Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

December 14–21, 1995

book quarterly

"We're talking about being alive..."

David Isay's cross-country quest in search of Americans with magnificent obsessions.

By David Warner


"It's an obsession, that's all I can say," explains Robert Shields, who has recorded just about every waking moment of his life since 1972 in typewritten diaries. "It's an obsession!"

Which could also explain why David Isay, a 30-year-old radio producer, has spent large chunks of his life over the past five years pursuing characters like Shields for National Public Radio.

People like Jim Bishop, who has been single-handedly building a medieval castle in the Colorado Rockies for 26 years. Or Virginia Belle Brewer, who has poured her savings into a bell museum which few people visit. Or "Steam Train" Maury Graham, the elder statesman of hoboes.

Isay's interviews with these American dreamers — a series of funny, heartbreaking, even awe-inspiring portraits which won him a Peabody Award — have now been collected in a book called Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes (W.W. Norton, 216 p., $25). And they've been given an added dimension by Harvey Wang's striking black-and-white photographs of the interviewees. (Shanachie Entertainment has also released a "best-of" selection from the interviews in a CD by the same name.)

But there's more to these personal sagas than mere obsession. Isay begins the book with a foreword by Henry Roth, the novelist who endured a 60-year writers' block after completing his first novel. Roth (who died recently at the age of 89 after completing his second book) says in his foreword that Holding On's interview subjects are people who, by exercising their creativity for as long as they can, "oppose despair."

Roth sums it up simply: "We're talking about being alive."

Isay discovered what made his own creative juices flow almost by accident, while taking a year off in 1987 between N.Y.U. and (he thought) med school. One day he wandered into a shop in the East Village run by a Puerto Rican couple who were nursing an impossible dream: they wanted to open a museum of drug addiction. Despite the fact that they were both dying from AIDS, despite (or maybe because of) a spate of polite rejection letters from famous people, they were convinced their museum would become a reality — they even had a scale model in their back room.

Isay called media around town to alert them to what he thought was a fascinating human-interest story. No one bit — until he talked to NYC's Pacifica Radio outlet, WBAI. They liked the idea, but didn't have anyone available to do the interview — could he do it himself? Someone from NPR heard the piece on the radio, and his career was launched.

"I knew it. I knew right away. I love doing this stuff."

With a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1990, he began logging long hours and thousands of miles in search of "incredible people doing incredible things in incredible places." To find them, he would pick an area of the country and blanket it with faxes and letters to historians, journalists and anyone else he could think of; then he'd set up in a local motel for two weeks and spend days on the phone "looking for gold."

Most of the "dreamers, eccentrics and visionaries" Isay wound up interviewing were senior citizens: Miles Mahan, the 96-year-old proprietor of Hula Ville, a scruffy roadside attraction in California; 90-something Texas fox hunter Hinkel Schillings; Marie Coombs, 79-year-old editor of a 700-circulation Colorado newspaper.

One reason that so many of his subjects were older people, says Isay, is that "this is a book about persistence, and for this kind of persistence, so many years have to go into it. And older folks are freer — the bullshit melts away when you reach a certain age. What they want is more clarified because they don't have much time left."

[His own ease with old folks may have something to do with his family background: "I have a lot of old Jewish crazy relatives who I loved a lot when I was growing up in New Haven," including his "wacky" grandmother, Rose Franzblau, the first advice columnist for the New York Post.]

Like any well-edited oral histories, many passages in Holding On seem like found poetry (or found playwriting). Here are the words of Native American activist Roberta Blackgoat, a great-grandmother who has led a movement to prevent government relocation of Navajo sheepherders:

"I must stand here straight. I can't point my toes the other way, and make zigzag. I must stand right here and look forward. That's how I am."

Or this exchange with Miles Mahan, which reads like something out of Lewis Carroll:

Isay: Excuse me, are you Miles?

Miles: You're back again?

Isay: We never met before.

Miles: Well of all things! What are you doing here?

Sam Shepard might envy this tirade of Jim Bishop's: "You ever hear of a guy named Buttafuoco? They go on and on about Buttafuoco. What in the hell did he do? [shouting] Did he do anything with his hands? Conan O'Brien. Where in the hell did he come from?"

And whole novels could be written using the interviews as jumping-off points, like the story of mannequin restorer Evangeline Calvin and her son Mikel. Because she'd suffered a series of small strokes, he spoke for her, recalling how they'd repaired broken mannequins together. A few months after the interview he died of AIDS.

Or the story of Dixie Evans, once billed as "The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque." When Marilyn died, so did Dixie's bookings ("I was totally cancelled"). But after a severe bout of depression she rebounded and wound up proprietor of a museum devoted to the history of stripping.

Isay has kept in touch with almost all of the people included in the book. And in two cases, the stories may have only just begun.

In planning the book, he revisited the case of Moreese Bickham, a man he'd interviewed in 1990 for a story about lifers in a Louisiana prison. He felt in looking over transcripts that Bickham's claim of self-defense in the killing of two deputies in 1958 was valid, and his subsequent efforts in tandem with a lawyer friend led to Bickham's pardon. He gets out in January of next year, and Isay is going down to meet him (and he's not filing a story on it).

And Isay is also talking about the possibilities of a national fundraising campaign in connection with another story he discovered: the last remaining Jewish congregation in Greenwood, Mississippi — a vestige of the once-widespread Jewish presence in the South — needs money to preserve its synagogue. (Acting rabbi Joe Erber, contacted in Greenwood, said, "David thinks on grander scales than we do. I never had any thoughts in that direction myself.")

Scouring the hinterlands for amazing stories has not been without its adventures. Like the time Isay sprained his ankle while snake-hunting in the hills of West Virginia with Dewey Chafin, leader of a serpent-handling religious sect. That was early in the project, when he was traveling solo; later on, he traveled with Harvey Wang, which made things easier. Driving with him was an adventure in itself, though: "Harvey always likes to drive stoned," says Isay. "It keeps him awake."

What's he learned about America from criss-crossing the country?

"There's so much to do, so much to see. It's endless. Fuck Europe."

Isay's confining himself to less peripatetic pursuits for a while; his next project will be a follow-up to a documentary he did a few years ago about teenagers in a Chicago housing project. But he remains enamored of the imaginative possibilities of radio — and as a radio guy he's particularly anxious for people to hear the CD. You should definitely give it a listen. Sound adds dimension to the stories: the metallic chunka-chunk of Robert Shields at his typewriter, the jingling of a jailer's keys, the faraway yelps of foxhounds (and the inadvertently humorous sounds of their owners imitating them).

The complete Holding On package, in fact, might be an appropriate choice for a new holiday tradition. Put the CD on (with the book in front of you so you can see the faces and read the words), listen to these great old voices telling their true-life tall tales, and wonder — wonder at the durability of hope, and the crazy dreams that, despite everything, keep Americans holding on.

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