Bridging two glimmering cities

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 9:45pm

“Judy, we’re kind of close to this guy,” said Pat Hackett from the backseat of a black boxy Mercedes Benz as it swerved ahead into the right lane after zipping past the Metro bus.

“It’s okay, Pat, I see him. Joe, you’re a writer. Look! The Village Voice,” said Judy, as she deftly wove the rig through the streets and avenues of her city. Judy worked our way downtown toward the Manhattan Bridge and over the waning light shadows of the East River.

“Look at this bridge,” said the wide-eyed and alert Judy. “Isn’t it amazing!” I was strapped into my seat trying to take all of this in as my pals and I blasted into Brooklyn at sundown. “Look,” Judy nodded toward the Brooklyn Bridge. I snapped away and noted the irony of where we were heading; I had only wanted to see the Brooklyn Bridge to take a picture and here I was roaring into the unknown. “Okay, now we’re heading toward Flatbush Avenue and we’ll follow the tracks out to Coney Island. Here we go,” said Judy. At that moment I felt like a child and was completely — eyes bugging — overwhelmed by this whole experience. I’d never been to Brooklyn and I also became aware that we were entering the home town of my favorite New York writer, Pete Hamill.

In 2003 I was on a busman’s holiday on Martha’s Vineyard. As I sat on a bench in Edgartown overlooking the Chappaquiddick Ferry, I had only 20 pages left of a novel I was reading by Pete Hamill called “Forever.” I was determined to finish this masterwork of lyrical writing. This book had me pinned down all day on this little Vineyard trip and nearing the end of the novel, I kept thinking of Hamill’s well-played use of foreshadowing and wondered of how in hell this guy was going to end his story. I finally turned to the last page and closed the book. I was gobsmacked. I hopped on my bicycle to hit the local library to track down a computer so I could send this guy a respectful email nod. I found Pete’s writing site and shot him a short but precise note about the novel’s clever structure and the arc of his main character, named Cormac Samuel O’Connor. O’Connor was from Northern Ireland and emigrated to New York City in the early 1730s. Cormac had embarked on a journey with no end and the reader had to follow him on this blessed and cursed path of travails and triumphs. (Cormac’s deal, made with an African shaman, was that he could live forever; however, he could never leave the island of Manhattan.) I also mentioned to Hamill a well-played metaphor he used “a splinter of ice in his heart,” in reference to his protagonist — I wanted him to know I’m a close reader. In this book we get to know Cormac’s complex inner conflicts, which Hamill bakes into the haunting and visceral history of New York City.

I sent Pete the note and never thought the guy would respond. The next morning, I received an email from Pete and he said, “Man, did you get it. I was trying to bury Odysseus in the story but you found him.” He went on to thank me for the nod, and the diligent reading of his book. This is one of my favorite novels of all time, because it begs many questions of the complex history of New York City and the conundrum of the protagonist.

A couple of years later, I read Pete’s book, “Downtown: My Manhattan,” which made me see the journalistic eye of the author. He wrote for and was editor of The New York Post and The New York Daily News. These publications and others he wrote for covered the island of Manhattan and its boroughs. This was a hard-core, boots-on-the-ground writer’s gig. Hamill hit the streets and chased stories; by the very nature of doing this he sought out the truth. His journalistic skills along with the natural observer in him, created a combination of passion and skill, which allowed his creative voice to transfer onto the page.

In 2005, on a solo trip to New York City, I copied the map from Pete’s book, and beginning at Battery Park, I started walking uptown to see the places Pete described.

I meandered, observed, and took notes of the city until I was too beat to continue walking — I’d covered some major ground. I got as far as Washington Square and then hopped on an uptown bus. Spending time where the towers once stood was something that will stay with me for a very long time. 

On the way back from Coney Island, Judy wove us through Park Slope, where Pete and his wife Fukiko Aoki currently live — he started out in Park Slope as a kid. As we cruised by Prospect Park, Judy noted the architecture, and stopped to point out the nuance of certain brownstone designs. Finally, as we were leaving Hamill country and were heading back into Manhattan, Pat and Judy pointed to Junior’s, the famous cheesecake place on Flatbush Avenue.

“Next time,” said Pat, as Judy wheeled us toward the Brooklyn Bridge, nexus of these two glimmering and amazing cities.