BONUS: Who Do You Let In?
ALIX SPIEGEL (HOST): A friend of mine who likes science once told me this thing that's always stayed with me even though I'm not even sure that it's true. She told me that even when you feel like you are physically touching someone, you're not. There's always a space between you - an atom of distance or something like that. And that is what today's story is about - the problems of connecting and the need to connect. It's from one of the producers of INVISIBILIA, Abby Wendle.
JOHN PRINE (MUSICAL ARTIST): Hello, hello.
ABBY WENDLE (BYLINE): Hello.
WENDLE: Who do we let into our lives?
WENDLE: And who do we keep at a distance?
Can you hear me? Do I sound like I'm coming out of a log?
PRINE: (Laughter) I can hear you good now.
And how do we decide? Like, how do we draw the line between being careful so we don't let in somebody we don't want and being open so we don't drown from the loneliness of life? It's a question that's been bothering me a lot lately.
PRINE: Where do you draw the line between being careful and being open?
WENDLE: I'm trying to figure it out. That's why I called you up to ask.
(LAUGHTER) WENDLE: This is John Prine, the musician. He's older, 72, the age when hair decides to redistribute itself. Some of the hair on his head has migrated to his eyebrows. They're wide and bushy, framing solid steady eyes. He's had cancer and heart problems. But back when he was young, he wrote a song called "Hello In There." It's about loneliness, specifically old people growing lonesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IN THERE") PRINE: (Singing) So if you're out walking down the street sometime and spot some hollow ancient eyes, well, please don't just pass them by and stare as if you didn't care. Say hello in there. Hello.
WENDLE: He got the idea for it from a Beatles tune - not the tune so much, actually, as the reverb on John Lennon's voice. It sounded, to John Prine, like John Lennon was hollering through a hollow log.
PRINE: I started thinking about hollering through a hollow log. I would go, hello in there; hello; anybody in there? You know, it just kind of tripped into old people.
WENDLE: When John was a kid, he helped a friend deliver newspapers to a nursing home. And sometimes, the residents would invite him inside their rooms.
PRINE: When you'd visit these people, some of them would act like you were their grandson or nephew. I just kind of went along with it because from what I copped from it was nobody came to visit them.
WENDLE: Their loneliness unsettled him. So John wrote this song, asking people to be conscious of loneliness in the world. When you spot some hollow ancient eyes, please don't just pass them by.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IN THERE") PRINE: (Singing) You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say hello in there. Hello.
WENDLE: Of course, sometimes it's really clear that you should say hello to someone. When I first met my boyfriend, Ryan, I saw a photo on his fridge of his grandma and him sitting together on the couch. His arm is draped around her shoulder, and there's a big smile on his face like she just said something ridiculous. At the time of the photo, she had dementia. And if you look closer, she seems a little lost like she doesn't get the joke. When "Hello In There" plays, that photo comes to mind. Ry sitting with her, not walking on by. That's the kind of person he is - the not-walk-on-by kind. But about two years ago, Ryan took a job in international development. And he moved to the other side of the Earth.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PRINE SONG, "ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY") WENDLE: The summer before he left, we drove my parents' electric blue PT Cruiser convertible through the Midwest. And John Prine was our soundtrack. I remember singing along together to "Angel From Montgomery" somewhere in the middle of Missouri.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY") PRINE: (Singing) Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.
WENDLE: Ryan left a few weeks after that - left me alone in my Washington, D.C., walk-up with the cats. We hold onto each other as best we can across continents through long silences, but it's a strange kind of holding because there's so much empty space in between. We piece together conversations through text mostly, sometimes videos and these lopsided voice message monologues.
RYAN (BOYFRIEND OF ABBY WENDLE): Hey. So sorry I didn't - I wasn't more communicative the other night after we had that weird exchange. I was just really busy, but...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
RYAN: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
WENDLE: I don't hold his leaving against him - not at all. I want to be with someone like that - someone who has a great, big self and dreams of their own. It's part of why I love him, but it does get hard. Three months, six months, a year and a half dealing with my loneliness, the interruptions, the silences.
RYAN: So sorry - little kids yelling at me - anyway, yeah.
WENDLE: A little more than a year after Ryan left, John Prine came to town.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PRINE SONG, "I LIVE INSIDE MY HEAD") WENDLE: On the night of the show, I dressed up in red lipstick and walked to Constitution Hall. I found a seat with a good view in an empty row on the balcony. I was surprised by how fancy John Prine was dressed - a navy-blue suit, polished cowboy boots. He's mostly thought of as a folk musician, but this style was classic old-time country. And his band was so in tune. I was enchanted, lost in my head, crooning with the top down on a back-road two-lane highway - free and easy Abby, a version of myself I hadn't seen in a while.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIVE INSIDE MY HEAD") PRINE: (Singing) I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed. I get my mail in Tennessee.
WENDLE: And that's when I was approached. Two men sat down a few seats away. One had salt-and-pepper hair - the other, a shock of white. They were decades older than me, probably in their 60s or early 70s. After they sat, I heard the guy with white hair say he wanted to sit closer to me. And he did. He got up and moved one seat away. And then he stared. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his eyes big and unblinking. I pretended not to notice. I paid $80 to see John Prine and wanted to commune with him and, through his music, with Ryan. So I kept my eyes fixed on the stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIVE INSIDE MY HEAD") PRINE: (Singing) That's all the news we have today.
WENDLE: But the man kept at it. You're a big fan? - I heard him ask. I gave a thin-lipped smile and nodded. How long have you been listening to John Prine? Another polite smile - long time. Minimal engagement, I thought, that'll make him leave me alone. But he didn't. He kept talking, asking where I first heard John Prine and how many shows I'd been to and on and on. So the next time, he went to go buy a beer, I stood up and moved away, went down into an empty box seat in front of us and refocused my attention on the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIVE INSIDE MY HEAD") PRINE: (Singing) I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed. I get my mail...
WENDLE: But then again, the unblinking eyes were beside me - a head of white hair, leaning into my space. The man had followed me. He gave me a square of paper with his name and phone number on it, and then he asked for mine. I figured the fastest way to get rid of him was to just write something on the paper and then never answer his call. I started my number 3-4-7, and then I began questioning. Was this older man making a sexual advance at me? What exactly did he want here?
Just a few days before, an older man at my office had been asked to resign for making women uncomfortable on the job. And the list of men being outed for making unwanted advances was all over the news - the issue of the moment. So I began to feel a question rising in me. If this man was hitting on me, and I didn't shut him down, was I part of the problem, letting him think it's okay to invade women's space when we don't want it? Shouldn't I act in some way? I looked down at the paper in my hand, and then I wrote the last digit wrong. It was a sheepish F-U, but I felt good. And then...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IN THERE") PRINE: (Singing) Hello in there. Hello.
WENDLE: ...That John Prine song "Hello In There" popped into my mind and that line - spot some hollow ancient eyes; please don't just pass them by. I remember looking at this man, whose name was John Hyland (ph) but who goes by Doc, and doubting myself. I knew some women would write him off as a creep - maybe even most women. But for some reason in that moment, I felt conflicted and confused. Maybe I had this whole thing wrong. Maybe those eyes weren't leering at me. Maybe actually they were just old and lonesome, like in the song. And my feeble F-U, at the same time it gave me a rush of pleasure, a jolt of righteousness. I was also watching myself have those feelings and questioning them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) WENDLE: I didn't know what I thought the right thing to do was. I didn't even know what I wanted. So I gave him the wrong number. But underneath I wrote down my real email address.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) WENDLE: Over the next few days, I found myself thinking a lot about my interaction with Doc, my own behavior. There was something about how a evasive and dismissive I'd been that felt wrong. Then an email appeared. It was from Doc. It was only a few short lines, nothing profound, but something about it tugged at me. Like, despite knowing the reasonable thing to do would just be to let it go, I felt a need to move towards it, to try to actually figure out who this man was - whether I should have given him the wrong number or if giving him my real email address was a good thing to do. Maybe if I could figure that out, I'd have more clarity about the broader question. Who do you let in and who do you keep out?
OK, here goes nothing.
So one day during a down period at work, I picked up the phone and called him from the office and asked if I could record.
JOHN HYLAND (JOHN PRINE FAN): Hi, Abby.
WENDLE: Are you there?
HYLAND: Yes, I'm here.
WENDLE: OK, great.
SPIEGEL: We'll find out what happens next after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) WENDLE: We chatted for an hour before I was able to muster the courage to ask the question I had called to ask. Was he, like John Prine wrote in his song, an old person grown lonesome, waiting for someone to say, hello in there? Or, you know, had he been hitting on me?
Are you 65? Is that how old you are?
HYLAND: No, 63.
WENDLE: So you're 63. And you come upon a woman sitting alone at a concert. And you thought that I couldn't have been past 30.
HYLAND: Yeah, yeah, yeah...
WENDLE: So, I mean, were you hitting on me or not?
HYLAND: Well, of course, I was hitting on you a little bit.
All of a sudden, I felt myself angry - angry at how difficult it is to open yourself in a world where things you don't want feel free to walk in the door.
Well, but why did you do it? I mean, like, did you just forget about the fact that you're 63? Like, in what - like, how does your - how - is it just not something that you think about?
HYLAND: I don't know.
WENDLE: I mean, if - how old are your nieces?
HYLAND: My niece - she's your age. She's got four children.
WENDLE: I mean, would you want to date your niece? How do you think your sister would feel about you dating your niece?
HYLAND: Why are you recording this?
WENDLE: Well, I mean, what I'm trying to understand, I guess, is, like, did I seem receptive to having a conversation with you, or did you feel like I seemed receptive in terms of, like, I wanted you to hit on me?
HYLAND: Do we have to clarify on that? I don't know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) WENDLE: To Doc, who had been going to John Prine concerts for over 45 years, reaching out to another fan was part of the culture, like the folk version of The Grateful Dead. You attend shows to be in a community of your own. You talk to people.
HYLAND: You never seemed irritated once.
WENDLE: Well, I'm...
HYLAND: That's why - you were so happy.
HYLAND: And a lot of times at concerts...
HYLAND: ...Once two people or three people or four people - you know what I mean? They're enjoying the music together. There's a certain unification. There's a certain camaraderie. It's almost like a brotherhood...
HYLAND: ...You know, in rock 'n' roll and folk music and all that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) WENDLE: I don't remember exactly when, but at some point in this conversation, I started thinking this whole quest, the fake number, the real email, the grilling about some false dichotomy where Doc was either hitting on me, and I could teach him a lesson or old and lonely as if I could make his day by reaching out - it was all-caps ridiculous. And I realized I'd gone above and beyond to confront Doc when the person I needed to confront was myself. I first met Doc more than a year into my long-distance relationship with Ryan. And being so far away for so long with text messaging as our main form of communication, it had a cost. I stay committed, but it's hard to walk around the world alone. I want company. And at the same time, I know I need to be vigilant - not let anyone cross the line or get too close. And at some point, this vigilance had flipped the switch on my default setting so that I was totally closed off, like I was moving through the world in a defensive posture, hunched up, seeing all strangers as strange and threatening. So I avoided them, avoided new situations, opting instead to live my life in a line. Wake up, bike to work, bike to the gym, bike home. Day in, day out, I lived my stifling, self-imposed life. And I was suffocating under the weight of it. I needed to crack myself open a bit, air out my heart. Everyone needs to shake up their heart, sometimes - even John Prine.
WENDLE: During our conversation, John told me this story. It was literally about his heart. He has a AFib, a condition where it beats off-rhythm.
PRINE: They go, oh, my God, your heart is irregular.
WENDLE: And one time he went to the doctor for a checkup, and they told him his heart needed to be retuned.
PRINE: They tell me, OK, this is what we're going to to stop it and start it again. And I'm thinking...
WENDLE: Oh, my goodness.
PRINE: ...You mean I'm going to die and come back to life. And I go, OK, let's go.
WENDLE: Oh, gosh.
PRINE: Let me get in my suit. And they've done that two or three times to me.
WENDLE: And you were - I mean, were you scared at all? You just said, OK, let's go?
PRINE: Yeah. I said, OK, let's go.
WENDLE: John got a line for a song from the experience.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUNDLESS LOVE") PRINE: (Singing) Sometimes, my ol' heart is like a washing machine. It bounces around 'til my soul comes clean. And when I'm clean and hung out to dry, I'm gonna make you laugh until you cry.
WENDLE: When I think about my heart like an old washing machine, it bounces around till my soul comes clean, it's like in order to kind of clean my soul...
WENDLE: ...In order to kind of get right with myself, I sort of have to, like - I have to kind of open myself up to the things that the world is sending my way.
PRINE: Yeah. I would agree with that. Because I'm the kind of person I am, I find myself falling into more situations like that, where I learn over and over again, it's best to open yourself up and be human.
WENDLE: Maybe I was the one, not Doc, at the buried end of a rotting log. Maybe he was saying, hello in there, to me.
Why did you want to sit closer to me?
HYLAND: Well, you were moving your head and your knee to the music. And you had a tremendous - you always had a smile on your face.
WENDLE: Basically, what Doc had seen was what I had felt - a self, free and easy. And he'd reached out to it. I'd pushed back and then hit back, but he was still reaching. I wanted to be the kind of person who reached back to strangers again, who didn't walk on by.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUNDLESS LOVE") PRINE: (Singing) I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be when you found me with your boundless love.
WENDLE: Do you want my real phone number?
HYLAND: Just give it to me next time (inaudible) call.
HYLAND: (Inaudible) Abby. God bless you.
WENDLE: Thanks, Doc.
WENDLE: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUNDLESS LOVE") PRINE: (Singing) ...Boundless love.
WENDLE: A few months ago, I was feeling pretty low and lonesome again. I had just found out that a good friend's mom had died and in the same hour, had a huge fight with my dad. I tried to reach Ryan to talk. But he was around other people and couldn't step away. I tossed my phone on the bed, leaned back against the wall with all my weight and slowly slid down, folding my knees up and my head in. I was crying when my phone buzzed.
It was Doc. We'd talked again since our first conversation. And I'd given him my real number. I answered and heard a voice on the phone wanting to connect. It's a small connection but a connection - one voice at the other end of a hollow log. And every once in a while, I get a clear taste of the voice I'm lonesome for.
WENDLE: Like when a few weeks ago, I got a voice note out of the blue, sent through the air from the other side of the Earth - Ryan playing a Father John Misty tune. When we lived in Illinois in a small, farm town, Ryan sometimes followed me around the house on weekend mornings with his guitar. I'd make our bed, brew our coffee, say good morning to the cats. And there he'd be - his falsetto.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) RYAN: (Singing) Oh, how was I to know milk and honey flowed just a couple states below? Oh, oh, oh, oh.
WENDLE: Hearing it, it's as if he's right next to me - no distance at all between us.
RYAN: (Singing) ...Me another drink, punch me in the face, you can call me Nancy.
SPIEGEL: Abby Wendle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN") PRINE: When I get to heaven, I'm going to shake God's hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand. Then I'm going to get a guitar and start a rock 'n' roll band, check into a swell hotel. Ain't the afterlife grand?
(Singing) And then I'm going to get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I'm going to smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long. I'm going to kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl 'cause this old man is going to town.
SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel, and Hanna Rosin. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. Thanks to Jake Arlow (ph) and David Gudhertz (ph). Fact checking by Susie Cummings and Rachel Brown (ph). Our technical director is Andy Huether. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.
Special thanks today to Ryan and Doc Hyland for participating in this story and to John Prine for taking the time to talk. Also, thanks to Oh Boy Records for permission to use music from John Prine's newest album "The Tree Of Forgiveness" and Warner/Chappell Music. Additional music for this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. For all things INVISIBILIA, visit our website www.npr.org/invisibilia. We will be back in your feed soon with more bonuses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN") PRINE: (Singing) 'Cause I'm going to have a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I'm going to smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long. I'm going to kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl. Yeah, this old man is going to town. Yeah, this old man is going to town. (Vocalizing).
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