Last week in this column I made a plea to all the women who are too fearful to write about their own lives: think small. Here’s a further ramble on the subject.
Twenty years ago I wrote an article in The New York Times, less than a thousand words long, that readers tell me they still remember for its high emotional content. But in writing it I had no such intention. Here’s how the piece began:
Every so often I find on my answering machine in mid-Manhattan a brief cry for help. “What should be done to stop water stains coming through the ceiling?” the voice asks, or “Is it O.K. to use primer-sealer 1-2-3 for peeling paint in the bathroom?” I don’t know anything about water stains and peeling paint. I’m a writer. The callers are trying to reach William Zinsser & Co., my father’s shellac business. The company was in New York so long—well over a century—that some old customers think it’s still there, and when they call directory assistance the number they’re given is mine. I’m the only William Zinsser still doing business in New York; the firm moved away in 1975 and was later sold out of the family.
I don’t mind getting the calls. Many of them are from hardware dealers in places like Moline and Winston-Salem and Fargo, and they remind me how much my father loved being an American businessman. But I also get calls from homeowners who are fixing up their home and want product information. I call them all back to give them the company’s telephone number in New Jersey. That’s how I learned about Barbara Wallenstein and the trouble she was having with her picket fence in Newtown, Connecticut. …
That article was born of the desperation familiar to every free-lance writer stuck for a subject. I came to my office one morning empty of ideas. “Please, God, just send me something,” I thought. At such times of drought I’m grateful for the merest wisp of a topic, and that’s what I got: the fact that in my life as a writer I hear from people who want to know how to spackle their bathroom. That’s enough for one piece: a surprising oddity.
But as I started to write, other themes began tugging at my sleeve, and they all belonged in my story. How could I write about the phone messages and not talk about my father, and about his dream of the day I would join him in the business. It had been in the same family on the same block for well over a century, and I was his only son, the fourth William Zinsser. But my dream was to be a newspaperman, and I had to explain how my father accepted that disappointment and gave me his blessing, freeing me to succeed or fail on my own terms—the best gift a parent can bestow. And how one of my sisters’ husbands was persuaded to come into the business. And how my father’s values as a businessman and as an engaged citizen of New York would shape my own lifelong values as a journalist.
So the piece ended up being about many so-called universal themes: fathers and sons, family businesses, family expectations, filial duty, the continuity of cities, and several more. But I didn’t set out to write about any of those themes; the story itself just gradually told me what it was about. If I had set out to write an emotional piece—“Boy, this is heart-tugging stuff!”—it would have tugged at no hearts.
Here’s how the article ended:
The integrity of my father’s product came back to me one morning when I heard the beseeching voice of Mrs. Wallenstein on my answering machine. She was calling, she said, at 8:30 a.m. She had awakened with the resolve that this was the day her picket fence was finally going to get painted. She had a gallon of Zinsser’s B-I-N and she needed to know if she could use it on the fence. Would I call back as soon as possible?
I got to my office around 10—writers’ hours start later than shellac scions’ hours—and called Mrs. Wallenstein. She was right by the phone. “I realized as soon as I got up today,” she said, “that my husband is never going to paint that fence.” I told her that although I was the son who didn’t go into the business, she was calling about the one product I happened to know as a user, and I was sorry to have to tell her that it should only be used indoors. She was no less sorry to hear it. I gave her the company’s New Jersey phone number, explaining that it had been gone from 59th Street for more than 15 years.
“I’m sure if you look at that can of B-I-N,” I said, “the label gives the address as Somerset, New Jersey.”
“I’ve got the can right here,” she told me. “It says 516 West 59th Street.”
“How long have you had that can, Mrs. Wallenstein?” I asked.
“Well, I guess we must have brought it with us when we moved from Long Island,” she said.
We talked for a while about how “only yesterday” is always farther back than we think, and about how long it takes husbands to paint picket fences, and about fathers and sons and family businesses. Neither of us was in any hurry to get off the phone.
At the end Mrs. Wallenstein said, “It was very nice of you to call.”
I said, “My father would have wanted me to.”
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