We spend the hour with radio pioneer Dave Isay, who founded StoryCorps, the largest oral history project in the United States. Isay’s new book is “Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project.” We play several excerpts of StoryCorps recordings, of ordinary people telling their stories to each other, and we speak with three of the people whose stories are featured in the book. They are among the many thousands who have recorded their memories using StoryCorps since it began in 2003. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! special with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, who created the largest oral history project in US history.
“StoryCorps is built on a few basic ideas: that our stories — the stories of everyday people — are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with by the media every minute of the day. That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us. That we all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten. That listening is an act of love.” Those are the opening lines of Dave Isay’s new book about StoryCorps. The book is called Listening Is an Act of Love. It was published in November.
Today, we’re joined by Dave Isay and three of the people whose stories are featured in the book, among thousands who have recorded their memories using StoryCorps since it began in 2003. Dave Isay joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Amy. It’s great to be here again.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about the development of StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: Well, StoryCorps opened four years ago, and it really came out of a lot of the documentary work I did for public radio. And, you know, you were my mentor and gave me my start with everything that I’ve ever done.
But, you know, I did a documentary about fifteen years ago with two kids growing up in a housing project in Chicago, where I gave them tape recorders and had them record a week in their life. And I saw the license that having this microphone gave these kids to ask their family questions they had never asked before and that the conversations continued long after the tape recorder was turned off. And as their relatives passed away, these tapes became incredibly important to them. So that was one of the main pieces, including walking the footsteps of heroes like Studs Terkel, that led to the creation of StoryCorps, which is this incredibly simple idea.
As you know, we built a booth in Grand Central terminal four years ago, where you bring a loved one and you’re met by a facilitator, who serves a one-year tour of duty.
AMY GOODMAN: And this booth?
DAVE ISAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe the booth.
DAVE ISAY: Well, it’s a soundproof booth, and the inside of it is kind of this sacred space. When you go inside, you close the door. You’re in Grand Central terminal, and it’s completely silent. The lights are low. And you sit across from, say, your grandmother for forty minutes, and you talk. And most people ask the big life questions, like “What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?” or “How do you want to be remembered?” “What did your mom sing to you when you were a kid?”
And then, at the end of forty minutes, two CDs have been burned. One goes home with you, and the other stays with us and goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to become part of an oral history of America.
So we launched four years ago. I came to see you about two years ago when we became a national project. And right now, we’re one of the fastest-growing non-profits in the country. And, you know, as you said, we’re trying to do a lot with this project, but at its core, I think what StoryCorps says is that every life matters and the importance of listening to loved ones and turning off the TV and the Blackberry and the computer and just looking a loved one in the eye and saying “I care about you,” by listening to what they have to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe this first clip.
DAVE ISAY: Well, our first book, Listening Is an Act of Love, came out a couple weeks ago, and these are fifty of the stories from our first 10,000 interviews. We’ve now done about 15,000 with about 28,000 participants. Most people come in pairs. If you come by yourself, a facilitator will interview you.
This is from the first section of the book, which is called "Home and Family," which is about a dozen stories of home and family from our first 10,000 interviews. And this is one that was recorded in Florida, in Sarasota, Florida. And it’s two cousins — Cherie Johnson and James Ransom — who came to remember their childhood growing up in Bradenton, Florida. And they wanted to come in and talk about spending summers at their grandmother’s house and a larger-than-life character who was their Sunday school teacher, who spent time at their grandmother’s house, as well — Ms. Divine.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.
JAMES RANSOM: Ms. Devine was a wiry lady. She wore summer dresses. She had a bandanna and a straw hat. And she was the only person I knew that had more power than my grandmother.
CHERIE JOHNSON: She wasn’t a mean person. She was stern.
JAMES RANSOM: Stern, yes. Very stern.
CHERIE JOHNSON: You know, when she said something, she meant exactly what she said.
JAMES RANSOM: Right.
CHERIE JOHNSON: In fact, she was our Sunday school teacher. The only thing that would keep you from going to Sunday school, you had to have one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave.
JAMES RANSOM: Absolutely.
CHERIE JOHNSON: That’s the only thing.
JAMES RANSOM: There were no excuses.
CHERIE JOHNSON: You had to go.
JAMES RANSOM: Had to go.
CHERIE JOHNSON: One of the things that you prayed for when you were in Ms. Divine’s class was, “Lord, please let me get old enough to get out of this class.”
JAMES RANSOM: This Ms. Divine would come in on Sunday mornings to take us to Sunday school. And then, when I saw her come, sure, I thought, the leaves would be blowing off the trees and the sky would go black and the clouds would come in, and she’d come in the house one morning and say, “Good morning, children.” And everybody, my mother on down, said, “Good morning, Ms. Divine.” And she says, “It’s time to go to Sunday school this morning, children.”
I said, “Ms. Divine, I can’t go to Sunday school today.” She said, “No?” I said, “No, ma’am.” She says, “Why not?” I said, “My mother didn’t bring enough clothes for me to go to Sunday school this morning.” She said, “Oh, no?” I said, “No, ma’am.” She said, “Well, what do you have? What kind of clothes do you have?” I said, “All I have, Ms. Divine, are my pajamas and my tennis shoes.” She said, “Well, that’s OK, honey. Put your tennis shoes on. We’ll go to Sunday school.”
I looked at my mother, and she looked away, Cherie. Ms. Divine made me walk two blocks in my pajamas and my tennis shoes. I had to sit in church with my friends during Sunday school in my pajamas and my tennis shoes. I’ll tell you, Cherie, I’d never lie again. But you know what? That’s the kind of stuff that we got growing up, and I’ll never forget that.
AMY GOODMAN: Cherie Johnson and James Ransom. More about them, Dave?
DAVE ISAY: Well, I mean, I think that listening to that story, you know, it’s kind of part of the premise of our book, that when you hear stories like this, you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our stories are the most interesting and important stories of all, certainly more interesting, as you said, than the sewage that comes through our television sets each day about celebrities and all this other nonsense. And when you take the time, you’re going to find, you know, poetry and grace and wisdom in the people you find all around you, whether it’s your family or your friends or your neighbors or someone who you are sitting next to on a bus.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, we’re now joined by one of the people who came to the StoryCorps booth: Ronald Ruiz. Welcome, Ronald.
RONALD RUIZ: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.
RONALD RUIZ: My pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: You come from the Bronx?
RONALD RUIZ: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you discover StoryCorps?
RONALD RUIZ: Somebody from StoryCorps had seen a piece in an article on me in the New York Post, and they had contacted me and asked me would I love to come down. And I said, “Absolutely. Could I bring one of my daughters?” And they said, “Sure.” And I had come down with my daughter Alexis, and I guess she wanted to pick my brain also. But, boy, did she find out a lot of things.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the clip that is part of the StoryCorps collection. Again, one of the CDs going to the Library of Congress, one for you and your family. This is part of the conversation you had at StoryCorps here in New York.
RONALD RUIZ: I remember one woman in particular, a senior, who had gotten on my bus, and she seemed completely lost, and I could see she was confused. I don’t know whether it was an illness, but she looked so beautiful for a hot summer day, to have her fur on. So I said, “Are you OK?” She said, “Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine. But I don’t know what restaurant I’m meeting my friends.” I said, “You sit in the bus. I’ll run in, and I’ll check each restaurant.” The very, very last one on the left, I said, “It’s got to be this one.” So I said, “Stay here, Sweetie. It’s nice and cool in here.”
I went in, and I said, “There’s a lady in the bus, and she’s not sure of the restaurant.” And I saw a whole bunch of other seniors there. And then they said, “Oh, it’s probably her.”
So I ran back to the bus. I said, “Sweetie, your restaurant is right here.” And I said, “No, no. Don’t move.” And I grabbed her hand. I remember my right hand grabbed her right hand. I wanted to make her feel special, like it was a limousine. It’s a bus. And she said she felt like Cinderella. And she said, “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and today is the best day of my life,” just because I helped her off the bus. And I never forgot that woman.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronald Ruiz, interviewed at the StoryCorps booth in New York. What did it mean to you to have this recorded?
RONALD RUIZ: A legacy that I’m going to leave my daughters, that my daughters will be able to look back later on and remember me for something really positive. I think that’s the best thing you could ever ask for, is to leave something behind. And my daughters are very proud of me as is. So how proud they are now to remember this story and to remember me also for the good things I did, because as a bus driver, I really wanted to be unique. I wanted to be different, because most of the bus drivers were kind of a little bit on the rude side at times, and they won’t open to, you know, many questions. And I wanted to be the different one, the one that stood out from everybody else. And for twelve years, I thought I did. And it’s funny, this woman would come into my life and just kind of thank me later on and prove that everything I did was worth it.
AMY GOODMAN: Ronald Ruiz’s story is in the second section of your book, on work and dedication. Dave, you divided it into four sections?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. And I think, you know, Mr. Ruiz just — I mean, I’ve had the privilege over the last bunch of weeks of spending time with Mr. Ruiz and his daughters and getting to see Mr. Ruiz sign autographs, which is something that is — a lot of autographs.
RONALD RUIZ: I cannot believe that.
DAVE ISAY: But one of the — but, you know, I think that Ron Ruiz and his story, and the stories of so many of us around us, these are the stories we should be telling to our children. These are the people we hold up as heroes in our society and that kids should be emulating. And, yes, it’s in “Work and Dedication,” which is about a dozen stories of work and dedication from our first 10,000.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we’re going to “Journeys,” the third segment of interviews done in StoryCorps around the country, this one done in California. And we’re going to hear about a woman’s journey north, from Mexico to the United States. Ronald Ruiz, thanks so much for joining us.
RONALD RUIZ: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, you’ll be staying with us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re talking about StoryCorps. We’re talking about Listening Is an Act of Love. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by other participants in the StoryCorps project from around the country. Our guest is Dave Isay, radio pioneer, author of Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. Talk about “Journeys,” Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. The third section in the book is “Journeys,” which is about a dozen life journeys that different people who have come to StoryCorps have taken.
The first story in the book is a woman who was on a plane in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989 that crashed, and she was one of thirteen people who came through the plane — this tragedy unscathed. And she talks about how it changed her life.
There’s another story in that chapter about a guy named Eddie Lanier, who’s a homeless man in North Carolina in Chapel Hill. And Eddie, he would stand on the street with a sign every day, asking for food. And every day, there was a guy who drove by and would give him two dollars and a can of tuna fish. And eventually they became friends, and this person brought Eddie home — and this whole story kind of unfolds in the book —- brought him home on New Year’s Eve, and he became kind of part of the family. And they go into the StoryCorps booth, and this man is interviewing Eddie Lanier, and it turns out that Eddie Lanier, this homeless man’s father had been two-time mayor of Chapel Hill. So these are the kind of stories in “Journeys.”
AMY GOODMAN: Introduce this story.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. This is another extraordinary story in “Journeys,” and I actually have had the pleasure over the last bunch of weeks to meet a lot of people in this book, Listening Is an Act of Love, which is one of the most amazing things that’s happened to me in my life, getting to meet these folks. And Connie and Blanca Alvarez came to the booth and actually -—
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
DAVE ISAY: This was in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica.
AMY GOODMAN: How did the booth get there?
DAVE ISAY: Well, we have these mobile booths that travel the country, so we spend a month to six weeks in cities, big cities, small towns, all across the country. And, you know, we’re trying to grow StoryCorps into a national institution that really documents and defines who we are as a nation and the character of our nation. And we want to make it accessible to everybody who wants to participate.
So we’re in Santa Monica, and there’s a vacancy, and someone canceled. And Connie and Blanca were outside the booth, and Connie grabbed Blanca and brought her in the booth, and they had a conversation, I know learned, which they had never had before, about Blanca coming to the United States thirty years ago. And I believe this piece of tape picks up after she tells this incredible story of her journey north. And then they talk about the early years in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the tape.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: What kinds of jobs did you have since first arriving in the country?
BLANCA ALVAREZ: We were gardeners, and we were cleaning offices.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: I remember the offices.
BLANCA ALVAREZ: You remember that? We had the night shift cleaning. That’s why, you know, we had to take you and your brother. I didn’t have a babysitter.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: I have memories of running into everyone’s office and eating candy from their candy dishes. I remember being with my brother in our pajamas with the little plastic feet.
BLANCA ALVAREZ: Right.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: And I also remember you would always buy us a Cup o’ Noodle from the vending machine —-
BLANCA ALVAREZ: Right.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: —- like a snack, and then put us to bed on people’s office couches. And then you’d carry us to the car when you guys were done cleaning the offices.
BLANCA ALVAREZ: Right.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: I remember that. Did they ever know — did your bosses ever know that you took your kids?
BLANCA ALVAREZ: No, I don’t think so.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
BLANCA ALVAREZ: When we first came here, we went through a lot of things, like not eating. I guess for six months your father lost his job, and we never told you that.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: I do remember a lot of beans, bean tacos.
BLANCA ALVAREZ: But when you asked us, “Why the same thing?” — remember?
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Yeah, yeah.
BLANCA ALVAREZ: I didn’t want to tell you why.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Yeah. If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?
BLANCA ALVAREZ: I would dedicate more time, I guess. You know, I was so busy going to school, too, that I guess I neglected you a little bit.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: No. For me, watching you go to school with two kids and trying to make ends meet, that was the biggest inspiration for me to finish college. I thought there’s nothing that could stand in my way that didn’t stand in yours more. It’s the most important thing for me, having gone to college, and I feel like anything I do from here on out is OK, because I have already achieved my dream. Everything else is icing on the cake.
AMY GOODMAN: Connie Alvarez, interviewing her mother Blanca Alvarez in Santa Monica, California. Connie is a volunteer coordinator at the NPR station KCRW that’s based in Santa Monica, and she joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome, Connie, to Democracy Now!
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Hi. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. What was it like to interview your mother? What did you learn?
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Well, I guess the main thing I learned is that she actually wanted for me to hear her story. We didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know that I could ask her anything, and I don’t think she knew that I wanted to know anything. Our culture is such that we just kind of — we respect our parents, and we don’t ask them a lot of questions. And I’m really glad we had the opportunity to go into the booth. It was magical.
AMY GOODMAN: Connie, we didn’t play the whole interview, of course. The interviews, Dave, are what? Forty minutes —-
DAVE ISAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that are conducted in each booth. But a larger excerpt is in the book Listening Is an Act of Love, and it does describe your mother Blanca coming over the border. You tell the story of coyotes. Talk a little about that.
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Well, when I used to hear bits and pieces of the story, the way that we kind of did at family gatherings, where the kids would be at the foot of the table and the adults were speaking, and the adults were always shooing us away. But I’d hear bits and pieces of how a coyote brought my mother over. And I just always assumed she followed actual coyotes across the desert, and I thought I had a deep connection with coyotes, the animals. So I thought that was a special animal for me. And it turns out that’s not what a coyote is. It’s actually the human guide or smuggler that brings people over north from across the border.
AMY GOODMAN: As you listen to your mother’s story — and, of course, were raised by your mother — what are your feelings about the immigration debate today?
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Well, I think I really liked what my mother said during that interview, because I asked her the same thing. I said, “What do you feel about people who are coming over today?” And she said, “You know, whatever I hear on television or whatever they say in the papers, they’re just like me, and they’re coming for a better life.” And so, how can you blame anyone for trying to make a better — just a better life for themselves and their families, especially when they come over basically with that as a goal? And such a small percentage of the people who come here from any country come here with criminal minds or bad intentions. I think everyone just really wants a better life. And, you know, the United States is such a grand country, you really can’t blame anyone for trying to come here, I think. It’s beautiful.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Connie, what do you think it was about this interview in this little booth that brought out this story that you had never heard, how your mother came to the United States, how she crossed the border?
CONNIE ALVAREZ: I think a part of it was the fact that we were trapped in there together. We couldn’t run away. We had to talk about something for forty minutes, because it was, you know — as Dave said, we had to go in and do it, because of a cancellation. And so, we had to start talking. We may as well make it meaningful. And something about the booth and the privacy of it and just the beautifulness of the booth and feeling like you’re in a cocoon just really makes you open up, and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful project.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean to you that now that CD, one for you and your family and one will be put in the Library of Congress for all time?
CONNIE ALVAREZ: Well, you know, I feel like I stumbled on a gift. I feel like I stumbled on a gift, that through StoryCorps, I was able to give my mother the gift of telling her story. I would have never heard of this project at all, if it weren’t for being at the right place at the right time, just working where I work and being aware of public radio. And I think it’s such a great project, that I really — I do everything I can to promote it and get it out there to everyone who hasn’t heard of it and everyone who maybe doesn’t listen to public radio. I just think it’s something that everyone should do. It’s really special.
AMY GOODMAN: Connie, thanks so much for being with us. She interviewed her mother, Blanca Alvarez, in Santa Monica, California, when the StoryCorps booth came rolling in. Dave, there was another interview that was done in Los Angeles — well, actually, many others, but why don’t you talk about George?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. This is another interview from the “Journeys” section. And this is a really extraordinary interview, and I had the privilege of meeting George Caywood a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles. And I know he was going to join us here today, but he got ill. But George Caywood, his interview personifies so much of what StoryCorps is about, partly the license to ask questions you haven’t asked before, and also the opportunity to tell someone you love them by listening to them.
So George Caywood came with his daughter Gina. And the interview is this phenomenal —- I’ve never read anything like it in my life. But basically, he talks about his childhood, and when he was a teenager, his father took George’s gun and killed himself.
AMY GOODMAN: His son.
DAVE ISAY: His son. So George himself -—
AMY GOODMAN: George’s son.
DAVE ISAY: No, George himself. George’s father took George’s gun and committed suicide. And in the booth with his daughter, it turns out that no one had ever asked him about this before in his life or asked him how he felt about it. So it’s just this incredible moment with his daughter.
And what you’re going to hear in this clip is what happens so often in StoryCorps: at the end of an interview, the person doing the interview will turn the tables on the person who they’re with and tell them what they mean to them. So this is Gina talking to her dad George about what he means to her.
GINA CAYWOOD: Dad, one of the most difficult times in my childhood, I think, was one of your most difficult times in your life, and that is when you went through a major depression. Can you tell me about what that was like?
GEORGE CAYWOOD: Well, if you have ever been walking down the street, maybe at night, and a huge dog charges you, growling and barking, you know, that moment of utter panic and fear is like that twenty-four hours a day.
GINA CAYWOOD: Our bedrooms shared a common wall, and I could hear at, you know, 5:00 in the morning you crying, just terrified to go to work and to take on another day.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: Do you remember the poem you wrote me?
GINA CAYWOOD: I do.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: It was "Will My Dad Ever Stop Crying?"
GINA CAYWOOD: I think, yes. It’s been a — “Can I Have My Dad Back?”
GEORGE CAYWOOD: Oh, yes.
GINA CAYWOOD: Yeah.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: When I was going through it, I knew that there was this darkness that I had been chasing off all my life. And I knew if I was going to be genuinely happy, which I wanted to be, I was going to have to face all that darkness.
GINA CAYWOOD: And yet, it’s amazing. You were such a wonderful, loving father to us.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: Certainly it’s the thing I worked at hardest in my life, even though I made a lot of mistakes with you and your three sisters. You have not breathed a breath, Gina, you and your sisters, when you weren’t the most important thing in my life. I remember when you were born, looking at you, saying, “I have no idea how to be your father.” So my goal was I wanted to be positive with you. I knew I was going to have to say no sometimes, but I wanted that to be against thousands of yeses, in the hopes that you would grow up as positive as you actually are.
GINA CAYWOOD: Sometimes when you did say no, I could bat my eyelashes at you and get you to change your mind.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: It still works. Each of the four girls had their own technique. You know, yours was those brown eyes.
GINA CAYWOOD: “Please, Dad?”
GEORGE CAYWOOD: Well, see, I’m melting on the spot. And, you know, Jill was just so everlastingly on my side that she was hard to resist, because she was always working for my benefit. And Janelle, who turned out to be a very capable attorney, remembered everything I ever said. She would say, “Now, Dad, four years ago on this date, you said this, and now you’re saying this. Don’t you think you’re being inconsistent?” And then JoAnna, she would grab my face between her hands and turn me to look at her, because she sort of said, “My dad is an understanding person. He’s reasonably bright. If I can just get him to see the truth, he’ll surely let me do what I want.” And the four of you together, you know, I knew I was whipped.
GINA CAYWOOD: You know, I think one of the things that my sisters and I have always felt is that you are a great, great man. And I hope that somehow this interview today brings you the honor that I think you deserve.
GEORGE CAYWOOD: I wouldn’t trade this for every accolade in the world, you know? I love you, honey.
GINA CAYWOOD: I love you, too.
AMY GOODMAN: George Caywood, interviewed by his daughter Gina. Dave Isay?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, I mean, this is one of the most incredible people that I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. He — actually, in the book, you’ll read that one of the reasons why the daughter felt it so important to honor her dad was that he had worked in the largest mission in Los Angeles for many years and devoted his life to it completely. And he was actually fired, largely because he insisted on feeding homeless men without having them sit through a church service. And I think it was very important for her to take that time to turn the tables and tell him how much he matters to her and what he means in their lives and to honor him in this way.
I mean, I think one of the things about this book and about listening to these pieces is that you know you’re hearing something authentic. I mean, we’re surrounded by so much nonsense, sometimes it feels like we live in one big infomercial. You know, but when you listen to these stories, when you listen to people talking from the heart, looking each other in the eyes, there’s just no doubt. And especially when — both in print and in audio, it’s almost like an adrenaline shot to the heart. There’s no denying the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: And one of the things you talk about in the book is how you thought and the facilitators thought the stories would start to sound more and more similar. I mean, as — you’re talking about 10,000, 15,000 stories, and, of course, it’s going beyond that. But it was exactly the opposite.
DAVE ISAY: Well, that’s — you know, when Connie talks about kind of the miracle of the booth, which is something that the facilitators talk about, you know, when StoryCorps has always been a human service —- I mean, this is about giving people forty minutes to honor each other through listening. Our mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s life through listening. And to get radio or to get a book is just icing on the cake. I mean, I’ve been a radio producer for many years, as you know, because you started me off -—
AMY GOODMAN: Ever since —-
DAVE ISAY: —- twenty years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got to stop saying I started you off —-
DAVE ISAY: You did start me off.
AMY GOODMAN: —- because the way it really started was — it was because of you. You called up, when I was the news editor at WBAI, and you said, “Have you covered the story of the drug paraphernalia museum in the Lower East Side?” This was right after a very stressed-out newscast, and I said, “I don’t think we have.” You said, “You need to get a reporter right on it.” And I said, “OK. Thank you very much.” And you called the next day and the next day: “I didn’t hear that story on the drug paraphernalia museum.” And the next day and the next day. And finally —-
DAVE ISAY: Finally, you said, “Do it.”
AMY GOODMAN: —- when you called up and said, “Where was that story on the drug paraphernalia museum?” I said, “Why don’t you do it, sir, whoever you are on the phone? And you can bring it to us. And you did.
DAVE ISAY: And there it was.
AMY GOODMAN: You walked in with that reel of tape.
DAVE ISAY: And here we are, twenty years later. It’s kind of crazy. So, yeah. But, you know, radio is such a beautiful medium, and there is something about the voice that is — it’s almost like the soul is contained in the voice, so being able to give people this gift and making sure that their great, great, great, great grandchildren can someday hear their voice is — it’s a privilege to do this work.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave, when we come back from the break — this weekend was World AIDS Day, and we’re going to talk to Mary Caplan, who lost her brother Tom. But first, we’ll hear what happened in the booth as she talked. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Our guest for this hour is Dave Isay. His book is Listening Is an Act of Love. He’s pioneering the largest oral history project in the United States. Stay with us.
Our guest is radio pioneer Dave Isay, who is certainly carrying it on. His book is called Listening Is an Act of Love : A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project, and it’s a collection of scores of interviews done around the country as the StoryCorps booths make their way. You’ve got first StoryCorps, and then you started the Griot project, Dave.
Right. Well, we — StoryCorps is this crazy undertaking to really give everybody in the country access to both the experience of StoryCorps and also the content, which I think, as Connie was saying, really illustrates our shared humanity, how much we share in common.
And so, the book itself — the fourth section of the book is called “History and Struggle.” And these are stories that are really, as Studs Terkel talks about, bottom-up history. History is so often told from the top down through the voices of statesmen and politicians. But the power and the depth of hearing about history through our own voices and our own hearts, I think, gives whole other perspective and an incredibly deep perspective of life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. So, this chapter goes all the way from the Depression through recent history.
And the last section in this chapter is a woman named Mary Caplan, who is actually sitting right next to me, who talks about her brother, her brother Tom’s death from AIDS in the very early years of the disease.
We’re going to go to the tape, and then we’ll talk with Mary Caplan. And this weekend is — has been World AIDS Day. This is Mary Caplan. She’s interviewed by her friend Emily Collazo in New York City.
We all took care of him. I promised him I wouldn’t leave the room. So they used to bring me up sandwiches and things. And I found myself, like I did with my children, singing lullabies, and I sang “Tura, Lura, Lura” one night, and I was so off-key, and when I finished, I kissed his forehead, and I said, “I’m sorry. I know that wasn’t very good.” And I never left him. And then I had to go to the bathroom. And when I came back, he wasn’t breathing, and he was dead.
And I felt so alone at that time in my grief, because I never knew how people were going to respond when I said, you know, Tom died. “Oh, what did he die of?” “Oh, AIDS.” “Oh, well, you know, maybe he should have died, or maybe that’s God’s way.” And one day I went into a card shop. And there was a gay young man, and I was buying a sympathy card. Yet another sympathy card. And I said, “I take care of my brother’s friend. My brother died of AIDS.” And I said it in a whisper. He said, “You do not have to whisper to me.” And he came around the counter, and he hugged me.
Mary Caplan, describing her brother Tom dying of AIDS. Mary Caplan joins is in our firehouse studio. Welcome, Mary.
Thank you for joining us. Dave Isay also here. When did you learn, when did Tom tell you that he had AIDS, that he had tested positive?
He told me a few months before his death. He met me one night. His partner had recently died. And he met me one night and told me he was positive and that he knew there was no treatment, no effective treatment.
This was in —
This was in the ’80s. And there really wasn’t much. And he told me he only wanted not to die alone and to die at home.
So I promised him I would stay with him, and I promised him he would die at home.
You were a nurse? You had been a nurse.
I was a nurse, and I’m a counselor now.
What did it mean to you to have this — to tell this story in the StoryCorps booth?
I had no idea I was going to tell it. A friend took me to StoryCorps as a gift, as a surprise. I had never heard of StoryCorps. So I thought I was going into — I had no idea what I was going in to do. It was a gift. It was a gift. And I was happy to accept the gift.
And I was surprised to hear myself. As everyone has said, something happens in that booth, where your very private thoughts that rumble around in your head and your memories suddenly come forth, and the voice that Dave just talked about, that’s your soul. Somehow it reaches down and touches that part of us that’s not often touched.
And I was surprised to hear myself talking about something so very personal and private. And at the very end of that tape that you just played, what I said was, that young man who came around and hugged me, I had never met him before, I didn’t know him. And after acts of — really very painful acts of people hurting me with saying things, that homosexuals deserved and drug addicts deserved perhaps to die, this young man came around in a moment and just embraced me. And what I said is, “I didn’t know him, but I loved him.” And I did.
And this story was more than twenty years old for you. 1985 is when your brother died. But it sounded like you were reliving it right there, going right back into it, those moments before, where you stayed with him, where you told him he wouldn’t die alone.
I think when we don’t speak things out loud, when they stay inside of us, they take on a different meaning. And it’s not only the listener who hears our story. I think when we speak and hear our own words out loud and remember things behind the words and the feelings, it takes on a different meaning. So I became not only a speaker, but also the listener, of my own words. And it had a profound effect upon me.
Have your kids heard this?
Yes, they have.
Their response? Do you talk much about Tom, your brother, to them? Do they talk much about their uncle?
They talk very much about their uncle. And after he died, I promised him I would be with his friends and his friends wouldn’t die alone. So there were other people who came home to our house who had AIDS and we took care of. So my friends and my children very much became part of what was once a very private and stigmatized disease.
Dave, before we move on to our next life story contained in almost a minute, why you chose to focus on Mary, in all of these stories, what Mary Caplan and Tom, her brother, their stories, has meant as part of the StoryCorps project?
Well, for us, as I said earlier, I mean, it’s the forty minutes that mean everything to us. It’s giving everybody this experience — hopefully a profound experience, always a good experience. And that’s really what it’s about, the forty minutes in the booth. But, you know, you were asking before about the surprise of the tape. And, you know, I had been a radio producer for twenty years, and I had figured, when StoryCorps opened, that at some point the stories were going to start to repeat. And one of the most amazing kind of miracles of this project is, not only do the stories not repeat, they get better. And, you know, I also didn’t know if these were going to work in a book. And, you know, it’s just a testament to kind of the poetry and the grace in the words of our family and friends that it does work so well.
Mary Caplan, thank you very much for being with us. As we now turn to another story, the story of Richard Pecorella. How did he end up in the booth?
Well, you were asking about the Griot project before. And we’re this massive American oral history project, and we’ve also started to do different special populations who we’re focusing on. The Griot project is an African American oral history project we launched this year, where we’ve been collecting about 2,000 African American family histories, and which is the largest African American oral history project since the slave narratives were recorded in the 1930s.
And we also have a project now with families who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease to come in. It’s called the Memory Loss Initiative, which launched nationally a couple of months ago. And our first project focusing on one group was for families who lost a loved one on September 11th. We were asked by the World Trade Center to open a booth down at the World Trade Center site. And when StoryCorps started, I expected that we’d hear a lot of stories of families who had a loved one who was in hospice, who was ill, who could make it to the booth to come in and record, and we’ve seen that a lot. Again, it’s about leaving a legacy. It’s the fact that your great-great-great-grandchildren can someday hear your voice and know who you are. But what we saw even more than that, that surprised me, was that people came to memorialize loved ones who had passed away. So when the World Trade Center asked us to open up a booth, it made a lot of sense. And we are — we have an effort to record one story for each of the 3000 lives lost on September 11th.
And Richard Pecorella is one of the people who came to StoryCorps to record a story. This is in the last chapter of our book, which is called "Fire and Water," about two of the most tragic events of twenty-first century American history: September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. So Richard Pecorella came to StoryCorps to remember his fiancee, Karen Sue Juday, who worked as a secretary at Cantor Fitzgerald. And Richard is Brooklyn-born and -bred, as you’ll hear. And this is Richard remembering his fiancee.
RICHARD PECORELLA: As soon as I looked at her, that she was the one. It was magical. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t tell her that, but I was like a fifteen-year-old again. I got all google-eyed and didn’t know what to do or say and stumbling. It wasn’t like me at all, wasn’t the typical macho Italian guy from Brooklyn. When I met Karen, somehow she relaxed me. She just taught me patience. I had very little patience. Basically, I was one of those guys who rolled down the window and screamed at the drivers when they weren’t driving the way I thought they should be. And she toned me down. She showed me to be nicer to people, do it a second thought before you start yelling. And I’ve carried that with me.
Other than her going to work, there wasn’t a time we weren’t together. Every morning, Karen would drive with me to my office, and then she’d take the subway from my office one stop to the Trade Center. I worked in Brooklyn, so my window across the East River, I could see the Twin Towers. So I’m doing some work and one of my workers comes in and says, “Richard, I just heard that the Trade Center got hit with a plane.” I turn around, and I see the building burning. And I took my office chair, and I threw it at my window. Then they brought the nurse up. She gives me a bottle of water. I have the bottle of water. I mean, it’s in my hand, and my hand is trembling so much that it’s splashing all over me. I couldn’t even hold the bottle in my hand.
I miss her eyes. Her eyes sparkled to me. One day they were blue, next they were green, depending on how the light hit them. Karen, I will always be in love with you, and I will see you again. I will do enough good to make it up there.
Richard Pecorella, remembering his fiancee Karen Juday. She died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Dave, final words.
Well, Mr. Pecorella joined us with Mary Caplan at a reading, as so many people have. And he had an oxygen tank with him and tubes in his nose, because he has spent so much time down at the World Trade Center site watching them dig. But he also sat there holding the hand of his new girlfriend, which is a note of hope to end on as we played that story.
StoryCorps is this crazy project, much like Democracy Now! is a crazy project. We ask for a $10 donation to participate. If you can’t afford it, you come for free. Many people can’t afford it. Each interview costs us about $250 to record. So we’re losing $240 every hour at all of our booths across the country, which is, again, an economic model, I’m sure, only rivaled by the Democracy Now! economic model.
And yet, gaining the history, recovering the history of this country.
Well, we believe — we all believe in this with every cell in our body, and we’re committed to building this into a national institution. And 100% of the royalties from this book go to StoryCorps. So if you like what you hear, buy a book, and if you like what you read, pass it on.
Dave, thank you so much, Dave Isay, Listening Is an Act of Love; his project, StoryCorps.