The Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard
To me, Silky will always be the Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard, the tough kid who protected us from the Nazis…
I have always been interested in stories about colorful characters, so when I was last in Florida I invited my Uncle Nicky to meet me for lunch. In his younger days, Nicky had been a fight promoter, a fight manager, and a referee. He later bought and sold buildings and did a lot of co-op conversions. He made millions and retired about 20 years ago.
I took a dockside table at Romano’s restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton. I had not been waiting more than ten minutes when Nicky’s small cabin cruiser pulled alongside the deck; he tossed a rope to a helpful waiter, who tied up the boat. Nicky, at 84, spryly leapt out of the boat with the graceful agility of much younger man. He looked wonderful: his tanned and bony weathered face contrasted handsomely with his neatly trimmed white beard. His bald head was nut brown and gleamed in the sun. He wore white trousers, a white polo shirt, and beige moccasins. His wrap-around sunglasses, which sat on his prominent Roman nose, were the only dark elements on his body. I stood up, and we hugged one another.
“You look fit and trim,” he said.
“And so do you,” I responded.
“Every time I see you, I’m reminded of your father. It was a shame he died so young. He had a great deal to offer to people. After all these years, I still feel his loss.
I asked Nicky about his son and daughter, both of whom were divorced. “They each made foolish mistakes, but at least they have successful careers. How many fathers can brag that they have a daughter who is a top litigator, and a son who is a brilliant surgeon? I miss Ethel. We had been married more than 50 years when she died. But I manage… Did I tell you I have a new girlfriend? She’s a young chicken, only 71, and she has the energy of a 20-year-old. We go ballroom dancing one night a week.”
“Nicky,” I said, “I’m writing a treatment for a new movie, and I want to base a character on Silky Sol. What can you tell me about him?”
“A lot,” muttered Nicky, ruminating and lighting up a cigarillo. He drew in a deep mouthful of smoke, and then slowly exhaled a silver blue cloud.
“We lived in Richmond Hill when we were kids, and the neighborhood had a lot of Germans. It was during the rise of that scumbag, Hitler, and there were a number of German Bund meetings in the neighborhood. We belonged to a private social club for teenagers. One night about six German boys, carrying bats and ax handles, gathered outside and started chanting: ‘Send out the Kikes. Give us the Kikes.’ Well, we were pretty scared and none of us wanted to go outside. Silky, who was about 18 at the time and six-foot-six, picked up a bench. Holding the bench in front of him, Silky rushed outside and charged at the German kids; he moved so quickly they didn’t know what to do; he knocked down four of them, and the other two scattered like alley cats. He dropped the bench on them; kicked a couple of guys in the guts, another on the head. He told them that if they ever bothered us again, he would kill ‘em. After that, Silky was known as The Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard, ‘cause that’s where we had our social club.”
“What else can you tell me about him?”
“Well, you know, he played football for Richmond Hill High School, and he was a pretty tough offensive tackle. One time, he broke some guy’s leg. Anyway, a couple of fight promoters saw him play and figured they could turn him into a fighter. That was in the late thirties. Those guys were wiseguys, and Silky wanted someone around who he could rely on, so he asked me to be his trainer. Silky had seen me fight as a welterweight and featherweight in the Golden Gloves; he knew I would be a good trainer. The wiseguys said OK, but they wanted one of their own to make sure I was doing right by Silky. They were the ones, by the way, who gave him the name Silky, because of his beautiful blue silk boxing shorts and his silk robe. A lot of the fighters had nicknames in those days. And Silky fit him. He had lots of fights, and won most of them. He fought Joe Lewis twice and lost both times by a technical knockout. He lasted about six or seven years, then went into the infantry in World War II. He got a job after the war doing arms procurement. It served him well, because in 1948, he ran guns to Israel. It was against the law, but he never got caught. There were a lot of guys doing it, and I don’t think anyone was ever arrested. Then in the early ‘50s, he got small parts in movies. Because of his looks and the way he sounded, he played thugs. He was in On The Waterfront, Murder Incorporated, some movie about Al Capone, you know, stuff like that. It didn’t last too long and ultimately he found it boring, standing around day after day, filming the same scene over and over again. I guess it was pretty tedious.”
He had a rough time for awhile; then the Luchese Family, which is the one that got him started in the fight game, got him a job in the garment center. He became a combination salesman and collector. If you were some shmatta manufacturer, and you owed money for trucking or to some vendor, Silky would come by to collect. Usually his appearance alone was enough to get people to cough up what they owed. He really didn’t have to strong-arm anyone; maybe a couple of times; but then word got out, and people would just pay up. You know the rag trade is a funny business.
“The last thing Silky got involved in was running junkets to Las Vegas in the ‘60s. It was a good idea. He would gather up 20 to 30 high rollers, charter a plane and deliver them to one of the casinos: the Sands, the Flamingo, the Desert Inn, Caesars. I can’t remember which one exactly. And he would get a cut of everything that his boys lost at the tables. He made quite a lot of dough. You know, at that time, he got himself a mistress: a really adorable little redhead, an Irish girl with a great figure. He set her up in a jewelry store, and together they did pretty well. After Silky’s wife died, he bought a condo in Hallandale, not far from here, and he opened another jewelry store. He and the woman sold the store in New York, and they lived here.”
“What about his kids?”
“He had two, a boy and girl, just like me. His girl turned out fine. She’s a big corporate lawyer up in New York. The boy was another story. He always disapproved of his father. Thought he was one step removed from being a gangster or something. The kid, as far as I’m concerned, was a little too hard on Silky. The kid drifted from one career to another. In his 30s, he found God. He studied to be a rabbi, then set up in the middle of the Bible belt. He takes fundamentalist Christians on Holy Land pilgrimages to Israel. He’s married and has a busload of kids, I hear.
“I guess that’s about all I know,” he said.
“When was the last time you saw Silky?”
“One Sunday morning, around ten, my doorbell rings. I go to the door and there’s this big rambling guy, skinny as a whippet and pale as pus. I didn’t recognize him at first.
“‘Nicky, it’s me, Silky,’ he said. His eyes were the same. I suddenly recognized him and gave him a big hug, then quickly backed away because he looked so sick I thought I might hurt him.
“He had two major heart attacks. He was dying, and he knew it. He came to say goodbye. Two weeks later, he was dead. I went to the funeral. Only his daughter showed up. It was sad. To me, Silky will always be the Knight of Woodhaven Boulevard, the tough kid who protected us from the Nazis. As far as I’m concerned, he was a good man, a mensch.”
Nicky himself died several weeks later in a boating accident. His boat collided with a cigarette boat going about 50 mph. Nicky was thrown onto the deck, hit his head on a metal stand, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Three hundred people attended his funeral. For me, it was the end of an era.
Jeffrey Sussman is president of Jeffrey Sussman, Inc., a marketing and public relations firm in New York that represents clients throughout the world.