Lunch with Dan Gottlieb

Some people can't stand WHYY's radio shrink. For a while, I was one of them

He talked directly to me. That’s how I felt about Dan.

He broke it down as simply as Mister Rogers. Out of my radio came the understanding of how we — I — feel. Depressed? Anxious? Sad? Dr. Dan doesn’t pussyfoot around. The WHYY shrink who mainlines feelings. Some people can’t stand him for this. He’s too close for comfort. He’s too goddamn … knowing. [SIGNUP]

I always thought he spoke truth to trouble.

I got to know Dan some. I wrote about him, we’d have lunch every now and then. A couple springs ago, he wasn’t doing well physically. That’s part of his power — Dan was in a horrendous car accident back in the ’70s, broke his neck, and has been wheelchair-bound ever since. Trouble — death — isn’t some vague idea to him. It looms.

He thought he was dying, the summer of ’08, and the idea was, we would get together and talk about how that felt. I’d write something. How he was angry, scared, accepting, etc. — Dan would talk me through it.

With Dan, though, you talk about yourself. Two Augusts ago, I had just quit drinking. I talked about that, in his kitchen in Cherry Hill, then out on his deck. It was hot. Dan’s dog lay at our feet. He sipped a beer through a straw. I told him that it wasn’t exactly that my life was in the gutter, but I had fallen into working 12 hours a day and then drinking four glasses of red wine, or scotch, giving my family barely a nod, doing it all over again the next day, and the next. In fact, the days had piled into years.

Something happened, that night. Somewhere mid-confession, while I fussed with a jammed tape recorder and let the mess of myself slip free, Dan told me that there was a difference between us, that he was “an older man talking with a younger one.” Dan is eight years older than I am. He wasn’t talking about our ages.

What he was saying — what I heard — is that he knows the deal, and I do not. This is what some people can’t stand about Dan, on the radio, that he knows better than you do.

I stopped calling him. It did not seem like he was dying. It seemed like a bad idea not to call, though. We are friends. His health is precarious.

But then I started thinking: He isn’t calling me, either.

Whenever I’d come across his show on NPR, I’d turn it off. I couldn’t stand his voice. And so, finally, I called him up, said I wanted to see him.

* * *

We meet at Ponzio’s in Cherry Hill, a late breakfast. He looks good. Tan. He tells me he’s grateful for life — he almost died in the fall, with double pneumonia. But he’s doing pretty well now.

Good. Then I go for it:

I take responsibility — always a good idea with Dan — conceding that I dropped the ball, that when the project of writing about the end of his life stalled, I shouldn’t have bailed on him.

“But what about you, Dan?” No curiosity how kicking the bottle was going for me? “Where were you?” For good measure, I throw in his superiority, that August evening, how he seemed to relish being advice-giver.

Dan thinks. He drinks his coffee from a straw. He blinks and looks at me.

And then he says:

“I felt fine about you not calling. To me, that was the nature of that part of our relationship, our relationship in general is centered around business, writing. Secondarily, we like each other.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

Dan thinks for a minute.

“I’ll tell you why,” he says slowly. “I’m thinking of what is happening now. I feel very fond of you, I feel very close to you. When I’m with you I feel that way. I’m with a friend, and we’re doing work together. So I feel great pleasure being with a friend. But I feel that a lot, with a lot of people, and I don’t know if it’s age, or senility, or my style, but we could leave this breakfast, and I wouldn’t call you, just because … ”

Because he doesn’t need to. Because whatever he has with me, here it is.

“There are few people I call to stay in touch with,” Dan says. “Maybe five, less than ten.

“And there are maybe a hundred, maybe more, I am so very fond of, and intimate, and love being with, and love them. My fantasy is, if I ever retire, or even ever cut work in half” — He’s pushing 64, still a full-time therapist — “that I’d be calling people.”

With that, Dan plants himself in the land of the rest of us. He does not have time.

But, of course, he isn’t like the rest of us, because what other man says I’m thinking of what is happening now. I feel very fond of you, I’m certainly not better than you, and so forth?

When I drive away from Ponzio’s, I feel clean. I feel like I’ve gotten something out. It’s a pure feeling. It’s like driving home with all my car windows down, on a warm night many years ago, after telling my mother some things I never said before.

That’s lunch with Dan.

ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.