There is an area west of Pittsburgh, Pa, on the northern side of the Ohio River, called Sewickley. Sewickley is a beautiful town of stately Victorian mansions. It was built by the wealthy corporate families around Western Pa who wanted to escape the smoke and fires of industrial living. As the town grew and the houses began to bunch together, folks began to build along the ridges high above the original town. These mansions are spread far apart throughout thickly wooded hills. I’ve been told that people who originally built around this area were protective of their anonymity. So, there are no street lights along these meandering lanes, and the houses were given no street numbers. I imagine it made it difficult for the letter carriers, who would have had to know the houses simply by memorizing the names of the families living there. Eventually, public safety concerns demanded that the houses be given numbers, but, to this day, they aren’t extremely well displayed.
A little after New Years I was asked to tell stories at a private residence above the town of Sewickley, which is known as Sewickley Heights. It was a fundraiser for a Christian school that serves inner-city children with free education. When I’m asked to perform anywhere, I’m very careful about planning how I’ll get there. I want to be early. I want to meet the folks who will be watching me perform. I want to be comfortable.
I make sure I have the address and phone number of the people who have booked me. I google-map the destination, print it out, and plug the address into my GPS system the day before the performance. I believe in redundancy.
The night of the performance I left my house at 8:00. It would probably take no longer than 30 minutes to get there, and I wasn’t supposed to perform until a little after nine, so I‘d have enough time to get the lay of the land. I dutifully followed my gps and directions and found myself winding into dark wooded hills above Sewickley. It was a little confusing. It was painfully dark. But I eventually found the house that matched the address I had been given. The house was dark. There were no other cars. I parked in the driveway and pulled my stool out of the back of my car (I prefer to use my own stool when I tell stories.) and walked to the front door. Everything was too dark, but I did hear music coming from a room off to the left of the main hallway. So, I rang the bell.
A teenaged girl ran out of the room to the left toward the front door. She looked as if she was 14 or 15 years old. She was wearing pajama shorts and an oversized t-shirt. She must have been polishing her toenails because she had those white spacer things between her toes and was walking on her heels. She ran out into the hall and stopped abruptly when she saw me standing on the other side of the glass of the front door. The look on her face was one of extreme wariness. And why shouldn’t she be wary? On the other side of that glass there stood an enormous middle-aged man, maybe the biggest man she had ever seen, dressed all in black and carrying a stool. She called out, “Yes?”
“Hi”, I said, “I’m looking for 423 Broadhurst.” I was doing my best to sound perky and friendly.
“I’m not opening the door.” She stated calmly as she crossed her arms.
“Oh, that’s okay.” I said. “I’m supposed to perform a show at 423 Broadhurst Road.”
“There’s nobody here and I’m not going to open that door!”
“No, no that sounds reasonable.” I insisted. “But I need to know where I’m supposed to perform. Is this 423 Broadhurst?”
“Yes.” She said. (Now we were getting somewhere.) “But you are not going to get into this house!” she continued.
“So, you aren’t expecting a storyteller tonight?” I asked.
“My parents aren’t here and I’m not opening that door.” (One step forward and two steps back.)
“Okay,” I said, “I guess I’m supposed to be somewhere else.”
“I think you’re right.” She said. And I, sadly, walked away from the front door and back to my car.
It was now 8:30 and I was getting nervous. I jumped into my car and began to retrace my steps. Maybe I’d written down the wrong address. But I didn’t have my cell phone. (That was my first mistake of the evening.) I decided to drive back into the town of Sewickley and along the way look for houses that had a lot of cars parked outside. But the properties were too large and it was too dark to really make out anything down those long, winding driveways. So I headed into town to find a phone. Did you know there aren’t any pay phones anymore? None! One day they all just shriveled up and disappeared because no one was using them anymore. So I desperately drove around the town looking for a way to call my wife. I walked into a pizza/bar joint and asked to use the phone. (Just as a little aside, I’m pretty sure the upscale Sewickley community isn’t very pleased the town has a pizza/bar joint.) The woman serving drinks looked at me like I was an idiot. “We don’t have any phone here, sweetie.” She said. I explained my problem and she seemed to take pity on me. “Use my cell phone, but make sure it’s a local call.”
“Thank you, sooo much!” I said. She pulled the phone out of one of the front pockets of her jeans. The phone was warm and smelled like beer and pizza. It was also a little greasy. But I will never look a greasy gift phone in the mouth. I dialed the number for my contact for the show but the answering service picked up. I had to leave a message. Well, at least I tried. I asked the beer/pizza/greasy lady if I could make one more call on her phone. She rolled her eyes and then shook her head ‘yes’. I called my wife and asked her to scroll through my e-mails and find the address. I had the correct address. I thanked Diana and hung up. I thanked the bartender and ran out and jumped into my car and headed back into the wilds of Sewickley Heights.
By this time it was about nine o’clock and I was in a panic. I followed my google-map directions to the letter, winding through the darkness, horrified at how late I was. I pulled into the driveway at 423 Broadhurst and I could see the teenaged girl jumping around in her living room through the window.
Once again I sauntered to the front door and rang the bell. This time I left my stool in the car. I thought it would look less threatening. She entered the hallway in the same way as before, but this time, when she stopped, the look on her face was a little more …fearful. On second thought, having the stool might have looked more consistent.
“I am not going to open that door!” she repeated, sternly.
“No, no! I don’t want to come in!” I reassured. “I checked my information and this is the address I was given.”
“There isn’t supposed to be any storytelling here! And if you don’t leave, I’m calling the police!”
All I got out was a “But..”, before she pulled out her cell and started dialing. I ran to my car, and drove away. What was I going to do now?!
Two blocks away I saw a family getting out of their car after a night out. I stopped and told them my problem. They knew nothing about any house party, but the dad said I could try calling on his phone. I dialed the number and listened with a great deal of hope and desperation.
“Hello”, the man said on the other side of the line. “Thank, God!” I whispered. We had a brief conversation. He told me not to worry. They weren’t close to starting yet. And then he gave me the correct address, which wasn’t even close to the first address. He muttered something about his wife, my contact person, not being very good at giving people information. I hung up, thanked the dad who let me use his phone, and showed up at the house an hour after I was supposed to be there.
All through my performance, I imagined that poor teenaged girl sitting in the front hallway of her house, little white spacers between each toe, clutching a golf club waiting for the return of the scary, huge man with the stool.....The Storyteller.