“The people will bring the places alive.” So says Bill Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz, Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, and American Places, to name just a few. He said that while teaching a nonfiction writing course he calls “People & Places.” It’s been more than a few years since I sat in Zinsser’s classroom, but I remember him, and the room, quite well.
The wood strip coat racks that line two of the walls have jutting protuberances on which to hang one’s garments â€” some straight out like nails with super large heads, others at upward angles like single handle water faucets. They are all bare due to the temperate weather of a pleasant Fall evening. The walls appear pale gray, either because they are, or because the florescent lights overhead cast a dingy shadow on aging off-white paint. There is the faint hum of a fan; the air is dry, odorless. Zinsser is spry, trim, with glasses sporting square-ish lenses. His brow is furrowed, perhaps from editing too many student pages filled with passive and not so passive clutter. He is wearing a green striped jacket, white shirt, dark grayish-blue slacks with a brown belt, dark socks, and tennis shoes. Putting down his canvas bag with blue trim, he loosens his blue polka-dot tie to get comfortable. By way of introduction, he tells us that he’s “a fourth-generation New Yorker with roots deep in the cement.” His mother was a “mad clipper” of newspaper articles, so perhaps it should not be surprising that he always wanted to be a newspaperman at the Herald Tribune, and thought that the Herald was put out just for him. “I set out to get an education and have an interesting life,â€ he tells us.
It was in Zinsser’s class that I first began to really appreciate short but revealing people sketches. Here are a few descriptions, read or re-read in more recent years, that I like a lot. (If the first one sounds familiar it’s because I quoted the first sentence earlier this month.)
Mrs. Reed in Walt Harringtonâ€™s At the Heart of It: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives:
At ten in the morning, heading out the front door, Mrs. Reed is a vision of vitality in slow motion. She wears a simple blue-flowered dress and a white spots jacket, opaque stockings, white flats (she wore short heels the other day and vanity cost her a strained muscle that hurt so bad she could barely walk until she doctored herself with Ben-Gay), and a pretty turquoise beret, beneath which she tucks her short dark-gray hair.
Four of the workers in Gay Talese’s The Bridge
Cicero Mike, who once drove a Capone whiskey truck during Prohibition and recently fell to his death of a bridge near Chicagoâ€¦
Indian Al Deal, who kept three women happy out West and came to the bridge each morning in a fancy silk shirtâ€¦
Riphorn Red, who used to paste twenty-dollar bills along the sides of his suitcase and who went berserk one night in a cemeteryâ€¦
the Nutley Kid, who smoked long Italian cigars and chewed snuff and use toilet water and, at lunch, would drink milk and beer â€“ without taking out the snuff…
Mrs. Clare in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:
Her celebrity derives not from her present occupation but a previous oneâ€”dance-hall hostess, an incarnation not indicated by her appearance. She is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woolen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-colored, gingerly-tempered woman of unrevealed age (â€œThatâ€™s for me to know, and you to guessâ€) but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration.