What My Father Taught Me
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Saturday, May 22, 2021
My Dad was an Alcoholic
My dad didn’t drink during World War II. He was a Polish slave laborer in Buchenwald Concentration Camp for four years, and in the camps there wasn’t much drinking or even eating. Right after the camps were liberated, however, he searched for something to drink and found it. Later in the refugee camps that he and my mom spent six years in, he ran a still and made booze as soon as he could set one up.
He drank for the next 30 years. He didn’t drink on weekdays. Weekdays were for working and making the money that the family needed to live in America. He was absolutely sober those days. He wouldn’t touch a drop.
Weekends, however, were different. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why he drank, but now I do. My dad drank because he was trying to push back the memory of all the terrible things he had seen in the war. He hoped that the drinking would cut him off from his memories and from the outside world. He wanted to isolate himself in that piece of himself that hadn’t seen men castrated, women bayoneted in the breast, babies thrown in the air and shot. He never found that peaceful place.
So he drank. Fridays when he came home from the factory where he worked, he would go to the kitchen and take out a bottle of vodka and fill a glass and sit down at the table and drink. If anyone was in the kitchen with him, he would smile at them and say “to your health.” He would finish that glass and then take another and another. He would drink until he passed out. Saturday, he would begin with beer in the morning and switch to vodka in the afternoon. Sundays, after church, he’d go to the bar on the corner for his Sunday drink, a free glass of booze that would lead to another and another.
The peace that he sought never came. No matter how much he drank, the memories of the war still haunted him. Sometimes, when he would pass out from the drinking, we could hear him in his sleep weeping or screaming from those memories.
When he was 56 he realized that the drinking wasn’t helping him, and he sought out a psychiatrist. He gave him Librium, a medication that’s supposed to relieve anxiety. It didn’t help my dad. He went back to drinking, and the drinking got so bad that the psychiatrist talked about the possibility that my dad would have to be committed to an asylum of some kind.
What finally saved him from drinking was my mom telling him she would leave him if he continued to drink. He couldn’t stand that thought. Her leaving would have been his end, his suicide.
She was his church.
My recent column from the Dziennik Zwiazkowy
Saturday, May 15, 2021
Dimes and Quarters
My previous column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy was about trying to convince my mom to give me an allowance when I was a kid. She refused, of course. She was a Polish woman born in the Old Country and didn’t understand why American kids like me were always asking for an allowance.
This week I’m going to write about what I did back then to make the money I couldn’t get from my mom and dad.
The first “job” I remember was collecting empty glass soda bottles. At that time you could take them to a store and get what was called a refund. For a small bottle you’d get 2 cents. For a large bottle you’d get 5 cents. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but you have to remember that when I was a kid in the 1950s a nickel was pretty substantial. For a nickel you could buy a popsicle or a candy bar. For two nickels, you could get into a movie theater or buy yourself a comic book. For four nickels, you could buy a Cadillac. Just joking.
And where would we find these bottles? When I first started looking for them when I was 8 or 9, I’d simply walk around the neighborhood. People tended to just drink their sodas and leave the bottles wherever they finished. I’d find bottles on curbs and front porches. As I got more experienced as a bottle finder, I learned some tricks. One of them was to look in trash cans in alleys for soda bottles. But the best trick I learned was to search for bottles in the park.
Humboldt Park was down the street from where I lived, and my friend Gene and I would take his Radio Flyer wagon and roam the park looking for bottles. On a normal day, we’d find 5-6 bottles. On a great day, we’d come across 50 bottles. As soon as the wagon was full, we’d wheel it down to Mendel’s soda shop on Potomac and Washtenaw.
As I got older, I found other ways to make money. One day, when I was about 13, a neighbor woman saw me standing in front of my house and offered me 50 cents an hour to put up drywall in her apartment building. I didn’t know a thing about drywall but signed on. I lasted about 2 weeks. Drywalling was just too hard. After that I delivered eggs around the neighborhood and put up the titles of movies on the marquee at the Crystal Theater on North Avenue.
But the best job I had as a kid was going through second-hand stores in the neighborhood and looking for rare comic books. I was about 15 when I started this. I was a comic book reader and discovered that people didn’t know how valuable the comic books they were selling at second-hand stores were. I once bought an original Captain America comic from 1940 in one of these stores for a dime. I sold it later for $100.
I love to tell people that when my wife and I got married in 1975 I bought our first house with the money I made from the comics I bought in second-hand stores.
My only regret is that I didn’t hold on to the comics longer. My friend Frank did, and he retired to Florida at 40 on the money he made on his comics.
This column appeared originally in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
Friday, April 30, 2021
NICKELS AND DIMES
I was talking about work with my wife’s 96 year-old dad Tony a couple of days ago. He grew up in the Great Depression when jobs and money were scarce, and I asked him to tell me about the first job he ever had. He didn’t hesitate at all.
He said, “I sold eggs when I was 8 years old.”
This surprised me because I knew he grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, NY, and I couldn’t imagine where you’d get eggs or how you’d sell them.
When I asked him to tell me more, here’s what he said. “My dad had a friend who lived on a farm in New Jersey. Once a week, we’d drive out there and pick up about 40 dozen eggs, and we’d bring them back to Brooklyn. Sometimes we’d sell them at a flea market, and sometimes we’d just stand on a corner downtown and sell them to people passing by. I liked selling them more than I liked gathering them together. The chickens were always flapping their wings and yelling at us when we tried to gather the eggs.”
I asked him then how much he got paid at his first job. He smiled and said, “A nickel a week.”
Talking to him got me thinking. When I was a kid growing up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago back in the 50s, a lot of my American friends got allowances: a quarter a week, sometimes 50 cents a week. My Polish friends and I didn’t get allowances. Back then, I didn’t think our parents understood the concept.
I remember one time asking my mom for an allowance. I said, “Mom, how about an allowance for sweeping up the stairs in our building? A quarter a week?” She gave me a hard look and told me that back in the old country, in Poland, kids slaughtered pigs on their own with wooden hammers and drained the black lumpy blood from the carcasses and made Polish sausage from the guts every day of the week for nothing, not even a quick thanks a lot in Polish.”
And then she said to me in Polish, “if you won’t do the chores unless I pay you, then don’t.” And right away, she grabbed my broom and went outside and stopped the first kid she saw on the street (a kid I hated from school) and she gave him a quarter just for sweeping the stairs that I would have swept for free.
And what did this teach me?
The simple answer is not to ask my mom for an allowance. But the greater answer is that this taught me that family is never about money. It’s about loyalty and love and helping each other no matter what the cost.
This is a recent column I wrote for the Polish Daily News in Chicago, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.
Thursday, March 4, 2021
My Mad monk Ikkyu book is available for preorder.
After years of writing poems and memoir pieces about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps in Germany, I somehow started writing poems about the monk Ikkyu, a 15th century Japanese monk, a Buddhist. What appealed to me about him was his sense of humor and his love for people and his awareness of the darker side of life. In a lot of ways, I guess, he reminded me of my dad.
The book is coming out in June, and is now available in preorder from the publisher, finishing line press.
Here’s the cover for my Finishing Line Press book of Ikkyu poems.
The cover illustration is by my friend, the wonderful artist, Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk who took time out from working on his paintings of Dante’s Inferno.
I asked him to do a cover and sent him the manuscript to read. Through some incredible convergence of cosmic invibration, he decided to base his image for the cover on my favorite Ikkyu poem.
Here it is:
in the marketplace
and tries to explain
Here’s what he says
to a soldier:
A tree is
the palm of my hand
and the face
of all there is
in the universe
to wonder about.
It is the tree to heaven
and its roots start
in my heart and yours.
The book in fact is available for preorder already!
Here’s the link
Friday, January 1, 2021
Not a Christmas Letter
Just about every year since my wife Linda and I got married back in 1975, I’ve written a Christmas Letter. In it I’d tell all our friends and family members who weren’t living close to us about what Linda and I had been doing that past year. I’d talk about the vacations we’d taken and the charming and wonderful things our daughter Lillian and granddaughter Lucy do. I’d tell people too about my writing projects and how they were going, the poems and essays and novels I’d published and the novels I was working on.
And I’d always find a little bit of space in these Christmas Letters to talk about the funny things that had happened to us. I’d talk about trying to fix a pipe in a sink that just wouldn’t stay fixed, or I’d go on and on about the day we found our lost cat Valley, but it didn’t turn out to be our cat Valley at all.
I always liked writing these Christmas Letters because they were a way of thinking back on the experiences of the past year and enjoying them all over again.
I didn’t write a Christmas Letter this year, and I bet you know why.
This is the year I don’t want to remember.
It’s this COVID pandemic with its 340,000 deaths here in the US and 1.8 million deaths worldwide. The pandemic kept me from writing the Christmas Letter.
This pandemic only started officially here in the United States at the beginning of February when the Trump Administration announced a nationwide public health emergency, but it feels like it’s been here longer than that. It feels like it started ten years ago or maybe twenty years ago. It feels like it’s always been here since I was a kid riding my bicycle down Division Street. Sometimes, it even feels like all my good and happy memories from my life way before the pandemic have been colored gray and squeezed tight by the pandemic.
I know that this isn’t really true. The pandemic with all its disappointments and frustrations and painful changes and illnesses and sufferings and deaths hasn’t always been here. It just feels that way as I sit in my home and think about all the life that I and everybody else in the world today has missed this year. It feels that way as I think about the family members and friends I haven’t seen this last year. It feels that way as I watch the news every morning and see reports about the difficulties the medical professionals are having distributing the COVID vaccine. It feels that way as I read about President Trump’s endless whining about how he hasn’t lost the election. It feels like that as I watch the people I love struggle to maintain some cheer in the face of all this.
Sure, I know it will get better. After every apocalyptic pandemic in mankind’s history, there was always a revival of life and love and humanity.
I just want to know when.
My latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America.