Mets are down one to the allegedly lousy Braves in the bottom of the ninth with nobody out. Wilmer Flores is on first. James Loney has lashed a Jim Johnson pitch into the left-center gap. Flores is running. We probably have a few minutes until the situation resolves itself. I don’t want to say Wilmer is slow, but Mo Vaughn, Jason Phillips and a box turtle all just turned their heads to wish him well as they strolled by him.
While the Snickers people set up to film their next “Not Going Anywhere For Awhile?” commercial, I guess I have time to share some thoughts regarding today, Father’s Day. Our Father’s Day celebration, if that word can be used, was yesterday, which felt appropriate. I identify Saturday, its late afternoon and early evening, with my father more than any other part of the week. I think of how he and I would “go around the corner” to “take a haircut” at George’s Madison Avenue Barber Shop, which was conveniently located on Park Street, nowhere near Madison Avenue. Park Street in Long Beach was alternately known as Park Avenue, so I wondered why George didn’t just call it George’s Park Avenue Barber Shop. Either one would have communicated the classiness to which George seemed to be aspiring.
George didn’t cut my hair. Leo did. George had his chance. He freaked me out when I was two years old and taking what was apparently my first official haircut. George used that electric razor device on my burgeoning sideburns. George pinched me on the cheeks. I jumped out of the chair and ran in circles screaming and crying in objection to each act of aggression. That was it for me and George. Leo was given explicit instructions on my next visit.
“No machine,” I demanded. “No pinch on cheek.”
Leo played ball. I don’t know if his haircuts were Madison Avenue-worthy, but I put up with them. I think a lollipop might have been involved in quelling my anxieties. Over in the adjacent chair, Dad would take his haircut from George. He was a lot lower-maintenance in those days.
I don’t know why Dad would say “take a haircut”. The rest of the world would get a haircut. I said “get a haircut”. I didn’t get or take many haircuts. I was considered the family radical at an early age. Taking or getting a haircut seemed to be giving in to the system — plus the lollipop never made up for all those damn scratchy hairs down my neck and back. Also, I really wanted to let it grow long enough to effect a David Cassidy look. It never took.
But when there’d be haircuts, my dad and I would take them together. I’d chat as much as I had to with Leo, who wore glasses and spoke in a German accent. Dad would chat as much as he had to with George. Truth be told, neither one of us was much for chatting with barbers. If I had to wait my turn, I’d sit and thumb through magazines that had been sitting out since Leo didn’t need glasses. Sometimes the Saturday Newsday would be there, back when Saturday’s Newsday was essentially the Sunday Newsday, since Newsday didn’t yet publish on Sunday. I have a very clear memory of sitting in George’s and reading Newsday’s coverage of the Knicks’ instantly historic comeback victory over the Cincinnati Royals from the night before. The Knicks, trying to set a record for longest NBA winning streak, were down five by with sixteen seconds to go, yet prevailed. We thrilled to it on Channel 9 on Friday night, November 28, 1969, and here I was reliving it at the barber shop on Saturday afternoon.
I also remember that every time I had to use the bathroom at George’s, I’d see a calendar on the wall turned to the page marked JUNE 1968. The years would change, George’s calendar wouldn’t. I don’t remember there being any kind of racy picture that would make a barber reluctant to move on from it. As with the whole Madison/Park thing, I don’t think I ever asked.
How long the haircut visits would last I don’t know. They felt long. They probably weren’t. My current barber has me in and out in ten minutes if there are no other customers and he’s not too distracted by his phone. His magazines are old, too, but there’s usually a fairly recent Newsday lying around if I have to wait.
Haircut done, back and neck scratchy, there might be other errands awaiting my dad and me on Park Street. We might pick up his shirts from the dry cleaner. My father’s father was a dry cleaner, so I imagine he took that stuff pretty seriously. We might need some small grocery item from East End Dairy, which was later known as East End Deli, but I always called it East End Dairy. If my parents were going out on Saturday night, and they usually were, there might be a trip to pick up dinner for my sister and me at the Lido Deli, which did not serve dairy, because it was kosher.
None of this was exactly a ritual or a routine. Sometimes Suzan (then spelled as Susan) would be with us to get the two burgers and two French fries — which came in tiny brown paper bags like they sell you a can of Heineken in at Penn Station. At least once, Dad and I met my sister and my mother at the Associated, colloquially known in our house as Murray’s, for Murray the gonif, who earned the nickname out of accuracy for his business practices. We usually walked, since it was indeed around the corner. Or maybe we drove to Island Park or Oceanside conduct our other affairs. Maybe we took the haircuts and just went home. We never talked about anything of substance. I learned no great life lessons, other than the kosher Lido Deli did not serve cheeseburgers.
A week consists of 168 hours. The one or two that constituted whatever it was I recall doing with my father on Saturday grow in stature like my hair tends to grow between haircuts, even to this day. At my mother’s urging, because she didn’t think Leo was a very good barber, my head would eventually be taken to others who were handier with a pair of scissors. Once they opened a McDonald’s in Long Beach, we didn’t need the Lido Deli. My father eventually opted for a different dry cleaner. Our Saturday trips to Park Street ceased.
I missed them without realizing it. They may have been the first element of my young life that I developed nostalgia for. On the Saturday prior to Father’s Day when I was sixteen, I went into the East End Dairy/Deli and had the bright idea to bring home a six-pack of Perrier. Perrier was a very chic beverage at the moment, Madison Avenue George’s kind of quaff, no doubt. My father had mentioned having it at some business lunch and deciding it lived up to the hype. That’s all I needed to hear to end my Father’s Day shopping. I gave my dad the Perrier and maybe a plastic lime filled with lime juice. He seemed to get a kick out of it and opened a bottle.
Five bottles sat in the back of the fridge undisturbed for the next decade, but I stand by my decision. A late Saturday afternoon in 1979 brought me back to an idealized late Saturday afternoon in 1969 or whenever. I could’ve found the Perrier at the Associated (albeit at Murray the gonif prices), but going into the East End Dairy for something vaguely exotic for my father is what hit the spot. My sense of who we had been as father and son bubbled up like naturally sourced sparkling water from my subconscious. Those Saturdays on Park Street, me and him, had already evaporated. I just wanted a taste.
Father’s Day never seemed like something my father particularly embraced. I don’t think he cared for the attention. I also have come to believe over the last year — as I have watched him withstand brain surgery, physical rehabilitation, cancer treatment, two or three bouts of pneumonia and a general diminishing of his being to the point where his ability to move and communicate are close to non-existent — that he has viewed the best part of his life as the part long before my sister and I came along. I don’t take that personally. He just obviously preferred being a kid.
Within a couple of days of his beginning to recover from the operation that removed his tumor last May, he began talking regularly about growing up in Jackson Heights, about his grandmother, about FDR. Some of the stories I’d heard before. Some were new to me. Over the months that followed, they’d elbow out the present. Lately he’s taken to speaking, when he does speak (softly), almost exclusively in Yiddish. Yiddish is all he spoke until he was four, according to family lore. He learned Yiddish from his grandmother. She was a great lady, he told me on multiple occasions last year and this; “It’s a shame you never knew her,” he lamented repeatedly.
Dad has been confounding longevity expectations for quite some time now. Since May of 2015, I’ve been ready for him to go at any minute. The minutes passed. He didn’t. He went downhill, but he didn’t cease. He is, despite being confined to a bed in a palliative-care facility, the Energizer bunny. He’s still going. Every trip I’ve made to see him since winter I more than half-expect to be my last. In March, I was pretty sure it was. I’d gone up to bring him my book, which he had been looking forward to seeing. He was, within the confines of his condition, pretty lucid, letting me know that he knew what was happening to him and that if I wanted to say goodbye, this would be a good time to do it.
He had gone sporadically melodramatic during various phases of his illnesses. “Say goodbye to me,” he’d wail. I think he was a victim of too many movies in which it appears people are about to die and then they die. It doesn’t work that way in real life, I have learned. But on this afternoon in March, he explained that he always regretted that he’d never had the chance to say goodbye to his mother, my grandmother (who I also never knew). He and my mother were out to dinner and came home to receive a message. His mother, who kept the books for the family dry cleaning store, suffered a stroke while working. She died immediately.
Now I finally got the subtext of “say goodbye to me” every time he didn’t want to get his blood pressure measured. All right, I figured, I better give him what he wants. He wants a goodbye scene. I gave it to him. It was simple but emotionally satisfying. I said what I needed to say, he heard what he wanted to hear and we watched the Mets lose a Spring Training game to the Red Sox.
Which, incidentally, bequeathed me one final baseball memory between us, thanks to rampant commercialism.
DAD: “Why does it say Nixon?”
DAD: “It says Nixon there behind the batter.”
ME: “That’s Nikon. It’s an ad for the camera company.”
There was peace and finality in that visit. There was a goodbye.
And then he kept living. Still going. There are no more conversations. There is virtually no English. His eyes don’t open much. Feeding him a fully puréed supper takes about as long as it’s taken Wilmer to round second on Loney’s extra base hit. But he still eats, and as long a person still eats, a person makes like the branded battery rabbit.
That meant one year after what we all assumed was our last Father’s Day with him, there was another Father’s Day with him. Stephanie and I opted to go see him yesterday because it was Saturday and Saturday is where I like seeing my father in my mind. We had a Father’s Day card sitting unused on a pile of papers — from one of those Junes when we each bought one, hence a leftover. It had Mickey Mouse on the front. I probably selected that one out of all the others at the CVS because I remembered being fascinated to learn that Mickey Mouse and my dad were born within a year of each other.
The printed message had something to do with his being the “No. 1” dad, as if the AP and UPI took a poll. I signed it with a little more emphasis than usual, and slipped it into the envelope, stopping to mark it “Dad,” and then realizing this is probably the last time I write that on a greeting card envelope.
But I probably thought that last year, too.
He wasn’t going to be able to read the card, let alone open an envelope, but it was Father’s Day and I still had a father. This is what we do. Assuming Perrier is not on his list of approved foods and beverages (I know where five bottles can be had cheap), we stopped at the Dollar Tree to pick up three balloons to brighten his room. We had brought a balloon for his birthday in January. It inevitably deflated, but nobody had the heart to toss it, so it had just remained tacked to his bulletin board, all saggy, these last five months. Time to bring festive back to balloons, we figured.
I went to the cashier to pay three dollars for three balloons (generic star-shaped balloons, because they’d run out of Father’s Day models), accidentally letting one slip out of my hand to the Dollar Tree ceiling. No personnel came forth with a ladder. So it became two balloons for two dollars. It’s the thought that counts.
We showed up in time for dinner. That’s the best hour to visit him. Or hours. It takes a while, just as it’s taken a while for Wilmer to reach third, for him to be fed. He’s as alert as he’ll ever be in the course of a day. When we arrived, his latest early-evening companion, a buoyant woman named Theresa, sang his praises.
“Charles is such a nice guy!” she testified. “He doesn’t call you names, he doesn’t hit you.” I’m pretty sure she meant he’s cooperative, because when you visit these places enough, just walking down the hallways you notice the residents not at their best, and with good reason. Yes, I said, my dad is a sweetheart. I wanted to say “you should have known him when,” but knowing him now, despite his lack of everything, told Theresa all she needed to know.
We presented the card, read it aloud and tacked it to the bulletin board that was crowded with cards from past occasions. We presented the two balloons, which Stephanie secured to the board as well. I opened my iPad and turned on Metromedia Radio for him. It is a recreation of the old WNEW-AM to which he listened regularly when I was growing up. In my youth, I both couldn’t stand it and came to adore it. The Internet version is positively Proustian, playing not just the standards and the big band numbers that defined the terrestrial WNEW, but the jingles and station IDs of yore. Stephanie, who works with the elderly, said music has a way of infiltrating the brain when nothing else does, even at this stage of life, so I keep tuning in faux AM Eleven Three Oh when we’re there and I keep hoping it makes an impression or at least sparks a little joy.
Me, I got mine when, after Theresa loudly announced that, “Charles, your son is here!” Suitably prodded, he opened one eye fully, the other eye a little, stared out and said, “Hi Greg.”
That was more than we got out of him on our last visit. That was all the English we heard from him yesterday. The music played on, Stephanie now and then asking him if he recognized this artist or that. We’re almost certain he nodded when asked about Tony Bennett, his favorite singer of all time. Dad, I said, this is the station and the music you were always playing in the car and in the kitchen. I couldn’t wait to go up to my room and listen to my station and my music, but thanks to you, I really came to appreciate this, so thank you for that.
I saw evidence that suggested this got through as well, but the only sentiments he expressed vocally were for more water, or vaser. One Filipina health aide after another is getting to know Yiddish.
For a while, I did the lifting of cup and spoon and napkin to his lips. It’s never too late to bond, I suppose. Eventually, Theresa the professional took over, continually reminding him his son and daughter-in-law were there, continually informing us what a nice guy he is, how he never hits or calls names. On the fifth or sixth mention, I was tempted to add these skills to his LinkedIn profile. Given his small sips and what we’ll generously refer to as bites, I thought dinner would meander into breakfast, but Theresa had her ways and before we knew it, his plate was clean. He wasn’t what you’d characterize as highly engaged, but the lady swore that he was, in fact, quite excited to see us. His eyes were more open than she’d ever seen them and he wasn’t falling asleep mid-chew. This is the new normal for excitement.
We stayed a while after dinner. I had flipped the TV to Fox in hopes that a pregame show would be on, but they had the U.S. Open on. I know nothing about golf, but I know this tournament always ends on Father’s Day. Every third Sunday evening in June, we’d all be waiting for a table at some restaurant near where he and Florence — his significant other of almost a quarter-century — lived and, over the bar, was the 18th hole. Golf and Father’s Day went together in my mind like Saturday and taking a haircut with my dad. My dad never cared for golf, but having it on in his room at least lent the concept that were once again sort of going out for Father’s Day dinner a thin veneer of reality. We had brought sandwiches from a 7-Eleven, so it really did kind of work.
The golf didn’t put him to sleep. Making it to 87 with too many things to keep track of wrong with him took care of that. The WNEW tribute channel played on. I waited until the U.S. Open closed for the night and Steven Matz threw strike one to Chase d’Arnaud to depart. I kissed him goodbye on the same head that was shaved to facilitate the operation last year, the same one that was subject to radiation and chemotherapy…where at least in the back and down the sides, hair has been coming in plentiful and dark. If he were up for it, I’d say he and I should take a haircut next Saturday. I don’t really need one, but I’d go with him for the company.
Oh, there’s Wilmer Flores, coming very slowly around third. Teufel’s sending him? Really? Ender Inciarte, who’s been killing us all night, grabs the ball, relays to Aybar, Aybar throws home …yeah, Wilmer’s out by ten feet. Mets lose to the allegedly lousy Braves again.
Ah, whaddaya gonna do?