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Watching the Watchdog: Jimmy Breslin, I Salute You

10/19/2012 05:38 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

A man I taught to write for TV wins a Pulitzer Prize a while back.

It's a Journalism Pulitzer for writing newspaper commentaries "... which consistently champion ordinary citizens."

This man wins the Pulitzer because be writes about ordinary women and men -- people like you and me -- as if we are the most important people in all the world. He writes like this because he genuinely believes that ordinary people like you and me are the most important people in all the world.

The man's name is Jimmy Breslin. He writes a column for the New York Daily News and is all of 82 years old this week.

Breslin is Irish and fat and looks like a debauched choirboy when I see him last some forty-five years ago. Which is when he drinks too much and smokes too much and wears clothes like he sleeps in them which, some of the time, he does.

All his life Jimmy Breslin has had a passionately public affair with the ordinary people of New York City. He loves them. They love him. They show their love by reading his newspaper column where they see themselves and their lives and the lives of people they know.

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It's the New York newspaper strike of 1965. Temporarily unemployed newspaper writers who think TV journalism is just a passing phase and has nothing to do with real journalism suddenly find TV newsrooms very nice places indeed if only they can get jobs in them.

The New York Herald Tribune is on strike. So Jimmy Breslin is a temporarily unemployed newspaper writer. Breslin signs with the ABC Eyewitness News station in New York to do his column on TV and prevent any interruption in the flow of groceries to his wife and six kids in Queens.

To understand anything about Jimmy Breslin you have to understand that while he writes with more soul and heart and caring than any other American newspaperman of his time, he is also very tough indeed.

Breslin comes out of Queens. One of the toughest places to grow up in. A lot of people don't. But Breslin is a survivor. There is evidence -- which he doesn't deny -- that his only diploma is from Elmira Reformatory.

All fat and white and pink and blue-eyed and Irish, Breslin walks into race riots and writes about them so white people can understand the obscenity of racism and why -- when you've got no hope left, none at all -- you burn, baby, burn.

Jimmy Breslin is scared of nothing.

But Jimmy Breslin is terrified of television.

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I'm fresh off the boat from United Press International in the Congo, late twenties, very English, a brand-new reporter with Eyewitness News. What little I know about New York I know mostly from reading Breslin's columns.

So they make me Breslin's producer.

They put me in charge of this irascible Irishman from Queens who travels to the redneck, racist South to cover the freedom marchers and sees the future:

You have not lived, in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing "... we are not afraid " and then turn and look at the face of a cop near her and see the puzzlement and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over. The South as it has stood since 1865 is gone. Shattered by these people in muddy shoes standing in the street and swaying and singing "We Shall Overcome.

Breslin goes to London. This prickly professional Irishman drinks in a pub where people remember Winston Churchill, the old lion who saved England and most of the rest of the world from fascism, and is dying only a few blocks away.

"E was there when 'e was needed," another one of the women said.

"We'd a been lost without 'im", the man said.

Then one of the other women said something and so did another, and the man at the bar started talking and now Moad's fist shook in the air again and here in this little bar, with over twenty years gone since anger was needed, the fire came out again and now you could see just what kind of job this Winston Churchill did for his own when they needed him.

They want me to teach the great Jimmy Breslin who can write like this to write for TV which he has never done in his life.

Then they want me to teach him to speak the words to camera just like all those really smooth guys with lots of hair and teeth and diction.

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On the first day he is to go on TV, Breslin walks into the ABC newsroom with his friend Fat Thomas who weighs 415 pounds and makes a living by watching horses run around in circles and taking bets on which horse will pass the finish post first.

Breslin is given a tiny cubicle near my desk. Fat Thomas finds the widest chair in the newsroom, takes it without asking, puts it carefully next to the opening in Breslin's cubicle and sits and watches Breslin write.

Fat Thomas doesn't talk to me. Not once. Not once in all the long weeks the strike lasts and he sits next to Breslin's cubicle near my desk and watches Breslin write. Breslin tells me Fat Thomas only talks about horses anyway, so I'm not missing much.

Inside the cubicle, Breslin writes and sweats and swears.

He agonizes over every word. He puts paper into the typewriter and writes a few words and swears and pulls the paper out of the typewriter so the machine screams and he crumples the paper into a huge snowflake and throws it on the floor and starts again.

All the time he writes and sweats and swears and makes the typewriter scream, Breslin smokes. The butts pile up in the ashtray, spill over and join the snowflakes on the floor.

Jimmy Breslin takes writing very seriously indeed.

It's the end of the first week. Things aren't going too well. He hasn't found his voice. He shows me yet another first draft.

"Tim ... whadya think?" he asks. "Don't bullshit me. It don't work. Don't tell me it works. It's crap." He pleads. "Help me, Tim ... you know how to do this goddam thing ..."

How do you tell the great Breslin how to write? "Write like you talk, Jimmy. That's all. Let's try that again. Write like you talk ..."

Outside the cubicle, overflowing the biggest chair in the newsroom, Fat Thomas watches Breslin write and re-write and sweat and swear and smoke and you know Fat Thomas would much rather watch horses run around in circles.

Inside, Breslin and the Congo Kid re-work the column. Again and again. For Breslin, every word, every sentence must be right. Every time. Only the best, only the exact and perfect words and sentences will do. In exact and perfect order. And not necessarily according to all those damned rules of grammar.

Jimmy Breslin, you see, is a poet.

Words are born. Words die. Sentences are born. Sentences die. He searches for the fire, the music. He wants the words, the black marks on white paper, to disappear. Leave only the feeling. The emotion.

The snowflakes and the cigarette butts pile up and suddenly -- so suddenly that it catches you in the throat because you haven't seen it coming -- the words and sentences about the death of some kid in the sad, killing streets of Harlem aren't just words and sentences any more.

Now, because Jimmy Breslin cares so much and knows that the right words do wonderful things to the human soul, the words turn into music and Breslin is writing a song about this boy who pushes drugs and his sisters and is shot down by a white cop while "trying to escape."

The words, and only the right words, have come. Unsentimental words. Honest words. Vulnerable words. Compassionate words. Now, Breslin's words and sentences touch the soul. And make it sing.

"Beautiful. I couldn't have done it without ya, Tim" says Breslin. "Thanks buddy."

Fat Thomas pushes himself out of the largest chair in the newsroom and says something about horses. Jimmy Breslin calls his wife, the former Rosemary Dattolico, and says he'll be home late. Not to wait up.

We go into the studio and tape the column. It sounds like he's reading. We do it a second time. And a third time. And a fourth time. And it still sounds like he's reading.

"Just talk it, Jimmy" I beg. "That's all. Just talk it. Like you're talking to Fat Thomas."

And Jimmy Breslin swears, and forgets that he's really a newspaperman trying to make it on TV until the strike's over and forgets the camera and its red light staring at him and talks into the microphone just like he talks to Fat Thomas, but without the swearing.

The fifth try is a take.

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I ask Breslin to autograph The World of Jimmy Breslin, a collection of his columns.

"It's a pleasure to do business with you, Tim" he writes. "Take care. Jimmy Breslin." He shakes my hand.

"I couldna' done it without ya, Tim" says Jimmy Breslin again. And he and Fat Thomas walk out through the newsroom, out into the late afternoon sunlight to catch a cab that will take them to watch horses run around in circles.

Eighteen years later Jimmy Breslin wins the Pulitzer for Distinguished Newspaper Commentary.

Somehow -- and it can't have been easy -- he does it without me.

It was a pleasure to do business with you, Jimmy.

This column is adapted from the chapter "Why Jimmy Breslin is an Anima Writer Even Though He Bets on Horses That Run Around in Circles" in my book Storytelling and the Anima Factor (Lulu.com and Amazon), now in its second edition.