‘A place that works’: Tracy Kidder’s ‘Home Town’ turns 20

  • Tom and Jean O’Connor in downtown Northampton in late November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom O’Connor talks about participating in Tracy Kidder’s 1999 nonfiction book about Northampton, “Home Town.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom and Jean O’Connor in downtown Northampton in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jean and Tom O’Connor in downtown Northampton in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom O’Connor talks about participating in “Home Town,” Tracy Kidder’s 1999 nonfiction book about Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom and Jean O’Connor in downtown Northampton in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom O’Connor talks about participating in “Home Town,” Tracy Kidder’s 1999 nonfiction book about Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom and Jean O’Connor in downtown Northampton in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom and Jean O’Connor in downtown Northampton in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tracy Kidder, who is the author of “Home Town,” at his home in Williamsburg in December. The book, which focuses on the lives of people in Northampton, was published 20 years ago. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alan Scheinman, who is a character in Tracy Kidder’s book “Home Town,” talks about his experiences at Sylvester’s in Northampton in December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLISMary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.”     STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Ford at her home in Northampton, talking about Tracy Kidder’s 1999 book “Home Town.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2019 5:12:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — While reporting on American soldiers stationed in Haiti during the 1990s for The New Yorker, Tracy Kidder was struck by how nothing seemed to work the way it should in the country, one of the poorest in the world. 

“I’d been a soldier in Vietnam, but Haiti shocked me,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. “For instance, seeing a woman give birth by the side of a dirt road; the machinery that just didn’t work; the fact that there was no functioning system of justice.” 

Kidder’s article eventually led to his 2003 biography of humanitarian doctor Paul Farmer, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Meanwhile, the author’s experience in Haiti in the wake of its 1991 coup and subsequent American intervention spurred him to write another book about an entirely different setting: “A place that works,” he said.

Writing about Haiti, “I was in a place where, in the moment, at least back then, nothing was working,” said Kidder on a recent afternoon at his home in Williamsburg, which he shares with his wife, the painter Frances Kidder. As he spoke, he sprawled across a patterned armchair, his left leg propped up on the armrest. “And here was this town that I live near that was working pretty well, and there was this big revival, and I sort of wondered about that.” 

That “town” was Northampton, and over the next few years, Kidder immersed himself in its history, culture and people. In 1999, Kidder published “Home Town,” a nonfiction book chronicling the daily lives of a select few in the city, including former Northampton Police Sgt. Tommy O’Connor, lawyer and downtown property owner Alan Scheinman and former Mayor Mary Ford.

Much like the city of Northampton itself, “Home Town” is full of interesting stories and characters. Most prominent is O’Connor, who was born and raised in Northampton and, who, amid personal conflict,  at tempts to reconcile the city of his youth with its future direction. 

O’Connor’s hometown perspective was invaluab  le, said Kidder, who rode along with the cop in his squad car over the course of 18 months for the book. “Every piece of that landscape was imbued with memories,” he said. 

The author

Kidder’s first exposure to Northampton came in the 1960s when he visited a girlfriend at Smith College while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard. 

“I couldn’t wait to get out of Northampton,” he said. “It was dingy and rundown. It was the kind of place where most bars had sawdust on the floor.”

Kidder ended up moving to the Pioneer Valley from Long Island in 1976 when he bought his Williamsburg home overlooking the Mill River. Only a few years later, in 1982, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his book “The Soul of a New Machine,” about the dawn of the computer age.

Kidder is now completely invested in his next book, about “street doctor” James O’Connell of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. “He’s just a remarkable guy,” Kidder said, “maybe the most beloved person on the nighttime streets of Boston, except for David Ortiz.”

As engrossed as he is in this new book — Kidder’s first without the guidance of longtime editor and Ashfield resident Richard Todd, who died last April — there are elements of the reporting process that remind him of “Home Town,” such as the amount of time spent following around his main character.

“It helps to have a person at the center,” Kidder said, adding that he tends to write about subjects “through people, and then become utterly obsessed with the things that occupy them.”

Kidder used Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle “Winesburg, Ohio” as a sort of model for how to weave together stories of small-town life, he said, “and I had Dick Todd at my elbow, which made things so much easier for me. He liked this idea, and he was so good at helping me figure out where to turn next.”

While the book doesn’t have “one clear, straight narrative,” as Kidder put it, there is a sense of connection among characters. The New York Times observed that “the citizens whose experiences are observed in literary detail, from a local judge to a cocaine addict, could be members of a family, sheltered by a civic roof.”

Some readers took issue with a lack of LGBTQ representation. “It’s a hole in the book,” said Kidder, who added that he did approach some gay people who declined to share their stories. “I would make bigger and better efforts now.”

Twenty years later, Kidder said that he doesn’t know Northampton very well anymore. He believes that some institutions, such as Smith College, will endure and ensure that the city will continue to exist and prosper. “ ‘Always’ is a stupid word, but I can’t imagine Northampton without it,” he said of the college.

If it were up to him, the Academy of Music would still regularly play movies. And empty storefronts are a problem he is wary of speculating about “because I don’t know enough,” Kidder said. “But there’s something that’s not right about that.”

The cop

In his interview with the Gazette, Kidder called Tom O’Connor “the most gregarious person I think I’ve ever known,” and both men recalled the story of how their paths first crossed.

O’Connor had been on patrol in Leeds, doing speeding checks when he pulled over Kidder, and on the same day, Kidder’s wife, Fran.

“‘When you go home, don’t tell your husband you got stopped for speeding, but let him know that he should slow down,’” O’Connor remembers telling her. “She got a big kick out of that. And, so, that’s where I first met [Kidder], at a traffic stop.”

Kidder and O’Connor later caught up with one another while exercising at the Northampton Athletic Club. “He came up to me, this shaved-headed, noisy, friendly guy, and just started chatting,” Kidder said. “He said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you? I stopped you for speeding.’”

Not long after, O’Connor invited Kidder on a ride-along. “He said, ‘Come ride around with me — I’ll show you a side of the city you never knew existed,’” Kidder said.

O’Connor said that Northampton isn’t the jewel of the “Happy Valley” as some would like to believe. That’s why he wanted Kidder to see a different side — and the author did, through his eyes, as O’Connor patrolled the streets, made arrests, let others walk, pumped a source for information about the city’s cocaine and heroin trade, and learned disturbing news about a childhood friend and fellow police officer.  

Driving down Main Street one summer evening in a scene early in “Home Town,” O’Connor reflects on the city where he grew up, watching people cross Main Street — goth kids, young women with garlands in their hair and a man with a ferret on a leash. 

“He liked these motley promenades,” Kidder wrote. “They enlarged his town. He hadn’t had to leave Northampton to sample the sights of urban America. The world had come to him.”

By the end of the book, O’Connor (who now goes by Tom) and his wife, Jean O’Connor, had finally left Northampton for jobs working as special agents in the FBI, positions from which they’ve since retired. Recently, the couple visited Northampton and walked down Main Street.

Passing by the vacant storefront formerly belonging to Faces, Tom read sticky notes on the windows, agreeing with one that called for a movie theater in town. And by the three-way intersection outside of City Hall, he reminisced about how the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to be a common sight on the street.

“They literally used to sell their magazines, their hand-done magazines on the sidewalk,” he said, pointing to a spot on the concrete, “right around here.”

While certain parts of the city are “imbued with memories,” there’s also a lot that has changed. O’Connor observed that in the 1990s, there was more public support around police work than there is now. He knows that law enforcement has some “bad apples” but added, “You name me a career that doesn’t.” O’Connor also had some thoughts to share about dispensaries like NETA, which he said are bound to end as a “failed social experiment.” 

Pot shops are a symptom of an “all-inviting” community that also sends a bad message to kids, he continued. 

O’Connor said he’s glad that Northampton has remained a place where discussions around such subjects are commonplace and expected.

“There may be difficult decisions and topics like homelessness and the opioid crisis, which is nationwide, but people in Northampton are generally going to do the right thing to take care of each other,” he said.

Jean O’Connor had her own reasons for participating in the book, which details the couple’s struggle to have children, among other personal matters. “On some level, I wanted people to have a little more empathy and a little more filter,” she said, “because don’t always assume what’s going on in people’s lives.”

The lawyer

Sitting inside of Sylvester’s Restaurant on a recent afternoon still wearing his winter coat, Alan Scheinman waited for a server to bring over a plate of eggs and bacon. 

The restaurant is the former home of Sylvester Graham, the Northampton reverend who preached in the temperance movement and whose obsession with purity and diet led to the invention of the graham cracker. He was, in other words, a bit of an eccentric.

In “Home Town,” Kidder suggests that Graham’s “oddest man” moniker had been taken over by a new character: Scheinman. 

“Home Town” details Scheinman’s struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and his subsequent return to dating life after trips to a local strip club.  

“When my OCD became seriously problematic, I shifted from becoming known for being a successful lawyer to being some kind of freak on the streets,” Scheinman said, adding that he would often walk around town with his hands held to his chest, hoping that he wouldn’t be touched.

When the server finally brought over his food and silverware, Scheinman stopped talking to stand up and search in the server’s station behind him for a different fork and knife. 

“I don’t usually use stuff I see handled,” Scheinman said, “even though, who knows who handled this to put it in there? It’s just an OCD habit.”

Scheinman said he saw “Home Town” as an opportunity to tell everyone what was really behind his “odd” public persona. 

“I gave Tracy an uncensored, unedited explanation of my illness,” said Scheinman, who now lives in Holyoke. “If it accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, I am not a good judge of that. But it served my purpose as an expression of explanation.” 

The mayor

The first time Kidder introduces Mary Ford in “Home Town,” it’s as “a heavy woman in her fifties” — not exactly flattering to the former mayor of Northampton. 

“If that’s the worst someone says about you in politics, then that’s good,” Ford joked recently.

Ford vividly recalls the presence that Kidder had in City Hall. She said Kidder would often spend half the day moving around from her office to the hallway, sitting outside her door and listening to almost every conversation. 

“You feel kind of honored when somebody with the prior successful storytelling honors [as Kidder] … decides to concentrate on the city you are working hard to lead,” she said. 

That said, she wonders if Kidder may have spent too much time on the minutiae of municipal government. “For most of us, we loved the details and the breadth of those political discussions,” Ford said. “But to put that into prose? There’s not enough drama at any one step.”

She also recalled how Kidder described her dingy office, writing that the space brought to mind “musty rugs and mothballs.”

“I had staffers who were upset he said the furniture looked like we got it from a tag sale,” Ford said, adding that she bought two of her upholstered office chairs from J.C. Penney. 

Today, Ford still keeps tabs on her city. She sees price inflation, along with an increasing gap in wealth, as major threats to economies across the country, including in Northampton. She said that she wants to see regular citizens, local government and other power brokers in the city come together to find a way to spur the economy to create jobs and keep the city thriving.

“I think that if today I were in a political or business leader role, I would be doing anything I could think of to collaboratively consult for solutions,” Ford said. “Push in a constructive plan forward — whatever form that pushing takes.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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