Twenty-one-year-old Nadia, born and raised in a single parent Muslim household, has been in the foster care system since the age of fourteen and now that she has aged out of the system she stands before her fellow foster care youth in a room within the Brookdale Senior Living Facilities, courtesy of Director of Resident Programming at Brookdale, Whitney B. Glandon. They are all ready to share their past along with elderly participants cloaked in the same desires…to simply tell their stories. Stories they will share in front of a NYC audience for free shows on May 23rd and June 6th as “13th Floor Storytellers.” Now they have congregated in a round table format for rehearsal. Cipriana and I have been invited to watch the process. One of Nadia’s hands quickly combs through her short hair, matching a ostensibly tough exterior. The other hand holds a piece of paper inundated with words of her past, the sole object of her intense stare; then she looks at “The 13th Floor Storytellers” creator/director and producer, Molly Price, before seeking the nod of approval and guidance to begin. Co-producer Sylwia Wiesenberg, who is filming the entire rehearsal, smiles encouragingly. Nadia vacillates for a moment then speaks. Her voice projects well throughout the room in a dichotomy of assertiveness and uncertainty, gently crashing into each other like waves. She fumbles only slightly over her words, losing her self-assured grip, before gaining purchase again.
“As far as I can remember my mom and I always lived in Astoria, Queens where my mom rented a two bed apartment until the day we got evicted because the owner wanted to keep the entire property for himself. My mother and I ended up homeless, we had no place to go so our only option was a family shelter. During the eight months that we were there we kept to ourselves keeping minimal contact with other people. Due to our situation I was depressed and didn’t talk to anybody and didn’t make friends. I was angry and felt like I didn’t belong there, I wanted my old life back. While being in the shelter my mom was just as depressed as I was and began smoking way more than she was before. My mom was stuck in her ways and being prideful was one of them. Her pride was through the roof. Even being in the lowest point of our lives She refused to ever talk to our appointed social worker and never accepted anyone’s help…at least I know where I get that from now.
We eventually made it out the shelter and moved about six blocks down to a new apartment. It was a fresh start. Things were back to normal. We were happy again but that was soon to come to end when I decided to come out to mom during one of our sessions with the therapist. I was expecting her to tell me she had already known but instead I got a cold harsh reaction because she was in denial that I was in fact a lesbian. She began to treat me differently and smoke even more. My mother was homophobic and there was nothing I could do about it. I prayed to god that mom would just love me and not associate me with something horri–” Nadia is gently interrupted by Molly
“Sounds unrehearsed. You were stumbling a bit over your words,” Molly kindly but assertively interjects.
Nadia shrugs and counters, “Well I was nervous.”
“You didn’t sound nervous,” Molly counters back.
“Don’t let this pitbull image fool you,”Nadia responds grinning, her magnetism making an appearance to Molly and those in the room who unleash hearty chuckles.
Betty, another storyteller, immersed in the horrors of the foster care system for years shared her thoughts on Molly Price and her platform. “If you want to spike change in this world you have to set an example and this is what Molly does…when you talk to her she helps you open those airways of creativity.”
If Molly’s face seems familiar then you would be correct, a well accomplished actress; she has graced your screen starring in a slew of film and tv shows such as “Nightwatch,” “Sex In The City,” “E.R.,” “Law & Order” and “Bates Hotel” to name a few. Inarguably her talents are not solely reserved for the big screen and perhaps a few roles have been as powerful but none have been as life changing as her role in “13th Floor Storytellers” as creator, director and producer.
“13th Floor Storytellers is a 10 week process between foster care survivors and elders housed in senior living. The two groups work together to write true personal stories. They edit, explore and share the journey of life. Those seemingly “different” from each other, each storyteller comes to the realization that they have much more in common than initially expected. They laugh, cry, and exchange ideas, values and realities on growing up and growing old. Which is more difficult? How does one overcome the hardships of wars, depression, disease, poverty, prejudice and isolation? These two demographics begin to bond and connect through the ancient art form of storytelling. Each storyteller is able to struggle through the recollection of their past lives and begin to shed the shadows of the past and move toward self realization, triumph and ultimately hope. The series is then presented in front of a live NYC audience.” –Molly Price
Read the statistics and firsthand accounts and one will easily conclude the foster care system in this country is devastatingly flawed and in need of a major overhaul. Voices lost in a parade Trump tweets and selfish political madness that fails to see the pertinence of such an overhaul. However voices once lost seem to find their way within “The 13th Floor Storytellers.”
You can see, feel and hear the healing process taking place on stage and with Molly at the helm, it is not hard to wonder why one feels safely ensconced in her gentle and firm cocoon of encouragement until one is ready to be set free by sharing a difficult past.
(Shanise and Ann)
She is thirty years old and has been set free for sometime now since she ran away from her abusive foster care home at the age of eighteen. However to be set free by the art of storytelling does not set one free from pain. Her story is clearly difficult. Betty stands before her fellow participants in rehearsal and nervously adjusts her glasses. She has a tranquility about her that does not convey the road of horrors she has experienced that have led many others to a future riddled with cul-de-sacs and wrong turns. It is a tranquility that comes across as shy at times until you look deeper and see a fiery determination coddled by a gentle disposition. Betty takes a deep breath, looks to Molly for an exhorting glance and begins.
Her mother was a woman addicted to drugs with a propensity for crack that clearly was the catalyst for forgetting to close the three-story window in their apartment which her two-year-old sister fell out of one night. Betty was just an infant when she was placed in foster care along with her sister. They would inhabit many foster care homes until they were placed, during most of their formative years starting at infancy and two-years-old, into a home run by a woman named Laura that would quickly turn into a house of horrors.
“Laura was single and never had a relationship. She never worked and rarely left the house. Her sister lived around the corner with her three kids and also took in foster children. We loved going to my aunt’s house because we felt safe there. At about the age of eight my sister and I started getting hit and beaten for no reason. Laura was always beating us to a bloody pulp. Every chance she got she was slapping us and hitting us with objects. Laura would hit us with whatever she could find whether it was slippers, belts, brooms, mops, medal spoons or knives. It was like this all the time and there was no escaping it. She even threw a big machete at me. It cut my finger because I was trying to protect my face. I felt like I was going to die that day. There were times that I would wake up with an achy body not remembering the events of the day before. Everyday was a new bruise on a different part of my body. Laura had no heart and no remorse. She didn’t care that we would pass out with every punch and kick and our cries and pleas for help were not enough to get her off of us. That lady never gave us love or support. We were her personal slaves.
People noticed how she treated us but didn’t say anything because the situation was always so uncomfortable. I know that people felt badly for my sister and I. Laura even beat us half to death in front of relatives. People had to get her off of us. Living with Laura was truly hell. Nothing could bring the compassionate side to that beast with no heart. My sister and I had no control over what happened to us and sometimes I just wanted to die. Both my sister and I felt like we didn’t belong there. My sister Drema was sixteen when she ran away leaving me behind to fend for myself. Not only did I have to deal with Laura beating on me all the time. I had to deal with getting away from her youngest son too. He was about 25 years old and I was about ten years old when he started sexually abusing me. As time went by it got worse. He would go on to rape me from the time I was ten until I was eighteen years old…”
She is eighteen years old, not terribly tall in stature but what she lacks in height she makes up in charm and a delightfully contagious personality full of hope and joy. I would soon find out that Shanise has an innate ability for singing and the mellifluous lilt of her voice would carry throughout the room leaving a lasting impression much like herself.
“I hate when older people say no young person has ever fallen in love. That we are mistaken. I wasn’t. It wasn’t like any other relationship I’d ever been in…I realize it was her I loved. She made me happy. At ease. Peaceful. And because I was always so darn nervous she brought out the best. She could always make me laugh. Her facial expressions…boyyy did they have me weak with laughter. I could read her so well when no one else could. She told me that her friend told her that I was in love with her. I laughed. Asked how did she get to that assumption. She said she had noticed I had her picture as my lock screen. If I had been a little lighter I’m sure my face would have been lava. I felt my face heat up. “Well yeah,” I said. “So?” I didn’t see anything wrong with that. I didn’t think I liked her. But all the signs were there. People started saying that we were like sisters. I loved that. Said we looked alike when we were together at shows then saying where’s your other half?
We grew close. I remember her telling me this was new to her. That she liked me but it was something she couldn’t quite grasp. She had never liked a female before. That’s when I admitted that I did like her. I loved her. But of course I didn’t tell her that. I asked her what did she want to call this “new thing?” She said friends. Best friends. My heart squashed a bit. But I had no problem. I’d be patient. I felt she was that already. I knew I could trust her with anything. And that was very new for me. It scared me. I never trusted anyone. I told her about my being in foster care and she was genuinely concerned. Letting me know she was there for me…”
Shanise continues her story and ends it with a heartfelt rendition of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” There is silence then a sprinkling of delightful applause amongst us in the rehearsal space.
Molly inquires, “Any comments or feedback on Shanise’s performance?”
An elderly man quickly barks, “I couldn’t understand her!”
“What about her performance did you not understand Kenneth?”
“Her words! I couldn’t understand a single word!”
I’m a bit puzzled since Cipriana and I clearly understood every word. Molly and Shanise smile as do a few others as if they are in on some clandestine joke that we are not privy to…yet. Albeit I would later learn what initially felt like a clandestine joke was more like a collective endearment for the elderly man that surely has “forthright” or “frank” as a middle name.
He is clearly a ninety year old man that does not mince words and it is a characteristic that rolls off of him with regret, a characteristic I suspect he has possessed all his life, intrinsic; not gained in geriatric years when being blunt takes on almost a childlike quality of complete honesty, unfiltered without vacillation.
“The first time I got married I was 85 years old and had been with my partner for 55 years. It was a small ceremony in our apartment at the Hallmark conducted by a good friend who told us that when gay marriage was legal she was going to do it. The idea of same sex marriage was never heard of so we had not considered it. I was a New Years baby born January 1, 1925 in Richmond, California. My father was an itinerant farm laborer so we moved all over California wherever the work was. I went to six grammar schools and four high schools. Went to college and in my second year WWII broke out and I was drafted into the Navy. Served in the submarine service, went on to finish college and soon moved to New York where I have lived ever since.
One day a friend told me of an ad in the NY Times which I should answer. “Concert artist needs traveling companion, secretary. Must be adaptable to all situations.” I went for an interview and was hired immediately. One day later I was off on a concert tour with the world renowned pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. I worked for him, lived with him and loved him for the next five years. Went to forty concerts a year in the U.S, and Canada – three in Carnegie Hall. After five years Horowitz took a long absence from the stage and stopped working except for recording. I had no work to do so met with a head hunter. During the interview the phone rang and he talked with a lady. He told her he had the perfect man for her needs right in front of him. I was hired on the spot to be in charge of development and fund raising for the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn. We raised the money and built the theater. At a fund raising event, I looked across the crowded room and saw the back of a head that looked interesting. When it turned around, it was love at first sight. That’s when I began an affair that lasted 59 years…”
Kenneth’s voice emotionally falters as he finishes the tail end of his story. A story of love and loss.
Her petite frame may be limited to her wheel chair but what is certainly not confined is her voice. Shaky at times, she loses her place while reading, finding it again along with the help of Candace DeLeon, editor and stagehand.
“In January 1942 my future husband was drafted. After three months of basic training, but before being sent overseas, he went AWOL to say goodbye to me. During his time in active duty, he was never hit by bullets, he was however, wounded. He was supposed to repair disabled tanks under fire. He would stand up in the back of the truck which carried the crew to the front. What they didn’t know was that Nazi soldiers hung piano wire across the roads from tree to tree. Unfortunately he was caught by a wire and almost lost his head! He had a scar almost ear to ear, but he survived!
As the allies began to see a light at the end of the tunnel, soldiers were given 6 week temporary duty furloughs. On the crowded ship home an announcement came over the speaker system telling the service men that FDR had died. His description of the silence that greeted the news brought and still brings tears to my eyes. He landed in Boston on April 15, 1945, home to his parents by April 22nd and four days later we were married. While we were on our honeymoon the war in Europe ended and they announced a point system for discharge! He had enough points for several people! We lived a good life together. He was a wonderful husband. We had our ups and downs like everyone else but he was wonderful. We made a pact while on our honeymoon not to go to sleep without our goodnight kiss. I remember one time, he bought me the set of 78s of Madame Butterfly, just because he knew I liked it. He did things like that and for the kids too. He taught them fishing, gave them gifts.
Ernie wanted to get a second job to help us when we were struggling. I ended up getting a job on Saturdays while he had the day with the children. Shortly after I started bookkeeping for a CPA, he encouraged me to get my degree by giving me accounting work. I loved it and decided that I would go to night school. Ernie pushed me, he was all for it. After I took the CPA exam, I was on my way home, coming down the driveway, I saw Ernie running up, waving a sealed envelope and yelling, “We did it!” I couldn’t have done it without him. We had 40 years of fun together, but we didn’t have the joy of growing old together.
He was a heavy smoker…”
(L to R- Molly Price, Ann and Nadia)
Ann’s voice waivers as she concludes her story. Each story vastly different from the other but bonded by loss, love and pain. You realize these are merely more than carefully strung together words. These are real people with true stories relying on one of the oldest art forms. Storytelling. In a few days, in front of a live NYC audience, they will reveal their past on stages provided by Neil Pepe: Tony Award winning Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theater Company and actress/Director of Operations for the Atlantic Theater Company: Mary McCann. The storytellers will also be accompanied by John Mayer’s father, Dick Mayer; a musician who performs at every show and has his own story to tell.
The storytellers may change for each show but the unwavering constant is Molly Price’s passion and dedication in keeping this art form alive knowing very well the power storytelling and each storyteller possesses. The 13th Floor Storyteller Way.
*13th Floor Storytellers present two upcoming free shows in NYC on May 23rd at Avenues, World School in NYC at 7pm and June 6th at The Linda Grossman Theater at 7pm.
Visit here to receive free tickets.
*Photography by Sylwia Wiesenberg
*Author’s notes: Storytellers’ stories are excerpts or have been redacted.