My father, Lou, was a very wise man. He wasn’t highly educated but he had what we call “street smarts.” Which is to say that he didn’t have a college degree, but he knew how to survive living with my mother. He taught me a lot about life, but he never sugar coated it. Even when he probably should have. I don’t ever remember a time when I believed in Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy or any government officials. But Lou did teach me to believe in myself. And he taught me a lot of other valuable lessons that I would like to share with you. But please don’t judge him by today’s overly-protective, every-kid-gets-a-trophy, shield-them-from-the-truth style of parenting. He was more of a walk-it-off, throw-him-in-the-deep-end, you-might-as-well-know-the-truth-now kind of dad. Just remember that I didn’t turn out so bad. Depending on who you ask.
Lou and me in 1964.
When I was a little boy and would misbehave, Lou sometimes spanked me with his belt. I know that sounds cruel and it might even be illegal these days, but back then it was as common as pregnant women drinking alcohol. But before my father pulled out his leather strap, my mother always pretended to try and stop him. I cowered in fear while they went into their good cop/bad cop routine.
Lou: That does it. I’m getting the belt.
Muriel: No, Lou. Not the belt.
Lou: Oh yeah, I’m getting the belt.
Muriel: Please, Lou. Don’t hit him with the belt.
Lou: It’s too late, Muriel. He’s got it coming.
Muriel: Alright. But please…don’t use the buckle.
Lou: Oh yeah, I’m going to use the buckle.
Muriel: No, Lou! Not the buckle!!!
He never used the buckle. But this might explain why I’m the only person I know who wears suspenders.
As a young man, Lou lived through the Great Depression and like so many others of his generation, he carried that value system with him for the rest of his life. Nothing drove him crazy more than wasting money, food or products. When our family would go out to dinner, my father wouldn’t order anything for himself. He knew that the rest of us wouldn’t finish everything on our plates. So he would wait patiently until we were all done. At which point he’d declare, “If you’re not going to eat that, give it to me.” Then he’d gather all our leftovers and make a smorgasbord for himself out of everyone else’s food. This earned him the loving nickname, Leftover Louie.
The only fights I remember him having with my mother were over the phone bill. She frequently spent several hours at a time on the phone talking to her long distance relatives, to an extent that bordered on child neglect. While my sister and I clamored for her attention, Lou never seemed to mind. I think he actually enjoyed the time to himself. Until the phone bill came. Then the yelling got so bad you’d think you were watching a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. If they’d only had unlimited long distance calling plans back then, the only thing they would have had to fight about would have been which end of the belt to hit me.
At some point in my childhood, I remember him calling all of us into the bathroom for a family meeting. Apparently, we were all being very wasteful by using excessive amounts of toilet paper. (Which was true in my case because I used to wrap my hand in TP until it looked like a boxing glove.) After regaling us with his favorite depression-era story of how he couldn’t afford TP and instead had to use the wax paper they wrapped fruit in, Lou proceeded to teach us the most efficient and economic way to wipe one’s ass. It was actually fascinating to watch this demonstration of his patented method where you could get four wipes out of two squares by repeatedly folding them over and over again. I shit you not.
Lou was never one for coddling his children or for protecting them from the realities of life. Especially when it came to sex. While I don’t remember ever having “the talk” with him, he did educate me about sex in his own way. I was 11 years old when the MPAA rating system began and the first R-rated movies came out. This system was designed to protect young and impressionable minds like mine, but that didn’t stop my father from taking me to see them. I think movies like Barbarella and Carnal Knowledge were his idea of sex-education films.
At around the same age, during the late 1960’s, I have a vivid memory of my father cruising around 42nd Street with me in the car. You have to remember that this was before Times Square became a family friendly tourist attraction in the 1990’s. These were the days when peep shows occupied most of the store fronts and prostitutes aggressively solicited their customers. It was like Sodom & Gomorrah with bumper to bumper traffic. (God, I miss those days.) But, since we lived in New York, Lou thought this was an area that I should be familiar with. So he slowly toured me through mean streets of Manhattan pointing out all the notable points of interest, “That’s a hooker. That’s a hooker. That’s a homo. That’s a hooker…”
I moved to L.A. when I was 22 and a few months later Lou drove across the country by himself to deliver his old car to me. During this visit, he took me and my roommate to dinner at a nice restaurant and entertained us with a few stories from his youth. Specifically, he told us tales of when he was a teenager and ran away from home and rode the freight trains to the west coast with the hobos. (We didn’t call them “homeless people” back then because “hobos” made them sound much more lovable and a lot less like a socio-economic problem.)
Mind you, I had heard all of these stories before. So Lou was directing most of his anecdotes to my roommate. But then he got to an episode that I’d never heard, about the time he had no place to sleep and was befriended by a legless man. It started as a nice enough story of loneliness and friendship and charity, as the legless stranger offered him a place to stay. Until he got to the part when the man asked my dad if he could perform oral sex on him. Remember that, at this point in the story, Lou isn’t even looking at me. He’s telling it to my roommate in the most matter-of-fact of ways. Had he been looking at me, he would have seen my jaw crash through the table and hit the floor. So, after reminding us that it was either sleep in the street or let the legless man go down on him, Lou summed up this sordid tale with a shrug of his shoulders and a lesson for us all, “And that’s when I learned…a blow job is a blow job.”
My father had a lot of insightful sayings that I will never forget. He was full of wit and wisdom, often in the most rude and crude ways. Here are some of my favorite and most famous of Lou’s aphorisms.
“There’s only one crime in this country…getting caught.”
“The happiest person in town…is the Village Idiot.”
“When it comes to women’s breasts…you’ll never need more than a handful.”
“You should never be prejudiced, because there are good people and bad people of all races. There are blacks and there are n-words. There are Jews and there are k-words. There are homosexuals and there are f-words…” Of course, he used the actual words.
Lou didn’t say, “I love you” very often. (Although he did say, “fuck you” a lot). He was never one to show his emotions. (His idea of a “tear jerker” was getting a painful hand job.) And my father wasn’t big on talking on the phone. (Probably because my mother was always on it.) After I moved away, my mom and I used to talk once a week, usually at great length. If Lou happened to answer when I called, he would quickly hand the phone over to her. Every once in a while he would call me, ask how I was and after I told him he would say, “Your mother wants to talk to you.” Which meant my mom had him call me so she could, however briefly, insert him into our conversations.
One day, when I was 24, Lou called me and asked how I was doing. And after I told him, he just kept talking. After a few minutes I asked where mom was, and he said she was out. I was stunned. This was the first time he had ever called me without her prompting and then he wanted to hang on the phone with me. I have to admit that I loved it. Over the next couple of months, he did it a few more times and we had some really nice conversations. Then, without warning, Lou suddenly passed away. I never knew for sure but, looking back, it seemed like he somehow sensed the end was near and wanted to spend a little more time talking with me.
I suppose some people might think it’s not right for me to write about my father this way, to reveal his intimate personality traits and tell such personal stories. I’ve noticed that when most people write about their parents on social media they usually do it in the most glowing terms where they appear idealized or even canonized. Which is really sweet. I, on the other hand, choose to commemorate my mother and father by telling stories about them and loving them just as they were, with all their glorious strengths and weaknesses. To be less than brutally honest would be to forget one of Lou’s most important lessons, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, fuck ’em and say it anyway.”
My father, my mother & me in 1969.