It is with great consternation that we acknowledge that our least favorite cartoonist at the New York Times has been let back in the building. Now, you might be wondering, given that the Times no longer has funny pages, what in the world we’re talking about. Well, we mean Charlie LeDuff, the Times’ resident chronicler of the quirky Everyman, who scours the country, and comes back with over the top caricatures written in the most purple prose possible. We thought that after his disastrously self-centered show last year, “Only in America,” which the Times itself — though it paid for it — had to pan (as did we), that Leduff’s shtick would be shelved for a while. It was, but then in late August the paper inaugurated a new column that would be LeDuff’s own, “American Album,” which appears every other Monday, and is billed thusly: “Portraits of offbeat Americans by Charlie LeDuff.” And with that, the Times handed a bottle of bourbon to an alcoholic.
We’ve held our tongues for a few months now as he’s profiled a nun who ministers to the homeless on Hollywood Boulevard, a man who retrieves corpses for a living in Detroit, and a Minuteman who monitors the border from a solitary hilltop. The ideas have been generally good. But when LeDuff writes these people’s lives, he does not look at them eye-to-eye. He condescends, and subsequently turns them into cartoons, making himself the star of every show.
It was his column on Monday that finally forced us over the edge. LeDuff turned his magnifying glass on one Gloria Castillo, a woman who works the graveyard shift at a Burger King drive-through window outside of Dallas. “She is overweight and wears pink lipstick,” he tells us, introducing Castillo.
The piece goes on to give us not the story of this woman’s existence, which might have been interesting, but rather a few broad, one-dimensional strokes that don’t take into account the real person at all: “But consider the life inside that window on Loop 12 in West Dallas. There is a woman with children and no health insurance, undereducated, a foot soldier in the army of the working poor. The fry cook sneezes on the meat patties. Cigarettes go half smoked. Cameras spy on the employees. Customers throw their fries and soft drinks sometimes because they think it’s funny.”
Even the contrived sense of outrage with which he writes about her life “on the low side of making it,” falls apart when he describes, for example, what she feeds her children: “Every morning, the boys’ order is the same: one sausage, egg and cheese biscuit; one bacon biscuit; two hash browns; and two orange juices. Ms. Castillo could take free food home from Burger King, but the boys like McDonald’s better.”
And of course — of course! — she’s “got dreams.” The superciliousness of the piece would not be complete without reference to her fantasy of being “a paralegal going to work in a downtown office tower, wearing a pantsuit.”
It’s almost a satire of the kind of east coast liberal elitism that the Times is frequently accused of. There is no genuine sense that LeDuff wants to know who this woman is besides reproducing a blown-up image of all the clichés we would normally associate with a woman working at a drive-through.
What makes the whole thing worse is LeDuff’s writing style, one that is laughably baroque. In LeDuff’s world, the “rain sizzles on the parking lot blacktop like frying bacon,” a “mustache of perspiration breaks across her lip,” she “wishes she would have thought about life instead of letting it come at her, one dead end job at a time.”