When I was a cub reporter at the late and much-lamented Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, I got sent to cover a homicide in one of the less salubrious sections of the town, which is far west of Boston.
There was a subdued crowd outside a tenement. A cop told me there had been a party, and a gentleman by the name of Antonio Sierra had taken liberties with the host's wife. The host had responded by plunging a very large knife into Sierra's chest.
I raced back to the newsroom in my rust-brown 1973 Buick LeSabre and typed these words: "Chivalry is not dead, but Antonio Sierra is."
It never made the paper.
"We can't run this," an editor said.
Edna Buchanan won a Pulitzer writing stuff like that. But, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Edna Buchanan, and I'm no Edna Buchanan. A more sober and straightforward account of Sierra's unfortunate demise was published instead.
I got to thinking about Sierra and the hit-or-miss exercise that is writing last week after I wrote about my old Catholic school. The school is 100 years old and I thought it would be fun to go back for a visit with my classmate Dommy D'Angelo.
The column had been put to bed when I got a call from Ellen Clegg, a very fine editor at the Boston Globe.
"About this 'me and Dommy' line," she said.
I told her that while "me and Dommy D'Angelo were standing outside the vacant convent" was grammatically incorrect, it was done for literary effect. I told her I wanted to evoke a time and place, a voice. I assured her we have a very literate readership, and surely they would recognize this as a literary device.
There was a long silence. Besides being a good editor, Clegg is a good person and I have no doubt she was thinking, "This guy is nuts."
To her eternal credit, and not for the last time, Clegg tried to save me from myself.
But I listen to editors about as often as I listened to the nuns. The column ran and the grammar police issued a warrant for my arrest. The charge was writing like a moron.
It's one thing to have some aggrieved pol yelling down the phone. It's quite another to have retired English teachers leave death threats, saying that if you're gonna kill the language, then you, too, must die.
I was feeling sorry for myself, so I called Jimmy Breslin.
Breslin is a famous newspaperman from New York. He is an iconoclastic writer, so I knew he'd be sympathetic.
"Whaddya cryin' for?" Breslin goes. "Shut up and write."
Breslin got famous when President Kennedy was assassinated. There were a million reporters covering the funeral, each one trying to outdo the other with big words to capture the tragedy of it all. Breslin found the guy who dug Kennedy's grave and it was the only story about the president's funeral you needed to read.
Breslin's 15th book is called The Good Rat. It's about a gangster named Burton Kaplan and it's funny and sad and tells you a lot about life.
Breslin writes as he speaks, the Queens English, which is the English spoken in Queens, N.Y. Breslin is approximately 150 years old but he writes every day, and if he ever stops writing he will die, and I don't want that to ever happen.
"The nuns told me never start a sentence with and, so, but, or because," Breslin is saying, actually yelling, down the phone. "And so I spent my whole life starting sentences with and, so, but, or because. They're nuns, not writers. Whadda they know?"
James, James, James. Such language. You'll never get anywhere speaking like a ruffian.