Gene Weingarten is a skilled magazine and newspaper feature writer and has been for a long time. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes and other honors. Still, describing the 20 pieces of his writing collected in The Fiddler in the Subway as “virtuoso performances” (as the book’s subtitle does) could have been a bad marketing call; it sounds so immodest.
However, fortunately for Weingarten and readers, it turns out that that description constitutes righteous bragging. Without exception, these features merit that praise. So does the seven-page introduction about Weingarten’s development as a reporter and writer.
I have read – nay, pored over – hundreds of collections by other skilled writers, including Jessica Mitford, Calvin Trillin, Madeleine Blais, Walt Harrington, Mike Sager, Susan Orlean, Mark Bowden, John McPhee, Edna Buchanan, Ron Rosenbaum, David Maraniss, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Gary Smith. Weingarten’s collection is now officially on my list of superb periodical narrative journalism available in book form.
The title feature story won the Pulitzer Prize two years ago. Its genesis: Weingarten, who is in his late 50s now, was exiting the subway in Washington, D.C., when he saw a middle-aged man in a grimy trench coat playing a Beethoven composition on an electric keyboard. The man obviously exhibited talent, and also obviously needed money. An open instrument case near his feet contained a couple of dollar bills and some coins. “People were scurrying past him as though he was some sort of annoyance,” Weingarten says in an introduction to his reprinted story. “When I dropped in a buck, his look of gratitude was heartbreaking.” (Each of the collected feature stories contains an introduction, and some contain a postscript. That is a value-added feature of the book that I appreciate.)
As Weingarten walked to The Washington Post that day, he got to thinking: “I bet if Yo-Yo Ma himself had been out there with his cello, dressed in rags, no one would have paid him any mind.” Weingarten then called Ma’s agent to carry out the experiment. But the details never fell into place. Instead, Weingarten set up the stunt with world famous violinist Joshua Bell.
As Bell played in the subway station, Weingarten watched covertly. He eventually interviewed some of the subway riders who stopped to listen and some who did not. During 43 minutes on a Friday morning as commuters headed to work, Bell played six classical pieces on his valuable violin. With help from a hidden camera, Weingarten eventually counted 1,097 passersby. I will not play the spoiler by mentioning how many stopped to listen and how many contributed money.
As for the other stories in the book: Weingarten contradicts the conventional wisdom, which states that “[a]sking a writer which of his stories is his favorite is said to be like asking a parent which of his children he loves the most.” In the introduction to the story placed first in the book, “The Great Zucchini,” Weingarten says of the conventional wisdom, “What a load of [garbage]. This is my favorite.” The Great Zucchini turns out to be a 30-something man who makes his living entertaining preschool-age children at birthday parties and the like. That man was born with the name Eric Knaus. In his private life, he is not somebody parents would want their children to meet, to trust. Knaus wondered, and perhaps Weingarten wondered, whether the uncomplimentary details in a somewhat positive story would constitute a career-buster. No problem. Knaus “had underestimated the willingness of parents to forgive the personal flaws of a man who loved their children, and whom their children loved,” Weingarten notes in a postscript. “The Great Zucchini has more business than ever.”
Weingarten’s range is impressive. He writes about Bill Clinton’s biological father, who died in an automobile accident before the future president was born. He writes about the apparent mistress of President Woodrow Wilson. He writes about why about half of all American citizens do not vote for political candidates, building the feature around one remarkably unremarkable nonvoter. He writes about his daughter going away to college, about the dignity of his father while dying, about politically oriented cartoonist Garry Trudeau, about parents punished for unintentionally leaving their infants in cars on hot days.
And all that is not the half of it.
Steve Weinberg is a feature writer in Columbia, Mo.