What could I say about Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town that Harry Fleckenstein, scion of an actual Southern emperor of toys, hadn’t already said a thousand times in his adenoidal but weirdly genteel, Jewish-Southern accent? “25,000 feet of toe-yees, open 6 days a week, includin’ the Shay-Bot!” How I longed to walk those stately, gleaming halls, where every Fayetteville boy worth his weight in bacon dreamed of walking, a rich & pliant parent at his elbow, purchasing solace from all the impending Falklands War news, taking shelter amongst the unlimited shelves of Star Wars figurines. How I ached for those just-out-of-reach, toy-stuffed aisles, brimming with exotic Lego kits and frolicking Rainbow Brite ponies. Here, at memory’s altar, I lay before you what was taken for canon in 1982: the candy-coated aisles of Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town and World Famous Cumberland Arcade were not only the largest toy store in Cumberland County, but the only one in possession of THE BIGGEST SCALE SIZE MILLENNIUM FALCON REPLICA THAT YOU COULD BUY. It burned my guts with a light saber the day Harry Fleckenstein’s Bar Mitzvah invitations went out, announcing to the world that this dickless nerd’s manhood would be confirmed in the coolest place on the planet. For weeks, I had to endure the skipping of that well-bred kosher dumpling down the halls of my school, as Harry Fleckenstein sang in his weirdly beautiful, ball-less boy tenor: “Mah Bar Mitzvah’s gonna have a Meel-LANEY-yum-FOWELKIN!” A Meal. Laney-yum. Fowelkin. The horror.
I was destined by birth to jealously despise Harry Fleckenstein, and vested in this vile, rich little turd all the qualities of a rival, going so far as to hate his entire bloodline, his family’s car and their tennis club – the only tennis club in Fayetteville. Harry and his upper middle class Jewish family were The Everything that my own Nothing wished it could be, but never quite could, nor would, at least not there. Harry was well fed, well dressed and smelled, well, well. In short, he was not a Corren. The Corren’s were one of three, prominent Jewish families of this hard-working, yet hard-scrabble, military town, littered with car lots, pawn shops and the occasional dreaming gay boy. But the Corren’s were prominent for all the wrong reasons. I was not born a Blum, the fabulously rich-by-small-town-North-Carolina-standards-rich family that owned the bowling alley where my mother toiled for minimum wages, day and night, like some Reagan-era version of a Polish maid.
I was not born a Fleckenstein, they who owned all the toys and, by extension, all the dreams, of all the Piedmont youth. I was born a poor Corren. Yes, it’s true. It happened once. There were poor redneck Jews. The House of Corren was not a successful house. It was where Southern Jewish dreams went, broke down, got busted, got pregnant too young, got on food stamps, got high, rebuilt cars in the front yard, stole cable, shot at their neighbors, took in strippers and inexplicably assumed hostility towards black people. In other words, the Corren’s were not much different from any of their other fellow, redneck outcasts. We were the same kind of leftovers, the ones you told your own children to stay away from, the ones who fucked your daughters anyway, the ones who beat you at cards, then beat you up. Prominent redneck Jewry, once an unthinkable branch of the Jewish Family Tree, was thriving, nay, blossoming, by the banks of the tea-colored waters of the Cape Fear River of North Carolina. Sit with that for a minute. An American Jew was poor. And this American Jew, who barely knew what a Bar Mitzvah was, was standing outside, looking in, hoping for some crumbs. So begins one small chapter in the legendary, lamented, Landless House of Corren.
I had learned to take strength from my impoverishment, and by the time I was 12, life had armored me to withstand high doses of hunger, shame and discouragement. It also taught me how to steal, particularly thunder, and particularly from fat Jewish nerds.
Thus it was, on that 1982 day where half a world away Margaret Thatcher made ready her ever-victorious Majesty’s armies to rout the Argentine swine, that I, too, stood to smite mine enemy. I rose like a lusty Senator in indignation, drawing the lazy, curious eye of our unfortunately cripple-claw-handed 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Burky, “Well,” I spat out, sounding for all the world like a smug deputy from a Smokey and the Bandit sequel, “I ain’t gonna have no barf mizmah, cuz my mom thinks they’re stupid. She says they for stupid rich folk to marry off their stupid babies to other stupid babies.”
Side note: my mom totally said that, and believed that, and still does, to this day.
You could hear a hushpuppy drop on the pristine floor of Mrs. Burky’s classroom. I could taste the burn. I, like my fellow, mostly Christian and mostly badly-misinformed rednecks, would never know the inside of a Bar Mitzvah hall, or the inside of a Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town, so I scored one for the home team. Cutting Harry Fleckenstein down to size was my 7th grade Finest Hour. I felt so proud. That is, until a gouging in my shoulder separated my preening spirit from my chicken neck. Mrs. Burky, utilizing that devil claw of hers in the only meaningful, and dreaded, way she had left to her, which was to pluck up children like a robotic claw crane picks up a plushy unicorn in an arcade game. She shook me like a dirty bathmat. “I do not think this is the appropriate forum for discussin’ Jewish rituals or Jewish babies, Mr. Corren. Especially for a young Jewish man such as yourself. Now,” she said, in her devastating, favorite closing line that I personally had heard at least 10,000 times, “sit it down and SHUT – IT - UP.”
I hung there for a minute, swaying in the grip of her diamond-hard flipper, my subclavian vein throbbing to the beat of my shame. I felt a wave of revulsion at what I had said, and confusion for what I had meant. I saw myself for what I truly was – a bully. I saw my past. I saw my future. I saw all the eyes of Carolina upon me, and I saw, at last, what they saw: just some Jewish kid. Being poor did not inoculate me from that. It was the first moment in my life that I consciously realized I had no idea who the fuck I was.
Back at home, on the roof over our broken laundry room that periodically flooded and ruined all our clothes, which sat molding in heaps, forgotten behind a nailed-up door, high up in my fortress of solitude from what I now know to be was my own, less-glamorous version of a typical Jewish tenement, I contemplated the oddity of my position. I put my Jewish foot in, I take my Jewish foot out. I put my Jewish foot in, and I shake it all about. And then – well, without a mom to make me take the next Jewish step, what was the next step? Which was a question I desperately wanted to answer, but couldn’t right now, because in my binoculars I could see quite clearly that three young men, the Gallo Brothers, who were known strippers, were practicing to the strains of Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose” in their backyard.
Turns out, I had much, much bigger gefilte fish to fry my 13th year.
Andy Corren is a talent manager, playwright and performer.