“I’m a realist”

Five things Dad taught me with his life and death—things that are both good and bad and things that are not all worthy of emulation, but things that I learned simply because he lived. Simply because he was who he was.

Frugality

Dad would take plastic wrap and paste it to the side of our refrigerator—like gum behind the ear—so that it could be used again. He bought toothpaste from a discount department store called Korvette’s, a forerunner to WalMart or Costco. As an adolescent attending an exclusive prep school in NYC, it embarrassed me that anyone I knew would buy anything from Korvette’s that I would have to endure using. He went to the Odd Lots store that used to occupy the Pershing Square restaurant across from Grand Central, 2014_0614 pic of bus w ads copyunder the Park Avenue overpass, and bought cases of bread-and-butter pickles, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives for his martinis. Dad stored them under my brother Jim’s bed, and we found them decades later, when both my parents were gone. Mom always said, with not a little annoyance, that Dad was, “penny wise and pound foolish.” He bought inexpensive gin and decantered it into a Tanqueray bottle, whose label was getting quite old. He bought the under-12 ticket on the LIRR for me until I was 14, because he could do so based on my looks, regardless of how I felt.

Lover of people

As an advertising space salesman, Dad spent most of his time developing relationships. He seemed genuinely good at it and also seemed genuinely to like it. Even need it. After he lost his job in the late 80s or early 90s during a leveraged buyout, he went into a rapid and steep decline, which ended when he committed suicide in 1998. He spent his time mostly alone and in the kitchen, cooking dishes over the course of hours that should take 45 minutes, and rubbing the spine of our aging Siamese cat, Pip, with his slippered foot. In his day, he could be seen holding forth in a tight circle at a cocktail party, drink in one hand, pot belly pressing forward his paisley shirt, telling a story, or listening to one and issuing a hearty laugh—sometimes perfectly practiced, sometimes genuine—at its conclusion. We were always having parties ourselves, hence the need for cheap olives.

Devotion to family

I heard him once on the phone with one of his cousins in North Carolina, and his tone was scolding but not mean. He was upset that this cousin had not called him to tell him that another cousin had been ill. He always wanted to be in the know about our family, how they were doing, what they thought about things. He would never take a photograph of a landmark or an architectural detail without one of us (Mom, Jim or me) being in the photo. He figured that any postcard would do a better job of capturing a scene, but only if he was taking the photo, he wanted one of us to appear. Even in his suicide note, he requested forgiveness, even from Pip the cat.

Utilitarian view

I would say, “Dad, you’re such a pessimist.” “I’m a realist,” would come the reply.

During college break sometime during my sophomore year—I had taken sociology and it had made an impression—I told him I wanted to be a social worker. “That’s good, Howd (my nickname, short for Howdy, also a nickname), but why not think about being a manager of social workers? You could do so much more good?”

Why not? Because it was inherently different. Because one was working directly with people in need, and the other was not. One was coming alongside an other and steering him onto a path; the other was holding people accountable to do their jobs. Not so much steering in my mind at the time as ruling. Regardless of the ultimate end being the same in kind but different in scale, the day-to-day could not be more different in my mind. But he either didn’t see why I wanted to do this work (which I doubt, since he was too insightful for that), or he didn’t approve.

He had quit college in 1940 as a junior when his father died. His mother died when he was nine, and his father remarried, having a daughter and two more sons. As the oldest of four, his job was to help his stepmother (who never remarried) and school-age siblings, to whom he was very close. He had wanted to be an architect but instead had to go into the media business, because that’s where he could get a job. He had tried to enlist in the military but was rejected for medical reasons. Later, marrying the middle child of three sisters, he found himself as the solitary non-veteran. Even his father-in-law had served in WWI, as his younger brothers had in peacetime and in Vietnam.

Adoption

I learned the value of being loved without being a “natural” part of a family. When I was no older than five, I learned that I had been adopted as an infant, a transaction handled by Spence-Chapin after I was born to a woman I was told often by my mother was “very beautiful.” What boy doesn’t want to hear that? Jim was two years younger and born biologically to Mom after a total of three or more miscarriages she had before and after I came along. I learned as an adult—but have no way of confirming it—that my grandfather was less than pleased that I was part of the family through adoption, even though I always had the impression that as the first grandson after seven granddaughters, I was welcomed. When Poppa died, I was 20; I had idolized him. Later, I cared not a bit about what he thought of me earlier in my life. He was a flawed man, as are we all, and his opinion stung a bit, but not much more than a bee bite.

When I remarried, to Karen, Dad—having seen my previous marriage break apart and seeing my life until my mid-30s constantly spiral out of control, in addition to seeing me hospitalized twice for what was diagnosed as bipolar disorder—said to her privately, “You know, it’s like you’ll be taking care of a baby.” He didn’t attend our 1997 wedding in Texas, and I assumed it was for reasons stated: health. A year later, he killed himself, and Mom, Jim and I found his body. I closed his clammy cold eyelids. I can never un-see that image, not in this life. I can never un-hear or understand his words. Again: a sting, a bite even, but not lethal.

As I told a group of men gathered last Thursday morning, I never felt unloved as a kid, or even in my 20s. I never felt anything but love from him. To feel unloved, I have to dwell on the negative—camp out on those memory scenes that negate me. The corollary is also true.

When I was 12, and trying to pass the swimming test so that I wouldn’t have to experience social death by wearing a life preserver during sailing classes at our beach community, I failed the first time because of the 30-minute treading water test. The instructors, at Dad’s request, gave me a second chance. This time, Dad got in the water with me. He showed me different ways to float—he was good at floating. We talked. We told jokes. We talked some more. No instructor was monitoring, but Dad had brought an egg timer.

I didn’t have to wear a life preserver that summer or ever. Dad took 30 minutes alone with me to do something he probably didn’t want to do on a Saturday morning after a week of travel for work, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed and certainly so that I could learn the techniques of staying afloat. And maybe so that we could spend time together.

I will hold onto that last reason as if it were the primary one, until I can see him as even more human than I see him today.

photo: public domain, MTA

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Dining in an automat, alone

For years after I returned from college in 1985, Dad hounded me to go to the automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue. Horn & Hardart. Now a lost brand name, like Edsel, or Moxie. Well, not so much the latter; I often say my wife has it.

“It’s the last one in Manhattan,” he would tell me.

He would go there in the 1960s and ‘70s when he worked on Madison and 40th selling out-of-home advertising space. His company, with the pedestrian but functional name Transportation Displays Incorporated, was owned by the Winston Network. People referred to it as “TDI,” so when my second grade teacher went around the room asking each of us what his father did for a living, I—having no other context than one of the popular TV shows at the time—replied innocently, “He works for the FBI.”

As I recall, my teacher didn’t correct me, and my classmates didn’t challenge me. Badass kid, I was.

Eventually the company went through a leveraged buyout and Dad, who was VP of Sales, was not aggressive enough in his forecasts. He was forced out at age 64 and sued the company for outstanding commissions as well as punitive damages on the basis of what he and his lawyer argued—rightly or wrongly—was age discrimination. With a $46,000 settlement, he went into a decline that lasted 13 years until my mother and brother and I found him dead in his bed with an empty bottle of pills and a drained gin bottle next to him on a silver tray. Plastic bag over his head fastened with a rubber band around the neck. Now 12 years after his death, as I pore over books on urban design in the mid-20th century and about neighborhoods with automats, I realize I am walking through his life in print. Questions sprout from each page like tender shoots—“Was the chopped steak dried out?” “Did you all think that this was the future of dining, like in a Jetsons cartoon?” “What kind of people would you meet there—were they lonely?”—only to wither under the unremitting sun of my father’s silence.

[to be continued]

photo: Hernan Hernandez