I don’t remember exactly when I started having sexual fantasies about Ira Glass, but I do remember when I realized I felt a little different about him. I was listening to This American Life on my iPod, walking around Manhattan, when Ira mentioned something about his wife. It was one of those moments meant to charm, when interviewer bonds with subject over some silly, common experience. "Ha, you too? My wife does that.” But that’s not what I was thinking. I was thinking: Wife? What fucking wife?
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how proprietary I had become about Ira Glass. I didn’t know anything had changed in our relationship, which, for years, could be summed up like this: I loved his radio show. But hearing
him talk about his wife that day, I felt the same queasy pang that struck when I was twelve, discovering that Rob Lowe had a girlfriend, that Duran Duran’s keyboardist was engaged. Except those crushes were based on pinups stapled in the centerfold of a teen mag, on haircuts engineered to appeal to the greatest possible number of suburban teens. What I felt for Ira Glass had absolutely nothing to do with the photos I occasionally glimpsed of him, and everything to do with the bizarre, singular intimacy of his voice in my ear.
I spend most Sundays walking across the bridge from my apartment in Brooklyn into Manhattan. Even after a year and a half in New York, I get lost all the time, and so I was hoping to reconcile the tidy subway grid in my backpack to the stuttering, sprawling one in my mind. It was a lonely, lovely way to kill the afternoon, and Glass’ show was a natural soundtrack: geographic discovery complemented by intellectual discovery. Over the course of these afternoons, I not only became more familiar with the city but also with the particulars of his voice. The calculated clip. The choreographed intake of breath. I heard things I’d never caught before — a click, a sigh, a tongue passing across the lips.
I’d been listening to This American Life for years, but it wasn’t until I heard it in my earphones, hours at a stretch, that his voice took hold. The streets of New York honked and spat as Glass traced out another neat narrative arc
over the course of an hour. And after he had passed the microphone to another correspondent, it would sometimes be minutes on end before I realized I hadn’t heard a word anyone else was saying. That I had been in some kind of lusty trance. That I had been in a darkened sound booth somewhere, tugging off the trousers of Ira Glass. But wait, no, I never saw the sex. This fantasy was purely auditory. A scrape of the sheets, a zip, a violent clatter. And then I would come to somewhere near Canal Street, no idea how I’d gotten there or what the hell I was listening to.
Like I said, I get lost all the time.
Act I: Room at the Inskeep
At 9 a.m., the phone rings. "I think I have a crush on Steve Inskeep.”
This is my best friend, and I should mention that she spends a great deal of time in her car. The only time she calls, in fact, is while she’s driving, which doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, either, but I’ll take what I can get.
When she calls, she is listening to Morning Edition on her way to work, and Steve Inskeep has just done something endearing and off-color. He drank his first mojito with a rock band and pronounced it quite delicious. He sounded off on a story about Texas cheerleaders by offering his own sideline cheer. Nine a.m. is still early for me.
"Are you awake?” she asks.
"Of course I’m awake,” I say, barely awake.
She goes on to explain that she hasn’t always been a Steve Inskeep woman. Because she was a Bob Edwards woman, and at first, in the shaky transition phase, she scoffed that Steve was perhaps not bringing as much to the Morning Edition table. His voice wasn’t even that interesting. But what can I say? She has a thing for earnest nerds.
"Have you seen a picture of him?” I ask.
She sounds disappointed when I ask this. "He just looks like a dad.”
On second thought, let’s not talk about pictures. Let’s pretend they don’t exist.
The amazing thing about NPR personalities is how close you can feel to them without ever knowing what they look like. Even authors, with their glossy black-and-white photos on the cover flap, aren’t allowed such anonymity. Lately, there have been a lot of pictures of Ira Glass — banner ads and commercials for This American Life‘s new television show — and this has been agonizing for me. It punctures all the daydreams I’ve been spinning: Ira looks too skinny, for one thing, and I hate to say this, but also too old. In my daydreams he’s still a chubby, nerdy twentysomething. My fantasy, however faceless, has no room for gray hairs. (Not that I mind a few, in general.)
Let’s take Steve Inskeep, for instance. He has a different sonic appeal than Ira’s hipster nerdiness; his baritone is more anchor chic. He’s the kind of guy who might buy me a few martinis, loosen his tie over some tapas, and get a throbbing boner for Mozart’s concertos. This has its own sordid appeal; he could probably explain what’s happening in Iraq, in which case I’d totally get wet. I like to envision an erotic evening in which he merely pronounces the names of Al-Qaeda operatives as if it were some kind of Salome striptease — Abu Masab Al-Zarqawi, Saif al-Adel, Abu Mohammed al-Masri. By the time he got to the third "Abu,” I’d be ready to jump across the table and rip off his sensible button-down.
Perhaps this phenomenon works differently for men. A male friend of mine used to spring a stiffie listening to the afternoon traffic reporter in Dallas, a sultry alto offering hourly interstate-congestion updates: "I see her taking off her helicopter helmet, blond hair cascading around her face in the wind,” he said. Frankly, I find that voice a bit cliched. Neither Steve Inskeep or Ira Glass has a traditionally sexy voice, which is probably part of the attraction, kicking up as it does some latent geek-virgin fantasy I’ve never fully acknowledged, in which I deflower the valedictorian in a bathroom stall and teach him all about love and/or doggy style. Which is probably why the Mrs. Glass bit pissed me off, come to think of it. I could no longer indulge the glorious virgin fantasy. Someone else had loosened his collar, someone else had crushed his bifocals.
But in general, what fascinates me about radio personalities is the lack of vocal sexiness. The sheer Puritanical absence of it,
making me hunt for the sex toys in the drawers, scrounge for the naked pictures under the pillow. Take Michele Norris, co-host of All Things Considered. For a while, I had a minor obsession with Michele. For one, there was the contrarian pronunciation of her first name, MEE-shell, which was staunchly enforced by every guest, all of whom must have been given a ten-minute primer prior to air. Then there was her dry delivery, a bit Condi Rice, though unlike our secretary of state, Michele had just the slightest undercurrent of sass — like when she unexpectedly made a joke about the day’s news, a little wink between friends. And those moments reconfigured all I had assumed about emphasis-on-the-first-syllable Michele. Whereas I had once envisioned her as a stiff in a Liz Claiborne suit, I now saw her as a voracious sexual predator, barely containing her feral energy with those morning updates. I saw her with her hands lashed to the bedposts, teeth gnashing in ecstasy, raven hair taut and pulled back by some unseen hand.
I have never seen a picture of Michele Norris. Please do not show me one.
Act III: Gross Anatomy
I can’t talk about NPR and sexuality with mentioning Terry Gross. For a while, when I worked from home in Dallas, I listened to Fresh Air every afternoon, and I still miss it. As I would wash a sink of dishes or click away an hour on the internet, avoiding the writing I had promised myself to do, I would let my imagination curl up into whatever conversation Terry Gross was having. And it’s not that I had erotic thoughts about her so much as an erotic curiosity. I found myself fascinated about her sexuality. "I’m Terry Gross. And this is Frrrrresh Air.” Man, she bit into that name. Every single time.
I wonder if it started with the infamous Gene Simmons interview. It was a classic debacle: the bookish Gross railroaded by the tongue-wagging KISS icon. He uttered every phrase like he was between her creamy thighs, and it wasn’t sexy; it was unnerving. "I’d like to think that the boring lady who’s talking to me now is a lot sexier and more interesting than the one who’s doing NPR,” he said at one point. "I bet you’re a lot of fun at a party.”
In the moment, I only sympathized with Gross. It remains the most painful, cringeworthy interview I’ve heard to this day. But it must have sunk its hooks into my imagination, because afterward, I couldn’t listen to a Terry Gross interview without wondering which way she swung.
Terry Gross would interview an AIDS specialist, Terry Gross would have a show on same-sex marriage, and like a gay-baiting Rosie O’Donnell, I would tell the cat, dozing in the corner, "Oh, she’s gay, I know she’s gay!” Did this make me like her less? No! It made me like her more. I loved the idea that she was enduring what must have felt like the heterosexual-industrial complex, secretly wearing flannel and silently slipping me the finger with every interview. I don’t know why I liked this idea so much. Maybe it’s because she reveals so little of herself that I felt the need to puncture the façade and grab some piece of privacy. Because I felt as though I should know her, because Terry Gross isn’t like Dan Rather, or Katie Couric, or any other television news anchor shared like popcorn by America. She is someone I listened to alone, like so many of us listen to NPR alone — in the car, in your apartment, on headphones, just you and her.
In the introduction to her book, All I Did Was Ask, Terry Gross writes about a funny thing that happened when her husband, the writer Francis Davis, won an arts fellowship: "My mother-in-law came with us, and at one point I saw her laughing, and she later explained that the woman had pointed at me and whispered, ‘Terry Gross is here. Did you know she’s a lesbian?’ That’s one of the reasons I love working on radio: You might be a public figure but you’re essentially just a voice, and this lets each person who listens form whatever image of you he or she wants — tall or short, fat or thin, sex bomb or schoolmarm, straight or gay.”
If she’s right, and each NPR personality is some kind of Rorschach test, then it isn’t so interesting that I thought she was gay. The interesting question then becomes: Why did I want her to be?
Act IV: Headphone Sex
The Dresden Dolls have a song about Christopher Lydon, who does a show called Open Source. A few choice lyrics:
"I never knew what one voice could do
The singer, Amanda Palmer, sings it like a torch song, like Christopher Lydon might be teething her undies on an empty library table. I only heard the song recently, though I love it, and I can only imagine that Amanda Palmer
feels a little bit of the pulse in the groin when an egghead rattles off the news. Bob Mondello, Margot Adler, Renee Montagne, Neal Cohen, Robert Siegel, Kurt Andersen. Oh lord, Kurt Andersen, with all his hard-won theories on the media, the way he’s so compelled by how the ugly machine works.
And maybe that’s part of what turns me on about NPR personalities. Not just their intellect, but a fascination with human behavior that makes them open to any experience. Hell, if you pulled out a gimp suit, they’d just start the tape recorder and scribble some notes on a napkin.
But I think I like being in a dark and faceless fantasy, too. Because let’s face it. We’re all a little tired of our bodies — worrying what they look like, how they measure up, how our legs seem in thigh-highs and a garter. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind disappearing into a tape whir for a while. It’s nice when you think about it. Not just you or your lover blindfolded, but the entire world.
Click here for the This American Life website.
This American Life, the TV show, airs on Showtime.
©2007 Sarah Hepola and Nerve.com