Ann Culkin may have been the only person in the city in 1992 who didn’t know Jimmy Breslin, the champion newspaper columnist and voice of New York City who died on Sunday at age 88. Not knowing was her fault, not his.
It was her second day as a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She’d only moved to New York a few days before, settling into subsidized hospital housing, knew “nothing about the city,” she says, not even directions other than east side, west side and Central Park in the middle.
In walked Jimmy Breslin, there with his sick daughter, Rosemary, therefore not caring that the new nurse Culkin had other patients. The intravenous pump next to Rosemary was beeping, and Breslin was worried. “She’s beeping, the pump is beeping.”
“You’re going to have to wait,” Culkin told him.
“I don’t wait for anyone,” he said. A fellow nurse whispered, “That’s Jimmy Breslin.”
“And who’s Jimmy Breslin,” Culkin whispered back. He heard.
Culkin eventually went over to the daughter, started taking care of her. Breslin said: “So you don’t know who I am, do you?”
She said she didn’t. “Good,” he said, “let’s keep it that way.”
“We became friends,” Culkin says.
True, they met “in the worst of circumstances,” as Culkin calls them — a father terrified about the longterm sickness of his daughter, who would die of a rare blood disease in 2004. But such circumstances were often the way people met Breslin, or rather how he met them.
The Queens native reinvented the newspaper column with literary characterization and shoe-leather reporting, telling the stories of regular New Yorkers.
He became famous for finding the human stories around the biggest historical events — the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave, the cops who drove a dying John Lennon to the hospital. He used that impulse in more daily work in New York. In his columns, he exposed local corruption and misconduct and told the people’s stories from immigrant Williamsburg to Ozone Park.
That’s why Culkin read him, apart from being Breslin’s daughter’s longtime nurse and eventually almost a member of the family. But her philosophy of nursing is that you care for the person as a whole, not just their sickness. You have to be able to talk to them about the Yankees or the Giants, or how things are going in Rudy Giuliani’s New York. To do her job right, “I bought the newspaper,” Culkin says. The Daily News and Newsday, specifically.
Breslin had written for both but he was at Newsday for much of the time she knew him. Eventually, she found her way into his paragraphs. In 2003, another patient had a named racehorse after her: “Nurse Culkin.” When Culkin went to watch her horse race Saratoga at the Off-Track Betting parlor on Second Avenue and 69th Street, the old sportswriter couldn’t resist.
“Ann wore a pink shirt and a hopeful look,” he wrote. “For so long, she has walked in so many hospital hallways of cancer that she has taught herself to be optimistic, and to spread it around all rooms, on the worst midnights.” Nurse Culkin, the horse, didn’t win. But Breslin wrote about the nurse’s commitment and heroic labor anyway.
In that piece alone, there were many of the elements that made Breslin Breslin. Sports, a sense of humor, the way politics intrudes into daily life — he made sure to note that Culkin, who worked with lung-cancer patients, was a “fanatical rooter for Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg” and his no-smoking efforts. And though Breslin was criticized at times for arrogance, brashness, vulgarity, you see here the longstanding empathy for the sick and the hardworking and the powerless.
For decades, Breslin wrote for them and held officials and public figures to account, by telling the rest of New York City what was going on.
Speaking from phone on a visit back to her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Culkin said that nurses still need the community knowledge and local connection. She tries to talk face to face with her patients, no cell phones or electronics getting in the way. And she says those connections, deep empathy and fuller stories are just as important in any profession.
“We read the news as the headlines,” she says, “Very quick.” Twitter, CNN ticker, tweet the headline. The headline becomes the message, “not the story.”
Breslin’s genius was always in the story. Sometimes, he was part of the story, the city moved and shaped by him. The city reciprocated.
Culkin says that one night, Breslin’s daughter was getting routine treatment and she had an unexpected reaction. It turned out all right, but they didn’t know that then.
“I called Jimmy. ‘Please come. You need to come right now.’ ”
Culkin says that “honest to God” she turned around and he was right there. He never learned how to drive, consummate New Yorker. How had he arrived so quick?
He told her: he’d gone downstairs from his apartment. Hailed a cop car. The cop car took him there.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.