From a March 12th Rachel Maddow report, I just learned of a whole other group of people who underwent slow occupational poisoning from a watchmaking activity very similar to the one that eventually did in my dad. Decades before he succumbed to illness brought about by watch-cleaning solvent poisoning, young women were killing themselves with the radium paint being used on watch faces. All done with a tiny brush that needed to stay pointy for detailed work.
Our document-scanning project (wherein old paperwork is converted to OCR-ed pdfs via a Fujitsu ScanSnap that is working quite well, thank you) is now working its way through a period of time when a certain dear, funny, wonderful, talented man was doing my taxes.
He’d been the musical director for the theater project that probably marks the most important creative moment of my life. He became one of the reasons why being on stage to tell good stories was so important to me. He was a bombastic, hilarious theater maven, something more people should have in their lives. He was killed during a petty burglary of his apartment and left to rot while the perps drove around town in his car.
Consigning his handwriting and handiwork to pdfs and the shredder hurts a bit. I can think of any number of people who deserved his fate far more.
Jeorge Capobianco, you are sorely missed. Wish I could give you a painful hug right now. I’d even let you cop a feel.
Some of the best Thanksgivings I can remember over the past three decades were composed of an ad hoc collection of friends who either had no family to reconnoiter with, or who chose not to.
The meal was either wonderfully anti-traditional, pot-luck, or mutually-agreed-upon to be outsourced to a creative, fun restaurant. No kitchen-territory issues. No decades-old arguments about childhood roles. Just people relieved to have a pleasant day of eating, drinking, and laughing.
Sometimes it can be wonderful to not struggle with expectations of the few people in the world who should know and understand you far better than they actually do. It can be a lot better to pick and choose the people with whom you celebrate something.
“What are you doing for the holiday?”
“Oh, going home.”
“No, my parents’. The usual family thing. Ugh.”
“Oh. Um, sorry?”
That’s not your home. You’re a grown-up now; you’ve made your own home. There’s a difference.
Good Thanksgiving to you all. Even the ones who are already planning how they’ll escape the family meal for a couple of hours at a local bar before returning for pie.
I know very little about the man. Described by his widow in little but glowing superlatives, he was present only for the first six years of my life, after which he was taken away.
And by the time I figured out what questions I should ask about him, my only source had outlived her days as a reliable narrator. Had she indeed ever been one.
* * *
My father was a watchmaker. Possibly within one of the last generations of those who could expect to make a living as a craftsperson needed by the majority of a population. Can I rightfully claim to have inherited some of his dexterity with intricate technology?
He’d ostensibly sowed his gender-role-approved wild oats before settling down. I wonder what he might have to say about any of the women he’d dallied with before finding himself a timid virgin to start a family. Were those other girls somehow less worthy for having dallied with him?
He was said to have diligently read the Talmud and enjoyed arguing about splitting its ethical hairs with his father-in-law. Might he have been equally enthusiastic to examine larger questions about the historical or scientific validity of scripture itself?
He was a chain smoker, at least until his wife forced him to quit, having seen its effects upon their asthmatic only child in the lower-Manhattan railroad flat where they lived. Contrary to what one might expect, lung cancer never became an issue for him. He instead succumbed to two other ailments when only slightly older than I am now. One of those was occupational: long exposure to toxic cleaning solvents that almost certainly affected his nervous system and vital organs. The other, arteriosclerosis, would certainly have done enough damage on its own.
His deterioration was gradual but undeniable. One of my earliest memories of police officers is seeing one or two called to our apartment after a report of a domestic disturbance. My father had grown distant, then delusional by degrees, undergoing periods of dementia which became worse over an unknown period (months? years?). He began hotly accusing my mother of imagined transgressions, both extreme and petty. It wasn’t long after I saw him strike her that the police were called, and he was removed from my life. He lived for several more years, but I was not allowed to see him until his funeral.
By all accounts, at least before the decline, he was a traditionally moral man of his time. My impression is one of cautious conservatism, leavened by an understanding of history, possibly scarred by decades of cynicism. Chances are good his old-world upbringing might have made him uncomfortable with many of the cultural changes that brought the 1960s to a close. Had he lived a full life, I suspect he and I might not have found very much consensus in several important respects.
But then again, might he have viewed Walter Cronkite’s candid, fateful reports about the struggle for civil rights in the deep south, or America’s doomed venture in Viet Nam, or a disgraced president’s resignation, and not been changed by repeated violations of public trust?
He’d been born just before the first World War, had reportedly seen his share of violence during the second one, and had come to this country seeking a better life, one made possible by Roosevelt’s creation of a middle class.
His survivors in my family, at least on this coast, have been all too eager to embrace Big Lies told about Liberals, Muslims, and foreigners, only two generations after having escaped from virtually identical Big Lies told about Jews (and several other groups many Jews tend to gloss over). I can only guess where my father would now come down on such matters.
I have too many questions about my father that nobody can answer. I can only construct a fuzzy portrait of the man. Granted, the gap in that picture doesn’t loom enormously over my current life, but there are moments when the issue rears up and clouds my vision.
* * *
I’m often inordinately affected by dramatic fiction that depicts genuine fatherly devotion towards a young son. In an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s great TV series Sports Night, broadcaster Casey McCall realizes that his young son — always eager to please Dad — has lied about his Little League achievements to avoid risking his father’s disappointment. Horrified, McCall recognizes a behavior that has been handed down at least two generations, and leans in to reassure the child of his unconditional pride and support. I was helpless for the better part of an hour after first seeing that.
When I observe such relationships in real life, I feel the lack. I don’t have to idealize a notional perfect father-son relationship in order to envy the simple added security of having two parents present during one’s childhood. And while I miss something I never had, I have to remind myself that I still might not have gotten what I needed, even had the old man lived.
He’d be 104 now. But even had he somehow retained his health through a more normal lifespan — say, until his seventies — he still might have witnessed some pretty amazing things we could have shared.
* * *
In this bookend to my Mother’s Day remembrance — where I speculated about the life of someone it took me decades to understand — I’ve written far more about someone I never knew at all.
I envy many of you for knowing.
She never got accustomed to the answering machine. There’d be ten or fifteen seconds of breathing, and then a request for me to call back. Occasionally a subject was mentioned. Once in awhile, a note of urgency, but without the benefit of context.
* * *
She most likely was looking forward to a well-earned lifetime with her husband when he up and lost his ability to function, sticking her with the need to figure out how to support herself and a little kid in a strange country while somehow planning for their future. While somehow getting all the paperwork right.
And it wasn’t as though she had no prior experience being the sole caretaker of a household. But she was probably hoping those days were long gone… when they suddenly returned. That must have felt horribly unfair.
I’d have been pretty angry about that in her place. I might even have taken that resentment out on everyone around me in my weaker moments, wearing it like armor, burning it to fuel my need to keep the bills paid, and keeping it lit to heat arguments full of non sequiturs.
I’d probably grow to be unpleasant and authoritarian with the rest of my family, carrying that anger around with me for years. I’d push friends away and have trouble making new ones. I’d have little patience for anything I didn’t understand.
I might sometimes wonder why my only child didn’t seem to like me very much, wondering only why I was being punished for having sacrificed so much of my own personal life.
Until the effort to live finally knocked the wind out of me, and being right became less important than having a peaceful day without something new to worry about.
His dead wife’s halo gets bigger every year. His living daughter gets more invisible.
Blood hurts too much. I long to spend time with my chosen family.
Family flees eastern Europe because of rampant anti-Semitism spurred by poor economy and opportunistic right-wing political persecution, then moves to Palestine.
Family then flees Israel because of lack of economic opportunity and the often violent consequences of having displaced existing residents in order to create an apartheid state, then moves to America.
Family settles in America, breeds one generation, and almost entirely embraces America’s opportunistic right wing. Because you never know when you’re gonna need to keep those angry brown people in their place.
In short, having come from a culture which can arguably be described as the loudest, most self-righteous victims of the 20th century’s horrors, we sought a better life, and ended up embracing pundits who blame the victim every chance they get.
Have I missed anything?
I’m Son of Watchmaker. I didn’t know my father very well before he fell ill and died. Can’t say I know for certain that he’d care very much about Father’s Day if he was still around.
And I strongly suspect, in the end, I wouldn’t have had much to say to him about how differently we would come to view the respective worlds each of us had grown up in.
I last saw him alive when I was six. He died in a hospital when I was thirteen. He’d succumbed to arteriosclerosis and some form of dementia very likely brought on by the toxic chemicals he’d used every day in his work, repairing and assembling watches. I’d been told he was an educated, old-world gentleman who enjoyed discussing the Talmud with his father-in-law, that he had been injured during World War II, and that he had no head for business. What other things I was told about him were a bit subjectively colored to consider reliably reported, knowing the source.
I’m Son of Watchmaker. Bearing little physical resemblance to the few pictures I have of that husky Polish man, I’ve had to figure out what that means. I’m nominally intelligent, enjoy working with gadgets, and have some artistic capability. I try to be kind, but possess a cynical, anticipatory predisposition for resentment towards perceived injustice. I have no head for business, but can keep very good records of transactions and correspondence. I aspire to spirituality while detesting the shabby, despicable promises of organized religion.
Did I inherit any of this from him? Or was it just the morbid pessimism and a tendency to sweat excessively? I physically resemble my maternal grandfather far more. And he’s the guy I truly wish I could speak with now, as an adult. That guy was a poet. Genial, too. Bit of a cornball.
I’m Son of Watchmaker. Someone let me know what you think that means.
Then there’s this person I met back around 1997 while in rehearsals for Les Liaisons Dangereuses for which I needed tights, which I tried to obtain at a Capezio’s in the Village where this cute girl worked, and… skip ahead about four years to when I married her.
Kellie puts up with a lot of nonsense from me, and in turn I try to be more focused and responsible with mundane details of everyday cohabitation, considering how relatively fewer in number her own quirks tally to. She’s been patiently hearing a great deal of repeated fan-driven anecdotal praise of any number of my personal obsessions since our first date at Mary Ann’s, a lame-ass story cycle which I’m sad to imagine might remind her a bit too much of those her dad indulges in. None of which, however, mitigates a bit the amount of encouragement she gives me to pursue cool stuff that makes me happy.
Predictably, I digress even while describing digression.
* * *
Remember that bit of wonderful news in part 1 of this megillah about my favorite band’s effort to raise funds for a new CD, hosted on Kickstarter? Well, the only delay in my clicking on “Pledge? Fuck, Yeah!” was determining what we could reasonably afford to handle on a reduced income. The level I threw some promise-money at would get me a couple of signed CDs and thanks in the new CD’s credits, which I felt satisfied with. Farther down the list, some lucky bastard who could spare a lot more would get a private performance by the entire band. Such stuff as dreams are made on.
* * *
A more pertinent beginning of this circuitous anecdote begins last autumn, when Kel underwent surgery to remove a tumor on her right parotid gland, an upsetting in-patient procedure that required considerable preparation and recovery. It was an event I can’t easily write about.
In short, the surgery went well, and Kel recovered nicely. Our dear friend Nancy — one of the more extraordinary individuals we had met during our Year of Living Copelandey — proved as selflessly supportive and helpful as any blood relation I could ever hope to claim. She had met us the day Kel was admitted for surgery and stayed with me throughout most of the day while we waited for whatever happened next, despite her own personal obligations. She was also there to shuttle the discharged patient home, sparing us the cost of an interstate taxi, then left us with enough cooked food for several days. I couldn’t adequately describe how wonderful this lady was, nor could I readily conceive of a way to return the kindness she showed us.
* * *
So it was with little effort that, months later, I readily agreed to assist with what sounded like an acceptable start. Kel would help with catering and decorations for an event that would be ostensibly related to Nancy’s husband Andy’s position at a fairly successful online photo-sharing service; a gallery showing of his photography. I would help the Wife carry supplies into Manhattan. It’s at this point that my critical thinking capability took a back seat to my need for following uncomplicated instructions. My wife knows this.
It “turned out” that our friend Powell from Queens was also due to be in Manhattan that day, meeting his wife and a possible venue host for a comedy cabaret series they produce. Powell would find me near the Port Authority Bus Terminal at a local bar for lunch before heading downtown for said meeting. I did not question why my wife needed me to help haul stuff into town but could somehow do without my help hauling said stuff its last few city blocks before setting it up in what I was told was the only space they could find: a rehearsal hall a short ways downtown from the Port. I merely accepted that this would be a good opportunity to spend an hour or two with an old buddy before attempting to make myself useful to a newer one.
It also never occurred to me how oddly familiar this should have seemed, given events which had transpired almost ten years before. At Kel’s suggestion.
* * *
Powell and I had a nice lunch in an almost deserted theater-district pub, easily reverting to our two-old-Jews-complaining-about-family-and-decrepitude mannerisms, despite the fact that the boy is about as Jewish as I am, say, blonde and German.
On the phone, Kel was complaining about everything/everyone running late over at the space, so Powell and I took more time over a bit more beer and beef. His downtown meeting had been postponed as well, so I inquired — again, on Kel’s suggestion — whether Powell could attend the exhibit. Of course he could. I regaled Powell with the account of my deep emotional debt to the exhibitor’s wife and how she’d taken care of Kel and me the previous autumn as we headed downtown.
* * *
The hall’s building was a lot more impressive than many other rehearsal spaces I’d made use of over the years. We rode up in the elevator with a friendly-looking man who was clutching sheet music. Powell called his wife for an update on their situation as we exited. I remained absolutely clueless. Because I tend to believe people I love when they tell me things.
I opened the hall’s door wondering only then — characteristically — exactly how Andy’s photographs were going to be displayed in a space that had no specialized provisions for wall-mounted art. Duct tape? Repurposed music stands?
The room was brightly lit. There was no art on the walls. A fairly large crowd of people were all facing the door for some reason. Then they all shouted “HI, MO!”
It was then I realized I knew everyone present. Then I saw music stands at the far end of the room, clustered amidst a small group of nattily-dressed gentlemen bearing brass instruments.
And then, in the beaming faces of my dear wife and of Nancy and of a dozen other folks, I realized I had been disinformed. Again.
There’s this jazz band I discovered back around 1985 while listening to WKCR-FM, Columbia University’s indispensable radio station. The host was interviewing a couple of musicians who were not only impressing me with their dry, self-deprecating humor, but were also describing influences upon their work that made me stop and pay attention. The host played a couple of cuts from their new album, and I was a fan of The Microscopic Septet.
I got quite a few plays out of the vinyl copy of Let’s Flip!, a raucous live recording, before I realized I had better dub it onto cassette before the LP began sounding like Thomas Edison’s gastritis. I evangelized this band to anyone who would listen, and bought copies of Let’s Flip! for friends. And I went out to see them perform, in part thanks to the fact that most of the venues they performed in turned out to be (a) downtown, (b) relatively inexpensive, and (c) far less formal and far more comfortable than their uptown, “serious” counterparts. The old Knitting Factory on East Houston Street became a place I couldn’t wait to return to.
The band’s eclectic, polymorphous, precisely silly music merits better description than I can provide. In brief, if you grew up hearing Carl Stalling’s wild orchestrations behind the Bugs Bunny cartoons of the 1940s and 50s, you’re well prepared to appreciate what these guys did. Suffice it to say that I’ve rarely had more consistent amounts of joyous fun listening to anything else. They threw the entire 20th century into a blender and arranged the results for piano, four saxophones, bass, drums, and the occasional tuba. More on their history can be obtained here.
I’d of course seen live music performed elsewhere. But seldom had I experienced the close-up, visceral thrill of seven talented musicians blasting cacophonous jazz directly at me within a confined space. There was nothing to compare.
* * *
Personal circumstances eventually intervened with my once-diligent pursuit of the Micros’ efforts. Sometime after recording the theme music for NPR’s Fresh Air in 1990, they ceased performing together. Their members dispersed and took up other interesting projects. Four years ago they put together CD compilations of their four albums and toured together again, an event which I only learned about the following year. I finally got to see them again this past winter, along with the Wife (whom I had been rhapsodizing about them to since we’d met) and a new friend of ours. As if to make up for the long deprivation, they had another gig the following week, which I attended with another friend from my office. The double-dose was impossible to shrug off. After decades of consideration, I could finally admit that The Microscopic Septet, despite the fact that their most active years were long behind them, were — and had been for years — my favorite band.
* * *
It was in March that an email from the band’s co-founder Phillip Johnston advised recipients that The Micros were funding production of a new CD through Kickstarter, an interesting web-based service which identifies arts projects for public support. It was mere hours before I’d happily pledged a sum I felt I could afford as a laid-off graphic designer. It was only a few weeks before the band reached their funding goals, which I’d attempted to help publicize in my own small ways. My contribution qualified me for several CDs of the band’s work, including unreleased material, and I was content.
But unbeknownst to my easily distracted attention span, someone very close to me had already begun conspiring to perpetrate a fiendish scam upon my person, with the intention of celebrating my imminent 50th birthday. And with the newfound knowledge of the possible availability of my favorite band to support this scheme, this diabolical operator began making inquiries across state lines and international borders, much as she had done during a previous project.