There was a time back in the days of snuff boxes and snoods when the Queen’s English held considerable sway with conversationalists who wanted to impress others whilst discoursing or “chewing the fat,” as it were. But those days have long since vanished like the sun that was never supposed to set on the English Empire, or like the last half dozen rolls at Schonings on Sunday morning. Slang, that consummé of concision and wit, rules supreme in America, and perhaps nowhere as noticeably as in Hoboken.
Where else could a “pepper” mean a gullible fool, even after the incessant brainwashing of a certain soda company? Or, for those of a more Teutonic stripe (some of Hoboken’s earliest city fathers were “krauts”), consider the use of the word wurst (deliberately mispronounced “woosht”) to characterize a useless dolt. Jimmy Carter, for instance, was the penultimate woosht. In fact, he fell just short of earning the more demeaning epithet of “meatball” – someone who actively gums up the work. Chris Christie comes to mind.
As with speech in Brooklyn and few other feisty bergs, the jargon of Hobokenites bristles with imagery, like a technicolored porcupine. Metaphors are served up as spicy and distinctive as calamari in hot sauce. But despite the garrulous nature of our raconteurs, their ceaseless rapid-fire utterances conceal a gritty economy of expression, a propensity to borrow strictly from what is ready at hand. Instinctively such minds search for an existing tool rather than fashion an entirely new one. Thus shot glass of whiskey dropped into a goblet of beer quickly transmogrifies into a “depth charge” – because of some very obvious visual similarities (not to mention the destructive natures) of both. In short, Victory at Sea reruns trump fancy pants apéritifs every time.
Taverns have always had their say because booze equals verbosity, but Hoboken’s archipelago of ethnic eateries also seasons local idiom with a heavy hand. Culinary terms abound, for there are few things Hobokenites like to do better than to mangia. Speaking of which, who but one born in the Garden State better appreciates the ripe squeezability of a buxom tomato – the very opposite of some Tootsie who’s just a skinny string bean? Who but one surrounded by urban bakeries and pastry shops knows more about the exquisite flavor of a tart or velvety smoothness of cheesecake a al Playboy magazine? Or, for those in a family way, the joy of having “something in the oven”? (Fruitcakes, in this regard, are to be avoided at all costs.) And what of “hot cross buns” and girls in their summer dresses? Pretty gamy risqué stuff. The taste lingers on the tongue like one of Cal’s chili dogs devoured beneath that trestle rumbling with the passing of suburban bound trains.
Of course, smoke filled parlors and oak paneled backrooms fit the stereotype, but politics, truth be told, reeks of the scullery not the drawing room. Watergate, for instance, spelled “hot potato” for Republicans in the 70’s. Tricky Dick spent a lot of time trying to push that mishmash “onto the back burner,” and all because Alexander Butterfield “spilled the beans” about those White House tapes. Ultimately, though, the Crafty One couldn’t “stand the heat so he got out of the kitchen.”
And bad cess to ‘im! But what thanks did poor G. Gordon Liddy get for his valiant efforts to pull the President’s “chestnuts out of the fire?” Peanuts!
“So what?” a Sam Ervin fan might reply. “Liddy was a ham ‘n egger from the get-go, a minor league short order cook if ever there was one.” But definitely not a “cream puff,” no Caspar Milquetoast he. Any man who can sink his teeth into fat, juicy rodent he’d just roasted (see Liddy’s autobiography Will in which he recounts doing just that) can’t be all bad, especially someone who grew up in a city, Hoboken, with a madcap Councilman (Louie Francone) who once asked, “Meeses, mices, what’s the difference? They all grow up to be rats!” I’ll grant you, maybe Liddy wasn’t the seventy cent spread, but he stood head and shoulders over that “chicken-livered” John Dean. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
Gambling, another passion of Hobokenites, is also best described in the lingo of the chef. We all know beating the Jets is “a piece of cake.” But betting against them is another matter entirely as bookies always have the edge – the vig or vigorish (not licorice). For oddsmakers the middle is always “gravy.” So next time you’re watching the Super Bowl pay strict attention to those “hash” marks because the guys with the funny little visors and the bent noses are in the adjoining room counting up the “cabbage.” And woe unto the bag man who tries to “skim a little off the top.” A word to the wise from Brendan Behan, “Use your loaf, man.”
Why? Because revenge plays such an integral part in all our lives. Take this little, not so fictional diatribe overheard in a local pizzeria: “The crust of that cafone, paying me for three calzones and expecting four. Yeah, the cucuzz’ in the herring bone suit and the salt ‘n pepper hair. The pits! A real fourteen karat crumb bum. Leaves my Angelina with the peaches and cream complexion a ‘coupla quarters for a tip. A cracker like that, someone ‘oughta put his little gee-gee nuts in a Waring blender.” Miserliness is, indeed, a mortal sin in Hoboken, a place the New York Times once referred to as the Corsage of the Garden State. Like the fish, cheap “skates” stink.
But we’re drifting from the point again: the way food flavors everything we say and do. Still not convinced? Go to an off-off-Broadway play and you’re apt to see plenty of “half baked” dramaturgy- “meat-and-potatoes” productions with lots of ham. Ride the PATH trains at rush hour and you’re probably “packed in like sardines,” sandwiched between some 400 lb. female wrestler and a deviate from the Village. That’s no “cake walk,” I ‘wanna tell ‘ya.
Swill enough Heineken’s and sure enough you’re “stewed” to the gills. Then open your yap in the wrong bar and before you know it you’re in the middle of a “rhubarb” and some “beefy” motorcyclist is pummeling you into “mincemeat” with everything “but the kitchen sink.” Plus once the cops arrive, you could find yourself in quite a “pickle.” And pity my friend Jim O’Shea who attended the funeral of some “top banana” Celtic big wig in Spring Lake, the Irish Riviera. One of Jim’s pals asked him about the funeral repast and what kind of food they had; and Jim replied, “Lots of tongue and cold shoulder.”
That should do it. But as a special treat to Apicella devotees (lovers of fresh fish), I’d like to reprise the following jingle some fellow zanies used to warble at the long since defunct Mc Gorty’s Hoboken House: “Don’t wait for the shrimp boats, Hansi; your wife’s coming home with the crabs.” And how about Hitler’s last words before his demise outside that lonely bunker in Berlin: “Gott in Himmel, I ‘cudda had a V-8!”?
Of German-Irish descent, my real name’s Brody Kessler, but it ‘oughta be Ishmael, the lone survivor in Moby Dick, because all my relatives and friends have gone the long meander. The saying goes, “Only the good die young,” but that’s pure baloney. This side of Paradise saints and scoundrels, both the wheat and the chaff, get plowed under ‘irregardless- even as a few scarecrows like me look on from their rickety porches, props, and trellises. Thus, as with the ‘fella in that Irish song, “The Old Bog Road,”
I’ve discovered life’s a weary puzzle- “…so I’ll take the day for what it’s worth and smoke my pipe alone.” A tad glib, I know, but ruminations of a similar stripe lead me to ask: when you awake in the dead of night, what do you think of during those hours of unsettling dreams and trepidation? Over what noisome particle of dread stuck between the eyeteeth of your consciousness do you obsess? For all their heartfelt wonder, Ishmael’s riffs on the immensity of the universe –the star flung galaxies on the one hand, mankind and the paltry unraveling of individual souls on the other- certainly didn’t seem relevant to a blue bottle like me as ages ago I bustled about in that fervent little existence of mine. No crow’s nest meditations for me. Goodness, though, how overwhelming such thoughts loom just now in the wee hours of the morning as the wind howls and a garbage can cover scuttles over the cobblestone streets below. Inevitably shame rears its ugly head.
For some the rub hinges upon what they’ve done, for others upon what they haven’t done. Then I guess it’s safe to say I’m getting’ a double whammy tonight because on top of my misdeeds I know somehow I should ‘of sprung my father from that ghastly nursing home, but couldn’t. Or maybe just plain didn’t. Then, too, maybe bad juju’s why I’m here all alone in the dark like him. No, not quite. As an M.D., he had it worse. He knew the body’s inexorable decline as plain as day- from top to bottomus, as the Cowardly Lion used to say in Oz.
And, of course, regarding what I’ve done, that “crucifiction” thing in prep school surfaces from time to time (so punned as we didn’t actually nail old Ralphie Truetz in). Ralph was a weaselly character- bony, unsightly, and conniving. We were on a mandatory retreat, and silence was the rule- except for an hour in the afternoon when we were allowed to wander about outdoors along the Station of the Cross and monkey about. Round about the tenth station, Ralphie took to shying rocks at a pair of bluebirds. Seizing the like as justification (Ralphie was easy to despise), three of us pounced on him and held him down. I found a large fallen tree limb, a two-by-four that held up a makeshift notice to keep-off-the-grass, and some clothesline that roped off a newly seeded area behind the grass sign. Knowing some lashings from Boy Scouts, I fastened the two-by-four to the tree limb as a crossbeam. Jameson, our ringleader, cut the excess clothesline into several three-foot lengths with his pocket knife, and we tied Ralphie’s outstretched arms to the cross. Mostly, when we hoisted him up, Ralphie cooperated by stepping nicely onto a nubbed up joint near the base of the fallen limb so the ropes didn’t dig into his wrists and puny biceps. As Jameson put it afterwards, he took it quite well.
Later that evening at Benediction, Rev. Tristan Speevy, S.J., just back from the missions, mentioned that he had traveled the world over –India, Africa, and the like; but in his opinion, the greatest savages he ever encountered were right here in our midst. Sheepishly, ‘me and a few other treacherous bastards in the pews offered up a reluctant, not so silent “Amen.” Nonetheless, I could swear I heard Pontius Pilate wheezing in the background. In truth, however, it was only Ralphie.
Despite such youthful indiscretions, a nostalgia for my youth endures- much as does the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. I loved growing up in Hoboken because back then it was a city teeming with eccentrics- some of them dangerous and edgy. For example, there was Casey Sikes, a vicious bitch who shivved her boyfriends, a drunk named Dennis Hogan who periodically tried to swim across the Hudson, and Sharpy Finnegan- the homoerotic bum who wandered through town making obscene facial gestures to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Yes ‘indeedy, for us Hoboken was microcosm of the lunacy at large in places like New York and Chicago; so we knew what to expect when later we stepped out into the world. But Hoboken was safer, less mean-spirited; and everybody had a job in a prosperity-forever town that abounded with German butcher stores, pizzerias, bakeries, pastry shops, Italian delis, and candy stores. Not to mention a few girls of easy virtue and Puerto Rican transvestite named Daisy who was way, way ahead of her time.
Then along came the Vietnam War with trouble aplenty. If nothing else, it showed how easily a virtuous impulse can backslide into a wallow of petty grievances. Heeding what I considered an act of bravery, I volunteered my draft. My father insisted I’d done so only because my buddy Jameson enlisted in the Marines. Be that as it may, during my training at Fort Knox on the Sheridan assault vehicle (essentially a small tank), I went AWOL on a Friday to attend my brother’s wedding. When I returned Sunday evening, the muckety-mucks couldn’t Article 15 me because they hadn’t recorded my absence on Saturday’s morning report. But a self-righteous Staff Sergeant Enos Ponder evened that score for the Army by placing me under the thumb of one Roosevelt Suggs, a sorry ass squad leader whose duty I had to pull for a month- right down to the platoon’s graduation day when I had to replace him on KP, a delay which made me miss my flight out of Louisville and cost me a night of bliss with a zaftig blond on Bloomfield Street.
God forgive me, but to this day if I happened upon Sgt. Ponder at some hospice with him hooked up to a tangle of monitors, IVs, and a COPD nebulizer, I’d push that son-of-a-bitch down a flight of stairs, wheelchair and all, just like Tommy Udo in that film Kiss of Death. As to Roosevelt, he got his comeuppance the final day of training, qualifying on the assault vehicle’s 152 mm cannon. Even our instructors admitted this piece of artillery was much too big for the tank that accommodated it; when you pulled the trigger, the entire vehicle rocked back on its tracks, forcing the gunner to jerk back, too. We were warned to hold on tight “ ‘cause surer than shit ‘summa you dickweed peckerwoods’re ‘gonna slam your heads up against the sighting device when rolling forward again. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but then I’ll ‘hafta fill out reams of goddam paperwork called a medical report.” Shortly thereafter Buck Private Suggs was hauled out of the Sheridan with two black eyes and a broken nose. I never so much as grinned, but Schadenfreude coursed through my veins like honey.
Alas, vengeance’s not the only thorn late night insomnia can spawn. Painful lessons abound therein. A year or so after my father wrecked his ’62 Mercury in the Lincoln Tunnel, he, my stepmother, my brother, and I waited on a platform in the Port Authority Terminal for a bus to take us to Teaneck where my Uncle Hans was hosting a big family dinner. This was long before the installation of cubicles to shield commuters from the toxic fumes billowing forth from the idling buses. We languished there for an hour or more, after which my father telephoned his brother from a scuzzy booth in the waiting room below to apprise him of our situation. Always amenable, Hans offered to pay for a cab- no small sum for a guy who drove a fish truck for a living; but my father, angered that Han’s mooching in-laws hadn’t offered to fetch us with their station wagon, slammed down the receiver and ushered us onto a # 63 bus, which ferried our disgruntled posse homeward to Hoboken.
Rankled to the core, he didn’t speak to his brother again until years later one frosty afternoon when Hans, the mere shell of his former self, arrived at my father’s office with his wife. Hans, once with the heart of a warrior, was a shrunken man, cancer having eaten him half alive. My father, a physician at St. Mary’s Hospital, had him admitted lickety-split and eased Hans’ sufferings with morphine; but it was curtains. My father’s considerable skill as a healer was for naught. And though he was an unrepentant never-give-an-inch hardass and something of a stoic (as a doctor who dealt with sickness and death all the time, he almost had to be), at the funeral parlor’s last viewing he leapt onto Hans’ open coffin bellowing like an animal, keening indecipherable woe in a garbled version of the German of his youth, sobbing uncontrollably. Amidst the flowers and the candles, my younger half-sisters were shepherded from this tumultuous unmooring before it poisoned forever their sense of well-being. It did so anyway. Thus it was that I learned how grudges become the nails with which we crucify ourselves. Doubtless, I’m fashioning my own as I reminisce. Seems no matter how carefully you step through the foliage, this evil pollen dusts your shoulders and your toes. After all, those ancients in charge of spinning myths knew well the persistence of evil, that which is much older than man- more so even than Lucifer.
Jamesy McIntyre, though nearly fifty when he died, was an odd stretch of a fellow, all gangly and anything but handsome. His lower lip drooped, a huge cowlick swirled about the back of his head, and a stand of elfin blond down sprouted from the edge of his ears. When it came to looks, he was a dodo bird amongst gamecocks.
Which, oddly, reminds me of an incident when Jamesy and I were swilling drinks like a couple of toffs at the sumptuous Campbell Apartment bar atop Grand Central Station. Sitting across from us was a young guy in denims whose Mohawk-like hairdo was spiked in several different colors- green, gold, red, and blue. Not all that thirsty, Jamesy kept staring at the popinjay between sips from his tumbler of Wild Turkey. “A new take on Chingachgook,” Jamesy mumbled sotto voce.
The youthful dandy suffered Jamesy’s near-silent obloquy for a time before he finally hissed, “What’s the matter, old man, never done anything wild in your life?” Jamsey’s retort came right on cue, “Got drunk once and had sex with a peacock. I was just wondering if you were my son.”
To his credit, the Technicolored swain asked, “F***ed a peacock: doesn’t that make you queer?” A big Seinfeld fan, Jamsey answered, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” And they both laughed.
Possessed of a sly sense of humor and a gentle, disarming smile, Jamesy was inordinately fond of the clever riposte, the off-the-cuff bon mot. For instance, exchanging jests about religion with an overweight friend Sylvester Xerxes, who insisted God, like love, was everywhere, Jamsey called Sylvester a pan-theist “because Sylvester worshipped the flapjack.” Similarly, Jamsey dubbed the three meatball sandwich at Joey Manganella’s Italian deli “the pawnbroker.” Accordingly, Joey said it came with a money back guarantee; but, in truth, if you asked for a refund, you’d be frog-walked to the door and, as Jamesy liked to put it, “cast out into the darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Not surprisingly, Jamsey’s hero was Oscar Wilde.
Unlike Oscar’s, Jamsey’s witticisms were often testicularly themed. Freud would have ridiculed the like, but Jamsey considered psychology a pseudoscience, a Viennese cock and bull story, one fostered by a fraud addicted to heroin. In like manner, we were both quaffing beverages at the Shamrock Bar whilst a hippie-like woman of a certain age with long grey hair down to her arse rhapsodized about an oft debunked branch of science called phrenology. Jamesy listened patiently and then observed, “As regards men anyway, you can learn a lot more about them by massaging their balls than their skulls.” She was not amused.
Though he was happiest when matching wits and jousting intellectually, he was forever organizing unusual outings or road trips like lunch time at Callahan’s hotdog stand in Fort Lee; the dog track in Bridgeport, Connecticut; a minor league baseball game in Buffalo, N.Y.; or a leisurely cruise on a barge along the Erie Canal. Closer to home I met him in Manhattan one St. Patrick’s Day for the parade. Half way through the roiling carry-on, we had to find a gin mill several avenues over so as to, in Jamsey’s words, “drain the lizard.” Best we could do was a Korean restaurant that had a small bar. Once there we ordered Irish whiskey to commemorate the day. The owner said he had none but quick as Jack Robinson sent one of his minions out to purchase a bottle.
We settled for draughts in the meantime and went to the john. When we returned, most of the twenty I’d left on the bar was gone- something we both scrutinized closely. Just then the lackey returned with a fifth of Bushmills. After I snatched up my remaining silver, Jamsey proclaimed, “That’s Protestant whiskey. Catholics can’t drink that shite,” and we left the owner in high dudgeon, cursing: “You ‘filly ‘Ilish ‘sunna ‘bishes!”
Both of us became Hoboken teachers- not, unfortunately, the kind who always wanted to do just that, as though we had a calling like a priest. Truth be told, we started teaching because we couldn’t find steady work doing what we loved- me as a writer, him as a thespian. He was actually pretty good at treading the boards, but unsightly as he was, he was always cast as a villain or a nebbish in cameo roles- and precious few of those. All the same, pedagogy paid the bills; plus there were two very good reasons for easing into our profession- July and August.
Kindred souls we palled around together during and after school for several decades despite my family life in the suburbs and his solitary existence in Marine View Plaza. In the end, poor old Jamesy wound up in lower Jersey City’s Alaris hospice dying of cancer. I visited him nearly every afternoon. On his better days we swapped tales of our experiences at Brandt School; and being an inveterate scribbler, I kept notes. The following is a compilation of those reminiscences- tidied up here and there, I admit, in keeping with a belief that if a story isn’t worth embroidering, it isn’t worth telling.
Jamesy: Before you joined the staff, a math instructor, Hymie Goosch, fell out of favor; and he was relegated to teaching sex ed and hygiene. The students knew this class counted for nothing as regarded promotion or graduation. So, naturally, they behaved accordingly. Returning his grade book during class one afternoon, I witnessed a brazen hussy, Shaniqua Pottle, call out, “Yo, ‘Misser ‘Goose, like in this book how come a ‘wunna ‘a man’s nuts always hangs down lower ‘then the other?” Undaunted, Hymie took a seat beside his desk and, hiking his right knee over the left, answered, “Cause otherwise a guy couldn’t cross his legs.” Nonplussed, Shaniqua waggled her head defiantly and sat down.
Me: He was a legend alright. But my favorite was Hughie Deverone. As you probably know he was something of a fop- always duded up. One day he spilled the remains of a latte onto the crotch of his elegant trousers and quickly retired to the lavatory in the teachers’ room to dab up the mess. So happened right about this time, Vice Principal Julia Rätsel wanted to speak to Hughie about some minor matter. Back then she’d been newly appointed disciplinarian determined to establish herself as a non-nonsense administrator; and when she called upon Hughie’s classroom, she found it in an uproar with only a monitor in charge. Incensed by this dereliction of duty, she stormed off to the teachers’ room and there, with the lavatory door ajar, she observed Hughie splashing water on the front of his slacks. Aghast, she remonstrated, “Mr. Deverone, whatever, in God’s name, are you doing?” Without missing a beat, Hughie replied, “Ah, Ms. Rätsel, this time of day it gets overheated and I have to cool it down.” She left abruptly, none too pleased.
Jamesy (laughing heartily between intervals of shallow breathing): The higher-ups were always a curious lot. I don’t know if you ever heard of this carry-on down in Connors School? Because it provided both sunlight and a modicum of privacy, Augie Gratale and his posse liked to have lunch in a basement alcove that gym teachers sometimes used for volleyball. From time to time, however, this space -located as it was in the bowels of downtown Hoboken- would flood, causing unspeakable offal to flow hither and thither. Naturally, these teachers complained, and for a long while to no avail. Finally, however, Mr. Kramer, as business manager and director of school buildings, decided to assess this unsanitary condition, but not before Augie got wind of it. Augie, a madcap of sorts, dashed off to Apicella’s and purchased a porgy, a mackerel, and a ling.
Later that afternoon Mr. Kramer arrived and, viewing the ankle deep stagnant water, exclaimed, “What the heck is that volleyball net doing in that muck? Get it out of there.” Augie hauled in the net, which, of course, contained the porgy, the mackerel, and the ling. Mr. Kramer smiled and asked, “Come on, who put those fish in there?” Augie answered, “See Jimmy Ciani: he’s ‘muffi-taise!”
Augie’s humor always had an Italian flavor- like his sexual advice: “If it smells like provolone, leave it alone!”
Me: We had some interesting students, too, like Ramesh Patel, that lovable Hindustani kid I dubbed called our “Regimental Beastie. “ A gutsy pupil, he later became a well-to-do pharmacist. He won the Brandt School spelling bee before he could even speak English properly. Returning from summer vacation one September, he stopped by my classroom; and brown as a berry he enthused, “Mr. Tyrone, my family spent nearly the whole summer in the islands!” I asked which ones- Bermuda, Tobago, or maybe Saint Croix.” He replied, “No, Coney and Staten.”
Jamesy: Yeah, great stuff. And remember Pigs Balls who got his name after he told a gaggle of teachers loitering in the corridor about the nocturnal vampire bats that feasted on the testicles of his uncle’s swine in rural Puerto Rico? Out of the night when the full moon is bright! To this day, I can’t recall Pigs Balls’ real name, but I know it wasn’t Zorro.
Me: Jean Paul Laurent was another of our prodigies. Went on to Steven’s Tech and made a bundle in engineering patents. But a science fair at Brandt School was always something of a three ring circus under the best of circumstances, an event inevitably beset with electric buzzers, erupting volcanos, and a consortium of ant farms. Intent upon winning his second straight best-in-show, Jean Paul bugged me for weeks about the ins and outs of a hot air balloon he was perfecting. I had my doubts about what he was planning, so I was surprised when he showed up in the auditorium looking cocky as could be with alcohol, a coffee tin, and a strange cylindrical sac of thin, transparent plastic attached to the lightest of aluminum rims.
The balloon didn’t look very promising, but he got permission from the principal to fire it up on the auditorium stage with myself and another student assisting. We held the bag over the coffee can as Jean Paul ignited the alcohol, and soon we could feel the heated fumes rising into the plastic sac. By then we had attracted a crowd; and as the fragile bag began to billow forth with buoyant heat, the anticipation of imminent flight silenced the din below.
At last the balloon was fully erect, and Jean Paul hollered, “Okay, Mr. Tyrone, let ‘er rip!” Wondrously his contraption rose to the ceiling in one steady, graceful parabola. The rabble was ecstatic, and Jean Paul smiled from ear to ear. But as for me, his apparatus seemed to flaunt an unintentional, humorous likeness to something in the bawdier recesses of my consciousness. There was an unspoken licentiousness about this air borne plastic that made me gaze into the audience to check the reactions of my ne’er-do-well colleagues- like you, Jamesy. Several had, I suspected, turned away as it to disguise their merriment.
Nonetheless, I suppressed these inklings, and I took pains to hide my own considerable glee lest I arouse some untoward comparisons in the minds of my youthful charges. It was late in the school day, so we all hurried back to our classrooms prior to dismissal; but before leaving, I announced I wasn’t sure who had won prizes, but I was certain who had stolen the show. And from the throng one snaggletoothed wag cackled, “Yeah, Jean Paul and his flying condom!”
* * * *
Jamesy died pumping intravenously fed morphine into a body writhing in pain, but not before he gazed out a window filled with sunshine and, stealing a line from a Kingston Trio tune, said, “It’s hard to die when all the birds are singing in the sky. Harder still, I bet, in the dead of night.” Later that day, I collected his things as he had no family to speak of- only a beloved Uncle Seamus who languished suffering from Alzheimer’s in a Long Island nursing home. I thought for a moment of what a lively, though lonely spirit Jamesy was; and I wondered had he ever held a sweetheart in his arms. There was a copy of Cyrano de Bergerac on the cabinet beside his hospital bed. I picked it up and tucked between its pages was a folded, coffee-stained sheet of paper. In a wavering hand, Jamesy had written a poem which read as follows:
“Liquor thirsty and bouncing
I heard the church bells chime
just outside the Shamrock Bar
on a windswept corner
dappled autumn bright with limp brown leaves
that lay wet in the morning’s blaze;
and a puddled lively sun
I shattered with my heavy boots
as I staggered slightly by.
Incongruous is a word
my teachers used: loneliness
and golden honey flashing through the dry rustling leaves,
emptiness amidst that brilliant little world of ours;
but I remember
we pressed against some Sunday street
with never the slightest thought
for the cold little drops
that fell into a rippled “O”
for my mouth was alive
with apple butter and bits of toast
and I was much too busy
watching you like some little girl
with cherry blossoms in your bright red hair.
Pigeons swirled above
cables glistening, dripping from
a midnight shower,
gossamer threads of memory;
and, yes, once,
how she stroked my ruddy face
with her slightly, very delicately freckled hands
as though she’d always care.
Jesus, what an awful taste
that whiskey leaves.”
And ‘ya think ‘ya know someone.
Back when the following events took place, Hoboken was still in its golden age, one perhaps best typified by the joy attendant upon the pigeons which flew out of Mr. Kolb’s piano when one afternoon he started playing the National Anthem at an assembly in A.J. Demarest High School. For many the music, the laughter, and the flight of those birds served as a metaphor for the plebian delight that seemed to abound in a city some called the Mile Square Miracle. Admittedly, it was a community with more than its share of egotistical hedonists; but one which somehow made a place for such misfits as Crazy Francis, Powerhouse Arnold, and Bah Bah, the janitor at the high school, that burly dwarf with the thick Coke-bottle eyeglasses and a profusion of jingling keys, a macabre bundle of energy who could neither speak not hear but made himself understood via a face aquiver with emotions and a voice alive with wordless approval or dismay. To the rabble he was a real life Hunchback of Notre Dame- a creature who had no existence outside the edifice in which they found him; to his parents Charles Roselli was a blessing and a son.
A Baby Boomer heaven, the city was, of course, awash with children- many of them hungry for adventure; accordingly, these daredevils zoomed down Murder Hill into traffic on sleds, swam in the moonlit caffeinated brine that lapped up against the Maxwell House pier, and fetched rides on the freight trains that rumbled along Hoboken’s western fringe. As an initiation into this gang or that, they clung white-knuckled to a hawser tied to a girder and swung from a dusty cliff beneath the viaduct to a stone pillar some fifteen yards away. Letting loose over such a gaping void and alighting on the ivy covered stone was what Gippo Lynch, the leader of the Giddy-o Rangers, called a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Gippo’s older brother was a divinity student, so Gippo was way ahead of the others in philosophy- though he bore, like Everyman, his share of bestial impulses from the nether realm. When the moon was right of a summer’s night, he and his band of adventurers hunted cats with sticks and cardboard tubing- such was their connection with the ancient Greeks and the Bacchante.
Bah Bah, like many handicapped people, took his job quite seriously, and having swabbed the little alcove that fed into the main corridor on the third floor, he stood aside grasping his mop and admired the glistening expanse of octagon tiles. The whiff of ammonia seemed to cleanse his senses. As he propped open the corridor door, he caught sight of someone with a long wooden window pole under one arm and a metal garbage can cover over the other. Galloping towards this knight errant was a wild-eyed combatant brandishing yet another window pole. As the two collided just outside the corridor door, the second jouster glanced off the other’s shield and stumbled out into the alcove where Bah Bah stood dumbstruck and befuddled. Not surprisingly, this second warrior slipped on the gleaming floor; and his lance stuck between the wrought iron spokes of the railings and then snapped in two as its bearer lunged straight ahead and tumbled headlong down the steps. The remaining delinquent whizzed by seconds later, dropping his armaments as he slid down the banister to the landing below. Bah Bah was beside himself in apoplexy, waving his arms above his head while he cursed in tongues; and both the offending miscreants barged down stairwell howling laughter Bah Bah could not hear. The yahoo who broke Bah Bah’s window pole was Luddy Shur.
Luddy, christened Ludwig, was a natural born hard ass. He was shaving when he was twelve, clearly an heir to the Teuton’s penchant for recalcitrance and mayhem. His father’s strap did little to tame his ways. Luddy quickly graduated to rolling Dutchies down along the Barbary Coast and other nefarious activities. High school for Luddy was but a hothouse where juicy tomatoes ripened and where tomfoolery was one big merry-go-round.
The previous summer Gippo’s father had taken him to the greyhounds in Florida, and Gippo was determined to produce something comparable back home. Using a lasso and a bowl of Alpo as bait, he captured five stray dogs of varying sizes and spirited them away in the Lynch woodshed, accessible from an alleyway of garages behind his home. He kept the dogs well fed for a few days, and because Gippo’s parents drank and hollered all the time, the extra noise was barely noticed. Gippo and his Giddy-o Rangers put the word out that the race of the century was afoot down by the railroad tracks, and on St. Patrick’s Day he led the mutts on leashes up onto the palisades at the city’s edge. Overlooking the industrial section of town, the slobbering dogs all wore soiled handkerchiefs with numbers inked upon them. A mob of some twenty youthful punters placed bets with Gippo before he reached into a burlap sack with a gloved hand and extracted a black cat spitting and hissing like a busted radiator. Naturally, the dogs went berserk. Gippo promptly hurled the sputtering grimalkin onto the steep slope leading back into town, and the handlers released the hounds, two of which somersaulted ass over teakettle half way down the palisades completely out of the running. Many of the spectators fell down laughing, several of them rolling downhill as had the motley canines before them.
By the time Luddy wandered into the Clover Leaf tavern on St. Patrick’s Day he was broke, and most of the revelers were crowded together in front of a hot plate inhaling the aromatic steam rising off the roiling waters of a pot in which swamp dogs, the poor man’s corn beef, were simmering. Tommy Hannigan stabbed at the tube steaks with a greasy fork even as ashes from his dwindling Marlboro fell into the unseen morass below. On the TV Jack McCarthy, already well oiled, redoubled his dubious brogue as he narrated the Paddy’s Day Parade in New York City and fawned over the likes of Carmel Quinn. Closer to home, the lascivious carry-on in the now bolted ladies room was noisy and considerable; and the barman crouched behind the mahogany dousing several beer-encrusted mugs in an elixir of hot soapy water. Figuring the coast was clear, Luddy glommed the donation box belonging to St. Joe’s School for the Blind, a box that stood behind the bar next to the Cheese Doodles; and he vanished a la Claude Rains into thin air, his heavy boots sounding out the distances he covered on the macadam with a measured certainty.
However, Bah Bah, who had been drinking with his pals Joe Palermo and John Catalano, never took his eyes off Luddy in the mirror and lit out after the thief like the Hound of Heaven, his companions in tow. The sprightly Luddy easily outpaced Bah Bah as he raced down Ninth Street past Sony Garrick’s forest green candy store, Columbus Park, and the bamboo factory- running backwards now and then just to show off. But as he neared the railroad tracks, he encountered several huge drainage pipes in storage, forcing him to make a detour the long way around. Bah Bah, on the other hand, merely lowered his head and sprinted straight on through- when out of nowhere a dog wearing a kerchief numbered “3” upended the unsuspecting Luddy, sending the money box up into the air and into the arms of Bah Bah. Bah Bah and his buddies calmly headed east to celebrate the return of the Holy Grail, and Richie Exxon of Weehawken reported seeing a much dispirited Luddy limping about in the Shades later on in the day.
Across town near the river, John bought a six-pack and Joe brought six more hot dogs from a stand manned by a shapely blond in hot pants- since there was zero chance that the passel of cavones and schnorrers at the Clover Leaf had left even a morsel behind. Quite contented, the trio rested on pilings and watched seagulls sail over a barge next to the Holland American Line, the very same floating shack where Marlon Brando and Johnny Friendly duked it out in the movies. The sun shifted from behind some cloud and the river flashed its fiery scales and just as suddenly a rainbow appeared overhead. Bah Bah sat with the St. Joseph’s box glinting between his stunted legs, and he grinned from ear to ear, looking for all the world like an Italian leprechaun- with an anisette-soaked stoggy clinched in the side of his mouth as he’d seen his father do in the misty days of long ago.
The nicknames a society coins tell you a lot about a people. Nicknames can be a curse or a badge of honor. Concerning the latter, consider the appellations (nicknames of a formal sort) in the Litany of the Blessed Mother: Throne of Wisdom, Mystical Rose, Queen of Peace, and Refuge of Sinners. The tag borne by Mickey the Wiseguy La Bruno, the erstwhile owner of of a rough and tumble gin mill along Hoboken’s infamous Barbary Shore, was spawned in a harsher milieu. This side of Paradise it seems nicknames are often enough an amalgam of malice and wit. Sonny the Gomp (truly a Hoboken word- brief and onomatopoeic) certainly knew as much; and if you called him it, you might have joined a long list of late night roisterers whom he threw through the front window of the Town Lunch.
One of my favorite nicknames belonged to a jitney bus driver Back Door Meyer. Appropriately, his bus had none, so those wishing to bust chops (needless to say, their number was legion) would pull the chord announcing their desire to exit the vehicle and mischievously call out, “Back door, Meter!’- to which said Deutsche would unleash an ungodly stream of obscenities heavily accented in ‘zat guttural tongue known as German. Jitneys, those ramshackle omnibuses of old were themselves sarcastically nicknamed “jets.”
Naturally, the world of sport overflowed with nicknames. I played on a Little League team named the Gallos with Bootsy Goggins. Later he starred on an excellent Hoboken High basketball team along with Johnny Boy Wendelken. Coach Chico griped that it figured he’d finally get a tall black kid as a player, but wouldn’t you know it, ‘dagnabit, Bootsy couldn’t jump worth a damn. Buzzy Bellows, another basketball immortal, had a deadly jump shot, though you never knew when a buzzer would go off in his head and he’d go gaga. Mike Costello, aka the Ace, was one of the all time best sluggers for the Red Wings baseball team. The Blue Jays tried to sign him.
Years later he and I carpooled to and from Hoboken as teachers living south the Driscoll Bridge. As we rumbled homeward along the decrepit Pulaski Skyway, wearied by the day’s inane frustrations he would deliver masterful tirades against local politicians, Governor Whitman, President Clinton, the U.N., the Dalai Lama, and several popes- all in iambic pentameter, concluding more often than not with, “And here we are of a sweltering Friday afternoon rocketing through this far flung galaxy on a scumbag planet called Earth.” Such was his misanthropy- well tempered with hyperbole and a wicked sense of humor.
My younger brother Dennis always had a pot belly so we called him Birdy after the Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts who had one too. When Dennis played for Hoboken’s Pop Warner championship Mighty Mites (a team coached by Jungle Jim Marnell), he garnered the nickname the Mole because of his willingness burrow into the dirt in order to undermine opposing linemen. Whilst an inept backstroker for St. Peter’s Prep swim team, I too acquired a nickname- because of an operation that never was. Diagnosed as suffering form appendicitis, I was shaved down under. However, the flare-up subsided, and I was released from hospital. Back in the locker room, though, my teammates noticed a scarcity of the dark curlies, and I became Fuzzy in the twinkling of an gimlet’s eye.
Just being a sports fan could result in a nickname. Tweety Capuano’s was entwined with his admiration for Larry Byrd. His brother Fred became Harry because a catcher himself Freddy esteemed a Met receiver named Harry Chiti.
Not surprisingly, many a poor soul was “Christened” because of some physical attribute as in Nicky No Neck, Ricky One Ball Bolsius, and Louie Lips Fortunato- long time bartender at Zampella’s, a notable pianist, and an excellent infielder for A.J. Demarest’s Red Wings. So, too, one’s temperament could be a catalyst for the distillation of a nickname. For instance, Hoboken’s Gloomy was a hard luck Hobokenite like unto Al Capp’s Joe Btfsplk in the comic strip “L’il Abner,” a perpetually jinxed character whom dark rain clouds constantly followed. Gloomy’s name was derived from a popular song by the Four Tops, “Seven Rooms of Gloom.” Legend has it that when Gloomy’s girlfriend broke up with him, he lay down in the middle of Willow Avenue and begged motorists to run him over and end it all.
Occasionally, a person’s actual name dictates what his nickname will be. As a kid, Dennis Weyouche became Pooch to his uptown buddies. William the Duke Earle (so dubbed with Gene Chandler’s tune “The Duke of Earl” in mind) once described Dennis, who was a tad older than the rest, as a “transition figure between drinking beer and Peter Pan.” Lodge # 74’s Freddy Yoyo (Yorio) was famous for his ‘mangulation of the English language. Traipsing through a Yuppie-laden Trivial Pursuit tournament held at the Elks, Freddy returned to his mates at the bar and reported he’d heard some egghead answering a question about the mating habits of seals as part of a game called “Sexual Prosciutt’.” Other Elks starred in the name game as well. By way of example, our own One Bite Taglieri could consume a meatball parm in just that; and Hollyboo, whose bi-mumble accent rendered the word Hollywood thus, joined a pantheon of celebrated Elks identified by a single word- as in the case of Midday, so called because his complexion was a shade lighter than his brother’s Midnight.
Politicians, too, produced an interesting array of nicknames; for instance, Jimmy Farina’s moniker- Buckwheat. Back in the day, Bee Bee (for ball buster) of the Parks Dept. was forever haranguing Mayor Vezzetti. Memorable, too, was Crazy Francis Blazes, he of the nicotine stained fingers and the Gobber Pyle whoopee cap, that doleful mascot of the Young Dems who put out the Little League bases for umpire Joe Palermo.
No list of Hoboken nicknames would be complete without Tommy Tears, better known as Thomas Hanley who at the age of 14 appeared in the film “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando- not to mention Filthy Phil who owned an Army/Navy store on Washington St. His gargantuan size made jitney buses genuflect metal step to the asphalt long before the invention of the kneeling bus. Powerhouse Arnold, a burly slow-witted fellow who worked for the Sanitation Dept., expressed an troubling, on-going, deep seated paranoia regarding the streetlights atop Hoboken’s telephone poles. For him there was something sinister about their omnipresence. Equally bizarre, Sharpy, a homoerotic tramp, used to wander about town miming unspeakable sexual acts in a manner so over-the-top as to evoke laughter rather than shock. And Daisy, an outlandish trannie, seems now to have been ahead of her time, a harbinger of things to come a generation or two later.
Not surprisingly, wily Hoboken High students contrived some of the sliest handles ever. Like Dorian Gray, one elderly history teacher appeared never to age. However, all of a sudden, overnight it seemed, he became wrinkled and wizenen; and, voila, Mummy Dust was the code name whispered in the stairwells and the corridors. But the origin of other intriguing nicknames will perhaps remain mysteries forever. Who now living knows why Pinky Gottlieb became Pinky or how Flukey O’Brien acquired his unusual sobriquet? Ah, but I can still see bartender Johnny Cadden sailing out of the lavatory at the Hoboken House after Flukey landed one of his murderous overhand rights on Cadden’s chin. Luck, Flukey’s name notwithstanding, had nothing to do with it. Still, because I’m a doo wop fan, my all time favorite nickname belongs to Nicky Caputo- aka Sh-Boom, a terpsichorean par excellence. Whenever he jitterbugged to this tune by the Chords at the Mount Carmel soirees, everyone stopped to form a circle whilst he and his girlfriend, as Yeats might have put it, “danced like a wave of the sea.”
My ex-wife, God bless her wicked soul, used to call the bar I loved a confederacy of dunces. At other times, the Principality of Yahoo. She likewise contended that I was twice blessed because, as the old adage goes, God takes care of drunks and fools. To give the devil her due, it was true that a normal person would be an odd duck in the OK Lounge- a bit like a rainbow trout into a school of mesopelagic viperfish, those toothy, bioluminescent denizens of unfathomable depths.
Take Titus Epps. Though 100% old school, he was by far the squirreliest inmate at the OK Lounge. That’s saying something as this gin mill was, as I indicated earlier, a magnet for twisted souls. A garrulous raconteur when sober, Titus was given to pronouncements of religious profundity when he was in his cups- which was often. One afternoon when a curvaceous trollop named Cindy scampered up onto a table and stripped to the Dells’ recording of “Nadine,” Aldo Vercelli -who fancied himself, amongst other things, a poet- chimed in with, “Oh, lithesome lass, wouldst that I could sink my teeth into your gladsome ass.” But Titus reminded the goggle-eyed throng that “seeking the kingdom of God was serious business with precious little room for deviant frivolity and triflers.” His bushy moustache and his penetrating stare gave him the appearance of a latter-day John the Baptist. The nonplussed ecdysiast siren continued to wriggle, but Titus’s righteous interjection put a damper on the wanton spontaneity of Cindy’s pelvic thrusts.
To most he seemed downright spooky- a presence best left unjostled. Occasionally, though, some intrepid wag would expose the comical aspects to his swivets. For example, Titus was inordinately fond of doo wop music, a generous selection of which dominated the jukebox; so, just to counter yet another tirade against hussies and harlots after Cindy’s performance, Aldo Vercelli played the Belmonts’ “Runaround Sue,” calling out as he did so, “Hey, Tight Ass (for such was an alias patrons used for Titus, usually in his absence), this one’s for you!” Aldo then poked his tongue in and out of his cheek in a salacious manner as though a phallus were being shoved into his maw; and at the propitious moment, he warbled forth an altered line from the tune, “… she goes down for other guys.”
Apoplectically Titus bellowed, “You degenerate ‘guinnie scumbag, I hope you spend eternity howling imprecations from a septic tank.” Smirking, Aldo told him to go f***uck himself; and Titus responded, “If I could, I’d never leave the house,” a riposte that resulted in guffaws and applause, even from Aldo.
Selecting appropriate music as a backdrop for the asininities that occurred at the OK Lounge was a specialty of Aldo’s. Whenever Casimir Doodles (nicknamed Cheese) came in to cash his welfare check, Aldo would play the Silhouettes “Get a Job.” Casimir had a sense of humor, countering jibes about his unusual name with, “Just call me Quasimodo ‘cause you’re my dingaling.” A playful devil, he’d often tell Aldo to play something by Elephants Fitzgerald instead. Nonetheless, Mr. Gilday, the tavern’s elderly sage, averred that Aldo was possessed of a fine, iridescent streak of malice- one exquisitely suited to the times.
Oddly enough it was Aldo who introduced Teofilo Ortega, one of the few exceptions to the overall lunacy of the place, to the crazies at the OK Lounge- in part because Teo lived right next door to him on Garden St. Teo, Aldo, and I played for the Hoboken High Redwings football team. Teo was a soft spoken a guy, but steely and unrelenting if crossed. His father had escaped Castro Cuba’s, and Teo inherited his store front factory for rolling cigars in Union City. Teo was a straight arrow family man with a daughter Vinita whom he tampered shamelessly. He lived right next door to Aldo on Garden St. Teo’s wife, Heidiricia (a makeshift name combining Heidi and Patricia) was Puerto Rican, which didn’t endear her to Teo’s parents; but she was very attractive- a mercurial woman in whom passions ran deep. She worked at a beauty parlor for dogs and cats on Washington Street.
Where the trouble between Teo and Heidi began I can’t imagine. Offhand you’d say it had to be something tragic or profound. Truth be told, it could have just as easily been something trivial or absurd. But we’ll probably never really know.
Teo and Heidi tried to start the family car which they kept in a small garage on 9th St. between Willow and Park. No go. Only a month ago, Heidi had left an interior light on, which drained the battery. That involved pushing the aging Buick out onto a narrow street and jump starting the car via another vehicle, which, of course, blocked traffic and caused considerable agita. Now he had to do it again. As the lumbering sedan rolled backwards, Teo cried, “Jesus, shut that door before ‘ya screw that up, too.” As it turned out, the battery had simply died on its own with no one at fault.
Hours later home after their chores, she dissolved in tears, her entire body aquiver with rage and shame- “You’d never speak to any of your friends or family like you did to me. When we first met it was all sweet talk ‘n charm. Now I’m dirt under your foot- a lowly handmaiden to Lord and master. But we’ll see about that.” Teo was shocked by the intensity of her wrath and fell silent, bowing his head because he knew he was wrong- or, at the very least, unwise. He slunk away ostensibly to check on the store.
A swirl of emotions, all of them negative, took hold of Heidi’s imagination. Stranger still, fed by snippets of catechism recalled from her days as a child with the nuns, she somehow convinced herself that Teo would enter the gates of Heaven but she would not. Irrationally, too, she recalled a domineering drake amongst the ducks she raised as a child in rural Puerto Rico- a nasty, curly tailed male named Buttons that pretended to be chasing her when her back was turned for the benefit of his harem. Airing her quiff, Heidi sat naked before a full length mirror, lit up a Tiparillo, and smiled. After exhaling a puff or two, she murmured, ”I’m not taking this lying down. On second thought, maybe I will. We’ll see who’s the big man then.” She bristled with anger and her coat was glossy and her eyes shone much brighter than any of the pets she groomed.
This much we do know, however. Late one August afternoon so sweltering the air conditioner over the lintel at the OK Lounge leaked out onto the sidewalk like a wounded robot, Teo and I were knocking back a few cervezas when two guys who worked for old man Trifficante, the Italian roofer, swaggered in during the Mets game on TV- one of them Dieter Tor, a good looking petty thief who did all kinds of jobs when he wasn’t in the hoosegow. They soon got to bragging about their sex lives, and Dieter crowed that only last Friday he’d banged a “Rican broad” he met at the Latin Lounge in lower Jersey City.” Someone -quite by accident, for Aldo was at home- played the Corsairs “Meeting in Smoky Places.” Bold-faced, Tor continued, “She told her jerkoff husband she was going to Bingo. She got that right. Had a cute little tattoo on her ass, too- a mermaid and the words, ‘Todo lo vence el amor.’ Whatever the f***that means.”
Teo saw red and, after shoving Dieter’s face into his own beer, fled the tavern with a twenty still on the bar. Couldn’t have been anyone else with that tattoo. I’d seen it peeking out from Heidi’s bikini on a Belmar beach back in our high schools days of suds and surf. Desperate to catch Teo, I slipped on the puddle outside the bar and jostled Mr. Trafficante, a burly curmudgeon who often stopped at the OK on his way home. Outraged, he shouted, “You scifosa ‘Merigan, a fongula la sutt!” and flung a nearby garbage cover at me like Oddjob hurling his razor sharp derby at James Bond. Further down the street, Mrs. Van Everdingen’s bulldog Xerxes escaped her clutches and tore a huge hunk of my gabardines from my calf before I was able to extricate myself from his slobbering jams. Loping along wildly, I then dashed out into traffic on Garden Street, and a Hindu on a Honda motorcycle took a dive trying not to knock me into kingdom come- his curses echoing, I’m sure, in nirvana. Suddenly the entire chase seemed a comedy of errors.
However, what I saw when I turned the corner was anything but funny. A blinding sun shone overhead, cutting the hard edges of the street sharper still; and Teofilo sat on the stoop his hands covered in blood. Beside him lay a cell phone. Approaching sirens screamed, and across the street Teo’s daughter Vinita slung a book bag over her shoulder on the way home from school. Teo looked up at me whispering, almost tenderly, “I slit Heidi’s throat with a linoleum knife. Now I can go straight to hell.” With my hand on Teo’s shoulder, I counseled, “Would that it were that easy, Amigo”; and the Clovers’ “Devil or Angel,” wafted forth from Aldo’s open window next door.