Today's New York Times Page One recession-porn dispatch is so unrelentingly hackneyed that William Shatner ought to read it aloud to bongos. And it neglects to mention that the hero—a gruff homeless-encampment leader—is a convicted child rapist.
We're pretty sure Dan Barry's story about a community of homeless folks living under an overpass in Providence, R.I., originally began with "It was a dark and stormy night..." because it is littered with high-school cliches of the first order and reads like the work of a 17-year-old who just put down his first Raymond Carver story. Here's a paragraph:
The chief flicks his spent cigar into that same river. There is talk of rain tonight.
Jesus, is that foreboding and melancholy, or what? And just out of nowhere—the guy is throwing away a cigar, then there's a period, and all of a sudden people are talking about rain! Also randomly inserted into the narrative with a heart-stabbing force are the following sentences, loaded with submerged meaning just like an iceberg which is what Hemingway said all writing should be like:
Behind him, the camp stirs. Other tent cities have sprung up recently around the country, but Rhode Island officials have never seen anything like this. A tea kettle sings.
Weary of shelters, the couple pitched a pup tent in Roger Williams Park, close to a plaque bearing words Williams had used to describe this place he founded: "A Shelter for Persons in Distress." But someone complained, so Mr. Freitas set off again in search of shelter. The March winds blew.
(Reasonable people can disagree about the success, or lack thereof, of Barry's attempts at lyricism, though we'd add that reading him in the cold, hard light of day gives us an advantage.)
Our guide through Providence's village of the damned is John Freitas, a 55 year old man whom Barry simply calls "the chief" and who has "a gray beard touched by tobacco rust."
He did prison time decades ago, worked for years as a factory supervisor, then became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons.
One of those reasons, not mentioned by Barry but pointed out by NYTPicker, might have something to do with the fact that Freitas was once on Massachusetts' list of 10 Most Wanted Sex Offenders. From Massachusetts' Sun Chronicle:
Freitas was convicted of rape of a child and indecent assault in the late 1970s in New Bedford. He was convicted again in 1985 in New Bedford Superior Court where he was sentenced to a 5- to 7-year prison sentence for similar charges, police said.
Of course, reporting that little facet of the Chief's troubled history might have rendered him a slightly less sympathetic character, and interfered with Barry's ability to memorialize him thusly, in purple:
The rain falls harder, pocking the river's gray surface, surrounding the dark camp with a sound like fingers drumming in impatience. The chief hears it, but what can he do? He finishes his dinner and lights another cigar.
Another thing NYTPicker points out is that the camp Barry was writing about doesn't exist anymore—they were kicked out by the city earlier this week, a thing that actually happened and which is relevant to Barry's report but which he only obliquely eludes to, iceberg-style. The keys clacked on the keyboard.