Richard Price, author of literate bestsellers including Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan and Lush Life, screenplays including Sea of Love and The Color of Money, and notable work on The Wire and NYC22, is the consummate New York writer. His dialogue crackles with life, his descriptions are short and sharp, his pacing struts with an urban bop and is definitely strapped at all times.
I met him once, way back in the 1980s, and he taught me three things about writing that I carry to this day.
I was asked by then Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s office to work on the 250th anniversary of The Bronx. I had helped get the New Voices of Freedom to perform, and my reward was escorting E.L. Doctorow through the ceremony.
I read or retread everything the esteemed author wrote, luxuriating in his elongated sentences, drinking up his sweeping descriptions, and his chronicling of a New York of the past. On the day of the ceremony, I was ready to discuss literature, writing, New York … and when he arrived, Doctorow walked right by me to a member of Ferrer’s staff whose absolutely killer legs were waiting at the top of the stairs. Frankly, knowing her intelligence, grace, and beauty, I couldn’t blame Doctorow for his choice.
As a consolation prize, they handed me Richard Price. I panicked. I had studied Doctorow; I only knew one Price novel, The Wanderers, his first, and the low budget film made from it and shot in The Bronx. Luckily, my brother Soupy and half the student population of Columbus High School had been extras in that film, so at least I could break the ice.
Price was incredibly gracious, sitting with me in the audience and overlooking my obvious ignorance about his other novels or his screenplays, including an Academy Award nomination for The Color of Money. I eventually confessed that I, too, wanted to write novels someday. He immediately offered the first lesson, “It’s a long, lonely road.”
This startled me, but Price explained that the practical reality is that writing is almost always an individual effort. It takes being able to shut the rest of your life away, sit yourself down, and write it all out.
Yeah, I know this sounds stupendously obvious, but for an accomplished author to look me in the eye and let me see him acknowledge the journey did two things. First, it made that journey real to me. Price’s words washed away the romantic notions of writing, and reduced writing to an actual activity that is realistically doable. Second, seeing that author say those words helped me see myself actually doing it. The process was no longer shrouded in mystery for me. There was no magic secret. You just had to sit down and work.
The second lesson came a little later in the ceremony, when my older brother Barney arrived. I introduced him to Price and informed the author that my brother was (at the time) in the NYPD working with Bronx Narcotics. The words had barely left my mouth and I no longer existed. Price went right to work, interviewing him, discussing The Job and the city’s drug culture. I actually moved so they could sit together.
Turns out he was researching Clockers at the time, and my brother came this close to being an advisor on the book, until Price met a guy in Jersey who provided him even more access.
Seeing the writer at work was an entirely unexpected learning experience. Price immersed himself, jumping at an opportunity to learn more, research more, prepare. Here was a guy ready to work 24/7. I never forgot that, as my wife, who has spent a ridiculous amount of time waiting for me to finish talking to someone or research something, can attest.
The last lesson came when he did a reading. No flourish, no song and dance, he simply acknowledged the audience, opened his material, and spellbound an entire auditorium in the familiar diction and natural beats of New York living. His prose crackled with a pulse I recognized as home.
In that moment, he became one of my all-time favorite writers, and I have exhilarated in and studied all of his writing since. Sure, Doctorow was impressive too that day, but in his slightly distant, professorial way. Price was alive, and real, and touched right where I lived. To this day I want to be that kind of writer.
And that, my friends, is solid gold.