The first time I ever heard of Pete Hamill was when I was working for a large chain bookstore in Texas. A customer came through my line and bought Hamill’s then just-released memoir A Drinking Life. I told him that the book was selling briskly and asked who Hamill was. The patron defined Hamill as “the Mike Royko of New York.” Because it was always my goal to live in the ultimate big city, I read the book that week. Soon, I had read all the titles held by the library. A few years after that, when something called the World Wide Web made it possible for all of us to obtain the previously unobtainable, Hamill’s remaining books were the first things I purchased online from the out-of-print booksellers. It seems like so long ago, but wasn’t.
A few years later I had moved to New York and was living in Brooklyn not far from where Hamill grew up. Many in my neighborhood remembered him from the time Park Slope was still a working class enclave in the 1940s-50s. His brother Denis is also a writer and newspaperman. The younger Hamill chronicles the city from a subtly different perspective. His New York was that of the flower children and protests of the 60s, tempered by the decline of New York City that began then and accelerated with seemingly no end in sight through the early 1990s. Thankfully both writers lived long enough to see the city’s revitalization. The Hamills are still going strong. For my birthday this past June the Hayfoot gave me Tabloid City.
The immigration experience is another aspect of both Hamills’ writing. Their mother and father both came to New York from Ireland in the early 20th century. Anne Devlin landed on October 29, 1929–the day Wall Street crashed. She was nineteen. Although she herself did not land at Ellis Island, I always told the immigration story through the personal narratives of individuals like her when I volunteered at the museum. Now the Hamill brothers’ sister Kathleen has written a moving book about a unique woman.
Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.