First Father’s Day Beyond: a tribute
This I was mulling over at the service (Feb. 6, IIRC), but chickened out from sharing. It wouldn’t have been as long, just the basic points.
My colorful life is due to my father.
He moved to NYC, where most of his family remained in Springfield, MA, and one sister took her family to the DC area. And in NYC, he and my mother managed to settle into a beautiful urban cul-de-sac rather than the ghetto. It gave me an appreciation for trees and gardens in such, amidst rows of medium sized city [ornately designed pre-war] apartment buildings (Though consisting of mostly elderly Jewish ladies sunning themselves, it would give me problems adapting into a black community when the neighborhood — Flatbush — did change by the time I was 10), and an almost suburban-looking bucolic private home neighborhood nearby.
All of this made me what I grew up to become.
Riding the subway all over the city:
•To friends of his (including jazz musicians) in Manhattan and the Bronx.
•godmother Mrs. Popes in Harlem, sometimes turning me over to her on 125th St., and then she would take me on the bus the rest of the way.
•Then to the WFUV station in Fordham University (north-central Bronx; traveling much of the length of the D train back then) for his Saturday jazz show (Jazz in Black Mocha, then Jazz in American Heritage). He used to let me speak on the air, sometimes, inbetween records.
An occasional treat would be when a friend of his was there with us, and would drive us home, through the tangled interchange where the Deegan, Washington & Hamilton bridges and Henry Hudson Pkwy all interconnect. The Miller/West Side Hwy was still up, but closed along the lower portion. Snaking through the blocks (and some buildings) parallel to it was the full length High Line. We would stop at a restaurant/bar with a sidewalk cafe at Abingdon Sq. (Still there, but now a Thai restaurant).
•To the Port Authority to go anywhere out of state.
•And then the other direction on the Brighton line to go to Coney Island.
He “walked like a man”, as I struggled to keep up on the half-mile walk to the Newkirk Plaza train station.
Buses were mostly with Mom, but with Dad, there was my mother’s mother across Brooklyn in Bed-Stuy, and occasionlly other places in that area (like some African shop on Fulton St. to get who knows what, or some old abandoned brownstone his architecture company was fixing up, reminded me of the contemporary hit song “Ain’t No Sunsine” which we had on 45. Later on, the annual Fulton Art Fairs, and let’s not forget, the gritty ghetto barber shops). Then, going the other way, to Riis Park beach.
When I was really young, taking me all over Brooklyn (including over the Brooklyn Bridge) on the back of his bike.
I also remember going to some dim (ambient) restaurant in lower Manhattan, one morning, and having green noodles. When I go to places like that in the Village or wherever with friends today, it reminds of that. Plus many other places around the city. The whole artsy sections of Manhattan remind me of him. So do the bearded hipsters that grace them!
This is truly me, minus the “girl looking for love” premise:
Truly, I was immersed in the big city black experience, even though it took a few years for my immediate neighborhood to catch up in reflecting that.
I always wondered what I would have been like had I grown up somewhere else. When I see the other relatives, I feel such a contrast between their small-city lifestyles, and my colorful NYC experience. (Part of the reason I witheld sharing this was fear it might insult them. Plus, I just have stage fright!)
When he took the Arno Profile System temperament analysis as part of my wife’s initiation into a Christian counseling service where they had to test a bunch of people to get their license, he came up Melancholy-Melancholy-SupinePhlegmatic:
In my own studies of personality theory, I find that this corresponds with the MBTI and Keirsey ISTJ profile, also known as an “Inspector” or “Contender Guardian”.
Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging:
And that fit him perfectly, though he did have a bit of a “Rebel” streak associated with the Control area, that is not really covered in the corresponding “SJ Guardian” profiles. This from the totally neurotic structures (both family and society) he grew up under. The tendency is to be “guardians” of these structures, but when they are as out of whack as they were for him, they like to go against them and start over with new structures.
Long before I got into personality theory, he prefigured this in some of his discussions to me about relating with people, by one day describing to me the difference between introverts and extroverts (my first time ever hearing these terms). He also another time mentioned the value of Thinking (“the head”), but also the necessity of Feeling (“the heart”). Like it may be logical to kill someone for some goal, but you must then look at the moral side of that. Also, always complaining about “abstractions” such as religion and political ideology (which often attract “N’s” or iNtuitives such as myself), in favor of “concrete reality”. (A more “Sensory” perspective). And he clearly favored an orderly “Judging” attitude to a more carefree “Perceiving” one.
So picture a deep, thinking loner, who yet is an aggressive figure in his family (looking to me more like a Choleric). Yet having a moderate need of affection and relational openness, that neither me, as Supine Compulsive, or my mother, as Melancholy Compulsive, in that area, would really give him. (These are both very low “expressive” temperaments). His “child-like” tertiary Feeling side would come out, in his passion for the things he believed in, and being really playful with people at times.
The Melancholy is also a very artistic temperament, though, and he was definitely true to this.
At home was his drafting board and art supplies, and on Sundays and other free afternoons, hours and hours of jazz; either “programming” for his radio show, or just enjoying. A whole range of deeply sad (a perfecly fitting “melancholic”, lol), and lively sounds. Inbetween, you had the deep funk of Isaac Hayes and Billy Paul, or, of course, sports on TV, basically football and basketball.
He also had his own horns, he used to let me try to blow on.
Between this, and my mother’s mix of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other Motown and R&B/soul, Abbey Road album and pop radio, I developed a rich taste for a wide range of music.
Also in the closet, the “silver pennies” (a bunch of 1943 zinc pennies he had saved. These were stolen in a string of burglaries in ’82). And then some other stuff I won’t get into. (In teens, his quarter jar, which would provide my supply of “case quarters” for video games!)
We played chess on his set with the sculpted wooden African pieces. He had several statues and paintings around the house.
I remember coming home (7 or younger) to find a nude pencil drawing of my mother hanging from the kitchen chandelier (and then, thinking it was so amusing, proceeding to try to copy it myself. Neither of them remembered this).
Then, him showing up in his dashiki when I got hit by a car, during a period when he was wearing those.
Years before, he had participated in some of King’s marches, and upon seeing the utter hatred in the faces of racist opponents, knew they could not be swayed into accepting us by peaceful demonstration, and gave up on that movement and turned more to Malcolm X and other revolutionaries.
I’ve just recently found out that “gal” was an offensive word used on black girls in the south; but I sure knew about “BOY”, as he said he would let no one (from a certain group of people) call him that, whereas others did. (He instead would use it on me, sounding just like one of those slaveowners, when chastizing me for something).
Then, coming down the block after me and my cousin with that old crusty belt at least once.
As I was getting older:
Space and nature shows on PBS (got me into astronomy and theoretical physics, but also would make God look unreal, causing faith problems I still struggle with).
Then, political consciousness, especially involving race.
Especially useful entering the Reagan era of the 80s, when life seemed to be getting rougher for many of us, better for some other people, and yet popular rhetoric was increasingly shifting blame to the poor and minorities. He began predicting what we are seeing today, 30 years later, the ousting of the poor from the inner city (quickly beginning then; slowed down only by the crack epidemic for awhile).
He had gotten me to notice how the quality of products were going down, even as prices rose. Like the screws that stripped almost like lead, when we were putting up my brother and I’s bunk bed.
One rant, probably in the days of Morton Downey Jr. and the Willie Horton campaign, he said something like “the leaders of capitalism go home to their mansions every night and look at these [‘angry’] middle class Americans and laugh! ‘The niggers!‘, they have them blaming” imitating the seething snort of a virulent racist. “Meanwhile, they will bring this country down, and then hop on a plane, and go somewhere else, as people blame ‘the niggers’!”
This is what really got me focused on this whole blame game, and inspired by this, I soon began writing what eventually became my pages on politics. Today, the same awareness is what inspires all the political entries in this blog.
Of course, he was certainly not perfect.
No one knew what Asperger’s Syndrome was, and he was recently recalling some “guilt-ridden white liberal”-minded psychologist they took me to blaming “the ‘Black Rage’ of the father” for my problems.
So I grew up with him snatching homework papers from under my pencil if I did something wrong (including handwriting, which I could never get right — in contrast to his artistic penmanship).
Then, it was endless lectures, about life and people; and everything I was doing wrong, and had ever done wrong. “SCHOOL IS VERY IMPORTANT!”, thundered at my C average. Teens in particular, were the worse, when my horrible luck with peers, and especially girls, was blamed on me not listening when they taught me grooming, or because I used to turn away a little friend when I was younger (I didn’t want to get up so early for him, IIRC). I was just “floating through life not giving a damn about anything”.
(As a good, “secular” father, he nevertheless did give me one of those medication-odored, wrapped “balloons” I would occasionally see laying around and open up when I was young. Never got used, of course!)
Then, the drinking, which really escalated in my 20’s, as I had dropped out of college and didn’t know what to do with myself, and fell right into his drunken wrath. At the same time, I adopt forms of Christianity (the “white man’s religion”), and he provides irrefutable arguments against it (I could never bring myself to use the standard “well, just look at the condition of your soul” argument, which is supposed to be the ultimate clincher for the faith).
He would continue to push me about my life and all the bad things that would happen if I didn’t “believe in myself and achieve something”, and I would point to both the drinking and smoking and how he was potentially destroying his own life; and he would say “well, I lived my life”. (And soon, he would begin speaking of seeing some ‘light’ at the end of life, or something). I tried to escape into the Air Force, but by then I was so damaged I couldn’t perform, and was out in 9 months.
All of this I’m still reeling from as midlife hits me full force.
But in time, he would become remorseful (especially as I finally married out of there), and then be willing to give me whatever I want or need. He finally helped get me jumpstarted in stable employment by helping me get a job in the Court system, where he had been working as an architect, by then.
One time, bringing me some money at work, he stops and sees the desk of the co-worker next to mine with magazine pictures of topless contemporary male singers, stops and asks her “Where am I at?” (And he had never even met her before).
Overall, despite all that, he was a true “father”, where many others were dead-beat, in jail, dangerously abusive, one out of several “daddies” mom brings home, or quite often, dead. (Whether from the criminal life, or bad health).
Death had been largely unknown in my life. You had:
•His grandmother, 77, when I was 10. I only vaguely knew her from my earlier visits
•Then, forward 13 years, my mother’s mother, 81, right after I got home from the Air Force
•Next would finally be his own mother, 21 years later, just two years ago now, at a surprising 93!
•Followed by one of her daughters, the DC sister, just one month later, at 70 (cancer).
It was suddenly, rapidly getting closer to home, with my wife trying to “prepare” me, for years.
The rampant chain smoking was finally catching up with him.
Contracting emphysema (and even continuing to smoke for awhile after that!) he ended up with the tube in his neck, and carrying the tanks around, but thankfully was not talking like a robot, like the guy on the anti-smoking PSA a few years ago. He did talk much less, though, and it was often like he was already gone.
I watched him strugging walking with his tank at his mother’s services, and then he had to go rest while the rest of us continued to spend time with each other.
The first week of this year, I had stopped at the main Sam Ash near Times Sq. and was trying on a keyboard to see if I could get the basic horn melody to a jazz record he used to play, so I could record it on my phone and bring it to him, since I couldn’t describe it to him otherwise. I didn’t record it that day, but figured I’d probably try again sometime.
But then just a few days later, two days after my birthday in fact, literally walking out the door to work, we get the call. I thought it was just my brother asking my wife for some advice for something. I picked up, and then he asked for her. When I got out the door, she told me. He had just turned 74 less than a month earlier.
At the service/dinner, some jazz tunes I didn’t really remember played in the background, and the pencil self-portrait of a younger version of himself hung on the wall. I was sad, and totally bewildered, as I was trying to think of what became this tribute.
So just today, the first Father’s day after he departed (and he was never big on having to receive Father’s Day or other holiday cards or gifts: too much Western commercialism); while at work, I just got the idea to do this tribute, and wrote it during my breaks throughout the day, and just finished now.
An echo of him is my mother, who has now gotten more into fine art, attending a class near Carnegie Hall, and putting together avant-garde paintings and collages and even greeting cards. Her apartment now filled with all sorts of African art and scupture.
Streetwise, tough and scrappy, and even a small time hustler for a time, he was in so many ways radically different from me, a shy “nerd”, basically; yet he made me what I am.
Here is the opening theme song to his radio show, from 1972-1990, when he quit to spend more time with my brother, who was living with our mother in Albany at the time:
He only used to play up to about 13:30. The rest of it (which comprised the rest of that side of the LP) begins bugging out like the guy was on acid or something, and he rarely played that.
A tune he didn’t play an awful lot, but he did like, and was probably recorded and released while I was in the womb, and just reminds me of the whole experience growing up with him:
As emotionless as I’ve been, it’s hard to hear either now.