December 7, 2009
I’m not eager to go out to events at night. Like a lot of other people, my day’s work is sufficiently challenging to make me look forward to quiet evenings at home. It takes a really good reason to get me out, so when Pete Hamill called and told me that on December 7th there would be an event at night to honor Jimmy for his sixty years as a writer, I wanted to be sure it was real.
I asked Pete … “Does Jimmy know?” And he said, “Yeah, he’s all for it.”
At first it didn’t sound right to me. Jimmy didn’t even celebrate sixty years of being alive, so why would he be eager to celebrate sixty years as a writer?
Logic gave me a quick answer. “Just being alive meant a lot less to Jimmy than being alive and writing.
That’s the way it is with truly gifted people like him. Writers will remind you this evening of his Pulitzer and a wall full of other significant honors over the years acknowledging his unique and vibrant writing skills. As a reporter he became the uncommon voice of the common man with his uncanny ability to find in newsworthy events, details that made the events more meaningful to the people of New York’s boroughs and millions of other people like them. Interviewing the gravedigger at John F. Kennedy’s burial is a good example. The writers will remind you how he could make people smile, or laugh out loud when they bring back some of Jimmy’s inimitable descriptions of hapless ballplayers, second-rate mobsters and third-rate politicians, or reintroduce you to “Fat Thomas” and “Robert J. Allen.”
There may even be a tear-or-two if someone chooses to read from “Short, Sweet Life of Edward Gutierrez,” or parts of “World Without End, Amen.”
But no matter how many bits of Breslin inspiration are shared this evening, they will amount to only light hints of the immense amount of great writing he has done in his uniquely long, productive and heralded career. Think of it: he still works every day … writing or thinking about writing and he has done it for sixty years – nearly 22,000 days and nights – except for the short hiatus when doctors were forced to drill a hole in his head to let out of his congested brain some of his unused lines. Then … he wrote a book about it!
That’s a lot of “Jim Breslin Writing” to cover in a single night of celebration. And the challenge is even greater because, as Pete has pointed out – there are really at “least two Jim Breslins.” One “Breslin” is the public person, Writer, Raconteur and Celebrity figure.
The other is the private guy from Queens when he’s not on the stage or on the screen but is himself, on the phone or having an otherwise quiet dinner, explaining to you the world and it’s various dysfunctionalties. And excoriating those who are responsible for the disorder, by creating it or by not doing enough to fix it … that often includes the people he’s talking to at the moment.
That’s when he’s just “Jimmy” and that’s the way I know him best and have for more than forty years.
I met him when I was a youngish lawyer trying to help sixty-nine barely middle-class homeowners in Corona, Queens, save their homes from a Mayor who was about to condemn them to accommodate t he builder of a huge housing complex.
They couldn’t afford a big law firm and I was neither prestigious nor politically influential, so the sixty-nine would probably have lost their homes if Jimmy hadn’t gotten involved. He came to a meeting of the group, did some research then wrote a long story and some short ones, and talked to some influential people at City Hall. He convinced them the Mayor was wrong and the sixty-nine stayed in their homes. That was Jimmy at his best and it led to a friendship that has survived all the years since then. Good days and hard days. Days when we enjoyed some lucky breaks and other days when we got hit by tragedies.
And most of the real tragedies were on Jimmy’s side of the relationship. Heavy, heavy blows that would have left me and most people crippled and helpless.
But not Jimmy.
It had to be hard for him for sure, but Jimmy just kept writing. He had to! His world was too big, too complex, too filled with great characters. There were too many great stories that needed telling and retelling. And there were too many big problems that needed solving!
There still are! As there have been for sixty years: nearly 22,000 nights and days!
# # #
Almost every morning before he goes to his typewriter, he’ll call one of his many friends to describe some of the problems …
As war we should be ending, a healthcare bill we need to pass. I can hear him now, “Did you see the first page of the Times? Food stamps are back! Food stamps … and they say the recession is over! What are you doing about it? Write a damn letter! Call somebody – some big shot. You must know someone! Tell them about the abused immigrants and the abusive landlords, the crooked politicians and the bad priests.
# # #
Every morning Jimmy has a bowl of oatmeal: and his outrage.
And I suspect that’s the way it will always be. He won’t ever stop thinking about the world he lives in and writing about it.
Because way down deep “Jimmy” is a believer.
He will argue with the priests of his Church, but he knows the God they are supposed to be working for has given him a personal gift. A gift that is given to only a few.
And he will not offend his God by not using that gift. And he will use it until there are no more stories to tell nor problems to solve.
Thank you Jimmy. Keep going!