It was June, 2001.
I was sitting in my little one-bedroom apartment in Olean, N.Y. The NBA Finals were on TV, and the Lakers were thrashing the Philadelphia 76ers. I was on my computer — my old red bubble iMac — chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with my friend and mentor, Mike Vaccaro. We were talking about journalism and column writing.
Mike brought up Jimmy Breslin, a name I vaguely knew but whose work I wasn’t familiar with. He told me a story I hadn’t yet heard, about how after the JFK Assassination, Breslin and a colleague were standing around watching all the serious reporters do serious stories on the serious people. Breslin turned to his colleague and said, You know what? I’m gonna do a column on the guy digging the grave.”
“And he did. And it was gold,” Mike wrote to me.
I said that sounded amazing, then made some reference to Kobe Bryant’s game.
Mike sent me a link to the column.
Forget Kobe. Take two minutes and let Breslin change your life.
Along with the moment I first read Charlie Pierce’s book, this was one of the defining moments in my journalism life. It showed me what a column could be. It showed me the value of zagging when everyone else zigs. It showed me the power of the small story, the value of reporting, the importance of tiny details.
In a way, the gravedigger column has kind of become a cliche in journalism. I’m sure Slate or Deadspin will have a piece about how the column is overrated and spawned so much overwrought journalism. But it’s a cliche in the way that the three-chord songs of the Ramones are. Because at their best, they represent the best of the form. We don’t hold every bad punk band against the Ramones. And we can’t hold every overwritten column against Breslin, who died on Sunday.
The Gravedigger column by Jimmy Breslin, to me, is the perfect newspaper column.
Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. "Polly, could you please be here by eleven o'clock this morning?" Kawalchik asked. "I guess you know what it's for." Pollard did.
He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.