Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Writers: Pete Hamill discusses immigration, boxing and Dylan at the Tenement Museum, New York City, last night

Anyone who's grown up reading the New York newspapers, as I have, and has a taste for good writing, as I do, learned years ago to look for Pete Hamill's byline.

Hamill, the legendary journalist and writer from the streets of Brooklyn, has few rivals--actually, Jimmy Breslin may be his only peer--when it comes to distilling our whirling, complex, petri dish of a city into a series of perfect sentences, assembled into memorable 700-word columns.

His writing style is unmistakable.  He commands a broad knowledge of history, politics, art, literature and music, all of which enrich his work; but he often brings his topics back to his youth, and the New York he knew as a youth.  That part of his life and experience serves as his touchstone--the lens through which he views the rest of the world--and gives his writing a rich texture that combines sepia-toned nostalgia with a hard urban edge.

At its best, Hamill's prose can approach the level of poetry.  Listen to this, for example, about P.J. Clarke's, a well-known New York City bar/restaurant:

On this night in the rain-drowned city, we were safe and dry at an oak table in the back room of the saloon.  Clarke's was, and remains, a place out of another time, all burnished wood and chased mirrors, Irish flags and browning photographs of prizefighters.  A few aging men at the long, bright bar could gaze out the windows and still see the Third Avenue El, gone since 1955, or the Irish tenements that were smashed into rubble and replaced with steel-and-glass office buildings.  They were each drinking alone and looked as if they remembered other nights too, evoked by the music of the jukebox.  (From Why Sinatra Matters by Pete Hamill, 1998, Little, Brown and Company.) 

And Hamill has lived a life of accomplishment and adventure that many men (and maybe a few women) would envy.  He served as editor of both the New York Daily News and the New York Post; wrote for these and many other publications, from and about almost every part of the world; produced numerous books; originated, in one of his stories, the tradition of tying a yellow ribbon to let someone know he's missed at home; palled around with Frank Sinatra; dated Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Shirley MacLaine;  and was present at the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, helping subdue Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

Hamill spoke last night--Tuesday, 12/14/10--to an audience of about 50 people at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.  His topic, appropriate to the venue, was immigration, although he touched on a few other subjects as well.

Hamill is an old-school New York liberal, and that worldview was on full display as he argued for amnesty for illegal aliens present in the U.S., particularly Mexicans.  We need their work, and their work ethic, Hamill said; they're here to better themselves and their lives, and are happy for the opportunity to do difficult jobs--like agricultural labor--that America needs done but Americans aren't anxious to do themselves.

Like Hamill's best writing, his argument was grounded in humanity, not ideology.  Today's Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, he contended, are part of the same tradition as the European immigrants who came to the U.S. in years past; they are largely decent, hard-working people whose presence makes us a stronger and better country.  This is not to say I agreed with him--I support strict enforcement of our immigration laws, and deportation of those here illegally--but I've never heard the pro-amnesty case presented more persuasively.

Hamill took questions after his talk, and a measure of his intellect is the respect he showed for those who disagreed with him.  I was one who engaged him in a bit of debate.

I'm not persuaded, I told him, that we have enough work for the millions of uneducated laborers who are flocking here.  When my grandparents, or Hamill's parents, came to the U.S., a man could support a family by working in a factory, as Hamill's father did, or working on the docks.  But the factories are gone, and the waterfront is dead--and there are far fewer blue-collar jobs than there once were.

Hamill nodded, and talked a bit about the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs, and the sad state of New York Harbor.  But there are still some low-level jobs, he argued--agricultural work, for example, and restaurant work--enough, at least, to employ newly-arrived immigrants until they move up the economic ladder.

But what about unemployed Americans, I countered, who could benefit from these jobs themselves?  Unemployment among young African-Americans, in particular, is very high.  It may not be that Americans don't wish to do these jobs--it may be that they won't, or can't, do them for the wages that illegal immigrants are willing to work for.  (Indeed, illegal aliens, being off the books, can, and often do, work for less than minimum wage.)  In this way, don't illegal immigrants undercut Americans in the job market?

Hamill thought about it.  No, he answered, I don't think African-Americans would be willing to do these agricultural jobs, even if the Mexicans were not here, for a host of reasons.  For example, many Black people have negative feelings about the experiences they, or their forebears, had working the Southern fields--they're not going to be too enthusiastic about going to work as fruit pickers.  And Americans in general, not just African-Americans, don't seem inclined to do that kind of work.  In California, for example, during periods when there was a shortage of agricultural labor, there were people on welfare in Oakland who were not applying for those jobs.  Similarly, Hamill concluded, young people in New York are probably unlikely to be vying to replace Hispanics in restaurant jobs.

Like arguments about abortion or gun control, debates about immigration rarely change anyone's mind; the best you can hope for is to hear both sides presented with intelligence and passion.  Hamill made his points brilliantly, as was to be expected from him.  But when he was done, I remained as uncomfortable as I was before with the idea that allowing untold numbers of poor, unscreened, unskilled and uneducated people to enter or remain in the U.S. is in our national interest.

Hamill sat and signed books afterward, chatting at a leisurely pace about whatever came up.  He was asked about the late boxing champion Jose Torres, a close friend of his.

"I miss him every day," Hamill said.

This led to a story about Hamill's first published article, written about Torres for a Greek-language magazine.  Hamill pitched the piece to the editor, who was the son of the owner, an older Greek man.  The owner wanted to know why they should be printing a piece by an Irishman about a Puerto Rican in a Greek magazine.  "Oh, Pop, Torres is very popular among the young Greeks," the editor improvised to his father.

Segueing from sports to music, I said, "Someday I hope to write something as good as the liner notes to Blood on the Tracks."  (This striking essay, written by Hamill for the cover of the classic Bob Dylan album--and for which Hamill won a Grammy--remains one of my favorite pieces of anybody's writing.)

Hamill recounted having been in the studio when Dylan was recording the album.  Mick Jagger was there, too, and told Dylan something to the effect of, "The lyrics are great but the music sucks."  This led to Dylan re-recording most of the album with new arrangements, and this is why there are now two versions of Blood--the one that was eventually released, and the original, some say better, version that can be found on bootleg.

At this point, having glanced behind me and seen a long line of increasingly impatient people waiting to get their books signed, I decided to give someone else a chance to talk to this endlessly intriguing writer.   Fortunately, he lives here--a New York lifer if one ever existed--and we can hope for more conversation with Pete Hamill in the future.  

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At October 25, 2011 at 5:20 PM , Anonymous Jordan Moss said...

George, I read your blog piece on Hamill. Lovely. Thoughtful. Interesting. Thanks a lot for passing it on. I do love Hamill and miss looking forward to the morning paper in the way I did when he had that column in NY Newsday which is where I first got to know him. But I haven't read him in a while and this will certainly lead me back. So, thanks again.

p.s. and thanks for the Blood on the Tracks link! I actually have heard of that but never read it because I bought the cassette tape without the liner notes in college. I'm a Dylan freak as well.


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