Barfly Books: A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill
Look, I ain't saying New York City is the best place in the world to have a drink, right? I had my share all over the place, and all you need is a place to sit and something to sip.
But let's be honest with each other. New York City is a damn fine place to have a drink. I mean, you got your old-school joints like Ear Inn, McSorley's, Bridge Cafe, and Old Town Bar—which is so old school it can call itself old school and get away with it, pal. In places like this, you can almost imagine yourself in an 1890s tavern.
Then you have the classic hotel bars, the kind where you used to have to dress like a swell just to get in the door. Don't plan on getting in if you're wearing sweats...or even, sometimes, jeans. These bars may not have the table-thumping pedigree of the taverns, but that's not to say they're lacking in history.
Dives? Well, it's true they're sadly disappearing, in this era of high rents and smoking bans, but you can still find dank-smelling places to get cheap beer and maybe a free hot dog while playing pool and feeding quarters into the juke. You can find a Packers bar in the West Village, and I hear that even Red Sox fans are welcome in certain bars.
So it's no surprise that a great drinking town such as this has given rise to a body of boozy prose that's just as eclectic and big-hearted. Today I'm going to start an irregular series that looks at books rooted, at least in part, in New York's drinking culture.
A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, does pretty much what it says on the cover. It's a memoir of drinking and growing up in New York in the middle of the twentieth century. Pete Hamill is many things. He's a great writer, to start. These days, he works mainly as a novelist, and most of his fiction is set in NYC. He's a former reporter and columnist who's written for the Post, the Daily News, the Village Voice, and Newsday. He wrote the freakin' liner notes for Blood on the Tracks!
And, if you can believe in such things, he's a hero. As a journalist, he covered Robert Kennedy's run for the presidency; on the night that Sirhan Sirhan assassinated RFK, Hamill was among the men who disarmed Sirhan and helped the police capture him.
Hamill is also a former drunk, a recovering alcoholic who recounts his drinking days in this evocative memoir. He talks first of his parents, immigrants from Belfast who settled in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, long before anyone named Lethem or Gyllenhaal or Buscemi found the place. In the days of Hamill's youth, Park Slope was a working-class neighborhood, mostly Irish. His father drinks and then drinks more, spurred on by losing a leg playing amateur soccer.
Hamill's prose here is meaty, manly, especially when he describes a night he was nearly damaged in Mexico City. At times, the book drops so much sweat and piss and testosterone, you feel he's trying too hard to prove his machismo. The more you drink, smoke, and sleep around, this book seems to say, the more easily you can convince yourself that you're a hard-case kinda guy. If you're a fan of Hemingway or Bourdain, this will appeal to you. I love macho lit that grunts and grasps, so it definitely worked for me.
Hamill grew up just like his old man. He talks of following his father into saloons, sneaking beers into Prospect Park, and developing tastes for beer, whiskey, and women.
He talks of running with the mid-century version of a Brooklyn street gang and the brutal fights that broke out. He recounts long days as a sheet metal worker at the Navy Yards before going off to the Korean War.
The book is more than just a memoir of his drinking days, though. Hamill first aspired to be a comic-book artist, and as a reader who loved comics long before he loved booze, I was fascinated by this part of his life. Especially the part where he beds a nude model from one of his art classes.
Later, after realizing he had no innate talent as a cartoonist, he turns to journalism, and in detailing those days, he talks of the bars favorited by his fellow scribblers and the epic drinking bouts they enjoyed.
Hamill describes how drinking ruined his first marriage and alienated him, for a time, from his kids. He talks about his father's influence, a man whose drinking distanced him from his own family. Hamill certainly connects the dots between himself and his father, but the book doesn't dwell on this. When Hamill puts down his glass for the final time, he does so in the light of what drinking has cost him, and cost his father.
This is a book of a New York most of us haven't seen, featuring taverns long since shuttered and looking at a working-class Brooklyn that seems gone forever. It's a book of a Park Slope that most of us can't even imagine, one of hard-by Irish immigrants, cold-water flats, and street stickball games.
I don't romanticize a pre-Giuliani New York. I cannot possibly; I moved here in 2002. I can only understand it through literature, and I can only experience Hamill's New York by reading his work. His city is only partially my city, but his prose evokes his city so strongly that when I walk his former streets, I see his city through his eyes.
A Drinking Life is available online, around $11.