“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

Hawklet

The red-tailed hawk on West 84th Street had babies recently.

One of our neighbors, who wears white T-shirts and has long stringy gray hair, and gray whiskers, caught Bennett and me on the street the other day as I was walking him to the corner to meet up with his friend Josh so that they could go to school together.

“Do you see her up there?” he asked us. “White feathers. And a red tail.”

I had thought that the red-tailed part was more of a moniker and less of something that was visible to all. I pointed Bennett to the fire escape on the 12th or so floor of the prewar building. 505 West End Avenue. The fire escape faces west, so when the hawk is caught in a breeze, you can see her white belly ruffle in the wind.

There was nothing so high in Manhattan as this building 400 years ago. Perhaps I console myself with that advantage to her, since–robbed of the island’s natural habitats–she and her babies are consigned to eating rats, most of which have been poisoned by unthinking landlords along our block and the surrounding area.

Uptown #1 train: Vignette #30

On the subway, young lady wearing navy skirt with white pictographs gets cautious smiles from elderly Chinese man sitting across from where she stood. His dress shirts, on hangers in a clear plastic bag, hung from the brushed aluminum handrail over his head. They swung as the train rocked.

She noticed him staring, reading, smiling. She smiled back.

Finally, after smiles were tossed back and forth like fresh eggs between schoolchildren at Field Day, she went over to speak to him.

She bent over, her back to me, to listen. He looked at her through his glasses and said something, his words coming obviously slowly, judging by the movement of his mouth.

She nodded and then stood up.

The train came into 72nd Street and the doors opened behind her. She started toward the platform and, grabbing a handrail on her way out, turned once more to the man.

He looked at her, as though something had passed between them and neither was the poorer.

Aggrandizing the damages

At points, the city is broken.

Fractured.

It is inevitable, but as it happens, we can practice kintsugi. In kintsugi, we aggrandize the damage of an object by filling the cracks with gold. We believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.kintsugi

So does the city.

When it is repaired by those who want to see it prosper.

a smell of urine

This view hasn’t changed; only those who take it in.

There was a time when the same eyes that would have looked out on the Atlantic Ocean from the “Windward Coast” (“Ivory Coast”) would have looked out on what is now Central Park West. Of course, in 1850 there was no Central Park West.

There was no Central Park.IMG_3124

A little more than 100 years later, the eyes of the succeeding generations would have looked out onto a drug-laden Upper West Side. They would have looked onto Amsterdam Avenue and probably not onto Central Park West. They would have looked down from soulless high-rises with broken elevators and the smell of urine in the stairwells. Heroine needles. The eyes of 1850 had a qualified power; they were landowners. The eyes of 1950 were emasculated tenants.

I sip my boutique coffee on the outcropping of schist that would have been here then but was probably sculpted after the Windward Coast eyes were told they must look elsewhere. I came here on a cool Sunday morning before church. I sit and sip and decide how long to stay. It’s my choice. I could stay longer if I wanted to.

Where I sit was once, “possibly…Manhattan’s first stable community of African American property owners,” as described by the descendant organization that benefited from an early use of eminent domain to oust the community itself along with everyone else in the surrounding 843 acres.

Owners were compensated for their land. Some moved and reestablished themselves. Others did not.

It is one thing to compensate for land.

It is another to compensate for place.

photo: author

The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins

Says who?

The author of the gospel of Mark (second book in the New Testament) is said to be either Mark the evangelist, a companion of Peter (one of Jesus’ twelve disciples), or an unknown figure.

In either case, what strikes me today as I read the All Angels epiphany reading (Mark 1:9-28) is the problem of authorship and, therefore, the believability of the events. I use “problem of” more in its meaning as “issue of.”

In this passage, one of the events is Jesus’ baptism and then his immediate departure “for forty days” into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. We know from the other gospels that there are three temptations, not outlined in Mark. Jesus was first tempted with food, then with proving his identity, and finally with being offered power. In each case, Jesus answers Satan with Scripture, and he is ministered to angels.

The problem of, or issue with, authorship for me is this: either Peter or the author made up these details—either someone lied—or Jesus lied, or all are telling the truth.

As he speaks about the Spirit (who sends him into the wilderness in the first place), Satan, angels and the power of Scripture, Jesus also implies obedience to the Spirit and reliance on Scripture. Left to myself, I don’t want to trust so thoroughly in these things. But through understanding the source of these events—that they came either from Jesus’ lips or were fabrications—we gain an understanding of the relative importance of certain disciplines and of a certain way of living.

If indeed Jesus is the “author”—the one who truthfully conveyed these events through Peter, who then conveyed them through Mark the evangelist or through another writer—then I must confront the reality that I might have to live differently than I am now. I might have to trust and obey more. I might have to submit more. I might have to have more faith.

Chuck Colson used to say that one should always challenge a fact or statement or claim with the response, “Says who?”

That’s a problem I must wrestle with and respond to.