By John Bridges
OCTOBER 6, 1997: There were color pictures in The New York Times last week. It was not a Sunday, and I am not talking about the magazine. I am not talking about a fashion section that only comes out twice a year.
I am talking about color pictures in an everyday run-of-the-mill issue of The New York Times. I did not need this in my life right now.
I can hardly recognize my life as it is. I am used to a life in which there is no call-waiting, a life in which people do not wear Spandex in the grocery store, a life in which no one has ever heard of couscous. I am used to a world without casual Fridays, an existence that knows nothing of debit cards, a life in which men do not wear three-button suits.
I am used to men knowing which button to button. I am used to knowing that, if it is white and if it is served on my plate, it is either a scoop of rice or a spoonful of mashed potatoes. I am used to hearing busy signals and knowing that the person on the other end of the line is either talking to someone, having sex with someone, or sleeping off what he did with someone the night before.
In short, I am used to a world I can understand because it is like the Times I am used to. The obits are on Page A-13, right before the "Editorials/Letters" page. The puzzle is on Page B-4, right underneath the chamber music review and the interview with the director of the all-female production of Mr. Roberts. And there is only one page of sports.
In this world, everything, no matter how bloody awful it is, is printed in black and beige--not even black and white. It is much more comfortable being meted out in a slightly grayed-down black, meticulously cross-stitched against a field of already-aged ecru. It is not startling enough to be printed in stark, bellicose black against screaming, soiled-virgin white. It is a world printed on paper that is precisely the shade of a pair of good kid gloves or an old pair of scratchy-wool L.L. Bean long underwear.
Needless to say, it does not require, even on the rarest occasions, a color photograph of James Brown at 8 o'clock on a weekday morning. I am used to a life in which, if there is to be any unnatural excitement, I will be expected to provide it for myself.
I did not come easily to this New York Times sort of life. I was born into a world that longed for color television, Cinemascope, and technicolor movies featuring Debra Paget and Robert Wagner. I went on to a world that thrived on Peter Max posters and Scorpio Rising and women in Pucci prints. It took me a while to become content with grayness, to learn the smiling contentment of a Walter Kerr review; to learn that, in every Hirschfeld, there is always at least one Nina; to learn that, whenever the clue was "French soprano," Eugene T. Maleska meant the four-letter answer to be "P-O-N-S."
It took me decades to learn that a newspaper could be a thing to be delved into, a thing almost overwhelming, a thing in which any normal person, on any given weekday, could very easily drown. It took me years to understand why, in a newspaper published in New York, there could be any need for stories about what was happening in Madison, Wis., or Helena, Mont. It took me even longer to discover why, on any one day, the front page of a respected publication could make room for stories about global disarmament, a UAW walkout at General Motors, and a recent study proving that cockroaches really do enjoy having sex.
What I came to understand, finally, was that, as far as the Times was concerned, all of life was one, great, egalitarian expanse of grayness. Other people could run horoscopes and Cindy Adams. The Times could counter with a 2,000-word profile--complete with black-and-white picture--of two brothers who baked cheesecakes somewhere in New Jersey.
The brothers did not have to be particularly famous to deserve a black-and-white picture in the Times on a weekday morning. But their faces would be there, spelled out in the same uneventful gray dots that had once spelled out the faces of Mahatma Gandhi, Mickey Mantle, and Marilyn Monroe--the same dots that, on that very same morning, were collecting themselves into the faces of Ted Turner, a recently departed Norwegian nuclear physicist, and the president of the United States.
It finally dawned on me that the Times did not run the story about the cheesecake-baking brothers thinking that 80 million Americans would want to read about them. Instead, the Times figured that, when all is said and done, all of knowledge has a pretty good chance of being useful to somebody or other, given the unpredictable nature of the world. Better yet, the Times knew that, at the dinner table that evening, nobody was going to want to hear about the UAW walking out on a GM plant. On the other hand, the Times knew, there was a pretty good chance somebody was going to want to hear about two overweight brothers who make their own cheesecake.
Sitting around the dinner table that evening, people would not need a color picture. Instead, they would have a story to tell. In fact, they would have lots and lots of stories, enough stories for even the smartest person to drown himself in. No matter how much of the Times a person had read on that particular morning, at the dinner table, by the time the cognac came round, he would always find himself saying, "No. I guess I didn't get to that page." At the table, however, no one would look askance at him--any more than they would have spurned him for not having finished The Gulag Archipelago. Surely, they would figure, this is an intelligent person. Surely, they would assume, he had finished something else.
It took me a long time to learn that lesson. And now the Times is running color pictures. They are not particularly good color pictures, as color pictures go, because the Times still does not see life in shades of sunshine yellow and electric blue. It still sees people as if they were all captured in Bill Cunningham photographs, striding along Fifth Avenue in thrilling shades of dun and mouse and smog.
Now, I suppose, I will be forced to accept brash, unforgiving reality as the Times has never before known it. Just this past Monday, for example, the Times ran a color picture of Kurt Vonnegut. He was sitting behind his typewriter. He was wearing a vaguely gray-brown poplin jacket. His hair was the color of dead leaves. His skin was the color of an old pair of kid gloves. Everything about him, no matter what the camera did, was all gray and ecru. He looked, I think, exactly like life.
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