Everyone asks Rani Shankar the same question: do she and Nick Yulman sleep in their big, silver StoryCorps trailer, recently parked for two weeks on the lawn of the Field Museum? Yulman answers: “These seats do fold out–I mean, we could sleep here if we had to. But thankfully our hosts are putting us up at a hotel.” The two have worked together for the last few years at the StoryCorps home base in New York, but they’d never labored in such close proximity until mid-May, when this project took to the road, its first stop Washington, D.C. After Chicago they’ll spend several more weeks together, traveling to Saint Louis and Tuscaloosa. “The first two weeks are sort of like a really long first date,” Shankar says. “But then you get over it. Now it’s more like summer camp.”
This oral-history venture, sponsored in part by NPR, is modeled in spirit and scope on the Works Progress Administration projects of the 1930s. Shankar and Yulman have been working six days a week, ten hours a day, engineering and logging 40-minute recordings of interviews by everyday citizens who believe they know someone with a story to tell–or at least someone whose experience merits space in a library. “Mostly it’s people who are related,” says Shankar. “Sometimes it’s a coworker, or an elder, a mentor.” The recorded stories are then turned over to StoryCorps, which prepares them for the Library of Congress archives. In Chicago, they’ve also been culled for broadcast on WBEZ, which is hosting Shankar and Yulman’s visit here.
“The most surprising thing about Chicago is the diversity of the people who’ve signed up, who’ve all found out about it from NPR,” says Shankar. The 50 spots allotted to the StoryCorps visit here were claimed much faster than the spots in other cities: people sign up online for interview appointments, and all of them in Chicago were reserved within two hours of a midnight posting on August 5. Shankar and Yulman put in extra hours almost every day, trying to sandwich in exceptional stories and keeping waiting lists in case of last-minute cancellations. Lots of people just showed up at the trailer, hoping to get a spot.
One afternoon, a woman from Schaumburg stopped by to add her name to the list. “I could be here, with my mom, in under two hours,” she said as Yulman penciled her name into the margin of the scheduling book. “Right now, we are booked solid,” he said. “But if that changes, we’ll let you know.” Some Tilden High School students on a field trip were outside the trailer, some examining the StoryCorps literature while others gathered around a listening post to hear selected interviews on headphones. After listening, one young man stuck his head in the trailer’s open door. “Y’all got a recording studio in here?” he asked, then suggested the story facilitators free up five minutes so he could “lay down a track.” (“I wish we could accommodate everyone,” said Yulman.) Inside the trailer Tinamarie Hernandez, 34, was discussing family history with her great-aunt Tillie Gonzalez, 79: Gonzalez talked about everything from how the two World Wars changed her brothers to the generational divide between Sox and Cubs fans. Next up was Lali Watt, 45, of Wilmette and her father, Pranab Lahiri, 73, visiting from Atlanta. They packed their 40 minutes with tales of the family’s move from India to Africa and finally America aboard the SS Laos. After finishing the recording and requisite paperwork, father and daughter posed for a picture outside the trailer.
After two weeks here, Shankar and Yulman were able to identify the Chicago narratives’ dominant theme. “Gentrification,” said Yulman. “Loosely, gentrification. A lot of the older people talk about how much all the neighborhoods have been redeveloped and changed. People have also talked a lot about Chicago as a destination. And racism.” Shankar added with a laugh, “We’ve heard quite a few stories about couples that met jitterbugging at the Aragon Ballroom. Oh! And Fluky’s! Families from all over the city were built up from dates to Fluky’s.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nick Yulman.