEX: Mhm) anti-dog in grocery store.
ALEX: but sometimes he actually seems really vulnerable in his reviews? Like here’s a review he did for a place called the Drury Plaza Hotel and bar in Santa Fe:
“It was a bad week. It was a bad day. I didn't want it to be a bad night, so I wandered Santa Fe downtown. It wasn't long before I came in front of the Drury Plaza Hotel and its downstairs bar. I took myself in, wondering if this was just another tourist trap. I knew I needed a drink first. I saw a bar. It was full of colors. That's where I went. A bartender helped me. He was friendly. He was real. My night started to get lighter. I ate an appetizer, a tapa. I had a Glenfiddich. I had a cup of coffee. I had a couple of dollars. I told the bartender thank you. You see a lot of strangers, but tonight you made a friend. I needed this and you gave it. 'Thank you,' he said. A post-prohibition vibe here at Eloisa's, and there's another bar on the fifth floor. I called it a night and walked home with a smile.”
PJ: That's so pretty and sad.
ALEX: I know. I know.
ALEX: It just felt like a tiny glimpse of who John was, you know? And like, after reading hundreds of his reviews, I have read hundreds of them, I felt like I had sort of an outline of who this person was. Like he seems kinda lonely, but he also seems completely devoted--
-- to documenting every square inch of Santa Fe, this town he clearly loves a lot.
And that made me really wanna meet him
ALEX: The first thing is, I think we figured out what he looks like.
PJ: Oh really?
So we’re sitting there going through all his pictures, trying to find clues about who he is. And our Executive Producer Tim Howard noticed one picture in particular where you can see the photographer in the reflection of a window, and it’s a man with male pattern baldness. And as we go through his pictures some more, we start seeing a guy who looks like he could be the person in the reflection, and we’re like, ok that has gotta be him.
PJ: What does the guy look like?
ALEX: Uh, let me show you a picture of him. Hold on just a second. He's the guy on the left.
PJ: Okay. So he's like — he sorta looks like he’s in his early 50’s, maybe 60’s... mostly bald. He's got a beard, glasses. He kind of looks like an art teacher. He's got like a sweet art teacher vibe. Or like a nuclear scientist. But one of the progressive ones whose against the bombs.
ALEX: Totally. Okay.
PJ: Do you see that?
ALEX: But what felt like kind of a problem to us was how do you track down a person from Google Maps without freaking them out?
ALEX: Because it would be very easy for me to like, post his picture on Twitter, or go to the Sante Fe Subreddit. But that all feels pretty invasive. So I was like, why don’t we try to find someone who already knows him personally, as a way to approach him that is more friendly?
So myself and producer Jessica Yung, who is in the studio with us —
JESSICA: Hi PJ.
PJ: Hi Jessica. So you were also helping Alex with this story.
ALEX: So Jessica and I decided to divide and conquer. We said ok, we’ll each take a couple of days to call people we know from Sante Fe and ask them if they have any leads. Because Santa Fe is actually pretty small.
PJ: No it’s not.
ALEX: It’s pretty small! It’s 80,000 people.
PJ: Okay. So just find one person you knew out of 80,000 people.
ALEX: Listen, here–I grew up in a town that is about 80,000 people and the lattice of connection is very great and it is very easy to find people that you know in strange ways.
PJ: I'm–the only reason I'm not being more disparaging about this plan is because the fact that we're talking about it suggests that it may have worked. (ALEX laughs) And so just to be clear, the method you guys are pursuing here is– it’s like, we're trying to find this guy, John. He went to Kohl's. (ALEX & JESSICA laugh) Who do you know who would most likely know a John who'd gone to Kohl's in Santa Fe?
ALEX: We also showed ‘em the picture. But beyond that—
PJ: (laughs) It feels like a little kid somehow getting on a plane to go to the North Pole and like walking around with a picture of Santa Claus, just like flashing it at people or something. Do you know what I mean? Or like going to England and asking if you can meet the Beatles? Like it just feels very, uh.
ALEX: When you put it that way, it sounds really silly.
PJ: Not silly – uh, naive! It feels naive. But again we’re here, which leads me to think (laughs) that somehow it worked.
ALEX: Anyway, So, I figured I would talk to someone who is roughly John’s age, because maybe they have friends in common. Like maybe they hang out with similar people. So our senior producer Phia Bennin, her mom lived in Sante Fe until pretty recently. Her name’s Josephine. And I decided to give her a call.
JOSEPHINE: So, so what did you guys–what did you want- what–to know, or whatever? What’s happening?
ALEX: Okay, alright. So I know that you for a while lived in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is that right?
JOSEPHINE: Yeah, for a little while.
ALEX: How long would you say?
JOSEPHINE: Five months, I think.
ALEX: Okay. That’s a decent amount of time, right?
JOSEPHINE: Okay, yeah. I guess.
PJ: (laughing) Oh my God!
ALEX: So I showed Josephine the picture of John R.E. And she’s like, “I have no idea who that is.” But she did have a suggestion of someone I could talk to.
JOSEPHINE: The person that, that I think I would give you and I don't know if she would know him. She’s actually, was our real estate agent and has lived there for a really long time and knows a lot of people because she’s a real estate agent. So, would that — you want to talk to her?
ALEX: That would be amazing, if you could, if you could put us in touch.
JOSEPHINE: I doubt that it'll be amazing. But I hope it is.
ALEX & JOSEPHINE: (laugh)
ALEX: So then I talked to the real estate agent and she said, “He looks familiar to me. I've seen him.”
REAL ESTATE AGENT: Gosh. Um, I mean, I don't know that could tell you who it is right this second, but he looks really familiar to me and, God, I bet I could figure out who he is.
ALEX: And then she, a couple days later, after me actually bothering her a little bit, was like “Hi, I've asked a couple of people. No idea who he is. Sorry.” So–
PJ: I'm honestly surprised you're already even this close. Like even like, “I think maybe I saw him on the bus once” is crazy to me. So Alex’s branch of this, like, amazing plan so far had not worked. So Jessica like how was your side of this plan going?
JESSICA: I kind of panicked because I was like—
PJ: Alex already did Phia’s mom.
JESSICA: Yeah. And I was like, dang it, I don't know anyone in Santa Fe. And so I quickly get on the Gimlet Slack channel and I write, “Does anybody know anyone that lives in Santa Fe?” Um, and then eventually someone got back to me and said, “Oh, this guy who works at Planet Money, Alexi Horowitz Ghazi — he grew up in Santa Fe.”
JESSICA: Hi, is this Alexi?
ALEXI: It is. Is this Jessica?
JESSICA: Yeah it is Jessica.
PJ: Did you feel at all — did you feel more embarrassed because you were going reporter-to- reporter?
JESSICA: Dude, absolutely.
PJ: (laughs) Do you feel like it was somewhat of a–that you were being somewhat stymied by the fact that, unlike Alex, you just like have a sense of shame?
ALEX: Oh yeah (JESSICA laughs) I don’t feel any embarrassment at all.
PJ: I know, Alex.
JESSICA: So I tell Alexi all about John R.E. and I show him some of his reviews. And basically all he can tell me is that a lot of his reviews take place on this road called Cerillos.
ALEXI: So Cerillos is like kind of the main artery and it’s kind of the like nastier, kind of strip mall-y street in town.
JESSICA: But yeah, other than that, he didn’t really know anything else. But then the next day he emailed me saying, “You know what? My buddy, his name is Cowboy Reed.”
PJ: Cowboy Reed?
JESSICA: Cowboy Reed. “I know that he knows a lot of people. You should talk to him.”
COWBOY REED: Hello?
JESSICA: Hello? Is this Alex James Cowboy Reed?
COWBOY: This is — yes. It is.
JESSICA: And I'm like, “Okay, so do you know a guy named John R.E. — maybe middle last name? I dunno.” And he's like, “No. I don’t think that I can help you.”
And then I showed him the picture that Alex showed you.
JESSICA: And he says, “I don’t know John, but I do know the guy standing next to him.
COWBOY: The guy in the right is the owner of this taco place called Bumblebees.
JESSICA: Oh my God, really?
COWBOY: Bumblebee Bob. That’s the name of this guy.
JESSICA: Wait, it’s Bumblebee Tacos and the guy is–like people have just called him Bumblebee Bob, or he called himself Bumblebee Bob?
COWBOY: Yeah. I think that’s what he calls himself.
PJ: Cowboy Reed knows Bumblebee Bob.
ALEX: Hard to believe.
JESSICA: He knows Bumblebee Bob. The whole theme, the whole schtick is bumblebees wearing sombreros in this restaurant (laughs).
PJ: Wait, so it’s a, it's a Mexican restaurant.
PJ: Where it’s bumblebee-themed?
PJ: Okay. I'm fine with that.
JESSICA: And at this point I’m thinking, maybe we should actually read John’s review of Bumblebee Bob’s. And basically his review is like, “Yeah, I mean,” because I guess this is a new location, he was like, “it's not as good as when Bumblebee Bob used to be behind the grill for like the past 10 years.” So I was like, Oh my God.
PJ: This guy was a regular.
JESSICA: This guy definitely knows John.
EMPLOYEE: Bumblebees Hometown, how can I help you?
JESSICA: Hi, is Bumblebee Bob there?
EMPLOYEE: Oh no, he’s not here. Not ‘til next month.
JESSICA: And I’m like, “Okay, so, can I ask you a question then? Do you know this guy who’s a regular? He comes in all the time apparently, and he writes a bunch of Google reviews.”
JESSICA: His name’s John. His Google review name is John R.E.
EMPLOYEE: Mhm. No.
EMPLOYEE: To be honest I don’t think we know him.
JESSICA: Okay, cool. No problem. Thank you so much.
ALEX: So at this point we realize like we are not going to get anywhere sitting behind a computer at Gimlet, trying to figure out who John RE is.
Our best chance of finding him is to go to Santa Fe.
[flight attendant intoning]
[sound of incoming luggage at baggage claim]
JESSICA: There it is. Nice.
ALEX: All right.
JESSICA: You ready to go man?
ALEX: So Jessica and I arrive in Santa Fe and we step out of the plane, and immediately, right behind the airport are these huge beautiful mountains
MUSIC DROPS UNDER AS CAR RADIO COMES IN
JESSICA: Okay. So do you know where we're going?
ALEX: We're going to the St. Francis Hotel. We are listening to the Dirt Bombs. We are going to drop off our stuff and then we are going to find John R. E. I will say that this road, Cerri–Cerrillos–
JESSICA: Cerrillos? Yeah.
ALEX: Is where most of his reviews take place.
JESSICA: Absolutely. Like he's totally reviewed that GameStop.
ALEX: Yep. Uh, I think he's reviewed this Olive Garden too.
JESSICA: Oh yeah. He wasn't into it.
ALEX: But it’s Olive Garden.
ALEX: So we get to downtown Santa Fe around lunchtime, which is perfect because around the corner from the hotel is one of John's favorite restaurants. This Southwestern diner called Tia Sophia's.
ALEX: All right. It's right up here and I see the sign. We just need to find a place to park.
JESSICA: Okay. [chips bag rustling] Dang. I kind of regret by eating all those chips right before we came here.
And in John’s review of this restaurant, he writes that there’s a waiter that he really likes there named “Carl”. And I was like, okay this is a good sign. Because if he knows the waiter by his first name, maybe Carl knows him and would be able to tell us how to find him.
JESSICA: What are you getting?
ALEX: I'm going to get the tamales. What are you getting?
JESSICA: Dude, I'm getting what John said was good. Getting the huevos rancheros. Yeah. Maybe that's Carl.
After we order, we ask our waitress if Carl is working today and it turns out he is.
CARL: Hi, how are you?
We try to ask Carl about John but it’s difficult because he’s very preoccupied
JESSICA: Do you mind if–could we show you the review that he left?
CARL: I only got like two minutes, but—
JESSICA: Oh, are you writing down orders while I—
CARL: Yeah, tell me. I can do it by heart.
JESSICA: Wow, what a pro.
CARL: Go ahead.
ALEX: So here's his review. He says, “An institution that thrives due to its servers. The food is local Santa Fe home cooking and the waitstaff is a comedy. Carl is a favorite, with each table home to unique personality. Sopapillas served after 11 when breakfast ends. Have fun over huevos rancheros, posole, whatever. It's Tia Sophia’s and she's in a rare mood today.”
CARL: Oh, that's a really good review. Oh, I love that. Very good. I have no idea who it is though. But thanks for the review.
ALEX: We have his picture. The guy on the left. Does he look familiar to you?
CARL: Not at all.
ALEX: Oh, that’s too bad.
ALEX: So attempt number one was a wash.
JESSICA: Alright. Well, not any closer.
ALEX: Alright so what’s next?
JESSICA: Okay. Okay, okay where are we?
ALEX: So our next stop is a place called Pyramid Smoke Shop, and we decided to go there because John mentions the guy who runs the store by name. Let me read you what he says about him.
He says, “Stop in, say hello to Nick who can help you find what you need and more. Ask him what’s new.”
JESSICA: Oh, right there.
ALEX: There it is. All the way in the corner. Not–so are we going to try and go in there?
JESSICA: Yeah, I think so.
JESSICA: And, for some reason we’re–so we're in the car and Alex just gets really freaked out at this point.
ALEX: Suddenly I was like, this is all very sketchy to me. I feel very nervous.
PJ: Wait, what?
JESSICA: It was a smoke shop!
ALEX: I just was like going into a place — going into a place that, that like (laughs) sells drug paraphernalia.
PJ: In a place where it’s legal.
ALEX: With a big microphone feels sketchy to me.
PJ: What did you just really — what did you think was going to happen?
ALEX: Well —
ALEX: I feel like we're going to get shot.
JESSICA: Dude, we’re not going to get shot.
PJ: You guys are like the anxiety detectives.
JESSICA: (laughing) Are you stopping because of these signs?
JESSICA: We’re 18 years or older.
ALEX: The sign says you must be 18 years or older to enter. No person under 18 will be permitted to enter. Smile you’re on camera. If you do not know–
Jessica: We’re not stealing anything.
ALEX: If you do not know how to speak in a smoke shop, do not speak at all, thank you. All products in the store are intended for tobacco use, and tobacco use only.
ALEX: I just feel like — this is where I really feel my most uncool is around drug stuff.
JESSICA: Okay dude. Okay. A, you’ve been inside of a smoke shop. It's chill. Come on, like, like they’re just putting that up because they're scared of people stealing.
ALEX: No, they're also scared of people talking about weed weird.
JESSICA: Okay, well we're not gonna talk about weed.
ALEX: Okay, fine.
PJ: So in your mind, you guys were going to walk into the store. You were going to talk about weed weird. (ALEX laughs) So you'd be like, “Oh, I love to blunt a spliff” and then they'd be like, “this guy's a cop” and they'd shoot you?
ALEX: I just felt like, I am incredibly culturally ignorant.
PJ: You thought you were going to offend the weed community.
PJ: (laughs) They’re the most chill people.
ALEX: And then they were going to shoot me. (laughs)
EMPLOYEE: How’re you doing?
ALEX: Good. How’re you?
EMPLOYEE: Alright, what’s going on?
ALEX: Uh, not much. Um, we actually have kind of a weird question for you.
EMPLOYEE: I'm sorry?
ALEX: We–I said we actually have kind of a weird question for you.
EMPLOYEE: Are we–are you recording?
JESSICA: Uh, yes.
EMPLOYEE: I don't like that.
ALEX: Okay. We can turn it off.
JESSICA: We can turn it off, yeah.
ALEX: He asked us to turn it off.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: But then he was very nice.
ALEX: And he told us that he recognized John.
ALEX: Yeah. He was like, “Yeah, he comes in here about once a month.”
PJ: But does he have like a phone number for him or something?
ALEX: He didn't, but he was like—
PJ: I guess why would he?
ALEX: He was like, “Leave your card and if he shows up well, I'll let them know.”
JESSICA: And he was like, “I feel like you guys can probably find him.”
JESSICA: So for the third stop, we decided to go to the video library. We both really wanted to go there because when we were looking through John's reviews, we saw this photo and it was this flyer to like, save the video library.
PJ: What is a video library?
ALEX: The video library is the last video store in Santa Fe.
PJ: Oh cool.
EMPLOYEE: Hey, how are you?
ALEX: Good. How are you?
ALEX: When you walk in it's like pretty claustrophobic.
JESSICA: Man, this place is cool.
ALEX: I know.
ALEX: It's like narrow, with like wooden shelves everywhere, that are like floor to ceiling DVDs arranged in a way that is totally nonsensical to any normal person. It requires a lot of browsing.
PJ: That’s awesome.
ALEX: And like, they don’t have a computer system. The entire store’s catalogue is on index cards. It’s just like this weird anachronism.
ALEX: They’re so old school that their, that their music system is literally just a boombox with a bunch of CDs piled up next to it. That’s pretty–there’s a good vibe in this place.
ALEX: So we go in there and the people who work there, we show them his picture.
ALEX: This guy right here? His name is John.
EMPLOYEE: Oh yeah. John's awesome.
EMPLOYEE 2: You do? I don’t recognize him.
EMPLOYEE: I don't remember his last name, but he comes in — he was in here last week. He's fantastic.
JESSICA: Oh my God. Really?
EMPLOYEE: Yeah, he was in here just a few days ago. And I wish I could remember —
ALEX: Is there any way to figure it out?
EMPLOYEE: Um, yeah, you guys are real close.
EMPLOYEE: He's around. He's a great, great guy and he’s always–he's super knowledgeable on film too.
JESSICA: The two employees that were working there, they were like, “We've worked here for like maybe like six months or less.”
JESSICA: And–but some people that have worked here have worked here for years and years and years and those are the people that know everyone's names. Because they were like trying to find John's name, but they were like, “Listen, like we don't have a computer system. It’s all paper logs, so.”
PJ: And these guys aren't the guys who know the regulars.
PJ: Because they’re too new.
JESSICA: Right. So they're like, “So why don't we text our coworkers and get back to you?”
ALEX: So they reach out to a coworker, we go across the street, we go get a drink at this bar. About two hours later, Jessica gets a text that says, “Come on back, we found him.”
ALEX: His name is John Reid. He was perfectly happy to talk with us. And so we made a plan to meet the next day.
JESSICA: Okay. I'm going to turn this a little bit.
ALEX: Here we go.
ALEX: The next morning, it’s 10am, we head down to the lobby of a hotel we’re staying at.
JESSICA: Okay. Oh, there he is.
ALEX: Hey, John?
JOHN: It may be, Alex and Jessica.
ALEX: It is.
JOHN: Well, good morning!
JESSICA: Good morning.
JOHN: Nice to meet you.
ALEX: He's tall and skinny. He's got like a big beard. He looks exactly like he did in the photo. And–
PJ: Did you at all have a moment where you just felt like, like you've basically been treating him like he’s JD Salinger or something, like he’s some reclusive novelist and you’ve come to ask him all these questions about his work. Did you worry at all that he was not going to feel that way like he was just going to be like, “why are you asking me about my Google reviews?”
ALEX: I mean, we did come from New York City to Santa fe to ask him about this stuff, I was worried he’d be like, this is a little weird. But when we sat down, he like reached into his pocket and like pulled out a sheet of notes. And I was like, oh, this guy is like taking this as seriously as I am. He is prepared. Like, he has been waiting to be interviewed.
JOHN: I actually, after we spoke last night, I jotted down a couple of notes.
ALEX: Oh, wow. You did.
JOHN: But maybe a good way to start would be to ask you how you found me and my reviews.
ALEX: Well, a couple months ago we got an email from a listener that said I was Google searching this place called SavMor Leather. And he looked at the photo, and—
JOHN: Yes, there’s an unidentified flying object flying over that store. (laughs) I thought I was the only one who saw it.
ALEX: :And we started getting interested in who John R.E Was.
JOHN: Well, John R.E is a pseudonym. It's a kind of an acronym of my real name...
ALEX: John told me the whole origin story of John Reed and John RE. Turns out he's actually isn't from Santa Fe at all …
He moved there in 2001. It was not a place he expected to end up. And if you hear him talk about the city, it's almost like his reviewer tendencies kicked in, like the moment that he set foot in the place.
JOHN: Before I even landed at the Sunport International Airport, which is a misnomer.
ALEX: Why is it a misnomer?
JOHN: It doesn’t have international flights.
ALEX: Oh really?
JOHN: I was told, people come to Santa Fe because they are looking for something. Or they found it here. So I was already, before I even touched ground, I already wondered about this town.
ALEX: What was your first impression of Sante Fe?
JOHN: God, what a small town. It’s great they have a Trader Joe’s there. Are you familiar with Trader Joe’s?
ALEX: (laughing) That was your first impression? It’s great they had a Trader Joe’s?
ALEX: I mean, look–
JOHN: I couldn’t believe I was in Santa Fe. I said, “What the hell am I doing here?”
JOHN: There's nothing here. So what do people find? In the desert?
ALEX: You know, I–there’s a weird disconnect that I feel.
ALEX: It feels like it doesn’t exactly square with the incredible dedication you have to reviewing, because reviewing feels like it’s the act of a person who loves a place, and wants to support a place. I’m wondering how you square those two.
JOHN: Um, wow, Alex, that’s very perceptive of you. Because it’s my secret, and you’ve just kicked a rock.
ALEX: John always thought that he would end up somewhere bigger like someplace that felt like the center of everything because honestly, that's what he was used to. He grew up in Los Angeles, his dad worked in the TV and movie business and sometimes he would let John tag along to film sets with him.
JOHN: My father was an art director for Hollywood. And so I ran around Desilu. They were shooting Mission Impossible.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Your mission, should you decide to accept it, would be to remove...
JOHN: Star Trek.
STAR TREK: Captain’s log. Star date 15, 13, point one.
ALEX: And John’s mom was a classically trained ballerina who became a background dancer.
JOHN: My mother’s all over, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke. Every time they cut to Glenn Ford, there’s my mother. Spinning, doing the waltz around him.
JOHN: I was surrounded, living in the valley, I’m a valley boy, by entertainers, and celebrities. My best friend, his dad was Paul Frees, the man of a thousand voices.
PAUL FREES: Strange and frightening sounds echo through the hall...
JOHN: My next door neighbor George Lydecker. His father Ted Lydecker and his brother.
JOHN: Did every special effect for the John Wayne films.
ALEX: John is like surrounded by important people. He’s bright, he’s opinionated and he really wants to make a name for himself.
And as a young man, he searches everywhere for his own spotlight...like first he tries theater — then he thinks "maybe i can be a radio personality?" — and he goes back and forth across the country chasing jobs, again and again, and nothing works out how he planned.
And when he is 49, a friend of his calls him with like a pretty unglamorous job offer, which is a sales manager position at a radio station in Santa Fe.
ALEX: Were you excited at all about moving there? Or was it just like, "Well, it's a job"?
JOHN: Yes. I was excited about the change and the challenge. And I was good at what I did. This radio station was sold, like so many stations. So that job shifted and I slowly segued from media into semi-retirement.
ALEX: Tell me about the moment you decided, where you're like, "I guess I'm retired." What happened?
JOHN: (laughs) It was forced. It was a forced retirement. I couldn't get work. I’m uh, I’m uh, I was in a town that had limited resources and assets. If I was maybe at your age I might pick up again and move to another town. I had done that all my life. I’m done.
JOHN: I felt I was at the end of my life.
ALEX: John described this period as hitting rock bottom. He said that he was like drinking all the time. He was just hanging out in bars, not sleeping, eating terribly. And he just felt like he was trapped in Santa Fe. Like it was a dead end. He had no prospects not future.
But at the same time, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico established a tax credit for people who wanted to film movies and TV there. So while he is in this despondent phase, all around them, they’re starting to shoot all these of these movies and TV.
PJ: Like breaking bad?
ALEX: Yes like, Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul, of course. The Avengers. No Country for Old Men, .
PJ: Right, like everything that’s a Western, basically they start shooting in New Mexico.
ALEX: And then one day he sees an ad for extras in the newspaper - and he gets cast.
JOHN: I was a nuclear scientist in Manhattan. I was a silver miner in the movie Magnificent Seven. I was a veteran of the Civil War. And then I’ve done Better Call Saul, The Space Between Us.
ALEX: The reason he told us he had a beard actually is because he often plays cowboys. Because he’s sort of in the dusty—
PJ: Cowboy John R.E.
ALEX: Yeah and there’s this other big thing that happens for John. It’s the thing that eventually lands me and Jessica on his doorstep…which is this little spark of joy that gets after he writes a Yelp Review.
ALEX: Yeah. He was,
PJ: Yelp made someone happy one time in life?
ALEX: And then in 2013 he discovers Google Maps Reviews and it just really does it for him.
JOHN: The old journalistic craving did creep up and I enjoyed the wordplay of writing these short reviews.
ALEX: And his first reviews are pretty like, he does one of Costco, he does one of a glasses store and they're pretty like one-line reviews. But at this point, Google Maps has a point system.
PJ: Uh-huh. How does it work?
ALEX: Where if you're a viewer and you take photos, you can get points. If you answer customer questions, you can get points. If you write reviews, you can get points. And at the–at first most of what he does is take pictures, rather than review stuff because he's like — it's an easy way to get points. I like getting points.
ALEX: It's a totally arbitrary incentive system that seems to really sort of tickle a part of his brain.
PJ: I want to pretend to find that weird, but like I completely understand.
ALEX: Oh I totally understand it too.
JOHN: I am a local guide level eight. You start at one. And these are the badges, Master reviewer, I've earned. Master photographer, expert trailblazer, expert director — that's for my videos — and novice fact-finder. They'll ask you questions. And then they have a report card.
I am probably the local guide for Santa Fe that has the most points.
ALEX: He, right now, he has about 47,000 points. He’s a level 8, level ten, which is the highest level you can achieve, is 100,000 points.
PJ: He’s halfway to maxing out the system.
ALEX: And (clears throat).
PJ: At that point, like, when you're like level eight, do they start to like—does like Sergei Bryn send you a Christmas card or something?
ALEX: They occasionally give you like a newspaper subscription.
PJ: Google does?
ALEX: Yeah. If you're like a consistent reviewer and, and John was like—
PJ: He's gotten some of those perks.
ALEX: John was like, “Yeah, I've got a New York Times subscription.”
PJ: But so he started doing this to get like a sense of purpose and, and as he's like scaling up the like Google Scientology Thetan chart, is he feeling good?
ALEX: Did it feel good seeing all views of your reviews?
JOHN: Oh yes. Absolutely. My count was 115 million views. That has gravity to it. So now I approach the Google Maps from a little more professional rather than informal point of view.
ALEX: At this point it’s like he has an audience and he just starts performing for them.
Like, that review I read you where he’s sad and he goes to the bar and the bartender’s kind to him.
ALEX: He told me that—he told us that he did that in the style of Raymond Chandler. Like the film noir—
PJ: It–it's cool. It's like he's finding his voice. He's like experimenting with like different kinds of like formalism. He's enjoying himself. He's like found a form. That's really cool.
ALEX: And it was in this period where he was being creative in which he started doing the thing that caused us to stumble across him.
PJ: The UFO photos.
ALEX: I do want to go back and ask a bit about the UFOs.
JOHN: (laughs) Okay.
ALEX: Um, where did they come from?
JOHN: Where do UFOs come from? Are you serious?
ALEX & JOHN: (laugh)
ALEX: I think you know what I mean. Where did the–where did the UFOs in the photos come from?
JOHN: Thank you for noticing, Alex. After I did a couple and I didn't get thrown off the platform, I thought, okay, I can play around more. And I have—it's as simple as a filter on a photo app. That's where the UFO came from.
ALEX: And why did you choose to do it? What was the impetus for doing it?
JOHN: To get attention.
ALEX: It worked.
JOHN: It did. And I hope somebody would see that and kind of liken Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and wonder if that was — caught on film, right?
ALEX: So, that’s John R.E.. He does about 5 reviews a week. In fact, it's like a family affair now. He met a guy in Santa Fe a while back, they fell in love. And now John and his partner and his partner’s daughter all go out and review stuff together.
JOHN: And I’ll ask them, “Okay, how was the meal? You know, one or five stars?” And they’ll wait until I take a picture of their plate before they eat. So (laughs) I, so I have them well trained.
ALEX: We actually ended up tagging along with John as he did his 525th review.
JOHN: And what is your most popular burger?
SERVER: Absolutely the green chili cheese burger.
ALEX: At a place called Sante Fe Bite.
JOHN: They don't have a beer or liquor license here. The customer count is good. It’s what going on 1:30, so we're almost out—well, it's two o'clock. We're definitely out of the lunch hour.
ALEX: This place is still packed.
JOHN: It is still packed. And like I said, you can see it's a pretty old bunch of–group of people.
JOHN: Now the service was perfect, the presentation was clean, the order was correct, the value is debatable…
ALEX: John gave it 3 out of 5 stars. He says the burger’s a little bland.
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[CREDITS MUSIC FADES IN]
Reply All is hosted by me, Alex Goldman, and PJ Vogt. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Rachel Cohn. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Music in this episode by BMC and Bobby Lord.
Special thanks this week to Jesse Williamson, Mike Armijio, Eliza Lutz, Melissa Adair, Chauncey Gadek, and Mike Smith.
Matt Lieber is a 5 star review.
You can listen on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening, we’ll see you after Thanksgiving.