One of the stories that sticks out from the nearly two dozen interviews Lilly Sullivan’s “facilitated” — that’s what they call it at StoryCorps — in Trenton the past few weeks was the guy who helped design machines for Bingo and other games. Quirky, sure, but it caught Lilly’s fancy.
All kinds of stories are coming from the life experiences of everyday folk while StoryCorps is camped out on the plaza between the State Library and State Museum along West State Street in the state Capitol complex. Even though I had nothing to do with StoryCorps setting up shop here, it makes you proud as a member of NJN’s staff to know the network is a co-sponsor of this noble endeavor’s stop here.
Actually all kinds of stories have come from thousands of everyday folk across the country since the mid-2000’s, when StoryCorps first began roaming this great nation’s highways and bi-ways like a band of gypsies whose trade is the life stories of ordinary Americans.
The national non-profit collects what it calls “the true American story” from the rich and diverse fabric of American life. Those who tell the stories are welcome to a recording and can also have them archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress (I’m told about 99 out of a hundred choose this option). There’s a $25 fee if you can afford it. The fee’s waived for those who can’t since StoryCorps is sensitive and smart enough not to exclude from America’s story someone who can’t afford to pay.
The idea is the brainchild of David Isay, an independent radio producer.
There are two smart-looking Airstream trailers — one on this side of the Mississippi; one on the other — that roam the countryside and the cities.
And in those trailers, the stories are told. That’s where Lilly, 26, and her band of merrymakers come in. They facilitate the stories by running the technical equipment that makes the professional-grade recordings and helping to keep the conversations and recollections flowing; whether, say, from an adult child mining their older parents for tales of times gone by – war service, Depression-era survival, share-cropping maybe — or an immigrant mother from Vietnam sharing thoughts and customs with her U.S.-reared adult daughter.
I spent a recent morning with Lilly soon after she and her group pulled into Trenton and set up shop. Two people who walked up during a follow-up visit had the makings for interesting family stories — one, a woman from Westfield, said she’d like her 102-year-old mother to talk about her life; another, a state security guard, asked whether his son had been by to talk about the family’s extensive military history.
Originally from California farming country near Bakersfield, Lilly’s the kind of person who makes a visitor feel at ease from the start and you can see how she’d draw great stories out of folks who’d readily open their hearts and minds to her.
She’s been on the road for 16 months now and can tick off the states she’s worked, with a helping hand from her laptop. In no particular order, it goes something like this: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, New Jersey, California, Ohio.
At the close of business Saturday, Oct. 2nd, and after spending nearly a month here, Lilly and her teammates are off to Knoxville, Tenn., for a month of story-telling there.
They’ve done 88 interviews so far and figure they’ll log about a hundred before they head south and west.
What’s it like to live 16 months on the road? Lilly doesn’t even keep an apartment as she lives the itinerant life of a troubadour keen to the cadence of words and stories. She’s signed on for a full second year, so she’s got at least eight more months to go.
But that’s fine with her. She’s getting an education and enjoying her important role helping collect the country’s stories for posterity as she moves from town to town.
“I like the lifestyle,” she tells me. “You meet so many great people.”
And some of us have had the privilege of meeting Lilly and the gang. It’s nice to know there are nice people out there who care enough about the fabric of this great country that they’d spend months and even years on the road helping to knit it together for posterity.
Best of luck to you all as you head off down the road on your travels; enriching the lives of Americans everywhere now and into the future.
Or, as one famous American cowgirl, Dale Evans, might say, happy trails.