Connecticut Voice

Your LGBTQ+ Voice

Chion: Peppered…With Questions

It’s 2003, and I am just pulling into a parking space at Westfarms Mall, where I sell cell phones for T-Mobile. 

On NPR, they’re talking about an American CIA agent whose identity was outed by a journalist. That agent’s name is Valerie Plame.

I lock my Ford Focus, put my nametag on, and walk towards the mall. As I pass the trash compactor, I wonder, Why would anyone want to out a CIA agent… Of their own country?

By the time I clock in, I had already stopped thinking about it, and had moved on to counting the cash in my register, getting ready for another day of slingin’ cell phones. 

I don’t think about this moment until twenty years later, when Audacious producer, Khaleel Rahman, says, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a show about spies? Maybe we could interview Valerie Plame.”

Boom! I was right back there by the trash compactor, wondering about her again. 

Chion’s home with a welcoming ristra

When she accepted our interview request, we realized that instead of her being a part of a show about spies, she should have the whole episode. That happens sometimes, an idea about many experiences gets narrowed down to one person’s story.

The moment I connected with Valerie via Zoom was a strange one for me. When I saw her blonde hair and big smile, I thought, What a strange universe. Twenty years ago, this total stranger was on my mind as I was walking into a closing shift at the mall… And now here I am, connecting with her for my public radio show!

Life comes at you slowly… Then fast. Then all at once.

Our conversation flowed. As a former CIA agent, a public speaker, author, and anti-nuclear proliferation advocate, she knows how to do this sorta stuff. But it stood out to me that she would totally go along with whatever questions I had, including uncomfortable ones. Such as: with all the cruel things the CIA has done to the citizens of its own country, how does she think Americans should view the agency?

Warts and all, she says, the world is better off with the CIA than without it. 

At the end of our conversation, she mentioned a conference she’s running in Santa Fe. She said, “If you’re ever in New Mexico, let me know! You can stay at my guest casita!”

Now, this is very sweet, and as a public radio employee, I could not take her up on the offer. But the T-Mobile rep from 20 years ago who resides in my brain was thinking, “Valerie Plame just invited us to her guest casita! That is WILD! Who woulda thought?!”

I called my friend, Michelle, and told her about this invitation and the happy bafflement of my inner T-Mobile employee. And she said, “I just booked my plane ticket to Santa Fe in a few weeks. You wanna’ come?”

So, we spent six days sauntering around Santa Fe and Taos, taking in breathtaking views (which, in that part of the country, is every view). We went to art galleries, great restaurants, saw ancient petroglyphs, and took pictures next to 3-foot-long ristras–braided chili peppers. I’m told they are a New Mexican symbol of welcome.

The incense burner

In a gift shop, I saw a very special incense burner: A little adobe house. You light the incense, put the house over it, and the smoke comes out of the chimney hole!

As soon as I saw it, I remembered: I had this same incense burner as a kid! I hadn’t seen it since the ’80s! I don’t know where it came from or where it went, but, wow! Here it is again! I bought it with a racing, happy heart. 

There was one thing I never understood about the little adobe house: To the left of the door, there was a red line with a dot on top. What was that? A person in red, walking into the house? I never knew.

But now, holding it in my hand in the gift shop, I realized… It was a ristra! 

So I bought a 3-foot-long ristra treated with lacquer, had it delivered to my house, and hung it up just like the incense burner–to the left of my door. 

Every time I see it, I giggle.

All of this – a conversation with Valerie Plame, a trip with a dear friend, and a surprise reunion with a childhood incense burner–all because Khaleel said, Wouldn’t it be cool to do a show about spies? 

Life comes at you slowly… Then fast. Then all at once.

You can hear the full episode here.