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A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part II

This week, we celebrate the publication of Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City (Little, Brown and Company). If you missed Part I of this conversation between Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter, read it first. Early reviews for Tabloid City are pouring in. The New York Times calls it a “bedazzling…vivid, nonstop, time-stamped romp,” The Daily News calls it “an authentic thriller” and The Star Ledger calls it “an elegaic paen to Hamill’s city.”

Dexter: What did your father do for a living, Pete?

Hamill: He lost his leg when he was in his third year in New York. And he’d only gone to the third grade. So he couldn’t share in the Irish bounty of the harbor—the longshore jobs, the shipping and handling jobs—you know , the conventional jobs that male Irish immigrants had.

But he had very good handwriting, because he was naturally left-handed, and some nun had whacked him into being right-handed. One of the old political guys, a district leader, noticed his handwriting one day and said, “Jeez, you’ve got beautiful handwriting, Billy,” and got him a job in the office of the big grocery chain.

This was during the Great Depression in 1932, and the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency right after that. So he was there for the whole depression, making nineteen dollars a week, which was enough to get married to my mother, and have me, and the beginning of the rest of us [children]—there were seven altogether. And then when World War II started he got a job in a war plant, in a factory making lighting fixtures after the war, and stayed there until finally they went on the lam to get away from the unions and headed south, and he couldn’t get another job—he was in his sixties.

What I mean is that he worked—that’s why they came here. That four-letter word work was the most important one in their vocabularies. And I think it impressed every one of the kids without sermons, Pete. They didn’t tell you a sermon about why you had to work—they showed it. My father and my mother—she always worked part-time. They showed it just by the rhythm of their days, and I went into my late teens just wondering about a job.

So I think that kind of thing, now with such a big immigrant population, it’s probably happening right now, except the names are not Irish—the names are Hernandez, and Torres, and Figeroa, and they will give this country what the Irish gave, and the Italians, and everybody else by the time it’s over.

Dexter: Now did your dad—if you don’t mind me asking this stuff—did your dad live a long time?

Hamill: He lived to be eighty. And my mother lived to be eighty-seven.

Dexter: Did they live long enough to see what you were gonna become?

Hamill: Oh yeah.

Dexter: Did they make the kids read?

Hamill: My mother was the driving force. I think—because I don’t remember learning how to read, I don’t remember some Diogenes moment where some nun taught me—that means she must have taught me, because I was the oldest, the first. She had the time. She’s the first one that took me to a library. And the library still exists, built there by Andrew Carnegie, one of my favorite rich guys. I mean, imagine Donald Trump going into a library, nevermind building one. And Carnegie built sixteen hundred of them.

But my brothers and my sisters, because my mother worked in a movie house as a cashier, she could get any of us in for free. Just a nod at the guy at the front door and off you’d go. All the kids who followed me, they couldn’t get into the movie house unless they got a card first, and showed that they actually used it by bringing books home, and actually reading some of them. Then she let them into the movie house. She knew, from living in Belfast as a kid, that for some neighborhoods, the way out is through the library, not just through the door.

Dexter: Were most [of the kids] writers one way or another?

Hamill: My brother Dennis writes a column for The Daily News. My brother John worked for The Daily News and some newspapers, he’s out of it now, but he’s half a newspaperman, and will be for the rest of his life. My sister worked on a weekly paper in Brooklyn for awhile, a very good writer. So something rubbed off—not from me but from my mother—because she was a reader. There were always books around the house. Not tons of them, but books that she’d bought for herself that were not in the library. And I think probably with a different decks of cards than arriving on the day the stock market crashed in 1929, I bet she’d probably have been a writer, the first of the bunch. But she had to make a living.

Dexter: That’s really when she arrived?

Hamill: Yeah. Literally. We tracked down the boarding slips of the passenger lists and all that, and literally, there she was—that was the day. She used to tell us that, and you know, as reporters we’d say maybe it’s just a myth or a legend. And then finally last year, as we made a privately printed book about her, on what would have been her hundredth birthday, September 3rd of last year. In the age of the internet, you can find almost anything, and one of my daughters found the stuff that let her into Ellis Island that day in 1929. It was amazing.

She had this enormous, generous heart. I think because of growing up Catholic in Belfast, she wasn’t going to do in America, ever, what had been done to people like her in Belfast at the height of the bigotry there. She had Italian friends, and Jewish friends, and later on, Latino friends, African American friends—she was one of those people who had curiosity about other people, and where the unforgivable sin was self-pity. “Who are you to feel sorry for yourself,” she’d say.

So I could never write one of these terrible sagas of an unhappy childhood without making it up. Because I didn’t have one.

Dexter: If she died when she was eighty-seven, by then you’d already made it then, right?

Hamill: Yeah. My father, you know, as a saloon guy—blue collar neighborhood—he would get uneasy when I would start writing against the war in Vietnam or something like that. But he didn’t really complain. He was just glad I was there. No tension whatsoever in that sense.

Dexter: Now I know I’ve heard some of this before, so it must be in some of the books—I’m terrible about remembering—but these are great stories. The Irish mother who makes you get a library card before she lets you into the movies, I mean, man…

Hamill: Yeah, I mean—they knew. One of the things that infuriates me is the image of blue-collar Americans being some dumb Joe Six-Pack—they’re not. When I worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen and went to work there—broke my mother’s heart—the reason I only stayed a year was, there was a guy who worked in the sheet metal shop where I worked in the navy yard, who came to me one day and he said, “What the hell are you doing in here?” And I said, “I don’t know, what do you mean?” He said, read this, and he gave me a copy of Martin Eden by Jack London, which is the story of a kid trying to grow up, and he said, “Get out of this place—join the army, get the G.I. Bill, and make something of yourself.” That was what he was saying to me.

My father didn’t know quite how to handle it. My mother, though, was in tears when I announced it. The only regret I have with my mother is that last year, fifty-nine years after dropping out of high school, they finally gave me my high school diploma. A high school called Regis High School, a Jesuit School. And I tried to tell my friends, the Jesuits take their time with these things…

Dexter: [laughs]

Hamill: And even there the odd things that help your life—learning as briefly as I did for two years—having Latin, for example. It does something to your sentences and your paragraphs, just being forced to follow certain rules. I think there are effects there that I never realized at the time, and understood better later.

Dexter: You do wonder sometimes what governs you, when you’re sitting at the typewriter. Why in the world you write a sentence and you just know it’s not that. And then you rewrite it, and you know when it’s right. Maybe it’s, in your case, some formal training—I didn’t take any of that stuff. But I always wonder where it comes from—what informs your mind that that’s a good sentence.

Hamill: I think it’s almost like a musical sense—that you can tell when something’s out of tune somehow. You hum it, or something. Sometimes I hum sentences—I used to listen to jazz, and try to make abstract music—make words that would fit the rhythm. So I think part of it is literally and figuratively like music, where you have an ear for a language. You hear it. You don’t just read it, you hear it.

Dexter: You know who else said that to me? Jack McKinney. Jack said what told him what was good was his ear.

Hamill: I think that’s right. I never had that conversation with Jack MicKinney and we should note that Jack McKinney was a terrific columnist in Philadelphia for many years, for those who don’t know that, and a terrific guy. Boy, was he good.

boxing glovesBut he again, even on formal levels—he was a music critic, for a while. He was great at writing about boxing and music. [laughs] Figure that out.

Dexter: We [Jack and I] got picked up one night at three in the morning. They sent two police cars, said and they would leave us alone, except, you know—once they saw our identification, saw that we were from Philadelphia, they said that Jack had to promise to stop singing opera. Three o’clock in the morning, and I guess they’d had calls from up and down the street about it.

Hamill: [laughs]

Dexter: He had good pipes, but they weren’t well-formed, I guess…

Hamill: Particularly at three o’clock in the morning. And if you were in an Italian neighborhood where they knew what opera was supposed to sound like…

But to have been in a business, Pete, where you and I could have met the likes of Jack McKinney, it just was an enrichment of life. Who else has this much fun? No one I can think of…

Pete Hamill is a novelist, journalist, editor, and screenwriter. He is the author of 20 previous books including the bestselling novels Forever and Snow in August and the bestselling memoir A Drinking Life. He lives in New York City.

Pete Dexter began his working life with a U.S. Post office in New Orleans, Louisiana. He wasn’t very good at mail and quit, then caught on as a newspaper reporter in Florida, which he was not very good at, got married, and was not very good at that. In Philadelphia he became a newspaper columnist, which he was pretty good at, and got divorced, which you would have to say he was good at because it only cost $300.

Dexter remarried, won the National Book Award and built a house in the desert so remote that there is no postal service. He’s out there six months a year, pecking away at the typewriter, living proof of the adage What goes around comes around–that is, you quit the post office, pal, and the post office quits you.