I met Jimmy Breslin when he was 59 years old, when 59 seemed old. It was in a theater in Louisville, where rehearsals were underway for a play he had written, of all things.
"If this makes it," he said, "then it’s goodbye to city rooms."
It didn’t, and nobody was betting a new career as a playwright would have cured the quintessential common man’s newspaper columnist of his jones for the daily morality tale anyway.
"I’m the only (bleeping) guy who still goes out every day and climbs stairs for a story," he told me. And of course he couldn’t quit, even as he ascended from the reporter’s tax bracket on the wings of his bankable popularity and his best-selling books on topics ranging from government corruption to fictional mob wars to the hapless early New York Mets.
Books? How in the world, I asked him, can a man pound the streets all day for hidden human drama, race back to the office to encapsulate it in 600 words, then go home and work on a 300-page novel?
"You can’t," said the scowling Irishman from Queens. "It hoits."
Perhaps never, perhaps not including Hemingway, has there been a master of written English so coarse, so loud, so stevedorian in conversation. Even with his beloved wife, Ronnie Eldridge, at his side in that Louisville "interview," Breslin laced his vituperations with the F word like NPR guests sprinkle their "Well, I think’s."
One who was unfamiliar with his journalism might write him off as a half-schooled shots-and-beers bigot — an image he didn’t exactly discourage and a type of American he felt qualified to speak to, speak for and kick in the ass, none of which he would trust the average New York Times swell to pull off.
Blunderbuss rage, unabashed boasting and cringe-worthy sentimentality abound in the archives of Breslin’s frantic labors; but when he was on his game, nothing could silence a breakfast table like the cunning simplicity, oracular wit, tenderness for the downtrodden and sheer knack for storytelling that charged his prose.
While he was more of a student of literature than he let on and didn’t mind being tagged a poet of the streets, it was reporting — going out and digging, taking the risk of slammed doors and worse to find out what you’ll never learn from the mayor’s press briefing — that most distinguished Breslin both as human interest feature writer and as crusader for justice. The only effing guy climbing stairs — even in old age, chatting up teenagers in parks, hearing out single moms in tenements, getting his big butt beaten in a race riot.
Reporting. Enterprise and detail. Only Breslin thought to cover the burial of JFK through the eyes and personal history of the gravedigger. Only Breslin described how the gangster’s diamond ring caught the light from the courthouse window, and how a prosecutor without a gem on his finger brought him down.
Practitioners of the "New Journalism" that ignited the printed page in the golden era of feature writing a half-century ago were routinely accused of making up events and quotes because they couldn’t have been there. Breslin, who rejected Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism label, nevertheless affirmed Wolfe’s refutation of the slight by arduously and skillfully reconstructing those events, utterances and even thoughts through interviewing after the fact. Breslin’s account of the emergency room scene in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, developed after his arrival on Nov. 23, remains a classic.
Here’s classic Breslin:
More than a decade or more after our meeting, when he was at a career stage meant for comfortable semi-retirement to the editorial page and memoir writing, he got wind of a construction accident in New York that injured several immigrant workers from Mexico, one fatally. He got intrigued. He got mad. He set to work building a book, with the eminently Breslinesque title "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez," laying bare the widespread, deep-seated corruption and racism that had subjected a maligned subset of laborers to virtual servitude and lethal danger.
Not satisfied with mining countless sources in New York for his material, the 72-year-old warrior traveled to the supreme victim’s funeral in his hometown in Mexico. Try not to embarrass yourself with tears when you read that account.
The only guy. I’d say sui generis, but I’m not about to sound like a lawyer or professor on this sad occasion. Jimmy Breslin, who died on Sunday, March 19 at age 88, never said anything fancier in the hour in my presence than "That’s bullshit." Yet not even bleeping Plato had a finer teacher.