Craig Dowd – Hamill in the Park

Craig Dowd was a longtime jazz columnist for the triCityNews, an alternative newsweekly in Asbury Park, N.J. He now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Hamill in the Park

By Craig Dowd

October. The summer now belongs to the past. The flu is back, and the leaves are falling. Which means I can be found where many city stories begin, in the local park, with a book crowning my lap, thumbing through the life I’ve made here.

The origin of my own tale, then, is hardly unique. The neighborhood park no matter how small or barren is an institution, like the bodega and the church. It’s where facts bloom into meaning. Where magic still exists.

Rebecca and I were already in love when we spent an afternoon reading in the park three blocks from the studio we had just rented, in Brooklyn, though we joked it was our first date and in many ways it was.

For two years we had built our relationship email by email, visit by sporadic visit. I considered this a leisurely courtship. Becca called it glacial. No matter the pace, we both loathed being apart. Soon Becca was driving to work on Mondays in the dark, from Jersey to Maryland, where she taught fourth grade. She was never late, but that would change. So we moved here, like millions before us, with a gambit born to fail.

Brooklyn, we decided, would be our trial by intimacy, a democracy of five hundred square feet; privacy was too expensive. Like any elixir, it promised dubious rewards and epic tilts. Becca was especially worried about me, a notorious loner with intractable habits, now stuck in a shoebox with another soul; the only thing I had ever conjugated was a sentence. Surely, we thought, one of us would end up a smear on the wall or worse—without a roommate.

It was a leap whose risk made our heads spin, but only for a second. Fortified with coffee, we took a walk that Saturday and sought refuge in the dusty splendor of a bookstore, our own private Old Country, which we soon quit for a bit of shade. For a couple still teething on domestic bliss, the routine was as welcome as a drop of whiskey on the gums.

At first glance, the park at the heart of this romance is forgettable. My father would argue it’s only a patio and ask, “Where’s the grass?” Its make is ubiquitous in all five boroughs yet seldom considered. Like a pub before noon, its belly is tobacco brown, never crowded, and almost holy. Approach from the west and it’s telescopic. From the east, two entrances reveal themselves like a pair of tweezers, poised to snatch. And from the north one can see how three streets frame the delta of plane trees, a punctured outline of no distinction, harboring quiet lives and their secrets.

I came of age in a town people call “God’s Square Mile,” where you can hear the sea snarling in the night and smell its breath in the morning. Where cars that sleep too close to the coast are salted like stadium pretzels by dawn. And where everyone knows how to swim—even the kids who never learned. For a dry town, where the sale of liquor is forbidden, it’s exceptionally wet.

Its parks are supporting characters, diversions and dumping grounds, rarely agents of change or grand metaphors. Of all the birds you might spy in these sanctuaries, readers are the rarest. They prefer, as I did, to haunt the creaky pier jutting out over the Atlantic, or, when mild, the reptilian chaise of a Victorian gable, a pastime I shared with my sister. Living at the edge of things, it’s easy to neglect what’s behind you. So my expectations that afternoon were far from great; the setting, though exotic, felt arbitrary. All that mattered was the tight spine cuffed to my wrist, and the girl strolling beside me.

***

The sky was razor blue when we crossed the threshold of the park and then it wasn’t. Sunbeams, the color of bones, played in the center of the path where roots of red oaks had ruptured the beat; and as we walked the slingshot of concrete rose up to meet us, an auspicious start so long as we didn’t trip.

Like many places in New York, the park’s homely exterior is a disguise of sorts. Though not exactly beautiful, its brown interior is inviting, resembling a postcard found at the bottom of a drawer, never sent, an accidental pleasure still being composed.

We followed the iron railings as tall as tennis nets deep into the park where a few people had clustered. From the womb of a stone nook an old man contemplated a naked chessboard, brooding I imagined over his most recent defeat, or how, years ago, he lost his queen. Lunches were brought yet forfeited to pigeons—an unavoidable tax. It was more of a turnstile than anything, though, a shortcut between streets. Joggers and shoppers passed through the purgatorial stillness, then disappeared to brighter pastures, or pubs. 

After a brief deliberation, we chose a bench facing the playground and sat down, back-to-back—a date only readers could appreciate. As if they had been waiting for us to find our seats, a cast of trapeze artists too young to know fear took flight, painting a canvas of bark. We smiled at their parents shuffling alongside them, their arms raised in supplication. Then we bowed our heads in prayer and cracked open the books we had selected.

I was rubbing my thumb over the title page when Becca turned to me and groaned, “Pete Hamill again?”

“Of course,” I said, almost defensively, and showed her the novel’s plum-colored jacket, a dated fashion but still attractive. Its title, The Gift, seemed as simple as the day, and its plot, I knew, unfolded near South Slope, less than a mile away, where Hamill cut his teeth in a railroad flat—a flat, he’d note, he could no longer afford.

But Becca’s question, or accusation, still lingered, as though I had answered a midnight call from the wild and now had to justify my actions.

The past is a persistent mistress, and unaccountably jealous. She’ll tap your shoulder until properly introduced to the nubile present; if that fails, she’ll nip at your heels. Though I rarely mind the intrusion, I was hesitant to usher this moment of cosmic peace into her clutches before it was over, slathering it in nostalgia. I wanted the flame of the day to burn away on its own accord, to shine without a wick or a pool of wax, but the connections were too easy to make.

It was an echo from our first weekend together—those moony, nerve-racking days—when Becca had studied my bookcase as others do medicine cabinets, for keys that might unlock my various moods, for clues I might never think to offer. Whether by accident or intuition, the name Pete Hamill resonated for her and came to represent my literary taste. As with most things she was correct, or close enough: Hammett and Hitchens and Harrison were equally deserving of her attention, if not this essay. Faced with a mountain of options, she simply grabbed the first available hold.

She now knows Mr. Hamill as a wife knows the brand of beer her husband prefers, as a daughter knows what ratty fleece her father will reach for when it’s cold, rolling her eyes at how predictable he is, and loving him for it. But that’s all she knows.

Why his books continue to appear every few years, punctuating blocks of my life, or why they beckon me to an irretrievable past, an impossible place, is a yarn still being spun, a trail I’ve only just begun to follow myself.

***

Hamill’s second novel is a tiny object; even in hardcover, it’s no bigger than a wedding envelope. One could read it in a few hours—in a park, perhaps—though in retrospect it seems callous devoting so little time to a love letter utterly devoid of postmodern tricks; a letter so honest it might’ve been composed in the amber glow of a confessional.

The Gift shadows 17-year-old Pete, on leave from the Navy, as he rekindles old connections and hustles for his daily bread, hoping to buy his siblings the Christmas presents his mother can’t. Meanwhile, boys from the neighborhood are dying on the shores of Korea; Pete might be next. It’s about two generations inching away from each other and how bittersweet that feels; how two Catholics fled the sectarian violence of Protestant Belfast and embraced a new America. But mostly it’s about fathers.

Which makes The Gift feel less like a novel than a glimpse from across the bar, long overdue but not too late to matter. A prodigal son raising a pint to an Irish patriarch, a hard, disabled man and factory worker who would sooner sing a ballad than speak to the sailor who idolizes him. It may seem simple, or backwards, but in the urban hamlets of Brooklyn the cult of masculinity is the only communion some men will ever share.

This is the rough material of Hamill’s life, these are his people. Even the names are untouched. Even the wounds. It’s the kind of sincerity that makes readers blush—and too many critics scoff.

***

I had seen it in the shop leaning against—almost reaching for—Hamill’s masterpiece, A Drinking Life, and suddenly felt warm inside; its profile gripped me like a spell. Along with his columns and timeless dispatches from a lost America, I had read all of Hamill’s novels but this one, even the deep cuts and pulpy B-sides starring the grizzled hero Sam Briscoe. It was a book I had forgotten to look for, whose absence from my shelf I no longer grieved. You can’t dance with them all, I must’ve thought, years ago, as I abandoned the hunt. Then I blinked and woke up in Brooklyn, and my finger brushed it sleeve, just once, and drew it from the embrace of its orphan neighbors.

Becca likes to boast—or lament—how unusually competent I am at wasting a beautiful day inside a bookstore, perusing the stacks with the cool diligence of a safecracker, muscles coiled, waiting for the faintest click to tell me, This is the one. But on that day I was prompt, if not hasty, and abstained from scanning the first pages of The Gift, or the last, as I typically do before buying a book, to see if its music will speak to me.

Skirting ritual, I motioned to Becca, who had been waiting at the register with her own book, that I was ready to leave. She kinked her brows and seemed to ask, Are you now? I felt a sense of wonder crowding my face. For a second I was trapped behind a table of bestsellers, all of them bores, and my smirk adhered to hers from across the carousel of potential readers. There was something of an airport greeting in the exchange, a telepathic joke. I don’t think she has ever been so amused by my erratic convictions, or the ease with which a mere story can lift my mood, as she was then, and even if she doesn’t remember her reaction that day, the generosity of her cheeks, the glow behind her dark eyes heralding our new start, I certainly do. I conjure it often, on those afternoons when I’m not so prompt and she not so patient.

Discovering The Gift would have been enough. As a token from our maiden voyage down the block, not even the wrench of time will prize it from my memory of that day. Just holding it was a solace. The weight of a life is surprisingly slight, if you know how to write like Hamill.

Eventually I surpassed the title page, but not much else, my eyes falling on the epigraph and refusing to crawl away.

I came here to sing

And for you to sing with me.

Though Pablo Neruda had written them, the words were our words, our vows. We had said them before.

I did not whisper the passage over my shoulder, as I might have. Or remind Becca of those Sunday mornings we had spent burrowed in bed, in my old apartment, reading from one of the poet’s collections and ignoring the clock, how we laughed at the corny language of an explicit ode, quoting it months later on the phone to summon a smile after a bad day at work, though I wanted to.

Only people in movies talk like that, I thought, or bearded strangers in cafes, and sometimes both if the film is French. She probably couldn’t recall ever saying the stanza anyway, or know how true yet pompous it felt skipping from my tongue, but somehow Pete Hamill did, decades before either happened. Somehow he had tied my two worlds together, their untold beginnings and any layers wedged in between, as neatly as a baker would, with just a handful of verse—joined but apart.

***   

Behind me, Becca was plowing through a new paperback, The End of the Jews, a novel about crumbling traditions in a modern world—and, of course, her people. I asked her what she thought of it.

“Too early to tell,” she said, a familiar refrain.

“You didn’t say that about me.”

“Give it a year,” she sighed. “But for now, be quiet. I’m trying to read.”

We’ve shared plenty of Saturdays like scenes cut from a Richard Linklater film, propelled by winding digressions and loving spouts, but this was not one of them. It was a breathless day, seasonably warm, and quiet as goodbye—the long one. The coffee never cooled. When it’s real, synchrony works both ways.

My eyes then swiveled to the open pages of her book, drawn to the name sprawled above the Jenga tower of words. I quickly fixed Becca with what must have been a quizzical, how-could-you-know look, which she failed to notice. The author, Adam Mansbach, had written a jazz novel I enjoyed a few years earlier, during a time in my life when reading a weary blues was like a vaccine—it kept me going—and in these degrees of separation I gleaned yet another beginning, and another, and they both wandered back to Pete Hamill, though I was now plagued by the lurking suspicion that I had been guiding them there all along.

Call them my salad days, with a few pints on the side. Days sick with hope. When I held some vague notion of becoming a writer, a notion inextricably linked with jazz, which I covered every week for my local newspaper, but mostly Hamill.

The aging Celtic scribe was an exalted figure in my personal canon, my Virgil with a Brooklyn brogue. Hunting for ledes, I would type my prose to the rhythm of Gene Krupa’s drums, because that’s what Hamill did; his beard I found harder to duplicate.

The high point, though, was hearing him read. It was spring on the Upper East Side; my Guinness seemed laced with pollen. I still remember the gruff voice tendering tales too sordid for TCM. The smoker’s laugh. Questions dispatched with the blunt counters of a deadline artist. I love this dirty town, he might’ve said, and sometimes I fancy he did.

He reminded me of my paternal grandfather, elegant as an Irish Sinatra. My grandfather, who wielded a blackthorn shillelagh and kept a gun in his golf bag; in the right mood, he’d tell me stories of archaic sports, machine politics, and the demise of a port city named after a queen, or so I thought. My friend Steven had bought the tickets, hoping some of Hamill’s music might seep into me, and you can’t blame him for such moxie; he was also my editor.

But all that was ending. Becca arrived at the coda of that first course, missing the heat of my youth as I had missed hers, and when Steven left the paper I submitted my last column, having already crossed the Rubicon for the real world, or at least my family’s business; the title insurance license in my wallet proved it. Hamill’s candle was flickering. Worse, he now lived in Manhattan. A flaky disciple, I had moved on to other masters; all the best writers are rogues anyway.

Then on Christmas Eve, while Becca was in Israel, we buried my grandfather. It was strange to think how she had never witnessed him reach across the table and thump my head with a spoon, or drink a Bloody Mary. She never saw him watch the stillness of the bay, or sail his boat on Sundays. And she never saw him wear those flat caps I filched from his closet—the tweed ones from Donegal—or the burgundy tie he left behind, whose knot I have yet to touch. She never even met the man, though I like to think they’re connected. 

I couldn’t decide if these developments were sad, or beautiful, or the cloying result of having read too much Neruda. But they were inevitable, and in many ways necessary.

Some people say the end is where we start from.

The Gift is a Christmas story. So is my grandfather’s. And now Becca is a part of that—even if she’s only celebrated the holiday a few times. I’m grateful for the patterns books lend my life. For the small mercies they provide. The poet was right: You can’t take the dancer from the dance.

***

My own idea of Brooklyn was a circumscribed one; it belonged on the page. I could recite its litany of prizefighters and playground legends with an alarming accuracy, with an altar boy’s blind devotion, but the actual place eluded me.

I never thought living here was something one could do; that people aspired to move here was especially baffling. Our berth was a matter of geographical convenience. A midpoint between our jobs. At least until I was sitting on that bench with Becca and folding open The Gift, rediscovering in its first pages the style I’ve always admired so much—sad, direct, and doused in rosewater—but with one caveat: the avuncular wisdom of Hamill’s signature work was gone, replaced by a youthful hunger for approval, for love, the words darting across the page like a Spaldeen down an empty street.

Though reading to myself, I was somehow reviving that life for Becca—the heat she had missed. It was a tour through a lost city, a city that continued to resist the erosions of time. Again there was the thrill of print and the lights who guided me. Again, the nights without end. But how many days like this do you need to catch up to the girl sitting next to you? How do you share a life when so much of it has passed?

I love beginnings but not the way Don Draper does—mere promise is not enough, the ache is not enough. However exciting, pure novelty sounds to me like a lonely affair; the shelf life of a moment deprived of context is hopelessly short. That Saturday with Becca was just a variation on a theme from our respective histories, memories being repossessed and refurbished, like folk songs rescued from oblivion, and that was fine with me. I think that’s why I liked it. 

We hadn’t come to Brooklyn to solve anything. We came, on the surface, for Becca’s new job, for friends and family, for the experience of it all. But of course we came here to sing, to discover how we sounded with better acoustics.

***

The park was strangely familiar. We were like children hiding under a table, playing with flashlights, while ten yards away our new street throbbed with life. I sensed that, if we sat there long enough, the world would forget about us.

It’s a fine place to daydream, I thought, and four years later that hasn’t changed. Before us stretched hours of liberty. That, of course, has. Becca would say that summer afternoon was the last time New York wasn’t scheming against us. As if we had wormed our way into a temporary paradise. So we gave it a name as utopian and plain as inspiration permitted: First Date Park.

Though no talent had been exhausted in the christening, we were outrageously proud of the name. Thankfully, it survived our days in the studio. Becca quickly moved up in the world, becoming Dean of Literacy at her school in South Brooklyn; I shouldered furniture to our new apartment on the eighth floor. After work, we watched the Vermeer light wash over Lower Manhattan and spill toward the park. I remember feeling proud.

In a city as small and dynamic as this one, you instinctively scramble to claim a space for yourself. You build your parish. The rest is cut.

Another Christmas came, and snow was falling on First Date Park. With bodega roses and snacks to throw off the scent, I asked Becca to meet me there. I also had a ring in my pocket. Somewhere between a sob and a sniffle, she accepted my plea—I’m certain of it. But we didn’t let our engagement ruin a perfectly good name. We stuck to our story. And as much I enjoyed tying the knot blocks from my old apartment, the blue impatience of the sea drowning our vows in static, when I think of Becca I still think of her in that park on that summer day, wearing a jean skirt and slip-on shoes, telling me to be quiet, telling me she’s happy.

Then I think about Hamill. I think about my Pop and all those forever-ago people.

It’s true—for us anyway—that first impressions are the ones that last, even if they’re not the first. Even if we make them up.

***

A few weeks ago I bought the Times at Penn Station on my way to work, and when I opened the Metro section there was Pete Hamill, wispy in a white shirt, hawk-eyed, his dirty blonde hair expertly coiffed. He was sitting at his desk, a throne of boxes behind him. After thirty years, he was coming home to Brooklyn—Odysseus crossing the East River.

It sounded like a memoir, something quiet, imbued with the grace of age.

His return, I knew, had nothing to do with me—surely Hamill travels in rarefied nooks of the borough I’ll never enter—but still I laughed as though a friend had sent me a postcard from the exclusive province of childhood, offering me reentry.

These were the dog days of September. Becca was back in school—her second turn as Vice Principal—and our anniversary was just around the corner. Hamill, the consummate newsman, had beaten the deadline.

One book leads to another. Sort of like memories. Sort of like parks.

When I came home that night Becca met me in the doorway and handed me a package.

“It’s too early,” I said. Panic alarms rang inside my head.

“I got you this,” she said, “because I know you had a crappy week,” and she was right. We were short-staffed at work, and due to a clerical error our escrow account was showing six figures in the red.

“What’s with the wrapping?” I asked.

“Only the best,” she chirped.

Becca is an artless liar—she was clenching her lips the way men at bars inhale their guts—but my curiosity was peaked, and I clawed at the glossy skin covering my prize.

“There are obviously two books here,” I said.

“Or something else.”

Then I saw the figure framed by cold water flats trudging through a blizzard, and two lines of laundry like crooked teeth suspended over its head. I knew this world intimately. I could recognize its turquoise glow anywhere. It was Snow in August, an old favorite lost during the previous move. I remembered the unlikely friendship between Michael, an Irish altar boy, and Rabbi Hirsch, a refuge from Prague. A book about miracles, Jackie Robinson, and the sanctity of stories. Its cover, I realized, was eerily similar to The Gift’s.

“Hamill,” I said.

“Mr. Old Reliable.”

“A perfect choice,” I said.

“To soften the blow.”

This made me nervous. Becca’s shoulders were vibrating, and when she blinked I saw the glimmer from when the tide pulls away. By then it was too late to decipher her warning. I had already shuffled the books and was now staring at my imminent future—the chubby face of a baby, printed on one of those instructional tomes for expecting couples.

It was all very surreal. The newspaper, Snow in August, and now this. I felt my lips form an uncertain smile.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”

Before I hugged her, before I cried, it struck me that First Date Park was not the last miracle Brooklyn would yield. That we had something else—someone else—to name.

I couldn’t speak. Joy had stolen my words. Of all the ways one can possibly break news to a spouse, Becca had chosen the best option. She told me with a book. She told me with Hamill.

I’ve never felt less alone.

***

October. It’s one of those days when you can hear the gates of winter creaking open. Everything dry and clean. When the only warmth is the hot breath rising from the subway.

There’s an old man in a cardigan sweater sitting on our bench grumbling over a tabloid, and for a second I imagine it’s Hamill, his presence as reassuring as a settling pint. Maybe I’ll tell him this story, or ask him how it feels to be back in the Old Country. Then I remember that for some of us he never left.

I stand up and trace the fence along the margins of the park, then stop at the edge. There’s the Buddhist drone of a train idling under my feet. My eye turns to the future—we’re already thinking about a second bedroom, a new neighborhood, cheaper rent. Surely my next date will be in a different park, with a different girl, much younger than Becca. Probably in a stroller.

I whisper my goodbyes, relinquishing First Date Park to its rightful custodians, to the boys of summer and the girls of spring. Something tells me it was never ours to claim anyway. I won’t be coming back, but in a way a part of me will always be reading Hamill in the park, with Becca at my side, Pop watching over me, and Krupa’s drums in my head. A part of me, I know, will always be singing. That’s because of her, my one great choice. That’s because of Hamill.

Another writer once said that only the dead can know Brooklyn. Which is fine with me. First Date Park was enough. It always will be.

 

 

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