Lydia’s Social Club at a subway kiosk on East 138th Street in the South Bronx is a nice place to have a beer. It helps to be Puerto Rican. The salsa music blasts out of the jukebox loud as a San Juan rush hour; colored lights explode off the bottles behind the bar like blazing tenements off St. Ann’s Avenue. The squat, gold-toothed lady behind the bar, her topknotted head barely clearing the draft beer handles, has a jolly laugh and a generous hand with the rum bottle. Outside, in the humid summer night, dopers dance past the hulks of stripped cars, and old men in undershirts take their ease on the front stoops, breathing luxuriously the warm evening air: an odor of garbage, marijuana, hydrant-wet pavement and deep-fried pigs’ ears called cuchifritos.
“Out here is where it happened,” Jimmy Breslin says. A Don Diego claro clenched in his teeth, he steps into the subway corridor and points to a pay phone. Downstairs a train rumbles through, shivering the piles of tokens stacked in the booth. “He takes his wet money off the bar and changes a dollar at the booth,” recalls Breslin. “Then he goes to the phone. Head down. He almost bumps into this guy coming from the stairs. The guy takes a step after him and sticks a .22 Magnum derringer back of his right ear and squeezes twice. Pa-pow! Instant tomato soup.” Breslin shakes his head and goes back into Lydia’s to finish his beer. “A very professional hit,” he says.
Breslin hunkers over the jukebox, searching for the song Toro Mata (The Bull Kills). It figures prominently in his new novel, Forsaking All Others, as does the murder he has just described. Whenever he comes to the South Bronx, Breslin steers clear of those mean streets where the lights are shot out. But in every bar, on every well-lighted street corner, he is greeted warmly as a friend. His thrice-weekly column in the New York Daily News, containing his picture, and his TV commercial for Piels beer have made his street-wise, Hiberno-cherubic face familiar to New Yorkers of every ethnic stripe. If any writer is the voice of New York, it is James Earl Breslin Jr., 52, of Forest Hills, Queens.
In his new novel, Breslin goes beyond his own roots to show Hispanics living in blighted hope and fierce ambition, slamming again and again into an unyielding wall of Anglo-run courts, business, government and crime. Through the characters of Ramon Solivan (a/k/a “Teenager”) and his childhood friend, Maximo Escobar, Breslin examines two of the roads open to Puerto Ricans in New York—and the dirty dead end of each. Teenager is a tough, totally ruthless dope dealer whose ambition puts him up against both the police and the Mafia. Maximo, beneficiary of affirmative action to the extent of a Harvard Law School degree, quickly learns the cynicism that is rife in the world of urban “liberal” do-goodism.
For all its city-smart humor, this is a grim and tragic book, tougher in its conclusions even than Breslin’s World Without End, Amen of nine years ago, and bloodier still than .44, the quickie novelization of the Son of Sam story that Breslin did with Dick Schaap in 1978. No one knows the ugliness, dreck and horror of New York like Breslin, and no one writing today loves it more.
Breslin’s own world is far more orderly. He was born in Queens not a mile from where he lives today. His current neighborhood is “good enough for Iranians to grab all the largest houses.” But his roots are four-square and working-class Irish with neatly trimmed shrubbery in postage-stamp yards. Neighborhood saloons and corner delis remind one of Archie Bunker country, in the days when Edith was still alive.
Breslin’s father was a musician. “A pianna player,” Jimmy says. “He played all around, in saloons and at weddings and parties. He ran out on us when I was about 4, 5 years old. Just like that. He went out for rolls,” he laughs bitterly. “Never came back. I never heard from him again. Later I heard he was down in Florida, dying down there. I didn’t go to see him:” Jimmy’s mother, Frances, supported him and his sister, Deirdre, by working as a New York City Welfare Department investigator and as a substitute teacher. Both parents are dead now, and Deirdre, unmarried, is herself a schoolteacher. In Breslin’s “Irish” novel, World Without End, Amen, a New York rogue cop named Dermot Davey goes to Northern Ireland. There he meets both a beautiful agitator named Deirdre and his own runaway father, a burned-out case named Jimmy. Any connection? “Who the hell knows?” Breslin says. “These things come up from way deep down somewhere. I suppose the book’s Jimmy is like my old man might have been. All old Irish boozehounds are alike, aren’t they?”
At St. Benedict Joseph grade school and John Adams High, Breslin grew up Queens Irish—tough, wise-ass, one of the boys. He was on the football team, but not the high school newspaper. “I couldn’t get on it,” he says, deadpan. “That was only for the smart kids.” Instead, at 17, he took a job on the Long Island Press.
Who were Breslin’s journalistic heroes when he was a kid? His face wrinkles at the question: the Sour-Ball Angel. “I dunno,” he says. “There weren’t none. I was too late for Lardner and Runyon.” Then he thinks about it more seriously. “I just wanted to be a reporter,” he says. “Here. In New York. Every newspaper man in America wants to work in New York City. They work their way up to it. I didn’t have to, I was right here. I did it all for the Press—police, courts, fires, politics, sports, school boards, sewer hearings. Name it.”
His real education came not at Long Island University, which he attended briefly before dropping out, but in bars and on street corners, at murder scenes and at racetracks, in smoky arenas on icy nights near writhing fire hoses, and in the dingy courtrooms of New York’s seven-million-story boroughs. “I’ve always had a good ear,” he says proudly. “I try to write people the way they talk. That way you don’t have to worry about it, it’s all there, the irony, the love—the stuff you don’t talk about in print or in speech.”
That ear, coupled with a hardheaded refusal to make moralistic judgments, led him up the ladder from one New York newspaper to another. “I worked for all of ’em,” he says. “I can’t even remember the sequence no more. The World-Telegram, the Journal-American, the Herald Tribune. By that time I was well married—I got six kids now and I can’t remember how many then—and the first novel came off good enough so Hollywood bought it. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. With the money from that I quit writing the column and went over to Ireland for six months. I saw a lot of shit over there.” He does not elaborate: These are things you don’t talk about; you write them and let them stand. “So I wrote the book.”
About the time Breslin resumed his column—for the Daily News in 1976—the Son of Sam killings had begun. “I didn’t get interested until a couple of girls got wasted just six blocks from where I live,” he says. “Then I thought of my own daughters. The guy starts writing me—you remember that first letter, what the bastid wrote? ‘Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks!’ ” He laughs and shakes his head, the gray winning out now over the black but the hair still Irishman-thick, the face still cherubic, but bitter. “The guy can write better’n me.”
Breslin now believes he could have found Son of Sam on his own and gotten a world-beating interview. “I could kick myself. In his letters he referred to Sam, who he thought was running him, as ‘Wicked King Wicker.’ We tried everything with that angle, even went up to a wicker furniture store in Forest Hills to check it out. Then one day we get a call from Sam Carr, who was Berkowitz’s neighbor and the prototype of Sam. He’s saying that his dog’s been shot with a .44-caliber bullet. Guy said he lived on Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, but he didn’t mention that the cross street was Wicker. If he had, I’d’ve figured it in a minute. We told him to get lost.”
Would Breslin have made personal contact with Son of Sam? “Yeah, for sure! What the hell, we’re in this to get the story.” A long pause, thinking. “But we’re not supposed to be Superman. Talk to him, yeah, but not try to take him. If I’d caught him in a good mood, he’d’ve talked. He told people later he was a friend of mine. Once he went berserk, though, and it took several cops to hold him down. If I’d found him and he’d jumped me—I dunno.”
Last year Breslin’s wife of 26 years, Rosemary Dattolico, died of breast cancer. “Jim took it very hard,” says Bill Umstead, the News’ managing editor. “He still isn’t out of it. For a while he cut his columns back from three to one a week. He’s back to three now, but I don’t know. He’s best when he’s reporting on something that just broke. When he’s disturbed he does his fiction stuff—Klein the Lawyer, Whatsis the Accountant. Fiction. It’s good in its own way, but it’s not as vital as when he’s on the street.” Breslin demurs. “It ain’t fiction,” he says. “All of those guys are real. Only Klein’s name has been changed—he’s actually a lawyer famed throughout Queens. Un Occhio, the head of all the Mafia, he’s pretty real too. Ugly guy. Got some long name I can’t remember. But I don’t use those characters that much anymore.”
Sometimes, Breslin admits, he’d like to quit newspapers entirely. “Just write novels,” he says. “But hell, you’re out there on the street sometime and you don’t know if you’re seeing a column or a novel. I’m afraid if I quit the column I’ll lose touch with the city.” In his cluttered office, hidden behind the News’ business department, he writes on an old manual typewriter, vintage The FrontPage. No word processor? “You process hamburger,” he snorts, “not words.” Nearby is Costello’s, a watering place for journalists who pay no attention to the Thurber cartoons that were drawn on the gray walls there by the artist himself. Sometimes Breslin is met at Costello’s by his girlfriend, Ronnie Eldridge, once an aide to former Mayor John Lindsay and now a Port Authority executive. They may be married one day, Jimmy says over a white-wine-on-the-rocks. Ronnie, a wise, no-nonsense woman of 51, smiles over her club soda and says simply, “Oh?”
Breslin stays away from the hard stuff nowadays. “I’m a fraud when it comes to drinking,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t even hold up my end of the bargain no more. White wine mainly, a little Scotch now and then, maybe a beer when it’s hot out.” How is his health otherwise? “I think everyone agrees I’m headed for death,” he chuckles. “I’m convinced of it myself sometimes. I quit cigarettes years ago. Now I only puff these little cigars. You wouldn’t believe it, fat as I am, but I swim a half mile every day at the Y. I don’t run, though. I wrote some columns about jogging, even claimed that I ran in the Marathon. All bull—just a spoof of the jerks you see running everywhere these days.”
Visually, Breslin certainly is a refreshing change from the rail-thin automatons who scamper through every American metropolis. He is built like a Tammany ward heeler of a century ago, all belly and lopsided grin. Yet his political opinions are distinctly his own. On Ronald Reagan: “Behind that amiable nature and wonderful smile is a fella who doesn’t care a rat’s ass.” Teddy Kennedy? “I don’t care what anyone says, That Day is still there,” Breslin says quietly, referring to Chappaquiddick. “I hoped that with time the thing would go away, but it hasn’t. I could never vote for him.” Of New York Mayor Ed Koch, now running for Governor, Breslin’s opinions are largely unprintable. Retiring Gov. Hugh Carey is another matter. “You need a good fat target in the business I’m in,” says Breslin. “A politician who’s outrageous. A guy who’s smart, but capable of tremendous screw-ups. ‘Society’ Carey filled the bill and then some. I’ll miss him.”
On the phone, his home away from home, Breslin uses his bulky body—5’9½” by 240 pounds—to shield his conversation from eavesdroppers. On the street, reporting, he says very little. Just drifts up to people and asks, “What’s happening?” They know him at a glance.
“Jimmy Breslin! Hey, man…”
And then they talk.
“Jim’s basically a shy guy,” says Bill Umstead of the News. “He doesn’t like to ask questions.”
“Like hell,” says Breslin. “That ain’t shy. That’s that old district attorney stuff. Don’t lead the witness, just get him started.” Sipping another glass of white wine, he lets the rocks click on his teeth. “I wanna listen, that’s all I want to do,” he says. “There’s gonna be a time when you need those voices in your ear.”
Already he is more than 250 pages into his next novel, about a construction worker from the author’s own Queens. You can bet that the voices are singing, and that Jimmy Breslin isn’t missing a syllable.