“Stephen!” “Steve!” “Stee-fan!” “Steveleh!”
Herb and the guys, we were on Herbie’s stoop, trying to play pinochle by the light leaking out from the smoked glass window in the front door.
“I don’t hear nuthin’, d’you?” asked Steve Bernstein.
“Not a goddamned thing,” said Stephan Goldsmith.
“What you sayin’ I can’t hear you,” admitted Steven Chestivenofsy, whose parents obviously so confused the agents on Ellis Island that they got revenge by writing down on their entry card the name that would confound them and their family for generations.
“What’s ya problem, Steveleh?,” Herb whined. Chestivenofsky twitched a little, moved his rump a few inches on the stone step in reaction to the name his mother always called to him as the sun was setting, to gather him back home to the Chestivenofsky hearth for over-boiled potting meat and diced potatoes. Herbie, he really knew how to hit the kid’s ticket and once he got going he was merciless.
“Speak up, Steveleh. Tell Herbeleh here what ever your problemeh is, vish shtash-du?”
“Go fuck yerself,” Steveleh suggested.
“Too tired from banging yer mameleh,” Herb replied.
Chestivenofksy glared. Mothers were fair game when ranking out the other guy, but when you’re thirteen and begin to have an inkling of what you are saying actually means, the temptation to defend one’s mother’s honor becomes pretty strong.
“So think of somethin’ to say, or play another card, fart-head,” I said with frustration. “Pretty soon you’ll need to bring out a shabbas candle to see these cards.” I wanted to get on with the game. I was pretty sure the “Stephen!” now being re-bellowed came from my own father.
“Nah, can’t see a thing,” Herbie tried.
“Sure,” I said. “You have no tricks, Steveleh and me we got six, sure you’re happy to tell me ya can’t see. Tell ya what, you and Goldsmith just concede the game, pay up yer quarter each and we can call it a night.”
“Not a chance,” said Herbie, who played a jack of clubs apparently by reason of seeing the light.
“Stephen, come down and come with me this minute.” My father’s voice sounded awfully close, and then I realized he was standing three steps below me, arms on hips, his unlit cigar bouncing with his lower lip as he spoke.
“Is that you, dad,” I asked with a bit of astonishment in my voice.
“No it’s Prince Rainier from Monaco and I am looking for my wife Grace Kelley. Have any of you gentlemen seen my wife this evening?” My dad was a great one for sarcasm.
“Dad! Give us five minutes. I got a good hand here.”
“If you can see the cards at this hour, I would be amazed. Just throw in your cards, pick up your own quarter and let’s go.”
In the background the calls for Stephen in all its glorious permutations continued. It was the name of the decade, or at least the prior decade. Half the kids you met were some version of Stephen; six of the fourteen boys in my Home Room were Stephens or variants.
“Gotta go,” said Goldsmith, uncomfortable in the presence of an adult.” I think maybe my mom’s calling me,” and he was down the stairs and a few strides away before he heard my father ask him, “oh really, whatever gave you that idea?”
We walked about a quarter of a block, almost to my house, when my father finally spoke again.
“Yeah, did, I did.”
“So how much”
“A buck, woulda been more if ya hadn’t broken up the last game.”
He waved his hand dismissively and invited me by upturned palm to sit on our steps.
“Morris, that you? Did you find him? Come in, it’s getting cold.”
“Yes, look, Betty just give me a minute with the kid.”
Silence. Ma had given us silent permission.
“When I call you, I expect you to come. Do you hear me? I feel like a jerk, yelling like that.”
“Sorry dad, but we waz far away, I wasn’t sure if….”
“Do not shit a shitter,” my old man advised. “I know what you guys were doing, sitting there sniggering . ‘Oh, that has to be Goldsmith’s mother, not mine.’ ‘ Gee, doesn’t Mrs. Bernstein sound cross this evening, glad she is not calling for me.’ You can tell when it is Mrs. Chesty,” using her neighborhood nickname, which was also physically apt, “but with you and Bernstein and Goldsmith, and then there’s that Steven Karov from the back and that new kid Steven, what’s/his/last name again, from the apartment house? You kids are just playing name games.”
He pulled out a match book and lit his stub. A puff of smoke surrounded us and the dissipated, followed shortly by my mother calling out, “Morris, you’re not actually smoking a cigar while I am waiting here at the table watching my dinner turn cold, are you?”
“Shit,” he muttered, pulling me up by the arm and moving me down the street. “Be right in,” he called over his shoulder, “just giving our young prince a talking-to.”
“So, here’s what we are going to do. From now on, when you are out playing on the street, night or day, cards or stoop ball or stickball or Chinese or anything, when mother or I call you, you will hear “Murphy.” And when you hear Murphy, you will come home immediately.”
“Murphy? What does that mean, Murphy?”
“Well, the wax formations in your ear canals seems to have rendered you deaf to the word Stephen and all its derivatives, so we will call you Murphy instead.”
“What the hell’s Murphy?” My voice must have been a bit shrill, not to mention the curse word, but he was on a roll and not to be deflected by lesser issues.
“It is simple. So simple that I think even you will be able to understand. Is everyone on this block Jewish?”
“Simple question. Is everyone on this block Jewish?”
“Well, yeah, dad, I guess so. Far as I know. Except the super in the apartment house, he’s a negro.”
“And as far as you know, is not everyone in this whole neighborhood Jewish, from Eastern Parkway all the way down to Flatbush Avenue?”
“Yeah, I think maybe yes.”
“And do you have anyone in your class who isn’t Jewish?”
I thought a moment. “Don’t know anyone. Even the teachers are all Jewish. Except the gym teacher, a’course.”
“Precisely.” My father moved in for the kill. Being a lawyer, it was all about the kill. “So, Murphy is a proud old Irish name, much revered on the Old Sod. Some of my very best clients have been named Murphy. Except for Sean,” he mused, “but then there is always the exception that proves the rule.”
“So,” he intoned quietly and intently, “when someone around here calls out Murphy in a nice clear voice, there can be no question that, in these here parts, we are calling, and only and exclusively calling, for our son whom we once, in the cloud of the War, had burdened with the name Stephen. You will not look at Steve, or Stephan, or even the now-sainted Steveleh, and pretend that it is someone calling for their persons. You will know to a certainty that the bell is tolling for you, Murphy Honig.”
In 1959, Stephan Goldsmith and I shared a freshman room in college. I had elicited a promise from Stephan that, once away from the neighborhood, I was to be Stephen, a name I promised to acknowledge promptly. I did not need my first days at college taken up with the humor of my nickname, nor the fear that someone would mis-understand and invite me to join them for Sunday Mass.
So it was with some consternation that I overheard the floor monitor say in yes, an Irish whisper, to a boy I did not know as I passed down the hall: “There he is now. Freshman. I understand his name is Murphy….”
When I caught up with Goldsmith later that day – well, as they say, “you should see the other guy.”