Every This American Life ever.

Ira Glass: Now picture the scene: you’re standing at an ATM, ok, and there’s a bunch of people queuing behind you. You’ve just left a midnight screening of Emoji Macbeth, and, tired, you’ve slipped your platinum card into the ATM’s slot and then … (PAUSE) … nothing. You forget the PIN. Your mind is as blank as a rectangle of slate. Your social security number, your waist measurement, your therapist’s home number, all these digits you remember. But your PIN? It’s gone. Escaped. Lost.

Ella Lake: I mean like I entered four numbers that might have been my PIN but all that happened was this message appeared on the ATM screen saying that my PIN had been entered incorrectly. It was terrible, really.

Ira Glass: This is Ella Lake. And, last Saturday night, standing at an ATM, she forgot her PIN.

Ella Lake: So there was a queue behind me. Getting bigger. You could hear them clearing their throats and turning their heels in the ground. Which didn’t help.

Ira Glass: You must have felt …

Ella Lake: Anxious. I felt anxious. I knew I knew the number. I’d taken out ten dollars earlier in the day. To buy soy milk. But now, how was I going to pay for my late night avocado chicken salad if I didn’t have any cash?

Ira Glass: So what happened?

Ella Lake: I just kept punching numbers until the ATM swallowed my card. Three chances it gave me. Three. And the guy behind put his hands on my shoulders and kind of edged me away from the ATM so I was stood facing the wall.

Ira Glass: No …

Ella Lake: Yes. The next morning, I had to ring the bank and get them to mail me both a new PIN and a new card.

Ira Glass: That must have sucked.

Ella Lake: It did. (Sighing) It made me realise how much I depend on numbers. How we all do. You know, even here in Brooklyn, where you think you’re free of the tyranny of numbers …

Ira Glass: The tyranny of memory.

Ella Lake: Right. But, I guess, wherever you live … you’ve still got to remember stuff.

Ira Glass: Today on our program, memory and the importance of remembering stuff. We have a story from John Duke about the time his mother forgot to pick him up from soccer practice. And the day our producer left her cell phone at home.

From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. Remember to stay with us.


Ira Glass: Act One, Selective Memory. So our show today is about forgetting stuff. And of course, there are times we all forget stuff. And in this act, I am not talking about forgetting to turn off the lights in your loft apartment or forgetting to renew your postal subscription to the artisanal cheese delivery scheme. I am talking about parents — specifically, parents forgetting to collect their son from soccer practice. John Duke tells the story.

John Duke: My childhood wasn’t a bad childhood. Ma and the Prof, my father insisted the whole family call him that, met at Berkley and, stoned, moved to New York State in the late seventies to establish one of the country’s first organic pear orchards. My brother, Sinclair -

Sinclair Duke: Living in the house, modelled after Blenheim Palace in England, surrounded by the pears, we lived a kind of regular childhood. We did kid stuff. You and me, we were sent to a regular private school and Ma made sure she got the occasional review published in The New York Review of Books to show the family there was more to life than growing pears. There were books. There was pear juice.

John Duke: Plenty of pear juice.


John Duke: Let’s talk about school. Do you remember the kind of activities run outside of class?

Sinclair Duke: Outside of the curriculum?

John Duke: Yeah.

Sinclair Duke: Sure. There were all sorts. Polo. A marching band, I think. Dr Stevens and his tuba. Was there performance poetry or am I imagining that?

John Duke: I think there was.

Sinclair Duke: You did that dramatic monologue from the perspective of a dog trapped in Pompeii.


John Duke: What else did we get up to after class had finished? We had so much energy as kids.

Sinclair Duke: Let me see. Life drawing. That was popular.

John Duke: Do you remember any sports?


Sinclair Duke: Sure. Tennis in the summer. I think there was basketball. Soccer.


Coach Cassidy: Every night I had a different grade out on the field. The principal insisted. Skills. Mind you, private school kids sucked at all sports, never mind soccer. Table tennis. The school had a reasonable table tennis team. How old were you? At the time?

John Duke: Thirteen.

Coach Cassidy: Right. That would have been a Tuesday night. We always ran eighth grade on a Tuesday night.


John Duke: It was a Tuesday night. Tuesday, September 4th, 1998. I remember Coach Cassidy’s drill precisely. I consider the detail when I’m lying awake, late at night, waiting for my partner to return from storytelling events. There were cones. Coach Cassidy had us dribble around these cones. Over and over.

Sinclair Duke: I remember the cones.

John Duke: At what point did you realise that Mom and the Prof had forgotten about us?

Sinclair Duke: Mom was due to pick us up at five. I think it was at twenty past …

John Duke: … five?

Sinclair Duke: Right. It was at twenty past five that we began to get antsy. You had one of those Casio watches that could turn off TVs. I kept asking you what the time was.

John Duke: And do you remember what we did at twenty past five?

Sinclair Duke: Sure. We went into school. To the office. We asked Mrs Aberdeen to ring home.

John Duke: Mrs Aberdeen had huge, beehive hair. Students called her ‘the beehive’. And she rang home. And Mom answered.

Mrs Aberdeen: It’s a long time ago. I’m not sure I remember exactly. You know, the detail.

John Duke: Do you remember anything?

Mrs Aberdeen: I remember you and your brother were dressed in soccer gear. Cute. I remember you had one of those watches that could turn off TVs. You were always so proud of that watch.

John Duke: And you rang our home. You spoke to our mother? Do you remember what she sounded like?

Mrs Aberdeen: I did. She answered straight off, I think. Phone didn’t even ring. She was always so polite. And she apologised for not being there to pick you two up. There had been a phone conversation with The New Yorker…

John Duke: The New York Review of Books …

Mrs Aberdeen: OK, a New York journal of some description …

John Duke: It was The New York Review of Books.

Mrs Aberdeen: You know best. Anyway, because of this phone conversation she was having with an editor or whoever, because of this conversation, she’d forgotten to come collect you.

John Duke: And do you remember what happened next?

Mrs Aberdeen: Well, I think she drove up in her Range Rover to get you and your brother. To school.

Sinclair Duke: It was a regular Range Rover, that Range Rover. Plenty space in the trunk. There was always a single pear rolling about in the footwell.

John Duke: And, driving back to the pear farm, our pear farm, my mom sang along to Neil Young as if nothing had happened, I looked to my brother and he looked different. He looked older. He looked wiser. I knew, unlike my mother, this moment, the day she forgot to pick me up from soccer practice, I could never forget.

Ira Glass: John Dukes — he’s a contributor to AV Club and Hello Giggles. His debut novel, Much A Tweet About Nothing, is out this fall. And, since recording that piece, I’m sad to say that John Duke has passed away. Coming up, A Day without a Cell Phone. That’s in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

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