We buried my father on a gloomy November day. Dark clouds dribbled on us from an incontinent sky. At the gravesite, I stood on the edge of the gathering the way he stood on the edge of my life. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t sure I liked him well enough to cry. Besides, he still owed me $20.00.
He was a shadow father stretching out in front of me larger than life when the light was right. Other times, he was like a cement sidewalk square under my feet while I jumped up and down on the cracks trying to break the old man’s back. He was a silent as the shadows he created, hovering on the end of most conversations rather than entering into them.
He wasn’t around much during the years a small boy gets to know his father. The big war was going on. During that war father sightings in our neighborhood were rare. Men were either away serving in the armed forces or working long hours in the defense industry.
My father worked in a small arms factory making munitions – to knock the stuffing out of the jerries. Everyone would laugh because my name is Jerry. I’d laugh, too, not understanding why, inferring that the father had made a rare joke.
He found other ways to remove himself from my life after the war. There was no “parenting” back then, no parental involvement in organized activities that didn’t exist. Since he had no idea of how to be a parent he did the only thing he could. Like many Italian men of that era he simply got out of the way of anything involving children or church. He left the job to my mother.
My father was the enforcer, called in when the job of monitoring three sons was too much for mother. He was noted for unloosening the buckle on his thick leather belt, which slithered through his belt loops with the speed and sting of an avenging sidewinder.
There were two other things he was famous for. At meals he would say: “The bread saved the meal.” It was a strange compliment, but one of the highest order, his way of letting mother know the food was excellent and he appreciated her efforts in preparing it.
He wasn’t a drinker, but on those occasions we had wine with a meal he would raise his glass, look at everyone seated at the table, and say: “Hinky Dink.” It was an enigmatic phrase, as cryptic as his life. No one knew what it meant. When asked, he would shrug his shoulders and smile.
I knew about his gambling and the effect it had on our family, but I was ten years old before it hit me in a way I would long remember. We always had shelter and food, but his lifetime run of bad luck kept finances edgy in our family and tested my mother’s resourcefulness. I was the youngest son, always on the receiving end of a steady stream of hand-me-downs. Charity began at home.
I sold newspapers, rode a second hand bike that was too small for me while saving my paper money for a $75.00 Schwinn, with knee-action, balloon tires, headlight, and electric horn. I had saved a little more than $20.00, keeping it in a dresser drawer, when my father took the money to bet on a horse or use in a card game or pay off a debt. It didn’t matter what. It hurt. It was the first time I articulated my dislike for him. I promised myself I’d never let him hurt me again.
I moved my newspaper earnings to a canvas sneaker deep in a closet until I had enough to buy a new blue and white Columbia Roadmaster for $45.00. I bought my first suit when I was twelve. It made a fashion statement that said someone my age who could buy his own clothes didn’t need a father.
The Mafia was taken for granted in our Italian neighborhood. My father’s Godfather, the man who stood for him at his Christening, was the real godfather where we lived. My father was his personal driver. The boss, as we referred to him, didn’t like trains. Air travel was not developed enough to be reliable. My father drove the boss to Churchill Downs, Belmont and Saratoga. They attended prizefights, ballgames, and all the big sporting events on the East Coast.
Many of my father’s boyhood friends became involved in the Mafia as adults. Once, we visited a man who lived in the most lavish home. I remember the bathroom had a chrome toilet paper dispenser that was flush to the wall. Pressing the door of this receptacle released a spring, opening the door revealing a roll of monogrammed toilet paper. It was vanity we would never be able to afford. Surely the opportunities were there for gang activities beyond driving the boss, but my father never took them. I often wished he had if it meant a better quality of life for us.
One day in 1957 my father told us he was driving the boss on a trip somewhere east of our Western New York city. The day before the trip – my father – who I cannot remember ever missing a day or work – became so ill he could not drive. The boss feared no man but had an obsessive fear of germs. Someone else drove while my father stayed home.
The boss went to Appalachin, N.Y., where more than a hundred Mafia Dons and their consiglieri gathered for a business meeting. Police surveillance of this convocation allowed the FBI to blow the lid off Mafia activity all across the country.
The young Television Industry provided the perfect stage for the congressional hearings that followed. The boss, testifying before Sen. Estes Kefauver’s committee, said he was on his way East when he experienced car trouble. He stopped, quite innocently, at the home of a friend who knew the name of an excellent mechanic. This was not even close to being the most implausible reason for being at that meeting.
The boss, a social giant, our community’s Man of the Year in 1956, became a social pariah, an outcast, a broken man until his death a few years later. The scandal and embarrassment affected the lives of many families connected with the Appalachin participants, including the man with the extraordinary toilet paper holder.
I left home in 1958 and never lived there again. I saw my father at holidays. My attitude toward him softened as I watched him shrink and bend to the aging process. He died in 1983.
I remember standing at the edge of the gathering at the gravesite trying to put my thoughts about him into perspective. I couldn’t think of him without me getting in the way.
I thought about the times in college when I sold my blood every six weeks to supplement my meager earnings from part-time jobs. I thought about figuring out that a mashed potato sandwich for 14 cents was the most filling item on the cafeteria menu. I wished I had some of the money he gave to bookies. I wished I had the $20.00 he took from my newspaper money.
Years later, I ran into the toilet paper-holder man. He had spent much of his illegal earnings on expensive lawyers fighting the government’s attempts to deport him. He had also spent time in prison.
“Your father was the only smart one,” he told me. “He kept his nose clean.” The bewildered look in my eyes must have told him I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Payback,” he said in a weak voice. A dry, raspy cough made him grab his side form the chronic pleurisy he contracted in prison. “He always said that someday there would have to be a payback for the years of easy money.”
“Then why was he always on the fringe?” I asked, “why didn’t he stay the hell away from people like …”
“Like me?” he finished the sentence, waving off my disrespect with a slight movement of his hand.
“The ponies,” he coughed, “he couldn’t stay away from the ponies. With his habit who would give him a job except his own Godfather?”
So with only a sixth grade education, with no religious training, with no moral or ethical grounding, my father found enough strength in his weakness to understand there was a line not worth crossing for any amount of money. His addiction was an unpredictable habit. His Godfather, whose respectability was only skin-deep, understood risk management. He knew my father’s gambling made him virtually unemployable anywhere else.
I think about my father often. I think about the flu from heaven that kept our name out of the headlines. I think about how I was hurt by my promise to never let him hurt me. I think about how a broken down Mafioso gave me new eyes to see through the dimness of the past.
I think about him on Father’s Day, wishing I could put a twenty-dollar bill inside a greeting card and tell him to put it on some horse’s nose because the $20.00 stopped mattering a long time ago.
Of course, I think about him at family gatherings. At some point during the meal someone will say that the bread saved the meal. Soon after, someone else will raise a glass and say: “Hinky Dink.” Its meaning remains a mystery, like so many things we grew up with. I’ve given it my own interpretation. I’ve decided Hinky Dink was my father’s version of Ciao. It could mean hello, goodbye, or here’s looking at you. Or maybe it means I love you.
Whatever. At the sound of those words my eyes well up and I know my dad is in the middle of my memories no longer standing on the edge.