Friday, July 2, 2010
I spend time with my father.
Much of the time I spent with my father when I was a little kid was in the car alongside him as he went on errands and looked for parking spaces. I was his silent companion during these weekend trips. Me, not my older brother, I suppose my mother wanted me out of the house more, probably because my brother and I, being only one grade apart, were nearly always quarreling and she just couldn’t take it.
And as we would drive through a nearby shopping district, he would on occasion tell me something slight about his job or talk to me about the Yankees. Most often, we would each sit silently listening to the crackle of his car’s AM radio, Frank Sinatra singing or something about missiles and Nikita Khrushchev. Most of what I heard during these trips I couldn’t understand. I was young, maybe four or five but I enjoyed the trips anyway. First off, I was with my father, and secondly, I got to sit in the front seat, something which didn’t happen when anyone else was around.
We would go into stores and my father would attend to something with a salesperson and leave me to find something to amuse myself. In one store, a men’s clothing store, there was an engraved sign and a small running tap at street level right near the entryway. The sign said “Dog Bar,” and I remember wondering why dogs would need to go to a bar, because bars were places only grown-ups were meant to go. This same store had an automatonic parrot on its countertop not far from where the cashiers stood. When you pressed a button that was on the base the bird sat on, the bird would swing slowly into life, swivel its head, tilt it and squawk, “Polly want a cracker” or “What a beautiful day” or “Hello, how are you?”
To my eyes and ears the bird was incredibly lifelike. Its feathers as bright as a cereal box. And even though it was activated by my touch and even though the bird often repeated itself, I spent a fair amount of time debating in my mind whether or not the parrot was real and alive. Occasionally the men behind the counter would activate it, unbeknownst to me, “Hello, handsome,” squawked the machine. That further confused me.
The other thing my father and I used to do on these trips was to endlessly (it seemed to me) search for some obscure item my mother desperately needed for some reason or another. She might have us hunting for forest green tapered candles because someone important was meant to come over for dinner, or she needed a bronze finial for a lamp she was planning to refinish or a certain kind of screw with reverse threading.
These expeditions sent us all over the Bronx and southern Westchester counties. To myriad small strips of shops and village centers. To little dusty hardware stores with walls covered by hundreds of small cardboard boxes filled with oddly-purposed doodads. We were not just shopping anymore, we weren’t running dumb, pointless errands. We had been sent on a quest, and like Coronado searching for the Lost City of Gold, Ahab hunting the white whale or Aguirre searching for god knows what, we would return triumphant—finials in hand—or we would die trying. Often our expeditions would take all day. We would start in the morning and not come home until just before dinnertime. This was a tribute to our perseverance or, perhaps, my father wanting to be far from my mother.
At each of the little stores we stopped in, of course, we had to find a parking space. This was where the magic of my father really came to the fore. First we would drive to the store, hoping there’d be a space upfront magically waiting for us like there always were on television detective shows. Finding no spot, we would circle the block. If we still hadn’t found a place for the car, my father would proclaim, “we’ll find a space or we’ll make one.” I imagined my father somehow pushing cars away to open up a slot for his Studebaker. But usually we found room at a meter which ate the nickel my father allowed me to feed it.
When it was raining during our quests and we had parked a distance from our destination, my father would say, “we’ll just run between the rain drops.” And then we’d zig-zag our way to the store, getting wet all the same despite our effort.
Around lunchtime during these excursions my father would start complaining about his prodigious hunger. He wouldn’t say anything as prosaic as, “I’m hungry. Let’s go get a bite.” He was much more dramatic than that. “Son,” he’d say “my stomach thinks my throat is cut.”
Statements like these were my father’s norm. They were the things he said and he said them often. For all I remember, they might be all he said when we were together. It’s not that he was withholding or laconic, it was more that he was usually lost in his own thoughts. Some people solve their problems externally, their problems become property of everyone around them. My father worked his all out in his head, playing out every option, every conversation, every angle they would entail. Then he would have his solution. The troubles or situations either at work or at home I wouldn’t be able to understand. So he didn’t involve me.
So we passed our time together in quiet, silently looking for parking spaces, our emptiness filled only by ballgames, mechanical parrots and dashes toward stores in between drops of whispering rain. We would find a way to be together, or make one.
Posted by george tannenbaum at 4:33 PM