Susan S. Emerson
---- — One of the greatest recurring pleasures of my life is discovering a writer or performer who’s been around forever, but of whom I’ve never heard. I’m not shy to admit my ignorance; it’s a big world out there.
My unabashed willingness to admit an ignorance stems from a remark my father made when I arrived home from my first three months at college, smug in the belief that I’d picked up reams of life experience equaling and probably surpassing that of my parents. I don’t recall his specific reference, but Dad’s response, not meant unkindly, was, “It’s amazing how much you don’t know.”
I remember glaring at him, thinking but not daring to say, “Wow! If only you knew what I know now that you don’t suspect I know!”
I was knocked down a few pegs, and have lived the rest of my life in the spirit of acknowledging that I don’t know something or haven’t heard of someone. But I always follow up. I see that wagging finger of Sister Mary Robert in sixth-grade parochial school advising her pupils, “Always maintain an intellectual curiosity.”
It is in that very spirit this week that I’ve entered the world of Joseph Mitchell. “Ever read Joseph Mitchell?” a friend had asked.
“Nope, never heard of him. “
“Oh, you should. He wrote for the New Yorker years ago. I think you’d like his writing.”
I went on to inquire of another Susan who is possibly my most well read friend, “Do you know the writing of Joseph Mitchell?”
“Joe Mitchell? Of course! I love Joe Mitchell.” I had already bought one book on the first friend’s recommendation, not liking it as much as I thought I should.
But the other Susan said no, wrong book. I should have his anthology, “Up in the Old Hotel.” Days later, she gifted a copy to me. The back cover of the book called Mitchell “The best reporter ever to write for The New Yorker,” and, “A poetry of the actual, a song of the streets.” I wondered where I had been all these years. But never mind, I was there now.
Both friends had recommended “Joe Gould’s Secret” as Mitchell’s best work (later made into a film), so I started there, on page 623 — it was hefty book!
I realized, before leaving the first page, that his writing was best read in a fast, free rhythm. Arriving wide-eyed from North Carolina, Mitchell’s style and his gift was observation of everyday people in the everyday world. He began interviewing them in the early 1930s, first as a reporter, then quickly moving up as a feature writer for several New York City newspapers. He made his mark as a master at gleaning the gritty details of life on the street from the oral histories of its inhabitants.
As I read on into the piece, still 40 pages away from discovering what Joe Gould’s secret was (I never skip ahead in a book in search of the punch line, even if it’s touted a shocker), I became increasingly aware of the riches that lay in talking to people face to face. Not emailing, not telephoning, but looking into their eyes to hear the stories in their hearts.
William F. Buckley once said that 99 percent of people are interesting, and the other 1 percent is still interesting in that they are the exception. That’s what you come to realize if you are an interviewer.
We are all interviewers of one another. If we think we cannot be, we need only look closer, to notice the way someone is dressed or what they hold in their hand. Everyone’s best story is how he is right now, at the moment of connection to another.
It’s a story that can’t be beat.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.