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The New Yorker offices were then on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. In those halls it was still the old martini-fueled New York, writers sleeping it off on daybeds. I would deliver mail and packages around the city or lounge around in the messenger room, which was as forlorn as a train station out in the sticks. The messenger department was run by a wispy guy who protected his boys, most just out of college. We argued, competed, complained. Between errands, I ducked into the magazine's library, where I tried to give myself the education I had not gotten at college.

The most revered figure at the magazine was Joseph Mitchell, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote his mystical stories about the lost characters of New York, legendary books of reporting on rats and shad fishermen and eel pots. Joe Mitchell published his last story in 1963, and his books had since gone out of print. You had to hunt for them in secondhand bookstores; there was a kind of underground traffic in his work. By the time I reached the magazine he had become a sainted figure, an elegant man with white hair, often in seersucker, who seemed to reflect a distant world. He came into the office each morning and worked at his typewriter all day and produced nothing. To ask after his writing was considered bad form, so I admired him from afar, his comings and goings, past and present. I knew he had grown up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, that he began his career during the Depression as a reporter for one of the now defunct New York dailies. I had been in search of the real world beyond the theme park which has taken the place, or so it seems to me, of every city and town in America. In Joseph Mitchell, I at last found proof of this other world--of the authenticity that Jamie too was after. His writing was modern and exotic, a guide to a city that had ceased to exist, a Constantinople lost under decades of advertising and noise.

One afternoon, though I had been told Joseph Mitchell was a recluse and the last thing he wanted was to be bothered by someone like me, I said, "To hell with it," and went to his office. I was nervous, of course--about the possibility of an icy reception and how the real man might shatter the image. But when I knocked, the door flew open and Mitchell leaned back in his chair and said, "Come in, come in," as if he had been waiting for me. He wore a rumpled suit, the sleeves rolled up, his eyes the same soft blue as the fabric. I explained my admiration for his writing, and he asked about my hometown and told me about his. He got excited as he talked and rubbed his palm along his bald head and stammered, as if the right words eluded him. When he could not explain just what he wanted to say, he showed me photographs of old New York, pier sheds and town houses. Pointing to a sign high on a brick wall, he said, "That is a ghost sign. It advertised a store that had already been gone for eighty years. To me such signs have always been strange and scary."

I told Joe Mitchell my biggest fear--that I had reached the city too late and that the world itself had become a kind of counterfeit. "I felt just the same when I got to New York," he said. "I was too late. I said it to myself again and again: 'Too late. Too late. Too late.' And then one day, in these offices, way up on the wall, I noticed those same words, 'Too late.' And I began seeing those words everywhere: 'Too late. Too late. Too late.' I found out it was James Thurber, from a world far older than mine, who had been writing them. So you see, even Thurber thought he had come to the city too late. And the people before Thurber? Well, they thought they had come too late too! That's the human condition. Wherever you go, you are by definition too late. You missed the whole show. Which, if you think about it, means that wherever you go, you cannot help but be right on time."

"The Education of a Writer"

It might be said that the literary career of Richard Cohen was born in the eye of a storm. More precisely, The New Yorker magazine, around the start of last century's penultimate decade. Much had transpired in the years leading up to his arrival. After sixty-five years of constancy, the storied magazine changed owners and directions. It's second editor (only the second!), the legendary William Shawn, was deposed in favor of a younger if not necessarily hipper sort, book publisher Robert Gottlieb. The editorial changes that followed have been chronicled so thoroughly that it has become for the insular world of magazine publishing a species of modern history roughly equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Richard came to The New Yorker in the midst of these upheavals, and it was during this time that I came to know him. He was nearly two decades my junior, but a shared sensibility and a similar taste in authors cleared the way for a friendship that still endures. There were certain things about him that one noticed right away--a mid-western openness tempered with big-city irony, an often dazzling wit, an inscrutable fondness for the Chicago Cubs. He was hungry for writerly experience, and eager to distance himself from a world that was too confining. In a profile of Joseph Mitchell for The Oxford American, his backward glance at the Chicago suburb where he grew up occasioned some of his best writing:

It's a place devoid of an epic heritage. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a seedy or shameful or interesting quarter in this town. There no dark alleys, no teeming streets, no outdoor markets or bazaars. Like most suburban-spawns, my early life lacked variation and adventure. Anything seen as dangerous or subversive was corralled and contained in the library or movie house.
His most conspicuous trait was a passion for good sentences -- reading them -- and making them. It must have been a heady time for a twenty-two- or-three-year-old who suddenly found himself working for a magazine he'd read greedily since adolescence, the magazine that gave shape to his young imaginings and fed his dreams of wanting to be a writer. I never heard him come right out and say it, but I have little doubt that -- at least subconsciously -- he felt it his destiny to be walking the halls where E. B. White, James Thurber, Liebling had walked. It was not so much a job as a legacy.

This was never so apparent as when he discovered Mitchell. It was one of those remarkable revelations, once common among devout men of austere religious orders, and now reserved for worshipers of the printed page, serious readers and aspiring writers hunched over library tables. In The New Yorker library is a repository of thick bound scrapbooks containing the every word that every writer has ever published in the magazine. For a time it was impossible to walk past Richard's desk without seeing an imposing stack of such volumes atop it, all but obscuring him from view. Book by book, he was reading through the work of White, Thurber, Ian Frazier, George Trow, and seemingly everyone in between. But it was Mitchell who proved to make the most profound impression, they were his sentences that became lodged in the reader's consciousness, defining once and for all what it meant to be a writer. Through scrapbooks, some as much as seven inches thick, he devoured the tales and reportage which had later been collected in such classics as JOE GOULD'S SECRET, THE BOTTOM OF THE HARBOR, and McSORLEY'S WONDERFUL SALOON. These books would shortly be republished after many years of being out of print, thus heralding a much deserved, if belated, re-acknowledgement of the author in his final years. It was a wonderful piece of symmetry -- and good fortune -- that their careers overlapped. By this time the legendary writer had lapsed into silence, but it was rumored that he was working on something, perhaps a grand summing up, a monumental masterpiece. He'd gotten used to being sought out by the curious -- fans, journalists, young people who dared to become writers and hoped, faint-heartedly, to catch a glimpse of the old magic at work. Richard seemed to occupy another category altogether -- a serious young writer who knew he had talent, someone less interested in magic than in mastering the craft of writing. This alone fueled the feverish foraging through those piles of scrapbooks; it was the motive behind his seeking out every writer he could find who might be inclined to disclose something about work habits and perhaps lend an ear to a younger man's vision of the future.

When he began to publish in the magazine it was clear that he'd learned quickly and well. His pieces for the "Talk of the Town" and "Notes and Comment" revealed a plucky sure-footedness and surprising range. Soon he was writing for other publications as well, travel pieces, profiles, journalistic snapshots of contemporary Americana. Overnight, it appeared, he developed a style, a brand of reporting that owed more to journalism's golden era than to the present.

Richard was still in his early twenties when he left The New Yorker. What might have been one of those long marriages to the company that distinguished the careers of scores of predecessors was abruptly abbreviated. A week or so after his departure, I looked up what I think was his very first "Comment." It was an essay he'd composed in the aftermath of ex-Klansman David Duke's failed campaign for a seat in the state legislature of New Orleans. He wrote,

Duke has also reminded people that the electorate has baser instincts and that these are easily manipulated. In order to expand his constituency, such a candidate must soften his language and compromise his pronouncements. David Duke, whether he was telling the truth or not, was forced to disavow his past, and in the end this disavowal may be the saving grace of the entire incident: a reminder that, although democracy isn't capable of repressing evil, it seldom fails to dilute it.
I remember thinking, "We're going to miss this voice."

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