Jilly D.

My Fellini moment

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2012 at 11:43 pm

It was almost one-thirty on Friday afternoon before I strolled up and down bank alley and the State Street Commons searching for the Listening Tent last May at the Ithaca Fest. Half an hour late. I thought the whole time I drove into downtown traffic: this is the last thing I need to be doing right now. The skies clouded over as I walked from my parking lot and the temperatures dropped with every step. I sensed rain and cursed myself for leaving my yellow plastic poncho at home. I’d volunteered to staff the Storytelling booth and sell raffle tickets for Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services. I couldn’t even find where I needed to be.

Dee stood with a friend watching the concert listeners in front of Center Ithaca.It had been a couple years since I’d seen her but from her uniform I knew she was on break from work.

“Dee, do you know where the storytelling events happen? Where’s the Listening Tent?” I asked her as I walked toward her through the crowds. She recognized me and without skipping a beat pretended as though time had not eclipsed.

“Oh yeah,” she said. At over six feet tall, Dee is a good friend to find in the crowds. Being half-Indian, she’s got great observational skills and knows far more than she’d ever let on.

“Just the other side of this wine garden and before the next pavillion,” she said and pointed to the green tent.

The Ithaca Commons on Friday afternoon of Ithaca Festival brings out the city’s character. And characters. That’s the reason Dee and her friend stood outside on break watching the people go by.

Sprinkling raindrops brought a house full under the Listening Tent. Where else are you going to go when it starts to rain but under a tent with chairs? Ithaca characters dropped in one by one. When I arrived almost all the folding chairs had been taken.

I came under the canopy and the bass from the adjacent speakers of the live concert blasted so loud I couldn’t hear the delicate, old white man’s words as I entered during the midst of his tale. I watched him pantomime a story; something about birds in a tree and drawing arrows and shooting with a bow. Freedom bird story. Old story. Old man. It was still raining and at least I didn’t have to stand up and hawk raffle tickets in sweltering sun.

I watched those in the circle of chairs each offer up a story. Lee-Ellen, the executive director of SPCS, elicited stories and jokes. I found myself trying extra hard to listen with all the crowd noise and two competing live music concerts in opposite ears.  I cupped my hands around my ears to divert the extraneous noise; to no avail. I needed a miracle ear to really listen to what was happening under the tent.

An old-timer from Brooklyn gave a very long winded version of a joke about a cheapskate minister. It didn’t sound so off-color in the telling. The first frail man told another story I couldn’t hear that involved more bows and arrows and his theatrical enactments made it like a game of charades. A handsome lean man with glassy eyes, a piercing stare, wore bluejeans and nodded through several stories. He looked the way I imagined Sam would have looked five years before I met him: open in spirit, earnest in efforts, screwed by the system, and tired from real work. One leg over the other, his foot kept him rocking gently. He leaned forward to hear better.

Each person who told a story got a Hawaiian style plastic lei. The Ithaca Festival theme this year was luau and part of  Hawaiian culture involves storytelling. Lee-Ellen explained the tradition of the story tree. The salad I’d brought to eat for lunch won over my interest and I devoured my lunch in a circle of onlookers envying my romaine, sliced hard-boiled egg and mushrooms, with grated parmesan and ceasar dressing.

Then Mark arrived in his bright plaid pants, bumper tennis shoes, and dredlocks to tell some classic and mythical tales. Proud to be an alum of clown college, Mark was a bro with a baby and pretty white mama with auburn hair and strawberry complexion. She sat down and pulled their stroller in under the tent blocking the only entrance and exit from the small cramped tent with her chubby girl baby.

The handsome loner started hassling Mark about wanting to perform his stories too eagerly, too early, as some kind of professional, a carney freak  Mark was a professional storyteller. He’d been recruited to perform his stories. The loner had his story.

“Others might have stories to share. Everybody here has got a story,” he mumbled.

Mark agreed with him. Mark encouraged him to tell HIS story. Mark’s big lips and big nose and charming, disarming smile pissed the loner off.

“You all ought to stop this bullshit. You all need to get down to Florida. Prevent this from happening.” He stood up and grabbed his road-weary backpack and left an empty chair. Nearly stumbling over the others and tent poles, he walked away from the tent. The rain let up.

“I know that dude. He’s like that, man. He’s cool, though.” Mark said. Maybe it was my mouth hanging open and wide-eyed Wisconsin girl astonishment. I hadn’t been listening at all. Nor had I been fully seeing. The foot tapping. The blurry blue eyes. The lost soul calling out without words at his disposal. Cripes.

An acquaintance of Mark and his baby’s mother walked over into the rain and sat down next to me. A young white man in his late 20s, his face hard to read for its severe deformities. I’d just read about Wonder, the new bestselling book for middle grade readers about a boy with a deformed face who starts attending a new school and is mainstreamed. Remember Elephant Man? Well sitting nearly in my lap was a man with a face that looked like someone had smashed him with a metal pole: not much original nose or cheeks self-evident. Overweight, greasy long dark brown hair, unshaven uneven beard and moustache, he looked, well, unkempt. Took me a while before I realized one eye was glass and in the other eye he had real vision.

I noticed his left eye, the glass one, tearing from the outside corner as he spoke to his friends. It continued to tear. He tried to wipe the tear from the inside of his left eye. Huge teardrop remained visible as I sat on his left. The outside of his left eye continued to precipitate.

“I’m getting the keys to my new apartment,” he said, though his speech was slurred and it took me a second to figure out what he’d said. “Big news. Getting a place of my own,” and he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms across his chest, and smiled half a smile.

“Well, that sounds like a good story. Will you tell it?” I asked him. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized what a bad situation I might have created. What if people couldn’t understand what he was saying? I could hardly understand his speech. What if he felt embarrassed? What was I thinking? Not.

“No, I’m not telling that story. Too personal. I’ll tell another story,” he guffawed.

“Great, tell another story.” I said. I had no idea what would come next.

Slow and steady, without stumbling, he began to speak.

“There was a black boy. He had four brothers. He grew up in Indiana. His brothers formed a rock band and they all liked singing together. This little boy wanted to be a part of his brother’s band. His father didn’t want him because he was too young. His father wanted to use his little boys to make him a lot of money. The little boy desperately wanted to sing. Finally he got his chance. ”

“Oh, Miko Yakson,” said the young Korean woman who had come in with her husband out of the rain. She had been taking notes in her journal about the last three stories told.

“You guessed it. Yes. Michael Jackson. Very good,” said the storyteller. Wonder.

I asked the Korean woman’s husband if he had a story to tell. With great reluctance and wifely encouragement, he began to speak in broken English about his two boys who are being raised in America, in Ithaca, New York. The older son would like to send the younger son back to Korea and get a refund. We all laughed. Then she told a story.

“There was a lake. A big lake. In this lake there lived no fish,” she began. She took long pauses as she translated her narration into good English. I couldn’t follow the plot or its logic despite her perfect English pronunciation. I could only follow her facial expressions as she struggled to convey a deeper and philosophical meaning which seemed to defy language. At the end, laughter. Was there a punchline to the lake with no fish?

The wind gusts came up and suddenly the Listening Tent lifted up and away down the paved brick State Street Commons toward the storefronts banging into pedestrians. The rain stopped and we propped the tent back up. Michael, a road warrior volunteer at SPCS,  tied strong twine to the bricks serving as weight on the feet of the canopy tent. Just as we were getting situated for more stories, a woman walked by the tent through a puddle. She slipped and fell flat, hard, on her face. Time stopped.

Everyone stared as story ensued. People rushed to her aid, lifting her up on her feet and holding her safe. I knew that could have been me. She was wearing stupid plastic Crocs like mine. I had a hard time squelching a giggle. I mean, plop. Flat on her face. English comedy, I tell you.

Then a magician arrived inside the Listening Tent. He took cover under the tent. I recognized him without his Cat-in-the-Hat tophat which he wears around town riding his bicycle. A 12 year old black boy wearing glasses sat down inside the tent when he saw the magician in his black suit.

“Tell us a story with the cards,” the boy said.

A sheepish grin crept across the magician’s face. I’d seen that face on the south side of Chicago in Hyde Park with players pulling the Monty and shizz with dice. That look of the cat who done swallowed the canary showed up in his grin.

“Come on, man. Tell us a story.” The child’s persistence made me believe this magic might have something to do with stool pigeons, not mourning doves.

“The Jacks. Now they’s the bad guys. They’s the crooks. They decided to jack somebody’s apartment and steal everything in it. Now the Kings. The Kings is the detectives. They gonna bust these crooks. They gonna surround these Jacks,” said the Magician. All the while his hands are shuffling cards and tossing Kings and Jacks face up on the chair seat in front of the boy. When he spreads the deck, the Kings surround the Jacks.

“How’d you do that, man?” asked the boy.

“Weren’t you watching?” he replied.

Is there a watching tent?

In that moment I experienced what my life is like as Fellini might have filmed it.

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  1. Thanks for the wonderful magic of story-telling. These are Ithaca characters, but they are universal. And I love that you got so much out of the stories and the scene without hearing most of the words. You remind me to stay on my feet, listen, and watch.

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