Western Brooklyn

ROTNAC, Bensonhurst’s Unofficial Mayor: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

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86th Street photo via Google Maps
86th Street photo via Google Maps

A local celebrity to many, and a familiar face to even more, the character known as ROTNAC has been making his rounds through Bensonhurst in his signature custom hat gear for over three decades. Whether or not he has graced your presence, he is well known throughout southern Brooklyn for the eponymous.

While we don’t have any photos of ROTNAC, we do have one well-versed local’s account of his wanderings. Read on for Bensonhurst native Barry Jacobs’ account of ROTNAC:

ROTNAC is the granddaddy of all local characters. Active since at least the early 1980s, ROTNAC has been seen in many corners of Brooklyn, but he seems to live in Bensonhurst. I’ve seen him often on Kings Highway and around Bay Ridge Parkway. He has been spotted riding the 86th street subway and the bus, strolling the street, eating in restaurants, and shopping. He usually has a bag or two of things he’s bought on his travels.

Back in the day, he was a large man, of Santa proportions. Today he’s much, much thinner. His thick hair, once black, now white, is pulled back on his head but when open, it forms a bushy mop down to his shoulders. Adding to the Santa comparison is his thick white beard. Of course, this can describe a great many people in Bensonhurst, but what sets him apart is his headgear. In the winter it is a furry hat. In the summer it is just a baseball cap, but what distinguished them is the handwritten sign saying “ROTNAC” that he either attaches to or writes directly on his hat. That’s how he got his name.

It was not unusual for him to walk down the street amid a chorus of “Hey ROTNAC!” And he always smiled and waved back. He’d even joke with schoolkids on the bus. One theory is that ROTNAC, read right to left in the Hebrew style reads as CANTOR, so ROTNAC may be a cantor. (And a proud one at that.) He does look and dress as though he would fit in a synagogue. He doesn’t always wear the sign nowadays, but when I saw him sitting on a bench on Ocean Parkway last year, there it was.

ROTNAC is a nice guy. I was once in the long-gone Adelman’s deli while he was eating lunch. He was the center of attention, wearing an old, olive-green baseball cap with ROTNAC crudely printed across the front. He 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.

Before he left, he took out a cell phone and called an acquaintance. I wasn’t trying to listen in but he spoke in a loud, booming voice that carried throughout the tiny deli. He was worried about that person but not so worried that he lost his sense of humor: “I was so worried that I almost had to give up my side dishes.” I love that line.

ROTNAC is still around and apparently still doing fine. Just a few months ago on Bay Parkway I ran into him at a small flea market. Although he wasn’t wearing a ROTNAC hat, his long white hair, pulled back into a long ponytail, his bushy white beard, and his khaki pants and white shirt were as much of a trademark as the hats were. I was taking a break from the table my girlfriend and I were manning and enjoying some shade beneath a tree. ROTNAC came up to me, gave me a nudge, and made a joke about the money being made at the market, or lack thereof. And ironically, this was one of the few times I saw him without a bag of purchases.

If you see him, give him a smile and a wave. You’ll probably get one in return.

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