Reading at “Come as You Are,” a night of storytelling at the Charles R. Wood Theater in support of Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health.
The man sitting next to me on the F train was fidgeting with his iPhone, nervous sweat on his face.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
I don’t usually talk to strangers in the subway, but this man caught my attention. Well-dressed with shiny shoes, he had a charisma that built trust, like a Great Gatsby of the 21st Century.
“Read this,” he said, and pushed his iPhone into my hand.
It was a personal email to a woman friend of his, a girlfriend.
“My dearest Emily,” it started.
“I’m not sure I should be reading this,” I said.
“Please,” he replied, touching my shoulder. “Read this. For me.”
I understood his need for sharing, even with a complete stranger. Matters of the heart can consume the strongest warrior, bringing him to his knees, begging for mercy. This moment of intimacy closed the deal. I started reading the email again, drawn into the world of this mysterious stranger.
“My dearest Emily, our night together last week transported me to places I never knew. As we made love, your breasts against my chest, our mouths devouring the other, my manhood thrusting into your heavenly tunnel, a mixture of pleasure and pain that only the Gods of Olympus had everÂ attained, I knew you were the answers to all my prayers. Ever since the death of my wife three years ago, I saw a future of loneliness and despair, but now I know True Love. Â God has blessed us with tears of happiness. Before we met each other, we lived on dry land, uninhabitable. Now we have received the rain to grow our bounty, to make our petals open to the sun and our flowers bloom. I cannot go another day without your body next to mine, your whispers in my ear. Let’s get married! Meet me at the Fulton Street Station tonight at 8:00PM and we will toast our future together. I pray to God that your answer is YES.” Your one and only, Michael.”
I lowered the iPhone, not sure what to think. Sure, it was melodramatic and as clichÃ©d as a pulp novel, but who can think clearly when love hasÂ engorged the heart and groin? During passion, a man’s blood cells rush from his brain as fast as commuters leaving midtown at rush hour. Back when I was an English major in college, I distrusted the famous poets who wrote well-constructed love poems. No one experiencingÂ passion can convey it with cohesive sentences and grammar. Here on the F train, I found a man who was trulyÂ stung by Cupid’s burning arrow.
“What did you think?” he asked, seeing that I had finished reading the email.
“I thought it was powerful,” I said. “You make your point very forcefully.”
My new friend was sobbing. Now I touched his shoulder as a sign of camaraderie.
“Don’t cry,” I told him, Â consoling him like a brother. “I think a woman will eat this up. I guarantee that Emily will say yes. I’m sure she’s there waiting for you at the subway station right now.”
“Yes, but what about Melissa and Anna?”
“Who are Melissa and Anna?”
“They are the other two women I had sex with last week, and accidentally cc:-ed the same message.”
It’s a decent gig playing guitar on Rector Street. Although the Wall Street guys downtown are born assholes, programmed to crush their competition, they tip well, especially when the NASDAQ is up. Music is universal, no matter your income. During two years of standing on this corner, music has covered my rent and helped me pay back some debt I incurred at Julliard. The street has also been good for my soul. The constant chaos of lower Manhattan has softened the pain of losing Gina’s soft skin next to another man at night. A year later, there was still a hole in my heart. I had loved her more than all the music in the world.
The market fell a hundred points today, so I started to pack it up early, at 6PM.
“Don’t leave yet,” he said, approaching me from around the corner. He was one of my regulars. I nicknamed him “GQ” because he was always dressed in an imported Italian suit, pressed shirt, and fine leather shoes. His eyes that were the color of thousand dollar bills.
“Play it for me,” he said to me. “Play me the song.”
“I’m already packing up,” I replied, not wanting to go through this game again.
“Play it for me. Like only you can.”
“I don’t think it is a good idea to…”
GQ opened his wallet, drew out several hundred bills, and shoved it into my hands. My body was repulsed, wanting to return it, but my mind reminded me of my financial need.
I grabbed my guitar and strummed the opening chords to Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”
“Oh, her eyes, her eyes make the stars look like they’re not shining
Her hair, her hair falls perfectly without her trying
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her everyday.”
As I sang the song, I thought about GQ’s cruelty. “Just the Way You Are,” was OUR song. It was playing on the radio on the night I met Gina. And he knew that. Â Winning Gina wasn’t enough for him. Â He would pay me to sing to the victor, the ultimate humiliation, because on Wall Street, you are programmed to crush your competition.
“Help me to the window,” said the old man to his aide. “I want to show you something.”
The old man put his face to the window, like a kid looking into a candy store.
“You see those two buildings on Fifth Avenue. I own them. I own forty-seven properties in Manhattan, twenty properties in Brooklyn, and twelve properties in Queens. I practically own the city.”
“Your legacy is clear, sir. Â Â We will remember you asÂ one of the greatest men the city has ever produced.”
The old man laughed.
“What do you know about Boss Tweed?”
“He ran the city in the late nineteenth century. Today, he is nothing more than an obscure answer on Jeopardy. No one will remember me.”
The crowd below had gathered in strength. Â This morning, even the scared New York Times had weakly endorsed the rabble-rousersÂ of the Occupy Real Estate Movement. Â The angry mob marched down Fifth Avenue with their signs and banners and angry voices calling for an end to all private property. Ground Zero was the old man’s apartment tower, the third largest building in the city, where apartments started at $20 million dollars. Â Last week, the old man’s organization installed bulletproof windows in his penthouse, in caseÂ one of the armed protesters hijacked a helicopter.
“Where are you from?” the old man asked his aide. “For all the time you’ve been here, I’ve never asked you about your family.”
“I’m from Staten Island, sir.”
“I was born in the Bronx. Morris Avenue. It was a nice place back then. We used to play stickball in the street. I kissed my first girl on Morris Avenue. Mary Lapazza was her name. Â Of course, everyone I know from that time is dead by now. Â Including Mary Lapazza. Â “I’m going to make it big for you, Mary,” I once told her after she decided to go to the prom at Andrew Jackson High School prom with Arnie Weinstein instead of me. Â “I’m going to make it big, and then you’ll come calling on me!””
The old man jerked unsteady on his cane.
“Would you like to sit down, sir?” asked the aide.
“No. I’d like you to go buy whatever property is now on 145 Morris Street in the Bronx. I don’t care how much it costs. I want you to buy it today. And then when you buy it for me, I want you to drive me over there, because for the rest of my life, that is where I am going to live. Â And die.”
It was not a good third date.
Sheryl had high hopes about him; he was a perfect gentleman on the first two outings. But he changedÂ tonight, as if he had gotten some bad advice from an ex-fraternity friend on becomingÂ a “player.” He bragged too much about his new job as a securities analyst, and pushed her to order the most expensive cocktail at this trendy restaurant that was “impossible to get a reservation except if you know someone.”
After dinner, she turned down his offer for him to come to her apartment, saying that she was old-fashioned, certainly not expecting his face to redden and words to spew such as “cocktease,” “bitch,” and “user.”
Sheryl never perceived herself in such a negative way before, wondering if sheÂ was indeed guilty of breaking theÂ rules of dating. Â She apologized to her date and said she was uncomfortable dating. Â She’d rather just stay home and read, but her ultimateÂ fantasy — of one day walking through Central Park with a special man, holding his sturdy hand — proved sufficient motivation for her to leave the house wearing the makeup she bought at Macy’s and her prettiest yellow dress.
Sheryl walked home alone. Weaker women would be crushedÂ by theÂ evening’s disappointment, but not Sheryl. As she passed by the abandoned church on Amsterdam Avenue, she saw that the church light, a former beacon of hope to those in need of spiritual guidance, now cracked in disrepair, was still lit, almost miraculously, much as her broken heart still beat strongly in a search for love.
The year was 1972. Â Eddie was working at his father’s hardware store in Chinatown when the People’s Republic of China Peking Circus came to town as a cultural exchange arranged by President Nixon.
It was a busy in his father’s hardware store, named Yang’s Do-it-Yourself. Â It was the first day of Spring, and all the hibernating weekend warriors suddenly awoken to the maintenance jobs left undone during the cold winter month, their wives pushing them to fix the broken doorknobs and misfitting window shades.
But Eddie’s mind was elsewhere. Â The NYPD closed off part of Mott Street for a procession of the Chinese performers, a mini-parade, and Eddie was keen on seeing it. Â At lunchtime, he left the shop, against his father’s wishes.
Eddie thrilled at the sight of the exotic acrobats and horses which paraded down the grimy, littered Lowe East side street. Â The circus performers looked as Chinese as he did, same eyes and dark hair, but they stepped with a precision that made them seem distinctly unAmerican. Â If only the Chinese people saw the chaos during a fire drill at an American school like P.S. 100.
“Form a straight line.” Mrs. Goldenberg, his teacher, would yell. Â “One at a time.” Â And, of course, no one listened. Â Americans are like John Wayne. Â They do it THEIR WAY.
“I bet there isn’t one Eddie in THIS circus,” Eddie thought to himself.
A few moments later, he saw a woman in the procession wearing a costume with golden wings. Â She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Â Her name was Howin, which means “loyal swallow” in Chinese. Â He discovered that was her name because he followed her for a mile along the route uptown and waited for her for five hours in the lobby of the Pennsylvania Hotel until he could see her again, completely forgetting about his job back at the hardware store. Â That night, his father beat him with a belt, calling him a shameful son who lacked ambition.
Today is the first of Spring, 2015, and Eddie has long forgotten the beating. Â Eddie prides himself on remembering the good things in life and not the tragedies, such as his father’s death, his son’s suicide at seventeen, the closing of the shop, his wife’s cancer. Â And he will always remember the day and especially the night with Howin, the Communist Chinese circus acrobat visiting on a cultural exchange arranged by then President Nixon, a woman he could barely communicate with in Cantonese or English.
He never again saw Howin, the loyal swallow, but as Eddie, now an old man, walks along Mott Street on this cold first day of Spring, he remembers her golden wings.
Blogging story of the day: Â Big-time blogger goes to third-world country, writes post about what she saw, and others criticize her for being a wealthy white woman doing “poverty tourism.”
But this blogger is “doing good!” say her defenders.
I’ve now read ten posts on this topic, all focusing on how wrong it was for others to mock a person doing so much good. In two days, the personal blogging community went from caring only about “monetizing their blog” to Â the importance of “doing good.”
In my opinion, you are getting the argument wrong. Â The “doing good” is a red herring. Â It has nothing to do with anything. Â I’m not friends with any of the parties involved, so there is no one I want to defend.
I’m just interested in storytelling.
I believe writers should be able to tell their stories without others mocking them. Â A person has the freedom to go to a Third World country and write about his or her experience.
If I went on this trip, I might talk about my allergies, the smog, and how the cab driver ripped me off. Â I might even HATE visiting this chaotic country, and reveal I spent the entire week in my hotel room drinking mojitos Â And you know something? — you still don’t have any right to mock me. Â It’s my story, even it’s about a weekend in a upscale hotel in a Third World country. Â Â Not an editorial on how you should live your life.
Of course, a person also has the right to criticize. Â But only the issue, not the story. Â The story is above the issue. Â That’s what make stories last longer than the issues. Â Because stories not about “doing good” or being right or following any political or artistic agenda.
They are about life. Â Â Write your own stories.
I go to McDonald’s almost every day for a cup of coffee.Â There is one downstairs from my apartment building in Queens where I live, so it is convenient.Â McDonald’s coffee is cheap, pretty good, and the location has wireless.Â I can sit there for an hour and half without feeling guilty, like I do in a typically overcrowded New York Starbucks with limited seating, and others waiting.
About two weeks ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I was trying out their new oatmeal, and that it was mediocre.Â Â I complimented McDonald’s for at least offering something healthier than the Egg McMuffin.Â A few people commented back, mocking McDonald’s and their lame attempt to be “healthy.”Â Others blamed McDonald’s for American’s obesity problem and vowed to never bring their children into the fast food chain.
It was a good and interesting discussion.Â It was only a few days later that I felt a surprising chilling effect.Â Knowing that McDonald’s is not a favorite locale of my readership, with all sorts of negative connotations, should I mention my daily trips to McDonald’s anymore?Â How does this affect my “brand?”
Of course, I already know your response to that question.Â You are all nice people.Â Â You are going to say I should write about anything I want.Â But I’m human, too, and I think peer pressure is a worthy subject to discuss, even when it is involved with something like storytelling.
I remember speaking out against the “People of Walmart” website, calling it mean-spirited, even though so many of you thought it was hilarious.Â But let’s face it, millions of people go to Walmart every day, whether we like it or not.Â How many personal storytellers have now decided NOT TO TELL their little story about their family’s trip to Walmart online because of the negative association the store has with their online friends?Â How many women are afraid of telling some funny story about feeding their baby some baby formula, scared to death that they are going to be attacked by breastfeeding advocates.Â Or is THAT the point?Â To change people’s attitudes by peer pressure?
We are not talking about opinion pieces here.Â We are talking about stories.Â Human stories of life.Â I think we need to make a distinction between opinion/news and storytelling.Â Â Arguing about the Republican’s health care plan is political.Â Arguing with a non-political story about a Republican-voting wife is not always appropriate.Â It could just be a story about going to the doctor.Â Even Republicans have to go to the doctor.
We all proclaim that the internet is about “giving voices” to everyone, and “letting everyone tell their story.”Â But do we really believe it?Â Perhaps what we are really saying is that “we want to free the voices that have the same beliefs that we do.”
Stories are a funny business, because not every single story is a moral tale, or even makes the hero look good.Â For instance, there was once this fight in junior high, and my friend got involved, and rather than helping out, I ran away, wanting to save my own ass.Â I’m sure you can see why I fear telling this story.Â It is a tale of cowardice.Â But it is a human story, a story of a specific time and place.Â My eyes are already rolling from visualizing the comments, a combination of friends supporting me and trolls saying someone should cut off my dick.Â Too often, we read each other’s stories like they are public announcements of confession or attacks.Â Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
I supposed it is the job of the writer to present his unique story in a way that undercuts the reader’s stereotype.Â One day, I would like to write a truly beautiful post about my local McDonald’s.Â Yeah, yeah, I know it is a corporate giant and the food is terrible and is making our children into fat slobs.Â I know all this, and I agree with you.
But I enjoy my cup of coffee in McDonald’s.Â Rightly or wrongly, my McDonald’s attracts a very mixed crowd, and in my eyes, it is probably the most ethnically, racially and class mixed group I have ever encountered in one enclosed place.Â There are blacks and whites, working class guys, and a businessman stopping for a quick bite before he runs for the bus. And you know what?Â We are all nice to each other.Â We have a common denominator — McDonald’s mediocre fast food.Â Even though McDonald’s isn’t kosher or halal, I see both Jews and Muslims in the playground area with their kids, playing together.Â In some ways, my local McDonald’s is our neighborhood’s public park, our Central Park — and even more diverse.Â People write poems about Central Park.Â Â Why not about McDonald’s?
But I wonder what the reaction would be if I wrote this glowing tribute the the Golden Arches.Â Now if I had a McDonald’s advertisement plastered on my blog, THAT no one would care about.Â But a personal opinion would be ripe for attack.Â Would some advocate suggest that McDonald’s is “using” minorities for corporate gain by supplying them with cheap, unhealthy food?Â Perhaps.Â But that is not the story I am telling.Â And it would ruin the point of my story.Â Â After all, you might write a lovely tale about your family’s lovely luncheon at the organic food restaurant in the Village.Â I’m sure you would not appreciate it if my review of your story was “typical long-winded stuff about a wealthy New York going to a cafe of overpriced food with other white, privileged patrons.”
I believe ideology is the enemy of storytelling.Â Let people live their lives and tell their truth, without shame, even if the story doesn’t always fit into your box.Â Â If you really want to hear “the voices of people,” you have to hear about visits to McDonald’s and Walmart — because that’s part of their story.
Note:Â Speaking of stories, you can read a post I wrote for Studio 30+ about the pitfalls of searching for photos of topless women online when you are a 30+ male.
I cannot imagine what you are going through.
I cannot imagine what you are going through as a single mother.
As an Mexican-American.
As a little person.
As someone laid off from your job when your wife is pregnant.
As a child growing up in the slums of Mumbai.
Why do kindhearted people always say that?
I CAN imagine what you are going through.Â I have a good imagination.
It is better to imagine.Â Â Tell me your story, and I can imagine it.
If I cannot imagine what you are going through, it means I’m not paying attention.
Two weeks ago I went with Jen Lee to this Moth Storytelling Slam downtown. It took place at a small venue downtown, so audience members and storytellers were lined up for an hour before the show, in the freezing cold, just to get a seat. As Jen and I waited, she introduced me to her friends. She is a semi-regular. During my conversations with some of these storytellers, I was amused by the sub-culture that has grown up around these “slams.” As bloggers, we’ve become so used to chatting about WordPress and plugins, gibberish to outsiders. Well, every sub-group has their own insider lingo.
“You going into the hat tonight?” some hipster guy asked me.
He explained to me that those who wanted to tell a story put their name into a hat, and ten storytellers are randomly chosen.
As he spoke, he gave me a aggressive look, ready to pounce on me if I said, “Yes,” as if this was the storyteller’s equivalent of a new blogger arrogantly thinking he was going to make as much money as Dooce in his first year of blogging. I assured him that I was just a visitor to this strange storytelling world, which eased the tension.
The line for the show was snaking around the block. There was a hodgepodge of social activity going on — networking, flirting, competitor bantering, cold stares, and camaraderie, while the intense loners stood apart, practicing their stories on a mini-recorder, praying to God that they be picked to present their story that night, catapulting them to literary success, allowing them to quit there job selling bathroom plumbing at Home Depot, and enabling them to give a big “f**k you” to all the less-talented wannabees on line next to them.
Sound familiar? Exactly! Like an invitation-only party at BlogHer.
Finally, the doors to theater opened and we were let in out of the cold. Jen and I found good seats. As the show began, I could feel a nervous tension in the air. The MC, a storyteller himself, pulled a name out of the hat and that individual was invited to come to the front and tell his story. Since no one knew who was going to be picked next, those waiting for their name to be called were always at the edge of their seats. The female storyteller in front of me, dressed in the 1970’s Annie Hall look, was tapping her foot the entire evening, waiting for her big moment, like a teenager waiting for the phone to ring to be asked to the prom. Sadly, the boy never called. At the end of the night, she was the first one out of the bar, on her way home to sulk.
Each night of storytelling revolves around a new theme. The subject is broadly defined, so the storyteller can almost mold any story into the current theme. The night’s theme was “cars.”
Smart writers know that there are two genres that always sell — sex and coming of age stories. Or both. It didn’t surprise me that the first five stories contained these elements, whether it was a story about a woman losing her virginity in the back of a 1970 Mustang or a man’s having a remembrance of the family trip to Disneyworld in the Chevy Nova.
The sixth reader to be picked from the hat was an Asian-American man of about forty, with black cropped hair. His story was different than the others. He began his story by telling the audience that when he was in his thirties, he worked in Silicon Valley, slaving away for twelve hour days. One night, as he was driving home, he had a heart attack. He then proceeded to tell us all the specific details of what it feels like to have a heart attack. He described the tightening of the chest, the discomfort, and the fear.
I found it extremely difficult to listen to his story. I could feel my own chest tightening. Suddenly, there was a cry for help. An audience member, just five rows ahead of us, a fiftyish man with his family, had slumped over in his chair.
The MC ran to the microphone.
“Call 911! Call 911! We need a doctor,” he shouted.
Everybody fumbled with their phones, because the MC had made us shut them off when the show began. There were no doctors in the house, since the audience was mostly thirty-ish writers with soul patches, but someone ran up to the slumped man and relaxed his shirt.
I should remind you that the venue was jammed. Audience members were sitting in the center aisle. If the fire department had seen the way storytellers had to climb over people to reach the front stage, the entire venue would have been fined, or closed down.
“Everyone in the center aisle has to leave,” said the MC. “We need room for emergency.”
“I’m calling an ambulance!” cried someone in the first row, his phone dialing.
The audience in the center dispersed. Since Jen and I had our seats, we remained seated. The Asian storyteller hid in the corner, horror on his face, wondering if his Moth Slam story had just killed a man.
After ten minutes of chaos, the slumped man sat upright, like a zombie awakening from sleep. As the emergency workers entered the theater, the newly-awake man stood up and said that he was OK. The audience sighed with relief. The formerly-slumped man was now red-faced, not from illness, but from embarrassment. He walked over to the stage and asked the MC if he could say a few words to the audience, including those who were re-entering from outside. The audience was confused, wondering if this was some sort of stunt. But it wasn’t.
“I’m sorry to scare you,” said the man. “I fainted. This was not the first time this has ever happened to me. Whenever I hear stories of people in pain, I become so sensitive to their pain, that I begin to feel the sensations themselves and stop breathing. I once fainted in the middle of church. When this storyteller started telling his story about his heart attack, I had a feeling that this was going to happen, and I tried not to listen, to think about something else, but I could hear his words, and I felt compelled to listen, and as he described the pain in his heart, I felt a pain in my heart and — I’m sorry. Maybe I should go home.”
The audience clapped, and the fainting man left. The Asian storyteller returned to the stage and continued with his heart attack story, but the magic was gone. None of the remaining storytellers could match the real life drama. The fainting man both proved the power of storytelling — his intense reaction to another’s intense story — and WAS the best story of the night, because it happened in front of our eyes.
This little true life tale encapsulates — for me — blogging during 2009. We all put our blog posts into the hat, hoping that they get noticed by others. We listen to each others stories. Some tell funny stories. Some tell sad stories. Some stories are more popular than others. Some of us are not community-oriented at all. Some of us just tap our feet, waiting for OUR chance to be on stage so we can tell our story. At times, we are confronted by real drama — like having someone collapse right in front of us — right in the middle of our story. It is times like these, that we put aside our competitiveness and bickering, and offer support to those who need it. And then, there are those moments that overwhelm us, when we get so involved in the lives of others that we feel dizzy and faint.
The only solution for that is to apologize to everyone, take a breather, and come back refreshed.
Writing, Reading, Laughing, Caring, Overwhelmed. That was Blogging in 2009.
See you in 2010.