A truly remarkable, singular story led Sunday’s New York Times.
The story — “The Lonely Death of George Bell” — was about the death of a 72-year-old, retired moving company worker who had no relatives, one friend who hadn’t seen him in months and an apartment full of junk and empty cans and packages of food.
His body was only discovered because a woman in a neighboring apartment in Queens observed that his car hadn’t moved from its parking spot in several days…and then she noticed an odor coming from his apartment.
Reporter N.R. Kleinfeld, who goes by the nickname Sonny, decided to follow the case of George Bell after he started to wonder about two things: What happened to people who died lonely and their bodies went unclaimed, and how is it that people can die alone in a city the size of New York without anyone paying heed for several days or longer?
(Be advised: The story is long, very long. But it is worth every word. As George Zimmer, formerly of Men’s Warehouse, used to say, “I guarantee it.“)
The story struck deep and wide: Thousands of people either commented or shared the story and, in addition, The Times did a follow-up story on reader response.
The follow-up said, in part:
“For some of the thousands of people who shared or commented…’The Lonely Death of George Bell’ offered a moment of reckoning, a haunting reminder of the pockets of solitude that swallow people in every community.”
Kleinfeld, who is in his mid-60s, is no stranger to memorable stories. A Times staff writer for more than 35 years, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for a series called “How Race Is Lived in America” and the lead writer on a diabetes series that was a Pulitzer finalist. In addition,he has written eight nonfiction books and has written for several national magazines, including Harper’s, The Atlantic, Esquire and Rolling Stone.
Kleinfeld meticulously reported the George Bell story for more than a year, as the case sifted its way through probate court and the medical examiner’s office, and as government officials attempted to track down people named in a will Bell had prepared more than 30 years before his death.
Kleinfeld’s exhaustive reporting was just 50 percent of the reason the story resonated so deeply — and why it will likely win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
The other 50 percent of the story’s resounding success lies in Kleinfeld’s compelling and distinctive way of writing.
Listen to the first paragraph of the story…When I say listen, I mean read it aloud. Slowly. Chances are you’ll feel the tentacles of the opening sentences begin to slowly envelop you as they did me.
They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet. The police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911. The apartment was in north-central Queens, in an unassertive building on 79th Street in Jackson Heights.
Now, focus on the three adjectives in those lines: “mottled”…”fetid”…”unassertive.”
They imbue the opening sentences with a richness that James Joyce would envy.
…But the biggest hook in that opening paragraph is the construction of the first two sentences:
“They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet. The police did…”
Think of how much more impact those sentences have as written, rather than if the writer had said…
“The police found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet.”
That is a brilliant stroke of writing — flipping the discovery by police to a subservient position. The reason he wrote it like that is because the point is not that the police found him, it’s that he was found at all. It didn’t particularly matter who found him.
A particularly sensitive pocket of great writing occurs about halfway through the story, when Kleinfeld describes a funeral director named John Sommese retrieving George Bell’s casket at the morgue and transporting it to a crematory…
“Next stop was U.S. Columbarium at Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, for the cremation. Mr. Sommese made good time along the loud streets lined with shedding trees. The volume on the radio was muted; the dashboard said Queen’s ‘You’re My Best Friend’ was playing.
“While the undertaker said he didn’t dwell much on the strangers he transported, he allowed how instances like this saddened him — a person dies and nobody shows up, no service, no one from the clergy to say a few kind words, to say rest in peace.
“The undertaker was a Christian, and believed that George Bell was already in another place, a better place, but still. ‘I don’t think everyone should have an elaborate funeral,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘But I think burial or cremation should be with respect, or else what is society about? I think about this man. I believe we’re all connected. We’re all products of the same God. Does it matter that this man should be cremated with respect? Yes, it does.’ “
The same section contains at least two instances of striking phraseology:
— “He (Sommese) consulted the mirror and blended into the next lane.”
…consulted the mirror…
— “Squinting in the sun, Mr. Sommese paced in the motionless air. After 15 minutes, the dock opened up and the undertaker angled the hearse in.”
…paced in the motionless air…angled the hearse in…
Exquisite, wouldn’t you agree?
Anticipating a strong reader reaction and curiosity about his story, Kleinfeld wrote an accompanying “Times Insider” story, explaining why he was drawn to George Bell:
“The people I spoke to consistently wondered why I was writing about George Bell. He was just another man. Well, that was why.”
The hallmark of a great photographer is that he or she produces special photos regardless of the assignment.
Last week, for example, The Star’s Keith Myers was in the thick of the biggest story we’ve had around here in years — the fire at Prospect and Independence avenues that took the lives of two firefighters.
Yesterday, Myers was a Dub’s Dread Golf Club in Kansas City, KS, covering the Kansas Class 5A individual championship. He got this picture of the winner, Caroline Klemp of St. james Academy getting a “sandwich hug,” as Myers described it, from her mother, Joni Klemp and her sister Audrey.