Tag Archives: New York City

What, You’re Coming Empty Handed?

Background:

The informant is my grandfather, who spent his teens living in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. This joke was one he heard every now and then. He calls it New York Jew humor.

Context:

I heard this joke a few years ago while out to dinner with my grandfather and his brother. When they get together, they tell jokes for hours on end, like they used to growing up in New York.

Main Piece:

The woman says to her friend, “Rachel, is it true you just moved into a big, new apartment?”

Rachel says, “It’s true. Why don’t you come visit. It’s on 1584 8th st. What you’ll do is you’ll take the train down to 8th st and get out. You’ll walk up to the door, there’s a big double door, and open the door with your left elbow and then use your right elbow to prop the door open and walk in. There’s another door, so you have to go to the list of buzzers and with the left elbow, buzz apartment 680. It’ll ring me upstairs and I’ll buzz you in. Then you use the right elbow to press down on the handle of the inside door and push in. You’ll be in the lobby and you walk up to the elevator and with the left elbow you press ‘up.’ You’ll get into the elevator and with the right elbow press ‘six’ for the sixth floor. The elevator will take you to the sixth floor and then you’ll walk to the left down the hall to apartment 680. You’ll ring the doorbell with the right elbow, and you can give some knocks with the left elbow. I’ll come open the door and you’ll come in and I’ll show you around and we’ll have some coffee.

“Wait, Rachel! What kind of directions are these with all the ‘right elbow’ and ‘left elbow? What’s with all the elbows?’

She says, “What? You’re coming empty-handed?”

Thoughts:

Per my grandfather’s own words, this joke epitomizes Jewish humor, at least Jewish humor originating out of New York City. The joke distills the customs and character traits of New York’s Jewish population down to a joke. The meticulous nature of the idiosyncratic details that Rachel describes with all the elbows reminds me greatly of my aunts and uncles that still live in New York. It also conveys the expected hospitality and custom of bringing a gift when someone invites you over to their home. My grandfather also tells the joke with a voice, using a nasally, baritone voice when speaking Rachel’s part, making a mocking imitation of a middle-aged Jewish woman from New York. Much of this Jewish humor that my grandfather has described to me is somewhat masochistic and self-degrading. It makes sardonic, comic relief of shared experiences between New York Jews, such as the ones shared between my grandfather and his brother.

Stickball

Background:

Stickball was a popular game in mid-20th century New York City. The game was played by children in the streets, using whatever resources they could find. The informant, who spent most of his childhood in the New York City in the 1970’s would play the game with the neighborhood kids.

Context:

This piece was related to me over a Zoom call

Main Piece:

MK: Stickball was my least favorite. I had terrible hand-eye coordination and could never get contact with the ball.”

Me: It’s akin to baseball, right?

MK: Yea, it’s a poor man’s baseball. You’ve probably seen it played in those movies about the mob and the mafia – like the Bronx tale. The church they used in that movie was the church my family went to. We played stickball outside. There was a batter and a pitcher and a bunch of kids playing in the street. We used trashcans or whatever we could find as bases, and a little pink rubber ball. They made stick ball bats, but most kids just used a broom handle – a skinny broom handle. 

Me: It had all the same rules as baseball?

MK: It was supposed to, pretty much. Sometimes we only had two bases. We would use boxes, trashcans, manhole covers. There was one kid named Davie who was miniscule – underdeveloped. No one liked him because he talked funny and we’d only let him play if he agreed to be a base. Kids would hit and run and as they ran by him they’d slap him across the gut real hard. But it was our version of baseball. When we’d get home from school everyone would drop their books off, say hello to their mother, and run down into the street to play. There was a pitcher and an outfield of a few guys. We had two team captains and they’d take the bat and one would put their hand around the bottom. Then the other captain put their hand on top of the other captain’s hand and they’d alternate up until the top of the bat. Whoever had the last hand on top of the bat got to pick their team first.

Me: Were there cars bustling down the streets you played on?

MK: Oh yea. We had lookouts and whenever a car was headed toward us, the lookout would scream, ‘Car! Car!” and everyone would grab the bases and run out of the way. As soon as the car had passed we’d bring everything back and get right back into the game.

Me: How long did you play for?

MK: We usually played five or six innings in a game because a lot of kids wanted to play, so we couldn’t play a full game of nine like baseball. But we’d play game after game, until enough of our mothers called us home and there weren’t enough kids left to play. We’d sometimes lose too many balls also and wouldn’t have one to play with. That was always devastating. Like the end of the world devastating.

Thoughts:

Stickball is a game that I’ve seen only in cinema or read about in literature. The game was probably a weekly or daily tradition where many friendships and bonds were formed and cemented. It was probably a proving ground for many kids, as most of the time, the kids who are dominant in athletics get the respect and admiration of the other kids. Although it was just a game in the street, the kids probably played with a grave seriousness and competitive nature. One thing I found interesting was the guerilla-style that stickball was played in. The informant remarked that they used whatever they could find as bases, sometimes not even having four bases to play with. It was a tradition that was sacred amongst kids, and it must be played at all costs.

Don’t break the pole

–Informant Info–

Nationality: American

Age: 23

Occupation: Student

Residence: New York City

Date of Performance/Collection: 4/28/2021

Primary Language: English

Other Language(s): Korean

Context: As a NYC resident, MB says the following folk belief might just be applicable to his city. MB – informant. SD – interviewer

Performance:

MB: I’m sure you’ve heard this but you don’t break the pole when you’re walking with your friends.

SD: I haven’t heard this actually. 

MB: So basically, when you and another friend are walking, you both go on one side of the pole. You can’t have one person go on one side of the pole and the other person on the other side, you both go on the same side. 

SD: Okay, so is this like an American cultural thing, or a Korean thing…

MB: I don’t think it’s a national thing, it’s probably just a New York thing because there are so many poles here (laughs). When I was in high school my friends and I would always make fun of it, like don’t break the pole or we won’t be friends anymore (laughs again).

Analysis:

This is an example of a super specific belief or superstition that is brought about because of the geography of the place. As MB says, NYC has a lot of street lights and construction poles, so local residents probably came up with this belief. The meaning of this belief is that if you go on either side of the pole, you will break your friendship as the pole has come between you and your friend. However, I think this belief is loose and can be a joke as MB stated at the end. People joke around and mess with their friends by saying that they will go around to the other side of the pole and break their friendship. Obviously, this doesn’t happen, but it’s a good example of a superstition that has been turned into a joke.  

Haunted House on Clinton Street in Brooklyn

Piece:

Informant: “See that house right there?”

Collector: “Yeah.”

Informant: “Some guy killed his wife there and now it’s haunted. There have been like six people who have lived there since and they all sold the house within like three months of living there.” 

Collector: “Do you know for sure that the guy killed his wife?”

Informant: “No but that’s what they told me.” 

Context: Me and the informant were leaving a party at the informant’s friend’s apartment on Clinton Street in Brooklyn, NY. We passed a house with a For Sale sign a few doors down when the informant turned to me and told me the piece. 

Background: The informant is a student in New York City. The legend was originally told to him the first time he passed the house while visiting a friend who lives a few doors down from the house. He views the story as making a street that would otherwise be forgotten or insignificant into one that is memorable and interesting. 

Analysis: I enjoyed hearing the piece because it made the walk home much more interesting. It is common for people to invent stories when they notice police cars/commotion but are given no information as a way to trick themselves into feeling informed. I find this story to be an example of this. It is not conventional for many people to move in and out of a house in such an abbreviated period of time, leaving people searching for answers even more. This endows the house as a liminal space, one in which people are never fully settled, making it the perfect breeding ground for ghost stories and folklore more generally. It seems to function as a point of conversation and excitement for the informant and his friend group, coloring their everyday life without necessarily being considered dangerous or fear-inspiring.

Common New York Slang: Brick

Y: New York is just one of those places where when it’s cold…  it’s COLD cold. But in New York, we don’t say it’s cold outside, we say it’s brick outside.

This is definitely one of those slang terms that is practically branded by the region that uses it. It’s possible that the reason New Yorkers use the word “brick” to refer to the drops in temperature is that it’s extremely telling of what city it’s from. During the development of New York, and up to this day, the vast majority of the buildings were made out of brick. If you’ve ever touched the side of a brick house during the winter months, you’d know that the material absorbs the surrounding temperature. In fact, however cold it is outside, bricks usually feel ten times colder. However, the further you get from the general city area, the more buildings you’ll see made out of brick. That being said, it’s possible that this slang term is generally used by New Yorkers who live in a more suburban area like the Bronx or Queens, for example.