Jerry Della Femina
A few years ago I opened the New York Post and saw a picture on the front page and read about a guy with whom I went to David A. Boody Junior High School in Brooklyn, a lot of years ago.
He was a big, tough kid and now he’s a big, tough old man. According to the story I read, he was going “away” for the rest of his life. “Away” is how they used to describe jail in the old days in my neighborhood. I was intrigued that the newspaper called him by a nickname, “Big Nose.”
As I said, this is a very tough guy, and I’m sure no one ever dared call him “Big Nose” to his nose er ... er ... to his face.
I’m fascinated by nicknames.
Are nicknames an Italian/Jewish thing of the past? Were they used to avoid confusion?
A few years ago I ran into an old friend from Brooklyn. I hadn’t seen him since I was 16. “Yo, ‘Jerry Hooks’,” he said. “It’s me, ‘Sally Dog’.”
“Yo, ‘Dog’,” I said. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Liddle a dis. Liddle a dat.”
I was suddenly aware of how my whole speech pattern had changed the minute “Dog” identified himself. At that moment I was back in time, standing in front of Hy and Ann’s candy store under the Culver line “El” at McDonald Avenue and Avenue U.
I was a duck-tailed kid with pegged pants and wearing a black leather jacket and flirting with girls with names like “Bubbles” and Barbara “Black.”
“Ya see any of the guys?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I went back to Avenue U to see my Aunt Mary, God bless her she’s 92, and I saw ‘Frankie Nuts’ and ‘Polock’ and ‘Baldy’. I looked for ‘Hoppy’ but he wasn’t around.
“Ya know,” he said, “‘Beansy’ got killed. He turned into a bust-out gambler ... was into the shies for thousands ... too bad, he was a nice guy.”
“Yeah, a nice guy,” I answered, thinking of “Beansy” playing softball at the PS 95 schoolyard — a fresh-faced 16-year-old who couldn’t wait to join the Marines. When he was old enough to join, he lasted six months and they discharged him for striking a superior officer. He came back and the neighborhood’s gambling monster chewed him up and spit him out.
“‘Curly’ just went away,” “Dog” said, shaking his head.
“Yeah, I read about it. Too bad, he was a nice kid,” I said, trying to bring back the handsome young boy into my memory and trying to forget the pudgy old guy whose grainy picture was in the New York Post when he was sentenced.
“I think he’s going to be away forever,” “Dog” said.
“Yeah, at this age forever is a lot closer than it was when we were 16,” I said.
We both continued the small talk in our own particular verbal shorthand, and then we awkwardly hugged each other and turned in different directions and went back to our lives.
I hardly knew “Dog” in my old neighborhood — he was part of an older, tougher group of boys, from West 10th street and Avenue U, who hung around a candy store with the unappetizing name of “The Rat Hole.” Many of them went “away.” My group of guys from about 1,000 feet away on Avenue U never got in trouble.
I didn’t have the nerve to ask “Dog” what a “liddle a dis, liddle a dat” meant.
Was it just my old neighborhood in Brooklyn where everybody had a nickname? Did they have nicknames in the Bronx and Queens? New Jersey? Today, the Facebook generation kids all call their friends by their proper names. There isn’t a “Frankie Nuts” or a “Baldy” to be found.
Are nicknames a thing of the past? Was it an attempt by the kids of my generation to give everyone a distinct identity, or did we all just have a lousy memory for names?
Imagine if they had them today, for the hedge fund guys and politicians.
Names like “Barry the Snake” and “Stevie Sneak” and “Chuckie Nerves.” Would Trump be known as “Donny Liar”?
My friend George Melore used to call me “Hooks” because the only basketball shot I would take was a hook shot.
“Dog” was called “Dog” because when he went to the racetrack he would always bet on the long shot, or “underdog.” A guy named Frankie, at the age of 15, lost his temper and slugged a gym teacher twice his size. Thus, “Frankie Nuts” was born.
Barbara “Black”’s family was from Sicily and so she had dark skin; thus she became Barbara “Black.” I won’t tell you how “Bubbles” got her name except to say it was a sexual reference related to a popular song of the time.
It was a different time.
It was a different place.
Sometimes late at night I think about it and I wish I could be “Hooks” again and have it all back.
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