My house is full of radios. There is one in every room, including two in the living room, a little portable that runs on batteries, and a satellite radio plugged into my stereo system. All day, as I move from room to room, I turn one off and turn on another, listening to voices bringing me the news, the weather, and traffic updates. I know that lately, most of what the voices have to say is either unreliable or disturbing, but I’m not actually listening for content: I am listening for the comforting rhythm and cadence of the human voice drifting into my house from somewhere out there, wherever that may be.
I learned to rely on the company of voices that come to me through radios because of Jean Shepherd, who I discovered on WOR radio in New York in 1964 when I was 13. Growing up in the Bronx, I became an avid Yankees fan, and I used to secretly listen to the ballgames in bed, at night, in the dark, plugged into the transistor radio I had won playing skee ball on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach. As far as I can remember, one night, trying to tune into the game, I somehow came across a guy with a genial voice telling a story about growing up in Hammond, Indiana, and then segueing into a long, descriptive tale about a humiliating experience he’d had taking a date to a fancy restaurant he couldn’t afford when he was in the Army. He was laughing all the while he was talking, calling girls “chicks” and, finally, talking about how he’d come to live in New York City, the glorious, crazy, and extraordinary Oz of every outsider’s dream.
I was hooked. I listened to Shep, as his legion of listeners called him, for a long time but then drifted away a few years later after my mother died. It was at a time that my life became a kind of preview of the instantaneous smash-up we all experienced months ago, when the life we led suddenly stopped in its tracks and we had to put on masks, latex gloves, and abandon all we knew to live a new reality for which there was no roadmap. And it was ruled by an invisible monster who wanted to kill me, you, and anyone else it could invade and infect.
For me, my previous experience of that quick vault into crazyville happened when my father remarried and my life suddenly featured a stepmother as mean as a fairytale witch, a severely schizophrenic stepsister, and a dad who believed that if we all sat down together and watched Wheel of Fortune, we’d be okay. (Picture us: Stepmom seething with rage, stepsister clutching the black marker she used to draw the eyes of lunatics all over the walls, and me and my younger brother, making how do we get out of here? hand signals to each other as we watched Vanna turn letters on the TV screen.)
Now, more than 50 years later, I am once again listening to the Jean “Shep” Shepherd show. A great treasure trove of his old radio shows can be found as podcasts or downloads online and I transfer them onto an iPod Shuffle, my new nighttime listening friend. And, once again, at night, in bed, I can listen to Shep’s stories. My favorite shows are the ones that were taped at the Limelight, a long-gone coffee house that was once located on Sheridan Square in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, on Saturday nights, Shep talked to the assembled crowd who’d driven in from Jersey, from Westchester and Long Island, to be where “it was really happening,” as Shep used to say. He mocked the Village and its hippies—probably because he’d just missed being part of that generation—but you could tell he kind of loved them, too. He talked about how everyone really wanted to be there, to be part of that fetid, festering, angry place, where you could be your true, authentic self, and do what you really wanted to do with your life.
What I wanted was to be a writer and it was in large part because of the way that Jean Shepherd, laughing and spinning stories in my ear, made it seem like I could join the gang at the Limelight. I found my way to Greenwich Village when I was a young teenager. Music led me there, too—I hung out on West 3rd and MacDougal Street, in places like the Night Owl, the Café Wha? and the Kettle of Fish. But the path to escape from my dangerous and deluded family was also fueled by my desire to be part of Shep’s people, the ones who knew there was something going on out there beyond the Jersey Turnpike and the Long Island Expressway that they weren’t being taught in school, or at their job in corporate America. I moved to the Village when I was 18 and lived there for almost two decades. And it was there, in a room above a harpsichord factory, where I got my first real job that I began my life as a writer. I had my first book of poetry published in 1973 when I was 21 and, in the years since, I’ve published more books of poetry and short stories, along with several novels. Shep pointed the way, he revealed the place to start and gave me the idea that running away to the Village was actually a way of running toward my own, real life.
But in my own, real life now, I find myself, at the age of 68, constantly being referred to as “elderly” and “vulnerable.” Well yes, dammit, I admit to having been vulnerable in one way or another for a very long time, but elderly? I think that horizon is still a way off. And listening to Shep, once again, is helping me to see how the journey through my work and my life that I am on actually began, and to draw needed strength from remembering how young I was to start on those travels and how brave. Yes, me, I was brave. And being brave is certainly a quality I need a big jolt of now when—as in the time after my mother died—I have no idea what the future holds, what it might look like, or how I should plan to live next week, next month, or next year.
Jean Shepherd’s best work—meaning, his best stories, his critique of modern times, which included pointing out “straws in the wind” and the foibles of man, one of his favorite subjects—took place when he was on the radio from 10:15 to 11 p.m. (Others might say that his most famous work was as co-writer of the film A Christmas Story, which endlessly plays on TV during the holiday season, but that came later in his career and is kind of a bit-too-hokey blip on the radar for his true radio fans.) Many of his listeners were kids like me, dreaming of being hipsters and hippies, kids lying in their sacks—another Shepherd-ism—in the upstairs bedroom of some suburban house or in a cramped outer-borough apartment, waiting to be released from the bondage of dreary, daily. Well, for me, and I’m sure many other listeners, Shep’s voice, talking to us in the dark, is still a beacon we can follow into a better future. I’m still following along because as bad and scary as things are out there in real life, in my life, I still have books to write and stories to tell, just as Jean Shepherd did.
So again, tonight, I’ll put myself to bed with my companion and guardian who holds my hand as we navigate this new normal of our shaky but, I believe, indomitable lives, and plug myself into my favorite voice in the night. Thanks, Jean. I’m still listening.
Eleanor Lerman is the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry, short stories, and novels. She is a National Book Award finalist, a recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as fellowships for poetry and for fiction. Her most recent novel, Satellite Street (The Permanent Press, 2019) has been named a finalist for both the Montaigne Medal and the Eric Hoffer Award.