I read an article in Sunday’s Daily news about Jimmy Breslin getting inducted into The Deadline Club, something they do for journalists. It was written by Denis Hamill, son of Peter, another famed and celebrated journalist, another member of the cigar and whiskey school of journalism Jimmy Breslin is famous for. The article mentioned that when Jimmy was young, he was sent to D.C. to cover the JFK funeral, and he ended up interviewing the guy who dug the grave, but wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral because he was black. He still felt honored. That was what is brilliant about Breslin’s writing, the common touch.
I went out with a girl many years ago, in the early 1980’s. She was a rich girl who’d grown up in Washington, D.C. One of the first things she’d shown me when I went to her apartment was an un cashed check for $5 from the son of a famous politician, who in turn was a member of a famous political dynasty. The memo said “for trips,” it was for a tab of acid. Being rich doesn’t put one past name-dropping, I guess.
She had a sister named Sian, pronounced SHARN, as in darn.
Often the three of us would sit in her kitchen and drink coffee or beer and chat. They always inevitably ask one another if they’d read J.B.’s column that day. One day I got tired of being out of the loop, rich people like to remind you that you are not one of them, even when they are screwing you; so I asked, “Who’s J.B.?”
J.B. is Jimmy Breslin, we know his daughter, and we know him.
I knew of him, I read his newspaper columns and I’d even read his book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. I remembered his articles about the Son Of Sam case. David Berkowitz had written directly to Breslin before he was captured. I read every article he wrote during that case, and I loved his writing. It was straightforward, simple, and accessible. He spoke a language I understood, the language of the common man.
I loved his gangster book, I thought it was the funniest thing since The Three Stooges, with his depictions of the big fat gangster who has to eat his pasta naked because he’s such a gavone, and Beppo the dwarf, and the guy who was planting a bomb but blew up in the middle of the street beforehand because of some cop’s random radio transmission.
I wanted to meet J.B., since I did a bit of writing myself and thought he might help me. But that wasn’t to be. I did meet Rosemary, though, my girlfriend and her sister Darn Sian introduced us.
Rosemary once told me a story, she’d written an article for Life Magazine when she was very young, about two girls who’d gone to the Lower East Side and had gotten robbed by Latino drug-addict thugs, it was sort of a cautionary tale. I’d seen it; my girlfriend had shown it to me. She was a great collector of tangential fame memorabilia.
“That was me; the girl in the article.”
I already knew that, but I nodded in surprise. To her it was a little joke, a joke on her and a joke on the establishment, as it were.
I broke up with the rich girl, and lost touch with Rosemary.
Ten years later or so, I was working in a shoe store on East 55th Street. I was selling fashionable shoes for problem feet, as my boss liked to put it. I also did repairs and made orthotics.
One of my regular customers was a woman named Ronnie Eldridge, and it turned out that Ronnie was not only an influential city council member, but she was also married to Jimmy Breslin! I blurted out to her that I knew Rosemary, and that I’d gone out with Darn Sian’s sister. Ronnie still talked to them, and there were third party hellos all around.
One day she came in with Jimmy, she dragged him down to get him to buy some decent shoes.
“Xavier is the best shoe salesman in the business, Jimmy,” Ronnie said by way of introduction.
Here was my moment; I had the man himself in front of me. I took off his shoes, I measured his feet, and I asked what he was looking for.
“A pair of shoes, kid. Black lace-ups.”
I got him a pair of black Allen Edmonds oxfords similar to the shoes he was wearing and slipped them on.
“Xavier, how much do these shoes cost?” He asked.
“Ah, these are $125, Mr. Breslin.” Ronnie had already instructed me not to tell him how much the orthotics I was making him cost, but said nothing about the cost of the shoes. She was, after all, paying for everything, it was a gift.
“Do you know what I pay for shoes, Xavier?”
“ $25. A pair of shoes shouldn’t cost more than $25.” I didn’t want to say that the only shoes that cost $25 in 1992 were probably made of vinyl, so what I said instead was:
“Well sir, these are Allen Edmonds shoes, finely crafted right here in the U.S.” I think he probably knew a little about shoes, he’d written a funny bit in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight about gangsters not wanting to get their shoes dirty. Maybe he was just pulling my leg.
Allen Edmonds Black Oxfords
“The only reason I’m getting these shoes is because my wife is paying, Xavier.”
I fitted him, I took the impressions to make the orthotics with, and a week later I called him up to say everything was ready. Surprisingly, he answered the phone himself, and we had another extended conversation about the price of shoes.
A few days later, one of my co-workers, Jerry, who lived in Queens, came in brandishing a copy of New York Newsday.
“Take a look at this.” He said, handing me the paper. It was open to Breslin’s column, and I read it. It was all about buying the shoes, and the best shoe salesman in the business, Xavier. He recounted our phone conversation, our store interaction. He didn’t mention his wife had paid for the shoes.
There I was, one of Breslin’s common people, on the pages of New York Newsday. I wanted to call him up and tell him I was a writer too, and maybe he could help me. I never did that, because at that time I lived in a different world, a world of little hope for change and despair, and writing was something I did only in my dreams.
In 2004 Rosemary died, and I was shocked; she was only a couple of years younger than me. By that time, my life had changed, I was divorced; I no longer sold shoes, I was finally growing up a bit.
But I was still a little desperate; and as part of that desperation I got dressed up and attended the funeral at St. Francis Of Assisi church on West 31st.
Again, it was purely for self-centered reasons, I was probably hoping to run into my ex-girlfriend or maybe Darn Sian, there was no way I was going to talk to Jimmy or even Ronnie. There were a lot of people there, Dinkins, a raft of the political and powerful elite of old school New York. I left right after the service and thought of my own mortality and how lucky I was to have survived an uncommon lifestyle.
Reading Denis Hamill’s article brought all of these memories back, and it also brought back something I’ve learned, that I write. All ways have, always will. Now more than ever, since I’ve grown up a bit and can focus.
I am not as lucky as Rosemary or Denis to have a famous writer for a father to help my writing career along, but I am lucky enough to know how to make a deadline. Just ask my writing teacher, Charles Salzberg.