DATE April 14, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Edward Conlon discusses his book "Blue Blood" about his
career as a New York City police officer
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Edward Conlon, writes about what it's like to be a New York City cop
in his new memoir "Blue Blood." He joined the NYPD in 1995 and has patrolled
housing projects, worked in the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit and is now a
detective in the Bronx. He reflects on crime, danger and death with the skill
of a fine novelist. The best-selling crime writer, Ed McBain, described "Blue
Blood" as `a splendid recounting of Conlon's long years with the NYPD, a book
that resonates with a shattering ring of truth and reads surprisingly like a
Conlon first wrote about his work in a series of autobiographical pieces for
The New Yorker, published under a pseudonym. Let's start with a short reading
from his book, "Blue Blood."
Mr. EDWARD CONLON (Author, "Blue Blood"): `When you arrest someone, it's like
a blind date. You spend a few hours with a stranger a few feet apart saying,
"Tell me about yourself." You ask, "How much do you weigh?" and "Are you a
gang member? Really? Which one?" So maybe I haven't been on a blind date
for a while. But you do hold hands for a few minutes as you take prints,
rolling each fingertip individually, then four fingers together, flat and the
thumb flat at the bottom of the card: three cards for adults, four for
juveniles. You coat a plastic plank lightly with ink, rolling it from a pad,
then take each finger, relax and roll it on the plank and then on the card. A
lot of people try to help you, rolling the fingers themselves, which usually
smudges the impression. Sometimes that's their intent. Crackheads often
don't have useable prints with fingers burnt smooth from gripping the red-hot
glass pipe. Junkies coming down can go into a whole body cramp and have hands
as stiff as lobster claws. Perps collared for robbery or assault might have
bruised, swollen and bloody fingers. You try to be gentle, and you wear latex
GROSS: That's Edward Conlon reading from his new memoir, "Blue Blood," about
his life as an officer on the NYPD.
You know, it sounds like there's a surprising intimacy with the people that
you arrest. Do you feel that way usually?
Mr. CONLON: Well, sometimes. You spend a lot of time with them, and if it
goes right, you spend even more time. I mean, every time you arrest someone,
you're going to spend hours in the cell and hours bringing them down and hours
after that talking to them to try and get them to talk about what they did and
what else they might know about what other people are doing. So you try and
be closer to them sometimes, and it's in their best interest.
GROSS: You usually also see people at their worst, at their most violent or
their most vulnerable. In fact, I'm going to ask you to tell the story of the
elderly woman who you walked in on on a call, and basically she was alive, but
she was decomposing in her own bed.
Mr. CONLON: Yeah. That was, really, just about the most terrible thing that
I've seen. There was an aided case, which is a medical call. We would escort
EMS into the projects when they came. It was called an aided case. And in
this one I wasn't sure what the original call was. I was just one of the
officers who went along with the ambulance. And we went in, and it was this
big apartment. It was a housing project, but I think it was a three- or
four-bedroom apartment, so it just had a huge feel to it. You were walking
down the halls, and there's room after room after room. And, finally, when we
got to the last bedroom, there was what we know as the DOA smell or the smell
of a dying body.
And the EMS was already there, and a couple of the paramedics were around the
body and they were crying, which was not something you usually see because,
you know, these are people who see bodies in pieces and dead babies, really,
as a matter of course, so this had to be something exceptional. And it was.
In this case, there was this old woman who was on a bed, and it was just a
plastic sheet, kind of bare, and she was emaciated. I mean, she was once a
kind of heavy woman, but she really just looked deflated the way the skin hung
on her. And so they were lifting her off that plastic sheet. And then she
started to moan, and there were maggots all over her. And maggots only eat
dead tissue, so this woman literally was dying bit by bit, and she'd been left
And the really terrible thing was that she didn't live alone. She had a
granddaughter, I believe, and also her daughter, who were in and out. And so
the granddaughter had called the cops, and we weren't maybe as polite as we
might have been because she just took this kind of pouty teen-ager tone
and--said, `Well, why didn't you call the ambulance?' And she said, `Well,
I'm the one who did.' `So why didn't you give her anything to eat?' She
said, `She wasn't hungry.' `Well, why didn't you call an ambulance before
then?' `Oh, my mother said not to.' And this family had kept her there
because the checks went through her. She got all kinds of subsidies for the
apartment, for the grandkids, for everybody. She was where the money came
from, so they held on to her as long as they could.
GROSS: What does it do to you to always see people at their worst?
Mr. CONLON: Well, people don't call the cops when they're happy, and that's
sort of the fact of the job. So it can skew your perspective a little bit
because something terrible has usually happened, whether it's your house has
been broken into or a relative has died. You just see pretty much the worst
all the time when you're responding to a job. And that's actually why I liked
walking a beat so much, especially earlier in the career, because you got to
see the ordinary life and the better parts of people's lives just walking
around. And people would say `Hello,' and they were happy to see you most of
GROSS: After working as a beat cop, you worked for the Street Narcotics
Enforcement Unit. What was the job?
Mr. CONLON: That was to catch drug dealers through what were called
observation sales. We would go to a rooftop or into an apartment and look out
the window and watch the corner, watch the lobby or wherever they were selling
and--pretty much crack and heroin in the South Bronx at the time. And it was
interesting work. You'd have somebody in the observation post, or OP, and you
would just watch to see what happened. I mean, we knew most people. We knew
most of the places. And you would see the guys on the corner, and somebody
would come up and buy, and you'd tell somebody in the catch car to go pick
them up a couple blocks away.
And the other way the police department does it, those kind of operations, is
called buy and bust, where an undercover makes a buy and people swoop in
afterwards and pick up the dealer. But this is more--we didn't have
undercovers in the precinct level, and this is more amateur in a way and
interesting in another way because you saw everything. You just got to see
how the whole set worked. And it was almost like a nature show, you know,
when--the felony ecology of the streets. You would see who was the lookout
and who was the manager. And, you know, if this crackhead came up and they
might have a guy on a bicycle, follow him for a block or two to see if we were
watching. And sometimes you felt like you were, you know, the boss watch--or
the casino watching all the tables to see whose luck was too good and which
guy was standing there purposely and which guy was making a move and which
guy's the guy you should keep on watching.
GROSS: How did you get to watch without being seen yourself?
Mr. CONLON: Well, sometimes we worked in plain clothes, and you could
just--you know, we were a, you know, pretty mixed unit: a Jamaican guy, an
Irish guy, Italian guy, black woman and a couple of Puerto Rican guys who
are--one of them--one Puerto Rican, one was Shorter Rican, as he was called by
the other Puerto Rican because he was a little bit shorter than the rest of
us. But we could sometimes--you know, when you fit into a neighborhood like
this, there's, you know--the black and Hispanic cops had obviously a lot more
freedom of movement than the white guys. But sometimes you could, you know,
just get on housing authority work or coveralls and walk in the building with
a mop, or you could get a Con Ed helmet and march down the street like that,
or, you know, sometimes if I was in uniform, I would just walk into a building
with a big bag of Dunkin' Donuts. So they didn't expect me to be working too
hard. But you get in, you set up and you wait and you wait and you wait and
you wait. Sometimes it's very busy, and sometimes it's slow for a while.
GROSS: You know, I so often see cops or security guards whose job is to just
watch all day, and I think, `How do they keep focused?' How did you keep
focused when you were just observing?
Mr. CONLON: Well, you have a point to it. I don't think I could do that if I
just had to stand there and watch for anything. But when you have to watch
for something in particular and you know that something is going to happen or
you have to figure out why something isn't happening--is it because they're
out of drugs? Is it because they heard a cop car go by two or three blocks
away? And is that related to them, or is there some robbery a couple blocks
away. Or did Narcotics just come through? And are they afraid and are they
right? And was the last customer who just came up to them--was he really an
undercover? Were they right or wrong about that? So as long as they're out
there and you see them and you know the way it goes on this corner and you
know the people are going to be there, there's a point to watching.
GROSS: My guest is Edward Conlon. His new memoir is called "Blue Blood."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Conlon. He's a police
officer with the New York Police Department, now a detective, and he also
writes. He's written for The New Yorker and now has a new memoir, which is
called "Blue Blood."
You said that one of the more dangerous things, you know, in your line of work
is when you have to bust down a door, and you're the first person in and you
really don't know what awaits you on the other end. Can you tell us one of
the stories of how that played out for you?
Mr. CONLON: Well, doing search warrants really are, to me, the most exciting
part of the job because as much homework and research you do about what's on
the other side of the door, you don't know what's on the other side till you
knock it down. And there may be guns there, may be drugs, there may be even
more fighting. There may be old people or kids who aren't supposed to be
there. So when people talk about the most dangerous and difficult part of the
job, I mean, I've been in some awful situations, but the things that frighten
me most are the idea of something like that happening where--we did one search
warrant where the guy--we had the guy identified, and he was on parole for
robbery. He was moving a fair amount of heroin. He was supposed to be living
alone, and, you know, we hit the door and he wasn't there. There was just
this elderly Spanish woman, who began clutching her heart and
hyperventilating. And so, you know, we immediately called for an ambulance,
but we're there. And she said that she lived alone. She didn't even have any
And so we were really, really concerned, and we called for an ambulance and
then saw a lot of men's clothes around, so we knew she wasn't telling the
truth either. So I went through the closet, the closet that had all the men's
clothes in it, and began taking things apart and found a big brick of heroin
and a brand-new .45 in a shoe box. So you never know how right your informant
is or how wrong he is until you're on the other side of the door. And once we
found the heroin and the gun, the old lady felt a lot better.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CONLON: She began speaking in a more calm and normal voice and, you know,
claimed that the couple of thousand dollars that we found was really hers and
it wasn't her son's. And then the son actually came back because he saw the
ambulances and was afraid that his mother was sick, though she was feeling
much better. He walked in and we said, `Who's she to you?' And he said,
`She's my mother.' `Do you live here?' `Yeah.' `Congratulations, you're
GROSS: When you make an arrest, you not only try to get information from the
person you've arrested. You often try to get them to inform on other people
and maybe to be a more long-term snitch. Can you tell us something about the
best snitch you ever had?
Mr. CONLON: Let's see. Well, the ones who are still working, obviously, I
can't give up too much about, but they tend to be--the ones that I've had the
longest relationships with were just sort of inconspicuous and sad people who
could move around a neighborhood and never attract any suspicion, really,
because dealers look down on junkies, and, you know, they give them what they
want and they move along. And certain kinds of neighborhood characters can
move in just about any of the spots that are out there.
Then there are the more--one woman who we called Sol(ph) was another one of
these neighborhood people who'd been around forever and knew everyone. And I
think probably because she was a woman, she wasn't taken as a threat in the
same way a guy could be. But she was also kind of a serious criminal herself
when she was younger. I mean, she would do gunpoint stickups, and she
would--I think her mother did, too. But the whole family was involved with
crime and drugs. And she was just pretty ruthless. I mean, she once gave up
her nephew who was wanted for a stabbing by going to a family party and
claiming to be calling a taxi but instead calling the precinct and say, `OK, I
need that pickup at 123 Smith Street' as a pre-arranged signal. So not a lot
of sentiment involved in this kind of business.
GROSS: What can you offer in return to someone who gives you information?
Mr. CONLON: Two things: money and freedom.
GROSS: How much money do you have to offer somebody for that?
Mr. CONLON: Well, it varies. I mean, when I was on patrol and in SNEU, it
was pretty much all out of pocket. In Narcotics, they would pay them
basically a hundred bucks for a search warrant. And now the city is putting a
lot of money...
GROSS: Does that mean a hundred bucks for enough information to get a search
warrant? Is that...
Mr. CONLON: Yeah, for a search warrant, that worked out well where we got
something. But now the city's giving out a thousand bucks for a gun, and
that's a program that we've gotten a lot of mileage out of. If you know
anybody who has a gun and you call it in and you work it out with a detective
to make sure that it's got, you got a thousand bucks, which has worked pretty
GROSS: Well, what do you like about that system?
Mr. CONLON: Well, it puts a real incentive to get the gun off the street.
And people may be fond of their friends or not too fond of their ex-boyfriend
or whoever has the gun, but it's moved a good amount of guns off the street.
GROSS: Do you respect your snitches? Do you think they're doing the right
Mr. CONLON: Well, you never know what you would do yourself if you were
forced into their particular corner. Some of them are pretty cold-blooded,
but some of them are just sad. You know, they're junkies or they've just
decided for one reason or another that they're not going to do the time.
They'd rather be with their kids or rather be with their wives or rather be
with their families, even though they haven't spent a lot of time till now
with them. But they think maybe in the future they'll get to make up for it.
GROSS: You write that in some ways the cop code and the criminal code reflect
each other in a fun-house mirror. And you're talking there, in part, about
what respect means to the cop and to the criminal. Can you talk about that a
Mr. CONLON: Well, respect--I mean, they do resemble each other in a certain
way. But I really don't know what respect means sometimes out in the street,
in the ghetto. I mean, there was one drug dealer when I was a beat cop, I
locked him up once or twice. But I'd see him out there and I'd nod to him,
just to show, as far as I was concerned, that I saw him there. But he used to
tell me, you know, `You're all right, Conlon. You respect me,' which was just
not true. I didn't respect him. But, I mean, I treated him fairly, and I
didn't arrest him when he didn't have drugs. But, I mean, if that was his
idea of respect, you know, so it goes. But sometimes it means a lot less. It
just means that you're not attacking me on sight whenever you feel like it.
You know, that's not my idea of respect.
But, yeah, cops, especially when they're out in the street, when they are
walking alone walking beats, they do have to make sure that it's understood
that people won't even begin to try that; I mean, that people won't jump them,
that people won't come after them. So, in that sense, a sense of respect of
keeping your distance, because you know you're going to get worse than what
you give, that has to be communicated.
GROSS: How hard was it for you to get respect from people on the street?
Mr. CONLON: I don't know. I mean, I walked there--I was there for a couple
of years, so people got to know me.
GROSS: You talking about the housing project now?
Mr. CONLON: Yeah. Yeah. And, also, I mean, I was 30 years old when I
started. So, I mean, I wasn't a kid, really. So I didn't really have much of
a chip on my shoulder. I didn't talk to people; just say `Hello' and walk by.
But, you know, you do get into these confrontations, especially if there's a
group of guys. And that was the kind of classic and exhausting part,
antagonism of the beat. You walk by a couple of guys who may be drinking
beers and may be playing the radio, and you walk by and say, `Listen, guys,
you've got to keep it down. We've had complaints.' And maybe you have and
maybe you haven't, but you know you will if they keep going.
So it's just sort of a test to see if they're going to respect you because
you've given them some respect. You've talked to them nicely and asked them
for some accommodation but not to break up the party completely and just see
how that goes. And maybe they will, and maybe they'll keep it down and they
say, `All right. Thanks. Take care.' Or usually, very often, somebody will
mouth off. You know, `F you. What are you going to do about it?' And then
that's when the respect comes in. You've got to turn around and talk to them.
And maybe they'll back down again and say they're sorry, and maybe the guys
will jump in and say, `Don't mind him. He's a little drunk.' As long as
there's a reaction that shows respect, then, you know, you can say, `OK, guys,
take it easy,' and move along. But otherwise, you know, that's when...
GROSS: But it sounds like a lot of people are just going to challenge you,
Mr. CONLON: Yeah. And, you know, sometimes you can laugh and ignore it, and
other times it's a kind of threat that you have to address, I mean, not in an
angry way but just to stay there and show that you're not going to go away,
certainly not because they want you to.
GROSS: Edward Conlon's new memoir is called "Blue Blood." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, NYPD Detective Edward Conlon talks about his work after
September 11th looking for bones and body parts at the Fresh Kills landfill.
And we meet first-time novelist Kyle Smith. His book "Love Monkey" has been
described as the American answer to the British best-seller "High Fidelity."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Edward Conlon. His new
memoir "Blue Blood" is about his work with the New York Police Department.
Before becoming a detective, he patrolled housing projects in the South Bronx
and worked on the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit.
Part of your memoir deals with what you did after September 11th and you were
assigned to go to the Fresh Kills landfill, where all the remains were sent
and to be one of the people sifting through the remains looking for bones,
body parts and personal possessions in the dusted rubble. I'd like you to
read a short excerpt from that chapter.
Mr. CONLON: (Reading) `There was everything there and nothing. The dirt
wasn't even dirt, not earth but a blend of ash and dust. Concrete walls,
wooden desks, the people who sat behind them, broken, burnt and hosed down.
The largest pieces of structural steel were deposited off to the side, but
20-foot sections of I beams and concrete boulders the size of cars arrived on
the trucks. There were little things that had survived and big things that
hadn't, and there was a sense of the miraculous and the--What?--the
counter-miraculous? The steel head of a hammer seemed to be attached to a
head of human hair, wavy, greasy and gray fanning out like an old-fashioned
feather duster. What was this? I lifted it to show the mutant next to me in
the practiced pantomime of the deafening silent piles. Shoulder shrug.
"What?" Pointing. "This?" It was a freakish crossbreed, half hammer, half
wig. The goggle man lifted his mask to yell, "Fiberglas handle, heat on
Fiberglas handle." There was a lot of bones. There were yards and yards of
fire hose. There was white metal from the hulls of the planes. There was a
Toyota mashed flat, a lot of single shoes. There were all kinds of documents,
some in perfect condition, from Cantor Fitzgerald, Blue Cross-Blue Shield,
Aon. I found the personnel file for an Irish Williams with a reprimand for
being late in June 1992. I hoped Irish Williams was late on September 11th.'
GROSS: How long did you do this work, sifting through the rubble?
Mr. CONLON: Well, we were there from September I think through February,
February or March. March is when it closed down, I think. I think it was
GROSS: What was the hardest part of day after day going to the landfill and
looking for bones and remains?
Mr. CONLON: Oh, I don't think there were too many parts that weren't hard.
It was just an unreal scene, especially at first where we'd work 12-hour
tours. We'd either get there at dusk or at dawn, so you had these brilliant
sunsets or sunrises. And Fresh Kills is this kind of manmade garbage
mountain, this plateau that overlooks New York Harbor and ground zero as it
was just starting to be known then. And it was still burning. So it would be
dusk and you'd be on this trash mountain, and you'd look at the harbor and
you'd look at Statue of Liberty, and you'd look at the remains of the World
Trade Center burning. And F-16s would be going through the sky.
And it was always kind of windy there, and either this kind of gray dust
always was whipped through, and you're in these Tyvek suits, these white suits
and hard hats and goggles and masks. So we were--all sort of looked like
aliens, and looking at this very alien scene. And then you would just grab a
rake and move through the piles for 12 hours with these five-gallon buckets
next to you. And you would pick out something that looked like bone and you'd
throw it in, or you might find a credit card, or you might find personnel
files from, you know, Cantor Fitzgerald or any of these companies that were
there that just for--you just knew this was ordinary life for a few weeks
GROSS: How did you end up being assigned to this work?
Mr. CONLON: Because it was a crime scene. What--in Fresh Kills, all the
rubble from ground zero was trucked out and deposited to be examined for
primarily body parts, but also whatever else--identifiables, we called them.
Initially they talked about hoping to find the black box, but you stopped
hearing about that after a while. And this was a crime scene, and detectives
are in charge of a crime scene.
GROSS: As important as the work was, did you feel like that's what you should
have been doing?
Mr. CONLON: There were times, probably at 5 in the morning on cold days when
you had been digging and digging and digging and towards the end you found
less and less, where you wondered if this was something that you had to be
doing. But somebody had to, so you went ahead. You had all these great
Salvation Army volunteers, too, who came up and ran the mess tents and so
forth and had all their Salisbury steaks and these kind of funny foods that I
hadn't seen since my New York childhood, all these casseroles and fun foods.
And they were just such decent people, and they didn't have to be there,
either. So it was always nice to see them there and, you know, you'd shake it
off and get a little bit of perspective.
GROSS: You were one of several people in your family who became cops. Your
great-grandfather was a cop. You have at least one uncle who was a cop. Your
father was an FBI agent. Why do you think that's the kind of job that
sometimes runs in families, that generations do it?
Mr. CONLON: Well, an easy guess might be that fathers come home and tell
stories about work, and it's certainly--I'm guessing there are better stories
than, you know, from the accounting firm. I certainly grew up on cop stories
even though my father wouldn't have wanted me to become a cop. And with my
great-grandfather, that was more interesting because he had, by his own
choice, sort of cut off that, you know, family pipeline. He'd left my
great-grandmother, and that's why he was more of a villain in the family lore
than the fact that he was pretty definitely not the most honest cop in the
world. I mean, when he retired, he went to run a horse room in Jersey. So he
was obviously not unfamiliar with the sporting life.
GROSS: Let me ask you something about your father. You had actually asked
for your family's Freedom of Information Act files, and your father, who
worked for the FBI, had a pretty thick file. I think it was from that file
that you learned that he was actually in a car accident and killed a woman,
Mr. CONLON: Yeah, he did.
GROSS: I mean, it was an accident, but...
Mr. CONLON: Yeah.
GROSS: But he never mentioned that to you.
Mr. CONLON: Never did. And that was certainly the most surprising thing in
the files, that, you know, he had run a woman over in the early-1960s, and a
completely innocent accident from all appearances, but also a truly horrifying
thing. From--the report said he was driving up Broadway at I believe 256
Street, which is right near where I live and a corner I've passed many, many
times without thinking about it, and now I pass thinking about it, where he
was driving up the street and an elderly couple was crossing and a car
speeding in the opposite direction made the woman jump back into the path of
his car. And, you know, it was--what was done was done. It was all reported
and investigated. But I asked my mother about it, and she said that he said
it was just the most horrible thing. He didn't believe it was happening as it
And I was interested in it just because--well, for a number of reasons. One,
because it had been hidden from me. But my father was a Marine in the Second
World War and then he was a G-man for almost 30 years. And he had never
killed anybody and never hurt anybody as far as I knew. And these are the
most exciting and dangerous seeming jobs you could imagine, and yet he runs
somebody over going home from work some day. And it just seemed odd and sad
that it had happened.
GROSS: Why do you think he never told you?
Mr. CONLON: I don't know. I mean, if it was nothing to be ashamed of, and I
have no reason to believe it is, I don't know why it wouldn't have found its
way into some cautionary tale about driving safety. You know, I didn't drive
at the time. I didn't even get a license till I became a cop, so there were
maybe no opportunities for it. I think he just felt terribly about it.
GROSS: When you found out about this story, did it make you feel any more or
less inclined to take risks at work knowing that for your father, the worst
tragedy happened as he was kind of just driving home, not on the job?
Mr. CONLON: Yeah, well, I think--I mean, I don't think there was anything
that I pulled back from of out fear. I mean, you know, you're careful and
you're thorough in your preparations and you go where you have to go. But it
does sort of incline you to the belief that a lot of stuff is out of your
hands, which you have to make sure as much as possible can stay in your hands
as has to be in your hands, but a lot of it's out of them.
GROSS: Let me ask you about your writing. I just want to say I think you
really write terrifically. Your writing for The New Yorker was done under a
pseudonym, I mean, for obvious reasons. You're a cop, and although you're not
under cover, you don't need to give away your identity and give away the
identities of the people who you work with in writing for a magazine. But
your new book is not written under a pseudonym. You're a detective now.
You're not doing street work like you were before. But are you afraid about
how it might affect your work as a detective to have your name out there?
Mr. CONLON: I wonder. You know, obviously it's a decision I made, but it
does concern me how it could affect my future police career, whether I'll be
on the stand and a defense lawyer will cross-examine me about whether I--what
I did for the story and if there's any discrepancy between a published version
and a police paperwork version. And mostly, you know, to challenge my
motives. Why am I here? Why have I done it? Why is he here? I mean, that's
what defense lawyers do, and, you know, you have to be ready for it. But it's
going to be a different cop life from now on, but I think I'll be able to
GROSS: Do you want to have more of a writer's life than a cop's life in the
Mr. CONLON: Well, one of the nice things about working full time as a cop was
that the time that I got to write was really a privilege I had to fight for.
I mean, I wasn't sitting home all day wondering how I'm going to fill this
page. It was, `Thank God, I've got a free hour. I've got a free afternoon.
I mean, let me get to it.' So, you know, when you're--you could think of work
as the big procrastination from writing or, you know...
GROSS: That's a lot of effort to procrastinate from writing.
Mr. CONLON: Yeah.
GROSS: So you worried what would happen if you gave up the work and you're
just facing the blank page?
Mr. CONLON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I like getting out a little bit every day.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CONLON: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Edward Conlon's new memoir is called "Blue Blood."
Coming up, Kyle Smith, the book and music review editor for People magazine.
His new novel, "Love Monkey," is about a writer for a daily tabloid.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Kyle Smith discusses his life and his new book, "Love
TERRY GROSS, host:
Kyle Smith's novel, "Love Monkey," is about a 32-year-old self-described
man-boy who stockpiles electronics, owns 43 T-shirts, watches "The Simpsons"
3.7 times a week and flosses 3.7 times a year. His most time-consuming hobby
is collecting ex-girlfriends, and when he actually falls for a woman, he
doesn't know quite how to handle it. The main character, Tom, writes for a
daily tabloid in New York. Kyle Smith is the music and book review editor for
People magazine. "Love Monkey" has been described as belonging to a new genre
known as lad lit. But our book critic Maureen Corrigan said, quote, "Give me
a break. We've had 2,000 years of canonical lad lit. Life as rendered in
writing from a male point of view is the oldest trick in the book. No, in
fact, what's hippest about `Love Monkey'--and I expect its chest-thumping guy
supporters to shudder at this analogy--is the deft way it resurrects and
updates the Dorothy Parker style of talking about New York City: brittle,
shrewd, self-deprecating and so very witty," unquote.
Let's start with a short reading from "Love Monkey."
Mr. KYLE SMITH (Author, "Love Monkey"): `I don't have a girlfriend now. I
played the field and the field won. This makes me slightly suspect. What's
wrong with me? Am I gay? I wish, non-stop guiltless action; plus, you get to
be good-looking and tasteful, and all you have to do is wear a condom, which I
seem to end up doing most of the time anyway. A lot of vaguely intellectual
feminist-y New York girls seem to think the pill is a male plot to give them
cancer or something, a conspiracy they discuss over cigarettes. Am I unable
to share my deep feelings? Do I lack any deep feelings in the first place?
Am I just picky? Possibly. But at 32, it starts to hit you. There's a fine
line between picky and loser.
`Despite my flaws, I've had a more or less standard number of girlfriends. I
have dated three different Jennifers, which puts me slightly below average for
a guy my age, and two Asian girls, way below average. I have dated girls who
quote Joni Mitchell and girls who quote Madonna, girls who cry inexplicably
and girls who go all women's studies on you if you call them girls; girls who
like to be taken to flashy parties and girls who like to stay home with Fred
`They all have two things in common. Every one of them was better looking for
a girl than I am for a guy, and every one of them has improved me in some way.
A few personality renovations I owe to them: stopped wearing white crew socks
with my khakis, began wearing belt every day, stopped wiping nose on sleeve
when anyone is looking; learned key girl terms, such as mule, bias cut, empire
waist, blowout, etc., essential to understanding most girl conversations.
`There are advantages to girlfriendlessness: no one to monitor alcohol
consumption; breakfast cereal not just for breakfast; can watch midget boxing
if I feel like it; very little time wasted discussing one's emotional issues
and picking at one's family-inflicted scar tissue; if want sexual experience
before I go to sleep, no need to be nice to hand all day; during, need not
feel obliged to call out my name; afterward, not required to hold myself for
one to two hours.'
GROSS: Well, Kyle Smith, now that you've made some of our audience laugh and
alienated the rest of our audience...
Mr. SMITH: That's my goal.
GROSS: That's your goal. You know, I'm wondering, like one of the reviews of
your book, the first line was, `Move over, Bridget Jones and all her chick lit
sisters.' Did you see your book as being like the male answer to chick lit?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, it is. It's "Bridget Jones" from the guy's point of view.
It's about a guy who works at a tabloid newspaper and is starting to wonder if
he has passed his sell-by date as a bachelor.
GROSS: Now the Nick Hornby novel, "High Fidelity," figures into your novel,
and "High Fidelity," the book, which was adapted into a film, is about a guy
who owns a used record store, has trouble with relationships and organizes
everything in his life into a series of top five lists. You write, `Every
girl I know has read this book, and they all want or think they want to meet a
guy like the guy in the book. More specifically, they want to meet the guy
who wrote the book.' What impact did "High Fidelity" have on you as a
Mr. SMITH: Well, it's...
GROSS: ...more particularly as the writer of this book?
Mr. SMITH: It was a tremendous impact. I remember when I picked up the book,
I was in Stratford-on-Avon in England in 1996, and I read it all the way
through on the train back to London, and it was just like an emotional
thunderbolt. It just hit me immediately in the heart, and I think a lot of
guys read this book and feel exactly the same way. It's like you're reading
your own life story, and if anyone feels that way about this book, then I've
GROSS: I'm paraphrasing here, but one of the things that he says is that you
can't really have a relationship with anybody unless their record collection
could talk to your record collection and get along. Do you feel that way
about relationships, too?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. There's so many things that can go wrong when people are
trying to meet and find a connection. You know, I know a girl who was set up
on a date with a guy who was both a lawyer and a documentary filmmaker. He's
tall and creative and rich and handsome. The girl went on one date with him.
She wouldn't even consider a second date because she said, `He smokes and he's
from Queens.' I know guys who can't take a girl seriously if she hasn't seen
"Apocalypse Now." I know girls who can't take a guy seriously if he's wearing
the wrong shirt.
GROSS: Do you have any criteria like that yourself?
Mr. SMITH: The longer you've been around, the longer you start to see that
you're no prize yourself and...
Mr. SMITH: ...you'd better look a little deeper. And I think the character
in "Love Monkey" is a guy who's started to plumb the depths of his own
shallowness and maybe he's a little bit better as a boyfriend at the end than
he is at the beginning.
GROSS: There's a passage in "Love Monkey" after the main character has met
the woman who he really falls for head over heels, and he describes what it is
that he loves about her. Would you read that passage?
Mr. SMITH: Sure. `She loves "Blue Velvet" but also "Meet Me in St. Louis,"
"The Virgin Suicides" but also "Powerpuff Girls." She has read Sylvia Plath,
but never interpreted her writing as a call to stop shaving her armpits.
She's on antidepressants but doesn't brag about it. She does not wear
glasses, but she wishes she did. She does not say "You do the math" or "At
the end of the day" or "Don't go there." She lost her virginity in a
treehouse. I want to buy her books and jewelry. Being with her is weird and
familiar at the same time, like a memory of the future. You know how when
you're young, you always think you're going to meet your ideal, you know, a
woman with great hair and clothes who doesn't talk about her hair and clothes,
a woman who does not believe "whatever" is a sentence, a woman who eats steak,
a woman who isn't trying to meet Wall Street guys, a woman who neither hates
her mother, nor is obsessed with pleasing her.'
GROSS: How did you put together that profile?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think those two paragraphs took months to write. Whenever
I would sort of think of a sentence that was part of this ideal, I would sort
of add it to the mix, and there was a lot of writing and rewriting. This is
one of the more difficult passages to write because it's not very jokey.
GROSS: Now I'm interested in that part that--how he's interested in a woman
with great hair and clothes who doesn't talk about her hair and clothes.
That's the paradox, isn't it?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. It really is. I mean, we're...
GROSS: You want the great hair and clothes, but, you know, you don't even
want somebody who talks about it or thinks about it.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. We're all superficial and we don't want to be reminded of
it, I guess.
GROSS: You know, one of the things your character loves about this woman is
that she likes "Blue Velvet" and "Meet Me in St. Louis." She likes "The
Virgin Suicides" and "Powerpuff Girls." I'm wondering if you think, on the
whole, that men and women of your generation have different tastes, and if you
can judge men and women who you know based on what they like.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, we probably shouldn't do that, but we all do. I mean, it's
so much a part of our lives, you know, these movies and things that we relate
to ourselves and we make so many assumptions about a person based on whether
it's the type of person who would prefer a David Lynch movie or a Farrelly
Brothers movie. But as I've always said, dating, to me, is 2 percent sex and
98 percent deciding where to eat, so it's the 98 percent you probably have to
GROSS: My guest is Kyle Smith. His new novel is called "Love Monkey." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Kyle Smith. His new novel, "Love Monkey," is about a
writer for a daily tabloid in New York. Smith is the book and music review
editor for People magazine.
You were actually in the Gulf War...
Mr. SMITH: That's right.
GROSS: ...which I wouldn't have guessed from reading your book.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: Because the character in the book does not seem like a character who
would voluntarily be in the military.
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I didn't work that into the book. It's actually not right
for the character. I'm not quite sure how I wound up in the Army myself. I
was a sort of left-wing pacifist growing up, and my hero was Hawkeye Pierce on
"M*A*S*H." And I wanted to go to Yale and I couldn't afford to do it without
an ROTC scholarship, and then much to my surprise, I was not only picked for
active duty, but I was sent to the Gulf.
GROSS: Did you feel like you were suited for the military?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, no, absolutely not. I actually wrote a memoir about being in
the Army, which is effectively like "David Sedaris Goes to War." I felt like
the worst person to be in uniform over there because I just wanted to read
books. I didn't want to kill anyone. I didn't even want to march. I can
barely, you know, keep pace with a running cadence.
GROSS: So what did you do in the war?
Mr. SMITH: I was a platoon leader in an adjutant general company. The
adjutant general is the branch of the military that keeps everyone's
paperwork, and when the killers went forward, they sort of left us behind, and
we were basically speed bumps in northern Saudi Arabia. We were speed bumps;
if the Iraqis had decided to move forward and plunge into Saudi Arabia, I
definitely would have had tank tracks right down my back.
GROSS: How did you deal with giving orders as a platoon leader?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I got better and better at it. I mean, they train you
pretty well to make decisions and to carry out orders and give orders and, you
know, saluting and the uniforms and everything. By the time you got through
advance camp and you've had all this drilled into you for six weeks, then you
kind of feel like you know something.
GROSS: You're comparatively short. Did that affect your sense of authority
or power or ability to defend yourself?
Mr. SMITH: In the military?
Mr. SMITH: No, there's a lot of short people in the military, actually. You
know, I think the military draws from a poorer demographic than, say, the Ivy
League does, and definitely the Ivy League is a lot taller than the military.
There's a lot of sort of seething short guys in the military who went looking
for a fight, I think.
GROSS: Did you believe in the Gulf War in '91?
Mr. SMITH: I did, I mean, especially once I got there. We all just wanted to
move forward and get it over with. The last thing we wanted to do was sit
there for six years and try to see if the sanctions would work.
GROSS: What books did you take with you?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, I was reading John Keegan's "The Face of War." I think I had
a history of modern Europe there with me, and had the soundtrack to "Les
GROSS: Did you find men who shared your taste in books and music and movies,
because those things are so important to you?
Mr. SMITH: In the military, not so much. There aren't too many gentleman
scholars in the military anymore, unfortunately.
GROSS: So was that a kind of alienating experience, since your taste in books
and movies and music is so much a part of who you are?
Mr. SMITH: It was in a way, but I was no more alienated in the military than
I was at Yale, because I was just about the only working-class kid I knew at
Yale, and in the military, I was just about the only Ivy-Leaguer around, so it
really was just the shoe was on the other foot, but either way, I sort of
GROSS: After you got home from serving in the military, when you were trying
to meet women, was it helpful or not helpful to tell them that you'd come back
from the war?
Mr. SMITH: Well, at the time, I had a serious girlfriend. I was actually in
London seeing my girlfriend when we got the alert back in Germany to get ready
to go to Saudi Arabia, so at that moment I became AWOL, unfortunately, and I
made a decision to stay in London with my girlfriend and be AWOL, because I
hadn't seen her in over a year, and take the consequences when I got back. So
obviously it was a girlfriend I had from Yale. It was right after I'd gotten
out of Yale, and she was from a family where everyone, including her, was
totally anti-war and totally pacifist, so I wouldn't say that the military is
a great turn-on for young liberal women.
GROSS: What happened after you went AWOL?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I finally came back a few days later, and my commander back
in Germany sort of said, `Well, kind of pulled a fast one, and you shouldn't
have done that, but you're going to Saudi Arabia, and I guess that's
GROSS: So no brig for you, huh?
Mr. SMITH: No brig for me. I mean, we have an old expression in the Army:
What's the worst thing they can to do me, make me join the Army?
Mr. SMITH: I took a chance, and, you know, I was 23.
GROSS: Does that seem very far in the past now?
Mr. SMITH: Oh, yeah, it does. It was a world away. I mean, it was just a
completely different time. Nothing could be farther from my existence in
Manhattan where I, you know, go to a nice air-conditioned office every day and
sort of swap one-liners with other journalists and you know, my worst problem
is what kind of coffee I'm going to have on my coffee break.
GROSS: Well, Kyle Smith, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you.
GROSS: Kyle Smith is the author of the novel, "Love Monkey."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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