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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us” by Steve Zeitlin here.
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Volume 31

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate Bee Cool. The words emblazoned on a van in front of a neighboring house, spelled just that way, refer to an air-conditioning service run by our most colorful neighbor, a giant of a man, often seen riding a tiny motorized scooter up and down the block. On a blistering day last summer, we talked on the sidewalk. “I’m working from 6:00 a.m. to midnight every night,” he said. “Everyone in New York City needs their air conditioners repaired. You know the funny thing, Steve? I don’t even have air conditioning in my house. I don’t have time to install it. I told my wife to handle it—you do it, I said. I gave her the name of the best air-conditioning system and told her I would pay to have it installed. She called the national distributors, and what do you think they told her? There’s only one company that installs these air-conditioning systems in your area. It’s called Bee Cool.”

In the metropolis of my mind, this story lives in the same neighborhood as another tale, this one from the venerable pages of a 1966 issue of Southern Folklore (“The American Circus as a Source of Folklore: An Introduction,” 30.4:296). Once, in the lore of the circus, lived a man who was deeply depressed. He consulted a social worker and completed a year of therapy. When the social worker saw that she could do nothing with him, she suggested a renowned psychiatrist. He visited the famous analyst and spent two years on the couch. When he remained despondent, the psychiatrist said to him, “I can do nothing for you and have only one last suggestion. You must visit the Barnum and Bailey Circus to find the only human being who may be able to lift your spirits. You must seek out the great clown Grock.”

The man dropped his head into his hands and muttered, “I am Grock.”

Unlike the story of my neighbor, this circus tale has been traced back to the seventeenth century, when it was told about Bolognese Harlequin Domenico Biancholelli. Yet in both stories, a person sets forth to find someone or to accomplish a task but discovers that what he is seeking is none other than himself or herself. The journey is revealed as a quest. It’s an “It’s Yourself” story, as I’ve taken to calling these kinds of tales.

Stories, I find, are useful tools for thinking about the world. Perhaps because I am a folklorist, It’s Yourself stories speak to me about the folklore enterprise. I have long realized, for instance, that we are not studying the folks we interview and celebrate so much as collaborating with them. Much of my work as a folklorist is about documenting cultural forms, but much of it, too, is about connecting with kindred spirits from other walks of life and working with them on a deep and personal level to accomplish shared ends. The Beatles were fond of saying that their manager Brian Epstein didn’t discover the Beatles; the Beatles discovered Brian Epstein. Likewise Alan Lomax didn’t discover Muddy Waters; Muddy Waters discovered Alan Lomax—and I imagine both discovered some of themselves in one another. Many of the singers and storytellers we “discover” are themselves folklorists of sorts, who have in turn collected stories and songs their whole lives.

These stories remind me, as well, that ultimately, we are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting: the only ones who can lift our own spirits like the clown Grock or, on many occasions, even install our own air conditioners. In another It’s Yourself story, told to me by folklorist Amy Shuman who heard it years ago from the great Israeli folklorist Dov Noy, a Good Samaritan is interested in learning more about the family of Moishe the Water Boy from the next town, who celebrate a wonderful Passover seder. In years past the family left the door open and poured a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah, as is traditional, but this year they had a vision that he would actually appear. So the Good Samaritan visits the seder, buys many items for the Passover table, and enjoys the traditional celebration with Moishe’s family, although he notes the Prophet never arrives. When the Samaritan returns home, a friend runs up to him with some astonishing news. “Did you hear that, in the next town over, the Prophet Elijah visited Moishe the Water Boy’s family this year?”

As folklorists, we often think of ourselves as the outsiders, documenting a culture—only to find that it is up to us to work with the community to fight back against the myriad outside forces acting upon their lives and traditions. In lending a hand, we may think of ourselves as outsiders, but we are drawn into the community and become part of the process. I’m reminded of a story told to me by record producer Michael Schlesinger. “At one time, years ago,” he told me, “I was interviewing the great fiddle player Tommy Jarrell, and I asked him, ‘After you’re gone who will be left to pass on these stories and this music?’” And he answered, “Well, you’re listening to them, aren’t you?”


Steve Zeitlin is the director of City Lore.Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper

Much of my work as a folklorist is about documenting cultural forms, but much of it, too, is about connecting with kindred spirits from other walks of life and working with them on a deep and personal level to accomplish shared ends.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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