It was called the San Gabriel Valley--not to be confused with "the Valley," which is so well known. Ours was "the Other Valley," a world flat and square, with relentlessly straight streets leading to freeways in every direction. Those freeways led to other freeways which led to still more freeways. As far as I knew, this was the world.
I can't say I grew up in a home filled with stories, either. The truth is, stories take time, and my parents' time was spent trying to keep our world from crumbling, as they struggled against poverty and my father's failing health. We belonged to the descending middle class, and my father had tumbled through a dozen careers in an effort to keep us from falling any further. He dreamed of great things for our family, and when those plans inevitably failed he would shrug off the loss with a joke or a proverb. I suppose these might have grown into longer stories had they not been interrupted, usually by the ringing of the telephone. He would rush to answer it, not wanting to miss that all-important call, the one that would surely make us rich, the one that would get our family off welfare, the one that never came.
As for my mother, she didn't actually tell us stories, but rather referred to them as she drove us around town. "You must have heard the stories about Chelm? You know, the Jewish town of fools?"
"No, we haven't," my brothers and I would say. "Tell us!"
"Chelm," she'd repeat, a dreaminess in her voice coming through the guttural sound of the word. "You must have heard about it. It's in Poland. Where it snows all the time. Oh, they were the most wonderful stories."
"Tell us one now!"
"Oh, we used to love them. There was one about the Chelmites building their temple, carrying logs down from the top of a mountain--but I'm no storyteller," she would apologize. "Your Grandpa Izzy was. We could sit and listen to him for hours." She would then trail off, leaving a picture in my mind of Grandpa Izzy, the great storyteller from the faraway city of Cleveland. Years later, when I began telling stories, I would take his name for my own--Joel ben Izzy, Hebrew for "Joel, son of Izzy." But I did not know that at the time. All I knew was that something magical was missing and in its stead we had smog. We rolled up our windows to keep it out, and the station wagon became a vacuum, filled with untold stories, winding its way through the endless suburbs.
It was the absence of magic that sent me looking for it, and I remember the day I found it. I must have been about five. My two older brothers were at school and I was in the supermarket with my mother. I could see she was miserable. Though I didn't know it, she had just learned that my father would need to go to the hospital for another operation, this one for his cataracts. I wanted some way to make her happy, and I found it in the produce section.
"Mommy," I said. "Look over there! That eggplant--it looks like Nixon!"
The resemblance was indeed amazing--with the top of the eggplant curled over like his nose--but not nearly so amazing as my mother's face, which lit up with laughter. What a wonderful thing to make her laugh, to pull her out of her misery, if only for a moment. A few words, and the darkness went away.
I started collecting jokes and telling them to her whenever I could. It worked with my father, too, and when I managed to make him laugh, what came out was hearty and full, the laughter of a healthy man. Then I would laugh, and it was at these times I felt close to him. I became a performer for my parents, doing puppet shows and comic routines. I told jokes and stories in the hospital when my father was there, and every night at bedtime, to my mother. She would come into my room, sit on the bed, exhausted from her life. "Joel," she would say, "tell me a story."
I had no idea that I had found my life's work. But I did know that I loved telling stories to my mother. I told of a world far beyond the one we knew, a land with smogless skies, where poor people became rich and sick people became healthy. With each story that world became more real to me; I could see it reflected in my mother's eyes. And I knew it was that world to which I would someday escape. Jewish culture is rich with curses--"May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground and your ass in the air." "May you live like a chandelier--hang by day and burn by night." "May all your teeth rot and fall out but one, and in that one may you have the toothache from hell." Of all the curses I've heard, though, the strangest may well be this one: "May you do what you love for a living." Indeed, it sounds not like a curse at all, but the title of a self-help book that would sell well where I live, in Berkeley. Yet I had come to understand it, in the many years it had taken to turn my love of stories into a livelihood. "Traveling storyteller" isn't exactly a can't-miss career choice, and more than once I'd found myself ready to give it up. Stuck in the rain, with no money and no work, in Manchester. Sick and unable to work in Tel Aviv. Broke and burned out in the subways of Tokyo, wondering what the hell I was doing. Then a voice inside my head would say, "For God's sake, Joel, why can't you get a real job, something that pays? How about law school?" It wasn't the voice of my parents; on the contrary, they loved my stories and were thrilled that I had gone off to chase my dreams. No, it was simply the voice of reason. Time and again I would bump and skid down to what I thought was the bottom, and just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, they did. Yet even as the tentacles of despair began to tighten around me, something would always come up--usually the next gig. And when I got there, I had a story to tell. Therein lay the beauty of my profession; whatever did not kill me made for a story, and as long as I could tell that story, all was well. With that discovery, the work began to roll in, and I found myself able to pursue another dream, one so near to my heart that I had scarcely let myself consider it. I would marry a wonderful woman and raise a family. Our children would know a childhood as different as could be from my own, with healthy parents and money in the bank, far from the suburbs I had known. They would grow up in a home filled with magic, laughter--and stories.
Excerpted from The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness. Copyright © 2003 by Joel Ben Izzy. Reprinted with the permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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