After five months of Southern California living, I felt myself jonesing for a little East Coast fix. Last week, I flew out to New York City and got to stay in my old apartment with my old roommate. I spent a week eating at my favorite restaurants, walking down my favorite streets, and absorbing the beauty of September. It really is one of the best months of the year, weather-wise.
On my last night in the city, I went with my friend, Rachel, to an event that featured a winning combination: stories and food. It was opening night of The Moth's latest season of real people telling true stories -- live, and without any notes.
The Moth is a nonprofit organization that transports us back to our roots, to a time before writing and books, when the art of oral storytelling was all that there was. It began in 1996, when poet and novelist, George Dawes Green, invited a group of friends to an hour of storytelling in his New York City Apartment. Green had grown up listening to stories on the front porch of his childhood home in Georgia. He and his friends would gather as the sun was setting and the moths were fluttering around, searching for light. They would spend hours recounting tales of hope and heartache and whimsy.
The popularity of Green's story hours grew quickly in New York, and gradually moved from his apartment, to coffee shops, Podcasts, and radio hours. The event I attended last Tuesday night was held at The Great Hall at Cooper Union, a building that dates back to 1858 and has watched many a United States president grace its stage. Even Abraham Lincoln has given a speech at The Great Hall.
Of course, the one downside to this awesomely historic building is that it holds close to 1,000 people, yet has only one bathroom. Believe me when I say that intermission was not a pretty sight. The line for the women's restroom seemed to linger into infinity.
On all other accounts, my first experience with The Moth was incredible. The theme for the evening was "Food Adventures of Epic Portions," and it was hosted by Padma Lakshmi, who is also the host of Top Chef. The storytellers for the evening were an eclectic mix of writers, stand-up comics, chefs, and New York City police chiefs. They each had 10 minutes to tell a food-related tale, the most moving of which was the story told by Steve Osbourne, a police lieutenant in Harlem. He was short and burly, with a bald head and an infectious smile. He walked on stage, paused for a moment, and then threw his hands out in a welcoming gesture to the audience.
"How you doin'?" he asked in a thick, New York accent.
A few people cheered, and the rest grinned and sat back in their seats as Osbourne recounted his personal experience of living through September 11th. He described the intricacies of his job as a law enforcement officer, and of the invisible wall he has to maintain between himself and his emotions.
On the morning of September 11th, directly after the Twin Towers had been hit, Osbourne had to pry himself away from his distraught and tearful wife and head to work. As he was running out the door, she told him to wait so that she could at least make him a sandwich.
The moment she said those words, he knew that if he stayed and watched her make that sandwich, his emotional wall would be broken, and he wouldn't be able to leave her.
"There's just something so human and so nurturing about making another person a meal," he said.
So, he didn't wait. Instead, he took a moment, gathered his composure, and walked out the door before she could even start.
A day later, Osbourne said that MacDonalds had set up a tent on the outskirts of Ground Zero and were handing out Happy Meals to all the rescue workers. When it was his turn for a break, he ate his way through the burger and fries, savoring every bite.
At the very bottom of the Happy Meal box, Osbourne peered inside and found a piece of folded construction paper. He opened it up to find a drawing done in crayon. It featured two towers with smoke coming out of the tops of them, and two stick figures standing right beside them. Underneath it, written in a child's printing, were the words, "Thank you. You are my hero."
As he held the drawing in his hands, he could feel his emotional wall beginning to crumble. Before he could stop it, before he could even try to reassemble it, a powerful surge of emotions ran through him, and he started to weep. He sat there for a few minutes, holding his head in his hands and sobbing -- as discreetly as possible, of course.
Osbourne was a police lieutenant, after all, and needed to maintain at least some semblance of his macho facade.
By the end of his story, most of the crowd was dabbing their eyes, and he was the only speaker of the evening to gain a partial standing ovation.
Food was not the central subject of Osbourne's narrative, but for celebrity chef, David Chang, it played a starring role in his account of the triumphs and heartaches of owning four restaurants in New York City.
Chang is the mastermind behind the Momofuku noodle bars throughout the Lower East Side, as well as one, high-end restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. In 2007, he was named Chef of the Year by Bon Appetit and GQ magazines, and has won two James Beard Awards, which are essentially, the Oscars of cooking.
Chang gave an earnest account of the night, Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Restaurant Guides, came in for a surprise dinner at one of his restaurants. Chang and his cooks were eager to impress him, as the Michelin Guide had already granted them 2 stars earlier that year. The highest number they give out is 3 stars, and only six restaurants in all of Manhattan have been given that honor.
When Naret finished his meal, he asked Chang if he would be interested in receiving a third star in the Michelin Guide.
At that point in the story, the ever-humble, David Chang, peered at the audience with a stunned look in his eyes, and let out an ironic laugh.
"How was I supposed to answer that?" he asked. "If I said no, and told him I was content with having 2 stars, he would think I was lazy."
The audience laughed.
"But, in all honesty," Chang continued, "I didn't know if I wanted a third. Once you get a third star, the pressure's on. You're expected to perform at a certain level, all the time, and it means you're at the very top -- so there's nowhere left to go but down."
I smiled; it was so true. The paradox of success.
In spite of all that, Chang couldn't let the opportunity slide. He told Naret they would love to earn a third star one day, and would work hard to achieve it. He then concluded his story with the ominous declaration that the Michelin Guide both gives and takes away. From year to year, not a single restaurant knows if they will keep their stars or lose them. In a few more weeks, the 2012 Guide will be released, and all Chang can do at this point, is wait.
As the evening of storytelling came to a close, it was 10p.m. and Rachel and I were hungry. Who wouldn't be after two and a half hours of talking about food?
Feeling famished and inspired, we exited the doors of the Great Hall at Cooper Union, and did something that is only possible in amazing cities like New York: We got out Rachel's iphone, looked up the address, and walked a few short blocks to have dinner at David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Rachel got the Ramen Bowl, and I got the Ginger Scallion Noodles. They tasted of garlic mixed with vinegar, from the pickled Shiitake mushrooms. They were warm and soothing and flavorful. The perfect way to end my trip to NYC.
In addition to hosting seasoned storytellers, The Moth also sponsors StorySlams in major cities throughout the U.S., whereby audience members who are drawn at random have the opportunity to tell a 5-minute story to a live audience.Their story are generally based around one central theme, such as "Struggles", "First Times", or "Near Death Experiences". At the end of the evening, a panel of judges votes to decide who was the ultimate storyteller. If you're interested in attending a Moth event in the Los Angeles area,
check out their website for details: http://themoth.org/events