Brownsville is a tough section of Brooklyn. The one-mile square neighborhood is 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 a E.R in the USA. The US Army even set up a training program called the Academy of Advanced Combat Medicine to take advantage of the area’s hundreds of gunshot and stabbing victims. 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 hailed 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 boys and Jew boys were cautious friends in the 1940s. This urban myth lasted into the 50s, but white people fled Brownsville for the Long Island suburbs in the 60s. The Civil Rights Act had been passed to insure the progress of blacks, but Brownsville became a ghetto with the influx of cheap heroin, gun shots in the night, and a roll-back by the police, as the absentee landlords torched their tenements.
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 before this decay, but Brownsville remained in his blood.
He worked as a schlepper for several years in the Bowery diamond district. There the young man met the most beautiful girl in Brooklyn. Everyone said that Hilda looked like Elizabeth Taylor. They weren’t lying about the comparison, except Manny’s wife had sapphire blue eyes. The two opened a jewelry store on Canal Street.
Manny remained 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. Shotguns lay under the counter. His revolver was in the safe. He never had to fire either. Manny was friends with the wise guys on Mulberry Street. He was their kind of Jew.
Even after he moved uptown to 47th Street with his sons, Richie Boy and Googs. His heart was still downtown and talked that way to customers, dealers, and his help.
“He comes from the Bowery.” The older family firms would criticize his gruff ways.
“Not for the Bowery, 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 within 90 days they return with 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 by greed.
Manny depended on his tough guy reputation to avert any thefts.
Unfortunately Manny was getting up in age. He was a young 70 in 1999.
Young guys aren’t scared of old guys and one jeweler burned Manny for a $20,000 diamond. This was before the age of cellphones. The dealer had gone to ground. Manny had to make good the loss and never thought that he would see the thief again.
Life went on.
Money came and went from one hand to the other without sticking in anyone's pocket for too long.
One night Manny took his second wife to dinner at a midtown restaurant after playing tennis.
The midtown restaurant wasn’t 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 the stinginess, for she used to dine with the infamous Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky and 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, for another Brownsville native, Mike Tyson, was only 5-10. He KOed taller, stronger men with regularity in the early years. Iron Mike hit Leon Spinks so hard that the then-champion’s eyes rolled in his head like dice.
Most of being tough was being ready to be tough and Manny was more than ready, when he spotted the diamond thief at the restaurant bar.
“Excuse me a second,” he told his second wife and rose from the table.
The sixty year-old took out his tennis racket and strode across the dining room. The thief was 30, taller, and once remarked to another dealer that Manny could go fuck himself if he thought he was going to get back his diamond.
“Hey, you.” Manny called out to the younger man.
“Nice tennis outfit.” The thief thought he was safe at the bar.
He misjudged the older man.Safe was home in bed.Manny whacked the gonif in the head with the racket and made him pay for this disrespect with another couple of whacks to the ribs. His wife pulled Manny off the fallen man. Two off-duty cops were glomming drinks at the bar. They were going to arrest the two of them, but Manny was a better talker.
His brother had been a cop in the 20th. Seymour was from Brownsville too.
The thief made up a story with hems and haws.
The cops freed Manny and threw the thief in jail. A search of the gonif’s apartment turned up a steel box. Manny’s diamond was still in its envelope. The cops kept it as evidence. Manny cursed them for 6 months.
“I’d rather have the stone back than 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, but he’s still a tough guy at 80. Mean too, because something about those Brownsville street turned a tough guy mean and Manny was no exception.
He was an old mean tough guy.
We fought all day long over sales. He stiffed me on commissions. I called him a cheat. He was a piece of shit to me and I was a piece of shit to him.
One 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 yarmulke but I do make sales.”“I don’t need this schiesse from you.” Fish didn't say 'goy'. He didn't have to say that word to let me know he didn't like dealing with gentiles. The diamond maven was a big person on the street. His firm sold diamonds to Tiffany and Harry Winston. A gross macher.
“That’s apparent from the way you treat me, sie gesund.” I was not a goy, but a sheygutz.
Ten minutes later he was at the exchange, itching for a fight. Fish unbutton his black rekel undercoat and Prince Albert frock coat. They were both a size XXXL
“I should hit you.” His fists were clenched in rage. He had a reputation for the first punch.
“Hit me once if you want.” I hated fighting fat guys, but 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. I maintained my stance, which was a few inches out of fish’s reach. “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.”
“Beanie?” Fish sputtered with outrage and his left hand grabbed his yarmulke, as if he was trying to distract me.
“Yarmulke. Beanie. It’s all the same to me.” Manny hasn’t been to temple in since his father Jake passed away at the age of 98. He had been run over by a truck and caught a cold. The cold was what killed him. Jake was a tough guy too. Manny’s father came from a part of Poland that was just like Brownsville.
The Yiddish word for tough is hart.
“It’s a yarmulke.” Fish is an observant Hassid.
“Just like I said.” Manny stood his ground.
Also out of Fish’s range
The big Hassid eyed the both of us and shrugged off the moment.
Life on 47th Street was about making money or nimmt geld. He threw a packet and a memo on the counter. “Here’s your diamond.Manny practiced religion after work. He had great faith in the power of wine.
We sold his stone to someone else later that afternoon.
Manny complained about the small profit I squeezed from the customer.
"Better a little than nothing."
"Best more than a little."
Manny smiled with a laugh. He was still a tough guy. A piece of shit too, but he was my piece of shit.
And the tough guy from Brownsville wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Brownsville! Never ran, never will!”