The informant, a 20-year-old college student, attended a private Ivy League Preparatory school in New York, the Hackley School, for grades 6-12. While I was out to lunch between classes with the informant, I asked if she could tell me about her school’s history, and if there were any traditions or narratives related to this history that all of the students know about.
“Well, Hackley is named after the woman who founded it over a century ago, Miss Hackley. Everyone thinks of her as this old, gray-haired, witch-like woman. Deep in the library there are a lot of old books and paintings. The story goes that in this one really old painting of the school, there was a shadowy figure towards the back for as long as anyone could remember. Then, a few years ago, the figure disappeared. So supposedly that was Miss Hackley, and she moves in and out of pictures and paintings throughout the campus watching the students’ every move and making sure that nobody is acting out or being disrespectful.”
This legend regarding the founder of the informant’s school is a way to keep the institution’s history alive by implying that the school’s long-dead founder is still very much aware of whether the students are being respectful and behaving appropriately. The informant said that while she does not believe that Miss Hackley’s spirit inhabits the school, thinking about the possibility still creeps her out. This legend functions to keep the students at Hackley School in line by providing an ultimatum that, while perhaps not entirely threatening, would make a student think twice before sneaking off into empty classrooms or cutting class: if you fail to obey the school’s code of conduct you are disrespecting Miss Hackley, and if she knows of these the potential for her to discipline you exists. The legend is not dependent on students believing that Miss Hackley’s spirit actually inhabits the school, but rather on the slightest bit of doubt that it possibly could. I think that the nature of the institution, as an old, elite private school on the east coast, allows the legend to operate much more effectively than it would at, say, a relatively new public school on the west coast, due to the fact that the older school as a more extensive, and unknown, history that a newer school would lack.
Sara is a very gossipy, religious, fun girl. Sophomore at USC, she’s in the Helene’s and a sorority. She’s from Anaheim, California. And she has an incredibly interesting memory and past.
Sara once visited New York with a friend of hers in high school. She had never ben before and was excited to explore the big famed city. When she got their her friend kept messing with her about the fact that their were alligators in the sewer. Every time they walked over a Manhattan grate on the sidewalk, or a manhole cover and the pedestrian’s crosswalk, her friend would tell her to “Watch out girl, jeez.” Sara was believing it too. It wasn’t until they went home to her friends mother when she asked “How come no one’s done anything about all the dumb alligators.” Her friends mother gave her a state and that’s when she knew she was punked. Her friend was then shamed and shunned for the next fifteen minutes.
The story of alligators stalking the sewers of in American cities, not just New York, is an urban mystery. Most people have heard the rumors about alligators in the sewers, in large part, because of Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel.
What would happen is, he wrote of the little pet alligators purchased as Florida souvenirs were eventually flushed down toilets. Then they grew and spread throughout all of Manhattan. Moving through the underground system, Pynchon told us, they were big, blind, albino, and fed on rats and sewage. Pynchon envisioned an “Alligator Patrol going into the depths of the sewer system, working in teams of two, with one man holding a flashlight while the other carried a twelve-gauge repeating shotgun.” As no one before him had, Thomas Pynchon wove the rumor of alligators-in-the-sewers through a work of fiction. But is it all fiction?
“One night uh a girl was alone in her bedroom and her parents said they were going out for dinner so they left the house, she heard them go out, so she decided it was time to get personal. She grabbed a uh broomstick from the closet and started playing around a little bit down there. Then her parents, all of the sudden came home because they had forgotten something and burst into her room in an untimely fashion and in uh surprise she jumped onto the broomstick and it actually went through her out the top of her head, and she became a human candy apple.”
This humorous story was popular at the informant’s high school in New York City.
The story reveals societal mentality on the subject of masturbation. The moral of the story is essentially, ‘don’t get caught masturbating.’ That there is such this fear of getting caught and that people feel it normal to hide their masturbation habits point to masturbation’s position as a societal taboo. The story can also be viewed as a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of masturbation, but I side with the first interpretation because of the story’s probable origins among teenagers.
“Um my friends and I theorized a lot about the probable etymology of such words [New York slang], for example there was ‘brick,’ uh meaning cold, and we guessed that that was uh, that dated back to a black person who walked outside when it was cold, tried to pronounce ‘brisk’ and instead said ‘brick.’ Uh then we also had ‘gas,’ which means to lie about something, as in ‘you’re gassin’ me,’ uh which we theorized just as the lack of substance of the gaseous state. Uhh we also had um “catching the whops,” which is one of my favorites. It means “to get a blowjob.” I don’t know where that’s from, but I heard that it dates back to early 90’s Bronx. Um and we also had ‘boys,’ so that means an area is dangerous if you say ‘it’s boys.’ And that has roots in ‘boys in blue,’ which is meant to be police. Other variations on it are ‘hot boys’ as in ‘yo this is hot boys, let’s not spark this blunt here.’ And that brings up another one. We call weed ‘buddha.’ My guess on that one is that uh many stoners are perceived as being casually in to Buddhism, you know.”
The informant, who is from the Bronx, moved from the private school that he had attended his whole life, to public school, when he was a sophomore in high school. In public school, he encountered all sorts of slang words that he had never heard before.
This account reveals a blason populaire that the informant and his friends had about African American speech. In regards to the etymology of these slang terms, however, I have no theories of my own to posit. A greater question is raised, though, from this inquiry into New York slang, and that is, why is it so unique? I have talked to many people from other parts of the country, and I’m familiar, even if I don’t say them, with all of their slang words. New York slang, on the other hand, is its own world. I had not heard any of these slang words before I met the informant.
The Judge Cropsey Legend as told verbatim by informant:
“Judge Cropsey was a story we learned when we went away to boy scout camp. Well there’s a bunch of different versions but the most popular version was that Judge Cropsey was a scout leader and every year he went to boy scout camp with you know one of the troupes from his home town and uh of course he taught all his kids how to um you know whittle with a pocket knife and how to use a hand axe and how to use other tools and you always had a project like building a tripod or building a tower, but Judge Cropsey was a real fanatic about safety and um he would be very upset if you didn’t use the tools properly. So one summer there was this kid you know this kid would not uh repeatedly didn’t use the tool properly particularly the hand axe and uh as Judge Cropsey was watching him one day this kid um (pause) was using the hand axe incorrectly and he managed to chop, lose control of the thing and hit Judge Cropsey in the wrist and knock of his hand. Judge Cropsey just went bananas. He had a psychological breakdown, went running through the woods, bleeding everywhere and kinda disa disappeared and from then on every summer at that boy scout camp there were sightings of Judge Cropsey in the woods usually at night time usually running around with a hand axe and of course threatening you know that he was going to chop off someone’s hand.
It was a typical campfire story you know. It was a lot of fun. And the whole purpose of the story of course was to scare the new kids you know at camp um but it became really a legend. And like I say there were multiple variations on the story. and of course anytime there were noises at night someone would scream (suppressed yell) ‘Judge Cropsey! Judge Cropsey!’ (laughing) And everyone would you know duck under the covers and you know hope that he wouldn’t come to your tent. You know the youngest kid at camp was 11, so. But everyone at camp knew the story.
You know, I think probably I told it outside of boy scouts because uh I used to take my friends camping. You know, and I’m sure I not only told the story but I’m sure I embellished it. There’s there’s another version that actually wound up in the movies. Uh where uh Judge Cropsey or someone similar to him grabbed the handle of the car and got dragged as the car was puling away and of course when the people didn’t realize what was going on and when they um when they stopped the car and got out they saw the hand um you know there. And then of course there’s the version where uh Judge Cropsey, because he lost his hand, he got it replaced by a hook and every once in a while someone would hear a scratching on their car and they’d speed off and then, of course, one day someone would look at their handle or look at their rear fender and see a hook hanging off it and that was Judge Cropsey’s hook.
I lived in Long Island and every year we’d go up in the Catskills where the boy scout camp was. So, but I think the hook man, my guess is that the hook man was a variation of the original Judge Cropsey boy scout story.”
The legend of Judge Cropsey in the boy scout context is perfect, as the informant mentioned, in terms of the scary campfire story and especially messing with the younger boys at camp. The threat of Judge Cropsey lurking in the woods at night with his axe is not only classic, but it does teach the boys a lesson in listening to their camp leaders, being alert, and of course staying on their best behavior. Running off to the woods isn’t so appealing if Judge Cropsey’s running around trying to kill kids. The informant’s connection to the fairly popular contemporary legend of the hook-man is interesting too, because the “embellishment” of Judge Cropsey or the essential collaboration of the two legends makes for an almost oicotype super-legend. If donned with a hook, Judge Cropsey isn’t limited to the woods, but can strike anyone at anytime. It’s also interesting because the legend of a child-threatening figure named Cropsey has numerous variations in other parts of New York, one of which was formally investigated in the 2009 documentary film “Cropsey.” The film explores the legend’s manifestation in Staten Island, where Cropsey kidnaps children and takes them to the woods where they are lost forever, then exploring its power in relation to the conviction of a local man as a child kidnapper.
Cropsey. (2009) Dir. Joshua Zemen and Barabara Brancaccio. Netflix. Web.
When my informant was in third or fourth grade in the town of Rye, New York, she heard a legend going around the school that came to be called “The Hogwarts Tree.” According to the legend, there was a particular tree at the corner of the nature reserve that was connected to the world of Harry Potter, a sort of portal into the world of wizardry. It originated from a story that had been passed along, something of a legend in the tiny town of Rye:
“There was this boy like about our age, and he had a fight with his mom and ran away and supposedly slept at the nature reserve. Oh, he was from Milton, which was like another elementary school near us. I mean I don’t think I really believed this at first, because the nature reserve can be freakin’ scary at night. But anyway, I was in elementary school and I was like, whoa. So he was trying to get to sleep in the nature reserve, and uh, he was under this tree. He’s getting kinda scared because it’s freakin’ dark and like, it’s windy so the trees are making weird noises and stuff. And he looks up, and he sees this white owl sitting on the branch on top of him. No one sees white owls, you know? I haven’t, anyway. Well, there’s this white owl, and it looks sort of like Hedwig from the movie, like it’s big and fat and has those grey markings. So this boy’s read Harry Potter and he thinks, holy crap, it’s freakin’ Hedwig. And even though it’s dark and super windy and the branch keeps moving back and forth, this Hedwig owl is so calm and like, the boy isn’t as scared anymore because he feels like Hedwig’s protecting him. So uh, he goes to sleep I guess, and the next morning he wakes up right, and he finds the Hogwarts letter like sitting right next to him! Like the one telling him “Welcome to Hogwarts” and stuff, like, “you’re a wizard, yay!” Which is pretty much what everyone in my elementary school wanted at that point, you know, we were like all of us about the right age. Uh, anyway, he opens the red seal thing, and he reads it, and he’s super-excited and forgets about the fight and goes home to his mom, but she doesn’t believe him. She doesn’t even believe he slept over at the nature reserve, she thinks he’s just saying that to make her feel guilty for the fight, and obviously he doesn’t believe her about the owl. The boy goes around telling his friends and stuff, but before his friends could ask him about it and stuff, he just up and disappears. The next day, like, his mom comes to wake him up for school and he’s gone, and nothing’s gone but the window’s open, and that’s when she realizes she should’ve believed him.
No one knows exactly where the legend came from, but my informant said she had heard it from a friend who had heard it from a friend who went to Milton Elementary School, where the boy had supposedly gone to school. There were some people who believed it, she said, but most people did not, if only because the nature reserve was perceived to be so frightening at night that no one would ever go there to sleep alone, and because in a small town like that, such a police investigation would have been the talk of the decade. However, the most significant aspect of the story wasn’t, or isn’t, its believability, but more the rituals it spawned.
Although the legend had initially circulated amongst elementary schoolers, it eventually found its way into the collective imagination of middle school and high schools students, who began to use it to create ritualistic events. For instance, my informant said, there were always a group of foolhardy middle school kids that would make it a point, over the summer when they were bored, to camp under different trees a few nights in a row, to see if they could find the right one, “The Hogwarts Tree.” Even in high school these sort of ritualistic events proceeded, with high schoolers doing the same thing or being even more clever by daring someone to sleep under a tree alone. At one point, my informant said, when the legend was at its peak, there would be twenty or thirty groups of different middle schoolers and high schoolers (sometimes with parent chaperones, although these were the “lame” groups) grouped under different trees, using “The Hogwarts Tree” as an excuse to camp out in the middle of the nature reserve. It became fashionable to say that they had spent the summer looking for “The Hogwarts Tree,” and oftentimes people told stories of how they had come so close to finding it.
The town police had, apparently, turned a blind eye to the proceedings, seeing as how it was all some kids having fun, up until high-schoolers and college students began drinking in the reserve, having secret Hogwarts parties that my informant did not know about until she was a high-schooler herself. These and the other groups petered out as the police began discouraging them from camping in the reserve. There were still some people that ventured into the reserve to look for “The Hogwarts Tree,” but these were random groups, usually college students looking for an adrenaline rush.
This legend arose, obviously, from elementary school students’ obsession with the Harry Potter books–especially because they were of the right age to receive the letter from Hogwarts that would supposedly proclaim them a wizard. Every reader of the Harry Potter books has wanted to become a wizard, and this desire is perfectly captured in this story, which entranced first elementary schoolers, and then those older, indicating that nobody is too old for some literary escapism, or to want an excuse to camp out in a forest without parental supervision. Looking for “The Hogwarts Tree” perhaps gave them a sense of higher purpose that elevated the event beyond the traditional experience.