I’m a sucker for a good story. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is a favorite short story. The unique narrative structure of David Lynch’s allegory The Straight Story. The cry-your-eyes-out despair of Crazy Heart. Even The Carrot Seed — one of my favorite stories from childhood that has a total of 101 words. But these stories have been painstakingly drafted and crafted for weeks and months; they’ve had multiple editors, revisions, and iterations. There is ample room for error with anything polished and published, because there’s ample time to make it perfect.
Oral storytelling is a whole other beast. Impromptu, barely-rehearsed, no-notes-allowed storytelling in front of an audience is downright HARD. And scary! And watching such unrehearsed, potentially disastrous performances stirs up a weird anxiety for me. I get the same feeling when I watch The Office and I can sense that Michael Scott or David Brent is about to say something really bone-headed. I get nervous with the storyteller while simultaneously excited to hear their tale.
So Brandy and I were nervously giddy to attend Secretly Y’all’s oral storytelling event at Pale Fire a couple weeks ago. Secretly Y’all is an outfit out of Richmond that has been hosting storytelling events since 2009. They give 50% of their cover charge ($5) to a local organization. On this evening, that organization was the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Child Day Care Center, which serves 80 children in our community and has been doing just that for almost 48 years. FORTY-EIGHT YEARS!!
Here’s how a Secretly Y’all event works. They announce an event with a particular theme and put out a call for storytellers on that theme. Not professional storytellers; just local folks who’ve had some really weird/interesting/inspiring crap happen to them and are the perfect mixture of charming + awkward + genuine (+ brave!). Those people tell the best stories. Local folks answer the call and sign up. Secretly Y’all publishes a “setlist” (the list of people who have signed up), and they tell their stories in front of a live audience at some local venue. The fine print: the stories must be true, less than 7 minutes long, and told without the aid of notes.
At this particular event, the theme was “Bamboozled.” Stories about being fooled or tricked or deceived. The setlist included six brave souls, and after their performances, the Secretly Y’all organizers passed around a hat so that audience members who had worked up some courage (or had a couple beers) could share their stories, too! Okay, on to the storytellers!
After the introductions and explanations of the rules, the show began. Up walked Sylvia, sporting sweet tattoos and a Standing Rock tee shirt, to deliver a story entitled “God or Not.” Having grown up in a mixed faith family, she felt bamboozled by all the conflicting messages she received about religion, God, prayer, and the afterlife. She recalled praying about becoming a boy, which didn’t happen. Later, a salamander she thought surely was dead pulled a Lazarus and she thought, “Methodist prayers work! I’ve just been doing it wrong all this time!” The climax of her story felt like an action/adventure movie with representatives of all her family’s religions converging on her uncle’s funeral to fight over how it’s done.
Thankfully time has a way of softening the edges of those experiences that cut us open in the past. Though her story was delivered with humor and a light heart, I’m sure the experience was very confusing for Sylvia as a child, reminding me that a child’s world sometimes consists of reality as they understand it + some imagination to fill in the gaps. Functional magical realism, I suppose. Which brings me to another story of the evening: “Boredom and Appendicitis,” by Roddy.
His story started with his wonder and awe about…. basically anything. Living in a small town, he frequently found himself bored and would get excited about something as simple as hail. One time a tornado was heading straight for his town, and he understood that to be something dangerous, but he didn’t really know exactly what a tornado was. In the storm cellar, the wind created a sort of pecking noise, and his magical realist brain deduced that a tornado must be a bird. A giant, hungry, mean bird that would just swoop down and carry off the whole dang town! But more exciting than the tornado was the time his sister landed in the hospital to have her tonsils removed. What a wonder the hospital was! He just had to get back there somehow. But how? He decided to fake appendicitis so he could stay in the hospital. I kid you not, he actually faked his symptoms well enough that the doctors operated on him, and when they got in there to remove the appendix, it looked fine… so they did exploratory surgery looking for what could possibly be causing all this excruciating pain! And he has the scar to prove it, which he showed us. Unbelievable. He bamboozled everyone.
We also heard a story from Jon, who was bamboozled along with his friend into couch surfing in Albuquerque in what he thought was friendly territory. Almost immediately after they arrived at this house, things turned hostile. There was an explosion outside, someone smashed up the trash cans at the curb, and then two complete strangers burst through the door and demanded that Jon “smoke what’s in this pipe.” In true Indiana Jones fashion, the two escaped by rolling under the garage door, throwing their luggage in the car, and hauling ass to a Walmart parking lot, where they managed to sleep with one eye open. Sheesh!
Lauren’s story was a bit less violent, but she did get bamboozled by a cat, which might be just as bad. And hers was just as much a love story as it was a story about cat pee. In 2009, she was living in her first ever house with a number of cats. Her boyfriend came for a visit and remarked that the guest bathroom had a really strong ammonia odor. The litter box was in that bathroom, so Lauren assumed that was the explanation. Upon closer inspection, however, Lauren discovered that the pipe under the sink was FULL of cat pee, which had corroded the metal and blown a hole in it, causing said cat pee to drip all over the place inside the cabinet! So Lauren and her doting boyfriend cleaned out the cabinet, and he replaced the damaged pipe. But, why the heck was a cat peeing in the sink, and which cat was it?? To discourage the little deviant from peeing in the sink, Lauren filled the sink with water, which seemed to work. But she asked herself, “Am I really going to live my life like this?” And one day, out of the blue, as she walked past that bathroom, Lauren saw one of the cats sitting on the toilet. To this day, that cat still pees like a human, and Lauren married her boyfriend.
Sometimes we’re bamboozled by urban legends. Storyteller Eric believed his whole life until not long ago that you might die if you didn’t wait 30 minutes after eating to get in the pool. He also recalled, as a teenager, shaving 4 or 5 times a day because he believed it would grow back thicker every time he shaved. And 23 years ago he learned from a Simpsons episode that toilets flush in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. He wowed lots of people with this interesting nugget of knowledge! Unfortunately, it’s just not true. We feel you, Eric. I guarantee you someone reading this right now is having an uncomfortable epiphany.
The last storyteller on the “set list” was Andy, whose bamboozlement takes the form of messing with other people. For example, at the bank one day, the teller remarked on the strange weather, and Andy baited her: “Yes! I hear it’s caused by…El Zorro.” There was a long silence, during which the teller must have decided she couldn’t restrain herself. “Sir, I think you mean El Nino.” Andy did it just to see what her reaction would be. But his best example of bamboozling others was the time he decided to drive through the toll booth with a whoopie cushion and let out a “bleating fart” right at the moment he handed the attendant his payment. Approaching the booth, his mind juggled all the moving pieces of this fandangled plan, and instead of stepping on the brake to slow his roll and unleash the cushion, he stepped on the accelerator, lurched forward, and HIT THE TOLL BOOTH! And then the cushion farted, but I don’t think the attendant heard it because she was quite upset and yelling, “Get out of here, crazy!” He didn’t even pay the toll.
During the intermission, the Secretly Y’all folks passed a hat around and allowed spectators to drop their names in if they decided during the show that they’d like to share a story. The same rules apply for these storytellers: a true story in no more than 7 minutes with no notes. Three lucky folks were selected for the second half of the show.
Grant told a story called “The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe” in which he and some friends were hanging out at Finnegan’s Cove, when this kid in the rowdy group next to them started messing with them. Things were escalating, and after the group left, Grant and his friends decided to go track this guy down. They found him at a particular frat house and intimidated him by calling themselves The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. It seems they put that guy in his place! Only… that wasn’t the guy. They were at the wrong house. The guy they were after was actually arrested the next week. They saw him in Crime Times, lol.
The last story of the evening warmed our hearts and made us laugh. Jolynne described a time she was bamboozled in a very good way. Jolynne is the director of some children’s services at JMU, and she entered the Gus Bus in a contest to win $75,000 from Chick-fil-A. Weeks and weeks went by as the contest dragged on, and there came a day that she had a scheduled meeting with a colleague about something or other… only the colleague was actually planning on delivering the prize that day! But, Jolynne’s office happens to be in a new JMU building that is quite confusing — multiple entrances, none of which look like a main entrance, labyrinthian hallways leading to seemingly nowhere… so the colleague, accompanied by balloons, a giant check, and someone dressed in a cow costume, wandered around in the parking lot trying to figure out where to go. And Jolynne watched all this unfold from her office window, simultaneously wondering why the heck there was a cow in the parking lot and where in the world her colleague was! Finally everyone found each other, Gus Bus got $75,000, and all was well.
If you want to witness or be a part of the next Secretly Y’all show, there’s another one coming up in March. Keep your eye on the Pale Fire and Secretly Y’all Facebook pages for the deets. Also — Pale Fire is now selling annual live music passes: $32 gets you admission to all live music events in 2019 (excluding fundraisers and benefit shows, for obvious reasons). You can buy one in the tap room or online. AND, Harrisonburg-Rockingham Child Day Care Center would love your continued support. You can make a donation to them at any time or set up a recurring donation online, and watch for their next big fundraiser, Dancing with the Stars, later in 2019. With support from the community, HRCDCC will hopefully raise enough funds for the daycare to finally move into its “forever home” in downtown Harrisonburg.
See you out and about!
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