Pete Hamill was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in March 2016. In his acceptance remarks, printed here, he talks about being “an alloy,” and what he owes to other cultures.
Like all the others here in this room—not simply the people winning awards but all of us– I could not be here without the help of others, especially Anne Devlin from Madrid Street in the Short Strand in Belfast and Billy Hamill from Leeson Street in the lower Falls, whose heart was broken by Belfast and forced him into exile, into the beautiful, democratic republic of Brooklyn, land of many escapes and the place that gave me my life.
Both of them were fairly short people, in spite of the rumors about Belfast water being especially straightening. But they were giants, and I rode in on their shoulders and the shoulders of many other people, who gave me my craft, my life, the books I read and the books I wrote…It’s been a wonderful journey. I have a very few regrets and I am not going to sing, ‘My Way.’ If I had to sing anything, it would be ‘You make me feel so young. ‘
As the first American in the family–they ended up with seven children– it was a madhouse – a wonderful, cheerful, forgiving madhouse, in which we all took care of each other. And I, as the first American, had to explain the important parts of Brooklyn religion, for example, what a bunt was, what a ground ball was. My mother never got it. My father became an American by sitting and cheering for Jackie Roosevelt Robinson number 42 and sitting in the Ebbets Field, the center of our religious life and doing it until he couldn’t do it anymore.
In my case, most of my life has been an alloy and I think that is typical of New Yorkers.
So I am Irish and proudly so, but I am part Italian, too. The Caputos lived across the hall of our Brooklyn tenement….And I think our American lives began when Mrs. Caputo, who had a pity and compassion, taught my mother how to make the sauce. We wanted nothing else for the rest of our lives.
I think four of the brothers who married Italian girls—it had to be the food.
I was also part Jewish. As a young kid, 11, an altar boy at the Catholic Church, I was stopped by a rabbi one day at the synagogue near my house in Brooklyn, and he made me the Shabbos boy. I was the guy who turned on the gas stove. I was the guy who picked up the newspaper out of the hallway, and brought it into the house.
He tried to teach me Yiddish and I couldn’t have gotten through a full life in a city that contains Donald Trump without words like shmuck. But there were other great gifts that I got from the Jews… And I did my little part trying to explain to him that the Cincinnati Reds were not Socialists. They were a baseball team.
[29:36] But I also got irony. I got a sense that it doesn’t matter where you came from if you are in New York–the education was going to be there for you, you know? And the example of going out for an education was there, even though I was a high school dropout at 16. It was put in my head to stay instilled there.
I was Latino, too. My closest friend for twenty years was Jose Torres and he and I would talk about my fellow Irishman in Spanish saying, ‘Mira! De hoy …’ [Audience laughs] And alas, like all friendships that last forever, I ended up having to bury him because otherwise he would have to bury me.
And I was also African American–I love jazz music. I interviewed Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey…I became friends with Max Roach–the great, great drummer from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
And all of them, in one way or another, fed my writing.
I would rejoice in certain ways about the beauty of Brooklyn –the color of the skies, the views from up on the hills in Prospect Park where I could see all the way to this desolate place called New Jersey. [Audience laughs]
I love the subways. I would take subways just for pleasure to see where they‘d took me, to see new neighborhoods that’re not my own, to walk around and get a sense of how people lived.
I had my fellow religious people — Robinson and Reese, Snider and Furillo, and others whose names are part of my generation.
But above all, I had the Brooklyn Public Library–not only the main office at Grand Army Plaza, but the local branch, our Carnegie library, built by my favorite and financed by my favorite millionaire– one of 1,600 libraries that he put into the world helping people he never met… And that place was a place of safety –the bad guys never went to the library! And surprise, and cheerfulness and a sense of discovery…
We were poor. My father with one leg ….He lost his leg in playing soccer before penicillin– but handled life and was a father –and sat there and listened to us babble and encouraged us….
And so although we were poor, we were not [even] for a day impoverished—we had the library. I sailed to Treasure Island, for Christ’s sake! You know? I hung out with the Count of Monte Cristo. What more could I want out of a life?
And in there was born whatever kind of writer I am –that romance and surprise and the vivaciousness of language of poets–of people who did things with language that was more than my first books. My first book that I read all the way through was ‘Bomba, the Jungle Boy and the Giant Cataract.’ I thought it was about a guy whose mother had a bad eye, like my aunt Rose who had a cataract. And then I would strut around saying that I know another word for waterfall….
And what I learned was –in the library and in the neighborhood where I grew up and from my family– something I wish I could tell to every kid in this country—believe in possibility. Maybe tomorrow the world might not get better, but the day after tomorrow it‘ll be pretty good—trust me! I’ve been there.
So I hope that those of us who have had fortunate lives, who have overcome what should have been liabilities– to become men and women in the world living lives– to remember that there are kids out there that need someone to whisper some sense of hope and we can do that. People are doing it right now. There are people in this room who are helping kids overcome what looks like liability and who will have a place in this planet like every other kid should have.
At the same time, I hope that everyone of us in this room and everyone who we know will remember when it was a terrible moment when we got knocked down because the rule in those neighborhoods was ‘if you are knocked down, you‘ve got to get up.’
Sometimes people helped you to get up. And if we see people who‘ve been knocked down, there is no shame in offering a hand to say, ‘Get up. We will take a walk.’
So thank you all for this—I am deeply honored—and do not forget where we all came from. ♦
For more on Pete Hamill, read Irish America’s April / May profile here.
Return to the Pete Hamill tribute page.