"Damn," was the subject line of the email circulating the amNewYork newsroom. It was the spring of 2017, and the subject was Jim Dwyer’s latest column.
Dwyer, who died on Thursday from complications of lung cancer, was a Pulitzer Prize-winner and giant of journalism from Newsday to the Daily News to The New York Times who wrote powerfully about wrongful convictions and the horror of the 9/11 terror attacks. But for us in that New York City newsroom, he was always a subway columnist.
They were subway columns that were as living and breathing as the system. They were as varied as the riders and the stations from Van Cortlandt to City Hall. They covered the drama of a late-night kiss on a Herald Square bench and the hardships of fair hikes, the tragedy of train crashes, the pomposity of political potentates who oversaw or ignored the lifeblood of the city down below.
They were as human as a packed A train, stuck between stations, still en route to somewhere.
Take that May 2017 column, about another subway hero, Gene Russianoff, "the city’s premier advocate for and champion of riders" who no longer rode the subway. Dwyer wrote with elegance and dignity: "Parkinson’s descended on him more than three years ago, when he was 59, and since then he has used a rolling walker. Instead of mass transit, he now uses Access-A-Ride."
Damn, we said in the newsroom.
The consummate New York reporter was more than just words on the page for younger journalists. He could be a quiet and gentlemanly source of advice, whether or not you worked for his latest employer, becoming the very necessary repository of all the old stories and trade wisdom. Too often that role goes unfulfilled, in any industry. Particularly this one. Nobody has much bandwidth to remind a potential competitor or even a colleague about that time the ventilation devices stopped working in the Clark Street tunnel, particularly when there’s a derailment in Harlem or a hurricane’s coming.
But beyond the role of elder statesman, he was a connecting thread to the "glory days" of New York reporter-columnists: like onetime Newsday scribes Pete Hamill and Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin, who was so famous he had his own beer advertisement. We didn’t get beer advertisement offers. We got 280 characters and web-first deadlines. But we also got the same city as those other writers, and we got to write about it, and while Dwyer has a place in history next to the greats he was still down here writing about the city with us.
His 20th century masterpiece "Subway Lives" was practically required reading for the next generation but still he was logged onto Twitter, willing to banter, sometimes argue, participate in the modern world.
He was still churning out copy and roaming the subway and fulfilling his decades-long bargain with newspaper readers. He was chronicling the lives of workers and riders and cooks and doctors and the powerful. He was a voice for New York, through its ups and downs, right and wrong. And all the time, he was showing us the way.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.