Freddie Cohen was the youngest of four children. My dad told me he was born premature and came home from the hospital in a shoebox. Even after growing up, he was the smallest of three boys in his family, his older brother Joe being the tallest at five foot nine. The next was Ike, the consummate one-liner, a classy guy and a real charmer. He had a comical face with a large hawk-like nose, large expressive eyes, and a full head of still slightly gelled gray hair. He just walked up to you like he was already joking and started telling you one. He’s my earliest memory of stand-up comedy, and he had a smooth delivery that was always spot-on. As soon as he finished telling a joke, another started. He would lean in close when he was ready to move on, stare at you impassively and say, “I’ll talk to you later…” And then he moved away to find other prey.
The three boys were quick to admit my grandmother, Sarah, was the toughest of the four siblings. She and Freddy were only a few years apart, looked a lot alike, and were both vertically challenged, each about five-foot-three tall. Sarah was very protective of her younger brother.
When I met my Uncle Freddy, he must have been close to 50 something, and by then most of his hair was gone; there was just a bit of gray left above his ears. He and my Aunt Ruthie lived in a third-floor apartment just outside of Boston. My mum and dad always told stories about the relatives we visited on the way to their house/apartment.
Freddy was a small child, and at an early age children started picking on him, which is when he quickly learned to defend himself using his fists. Later he became a boxer and had 15 professional fights. At the end of his boxing career, he started wearing a large, flesh-colored hearing aid in his right ear, and I’m told that was because he had always been susceptible to left hooks…
Even after his fighting days were over, Freddy stayed in the fight game, becoming a trainer and a corner man. When we got to his third-floor apartment and walked up the dark, narrow staircase, Uncle Freddy was waiting for me at the door, hands in the air, and he was saying: “Okay, kid, let’s see what you got…” I was throwing a bunch of 5-year-old punches that he easily caught with his hands. He would stop me and show me how to throw specific punches; my favorite was the uppercut.
After boxing class was over, he would tell me that after giving a lot of punches, his fighters all needed massages, and then he would start working my shoulders like I was one of his fighters.
Freddy smoked big cigars, and even when he wasn’t smoking he smelled of one. At family gatherings, it would come out and light up. I never smoked cigars myself, but followed Uncle Freddy because even as a child I loved the smell of a lit cigar.
Freddy and Ruthie made homemade chocolate syrup for all the kids in the family. At each visit, we leave with a large full bottle. At that time, at least in my family, everyone had a bottle of soft sun unsweetened prune juice in their fridge, that’s how this generation kept it steady, and if you were a kid and you got in trouble, they’d make you have a drink, yuck!
Photo courtesy of Etsy.com (this is the real bottle they used)
Chocolate syrup was still put in empty prune juice bottles, labels removed. The glass bottles were light green, 9″ tall, 4″ in diameter and held 40 ounces. And, there were always little pieces of waxed paper on the tops with tightly screwed metal lids. As much as I hated prune juice, I didn’t mind bottles as long as they were full of Uncle Freddy and Aunt Ruthie’s chocolate syrup. It was so much better than the store bought stuff.
My father had a small clothing workshop in Hingham Dockyard in the mid-1960s, and on Saturdays I would walk in with him sweeping the floors between the sewing machines and around the cutting tables, which were always full of leftovers. . On the way back, we stopped at Sir donut and get a dozen assorted donuts for the little team working overtime, one of which was my Uncle Freddy. My uncle Freddy worked as a presser, and when he worked he always wore a plain white tank top and had an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. When I passed with the broom, he always looked at me with a big smile; cigar stuck between his teeth. I couldn’t help but smile back…
There were two steam presses; Freddy operated on one, and Sal exploited the other. It was the classic tortoise and hare situation. My Uncle Freddy worked slowly and carefully while Sal walked a mile a minute, and there was still a little sweat on his brow and his dark black hair looked damp and greasy. He wasn’t much taller than Uncle Freddy. Years later, when the first Rocky movie came out, I couldn’t believe how Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) looked like Sal.
At the end of the day, Sal had ironed almost a third more clothes than my uncle, and I asked my father why. He said, “Freddy works diligently, and very few of his clothes are sent back to be suppressed, but almost a third of Sal’s needs must be suppressed”. All things considered, they ran quite well, and since it was piece work, they earned about the same amount of money. I remember Freddy was helping Sal finish her alterations before closing the shop on Saturday. My uncle Freddy was an incredibly kind and generous man.
Freddy had a hard life and died young like many people of that generation. I’m in my 60s now and still love chocolate milk, boxing, and every time I smell a lit cigar I think of Freddie Cohenwho came home from the hospital in a shoebox, became a boxer and was my great-uncle. (Boy, I got lucky!)
* In the comments, let me know who is/was your favorite uncle?