His tale knows no bounds

Nebraska Brace's memoir details a life of poverty, pimping, politics and, always, personality

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Sunday, January 8, 2006

ALBANY - Nebraska Brace is stationed at the entrance to Sam's Club.

He offers a shopping cart to a teenager wearing a black T-shirt who strides through the sliding glass doors. The boy is speaking into a cellphone and ignores the greeter in a red vest emblazoned with the phrase, "It Pays To Be A Member." "You got it?" Brace calls out to the kid, who holds up a membership card and makes a beeline for electronics in the cavernous Crossgates Commons store.

"You ought to be in Hollywood!" Brace shouts as the teen disappears into a big-screen TV aisle without looking back.

There was a time when this Sam's Club greeter enjoyed his own brush with Hollywood, not to mention status as a Third Ward alderman and maverick Democrat who gave his Arbor Hill constituency a voice in Albany politics during an era when few blacks were heard from at City Hall.

"I like people. This job gets me out of the house and gives me a little extra pocket money," Brace says of his part-time work as a greeter for the past two years.

Now, Brace, born in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1929, who traded Southern tobacco fields for the hurly-burly of the urban North, has chronicled his colorful life in a memoir, "A Man Named Nebraska: A Life Lived in Poverty, Pimping and Politics."

The juiciest parts take place on Green Street, amid the "Gut" in the city's South End, a notorious red-light district.

Brace's mom moved with her two young boys to Albany in the 1930s, fleeing an abusive husband and yearning to be closer to Brace's grandmother, who worked as a domestic for wealthy families in New York's capital.

Three generations lived in an apartment at 64 Green St., above a pool room, and young Nebraska - named in honor of his mother's Cherokee blood - was tutored in the ways of the street.

He describes in his story an education that involved alcohol, gambling, fighting and women. The last came courtesy of Gypsy, Green Street's highest-priced hooker, who drafted Brace into the oldest profession in the 1950s.

Brace - who earned street credibility as a good fighter, a flashy dresser and owner of a big Cadillac - was soon pimping for Gypsy, Janice and Tippin' Mary.

"I never had more than three women and I didn't like prostitution, but that's what you did in that neighborhood," Brace said. "I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth."

Brace began setting down his life story several years ago by speaking into a tape recorder. He later hired a college student to transcribe long hours of tape and a professional writer to help shape his manuscript.

Brace pulls no punches. He describes being sentenced to three years' probation for promoting prostitution in Grand Rapids, Mich., during a brief foray from Albany. He also was busted for making book on horses and running numbers at Nebbies, a newsstand he owned at 170 N. Pearl St., and at the VA hospital where he worked.

Brace speaks openly in the memoir about three failed marriages and his struggles to maintain a presence in the lives of his four kids.

"People have asked me to write my story for a long time," Brace says. "Whenever I do something, I take it all the way."

Brace is shopping the manuscript around with local publishers and hoping to earn back part of the few thousand dollars he's invested in the project.

Brace lives in the same small row house on Third Street in Arbor Hill where he's been for more than 30 years, surrounded by weedy lots and boarded-up buildings.

"This was a middle-class Polish neighborhood when I moved in, but they all fled long ago," he says.

Brace is separated from his third wife, Ann Marie, who's relocated to North Carolina due to respiratory problems.

"We're still friends and I love her," Brace says. "We just got to the point where we couldn't live together anymore."

Ann Marie's Place - a tiny brick soul food restaurant on the corner of Third and Swan streets that Brace and his wife ran for years - is boarded up, a crumbling presence on a street plagued by drug dealing and violence.

These days, Brace is a minor presence on the periphery of politics. He's still a Democratic commiteeman. "I don't have the juice to rock the boat anymore," he says.

Brace hasn't lost his gift of gab or his street style, though.

His graying shoulder-length pompadour is tucked beneath a brown felt cowboy hat. He wears a heavy sweater coat with a Southwest motif over a burgundy turtleneck and black leather Adidas high-tops. He traded in the Caddy for a black Mercury Grand Marquis (Presidential Edition) with the vanity plate 105NOB.

At Sam's Club, Brace stops to chat with folks who knew him when he had juice to spare.

Back when he battled with Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, or worked in the Legislature for former state Sen. Howard Nolan, D-Albany, or landed a speaking part in the movie "Ironweed."

One of Brace's proudest accomplishments remains the award he received as the longest-tenured male member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

He rarely misses Sunday services.

"God has blessed me," he says.

Brace has written his memoir not as an obituary and not as the first step in plotting a political comeback. He's merely telling his story and setting the record straight.

"I still think I'd be good as the city's ambassador at City Hall," he says. "Meet and greet. I have a way with people."

As if to prove it, he paused in his reveries to greet another customer who came through the Sam's Club entrance.

"Be good, big man," Brace says, lightly touching the fellow's shoulder.

"Hey, Nebraska," a guy calls out from across rows of shopping carts, as he prepares to exit the store.

"You're looking good," the former city alderman yells back. "You're the man!"

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.