A Little Local Color

13 Nov

from August 8, 2007

Every neighborhood has its own unique character. Likewise, every neighborhood has its own unique characters. Everyone knows the people who stand out, whether for their odd personality or their strange style. These are the people known to everyone who lives there, the ones who give the neighborhood color. Like the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest, these characters have become almost mythic in nature, but unlike the Sasquatch, they are seen everyday by people like you and I. These are all actual people. You may have seen a few of them.

The Wheelchair Lady

Area- 86th Street, generally between 19th Avenue and Bay Parkway, but sighted as far away as 4th Avenue.

The Wheelchair Lady is a woman in a wheelchair, possibly in her fifties, wearing a poncho and rain hat no matter what the weather. She has been seen in a variety of colors, but has most often worn a yellow or clear poncho. This local character has been sighted at all hours of the night, morning, or afternoon. She has been spotted sitting in stores at   3 p.m. and on street corners at 3 a.m. Usually, she can be seen propelling down 86th Street. It is unknown, and even doubtful, if she is actually disabled. She moves by using her legs to push her chair backwards very quickly. It is also doubtful that she is homeless. Despite being constantly outside, she does not seen to carry many belongings with her, indicating that she has a home or a place to keep her things. Often, she has been seen with a bunch of flowers in the chair with her. On occasion, the flowers have appeared to be plastic, but they do appear to be different every time. She has also apparently shopped on the street, as indicated by the bags which hang from her chair from time to time.

The Gaudy Jewelry Woman

Area- 20th Avenue, between 86th and 84th Streets.

This woman lives on or near 20th Avenue towards 84th Street. She is easy to spot. The Gaudy Jewelry Woman wears very large, bright, fake jewelry. Usually wearing yellow, but sometimes red, this woman wears a huge necklace of bright beads that range from a couple of inches in diameter to nearly six inches in diameter. She wears very bright matching earrings. Like all of her jewelry, these are clearly fake, if not plastic. The earrings are generally large, thick hoops, big enough to hide her face when seen in profile. She wears matching clips in her hair, and makeup thick enough to qualify her as a circus clown. While she is spotted doing normal things, like shopping, her bizarre appearance makes her stand out, and the bright colors scream for attention. In a bizarre footnote, she may be a fan of Anna Nichole Smith. After the death of the actress, the newspapers published pictures of her from her final movie. Anna Nichole was shown wearing bright makeup streaked and slashed across her face, as though it was applied in front of a strong fan. The makeup was, apparently, from a scene in the film in which Anna Nicole had undergone, or was undergoing, some trauma. In the days following her death, The Gaudy Jewelry Woman was seen wearing the same makeup.


Area- various, but not 18th Avenue.

ROTNAC is the granddaddy of all local characters, the crème de la crème. Active since at least the early 1980s, ROTNAC has been seen in many corners of Brooklyn, but he seems to live in Bensonhurst. He has been spotted on the subway, the bus, the street, in restaurants, and shopping. He is around fifty years old, with a head of thick black hair, now graying, and a thick beard. He is fat and wears shabby clothes. The most remarkable thing about ROTNAC is his headgear. In the winter it is a furry hat. In the summer it is a baseball cap, but what sets them apart is the sign saying “ROTNAC” that he either attaches to or writes on his cap. This is how he is known. It is not unusual for him to walk down the street amid a chorus of “Hey Rotnac!” One theory is that ROTNAC, read right to left in the Hebrew style reads as CANTOR, so ROTNAC is a cantor. He does look and dress as though he would fit in a synagogue. He is usually sighted carrying a large, full, plastic bag which contains any number of items, including a very odd, telescoping tennis racket.

I here include, in the interest of historical accuracy, my first person account of an up close and personal encounter with the ROTNAC in November of 2003. This is excerpted from an email to Marc on the evening of the event.

Tonight at about 6:45, Sheryl and I went to have dinner at Adelman’s Deli on King’s Highway. Let me set the scene. Adelman’s is a long narrow restaurant. You walk straight past the deli counter and the dinning section begins. You are then standing at the head of three aisles of tables. The first table of the center row is directly in front of you. There was a short line, so Sheryl and I waited, about four people away from that table. Seated alone at that table, facing us, front row center, was Rotnac.

He was wearing his old, olive-green baseball cap, with ROTNAC crudely printed across the front in capitals. He was wearing a frumpy tan-yellow sport coat, at least two layers of black shirts, large old-fashioned head phones, and something around his neck that I just couldn’t figure out, like something a bird-watcher might wear to hold his binoculars, but soft.

Rotnac was well known to the waiters. “How you doin’ Rotnac?” one asked as he went by. (He was doing fine.) When he asked for his check, the waiter responded with a grin and “the check is in the mail.” (They both got a laugh out of that.)  He paid his check from money he took out of an old-fashioned woman’s change purse. Although I didn’t see it, I believe the purse came out of the sort-of bird-watcher’s thing around his neck.

Sheryl and I were then seated, but of course all eyes were on Mr. Rotnac. After asking for the check, he took out a small cell phone (that surprised me) and called someone who, from what I could gather, is his girlfriend, or at least a female friend he is close to. They may even live together. It wasn’t clear. Anyway, he told her that he was worried sick about her. (She was supposed to meet him.) He was so worried that, and here I directly quote: “I was so worried that I almost had to give up my side dishes.” I love that line. He said that he would meet her at home, and he had a long walk to the train. She wanted to meet him on 18th Avenue. He then stated that he didn’t know 18th ave.  Frankly Marc, this stunned me. I have seen this man ambling all up and down Bay Parkway and 86th Street. I encountered him many times on the B train, and even, on more than one occasion, saw him stroll down my block towards 20th Ave. I thought that South Brooklyn was his oyster. I still can’t grasp that statement.

The conversation continued as he walked to the men’s room. He finished his conversation while standing outside the door. He was clearly visible to the entire restaurant. His conversation was overheard by everyone because he spoke in a loud voice. Not shouting, but naturally booming. Think Leo McKern in a higher register and you may come close. He then informed his friend, and the entire restaurant, that he was “about to do the nasty in Adelman’s.” She either didn’t hear or understand him, because he then repeated, “I’m about to do the nasty in Alderman’s’,” followed by “you know what the nasty is.” (He apparently has a different idea of what “doing the nasty” is than the rest of American society. Or so I hope. The other option is too heinous to contemplate.) Apparently just for good measure, he repeated that he was going to do the nasty in Adelman’s, then said goodbye and entered the bathroom.

I was looking forward to his exit because it would undoubtedly be just as interesting as his entrance. However, I never saw him come out. It was possible, of course, but unlikely, that he could come out without my seeing him, let alone quietly or without comment, but  I never saw him come out, and when I went to the men’s room a half-hour later, I fully expected to see him in there, probably asleep or on the phone, but he wasn’t. I firmly believe that he went through the kitchen and out some back door. It would just fit

 If anyone has any information about ROTNAC please inform me immediately.

Joe Buswaiter

Area- Bus stop on the corner of Bay Ridge Parkway and 21st Avenue.

Joe Buswaiter has not been active since the early to mid 1980s.

“Joe Buswaiter,” as my father dubbed him, was a shlumpy-looking man who stood, from about 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, at the bus stop across the street from my house for a period of months in the 1980s. He gave every appearance of waiting for the bus, but when the bus came he would step back and give a little shake of the head. He did not seem to be looking for any particular bus, or any particular person on the bus. Also curious is where he went or what he did after 4 p.m. Usually he would just walk away toward Bay Parkway. One day he simply did not turn up at the bus stop and was never seen again. As the myth goes “maybe he finally got on the bus.”

The Defender of Bensonhurst.

Area- 20th Avenue and 85th Street.

The defender is a wannabe goomba who hangs out on the corner and yells at people he doesn’t like, or people he thinks don’t belong. According to local lore, he defends the neighborhood “with a cell phone in one hand and a beer in the other.”

All of these are actual people. There are more, but these are the ones that stand out. If you have any stories of these or any other local characters, please send them to the Department of Urban Lore and Local Characters, Miskatonic University, care of this blog.

11 Responses to “A Little Local Color”

  1. Stephen June 5, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Is this Rotnac? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/nyregion/12froggy.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


    • bmj2k June 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

      No, Rotnac is alive and well. I don’t really know that character, maybe I saw him around, but wow, that’s some story.


      • Stephen June 6, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

        I recall Rotnac around these parts too. (Closer to Ave O and Bay Pkway and on the N line) but not as of late. Last time was at least 5 years. And then I heard of this mysterious fire some years ago and merely connected the two. Thanks. Great Blogging.


        • bmj2k June 6, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

          I appreciate that. I saw Rotnac a few months ago. He’s thinner and didn’t have the ROTNAC card.


          • christinewarren July 25, 2015 at 12:08 am #

            Early 1980s, F Train. Rotnac would be sitting really quietly and then suddenly launch into his song, “Put Rotnac in the movies, put Rotnac in a fliiiick…if Rotnac doesn’t get a movie, Rotnac will be mentally siiiiick….da-da, da-da, da-dah”. The reactions from passengers ranged from giggles to groans! He had the baseball cap handprinted with his name, or the furry cap, plaid shirt layered with other shirts, very chubby, with a white plastic child’s purse hung around his neck. One time, someone sneezed and he boomed, “God Bless You.” Sneezer meekly murmured a thank you. Rotnac declared in stentorian terms, “And don’t to it again!” Ah, those were some times. The comic relief made the often 1.5 hour subway trip almost bearable.

            Liked by 1 person

            • bmj2k July 25, 2015 at 12:19 am #

              Great story! I remember that voice well. Just today I saw a guy on McDonald Ave that I’ve seen around a lot before. Long white hair, white beard, baseball cap, and obviously lost a lot of weight. I’ve never been sure if that’s Rotnac or not, since he’s usually dressed nearly normally and no card in his hat.


              • christinewarren July 25, 2015 at 12:29 am #

                His singing was on pitch and with a catchy rhythm, upper range baritone I’d say. Rotnac is cantor spelled backward as we all know, and it occurred to me that he may have previously been a cantor at one of the synagogues in Brooklyn.


                • bmj2k July 25, 2015 at 1:15 am #

                  I always assumed he was. Even his normal speaking voice is pretty impressive.

                  Liked by 1 person

              • christinewarren July 25, 2015 at 12:31 am #

                Could be Rotnac! He may have quieted down with the passage of time.



  1. “Backwards Wheelchair Lady” is a Locally Famous Bensonhurst Character » Brooklynian - January 24, 2012

    […] “Backwards Wheelchair Lady” is a Locally Famous Bensonhurst Character  Add comments  Tagged with: 86th Street, backwards wheelchair lady, Bay Parkway, bensonhurst Jan 242012   var addthis_config = {"data_track_addressbar":true}; var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];} The Backwards Wheelchair Lady, a well-known Bensonhurst character, has been locally famous for decades, but is virtually unknown to anyone outside the neighborhood. Her signature move is to scoot backwards, at quite high rates of speed, at all hours of the day or night. Regardless of the weather, she dons a raincoat poncho (most often yellow) and rain hat. Her usual scooting grounds are on 86th Street between 19th Ave. and Bay Parkway. But the Backwards Wheelchair Lady has been spotted as far away as 4th Avenue. […]


  2. This Was A Bad Day. (Part 1) | Mr. Blog's Tepid Ride - July 19, 2016

    […] phones? It isn’t pretty. But it turns out there was a celebrity among them! Believe it or not, ROTNAC was there. I kid you not. (And stick around. I have a suitably weird story about him in the next […]


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