If the people at 826 Seattle know how to do anything, it’s throw a party/fundraiser. If they know how to do two things, it’s that party/fundraiser thing, and also how to teach kids how to read and write better.
People Talking and Singing is that event, although they might want to add “Laughing” to the title next year because that was what most people did throughout the evening. Writer Dave Eggers put together 826 in several cities throughout the US (Seattle, Valencia, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Ann Arbor) as a means of starting free writing centers for younger people to get tutoring and help with homework and writing.
PTAS was mostly a light-hearted event and I think I’m bold enough to say that anyone who didn’t find themselves enjoying the evening has no heart. There, I said it. It’s true, though.
Part of the magic of the evening came because actual students from 826 Seattle were integrated into the event and given the same billing in the program as the celebrity guests (which included musicians Rosie Thomas and Geologic from Blue Scholars, comedians Todd Barry and Eugene Mirman, and New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones). You really could see the effect the organization had on the youths selected to participate in the event. An eight-year old student began the evening involved in a faux-argument with host John Roderick over who would be the one emceeing the event. It was just darling to hear the young Elijah Newman telling J-Ro that even though he was “well-versed in indie rock” and big fan of Roderick’s Long Winters, he should still be the host and then listed off a bunch of reasons why he loves 826.
The first musician to perform was singer/songwriter Rosie Thomas, who is one of my favorite performers to watch. When she speaks, she sounds like Minnie Mouse on helium, but has a beautiful and spacious singing voice that can fill up every available inch of the room she’s in. She’s also very, very funny – she was the brains behind the best indie rock prank over the past few years: where she led Pitchfork to believe that she was carrying Sufjan Stevens’ child. She sang four songs, including a cover of REM’s “The One I Love.”
Thomas was followed by Sasha Frere-Jones, who interviewed an African American brother and sister about the short stories and poems they read. It was very charming – and even ended with a demonstration of “spider walking,” which Frere-Jones said would drastically improve his home city of New York.
If there was one complaint – or more accurately – minor quibble, with the evening, it was that I was hoping to hear Frere-Jones read from some of his writing, most notably his controversial “A Paler Shade of White” essay that single-handedly raised the collective blood pressure of the music blogosphere a little over two weeks ago by suggesting that the current state of indie rock is too white. Sometimes he goes a little too far – at one point he all but accused 2006 PTAS guest Stephin Merritt of being the next Grand Wizard, for example. Although I think hip hop needs to explain its laissez faire (at best) attitude toward homophobia before the homosexual Merritt has to justify his preference against it, I admire that Frere-Jones isn’t afraid to throw a Molotov Cocktail at his readership and challenge some preconceived assumptions. And I agree with him on the Arcade Fire.
Rather than repeat what everyone did or said – I’ve already gone well-over 600 words and I could go on listing countless other favorite moments of the night… you know, like how Eugene Mirman’s routine on the application of classmates.com was especially hilarious or how teenage slam poet Amber Delorme’s reading of one of her writings was intense and compelling – I just hope it wasn’t autobiographical. It might be something you could imagine Lydia Lunch reading and performing (if you’re familiar with Lunch’s work you’ll understand what I’m saying; if you’re not, remember that Google and Wikipedia are you friends – and I’ll be writing about her here very shortly).
But anyway, it was a very fun and wonderful evening that was like a celebration to reward the volunteers, students, guests, and supporters who make 826 possible in both Seattle and throughout the country. At one point during the night Dave Eggers told us how he saw a chalkboard in the Elliott Bay Book Store restroom that said “Swiss People Was Here” earlier that day. He quipped that there was no 826 in Switzerland, obviously. It was a reminder of how lucky Seattle is to have such an organization in its city limits – even if that point was subtlety made by the person who largely brought it here in the first place. Still, if you are against helping children reading, or against laughing or hearing good music or reading good writing, well, you’re problems go far beyond anything some writing center on Greenwood Avenue can cure.