While I was hauling lumber and drywall studs in a 14-year-old Ford Explorer across U.S.1 in North Miami one afternoon in 2009, my cargo slipped out the back and landed in the middle of the busy intersection.
I stopped traffic in two lanes and picked up the mess as angry drivers whizzed by and flipped me the bird.
That difficult day, I hung onto something author Tom Wolfe, who was researching his Miami-based novel Back to Blood, had told me weeks earlier in his New York apartment: People are willing to talk about anything, except the humiliations that make up 75 percent of their lives.
While juggling my then-“day job” of working for my father’s general contractor/construction company, Grandhaus Corp., I was endeavoring to direct and produce a documentary film on Wolfe, one of my personal idols and an icon of American letters.
The story of how that film ultimately came together (it is being distributed nationally in select theaters and through PBS on TV) veers dangerously into that “75 percent people would rather not share.” It’s a saga that involved second and third jobs in the realm of manual labor; holding a family together with drastically reduced income after the recession kicked my plans squarely below the belt; and not quite “changing” but hopscotching careers.
If you’d like to catch the film, Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, on Sunday, you can do so at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, after the author’s bookfair-opening talk at 6 p.m.
I was a newspaper reporter toiling away on the events of early October 2007 on The Miami Herald’s metro desk, when a front-page article by reporter Andres Viglucci turned me on to the fact that Wolfe was setting his next novel in Miami — and one of his characters would be a journalist.
My older sister, avid reader and urban planner Alicia Corral Chang, perused the same piece and called me: “You should write to Tom Wolfe and tell him about your own experiences as a journalist in Miami.”
Wolfe’s contact information was squirreled away in my digital archive, gleaned from my work on another article years earlier on Miami Police Chief (and Wolfe friend) John Timoney.
But if I was going to reach out to him, the communiqué would require proper protocol. You don’t just fire off an email to someone like Tom Wolfe. You don’t ring him up at 2 p.m. and offer your services like a credit card company.
Fortunately, my daughters had a large sketch pad with thick, off-white, textured paper, the perfect medium for a handwritten letter.
Besides the occasional birthday or Christmas card, I hadn’t written anything meaningful to anyone by hand since a spate of romantically inclined letters in college. The letter I wrote in early 2008 was about four pages long, and touched on some of the unusual experiences I’d had as a Miami Herald reporter. I ended it by offering to assist him in any way he needed in Miami.
A week later my cellphone rang at my desk in the newsroom: “This is Tom Wolfe.”
He said he was planning a research trip to Miami and wanted to get together with me. My wife, Cecile, and I invited him and his wife, Sheila, to dinner at our house, and I spent a couple of days driving him around to different places he wanted to see.