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The City I Live In

April 16, 2024

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The places we live can have a huge impact on who we are. In this episode of Home. Made., we hear from two people who found their lives turned upside down after moving to new cities.

Learning To Love LA

Our first story begins with Tabby, a girl who fled to the United States with her family at the age of 6 to escape violence in Iran. In Los Angeles, she was safe from the persecution and fear her family faced back in Tehran – but life was very different. She missed her friends back home and struggled to fit in at school.

“Making friends was maddeningly frustrating, because I knew that I was a nice little girl, that I could be a fine and faithful friend, but nobody was able to see that at the time, especially in first grade, because I really couldn't speak to them,” Tabby says in the episode. “They made fun of my mother's accent. They certainly made fun of the fantastically stinky foods that I brought for lunch.”

Despite not fitting in much, Tabby started to get comfortable in her new home – that is, until April of 1992, when the streets of LA were plunged into chaos following the acquittal of four LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. Riots, looting, gunfire, vandalism and violence caused damage near Tabby’s home and broke her budding trust in the city.

A young Tabby, pictured right, posing with her sister

A young Tabby, pictured right, posing with her sister

Tabby began to feel more uneasy and alone than ever. Her one comfort growing up as an outcast in Beverly Hills was music. She and her sister loved to visit the Sam Goody record store, which was the one place Tabby could listen to music, since she didn’t have a CD player at home. She fell in love with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had just released their album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” Tabby really connected with the lyrics of Anthony Kiedis, who had also grown up in LA.

“Given that I had my own childhood pains, I understood that he had endured something very painful. I was too young to know about his drug addictions and struggles, but I understood, and I think I naturally gravitated toward that,” Tabby says.

Through her love for the Chili Peppers, Tabby started to see her city in a different way. In this episode, hear how music helped her heal and finally feel at home in LA.

A Second Chance At Love

Ted Nelson was 60 years old and living alone in Los Angeles. From the outside, his life seemed good: He lived near family, ran a successful business and had a beautiful home. But he was lonely. He felt he had reached a low point in his life.

“I was looking out on the ocean, tears were streaming down my face, and I had thought that this was the end of my life, as a lover at least. So, it was a very sad moment,” Ted says.

Ted had spent his earlier years as a public servant, working as a member of the Peace Corps to help make change across the globe. His volunteering efforts once took him to the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, where he had been assigned to act as a grief counselor.

He met another volunteer there by the name of Jan Worth, who he became instantly infatuated with. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out, and Ted went on with his life – though he never forgot her.

Ted Nelson, photographed by Pullitzer-Prize-winning photographer Dan White

Ted Nelson, photographed by Pullitzer-Prize-winning photographer Dan White

When Ted returned from Tonga and eventually left the Peace Corps, he continued a life of service. He worked on anti-poverty and anti-racism campaigns, started a short-lived urban commune, and then moved to LA to help operate a methadone clinic at a suicide prevention center. After all this, he also started a business on Hollywood Boulevard.

Through this time in his life, Ted got married, twice. But despite his rewarding career and successful business, his marriages fell apart, one after another, and Ted felt unfulfilled and lonely. He kept thinking about Jan, the woman he had met in Tonga, and wishing things had been different.

One day, out of the blue, a journalist called Ted to ask him questions about a murder that had happened many years ago when he’d been volunteering for the Peace Corps … in Tonga. Ted was shocked.

“I asked him if he had spoken to a woman by the name of Jan Worth, to which he said, ‘As a matter of fact, yes, I just did.’ And I said, OK, I'm not going to answer any of your questions unless you give me her phone number,” Ted says.

The journalist didn’t give Ted Jan’s number, but he did give Ted’s number to Jan instead.

And she called him.

In this episode, hear Ted and Jan’s story and how their relationship helped Ted fall in love with a new city and a new home.

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Episode Transcript

STEPHANIE FOO: One day in November 1988, Tabby Refael’s mom sat her and her sister down and told them a secret. They had to promise not to tell anyone, not even their closest school friends. Tabby broke down and sobbed. The next day, she went to school, despondent. At the end of the day, she gave some of her favorite pencils and erasers to her friends, hugged them a little tighter than normal, then went home. When she arrived, her mother was setting the table for dinner.

 

TABBY REFAEL: And I said, "Mom, what are you doing?" She said, "I'm setting it so that anybody who's walking outside will know that we're expecting guests tomorrow." I said, "We're leaving the country tomorrow." She said, "Yes, I know, but we have to keep up the act."

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Tabby was 6 and she’d spent her whole life in Iran. An Islamic theocracy ruled without mercy by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Her family is Jewish. Jews are a persecuted minority in Iran. She and her sister were forced to wear hijabs and shout “death to Israel” every day at their school. At the time, Iran was also at war with Iraq. Missile strikes were common where she lived in Tehran. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: For me, as soon as I left our door, it was more about who is out to get me and less about who's going to protect me ... I felt very vulnerable.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: That night, Tabby’s parents packed a few bags ... Her dad told her that where they were going she would be safe. As they crept out the door, Tabby took one last look at her home. At the dining room set for a dinner no one would eat. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, two stories about Los Angeles. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Tabby says she led two lives in Tehran. There was the unpredictable one outside her door. And then there was the safe, fun life she enjoyed at home, playing with her many cousins. Listening to her aunts and grandmothers cracking jokes and sharing recipes around the kitchen table. And listening to music.

 

TABBY REFAEL: It became my healing power for the violence and unpredictability of the outside world, of the missiles and the bombs and the brainwashing. It became very precious, Stephanie, because it was forbidden.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Music was forbidden?

 

TABBY REFAEL: Certain types of music after the revolution were forbidden because you no longer could have pop singers singing about love and this and that. Most of them went into self-exile, ran for their lives, and settled in Los Angeles, which is where now, 40 years later, they're still producing their music.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Paramilitary police started doing random visits looking for parties, alcohol, secular music … all outlawed by the Ayatollah. To get around the music ban, people burned CDs and had their kids smuggle them in their school bags. If someone brought home a cassette tape, everyone sat down and listened. It was special. In Tehran, Tabby’s favorite singer was Hayedeh.

 

TABBY REFAEL: For me, she was the Aretha Franklin of Iran ... She sang this song in Persian, it's called “Shabeh Eshgh,” which means the night of love. She said, “hug your loved ones because we don't know if we'll be around tomorrow." This was my anthem during the Iran-Iraq war. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And then her mother told Tabby they were fleeing to Amrika. Amrika is what Iranians call America. Life would be different there. Tabby and her family arrived in Los Angeles as refugees. And they moved into its richest area: Beverly Hills. 90210. Big mansions. Fancy cars and movie stars. But Tabby lived a little outside of the gated community, in a part of the neighborhood jokingly referred to as the slums of Beverly Hills. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: They weren’t actual slums. Tabby lived in a middle-class apartment building full of people like her: Iranian Jews, other persecuted Jews from Russia, Indians and other immigrants and refugees who got lucky placements. Tabby’s dad got a job at a chemical plant. Her mother worked as a secretary. And on weekends they drove around, soaking up the sun and palm trees ... Nobody made her shout “death to Israel” here. Tabby says she started to relax. But she missed her close friends back in Iran. So, it didn’t help that she couldn’t fit in at school. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: Making friends was maddeningly frustrating, because I knew that I was a nice little girl, that I could be a fine and faithful friend, but nobody was able to see that at the time, especially in first grade, because I really couldn't speak to them. They made fun of my mother's accent. They certainly made fun of the fantastically stinky foods that I brought for lunch.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: But she reminded herself: at least it was safe here. And then Los Angeles descended into chaos. On April 29, 1992, four LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Looting and vandalism, gunfire and rioting, and extreme racial violence led to curfews. Then a state of emergency. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: I could not live through another era in my life in which I was afraid to walk out the door again and that's exactly what happened.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Tabby lived within a mile of some of the most damaged areas. She stayed inside with her family watching everything on TV. It was surreal. Partly because it was only a few blocks away, but also because it felt a lot like Tehran. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: I remember a Korean-owned pharmacy was set on fire on the corner of Pico and La Cienega. I remember the famous Circuit City on 18th and La Cienega. I remember that being looted.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: After six solid days of rioting, the national guard and military drove into LA and shut it down. Tabby, and her family emerged from their apartment building. They walked past burnt-out cars, stepped over broken glass. Many parts of the city needed to be rebuilt. So would Tabby’s trust. Once Tabby got older, she and her sister were allowed to walk by themselves to the Beverly Center, a nearby mall. On one of these visits, they discovered Sam Goody, an iconic LA record store. Everyone went to Sam Goody to buy music. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Tabby says it was the coolest place she had ever been. Wall to wall CDs, rock posters everywhere, and a listening station with headphones to sample albums for free. This was important because Tabby had no money, and no CD player at home. One of the first bands Tabby discovered was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They had recently released their biggest album: “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” And the band members grew up in LA. There was something about the lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, that appealed to Tabby. 

 

TABBY RAFAEL: Given that I had my own childhood pains. I understood that he had endured something very painful. I was too young to know about, you know, his drug addictions and struggles, but I understood, and I think I naturally gravitated toward that.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: There was one Chili Peppers song that Tabby really liked: “Under The Bridge.”

 

TABBY REFAEL: The beginning of “Under the Bridge” in which Kiedis is singing. "Sometimes I feel like I don't have a partner. Sometimes I feel like I don't have a friend." That was the soundtrack of my early years in America. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: There was a video for “Under the Bridge,” too. The camera follows Kiedis walking through the less polished side of LA. The exact same places Tabby walked – like down Santee Alley, a shabby outdoor mall her mom took her to, shopping for $3 T-shirts. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: “Under the Bridge” particularly was the first time that, for me anyway, someone had connected being an Angeleno with having pain and having the city as a source of comfort. "It's hard to believe, there's nobody out there. It's hard to believe that I'm all alone. At least I have her love, the city she loves me. Lonely as I am, together we cry." And in the chorus where he starts singing, "I don't ever want to feel like I felt that day," it brought me right back to that April day in '92, when news of the Rodney King riots broke out. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: For Tabby “Under the Bridge” portrayed the kind of relationship she yearned to have with somebody, anybody. In this case, Kiedis was describing a relationship not with a person, but with his hometown. 

 

TABBY REFAEL: If Los Angeles had opened her arms to Anthony Kiedis, maybe it would open her arms to a little refugee girl who was really struggling to find her home.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And to fit in with other American kids. But that was a song. Third grade was another story. One day in class, she dropped a pencil. A boy next to her offered to pick it up.

 

TABBY REFAEL: And when he came up, I don't think he meant to hurt me. He truly was bewildered. And so, he asked loudly in front of everyone, the worst words that anyone could have uttered to me as I struggled to make friends and be "less foreign." "Why are your legs so hairy?" And I just wanted to die.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Later that day Tabby’s family went to McDonald’s, the kind with one of those little kiddie playgrounds. Tabby remembers everyone eating their filet-o-fish sandwiches – and she went into the playground and sat under a small plastic bridge.

 

TABBY REFAEL: And I suddenly found myself talking, talking to the city sitting under that little yellow and red kiddie bridge. The truth is, all the city can do is really listen to you, but as Kiedis said, "maybe she'll send you a windy kiss on your cheek."

 

STEPHANIE FOO: In the months following, Tabby kept going to Sam Goody. She listened to a lot of music. And then her dad relented and got MTV. Total gamechanger. Snoop Dogg, Salt-N-Pepa. Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, Tupac. After homework, and chores, Tabby stood in front of the TV, mimicking the raps and copying the dance moves. So, when she went to school, she knew the lyrics and she could rap for the other kids.

 

TABBY REFAEL: American pop music ended up saving me. It redeemed me because by the time I made it to sixth grade, I was an encyclopedia of modern music. And suddenly I found myself popular.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: From there, Tabby made lifelong friends with other superfans. Her two best friends from middle school walked down the aisle at her wedding. And now, Tabby has her own kids. She works as a journalist. During the pandemic, like for most people, Tabby’s life was stressful. She and her husband worked from home. The kids did homeschool. And they couldn’t see family for months. But Tabby still took the odd moment to herself – in the car, sometimes in a closet – to blast the Chili Peppers. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Tabby’s story was all about coming to love LA. In the next story, a 60-year-old man wrestles with leaving it. About 20 years ago, Ted Nelson sat on the balcony of his beautiful apartment in San Pedro. He gazed out at the ocean below him, and he watched as ships sailed past, to and from the nearby port of Los Angeles. It was a spectacular view. The kind you pay good money for but … he was 60 and lived alone. No partner. Ted was lonely. 

 

TED NELSON: I was looking out on the ocean, tears were streaming down my face, and I had thought that this was the end of my life, as a lover at least. So, it was a very sad moment.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Other parts of his life were good – Ted ran a successful business and family lived nearby. But, his second marriage had ended years before, and he had struggled to meet someone else ... and then the phone rang. Ted cleared his throat. Picked up the phone and said hello. It was a journalist calling him with questions about a murder in Tonga years ago. Ted was in shock. He hadn’t expected this. 

 

TED NELSON: I asked him if he had spoken to a woman by the name of Jan Worth, to which he said, "As a matter of fact, yes, I just did." And I said, "OK, I'm not going to answer any of your questions unless you give me her phone number." 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Ted’s early life was committed to public service. In 1963, John F. Kennedy came to Amherst College where Ted was a senior. After giving a speech, JFK passed by Ted’s group of friends, stopped, and asked them what they planned to do after graduation. They said things like become a doctor, go into law. 

 

TED NELSON: And then Kennedy said, "No, no, you're not. You're all going to join the Peace Corps." To that, we laughed in his face. I didn't even know what the Peace Corps was at that time.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: JFK established the Peace Corps to provide social and economic assistance to poor countries and communities. Things like access to education, public health infrastructure, agriculture. It was volunteer-led, and synonymous with American idealism. Three weeks after that encounter with the President, JFK was killed in Dallas. Ted was shaken – and the first thing he did was sign up for the Peace Corps. They sent him to a small village in Turkey that was dealing with a deadly water crisis. He worked with local villagers and other volunteers to divert contaminated local springs away from the town’s water supply. 

 

TED NELSON: The most important thing I learned was the need to support one another. In a small village like that, if you don't have support, you die. Everybody needs help. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Public service with other like-minded people clicked for Ted, and he stuck around the Peace Corps. It eventually took him to Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom in the south Pacific. Because he had a degree in psychology, Ted was sent to facilitate grief counseling for the volunteers there. There had just been a murder. One volunteer killed another. On New Year’s Eve, back then, all foreigners were required by law to appear at the king’s palace to shake the king's hand and be officially welcomed to Tonga. Standing in line to do that, he heard what he says was the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. He turned around and saw a volunteer: Jan Worth.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And what was her impression on you?

 

TED NELSON: Well, her impression was, oh my God, instant attraction. I couldn't believe it. I was gobsmacked with her, and we talked for a while and that's how I got to know her.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Ted and Jan connected immediately. It was an intense affair, but then their assignments in Tonga were over, and they returned to America. Separately. But Ted never forgot about Jan. After leaving the Peace Corps. Ted came back to America and continued a life of public service. He worked on anti-poverty and anti-racism campaigns. He started a short-lived urban commune. And then he moved to LA to help operate a methadone clinic at a suicide prevention center. All of this was really rewarding, but years of community service had left Ted pretty broke and really burnt out. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So, when the chance to make some money came along, he took it. He fell into business on Hollywood Boulevard selling what he calls “male victory trophies.” Basically, souvenirs that kind of look like that statue of a golden guy that actors get at a very big awards show. Except these said, “Best Mom” or “Best Uncle.” Ted says he loved working on Hollywood Boulevard. Surrounded by people visiting from all over the world. He also made a lot of money.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: During those years that you were a businessman, did you sort of think with nostalgia often about your organizing times?

 

TED NELSON: Well, there's an esprit de corps about having a very positive and profound belief in the American spirit and the American dream, and so it was frustrating being out of it.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Ted also thought with nostalgia about something else. As his marriages fell apart, one after another, he became lonelier and lonelier and wondered more and more about Jan, the woman he met in Tonga. Whatever happened to her? And then, at a low moment in his life, the journalist called. The journalist wouldn’t give out Jan’s number. Instead, he gave Ted’s number to Jan. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So, what possessed you to immediately make contact with Jan? Like what was it about you or your time in life, whatever, that made you think, you know, "this is the right time?”

 

TED NELSON: Listen, when you're 60 and you have no one that you love at that point in time and you get another chance at it, it's whoopie time.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: “Whoopie time” started when Jan called Ted soon after she got his number. It’s a cliche, but Ted says it was as if he and Jan just picked up from where they had left off in Tonga, like no time had passed. They talked by phone all the time. But as close as they quickly became, they had a slight problem: distance. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Where did she live?

 

TED NELSON: She lived in Flint, Michigan. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: LA has its detractors, but Flint is often held up as the symbol of the decline of the American Dream. In the ’50s, Flint was a boomtown thanks to the automotive industry. But in the ’80s, the city was devastated by a series of plant closures which led to economic and social collapse. 

 

TED NELSON: Everybody that heard that I was dating someone in Flint would say, "My God, why would you want to go to that crime-ridden place?" 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: At first, he didn’t. Ted and Jan kept talking over the phone for 6 months, but they didn’t meet because Jan was in the middle of a divorce. When it was finalized, Ted hopped on a plane to Flint. Jan was everything he expected. But Flint was not.  

 

TED NELSON: Actually, as an LA person, I was delighted with the traffic here. I mean they have traffic, but it's not rush hour, it's rush minute.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: He says there’s more to Flint than the one-dimensional view you may see in the media. He thought there were lovely neighborhoods, restaurants, museums and lots of concerts and free music. And Jan had a lot of friends, interesting people from the academic world.  She was a professor at the University of Michigan at Flint.

 

TED NELSON: I started meeting them and realized that there was a whole social component to my personality. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: When Jan came to visit Ted in LA, he realized how few friends he had. Just business associates, really. He couldn’t offer Jan the same kind of social circle she showed him in Flint. Over the next several years, the couple flew back and forth. Eventually, the commuting got old. So, Ted made a decision. 

 

TED NELSON: In a way I felt a little bit bad about leaving the family. But this is where I have my friends, this is where I have my wife, this is where I have my home. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: The thing Ted wanted the most, sitting on his balcony in San Pedro, had come true – to live out his days in a meaningful relationship. But then he got something more. Jan took on a side project editing a community paper called the East Village Magazine. Ted jumped on board as the publisher. It was something fun to do as a couple. But then in 2014, the city of Flint changed water supplies – from the Detroit Water system to the Flint River. Right away, the water quality changed. It smelled and tasted bad. It was a weird color. People experienced skin rashes and hair loss. They became sick. And experts raised serious concerns about the health risks for children. They also found that aging pipes were leaching lead into the water supply. But the issue remained unresolved for a long time.

 

TED NELSON: And so, as a news magazine, we started reporting on it and started getting information on it. And all of a sudden it blew up into, we were poisoned by our own government. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: The Flint water crisis eventually became international news, but for quite a while it was mainly just a local story. And there wasn’t a lot of local media to report on it. The East Village Magazine solicited reporting from Flint residents, kind of a citizen journalism, while reporters covered city council. There were editorials and helpful guides for residents. And here was Ted coming back full circle from his Peace Corps days in Turkey. 

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Back then, he took active part in diverting poisoned springs from the village’s water supply. Now in his 70s he wasn’t quite as involved, but Ted did his part. He supported efforts both at the magazine and in the community where he could. He made sure ads got sold. Hosted out of town journalists who came to report on the crisis. And made sure neighbors in affected areas had enough food and bottled water.

 

TED NELSON: Basically, all the kinds of things that friends do for each other when there is trouble.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: It sounds like a real tight-knit community there.

 

TED NELSON: Very tight knit. And I believe, really, even though this is Flint, Michigan, that I am living, and my wife are living the American dream ... and at the same time, we see all those human beings who live here too, who don't have the American dream. And we try through our delivery of the magazine, to at least provide another component towards fixing some of these problems by reporting on them.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: So how has it felt? Has it felt like a return to sort of a value system or a way of life in terms of going back to a life of service?

 

TED NELSON: Absolutely. I feel more whole, more integrated. I feel like I'm a full adult person, even though I'm 80 years old now.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: Ted sees the connection to his past – how tackling water quality issues in Flint is similar to his efforts in Turkey so many decades ago. That sense of community is there in Flint, too. Even though what happened in Flint is a tragedy, a deep injustice, Ted rediscovered purpose there.

 

TED NELSON: And love.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: And love. That's true. What do you make of that?

 

TED NELSON: I make of that, that it's allowed me to end up a happy person in his old age. Satisfied with my history, satisfied with the life I have, and totally in love with the wife.

 

STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.

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