My dad is a great storyteller and adventurer, and this past weekend when I was in California with my folks visiting my sister, my dad went off by himself one day to explore the city. The plan was he’d call on the train on the way back so we’d know what time to pick him up. My dad is notoriously bad about carrying his cell phone, part of the reason being my parents live in one of the few pockets left in America that doesn’t get service, so my mom made sure he had his cell phone and it was charged and ready to go. So he heads off to Sausalito, finds his favorite place for Irish coffee, hoofs it over to a great sandwich and fried potatoes, takes a ferry and a trolley, and heads back for the train. He did have his cell phone and it was fully charge and he had about a million minutes because he never uses it. What he didn’t have: a contract. On the phone with the cell phone guy, the guy said he needed my dad’s number, another thing he didn’t have, or any idea how to retrieve it from the phone, and without that, the guy couldn’t hook him back to service. He ended up having to borrow the smart phone of the guy in front of him, who might as well have handed him a treasure map in Arabic he had so little idea how to run it. He finally just gave the guy my sister’s number so he could enter it, and when he handed it back, all my dad had to do was hit “call”. When Kelly answered, Dad shouted the time and location of the train’s arrival and promptly hung up — nervous, I’m sure, that the call was costing the guy an arm and a leg.
I heard my dad tell this story three times over the course of the weekend — to Kelly and me when we picked him up, to my mom when we got back to the house, and to Kelly’s husband over happy hour that night. Honestly, I could have listened to him tell it ten times. What makes him a great storyteller is that he finds the perfect moment of the day to retell — not the touristy stuff about San Francisco you might expect, but the story where he make his character vulnerable yet also puts him in a funny situation. He keeps digging for the perfect details, and knows when to ham it up based on audience reaction: the bit about hanging up on my sister didn’t come until the second telling, and on the third telling he added that the smart phone had screens going twelve different ways and mimed a finger scrolling the screens up and down, right and left, a panicked look on his face. And perhaps most of all, he finds the tone to tell the story on himself in such a self-deprecating way you love him as a character. I’ve incorporated a lot of my dad’s stories into my fiction — him getting his haircut at an upscale salon, the time he carried Johnny Cash’s guitar into a gig from the back of an alley. The one about my mom ordering an ice tea for a dollar rather than taking a free beer.
What can you learn from storytellers in your life? And what, if they’re willing, can you steal?