When I started out gathering stories in the 1960s, I looked everywhere for mentors.
There weren't any, not in the flesh anyway, and not where I was living in the middle of New Jersey.
All that changed when Bob Dylan came to town, first to Greenwich Village where I sat two feet away from him while he roughed-up a song called “Red Rocking Chair,” and then, a little later, when he secreted himself in my own home town.
Dylan was exactly the thing that I, as a writer, was looking for -- a song-gatherer who soaked up songs like Carl Sandburg. Dylan gave new meaning to busking about the country, pen in hand, and then with his husky bardic voice and cherubic face, blasting out the news of bum raps, bad prisons and comic picnics on Bear Mountain.
One thing we couldn't figure out about this kid (for he was just our age) was why he was hiding out in Free Acres, a little backwoods American kibbutz famed for housing "reds" from the 1930s. But there he was gobbling scrambled eggs one morning and hanging out with friends of mine in the same neighborhood where I'd started out and still lived several blocks away.
He said he knew a thousand songs.
That really hit me.
I had ten stories. How could he have a thousand?
I figured I better get busy.
40 years later, I'm still gathering, still busking, still putting words into a notebook on the way to somewhere else. There's no end to the things people say, and no end to my work, my pastime, my greatest love -- things people say and do.
If someone asks me what it is I like about these so-called sudden stories that erupt from people's mouths, I quote Walt Whitman -- I hear America singing.
One time around fifteen years ago, I heard a man singing on the street at night, and his lament about life stuck in my head and has never gone away. He chanted a simple refrain that he sort of sang to the moon from a top-down convertible --
They stop you
and search you
and all you want to do
is go home.
These world-weary words seemed so true, so unfiltered it took me back to that Dylan moment in the early sixties where everything he wrote was a spool of tales leading through the labyrinth of America's back alleys, hill towns, crossroads and highways.
Another time, a street talker opened up a conversation with me, saying, -- "Once I was at war and was killed."
How could you ever forget that opening line?
As I listened the man went on to say he'd been a bird, a mouse, a man, a woman, a fish, a buffalo, he'd been all kinds of things and there was no rest for the wicked, the innocent, even the dead.
He was still alive and talking, an American original.
Sometimes I'd see things on my travels that inspired me to write -- not what people said -- but what Mother Nature said. I saw a saguaro cactus burst into chrome-yellow flames in the desert. Just one cactus speaking fiery words in the long, lonely, laid-to-waste Sonoran silence.
In the heart of Manhattan, I heard a man on a cell phone say -- "Sure I sawr it, but what dya want me t'do about it?"
That about summed it up for me.
But recently, I heard a little girl talking to a crowd of clouds --
I'm talkin to you
Hey, you here?
I'm talkin to you
Well, if that isn't The American Storybag, the human comedy, the real situation and the lowdown, would you tell me what is?
Gerald Hausman, author and storyteller, calls himself a native of the world. He is the author of 70 books, some of which have been made into films, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. His latest book, The American Storybag, was released by Stay Thirsty Press in October, 2010.
All opinions expressed by Gerald Hausman are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.