Once upon a time, in a very big city not very far away, there lived a fairly nice boy named Freddy. Freddy was his nickname! Do you know what a nickname is, Boys and Girls…um…and others who haven’t made up their minds yet? A nickname is something that your parents call you because they love you and you are special to them, and because they named you something kind of different on the day you were born in the hospital, when the doctors and nurses were standing around waiting for them to think of something that could be written down quickly while your Mommy screamed very loudly and said bad words to your Daddy… and maybe threw things at him. You know sometimes doctors and nurses get cross and very impatient too because the rooms are filled with screaming Mommies throwing things at sweating Daddies, and they stamp their feet and yell, “Call him something DAMMIT”, and then your Daddy may say anything that comes to mind, and the funniest names are written down! IN INK!… so they can’t be erased, and kids grow up being all sorts of strange sounding things. Things like Ezekiel Florbert Nuggins, Cloroxina Jabumba Jefferson, Thyresis Van Clumpp, and Ferdinand Jesus Maria-Theresa Miguellito de Campasonos-Tacqueriasado… which was Freddy’s real name, but his parents hated the nickname “Ferdy” so they called him Freddy instead.
One time, Freddy’s Daddy said that Ferdy rhymed with other words which weren’t very nice, and that no kid of his was going to be called “those bad words”! Freddy thought and thought and finally asked if his Daddy meant “purdy”, and his dad choked on his beer and pretzels and sent him to bed.
One day, Freddy was outside on the corner of Rivington and Orchard Streets. That was his neighborhood, and lots of people from all different parts of the world lived around that area. Not necessarily in the same building or even on the same street, but close enough for them to know each other and to be polite and friendly if it wasn’t too hot and the fire hydrants had been opened. One thing they all had in common was that their names all sounded funny to each other if not to themselves, but most folks chuckled at the sound of their names, their parents’ and grandparents’ names, the towns they all came from far away, and to the strange and sometimes lovely sounds of the languages that they were quickly forgetting.
It was a Wednesday…or maybe a Thursday that Freddy took the 78 cents he made sweeping out Meyer Shlefkitz’s Grocery store and went to Giancarlo Fabricci’s Hot Dog cart to buy a snack. GC (as the kids all called him) had the very best hot dogs anyone had ever tasted. They were “kosher” which meant that they were only beef… (or at least NOT pork) and that the animals they were made from had been killed in a very special and kind way by someone who said prayers or poems and then washed everything carefully afterwards… and maybe their hands. That’s was Xina Jefferson told Freddy that she had heard from Zekie Nuggins who heard it from Ty Van Clumpp who heard it from Officer Aloisius Macgruder while he was patrolling Delancy Street. Officer Macgruder was a big friendly policeman who all the neighborhood kids looked up to, and who saved the two little Portuguese twins on the next block from a fire that started in their kerosene heater last Winter. He was given a real medal by the Mayor because he had climbed up a fire escape that was falling off the building, and got to the window on the top floor just in time. When Freddy and his friends heard the sirens, they ran and watched, and Freddy was filled with both terror at the inferno and a strange pride in his pal Officer Macgruder when he finally came down to the sidewalk, covered with soot and sweat and carrying the smiling little babies who seemed perfectly happy with their exciting adventure.
Anyway it was a Wednesday… or maybe a Thursday when Freddy took his 78 cents to GC’s hot dog cart, which stood that day over by the big tanks near the river. He had just finished his first hot dog with the extra spicy mustard that GC made himself from an old recipe his grandmother had gotten from a place called Calabria, and he was thinking about getting a second one when the tall boy with the golden hair sauntered up and pulled out a whole dollar to buy two of GC’s hot dogs; two at once! Freddy had seen the tall kid before with his freckles scattered over a handsome nose and cheeks under the eyes that were exactly the color of his mother’s good china; the dishes they use only for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and funerals. The blue shown, both in the dishes and in this boys eyes, especially when he smiled, which was often, and which he did as he walked up to the cart seeing Freddy. They always nodded to each other whenever they saw each other at the empty lots for dusty baseball games or on the street during the big stickball tournaments. They’d never exchanged names, but there was something between them, if only in a smile and a nod… and a shy look backward as they parted. And although Freddy couldn’t say that he thought about the golden kid everyday, he did think about him for hours after every time he did see him. It was this particular day though, a Wednesday or a Thursday, when Freddy decided to walk right up to him and introduce himself. “Hi! I’m Freddy Jesus Mari----“ and stopped himself. “Just Freddy!” he hurried to amend, and held out his hand to shake, but the golden boy already had his two hot dogs in each hand. He looked straight into Freddy’s nearly black and shining eyes and chuckled. A deep throaty, husky chuckle that was as warm and sweet as the maple syrup Freddy loved to pour on hot Sunday pancakes. “I got one for you!” said Golden Boy. “I hope you like mustard.”
Freddy looked down at the right hand reaching toward him with perhaps the loveliest gift he had ever gotten… and the gift that he would never forget and that would change his life forever. He must have been suspended in time, if only for a moment, just looking and savoring that sight; a freckled hand, a little dusty from stickball, holding out one of GC’s brilliant hot dogs in its toasty bun, shimmering with mustard the color of the Summer sun. “I’ll get you one without if you don’t.”, said Golden Boy, and Freddy caught himself and met the blue eyes quickly. “No! No!... I mean YES! I DO love mustard! Yes, thank you!” and he felt his dark eyes prick a little with something deep and true. Golden Boy asked if he was sure, and Freddy in a quiet voice, so quiet that not even GC heard said “Oh, I’m sure”. And then Golden Boy did something Freddy had only seen in movies; he “clinked” his hot dog to Freddy’s as if they were glasses of champagne and chuckled “L’Chaim!”. Freddy blinked, then smiled, then laughed… right out loud! Laughed right out loud and shouted “Salud!”. At which Golden Boy and GC both roared. And then, as if they had known each other for years, as if it had been planned forever, Freddy and his Golden Boy began strolling down the street on that Summer afternoon.
Golden Boy’s name turned out to be Mickey… it said so on his shoe shine box; 10 cents a shine! And Mickey was short for Mikael Nahman Shlefkitz, yes, the same Shlefkitz that owned the grocery store; Meyer was Mickey’s uncle. So there they were, two smiling boys moving down Rivington Street, surrounded by the sounds of a bustling city on a weekday afternoon. Maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday, but definitely not the weekend yet... the first weekend they would spend together, playing catch and stickball and watching the great river moving by at sunset with its huge boats going off to see the world.
They passed Officer Macgruder who smiled and nodded, and when they passed, he looked after them and smiled again. They passed Xina, Zekie, and Ty, and Freddy introduced Mickey to them, a bit proudly, and Mickey shook their hands vigorously saying it was great to meet them. And then they were heading to their homes for dinners that neither of them had much room for, but when their moms would ask why, it wouldn’t be because they secretly had eaten hot dogs. It would be for something else. Something new. And from then on, Freddy called his new friend Mickey, not by his nickname, but by the name "Golden Boy", whenever they were alone. Golden Boy... his own special nickname that only he and Mickey knew.
And over on Mott Street, little Giselle Pompanano decided it was time to give Adele Wasserstrom a hug. The first of many that they would share for the next 57 years…
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(photos courtesy of Jon Blake)