It was a well-travelled audience that left City Winery on Monday night after the House of SpeakEasy’s latest literary cabaret, In Case of Emergency. From Sierra Leone to Delhi via 1930s New York and a near-miss with the Mob went writer-performer-stars Daniel Bergner, Maggie Shipstead, Leonard Lopate, J.D. McClatchy and Amor Towles. It was Seriously Entertaining stuff.
Daniel Bergner kicked off with a great tale of magic and medicine in Sierra Leone. Taking up the story of Michael Josiah, who appears in his 2003 book In the Land of Magic Soldiers, Bergner spoke about his “two lives, two minds”. Josiah was always determined to become a doctor, and studied (western) medicine so enthusiastically that he would continue to do so by candlelight long into the night. But when disrupted, as he often was, by the irruption of fighting in Sierra Leone’s civil war, he would join up with the Kamajors, a group of warriors purported to possess magical powers, the potential to cure cancer, and the ability to dodge bullets. Bergner described several occasions when he was invited to watch the Kamajors’ miracles in person. Slathered in a sacred liquid, the soldiers would become apparently impervious to injury. Indeed, Josiah encouraged him to strike a teenage boy taking part in a demonstration of this seeming-magic. “I’m tapping on this boy’s ribcage… and I’m tapping, and eventually, by the end, I’m pounding, pounding, pounding, and Michael turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to exhaust yourself!'”
“Is this a well-perfected circus act?” asks Bergner. Josiah, after all, believes that it is this talismanic approach to medicine that will bring the world to Sierra Leone’s door in search of cures. “‘Sierra Leone will be a paradise,’ he said. ‘The hotels will be full… You will see: I will be a rich man.'”
“I’m gonna tell you a story about how I spent my twenty-second birthday,” began Maggie Shipstead, award-winning author of Astonish Me. What followed was a hilarious story of youthful insouciance (“I’d been in India for like five days and I knew what was going on…”) and holiday disasters. The hotel she’d booked turned out to have become a school some years previously and the city she arrived in was mid-riot. “This is the moment I should’ve said, ‘Take me to the Hyatt!’ Instead I said, ‘Leave me here’…”
In the days before international roaming, Shipstead, unable to find her travelling companion Miranda, ended up in a taxi headed out of the city again. Eventually deposited on a roadside next to a man cheerfully shredding lettuce with a machete, she did “the meanest thing possible: I called my mom.”
She later managed to catch a rickshaw back into the city, where she was so pleased to see Miranda at their new hotel, with a birthday cocktail awaiting her, that it didn’t matter that there was a full monsoon in progress. Nor that the grey grime streaking down her face in the rain was human ash from a nearby crematorium. “That was my best birthday ever, because it was the emergency that blossomed!”
“I’m a bit intimidated,” Lopate began. “Sierra Leone, India… I work across the street and live in Greenpoint!” It turns out that you don’t have to go far from home to find yourself in a dangerous sort of pickle, though. One holiday weekend in the 1970s, Lopate was called on to interview a former Mobster living in the witness protection programme after he became a snitch on Joe Colombo for the FBI. “I was not feeling well and tried to have it cancelled, but they’d flown in from Phoenix… He was just this awful man telling these terrible stories! Well, he was in the Mob, and now the Mafia wanted to kill him!”
After a while, feeling terrible, Lopate stood up to get a glass of water. “And this guy took it as a sign and threw himself to the floor, and his bodyguard leapt up… Everyone in radio fears dead air, but this was almost a case of dead host rather than dead air!”
J.D. McClatchy, the poet behind the acclaimed new collection Plundered Hearts, took a different approach: “In case of emergency… start name-dropping!” McClatchy sleeps with all his heroes, he told us. Well, at least in the form of framed pictures and artefacts on the walls of his bedroom. There’s an almost-holy triumvirate above his head of Verdi, Proust and Lincoln. (“I don’t know that they’d all get along, mind.”) His collection also includes letters from Alexander Pope, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and Benjamin Britten — not to mention two tresses of Emily Dickinson’s hair.
One of his heroes, W.H. Auden, he met at Yale as a student. “At the reading I was sat close enough to his feet to see he was wearing mismatched socks.” Later, eager for an inscription in a copy of Auden’s poems, McClatchy approached the poet and asked him. “‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Turn around and bend over…’ Not realising immediately that he simply needed a surface on which to lean, I thought to myself, ‘In case of emergency, do what you’re told!'”
Our final guest was Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility. “My grandmother lived till she was a hundred and she gave me the sense that women who came of age in the 1920s and 30s were less Victorian than women who came of age in the 1950s and 60s.” Indeed, Towles’s family, concerned what Grandma will think when his sister moves in with her boyfriend, is startled when she responds, “My concern is, if you move in with Daniel, how will you see other men?”
When Towles first moved to New York, he found himself living in the East Village, sandwiched between Orthodox Jews and Hell’s Angels (“which I thought was terrific!”) He was quickly so wrapped up in his new life that when his mother called and he spoke to her for the first time in months, his first response was, “How did you get this number?”
It turned out his mother had moved to Florida and (unexpectedly) taken up fashion-modelling. More, she would be in New York the following weekend at the Times Square Hilton for a competition. “Come early,” she said. On the day, Towles shuddered as he realised he was in the audience for the Senior Women’s Bathing Suit Competition, set to a medley of Madonna songs (“yes, including ‘Like a Virgin'”). But as his mother strode forward and held her pose, and paused, and held another — and indeed held up the show because she was in the spotlight and she found she loved it — he realised that she was farther out on the tightrope than he had ever been. “When in danger,” he concluded, “or if there’s a crisis, call your mom.”
Wise words, friends.
Our next show, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20, is already on sale here.