For Grant Pick, People Were the News The legendary Chicago journalist found stories in places most reporters looked away from. Now his son has edited an anthology of his late father's work, called The People Are The News: Grant Pick's Chicago Stories.
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For Grant Pick, People Were the News

Listen to our interview with Grant Pick's son John and his former colleague Alex Kotlowitz

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There are different kinds of journalists: the beat reporters, the investigative reporters, the feature reporters. And then there are the journalists like Grant Pick, journalists that chronicle the story of a place by profiling the people who live there. Pick spent 25 years writing for the Chicago Reader, that city's version of the Village Voice in New York or the Boston Phoenix.

Pick developed a reputation for finding great stories where most other people would just look away, and for telling those stories with humanity and humor. Three years ago, while walking home from lunch, Grant Pick died of a heart attack at the age of 57.

Now there's an anthology of his most memorable pieces, entitled "The People Are The News: Grant Pick's Chicago Stories." It's been edited by his son, John, with a foreword by his colleague, writer and author Alex Kotlowitz.

John Pick and Alex Kotlowitz join me now on the phone. Hey to both of you.

Mr. ALEX KOTLOWITZ (Writer): Hi.

Mr. JOHN PICK (Grant Pick's Son): Hello.

MARTIN: Thanks for being here. Alex, if you're introducing Grant Pick's works to someone for the first time, how do you describe his work?

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: You know, Grant have this incredible generosity spirit and this unending curiosity. And he sort of found his way into the nooks and crannies of this city and, you know, introduced us to people who I think we would probably, if we were passing them by, would see them as eccentric, maybe even a bit nuts.

And Grant saw something in these people. I mean, I always think of Grant's work as kind of like Joseph Mitchell's work in the New Yorker. I mean, he saw this poetry and the quotidian, and the, you know, extraordinary and the ordinary. There's these just wonderful profiles of people in the city who we pass by every day without giving so much as a second thought to.

MARTIN: Is there a particular passage that illustrates that to you?

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, there's a, you know, one of the profiles - one of my favorite profiles that he - in the book, there's this profile of a gentleman, Bill Combs, who was a lay Catholic. And Brother Bill, as he was known, would dress in this hooded cassock that was - ran the length of his body and it was made out of blue-jean patches.

And Brother Bill worked in the projects on the west side of the city. This is back in the late '80s and early '90s. And he worked with the gangs, and he would - literally, he would walk in on the gangs were warring with each other. He - Brother Bill would walk into the middle of this gunfire and with the hope that his presence would somehow subdue the shooting.

MARTIN: And he was a lay person, right? He wasn't a clergyman.

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: No. He was - right. He was a former businessman. And one of the things I love about this piece is that this was the time when I was working on my first book, "There Are No Children Here," and I would see Brother Bill walking around in this medieval garb in the middle of the projects, and I just thought this guy was absolutely nuts. I thought I didn't want to have anything to do with this guy. And then, of course, I come to read Grant's piece and I think what a loss it was for me that I didn't take the time to meet this gentleman. He was eccentric. There's no question about it. But it was clear, after reading Grant's piece, that he had an affect in these young gang guys who he hung out with, and Grant's out there and he sees something that I didn't see. And there was this wonderful except. I mean, one of the things that was wonderful about Grant, Grant has to see wonderful deadpan quality, both in person but also on the page. And if I could read this just one except on this.

MARTIN: Yes, please.

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Grant writes:

(Reading) Tom was never married. He was briefly engaged in college, but his true heartbreak came in 1966 when Bill was 31 and fell in love with a nurse from Minnesota. They dated for a year and a half and were at the point of looking at rings and furniture when Tom left in one of his European excursions. When he returned, the nurse had married somebody else. Oh, wee, I went into a real depression, Tom says. It made me distrust people for quite a while. There's been no one since to compare with the nurse, quote, "except Jesus," end quote. Thomas realizes that his present lifestyle is not what every woman dreams of.

MARTIN: That does illustrates his wit as well. I mean, these were characters who are involved in sometimes very tragic circumstance who had had tough lives, but he was still able to infuse the story with humor.

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: He was. But I think he wasn't laughing at people he was just laughing in amusement, and I can imagine that with Brother Bill I'm sure that by the end of it, he was walking around and Brother Bill is probably laughing along with Grant at the irony that he saw in the circumstances there.

MARTIN: I want to bring in Grant Pick's son, John Pick.

John, you edited this anthology. What provoked you to do this and what was it like to go back and read all your dad's works from when he was much younger, when he was about the age that you are now when he was creating all of these pieces?

Mr. PICK: I knew after he died that I wanted to try to put together a book of his work. It was one of his hopes to write a book and I don't - he never quite put together the right idea, and I think that had he live longer he would have. And so it was what I could do to not only memorialize my father, but when you lose somebody, you look for places where they still live and then you try to keep them alive in your life. And it was actually quite therapeutic to go into my father's drawers and find him, find his wit and sense of fun and humor. And, you know, that was dad having and he lived throughout his work.

MARTIN: We're talking to John Pick and Alex Kotlowitz. They've put together -John has edit it and Alex has written the foreword to a new book, an anthology of work by Grant Pick, "The People are the News."

Do you have a particular favorite that's part of this anthology that really spoke to you when you included it, when you rediscovered it?

Mr. PICK: There's a story he wrote right before he died, and it's very short. It's just a vignette. And it's about this guy who wandered the South Side of Chicago with a thing of keys around his shoulder, and just picked up keys, and it was almost like his good luck charm or his, like, security blanket. He was about in his 50s and kind of an alcoholic, but he was just a guy. But he lives this kind of mystical life on the, you know, he's just kind of a vagrant, urban wanderer.

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: And, John, you're dad also was himself was a bit of wanderer. I mean, that's what's so wonderful about these stories is you kind of wander through the, you know, the nooks and crannies of the city with him. I mean, it's almost as if he's holding your hand and you're just going along for the ride.

MARTIN: John, did he share these stories with you when you were growing up? I mean, when you guys are sitting around the dinner table, would he talk about what he was working on?

Mr. PICK: Yeah. I mean, these people are kind of characters, even though we know we never knew them or saw them in our house. But that said, I don't know if I ever understood - maybe I wasn't old enough and I was focused on other things to really kind of get what - get the whole picture.

MARTIN: What do you get now that you didn't get then?

Mr. PICK: A greater understanding about who my father was and what made him click. You know, I always just understood him or knew him as my dad. And particularly, as I embark on my career I can read his stories from the late '70s, early '80s when he was about my age and see echoes of myself in his work, just trying to find the world and trying to find himself though his work.

MARTIN: Alex, is there one more passage that you would like to share that really gets to the…

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: I'd be delighted.

MARTIN: …heart?

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. You know, one of the things about Grant's work is that he is not - he was smart enough that he's include himself in his stories. And there's one notable exception in this collection, and that's in a piece called "Bigot For Hire." It's a profile, of a rather unsympathetic character, a guy by the name of Art Jones who was a white supremacist and Nazi. And Art and Grant are meeting at a restaurant on the South Side of the city, and here's what Grant writes:

(Reading) At the end of our first talk, he asked me a question. I was wondering, he began tentatively giving my face an especially long look, what's your ethnic background? When I confirmed what he suspected, that I was Jewish, he said we could continue our dialogue so long as I'd be fair in my reporting. I said I'd try. Some weeks later, we were at the end of another long conversation. I was finishing a piece of blueberry pie - and for some reason, Jones always made me hungry for pie - when I asked him what I should do.

What do you mean? Well, I said, Jews are inherently inferior, vicious, mean and scheming. So? he said. I'm Jewish, I reiterated. On both sides? He inquired. Afraid so, I said. Jones nodded soberly. How do I get out of the hereditary bind I'm in? I wanted to know. How can I redeem myself? Pray to whatever God you believe in to save you from what's coming, he said. You don't want to be a Jew or black when we come to power. This thing could bust wide open, there could be a lot of violence and death.

But I'm Jewish, I reminded him, coded irretrievably to my faith. I'm capable of making the distinction of the basis of individuals, he said, but even though I might like you personally, and I do, if it came to a question of making an exception for you, I wouldn't. Because what if everybody had his own favorite Jew or favorite black? If you're lucky, you'll get kicked out of the country. If you're not lucky, you'll end up dead. But you'll pay in hell, anyway. So there's no recourse for me? Your solution lies in working with your own people to reform them, to stop them from what they have done in country after country. But personally, again, I have nothing against you. I hope you live to be a gray-haired old man in Israel.

And that's from "Bigot For Hire."

MARTIN: Thank you to both of you, Alex Kotlowitz, John Pick, the son of Grant Pick, the Chicago writer who wrote for 25 years for the Chicago Reader. John Pick has edited an anthology of his father's most memorable pieces, compiled them in a book called "The People are the News: Grant Pick's Chicago Stories."

Thanks to both of you.

Mr. PICK: Well, thanks, Rachel.

Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Thank you.

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