Jimmy Breslin, Pat Fenton and Pete Hamill.
By Pat Fenton
I’m standing next to the wide front window inside Farrell’s Bar on the corner of 16th Street and 9th Avenue in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn on a gray, Sunday morning. The view out onto 9th Avenue was always a view of my world. It’s changed, but if I stare long enough, the trick of memory brings it all back. The bar hasn’t opened yet, but it’s crowded with a film crew shooting a documentary on the literary lives of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. Jonathan Alter is producing it. Steve McCarthy of McCarthy Productions is setting up the lights and the camera stands as he gets ready to shoot.
In their drinking days both Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin spent their share of time here, but for Pete Hamill Farrell’s bar is something more, his dad Billy Hamill, Belfast-born, often drank here. And one block away is the red-bricked, cathedral-like Catholic Church, Holy Name of Jesus where Pete Hamill once served as an altar boy. Once, he rushed by Farrell’s on early Sunday mornings carrying his black and white cassock as he headed up 9th Avenue to serve in the first Mass of the day.
Inside the bar this morning the floor is covered with power cables, and all through the front of it there are bright lights and monitors. Pete Hamill is sitting on a high backed bar stool as Jonathan Alter interviews him. The day bartender, Eddie Mills, stands at the far end of the bar quietly taking it all in. He’s been tending bar here for well over 50 years.
“Hold it, hold it. There’s light coming in from somewhere,” Steve McCarthy yells out to a crew member as he stares into the monitor. “Where the hell is that coming from?”
They stop shooting as members of the crew try to figure it out. A group of Farrell’s regulars start to come in the back door. It’s noontime now, and Eddie Mills starts pouring large containers of Budweiser draft beer for them as they stare over at the set. Soon they’re lost in conversation, and it’s just another Sunday afternoon in Farrell’s.
Farrell’s has been here since 1933. It opened the first day after prohibition ended. Once, men in uniforms, coming home to Windsor Terrace from wars, walked where the film cables are now. Not much has changed. It’s always been a place where the cops and firefighters who drink in here believe strongly in being patriotic, and they’re not embarrassed to tell you that they’re proud to fly the American flag.
In the middle of the back bar, right next to where Pete Hamill is being interviewed, is a framed newspaper column by his brother Denis Hamill about Vinny Brunton, a FDNY captain from Ladder Co., 105 who died in the World Trade Center. For his second job, Vinny Brunton was working behind the stick as a bartender in Farrell’s. Just below it is a picture of him in his captain’s uniform. The Hamill column, and the picture, defines Farrell’s, and a way of life passed along from the previous owner, Eddie Farrell, to Jimmy Houlihan.
A crew member steps up and slams a clapperboard shut and the film starts to roll again. “Pete, what music do you associate with your years drinking in Farrell’s? Jonathan Alter asks. Pete Hamill pauses a beat, and then he says, “Early rock & roll.”
He says it slow and poignantly, almost as if he can hear it playing. And for a moment I can hear Ivory Joe Hunter singing, “Since I met You Baby”, and Johnny Ray wailing out, “Cry.”
Pete Hamill in the hot seat, being
interviewed by Jonathan Alter.
The front door opens, and Jimmy Breslin walks in. His stepdaughter Emily Eldridge helps him over the cable lines. He gives me a fist bump when he sees me, and I walk to the back of the bar with him. The long mirrors along the bar reflect an older image of Jimmy Breslin. Once on long ago Saturday nights, when he walked into Farrell’s looking for stories for his column, his hair was long and dark, and it tumbled down his forehead in a brazen curl. He’s 86 now, but you’d never know that when you talk to him. He still has the mind of a newspaperman who won the Pulitzer Prize.
The two of us sit down at a high bar table, and someone goes across the street and gets him a container of coffee from Terrace Bagels. He drinks from it and stares towards the front of the bar where Jonathan Alter, author of books about Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama, is interviewing Pete Hamill. He has a notebook with him which he writes down pieces of conversations he has with some of the bar patrons near our table. We sit there talking for a while, and then someone comes over and says that they want him up front sitting next to Pete Hamill.
What Jonathan Alter and Steve McCarthy are working on is perhaps one of the most important documentaries of our time. We have reached a time in America when there are no more Jimmy Breslins, no more Pete Hamills, no more John Kennedys; sadly, America has run out of them. They’re all gone. If it was baseball, it would be like Alter is following around Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. I thought about that as I ordered a beer, and stared over at the two of them being interviewed. And I remembered a time so long ago when both of them inspired, and encouraged me to be a writer.
One of Jimmy Breslin’s hairs is sticking up, and someone starts making a gesture to one of the crew who walks up to him, and pats the hair into place on his head. Breslin just stares up at him. It’s the face of a much quieter man who has seen his share of trouble in saloons, seen his share of drunken, Saturday night bar fights, and somehow learned from it.
For about three hours they shot in Farrell’s Bar, and outside on 9th Avenue. Later on, I walked up 9th Avenue with Jonathan Alter, the two of us talking about Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin as McCarthy filmed it.
In some ways it was a melancholy Sunday for me, because so many thoughts and ghosts come back to me whenever I’m back on 9th Avenue or in Farrell’s.
After all the cameras were gone, the cables taken up, my body mic removed, I stayed for a while at the bar, alone, drinking some beer, and getting lost in the noise of the Sunday Farrell’s crowd. It was good to be home again. I didn’t want to leave.