Jimmy Breslin, barrel voice of a city that is no more
He was New York's truest writer, and told its story over decades
March 20, 2017
It would be harder still to imagine that he was once the voice of New York, the real New York, the real New York being the Manhattan of another day and the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn and Staten Island.
That was before Manhattan got fancy, when it was working class and cheap to live in and a cheap place to drink, when bars lined its avenues and ordinary people flocked to them for conversation and community and whatever the whisky was on sale that day, its price posted over the bar in bright colors.
That was Jimmy Breslin’s New York, and it died a long time ago, and now its beloved chronicler, the writer who brought it to life for so many years, is gone too. Breslin died yesterday at the age of 88.
Breslin was not an educated man. He grew up poor and Irish, fatherless. He looked like a mug and he talked like a mug and in so many ways he was a mug, tough and rude and narrow-minded, and in so many other ways very humanly flawed.
But he was some writer.
As a writer he was gifted, expansive, worldly and literate, an intellectual who opened up a new world to readers who were none of these things but knew a good storyteller when they saw one.
Breslin lived by the first rule of writing, the one universally ignored by almost all writers. He wrote directly to and for his readers. He wrote for no one else.
Breslin’s craft: The little stories that told bigger stories
Breslin could walk into a police station or a bar or an OTB parlor and come away with a story that would capture the hearts of readers, and they were almost always about people largely ignored by life. Breslin made them famous for a day or two.
Over the years, Breslin wrote for most of the New York papers, including the New York Daily News, where in 1986 he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
He broke big stories, in the 1980s exposing political corruption in a scandal that rocked New York’s power establishment and sent some big names to jail.
But the art of Breslin was in the small story.
In 1963, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the entire nation was in deep mourning and journalists struggled to capture to enormity of Kennedy’s death, turning out column after column. TV news commentators rattled on for hours.
Breslin chose to write a story about the man assigned to dig Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery.
The reader meets the gravedigger, whose name is Clifton Pollard, at his apartment as he’s eating breakfast, bacon and eggs. The telephone rings. It’s his boss at the cemetery, Mazo Kawalchik.
“Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?’ Kawalchik asked. ‘I guess you know what it’s for.’
“Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
After nearly 18 years, it’s time to say good-bye
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