I once shared some postings with Walter Zinsser, a reporter for the old Herald Tribune whose kinds words made me fell good, that writing for the sake of writing is reward enough. I tend to agree.
Was it merely coincidence that I mentioned Jimmy Breslin's name in a very recent posting, and now he's passed away at 88? I don't want to think I'm a hex, so while I mention Mr. Zinsser, it should be noted he has already passed away, and I've promised to keep names of the living who have also encouraged me out of my postings, if only so they can live long enough to see how the next presidential election turns out. If the recent one doesn't do them in, then what doesn't kill you certainly makes you stronger.
There is no attempt to equate myself to Mr. Breslin, but we do share some traits and experiences. We both grew up in Queens and started reading the Long Island Press/Long Island Star-Journal, a borough paper that carried Queens news as if it were another city. And it was.
In the video, 'The Last Word' that accompanies today's NYT obituary on Mr. Breslin, Jimmy remarks that when he read about baseball games in that paper as kid he imagined all the faraway places that there were: St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, etc. Any city with a team (No West Coast then.) He said he liked to go to Sunnyside Yards and look at all the Pullman passenger train cars there and imagine the places they could take you.
I used to go through the old Penn Station upper level where the Pennsylvania Rail Road trains would depart for places like Cincinnati and watch the departure signs change at the gates. The Sunnyside Yards of Breslin's memory and mine are no more the nation's largest rail yard. In face, there are only a scattering of trains stored there, and some are New Jersey Transit.
Long Island City, the area around the yards is undergoing so much construction of offices and high rise apartments that when I go into the city and look up as the train coasts through the area, just before entering the tunnel, I can count at least six! buildings, all close to each other, going up with large cranes alongside.
Jimmy never learned to drive, and also stopped drinking for over 30 years. Check. I never worked for a newspaper, but I like to think if the high school guidance teacher I met with after dropping out of college for a second time had sent me to a newspaper for a job, I would have never left unless asked to do so.
I remember something Breslin said about high school and shop class. He said any kid who had anything near a German-sounding name, say Schroeder, they were assigned to shop class and attached to a lathe. Germans were woodworkers, and so the NYC high schools of the era were usually intent on turning out the next tradesman. There were numerous high schools of that era that were the apprentice shops for anything vocational, and generally unionized.
(I only have a smidgen of German heritage, and nowhere near a German sounding name, but our shop teacher ducked teaching us anything about the lathe and I've always felt something was left out of my upbringing.)
Dan Barry's obituary today is written a bit like how Breslin himself wrote, with a lede that evokes Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, and a description of a finger-pecking reporter who pounds out a story. Life imitating Hollywood.
Usually, I see Dan Barry writing about sports, so it is fitting that he got the Breslin obit, with Jimmy starting out as a sports reporter, even seen in the video alongside Red Smith. Not bad company.
I'm going to admit I never read much of anything Breslin wrote as a newspaperman. This is because I seldom got past the sports section of the Daily News and relied on the NYT for that as well, and the rest.
Much is made of Breslin's gravedigger piece in connection with the burial of President Kennedy in 1963. It is a great piece of reporting, but no different than the photographer who took Bade Ruth's picture from behind, bent over, old and sick looking from any angle, at his retirement ceremony at Yankee stadium. Go where the others aren't.
Also, Jimmy was from Queens, where grave digging used to be almost an industry, with the borough holding numerous cemeteries. Plus, I had heard him once discuss granite vs. marble headstones and which ones are better to use if you're buried near the salt air of the Rockaways, another section of Queens. Plus, any Irish Catholic has more than a passing interest in internment. It was a piece he was born to write.
Breslin was Bo Dietl before Bo Dietl, the former NYC detective now private security firm owner who wants to run for mayor. Jimmy and Norman Mailer in 1969 actually did run for the top city jobs, Mailer for mayor, and Jimmy for city council president with campaign buttons that proclaimed: VOTE THE RASCALS IN. Their overarching pitch was to make NYC the 51st State. You had to love them.
I remember that 1969 election, and it was 'Saturday Night Live' before there was such a show. Mailer was running on some promise to create neighborhoods aligned with ethnicity; someone else campaigned for bike lanes. I'm not sure if William F. Buckley Jr. made another "run" for the job after his 1965 "bid" but there were more declared characters running than not. Mayor Lindsay was supposed to be vulnerable because he forget to get the streets of Queens plowed after a February 1969 blizzard that paralyzed the borough. Lindsay was reelected. The Mets won the World Series, that being what would now be the modern equivalent of there being a Second Avenue Subway and the Cubs winning the World Series.
I remember going to Belmont race track that summer and someone who was running for mayor was appearing at the races that day, because there was Gabe Pressman, a dogged city TV reporter, who was leading a camera crew up to the gate I was going in. Gabe was sporting a terrific black eye. Hazards of the job, I guess.
Mention is made of Breslin being contacted with handwritten letters from the Son Of Sam, the name the serial killer gave himself as he terrorized Brooklyn and Queens by suddenly jumping out at people and killing them with his .44 caliber handgun, 'The .44-Caliber Killer.'
1977 was a fearful summer. I lived in Flushing, and Son of Sam struck not all that far from the house, at a disco on Northern Boulevard, Elephas. It was around July of that year that the police connected enough dots to realize they had a serial killer to deal with.
People were truly frightened. I remember the kids hanging out at the Murray Hill train station fooling around with each other that one of them was Son of Sam. After the last shootings in Brooklyn no one was seen hanging out and pretending to be Son of Sam. He was too real.
It was interesting to read that The New Yorker magazine was critical of Breslin in acknowledging the letters. They claimed he was enabling the killer to do more. Typical New Yorker in name only. I'm surprised they knew where Queens was. Breslin of course was doing what the police asked him to do, in the hopes of creating usable clues to the killer's identity.
It was a follow-up to a parking ticket on a car that was parked near the last shooting that cracked the case. Why was someone from Yonkers parked on Shore Parkway at about the same time as the shootings? Visiting someone they knew? Who? Seeking the answer led the police to arresting David Berkowitz as he was leaving his Yonkers apartment with weapons he said he was going to use to shoot up a disco in the Hamptons. A terrorist before we used the word. (The parking ticket angle has become part of police investigative procedures.)
Not reading Breslin the columnist didn't mean not reading Breslin. I read 'The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.' when it came out. Breslin made the Mafia look like it was filled with incompetent hoodlums with cute nicknames, like 'Kid Sally.' What he was writing about was the Gallo-Profaci factions in South Brooklyn, and some of it was true.
Go through New York newspaper reporting in the 1970s and you'd think New York was Chicago, there were so many mob rubouts. Breslin with his tongue in his cheek made the mob look almost cuddly. Of course they weren't. Crazy Joe did have a lion in the cellar and a dwarf gangster did take it for walks. And when they aimed at someone they didn't want to live anymore, they weren't left breathing. The cops called mobsters killing mobsters a "community service."
Breslin's biography on Damon Runyon contains some of the best prose you'll ever read and is the source of several favorite passages that I hold onto. The atmosphere of what newspaper reporting was like in the 50s and 60s is well summed up when Breslin says, "the sins being committed at typewriters were greater than the ones being written about."
The opening of the book finds Breslin in Texas, going through the morgue copies of the Hearst newspapers the Journal and the American, afternoon and morning editions that were later combined in the Journal-American, the paper I remember. Damon Runyon wrote for the Hearst papers.
The caretaker of the morgue is complaining to Jimmy about how things are organized. For example, he pulls a file drawer open for M and sees a card that directs MENTAL HEALTH to
Breslin, who also worked for the Hearst papers, explains that that says everything about the "Hearst system of thought and filing."
There is another passage about the gun battle between two mobsters that offers the best example of Breslin's descriptive style, filtering in a sports viewpoint with life's narrative.
Chink approached Dutch Schultz’s table. Schultz got up and fired a gun. This was the first of three occasions on which Schultz and Chink resorted to weapons during these years. A year or so after this, Chink lost the third and most decisive gunfight by a wide margin. But this time at the Club Abbey he hit the floor breathing.
Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap were both reporters at The Hearld Tribune and sat next to each other. It is a shame Schapp is not here to talk of Jimmy, but his son Jeremy is, so I'd expect something from that quarter.
Dick Schapp in his memoir, 'Flashing Before My Eyes' writes of how Jimmy influenced him to write and think outside the box, do something outrageous. Schapp had drifted into broadcasting and in one segment in the early 70s he commented on horse racing.
There were two horses from Meadow stable, Riva Ridge, winner of the 1972 Derby and Preakness, and Secretariat, winner of the Triple Crown in 1973: famous horses known to even the non-racing fan.
When horses come from the same stable they are called stablemates. One night on the 11 o'clock sports wrap up Dick Schapp followed Jimmy's advice. He called Riva Ridge and Secretariat the most famous stablemates since Joseph and Mary. Phones started ringing.
Because Breslin gave comfort to the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, he had enemies, people who disliked him enough to threaten to kidnap his kids. I know one retired detective, born in Queens who worked as an investigator for the Queens DA John Santucci, who would tell you that when Breslin would go into a station house there were cops who would boo him. It all depended on what he last wrote. It wasn't always a love fest.
When the company I worked for, Empire BlueCross nd BlueShield was constantly in the news in 1993 for its mismanagement and the CEO's grand salary and creature comforts, Breslin wrote something about 'blood money' when the CEO was finally ousted. He didn't have a clue what he was writing about, but it sounded good to pounce on the guy at the top, who did deserve to be ousted, but was not someone who was the devil incarnate.
I'm reading some online tributes to Breslin and one from Michael Daly who now apparently writes for The Daily Beast, an online newspaper, and who worked with Breslin. I'm learning Breslin is to be cremated, and is reposing at Campbell's Funeral home, where anybody who is anybody who passes away in Manhattan and is not Jewish is laid out. I delivered many a funeral piece to Campbell's.
I have no idea of plans for a church service, but I suspect they will emerge. But whatever happens, it does seem Jimmy Breslin will have achieved the best you can do in this life: to be remembered with affection.