in which my father deals with post office shenanigans

This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series Memoir

I can say with some certainty that I think of my father several times every day. My mother I think of way less often, which may have something to do with the fact that she died when I was fourteen. In spite of the fact that those fourteen years were colorful (to say the least), it has been a very long time.

My father had a big personality. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. When he retired he swore he’d never cook again, but of course he spent all his time in the kitchen. Then one day he went into the corner tavern — Schneider’s — which had a full but unused kitchen, and announced he felt like making lunch. Pete Schneider was a friend of my father’s and he liked his cooking and so for the next couple years, when my father felt like cooking he’d go to market, get what he needed, and they’d put a sign up in front of the tavern. Lunch today. From noon until it’s gone.

On those days the place got really crowded. There’s a bank down the block and people came in droves to eat. At the most there would be two choices, but they came on faith — because my father was a legend, and not just for his cooking. He could get belligerent in a heartbeat, and he hated special requests. I remember him taking a plate away from more than one customer and saying, You don’t like it? Go eat somewheres else. No charge. Get out.

On the other hand, he had a huge and infectious laugh and he loved jokes, he was kind to people down on their luck — he fed bums (the term ‘street people’ hadn’t come into usage yet) who came to the kitchen door with a liberal hand, he spoiled little kids rotten, and he was very able to laugh at himself. This is one of my favorite photos of him. The quality is bad and I don’t have the original, but I still love it. This is a few years before he died, a typical interaction with his sister Kate.

I give you this background information because today something happened that made me think of him. You know how when you sign up for a website of one kind or another, and they send you a confirmation email? That’s a safety feature to make sure that there isn’t somebody out there with a weird sense of humor — or a grudge — who is signing you up for things. I got one of those emails today for something I had not requested. Somebody used my email? Who knows, and it doesn’t matter. But it is interesting that this type of behavior predates the internet, and that’s what this story is about.

My father eventually moved into one of two apartments above Schneider’s, so you could always find him there either upstairs or in the kitchen or talking to somebody at the bar. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and I came home at least twice, often three or four times a week. Because he demanded tribute, and because he fed me. And also because as he got older he didn’t want to be bothered with bills and bank statements and so I took on those duties.

So one day I come into the apartment and there’s a pile of mail on the table. In that pile, beyond the regular stuff and bills, are three magazines. As I remember now, they were TV Guide, Modern Maturity, and TIME. At first I was stumped, then I wondered if some neighborhood kid had come in selling subscriptions and caught my father in a weak moment (of which there were not many). So I asked him, and I got a scowl.

He hadn’t subscribed to those magazines, or to any of the others either.

Others?

The pile was in a corner. Newsweek, Harpers, RV-World. I checked the subscription label, which read Arturro Lippi. That’s a misspelling, which at first didn’t tip me off. My father could never find his reading glasses and often wrote things down in a hurry. That day I had other things to do so I let the question of the subscriptions go. When I came back three or four days later, the pile of magazines had grown to maybe twelve or fifteen different subscriptions, including Cosmo and Seventeen.

Dad, I said. Somebody is playing a joke on you.

Somebody from the tavern, I was guessing. Somebody he pissed off, which did happen with some regularity. He couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing; magazines were not the way to get his goat. Except by that time the bills had started arriving. I didn’t know at first because he tore them up. When I did find out I would open the bill, write “cancel subscription” and send it off. But no matter what I did, the number of magazines kept growing. There were piles of them all over the house. Modern Architecture, Hair Styles for Today, Guns & Ammo, you name it, it came through the door. And then the collection phone calls started.

My father always treated the phone like a wild animal that needed a strong hand. He raised his voice and it always seemed to me his accent got stronger on the phone. I caught one or two of these conversations, which always escalated fast.

You come down here and try to get that money off me yourself! he’d shout into the phone. Come on down here, buddy, I’ll shove your magazines up your —

click.

At this point the Time/Life books started arriving. Those series of books in hardcover? The Opera. The Wild West. The Revolution in twelve volumes.

I called the postmaster and asked if this constituted mail fraud, if there was something that could happen from that end. Nobody called me back.

The next time I was home the doorbell rang. That in itself was odd, because nobody ever used the front door. My father was downstairs in the kitchen so i went to the door and there was a young guy in full marine uniform. He wanted to talk to Arturro Lippi, who had indicated by postcard an interest in a career in the marines.

Of course the army, navy and airforce all showed up. So did the Jesuits. I have to admit, that was a particularly funny one. My father, the Jesuit. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were less fun.

This time when I called the postmaster’s office I was more insistent.

In the meanwhile my father had decided he might as well take advantage. Huge armloads of magazines got deposited in the tavern for people to read. For a while there you could find little old men nursing their beers over copies of People (which had just started up) or The New Yorker. The business from the bank increased too, because my father encouraged people to take the magazines with them. More where those came from!

In the end a postal inspector came to take a report. He had a huge grin on his face the whole time, for which he kept apologizing. This is a serious offense, he’d say, and then you could see him fighting with the urge to laugh. Soon after that the whole thing started to wind down and within a week or two, stopped.

It was kind of sad, actually. As far as I know they never found out who filled out those hundreds of subscription and interest cards in my father’s name, but I do know that whatever the intention was — I assume, to irritate and inconvenience him — it fell flat. My father paid not one penny, and ended up keeping the magazines that actually interested him. The ones with lots of pictures, and centerfolds.

Lincoln Park Zoo 1959

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series Memoir

On Monday the restaurant was closed, and on those days, especially in the warmer months, my father would take my younger sister and me out for the day.

I remember going to the movies. He sat us down in front of westerns, musicals, murder mysteries and then spent the entire time pacing back and forth at the rear of the theater. Never out of sight, and never still.

He took us for long drives out into the country, sometimes as far away as Wisconsin where he’d find a tavern on a lake. Hamm’s: the beer refreshing. Pork rinds, Jay’s potato chips, a huge jar of pickled pig’s feet on the bar, cheeseburgers served in baskets with soggy fries, wedges of iceberg lettuce doused in Thousand Island dressing. Coke in small glass bottles that fit the curve of a child’s hand exactly.

I remember outings like this where a whole caravan of his friends would come along and he would cook for them all on one of the grills provided by the tavern. I suspect to this day that he bullied people into coming along simply so he’d have somebody to feed. The grownups would sit in the shade and drink and tell jokes I wasn’t supposed to hear, or understand if I did. My sister deposited herself next to the prettiest woman present, the one who smelled nice, and stayed there for the duration.

There were many trips to Lincoln Park Zoo. I remember those drives down   Lincoln Avenue very clearly. All the windows open in those days long before air conditioning.

And I remember this unfortunate stuffed bear. The rough feel of his fur and the smell of dust and camphor. I don’t remember this particular day but I know that I was looking at my father. I can see it in my three year old face. I can almost see him there, hands clasped behind his back as he paced back and forth. He wore a short sleeved shirt and a bow tie, and sometimes a porkpie hat. In 1959 other men wore suits and ties as a matter of course, but six days a week my father lived in the costume of his trade: wide trousers in a small black check and a white tunic. On his day off the closest he came to a suit was that bow tie.

A solidly built man, short by most standards, his dark hair cropped marine short, the tattoos on his arms already so faded they were hard to read.

It was important to him that we were happy on those Mondays. He took us places and showed us off to his friends and fed us. He bought us ping-pong paddles, balloons, Barbie dolls, and he fed us. Egg and pepper sandwiches, roast pork, spaghetti and meatballs, barbeque ribs, minestrone, icecream.

It was what he knew how to do. It was the best way he knew to take care of us.

visiting

This entry is part 8 of 19 in the series Memoir

I grew up on a busy street in Chicago. By age six I could cross four lanes of traffic by myself, and by nine I negotiated mass transit — el and bus — alone, without much trouble. I’m not in the least bothered by the sound of traffic at night. It actually is a comforting sound to me.

The 60s and 70s in working class Chicago were a lot like the 50s and 40s, from the stories I’ve heard. This was long before the technological jump. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. I didn’t know anybody with an answering machine until I was twenty-one. Back then you called and let it ring, and eventually you gave up. If you wanted to leave somebody a message, here’s what you did:

You walked over. In the late afternoon or early evening, especially in the summer, you left the house and walked down the street to knock on the door or call through the screen. You didn’t telephone first, but nobody was put out by a visit. You sat in the kitchen and passed along whatever information it was you needed to share. You might stay ten minutes, or maybe you’d stay longer. Drink some pop, watch the baseball game on channel nine. There might be other people there, visiting. Everybody scooted closer together.

We sat on each other’s stoops and came in the kitchen door to get a drink of water or use the bathroom. My father’s friends came over a lot, sometimes as many as five of them who arrived separately, no plan to it at all. They’d sit in the kitchen with the revolving fan and eat and drink and talk. My father could not have five people in his kitchen and not cook for them. I found it boring so I mostly stayed in the front room or my bedroom. Sometimes my father would call me in to ask me a question, or to send me to the store for something. I’d say hello to all the grownups and they’d fuss over me a little. My father had a friend called Ray, the most educated guy in the group, who was a chemist. I don’t remember ever seeing Ray sober. He was one of those soft spoken, gentle drunks who smiled at everybody. He’d press money on any kid who happened to pass him. He had no family of his own, and he made a good salary. In those days parents didn’t stop their kids from accepting money or gifts, even from friendly neighborhood drunks. Once he gave me a twenty, but all my father did was shout: hey, Ray! You see what you’re doing? That’s a twenty.

My father didn’t object because he pressed money on kids too. Every male in the family did. My uncle Freddy would have his hand in his pocket while you were coming in the door, and he’d press a couple bills into your hand while he was saying hello, bending in close to look you in the eye, one hand on your shoulder. Whatever your problem might be, he was going to tackle it.

We live out in the county now, on a wooded acre. It’s very quiet here. On a summer night with the windows open there’s no sound of traffic. A few of our neighbors are good friends, but we don’t just stop by, and neither do they. It’s just not something people do here. I don’t know if they used to, but I think probably. There are still remnants of that back and forth visiting in some of the old neighborhoods.

Which was one of the reasons that I voted for finding a house in those neighborhoods. The Mathematician wanted to be out here in the county; I wanted the big corner lot with the 1910 craftsman with all the original woodwork and glass, the fenced yard, and a half dozen friends within a couple blocks. I was imagining that it would be something like the neighborhood where I grew up. You go over to tell the neighbor about the problem you’re having with your plumbing and to ask for advice, and maybe you don’t come back for an hour. Somebody else drops by to ask if you’re going to the farmer’s market on Saturday and that turns into a big discussion about produce and organic farming.

In the greater scheme of things it made more sense for us to be out here in the county, and so I eventually agreed. And now I like it here. I am very comfortable in the house, and I love the garden and the quiet. It’s a ten minute drive into town along the bay, and in some spots it looks a lot like northern Italy around Lake Como. I can imagine us staying here for good. Puttering around in the garden at eighty, waiting for the grandchildren to come by. There’s no guarantee, of course. But I can imagine it.

And I still miss, will probably always miss, living in a neighborhood in a city. Being close enough to walk to the store, to a friend’s house, to the park. I’m a city girl at heart.

I’m not sure why all this came into my head today, but the memories of what it was like in Chicago when I was growing up have been front and center. Bit a little nostalgia goes a long way and so I’ll get back to work.

men in bars

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series Memoir

I’m trying to write a scene based — in part — on the corner bar where my father went to have a beer after work every day. This tavern, on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, was owned by a Pete Schneider. My father would take me with him sometimes and I would sit at a table with a coke and listen to the men talk. In the summer there was usually a Cubs game on the old black and white television. There was a long, highly polished wooden bar and a Hamm’s Beer Sign over the cash register. Anybody of my generation will probably remember the old Hamm’s commercials, and the ditty sung to a quasi-Indian beat: From the land of sky-blue waaa–aaaters! Hamms! The beer refreshing! (Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can actually listen to the Hamm’s Beer Jingle here and see the very sign that hung over the bar, here).

I heard some pretty funny conversations there as a kid, bits of which I still remember. The problem is that the best bits of memory usually don’t work in fiction, no matter how much you’d like them to. Beyond the obvious differences in setting (this fictional bar of mine is set in the south in the present day; the Schneider’s of my memory is Chicago circa 1966-72) there is no transplanting Pete Schneider or the perpetually drunk, gentle chemist who was always giving away all his money, or Arlene, whose fingers were painted scarlet red except where they were nicotine yellow and whose earlobes were stretched to twice their normal length because of the earrings she wore, huge clusters of rhinestones and pearls. What I can transplant are the smells, and the lighting, and the sounds glass beer bottles make when you pick up a half dozen of them at once. Which I’m going to try to do, right now.

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