I was 8 and 9 when I knew 60 Minutes to be a repository for luxury car commercials every Sunday night. I knew of Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, and a little bit of Andy Rooney, though I didn't watch much of it. When I was 11, I only knew Andy Rooney.
I watched his commentaries in awe. He talked about tools in his workshop at home, of receiving letters, of life in winter, of pens, of various trends that befuddled him, and I was amazed. I could write about all this and talk about all this, with the same attention paid to novels and biographies? I just thought everything he talked about is what happens in daily life and you just live it and move on. I didn't think it could be talked about and written about at length. Not that there's any law against it, but I thought words were mainly reserved for what I thought at the time to be deeper thoughts. And yet here was Andy Rooney, talking about my life, your life, their life.
In that same year of being 11, my family and I want to a large thrift store to look around, one that had long racks of clothing, rows and rows of them. In glass cases, there were video games for sale. And in my favorite part of that thrift store, there were bookshelves bulging with books, threatening to make the shelves explode with the weight of them. And it was within those bookshelves that I found The Most of Andy Rooney, a 761-page compilation of three of his books: A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney, And More by Andy Rooney, and Pieces of My Mind. I don't remember how much it was, I imagine it was probably over $5, but I bought it. I wanted to study Rooney's thoughts, to understand how one goes about writing about the average day-to-day things in life.
That first book, from 1981, begins with a preface by Rooney, stating, "The writing in this book was originally done for television." And it was. "Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington" is made up of interview transcripts that had obviously been broadcast. Same with "Mr. Rooney Goes to Work." But it was page 42, "Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner" that inspired me the most.
Rooney starts the piece talking about eating, and then says, "There are 400,000 restaurants in the United States and if you ate three meals a day in restaurants for seventy years, you could only eat in 76,000 of them." (This was broadcast on April 20, 1976, by the way)
"Obviously I haven't gone to all 400,000 restauranted in the United States to make this report. Chances are I didn't go to the one you like best or least. I didn't even go to the one I like best. My job may seem good to some of you . . . but I've got a tough boss. Several months ago he gave me an order. "Travel anywhere you want in the United States," he told me. "Eat in a lot of good restaurants on the company . . . and report back to me." I took money, credit cards and a lot of bad advice from friends and set out across the country."
He did. He ate at a "Scandinavian smorgasbord" place called Copenhagen with Walter Cronkite. He visited J.B.I. Industries in Compton, California which specializes(ed?) in making restaurants look like anything. A pirate ship design was on display. $6,000. Then he goes to McDonald's:
"Workmen were finishing a new plastic replica of an old airplane to ship to a McDonald's opening in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. We were curious about how a hamburger would taste eaten in a plastic airplane, so a few weeks later, after it had been installed, we went to Glen Ellyn.
ROONEY (to cashier):
Same price whether I eat it here or in the airplane?
I guess I'll eat it in the airplane."
After reading that piece, I wanted to do what Rooney did. I wanted to write exactly like he did, talking about the previously-mundane happenings in one's life. And I tried. I got out notebook paper a couple days after I finished reading the entire book, and I began writing about the view outside my window, about my neighborhood, the pool, my bedroom, and school. But I couldn't. It didn't gel as well as his words did, and I realized that Rooney taught me about writing style. I couldn't write like him because I wasn't him. I was me. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, a native Floridian. I hadn't been a journalist during World War II like Rooney, I wasn't interested in woodworking, and I certainly hadn't lived through the winters he talked about. I knew what I liked, what interested me every day, what I was learning in school, and that's what I had to write about if I wanted to write what he wrote about. My words had to include me.
And yesterday, I learned that Rooney, the great man who made me become a writer, is retiring from 60 Minutes this Sunday evening, which will feature a career retrospective interview with Morley Safer, his 1,097th essay, and the announcement of his retirement. I'm getting choked up because he was there for all those weeks of my life since I decided to become a writer. I watched him every week, always in awe of what he talked about, how he was funny, witty, incisive, never ranting angrily at anything. He was a master at quiet, contemplative bemusement. He taught me that you could write about anything in the world, as long as it comes from you first and foremost and embodies everything that you are. I proudly live his writing beliefs every day.
Thank you, my writing teacher.