So you've lived in New York City all your life—seen it go through a lot of phases—what is your favorite time?
Well, I've lived in other cities—Rome, Dublin, Mexico City—but I was born in New York City and I always lived in those other places as a New Yorker. But for me, [my favorite time] is right now. I think that we have addressed certain questions, primarily race, that were not in good shape in the 1950s. The 1950s were wonderful on other levels but they didn't find a way to make race more just, you know? I think right now it is—not perfect—there are always going to be dumbbells of a number races who will always use some kind of racialism to make a point but I think it is infinitely more just now than when I was a kid.
If you were going to show me the town and give me some New York City experiences to take home, what would we do?
We would take the Circle Line and go around Manhattan so you understand from the first morning that it’s a city of islands. The only borough of the five boroughs on the mainland is the Bronx. And when you take that ship you understand why the place is here—because it had one of the great natural harbors on the whole continent. And its economy was based on the waterfront. Now a lot of that has begun to fade away. If you read Melville, you see how the waterfront was so crucial to his generation and then you couldn't get access to the waterfront for a long time and now you can again. You can walk from 59th Street or something to the Battery and never lose sight of the Hudson River. I would then take you to the Battery because that’s where it all started. That's where the Dutch set up their little trading post, facing north. From there, the island began to grow. We'd wander around looking at some of these monuments—too many of them make up a necropolis for guys dead, old and worse—but there's also some interesting stuff, and walk up Broadway all the way to Chamber Street, cut over to Chinatown and have a great lunch.
And what are some things that we would avoid like the plague in New York City?
I think the Upper East Side, where there are a lot of people walking around with tiny dogs and falling nose jobs, you know, from plastic surgery 35 years ago, you probably should not bother. I mean, go to the Metropolitan Museum and that is technically on the Upper East Side and the Museum of the City of New York and the Jewish Museum…all of Museum Row is worth looking at because there is amazing stuff up there. But walking the streets is kind of boring. There's no sense of the past. The past is the 1940s. When they tore down the old mansions and put up these big buildings that house too many people where the ceilings are too low…it's alright if you are 4'9" or something. I think anyone who hasn't been here before should get out of Manhattan. Go out to Brooklyn or go to Coney Island and get to Queens.
Tell me about growing up in New York City. How was Brooklyn back then? How has it changed?
After the war, though I was 10 when the war ended, there was an enormous sense of exhilaration because it wasn't just the war that ended. It was the war plus the Depression. And in our neighborhood they didn't profit from the war, they fought it. They were the kinds of young people that went off to fight in these places and so when they came back, the agent for the amazing optimism was, what I think is the greatest piece of social legislation we ever had, which is the G.I. Bill of Rights and it changed everything. It meant that the son of the factory worker could go to Yale, too. You know? He or she wasn't going to be kept out of it because their father didn't go there. You could go, you had the right, and it unleashed the energy of blue-collar America and made all of the subsequent prosperity possible. Instead of saying, "you're the son of a mechanic—you gotta be a mechanic," it allowed everything to be possible. You had this impossible sense that you could be anything you wanted to be, except maybe you couldn't play in the NBA, if you were 5'3" or something, but who knows.
Well, that's what dreams are for. So why did you leave school at 16 to work at the Navy Yard? Did your mom smack you?
Oh, she was really so sad by it. But it was normal in that neighborhood. That was why they didn't go to universities, you know? So I went off to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
So that was a different kind of education.
Yeah, it was. It was pretty good. You know, I worked with men and made my day's pay and it taught me, in many ways, how to work. I had worked before, delivering newspapers and stuff like that, but it showed me how to get up in the morning and get there and do what I did. At the time, I wasn't so haunted by dropping out and making my own way. I was the oldest of seven kids, so I had no older brother who would say, "Schmuck, don't do that." And my mother was disappointed, but my father went to the eighth grade back in Ireland. But then that optimism I told you about began to spread and I said, "Gee, I could go to art school," and believed it.
You studied art in Mexico on the G.I. Bill. How did you get interested in art?
When I was a kid, I could draw, and my ambition was to be a cartoonist. I wanted to draw comics. But I also liked newspaper comics. I liked Terry and the Pirates and, you know, Gasoline Alley. Starting with the comics, I began to look at other artists and it was a gradual kind of thing. I began to see the Mexican muralists—I loved [José Clemente Orozco—and I said, "Look at that!" And then I went to Mexico and failed out of art into writing.
That's a pretty good place to land. And not exactly a failure on your part.
And that is what you are supposed to do when you are 21. I don't like the way our university system is set up, where a guy's gotta decide at 18 what the hell he wants to be for the rest of his life.
You've written fiction, nonfiction, I know there was a bio on Frank Sinatra and another on Diego Rivera. What's the appeal in all of your subjects? What ties them together for you?
Well, I try to write about something that nobody else can really write about. And obviously that sounds as arrogant as hell—there've been 25 books on Frank Sinatra—but I knew him a little bit, and he wanted me to write his book at one time. When he would come to New York, he'd call me up and we'd catch up. So, that's what I meant. That is the Sinatra I knew that had nothing to do with the dope, or would punch people out at the bar and stuff, so I thought, after he died, I gotta put some of that on the page. I wouldn't write a book about Wayne Newton, you know? I think that's the other thing. If you write a book that feels like a task—if somebody said to me, "Here's 10 million dollars, write a book about OJ Simpson," I would not. I'd say, "I'm the wrong guy, get somebody else, I don't give a good goddamn about this, you know." And I think you have to, particularly after you learn the craft, you have to only write about things you care about. It is a simple thing. It doesn't mean you have to be a fan in the writing, but it should be something you care about and I have, because that optimistic imprint after the war, I have a tendency to celebrate things. Whether it's the city of New York or the tacos de pollo in Mexico City.
What are your memories of the World Trade Center?
I hated it. I watched it get built, you know, because I got started at the New York Post on West Street about three blocks from the site. I hated that to build it they scraped away Courtland Street, which was the great street called Radio Row. When I was 12 or 13 I would go with my father on Saturday mornings because he and his friends were all radio freaks—this was before television—and they'd go to all these stores. It had an amazingly human quality for a commercial street—banter from the guys that ran the place. It was wonderful. And they scraped it away and they used all that stuff that they destroyed and dug out to create the Bathtub, landfill for Battery Park City. It was so ugly. It was these two, big, faceless, inhuman towers. As architecture, I didn't like it—it was too cold.
How did you experience 9/11?
I was at the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street at a board meeting. It started at 8:15 and we heard a boom around ten minutes to nine or so. And a minute a guy walked in and said, "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center." And I thought two things, that it might've been a small plane trying to get to Peterborough in New Jersey because it was a perfectly clear day. And then I flashed to the plane that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945. I was 10 and my brother and I went to see this thing. The plane was wedged into the building—it was stuck in there. So I flashed on that, and ran out the door, taking paper to make notes and ran down to the corner of Broadway just as the second plane hit the South Tower. It hit in a gigantic fireball and rose—it must have been two blocks long—and everybody on the corner went, "Oh, shit!" They must have said it 45 times, "Oh shit, oh shit." And I called my wife and she rushed down and we went to Vesey Street, which was as close as we could get. And both buildings were smoking and on fire and these strange sounds. We saw the jumpers from the North Tower, we saw about four or five of them. The cops wouldn't let us get beyond that point. We were taking a lot of notes and then suddenly the South Tower began to go down, and you could hear what sounded like a very high-pitched operatic chorus, which I realize could have been the sound of it coming down or the sound of the people who were still in it. But you couldn't see anybody. And then it came down, it seemed like it was coming down for a couple of minutes, but later on I found out that it only happened in slightly over ten seconds and hit the ground in this gigantic cloud that rose and came straight at us. I got separated from my wife. I got shoved into this building nearby—a cop grabbed her and hurried her up to Broadway to safety—and then the doors locked behind us, we couldn't get out, and it filled up with this powder and it was hard to see anybody. Some firemen were blinded and we found a water bottle and began to swab out their eyes and give them cloths for them to wipe them. Somebody had a radio that worked—the cell phones didn't work—and they got firemen on the outside to come and smash these glass doors that had locked behind us, and we got out. And, obviously, the first thing I was looking for was my wife. And looking inside ambulances and buses and stuff. The world was entirely white and covered with this dust. And I went slowly up Broadway looking in stores where I saw people waiting in lines to use the phones, and didn't see her, and finally got to our house. Just as I was opening the door, she was opening the door to come out, and we just hugged each other in gratitude to whoever the hell was looking out for us. We went back upstairs and washed the dust out of our hair. It was one of those days you do not forget.
In the article, your friend Raymundo comments that people can't think about terrorist attacks or a person will go nuts. How do you get through those times when you feel weighed down by fear and uncertainty?
I think what you do is you suspend your imagination in a way. I always say that the day itself was one of the worst horrors, and one of the great triumphs was September 12, 2001, because everybody got up off the floor. You adopt a kind of healthy fatalism, which was easy for a lot of these immigrants. They come from places infinitely worse than New York or they wouldn't be here, you know? A certain kind of fatalism that allows you to cross the border at midnight and try to make your way into a strange country and find work. You looked around and you realized there're people infinitely worse off than me, starting with the dead and the families of the dead who'll have to deal with this wound for a long time. In my case, because I'm a reporter, I was able to keep my eyes on what was in front of me and try to describe it so my grandson could get it ten years from now if he wanted to know what it was like—what did it smell like, what did it look like, how were people dressed, what was the light like.
Tell me how New York City has changed since the attacks. It served as a reminder that we are in this together.
And there's a sense of that still. That sort of flag-on-your-arm patriotism came in the first month, maybe, and is basically gone because it's not a New York thing, you know. Some guy tells you he loves his wife, you say, "Oh geez, this guy's fooling around." Shut up, just love her for Christ sake—we don't have to hear about it. But I think the more important thing, which are not the superficial symbols, is that people are nicer to each other. Somebody says, "Excuse me" on the R Train, it's a revolution. And that has lasted.
You mention that the 9/11 Memorial isn't as important to some people as it once was. What do you think about the memorial? What kind of memorial would you like to see built?
I wanted something quiet. With benches. I thought a tree from every country that had someone who died at the place would be a wonderful way to do a simple garden. You know, 85 different kinds of trees. A place where kids can play. I don't want another necropolis that's all about the dead, you know? And I want a place where old guys like me can sit around and read Yeats in the shade.
What makes New York City home?
I need a sense of home. I need a place I can walk around in the dark and not bump into the furniture, you know? As a writer, I go away and I travel and love going to various places, but I go as a New Yorker.
And New York City certainly made a prize out of you.
Well, thank you. Swell.