Last Wednesday, I sat down to write a piece about the late Jimmy Breslin, the newspaper columnist whose blunt yet eloquent and crafted prose captured New York and its environs as no one has since Damon Runyon.
Jimmy died a little more than a week ago and I wanted to say a few words to note — as so many others have — how he was an inspiration to anyone who on a regular basis has to put some thoughts together in a column for publication, often straining until tiny beads of blood pop out on their foreheads.
But there were distractions. As I started to write, news came from London of the lone wolf terrorist who barreled his SUV into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, then dashed to Parliament and stabbed to death a policeman. Five died, including the attacker, and more than 50 were injured.
Then there was California Republican Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, dashing to the White House to give to Donald Trump new info he’d received, allegedly on the surveillance of Trump associates who may have been colluding with Russia to mess with the election. None of this was shared with his fellow committee members.
I think I know what Breslin would have thought of the toadying Nunes and I know for sure what Breslin thought about Trump, because he wrote about him on at least three occasions.
The last was on June 7, 1990. Breslin was describing how easily Trump played the press for suckers, simply by returning their phone calls and bragging his way onto the front page. He was able to con financial types, too, getting them to sink more money into his grandiose real estate ventures. Breslin wrote,
“All Trump has to do is stick to the rules on which he was raised by his father in the County of Queens:
“Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it’s your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everybody can be bought.”
As you can see, more than 25 years ago, he had Trump down cold. In fact, another great journalist, Pete Hamill, told the New York Daily News that Breslin saw Trump as the kind of guy who’s “all mouth and couldn’t fight his way out of an empty lot.”
In another piece, Breslin described Trump as toastmaster at a celebration of greed. This was a column about the full-page ad Trump took out in the New York newspapers in 1989, demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five, teenagers wrongly accused of the rape and attack of a woman jogger.
That last piece of his suggests to me that had Breslin lived to give us a column last Wednesday he would not have been as distracted as I was. He would not have been writing about the London attack or weaselly congressman Nunes. Instead, he would have tracked down the family and friends of Timothy Caughman, the 66-year-old African-African man who was stabbed to death on a Manhattan street late last Monday night, allegedly by a sword-wielding, self-proclaimed white supremacist named James Harris Jackson.
Reports indicate that Jackson intended his hate crime against Caughman as a test run for a mass murder of black men in Times Square. He’s from Maryland but thought he’d get more attention by doing his worst in the media capital of the world. He turned himself in before committing more mayhem.
Some described his victim Caughman as a man rummaging though the trash for bottles and cans. But Breslin would have gone deeper, learned from acquaintances that Caughman had attended college, worked with young people, collected autographs and took selfies with celebrities; that he was cherished by the people who knew him.
It’s possible Breslin would have cited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, son of Breslin’s friend Mario, who said, “We must continue to deny that the ideas behind this cowardly crime have any place in democratic society.” And he probably would have pointed out that while President Trump was quick to condemn the deaths in London at the hands of a British-born Muslim, he has yet to issue a peep or a tweet about the death of Timothy Caughman at the hands of a homegrown American racist.
It would have made Breslin really mad. “Rage is the only quality,” he said, “which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
I was very young when I first became aware of Jimmy Breslin. It was in the days just after the death of President John F. Kennedy. One of the local newspapers in my area picked up the columns Breslin was writing about the assassination for the New York Herald Tribune.
There was the now-famous piece about Clifton Pollard, the $3.01-an-hour gravedigger who used a backhoe to dig Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. That Pollard story was mentioned in almost every Breslin obit, but the column I especially remember was “A Death in Emergency Room One.” Much of it was about Dr. Malcolm Perry, the Dallas surgeon summoned to do what he could:
“The president, Perry thought. He’s much bigger than I thought he was.
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“He noticed the tall, dark-haired girl in the plum dress that had her husband’s blood all over the front of the skirt. She was standing out of the way, over against the gray tile wall. Her face was tearless and it was set, and it was to stay that way because Jacqueline Kennedy, with a terrible discipline, was not going to take her eyes from her husband’s face.
“Then Malcolm Perry stepped up to the aluminum hospital cart and took charge of the hopeless job of trying to keep the 35th president of the United States from death.”
I read a paperback collection of Breslin’s Herald Tribune columns and then his first book, Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game? — an account of the New York Mets’ disastrous first season. They lost 120 games, still a major league baseball record. The title was a quote from Mets manager Casey Stengel, who also said, “Been in this game 100 years, but I see new ways to lose ’em I never knew existed before.”
And yet New Yorkers loved the hapless Mets. Breslin wrote:
“This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough. It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like. And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a T-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurance Rockefeller?”
I wanted to write like Breslin, cracking tough and wise, just as I wanted to write like Pete Hamill and Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Molly Ivins and Chicago’s Mike Royko. After I moved to Manhattan, our paths crossed from time to time. Once I shot a television segment with Jimmy in the old Daily News city room. He talked about Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt and how its portrayal of conformity and jingoism made it a perfect book for the Reagan years. On top of everything else, he was a very well-read fellow.
But our oddest encounter was in 1976, when I briefly held a job as Jimmy Breslin’s bodyguard. I am not making this up.
He was receiving an honorary degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and delivering the commencement address. A friend of mine who worked there called and asked me to accompany Breslin on the short plane ride to Worcester. In those days, Jimmy had a reputation for two-fisted drinking and I was charged by my friend with the task of getting Breslin to graduation sober.
It turned out to be just about the easiest job I ever had. Jimmy and I met up at LaGuardia Airport and the first words out of his mouth were, “I’ve got the worst effing hangover in my life.” The thought of a drink repulsed him.
So we safely arrived in Worcester. But the friend who had hired me thought it would be a swell idea to take Breslin to a working-class bar and have him interact with the locals. And not only that, my somewhat obtuse friend had invited the NBC affiliate to come shoot the proceedings for the 11 o’clock news.
This joint was hardcore, with picnic tables and folding chairs inside and sawdust on the wooden floor, a hangout for serious blue-collar imbibers. They valued their alcohol but even more their privacy because the second those bright TV lights went on in that dark saloon, patrons scattered, howling profane variations on, “What if my boss/wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend, etc., sees me!?”
Jimmy handled the difficult situation with aplomb and that night in his hotel room, hangover be damned, wrote a hell of a commencement speech. Two of the other degree recipients were Mother Teresa and federal judge Arthur Garrity, who two years before had ordered mandatory busing to desegregate Boston’s public schools. There was violence and Garrity received death threats. The college was honoring the jurist’s brave and difficult decision and in his speech, Breslin did, too:
“As we are here this morning, men in power meet in Washington to discuss ways of getting around Arthur Garrity’s decisions. Is there, these men ask, some way to use polite meaningless words as a method of avoiding moral obligations? To Arthur Garrity the answer is clear. The answer is no.”
Ceremony over and hangover forgotten, Breslin headed for the hotel bar, the rest of us in tow. At the graduation, he had run into a pal from his old neighborhood, a military officer of high rank, and by the end of that boozy afternoon, the two were on the phone long distance to Queens, shouting to a character who frequently popped up in Breslin’s columns, Fat Thomas the bookie.
It was quite a day. Somewhere I still have a copy of the Worcester newspaper from that afternoon with Breslin’s commencement speech featured as the lead story. Jimmy autographed the front page.
He stopped drinking a decade or so later — “Whiskey betrays you when you need it most,” he said — but kept pouring out the prose, brilliant and rude and irascible, looking out for the underdog, calling out the bad guys; always to the point and a perpetual pain in the neck, usually for the right reasons.
Of his vast range of experience, good and bad, Jimmy Breslin said, “I was about 67 people in my life.” Lucky for the rest of us, all of them could write.