My Cousin Bobby

February 5, 2012

Bobby as I first knew him in Brooklyn

My cousin Bobby was one of the most unforgettable characters from my childhood. He was an enigma to me, a seeming hoodlum with an engaging personality and a problem-filled life. He had tattoos, the kind that were done with your own needles and some ink. He had an air of danger about him that I found both frightening and fascinating.

Bobby was the son of my mother’s sister Josephine who died when Bobby was young. I don’t know much about the  circumstances of her death or the absence of his father. Those things were not topics discussed around us. I did know that he had a bad reputation. I had never known anyone with one of those. From what I could piece together of the story, he had severely injured another boy in his neighborhood with a rock, apparently causing permanent medical problems as well as legal ones for Bobby.

Bobby had been taken in by my grandma and grandpa. He had a small room in the front of their railroad apartment in Brooklyn, and entering it was like being in the inner sanctum of a vagabond teenage gypsy. There was contraband of all sorts — hub caps and transistor radio parts and a switchblade —  quite exotic to a sheltered Jersey boy like me. It made me, just a kid, feel special being invited in, suddenly privy to a world that I knew nothing of. Sometimes he would take my sister and I around the corner and down a few blocks on 13th Ave. to get some Italian ice, an urban adventure unparalleled in my meager suburban experience. It was in Brooklyn where I had most of my interactions with Bobby.

There was one notable exception that stands out in my memory. Every so often my grandma and grandpa would come out to Jersey for a few days in the summer. My grandpa would get up early and dress as he did each day in a threadbare white shirt and a tie. He’d put on his straw fedora with the wide cloth band, stick his ever-present stogie in his mouth, and walk down the hill to Foster Village Shopping Center about a mile from our house. Foster Village was a 50’s style strip mall with a Grand Union supermarket, a stationery store, a barber shop, a liquor store, and a Chinese restaurant; not exactly the city, but it would do. Grandpa would go to the stationery store, buy a Daily News and a few cigars, and walk back again. Getting a lawn chair from our garage, he’d park himself on our front lawn — traffic whizzing by — puff on his cigar, and contentedly read the paper. As far as he was concerned, this was country life at its finest. Usually Bobby would remain in Brooklyn, staying with my Aunt Josie and Uncle Mike who lived downstairs from my grandparents. But one time, he came too.

Taking Bobby out of Brooklyn was like taking a fish out of water. He was a city boy through and through from his D.A. haircut to his pegged pants to his rough street way of speaking. There just wasn’t enough action for him in a small town like ours. Though I was young, even then I could tell he pretty much had free rein in doing what he wanted. However, this would not be the case at our house. Bobby was afraid of my father, who was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came to behavior. He was also physically imposing, so Bobby felt he had to toe the line when his Uncle George was around.

Bobby and I went across the street that particular day to Memorial Field to hit a baseball around, something I could spend a prolonged amount of time doing even by myself. But Bobby tired of it quickly, so we headed over to the woods, a novelty to him, to poke around. He started smacking rocks with a stick, and I of course imitated him. Suddenly he hit one into his foot and vociferously dropped the F bomb. Now, I came from a household where no cursing was heard (other than a rare “damn” from my father when he’d slam his finger with a hammer), so this was the first time I’d heard this word. I could tell that it was a special word from the situation and the animated way in which he said it, one with some unknown but palpable power, and I repeated it.

At first Bobby laughed, so preposterous was the sound of this most taboo of words emanating from the mouth of his young country-bumpkin of a cousin. However, he immediately turned serious. He took me by the shoulders and, with eyes wide, demanded, “Don’t you ever say that no more!” I thought this was quite odd. I’d never seen him anything but carefree and self-assured. My immature mind intuitively realized that I somehow had the upper hand in this strange exchange, so I repeated it, and then repeated it again even louder. I could now see panic on his face. If his Uncle George ever heard this coming from me, he’d know exactly where I got it from, and it would be the end of Bobby. He now squeezed my shoulders even tighter and shook me. “I’m serious! Don’t say that no more!”

“Why?” I asked, surprised at the intensity of his reaction. “You said it!”

“Yeah, but that’s different. Don’t you say it. You gotta promise me.”

I knew this wasn’t a game anymore, so I promised.

“You swear?” he insisted, squeezing again.

“Yes! Yes! I swear!”

We headed back home, Bobby stewing in silent worry. “Really,” I said to reassure him. “I won’t say it.” And I didn’t, at least not until many years later, and never around my house.

When I became a teenager, I saw Bobby less and less frequently. I no longer went to my grandma’s in Brooklyn so often, and when I did, he usually wasn’t around. I think he bounced between dead-end jobs for a while, and then he joined the Army. I remember my father saying that maybe they could “straighten him out.”

Bobby ended up  going to Viet Nam. In the photo I have of him, his face looked different, the cockiness I was used to now gone. Sometimes stories would circulate at family gatherings about his sporadic troubles over there, not surprising given his history of difficulty dealing with authority. Eventually things came to a head, and he went AWOL. I don’t know exactly how that was resolved, but he ended up back in Brooklyn where he got married and finally settled down. After that, nothing.

I never really got to know Bobby as an adult. I have no idea of his current whereabouts. I feel strangely bad about that though it was quite beyond my control. I don’t know if he ever realized that I actually looked up to him as a kid. I think I’d like him to know that. Looking now at the few pictures I have of him, I can still hear his voice and his laugh and see the mischief in his eyes. To me he will always remain the tough Brooklyn kid with the broad smile who trouble always seemed to find.

Bobby in Nam



  1. Love this one. You must find him and do a follow-up!

  2. this one was so sad in the end! get in touch with him!

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