Used to be every big city newspaper had a guy who knew what was what. A guy more comfortable on the streets or on a barstool than he was in the newsroom.
He knew the cops. And he knew the crooks. And for some reason both wanted to tell him their stories … A guy like Jimmy Breslin, as New York as the A train.
And if he weren't the genuine article … someone would have had to make him up.
"It's the greatest thing in the world," Breslin told CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith. "Anybody who doesn't go into it is a sucker. The daily surprises of news keeps you from getting sick. I went 50 years. I never had a cold."
He's the kid from Queens who won a Pulitzer, who in 1969, tried to take over the city with friend, fellow writer, and mayoral candidate Norman Mailer with a radical platform…
And when the city was gripped with fear in the summer of '77 by a maniac taking murderous directions from a dog, Breslin became a kind of pen pal with the "Son of Sam." The killer wrote Breslin letters, and Breslin answered back with some kind advice: surrender.
"He was dangerous," Breslin told Smith. "He was supposed to shoot me, but the dog told him, 'Don't, it's raining. Come back.'"
Breslin has knocked out a dozen books along the way, but what he really does best is write about the mob.
"You wanna lead your news show tonight with Warren Buffet at a conference of insurance brokers, which is where his money comes from? Or "Two dead, three hurt at a shootout in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn"? Mob bang-out. What do you wanna lead with? What do you want, Warren Buffet? You're off the air soon, ha?"
Breslin developed a reputation fairly early on when he was in the newspaper business, to the point where he'd sit on a barstool and mobsters flocked to him.
"Yep. Oh, yeah. They always came in. Because they liked to get in the papers as much as anybody else. That's a fraud to think they didn't."
A guy Breslin says always loved being in the paper, John Gotti, the "Dapper Don," happened to hail from Breslin's boyhood neighborhood. Breslin took us on a tour.
"They had social clubs. They had to have clubs, because you have to have some place to go during the day, and they'd sit around. The Bergin Hunt and Fish Club was Gotti's. He had a back office with a barber chair in it. He sat in that. And he had a bathroom, I mean a magnificent bathroom. They'd play cards at a table when you came in."
Like the Don, the Hunt and Fish Club's gone now. Breslin took me to the spot where a pet grooming shop now thrives.
"Show respect when you pass it, or when you come in," he said. "It's all gone now."
Breslin went inside, though he doesn't like dogs much. "But I'll go - in the interest of art!"
Gotti's barber chair is no longer there. In its place, dogs getting their manes trimmed, and in the back, the last vestige of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club: Gotti's "magnificent" bathroom … that, and the memories of those who knew, revered, and feared him…
One woman in the shop said Gotti liked being in the public eye.
"Not liked. Loved," said Breslin.
"Loved being the 'Dapper Don,'" she said. "He loved that title."
Breslin's new title, "The Good Rat" (Ecco Press), tells the story of good cops gone bad, including New York's so-called "Mafia cops": Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who were convicted of 11 counts of murder and attempted murder in 2006, all on the orders of the Luchese crime family
"It's awful," Breslin said. "It's worse that, probably as bad a crime as it is, they are on your payroll to protect you and your children. And they're going out and putting in with the forces of evil. Come on. What is this? Bad."
The round-up last month of dozens of mobsters surprised people who thought the mob was gone along with Gotti.
"Isn't it a little amazing that it's still around?" Smith asked.
"It isn't," Breslin said, "because the basic thing is if you can get money without working, 'I'm gonna get a Mercedes car, I'm gonna get a big pinky ring, and I'm gonna get a woman that doesn't know how to behave. And we're gonna go out big Tuesday night.' You want me to go back to school and then go to work someplace in a factory or work some manual labor for, what? $10 an hour? As opposed to what? I get $5,000?
"Get out of here."
So Breslin will likely have mob material to mine for years. Now, though, at 77, he's more author and less newspaper guy. It's easier on the feet, he'll tell you, but tougher on the soul.
"I don't know how people retire then, if that's the thing that happens," he said. "I mean, I stopped doing the columns. I did a book, which is certainly an awful lot of work. But it didn't have that daily bang-bang. It's worse than heroin."
"Oh, it's awful. In fact, you get mad at the world when nothing big happens the day before. I mean, nothing going on? Didn't somebody get shot, a politician does something. Nothing?"
"You look like you need a fix," Smith said.
"I'll do something. I'll go back to work, that's all."