I’m at the help desk at JFK. A sweating, overweight man in front of me isn’t all that pleased about the help on offer.
(This word seems to be the current U.S. abbreviation for “Is it just me, or do you detect a touch of irony in this exchange?”)
The much older man behind the counter is clearly embarrassed and seems to be repeating lines from a crib sheet he was given during his induction process. This only serves to aggravate the fat man further.
“Jesus…” he shouts finally, storming off in a huff.
It’s my turn.
On the one hand I am a little outraged that the benign man behind the counter had to endure a verbal onslaught but on the other hand the sign did say ‘Help Desk’ and his powers of assistance seemed to be limited to handing out subway maps and directing people to the nearest rest room (they don’t wee in America, they just have a little sit down, preferably on seats covered in anti virus cling film).
A few minutes later I find out that Paul (for that is his name) is a Vietnam vet who loves reading. He has far too many books, which drives his wife crazy as she likes to keep a tidy house and though he is past retirement age, he likes to feel useful. He wants to stay in the game.
Because Paul is tied up in the story of New York.
It’s a story of optimism, a sense of purpose and above all, winning.
I’m just a Broadway Baby, learning how to sing and dance. Waiting for that one big chance, to be in a show…
Stories are important. Ideas are cheap, but a story is an idea wrapped in an emotion, and those emotions are powerful enough to make things happen. They can remind us of the script we’re following… Be the best; follow the dream; the audacity of hope.
But the internet has changed the story.
Winning is great, but winners create losers and the divide between winners and losers is becoming more and more extreme. Stakes are raised. It’s a winner takes all world. The losers are becoming more deranged and the winners are building higher barriers to entry.
It’s a far cry from the ‘great big melting pot’ that Blue Mink envisaged 43 years ago.
Take a pinch of white man, wrap him up in black skin, add a touch of blue blood and a little itty bit of red indian boy… lump it all together, and you got a recipe for a get along scene…
New York is an epicenter of polarities.
Take food – part of the population live on acai berries, spirulina and organic kale, while the other part live on food that has never seen a kitchen and whose ingredients look like a page torn from a chemistry text book.
Then there’s lifestyle – meditation and yoga, Om Shanti on the iPod, jogging through Central park, versus mainlining donuts, 24/7 coverage of Fox News and screaming at Paul on the help desk.
The only melting pot on offer is Starbucks, the latter day church, that unites by catering to both sides of the divide – espresso macchiatos AND well, basically a pudding in a coffee mug.
“All part of life’s rich tapestry” Paul sighed philosophically as I thanked him for the subway map and made my way to the Air train.
Tapestry is of course the album that made Carole King a household name and there’s a musical tribute currently running on Broadway. I’m not a big fan of jukebox musicals but was intrigued to see if anyone could pull off a Carole King impersonation.
In New York speak, Jessie Mueller nails it. Not by copying but by some strange act of mysticism whereby she seems to channel the spirit of Carole herself. Perhaps this is the reason for the phenomenal success of the show. (It’s completely sold out and I only managed to get a ticket by hanging around the box office and picking up a spare from someone whose friend was sick).
Here are the bones of the Carole King story – and the reason why this story resonates with so many, often over enthusiastic, women in the audience. A teenage Carol – musician, very clever, but with chronically low self-esteem – falls in love with Gerry Goffin, confident, charismatic, lyricist. They form a professional and personal partnership, get married and write a string of number one hits together (covered by artists like Bobby Vee, Little Eva and the Drifters).
Carole is very happy with this arrangement but Gerry wants more. He wants to be as successful as the Beatles, as poetic as Bob Dylan, he wants to sleep with all the backing singers.
Things don’t go so well as Carole adapts to Gerry’s rants, rages and increasingly erratic behavior. She’s in the familiar ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ story that is the blueprint of so many Mills and Boon romances. (Or as Steven Wright more wittily put it, “can’t live with them, can’t shoot them”.) There is much at stake. Carole writes the music, Gerry writes the words. She won’t be able to work without him.
Eventually of course, the story reaches the dark night of the soul, whereby Carole ups sticks, leaves New York and heads for the west coast. She pours all her shattered dreams, her heartbreak and her soul’s yearnings into an album. Rather than give the material to a more bankable star, she decides to sing the songs herself, and the rest is history.
Tapestry became one of the best selling albums of all time – over 25 million copies sold – and guaranteed Carole a place in the Hall of Fame.
It’s a good story.
Before Carole King was even born, Kenneth Burke remarked that stories were “equipment for living”. At the moment, many people feel that their lives are not working out and they’re not really living at all. They don’t feel fully equipped for the internet world they now inhabit. The competition is too fierce, and there’s too much of it. There are too many people and not enough opportunities for them all to thrive.
We are a far cry from the song of the Statue of Liberty…
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…
In business, much emphasis is placed on “changing the stories by which we live” or “going from competition and winning to collaboration and sharing”… blah blah blah.
This is a nice idea, but as we’ve observed, ideas are cheap. They need to live within an emotion if they are to be effective. Sharing and equality may be politically correct but few of us get very excited about that. Certainly not as excited as the women who were practically punching the air when Carole finally summoned up the strength to leave and do her own thing.
But I believe that the reason for her success wasn’t the fact that she was trying to win.
Tapestry is not an act of revenge. It isn’t a ‘stick it to the man’ kind of album. It contains truth. And truth is the only thing that’s even more powerful than emotion. Sometimes we have to leave the people we love. It’s usually the time when we’ve run out of excuses. When our soul just won’t buy the reason we are hiding, any longer.
Of course because our mind is usually stronger than our soul, we need a little help with this decision. And sometimes if our friends are true, they’ll provide this help. It may look like bad behavior, but sometimes that’s what it takes to push us over the edge. Because while it’s comfortable in a nest, it’s pretty impossible to fly in one.
So I’d like to say to the woman in front of me (Row M in the stalls – ‘yeah go Carole!’) you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, doll. This isn’t a story about winning, it’s a story about true collaboration.
Truth trumps heartbreak and revenge.
And I’d like to say to the man in front of me (Help desk counter JFK) – Paul may look like a 70 year old man, but he’s also a 7 year old boy who was captivated by the story of “The Little Engine That Could”. He didn’t want to be the fast train or the flashy fire truck, he identified with the train that tried to help. It’s just that no-one ever gave him the mandate to do that within the stupid system.
Truth trumps anger and frustration.
So I’m home now, surrounded by fear filled news stories of Ebola (even viruses laugh in the face of border control) and huge swathes of immigrants, apparently willing to risk certain death in leaky boats for the Shangri La of the UK benefit system. The dreamlike windfall of £36 per week.
The internet has changed everything. For better or worse, we are becoming one joined up, connected species and we need to figure out a way to do that, without fighting, hiding or running away.
Either we need some new stories, or we need to put some different energy behind the old ones. But in the meantime…
Someday maybe. All my dreams will be repaid.
Heck, I’d even play the maid.
To be in a show.