“Read well, but don’t ever become well-read.”
My dad at this time in his life had skin the color of chicken fat, like they used to keep in pitchers at old Jewish restaurants. His hand pointed with a limp index finger grown enormously fat, or perhaps that was loose skin making it look so.
He had come to live by the Port Authority. Or at least that’s where I always saw him. He probably lived somewhere else and just hung around at the Port Authority during the day; it’s strange that I never knew where he lived, even though we were close. After him and my mother separated he became hard to find. We would meet for a bag of potato chips in one of the parks. Each time I’d offer to pay for something nicer and he refused.
When my mother left (the conditions of which I know little about still), all my father ate was hotdogs; he stacked them in the fridge ten packs high, covering the shelves: so many plastic containers were open and forgotten that a thin scum of fatty juice leaked over the other food. Which is how I learned to wash fruit before I ate it.
On one of our last meetings before he died, we sat on a park bench in Union Square eating Falafel. This was long after I convinced him to enter a nursing home. By now he’d started allowing me to pay for things, little things, here and there. He was not as frightened of spending money as he had been. I was wearing a black suit, which was unfortunate with the falafel and also with the summer sun oozing out of the clouds. It broke a hundred degrees. It was 1997.
Old men in ripped t-shirts sauntered around us, as did pretty young tourists, as did pigeons. Young people read books. Old people dozed. There was a smell in the air of bitter trash, coffee, cigarettes.
“All these people here. I love them. I’m starting to think there isn’t any in-between. You have to love everyone you see or nobody at all.”
I nodded, knowing he’d continue.
“Have you ever wondered how they do it?”
“Who?” I said.
He pointed at a group of businessmen on the bench across from us. They were young, attractive, laughing. Their suits looked expensive.
“How they do what?”
“Success. Money. Women.”
“How do you know they have any of that?”
“You can see it on their faces,” he said. “Well, anyway. I guess I don’t know. But assuming they did. That type. Cause in the City, you know, everybody’s a type.”
“You mean successful people?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Hard work? Good families?”
“Ah! Everybody thinks it’s only that. Everybody thinks they’re ambitious. But think for a second—could you pull off that kind of life? What would motivate you? The only explanation is that they love everyone around them. When they go into a board meeting, or when they have to make some sales pitch or do a proposal or whatever the shit they do. Win a case. I don’t know. They have to love the people they’re with. They try to see through them. You can’t try see through somebody without loving them, Ben. Everybody powerful, everybody rich. If they’re good at what they do it’s because they know how to love. Everyone has their own brand of affection. Even apathy is a type of affection. If you’re apathetic, it’s because you’re overwhelmed. If you can’t feel empathy, it’s because you do feel empathy, and are overwhelmed. You see?” He took a big bite of his falafel. I did the same. As I tore the bread, onions showered onto my pants and I brushed them off with a napkin.
“So you think everybody’s good?” I asked.
“No. Everybody’s a piece of shit,” he said. “But there’s no way to know if you’re a piece of shit or a saint. No way in the world.” Then it was quiet for a while.
We sat and ate our falafel. A young man, maybe eighteen years old, walked up to us and asked if we would like to sign a petition. He handed me a list: at the top it said “redistribute wealth, tax the rich.”
“I’m all for revolution,” said my dad, squiggling his name into the wrong box on the sheet. “We need to do away with all the old nonsense our parents gave us.”
The young man said, “yeah man,” and then put both hands in the air and yelled “revolution!” Then he walked away. At first I thought he was joking, and then I thought he was serious, and then I thought he was joking again.
After a while we made our way to the car. I had parked in the Village. My father had trouble walking, so we went very slowly. We stayed on Thirteenth to avoid the larger swarms of anonymous faces. We made a left on Seventh.
My father said: “look at all these ugly fucking buildings! When I was younger, everyone knew this was the ugliest architecture in the city. Now everybody loves it. And they’re the same buildings that everyone used to hate.”
“They sold an apartment over here for twenty million dollars last week. I read that in the Times.” I said.
“Twenty-three million,” he said, as though the number had some significance. “Twenty-three million.”
“Twenty-three million,” I answered.
“You know what I wonder? I wonder if inflation even made that much difference. Or if people are just richer.”
“I’m sure there’s some way to find that out,” I said. Then I became weary of the condescension in my tone, so I said, “it could be both. Inflation and wealth. Or more wealthy people.”
“It always seems like there’s more money in the world, to me, and more poverty at the same time. And like we’re doing worse and like we’re better off. Everything always seems worse. Well, mostly.”
“People get older. Everyone exaggerates their memories.”
“Yes. But we need to exaggerate memories. Otherwise we don’t have anything to work toward. And there’s no way of knowing whether some of these memories are just plain true, either, because the past is as useless and obscure as the future. I remember in college, learning that Homer was the Golden Age to the Greeks; just like the Greeks were the golden age to the Romans, and Rome to the Italians. But, really.” He shook his head. “Actually, I forgot my point. But, now that I think about it, that does seem like a decline. Homer’s age, with its mysteries. The Greek world with its mysteries. There aren’t any more big mysteries. That’s our problem.”
“The less you know, the more confident you can be,” I said.
There is no loneliness greater than growing up with a parent who considers himself enlightened. Such a wise person that he looked right through whatever I did, and in his affection I felt only alone. When I voiced my disgust for the slovenly state of his house, he laughed, contemptuous of all “trivialities.”
“Yes. But, eh! Probably the Greeks knew that they knew nothing too.” He seemed satisfied with this answer; and even though I wasn’t very engaged in the conversation, something about this conclusion frustrated me.
By now we had found my car. It was an old Subaru which I had inherited from my grandmother. It smelled like mold, but in a way that was pleasant to me. The car seemed pressurized with heat; waves of it came out as I opened a door, and wormy shadows rolled on the sidewalk. My father didn’t open his door for a few minutes. He looked over at the wall of a building, his eyelids half-closed.
“You know what it is? How to be confident with what you know?” he said.
“It’s not completely possible, but I’d say it’s a necessary illusion. To say anything great. To say something that changes the way people think, you need to be able to think without any detachment. And at the same time you have to be flexible. You can’t stick with one opinion. Over your life you have to have hundreds of opinions, thousands of them, and you have to preach every one the second it comes into your head as though you received it from divine intervention. And then, after youth wears off, however long that takes, you find the idea that you believed in before you even started thinking about ideas in the first place. You have to revert to the first idea that ever crossed your head. And that’s what you’ll believe in. But you can never acknowledge the fact that there might be more than one true thing, even while you jump from truth to truth like changing dirty underwear. You have to go about these things like some soul-searching idiot, converting religions eight times a year. Detachment is death, but inflexibility makes us stupid. I’ve always thought that.”
I walked around the car while he was speaking and unlocked his door. I could have done this from the inside, but some part of me wanted to herd him forward. As I walked over, he seemed vaguely startled. I started to think about this man, my parent, who had told me stories about his youth: how he had traveled around central Asia with his friends, talking to locals, speaking to holy men, back in the Sixties. I have thought at times that he traveled for cheap drugs, but it’s just as likely that he was sober. My mind jumps back and forth on this piece of history: one image has him as a traveling hippy, the other as a traveling young academic, another as a despondent idiot following his friends, another as a sober humanist; and all four images are equally balanced, so that one appears promptly after the other; and he is all four at once to me.
My father somewhat awkwardly scrunched himself into the car, shut the door, and, for a moment, baked, his head leaned back against the headrest. I walked to my door quickly and turned on the vent and rolled down the windows. We drove for the next fifteen minutes in silence, through midtown, my father staring at the dashboard and myself looking around the sidewalks.
“How are you liking the Home, dad?” I asked. We had had this conversation before, but I felt compelled to ask again, if only to break the silence.
“It’s all right,” he answered.
“The food is fine?”
“The food is fine.”
“And are you making any friends?”
“No. All my old friends are dead, and I should be content on my own. I’ve had enough.”
“Make an effort, though, Dad,” I said. There was silence again. We passed into the tunnel, the lights on the walls dim and yellow, the walls covered in tiles like a bathroom floor so that I felt like we were being flushed from the sanitary social heights of Manhattan into Brooklyn with its smells of ancient immigrants, sewage and dried sausage. There were orange traffic cones lining the center. Ahead of us was a yellow sports car with a young man driving, his hat turned backwards with a gold sticker on the bill, music playing, arms straight, skin tan, heavily muscled; and I wondered to myself how different a world could exist between myself and this person, whether he thought about the same things, and what his father was like.
Dad started speaking: “For the first time in my whole life, I’ve started watching TV. I’d only ever watched once or twice. Now I watch TV.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “What do you watch?” I yawned.
“Anything. Everything. I switch through the channels. Look at the news for a minute. Watch cooking, everybody at the Home watches cooking, and that’s OK with me; it makes you feel like somebody’s in the room with you. Somebody constructed out of light and domestic bliss. Sometimes I watch sitcoms. I always thought I would hate a sitcom, or a drama, with all this benevolence and such. But in reality I love them. The plots are relatable. They really are. You see? Even when they’re not realistic.”
“They’re designed so that anyone can watch them and engage.”
“Yes. I wonder if that’s such a bad thing. I wonder why I wonder if that’s a bad thing in the first place.”
I had no answer to that, so I said nothing.
We drove some more. An advertisement on a building-front was faded until you could barely tell the background from the lettering; I could make out the words “buy rugs,” and “say no.” Then we got off the highway. I parked a block from my father’s old age home. “Want me to come in with you?” I asked.
“No, you don’t have to.”
“OK, Dad,” I said. We shook hands and looked at each other. My father opened the car door, then stopped.
“Listen,” he said.
I turned to him and saw that his lip was trembling. “Is everything alright?” I asked. I worried that he might have some medical condition unknown to me. I steeled myself for something ugly to happen: nausea, a seizure, a stroke. My hand inched toward my pocket, my cellphone, with an instinct to call somebody else, police or EMT, so that I could walk away and not see my father’s embarrassment.
“I’ve thought my whole life that I could live anywhere. And I have. I’ve lived everywhere, ate anything, slept anywhere. All my life.”
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I once ate nothing but raw spaghetti,” he continued. “Raw. I ate that for an entire week, when I was twenty, because we were out, we were out and we forgot to bring any pots to boil water in.”
“Raw spaghetti?” I asked, chuckling. “That’s fucking disgusting.”
“I slept in my car more years than I slept in a bed…” he continued.
Suddenly he seemed immensely serious, almost as though he was about to cry. I had never seen him cry before. I was shocked, and for some reason that I cannot understand, revolted. Like smelling those hotdogs, years ago, stacked in the fridge. I put one hand lightly on his shoulder.
“I just can’t eat it. I can’t eat the food here. I can’t eat the jello, and the pudding, and the briscuit. I pick up my fork and feed myself, but the food lies there on my tongue like old books in an attic. And it’s not that the food is all that bad; it’s just that it’s not all that good, and that makes it unbearable. That food we ate today was the first real meal I’ve eaten in a week.” He let out a few sobs, dry and slow little grunts, as though weeping were a chore which he wanted to see the end of. “And I can’t do this. I can’t stomach it. After all that I’ve ate in my life, and all that I’ve done… How can this bother me!”
“Do you want me to get you some food at the store?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, turning to me. His face clenched. “Yes. Please.”
He hit me on the shoulder, a little mark of enthusiasm.
“Yes you faggot! I want red peppers and prosciutto! I want fresh fruit, fragile little berries like they don’t sell in supermarkets because they bruise; and roast beef from the deli. And I want to smoke a cigar and drink a beer, I want to taste food from different countries, made by chefs who get write-ups in magazines that gay people read; and I want a bottle of air-freshener so that my room doesn’t smell like incontinence; and mangoes that are ripe and when you slice them they taste like the inside of a mouth; and I want you to buy me slippers with wool in the soles and jackets made with fleece…. I want Supressata!” He wheezed in a breath. “I want a pound of Supressata!”
We spent that afternoon walking through the neighborhood, in and out of grocery stores and department stores, filling plastic bags with food, with clothing, with all kinds of soft objects, fine-smelling soaps, luxuries.