Alex has been a longtime contributor to This American Life, and his radio stories, like his writing, are deeply reported, character-driven pieces. He most recently worked on This American Life’s two-part series Harper High which was awarded the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Gold Award for Best Documentary as well as a Columbia-duPont Journalism Award.
This is a story about how one family is made and then remade. It begins in 1993. Mike Checuga was 24 years old and single, making fistfuls of money selling real estate. Mike was working such long hours – and thinking only about making money – that one day his boss tells him, demands, really, that he take a day off each week and volunteer somewhere, maybe at the orphanage Mike knew about through his church. So he did. That’s where he met Victor, a 9-year-old boy who was drawn to Mike – and Mike to him.
Milton Reed was a home decorator, of sorts. He painted murals in people’s apartments in the Robert Taylor homes. Around the neighborhood Reed was known simply as “the artist”. As in “Hey artist, how much you charge for a mural?” Reed charged between 50 and 200 dollars. Reed was a kind of a Diego Rivera of the projects, painting the imaginings and realities of the dispossessed, of the men and women who lived in what was America’s poorest neighborhood.
Today, Fanny Clonch is a high school teacher living in Chicago. But for a period of her childhood, after being orphaned in Morocco, she was trapped in households where she was nothing more than a commodity. The story of her grandmother, who as a child had been sold into slavery and eventually escaped, inspired Fanny to find a way out.
Love has a way of inserting itself in all the wrong places. Sometimes it can even shake your faith. It was 1967 and Father Bob McClory was the associate pastor at the St. Sabina Parish on Chicago’s South Side. These were tumultuous times for the parish. Blacks were moving in; whites were moving out. Father McClory oversaw St. Sabina’s School and he learned that the school had been assigned a new principal, a 35 year-old Dominican nun: Sister Margaret McCalmish. Father McClory was incensed. What would a nun from rural Wisconsin know about running an urban school? Turns out she did, and what followed changed everything.
Dan Lebo helps run the family business, Chicago Pawners, in a hardscrabble neighborhood on this city’s West Side. And he occupies an unusual place in peoples’ lives, all over the exchange of money. Lebo often thinks people have the wrong idea about his customers. They’re people with nowhere else to turn.
What happens when you’re unwilling to let go of a lifestyle you’re no longer able to afford? Bill Thompson grew up in a well-to-do family. He was accustomed to having money or always getting everything he wanted. As an adult, Thompson became a commodities trader, and with his family bought a home on Chicago’s North Shore. But at the age of 35 he lost his job. Eventually bills couldn’t be paid. The bank was threatening to foreclose on his house, and it created tensions at home. Then things started unraveling, and Thompson, well, tried to make ends meet.
Rob Paral grew up in Cicero, Illinois, a working class Chicago suburb best known for its single-minded efforts to keep African Americans out, as intense and as forceful as anything seen in the Jim Crow South. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to Cicero as “ the Selma of the North.” Paral spent his teenage years scheming how he could run from a father who, for Paral, came to represent all that was provincial and misguided about his hometown. He did run. But eventually Paral had to come home – and it was only then that he really came to know his dad.
Janice Powell met and married Nate, the love of her life, in 1972. And he was just perfect, except when he drank. Alcohol transformed him. From a gentle soul who would bring Janice roses, to an angry, sometimes raging man. But love can have a way of working itself out. A few years into their marriage, Nate was arrested for robbing a utility company, and was sent to prison for eight years. As it turns out, Nate’s eight years in prison were precious to Janice.
When, in 1991, a tenant’s group at the Henry Horner Homes hired Don Kimball, Kimball figured it was just another job. Kimball was a forensics engineer; he inspects and repairs faulty construction. Which is why the Horner residents needed him. The residents were filing a lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority over conditions in the complex and they needed Kimball to put together a report. So Kimball, a nattily dressed, silver-haired Bedrock republican, ventured into the Henry Horner Homes. What he saw there changed him forever.