Denis, Kathleen and Brian Hamill at the recent Brooklyn street name unveiling in honor of their late brother, Pete. Photo by Matthew Faschetti.
By Matthew Fischetti
Almost a year before he passed, I finally got to know my Uncle Pete.
It was a perfect August Day, in which you can enjoy the dog days of summer without drowning in the humidity.
My grandmother’s face lit up as we drove down 7th avenue, giddily pointing her hand out the rolled down window like a child seeing snow for the first time. She pointed out the skeletons of her old Park Slope stopping ground: the Keyfood that used to be tenements, where the old bases for stickball used to lay, and the million-dollar condos that used to be the Globe Lighting -the factory my great grandfather, Billy Hamill, had worked all his life.
“What’s that you’re reading?” my grandmother asked, noticing me fidgeting with the creased cover.
“Ah its TK by Camus.”
“Sounds like dense stuff. You know Camus is one of your uncle Pete’s favorite writers, I'm sure you’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Her words immediately soothed me. Most people probably don’t get anxious about a family reunion. But I guess I’m not like people and most families are not like mine
When I was in middle school, all I really knew about him was that he was a successful writer. Sure, there were other things I knew about him - like how he was the oldest of my grandma’s six brothers, that he had traveled the world, and that my teachers were always flabbergasted when they found out he was my uncle (“THE Pete Hamill?” was always their response).
When I was in high school, I got a better picture of he was. For my AP U.S. History class we had to write a ten-page research appear about any topic of our choosing. I chose to write about Bobby Kennedy as I became obsessed with him after listening to his impromptu eulogy for martin Luther King Jr. Reading through the Wikipedia page about his 1964 presidential run I saw that Pete had written a letter to Bobby encouraging him to run. He didn’t know him, but knew he had to run because “in Watts I didn’t see any pictures of Malcolm X or Ron Keranga on the walls, I saw pictures of JFK. That is your capital in the most cynical sense. It is your obligation in another."
From there I read dozens of articles highlighting the extraordinary life he had lived. When Bobby Kennedy ran, my uncle had continued to work with him and was one of the four men to tackle Sirhan Sirhan. Pete was on Nixon’s personal shit list, wrote about everything from columns arguing for nationalizing oil to the liner notes on "Blood on the Tracks," dated A listers like Barbara Streisand and Shirley MacLaine, was heralded as the “bard of the five boroughs” and everything else under the sun any avid fan could uncover.
I knew that he was famous, in the vaguest sense, but never had any real context. While my uncle was a legendary New Yorker the city was where my dad commuted to every day, waking up at 4 a.m. to be a security guard at NYU so that I could get free tuition. I went to a small suburban New Jersey high school and was one of the few working-class families in a town full of stockbrokers and Land Rovers.
Besides being able to throw out “My uncle dated Jackie Kennedy” in a "Two Truths and a Lie" icebreaker, I certainly didn’t feel like the family of a celebrity.
Now that I was a junior in college I had the opportunity to get to know my Uncle Pete. Because I had recently changed my prelaw track at NYU to study Journalism and Creative Writing, my parents had stressed to me that I should take advantage of the family reunion to get some “networking in."
My dad quickly found a parking spot on 7th Ave in front of the restaurant we were going to “Café Azul," a Mexican place that had just opened in the neighborhood. Just like everything else in New York, it wasn’t always this way. When Park Slope was known for tenements rather than million-dollar brownstones, 373 7th Avenue was known as Rattigan’s, the neighborhood bar where my great grandfather used to go to every day after work, and would drink – only after toasting to his union, Local TK.
Escorting my grandmother in, I could see Pete and his wife Fukiko were the first ones there. My grandmother reintroduced me, we sat down, and waited for the rest of the room to fill out.
The first thing I noticed about him was that he had blue eyes just like me. They matched the cardigan that draped around his thin frame. He was thinner than I remembered, aged by a coma stint at NYU Langone five years prior, two broken hips, and a slew of unfortunate diagnoses afterwards. But at 84, he was still kicking.
While he couldn’t walk the streets of New York anymore without the aid of a walker his mind was sharp. Throughout the dinner we waded between discussions on the rising global fascism, to who in the Democratic primary was best positioned against Trump, to the transpacific partnership. We eventually moved on to books, chewing each other’s ear off about Mark Twain, "The Stranger," and Philip Roth.
“You know what separated Camus from the rest of the philosophers? He was Fun-ny” Pete said, tapping his hand on the table to the exaggerated syllables. “You need that to understand the human spirit.”
I ate every last minute of our conversation up.
“You know you have a very interesting mind. You may want to consider going into writing or journalism” he said. Before I could remind him that I was already majoring in journalism our conversation was interrupted by the food coming out. I didn’t think. Much of it. Between being 84 and the fact he was always somewhat aloof (after 20 years of being married to my father he still called my mother Jennifer instead of Jessica), I brushed it aside.
Pete’s burrito was bigger than his head which only put an even bigger smile on his face. He took one bite and you could tell he was briefly no longer at the table but under his closed eyelids, was instead transported to some memory of painting in Mexico City. He swiped his mouth with his napkin, uncocked his head, raised his hands, directly stared at the ceiling and proclaimed, “Maybe there is a god after all." Given that there were twenty or so Hamills in one space it was loud in the restaurant and nobody but me heard it. But we both got a good laugh out of it.
The next day, my grandma told me that Pete had emailed her about what a wonderful time talking to me at the reunion but wanted to know “if she knew the name of the young man sitting next to her at dinner." She replied that it was Matthew. He sent another email asking what my last name was.
“He must have thought you were one of your cousin Liam’s friends,” she said laughing. He apologized profusely for his “old man brain” in the follow up.
“You know, this whole getting old thing is no fun Matthew. Don’t get old! Ya hear me now?” she said, still trying to stop laughing.
It’s still something I think about today. And not because of my bruised ego.
Over the next year, I got to work as a research assistant for his book. While most of the work, such as archiving old columns or fact checking was done remotely, twice or three times a week I would take the F train to his Prospect Avenue brownstone. I was there to put away files, in the byzantine of file boxes and manilla folders he used, to organize the annotate printouts of all the articles he had read. Most of the time though, I’d only get through half the pile.
“Ah just worry about that later” he would say waving his hand. “Come over here and sit with me." We would lose hours talking about anything and everything, both of us becoming more familiar and curious about each other’s mind. He let me ransack his library, borrowing copies of A.J. Liebling, or flipping through one of his 15 different Matisse Art books.
He would often say he learned more from me than he could ever teach me, but I knew that was a lie. A nice one, but not truthful.
He taught me to always take your work seriously but to never take yourself seriously. He taught me that the only person you’re ever competing with is yourself. If you’re consumed by what others are doing, you will inevitably fail in the long run. He taught me practical writing advice like to use concrete nouns and active verbs. And that the best news stories aren’t judged by how many words they are but by how much rubber you burned in the sole of your shoe.
He taught me to always punch up and never down. No exceptions. He taught me to never forget those who helped you get where you are. And regardless of where you are in life, you can always offer a hand up to someone.
He taught me that the three worst of the men of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley (and not necessarily in that order). I learned how his face lights up when someone puts an album on in the room. Or how he randomly starts singing, in either English or Spanish, when a song he loves pops into his head. I learned about love, seeing how starstruck he got simply from looking at his wife when she entered the room. And I learned even more about it, watching Fukiko care for him day in and day out.
“And above all else, never add a sentence to the history of human lousiness.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we were limited to a small service for close family. It was still held at Holy Name Church where Pete was an altar boy growing up.
I kept glancing down at my piece of paper, trying to reread every word, making sure that I wouldn’t stumble.
“And now a reading the Book of The Prophet Daniel” the priest said, giving me the cue to walk to the front. I was doing fine until I reached the second passage of Daniel 12:1-3.
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some Shall live forever/Others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”
I could feel my throat getting dry reading the next part. I gave up even trying to make good eye contact and tried to power through before making a scene at the podium.
“But the wise shall shine brightly. Like the splendor of the firmament.”
My voice started to fully crack. I cleared my through mid-sentence, trying to power through and not break down at my chance to give Pete the sendoff he deserved.
“And those who lead the many to justice/Shall be like the stars forever,” I said, barely holding it together. I quickly walked off the altar, returned to my pew, and cried silently throughout the rest of the service.
I didn’t say much on the ride to Greenwood Cemetery, besides a curt thank you when my parents tried to compliment my botched reading. I just stared out the window and held my grandmother’s hand.
We made our way down the winding roads until we finally caught up to hearse. Years ago, when he had his close call at NYU Langone, he decided to buy a plot at Greenwood cemetery next to no other than Boss Tweed.
“I’d rather be in hell with those guys rather than the goody two shoes. Sounds a hell of lot more interesting.”
We stood in a semi-circle around the pearl white coffin, as Fukiko handed a single rose to everyone. She explained that Pete’s final wish was for us to each lay down a rose when we said our goodbyes.
After the siblings had said their final words, my uncle Denis asked for a moment. “I just wanted to take a second and play a very fitting song for today that Pete loved a lot. He tried playing the song out loud from his phone, but it was too faint to hear.
“Dank, what are you trying to play,” my dad asked. “Isn’t it Grand Boys by the Clancy Brothers”.
My dad shoed his hand as if he was insulted and told Denis to put his phone away. And then the both of them started singing it acapella.
“Look at the coffin with golden handles/Isn’t it grand boys, to be bloody well dead?/ Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry,” they started singing.
The semi-circle devolved into a line as my father and Denis kept on singing. One by one, you saw everyone say their private piece and stack drop their rose on top of the ivory casket and walk back towards the hearse.
“Look at the mourners, blood great hypocrites. Isn’t it grand boys, to be bloody well dead? Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry. And always remember the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die.”
Staring at the coffin, I didn’t know what to say. I looked up at the sky, and thought to myself, maybe there is a god after all. I knew he would appreciate that even though it wasn’t likely he got the message.
But even if there isn’t, I know that you’re still here. I won’t ever find you in the grass underneath my feet. But I will find you in the cracks of the sidewalk. Right at home where you’re supposed to be. Forever shining like a star.
Matthew Fischetti is a graduate of New York University Journalism School