What do you do when you’re the best, the very best, at what you do? When you’re a writer who has done the hard work, enjoyed a stellar career, received the plaudits — not one but two Pulitzer Prizes.
Where do you go from there?
You could forgive Gene Weingarten had he, at 68,, furled his sails in some snug harbor. After all, this is the man who talked star violinist Joshua Bell into standing at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., playing his priceless Stradivarius violin for tossed coins. A mere prank in the hands of a lesser journalist, Weingarten and his colleagues at the Washington Post turned it into a meditation on values, beauty, and how we spend our limited time on this earth. That earned his first Pulitzer.
He is also the guy who took a story most readers can’t flee quickly enough — kids dying in hot cars — and put their parents’ heartbreak on the page, earning his second Pulitzer.
How do you top that?
If you are Weingarten, who has a funny as well as a serious side, you find a challenge equal parts epic and implausible. You try to do something virtuosic. “A stunt, at its heart” as Weingarten himself admits. The journalistic version of a swan dive off a tall ladder into a teacup.
”I set myself a goal that I wasn’t sure I could hit,” Weingarten told me.
He drew slips of paper out of a hat, selecting a random day between 1969 and 1989 — old enough to be a challenge, recent enough to provide living witnesses. That date was Dec. 28, 1986. Then he dug into records, interviewed 500 people, worked six years and produced a riveting collection of stories pivoting on that date: “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” (Blue Rider: $28).
When I heard Weingarten was starting this project — we are Twitter pals — I wanted to help, and dutifully pulled down my 1986 Waterstone’s Literary Diary and turned to Dec. 28 — a Sunday. Four words: “HANUKA PARTY — EDIE’S FOLKS.”
Not a lot for Gene to go on.
Better you than me, I thought.
What resonates from a distant date? Death, for starters. Weingarten has one celebrity passing — detective novelist John D. MacDonald. He is quickly dispatched and we move on to other stories that echo from that Sunday: surgeries, crimes — the book begins with a heart transplant, and the murder/suicide that made the heart available.
Then a terrible fire. The 30-year gap allows us to both burst into the burning house along with Nebraska cop Marty Eickhoff and to meet the troubled young man who died trying to save his girlfriend’s children, and the child she bore, now a struggling adult.
A second fire follows, in Texas, worse than the first. We grope through the smoke with firefighter Richard Lane to find two fire-scoured babies, one dead, one alive, barely. Weingarten presses Lane for details I’ve never seen in an account of a fire, ever. Details I wouldn’t dream of sharing but, like the ordeal of those kids dying in hot cars, once you read them, they’ll stay with you.
You meet that baby, now a terribly-scarred adult, without hands but able to type 35 words a minute.
Other tales range from light — a stolen weather vane — to a California crime mystery with twists worthy of John MacDonald.
While I had him on the line, I had to ask: part of Weingarten’s work is tragic. And part is, for want of a better word, goofy — he edited Dave Barry’s column. Quite a balancing act.
“To me they’re part of the same thing. Life is terrifying, just terrifying,” he said. “And there are two ways you can react to that. You can weep. Or you can laugh.”
Or push yourself. Now that the book is published, Weingarten expressed what may be a universal among those mad enough to write books.
”I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be,” he said.
Weingarten’s secret, a note worth ending on:
“The God of Journalism is just,” he writes. “He rewards effort. Time and again in my life He comes through for me, but only after I decide to conduct that last interview, the one I don’t really think I need.”
Or set himself an impossible task, then do it.