Sunday, May 31, 2020

“Julie’s Chevy” by Wayne H. Judge - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

Julie’s New Chevy


Wayne H. Judge


Everyone has a picture of a teenage Jewish kid from Brooklyn in the fifties. Jules Haber did not fit into anybody’s picture. He was no Simon or Garfunkel.  Take my word for it. First of all Julie was “not a student”. Julie was in what is called a General Program at Lafayette High School, a school populated with a lower middle class somewhat tough, non intellectual student body drawn from Flatbush, Bensonhurst and Coney Island. It was a program that did not culminate in a regents high school diploma, which meant that he was not “college bound”.

He did not look the part either. He had an early, heavy beard which he shaved about once a week. He never took off his jeans, tee shirt, black leather motorcycle jacket, garrison belt, and motorcycle boots. He had some kind of grease in his straight, black hair that made it always look shiny and unkempt. His skin was olive and he was overweight and stocky and tough looking and acting.  Don’t mess with Julie.  And, of course, he was not religious.

Everyone in all the gangs knew Julie because he was basically crazy and tales of his exploits circulated in the surrounding neighborhoods. Like the night he filled the U.S. mailbox with live pigeons then waited for the mail pickup crew to arrive. It was dark even under the streetlight on the corner and about twelve of us were standing around, all dressed alike. No females would be caught dead with our group and none ever were.  Dead or alive.

When the guy got out of the mail truck and approached the mail box with his key Julie approached him and called out “Hey dare Mistah Mailman!” Then he broke into a graceful little tap dance like Jimmy Cagney or Fred Astaire would do in those old movies. The man looked at Julie then he looked at us.  None of us were smiling.  We never did.  Smiling was not considered cool. Julie ended his dance with a flourish just as the guy opened the box and all the pigeons flew out.

He pulled more complicated stunts the more encouragement he got from us. One night he staged a “air raid blackout” in front of his apartment building on Ocean Parkway. At 11:00 P.M. he screamed orders and threats at anyone he caught with their lights on identifying himself as an “Air Raid Warden”.

But basically Julie just hung out. The poolroom upstairs on Avenue M. The candy stores on the corners that we knew were safe for us. (Julie argued for almost an hour one night with a first generation Jewish candy store owner that he knew how to paint a ceiling without one drop of paint hitting the floor. Neither he nor any of the rest of us smiled once the whole time.)  On the boardwalk at Bay Seven in Coney Island. In Sheepshead Bay, at McGinnises. And, of course, on the benches on Ocean Parkway.

Ocean Parkway was a WPA project of the thirties. A six lane parkway that runs about thirty miles from Prospect Park in Brooklyn right to the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island.  I has six traffic lanes in the center, three each way, and a traffic light at the intersection of every cross street which are consecutively lettered from A to Z. (Z being almost at Coney Island)  On the easterly side of the Parkway is a thirty foot wide bridle path made out of dirt and lined on both sides by elm trees. To the east of that is a non parkway service street where you can park on both sides if you live, service or visit the adjacent buildings.

On the westerly side of the Parkway is a thirty foot wide concrete sidewalk divided down the center with an iron pipe railing about three feet high. On one side of the railing is a bicycle path and on the other is a walkway lined with wooden benches all facing east to the bike path, the parkway and the bridle path. This bike path/sidewalk is also lined on each side by elm trees and to the west of it again was the non parkway service street with parking on both sides.  So it was quite a boulevard with a lot of people activity.

In the early days there was a fair amount of horse traffic down the bridle path but that started to fall off in the fifties. There was always a fair amount of bike traffic up and down the bike path during daylight hours. The parkway was flanked by stately homes in the early days but those gave way to six story apartment buildings side by side without self contained parking and filled with lower middle class Italian and Jewish Americans, mostly Jewish.

Ocean Parkway was a world.  It was a culture.  It was also a turf for teens. Cars cruised up and down the service roads with arms on all the windows sills to make the biceps look bigger.  Girls strolling along during daylight.  Gangs on the corners.  The Avenue U boys. The New Utrech Avenue boys.  And when they moved down the Parkway in a great black hoard with their garrison belts swinging buckles out we moved until they passed.

Sometimes you would be hanging out there and two or three cars would pull up at once and they would all pile out. Too late to run. So you sat and looked dangerous. That’s when they would start with the “What are you smiling at? You think I am funny looking? No? Yes?”  So you never smiled and you never laughed, you just sat there and let them talk. “Hey, look who is here Stevie Potter. Stevie your sister has great knockers, you know that?” Nothing. Stevie gets red but just looks straight ahead.  We were no fun so most of the time they would just leave.

Julie was the only one who could do whatever he wanted with these guys.  “Hey
before you guys drove up there were these three crows out here……”. No smiles from us.

But the Parkway was the place where we got things discussed and sorted out as teenagers.  We discussed everything, for hours into the night, for days.  Sometimes we would lay on the benches head to head with our heads on the other persons shoulder.  In retrospect it sounds a little gay.

John Keating’s brother told him that it was a complete waste of time to learn about sex from Brooklyn girls. He was in the navy and was getting it from the pros.  Prostitutes make the best wives.  So that did it for Keating. He was joining the Navy. He was a big Irishman, about a foot taller than any one of us with the shape of a body builder and blond hair.  He had some sort of accident at the basketball court with the wrong people and he spent most of his time looking over his shoulder.  He had to get out of the neighborhood sooner or later anyway.

We used to play cards at Julie’s parents apartment when they were out for any reason. It was a two bedroom apartment on the fourth floor and it had a sunken living room with a large piano in it. What a place!

Julie’s dad and his uncle and a few cousins ran an olive importing business in South Brooklyn. His parents were short and stout.  You could tell that they loved Julie to death and they both liked me a lot because they could see that I was a good friend of Julie’s.  He had brought home some nit wits, like Anthony DeStefano, who scared them to death. Julie shared a bedroom with his brother Leslie who was a good looking kid, slim, smart and quite a bit younger than Jules.

After high school Julei enlisted in the navy.  I guess, like Keating, he believed that it was the only way he would ever get laid.  Besides, there was nothing to do at home.  Everyone had either moved away or was in jail with the two exceptions of me and  RichieCavallaro who went to college.  That was when we lost all contact and a new Jules came home three years later.

We ran into each other on the Parkway one night during the summer and he looked like shit.  He had lost about forty pounds. His clothes hung on him and his spark was completely gone.  There was no room for him in the family olive business so his dad tried to set him up as a wholesaler of private brands of aerosol shaving cream.  He would go to drug stores and try to convince them to put out their own private brand of shaving cream and he would provide the specially labeled cans. He hated it. He was lonely as hell. He could not play the piano but he sat in his living room all day long picking out the melody to Victory at Sea. The same song over and over.  “I can play the whole thing now and at night I read the bible.  There is some real interesting shit in there”

He drove his poor mother crazy.  I went there one night to get him and he was not home but his folks asked me to come in and they told me how desperately sad they were about Jules.  He sat there all day, every day playing the same tune on the piano over and over and when he was not doing that he was reading the bible! He was making a mess out of both of them.  I could see that this was no joke.

“What would snap him out of this?”  I had no idea.  I told them Jules and I had spoken for hours on the Parkway about his depression and there were no answers.  I truly knew of nothing that he wanted or needed.  Maybe if you can find him a girlfriend?

“If you could have anything in the world what would you want?”

“A new black Chevy Impala hard top with red leather upholstery, white walls and wire wheels” was my instant, instinctive response.  That’s what anyone would want for Chrissake!

And that’s how Julie got his new Chevy.

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