Category: Archive

The streets where he lives

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Even to a world-traveling Brooklyn native like Hamill, it seems a fair tradeoff. “If you had to be stuck somewhere for eternity, it better be here,” he said. Everything eventually comes to Manhattan: food, literature, art, science. “You get a sense of what’s out there in the world.”
Though the setting of “Forever” is local, the theme is universal. “As you get older particularly, you realize there’s not going to be enough time to read all the books,” said Hamill, who at the moment is making his way through Dickens’s collected works.
“You say, ‘I wish I could live forever.’ That’s at the heart of all religions: your body might die but you can live forever if only you accept this faith or that faith.”
After three years of research and writing, Hamill finished his novel one Monday night in the fall of 2001, or least he thought he had. The following morning, when sitting in the Tweed Courthouse building with fellow trustees of the Museum of the City of New York, he heard a loud thump, followed shortly afterward by sirens. A workman ran in to tell them that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
He rushed into the street with his wife. “We could see the people jump from the North Tower, tiny specks falling forever,” he said. He remembered later “trying to imagine what it was like with the flames behind you and nothing in front of you but eternity.”
They moved closer and saw the orange explosion when the South Tower was hit. Later they saw it teeter, seemingly right itself and then collapse. “But before either tower went down, right in front of us on Vesey and Church, there was a puddle of blood, a cheese danish in its cellophane wrapper, a split cardboard container of coffee and one woman’s shoe. In the middle of Vesey Street was one of the wheels from the airplane” he said. “It showed me how death can come at the most banal moment. That you’re not charging the barbed wire at the Battle of the Somme. You’re standing at a street corner in New York and, boom, something happens.
“I always hated the idea of terrorism. I hated it when the Provos were doing it in the North. You don’t serve any cause by blowing up innocent people.
“For no good goddamned reason, thousands of people died on Sept. 11th. It should have, and I think it has, given us a sense of fatalism. That can be healthy. There’s a whole thing with Americans that they can live for ever,” he argued.
People should live their lives consciously and fully and also get plenty of sleep, he said. The basic unit of one’s life ought to be one’s family and friends.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, if anything. We’re amazingly vulnerable in a free society, but in spite of that you don’t wake up and say ‘Today’s the day,’ ” he said.
Hamill said he believes the War against Terrorism is being won, though he objects to the term because so much of it involves straightforward police work. “Most of the great detective work is being done in Europe; by the French, the Italians and the Spaniards, particularly,” he added.
From Sept. 11, 2001, Hamill spent nine days reporting for the Daily News, where he’s a columnist. His wife, Fukiko Aoki, who’s also a journalist, wrote for publications in Japan.
When, finally, weeks later he had a moment to think about “Forever,” he knew he had a problem. He couldn’t have a story that came up to the present day and not deal with the greatest calamity in New York’s history.
Cormac O’Connor arrives in the period when the city’s was expanding into what today is known around the globe as Ground Zero. “It was eerie going through it,” Hamill said of his Sept. 10 draft. In its early parts, the hero lived on Cortlandt Street, which later made way for the World Trade Center. Toward the end, O’Connor fell in love with a woman who worked on the 84th floor of the North Tower. Hamill didn’t want to tack an epilogue onto his novel, so he spent another year rewriting it.
He has his own memories of the hallowed site. He saw the Twin Towers go up, marring, he still believes, Manhattan’s skyline. “The New York Post, where I worked, was there at 75 West Street,” he recalled. “So I watched the land cleared. It was land that my father visited on weekends a lot to buy radio tubes and things like that.”
Today, Hamill lives on a quiet Tribeca block 15 minutes’ walk to the north. His handsome apartment is hidden away on the fourth floor of a nondescript building. His immediate neighborhood, once the center of the fabric industry, was first developed about 1880.

Physical layers of history
He meditated for a moment on where New York and America was at that time. “There’s a wonderful police station I love on Elizabeth Street, which has the 1881 date; it’s a beautiful-looking building just below Canal in Chinatown,” he said. “1881 was the year Billy the Kid was shot in New Mexico, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had the fight at the O.K. Corral and Henry James published ‘A Portrait of a Lady.’ When you put those events together, you say: ‘What a country! This is the greatest.’ “
The physical layers left by human beings long gone are evident. “Sometimes I walk down the street and I can see the asphalt wearing out after a hard winter and there’s the cobblestones from the city of horses,” Hamill said.
“I walk down Broadway, I see where Mathew Brady had his photo studio in the 1850s. I walk farther, I see A.T. Stewart’s, the first department store in New York, built by a guy from Lisburn in Northern Ireland. It’s still there,” he said.
“I have sense of walking on a street where Walt Whitman walked on, or Herman Melville, or Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to thousands and thousands of other people whose names we don’t know but who were here.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century most of those unrecorded pedestrians were connected in some way to one of the great waves of immigration — Irish, German, East European Jewish and Italian.
Cormac O’Connor, arriving earlier, is a rare immigrant who’d rather not have his national identity wrapped up with religion. When he asks his father if their family is Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, his father simply replies: “We’re Irish, son.”
Hamill said, “For anyone to say that there’s only one way you can be Irish is preposterous.” The Ulster Protestant poet John Hewitt, he said, citing one example, was as entitled to his sense of Irishness as anyone else.
“It’s one of my objections to making the St. Patrick’s Day parade into a Catholic event instead of an Irish event,” he said. “If Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats and Sean O’Casey can’t march in the parade, what the hell is it about? Wolfe Tone is Irish before he’s anything else.”
“That notion that there’s a specific way that you’re identified as Irish has hurt us all through our history,” he said. “I think we’re getting rid of it now.”
In “Forever” Hamill explores Irish identity by delving deep into Celtic mythology, but through Cormac O’Connor’s story, he also wants to examine how a settlement of 11,000 people became, in a relatively short time, the world’s most vibrant metropolis.
Hamill, who was born in 1935, the eldest of seven children raised by Belfast immigrant parents, has lived through an important part of the city’s history.
“I’m actually so old that I can remember when the B-25 flew into the Empire State Building and got stuck. That’s how slow it was going,” he said. “My brother Tommy and I rushed over from Brooklyn on the subway and saw that. We were 10 and 8. It was a Saturday morning.”

Energy of immigrants
Much of his fiction and his best-selling 1994 memoir, “A Drinking Life,” deal with the lost world before television, when people had to imagine things before they saw or experienced them.
“It’s not a nostalgia for that world; it’s just saying it was different,” he said. “It’s not saying that I want to be back in that world. I don’t. I love walking out the door here and seeing people yelling in Chinese on Canal Street trying to sell you a hat you don’t need.
“It’s thrilling. Once that whole European migration settled, and there were no immigrants for a while, there was a certain decay in the city,” he said. “And once it began again, it became the city of the last 10 years, which has been spectacular
“The new immigrants have made it a better city. It’s not about them, it’s about their children. They’ll
work at anything. The languages and cultures are different but the desire is the same as that of the Irish, the Germans, the Jews and the Italians in the past.”
Ultimately the key to what makes New York City great is its ability to renew and replenish itself in that way, he argued.
He said he feels that the city will still be here in the 22nd century. “If common sense prevails, we won’t try to be Rome,” he said. “We won’t wait for the Visigoths and the Vandals to show up and tear everything to pieces. We’ll back up and say: ‘Let’s figure this out.’
“People of my generation, born in the middle of the depression who felt this amazing euphoria after World War II, we tend to be more optimistic.”
It’s the spirit of the new immigrants, though, who’ve invested so much in the future, that will be crucial.
“Their optimism will get us through the next 50 years,” Hamill said.
“I won’t be here to watch it. But I wish I could log on somewhere.”

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