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November 13, 2007

Name that life: StoryCorps gets people talking

“StoryCorps is history in the richest sense of the word. It is a bottom-up history, history that will make people feel like they count. Nobodies become somebodies. In this world today, people feel helpless. They feel like robots. But once they speak of their lives, they realize that they count.” —Studs TerkelOn a blustery Saturday afternoon in mid-October, Mickey Creech descended the steps of the Kentucky Center. The stiff breeze that always seems to blow downtown near the river whipped her skirt, and she had to keep a sharp focus on the steep concrete steps, which have toppled, without discrimination, more than a few people coming or going to shows at the Center. But Creech was not going to a show. She was there to tell her life’s story — and how a character known as “Crazy Tom” inadvertently led her to her first-ever true female friend.I.“I’m Susan Skidmore, and I’m 53 years old. Today’s date is Oct. 11, 2007. I am here to interview my best friend, Mickey Creech.”II.“And I’m Mickey Creech. I am 71 years old, and I’m being interviewed by my best friend, Susan Skidmore.”III. “Mickey, one of the first things I’d like to ask you is, What’s your first memory of me?”“I remember you in The Cutting Company when I went to get my hair cut by Crazy Tom — because I call him Crazy Tom. And I think you would agree.”“I do.”“You were this trim little brunette, really cute, and — Tom was cutting my hair at the time.”“Right. And then, during that period, I just knew who you were. I didn’t get to know you very well at that point. And I left Cutting Company, where I was a barber, and then I came back in 1985. Is that what you remember?”“Yes.”“And that was when I started cutting your hair. I inherited you from Tom. Initially our relationship was just client and service provider. Do you remember how we got to be friends?”“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think I’m having a hard time remembering just how it happened. It was sort of slow and kind of surprising how it just sorta worked. I remember that we started talking about reading, since both of us are voracious readers. And exchanging books. And then we segued into going to movies. And we just sorta found we could talk about anything. We had so much in common.”IV.StoryCorps (est. 2003) is a brilliant concept meant to both capture the stories of regular people and prompt them to start capturing them themselves. Haven’t most of us had a variation on this thought: I better record my parents, because once they’re gone, they’re gone?A deceptively simple American icon symbolizes the grant-funded project: a small Airstream trailer, tiny, really, one of those silver campers with rounded edges, with a retrofitted interior to facilitate sound recording.One of the trailers sat in front of the Kentucky Center for six weeks recently, but it was so plain, so nondescript that people passing by had nearly no idea what it was or why it was there. The inside was divided into two rooms of roughly the same size. In the front, participants filled out paperwork and had their portraits snapped. In the rear, they sat at a dinner table that resembles a booth at a diner. The room was tastefully appointed with handsome brown paneling and trim, and dimly illuminated with direct lighting that made it seem like the two people participating in the interview were the only people in the whole wide world. It was as if the sound technician sitting at a smaller table three feet away did not even exist.V.About those books — Susan Skidmore liked to read them and then get rid of them. Mickey Creech set her straight. “I’m giving you a book that’s a first edition of a new author, and don’t you throw it away or lend it to anybody and let it get torn up. Put it in your shelf. Someday it’ll be worth something.”VI. Mickey’s mother wanted to be “the one and only.” So, even by the time she’d been married and had five children of her own, Mickey never had a true girlfriend until she met Susan.Susan initially wasn’t sure they would become friends, because Mickey didn’t drink or smoke. “Today,” she says, “I have a lot of sober friends. But at that point in time, you really were my first sober friend.”“That’s wonderful, at our ages, to have a first.”“It is.”“So you’re my first true friend.”“That’s great.”“No, not male friends — I never had any trouble finding male friends. It was girlfriends I didn’t know how to get relationships with.”“Yeah, I understand that.”VII.When you sit in on someone’s interview, you don’t want to breathe. You don’t want to shift your weight or even blink your eyes. You have been invited into someone’s inner world, and you should respect that.After watching Susan interview Mickey, and listening to a recording of it, and joining the woman for one of their regular Friday night dinners, I do know them just a little. They seem like true friends who’ve supported one another through good and bad. They grew up in separate eras — Mickey recalls when ladies wore fancy clothes and white gloves to go shopping downtown. Susan remembers suburban shopping centers and malls and loves to hear Mickey talk about that earlier time.Both have grown enough to discard, and laugh at, the sorts of balls-and-chains that people tend to get shackled with in our society. Perspective. Both have offspring who have struggled with addiction — on that issue, they’ve felt judged by society by supported by one another. Both have recovered from growing up with religion shoved down their throats. Their politics reflect that.They’re both direct, perhaps to a fault, and tolerant. They’ve both found rewarding second careers — Mickey, a creative type, sells specialty advertising for JEB, while Susan left barbering behind and now sells real estate for Paul Semonin and conducts new-client interviews for attorneys.They have a mutual admiration society, and they laugh a lot.VIII.“You know, here we are,” Mickey says, “We’re ungodly, tolerant people.”Laughter.“My Lord, we’re gonna go down in history as — someday my great-grandkids are gonna hear this and they’re gonna go, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”“And they’ll know Grandma Mickey was tolerant. Shhh — don’t tell anybody.”“And ungodly, too — don’t forget that part. That’s the important part.” IX.“Mickey, where do you think we’ll be in 10 years?”“Hopefully, we’ll be best friends. But you know, I do think about this. I think, ‘My gosh, I don’t know if Susan ever thinks about the difference in our ages,’ but I think about it sometimes and I think, ‘Who knows, Susan may be coming to visit me in a nursing home and wiping dribble off my chin.’”Laughter.“And you know I would gladly wipe your dribble any day.”X.For more information on StoryCorps, including tips on how to do-it-yourself, visit www.npr.org and search for the StoryCorps page. On Friday mornings through January, WFPL-FM will broadcast selected excerpts from local StoryCorps interviews.