April 12, 2009

Pete Hamill and my NYU class had such a good conversation on Thursday that I’m still thinking about it. Pete, who is 73, showed up very dapper in head-to-toe black — from the turtleneck and slacks to the dress boots. It was a good look for NYU’s state-of-the-art Cooper Square journalism building in the hipster East Village. For 90 minutes, he sat patiently with 11 of my curious, 20-something students. They had a lot of questions.

Pete’s a distinguished writer in residence at the journalism department, where I teach an undergraduate beat reporting class. I make his memoir, “Downtown: My Manhattan,” required reading.

Even though “downtown” usually means you’re south of 14th Street, his definition has him wandering up to 42nd Street as he covers city history and shares warm memories about being the Brooklyn-born son of Irish immigrants. He served in the Navy and afterwards, attended college on the G.I. bill. Pete majored in painting at a school in Mexico, returned to work as a graphic artist in Manhattan — and became a newspaperman who writes novels and non-fiction.

Our little group got pretty cozy as Pete explained how he used his painting teacher’s advice to learn his craft as a writer: Imitate, emulate, equal, surpass. One student asked how he could be an alcoholic and still write — material explored in his best-selling memoir, “A Drinking Life.” (He only imbibed after filing his stories; work came first. He’s been sober for decades.) Another student wondered who his favorite interview was. Answer: Jazz drumming great Max Roach. At one point, Pete riffed about music as the highest art form — no one expected him to say that!

Yeah, he totally charmed this bunch. And I got such a kick out of watching them watching him. They were getting so nosy that Pete good-naturedly remarked, “I don’t know what this has to do with journalism.”

What was it like being a single dad raising two daughters? He finally had to grow up and quit drinking. Why did his first marriage end? He and his first wife were too young. Besides, he half-joked, “Almost all journalists have a first marriage that’s sort of like spring training.”

What advice would he give them about marriage? Wait, he said. “Wait until you’re 30.”

Pete was on a book tour in Japan when he was interviewed by his future second wife, Fukiko Aoki, a Japanese journalist. After their meeting, he mumbled the usual blah-blah about her looking him up if she was ever in New York. When she relocated to the city, she actually did.  Which had him hoping for an out-of-town assignment. “Like a war in Lebanon,” he joked.

He waited 15 years before remarrying because he didn’t feel it was fair to to ask a new wife to help him raise his kids. As a divorced, former newspaperwoman myself, I could relate. Suddenly, I had a question too: How’d he know that his second wife was The One?

He thought about that. “She was a grown-up,” he said. She was also a writer (but they don’t edit each other’s work because she writes in Japanese). Plus, she has a sense of humor. Hmmm.

Last thought: Pete had great stuff to say about developing creative potential. He suggests putting all your energy into one thing. Throwing himself into writing was another reason for laying off the alcohol. “I wanted to see how big my talent was,” he said, and booze was interfering.

As usual during his visits, we ended with Pete autographing everyone’s books. (This is what he wrote in my copy of “Downtown” last year: “For Betty, Keep doing the true work of the Lord…Pete Hamill 2008.”)

Once we said our goodbyes and Pete was out of earshot, the class debriefed. They loved hearing about his writing process. Others remarked on the valuable relationship advice. “He’s like the grandfather I wish I had!” said one student as heads nodded around the room.

Thanks, Pete, for doing the Lord’s work. xo