Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tony Boots, Chapter II

About six months ago I first wrote about my father (see 9/26/08 post "Tony Boots" View) but he was such a great character that I wanted you to know more about him. Like most men in the fifties, he hustled for a living, working two jobs to support us back when women rarely had outside jobs. Their full-time job was raising kids and managing a household with too little money. Tony was a sociable guy who worked hard, but loved to stop for a quick one at Sportsman's Cafe on Fulton Street or Grim's Bar on Broadway, owned by Bob Grim who pitched for the N.Y. Yankees from 1954 to 1958. Strangely, for a Brooklyn Italian, Tony enjoyed "cry-in-your-beer" country music by classic artists like Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.

We lived on Somers Street in a three-story house, with the mandatory stoop for sitting out on summer nights. The house was like most of the row houses built in those days. (They only started calling them "brownstones" when the prices began going up.) It was comfortable enough, but beginning to show its age. Tony was arguably the least handy guy who ever lived. Fixing things was not his thing and he knew it. He kept a tool box strictly for show. It held the most motley collection of hand-me-down tools you ever saw. For my mother's sake, he would occasionally give in and try to fix something, but without much success. My wife complains about my cursing when I'm in the middle of a job. Maybe Tony couldn't fix things, but he could curse with the best of them, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

He did have a gift that compensated for his lack of skill with his hands: the gift of gab. If something needed fixing or plastering or painting, he would ask our next-door neighbor, Frank, to "help" him. It was like the scene from Tom Sawyer when Tom charmed the neighborhood kids into whitewashing the picket fence while he watched. Frank painted while Tony helped, mostly by handing things to Frank and drinking his favorite beer, Piel's. Frank was a sweetheart of a man, soft-spoken, big in stature and big-hearted, who never hesitated to lend a hand. Neighbors knew each other, and kept an eye on each other's kids. I have great neighbors, but it's not quite the same.

My father could be a very persuasive guy. Here's an example. Tony liked the ponies. He was no better at picking horses than he was at picking stocks, but he enjoyed slipping out to the track to watch them run, and then tear up his losing tickets. My mother never quite appreciated this pastime, since any money put on a long-shot daily double came out of her grocery funds. Looking back, I can understand the need for a little recreation for a two-job father, but then I never had to feed a family of five on an already stretched budget. To illustrate Tony's powers of persuasion, when it came time for us to sell our house on Somers Street, he was able to convince Mom to move to Ozone Park, Queens, just two short blocks from Aqueduct Race Track.

Tony's working two jobs didn't give us much time for quality father-son activities. His leisure time was limited and he enjoyed relaxing when he didn't have to work. I understood perfectly...I didn't need to go into therapy to deal with "abandonment" issues. I had my friends and was busy playing and enjoying myself. He would play catch with me, or "hit the penny", a sidewalk game played with the now iconic "Spaldeen" high bounce ball. Once he tried teaching me to ride a two-wheeler on a girl's bike that I inherited from my cousin Joan. (Again, no problem with "gender confusion" issues to share with a shrink; a bike was a bike and I was glad to have it.) I remember Dad, in his everyday uniform of jacket and tie, running alongside me as I pedaled through Callahan-Kelly Park, and holding on to the back of the seat so I wouldn't kill myself. Luckily I learned fast; I don't think Tony had many more laps left in him!

Like most fathers in those days, he showed me how to be a man by example. We never had long talks about right and wrong; he never explained the facts of life to me; and he gave me the freedom to choose what to do with my life. Don't get me wrong, I know he influenced me in certain directions, but he did it by the way he lived. He showed me the value of work and the need to love and provide for your family, but I think Tony's greatest gift to me was his ready sense of humor. At family gatherings he would tell the same stale Henny Youngman or Myron Cohen jokes, and laugh at the punch lines as if he was hearing them for the first time.

When Dad passed in 1982, he was far too young at age 72. Surprisingly, I could not cry at the time or all during the wake and the funeral, but about a year after his death, out of nowhere, I sat down a cried like a baby. I wish my kids could have got to know him better. In a way, that's one of the reasons I write this keep alive the memories of the people and places that had such an impact on me growing up. I still have one of Tony's screwdrivers in my tool box. It was old and chipped when he had it, but it makes me think of him whenever I use it, and that's reason enough to keep it.


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