What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 16, 2011

September 12, 2011 Issue

Of the dozen Talk stories in this week’s 9/11-commemoration issue, the one I like most is Ian Frazier’s “Passengers.” It’s about a bus driver, Salvatore Siano, known as Sal. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Sal was driving his bus into New York City. As he approached the city on Route 3,

he saw the smoke rising from downtown. By the time he reached the tunnel, it had been closed, and Sal had received a call from another driver telling him about the first plane. Wedged in heavy traffic, Sal managed to back the bus onto an entrance ramp, turn around, and retrace his route, dropping the passengers at their stops and returning their tickets or cash fares along the way.

Before this incident, Sal was known for his colorful, outgoing personality. As Frazier says,

When he drove, Sal reconfigured his bus as his living room, lining the dashboard with toy ducks, chatting over his shoulder with passengers, and sometimes keeping snowballs handy to throw at policemen through the open door. He used to caution children, “I am not a role model!” His travel-guide monologues upon arrival at the Port Authority Bus Terminal – “Welcome to sunny Aruba! Don’t forget your sunblock! Cha-cha-cha!” – won him minor fame.

For a while after September 11, Sal “stopped joking around on the bus.” Frazier says, “When asked why, he grew sad and dispirited, and said that he was too emotionally caught up in the tragedy. Eventually, he began to joke again.”

Frazier has written about Sal before. In his great “Route 3” (The New Yorker, February 16 & 23, 2004; included in Frazier’s terrific 2005 collection Gone To New York), he describes him as follows:

Sal is short and has a boyish (though graying) shock of hair. His movements are more antic than usual for a bus driver. Sal is the only bus driver I know of who seems to notice what’s along the road. When he sees something that interests him, he takes up the microphone and announces it to the passengers. Colorful Halloween displays, Christmas lights, a yard full of yellow and purple crocuses, the Goodyear blimp over Giants stadium – all rate an excited mention by Sal, followed by his usual exclamations: “Oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy!”

In “Route 3,” Frazier talks about September 11’s impact on Sal:

For a while after September 11, Sal quit doing his antic announcements. His bus pulled into the station in silence, with the passengers waiting to expectantly but in vain. The loss of Sal’s announcements, minor as it was, saddened me out of proportion. Without some silliness, what is life for? Later, though, to general relief, Sal went back to giving what he calls his “spiels.”

In “Passengers,” Frazier visits Sal at his apartment in Clifton. Sal is now retired. He talks to Frazier about 9/11. He says:

“The other day, I was remembering this one passenger from Upper Montclair who always got on at the Norwood Avenue stop, by the public library. After the attacks, I read in the paper – someone must have told me his name – that this man had passed away. He was such a pleasant human being. A man about my height, wore glasses. I had seen him just the week before. The obituary in the Times said this man volunteered to work in homeless shelters, and sometimes slept in them to experience what they were like.” (Here Sal began to cry.) [I confess, I felt emotion starting to well up inside me, too.] “When I read that, I knew that my instincts about him had been right. I remember him whenever I go by Norwood and the library.”

Most writers would’ve been content to end their story on that note. But Frazier isn't "most writers." He shifts his focus to the passenger, and says:

The passenger’s name was Howard L. Kestenbaum. Along with the names of nearly three thousand other people who died that day, his is inscribed on a granite wall at the edge of the memorial garden in Eagle Rock Reservation, a county park in nearby West Orange, at the top of a ridge with a clear view of Lower Manhattan. “He had a wife and daughter, and they are special people, too,” Sal continued. “I still see them around Montclair on a regular basis. When ever I do, I embrace them and give them a kiss on the cheek.”

“Passengers” is a marvelous piece – a touching tribute to Siano and Kestenbaum, and a wonderful companion to Frazier’s brilliant “Route 3.”

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