Middle class economics?


The notion that David Letterman used to rent the house across the street from ours in Broad Ripple could easily have been an urban legend.

My wife and I were having drinks with another couple at a party. It turned out they had lived on our intersection years before, when Letterman was doing the weather for a local TV station. They used to see Dave, they said, leaving the house each day on his way to work. They didn’t claim to know him; he kept to himself.

It’s funny: Had we been told the person in that house had been, say, Jane Pauley, or even Richard Lugar, the story would not have mattered as much.

David Letterman is something else.

It’s not just hometown pride. The fact Letterman “made it” certainly counts for something, but plenty of people from Indy have achieved great things in the larger world.

Critics, colleagues and fans had lots to say about Letterman’s contribution in the weeks leading up to the farewell broadcast of his nightly show. They talked about how he reimagined the talkshow format, the public access-like goofiness of some his recurring bits, his sardonically self-deprecating sense of the absurd.

People said he could be prickly and aloof, hard to know.

But one thing was strikingly clear in those last shows. The outpouring of affection for Dave from his peers didn’t seem like the usual showbiz schmaltz. They really appeared to respect this guy.

My son Graham went to Broad Ripple High School, Letterman’s alma mater. Graham told me he thought those who found Letterman weird had things backward. Letterman, said Graham, was actually a consummately normal person coping with a very weird world.

Dave, in other words, was our Everyman.

Someone else observed that Letterman was devoted to his work. He wasn’t in it for the glamour, never indulged in red carpet glitz. This was characterized as being particularly Midwestern: what counted with Letterman, what got him off, weren’t the perks, but the job itself. “You do what you must do,” as a fellow Midwesterner, Bob Dylan, once sang, “and you do it well.”

Memory also plays a part. His hometown called to Letterman in ways many of us could appreciate.

Atlas Supermarket, on College Ave, was the kind of store that created its own community. Going there every week felt like staying in touch with family — I still have my blue Atlas check cashing card, No. 31088.

Owner Sid Maurer famously hired a teenage Dave to be an Atlas bag boy in the ‘60s. When Dave got the job at CBS, Sid posted congratulations on the Atlas parking lot marquee.

Sid died in 2000. I attended his memorial service at, I believe, Temple Beth-El Zedek. I remember it being a gray and rainy day. On my way out, I passed Letterman, standing in a corridor, earnestly commiserating with a couple of old friends.

It was the one time I’ve seen him in person. Somehow that mattered. It mattered a lot.