Dec. 28, 1986, is not a day that lives in infamy. At first glance, and at second glance, not much of interest happened. But then Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and humor columnist at The Washington Post, began digging and didn’t stop for years. The result is his fascinating “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America.” Mr. Weingarten described to Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga how he chose that day to chronicle, what he found, and the life lessons within.
Q: Where did you get the idea for the book?
Like all origin stories involving writers, this one involves desperation. My editor and I were bouncing ideas off each other for books, and I wondered what happened on May 17, 1957. He said that’s a good idea, try to find a single random day, the most irreducible unit of human experience really, midnight to midnight, and examine the idea of whether there’s even such a thing as an ordinary day. Or does every day encompass the full human condition?
Q: How did you choose the day?
My editor wanted to blindfold me and have me throw darts at a sheet of numbers. My feeling was that would open me to charges that I peeked. So we went to a restaurant with an old fedora and a bunch of crumpled pieces of paper. We had strangers, two of them children who happened to be dining with their parents, draw slips of paper out of a hat. We wanted a date that was far enough away that it felt like history but near enough that we could find living people who could remember.
Q: Were you disappointed at first?
As any journalist would tell you, the date was in that sleepy week between Christmas and New Year’s when we all know nothing happens. And it was a Sunday, which is also when nothing happens. It’s why back in the 1980s the newspaper would thud on your front porch six days a week like it was filled with gravel, and on Mondays it would settle like a leaf.
Q: You proved that notion wrong. Your book is full of gripping vignettes about heroism, tragedy, romance, redemption, and just plain weirdness. What was your most unexpected route to a story?
The most unusual one happened in my barber shop. It was just wildly fortuitous. I was talking to my very talkative barber, and I told her the date. She stopped cutting my hair and looked off into the distance. “I know exactly what I was doing and where I was,” she says, holding a big pair of scissors in her hands. “I was in prison.”
The story that spooled out was absolutely remarkable. Something happened that changed her life on that day, and she could prove it to me.
Q: What do you hope readers will take from the book, which includes tales of everything from crucial moments in the history of the football instant replay to an intellectual debate surrounding a Rhode Island weather vane?
We tend to take life for granted. But when you examine a day in this kind of microscopic way, you realize that we’re rushing through our lives so quickly that we don’t stop to understand the astounding experience of being alive.
Q: You’re not a religious guy. But do you think your book has spiritual import?
I’m going to answer you like the atheist I am: I think it’s a philosophically enlightening book. But if you want to call that spiritual, I won’t call you wrong.