The night I got the nod from Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin, a legendary New work reporter, died this week. I met him once. 

It was the night of August 10th, 1977. It was summer vacation and I was working for a weekly Manhattan fish wrapper called Our Town. Back then, there weren’t many teenagers who wanted to spend their summer vacations running around the city writing anything, let alone stories about another ConEd rate hike or rent strikes or an apartment building with broken plumbing a landlord wouldn’t fix or a taxi that knocked a hydrant over on 83rd and Lex.

There were all sorts of newspaper traditions in those days, one of which was copy boys in the newsrooms. Their main action consisted of waiting next to a reporter’s or rewrite desk at deadline so that as soon as the copy was stripped out of a typewriter the copyboys could run it over to the editor’s desk. The ones in positions of trust might operate under special arrangements authorizing them to pick booze and cigarettes up at a local liquor store so that they could run that back to the newsroom, too. They were as much mascots as anything else. They’d get to hang around—as long as they didn’t get too close or say anything—and if they were lucky maybe be awarded a nickname or be the butt of a few jokes. Mainly, what they got was a chance to watch some pros make it while others failed.

I'd always wanted to be a reporter. I even applied once to be a copy boy at The New York Times, but they wouldn’t have me. Same for the Daily News, the New York Post and The Village Voice. You had to know somebody and I ended up instead working in a fertilizer factory.

But that was the summer before. This one, my mother was mad at me about something—I don’t remember what—but she wasn’t talking to me. She could lower the boom on a silent treatment like something out of an East European fable where some kid gets his foot stuck in a tree trunk for a hundred years or grows a repulsive wart of some kind that everyone but him can see, weeks of silence at a time, months of her crossing to the other side of the street if you happened to be coming home at the same time she was going to the Five and Dime. Nothing can wear you down or make you want to stay out of the house as much as a silent treatment, so I was doubly interested in getting a job.

They were running Our Town out of a few rooms on the ground floor of a red brick building a couple of blocks away from my mother’s apartment on 72nd Street. I showed up and asked for a job. I could take pictures, I said. So can I, the editor said. I can develop them, too, I told him, in my bathroom at home. Maybe he was just good at not showing that he was relieved. After all, who in his right mind wanted to work there? There was no prestige to it, no cachet whatsoever. They had enough trouble giving copies away, let alone getting anyone to work on them.

The editor leaned back in his swivel chair and said a tryout might not be out of the question—as long as I didn’t expect much and didn’t plan on getting underfoot too much. He sent me out to try my hand on something. One of the boring stories I would soon be specializing in or a picture of a doorman or a subway car or pizza parlor. Before long, I was useful and he seemed to get a kick out of my working there. Kids are malleable. In those days you certainly didn’t need to be too polite to them. Editors traditionally used blue pencils to carve your stuff up. Everything I handed in took him about half a minute to draw lines through, whole paragraphs crossed out, arrows showing where to move the remaining few, words circled, question marks underlined three times all over the place. I would stand at his desk waiting. It was like being in the thrall of a captor who liked to nick you with his stiletto. When he was done, he would air slide the sheets back at me over the top of his desk. “Clean it up and make it interesting,” he told me, and I never forgot it and still can’t live it down. He didn’t offer any short courses in just how one might accomplish those twin goals, but by the time I returned to school I had the idea that it had something to do with doing it until it started to happen. “Oh, and hurry it the hell up,” he’d say, with a look like I gave him gas the way bad cole slaw does. He was a sport and I looked up to him.

I learned how to do layout. Sheets of paper on long plywood tables tilted up at an angle were covered with the articles and photos, the ads, the classifieds. When something needed to be changed, you cut it out or pasted something over it. If a story had to have a black border around it, you used a special kind of tape with little black lines on it. You felt like you were actually building the thing, creating it. Deadlines enjoyed more respect than a Catholic cardinal on the take. Production time at a printing press was booked. There was no screwing around. Oh, you’re late? Sorry. Pay your bill or a couple of guys with broken noses might decide to take a morning off from the Teamsters and pay you a little visit. On the nights when the rag was put to bed, everybody had a sense of satisfaction, of camaraderie. Even including the kid, me. They wouldn’t pour me one of their shots of whiskey or let me smoke any cigarettes, but it was still good. I was a newspaperman, author of dozens of front-pagers people might glance at wile they took the elevator up to their floor, and as far as I was concerned, it was the best thing to be in the world.

And so it was that on the night of August 10th I was in bed in my room when my mother broke the silent treatment to swing the door to my room open and switch on the lights.

“Brrrian!” she said. She had a heavy German accent and the Rs came out of her throat like she was sweeping glass off the sidewalk after a bombing raid on Dresden. “Brrrian—dey caught Son of Sam!”

Holy crap! Son of Sam. The maniac who had been terrorizing New York, murdering young women by sneaking up on them and shooting them at point-blank range with a .44. Occasionally he would dispatch a cryptic message that demonstrated that he was a madman. Famously, he even sent a letter to Jimmy Breslin. After they caught him, he somehow evaded the electric chair, and, in fact, years later, officials became fond of saying what a pleasant guy he became once they got him stuffed full of meds in the pen. He even started preaching the Gospel.

I shot out of bed and pulled my jeans on, made sure I had my notebook and pens and strapped my Nikon SLR around my neck. I flagged a taxi down on York Avenue and rode it all the way from 72nd Street to One Police Plaza where the press conference was going to be. It was far. That was as exotic a ride as taking a taxi to Philadelphia.

Outside, police headquarters was mobbed. The wires—United Press, Associated Press—the TV reporters with handkerchiefs in their hands to mop up the sweat dripping down their faces as they tried to get it right in front of suitcase-sized video cameras and hot lights, the radio guys trying to sound smooth into mics with their station logos in boxes around the shafts—WCBS, 1010 WINS, WABC. And of course the print reporters, the ones with no more tools than pen and pad. This news was as big as news got.

I of course did not have a press pass. The cops, who issued them, only allowed one to Our Town in a sign of disrespect. But on the night they finally reeled in the Son of Sam, the news was good, and so the cops didn’t have any reason to lock anyone out. In I went with all the others. You could tell who the big shots were because older cops with rank—they were for the most part Irish then and still called Micks, at least by the Polacks or Krauts—were doing favors by filling them in before the announcements were made. 

The strange thing is, I don’t even remember if I wrote it up or not. After all, what could Our Town possibly add to the story? Especially when the likes of Jimmy Breslin owned it. I was there because not being there would have been inconceivable.

A senior cop announced what had happened. A combination of a parking ticket and a lucky tip from someone Son of Sam let go instead of shooting led them to his apartment in Yonkers. “You got me,” David Berkowitz, as he was identified, told the cops. He came along peacefully.

After the formalities, most of the reporters stuck around. I wasn’t in their club, but I wasn’t exactly out of it, so I milled around with the rest of them.

That was when I spotted Breslin. Jimmy Goddamn Breslin in the flesh. Years before I had read The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Oh, he could write. You should have seen the piece he wrote when Son of Sam sent him a letter. He is with relatives on one of the victims in their apartment, sitting around a table reading the grim communiqué from Son of Sam. Someone remarks that Son of Sam could write. Breslin agrees. He started the story that way. Breslin was the reporter’s reporter, the kind of guy my editor expected me to read. Breslin’s stories were like surgeries. He cut right through all the crap and told you something that even if another hundred reporters were trying to tell you the same thing, they never could. People in his stories weren’t Mrs. Alice Smith of 180 Tenth Avenue, they were a woman nicknamed Allie with the right kind of stain on her apron from making the kind of casserole someone trying to stretch the kind of money Mr. Smith brought home after getting yelled at all day to push 50 garment racks faster down Sixth Avenue would make. The kind of hurry she would be in because she had to round up the kinds of kids she had. And at the end of it, you’d know exactly what he wanted you to know: that maybe the guy who brokered the garment rack jobs was a crook. No one else could do it like Breslin. It would be a few years before he would pick up his Pulitzer, but he was already a legend.

He was standing there scribbling in a five-by-eight spiral notebook that he braced against his beer belly. He could have used a haircut. He wore a tie, the same kind a footpad or any guy on the subway would wear, loosened and off to one side. It looked like he hadn't untied it when he took it off, just pulled the knot down enough to get it over his head and back on when necessary. Clearly not a man who wasted time admiring himself in the mirror. As he wrote, the tip of his tongue was sticking out just a little. His notebook looked like he had been using it as a pillow on bus rides in its spare time.

I stood there and gawked at him for a minute before I snapped a picture. That made him stop writing and look up at me. In a second he had me figured out. Spindly kid, notebook, camera, who knew exactly who he—Breslin—was. And more than that, maybe: some kid, new to the racket, a kid who appreciated Breslin, which meant appreciating the writing of Breslin.

He didn’t mind at all. In fact, Jimmy Effin Breslin—may those saints the Micks always swore to strike me down if it ain't the truth—himself looked at me and gave me not just a smile, but best of all, a perfectly doled-out nod of professional recognition. Not the kind you’d give a copyboy. The kind you might give a colleague. Then he got back to writing.

All right, so maybe I didn’t really meet Breslin, if by meeting someone you mean exchanging a few words instead of standing six feet away from him without so much as a How you doin'?

But what there was was something much better. Better than a press card, better than running down to the corner Greeks for ten paper cups of coffee for the newsroom at the Times, better than being there the night they caught Son of Sam. I got the nod from Breslin.

The night was shot anyway so when I got home around three or four in the morning I developed the Tri-X film in my bathroom and printed it up on glossy eight-by-ten Kodak paper. I tacked it to my wall and looked at it all the time. I’m pretty sure I still have it, in a trunk somewhere. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter too much, because I remember Jimmy Breslin where it counts most—where I met him. In a cub reporter's heart.

That's right. I maintain I met him. Dere some kinda problem with dat?

And you can take it from me: Jimmy Breslin was not just a great reporter—Jimmy Breslin was a great and generous man.

May he rest in peace.