Episode 10: The After Show: What Vito Taught Me About Class
Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Paul Kix: Hey, everybody, Welcome to the after show for Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that looks a single piece of work as a way to examine how you can do your best work.
On Monday Eliza Griswold and I discussed and idea that still fascinates me.. kind of will always fascinate me, and that is the way that writers and reporters have to navigate the world. Go well outside their comfort zones and start to interact with classes that are not their own. Eliza grew up in the Philadelphia area, a very well-educated woman who now lives in New York. She does this book Amity and Prosperity where she looks and spent seven years living among people from Appalachia in Western Pennsylvania. People who certainly don't have, I think on the whole, her level of education, how she was able to gain their trust and put on the page of a book as gripping a Amity and Prosperity is in some sense the work of the episode with Eliza.
But because we ended up discussing so many other things on Monday's podcast I thought we would talk a little bit more about class here. Because I think in particular for anybody out there who is interested in doing a sort of work that Eliza does, you need to kind of figure out how you can go about telling great stories and getting uncomfortable doing it. Telling great stories from people who are vastly different from you. And I have a story to relay of about that.
I grew up in Iowa on a working-class farm and the idea of class didn't really... I wasn't really exposed to it until I moved outside of Iowa to begin to work professionally. And never was I exposed to it as quickly and as harshly as I wasn't Boston. I was not welcomed. Our neighbors didn't really talk to us all that much and I don't think it was because they were assholes, I think it was mostly just because they didn't know us. And Boston is a really clannish and tribal City. Maybe America's most clannish and tribal city.
The people I was trying to report on on the state capital: businessmen, business women, they would give me this look, and, it was sort of like, “Kix, huh? What kind of name is kix?” And it just made me feel like I was I was this other thing to them. And so the first probably 6 months that I live in Boston and work there he was kind of rough going. With time though you know you begin to develop sources and you begin to find your way and that's where I really came to love Boston because once the city welcome to me and my wife and and eventually our kids, they really me. Suddenly we were part of the truck and you know why I was able to tell some really good stories from Capitol Hill and I began, if you want to call it this, I began to run in almost the same elite circles as some of the people I was reporting on.
It wasn't ever something where it was like I'm having dinner with John Kerry and his wife in Beacon Hill but there was all the same like this sense that you're getting invited to parties and not everybody's getting invited to. And then I came to really love Boston. Then I did a story on this group called Street Smart. And Street Smart was this idea that a couple of criminologist at Harvard had -- and I'll post a link to this in the show notes in case you want to read the piece itself -- the idea was that 60 percent of the crime in Boston is caused by 1% of the population. And so the idea of street-smart was well let's find a way to get to that 1% and see if we can influence them because they're mostly kids they're mostly like 15 to 18 year olds, though I think some of the demographic showed that first time offenders... first time violent offenders would perhaps stretch up to age 23, 24. If they could get to that one percent and influence interact with other way, and if they could they were going to try to drastically reduce crime to historically low numbers. That was the hope. And so I do a story on Street Smart I'm meeting with some of the directors of the foundation that were overseeing it, and it's the same sort of crowd, you know, that I’m now running in. They’re educated, they’re across racial lines, but we all sort of speak the same language.
Then I'm introduced to a few people who are actually in the Streets Smart program. And one of the things of Street Smart people who have been criminals in the past as a way to deter possible criminals from carrying out criminal acts. So I was introduced to this guy named Vito. I was dismissive of Vito. I didn't think I could base a story around him. In fact, I was much more interested in doing something on the idea that the criminologists had at Harvard or maybe something that some of the foundations for overseeing this effort. I thought that's where the story would lie, so I didn't really listen to Vito at first.
And then one day something that I saw as really just my attempt to the almost placate Vito because he was saying if there was something that he wanted to talk about and I went out on a walk with him through Roxbury. And it's an old haunt of his and he carried out quite a few drug deals and what not there. And Vito begins to tell me his story. Vito is far funnier than I thought he was going to be in veto is far smarter than I thought he was going to be. And fact, like, Vito is just flat-out funnier and smarter than me, I quickly realized. he had this saying, “when I was running things, if it wasn't about dollars it didn't make no sense.” (Laughter) And he made the effort to try to open himself up to me, and to this day I don't know exactly why he did, but he did and I am so grateful for it because it completely transformed the arc of the story.
But even more important than that, it showed me the ways in which I had made a big mistake and how I viewed him and probably how I viewed other guys like him. I was now being as clannish and standoffish as the people that I had once resented for being clannish and standoffish. And I just felt terrible about it. After that like almost as an apology I just ditched everything else that I plan to do and I just said, Vito I want to spend as much time as I possibly can with you because I realize that he was a guy who's going to be the center to me understanding a lot more about his life and maybe even a lot more about my own life and how maybe I've been misguided in this sense of there's only certain sort people you can talk to. I'm still in my late 20s by that point and I probably think I am smarter than I actually am back I know I was thinking I was smarter than I actually was.
And so Vito and I sit down over the coming days and weeks, and I call him and we get really close. He starts to talk about why he got into Street Smart ,and it's because he wanted to find some way to give back to the community that he taken so much from. And he was really apologetic about it and really sincere.
One day a couple of things happened. We were walking through Roxbury, and one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to walk through it at night with Vito, and I wanted to go where he went. I wanted to go where we would be running into the kids who were perhaps part of that 1%. And, Vito, you know it's dusk and now it's night, and Vito’s, like, you know, I just don't think that this is a good idea for you to be out here with me right now. Because you're the one white guy out here. You’re a target right now. I'm at target right now because I'm with you. I just I just don't think this is safe for either of us to be out on this Friday night trying to find the very people who are causing the sort of problems that this neighborhood is famous for
So instead what we agreed to do is to meet the following afternoon in the same neighborhood. What I remember is Vito before we sat down he's like you know how I hope you understand why I wanted to do that last night, and I was, like, yeah, I get it. We had.. this real bond to develop between us and he was he was really looking out for me. And I was trying to you know really understand him. and so I said Vito, would you mind if we just take a walk and take a drive -- whatever you want to do. I just want to see the city as you see it now and see it as you saw a 20 years ago.
And so we should we get to this point in Boston in Roxbury that actually overlooks the whole of the city, and it's one of his favorite spots. It's really... imagine just, like, the top of this hill and you can see everything just sort of layed out beneath you and it's beautiful landscape. Vito starts to talk about his life. He starts to talk about the time that he ordered somebody stabbed. He sat there with me in the car and it was just so quiet as he recalled it. And he got to the point where he talked about the stabbing itself. He was talking in a whisper. I could just see like how painful this was for him but I also got the sense that this was something that he wanted me to hear. He wanted me to understand him and what he wanted me to understand is it everyday he exists in both places. He exists as the kid he wants, this arrogant, violent young man and the memory of that kid helps him today be the man he is today: somebody who's out of prison, reformed and trying to heal the neighborhood that he'd helped to tear up.
And I vowed when that story ran that never again would I be so arrogant as to think that somebody couldn't tell me something really revealing about their own life that would kind of inform the way I want to lead my life.
The music for now that's a great story comes from Jeff Willet some production help comes from him as well if you'd like to get a weekly email from me that details the writers who are inspiring me to do great work go to Paulkix.com/newsletter and sign up for my newsletter. I'll be back Monday with another episode. Goodbye.