“There's a lot of Orientals at UCSD, right?” asks the pretty, accented voice on the other end of the line as I climb the steps up to The Loft.
“Sweetie pie, that is quite the outdated term,” I say, trying my best not to sound too harsh about the faux pas. “That would be like someone calling you Spanish just because you speak the language.” The words leave my mouth, and I realize that's not the same thing at all.
“Well, what am I supposed to say?”
“I don't know. ‘Japanese' if they're from Japan. ‘Korean' if they're from Korea. Maybe just ‘American.'” I'm surprised by my political correctness.
Little do I know that in about a half-hour, I'll be hearing this very issue addressed in a comical tale of race-relations from Mariva Blanco, a local teacher and author of more than a dozen books.
“He's not Chinese, you dumb bitch,” she exclaims, reading a tale of a woman who gets upset with Blanco's husband over a disputed parking spot. I'm unsure how much of the story is true, but that's the whole idea behind this gathering.
Spawned from an open-mic night started by Amy Wallen four years ago at The Grove in South Park, this new Dime Stories showcase at The Loft serves as a best-of version of sorts from the original. Three minutes is all the time writers get to read. Wallen has a reputation for being a stickler for details, earning the nickname “the time dominatrix.” Three minutes. Three minutes to move you.
I look around at the crowd, who laugh somewhat uncomfortably at Blanco's tale of stupid white people. The crowd is what I size them up to be: Writers, editors, journalists, readers or students. The writers themselves are self-described stargazers and obsessive-compulsives.
Meredith Resnick gets behind the mic and contemplates the meaning of a bra. Frank DiPalermo is possessed by a Jersey-accented demon and can't find an exorcism remedy on WebMD. Some of the stories are seriously humorous (Suzana Norberg's “Dud Troop #551”), some humorously serious (Chau Matser's “Mary”).
Kim Cromwell, a southerner with sun-red hair, takes shooting practice on her rapist's dick. I find myself conflicted, hoping simultaneously that the story isn't true, but that if it is, there's some eunuch freak walking around the worn-out notches of the Bible Belt. But that's the whole idea of the night. As the flier for Dime Stories so succinctly points out: “Three minute stories. Some are fiction. All are true.”
James Spring, an NPR producer and This American Life regular, reads a tale of getting lost in a wintry Czech Republic. I envision his descriptions of snooty train workers and snow-covered mountaintops fogging up Ira Glass' glasses.
I suddenly think about an audiobook I listened to recently—a memoir about a music writer whose wife dies suddenly of an aneurism. The author himself read the book, and I read the physical copy along with the audio. I remember thinking that this might have been the only way to hear a story like this and, conversely, why Dime Stories is so affecting. A writer knows exactly the right tone and nuance of a word—which words to emphasize and which words, even if it's some startling expletive, to downplay.
There's nothing like hearing a story as told by its writer. It's like the feeling you get when your dad reads to you at night. Where the Wild Things Are is suddenly his, as if he's been waiting his whole life to tell you where, exactly, the beasts reside.
Lauren Stewart, a UCSD student who reads a lovingly crass tale of Barcelona's red-light district at the Dime Stories event, agrees to meet me at a restaurant. I ask her if reading her piece aloud, as opposed to just letting someone read it, does prove more moving.
“I think that's honestly the reaction I'm going for,” she says. “At the end of the story, you can see them [the audience] clinch.”
“Yes,” I reply, “it's not even an uncomfortable feeling for them. You just know that it's affecting them somehow.”
“Right. They aren't realizing that they're reacting that much. They just shake their heads afterwards and, in a way, just want to forget that they just felt that way but can't.”
A few days later, Wallen and I meet in a coffeehouse, where she sips tea. Before I can ask what kind of tea a successful writer drinks, perhaps so I can buy some myself, I notice the chocolate cake on the table.“Today is National Chocolate Cake Day,” she exclaims, but she eats only a few bites.
Wallen explains that she and fellow writer Jay Allison are working on an NPR version of Dime Stories with writers like Lydia Davis, Jack Handey and a few emerging writers from the onstage series.
“A lot of people don't get what a dime story is. Essentially, it is a complete story. It can be fiction; it could be true—it can be anything you want it to be, but it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Though there are now Dime Stories events popping up in places like L.A. and Atlanta, Wallen says San Diego often goes unrecognized as a creative pool, and she wants to change that.
“I go to New York and L.A. for these kinds of events, and the strongest group I've ever seen has been in San Diego.”Wallen looks at the time—she has an appointment right after this. She runs off; I stay. Two aging writers, trying to make the best of what we have in the short amount of time we have. Dime Stories happens on the second Tuesday of every month at The Loft at UCSD and the first Friday of every month at The Grove in South Park. www.dimestories.crossingthegap.com.