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Writings on Men & Women, Fools and Heroes, Lost Cities, Vanished Calamities and How the Weather Was
By Pete Hamill
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Veteran journalist Pete Hamill never covered just politics. Or just sports. Or just the entertainment business, the mob, foreign affairs, social issues, the art world, or New York City. He has in fact written about all these subjects, and many more, in his years as a contributor to such national magazines as Esquire, Vanity Fair, and New York, and as a columnist at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, and other newspapers.
Seasoned by more than thirty years as a New York newspaperman, Hamill wrote on an extraordinarily wide variety of topics in powerful language that is personal, tough-minded, clearheaded, always provocative. Piecework is a rich and varied collection of Hamill's best writing, on such diverse subjects as what television and crack have in common, why winning isn't everything, stickball, Nicaragua, Donald Trump, why American immigration policy toward Mexico is all wrong, Brooklyn's Seventh Avenue, and Frank Sinatra, not to mention Octavio Paz, what it's like to realize you're middle-aged, Northern Ireland, New York City then and now, how Mike Tyson spent his time in prison, and much more. This collection proves him once again to be among the last of a dying breed: the old-school generalist, who writes about anything and everything, guided only by passionate and boundless curiosity. Piecework is Hamill at his very best.
Acclaim for Pete Hamill's
"Full of the passions, action, opinions, and excesses one would expect from a man moving through all the journalistic hot spots of the last quarter century…. The best of the book is flamboyant, fierce, and funny."
— Philadelphia Inquirer
"Rock-solid…. Hamill has a great eye and ear for detail and nuance, and the talent to evoke a real sense of places that no longer exist, especially the New York City of his childhood."
— Chicago Tribune
"Acute. Candid. Courageous. Eloquent. Humane…. Hamill's best may be the best of the genre."
— San Antonio Express
"A tour through the most frightening and fascinating decades of our lifetime, by a guide who has been in the front of the bus all the way…. Nearly all of Hamill's ruminations on the dark edges of society are as fresh as tomorrow's headlines."
"Hamill takes the mundane and the great, spins them through his psyche, and delivers absolute poetry of the streets…. Without so much as an adjective or adverb, Hamill puts you where he is, right at the table (or under it), club-crawling with Frank Sinatra, arguing with Mike Tyson, or (verbally) dissecting Madonna."
— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Hamill has been writing for more than thirty years. Yet he retains a passion, a curiosity, a disgust for injustice that keeps his writing fresh and his spirit young. He delivers pieces of the world in thousand-word chunks that sound like truth, well-told; that inform and nourish. That, nothing else, is the standard measure of Piecework."
— Buffalo News
BOOKS BY PETE HAMILL
A Killing for Christ
Flesh and Blood
The Deadly Piece
The Guns of Heaven
Snow in August
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Invisible City
A Drinking Life
Copyright © 1996 by Deidre Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Little, Brown and Company
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
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As a writer for newspapers and magazines, I've been blessed by good editors. I've acknowledged elsewhere the inspiring influence of Paul Sann, who in my mind will always be the editor of the New York Post. At that newspaper, I was also guided by Fred McMorrow, Al Davis, Joe Rabinowitz, and Bob Friedman. At the New York Daily News, the late Sid Penner edited my columns with a master's precision, while Pucci Meyer refined and clarified the longer articles and short stories I wrote for that newspaper's Sunday magazine. At the Village Voice, Karen Durbin, Tom Morgan, and, later, Don Guttenplan were all fine editors of my pieces. At Esquire, Dave Hirshey has been ingenious at anticipating themes and stories that would remain fresh in spite of that magazine's long lead time.
Early on, I learned many things about craft from Jack Nessel, Clay Felker, and Milton Glaser, when they worked together at New York magazine. Nessel placed his loupe upon my texts (and those of others) and with humor and patience worked only to make them better. Felker was always bursting with ideas and discoveries and enthusiasms, but Glaser edited Felker; listening to their debates was essential to my education. Under a later regime at New York, I was fortunate to be edited by Peter Herbst and Dick Babcock; they maintained the high standards established by the founding editors.
In a long, varied career, there were many others: Steve Gelman, Ray Robinson, Bill Ewald, Don McKinney, Seymour Krim, Wayne Lawson, Myra Appleton, Barry Golson, Peter Moore, Harvey Shapiro, George Walsh, Richard Kluger, Linda Perney, Jeff Schaire, Peter Biskind, Harriet Fier, and, in a later enlistment at the New York Post, Jerry Nachman, Richard Gooding, Eric Fettman, John Cotter, and Lou Colasuonno. Even brief encounters with their skills have added to my craft. Directly or indirectly, their work is in this book too.
But across the years, one magazine editor has provided a special kind of continuity. Ed Kosner was assistant night city editor at the New York Post on my first night in the city room. He edited my first piece of copy. Later, as editor of New York magazine for twelve years, he assigned many of the articles in this book. A lifetime has passed, and we're still working together, now at Esquire, where Kosner is the editor. Hundreds of thousands of my words have come under his pencil. With his efficiency, clarity, and intelligence, he has always helped make them better. We communicate in a kind of intellectual shorthand, a few words here, a note there, and then back to the typewriter or computer. In a trade populated by prima donnas, we've never exchanged a harsh word. More important, we're friends. Un abrazo, Eduardo.
For thirty-five years now, I have worked at the writing trade. Writing has fed me, housed me, educated my children. Writing has allowed me to travel the world and has provided me with a ringside seat at some of America's biggest, most awful shows. Writing has permitted me to celebrate and embrace many public glories and to explore the darkest side of my own personality. Writing is so entwined with my being that I can't imagine a life without it.
Usually, I work every day, seven days a week, at the tradesman's last. When I go three days without writing, my body aches with anxiety, my mood is irritable, my night dreams grow wild with unconscious invention. Because I write fiction and journalism, I follow no set routine. Struggling with a novel, I've spent months at my desk, a bore to those who live with me. But when laboring at journalism, the days are more jagged, the hours broken by telephone calls, interviews, research in libraries or newspaper morgues. The desk has its attractions, but I've also worked in parked cars, in a hotel lobby where the air burned with tear gas, in a tent under a mortar attack. In my drinking days, I wrote in the back rooms of bars, too. I've written longhand on yellow pads and restaurant menus. Feeding coins into a pay phone, I've dictated complete paragraphs from scribbled notes. I started with manual typewriters and now use a computer. The work does not get easier.
The older I get, the more I am humbled by the difficult standards of my trade. About many things, from the meaning of baseball to the nature of human beings, I was far more certain at thirty than I am at sixty. Each day I learn something new. This is not, of course, my hobby. It is my pride that I have been a professional from the beginning, paid for every published word, unsupported by foundation money or government grants. But although I'm a professional of my trade, I struggle each day to retain the innocent eye of the amateur. I do piecework, and with each piece, I'm forced to begin again, to try to find something fresh in the familiar, to look at my subjects as if they'd never been written about before.
What do you do? asks the stranger. I'm a writer, I answer. On some mornings, this reply can still astonish me. Like so many other writers, I wanted in my adolescence and young manhood to join an entirely different guild.
The craft of cartooning first grabbed my heart when I was eleven years old, and that adolescent passion gradually evolved into a desire to be a painter. My first short stories and essays were written at Mexico City College in 1956, when I was studying painting there on the GI Bill. My first published words were two poems that appeared in 1958 in the literary magazine of Pratt Institute, where I was a student in the art school. The first words I wrote for money appeared the following year in a Greek magazine named Atlantis, for which I worked as art director; the story was in English, and I was paid $2.5. On the night in 1960 when I walked into the city room of the New York Post to try to be a newspaperman, I was working days as a commercial artist. I was twenty-five years old, a high school dropout from a poor family in Brooklyn.
A few years earlier, the desire to be a painter had been derailed by several factors: a failure of will and the need to earn a living. I was uncertain of my talents as a painter, afraid of committing to a vocation that might give me a life of prolonged poverty. So I found work in an advertising agency, and though I was proud to be making my way in the world, I didn't much like the way I was doing it. There just wasn't much romance in designing letterheads or laying out catalogs. But within months of sitting down at a typewriter in a newspaper city room, even with a substantial cut in pay, I felt exuberant and free. The graphic arts were set aside; I went to work at mastering the writer's trade.
When I started writing for Dorothy Schiff's wonderful afternoon tabloid, I had no plans for the future, no certainties about a career. The Post was seventh in circulation among the city's seven dailies; we all knew it could fold the next morning, so it was imperative to live for tonight, for the next edition, even if that edition might be the last. I definitely wasn't there for the pension plan. Newspaper people were flamboyant, hard-drinking, bohemian anarchists, with great gifts for obscenity and a cynicism based on experience. Or so I thought. I loved being in their company, in city rooms, at murder scenes, or standing at the bar after work.
For me, the work itself was everything. I had grown up under the heroic spell of the Abstract Expressionist painters, and one of their lessons was that the essence of the work was the doing of it. At twenty-five, I thought I had started late and therefore had to hurl myself into the work — and the life that went with it. In my experience, nothing before (or since) could compare to walking into the New York Post at midnight, being sent into the dark, scary city on an assignment, and coming back to write a story for the first edition. No day's work was like any other's, no story repeated any other in its details. Day after day, week after week, I loved being a newspaperman, living in the permanent present tense of the trade. I had no idea as a young man that from my initiation into the romance of newspapers would flow novels, books of short stories, too many screenplays, a memoir, and millions of words of newspaper and magazine journalism. I didn't know that I was apprenticing to a trade that I would practice until I die.
This is not to claim that I've produced an uninterrupted series of amazements. Reading over a quarter-century of my journalism for this collection (my first since Irrational Ravings in 1970), I have often winced; if I'd only had another three inches of space, or another two hours beyond the deadline, perhaps this piece would have been better or that piece wiser. There were newspaper columns that I wish I'd never written, full of easy insult or cheap injury. There were many pieces limited by my ignorance. Too many lazily derived their energy from the breaking news to which they served as mere sidebars. Others were about figures who were once famous and are now obscure (and hence have been excluded from this collection — any footnotes of explanation would be longer than the originals). Sometimes I completely missed the point, or didn't see the truth of a story whose facts were evidently there in my notebook. But this is not an apology. It is the nature of such work that it is produced in a rush; the deadlines usually force the newspaper writer to publish a first draft because there is no time for a second or third. Once that piece is locked up in type and sent to the newsstands, there is no going back; the writer can correct the factual error, but it's too late to deepen the insight, alter the mistaken or naive judgment, erase the stale language that was taken off the rack. He or she can only vow never to make that error again and start fresh the next day.
Early on, I understood why these hurried writings were called pieces. The built-in limitations of the form were the enemies of thoroughness; the very best a journalist could hope for was to reveal fragments that stood for the whole, like an archeologist working in a ruined city. When I started writing magazine articles, with their longer deadlines and expanded space, some of those problems were solved. But I was still at the mercy of the people I interviewed. The journalist can prepare well, listen carefully, and, thanks to modern technology, record what he hears with absolute fidelity. But human beings lie. Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Actors lie. Victims lie. Statistics lie. The objective reporter writes down the lies and tries to check them against other sources. But sometimes one lie is merely countered with another lie and the reporter is forced by the standards of objectivity to print both.
To be sure, at the heart of every story there is a bald fact or two. The body of a man lies in an alley. The body can be measured and weighed and checked for scars or tattoos, thus providing new facts to the cop and his unofficial collaborator, the reporter. The dead man's wallet might reveal the facts of his identity: a name, an address, an age, his bank, the number of his driver's license. All facts, if the credentials are legitimate. Wives or lovers or rivals will speak about the dead man and add a few more small facts about his life and death. But the best detectives also know that the facts don't always reveal the truth, certainly about an entity as complicated as a human being. The facts can't record the dead man's final thoughts, or his dreams, desires, confusions and ambiguities. They can't explain the meaning of his life.
That's why so many journalists turn to writing novels: to get at the truth beyond the facts, about themselves and others. If reporters stick around long enough, if they see enough human beings in trouble, they learn that the guilty are sometimes innocent and the innocent probably have an angle. Things, as the philosopher said, ain't what they seem to be. Nor are people. I've known many newspaper reporters whose lives were permanently soured by what they had witnessed and their work ruined by a self-protecting indifference. Others survived, usually by fealty to the dailiness of the enterprise. They plunged into the moments of the story and its writing and left it all behind when they were finished. Or they distilled what they knew into fiction. The trick was to see the world as a skeptic, not a cynic, while allowing for the wan possibility of human decency.
After 1965, when I started writing a newspaper column, I was freed from the tyranny of an impossible objectivity. The facts were still the core of the work, of course, but in the column form I was able to express my feelings or ideas about those facts. From the beginning, the form felt natural to me; I was like a musician who had found at last the instrument that was right for him. My earliest columns echoed with the voices of those who came before me, from Murray Kempton and Jimmy Cannon to Robert Ruark and West-brook Pegler; I watched carefully what my friend Jimmy Breslin was doing at the New York Herald Tribune, where he was inventing a new kind of newspaper column. In my early work, I can see the marks that all of them put on me. But I was writing too much, too quickly, to imitate any of them slavishly. For all writers, newspaper work is a valuable shortcut to finding style; its pressures force the writer to do what works most naturally.
In finding my own language, or style, the keys were tone and rhythm. The tone was a matter of understanding the story and being open to its essence; presented with the brayings of some obvious political fraud, the tone was mocking; witnessing some urban calamity, the tone was infused with a sense of tragedy. I thought of the process as "hearing the music." The rhythm of that music was inseparable from the tone. For one kind of story, simple declarative sentences, as blunt as axes, were best; for others, it was necessary to use longer lines, more complicated rhythms. The style was itself a form of comment or explanation.
I used everything I knew to express, or refine, both rhythm and tone. When I was a teenager, I wanted for a brief season to be a jazz drummer. In an old issue of Down Beat, I read an interview with Gene Krupa, one of the stars of the Benny Goodman band, and he was asked a smart question: Since the drummer was the metronome of the band, how did he keep time? What served as his metronome? Krupa answered that he kept chanting to himself one simple phrase: "lyonnaise potatoes and some pork chops." He would drag the word "lyonnaise" and emphasize the "some" to insure that the beat wouldn't become too mechanical. So in those first years, I often sat at a Royal Standard typewriter in the city room, writing about some fire or homicide or snowstorm, all the while humming under my breath, "lyyyyy-oh-naise-p'taytas an' some pork chops, yeah — lyy-yyy-oh-naise-p'taytas an' some pork chops," keeping time with my right foot, as if using a pedal on a bass drum. I wanted that rhythm in the sentences. I wanted to add some gaudy word to serve for a splash on the cymbals. Even now, when a deadline is crashing upon me, I chant Krupa's mantra.
Over three decades, I've written newspaper and magazine columns for the New York Post, the Village Voice, the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, Esquire, and New York, along with freelance articles for these and other periodicals. In a way, these columns and articles make up a kind of public diary, a recording of where I was and what I saw and who I met along the way. In a meandering, unplanned way, they're about one American writer grappling with the meaning of the public events of his time: Vietnam and Watergate, riots, assassinations, scandals, murders, political betrayals. During the period covered by this collection, I chose my own subjects. Usually I thought of them myself; sometimes suggestions for pieces came from editors, but as a freelancer I was, of course, free to decline.
Many pieces originated in my personal history; when I wrote about New York or Mexico or Ireland, I brought to those pieces the kinds of knowledge that didn't always exist in books. Memory, myth, lore: all had their uses. But at other times, I often chose subjects about which I knew nothing. My ignorance would then force me to learn, to engage in a crash course of books, clippings, reporting. Gradually, I began to make connections among a variety of subjects; a civil rights story about Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael could also be informed by a knowledge of Faulkner and the blues. A murder at a good address might be written better with a knowledge of investment banking, real estate dealings, or the novels of Louis Auchincloss. I might more clearly understand the latest homegrown fascist if I knew about volkische nationalism, the history of Sparta, or the drawings of George Grosz. Specialization had no attraction for me; it would be like spending a life painting only roses. I wanted to be, and am, a generalist.
As a young man, my ambition was to embrace those general qualities that Ernest Hemingway, a former newspaperman, once said should be present in all good books: "the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was." That ambition was amazingly presumptuous, of course, and in some obvious ways, comic. No tabloid newspaperman would ever admit to an editor (or anyone else) that he was looking for "the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow" in the streets of New York or believed he could fit them into 700 words. But as callow as I was, that scrap of Hemingway rhetoric did help me to understand that even fragments could serve a larger purpose. His words were not inconsistent with what gradually became a more modest ambition: to understand the way the world worked and how I fit into it.
These pieces are products of that ambition. In each of them, I first wanted to know something about a person, a place, an event, or an idea. I wanted to hear their music. Then I wanted to pass on what Fd learned to others. Looking at many of them for the first time since they were written, I remembered who I was when I wrote them, the houses I inhabited, the people I loved, my large stupidities and small triumphs, and yes, how the weather was.
THE CITIES OF NEW YORK
If I'd grown up in another city, I almost certainly would have become another kind of writer. Or I might not have become a writer at all. But I grew up in New York in the 1940s, when New York was a great big optimistic town. The war was over and the Great Depression was a permanent part of the past; now we would all begin to live. To a kid (and to millions of adults) everything seemed possible. If you wanted to be a scientist or a left-fielder for the Dodgers, a lawyer or a drummer with Count Basie: well, why not? This was New York. You could even be an artist. Or a writer.
As a man and a writer, I've been cursed by the memory of that New York. Across five decades, I saw the city change and its optimism wane. The factories began closing in the late 1950s, moving to the South, or driven out of business by changing styles or tastes or means of production. When the factories died, so did more than a million manufacturing jobs. Those vanished jobs had allowed thousands of men like my father (an Irish immigrant with an eighth-grade education) to raise families in the richest city on earth. They eagerly joined unions. They proudly voted for the Democratic ticket. They put paychecks on kitchen tables, asked their kids if they'd finished their homework, went off to night games at the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field, and were able to walk in the world with pride. Then the great change happened. The manufacturing jobs were replaced with service work. Or with welfare. One statistic tells the story: In 1955, there were 150,000 New Yorkers on welfare; in 1995, there were 1.3 million.
With the jobs gone, the combined American plagues of drugs and guns came to the neighborhoods. New York wasn't the only American city to be so mauled; but because it was at once larger and more anonymous, a sense of danger bordering on paranoia became a constant in the lives of its citizens. This wasn't a mere perception; it could be measured. Throughout the 1950s, New York averaged 300 murders a year; by 1994, the city fathers were ecstatic when the number of homicides dropped to 1,600 after years hovering around the 2,000 mark. In my time, even the poorest New Yorkers learned to triple-lock their doors and bar the windows against the relentless presence of the city's 200,000 heroin addicts. The middle class (children of all those factory workers) began to hire private cops to patrol their streets. They avoided subways late at night. They paid for parking lots to protect their cars against the patrolling junkies. They bought very large dogs. After a while, they stopped sending their kids to the public schools, which had begun adding metal detectors to their doors. Finally, many of them began to move away.
These pieces reflect the yearning of an entire generation of New Yorkers for the city that changed forever when we weren't even looking. We're the New Yorkers who remember the city when it worked, in every sense of that word. No matter how we live now, we are hostages to that time when each of us lived in a neighborhood that was an urban version of the American hometown. My hometown was in Brooklyn, across the East River from haughty Manhattan; there are men and women who remember their hometowns in the Bronx and Queens and parts of Manhattan the way I remember mine. Some live on in the city. Others have scattered around the country. I know from my mail that they still measure all places by the New York they knew when young.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Back Bay Books