The stories begin when you're standing in line waiting for the doors to open.
"Have you seen No BS? Omygod, you've never even been here before? But you've been to RiverRock, right? No? Once you've been here a year, you'll know everyone by two degrees of separation."
Somehow I am fortunate enough to be standing in front of the Oracle of RVA.
The newbie tries to redeem herself by stating that she really like female rappers and name-checking a few. With no irony, he says he likes Beyonce. "Is that all you got?" she asks in disgust.
Welcome to Secretly Y'All at Balliceaux where tonight's storytelling theme is "Starting Fires."
Historian Josh, who works at the Civil War Center at Tredegar, plans to give us some historical context about the burning of Richmond at the end of the Civil War but does it in an entirely entertaining manner.
Like a report from the Bureua of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, he cleverly uses anecdotal evidence about drinking (everyone, including kids, was), pre-set fires setting off munitions factories and tobacco warehouses being set ablaze to deliver what is essentially "The Compleat Story of the Burning of RVA, Abridged."
No exaggeration, his performance was right up there with local historian master, Mike Gorman. When I tell him this after the show, he asks if I'll tell Mike that myself.
Grace tells about setting her first pine cone fire at age 4, notable because her hippie parents don't punish, they use it as a teachable moment by taking her to the firehouse to learn about fire safety. The chief asks her if she wants to ride in the fire engine and the lesson ends abruptly.
Life can't be easy when you join Boy Scouts solely so your Dad will like you, nor when that same Dad signs up his easily-brought-to-tears young son, Richard, to play "Cotton" in the camp skit.
Because it's a role that requires him to be naked in front of the entire camp, he runs away from camp alone to spend the night outdoors. Happy ending: by college, he over-compensates by getting naked in front of others at the drop of a hat (or a party) and eventually surprising strangers by jumping on their beach towel unexpectedly on a dark night (before running away).
Kristin tells a story about an early summer fling when her criteria had been young (because she was 20), hot (because. "I was shallow") and stupid ("Because that's what I was into then").
At the end of August when he reminds her it's over, she bags up the souvenirs of their brief love (compartmentalizing) and later burns them in a bonfire (moving on).
She admitted to a lot of over-sharing.
Local firefighter Charlie had a just-the-facts delivery (pressure levels, hose weights when filled, lots of numbers), even though his story involved a fierce fire and a suicide by immolation.
Explaining his role as pump man, he said, "I'm the guy who gets to put the wet stuff on the red stuff," got a few laughs, looked up sheepishly and smiled when he got more.
I'd say he'd worked on that one.
Ending on a highly philosophical note, he questioned whether the suicide would've happened if the victim had known two nesting birds would die in the process.
For pure heart-wrenching childhood drama, nothing compared to Alhaji's saga of living through Sierra Leone's rebel uprising as a 6-year old, an endeavor that involved being locked in and escaping his school, finding a shelter and escaping that, only to return for others and find the shelter ablaze after the rebels have left.
He and his family members laid on the ground among dead bodies so that when the rebels returned they wouldn't be killed. His two year old sister never made a peep.
When he got to this country, he was placed in a foster home where his parents locked him and another child in a basement room. He escaped that, too, followed by sleeping on the steps of Social Services to plead his case and finally get a good home.
It was a hell of a note to end the first half with, profound, moving and far more real than most people came prepared to hear.
During intermission, I made a beeline for the front bar, only to spot two fire trucks, lights on, parked outside. It was so unexpected that people treated it like a mirage...were they really there after all those fire stories?
Dunno. I ordered a housemade root beer which, for the first time in all the times I've ordered it, arrived with a fat pretzel atop the foam. It was practically an intermission snack and I loved it.
A comedian friend stopped by to tell me that he'd been too busy playing with someone's phone during the first story to pay any attention to it (his loss). All he remembered was that it was about George Washington (close, it was about the end of the Civil War).
Like always, the second half's stories were far looser about sticking to the theme.
We heard about post-traumatic party disorder after a high school party went wrong (he called the cops on his own party to get everyone off his parents' property) and about how Iranian families cultivate tradition by celebrating pagan holidays jumping over fires, a ritual some then miss as an adult ("The horrible becomes normal").
Adding to the atypical additions to tonight's programming - history lesson, firetruck log, refugee story - was a PSA about eschewing burial for cremation so you could become a plant, say a rose or a tree.
We heard about how arson runs in families. First Mom sets Dad's morning newspaper aflame so he'll listen to her at breakfast and next thing you know, Brother is starting a fire with his Pokemon cards.
At hippie camp during an aura-cleansing ritual using sage, counselor Rainbow accidentally sets pretty little Stephanie Smiley's long locks afire (none of the other girls are sad).
Which was an ideal segue to the big finale, Josh's story about catching his own teen mane on fire with a creme brulee torch, thus ending the indoor portion of the storytelling evening.
Walking the six blocks back to my car, I found myself a half block ahead of a guy checking in with Mom and Dad, reeling off his class schedule (he was theater major, hence the excellent projection skills) and impressions.
"And then I have voice and speech and today the teacher used the word "sensual" in class, so I think he's going to be really cool." Apparently this young man has not had enough exposure to advanced vocabulary in his young life.
Pause. "Get this! We won't be able to sit together as a family after all. No, no, it's going to be like a lot of the award shows and all the nominees get to sit in the front row, so that's where I'll be. That's gonna feed my ego," he crowed and disappeared down a side street.
Some nights, the stories don't end 'til you get back in your car and drive away.