All this focus on the year 1924, a time when there was still no federal law limiting child labor, before any kind of governmental social safety net existed, when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was at its all time peak in membership, and organized xenophobia, following a senseless World War, a massive slaughter the exact cause of which nobody has ever rationally explained, was at fever pitch… why?
It was the boiling world my father was born into. Add to it that young Irving was a tiny, impoverished member of those teeming, sweating immigrant masses that so alarmed the descendants of the original Anglo-Saxon Americans. Add to it that fear of drunken foreigners was one of the driving forces of the Temperance movement that led to the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “the manufacture, sale or transporting of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” 1924 was year five of the failed fourteen year experiment in banning alcohol.
Eliyahu, my father’s father, a man who never drank alcohol, died young of liver disease. My father was a lifelong “teetotaler,” as he would say from time to time explaining why he almost never lifted an alcoholic beverage to his lips. He’d have a sip of sweet red wine, on ceremonial occasions, but outside of that, I don’t believe he ever drank so much as a beer. He certainly never tasted whisky. By sheer coincidence, Irv died of liver cancer.
My teetotaler father was a lifelong student of history. When I used to have a “current events” assignment in grade school my father stressed the importance of making sure I clipped the date of the article I was reporting on. He instilled this habit in me, the historian’s instinct to place events into a sequence that could be followed later, to note, to the extent possible, cause and effect in historical progressions.
Finally, unable to restrain himself, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave outside of Peekskill, in Cortlandt, New York. “OK, look, Elie, I know the thought of going through those 1,200 pages of your first draft is exhausting to you– but don’t you think it’s time? Are you seriously trying to write draft two completely from scratch, with this clunky chronological time line? Telling instead of showing, since you know so little about my early life, outside of a few stories from Eli.”
“Well, I do see your point, dad, but I can’t very well skip to the drama of the misshapen blue pants I was so reluctant to wear for the visit to NYU hospital when you were hospitalized with bleeding psoriasis, the round of temper tantrums my refusal to put on those hideous pants caused…”
“Sure, go right there, that’s the way to do it…” the skeleton rotated his head, for effect. “Obviously, I’m in no position to tell you how to write this, or do anything. I’m just saying, it makes a certain amount of sense to review that huge draft you’ve already written and start organizing the best of it into draft two, where you act like you knew what you were doing all along.”
It does make sense, a lot of sense.
For example, I could include something like this (I Just Want You To Be Happy, Nov. 18, 2017):
We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel. When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound. “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect. He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.
We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida. I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood). I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking. My father was driving me home this particular night. It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car. On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me.
“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him. It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy. “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings? Is there anything? Would law school do it for you?” I asked. “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”
I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx. My father paused. Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing. My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him. I managed not to say anything snide.
“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door. You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life. I just want you to be happy. If you were happy, I’d be satisfied.”
I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist. An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics. None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that. I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.
“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth. “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me. You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.”
I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into. I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager. I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.
“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said. “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”
And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out. I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests. I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).
I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to. I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.
“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.
Pretty much. I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar. What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune. Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did. He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law. I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker.
Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.
“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.