Tonight was all over the map - from northern England to lower Alabama, Smithfield to Charlottesville. Best of all, I lucked into a front row seat for it all.
In the multiple years I've been going to Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story, I've never before encountered a line of people winding from the back room stairs all the way to the front door. Until tonight, that is. It's like, to quote the guy who facilitates the many events at Balliceaux said to me, "Be careful what you wish for."
While my place near the end of the line meant that most of the seats in the back room were already taken, I spotted two empty in the front row. It seemed unlikely they weren't spoken for, but the woman sitting next to them confirmed they were available. Luck was being a lady tonight.
Depositing my bag to hold my place, I made my way through the throngs at the bar to talk to some familiar faces and procure some liquid refreshment. When I finally returned to my chair, I was surprised to see the one next to me still vacant.
It wasn't long before a guy slid into it, observing that it's always easiest to find a seat when you're alone. I told him he was preaching to the choir. Many is the time I've scored a seat while duos and trios stood. Tonight, people were wedged in like sardines, even standing on the stairs, while others sat cross-legged on the floor.
Not a good room for a claustrophobic.
Tonight's theme was "Gotcha: Hi-jinks, Hijacks and Hoodwinks," a mouthful of a theme if ever there was one. As with all their themes, it left a lot of room for interpretation.
Mark kicked off the evening with the suggestively-titled (or is that just me?), "Want Me to Sign Your Balls?" His first surprise was his announcement that he's the third place world champion of four square, the playground game not the app.
Jeez Louise, who knew anyone still played four square? I mean, it was big when I was a kid but that was back in the dark ages. Who knew it had endured?
His amusing tale chronicled how he'd called a sporting goods store in Miami (where he was headed for work) and offered to come autograph playground balls the following Saturday. Needless to say, no one showed up, although he did sign two balls - one for the store's ball collection - before the afternoon was over.
I had to admire the guy's moxie.
Heather worked at one of VCU's cubic farm offices and labeled herself a prankster. You know, the kind of child who wraps the toilet seat in Saran Wrap before her younger sister goes in to use the toilet.
Her story involved back and forth pranking with a cubicle-mate. A full desk drawer of candy corn was answered with aluminum foil wrapped around every object in his cube. Orange jello in her water bottle resulted in sticky notes on every square inch of his office.
She now lives in fear of his next move.
William was a fine storyteller, the kind of guy you pay attention to at a party because he shares with the class so well. His saga, "I Know Who Chicken Man Is" concerned the student who had moved into his dorm room after he left it.
But one of his funniest quips was about how dumb and oblivious he and his college friends were. Apparently Ben Folds lived in their dorm and was always practicing piano, something they never bothered to listen to. "Lame," he proclaimed, explaining that drinking and taunting the new guy in his room were more fun.
First they dug up a boat, then they placed it in the guy's dorm room. When the police came to investigate, blame was spread around among all the guys on the floor, but no one copped to it.
Only after they paid $85 to have the boat removed (a price that seems perfectly reasonable to me), they sent the chief of police a picture of all of them in the boat. As if he didn't already know who the culprits were.
When Brent's name was called, it was the guy sitting next to me, and he opened his mouth to reveal the honey-dripping tones of someone from lower Alabama telling his story, "Me, Myself and Irene and a Hot Glue Gun."
After being surprised by Hurricane Isabel, he was determined to be fully prepped for Irene, laying out supplies on his ping-pong table. The problem was that his daughter didn't care about the impending storm; she wanted to decorate a bulletin board for her friend, so she needed the hot glue gun.
Unable to locate it among the plethora of batteries, flashlights and emergency camping equipment, he set out for Walmart at 2 a.m. to procure a glue gun for her. He talked about the beleaguered Walmart greeter who preemptively told everyone they were out of batteries, flashlights and lanterns.
Told in his distinctive southern accent, it was hilarious.
The funny business came in when he asked the location of glue guns, only to have the crowd behind him follow him to the arts and crafts department (speeding up and slowing down as he did), assuming he knew something they didn't.
Nothing like sheep in hurricane mode.
Taylor's story involved an older brother who delighted in tormenting her with the unseen, scaring her with the unknown and, once a soldier on a visit back from Iraq, surprising her at school by having her called to the office, only to scoop her up for a reunion hug.
Ian got major points for his delivery of "Disabusing Fantasy Land," a tale of attending an anime convention with his then-girlfriend.
I don't think he ever once looked at the audience (or even opened his eyes), but his almost monotone voice delivered pithy, sarcastic commentary about everyone and everything.
He skewered the kind of people who dress up in costumes ("No, Super Mario Brothers is not anime"), the way costumes give men the nerve to fondle strange women's breasts and why an anime rave is a terrible place to buy weed (as opposed to everywhere else on earth being a great place to buy it).
His humor was nihilistic, uncomfortable and hysterical. After the disaster of the convention and rave experiences, he put his arms around his girlfriend, trying to comfort her in her disappointment. "Life isn't that good," he deadpanned.
It is when you're listening to strangers telling stories.
During the break, we learned that Secretly Y'All has raised over $10K for non-profits and that tonight's admission fee haul was going to...(drum roll, please) Secretly Y'All. The goal is to create a story bike, although the specifics of that haven't exactly been worked out.
Why not? This is a bike town, why not a story bike?
Although a few people left during the break, the record-sized crowd remained strong throughout and the second half of the evening began with pulling names from the hat for the chance to over share.
Dustin King, whom I've seen tell stories before, got things rolling with easily one of the best gotcha stories all night.
After a night of getting his drink on in Charlottesville, he'd passed out on the front porch in just a t-shirt, his manly bits discreetly tucked away. Naturally, a friend took a picture of the absence of his genitalia and sent it out to all their friends.
What else could poor Dustin do but send out a retaliatory picture of his erection to the same group. One of his buddies, responded, saying, "Game, set, match: King." The crowd roared.
When he arrived at his birthday party a few weeks later, it was to find that everyone there was wearing a t-shirt with the picture of his erection on it. Even better, a projection of the sleeping Dustin photo on the wall was used to play "pin the erection on Dustin" with small pictures of it.
A man is only poor if he does not have friends.
Paul's story explained how he got a reputation as a bad ass when he transferred to private school in Minnesota.
On senior skip day, his class organized a bus trip to one kid's family lake house in Wisconsin. Paul was one of the kids doing gin shots on the way there. "A lot of bad decisions were made that day," he cracked.
When he finally woke up after passing out, it took two friends to prop him up, but only one to warn him that a cop had just arrived. He said he did his best to stay cool. When the cop asked him for ID, Paul said, "Nope," and planted face-first on the ground in front of the cop.
Needless to say, his reputation was sealed and the respect of his high school peers ensured.
Phil was particularly proud of his story because it had happened right where we were: in the back room of Balliceaux. Undoubtedly, scores of over-the-top stories have happened there.
His involved friends from Smithfield where he grew up, arriving for a New Year's eve bash at Balliceaux with Black Girls (whom he first called Black Ladies) playing.
A very drunk girl approached his friend and slurred, "I wanna get with you," meaning that they left immediately.
After a while, their friend returned to share his tale of woe: once in her car, she'd begun delivering oral pleasure before vomiting. All over the dashboard, in the cup holder, everywhere. He'd left her passed out to return to the party.
When Balliceaux closed and the Smithfield gang left, it was to wander the streets of the Fan, confused and lost. Imagine their surprise when they happened on a running car with vomit all over the dashboard. Being gentlemen as only Smithfield men can be, they gingerly moved the passed out woman to the back seat and drove themselves to their hotel.
They raise 'em right in ham country.
Our final storyteller turned out to be a Brit from Salford, or as Owen put it, "You know that band Joy Division? They were from Salford. It looks like how they sound. Very depressing."
But his story was hilarious, albeit a sad commentary about the options open to children in northern England. With a choice of R.A.F. or gangs, Owen partook of both, shooting near friends, dropping fish off bridges to hit cars, writing their name in lighter fluid and then setting fire to it. Even at 11, there seemed to be a whole lot of drinking and drugging going on between him and his two best buds.
Because there was no police presence, they had no compunction about breaking windows at school. From there it was skylights giving them a portal into the school and then smashing equipment. "We were going nuts on this school. When we found extra large bricks, we carried them as a team."
Only problem was that cops did show up and they were chased (right through an active funeral) and caught. "I served six hours in a jail cell," he said. "I got fed a baked potato." His friend Ben already had a record, so he insisted on taking full credit for everything, even serving time for it.
When he got out, he visited Owen, whose Mum had something to say to him.
"If you did all that, stay away from my son!" she warned Ben with all the ferocity of a mother tiger. "If he did it, you're a good f*cking friend."
"Ben was a good f*cking friend," Owen said to clamorous applause.
I've said it before, but it bears repeating. It's become a cliche at Secretly Y'All, but somehow that last story is always killer. Maybe it was the glimpse into another world, maybe it was Owen's accent - sometimes very British, other moments all American - or maybe just hearing a mother lay it out so baldly. Helluva great story.
But honestly, pin the erection on the birthday boy? Ignoring Ben Folds' piano playing? Four square championships? Glue gun shopping at 2 a.am.?
I'm just thankful that the first rule at Secretly Y'All is that you have to tell the truth. Not that anyone could make this kind of stuff up.
Life is that good. Or at least that funny.