Monday, February 23, 2009

Notes from the Field (XVII)

The Story of a Lifetime

After a decade of describing what my storytelling performances consist of, I have come up with this concise, chipper, and truthful one-liner. “I tell folktales, fairytales, and some original tales I’ve created myself”, I’ll say, the words rolling off my tongue, without my mind giving it a second thought. If pressed, I’ll elaborate, saying there might be a legend, or poem in there, now and again. And if it seems like I’m talking to someone who knows, and/or cares about stuff like this, I’ll include, “I use a wide range of story types – Porquoi Tales, Trickster Tales, and others.”

But nowhere, in any of my verbiage, would you hear the words Personal Story. It’s not because I don’t like them, it’s not because I don’t think others like them. No, I don’t perform Personal Stories – those tales based on ones real life experiences, because, frankly, I always thought they were too hard.

I mean, think about it. First of all, you have to have had something exciting, funny, or profound to have happened to you for material. My life, though not boring, has not been filled with even a drop of the drama I find in folktales. By the time Cinderella was my age, she had been orphaned, virtually enslaved, learned how to walk in glass heels, and married a prince! Thankfully, my parents are alive, and Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As for the rest, Payless Shoe Source makes fabulously faux, comfortable heels of all kinds, and the prince I married, grew up in New Jersey, not a castle. It’s a wonderful life, as they say, but a dull story.

And even if I had an exciting tale to tell, there’s the issue of how to structure it. It’s one thing to tell the little anecdote about how as a kid I ran away from sleep away camp (and my parent’s subsequent ire about it), to a bunch of friends at Starbucks, it’s a whole other thing to stand up in front of a paying audience, and talk about it – for an hour!! Personal Tales, when done well, have a through line – the good old, beginning, middle, and end. There’s detail, but not too much, characters, but not too many, and a satisfying conclusion. And most of all, at least to me, they are NOT someone ranting for an hour about not getting a certain toy for Christmas when they were five. They are A LOT OF WORK, and at the end of it, you can’t be sure that anyone’s going to find it interesting but you.

Yes, I was CERTAIN a Personal Story would never come out of my mouth – but you know what they say about God laughing when we mortals make plans…Not only have I created a tale from something that I have experienced, I have been moved to tell it again, and again – everywhere from libraries to Detention Centers, to six year olds, to senior citizens. One very long, cold, wondrous day has, I think, become a story of a life time for me.

This story began somewhere this past spring, when I went from thinking, “Barak Obama, huh? Well, he’s smart, I like what he’s saying – but is American ready to elect an African-American president – I don’t think so!” to “YES WE CAN!!!!!!” As I watched every news story, and read every article about the upcoming election, I told all those who would listen, and quite a few who didn’t, that if Barak Obama won, I would be amongst the expected millions lining the Washington Mall to witness the inauguration.

My willingness to squeeze my body in amongst the possibly millions of other Obama maniacs, was met with A LOT of skepticism.

“How will you get there?”
“Where will you stay?”
“What about the crowd?”

I, with the fervor of someone newly saved at a revival meeting swept away the questions with an eye roll, and a sigh, saying, “Jimmy (my husband) and I will drive. We’ll stay with my sister. I take the New York City subway everyday – believe me, I know from crowded!!”

But, in amongst my armor of Obama righteousness, I did have one concern – the cold. It would be January, and I might have to be outside for hours, and hours, and hours. For a person with even the normal level of body heat this would be tough, but for me Ms. “Our Lady of Perpetual Coldness”, this could be VERY BAD. I have been known to wear a heavy wool hat inside – in August!! Let’s just say that cold and I, are not on good terms. Yet, even cold could not deter me. Literally layer by layer, I amassed gear made of flannel, fleece, and wool. I gathered hand warmers, ski pants, and a marvelous thing called a “turtle fur” hood (note: no actual turtles were hurt in the making of this garment. I swear on my vegetarian soul). When I had enough warm clothes to fill two EXTREMELY large bags, I realized I still had a weakness – my toes. The digits that I had misshapen through years of dance, now threatened to unhinge my inauguration dreams.

As ALWAYS, it was Jimmy who came to my rescue, discovering a hunting and fishing supply store that we could stop at on our way to D.C. We figured if anyone knew about standing around for hours in the pre-dawn chill, it was those outdoorsy types. Strolling past a parking lot full of pick-up trucks driven by folks in camouflage, we entered the store, and went our separate ways. Jimmy went looking for boots, and I for SOCKS!!!!!!!!!!! While I already had six pairs of socks with me – what I craved was the ultimate sock, the sock that would protect my toes from frost bite as I witnessed history. I searched through mounds of silk, micro-fiber, and polar fleece, and then suddenly – THERE THEY WERE. Battery heated socks!!! Never in my life had three words seemed so wondrous and unbelievable at the same time. (okay, so the first time Jimmy said,”I love you.” was pretty AMAZING, too)

Here’s how they worked: STEP ONE: insert battery. STEP TWO: snap top closed. STEP THREE: wait for the battery to heat the wire connected to the heat panel under the toes. STEP FOUR: be very, very happy!!

So enamored was I by the notion of these foot coverings, that I, a woman who balks at paying over $20 for any article of clothing, joyously slapped down $23.95 for a pair, without a thought. I would have bought a pair for every day of the week, but Jimmy wrestled them from my trembling hands.

Socks in tow, we arrived at my sister’s home, or should I say, her “situation room”. If there is anything we Pasquals are, it is thorough, and my sister, being the eldest, seems to have inherited the strongest of my parent’s DNA, for she had cut out EVERY article concerning how to get to the inauguration, and had them plastered around her living room. Marching like a field general, she walked us through our three options with brisk efficiency – none were pretty, none were fool proof, but Jimmy and I chose the method that seemed closest to the one we use every day to navigate NYC – we chose the DC Metro System.

Normally, the Metro does not run trains at 4AM, but on inauguration morning, they were going to. We rose at 4AM, and after quick showers, Jimmy and I began to layer on all the clothes we had brought with us. Silks, thermals, shirts, tights, and last were our new BATTERY HEATED SOCKS!!! We decided not to put the batteries in right away, so they wouldn’t burn out, so we put our brand new D batteries in our pockets, and waddled to my sister’s car. We toppled over into the back seat, like 2 year olds in their first ski suits, unable to lower our arms, or really bend our knees. The sky was pitch black, and we saw our breath as my sister dropped us off at the train saying, “Have a great time. I’ll be watching at home – where there’s coffee, and HEAT!! My heart began to pound, as we made our way up to the train platform – images of thousands of layered Obama fans, waiting to cram into the train ran through my head. I couldn’t really move my fingers, under my two pairs of gloves, but I did an imitation of squeezing Jimmy’s hand as we moved closer to where the ‘Yellow Line” train would stop. I took a breath, and saw – NOBODY!!!!!!! Well, not nobody – about 6 or so people, but not the throng of humanity that I expected. The train came, and still, NO ONE. I felt, rather than saw Jimmy’s gaze, and I knew just what he was thinking, “I GOT OUT OF BED AT 4AM FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I made little comments about what a clear sky it was, and how we would get to see stars that day, when the door opened at L’Enfant Plaza, where we were to get off. Now, I am a native New Yorker, and I take the subway just about everyday. I have been on trains so crowded, I thought I had grown a conjoined twin. But never, NEVER, NEVER, in my life, had I seen sooooooooo many people on one train platform. Seconds after exiting the train, and squeezing onto the platform, Jimmy and I became separated by at least, 15 people. “Wait for me at the top of the stairs”, I heard him say, as we moved as one giant blob of homo sapiens towards a set of stairs, that didn’t really look like it had it in it to hold us all up.

Smushed though we all were, I heard not one complaint, not one, “Do you mind???????” Everyone just sort of shuffled along, in their layers of clothing, smiling. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought we were all one big cult, drunk on some kind of cold repelling Kool-Aid. I reached the top first, and after 20 or so people passed by, Jimmy got spat out of the crowd. We did our waddle run up the steps, and stepped out onto the street. Some of the MANY Obama merchandise salesmen were already set up, ready to offer us their version of Obama-wear. But since, I already had, two Obama shirts, one Obama scarf, and several Obama light up pins, I was good to go. We bypassed the food as well, keeping to our pledge not to eat or drink, least we land up trying to find, and use a port-a-potty on the Washington Mall.

The ameba of men and women moved towards the Mall, all heading to one narrow entrance. I couldn’t see much, being 5’2” and all, but Jimmy spied above the crowd, what seemed to be an alley way of some kind. Trying to walk as nonchalantly as one can wearing 7 layers of clothing, we moved towards, and through the alley way, and found – MIRACLE OF MIRACLES, that it led right onto the Washington Mall!!!!!!!!! I wanted to do a victory dance, but since I couldn’t really move my appendages, I just let out a hoarse, “YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” We moved quickly to an area that was both by a jumbo tron, and also had a view of the Capital (it was far away, but we could see it), got a piece of cardboard, and settled in to wait for the big doings to start. It was 5:30AM!!

Unbelievably, the first couple of hours passed quickly, we met lots of people from everywhere, boy scouts gave out flags, and the whole time more and more people began to arrive. By 8AM or so, it was so crowded, not only were we standing, we were practically standing on each other. It was right about then, that my toes began to feel just a little cold, so smiling, rather smugly, I must say, Jimmy and I reached into our pockets, and snapped our D batteries into place. We knew it would be a few minutes before the heat would come, but it would be worth it – I knew by the time Barak Obama was being sworn in, my toes would be ensconced in a warmth only possible by my magical socks. The jumbotron showed the concert that had been a few days before, and as the crowd began to move as one large organism, I took stock of what I was feeling: heart pounding with excitement – check, eyes beginning to tear with emotion – check, toes toasty – NOT SO MUCH.

In a panic, I looked at Jimmy. “My socks aren’t working!!!”, I yelled, over the noise of the crowd that had just seen Beyonce on the big screen.

“Mine either !!!”

@*##&%#@@%#!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Visions of me happily handing over $22 for a pair of socks, merged with images of my toes being amputated, and I began to slam my feet into the ground to try and regain any sensation at all. The mammoth television screens began to show politicians arriving, and I was able to distract my mind from the idea that I might loss a toe in the frenzy of historical excitement, when Jimmy, sheepishly, looked down at me and said, in a voice at once insistent, and forlorn, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

There wasn’t room for me to throw myself in his path, so I just yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! There are a least five thousand people between us and the port-a-potties!!! You’ll never get there and back in time, you’ll never find me. You’ll be in a plastic bathroom when history is being made!!!”

But, my husband is a man of action and confidence, so looking at me like a war hero headed into battle, he grabbed my hands (at least, I think he did, I couldn’t really feel my fingers that well at that point either), and said, “I’ll find you!!” And he was gone. I went between looking at the screen, trying to move my toes, and looking out for Jimmy. But even the cold, and my momentary hatred of my husband’s bladder, could not temper the all out euphoria I felt, as I watched the Carters, and then the Clintons arrive. The swarm of humanity around me, all seemed to hold their breath in anticipation as the seconds ticked by. I was so overwhelmed by the events about to unfold, the numbness of my toes, and the GREAT DESIRE to have my husband by my side for all of it, I wanted to fall down on the ground like a woman at a revival meeting. And just as I was about to try to memorize everything I could, so I could tell Jimmy about it - if we ever found each other again, there, coming out of the crowd, like an action hero in a summer blockbuster, was Jimmy. He reached me, just as he said he would. And with his arms around me, I witnessed Barak Obama walk onto the Capital Steps.

I wish I could describe with as much eloquence as our new president has ,about what I felt, and experienced as I watched him take his oath, and give his speech – but I cannot. What I can tell you is that a sense of pride burned through me, like nothing I had ever felt before. “THIS,” I thought to myself. “THIS is who we – Americans are. We are a people who judge, as Martin Luther King Jr once dreamed, by content of character, not by skin color. We are committed to action with ethics. We do believe that dreams come true, and we do not shy away from difficult times. And most of all, we are a people of givers, who reach out to those in need, and help lift them up. THIS, is who we, Americans, are.”

As the crowd thinned, my eyes stayed glued to the gigantic screen, never wanting the images I had seen there to fade away. A feeling of blissful inspiration coursed through me, as Jimmy and I began to make our way off the Mall.

“Well, kiddo,” my partner in all things, even things as crazy as this, said, looking down at me. “Was it all worth it?”

“Wouldn’t change a thing, would you?”
“Oh, no –there’s definitely something I would change!”
Jimmy’s eyes were full of shock. “What?”
“I would not have bought a pair of socks for $22, THAT DO NOT WORK!!!!!!!!!!!!”

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