In Memoriam: Jimmy Breslin

Chuck Berry died yesterday.  That’s gobbling up a big chunk of the news cycle, as well it should.  Berry was not only a phenomenal talent, but a figure of singular importance in American cultural history.  However, I’ll leave others to sing his praises while I ponder the passing of another, lesser known giant.

Jimmy Breslin died yesterday at the age of 88.  And make no mistake about it.  That’s Jimmy, not James, no matter what his birth certificate said.

Largely unknown nowadays to most outside New York City, and even to those within the boroughs under the age of 50, Breslin was a longtime columnist for several city newspapers.  He was also a bestselling author of numerous books, most successfully with his 1969 novel The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a send up of the Mafia that was made into a forgettable film starring another iconic New Yorker, Jerry Orbach.

But at mid-century, when newspapers were central to American life, Breslin was among the best known writers in the nation.  And the whole time he was quintessentially New York.

Born in and raised in the Bronx myself, I was once steeped in characters like Breslin, brassy people not terribly removed from their immigrant roots who hummed easily to the city’s hectic rhythms.  So Breslin’s passing leaves me reminiscing about the old New York.

Gotham has always been a hodgepodge of skin tones and dialects, and to this day that melange of humanity remains the city’s saving grace, even as the mom and pop shops are run off by homogenous chains, reshaping New York in ways that put it in danger of becoming an expensive version of the rest of America.

And Breslin understood that as well as anyone.

About a quarter-century ago, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes about the Disneyfication of Times Square.  Now a sterile, overpriced tourist trap, Times Square’s looming gentrification was still a somewhat controversial topic back then.  By the 1970s, like much of the city, it had fallen on hard times.  Specifically, it was a hub for vices and (mostly) victimless crime.  Peep shows beckoned, prostitutes solicited johns, drugs got bought and sold, and grimy, independent theaters showed Chinese Kung Fu movies.

It wasn’t pretty (except for the Kung Fu movies, which were downright balletic), and it sure wasn’t the glory days of 1940s Times Square.  But it was honest, and it was most certainly very New York.

Breslin understood that.  He recognized the city as something beautiful not only despite its flaws and imperfections, but maybe even because of them.  He knew that New York was unique.  It wasn’t just plain old special, but actually especial, an adjective that few places can lay claim to.

So at the end of the segment, when the 60 Minutes correspondent asked Breslin what he thought about Disney’s upcoming move to Times Square, his response was brief and pointed: he preferred the prostitutes.

And here’s the thing you’ve gotta understand.  There was absolutely nothing salacious or puerile about his comment.

Breslin’s quip wasn’t a celebration of prostitution.  He knew better than that.  Rather, Breslin was a champion of the underdog.  When he covered John Kennedy’s funeral, he wrote about the gravedigger.  So saying he preferred hucksters, carneys, and sex workers to Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom was a way of acknowledging that hardworking people on the margins shouldn’t simply be erased; that they were part of our society too.

Beyond that, Breslin was also condemning the corporate whitewashing of iconic Manhattan.  He was speaking out against scrubbing the city’s warts and replacing them with plain Jane playgrounds for unimaginative, scaredy cat tourists.

Good people, those tourists, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s a slippery slope the second you start pandering to them.  Because one of the things that has always defined New York City is the simple reality that it did absolutely nothing to adapt to you; you adapted to it.  Only then could you and yours see it change with you.

As someone who occasionally drank cheap pints at an 8th Avenue bar that served  off-duty sex industry workers, or another reasonably priced joint on 9th with free hot dogs and popcorn and genuine jazz on the juke box, I couldn’t agree more with Breslin.  Times Square used to be New York’s glittery shit hole, for better and for worse.  Now it’s nothing more than a boring fiasco.

I haven’t lived in New York since 1995, and I have no inclination to move back, precisely because the city’s corporate homogenization has continued unabated since that time.  I no longer find it to be as interesting as it once was, particularly Manhattan.

However, before anyone starts accusing me of sour grapes, remember: I’m 3rd generation Bronx.  The hard part isn’t staying, or even going back; it’s leaving.  Unlike all those people who move there from other places, I actually know how to get an apartment at a “reasonable” price.

Of course I absolutely love many things about New York to this day, mostly the people and the food.  But I do miss the old city that still had places, even in Manhattan, for working folk.  The city that once told a fuller story of people’s disparate lives churning together in an especial urban caldron.  Nowadays it’s still special but not, I fear, any longer especial.  There’s too much of it that could be St. Louis or Denver or Milwaukee or Seattle.

I try not to be nostalgic or sentimental about it.  Things change.  That’s life and death.  I get it.  I don’t wish Times Square were the same place it was back in 1977.  I just wish it had been allowed to evolve into whatever piece of New York City is was destined to become next, instead of being handed over to Guy Fieri and the Disney corporate over lords.

I still return now and again to see family and friends.  But Thomas Wolfe was right.  You can’t go home again.  I can’t.  Neither can they.  Yet I can occasionally raise a glass and mark the passing with eyes, were they still veiled in smoke and framed by dark wood in an old bar, that you’d not recognize as either glassy or clear.

To Jimmy Breslin’s New York.


P.S. Piel’s was a lousy beer.

One thought on “In Memoriam: Jimmy Breslin

  1. Yes, Breslin was quintessential Native New Yawker and evoked an earlier, realer, grittier, more authentic time. And if you go back a few years before, to mid-century, you will get an even stronger flavor of life in the ungentrified Apple.. Here is an excerpt from “Raven Red,” one of the stories I’ve serialized on my blog, along with tales of other NYC locales-
    by New York Storyweaver
    . . . . . . . . .

    “In 1950’s New York there is still a kind of small town provincialism and linguistic chauvinism that frames the different sections of the City, each borough having its own familiar accent, intonation and slang. When people from the Bronx for example venture into Manhattan they say they’re heading “downtown,” their old, northward sprawling Dutch homestead being the only borough directly connected to the mainland without a bridge- a unique attribute which somehow bolsters the residents’ confidence, if not their faith altogether in a beneficent master plan.

    The South Bronx is packed with playgrounds and parks, swings and monkey bars and there are no rubber mats underneath. Nor has the area totally yet become a state of mind evoking inner-city blight -though fast edging that way- or, much later an affordable haven for hipsters and artists on limited budgets from places like Seattle and LA; it’s still mainly a working class conglomeration of modest, brick apartment buildings with fire escapes and smaller sized tenements, occupying a tract of old farm land from Crotona Park in the north to Hunts Point in the South, with Morrisania in between and slightly westward. There are more than a few ancient clapboard houses from the nineteenth century leaning sideways with gruesome atmosphere, several neighborhood taverns, shoemakers, laundries, candy stores that sell penny sweets, bookie joints posing as candy stores, candy stores posing as bookie joints, drug stores, cigar stores, magazine stores and shoeshine stands, and the city has quite a few more newspapers than exist now, The Daily Mirror being the most sensational and raggedy of the tabloids.

    Pizza has not yet arrived in the neighborhood but is due shortly, and will debut at fifteen cents a slice; it also will deliver a savory and messy cheese topping, steaming hot and runny and set into a thick crust. Folks will be a bit wary of this blazing, pungently smelly concoction that burns the palate and is sold out of trucks, but eventually they will succumb. Houses of worship consist of synagogues where women- many of them refugees- are banished to an upstairs gallery far, far away from the men and alongside newly emerging store front iglezias, modest, amazingly strict Catholic schools, and Baptist churches that buckle the sidewalks with seismic-like jolts of song on rocking gospel Sundays. Most kids have never met a white Protestant and Grover’s Corners it is not.

    An elevated train line known as “the El” clacks through town, bulky checkered cabs rumble along the streets underneath and very few people own automobiles; consequently there is tons of parking everywhere and no meters or alternate side rules anywhere in the city. A local chicken-slaughtering and feather plucking establishment with a generous layer of sawdust sprinkled on the floor to soak up the body parts sits next to several large, open-air pickle barrels in the much frequented Jennings Street market. These barrels, laden with several varieties of pickled delicacies, stay uncovered on all but the coldest days and a half sour is considered an appropriate afternoon pick-me-up; Jake the pickle man does not wear gloves as he fishes out your snack from the cloudy brine. On the same street you’ll also find a vegetable stand, a butcher shop, a chaotic hardware store with a mish mash of lopsided shelves, and a number of other small, disorderly businesses including a dry goods store and fishmonger, all fitted closely together in a winding heap of small town commerce that looks like a modest, meandering Turkish bazaar hit by a cyclone. No real supermarkets exist and most people do their food shopping at the local grocery where the bill is added up on a brown paper bag with a pencil extracted from behind the ear of the grocer; sliced Meunster is one of the big sellers.

    There are roaches of course, mice and rats, stray rabid dogs, and roof-top pigeon coups similar to those seen in On the Waterfront. But the air can be balmy, a vinegar-laced breeze floating over from the Long Island Sound, and the climate often is mild and sunny for well more than half the year. In the winter the snow drifts pile up waist deep and remain so for weeks, road clearing being in its infancy. During the season there also is ice skating on Indian Lake in the park, and only one or two unfortunates a year manage to fall through the thawed sections and drown; it’s generally believed however, regarding these feckless unfortunates, that they should have known better. Being able to know better is a recurring theme.

    And there are no tourists of course, because usually they know better than to visit there.”

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