Last summer, right before my grandfather died, my mother and her boyfriend, Jim, rode their bikes to his house. My grandparents live four miles away from my mom, and it’s a straight shot down a semi-wooded New Jersey street where cars can only go 35 miles per hour but usually go 50. Jim’s in okay shape, for a 50-something-year-old man, but my mom is one of those people who has time in the morning—who wakes up at 6 a.m., doesn’t snooze, runs five miles, eats breakfast, reads the news, and then gets ready for work. Jim, like the rest of us, tends to lag a bit behind. That day, he professed exhaustion about the return trip and declared that my grandmother should give them a ride back in her car. She consented.
“One-Way Jim,” my grandfather said to him, according to the story that’s been passed on to my brother, my cousins, my uncles, and me. “I’m calling you that from now on.”
He wasn’t kidding.
My grandpa—“Pop,” as we called him—was born in the Ironbound, in Newark, the only son of an Italian immigrant. He was a person of contradictions. I never saw him overeat, but he weighed more than 300 pounds. I never witnessed him get violent, but he had a safe filled with dozens of automatic weapons. I never came across him not wearing leather sandals, all black, and a red bandana over his forehead, but he had closets stuffed with dress shoes and gaudy suits. And I never caught him reading a book. But he reveled in words, and he had a propensity for nicknames.
Being nicknamed by Pop was like being knighted by the king. There was Joe Bugs, an exterminator and small-town mayor, whose one daughter married my uncle. There was Ernie the Attorney, who grew up with Pop and became the family lawyer. There was Satellite Bob, who installed and fixed his televisions for decades. There was Video Bob, too (before my time), and there was Ralphie Boy (a hefty man, so large and so old, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him as a child). There were so many more I wish I could remember.
There was a subtle irony to Pop’s reliance on the obvious, though only if you were “in” on the joke. Only few were. I don’t doubt, for instance, that the “Bugs” of “Joe Bugs” works in two ways: one as a nod to his profession, and the other at his uncanny ability to keep running his mouth, even when you don’t want him to. One-Way Jim, the same way: he was both incapable of completing a round-trip on his bicycle, and he is a relatively simple man (he eats the same things every day, he only gets The Star-Ledger on Sundays, he goes to bed—punctually—at 8 p.m. each night). Ernie the Attorney, beyond the rhyme and the reference to his job: he was Pop’s counsel, the only adult I can really recall giving him advice he’d actually accept. Satellite Bob: he repairs televisions (he became known in Pop’s town for installing the largest satellite around), and he’s seemingly everywhere, a simple phone call away, as if he’s floating in the night sky and can descend somewhere in a second’s notice. (He once appeared at Pop’s beach house, two hours from where he resided, in a matter of 30 minutes with no explanation.)
I’ve been thinking about Pop—and nicknames—because I’ve been thinking much about Donald Trump’s extremely short-lived communications director, Anthony Scaramucci—or to his friends, his buddies on Wall Street, the “Mooch.” After his (apparently not uncommon) on-the-record, profanity-laced rant to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, I joked that Scaramucci would be the worst thing for Italian Americans since The Jersey Shore. Thankfully, he lasted 10 days and never officially started his role. (Days before his ousting, Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone, “I already miss Anthony Scaramucci.”) But still, in the span of basically a week, we had an entire USA Today article dedicated to the Mooch blowing a kiss at the end of a press briefing, Mario Cantone impersonating him on Comedy Central’s The President Show, and this New York Times headline—“You Talkin’ to Me? Trump’s White House Gets Some New York Attitude.” Seattle’s The Stranger even had a quiz that asked you to identify if Scaramucci said a quote or Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) from Goodfellas. This, of course, is the type of nuanced reaction we’ve come to expect: caricaturing a caricature, parodying a parody.
No one brought up, that is, the moment Martin Scorsese, in his signature tracking shot, meanders the camera through a restaurant as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) introduces all the characters in a voiceover: Fat Andy. Frankie the Wop. Freddie No Nose. Pete the Killer. Nicky Eyes. Jimmy Two Times. Hill offers little explanation for these Mafia monikers, beyond the occasional terse clarification. Jimmy Two Times, for example, “got [his] nickname because he said everything twice.” It’s hard, though, not to consider a less literal interpretation, one from Pop’s practiced tradition: that Jimmy could have been a deceiver, too, maybe an unfaithful lover. The point is, however, that I don’t know. I know as much about Jimmy Two Times’s sexual encounters as you do about Joe Bugs and his blabbering.
That Goodfellas scene is a flash, a 45-second onslaught of connections and relationships, and these mobsters vanish back into a place of which we’re unfamiliar. We’re uncertain. This happens, too, on The Sopranos. We don’t see Paulie Walnuts hijack a truck he thinks holds television sets but really just contains a bunch of walnuts. We don’t see Big Pussy start out as a cat burglar. (“Pussy,” naturally, could also be a double entendre.) We’re left to wonder, always on the outside no matter how close we believe we get. The reason the nicknames on The Jersey Shore are so laughable is because they’re so utterly devoid of meaning. They’re not ambiguous. The nicknames, like the fictional space they exist in that’s purported to be “reality,” seem fake. Snooki, JWoww, Mike the Situation: these titles elicit no lore, no mystery, no legend. So nobody cares. We recognize they’re self-anointed. We move on.
But now we arrive at the Mooch, the brief reality-television star and the second-most powerful man in America for almost a fortnight. His nickname lends itself to analysis: it’s a truncated version of his last name, sure, but it’s also a likely summation of his personality and business strategy. The “Mooch” sounds like something you should be screaming from the sidelines as he reaches the 50-yard line. He’s a mooch. He takes things, enriching himself off others. Here, in Slate’s Felix Salmon’s words:
The Mooch, it’s important to understand, comes as close as humanly possible to being a man without a soul. His entire career has been based on finding people who are richer, more powerful, or otherwise more successful than himself and trying to be more like them.
It’s his “affectionate nickname on Wall Street,” according to William D. Cohan’s op-ed in The New York Times. In other words, it’s a term of endearment, a word that can only be fully understood by those closest to him. I do not know the Mooch, and barring his wealthy pals and a few journalists he treats as therapists, nor do most Americans. The name was nothing more than a glimpse into a world that’s not our own, a camera sliding through a crowded bar, an old man I loved and you didn’t, sitting in a chair and convincing an exterminator to laugh at how annoying he is.
So long, Mooch. We hardly knew ye.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.