Dan Barry Takes Deep Dives into Unseen Lives

Gathered in a new book, Dan Barry’s New York Times columns create a compelling portrait of Americans at their best and dealing with the worst.

Dan Barry, at Manny’s Texas Weiners in Union, says everything about his decade writing the This Land column was “invigorating” except the travel.
Dan Barry, at Manny’s Texas Weiners in Union, says everything about his decade writing the This Land column was “invigorating” except the travel.
Photo by Chad Hunt

Dan Barry is enjoying a Sunday afternoon iced coffee at a sidewalk table outside the Starbucks in Maplewood, but the newspaper reporter in him never really shuts off. As he talks about his new book, he comments about the traffic whirling through an adjacent parking lot. He bounces from New Jersey’s license plates to drivers who cut corners as if in a stock-car race.

“How can a person not be able to make this turn?” Barry exclaims with a smile about a hapless driver who can’t quite navigate into a parking spot on the first try. Or the second try.

For a decade, Barry wrote the This Land column for the New York Times, crisscrossing the nation from his home in Maplewood to report and write not so much about what divides Americans as what unites them. A selection of his columns and articles for the Times has been compiled into a book, This Land: America, Lost and Found (Black Dog & Leventhal).

Besides discovering that he was not so fond of air travel, airports and airport food, Barry, a 60-year-old self-described “goofy bald guy” with a wife, two daughters, a Pulitzer Prize and a peppery Long Island accent, learned a lot about America—or rather, he learned that it was best to drop any notions that he, an East Coast guy, might have had about Americans from another state or region.

“It’s humbling, and it’s constructive and wonderful, to go to Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Texas, Minnesota, Alaska, and not only learn that the stereotypes aren’t true, but that there’s a similarity between those people and the people I live with in Maplewood and the people I grew up with on Long Island,” he says. “That inherent sense of decency, that sense of community.

“When Sandy hit, a lot of people in New Jersey suffered, and people in Maplewood lost power. Maplewood didn’t get the worst of it by any stretch, but there were people who were out of power for quite a while. You think back on that, and you think about how neighbors helped neighbors. Maybe you didn’t like that guy, but he didn’t have power, so you provided him power with your generator. All around the country, I would see that. When the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in Missouri in 2008, I spent a couple of days watching people sandbag. They come together, they’re filling the bags, they’re creating a chain. Whether sandbagging is the most effective way to protect against the Mississippi, I don’t know. But it’s beautiful. Inmates were let out of prison to help in the sandbagging efforts. As I traveled around the country, more and more, I felt connected to people I would have otherwise written off with a quick stereotype in my mind.”

Yet this is no smiley-face book. The more than 70 pieces are organized by eight topics, including Misdeeds, Intolerance and Hard Times. Though Barry wrote several This Land columns or articles about New Jersey, only one appears in the book, a 2009 column about Albert Perdeck, a World War II veteran in Manchester Township.

Many of Barry’s columns were inspired by the news—9/11, Donald Trump, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. But his column about Perdeck, who served on a ship that was hit by a Japanese kamikaze pilot three months before the end of World War II, is a perfect example of how Barry often found much more to a story than meets the eye.

Perdeck had written letters to several newspapers, including the Times, lamenting that the anniversary of V-J Day—August 14, 1945, the surrender of Japan that ended the war—was being overlooked by the news media. Barry visited Perdeck and learned that Perdeck had been haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder for decades.

“You don’t read that much about people who were part of the so-called Greatest Generation suffering from PTSD or shell shock or whatever they were going to call it then,” Barry says. “He wasn’t injured, as I recall. Not uncommon in the war. Guys were walking around with similar or worse stories. But he was honest about it and open, and he admitted that it kind of messed him up. He invited me to this counseling session where all these veterans—some from World War II, some from Vietnam, some from Korea—were just sitting there in a circle and talking about it. That sounds to me like a movie. All our conflagrations represented in a little room with coffee, and these guys just talking about it, trying to work their way through it so they could go home and try to do better.”

The book is weighty, quite literally. Photographers from the Times joined Barry on the road to illustrate his columns, and Barry thought the photographs were so good and so integral to his storytelling that he wanted dozens of them in the book—and he wanted them reproduced well. That’s why the book is printed on heavy stock.

Barry took a deep dive when he reported his stories, sometimes staying for a week on location. Many are raw and unflinching, like the report Barry wrote in Nashville in 2007, after witnessing the execution of a man who’d murdered his four children.

That the book is being published at a time of political divisiveness was not intentional, Barry says. The column was never about him “going out and doing a political thing.”

He adds: “Maybe that was a mistake. I did see intimations of much more support for Trump than people here were giving him credit for. In fact, I was in Pennsylvania, and I was going to the Flight 93 Memorial, and it was about two months before the election. And there were Trump signs everywhere. I didn’t see any Hillary signs. I mentioned it in my column about Flight 93, but I didn’t then say, ‘Maybe there’s something here.’ Maybe I should have. I don’t know. The point was, it wasn’t always political. It was rarely political. What it was, was people just trying to get by. They’re faced with some kind of catastrophe or calamity, and they’re faced with some circumstance they had to overcome, and they overcame it. They want to do better for their kids. How is it different for me than it is for a family in Hazard, Kentucky?”

Barry says he did not launch the This Land column intending to write enough to fill a $29.99 book in 10 years. Prior to This Land, he wrote the About New York column for the Times. Then, in 2005, an editor assigned him to go to New Orleans and write about the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One thing sort of led to another.

“It was like, ‘God, there’s so much to write about.’ Not that there’s a paucity of things to write about in the five boroughs of New York, believe me,” he says. “It’s a great, great city. But I had the opportunity to see the country on the New York Times’s dime, and also just to tell different stories and open myself up to different experiences. I wasn’t really thinking about Kerouac. I guess I was just stumbling across America.”

Now a writer-at-large for the Times, Barry is still digging into unseen lives. In October, he and Jeffrey E. Singer collaborated on a Times investigation of the exploitative world of sexual massage parlors in Queens and how one hopeful young woman, an immigrant from China, got caught in its grip, ultimately at the cost of her life.

The column behind him, Barry spends more time in Maplewood with his wife, Mary Trinity, and his daughters, Nora and Grace, and appreciates having time to play pickup basketball at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in town. He has slowed down, and he does not miss the road. But he is still curious. Stories are everywhere, even here.

“Just sitting here and watching this traffic is crazy,” he says.

David Caldwell is a frequent contributor.

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