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'One Day': Extraordinary stories on an ordinary day

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In "One Day," Gene Weingarten looks at events that happened on Dec. 28, 1986. Credit: Penguin Random House

ONE DAY: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America, by Gene Weingarten (Blue Rider Press, 374 pp., $28).

Gene Weingarten’s “One Day” digs a quirky test bore into American society on an ordinary day 33 years ago: Dec. 28, 1986. The author’s assumption, and it’s a valid one, is that any day is extraordinary, if you look closely enough.

Why did he choose this particular day? In fact, he didn’t. He invited three strangers in a diner to pick out of a hat a day of the week, then a date, followed by a year between 1969 and 1989. The results unnerved him. As a journalist with The Washington Post, he knew that this would have been a very slow news day, a Sunday between holidays at year's end.

Still, Weingarten felt confident he could find good stories happening on that day, and indeed he has. Forget the hokey scaffolding, and any sense that such a book is capable of offering in-depth analysis of the State of the Union, 1986. Instead, it’s filled with fascinating human-interest stories, told in a casual, conversational, you-are-there voice.

The first is a nail-biter about a broken heart and a heart transplant. After teenager Karen Ermert broke Mark Willey’s heart by rejecting him, he killed her then committed suicide. Not long after, at a Virginia hospital, we witness Dr. Edward Lefrak inserting Mark’s still beating heart into the ailing body of nursing student Eva Baisey, thus saving her life.

Years later, Weingarten questions Baisey whether she’s troubled about bearing the organ of a murderer. Refusing to take the bait, she offers an alternative take on the tale: it’s love, even if monstrously tarnished, that has made her survival possible.

Throughout, the author’s strategy is to follow up, searching for such ironies. even odd and wondrous transformations. That’s exactly what he found on Long Island. On the evening of Dec. 28, Sharon Sultan Goldstein, a divorced mother of two young sons, is waiting for her date at a “singles club” near Great Neck. Before that fella arrives, Stephen Cutler, a swaggering ladies’ man, buys her a drink and, within minutes, snags her phone number. Two days later, he escorts her to an office holiday party, where they both get smashed and agree to get married.

An impulsive, stupid decision, right? Thirty-three years later, Weingarten is astonished to find them still in love, still together and living in Chicago, despite woes that might have ruptured a less secure union: the accidental death of one of her sons, and both of their bouts of cancer. Was this spur-of-the-moment pairing meant to be, or just dumb luck? Life is filled with unanswerable conundrums like this.

Other stories make for more incisive readings of the late ‘80s zeitgeist. And in each case, there’s nothing random about Weingarten’s choices. He’s been the judge of what’s relevant and important. 

These episodes usually aren’t blessed with happy endings. How could they be when chronicling the AIDS crisis, urban crime, a crack cocaine epidemic, domestic violence and race relations?

On Dec. 28, 1986, New York Mayor Ed Koch visited Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Queens, hoping to be a peacemaker in the wake of the murder of three black men who had wandered into predominantly white Howard Beach. While the white Catholics jeered and booed, Rev. Al Sharpton led African-Americans marching in protest against Koch’s leadership.

How was he doing? Not so well. The times made it nearly impossible to take the middle road.    

Weingarten offers a final coda, a little sermon about every day offering “a soul-searing blast of the inexpressible wonder of being.” No doubt some of his subjects would heartily agree. Others, not so much.

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