Barry's father had endured a difficult Depression era childhood, usually staying just one step ahead of the bailiffs, and even spending a few years in an orphanage.
"My father came home a couple of times to find his mother sitting on the family couch - and the couch was on the sidewalk. Those kind of experiences teach you a lot about life," says Barry.
Through what he humorously calls a "clerical error" Barry was eventually hired by The New York Times in 1995. He held a variety of positions before landing the "About New York" column, including Long Island bureau chief and New York City Hall bureau chief. Since January of this year he has been writing the Times's weekly "This Land" column for which he focuses on obscure spots throughout the country.
What distinguishes City Lights is Barry's clearly boundless curiosity about everyday New Yorkers. That curiosity leads him through the most high-toned neighborhoods in Manhattan to the most deprived.
From the pungent sea air of the Fulton Fish Market to the Hudson River via Tribeca and Greenwich Village, City Lights savors Manhattan as though it were a particularly graceful dish, and indeed part of his great appetite may be explained as the grateful reprieve of a cancer survivor - Barry successfully survived a recent bout with a tumor of the trachea.
Many of his stories also reference or record the heartbreaking experiences of survivors of 9/11, another terrifying harbinger of destruction that stopped America - and especially New York - in its tracks.
Barry's richest gift is his ability to see the remarkable in the ordinary. Here's how he describes the cheap black umbrellas that street vendors sell when it rains in the city: "But where do all these umbrellas come from? Especially those cheap black umbrellas, you know the ones, with the incomplete question mark for a handle and the silvery pop up button so poorly made that it surprises you every time it works? The ones that end up in the garbage-can nests, looking like splayed crows?"
It's exceptional writing, unflashy, focused and insightful - but it's also deeply poetic, seeking out what connects us to each other and to life. It's the kind of writing that knows how to look twice too, because - as Barry shows us - that's often what it takes to see the beauty right in front of us.
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