There she was, out on the midway with the velvet Elvis collection and the $3 purses (or 3 for $5). New York art-maker Sheryl Oring's table in the flea market at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh featured a manual typewriter, in turquoise to match her turquoise cocktail dress and pumps. She sat poised in front of it--yes, poised is the right word--ready to tap out your birthday greeting to President Bush on his upcoming 60th.
"Want to send a birthday note to the president?" her aide for the day, Raleigh artist Jan Coon, asked the passersby.
"I could, but you wouldn't like it," was a popular response in the 30 minutes I stood and watched on June 11. Or, "He wouldn't want to hear it."
But a steady number did, indeed, sit and dictate their sentiments--some kind, some not so much--to the purposeful Ms. Oring, who reproduced them on white notecards, error-free, at approximately 40 words per minute. As they spoke, they were videotaped by another Oring assistant, and Oring kept carbon copies for her collection. She handed them their original in a stamped envelope addressed to The Hon. George W. Bush, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., etc.
Working together in this way, Oring and her patrons produced an homage to the authenticity of an earlier time, when Bush was coming of age and democracy seemed to flourish in our nation. Then, one could imagine, at least, that the president of the United States might read a birthday greeting addressed to him. And, if he read yours, he would take to heart what you'd written.
This, Oring said, is the reason she dressed "The Birthday Project," a touring show now headed for Tampa, in an early '60s decor. Bush will be 60 next month. The '60s were a simpler time. And the effect it has on people is therapeutic.
The president might not be listening, or he might, who knows? But Oring is listening, quite intently and non-judgmentally. And since she's listening, she added, "people feel like they've been heard."
Grace Murray, visiting from Newport News, Va., with her husband, Tom (his daughter graduated the day before from Durham's Jordan High School), felt that way. "It's an opportunity to have your voice heard at a time when we sort of get diluted down," she said. Her note to Bush was addressed "Dear Decider," and she wished for him that he would "decide to become a man who loves justice, practices mercy and walks humbly with God."
No, she's not thinking Bush will read it. But others will, Murray said. And she liked the idea that she was contributing to Oring's artistic purpose, which she understands is letting us talk to each other in clear, declarative terms.
Pam Copeland, of Durham, also felt heard. Looking straight at Oring, who looked straight back, Copeland told the president that she's against the war and wants him to bring the troops home. Finishing, she smiled broadly, and flashed a big smile at me, too, when she saw that I'd been listening as well.
Which prompted her husband, Bernard, a veteran, to sit down too and offer his own thoughts in some detail while their 14-year-old son, Terrance, went, "Gah, Dad!" Bernard wasn't smiling, and said afterward that while he could see where Iraq was worth saving, it wasn't worth the lives of our kids.
But I did think that Terrance, as much as he didn't want to show it, was pleased with his mother and father.
For more on The Birthday Project, see www.iwishtosay.org/birthdayproject.