About a dozen years ago, his columns began to be the sort of column that one’s editors classify as “occasional,” the sort written on the death of an acquaintance or because the writer needs to release a memory so it can release him.
In November 2004, he quit abruptly, quit writing his regular column, quit in the headline, which read in full: “I’m Right—Again. So I Quit. Beautiful.” Jimmy Breslin’s final column for New York Newsday on November 2, 2004, predicted a John Kerry victory in the U.S. Presidential election that day and closed with the image of him going to bed early so he can “rise in the darkness and pursue immediately an exciting, overdue project.” Thus, since he considered himself to be otherwise occupied, he was through with writing a column and he ended with, “Thanks for the use of the hall.”
He was 74. He had earned the right. Almost six decades in the newspaper business? He wrote for almost every newspaper and helped start New York magazine. He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He had earned to right to quit with the newspaper running banner headlines, a week-long countdown to his final goodbye column, and a special section devoted to his work, but he chose to simply announce in a column that there would not be another one, that the space was now available for someone else.
On Sunday, The Daily Beast published the first new work from Jimmy Breslin in more than a decade, a 2500-word work of what is being called “autobiographical fiction” entitled “Trumpet Lessons, Life Lessons.” The online magazine has been re-publishing classic Breslin columns for the last several years; John Avlon, the editor-in-chief, is a Breslin fan.
I learned about the piece from a tweet sent by Ron Rosenbaum, who is one of the best journalists of the last half-century himself:
Wow, Breslin hasn't lost a step. https://t.co/LSU08S0cc5
— Ron Rosenbaum (@RonRosenbaum1) September 26, 2016
I first encountered Jimmy Breslin in the pages of the New York Daily News in the 1970s, when I first fell in love with newspapers. (Like all things related to love, my immediate affection for newspapers was inexplicable and still fills me with joy.) My father used to buy the News on Sundays for reasons I never learned but I think had to do with making sure there was more than one colorful comics section in the house to amuse my sister and me. I read every columnist.
I understood that I did not understand Jimmy Breslin, and I understood even then that this had more to do with me being ten years of age and lacking life experiences than anything Breslin was failing to provide. He couldn’t turn me into a forty-year-old who lived in New York City, no matter how much I wished anyone could. I knew his columns were an example of great, clear writing. He could make me see the sidewalk as he was walking down the street. I wanted to write like him. I never did.
The new piece opens with a trumpet lesson: young Jimmy Breslin is a student of a jazz musician named Jack Chernecke:
He had pouchy eyes, smoked a cigarette, and sat at the kitchen table in an undershirt, black tuxedo pants, and bare feet. His fingers danced nervously on the valves of his brilliant gold-plated horn.
On weekend nights, Chernecke played in the Blue Moon, which was under the el, three blocks from his house. Now on a rough, fuzzy Saturday morning after a bust-out night at the Blue Moon, he had me, this Catholic school kid who instinctively blew his notes louder when an el train passed. The only thing you’re learning is to compete with an el, he said. But he had such deplorable personal habits that he needed the three dollars for a lesson desperately.
And then this, in which Breslin is a movie camera floating through a neighborhood and we encounter the aftermath of a tragedy:
He got up and walked barefoot with his horn downstairs to the street and leaned against the el pillar at the corner and looked along Broadway, with the late afternoon summer sun coming through the tracks and placing oblong blocks of light on the sidewalk. And he also looked up Halsey Street, with its three story attached brownstone and frame houses. The kid stood with his silver plated horn and his music book. On the corner was a morgue wagon with two bodies under white sheets in the back.
And now little Xavier, age two, ran down the side street, Halsey Street, past the iron gates in front of the stoops going up to the first floors of the frame and brownstone houses. Ran faster than you can imagine on a glorious late summer afternoon. Ran intoxicated with the freedom of having nobody to hold him or chase him. Ran without knowing it from the body of his brother, Alan, 10, who was dead under a white sheet in the back of the wagon at the corner.
Back in front of the bodega, jumping up and down, jump, jump, jump on this yellow chalk circle on the sidewalk, were two other children, 4 and 3, their small sneakers coming right down on the yellow chalk circles.
The circles told the little kids that they can die.
The circles had been put there by the police to show where the two kids had just been killed. The bodies were under sheets in the back of the morgue wagon at the corner. There never was any reason for chalk circles or chalk outlines of bodies except to follow old custom of police.
Nothing accompanies the Jimmy Breslin piece in The Daily Beast; no word on a publication date for the book, no promise of more pieces. It does not matter. Jimmy Breslin is not finished.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 27 asks us to reflect on the word, “Unfinished.”
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