Writing New York City
In his latest book, Downtown: My Manhattan the legendary New York City writer Pete Hamill offers his own unique geography of the city. Rail editor Theodore Hamm recently sat down with Hamill at the latter’s home below Canal Street.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): What kind of book is Downtown—an elegy, a rhapsody, a personalized history, or something else?
Pete Hamill: I’m going to give you the cop-out answer: all of the above. The tone in certain places is elegiac, but it’s not the doomed sense it would have had if I wrote it in 1990, or 1985—when it seemed like this city had nowhere to go. It was just out of control—the degradation of Times Square, junkies everywhere, crack had arrived. I remember asking a boxing friend during that time, “What are we doing watching guys like George Foreman now?” and he said that we had lost a whole generation of boxers to crack. And I didn’t even care about the sport of boxing anymore, but it drove home the point about the impact of crack. Then the big change came. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s not the kind of book I could have written when I was 30, because you have to be here long enough to see the patterns, the cycles, the rise and fall of despair and giddiness—all happening in the same lifetime. So in that sense, the book is autobiographical to a certain extent, but not completely. When I see the Equitable Building, I remember seeing it for the first time and then tell the story of the place, which then becomes history, I guess.
Rail: Your work as a reporter sparked your interest in the city’s history, yes?
Hamill: Sure, because as a reporter I’d go to some neighborhood where I’d never been in my life, and after you’d get all the stuff about the corpse, whoever it is, then the next questions would be who lives here, what is this neighborhood, and why did they call it this? It was my self-education, in order to try and be more concrete in the stories as a kid reporter. But I also began to learn that the more you knew, the better it was—not that you put everything in, because there’s never enough room in a newspaper story. It’s that old Hemingway theory about the iceberg: The more you know, the more confidently you’ll write about it. Even then, you don’t know. One of things I talk about in the book is that as soon as you think you know this place, something happens that you don’t know anything about. Suddenly 15,000 Haitians come across the Brooklyn Bridge, protesting the Louima case, and you say where did they come from, who organized this, and so on. I also think that going away for stretches—to Mexico, Dublin, Barcelona, Rome, and other places in the U.S.—has helped me see the city in a fresher way when I’ve come back. I think it’s good that Faulkner wrote about things other than Mississippi. And Dickens is a great example of someone who can maintain an attitude towards a place that doesn’t get trapped in nostalgia for the time when you were young.
Rail: With that in mind, tell us about growing up in Brooklyn.
Hamill: I grew up in an area between Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, 7th Avenue and 12th Street, diagonally across from the Ansonia Clock Factory. The area at the time had no name, but I guess now the real estate guys have now renamed it “South Slope.” And the neighborhood adjoining Greenwood Cemetery has become “Greenwood Heights,” which makes all of us laugh. At the time, it was a mixed neighborhood, except for blacks—it was Irish, Italian, and a smaller number of Jews. There was some ethnic tension, but the gangs, like Junior Persico and his future hoodlums from across 4th Avenue, had Irishmen in the gang. And Irish gangs had Italians in them. There were some Jewish hard guys around—tough guys, but not killers, not Murder, Inc. But there was also a strong work ethic in the neighborhood, in particular after the war when the veterans came back. Some moved out, with VA mortgages, to Long Island. But in general, there was a stability when they came back, because you didn’t want to fuck around with some guy who’d been in the Battle of the Bulge [laughs]. My father worked across the street in a factory where they made these horrifying fluorescent lights that I grew up with, because I guess they helped themselves to a few of them. They made everybody look blue. And there was the Aladdin Carpet Company making fake rugs and National Silver making cheap silverware, plastic handles and all. But it made for a neighborhood where people worked.
Rail: So I take it there were no million-dollar brownstones at that point?
Hamill: No, not even in Park Slope [laughs]. What had happened is that of the first generation that had inhabited them, the men had begun to die off. And so the women were stuck with these buildings when the kids were gone. And a lot of them were transformed into rooming houses. The great revival of Park Slope didn’t happen till the ’60s. But still the brownstones were still a step up for us, because we lived in a tenement right on 7th Avenue. At the same time, there was no sense of being deprived. My mother worked for a long time at the RKO Prospect Theater on 9th Street and in other parts of the RKO chain. And she had worked before that as a nurse’s aide at the Methodist Hospital. So she and my father were both working. There were no roast beef dinners, but later I realized that the stuff we ate when we were allegedly poor—lentil soup and so on—was much better for you anyway. These were also the days before television, and we couldn’t afford to go to the movies every day, but we had a very good library—an Andrew Carnegie library, I later learned—that’s still there on 9th Street and 6th Avenue. So reading for me, before it was anything else, was entertainment. I started with the Bomba the Jungle Boy books and went on to Stevenson and Dumas and all the rest.
Rail: I heard you say recently that your Jesuit education influenced your restlessness as a writer. Can you talk more about that?
Hamill: I went to high school at Regis (on the Upper East Side), even though I was living in Brooklyn. It’s still a very good school, but the Jesuits put this goddamn thing in your head where any sense of satisfaction is the sin of pride. That’s still there. I finish a paragraph after busting my balls, and I say, “Jeez, that’s pretty good.” But then Father Burke or somebody like that comes into my head and says, “Oh no, it’s not. You’re not finished with that.” Which is the best possible training for the journalist.
Rail: Sure, but how do you feel when you see your story in print or see your book come out? Does it make you just want to keep writing and do another one?
Hamill: I always start another one before the current one comes out. First of all, because I think it’s better to do this. I saw some of my friends get wrecked. They worked for three years on a book and bided their time from when they turned in the copy till the book came out. But then one pissed-off critic at the Times writes some nasty thing about it, and it takes them two years to recover. Then they go to their graves with five books to their credit when they could have written 30. So as a practical matter, it’s good to take a couple of weeks or a month off, then start something else. I’m about 130 pages into a new novel at the moment, and I think it’s a good thing that way. Sometime, probably in your thirties, you have to get into a rhythm, in terms of the way you work. I don’t mean in terms of what to write; just that you know that you need to be at the desk at nine or ten, or midnight, or whatever the hell works best. I discovered pretty young—because of the newspaper business, where you have to write fast and accurate—that you have to trust that when you start with a blank sheet of paper, there’ll be something worth putting on that paper. So a lot of writers I admire pick up good work habits, which means when they’re finished for the day, they can watch Dean Martin movies or something [laughs]. You’re not a prisoner of the thing you’re writing. You’re not Flaubert, struggling for the perfect word. You can fix it. And because I was a journalist, I couldn’t afford to have writer’s block. I needed to write in order to eat [laughs].
Rail: At one point in the new book, you quote V.S. Pritchett, from his book New York Proclaimed (1964). Are you a fan of his work?
Hamill: Yes, he’s one of my favorite writers and critics, and that particular book is eerie to read now. It has intimations of how for the first time, New York is vulnerable. It’s published at the height of the Cold War, and you can read some of those lines or paragraphs now and almost think that Pritchett knew that September 11th was coming. But Pritchett is also a real good short story writer. I interviewed him one time in London—I think it was for the Herald-Tribune book section, I’m not sure—and I said, “You know so much in these stories about how people work and what they do. How do you do that?” And he said, “Well, I like to go for walks, and if I see an interesting store, I’ll go in the doorway across the street and watch.” That was it. But he was able to imagine other lives because he had worked at a lot of things—in the leather trade when he was 18 and in a lot of other physical work. He could watch a place and figure out the rhythms of it, then use it for his fiction.
Rail: Did his method inspire you? In your book, you mention your passion for walking the streets of the city and observing.
Hamill: Pritchett’s comments were one of those moments where you say to yourself, “You gotta take your time, you gotta stand still. You gotta watch.” He wasn’t offering his approach as advice, just answering my question. But it was a real lesson in how certain kinds of writers work. It’s not the way Kafka would work, but it is a way. Pritchett was talking about fiction, of course. When he was doing travel pieces—and he was one of the great travel writers too; he did a couple books on Spain—I’m sure he made notes, because he’d been a reporter. But it’s the imagination that matters when you’re writing fiction. You can look at something, like a photograph, and imagine your way into that world. But you have to take the time. You can’t do it from a cab.