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For Him, It Took a Greenwich Village

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lanza’s is on 1st Avenue, just north of 11th Street in New York’s East Village, which used to be a pretty gritty part of town and now is chockablock with trendy clubs and eateries.

Lanza’s is not an eatery. Lanza’s is a restaurant. An Italian restaurant, with white tablecloths and 50-year-old murals on the walls depicting Sicily and Venice and Rome. If Vincent Patrick had a hangout, this would be it; he is so well-known here that they open up early one Monday morning just so he can get his picture taken without too much noise, without too much craziness.

“But I don’t hang out so much anymore,” says Patrick, “because, like everyone else,” he turns slightly so the smile, the shrug are sideways, “I don’t drink so much anymore. But this is a place I come to a lot, it’s part of the Neighborhood.”

That’s definitely a capital N. For Vincent Patrick, the 64-year-old author of “Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Family Business” and the newly released “Smokescreen,” is nothing if not a neighborhood guy. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m one of those--going uptown is a trip.”

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He and his wife of 45 years have lived in the same apartment up on 18th for 35 years; it’s where they raised their two boys, neither of whom live in New York.

“They could not wait to get out,” Patrick says. “But the grandkids, they love the neighborhood. So that’s how it goes.”

During the last 20 years, he’s spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles writing screenplays, but it was on a strictly month-by-month basis.

“All the cliches about how awful it is out there I found to be essentially true,” he says with a kind laugh. “At some point or another I’d find myself alone, stranded in traffic on some freeway looking at nothing but other cars and I’d think, ‘Why am I here?’ It was depressing. Although,” he adds, “I’d rather live there than San Francisco.”

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It’s a gentlemanly attempt to leaven the criticism, one of several gestures that reveal the courtliness not only of his generation, but also of his milieu.

Like Lanza’s, Patrick has an air of old New York charm. His voice has that subterranean rumble of an accent, a sound that good character actors try to emulate when playing retired cops or tough but fair patriarchs.

And in a time of morning-after chic, when good personal grooming is no longer part of any job description, especially a writer’s, he is flawless. From his carefully combed silver hair to the smooth fall of his dark shirt front to the crease of his trousers just brushing the shine of his shoes. He holds the door, he helps a woman off with her coat, he draws back a chair--everything about him radiates good manners and the importance of respect. Urban respect, the kind of polish that comes from years of rubbing against the city, the people, the street.

An Appreciation

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of Manners

It’s something that shows up in his fiction, the appreciation of appearance, of manners, of how people use them to manage with duress. “Smokescreen,” which Vincent says started out as pretty much a by-the-numbers thriller, became something else again when he started paying more attention to his characters, to how they were coping and relating in often bizarre circumstances.

The plot goes something like this: At the behest of the CIA, an ex-cop, with the aid of an unsuspecting ex-jewel thief, stages a jewel heist in a posh Manhattan hotel, the real purpose of which is to kidnap a guest who is really a Cuban terrorist planning to unleash an ebola-like virus in an attempt to bring the United States to its knees.

But just when you’re settling into the important task of casting what is certainly going to be a very good movie, the plot rears back and sends the characters flying off into several unexpected directions. Then you have to start paying attention, and pretty soon you realize this is not an ordinary thriller; it’s more like a novel because you can actually see these guys, you can hear them, and smell them, and that’s what’s supposed to happen in a novel, not a thriller.

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“It just sort of happened,” Patrick says, waving away an offer of cappuccino and asking for “American coffee.” “I had all these ideas knocking around--a jewel heist, a terrorist with a virus. The other books, I had outlines and plot points and all these notes. This one, because it was supposed to be a thriller and plot-driven, I just started writing. But then I didn’t like where it was going, so I started exploring the characters more. It’s a bit eccentric, to say the least.”

He makes it sound quite slapdash and accidental, which, of course, it wasn’t. It took five years, for one thing, much of that devoted to research. When you open a book in a West African jungle, base its centerpiece on an actual (and very complicated) hotel robbery, then whisk around the White House, Atlantic City, Madison Square Garden and an upstate commune, you’re going to need to do some research.

“I tend to over-research,” Patrick says. “It’s a good excuse not to be writing. And I’m nervous I’ll get it wrong. The opening, I kept worrying about the vegetation. So I went into the Museum of Natural History and got into the files. They’ve got rooms of files on all these expeditions that you’ve never heard of that they funded. Handwritten notes and maps--it was fascinating. Took me days.”

The centerpiece of the plot is based on a famous New York hotel heist, so he had to get that right, and then there was the Marxist angle, so there were documentaries to watch and a Cuban community in Jersey to explore. Finally, there was the actual writing, which, with its switchback story line--one of the most interesting subplots is American culture seen through the eyes of a die-hard Marxist--turned out to be a lot of fun.

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“This one was a real pleasure to write,” he says, “and nothing is a pleasure to write. Not for me.”

One of the last things he worked on before beginning the novel was “The Devil’s Own,” a project that, by all accounts, used up its quota of teeth-gritting psychological tension long before it made it to the screen. So the man knows of what he speaks. Screenwriting has paid the bills for a good while now--he wrote the screenplay for the adaptations of both his previous novels--to the detriment, some might argue, of his career as a novelist.

“Yeah, I got caught in Hollywood,” he says, pushing away his empty coffee cup. “Once you start, it’s hard to get out. And, yeah, this is my third novel in 20 years. But I think when you look at it, from the point of sheer craft, I’ve gotten better. And that’s because, Hollywood or not, I write every day. It’s different writing, but it all boils down to plot and characters.”

Patrick’s own story, according to the clips anyway, is more Hollywood than New York--he was a 40-something part-time bartender when he wrote “Pope of Greenwich Village.”

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Writing the

Old-Fashioned Way

Mostly spin, he says now. He had always wanted to write, since he was a kid, “I just didn’t ever think it was something you got paid to do.” So he became an engineer, with his own firm, a career he pursued until it became more selling than building. Then he turned consultant, and, yes, he was working a few nights as a bartender while he finished “Pope,” his second--though first published--novel. “The bar tending was the hook the publicists used, and my age,” he says. “The ‘it’s never too late’ kind of story.”

Whatever the spin, the writing, like the well-mannered gestures, like the meticulous research, is done the old-fashioned way. Patrick just got his first computer a few months ago, and he’s not planning to use it for anything as important as real writing.

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“Oh, I know guys out in Hollywood, can’t write without their laptop. Me, I do it longhand. I don’t know. I think there’s something about the motion, about words on paper, that makes it real.”

Out on the street, he blinks in the sudden swipe of sun and tucks his plaid scarf a bit deeper into his camel hair coat. He does not wear a hat. But even so, as he walks along these well-known streets, pointing out the bakery with the best cannoli, crossing the street to chat with a young man who turns out to be his nephew, and nodding greetings into seemingly every storefront, he does seem a character in a book. But then the only one who would probably get this character right, from the nod to the suede gloves to the shoes, is Vincent Patrick.


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