The Courage It Takes to Make People Laugh!
My words are an inexact science (like I really needed to tell you that) and much of what I have to say is being brought forth free of any remotely humble display; an exposition, or if you will, an exposé of this guy’s years of gathering, things, feelings, and perhaps people as well.
Whatever the reason for being quick on the draw, somewhere along each individual’s journey comes a time when quizzicality falls by the way side. In other words, who gives a s-—t? (Charming use of verbiage, don’t you think? Can’t help it, I’ve been influenced by Stephen King.)
A century ago, as a little boy (it seems that long ago) attending P.S. 64 – not the least bit private of schools in Brownsville Brooklyn, New York – I abruptly discovered the process of labeling or being labeled. If you made the kids laugh you, of course, had to be the class clown.
In the beginning I was far too young to care. A person living in our neighborhood who managed to find things to laugh about, in my opinion, was being fueled for success. At age seven, I exited P.S. 64 and entered P.S. 233 – the big time. We’re talking about East Flatbush, home of the then “Brooklyn Dodgers.” The neighborhood was segregated by choice of the residents. To the best of my knowledge, the term “politically correct” had not yet been invented.
We all visited everyone else’s neighborhood for the best cooking the world had to offer. The difference between Brownsville and Flatbush at the time was pronounced, though both communities were in the borough of Brooklyn. Flatbush was genteel by comparison to Brownsville. There weren’t as many guns available to the public as there are today, yet people were still able to murder one another. Murder wasn’t a laughing matter. But after the fact, we kids were able to laugh at its cause.
“That bum should have paid up. He got what was coming to him. He was a squealer.”
The language of the street was easy to come by. We all spoke it fluently. Usually talk was cheap, but there were times when mouthing off could be the most expensive event of a lifetime. The old cliché, “kids will be kids” didn’t apply to the entire populous.
There was a neighborhood ice cream parlor named “Mike and Harvey’s.” I never made it into the place without being escorted by my Father or one of my friend’s Dads. At this wondrous time of life, I was eight years of age. My Father had warned me to keep my well-cultivated sense of humor to myself. You see, “Mike and Harvey’s” was a hangout for the Jewish Mafia — aka “Murder Incorporated.” The year was 1941.
You had to watch out when entering “Mike and Harvey’s.” Any number of big time mobsters might be sitting at the fountain having their favorite ice cream soda – a “Black and White” (quite primitive by today’s standards: seltzer, chocolate fox’s U-Bet Syrup, and a big scoop of vanilla ice cream). The “Black and White” became the drink of the day. As kids, we wanted to emulate the big shots so we’d all take turns ordering the same.
On one of these marvelous spring afternoons, a group of us somehow found ourselves in “Mike and Harvey’s” unescorted by my Dad or any other adult. There, sitting at the counter minding his own business, was one of the more notorious figures of the day – Abe Reles – a kingpin to say the least. There was also his entourage of five men at various locations around the ice cream parlor. Abe never traveled without visible protection. Quite a contrast when you stop to think about it, gangsters and eight year old little boys. The fact is, children don’t become frightened when they don’t have anything to be frightened of. Abe and his boys may have had a dastardly record of violence and mayhem, but around the neighborhood children, it didn’t apply. Besides, it was a different era. I doubt if anyone today would allow his or her children to wonder too far from the homestead. We had our bicycles and so, each and every morning, we were off to the races free of fear.
One of Abe’s guys was fumbling as he attempted to get the perfect knot in his tie. One of my buddies jumped in with, “Harvey can help you!”
The Guy looked right at me and said, “You think so?” He pulled the tie from around his neck and handed it to me.
In a matter of seconds, I had tied a perfect Windsor knot and handed it back for him to place around his neck. My friends and I began to laugh.
The Guy turned to me and asked, “You think that’s funny?”
I shook my head in the affirmative. With this response he and his friends joined in laughing. I remember it well…
“It takes courage to laugh,” he said.
That evening after my Father had returned home from work, I told him about my eventful day. He grew very quiet, unusual for him when he was talking to me. By the end, the color had drained from his face.
“I don’t want you to ever go to ‘Mike and Harvey’s’ by yourself ever again,” he advised sternly.
I had seen that look on my Father’s face many times in the past. My travels never took me in that direction again. A year or so later, the newspapers carried the story of how Abe Reles was thrown from a Coney Island hotel window while the police stood guard outside his door.
Then, another strange coincidence – it turned out Abe’s son Buddy was a schoolmate of mine at P.S. 233. I never even knew he was the son of the head mobster who had been frequenting “Mike and Harvey’s” ice cream parlor. Buddy and I never met. I believe he was a year ahead of me at school. What I do remember were the bodyguards who accompanied him to and from school every day. If the apple was truly not to fall far from the tree, it never prevailed at P.S. 233.
As far as I know, Buddy was a well-behaved kid.
NOTE: Nobody was ever able to pin much on Abe Reles. Fat, pomaded, and bejeweled little Abe ran the loan shark rackets in Brownsville and East Brooklyn, New York and he’d been crippling people for years. Everybody knew this. He led a charmed life – you’d pinch him and he’d just laugh at you and, sure enough, he’d walk out of court for lack of evidence.
“Some detective will put a bullet in you,” a livid judge promised him once.
“I’ll take my chances with any cop,” Abe sneered back.
By the end of the 1930s, Abe had been arrested 42 times but was still running Brownsville and East New York.
But what of the courage to laugh?
Is it better to go through life daring people to stimulate your laughter, or to envy those who freely guffaw with the best of them? The gangster thought I displayed courage by not being afraid to laugh. Truth be told, I can’t recall my emotions as a boy of eight. What I remember was the environment of my home and neighborhood.
Our jobs as kids was to get up early each and every day and then go out and play until we fell. We appeared to the entire world as a group of young people without a middle gear. Everything was full scale and all out, including having a good time. We all laughed and we all compared notes. What did your Dad say? What did your Mom think? I bet that really frosted your brother and sister when they found out! All were notes on our daily scorecard.
It wasn’t as if we were writing things down, there just seemed to be a real interest we all had in one another. These were not brothers and sisters, although under the skin there may have been a similar bloodline. I wish I could look back at our school and the way we greeted each day and each other. My quest is far more than simple curiosity. There is a moment lost in time that had been critical (without any of us being aware.)
We were about to understand the courage it sometimes takes to laugh and how our laughter stimulates the joy in others. Perhaps there is more meaning than bargained for in my search.
Making others laugh – the challenge of the ages (whether looking back or forward in anticipation of the unknown) – will always be the joy and challenge accepted by some and feared by most. Making people laugh isn’t always just for adults and is always stimulated by the eight year old in us.
|Little da Harv is seen here with P.S. 233’s 6th grade class. He is in the top row, far left.
There were 60 eight year olds in our P.S. 233’s 6th grade class. The tipping point was upon us. We all became nine years old in conjunction with Pearl Harbor. Gray skies dampened the spirits. Somehow, our daily rituals were never the same again.
It did then, and still does, require courage to make people laugh.