Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Praise of Pete Hamill

Recently, as president of Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc., a non-profit group, I was given the opportunity to say a few words about the great New York City journalist and author, Pete Hamill. I was also asked to read something from his work, anything I preferred. The occasion was a conference held by the Irish Echo newspaper to draw attention to connections between New York City and Belfast. Both of Hamill’s parents were born in Belfast and came to New York as immigrants.

It was a tremendous honor for me to be part of this tribute to Pete Hamill. Here is a transcript of the speech I gave that night:

Am I the only one who finds it strange that Pete Hamill is sitting right here in the room with us tonight and we’re having some other guy read his work?

Ah well… if you check the listings of writers doing readings around town on a regular basis, appearing on panels and talk shows and whatnot, you know Pete is one of the hardest working men in show business. So, we’re giving you the night off, Pete.

I’m going to read a short passage from A Drinking Life, my favorite book of Pete’s, but first I want to say a few words about Pete’s significance, and reputation, with other writers in New York.

I wasn’t born here in the city. But, like anybody who’s lived in NY a long time – 32 years in my case -- I sometimes imagine and feel like I was born here. When people ask me where I was born and raised, I tell them, ‘The West Side.’ And when they ask where on the West Side, I say, ‘Tacoma, Washington’ … That’s a geography joke. You don’t hear many of those.

When coming to this city with a hungry desire to become a New Yorker, as I did, I’d say there are a number of requirements. One of them should be that you have to drive a taxi in New York for a few years, which I have done. Another is to struggle financially, have your rent jacked up illegally by a landlord, get robbed, or mugged on the street, which has happened to many of us who have been here since the 70s, or 80s or early 90s. This, by the way, is why longtime New Yorkers don’t really consider today’s younger New Yorkers to be New Yorkers at all. As a veteran cabbie once told me, as I was heading out on my first night on the job and I asked him, “Any advice?” He said, ‘Yeah. Remember this. In New York, nobody really loves you until you’ve been mugged.’

The third requirement for becoming a New Yorker is to familiarize yourself, as quickly as possible, with the writing, and persona, of Pete Hamill.

I know that for Brooklynites, especially anybody who grew up in Pete’s generation or the generations immediately following, Pete Hamill’s work holds a special significance. And that’s understandable. Of all Pete’s many subjects as a writer – and he is a beautifully diverse writer, with a healthy and magnanimous curiosity; he writes with grace and erudition about so many things – but of all his subjects, I think you’d have to say that Brooklyn, in many ways, is the central nugget of his identity as a person and a writer.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a Brooklynite to appreciate that. Because when you read Pete’s work, you become a Brooklynite, you become a New Yorker. That is part of the generosity and expansive nature of his writing style, and that is one of the great pleasures of getting to know his work.

Over the years, I’ve probably had hundreds of conversations with other writers about Pete’s work. For anyone who is lucky enough to know Pete, the work is informed by your knowledge of him as a person – his basic humanism, the fact that he’s wonderfully learned and well read, a kind of working class bon vivant, a sentimentalist, at times, but one who is always tough minded. And fair. Always fair. Rigorously fair.

But you don’t have to know Pete personally to have been touched by or influenced by his work. It’s the openness and generosity of Pete’s writing style that has inspired so many of us. Pete showed that you could come from the working class, that you didn’t have to have graduated from some fancy journalism program, or be a product of wealth or a conventional education, to have a point-of-view that was valid and important. All that is required is that you apply to yourself the highest standards as a person and a writer, that you write beautifully, with great attention to craftsmanship, that you challenge yourself intellectually, that you go out into the world as an angel of mercy, that you judge no person harshly because he or she is a drunk, or poor, or an the wrong side of the law, or a Bishop. OK, maybe you can be hard on the bishops, but that’s because they represent power and authority and piety. And they should know better.

I never had the good fortune to work alongside Pete, or under him during his various short-lived stints as editor of the News, the Post, or that newspaper in Mexico City – I would have loved to work with Pete there. But I know I speak for a lot of New York writers when I say, I owe a great debt to Pete Hamill. And I feel lucky, and honored, to be the guy who gets to stand here right now and tell him how much his work has meant to me.

And so, with apologies to the Manhattanites, and people from the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, and Belfast, let’s gather together as Brooklynites and listen to a passage from Pete’s classic memoir, A Drinking Life
                                                                       -- T.J. English

1 comment:

Kim Serrahn said...

High praise for such a humble fellow. But well deserve.