Nearly a month after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida, the widespread shock and outrage has grown into a nationwide movement calling for justice. This week, the Justice Department announced it would conduct a federal investigation of the incident.
But the Trayvon Martin story has also turned into a dialogue about race in America, a conversation that NPR's Michele Norris has been engaged in for over a year with her Race Card Project.
Through the project, Norris asks people to express their thoughts on race in six words or less. Many have written to her recently with thoughts on Martin's death.
NPR's Neal Conan speaks with Norris about the submissions she's received and what the frustrations, fears and hopes expressed in six words tell us about race in America today. NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr also joins the conversation, with the latest developments in the case.
Tell us: What six words would you use to talk about race in light of what happened in Sanford, Fla.?
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Shock and outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin continue to reverberate. The unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who claims self-defense. Details remain unclear, but the tragedy ignited a nationwide movement of rallies and memorials and demands that the gunman, George Zimmerman, face charges.
The incident has also re-energized the conversation around race in America. Over the past year, our colleague, Michele Norris, has asked people to encapsulate their thoughts on race in six words. In the past weeks, she's received a flood of these race cards. She'll share some in just a few minutes.
And if you'd like to contribute, send us six words. The email address is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you have questions about the project, our phone number is 800-989-8255.
Later in the program, careers derailed by disease. Former baseball phenom Ben Petrick joins us. But we begin with NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr. She's been covering the Trayvon Martin story and joins us by phone from Sanford, Florida. Nice of you to be with us.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
CONAN: The Sanford City Commission today voted no confidence in the police chief, but as I understand it, that doesn't mean he's out of a job, at least not yet.
LOHR: Not yet. Actually, the vote came last night, when city commissioners and the mayor issued this vote of no confidence against Chief Lee. There's just been such a public outcry over this case and, you know, people say there's just too many questions about how the investigation was conducted.
So, but as I understand it, it's the city manager that ultimately has the final say in whether the police chief would stay or go, and he's saying that he's sticking with him until the investigation is concluded.
CONAN: We do hear news that there's going to be a news conference shortly. Do we know any reason why?
LOHR: Well, they're not saying any details, but it makes sense to think that it might have something to do with the police chief. We don't know yet. We'll find out more shortly.
CONAN: All right, that's the local investigation. The Justice Department says it's going to investigate as well, or participate in the investigation. What's their role?
LOHR: Yeah, they announced that they were going to launch a civil rights investigation here after this public outcry, that, you know, people, the family, civil rights leaders are claiming that there has been discrimination in how this case was handled, whether this could be a hate crime.
You know, Trayvon's parents are meeting today with federal officials, and the FBI is looking into the case. So there's a whole lot of law enforcement officials that are looking into this, and then also there's a grand jury that's actually set to hear evidence next month, April 10.
CONAN: And the state, how is the state of Florida participating?
LOHR: You know, all of this came sort of after this public outcry, but the state has - and the federal government both announced at the same time that they were running their own investigation. So the local police department turned over its investigation, everything it has to the state. The state, the grand jury will then decide whether to move forward.
CONAN: In the meantime, there are any number of protests, as we mentioned, around the country, but there in Sanford as well.
LOHR: There have been a lot of people coming to Sanford in the past week. The NAACP national and regional leaders were here. They held a rally on Tuesday evening. Reverend Al Sharpton is on his way for a rally tonight, and in fact there are so many people expected here that they moved the rally from a church to a public park.
And from what I'm understanding, I'm hearing that people are coming from Atlanta. There are busloads that are coming from other Florida cities, including Daytona Beach in Orlando. So there's expected now to be thousands here this evening.
Also there were rallies in New York, and there have been rallies in Miami and prayer vigils, now almost all over the country.
CONAN: And what about the shooter in this case, George Zimmerman? He's said to be in hiding.
LOHR: That is what has been said. He has not been - in fact, it's said that he moved out of the neighborhood where he lived, that he's had death threats. It's not clear where he is. It's not clear whether or not charges will be brought. It's interesting - there's a petition online at change.org to have Zimmerman prosecuted. That petition had about 600,000 signatures two days ago, and now over a million people have signed that petition.
CONAN: And amidst all this - amidst all this pressure, it's going to be difficult to impossible to be deliberative about this.
LOHR: I mean, you know, the police department and other people are saying wait and see what the investigation holds. They're saying, you know, they wouldn't necessarily just arrest Zimmerman on the spot, that they didn't have enough evidence, that he of course used the state's Stand Your Ground law and said that, you know, he was acting in self-defense.
The parents and others claim that 911 calls show that that's not true, but you know, people are saying wait until we get all the evidence. So it'll be interesting to see how it develops.
CONAN: Difficult when things are this emotional to ask people to wait.
LOHR: It is, and people don't want to wait. Everybody here is angry. I want to tell you that I've talked to people in the black community, the white community, the Hispanic community. Everybody tells me they're angry about how this case was handled. A lot of people are calling for Zimmerman to be arrested and prosecuted.
And at the same time, I think people here that are not in the civil rights movement are a bit overwhelmed that so many people are sort of descending on their town, but they're supportive, as far as I can see so far, of whatever happens that justice is done in this case.
CONAN: Kathy Lohr, thanks very much for your time.
LOHR: My pleasure.
CONAN: NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr joined us by phone from Sanford, Florida, where she's covering the latest developments in the Trayvon Martin story. Our colleague Michele Norris founded the Race Card Project over a year ago. That encourages people to share their thoughts and experiences on race, if they can do it in six words. And she joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And race is so complicated. How did you decide it might be better to try to get people to crystallize their thoughts like this?
NORRIS: Well, I wrote a book about my family's complex racial legacy, a family memoir, and I knew that when I went out to talk about it, I'd be asking people to engage in a conversation about race. And I know that it's something for people – that it's hard for people to do. And so I thought: Why don't I lubricate the conversation, make it a little bit easier by quite literally playing the race card, by giving people a postcard and asking them to distill their thoughts, experiences, hopes, dreams, observations about race, but they could only do it in one sentence.
And then I thought if I only give them one sentence, that they might try to turn a paragraph into a sentence, that it might be Faulknerian, so to take that sentence and distill it to just six words. And I was surprised at how many people took the bait. I originally printed up about 200 of these cards, and about 30 percent came back. People wrote down their six words and mailed them back.
And from there I thought, well, let's just keep rolling with this and see what happens. And I've been surprised and amazed at how many people really do put a lot of thought into this and send them in by mail, via Twitter and via the website.
CONAN: And how many have you gotten over the past couple of weeks?
NORRIS: Well, several. I don't have a number, but I can tell you hundreds have come in in the past couple of weeks, and not surprising because America has been pulled into this roiling conversation about race and identity and how we see ourselves and how we see each other and all of the sort of labels and assumptions that are attached to that.
So as the Trayvon Martin case really picked up more and more attention, I really started to see a lot of these submissions come in.
CONAN: Specifically about the case or more broadly?
NORRIS: Well, specifically about the case but also just more broadly on the subject of race. I mean, there are several that came in that were specific to the case, like defines you, like it or not; the children are watching us; white neighborhood made me subconscious racist; 57 years later another Emmett Till.
But then others like, you know, we aren't all strong black women; or a construction box - a construction, a box, not me. So they weren't directly about Trayvon Martin, but they were sort of to the, you know, the issue attached to that, race and identity. And also several people just writing and saying how do I talk about this, you know, noting that they want to have this conversation.
And maybe that's why so many people come to it, because it's sort of a safe space. It's hard to talk to your co-workers about this. Sometimes it's even hard to talk to members of your family about this, and this is a place where people can express themselves. But also the thing that I really appreciate about it is I post them on a website. And so you can scroll through the wall and in doing so sort of eavesdrop on the conversation about race that you generally don't hear.
CONAN: Since we mentioned this project yesterday in connection with the Trayvon Martin case, here on TALK OF THE NATION, I think we've gotten over 100 just in the past 24 hours, and if you'd like to contribute, our email address is 800 - that's the phone number, obviously. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to our website, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. The phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. What surprised you, Michele?
NORRIS: Several things surprised me. First of all, I was surprised that people do this, that people would write down six words and then send them in. And then I was continually surprised by how it would pull you inside aspects of the conversation that were not sort of aboveboard, not well-understood, under-appreciated or sometimes under-wrapped.
And then I was surprised, and as a communicator pleased to see that people would then start talking to each other. You know, the woman who said not all of us are strong black women, not all are strong black women, a lot of people started to tweet immediately about that.
And there was this conversation with a woman in Sri Lanka and a woman in the U.K. and several women who were Spellman graduates in Atlanta, and they were all talking about what that meant to them, that for some, they said, the strong black woman trope had become a euphemism for treat them any way you want because they will survive.
And someone else said when people say I'm strong and resilient, it makes me sound like a weed instead of a flower. And so this conversation with all these people in different, you know, ports of this country, but even across – overseas - was something that we were all able to eavesdrop on.
And in another case, someone wrote: Money in hand, not on counter.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Sandra(ph) on the line, Sandra's on the line with us from East Lansing, Michigan.
SANDRA: Well, I do have the - my six words here.
CONAN: Go ahead.
SANDRA: My six words are: Stop seeing black boys are predators. And I must say that it was - it came about because I heard you talking about it on the show yesterday, but this is something that I think about quite a bit. You know, I do have sons, and when the Trayvon story came up, it brought back some of my own concerns about these kind of random acts that - and a lot of young men are less likely to come forward, you know, out of fear of being embarrassed.
Maybe they don't even say anything to their parents. But I had an incident with one of my sons that he did talk to me about. He was walking down the street one night, and he's in his 20s, and an elderly white man walks quickly up to him, raises his hands in the air and says, I give. And my son just turned around and just rapidly went in the other direction. He was terrified.
But this man was very frightened by my son, who is African-American.
CONAN: Stop seeing white boys - black boys as predators. Sandra, thanks very much for the call.
SANDRA: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Michel Norris about race cards, expressions, thoughts on race in six words, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, nothing changes. Shoot first, ask questions later, maybe. Black youth guilty until proven innocent. Ignorance, fear create prejudice and bigotry. Just a few of the six-word race cards that have come in since the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Our colleague Michele Norris began the Race Card Project in 2010, asking people to encapsulate their thoughts on race in six words. In the past week, she's received a flood of these race cards. If you'd like to contribute, send us six words. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter you can find us @TOTN, and you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you have questions about the project, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And joining us now is Joe Ereson(ph), a student at Truman State University. Nice to have you with us today.
JOE ERESON: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: And you contributed a race card?
ERESON: I did. I submitted mine last weekend.
CONAN: And what did it say?
ERESON: My six words were: White neighborhood made me subconscious racist.
CONAN: And how did that work out?
ERESON: Well, I realized, sort of I guess in retrospect, I'd been seeing Ms. Norris' tweets for a while, and I finally decided that I wanted to submit something. And I realized that the negative stereotypes of racism in St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up, had an effect on me in my encounter with people I didn't know randomly on the street.
CONAN: And so white neighborhood made me a subconscious racist.
ERESON: Yeah, I grew up in a pretty sterilized, homogenous community, in a suburb of St. Louis. I went to pretty much all-white Catholic elementary school, and then I went to a largely white Catholic high school. So I really had no day-to-day encounters with anyone of a different race for a long time. And I guess my lack of encounters, there are a lot of stereotypes in St. Louis, the news and the violence.
People always are saying that, you know, St. Louis is the most dangerous city in America. And I guess those allowed me to formulate, I guess, realize that I had a lot of subconscious racism in the way I looked at random people on the street.
CONAN: Thinking about it, where do you think you learned it?
ERESON: I don't know. I think it was just like the stereotype, the - you know, like the news and the violence and just a lack of encounters with people from a variety of different cultures different than myself. I just didn't really have that.
CONAN: Michele, it's unusual to hear that.
NORRIS: It is unusual, and I have to tell you, Joe, thanks so much for submitting and for being a part of this conversation. When I posted your six words, some people contacted me, and they were really uncomfortable about that. You know, why are you putting that kind of thing out there? And one of the reasons that I do is because fear on the table is something we can deal with, you know, as opposed to fear that's sort of hidden in people's minds and in people's hearts.
And as you talk about your six words, and as I think about the six words that Sandra sent in - stop seeing black boys as predators - I think of another submission from someone else whose six words were: Always putting other people at ease - a black man who's aware that when he goes into an elevator or when he walks into a room that people see him and they're uncomfortable and so he has certain things that he does to try to put them at ease, and the burden of having to carry that around, you know, to have to be genial and jolly whether you feel that way or not, to try to make sure that everyone doesn't see you as a threat or a predator.
CONAN: Joe Ereson, after crystallizing your thoughts like that, has that changed you?
ERESON: I don't know. I would point to one experience that sort of made me aware of this. In my high school senior year, I took a class called African-American voices, and it just - a lot of it seemed like a comfortable, non-threatening environment to talk about our feelings.
And then I just - I never really would have, I guess, thought of it as, like, conscious racism, but I realized, wow, that is just so - that I think this is just so preposterous and terrible and unwarranted. It's just absolutely unwarranted, and I don't know why I think it.
And unfortunately, I think it's instinct, and I think it's something that a lot of people identify with, and I'm basing that - and so all these people from, like, my neighborhood, a lot of people, of my friends, have agreed with that.
NORRIS: Joe, before you sent in those six words, had you ever said this out loud? Had you ever expressed it in any way or shared it with someone?
ERESON: Yeah, in that class we had talked about it, and I just sort of realized, wow, like, for example, I was, you know, like at the mall or something, and you're anxious to walk by alone by a group of black teens enjoying themselves, having a good time, as I'd probably do the same thing with my friends.
And like I said, it's just absolutely unwarranted that I would think of something like that.
NORRIS: How do you combat something like that? How do you address it if it's, you know, something that's learned or ingrained or something that you pick up?
ERESON: I just - I had to keep telling myself how absolutely unwarranted it is, and you've got to think, I guess, in the other person's shoes, as cliche as that sounds. You know, I probably - I want to hang out there, just - everybody wants to hang out at the same spot, you know? It's not like they're doing anything wrong for being there.
CONAN: And if this was in part a product of a - growing up in a mostly white context, do you seek out more mixed situations now?
ERESON: Yeah, I love putting myself in different situations with a variety of different people, regardless of their race, you know, sexual orientation or whatnot, just talking to people and learning from them so that you can develop or see what they think, and just - you're a better person because of it.
And if you're talking about it, you're headed in the right direction.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
ERESON: OK, thank you.
CONAN: And thanks again for the contribution to the project. Want to read some of the - correction, we've now had over 200 six-word entries since we first announced this. This from Joanna(ph), much along the same lines: Embarrassed that I'm frightened by black boys. It's interesting. This from Stacey(ph): Gay doesn't make me less black.
NORRIS: Now, that is touching on, you know, another of those very difficult conversations that people perhaps don't want to talk about.
CONAN: Let's go next to Nancy(ph), Nancy with us from Framingham in Massachusetts.
NANCY: Yes, and I've lived in Framingham for 50 years, and the demographics of my town have changed drastically over that period. Today my six boys would be racial profiling in my own town. There are arrests every week in the local paper of, frankly, Hispanic people or people of Brazilian descent who are in large part now presently residents of my town of Framingham, Massachusetts, west of Boston.
So there is racial profiling in my town, and I want to say that between 1954 and 1956, when I was a fourth and fifth-grader, I lived in Sanford, Florida.
CONAN: Ah. OK, Nancy, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
NANCY: You're welcome.
CONAN: And that's interesting. Immediately it's broadened out to gay community and to Nancy writing about the Hispanics and Brazilians in her much-changed town of Framingham.
NORRIS: And what she sees every night when she turns on the news and the questions about what that - how it affects the way that she lives her life, where she decides to go or not go or how she reacts to people that she sees on the street.
CONAN: This is Brig(ph) in Kalama, Washington: On race, get over it, everybody.
NORRIS: I hear a lot of that. I have to tell you I hear a lot of that, people who say I'm tired of this conversation, why are we still having this conversation. A lot of people who question whether race is even a - you know, if it's biologically correct for us to even talk about people of different races. And yet this is this conversation that seems to be in the air.
It's sort of like the weather. It's there all the time. Sometimes it kicks up, and it's more of a tornado or...
CONAN: Or as Heather says in six words, it's never going to go away. Let's see if we can go next to Leslie(ph), Leslie with us from Southfield in Michigan.
LESLIE: Yes, hi. I was thinking about the six words, and I finally got: It defines me, but it doesn't define me.
CONAN: What do you mean by that?
LESLIE: Well, first off, I mean I admit it, and that in a way, it defines me. But I'm also Jewish, and that really defines me. And I have felt prejudice's sting because I am Jewish. I have been called names. I have been threatened. I've even been fired because I'm Jewish. And that more than anything else defines me.
CONAN: It's interesting, though, the way you phrase it - it defines me but doesn't define me - in a sense recognizes that there is this other context, the African-American/white context, that is also there too.
LESLIE: Right, I mean, there are - I live in Detroit, and there's a lot of black culture, and I grew up during Motown and the riots, and there are black families on our street. My daughter used to play with a bunch of boys down the street. She doesn't - obviously she grew up at the age - she's at the age where, you know, boys and girls don't like each other.
But, you know, I come in contact with them every day, and they're just people who have the same needs, wants, desires that I do.
NORRIS: You know, sometimes it feels like this is a two-sided coin, and sometimes it feels like it's sort of like a hexagon on the table, that there's more than two sides to this question, because you say it defines you, but it doesn't define you, but there's a larger question that affects - that applies to people, whether they're black or white or Asian or South Asian or native or Latino or, you know, of any stripe or certainly biracial is do you define yourself or do other peoples get to - other people get to define you?
NORRIS: You know, do people define you the way that you see yourself because I think I heard you say that at one point you've been called names, and you've been fired. You know, is that a question of someone else choosing how to define you despite how you choose to define yourself?
LESLIE: I refuse to let the world set my agenda. I refuse, you know, after 9/11, I refuse to let my - the fears of the world prevent me from living my life.
NORRIS: I think Neal and I are in here counting fingers.
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CONAN: I refuse to let the world set my agenda - it's one or two over but...
NORRIS: Yeah. Refuse to let world set agenda.
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CONAN: There you go. Leslie, you've come up with two. Thanks very much.
CONAN: Here's an email from Margaret in California. Thank you, Michele, for conceiving of this beautiful project. My six words: biological construction social reality collective wound.
NORRIS: You know, the word construct and construction, if you do sort of a word cloud or a wordle based on all of the submissions, again, something that's surprise me, that word comes up again and again and again - this idea that it's something that we have made up or that we have, you know, created in our minds or it's, you know, manufactured in some way, as opposed to something that is real or that, you know, that we control what it is, as opposed to it being something up there that controls us.
CONAN: Interesting. This is from Gary: Stop blaming whites, stop committing crimes. He goes on to write: As a police officer, most black people talk to me like they want a fight before I even talk to them. They know nothing about me. My Latino partners always called Uncle Tom. I give respect when I get respect. Why do so many blacks hate me because I'm white? It's the same question many black people ask, but it won't be fixed by blaming only whites.
NORRIS: And where is he writing from?
CONAN: It doesn't say.
NORRIS: But wherever he is, it's sort of makes you wonder if they're having that conversation in that community. Is the police officer - does the police officer have a chance to have that conversation with members of the community to actually engage and, again, put this on the table and do exactly what he's talking about - talk about it?
CONAN: And meet people outside the context of I'm the arresting officer. You're the alleged perpetrator. There's a lot of friction there from the get-go.
NORRIS: Right. I suspect he'd probably hear from people of color who say here's why we're afraid. Here's why we're angry.
CONAN: Five hundred eighty-three emails, we can't count the tweets. Michele Norris is with us. We're talking about race cards. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's see - we go next to - this is Andrea. Andrea with us from Esmont in Virginia.
ANDREA: Yes. Hi. My six words are - can I walk in your neighborhood. And that clearly relates to this incident in Florida. And it relates to me in my work. I'm a home health physical therapist, and what I do all day is walk in and out of very different types of neighborhoods. I'm very aware of how I feel when I walk as these neighborhoods change. So, for example, if I'm walking into a clearly a low socioeconomic neighborhood, I feel like my employee badge and my computer are sort of my protection.
CONAN: Your protection?
ANDREA: Yes. So, you know, I clearly don't come from your neighborhood. I don't have family here. But I need to be here to help somebody for my work. And so, I'm aware that I feel vulnerable. And I see those things as, you know, will this person - someone will know if something happens to her. So I guess I feel like I get maybe a little more respect. So I'm very aware of that. And I don't like it, but it's what it is.
NORRIS: Do you brandish your computer - excuse me. This is Michele.
CONAN: That's OK.
NORRIS: Or your badge in some way to let people know this is who I am, this is why I'm here?
ANDREA: I wear - yeah. I'm supposed to wear it. And I wear it on the outer most piece of my clothing. So if it's winter, it's on my winter coat. If not - it's what - people will see it, absolutely.
CONAN: Andrea, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Here's one from Jerry in Fresno. My entry into The Race Card Project: white skin let me win. Why?
NORRIS: I, you know, sometimes, you're left to wonder, what does that mean? I wish he was here with us...
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NORRIS: ...so he could explain.
CONAN: We have Mohammad on the line calling us from Kom(ph) in Iran.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please. What are your six words?
MOHAMMAD: Thank you for calling - taking my call. I'm calling from Iran, and I've always wanted to call this radio because I'm learning a lot of things from NPR. I wanted to appreciate it.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much.
MOHAMMAD: And my six words about racism are: everybody has some sort of racism.
CONAN: I think that's a kind of truism, Mohammad. How do you experience it in your life?
MOHAMMAD: You know, in Iran, we are suffering from racism, as well. Like people from Afghanistan, a lot of people are living in my country, and other peoples really look down on them. And, you know, in just words, they say that we don't have racism, but when it comes to reactions, it's totally a different story, you know, about marriage. For example, if an Afghan boy proposes to the girl, then they would say - they would reject this proposal, you know. So I would say everybody has some sort of racism in their blood but maybe this is a - this is not unraveled here yet.
CONAN: Mohammad, thank you very much for the call. Don't wait so long to call next time, OK?
MOHAMMAD: OK. I swear I'll call a lot and thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Michele, we're going to forward all of these contributions to you. And as you put them up on your website, you go through them.
NORRIS: I do. I do.
CONAN: Cumulatively, what do you learn?
NORRIS: Well, you know, it's been an education for me that is as valuable as anything I've learned in a classroom or, frankly, in a radio studio. I've learned many things. They draw you - it's almost like being pulled into the aspects of the conversation that you never get to hear unless you're actually at the table. I've learned that, you know, a lot of people are struggling with how they identify themselves. I've learned that the conversation about biracialism and multiculturalism is very much alive.
We sort of treat it as a side dish to the larger conversation about race. But at this point in America, it's kind of the main course. And I've learned, as Mohammad suggested, that all over the world, they may not call it racism, maybe it's bias, maybe it's tribalism. But a lot of people and a lot of places are wrestling with this.
CONAN: Six hundred fifty-five race cards at last count and still counting. Michele Norris, thank you so much. It's really been interesting.
NORRIS: Thank you, Neal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.