Photo by Danny Lyon
[This list contains all the nicknames of kids I can remember from my childhood (age 7 – 21, approx.) in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. See explanatory notes for each nickname below.]
1. Angelo Head
4. Frankie Airlines
5. Joey All-Star
6. Vinnie Barbarino
9. Harry O.
10. Frank Asshole
12. Davey the Jew
13. Scotty ‘Ludes
14. Joey the Hijacker
15. Billy Bee-Man
16. Frank Muff
17. Dave Bass
18. Vinnie Wildass
20. Fred the Head
21. J. C.
22. Sammy Gums
25. Uncle Champ
27. The Lump
28. Bobby Bro
32. Spider Man
34. Java Man
35. Greg N—–
36. Tom Gay
37. Fat Nat
38. Charlie Dolphin
39. Angelo Baloney
40. The Looper
46. Mark Krishna
47. Steve Imby
48. Carrot Top
50. Seedy Edie
1. So named, when he was very young, for the size of his head. Ironically, he became one of the neighborhood’s biggest heads (in the drug sense) when he was a teenager.
3. A big, burly guy. Also, for the record, a good artist.
4. Frankie had big ears, suggesting airplane wings. Not to be confused with #10/#16.
5. Sarcasm. Joey was a congenital liar who was constantly bragging about what a great athlete he was. In fact he wasn’t very good at all.
6. Vinnie (not the same as #18) had a long Italian last name that had the same rhythm as “Bar-ba-ri-no.” This was at the time when Welcome Back, Kotter was still running, and he and Travolta/Barbarino spoke with similar Bensonhurst accents, so the nickname was a no-brainer.
7, 8. Turtle and Tortoise were two chubby brothers (older and younger, respectively). Even at age 8 I thought this was very clever.
9. Harry’s last name didn’t begin with “O”; there were many kids called by the first letter of their last name (Mark J., Chris T.), but those aren’t worth mentioning here because they weren’t real nicknames. Harry, whose last name I can’t remember, was called “Harry O.” after a TV show of the same name, very popular at the time (1974 – 76).
10. Fortunately for Frank this nickname was later dropped for a more flattering one (#16). Not to be confused with #4.
11. A mangled form of his Russian last name, too difficult for most kids in the neighborhood to say or remember. The nickname had a double meaning because he was high on pot pretty much 24/7.
12. This was not me. It easily could have been, but the other Dave started hanging out with this particular crowd before I did, so he got the nickname.
13. Self-explanatory, and well earned.
14. Joey had a talent for hot-wiring cars.
15. A really weird kid who lived on my corner for a year or two. People used to tell apocryphal stories about the sick things he’d supposedly done, including something to do with bees, which I forgot the details of long ago.
16. Shortened from “muff-diver.” I’m not sure whether this had any basis in fact. See also #10.
17. This was me. For a while I was known as “Dave the Bass Player” to distinguish me from the other Dave (#12). That was much too long to say, and it was eventually shortened to “Bass,” or “Dave Bass” in formal settings.
18. Vinnie (not the same as #6), a drummer I played with for years, wasn’t really all that wild. I think this was based on something that happened one drunken night. I wasn’t there to witness it.
19. Darlene was probably the tallest kid in my third-grade class. She had very long legs.
20. Fred, a van-driver that my band used to use to take our equipment to gigs (CBGB, Max’s), had a shaved head. This was very rare at the time. He was never called Fred the Head to his face.
21. Jesus Christ. Bobby had long, straight hair past his shoulders, something no one had ever seen at that point.
22. Sammy had huge teeth, and gums to match.
23. The name that Vinnie (#18) gave to his girlfriend, Susan, who was one of the hottest girls in the neighborhood and is now a Jehovah’s Witness. He called her this when he was pissed off at her, or jealous. (See #49.)
24. A girl who moved to my block from Long Island when I was 13. She’d been called this all her life, and it always sounded like a non-Brooklyn nickname to me, especially since her family came from way out in the boonies.
25. My friend Jeanette’s uncle. He was nicknamed “Champ” because of some heroic feat he’d performed years before, but I never knew what it was. I never knew his real name either, even though he lived right down the street and Jeanette was one of my best friends. Champ was probably 5’9” but he weighed about 75 pounds.
26. Shelton Lee, now a filmmaker. He was in my homeroom class throughout high school.
27. My friend Michael’s nickname for his annoying kid sister. This one is too gross to explain.
28. The first place I ever heard the word “bro” in my life. It wouldn’t come into widespread use till years later.
29. I guess he kind of looked like one.
30. Son of the shoe-repair guy on my corner. You couldn’t understand a word he said.
31. This nickname was not particularly appropriate for the kid who had it. I think the guy who gave it to him just liked the way it sounded. The nickname got instant laughs because sap was such a ridiculously dated word.
32. I haven’t got a clue where this nickname came from, but David (not to be confused with #12 or #17) was very strange. He was probably in his mid-20s and lived at home with his mother, who treated him like he was 6. He used to hang out sometimes with me and my friends, who at the time were 14–17.
33. A shortened form of his last name. A twisted, sadistic kid who once threw someone into Sheepshead Bay, among other terrible things.
34. A crabby old guy who lived on my friend Steve’s street. I never knew him, but he used to give Steve and his other friends a hard time (chasing them out of his yard, etc.), and they would respond by taunting him: “Java Man! Java Man!”
35, 36. Don’t shoot the messenger. I considered omitting these from the list, but it would have given a misleading picture. I’m proud of the fact that I was bothered by these nicknames even when I was a teenager, and I personally never used them. Greg, by the way, was a very smart and sophisticated kid who was liked by everyone.
37. My friend Ronnie’s dad, a bus driver. Ronnie was sometimes called “Fat Nat Jr.” Kids would chant “I want a Fat Nat Junior!” to the tune of a well-known TV commercial of the time: “I want a Ring Ding Junior!”
38. The piano player in my friend Vinnie’s band (#18). He now plays with Bruce Springsteen.
39. Angelo’s last name was Bologna. (His family were very recent immigrants from Italy.) One day it dawned on someone that it was spelled the same as the cold cut, so…
40. Modified version of “Louie,” father of Angelo Head (#1). It was always said with a Brooklyn accent: “Loopuh.” Louie was a notorious alcoholic.
41. A friend of the Looper (#40), who (affectionately) gave him the nickname. I assume he was gay, but I never knew him personally.
42. Chris, probably the only person on this list I’m still in regular contact with. I’ve never known what this nickname, which he’s had since age 6 or so, means. I’m not even sure he knows.
43. Mangled version of his real name, Chuck. By age 15 he’d done more acid than anyone I knew. At around age 17 he supposedly joined the marines.
44. A little kid who lived a couple of doors away from me. His real name was Robert, but I never heard anyone but his parents call him that.
45. Real last name: Giglio. We were too young to know what gigolo meant; John’s name got rearranged because “gigolo” was easier to say than Giglio.
46. Mark joined the Hare Krishnas briefly when he found out that it would get him free meals a couple of times a week. That didn’t last long.
47. “Imby,” short for imbecile, was standard neighborhood slang.
48. Frank (not to be confused with #4, #10, or #16) was a redhead, obviously. He was also called Red sometimes.
49. Occasional boyfriend of Fuckhead (#23), girlfriend of Vinnie (#18). He had long, permed hair (very fashionable at the time), so the comparison to the Who’s lead singer was inevitable. I think the only person who called him this was Vinnie, who hated him and would never utter his real name.
50. Edie was a middle-aged woman who dealt pot out of her apartment, a block away from the police station. Everyone in the world knew about her, so we assumed she had some kind of arrangement with the cops. The low-quality weed she sold was allegedly full of seeds.
51. Susan (Sue) Eng, said very fast.
52. An obvious one, as you’d agree if you’d ever met him.