By Tom Deignan
The year was 1997 and I was fresh out of college, with a head full of words and dreams, an ambition to tell stories that were not being told, and to dive into the hurly-burly of big ideas about America and the world.
In other words, I really needed a job.
By then I had already been corresponding (which is to say, pestering) great wordsmiths and storytellers like Peter Quinn and Terry Golway, who made the mistake of tolerating, even encouraging, me.
Pete Hamill made the same mistake. It led to what I consider the greatest piece of writing Hamill ever did.
I can’t pretend to have known Hamill in any kind of personal way. Our paths crossed plenty of times, and several times when he put a new book out I had the honor of sitting across from him and listening. The Lion’s Head. Thomas Nast. Walter O’Malley. Mychal Judge. My own private Ken Burns documentary.
The thing that struck me this week, reading the remembrances following Hamill’s death at the age of 85, was not just the impressive range of his work, but how generous he was with aspiring writers.
New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb spoke for many when he said: “I greatly appreciate him encouraging me to write as a young person full of self-doubt. I also will miss the fantastic breadth of his knowledge of New York City and the indelible rhythm of the sentences he pushed off the tip of his pen.”
I’d grown up tossing copies of the New York Daily News – bearing Hamill’s photo and byline – onto Staten Island stoops. Back then I cared only about the Sports pages, and the Yankees – Don Mattingly’s latest exploits on the field and George Steinbrenner’s freshest outrage off.
But once I began diving into Hamill’s columns and books, he taught me more about the people and place I came from – the good, the bad, and ugly – than anyone else.
You can rant and rave, and cheer and jeer for or against Trump. Those of us who grew up in certain parts of New York’s outer boroughs – and read Hamill’s scorching New York Magazine report “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class” – were less surprised than others.
Hamill had seen it all coming.
But to me, even that was not Hamill’s best piece of writing. Nor was A Drinking Life, that elegant and frank celebration of human frailty and strength. Nor that classic sketch from The New York Post, “Going Home,” in which Hamill dramatized and popularized the tradition of tying a yellow ribbon around a tree to remember those elsewhere, whom we wish could be with us. Nor Hamill’s many other great works – the liner notes for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, a wonderful walking tour of lower Manhattan called Downtown, or sci-fi-tinged New York epics such as Forever or Snow in August.
No, my own personal favorite from Hamill arrived via the U.S. Post office in 1997, right before I returned to New York from grad school. There were a few years in the mid-1990s when Hamill, first, stepped up to run the nearly-shuttered New York Post. Then he moved on to become editor of the Daily News.
Peter Quinn or Terry Golway or someone else far too generous must have mentioned that this dopey kid from Staten Island had deluded himself into thinking he might want to write.
“Call me when you get back into town,” Hamill wrote. To me. On his personalized Daily News stationary.
Weeks later, on the day I was to meet Hamill, a drifter and grifter by the name of Andrew Cunanan was identified as the murderer of a fashion designer named Gianni Versace. Quite a long ways from Blood on the Tracks. But tabloids are tabloids. Hamill was unable to meet that day.
That was for the best. Devouring Hamill’s exemplary journalism all those years, the obvious still somehow eluded me: it was an insult to think I could even think about reporting and writing at the level Hamill had done.
To aspire to be as generous and gracious as Hamill was challenge enough.
To have all that wonderful writing to read was generous compensation.
That I surely would never have had any chance to sit down with Pete Hamill but for the broader generosity and graciousness of that ink-stained Tammany Hall, Irish America’s extensive literary network – the “Mick clique,” Pete Hamill, Eternal President – is something else to think about the next time you hear someone rant and rave about the ills of “identity politics.”
Now, in memoriam, I am going to go re-read my favorite piece of writing by Pete Hamill.
Return to the Pete Hamill tribute page.
Tom Deignan is an author, teacher, and columnist for the Irish Voice and Irish America (tdeignan.blogspot.com).