There are few enough genuine old-time New York voices around anymore. When there were many more daily papers than there are today, a certain working-class patois spilled out from beneath the logos of columnist after columnist like so much Ballantine Ale. They wrote about cops and crooks. They took on the rich and powerful in the name of the poor and powerless. Their sources spoke to them from the shadows in deserted subway stations. Often they found inspiration at the bottom of a whiskey jar.
New York lost one of its last old-time New York voices on Christmas Day when Mike McAlary, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News columnist, died from cancer. On the surface, it may seem strange to put McAlary in the company of, say, Jimmy Breslin. He was, after all, only 41. And he grew up in Goffstown, N.H., a rural suburb of that booming metropolis Manchester. But New York is as much a state of mind as it is a great city. Success here — and notoriety — demand a certain style. McAlary had it from the moment he proclaimed he would become the next Breslin.
For some, McAlary was too self-consciously a New York writer of the Breslin school. Certainly, he was no original. He wrote in the clipped style and with the bluster and bravado that characterized an earlier generation of columnists, so many of them Irish. Like them, he could — and would — shamelessly use every trick in the reporter’s handbook to bring you to tears or outrage. Like them he moved from paper to paper in this, America’s last great newspaper town, a pen and attitude for hire. Subtle? You betcha. Like a punch in the nose.
But love him or loathe him, few will deny that Mike McAlary was a brash and refreshing voice in a city with too few of them. To pay him the highest compliment of his profession, he was a damned good read.