Last week, for Christmas, I wrote about Marley, a little girl who learns that finding the Christmas spirit starts with knowing where to look.
This week, at the start of a new year, I’m going to talk about Jimmy Breslin, the longtime, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist who at age 65 survived a formidable brain surgery procedure that removed an unruptured aneurysm from his right frontal cortex area.
Breslin, who is now 83 and still writing, at one time wrote three columns a week, for the Daily News, Newsday and the Herald Tribune, and was syndicated with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He was born and raised and lived his entire life in New York City. He rarely drove a car.
As a columnist, he was (and is) often outspoken and provocative. He would state the way something was — or the way things are — and simply let the description sit there, staring at the reader. He was not one to provide a lot of explanatory paragraphs or list the conditions and circumstances that made something so. He was not above exaggerating or oversimplifying.
Among other subjects, Breslin repeatedly told the stories of the powerless, downtrodden, dysfunctional, or the simply ordinary man. He believed in getting away from his desk and out onto the streets and into the neighborhoods of his vast city. He hung out in bars, restaurants, political halls, food banks, and anywhere else people and stories collected.
He was often what people would call a “liberal.” But, more accurately, he just had a passion for afflicting the comfortable. And he pointed out the stark juxtapositions that exist in a country with such extremes of wealth and poverty.
In 1996, the year after his surgery, he wrote an account of the experience and a memoir of his life, “I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.” It’s a plainspoken survey of a life that saw quite a range of tragedy, work, drama, luck, fun, angst and fame.
Breslin was born in 1930 into a dirt-poor, deeply troubled Irish Catholic family. They were “winter people,” he says, unable to use warmth or affection in either speech or touch. His parents fought and split up when he was 6. After that, he spoke to his father maybe five times in his life. His mother, who never once kissed him, tried to shoot herself right in front of him.
He attended parochial schools and learned to use writing as a bulwark against all emotional storms. He writes with mixed feelings about Catholicism. A religious man, grateful to God and attempting to steer a good life, he nevertheless calls himself a “Catholic dissenter” who sees clearly some of the absurdities and contradictions inherent in the strictures of any organized religion.
Some of the funniest stories in the book relate to his take on guilt, confession, communion, “sin recidivism” and rationalizing his own rules for being a Catholic. He says, knowingly, there is no such thing as an ex-Catholic.
Breslin is most loyal to what he calls “stone honesty.” And he hates illusions and complacency. When he walks through his city, what he sees are the homeless, the addicts, the corruption (wherever it occurs), murders, crime and injustice. What he sees especially is the permanent fury of some blacks who understand that some white people just want them to go away.
He says, “I always figured that this was the only game: just go to any neighborhood where the poor live and tell the truth about what you see.”
Although he personally was no angel, over the years he strove to rouse action against wrongs. We can be forgiven for trying and making mistakes, he says, but the sins of omission are more harshly judged. It is what we fail to do that destroys us.
These are the reflections of a man given a second chance. He feels his gratitude and consciousness, and he can see others who are without those attributes. He asks, where do you get allegiance and loyalty? Who told you of the virtues to preserve society?
He wonders, isn’t there an unconscious pull for a person to want to try to help, and then a pull to make life better for himself first? Wouldn’t it be a sin if the individual places his wants, greed mostly, as being more important than society?
Throughout the book, two things about Breslin shine through. First, it is seeing. He looks at all of life and weighs it. He sees through the eyes of other people, and he walks in their shoes. He marvels at their hard lives, their resilience and their place in the man-made scheme of things.
Second, it is gratitude. Even before surviving a mortal threat, Breslin is filled with it. He sees himself clearly in relationship to others — and sees everybody in relationship to society — and that fuels his gratitude and his desire to point out wrongs. For him, anything less would be cowardice.
In this new year, perhaps we can try to see freshly, and more clearly, and navigate with gratitude.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.