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Then and Now: Pete Hamill

September 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: Pete Hamill is often described as the quintessential New Yorker. He was born in the city, has edited two of its daily newspapers, and currently writes a column for the New York Daily News. He’s also the author of eight novels, a memoir entitled A Drinking Life, and a number of collections and screenplays.

Pete Hamill, thank you for welcoming us to your house, which is how far from the World Trade Center site?

PETE HAMILL, Columnist, New York Daily News: It’s eleven blocks; about half a mile.

TERENCE SMITH: And so you were within what was called the frozen zone.

PETE HAMILL: That’s true, yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: What did that mean?

PETE HAMILL: It meant that you had to show photo ID, which, in my case, meant my passport, and some proof that you lived here. So a lot of us walked around with gas and electric bills for three or four weeks to prove that we’re actually from here.

TERENCE SMITH: And you’ve written that there… that the biggest sense in this immediate area of what happened and what was going on as the rescue went on was the odor.

PETE HAMILL: That was the most permeating part of it, because the shock was over, the awe was over, the visual horror of the thing with the flames and the firemen was over. But the odor kept rising from the rubble. And if you were way uptown, you could feel that this had happened in some other place, but you couldn’t escape it here.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s now a year later. Tell me how you think this city has absorbed this experience and changed.

PETE HAMILL: I think they rose to the occasion in a way I hoped they would.

TERENCE SMITH: New Yorkers?

PETE HAMILL: New Yorkers– because the city is the people– and that they went beyond that. Just as an example, I think that one of the most thrilling moments to me was on the first night. There was no electricity down there, people were showing up from movie companies with lights as volunteers to help put light in the streets.

And here showed up the Ironworkers with their tools. They had not been called by any politician, they hadn’t been called by union leaders, there was no plan certainly to say, “and then the Ironworkers”– they just showed up, and they said, “We cut steel. You’re going to need us.”

And they went to work that night in the middle of a kind of 19th century darkness. It was like New York before electricity. And here they came out of the night to start doing the work that they knew how to do and nobody else did. That was a thrilling moment to me.

TERENCE SMITH: You have talked and written about the “rise of the guy.” What do you mean?

PETE HAMILL: Well, I think that the combination of the hardhats who came in and did what they do, amazingly well, and at great risk downtown, and in particularly those first terrible weeks; and the firemen, and the cops; and by the way, the sanitation men, who did a lot of unheralded work that kept this… this part of town from collapsing into disease– that those guys are indispensable to any society. And there was finally a recognition of that again, because everything in our popular culture works against them. The only person that ever gets into a television series is the cop.

The last time we saw a real working American in a movie was Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” in, I think, 1956. We don’t get them presented to us as something that’s admirable. We don’t honor these people enough, and I think that’s changed.

TERENCE SMITH: Is New York different today?

PETE HAMILL: I think it is, Terry. I can’t prove it. There’s no way that you can quantify it. You can’t say that 18 more acts of kindness took place today as compared to a year ago, but I feel in the subways, which I take every day, and in the streets, I think there’s a… there’s a greater courtesy among people. I don’t mean that New Yorkers will ever be, “After you, my Dear Alfonse.” “No, no. You first, my Dear Gaston.”

There will never be that. There’s too many of us in a tight space and all of us in a hurry.

But the small acts of courtesy, a woman struggling with a baby carriage and a kid on the subway stairs, a man will come along, lift it up, and help her up the stairs– simple things like that. “Excuse me” in the subway if you bump into somebody instead of, “Hey, why did you do that?” — much greater, very subtle kind of increase in simple human courtesy.

And I think one result of that is that the racial tension that was in this city has ebbed; I think ebbed noticeably. That need, somehow, for human beings to feel offended has dissipated not completely, but has dissipated in a marked way where you don’t feel people looking to be offended, waiting for someone to knock the chip off their shoulder.

You find people saying to a sense of proportion, compared to September 11, “how can I get aggravated by this petty nonsense?” And I think in a grander way, how can anybody even begin to think about differences of skin color, or something as vague as that as a kind of… in the wake of what happened downtown.

TERENCE SMITH: When you walk around this city, are people– as they were in the months right after the attacks– jittery, nervous; are they looking over their shoulder, are they worried about another attack?

PETE HAMILL: I think they’re fatalistic. I don’t… I think… you know, Miles Davis once said, “if you’re not nervous, you’re not paying attention.”

And I think that’s a good slogan to put over the New York City flag right now. But I think they… they’re fatalistic in the best way.

You know, fatalism accepts that you’re going to die, fatalism accepts that you can die, as September 11 taught us, while you’re reaching for a cheese Danish and your coffee for breakfast, and, boom, you’re gone. So it teaches you, above all, that what matters is not how you die, but how you live.

The great fatalistic cultures, Mexico, parts of Europe after the horrors of the 20th century, are about simple human experiences that are of great need, great importance to individual humans. I think that has changed.

Fatalism is also optimistic because it says, “Yes, I might die at breakfast, but I am going to go on. I’m going to keep doing this. I am going to live no matter what happens. I am going to live.”

And if that means making sure I tell my wife I love her in the morning, if it means taking your grandson to a ballpark, if it means trying to help some kid get through school who can’t afford it, if it means any of those kind of simple human things, then we’re going to be a better place.

I think we’re a better place already because of this great wound. And the wound, how we react to the wound is the thing that’s going to… that we’re going to be measured by ten or fifteen or fifty years from now.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, going ahead– what are your hopes for this city, as they… as the city goes forward from here?

PETE HAMILL: I hope we don’t turn our back on the thing that made us great in the first place, which is the ability to absorb people who are different from us and make the city even stronger as a result. When the Irish first came, resistance; when the Italians and Jews first came, resistance. Eventually, they all married each other, and they made a city as a consequence, that is an alloy, that’s tougher than a single metal. This is the kind of wound… it’s like when you break a bone in your arm or something, after it heals, it’s stronger than what it was before it was broken. The knitting strengthens it.

September 11 gave New Yorkers a sense of proportion they didn’t have before because compared to that, what are the small irritations of life? And any society that has a sense of proportion, which means that it does have a sense of irony, it does understand the difference between what’s promised and what’s delivered, but anything that has that is going to raise… is going to have marvelous children and amazing grandchildren.

And I just wish I could live long enough to see it.

TERENCE SMITH: Pete Hamill, thanks so much.

PETE HAMILL: Thanks for having me.