“Show and Tell” often recalls both dreaded and triumphant memories of primary school, watching our classmates show off their favor- ite stuffed puppy, a shiny new toy, or some souvenir from a family trip. Before the big day, we might have practiced alone in our rooms or aloud to our parents—and then either timidly shared or overconfidently blabbed to classmates about our favorite object. For many of us, it was our first foray into performance. But what if we could relive that childhood anticipation today, at a bar in New York City? Would you go? And, more pressingly, what would you bring?
Eager to attend one such adult rendition of this beloved childhood event, I headed to Fred- dy’s Bar in Brooklyn. Passing through antique swinging train doors, I entered a back room to find good food, beer, and 20 friendly strangers with stories to share. Bar benches and tables are centered around a podium where the presenter gets three minutes to tell the story of his or her object. The item is then passed around the room, and the floor opens up for questions, responses, and more stories.
In a space generally more conducive to small talk, the Show and Tell participants at Freddy’s use personal items to share intimate experi- ences that lead to more intellectual conversa- tions among a group of strangers. The bar stool doesn’t normally lend itself to a discussion of the history of origami, of a grandfather who built space shuttles, of an older brother who always stole the spotlight, or of the loss of a home washed into the sea by Sandy. But Show and Tell encourages the sharing of these sto- ries. A ACD single of “TNT” or a temperature graph used in steel mills seem to incite this sort of interaction, but the objects themselves can’t be fully responsible. There is something here beyond mere material items.
At the end of the session, I sat down with the host, Paul Lukas, a writer for ESPN, to discuss the origin of these Show and Tell events. De- buting in 2010 at the City Reliquary in Brook- lyn, Show and Tell ran until 2011, before finding a more permanent home at Freddy’s Bar this past summer. Show and Tell doesn’t seem to be an intuitively rational mode of sharing per- sonal information—I mean, what seems ratio- nal about sharing some of your most personal stories with a bunch of strangers? But the end result is invaluable. It’s a seminar without the formalities—rich discussion propelled by the personal experiences of its members.
Listening to the stories of others was like trav- eling with them. I journeyed to Glass Beach in California, where an archaeologist named Wil-
low O’Feara had discovered a small pendant, similar to a rock, which she later discovered was an electric insulator. Glass Beach is formed by pieces of glass from bottles and other trash that was smoothed over by the sea and washed back to shore. “It’s always felt talismanic to me, because it represents trash being transformed and the ocean spitting it back,” O’Feara says. She also shared her fasci- nation with artifacts and minerals, and how a physical item can travel through time and space, often changing form yet still remaining essentially the same.
The next pin on my map was Japan, where I was taught the history of origami and introduced to Akira Yoshizawa, the mas- ter of the traditional Japanese art. And then back home again to Rockaway Beach, where just a few weeks ago, William Ganun lost his home to Hurricane Sandy.
This kind of non-performative sharing is exactly how Lukas envisions the future of Show and Tell: “You can always tell which people rehearsed, and I always hope the number of people were zero. It’s al- ways better when it’s spontaneous. I try to hint at that—it’s more about sharing and not performing,” he says. “There are a lot of other places where people can be performers. And I am much more interested in creating an environ- ment where those who never do something like this but could just talk to a room full of friends for the night.”
Show and Tell creates a space that capitalizes on no obvious commonality between its participants except for the humanity in each of us. Held once a month, Show and Tell can be, at least, a free form of enter- tainment in an amiable environ- ment. But I’d bet my favorite stuffed animal that when you walk through those swinging doors, you’ll take a ride back in time, to another country, or into the life of a complete stranger before the night ends.