I wrote this piece several years ago when I was trying to explain to a friend who grew up in the country what it was like to grow up in the city, the “city” of course being New York. I don’t live there anymore, but “New Yorker” is the only identity I will ever have.
Sometimes when we write a personal story we start writing about one thing and then discover ourselves in a time and place we thought we had forgotten. There’s an old joke whose punchline is “Keep your hat on, Cowboy, we could end up miles from here”. This was one of those pieces.
In the sixties, when I was still in elementary school, retail businesses in the city stayed open later than they do now. Most stores closed at about 7:30 or 8:00. Drug stores, however, usually stayed open until at least 10:00. I remember summer nights when my friends, mostly Irish-Catholic kids from the apartment building up the street, and I would play on the sidewalk of Corona Avenue. For weeks on end, every night we would ride our bicycles on the sidewalk, up and down the block, up over the bridge that crossed the Long Island Railroad and then back all the way down Corona Avenue to Junction Boulevard where the name of the neighborhood changes from Elmhurst to Corona. Then, one night, one of the kids would come out with their roller skates instead of their bicycle and we would start roller-skating for a few weeks. Then we would switch back to bicycles.
Whenever we would pass in front of my father’s store on those nights, we could see a group of three or four men standing in the front by the plate-glass window, drinking coffee from the deli across the street, swapping stories. One guy was a short, fat bald guy who chewed a cigar and always had a newspaper of some kind folded up under his hairy arm. His name was Casey. He had a deep, gravelly voice and he liked to play the ponies. He drove a cream-colored Caddy that he parked in a no-parking zone across the street. I never knew for sure what he did for a living, but I’m sure it was at least partially legitimate.
One of the other men who hung out on those slow nights was a stocky second-generation Irishman with bushy eyebrows and a seemingly over-sized head. His name was Jimmy Breslin. He was the first famous writer I ever met. I was probably about eight or nine years old.
Breslin was a few years older than my father, about the same age as my mother’s older brother, who also knew him. He grew up in Queens and was a hometown hero. Before my Uncle Bill had gotten married, Breslin was one of his drinking buddies. One of their favorite hangouts was the Carousel Lounge, a mob joint on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside.
My father was a basketball nut his whole life and played it all the time when he was a growing up. When he was in pharmacy school he still made it to the park down on Broadway for pickup games in the early evening. Breslin, who was by then a young reporter for one of the many, now defunct, daily newspapers in Queens and Long Island, used to hang out in the park on those evenings. Sometimes they would get a beer after playing.
My father once told me about the night a sudden cloudburst caught them and they all got drenched, including the future Pulitzer Prize Winner. As my father was running to his car, an pre-war Ford jalopy, Breslin called out to him, “Hey Bubbaz, can you give me a lift to work?”
“Bubbaz” is how you say “Bubbers” if you’re from Queens. Once when I was in St. Louis, I called a car service to get a ride from my hotel to the airport. I gave the dispatcher my name, “Fred Bubbers,” and he repeated it back to me as “Freddie Bubbaz.” I stopped him right there and asked him where he was from. “Jackson Heights,” he answered, “That’s in New Yawk”.
Breslin climbed into my father’s car and started shivering because his clothes were soaked.
“Bubbaz, I’m freezin’ my fuckin’ nuts off, ya got any blankets?”
My father reached back and got an old threadbare blanket off the back seat and handed it to him. As my father drove east on Queens Boulevard to Jamaica, Breslin stripped off all his wet clothes including his boxers and wrapped himself in the dusty old blanket, trying to warm up. He tossed his clothes in the back seat.
When they got to the storefront office of the newspaper, Breslin hopped out of the car. Wearing only his shoes and socks and wrapped in the blanket, he gingerly stepped around the oily puddles as he crossed the glistening street to the office. His wet clothes were still in the back seat.
Starting in the seventies, my father began closing the store earlier in the evening and it was no longer a hangout for the group of cronies. It was during that time that Breslin became famous and very rich. He wrote a bestseller called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight that became a movie, but his fulltime job was writing articles about the poor in the city, the decent working stiffs in the neighborhoods and exposing the ugly truths about a brutal and corrupt police force. My father didn’t see him for about 15 years.
In 1986, two boys from Queens hit the top of their chosen professions. First, Jimmy Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. Although he still spoke for all the people he met in the working class bars and diners all over the city, he now lived in a million-dollar co-op in Manhattan.
The other kid from Queens to reach the top of his profession was Antonin, or “Nino” Scalia. Scalia, who was just a few years younger than my father, had been nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan. When Scalia was a boy, he had been a member of Scout Troop 17 and my father had been a troop leader at the time.
One day during the summer and shortly after the nomination had been announced, I was visiting my father in the store. I had stopped in the deli and picked up four coffees for the two of us. It was a quiet afternoon and we were standing in the back of the store, behind the prescription counter, drinking coffee and talking about the Mets, who were on their way to winning pennant that year.
Suddenly, the glass door leading to the sidewalk swung open and there appeared a big hulking form.
“Hey Bubbaz! How the fuck are you, you bastard?” Breslin bellowed.
“Breslin, where the fuck ya been” my father bellowed back.
I have to explain something here. In all my years of growing up, I never heard my father talk that way. He never used profanity in front of his children and his Queens accent was normally very mild.
“How ‘bout that fuckin’ Nino” Breslin asked as he was strode to the back of the store. “How ‘bout that fucking shit?”
I had a feeling that Breslin didn’t actually know “Nino,” but he knew my father knew him.
My father introduced me to Breslin, telling him, of course, that I was a computer programmer on Long Island, not a writer.
“Freddie Bubbaz Juniah,” Breslin said, looking me over, “Shit I remember you.”
I’m not a “Junior”, but when you have the same first name as your father and your father is a kind of a local big shot, people call you “Junior”. After a while you get tired of correcting them and you just let it go.
I gave Jimmy a cup of coffee and he quickly got down to the business of interviewing my father about Scalia.
My father didn’t know Scalia all that well. The Supreme Court nominee had been a quiet, studious kind of kid and he had been in the boy scout troop for just a year or two. Instead of going to Newtown High School, Scalia had attended Xavier, a Jesuit-run prep school in Manhattan.
When asked what he thought when he heard the news about the Supreme Court appointment my father exclaimed, “I couldn’t believe!”
Breslin pumped my father as much as he could and then they settled down and talked about the old days. He drank a second cup of coffee and started railing about the cops. There was an ugly story developing at the time about a black graffiti artist getting picked up by the police and somehow ending up in Belleview in a coma with two broken legs, a busted nose, and a cracked skull. He eventually died. First, there was a cover-up, then there was public outrage, and then the Manhattan District Attorney finally awoke from his slumber and started an investigation. Just before the trial was about to begin, the key witness died in a fall down a flight of stairs at a Policeman’s Benevolent Association Dinner-Dance. Breslin had the inside scoop on everything and had been hammering the DA, the NYPD, and the PBA in his column for weeks.
At one point, he walked over to the door to the small bathroom in the back of the store, and faced my father. He stood at attention and with a fake British accent, he said “Sir, my I please use your bathroom facilities, I must take a piss.” Then he bowed.
“Ya gotta go, ya gotta go,” my father answered. “I’m gonna put a sign up over the bowl that says ‘A Pew-litzer Prize Winner Pissed in This Bowl.”
It was amazing to hear my father talk this way. It seemed to come naturally to him, even though I’d never heard it before. Being from Queens, it’s no surprise that I can do it too.
Breslin howled and said, “Bubbaz, you bastard, you’re all right.”
Later that week, when the column appeared in the paper, my father’s words, which became a family catch-phrase, where quoted: “I couldn’t believe!”
It wasn’t one of Breslin’s better columns. He hadn’t been able to come up with much about Scalia that was worth writing about, although that changed later when Scalia became one of the most reactionary justices to ever sit in the bench, so he had to use Scalia as a vehicle to write about something else. He picked the only institution he hated more than the New York City Police Department: the Catholic Church.
One of the reasons that Scalia had only been in Troop 17 for a short time was because the troop was sponsored by the Elmhurst Methodist Church. At that time, the Catholic Churches in New York didn’t approve of their boys mixing with Protestant boys or even entering a Protestant church to go to meetings, so Scalia had been pressured to quit.
Breslin used this to turn the column into an indictment of the Church for its bigotry, ignorance and intolerance. It might have been a valid argument to make, but the facts about it all were fuzzy and Breslin, as he sometimes did, went way over the top, so the whole column seemed a little forced. I guess that’s what deadlines can do to you, no matter who you are.
The next time we saw Breslin was in 1991 at a wedding. It was on New Year’s Day, and the first Gulf War was about to begin.
My family had received invitations to the wedding of my parent’s best friends’ son. I had known him when we were young, but they had moved to New Jersey and I didn’t really know him that well by then. A few years earlier, they had come to my wedding so it was appropriate that my wife and I should attend their family’s first wedding as well. The other reason for attending was to do a little stargazing. The father of the bride was a very successful and well-known character actor. As it turned out, he was Jimmy’s neighbor.
The country was on the brink of war that day. The previous months had seen the first full-scale deployment of troops since Vietnam. The coverage was wall-to-wall on television and the mood everywhere was somber. War, for the first time in a generation, was now inevitable and everyone was bracing for the horror that would come with it. The anticipated casualties were estimated to number in the thousands.
The wedding and the reception was at the Seaman’s Union hall in lower Manhattan, not far from the piers. There was a main hall where the ceremony was performed followed by brunch with music and dancing.
There was a small cocktail lounge in the back of the hall with a cash bar and some tables. It was all champagne, mimosas, and screwdrivers at the brunch, so people were buying serious drinks in the lounge and bringing them back to their tables.
There was a television mounted on the wall over the bar amid some Christmas lights and garland tuned into CNN. As I was waiting for the bartender, I watched the reports from various parts of Saudi Arabia where the troops were organizing and preparing to invade Iraq. The soldiers in their helmets and combat uniforms in the desert looked painfully young, although they weren’t much younger than I was at the time. I heard a familiar voice call out my name.
“Freddie Bubbaz Juniah!”
I turned and saw him sitting at a table by himself with a bottle of Johnnie Walker and a glass. I’m honestly quite surprised that he recognized me, as I had barely said two words to him that day four years earlier, but I guess that’s a skill newspaper men have.
“You drink scotch Bubbaz?”
“Yeah, Jimmy,” I answered, “I drink scotch.”
“Hey Frank-ee,” he called to the bartender. “Just give the kid a glass, he’s with me.”
I sat down across to the table from him, with my back to the television. He picked up the bottle and filled my glass.
“Thanks Jimmy,” I said.
I wondered how someone so well-known could be sitting by himself at occasion like this, but people were coming in, buying their drinks, and returning to the party.
His eyes were glassy and he was staring up at the battle preparations on the television. His white hair was more disheveled than usual and his face, normally ruddy, was pale and drawn. There was a white carnation pinned to the lapel of his rumpled suit, which was bunched up around his shoulders as he slumped in his chair.
I turned and looked at the screen over my shoulder. There was a map on the screen with animated arrows showing the possible plans of attack. Then I picked up my glass and said “Peace on Earth.”
“Fuck yeah,” Jimmy said and he held his glass up to me.
We quietly sipped our drinks. CNN already had theme music composed by John Williams and were playing it every time they came back from a commercial.
Suddenly he leaned forward and asked, “How old are ya kid?”
“Thirty,” I answered.
“That’s good,” he said. “You’re too old. They won’t draft you.”
For weeks, the same thought had been going through my mind. My eligibility had ended two years earlier. “Nah,” I said, “the draft is over for good.”
“Wait till this shit gets started,” he said, staring at the television again.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody in as much pain as Jimmy seemed to be at that moment. I saw it in his eyes, in the way he slumped down in his chair, in the way he turned his head, and in the way he sipped his scotch. His whole body radiated despair.
“Twenty-thousand body bags,” he said. “A guy at the pentagon told me they have twenty-thousand body bags on hand.” He looked down at the table and said in a low firm voice, “Goddamn them, those fucking bastards.”
I took a few large sips of my drink. I felt uncomfortable sitting there with him and part of me wanted to get up and return to the wedding party, but he had recognized me, he had remembered my name, and he had poured me a drink. They were small, things, but they made me stay with him.
“Your old man told me you write,” he said, looking up at me.
“Not anymore,” I said, “Just when I was in school. Now I have to make a living.”
He laughed and refilled our glasses.
“Take mine,” he said. “It’s going to be a fucking nightmare.”
“Why is that?”
“I have to talk to the families. Not the families where I live. Not the families where you live. Not the families in Forest fucking Hills.” He held his glass up to the television and said, “I have to go to the projects in the fucking Bronx where those kids come from. It’s not like they don’t have enough shit to deal with already.”
He looked away and his eyes darted around the room and he seemed distracted for as his mind was processing something.
“My guy in the pentagon tells me that in three weeks,” he continued. “Five thousand of them are going to be dead.”
He paused, as if he were calculating something in his mind.
“Five thousand,” he said again. “For what? Fucking Oil? The fucking Kuwaiti Royal Family? Fuck George Bush. That goddamn scumbag.”
I didn’t know what to say. I picked up the bottle topped off our drinks.
“Nobody’s gonna be volunteering any more after this shit gets started,” he said.
I sat quietly with him for a while that afternoon, hearing reporters and retired generals from over my shoulder, breathlessly pumped up and analyzing the coming battle like a Monday Night Football pre-game show.
A small group of wedding guests sat down at the next table, recognized Jimmy and caught his eye. Jimmy sat up and straightened out his suit. He put on his happy Irish smile for them while the epic war theme thundered across room while Wolf Blitzer’s face dissolved into a commercial.
October 17, 1930 — March 19, 2017
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