Gay Talese and a city of permanent change

Photo by Darryl Estrine. From randomhouse.com

Pho­to by Dar­ryl Estrine.

Gay Tale­se tells me that he does not have dire notions about the future of New York. He has lived here since 1953 and has seen the city, in many ways, attacked. But a lot of streets have not changed, and what makes New York, New York, has not changed either.

It’s a city of opti­mism and city of change and even bad news changes very quick­ly here,” he says.

He came to New York after grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma. The New York Times hired him as a copy boy. Gay says that in a way it was the most impor­tant job that he ever had at the paper, where he would lat­er work as a staff reporter.

When you are a reporter, Gay explains, you have to go out into the city and inter­view peo­ple, chase down the may­or, watch a strike, talk to fire­men who have hosed down a burn­ing build­ing. But as a copy boy, you are free to observe the sec­re­taries, clerks, pub­lish­ers, reporters, edi­tors, adver­tis­ing direc­tors, floor sweep­ers, win­dow wash­ers, and ele­va­tor oper­a­tors.

This is per­fect mate­ri­al for me,” he says. “Because I am very curi­ous about ordi­nary peo­ple, not the peo­ple who make the news.”

The sto­ries of the peo­ple at the New York Times would become his first best­seller, The King­dom and the Pow­er.

Gay Tale­se left his job as a New York Times reporter when he was 33 years old. He had already pub­lished his first book, New York: A Serendipiter’s Jour­ney, about the peo­ple he saw on the streets, and his sec­ond, about the build­ing of the Ver­razano-Nar­rows Bridge. Gay did not find anoth­er place of employ­ment. Instead, he worked out of his house, or rather, below his house. From there, he wrote pro­files for Esquire that would becomes clas­sics and books that would become best­sellers, and helped to define lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism.

Gay opens his front door—which is being repaint­ed by a man dressed in white who asks who I am here to see—with a hat in his hand. He offers me a seat, and then a drink, and then sug­gests that we vis­it what he calls his bunker.

We walk out of the house, then down the steps to the side­walk where we say hel­lo to the painter. Gay unlocks a door at the house’s right cor­ner. He tells me to slam the door behind me, to be care­ful on the steps, to hold the ban­is­ter.

There are no win­dows in the bunker. There is no tele­phone. You can­not hear the cars on the street. Gay comes here at 9 or 10 in the morn­ing, and then stays and works until 2 or 3. He fol­lows this rou­tine near­ly every day of the week, and it is a rou­tine he has kept since he left the New York Times more than 50 years ago.

The walls, the floor, and the ceil­ing of the bunker are cream col­ored. Box­es are stacked up to the ceil­ing along the left wall. Each box con­tains the notes for a book or pro­file and is col­laged with memen­tos from the project: pho­tographs, mag­a­zine clip­pings, the name of the sub­ject. The box­es for Thy Neighbor’s Wife fea­ture nude pho­tos.

At the first desk is the large type­writer with which Gay first writes his sto­ries. At the next desk is a clunky desk­top com­put­er that still looks too mod­ern for the rest of the room.

There is a vase of red Calla lilies, a pot­ted tree, a poster that reads: “Mon­dadori dà il ben­venu­to in Ital­ia a Gay Tale­se autore di La don­na d’altri.” Red file cab­i­nets along the back wall are full of metic­u­lous­ly dat­ed and cat­a­logued notes from life and report­ing. Gay takes notes on shirt boards which he cuts to fit into the breast pock­et of his suit jack­et. Today, his blaz­er is cream col­ored and match­es the vest beneath it. When I first walked in, he noticed, and then com­pli­ment­ed my dress. Gay’s father was a tai­lor, and Gay dress­es impec­ca­bly.

I buy very few things,” he says. “And I can wear them forever. And if you buy things that are fash­ioned or styl­ized in a clas­si­cal way, they’re nev­er out of fash­ion. You cre­ate your own fash­ion.”

Gay puts on a jack­et and a hat each morn­ing before he walks down into the bunker, even though he will not see any­one there in the day.

I don’t have lunch with peo­ple,” he says. “I don’t want to have lunch. I want to have din­ner and I do. Every night. I go out to a New York restau­rant. I like to have the city at night with a lot of peo­ple around. I like big crowds. I go to restau­rants. I go to movies. I go to the­ater.”

Tonight, Gay and his wife, Nan, will meet the son of Eddy Duch­in, the pianist and band­lead­er, and his wife for din­ner at La Veau d’Or, a restau­rant that opened in 1937. Peter Duch­in is a pianist and band­lead­er like his father. Despite all the new­com­ers, many peo­ple in the city, such as Peter Duch­in, work and live in the tra­di­tion of fam­i­ly, and the tra­di­tion of New York. Gay points out that the same fam­i­ly has owned the New York Times since 1896.

All over New York,” he says, “there are gro­cery stores, there are hard­ware stores that are fam­i­ly owned, that have been there 3 or 4 gen­er­a­tions, strug­gling to adapt to the new tech­nol­o­gy, to chang­ing tastes of cus­tomers, to all the changes that come about as the way of mak­ing a liv­ing is altered. And there are peo­ple whose grand­fa­thers and fathers before them used to ride the­se tourist wag­on hors­es in Cen­tral Park. Now there are peo­ple want­i­ng to get rid of those hors­es, get rid of those wag­ons.”

Gay, the son of an Ital­ian immi­grant, under­stands that this ten­sion is one of the con­stants here. He stayed in New York because, “I didn’t have to be a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. New York was a for­eign city. It still is. It changes but it’s made up, as I said when we first sat down, of a lot of new­com­ers, with new ideas, new lan­guages.” It is a for­eign city full of old fam­i­ly busi­ness­es. Sky­scrap­ers that are near­ly one hun­dred years old rest beside what Gay calls “glass mon­strosi­ties.” The new­com­ers and the new build­ings do not remake the city, they main­tain its ener­gy, its opti­mism, the sense that per­haps things here will be bet­ter than they were in Italy or Ohio. New York is a city that does not change, pre­cise­ly because it remains a city of change.

It is a city of con­struc­tion, and this too is a fam­i­ly tra­di­tion. This year there will be a reis­sue of the 1964, The Bridge: The Build­ing of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, which Gay wrote while still at the New York Times. When not in the office, he went to the bridge to get the sto­ries of the men who were hang­ing on cables.

Gay reis­sues his work because “when I fin­ish a sto­ry, I don’t think it’s done. I think sto­ries go on. The book that’s com­ing out this Octo­ber, called The Bridge, is a 50 year old revival. It’s got a facelift, it’s got Botox, I mean it’s got a new face in a way. But it’s got the same heart, which was indi­vid­u­al risk-tak­ing con­struc­tion. Indi­vid­u­als climb­ing high alti­tudes, 300, 400, 500 feet to con­nect steel and build some­thing like a sky­scrap­er, build some­thing like a bridge, that lasts forever.”

For the new edi­tion, Gay found the descen­dants of the men who worked on the bridge. He met a man, Joseph Spratt, whose father was a bridge builder and whose grand­fa­ther was a bridge builder. Gay tells me that when he inter­viewed Joseph ear­lier this year, he said that:

Dur­ing this New Year’s Eve hol­i­days, Christ­mas Eve hol­i­days, he was help­ing to put up the tow­er on the World Trade Cen­ter, the new Num­ber One tow­er. And he said he got up there, you know it’s 104 sto­ries, and then it’s got the anten­na on top of it, I don’t know how much taller that makes it. He was up there with num­bers of oth­er guys his age wear­ing hard hats work­ing at his busi­ness. High alti­tude work. He said as he looked from the World Trade Cen­ter, down­town, down the river, he saw the Ver­razano Bridge. And he remem­bered his grand­fa­ther. Then he turned around and looked uptown, and he saw the build­ing that’s over Madis­on Square Gar­den, and he thought of his father who was up there doing that. And he said he looked around at the­se oth­er guys who were his age, up there, at the World Trade Cen­ter peak, look­ing around the city of New York, and they saw all the­se tall build­ings. On the East Side, on the West Side, north and south, down Wall Street, up toward Harlem. All the­se tall build­ings you could still see, him and the­se oth­er guys. And he was say­ing, ‘The sky­line of New York is a fam­i­ly tree for us.’

The sky­line changes. But it stays famil­iar when you know the peo­ple who build it, and it stays famil­iar because the act of build­ing has the same risk of hang­ing from cables at extra­or­di­nary heights. Tech­nolo­gies becomes obso­lete, indus­try shifts, and the City plans flood walls and thinks about adding a storm surge bar­ri­er along the Ver­razano-Nar­rows Bridge, but the act of mov­ing for­ward is not new.

Gay has cov­ered New York in great storms and great fires, a plane crash. But the street where he lives has not changed since he moved in in 1957. He pass­es through Cen­tral Park every day, and has done so for 60 years. He can­not imag­ine liv­ing any­where else. He is 82 years old, and for the bet­ter part of the past six decades he has worked here, telling the sto­ries of obscure peo­ple, and obscure sto­ries of some not-obscure peo­ple.

He has nev­er been a polit­i­cal writer. “God almighty,” he says. “Can you imag­ine cov­er­ing the Sen­ate for 3 or 4 or 5 years? I mean what a non-sto­ry that is. Day-by-day, noth­ing­ness.”

It is more than the tedi­um though. Gay nev­er want­ed to move from New York to Wash­ing­ton. And he nev­er want­ed to make polit­i­cal state­ments about a state­ment from the Sen­ate that would mean noth­ing two days lat­er, or to write a polit­i­cal opin­ion about a per­son who one can choose to see in many dif­fer­ent ways.

Too much instant politi­ciza­tion is instilled now more than ever,” Gay says. “Because everybody’s a com­men­ta­tor, every­body has a smart­phone, a com­put­er. They com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er by the mil­lions and make up, inter­pret, imme­di­ate­ly inter­pret what in the not too dis­tant future is deemed ridicu­lous.”

When Gay sees New York attacked, he does not politi­cize it.

Once I saw New York when the elec­tri­cal sys­tem failed,” Gay says. “The whole city was black. I was a reporter, I’m guess­ing it was 1965, I think it was. And when I cov­ered the city, my first thought was, ‘Who do I want to inter­view?’ And I thought, ‘Ah, I want to inter­view blind peo­ple.’ So I start­ed, I went over to the Light­house which is the cen­ter for blind peo­ple here, on 59th street. And I watched blind peo­ple wan­der­ing around the city. Every­body was blind except them.”

Every­body except them and Gay Tale­se, who was watch­ing them. Gay does not only observe and talk with ordi­nary peo­ple, he is an expert at it. Before I leave the bunker, he has worked out the prob­lems with my roman­tic life, learned what I have com­mon with my broth­er, and explained to me how to fin­ish my pro­file of a wom­an who works in a plas­tic surgery prac­tice (his answer: see her naked).

Gay’s genius as a writer is in his abil­i­ty to see things from so many points of view. He rec­og­nizes that every time there is a change toward the new and the good for some­one, for some­one else there is an accom­pa­ny­ing incon­ve­nience or loss of a job. You can think of a place as pol­lut­ed, and you can also remem­ber why it is so.

My father was born in Cal­abria,” Gay says, “which is the poorest part of Italy. It’s the toe of the boot. And he would say when he came to Amer­i­ca, which he did in 1922, he’d hear peo­ple com­plain­ing in Amer­i­ca about the indus­tri­al­iza­tion, ‘Oh too much pol­lu­tion in the air, too much indus­try, too many cars, too many busses.’ And he’d say, ‘You know, where I come from, Cal­abria, it’s farm land, hill coun­try, moun­tains. It has got the purest air in the world and peo­ple are starv­ing to death.’ Won­der­ful atmos­phere, won­der­ful air, unpol­lut­ed sky. Peo­ple are starv­ing to death.”

His father believed that if you want­ed fresh air you should go to Cal­abria, where “You can find all the fresh air you want.” You do not come to New York for fresh air. You come because you didn’t like where you were.

It’s a city of news and new­com­ers,” Gay says.

In New York, they become copy boys, reporters, may­ors, bridge builders, band­lead­ers. There is always news, and there are always sto­ries that come not from an inter­view with a politi­cian or a base­ball play­er, but from sit­ting down with an ordi­nary per­son.

Gay calls his report­ing, “The art of hang­ing out.”

This, then is the way to get at New York and see how its heart remains. The horse-drawn car­riages keep rid­ing through Cen­tral Park. The Ver­razano-Nar­rows Bridge still runs from Brook­lyn to Staten Island. Le Veau d’Or goes on serv­ing boeuf bour­guignon and moules de roches. The streets stay full of peo­ple not speak­ing in their first lan­guages. And Gay keeps tak­ing notes on shirt boards from con­ver­sa­tions with men and wom­en from all over.

It’s a for­eign city of peo­ple from else­where who have a lot to give,” he says. “But not only a lot to give, but some­times a dif­fi­cult time explain­ing it.”

Photo by Bruce Davidson, 1964. Gay at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Pho­to by Bruce David­son, 1964. Gay Tale­se at the Ver­razano-Nar­rows Bridge.