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.
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 —
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.