On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Shefferman’s stoop. But not just me you know, it was the rest of the guys too. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria.
At the time I was seventeen and just graduated from The High School of Art & Design in Manhattan. My roller hockey team “Ryan’s Northstars” had just won the championship down at avenue F the previous June against my cousins team “The Terrance Cafe Rangers” So it certainly was a special time for me.
Now most of us were anywhere from fifteen to twenty at the time, and Freddie was much older. Freddie could have easily passed for Jesus or Tommy Chong from “Cheech and Chong”. With long curly black hair, a beard and little round glasses. It was hard to imagine what Freddie really looked like too.
Freddie may have been 35 years old at the time. His mother and father owned the house he lived in. And from the stories Freddie told us all the time, we were pretty sure that he grew up on the block also. I know Freddie graduated from Pratt in Brooklyn and did work “freelance” from time to time. Hey, he even owned a 68 Triumph Spitfire convertible, so he had to have some kind of dough. But most of the time Freddie just loved to “hang out” on the block. Just looking like “Jesus” in his bell-bottoms, sandals, and yellow and white striped shirt. Leaning against the white picket fence of his house talking to anyone who wanted to “hang out” with him.
Freddie did spend some time in Vietnam too; I think he told us he used to make maps there. But we never pushed it because who knew if he would “Freak out” about it. And Freddie knew just about everything you know, politics, art, religion, history, philosophy, and most important, Brooklyn.
“You kids should have been around here when the Trolleys ran on Church Avenue. You couldn’t imagine the shit we used to do with the Trolleys” Freddie did share many of his Church avenue Trolley stories with us. From squashing pennies on the rails to making late night explosions on the high wires by throwing a metal pipe up at the lines, hoping to arc them both at once, and causing something to blow. I guess it did work sometimes, because Freddie told us many stories about being chased by the cops up our block too.
“What the hell are you guys doing here with me?” you should be out getting laid somewhere, you guys are really schmucks!”
Now we never asked Freddie the same question, because it was still a Saturday night, and the clock just struck midnight for him too. But we just took his insults in stride, and just listened to more of his stories.
“Did you guys check out that new program “Saturday Night Live”, now that’s some funny shit. Hopefully NBC won’t cancel it next year like they always do. Bunch of schmucks!”
Freddie was a Jewish 60’s flower child with an edge.
“You guys are little assholes, didn’t you see that girl walk by and smile at you?”
“Why don’t you talk to her and get her number?” “When I was your age I had a girl on each arm every night”
No one ever dared to ask Freddie what happened, because we never saw him with anyone.
Freddie hated the establishment too, every President sucked, every Governor sucked, every Mayor sucked. But then again Freddie never voted anyway.
On very rare occasions Freddie would let us down into his basement to see all his photography equipment. Freddie knew all about mold making and casting too. In fact he made me my first fiberglass goalie mask that I still have today. We may have even seen “pot roaches” in empty cat food cans down there too. If Freddie did smoke pot, we never knew it, because he kept his personal life in the basement.
Sometimes some of my friend’s dads would playfully rib Freddie about the fact that he seemed to be blissfully un-employed. Especially my friend Robert’s dad Bob Brennan.
Now Bob worked on the World Trade Center and told us countless stories about being up on the tower crane some 110 stories up. About how it swayed back and forth and almost got him sick on windy days.
“Hey get a job you bum”
Freddie would just laugh with all of us sitting around him. Like overgrown Santa’s elf’s around our spiritual leader.
“Hey, I am working” “I’m teaching these kids about life, including your son” “I’ll send you the bill next week!”
Sometimes another great Brooklyn philosopher and storyteller, Freddie’s downstairs tenant “Bobby Wilson” would join in on the conversation. Bobby Wilson was stocky and stood about six feet tall, with a big square jaw, dark blue eyes and midnight black hair. Bobby always looked like he was on the verge of murdering someone. He drove a tow truck for “Al & Leo’s” collision on 36th street near Fort Hamilton. In fact the place is now called “36th Street Collision” and Al is still the owner. Bobby always wore a dark blue jump suit with red script letters “Bobby” on his left chest, With the police scanner blaring and the volume up high, you always knew when Bobby was on the block. And don't forget, he had his name painted on the truck also, so you just couldn't miss him.
I think if Bobby didn’t know Freddie, he may have just beaten him up because of his long hair. Bobby hated hippies, freaks, the un-employed, the protesters, and the left-wingers. I think you get the picture. Yet together they were our own "Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby" right on East 4th street. Just arguing about everything and taking opposite sides on any subject. And of course Bobby’s solution for everything if conversation and debate didn’t work was to just “kick their asses” Most of Bobby’s stories were about his adventures driving his tow truck for Al and Leo. And usually when he was the first person to get to some horrible accident somewhere before the cops.
“Now who has a weak stomach here?” “Because if you do, I don’t think you want to hear this one”
“OK, I heard this call on the scanner about a roll-over on McDonald and avenue C. It was late at night and I’m just a couple of blocks away. I get there and the car's totally in flames. It looked like a 69 Charger but I wasn’t sure. And the guys still in it because I see his head. So I try to pull the guy out of the car and the only thing I can grab is his head. So I’m on the ground squatting like this, just pulling and pulling. And them “Boom”, I fall backwards and the guy’s head comes off right in my hands. I’m on my back just looking at his head in my hands. I think he was even trying to talk to me too cause his lips were moving”.
At this point Freddie would be looking up at the sky above East 4th, just rolling his eyes.
“Hey Freddie you think I’m bullshittin?” “Cause if you do I’ll go upstairs and show you the guys ear, I cut it off as a souvenir”
Freddie would just shake his head.
And the stories just went on and on, and the hot summer nights just rolled on by. I guess our parents were torn, on one hand they wanted us to be going out more, but then on the other all my mom had to do was poke her head out the window and see us all on Freddie’s stoop.
But just like everything when you were young, you thought it would never end. Until one day our nightmare came true.
Freddie told us he found a job and was going back to work.
Well, back to work, that’s ok. Because I worked too, and went to college also. So maybe Freddie couldn’t hang out till 2 AM anymore.
And then it hit us like a brick, my heart sunk, my world ended. Freddie told us his job was in Alaska, and he was leaving within a week, and would not be back for years.
We left the stoop that night feeling very depressed, but still held out some hope that Freddy was full of shit.
But then the day came that would be etched in my mind forever. Just a few days after Freddie told us the news I was sitting on my porch with some of the guys. Across the street was some guy walking with a clean white shirt and kacky pants. He crossed the street and started walking towards us. He had short black hair, clean smooth skin and a big bright smile. He also wore little round glasses.
“Do you guys know who I am?” We just looked at him perplexed and said “no” “You’re kidding, you don’t know who I am?” “Sorry” we said, “we have no idea” “You schmucks” the voice sounded familiar, yet the face wasn’t. “I’m Freddie, you assholes”
Oh, my god, it was Freddie, he cut his beard, hair, and was wearing a white button down shirt and dress pants.
We all just stared at him in shock.
“I told you guys I got a job, what did you think, I was full of shit?”
I guess maybe for once Freddie wasn't full of shit, no he was really leaving the block, and wouldn't be back for years.
I don’t remember the day Freddie left, I may have been working or in college at the time.
We tried to pick up the pieces with Bobby Wilson and his tow truck stories, but it wasn’t the same without Freddie. Then tragically Bobby’s son Bobby jr. got real sick and died of a brain tumor. And Bobby just wasn’t the same anymore.
From what I heard he just stayed inside his apartment and did a lot of crying.
The stoop in front of Freddie’s house was empty, yet there was still hope that at least Bobby would be back someday.
But then one day when I got home from work I remember seeing a NYC morgue truck in front of Freddie’s house. I figured it was Freddie’s mom that died because she was quite old. As the black body bag was being carried out of the house, Bobby’s wife Eileen was holding on to it and crying. It was Bobby Wilson.
The doctors said it was an aneurism, but we knew it was just a broken heart. Because Bobby just could not live without his son.
I remember the funeral at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. The whole block must have come that night.
And there was Bobby in the casket. With a cigar in his pocket, and still looking like he could kick someone’s ass, even in death.
Yeah, it was over. Everyone was gone.
So the stoop remained empty forever at 418 East 4th. And after Freddie’s parents died he sold the house.
We moved on with our lives. Found girlfriends or got married. Some of us even moved away far from the block.
I heard Freddie finished his work in Alaska and finally did get married.
In fact, rumor is he still lives in Brooklyn.
But truth is, I haven’t seen him in almost 30 years, and neither has anyone else.
And I hope that some of those late night stories about Brooklyn and life rubbed off on me too. Because I grew up with some of the greatest storytellers in Brooklyn, although at the time I don’t think they had a clue that they were just that, “story tellers”.
And Freddie, wherever you are. Thanks for all those great nights on your stoop. Just hanging out and passing time, and giving me a "gift" I will never forget.