The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for September 15th, 2009

DUMBO… or missing my Dad

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A little personal history this time, folks, bear with me, I’m particularly eff’ed up in September.

Tug boat passes Manhattan Bridge 1 by you.

This tug, the Dorothy J, is pushing a barge of shredded autos, most likely coming from the Newtown Creek, down the East River. Manhattan Bridge in background. – photo by Mitch Waxman

I grew up in a solidly working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, first in Flatbush and later- to my utter disbelief- a place called Futurama which was either in Canarsie or Flatlands or Old Mill Basin depending on who you asked. When I was a kid, me and my friend Joey Miller- who was from a family of Sheepshead Bay sailors- would climb the fenceline at a kosher chicken processing plant and pee on the snapping guard dogs- dobermans- kept there during working hours. My friends and I would wander the glass strewn streets in the 1980’s, looking for dud firecrackers to harvest black powder from, which would later be used to fuel our plastic model reenactments of 2nd world war battles- played out in the sandlots around the Paerdegat Basin.

All the 1970’s and 80’s Brooklyn stuff which has been famously dramatized by Hollywood- the blackouts, the Yankees, racial conflict, the fellas, the graffiti trains, and crack, the Son of Sam– this was where I grew up. This is the “do or die” years, not the happily dancing borough of modernity. Back then, Williamsburg was the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn. I always wanted to be “an artist” someday, and live in Manhattan, which was VERY far from Brooklyn back then.

Manhattan Bridge by you.

Manhattan Bridge with Manhattan in background. – photo by Mitch Waxman

My Dad grew up in a solidly working class neighborhood in depression era Brooklyn, in Borough Park, and Maimonides Hospital sprawls atop the site of the ancestral seat. “Jewish” is the way the old man would describe his childhood, and he always got shy when queried for details of his life before the Air Force. He would just say “we got drunk and did stupid things”, or allude to all night card games played on fire escapes in a time ” when you could leave your door unlocked, during the war”. After finishing a vocational program at Automotive High School in the mid 50’s- he was drafted into a paratrooper division of the Air Force and became a parachute packing specialist in Newfoundland for the Strategic Air Command, where he claimed to have been “the best fisherman on the entire base”. The old man always got a misty look on his face when discussing this period of his life. After the service, He moved back to Brooklyn. Eventually – he met Mumsies, and they melted into the huge population of secular Jews living in Brooklyn during the 1960’s. She forced him to learn how to drive, he always said, and he bought a Chrysler. Dad liked Chrysler automobiles, as he believed them to have the strongest air conditioners, although he would never shell out for a decent radio.

Manhattan Bridge by you.

Manhattan Bridge with Brooklyn in background. – photo by Mitch Waxman

A self employed house painter in business with his elder brother, my old man was up early and home after dark. I came along in 67, and my early childhood was filled with car trips to amusement parks and familial relations as far away as Washington D.C. Dad always made it a point of hitting this museum, or that iconic attraction, often taking a gaggle of cousins with us. Corpulent, pale, and with a permanently sweaty band of hair plastered to my forehead– the son he was devoted to was an ungrateful worm lost in a comic book reality dreaming of a day when his real life would begin- over in “the city”. Morose and self absorbed, often churlish and always foolish, my father’s only son was and is a heaving wreck barely worthy of the food he eats. The old man never wavered, even when his painting business failed in the early 70’s, and he was forced into the humiliating experience of searching for work during the weakest hour of the American Century.

Incidentally- the old man was STRONG, and that’s from an adult perspective. The kind of deep core strength you get from working with your hands, climbing ladders while carrying 9 or 10 buckets of housepaint, packing parachutes. I once saw him pick up a two by four and snap it in half just using his wrists, he would push nails into walls with his thumb, lift fully loaded -1960’s era- refrigerators with one arm. Strong. He never used that strength on me, though, which was atypical parenting in my old neighborhood. He was more subtle, and wore a pinky ring, which he would just flick onto the very crown of my head. I can still feel it today.

Bonk! It’s me not good at talk, why.

UMBO by you.

Manhattan Bridge with Brooklyn in background. – photo by Mitch Waxman

Dad actually got kind of lucky, in he long run, when he took a job that didn’t pay well- but had “benefits”. Back then, health insurance was a perk for non-union employees, and employers offered it competitively in order to attract the best and brightest. The old man, who was really starting to put on weight by this point (He was around age 40-45- by 50 he was experiencing severe and routine attacks of angina pectoralis), got a job with the New York Foundling Hospital, which was located for many years opposite the FBI Building on Third avenue in Manhattan’s upper east side. Eventually, both institutions moved downtown, with the Catholic Archdioscese run hospital taking up residence on 6th avenue.

Dad began to drive to work, as his Doctors had advised him that the daily ascent of subway stairs was an unreasonable risk for him to assume given his heart condition. His son, by this point, was 18 and starting college at the School of Visual Arts a few blocks away. A miserable wretch and profligate still, his son would not be able to pay Manhattan rents and had opted to continue sucking at the familial teat during this time. So was born young Mitch and father Barry’s morning drives to the City.

DUMBO 1 by you.

Manhattan Bridge with Brooklyn in background. – photo by Mitch Waxman

By this time, the Chrysler had given way to the worst American car of the 1980’s- an ’83 Buick Century– which had a AM radio. He actually told the dealer that he specifically didn’t want an AM/FM- which was standard!

Howard Stern was still on WNBC, but the old man insisted on listening to 1010 WINS (a friend from college, Leslie Martelli, was interning at the station and this made the infinite news loop- so common today- bearable). Traffic was always terrible, but like all Brooklynites, we had secret shortcuts and discerned “light sequences” along thoroughfares (we’d go exactly 22 mph down eastern parkway and catch every green light from…). I’d be babbling on, in my morning caffeine fueled ecstasies, about the hidden green flames of revelation which I’d discovered at art school- or thrilling him with a story about some college party- when he’d stop me and tell me not to argue with my mother, nor let anyone take advantage of me (you’re too trusting, don’t trust people you just meet), and to think about the future so “I don’t end up like him”. Then he’d BONK me with that damn ring.

We always used the Manhattan Bridge when I drove, the Battery Tunnel when he did. I wanted to make the journey end quickly, he wanted to hang out with his weirdo kid a little bit longer.

DUMBO 2 by you.

DUMBO – photo by Mitch Waxman

Eventually, to my shame, I let my parents move out to …Staten Island… after the old man got his gold watch and retired. His weirdo kid had sort of done OK, and was living in Manhattan with a wife. I did manage to convince my parents not to take an apartment (literally) across the street from Fresh Kills, which they were looking at in January. “I don’t smell a thing, you’re crazy” my mother argued. They were living in an apartment complex near the Verrazano Bridge for about a year when he was diagnosed with Pancreas Cancer.

The operation to remove it, while successful, started a decline in his health and mood that ultimately destroyed him. Recovery and further treatment- chemotherapy and radiation- was the beginning of a drawn out process that eventually ended due to two new tumors that turned up in his liver. My mom called me home from a trip to Vermont, taken against her advice, saying that the old man was dying.

After completing the epic journey from shadowed Vermont to …Staten Island… in record time, and in reckless defiance of the speed limits of several counties, we avoided the late night construction traffic along the BQE by using Manhattan’s FDR drive, we crossed the East River using the Manhattan Bridge to egress through Bay Ridge to the Verrazano. Our Lady of the Pentacle and I arrived around his sickbed just as he opened his eyes, saw his weirdo son, grabbed his hand- and died. It was the day before Yom Kippur, which seems appropriate somehow.

My Dad was a simple guy who never had his story told, and that’s a shame. His name was Barry.

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 15, 2009 at 2:45 pm

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