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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. The past four decades are a lot funnier in the collected columns and deadline poetry of Calvin Trillin, and I remember them an improvement on my memory for which I am very grateful. In The New Yorker, in The Nation magazine, in his syndicated column, Calvin Trillin has written hilariously funny stuff for a biblical span of 40 years about food and politics, language and mores, and about growing up Jewish in Kansas City and much else.

His writing has been collected in an anthology called "Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff." And Mr. Trillin joins us now from Nova Scotia, which devoted readers of Trillin know is where he spends his summers. Hi. Welcome to the program.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with Kansas City. You are the product, by your own description, of a boringly happy childhood in the middle of the country, thanks to the German Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff.

TRILLIN: Yeah. I owe it all to Jacob Schiff. There's a piece in the book about how in the beginning of the 20th century, German Jews like Jacob Schiff were pretty comfortable in New York, and then this horde of Eastern European, scruffy, sometimes religious and political fanatic Jews came pouring into the Lower East Side. And I didn't know about this, of course, until I was a grownup, but then I read in a book that - it said Jacob Schiff, concerned by the conditions and embarrassed by these people, gave $500,000 to something called The Galveston Movement, which was to reroute them from darkest Europe to Galveston and then arranged jobs and things in the Midwest and the South. And so my family was - went to St. Joseph, Missouri, St. Joe.

And when I found this out, I sat up. I was reading on the beach, and I sat up. And I said: Who is Jacob Schiff to be embarrassed by my Uncle Benny Daynafski?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRILLIN: I mean, for instance, we never had anything to do with robber barons like the Schiffs did. I mean, the - when it comes to rapacious 19th-century capitalism, my family's hands are clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: But when you talk about rapacious robber barons in the 19th century, one of the, you know, one of the themes that echoes throughout your columns and poems is you're not afraid of being accused of waging class warfare. You've never forgotten your roommate in college whom you called Thatcher Baxter Hatcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRILLIN: Well, all of them had three last names, but you didn't call them by one of the names. They all had little nicknames like Mutt and Biff, and Skip was a big one. And we called Thatcher Baxter Hatcher Tush.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: This we should say was - you went to Yale.

TRILLIN: That's right.

SIEGEL: You were not an eastern boarding school product at Yale. You were from the middle of the country.

TRILLIN: Yeah. I was a public high school boy who were then - we were then in a distinct minority.

SIEGEL: There's a column you wrote in 1983, which you described a condition that could only have gotten worse over the years, it was called "People in Charge," in which you wrote: When someone reaches middle age, people he knows begin to be put in charge, and knowing what he knows about the people who are being put in charge of things scares the hell out of him.

TRILLIN: That's right. I realized that. I was reading the paper, and I saw that somebody named Al Dalton Durfee had been put in charge of negotiating the trade deficit problems with Japan, and I think everybody else said, well, deputy undersecretary of state, I think everything will be in control now. And what I thought was, my God, it's Dumb Dolt Durfee...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRILLIN: ...the fourth dumbest guy in my class. The Japanese will have California by Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRILLIN: And I think everybody has people like that. I mean, you see the guy named the head surgeon of a hospital who was held back in fourth grade for klutziness, and you actually were there to watch him, that. And the head of the missile command turns out to be somebody you knew in college as Dipso Dick Donovan. So, yeah, it's scary. I think that when people think, you know, you don't hear much talk about midlife crises anymore. It used to be a big thing, midlife crises. And people say, well, you know, a guy would leave the bank and go off with a teenaged mushroom gatherer and live in the woods somewhere.

And they'd say, well, it's his hormones. And I don't think it's his hormones. People he knew in college and in high school start to get put in charge of thing and it scares the hell out of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You have to flee at that moment...

TRILLIN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...when your classmates are actually - they're given portfolios that control the safety of the world.

TRILLIN: And it happens at a certain age. And it's around the 25th reunion of college, too, which is - makes it even scarier.

SIEGEL: But doesn't one come out the other end eventually, that is, aren't you - at some point, you become older than all the people who have been given these jobs, and so you can be hopeful once again that maybe they're up to them.

TRILLIN: No, no. What the big relief is that the guys you knew are out of it now and you don't have to worry about it anymore. They're retired.

SIEGEL: Calvin Trillin, let me ask you about one thing that not funny. It's been 10 years. And in reading these - the recurring wonderful character in so many of your pieces was your wife, Alice, whom you were writing about and for and to. And reading them, it's a reminder of how that - not just you but the two of you were real to lots of us who've read your columns over the years and been quite a while now.

TRILLIN: You know, I didn't think I'd ever write anything funny after she died, but...

SIEGEL: Which is on 9/11, wasn't it, or right around it?

TRILLIN: Yes, it was, that night. I mean, it was early in the morning, so it was technically the next day, but it was about 2 o'clock at night in 9/11. But, you know, eventually, writers write, you know? I mean, it's sort of - I got back to work - and more on reporting pieces - and then eventually, I found something funny.

SIEGEL: It was tough to be funny for, I would assume, for a long time.

TRILLIN: Yes. Yeah, it was.

SIEGEL: And...

TRILLIN: And I hadn't realized how much, until I started putting this book together, how much of a character she was in all of this and how I had written it, basically, to make her laugh.

SIEGEL: To make her laugh, yeah.

TRILLIN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, it's good to read you after you recovered. And it's a reminder of how, never having met either of you, you were both real people to me for a very long time and...

TRILLIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...nice to read about it. Calvin Trillin, whose collected works are in a book called "Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff."

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