The one and only time I worked with an honest-to-god legend in my career as an ink-stained wretch was when, for a brief period in the 1990s, Pete Hamill was editor in chief of the New York Daily News, and I was an editor on the national desk. I didn’t interact with Pete much; he was, understandably, primarily focused on coverage of the city, the tabloid’s raison d’etre. I do recall coming in late to work one morning at the paper’s old West 33rd Street headquarters. Speed-walking down the corridor lined with famous Daily News front pages, I suddenly found Pete next to me, headed in the same direction. We chatted for a minute or so about this and that – in addition to his myriad achievements Pete was a genuinely nice guy – then went our separate ways as we entered the football field-sized newsroom. I practically levitated the rest of the way to my desk.
But as family, friends and colleagues mourn Pete’s passing, his gift to all of us in the years to come will of course be the writing – the columns, magazine pieces, memoirs, short stories and novels – where he combined the descriptive powers of a seasoned reporter with the lyricism of a poet.
For instance, when Donald Trump took out full-page ads calling for New York State to adopt the death penalty following the arrest of black and Latino teenagers in the Central Park Five rape case in 1989 (the five were eventually exonerated), Hamill penned what remains, to my mind, the most clear-eyed description of Trump’s brutishness ever committed to paper:
“Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation. Hate was just another luxury. And Trump stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who live well-defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes. Forget the degradation and squalor of millions. Fry them into passivity.”
Hamill was in Lower Manhattan on Sept 11, 2001, and saw United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower. In the Daily News he conveyed haunting images from that day:
“The street before us is now a pale gray wilderness. There is powdery white dust on gutter and sidewalk, and dust on the roofs of cars, and dust on the tombstones of St. Paul‘s. Dust coats all the walking human beings, the police and the civilians, white people and black, men and women. It’s like an assembly of ghosts.”
Another time, another tragedy. In New York Magazine in 1980, Hamill wrote about how the shooting of John Lennon was not just heartbreaking, but horrifyingly different.
“This time the ruined body belonged to someone who had made us laugh, who had taught young people how to feel, who had helped change and shape an entire generation, from inside out. This time someone had murdered a song.”
But not all the news was bad. In an elegiac piece in 2008, Pete paid tribute to his beloved Brooklyn:
“…Brooklyn is still the wide, low borough of light, bouncing off the harbor and the ocean (out by Coney Island), a place of big skies, a place where you can see weather, not simply defend against it. Clouds move swiftly, driven by the wind, or hang in lazy stupor. Storms can be tracked visually, as the immense dark clouds make their tours. At dawn the sun begins to pass over Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, then all the way to the Verrazano Bridge, the start of its long day’s journey into the New Jersey night.”
It’s been a long time since I worked for the Daily News. These days I teach journalism at Bucks County Community College. At the moment I’m prepping for my Fall classes, which will be online this semester because of the pandemic. No matter. In the classroom or on Zoom, I’ll be ready with lots of Pete’s stories. I’ll give them to my students and tell them, here’s a guy who was thoughtful and observant, who brought a real humanity to everything he ever wrote. I knew Pete Hamill, I’ll say. And he was a legend.