Face-licking David Carr
“This is David Carr,” he said as he picked up the phone.
I froze. Wait, what was my name?
“Hi Mr. Carr. This is Connor Ryan,” I said, sounding way too enthusiastic. It was a Saturday in the fall of 2013 and he let me call him at home.
He insisted that I call him David, and then asked, “So, your name is Connor Ryan?” He went on to say how his dad had always warned him never to trust anybody with two last names. “Ruh roh,” he said, but then quickly decided I was OK because really I have two first names.
I thanked him profusely for taking my call and told him how much his work has meant to me. He cut me off mid-gush.
“Quit face-licking,” he said. “Take a breath. We both type for a living. So, proceed.”
He might have thought I was sucking up for juicy quotes or an internship recommendation letter or the golden secret to achieving success in an industry fraught with financial turmoil and constant transition. But I was as sincere as I had ever been.
I first encountered David in the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” I was in high school, and completely lost. I knew I wanted journalism, but I ran in circles trying to figure out how to break in, where to go, what to do. However unlikely — a shy white kid in Connecticut prep school next to a rugged former drug addict, New York Times columnist — David and his work were the buoys I clung to.
Through the second half of high school and college, I regularly turned to David’s work — in print, in video, on Twitter — whenever I needed a shot of confidence or inspiration, or just wanted to read good writing. It always felt personal. His commitment to telling stories, his skill and his fearlessness made me want to do what he did — or at least try.
I’d like to think I’m special, but David was loved among the American journalism industry at large. He was a shining light of hope for young reporters, and a mentor to so many. The outpouring of love on social media following his death last week is just a small indication of the massive influence he had.
I’m not sure he ever knew how much his work meant to me, but I will always be grateful to call him a mentor.
I was a junior at Fordham when I called him for an interview. It was for a journalism class, but honestly I would have used any excuse to talk to him, if only for a couple minutes. There have been plenty of others more capable than I who have written about David’s legacy. But I thought it was worth sharing what he told me, in hopes of perhaps helping someone else.
I jumped right in: Is it a bad time for a college kid to be entering the industry?
“Nah, it’s the best time,” he said in a cool tone, defying the naysayers who feed on young prey. “Trying to get into journalism always sucked. It always was a terrible time and nobody was ever gonna get hired, and so it’s best not to listen to any of it.”
And abilities often mean more than résumé items.
“I don’t think it matters so much that you’re the editor of the college paper,” he told me. “I think it’s more important what you’ve made with your own two dirty little hands.”
(I’ve since left the paper and started a campus news blog from scratch.)
Aside from developing a ritual of going to nytimes.com on Sundays at 9 pm to read David’s Monday media column, I was always on the prowl for his byline in other sections of the Times.
In particular, I loved reading his post-Sandy Jersey Shore appraisal, which was published in August of 2013. The sensitivity of the subject was handled with care, the flip-flops-on-the-ground reporting was colorful and the voice was all David.
“But on the beach under a brutal mid-July sun, all seemed as it once was. Teenagers frolicked in the waves like ponies, tossing their manes in the surf, while older couples contented themselves under umbrellas against the sun, and children built castles just out of reach of the waves.”
I asked him why he volunteered for the assignment.
“I thought, ‘What a caper. I’m gonna go down there. They’re gonna pay for where I stay, I’ll take my daughter with me and it’ll be fun.’”
Despite meeting up with friends and poking his head inside the famous pinball museum of Asbury Park, he told me the trip didn’t quite turn out as planned.
“We ended up running up and down the Jersey Shore for four days,” he said. “And I didn’t even get in the water until the fourth day.”
He also noted that his, um, casual appearance may have hindered his reporting at first.
“I walked up to one guy and said, ‘Hi, my name is David Carr. I work at The New York Times.’ And he said, ‘What do you do, deliver it?’”
In shorts, flip-flops, a dirty shirt and a slovenly hair style, he walked away and turned to his teenage daughter. “Do I need to change my look a little bit?”
“You look homeless,” she replied. “You’re scaring people.”
But sometimes change is gradual.
“The next day, I walked up to a guy and said, ‘Hi, do you live around here?’ The guy turned around and said, ‘What are you, a cop?’”
At this point, I opened up and disclosed some of my own past difficulties connecting with strangers on the street while reporting. (I had spent that summer talking to Long Islanders in beach parking lots. That’s a different story.)
“I’m with ya on the MOS,” he said endearingly, referring to a journalistic endeavor known as “Man on the Street.”
It was fun to talk shop with him. He offered advice and wisdom, but mostly he was encouraging and treated me like a professional.
I pivoted the conversation to how his “textured background,” as he describes it in Page One — experiences with drug and alcohol abuse, and living as a single parent on welfare — informed his work as a journalist. (He brilliantly chronicles his journey from crackhead to esteemed columnist in his memoir, The Night of the Gun.)
Those experiences made him who he was, he said. And he hadn’t forgotten much.
“You can measure a person’s character by how they treat the so-called little people in their life,” he said, describing the years he worked as a waiter.
“I’ve been in bad situations, so when I’m on the Jersey Shore and I’m feeling uncomfortable about something, it’s not nearly as bad as something else I might have been involved in. I’m able to keep it in perspective.”
He talked about how he loved his job, but more than that he loved working at the place he did. He told me about the tremendous respect he had for his colleagues — and how he could count the people “with really sharp elbows” on two hands.
“If you want to stick out at The New York Times, you can do it easily by being a jerk. Everybody’s trying to make it better.”
He said it was the people who made him feel welcome in a place he was never meant to end up.
“I’m basically white trash from a land-grant university with no pedigree and I’m going into this place that’s dripping with ivy…and I’m completely intimidated.”
Wrapping up, David described the merits of collaboration, and urged me to find good people to work with — skilled, but also compassionate.
“If you’re not good at sharing your toys, I don’t think journalism is a very good place for you. I think great work often emerges from the space between people as opposed to singular shining notes of excellence.”
David died two days before Valentine’s Day. He collapsed in the newsroom near his desk. He was 58. Soon after, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the Times, issued a statement calling David “one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times.”
I and many others will miss David. His work and lovable, albeit unique, demeanor will live on for years to come. He was a journalist’s journalist.
“Don’t make me sound like an asshole, Ryan,” he said, using the wrong first name, perhaps on purpose.