a gesture; and cubana & green specs

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Sep 20 20:04:06 UTC 2002

The following passage contains an interesting description of a provocative or defiant gesture:

"I say." says Tom, who wears the big man-of-war's Spanish cloak, lined with scarlet, "you there, with the green specs, ought to be at home at this hour -- no man that won't go out to Cato's ought to perambulate, demme!"  Green specs knocked his hat a little aslant on the top of his head and stood a la Fuller.  "Oh! thank ye," said Tom, "I'm your man for a cubana."  So at it they went it is said full a half hour by St. Paul's, somewhere half way between Morse's and Irish's, until the claret flowed in a bonny Doon.  Jerry was bottle holder; Dick held the stop watch; Bob trembled from the heart downwards; Elec was judge; and the hackmen turned their horses' heads to Broadway and looked at the sport.
The snow has created a great many other incidents, which shall be given in all due time.  The town was almost asleep with the two influenzas, but now it has waked up with a vengeance.
National Advocate, February 1, 1826, p. 2, col. 3

The situation is this: a group of raffish young men have been out carousing after a snow-storm.  They have just returned from a road-house in what is now mid-town Manhattan, kept by a black man named Cato -- a celebrated place for decades.  They encounter a man wearing glasses with green lenses, which they consider an affectation.  Green Specs takes offense at Tom's remarks and stand in a fighting pose (Fuller ran a gymnasium in the city and taught boxing).  There is a fistfight.

I have non-specific recollections of Gene Kelly opening an apache dance by "knocking his hat a little aslant on the top of his head".  Evidently a signal that one is a tough guy and ready for a fight.  Does anyone recall the movie, or other instances?  Are there earlier instances?  In fiction, perhaps?

I don't find "cubana" in the OED or HDAS.  I take it to be a cigar, and Tom's words to mean "I'll be glad to fight you, even if the prize should be only a trifle, like a cigar."

That wearing "green specs" would draw scornful notice is shown by the following:

1834:   It is possible that Mr. Richards may have acquired that sallow hue of complexion from undue exposure to the sun. . . .  Your correspondent, therefore, who talks deridingly of an "unbleached phiz" [is unjust].  . . . his wearing green spectacles . . . does not arise from ostentation, or a desire to cut a buck. . . .  (a letter signed "Black Hawk")
Ely's New York and Brooklyn Hawk & Buzzard, June 21, 1834,   p. 4, col. 1
This is from a stray issue of a scandalous gossip sheet, at the N-Y Historical Society.  They don't have the issue that this passage is responding to.  William M. Richards evidently had been described by "Castigator" in the June 14 issue as "an African barber" who wrote bad poetry for a city newspaper and wore green glasses; "Black Hawk"'s letter is a mock defense of him against the offensive remarks.  Richards was in the city directory for 1834/35, but not after; according to "Black Hawk", he was intending to emigrate to Liberia, and who can blame him.  The newspaper Richards supposedly published his poetry in was the Courier & Enquirer, a very widely-read paper, edited by an obnoxious racist, not that that differentiates it from most of the other NYC papers at the time.  Somebody, maybe me, some day, needs to try to find this poetry.

But to get back to the green specs: evidently anyone who wore them made himself a target of derision.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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