Isay’s people: survivors holding on with dignity

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In the long ago 1950s, a friend of mine, the gifted writer Marya Mannes, composed short features for a lively magazine called The Reporter. Each was a fictional profile of some recognizable personality, a “type” that most of us encounter in life’s daily round: a nervous business executive, the owner-manager of a small restaurant, a bag lady picking her way daintily through the damp contents of a public trash basket. The column was called “Any Resemblance?” and it persuaded most readers that they, along with Ms. Mannes, were splendidly perceptive.

I often think of these descriptions when listening to David Isay’s radio documentaries, most of them concerning mildly eccentric persons from, as he says, “the margins of society.” Here, as in the Reporter pieces, however strange or exotic his subjects, you detect that these people pursue many of the same goals that many people hold.

Many of Isay’s subjects are down-on-their-luck misfits inclined to losing. You are more likely to find their fictional counterparts in Russian short stories — Gorky or Chekhov — than in British literature (there are no Lucky Jims nor Gulley Jimsons here, although Alan Bennett’s lady in the van might qualify). Neither Hemingway nor Fitzgerald seems to have known such people existed.

Isay’s people live on very modest incomes. If their behavior seems strange, it is rarely freakish. You may find the likes of some in Diane Arbus photographs (in fact, you do find at least one of them there —Eddie Carmel, “the Jewish Giant”), but they are not bizarre. Most, no matter what social positions they occupy, possess great dignity. Above all, they are tenacious.

In “The Sunshine Hotel,” a recent documentary in which denizens of a Bowery flophouse describe their lives, we meet a gallery of Isay subjects: alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, sick and elderly people dumped by their relatives, and persons acting out an extraordinarily broad range of mental illnesses.

There’s Benny, who has throat cancer and talks, through a mechanical voice box, about two birds that he cares for in his room that is not much larger than a bird cage. There’s Eddie, a one-time professional musician who prefers a corner of the Sunshine’s lobby to his coffin-like quarters. Here he has played the same song all day, every day, for years. There are 125 residents at the Sunshine. Each room contains a locker, but no towels or soap. “What do you expect for $10 a night?” asks Nathan Smith, the gravel-voiced manager, who has lived here for a very long time. Smith is our host and guide. (Neither Isay nor his production associates play an audible role in the programs he makes these days.) Under these truly deplorable conditions, his cheerful, live-and-let-live brusqueness is a great tonic. The themes of death and degradation seldom have had a more sympathetic spokesman.

Despite the awfulness, there is something absurdly comic about all this. Things here are so bad, they’re funny. Perhaps it’s because that, although more than a few of the residents are desperate, they’re rarely maudlin or self-pitying. There is something clownish just below the surface of Smith’s deadpan, nearly clinical description of Fat Anthony, who came to the Sunshine decades ago as a lean young man and has since given new meaning to the term “eating disorder.” Anthony’s own assessment of his predicament is only slightly less farcical than the one offered by Smith. He now weighs 425 pounds, consumes a 26-ounce can of ravioli in one quick sitting, and no longer walks outside the hotel since his clothes don’t fit, and he’s forced to wear sheets. Smith reports that he urged Anthony to stop eating himself to death and enter a hospital. But then the manager has a lot on his hands, what with one resident and another.

If it were produced in England, the program probably would have concentrated on the individual eccentricities. Here, the entire environment is eccentric.

Life in this squalid, drug-ridden, roach-infested place makes George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” seem like a year-long visit to London’s Connaught Hotel and the Paris Ritz. It is about as far down and out as life gets, outside the walls of a maximum security prison. Yet here’s the hotel, after more than 70 years, still clinging to survival, being managed with some luck, Smith’s quick wit, considerable respect for human frailties and low expectations. It’s the quintessential Isay documentary subject.

In a petri dish

Incarceration seems to hold a special attraction for Isay and his associates. In “Tossing Away the Keys,” his first long-form documentary in 1990, he visits lifers inside Louisiana’s Angola Prison —men who have served 30 years or more without hope of pardon or parole, whose deaths will dispatch them to graves marked only by their inmate numbers. Among prison documentaries, “Tossing Away the Keys” holds the prize for the ultimate expression of hopelessness.

Isay’s effective use of sound —including the constant background din of other prisoners —probably owes as much to an intense attention to detail as artifice. When I commented upon the ubiquity of noise in the Angola documentary, he said that he was merely trying to present prison life as the inmates experienced it.

One of the most memorable sounds in the Isay oeuvre is that of hound dogs, and human imitations of hounds, in an early documentary, “Fox Hunt.” We’re in rural Texas. There’s a full moon and the temperature’s down around freezing. Three battered Ford pickups carrying cages of hounds have driven into a clearing near some woods. Old men stand around an open fire, smoking and chewing tobacco, hands dug into their pockets. One or two drink coffee from a thermos. They’re swapping stories about politics and sports, but mostly about the dogs that have accompanied them, to chase, but not kill, foxes. Hinkle Shillings, now 90, has been coming out here for 60 years. He and his nephew, Shade Pate (77), can recall the sound of every dog they’ve ever owned.

The dogs are released and streak into the woods. Each of them —Sam, Covergirl, Black Bugger —has a distinctive personality expressed in his bark; Ol’ Smokey’s a baritone, Cheater’s a tenor, and Ol’ Jim a bass. Shade produces a remarkable imitation of his dog as it emerges from the running pack with long, low howls and then advances to the lead with a high staccato.

“Ol’ Shade’s got to holler when he hears Ol’ Smokey,” Hinkle chortles. As one of them observes with satisfaction, “Out here at night under the stars, we’ve watched the sun come up many mornings. You learn a lot of lessons.”

An eerie noise rises from the woods as the pack races along in its single-minded pursuit. Then, suddenly, there’s a “crossing.” All eyes are fixed on the spot in the woods where the dogs will appear. The hounds burst into the clearing near the fire, forming what Isay describes as a “ghostly train,” a blur under the stars. Then it is gone. But the sound remains, and it is unforgettable.

“Witness to an Execution,” made by Stacy Abramson, with Isay as executive producer, is somehow an extension of “Tossing Away the Keys,” making the listener acutely aware of mortality in Huntsville, Tex., the “execution capital of the world.” Huntsville Prison’s warden (29 years on the job) guides us minute-by-minute through the process of killing by lethal injection. As an explanation —or is it an apology? —for this ghoulish exercise of criminal justice, he says, “People must wonder how the work affects those involved.” Now we know. We also gain a better understanding of how a killing is carried out with bureaucratic precision. The radio program, lasting 25 minutes, is about as long as the execution process itself. Through the warden’s tale, we travel with the prisoner every step of the way, from the time he leaves his cell, accompanied by a chaplain. Four men strap him to a gurney in exactly 45 seconds. Workers set the IV needles and lower a microphone to catch last words —songs, expressions of innocence, apologies, last goodbyes and apprehensions (“What should I say when I see God?” “Are you sure it’s not going to hurt?”). Then the final scene: the warden, standing at the condemned man’s head, the chaplain with a hand on the man about to die, their eyes locked. The scene, as one veteran witness described it, is ” a horizontal crucifixion.” The warden removes his glasses, the signal to begin the injections. Witnesses in an adjoining room, peering through one-way glass, respond stoically, or by fainting, falling to the floor, wailing.

The story is told by participants in as many as 170 of these death rituals. Their accounts betray little emotion and are more chilling because of this. Most of the testimonials are spoken in monotone, embossed by flat Texas accents. Clearly, this line of work —repeatedly putting people to death —is not for everyone. One man says he copes by going fishing. Some drink. “Some just can’t take it,” says the warden. “Everybody has a stopping point . . .”

The producers do not tell why they made this documentary. Will it explain how the killing affects those who do it for a living? Will it “unmask” capital punishment? Perhaps. But I suspect its primary power has little to do with politics. None of us greatly enjoys musing about his inevitable demise. And here is a program that reminds us, starkly, of our common fate. In this respect, and to employ a sometimes useful contemporary phrase, the documentary is “in your face.” If you want a near-death experience ahead of time, just listen to “Witness to an Execution.”

If we define drama as something that arouses unease, fear, surprise and curiosity, many of Isay’s programs would qualify. Perhaps this experience persuaded him to cross the line into fiction with a series of 13 three-minute vignettes entitled “Julius Knipl, Architecture Photographer,” produced with the cartoonist Ben Katchor. They ran intermittently on Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition in 1995-96, conjuring up urban tableaux: diners describing the remains of their restaurant meal, a man desperate to buy vanilla ice cream from a shop that has closed, someone enthralled by escalators, the reaction of a person who has found a (closed) staple in his prune danish. Satire, irony and humor seem to have been withdrawn before rehearsals began. Is their elusive nature too subtle to be grasped? I think not. They are simply disabled by a lack of clear intent and dramatic authority.

Public radio has contributed generously to the enlightenment of its audiences but, except for the remarkably consistent Garrison Keillor, has rarely added satire or comedy to this largesse. And Isay’s foray into fiction was no exception.

Some in the audience may have responded to the Knipl segments with bemusement, but far more seem to have been disgruntled or hostile. Thinking about the segments recently, Scott Simon recalled, “We didn’t receive a single letter saying ‘We really like the programs. Let’s hear more’.” Simon says he liked their inventiveness and hopes Isay will “give us a chance to run something like them again.” He added ruefully: “If we had had just 50 letters.”

The constriction of life is a favorite Isay theme, reflected not only in his prison programs but also in other stories about limiting circumstances. The subject of “The Jewish Giant” was Eddie Carmel, born with acro-megaly, an inoperable pituitary condition that caused him to grow uncontrollably. At 15, a bright curly-haired student who loved poetry, Eddie was 6’6″ and still growing, the object of gawking and taunts.

The program, recorded by Eddie’s cousin, Jenny Carchman, was produced by Stacy Abramson and supervised by Isay. It is less polished than most of Isay’s work, but in some respects more poignant because of the cousin’s curiosity and determination to learn as much as possible. She had a formidable task of overcoming her relatives’ reluctance to talk. Eddie eventually grew to almost nine feet and 370 pounds, with huge hands and size-26 feet.

Throughout his short life —he died in 1972 at 36 —he appears to have maintained a sweet and pensive disposition. Most of his aspirations (to become the world’s tallest comedian, for example) met with failure. He acted in an unsuccessful Hollywood monster movie and made an equally unlucky record called “The Good Monster.” For several years he was one of Ringling’s star attractions, but he found the circus job demoralizing. As one of his relatives remarks, “He was never famous, but not obscure, and all the children found him magical.”

Eddie Carmel’s last years were extremely difficult. He retreated to a wheelchair and then to frequent hospital visits. Shortly before his death, Diane Arbus made him a celebrity, briefly, through her photograph of this enormous young man, standing between his parents in the living room of their modest Brooklyn home. Studying this photo, Eddie later remarked, “Why did it have to happen to me? My luck, midget parents!”

Remembering his funeral, Eddie’s uncle, the producer’s father, deplores the emphasis placed upon his disability. The eulogist had said Eddie had much potential, but his life was greatly diminished “because he was a freak.” Not so, says the uncle, who regrets he didn’t object at the time: “He did what he could. His life was not empty. He was a giant . . . a GIANT!” And we believe him.

David Isay seems to be attracted to those who have a certain nobility that we must admire. Eddie Carmel is one of many. Their personas may be precarious, their environments unfortunate or hostile, but they manage to plug along gallantly, with resources barely adequate for making a life.

Sharing the beauty of bells

Take Virginia Bell Brewer, who turns up as subject of one of Isay’s “Sound Portraits.” She had been collecting bells tirelessly for 52 years when Isay talked with her just outside the small town of Canton, Tex., in 1994. She had hoped that her modest Brewer’s Bell Museum (“Good clean entertainment for all ages”), established to contain her collection, might become a bell-lovers’ Mecca. But things hadn’t quite worked out. The initial influx of tourists had declined to as few as one a week. Still, like most of Isay’s cast, Virginia Brewer persisted against the odds. She and many others we meet in these stories bring to mind Samuel Johnson’s characterization of his friend’s desire to marry for the second time: “The triumph of hope over experience.” She had gone on food stamps and foregone what she once considered necessities, continuing to collect bells with a cheerfulness that may have helped her overcome desperation. “The Lord,” she says quietly to Isay, “intended for me to share the beauty of bells.”

One of Isay’s obsessive subjects is the Rev. Robert William Shields, who, by the time the producer meets him in 1993, has written a diary of 34,263,395 words. Shields, a retired minister, lives in Dayton, Wash. He had been writing 3,000 to 6,000 words a day, every day, for the past 20 years. He records everything: inside and outside temperatures, when he sleeps (not much, as you can imagine), his dreams, his times of urination, and prices of food at the supermarket. Needless to say, the price stickers themselves go into the diary. What he eats and drinks, the weight of the daily newspaper, the contents of his junk mail, are recorded with hundreds of other observations. Travels, even for shopping, are few, since they put him so far behind in his work that he must subsequently sit at his typewriter for days and nights together, catching up. Shield’s diligence makes Sisyphus seem shamefully slothful. Isay describes him as “short and round with an impish grin.” What we hear is a cheerfulness like Virginia Brewer’s, but manic.

Why does he do this? Isay asks. Shields doesn’t know. What does his family think of the frenzied writing? He doesn’t know this either, he replies, never having asked them. And we suspect he has never been able to carve out the time to ask. Does he ever read the diary? “If I did, I wouldn’t have time to write it.” Finally, Isay asks him what would happen if he could no longer write. To this there is an answer: “It would be like turning off my life.”

As we hear this genial man talking with Isay, we might be listening to a good-natured accountant describing a somewhat hectic day near tax time. All the same, I confess to another, but not altogether different image that keeps recurring, even now, when the memory of the Rev. Shields comes upon me: it is a vision of the author, Graham Greene, sitting in the early morning shade of a colorful awning spread over the stern of an elegant private yacht moored in a quiet harbor somewhere near St. Tropez. He removes a notebook from his shirt pocket and uncaps a slender fountain pen and writes, in very small script, for exactly one hour; 300 words, not more nor less, the addition to his latest novel, before setting off to breakfast, a ritual he followed nearly every day of his long life. Different obsessive strokes for very different folks.

As I prepared these observations, several persons referred to David Isay as “obsessive.” He may spend a year completing a radio program lasting less than half an hour. “The Sunshine Hotel,” running 22 minutes, was edited from 70 hours of recording. “The Jewish Giant,” less than 30 minutes, was edited from 60 hours of tape. We also learn from an early program, “Eating at Hunan Chef,” that Isay has ordered Chinese chicken (with peanuts and hot sauce,) the same dinner every Wednesday night for years. Once he found it necessary to send the meal back because the chicken was sliced, not diced.

Another of Isay’s distinguishing characteristics emerges in “Hunan Chef,” a program that is more personal essay than documentary. He and the chef have become great friends. Although the restaurant is closing and moving to another state, it’s clear that Isay will see the chef again, to eat his food, to check up. This producer seems to have remained on friendly terms with the bell collector, Rev. Shields and dozens of others who have found their way into his programs.

Moreese Bickham, an elderly inmate at Angola Prison, received a rare pardon, largely the result of Isay’s legal interventions four years after making “Tossing Away the Keys.” In a recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show, Isay abruptly interrupted the interview to send a personal message to Nathan Smith, manager of the Sunshine Hotel, who was recuperating from an illness in a New York hospital. He is also in close communication with the two boys —now young men —who brought his work to wide public attention in 1993 through the long-form documentary, “Ghetto Life 101.”

“Not a normal childhood, by any means”

In March of 1993, Gary Covino, one of the first to recognize Isay’s talents, invited him to Chicago to create a program for the WBEZ series, Chicago Matters. Isay had read Alex Kotlowitz’ account of growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Houses (“There Are No Children Here”) and hoped to work in a similar place.

Instead of recording and narrating a conventional radio documentary, Covino and Isay decided to enlist two 13-year-old boys, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, to record diaries of life in a housing project. Their “Ghetto Life 101” was an astonishingly direct account of contemporary slum existence, recorded by two youngsters whose observations expressed an openness and wisdom far beyond their years. They worked with great seriousness, interviewing teachers, school children, alcoholics, world-weary crime victims, teenaged mothers, relatives and, in one instance, a professional athlete, with a directness and disdain for political correctness that gives voice to people overwhelmed by problems beyond their control. This was done with such panache that it reveals the self-admiring phoniness of today’s mannered urban journalism. One result was that Isay never again put himself into a documentary to explain or embellish the action. The program won awards throughout the world and without doubt contributed to his selection as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2000. (Isay’s collaborator on the Julius Knipl project, Ben Katchor, also won a MacArthur fellowship that year.)

“This is a little journey through my life,” says LeAlan jauntily as they set off on their recording rounds. Near the end of a conversation with his mother, one of the boys asks about his long-absent father: “What do you suppose happened to him?”

“He’s probably dead,” she replies.

“Thank you,” he responds matter-of-factly, ending the dialogue.

A young addict tells the boys he doubts that he will be alive in another four years. An alcoholic is asked whether he thinks he’s been a good father, and answers, “Yes, to my best capability.” Under close questioning, one of the boy’s sisters, a mother at 15, defends her drinking and partying. She says she has known at least 30 people who have been shot to death. There’s so much gunfire, someone compares the housing projects to Vietnam. In a masterpiece of sad understatement —but not self-pity —LeAlan remarks, “It’s not a normal childhood, by any means.”

As we listen, we suddenly become aware that these are not diminutive soldiers forced to tough it out on a gangland battlefield, where killings are frequent and forgotten. They are simply brave and vulnerable little kids, attempting to stay alive, trying to keep their lives together without much support from others.

In one exceptionally fine segment, they make a break for it, boarding public transportation for a bus ride out of the ghetto to the end of the line and back; two briefly carefree young guys on a lark, Tom and Huck heading down the Mississippi.

Two years later —one year following the murder of five-year-old Eric Morse —the boys were back on the job, again with Isay’s supervision, now interviewing those who might reveal why two boys, 10 and 11, pushed Eric from a window in an abandoned project apartment. It seems they killed him because he refused to steal candy for them. The diarists —now 15-year-old investigative reporters —have deeper voices and more authority. But the program, “Remorse: The Stories of Eric Morse” lacks much of the innocent authenticity of “Ghetto Life 101.” Fearful people frequently frustrate their efforts to understand Eric’s killing. Perhaps this time the boys are, unwittingly, reminders of the child’s death. After talking with city officials, Eric’s playmates and relatives, about the only “lesson” they come away with is that the murder was senseless. The circumstances were hopeless, they say, and such things will happen again.

Characteristically, Isay has followed the lives of the boys who recorded these Chicago documentaries. Lloyd will graduate from high school this year and LeAlan is a sophomore at Florida State University, where he studies criminology.

I have never seen the faces of the people whose voices appear in David Isay’s programs. But I do not feel disadvantaged. If anything, their presence on the radio is made more intense by the absence of their visual images. However, I often hear them, inhabiting the persons I pass on the streets of small towns, clerking in little shops that line a seaside boardwalk, standing in subways and near the counters of convenience stores; often slightly loopy and dealing with less than a full deck. They are keeping a variety of demons at bay, “hanging on.” They are an invaluable part of our common humanity, offering spirited life to our lives.

David Stewart is a contributing editor of Current and author of The PBS Companion.


Stewart profiles David Isay, 2001.

With Isay and Covino, Jones and Newman return to reporting on their Chicago neighborhood, 1996.


Isay’s website,, where you can listen to most of the pieces mentioned.

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