As I drove by the Swedenborgian Church around the corner from my place in Normal Heights, I saw people entering for some event that included balloons and a huge cake. It was a safe assumption that this was a party and not a religious gathering.
I got home, parked, grabbed my camera, and headed over. As I made the trek, I thought, If there is a God, I wonder how bad it looks that it takes a party to get me to enter a church.
Instead of the collection plate that’s passed around during services, it cost me $15 at the door. Considering there was a great variety of catered food, the entry fee was worth it: one table had cold cuts, fruits, and various cheeses, and another table had a large assortment of wines and cheeses.
And the stories people told — they were not the normal stories I hear when I’m at a party. The event, called Dime Stories, has been going on for years, and I had found my way to their fifth birthday celebration. Local writers come up with a piece that’s three minutes long. It can be any type of short story; the only requirement is that it be told within three minutes.
Author Amy Wallen runs these gatherings with an iron fist…well, a plastic timer. That may sound a bit harsh, but if you don’t rein these writers in, you might end up listening to a story that’s longer than you want to hear.
I talked to a tall guy named Simon, who told me it was his 68th birthday. I asked if he played basketball and found out he wrote a story to tell about the Harlem Globetrotters. He told me that when he was younger, he saw a movie they did and read stories about them. I told him I had just finished reading the Pete Maravich biography. Since he hadn’t read it, I told him I’d give him the book.
Every time I walked by writers who were discussing things they were writing, it was always something interesting. And nobody was pretentious. It was a great crowd.
I went over to talk with Amy and had a plate full of food. She reached over and grabbed a carrot off the table. I said, “It’s easier to use a plate.” She smiled and said, “I just pick at the food. I don’t want anyone seeing me with a whole plate.” As she looked around at the crowd, she guessed, “Maybe they’re doing the same thing, and that’s why they’re all just hovering around it.”
I didn’t care what people thought as I grabbed two more brownies and headed in a different direction.
Most of the people were dressed up. I did see a guy who had a T-shirt with the Pink Floyd prism going into a trailer. I tried figuring out what it meant but had no clue. I finally asked him, and he said something about the shirt’s design belonging to a bluegrass band. I told him about a band someone told me about called “Hayseed Dixie.” They do bluegrass versions of AC/DC songs. He had heard about them. Both of us discussed the hundreds of T-shirts we have from bands we like.
After an hour of socializing and eating, we sat down in the pews and got ready to listen to the stories.
Amy went over the rules, playing the sound effects that let you know your time is almost up. If you go over three minutes, the crowd is treated to the sound of crickets as you try to finish.
One guy, who looked a little like Alan Arkin, read his story fast. I had the feeling he was trying to fit it all in under three minutes. And he did.
One woman read a story about her first car. She wanted a Volvo but ended up with a Buick Electra that had an eight-track stereo. She said the air conditioning didn’t work, and in Las Vegas, there were times when it was hotter than Satan’s crotch.
As she finished her funny piece, Amy got ready to introduce the next reader. She suggested others should try to work “Satan’s crotch” into their stories.
One woman got the three-minute buzzer going with a story she read about a sister who had contracted cancer. I felt horrible that time ran out on such a sad, powerful piece.
Before Simon got up to read his story on the Globetrotters, I told him he should have “Sweet Georgia Brown” playing in the background. I then thought about going home and getting my basketball, to spin it on my finger while he read. I figured that would take away from his story, which was interesting. He talked about inner-city kids playing basketball and rich people that go to the games.
A guy named Alex got up and read a story he wrote about King Kong. It had the crowd in stitches. He would sarcastically talk about all the damage King Kong would do, and the people capturing him would talk about how that’s the perfect creature to bring into a big, crowded city. The best line was when he talked about the heat in the forest as they searched for King Kong. He said, “It was hotter than Satan’s crotch. But it was a dry crotch.” The crowd erupted in laughter.
When I talked to him later and told him how great his story was, he said, “I’m like a poor man’s Orson Welles.”
Someone else told me he was part of a group called the Drunk Poets Society, which meets at Winstons in O.B.
The funniest story of the evening was told by a woman who wrote about going to the bathroom at work and having her boss sit in the stall next to her. People often talk about the Seinfeld where Elaine was in the bathroom and ran out of toilet paper. Well, the story told on this night was ten times funnier.
When she finished, I went to grab a glass of wine. I talked a young guy into opening up the champagne. He looked at the bottle for a second, and I said, “Do you know how to open it?” He smiled and said, “Of course. I’m Irish.”
I talked to the woman who wrote the bathroom story, telling her it was the best of the evening. I asked her how hard it was to edit it down to three minutes. She told me an interesting story about the editing process and how Playgirl bought a story from her but edited out the part in which the woman has an orgasm.
After finishing my glass of champagne and hearing a few more stories, I ran home and got my Pete Maravich book. Because so many people had stories to read, I had plenty of time. When I returned, I handed the book to Simon, and as he thanked me and started to talk basketball, I overheard a woman onstage talking about finding a locust shell on a plum tree.
I left the church wondering where these talented writers come up with such interesting short stories.