Transcript

766: Well Someone Had to Do SOMETHING!

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Sean Cole

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole sitting in for Ira Glass. This is not a story about bicycle theft. It's a story about a counterintuitive impulse exhibited by the human species in which a lot of bicycles happen to get stolen.

The first bike belonged to a physical therapist named Carrie Helminger. This was in Seattle back in 2015. She rode her bike to work like always, locked it up securely like always. And when she came down to get it at the end of the day, it was gone. She felt about this how you might imagine.

Carrie Helminger

Mad, you know? Like, why do you want my bike? And now, how am I going to get home? And it's late. And I'm tired and just frustrated, and pissed, and all that.

Sean Cole

The cops were remarkably responsive, came right away. They were also deeply pessimistic. Said all the usual things-- you're not likely to get it back. We get reports like this all the time. There's really nothing we can do, unless something happens. Carrie wasn't sure what that meant, until something did happen. She was at work the next day, tending to her physical therapy patients, only checking her phone now and then between appointments.

Carrie Helminger

And I remember seeing this text from a number that I didn't know that just said something like, I may have found your bike. And I'm like, what? What do I do with that, you know? I don't know who you are. Is this a joke? Is this a scam? That was the thing that kept crossing my mind a lot, is, like, is this some weird scam?

Sean Cole

Were you trying to mathematically figure in your head how the scam might have worked, if it was a scam?

Carrie Helminger

I mean, I don't know how they would know it was me. So this is the thing that I kept trying to figure out. Like, would they steal my bike, and then know it's me, and then ask me for money? And then they'd make money on it. And they'd give me my bike back, and they've got $100 more or something?

Sean Cole

Which Carrie says that would have been fine with her. It's better than having no bike. Anyway, she didn't know how to respond. Put the phone down, examined more hips and shoulders and knees, came back to another text.

Carrie Helminger

That said, was your bike stolen? I think I may have found it on Craigslist. And so I'm like, OK. So this is the same guy. More questions. And so I'm like, yes, it was stolen. Who are you? And then I think at that point, he probably responded and said, I was looking for a bike for my wife.

Dirk deGroot

I was looking for a bike for my wife, and this ad came up on Craigslist-- real questionable.

Sean Cole

This is the guy who was texting. Dirk deGroot, works in marine construction, big cyclist himself. By questionable, he means the ad was poorly written and listed the bike for way less than it should have cost.

Dirk deGroot

A couple of blurry pictures taken at night. And you're thinking, who the hell takes pictures at night? So I did some googling, and I found Bike Index.

Sean Cole

It's a site where people can register their bikes and report them stolen, as Carrie had done.

Carrie Helminger

He said, I saw that you posted it on Bike Index. And so I'm like, ah, this is starting to sound a little bit more legit. But I still have no idea who he is.

I think we spoke probably around my lunch break. And he told me that he was maybe going to go get the bike. And I was like, what? And he was like, yeah. I remember him saying at one point, yeah, I'm kind of jazzed about this. I'm getting a little adrenaline high from this.

And part of me is like, great, that solves that problem, if he wants to do that. But are you nuts? Why do you want to do that? And be careful. That would be the scariest thing for me. There's no way I would ever do that.

Sean Cole

Dirk did do it, arranged to meet the guy selling the bike. Except when he got to the appointed spot, unexpectedly, it was three guys, two more than him. He gives the bike a once over, careful to check out the serial number, which he'd gotten from Carrie. And sure enough, it's hers.

Dirk deGroot

At this point, I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, oh, fuck. Shit. [LAUGHS] OK, I've got this piece of paper in my hand with the serial number, and I'm looking at these three guys. And I'm holding an allen key, and I'm like, oh, God.

Sean Cole

So he takes out his phone, kind of subtly dials 911, and the call won't go through. No signal.

Dirk deGroot

So I lied, and I was like, yeah, well, that was the cops, guys. They're on their way.

Sean Cole

And as if there were ever any doubt as to the provenance of the bike, one of the guys, at the very mention of the police, just takes off running.

Dirk deGroot

So he scoots off. And there's two guys, and they're both sitting there, a little agitated. They don't know if I'm lying. And Seattle's pretty steep, so I'm thinking, maybe I could Sparta kick one of these guys down the hill.

Sean Cole

Sparta kick.

Dirk deGroot

I was like, I don't know what I'm going to do with the other one. I'm tall, but I've had my ass kicked so many times. My friends will tell you, I'm not a very good fighter.

Sean Cole

And then, after several long moments with the three of them just kind of staring at each other, as though bidding farewell to a couple of drinking buddies for the evening, Dirk says--

Dirk deGroot

Well, guys, we're in kind of a stalemate. I'm just going to take it. Threw the bike in the back of my truck.

Carrie Helminger

And then calls. It's your bike. I have it. Where should I meet you? And I'm like, what? I just was so excited.

He pulls up, then he pulls my bike out. And I'm, that's my bike. And he's like, here you go. (LAUGHS) It's like, can I pay you? What do you want? He's like, no, you don't need to pay me. It's fine.

I mean, it just was really crazy to me that the night before, I'm heartbroken. My bike is stolen. And the next night, I can ride my bike home already. It just felt weird.

Sean Cole

Which brings me to what the story is about-- the fact that Dirk's actions, while seeming to come totally natural to him, made no sense from the outside, even to the person who directly benefited from those actions. Carrie's brain could not stop trying to make sense of it, even as she rode away that night.

Carrie Helminger

You just did this huge, amazing thing for me that was incredibly kind, and I'm still very cautious of who you are. I don't know. Maybe that speaks more of me and the cautious nature, or I don't know [INAUDIBLE].

Sean Cole

Or it speaks to how just unusual it is.

Carrie Helminger

Yes. Would somebody really do this? Would they go steal my bike back for me, and then bring it to me? Why would somebody do this? Why--

Sean Cole

There's got to be a catch somewhere.

Carrie Helminger

There's got to be a catch, right? Yeah.

Sean Cole

But there wasn't. Dirk just does stuff like this-- like if he's driving, and he sees a cyclist with a flat tire.

Dirk deGroot

I'm the idiot that stops on the side of the road. I'm like, do you need any help? And the guy's like, fuck off. No, weirdo. OK, well, let me know.

Sean Cole

He likes helping people. He can still picture how happy Carrie looked when he dropped the bike off.

Dirk deGroot

She was just fucking, I mean, stoked-- absolutely elated. And seeing all this emotion on her face-- I'm not a very emotional guy, but I mean, I felt just a deep sense of accomplishment. And it felt just so good. That was a very specific feeling, you know?

It's the same feeling I now get when I come home from being gone for work for a week, and my son jumps down the stairs to hug me. It's like, oh, wow, this is great, you know? I love this so much.

Sean Cole

It sounds like you're describing appreciation.

Dirk deGroot

Yeah. Yeah, I guess that-- hmm. That very well could be, you know? Just feeling appreciated might have been the trigger.

Sean Cole

The trigger to make you want to keep doing it?

Dirk deGroot

Yeah. Yeah, the trigger to make me want to keep doing that.

Sean Cole

And he did keep doing it. Before too long, he recovered a bike for a guy from Colorado, who had just moved to town. Like Carrie, the guy was very grateful to have his bike back. Then there was the college student who bought Dirk a six-pack of IPA after he rescued her bike for her. Dirk doesn't really drink beer, though. The systems administrator who mailed him an envelope of cash, which wasn't even the nicest part of it for Dirk.

Dirk deGroot

I had his thank you card on my wall for my office for a long time.

Sean Cole

His methods were pretty consistent-- always started with obsessively scrolling sites like Craigslist and OfferUp to see what bikes were for sale, and then cross-referencing those against the stolen bikes on Bike Index. Then he'd message the person selling the stolen bike and say he's interested in buying it. Sometimes, he'd give the cops a heads up and have them waiting nearby to swoop in at just the right moment. Other times, he just confidently and with an almost eerie calm say something like--

Dirk deGroot

Hey, I'm not accusing you of stealing this bike, I just know it's stolen. You may have stolen it-- don't care. And they would typically scoot off.

Sean Cole

It took him 10 recoveries before he really felt like he knew what he was doing. After the 20th one, a Seattle police detective who specialized in property crime gave Dirk his direct line, told him to always call and arrange for backup ahead of time.

That sting, the 20th one, was significant in a lot of ways, actually. It wasn't just a bike theft, it was a home invasion. The thieves grabbed everything they could get their hands on. Dirk essentially cracked that case. One of the officers on duty that night looked at Dirk and asked him the perennial question.

Dirk deGroot

Like, why in the hell are you doing this? I was like, ah, it just feels really good to help these people. And he's like, oh, that's so interesting. You're like Robinhood. He goes, no, Robinhood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. I guess you're like Batman. And that was it. I mean, that was it. And they're like, oh, Bike Batman. I mean, it was sticky enough that it stuck.

Reporter 1

In fact, people are calling him Seattle's Bike Batman.

Reporter 2

Bike Repo Batman on roll against thieves.

Reporter 3

They call him the Bike Batman here--

Man

I'm Batman.

Reporter 3

The Bike Batman here in Seattle. And I think Brian Hansen--

Sean Cole

The Seattle Times broke the story, followed by local TV and radio outlets, other newspapers and magazines. In all of the accounts, Dirk stayed anonymous. He only decided to unmask himself for this story, because he's not doing it anymore. He says he just hasn't had time for anything since his kids came along. But the newsworthiness of it was that someone would go so very far out of his way to retrieve property that wasn't his for people he didn't know. It was like the whole world had the same reaction as Carrie Helminger, the first person Dirk helped, who was mentioned in one of the magazine pieces.

Carrie Helminger

I had to laugh because in the article, he writes, I think she thought I was a weirdo. And I'm like, uh-huh. Yup. Definitely, I thought you were a weirdo.

Sean Cole

Of course, the whole thing seems a lot less weird if you're Dirk deGroot. From his perspective, he figured out how to solve this problem. And once he figured it out, he couldn't not solve it, because no one else was doing it. He was like, somebody's got to do it.

Dirk deGroot

I kind of knew what to do. And it was hard for people to-- people just didn't know. Do you know what to do if you find your bike stolen on Craigslist?

Sean Cole

I actually can't think of a better way to spend your time on this planet than to identify something that's vexing someone else, or a lot of someone else's, and to put yourself into that gap between them and the solution. So today on our show, we're going to tell you about some remarkable people who do that, and why they do it, and how it goes, or doesn't go, for them. Stay with us.

Act One: Cold Call to Action

Sean Cole

There's this image that's really stuck with a lot of us here at the show. You might have seen it. It's a photo of strollers, baby strollers, at a train station in Poland. In short, these Polish moms, anticipating a problem that Ukrainian refugee mothers might have when they cross the border clutching their little kids, started leaving strollers for them at different points of entry. In the photo, they're all lined up on the train platform-- some fancy, some not, some new, some with worn tires. Each one, a Polish family thinking about what could possibly be helpful when everything else is falling apart and providing it.

Another problem that war has yielded, you've probably heard, is the lack of access in Russia to real accurate information about what's going on, the brutality of the war. Essentially, the Russian propaganda bubble tamping down on public opposition, which is what Act One of today's show is about. And it's about someone on a personal mission to solve that problem. We're calling this act, "Cold Call to Action." It's from producer Alix Spiegel.

Alix Spiegel

Paulius Senuta spent the first 13 years of his life in the USSR, so he knows how complicated it can be to live in a world with limited information. This was Lithuania in the '80s. And what Paulius remembers about living in that world is the distrust and the haziness. You had your suspicions, a creeping sense that there was something off about the news you were hearing, but there was no way to know for sure. And no one around you knew either.

So after Putin invaded Ukraine, Paulius reached out to friends in Russia to talk about the war. These were educated people, well-read people. But the Russian version of what was happening made his blood run cold. The story they'd heard was that Russia was just trying to help with the genocide.

Paulius Senuta

There was genocide of Russian people going on all the time, and so we need to take out the government. If we will not do that, they are going to go on killing Russian people in there. So we have this neat, tiny operation, military operation, going on there. We're just taking out the government.

Alix Spiegel

In the world Russians knew, there were no pregnant mothers dying on gurneys, no leveled cities, no dead civilians at all.

Paulius Senuta

Some of them tell me stories about Russians bringing in food and clothing for Ukrainians.

Alix Spiegel

It was a whole parallel universe of information, constructed and policed by Putin. Paulius believes the foundations of that universe are more fragile than they look, that if the Russian people could really see, know what was happening in their name, Putin's Potemkin village might crumble. Someone needed to do something, so Russians could understand the real horror of the war they were fighting.

And then one day, Paulius was sitting in a meeting, and his phone began to buzz. It was a friend calling to say that he had an idea about how they might solve this "Russians don't know about the war" problem.

Paulius Senuta

Says, you know, Paulius, what's funny about Russia? I say, I don't know. There's nothing funny about Russia to me. And he says, they got their phone numbers public. So you just go online, and you can get a hold of those numbers, so we can call them.

Alix Spiegel

As they talked, the two began to piece together a plan. What if they built a website where you pushed a button and got the name and telephone number of someone somewhere in Russia? Russian speakers from outside Putin's sealed universe could call in, tell Russian people, one by one, person to person, all about what was going on.

Paulius works in advertising. He spent his life trying to convince people to do something they do not currently feel a need to do. So he knew that hearing an authentic human voice making a passionate case can be a very powerful way to alter someone's behavior.

Paulis Senota

Human authenticity has a lot of power in itself. Just the way it is. Hearing it from a person who's genuine is much more persuasive than reading it on the BBC News. It's much more likely to get through.

Alix Spiegel

Still, Paulius wasn't sure that this was a good idea. So many Russian speakers outside the country were really angry. He worried he'd just be creating a tool for people to shout at each other. Paulius himself was struggling with his feelings about the Russian people.

Alix Spiegel

Do you see them as victims, or do you see them as complicit?

Paulius Senuta

Oh, it's so difficult to distinguish those two things. It's so difficult to distinguish those two things. I'm trying to put all the sympathy I have into this. Is it coming from the fact that I think that's going to create a bridge, and I'm cynical? Or do I truly have sympathy?

Alix Spiegel

Paulius didn't have a clear answer. What he knew was that the scheme had at least the potential to help shift the tide, so he put his doubts aside and decided to go forward.

Paulius Senuta

Look, Paulius, you can come up with all problems you want. You can make up problems that don't exist. But if you don't do anything, nothing will happen.

Alix Spiegel

Paulius says that he and his colleagues worked around the clock for five days until the website, Call Russia, went live about a week and a half into the war. The landing page featured a large yellow button, which randomly generated Russian telephone numbers.

And the site was an immediate hit. Paulius says they logged 32,000 calls in the first two days. Still, it wasn't until late on launch day that Paulius himself was able to sit down and try out this idea. He pressed the yellow button, then called the number that appeared on his screen. The phone was answered by a man.

Paulius Senuta

I told him who I am, and he started shouting at me immediately. And I said, I don't wish anything wrong. I'm just an ordinary person trying to connect to people in Russia.

And I said, do you know what is happening there? And he shouted at me. I remember that very vividly. He shouted at me. They are killing us there, and we're trying to save them. And he said-- he cursed at me and he hang up the phone. So that was my first conversation.

Alix Spiegel

A few calls later, Paulius heard the voice of a woman.

Paulius Senuta

What I find on calls, most of women will talk humanly to me. But that lady, she was-- so that lady yelled at me, like, I don't know, probably seven minutes. And she was saying, do you know who I am? I'm saying, of course, I don't. I don't have a clue. I don't know which city I'm calling. Could you tell me, please? And she was-- I'm the daughter of Putin.

Alix Spiegel

(GASPS)

Paulis Senota

And now, I'm inviting my father to take care of you. Now I know she's not-- well, I guess she's not the daughter of Putin, OK? It can't be that coincidence, right? It can't.

But she started, like, playing her joke around. She's like, Daddy! There's a Lithuanian who wants to find about the war. And I was saying, madame, why are you doing that? I truly and genuinely want to talk with you about what is happening in Ukraine. Can you tell me what you know about it? And she was like, Daddy!

Alix Spiegel

Paulius says that many of the calls have been like those-- unreceptive, hostile. But then, every once in a while, there's a different kind of call, like the man who answered the phone and, at first, seemed quite friendly.

Paulius Senuta

Soft-spoken, polite. And I would just introduce myself. I told what I'm doing and what I want to talk about. And he kept going with me, nicely. But at the moment he understood what it is about, he shut up. But I could feel he is there.

Alix Spiegel

So Paulius went forward, told the man about the war. All the terrors that Paulius had seen on TV poured out of him.

Paulius Senuta

So he didn't speak. I was saying those things for probably four or five minutes. He wasn't talking a word. And when I finished, interestingly, he said goodbye. It touched me. He felt he needed to say goodbye, which is such a polite thing to do, so.

Alix Spiegel

And you heard in his silence what?

Paulius Senuta

You hear a person breathing, but most probably something that you hear very clearly is fear. So I was shocked that fear has a sound. I can't tell you what's the sound of fear, but you can hear that.

Operator

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

Busy.

Alix Spiegel

The day we spoke, I watched Paulius make a bunch of calls to strangers in different parts of Russia. What struck me was the tedium. It felt like very bizarre geopolitical telemarketing.

Operator

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

Wrong number.

Alix Spiegel

There were a lot of dead-ends.

Operator

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

Voicemail.

Alix Spiegel

But every once in a while, Paulius got through.

Man

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Man

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Man

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Paulius Senuta

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

So he hang up the phone. He says he knows everything. OK, so that wasn't a good call.

Alix Spiegel

Paulius makes calls like these several times a week. He spends hours on the phone. Sometimes, he gets people like a quiet man, listeners who connect. But mostly, Paulius says, people are screaming. And oddly, he thinks that those calls are the best.

Paulius Senuta

To me, screaming people are actually the ones that we need to talk to.

Alix Spiegel

What do you mean?

Paulius Senuta

Because these are the supporters of what is going on. And you know, it's pleasing and nice for me to have that nice conversation with the other person that I had with several people. It's so nice to have that conversation with those people, but the goal is not about having a nice conversation, right? It's about some of the people that are persuaded that they're doing a good thing in Ukraine to understand that they're not doing a good thing in Ukraine.

Alix Spiegel

Paulius is realistic about what this approach will accomplish. He says about 75% of the Russian population supports Putin, and those people aren't going to suddenly take to the streets. But he figures he might nudge them a little so that, when they see their neighbors protesting, instead of reaching out to the police to let them know, they might pause, ask themselves if that's really the best thing to do. That's why even when someone is yelling, Paulius tries to persevere.

Alix Spiegel

Emotionally, how hard is it for you to withstand the screaming?

Paulius Senuta

Oh, it's super hard. No, it is very hard. It is-- oh, my gosh. I don't know how to-- I mean, you really travel somewhere. You're in a different world.

Alix Spiegel

Do you ever feel like it's not worth it, and you can't do it more?

Paulius Senuta

[EMOTIONAL] No. No, I-- they-- there's people who are going, fighting in Ukraine. There's people who's dying here. People are killed daily. There's like 10 people killed today in the bread line, standing in the bread line. [CRYING] How we cannot do a fucking call?

Alix Spiegel

Yeah.

Paulius told me he'd never know for sure whether anything he was doing made even a whit of difference. But even if these calls were a drop of water for a forest fire, Paulius still thought it was important to try.

Paulius Senuta

Most of the things people are doing, most probably will have very little or no impact at all. The other day, I was doing flowers together, paper flowers together with Ukrainian children. Does doing flowers with Ukrainian children will stop the war in Russia-- in Ukraine? Sorry. Most probably not. But that sense of people coming together and explicitly trying to do something, even if that's futile, it makes us, all of us, stronger.

Alix Spiegel

Paulius says, since the website launched, they've been tracking the countries where people were calling from. He told me that, at first, calls were mostly from where he was-- Lithuania. But soon, he and his colleagues noticed it was spreading, the idea hopping from one country to the next, until they saw that Russian speakers from all over the world were reaching out to the people inside Putin's bubble. They'd seen the same problem Paulius did, and they were all trying their best to solve it with him.

Sean Cole

Alix Spiegel is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: Zoo Unto Others

Sean Cole

Act Two, "Zoo Unto Others." On the first day of the war, there were 30 visitors to the zoo in Kyiv, Ukraine. On the ninth day of the war, there were none, no paying visitors. That was the day Washington Post reporter, Siobhan O'Grady, and a couple of her colleagues went there to meet the zookeepers.

Siobhan had been wondering about the people in Ukraine who are still working while the country had been under siege. Not just military, but everyday workers-- pharmacists, grocery store employees. It's the same thought a lot of us have had about essential workers during the pandemic, except, in this case, there were literally bombs going off around them. She wanted to know what it was like to do their jobs now under what are probably the most extreme circumstances possible.

They went to the zoo in the afternoon for a few rushed hours before curfew. Siobhan said it was eerie-- the giant colorful giraffe statue at the entrance, after they had just passed through several checkpoints to get there. The winding paths were virtually empty.

The zookeepers were keeping the animals inside, partly because of the cold, and also because the animals could be killed if they came out for some exercise at the wrong moment. The zoo is right near a military facility that might be targeted by Russian forces, and they were worried about errant missiles. In total, about 50 staffers out of the usual 375 had stayed behind to look after the animals. I ask Siobhan what was behind their decision to stick it out.

Siobhan O'Grady

The ones I spoke to didn't make it sound like a decision. It wasn't an option. The staff members really felt a responsibility to stay, and that that would be the way that they would spend the war.

Sean Cole

Because there is no one else, right?

Siobhan O'Grady

Right.

Sean Cole

If they left, what do you think would happen? Would there be anybody that would leap over the zoo wall to--

Siobhan O'Grady

No, the animals would die.

Sean Cole

4,000 animals going to be locked away in their pens and enclosures, slowly starving to death, if dehydration didn't get them first. And not just anyone can do this job. It takes special skill and knowledge of the different animals' dietary needs. Some of the animals need to live at different temperatures than others. It's a hefty enough task during peacetime. And of course, lots of aspects of the job are different in a war zone.

Siobhan O'Grady

First of all, the zookeepers are mainly living at the zoo, which they normally would not be doing. The staff moved some of their families in. The head of the zoo, Kyrylo Trantin, moved his elderly mother into the zoo with him in order to care for her and the animals.

Sean Cole

Is it that they can't live at home? Or they just thought it was safer at the zoo?

Siobhan O'Grady

It's both. So in some cases, maybe they live in a part of town that could eventually be cut off or made very difficult to get between the zoo and home, in which case they would be separated from each other. And it's also that some of them live in neighborhoods that have already been targeted by strikes.

Sean Cole

Are they sleeping with the animals?

Siobhan O'Grady

So every night, a staff member has been sleeping with the elephant, Horace, the elephant, to comfort him, because elephants are really sensitive, in general. They also have enormous ears and really good hearing. So the booms and the sirens have been especially upsetting to him, to the point that he's been put on sedatives.

And at night, he was apparently waking up, walking around, exhibiting signs of extreme stress. And they were so worried about him that one of the staff members has volunteered to just stay in there with him. And so when he gets stressed at night, they speak to him in a kind of calming voice. They feed him his favorite snacks of apples and things like that and just kind of talk him down after any booms, until he can go back to sleep.

Sean Cole

Some of the staffers and their families occasionally sleep in an aquarium that's still under construction-- also underground, bunker-like. Siobhan told me you could see where, one day, hopefully, there'll be glass and fish. But right now, there are all kinds of cots with pillows and sleeping bags on them. Siobhan imagined how nice and cool it would be to hang out down there during the summer months, if and when they can finish building it.

Zookeeper 1

Wait, wait. Slow, slow.

Sean Cole

During their tour of the zoo, the zookeepers handed Siobhan an apple and showed her how to feed Horace, the elephant with sleep trouble.

Zookeeper 1

Welcome to Kyiv zoo.

Siobhan O'Grady

Hi.

They visited Toni the Gorilla, who's also been agitated, not because of the explosions necessarily. He's had no interaction with guests and apparently misses it a lot. Got visibly excited when his handler finally showed up. Also spat out his lunch all over one of Siobhan's colleagues for some reason.

Zookeeper 2

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

Sean Cole

In the administration building, one of the animal handlers was feeding a brand new baby lemur, this incredibly small, soft, delicate thing, especially compared to the chaos it was born into. They named him Bayraktar, which is a kind of Turkish drone that the Ukrainians are deploying against the Russians. They're thinking of naming his sibling, Javelin.

Siobhan asked the zookeepers which of the animals were the least concerned about all of the explosions and sirens. The crocodiles, they said, and the alligator. All they care about is eating.

But as interesting as she found the animals, it was really the people she was there to learn about. One of the zookeepers who interested her most was Ivan Rybchenko, who still commutes to the zoo from home on his bike.

Siobhan O'Grady

And I was interested when I saw him, because he was feeding a banana to a giraffe. And the air raid sirens had just gone off. We could hear booms in the background. And both he and the giraffes just didn't react at all. They just continued with the feeding.

And he was just being really gentle and sweet with the giraffe. And we were all kind of looking around, like, should we take cover? Do you think it's OK? And they were like, you kow, we're just going to keep eating this banana.

Sean Cole

Hmm.

Siobhan O'Grady

So I asked him, why are you still here? He's a young man of fighting age. He's 33. Most guys his age have probably volunteered for the forces, or doing something more directly related to the war effort. But he didn't see it that way at all. I mean, he said that his responsibility is the giraffes, the deer, and the horses at the zoo. And his job is a public service, and that's his contribution to the fight.

Sean Cole

To the war effort.

Zookeeper 2

Yeah.

Sean Cole

He really saw it that way.

Zookeeper 2

He did.

Sean Cole

Which is something Siobhan has seen a lot of, she says. The people who've chosen to stay and continue doing their jobs amid the fighting, all of them see what they're doing as their role in the defending of Ukraine. After all, along with staving off the day-to-day attacks, they also need to preserve any pockets of normalcy they can, the things they had before the invasion. And that will mean still having a zoo when the war ends one day.

You can reach Siobhan's article for the Washington Post about the Kyiv zoo at washingtonpost.com.

Coming up, being a voice for the voiceless in possibly the most macabre and yet literal meaning of that phrase. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: One Last Thing After I Go

Sean Cole

It's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole, in for Ira Glass. Today's program-- Well, Someone Had To Do Something-- stories about someone's stepping up, taking it upon themselves to tackle some problem, large or small, for the greater good, or just for a discrete few, because who else is going to? We've reached Act Three of our show. Act Three, "One Last Thing After I Go."

All the people tackling problems in the show up to this point identified themselves what needed to be done. In this next story, the person jumping into the fray never even conceived of the thing that he was ultimately asked to do by somebody else. Producer Aviva DeKornfeld explains.

Aviva DeKornfeld

This all started a few years back as a joke in strange circumstances, yes, but definitely, it was not meant to be taken seriously.

Bill Edgar

Yeah, it was a joke, absolute joke. And I mean that literally.

Aviva DeKornfeld

This is Bill Edgar, a private investigator in Queensland, Australia. And around the time of the joke, Bill had been looking into some financial matters for a client named Graham.

Bill Edgar

At the time, I didn't know he was terminally ill. It was not until a couple of months in that I was investigating and Graham told me he was terminally ill, and he hadn't got long to go. And then I got to know Graham quite well. And it was one of those things that you start to talk about death, the afterlife, what's going to happen, who's around. And it became apparent that he really had a job he just wanted done.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Graham told Bill he had something he wanted said at his funeral, stuff he wanted to be sure everyone would hear. He thought about making a video of himself giving his own eulogy, but worried his family wouldn't play it. This thing he had to say, it wasn't very funeral appropriate. So as a joke, Bill offered to crash his funeral and say whatever it was Graham wanted said.

Bill Edgar

I could see him-- his mind was ticking over.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Really?

Bill Edgar

You could just see it.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Like you could see him sort of register?

Bill Edgar

Oh, yeah. Yeah, he had this thing about him where you could just see it. And I thought to myself, oh, did I just plant the seed? Or did the penny drop? Did something just happen then?

Aviva DeKornfeld

A couple of weeks later, Bill got a text from Graham basically saying, let's do it. Once I'm dead, you go to my funeral, and I'll prepare a thing for you to say.

Bill Edgar

I was in a cafe when I received the text. So I remember I was about to leave the cafe, but I ended up ordering another coffee and sitting there, going, how the fuck am I going to do this?

Aviva DeKornfeld

Bill agreed to do it, and Graham explained the situation. After he'd gotten sick and become bedridden, his best friend, John, had started hitting on his wife, trying to sleep with her. Graham had even seen it happen a few times. His wife told John to knock it off, but he wouldn't stop. And Graham was too sick to really engage or do anything about it, but it made him really mad.

So this is what Graham wanted Bill to do-- go to his funeral, and when his best friend stood up to deliver his eulogy, Bill was to interrupt him and call him out for what he'd done. Graham eventually died, and Bill, a total stranger to the family, went to his funeral, armed with Graham's message written on a piece of paper. Bill was nervous. The service started.

Bill Edgar

It was a blur to start with. I mean, I was sweating, profusely. And I've got to say, it was-- you've got your time on your phone. And I'm looking at the clock, and I'm thinking, OK, his mate's about to do the eulogy. And I knew I had to get up within one minute, two minutes at most, to interrupt the eulogy.

And his best mate stands up, and he starts blubbering and telling everybody how much he loves his best mate and starts talking about a certain particular time that they shared. And it was that moment, I looked at my clock, and I went, oh, it's nearly two minutes in.

And in that church, there were long pews. And they were timber. So when you stood up or you even moved, they made a sound. And yeah, when I stood up, it made a sound. And obviously, everyone just looked straight at you, you know? I froze, to say honestly. I stood up, and I just stood there and went, OK.

Sean Cole

Bill started reading what Graham had written out for him.

Bill Edgar

My name's Bill Edgar, and I'm here on behalf of the deceased, who has a message for you all. John, it's Graham here. I've hired Bill to interrupt your eulogy to tell you that I witnessed you on several occasions trying to screw my wife. God love her, she rejected every one of your advances. But that doesn't change the fact--

Aviva DeKornfeld

The best friend, John, speed walked out of the church. Bill heard some people whispering, telling him to sit down. But Bill had a job to do. There was more to read.

Bill Edgar

If my brother, his wife, and their daughter are here, you can kindly fuck off, too. I haven't seen you in 30 years, and now you show up to pay your respects. Where were you when I was alive and could have used you around in the hard times?

Aviva DeKornfeld

The brother, along with his wife and their daughter, quickly left the church, as well.

Bill Edgar

You could hear a lot of whispering within the mourners, you know? And some mourners are sitting there, going, oh, fuck you. I don't know why she was here anyway, you know? And I'd be like, oh, cool. At least, they're on my side, you know?

Aviva DeKornfeld

As quickly as it started, it ended. Bill folded up the paper, put it on top of the coffin, and walked outside to his car. His shirt was soaked through with nervous sweat. He was worried angry relatives might come after him. But at the same time, he was pretty clear on how he felt about the whole thing.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Did you like doing it?

Bill Edgar

Fuck, yeah. [LAUGHS] Absolutely.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Really?

Bill Edgar

I thought it was brilliant. You know what I loved most? Walking out. I thought that was just-- like, Graham had the mic drop, which is something that not many people get to do, you know? I had the ultimate experience of just walking away from it all and not even knowing what happens in the aftermath.

So I'm just walking out, and I'm going to my car. And I only just made it to the car when a young girl came running up to me and said that-- her exact words were, Bill? Bill? Dad would have loved that. Thank you, so much. Mom's very grateful, which was really cool, you know? And she had another friend with her.

Aviva DeKornfeld

And not too much later, that friend reached out to Bill.

Bill Edgar

And she said, here, my auntie needs to see you, and she needs to see you now. Here's my number. Please give me a call as soon as you can.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Oh, wow.

Bill Edgar

Yeah. Prior to the funeral, I thought, oh, this is just going to be a one-off thing, and I'm just going to walk away, and-- but it wasn't.

Aviva DeKornfeld

The aunty, Christine, she was dying of leukemia. And she was secretly in love with her best friend, Carol. Bill did her funeral, and then another, and another.

Enough people started reaching out to Bill that he figured he should really pick a name for himself, make this all a bit more official. So he decided on the Coffin Confessor. Bill's done a bunch of confessions at this point. People pay him to do it, and he likes the work. It suits him.

Bill is a man who is constitutionally opposed to artifice. As a private investigator, he sees how messy people's lives really are, so he hates all the pomp and rituals candy coating most funerals. It feels phony. He thinks it's better when people tell the truth, whatever that truth may be.

People say funerals are for the living. Bill thinks that's all wrong. Why shouldn't the dead get a say in how they leave this world? It's their funeral.

People hire Bill to confess all kinds of things. Sometimes, it's nice stuff. They just want to tell their family they love them one last time. One time, a client asked Bill to interrupt his funeral to apologize to his ex-wife and tell her how much she meant to him. That one went well. Other times, it's something petty. Someone wants to literally get the last word.

One guy, an atheist, hired Bill to interrupt his funeral, which he knew his parents would turn into a religious affair against his wishes, to say, this is not what I wanted. That one did not go over so well.

And occasionally, he's asked to reveal something darker, like with this one recent client, who hired Bill to confess that he'd been having an affair with a neighbor for the past two years, the effect of which would be, this guy's wife would learn at his funeral, in front of everyone, that he'd been cheating on her. In cases like that, Bill encourages the person to maybe say that themselves before they die.

Bill Edgar

Obviously, when I sit with him and I say to him, does your wife know? No. Are you going to tell her? Well, no, but I'll leave that to you. I mean, obviously, I'll say to him, yeah, it'd probably be nice coming from you.

Aviva DeKornfeld

So you'll say that?

Bill Edgar

And he'll say-- oh, yeah, absolutely.

Aviva DeKornfeld

And how does that usually go over?

Bill Edgar

No, it never goes over. It's just basically, this is what I've written. This is what you're going to do. Do it.

Aviva DeKornfeld

Because it's easier to have you do it.

Bill Edgar

Absolutely.

Aviva DeKornfeld

In all the funerals Bill's crashed, there's one that sticks with him. This biker guy reached out to Bill, said he had cancer and that he was interested in hiring him. So Bill drove to the biker's home to meet him. He was this huge, muscley guy covered with tattoos.

Bill Edgar

Well, actually, when he first saw me he said, you? He said, you're the Coffin Confessor? I said, yeah, mate. You got a problem? And he says, no, not yet. And I said, OK.

So I walk up to the balcony. I sit with him. And he goes, well, you crash funerals, so I want you to crash mine. Mine will be a burial. It's in the lawn cemetery. He said, and I want you to out that I'm gay. And I said, yeah, right, as a joke? And he says, why? Did I say it as a joke? And I said, OK. I said, so you're gay? And he goes, well, I'm bisexual. And I said, OK, cool.

Aviva DeKornfeld

A few months later, the biker dies. As planned, Bill heads to the funeral and waits for his moment to jump in. He stands up midway through the ceremony and reads a letter he was given.

Bill Edgar

Hi, dickheads. I'm dead, and you're all still here. Make sure you enjoy what time you have left. Death is a fucking scary adventure. I embraced it-- had to, really. I don't have much of a choice now, do I?

Now that I'm gone, I've got something to tell you all. As some of you have known deep down, or suspected, I was bisexual. I was in love with a man, and that man stands amongst you right now. I know you're all looking around trying to figure out who he is. You're not going to ever know, unless he tells you. But I want you to know I loved him with everything I had.

No, it's not David, who, right now, is probably standing up at the back, laughing and looking around. You can all stop looking at David. To those who cared for me, I love you guys. To those that didn't, I'll see you in hell. It's time for me to visit past family and friends. So live well, ride safe, and be true to yourself. That's something I wasn't, but wish I was.

Aviva DeKornfeld

It's so easy to not say the thing you want to say, to go for years, even a lifetime, not finding the right words or the right moment. Sometimes the right moment is the last one, one final thing to shout over your shoulder into the party, as you're walking out the door.

Sean Cole

Aviva DeKornfeld is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: A Funny Thing Happened When We Were Already AT the Theater

Sean Cole

Act Four, "A Funny Thing Happened When We Were Already at the Theater." This last story is a counterexample of sorts where you'd be forgiven for thinking, did somebody have to do something? Or anyway, that's what a lot of people thought in this case. Chana Joffe-Walt has the story.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Here's what happened. A group of people went to a movie theater near Los Angeles to see The Lost City. It was a 7:00 PM showing, but the projector was broken, so everyone in the audience was stuck waiting-- 10 minutes, 20. And then a woman from the audience walked down to the front of the theater in front of everyone and started doing standup.

Tiffany King

So I am a single mom. Are there any single moms in the house?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Any single moms in the house, she says. There's short clips of this online. She's in a beige dress, long, straight hair, waving her arms all over the place, trying to project her voice to the back of the theater. The act is chaotic and hard to follow. She's pretty all over the place.

Tiffany King

I believe in Buddha. Jesus was never married.

Chana Joffe-Walt

She does voices.

Tiffany King

He-he-he-he-he!

Chana Joffe-Walt

She chants.

Tiffany King

Anybody here chant? [CHANTS]

Chana Joffe-Walt

And she sings.

Tiffany King

(SINGING) [INAUDIBLE]

Chana Joffe-Walt

These are people who showed up to see Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum roam around in the jungle. Instead, they got this.

Tiffany King

[SINGING OPERA]

Chana Joffe-Walt

There are tweets from audience members who are not happy about that switch. One of them says, a woman has decided to try her standup out on us. It's not good. Another one says, I want to crawl out of my skin and die. In one of the videos posted online, you can hear someone in the audience actually interrupt her act to yell, put us out of our misery!

Audience

Can you put us out of our misery, please?

Tiffany King

Put us out of our misery? Aw.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The woman's response-- this is what got me-- she says--

Tiffany King

Do you want to come down here and try to entertain people?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you want to come down here and try to entertain people, as if entertaining everyone in this theater was a job someone obviously had to do.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So walk me through the thinking of nominating yourself to be the one to do that.

Tiffany King

I'm just very outspoken. Like, I have no problem talking to people. I don't get nervous in front of crowds. So I just felt like nobody else was going to, so I might as well try to communicate with everyone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The woman's name is Tiffany King. She's 42 years old, Latina, lives in Los Angeles. She has one eight-year-old daughter. She does many things-- waitresses, sings. She does college online and sometimes does standup.

And the way Tiffany King ended up performing unsolicited comedy that night-- there's the story on the internet, and then there's her story, which is different. Tiffany says she took her daughter to the movies that night.

Tiffany King

So we got there, and the movie wasn't starting. And I was getting only annoyed. I was getting annoyed because my daughter had school the next day, and I'm like, OK, when is this movie going to start?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Everyone was just sitting around, Tiffany says, waiting. So she turns to her daughter and says, wouldn't it be funny if I go introduce the movie, like I'm with the theater? Do it, her daughter says.

So Tiffany gets up in front of everyone. Hello, welcome to the theater. We're so glad to have you. The show will be starting shortly. And then she says, just kidding. I'm a comedian. But I do hope you all have good night, and she sits down. But then they're still waiting, and waiting, and nobody's doing anything.

So Tiffany gets up again, decides, I'm going to go find out what's going on. She goes down to the lobby. A guy tells her the projector's broken. They're working on it. She told them, we're sweating like crazy in there. The guy says they'd work on the AC. Then, Tiffany says, she went back to the theater and walked up front just to tell everyone what was going on. She said the projector's broken. They're working on it. They know we're hot in here. They'll try to get the AC back.

Tiffany King

And then there was a Latino couple in the front. And the guy goes, oh, hey, if you're a comedian, can you tell us some jokes? And I was like, sure. And I don't even remember hesitating, because I like to help. [LAUGHS] And it makes me happy to make people happy, so I was like, OK.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And what did it feel like when you started telling jokes?

Tiffany King

Honestly, I was just pulling random clean jokes. I was just trying to string together some clean jokes that would not be inappropriate for my daughter.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So she went with a truly random collection of jokes. And from Tiffany's perspective, it was going fine. People were laughing, clapping.

Tiffany King

And everything was going-- everything felt great, until the girl heckled me. And she was like, please, no. Put us out of our misery.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was only the next day that Tiffany learned some of her audience had not appreciated being subjected to an unwanted comedy show. But for me, knowing that Tiffany started as a person who was trying to deliver information about the movie, doesn't that change things? She was the one person trying to get answers to a problem that a whole room full of people shared. She was trying to pass on information, and it turned into this.

Tiffany King

[SINGING OPERA]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Because this is who Tiffany is.

Tiffany King

[SINGING OPERA]

[APPLAUSE]

Chana Joffe-Walt

Here's what I was thinking when Tiffany recounted this experience to me. I was thinking about when I was at the airport, and I was instructed to stand in a line for a desk that had no person at it. I stood there anyway. A long line of other people stood there anyway, too, quietly, except for one woman, who could not bear it, who was actively, loudly shouting to everyone and no one walking by that we needed help.

I kept looking down like, I'm not with her. But I was also glad for her, because ultimately, she got someone to help us, to tell us that we actually needed to go to a different desk, where there was a person where the printer was working. And the yelling woman, she led the way. We all followed her.

My point is, the person who takes it upon themselves to do something, they don't always do it in the way you would. They're not perfect, but neither are we, waiting in line for the desk with no person, or for the movie that's not starting.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When you're sitting in a theater full of people who are not doing anything, is it as mystifying to you that people wouldn't want to do something as it is to someone like me that you would want to do something?

Tiffany King

When all this happened, I flashed back in my mind to a moment in high school when-- I think it was science class that we had to go into another room, talk to another class. And I think I sang opera for some reason, because I've had vibrato from early age. And my grandmother was a mariachi singer. And I remember this young guy being like-- or this kid my age-- being like, damn, Tiffany, you got some balls.

So I don't think that the people that do anything that there's anything wrong with them, I just think that we all have a different purpose in life. And I feel that I have a purpose, which is to entertain and to lead people sometimes in certain situations. We need people-- we need go-getters. We need people that are going to solve problems, right? I was just trying to solve the problem and be helpful in the moment.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I asked, did she consider that this was a situation where maybe no one needed help? Nobody needed to do anything. Tiffany said, no, the thought never crossed her mind, which I think is probably an important part of being a person who rushes to be helpful, a person who acts. You can't ask yourself that question.

Sean Cole

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "IF YOU GOT A PROBLEM" BY JOY OLADOKUN]

Credits

Sean Cole

Today's program was produced by Lilly Sullivan and edited by Ben Calhoun. The people who put our show together include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Zoe Chase, Dana Chivvis, Michael Comite, Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Aviva DeKornfeld, Chana Joffe-Walt, Tobin Low, Michele Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Will Peischel, Alix Spiegel, Laura Starcheski, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Senior editor, David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Whitney Shefte, Kostyantin Khudov, Lesia Prokopenko, Christopher Solomon, Bryan Hance, Kate Swoger, Ali deGroot, Maggie Stapleton, Eric Dean Wilson, Sam Schiller, Joe Kremer, Melissa San Miguel, and Stacey King.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, of course, to my boss, Ira Glass.

When I started working here, I was nervous. And I said to him. I was like, what do you prefer? Should I call you Mr. Glass? Should I call you Ira, you know? And he's like, no, no, no, no. You can call me--

Paulius Senuta

Daddy!

Sean Cole

I'm Sean Cole. Ira will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "IF YOU GOT A PROBLEM" BY JOY OLADOKUN]