Any conversation beginning with the phrase, “Look Motherfucker”, cannot be a good one. Especially when it is happening between an ex con and a muscled out greaser type trying to impress people by taking on a former Reidsville state prison inmate. It was difficult to determine the extent of their acquaintance but the greaser had referenced a nickname for the ex con that was evidently reserved for use only by the closest of friends. The bar patrons at the Fireplace, (supposedly one of the “classier joints” on Stewart Avenue), were moving away from the bar in anticipation of violence though in a routine manner that was motivated more out of practicality than fear. They had seen similar scenarios play out many times before so there was absolutely no reason to let a dispute between two Budweiser-fueled Neanderthals get in the way of scoring some action. To wit a poodle haired musician raving on about his “badass band” never broke eye contact with a mini-skirted girl as he picked up their drinks and relocated to the couches surrounding the dance floor. I also moved but stayed close enough to catch the action. “No one calls me that except my friends and you damn sure ain’t of them”, bellowed the con. “Let’s take it outside punk”, the greaser challenged. The ex con gladly let his younger opponent lead the way. Reflexively, (and most unwisely), the greaser turned his head slightly as he pushed open the entrance at which point he was torpedoed in the back of the head and fell out cold out onto the concrete in front of some arriving patrons. “Oh my”, said a thrill seeking Delta flight attendant as she stepped around the human baggage. And that was it. Over and out. Nothing to see here folks – just another Wednesday night. What that ex con’s nickname was I do not know. Nor did I want to find out if it was going to provoke that kind of reaction.
A nickname is generally assigned to you without your involvement or approval and usually in response to some habitually exhibited behavior (sometimes unknowingly). Within families it is most often a “cute” variation on your given name or as a tribute to your appearance. Schoolmates are a common source of nicknames as are team members should you play sports. But other times they can be given to you as a form of mockery and in response to some offense (real or imagined) and the only way you can shake it off is by engaging in fisticuffs or by arranging for someone to intervene on your behalf such as an older brother or scary friend. Running with a gang can help in these situations but then you might wind up with an equally as obnoxious nickname from your group. Nicknames on The Avenue served a dual purpose with the first being for simple descriptive or entertainment purposes and the second being for evasion of the law. If you don’t know a guy’s real name it becomes a little difficult for anyone to ever tell the police what it might be. In the rare event that anyone did give you a real name then it was most likely an alias. I worked alongside a guy for close to 4 years and never knew his real name. It kept changing with the season – usually the tax season or the football season. The more accomplished gamblers and crooks always concealed their real names but some of these guys were not very imaginative. One month it might be Robert F. Jones and the next F. Robert Jones. Yea – that’s sure gonna throw off the debt collectors and lawmen.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim, while not specifically interested in nicknames or places like Stewart Avenue, did in fact help us understand that applying a label to someone could influence that person to engage in behavior commensurate with the label even if the person had no prior inclination to do so. As an example there was this one guy named Jamie who lived in the Trailer Park next to the La Fiesta Mexican restaurant. His “offenses” were 1) his accent indicated some degree of education beyond high school. He exhibited a professorial air and that alone could earn him a beating from some chip-on-the-shoulder “you think you’re better than me” redneck. 2) He was well-dressed in comparison to the typical Stewart Avenue guy, and 3) (perhaps worst of all), he spoke with a slight lisp. He came to Brothers Three on a near nightly basis to score a sixer of Pearl which was an unusual choice for the area – my guess was that he was of Texas derivation. According to the ladies of the trailer park and the Ladies of the Night he always flirted though never followed through. According to them he was recovering from a nasty divorce and wanted to keep to himself. I arrived to work one day as Jamie had just left Bros Three and Terry said, “Oh Professor Fagot (pronounced Fah-go) was just here. Perhaps you two should get together and talk about writing essays”. The latter being a reference to my frequent school writing assignments. And there it was – the nickname ! The effect was quick and brutal. After that, no one ever called him Jamie again. I saw him one night at LP Pipps, (a bar next to what would become Peaches Record store), crying into his beer. He was obviously three sheets to the wind and whined to no one in particular, “maybe they know something about me that I don’t know about myself – maybe I am what they call me”. Clearly not his best moment. In any case I, as well as anyone else sitting nearby, was obligated to move away else be counted as an associate. Guilt by proximity.
The worst type of nickname was the self-applied one. It was cowardice plain and simple. Give yourself a nickname before anyone else can thus avoiding uncomfortable criticism. But this was a widely despised practice and almost never prevented others from completely ignoring your work. One of the worst offenders on Stewart Avenue was the owner of Brothers Three – a young short guy named Miller who dubbed himself “The Killer”. At first I thought it was a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis which would have been cool but the other guys told me that it was simple compensation for being short. None of the women he pursued reacted to “The Killer” so I assumed it was something he used to impress other men but it might have hurt him to know that it was just a source of humor. He wasn’t generally respected but he didn’t care since he spent as little time on The Avenue as possible. He had access to funds via his family and by the end of the 70s sold out and moved to the lake.
During my time on “The Avenue” my sobriquet was “The Kid” because I was much younger than everyone else or at least it seemed that way to them. (I was a mere 14 when I started working). There was another guy called “The Kudamachi Kid” but since he was about ten years older than me there was never any confusion. I never knew what “Kudamachi” referred to but I think it had something to do with muscle cars. He worked in some capacity at the Bishop Brothers Auto Auction which was something of a south side Atlanta institution. At the time it was like the “Land of Misfit Toys” except for abandoned and totaled cars that dealers would buy and fix up (maybe) and resell for outrageous money to people with no credit. I do know that “back in the day” it was more honorable and there would actually be decent cars on offer and entire families would pack a fried chicken dinner and head to the auction on Saturday night.
Anyway, I was just happy that “The Kid” was pretty benign and it seemed to me then that no one would expect much from me. Boy was I wrong. Because I was young and relatively green they used me to “run errands” for them such as running liquor down to Kaiser’s Trim Shop for the Weekly Friday parties. Never mind that I was 14. Never mind I had no license. They would toss me the keys to a Lincoln Town Car full of scotch, beer, and sealed boxes of god only knows what with orders to deliver. Were I to be caught by the police I was told to lie and reference my “sick, aging Mother” which would have been awkward since it would have been clear to even a lunatic that my errand was far from one of mercy. Once I became “reliable” in the eyes of the gamblers and bookies I was sometimes asked to give rides to various mistresses up and down the Avenue presumably to thwart detection by wives who might ransack the family car in search of evidence. Those conversations were always boring and nearly unbearable due to over application of cheap perfume. I greatly preferred rolling up to a friend’s house in a Cadillac rather than transporting floozies.
I never shook the name nor did I want to. As with others on The Avenue I benefited from the anonymity a nickname provided and being thought of as perpetually youthful was never a bad thing. Besides it provided a natural excuse for ongoing adolescent behavior although that eventually became a problem. There were many others with nicknames some of which were highly unimaginative such as “Little Bit” for women of diminutive stature or “Stretch” for the tall guys. By contrast one of the better ones included “Rodeo Nagle” who was a car salesman known for “corralling customers” into making deals. His ever present cowboy hat and sterling silver bourbon flask, combined with wild tales of the rodeo circuit, went over well with the working class guys needing a ride. It has occurred to me many times since then that these nicknames allowed people to disappear into a fantasy that provided a respite from the daily grind which in moderation is an excellent coping skill. Of course you know you have a problem when you take offense to insults against an identity that doesn’t really exist in the first place. Let me know if you have memories of The Avenue and might have had your own nickname. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid