Our parents leave us all with legacies. Some parents’ legacies are life-affirming and positive, others not at all. I want to tell you about the best thing I ever learned from my dad.
My parents died a very long time ago — my dad when I was 16, my mom when I was 27. Today I’m 51. But I’ve been thinking some about my childhood and my father, now that Father’s Day 2009 is almost here. Let me set the scene: I grew up in the small town of South River, New Jersey, where my dad owned two businesses on Main Street, a news market and a liquor store. He inherited these stores from his dad and operated them with his identical twin brother. (I once heard that customers who’d shopped there for years never realized there were two different guys behind the counter.)
My little sister and I used to spend some Saturdays at the news store. Although we were behind the counter and helped to do stuff like make sure cartons of cigarettes were always kept in stock, we were mostly having fun, not truly working.
My dad’s store was an old-fashioned place. It was long and narrow and dusty. The wall on the left was covered, floor to ceiling, with neat rows of newspapers, magazines and comic books. The right side featured cigarettes and cigars, every candy bar and confection imaginable, and a freezer for ice cream. A big, boxy Coke machine required you to lift up a lid and reach into icy water to retrieve a bottle of soda. Vintage advertisements featuring old Hollywood stars papered the walls. A tangle of burnt-out neon signs was stacked in the bathroom. A telephone booth at the very back of the store had an accordioned door and a little wooden seat. This was the 1960s, long before any of this antique stuff was considered valuable.
For a kid, the area behind the front counter — basically a dim, narrow alley that ran almost the entire length of the store — was a place of exotic treasures. I couldn’t believe the stuff we’d unearthed there. I found a leather catcher’s mitt, so old that it was made in a style that no one used anymore. We found boxes of sparklers and other fireworks. Some were duds but many still had sizzle. My dad’s store sent out film to be developed (remember that?) and we discovered a multitude of envelopes containing printed pictures that customers either forgot to pick up or didn’t care enough to. It was fun rummaging through the images of parties we’d never been invited to, backyards we didn’t recognize, people who were complete strangers to us, except that now we were holding their intimate family photos.
And now we’re getting to the part of the story where I tell you about the best thing I ever learned from my dad. At work, my father was funny and outgoing, the life of the party. He could speak just enough of a variety of languages (Polish, Italian, Yiddish) to be able to hold friendly chats with most folks. (My dad had an entirely different personality at home — nearly silent — but that’s another story.)
Since my dad’s stores were right in the middle of town, everyone eventually found themselves there, including the bums. Bums were what we called homeless people before someone coined that more genteel term. The bums were unkempt, and they drank out of paper bags. And this was the days before the panhandling you see so commonly in American cities. These bums were men, except for one woman. (We didn’t call her a bum; she was just crazy. One day she withdrew a bunch of money from the bank in paper coin rollers and handed it out on the sidewalk in front of my dad’s store.) Anyway, the bums hung around the store a lot. My dad didn’t discourage it. In fact, he had the bums do odd jobs for him around the store or he’d send them on errands. It took a long time for me to realize that this was my dad’s way of giving them a little money without embarrassing them.
I remember one year around Christmas I was with my dad when he went up to the mall to find a particular country/western record album. My dad had no interest in country/western, or any music for that matter. I asked him what it was for. He told me he was buying the record for one of the guys because he’d mentioned how much he liked this singer.
The legacy I received from my dad was a lesson in treating everyone the same. He was a friend to all, including the bums. My mom, on the other hand, was judgmental and could be a snob. I inherited both of these qualities in equal parts. I’m proud to say that I’m friends with the homeless people (bums) in my neighborhood. But not all of them; I pick and choose (that’s my mother’s influence). I like to think that, one day, my dad’s qualities will ultimately win out.