By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor
March 23, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.
The passing of Jimmy Breslin this past week reminds us not only of the rarity of great print journalism in our country, but also of the lack of true characters in American life. We are far too buttoned down, too prone to the 24/7 easy hit journalism, relying too much on talking heads and gladiator TV.
Breslin was a reporter’s reporter, a true “digger” of the news, a real writer who went beyond the who, what, when, where – and truly explored the why. He generated controversy and never hesitated to go off the beaten path. He was a character, a piece of work, and he made us think.
Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York newspaper columnist who chronicled wise guys and underdogs, has died.
I have one memory from the late 1970s when I traveled with my boss, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to Minneapolis where he was giving a speech to a very large conference of senior citizens. He was the chair of the Aging Committee in the U.S. Senate, and I was nearly a third of the age of many in the room. The other speaker that day was Breslin, and he spoke ahead of Church to the assembled crowd with their walkers and hearing aids.
I will never forget Breslin’s first line: “I hate old people.” To say that there was a loud gasp from the audience would be an understatement. Church and I looked at each other wondering whether we should head for the exits.
Breslin followed that up with something like, “You are wrinkled, you are losing your hair and your teeth, you have trouble walking.” He went on to describe the maladies of aging. He certainly had no trouble getting the attention of his audience.
Then he pivoted. He talked about growing up in Queens, about being around old people, his relatives and his friend’s relatives. He talked about living in the same house, or at least on the same block, with your grandparents or great-grandparents. He talked about taking care of one another, about the natural process of families nurturing the young as well as the old, of learning from one another, of love. He talked about what the elderly have given and contributed and sacrificed and what they still give to those closest to them. He talked about what he had learned from living under the same roof and how natural it was to be a part of a multi-generational family, close-knit and caring.
In 2002, Associated Press National Writer Jerry Schwartz sat down with New York’s “New Yorkiest” author and columnist Jimmy Breslin to talk about his life, work and New York.
Breslin was old school for sure, and on that day he talked openly and with passion about what it means to grow old in America, about the tendency for more nursing homes, old people living in assisted living, families spreading out across the country and the world and about the disappearance of what he knew of family as a boy in Queens. He understood, but he didn’t like it. Something was being lost. A part of him was gone. A part of America was no more. It was a plea to hug those closest to you a little bit closer, certainly if they were older and in the twilight of life.
He may have joked that he hated old people, but he really loved them, especially up close.