I didn’t get to know of Breslin as a columnist. To me he was a book writer. Can’t recall for certain what was the first book of his I read. You’d think, Mets fan that I am, it’d have been Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? But I have no memory of it. Just about every book I bought or was given when I was a post-Hardy Boy reading kid lives on the bookshelf at the Old Mannion Homestead, but that’s not among them. Maybe I read Pop Mannion’s copy, if he had one. If he did, it’s lost. But if it wasn’t Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, it was surely The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
I still have that one. I remember feeling very grown up when I bought it with my allowance money. I also remember Mom Mannion’s frown of disapproval when she saw what book instead of the latest Allistair MacLean I’d bought. I don’t know how it was on her radar that she knew it was something I probably shouldn’t be reading at my age. Come to think of it, it was probably the movie she was aware of and she’d read a disapproving review in The Evangelist, our diocese’s weekly newspaper. I don’t know why she didn’t make me hand the book over. I’m guessing the reason she didn’t was the Catholic magazine she subscribed to, St Anthony’s Messenger, which I remember as being a little more hip than The Evangelist, was less censorious.
Breslin would have appreciated Mom’s quandary.
The next of his books I read was How the Good Guys Finally Won which I remember as being one of the best books on Watergate going. Charles Pierce remembers it that way too:
Pierce, getting ready to quote Breslin:
And his Watergate book, How The Good Guys Finally Won, an account of the downfall of Richard Nixon as seen from the office of then-Speaker Tip O'Neill, is one of the most underrated studies of those events, and certainly the most entertaining, but with gleaming edge to it when it was needed.
Consider, for example, Breslin's description of the hiring of John Doar, a hero of the Kennedy Justice Department when civil rights workers were being killed in the South, as lead counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's investigation of Nixon's crimes. Breslin was sharp enough to see what Doar's hiring would mean. You can hear the bell tolling away in the background.
And so John Doar came to Washington. Melvin Laird assured people in the White House that Doar was a fine choice. "He will not find anything if there is nothing to find," Laird said. "We couldn't ask for anything more." Which was a proper determination, providing that Richard Nixon was more or less innocent, as Laird at the time believed. The one who knew differently, Nixon, said nothing. He should have. For John Doar believes in everything Richard Nixon does not. And John Doar is a fearsome opponent.
Breslin as a columnist I got to know later, like I said. But again it was through a book. The collection called The World According to Breslin. I did read some of his work in its natural environment, newsprint. Our local paper ran his columns occasionally. This started after Son of Sam made Breslin more famous or infamous by association. I remember one he wrote in the summer of 1979 particularly, and I remember it best for a single sentence. Skylab’s orbit was deteriorating and it was coming back to earth, in pieces as it broke up and burned up re-entering the atmosphere 945 years ahead of schedule. People down below began to wonder where those pieces would land and worried it might be on top of them. Breslin hoped so. Well, he hoped pieces would come down on New York City and make hash out of certain people. He made a list he thought the world---the part of it where he lived and worked, at any rate--- would be better off without. He put himself at the top of the list. He felt he deserved to be hash.
“I’m no good and I can prove it,” he wrote.
That line has been cracking me up for almost thirty-eight years. I use it seriously about myself. Most people don’t believe me, if you can believe it. But it’s a fact. In fact, I’m thinking of making it the new tagline for the blog.
Breslin’s list includes people who were notorious in the day but I’m guessing only the names of Billy Martin and Truman Capote resonate today. If Skylab had waited just a couple more years to begin its descent and Breslin made his list sometime in the 1980s there’s a name would've made the list that resonates today, although I wonder if at the time Breslin would have foreseen lasting fame for the bearer of it. Actually, first time Breslin mentioned the guy he didn't use his name. He referred to him as "a young builder named Junior with a Big Ego."
At any rate, I was thinking I should re-read one of Breslin’s books in his honor. Not The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.Table Money. It’s another novel. A fine one. About Irish working class types in New York City. It’s brutal. It’s beautiful. It’s down in a box in the basement and I don’t know which box and don’t feel like searching for it at the moment and beside, I should read something new, new to me, something of his I haven’t read. That’s what I decided the other night upon hearing the news he was gone. I put The Good Rat on reserve at the library. It arrived today. I started it tonight. It’s about the trial of a pair of cops who'd been moonlighting as hitmen for the mob. Breslin wasn't looking forward to covering it. He didn't think there'd be much in the way of material for a column. He didn't foresee a book coming out of it.
I was hesitant about this trail from the start. These criminals held their secret meetings at a bar next to a golf course. If you look at how mobsters live today, you would say middle class and be right. The late, great Queens defense attorney Klein the Lawyer once said on behalf of some beast, "How could he commit a crime? He lives in a house." Middle class drowns excitement wherever you run into it. And the idea of cops who use their badges to murder depresses me. It it dreary and charmless and lacks finesse. It promises no opportunity to marvel, much less laugh.
Then he heard the chief witness for the prosecution, the good rat of the title, begin his testimony.
Then the trial starts and I am pulled out of my gloom. An unknown name on the prosecution witness list, an old drug peddler, a lifelong fence, steals the show and turns the proceeding into something that thrills: the autobiography of Burton Kaplan, criminal. Right away I think, Fuck these cops. I have found my book.
At this time we point out that Kaplan required no help from mobsters in any of his business ventures, legal or not. He made millions selling marijuana, for example, and virtually none of it went to to gangsters. He was a big earner for the Lucchese Mafia family in many businesses, though, and everybody was afraid of bothering him. Some associates believed he could have them killed. Mafia danger is the illusion of Mafia danger. Also, mob families couldn't move in on him because they didn't know how to do what he was doing. He was in crime as a business, not an underworld dodge played on street corners and alleys. Gangsters can't do what he did because it requires effort and thought. Kaplan ran legal garment businesses that made great money and let implied threats do the heavy lifting. Gangsters can manage private sanitation pickups or union organizing with violence, but Burt's schemes required actual work.
...Now, after doing so much evil, he is at last committing what he believes is an atrocious, unforgivable act.
Throughout the trial Kaplan refers to himself by various street names for an informer. He is asked what he means when he says this.
"A stool pigeon is a rat. Just like me."
Burt Kaplan's voice looses eagles that swoop and scream and slap against walls. He carried his loyalty to the Mafia almost to the end, until he believed there were leopards about to pounce. At the last stroke of midnight he turned in his claws.
Judd Burstein, one of Kaplan's lawyers, says, "He is probably the last true believer in the code of the Mafia, the omerta." He is about to become what he despises.
The trial took place in 2006, but Breslin reaches back in time from time to time to reminisce about tough guys he covered in his youth. In the process, he writes about the earliest days of his own career as a columnist, which began when he was assigned to cover the sentencing of a mobbed up union boss named Tony “The Pro” Provenzano. Maybe you heard of him. If you did, it might be because Breslin turned him into words other people have been unconsciously quoting and paraphrasing ever since, thinking they’re just saying what things are when they’re really relating the world according to Breslin:
Because I came from Queens, which nobody in the history of New York newspapers ever wrote about or even saw, I was reputed to be streetwise and tough. Which was untrue. I didn’t fight. I chased stories, not beatings. But knew where to find people who were somewhat less than our civic best, and so editors clung to the illusion. At the old Herald Tribune, they asked me one Thursday night if I could cover the sentencing the next day of Tony Provenzano in federal court in Newark. He was the Teamsters’ second to Jimmy Hoffa and had been convicted of extortion. They really wanted to get Tony Pro for pushing somebody down an elevator shaft, which he sure did. The reporter who’d been covering the trial had written about Tony’s two wives, who in unison called for him to be injured.
Breslin went. A number of things about Tony the Pro riveted his attention, one of which was his pinky ring. Provenzano was proud of it and liked to show it off while pretending he was doing anything else but.
I wrote about it all, including the ring. At the newspaper this was regarded as exceptional. Reporters had written about tough guys before, but not about their jewelry. There was a sudden new respect for me. I knew exactly how to take it. I announced I was great. Big JB Number One. It happened you needed no extra ability to do such a story. It was all there, like an order in a store being placed on the counter in front of you. A moron can pick it up and go home. Just write down what they do and say. But I declared that it took tremendous courage and talent to do the story. I had to contend with murderers. Why shouldn’t I boast? I wasn’t out of some Harvard or Princeton that gets people jobs on their school name. I attended John Adams High School, Ozone Park, Queens, the full five years. Was I nervous about the mobsters? You want to be afraid of something, be afraid of being broke.I remember John O’Hara wrote me a letter. I made sure everyone was looking when I threw it on the floor. “I don’t need him.” Garson Kanin also wrote. “Who is he?” I flipped that one away too. I then went out into the night for a thousand drinks. I went everywhere. I walked into the Copa like a heavyweight contender…
Later, when David Berkowitz sent me a letter that became famous, I was asked why the dangerous fruitcake wrote to me.
I said, “What are you, crazy? Who else would he write to?”
Exactly, the point. Who else? Who else could tell the dangerous fruitcake’s story? Who else could tell any New Yorker’s story? Who else would you want to?
Pierce’s appreciation of Breslin includes appreciation for another of Breslin’s novels,World Without End, Amen. Story of a disgraced New York cop who travels to Ireland to forget and winds up drawn into the Troubles by his estranged father, a gunman for the IRA, a fantasy set in an alternative universe because, as you know in our universe, only Muslims can be terrorists.
Pierce’s post is a dual eulogy. He writes in praise of Chuck Berry too. Not Chuck Berry the guitarist. Not Chuck Berry the pioneer rock and roller. Chuck Berry the wordsmith, the near-poet Pierce credits along with Breslin with re-inventing American English. To use a Berry-ism, motorvate on over to Esquire to read the whole piece.
Our longtime comrade in blogging, one of the smartiest of the smartypantses at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Professor Erik Loomis has been in New York City over the weekend and tweeted this post card from lower Manhattan. Saturday afternoon around three, February 11, 2017. Copyright Erik Loomis 2017.