This weekend I decided to head out to the gym (which is rare on a Saturday morning) and get a chance to listen to my favorite radio shows. Lately most of my car driving time means I listen to a lot of NPR news and the Diane Rehm show.
(Is anyone else totally shocked to know that she does not look like the crypt keeper despite the way her voice sounds?!). However, my Saturday line up included Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the ever amazing talent of Ira Glass in This American Life. I cannot get enough of this show and frequently find myself hoping I could be featured alongside writer David Sedaris and comedian Mike Birbiglia in the latest trio of stories.
This week’s episode focused on a 24-hour diner in Chicago, The Golden Apple. This bustling and busy restaurant was a revolving door of people from all walks of life coming in to get a bite to eat, meeting friends, or to just have a sense of order and schedule in their day. Ira suggested as he introduced the scene, what if every person that came to visit the diner was interviewed and their stories told? And so, he did for 24 hours he and his writers interviewed each and every person in the diner.
In such a wonderful way, the producers on this show are able to make you feel that you are in this diner. You can smell the burnt coffee and see the waitresses who are exhausted from their all night shifts. I had such a clear mental movie playing in my head as the interviewer described a fellow patron as “a guy who looked like he could use 6 more hours of sleep.” Without saying this, I envisioned dark circles under puffy eyes. I imagined scruffy facial hair that had no intention of being shaved soon. “A pale haze of cigarette smoke” quickly inserted the distinct smell of tobacco and stale fabrics.
This notion of going to a place to just find stories is so captivating to me. How rarely do we actually get to know the people we interact with on a daily basis? The person serving you coffee at Starbucks, the man sitting next to you on the bus, even the woman who lives next door to you. Moving to a new city has made the anonymity of the people around me even more apparent. I only know 4 people in Houston, however I have interacted with hundreds and know nothing about them. I want to know what is their story and what makes them tick?
I wonder about creating this challenge for young writers. What if they were to interview people around them and get their stories? This exercise reminded me when I was a fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and we went to a homeless shelter. Our purpose was to help these men and women take steps to get a job and to talk with them and get a story. I remember the man I sat with. In my mind I just classified him as “homeless” but he had such a powerful story talking not about his current situation but about his family and more importantly his sister’s birthday party when he was young. This conversation humanized him for me and his story was important.
While there are many safety concerns for having students interview random strangers there are ways to be able to have them experience the feeling of taking away the label we put on people and getting to know their stories. Think about the people students interact with but don’t really know. The custodian who cleans up the milk from the floor, the cafeteria lady who serves their breakfast, and even their bus driver. What if we asked our young writers get to know these people’s stories, what is valuable to them, and have them connect with other human beings.
I wonder about the impact it would have. How are you getting the stories of others?