Every so often, a new voice shows up in the NYT to shake things up. It doesn't happan as often as it did in decades past -- when the paper could afford to hire new talent on a regular basis, and when it put as much emphasis on hiring writers with style as it now does on snapping up experienced reporters from other papers with recent Pulitzers.
Today's metro story by Joshua Brustein about the return of the Holland Bar on 9th Avenue -- the best piece of writing in today's NYT -- brought back memories of those days. He's had a few bylines on the NYT website and a few previous clips in the paper, suggesting that he may be a low-level clerk working his way towards a full-time reporting gig. A check of his Facebook page -- where the current update reads, "Joshua Brustein thinks that having to watch snowboarding on television while working on a Saturday is a terrible tease." -- implies that Brustein hasn't exactly earned reporter status just yet.
Too bad -- because Brustein's a better writer than just about anyone on the Metro desk these days. Every Brustein byline shows talent and promise. A piece last May about a shortage of migrant workers on local farms, next to a story from Stamford about trouble with a proposed new train station, reflect a gift at the tricky balance between reporting and voice.
Brustein's story this morning is his best yet, at once an elegy to the past and a report from the recent present, that begins this way:
Three men appeared when Gary Kelly lifted the steel gate one weekday afternoon on what used to be the Holland Bar. They used to drink there, and were eager to know when their exile would end.
“I feel like a homeless person without a cardboard box,” said one of the men, who gave his name only as Harry because he did not want his girlfriend or boss to learn more about his drinking habit than they already knew.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Kelly, who had only stopped by that day to talk to his electrician. “I’ll get you your cardboard box.”
From there Brustein delivers a funny, touching, and counter-intuitive look at a neighborhood institution that has returned to existence despite a rent increase that had temporarily closed its doors. It's the sort of unexpected slice of life that reminds readers of this city's endless supply of fresh yarns and characters.
Maybe Brustein's story will even rattle the cages of metro NYT columnists like Susan Dominus and Clyde Haberman, who pick topics as though there's a gun pointed at their temples on deadline.
Maybe, even in the NYT's diminished future, there will still be room on its staff for vivid stylists like Joshua Brustein, a gift to readers who value a little voice with their morning coffee.