Tracking the signs of our phantasmagorical times

BOB Greene is a journalist who notices the not-so-obvious and then begins asking questions: ``One day there was a whole country filled with men who knew how to carve roasts. The next day the same country was filled with men who couldn't carve a roast if a gun was held to their heads. Who taught our fathers? Why didn't our fathers teach us?''

Mr. Greene is a Chicago-based syndicated columnist who just published his second best seller (``Cheeseburgers,'' Atheneum, $13.95) containing such discourses on what might be called the signs of our phantasmagorical times. He compiled the collection -- his seventh book -- while doing his Chicago Tribune column (carried in 200 papers and growing), performing regular broadcasts for ``ABC News Nightline,'' and writing a monthly column, ``American Beat,'' for Esquire magazine.

He is so curious about such diverse topics -- what's the Alamo like in the middle of the '80s? What's on Richard Nixon's mind besides Watergate? What's so hot about the Eastern Airlines shuttle? -- that he goes to take a look. The surging success of what he writes after he finds out suggests that others want to take a look along with him.

When Greene started writing his column nearly a decade ago, he made one resolution: Interested in what affects him ``viscerally -- as a person, not necessarily a journalist'' -- he says, ``I would try to tell the same story in the newspaper that I would want to tell my friends later on. . . .''

One thing that sets Greene apart from other well-known syndicated columnists is that his topics cut a swath across politics, sports, family life, education, and pop culture. In doing so, they explore that gap behind the headlines and in front of statistics and demographic shifts where the true humanness, irony, and humor of America reside. What's it like to learn to read for the first time at age 65? Is an American Express platinum card any more valuable than the gold? How do you explain Topo Gigi o (the Pillsbury Doughboy-like mouse on the old ``Ed Sullivan Show'') to an 18-year-old?

More than just a storyteller, Greene likes to ferret out the stories that measure the direction of an entire society. Rather than just telling you that shopping malls are the social epicenters of the '80s, he cavorts there with two teen-age boys for an entire day, describing their every encounter. Or he finds an obscure news item and tries to uncover its broader import.

Example: ``Sometimes the small news items speak more eloquently of what is going on,'' he wrote in one daily offering. ``And so it is that the most telling and symbolic story of the year is the mugging of Howdy Doody.''

Now, you might not have been particularly interested in a story about Howdy Doody, but you may, based on that lead sentence, find yourself reading the next line, then the next and the next, until you've finished the piece. Moved, touched, surprised, delighted, you begin to read another. And you find that Greene's treatment of such specific topics emphasizes universal concerns: home, love, fame, food, best friends, idols, change.

He often tries to assess that change by asking where we are and where we started. What happened to the old ``Dick and Jane'' books? Whatever happened to the Viewmaster, that binocular-like device that showed pictures when you held it up to light? Where's Fess Parker, the actor who played Walt Disney's ``Davy Crockett''? (Answers: Dick and Jane were phased out in the '60s by pressure from women's and civil rights groups; Viewmasters are still going strong with the latest 3-D rendition of Michael Jackson' s ``Thriller''; Fess Parker sells mobile homes.)

Greene's technique often involves asking questions about things he sees, then following up by going beyond where most journalists would stop. Traveling through Texas, he heard a local radio station asking listeners what they would do to meet members of M"otley Cr"ue, the heavy-metal rock band. Listeners were invited to mail entries to the station. Greene called the station, got hold of some entries -- and more than just printing them, contacted the respondents.

``I would put together the most outlandish outfit made of nothing but leather straps, chains, and nails,'' one 19-year-old girl wrote. ``P.S. I would take a hammer so the guys can loosen the nails off my outfit.'' ``We seem to have come quite a distance from Herman's Hermits fan clubs and `I Want to Hold Your Hand,' '' Greene writes.

He writes in short, simple sentences without embellishment in a ``just the facts, ma'am'' style. His conclusions seem non-editorial and don't espouse causes. Humor and poignancy are rampant, but they seem inherent in the situations he writes about, not in a stylized or contrived view of them.

He has an uncanny way of writing about personal things -- his mother, his diary, his father's baby-shoe bronzing business -- without exuding ego. He always manages to touch the human element in a story without waxing sentimental -- an elderly couple's wedding, a grandmother who's joined the Playboy Club -- in ways that derive universal import from the particular incident.

Greene is wrapping up what he calls an uneasy stint on the other side of the microphone -- answering questions about how he developed his craft and why. The answers come short and staccato-style, like his prose. His shifting manner while answering questions lends credence to his observation that he is not as comfortable talking out loud as he is ``writing to discover what he thinks.''

Why should ``journalists'' and ``people'' be interested in different things?

``They shouldn't be, but they are,'' he says. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and has written about his longing to get out to the ``real world.'' He and his wife now live in downtown Chicago with their two children, but he is on the road constantly in search of material.

``Unfortunately, journalists are interested usually in some canned idea of what a good story is. As a person, viscerally you're interested in all kinds of things. You don't go around trying to put stuff in little categories.''

He has arrived for the last of a 19-city book tour wearing the same outfit he wore when still a journalism freshman at Northwestern University: blue, pinpoint Oxford cotton shirt, loosened tie, corduroy pants, Weejuns (he has written about his inability to feel comfortable in anything else).

He says there is a reason so many people write about the same things. ``It seems like if there's a debate about the MX missile in Congress, you'll read 30 columns about it in the next two days -- because that's supposed to be written. But I just don't do that, or politics. I try to just wander around and see things that really hit me first and do that.''

He speaks of innate sensors that tell him what a good story is, something that will ``touch people and speak to whatever is going on in our society.'' ``Keep it simple,'' ``Tell it like it is,'' ``No adjectives'' -- these are other phrases that pepper his conversation. ``You'll find me in the writing,'' he says, pointing to stories that reveal a sensitive and thoughtful inquiry.

And he speaks of growing up in the Midwest, and being based there, as aiding his journalistic development free from the pack.

``Most journalists tend to categorize their interests on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal, the [Washington] Post, and the [New York] Times -- that it's not news if it isn't there. I just don't agree with that.''

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