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I loved my father as a kid. I loved my father no matter how little I saw him, no matter how passed-out drunk he was, how falling-down-stupid, when I did see him.
The dude's picture, full page, appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, September 25, 1926. The Best Dressed Man at Columbia was advertising shirts.
What I “know” about my father I mostly know through my mother:
and of course initially, when young, I didn’t know to mistrust her account. Mom threw Dad out, then Mom had to work, for income — why should Dad support us once she’d thrown him out? The law seemed to agree with my mother that he ought to support us, even though she’d thrown him out! but the law was as inept as mother herself when it came to collecting. Pay her! said the court: and my father, a lawyer, knew exactly what the court was worth: and went about his own drunken philandering business. The court couldn’t make Dad pay; all the court could do was put Dad in jail: which Mom wouldn’t ask the court to do! Dad won the chicken contest. Even sober finally, he just watched soap operas, while a new Mrs. Knatz brought in a nice income, put him in her big house on Bushwick Avenue. See: Mrs. Knatz II got a masters, got an income (a chemist, she told the A&P if their peanut butter was any good): then she captured Dad. Apparently she’d had her eye on him all along. Mom won rounds one and two, Ardath won the fight: or lost it, depending on how you look at it.
I loved my father. I used to love my mother too. I have never loved the court, the law, the people who imagine that lawyers writing something down makes it true.
Anyway, Dad had been a great looking guy, athletic, witty, the life of any party. Mom had been zowie attractive, continued to be for a long time: until the red in her hair came from a bottle, looked ridiculous, not at all like the English Scots red God had given her when young.
Zillions of suitors came around, I tried to stay out of their way, I had no idea how much the electricity getting turned back on had to do with these business friends of hers, rich men without exception: all yachtsmen: she worked for a marine insurance guy.
But the guy who was always there, always a pain in my ass, was Don, from up the block, Dr. Don, the intern, navy doctor, hospital resident … then gynecologist.
Don made efforts to be a “father” to me. Get away from me, you creep. Don was jowly — Fat, chain smoking ass hole — anything but the life of the party. But: looking back I realize he told more than one story that influenced me: mostly told to my mother, me overhearing. Don is a key character in my salt story. In a word, maybe he saved my “life”: my brain pan anyway.
In fact I’ll credit Don with my life-long hatred and mistrust of doctors: doctors hold medicine in contempt, just as Jews themselves frequently appear antiSemitic! Complex, not automatic to interpret, but true anyway.
One day in the early 1950s this kid is walking up the block, Don waves me over to his side door, wants to show me how he’s spit polishing his shoes. What did I care about that? But then he shows me his new microscope, tells me that Horatio Alger has worked hard, studied, gone to med school, now he can buy himself a nice microscope. I didn’t care about that either until he invited me to gander: and I did. First I saw my eye lashes, then I saw the image. Wow!
Cancer cells, not Don’s slide
“That’s beautiful,” I said.
“That’s not beautiful,” Don responded; “that’s cancer!”
“No, no, it’s beautiful,” I insisted.
My first novel used a story I heard from Don, one of his endless hospital horror stories. The ambulance is called to Rockville Centre’s ghetto, a neighborhood so well concealed, so little talked about, I didn’t know it existed till I was working as a garbage man the summer after my freshman year in college. A fat woman had called for help. The emergency people arrive. First suspicion is that she was really really constipated, but then how come her lower regions are all bloody. Blood everywhere, a mess. “Weren’t you scared?” One of the EMs tries to make conversation.
“Not until that thing came out,” says the woman pointing to the bathroom. There, clogging the disgusting toilet is a dead baby, partly flushed.
The woman hadn’t known she was pregnant! Hadn’t recognized labor!
The story struck me as more common, more typical, than we realize. My novel makes it a central metaphor, among nests of similar metaphors.
I’ve been assured since first hearing the story that the phenomenon of women delivering without understanding what’s going on is common. But our ignorance of such commonplaces is sacred. I was begged not to tell the story in my novel, almost threatened. But, since the novel never got published the story never did get any reach.
Publication is routinely decided by the magicians’ assistants, the illusion developers, the illusion maintainers.
It was Don who explained to us how the tobacco companies got the gall to claim that more doctors smoked this or that: “Camels gives away free cartons of Camels at the medical conventions. Then they go around the lounge photographing the smoking doctors, identifying brands: and of course they’re mostly Camels!” A really scientific way to gather data: skew it, then record it.
Philip Morris ad
PS Don showed routine contempt for fat people. Hey, me too. I gathered that nearly all doctors, including fat doctors, held fat in contempt.
One big pregnant Jew was advised to diet and exercise, by the jowly chain-smoking sedentary doctors!
“But my wife, she eats like a bird,” protests Mr. Jew.
So the doctors gave her a box of bird seed!
A riot those doctors.
Note: Mrs. Knatz II, Ardath Knatz, had a masters. Columbia. Dad was Columbia ’26. I’m Columbia ’60 (degree ’61). My Mrs. Knatz, Hilary, Barnard (’63 or so), part of Columbia, couldn’t stop getting Columbia degrees. Her PhD is Columbia! Her sister’s PhD is Columbia!
Maybe mine would be Columbia too except only NYU let me in at the last minute while I was on active duty in the army: and only NYU offered me a fellowship, however modest, however inadequate.
(And because of Hilary’s mother’s husband we lived in Columbia housing, nicest block in all of Manhattan.)
It’s too bad Columbia never understood a thing I said: any more than did NYU: or anywhere else!
Well, the New School understood part of it. One or two people at Fordham did. And I guess at least one guy at Columbia did too, though for only a moment.
Elsewhere I tell a story about a wicked case of blue balls I had at age fifteen or so. It was Dr. Don who did the diagnosis, gave the advice. I tell that story elsewhere online, anonymously. [I should add a brief version of it here.]
One night, me and sister Beth abed, upstairs, I hear loud voices. Don and Mom are arguing. He sounds like the aggressor to me. I go to my closet and take the kris I got from my grandfather’s closet in my hand.
I’d been told it was a headhunter’s sword. In my youthful ignorance I judged it to have six “notches” in the handle: I truly believed that this weapon had killed at least six people.
Anyway, I took it in my hand and crouched at the top of the stairs, waiting for the one-more decibel in Don’s tirade that would trigger my attack on this dumb mother-fucker.
It never came. They quieted down. I returned my weapon to my closet and got back into bed.
One evening Dr. Don is over for dinner. I finish eating, I excuse myself, now I can go off and do whatever, maybe read some science fiction, or some Damon Runyan, but mom calls me back. She reminds me, as she’s long done, to do my homework. My long established habit is to grimmace, pretend it’s a grin, grip myself hard, wait till I think this fish is released, and go about my business, ignoring the advice. This particular evening Don chimes in. Mom does not tell him to mind his own fucking business: this is her son, thank you. No. So I’m getting tag teamed. They take turns, like musicians trading fours. Mom berates me, advises me: Don advises me, sternly. Mom and Don are chain smoking their damn cigarettes. I want my own Chesterfield long. But I’m not lighting up while I’m on the carpet. I really have to wince when Don inhales: I’d hear that smoke-suck if I were outside on the front curb, loud: you can hear the nicotine, the tar, slap against the back wall of the lungs.
Don tells me that you never get anywhere if you don’t work. Look at him! He works. Then he’s years in the navy, looking the fat fool in his stupid officer’s uniform, drafted with a commission: now he’s a gynecologist, gets to stick his face between helpless women’s knees. Mom takes a turn. What’s she got to brag about: besides no husband and a humiliating job at about one-eighth her boss’s pay. (Of course he owns the company, he doesn’t actually have to pay himself anything!)
I they’d let me actually go upstairs to my room, if they’d decided that their point was made, maybe I actually would have read a chapter or two by then.
Actually there was a point where I was motivated by the harrange. Maybe I would have memorized the French vocabulary …
Whoops, that was a bad example: Mom was right, Don too, I seldom to never did any homework: but French was the one exception. French was the one subject I couldn’t bluff: so I did do the homework, at least a snatch of it.
Anyway, this scene had happened before, more than once, but on this one particular evenig Mom and Don went on and on. Let’s say it was eight o’clock when I rose to be excused. There I was, stuck on the edge of the carpet. Whatever I would have done on a normal evening, by eleven PM I would have stopped, because Steve Allen was coming on! And Steve typically had a great jazz musician as guest. Typically Dizzy or Errol or Brubeck wouldn’t actually play till five minutes to one AM, just before sign off, but you never knew, so I’d rivet myself and wait for the whole two hours: 11 to 1. But here, this evening, eleven PM came and went while Mom and Don traded ours onto my poor ear drum. Finally Mom cuts the whole thing off. Lighting another L&M she says, “Paul! It’s after midnight! Go to bed!”
Four hours on the carpet! But I was never in bed at eleven! Mom was in bed at eleven; asleep; I was watching Steve Allen, waiting for Miles, or Horace Silver. Mom never did know how little sleep I got.
When Steve was over I always read another short story in the big fat Groff Conklin anthology! Sometimes that was so great I’d read two!
Religion for the Many
One night Doctor Don and my mother occupied the dinner table long after dinner had been consumed, drinking coffee and sucking on cigarette smoke, stripping every micron of nicotine toxin into their lungs, Doctor Don’s suck was appalingly audible, should have petrified him into a cancer stick instantly. Their subject had maundered to religion. I walked by. I said, “Religion for the many; philosophy for the few.”
Sunday evening, 2015 07 19, I was firming my new friendship with Susan on the dancefloor. She was telling me how her son, age sixteen, had told her she was stupid! and raised his hand to her! I listened to the whole stream of grief, then said, Don’t be too hard on kids. Their brains are still developing into their twenties. Don’t take anything they say seriously. They don’t know what they’re saying, they’re trying different things out, mostly seeing what they can get away with.
When I said the above, sucking on my own cigarette, though not with Doctor Don’s suicidal violence, I was say eighteen, maybe nineteen. I was at Columbia. I and my friends were insufferably intellectual, name droppers, showoffs. But Doctor Don was shaken. He sucked some more smoke, seethed it around in his brain. He kind of quivered, like a lizard, all hard scales. His jowls shook, disgustingly muscleless. Jabba the Hut. He spit at me: “Well, you’d better make damn sure you’re one of the few!!!”
What? Why? Why did I have any such obligation?
That was sixty years ago. The memory of Don still turns my stomach. Today my stomach is still turned at his seeming acceptance of elites. I wan’t claiming any authority: at least I hope not. He seemed to be granting it though.
Yes. Jabba the Hut.
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