Isay says he was inspired by the 1930s Federal Writers' Project, a Works Progress Administration program that collected thousands of life-history interviews now housed at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. Back then the technology for creating a treasury of American life was unwieldy. In the 1930s, a state-of-the-art recording machine was the size of a coffee table and required two strong people to lift. Still, the writer's project captured a spectrum of American stories, of blacks who had experienced slavery, of destitute Dust Bowl refugees, of a Vermont farmwife butchering a hog, of a Harlem fishmonger.
Among the StoryCorps' memorable moments was a surprise marriage proposal. She was Brazilian, he a Brooklyn native. In the interview's last five minutes, he pulled out a ring and placed it on the table. "This is the ring that my father gave to my mother," Michael Wolmetz said. "I thought I would give it to you." His voice broke as he continued, "Debora, will you please marry me?" She said yes.
"It was the only time I cried in the booth," says the interview's facilitator, Kayvon Bahramian.
With plans to put StoryCorps booths in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. and to create a mobile version, Isay hopes to collect 250,000 interviews in the next decade, if funds are available. For now, corporate sponsors and foundations pitch in to keep the stories coming.
One january morning, Marco Ceglie, 30, and his mother, Carol, took seats in the booth. Marco, wearing a knit cap and a tuft of hair under his lower lip, said he believes that the soul dwells in the voice. "Photos are great," he said, "but they're static." Marco had hoped to interview his father ("a man of three-word answers"), but it was his mother who made the 40-minute train ride from their home in Maplewood, New Jersey, to Grand Central.
Carol, who grew up in Slovenia in the 1930s and '40s, looked apprehensive, but warmed to her son's questions. She recalled the night Nazi soldiers held her family at gunpoint. She was about 5. "I was holding on to my father's leg, hiding behind him." She went on to say that her family survived the war and that she emigrated to America in 1964. She also told her son she's proud that he did not get mixed up with gangs.
When the two came out of the booth, her eyes were glistening. "It was good," she said. "I might bring someone myself." Isay would like nothing better.