In a coffee shop on Queens Boulevard, Melvin M. Lebetkin sat despondent. He fixed his red-rimmed eyes on Jimmy Breslin, Daily News columnist, bard of Queens and one of his best friends for 23 years.
"They're looking for bodies," Lebetkin said.
He wanted to know if Breslin could call the U.S. attorney and stop the indictment that Lebetkin felt sure was coming down on him "any day."
Breslin laughed it off. "You got a passport?"
In The Scandal, the most serious corruption scandal to grip Gotham since the days of Mayor Jimmy Walker in the '30s, no man plays a more curious role than the rumpled, rotund and raffish Breslin.
The star columnist of the city's biggest newspaper has been a close friend for years of key figures in the payoff scheme that led to the suicide of former Queens borough president Donald R. Manes and recent state and federal indictments of a dozen city officials and associates.
Yet, behind the scenes, he has helped prosecutors on the trail of graft.
"Jimmy Breslin apparently was not a good enough reporter to know he was hanging out with crooks," Mayor Edward I. Koch charged a few weeks ago.
Breslin ridiculed "Koch's braying, bawling and shrieking," adding, "obviously, the City of New York has a mayor from Creedmoor," the local psychiatric hospital.
If Queens stood alone, the borough of 1.9 million people would be the fourth-largest city in the country. But for all its sprawling ethnic neighborhoods, it is a small town, a place where everybody who is anybody knows everybody else. And for 20 years, while other papers often ignored the borough as an unglamorous backwater, Breslin has been its town crier.
Now, as corruption probes widen, this beefy embodiment of Queens pride finds himself walking a fine line between journalist and protagonist.
For 20 years, until he moved to Manhattan three years ago, Breslin hung out on what he liked to call the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Mornings, he'd stop by the Pastrami King, a restaurant on Queens Boulevard, opposite Manes' hulking brick Borough Hall, the seat of local government, to drink coffee and swap tall tales. At night, he'd swing by Pep McGuire's or Forty Yards, two nearby bars, to mingle with the regulars from Democratic clubhouses, the small-time hoodlums, the judges and lawyers and racetrack junkies who peopled his columns.
Forty Yards was owned by Sheldon Chevlowe, a city marshal and an intimate friend of Manes and Breslin. Chevlowe's wife nursed Breslin's wife when she was dying of cancer. Breslin wept as he delivered the eulogy at Chevlowe's funeral in 1983, calling him a man who lived with "exquisite taste."
Five weeks ago, a federal grand jury named Chevlowe a co-conspirator in a scheme by parking fine collection companies to bribe Manes and his associates for city contracts. Chevlowe, prosecutors said, collected the bribes and passed them on to Manes.
When Manes first attempted suicide in January -- shortly before the indictment of his protege, Geoffrey Lindenauer, deputy director of the city's Parking Violations Bureau -- prosecutors suspected but could not make a case that Manes was involved. It was Breslin who gave them their major witness.
Michael G. Dowd, a Queens lawyer and owner of a collections company who said he paid Manes $36,000 in bribes, went to Breslin for advice. Breslin broke the story, scooping the city with "the Smoking Dowd," as a rival columnist put it. He sent Dowd off to make a bargain with U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
"My discovery lit a fire in our sky," Breslin boasted in his column. "I threw away the matchbook that started it all and swaggered to the bar to give myself the reward I deserved . . . J.B. No.1!"
Lebetkin, one of the collection company owners, confessed to Breslin -- and, through his lawyer, to federal prosecutors -- that he paid $100,000 in bribes. Lebetkin is a longtime character in Breslin's columns, under the pseudonym of "Klein the Lawyer," a courthouse hack who defends only the guilty and never seems to be able to collect his fees or keep his girlfriends straight.
Now he has assumed his rightful name in the column, spilling out his reactions to the scandal in colorful detail. "I remember the day this started," he quoted Lebetkin. "I was with Shelly Chevlowe, and he said we ought to start a collection agency. There were a couple of problems. Shelly said: 'We'll worry about that later.' Now is later," Lebetkin told Breslin ruefully.
Lebetkin, too, is trying to cut a deal with prosecutors. "They want him to give up some judges," Breslin said, referring to allegations following the recent bribery conviction of a Queens judge. "I told him to."
Giuliani, the prosecutor leading the federal corruption probes, said in an interview that Breslin is "very helpful. He developed one of the important witnesses. He deserves a lot of credit for encouraging people to come forward and cooperate . . . . For all of the funny ways in which he writes, at the core, Breslin is an idealistic guy. He holds public officials to a high standard."
"All in the Family," was a Queens sitcom, and Breslin, as he careens down the Boulevard, sputtering the "dese, dose and dems" of the idiom (liberally adorned with four-letter expletives), is a swashbuckling Archie Bunker. Women are "broads." Restaurants are "joints." At 58, his hair is gray, flying in all directions. Bushy eyebrows hang over baggy eyes. A mischievous grin curls around a Macanudo cigar. Gruff, combative and not a little sentimental, he is a "black" Irishman who wears his working-class origins like a medal and only reluctantly admits that he lives on Manhattan's fancy Central Park West.
"It's bad for my image," joked the man who once starred in a Piels beer commercial.
If Breslin is blurring the line between living and merely writing, it wouldn't be the first time. He once ran for City Council president with Norman Mailer on a platform to make New York City the 51st state. He helped launch the career of his once-obscure neighbor, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), and, although Cuomo listed him as an "adviser" in his 1977 mayoral campaign, Breslin insisted that he was merely a close friend. "Son of Sam" wrote personal letters to Breslin, and Breslin passed them on to police as they hunted the serial killer. He advised aides to Walter F. Mondale in 1984 that they had nothing to worry about when it came to the background of his friends and neighbors, Geraldine A. Ferraro and her husband, John Zacarro -- advice he says that he regrets.
In all the years of boozing and schmoozing on what the News now calls, in light of the corruption scandal, "The Boulevard of Broken Schemes," Breslin said, "I remember them talking about collection agencies. But I didn't know what was going on . . . . It's not like I was in on it. They didn't ask my advice before they did it. I would have said, 'What are you? Crazy?'
"In the contract between people, you didn't figure this to happen," he said. "You'd like those who you know not to get into these things . . . . Everybody knew everybody. Who thought it would come to this?" After Dowd's confession, Breslin vowed to his readers, "This is the scandal of our time and from now on I will bring it to you first and with the most fury because I am personally aroused. I have been betrayed on my own boulevard, Queens Boulevard, and in future days I will give neither quarter nor comfort."
Breslin said he has pulled no punches for friendship. "When the whole thing falls apart, you got all that white paper. You can't be bashful. You've got to fill it . . . . I knew a lot of people were going to get hurt, but I didn't think about it until after it was over."
When Dowd confessed, Breslin added, "Maybe he asked me not to put it in the paper. But I wouldn't last five minutes in Washington with that off-the-record stuff. What is all this Deep Throat stuff?"
On the street, women ask for his autograph. A policeman teases, "Hey, Jimmy, got your press pass?" He tries to hail a cab, but a guy in a battered LTD recognizes the stocky figure standing in the street and insists on giving him a ride. "Remember me from Belmont?" he asks. Breslin says he does.
After vegetable soup at the Pastrami King and a gloomy conversation with Lebetkin, he gives a tour of the drab three-block strip of the boulevard where the scandal was born. "It's another world out here," he said. "When you leave Queens for Manhattan, you say, 'I'm going to the city.' "
On one side, Queens criminal court and Borough Hall loom over the boulevard. "I knew Manes well," Breslin said. "Too well. Twenty-one, 22 years. I knew his wife and kids. He knew my wife and kids."
In Queens politics, where only Democrats win and Manes was known as King of Queens, "there were no elections," Breslin said. "It is like Eastern Romania -- only one party."
Breslin took out after Manes as the scandal broke, raging over "these dirty, crooked, public scum politicians." But when Manes killed himself by plunging a kitchen knife through his heart, Breslin was appalled. "You wind up contributing to his downfall, and then the guy kills himself," he said. "I don't even remember the day after. I was no good. Jesus Christ, no one bargained for this!"
Across from Borough Hall, he points out Dowd's second floor law office over Crossroads Drugs. Dowd, Queens chairman of Cuomo's 1977 mayoral campaign, shared the office with Rep. Thomas Manton (D), who won Ferraro's former congressional seat. Manton's and Dowd's names have been removed from the firm's two-foot-tall sign.
A block away is a Xerox copy store that once housed Chevlowe's office. Breslin wrote columns about "Shelly, the bail bondsman" and his escapades. When Chevlowe was dying of cancer, Breslin stood around his hospital bed with Manes and Lindenauer.
Breslin remembers Lindenauer well. "I always thought he was a fat go-fer," he said.
It was on the sidewalk outside Chevlowe's funeral in May 1983 that Manes allegedly told Dowd, "From now on, you got to see Geoff." Dowd had been paying bribes through Chevlowe and then switched to Lindenauer, he told federal investigators. Lindenauer pleaded guilty last month to accepting more than $410,000 in bribes.
After Chevlowe's role was made public, Breslin wrote of his late friend, "Always he will be the one most lovable rogue of my time in my city. I never met anybody who didn't love him . . ."
Forty yards from Chevlowe's old office is the bar -- once named Forty Yards, now renamed Part II -- where the group hung out. Lebetkin's office is over the bar. A group of TWA stewardesses lived in the building, the Silver Tower, and spent a lot of time with Chevlowe and Manes.
"A nuthouse," Breslin growled, waving toward the 25-story building.
When the scandal broke, Breslin tracked down one of the stewardesses, who gave a lively account of Manes squiring her about in limousines in recent years.
"We were all drinking too much," she was quoted telling Breslin. "Then the pills. Donald Manes got on diet pills. Remember that? He took pills for weight. Then he took pills for pills. I guess a lot of people on the boulevard were using drugs too. I thought it was about the craziest place I've ever been."
A reporter asks Breslin whether the stewardess was real. Outraged by the question ("You think I make things up?"), he rushes to a pay phone in the Pastrami King and puts the reporter on with a woman who identifies herself as TWA flight attendant Michelle Walton.
"It started out fun, but it didn't turn out that way," she said, adding that the FBI was to interview her the next day. "I didn't know anything. But I was privy to conversations, having talked to Shelly and Donald."
At midday, the Part II bar, with its blue Naugahyde stools and Charles Bronson portrait on the wall, is deserted. Only the neon Budweiser sign and the juke box -- featuring Bruce Spingsteen's "Cover Me" -- glow in the shadows.
Outside, Breslin waves toward the concrete divider in the four-lane boulevard. "You can't be bugged on the island," he said. "Once we told [Lebetkin] the telephone pole was tapped. He nearly went nuts."
Breslin's ignorance of the scandal has not prevented him from heaping abuse on others who, he claims, might have or should have known:
*On Koch: "Koch deliberately turned his back on so many crimes being committed that clearly the city will be dealing with 'material cooperation' and it is at that point that we most certainly could be forced to find a new mayor."
*On Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau: "Morgenthau who sits in his office like a dry log and should be classified as a man drawing a high welfare check."
*On the FBI: "These FBI agents generally are people from the Plains states who cost us untold millions and who mingle with wise guys from Bensonhurst [Brooklyn] at Kennedy airport while asking questions with a Wichita lineman's twang. These farmers read about the larceny in the papers."
A Daily News editor once called his Klein the Lawyer columns "that fiction stuff." Now that the fictional character has come to life and a scandal unfolds from bribes in the men's room of a Japanese restaurant, to the gory suicide of a powerful politician, Breslin -- whose upcoming Queens-based novel, "Table Money," has been chosen as a Literary Guild selection -- predicts: "When it's all over, it'll be some kind of novel or play."
On the Larry King radio show last week, King asked Koch, "Are you going to run again?
Koch replied, "For a fourth, fifth and sixth term!"
"Then what?" King asked.
"Then," Koch replied, "I'll give the eulogy at Jimmy Breslin's funeral."