Gene Weingarten
Nieman Class of 1988

PH/COLUMNISTS

Weingarten, of the Washington Post, writes long and short and sad and funny hilarious, and “may be the best writer in American journalism,” as one profiler once put it. “He’s the only person to have won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing twice, once for the violinist story and once for a story about parents who accidentally leave their children in hot cars,” Tom Bartlett wrote in a 2011 profile, in Washingtonian magazine. “And as amazing as those articles are, neither is generally considered his finest. That story, about a children’s entertainer, is as good a piece of writing as you’ll ever find tossed on your front lawn.” (See “The Peekaboo Paradox,” below.) Weingarten is also known for his “Below the Beltway” column, and for editing Style, and for his popular webchat “Chatological Humor,” and for his books, which include the column collection The Fiddler in the Subway, and The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life and Death, the fourth paragraph of which begins, “Just kidding, hypochondriacs! Good Lord, get a grip,” and for his Twitter feed, avatar’d by a swirl of excrement and filled with tweets such as, “Hey, thanks for the invitation to LinkedIn. I’ll get on board right after I die, fill with gases, and explode.” Weingarten moved to the Post in 1990, after having spent a decade helping make a must-read out of Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, whose writers included Dave Barry and Madeleine Blais. He took a Post buyout in 2009, but, to the thrill of his cultish readers, he still writes. His longtime friend Tom Shroder, former editor of the Washington Post magazine, speculated to Washingtonian about what Weingarten might yet do, saying, “I think he has a masterpiece book in him.”

Recommended reads:

• Fatal Distraction,” the Washington Post. Excerpt:

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.

It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.

At one point, during a recess, Harrison rose unsteadily to his feet, turned to leave the courtroom and saw, as if for the first time, that there were people witnessing his disgrace. The big man’s eyes lowered. He swayed a little until someone steadied him, and then he gasped out in a keening falsetto: “My poor baby!”

• Pearls before Breakfast,” the Washington Post. Excerpt:

He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

• The Peekaboo Paradox,” the Washington Post. Excerpt:

The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it.

The room next door was emblematic of the extraordinary life and times of the Great Zucchini, Washington’s No. 1 preschool entertainer. The homeowners, Allison and Donald Cox Jr., are in their late thirties, with two young children — Lauren, who is 5, and Donald III, who goes by Trey, and whose third birthday was being celebrated that day.

Tall and handsome, Don is a federal government lawyer. Short and pretty, Allison is an IT recruiter. Like most successful two-career couples who started a family later in life, the Coxes have resources to lavish on their children. When they bought this spacious colonial in Bethesda, the large area next to the family room was going to be Don’s study. But it soon surrendered itself into a playroom — filling, floor to ceiling, with entertainment for the kids. A wall unit became a storage place for dolls, games and action figures, all neatly partitioned and displayed like heirlooms. The floor is a warren of toys: There is a little girl’s vanity and a tea table primly set with cups and saucers. For Trey, there is a ride-on choo-choo train. A fully functional mini-moon bounce occupies one capacious corner. In another is a wall-mounted TV.

The Great Zucchini’s problem? This room has no door. Its enticing contents were visible from the room where he would be performing, and the Great Zucchini tolerates no distractions. So he asked Allison to hang a bedsheet across the open archway, which meant making pushpin holes in the sheet and in the walls. Good-naturedly, Allison obeyed. Parents almost always do.

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 in September. For more installments, go here.

 

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