It’s my pleasure to welcome author Neil Douglas Newton to my blog. He also happens to be my husband. Neil is one of the authors who contributed a short story to the crime noir anthology, Cons Dames & G-Men.
Take it away Neil!
I can imagine that if someone read my story “The Mickey” in the “Stab in the Dark” groups’ anthology “Cons, Dames and G-Men”, they would think it was written by someone who is quite dedicated and fascinated by Jewish culture in New York. After all the story is sprinkled with Yiddish and a large number of references to things Jewish. But this would be far from the truth.
The truth is that, as an author, I was channeling my father, circa 1938. The truth is, by the time I was a child in New York City, Yiddish was not used among even second-generation immigrants like my parents, except on rare occasions. My generation almost never used the language except for the words that made it into the New York English lexicon, used by most New Yorkers and, in some cases Americans in general. Words like “schmuck” can be heard in most urban areas across the country.
Years ago my father told me about something called a “Mickey”, which was simply a potato cooked over an open fire, usually in an abandoned lot. When I considered writing the story, it occurred to me that this might have been a myth and that finding any real reference to the “Mickey” might be impossible. To my surprise, a google search got me immediate results: a Jewish man described the same practice my father had mentioned: cooking a potato over an open fire until it was charred on the outside. He added the fact that, until he was in his forties, he never would have made the meaningful connection: that the word “Mickey” was related to the Irish. Like many New York artifacts, the “Mickey” was truly cross-cultural, something that was common to boys of Italian and Jewish descent. What other ethnic groups adopted the Mickey is unknown but it’s likely there are others who did.
While the story “The Mickey” is a tale of crime in the Bronx, it is also a story of the same ethnic cross-pollination that the “Mickey” itself represents. By the time I was growing up in Queens, the walls between ethnic groups had eroded, mixed marriage was on the rise and the friendships between members of different groups were beyond common. The reason for that was simple: people of Irish, Italian, German, Polish and Jewish descent did have a common culture. It was called “New York”. This decade old subculture is something that can only be described well by someone who has spent substantial time in New York.
My mother told me the story of the sale of the house that I grew up in, fourteen years after I left it to start my own life. After forty years of living on an obscure quiet street in Queens, my parents were too old to take care of the house themselves and they were ready to move to a life care community. As upsetting as the whole affair was, my mother emphasized a happy note: the people who bought the house were, as she put it, “our kind of people”. Their name was Flarrity, of Irish descent on both sides. What she meant by “our kind of people” was that they had Queens pedigree, the sons and daughters of immigrants who fought their way up the ladder along with my Jewish Ancestors, sharing the same food, language, and stories from the old country. The schools they went to were the same ones I went to. The stories of their youth were stories of Queens; stores and restaurants that had come and gone, people they had known.
“The Mickey” reflects this important bit of New York City culture. Though it begins with a Jewish character, cooking Mickeys with his boys, all Jewish, he runs into trouble and is helped by an Italian boy who he befriended as a child, someone he helped through the humiliating process of acclimating to the American culture and language. Between them, they solve a very knotty and dangerous problem that threatens both their lives. In the process, they talk about the day when they will both be adults and ignore their seemingly unavoidable differences.
That future they discuss was my reality growing up in New York City. To some that may seem sacrilegious, mixing culture and faiths. But in the New York I grew up in, it was just the opposite. The culture in New York is a shared one and is the embodiment of the acceptance of our fellow man that we are all taught as one of the greatest commandments. While many ignore that particular bit of scripture. New Yorkers, at least most of them, find their way to that bit of faith naturally through the discovery of friends and neighbors. There is nothing forced about friendships of this type because, after all, what New Yorker would allow themselves to be forced into anything.
It’s appropriate that there is a tie to the Irish in the Mickey. The Irish, more than any other group in New York history, spilled blood and tears to find their seat at the table. That my father and boys of other ethnic groups picked up torch thrown down by their Irish brothers is an excellent metaphor for New York as I knew it.
Neil Douglas Newton
I watched as Shmuley pulled his Mickey out of the flames with a metal spike. He pushed it off the hot spike with his foot as quickly as he possibly could, doing his best to avoid burning himself on the hot metal. The potato, black and charred as all Mickeys are expected to be, landed in a pile of leaves we’d pushed together just for that purpose.
It was always at least five minutes before you could take the first bite. Shmuley was a real chazzer; he watched his Mickey like he could cool it off faster if he just looked at it. I couldn’t tell you how many times he’d swiped the leftovers of my Mickey. He’d tell me later on that I was a schmuck for leaving it out without watching it.
He finally gave up on the Mickey and turned to me. “Herschel! She doesn’t like you like she likes me. Don’t fool yourself!”
I smiled. Shmuley was about as ugly as it got. And of course, he was talking about the beautiful Rachel Finkel. All the boys in our high school dreamed of Rachel. And I knew she liked me; it drove Schmuley crazy.
“You’re gonna marry Rachel Shmuley,” I shouted at him. “She told me. She wants you!”
My friends began to laugh and Shmuley’s face turned red. For Shmuley that was bad. He had Goyishe red hair and skin and when he blushed his face turned the color of borscht. As his face got redder and redder, the laughing got louder and louder. “You’re a shit, Herschel!” Shmuley shouted. “Rachel wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire. She’s going out with me!”
Saul ran over and grabbed Shmuley by the shirt. “Rachel loves you! She’d do anything for you! It’s like a movie with Gable. You look just like him, Shmuley. You look like Gable!”
We all laughed. Shmuley stamped his foot. “You’re just a pischer, Saul. All of you.” He went back to his Mickey and turned his back on us. When he picked up his prize from the leaves it was still too hot and he threw it back and forth between his hands. He threw us a dirty look over his shoulder and bit into it. He was trying to show us he was a tough guy.
Read the rest of this crime noir tale in Cons, Dames & G-Men available on Amazon and other book sites FREE!