Amber on the Line

With her forceful opinions, a public radio show’s regular caller hits a nerve; An opinionated listener, Amber makes radio waves

by Joseph Kahn, Aug. 4, 1999 (Boston Globe)

The topic was JFK Jr., the forum was WBUR-FM’s “The Connection,” the host was polymath table-setter Christopher Lydon, and the guests included a Harvard University professor of government, a noted media critic, and a leader of the Washington punditocracy.

But when caller “Amber from Boston” joined in, the energy level jumped sharply. In a nonstop verbal barrage, Amber blasted the media’s obsession with the Kennedy story, declaring that Americans should worship celebrity less and love their neighbors more.

“We’re told by the media that you can’t believe in God, you can’t believe in the church, you can’t believe in politics, you can’t believe in Democrats, you can’t believe in Republicans, you can’t believe in politicians who drop their trou, you can’t believe in politicians who keep their trou up, so we’re left believing in people we don’t know,” fumed Amber, scarcely pausing for breath.

“We bash them when they’re alive, we huddle around them when they’re dead and go, `Oh my God,’ “ she went on, “while meantime we’ve got friends and family out there who we could be connecting with.

“Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter,” she finished, suddenly subdued, as if she’d awakened from a sleepwalk. Lydon broke the silence. “We believe in you, Amber,” he said.

Paternalistic hostspeak? Not exactly. Regular “Connection” listeners have come to know Amber from her memorable jousts with Camille Paglia, Gore Vidal, Germaine Greer, and other world-class talkers. Harold Bloom once gasped “Who is this?” after listening to an Amber soliloquy on Shakespeare. Lydon greets her calls like a preferred family member’s.

“Is this the Amber?” he’ll ask, as if the issue were in doubt. One “Connection” listener even placed an ad in a local weekly desperately seeking Amber. (She responded and the two have socialized a few times.)

In sum, Amber is a phenomenon, a rare creature of the talk-show culture who makes others sit up and listen. In that broadband democracy, wherein some callers are manifestly more equal than others, Amber, with her fierce intelligence and heat-seeking opinions on everything from presidential politics to pop culture, can hold her own with anyone.

“She is a completely remarkable person,” said Lydon, who met Amber in person more than a year ago, at his initiative. “What struck me from the beginning was her rhetorical grip on a certain universal understanding. She really does speak for a kind of world Everyman and Everywoman.”

Even more remarkable is Amber’s off-air persona, which defies all known stereotypes of the NPR/Lydon listener.

Amber Bryan — the full name she goes by — is a somewhat shy, rather unprepossessing 27-year-old immigrant from Barbados whose legal status in this country is, to put it delicately, unresolved (for this reason she asked not to be photographed for this article in a way that would make her recognizable).

She says she arrived in the United States when she was 11. Her mother became pregnant with Amber at age 18, then abandoned her to the care of relatives. Amber’s father bailed out before she was born.

“My mother still blames me for ruining her life,” said Amber, in words that smolder with the rage still inside her. “I’m her version of a war crime.”

Amber lives today in a cluttered one-bedroom apartment in Mattapan, shared by her aunt Winnie, 57, who has lupus. She earns a living of sorts — $50 to $60 a week — baby-sitting two young children. A graduate of St. Gregory’s High School in Dorchester, Amber never went to college nor learned how to use a computer. Other than subway trips to Harvard Square, she seldom ventures beyond Mattapan.

A lot of the money Amber makes — a lot — is spent on long- distance calls to people such as Tim Russert and Sam Donaldson. These calls are rarely taken and almost never returned. Amber makes them anyway. She may not be able to vote, but she can phone. Her analyses of news stories are like sprays of hot gas. Bob Woodward once told her to stop giving him a hard time about a story — Woodward! a hard time! — and hung up on her. Other media heavies are more forgiving. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne and David Maraniss, for instance, have spoken with Amber at length and thanked her for calling.

“I’ve had better luck with Daniel Schorr and the LA Times,” said Amber. “But my fantasy is to get Bill Safire, the king of opinionated white males. I just want a shot.”

Passing Amber on the street, you would hardly take her for a media-scalp hunter. Petite, almost waiflike, she has delicately chiseled features and mocha-colored skin. She wears floppy hats and quiet clothes. Amber is quiet — until you get her talking about Bill Clinton or Tom Brokaw or, yes, the Globe, and then she goes off like the entire McLaughlin Group on bennies.

“Oooh, this is like walking into the belly of the beast,” snorted Amber on her first visit to this newspaper’s offices, as she walked down the corridors wide-eyed. She instantly wanted to know where Mike Barnicle used to sit and whether the editorial writers attend the daily news conferences (they do not), and how much control The New York Times exercises over Globe news operations.

Minutes later, she was dissecting — in no particular order — Monica Lewinsky, “Middlemarch,” Maureen Dowd, Kenneth Starr, Edgar Allan Poe, and “The Great Gatsby,” her favorite novel.

Gatsby, she said, “represents the America I’m lusting for. The rogue who makes himself the best of the bunch.”

Staring across the table, a reporter struggled to fit the puzzle pieces together. Amber threw one more on the pile.

“What is the interest in me, anyway?” she asked brusquely. “I wouldn’t be interested in me. What is it about Amber Bryan from Mattapan that makes her so interesting? I’m not the type of person that the Globe writes about.”

The mumbled reply has something to do with “exploring other viewpoints,” et cetera.

“Oh, don’t give me that!” she snapped. “I tried to call Andrea Mitchell last night — “ Mitchell covers the State Department for NBC News — “about this outrageous report she did on Kosovo and Slobodan Milosevic, and they kept switching me from the Washington bureau to New York until I finally left a message, but no one called me back.”

Amber scowled. “So don’t tell me the media is interested in hearing from people like me,” she blustered.

She sits in a restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue, two blocks from her apartment. Amber hasn’t touched her sandwich. She never takes a bite of it. Instead, she is tracing her connection to Lydon, explaining to a reporter how she was “born in Whitewater,” a most opportune baptism.

In 1993, she started listening to radio talk shows. First, Rush Limbaugh — “but I thought he was spewing garbage,” Amber said. She had once seen Lydon interview Camille Paglia on Channel 2 and found him “different” from most network anchors. On “The Connection” one day, she tuned in to hear Lydon discussing the Clintons with Paglia.

Lydon remembers the moment as if it happened yesterday.

“Amber was suddenly going toe to toe with Paglia,” he said. “And not only holding her own but actually trumping her. Bang, bang, bang. I adore Camille, but I was also rooting for this virtual contender. I wanted to know who she was.”

Lydon soon heard from other “Connection” listeners eager to know who Amber is, too. Having sensed the Caribbean connection over several Amber calls, each with a different alias, Lydon pictured her as a large woman with several children and little in the way of formal education, “but with a hunger for learning.” His producer got Amber’s phone number. Lydon called her, a first for him.

They met a year ago March for ice cream, in Amber’s neighborhood. Lydon was startled to encounter this shy, petite, very girlish young woman with a blazing intelligence and a healthy suspicion of all media types, including Lydon.

“She’s always lecturing me about `your country,’ to which I say, `It’s yours, too, sister,’ “ Lydon said with a laugh. “Amber is a Third Worlder with a tremendous reverence for the best things British education left in Barbados. She’s a Tory, really.”

Lydon has quietly taken Amber under his wing, helping her with legal and medical issues as well as helping to expand her cultural horizons. Last summer, at Lydon’s urging, Amber took a course at Harvard with noted Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber; Amber’s final paper was on O. J. Simpson and Othello, and she got a B in the course. He took her to her first movie in a real movie theater and to his church, but mostly he has taken up the challenge of helping Amber realize her full potential.

Clearly, said Lydon, someone slipped up along the way. Amber should have gone to a fine college, all expenses paid, just as her permit to live here should have been renewed. When Amber lets her guard down, as she has on occasion on “The Connection,” she bespeaks a deep loneliness. Of wanting to belong.

Lydon is “a great mystery to me,” Amber said. “Sometimes, I just don’t get him. We fight. But he’s very important to me. He just is.”

About a year ago, Lydon introduced Amber to his friend Alexander Theroux, the writer and critic. Theroux, who has taught at Harvard and Yale, was immediately captivated by Amber. Now, he talks with her four or five times a week by phone. Often they fall into a white-guy-vs.-black-girl riff, said Theroux, who encouraged Amber to do some autobiographical writing.

“She expects a lot from a relationship,” Theroux remarked, speaking from his home in West Barnstable. “She has an unbelievable idealism, too, which is both admirable and irksome. She’s very antiauthority. And wistful, and sentimental. Amber will literally weep if you do something nice for her. All her blood is close to her skin.”

This spring, said Theroux, he was invited to a party in New York for Nancy Reagan. Amber used to admire Ronald Reagan — her early schooling in Barbados was at once remarkably inclusive and staunchly conservative — yet later turned against him over the Iran-contra scandal. According to Theroux, Amber nearly broke off their relationship over the party invitation.

“She’s adolescent, but also high-minded,” said Theroux. “And she’s more enigmatic than she actually knows. Amber is very aware of black rage. She’s like a little Geiger counter in that regard.”

To Lydon, Amber is even more than that. She is a symbol of what he calls the “anonymous, undiscovered, and, in some cases, uneducated people” who connect through shows such as his.

“Talk radio is perfect for her, and she’s perfect for it,” said Lydon, adding, “I know so many people who are afraid — much more afraid than Amber is — of their own possibilities. She gets scared sometimes, but she plunges ahead in the end.”

He shakes his head. “How many lifetimes,” he wondered, “how many insights, are contained in that one little person?”