StoryCorps 444: Your Biggest Fan
[MUSIC – “Sprung” by Cinematic Royal]
Michael Garofalo (MG): One of the things we’ve noticed over the years at StoryCorps is that our interviews can be the place for people to tell each other “Hey, I’m your biggest fan.” You know, sometimes, you just need to know that there’s someone out there rooting for you.
Whether you’ve been a fixture outside a New York City Landmark for nearly half a century…
Ed Trinka (ET): One of the doormen was sick and he put the hat and coat on me, which fit very well, and they put me on the door right away, and I got outside and started working.
MG: Or you just need a pep talk from an old friend…
Ralph Tremonte (RT): Don’t stop having interest in women. You’re a free man and you should feel that maybe you could pick up a lady or meet a lady.
MG: In this episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR, stories of admiration, respect, and friendship. I’m Michael Garofalo. We’ll be right back after this short break.
[PROMO – NPR/Up First]
MG: Welcome back.
This first interview was recorded about ten years ago — pretty early on in the history of StoryCorps, and I have to admit, it’s still one of my favorite uses of a StoryCorps interview ever.
It has it’s start at New York City’s Plaza Hotel, which is situated at the foot of Central Park. For more than 45 years, Ed Trinka worked as a doorman there, greeting not only guests, but also just about anyone who was passing by within earshot. One of the people who Ed greeted each day was Debra Goodman. She passed him on her way to work. And when Debra heard about StoryCorps, she decided she wanted to interview Ed to find out more about about him and his work.
[TAPE – Trinka]
Debra Goodman (DG): How did you get the job as doorman at the Plaza Hotel?
Ed Trinka (ET): Well, my father was a garage manager at the plaza for thirty years, and he was friends with all the doormen. And when I graduated from high school he said there is a nice job for you over there, just go over and talk to somebody. For Christmas time he says to me, “What was the biggest tip you ever got?” And I says, “Well, a hundred dollars.” And he says, “Here’s a hundred and fifty dollars and merry Christmas.” He says, “By the way, who was the one that gave you the hundred?’ I say, ’Well that was you last year.”
DG: Now I got to know you because I walked to work every morning and then I cut by the plaza and then I see you, and you made my day cause you’d say, “Good morning young lady, beautiful day.”
ET: That’s what it’s all about, being in front there and smiling and just making everybody happy and that’s the whole thing of it. You know anybody that comes in there is a VIP. And when they tell me you treat them like a VIP, I say I already do.
I had a guest that come in there one morning. 6:30 in the morning and he had to go to a very important meeting. And he asked me where he can get his shoes shined. And I says, “It don’t open till eight o’clock, our barber shop.” So I says, “I tell you what give me the shoes, and you come back in a half-an-hour or so and I’ll have them done.” I ran down to my locker, got my shoe shine kit, which I have in my locker to shine my shoes, shined them up for him, come back up, he come by, put his shoes on, got to the meeting, and he’s one of my best friends. Matter of fact, he comes back to the Plaza all the time. You know, my father told me years ago, he said, “Be such a man and live such a life, that if everybody lived a life like yours this would be God’s paradise.” And I go by that.
[MUSIC – “When You’re Smiling” by Benny Goodman]
MG: That’s Plaza Hotel doorman, Ed Trinka, with Debra Goodman in New York City. Ed is now retired but to give you a sense of just how large the Plaza loomed in his life, he even met his wife at the Plaza. She was a nanny who worked for a family who was staying there.
So, at some point, you’ve probably read a book and felt like the author really saw the world the way that you did. And maybe, especially if you were an angst-filled teenager at the time, maybe you felt like if you could just sit down with that writer and chat, you’d become fast friends. I’d venture that probably no other 20th century-author inspired that feeling more than J.D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, he was famously reclusive, but that just stoked the flame for a young man named Jim Krawczyk. In the late 1960s, he decided to get in his car, drive from his home in Wisconsin to New Hampshire, where Salinger lived, and try to meet the writer he admired most.
[TAPE – Krawczyk]
Jim Krawczyk (JK): I don’t really recall a town or anything. It was like a building with a post office, gas station, and a general store all wrapped into one. So I went inside and I told him I said, “My name is Jim Krawczyk, I’m from Wisconsin. I was wondering if you could tell me where J.D. Salinger lives.’ He says, ’Ha, you’re never going to see him. Even the delivery boy doesn’t see him. He leaves the groceries in the garage and picks up the money in an envelope.’ I goes, ’Whoa, y’know I come a long way to meet this guy.’
So I talk to a retired school teacher. She gave me directions, further. Now this is so far back in the mountains that it was a dirt road. It was amazing I didn’t get lost. I’m driving along and coming up on this house, and I look and it’s his house. I had a biography of him that described where he lived and everything. I goes, ’Wow, I can’t believe it, it’s just like the book said.’ You know, it’s really neat. I wasn’t afraid, y’know bashful or anything like that. I thought I’m going to be cool about it. So I parked the car, went up, knocked the door. This woman came out. It was his wife. I says, ’Hello, my name is Jim Krawczyk. I’m wondering if I could meet your husband.’ And she goes, ’Anything he says, he says in his books.’ She slammed the door. I goes, ’Whoa,’ I come a long way, this is something. So I turned around and started to go down the steps, she open the door again and she come out to the porch. She says, ’Him and I are divorced and he lives across the road.’ So, uh, I went down the road I pulled in his driveway and knocked on the door. He had a screen that was like a copper mesh and I really couldn’t see in and I’m straining to see him and everything. And just then a crack of thunder came so loud, it felt like it was just above my head. And it started to rain. He came to the door, he says, ’You better come inside.’ Y’know I goes, ’Whoa,’ he didn’t sit down or anything, he didn’t offer me a cup of coffee or something, nothing y’know. Just ‘what do you want?’ And so I told him who I was, I asked him if he had ever been in Wisconsin. And he says, ’Yeah.’ He’s been there sometime during the war. I asked, ’Did you think the Catcher in the Rye would be such a popular book?’ And I don’t remember exactly what he said but I think it was, ’It’s been a nightmare.’ And why a nightmare? I don’t know, maybe it’s because he gets so much fan mail or I don’t know what. I really wanted to ask him, ’Can I see where you work?’ But I didn’t want to be one of the phonies that he writes about. I kind of held back and I said, ’Well, okay thank you very much.’ I shook his hand and that was it. This is somebody that nobody meets. Nobody gets to see him and I was in his kitchen. And I thought, ’Man, this is the best vacation I ever had.”
[MUSIC – “Bees” by Caribou]
MG: That’s Jim Krawczyk in Madison, Wisconsin.
This last story documents a reunion. Ralph Tremonte and Donald Weiss grew up together, but it wasn’t by choice. As children they were committed to a New York State psychiatric institution. After their release, they went 40 years without seeing each other. So, what you’re about to hear is the first conversation they had since they were kids. And when they met up at the StoryCorps booth, Ralph saw his old friend Donald, he got worried.
[TAPE – Tremonte]
Ralph Tremonte (RT): I’m seeing you after 40 years and I’m seeing fear in you. Let me ask you a very important question. Do you feel institutionalized?
Donald Weiss (DW): No.
RT: Because I’d like you to come out of that shell, man.
DW: I’m — I’m not…
RT: Because you’re not free in that shell and I’m…
DW: I’m free.
RT: And I want you to be free.
DW: And I’m free. I can do what I want now but the only thing is…
RT: But you’re still scared.
DW: No, I’m not.
RT: Yes, you are. And I want to tell you something else. You’re a free man and you should feel that maybe you could pick up a lady or meet a lady.
DW: I have one.
RT: That’s great.
DW: Her name is Maryanne(ph).
RT: And another thing — what you should do is make your home more comfortable to live in. Get yourself a CD player, listen to some music. Don’t stay in that shell. Do you do a lot of reading?
DW: Yes, dirty novels.
RT: See, I do — well, dirty novels is all right. That’s not against the law. That’s why they sell them, Donald. You’re not allowing yourself to exercise your freedom, man. And that’s what I want you to do, man, because that will make me real happy and you’ll be able to come out of that shell, man, because I really don’t want you in that shell for the rest of your life. That’s the way I feel about it, man. Go ahead, Donald, I want to hear you. I haven’t seen you in 40 years.
DW: That fear in that darn lousy hospital is still in my system as it ever…
RT: Well, you’re never going to get rid of that, but guess what…
DW: I might get rid of it, the …(unintelligible) is gone.
RT: The memory is always going to be there, but guess what?
RT: You don’t have to live it the rest of your life.
DW: Yeah, yeah. You can bite my fingers …(unintelligible).
RT: Donald, they don’t have that many hospitals to put anybody in no more.
DW: I know.
RT: We’re not living in that era anymore. That era is dead. That era…
DW: It’s dead. It’s dead and buried. Don’t want it…
RT: You don’t ever let anybody tell you they can do something to you. You’re free, man, you don’t have to take that. Am I right, Donald?
RT: Say it loud and clear.
DW: Right, 100 percent.
[MUSIC – “Send Off” by Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo]
MG: That’s Ralph Tremonte and Donald Weiss in New York City. So, they came to StoryCorps because of a mental health professional named Jim Rye. He brought them together at the booth, and afterwards he sent us this letter:
Voice of Jim Rye: As we ended the day, Ralph asked, “Jimmy, would you mind if I find my way home without you? My friend and I would like some time to ourselves.” I watched Ralph and Donald walk down 45th Street, their heads up, arm and arm, into a new beginning. My eyes swelled, my heart quickened, and chills flowed up and down my spine. I truly can’t describe the divinity that radiated from that moment.
MG: That’s it for this episode.
These stories were produced by me, Katie Simon, and Piya Kochhar.
Rate or review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you download the show. And leave a message for the people you hear in these interviews — our listener voicemail line is 301-744-TALK. That’s 301-744 – T-A-L-K.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.
[PROMO – NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour]
[FUNDER – Subaru]