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How He Is Cared for and Fed
Jimmy Breslin is too fat. He drinks too much, he smokes too much, and if he makes it past his fortieth birthday a lot of clockers and watchers are going to be surprised.
But he is not entirely uncaring about this. As he puts his cigarette down on the edge of the bar at Gallagher's on West 52nd Street and sips from his half-empty beer glass, he complains that he isn't feeling well. Most often he says that his circulation is going bad on him the way it went on Whitey Ford, and if you think pitchers need their arms, you should just know that a writer also needs his fingers. If the circulation isn't that troublesome for the moment, he can work up a pretty good case for the fact that his column isn't going as well as it should or that the Governor is avoiding him or that his wife, Rosemary, is upset with him again. And with every complaint comes a flow of reminiscence and anecdote that is almost uninterruptedly funny. It takes a happy man to sing a worried song that way.
Breslin is a walking contradiction who happens to be Irish and a little ambivalent about it. He is sometimes seen in the process of inventing himself, a luxury permitted only to the intelligent few, but he is inventing something pretty close to a kid who grew up in a rough section of Queens and never really left. When he is caught off-guard, he uses perfectly clear and well-articulated English because his mother is an English teacher in high school and that's the way she taught him to speak.
He is thirty-seven, which is on the borderline of not being young any more. His early days were spent in the parochial and then public schools of Queens. He likes the fact that few of the kids he grew up with ever get divorced, not because the Church is against divorce, but because so many of them came from broken homes that most of them determined to keep what they have together.
Facts on his education are hazy because he lies so much about it. He has claimed he has a doctorate from Cambridge. He also has said he attended Elmira Reformatory. There is a valid question as to whether he graduated from high school, which he attended for five years. He enrolled somehow in a college in 1948, but he was already working on a Long Island newspaper and he used his college status to impress editors with the idea that he was trying to improve himself. His only real interest was sports writing, which he did for practically no pay and on the worst shift. His scholastic career soon faded while he wrote about sandlot football games.
What made him a writer instead of just a sports reporter was sheer, scrambling necessity. The twins were born a year after he and Rosemary Dattolico were married fourteen years ago. They were premature; nobody in the family had any money; the cost of incubators for a month's stay in the hospital is high, and you can't pay it with choirboy looks when the bill comes around. So he got out and began to sell the only thing he could make real money at—stories for magazines.
It was a curious progress. He moved from the Newhouse papers to Scripps-Howard to Hearst, each time a step up the journalistic ladder, each time almost getting a column, each move made on the strength of the magazine articles he had to write to stay in the newspaper business. And he began to discover that Breslin was his most salable commodity. You take in the sights that other people see and you turn them out through the lens that makes you an individual, and suddenly other people see them better. That's why he always writes about Breslin and why people go on reading about Breslin and why he keeps on living like Breslin. The bars and the drinking and the ever-present cigarette are part of a slapdash poetry that irritates the hell out of a lot of people and charms others. Breslin is just trying to capture the essence of his own life and turn it into words. He also happens to be lucky that people will pay to watch.
He has a furious energy to find out what happens in the city because he identifies himself with it, or at least with a sidelong view of it. When he works for a newspaper he is never long out of touch with the City Desk. He gets furious if something happens and no one calls him. He constantly betrays his pose of ignorance by calling the shots for better coverage of the city. He is always frantically scheming how to get the best story out of any news event. And this is the way he writes about himself.
Fat Thomas, the bookmaker, his 415 pounds encased in a plaid sports jacket, stood in the doorway of the bedroom. He would not come any closer.
"How are you, baby?" he said.
"Terrible," I said.
"What are you going to tell people?" he said.
"I'm sick," I said. "What the hell can I say?"
"Yeah, but you can't tell people you got the measles," Fat Thomas said. "Everybody will be sending you baby food."
"I feel so lousy I don't care."
"I'll tell them you got a nervous breakdown, baby," Fat Thomas said. "I can't mention the measles. It'll break everybody up."
I pulled the covers up over my eyes and said I didn't care. This was on a wet Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago. At thirty-four, and with a wife and children, and with enough debts to qualify as an adult any place in the world, I had the measles. Not just a touch of the measles. I had the measles from face to foot, and a fever and sore throat to go with them. The doctor was on his way, but his decision was going to be academic. When I had awakened an hour before, Kevin Breslin, aged nine, wandered into the bedroom and said hello, then looked at me carefully and let out a yell.
"You got something," he said. "You got the measles."
"I got what?"
"Jamesy, come here and look at Daddy," he yelled. His twin brother came in. The two of them, the bills of their baseball caps poking me in the eyes, inspected my face close up.
"Open your shirt," James said.
"See? He's got them all over his chest," James announced.
"Does your throat hurt?" Kevin asked.
It did. It hurt like hell.
"Uh-huh." Kevin nodded. "You got them all right. You have to stay in bed."
Then, with the experience of his years, he bent over, pulling down both the window shades, and announced that the room would have to stay dark. Then he and his brother left to go downstairs for breakfast.
"Too bad," James said as he left the room. "But you got them all right."
They went downstairs to announce, over Shredded Wheat, that their father had the measles. Their mother let out a scream, ran up the stairs, took one look, then went downstairs and was in tears when Fat Thomas arrived.
"Don't get upset," he told her. "It's only a kid thing. It can't be bad."
"I don't care about the measles," she said. "I just don't want him in the house all day."
The kids went to school. The doctor came and left. And now Fat Thomas, still standing in the doorway and coming no closer, said he had to leave and book his bets for the day, and when he disappeared from the doorway I was left to face probably the worst morning of my life.
I've had bad mornings in my time. Once I had a hangover that was so bad I couldn't make it out of the house and had to hire a private ambulance to get to work. It cost 45 hard dollars and the attendants came and carried me out on a stretcher and threw me into the ambulance and I slept all the way to work. Then I was single and living with my friend Max in an apartment on the West Side. We had a policy of paying nobody and the bill collectors got so bad that one morning we woke up with the finance-company guy sitting at the kitchen table. It was unnerving, but we grabbed the bum and threw him into the shower and Max held him in while I turned on the cold water. It fixed the finance-company guy, but it was a tough way to start off the day.
But no morning could come close to this one. Measles, like toy guns, are supposed to be for children. Adults are supposed to have sicknesses of their own. We have infectious hepatitis, bad virus, gout, old war wounds, recurrent malaria and, for the more sophisticated, unbreakable appointments with analysts and nervous exhaustion. But I had measles. I had measles just like Stevie Kirschenbaum next door and Danny Koch around the corner and Ramona Bartlett up the block, and let me see you try and tell me how you can pick up the phone and call your office and tell them, "No I won't have a column today; I caught the measles from Danny Koch and I have to stay in bed and keep the window shades down." You try that. Pick up the telephone and call Pennsylvania 6–4000 and ask for Mr. John Hay Whitney and say, "Jock, how are you, I got some bad news. No, not a libel suit. Not today, anyway. It's measles. I can't do any work for you today because I got the measles." When you're finished with him, start dialing again and call off all your appointments. Call the Waldorf-Astoria barbershop and tell the girl to get you a customer named Mr. Frank Costello. When he gets on tell him, "Frank, I can't meet you for lunch at Moore's. I'm home with the measles. Frank, stop it, this isn't a gag. Listen. Do you hear the noise? That's me slapping myself. You're not supposed to scratch, remember?"
Then, when you're finished with him, call Mutchie and tell him you can't meet him at the racetrack later in the day and tell him why.
"Oh, I know what the measles are," Mutchie said. He was the only one to sound sympathetic.
"I'm glad you do," I told him.
"Yeah," he said. "Once they held me for four days with them."
"At Ellis Island. I had them when I got off the boat from Palermo. I was sick."
I hung up on him. Then I got down under the covers again and lay there, a big speckled lump. It was no joke. I felt about as sick as I've ever felt. A kids' disease, when caught by an adult, can be hell, the doctor said. He was right. I had a throat that was closed tight, a mouth that hurt so much I couldn't eat for three days, and a fever that nailed down my whole body. I was left with only a temper. This is the one luxury I have when I'm sick. Anger. Good, deep, vicious anger. Sometimes it's almost worth getting sick for, this anger you get when you're sick in bed.
At noon little Rosemary came home from first grade in tears and it was great.
"Ritchie took my Beatles button when I was up reading and he won't give it back," she wailed.
"Didn't you tell the teacher?" I called down.
"I did, but Ritchie told her it was his button, and she believed him. He lied, and she believed him."
"Ritchie, hah?" I yelled. "That's my stick today. I'm going to fix that Ritchie."
I got out of the bed and went to the typewriter. I typed out a note to my daughter's teacher. It read:
Dear Mrs. Stirt:
My daughter came home in tears because one of the future commercial criminals in your class stole her Beatles button and then lied about it. Which is about what I'd expect of the people here. They teach their children shoplifting, not honesty. I demand that Ritchie give back that Beatles button. If he doesn't, I'm going to have somebody come around tonight and set his father's car afire. I'd do it myself, but I am sick in bed with the measles.
Thank you, Mr. Breslin
I called little Rosemary up to the room. "Don't say a word to anybody," I told her. "You put this note in your coat pocket and give it to the teacher. Remember, don't tell anybody." She nodded and skipped off to school, the note in her pocket. I fell asleep. I almost felt good.
Some time later I could hear, dimly, the phone ringing and my wife downstairs talking on it and saying, "Oh, Lord," and, "Oh, I don't know what to say," and then she hung up and came storming up the stairs.
"You," she screamed. "Do you know what's the matter with you? You're crazy. You've got that woman at the school all upset. You belong in an institution, that's where you belong. I never heard of an adult doing something like this in my life."
"I'm going to have Ritchie killed if he doesn't give back the Beatles button," I said. Then I went back to sleep.
This one morning now became four mornings and afternoons all in one, because I was asleep and half asleep during all this time, and I would wake up sporadically and do a few things by myself and then go to sleep again. It all became one long morning with the measles. The things I would do when I woke up were all little things. Talking to people mostly.
On Friday morning the Herald Tribune carried a little line in the space where my column usually runs. It said: "Jimmy Breslin's column will not appear today. Mr. Breslin says he has the measles. (Honest.)" Right away, a fellow I know called me up.
"I just saw the paper," he said. "I'm sorry to hear you're sick ..."
"Smart guy," I said. "I'm going to call up your wife and tell her about the night I saw you having dinner with that broad."
I hung up on him and went back to sleep. I felt satisfied. When I woke up the next time, I did another thing. I fixed the Dugan's man.
"How much bread do you want today?" he called through the front door.
"Two loaves of white," my wife said from the kitchen.
"Fine. Mrs. Breslin, Would you want to pay me now or should I come back tomorrow?"
"Oh, I'm in the middle of cooking and my hands are all greasy. Would you mind coming back tomorrow?"
"Wait a minute!" I shouted. I threw off the covers and hit the floor with both feet flying.
"So you like pressuring people, do you?" I yelled while I was coming down the stairs. "Who the hell are you to come around here like a shylock? I'm going to bite your nose right off your face."
By the time I got to the door, Dugan's was out in the truck.
"Look at him," I said. "He's yellow. Put the bull on these tough guys and they all bend in half."
My wife said a word she is not supposed to know. Then she said another word. Then she called me an entire string of names.
"You're going to the hospital," she said finally. "You're going to the hospital and you're not coming out until I see the reports myself."
I went back to bed. I felt a little better now. I had fixed that Dugan's real good. So I turned on the television and spent the rest of the afternoon watching Ajax commercials. These are the commercials where an armored knight on a white horse charges at people with a lance and turns their dirty clothes to white. It is the ultimate testimonial to the tastelessness and nonsense which runs through most of the help in the advertising field. But I loved this Ajax commercial. It let me dream. I lay in bed and watched that knight come with his horse and lance and I dreamed of him running the lance right through that jerk in the dirty T-shirt.
And so it went. Stripped of manly pride and forced to admit that I had the measles, I stayed in bed and got back at the world. I turned on the radio loud. WABC was my favorite station. It plays Beatles songs all day and it drives everybody crazy and it's wonderful. You can lie in bed and just by a twist of the knob you can make the Beatles louder and get the grown-ups so mad that they shout at you. That's when it's really good—when you get the grown-ups mad.
Then, just as they came, the measles left. And on a morning five days later I was standing in front of the house waiting for a cab to go to work. A now familiar car was parked across the street in front of Lederman's house. It was the doctor's car.
"What's the matter over there?" I asked my wife.
"Stephen Lederman has the measles," my wife said. Stephen Lederman is three.
"Oh," I said. I didn't say anything else to her. But I felt good. I felt power surging through my hands.
"That'll teach that Stevie Lederman to fool around with me," I said to myself.
The cab came. I glanced over at Stevie Lederman's house and sneered. Then I got in and went back to work for a living.
The Sign in Jimmy Breslin's Front Yard
The wife of a new neighbor from up on the corner came down and walked up to my wife and started acting nice, which must have exhausted her.
This woman is one of the people I have to live with. Four years ago, in the true style of an amateur, I "moved out a bit." I moved onto a block with a lot of other people who live side by side in houses. Now, people are all right. Get them alone and they're pretty good. But put five of them together and they start conforming and after that all they are is trouble. Put sixteen families on the same block, the way it is on mine, and they become unbelievable. They are not people any more. They are enemies. On my block they sweep the lawn and have the waxer polish the front walk and all of them ring doorbells about kid fights and if everything isn't the same, and everybody doesn't worry about things that show, they bother you as an occupation. Anybody who has his own mind and moves out of a beautiful, anonymous Manhattan apartment and goes to a house on a block is crazy.
Excerpted from The World of Jimmy Breslin by Jimmy Breslin. Copyright © 1967 Jimmy Breslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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