Jerry Della Femina
AND THEN, OF COURSE, THERE WAS HOPPY (2/1/22)
This is the last part of my contribution to “Street Smarts,” Rock Positano’s great new book:
He was big.
In a neighborhood where almost everyone was 5 foot 5, Hoppy was a 6-foot giant and a beefy 200-plus pounds, mostly stomach.
Hoppy was the mayor of “street smart” Avenue U.
It was cloudy.
The word was that Hoppy decided when he got out of the Army right after World War II that he wasn’t going to work again.
He wasn’t alone.
There were three or four guys like Hoppy: Andrew, Polock, Anthony (pronounced ANT-knee).
All nice guys.
Funny, loyal. Slightly honest.
They decided that they, too, didn’t want to work for a living again.
They would make some money here and there.
Hoppy worked for and against the unions.
One day he was available to march, carry a sign and yell and intimidate anyone who dared cross the picket line to go to work.
The next day he was available to be hired as a strikebreaker, threatening the strikers and assisting any strikebreaker who crossed the line and wanted to go in to work.
Their headquarters was Joe’s Bar and Grill on Avenue U, just across the street from the PS 95 schoolyard.
If you had 15 cents for a beer you could lean against the bar all day and talk and laugh.
Joe’s Bar was wonderful. It was dark and smelled of stale beer.
The only light came from the neon signs, the neon-lit jukebox, and the 12-inch Philco television set that always seemed to show Jackie Robinson sliding safely into second base.
The Miss Rheingold contest ballots were mounted on a big piece of cardboard that showed the smiling faces of the six hopefuls.
It was perched precariously on top of the jukebox that continuously played Jo Stafford singing, “See the pyramids along the Nile,” to men who hardly ever saw the outside of the bar.
When I was 16, my friends Ronny Kealty (half Italian), Arnold Bruno, George Melore and I had just come from the movies and we were sitting on some park benches near PS 95, across from Joe’s, just talking baseball, Snider-versus-Mantle stuff.
Suddenly four men came up to us and one of them asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Talking,” we all replied.
“Don’t move,” he said. “You’re under arrest for unlawful assembly.”
It was a time when the police were cracking down on all teenagers from all over the city.
We were completely innocent but that didn’t matter.
The next day a Brooklyn Eagle front page headline shouted: 46 TEENS SEIZED, GANG WAR AVERTED
We were taken to the Coney Island jail and spent the night in cells in lock-up, and then we were transported uptown to a court.
The judge heard the charges and set bail (remember bail?) at $100, or we could get out by paying a $25 dollar “fine.”
At the thought of a $100 bail I figured I would be paying off the $100 until I was 50.
Then I spotted Hoppy.
What was he doing in court?
Who knows. Some old gambling charge?
I ran over to him and said, “Hoppy, I need money.”
“We all do,” he smiled.
“I need $25,” I said.
“We all need $25,” Ronny Kealty said.
Hoppy pulled out a thick roll of bills and handed us $100.
Then, with a mischievous smile, he said, “Next time shoot your way out.”
We paid Hoppy back a few dollars at a time.
But from that day on, he was my neighborhood hero.
All we could think about was that thick roll of bills.
We lost touch with Hoppy as we all went our different ways.
But I’ve always wished him a great free life doing a little of dis and a little of dat.
The lesson for me and most of our friends, who were at least 10 years younger than Hoppy and his guys, was that the real joy in their life came at the weekly Sunday game of shooting craps in front of Joe’s.
Great for them, not for us.
We had places to go, things to see, and dreams to dream.
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