The Lights of New York

Dan Barry loves New York with the same bug-eyed wonder that tourists gaping at the Empire State Building for the first time do. He also knows its back streets and the hardy folk who live and work there like a born and bred local. But the fact is that Barry isn't a local. An Irish American kid from Long Island, in many ways he's an eternal outsider looking in - and that's probably the secret of his success with The New York Times, where from June 2003 until November 2006 he wrote the celebrated "About New York" column. His new book City Lights (St. Martin's Press) is a collection of his best stories.

Gifted with a poet's eye for detail, and a historian's ability to see the ghostly connections between the past and the present, Barry can certainly write with facility about the glittering skyscrapers, but his point of view is almost always human scale and intimate.

Even in the greatest love affairs you sometimes have to look twice to see the beauty that's right in front of you. And so it is with New York City, a city so vast, so ostentatiously magnificent that sometimes it's essential to see it reflected through the written word, to make better sense of what you're actually seeing.

To see what's right in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle, wrote George Orwell, but for Barry it's second nature, or it seems to be. Barry's passion for New York illuminates every page of his new book, as time and again he succumbs to two of the most Irish of all impulses, to celebrate or lament (sometimes simultaneously).

As a collection, City Lights is as evocative and redolent of the true sights and sounds of the metropolis as the work of E.B. White and James Baldwin. There's passion beneath the words, and great good humor too, and the writing fairly crackles with the demonic energy of the city itself.

This week he spoke to the Irish Voice about his background and decision to release the new collection.

"I always knew I wanted to be a reporter, a famous magazine writer, but as you know there's no posting in the classifieds for a famous magazine writer," said Barry. "So for a few years after I graduated in 1980 I just banged around, I dug ditches, I worked in delis and I wound up going to graduate school at NYU on a poor boy's scholarship."

Born in Jackson Heights, Queens, Barry, 49, was raised in Long Island and graduated from St. Bonaventure University with a degree in journalism in 1980. Later at NYU he earned his master's degree and became a reporter for The Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecti-cut.

In 1987, he joined the Providence Journal-Bulletin, where he and the other members of the investigative team won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about Rhode Island's corrupt court system.

It was heady career path for a cub journalist, and he thrived on it. "It helped me recognize that working for a newspaper could be a lot of fun," says Barry.

"The rush of writing two or three stories a day was wonderful. I once feared deadlines - and a journalist really should - but I found myself thriving on the challenge of concisely reporting the details of some god-awful school board meeting the night before, for example."

Like any ambitious young journalist, Barry occasionally angled for a job at The New York Times, but he suspected that for them he was still something of an outsider, an Irish American from a working class background, not the kind of credentials immediately associated with the paper of record.

And his keen awareness of this fact found expression in the mischievous cover letters he sent to the Times enquiring about employment. One letter acknowledged how well the paper's "Book Review" on Sundays had cleaned his aunt's windows.

Another concluded that he was aware that The Times had a proud history of nepotism, then mentioning a distant cousin who worked loading the paper's trucks. It was almost as if he was daring them to abandon their assumptions or embrace change. Unsurprisingly, they didn't.

"Eventually I forgot about writing for The Times and I just applied to be a clerk instead. On the day of my interview for the job I walked up Eighth Avenue and just a few blocks from the building some guy stumbled out of the Port Authority bus station and spilled a bottle of Colt 45 beer all over my blazer," Barry recalls.

"My appointment was at 10 o'clock with a very stern woman, and here I am, this guy with an Irish surname, walking in smelling like I'd stopped somewhere along the way for a pick me up. I didn't get the job. I bet for a few years after that they had a photograph of me at the security guard's desk."

Blessed with such war stories, it's no wonder that Barry turned his hand to writing in the first place. His own parents' backgrounds read like two American everyman tales, and he tells them with obvious affection. Orphaned by the age of 15, Barry's mother was shipped off to an "evil aunt" in Brooklyn who used her like a scullery maid. But one night she attended a church dance and had the good fortune to meet her soon to be husband.

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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