Corey Kilgannon used his knuckles to rap out a tune on the door of a first floor apartment near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. “Harry!” he called, to no answer. As other residents appeared in the hallway of the building, Kilgannon peppered them with inquiries. But no one knew whether Harry Theodore was still in the hospital, or if he’d moved out of the apartment altogether. “Oh, the dog man?” One woman replied. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
This isn’t a usual workday for Kilgannon – but then, no day really is. As the writer of the New York Times’ Character Study column, he can end up on different sides of the city every day, tracking down the people who make New York the capricious, dynamic city it is. Glamorous Brooklynite funeral directors, 52-year old prostitutes still in the game, and the infamous man who wanders around Union Square with a cat on his head are among those who have been featured over the years. Today Kilgannon is looking up Harry Theodore, the subject of a story back in 1999.
“He was this amazing guy. He was homeless, but he had something like 15 little pointer dogs, you know, worth a lot of money. You’d see him down on 7th Avenue going through the garbage of restaurants looking for the finest ham hocks for these beautiful dogs, barking stuff at them in Greek,” Kilgannon said. “He resurfaced a few weeks ago. He was old and ill then, and I heard he was still alive, and he still had the dogs, and I couldn’t fucking believe it. I needed to know.”
Today was not a lucky day; Harry was not around. “Every day is a possible success, every day is a possible failure,” Kilgannon said. On the way here from the New York Times building in Times Square he admitted that he was in a bad mood. He doesn’t go to the offices very often, but it was not the office that was bothering him. “It’s the guy I wrote up yesterday,” he explained. Sunday’s column featured Isaiah Richardson Jr., a saxophonist specializing in songs and anthems from around the world who makes a lot of money playing for tourists outside the Metropolitan Museum. Richardson was unhappy that his profile hadn’t featured, among other things, his classical clarinet training in France. “I was completely straight with him about the story. It’s really frustrating,” Kilgannon said. “I don’t think about people in column inches but not everyone’s a book.”
Older folks make for better profiles, he said, but finding good people for the column can be difficult, even in a city of eight million people. “It’s hard. Hard to engage someone properly. With characters it’s about what they say.”
Kilgannon, 45, is from tiny Massapequa on Long Island, but has been in the city long enough to know a unique New Yorker when he meets one. He moved to the city as a Columbia freshman and has been here ever since, settling on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter. “The city was different back then: it was more dangerous, less friendly. “When I moved here, New York wasn’t where middle class people wanted to be. It was a place ruled by the streets,” he said. Now, questing after stories in a grubby dark blue LT Malibu, Kilgannon is the one in control. He navigated the trip from Harry Theodore’s building to the Whitestone Bridge with ease, no GPS system on the dashboard or iPhone in his lap (“Do you have to automate everything?”).
Kilgannon describes himself as old-school: he started out in the mailroom at the New York Times in his mid-twenties, getting to know the staff and the paper bit by bit until he could pitch stories and was eventually entrusted with reporting as a staff writer. “I used to do day stories. I made my living doing front page stories,” he said. “There used to be a lot more deaths to report then. There was a buzz to it. These days I would probably say fuck that; those stories, sometimes they’re full of air. The lead is sexy but the story isn’t there. Journalism is all-consuming and with my personality, it’s never enough.”
Sitting in the basement food hall of Golden Mall on Flushing’s Main Street, Jeffrey Singer, a friend of Kilgannon, described him as “amphibious” in pursuit of stories: in a literal sense, the pair of them almost ended up stranded in Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. Kilgannon shrugged off the praise, claiming he has always thought of himself as miserable.
Kilgannon’s sense of humor is certainly dark. He said, grinning, that he likes to pretend the embroidered detail on the pocket of his thrift store jacket, featuring a bloody-beaked mother eagle and her brood, is a family crest. But in more than 2,000 articles for the paper, you’d be hard pressed to find a trace of cynicism in his writing. “I don’t think it hurts to be emotionally honest with your subject,” he said. “What I write is an indicator to whole lives.”
On the way to meet Singer in Flushing, Kilgannon eased off the gas pedal to detour through the iron wilderness of Willets Point. There are no sidewalks here and the space between the auto repair shops and scrap yards is nothing but muddy potholes; the car bounced violently as he waved to acquaintances. He pointed out one woman inspecting the open hood of a car. “I fucking mined this place to the hilt,” he said. “See her over there? I profiled her. Is that… look at that! Kilgannon slammed on the brakes. “They’re cooking tortillas on a carburetor. I gotta take a photo of that,” he said as he jumped out of the car, the rest of his sentence muffled by the noise of the engine and his bright white sneakers a blur beyond the still-open car door.
Mission accomplished, Kilgannon clambered back into the driver’s seat, chuckling to himself. He thrust his camera into a pants pocket before balancing a BlackBerry between his ear and shoulder, fastening his seatbelt and performing a left hand turn onto the Van Wyck Expressway, all at the same time.
Speeding past the yachts on the waterfront, Kilgannon recalled sailing his father’s boat from Long Island to Manhattan last summer. For a week he spent the long summer days mooring up in search of stories, and nights on deck in a sleeping bag. “I’m an outdoors kind of guy,” he said. “I grew up not far from here but it’s a whole different place.”
But for Kilgannon New York is organic in its own way. “This city is like a big tree. You have to grab it and shake it to do my job,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to find, but you shake it until something falls down.”