He was born in 1916 in a dirt road town off the Appian Way. His mother died in the Spanish Flu pandemic soon after. He came here at seven, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, quit school at sixteen – it was the depression – worked at who knows what, became a city fireman, then a bar owner, his first in Harlem called The Horseshoe, looted and lost in the riot of 1943; later The Marine Bar on South Street across from the Staten Island ferry. In my growing up years he kept me at home during the week so I wouldn’t quit high school and follow some of my friends into the military. In my college years he bought a bar upstate and in summers we worked it together. I opened up at eight for a customer named Smitty who needed four shots of rye before going to work. In late afternoon he took over and I napped in a spare room upstairs. We worked the night shift together and closed at four. Next came the all night diner for breakfast, after which I’d sleep for a few hours before opening up again. This was seven days a week. One night a drunk he’d kicked out threw a beer bottle from outside that hit the cash register and shattered in his face. In the course of this career his nose was broken five times. His marriage didn’t survive the temptations of the business and he left my mother when I was in my twenties. I resented him for everything. In his late forties he left the bar business and went into real estate, selling and owning property. This was work he finally enjoyed. In the end we made peace. The body that lived for work lost out to diabetes and Parkinson’s. From there it was dementia and the nursing home where he ogled the nurses and tried to sell the rooms as condominiums. He did what he could, gave me a gift, he’s always in the next room.
It’s closing time.
My father and I
pick up empty glasses
and wipe down the bar,
the door is locked and
except a heavy set blonde,
at the end of the bar
telling him all night
his son is better looking.
My father totals the register.
She watches as I untie my apron
and get ready to leave.
I have my own car.
He looks at me.
He awoke in the back of a stolen Oldsmobile Starfire whose rapid acceleration from a red light shot fear into his heart. He’d been trying to sleep despite a stomach churning from alcohol. The Olds accelerated with neck snapping speed and sucked air like a straw sipping the bottom of a glass. The car headed west on Queens Boulevard with three boys in front and four squeezed in back, the radio tuned to the Symphony Sid Show and King Pleasure singing, My Little Red Top, its simple lyric of love driving some of them to sing along. Oh My Little Red Top/how you’ve got me spinning! With unceasing acceleration the Olds changed lanes without regard for the vehicles slipping by in a blur as they neared Calvary Cemetery, where his grandparents were buried. He now felt a heavy touch of shame at being drunk in a stolen car in the vicinity of his forebears, the salt of the earth, dead not two years, one having followed the other because life alone was untenable. In his mind’s eye he saw the grave stone beyond the cemetery’s boundary with its giant statue of Christ welcoming his flock to eternity.
Then a red light, but seen too late. With a screech of brakes a front tire exploded, the Olds skidded sideways, struck the curb and pitched out of control, the steering wheel spinning both ways through the driver’s hands. Although the boys knew that a crash was imminent, these ‘assholes’ – his father’s word – yipped and yelled for the driver to go faster, displaying not a particle of fear at the impending collision. He realized at last that his father’s description was apt. These friends were crazy and reckless and stupid to celebrate as the smaller car, which they struck from behind, obeyed the Newtonian laws he’d studied. It shot across the intersection like a pool ball.
After a brief pause the driver of the little car got out, a wiry type in his early thirties wearing a leather bomber jacket. Smiling, he approached with his open wallet held forth like a crucifix in a vampire film. He jiggled the wallet so the police badge flashed as he neared the car to assess what he had inside.
“Who is this mother fucker?,” the driver asked. His last name was Freud, his nickname ‘Ziggie.’
The man in the bomber jacket pressed the badge against the driver’s side window, and his open jacket revealed a pistol in a belt holster, a small, nasty looking thing whose grip protruded like a cow horn, black and mean. He opened both doors on the driver’s side, and with a theatrical gesture as if introducing the boys to an audience, invited them to step outside.
“Hands on the roof of the car, fellas, then we’ll see some I.D.”