Say what you will about the I-Man, this alternately cruel and shy character who passed Friday at 79, he kept me alive many years ago.
I had paid him no attention until he popped up on the new sports talk station, WFAN -- 660 on the AM dial – in the late 80’s. Most of the station was devoted to hard-core sports babble but his four hours in the morning – “the revenue-producing portion of the day,” I think he called it – was a snarling, sneering refutation of sports, plus music critiques and skits.
One of the best things I have ever heard on the radio was a skit in which Princess Diana visits America to get away from that strange bunch she had married into. (I forget the name of the woman who portrayed Diana.) Somehow or other, Diana is invited to Imus’ home in Connecticut, for a hot-dog roast with real people, that is to say, the I-Man. She is so enthralled by his informality that she pleads for asylum, asking in a plaintive voice, “Please, may I stay here?” Oh, if only she had.
Imus grew on me, with his frequent praise for his favorite musician, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. He also acted as a one-man media critic of the noble knights of the keyboard back when newspapers and sports sections and columnists played to the snarky taste of the New York region.
He was vicious toward his station mates, calling Mike Francesa and Chris Russo “Fatso and Fruit Loops.” He derided his literary agent and consigliere, Esther Newberg, referring to her as, of course, “Lobsters.” He regularly berated the plugged-in sports columnist of the Daily News, Mike Lupica, and sometimes when he had nothing else to do, he picked on me.
(Let it be noted that Lupica and I are clients of the sainted Ms. Newberg.)
One time Imus relayed a new item about an elderly gent who was left, in a wheelchair, I believe, by his guardian at some rural dog track. This became the Imus standard for irrelevancy, for being past it. He often would ridicule my masterpieces and state the obvious: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
One time my sister Janet rang up the station to blast the I-Man and he put her on the air, and was oh, so civil to her. That was the I-Man, a human mood swing. I met him a few times, hanging out in a baseball press box, making no fuss. In person, the radio tough guy would softly say hello and kind of look sideways at me.
How did Imus save my life? My wife was on a trip somewhere and I thought it made sense for me to drive our car from south Florida to Long Island – straight through, overnight (with a couple of 15-minute naps at rest stops.)
I got near Baltimore, the sun rising, and to keep awake I punched the dial seeking Imus going on the air at 6 AM.
But I was sleepy. Very sleepy. I could feel the car starting to edge onto the rough border of the inside lane. I righted the steering wheel and willed myself to stay awake. But I was sleepy.
Just then, Imus began a tirade against a failing columnist who had just written another piece of foolscap. In his basso voice of denunciation and doom, Imus pronounced: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
That got my adrenaline surging – who doesn’t like attention? – and I gripped the wheel and listened to Imus for the next four hours until the revenue-producing part of the day was over, and I got home, alive.
* * *
I’d like to say that my debt to the I-Man made me a listener for life, but that’s not true. He and his radio sidekicks increased their racial crap and their creepy comments about women until one day he made ugly comments about the mostly-black players on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, competing in the Final Four. That was it. I turned Imus off, and never listened to him again.
In a way, Imus was a predictor of where we are today. However, unlike some public figures I could name, he appeared to be generous, to have a heart. According to the obituaries, the I-Man hosted young people at his Imus Ranch and raised funds for Iraq veterans, and his wife Deirdre has her own charity at a New Jersey hospital. It seems he affected thousands of lives – plus one sleepy driver, edging off the Interstate on a warm sunrise.
* * *
Here’s a treat: the NYT’s star, Robert McFadden, on the I-Man:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.