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On the Lost Art of Public Whistling

September 2nd, 2014 by

A few years before he passed away, my father sent us a clipping of a New York Times editorial on the vanished art of public whistling.

I say “sent us” meaning my family—my wife and kids. But in fact, I was the one who actually read the clip and thought about it. For my father, who was not openly nostalgic about anything most of the time, sending these news clips was one of his ways of staying in some sort of meaningful contact with us in the years following my mother’s death. Rather than cards with flowers on them with my mom’s neat handwriting, and occasional pictures of the kids she’d taken, I’d receive from time to time a short note, a line or two written in dad’s shaky, well-neigh inscrutable hand on a scrap of paper. Just before he retired in the eighties, he had had a small heart attack, and from that point on his hands shook. The paper scrap with his note would have torn edges and would be folded inside of an article also folded to fit in the envelope on a topic he thought I should know about. The clippings were never from the Grand Rapids Press, the paper he’d worked for as a reporter for over 25 years. They were always from the New York Times, the one paper he continued to read in retirement.

More often than not, he’d send articles about advances in genetics or new speculation about string theory, two of his ongoing interests. This is why the editorial on whistling in public places stands out to me now. It certainly remains one I wish that I’d saved in our last move. It underscored not just nostalgia, but a sense of what my father thought an important detail about the past, one not found among the broad stereotypes in movies or TV spots. His observations were always meant to assert his having been an eyewitness to the past.

The article on whistling detailed a time when people whistled in hallways, on the front steps of buildings, and, I believe, in subways. I wonder if we can really imagine this sort of thing happening today. The whistling must have been robust and professional. I can imagine plenty of people seeing whistling as their path to getting on radio, and they didn’t need to be conventionally handsome. These would not have been the airy attempts of the untalented, or the kind hidden and done when we hope no one is around, varieties found in a public inundated with cell phones, visuals, and blasting car stereos. No, this public whistling was done by accomplished artists, full throttled warblers expressing, complete with vibrato, a large, every-day, un-copyrightable talent for stealing tunes that made for friendlier, warmer public spaces than we have today.

I’ve tried to understand what the loss of public whistlers, really good whistlers, means. What was it like to live in a time and place where this was as much a given as clicking “like” on someone’s Facebook post.

My father was a reserved man; he didn’t like attention. I never heard him whistle, though my mother told us that he’d once sung in a choir. And I doubt he would have engaged in public whistling himself. Whistling in public was simply one of many signs he would have pointed to that indicated how the world had changed in some way that was significant—not in the usual, clichéd media images that are self-congratulatory in way that we look for sexy images of yesterday to affirm our values today. Though he could gruffly interrupt a conversation with an insult or harsh criticism, he mostly kept his peace, quietly watching in the background. For example, when the Beatles became famous, my father waited for the right moment before telling us that their haircuts were nothing new, that some of the beats of the fifties had started the haircut. I remember accepting that as true.

When my catholic family mourned for JFK after his assassination, my father quietly consented to this. Early in the 1960 election, he had actually interviewed Kennedy briefly for the press when the young senator came through Michigan. Years later, it must have been in the ‘70s, when I brought up Kennedy as a good president, dad shrugged and pointed out that the young president really wasn’t ever interested in civil rights. “That was Bobby,” he said.

It was good to have someone in my life like that whose voice could speak of the present by putting it into a longer perspective. I should add that Dad himself might today be seen as part of an earlier time. As a journalist—he actually preferred “reporter,” the more common ‘50s term—he retired in the mid-eighties and was never really part of the “feeding frenzy” we see now.

If he were working today, I hold fast to the belief that he would not do that.

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