In 1999, on a rural intersection nine miles from the Mexican border in California, a pick-up truck was reported as having ignored a stop sign and collided with a car, causing the truck to roll over and throw the driver from the vehicle. This unnamed man was left with severe brain damage and has spent the intervening years in a San Diego nursing home on life support.
In Room 20, a new podcast from LA Times Studios, the investigative reporter Joanne Faryon chronicles her efforts to discover the identity of the man known by carers as Sixty-Six Garage — the name was taken from the repair shop where the van was towed after the accident. First responders found no belongings on him save for a few pesos and a phone card, and assumed he had entered the US illegally. Faryon combs through newspaper archives, highway patrol reports and hospital records, and sits at his bedside, talking to him and playing him music.
Her interest in the case, she says, is “unfinished business” linked to the death of her own mother years earlier after a period spent in a coma. It was Faryon’s decision to turn off her life support. “All these years later,” she says, “I still wonder whether I killed my mom. Did I act too quickly? Not ask enough questions? Being here . . . it’s like I’ve walked back in time to that decision.”
It’s a common trope in investigative podcasts that the host must engage in some soul-searching. It’s not enough to tell other people’s stories when they can also reveal something about themselves. Your heart goes out to Faryon for her loss but, in the context of this narrative, her personal reflections feel shoehorned in. Far more compelling are her findings about the broader context of Sixty-Six Garage’s story, specifically in the hundreds of migrants who die or go missing each year when trying to get to the United States. She takes tours of the border both with a border agent and a migrant rights activist, who offer contrasting views about how the area is policed.
Elsewhere, we hear from Ed Kirkpatrick, the nursing home director who, in his keenness to discover his patient’s identity, says, “We need to CSI the hell out of it.” In many ways, it is Kirkpatrick who provides the conscience of the story as he reflects on the existences of those in his care with a mixture of weariness and compassion. We hear him fielding inquiries from people searching for missing relatives who wonder if the man in lying in his hospital is their brother, cousin or son, and eventually delivering some startling news about Sixty-Six Garage. In sharing such moments, Room 20 provides a poignant portrait of its unnamed protagonist and the scores of people like him who risk their safety in search of a better life.
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