An ear on America

Editorial Notebook

November 15, 2003|By Ann LoLordo

IN A BIG orange-and-yellow soundproof booth in Grand Central Terminal, people are telling the stories of their lives. For $10, they get 40 minutes to remember and record their piece of history. That's history with a small h, a tale, a story spoken that reveals as much about a place in time as an individual.

There's the coincidence of two guys from Brooklyn meeting as soldiers in New Guinea during World War II - Where ya from, Bud? - and discovering they live on the same street and in the same building in Flatbush.

Holy mackerel, this guy is from the same house. So the next question, what apartment? 1-B. I'm 2-B. Pleased to meet you.

There's the defiance of a slave woman as recounted by a granddaughter, who, at 98, retells a story her mother told her.

The master's wife said ... "Mary, you gave that child a biscuit and I'll have to whip you for that." ... My grandmother said, "Miss, I have taken the last whipping from that cat-o'-nine-tails. If you hit me once with it today, I'm going to chop your head off and let it fly out the window." ... She wanted to let them know she was tired of being treated worse than they would treat a dog."

The stories being told in the soundproof booth in Manhattan are part of an oral history of the 21st century conceived by David Isay, a New York documentarian. It's his response to reality TV, which, as he says, isn't reality at all. It's an attempt to capture the reality of our time through the voices of regular people. What's interesting about the StoryCorps project is not that people are telling stories, but the stories they choose to tell. The sound portraits aren't all flattering or favorable, and that's what makes them intimate and true.

Family and friends prod the participants with one question, then another:

How do you want to be remembered? What was the happiest moment of your life? Do you have any regrets? Is there something about yourself that you think no one knows?

And, in response, the stories unspool. In the telling, emotions change, lives evolve and the unexpected emerges.

A grandmother's revelation of a stormy childhood leads to a life well lived and recognition that: Tomorrow if my time comes, I had a full life, a good one.

A subway operator's retelling of the day he helped deliver a baby on the C train exposes his vulnerability:

"What's your name?" I say, "Joseph." She says, "My baby boy's name is Joseph 'cause I never would have done this without you." That's when I realized I delivered a baby. And my knees buckled.

A great uncle's vivid rendering of a first date devolves into a poignant reflection on the loss of his wife:

I see this vision of purple coming down the street. ... She was so glamorous, and I said what the hell, I'm a two-bit farmboy, this is such a sophisticated woman. She's way beyond me. So that's when I tried to duck out. I turn to the doorway but the door was locked and there was no way to escape (Crying). ...

Grief is a funny thing, you know. Right now when I do break down, I hate to say this but it's a good feeling 'cause it's like you're trying to defend yourself and all of a sudden you don't have to, you're just letting go. It's a good feeling 'cause you no longer have to act something that you don't really feel, that you're happy with everything, 'cause you're not and you never will be.

In an era of visual overstimulation, in which television and video images bombard the senses, the spoken word resonates, powerful and true. The voices from the booth in Grand Central remind us of the voices we have heard and the ones we haven't. And the ones we wished we had recorded to listen to again and again.

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