Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Despite Fame, Pete Hamill’s Just A Regular Guy

(Originally published March 31, 2005)
Throughout my careers, in journalism and entertainment public relations, I have, on occasion, worked for and/or met some high-profile celebrities — Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson (before his shocking legal woes) and Elizabeth Taylor, among them.
I don’t boast about my past, nor was I star struck when I confronted those celebrities, but, if asked, I enjoy talking about it. It was, in spite of everything, just a job.
Nevertheless, when I stood in front of the stage as The Rolling Stones went through a pre-tour rehearsal at the Nassau Coliseum in 1989, I was, to say the least, awestruck when it sunk in for the first time that I was working for The *%#@$& ROLLING STONES!
Despite our celebrity-obsessed society, I grew to realize that the famous possess unique talents that, due to success and wealth, set them apart from the rest of us, but they are no more important than you or I and some don’t act like it.
There are a few renowned people I admire and respect and would savor an opportunity to meet and talk with. As a matter of fact, I recently had the opportunity of meeting someone who’s had a negligible, indirect influence on my journalism career — author/journalist Pete Hamill. (I actually met him years earlier, but the encounter was fleeting.)
A Brooklyn native, Hamill, 68, was the latest guest in Brooklyn Public Library’s “Brooklyn Writers for Brooklyn Readers” series at which he read excerpts from his latest book, “Downtown: My Manhattan,” and peppered the discussion with anecdotes about his childhood.
Hamill signed autographs for fans at  BPL event.
I became aware of Hamill in the mid-60s when he was a columnist for the New York Post. I consistently read his pieces that covered an array of topics from politics to sports to ordinary New Yorkers. I’ve kept track of his career, through his work, ever since.
As a journalist, he covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. He holds a particular distinction in New York journalism history —as editor-in-chief of both the Daily News and the Post. His brief stint at the Post is credited with saving the tabloid at a time when it was on the verge of collapse.
In addition to his distinguished journalism career, with stretches at the Village Voice and New York Newsday, Hamill has written for several magazines and penned many books, including eight novels and two collections of short stories. His 1997 novel, “Snow in August,” was a New York Times bestseller and his memoir, “A Drinking Life,” was on the list for more than three months.
Hamill’s epic, “Forever,” a fictional history of Manhattan from the 17th century through September 11, 2001, seen through the eyes of a young Irish immigrant, was published in 2002. He told me that it is being considered for development as a theatrical movie or possibly a television miniseries. The novel was likely the seed that spawned the non-fiction “Downtown” two years later.
Hamill also holds the distinction of winning a Grammy Award®, without having sung a single note. He earned the honor for Best Album Notes for his insightful essay on the jacket of Bob Dylan’s acclaimed 1975 album, “Blood On The Tracks.”
I was initially drawn to Hamill’s columns for their penchant for liberal causes and issues, but even more for his vivid, insightful, judicious and compassionate writing. In his 1996 collection of non-fiction essays and articles, “Piecework,” he wrote something that sums up how I, too, feel about journalism. “No day was like any other, no story repeated any other in its details. Day after day, week after week, I loved being a newspaperman, living in the permanent present tense of the trade.”
After the program ended, Hamill signed books for the scores who patiently lined up. Before the autograph session, he allotted me time for an interview for the article that ran a few weeks back. However, a woman running the event cut the discussion short after only two questions, but I did get to ask him something that’s concerned me for years: why don’t New York’s newspapers cover the outer boroughs like they do Manhattan? Hamill said that’s a growing problem because many editors don’t live in the city and it alienates them from readers.
Hamill was gracious and accommodating with each autograph seeker. He briefly talked to everyone, not brushing anyone off or acting like he had something better to do. Just a regular guy with an exceptional talent.
As I drove home, I realized why his legion of fans, of which I’m a loyal member, enjoy the Brooklyn native’s writing. Despite fame and status, Pete Hamill maintains the humility and sincerity that’s discernible throughout his work.