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City Slickers.

POLITICAL BOOKNOTES

City Slickers. William E. Geist. Time Books, $19.95. With his "About New York" column, William Geist had the best beat at The New York Times. While other correspondents attended City Hall briefings of followed the rise and fall of the dollar, Geist exposed puppy playground sessions, zoomed through Manhattan traffic with a Kamikaze messenger, and eaves-dropped on pickup lines at the city's hottest spa, The Vertical Club. ("Yogurt is mucus-forming," he said softly. "My name is Sharon," she replied Sure, Geist has his occasional conventional story, like the interview with Donald Trump, but those are the dues a reporter pays to sit in with the real powers that be -- like the hat check man at Carnegie Hall.

Gest's best columns are collected here, in City slickers. (He gave Chicago the treatment in Towards a Safe and Sane Halloween written while he was covering the suburbs for the Chicago Tribune.) And it's about time, too: we fans have gotten pretty sick of having his clipped columns litering our desks, memo boards, and refrigerators, not to mention the mounting costs of sending his columns to friends.

Geist understands New Yorkers, especially their pride in presenting the outrageous as commonplace. Thus, the dead bodies on a New York City public golf course elicit this offhand comment from the grounds supervisor: "I try not to be the first one on the course in the morning." He recognizes their need to make the commonplace seem extraordinary, like the story on the Emergency Expresso Squad. and he recognizes, too, that New York is often a world of little triumphs in the face of overwhelming difficulty: Mr. Gloves, an off-beat philanthropist who gives away thousands of gloves a year to the cold and homeless on the Bowery; or Bob Redman, another of the city's outsiders who has lived most of his life in treehouses contructed in Central Park, and who finally gets the job of his life, pruning trees for the Department of Conservation.

How does he do it? Like one of his subjects, the man who get paid to stand on lines, Bill Geist is a man of infinite patience. whe asked to write a column on the New York marathon, Geist abandoned the pack of reporters interviewing racers and t-shirt vendors. instead, he headed to the La-Z-Boy showcase Shoppe in Queens to discuss the race with people who have a different angle on running -- horizontal. there he bides his time and as usual comes up with some killer quotes: the wife whose husband has "personal comfort down to a science" notes, "I honestly don't think running would be good for Ralph ... people die running and dogs bite them." and Bernie Berger, a La-Z-Boy enthusiast says, "When I get the urge...I climb into one of these chairs until it passes." There's a gently humor here. geist can find the silliness in his subjects yet portrary them sympathetically, and he can do so in a way that says much about class and culture in New York. It's hard to think of a reporter as gracious as William Geist.

Geist rivals Calvin Trillin for the crown of Journalism's premiere humorist. But, alas, a brouhaba at the Times (do't skip the book's introduction and Geist's swipes at Abe Rosenthal) has forced Geist to leave the paper for on-camera feature pices and commentaries on CBS. Television is not Geist's canvas -- the pieces are by necessity too collaborative, and Geist's unique voice, generosity, and odd-ball humor don't come through. It's a loss for all of us, and especially for the Times. It has lost something rarely seen -- or perhaps, rarely encouraged -- on its fact-filled, reporter-driven pages: a gifted stylist.

-- Judith Newman
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Author:Newman, Judith
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1988
Words:614
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