Friday, March 11, 2011

Doris from Rego Park

She died in 2003, and unless you follow all-night sports radio in New York, you would not have  heard of her.

In fact, the woman satisfied all the criteria for perfect obscurity.

Into her fifties, she lived in Queens with her parents, elderly Jews who fled the Holocaust. She suffered from neurofibromatosis - Elephant Man's Disease - that required frequent operations to remove skin tumors from her face and body. She had lung cancer and a chronic cough. She had an autistic compulsion to memorize factoids and arrange small objects in straight lines. She never married, she never learned to drive, and she never worked beyond menial office jobs.

Her name was Doris Bauer. Under most circumstances, she was the kind of person who elicits pity - an emblem of lives that amount to little and never quite begin. She's the kind of person you think of when you're alone on dark, cold nights, appraising your accomplishments and wondering if they add up to anything. And in the loneliness of the hour you might be tempted to thank God that your life - at least - adds up to more than Doris Bauer's.

But in New York, Doris is remembered for more than that. She is fondly recalled by thousands of people who never met her but whose lives she touched.

This year, as spring training begins and a new baseball season looms, a mournful ballad is making its way to New York area radios and MP3 players, first on WFAN - a sports call-in station - and more recently on Jonathan Schwartz's weekend program of wonderfully eclectic music on National Public Radio's WNYC. Written and performed by Don Rosler, the song tells of the frequent late-night calls Doris made to WFAN, introducing herself as "Doris from Rego Park." Her voice on the radio became so familiar over the years that when she took the subway to Shea Stadium for Sunday games, people would recognize her by her irrepressible cough.

Listeners to WFAN quickly realized that Doris was also a loyal Mets fan and a superior tactician. In an always pleasant but sometimes struggling voice, Doris would suggest trades, line-ups and ways of motivating the team to play harder and smarter. Mets managers who tuned in to WFAN realized her advice was valuable, even when it came too late. She said trading Lenny Dykstra "was the second worst trade" the team ever made. She did not deny rumors that she had a crush on Dykstra, as well as on Ed Kranepool.

It's hard to imagine a more lonely medium than late night radio. 

"What is comes down to is aloneness," WNYC's Schwartz said in an email to the New York Times. It's the medium of choice by shift workers, insomniacs, nocturnal loners and those recently separated from someone they love. It's the medium that enables people who have no one to touch to imagine a connection with the voices of strangers. "The city at night," Schwartz writes. "Doris calls. You hear, you listen. It's snowing. Alone."

No one really knows if Doris was a lonely person herself. Her brother, Harold Bauer, told the New York Times that she was happiest when she set her alarm for 1 a.m. so she could call WFAN. She did that so often that regular listeners looked forward to her voice. Doris from Rego Park made a connection with untold hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people who came to depend on her insights, her auditory companionship and her unfailing politeness. She ended every call with thanks to the host and listeners "for your time and courtesy."

There may be hundreds of rabbis, priests, imams and ministers in New York who would have pitied Doris while thanking God that their own lives had a greater impact on people. Some of them might be right, but when Doris died in 2003, her brother said he inundated with sympathy cards.

Listeners of WFAN knew they had lost someone very important to them. Doris reached out to other lonely people on cold, dark nights, and together they found the spark that makes life important.

Doris of Rego Park

By Don Rosler

Doris from Rego Park,
Calls by day and calls by dark.
She just phoned in at 2:10 am
In NYC on FAN.

Doris talks about the Mets,
Who they shouldn’t have got,
Who they should get,
I’m not quite sure if she ever sleeps.
She seems to keep all her hours with me.

She has a chronic cough that makes it hard for her to talk
But that don’ t stop tonight’s discussion of offensive woes.
I think we have in common that our most constant companion is our radio’
I know I’m tuned every night when I hear
Doris from Rego Park
She mourns the lack of lead-off spark.
Through central park up to outer space
Floats her new proposal for a trade
I wonder if those far away and in the future will agree
The second worst trade ever, letting Dykstra go?
Are they under their own spell of great obsessions
they express on space age call in shows.

Well all I know is I stay up ‘til hear
Doris of  Rego Park,
Calls by day and calls by dark.
Each call concludes when she says thank you for your time and courtesy.
Now I wonder if she’ll drift off to sleep
With her radio on like me.

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