Sunday, May 30, 2010

People I'm Not Talking to Next Year

People I'm Not Talking to Next Year

by Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune

All these people today, they run around and put their arms around each other's shoulders and they say how much they like each other and they hope the new year is better than the old year. And all during 1965 they were trying to kill each other and now today, because of a calender on a wall, they think everything should be nice.

This is not my game. I can remember too well. And I remember everything that every person did to me during the year, and herewith, on this day of warmth and understanding, I present the people who did something very bad to me during the last twelve months and because of what they did to me I do not intend to speak to one of them throughout the coming year.

GOLDSTEIN THE PROCESS-SERVER: About a month ago I was walking on Seventh Avenue and this little bum in an overcoat down to his ankles comes up to me. "Pardon me, but didn't I see you last night with Johnny Carson?" I wanted to kiss him. Beautiful. "Yes, you did," I said. "Great," he said, "don't tell me your name. I have your name written down right here." Out of the pocket of his overcoat comes a folded piece of legal paper that said the Chemical Bank had put a lien of $1500 on me because I cosigned for another one of Fat Thomas's cars.

"Wear it in health," said Goldstein the Process-Server.

Well, Goldstein the Process-Server could go into the ocean and be drowning this year and I would sit on the beach and say, "I can't hear you, Goldstein."

PEPE: His real name is Norton W. Peppis. Pepe runs a saloon with his partner, John McGuire, and him I intend not even to nod to this year. All year they spend their afternoons at the racetrack. When the horses left, Pepe, who had started out the year with a Cadillac and now has to try to find change for a subway ride, sat down with his partner and tried to figure out how they could get some money. They found a way. On Christmas Eve, the manager of the saloon comes to my house with a bill for $895 they said I had run up in the joint. You should get paid by the hour just to be in the place. And they look to get out on Christmas Eve by sending me a tab. They didn't have it in them to come around personally. Well, I'm not talking to Pepe and when I see him riding on the subway train I am going to look out the window.

BIG SHOT MAITRE D' AT THE 21 CLUB: All my life I've sat in Mutchie's saloon and read stories about how so-and-so was with this big beauty at 21 last night. Back in October I was out with some guys, and one of them said he'd like to see what this 21 was like and I said I'd like to see the place too. We went to the 21 and I go up to the door and give it a push and we all go inside. You never saw anything like it in your life. All guys with tuxedos on started to run toward us.

"Can I help you" one of them said. A tall guy. He was in charge. He had both his hands on my chest.

"We are all filled here tonight," he said.

Then he pushed at me hard so that a party of about eleven could come in through the door. He smiled at them and the eleven strolled to the bar.

"You see this carpet on the floor?" I yelled. "I'll come back here with a guy and set it on fire."

One of the other guys in the tuxedos went for a telephone. He was probably going to call the cops.

"You don't want to come in here," the maitre d' said.

Big shot. Damn right I don't want to go into his place. You could take the 21. Take the whole joint and the suckers who go into it. It is a sink compared to Mutchie's saloon, which is directly across from Pier 29, East River, and last night Georgie Brown was seen with Sherry at the bar of Mutchie's, and Nunzi hosted a big party for Jumbo from the fish market.

What follows now is a list of people who I am not going to talk to. The reasons would take too long to explain. So I just list the people.

Atra Baer, Mike the Brain, Roger Kahn, Mr. Hitz from Bleeck's, B.J. Cutler, Mr. Finelle from the Municipal Building, Miss Stewart from the telephone company, Everett Walker, Harold Anderson, Harry Day, Harrison Salisbury, Jerry the Booster, Seymour the pirate, Mrs. Pirate, Mrs. Ahearn from Consolidated Edison Company, Hugo the Tailor, Mike Lee, Transit Authority cop who wouldn't let me go up the subway stairs on Thanksgiving Day, Nick Lapole, Max Kase, Boyd Lewis, Jack Powers, Mr. Fiore of Beneficial Finance Corp., Toney Betts, Tom Zumbo, Arthur J. Sylvester, Phil Pepe, Joe Alvarez, Mike Reynolds, Tom Frane, Ed Aurico, Lester Williamson, Louis Kleinsteuber, Al Newman the bail bondsman, Vivienne the housekeeper, and Joey Beglane.

Everybody's Crime

Everybody's Crime

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
November 1963

Washington -- The Spanish Ambassador was on his knees. The people who were in line behind him walked around him. The coffin was draped with an American flag. But at the bottom, just before the black velvet started, a little bit of mahogany wood showed. The body of the thirty-fifth President of the United States is inside the wood. Or whatever it is that is left after the .25-caliber bullet that ripped his head apart. You noticed the mahogany wood because it was reflecting the bright, bare light the six television Kleig lights threw onto the floor of the rotunda of the Capital building.

The place was silent. The people, silent people who had blank faces, moved around the coffin in two orderly lines. They were trying to pick up their feet so their shoes would make as little of the noise of shuffling as possible. The Spanish Ambassador said prayers.

A Negro woman, a black kerchief covering her head, walked around him. A little boy of about three held onto her right had. The boy had on long pants and an overcoat and a blue cap. He was looking away from the coffin. All the police and soldiers and television lights caught his attention.

The mother yanked his hand. "Look this way, Roger," she whispered. The little head turned and the woman in the black scarf bent over and put her cheek against the boy's. "He's right there under that flag," she whispered. "That's President Kennedy there. Look at it, Roger. Mommy wants you to know about this."

Then she was gone and there was somebody else there. The Spanish Ambassador was on his feet now, and he was walking by too. The place was quiet and unreal, and far above you, up at the top of the dome, shafts of light coming in through the windows crisscrossed each other.

There was a sound in the hallway to the right, the hallway which leads to the Senate offices. The two policemen there moved back. Then you what was making the sound. It was an honor guard coming out. There were six of them. They were holding rifles at carry arms, which means the butt of the rifle is just a little bit off the floor. And they moved imperceptibly. But their heels clicked against the floor in cadence each time they moved, and this was what was making the little noise.

When they got out on the rotunda floor, light from the television Kleig lights sprayed off the bayonets of their guns. Then you noticed the soldiers on duty for the first time. They were at parade rest around the coffin. Six of them. But they had been so motionless that you didn't even notice them before this. You had only been seeing the coffin and the people.

But now you noticed the soldiers. You saw the ones standing so stiffly around the coffin, and the others moving slowly and clicking their heels while the bayonets sparkled. And then everything came over you, and you stood in the Rotunda of the Capitol building of the United States of America and looked at a coffin that held the body of a President whose head had been blown off by a gun fired by one of his own people and now you fell apart inside and there was this terrible sense of confusion and inability to understand what was going on. And there were tears; of course there were tears, there have been tears for three days now; and then you started talking out loud.

"Oh Christ, what are we doing here?" It was a prayer, not a blasphemy.

Dallas. You started to think about Dallas. In Dallas they sat and told you that a Communist shot the President of the United States. They sat and told you that, while everybody in the town with any brains knew that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the President of the United States, was shot because this is a country that has let the art of hating grow so strong that now we kill our President because of it.

And Dallas does not own hate. Dallas is a collective word and it means Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and, yes, Scarsdale and Bay Ridge and the Bronx too. Dallas means every place where people in this nation stand off with their smugness and their paychecks and their cute little remarks, and run their lives on the basis of hate. Everybody has a piece of this murder. Everybody who ever stood off and said, "That Jew bastard," and everybody who ever said, "I don't want niggers near me," is a part of this murder.

A Death in Emergency Room One

A Death in Emergency Room One

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
November 24, 1963

Dallas -- The call bothered Malcolm Perry. "Dr. Tom Shires, STAT," the girl's voice said over the page in the doctor's cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The "STAT" meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital's chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry's superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

"This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires' page," he said.

"President Kennedy has been shot. STAT," the operator said. "They are bringing him into the emergency room now."

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the President of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

John Kennedy had already been stripped of his jacket, shirt, and T-shirt, and a staff doctor was starting to place a tube called an endotracht down the throat. Oxygen would be forced down the endotracht. Breathing was the first thing to attack. The President was not breathing.

Malcolm Perry unbuttoned his dark blue glen-plaid jacket and threw it onto the floor. He held out his hands while the nurse helped him put on gloves.

The President, Perry thought. He's bigger than I thought he was.

He noticed the tall, dark-haired girl in the plum dress that had her husband's blood all over the front of the skirt. She was standing out of the way, over against the gray tile wall. Her face was tearless and it was set, and it was to stay that way because Jacqueline Kennedy, with a terrible discipline, was not going to take her eyes from her husband's face.

Then Malcolm Perry stepped up to the aluminum hospital cart and took charge of the hopeless job of trying to keep the thirty-fifth President of the United States from death. And now, the enormousness came over him.

Here is the most important man in the world, Perry thought.

The chest was not moving. And there was no apparent heartbeat inside. The wound in the throat was small and neat. Blood was running out of it. It was running out too fast. The occipitoparietal, which is a part of the back of the head, had a huge flap. The damage a .25-caliber bullet does as it comes out of a person's body is unbelievable. Bleeding from the head wound covered the floor.

There was a mediastinal wound in connection with the bullet hole in the throat. This means air and blood were being packed together in the chest. Perry called for a scalpel. He was going to start a tracheotomy, which is opening the throat and inserting a tube into the windpipe. The incision had to be made below the bullet wound.

"Get me Doctors Clark, McCelland, and Baxter right away," Malcolm Perry said.

Then he started the tracheotomy. There was no anesthesia. John Kennedy could feel nothing now. The wound in the back of the head told Dr. Perry that the President never knew a thing about it when he was shot, either.

While Perry worked on the throat, he said quietly, "Will somebody put a right chest tube in, please."

The tube was to be inserted so it could suction out the blood and air packed in the chest and prevent the lung from collapsing.

These things he was doing took only small minutes, and other doctors and nurses were in the room and talking and moving, but Perry does not remember them. He saw only the throat and chest, shining under the huge lamp, and when he would look up or move his eyes between motions, he would see this plum dress and the terribly disciplined face standing over against the gray tile wall.

Just as he finished the tracheotomy, Malcolm Perry looked up and Dr. Kemp Clark, chief neurosurgeon in residency at Parkland, came in through the door. Clark was looking at the President of the United States. Then he looked at Malcolm Perry and the look told Malcolm Perry something he already knew. There was no way to save the patient.

"Would you like to leave, ma'am?" Kemp Clark said to Jacqueline Kennedy. "We can make you more comfortable outside."

Just the lips moved. "No," Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Now, Malcolm Perry's long fingers ran over the chest under him and he tried to get a heartbeat, and even the suggestion of breathing, and there was nothing. There was only the still body, pale white in the light, and it kept bleeding, and now Malcolm Perry started to call for things and move his hands quickly because it was all running out.

He began to massage the chest. He had to do something to stimulate the heart. There was not time to open the chest and take the heart in his hands, so he had to massage on the surface. The aluminum cart was high. It was too high. Perry was up on his toes so he could have leverage.

"Will somebody please get me a stool," he said.

One was placed under him. He sat on it, and for ten minutes he massaged the chest. Over in the corner of the room, Dr. Kemp Clark kept watching the electrocardiogram for some sign that the massaging was creating action in the President's heart. There was none. Dr. Clark turned his head from the electrocardiogram.

"It's too late, Mac," he said to Malcolm Perry.

The long fingers stopped massaging and they were lifted from the white chest. Perry got off the stool and stepped back.

Dr. M.T. Jenkins, who had been working the oxygen flow, reached down from the head of the aluminum cart. He took the edges of a white sheet in his hands. He pulled the sheet up over the face of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The IBM clock on the wall said it was 1 p.m. The date was November 22, 1963.

Three policemen were moving down the hall outside Emergency Room One now, and they were calling to everybody to get out of the way. But this was not needed, because everybody stepped out of the way automatically when they saw the priest who was behind the police. His name was the Reverend Oscar Huber, a small seventy-year-old man who was walking quickly.

Malcolm Perry turned to leave the room as Father Huber came in. Perry remembers seeing the priest go by him. And he remembers his eyes seeing that plum dress and that terribly disciplined face for the last time as he walked out of Emergency Room One and slumped into a chair in the hall.

Everything that was inside that room now belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy and Father Oscar Huber and the things in which they believe.

"I'm sorry. You have me deepest sympathies," Father Huber said.

"Thank you," Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Father Huber pulled the white sheet down so he could anoint the forehead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy was standing beside the priest, her head bowed, he hands clasped across the front of her plum dress that was stained with blood which came from her husband's head. Now this old priest held up his right hand and he began the chant that Roman Catholic priests have said over their dead for centuries.

"Si vivis, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen."

The prayer said, "If you are living, I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen."

The priest reached into his pocket and took out a small vial of holy oil. He put the oil on his right thumb and made a cross on President Kennedy's forehead. Then he blessed the body again and started to pray quietly.

"Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord," Father Huber said.

"And let perpetual light shine upon him," Jacqueline Kennedy answered. She did not cry.

Father Huber prayed like this for fifteen minutes. And for fifteen minutes Jacqueline Kennedy kept praying aloud with him. Her voice did not waver. She did not cry. From the moment a bullet hit her husband in the head and he went down onto his face in the back of the car on the street in Dallas, there was something about this woman that everybody who saw her keeps talking about. She was in shock. But somewhere, down under that shock some place, she seemed to know that there is a way to act when the President of the United States has been assassinated. She was going to act that way, and the fact that the President was her husband only made it more important that she stand and look at him and not cry.

When he was finished praying, Father Huber turned and took her hand. "I am shocked," he said.

"Thank you for taking care of the President," Jacqueline Kennedy said.

"I am convinced that his soul had not left his body," Father Huber said. "This was a valid last sacrament."

"Thank you," she said.

Then he left. He had been eating lunch at his rectory at Holy Trinity Church when he heard the news. He had an assistant drive to the hospital immediately. After that, everything happened quickly and he did not feel anything until later. He sat behind his desk in the rectory, and the magnitude of what had happened came over him.

"I've been a priest for thirty-two years," Father Huber said. "The first time I was present at a death? A long time ago. Back in my home in Perryville, Missouri, I attended a lady who was dying of pneumonia. She was in her own bed. But I remember that. But this. This is different. Oh, it isn't the blood. You see, I've anointed so many. Accident victims. I anointed once a boy who was only in pieces. No, it wasn't the blood. It was the enormity of it. I'm just starting to realize it now."

Then Father Huber showed you to the door. He was going to say prayers.

It came the same way to Malcolm Perry. When the day was through, he drove to his home in the Walnut Hills section. When he walked into the house, his daughter, Jolene, six and a half, ran up to him. She had papers from school in her hand.

"Look what I did today in school, Daddy," she said.

She made her father sit down in a chair and look at her schoolwork. The papers were covered with block letters and numbers. Perry looked at them. He thought they were good. He said so, and his daughter chattered happily. Malcolm, his three-year-old son, ran into the room after him, and Perry started to reach for him.

Then it hit him. He dropped the papers with the block numbers and letters and he did not notice his son.

"I'm tired," he said to his wife, Jennine. "I've never been tired like this in my life."

Tired is the only way one felt in Dallas yesterday. Tired and confused and wondering why it was that everything looked so different. This was a bright Texas day with a snap to the air, and there were cars on the streets and people on the sidewalks. But everything seemed unreal.

At 10 a.m. we dodged cars and went out and stood in the middle lane of Elm Street, just before the second street light; right where the road goes down and, twenty yards further, starts to turn to go under the overpass. It was right at this spot, right where this long crack ran through the gray Texas asphalt, that the bullets reached President Kennedy's car.

Right up the little hill, and towering over you, was the building. Once it was dull red brick. But that was a long time ago when it housed the J.W. Deere Plow Company. It has been sandblasted since and now the bricks are a light rust color. The windows on the first three floors are covered by closed venetian blinds, but the windows on the other floors are bare. Bare and dust-streaked and high. Factory-window high. The ugly kind of factory window. Particularly at the corner window on the sixth floor, the one where this Oswald and his scrambled egg of a mind stood with the rifle so he could kill the President.

You stood and memorized the spot. It is just another roadway in a city, but now it joins Ford's Theatre in the history of this nation.

"R.L. Thornton Freeway. Keep Right," the sign said. "Stemmons Freeway. Keep Right," another sign said. You went back between the cars and stood on a grassy hill which overlooks the road. A red convertible turned onto Elm Street and went down the hill. It went past the spot with the crack in the asphalt and then, with every foot it went, you could see that it was getting out of range of the sixth-floor window of this rust-brick building behind you. A couple of yards. That's all John Kennedy needed on this road Friday.

But he did not get them. So when a little bit after 1 o'clock Friday afternoon the phone rang in the Oneal Funeral Home, 3206 Oak Lawn, Vernon B. Oneal answered.

The voice on the other end spoke quickly. "This is the Secret Service calling from Parkland Hospital," it said. "Please select the best casket in your house and put it in a general coach and arrange for a police escort and bring it here to the hospital as quickly as you humanly can. It is for the President of the United States. Thank you."

The voice went off the phone. Oneal called for Ray Gleason, his bookkeeper, and a workman to help him take a solid bronze casket out of the place and load it onto a hearse. It was for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Yesterday, Oneal left his shop early. He said he was too tired to work.

Malcolm Perry was at the hospital. He had on a blue suit and a dark blue striped tie and he sat in a big conference room and looked out the window. He is a tall, reddish-haired thirty-four-year-old, who understands that everything he saw or heard on Friday is a part of history, and he is trying to get down, for the record, everything he knows about the death of the thirty-fifth President of the United States.

"I never saw a President before," he said.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Selma March

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
March 1965

Selma, Alabama – United States Highway 80, between Montgomery and Selma, is fifty miles of asphalt with a yellow dividing line and a roadside of deep green grass which runs for long stretches without being cluttered with advertising signs. United States Highway 80 does not run through buying country. It runs through farmland that has been picked clean and through swamps with squirrel-colored moss trees standing dead in the muddy water.

And it runs past black pigs rooting in the grass and white-faced cattle sleeping against wire fences. Past tin-roofed gas stations sitting on red dirt side roads, and a Negro in a leather cap holding a brown mule while it grazes.

It is a lightly traveled, deserted road with cars cutting down it at 70 miles and hour, their blue-and –orange license plates saying, “Heart of Dixie.” United States Highway 80 is a road in the middle of the State of Alabama, and today everybody in the world looks at it.

Today, a march is to start down the highway. It is a march of fat young white girls in sneakers and raincoats, wearing glasses, and Negro boys in windbreakers. Of sloppy white men in beards and needing haircuts, who peer through thick glasses. And also of white ministers, Roman collars loose on their thin necks, and white nuns in flowing robes, and college students and bleak-faced old Negroes. And there will also be people like Ralph Bunche and the Reverend Martin Luther King, and Army troops will be all around them while they walk out and put the civil rights movement in the South onto Highway 80.

The world will be watching it all. But there may be very little to see outside of people walking. For the march is through down country, where a screen door shutting is the only noise of a day, and where excitement runs slowly through people.

“Where you from?”

“New York.”

“Uh-huh,” he grunted. He was about forty and wearing a brown rain jacket. He was looking out the window of Byrd’s Lucky Dollar truck stop. His hands were stuck into his pockets and his mouth was busy chewing gum. He chewed and looked out of the window for a long time without saying anything.

“New Yawk,” he finally said. He chewed the gum some more.

“Hope somebody kills me ‘fore I go to new Yawk again.”

“What’s this thing tomorrow look like to you?” he was asked.


He walked over to the door, chewing his gum. He looked out the window.

“I give up goin’ to the circus when I was a keed.”

His friend sat on a stool with his back to the counter. This one had on a plaid shirt and dungaree pants and work boots. His scalp showed white through the close crew cut. He had high, tanned cheekbones and narrow eyes and he took cupped-hand drags on his cigarette.

“What I resent is all these taxes bein’ used to pay for this thing tomorrow,” he said. He scraped his boots on the rough cement floor.

Byrd’s Lucky Dollar has a low ceiling of wooden beams, tables and chairs at one end, and this small lunch counter at the other end. On top of the counter were tow napkin-holders, three bottles of catsup, a jar of chili peppers, and two bottles of McIlhenny’s Hot Sauce, New Iberia, La.

Then the man by the window began to talk without turning his head. “Last night over in Lowndesboro, this nigger woman comes over to a white lady and she says, ‘Who’s the boss of the country, Johnson or Governor Wallace?’ That’s just what this nigger woman said. Now they gonna give her a vote.” He chewed his gum again.

“All they got to be is twenty-one, black, and breathing, and they vote same’s any man.”

“Do you figure there’ll be any trouble on this march?”

“Don’t expect so. Ev’time you hit one of them people, you help ‘em.”

“Well, I hope to hell there won’t be – ”

“Mind your tongue,” the crew cut sitting on the stool said. “We civilized people here. We don’t allow anybody talkin’ like that in front of our women.” He looked around. The one waitress was at the stove in the kitchen behind the counter. “You damnyankees come down here and think you can talk the way you please in front of our women. Well, jes’ remember we civilized here.”

He took another cupped-hand drag on his cigarette. The one at the window kept chewing his gum and looking out at the empty road.

“Well, I’ll see you.”

The one on the stool said nothing.

“Be no trouble tomorrow,” the one at the window said. “We got other things to do besides watchin’ niggers with their white girl friends walk ‘long the side of the road.”

Lowndesboro sits a mile off Highway 80. It is a cluster of new red brick ranch houses and old plantation homes with twelve pillars at the front and busted cars and broken yellow school buses in the overgrown back yards. There is also the Lowndesboro Baptist Church and J.C. Green General Merchandise, tin-roofed and whitewashed wood with high wooden steps leading up to it.

Leroy Greene, who is Negro, stood in the doorway of his long wooden shack, which sits in the mud by the side of the road. In the windowless room behind him, five small kids, boys and girls dressed alike in filthy smocks, ran around.

“I tell you,” Greene said, “I don’t know much about the march. See, I work in Montgomery. This here is in Selma and I don’t get over there too much.”

“Well, do you think it will help?”

He stared out at the road – that blank stare Southern Negroes carry like a lunch basket.

“I don’t know he said. “That thing is over in Selma, and I work in Montgomery.”

“Well, don’t you think Martin Luther King is right?”

“Martin Luther King, oh, he right.”

“Do you know that he’s leading the march and that it’s a big thing?”

He stared.

“You mean you don’t know all about the march? It’s only just down the road from you.”

“It in Selma,” he said. “I don’t work in Selma.”

A dull-faced woman came and stood beside him. She had on a flowered blouse, wrinkled black Bermuda shorts, and red bowling shoes that had no laces in them.

“All these kids yours,” she was asked.


“What’s your wife’s name, Leroy?”

“She’s not my wife,” he said. “I just stays with her.”

The kids came out and crowded behind their legs. On the porch an old black and white spotted dog lifted his head, then dropped it back on his paws and fell asleep again. And Leroy Greene and the woman with the five dirty kids stood in the doorway and looked at the mud in front of the wooden shack, and the march on United States Highway 80, the march for the right of Americans to vote, was a million miles away from them. And what the South, and the North, does to a person who has black skin was set forever on their dull faces.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Are You John Lennon?

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Daily News
December 1980

That summer in Breezy Point, when he was eighteen and out of Madison High in Brooklyn, there was the Beatles on the radio at the beach through the hot days and on the jukebox through the nights in the Sugar Bowl and Kennedys. He was young and he let his hair grow and there were girls and it was the important part of life.

Last year, Tony Palma even went to see Beatlemania.

And now, last night, a thirty-four-year-old man, he sat in a patrol car at Eighty-second Street and Columbus Avenue and the call came over the radio: “Man shot, One West Seventy-second Street.”

Palma and his partner, Herb Frauenberger, rushed through the Manhattan streets to an address they knew as one of the most famous living places in the country, the Dakota apartments.

Another patrol car was there ahead of them, and as Palma got out he saw the officers had a man up against the building and were handcuffing him.

“Where’s the guy shot?” Palma said.

“In the back,” one of the cops said.

Palma went through the gates into the Dakota courtyard and up into the office, where a guy in a red shirt and jeans was on his face on the floor. Palma rolled the guy over. Blood was coming out of the mouth and covering the face. The chest was wet with blood.

Palma took the arms and Frauenberger took the legs. They carried the guy out to the street. Somebody told them to put the body in another patrol car.

Jim Moran’s patrol car was waiting. Moran is from the South Bronx, from Williams Avenue, and he was brought up on Tony Bennett records in the jukeboxes. When he became a cop in 1964, he was put on patrol guarding the Beatles at their hotel. Girls screamed and pushed and Moran laughed. Once, it was all fun.

Now responding to the call, “Man shot, One West Seventy-second,” Jim Moran, a forty-five-year-old policeman, pulled up in front of the Dakota and Tony Palma and Herb Frauenberger put this guy with blood all over him in the backseat.

As Moran started driving away, he heard people in the street shouting, “That’s John Lennon!”

Moran was driving with Bill Gamble. As they went through the streets to Roosevelt Hospital, Moran looked in the backseat and said, “Are you John Lennon?” The guy in the back nodded and groaned.

Back on Seventy-second Street, somebody told Palma, “Take the woman.” And a shaking woman, another victim’s wife, crumpled into the backseat as Palma started for Roosevelt Hospital. She said nothing to the two cops and they said nothing to her. Homicide is not a talking matter.

Jim Moran, with John Lennon in the backseat, was on the radio as he drove to the hospital. “Have paramedics meet us at the emergency entrance,” he called. When he pulled up to the hospital, they were waiting for him with a cart. As Lennon was being wheeled through the doors into the emergency room, the doctors were on him.

“John Lennon,” somebody said.

“Yes, it is,” Moran said.

Now Tony Palma pulled up to the emergency entrance. He let the woman out and she ran to the doors. Somebody called to Palma, “That’s Yoko Ono.”

“Yeah?” Palma said.

“They just took John Lennon in,” the guy said.

Palma walked into the emergency room. Moran was there already. The doctors had John Lennon on a table in a trauma room, working on the chest, inserting tubes.

Tony Palma said to himself, I don’t think so. Moran shook his head. He thought about his two kids, who know every one of the Beatles’ big tunes. And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.

[I was home in bed in Forest Hills, Queens, at 11:20 p.m. when the phone and television at once said Lennon was shot. I was dressed and into Manhattan, to Roosevelt Hospital, the Dakota, up to the precinct, grabbed a cop inside, back to the Dakota, grabbed a cop outside, and to the Daily News. I wrote this column and it made a 1:30 a.m. deadline. I don’t there is anybody else who can do this kind of work this quickly.

I particularly like the mistake in it. Moran from Williams Avenue in the Bronx. It is Willis Avenue.

As I can’t use a terminal – the keys don’t make the noise I need and require too light a touch for me to make them work – a desk clerk put my typewritten copy into the terminal. He made the Williams Avenue error. I sure as hell know Willis Avenue, having had a drink in every bar there when it was Irish and having centered a whole novel on the street now that is Puerto Rican. The mistake and the reasons for it are testimony to the speed with which it was done.]

Friday, January 26, 2007

It's An Honor

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
November 1963

Washington - Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting.

It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. "Polly, could you please be here by eleven o'clock this morning?" Kawalchik asked. "I guess you know what it's for."

Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him.

"Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday," Metzler said.

"Oh, don't say that," Pollard said. "Why, it's an honor for me to be here."

Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging.

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it.

"That's nice soil," Metzler said.

"I'd like to save a little of it," Pollard said. "The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I'd like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I'd like to have everything, you know, nice."

James Winners, another gravedigger, nodded. He said he would fill a couple of carts with this extra-good soil and take it back to the garage and grow good turf on it.

"He was a good man," Pollard said.

"Yes, he was," Metzler said.

"Now they're going to come and put him right here in this grave I'm making up," Pollard said. "You know, it's an honor just for me to do this."

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacquleline Kennedy started toward the grave. She came out from under the north portico of the White House and slowly followed the body of her husband, which was in a flag-covered coffin that was strapped with two black leather belts to a black caisson that had polished brass axles. She walked straight and her head was high. She walked down the bluestone and blacktop driveway and through shadows thrown by the branches of seven leafless oak trees. She walked slowly past the sailors who held up flags of the states of this country. She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes. She walked out the northwest gate and into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.

Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly. Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran onto her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.

There was mass, and then the procession to Arlington. When she came up to the grave at the cemetery, the casket already was in place. It was set between brass railings and it was ready to be lowered into the ground. This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. But she walked up to the burial area and stood in front of a row of six green-covered chairs and she started to sit down, but then she got up quickly and stood straight because she was not going to sit down until the man directing the funeral told her what seat he wanted her to take.

The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is president and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often.

Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House.

"What time is it?" a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch.

"Twenty minutes past three," he said.

Clifton Pollard wasn't at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn't know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

"They'll be used," he said. "We just don't know when.”

“I tried to go over to see the grave," he said. "But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn't get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I'll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it's an honor."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Harlem Notebook - I

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
Sometime between 1963 and 1967

Inside the church, the heavy air-conditioner in the wall kept the narrow hallway cool. Carroll Tyler and Sandra Hopkins, who had just been married, stood under the machine while the guests squeezed in front of them and kissed the tall, striking bride and shook hands with the groom and then went through the doors and into the hot Sunday-afternoon sun. Outside the church, the Salem Methodist Church on 129th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, the people's voices were drowned out by the whir of low-pressure tires on taxicabs which kept passing by. On a weekend, taxicabs are a poor man's game and Harlem is filled with them.

Tyler was in a tuxedo. He was nervous, but he spoke in a quiet voice. He is twenty-four and in the Marines and he has a neat mustache and a strong-looking neck.

"I've got about seven months to go," he was saying. "I'm at Camp Lejeune. That's in North Carolina."

"Where are you going to live when you get out?"

"We have an apartment."

"Is it a neighborhood like this?"

"Well, you know. It's a neighborhood."

"What are you going to do when you get out?"

"I don't know. I'll be a real-estate agent, I suppose. Why are you asking?"

"Oh, I don't know. I was just wondering how you figure out your life or your future or whatever it is on a day like this when you happened to be colored."

"I don't want to know about that now," he said. Then the bride smiled and said thank you and they went out the door and onto the church steps.

There are three small trees, the leaves fresh green, on the sidewalk in front of the church. The well-dressed guests were by the trees and the limousines were parked at the curb behind them. It was pleasant. But the rest of it, the part Tyler didn't want to think about on his wedding day, was there too. Across Seventh Avenue, in the ground floors of the old stone tenements, were the Harlem Swan Fish and Chips, the Dunbar Pawnbrokers, Bea's Hair Styles, and the Vogue Beauty Shop. On the side street, 129th Street, the red sign of the Elks Imperial Bar and Grill showed on a building sitting between two tenements. Across the street from the Elks are the buildings where, the police believe, the young kids who claim they are going to kill white people this summer sit on stoops and stare at police cars.

And from the windows of the stone tenements, the old people leaned out and looked at the young married couple coming out of the church. Tyler did not look up at them while he helped his wife into the limousine, and he did not look at the hock shop of the Elks Club sign, but it was all right in front of him, standing like the couple of hundred years of history and attitudes that this young guy was walking out of church to face.

In Harlem, words like "history" and "attitudes" come down to plain things. To the paycheck mostly. The paychecks Harlem people earn, and their dissatisfaction with being poor and living in slums, produce the speculation that this will be a summer of racial violence in Harlem. But these same paychecks are why general violence almost certainly won't develop at all. The same Harlem people who have the whites frightened about a race riot are too busy working for a paycheck and too tired from years of being poor to start running in the streets.

In Harlem, from 96th Street to 119th Street, between Fifth Avenue and the East River, the average family income is $3797. From 110th Street to 126th Street, between Eighth and Park Avenues, it is a little higher, $4141. In the lower part of Manhattan, where white people live, income in the area from 14th to 30th Streets, between Eighth and Third Avenues is $6892. And, if you want a real contrast, from 63d Street to 96th Street, between Fifth and Third, a
family averages $15,305.

Money makes the way of life, and low money shows everywhere you go in Harlem. In a supermarket on 135th Street, in the middle of a Saturday rush, the totals on the cash registers keep showing $7.30 and $10.58 and $5.97 while, at the same time, in a supermarket in Baldwin, Long Island, the figures were $28.60 and $41.12.

In the neighborhood taverns, the bartender puts three thick-bottomed shot glasses on the wood in front of you when you order a drink. All these local bars sell drinks on a two-for-one or three-for-one policy. In Maxie's Cafe, on 153d Street and Eighth Avenue, rye, gin, vodka, or run shorties are sold for $.50 per single, two for $.90 and three for $1.20. Cognac and better Scotch sell for $.60 a drink. All chasers except water are $.10 extra. Bar etiquette requires the bartender to place the three shot glasses down and the customer names his game, a single or two for $.90 or three for the $1.20.

The low money shows most in the people. There are 450,000 people living in Harlem, and the talk, and the crime-rate figures, have other people afraid of the Harlem people and afraid to go into the area. The crime figures are high, and the brutality of the crimes of late turns your stomach. But 450,000 people do not run around committing crime. Last week, to see Harlem a little better, and to examine this place some have said is just a big time bomb waiting to go off on a hot summer night, we moved into Harlem. James Putnam, a fifty-four-year-old man who is retired from the Pennsylvania Railroad after thirty-eight years as a business car steward for Davis G. Bevans, the railroad's vie-chairman, was kind enough to put us up in his three-room apartment.

For walk-around company we had James Russell, who calls bartenders "say, my man," and who drinks orange slings as a rule, but V.O. in the Pink Angel, where, he explains, he is "in kind of tight with the barkeep." Mr. Russell is a former Golden Gloves bantamweight boxer, and, upon being properly urged, he demonstrates a good, short left hook and gives the impression that he once was a stiff puncher. Also with us was a person known, where he comes from, as "the
First Division." He is called this because of the firepower he keeps in his pocket. He was along because of many warnings from outsiders that Harlem is a dangerous place for a white these days. In five days and nights we didn't draw much more than a stare because people in Harlem are too busy living like people any place else.

This does not mean that trouble isn't there. Pick up a paper and you see that. James Putnam points out that Wednesday-evening services at his church, St. Mark's Methodist on 137th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, have poor attendance because so many women have been mugged right in front of the church. Throughout Saturday night, riding in an unmarked Police Department crime combat car out of the 32d Precinct, Sergeant Frank Weidenburner kept advising us, at each stop, to get into the building in a hurry because the bad trouble comes from the rooftops.

On 129th Street between Seventh and Lenox, which is the area where a small group known as the Blood Brothers stored ammunition for a war on the police, and where the few remaining members still hang out, Weidenburner became insistent. His car was answering a radio call which said somebody in the tenement at 155 West 129th had called police for help.

"Any call on that block can be trouble," he said. When his unmarked car pulled up, two radio cars were there, and two more pulled in later.

"Don't hang around out there," he said when we got out. "Come inside the building with us."

Inside, a man of about twenty-five was stretched unconscious on a second-floor landing. Two women were with him. They said the man had been beaten and stomped on by kids from up the block. Then the women began to fight over who was going to nurse the beaten man.

You see things like this. And then, with bright morning sunlight coming in from the patio, you sit and talk to a woman like Jane Booker. Bright, and almost overly sensitive because of her intelligence, she sits and has a glass of orange juice in her new high-middle-income apartment, and she snaps out the things that bother a woman who is colored in New York.

"Why is it," she says, "that every time I get into a taxicab downtown, the driver turns around and asks me, 'What's the number today?' Just because I'm not white, does that mean I have to know the numbers game? Does he do that with any white woman that gets into a cab?"

And over all of this, over the people and their habits and their misery, runs the layer of arguments. The Negro crime rate is high, the whites claim. The police brutality must stop, or it will provoke violence, the Negro leaders say. A Negro comedian gets on television and says some nonsense about a conspiracy in the white press to suppress the Negro. The words in the arguments are big and important-sounding and in the meantime Harlem sits there, with 450,00 people who have no heritage in life except poverty. And with this long, hot summer coming up that nobody talks about, some of them may step out and do things. But only some of them. And then only maybe.

"Riot?" the bartender was saying in Maxie's. "Who's got time for that? People have to go to work every day. Doesn't anybody know that?"