"Do you have something to catch the baby?" a woman asked Joe Caracciolo, a New York City transit foreman riding the subway on his way to work. He didn't, but the birth on the C train was not about to stop. "It just flew out," Caracciolo recalled. "It was like catching a football." When he announced "it's a boy," the whole car erupted. "Everybody was kissing and hugging."
That miraculous moment is one of hundreds collected by StoryCorps, an unusual oral history project that encourages people to share their life experiences with one another in a tiny recording studio in New York City's Grand Central Terminal. The boxy 8- by 10- foot structure, which opened this past October, stands in a busy passageway near Track 14. The booth's translucent walls, covered with little human figures in yellow, red and orange, emit a spaceship glow. Travelers stop and gaze at a changing electronic sign ("Listening is an Act of Love," "Listen Closely") or listen to snippets of recorded interviews at the press of a button.
A peek through the soundproof booth's narrow window usually gives a glimpse of two people seated at a table, talking, a pair of microphones between them. Here, an old man revealed to his nephew his awkwardness as a youth, confessing that he met his wife of 60 years only because a locked door kept him from fleeing their blind date. A teenage girl told her older sister how she contemplated killing herself during her confinement in a psychiatric hospital. "The only reason that I didn't is because of you and Mom," she confided, almost inaudibly. A young woman tried to stifle her laughter as her Hindu father, who is from India, recalled his first visit to an American restaurant 35 years ago. He was shocked to see "hot dog" on the menu. "I couldn’t believe it!" he said. "How could people eat the dogs!"
StoryCorps was created by David Isay, a 38-year-old radio producer who says he wanted to "take oral history and put it in the hands of regular people." That's in contrast to traditional oral history conducted by academics and journalists. "You can bring your mother or grandfather or neighbor—anyone you choose—and conduct a 40-minute oral history interview with the help of a facilitator."
Isay has built a career on listening. Among his National Public Radio documentaries are a 1993 chronicle of life in a Chicago housing project, "Ghetto Life 101," and 2002's "The Yiddish Radio Project," featuring interviews with Jewish-American radio stars and excerpts of shows from the 1930s and '40s. In 2000, Isay was awarded a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, which cited him for "drawing raw human responses from a diversity of voices." The so-called genius award of $500,000 over five years freed him to develop the "crazy scheme," as he puts it, that would become StoryCorps.
A Connecticut native and longtime New York City resident, Isay had his eye on Grand Central from the start because at one time or another every kind of person passes through. "It's the epicenter of New York City."
Since opening, StoryCorps has recorded some 600 interviews. Studs Terkel, the author of Working and ten other books based on interviews, was on hand to help launch the project. Terkel, 92, praised StoryCorps for "celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated." Gazing up at the terminal's vaulted ceiling, he said, "We know there's an architect, but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors?...They are the ones who make the world go around, these millions of people who have never expressed themselves."
Most StoryCorps participants make an interview appointment on the project's Web site (www.storycorps.net), which also offers a "question generator." What's your first memory? Who were your favorite relatives? What have you learned from life?
Louisa Stephens, a high-school teacher, has conducted about 20 StoryCorps interviews with family, friends or students. “Every time I go I feel I've been lit from within," she says. "I like hearing the details of a person's life that are not public—what a grandmother said to you or what you're afraid of."
An interview session costs $10, and participants get a CD of their conversation. If they grant permission, a copy goes to the Library of Congress, which plans to make the recordings available for in-library listening by year's end.
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.