April 08, 2007

A Visit to Storycorps

Yesterday, by a stroke of incredible luck, I managed to get an appointment for Joe and me at Storycorps's Mobilebooth Airstream trailer, which is here in Hartford for the month of April. For those of you who do not listen to National Public Radio (and I am one of you...I just learned about Storycorps from the TV stories about it this past week) let the following, cribbed off their website, give you a short intro. If I linked it correctly, there should be a video accompanying the description that gives you an even better idea of what Storycorps is all about.


StoryCorps is a national project to instruct and inspire people to record one another's stories in sound.

We're here to help you interview your grandmother, your uncle, the lady who has worked at the luncheonette down the block for as long as you can remember—anyone whose story you want to hear and preserve.

To start, we're building soundproof recording studios across the country, called StoryBooths. You can use these StoryBooths to record broadcast-quality interviews with the help of a trained Facilitator. Our first StoryBooth opened in New York City's Grand Central Terminal on October 23, 2003. We've since opened a second StoryBooth in New York City, two traveling recording studios, called MobileBooths, and an Outpost in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

We've tried to make the experience as simple as possible: We help you figure out what questions to ask, and we handle all the technical aspects of the recording. At the end of the hour-long session, you get a copy of your interview on CD.

Since we want to make sure your story lives on for generations to come, we'll also add your interview to the StoryCorps Archive, housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which we hope will become nothing less than an oral history of America. (See the press release on the Library of Congress Web site.)

A video (QuickTime, 10 MB) is available which explains the StoryCorps experience in more detail.

Our Vision

StoryCorps is modeled—in spirit and in scope—after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, through which oral history interviews with everyday Americans across the country were recorded. These recordings remain the single most important collection of American voices gathered to date. We hope that StoryCorps will build and expand on that work, becoming a WPA for the 21st Century.

StoryCorps celebrates our shared humanity and collective identity. It captures and defines the stories that bond us. The process of interviewing a friend, neighbor, or family member can have a profound impact on both the interviewer and the storyteller. People change, friendships grow, families walk away feeling closer and understanding each other better. Listening, after all, is an act of love.


So that is what I signed Joe and myself up for. Karen came along, but I asked her not to add anything, except to help translate Joe's words if ever I was at a loss to understand him.

Saturday morning, things did not look good for the interview. Joe was not in a good mood and his voice was particularly bad, which frustrated him to the point of his wanting to cancel the interview. I think he only went along downtown with us because he didn't want to disappoint me. But his gloom did not diminish even upon seeing the Airstream, and as we stood around outside it, waiting to be called for our appointment inside, he wandered around the courtyard by himself, looking miserable, and would not even try to talk to me. I felt awful, like I was proposing to torture him, and told him again and again that he could pull the plug on the whole thing at any time, all he had to say was that he just didn't want to do it. But he wouldn't tell me that, just shrugged and shook his head when I asked him if he wanted to go home.

Finally someone appeared with a coffee cup and looked at us a bit bemused. "Are you here, uh, to do any interview?"

"Yes," I said. "I signed up for one last night. There must have been a cancellation as it was the only slot available all month."

"Hmmm, let me check something." He looked beyond us and we turned to see another couple had entered the Old State House courtyard now and was looking at the Mobilebooth as if they too expected to go inside. Oh, no...

THe young man, whose name we later discovered was Brian, came out of the Airstream again and asked my name. I told him, and showed him the email printout of my confirmation of the appointment. I thanked heaven that I had thought to bring it with me. He nodded and took it with him, checking off something on a piece of paper. "You didn't by any chance sign up under another name, did you?"

I told him that I had put down another interviewee's name, Cy, as a place holder, in case Joe said no, but that my name was the only one that had registered at all, and that no one else's had appeared on the confirmation at any time. Brian went over to the other couple while I turned back to Joe and Karen, not watching what he did or said to the others. Finally, he came back to us. "Okay, Folks, we're all ready for you. Why don't you climb aboard and we'll get started."

Inside, the trailer was bigger than I'd expected. We went directly to the sound studio in the second room in the back and took seats across from each other over a small table, Karen and I facing Joe, with microphones in between us. An extra one was placed near me since I was on the outside and not really near the one on the table. Then after we signed a few papers and introduced ourselves the interview began.

At home, we had tried a run-through of the questions I had planned to ask Joe about his childhood and growing up, and his adult life and wishes and dreams and his illnesses etc but once in the Mobilebooth, well, I threw them all out the window and decided to wing it. I had planned to start at the beginning of his life. However, since I knew what was important to him, and because I had just a few minutes before, outside, asked him if he had a love of his life, and he'd said: You; did he believe in love at first sight: of course, I loved you from the moment I saw you raging down the halls of the psychiatric ward...I decided to talk about us.

So we started talking about that. And lo and behold he brightened up and his voice was intelligible for the first time in days. I almost didn't need to translate, except that I guess what I understood not everyone would have. But he was understandable, to me, and that was what mattered. And he seemed to have a good time, to joke and to enjoy himself. Even to the point of mugging for the non-existent camera, and making gagging gestures when I turned serious and told him what he'd meant to me. But at least he was having fun and feeling good for a change and so I didn't mind.

At the end, the Storycorps Facilitator, who had also fed me questions to ask Joe during the interview whenever I fell short or quiet, took our pictures. But he forgot to give us the CD of our interview, which all are supposed to get at the end. He called me to tell me he'd mail it out on Monday, so hopefully we'll have a copy of it by Tuesday if all goes well.

I'm so happy I could do this for Joe as today, Easter, he could neither eat pureed Easter dinner at the Saybrook Fishhouse nor speak at all, so it was quite a downer compared with yesterday. I think it would have been easier had it not been Easter and had we not had to deal with his mother, with whom he has an extremely conflict-ridden relationship, to say the least. I think he needed a day off, a day to rest and relax, before having to take her on...But he is a good son and does his duty, so he took her and us out to dinner, though he could not eat nor talk himself. I felt terrible about that, and could scarcely bear to be there, but for the fact that I could at least take the brunt of his mother's constant chitchat by listening and responding to her so that Joe would not have to (which he hates to do above all else).

A good day yesterday, a not so good day today, and I am exhausted but tomorrow Joe moves into his new apartment so the frazzledness is not over yet, even though movers will do a lot of the work. They won't do it all, or I will have to do some of it as I am sure they will not get everything put away correctly and Karen will plead that she is too physically disabled to do any work (she can walk enough to go shopping for Macy's clothing anytime of the day or week and walk from her car in our parking lot, but needs Joe to drop her off in front of the building if he drives...She manages to pick up her beads and shoes and clothing off the floor when she wants to wear them but claims she can't...Oh F---!). All I know is that she will sit back and direct me, order me around, tell me where I must put things, and then make me do all the work and take credit for it when it is done.

I have big problems with Karen, but mostly when she is around Joe and me. When we are together, alone, she is less troublesome, though she is forever BOASTING about how smart she is, how she went to Harvard, as if that says anything about her supposed "brilliance" (all she cares about is style and fashion and movie stars). But I find her abrasive, aggressive and egotistical a lot of the time, and often, even when we get along superficially, really can't stand her. I also freeze at the thought that when Joe is gone, she will be my ONLY friend.

I have to do something about that, but I don't know what or how. I didn't meet anyone in that class, now over, because Balam never had us introduce ourselves, and it wasn't a particularly interactive class, nor long enough for one to form relationships with others. You either knew people upon coming, as two nurses did, or you came and went alone.

Well, enough for now. Joe's bipap is malfunctioning, which I went down to help him with. However, Karen barged in and took over, so I left. No need for all three of us working on it and there was clearly no longer anything for me to do. A third leg, extraneous, why should I have stayed?

Posted by pamwagg at April 8, 2007 05:07 PM


Dear Pam,

What a great thing to do! And I'm glad Joe told you how he really feels about you and you him. That's important. These last two years when I visit my family I tape record interviews with them. I have a pile of tapes no more than a foot and a half away from me right now. I wish I knew how to turn tapes into cds. I'll figure it out someday, it's probably really simple but I'm not much of a techie.

By the way, I wanted to thank you for the e-card you sent me. Unfortunately I couldn't open it up but just that you were thinking of me made me feel very good.

Posted by: Kate K. at April 13, 2007 01:36 AM

Post a comment

Please enter this code to enable your comment -
Remember Me?