Paul Greenberg

Maybe nobody would remember his name 40 years later if it hadn't been such astruggle to find it. When the local paper started digging into hisbackground, it found only the usual annals of the poor and obscure. Nothingnewsworthy ever seems to have happened to Joe Telles in his life - exceptthe way it ended.

His turned out to be a common enough story: Bum Dies in Strange Town.

Various people who were asked about him wondered why the newspaper wasinterested. Couldn't it find something more "positive" to report? Why gonosing around? What was so important about this one guy? And why should hisstory linger so long, Christmas after Christmas, and grow more vivid everyyear?

Flannery O'Connor may have explained it in an aside about why a certain kindof writer, a writer like her, would find living in the South indispensable.She put it this way:

"He lives in a region which is struggling, in both good ways and bad, topreserve its identity under stress. He lives in the Bible Belt, where beliefcan be made believable. He has also here a good view of the modern world. Ahalf-hour's ride in this region will take him from places where the life hasa distinctly Old Testament flavor to places where the life might beconsidered post-Christian. Yet all these varied situations can be seen inone glance and heard in one conversation."

Or glimpsed in one story - like Joe Telles'.

Joe Telles' story may have a biblical irony but it deals with the slipperystuff of modernity: the rusty gears of bureaucracy, the moralincomprehension, the honest puzzlement over why anyone would be interestedin someone like ... what was his name again?

There are so many Joe Telleses being shuffled from place to place, belongingnowhere. But every year on the 21st of December, this one comes alive for anewspaperman who vowed to remember his single, solitary life. And death.

Joe Telles may have been just passing through, like all of us.

And yet he tarries.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.