In 42 years of columns, I never thought to write about a grave digger. Maybe I should’ve.
Because writing about the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave was cited as prime example of what made New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin great.
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“(Clifton) Pollard is forty-two,” the 1963 piece began. “He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
When I left sports writing and took over a general interest column in 1975, I wanted to write stuff like that. I wanted, in fact, to BE the Jimmy Breslin of Dayton. I wanted to be, as his front page obituary in The New York Times described him Monday, a columnist who “leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless.”
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My first shot at elevating the powerless ended badly. I approached a raggedy man seated on the steps of a building near Fifth and Ludlow and tried to get him to tell me his story.
“Leave me alone,” he growled. “Go interview some of your rich friends in Oakwood.”
Leveling the powerful didn’t work for me, because they wouldn’t talk to me, either. And I didn’t have any rich friends in Oakwood.
So I wound up, instead, writing self-effacing humor. About wrestling a bear and about baring it all at a nudist camp. About my family and my stepcat and my Yorkie.
And that has served me reasonably well. Nobody ever got elevated or leveled by what I wrote, but I consoled myself with the thought that I had entertained my readers.
Still, there’s always been that nagging regret I didn’t wind up like Breslin, exposing crooked politicians and hanging around with mob bosses. Writing columns like the one he did in 1986 about a young man dying of AIDS, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Writing books like “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” which was made into a movie.
It’s probably too late for that and, even if it weren’t, I’m not sure there’s a market in newspapers for that kind of stuff in this age of instant info and video links.
When I mentioned to one of my young editors that I was working on this piece, she just nodded and smiled and gave me a look that clearly said she had no idea who the hell Jimmy Breslin was.