Until I read “The World of Jimmy Breslin”, everything I owned was second-rate.
My clothes were either cheap, used, or “irregulars.” My apartment was a dump. Sporting goods? Used. Someone else’s football cleats and ice skates were good enough, so what if they were a size too big, or too small. My first used car, an eight-year old VW, was more rust than road warrior.
When, at sixteen, I began my college studies at CUNY – Hunter, I got a clunky, stuck-keyed Royal manual typewriter discarded by my dad’s company. My teeth would gnash with each clash of the dirty keys, every effort a labor of hate.
But then came a part-time job at the very company that provided this massive metal machine, which thrust me into the world of my office-boy co-workers in what was called the Bursting Room. My department was crammed with deafening machines that de-collated and then separated carbon-smeared, multi-part reports for the various departments of this financial services company.
And the operators of these dirty, rackety machines were life-hardened guys in their late teens and early twenties. Some were of Polish and Italian descent, but most were Black and Puerto Rican. They were either just back from Viet Nam or, at age nineteen and with the draft in full bore, about to be inducted. These were guys who carried knives and handguns, skin-popped smack in the men’s room, and smoked nibs of hash while at their machines, curls of smoke burning seductively off the lit tips of their Kools.
All drank during work hours and at liquid lunch, Ballantine Ale, Colt 45, Schaefer, Olde English 800, Night Train, Bali Hai, Gallo Paisano, Ripple, and Bacardi and Coke being the beverages of choice.
And then, back in that Woodstock year, 1969, there was the sixteen-year old me, quietly reading “The World of Jimmy Breslin” during break time, as Sly Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” blasted across the 77WABC airwaves twice an hour, taxing the Bursting Room’s cheesy plastic AM radio.
I read Breslin’s 1963 piece, about the guy who dug JFK’s grave. Here’s a snippet of what Breslin wrote:
“Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
And, as I read, tears streamed down my face. “Break’s over. Get back to work,” my supervisor screamed. Then he looked at me. “What the fuck are you crying about?”
What I couldn’t tell him was that I was crying for our collective loss of innocence, when JFK was murdered. I was crying about how that loss would explode as the body bags in southeast Asia piled up. I was crying about how the good vibrations from Woodstock — for me, seen only from afar — curdled into the counterculture crisis at Altamont.
All that year, the ear-splitting Bursting Room machines screamed in righteous indignation, as did Jimi’s guitar when he debuted “Machine Gun” on the Cavett Show. Cavett fished for laughs when he asked Hendrix about his sleep habits. “I try to get up every day,” Jimi answered, prompting the audience’s raucous response.
I kept reading Breslin, and followed him from paper to paper. Finally, in the seventies, I moved to Jackson Heights. There, I discovered the perfect pints of Liffey Tavern on 75th Street and Broadway, poured by bartenders Tommy and Joe. “You just missed Breslin last night,” Tommy once said to me. This was back when Breslin’s wife was very sick, and Jimmy, I was told, descended into hell.
Then the serial killer summer of Sam happened, 1977, and Breslin was the linchpin in that lunacy. The financially strapped city circled the toilet, and the madness reached new heights with each murder. Joe the Bartender cried whenever someone played Paddy Reilly’s “The Town I Loved So Well” over the jukebox. But there was a lot to cry about that year.
In time, a new generation of Real New Yorkers, city-guys all, picked up the call and began to write for my hometown papers, guys like Lupica, Daly and Flynn, Dwyer, Kilgannon and LeDuff. Ruiz, Torres, and Gonzalez.
For me, all roads point back to Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, who died today at the age of 88. Here is my tribute to Jimmy Breslin:
In 1969, when I picked up “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” I cried. Which I admitted earlier. But I never told anyone that I also cried from the excitement of knowing that a guy from the outer boroughs — A Real New Yorker — could put words together in such a brute force, powerful way. On-deadline.
And so, the young me saved part of my Bursting Room salary — $2 an hour, at first — went to 23rd Street (Typewriter Row, at the time) and bought my very first top-shelf possession: the Olympia typewriter you see right here. Jimmy Breslin, you helped me dream. Bless you, Jimmy. Slainte.