Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Brooklyn, Circa 1970's" By Anthony J. Rubino - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Brooklyn, Circa 1970's"


 Anthony J. Rubino 

     Let’s take a moment and reflect on some of the roots of what made Brooklyn, Brooklyn. When I was growing up, the streets were filled with characters. I don’t know if the people were actually much different from the new wave of residents who now inhabit our borough, but they seemed different - upbeat and more carefree. In the mid 70’s, I was painting in a storefront art studio in Greenpoint. The social club next door had great parties on the weekends, and there were all kinds of music, with guitars playing and people singing long into the night. 

    There was a convivial atmosphere in the streets.  It seemed like almost everyone had a nickname and the street slang like, “Get outta here” was a neighborhood tradition. Maybe this was because most people were blue collar workers, installing cable, or laying bricks in construction, so talking loud and goofing around was part of the game. Going to stores or waiting for the bus, there was a lively camaraderie, even with people you didn’t know. You didn’t see the dour humorlessness that you sometimes find in intellectual circles. Someone who never smiled was called “a stiff”. He was called that by “a scutch”. That’s an Italian moniker for one who points out life’s foibles, usually in a humorous way, like the fool in a Shakespeare play. They’re also called ball busters. 

    Greenpoint was nicknamed “the neighborhood”.  Manhattan was “the city”. If you were out for a night in the Village, and you had had your fill, “I’m going back to the neighborhood”, was how you’d put it, like, I’m going home. And the neighborhood back then was like home. We were brought up with people watching out for each other, the way they would in a small town. I think Brooklyn still retains some of that character. If you were underage and drinking on a street corner, chances are your mother would have heard about it before you got home. If you wanted to engage in such rakish activities, you learned early on you had to be sly about it. 

    As I said, the neighborhood was lively, especially as I got to college. And people’s nicknames added flavor to the local language. Names were shortened, so Deborah became Debbie, Daniel was Danny, Barbara – Bobbi, which I always liked. I was called by my initials, A.R., as was my friend D.L. who was our group’s comedian. D.L. actually wrote a short book, The Art of Jibing, about impromptu street corner goofing, or jibing. In his book D.L. disparaged the cheap shot, which he saw as the lowest form of humor. (Like making fun of someone’s looks) On the other hand, he praised the high quality of the Zen type goof, because it sparkled with wit.

    The exception for nicknames was Delores, who was nicknamed Tuna - we never knew the roots of that one. My friend Dennis Mushmaker (pronounced the German way, Mushmaaaker) was shortened to “Mush”. He was a good football lineman. During practice one night in McCarren Park, Mush gave me such a hard block that I landed on my butt in the bushes! After that, Dennis’s nickname was upgraded from Mush to “Maaker the Blocker”. 

    As young teenagers, we hung out in Mike’s Poolroom. Mike, the owner, was given to short bursts of anger when mad. As my friends and I played pool we would watch the older guys, like crazy Danny, a gambler. One night, we watched the pool rooms little TV in dismay: the Yankee’s just lost the World Series. Crazy Danny had big money on the game. He banged his fist on the pool table.
He took out a wad of cash and offered it to Mike the owner. He said. “Mike, here’s a hundred bucks, let me smash the F’in TV!”  

    He quickly threw the money down on the counter, and aimed the bottom of his pool cue at the TV screen. Mike exploded; “PUT THAT STICK DOWN YOU FREAKIN NUT!
    “Please Mike, Let me Smash It!’ He begged.
    “You Touch My TV and You’re Outta Here for Good!” Mike yelled.
Crazy Danny was a little wacky, but he was no fool; he backed off. We all laughed about it later, another night in the pool room.

    Francis was prone to epileptic fits, so he was dubbed Franny Fit.  I know that sounds a little callous but Brooklyn’s a weird place. The same guys who called him Franny Fit would immediately come to his aid when he fell to the floor and was having a fit. Someone would take off their belt, and jump beside him on the floor. Then, as he was writhing in a convulsion, get him to bite on the belt so he wouldn’t swallow his tongue. I watched with a nervous amazement, taken with how adeptly they handled it, like EMS workers. Franny got up, as if from sleep, he never knew what had happened. We helped him to a chair. The guy who had helped him went back to shooting pool, didn’t even wait for a thank you.

    When we got to college, we called our dances Beer Bashes. The beer flowed freely which led to a fight. Soon the whole thing spilled out into the quiet side street. The girls were smart enough to stay with the band, dancing. Outside, under the streetlight, there were 25 guys fighting and wrestling in the middle of the street. It was pretty crazy. Since most of the participants were inept fighters, no one was getting seriously hurt. The inebriated combatants were stumbling and tumbling in the Brooklyn night. 

    John Mulhern a.k.a. Jackie, was a few years older than us. In the midst of the melee, he opened his car trunk and took out an old car jack. It was a tube of gray steel the size of a yard stick. It had a black rectangular top that made it look like a big battle ax. I was off to the side, tussling with someone; we both stopped and stared as Jackie lifted that heavy car jack. He was a big guy and he looked really mad. 

    He raised the jack in the air and yelled at the unruly crowd; “That’s Enough!”
A few people stopped fighting, but most ignored him.
Jackie’s face gleamed with rage. Under the bright streetlight, he started swinging the heavy car jack like an ax, in the air, over his head. In a shout that filled the street, he cried out, “I SAID THAT’S ENOUGH!”
Hearing that thunderous cry, and seeing him swinging the jack, everyone froze. The whole street went totally quiet. It felt eerie after all that noise. We all knew how heavy that steel jack was, and he was wielding it around like it was a piece of plastic. Quietly murmuring, our group of not so illustrious warriors, slowly meandered back to the dance.

    Then there was the historic night when Nicky got his nickname, Nicky Please. Nicky liked to imbibe in a joint or two on Friday nights after work. That stimulated an irresistible appetite for White Castle hamburgers. His habit was to slip quietly into his 2nd floor apartment and steal his father’s car keys. He’d hop in the car with his pals and go for a jaunt to White Castle. One winter’s night, just as Nicky was about to travel on a 1AM hamburger run, his father spotted him. He opened the apartment window as Nicky was getting into the car. Protruding half out of the window in his T Shirt, he yelled in his Polish accent into the freezing night,                       
  “Nicky Pleeease, Come Back with the Caaar”.   
 Nicky was in no mood to listen, he started up the car and began to drive away. His father gave it one more try, calling out in a lonesome yell, “Nicky Pleeease – Come Back with The Caaar!” After that night, we called Nicky, Nicky Please.
     Now here’s the funny thing about growing up in a neighborhood where storytelling was a part of daily life. I can vividly remember Nicky’s pot fueled lust for White Castle hamburgers, and I can almost see the grin on his face as he started up the car. I can also envision his father in his T Shirt, half out the window, yelling into the cold winter’s night. With all that though, I can’t say for sure if I was ever really there or not. It could be that I’d heard the story so many times that I think I was there. Either way, I thought sharing the origins of my friends’ nicknames might help you understand something about the spirit of the place I grew up in.

    We live in a totally different era now. I’ve heard comedians joke about the symbiotic relationship that people have with their i Phones. I find it odd that you can sit in a room with 4 or 5 people staring at their phones, with no one talking to each other. As an artist, I understand the need for introversion, but for all its many faceted complexity, the i Phone is still a machine. And I wonder if spending so much time with a machine might dull our senses, and make us miss the vibrant life going on around us. 

    History is filled with heroic stories and they can inspire us to do the right thing when we are called. By telling tales over and over again, they somehow become part of the fabric of who we are. And those local stories go to make the character of a neighborhood, for better or for worse.  When someone rises to the occasion and puts their power to good use, I think it’s worth noting. There was a folktale- like quality the way the scene at the dance went down that night. Under the street light, Jackie looked Thor-like, wielding that car jack like a mighty hammer. It was a beautiful thing the way he single handedly stopped that brawl. 

His feat became a local legend, recounted as a heroic event in the neighborhood bars and social clubs. It was an event that rose out of a certain time, and a certain place. Even though we’ve entered a totally new era, I would hope that, every now and then, a magical event like that could still grace the Brooklyn streets.

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