Monday, January 21, 2008

Jimmy Breslin's Perpetual Deadline

NY Times



JIMMY BRESLIN, in his bare feet and a bricklayers’ union sweatshirt, sat at home some months ago glumly taking phone calls on the death of Norman Mailer. There were a lot of calls, perhaps there were too many calls; his morning writing had been interrupted. The Times of London had called, as had NPR, The New York Observer and New York magazine, many of them wishing to be told about a distant night, some 40 years ago, at a jazz club in the Village, where Mailer, drunk and stoned on marijuana, had climbed on top of a senator’s wife. Mr. Breslin, who had been there too that night but wasn’t drunk — at least not yet — hung his head and sighed a bit each time the night came up. Surely there were better things to talk about than Mailer’s ancient antics. He growled, quoted Auden, then sent the poor reporters on their way.

“I was doing fine till Norman died,” he growled again, hanging up. Mr. Breslin’s growl is actually more of a squawk and not unlike how a pintail duck might sound if it smoked a pack a day through a kazoo. He couldn’t really blame the press for calling, even if these interruptions had him on the edge of a troubling realization. “Who’s around for them to go to anymore? That’s the thing: I’m the last guy left.”

Standing slowly, he moved into the kitchen, where he took a cup of coffee and his daily bowl of oatmeal and decided that it really might be true. After all, Jack Newfield, that old bum, was dead. Murray Kempton, the Henry James of the newsroom, was dead. George Plimpton was dead, old Arthur Schlesinger was dead — even Jose Torres, the champ, was almost dead, living down in Puerto Rico now with half an addled brain. “Everybody’s dead,” Mr. Breslin said, and soon enough the phone rang yet again. It was NPR calling back, and he shouted at his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, “Tell ’em I died.”

At 77 and in truculent good health, Jimmy Breslin has clearly not died and has even, with some notable exceptions, managed to avoid that quasi death by documentary, a process by which an otherwise vital personality is turned into a bag of talking bones on PBS. His home office, in a penthouse overlooking Central Park, is strewn with the work junk of a busy New York writer. Dirty dishes, presumably from breakfast, lay beside the galleys of his latest book. His Pulitzer citation (for distinguished commentary in 1986) sits on a shelf beside a shot of Tip O’Neill swirling his booze. A valid New York press card — ’08 ready — lies on the desk with a wooden back scratcher and Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Jackie Robinson. There is a photograph, from 1969, of Mr. Breslin, in his bloated prime, posing with a kinky-headed Mailer as they prepare their celebrated run for city office. Seven crumpled singles sit atop a fax sent to him that morning, personally it seems, from Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York.

But death, of course, is not the only hazard facing aging writers; nostalgia also kills, especially the newspaperman whose business is today. Mr. Breslin’s bona fides as a newspaperman need no introduction: there was the early stint as a copy boy at The Long Island Press; triumphant sojourns at The New York Herald Tribune and The Daily News; the brutal beating at the hands of a Lucchese family gangster who didn’t much care for an article he once wrote; and, of course, the chilling receipt of a loony letter from David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam.

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