A distant train sounds its horn, waking me at 5:39 a.m. My brain clicks on and does some of the best writing it will do all day.
Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, Paul Simon sings on his 1983 disc Hearts and Bones. His next album would be the Big One, Graceland. Sometimes I think I may be the only person in the world who has a copy of Hearts and Bones and listens to it. An underappreciated masterpiece. But I digress.
One of my sisters-in-law, the Katrina refugee from New Orleans, moved into the guest bedroom. She presented a book. She always brings the most extraordinary art and literature up the river from New Orleans.
This book is titled, 1 Dead in Attic. It is inscribed by the author: "To Michana & David, Louisiana Toujours! (Go Badgers) UW '82," followed by Chris Rose's signature.
The name has the indistinct familiarity of the sound of a train in the distance. I page to the back of the book and find his photo and bio, and the train blasts its horn: Rose and I took our degrees from the UW-Madison School of Journalism in the same year.
He was that guy who got kicked off The Daily Cardinal, he confirms at one point during a series of phone calls and e-mails.
I have blurry black-and-white recollections of the Cardinal episode, but that's all incidental now because Rose has gone on to distinguish himself in our profession - first as a staff writer for the Washington Post but since 1984 at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he started as a crime reporter and later covered national politics, Southern regionalism, pop culture and Crescent City nightlife.
Now the Times-Picayune's marquee columnist, Rose is also, on occasion, a "Morning Edition" commentator for National Public Radio and a contributing essayist to "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS. His annual series of interviews with musicians during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival are a cornerstone of his page at nola.com, the Times-Picayune Web site.
But the columns he wrote in the four months following Hurricane Katrina may be Rose's finest achievement at mid-career. Collected between the covers of 1 Dead in Attic, these columns - as terse and eloquent as the sentences from which they are crafted - make the best case for New Orleans that I've read since the nation turned its back to the city.
In 154 pages illustrated by British photojournalist Charlie Varley's images, 1 Dead in Attic is also one of the most compelling answers I've ever read to one of my all-time favorite questions: Why do you live where you live?
The New Republic called it "the most engaging of the Katrina books." And in recognizing the Times-Picayune with two awards for its coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Pulitzer Prize Committee noted Rose's "vibrant and compassionate columns that gave voice to the afflictions of this city."
Published under his own imprint, Chris Rose Books, the slim paperback is, in part, a vehicle to benefit New Orleans musicians and artists. So far, the book has generated more than $25,000 for Tipitina's Foundation, ARTDOCS and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.
Rose is bringing 1 Dead in Attic to Madison this weekend. In addition to his Wisconsin Book Festival appearance on a panel called "Three Windows on Urban America" (7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 in the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio), Rose has scheduled a multimedia performance based on his book to benefit Tipitina's Foundation, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19 at Cafe Montmartre; and a reading and book-signing from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at the west-side Frugal Muse, 7475 Mineral Point Rd.
Last week I get another phone call. This time it's Andy Krikelas on the other end. Five years before Rose and I took our J-school baccalaureates, Andy and I took our diplomas at Madison West High School with the Class of Mumble-Something.
Since then, we've run into each other at random intervals. Every one or two or three or five years, there is a chance encounter at some restaurant, intersection or public occasion. Or a phone call out of the blue.
Andy tells me he just got off the line with Chris Rose, who asked him to remind me about his Wisconsin Book Festival appearances. Turns out Rose roomed next door to Andy in the UW-Madison dorms, and played on the same team in the Madison School-Community Recreation leagues.
A journalist who plays hardball. Go figure. Chris Matthews may have appropriated the term for his MSNBC gig, but he's not the only one in the dugout.
It's a small world, Andy tells me. He's right. It's powerful small. Getting smaller all the time.
By extension, we live in a mighty small town. But it is big enough to be within earshot of a train in the distance.