When 12th street asked me to think about audience, this story came to mind:
Brightly patterned balloons were wilting in the corner. The air was sweet with cake. Dishes of food and empty plastic cups lined bookshelves and countertops. Soft music played low, heard maybe only by the wallflowers
A few people with kids on their hips, or those with pets at home, started to get restless. They checked their phones or looked imploringly at their partners. Others—late arrivals—were settling in, making easy laughter, doling out quick kisses to friends not seen in awhile.
It was Amy’s 40th birthday party. One of her old friends from California had brought copies of her high school yearbook to pass around. Amy’s asymmetrical haircut was nothing compared to her Billy Idol snarl of teen angst. “Oh so hard down by” someone mocked. I had just met her a few years earlier, a common interest in art, politics, and books made us fast studies of each other.
Before the first shift of visitors left, the speeches began, sugary tributes about how supportive she is, inside jokes about road trips and art projects gone awry and emotional ramblings about long-term friendship and love. Holding her portrait in my hand I watched Amy as she listened, enjoying the sensation of seeing her then and knowing her now.
“Speech! Speech!” Amy’s coworker yelled. She shot him a glance and a short stand off began. She did not like to call attention to herself, and yet knowing her, I knew she understood the occasion called for it, a sacrificing of the self in gratitude for community—a practice for everyday freedom. She relented, cracking into a grin.
She thanked everyone for coming, and paid tribute to friends lost to relocation, success, and death. It was a warm joke that allowed ghosts in the room to breath. She picked up the photo of herself that had been resting on the arm of a couch. “I was so angry. I didn’t want anything I had. This, this was all I ever wanted, to be in a room full of people who were interested. And interesting.”
We were silent. Honored. Amy hugged a friend that was standing beside her. Night had fallen; white lights on a string circling the ceiling gave off a glow, bringing us closer together.
“Oh so hard done by” some yelled from kitchen, breaking the spell. A few eyes went wide. No one knew how to react.
Amy looked up from her friend’s shoulder, whipping snot and tears from her face—laughing. “See what I mean, friends, and critics, what more could I want.”
Ted Kerr was the 12th Street Managing Editor in 2011/12. He is a Riggio Student and Public Engagement Fellow at the New School’s School for Public Engagement. He is a writer, artist and organizer.