Date: April 22, 2008
Venue: McNally Jackson Books
Author: Jimmy Breslin
Lit Celebs Present: Ronnie Eldridge, spouse, host of public access TV show
Free Drinks: No
Drone-On-Meter : negative
UE check collect: #276534
I was new in the Bergen Record’s Wayne, N.J. newsroom in 1988. A part-timer working nights, covering meetings mostly, I wrote my stories at the day shift reporters’ desks.
Some nights I landed at Jim Dao’s desk and I briefly registered that it was a shrine to Jimmy Breslin. No votive candles, just Breslin’s books strewn around in the causal disorder that characterized the bureau.
Working on deadline at 10 or 11 pm, trying to parse the details of the Butler Planning Board meeting I’d just attended, I didn’t give Dao’s décor much notice except that as I struggled to sort out which commissioner had said what in my reporter’s notebook, I felt that I was in the right place, doing the right grunt work, and this dayside guy got it too.
A few years later, I’d gone to journalism school and come back to the city to keep working as a reporter, our trade at which Jimmy was the best. I was working for the Chemical Marketing Reporter, writing about price increases in polyethylene.
There was a young guy from Douglaston covering some other kind of chemical. Because he also wrote for a weekly in Queens, he’d somehow wrangled a meeting with Breslin. They had breakfast at a dinner on the Upper West Side. He told me Breslin gave him a lot of advice and that his table manners weren’t the greatest.
My chemical reporting colleague was lucky to score his one on one with Jimmy but like Jim Dao at the Record and so many other reporters, we are all Jimmy’s acolytes. Maybe we couldn’t all be Jimmy, but we could try. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one faced with the problem of finding my own Marvin the Torch or Klein the Lawyer and sticking him into a story about the ’94 autumn increase in polyethylene prices.
To put it mildly, the newspaper business has changed since Jimmy got his start at the Long Island Press. I got caned at a corporate finance magazine in that recession thing of ’08. Even as I suffered the indignity of having to buy my reporter’s notebooks at the Columbia University bookstore, it was still Jimmy’s voice I wanted to emulate.
And even on the mundane topic of where to get your notebooks, the Master had some advice to the rest of us. I remember him being quoted someplace saying that whenever the paper he was working at was about to fold, or he was jumping to another outlet, he made a point of loading up on notebooks from the stockroom of his soon to be former employer.
After I got fired, I started going to a lot of literary readings. Eventually, I figured out that this was my new beat. I try to write for my little-read blog, “In the Front Row, On the Dole,” with the same Breslin voice, Breslin values, that all of us Irish-American columnists employ. In fact, a masterpiece like Jim Dwyer’s story about 9/11 and Inwood must have been inspired by Jimmy.
When Jimmy’s book, “The Good Rat,’ came out, he gave a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street in Soho back in 2008.
When my hero popped up on my beat, of course I showed up to review his reading. That’s what my stupid blog is all about. While I don’t have a Marvin the Torch, I do have a Lou the Bartender. He works at the KGB bar where there’s a reading most nights. Lou told me he can tell when a reading is going to have an older audience because he gets all these calls about how steep and how long the stairs are.
Jimmy’s crowd that night at the bookstore on Prince Street might have had trouble with the bar’s stairs, but they turned out in force for his street-level gig. Half the small audience seemed to go back decades with him. He read an excerpt from the book and then sat around talking to his fans. I knew this was my moment to talk to my hero, to get a quote for my blog, which although it is missing a classified section, a sports section and a lot of other sections, is informed by the work of our Master, this guy from Ozone Park.
I approached my hero and knowing that cheeky was preferable to solicitous, asked him, “If you’re such a big deal writer, how come it’s your wife that has the TV show? He laughed and said, “That’s a good question.”
Podcasts may blossom, papers will continue to fold. Reporters may have switched from the bar to the gym, a development that he lamented. But we will never touch a keyboard without trying to match you, Jimmy.