I was sitting on the steps of a building on New York City’s Water Street, on lunch break from my first full-time job after high school, working at a bank that no longer exists. I was reading a copy of the New York Post. It was a different paper back then, in 1973, its pages filled with columnists who worked the streets for their stories instead of sitting inside their homes or office. It was on this day that I read my first Pete Hamill column.
It was the day after then vice president Spiro Agnew copped a plea and greased his way out of a stiff prison sentence, a bag man destined for the dust bin of history. Hamill’s column raged about injustice, how there was one rule of law for the powerful and connected and another for the poor and neglected. It was written with passion and with an elegance I had yet to come across in a newspaper, and I was hooked.
From a young age, I wanted to work on a newspaper. But after reading Hamill, I needed to work on one. From that day forward I read everything he wrote, studying the style that flowed so gracefully off the page, the rhythm of the words and the pace of the column. The stories were about people I knew, had grown up with—people who went to work in the dark and returned home when it was even darker. People who could never catch a break, always living behind the financial eight ball, one phone call or knock on the door away from ruin.
In 1976 I landed a copy boy’s job at the New York Daily News. A week after I started, Hamill and Jimmy Breslin came to the paper, each hired to write three columns a week. And with that, my writing education and friendship with Hamill began.
He died on August 5 at the age of 85, and with his death, that magical era of the great big-city newspaper columnist comes to a sad end.
During my nine months as a copy boy, I freelanced for any publication that would take my work. And when the occasional story was published, I would leave a copy on Pete’s desk. He would then take the time to make me a better writer, going over every line, practically every word, telling me what I did right and where I steered off the road. He taught me about the importance of the first and last paragraph, that my words should flow across a page and end on a strong note, similar to a jazz musician ending a riff.
He was at the height of his popularity, writing novels as well as columns, living with a movie star and later dating the wife of a former president. He, along with Breslin, were the true Princes of the City. There was even talk of his making a run for mayor. One afternoon, I asked Pete, “You thinking of doing it?”
“It would be a lot of fun,” he said. “But what if I won? What the hell would I do then?”
Pete introduced me to editors he knew and had worked with. One was Al Ellenberg, then the editor of the SoHo Weekly News. Ellenberg told me any story idea I gave him he would assign and pay $5 an article. “What about expenses?” I asked. “Take it out of the $5 I’ll never pay you,” Ellenberg said. “Pete sent you here to learn. Not to get rich.”
I went back to Pete’s office and told him about the exchange I had with Ellenberg. He laughed that loud, contagious laugh of his and said, “Welcome to newspapers.”
In those years, I did my best to copy Hamill’s style of writing, trying to capture the rhythmic beats of the words, the cadence, the strong opening and the even stronger closing paragraph. This was during the Son of Sam summer, and my friends at the Daily News nicknamed me “Son of Pete.”
I asked him if I was doing something wrong trying to copy the way he wrote. “You’re finding your way,” he said. “Going through the first of the four stages—imitate, emulate, equal, and surpass.”
Pete Hamill lived a full life and left nothing on the table. He’s sadly no longer in our company, that strong spirit that embraced the working men and women of my city, the passion that fueled his need to have their stories told, now silenced. But on my shelf are his many books and his collections of columns, signed by him, each inscription a story all its own.
Pete Hamill has earned the right to be remembered. His words and stories are lessons we can learn from and take comfort in. He left his mark, and that’s all any writer, all any person, can ask for from this world.
Lorenzo Carcaterra’s latest novel, Payback, will be published in late August by Ballantine Books.