My father, Lou, was a very wise man. He wasn’t highly educated but he had what we call “street smarts.” He taught me a lot about life, but he never sugar coated it. Even when he probably should have. I don’t ever remember a time when I believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or any government officials. But Lou did teach me to believe in myself. And he taught me a lot of other valuable lessons that I would like to share with you. But please don’t judge him by today’s overly-protective, every-kid-gets-a-trophy, shield-them-from-the-truth style of parenting. He was more of a walk-it-off, throw-him-in-the-deep-end, you-might-as-well-know-the-truth-now kind of dad. Just remember that I didn’t turn out so bad. Depending on who you ask.
When I would misbehave, my father spanked me with his belt.
I know that sounds cruel and it might even be illegal these days, but back then it was as common as pregnant women drinking alcohol. But before my father pulled out his leather strap, my mother always pretended to try and stop him. I cowered in fear while they went into their good cop/bad cop routine.
Lou: That does it. I’m getting the belt.
Muriel: No, Lou. Not the belt.
Lou: Oh yeah, I’m getting the belt.
Muriel: Please, Lou. Don’t hit him with the belt.
Lou: It’s too late, Muriel. He’s got it coming.
Muriel: Alright. But please…don’t use the buckle.
Lou: Oh yeah, I’m using the buckle.
Muriel: No, Lou! Not the buckle!!!
He never used the buckle. But this might explain why I’m the only person I know who still wears suspenders.
He wasn’t cheap but, boy, did he hate to waste money.
As a young man, Lou lived through the Great Depression and like so many others of his generation, he carried that value system with him for the rest of his life. Nothing drove him more crazy than wasting money, food or products. When our family would go out to dinner, my father wouldn’t order anything for himself. He knew that the rest of us wouldn’t finish everything on our plates. So he would wait patiently until we were all done. At which point he’d declare, “If you’re not going to eat that, give it to me.” Then he’d gather all our leftovers and make a smorgasbord for himself out of everyone else’s food. This earned him the loving nickname, Leftover Louie.
The only fights I remember him having with my mother were over the phone bill. She frequently spent several hours at a time on the phone talking to her long distance relatives, to an extent that bordered on child neglect. While my sister and I clamored for her attention, Lou never seemed to mind. I think he actually enjoyed the time to himself. Until the phone bill came. Then the yelling got so bad you’d think you were watching a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. If they’d only had unlimited long distance calling back then, the only thing they would have ever fought about would have been which end of the belt to hit me with.
At some point in my childhood, I remember him calling all of us into the bathroom for a family meeting. Apparently, we were all being very wasteful by using excessive amounts of toilet paper. (Which was true in my case because I used to wrap my hand in TP until it looked like a boxing glove.) After regaling us with his favorite depression-era story of how he couldn’t afford TP and instead had to use the wax paper they wrapped fruit in, Lou proceeded to teach us the most efficient and economical way to wipe one’s ass. It was actually fascinating to watch this demonstration of his patented method where you could get four wipes out of two squares by repeatedly folding them over and over again. I shit you not.
A different kind of ‘Sex Education.’
Lou was never one for coddling his children or for protecting them from the realities of life. Especially when it came to sex. While I don’t remember ever having “the talk” with him, he did educate me about sex in his own way. I was 11 years old when the MPAA rating system began and the first R-rated movies came out. This system was designed to protect young and impressionable minds like mine, but that didn’t stop my father from taking me to see them. I think movies like Barbarella and Carnal Knowledge were his idea of sex-education films.
At around the same age, during the late 1960’s, I have a vivid memory of my father cruising around 42nd Street with me in the car. You have to remember that this was before Times Square became a family friendly tourist attraction in the 1990s. These were the days when peep shows occupied most of the store fronts and prostitutes aggressively solicited potential customers. It was like Sodom & Gomorrah with bumper to bumper traffic. (God, I miss those days.) But, since we lived in New York, Lou thought this was an area that I should be familiar with. So he slowly toured me through mean streets of Manhattan pointing out all the notable points of interest, “That’s a hooker. That’s a hooker. That’s a homo. That’s a hooker…”
My father had a lot of insightful sayings.
He was full of wit and wisdom, often of the most rude and crude kind. Here are some of my favorite and most famous of Lou’s aphorisms.
“There’s only one crime in this country…getting caught.”
“The happiest person in town…is the Village Idiot.”
“When it comes to women’s breasts…you’ll never need more than a handful.”
“You shouldn’t be prejudiced, because there are good people and bad people of all races. There are blacks and there are n-words. There are Jews and there are k-words. There are homosexuals and there are f-words…” Of course, he used the actual words.
I suppose some people might think it’s not right for me to write about my father this way, to reveal his flaws and tell these personal stories. But I choose to commemorate him by remembering exactly the way he was, with all his glorious strengths and weaknesses. To be less than brutally honest would be to forget one of Lou’s most important lessons, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, fuck ’em and say it anyway.”