Reading the Paper
(This essay appeared originally in The American Scholar, Spring 2003 issue and was selected as a "Notable Essay of 2004" in Best American Essays edited by Louis Menand and Robert Atwan. )
Five days before my father died, the Greenwich High School
chorus performed at a convention of music educators in Atlantic City.
Their repertoire, ranging from Haydn's Missa Brevis in B flat Major to
Aaron Copland's "Stomp Your Foot," so impressed a European visitor that
he invited the singers to perform in Vienna the following summer.
Two days before my father died, Rosemary Clooney gave birth to a baby boy in Santa Monica, California.
day before my father died, two armed convicts, Robert Rivera and
Raymond Farra, released 19 hostages they had threatened to kill,
ending a 25-hour siege at the Tennessee Penitentiary in Nashville.
night before my father died, a dog fell through the ice on a pond off
Stanwich Road. Pamela Shaw, a teenager who lived nearby, heard it bark
and came running, but the dog slipped under the ice before she could
reach it. In Willimantic, Connecticut, an 8-year-old boy ran into the
path of a car and was killed.
That night, at the Innis Arden
Golf Club, the Old Greenwich Lions gave the Boy Scouts a
thousand-dollar check to spruce up their camp, while the Byram Veterans
Association met in their Delavan Avenue clubhouse to plan the group's
annual spring dance and buffet.
I know these things because they were all reported in the Greenwich Time,
my hometown newspaper, on Friday, March 25, 1960. I've been spending a
lot of time lately reading this edition, trying to master its contents
and structure, hoping, I think, that this exegesis will help me to
understand a dimly remembered day when I was 10 years old.
are a roaming consciousness, like a spy satellite circling hundreds of
miles above earth, able to spot a dog slipping under the ice in a
back-country pond and to capture the moment when an escaped convict
emerges from hostage negotiations, his arms raised.
particular newspaper, retrieved from a roll of microfilm in the
Greenwich Library, consists of 20 black-and-white broadsheet
pages, of which only about half are devoted to current events on a very
slow news day. An index on the front page guides readers through the
rest: obituaries, movie and television listings, weather, and the
crossword puzzle, along with four pages of classified advertising, two
pages of sports, and a page of comics.
Three months into the new
decade, it offers few hints of the turbulence ahead. To be sure, there
are stories about A-bomb tests, the still-simmering TV quiz show
scandals, racial unrest in South Africa and the American South. Other
harbingers of the sixties are nowhere to be found — nary a hint of sex
or drugs, not even of rock and roll. Dwight D. Eisenhower is still
president, women are identified by their husbands' names, and the
musical guest on "The Ed Sullivan Show" that Sunday will be Teresa
Brewer, whose big hit — "Till I Waltz Again with You" — had topped the
charts in 1953.
In any case, the news stories interest me far
less than other items scattered throughout the paper -- police briefs,
press releases, ads, school-lunch menus, personal notices, birth
announcements, and death notices — that trigger a return to a time and
place that exist now only in scattered memories.
this paper appeared, I was 10 years old and just beginning a new
life as a fatherless boy in a Connecticut suburb where men came home at
night, borne on the 5:36 from Grand Central, weary from the hunt among
the pin-striped dragons of the metropolis, their own battle raiment
creased and wrinkled, to reclaim their places of honor in country
Almost immediately, I became a charity case —
dependent on scholarships, paltry Social Security death benefits, and
the kindness of others — and a servant who would, in the years to come,
deliver this newspaper and bag groceries, shoulder golf bags and cut
lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow-banked
sidewalks in winter, quickly absorbing the relationship between fawning
courtesy and the size of a gratuity.
I don't really care that A.
P. Mazza, the former Democratic state central committeeman, was
interested in that post again, but not enough to fight for it. But I am
fascinated to learn that March 25 was "Smart Shopper Time" at Partridge
& Rockwell, where the values included a Frigidaire automatic washer
with a "Special New Automatic Soak Cycle" for $219.95 ("with
trade-in"), and I'm captivated by the best deal at Town Hall Radio
& TV: an "all-new" Zenith twenty-one-inch, black-and-white,
swivel-console TV with remote Zenith Space Command.
care less that, in Washington the day before, government officials
declared "No Recession Before '61." But I find it immensely intriguing
that, with a gallon of Dutch Boy Nalplex Acrylic Latex Wall Paint,
McDermott Paint and Wallpaper was giving away a Dutch Boy hand puppet,
valued at $1.39!
Elsewhere in the world there was trouble —
earthquake in Switzerland, bomb scares in Baltimore, actors and writers
on strike in Hollywood — but there was little to break the bubble of
peace and prosperity in Greenwich.
In that verdant place,
pockmarked with ponds, streams, and lakes, and ringed by marshes and
miles of shoreline along Long Island Sound, the replacement of a
mosquito control worker, for unspecified "unsatisfactory reasons," was
important enough to merit front-page play. But I'm more interested in
the take-home specials at the Dairy Queen in Cos Cob: forty cents for a
pint of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, or fresh banana) —
four pints for $1.25 — or that the price for six éclairs, eight Dilly
Bars, or eleven ice cream sandwiches was $1.00.
abound, a bittersweet index of consumer prices ($3.95 for a full-course
Del Monico Steak Dinner, $1,645 for a new Renault, $14.98 for a woman's
dress made from the latest miracle fabric, Arnel triacetate). I look at
these ads and marvel at how cheap things were back then, and then I
wonder: How broke was my family that they were so out of reach?