In a Democracy Now! special, we look back at a decade of stories from the oral history project StoryCorps. The first StoryCorps recording booth opened in 2003 in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Some 100,000 people have since recorded interviews with their loved ones in StoryCorps booths across the country. Their voices are recorded onto a CD for the storytellers and preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. We spend the hour with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and play some of his favorite stories from the past decade, including many we’ve never aired before. We hear about Yelitza Castro, a housekeeper who cooks dinner for homeless people, and Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. When he was nine years old, McNair refused to leave a racially segregated library, even after the librarian threatened to call the police. "It’s such a privilege to be able to tell these stories," Dave Isay says. "What I hope happens is ... that it kind of shakes you on the shoulder and just reminds you, through all the nonsense, this is what’s important, this is what’s really important." We also feature a special guest appearance from the children of P.S. 128 in New York City.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a Democracy Now! special, we look back at a decade of stories from the oral history project StoryCorps. In 2003, the first StoryCorps recording booth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Since then, nearly 100,000 people have recorded interviews with their loved ones in StoryCorps booths across the country. Their voices are burned into a CD for the people who do the interview and their loved one, and then preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Today, 10 years and some 50,000 interviews after its inception, StoryCorps stands as the largest collection of voices ever gathered in history. Millions of people have listened on public radio and online.
Today we’re going to spend the hour with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and air some of his favorite stories from the past decade. But first let’s go to one of those stories. On January 28th, 1986, NASA’s Challenger mission ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. On board was physicist Ronald E. McNair. He was the second African American to enter space. But first, he was a kid, with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina. His brother Carl was interviewed by a friend about Ronald in a StoryCorps booth in Atlanta. And for those who are watching, the StoryCorps story has been animated.
CARL McNAIR: When he was nine years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library, which was of course public library, but not so public for black folks when you’re talking about 1959.
So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him—because they were white folk only—and they were looking at him, saying, you know, "Who is this Negro?" So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.
Well, this old librarian, she says, "This library is not for coloreds." He said, "Well, I would like to check out these books." She says, "Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police." So he just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, "I’ll wait."
So, she called the police, and subsequently called my mother. Police came down. Two burly guys come in and say, "Well, where’s the disturbance?" And she pointed to the little nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. And he says, "Ma’am, what’s the problem?"
So, my mother—in the meanwhile, she was called—she comes down there, praying the whole way there, "Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail." And my mother asks the librarian, "What’s the problem?"
"Well, he wanted to check out the books, and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here." And the police officer said, "You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?" And my mother said, "He’ll take good care of them." And reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books. And my mother said, "What do you say?" He said, "Thank you, ma’am."
Later on, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now, Star Trek showed the future where there were black folk and white folk working together. And I just looked at it as science fiction, because that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility. You know, he came up during a time when there was Neil Armstrong and all of those guys. So how was a colored boy from South Carolina, wearing glasses, who never flew a plane—how was he going to become an astronaut?
But Ron was someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise.
AMY GOODMAN: The library in Lake City was renamed the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center on January 28, 2011, 25 years to the day after his death. That was Carl McNair talking about his brother Ronald McNair, who died in the Challenger explosion.
Well, we’re joined right now by Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and author of the new book, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.
What a story, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Hey, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what a 10 years.
DAVE ISAY: Happy holidays.
AMY GOODMAN: Happy holidays to you.
DAVE ISAY: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, well, it’s wonderful to have you back. Talk about Ronald and Carl.
DAVE ISAY: Well, I think this is one of the interesting things that happens when you have a collection that’s as big as StoryCorps has become. The 25th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle was coming up, and we wanted to know if there was anything in our archive about the—about the shuttle. And lo and behold, Carl had come in to remember his brother. So we edited it and put it on the air. And then, for those who view, we later animated this. And you can probably find these animations on the Democracy Now! website, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get the idea to animate these conversations? But even before we talk about that—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —the conversations themselves, where they take place, like where Carl was in Atlanta?
DAVE ISAY: So, we have booths, as you said in the introduction, across the country, where people can come and have these conversations. In some ways, it’s—you could think of it as 40 minutes to distill your life as best that’s possible. And I think the power—you know, we think of StoryCorps as having two sides to it: the experience, which we’ve done these 50,000 interviews—and that’s what StoryCorps is. I mean, we are a public service. It gives people the chance to sit with a loved one. It’s kind of the opposite of reality TV. No one comes to StoryCorps to get rich. No one comes to get famous. They come out of generosity and love. And you sit for 40 minutes and have this conversation.
And, you know, half of our slots are held for people who might not have heard of us through public radio or through newspapers. So we work with 500 nonprofits across the country each year. So, folks who are in the juvenile justice system or homeless people or immigrants come to the booth and have this experience with a loved one through organizations that serve them. And, to me, that being listened to—and you know this—it tells people how much their lives matter. And a lot of people who feel silenced in our country, knowing that their story is not only important enough to be listened to, but to be part of American history at the Library of Congress, which we know, of course, it’s important enough to be, but for people who don’t necessarily know that, it can be a very important, sometimes a transformative experience for them.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have a lot of different projects going, like the Griot project.
DAVE ISAY: Initiatives, yeah. So we have these big national initiatives. And the McNair story was part of our Griot Initiative. "Griot" is a West African word for storyteller. So that’s now the largest collection of African-American stories ever gathered. And, yeah, we have—it’s been a really remarkable 10 years. And, of course, as we say every time I come on here, it all started with you, 25 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that you first came to community radio, to WBAI in New York.
DAVE ISAY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Actually, you made a phone call, and you asked me—we were running the news—why we hadn’t done a story that particular day—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —on a museum that a couple was establishing on the Lower East Side of New York.
DAVE ISAY: And you said, "Do it yourself." And here we are all these years later. Thank you for that.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s amazing is you walked in the next day, you, that lanky soul, with your tape recorder and a recorded conversation with the two of them, and that’s how it all began. And so, it’s wonderful to bring you these stories now of people talking to each other. Let’s go to another one of the animated video clips of StoryCorps interviews. This is Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez, who grew up in the 1960s in a small farming community in Southern California.
RAMÓN "CHUNKY" SÁNCHEZ: My name, when I started kindergarten, was Ramón. And by the time I was in the second grade, everybody was calling me Raymond. You know, out in the playground, in the classroom, "Raymond! Hey, Raymond! Hey, Raymond!" I was trying to adjust to this, you know what I mean?
And if there was a girl named María, her name became Mary. And Juanita became Jane. ’Til one day we got a new student by the name of Facundo González. Facundo González, man. When he came to school, we noticed they called an emergency administrative meeting. You could kind of hear them talking through the door. You know, "What are we going to do with this guy, man?" You know what I mean? "How are we going to change his name?" You know?
And one teacher goes, "Well, you know what? Why don’t we try to shorten the name a little bit?" And they go, "Yeah, well, but how do you spell it? F-A-C-U-N-D-O?" And they go, "Why don’t we just spell it F-A-C?" And one of teachers: "Well, that means his name would be Fac." And the other teachers looked at him. "No, that—you know, that sounds too much like that—like a dirty word. You can’t be saying, 'Fac, where's your homework?’ You know? ’Where’s Fac at?’ You know what I mean?"
Well, that was a trip we always remembered, going through elementary school, because Facundo was the only guy who never got his name changed.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the stories from StoryCorps. Dave, this collection, quite astounding, across generations, across ethnicities—it is America.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, I mean, I think—it’s about 100,000 people who have participated. And, you know, I think the core idea of StoryCorps is so core to the work that you do. You know, the idea of StoryCorps, when you get right down to it, is that every life matters, and every life matters equally, and the importance of listening, and recognizing the dignity and the grace and the beauty in the voices, stories that we find all around us, are just—these stories are just hidden in plain sight, and all you have to do is listen, to learn about them.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us the story of MJ Seide—or let them tell us the story, but sort of set it up for us?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So, this is—this is a StoryCorps story from this, from Ties That Bind, which is a book about kind of the people—it’s very hard to get a StoryCorps slot now. Sometimes we’ll have a thousand people on a waiting list five minutes after we open reservations. So people usually bring that person who’s most important in their life to the booth to honor them, and someone who was there during their roughest times or who saved them, whatever it is. This is a granddaughter who brings her grandmother to the StoryCorps booth. Her grandmother is both her poker partner and—
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, she plays poker with her grandmother.
DAVE ISAY: With her grandmother—and is gay. So this is the first opportunity they’ve had, really, to talk about that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this is MJ Seide talking to her granddaughter, Genna Alperin, about falling in love with her partner, who’s Genna’s biological grandmother.
GENNA ALPERIN: How has your life been different than what you thought it was going to be?
MJ SEIDE: I thought that my life was probably not one that was going to be worth living. There was this hole that I had all of my life because I never thought I’d be able to walk along the beach and hold somebody’s hand, because I’m gay. But, you know, when I fell in love with Mamommy, I knew that she was my soulmate. Do you know what I mean by that?
GENNA ALPERIN: Yeah.
MJ SEIDE: I had never felt that way about anyone before. And after she had gotten her divorce from Grandpa Jim, she was very upfront with your mom. She told your mom she was in love, and it was with a woman. And that was the first time that anyone was proud to say that they loved me. That made me the happiest I’d ever been in my life. And then, when I got to know your mom and Uncle Justin, I knew that I had hit paradise, because I now have a family that I can wrap my arms around.
GENNA ALPERIN: Is there anything that you’ve never told me but you want to tell me now?
MJ SEIDE: You know, you and I talk about most things. But this is the first time that we’ve ever talked about the fact that I’m gay, and I guess what I want to ask you is: Does it embarrass you to have a gay grandma?
GENNA ALPERIN: No.
MJ SEIDE: No.
GENNA ALPERIN: It doesn’t really matter—
MJ SEIDE: It doesn’t, mm-hmm.
GENNA ALPERIN: —’cuz it just matters my relationship with you.
MJ SEIDE: I always tell you how much I love you, but I don’t know that you can really understand the depth of it, because you’re someone that I never thought would be in my life, and I can’t imagine my life without you. You have always been a child that makes up her own mind, and I am so, so proud of you.
GENNA ALPERIN: Well, you’re one of my favorite grandmas. You do, like, a lot of things with me, like ride roller coasters and play poker. I don’t know what life would be like without you here.
MJ SEIDE: I love you, sweetheart.
GENNA ALPERIN: Love you, too.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s MJ Seide talking to her granddaughter, Genna Alperin. And, you know, it was MJ Seide who fell in love with her partner, who’s Genna’s biological grandmother. Dave Isay is with us, the founder of StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: We got a letter from MJ after this aired. Her granddaughter interviewed her as a Bar Mitzvah project—Bat Mitzvah project. And she wrote about us, which—
AMY GOODMAN: When she turned 13 years old.
DAVE ISAY: When she turned 13 years old. And she wrote that, you know, she’s been an activist all her life, and she always felt like she was preaching to the converted. But with this interview, through the mouth of, you know, this babe for her Bat Mitzvah, she finally felt like mainstream America had heard her and accepted her. So that’s, you know, one of the many kind of beautiful things and miracles about what happens at StoryCorps all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, can you tell us about William Lynn Weaver?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So this is an interview—you were talking about the Griot Initiative earlier. We launched it at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. And one of the very first interviews we recorded was a man named Lynn Weaver, who came with his daughter, Kimberly. And Lynn came to StoryCorps to remember his father, Ted Weaver. Ted was a janitor and a chauffeur in Knoxville, Tennessee. So this is Lynn Weaver remembering his father, Ted.
DR. WILLIAM LYNN WEAVER: My father was everything to me. And it’s actually kind of difficult talking about him without becoming very emotional. Up until, you know, he died, every decision I made, I had always called him. And he would never told me what to do, but he would always listen and say, "Well, what do you want to do?" And he made me feel that I could do anything that I wanted to do.
I can remember, when we integrated the schools, that there were many times when I was just scared. And I didn’t think that I would survive. And I’d look up, and he’d be there. And whenever I saw him, I knew that I was safe.
You know, I always tell you that your momma is the smartest person I’ve ever met, but I think my father ranks right up there as brilliant. When I was in high school, I was taking algebra, and I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to do my homework. And I got frustrated. I said, "I just can’t figure this out. I’m just"—so my father said, "What’s the problem?" He came by; he says, "What’s the problem?" And I said, "It’s this algebra." And he said, "Well, let me look at it." I said, "Dad, they didn’t even have algebra in your day." And I went to sleep.
At around 4:00 that morning, he woke me up. He said, "Come on, son. Get up." He set me at the kitchen table, and he taught me algebra. What he had done is set up all night and read the algebra book. And then he explained the problems to me, so I could do them and understand them.
And to this day, I live my life trying to be half the man my father was. Just half the man. And I would be a success if my children love me half as much as I loved my father.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Dr. William Lynn Weaver. He was talking to his daughter, Kimberly. She was interviewing him, and he was talking about his father. And this was way back in 2007. Dave?
DAVE ISAY: So I was lucky enough to go down to the King Center to celebrate with about a hundred families who had recorded stories that first month of the Griot project. And—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta?
DAVE ISAY: That’s right. And I was—Lynn Weaver was one of the people there. And we played that story, and I got an email from him the next day that said, "Mr. Isay, you’ll never know how honored and touched I was by the playing of the remembrance of my dad. After I got home, I realized that the evening of the Griot reception was the anniversary of my father’s death. Even in death, he continues to embrace me with his love." Signed Lynn Weaver, chairman of surgery, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
So that’s—this is kind of a foundational StoryCorps story, for me. I mean, to me, Ted Weaver, the janitor and chauffeur in Knoxville, who was the kindest, smartest, most decent person that Lynn Weaver, his son, who is one of the most esteemed surgeons in the country—Ted Weaver is the great American hero. Ted Weaver is the kind of person we should be building statues to, holding up to our kids as examples of who they can and should grow up to become.
There’s a—it’s also kind of the centerpiece of this book. And Lynn tells this incredible story in the book about—he integrated the schools in Knoxville, as he says, and he and his brother were the only two African Americans on the football team. They had an away game in the country, and they went to this game. The stands—it was an all-white team, of course. The stands were filled. And he and his brother, on a play, tackled this kid, and the kid was injured. And the stands started to clear. They stood up, and it was a riot beginning, coming after these two kids, Lynn and his brother. And there were—the stands were on one side of the football field, and Lynn and his brother were backed up. On the other side was a fence. So they backed up and backed up. The crowd’s coming at them, and they’re backed up against the fence. And Lynn turns around, and he sees his dad. And he turns to his brother, and he taps him on the shoulder, and he says—he says, "Dad’s here. We’re safe." And they were, as their dad got them out of there.
So, again, Ted Weaver is—Ted Weaver is—he’s what StoryCorps is all about. And it’s such a privilege to be able to tell these stories and keep these names alive and keep these stories in our consciousness, stories that, you know, kind of remind us—it’s almost like—what I hope happens is that either participating in StoryCorps or listening to these stories kind of shakes you on the shoulder and just reminds you, through all the nonsense, this is what’s important. This is what’s really important.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, we’re going to break. And we have just so many stories that we want to bring folks. What an emotional day. What a moving day. This is Democracy Now! Dave Isay is our guest, and he’s founder of StoryCorps. And he’s also the author of a new book, he’s been traveling the country, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps. Yes, StoryCorps is marking its 10th anniversary. Stay with us. These are stories you will never forget. And then maybe you will start to record some of your own. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s "Resolution" by Jody Price. And a shout out to the kids, the fifth-graders of P.S. 128 in Washington Heights who are watching this broadcast today. And happy holidays to all. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We’re spending the hour with the founder of StoryCorps, the largest oral history project in the country—or, as I joked earlier, that might be next to the NSA, which seems to be recording everyone’s voices. But second to that, this at least is being done willingly and knowingly and with love. Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, has these booths all over the country, where people—well, I was asking the kids at P.S. 128, "Who would you interview?" And one kid said, "My mom, my grandma," and talked about the kinds of questions they would ask or just what they want to share, because, Dave, again, it’s 40 minutes. It’s actual—it’s a kind of ritual that’s now set up. Explain how it works.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. Well, you come to the booth with a loved one, and you’re met by a facilitator who works for StoryCorps. We’ve had hundreds of them. And they—they call it bearing witness to these interviews. Essentially, what they do is travel the country collecting the wisdom of humanity. They bring you into this booth, and you sit across from your parent, whoever it is, for 40 minutes, a little bit closer than we’re sitting here, two microphones. The lights are low. And it’s kind of a sacred space. And you talk, and you listen.
And people tend to ask kind of big life questions. It’s not kind of going through your CV. It’s talking about what matters to you, what you’ve learned in life, how you want to be remembered. The facilitators always tell people before they go in the booth—people always prepare before they come in—to ask that question they’ve always wanted to ask, because, as you know, the microphone gives you the license to talk about things you don’t always get to talk about, and ask questions you don’t always get to ask, like we’ve heard in so many of these interviews so far. So, yeah, it is—for some people, it’s kind of a sacred experience. For everybody—and it’s a tribute to the facilitators, 50,000 interviews—it’s a positive experience.
And, you know, I think if StoryCorps has changed me in any way over the last 10 years, I think it’s made me much more hopeful. The facilitators will always say, when they come off the road, if you ask them what they’ve learned, one is they’ll tell you that if you think you can judge someone by how they look or how they’re dressed, if you think you can judge their interior life, you’re always going to be wrong. And the other thing they say is that people are basically good. So—and that’s—you know, I think there’s truth to that. You wouldn’t know it from watching 24-hour news and reading the tabloids, but there’s something to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Yelitza Castro and Willie Davis. Tell us a little about them.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. This is a very recent story. And this is a woman who is a recent immigrant. She’s a housekeeper in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she cooks dinner every other Saturday night for homeless men and women in her community. This is a Christmas story, a holiday story. Willie Davis, who’s been the recipient of many of those meals, took her to StoryCorps. And Yelitza told Willie how she began feeding the homeless men and women of Charlotte.
YELITZA CASTRO: My kids and me, we was driving, and it was raining and really cold. And we saw a guy with a sign asking for some help. And I just give him $5. And my daughter asked me, "Mommy, why we don’t take him to dinner?" I say, "OK, let’s make a U-turn." But he was not there. And we were thinking we have to do something. Willie, you remember the first dinner together?
WILLIE DAVIS: Yes, I do.
YELITZA CASTRO: It was Christmas 2010.
WILLIE DAVIS: The church van came, picked some of us guys up from the men’s shelter. And I’m like, "Why is this lady coming to the roughest place in Charlotte to do this for us? Something must be fishy about this." But I said, "I’m going to go." And when I got out of the van, I smelled the cooking, and then I saw you. I saw a smile on your face that made everybody feel welcome and comfortable. And when you cooked, it was like what my moms used to cook. Now, I haven’t had that kind of feeling in a long time, and I really needed that.
YELITZA CASTRO: That night, I finished all the stuff in the kitchen, and when I got to the buffet tables, you guys, all together, started singing the "Feliz Navidad" song. And I said, "Oh, my gosh, you’re singing in Spanish!" And I just started crying.
WILLIE DAVIS: Everybody just gave you a standing ovation, pretty much. It’s just, you don’t make us feel homeless. You know us by names and faces. And we know you all care. Before I met you, Yelitza, I pretty much almost gave up. But that home-cooked meal, it just brought my self-esteem back up. And now I’ve got my own place and—
YELITZA CASTRO: It’s really amazing. And that gave me motivation, because I’m here in the United States by myself with my kids, and I know that it’s hard. That Christmas dinner, it’s not just a meal; it’s try to make you guys feel like we are family.
WILLIE DAVIS: Every other Saturday feel like Christmas to me. That’s why I keep coming. I’m always going to keep coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Yelitza Castro and Willie Davis. Yelitza is a housekeeper in Charlotte, North Carolina, originally from Venezuela. As you heard, every other Saturday night, she cooks dinner for homeless people, including Willie, who is interviewing her, speaking together for StoryCorps. Dave, what a story.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. So, you know, these are maybe not the typical stories you hear about homeless people and undocumented immigrants, you know, but—undocumented people. But these are the—again, these are the kind of stories when you take the time to listen, when you ask questions. You know, so many times we’ll hear amazing stories, especially talking to military folks who will tell a story at StoryCorps, talk about their lives, and then you ask them, "Have you ever told this story before?" "No." "Why not?" "No one’s ever asked." You know, how many times have you heard that?
AMY GOODMAN: OK, I have to go to one of my favorite stories, and we’ve played it before on Democracy Now!, as we have you in for all different holidays and specials, for Valentine’s Day and Christmas and other times. This is early 2006, and it’s 12-year-old Joshua Littman—he has Asperger’s—interviewing his mother, Sarah.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: From a scale of one to 10, do you think your life would be different without animals?
SARAH LITTMAN: I think it would be an eight without animals, because they add so much pleasure to life.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: How else do think your life would be different without them?
SARAH LITTMAN: I could do without things like cockroaches and snakes.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Well, I’m OK with snakes, as long as they’re not venomous or can constrict you or anything.
SARAH LITTMAN: Well, yeah, I’m not a big snake person.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: But cockroach is just the insect we love to hate.
SARAH LITTMAN: Yeah, it really is.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Have you ever felt like life is hopeless?
SARAH LITTMAN: When I was a teenager, I was very depressed. And I think that can be quite common with teenagers who think a lot, you know, when they’re perceptive.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Am I like that?
SARAH LITTMAN: You are very much like that.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Do you have any mortal enemies?
SARAH LITTMAN: I would say my worst enemy is sometimes myself, but I don’t think I have any mortal enemies.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Have you ever lied to me?
SARAH LITTMAN: Hmm. I probably have, but I try not to lie to you, even though sometimes the questions you ask make me uncomfortable.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Like when we go on our walks, some of the questions I might ask?
SARAH LITTMAN: Yeah. But you know what? I feel it’s really special that you and I can have those kind of talks, even if sometimes I feel myself blushing a little bit.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Like, did I meet your expectations and...
SARAH LITTMAN: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie, because—you know, sure, you have these fantasies of what your child’s going to be like, but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you think—
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Well, I was the one who made you a parent.
SARAH LITTMAN: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. But also, because you think differently from, you know, what they tell you in the parenting books.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: Yeah.
SARAH LITTMAN: I really had to learn to think out of the box with you. And it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. And I’ll always thank you for that.
JOSHUA LITTMAN: And that helped when Amy was born?
SARAH LITTMAN: And that helped when Amy was born. But you are just so incredibly special to me, and I’m so lucky to have you as my son.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sarah being interviewed by her son, Joshua Littman. At the time, in 2006, he was 12. And I had the chance to go to the 10th anniversary event of StoryCorps, and Sarah and Joshua were there. Dave Isay is with us, the founder of StoryCorps. He’s, what, 19 now.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. You know, after this story aired, Sarah—you know, kids with Asperger’s are incredibly smart. And as you heard from that clip, Josh was particularly obsessed with animals. But they also get picked on, often mercilessly, at school. And Josh’s mom and Josh got hundreds of letters telling him what an amazing kid he is. And when he’d come home from school after a particularly bad day, his mom would sit with him and read him the letters, so he can remember how great he is.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, there are a few stories you have that involve people in jail or who were in jail, and I wanted to go to the story of Rob Sanchez. Can you tell us this—set it up for us.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. This is also in the book.
AMY GOODMAN: And the book, of course, is Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.
DAVE ISAY: So, Rob Sanchez was convicted under the—he was a first-time nonviolent drug offender convicted under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, spent 15 years at Sing Sing, got out of Sing Sing and became a counselor and counseled ex-offenders. And Felix Aponte was one of the ex-offenders he counseled. And I don’t—I’m not sure exactly what happens in this clip, but it turns out that Rob got very sick, and Felix decided to donate his kidney to Rob.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this is Rob Sanchez and Felix Aponte, two men who were in prison together [sic] at Sing Sing, at Sing Sing Penitentiary, upstate New York in Ossining, New York.
ROB SANCHEZ: Felix was coming to a job placement center where I worked as a case manager. I think Felix was 19, 20 years old.
FELIX APONTE: Yeah, I was 20.
ROB SANCHEZ: And immediately I saw that he was a pain in the ass.
FELIX APONTE: I could tell, off the bat, that he was just going to tell me the truth, and he’s not going to beat around the bush. And me and him clicked because, you know, once you do time, it’s like you—
ROB SANCHEZ: There’s a bond.
FELIX APONTE: Yeah.
ROB SANCHEZ: So when I got hit with the kidney disease, I was sick, I had no job, I was lonely. And then Felix called me.
FELIX APONTE: We were talking for a while, and you told me that you had kidney disease. I was like, "But you don’t got nobody that’ll donate?" So, you know, here I am. I’m in good health. Plus I wanted to do something good in my life for the first time. You know, all I’ve done is like mischief and—
ROB SANCHEZ: Start trouble.
FELIX APONTE: Well, I don’t start trouble. Trouble finds me.
ROB SANCHEZ: Yeah, I’ve heard that before.
FELIX APONTE: I was like, "What’s up? So, what about me? You think I could get tested?" I mean, like I got mad tattoos, so I don’t know if I could donate. So then you were like, "Yeah, right, whatever. Alright, Felix." And then you just kept on brushing it off. And I kept on telling you.
ROB SANCHEZ: The day that I believed it was the day that we went in for our last checkup. And we’re sitting down, and Felix has a Plaxico Burress jersey on. And they’re checking me, and they’re checking Felix. And Felix looked up and said, "Look, I want to do this." That’s when I knew that it was—was on. And sometimes when I’ll play the Mega Millions, I’ll play the Mega Millions and—you don’t know this—and I lose. I’m OK with it, because I felt like I won already, ’cause he saved my life. What greater gift is that? That was my million dollars.
AMY GOODMAN: Whew, that was Rob Sanchez and Felix Aponte. They didn’t serve time together, but they both served time at Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining, New York. What a story.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. Rob continues to do counseling. Felix, unfortunately, has gotten back in trouble and is back in the penitentiary again. But again, that kind of bond is something that can’t be broken.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Mary Johnson, speaking with Oshea Israel, who killed her son in 1993. Dave?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, about—Mary Johnson’s son, Laramiun Byrd, was at a party. Oshea Israel was at a party. They got in a fight. Oshea Israel shot and killed her son. About 12 years into his prison sentence, Mary Johnson decided to go to the penitentiary and meet the man who had killed her son, and went back several times after that. And when Oshea was released, he actually had developed the sort of friendship with Mary that he moved in next door to her. And about a year after he was released, they came to StoryCorps to tell their story.
AMY GOODMAN: These are all stories that the StoryCorps project has gathered, people talking to each other in booths all over the country. Again, this is Mary Johnson speaking with Oshea Israel, who killed her son in 1993.
MARY JOHNSON: You and I met at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remember from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you. But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.
OSHEA ISRAEL: And he became human to me. You know, when I met you, it was like, OK, this guy is real. And then, when it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. And the initial thing to do was just try to hold you up as best I can, just hug you like I would my own mother, you know?
MARY JOHNSON: After you left the room, I began to say, "I just hugged the man that murdered my son." And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you, I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.
OSHEA ISRAEL: As far as receiving forgiveness from you, sometimes I still don’t know how to take it, because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. It’s something that I’m learning from you. I won’t say that I have learned yet, because it’s still a process that I’m going through.
MARY JOHNSON: I treat you as I would treat my son. And our relationship is beyond belief. We live next door to one another.
OSHEA ISRAEL: Yeah, so you can see what I’m doing. You know, firsthand.
MARY JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.
OSHEA ISRAEL: We actually bump into each other all the time, leaving in and out of the house. And our conversations, they come from, "Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You don’t even ask me if I need my garbage to go out."
MARY JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
OSHEA ISRAEL: I find those things funny, because it’s a relationship with a mother, for real.
MARY JOHNSON: Well, my natural son is no longer here. I didn’t see him graduate. Now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to experience that with you.
OSHEA ISRAEL: And just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner in which you are is my motivation. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you, it’s amazing.
MARY JOHNSON: I know it’s not an easy thing, you know, to be able to share our story together, even with us sitting here looking at each other right now. I know it’s not an easy thing. So I admire that you can do this.
OSHEA ISRAEL: I love you, lady.
MARY JOHNSON: I love you, too, son.
AMY GOODMAN: Mary Johnson speaking with Oshea Israel. Oshea killed her son in 1993. This is the part of the collection, part of the body of work, the unbelievable tens of thousands of stories that are being told all over this country in this little sacred space, these booths that travel the country, some in little trucks, some, like the original one, set up at Grand Central Station, a booth, where people talk to each other for 40 minutes. And that—those recordings are shared with those two people and also go to the Library of Congress. Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, and he’s out with a new book called Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps. If you want to get a copy of today’s show—don’t worry, we’re going on—but you can go to our website at democracynow.org. We are celebrating 10 years of StoryCorps. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Dave Isay. For those who are just listening, you can go to our website at democracynow.org, and you see these amazing images of, for example, the mobile StoryCorps booths. StoryCorps is the largest audio history project in this country. How many, Dave, voices have been gathered in this?
DAVE ISAY: Well, we’ve done 50,000 interviews, so it’s about 100,000 people, because most everybody comes in pairs. I think the exact number is like 94,000, on 50,000 interviews.
AMY GOODMAN: I thought you called them "bubble booths."
DAVE ISAY: Yeah?
AMY GOODMAN: But you said "mobile booths."
DAVE ISAY: Mobile, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But I think both apply—
DAVE ISAY: Stuffed nose, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —because it is, as you said, this sacred little bubble.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But you have these mobile booths. The one I was just watching was, what, in front of the Library of Congress?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, that would—we were showing video of when we launched nationally at the Library of Congress. But these have been in all 50 states. I think we’ve been to 1,700 cities—
AMY GOODMAN: Native American reservations.
DAVE ISAY: —on Native American reservations, penitentiaries.
AMY GOODMAN: Nine-eleven—down at the World Trade Center—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, yeah, so we’re just—
AMY GOODMAN: —where it was.
DAVE ISAY: And, you know, we are—what we want to do is just make sure that we capture the full swath of the American story.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Studs Terkel, because, well, we interviewed Studs for years. He would come into New York. And, you know, Studs Terkel, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, you can tell us a little bit about him. But one of those times that we had him on Democracy Now!, he was really here in New York—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —to dedicate the StoryCorps booth at Grand Central Station. For young people, especially, like we have fifth-graders watching the show today, who was Studs Terkel? And why has he so inspired your work?
DAVE ISAY: So, Studs was—did indeed launch, cut the ribbon on our first booth, and there was no one else who could possibly do it. Studs was a oral historian. He was a writer. He was a listener. He had actually been part of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, which in many ways was an inspiration for StoryCorps, back during the Depression, recording, writing—he actually did—what didn’t record, he wrote stories of everyday people, and then wrote books like Working, and was just a magnificent human being with a spirit of generosity and kindness that was—and a storytelling ability that was unmatched. And when he cut the ribbon on our first booth at StoryCorps 10 years ago, he said, "You know, we know who the architect of Grand Central was, but who laid these floors? Who built these walls? Those are the stories that you must capture in this booth, and some day in other booths." He didn’t get to—he didn’t live to see how far StoryCorps went. And we’ve tried very, very hard to live up to his mandate since then.
AMY GOODMAN: He was born May 16, 1912, in New York City.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, and—but he was Chicago. He grew up in Chicago, and he was a real Chicago guy. And he was 92, 93, when he cut the ribbon on that first booth.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, tell us how you ended up animating some of these, the first story of animation.
DAVE ISAY: And we’ll show—we’re going to play a Studs story, which is also animated. And, you know, our mobile booths are always at, you know, the Library of Congress or public libraries or town squares. Once, we pulled into someone’s driveway, and it was Studs Terkel’s driveway on Castlewood, so—in Chicago. So you’re going to hear Studs in the mobile booth in his driveway. He came out of his house—he might have been 96, 97, at the time—to record an interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Studs Terkel.
STUDS TERKEL: What has happened to the human voice, vox humana — hollering, shouting, quiet talking, buzz? I was leaving the airport—this is in Atlanta. You know, you leave the gate, you take a train that took you to the concourse of your choice. And I get into this train. Dead silence. A few people are seated or standing. Up above, you hear a voice, that once was a human voice, but no longer. Now it talks like a machine. "Concourse 1, Fort Worth, Dallas, Lubbock." That kind of voice.
Just then, the doors are about to close, pneumatic doors, when a young couple rush in and push open the doors and get in. Without missing a beat, that voice above says, "Because of late entry, we’re delayed 30 seconds." The people looked at that couple as if that couple had just committed mass murder, you know. And the couple is shrinking like this, you know?
Now, I’m known for my talking. I’m gabby. And so I say, "George Orwell, your time has come and gone!" I expect a laugh. Dead silence. And now they look at me.
And I’m with the couple, the three of us, at the head of Calvary on Good Friday. And then I say, "My god, where is the human voice?"
And just then, there’s a little baby. Maybe the baby’s about a year old or something. And I say, "Sir or Madam," to the baby, "what is your opinion of the human species?" Well, what does a baby do? Baby starts giggling! I say, "Thank God! The sound of a human voice."
AMY GOODMAN: That was Studs Terkel. In fact, for those who are watching, you see the animation. Those who are listening, you just hear his brilliant voice, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and radio broadcaster, legendary in this country and around the world. Dave, tell us the story of how some of these oral histories got animated.
DAVE ISAY: Well, I’m a—I’ve been a radio fanatic since the day that you took my phone call. How long—it was 25, 26, something like that, 27 years ago. And, you know, StoryCorps is about people having a conversation with two microphones. We will—people have asked us to have cameras in the booth forever. We will never do that. There’s an intimacy and a beauty to that. People kind of forget about the microphones and melt into each other’s eyes and have this conversation. Cameras wouldn’t add anything.
But I also know we live in a visual age, so in the back of my head I always thought that in order to reach the audience that we want to reach, which is all of this country, someday become part of the fabric of this country, that we had to find a way to add visuals to these things. And one day a kid who was a facilitator came in my office, facilitator of these people who record the stories, and he said, "You know, I’m a facilitator, but I’m also an animator. And my brother, who’s a swim teacher at the Y, is also an animator. And we started animating StoryCorps stories." And I tried to throw him out of my office, because it was ridiculous. And before he came out of—I could get him out of the office, he slammed a DVD into my computer, and this like beautiful thing showed up on my computer, and I saw that there was a way that these stories, the magic of the audio, could not only be not subtracted from by adding visuals, but could be added to. So I think they’re gorgeous. And you can see them on the Democracy Now! site or at StoryCorps.org.
AMY GOODMAN: So, not, of course, all of them are animated, and I want to go to one that isn’t. But before we do, you start off your book talking about your dad, and I was wondering if you could share a little about who your dad was, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. My dad died shortly before I wrote the introduction to this book. And you knew him well. He was a gay activist and a psychiatrist. And, you know, it was a real lesson for me, because he—I recorded a StoryCorps interview with him, I don’t know, two or three years after StoryCorps opened. And as you know, he was working 50 hours a week as a psychiatrist. He got sick on a Friday and was dead nine days later. And I—he died at 7:00 in the morning. And I listened to that interview for the first time at 3:00 in the morning on the night that he died. And, you know, I have two—I’m an old dad. I have two little kids, as you know. And I knew that this was the only way that they were going to get to know my dad. They’re not going to remember him. So, if anyone—you know, I don’t know if I could believe in StoryCorps more strongly than I did, but at that moment, the rubber really hit the road, and I kind of fully understood what we were doing.
AMY GOODMAN: And I always thought, well, your mom and your dad, but your dad being a psychiatrist, listening to people—I mean, that is your gift—
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, that—
AMY GOODMAN: —is the way that you have listened.
DAVE ISAY: Well, I mean, I think that more than anything, what my dad imparted in me was, you know, I didn’t know—I found out that he was gay, you know, shortly—just months before I met you. And I ended up doing—the first documentary I did was in honor of him, and—the Stonewall documentary, many, many years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Which folks can link to at democracynow.org.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah. So, I think what he taught me, more than anything, was to have respect for everybody and to—you know, it’s what the facilitators say, not to judge people, and to—and especially to take a second look at people who are being picked on or people who are underdogs and make sure, again, that everybody is treated with respect and dignity.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, why don’t we go to Alexis Martinez—
DAVE ISAY: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —speaking with her daughter, Lesley.
DAVE ISAY: So this is Alexis Martinez, is transgender and grew up in a rough—Altgeld Gardens in Chicago, a very rough housing project. I can’t remember where this clip picks up, but it’s an interview between Alexis and her daughter, Lesley. And Alexis, I think, only recently started—completed her transition.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Martinez speaking with her daughter, Lesley, Lesley Etherly Martinez.
ALEXIS MARTINEZ: When I came out to my mom that I was transgender, I think I was 13 or 14, and she called the police. And I always remember that when the police showed up, you know, they just laughed and told her, "You’ve got a fag for a son, and there’s nothing we can do about it."
You know, so, I went as macho as I could be, you know, to mask what I really was underneath. And by that time, I had become a member of a gang. People just didn’t mess with me, you know, because they knew they had a fight on their hands.
When I look back at it, it was almost schizophrenic, because I would be wearing combat boots and blue jeans and a leather jacket. But underneath, I would have like stockings and a bra. And so, I remember it as a very dark period. I mean, I really didn’t believe that anybody could love somebody like me.
LESLEY ETHERLY MARTINEZ: I remember as a little girl that you would say these things like, "Well, I know that I’m not loved." I just remember growing up like, "Daddy, I love you." You know, it was just such an important thing for me to express to you how much you mattered. And it was a big to-do. I discovered some female clothes. It was sort of, you know, my uncovering the secret.
ALEXIS MARTINEZ: You asked me, "Why?" And I think if I had tried to cover it up, a lot of trust would have been lost between us.
LESLEY ETHERLY MARTINEZ: It was like freedom, because now I could talk to you freely about being a girl, you know, and you’re the one who taught me to put on makeup.
ALEXIS MARTINEZ: You know, I was really torn between being a female role model and a dad. And so, I said to myself, "OK, well, be the best parent. Whatever it takes, however I do it, you have to look out for your baby." But one of the most difficult things for me was I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to be in my granddaughters’ lives. And you blew that completely out of the water, you and your husband. One of the fruits of that is, you know, my relationship with my granddaughters. They fight with each other sometimes over whether I’m he or she, you know.
LESLEY ETHERLY MARTINEZ: But they’re free to talk about it.
ALEXIS MARTINEZ: Yep, they’re free to talk about it. But that, to me, is a miracle.
LESLEY ETHERLY MARTINEZ: You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to tiptoe. You know, we’re not going to cut you off. And that is something that I’ve always wanted you to, you know, just know—that you’re loved.
ALEXIS MARTINEZ: You know, I live this every day now. I walk down the streets as a woman, and I really am at peace with who I am. I mean, I wish I had a softer voice, maybe. But now I walk in love, and I try to live that way every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Martinez speaking with her daughter, Lesley Etherly Martinez. We only have a few minutes, and we’re going to go where we always start with, and that is Danny and Annie. Very quickly, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So, this is one of the first stories recorded in the booth, and it starts with Danny and Annie Perasa, who are both Brooklyn-born-and-bred. They came to StoryCorps in the first days after we opened to tell the story of their first date, which had happened 25 years before.
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." I said, "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 damn thing." And she turned around, and she said, "Of course I’ll marry you."
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.
DAVE ISAY: So, people who aren’t watching the animation, we’re talking about the fact that Danny and Annie came back to the booth over and over again to record their stories. And several years after that first interview, Danny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and asked StoryCorps to come to his house to record one last interview with he and Annie.
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. And 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. You know.
DANNY PERASA: I’m working on her. She said—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."
ANNIE PERASA: Mm-hmm.
DANNY PERASA: 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 it will be as much as it could be for eternity. Do you have the Valentine’s Day letter there?
ANNIE PERASA: Yeah. "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.
DAVE ISAY: So this was recorded on a Thursday, and the next Friday it aired on the radio, and Danny died a couple of hours after the broadcast. Annie received thousands of condolence letters, and she buried a copy with Danny and still to this day reads one of the condolence letters instead of the love letter she would have gotten from Danny.
AMY GOODMAN: Every day.
DAVE ISAY: Every day.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to end this holiday show with the kids of P.S. 128 in Washington Heights in New York City. They have all joined us. They’re in fifth grade. And, you know, Dave, you do StoryCorps, people talking to each other, and I wanted to ask who would you talk to if you could bring them into a StoryCorps booth, and what would you say? And I’m just going to share the mic. But first I want to ask each of you, just say your names.
AMY GOODMAN: All right, just a few of the names. So, who has a person you’d want to interview, and what would you say? Star? Say your name first.
STAR: My name is Star Onyos. I would like to interview my mom. And I would like to ask her, did she have a lot of friends like I do?
JUAN: My name is Juan. I would like to interview my mom and ask her when she’s going to come to New York?
AMY GOODMAN: Where is she?
JUAN: Dominican Republic.
AMY GOODMAN: You miss her?
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to thank you guys for being here for the show. What a treat it was. You just made it even more special, and maybe you can help me go out with the show today. First we have to credit all the people, the bigger family who’s—actually, a lot of them are sitting right behind me in the control room. And they are—well, Democracy Now! is produced by Mike Burke and Renée Feltz and Aaron Maté, Nermeen Shaikh, Steve Martinez, Sam Alcoff, Hany Massoud, Robby Karran, Deena Guzder, Amy Littlefield, Cassandra Lizaire, Messiah Rhodes, Charina Nadura. Mike DiFilippo and Miguel Nogueira are our engineers. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Julie Crosby, Hugh Gran, Jessica Lee, John Wallach, Vesta Goodarz, and to our camera crew, Jon Randolph and Kieran Krug-Meadows and Carlo De Jesus, and, of course, Phil Raymond. That’s it for Democracy Now! What do we say to everyone who’s watching and listening and reading?
KIDS OF P.S. 128: Happy holidays!