Originally created 05/11/04

Book Review: Collection of columns offers glimpses of 'real' New Yorkers



"Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts." By Charlie LeDuff. The Penguin Press. 357 Pages. $24.95.

For the past eight years, Charlie LeDuff, reporter and columnist for The New York Times, has been seeking out the city's regular folk to tell stories of times gone by.

Some of those columns and other tales have been collected into his first book, "Work and Other Sins, Life in New York City and Thereabouts."

LeDuff states in his introduction that he is not out to profile New York's upper class. "This is not about the people who have doormen, but a book about doormen. It is about the laborer, the dreamer, the hustler, the immigrant ...."

Among the real-life characters readers meet is a longtime Upper West Side doorman who has seen his neighborhood change from crime-ridden in the 1960s and '70s to chic in the '90s. The profile gives some depth to a New York fixture, someone who is often seen but is rarely given a second thought.

Some of the tales offer a look at the city's mysteries and surprises: The long tradition of Mohawk Indians who spend their work week in New York as steelworkers, for example, and go home to Canada for the weekend is probably unknown to most people.

Other stories shed light on New Yorkers whose heydays are long gone, including the one about a former disco king who is having a hard time coming to terms with aging.

The book is about workers, drinkers and players, most of them men. Women are mainly the bartenders and prostitutes, the wives who bailed out on their men. One exception is found in the piece about the murder of Ruby Jean Johnson, a "glittering personality" of the Harlem Renaissance who remained true to her good taste and love of music while spending her later years scraping along on food stamps and in fear of burglars.

LeDuff's straightforward prose usually does justice to his subjects. "Mr. Kirchner said he bagged only 35 muskrats this season," LeDuff says about Karl Kirchner II, one of the few licensed trappers working in the city. "Just 17 years ago he and his father took more than 800. ... He has seen how automobiles and their pollution kill bay life. It is called progress, he said."

The section called "Squad 1" contains stories about people associated with a Brooklyn squad that lost 12 firefighters in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. LeDuff follows young firefighter Sean Cummins and the widow of firefighter Dave Fontana as they try to cope in the aftermath of the attacks. Treating a global event in such a personal manner evokes the emotions of that day and reminds us that terrorism's victims are not only the dead, but the living.

But often, LeDuff's testaments to people's lives are too brief to elicit an emotional response. Sometimes he doesn't even name his subjects, which makes it hard to care about them. That could be LeDuff's point, but it makes this sort of treatment feel lifeless and cold.

Perhaps the strangest column is one that was never published. Called "Fame Stinks," it's about a meeting between Jayson Blair, the former Times reporter who admitted fabricating and plagiarizing stories, and former TV star Gary Coleman, whom LeDuff thinks "somewhat resemble" each other.

"Fame is more a punishment than a blessing," Coleman tells Blair at a midtown pub. "Every mistake you make is there for everybody to judge."