We Tell Each Other Stories In Order To Live

06/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last night, The Moth's musician was late. Not that they really needed a musician--his only job was to noodle when a performer's time was up, a role that could have been relegated to a CD player or a tap on the shoulder--still, the musician is part of the Moth schtick, and the organizers were sad to start without him.

But the show did go on. The emcee laid out the rules: Each performer had ten minutes to tell a story. Not a rant, not a stand up routine, and, for heaven's sake, not a reading (no notes allowed). Some Moth performers make their living as comedians, some as engineers, some as surfers. Last night, as the event was co-sponsored by the PEN World Voices Festival, most were internationally recognized novelists. But when they take the stage at The Moth, they all become verbal storytellers. All that is required of them is a true, first-person story; one that "sets up stakes"; one that has a beginning, middle and end; and one that hews, however loosely, to the theme of the night.

Last night's theme was "You Say You Want a (R)evolution: Stories About Change," adapted from the Evolution/Revolution theme of the World Voices Festival. (Evolution is also the theme of this year's Burning Man, which inspired in your humble blogger a brief but terrible image of Salman Rushdie, clad in spandex and glow sticks, breathing fire.)

Most of the stories were indeed about change, more or less. As with all Moth events, however, the theme was merely a jumping-off point; it could as easily have been "Travel," or "How I Lost My Innocence," or "That Time in the '80s When I Almost Died."

The new Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO is a starkly hip aquatic lair, like the tank of a very gay shark. The storyteller whose aesthetic best matched the venue was Bokara Legendre, one of those larger-than-life New York socialites halfway between Brooke Astor and a drag queen. One suspects that every night with Bokara is a storytelling performance, Moth or no Moth. A sample sentence: "I walked back to Kathmandu in those same gold high-heeled sandals and my chiffon caftan, and I had a bit of a think." Bokara is the kind of lady who remembers what every sheik was wearing at the coronation of the King of Nepal, but thinks a baseball game is called a "match." (She obviously has never sung "Take Me Out to the Ballmatch," and wouldn't know a kernel of Cracker Jack if it got lodged in her cigarette holder.)

Petina Gappah, a writer living in Geneva, shared poignant memories of growing up in Rhodesia as it became Zimbabwe. Even after independence, Petina was one of only four black students in her class. At school assemblies, she sang a song in a language she did not at first understand, praising the white colonialists for settling her country.

Salman Rushdie recounted a visit to the Nicaraguan revolution in 1986. After a series of near-fatal jaunts along the front lines, Rushdie returned to the comfort of his London studio. "'Ah. Safe. Nothing bad will ever happen again.' And I sat down and wrote the final draft of The Satanic Verses." The well-heeled crowd chuckled knowingly. "And I discovered that not only landmines can make a big bang. Books can also."

The chic shark tank was alive with narrative. So it seemed almost fated that when the musician finally arrived, at intermission, he brought with him not only his accordion and an apology but--you guessed it--a great story.

"He was in the cab, and--why don't you tell it?" The emcee turned upstage to the seated musician, who leaned over his accordion, raised the microphone to his lips, and began to tell his story.

"The cabbie insisted he knew where he was going, but he clearly did not," he said. "I just moved to Brooklyn, so I didn't either. No GPS. We both thought we were in DUMBO, but had no idea how to get to Main Street. Somehow, the cabbie takes a wrong turn and we ended up on an expressway, and at a certain point there was a sign saying we were heading to Staten Island." Pause for laughter. To a New York crowd, "Staten Island" is the world's best punch line.

"At this point, the cabbie is ready to admit he's lost, so he pulls to the side of the road--and hails me a cab." Bigger laugh. "At this point I'm an hour late, I'm frantic. I get into the yellow cab. 'Take me to DUMBO, please.' The new driver goes, 'DUMBO?' But at least he had a GPS."

The musician lowered the mike back to accordion level, slumped back in his chair, and accepted a glowing round of applause. It almost seemed staged, a perfect illustration of The Moth's dogma. See? Everyone has a story.