Sunday, June 15, 2008

Brooklyn Phone Call

Brooklyn, it seems, is crawling with hipsters. San Fran, Frisco, if you will, is crawling with people seeking to identify themselves with Brooklyn. This causes some kind of cognitive dissonance in my little brain.

I was conceived in Brooklyn and Executed in New Jersey. My parents were afraid that I would be kidnapped and eaten by Puerto Ricans. When I was in High School, I compared notes with several of my fellow ragamuffin suburbanite hippie wannabes. It came out that our parents were all from the same part of Brooklyn.

Every Christmas, we would drag ourselves out to Brooklyn to visit with Grandma. She lived in the same three room tenement apartment my dad grew up in. At one point in his childhood, there were at least six people living in those three rooms. They shared a toilet in the hall with another apartment on the same floor. It had a big old tank up by the ceiling. You reached up and pulled a chain to flush the toilet. There was no bath tub, but in the kitchen there was a deep soapstone sink with a cold water tap. You could fill it up and stand in it to wash yourself, or you could heat hot water on the stove and fill a big zinc tub.

My father was born in Newfoundland, Canada. His father was an alcoholic iron worker from Massachusetts. His mother grew up on a dairy farm. I've never really had it explained to me how they met. After my father was born, my grandmother bundled him up and immigrated to Brooklyn. When I was a tot, I could crawl into the cupboards in the kitchen and the grownups would forget about me. Sometimes they said things I wasn't meant to hear. I remember my grandmother telling my father, "When they called me up and told me they found your father dead in the street, I told them leave him there."

It was not a close family. I can't remember all my Aunt's and Uncle's names. I know I had an uncle, Joe. He died in the Korean war, before I was born. I had an uncle, Freddie. He was a homicide detective in Brooklyn for thirty years. He ended up a big shot in the NYPD. My grandma had the medal that he won as a young patrolman. He got in a shoot out with three bankrobbers and killed or wounded all of them. That's what got him promoted to detective. Freddie had a daughter, but I don't remember ever meeting her. She would be about my age. I've been told that she became a nun. I have a cousin who is a nun.

My aunt, Maxine, and her husband, whatsisname, lived downstairs from Grandma. They had two sons, my cousins Charlie and Billy. Charlie served in Viet Nam, went straight to work as a Teamster for Bohacks grocery stores. He worked there until he retired. Billy discovered heroin, killed someone in a dope deal that went wrong in Jersey City. He served 14 years in Rahway State Pennitentiary. I'm told he works as a mechanic.

My aunt, Dorothy, was my father's youngest sister. When I was a teenager she married a funny little Irish merchant seaman named Gene Murphy. My aunt told me his nickname was "Gene the Drunk". I liked Dorothy and Gene when I was a kid. Dorothy was the closest thing that family had to a hipster. She went to San Francisco on her own and came back with a picture of herself on the large orange bridge. Uncle Gene has been sober more than thirty years. He worked on seagoing tugs and then pilot boats out of Connecticut for his whole life.

Gene and Dorothy had two little boys. I only met them once or twice. One of them went to the Merchant Marine Academy. He's a ship's engineer on a civilian ship that is a transport vessel for the US military. The ship is on standby at a dock in Virginia. My cousin lives ashore and goes to work on the ship, making sure everything works. His ship went to Kuwait recently. He didn't have to sail with it, but he was flown in to keep everything going while it sat in port there. My aunt was scared. My other cousin has had problems "finding himself". So far it seems he's found drugs, alcohol and mean hearted women. At one point he found himself in possession of a winning lottery ticket. That kept him in trouble for several years. Last I heard he had moved in with his parents and was trying to get sobered up.

I spoke to Dorothy last year. It was the first time we had spoken in 25 years. I liked her even better than I remembered. She told me some heartbreaking stories about my grandfather. A lot of things about my father made sense after I heard them. She told me that she thought my father was a snob. I reminded her that he was horribly insecure. She asked me about myself. I tried explaining, that, I, uh, lived kind of in the country, and that I didn't have central heating for 15 years and I came home from work and split wood in the rain and I used to have a girlfriend who kept a garden and we had been stuck with a couple of elderly sheep by our landlord, and uh...

"Oh my Gawd Jonathan!" She interrupted me, "You're a hippie!!!"

I'm not going to quibble with my old and estranged aunt about my subcultural allegiances, so I said, "Yeah, pretty much."

"Oh Jonathan, I'm so proud of you! You're nothing like your parents wanted you to be!"

She got that part right.

Those are my people. The Brooklyn they came from wasn't the least bit cool. It was dirty and kind of scary and the two main activities were drinking and complaining about the Goddam Puerto Ricans. It never occurred to me to wonder what the Puerto Ricans did with their time. I guess I thought they drank and complained about us. It always seemed to be dark there. We never went across the Brooklyn Bridge to get there. We went across some other, less interesting bridge, but you could see the Brooklyn Bridge down the river. What Brooklyn looked like was the movie, "Dark City".

Those were my father's people and they came from Brooklyn. My father went to Boy's High in Brooklyn. When he graduated he went straight into the First Marine Division. He was sent to San Diego and then on to the Solomon islands. He was with the First Marines at Guadalcanal. When the war ended, he took advantage of the GI bill and went to Fairleigh Dickinson College. It's a university now. That's where he met my mom. He married up in the world. She was a classy red head and he spent his whole life trying to live up to her standards. He ended up as a salesman in the New York garment district. He lugged a sample bag into loft factories in Manhattan and later in Mexico, China and Eastern Europe. When he came back, we would ask him, "Daddy, what's it like there?"

He had two answers: "It was nice. It looks a lot like New York", or, "It was a dump. It looks a lot like Newark."

In the end, he did all right for himself. When I was a kid, there was a lot of scrimping and saving, but nothing remotely resembling want. After I grew up, he made some pretty good money. When he married my mom, he promised her that someday he would buy her a mink coat and a convertible and they would go on vacation in Bermuda. Big talk in 1949. He did those three things and he and my mom retired to Arizona when he was 60.

At first, he played golf every day. He was club champion in his retirement community two years in a row. He doesn't play anymore, but when I called him today, I had to scream into the phone while he told me told me how Tiger Woods was doing on the TV. My mom died in 1995. He got a girlfriend, but lived alone after that. When his girlfriend died, last year, he started to fall apart. My sister got him into an assisted living apartment. It costs a fortune, but he says he can afford it. I'm not worried about my inheritance. My sister worries constantly about her inheritance, but she did the right thing by him. The place is nice and they make sure he showers and eats and flirts with the old dolls who live there.

For years, my father and I fought, almost on sight. The only thing that kept us from killing each other was my mom. We both loved her. Over the years we've mellowed. I had to lay down the law once or twice, but we were finally able to reach an understanding as two grown men. My managing to stay sober around him helped that a lot. Now that he knows I'm not going to turn up drunk and belligerent, he has begun to let down his guard around me. Just a little, but some. He never told me about his father until just a few years ago. He never told me about anything much. Now he'll share memories occasionally.

I finally realized that he wasn't a fallen idol. He is some guy. He could be a real bastard, but so could I. It isn't our defining characteristic. I know his father didn't give him a lot to work with, and considering that, he did a hell of a job. I think he knows I'm proud of him.

For years, I called my family "those people". Now, I'm one of them. I'm my father's son. Thanks dad.

Dark City


mwhybark said...

Nice, Jon. I seems to me just in the time we've been corresponding I've been seeing little bist of this and changes inside you around some of this. Maybe I'm wrong. Anyway, I found this touching. Hippie.

Jon said...

Thanks Mike. Changing. That's the point. Isn't it?

ib said...

Great, Jon.

I was heartened to read that the relationship between you and your dad has mellowed enough that you can get along, if that doesn't sound too presumptious. Glad, too, you reached a point where you could lay down the law without calling in an air-strike.

It's nice you finally called up your aunt Dorothy. I have relatives too I haven't spoken with in over 25 years - since my dad died, in fact - and it sometimes unsettles me when I look at my own son and catch a fleeting resemblance.

Life is all too often a bitch. And then you make good with her again.

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