I grew up at a time when nicknames were common. Some were simply for demarcation. We had two Evelyns in the family. We called my mother’s middle sister Our Evie (emphasis on our). My Uncle Bert’s wife (an in-law) was Bert’s Evie. Other names were endearments, usually ending in Y. Elizabeth became Betsy, Sondra was tagged Sandy, Andrew-Andy (no need to go on), but some nicknames were so cruel; they’d be deemed hate crimes today. Fat Foot Avenue had its share of the latter and sadly they stuck; Salvatore Colajanni became Fat Sal, Bobby Barsky was Bucktooth and John Nietupski grew into Foggy the Drunk.
I can only hope that eventually Fat Sal embraced a healthy life style and Bucktooth found a Department of Health dental clinic, but Foggy the Drunk stayed true to his name till he died.
For the sake of authenticity, I admit I hadn’t met Foggy until the 1950’s, but I was present at many a story-telling about him and sadly witnessed his worst moment.
Foggy was blessed with fair Northern European features. Tall, muscular, blue-eyes and flaxen hair, he should have been a local hottie. Instead, he became the neighborhood pariah; angry and sullen from brutal beatings from his alcoholic father. While my father and uncles were in high school, Foggy was already one of life’s drop-outs. I don’t know how he and Grandma formed their union, but Grandma collected people the same way she picked up strays; with a soft voice, a bit of food, and no questions asked, so if Foggy had only as much sense as a puppy, he would have been drawn to her.
On December 7th, 1941, life in Brooklyn, like the rest of America changed. World War II had reached home. Young men from as far north as Sumas, Washington, to the boys in Ballast Key, Florida and all males in between met up with the fellows from Fat Foot Avenue courtesy of Uncle Sam’s draft. One by one, the neighborhood boys went to war, or, as in my Uncle Herby’s senior year, all the graduating males of Tilden High School left together. My grandmother sat on her youngest son’s bed and cried for each one.
Soon after, Foggy came for a meal and told her his plan to avoid the draft. He had stolen his father’s shotgun and was ready to shoot off his toes. The woman who gave him safe-haven, fed him, and listened to his woes, wasn’t his ally any more. She threatened to bar him from her home forever if he didn’t take up the call. He went on a drinking bender for five days, sobered up and entered a navy recruiting station.
His early postcards to Grandma were filled with thanks, hopes and plans, but not long after, he had fallen from a gangplank and injured his leg and back. He returned to his father’s house in crutches and with a thirst for vodka that couldn’t be quenched. At 22, he was the town drunk and my grandmother’s cause.
Eventually, he moved into my grandparents’ extra room at the end of the upstairs hallway, took on small jobs as a carpenter and kept his drinking confined to weekends. We’d cross paths at the front door when he walked Brownie, our steadfast but ornery guard dog. “Hey, A,” he’d say then pat my head and offer me gum, but since toddlers and alcoholics have different schedules, our encounters were few.
By the time I was four, Foggy could no longer limit his drinking to weekends. Our home became his flophouse; a place to crash until the local bars re-opened.
On a summer’s night, while I slept close to the window fan to keep the mosquitos at bay, a family tragedy played out. Foggy had slipped in drunk, coaxed Brownie from his towel-bed in the hallway and led him into traffic on busy Linden Boulevard. Foggy escaped an oncoming bus, Brownie did not. I wasn’t privy to family decisions made about Foggy, but I knew he was gone. Once in awhile, he’d show up for Sunday dinner; smelling of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. Sometimes, he’d cry on Grandma’s shoulder.