I opened The New York Post the other day and read about a guy whom I went to David A. Boody Junior High School with 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 may be going “away” (as they used to describe jail in the old days) for the rest of his life. I was intrigued that the newspaper called him by his 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 nos…I mean to his face.
I’m fascinated by nicknames. Are nicknames an Italian/Jewish thing of the past? Were they used to avoid confusion?
My uncle married into a family that had at least 15 kids in it named Vito. Naturally, every Vito had a nickname to distinguish him from all the other Vitos.
My first wife had an aunt and a cousin both nicknamed “Tootsie.” Even that wasn’t simple, because to avoid confusion, the nicknames came with descriptions: There was “Big Tootsie” and “Little Tootsie.” What was confusing to me was “Big Tootsie” was a little woman. And “Little Tootsie” was a giant who must have outweighed “Big Tootsie” by 100 pounds. The explanation I got was that it went by age and “Big Tootsie,” the little woman, was the aunt, and was older than “Little Tootsie,” the niece.
A few years ago I ran into an old friend from Brooklyn. I hadn’t seen him since I was 16. “Yo, ‘Hooks,’” he said. “It’s me, ‘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 pistol pockets 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 ‘Blackie’ and ‘Baldy.’ I looked for ‘Hoppy’ but he wasn’t around. Ya know ‘Joey Beans’ 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 “Joey Beans”—a fresh-faced 16-year-old who couldn’t wait to join the Marines—playing softball at the PS 95 schoolyard. 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 into my memory the handsome young boy 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, many of whom went “away”—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 memories for names? 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 race track he would always bet on the long shot or the “underdog.” My friend 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.
If you wish to comment on “Jerry’s Ink,” send your message to firstname.lastname@example.org.