For the person following this emerging portrait of my father (heh, you know who you are) I will say this about Tain Lee Chow. It was a Glatt Kosher Chinese Restaurant, the first in Queens, founded and run by my father and the last, and most enduring, of his surrogate sons, a shrewd businessman named Benjy. It’s an interesting but probably minor chapter in Irv’s life, after he retired, an experiment in being his own boss. Benjy took care of all the details and my father spent most of his time in the kitchen, chatting with the crew, turning beef spare ribs, taking the noodles out of the oil. That’s why he and his clothes smelled so strongly of Chinese Noodles when he got into the car.
But an odd and telling detail of my early life occurred to me yesterday while listening to Jane Mayer give an account of the early life of the fucking Koch brothers. Their father was a monstrous capitalist who imparted his values to his sons in part by leaving them in the care of a strict German nurse. While toilet training them she insisted they defecate first thing in the morning, or else they’d get castor oil and enemas. Makes sense, in light of that, that Charles and David grew up to be the ruthless, tight-assed fascist twats they did.
Irv, stationed in Germany right after the war, lived among the nation that had murdered everyone in his family who had not found refuge in the United States. He came home, went to college on the G.I. bill, married my mother, Evelyn, and they eventually had a son. Their son, by all accounts an unaccountably angry baby, had a nurse, a German woman.
How can this be, I wondered when I recalled the small handful of stories about her yesterday. I put the few puzzle pieces I have together. Though she was German, she must have been Jewish. My father wouldn’t buy a German car, it was impossible he’d put me under the care of a German nurse, unless she was a Jewish refugee. Of course, there is no way to verify this, but I strongly believe it must have been the case. In any case, in their imitations of her she had a strong German accent. Good enough, I say.
I know there were issues with toileting and the training of this angry baby. For the rest of their lives my parents referred to shit as shize. This was a corruption of the German word scheiss, as in “wir scheissen auf die freiheit” (“we shit on freedom”) a phrase I learned had been a slogan of fascist youth in the time of Hitler’s rise to power. The New York Times translated it “we spit on freedom”, to no-one’s surprise.
Odder still, this German nurse apparently used to refer to me as der Fuhrer. That cranky Jewish baby? Hitler. Funny, no? (Correction a few years later: der Kaiser! She referred to me as der Kaiser, not the fucking Fuhrer….)
Why my working class parents, living on my father’s small beginning teacher’s salary, had a nurse for me is another question. Perhaps she was a baby sitter who took care of me a few times when my mother needed a break from her demanding son?
It’s a slightly disquieting feeling, smelling strongly of the death that waits for all, to know there is nobody alive I can ask about most of the things I am writing about here.