Today was another one of those underpaid gigs and considering I was storytelling at the swanky Royal Ontario Museum, it felt a bit cheap.

I only did it as a favour to a friend of mine who was on some South Asian committee.

At one point the Museum administrators were even asking me for my social insurance number, their accounting required it, but no way was I turning over my s.i.n. number for the amount they were paying me, so finally they caved and let it go at my tax number.

I hadn’t been to the ROM for five years. We were members off and on, when the kids were younger. Today was their South Heritage day, apparently because it was the somethingth anniversary of the opening of the South Asian exhibit.

I’m happy to say, I didn’t grumble, and even when I walked past the Indian dancers with the sitar music and tubla drums, thinking, “Yikes! How do you compete with that?!” I tried to keep my spirits up.

They had me up in a little alcove where we could still hear the tubla drums, and we had to wait a bit for them to quiet before I could start my storytelling.

The table was too small to fit all my books, and we already had a bit of an audience, white, brown, mixed, it was lovely that they’d taken the time to come and see me!

I told them they were welcome to take a look at my books while we waited, and a red-haired mother sent her red-haired daughter up to the table and she picked out my Ruler of the Courtyard.

I was talking to a colleague friend of mine, but I kept getting distracted by the sight of this mother and daughter, heads bent together, reading my book. The mother had good inflection. She was reading it with the same rhythms I use when I’m presenting the story. And they were thoroughly enjoying it!

Can you imagine what that feels like?

I hammed it up as usual. I told both my version and the book version of Big Red Lollipop and the parents and the kids all laughed at the right cues. Not sure who laughed louder, sometimes it was the parents and other times it was the kids.

An Italian lady came up and hugged me, asking if I remembered when I’d come to her Catholic school. In the green room two teenage girls, one black, one white asked if I rememberd them from their school. Of course I didn’t. Schools melt together after a while. But it was nice of them to remember me!

And then afterwards, this lady who was originally from Karachi (Pakistan) introduced me to her six year old daughter saying they’d come up all the way from London (a two hour drive) because they’d seen my name on the program.

They’d taken my Muslim Child out of the library and recognized my name.

Financially it was probably not worth it, but emotionally it was quite satisfying.

But still it doesn’t compare to the best time I did an underpaid gig.

It was when I was just starting out, about ten years ago. The gig was downtown. We only had one car then and hubby was using it. I had to schlep my case all the way down there by bus. It was bitter cold, and already dark by the time I got off the bus to walk the few blocks to the address I was supposed to present at.

I’d heard of Regent Park. It has a bad reputation. Public housing, crack whores, murders, knifings, stuff like that. I was scared and grumbling to myself. Why had I accepted this gig? So and so didn’t need to accept gigs like this. So and so was making big bucks with their fancy agent, sitting in the comfort of their home and raking it in. So and so hadn’t even been writing as long as I had.

When I got to the address, I had to inquire from several scruffy looking individuals, where the event was. They directed me down a corridor that smelled of urine to a stairwell out back.

Down a few more stairs, lugging my book case with me, I finally got to a medieval looking rec room that smelled slightly of diesel fuel. The cement floor sloped to one side and the ceiling was quite low. I’m short enough that I didn’t have to stoop, but others did.

Then slowly the ladies and their children came and they brought a pot luck dinner. At first I felt a bit snobbish wondering if they’d washed their hands before they’d done the cooking, but from the way they welcomed me into their midst, sharing their supper with me, soon I felt only grateful.

It was a few days after Eid and the white social worker had hired me to come in and tell stories that these kids could relate to.  

In all the years I’ve been storytelling, I have never had such an appreciative audience. Oh, we wove some magic that night! Even the older kids joined in.

Afterwards the women came up to finger the fabric of my shalwar kameez asking if I lived nearby and saying, “Nice material.”

The social worker drove me back to the subway station, as it was late, and I went home feeling rather humbled by the whole experience. Humbled and grateful. Very grateful.