“I give an example all the time,” she says to me as we sit on the back porch, sipping beer and watching her two dogs chase each other up and down the darkened lawn. “A guy gets shot in my neighborhood.”
“Cops shoot him on Central Park and Division. It’s like west, west of Humboldt Park. I know the guy. I used to braid his hair, you know.
“The news tells us a different story. Like we know the story. We’re on the porch. We know why he got shot. We know the other people that were there with him. We know the real story, but what’s written about is an outsider’s perspective of that story, you know?
“They’re not telling them that he went over there to buy some condoms for whatever. No, it’s ‘gang-related.’ And it’s like, no, he was not supposed to be shot. You know? But no one is going to tell that story because they just look for the surface, like, ‘Oh, he was in the neighborhood. It’s gang-infested.’ You know?
“But, no, he was at Nickel Liquor because he was buying some fucking condoms. And he went out in the back to whatever in the alley and was supposed to be meeting the girl. They thought the condom was a fucking gun, basically. We know this. But we have to deal with what the news says it is. And that was that it was gang-related and whatever. And no one is going to fight it.
“So that saddens me. That makes me sad because he was a good guy. And like I said, I used to braid his hair. And he made me laugh a million gajillion times. That’s all lost to him being a gang banger with a gun in an alley. You know?
“And that sucks. That sucks for me, you know? So I don’t want all of our stories to get lost like that. You know? And so that’s the biggest reason I’m doing this is because we need to tell our stories. We need to preserve them.”
Lily Be is coming for your stories.
Lily Be and Clarence Browley are taking their storytelling series, The Stoop, to every neighborhood in Chicago. That’s live readings by and for the people who live there.
The last part’s the twist, the bit that makes it special, separates it from the dozens of other storytelling or live lit series popping up around Chicago.
Lily and Clarence don’t want polished pros, swooping in to tell about the one time they were in that neighborhood once. They want the grandmas down the block, the business owners who’ve seen their hood change and grow. They want the hustlers, the yuppies, the artists, the truck drivers. They want everyone who lives in Englewood, Chatham, Gold Coast, Beverly, Boystown, Bronzeville and every other patchwork bit of Chicago to gather together and tell their stories to a crowd of themselves.
The first one is this Friday in Pilsen and by god, you should go.
“I want people to feel Pilsen,” she said. “Like I want people to hear stories and people to mention things that maybe don’t exist anymore or things that used to happen in the neighborhoods that doesn’t happen anymore or that do, that still do happen and people don’t know about it. I want people to like hear a story and be like, ‘That’s Pilsen.’”
Lily is going to train and coach the newbie tellers how to best present their tales, most of which have only been told to friends or family on their own stoop, to a packed room at The Stoop.
“People who tell stories don’t know there’s an outlet for this. They don’t know that, oh my gosh, people want to hear this shit. And they don’t think people want — I was like that. I was that person where I was like, ‘Who wants to hear about my fight on the corner of Kedzie and Augusta where my boob popped out?’ Who wants to hear that? Everybody, I found out.”
Lily Be is the first Latina GrandSLAM champion of the national Moth storytelling series and a mainstay of Chicago’s live lit scene.
But four years ago, she had to be conned into telling her first story to a crowd. She had to be conned into telling the cat shit story.
A single mom in a deep depression, Lily had recently spent some time in the hospital. She had spent two months pulling away from people. A friend texted, asking her asking her to go to Grown Folks Stories at the Silver Room that night. At the event, which has both featured and open mic readers, they called Lily’s name. Her friend had put it in without telling her.
“And I’m like, ‘What the fuck am I going to tell?’ And she was just like basically, ‘Tell the story you’ve been telling all month.’”
Her eighth-grade son — Lily got pregnant at 17 — had been called to the principal’s office at school. He had been having trouble with a girl who spat in his food twice. The school did nothing, so Xavier (who, it should be mentioned, is now a college freshman and a prominent storyteller in his own right) “took it upon himself to fill Ziploc bags full of cat shit and kitty litter and barbecue sauce and threw them in her book bag during recess.”
Lily, a depressed single mom from Humboldt Park, told that story to a room full of strangers.
“The reception afterwards from people, from mothers, from people who have had revenge stories, like that connection was my high.”
Suddenly, as we sat on the porch watching the dogs chase each other, Lily laughed.
“Oh, my gosh, Paul, if you’d had known me five years ago, I was mean. I was so mean. I was mean and just — mean, no one believes it. When I tell people like Lily 2007-08, she was no one that you would want to like hang out with and have a beer on her back porch. Like no way. Because I was just cynical as fuck. I didn’t care about or trust people.
“And storytelling changed that. Storytelling made me want to, like, ‘Oh, people accept me despite being a teen mom from fucking Humboldt Park, who was in fights and who could easily whoop someone’s ass.’ They don’t care about that. They want to know like the stories behind it. And, you know, I’m proud of my life for the first time in my life.”
Lily Be wants to bring that to you.
Lily Be is coming for your stories.