The Final Summer of My Father’s Life

by

08/25/2018

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

The final summer of my father’s life, I worked for him as a runner, making food deliveries at his restaurant. He and I weren’t getting along too well. I had just turned seventeen and my mother had died the previous winter, either one of which would have meant a strained relationship, but the combination was a killer. I had long hair, and was spouting political and cultural opinions that offended him deeply, but neither of those irritants explained his reluctance to hire me.

He didn’t want to hire me because he felt I would be taking away a job from some poor and deserving man with a family. Several of his workers had profound drinking problems and that June of 1970, as I began looking for a summer job (and getting nowhere fast), my dad would come home grumbling about another tough day when a runner or two didn’t show up, or showed up drunk, or badly hungover. Orders would get backed up all day long, and half of my father’s work on these days would consist of apologizing to customers whose orders never arrived, or arrived late and cold, or were missing items that the delivery guy was supposed to bring.

“So hire me,” I told my dad.

“I’ve told you, Stevie,” my dad said, “I can’t fire a working man just to give you a summer job.”

“Sounds to me,” I said, “that you won’t have to fire anyone. If a guy doesn’t show up, and leaves you high and dry, he’s firing himself.”

“You have to understand, he’ll come back in a day or two—”

“Or three,” I added.

“And apologize to me, with tears in his eyes. These poor fellows really need the work.”

“Whereas you know I’ll show up every single day, and you know I’m honest, and tireless, and smart—”

“It’s just not right,” he said.

But by early July he was exhausted, and I was still unemployed, so he caved. Running breakfast and lunch orders for a restaurant only a step above a coffee shop in lower Manhattan in the summertime was pretty rigorous. Work began at 7 A.M., for the office workers who came in early and needed their cup of coffee to get started, and it didn’t end until late afternoon when the final call for a caffeine fortification got phoned in. In between those busy points, there were breakfast orders and then lunch orders coming in, almost back to back, with a brief slow point that got filled with “coleslaw prep” and our own breakfast and lunch somewhere along the way, usually eaten standing up in the hot and crowded kitchen. The kitchen was even hotter and steamier than the humid lower Manhattan streets. Tempers flared as a matter of course, and politeness was notoriously sparse.

Being the boss’s kid, I hardly fit in with the other runners, who were mostly twice my age and mostly Hispanic of one sort or other—Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, along with the occasional Ecuadorian. Most of them were drunks, as I believe I’ve mentioned, and not a particularly affable bunch. When absentee runners continued to vex my dad after I started work for him, I mentioned my best friend Daryl was also looking for a job, and this time it didn’t take much arguing for my dad to give in to my suggestion. I was working out fine, he could see, as the most reliable runner he had. Between me and Daryl, he could rely on at least one pair of runners to show up every day until school started in September.

Daryl and I delivered the worst orders. Certain office workers were notoriously bad tippers, and the other runners knew Daryl and I would take all those orders, leaving them all the generous tippers. My dad had made me agree to this as a condition of giving me the job. Most of the offices were within a block of my dad’s restaurant (there were plenty of competing restaurants in the area), but a few distant offices phoned into my dad’s place despite those closer options. The other runners hated getting those orders too, since it would take much longer to deliver to them, so Daryl and I ran those orders as well. But we were glad to have jobs and glad to work for my dad, who was a decent boss by any standard a worker could have.

It was pretty filthy work, by which I mean that New York City is generally pretty filthy: in the course of our dozens of daily short trips, any object that we touched, including bannisters, elevator buttons, and door handles, probably hadn’t been wiped clean in months, and certainly had never been sanitized. There was no chance at all to wash one’s hands, the employees’ bathroom in the basement kitchen being as dirty as any subway station’s floor, which I found out the first day on the job when I got assigned to do “coleslaw prep” in the brief slow period between breakfast and lunch orders.

All outgoing lunches were accompanied by small crenulated paper cups filled with coleslaw, which got filled from a gigantic tub of coleslaw that was stored overnight in the walk-in fridge. When I was told to fill a few hundred of these tiny paper cups on my first day, I said, “Sure, I’ll just wash up first.”

This innocuous remark was met with derision, with the other runners snickering “Boss’s kid! Ooh, how delicate!” but mostly hoots of laughter and cries of “Quit stalling, kid. Stick your hands in there.”

So I plunged both hands into the ice-cold, creamy shreds of cabbage in sweet mayonnaise, and proceeded to fill up paper cups for the next half-hour with an equal mixture of coleslaw and filth. One day, as Daryl and I were doing coleslaw prep with a middle-aged man named Julio, Daryl looked my way and said, “This could be viewed, in a certain perverse way, as having an erotic quality, don’t you think?”

I laughed at the thought. It’s true, there was something sensual about putting our hands up to our wrists, sometimes the mid-forearms, into the creamy mixture, but Daryl had a gift for expressing thoughts that most people keep to themselves. His wit, and his appreciation of others’ witty remarks, was the basis of our friendship. Meanwhile, Julio looked at both of us laughing our asses off, and inquired, “Rotic? What is rotic?” which only amused Daryl further as he explained the concept to the increasingly puzzled Julio.

Julio was a mild, taciturn Puerto Rican fellow. He dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and a lightweight straw fedora. My dad employed the term “Puerto Rican” to refer to all Hispanics, which turned out to be a mistake. In his kitchen, he had a fellow named Hector, who was Dominican, working as his main chef, a job requiring more skill than I imagined at first. After all, Hector was preparing food on the order of a cheeseburger with fries, or a bowl of chili con carne, not exactly haute cuisine, but it actually required dexterity and intelligence. For one thing, he was working very fast, preparing numerous meals at once, non-stop, for hours on end, in a very hot kitchen. In constant motion, Hector would have four burgers going simultaneously on the grill, ranging from rare to well-done, several rashers of bacon, multiple pieces of bread in the toaster, a lasagna in one oven, a pastrami in the other, a half-chicken in the broiler, all to be served piping-hot but never over-cooked or undercooked, festooned with the appropriate side dishes, green vegetables or rice or potatoes that were simmering on the stovetop.

The skill of Hector’s that most impressed me, though, was his ability to wield knives, often several different types of very sharp knives in rapid succession, which was what caused the ruckus one August afternoon at the peak of the lunch-hour rush.

You could say that what really precipitated things was my dad’s casual reference to Hector as a “Puerto Rican.” To my dad, it was a meaningless distinction—if you spoke Spanish, in his mind, you were a Puerto Rican. No insult intended. So when he referred to Hector in that way, he meant nothing at all by it, but Hector was a  sensitive man, and proud of his Dominican heritage.

Or perhaps Hector disliked Puerto Ricans for some reason, who can say? In any case, all the trouble started when my dad referred casually to Hector as a Puerto Rican and Hector stopped working completely.

He just stood there, a nine-inch meat cleaver in his hand, and stared at my dad, who had turned his back on Hector by this point. Hector was a very dark-skinned man in his late thirties, so dark that the term “black” would be only a very slight exaggeration.

The food continued cooking, of course, but instead of Hector keeping up with each burger, flipping it at the second each side had reached its state of desired doneness, and monitoring the other dozen dishes, he kept staring at my dad. It was so unusual for Hector not to be in rapid-fire motion that the other chefs, runners, and busboys all stopped moving as well. It got very quiet in that hot kitchen—it was almost noisy, it was so quiet. You could hear sounds that you normally wouldn’t hear at all, the spattering of the cooking food, the chairs upstairs in the seating area scraping on the floor, the cutlery in the dishwasher chinging against itself. My dad turned around to see what all this quiet was about.

Hector glowered at him, the meat cleaver still in his right hand.

“What’s on your mind, Hector?” he asked in a friendly tone.

“I,” Hector announced, “am Dominican.”

“Good for you,” my dad said, a little puzzled but still encouraging Hector to further explain himself.

“I am Dominican,” Hector repeated, as if this explicated his grievance perfectly.

“And?” my dad asked, totally clueless.

This time Hector just kept glaring at my dad, tapping very slightly the cleaver’s blade against a cutting board.

“Mr. George,” Julio interjected, “you say Hector Puerto Rican,” a concept that Julio himself plainly found ridiculous. To him and to Hector, it took only a brief sample of speech to tell a Dominican from a Puerto Rican, while to my dad and to me it was like distinguishing an oak from an elm. All we knew was they were both big trees.

“Yes,” my dad agreed. “Yes, I did.”

The kitchen was completely still now for going on thirty whole seconds, an eternity of stillness in that place of constant feverish movement. My dad looked around the kitchen: all of the faces he saw were blank. The Hispanic workers all recognized the obviousness of Hector’s complaint, while to my father, Daryl and I, it seemed Hector and now Julio were complaining about nothing important. Very mildly, my dad then said, “Get back to work, everyone.”

Hector didn’t budge. He said one word to my father: “Apologize.”

My dad was not a belligerent man, and I believe if he had understood Hector’s grievance he would have happily apologized in an instant. New Yorkers of his generation used the words “Spanish” and “Puerto Rican” interchangeably (I don’t recall even hearing the terms “Latino” or “Hispanic” until many years afterwards). Not understanding the problem, he asked, quite sensibly to his mind, “What?”

“Apologize,” Hector repeated, a little louder this time, “or I will—” He paused and tapped the meat cleaver against the wooden cutting board again.

Now when I say those blades were sharp, I mean razor-sharp, and I’m talking about a fresh razor straight from the package. That was what impressed me most about Hector’s kitchen skills—he was working all day long with blades that could excise a finger easily if he made a move that was even slightly imprecise, and he made thousands of knife-cuts every day. The cleaver in his hand was easily the largest sharp blade in the kitchen.

“Or you’re going to do what, Hector?”

I’d never thought of my dad as a particularly brave man before this moment, even though he had a night-table drawer full of medals for his Army service during the World War, but this struck me as incredibly gutsy. He didn’t raise his voice—he lowered it, in fact—and he kept a calm expression on his face, as he challenged Hector to attack him with the big knife.

Hector remained motionless. Then with his left hand he untied his apron and unbuttoned his trousers. He fished into his pants and pulled out his penis.

It was a very impressive dick in almost every way: size, shape, texture, and color. In that order, Hector’s flaccid dick was large and as thick as a small salami, elaborately veined, and so black it was almost purple. He laid it on the cutting board, a flick away from the cleaver’s blade.

“I chop this off,” he said, “right now. If you don’t apologize to me. Right now.”

In a crazy way, it made even more sense than attacking my father with the blade. Without articulating his thinking, Hector was saying that, in reducing him to a mere Puerto Rican, my dad had cast aspersions on his manhood such that no Dominican could continue wearing such an impressive appendage.

“I don’t care what you do with that thing,” my dad said to him, “as long as it doesn’t wind up in the soup.”

For a long second, no one in the kitchen moved or said a word. Then Daryl—he couldn’t help it—giggled at the image of Hector’s truncated penis floating around in the cauldron of split-pea soup simmering on a back burner.

Then I giggled. And then Julio, and some other observers, laughed out loud.

Hector looked around the kitchen. For a second, I thought my dad’s remark had pushed him over the line of sanity, and I won’t swear that Hector’s fingers didn’t tighten on the handle of the knife, ready to perform a mega-circumcision on himself, when my father added:

“You are not a Puerto Rican, Hector,” he pronounced. “You are a Dominican.”

Hector thought for a moment, considered this to be an acceptable apology, and returned to his station, after buttoning up his pants and re-tying his apron-strings.

“You two,” he addressed Daryl and me, more sternly than I’d ever heard him speak to either of us, “get cracking on those orders, they aren’t going to deliver themselves.” We understood that he was trying to return the kitchen to its normal frantic atmosphere, so we just grabbed the beige paper bags filled with lunch orders sitting on the outgoing platform and hustled up the stairs into the street. Daryl and I didn’t say a word, we hardly smiled, as we headed in opposite directions to deliver our orders.

I don’t think any of us—me, Daryl, or my dad—ever mentioned the incident to anyone. The last I saw of Daryl was a few years later, just before he went off to Riker’s Island and then out to Arizona, and the last I saw of my dad was about two months later. That day in the kitchen, unknown to him or me or to anyone, he had a cancer in his lymph nodes that would put him in the hospital in a few more weeks, and that would kill him before November. But for that one afternoon, I got to watch him at his best, restoring peace to a troubled workplace, and I got to have my best friend as my witness to his restraint and his wit.

 

**

Steven Goldleaf, a professor of English at Pace University in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of his father’s restaurant, is writing a memoir entitled ONLY MOSTLY TRUE, of which this is a chapter.

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§ 7 Responses to “The Final Summer of My Father’s Life”

  • Grace Lee says:

    Great essay, loved this so much

  • Jeff Sohn says:

    Your parents will always be in my heart and mind. Your mom Betty had a great sense of humor and was always
    caring and loving. George, your dad was always nice to everyone as I remember. He was part of our softball tam and had a great sense of humor.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  • Thanks, Grace, for your kind comment, and thanks, Jeff, for remembering my parents after all these years

  • Michael Sklaroff says:

    I so wanted to know where your Dad’s restaurant was in lower Manhattan. I didn’t work for my father’s law practice until the summer of 1973, when I was 23 (and not a lawyer), but his office was at 401 Broadway, at Canal Street, and there were food orders being delivered all day long. You’d start your day with a take-out cup of coffee and a little brown bag containing a bagel with a schmear [of cream cheese] and then it would be lunch and then dinner if you were working late. Some good memories and a good story, too.

  • Steven Goldleaf says:

    This one was on John Street. Right where Cliff street abuts it. Last I looked, there was a Korean restaurant in its place. My dad ran a place on Broadway just below Canal briefly, just south of where Dave’s used to be.

  • Michael Sklaroff says:

    I remember Dave’s! That’s where so much of that food was coming from. My father dissolved the partnership in 1974; they’d been at that location for probably six or seven years. Downtown was so different from elsewhere in Manhattan then. People weren’t living there, but I always thought it would be a cool place to live. A real ghost town on the weekends.

  • Sheila Gross says:

    So well written. I could see and hear each character clearly. I remember George and Betty, your dad and mom, so well. We were like family those many years. I remember the house in Bensonhurst with your grandma Iskowitz, Pete and Dulya, Marty and Rhea and your Aunt Lillian. And over in Boro Park, your Uncle Sam and Aunt Blossom and My best friend Ruthie and brother Jerry. What wonderful simple and innocent memories of a teenager.

§ Leave a Reply

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