SELMA – He walked down Broad Street looking like he had just popped off the cover of GQ magazine — bundled up against a late February chill in a camel-hair overcoat, a thick red scarf around his neck and, topping it off, a fedora reminiscent of the 1930s.
For Gay Talese, the son of an Italian tailor who raised him on hand-made suits, it was his daily attire and nothing out of the ordinary for one of America's most celebrated authors.
Such sartorial splendor drew understandable stares in downtown Selma this week as residents watched him enter stores, chat with shoppers and, in that direct, respectful way of his, ask questions without a tape recorder.
He didn't even have a notebook, preferring instead to use slips of paper to jot down comments from those he queried. His recall is remarkable and dates back decades as he gathered material for books that became best-sellers and made him a national literary icon.
Selma is a long way from New York City, but it's become something of a second home for Talese, a New Jersey native who graduated from the University of Alabama where he was sports editor of UA's Crimson-White, the campus newspaper.
He worked his way up from copy boy at the New York Times to become a respected reporter who later branched out to enter the competitive world of books and magazines.
As inquisitive today at the age of 83 as he was at 33, he came to town to see if Selma had changed from the hustling bustling little community that was home for an Air Force base that pumped millions into the local economy.
What he's discovered is a central business district that's a shell of its former self with empty stores lining Broad Street, Selma's main drag leading to the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge where "Bloody Sunday" occurred on March 7, 1965.
Statistics speak for themselves and Selma's problems are reflected in negative news developed over recent decades.
The unemployment rate for Dallas County where Selma is the center of everything was 10.1 percent — double the state average. It used to be higher than that, placing Selma among the highest jobless counties in Alabama.
The town's population, meanwhile, has declined from a high of 28,400 in 1960 when Craig Air Force Base and the Selma economy were booming. Today, it's down to 19,912 according to the 2013 estimation by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Carter administration ordered Craig closed in 1977 — an economic dagger blow for a town that relied on its military golden goose for support in so many ways.
Talese arrived in Selma after pitching a "Where is Selma today?" story idea to New York Times executives who green-lighted his proposed project.
After a couple of days in town he was quietly asking himself if he had just tackled a nut too tough to crack because "I don't see many changes."
"It was a lot different here when I was a young reporter," he said, as he broke off an interview with a laborer outside Butler-Truax, a jewelry store that dates back to the 19th century. "This street has the same look."
He thought about what it was like in 1965 "when I walked with the marchers and, soon, the president's going to walk down this street too and notice what I have."
President Obama is to address thousands on March 7, the 50th anniversary of the day Alabama state troopers using billy clubs and tear gas dispersed 600 peaceful protesters on the Pettus Bridge.
They were trying to march to Montgomery to seek easier access to the ballot box in the state. Two weeks later, they were finally able to reach that goal at the state Capitol in Montgomery.
Talese's aggressive, rapid-fire interviewing technique amused some in the stores he visited, but also displeased others and one let him have it.
"I think it's obvious he came here with an agenda and I didn't like it at all," said A.C. Reeves, a local real estate executive. "I told him so, too."
She said her company has invested thousands of dollars in an effort to buy and improve appearances of downtown stores, a clear sign, she said, that Selma residents do care about sprucing up the stores.
"I didn't come here with any agenda," Talese said the following day. "I'm a reporter and I try to tell both sides of a story I'm covering. What I see here is a street with a lot of empty stores and I'm trying to count them right now."
Joining Gay and serving as his escort during his return trip to Selma has been Sean Kelley, managing editor of Cooking Light magazine. He has been helping since he was a student at the University of Alabama 20 years ago.
"I love the man," said Kelley. "I forget at times how amazing he is and what he's done to shape so many careers in journalism."
Kelley said Talese is a "non-fiction literary equivalent of Mark Twain or Hemingway" — high praise, indeed for someone who is credited with creating the "New Journalism" rage in the 60s.
One of the things that amazes Kelley about his friend is Talese's ability to order meals at restaurants from Selma to New York City.
"I've seen him take over ordering at a table," said Kelley. "He eats out six times a week, so he is familiar with all the top restaurants in New York. Most of the time he picks up the tab, too."
Talese did hit a brick wall during dinner at the Selma Country Club on Sunday night when he kept trying to get some information from businessman Larry Jones, who sat a few feet away.
"I'm not recording this and it isn't for publication, either," Gay said, as Jones stared at him without responding. "It's just for background."
Edie Jones' silence matched her husband's and it was easy to see that Gay's usually persuasive interviewing power had met its match.
"He is a master of interviews," said Kelley. "He can bludgeon you and cajole you but, in the end you'll come away with the feeling that he likes you. That's because he does, even with difficult interviews."
Gay didn’t seem upset by Larry Jones' reticence because he was already thinking of the next morning when he'd once again walk down Broad Street to one of America's most famous bridges, mentally adding up the buildings in distress.