In March, Tim and I attended “Overheard with Evan Smith” at KLRU on the UT campus. The guest was Dean Baquet, executive editor of the The New York Times.
I haven’t always had the warm fuzzies where Evan Smith is concerned. Many years ago I had a freelance position at Texas Monthly Custom Publishing where Evan Smith was the editor. My job was to help copyedit the Georgia On My Mind Travel Guide, a glossy magazine format travel guide that listed hotels, motels, and restaurants in Georgia. I had to call to confirm the address and phone number of the hotels and motels. Quickly into the gig I began to notice a strange and humorous trend — almost everyone I spoke with was a man named Mr. Patel. As the project wore on, I learned that an extremely large percentage of motels in Georgia were owned and managed by Indian families with the last name of Patel.
According to a fascinating yet outdated 1999 article in The New York Times, about 70 percent of all Indian motel owners were named Patel, a surname that indicates they are members of a Gujarati Hindu subcaste. Given that this makes up about a third of all motels, let’s just say I spent a lot of time verifying information with a dude named Mr. Patel on the other side of the line.
There’s your random factoid for the day. Now, back to Evan Smith.
When I interviewed for the job, I was a nervous wreck because merely being in the Texas Monthly offices was a big deal for me. It began with an interview with the human resources woman, and then moved on to an interview with the woman who ran the Custom Publishing division, who warned me that it wasn’t a glamorous position in the least. (She didn’t warn me that my cube mate was a poor girl with an eating disorder who told me that if I wanted to lose weight, I could eat cotton balls.)
The final step in the process was a brief “interview” with the then-publisher, Michael Levy. A terrified intern shuffled me in and reminded me that I didn’t need to linger. I walked into the office and Levy looked up over his glasses. He talked about Texas Monthly for a bit — a brief history, importance of the institution, the usual. I told him I’d been reading Texas Monthly since I was a little kid, and that I would read it cover to cover, including the ads.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” It was clear by how loud he said it that this was his closing question, and I imagined the intern standing outside quivering, ready to open the door right away after I answered the question.
I stood there, frozen, unable to come up with anything clever and then I remembered a line Tim had used in the past, so I went for it.
“I want your job.”
Levy had a great laugh. By the sound of it, he’d never heard that line before. Somehow, that answer passed the test and I got the thumbs up to start dialing Patels.
Okay, really this time, back to Evan Smith. During the several months I was on the project, I rode on the elevator with Smith on several occasions, and while I can strike up a conversation with a stack of wet wood, I was speechless in his presence. He’s a smallish man but very intimidating. Because he never struck up a conversation from his side, I made the snap judgment that he was arrogant. It’s really not fair, because for one, he has plenty to be arrogant about, but also, he’s busy, and I really do think he’s a bit shy in the one-on-one format. I’ve met him a few times through the years since those early days in the Texas Monthly elevators, and he’s really quite nice, but he’s definitely not hanging out to make small talk. He has interviews with pretty much anyone who is anyone in politics to prepare for – what do I expect?
On the morning of the Dean Baquet Overheard taping, the weather was crummy, and Tim and I waited until the last minute to get in line because the taping lines at the studio are outdoors and pretty miserable. We entered the studio right as things were getting started and landed seats very close to the stage on one side. Banquet was brilliant. He talked about how it’s not important for The New York Times to be liked, it’s about being respected. He discussed how now, more than ever, people are paying attention in ways they’ve not paid attention before. He talked about the transformation to digital in the newspaper business, and how video will be more and more vital to storytelling in the future. In less than an hour, he fully justified my recent subscription for the Sunday edition of the Times.
When it was time to leave, a feisty older woman with white hair and crazy colorful shoes was making her way down the steps from the studio risers, so I offered her a hand down as she appeared to need a bit of steadying. She beamed and accepted my hand, and looked down and said happily,
“You have big feet!”
That was really funny to me. I had on knee-high brown boots and I stuck my foot out to show it off.
“I guess I do!” I said. “When I was a kid, one of my friend’s dad’s called me ‘Big Foot!’ But through the years I’ve not thought about them as big since I kind of grew into them.”
She introduced herself, then told me about how when she was a little girl, they held a sock hop at her school, and to help encourage dancing, they had the girls take a shoe off and put it in a pile. The kids stood in a circle around the shoes, and the boys were asked to pick a shoe to pick a partner.
“Mine was the largest, so you can only imagine which one was picked last.”
She talked about how she learned to live with big feet, and now, when she sees someone with big feet she says,
“Do you know what we are? We’re ‘Sisters Under the Shin!’ We have to stick together!”
So we stuck together to exit the studio, which is always a bit of a nightmare as the elevators are small and slow and everything gets log-jammed in there, so the woman and Tim and I used our big feet to hike down the stairs. Holding hands, we shared pleasantries and I learned that her husband was on the faculty at UT and that she comes to the Overheard tapings as much as she can.
Outside, it was beginning to rain again, so I Tim went for the car and I stayed with my new friend while she called Capital Metro to confirm her ride home. She told me that she was a photographer. She asked for my email address, and while she wrote it down I snapped a quick pic. I needed to remember this very cool woman with such an optimistic outlook who made the bold move to highlight her big feet by coloring her shoes. Why not?
Just a few days later I received an email requesting my mailing address. I replied back, and a few days after, I received a lovely note in the mail with four black and white photographs of kittens posed around brass instruments that she took in 1990. They’re delightful (I won’t post the kitten photos as they’re copyrighted).
All of this reminded me of pen pals past. Jonathan, the boy I met at the Washington Monument in 8th grade who wrote me scribbled letters for several years until we both got caught up in our much more important high school lives. Champagne Alice, the adorable elderly woman I met at a wedding years ago with my best friend Candace. When Alice traveled, she had a case of champagne shipped to her hotel so she could relax in style. She had some serious joie de vivre going on.
Have you ever had a pen pal? Tell me about it!