Q&A With StoryCorps Founder Dave Isay: Love and the City
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Publication Date: Feb. 2012
StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization that records, preserves and broadcasts oral histories on public radio. Since launching in 2003, StoryCorps has collected over 40,000 stories from about 80,000 individuals. Until 2008, many of those stories were recorded in a booth in Grand Central Terminal.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the program’s founder, Dave Isay, published “All There Is,” a collection of StoryCorps’ most memorable love stories. MetroFocus spoke to him about love in New York City.
Q: What percentage of StoryCorps interviews would you classify as “love stories”?
A: I think that the theme of love comes up in every interview. I haven’t searched specifically but romantic love is probably in three-fourths of the interviews at least. People will talk about the most important things in their lives, such as their families and parents and kids and people who they’ve fallen in love with.
Q: Some of the greatest love stories ever told take place in New York, but we’ve also got subway rats and rude cabbies. What’s romantic about this city?
A: StoryCorps tells the story of everyday people and the romance is in the power and poetry of their words. New York is full of real people, full of great characters and that may be why we see a preponderance of New York stories in this book.
Q: Several of the New York stories from the book began as chance encounters on the street or subway…
A: That’s exactly right. There is a lot of serendipity in these love stories — a lot of surprises. It’s a hopeful book because there are a lot of stories of people who thought they would never find love and it just taps them on the back, when they least expect it.
Q: In one of the stories from the book, a couple’s long distance relationship begins on New Year’s Eve in NYC 20 years ago. One of them lived here and one of them lived in San Francisco, and they began exchanging messages recorded on audio cassettes. What role did New York play in their love?
A: Scott Wall, the New York side of that relationship, started recording these sort of city soundscapes on places like the Brooklyn Bridge and sending them to his future wife Isabel Sobozinsky. He also sent his grandmother’s toaster across the country with a letter to her that read, “I hope one day we’ll make English muffins together.” New York City is a very creative place where people do things differently and are inspired by the beauty they see all around them. Creativity drives people to find others in unexpected ways.
Listen to the StoryCorps interview with Scott Wall and Isabel Sobozinsky-Wall, a couple who met in New York on New Year’s Eve 20 years ago.
Q: In another story, Granvilette Kestenbaum remembers her husband, Howard, who died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. What does her story tell us about love in the wake of tragedy?
A: I think that Gran’s story, one of the most powerful in the book, is also unbelievably funny. It’s the story of her getting together with Howard Kestenbaum, this goofy guy. When she was practically a kid, he did everything he could to try to win her over. He was a complete nerd and she wouldn’t have anything to do with him — and then she falls in love with him. It’s a gorgeous story.
That day was such an overwhelming tragedy and this story reminds us of what was lost. Howard is the type of guy everybody should have met. Everybody should hear this story — that’s the only way we can begin to understand the pain that people continue to feel over the loved ones they lost on 9/11.
Q: Any other great New York love stories?
A: There’s the story of Hunny and Bunny Feller, identical twin sisters who married Elliot and Danny Reiken, identical twin brothers. They recall taking separate subway cars out to Coney Island so people wouldn’t stare. Hunny and Elliot Reiken still live together in the Brooklyn house they bought with their identical twins 50 years ago.
But the greatest StoryCorps recording of a New York love story actually comes from a previous book. It’s the store of Danny and Annie Perasa, a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, couple married for 27 years. Danny was a five-foot-tall off-track betting clerk who was bald, cross-eyed and one-toothed, but he was more romantic than any Hollywood actor. He loved his wife more than anything. They personify what StoryCorps is all about and what love is about. Danny has this line that “being married is like a color television set, you never want to go back to black and white.” You can’t make this sh*t up.
Danny Perasa and his wife, Annie, were one of the earliest StoryCorps participants and their remarkable story was later animated. This recollection of their 27-year romance was recorded during Danny’s last days as he struggled with terminal cancer.
Q: Any New York stories of revenge or strife? Bitter New York divorces?
A: When I first started StoryCorps, I was concerned about this. Here’s this booth in Grand Central Terminal where anyone can walk in and tell a story, what the hell is going to happen? I was worried about a Jerry Springer moment — someone pulling out guns and shooting — but that never happened. People really interview people that they care about deeply. We don’t see people going after each other. Yes, some storytellers talk about unhappy marriages but most people are focused on events and people that help move them forward in life, as opposed to those that held them back.
Q: You grew up in the Tri-State area and went to college here. Do you have your own “New York Love Story”?
A: I actually grew up in New Haven, Conn. but moved to New York City when I was 15. My New York love story? I proposed to my wife at the Bowery Poetry Club under a picture of Nathan Smith, a man who was the proprietor of the Sunshine Hotel, one of the Bowery’s last flophouses. I had produced a radio documentary about Sunshine and Smith was one of the greatest men ever to walk God’s green earth. That may not be romantic for everybody but for me, it’s pure gold.
This interview has been edited and condensed.