Thursday, February 22, 2007
Moses, Caro and swinging for the fences
I jumped at the chance to cover a lecture by historian Robert Caro at the Gerald Ford Museum on Tuesday.
There are people or songs or books that are linked with a time in your life, for both good and bad. And Caro instantly brings me back to the fall of 1984, my first semester at the University of Missouri.
It was my first, and nearly my last. I thank Caro for his unknowing assist in making sure things turned out OK.
I was transferring from Nassau Community College. The Missouri School of Journalism tossed out my credits for journalism courses, and demanded several courses as prerequisites that we were not aware of – including three semesters of a foreign language.
I would have to take summer classes at Nassau, then use my first semester at Missouri to take the rest of the prerequisites, entering the J-school in the spring, assuming I posted at least a 3.0 GPA.
No problem, I figured. I was a B or better student in subjects that did not involve math, and the math credits transferred over.
But I hadn’t taken a language class since my sophomore year of high school. And the thought of learning a new language during the summer was daunting, so I cheated a little and took Spanish, which is what I studied in high school. I was really rusty, but did muy bien.
But Spanish 3 at Missouri was another matter. The class was all conversational and the instructor was from Belize and barely spoke English. I struggled mightily.
By late-semester, panic was setting in. Nothing was helping. I was looking at a big, fat, ugly D – which was not helpful to a gaining a 3.0 GPA.
I was getting an As in two other courses. The fourth was American urban history. I love cities, but the class was tough. And weighing heavily was the knowledge that anything less than an A and there would be no 3.0 and no journalism school. And if there was no journalism school, there would be no justification for leaving my family and heading halfway across the country. It would mean returning home embarrassed and a failure.
And here’s where Caro comes in. The topic for the last quarter of the urban history class was Caro’s book “The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”
“Caro’s a journalist,” I remember the professor saying. “So he’s not dry like a lot of historians. You’ll like this book.”
Of course, anyone growing up on Long Island has heard Moses’ name, or at least seen it on signs for the causeway and park.
I remember flipping through the massive book and seeing photos of the Jones Beach bath houses, the Varrazano-Narrows Bridge and, amazingly, Shea Stadium – all things I had been to a million times.
One of the first pages was a map of all the parks on Long Island, including the Massapequa preserve, which was four blocks from my house.
Then it struck me. I had come from Long Island to the middle of the Heartland to learn about…Long Island.
I’m not self-centered enough to think the Lord cares about my academic life, but this was if he was saying, “I’ll throw you a fastball down the middle, but you still have to hit it over the fence.”
And it had to leave the yard. It was home run, or run home in shame.
Moses was a master builder, but Caro is a master storyteller. The book is fascinating, spinning the tale of how Moses for 40 years was the most powerful politician in New York despite never even holding elected office.
He was a brilliant planner, and also deeply flawed. You know why the overpasses on the Southern State Parkway are so low? Apparently so buses bringing poor people from the city could not fit under them, making it harder for lower-class folks to get to Jones Beach and other parks.
We were assigned to read only portions of the 1,246-page book, but I couldn’t put it down. I was spouting Moses facts to anyone who would listen. You know why they’re called parkways? Because Moses was in charge of parks and then he could control the roads.
And unlike, say, Carlos Beltran in NLCS Game Seven, I swung from the heels. I wrote the term paper of my life, about Moses’ impact on the growth of Long Island suburbs.
I earned an A on the paper, and it all came down to the final exam. I thought I launched one into the seats, but so did Todd Zeile in the first game of the 2000 Subway Series. He hit the top of the fence and watched it bounce back onto the field.
The envelope with the Mizzou logo in the corner arrived a couple weeks later arrived with the grades – and the acceptance letter from the Journalism School. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I wanted to go kiss the magnificent Jones Beach water tower.
I sold most of my non-journalism textbooks back to the bookstore, but I held on to The Power Broker. Once in a while I pull it off the shelf and read a chapter or two.
The book earned Caro the Pulitizer Prize, and he is now wrapping up his fourth volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson, the topic of his lecture on Tuesday. I brought my son to hear him speak. And again, Caro was fascinating, revealing incredible details.
LBJ, another amazing yet flawed person, was adamant that letters to constituents be replied to on the day they were received. Caro said few knew that Johnson had horrible problems with eczema, and he’d stay up nights signing letters with towels wrapped around his hands so blood wouldn’t get on the letters.
I knew there would be a short book-signing session after the speech, so I brought along Caro’s third Johnson volume and my battered copy of Power Broker.
I meekly slid it across the table, and the man on line behind me laughed as Caro tried to find a page to sign that didn’t have the the Mizzou bookstore price tag or wasn’t dog-eared or torn.
“It’s a very special book to me,” I told the author. “I know it’s beat-up, but it has a lot of sentimental value.”
Caro signed his name and underlined it, smiled and shook my outstretched hand.
I thought about telling him about the urban history class and the term paper and how getting into to the journalism school led to a career that has led to experiences I could never have imagined and wife who I love.
But you tell someone a story like that and they typically either back away slowly or call for security. Perhaps it’s something the master storyteller was better off not knowing.