A man walks down the street
He says, “Why am I soft in the middle, now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard.
– “You Can Call Me Al” Paul Simon
BEHIND AL ROKER is Al Roker’s vinyl collection: Doobie Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone. Streisand. Paul Simon. The kind of familiar music you can have on in the background forever. In the foreground, peering at me on Zoom, is Roker himself: chunky glasses frame, today cobalt blue; crisp polo shirt, camera ready smile. He too is an already familiar face. Roker—author, producer, anchor, commentator, personality—has been on so many screens (not to mention billboards, bus shelters and book covers) for so long he could be a screensaver, a munificent weathermen perpetually reminding us not to forget our umbrellas.
But from his station before the green screen and in the newsroom, Roker has been closely observing us, his co-workers, former bosses for the last 50 years. And from this study comes the latest of his twelve books: You Look So Much Better in Person: True Stories of Absurdity and Success. It is a typically Rokerian affair, which is to say, relentlessly positive, disarmingly conversational and inherently dorky. The book—Roker rejects the term memoir—is divided into sixteen aphorisms, called Altruisms – Al Truisms, get it? – that range from Assumptions are Not Your Friend (#1) to Crying in Your Oatmeal-Soy-Almond-Latte Never Helps Anything (#9) to Don’t Freak Out (#14). Roker is aware of the Dad joke cringe of it: “What’s next? Instead of attitude, altitude? I should be living in Albuquerque?” He laughs but, then says, “I just thought let me put some thoughts down about what I learned at work before I got too old to remember.”
Roker is not quite in his dotage but nor is he the young comic-drawing nerd from Queens. The 66-year-old weatherman has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement, as well having his left shoulder replaced and soon his right. He peppers his conversation with the names of his doctors who have helped put him back together: Dr. Riley Williams. Dr. David Neiman. Dr. Bob Seebacher. “Shout out to the docs,” he says. Why is this man, this fixture, falling apart? “The overwhelming underlying issue,” he says, “was the weight.” For many years, Roker was a fat man, perhaps one of the most famous fat men on television. Roker had always been heavy, from his days growing up in Queens to his rise through regional studios in the 1970s and 1980s to his ascension to the Today show in 1996. That changed in 2002 with his exhaustively chronicled gastric bypass surgery. Like nearly everything else in his life, he’s written a book about the experience. In this case, 2014’s Never Goin’ Back: Winning the Weight Loss Battle For Good.
It wasn’t always easy. In fact, it rarely was. “Being fat was, and is, really the last almost allowable issue that people can make jokes about,” he says, “In a movie, you want a laugh, you put in a fat guy doing something stupid and it’s funny.” But, he says, “To be fat and to be black is a double whammy, which is more harmful? I’m not sure.” As he writes in his new memoir, You Look So Much Better in Person!, “When it came to my challenges, weight trumped race.” But when I asked Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, who has written about how Black men must temper how they’re perceived, he said, the two intertwine. “Al Roker works in a profession where physical size and perceived attractiveness are premium, which may heighten the salience of weight,” he said, “But, it comes back to Blackness. Overweight and obese white men don’t face the same stereotypes and negative outcomes by police and authority figures like Black men do.”
These days, Roker is less fat. During the pandemic, he; his wife, fellow news anchor Deborah Roberts; and their son Nick, have been keeping in shape with Zoom sessions with a personal trainer named Don Scott. “When we left the city,” says Roker, “I drove up the Peleton. We already had a treadmill. Before it went nuts, I started ordering equipment: Bozu, sand bell, kettlebell, I got a mat, I got a slant board. We got it all.” The only problem, he says, with his personal Equinox is that now he and his family jockey for prime training slots with Scott. “Don wants to stay out of it,” he jokes. Today Roker is not a guy who reads as fat, or even heavy. “But I’m always going to be Black,” he says. And perhaps because of that, and because he is the father of a 6’1” 195 -pound Black son, Al Roker, in his pleasant way, has some things to get off his chest.
Since the pandemic, Roker has been co-anchoring the 3rd Hour of Today from a television studio that, like his gym, he’s “MacGuyvered.” Like everything that Roker touches, these segments are imbued with his good cheer as he and his co-hosts cover their most embarrassing moments, and delve into quarantine chore routines. On his Facebook page, he’s been posting short cooking segments with Nick, who has learning disabilities—though he’s frequently referred to as autistic, Roker says, “we just go with ‘he has learning disabilities’—called What We’re Cooking? In a recent episode, Roker, wearing a t-shirt that says simply “Anti-Racist,” walks the viewers through a meal of leftovers on the patio. “These are the greens from the garden. Here we have…” Nick: “Left over lamb ribs!” The camera closes in tightly on aforementioned ribs, then back up to his Dad’s face, almost hitting it.” “Woah, that is close!” laughs Roker. The segments are wonderful portraits of a father-and-son relationship. “I’m the Bud abbot to his Lou Costello, though physically it’s reversed,” says Roker.
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But even as Roker’s output maintains its chipper bonhomie, Roker has like the rest of us been watching the world burn around him, wondering what, if anything, might rise from the ashes. “Look, we all knew that simply having a Black president wasn’t the solution to race in America,” he tells me, “When Eric Garner and Philando Castile and others happened, we went on to the next thing, we went back to school, back to work. With George Floyd, we had nothing to look away to.”
Roker realized—though he says he hadn’t put it into words until now—the weight he carried that no gastric bypass could remove. “I have a son who takes—or took—the subway home from school, who has a learning disability and a hard time knowing where his body is in space. I know Nick is just a big mush-ball but others don’t. What I realized was that I am on edge every day until I know he is home.” Like many Black fathers, Roker has had the Talk with his children. “You think you’re Al Roker’s children,” he says, “but to a lot of people, you’re just another Black kid. And you got to deal with that.”
It was a similar talk to that given by his father, a Bahamian bus driver who moved up the ranks of from being a bus driver to a manager in New York City Transit Authority. “When I was a sophomore in high school, my father said, ‘Al, you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get half as far as the white kid next to you.’ I said, ‘That’s not fair’ He said, ‘Fair or not, that’s just the way it is.’” Later, as he writes in his new book, the way Roker has dealt with it—it being his own run-ins with discrimination and injustice—is by humor.
Number six of the sixteen Altruisms that make up the book is “A Spoonful of Humor Helps Everything Go Down.” Roker recalls an old news anchor named Doug Adair, who he worked wiin the late ‘70s the early ‘80s, asking him on air after Doug was accosted by a homeless man, “Before we go on—Al, I don’t know if you heard, but last night after the eleven o’clock news one of your people attacked me.” Roker writes, “I couldn’t believe it, and sort of wanted a second to pick my jaw up from the floor, but we were on air. What Doug said was incredibly wrong and obviously racist, and I knew I had to respond to it. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Do I respond with outrage and castigate a Cleveland broadcasting legend on the air? Do I ignore the comment and launch into the forecast? I looked at him and said matter-of-factly: ‘Doug, why would a weatherman attack you?’”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get mad. For instance in 2016, when a cabbie passed him by in midtown, Roker complained on Twitter and the cabbie was eventually fined $500. These days, his anger is somewhat tempered by age and experience. “There is a time for anger,” he says, “but if you’re angry all the time, it loses its effectiveness.” Days before the Congressman passed away, Roker was the last to interview Georgia congressman John Lewis. “If there ever was a man who deserved to be angry,” he says, “it was John Lewis. But still, he still preached love over hate. That four or five minute interview meant more to me than a lot of things that happened to me in the last several years. It was a tonic.”
Now that he technically a senior citizen and half bionic, Roker is contemplating his own legacy. As for fame, he dismisses it with the sort of nonchalance on the already famous can. But he has been thinking a lot about another Al from Queens, the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Al likes to say, ‘One Al ended up telling what you the weather is; the other tells you how the weather is going to change.’” But these days, the two mens’ missions seem to have grown closer. These days Roker is as likely to talk about how “systemic racism affects how weather impacts communities of color” as he is the approaching tropical storm. He’s been in the storm so long he sees climate, not just weather, not just the tempests of today but those of yesterday and tomorrow. And so, genially, amiably, in tones dulcet and familiar, he’s raising the alarm. “Both Al and I have a pulpit,” says Roker, “but we use it in different ways.”
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