If you’re a lifelong New Yorker of a certain age like me, then there are several things you cannot extract from your growing up experience: graffiti on Subways, the pornified Times Square, the preponderance of Off-Track Betting parlors, and one figure who towered over them all. No, not Ed Koch. No, not Crazy Eddie. It was the one and only Jimmy Breslin.
Jimmy Breslin WAS New York. Scratch that, he was New YAWK.
Breslin was the quintessential blue-collar guy with a mean disposition and an even meaner sense of justice for the working man. And he was everywhere. He was in the Daily News. He pitched Piels Beer and Grape Nuts cereal on TV. He was a favorite on talk shows. What schlubby columnist has that kind of reach today? Jimmy Breslin oozed personality. Period.
So, years later when I was all grown up and making a documentary detailing the history of the late New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation which went bankrupt in 2010, I knew I wanted a New York historian - but not an academic. I wanted the real deal from the mean streets. I needed someone who knew the seamy underbelly of the seamy underbelly. I needed Breslin. And that’s where the fun began.
A friend of a friend of an acquaintance of a guy of someone’s brother-in-law who had a cousin knew someone who thought they had a phone number for Jimmy Breslin. I got the number, took a deep breath, and dialed.
“HELLO?!!!!,” the voice on the other end of the phone screamed.
“Hi, is this Mr. Breslin?” my voice cracking and breaking like a thirteen-year old Bar Mitzvah boy.
“SO? WADDAYA WANT?”
‘Hi sir, my name is Joseph Fusco and...”
“...um, I’m making a documentary...”
“...about OTB and I was wondering if I could interview you for the film?”
“SURE! BUT I CAN’T DO IT THIS WEEK. CALL ME FRIDAY!” Click. Dial tone.
Okay. So I called Friday and got the same routine.
“YEAH? SO WHAT? UH HUH. SURE. BUT I GOTTA GET THIS THING OFF MY DESK THESE PEOPLE ARE DRIVING ME F@%$^&$ING CRAZY. CALL ME TUESDAY.”
I called Tuesday. More yelling. More cursing out something that was inconveniencing him. Call me on *insert day of the week here*.
This went on. Twice a week. Every week. For six months.
I was enthralled. There is nothing like having a childhood idol curse and kvetch at you on the phone. About three months into this, I think it was my mom who said to me, “You know, he’s never gonna do it, right?” I didn’t care. I was having too much fun. But then one day I caught him in a good mood, or as good a mood gets for Jimmy Breslin. He agreed to do a sit-down interview on camera on Friday at his apartment.
Oh, what I imagined his apartment to be like! I envisioned stepping over stacks of newspapers and tiptoeing around piles of books that were miles high. Would there be ashtrays full of half-chomped cigars? Chinese food take-out containers from 1987? Imagine the disappointment when me and my small camera crew knocked on the door of his West 57th street high-rise apartment and were greeted by Ronnie Eldridge, Breslin’s elegant wife, who is also a long time New York political figure. She beckoned us to enter the clean, modern, modest but gorgeous two bedroom apartment lined with beautiful art and exquisitely tasteful furniture. Not a coffee stain in sight.
“Jimmy’s taking a shower, he’ll be right with you. Please make yourselves comfortable,” Ronnie said.
THIS is how Jimmy Breslin lives? Nicely? And cleanly? And comfortably? Huh.
Suddenly Breslin emerged from the bedroom, dripping wet and wrapped in nothing but a towel.
“DO YOU WANT ME TO WEAR A TIE?”
“Jimmy, you should where a tie,” Ronnie coached.
“IT’S HIS F%$@&ING MOVIE. LET HIM DECIDE!”
‘I think a tie would be nice Jimmy, thank you,” I eked out.
We sat down for the interview and he had us in the palm of his hands. He was funny and acerbic, he went off script and there are a few places where I unintentionally ruin the take by laughing so hard. He was wonderful.
Two hours later we finished the interview, but he and Ronnie kept chatting us up. I thought they were going to ask us to stay for dinner ― which would have been wonderful except our equipment truck was parked on the street. This was a low budget documentary production ― we could barely afford the gas for the truck, let a lone a parking ticket. So, sadly, we hightailed it out of there and never did have dinner with Jimmy Breslin and Ronnie Eldridge.
That was four years ago. Now that the film is complete, I look back at Breslin on the screen and am so thankful I never stopped calling - he added just the right touch of colorful commentary. Man, I can’t believe I got to sit down and interview a titan! When I learned of his passing I realized that even titans must fade away…and how lucky we are to have them in the first place.
They just don’t make ‘em like Jimmy Breslin no more.