For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

The Perfesser

by Ken Thompson


e called him "The Perfesser". That's how we said it. That was the way we learned the word and how all of us said it. We heard people say it differently on TV but we said it our way: Brooklyn!

None of us ever thought that we might be pronouncing it wrong. From where we were, we weren't. Besides, we all had a common understanding of what that word, as well as many others, meant.

We didn't know his real name. We called him "The Perfesser" because we thought he taught at Brooklyn College… philosophy, or psychology; we believed, or something like that. He also looked like what we thought a "Perfesser" should look like… somewhat old, tweedy, bow-tie, and a little frumpled. While I can't fully remember his exact appearance today, I do see him when I look at and hear an older Alan Arkin or Judd Hirsch.

We would see The Perfesser when we went over to the two benches we "owned" on Ocean Parkway near Avenue C. He would give us some time to get settled and then he'd saunter over, usually smoking a cigar that seldom reached his mouth but which was always part of his gestures. He seemed to like the opportunity to leave his wife and her other stoopers gaggling with each other.

The three benches between our two groups was tremendous in a number of ways. None of the other adults were able to successfully bridge the gap, and very few tried. We weren't particularly welcoming of visitors. We had our own benches; they had theirs. That was fine with us. The Perfesser was a sometimes exception.

Not all of us liked The Perfesser visiting though no one overtly chided, mocked, or discouraged his visits. He was simply ignored by a number of our group while others seemed to be either welcoming or at least ambivalent to his intrusion. He seemed to read each of us well. He knew who to stay away from and who he could talk with.

He didn't go to the same members of our group each time but rather seemed to gravitate to those who seemed brighter, whether welcoming or not. He seemed to have learned all our names or at least what we called each other.

The Perfesser always seemed to ultimately get to the same general subject when talking with any one of us. Most often he would start off by talking baseball or weather but he would ultimately get to "Where you going?"

The question had nothing to do with travel plans or what movie we might go to see. It had most to do with what our life plans might be and how we were going to achieve them. The more narrow perspective was his interest in how we were doing in school, our relationships with our families and each other, and what our education plans might be for college or tech school.

The Perfesser never demeaned any of the guys' plans to go to full-time work or to ultimately get married. He just would talk generally about where and how we might live and how we could afford our dreams. If we said we were going to go to work and to night school for college he would speak of the benefits of state schools and getting through college quicker. For those who said they were going to college locally he would talk about the "away" college experience and getting exposed to more capable and experienced faculty. After awhile the little talks and prodding wore on us. None of us wanted another know-it-all Uncle telling us how we could be doing things better.

The Perfesser slowly pissed more of us off and the number of guys who would accept a talk with him dwindled.

Most all of the guys were from blue-collar or lower white-collar working families. There were no Ocean Parkway kids in our group. If any of us were to go to any college in any form we would be notable as being the first in our families to do so. For some of us, if we finished high school that would be an advance over what our parents had achieved.

It was about halfway through the summer of 1959 that The Perfesser realized that he had essentially alienated most of us by his challenges disguised as "little talks." Fewer and fewer of us tolerated his visits and outward signs of hostility toward him were increasing. "The Perfesser" was smart and caught on. For a while, when he visited, he spoke solely of baseball or football, though baseball talk was severely limited since the Dodgers had recently fled to the West Coast.

One day, as he came over, he had a big grin and almost had a skip in his step. Staying just on the boundary of our bench's turf, he asked me, and then Lenny, to come over to him. Lenny was probably the smartest among us and got the best grades at Brooklyn Tech. He did particularly well on his PSAT and had some smaller colleges contacting him. He was pretty quiet about it all.

Lenny generally tolerated The Perfesser and sometimes even seemed pleased if The Perfesser sought him out. This time Lenny seemed annoyed. I don't know if it was just the day or The Perfesser in particular. As Lenny strolled over to The Perfesser, I joined him out of simple curiosity and with nothing else of interest at hand.

The Perfesser handed both of us a piece of mimeographed paper and told us, "I copied this out of a book and thought it was interesting. Read it and tell me what you think." I looked at Lenny and then to "The Perfesser" and then to the purplish print on the paper. It read:

"The Cat only grinned when it saw (blank). It looked good- natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect. … she went on. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

`I don't much care where--' said (blank).

`Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

`--so long as I get somewhere,' (blank) added as an explanation.

`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'

I looked at Lenny and then at The Perfesser who was still grinning and taking long drags on his cigar. I made a link in my mind between the appearance of The Perfesser and of the Cat referenced on the piece of paper. The Perfesser seemed excited. He asked, to neither one of us in particular; "Do you know what that excerpt is from?"

Before he fully got it out of his mouth Lenny was saying; "Yeah, it's from Alice in Wonderland."

The Perfesser seemed almost disappointed and followed up with, "Well you're almost right. It's from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol."

Lenny seemed pissed and gave him the blank look and came back with "Isn't that what I said?"

It was obvious The Perfesser didn't want to follow this part of the discussion any further.

"Len, this excerpt from the book is very important and you should take it to heart."

He continued, "Do you know what it's referring to?"

Again Lenny jumped in. "Yeah, I do. It means that if you talk to cats, they make no sense so why bother."

The three of us stood silent but now Lenny was smiling like a Cheshire cat himself. Finally, The Perfesser said; "No Len, it means you have to have goals and plans for them or you'll waste your time and get nowhere. Lewis Carrol knew that and we should all focus on setting goals for ourselves and work at achieving them. The dialogue from the book is a lesson in disguise."

Again, a brief silence and Lenny spoke pointedly, and with authority, to The Perfesser. "Nah, I don't think so. Alice in Wonderland is a fairy tale and it was written to entertain children; not to set our lives by. I thought you were a lot smarter and didn't read or believe in fairy tales with talking cats."

Lenny then quickly turned to me and said "Let's go up to the Avenue and get a slice of pizza."

I looked at The Perfesser and saw that he was hurt, speechless and just gazing at Lenny who had turned and started to walk away. I sorta shrugged toward The Perfesser and turned to catch up with Lenny.

After a little bit I asked Lenny, "Why did you say that to The Perfesser? He was right in what he said."

"Yeah I know. But I'm sick and tired of his talking to us like we know nothing. We're not idiots. We all have plans and dreams but what we're missing is a way to achieve them. We know what we ought to be doing but you can't always get what you want. I'd like to go to Alfred University but I don't have the money and I won't ever have the money. If I came into money, I'd have to use it to pay off some of my sister's medical bills. The Perfesser has been beating the same drum since he first came over to us. The Alice in Wonderland bit was the last straw. He just pissed me off. You gonna get regular or Sicilian?"

Lenny was right but so was The Perfesser. I stood by Lenny 'cause he was my friend and he seemed to be able to put into word's the very thoughts I had.

The next day, as we were kidding each other on our benches, The Perfesser, very sour faced, his cigar aglow, marched directly over to Lenny and got in his face berating him for walking away from him the day before, for mocking his efforts to help Lenny become something other than a Juvenile Delinquent, for being a simpleton among a bunch of street hoodlums, and for just about everything else bad in Brooklyn and with teenagers.

Lenny knew The Perfesser had lost it, and if he had kept up his baiting grin, saying, "So you really believe in talking cats! Tsk, tsk", in a muffled tone he would have The Perfesser close to having a coronary in no time.

Frankie watched as events unfolded and decided to be a peacemaker. He got up from his seat on the top of the back of the bench and got between Lenny and The Perfesser, keeping them physically separated. He was trying to back The Perfesser up but The Perfesser was getting even louder, spittle shooting from his mouth, his lit cigar dancing about like a bee, as he tried to push Frankie aside to get to Lenny who was now chuckling and still saying "Talking cats! Talking cats! Tsk, tsk," in a very subtle manner.

The Perfesser's wife with two friends had come over to our bench turf and had begun pulling on her husband's sleeve to get him to leave and come back to their bench. She was yelling at her husband, at Lenny, at Frankie, and just about everyone in our direction. With her friends contributing to the chaos and pandemonium, we all started to bait the situation with snide remarks and laughing.

Not a minute had passed when a police car came up the bicycle path with its lights on but no siren. A crowd of about twenty people was now gathering to see what was going on. Officer Williams and another cop got out of the cruiser with nightsticks in hand. Mrs. Perfesser headed off to them speaking of hoodlums, fighting, her husband, The Perfesser, and rioting. Officer Williams knew us, saw that The Perfesser was in the area of our benches, and got The Perfesser to go with his wife back to their bench. He had the other Cop go with them to get their version on what had happened.

Frankie and Lenny had melded into the crowd and then went across the side road to the apartment houses to be out of the limelight…so to speak. Officer Williams scanned us and recognized Brian, whose older brother was on the force. Officer Williams pulled him aside to get an understanding of what had happened. When Mrs. Perfesser saw this she started to yell down toward us; "Not him, he's not the one, it's the other one." motioning to Lenny over by the apartment houses, but the officer seemed to ignore her.

After Brian explained what had happened, Officer Williams told us to just sit by our benches and keep our mouths shut and he walked off to speak with The Perfesser. In his absence, Brian told us what he told Officer Williams about the bench geography situation, that The Perfesser and his wife were making the scene, and how The Perfesser seemed to have targeted us as a reformation project that was not going according to his plan.

After a few minutes both officers came back to us and Officer Williams told us that The Perfesser didn't want to file a complaint but that his wife had asked the officers to get rid of the "hoodlums". Brian began to speak and Officer Williams shot him a "Shut up!" look and hand signal.

Officer Williams continued; "I'm sure you're not gonna make a scene so I want you to stay off the Parkway till next Monday. We're gonna be watching and we don't want any problems. Understand me?" We gave up our benches and headed up to Burgerama on Fort Hamilton Parkway at Dahill Road.

The inconvenience of not having our benches was overcome by a movie at the Kenmore Theater as well as oogling the Erasmus girls on Friday and an el trip to Coney Island on Saturday night to use the Bat-A-Way hitting cages and gouge ourselves at Nathan's.

When Monday evening came and we headed off to Ocean Parkway we encountered three problems. First was The Perfesser's wife, glaring at us and shaking her fist. We just ignored her, though Lenny did smile and give a slight wave back. Frankie finally grabbed Lenny's shoulder and told him to cut it out as soon as he saw the cruiser. The second issue was the police cruiser with the two officers parked on the service road of the Parkway right near our benches. We halted and just stood there as Brian walked up to the cruiser and explained that we followed the order and were just coming back to our benches. The third problem was the three older couples who had claimed our turf in our absence.

Brian saw the problem and told officer that we wanted our benches but not any problems. Officer Williams told Brian that we should just go over and sit on the benches, not make a scene, and that the couples would probably move on. He said he was gonna drive by every so often to make sure there were no problems.

True to expectations, the three couples left the area within twenty minutes and we had our benches back. We saw everything as being back to normal, with us pitching nickels to a sidewalk line, talking sports, and wondering why girls avoided us. The Perfesser stayed by his wife and glanced over infrequently. Lenny, if he saw The Perfesser's glance, would give a small hand wave but got nothing in return.

Near the end of the summer, before we headed back to school, I saw Lenny walk over towards The Perfesser and talk with him for a few minutes. Lenny took out some papers from an envelope and showed them to The Perfesser. The conversation was serious and not at all animated.

When the conversation was finished, The Perfesser handed the envelope back to Lenny and then relit his cigar. Lenny folded the envelope and put it in his pocket, gave a small smile not returned by The Perfesser, turned around and came back to our benches.

I asked Lenny what was going on and he said, "Nottin'. Jeez, whattaya gotta know everything?" That was the end of the conversation and the subject.

Our senior year flew by and in the summer of 1960 many of us had graduated and were going to be moving on with our lives. Lenny got a partial scholarship to Rider College in "Joisey". Another fellow went off to Kings Point, two to Hofstra, two to Brooklyn College and four of us to day jobs and college at night. Five guys took day jobs and two guys went into the Navy. I went the New York Stock Exchange and to St. John's at night.

It was about two years later that Ruth Miller, a neighbor-friend of mine from my apartment house, ran into me and told me of a class she was taking at Pace being taught that summer by a professor from Brooklyn College. The course had to do with Industrial Dynamics and the specific subject of Sociopathic Behaviors. She said there was a certain familiarity about the lecture that all came together when she ran into her Professor on a subway ride home to Church Avenue and he mentioned that he lived on Ocean Parkway near Avenue C. Out of the blue, she realized that the group he had been discussing in class was my group of friends and that his key subject character was Lenny, whom she knew through Lenny's sister, Marlene.

She said The Perfesser was presenting the group as somewhat dysfunctional both individually and collectively. He attributed the situation on the absence of proper supervision and leadership, and the absence of goals for the group members.

I felt personally challenged and that The Perfesser unfairly dramatized the situation for his own purposes. There was nothing I could do about it so I just stewed on it until it was replaced by other events and pushed back into the recesses of my brain.

Some of the fellows actually graduated college in 1964 and most went off to corporate jobs. I graduated in '65 and so did Lenny. He was receiving a Master's in Accounting though he still had one course to take in the summer.

Robert was graduating from Hofstra on the five-year plan and, after changing majors three times, arranged for six of us go to dinner at Gage and Tollner's as a recognition of accomplishments and of "moving on".

Johnny, who was driving a limo for "da guys" up at The Burger Rail Diner, got it for the evening and picked up Lenny and me to go downtown and meet Dom, Joel and Harvey who would take the subway over from the City.

After picking up Lenny at his parents' apartment house and as we turned onto Ocean Parkway, I glanced over to our benches and their new occupants. In a flashback, I said to Lenny; "Remember the benches and some of the stuff that went on there? Things sure have changed. Who would have imagined."

Lenny was pretty solemn and simply said; "We didn't do too bad."

After a short pause, thoughts of The Perfesser popped up and I said, "Lenny, you ought to make copies of your diplomas and awards and send them to The Perfesser and tell him that he was so ever wrong and to shove them up his ass."

Lenny smiled at me; "Nah, he was trying to do what he thought was the right thing. Months after he and I had that blow-up, I went over and tried to talk with him. I apologized and told him he was right. I showed him my grades and my scores and asked that he write a letter of recommendation to Rider for me. He told me I was pushy and I told him that sometimes it takes extra effort to change paths. Anyway, we met again a couple days later and we talked for a couple of hours and he agreed to write the letter if I committed to excel in college. His letter helped me get the grant and the job in the library at Rider."

I was dumbfounded and embarrassed about the "shoving the diplomas" comment.

"Why didn't you tell me about you and The Perfesser?"

"There wasn't much to tell. I had to save face; I didn't want the rest of the guys see me back down. Besides, I didn't know how it would turn out. He was okay though."

"You coulda told me."

Lenny didn't say anything. He sorta shrugged and kept looking out his window. After a minute of so, I asked Lenny; "I wonder what ever happened to The Perfesser?"

Lenny looked over at me and said; "I usually see him every summer or whenever I was back from Rider. We'd have lunch and talk about school and goals and stuff. He was really okay if he saw you were at least listening to him. Last year he and his wife moved down to the Miami area. They have kids down there. He's teaching part-time."

After another minute or so he added, "He's the one who pushed me into applying to law school."

"You going to law school? How did that come about?"

"He just kept talking about goals and plans and said it would be a shame not to build on doing so well in college. He had me sit for the LSAT and apply to a couple of schools. It wound up that I could get some financial help if I go to Brooklyn Law."

"Whatta you gonna do?"

"I start in the fall. I'll stay with the accounting firm long enough to qualify to sit for the CPA exam."

"Lenny, you never cease to amaze me."

The dinner was a good time with us sitting pretty far to the back at Gage and Tollner's and being louder than we should have been. All the stories were great, though ever so slightly embellished, and a difficulty was getting a story finished without being interrupted by someone else with yet a different story.

After some after-dinner drinks, we piled into the limo and went to Scarola's on Church Avenue for some good pizza. Though they were closing, they stayed open for us after we advanced a twenty dollar tip.

The best part of the whole evening was that I was able to find out about some of the guys there and some of the missing.

I particularly remember…

…Johnny, who was driving the limo for "da guys" but he also used the limo for private driving. He didn't get paid when he drove for "da guys" but he could keep all the money from the private jobs. Besides, he had no expenses on the limo except the gas. Almost all of his stories could not be repeated. Johnny later felt it best to be in another line of work and no one seems to know where he is.

…Robert, who wound up working for his Dad in the garment center. A few years later he wound up in charge of moving the sewing down to South Carolina and, years later, into Hong Kong. He was way ahead on a lot of ideas. Still more years later, when his father was well on in years, they sold out to a textile and retail conglomerate and did very well. Robert relocated to Hawaii and has a very nice business in building-buying-selling-financing-insuring, time-sharing, and renting condos.

…Brian, who became a cop like his brother. He did well and didn't get into any trouble though he didn't try to climb in the ranks. He married a beautiful girl named Diane from Boro Park and New Utrecht high school and they had four kids. They still live in Brooklyn down near Sheepshead Bay. In the early ‘90s he was injured helping quell a domestic dispute and took a disability "out". He's now buying and selling used cars on his own lot on Coney Island Avenue.

…Harvey, who did well in a store-front security and renovation business and lives out on the "Lawn Guylan" north shore with his wife Charlene and one of his daughters who has re-nested with them along with their two grandkids. I don't think Harvey will ever stop working.

…Frankie, who stayed employed in the bread factory and got to be a supervisor. As the place became more automated he saw himself pushed out. He opened and closed a number of small, very un-successful businesses. He seems able to get by some questionable delivery services, OTB, and trips to Atlantic City.

…Lenny, who got his CPA while finishing law school. He worked for the Department of Justice and then a prestigious Wall Street investment bank. Later still he specialized in start-up technology firms and wound up with a big venture capital firms out in San Jose. Besides the fees he collects, he has been able to write himself in for some Founder's Stock. The internet bubble's bursting hurt but he had himself hedged nicely. Lenny also counsels graduate and undergraduate students at Stanford on personal planning and goal setting. I wonder where he got that idea, I say with a Cheshire cat grin.

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