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Jimmy Brown and the Toothpick


Young readers may not make the connection immediately. Readers of my elderly generation should immediately remember Jimmy Brown as the great Hall of Fame football player, a member of the Cleveland Browns team from 1957 to 1965. He was also a great lacrosse player. After retiring from football, Jimmy became an actor, sometimes described as “Hollywood’s first Black action hero”. In addition, he was a civil rights activist.


Jimmy Brown was five years older than me, born in 1936 on Saint Simons Island on the coast of Georgia. This story begins when Jimmy’s mother moved to Manhassset, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, to take a job as a housekeeper. Jimmy became a student in Manhasset Public High School where he quickly became the star of its football, lacrosse, and basketball teams.


I entered the Manhasset public school system in kindergarten. The junior high and high school were in joined buildings and their students shared the same cafeteria. The practice then was for students to take turns working in the cafeteria: one set of students to bring dirty trays to the dishwashing window and another set operating the dishwashing machine.


Maybe it was in 7th grade when I met Jimmy Brown and he was a senior. I was on the shift bringing dirty trays to the dishwashing window. Jimmy was on the shift loading the dishwasher. I don’t know why he singled me out. Maybe I was too slow in bringing dirty trays to the window. He started calling me “Toothpick”. Could it be because I weighed less than 100 pounds and he could probably lift me up with one arm without straining a muscle?


It's the best nickname I ever had. In fact, I can’t think of any other nicknames I was given until my senior year in college when my dear roommate from Montgomery, Alabama, gave me a long nickname that shouldn’t be memorialized here. You’ll need to get me tipsy over a good wine or an exceptional craft beer before I disclose that.

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