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"Dies the Victim, Dies the City"
It is very nearly an impossibility to imagine Jimmy Breslin existing, living, breathing, writing in any city of the world except New York. That stooped, pudgy figure slouching along State Street in Chicago? Absurd. Along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles? Ridiculous. Washington Street in Indianapolis? Where is that, for God's sake?
No, Jimmy Breslin is as much a part of New York as the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Battery, or the Village, or the boroughs, or any other place or thing you care to name that bears the unmistakable stamp New York. And New York is a part of him, too, pounded deep into the marrow of his bones by a thousand and one encounters with its daily life. The rhythms of the great city pulse in his Irish blood, its variegated moods are his moods, its often ugly sights and raucous sounds the stimulus for his reportorial eye.
Save, perhaps, for the late Meyer Berger and the columnist Murray Kempton, no modern writer has ever understood New York like Breslin, and been able to translate that understanding into simple declarative sentences, salted with that special Breslin condiment of hard-nosed realism.
Consider this beginning from one of the first columns Breslin ever wrote for the News, in December 1976:
"The cars moaned into the damp morning as they came onto the Williamsburg Bridge, climbing up from an expressway that brought the people from Long Island, where they live, to downtown New York, where they earn their living. The cars had in them only one person, now and then two, never more, as they dipped into Manhattan to choke it with metal. The insolence of invaders."
That last sentence is pure Breslin. For Jimmy is nothing if not protective of his city. He loves it with a passion, and he hates outsiders who demean it, or disparage it, or use it for their own cheap ends. More than anything, Breslin is protective of the people of New York. Through his newspaper column he is their sounding board, their spokesman, and their champion.
It is perhaps too much to say that Breslin is the voice of the poor people of New York; after all, he can and does write about the swells, too. But he has a special feeling for the down-on-their-luck, the homeless and the jobless, the black and Hispanic kids hanging around the street corners — all the people who would live and die without ever being noticed if someone like Breslin didn't speak for them.
Says Michael Daley, a young writer on the magazine New York who is a protégé and close friend of Breslin's, "He approaches New York as a place populated by decent people, and he writes about how they get hurt and why they get hurt. He really cares about people. That's why his best columns have heart."
A very large part of the reason why Breslin understands New York is that he knows the city with the intimate knowledge of a man who has prowled its byways for most of his life. There was a time when Breslin caromed from saloon to saloon far into the night, but the drink, he has said, was "making a zombie" out of him. He discovered that "you can't write if you have a hangover," and so he stopped the bar-hopping routine and very nearly the drinking.
For many years, Breslin operated out of his beloved Queens, the place where he was born and bred. A creature of almost rotelike habit, he invariably started his workday at the Pastrami King Restaurant on Queens Boulevard, where the counterman, Moishe, went about his chores while Breslin sipped coffee and looked up likely horses for him in the tip sheets. Thus fortified for the day, he headed for the E train to Manhattan or the A train to Brooklyn and the endless search for a column.
Breslin was, is, always will be a hard worker who will trudge up airless tenement stairwells, descend into smoke-blackened ruins, go anywhere he has to for copy. If need be, he will be on the prowl before dawn to get the news while it is still fresh, and before the opposition has rolled out of bed. And somehow, magically, no matter how hard he has to dig for the story, he makes it back to his cubbyhole at the News Building, at Forty-second Street and Second Avenue, in time to bat out his column and make his deadline. Breslin, his hair on end, tie pulled down, flailing away at his typewriter like a drowning man trying to tread water, always makes it. In his drinking days, he would then slip out the back door, walk through the News's garage on Forty-first Street, and seek solace at the quiet, polished bar of Gatti's Italian Restaurant on Fortieth Street. Sometimes it was another bar, Kennedy's on Second Avenue, perhaps, or the Gold Coin, a Chinese bar and restaurant on the same street. Once, downing Scotches with Breslin at the Gold Coin, Brink asked him why he chose a Chinese bar. "The bartenders don't waste time talking," Breslin answered solemnly, "they just pour."
Breslin's life has since changed drastically. With the death of his first wife, Rosemary, he no longer lives in Queens, and even if he were drinking, his favorite watering hole, Gatti's, has been shuttered and sold.
In 1982, a year and a half after Rosemary's death, he married Ronnie Eldridge, a widow whose husband Lawrence, a psychologist, died in 1970, leaving her with three children to raise. Ronnie Eldridge, who once was in politics on the happy basis of a housewife manipulating government for safer equipment for the local playground, and then went on to become Robert Kennedy's most trusted political operator in the state, but who had never held a paid job in the business, now needed public life for a living. She went into City Hall as a top aide to Mayor John Lindsay, then became a government affairs specialist for the New York-New Jersey Port Authority. She is now the director of the state women's division for Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. The early years of her widowhood were a struggle to make ends meet, but Eldridge's fortunes improved considerably when she led a group that contested the license of station WPIX-TV in New York and ultimately settled out of court for $11 million. She moved with her children into a spectacular apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan. When Eldridge threw her arms open to Breslin, he looked over her shoulder at her apartment and said there was no sense in wasting time out of a quick life by looking for housing. He moved in with three of his six children.
Since that move, Breslin has confessed, "My habits are depressing.
"Each morning the two of us leave for work and Eldridge admonishes as we go, 'Be quiet, don't wake up the kids,' but the bastards sleep on.
"I walk to the News. Through the park and to the East Side and then down. I stop at Burt Roberts's apartment [former Bronx District Attorney Burton Roberts] on Fifty-fifth and Lexington and ask the doorman and the garage attendant if he has left yet. They say yes or no. I act suspicious, as if I'm hanging around to shoot the guy. They don't even look up at me. They just say yes or no and never tell Roberts that anybody was asking for him. He screams that they give him no protection."
Breslin heads first for Clancy's at Fifty-fifth and Third, where he has coffee at the bar with Paddy Reilly, the bartender, who is serving the morning drinkers, a mixture of postal workers getting off their night jobs and advertising people about to start work. The morning hubbub is a fruitful source for what Breslin does best: finding out what interests New Yorkers the most at any given moment.
Breslin moves on to Kennedy's at Fifty-first and Second, where he has another cup of coffee and listens some more. Then maybe Costello's Bar on Forty-fourth Street, a favorite and enduring stopping place of newspapermen in mid-Manhattan, where he has more coffee (Breslin has been known to put away six double espressos at a sitting). All this time he is at the wall phones, checking with the city desk at the News as well as other sources and tipsters — anybody at all who might have an idea for a column or word of a developing story. Breslin takes it as almost a personal affront that one of his best places to get information, Licata's Espresso Shop on the corner of Forest and Grove in the Ridgewood section of Queens, was invaded one night by some people who blew away the owner and his brother. The place is now a neighborhood medical center.
If Breslin ever sleeps, not too many people are aware of it. By the same token, Breslin is fat, but not many people have ever seen him eat. "I have," he observed in 1983, "been to lunch on the island of Manhattan thrice in the last eight years." The truth is that Breslin eats, but in places of his choosing with his kind of people. "I do not go into French places," he explains, "because the food is intolerable." What he likes are Italian joints, many of them in the boroughs, where "the customers slap the cook if the food is not exquisite."
Nighttime most often finds him dining at Rao's in East Harlem, which he regards as the prettiest restaurant in the world. Or it may be Dimitri's on Columbus Avenue, Crisci's or Bamonte's in Brooklyn, or Don Peppe's in Queens. Quite as important as the places he goes to are the people he listens to. These include the aforementioned Burt Roberts; Mel Lebetkin, a Queens attorney; Maxine Chevlowe, who is a city marshal; a detective named Bill Clark; Irving Selbst, who is in men's clothing; and lawyer Jerry Weiss. Breslin still treks to the knee of Paul O'Dwyer, the venerable New York liberal, for political advice, and he has a pal in the sandhogs union, Chick Donohue, who guides him on labor matters.
Breslin tries very hard to hide it, but he also associates with celebrities. He is an old friend of Barbra Streisand's, he dines with novelist Norman Mailer, with whom he once ran, disastrously, for public office in the city of New York, and he is close to Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, as well as to the Kennedys. He has been observed sneaking into a bookstore to buy a three- volume collection of Montaigne's essays. And he is softie enough to have a favorite view in his favorite city that no visitor to New York would ever divine. That is the view of the old stone Gate of Heaven Catholic Church from the window of the Café 2000, an espresso place on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. There, Breslin often sips coffee and stares at the old women in black slowly climbing the church's high, wide steps.
"It is," he sighs, "a scene out of Europe," somehow reminiscent of the homelands of many of the people he writes about.
Let no one suppose that Breslin sees New York only through one eye; his journalistic lens has many prisms. He has, for example, poked disdainful fun at the hallowed New York Marathon by posing in his column as a participant. His put-down was so tongue in cheek that many readers thought he actually ran the race. (While he is no runner, Breslin is a dedicated swimmer. He swims a minimum thousand yards every night, usually at the Vanderbilt Y on Forty- seventh Street.)
Never one to overlook a chance to sell newspapers, Breslin in the summer of 1983 took up the cause of one Joseph Cruz, an indigent who had been kicked out of a city housing shelter and had set up a makeshift home on a concrete traffic island in the middle of the busy East River Drive. When Cruz was arrested and hauled away, Breslin dramatized his plight by donning shorts and a beach jacket and installing himself on a chaise longue under a gaudy beach umbrella on the same island. The baffled cops let him alone.
This is all fun and games for Breslin, of course, and it does sell papers. But Breslin knows full well that the real New York, underneath, is the world of his little, forgotten people—never very pretty and often very, very violent.
The very first column that Breslin wrote for the News, on November 14, 1976, was about a senseless street killing. It was a theme he returned to again and again, that violence in the streets, but never to more telling effect than in the summer of 1983, in the aftermath of a free concert in Central Park by the singer Diana Ross that was followed by a chilling, bloody, chain-snatching riot. Breslin found his story in the mouths of the black kids hanging around in the school yard behind the Sumner Housing Project in Brooklyn the next day, the very kids who had started the trouble. He also came away with a philosophy of sorts of his own role in the war in the streets.
"I think I am, as are all Irish, a dreadful snob," Breslin says. "But then I sit in a school yard and listen to the kids talk who caused the riot and I don't know what the reason, but I feel most comfortable there. The park bench is like an easy chair, because it is here that I make my living, that I perform any minor public service by informing others of what goes on here in a place where almost nobody else likes to go. The motive is to try making the one thing that produces just about all the crime of our times — the hopelessness that every young black sees as his future — well enough known so that somebody will think about assisting them."
Breslin's column about that school yard encounter is one of his all-time favorites. And while Breslin is hardly a vain man (he sometimes seems oblivious to his own fame and talent), he has permitted himself a small boast about it. "I think," he says, "I am the only one around who can go to a place like Sumner Housing at noon and deliver such a report by 5:30 P.M." (his deadline). When he finished with that column, Breslin straightened up his tie and walked out into the night and the brilliant lights of New York — his New York — a contented man.
Dies the Victim, Dies the City
They were walking along in the empty gray afternoon, three of them, Allen Burnett, Aaron Freeman, and Billy Mabry, Burnett the eldest at seventeen, walking up Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn and singing out Muhammad Ali rhymes into the chill air. As they reached the corner of Kosciusko Street, it was Allen Burnett's turn to give his Ali rhyme: "AJB is the latest. And he is the greatest."
"Who AJB?" one of them said.
"Allen J. Burnett."
They were laughing at this as they turned the corner onto Kosciusko Street. The three wore coats against the cold. Burnett was in a brown trench coat; Freeman, a three-quarter burgundy leather; and Mabry, a three-quarter beige corduroy with a fox collar. A white paint stain was on the bottom at the back of Mabry's coat. Mabry, walking on the outside, suddenly was shoved forward.
"Keep on walking straight," somebody behind him said.
Billy Mabry turned his head. Behind him was this little guy of maybe eighteen, wearing a red sweater, dark pants, and black gun. Aaron Freeman, walking next to Mabry, says he saw two others besides the gunman. The three boys kept walking, although Mabry thought the guy in the red sweater had a play gun.
"Give me the money."
"I don't have any money," Allen Burnett said.
The guy with the gun shot Allen Burnett in the back of the head. Burnett pitched into the wall of an apartment house and went down on his back, dead.
The gunman stood with Allen Burnett's body at his feet and said that now he wanted coats. Billy Mabry handed back the corduroy with the paint stain. Freeman took off his burgundy leather. The gunman told the two boys to start running. "You don't look back!" Billy Mabry and Aaron Freeman ran up Kosciusko Street, past charred buildings with tin nailed over the windows, expecting to be shot in the back. People came onto the street and the guy in the red sweater waved his gun at them. The people dived into doorways. He stuffed the gun into his belt and ran up Bedford Avenue, ran away with his new coats. Some saw one other young guy with him. Others saw two.
It was another of last week's murders that went almost unnoticed. Allen Burnett was young. People in the city were concentrating all week on the murders of elderly people. Next week you can dwell on murders of the young, and then the killing of the old won't seem as important.
Allen Burnett's murder went into the hands of the Thirteenth Homicide Squad, situated on the second floor of a new police building on Utica Avenue. The outdoor pay phone in front of the precinct house has been ripped out. The luncheonette across the street is empty and fire-blackened. At first, a detective upstairs thought the interest was in a man who had just beaten his twenty-two-month-old child to death with a riding crop. That was unusual. Allen Burnett was just another homicide. Assured that Burnett was the subject, the detective pointed to Harold Ruger, who sat at a desk going through a new manila folder with Burnett's name on it. Ruger is a blue-eyed man with wavy dark-brown hair that is white at the temples. The twenty-four years he has spent on the job have left him with a melancholy face and a soft voice underlined with pleasant sarcasm: "They got two coats. Helluva way to go shopping. Looks like there was three of them. That leaves one guy out there without a coat. I'll look now for somebody who gets taken off for a coat tonight, tomorrow night, the next few days."
Excerpted from The World According to Breslin by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1984 Ronridge Publications, Inc., Michael J. O'Neill, and William Bink. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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