In a time of fake news and alternative facts, we have lost Jimmy Breslin, a brave and brilliant teller of deepest truth.
Early Sunday morning, this 88-year-old genius newspaper columnist and novelist roused his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, with a question.
“How do you open a can of soup?”
She got up and the two of them spent a magical hour together, sipping soup and talking. They finally returned to the bed and he reached for The New York Times, which he always read so he could declare it unreadable. She drifted off after asking him not to get up again without letting her know.
He of course disobeyed her and was up and around when she woke up again shortly before 7:30 a.m. He approached the bed and she asked him how he felt. He told her he felt terrible.
He then pitched over onto the mattress.
On thousands of other days, Breslin had set out with pad and pen to cover the latest story, often pulsing with the adrenaline burst that comes with a tight deadline, pushing himself yet again to do his very best, hyper-focused so as not to miss the telling details, opening himself up to feel what the subject was feeling, almost becoming the subject, composing the narrative in his mind even as it unfolded.
He had been the doctor on duty when John F. Kennedy was rushed into a Dallas emergency room and the gravedigger who prepared the president’s resting place and a scared young soldier in Vietnam and Mafia boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante and a young woman waiting for the results of a life-or-death medical test and a family living without heat in cold so bitter the walls of the apartment were covered with ice.
He had also been a father of a murdered cop and a detective who captured a famous serial killer but then had to go to his second job lugging birdseed at a warehouse because he needed the extra dough to make ends meet and a Mexican immigrant who traveled to New York to feed his family and ended up drowning in a sub-standard cement pour and a little girl who proved to be the toughest kid in Brooklyn, sitting down at a murder scene and doing her homework for the next day.
Breslin would then hurry back to write if time allowed. If it did not, he wrote the column by hand and got on a phone to dictate it, often coming in at exactly the right length. He in all circumstances paid particular attention to verbs and to the sound as well as the sense of sentences so they expressed the feeling as precisely as the action, just as his favorite poet Yeats would.
The result was a joining of letter and spirit that is truth. His particular truth ran even deeper because he sought it in people who are often overlooked or ignored. Editors who did not understand what he was doing would call it color or an angle. Anyone attentive on the scene would know that he had chosen his latest subject as the best way to tell the full story.
But now, on Sunday, Breslin was at his own death scene and there was nobody for him to be but himself. And this was one story that a lesser talent would have to write.
Two uniformed cops from the Midtown North precinct responded to the Breslin apartment. Representatives of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home arrived in the late morning and showed the same kind of respect as that long-ago gravedigger as they set to work. They placed the great bard in a blue velvet body bag and zipped it up. He was rolled in a gurney from the bedroom and into the foyer. His novels and nonfiction books were on the shelves. Framed pages from a hand-edited draft of a Yeats play hung on a wall.
If there is an afterlife, Breslin will surely be communing not only with William Butler Yeats, but also with Fat Thomas Rand, the 400-pond bookmaker who had often appeared in his columns. Some Breslin detractors insisted Fat Thomas was a fictional character. Among those who could attest otherwise were the hotels in the south where he checked in during a tour in the civil-rights era, registering as Martin Luther Fat and liberating shoeshine stands by sitting on them.
“What’s doing?” Breslin would have said on reuniting with his friend Fat Thomas in the hereafter.
“How do you like it?” Fat Thomas would have replied.
And you can be sure that Breslin would give the cry that those of us who love him so well remember.
“J.B. Number 1!”
If there is only the here and now, Breslin still lives on in work that really does make him J.B. Number 1 as a result of hard work and brilliance rather than the bluster his imitators copy. And he leaves a pantheon of people he introduced to us in his continuing quest for the true greatness of America and therefore the human spirit, They prominently include Thomas Ridges, who grew up in toughest Brooklyn and was a teen when he first met Breslin more than three decades ago.
“He was a true gentleman, he judged people by who they were, not what they looked like,” Ridge said. “Think about it. I was a 15-year-old black kid from the Sumner Houses and he gave me the time of day. Instead of just writing about me, he spoke to me. He mentored me.”
Ridges graduated high school and college and joined the NYPD. He served with the Emergency Service Unit while he went to law school. He ran short of money at one point and he had only needed to call Breslin.
“I was able to finish law school and look at me now,” Ridges said.
Ridges went from being a prosecutor in Brooklyn to his present position as the 51-year-old special counsel to the district attorney of Staten Island.
“For me that story became a happy ending,” Ridges said. “A positive about the Sumer Houses. Anybody can do a negative.”
As Ridges grieved in his present home in Staten Island, the funeral home representatives were wheeling the gurney bearing Breslin’s remains down a hallway in his Manhattan apartment building.
Upon reaching the elevator, they discovered that the gurney was not going to fit in the usual position. Breslin’s son, James, watched as they gently and respectfully tipped the gurney and his father upright.
James understood that his father would have been delighted.
“He left his residence standing,” James said.
The funeral home representatives continued on to the street and a waiting hearse. There will be no story about a gravedigger for Breslin’s place of rest. He was to be cremated.