One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

by Gene Weingarten

Hardcover(New Edition)

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“One of the 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Last 25 Years”—Slate

On New Year’s Day 2013, two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Gene Weingarten asked three strangers to, literally, pluck a day, month, and year from a hat. That day—chosen completely at random—turned out to be Sunday, December 28, 1986, by any conventional measure a most ordinary day. Weingarten spent the next six years proving that there is no such thing.

That Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s turned out to be filled with comedy, tragedy, implausible irony, cosmic comeuppances, kindness, cruelty, heroism, cowardice, genius, idiocy, prejudice, selflessness, coincidence, and startling moments of human connection, along with evocative foreshadowing of momentous events yet to come. Lives were lost. Lives were saved. Lives were altered in overwhelming ways. Many of these events never made it into the news; they were private dramas in the lives of private people. They were utterly compelling.
One Day asks and answers the question of whether there is even such a thing as “ordinary” when we are talking about how we all lurch and stumble our way through the daily, daunting challenge of being human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399166662
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/22/2019
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 120,402
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Gene Weingarten is a Washington Post journalist. He writes long-form stories as well as Below the Beltway, the weekly syndicated humor column. His previous books include I’m With Stupid: One Man. One Woman. 10,000 Years of Misunderstanding Between the Sexes Cleared Right Up (with Gina Barreca); The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life. And Death; Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs; and The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of his best-known work. Weingarten is the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, for examining the phenomenon of parents who accidentally leave their children to bake to death in hot cars, and for an experiment in which he arranged for famed violinist Joshua Bell to busk incognito outside a Metro station in Washington, to see if anyone would notice.

He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

The Day


It is a Sunday, the 362nd day of the year of Chernobyl and Challenger, when preventable failures of technology humbled two superpowers.


The moon is a skinny slice. Before daybreak, its faintness will abet innumerable crimes, including a theft of extraordinary audacity and a murder of unfathomable brutality. Eighteen hours later, narrower still, it will lend an overhead wink to a lifelong romance getting off to its preposterous start.


At midnight on the East Coast, a team of doctors and nurses is hastily assembling to attempt something not one of them has ever done before, except in macabre rehearsals with corpses in the morgue. They've been waiting for weeks, to be summoned on a moment's notice. In the next few hours, they will try to save one life and help a family atone for the final unhinged act of another.


At midnight on the West Coast, a young woman's body lies undiscovered in a culvert beneath an abandoned highway overpass as her family crisscrosses the roads above in a frantic search to find her. They are on their own because police have refused to step in, on the grounds that in the life of a pretty blonde, being two hours late on a Saturday night is not late at all.


A little after two a.m. in Washington, D.C., a conservative political operative, known for his ruthless tactics, dies at thirty-six. Fulfilling a promise to his patient, the man's doctor publicly diagnoses congestive heart failure of unknown origin. But it is just the final lie of a successful, influential, cynical, hypocritical, self-delusional life.


Just past three a.m. in a small town in Nebraska, a sullen young man, a devout hell-raiser who has never done anything right, finally does, and it kills him.


At five a.m., in a suburb of Memphis at a sleepover with a friend, a precocious eleven-year-old girl from a strict Mormon family wakes up in a darkened house and starts on a video game she is not allowed to play at home. Five hours later, she will decide that December 28, 1986, is a date so memorable that she solemnly writes it down on a slip of paper, signs it, and puts it in a shoebox to keep forever. As it happens, she was on to something.


The bestselling nonfiction book in America, in its thirty-fourth week on the list, is Bill Cosby's Fatherhood, a slender, amusing, surprisingly sardonic take on being a dad. It is ghostwritten, but Cosby hasn't revealed that and has no plans to. Driven by the entertainer's wholesome popularity and salt-of-the-earth reputation, Fatherhood is becoming the fastest-selling hardcover in history.


Where it isn't unseasonably warm, it is unseasonably cold. Car radios play to saturation "Walk Like an Egyptian," a hypnotic, slickly stylized bit of silliness by the Bangles. The milestone will go unnoticed, but the group has just become the first all-female band to top the charts playing their own instruments. For women, it is a time of restive transition. On this day in a Native American village in New Mexico, a tribe's elders-all male-try but fail to negate the election of its first woman governor because custom forbids it. In dozens of Sunday newspapers, an Associated Press story matter-of-factly reports that men across the country, feeling threatened as heads of their households, are dissuading their wives from going back to school to get their GED degrees-sometimes under threats of violence. The story quotes sixteenth-century scholar Erasmus: "Just as a saddle is not suitable for an ox, so learning is unsuitable for a woman."


At 8:15 a.m., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man with a big secret is awakened by his beaming wife on the morning of his thirtieth birthday. She has a present for him. The moment is utterly anodyne, sweet and ordinary, but to this man, who is vacillating over a paralyzing existential dilemma, it is a reminder of how strong and centered and fundamentally good his marriage is. And that, as it happens, is a big problem.


At 10:50 a.m. a fire breaks out in a little house outside of Dallas. No one is in the room except two babies. One dies. The other will become a modern-day Quasimodo, faced with the agonizing challenge of figuring out how to navigate the world as a monster.


The network news is chockablock with opportunistic automotive ads urging you to buy now because on January 1, under the Reagan administration's new, simplified tax code, you will no longer be able to deduct new-car sales tax on your returns. The pragmatic, unsentimental strategy will work better than the usual crowing about engineering and aesthetics: American car sales in 1986, hugely goosed in the fourth quarter, will be higher than any year before or since.


At 11:10 a.m. a car departs a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., on a secret mission. Word of it has leaked-but not the destination-so news reporters are out front, in their vehicles, ready for pursuit. To elude them, the driver takes his car out a back exit, with U.S. Secret Service cars preceding and trailing it. Inside this middle car are a doctor, a nurse, and a pudgy, nondescript nebbish, the most notorious psychotic in the world. Doctors had decided that John Hinckley-1981 shooter of Jim Brady and the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan-was largely cured of his febrile, erotic delusions and could be trusted in supervised visits with his family outside the institution. It was to be a precursor to eventual discharge. The meeting will go off without incident, but not long afterward, guards will discover hidden in Hinckley's room photos of Jodie Foster, a letter to a mail-order house requesting a nude drawing of the actress, and evidence of an ongoing pen-pal relationship with serial killer Ted Bundy and Manson family acolyte Squeaky Fromme. It will be another thirty years before Hinckley would get out for good.


Around noon, the flamboyant mayor of New York City, trying to defuse racial tensions after the death of a black man at the hands of a white mob, walks into a church in a working-class neighborhood in Queens. The mayor expects a warm welcome from these blue-collar white people, his most loyal constituency, the demographic that has voted him into office three times despite lingering mistrust among people of color. The reception he gets flabbergasts him, and will strip bare the maddening complexity of race relations in urban America.


Eyeglasses are all over TV, big and bold, on faces male and female, in news and sitcoms and commercials, making spectacles of themselves: huge goggle-like affairs, with enormous lenses suspended in what appeared to be face scaffolding. This will turn out to be a defiant final stand for eyewear, and one of those visual markers of an era: 1987 will be the year truly comfortable contact lenses become widely available.


The New York Times announces the upcoming nuptials of a "Miss Van Cleve" to a "John Van Doren." Decades tardy to the basic protocols of feminism, the Gray Lady's matrimonial pages are also notoriously elitist, biased toward America's blue-blooded white aristocracy. Eventually this will change, but not any time soon, nor will the newspaper's occasional willingness to make journalistically excruciating accommodations to assure that this important demographic remains sufficiently cosseted. On this day, the engagement story duly notes the pedigree of the groom's grandfather-a poet, critic, and literature professor who inspired Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac-but about the groom's father, Charles Van Doren, it reports only that he is a former college professor and a writer. Discreetly not mentioned: Charles's international notoriety as the leading villain in the spectacular quiz show scandal of the 1950s.


At 2:35 p.m. in Washington, D.C., a London musical is making its pre-Broadway debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Thirty minutes into the matinee performance, action stops. Something is wrong. The $200,000 rotating stage has broken. The day's two productions are canceled. An eerily identical snafu had happened in Baltimore the year before, thirty minutes into the opening act of the pre-Broadway debut of the Ben Vereen musical, Grind. The moving stage froze, as did future ticket sales in that memorably sour box office flop. Will this snafu augur something similar? Nah. Les Misérables will do just fine.


At 4:25 p.m. in the Pacific Northwest, a couple of fishing buddies flying in a helicopter make an emergency landing in a lumberyard, to remove a door for better visibility in fog and rain. When they take off, a strut catches on some debris and the copter inverts, its rotor pulling it to the ground. The pilot's last thought before impact is "no one ever survives this."


At 6:10 p.m. in tiny Winslow, Indiana, the town's Pentecostal pastor answers the door to find two young parishioners standing there-a sixteen-year-old girl and her twenty-year-old boyfriend. They say they are worried because her parents have been missing for two days. In the kitchen, the pastor's wife overhears this and feels dread. They are dead, she thinks, and have been murdered, and I know who did it. She is right, and right, and right again. But her intuition takes her only so far. She never anticipates the penumbra of ugly small-town rumors that would, in time, engulf even her own home.


At 6:15 p.m., in a ceremony on a hotel veranda in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a very pregnant woman from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, marries her longtime boyfriend. In the ensuing years their love story will become a horror story, then a captivating adventure yarn, then a police procedural, and then a love story again-with a denouement so melodramatic that the plot would be laughed out of any Hollywood pitch meeting.


At 6:30 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona, busloads of large young men descend on a steak restaurant. They are the members of two college football teams that will be squaring off five days later in what will be the most watched college football game ever. The dinner was to be a fun time, a few hours of camaraderie before a few hours of busting one another's heads. Unfortunately, to lighten the moment, someone had a very bad idea.


At 7:45 p.m. in New York City, more than a dozen families have gathered at Kennedy Airport awaiting a flight to return to the Soviet Union, which they had left a few years before, never intending to return. The émigrés tell American reporters about their disappointment with life in the United States and nostalgia for their old country. The mass departure was secretly orchestrated by the Soviet government as in-your-face propaganda, one of the last bits of gamesmanship in the shabby final days of the Cold War. But in this game the playing field is not level, and what will soon happen to these families will mirror, almost exactly, what will soon happen to much of Eastern Europe.


These are the final days of three-network TV, before channel surfing will further fragment the American attention span, so ABC, CBS, and NBC let their year-end wrap-ups run long and deep and dull. Here are some of the things that happened in 1986 that they saw fit to include: The death of Desi Arnaz, the man who Loved Lucy. The hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Mandatory urine tests for federal job seekers. People linking hands in an earnest but imperfect effort to span the continental United States for fifteen minutes, as a symbolic act to fight poverty and homelessness. Here is something that happened in 1986 that none of the networks saw fit to include: A Seattle company named Microsoft took itself public.


Technology is advancing at such bewildering speed that even the visionaries can see only so far ahead. At seven p.m. the New York City alternative radio station WBAI airs its nerdy Personal Computer Show, which on this day includes an interview with a thirty-one-year-old Bill Gates. Gates is charming, and he is prescient in many ways, predicting, among other things, eventual crises in cybersecurity. But in his twenty-seven minutes of airtime he underpredicts the technological future, envisioning only "a computer in every home." He does not predict the miniaturization of technology that will make access to information as portable as people. And he does not seem to foresee an innovation that is a mere nine years away and barreling toward us all: the mighty, inexhaustible, bottomless real-time interconnection of humans and ideas that we now call the Internet.


At 10:30 p.m. in Oakland, California, the Grateful Dead has taken the stage. It is the band's fifth performance since front man Jerry Garcia returned from a coma that had nearly killed him. His first four appearances were worrisomely listless. But on this day at this concert, onstage, something overpowering kicks in. And for once it is not pharmaceuticals.


It was a day unlike any other, 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds of a planet speeding around Earth's axis at the velocity of a bullet, occupying a spiral of space that will never be revisited.


12:01 a.m., Charlottesville, Virginia


Alan Speir hadn't had a drop to drink. The reason why was

                on the phone.


When the call came, Speir had just fallen asleep in the guest bedroom of his sister's home. He and his family were visiting for the Christmas holidays, and now his brother-in-law was waking him, phone in hand.


Speir didn't have to be told who the midnight caller was or why he was calling, or that the next few hours would be memorable. Okay, thrilling.


Speir wasn't famous in his field yet. A quarter century later, he'd be the man who would sew a new heart into Dick Cheney's chest. But in 1986 he was a reasonably obscure cardiovascular surgeon in a busy hospital in suburban Washington, D.C. His name had not been in the newspapers. That was about to change, for better or worse.


The midnight caller, as he'd assumed, was his surgical colleague Edward Lefrak. The terse message, as he expected, was that there was a donor. Speir was now fully awake. Within three-quarters of an hour he was dressed and in his car, beginning the two-hour drive north to Fairfax, Virginia, going through a heart surgeon's mental checklist, which included, somewhere around step five, keeping your own heart steady.


Lefrak had made a few more calls himself; others, he delegated. By three a.m., the whole team had assembled. There were four doctors, eleven nurses, a physician's assistant, and two medical instrument operators, gathered in two rooms.


In operating room 12 a body lay supine on the table, butterflied. This is an adjective no one who was there would have used-the terminology of transplantation is determinedly dignified-but that is what it was. A man of small to medium stature, well muscled, had been sliced open from the neck straight down to the crotch, and then cranked apart by retractors, for better access to the organs. There wasn't much talking. The loudest sound was the insistent whoosh-gasp of a ventilator.

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