Monday, January 11, 2016

Have It Your Way

Seeking asylum, not something (fortunately) I've needed to do. Seeking asylum, also the theme for tonight's Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story at Balliceaux.

Even twenty minutes before the doors opened, the front room was packed with people eager to score a seat and not end up sitting on the floor. Not to sound like a Richmonder (because I don't qualify), but I remember when a good night was 30 people.

Some themes are just inherently more poignant and tonight's was one of those. I'm talking about a fourth grader, dressed to the nines, telling the story of his life as a refugee from India. Or a woman who rescued a filthy, emaciated dog with a hunting number carved in its sides who regretted returning it to its owners.

I'm talking about a striking 6'5" woman who came all the way from Lynchburg to tell how she wound up in a bad relationship because she presumed the combination of being black and that tall meant she was never going to find a man. When her husband became abusive, she snatched her two-year old and escaped, only to be given asylum by an old white couple she didn't know. She tellingly referred to as "the first time I experienced safety."

Or an Iranian daughter who told of how her father, the head missile specialist in Iran before the '70s overthrow of the king, was reduced to selling melons in the Paris subway before taking asylum in the US and becoming a house painter. No one here sees him as the high-level specialist he once was.

The young man who, with his brother, escaped Burma for Malaysia covered in blankets on the bottom of a boat, licking droplets of salt water off his face trying to quench his thirst, and eventually made it to the U.S., about which he said, "That's why America is great, because it takes in people seeking asylum."

Another, the son of a Lithuanian who came to the U.S. in the '40s, told us about visiting Lithuania with his own 10-year old son to pay his respects at the grave site of his grandmother, killed when the train she was on was sabotaged by the Russians. After inadvertently teaching his son to hate Russians all his life, he was given a valuable lesson by relatives on that visit. "It was just war."

The first half of the evening ended with the always-hysterical Ian and his deadpan delivery, who told of using his summer job earnings to rent a hotel room to meet a girl to lose his virginity and "escape my stifling suburban adolescence, our libidos clanging like sleigh bells." They eventually moved in together, worked crappy jobs and made surprisingly good meals that set off the smoke detector.

With the exception of the last story, the others elicited heartfelt applause for the struggles shared in these classic American tales. Ian's inspired near non-stop chortling at his low-key delivery and clever phrasing.

You can count on three things happening during the break: anywhere from a fourth to a third of the crowd will leave, people who think they have an appropriately-themed story will put their name in the hat in hopes of being called, and I will find an interesting person with whom to wile away the time.

Check, check and check. He works for the James River Park System and likes to walk cemeteries so we only had tons of things to compare notes on. I already knew about the deer in Mount Calvary Cemetery, but not the beavers. He's yet to visit Shockoe Hill Cemetery where I regularly tend a grave, so we called it a draw.

Some nights, the stories that come after the break surpass the planned storytelling by a long shot. Not so tonight. Either people were really reaching or else completely ignoring the theme, because while most touched on the immigrant experience, only one really dealt with asylum.

Patty told of a family trip driving to New Orleans and getting off the interstate when the sky started looking strange and they saw a "storm chaser" van go by. At a Burger King in Alabama, they saw a black cloud with furniture flying in it and were told by the manager to drop their meals and take shelter in the freezer. Many cold minutes later, after what sounded like a freight train had passed, 15 people were dead from the storm and they were safe.

"We were very scared, very lucky and I eat at Burger King to this day," Patty concluded. Her son said he remembered looking at his brother eating his Whopper in the freezer and asking what he was doing. Seems he didn't want to die hungry.

I imagine when you're taking asylum, you're not always thinking as rationally as usual. Still, I think I'd have brought my fries, too.

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