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Calvin Trillin and R.W. Apple Jr.

By RD Heldenfels Published: October 5, 2006

In two and three-week increments, have spent something like a year of my life on TV critics' press tours, which means I have spent a lot of time in hotels, and in their elevators. This may explain why I have had some interesting encounters in elevators -- chatting with Buck Owens (whom I did not recognize), and with Robert Pastorelli and some of the guys from ''Entourage.'' And it was while waiting for an elevator that I saw an acclaimed stage actor confronted by a group of teenage girls who recognized him but could not figure out what from; he finally copped to having been on ''Who's the Boss,'' and looked even more uncomfortable as they shrieked their recognition.


Around 20 years ago, while waiting in that same place, I was startled to see Calvin Trillin step off the elevator. This impressed the daylights out of me, because I admired his writing. People I work with have more than once heard me say ''Calvin Trillin is my god.'' So I extended my hand and said, ''Excuse me, Mr. Trillin, I really like your work.'' Or something equally complimentary and inane. Trillin shook my hand and made some acknowledgment of my praise and went on.


That has been the extent of my association with Trillin, other than by reading his books -- the ones with the silly verse (''Deadline Poet,'' for one), the ones about food (''American Fried'' and others), the moving ones (''Remembering Denny,'' ''Messages From My Father''). Trillin is about as diverse a writer as you can find, graceful, adept at the insightful anecdote and funny, even you may not expect it. (In a Trillin profile of Apple, one acquaintance compares Apple to a Labrador dog and a cape buffalo ''at which point,'' Trillin wrote, ''I limited him to two animal images in discussing Apple.'')


So I have been more than a little psyched about Trillin's planned appearance in November at the University of Akron. I have none too subtly tried to elbow my way into interviewing him or covering his speech, and I may yet. But to do so, I would have had to brush up on Akron native R.W. Apple Jr., the famed New York Times writer who was coming home, to appear with Trillin and -- since Apple was also a well-known diner -- to do some serious eating.


I did not know Apple's work the way I did Trillin's. In fact, my basic impression of Apple was a mixed one, based almost exclusively on Timothy Crouse's portrait of Apple in the landmark book ''The Boys on the Bus.''  Crouse acknowledged Apple's gifts as a political reporter but also his limitations, and his ways of both aiding and annoying other reporters.So I didn't know how I would deal with Apple.


Then Apple died earlier this week.


In fact, he had been ill -- thoracic cancer -- for some time, which rather surprised me since he was booked for that UA appearance. (The event will still happen, by the way, with Trillin carrying on solo, and a tribute to Apple included in a Trillin lecture planned for Nov. 14.) But I began to think more about Apple; I went back to Crouse's book, and today I was reading the obituaries, which were respectful but knowing. And, when I had a little time this afternoon, I did the thing that made the most sense: I read Trillin.


In the stacks of the Akron library, I found the 2003 issue of the New Yorker where Trillin wrote, affectionately and wisely, about Apple, whom he had known for 50 years. (As much as I love libraries, it turned out I could have saved myself a trip. You can find the piece online here: ''Newshound.'')


It was somewhat a ''lion in winter'' piece -- Apple was 71 when he died -- but full of the vigor that Apple brought to his work, and explaining how Apple's Akron years had shaped him. It's a wonderful piece and one that made me wish I had a chance to sit down with Apple, with or without food in front of us. But it also makes me more eager to see Trillin in November -- if only to express my admiration more eloquently than in an elevator handshake.

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