Saturday, October 17, 2009

BET ON CRAZY - TOUGH GUY by Peter Nolan Smith

Brownsville is a tough section of Brooklyn. Actually tougher than tough. Its unofficial motto - "Brownsville! Never ran, never will!" guaranteed Kings County Hospital the title of the most gunshot victims admitted to its E.R. The US Army even set up a training program called the Academy of Advanced Combat Medicine to take advantage of the hundreds of gunshot and stabbing victims from neighborhood. Surviving the gauntlet of youth steeled Mike Tyson for his reign as the heavyweight champion of the world and molded my boss on 47th Street, Manny, for the old diamond dealer also hails from Brownsville.

"Brownsville was always tough," the 80 year-old jeweler explained to everyone who has to listen. "I fought with Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Blacks, but in some ways we all got along. Everyone knew who they were. One day this big black kid decides to fight with me. He didn't give a reason. Maybe he didn't like pastrami. He called me out and after school I met him in the playground. He had thirty friends with him. I wasn't too scared, because a fight with a schwartzer was usually fists. Only the wops and spics carried knives. 31 schwartzers versus me. So I tell the guy, "Listen you want to fight me then we fight, but if any of your friends touch me, then tomorrow they'll be a 100 guys out here looking to square things with you." The guy, his name was Horace, looks at me and says, "Fuck it." That's how things were back then. No guns. No one dead. The next day Horace and I were friends."

Black boy and Jew boy friends in the 1940s. A beautiful movie, except high crime, absentee landlords, redlining, and arson sunk Brownsville to new depths.

Jimmy Breslin wrote about the neighborhood in 1968. "Berlin after the war; block after block of burned-out shells of houses, streets littered with decaying automobile hulks. The stores on the avenues are empty and the streets are lined with deserted apartment houses or buildings that have empty apartments on every floor."

Manny left Brownsville well before this decay, but Brownsville remained in his blood. After working as a schlepper for several years, he met the most beautiful girl on the Bowery and they opened a jewelry store on Canal Street. Manny was true to his roots. He didn't take shit from anyone. Not the mob from Little Italy. Not the other jewelers who looked down their noses at the young upstart or his wife's family who couldn't see what she did in the undersized starker, as the old folks call a tough guy in Yiddish. He wasn't beholding to none of them.

Street fights were not acceptable, but Manny would protect his own.

Even after he moved uptown with his sons, Richie Boy and Googs.

"He comes from the Bowery." The older family firms would say to explain his rough ways.

"I come from Brownsville." Manny was proud of his heritage and even prouder to exhibit the street prowess a boy needed in that neighborhood.

Diamonds are traded on memo. One jeweler loans merchandise to another jeweler on the promise that in 90 days they return the goods or the money. Honesty is a crucial element in these transactions, however not all jewelers are honest, so the odds are high that sooner or later you'll get burned.

Manny depended on his tough guy reputation to avert any thefts.

Unfortunately Manny was getting old.

Young guys aren't scared of old guys and this one jeweler burned Manny for a $20,000 diamond. This was before the age of cellphones. No one knew where the thief had gone. Manny had to make good the loss. He never thought that he would see the thief again. Life went on. Manny took his second wife to dinner after playing tennis.

A midtown restaurant. Not too expensive, because besides being a tough guy, Manny was a little cheap. This vice was another legacy of a Brownsville upbringing. His second wife didn't mind, for she used to dine with the infamous Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. Luciano's 'Little Man' would split a dish with her. She always told Manny that he was no Meyer Lansky.

"He was a runt." Manny wasn't too tall either, but his height broke 5-8. A good half-foot taller than Meyer Lansky.

Size isn't the only determining factor for toughness. Mike Tyson was only 5-10. He KOed taller, stronger men with regularity in the early years. Iron Mike hit Leon spinks so hard the then-champion's eyes rolled in his head like dice. Most of it was being ready to be tough and Manny was more than ready, when he saw the thief of his diamond at the bar.

He took out his tennis racket and whacked the gonif in the head. The thief was 30, taller, and once remarked that Manny could go fuck himself if he thought he was going to get back his diamond. Manny made him pay for this disrespect with another couple of whacks to the ribs. His wife pulled off the 60 year-old and the police arrested the two of them.

After hearing Manny's story, they freed him and searched the gonif's apartment. The diamond was in a steel box. The cops kept it as evidence. Manny cursed them for 6 months.

"I'd rather have the stone back then see that piece of shit in jail."

Manny's balance of justice had been met with the beating. It was the Brownsville way of life. Manny got his diamond in the end. He doesn't admit to hitting the gonif now, but he's still a tough guy at 80. Mean too, because something about those Brownsville street true a tough guy mean and Manny was no exception. A old mean tough guy.

We fought all day long over sales. he stiffed me on a commission. I called him a cheat. He was a piece of shit to me and I was a piece of shit to him.

The other day a hard-nosed Hassidim was late delivering a diamond. My customer didn't want to wait. I lost the sale. $200 out of my pocket. $2000 from Manny. Fish was a big guy. 6-4. It wasn't the first time that he had been slow to give me a stone, so I phoned Fish and said, "I might not wear a yamulke but I do make sales."

"I don't need to take this shit from you."

"That's apparent from the way you treat me, sie gesund."

Ten minutes later he was at the exchange, itching for a fight.

"I should hit you."

"Hit me once if you want." I was a tough guy too back in the 70s, 80s, and some of the 90s. I've been a tough guy in the 21st Century too, but with decreasing success. "But if you try a second time then I'll take out your teeth."

"Slow down." Manny came to the counter. "Fish, we're here trying to make money. If you say you're going to give us a stone, give us a stone. Don't make so much drama about the goy saying something about your beanie."

Manny hasn't been to temple in since his father Jake passed away in the 50s. Fish is an observant Hassid. He eyed the both of us and shrugged off the moment. We sold his stone to someone else later that afternoon. Manny complained about the profit I got from the customer. He was still a tough guy. A piece of shit too, but a tough guy from Brownsville wouldn't have it any other way.

"Brownsville! Never ran, never will!"

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