He was born “Richard,” and up until he time he arrived in New York everyone who knew him well called him Dick. That, of course was before the word became synonymous with either a body part or an arrogant dufus. The truth be told, this was after the time of Richard Milhouse Nixon, but coming from a liberal, pro-union family and having been active in civil rights since his middle teens, there was never any fear of him being identified with the disgraced president.
New York is different. New York changed that and instantly.
It happened one night at the Annex, a bar, a jazz-filled bar on Avenue B in the Lower East side, it’s floor covered with peanut shells the way other bars covered their floors with sawdust. The year was 1965, and the Annex–not and never annexed to anything–was the kind of place you might see John Coltrane or Sun Ra or Reggie Workman or any of the other Philadelphia expatriates who’d found their way to The Apple late’50′s-early ’60′s, axes in hand, eating fried chicken. Dick, who less than a month after this historic evening would find himself, Ivy League diploma at home in his suitcase, frying those chickens for 75 cents an hour–had already finished one Cutty Sark on the rocks and was about to order another when a remarkably attractive and island black woman entered glancing about the room appraising it’s contents. He was cool in his approach, never stumbling or wishing he’d held a drink.
“Hi,” he grinned with delightful naivete. “My name is Dick.” She looked slightly up into his eyes, her own blinking just once and very slowly. Her face curled into a smile of no clear meaning.
“C’mon, White Boy. You really don’t expect me to believe that!”
The “White Boy” thing went right past him. It was 1965 and, remember, he was cool. Still “huh,” was the best he could do.
“‘Dick?’ In New York that’s not a name. That’s a value judgment.”
He stood blank-faced. Again, “Huh?” Her smile became a grin at the edge of a laugh.
“But back home–” he responded uncertainly.
“Where’s that, Georgia?” She looked him up and down. “You don’t look like nobody from Georgia.”
“Maybe that explains it.”
She hmmed. “‘Hartford,’ I like that. I’m gonna call you Hartford. Maybe even Hart if I like you.”
Dick stared at her. That damned New York thing. No wonder everybody was calling him Richie. He stared at her and wondered, was he staring like a dick? He smiled and thought, “I could like that. Hartford…Hart, ” not really sure if he’d thought it or actually said it out loud. He envisioned a heart, not the valentine kind, but the anatomy heart, pulsating and powerful. “It’s still an organ–” again not sure if it was thought or spoken, but,”Yeah, that could work for me.”
She smiled with her eyes. “OK, Mr. Hartford–”
“No–No ‘mister.’” He was still smiling, but his words were firm. “You say ‘mister’ and I think you’re talking to my dad.”
She blinked. Now her smile was warm, light, almost inviting. “You got that, Hartford. My name’s Pinkey.
“Pinkey!” He smiled this time.
“Don’t give me no grief.”
He knew she’d heard before what she anticipated hearing now. No worry, he thought. The grin never left his face. “That’s the last thing I’d want to do.”
A beat. Her eyes twinkled. “And what’s the first thing you’d want to do?”
His eyes twinkled. They both laughed, walked to the bar and sat down.
Whether Pinkey was her first name or her last name he never did find out.