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Jimmy Breslin

Last week, I ventured back to the old country, New York City, to join my sister, Carol Gillen Costello, a Knight of Saint Patrick, the venerable organization responsible for the annual parade in the saint’s honor, at its annual and lavish all-day luncheon at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue.

I was surrounded by the elite of New York Irish strivers who made their way to success. It was a proud group, some again back in diapers, regaling in everything Ireland with a few lavishing praise about everything Trump and lamenting only that gays and those confused about their sexual identity were now allowed to march in their parade.

A few of us were there for the food and drink. Well, everyone was there for the food and the drink. Among the privileged few were some friends of old from the law and labor. One being a lawyer of many dimensions, including his ability to win what were thought to be hopeless cases. He recalled one such case that took an interesting turn from the outset. As he was unloading the document bags from a van outside the federal courthouse on the first day of the trial, a woman stopped and pointed to the red stone on his college ring. “Is that a St. John’s University ring?” she asked. He smiled, “Yes, mam, it is.” She smiled back, “That’s where I went to school.” As it turned out, she was juror number three in his case. The jury rendered a unanimous verdict in his favor.

It was the kind of story that a Queens’ notable, Jimmy Breslin, would tell in one his widely-read columns. Breslin died this week, but his words and that gritty Jamaica Avenue elevated train-like voice will live on in posterity. He was like many of the people I grew up with, no college, but through talent and determination they made their way up through the labor union hierarchy, in the police and fire departments, on Wall Street, at Con Edison and the other utilities, as contractors, and, yes, as bar and restaurant owners. On every corner, not only in Queens, but in all the New York boroughs, there was either a bar or a candy store where guys hung out. Within each group there was one or two Breslin’s ready to emerge and take their chance in life.

Everyone my age has a Breslin story or a Breslin-like story. I met Breslin a few times through a grammar school friend, Dick Oliver, one of those New York reporters who did go to college. Oliver worked with Breslin at The New York Daily News. Whenever I was in New York I would meet Oliver at “Costello’s” a noted watering hole for reporters on Third Avenue and 44th Street, where Breslin and others would hold court, swapping stories about who was on the take, who was sleeping with whom, and the simmering scandals in the city’s vast bureaucracy.

Two of Breslin’s stories impacted people I knew. One he did back in the late 1960’s about Jack Kehoe, another neighborhood friend, who then was an aspiring actor. Kehoe went on to do well, playing significant character roles in some 50 movies, including Serpico, The Sting, Car Wash, Melvin & Howard, Reds, Star Chamber, Midnight Run, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Untouchables, The Paper, etc…

At the time of Breslin’s story, Kehoe, like many actors, was between jobs. It was the summer and he was pitching for one of the teams in the Broadway Show League, a softball league that played its games on weekday afternoons in Central Park. On that day, Kehoe’s team was playing a double header. Aside from pitching both games, there was another significant challenge, it was the day that Kehoe had to report to the New York State Unemployment Office to attest to the fact that he was looking for work and that work had not found him. At the end of the first game, a taxi was arranged to speed Kehoe to the unemployment office, wait for him, and return him back to the diamond in time to pitch the second game. Breslin, who was there and without a story that day, thought that it would be interesting and harmless to write a column depicting the trials and tribulations of an actor out of work fulfilling his responsibilities to the State of New York and to his fellow actor-athletes. The story turned out to have traction and raised the ire of a few politicians who tried to take the fun out of unemployment.

The other story involved “Burke’s,” a bar on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens. A place where Breslin often stopped to say hello to Tubby Walker, one of Queens’ notable and hilarious bartenders, his great friend, Hank Rice, a steam fitter who would put many a stand-up comic to shame, and the feared Walter “Pop Eye” Woods, a wire lather, and former middle weight boxer. Here again, meaning no harm, Breslin thought that some of the mainstays of Burke’s typified the character and gritty charm of New York. He made the mistake of writing a column describing some of the people who frequented Burke’s. In doing so, he described them to perfection. He captured them as I saw them, but it was not how a few of them saw themselves.

A few weeks later, when Breslin sauntered into Burke’s expecting a favorable greeting and kudos for his perception, what he got instead was a blow to the head from a middle-aged woman who didn’t take kindly to how Breslin had described her. When she looked up and saw Breslin approaching she swung her massive handbag, which Tubby Walker described as being filled with rolls of quarters, bottles of medicine and other heavy objects. The handbag caught the unaware Breslin on the side of his head, knocking him to the floor. At that point, the woman pounced on him hitting him again and again with her handbag and kicking him. Another irate customer, this one a male, pushed the woman out of the way to get in a few licks for himself. Tubby rescued Breslin and rushed him out to a taxi on Queens Boulevard. Breslin never returned to Burke’s.

The last time I saw Breslin was when he came to Washington for a few weeks to cover the Watergate hearings in 1973. Governor Hugh Carey, then a Congressman from Brooklyn, Breslin, and I had dinner and drinks one night.

During dinner, Carey asked me what I thought was going to come out of Watergate. It was before White House Counsel John Dean had testified. I told him that when all the shoes dropped, John Mitchell, the U.S. Attorney General, would be indicted along with many senior White House staff members, and possibly Nixon. Breslin was incredulous. Keep in mind that the Secretary of Commerce Maruice Stans and Mitchell had just been indicted in a case involving campaign funds involving an investor name Vesco. Referring to that Beslin said, “That’s just politics. They’ll beat that rap.” He was right on that, both Mitchell and Stans were acquitted of those charges.

But on the question of possible charges evolving from the Watergate break-in and eventual cover-up, Breslin was skeptical, “Why would a successful New York bond lawyer get mixed up in that crap?” As I argued my point of view, he was unconvinced. “What-ta ya mean? Come on. Cut the shit. Where do ya get that from?” he barked at me in staccato form.

“Because John Dean was Mitchell’s guy in the White House,” I said. “John Dean is represented by Charlie Shaffer, one of the two lawyers who successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering.” I knew Dean from Georgetown Law School, and Charley Shaffer lived down the road from me. “Dean wouldn’t have Shaffer if he wasn’t in that deep, and if so, then so is Mitchell,” I said, “And so is Nixon.”

Breslin smiled and shook his head. “It’s a hell of story, but I haven’t seen it yet. Not the attorney general and the president.”

“If you’re down here for a story, Jimmy, that’s your story,” I said. His story came later after Dean testified, but he never gave me credit for my visceral insights. Mitchell was indicted, convicted, and served a year in jail for obstruction of justice. A year later, Nixon resigned after the House voted to impeach him. Two month after that his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him.

It was probably one of the few times that Breslin’s gut might have been off key, but his reportorial instincts were up-to-speed in questioning my suppositions. He was looking for facts that I didn’t have.

He was a gem to behold, a fountain of light with a keen mind, and a devilish nature who was full of life and fun in his search for the truth. He’ll be sorely missed, and so, too, will newspapers. God forbid, should that day ever come.  Read More 
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