OUR BIG BROTHER PETE
By Denis Hamill
“What’s your name?”
That’s when the stranger would usually look up from a newspaper editor’s desk, airline ticket counter, bank teller’s’ window, or police sergeant’s desk and ask, “Hamill? Any relation to Pete? “Brother.”
“Are you the little brother he wrote about in “A Drinking Life” who asked your mother if God was everywhere? Including up that dog’s ass?”
“That’s me,” I’d say.
In most quarters of our city, from the towers of privilege to the side streets of working class struggle and the neglected back alleys of voiceless poverty to the Formica table of our family kitchen being Pete Hamill’s sibling has been a blessing.
Ask my sister Kathleen, herself a wonderful writer.
“In my mid-twenties, I was hired by editor Chuck Otey as a proofreader for the Home Reporter and Sunset News,” Kathleen writes, of a Brooklyn weekly. “I had always found writing an easy task, but I had never written for an actual newspaper. After yakking away with Chuck Otey one day in the late-1960s about a ‘head shop’ that had opened on Bartell Pritchard Square, he startled me by saying: ‘Go interview the owner. Write about it for the paper. I’ll send a photographer with you! Go now!” Wow! A real assignment.
”That afternoon, I interviewed the owner and thoroughly immersed myself in the hippie clothes, records, rolling papers and pot paraphernalia, incense and psychedelic posters sold in the head shop. This was ‘hippie central’ for all the young guys and gals that grooved together nightly across the street on Prospect Park’s Hippie Hill.
“I finished my first piece that night, but I hadn’t a clue if it was any good. Naturally, I called my brother Pete and asked for his help.
That’s what we did in our family. Pete was the big brother: smart, generous, kind and the one who always told us we were better than we thought we were. Pete read my piece and told me it was great, however he carefully explained how to tighten it up and hammered at me: “Keep it tight and crisp. End with a concrete noun.”
I still have a yellowed copy of that first piece and it evokes in me a warm memory of my brother guiding me and sharing his brilliance. This was and still is my beloved big brother, Pete.”
It was the same for me as it was for Kathleen. There was the Pete Hamill the celebrated writer who wrote with genuine compassion about perfect strangers and big brother Pete of bottomless love and generosity who taught life lessons by example.
Pete had no big brother, but he had the great good luck to be guided by our mother Annie Devlin’s ironclad rule: “There is no bigotry allowed in this home.” And our father Billy Hamill’s even simpler rule for life, “Take shit from nobody.”
Pete has spent a lifetime following these two golden rules, refusing to tolerate intolerance and speaking fearless, and often biting, truth to power. He has never sold an inch of his soul for the King’s shillin’.
My brother Brian learned that life lesson from Pete as a kid: “In the summer of 1959 my older brother Pete lived on East 9th Street just off Second Avenue,” writes Brian. “There was an Associated grocery store on the Northeast corner. The neighborhood was a mix of immigrants and most of the shops reflected the roots of those who lived and worked there. It was different than the neighborhood where I grew up in Brooklyn which was mostly Irish and Italian. The East Village had Irish and Italians and many Polish Jews, Puerto Ricans, Russians, Ukrainians and Beatniks. It had diversity. I dug it. I did chores for Pete two days a week, taking care of laundry and dry-cleaning, shopping for food. Pete was always very busy; never a loafer. He was then working as the art director for a Greek magazine called Atlantis. He was a gifted artist having taken art classes at Pratt Institute and Mexico City College after his childhood years designing and writing his own set of comic books with original drawings, descriptions and dialog for each character.
“I had a set of keys to Pete’s apartment and he would leave detailed lists of the chores he needed me to do while he worked,” Brian writes. “He would paper-clip the cash to the note. On one particular day the cash amounted to $40 dollars. Two tens ($10) and one twenty ($20) were firmly gripped in my hand as I headed out. On my way to the first shop, while deeply immersed in the awesome people-watching visuals up and down Second Avenue, I somehow lost one of the tens. I frantically retraced my steps. To no avail. The tenskie was a goner. I felt terrible. I had never lost that much dough. When I got back to Pete’s pad I let loose with some private tears. Instead of my usual routine after finishing the chores by jumping back on the subway to hang with my friends in Brooklyn, I decided to wait for Pete to get back from work and tell him of the lost ten spot. And I waited…and waited. Finally, after a few hours, I heard Pete’s key go into the lock. I opened the door and Pete said,
“Oh, Brian, you’re still here, I thought you’d be back in Brooklyn hours ago. How are you?” I burst into tears.
“Through my sobs, I told Pete about losing the $10. He hugged me and said, “Please, do not worry about it. It’s not a big deal.” He repeated those words several times. “It’s not a big deal”
He then removed a $10 bill from his beat-up wallet and tore it into pieces. Then he threw them in the air while hysterically laughing as the pieces floated down.
“Then Pete said something that has stayed with me my whole life: ‘Money is just a convenience; do not attach too much importance to it.’ Those words have never left my brain. Just as Pete has never left my heart.”
Did being Pete Hamill’s kid brother help me break into newspapers? Of course it did. But Pete didn’t report my stories for me. But he’d read my early drafts and return them with more red ink than a Trump casino.
When I sought a daily newspaper column of my own I made the professional decision to leave town for Los Angeles and then Boston for a couple of years to escape Pete’s shadow. But there was never a single day when being Pete Hamill’s kid brother has not been one of my life’s greatest gifts.
Speaking of gifts, on every Christmas and birthday Pete gave each of his siblings gift-wrapped books; hand-held time machines that transported us from the Brooklyn tenement and Staten Island housing project to different centuries, exotic countries and lost civilizations. He bought me the Hardy Boys, and later The Old Man and Sea. When I was going away to a Fresh Air Fund summer camp he slipped me a copy of Ed McBain’s “The Mugger.”
When he learned I loved Bob Dylan he bought me the collected works of Francois Villon, a 14 century vagabond poet who’d influenced Dylan. When he noticed my interest in psychedelic art, he bought me a coffee table book on Hieronymus Bosch whom I was convinced had a better weed connection 500 years ago than Peter Max had in 1969.
The books Pete gave us changed our lives, and they have never stopped giving. Ask my brother John, who followed Pete into the pages of the Village Voice and worked at The Daily News before Pete did. Long before I did.
“When I was eight and in the fourth grade, I haunted the local branch of the Public Library, a furtive spy ferreting out the wonders of the world,” writes John, who is 14 months and one Vietnam War older than me. “Our tenement home was without many things, but books were an inescapable part of the furniture. I brought the Knights of the Round Table, Texas Cowboys and baseball heroes to our inner sanctum as rotating, two-week guests. But I never remember actually owning a book until our oldest brother Pete, who mysteriously lived somewhere beyond Brooklyn, strode into our kitchen with a thin package wrapped in brown paper.
“Pete handed the package to me, smiled and said, ‘The world can be yours if you know stories.’
“I tore the paper from the package, revealing an oversized Golden Book, bound in glossy, thick cardboard. The pictures were brown and black illustrations from ancient Greek pottery.
The “Iliad” was my first and best passport; a magic carpet and map to a bigger life. It told of war, beauty, betrayal, courage and cowardice, disappointment and triumph. It was adventure and history. And it was mine!
“In the sixty years since,” Johnny writes, “there has rarely been a day that I haven’t silently thought of and thanked Pete for unlocking the doors to Troy, Mount Olympus, Sparta, Thebes and all the provinces beyond Brooklyn.”
That’s the kind of big brother Pete has been and continues to be. You can’t visit him at his Brooklyn home these days without leaving with a book. Sometimes a box of them.
Pete didn’t just teach me about life. He saved my life a few times when I was lost in the purple haze of the late-1960s and the last-call saloons of the early-1990s. I can’t count the number of strangers who have told me that Pete’s book “A Drinking Life” helped save their lives, or the lives of loved ones. I nod at them, knowingly, because Pete helped do that for me, too, 27 years ago.
Before the science fiction magic of the fax machine and the modem I learned to type on Pete’s Hermes 3000 manual typewriter as Pete dictated his columns to me from Belfast, Mexico, Italy, the Middle East or Los Angeles, learning by osmosis how a newspaper column was reported, designed and constructed, the sentences always electrified by action verbs and ending with concrete nouns.
I was living with Pete in Dublin at 16 when he wrote his first novel “A Killing for Christ” which was reissued this year, a half-century later. I saw him map out his narrative on index cards that he pinned to corkboards.
I read the books that he read on the craft of writing like John Brain’s “Writing a Novel,” and “The Elements of Style,” and the collected Paris Review interviews with great writers. I learned from Pete that a writer is working when gazing out a window. I also learned the ass-in-the-chair discipline it takes to build a novel chapter by chapter. I learned from Pete how to write a screenplay. I have earned a living from all of these crafts.
I’ve had a ringside seat across six decades to a brilliant American writer at work. It has been a master class of a life well lived.
For those who only know Pete Hamill by his writing I can assure you his body of work really does mirror the life of the man. For his family Pete will always just be Pete, the go to “big brudda” as he used to sign his three-page, single-spaced letters from faraway places. Two of our brothers, Tom and Joey, are no longer with us in the flesh but as Pete has often said “as long as one of us is alive so will we all.”
So on behalf of the six other children of Billy Hamill and Annie Devlin, I thank you all for coming here tonight to honor Pete Hamill, our beloved big brother.
Sorry, Pedro, I couldn’t think of ending this on a more beautiful concrete noun.