One of the greatest aspects of living in Brooklyn is that you get to meet a lot of native New Yorkers. People for whom the City and all its noise, grime, frustration, danger, shabbiness, competition, union labor, cooperation, inventiveness, history, excitement, entertainment, and four complete seasons are just regular stuff that has been absorbed into their psyches to create their intriguing perspective. Rich or poverty-stricken, educated or illiterate, old, young, and any ethnicity - no matter what – I find native New Yorkers to be interesting because they exude the City.
I met Jimmy the Fish - not his real name, but similar – one day on the boardwalk in Coney Island. He was bald, muscular, Sicilian, and had a thick Brooklyn accent. Jimmy was born, raised, and still resided in Bensonhurst which was mainly an Italian neighborhood in South Brooklyn, although transitioning, as it was being populated by Chinese and Russian immigrants.
Jimmy the Fish explained his 3-word name, telling me that when he was in high school, he and his friends aspired to get connected to a certain Italian-run organization. Their dads weren’t capos or soldiers, so to get attention from the members of that organization, they created a nicknames for themselves. Eddy the Fixer, Johnny Bats (not the animal, the weapon), Bobby the Shadow. I’m not sure how connected Jimmy ever became. He didn’t wear a fedora or carry a violin case, but he told me that he made his income by loaning money a few weeks at a time and lived off the vig.
He shared a duplex with his mother which was not unusual for a native New Yorker, especially Italian, who was divorced. Jimmy actually had lived in the same duplex when he was married. Many people in Brooklyn married and lived in the same neighborhood or multi-family home with their parents. Family ties were tight even if they fought all the time.
I asked Jimmy if he would show me Bensonhurst and he agreed to do it.
On our first adventure, he took me to the Santa Rosalia Festival, an annual week-long festival that ends on Labor Day. This is a celebration of Saint Rosalia who, for the love of God, went to live in a cave in Sicily and died there. During a time of plague, she appeared to a man in a vision and told him to fetch her bones from the cave, which he did. He carried her bones around the town twice and the plague was cured and she was made a saint dear to the hearts of Sicilians.
This festival, now dying out on account of parking and other problems, was a bit of a disappointment. Mainly it was just about food – sausage and pepper sandwiches, funnel cakes – things you could pretty much get any time of the week at an Italian deli or donut shop. I think there might have been ring toss and that game where you try to ring a bell by slamming a hammer on a circle. But there were no men carrying a 2,000-pound statue down the street like they do for the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg that I wrote about earlier on the blog. There were no stalls where I could buy bootleg mixes of old-time Italian crooners singing love ballads. Jimmy and I didn’t stay long there because it was a hot, muggy August night, but long enough for Jimmy to ogle the teenage girls and tell me that he longed to be younger.
Next time, we went out to a diner. I ate dinner. He didn’t order anything for himself. .Jimmy told me this was a gathering spot, a hang out for him and his friends when he was in high school. I’d heard about King’s Highway in Flatbush as a place where kids used to walk up and down on weekend nights. I asked him if he ever went over there. He said, “That wasn’t my neighborhood.” Like it was a foreign country or something.
That night, he taught me the Italian slang word. goumada which is what an Italian married man calls his girlfriend. I’ve since looked it up. Goumada derives from mumbling the Italian word comare which literally translates as godmother. I guess it’s a joke, as in, “I’m going to see my godmother.” I hope it’s a joke.
After the diner, we toured Bensonhurst in his car, driving past New Utrecht High School which he attended and which was the high school shown at the beginning of the Welcome Back Kotter series that brought John Travolta fame. You can look at yearbooks of the high school online as far back as 1929 when Dr. Harry Potter was principal – maybe you'll see a
picture of Jimmy:
You can buy a yearbook, too.
After seeing the school, we drove under the elevated D-train tracks that run along New Utrecht Avenue. He told me this was where they filmed the chase scene in The French Connection. We turned onto 86th Avenue where there were a lot of small specialty stores selling cheese, meat, and other foods designating an Italian neighborhood. These stores are being replaced by chain stores that I won’t name.
Bensonhurst is not a high-rise kind of place. Commercial buildings are generally no more than 3 or 4 stories tall. There are plenty of residential streets with nothing but 2-story red brick duplexes or 2-story limestone row houses with the bay windows, or streets hosting detached houses with wood or aluminum siding – again 2 stories high. Almost feeling suburban.
Reciprocally, a week later, I invited Jimmy to lunch at my apartment and made us a pot of tea. I told him I pretty much only drank hot tea and water and asked if he wanted ice. He did.
When we went out for dinner one last time, when he arrived, Jimmy presented me with a crate of boxed teas. All sorts of tea. I asked him where it came from. He laughed and said, “It fell off a truck.” Who am I to judge God’s plan? I accepted it.
We went to dinner at a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, a nice little neighborhood of curvy streets and quaint little stores on the waterfront where you can pay boats to take you deep-sea fishing. Again, Jimmy didn’t order anything for himself. It’s not all that comfortable to eat with someone who isn’t joining you, but then, he was so busy looking at the pretty women who walked by.
I didn't see him again after that night and I hope Jimmy has found a nice Italian girlfriend over 18. (PS Jimmy had just turned 40)
Post by Alana Cash
Post by Alana Cash