Manhattan in the 1950’s was a golden city populated by strangers ready to chip out nuggets big enough to fund their trips back home in style. Its sister borough, Brooklyn was a loosely sewn patchwork of small towns; each with a core group of families tied together by schools, houses of worship and poverty.
I knew every girl my age from Rockaway Avenue to Osborne Street because their mothers were my mother’s friends and their grandmothers knew Grandma Rose. Neighbors who visited often were affectionately referred to as aunts and uncles. Folks we’d greet on the sidewalk outside school or at Bloom’s Candy Store were respectfully addressed as Mr. or Mrs.
Grandma’s friend from Osborne Street was always called Mrs. Goode. Her married daughter Frances was Mrs. Barr, but her son Shimmy; a grown man, was called by his first name by even the youngest neighborhood child. Shimmy had a given name, but like many other young men of his time, his nickname was the only one used by his family and friends. What made Shimmy unlike his peers was his cerebral palsy.
Shimmy’s muscle spasms set his whole upper body in motion: His head wobbled. His hands and arms waved; giving his wood canes the appearance of conductors’ batons gesturing to unseen musicians. Always dressed in a suit and white shirt, Shimmy, along with his sister would chat with my mom at the Cream Cake bakery on Sunday mornings or pass the time in front of the driers at Two Brothers Launderette on rainy weekends. Shimmy’s niece, Arlene and I played Jacks until our moms’ conversation ended.
While scientists were still trying to figure out Shimmy’s disease, his neighbors and family already knew he was smart. Even living in a body that bolted and halted like a subway train, Shimmy held down a job, just like deaf and mute Mr. Baer at the paper-box factory, Mo; the blind bookie and everybody else we knew.
While most neighbors were kind or benignly indifferent to those with special needs - there were some who couldn’t miss an opportunity to crush an ego or break a heart. One morning as I practiced my limited skating moves on the smooth sidewalk in front of Mr. Bloom’s store, I witnessed teenaged boys aping Shimmy’s herky-jerky gait and singing out, “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate. She shimmies like Jell-O on a plate.”
Shimmy waved one of his canes in their direction like Moses enraged at idol-worshipers and shouted back, “You stop now!”
I opened the candy shop’s door and called out Mrs. Bloom, who shooed the boys away by cursing them in Yiddish. I was awarded a free MaryJane for telling.
Our neighborhood was named New Lots in the 1800’s, after the empty land parcels. If you’ve seen the movie Brooklyn, you’ll remember the plumber who was going to build new homes there. The lots were weedy empty fields while I grew up, but occasionally, a tent market would ‘borrow’ the land for a few weeks. Advertising department store quality with prices as cheap as the schlock-stores on Canal Street, tent malls drew in whole families seeking bargains.
With Grandma Rose surrounded by her daughters and me a few steps ahead, we scavenged the stalls like lionesses on a scent. I pulled on Mom’s skirt hem when we reached a hair accessory kiosk. So rapt by the rhinestones and ribbons, I barely noticed my family greeting Shimmy, his sister and niece. Their pleasantries behind me were no more important than flies buzzing until Shimmy tapped my shoulder with his cane. “I know the one you want. I know!” He teased.
“No you don’t.” I shot back. How could he? I wanted them all.
“That one. That one! You’re gonna ask for that one.” Like the boys who sang Sister Kate, Shimmy wouldn’t stop his jibes. I put my selected barrettes back with the others and turned to show him my angriest scowl.
“Watch her, watch her. She wants ‘em all.” I remember only the spray of saliva punctuating his mocking, before I put out my palm and pushed him away. What followed is often played back in my head and always in slow motion. Shimmy fell back onto a stack of empty cardboard boxes, his left cane made a thud-thud sound as it hit the pebbly ground. Grandma, mom, both my aunts, Shimmy’s sister and his niece shrieked, “Adrienne, Adrienne!” as if my name was admonition enough. The lone male voice was Shimmy’s as he was helped to his feet, “You stop now!”
I didn’t get any barrettes that evening. I did however, receive several diatribes on my behavior.
No one brought up the incident after that night; not Shimmy nor even his family. We went on as we always had so easily-it all could have been a bad dream, except it wasn’t.
For many years, I condoned my violence by believing I treated Shimmy as I would any able-bodied man. He bullied me with teasing and I stopped him. As an adult, I came to learn the mark of kindness is not even-handed treatment but respecting others’ needs.
Shimmy would be in his 80’s now and Cerebral Palsy still cruelly molds the lives of infants and their unsuspecting families. I’m making a donation in his name. Not to assuage my guilt, but to honor those who are jeered, taunted and sometimes shoved by little girls, but find the strength to wave their canes and roar, “You stop now!”