my old man
The old home place
Not your typical "Father Knows Best" kind of guy
Steve Goodman was a Chicago Folk singer who died way too soon. He wrote a love song to his father entitled “My Old Man”. Most sons either forget about their old man or love the snot out of them. Not me.
Lots of adult sons appreciate their father’s style, mistakes, foibles, and proofs of humanity. There are the sons of the recovering community who forgive and move on and wear pain on their sleeve like a Bronze Star . These are the guys who allow for their father’s addictions. Not too many people just look at their own reflections in life’s muddy puddle and remember their “old man”.
My old man was a drunk and a gambler. He was an artist who could have made a living doing sign painting, and whose Schlitz belly could have served as an over ripe Halloween pumpkin. Actually, sign painting is what he wanted to do, but the Korean War had more vivid ideas. The old man was a blue collar, go to work even when you are screaming illness, union man until he discovered that the mistress in the bottle was more alluring than the hag in the bungalow .
Let’s give my old man a name. “Pops” sounds good today. For about 43 years though, “that SOB”, was a more accurate handle. Pops first greeted Chicago sometime around August of 1930 in the back seat of a Checker Taxi on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Little Poland neighborhood. Now that’s a story.
When Pops was born, his own momma was not sure who the real sperm donor was. Lavinski was the name on the birth certificate, but the Italian butcher’s kid Rossario was a good candidate as well. Judging from pops’ skin tone and temperament, I’d vote for Rosario.
Momma Pops must have liked to party, because three months after baby Pops entered the world of hog butchers, common third floor toilets and beer with a pork chop chaser breakfasts, she decided to let her neighbors kid sit for a night. Either she forgot where she left the baby, or she lost track of time, because that one night lasted thirty four years.
I really don’t know anything about Pops’ early life. Anscestor.com doesn’t do well with eighty year old mysteries which have no real background. From what I could gather, Pops was a quiet kid who didn’t cause trouble and who tried to keep to himself. This makes sense when you understand that knowing you’re a bastard is inbred when you’re a bastard. The issue is not whether the caregivers tell you. You are different and you know it. This was especially true in the community where Pops grew up. The old “Don’t tell, don’t ask” neighborhood of Near North Side 1940 was a place a secrets, surprises and scandals.
Pops dropped out of high school during his sophomore year, even though the people raising him were educated tradesmen whose natural son graduated college with an accounting degree. Grand pops was a tool and die maker during the second world war, putting him at the top of the industrial trades. He never missed an after dinner walk on Augusta Boulevard with Boss and Tiny, the Irish setters who populated the abode. Grandma pops raised two boys, loved her blackberry brandy and generally kept a clean Polish flat. Big dogs, smelly cigars and garlicky keishka were the sounds and scents of Pops’ boyhood.
Pops learned that he was an orphan officially when he was dating the girl who would eventually become my mother. The story goes that the couple was at a smoky USO bar, and after more than a few Early Times and water, Pops’ soon to be best man spilled the news that everyone, except Pops, had known for twenty five years. Rather than ending the relationship the first time Pops gave her a five finger souvenir, momma became a real slow learner. Co dependent people do this sort of thing.
His coal colored army crew cut and receding hairline belied the fire in his heart when it came to drinking. I remember Pops being a quiet alky who could swig a shot with a beer chaser faster than a swimming smelt in a Montrose Harbor gill net. If whiskey could be recycled as oil, there would be no need of Arab petroleum. Pops could drink.
Drunk pops, peaceful house. No passive aggressive looks at momma when the food was late. No “What the hell do you do all day”s after a ten hour shift on the air hammer. Momma and Pops never fought openly, but the gas attacks of dirty looks permeated the house from the time I was about eight till Pops took off when I was ten or eleven. I’m really not sure how old I was when he left. I’m just sure he took off.
Pops did have ambition, however. Like any orphan, he was out to show the world that he was ‘somebody’. In that regard, Pops was a spectacular success. Yellow Chesterfield stains on his fingers proved he was tough enough to smoke with the best drinkers in Sobe’s bar. Copper tubes ‘borrowed’ from construction sites ensured his name in the Pilfering Hall of Fame. Pops could sell a TV from the front trunk of his Corvair to a deaf blind man. There was one tiny problem. Pops loved horses.
Loving horses is a pretty natural thing to do when a person has money. Thoroughbreds are beautiful to watch as they gallop down the backstretch at Sportsman’s Park and Trotters are graceful in their gate around Hawthorne, but Pops never had money. He was a Two Buck Billy. These are the railbirds who can afford two buck tickets to magic land, if they hit the trifecta. Two bucks can work its magic into two thousand bucks within two minutes. Nine times out of ten, however, it works black magic into two thousand bucks lost. Pops was in the majority of two buckers. “The King of the Also Rans.”
After enough ‘also rans' Pops discovered ivory in the dead end alley called marked dice. Loan sharks, midnight door knocks and new “uncles” became his family. They became part of my family, too. As a kid, I didn’t ‘get’ his dark eyes. I get them now. Fear will do that to a person.
The more he gambled, the more he drank. Jim Beam and Pops were intimate friends. He never really did the stereotypical drunk dance, whatever that is. Pops was more of a quiet drunk who ran away for a few days and then turned up a little more scraggly and a little less woozy than when he went on vacation.
Pops was a strong guy even when he was bending, however. In my eighth grade summer, my uncle decided to play Jesus and take our family to the east coast. Rest and rejuvenation were the things that momma needed so Pops took this chance to stay home and work. Have you heard the phrase “when the cat’s away?” Pops’ work enabled him to pay off some gambling debts by cleaning our house; of every piece of furniture, clothing, silverware, and appliance that inhabited our part of the two flat.
I’ll never forget walking through the door on 51st street and thinking “I’m in the wrong house”. Pops was gone, life as I knew it was over, and momma finally grew some of whatever women grow when they make a decision. Two weeks and six cartons of Chesterfield’s later, I saw my old man for the last time.
The old man had all of fifteen years of marriage and family packed into a giant Joe’s Farm egg box. He stood against our Polish kitchen wall bent under the weight of the booze belly and the carton. The tile was maroon and gray and decorated with those smoky squiggles you see in Ozzie and Harriet kitchens. The light was pool hall in color and mom sat at the Formica top table blowing Chesterfield smoke from her nose . “Let me carry this for you, dad”. Silence. As usual, the old man was keeping things to himself. “I’ll see you next week and we’ll go to the circus”.
That was forty eight years ago. I hear the words, those sounds, those colors. I’m waiting to go to the circus. I never saw the old man again.
The old man moved some place out east. Delaware was the state named on his death certificate. Evidently, he did become a sign painter, artist type person. He must have enjoyed his buddy Jim Beam and his Chesterfields until he was inhaling them through a breathing tube. Prostate cancer rescued him at sixty two.
Momma became a closet drunk and I held my hate till I was forty six years old. By then I lost two kids, pretty much did the same thing that the old man did, and use food as my drug of choice.
So hey old man, this one’s for you. I forgive you and I grew up in spite of you. My second time around the block is good beyond belief. Bet you can’t say that. Thanks for teaching me how NOT to live. I’m sure you’ll take me to the circus next time I see you.