I just learned that an old woman from the old neighborhood passed away. I was told that she had lived with her family in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge for almost three-quarters of a century. At one time both a mother and father lorded over a brood of five children. Seeing as the decedent was just shy of ninety years of age—and the youngest among her siblings—you can imagine that there aren’t too many of them left. Only one sister, in fact, remains on this earthly plane, and she is in a nursing home.
Such is the march of time—out with the old and in with the new. However, this large family of three boys and two girls avoided tying the knot altogether. Not a single one of them married and had children of their own. I’m certain there were layered reasons for this life course, particularly in a time when dysfunctional families—what family isn’t?—were more prone to live under the same roof come hell or high water; when men went off to war, too, returned home, and sometimes had to permanently anesthetize themselves to forget all that they experienced.
I really don’t recall anything about this particular family, who lived only a couple of blocks away from me while I was growing up, so I don’t have a clue what their unique life circumstances were, and why they chose to live the lives that they did. I didn’t even know their last name until a couple of days ago. Turns out that it was—from my perspective at least—an unusual one and synonymous with the words “acne” and “pimple.” I actually feel a certain loss that I wasn’t aware of their surname in my spry and enthusiastic youth, because I’m certain that it would have entertained me on some higher level. It would have been a perfect last name to affix to a character in a work of fiction.
In light of this woman’s passing, I was asked if I remembered one of her brothers, who was known in some neighborhood circles by the moniker “Sleepy Eyes.” There was a surfeit of oddball characters in the old neighborhood, many of who were branded with clandestine nicknames—for identification purposes only. Still, I didn’t recollect the man as so branded, so I’m left to conclude that said branding occurred before my time. I heard, too, that old “Sleepy Eyes” liked his drink, and was often seen venturing to, or coming from, one of the neighborhood’s many watering holes.
Light bulb above the head moment: I recalled a fellow who frequently walked by my house when I was a boy—a man who I also remember lived in the vicinity of where this family called home for the better part of a century. While little me didn’t know him as “Sleepy Eyes,” his unique visage gave him nonetheless a certain star appeal in the pantheon of intriguing neighborhood characters. He had a rather large head, distinctive bulbous nose and assorted zits of the permanent variety. And—if this man was indeed “Sleepy Eyes”—this latter affliction was most apropos considering his curious last name.
When I described this craggy sort—and equally craggy memory—to someone in the know, it was confirmed that he was one and the same: “Sleepy Eyes.” With a little Internet detective work on my part, I discovered that his name was George and that he passed away in 1980, which would have been just about right. While he was a guy that roamed the neighborhood for many years before my time, getting noticed as a bona fide character by the star struck me was definitely in the colorful 1970s. I never knew that he died because I didn’t know who he was. Just like that, “Sleepy Eyes” never walked by my house again, which is life in a nutshell. In trying to paint a mental picture of him in my mind all these years later, I’d say that he looked a lot like character actor Kenneth Tobey, minus, of course, the orange Irishness. The end of an era for sure. RIP "Sleepy Eyes'" sister and "Sleepy Eyes" thirty-four years later.