We hear the voices of people, citizen and non-citizen, old and young telling their stories to each other. A grandmother tells her grandson about her own childhood. A young man proposes to his girlfriend. A soldier talks about his experience in war. A father remembers a loved one who passed away....All of these are stories told by ordinary Americans. Now, thousands of them are preserved forever–in sound.
Three years ago, award-winning radio producer Dave Isay created a national social history project called StoryCorps. It now has the potential to become one of the largest documentary oral history projects ever donated to the Library of Congress. [includes rush transcript]
Dave Isay joined us in our firehouse studio earlier this year and he spoke about the StoryCorps.
- Dave Isay, radio pioneer and founder of StoryCorps. He is author of the new book “Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project.”
AMY GOODMAN: In this Democracy Now! special, we hear the voices of people, citizens and non-citizens, young and old, telling their stories to each other. A grandmother shares her story about herself with her grandson, about her own childhood. A young man proposes to his girlfriend. A soldier talks about his experience in war. A father remembers a loved one who passed away. All of these are stories told by ordinary Americans. Now, thousands of them are preserved forever in sound. Three years ago, award-winning radio producer Dave Isay created a national social history project called StoryCorps. It now has the potential to become one of the largest documentary oral history projects ever donated to the Library of Congress. Dave Isay joined us in our Firehouse studio earlier this year. He talked about StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: StoryCorps is a project that started about two-and-a-half years ago in Grand Central Terminal, and it’s a very simple idea. We built a booth in Grand Central, and you bring anyone you want to the booth — your grandmother, a friend, the person who brings you eggs in the morning at the diner every day, anyone who you want to get to know. And you’re met at the time booth by someone who’s called a facilitator, someone who works for us. And for a few minutes, a facilitator talks to you about how to do an oral history and then brings you inside the booth and closes the door.
And we have designed it as a sort of sacred space, so it’s very dark and perfectly quiet in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. And you sit across from your grandmother. The facilitator is sitting in the corner. And for 40 minutes you talk about anything you want to talk about. But most people talk about the big kind of life questions, like: How do you want to be remembered? What are the most important moments of your life? What did you sing to me when I was a kid? At the end of the 40 minutes, two CDs have been burned. And one goes home with you, and another one goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to become part of an oral history of America.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you come up with this idea?
DAVE ISAY: Well, I’ve been doing radio for about 20 years now. And the person sitting across from me gave me my start all those many years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember it well, the day you walked in and said we need to do a piece on a drug paraphernalia museum on the Lower East Side. You came to WBAI, and I said, “Well, why don’t you do it, sir?”
DAVE ISAY: Yep, and that was it.
AMY GOODMAN: And young you—
DAVE ISAY: Yep.
AMY GOODMAN: — went out with a tape recorder.
DAVE ISAY: But I have been doing — and you taught me so much in those early years. And I have been doing radio documentaries for a long time now. I did a documentary about 13, 14 years ago with two kids growing up in a housing project in Chicago called the Ida B. Wells Projects, where I gave them tape recorders and had them do a diary of their lives. And I saw that when these kids took these tape recorders and interviewed, say, their grandparents, that having a microphone and laying in bed with their grandmother and asking her these questions allowed these kids to ask questions they wouldn’t normally get to ask and created bonds that existed long after the tape recorder got turned off. And then when these relatives passed away, these tapes became enormously important to these young men. So that was really the beginning of StoryCorps.
And over the years there were a bunch of other projects that just made me kind of think that all of the whole country should have access to a project like this and should be able to have these kind of conversations. I mean, you love radio. I love radio. There’s such an intimacy in the voice and just being in a quiet place and getting to ask people questions you don’t normally get to ask. And, you know, the idea of StoryCorps is that all of our stories matter and that everybody should be treated with dignity, and everyone’s story should be preserved in a thoughtful and dignified manner. And that’s what the project is about.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the audiotape, the first example of voices from StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. Sure. The first clip we have is a clip that was recorded very early at our Grand Central booth. And this a couple — his name is Danny Perasa, and he was an OTB clerk here in New York City, and his wife’s name is Annie. And they came to the booth just about at the beginning of 2004, and they wanted to tell the story of their very first date. So this is Danny and Annie Perasa.
DANNY PERASA: She started to talk. And I said, “Listen, I’m going to deliver a speech.” I said, “At the end, you’re going to want to go home.” I said, “You represent a dirty four-letter word, and that word is 'love.'” I says, “If we’re going anywhere, we’re going down the aisle, because I’m too tired, too sick and too sore to do any other damned thing.” And she turned around, and she said, “Of course, I’ll marry you.” Then, the next morning I called her as early as I possibly could.
ANNIE PERASA: And he always gets up early.
DANNY PERASA: To make sure that she hadn’t changed her mind. And she hadn’t. And every year on April 22, around 3 o’clock, I call her and ask her if it was today, would she do it again. And so far, the answer has been the same.
ANNIE PERASA: Yeah, 25 times. Yes.
DANNY PERASA: You see, the thing of it is, I always feel guilty when I say “I love you” to you, and I say it so often. I say it to remind you that, as dumpy as I am, it’s coming from here. It’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio, and it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house.
ANNIE PERASA: If I don’t have a note on the kitchen table, I think there’s something wrong. You write a love letter to me every morning.
DANNY PERASA: Well, the only thing that could possibly be wrong is I couldn’t find a silly pen.
ANNIE PERASA: “To my princess, the weather out today is extremely rainy. I’ll call you at 11:20 in the morning.”
DANNY PERASA: It’s a romantic weather report.
ANNIE PERASA: “And I love you. I love you. I love you.”
DANNY PERASA: When a guy is happily married, no matter what happens at work, no matter what happens in the rest of the day, there’s a shelter when you get home. There’s a knowledge, knowing that you can hug somebody without them throwing you down the stairs, saying “Get your hands off me!” And being married is like having a color television set. You never want to go back to black-and-white.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Danny and Annie Perasa, the beginning of 2004?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. And, you know, I think Danny and Annie represent — say a lot about what this project is about to me, the idea that our stories, the stories of everyday people, are just as interesting and important as the stories of Martha Stewart and Donald Trump and all this nonsense that we’re fed from every place all the time. Danny — actually, Danny and Annie, over time, became kind of the matriarch and patriarch of the project. Danny came back to the booth many, many times. He came back with Annie to talk about their love. He brought all kinds of characters from his life into the booth to interview them — a Major League umpire and an undercover cop, and all sorts of people — and they fell in love with StoryCorps, and we fell in love with them.
And eventually we started traveling the country with them, talking about StoryCorps. And sadly, in January Danny was diagnosed with a fast-spreading cancer. And on February 10, we dedicated our Grand Central booth to Danny and Annie. And then on February 17, Danny, whose cancer was spreading very, very quickly, asked us to come to his house to record one final interview with him and Annie. So I brought that with me. This is Danny and Annie Perasa on February 17th in their house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
ANNIE PERASA: The illness is not hard on me. It’s just, you know, the finality of it. And him, he goes along like a trooper.
DANNY PERASA: Listen, even downhill a car doesn’t roll unless it’s pushed. You’re giving me a great push. The deal of it is, we try to give each other hope, and not hope that I’ll live, hope that you’ll do well after I pass, hope that people will support her, hope that if she meets somebody and likes him, she marries him.
ANNIE PERASA: Yeah, he has everything planned.
DANNY PERASA: I’m working on her. She said that — it was her call — she wants to walk out behind the casket alone. I guess that’s the way to do it, because when we were married, you know how your brother takes you down, your father takes you down? She said, “Well, I don’t know which of my brothers to walk in with. I don’t want to offend anybody.” I says, “I got a solution.” I said, “You walk in with me. You walk out with me.” And the other day, I said, “Who’s going to walk down the aisle with you behind the casket?” You know, to support her. And she said, “Nobody. I walked in with you alone. I’m walking out with you alone.”
There’s a thing in life, where you have to come to terms with dying. Well, I haven’t come to terms with dying yet. I want to come to terms with being sure that you understand that my love for you up to this point was as much here as it could be and as much as it could be for eternity. I always said the only thing I have to give you is a poor gift and it’s myself. And I always gave it. And if there’s a way to come back and give it, I’ll do that, too. Do you have the Valentine’s Day letter there?
ANNIE PERASA: Yes. “My dearest wife. This is a very special day. It is a day on which we share our love, which still grows after all these years. Now, that love is being used by us to sustain us through these hard times. All my love, all my days, and more. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
DANNY PERASA: I could write on and on about her. She lights up the room in the morning when she tells me to put both hands on her shoulders so she can support me. She lights up my life when she says to me at night, “Wouldn’t you like a little ice cream?” or “Would you please drink more water?” I mean, those aren’t very romantic things to say, but they stir my heart. In my mind, in my heart, there has never been, there is not now, and never will be, another Annie.
AMY GOODMAN: Danny and Annie Perasa.
DAVE ISAY: Danny passed away one week after he made this recording. And, you know, I think that, as I said before, they really personify so much of what StoryCorps is about. Our motto is “Listening is an act of love.” And you can hear in every word in that interview the love between Danny and Annie. And, you know, that’s what StoryCorps is about. You know, other people who are watching on the TV show can see pictures of Danny, and he was, you know, he was a short gnome of a guy, missing a lot of teeth, bald. And when you walk down the street, you wouldn’t necessarily notice the guy.
But StoryCorps is about taking the time to really listen to the people who you wouldn’t necessarily notice walking down the street. And when you do listen, you see the poetry and grace that, you know, is in all of us. And I think StoryCorps also is about recognizing how much we all share in common. You know, we spend so much time in this country kind of shouting at each other. And StoryCorps is an opportunity to listen to each other and recognize that there’s so much more that we share in common than divides us. And hopefully this is a project which will help us become a more compassionate and thoughtful nation, which is something we need.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear some more stories.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. We launched nationally. We opened up at Grand Central terminal two years ago, a little more than two years ago, and we launched nationally in June from the Library of Congress with two mobile booths that have been traveling the country since then. And I brought two clips with me from Washington, from our opening at the Library of Congress. The first one is — this is going to be track five, and it’s Sam Harmon, whose grandson, Ezra Awumey, brought him to the booth for an interview. So Sam Harmon and Ezra Awumey in our mobile StoryCorps booth in Washington, D.C.
EZRA AWUMEY: What was the saddest moment of your life?
SAM HARMON: Early in the Navy, I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. One day, my shipmates and I decided to come to Washington to visit the Capitol. I drove the car. I didn’t drink at the time, so they always used me to be the designated driver. While they were at the bars, I decided to sightsee. I walked around the monuments all day and was just tired out and decided that I would go to a movie, rest, and then pick them up later. It was right here on Pennsylvania Avenue. There was a movie house there, and I went up to buy a ticket. There was a glass there, the ticket seller behind it, and off of the glass reflected the Capitol dome. And I just thought to myself, what a great way to end the day, drinking in all of this democracy.
I called for the tickets. She was reading. She punched the machine. I reached my hand to get the ticket and lay down the money, and she pulled it back and said, “You can’t come in here.” She saw my black hand and refused to sell me a ticket. The Capitol dome was superimposed on her angry face, angered that I would have the temerity to ask to buy a ticket. And I just walked the streets crying all night. That’s the saddest, without any exception, it’s the most painful recollection of anything that’s ever happened to me that I have.
DAVE ISAY: You know, I think this clip speaks to the idea that so much of history is told through the mouths of statesmen and politicians. And what StoryCorps is about is history through our voices, through the voice of everyday people, and hearing about day-to-day life and how life is and was lived in the 20th and 21st century, and history through our eyes. It’s a people’s history, very much inspired by Studs Terkel, who I know has been on this show many times. And actually, that booth that Ezra and Sam did the interview in was dedicated to Studs Terkel, named after Studs Terkel. We pulled up the booth to his house in Chicago shortly after he had open heart surgery. He is the oldest person to get this particular open heart surgery, and it was about two weeks later, and we pulled up, and he went in the booth, and he talked for two hours, and we dedicated the booth to him. So this is a people’s history that we’re collecting here. It’s history through our words.
I have another clip from Washington, D.C., and this is another sad story, but I think beautiful also, because it speaks to the power of and resilience of people. And this is a couple who came to the booth. Her name is Robyn Einhorn, and she came with her husband Matt Barinholtz. And Robyn — this was the day after she graduated with an MFA. She graduated with a graduate art degree, and three years earlier, she had been diagnosed with a fatal blood disease on the day that she was accepted to art school. So they wanted to come to the booth — this was three years after her diagnosis — to celebrate her graduation. So this is Robyn Einhorn and Matt Barinholtz.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: How did you make it? How did you keep sticking with it?
ROBYN EINHORN: I don’t know. Sometimes I think things look worse to other people. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get by. And for me, it’s a blood transfusion, and I also had a very supportive husband who helped make it easier on me and loved me so strongly that I knew that I could do it.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: You made a drawing of me up in New Mexico.
ROBYN EINHORN: I forgot about that drawing. I thought you were just beautiful. You were lying on your side, and I was looking at the curve in your back, and I just wanted to draw it, so I could live it forever.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: I love that drawing.
ROBYN EINHORN: Really?
MATT BARINHOLTZ: Yeah.
ROBYN EINHORN: Are you going to ask me something else?
MATT BARINHOLTZ: When you think about dying, what’s going to happen?
ROBYN EINHORN: You know what? I think I wasted a lot of my time in this life worrying about how other people saw me or wanting to be cool, like in high school, not really paying attention and studying. There’s so much to learn, and I just — as much as I learn, I never feel like I’ve learned enough. And somewhere in the back of my head, I hope that I’ll die and I’ll keep some of this information and come back and be able to feel like I already have something, so I know where to start the next life.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: I might listen to this after you’ve died.
ROBYN EINHORN: I hope you do.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: What do you want me to know? What do you want me to think about?
ROBYN EINHORN: I guess I want you to know that I love you very much. And thank you.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: I’m going to miss you a lot. And I’m really glad that I get to be here with you now.
ROBYN EINHORN: I’m not dying yet.
MATT BARINHOLTZ: I love you, Robyn.
ROBYN EINHORN: I love you, too.
DAVE ISAY: So that’s Robyn Einhorn and Matt Barinholtz. And again, I think that gets to — well, it’s interesting, because in the booth, a lot of people talk about mortality, and a lot of people cry in the booth. I mean, a lot of times when the doors shut and the microphones go on, both of the participants just start crying. And I think it’s partly just because people realize that this is a recording that their great, great, great, great, great, great-grandchildren someday will get to hear. You know, this is — to some extent, it’s a project about mortality, and it’s a project that tells people they matter and that they won’t be forgotten, which is all that any of us really, I think, want to know.
AMY GOODMAN: You take pictures of people, as well?
DAVE ISAY: Yes. At the end of each session, there’s a sheet that gets pulled down, and then there’s a digital photograph that’s taken, kind of like a photo-booth photo. And on our website, on storycorps.net, we have lots and lots of stories and pictures, and that’s also where you can go to make reservations. We have two booths traveling the country now, and those sell out very, very quickly. And we have two booths in New York City, one which I’ll talk about a little bit later, downtown in Lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site, and one at Grand Central Terminal.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say they sell out, you don’t mean people pay to go in?
DAVE ISAY: No. StoryCorps is a totally, totally insane project. It’s crazy. We ask for a $10 donation for each session. If you can’t afford it, you don’t pay anything. Each session costs us about $300 to do. So basically we’re losing $300 every hour at every booth.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us across the country?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. We left Washington, D.C., in June, and we started traveling, these two booths, and it’s been amazing. I mean, by the time we pulled into Missoula, Montana a month later, when the booth came in — I mean, nobody knew who we were in June. By the time we pulled into Missoula in August, people were honking their horns and waving at the booth, so it’s really this phenomenon. People are hungry for it. We’ve been to 31 cities in 21 states so far, from big cities — Detroit, Seattle — to small cities — Moscow, Idaho, Paducah, Kentucky. And we also — one of our stops was at a Native American reservation, Indian reservation, in North Dakota, in New Town, North Dakota. This is a Ft. Berthold reservation, and Monica Mayer came to the booth to be interviewed by her friend Spencer Wilkinson, Jr., and this is a story about growing up on the reservation.
MONICA MAYER: My father, he was a full-blood German, and my mother was full-blood Indian. And, you know, it was pretty tough in the '60s growing up, you know, a half-breed, so to speak. And I must have been about seventh grade, eighth grade, and I wasn't doing well in school. And I’m the oldest of three girls, so our dad packed us up in his pickup, took us out to his old homestead land, which is about 18 miles north of New Town in the middle of nowhere, and he packed us some lunches and some water — all three of us girls — dropped us off out there like at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and said he wanted all the rocks picked in the northwest corner in one big pile and that he’d come back that night to pick us up, and it better be done. So there we were, working hard all day long.
He comes back, and we’re dirty, stinky, sweaty, sore muscles, crying. We must have been a sight to see. And my dad pulls up in his pickup, and I looked at him, and I said, since I was the oldest — my two younger sisters are like hiding behind me — “Dad, we don’t think this is fair we have to work this hard.” And I just remember him saying, “Is that right? Well, do you think I like working hard like this every day?” “No.” He said, “You know, your mother said you girls don’t like school and you’re not doing very well, and we decided that you’re going to come out here and work like this, so your hind ends will get used to how your life’s going to be when you get older.”
So I said, “Well, if we got good grades, do we have to come out here and work this hard?” And he said, “No, that’s the deal.” Well, you didn’t have to bust my head twice up against the brick wall, but my two younger sisters and I were laughing about that, because they remember that particular day exactly the way I remembered it. One day of hard labor changed everything.
DAVE ISAY: Monica Mayer is now a physician, and she practices medicine in Ft. Berthold. And she talked about her two sisters, Holly and Renee. One is a nurse, and the other is head of social services on the reservation.
AMY GOODMAN: StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay. And we’ll continue with the stories after Sweet Honey in the Rock.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to our interview again with award-winning radio producer and StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay. The StoryCorps project launched a six-month, ten-city national tour in January. Dave took us across the country with StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: Well, the facilitators are the core of StoryCorps, and they’re these people who come from all over the country and are hired just because they’re amazing listeners. They come to New York, they train in our New York booths, and then some of them go off on the road, anywhere from two to four months. It’s two facilitators per booth, and their job is really to listen and help people through the process of doing StoryCorps interviews. So they will drive the booth. Sometimes we’ll have — the booths are kind of tough to maneuver around, so sometimes we’ll have professional drivers, because it makes everybody nervous to move these things around. But we stop in a city for one month. And then we’ll move for the next month.
And again, we’re just at the very, very, very beginning of StoryCorps. We hope that StoryCorps is going to grow into an institution in this country and that it will be accessible to everybody who wants to participate, and we want to have booths everywhere and available to everybody at no cost, so that this kind of history can be collected and families can have this kind of experience and people can remember. It’s so important to remember how valuable our stories and our lives are and how important they are to document and how they have to be respected.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Isay, keep driving across country. We’re in North Dakota. Where now?
DAVE ISAY: Now, we’re going to move to Oregon. We were invited, actually, by the Oregon State Penitentiary to come inside the walls — this is the maximum security penitentiary in Oregon — and conduct a series of interviews between inmates, inmates and inmates, inmates and staff, staff and staff. We spent a couple of days there. And I brought an interview with me between two inmates. One’s name is Paul Mortimer, and the other is Sean Fox, and they interviewed one another in the StoryCorps booth at the Oregon State Penitentiary a couple months ago.
PAUL MORTIMER: My name’s Paul Mortimer. My friends call me Bumper. We’re at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. I’m 49 years old. I’ve been here almost 21 years for a drug-related robbery.
SEAN FOX: My name’s Sean Fox. I’m 39 years old. I got double consecutive life without the possibility of parole.
PAUL MORTIMER: What’s your present offense?
SEAN FOX: Aggravated murder.
PAUL MORTIMER: We met when? About ’86?
SEAN FOX: ’88.
PAUL MORTIMER: Almost 20 years ago.
SEAN FOX: My little boy come in here. You know, “Daddy, please come home for just a little while.” My daughter, she said to her mama, “Dad must not really love us. If he did, he wouldn’t have left us out here like that.” My wife is my — she’s my strength. That’s what keeps me together, you know? She’s been out there and raised those kids for 11 years by herself. She’s a hero. I mean, that’s an incredible human being right there.
PAUL MORTIMER: That’s the way I feel about Nettie, that’s my wife. We met in here in 1990 over the telephone. We’ve been together ever since.
SEAN FOX: She’s awesome.
PAUL MORTIMER: I tried to run her off when I O.D.ed. I’ve O.D.ed near four times. It breaks my heart when I do that. You don’t want to catch a new beef in here. I mean, it’s like doing dead time, and then have to go out and look in her eyes, one of the few people in this world that actually love me. I believe, I seriously believe, if it wasn’t for her, I would probably gave up a long time ago and done something really horrendous in here, you know?
SEAN FOX: Yeah. Same stuff over and over every day. It’s real small.
PAUL MORTIMER: Yeah, monotonous. Waking up, looking at them bars. You know, a lot of things.
SEAN FOX: Just things that people take for granted. I would love to mow the lawn, you know?
PAUL MORTIMER: When the trucks come in, you know, they bring in like the trash truck and all that? The smell of the exhaust, most people don’t want to smell that. I try to get a nose full of it, because it brings back memories of being out on the streets. If you really think about that, it’s sorry. I mean, that’s the highlight of your day, getting a nose full of exhaust?
SEAN FOX: Think you’ll ever get out?
PAUL MORTIMER: Yeah. I mean, I see the parole board every two years. If I can leave the drugs alone long enough, I’ll get a date. I’ll get out. I’ll probably be 55, close to 60 when I get out, but I will get back out.
DAVE ISAY: Less than a month after this conversation, Paul Mortimer was found dead in his cell, and the cause of the death, according to his wife, was a drug overdose. He was 49 years old. But again, for him and for his wife and for Sean, his friend, I mean, doing this interview, to him, meant that, again, that there was some record of his life. You know, and that’s why when we went to this penitentiary, for example, there was such joy when we went inside, because we were telling people that they mattered.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the slots fill up?
DAVE ISAY: Yes, they did. In the penitentiary, there were — we could have spent months in there. I mean, everybody wanted to participate.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it all prisoners interviewing each other?
DAVE ISAY: It was prisoners interviewing each other, and it was staff interviewing prisoners, and staff interviewing staff. It was amazing. It was an amazing experience for the facilitators. Maybe some other time I’ll come back, and we can bring some facilitators, because they’re on the ground. I mean, they have the experiences. You know, I was saying when we were listening to the clip that I spent all my time trying to raise money this craziness, so I actually don’t get to go on the road. But yeah, I mean, and part of the beauty of the project is that these facilitators, who serve a one-year tour of duty, after they’ve gone through this and had these experiences, they’re kind of sprinkled back out into the world to kind of spread the aesthetic farther. They learn how to edit tape and how to, well, I guess it’s — they learn how to run the equipment, and it’s a lot about learning how to listen and learning, you know — it’s about patience and treating people with respect.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, can you take us south now?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. The next clip is one that was recorded just a month or two ago. This is Taylor Rogers and his wife Bessie, and they were at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, when Dr. King delivered his last, his final speech. They were both sanitation workers. And Dr. King had gone down to Memphis to support the sanitation strike, and they wanted to come to the booth to remember that last speech.
TAYLOR ROGERS: I mean, it was wall to wall with people.
BESSIE ROGERS: And it was storming and raining. He preached, and he said that —
TAYLOR ROGERS: “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
BESSIE ROGERS: Oh, yeah.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
TAYLOR ROGERS: “And I looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.”
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.
TAYLOR ROGERS: “I might not get there with you.”
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I may not get there with you.
TAYLOR ROGERS: But we will get there.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.
BESSIE ROGERS: And he was crying. Tears were rolling down his cheek.
TAYLOR ROGERS: Preacher was crying. People was crying, and everybody was crying.
BESSIE ROGERS: He really talked that night. I mean, he really, really talked.
TAYLOR ROGERS: You could tell by the expression on his face and the feeling and the sound of his voice that he knew something was going to happen. You see, 'cause “I'm not fearing any man.”
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
BESSIE ROGERS: The next day, he was killed.
TAYLOR ROGERS: You know, it sounds like you lost a part of your family. You just really can’t describe it. He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers. After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear nothing but leather against pavement. It was just some terrible days back then, but with God’s help, we came through. And it means something to know that you was a part of this.
DAVE ISAY: That’s Taylor and Bessie Rogers, when the StoryCorps booth was down in Memphis. And remember, I mean, these two booths have only been on the road for seven months now, eight months. And just listening to the kind of stuff that’s coming out of them, just think about what we’re going to hear in the years to come, when it’s successful, hopefully to everybody.
AMY GOODMAN: And so each of these conversations is 40 minutes.
DAVE ISAY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: A CD goes to the people who come in.
DAVE ISAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And one goes to, again?
DAVE ISAY: The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. And it’s amazing and thrilling to us to go into that collection, because that’s where all the WPA, the Federal Writers Project interviews, live, so we get to be on —
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what they are.
DAVE ISAY: Well, those were the interviews that were done as part of the WPA, and I’m sure that you’ve played —
AMY GOODMAN: The Works Progress Administration.
DAVE ISAY: The Works Progress Administration.
AMY GOODMAN: FDR.
DAVE ISAY: And this is when historians and folklorists traveled the country and did interviews with everyday people. There are recordings of people selling — fishmongers selling fish in Harlem. There are many recordings with former slaves and recordings done at Parchment Penitentiary, and this also was one of the big influences on starting this project, because I had been going to the Library of Congress and listening to these recordings for many years and, first of all, blown away by how they carry you back in time, the strength of voice to carry you back in time, also how beautifully recorded they were done, and asking myself why aren’t there more oral history projects where you have the voices of regular people, of everyday people. So that was a big influence, and it’s a great honor for us to be down at the Library of Congress at the American Folklife Center.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, who most often comes in to interview who?
DAVE ISAY: Well, we’ve had people from five years old to 105, and I’d say most of our interviews are intergenerational interviews. It’s a lot of kids and grandkids interviewing their parents or grandparents. But we’ve had every permutation you can imagine. It’s every combination of person you can imagine. A lot of times friends will come in.
AMY GOODMAN: At Grand Central, is it just people racing home to work?
DAVE ISAY: No, you have to make a reservation. So, we can do seven interviews a day, because they take an hour. At the beginning, you meet with a facilitator, you figure out what you want to — if you haven’t gone to our website to go through this question generator we have, where you have hundreds of questions you can choose from, you talk to the facilitator and figure out what you want to talk about, and then there’s some data entry before you go in, and then you go in the booth for 40 minutes, and then you come out of the booth and you do some more data entry, so that these will be really searchable at the Library of Congress. So there’s a checklist that you go through of different stuff that was talked about and the spelling of proper names and the spelling of places, so the whole experience takes about an hour. But it is possible to get — as I said, on the road, it’s tough to get interview slots right now, because we have, you know, only these two booths traveling. But here in New York, it is possible to get slots. So anybody who’s coming to visit the city should come and make a reservation and try it out.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have two here, at Grand Central Station in New York and down at Ground Zero.
DAVE ISAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any examples of people who spoke at Ground Zero?
DAVE ISAY: Sure, I do, absolutely. We opened in July at the World Trade Center site, and this booth is open for the general public, but we have special slots reserved for families to come in and remember loved ones who were lost on September 11, and also for rescue workers and for survivors to come in. So it’s been amazing. I mean, I think for families, it’s really important that they get a chance to talk about their loved one, not only for what happened on September 11, but who they were growing up, and to know that their name won’t be forgotten.
And I have a couple of clips from the World Trade Center, and this would be clip — 11 will be the first one. This is a clip of John and Elaine Leinung, who came into our StoryCorps booth. Elaine is the mom, and John is the stepfather of Paul Battaglia. Paul was 22 years old, and he lived at home with them, and he worked at Marsh & McLennan as a risk consultant. And John and Elaine spent a lot of time talking about Paul and what he was like as a child. And this particular clip talks about September 11. So this is John and Elaine Leinung talking about Paul Battaglia, their son, who lived at home with them in Brooklyn on September 11.
JOHN LEINUNG: I just kept hoping that it was —- because at first when it hit, you know, before 9:00, I just kept hoping that, you know, maybe he was still down in the lobby, or -—
ELAINE LEINUNG: No, he had got there early, because he had a meeting, and he left whistling that morning. He was very happy. He was going to his meeting. He was going to work. In fact, I was going to ask him to wait for me to ride the train with him, because I loved to sit next to him on the train. I loved to smell his aftershave.
We had such a happy night the night before, September 10, 2001. We were joking and laughing, and I actually was so happy when I went to sleep that night. That’s the thing that got me afterwards. I had no premonition. You’d think that you should know something horrible is going to happen to your child that day. And I was so happy that night, thinking that I had such a nice family, I had such a good life, and I was truly blessed. And then, 12 hours later, it was very different. And I’ll miss him until I die.
DAVE ISAY: That was John and Elaine Leinung remembering Paul Battaglia. As I said, we also have survivors who come to the booth, and I’m going to play a clip of Keith Meerholz, who also worked at Marsh beside Paul Battaglia, and he was on his way up to the 100th floor of the North Tower when the plane hit. He was on an elevator, and miraculously, he survived and he managed to make his way out. And he and his wife Grete, who had just given birth to their third child, wanted to come to the booth to remember September 11. So this is Keith Meerholz from Marsh and his wife Grete.
GRETE MEERHOLZ: Someone came into the room and said that the tower had fallen, and I thought that was it. I kind of gave up hope.
KEITH MEERHOLZ: Fortunately, I didn’t wait too long to call in, did I?
GRETE MEERHOLZ: Shortly after, you called, and I picked up the phone, and you just said, “Grete, I’m alive.” And I started screaming so that everybody in the house would know.
KEITH MEERHOLZ: I don’t even remember what I said, to be honest.
GRETE MEERHOLZ: I do. You said, “I made it out, and I have some burns, but I’m going to get away.” And I just remember screaming, “Just get away! Get away! Get away!” And you’d make it.
KEITH MEERHOLZ: Yeah. How do you think you’ve changed?
GRETE MEERHOLZ: How do I think I’ve changed?
KEITH MEERHOLZ: Yeah.
GRETE MEERHOLZ: I guess I’m not really sure. I do know that every time I get mad at you or we have an argument, I can think back to September 11 and I can kind of forgive you for anything. And I love you, because you make me laugh, even though I always say I’m funnier.
KEITH MEERHOLZ: No way. I’m definitely funnier.
GRETE MEERHOLZ: You make me laugh. And you’re my best friend. And it’s nice to have a best friend to go through life with.
DAVE ISAY: That was Keith Meerholz and his wife Grete at our Lower Manhattan booth at the World Trade Center.
AMY GOODMAN: StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay.
DAVE ISAY: This one is from Columbus, Ohio, and this is a clip about war, which is appropriate, I think, at this time. And this is Joseph Robertson, who was — he’s 86 years old, and his son-in-law, John Fish, took him to the booth to tell a story about killing a young German soldier during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. So again, this is Joseph Robertson, who’s 86, and he’s being interviewed by John Fish, Jr., his son-in-law.
JOSEPH ROBERTSON: I was hid behind the big tree that was knocked down or fallen, and I could see these Germans in the woods across this big field, and I saw this young kid crawling up a ditch, straight towards my tree. So I let him crawl. I didn’t fire at him. But when he got up within three or four foot of me, I screamed at him to surrender, and instead of surrendering, he started to pull his gun towards me, which was instant death for him. But this young man, he was a blond, blue eyes, fair skin, so handsome. He was like a little angel. But I still had to shoot him. And it didn’t bother me the first night, because I went to sleep and I was so tired. But the second night, I woke up crying, because that kid was there. And to this day, I wake up many nights crying over this kid. I still see him in my dreams, and I don’t know how to get him off my mind.
DAVE ISAY: That was a clip with Joseph Robertson being interviewed by his son-in-law. You know, I think with StoryCorps, we’re really trying to spark a movement in this country and kind of shake people out of the reality TV-induced —and a lot of the news we see, the kind of glaze that people get over their eyes, and kind of shake them up with these sorts of stories and remind them of how important the truth is in authentic stories. I mean, and that’s what I think comes through in all these clips: the real authenticity in people’s voices. And, again, I’ve just been so blown away by how hungry people are for this kind of material and for wanting to participate in a project like this.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do people learn that the StoryCorps booth is in town?
DAVE ISAY: Well, we do a lot of — we partner with public and community radio stations across the country, so the radio stations will talk about the booth being in town, and then we also keep a certain number of slots for outreach to different communities, so we’ll work with — for instance, in Minneapolis, we worked with homeless kids, and we’ll keep at least somewhere between 25% and 50% of our slots open for populations who might not necessarily have heard about the project on the radio.
I mean, that’s really important for us for many reasons, because I think what we’re trying to do is start something of a social movement with this project, and it’s very important that everybody have access to it, and also because it means so much to these folks. I mean, it’s similar to the prison stuff. I mean, I heard from — when we were in Minneapolis working with homeless kids, that the kids would come back to the shelter where they lived and with the CDs and saying, “Look at this,” you know, “I exist,” you know, like dancing around. And actually, one of the people who worked with the kids ended up getting on a bus and coming to New York to work with StoryCorps and is actually now taking off on one of the booths, so that piece fits really important to us.
And along those lines, I have a clip that is a little bit longer. These are three or four stories put together, and these are — I mean, I think a lot of these stories we’re hearing today have been kind of sad, in a way. I guess you could look at it that way. But to me, I think that they kind of — they’re not sad, because they remind you of the resilience of the human spirit and just the strength of people. And, you know, life is hard. You hear that every day on Democracy Now! Life is hard. There’s no two ways around it. And, you know, as you know so well here on this show, the truth is so powerful, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this project.
We’re starting something new with StoryCorps over the next year, which we’re calling “Door to Door,” where we’ll send facilitators out into different parts of the country without the booth, because we’re so limited on the resources that we have right now to do interviews. And we did a test of Door to Door in Philadelphia a few months ago. And there was a school in Philadelphia, where the kids heard about StoryCorps, and in partnership with a group called Need in Deed, they wanted to do a project where they interviewed the parents and grandparents of murdered children in Philadelphia. 35 kids last year were murdered by gun violence, so this junior high school wanted to go and interview the parents and grandparents, as many as they could, to have a record of the lives of the kids who were murdered.
So we’re going to hear — I think it’s three clips, maybe four clips, of kids from Grover Washington Middle School interviewing parents in Philadelphia. This first one is Vincent Roberts and Montez White who are interviewing Pamela Sanders about her son Tyrique, who was murdered at the age of 15.
MONTEZ WHITE: What was some of his future goals?
PAMELA SANDERS: Tyrique wanted to become a basketball star. He also was a beautiful, beautiful artist. He loved to do artwork. Tyrique could look at you and just draw you as you were.
MONTEZ WHITE: Could you describe the day he died?
PAMELA SANDERS: The people were actually after my neighbor’s son. Tyrique just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, out there talking. And the people that came started shooting, just walking down the street, broad daylight, open guns, just started firing. Actually, four people got shot that particular day. Everybody else survived, and I lost Tyrique.
VINCENT ROBERTS: What was the last moment you and Tyrique shared?
PAMELA SANDERS: When Tyrique fell in my doorway, screaming, “Mom, I’m shot! I’m shot!” After that, he wasn’t able to say nothing else. I let him know I loved him. His eyes was open, and I asked Tyrique to hang in there, it’s going to be alright. I miss him so much. It’s like half my heart is gone. But I still got another child to live for, and I got to keep going. But each and every day is just hard. It’s very hard.
VICTORIA CHAU: Hi, name is Victoria Chau.
VINCENT ROBERTS: Hello, my name is Vincent Roberts. Today, we’re going to be interviewing Mr. Rick Alston about his son.
VICTORIA CHAU: Do you know what you miss most about him?
RICK ALSTON: Everything. Every single thing. There wasn’t nothing about Uri I didn’t love. We loved to go to the movies together. Every time when a movie would come out, we would be first in line to go to the movies, and my favorite memory of Uri is sitting in the movies, eating the largest bowl of popcorn that’s possible, and then sitting there eating it like there’s no tomorrow. And we’re just looking over there, just laughing and just cracking up.
VICTORIA CHAU: What would you say to him right now, if he were here?
RICK ALSTON: That I love him.
VINCENT ROBERTS: Could you imagine what he would say to you?
RICK ALSTON: That I’m alright. That’s what he would say. It was his favorite word, “Dad, I’m alright.”
VINCENT ROBERTS: How has your life changed since the murder?
RICK ALSTON: I won’t see Uri that much no more. Only time I see him is in my heart and in my memories. There’s a son I will never see grow up to be a man. So, my life changed a whole lot. I will always wonder what kind of man he would have made.
TERRENCE BOYKINS: Hello, my name is Terrence Boykins. I’m 14 years old.
PATRICK VOLF: My name is Patrick Volf. I’m 14 years old. Today, I’m talking to Mrs. Clark about Lamont Adams. Why do you want to participate in this project?
JENNIE CLARK: Because Lamont was my baby, my grandson. I raised him. I don’t want him forgotten.
TERRENCE BOYKINS: What memories do you have of his early childhood?
JENNIE CLARK: He had a hard, raspy voice when he was a little fellow. There was a song out called, “Oh, baby, you, you got what I need.” And Lamont wasn’t even walking, but he was sitting up singing that song.
TERRENCE BOYKINS: Can you describe his personality?
JENNIE CLARK: Lamont loved to talk. And laugh. He had the prettiest smile and the whitest teeth. And he always showed them, mouth always open. Always talking. He made friends everywhere. People liked him. That personality. I wish I’d had it.
TERRENCE BOYKINS: How do you want Lamont to be remembered?
JENNIE CLARK: Just remember that big smile, that big smile that I’m so crazy about. His last wash is still downstairs in the basement in the hamper, because I can’t move his things. I go through them. I look at them, but I don’t move his things. Sometimes I go in the bathroom, and I close the door, and I get down on my knees, and I cry and ask God, “Why my baby? Why did they have to hurt my baby?” They don’t know what they took from us.
DAVE ISAY: So, again, those are kids from Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School, interviewing the parents and grandparents of murdered children in Philadelphia last year. And again, I think that speaks to the idea that you helped to teach me, that every life matters, and how important it is to use the tools that we have in the media to remind people of that at every opportunity we possibly can.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for your final clip, Dave, where will you take us?
DAVE ISAY: I’ll take us back home to Grand Central Terminal, to our original StoryCorps booth. And this is a happier clip. This is a clip that was recorded a little while ago, and I think it speaks to the kind of unexpected and magical things that happen in the booth. A couple in their twenties came to the booth. His name is — the boyfriend’s name is Michael Wolmetz, and he was 25 at the time, and he came with his girlfriend, Deborah Brakarz, who was 26, and they came to the booth in Grand Central Terminal to interview one another.
DEBORAH BRAKARZ: So what was the most emotionally painful thing that ever happened?
MICHAEL WOLMETZ: Thinking about it takes my breath away, but my father passing away, of course, just over two years ago. And he was the closest person to me. It was sudden, and he was supposed to pick me up from the airport in New York, and I got to the airport and I called my house, and my mother said, “Um, you know, your aunt’s going to pick you up.” Obviously, I could detect something in her voice. There’s no way that you could hide that. And I was like, “Tell me what it is.” My mother said, “I don’t want to tell you like this.” And I was like, “Tell me. You have to tell me. Tell me.” And she told me that he died in the middle of the night. I stood there and watched the bags go around the carousel, and I waited for my bag, and I went outside, and I got in my aunt’s car, and I felt like no other time in my life.
So this is the ring that my father gave to my mother, and we can leave it there, and he saved up, and he purchased this, and he proposed to my mother with this, and so I thought that I would give it to you, so that he could be with us for this also. So, I’m going to share a mike with you right now, Deborah. Where’s the right finger? Deborah, will you please marry me?
DEBORAH BRAKARZ: Yes, of course. I love you.
MICHAEL WOLMETZ: So, kids, this is how your mother and I got married, in a booth in Grand Central Station with my father’s ring. My grandfather was a cabdriver for 40 years, used to pick people up here every day, so it seems right.
DAVE ISAY: So that’s the story of StoryCorps, and I appreciate you having me on. It’s great to see you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you here, Dave, and to see this remarkable project really begin to be enjoyed by people all over the country. Where do you go from here?
DAVE ISAY: You know, as I said, we want to become part of the fabric of this nation. We want to have — we want to make this accessible to everybody who wants to participate, and we want to start a social movement of listening to each other, of respecting each other’s stories, of recognizing the value of all our stories. So we’re just going to, you know, we’re going to fight with all of our heart to have this thing take hold and grow, and we hope that it will become an American institution that’s around for a long time to come.
AMY GOODMAN: If people want to bring StoryCorps to their community, what do they have to do?
DAVE ISAY: Right now they have to wait. We don’t have —- you know, we’re trying to build the foundation right now, on which we can grow really, really big, and we are very small now still. We have -—
AMY GOODMAN: Where is StoryCorps headed right now?
DAVE ISAY: Well, right now, we still have the two booths traveling the country, and one is opening in Atlanta in late February, and the other one is going to be in Arizona in the beginning of March. And right now one of the booths is in San Diego, and the other one is in Miami. So we’re going to keep fighting, and we’re going to try and keep this thing going, and there’s a very dedicated group of people who really believe in this project. It’s very much of a team effort, and there’s just a fantastic group of people working on this. And we’re just — and the people who have come to the booth, and they’ve come from all parts of the political spectrum, every age, I mean — you know, we’re just amazed, I think, at how everybody’s stories are boiled down to the same basic stories, and you heard them today. I mean, it’s about, you know, your parents, loving your parents, parents dying; some people get married, loving their mate, whoever they’re with; and for people who have kids, they’re loving their kids; and death. You know, that’s what it’s all about. And again, as I said earlier, when you listen to these stories, you realize how much we share in common as a nation.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, recorded earlier this year. To make a StoryCorps reservation in New York, if you’re coming to New York or here, you can call 1-800-850-4406 or you can go to the web at storycorps.net.