Last week I was among several journalists asked to say a few words in memory of the late, great newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin at a street naming in his honor on 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan near the old New York Daily News building.
The ceremony was crowded so most of us didn’t have time to say all we’d planned about Breslin, who was among the best people to ever come out of Queens. It was fitting that Breslin was being memorialized in the same week when Trump, maybe the worst person ever raised in the history of Queens, was continuing to celebrate violence against journalists; in the same week that a Washington Post columnist was tortured, beheaded, and dismembered by a hit team linked to Trump’s royal Saudi Arabian pals in an embassy in Istanbul.
We could have used Breslin to link the Kashoggi murder to the son of the Saudi king and the spoiled rich son of a real estate sultan from Queens. But even in his absence we can guess that Breslin’s lede might have been his sarcastic trademark:
The first time I saw Breslin at work was in 1971 in the City of Derry, Northern Ireland. I was there with my brother Pete Hamill who was covering The Troubles, and we ran into Breslin in a tiny café on a narrow lane where he was sipping coffee from a dainty tea cup and holding a saucer. We were running late to see a speech by Bernadette Devlin — Irish Civil rights movement firebrand — and Breslin turned to the woman behind the café counter and asked, “How much is a coffee to go?”
“Very sorry, sir, we don’t do takeaways,” the lady said.
Breslin said, “I need it.”
“We don’t have any wee takeaway cartons. Sorry, sir.”
“I’ll pay for this one here,” Breslin said. “I need it.”
Breslin handed her a five-pound note and the dumbfounded lady nodded as Breslin hurried out onto the street patrolled by British soldiers and armored vehicles, carrying his ceramic cup and saucer, sipping his coffee from the dainty cup with sausage-thick fingers, draining the last drop a block later before tossing the cup and saucer into a trash bin.
“I needed that,” Breslin said.
Then Breslin pulled out a dog-eared notebook and a ballpoint pen and waded into the crowded rally in the neighborhood called the Bogside, talking to the rugged women and stocky men with faces hammered flat by war at home, collecting honest news from real people for street-smart readers across the Atlantic.
Breslin needed that coffee to fuel the reporting for the column and to inform the timeless pages of his novel called World Without End, Amen.
Jimmy often wrote about his stable of colorful characters from Queens Blvd. like Fat Thomas, Klein the Lawyer, Shelly the Bail Bondsman, chronicling their inventive lawlessness, assorted indiscretions, and mounting gambling debts. They would also ask him why he had to share their secrets with millions of readers. “I needed it,” Breslin would say, puffing a cigar.
I spent a week in 1977 trailing Breslin for a profile in More magazine when he was receiving fan mail from Son of Sam who was terrorizing the city with a .44 caliber handgun. Every morning Jimmy would storm into the Daily News office — often after a night of running high a tab at the bar of Bill Chan’s Gold Coin Chinese restaurant — shouting that it was “the worst f—ing day of my f—ing life.” He’d shuffle through the morning mail to see if there was any new correspondence from the crazed killer. “If this a—hole doesn’t write again soon it’s quits,” he shouted.
The lede for my story was, “These days every day is the worst day in Jimmy Breslin’s life.”
For the rest of his life you would only hear from Jimmy when he needed something.
But in the morning, I and millions of others, would rush to the newsstand to buy the Daily News newspaper and turn to Breslin to get the fix we needed. We needed Breslin to make us laugh, to think outside the box, or to be outraged enough to rocket us through the worst days of our lives the way he needed that cup of coffee in war-torn Derry. We needed Jimmy Breslin because he was a true man of the people — never, as Trump calls journalists, the enemy of the people — who spent his life wearing out scuffed shoes across the sidewalks of the toughest neighborhoods of his city, doing the same in Dallas, and Washington, D.C., Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Mexico, and the Middle East — to bring real news from real people into the pages of the morning newspaper and picking up a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.
In these dark days, when a phony rich kid from Queens flush with daddy’s dirty money accuses the hardworking people of the news business of peddling fake news, we need to remember another real Queens guy named Jimmy Breslin.
In a time when Trump, who has endorsed an alleged pedophile for the United States Senate, an accused sexual predator to the Supreme Court, and now has gone for the MAGA hat trick by trying to cover up the alleged murder of Jamal Kashoggi, think of Jimmy Breslin, who would cover Trump like just another cheap hood.
Now that he’s gone, Breslin’s work will have to speak for him.
I teach journalism at Brooklyn College and at the beginning of each new semester I tell the students that if they want to distinguish themselves in the news business, they can start by reading Jimmy Breslin’s famous Gravedigger column, written after the assassination of President Kennedy. When most reporters were fighting for interviews with Kennedy’s family, friends, and other pols, Breslin interviewed a black man named Clifton Pollard who earned $3.01 an hour to dig JFK’s grave and told Breslin “it was an honor” to do it.
Breslin wrote that column because he needed it. He needed a working man with a shovel and a backhoe and a pair of muddy boots to make sense of that unimaginable national horror. He needed a common man to literally ground the short-circuiting nation to earth. Breslin needed it. We needed it.
We still need it.
Every new kid who reads that Gravedigger column knows all she or he needs to know to think outside the box in a proud profession known as the Fourth Estate. History will report that when the cowards of the legislature, judiciary, and executive branch folded under Trump like a squeaky ironing board, the press stepped into the breach to expose Trump as the most corrupt president in history. I tell the students that this is still a noble profession of which Jimmy Breslin will forever be a colossus.