Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On Cheeseburgers and Dairy Queen Nights

The good job-hunter is also a good waiter. I’m not talking about food service; I’m referring to one who is proficient at watching time pass. With all these applications and resumes out, waiting is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, and it hasn’t been easy. I’ve always been a do-it-and-get-it-over-with type of guy.

It helps if I have something constructive to occupy my mind. Books help. When I’m reading, I’m not obsessing over the second hand that’s running laps around the clock, running away with the time that I’m not using. Most often, I find myself turning to the books of Bob Greene.

You probably recognize the name, especially if you’ve spent any time in the Midwest. For about 30 years, Bob Greene was a Chicago newspaper columnist, first for the Chicago Sun-Times and later, for the Chicago Tribune. His work was syndicated in over a hundred newspapers nationally. He also authored a monthly column for Esquire magazine, as well as twenty-one books. Many of those were national bestsellers.

If you don’t recognize the name, I encourage you to seek out his work. “Cut the crap, Left,” you may say upon opening your first Greene book. “A million reporters are writing this kind of stuff. Big deal!” That’s right, and damn near all of them are imitating Greene. Poorly, I might add. This man pioneered the “human interest” column. Before him, most stories of this kind were relegated to the back pages of the Sunday supplement, away from the “real” news. Greene made “human interest” his stock-in-trade and showed us all the real news we were missing.

His 1985 collection of columns, Cheeseburgers, is my favorite Greene book. Look into “Western Reunion”, about an annual gathering of that fast-disappearing breed, retired Western Union telegraph operators. Try “Strangers on a Plane”, the story of the young widow of an airline employee who, using “spouse passes”, flies randomly around the country, at once fleeing and seeking something she can’t quite put into words. Sample “Nixon on Nixon”, which is probably the most in-depth interview Tricky Dick ever gave to any reporter. See pages and pages of seemingly ordinary subjects, made extraordinary through Greene’s transforming lens. Then think about that old saying regarding truth, strangeness and fiction and wonder why so few reporters before this guy bothered to write these types of stories down.

Later in his career, Greene became something of an advocate for abused and neglected children, devoting many columns to this cause. Some of the best examples of these are contained in his 1997 book, Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights. “Why Weren’t You His Friends?” describes the aftermath of the suicide of a brutally picked-on junior high school student in a small town in Iowa. “The Children’s Voices” recounts the often wrenching experiences of senior citizen volunteers at a Chicago call center for latchkey kids. “Please. . .Don’t Send Me Away” is one of Greene’s most famous columns. In it, he records the anguished final minutes that Richard, a 4-year old boy, spends with his beloved adopted family before being taken away—by order of the Illinois Supreme Court—to live with the biological parents who freely gave him up three years before. In my opinion, it’s some of the best news writing of the late 20th Century.

For three decades, Bob Greene was a star journalist in Chicago, if not nationally. But a shock wave—should I call it karma?—ended his star run in 2002. Greene resigned from his job with the Chicago Tribune, following a complaint the paper received from a woman who claimed that she and the married journalist had had an affair several years before. The reason behind her belated complaint remains speculative. At the time of the alleged liaison, Greene was in his mid-30’s. The woman was 18 years old.

A media furor of the kind Americans have grown so accustomed to followed this revelation. Greene, in his columns of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, had championed a return to the morality and temperament of the pre-Vietnam War America. Evidently, he didn’t practice what he preached. Once the story broke, many women came forth with accounts of their supposed relationships with the columnist, some dating back to the beginning of his career. Greene, for his part, made no attempt to deny the accusations. I refer interested parties to Marcia F. Coburn and Steve Rhodes’ Chicago Magazine article (February, 2003) and Bill Zehme’s Esquire feature (April, 2003) for further information.

I won’t defend Greene. Obviously, what he did was wrong and he deserved to lose his job—years ago. Since the scandal, aside from his input on the above-mentioned Zehme article, Greene has virtually disappeared from the Chicago media scene he once dominated. He did publish a new book, Fraternity: a Journey in Search of Five Presidents (Crown, 2004), which collects his musings on and interviews with Presidents Nixon through George H.W. Bush. I haven’t read it. The reviews I’ve seen were polite at best, indifferent at worst. If Greene decides to continue his career in journalism, it’s certain that he’ll be playing to a much smaller audience than he previously enjoyed.

I will admit to having very mixed feelings. Greene’s transgressions disgusted me. Like millions of other readers, I believed in what he wrote and believed that the writings reflected the writer. If I had the chance to shake his hand, I wouldn’t. Still, Bob Greene was one of my literary role-models and remains one of my favorite authors. By all means, look into his books. Just not too far. I guess this is where I trot out that old English Department warhorse about having to separate the man from his work.

All I know is, his books still bring me comfort. When I open the paper each day, I miss reading his column. And I feel wrong for doing so.


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