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Requiem For a Great Writer: RIP Jimmy Breslin.

For years Jimmy Breslin has had a passionately public love affair with the ordinary people of New York City. He loves them. They love him.

17/04/2017 03:55 SAST
Ellsworth Davis / The Washington Post / Getty Images
Jimmy Breslin smokes a cigar outside the Madison Hotel in Washington, DC on August 29, 1973.

A man I taught to write wins a Pulitzer Prize for journalism a while back and dies just this week.

His Pulitzer is for newspaper commentaries " ... which consistently champion ordinary citizens."

This man wins the hugely prestigious Pulitzer because he writes about ordinary women and men — people like you and me — as if we are the most important people in all the world.

He writes like this because he really, genuinely, absolutely believes that ordinary people are the most important people in all the world.

The man's name is Jimmy Breslin. He's Irish and fat and looks like a debauched choirboy when I see him last. He drinks too much and smokes too much and wears clothes like he sleeps in them which, some of the time, he does.

For years Jimmy Breslin has had a passionately public love affair with the ordinary people of New York City. He loves them. They love him. They show their love by reading his newspaper column where they see themselves and their lives and the lives of people they know.

It's 1968. I'm all of 26 years old, a brand-new producer/reporter with ABC News in New York, fresh off the boat from reporting the Congo wars.

Jimmy Breslin's paper, the New York Herald Tribune, goes on strike. So he signs with ABC TV to do his column on camera and thus prevent any interruption in the flow of groceries to his six kids and wife, the former Rosemary Dottalico.

And they make me Breslin's coach and editor.

They make me responsible for this Irishman from Queens who covers the freedom marchers in the redneck South and writes:

You have not lived, in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing " ... we are not afraid " and then turn and look at the face of a cop near her and see the puzzlement and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over. The South as it has stood since 1865 is gone. Shattered by these people in muddy shoes standing in the street and swaying and singing "We Shall Overcome."

They want me to teach this man to write!

On the first day with ABC, Jimmy Breslin comes into the newsroom with his friend Fat Thomas who weighs 415 pounds and makes a living by betting on which horse will pass the winner's post first.

Breslin is given a tiny cubicle next to mine, a desk and a typewriter. Fat Thomas finds the widest chair in the newsroom, takes it without asking, puts it carefully outside Breslin's cubicle, sits and stares into the distance.

Breslin puts paper into the typewriter, writes a few words, swears, pulls the paper out of the typewriter so the machine screams, crumples the paper into a huge snowflake, throws it on the floor and starts again.

All the time he writes and swears and throws crumpled paper on the floor, Breslin sweats and smokes. The butts pile up in the ashtray and spill over to join the snowflakes on the floor.

It's the end of the first week. Things aren't going well. Breslin hasn't captured the fire. He knows it. I know it. He shows me yet another draft.

"Tim ... whadya think?" he asks. "Don't bullshit me. It don't work. Don't tell me it works. It's crap." He pleads "Help me, Tim ... you know how to do this goddam thing ..."

How do you teach the great Jimmy Breslin to write for TV?

"Write like you talk, Jimmy ... That's all ... Write like you talk ... Maybe if we try this way ..."

Breslin and I re-work the column. Again and again. For him, every sentence and word must be right. Every time. Only the exact and perfect sentences and words will do.

In exact and perfect order.

Sentences are born. Sentences die. Words are born. Words die. Breslin searches for the fire, the music. In the end, he wants the words to disappear. Leaving only the meaning, the feeling, the emotion.

The snowflakes and the cigarette butts pile up and suddenly — so suddenly that it catches me in the throat because I haven't seen it coming — the words and sentences about the death of some black kid in the sad, killing streets of Harlem aren't just words and sentences any more.

Now, because Breslin cares so much and knows that words can do wonderful things to the soul, his words turn into music and he's writing a love song about this boy who pushes drugs and his sisters and is shot down by a cop while "trying to escape."

The words, and only the right words. Simple words. Unsentimental words. Honest words. Vulnerable words. Now, his words and sentences touch the soul. And make it sing.

We head for the studio. Breslin forgets that he's really a newspaperman trying to make it on TV and forgets that he's terrified of the camera and its red light staring at him and talks into the camera just like he talks to Fat Thomas, but without the swearing.

The fifth take is a keeper.

"Beautiful. I couldn't have done it without ya, Tim" says Breslin. "Thanks buddy." Fat Thomas says something about horses and how, if they hurry, they can make the fifth race.

Breslin calls his wife, the former Rosemary Dattolico, and says he'll be home late. Not to wait up.

I ask him to autograph a book of his columns.

"It's a pleasure to do business with you, Tim" he writes. "Take Care, Jimmy Breslin."

He shakes my hand. "I couldn't have done it without ya, Tim"

And he and Fat Thomas walk through the newsroom, out into the late afternoon sunlight to catch a cab that will take them to watch horses run around in circles.

Eighteen years later Jimmy Breslin wins the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Newspaper Commentary.

Somehow — and it can't have been easy — he does it without me.

Some 50 years later he's dead.

It was a pleasure to do business with you, Jimmy.

Slán abhaile. Safe home.