What's Doin' With Jimmy Breslin
When people imagine the old-style New York beat reporter--prose hard, drinking style the same, tie loosened, voice halfway between a rasp and a whine--Jimmy Breslin is usually what they picture.
Breslin, who was born in Queens and lives there still, started as a copy boy and over the years has written hundreds of columns for several New York papers. He famously covered the funeral of John F. Kennedy by interviewing the late president's gravedigger. When Norman Mailer ran for Mayor of New York, Breslin was his second. The Son of Sam wrote to him between killings. After he was beaten and robbed during the Crown Heights riots, Breslin found a pay phone and filed the story. Eight years ago they had to cut open Breslin's head to treat an aneurysm. He still writes for Newsday and each of his columns is worth the paper it's printed on.
When you write about Breslin your sentences lose weight. He is intimidating to all writers by reputation, and though his hands were not always steady when they left the lectern at the Housing Works Used Books Cafe on Crosby Street, where he read from his new book last week, you wouldn't think of messing with him. He is sturdily built and his gaze is harsh and appraising even when he is staring into space.
Breslin's book, The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, is the story of an illegal immigrant from Mexico who worked construction in Brooklyn for low wages and under dangerous conditions. This is not unusual for illegals, but Gutierrez's story came to public attention when a building in which he was working collapsed and killed him.
That Gutierrez fell several stories and drowned in wet concrete reminded Breslin of Pietro di Donato's 1939 novel, Christ in Concrete, in which another immigrant, this one Italian, met a similar demise.
"It was a literary sensation, to use a new phrase," Breslin told the Housing Works crowd. "Then di Donato went to Hollywood and got lost among twenty-seven hundred young women on the Paramount lot, and that was it. He never went home." Some decades later, Breslin said, the actor Ben Gazzara spotted di Donato on Third Avenue. "Pietro," Gazzara said, "what are you doing?" "I'm writing dirty stories for Italian Playboy," said di Donato. "And this," Breslin said, "was a literary sensation."
Breslin read from the Gutierrez story--which includes, for context, scenes from small border towns and desert stretches where illegals cross into Texas. Breslin still believes in legwork. When you have the goods, there's no need to romanticize. Sometimes, by instinct, he hit the words hard, as when he described "the sweeping, bitter field of knee-high thorn bushes" through which one would-be immigrant walked to her death. Although the weight of the story leans heavily in favor of the poor and oppressed, far was it from Breslin to play do-gooder.
"Let's not glorify them," he said of the poor and oppressed. "They're a pain in the ass." His listeners at the cafe, which gives all its profits to the poor and oppressed, chuckled appreciatively as Breslin complained about the rigors of covering them. "They're always on the fifth or sixth floor," he said, "Couldn't they just once live on the first?"
Sharp observation is perhaps the truest form of empathy. When the illegals in New York see a pretty girl on the subway, he said, "they talk to each other in Mexican, and when they do it they do it in a riddle so that even if you know the language you wouldn't necessarily know what they were talking about." They're afraid of stepping even that far out of line, lest the white Immigration van come for them. Someone asked if their experience could be compared to that of the early Irish immigrants in New York. "The Irish cheated," Breslin said. "They could speak English. And then they said proudly 'how well we did in the New World'...The Mexicans, their energy is ceaseless. And all they know is work."
Someone asked if assimilation was an issue for the Mexicans. Breslin stared. "Why not assimilate? What'dya wanna be? If you speak English you can get a better job and everything takes care of itself."
Inevitably talk got around to Giuliani, whom Breslin, to his credit, never called Rudy. He compared Mayor Bloomberg favorably to his predecessor. "Harry S Truman had a motto," Breslin said. "Do not impose too much on people. I had one drink with Bloomberg, and it turns out all he ever read about was Truman. After Giuliani, it's a great relief." He poked his finger at his ear. "He's not in your freakin' ear all the time!"
There was something I had long wanted to ask Breslin: How do you get cops to talk to you? I never have any luck with them.
Breslin squinted. "Ask 'em what's doin'. Why wouldn't they want to talk to you? A nice white fella from Long Island. What'dya say to them?"
"Um, 'I'd like to ask you a few questions.'"
Breslin looked disgusted. "Don't come on like a district attorney! That'll make 'em nervous. It makes me nervous. Who d'ya write for?"
Breslin inclined his head. "You against cops?"
He shrugged. "'What's doin'?'"
The evening wound down. Breslin signed books and chatted with well-wishers about local figures past and present, Al Goldstein, Bruce Teitelbaum, freakin' this and freakin' that. "I hope you like it," he said of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, "and if you don't you're wrong."