DATE March 5, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard Price discusses his new novel, "Lush Life,"
and his screenplays, including work on "The Wire"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"No one writes better dialogue than Richard Price--not Elmore Leonard, not
David Mamet, not even David Chase." That's now New York Times book critic
Michiko Kakutani begins her review of Richard Price's new novel, "Lush Life."
I'll add that Price is not only a great writer, he's a great talker and I
always enjoy interviewing him. Price has written several books that have been
adapted into movies, including "The Wanderers," "Clockers" and "Freedomland."
He wrote the screenplays for "Sea of Love," "Mad Dog and Glory" and "The Color
of Money." And he wrote several episodes of the HBO series "The Wire." His new
novel, "Lush Life," is set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where several
different worlds collide: would-be artists working in restaurants, kids in
the projects selling drugs and carrying guns, new immigrants and the cops who
investigate the murder of one of those would-be artists.
Richard Price, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to read from the
beginning of the book. Would you just set it up for us briefly?
Mr. RICHARD PRICE: OK, this is the beginning of the day of Eric Cash, who's
one of the main characters, who is a kid--or he's not a kid, he's 35. But
he's been living on the Lower East Side working in a restaurant, holding onto
this dream of being some kind of artist and it's kind of slipping away.
(Reading) "At 10 in the morning, Eric Cash, 35, stepped out of his Stanton
Street walk-up, lit a cigarette and headed off to work. When he had first
moved down here eight years ago, he was seized with the notion of the Lower
East Side as haunted, and on rare days like today, a simple walk like this
could still bring back his fascination. Traces of the 19th century Yiddish
boom town everywhere, in the claustrophobic gauge of the canyon-like streets
with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes; in the eroded stone satyr
heads leering down between pitted window frames above the erotic boutique, in
the faded Hebrew lettering above the old Socialist Cafeteria-turned Asian
massage parlor-turned kitty club hot spot. All of it and more lying along
Eric's daily four-block commute.
"But after nearly a decade in the neighborhood, even on a sun-splashed October
morning like this, all of this ethno-historical mix and match was, much like
himself, getting old. He was an up state Jew, five generations removed from
here, but he knew where he was. He got the joke, the Laboritorio del Gelato;
the Tibetan Hat Boutique; 88 Forsythe House, with its historically restored,
cold water flats, not all that much different from the unrestored tenements
that surrounded it. And in his capacity as manager of Cafe Berkman, the
flagship of `come on down,' on the rare days when the beast would take one of
its catnaps, he enjoyed being part of the punch line.
"But what really drew him to the area wasn't its full circle irony, but its
nowness, it's right-here-and-nowness, which spoke to the true engine of his
being, a craving for making it made many times worse by a complete ignorance
as to how this `it' would manifest itself. He had no particular talent or
skill. What was worse, he had a little talent, some skill, play in the lead
in a basement theater production of "The Dybbuk," sponsored by 88 Forsythe
House two years ago, his third small role since college; having a short story
published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in
a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything.
"And this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near
impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a
new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger,
without wanting to run face first into a wall."
GROSS: That's Richard Price reading from his new novel, "Lush Life."
The story brings together characters in the same neighborhood, but who are
from different worlds. Would you describe the collisions of reality that
you've set up here?
Mr. PRICE: Well, the Lower East Side, I went down there. I've always been
haunted by the Lower East Side, but in my mind, there was the historical
Jewish immigrant Lower East Side and this new, sort of "hip-erati," you know,
Eden for, you know, kids in their 20s, you know, the sort of laptoppers with
the sort of same amount of hair on the top of their head as on their chin.
But I didn't know what I was getting into. It's like Byzantium. I mean, I
found out there's the immortal world of the housing projects on the East
River, there's the world of the Orthodox Jews, there's this very huge and
hidden world of the Fujian Chinese that are living there as sort of
half-undocumented, overcrowded. They're living there like Jacob Riis-era
And you got all five worlds, you know, you've got the--I don't know if you
call them yuppies anymore, but, you know, you got the ghetto kids, the
Chinese, the Orthodox, the privileged kids, and they're all walking around
sort of oblivious to each other. And it's like they don't see each other
until it's about 4 in the morning and some kids from the projects decide to
mug, you know, two kids from the Midwest who are bar hopping. And everybody
says the wrong thing, a shot goes off and you have headlines for five days.
GROSS: Well, what's the wrong thing that the guy who gets shot says?
Mr. PRICE: Well, in my book, what the guy says when he has a gun in his face
is, "Not tonight, my man." I mean, he thinks he's in a movie.
GROSS: Yes, exactly. And you call it death by suicide because he says
something that's like really stupid and he gets shot. But, you know, for
somebody who's written those movies...
Mr. PRICE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and who knows the difference between life and a movie, I find it
really interesting that you've put those kind of movie words in his mouth, and
instead of making him a hero, that makes him dead.
Mr. PRICE: Well, what happens is that you got a lot of people down there
now. Like I say, you know, they kind of live in their own world, and they're
kind of blind to these other worlds that they're around. And this goes both
ways because the kids in the projects really don't understand, you know, this
wave of MFAs that are living down there. And, you know, you go bar hopping,
you know, you get all beered up, it's 3 in the morning. Somebody puts a gun
in your face; you never had a gun in your face before in Indiana or wherever
you come from, and you think you're John Wayne. And you say the worst
possible thing you can say, but all of a sudden, you know, the movie's over.
GROSS: Now, why is "Not tonight, my man" the worst thing you could say to a
kid from the projects who has a gun on you?
Mr. PRICE: Well, what happens is somebody who puts a gun in your face like
that, I mean, if they have an audience behind them, you know, it's like you're
challenging their manhood. You know? Would you rather go to jail for the
rest of your life, or are you going to look like a punk in front of your
friends? You know, and 99 percent of the time when a crime like that happens,
it's unintentional, or it wasn't, `I'm going to go out and shoot somebody.'
It's like, `I'm going to go out, scare somebody with this gun, and get enough
money to buy some Chinese take-out.'
GROSS: Well, you know, it's not just like the kids from the projects and
these, you know, would-be actors and screenwriters working at restaurants who
don't understand each other. The cops, when they arrive on the scene, don't
really get the, you know, would-be screenwriter who has survived; it's his
friend who's been killed. So the guy who survived is being questioned. And
they don't get each other either. What don't they understand about each
other, the cops and this would-be screenwriter?
Mr. PRICE: Well, the cops are a sixth world down there, down in the Lower
East Byzantium. These are outer borough guys, and basically they deal with
the worst. They deal with the stuff down there and the people down there who
need to be policed. And more often than not, the victims are either Chinese,
because they're seen as police-phobic, they never go to the cops so they're
easy marks. The Chinese are terrified of cops. So they either deal with the
Chinese, who don't want to deal with them; or, you know, they deal with these
kids who just got mugged. And oftentimes the kids who are getting mugged look
at the cops as sort of, not exactly as servants or lower class, but, you know,
they see them as there to, you know, to serve them. You know, it's not like
you're going to a police officer, you know, because, you know, you grew up in
an area, you know, where cops were important or something. It's like there's
this guy now who's interrogating me, and, you know, this guy has nowhere near
the education I have, you know, nowhere near the smarts I have and, you know,
the cop winds up feeling like a domestic.
GROSS: And then the cops misinterpret things about this, you know, educated
would-be screenwriter who works at a restaurant.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, well, what happens is, you know, the kid is so shattered by
what happened to his friend--I mean, he just sort of faced death. And he's
doubly shattered by his reaction to it, which is basically to run away. And,
you know, he's mortified. And the cops are picking up the signal that this
kid is lying. And to a cop, a lie is just this side of an admission of guilt.
And what they do is they see it as a wound. And for eight hours with this
kid, they just push at that wound, push at that wound, push at it, you know,
open it wider and wider so whatever shred of self the kid had, at the end of
that traumatic experience of the shooting, the cops eviscerate it in the next
eight hours in the interrogation room, thinking he did it and just going after
him and just trying to reduce him to a puddle. But in fact, you know, the kid
didn't do it.
And the thing is, in that world of the Lower East Side, you know, with these
young white kids, I say like 30 is the new 50. I mean, there's such pressure
to shine and to be something special, either some kind of maverick
entrepreneur or a great artiste that--the character is 35 now, which is really
old. And just like every other person in the restaurant industry, he's a
hyphen. You know, a bartender/performance artist, or a maitre d'/actor, or a
manager/novelist. And this is when you're 22 or 23. Now you're 35, and all
of a sudden, that hyphen starts fading, and what used to be a bartender/actor
is now just a bartender. And everybody around him is 10 years younger, still
has dew in the eyes, and he's just hanging on by his fingernails. And this
incident and the way the cops top off the trauma of the shooting just guts
GROSS: You know, your novel isn't exactly a celebration of multiculturalism.
It's more like a Tower of Babel.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, well, it's just, you know, bearing witness. You know,
yeah, it's not like, `Look at all the pretty flowers in the garden,' that's
GROSS: My guest is Richard Price. His new novel is called "Lush Life." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Price. His novels, "The Wanderers," "Freedomland"
and "Clockers" were adapted into films. He wrote several episodes of the HBO
series "The Wire," which we'll talk about soon. His new novel, "Lush Life,"
is about the cultural collisions on the Lower East Side of Manhattan between
the young professionals, the kids in the housing projects, the new immigrants
and the cops who work the neighborhood.
Richard, I'm going to ask you to read another short passage from "Lush Life,"
and this is the passage about a couple of kids in the project. I'm going to
ask you to introduce the passage for us.
Mr. PRICE: OK. Well, the two kids, one boy's name is Tristan, the other
kid's name is Little Dap. And they're getting stoned on the roof of a
building that they live in in the housing projects, and Little Dap is warming
Tristan up to, you know, `let's go into the main part of the Lower East Side
in the middle of the night and we'll, you know, we'll jack a couple of kids, a
couple of white kids that are bar hopping. And it'll be an easy way to get
money so then we can go up to Washington Heights, score a bunch of dope, come
down, sell it back to the very white kids that we just mugged,' more or less.
So this is the conversation between Tristan and Little Dap.
(Reading) "`So what do you say?' passing Tristan the roach, `you going to be
my dolja out there or what? I need to hear you say it.'
"Tristan took a last hit. `Yeah, OK.' The words coming out like smoke
"`All right, then,' Little Dap offering his fist for a pound; Tristan fighting
off another out of control smile. It felt so good. Something did, at any
"`Man, you are one grinning son of a gun,' Little Dap said, popping the nub of
the joint in his mouth, taking a gun out of his sweatshirt muff and attempting
to hand it over. Tristan reared back and laughed, if you could call it that.
`What?' Little Dap blinked.
"`Nah? What? You think you go out there and, what, yell at somebody?' He
took Tristan by the wrist. `It ain't like you use it, man,' slapping it into
his palm. `You just flash it.'
"At first, Tristan tried to pass it back to him, but then got caught up with
the feel of it in his hand, the giddy heft. `Nah, man. This'll be good for
you,' Little Dap said. `Get you blooded, you know what I'm saying? First
time's like first time sex, you just do it to get it done with. Then you can
start concentrating on getting better at it, having fun with it.'
"`All right.' Tristan staring and staring at the thing in his hand.
"`Can I ask you something?' Little Dap waited and waited. `What is a dolja?'
"`A dolja?' Tristan said. `A do anything soldier.'
"`OK.' Tristan grinning, grinning. `You're in the game now, son.'
"Little Dap studied him studying the gun. `Time to show and prove.'"
GROSS: That's Richard Price reading from his new novel, "Lush Life."
In the course of your writing "Clockers," "The Wire," this book, you have kids
kind of entering the life, often reluctantly, but they get into it in part
because it's like the world around them. So I guess--not sure what my
question is, but do you feel like you've witness that a lot, too?
Mr. PRICE: I have. You know, well, I grew up in a project, and it was a
different time and a different place. I mean, it was a more functional world.
But I spent a lot of time in the '80s and, you know, teaching in the rehab
centers in the Bronx and just being around the old places where I grew up and
to see how they changed. And I think, you know, what you're dealing with is
two things. You're dealing with kids who have no sense of a future but act on
spur of the moment, and never think of consequences. And, you know, it's like
you're in a jungle. You don't think about the clearing, you know, a mile
away. You just want to get the blades of grass directly in front of you out
of the way. So you just move, move, move, move. You know? And it's like act
first, think later.
GROSS: What about the language that the kids use, like the street language
that you use, the drug language that you're using now compared to, say, in
Mr. PRICE: Well, the thing is like, you know, in terms of the argot, or, you
know--I feel like Margaret Mead with a pith helmet on when I talk about this
stuff--but, you know, basically I don't try to capture anybody's glossary. I
pretty much make it all up. I mean, the fact of the matter is, I mean,
language morphs so quickly that if you were to try to like, `Well, this kid
just used this phrase I never heard before,' by the time that phrase hits a
bookstore, it's like Run DMC. You know, it's a losing proposition. So, you
might as well make up your own stuff. Nobody's going to know the difference.
GROSS: And do you ever start actually using those words yourself, realize
that they'd be really out of context, and...
Mr. PRICE: Well, you know...
Mr. PRICE: If you use them, you know, you kind of use them ironically. Or
you use them to curry favor with your kids just so they don't think, you know,
you're pathetic. You should see the clothes I have to wear.
Mr. PRICE: No, I got blue Timberland boots, you know, I have to wear that
cap with the bill over the ear.
GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you mentioned the cap. This is a line I assume you wrote
because it was from one of the episodes of "The Wire" that you wrote. One of
the cops is ribbing one of the kids in the neighborhood, one of the corner
Mr. PRICE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And this is one of the kids who's not particularly bright. And the
kid has the brim of his hat angled to the side, and the cop says to him,
`Where do you get those hats? I've only seen the ones where the brim's in
Mr. PRICE: Right, and the kid looks at him straight ahead and says, `Nah,
nah. They're all like that.' You know, and the cop just realized the joke
fell flat and he feels bad the kid's half-retarded, and he's just, you know,
`uh, OK. Never mind.'
GROSS: Did you write that?
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, but you know what? I had that in "Clockers." Because David
Simon told me that "The Wire" was sort of inspired by "Clockers." And every
time it was my turn to write, he says, `Do that scene in "Clockers" again.'
So, you know, I basically, you know, plagiarizing my own stuff on "The Wire"
GROSS: Did it make you uncomfortable to do that?
Mr. PRICE: No. I didn't really care. I mean, I thought it was, you know,
the biggest compliment in the world. I thought, you know, "The Wire" is so
amazing that "Clockers," you know, had a part in getting it going, you know,
it was very flattering. And, you know, hey, I eat cannibals. You know, what
can I say? I mean, it was fine.
GROSS: So were you surprised when David Simon told you that "The Wire" is
based on your novel?
Mr. PRICE: Not really. I mean, I was flattered and, you know, I was all for
it, and I think what he did in "The Wire" was to take the world of "Clockers,"
you know, to much higher, you know, into the infrastructure of the country. I
mean, "Clockers" was about trench warfare. It was about cops and the kids.
And he went right up to the city hall, he went right up to the state assembly
of Maryland. He just kept going up and up and up, and, you know, he just
brought the entire world into that in such a nuanced and complex way that, in
fact, I was a little bit intimidated when he asked me to come on as a writer
because I thought he assumed that I knew an awful lot more about the world
than I really did. I mean, I put everything I had into "Clockers."
GROSS: So it must have been interesting when you were asked to write for a
series that was already under way, knowing that your novel "Clockers" had
helped inspire the series, and yet you came in as a newcomer to the series and
had to pick up on the language of the series, the style of the series and
everything. So what were some of the things that you were told before you
actually got started writing?
Mr. PRICE: That I shouldn't be worried, just do it. You know, I mean, the
way it works on "The Wire" is that you sit down for a three-day story meeting
because it's so complex, and there were six character trajectories per
episode, and there were 12 episodes. And so you had to sit down, and your
episode, you know, very specific things have to happen to these six--`This is
what goes down in city hall. This is what goes down with Omar, the shooter.
This is what goes down with the drug crews. This is what goes down with the
police department.' And you leave after two days with a stack of index cards
which are all your scenes, because what you do in episode three has to
perfectly match up with episodes one and two and perfectly set up episode
four. So you're a little bit like, you know, writing in a phone booth, you
know, that your only opportunity, you know, to make your mark on it is, you
know, what kind of spins and what kind of humor and style you can put on the
scenes that you're obliged to write.
GROSS: But that's a kind of interesting discipline, isn't it?
Mr. PRICE: I liked it because it involved having a real social life. You
know, writing is so isolating. I mean, basically, you know, you sit there for
30 years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet by yourself. You know, you
get cobwebs going from your forehead to the pen, phone never rings, you know.
Now all of a sudden, you've got, you know, you got six other idiots there, you
know, and you're actually doing this thing called having a conversation. You
know, it's revolutionary.
GROSS: Richard Price will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called "Lush Life." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with screenwriter and
novelist Richard Price. Several of his novels were adapted into films,
including "The Wanderers," "Freedomland" and "Clockers." "Clockers," which was
about kids who sell drugs on inner city street corners and the cops who work
those streets, helped inspire David and Simon to create the HBO series "The
Wire." At Simon's invitation, Price wrote several episodes of "The Wire." The
series finale is this Sunday.
You wrote what may be my favorite episode, though. It's really hard to choose
from so many great ones, but this is an episode, it's like episode three of
season four. And this is an episode in which a former cop named Pryzbylewski,
after kind of mistakenly, accidentally shooting another cop, leaves the force
and decides to become a teacher at a middle school in the same neighborhood
that his precinct is in. So these are the same kids who've been on the corner
where he's worked. So this is like his first day in school as a teacher. The
kids have just gotten into his first home room class of the semester and he's
trying to settle them down and introduce himself. His name is Pryzbylewski.
I just want to play this really short clip.
(Soundbite from "The Wire")
Mr. JIM TRUE-FROST: (As Pryzbylewski) OK, good morning. OK, good morning.
(Soundbite of yelling, screaming)
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Yo, shut up!
(Soundbite of kids quieting)
Mr. TRUE-FROST: (As Pryzbylewski) Good morning. I'm your home room teacher,
obviously. My name is Mr. Pryzbylewski, but you can call me Mr.
OK, let's find out who you are.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Richard Price, what I love about that scene is that that joke falls
with such a thud, and it's in part because it's kind of lame, but also it's
because the kids just don't get it. I mean, like their--his sense of humor is
not on their wavelength at all. And I was wondering if you experienced that
kind of thing when you were teaching like at rehab centers in the Bronx, that
there was a certain kind of irony that you traded in that just was not going
to make it with them, wasn't going to resonate with them?
Mr. PRICE: Well, what happened--and I personally, you know, didn't
experience that because I was so charismatic personally, you know, that the
kids were just stunned by my presence. But I think what happens is that when
these kids, when they see somebody that's an authority figure and that
authority figure tries to curry favor with them or be warm to them, oftentimes
that's misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, you know, because you're used to
authority figures being oppressive. And your whole point is, `how do I
survive this person?' And when the person comes at you with their own throat
bared, you know, it's like, `OK, oh, I'm the top wolf, I get it,' you know.
And the teacher who's trying with lame jokes is not getting the subtext there,
that they're looking at this guy saying, `how much trouble is this guy going
to be in my life?'
GROSS: You know, I taught ever so briefly in junior high, and I realized
pretty quickly that my idea of funny, self-deprecating humor was going to get
me into so much trouble. It was going to be seen as a sign of lacking in
self-respect. Like if you said anything that mocked yourself, it meant you
didn't respect yourself.
Mr. PRICE: Right. Well, I mean, yeah, there's no--because there's, you know
there's no--there's very little wiggle room for self-confidence, you know, in
like the poorer, rougher areas. It's not a soft world, you know. And
self-deprecation is not a common currency. And when somebody puts themself
down, there's no sense of irony, you know. It's taken at face value
oftentimes, especially with the younger kids.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Price, and his new
novel is called "Lush Life." He is also known for his novel "Clockers." He's
one of the writers for "The Wire" and has written many other novels.
You've spoken to a lot of cops over the years as research for, you know, for
your books, for your screenplay "Sea of Love." And, you know, when you started
talking to cops they probably didn't know who you were from the hole in the
wall, but now if you talk to cops whether it's for research or any other
reason, they're probably going to know "Clockers." They're probably going to
know "The Wire."
Mr. PRICE: Right.
GROSS: And, I mean, they're going to know your work, and you might be like a
real hero to them in that respect. So has it changed the relationship that
you have with cops now?
Mr. PRICE: No. You know, I just want to say this one thing about myself and
cops. I mean, I'm not like into cops, you know, it's like I'm not a buff.
I'm not--you know, my politics are certainly not "Law & Order." I'll hang out
with anybody who'll have me. What I find when I'm with cops is you just see
the world in a way that you would never see on your own. You can walk around
the Lower East Side, you see what you see, you see what makes it into "Time
Out" magazine. You see this and that. And then you go around in the back of
a police car and you deal with people whose behavior is in such extremism that
a police presence is required, and you're there. And the difference is like
staring at the ocean from above the water and putting on a snorkel mask and
ducking your head and seeing coral for the first time. You have no idea
what's down there until you put that mask on. And what I saw of that world
with the police--and it was something I never would have seen, I never would
have had that snorkel mask.
GROSS: So you did travel with the police through the Lower East Side before
writing the book?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, I, you know, I went with the cops, but I also hung out, you
know, at these sort of like nouveau restaurants down near, you know, The Come
on Down Restaurant, it's safe restaurants, hung out in the projects. You
know, I went to some synagogues down there that are so old and on their last
legs that, I mean, there was one tiny synagogue I went to down there that,
their last circumcision was 65 years ago.
Mr. PRICE: But because of this new wave of kids, the irony is that a
lot--and the thing that got me writing "Lush Life" was the fact that when I
brought my kids down there, you know, they were relatively young, and all of a
sudden I realize I'm buying them a gelati, and a hundred yards from where I
bought them that gelati there great great grandfather was fighting for his
life in 1915 and probably could have lived for a month on what the gelati
cost, you know.
And then when they got a little older and a little more independently mobile
on their own, when they hit their teens, you know, all of a sudden they know
the Lower East Side better than I do. But what they know is, you know, what
bars to go to where you won't get carded, you know, the most adorable
hole-in-the-wall boutiques. You know, they know the Knitting Factory where
all the music, where the best music down there, where the best arts is. But
they were kind of not really aware that this is--they are making a five
generation full circle. And this is exactly where their family started out.
And that's one of the things that made me crazy about wanting to write this is
I just wanted to make that five generation circle visible.
GROSS: Did your grandparents ever tell you stories about the Lower East Side?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: About the days they lived there?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, absolutely. I mean...
GROSS: What are some of the things they told you?
Mr. PRICE: Well, you know, I mean, you know, I remember, well, my
grandmother told me that the way she learned about sex is in the summer nobody
could sleep in their apartments because they were all ovens so everybody wound
up sleeping on the roof. And you have entire families, you have an entire
tenement building sleeping on the roof. And, you know, people are going to
have sex up there. And she says that's how she learned about sex because it
was too hot to sleep in your apartment, you know, and just people acted as if
they were in their bedrooms.
My grandfather, you know, had been locked up a number of times, you know, for
violent crimes. You know, it was a violent, nasty place. The whole point of
the Lower East Side, and I think the whole point still--except for this new,
you know, this new wave going in there--the whole point of the Chinese
being--the whole point of getting in there is to start so you can--is to get
out of there. You know, I--but the dichotomy of this place, everybody thinks
it's done, like between Giuliani time, you know, like really aggressive
policing and real estate needing a place to go. Real estate is the greatest
crime fighter in the world. You know, `we need this place,' you know, and
here come the cops and the place that used to be a heroin apartment is now
going for a million dollars. People know where, you know, of the Jacob Riis
era, you know, had the highest population density in the world in 1900. Not
India, not China, but the Lower East Side. I mean, you had more people per
square inch living down there.
But I remember going with police and there had been a Chinese suicide, and
they had to follow up on it. And they go to two buildings on Orchard Street,
and these buildings were obviously built by the same contractor in about 1880.
They had identical facades, except one building had been rehabbed and one
building hadn't. And the one that--and they went into the wrong building and
they wound up pushing all the buzzers. And they get in and somebody's got a
floor-through apartment. It's, you know, two young people and, you know, it's
a nice loft. And they're like, whoops, wrong building.
They ring the buzzers, the other building, the door is not locked, there's
gaffer's tape on the lock because too many people have to come and go and not
enough keys. They go up to an apartment where you have like 30 Chinese guys
are living there, and the apartment, you know, hasn't been touched since the
1970s. Actually it has. There's particle board has been put up. Shelves
have been put on the wall, like library shelves, except they're beds. They're
Mr. PRICE: And these buildings have identical facades, and they're by cheek
and jowl with each other. And the guy who lived there committed suicide. And
what they found out was, you know, the guy had been living on 10 percent of
what he'd been earning, sending everything back either to the snake head that
got him smuggled into the country or to his family back in the Fujian
province. And, you know, you've got to live on a dime. And if you develop a
gambling habit, you're dead. If you get sick, you're dead. And, you know, a
guy killed himself. Something, you know, went amiss and he couldn't maintain
that survival margin. You know, but he's living next to, you know, "One Tree
GROSS: There's another paragraph I want you to read from your new novel,
"Lush Life." And for people just tuning in, this is about several groups of
people on the Lower East Side. There's two guys-- one older, one younger--who
work at a restaurant. Both have aspirations to either, you know, write
screenplays or to be an actor. One of them is killed, mugged by a couple of
kids from the project. And this is a paragraph from the point of view of the
father of the boy who's killed. Would you read it for us? And set it up in
any other way you want to.
Mr. PRICE: OK. Well, I mean, this is a father who, ironically, lives in
Riverdale and is one of these people that are like four steps, four
generations out of the Lower East Side, and his son, who just got an MFA from
Columbia is now back obliviously in this playground of this Montparnasse
playground of Ludlow Street. And he's the kid that gets shot because he
doesn't know how to respond appropriately to a gun in his face. And so now
his father is down there, and, you know, every thought--you know, I use the
expression, if a child is murdered or somebody's murdered, I mean, you become
tortured. Everything you think of, it's like a--your mind becomes like this
vicious warehouse. And he's just making a statement to the cop. I mean, the
cop has to be basically a sympathetic listener. This guy is no help
whatsoever to him. He's just, he's insane with grief. But this is just, you
know, one of the things he thinks about with his dead son.
(Reading) "`You know,' Billy said, addressing the middle distance, `when
they're little, you love them, take pride in them. And when they grow up you
still do, but it's bizarre when other people, new people see them and think,
well here's this young man, here's this young adult who does such and such
very well. And you're witnessing this acceptance from others, this respect
and seriousness. And you--I can't help laughing, thinking, that's--what young
man? That's Iky. You wouldn't believe the dopey crap he did as a kid. But
there he is getting respect. And it's not like I don't have it for him, me of
all people. But I always feel like laughing, not putting him in his place
laughing, just oh, come on, that's Ike.'
GROSS: I love that paragraph, and I figure that must really describe how so
many parents feel when their kids reach their teens and start to become adults
and the parents still sees them as a kid and the world sees them as a young
Mr. PRICE: You know, which is fine. I mean, you can screw up every step of
the way and then you can still evolve into a better relationship with them.
But all of a sudden their life is cut short and all you can think of is that,
you know, that you can never fix this like you probably naturally would. You
never would have thought of this as being contemptuous of your own child, but
you're afraid the dead child would think that you were contemptuous or you
weren't giving him enough credit. I mean, it's a no issue unless there's no
way to, you know, rectify the situation by just, the relationship having years
and years to evolve.
GROSS: Was this a hard place to put yourself in, you know, as the father of
two teenage girls?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, boy. I mean, you know, the last two books--I think, you
know, the biggest thing in my life, you know, between "Samaritan" and this
book was, you know, the experience of having children, you know. I mean,
that's the, I mean, that was the headline news of my life for the last 20
years. And, yes, I mean, I can't--I mean, there are huge parts of this book
that didn't make it into the final cut because there was too much stuff like
what I just read where--because I so got into the father's, you know, the
grief-stricken babble-ogue. And my editor convinced me, and rightly so, that
a little bit goes a long way. We got it. You know, I mean, that's the big
thing he had to say to me is we got the father so quickly that, you know, the
rest of the stuff is not necessary. It's just, we're not moving forward. So
a lot of that, you know, hit the wayside.
GROSS: One of the episodes that you end "The Wire" with involves children.
And Kima, who's one of the detectives on "The Wire," she's a woman who's a
lesbian. And she and her partner have split up, like once her partner has a
baby her partner becomes--her partner's life really changes, and Kima just
doesn't feel comfortable in that kind of domestic life. So she's kind of
basically left. But she wants to re-connect with her son and so she's
basically baby-sitting her son one night, and her son can't sleep.
Mr. PRICE: (Unintelligible).
GROSS: And so the episode ends with Kima taking her little boy who can't
sleep to the window, and she looks down at the dark street with the boy and
plays this little game with him of saying good night to everybody. Let me
just play that.
(Soundbite from "The Wire")
Ms. SONJA SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, moon. You say that.
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Good night, moon.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) There you go. Good night, stars.
Actor #2: (In character) Good night, stars.
(Soundbite of police siren)
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, po-po.
Actor #2: (In character) Good night, po-po.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, fiends.
Actor #2: (In character) Good night, fiends.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, hoppers.
Actor #2: (In character) Good night, hoppers.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, hustlers.
Actor #2: (In character) Good night, hustlers.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night, scammers.
Actor #2: (In character): Good night, scammers.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night to everybody.
Actor #2: (In character): Good night to everybody.
Ms. SOHN: (As Shakima "Kima" Greggs) Good night to one and all.
Actor #2: (In character): Good night to one and all.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Richard Price, when I saw that scene I kept thinking, God, I bet you
play that with your girls. I bet you looked out the window and said good
night to everybody.
Mr. PRICE: Well, not only did I say, you know, `good night, moon; good
GROSS: Yeah, OK.
Mr. PRICE: ...with my kids, `good night, werewolves, you know; good night,
muggers; you know, good night, yuppies.' Not only did I do that, but that
scene in "The Wire" was a word-for-word rip-off of "Clockers." David said `do
that thing you did in "Clockers" where Rocco takes his kid to the window and
say "good night, moon."' So, I mean, I loved doing, I mean it was A-OK with
me. I mean, it just gives my book a second life. But, I mean, that's what
David would do. `Do that thing, do that thing when the cop comes out of the
movie theater and he's surrounded by all the kids that are in the other movie
theaters who went to see the horror movies and he thinks that they're going to
jump him and all of a sudden they're just delighted to see him. It's like
seeing, you know, seeing your teacher at a urinal or something. "Oh, my God,
you're human."' You know, but David kept saying to me `put that thing in from
"Clockers,"' and that was one of them. But, you know, it was, I thought it
was very sweet summing up, you know.
GROSS: So when she says "good night, scammers; good night, hustlers," you'd
say "good night, crackheads" to your girls?
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, I had to update the good nights from "Clockers" in 1992 to
"The Wire" in 2007. But I had to put in hoppers, which is, you know, the word
for young drug dealers. I think, but--I mean, there are a couple of updated
good nights in there, but it was basically the same scene.
GROSS: You had told me before that you'd just started using a computer like
in the past year or two. Has it changed your writing?
Mr. PRICE: Well, yes and no. My handwriting's neater on a computer. That's
good. But it's too easy to fool around and like, `so I'm going to put this
stuff here.' It's too easy to fiddle. And you're under the illusion you're
working when basically you're vamping because you can, you know, do all this
stuff. `I think I'm going to do this in, you know, Swedish Helvetica, you
know, and maybe this would look good in Diablo, whatever the hell that is.'
You know, and so you spend like two hours and you haven't done anything on the
book. When before this, I was always handwriting on a legal pad. And you
couldn't fool around when you're doing handwriting like, you know, go back and
change this and that. It was just too labor intensive, and it sort of forced
you to go forward. You know, and the other thing about handwriting, which is
the closest I'll ever be to being a visual artist. I mean, you know, these
pages, after the cross-outs and the line-outs, look like Cy Twombly wrote it.
GROSS: Richard Price, it's great to talk with you. Thank you so much for
coming back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. PRICE: All right, you're welcome.
GROSS: Richard Price's new novel is called "Lush Life." He's written for the
HBO series "The Wire," which concludes Sunday. Tomorrow we'll talk with the
series creator David Simon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Maureen Corrigan reviews "World War II Writings" by
legendary journalist A.J. Liebling
TERRY GROSS, host:
A.J. Liebling was one of the giants of mid-20th century American journalism.
As a writer for the New Yorker magazine, he explored whatever subjects took
his comic fancy. But when World War II began in Europe, Liebling found his
most profound subject. Liebling was sent over to France in 1939 as the New
Yorker's war correspondent and eventually found himself covering D-Day. The
Library of America has just brought out a collection of A.J. Liebling's World
War II pieces, and book critic Maureen Corrigan says it should be a must read
for anyone who cares about good writing.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: It would be easy to dismiss the Library of America's
new collection of World War II stories by legendary journalist A.J. Liebling
as just a quick-buck nostalgia project. Certainly there's plenty in this
volume to feel nostalgic about. Liebling began writing for the New Yorker in
the mid-1930s during its golden age. He started covering the war for the
magazine in 1939 after, as he recalls, putting in several man hours of barroom
time impressing the managing editor with my profound knowledge of France. The
pieces he began filing are filled with details straight out of "Casablanca"
and the spy novels of Alan Furst.
Liebling flew over to Europe on a Pan Am clipper. In an anxious Paris, he
took note that an edition of the predictions of Nostradamus was a best seller,
and that a department store was advertising women's fashions with a slogan
that read "Madame, it is your duty to be elegant." As the Germans approached
he high-tailed it to Portugal by car, foot and sleeper train where he found
himself in the company of a motley crew of European exiles, including a smooth
German in a wine bar who, upon noting that Liebling was American, insisted
that, `my dear sir, Hitler has absolutely no designs on Canada or the United
States. He is a fair man who wants only his rights.' Liebling dryly commented
that the stranger's assurances recalled what the Germans had said before each
of their gobbles.
If you got a kick a split second ago out of Liebling's use of the word
gobbles, then you already have a sense of why this collection is more than
just a sentimental journey through "the good war." Liebling is one of those
magical writers whose style you could dissect for days and still never quite
grasp. To have Liebling's voice describing an early morning in England during
the blitz with the sun rising the color of lard, or the anxious tedium of a
long ocean crossing on a Norwegian tanker during the Battle of the Atlantic is
really to experience the perfect match of a writer at the top of his game and
a subject commensurate with his ability to wonder.
The Library of America volume of Liebling runs over a thousand pages and
consists of three books and 26 previously uncollected pieces. Most of the
writing here was originally published in the New Yorker and is about World War
II, although "Normandy Revisited," which was originally published in 1958,
deals with memories of the war, as well as the sad practical necessity of
forgetting some aspects of it.
I said that Liebling's power as a writer is hard to completely capture, but
certainly one of his great gifts was a gimlet eye for detail. On the eve of
D-Day Liebling describes a chaplain leading a prayer service on the landing
craft he was aboard. Afterwards the men were given printed copies of General
Eisenhower's message to the Allied expeditionary force. Liebling reports that
`members of our ship's crew went about getting autographs of their shipmates
on their Eisenhowers,' which they apparently intended to keep as souvenirs of
One of his best known war pieces, called "Mollie," is about coming upon a dead
American soldier in Tunisia in 1943. The other soldiers respectfully refer to
him as Comrade Molotov or Mollie, and tell Liebling he once captured 600
Italian soldiers single-handedly. Liebling becomes fascinated with Mollie,
whose civilian name was Karl Warner. He tracks down Mollie's sister in a
tenement apartment in New York City and he discovers that, far from being the
swaggering mayor of Broadway as he pretended to be to his fellow privates,
Mollie before the war was a dishwasher in a dumpy bar in Greenwich Village.
Liebling says Mollie became a sort of posthumous pal. And he goes on to say,
"It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me, a notion I
would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is
often the shame-faced product of inexperience."
There's so much more to celebrate in this collection, including the fact that
it was edited by Pete Hamill, one of Liebling's inheritors. But I'm sure
Hamill would agree that when the journalism gods made Liebling they pretty
much broke the mold. And to any skeptics out there who think I'm being unduly
worshipful or sentimental, Liebling's wise words bear repeating: "Cynicism is
often the shame-faced product of inexperience."
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "World War II Writings" by A.J. Liebling.
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