Dad Wept…


Call it one of my blind spots (of which I have a few)… but I am not a fan of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Valentine’s Day.  Maybe it’s just the Grumpy in me, but it’s the artificial constructs of these celebration days that give me nausea and anxiety.  For my part, take all the candy, flowers and Hallmark cards and dump them into a landfill.  Why do I need a designated day to remind me that I am a father?  And at one time, a son?  And on “Father’s Day”, how much fun is it to be straddling two chairs?  Being both a son and a father? It was a joy being a son (and a grandson), and just as much a joy being a father (and a grandfather)… I just don’t need a specified day to honor the occasion.

I think my ambivalence about these special days, trace back to one Mother’s Day when I was in my mid-teens.  Dad decided that he wanted to visit the cemetery, and Mom said that I should go along.  I didn’t want to.  My thinking:  Mother’s Day was about Mom (who was here and breathing), and that’s who we should be honoring – why was Dad confusing the issue?

Reluctantly I went with Dad to East Haven to where Bubbie rested.  We walked to her grave site.  For the visit Dad brought a small flat of pansies and a trowel.  He picked a place near the headstone, dug a small aperture in the ground, planted the pansies, and then took his hands to replace the earth around the small flowers.

The gardening done, he stood up and looked at the monument, then looked down.  Not a word spoken.  Thoughts collected silently. When he looked up, tears traced down his cheeks.  Then a masked sob, a brief sniffle.  And nothing more shared.

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Saul & the “Gift of the Gab”

Of this there can be no doubt– My Uncle Saul was a master of the “gab”.  It was a gift. And this talent was in pristine display at the card table.  The card table being the table in the breakfast nook of Saul & Meggie’s home in Woodbury.  And it is to here that we will turn and recount a card game of gin that took place on a non-descript Saturday afternoon between Saul and me.

Two points to make before we proceed to the game.  One, I was no more than 10 at the time.  Saul taught me the game and I had to use both hands to hold the ten cards.  Saul said I was a natural at the game and by the time I went to Union I had a reputation of being a fast talking card shark in the mold of a Damon Runyon character dropped from the pages of his short stories.  Two, talking, or the “gab”.  The underlying key to winning at gin is to distract your opponent by engaging in constant mindless chatter.  Anything that would render concentrating on what cards had already been played near impossible. Some of it could be simple trash talking, which Saul could do with the best of them.  But Saul was even better at trotting out obscure facts and arcane details from his impressive inventory of knowledge.  At 10 I was barely at the apprentice level in gabSaul?  He was the master. Saul had the gift of the gab.

“7 is the knock card.  How are things going at school?”

“OK, I guess. But why do we have to learn fractions and parts of speech?  I hate it.”

“Those are the building blocks of knowledge.  I hope you are not collecting kings, because I am within an inch of getting gin. Building blocks of knowledge, like the 7 of diamonds I have acquired due to your lapse in memory when I had already picked up the 7 of hearts. The edifice of my gin hand is nearly complete. *tsk, tsk, tsk.*”

“I thought you had a diamond run.”

“Jimmy… What do the following have in common: the cow, the goat & the sheep?”

“They all smell bad.”

“Come now.  They are all animals that have been domesticated by people for thousands of years.  These animals’ fur and hides could be used for clothing and shelter, they could be a source for food… not just slaughtered for meat, but their milk was an invaluable form of nutrition.  And the milk could be transformed into cheese.  Gin! And I caught you with two kings!”

“Nuts!  I had a cruddy hand to begin with!”

“The knock card is 4.  Do you like cheese?”

“I like cheeseburgers, cream cheese on a bagel, and NY Cheesecake.  I should have discarded those kings.”

“Here is something you might not know. Thousands of years ago there was a tribe of Maasai people, who lived  near the Ngorongoro Crater in what today is part of Kenya.  They were pastoralists. They had domesticated cattle and goats, and giraffes!   Yes, giraffes!  And to the Maasai, a man who owned a lot of animals was a sign of wealth and status! And giraffes were prized above all the other animals!  Why? Because giraffe milk makes the best cheese!  Now you’re collecting jacks?”

“You’re making this up.”

“No, I’m not!  Not all the Maasai had domesticated the giraffe.  Just one small tribal community who had worked out a way to get giraffe milk.  You see… getting milk from cattle is pretty easy because they are low to the ground.  But a giraffe?  That’s a good deal trickier!  With those long, long legs no one was tall enough to reach the ‘milk machine!’ Well… one tribal elder worked out a plan.  He positioned a mother giraffe under a good sized tree limb, and then he climbed up the tree and dropped a heavy rope-like vine down from limb to two other guys on the ground.  Then he tied the vine around his waist and with the help of the other guys he was lowered to the level where he could access Mrs. Giraffe’s milk bar! Gin!”

“I’m getting killed here!  I dunno Uncle Saul.  It seems like a lot of work for some dumb cheese.  Particularly if they already had cattle low to the ground!”

“That should tell you how great giraffe cheese is!  And for a while the elder who perfected this milking technique had the highest status in the tribe.  The knock card is 9. This guy was like a millionaire!  But then one day when he went up to fetch some milk, the rope vine snapped and he fell to the ground and died.  Very sad indeed.  And as you might guess with the respected elder kaput, there were no immediate takers to run the risk of death for the reward of getting milk.  As you already observed they had plenty of cattle where getting milk presented no danger. I’m knocking with 7!”

“You’re getting all the good cards!”

“Stop complaining and just play the game.  The knock card is 2.  But here’s the thing, everyone in the tribe loved giraffe cheese!  What to do?  Then this other guy developed another plan.  The tribal men dug a seven foot deep trench and then walked Mrs. Giraffe into the trench, and voilà the ‘milk dispenser’ was at ground level and getting cheese was never going to be a problem again!  And that guy?  If they had a presidential yacht in those days… he could have bought two!  But that’s not the end of the story.  Hundreds of years later when Europeans finally made contact with this tribe they wanted in on the act!  The cheese was that good, and there was money to be made!  So a Dutchman purchased a half dozen giraffes intent on setting up a giraffe dairy farm.  But rather than dig a trench; he thought he could just prop up a ladder on Mrs. Giraffe’s hind quarters, reach in and get at the milk that way.  Big mistake.  Mrs. Giraffe didn’t take kindly to the ladder and first, she kicked that ladder out from under the guy, and then she kicked him in the balls.  And that put an end to that.  Gin!”

Masai Giraffe

{Author’s note: There is a specialty cheese shop in Greenwich Village that carries aged Shingo Ndefu (giraffe cheese), and smoked Shingo Ndefu}

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My First Drink With Dad

It may have been the first Christmas season after I had put army active service in the rearview mirror.  This would be 1973.  I was still very new to the world of Chipp.  But I immediately took to the spirit of the Holiday season.  Lenny Moss turned our windows with the John Groth Christmas Carol paintings as a backdrop into works of display art. Lit with blue and red lights punctuated by highlights of white spot lights on focused items… a Shetland sport coat?  A peak lapel dinner jacket with gros grain facing and a blue pleated formal shirt?

I loved it.  Wreaths, garlands and red poinsettias with bows decorated the first floor.

How it came to pass that I would handle organizing the Christmas parties for our employees I can’t say.  I think I volunteered.  There would be two parties.  One for the salesmen which we did at The Cattleman (on East 45th St).  We had an outrageous private location next to an amazing fresh produce display.

The other party took place on the 3rd floor for the tailors and any other non-selling staff on Christmas Eve.  That party was just a matter of provisioning out the rudimentary necessities (which was done by Mario Carnegie).  It included potato chips, some dips, pork rinds, pretzels… and then Scotch, Canadian Whisky, Vodka and mixers.  As noted, just the necessities.  All placed on Roland’s cutting table.

Before leaving for New Haven, Dad put his appearance in to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  I already had a scotch on ice in my hand (maybe my second) and Dad agreed to have scotch to share in the toast. 

It was my first drink with Dad.  Father and Son drinking a scotch together.  A focused moment.

Truth be told,  I am sure we had shared in a Champagne toast at my wedding a year earlier. But that Christmas Eve on the 3rd floor of Chipp was the first time as co-equals in true drinking. 

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Interesting Episodes in History No. 63

When the 19yr old Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (the Marquis de Lafayette) boarded the Victoire headed to the Revolution in America, he already possessed an excellent education in the classics.  He had a full command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.  Additionally, he was perfectly fluent in 3 German dialects: High German, Swiss German & Yiddish.  He could also speak passable Spanish, Italian and English.

Before setting sail he had been advised that the Colonials only spoke Yiddish.

Lafayette’s aide de camp recorded the first exchange between Lafayette and George Washington.

Marquis de Lafayette: “Es iz a kvud tsu trefen ir Algemeyne Vashington.  Mir zoln hobn a shabbes mitog tsuzamen. Afsher gefilte fish? Aber ershter mir muzen bazign dem faynt!”

Gen’l Washington: “Sir, it’s an honor. Forgive me, my knowledge of the French language is lacking. But we are in great need of French soldiers, French rifles and French artillery. We have sufficient gefilte fish.  Our waters teem with gefilte fish. Welcome to America!”

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