"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: pete hamill

New York Minute

cabbie

Mr. Cab Driver…from Pete Hamill:

Taxi drivers are the most enduring oppressed minority in New York City history. Race, ethnicity and religion are not sources of the oppression. It lies entirely in the nature of the work. Trapped for about 12 hours each day in the worst traffic in the United States, taxi drivers must suffer the savage frustrations of jammed streets, double-parked cars, immense trucks, drivers from New Jersey — and they can’t succumb to the explosive therapy of road rage. Their living depends on self-control.

At the same time, they face many other hazards: drunks behind them in the cab, fare beaters, stickup men, Knicks fans filled with biblical despair, out-of-town conventioneers who think the drivers are mobile pimps. Some seal themselves off from the back seat with the radio, an iPod or a cellphone. All pray that the next passenger doesn’t want to go from Midtown to the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. They hope for a decent tip. They hope to stay alive until the next fare waves from under a midnight streetlamp.

[Photo Credit: Matt Draper]

New York Minute

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A day in the life of Pete Hamill:

If it’s a beautiful day, I love taking walks. The walks are always aimless. From where I live, I like walking to the Battery, where so many people, including my own parents, came through that harbor and passed into Ellis Island and became Americans. You can just sit on a bench and look at the harbor, or look at the people. Like being a flâneur. You can just wander around and let the city dictate the script.

And here is Hamill’s review of The Boy Detective by Roger Rosenblatt:

To enter the world of this wonderful memoir is to leave the dull certainties of home and go wandering. The author’s destination is always the great wide world Out There, and through his sharp, compact prose, Roger Rosenblatt takes the reader with him. He is, after all, what some 19th-century Parisians called a flâneur, a stroller sauntering through anonymous crowds in the noisy, greedy, unscripted panoramas of the city.

In that role, Rosenblatt has no exact destination. In unstated homage to such wandering scribes as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, he doesn’t consult Google Earth or a guidebook. He doesn’t need a tour bus or a taxicab. He walks the streets like a poetic stray, embracing chance and accident, inhaling the gritty air of his true Old Country, a Manhattan village called Gramercy Park. He is not, however, parochial. Sometimes he slips over the border to make the strange feel familiar. Along the way, he bumps against human beings he almost surely will never see again.

Those nameless men and women are moving in the streets, retreating into shops, escaping snow or wind in the churches, the schools or the malls that have replaced the arcades once so precious to Parisian flâneurs. At times, a single person is the object of his scrutiny. Above all, his subject is people one at a time. He studies them, he says, like a detective. Clothes, hairdos, shoes, postures. And eyes, which say so much without words about what used to be called the soul. Rosenblatt tells us he has been doing this since his age was written in single digits. Detective fictions filled his head with ways to see the world, really see it, and then try to figure out what he was doing in that world. He suggests that though he studied at Harvard, and even taught there, his most important education came from popular fiction. Above all, detective fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes.

[Photo Credit: Dave Sanders]

More Than Somewhat

My father loved Damon Runyon’s Broadway stories so I grew up hearing phrases like “certain parties” and “more than somewhat.” I started reading Runyon when I was in high school and had a book-on-tape of Runyon’s short fiction that was read by Joe Mantenga–or was it Jerry Orbach? Either way, I enjoy the stories and every so often will pick up one of his compilations and choose a random piece just to get a taste.

Here’s the novelist William Kennedy writing about Runyon for the New York Times back in 1992:

[The] Runyon merriment was, and is, chiefly an achievement of language — the language of gamblers, hoodlums, chorus girls and cops that he acquired by listening, then infused into his stories, and is therefore credited with inventing. It is a nonesuch argot, and he uses it like no other writer who came before or after him. In the best of his short stories there is a comic fluency in this invented tongue, an originality of syntax, a fluidity of word and event that is wondrous to encounter.

…Far more serious writers than Damon Runyon have fallen on their faces and other parts because they lacked what he had: a love and mastery of language. His plots, on the other hand, were usually convoluted exercises in simple irony — O. Henry reversals, frequently predictable, sometimes zany, with resolutions, at times, sticky with treacle — and will not stand up in court.

And yet he salvaged these stories, more often than not, with his rhythmic street idioms, his indefatigable wit, and his peculiar acceptance of the paralegal rules of this world that he chronicled.

And here is Pete Hamill from the Introduction to a fine Runyon collection:

The beautiful thing about Damon Runyon is that he still speaks to us across the decades. He was born in the nineteenth century—fittingly in Manhattan, Kansas—and died in 1946 after a long struggle with cancer. In between, he wrote millions of words of journalism, some poetry, and the wonderful Broadway stories that make up part of this book.

Almost all of them are tales related by an unnamed narrator (who is surely a stand-in for Runyon), and they describe a world that vanished long ago, if indeed it ever existed at all. The world was located in about ten square blocks of midtown Manhattan during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Usually the area is called Times Square, although Runyon, who worked for Hearst and never The New York Times, seldom uses that name. It is a world primarily inhabited by the New York children of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, although Runyon enjoys describing the collisions of his Broadway people with various outlanders: slumming members of the upper class, greenhorns from way out in America, ambitious grifters in town to make big scores. There are almost no African-Americans (and in the racist argot of the era, Runyon refers to various black porters and waiters as “stove lids”). Harlem in that era was vivid with life and ambition. Runyon, the story writer, never bothered going there, except for glancing visits on the way to and from the Polo Grounds, where a team called the Giants once played baseball, long ago.

The Runyon world appears in these stories to be a male club (one critic describes it as “homoerotic”). His gangsters, gamblers, old bootleggers, prizefighters, waiters, musicians, and newspapermen are triumphantly male. Their language has a male rhythm. So do their lives, where the macho codes often lead them to mayhem. But many of the stories feature women, and the effect they have on men. The women are often tougher than men, and certainly more realistic. Most of them accept the notion of love, but they almost never separate that dangerous and delightful emotion from the hard realities of economics. Runyon’s showgirls all seem to understand that their beauty is a transient thing, an accident of genes and luck, but that with clarity and a certain amount of guile, a doll can build a secure future upon that splendid accident. Most of Runyon’s females would have agreed with Runyon’s advice to young writers: “Get the money.”

Hamill continues:

The voice of those stories is usually the “historical present,” as in “Butch Minds the Baby”:

“One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, when in comes three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John.”

The narrator is not sitting in Mindy’s while be is telling the story; this unfolding story happened in the past even though Runyon uses the present tense. But the simple device gives the stories a kind of energy that would be absent in most uses of the past tense. It looks easy, until you try to do it. The voice was above all urban, drawing on Yiddish, which in the 1920s was New York’s second language, as Spanish is today. Thus, a five-dollar bill is a “finiff” and various people are “starkers” {tough guys) or “gonophs” (thieves, cheats, pickpockets). Sometimes we can hear Runyon’s people talking above their station, playing social roles that are lies, but we certainly don’t mistake them for cbaracters out of Edith Wharton, who do the same thing.

This is, of course, a fictional world. The gangsters don’t speak the way real gangsters spoke in that era, or in ours. There is no obscenity, for example, no compounding of vile words to express contempt. And in the tales of romance there are subtle implications of sexual activity but no clinical details and no eroticism. Runyon is often accused of sentimentalizing his gangsters, and is sometimes guilty as charged. But a close reading of most of these stories shows us a clear darker side. His people often do terrible things to each other, and out of base motives.

Runyon’s influence on pop culture is undeniable, you can see his language filtered on down through Tony Soprano and his boys. And Francis Ford Coppolar, Martin Scorsese, and David Simon have all been accused of sentimentalizing their gangsters.

Anyhow, if you’ve never read Runyon, I found his Omnibus on-line, so I’m going to take the opportunity to reprint some of his work in this space. Meanwhile, over at the Internet Archive you can find some radio shows based on his stories.

For now, please enjoy…

“Romance in the Roaring Forties”:

By Damon Runyon

Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude’s doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you.

But this Waldo Winchester is one hundred per cent. sucker, which is why he takes quite a number of peeks at Dave’s doll. And what is more, she takes quite a number of peeks right back at him. And there you are. When a guy and a doll get to taking peeks back and forth at each other, why, there you are indeed.

This Waldo Winchester is a nice-looking young guy who writes pieces about Broadway for the Morning Item. He writes about the goings-on in night clubs, such as fights, and one thing and another, and also about who is running around with who, including guys and dolls.

Sometimes this is very embarrassing to people who may be married and are running around with people who are not married, but of course Waldo Winchester cannot be expected to ask one and all for their marriage certificates before he writes his pieces for the paper.

The chances are if Waldo Winchester knows Miss Billy Perry is Dave the Dude’s doll, he will never take more than his first peek at her, but nobody tips him off until his second or third peek, and by this time Miss Billy Perry is taking her peeks back at him and Waldo Winchester is hooked.

In fact, he is plumb gone, and being a sucker, like I tell you, he does not care whose doll she is. Personally, I do not blame him much, for Miss Billy Perry is worth a few peeks, especially when she is out on the floor of Miss Missouri Martin’s Sixteen Hundred Club doing her tap dance. Still, I do not think the best tap-dancer that ever lives can make me take two peeks at her if I know she is Dave the Dude’s doll, for Dave somehow thinks more than somewhat of his dolls.

He especially thinks plenty of Miss Billy Perry, and sends her fur coats, and diamond rings, and one thing and another, which she sends back to him at once, because it seems she does not take presents from guys. This is considered most surprising all along Broadway, but people figure the chances are she has some other angle.

Anyway, this does not keep Dave the Dude from liking her just the same, and so she is considered his doll by one and all, and is respected accordingly until this Waldo Winchester comes along.

It happens that he comes along while Dave the Dude is off in the Modoc on a little run down to the Bahamas to get some goods for his business, such as Scotch and champagne, and by the time Dave gets back Miss Billy Perry and Waldo Winchester are at the stage where they sit in corners between her numbers and hold hands.

Of course nobody tells Dave the Dude about this, because they do not wish to get him excited. Not even Miss Missouri Martin tells him, which is most unusual because Miss Missouri Martin, who is sometimes called ‘Mizzoo’ for short, tells everything she knows as soon as she knows it, which is very often before it happens.

You see, the idea is when Dave the Dude is excited he may blow somebody’s brains out, and the chances are it will be nobody’s brains but Waldo Winchester’s, although some claim that Waldo Winchester has no brains or he will not be hanging around Dave the Dude’s doll.

I know Dave is very, very fond of Miss Billy Perry, because I hear him talk to her several times, and he is most polite to her and never gets out of line in her company by using cuss words, or anything like this. Furthermore, one night when One-eyed Solly Abrahams is a little stewed up he refers to Miss Billy Perry as a broad, meaning no harm whatever, for this is the way many of the boys speak of the dolls.

But right away Dave the Dude reaches across the table and bops One-eyed Solly right in the mouth, so everybody knows from then on that Dave thinks well of Miss Billy Perry. Of course Dave is always thinking fairly well of some doll as far as this goes, but it is seldom he gets to bopping guys in the mouth over them.

Well, one night what happens but Dave the Dude walks into the Sixteen Hundred Club, and there in the entrance, what does he see but this Waldo Winchester and Miss Billy Perry kissing each other back and forth friendly. Right away Dave reaches for the old equalizer to shoot Waldo Winchester, but it seems Dave does not happen to have the old equalizer with him, not expecting to have to shoot anybody this particular evening.

So Dave the Dude walks over and, as Waldo Winchester hears him corning and lets go his strangle-hold on Miss Billy Perry, Dave nails him with a big right hand on the chin. I will say for Dave the Dude that he is a fair puncher with his right hand, though his left is not so good, and he knocks Waldo Winchester bow-legged. In fact, Waldo folds right up on the floor.

Well, Miss Billy Perry lets out a screech you can hear clear to the Battery and runs over to where Waldo Winchester lights, and falls on top of him squalling very loud. All anybody can make out of what she says is that Dave the Dude is a big bum, although Dave is not so big, at that, and that she loves Waldo Winchester.

Dave walks over and starts to give Waldo Winchester the leather, which is considered customary in such cases, but he seems to change his mind, and instead of booting Waldo around, Dave turns and walks out of the joint looking very black and mad, and the next anybody hears of him he is over in the Chicken Club doing plenty of drinking.

This is regarded as a very bad sign indeed, because while everybody goes to the Chicken Club now and then to give Tony Berzola, the owner, a friendly play, very few people care to do any drinking there, because Tony’s liquor is not meant for anybody to drink except the customers.

Well, Miss Billy Perry gets Waldo Winchester on his pegs again, and wipes his chin off with her handkerchief, and by and by he is all okay except for a big lump on his chin. And all the time she is telling Waldo Winchester what a big bum Dave the Dude is, although afterwards Miss Missouri Martin gets hold of Miss Billy Perry and puts the blast on her plenty for chasing a two-handed spender such as Dave the Dude out of the joint.

‘You are nothing but a little sap,’ Miss Missouri Martin tells Miss Billy Perry. ‘You cannot get the right time off this newspaper guy, while everybody knows Dave the Dude is a very fast man with a dollar.’

‘But I love Mr. Winchester,’ says Miss Billy Perry. ‘He is so romantic. He is not a bootlegger and a gunman like Dave the Dude. He puts lovely pieces in the paper about me, and he is a gentleman at all times.’

Now of course Miss Missouri Martin is not in a position to argue about gentlemen, because she meets very few in the Sixteen Hundred Club and anyway, she does not wish to make Waldo Winchester mad as he is apt to turn around and put pieces in his paper that will be a knock to the joint, so she lets the matter drop.

Miss Billy Perry and Waldo Winchester go on holding hands between her numbers, and maybe kissing each other now and then, as young people are liable to do, and Dave the Dude plays the chill for the Sixteen Hundred Club and everything seems to be all right. Naturally we are all very glad there is no more trouble over the proposition, because the best Dave can get is the worst of it in a jam with a newspaper guy.

Personally, I figure Dave will soon find himself another doll and forget all about Miss Billy Perry, because now that I take another peek at her, I can see where she is just about the same as any other tap-dancer, except that she is red-headed. Tap-dancers are generally blackheads, but I do not know why.

Moosh, the doorman at the Sixteen Hundred Club, tells me Miss Missouri Martin keeps plugging for Dave the Dude with Miss Billy Perry in a quiet way, because he says he hears Miss Missouri Martin make the following crack one night to her: ‘Well, I do not see any Simple Simon on your lean and linger.’

This is Miss Missouri Martin’s way of saying she sees no diamond on Miss Billy Perry’s finger, for Miss Missouri Martin is an old experienced doll, who figures if a guy loves a doll he will prove it with diamonds. Miss Missouri Martin has many diamonds herself, though how any guy can ever get himself heated up enough about Miss Missouri Martin to give her diamonds is more than I can see.

I am not a guy who goes around much, so I do not see Dave the Dude for a couple of weeks, but late one Sunday afternoon little Johnny McGowan, who is one of Dave’s men, comes and says to me like this: ‘What do you think? Dave grabs the scribe a little while ago and is taking him out for an airing!’

Well, Johnny is so excited it is some time before I can get him cooled out enough to explain. It seems that Dave the Dude gets his biggest car out of the garage and sends his driver, Wop Joe, over to the Item office where Waldo Winchester works, with a message that Miss Billy Perry wishes to see Waldo right away at Miss Missouri Martin’s apartment on Fifty-ninth Street.

Of course this message is nothing but the phonus bolonus, but Waldo drops in for it and gets in the car. Then Wop Joe drives him up to Miss Missouri Martin’s apartment, and who gets in the car there but Dave the Dude. And away they go.

Now this is very bad news indeed, because when Dave the Dude takes a guy out for an airing the guy very often does not come back. What happens to him I never ask, because the best a guy can get by asking questions in this man’s town is a bust in the nose.

But I am much worried over this proposition, because I like Dave the Dude, and I know that taking a newspaper guy like Waldo Winchester out for an airing is apt to cause talk, especially if he does not come back. The other guys that Dave the Dude takes out for airings do not mean much in particular, but here is a guy who may produce trouble, even if he is a sucker, on account of being connected with a newspaper.

I know enough about newspapers to know that by and by the editor or somebody will be around wishing to know where Waldo Winchester’s pieces about Broadway are, and if there are no pieces from Waldo Winchester, the editor will wish to know why. Finally it will get around to where other people will wish to know, and after a while many people will be running around saying: ‘Where is Waldo Winchester?’

And if enough people in this town get to running around saying where is So-and-so, it becomes a great mystery and the newspapers bop on the cops and the cops hop on everybody, and by and by there .is so much heat in town that it is no place for a guy to be.

But what is to be done about this situation I do not know. Personally, it strikes me as very bad indeed, and while Johnny goes away to do a little telephoning, I am trying to think up some place to go where people will see me, and remember afterwards that I am there in case it is necessary for them to remember.

Finally Johnny comes back, very excited, and says: ‘Hey, the Dude is up at the Woodcock Inn on the Pelham Parkway, and he is sending out the word for one and all to come at once. Good Time Charley Bernstein just gets the wire and tells me. Something is doing. The rest of the mob are on their way, so let us be moving.’

But here is an invitation which does not strike me as a good thing at all. The way I look at it, Dave the Dude is no company for a guy like me at this time. The chances are he either does something to Waldo Winchester already, or is getting ready to do something to him which I wish no part of.

Personally, I have nothing against newspaper guys, not even the ones who write pieces about Broadway. If Dave the Dude wishes to do something to Waldo Winchester, all right, but what is the sense of bringing outsiders into it? But the next thing I know, I am in Johnny McGowan’s roadster, and he is zipping along very fast indeed, paying practically no attention to traffic lights or anything else.

As we go busting out the Concourse, I get to thinking the situation over, and I figure that Dave the Dude probably keeps thinking about Miss Billy Perry, and drinking liquor such as they sell in the Chicken Club, until finally he blows his topper. The way I look at it, only a guy who is off his nut will think of taking a newspaper guy out for an airing over a doll, when dolls are a dime a dozen in this man’s town.

Still, I remember reading in the papers about a lot of different guys who are considered very sensible until they get tangled up with a doll, and maybe loving her, and the first thing anybody knows they hop out of windows, or shoot themselves, or somebody else, and I can see where even a guy like Dave the Dude may go daffy over a doll.

I can see that little Johnny McGowan is worried, too, but he does not say much, and we pull up in front of the Woodcock Inn in no time whatever, to find a lot of other cars there ahead of us, some of which I recognize as belonging to different parties.

The Woodcock Inn is what is called a road house, and is run by Big Nig Skalsky, a very nice man indeed, and a friend of everybody’s. It stands back a piece off the Pelham Parkway and is a very pleasant place to go to, what with Nig having a good band and a floor show with a lot of fair-looking dolls, and everything else a man can wish for a good time. It gets a nice play from nice people, although Nig’s liquor is nothing extra.

Personally, I never go there much, because I do not care for road houses, but it is a great spot for Dave the Dude when he is pitching parties, or even when he is only drinking single-handed. There is a lot of racket in the joint as we drive up, and who comes out to meet us but Dave the Dude himself with a big hello. His face is very red, and he seems heated up no little, but he does not look like a guy who is meaning any harm to anybody, especially a newspaper guy.

‘Come in, guys!’ Dave the Dude yells. ‘Come right in!’

So we go in, and the place is full of people sitting at tables, or out on the floor dancing, and I see Miss Missouri Martin with all her diamonds hanging from her in different places, and Good Time Charley Bernstein, and Feet Samuels, and Tony Bertazzola, and Skeets Boliver, and Nick the Greek, and Rochester Red, and a lot of other guys and dolls from around and about.

In fact, it looks as if everybody from all the joints on Broadway are present, including Miss Billy Perry, who is all dressed up in white and is lugging a big bundle of orchids and so forth, and who is giggling and smiling and shaking hands and going on generally. And finally I see Waldo Winchester, the scribe, sitting at a ringside table all by himself, but there is nothing wrong with him as far as I can see. I mean, he seems to be all in one piece so far.

‘Dave,’ I say to Dave the Dude, very quiet, ‘what is coming off here? You know a guy cannot be too careful what he does around this town, and I will hate to see you tangled up in anything right now.’

‘Why,’ Dave says, ‘what are you talking about? Nothing is coming off here but a wedding, and it is going to be the best wedding anybody on Broadway ever sees. We are waiting for the preacher now.’

‘You mean somebody is going to be married?’ I ask, being now somewhat confused.

‘Certainly,’ Dave the Dude says. ‘What do you think? What is the idea of a wedding, anyway?’

‘Who is going to be married?’ I ask.

‘Nobody but Billy and the scribe,’ Dave says. ‘This is the greatest thing I ever do in my life. I run into Billy the other night and she is crying her eyes out because she loves this scribe and wishes to marry him, but it seems the scribe has nothing he can use for money. So I tell Billy to leave it to me, because you know I love her myself so much I wish to see her happy at all times, even if she has to marry to be that way.

‘So I frame this wedding party, and after they are married I am going to stake them to a few G’s so they can get a good running start,’ Dave says. ‘But I do not tell the scribe and I do not let Billy tell him as I wish it to be a big surprise to him. I kidnap him this afternoon and bring him out here and he is scared half to death thinking I am going to scrag him.

‘In fact,’ Dave says, ‘I never see a guy so scared. He is still so scared nothing seems to cheer him up. Go over and tell him to shake himself together, because nothing but happiness for him is coming off here.’

Well, I wish to say I am greatly relieved to think that Dave intends doing nothing worse to Waldo Winchester than getting him married up, so I go over to where Waldo is sitting. He certainly looks somewhat alarmed. He is all in a huddle with himself, and he has what you call a vacant stare in his eyes. I can see that he is indeed frightened, so I give him a jolly slap on the back and I say: ‘Congratulations, pal! Cheer up, the worst is yet to come!’

‘You bet it is,’ Waldo Winchester says, his voice so solemn I am greatly surprised.

‘You are a fine-looking bridegroom,’ I say. ‘You look as if you are at a funeral instead of a wedding. Why do you not laugh ha-ha, and maybe take a dram or two and go to cutting up some?’

‘Mister,’ says Waldo Winchester, ‘my wife is not going to care for me getting married to Miss Billy Perry.’

‘Your wife?’ I say, much astonished. ‘What is this you are speaking of? How can you have any wife except Miss Billy Perry? This is great foolishness.’

‘I know,’ Waldo says, very sad. ‘I know. But I got a wife just the same, and she is going to be very nervous when she hears about this. My wife is very strict with me. My wife does not allow me to go around marrying people. My wife is Lola Sapola, of the Rolling Sapolas, the acrobats, and I am married to her for five years. She is the strong lady who juggles the other four people in the act. My wife just gets back from a year’s tour of the Interstate time, and she is at the Marx Hotel right this minute. I am upset by this proposition.’

‘Does Miss Billy Perry know about this wife?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says. ‘No. She thinks I am single-o.’

‘But why do you not tell Dave the Dude you are already married when he brings you out here to marry you off to Miss Billy Perry?’ I ask. ‘It seems to me a newspaper guy must know it is against the law for a guy to marry several different dolls unless he is a Turk, or some such.’

‘Well,’ Waldo says, ‘if I tell Dave the Dude I am married after taking his doll away from him, I am quite sure Dave will be very much excited, and maybe do something harmful to my health.’

Now there is much in what the guy says, to be sure. I am inclined to think, myself, that Dave will be somewhat disturbed when he learns of this situation, especially when Miss Billy Perry starts in being unhappy about it. But what is to be done I do not know, except maybe to let the wedding go on, and then when Waldo is out of reach of Dave, to put in a claim that he is insane, and that the marriage does not count. It is a sure thing I do not wish to be around when Dave the Dude hears Waldo is already married.

I am thinking that maybe I better take it on the lam out of here, when there is a great row at the door and I hear Dave the Dude yelling that the preacher arrives. He is a very nice-looking preacher, at that, though he seems somewhat surprised by the goings-on, especially when Miss Missouri Martin steps up and takes charge of him. Miss Missouri Martin tells him she is fond of preachers, and is quite used to them, because she is twice married by preachers, and twice by justices of the peace, and once by a ship’s captain at sea.

By this time one and all present, except maybe myself and Waldo Winchester, and the preacher and maybe Miss Billy Perry, are somewhat corned. Waldo is still sitting at his table looking very sad and saying ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to Miss Billy Perry whenever she skips past him, for Miss Billy Perry is too much pleasured up with happiness to stay long in one spot.

Dave the Dude is more corned than anybody else, because he has two or three days’ running start on everybody. And when Dave the Dude is corned I wish to say that he is a very unreliable guy as to temper, and he is apt to explode right in your face any minute. But he seems to be getting a great bang out of the doings.

Well, by and by Nig Skolsky has the dance floor cleared, and then he moves out on the floor a sort of arch of very beautiful flowers. The idea seems to be that Miss Billy Perry and Waldo Winchester are to be married under this arch. I can see that Dave the Dude must put in several days planning this whole proposition, and it must cost him plenty of the old do-re-mi, especially as I see him showing Miss Missouri Martin a diamond ring as big as a cough drop.

‘It is for the bride,’ Dave the Dude says. ‘The poor loogan she is marrying will never have enough dough to buy her such a rock, and she always wishes a big one. I get it off a guy who brings it in from Los Angeles. I am going to give the bride away myself in person, so how do I act, Mizzoo? I want Billy to have everything according to the book.’

Well, while Miss Missouri Martin is trying to remember back to one of her weddings to tell him, I take another peek at Waldo Winchester to see how he is making out. I once see two guys go to the old warm squativoo up in Sing Sing, and I wish to say both are laughing heartily compared to Waldo Winchester at this moment.

Miss Billy Perry is sitting with him and the orchestra leader is calling his men dirty names because none of them can think of how ‘Oh, Promise Me’ goes, when Dave the Dude yells: ‘Well, we are all set! Let the happy couple step forward!’

Miss Billy Perry bounces up and grabs Waldo Winchester by the arm and pulls him up out of his chair. After a peek at his face I am willing to lay 6 to 5 he does not make the arch. But he finally gets there with everybody laughing and clapping their hands, and the preacher comes forward, and Dave the Dude looks happier than I ever see him look before in his life as they all get together under the arch of flowers.

Well, all of a sudden there is a terrible racket at the front door of the Woodcock Inn, with some doll doing a lot of hollering in a deep voice that sounds like a man’s, and naturally everybody turns and looks that way. The doorman, a guy by the name of Slugsy Sachs, who is a very hard man indeed, seems to be trying to keep somebody out, but pretty soon there is a heavy bump and Slugsy Sachs falls down, and in comes a doll about four feet high and five feet wide.

In fact, I never see such a wide doll. She looks all hammered down. Her face is almost as wide as her shoulders, and makes me think of a great big full moon. She comes in bounding-like, and I can see that she is all churned up about something. As she bounces in, I hear a gurgle, and I look around to see Waldo Winchester slumping down to the floor, almost dragging Miss Billy Perry with him.

Well, the wide doll walks right up to the bunch under the arch and says in a large bass voice: ‘Which one is Dave the Dude?’

I am Dave the Dude,’ says Dave the Dude, stepping up. ‘What do you mean by busting in here like a walrus and gumming up our wedding?’

‘So you are the guy who kidnaps my ever-loving husband to marry him off to this little red-headed pancake here, are you?’ the wide doll says, looking at Dave the Dude, but pointing at Miss Billy Perry.

Well now, calling Miss Billy Perry a pancake to Dave the Dude is a very serious proposition, and Dave the Dude gets very angry. He is usually rather polite to dolls, but you can see he does not care for the wide doll’s manner whatever.

‘Say, listen here,’ Dave the Dude says, ‘you better take a walk before somebody clips you. You must be drunk,’ he says. ‘Or daffy,’ he says. ‘What are you talking about, anyway?’

‘You will see what I am talking about,’ the wide doll yells. ‘The guy on the floor there is my lawful husband. You probably frighten him to death, the poor dear. You kidnap him to marry this red-headed thing, and I am going to get you arrested as sure as my name is Lola Sapola, you simple-looking tramp!’

Naturally, everybody is greatly horrified at a doll using such language to Dave the Dude, because Dave is known to shoot guys for much less, but instead of doing something to the wide doll at once, Dave says: ‘What is this talk I hear? Who is married to who? Get out of here!’ Dave says, grabbing the wide doll’s arm.

Well, she makes out as if she is going to slap Dave in the face with her left hand, and Dave naturally pulls his kisser out of the way. But instead of doing anything with her left, Lola Sapola suddenly drives her right fist smack-dab into Dave the Dude’s stomach, which naturally comes forward as his face goes back.

I wish to say I see many a body punch delivered in my life, but I never see a prettier one than this. What is more, Lola Sapola steps in with the punch, so there is plenty on it.

Now a guy who eats and drinks like Dave the Dude does cannot take them so good in the stomach, so Dave goes ‘oaf,’ and sits down very hard on the dance floor, and as he is sitting there he is fumbling in his pants pocket for the old equalizer, so everybody around tears for cover except Lola Sapola, and Miss Billy Perry, and Waldo Winchester.

But before he can get his pistol out, Lola Sapola reaches down and grabs Dave by the collar and hoists him to his feet. She lets go her hold on him, leaving Dave standing on his pins, but teetering around somewhat, and then she drives her right hand to Dave’s stomach a second time.

The punch drops Dave again, and Lola steps up to him as if she is going to give him the foot. But she only gathers up Waldo Winchester from off the floor and slings him across her shoulder like he is a sack of oats, and starts for the door. Dave the Dude sits up on the floor again and by this time he has the old equalizer in his duke.

‘Only for me being a gentleman I will fill you full of slugs,’ he yells.

Lola Sapola never even looks back, because by this time she is petting Waldo Winchester’s head and calling him loving names and saying what a shame it is for bad characters like Dave the Dude to be abusing her precious one. It all sounds to me as if Lola Sapola thinks well of Waldo Winchester.

Well, after she gets out of sight, Dave the Dude gets up off the floor and stands there looking at Miss Billy Perry, who is out to break all crying records. The rest of us come out from under cover, including the preacher, and we are wondering how mad Dave the Dude is going to be about the wedding being ruined. But Dave the Dude seems only disappointed and sad.

‘Billy,’ he says to Miss Billy Perry, ‘I am mighty sorry you do not get your wedding. All I wish for is your happiness, but I do not believe you can ever be happy with this scribe if he also has to have his lion tamer around. As Cupid I am a total bust. This is the only nice thing I ever try to do in my whole life, and it is too bad it does not come off. Maybe if you wait until we can drown her, or something–’

‘Dave,’ says Miss Billy Perry, dropping so many tears that she seems to finally wash herself right into Dave the Dude’s arms, ‘I will never, never be happy with such a guy as Waldo Winchester. I can see now you are the only man for me.’

‘Well, well, well,’ Dave the Dude says, cheering right up. ‘Where is the preacher? Bring on the preacher and let us have our wedding anyway.’

I see Mr. and Mrs. Dave the Dude the other day, and they seem very happy. But you never can tell about married people, so of course I am never going to let on to Dave the Dude that I am the one who telephones Lola Sapola at the Marx Hotel, because maybe I do not do Dave any too much of a favour, at that.

For Pete’s Sake

A few months ago, Mulhholland Books ran a good two-part interview with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter (part one and part two).

It’s worth checking out:

Hamill: When I first became a newspaperman—June 1st, 1960—it was the beginning of my real life—it really was. When I first got a presscard with my name on it I wore it to bed like dogtags for a month. It said, “Hey, okay, do it. Leave your game on the floor,” you know? And I think there were a whole bunch of us like that, including you, Pete. So we’re going to lose things now. Just the transition from newspapers into websites means that journalism will stay alive, but not the feeling that came with going into a city room, and having guys bounce ideas, and wisecracks, and rotten jokes, and everything else off you before you ever got to write the first sentence of your piece. I mean, that sense of serendipity that comes from being among people who know things you don’t know, and who help educate you every night or every day that you show up, I think that’s going to get lost if you just park in front of a computer somewhere.

But with all that, I don’t have any regrets about it. I feel sad, and melancholy from time to time, but I never think, Gee, I wish I’d gone to work for Goldman Sachs instead.

Dexter: There’s something there that you said that’s really true. A lot of the best things you write come out of, somebody will say something, and it’ll make you think of something else, and bang, people are calling you smart, and…

Hamill: When it’s all about chance.

Dexter: [laughs] You have the chance. And I’m sad about it, and I regret that there’s nobody—you’re not passing along to people now. There’s nobody who’s going to wake up tomorrow and put a press card around his neck, I mean—that just doesn’t happen anymore. And to me, I don’t know any other kind of job I could’ve done.

Hamill: The same with me—that I could have done and be happy at the same time. I mean I could’ve done other jobs I guess—you know, lifting orange crates into trucks or something—but to be happy, to feel like I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day and do it again, that feeling—I don’t think a lot of people have that anymore, including young people going into the business to become journalists.

Hamill’s latest novel, Tabloid City, is about the newspaper business.

From Ali to Xena: 18

Remembering Royko 

By John Schulian

I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of  the Alamo.

I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the  years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.

Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.

It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego,  Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.

And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of  an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.

When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point:  “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”

He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.

The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.

Royko with Studs Terkel

Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call  Murdoch “The Alien” in print.

Mike was the best.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Me, Myself and I

George Kimball has a fine profile of Pete Hamill and Hamill’s new novel, “Tabloid City” in the Irish Times. This part spoke to me:

Introducing Hamill at a symposium celebrating the publication of Tabloid City a few weeks ago, fellow writer Adam Gopnik alluded to Tabloid City’s “recurrent theme of loneliness”, but he was quickly corrected by Hamill. While most of the novel’s characters do fly solo, some do so by choice.

“I would draw the distinction between loneliness and solitude,” says Hamill. “Many of us, particularly writers and artists, cherish our solitude.” He and Fukiko maintain separate working quarters in their Tribeca loft.

“Many people adjust to being alone by embracing solitude, rather than surrendering to loneliness, and there’s something almost ennobling about that. With a good book in the house, you’re never alone. But since being alone – at least in my opinion – can be most difficult at night, some people fill their nights with work.”

I used to be uncomfortable being alone. Maybe it is because I’m a twin, I don’t know. But I associated being alone with being lonely. Now, I see that solitude is not necessarily depressing or isolating at all. And that is a great relief.

[Photo Credit:  David Senechal Polydactyle]

Blood on the Mats

Here is a compelling essay Pete Hamill wrote in 1996 for Esquire“Blood on Their Hands: The Corrupt and Brutal World of Professional Boxing”:

On the night of the Tyson-Bruno fight, I went to a place called the Official All Star Cafe in Times Square. There was a huge private party to honor the twentieth anniversary of the first Rocky movie, and crowds packed the sidewalks for a glimpse of Sylvester Stallone and the celebrities he might draw. One of those celebrities was Muhammad Ali.

Ali was already there when I arrived, dressed in a dark-red long-sleeved shirt, seated at a table with his wife and young son. To his right was a movie-size screen on which the preliminary fights were being broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The room was crowded with citizens of the fight racket: Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, Ray Leonard and Willie Pep, managers and promoters, wives and girlfriends. Everybody tried to avoid looking at Muhammad Ali.

His head was bowed and he was trying to eat. But his right hand was shaking so hard that he could not get the piece of chicken to move two inches to his mouth. His wife, Lonnie, put her hand over his to quell the shaking and gently guided the chicken to its destination. Ali chewed diligently but did not raise his head.

Across the evening, people came over to the table to lean down and speak to the ruined fifty-four-year-old man. Sometimes he smiled. Sometimes he whispered a reply. Sometimes he rose to pose for pictures. But then he would be back in the chair, the once lithe and powerful body sagging, the eyes wide and wary, a plastic strew clenched in his mouth, all of him shaking with the Parkinson’s disease, with the damage caused by the fierce trade he once honored.

The disease, caused in Ali’s case by repeated blows to the head, is insidious, degenerative, humiliating, a thief of will and memory. I know: My mother, who was hit in the head by a mugger in 1979, is now eighty-five and trapped in its silent prison. I’ve fed her, as Lonnie feeds Ali.

Only when the fight started and Mike Tyson came down the aisle in Las Vegas did Ali’s eyes focus intensely. We’ll never know what now moves through his mind. But he had made that same walk so many times, with entire arenas and stadiums roaring the chant Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee…. When young, he had been among great throngs where half the audience hated him, and had stayed long enough to convert them all. For Ah-lee, Ah-lee wasn’t about celebrity or even success; it was about excellence and heart. And it was about personal defiance: of odds, of skeptics, of racists, of the American government, and of pain. Along the way, Ali became myth; most myths, alas, are also tragedies.

Bolos Over Broadway

The great Pete Hamill talks boxing:

Paid in Full

Last week, Mike Lupica, Pete Hamill, Leonard Gardner, Colum McCann and Robert Lipsyte joined George Kimball at Barnes and Noble in Tribeca to talk about “At the Fights.” Here is Lipsyte in fine form:

In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.

As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]

They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”

Priceless. And there is sure to be more where that came from in Lipsyte’s new memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter.”

And here’s a nice write up on “At the Fights” by Lupica:

Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.

George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”

In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.

Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.

How Sweet It Is

George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.

All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.

I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.

Check out the Library of America’s website for a fascinating and in-depth interview with Kimball and Schulian.

Here’s Kimball:

The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.

Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.

Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.

And Schulian:

It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.

Click here for an excerpt.

Don’t sleep, pound-for-pound, this will be the most rewarding book–never mind sports book–you’ll buy this spring.

You Must Remember This

Here’s another one from Pete Hamill via the New York Magazine Archives. Let’s go back to 1987:

Once there was another city here, and now it is gone. There are almost no traces of it anymore, but millions of us know it existed, because we lived in it: the Lost City of New York.

It was a city, as John Cheever once wrote, that “was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” In that city, the taxicabs were all Checkers, with ample room for your legs, and the drivers knew where Grand Central was and always helped with the luggage. In that city, there were apartments with three bedrooms and views of the river. You hurried across the street and your girl was waiting for you under the Biltmore clock, with snow melting in her hair. Cars never double-parked. Shop doors weren’t locked in the daytime. Bus drivers still made change. All over town, cops walked the beat and everyone knew their names. In that city, you did not smoke on the subway. You wore galoshes in the rain. Waitresses called you honey. You slept with windows open to the summer night.

That New York is gone now, hammered into dust by time, progress, accident, and greed. Yes, most of us distrust the memory of how we lived here, not so very long ago. Nostalgia is a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment, never to be wholly trusted. For many of us, looking back is simply too painful; we must confront the unanswerable question of how we let it all happen, how the Lost City was lost. And so most of us have trained ourselves to forget.

[Picture by Bags]

He Ain’t Pretty No More

From the New York Magazine archives, here’s a piece Pete Hamill once in 1969 about a Great White Hope:

Jerry Quarry was dressed in natty gray sharkskin trousers, a cobalt-blue shirt and white shoes, and he looked like all those young men in Southern California who don’t take drugs or wear their hair long or go off to Berkeley. The dark blond hair was combed straight back, with long sideburns, and you were sure that a few years ago he wore a ducktail. The face itself had that rugged blockiness you see a lot in California: straight short nose, good jaw, neat ears; only Quarry’s eyes had that peculiar maturity that comes with the acceptance of pain. He nodded and disappeared into the dressing room.

After awhile, Quarry returned and hopped into the ring. He was wearing green trunks and white boxing shoes, and he started to move briskly around the ring, flicking his bandaged hands at the air. The hard body was tanned and trim, and he twisted it and stretched it, the hands always moving, describing patterns of punches, the jab whipping straight out, the right hand jamming behind it, the short flat hook whipping horizontally across Quarry’s own chin-line. The audience seemed hypnotized.

Then Quarry went over to the side of the ring, where his trainer Teddy Bentham smeared Vaseline on his face and laced on a pair of 10-ounce red boxing gloves. Boursse came into the ring, his face masked by headgear. Quarry did not wear headgear, and you could see the blanched look on the face of John Condon, the Garden public relations man. Quarry’s fight with Frazier is the hottest prizefight of the year; the Garden might be sold out, and if it is, the live gate alone could be $750,000, with another million coming from closed-circuit television. If Quarry were cut in training it would cost someone a lot of money. But Quarry is a fighter, and the real fighters don’t really care much for headgear.

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

I met Pete Dexter last fall when he was in New York promoting his seventh novel, Spooner. Dexter was a wonderful newspaper columnist and is now one of our greatest novelists. First thing I noticed about him was that he was wearing a pink Yankees cap. So when I had a chance to interview him the Yankees were the first thing we talked about.

Here is our chat, which covers a lot more than the Bombers.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: I had no idea you were a Yankees fan.

Pete Dexter: No, it’s true. I’m a big Yankee fan. It started out as a way to irritate Mrs. Dexter who is a Yankee fan from way back. And so when they’d win I’d get into it just because it irritated her so damn bad, but then I started to look at them and–

BB: When was this, during the ’90s?

PD: Yeah. So when I found out that it irritated Mrs. Dexter I did it more and more. There have been a lot of teams in my life that I’ve rooted against, but I have never rooted for a team in my life before I rooted for the Yankees, including teams I played on.

BB: And the Yankees of all teams.

PD: Yeah, strangely enough. I didn’t even like baseball until the mid-’90s. And I enjoy it more every year. We get all the games on the cable. It’s the only thing that’s worth all the money I spend on cable.

BB: So can you deal with Michael Kay?

PD: Is he the “See Ya” guy?

BB: Yup.

PD: He’s okay, it’s the other two guys from ESPN that drive me crazy.

BB: Joe Morgan and Jon Miller.

PD: Jesus, the go on for hours and hours. Morgan was one of the most exciting players I ever saw and just absolutely the most boring human being on the face of the earth.

BB: Just goes to show there’s no correlation.

PD: Yeah, none at all.

BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?

PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can’t bullshit my way through that then I don’t deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn’t read anything until…it’s a true story than when I wrote Deadwood [Dexter’s second novel], my brother Tom called me up and said, “You’ve now written a book longer than any book you’ve ever read.” And that was absolutely true. I stumbled into a newspaper office in Fort Lauderdale. I was 26 or 27 years old and in those days you could actually stumble into a newspaper office and get hired as a reporter. But I don’t have to tell you what it’s like now.

BB: Did you take to reporting pretty quickly or was it just another job?

PD: I hated it. They had me doing–I thought it was a joke actually at first–they came over the first day and gave me a list of seven or eight things and said, “These are your beats.” And I thought it was some kind of initiation rite. You know, juvenile court, the hospital district, poverty programs and tomatoes. There was agricultural products—tomatoes was a separate category. But there were literally seven or eight of them, none of which interested me even remotely. Hell, they gave me a county health thing and there was a doctor who ran the county health department. He was a nice guy and I’d call him up every Sunday night when I came in and ask him if he could stretch something into an epidemic. And he’d say, “Well, we’ve got four cases of measles…you could call that an epidemic.” So every Monday I’d have a story in the paper about a new epidemic. The bigger paper down there was the Fort Lauderdale News. It got the big guy there fired because I kept coming up with new epidemics and he couldn’t come up with any.

(more…)

Hurts So Good

“Sometimes you only get to win one championship.” –Leonard Gardner

Did you ever rent a movie and then return it without watching it?

fat-city-1972-poster

I’ve rented John Huston’s Fat City at least twice in my life but never watched it. I can’t explain why. Chalk it up to my mood at the time. After all, Huston is one of my favorite directors and Jeff Bridges one of my favorite actors.

Fat City is based on Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name. The book is less than 200 pages long, and the story is almost unbearably grim. It is about boxing and drinking in Stockton, California. It is about losers losing. And although the prose is lean and clear, it is also dense–you can almost feel how much effort went into making it so direct and spare.

It was a tough book for me to get through, even though it wasn’t long. I read it because I thought it would be good for me not because I enjoyed it. I admired the artistry–the writing was superb, but I found the story bleak and depressing. When I finished it, I thought, Now, there is a world I don’t need to visit again. No wonder I never watched the movie.

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I felt compelled to read the book because Huston’s movie started a two-week run at the Film Forum last night. George Kimball and Pete Hamill introduced the movie and then stuck around to answer questions when it was over. Hamill said that Gardner’s novel is one of the three best boxing novels ever written, along with The Professional by W.C. Heinz, and The Harder they Fall by Budd Schulberg. Kimball who is a walking encyclopedia of boxing knowledge talked about how Huston cast boxers and non-actors in the movie, how he insisted that it be shot in Stockton to preserve the book’s authenticity, how the producer Ray Stark wanted to fire the DP, the great Conrad Hall, because the scenes inside the bars were so dark.

Kimball also tried to explain the biggest question about Gardner (one that Gardner is probably asked daily)–why was Fat City the only book he ever wrote? Gardner continued to write short stories and journalism–I remember reading a piece he did for Inside Sports on the first Leonard-Duran fight–and eventually went to Hollywood to write for television. David Milch taught Fat City when he was at Yale and got Gardner work on NYPD Blue, which proves that Milch isn’t all bad (although he famously ripped-off Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood for his TV series).

Kimball didn’t know the exact reason why Gardner has never written another book. He said Gardner’s never offered a reason and he’s never  pressed him for one. Kimball’s guess is that Gardner wrote such a perfectly realized book in Fat City that he figured could never reach that height again. So why bother trying?  Kimball said that Fat City was 400 pages long and Gardner kept honing it, pairing it down, like a master chef making a reduction.

Whatever the reason, it is easy to see why Huston was attracted to the story.  Hamill said that Huston spent his life making one movie for the studio and then one for himself. And this was one of his personal movies. He has great affection for the characters and the place and while he captures the unhappiness of Gardner’s book, I think the movie is has far more humor. There was some funny banter in the book but it didn’t come across as amusing to me. But the moment we see Nicholas Colasanto (better known to my generation as Coach from Cheers), the sound of his voice is warming, and cuts into the despair. So does the soundtrack.

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Huston’s directorial style is also an ideal fit for Gardner’s prose. I remember once reading an article about Huston in American Film when he was making his final film, The Dead (another personal project). His son Tony was surprised at how skilled his father’s camera technique was.  And the old man said, “It’s what I do best, yet no critic has ever remarked on it. That’s exactly as it should be. If they noticed it, it wouldn’t be any good.”

In Huston’s movies–The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra MadrePrizzi’s Honor–you don’t notice the style, you follow the story. Gardner, who wrote the screenplay with Huston, was blessed to have this man in his corner. The boxing scenes are strong. You feel close to the action, but nothing is forced or stylistic–it’s not like the Rocky movies or Raging Bull. In fact, you can see the ropes in the frame often, putting us just outside of the ring. The boxers sometimes look clunky but since they aren’t supposed to be great fighters, it works. And in Keach’s big fight scene you can feel the fighter’s exhaustion, their bodies getting heavy, by the second round.

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Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges are terrific (so when is Bridges not terrific?). There is a dignity to the characters, no matter how laid-out they are.  There is a tremendous shot, a long take, when Keach and his trainers and their wives leave the arena after a fight, followed by a broken-down Mexican fighter that illustrates this beautifully.

Keach wears a silver braclet in the movie that was exactly like the kind my father wore during that period, when I was a young kid. But my old man was a middle-class drunk, so the comparisons end there. However, the bar scenes, the life of drunks, rang true and reminded me of my father’s alcoholism.  There is a lot of drinking during the day, and Kimball remarked on the blinding light that greets you once you stumble out into the daylight. Like when you come out of a movie theater in the middle of the day–but more woozy and disorienting.

It is that kind of touch that makes Huston’s movie effective. Nothing much happens in the story. But it feels authentic, taking the essence of Gardner’s book and making it into a story for the screen.

Two Giants and Four Kings

Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of listening to George Kimball read from his new book at Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters reading series.  (Here are two video links: One and Two.) The book,Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing is a must for anyone interested in the fight game.  

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Kimball was there for it all and conveys the excitement these four champions brought to the game in this expertly reported book that is written in pleasing, straight-forward prose.

For a sampling of Kimball’s work, check out his archive at The Sweet Science.  For example, here is his story on the Hagler-Hearns brawl

Nearly a quarter century later it remains a high point of boxing in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some knowledgeable experts have described it as the greatest fight in boxing history – which it probably wasn’t, if only due to its brevity. But its ferocious first round, which to this day remains the standard against which all others are measured, was undoubtedly the most exciting in middleweight annals, and one of the two or three best opening stanzas of all time.

What did Bob Arum know that the rest of us did not? Already in the midst of an age in which it had already become obligatory to sell every big fight – and many smaller ones – with a catchy slogan, the promoter who had already staged (with Don King) the Thrilla in Manila, as well as served as the impresario for Evel Knievel’s ill-fated attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, christened the 1985 matchup between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns simply “The Fight.”

This Friday, Kimball will be interviewed by none other than Pete Hamill (who wrote the foreword for the book) at the  Barnes and Noble in Tribeca (97 Warren street).  7 pm, ya heard? 

Again, anyone with a remote interest in boxing should brave the cold and check out what promises to be a riveting chat.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver