Defending Dads

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Category: Tales from the Front (Page 2 of 9)

Forty-One Years Gone IX

My cousin Gladys has herself one heck of a guy in Curtis. He and I worked side by side to load and unload our rented, 17′ U-Haul 2 days in a row. What I like most about working with Curt is that we think alike. We developed plans of attack together, then executed them seamlessly. Our worst enemy was the clock. It was difficult to gauge how much time each of our tasks would take.

For the last two days of the clean out, management allowed us to work later than the established quitting times. The family took full advantage of the privilege. Without the extra time, we might still be there today!

Friday, September 30, our last allotted day, Curtis and I loaded the last piece of furniture sometime after 7:30 PM. Curtis and I had worked hard, but each of us had just enough in his tank to make the final deliveries.

Curtis’s and Gladys’s place was Stop 1. They live on the top floor of a two-story home with a narrow stair case. This means that each heavy, unwieldly object destined for that stop had to be not only unloaded, but schlepped up stairs and maneuvered into the apartment. What fun after a full day of moving furniture! Fortunately, a bunch of Curt’s and Gladys’ kids pitched in.

It was at this point I first noticed my mother’s mood was less than positive. This was not going to stop anything, but it could have made our remaining time together…unpleasant.

Curtis, the kids and I were unloading the truck when my mom informed me that she needed to use Curtis’s bathroom. I called upon my last reserves of restraint to not question or reprimand her. I knew that the restroom visit would be at least a 30-minute affair. The clock kept ticking.

Sure enough, once we got the stuff off of the truck and it was time to go, my mom was yukking it up in Curt’s living room. Did I mention restraint?

The next stop was my cousin Renee’s place. We understood that, by the time we got there, she would be at work, but she told us her grand kids would be there to open the front door. Renee’s place was also a second-floor walk-up, but sweetheart that she is, she told me we could leave her stuff in the first floor hallway.

Of course, when we got there, I pressed the doorbell and no one answered. I was — er — disappointed, but this was no time get emotional. I called Renee’s daughter Arrielle, who lives elsewhere, and asked her to contact anyone who might be in Renee’s place. Minutes later, my young cousin Corey, Jr. let us in.

Nine PM had come. I had been up since 4 AM. We still had to drop the remainder of the cargo off at storage, then return the truck to U-Haul. They had already called to ask that I bring it back. Curtis was rearranging the load in the cargo space. My mother and I were in the cab. I gingerly asked my mother how she felt about spending one last night in the Bronx.

“No way.”

I gripped the steering wheel and rested my head on the horn. For me, “home” had been transformed from a destination to a fantasy.

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Forty-One Years Gone VIII

I bought lunch, but not enough drinks for everyone. All I wanted to do was get back to the family. Everyone was really hungry, it was already 3:30 PM and the building superintendent had given us until 5 PM to finish. Curt ran to the store to buy more drinks. I stayed with the family and wolfed down my food.

The salmon was overcooked and the veggies undercooked, but I didn’t care. From the looks of things, neither did the others. We got right back to business after the last fork full.

It was tough to gauge how much work remained, so we stopped trying. Our only collective thought was to get it out.

The clock crept toward 6 PM. There was still a fair amount of stuff to move from the apartment to the basement, and from the basement to the truck. Our clothing was damp from intermittent rain, but we were too focused on finishing to worry about it.

I was the only person in the group with a valid driver license and there we were with a U-Haul van, my minivan and six bodies. There was room for three people in the cab of the truck. The late hour dictated that I stop working, drive my cousins home and rush back to help Curt finish loading the truck. I did that.

Traffic was ridiculous. It took maybe an hour to make three stops along a ten-mile route. I drove with the sense of resignation that comes with trying to get around New York City.

Curtis had the truck nearly loaded by the time I got back to the building. We still had a sofa and hutch to move. Neither could be loaded into the elevator, so Curt and I had to lug them down the stairwell. The stairwell does not lead to the basement, but we had the super’s permission to carry the things through the lobby. It didn’t matter. We were going to get these things out if we had to secure them with rope and lower them out a window.

The building’s doorman made sure there was no thing or person to obstruct our path. We walked the objects out of the building and loaded them on the truck with surprising ease. The sense of relief Curtis and I felt at having loaded the last pieces on the truck was akin to having walked away unscathed from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall.

Miller Time was still a ways off. We had to make stops at three homes, unload selected things at each and drop the remaining cargo at a storage facility. Oy vey!

Curtis and I returned one last time to the vacant apartment to double-check our work. I asked him to take a picture of me before we shut off the lights and closed the door.

End of an era.

End of an era.

I’ve known the doorman for many years. I could not leave without saying to him a proper, emotional farewell and giving that big ol’ lobby a last once over.

It was now 7:30 PM. My mother and Curtis were waiting in the cab of the truck. I climbed into the cockpit, started ‘er up and we hit the road.

Forty-One Years Gone VII

Friday, September 30: D-Day. Once again, I was on time. I got the family to the apartment early and we set to work immediately.

We had worked out a system the day before. The ladies would continue to pack doodads into boxes and Curtis and I would move the furniture out of the apartment.

The building is very particular about how moves are to be conducted. The elevator walls must be lined with fitted pads. Items moved in or out are to be transported through the service entrance in the basement. The co-op by-laws clearly state that deviation from this protocol could result in fines or other sanctions, up to and including lethal injection. I get where they are coming from.

The building is an art deco masterpiece constructed in 1929 and, even in a once violent neighborhood, it has aged well. The entrance from the street is impressive and sheltered by a wide green awning emblazoned with the building’s street address in a tasteful cursive. The vestibule and lobby are expansive with marble floors and cavernous ceilings that produce echoes that rival any to be heard in the Swiss Alps. The place would be the crown jewel of any South Bronx neighborhood, particularly the northwestern corner of Mott Haven.

My family made its contribution to the preservation of neighborhood history. Hopefully, our sweat dried on our clothing before it could drip onto the floors (this is strictly for laughs…I’m cool with the place, its residents and employees).

Lifting and carrying the rest of my grandmother’s furniture, much of it manufactured in the ’70s, was an utter assault on my musculoskeletal system. Curtis does this kind of stuff nearly everyday so it wasn’t a big deal for him, I expect. Me? I’m no stranger to manual labor, but I’ve made my living sitting at a desk for better than 15 years. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the old boy still had the goods. I hoisted cathode ray tube televisions and solid wood night stands like a Santini brother.

The whole family was gassed by about 2:30 PM. It was time to take stock of where we were, what was left to do and, not for nothin’, I was starvin’.  I volunteered to walk up to Brother’s Seafood and pick us all up steamed salmon and veggies lunch specials. I dig Brother’s, but that day, I could have gone fishing myself and brought lunch back to the family before my order was ready.

I didn’t say a word. Even Tom Brady has the occasional bad game. When the food was ready, I brought it back and stoically absorbed yet more subtle barbs and off-looks from my relatives. There are times when it just doesn’t pay to hand up excuses, especially with my blood. We are largely a straight dope kinda people. The fact that no one bothered to question why I had taken so long was my clue that, once presented with the delayed lunch, they had moved on.

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Forty-One Years Gone VI

I had made a reservation with U-Haul to pick up a 17′ truck at 12 PM on Thursday, September 29. We were down to the last two days allotted for the clean out by the building’s management. The night of Wednesday, September 28, had been tense for me. It need not have been. The knowledge that my family was counting on me to get it right buoyed my spirits. I woke up on time, bound and determined to do just that.

I got us to the apartment around 9:30 AM. We surveyed what was left to do. The ladies immediately resumed packing the doodads in boxes, but I had lost patience with trying to make sense of chaos. I had the singular goal of clearing out the place. I looked at several large pieces of furniture and thought “how are we going to get these all out today?” That thought proved prophetic.

I packed things with my relatives until about 11:30 AM, at which time I told my cousin Curtis it was time to pick up the truck. Curt and I get along well. I looked forward to our short walk to the nearest U-Haul.

I had not brought home-cooked food with me that day and was by this time ravenous. Curt and I stopped at a diner. Curt didn’t eat, but I wolfed down a Greek omelette with diced sausage. Our conversation was effortless and jovial. I was ready for action immediately after my final fork full.

We arrived at U-Haul only to be told that there was no truck. I found this extremely troubling considering I had made a RE-SER-VA-TION. Isn’t there an episode of Seinfeld that covers this very subject?

I don’t lash out at customer service reps about these kinds of things. I simply asked the counter person what I thought were the right questions. She seemed to appreciate my predicament. She tried her best to accommodate me, but she had to seek approval from her manager of any proposed action she might take.

U-Haul is generally a no-fuss-no-muss kind of business, but I’ve found that employees of many franchises doing business in the Bronx could use extensive training in the art of customer service. Our counter person was pleasant enough, but her manager? Traces of his arrogance littered the place like DNA.

This manager vetoed every attempt by our counter person to upgrade my un-honored reservation to an available 20 footer. Our hero counter person was undaunted. She called another U-Haul location and found for us there an available truck. I was mildly peeved that we had to surrender a good parking space in order to drive across town and pick up this truck, but what was to be done? Time was a’wasting.

Curt and I got lucky this day. At the second location, we encountered another pleasant counter person, though this young lady was more jocular. Within minutes, she had gone online, found my reservation and generated a rental contract. She discussed with us the details of the contract, pointing out a graphic reflecting the truck’s fuel gauge.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke fun. I said to her “Whaddaya think, we’re idiots? We can see that the tank is half-full!” She, Curt and I cracked up laughing, but when she regained her composure, she informed me that I was now sentenced to her doghouse and that she would direct further explanation of the contract to Curt only.

We got our truck and a good laugh in the bargain. The good humor would come in handy. We had work to do.

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Forty-One Years Gone V

The last three days of the clean out were by far the most intense.

Wednesday morning, I hit the floor at 3:00 AM. I had to drop off my tax papers recovered from my grandmother’s apartment to the mailbox at my tax preparer’s office. Afterward, I had planned to hit the gym, then fix and eat breakfast before heading to New York. Alas, I had forgotten my ear buds! I needed these to pipe jungle music directly into my cranium during my run. The omission necessitated a stop back home.

Of course, the additional stop subverted my plan. Once I had the ear buds, I wondered if I should still try to squeeze in a workout before heading east, thereby risking a battle with rush hour traffic.

Should I stay or should I go?

I went. Just across the border in New Jersey, I stopped at Wawa where I gassed up, grabbed a roast beef club and a cup of coffee. In a finger-snap, I was off.

The commute was magical. I found myself crossing the George Washington Bridge at a few minutes after 6 AM. I was awash in that satisfaction peculiar to the completion of a job well done. In fact, I had enough time to sneak in a work out at a gym in the Bronx!

I had to get it in. Working out first thing in the morning boosts my energy level and increases endorphin flow, greatly improving my chances of success on a given day and we had plenty to do.

I started calling the relatives immediately after the workout. I sensed surprise in their sleepy voices. I rolled my eyes and absorbed the subtle, harmless digs. They were well deserved. I had not been getting into New York as early as promised and here I had shown up virtually at the crack of dawn.

No one was ready so I thought of what I could do in the mean time to help our effort. Boxes! We needed boxes. We had determined the previous week that we wouldn’t pay a red cent for these as freebies were plentiful at the loading docks of most retailers in the borough. Low and behold, the gym is in the same development as a Target. I drove to the docks and found a stack of some 40 boxes already broken down and ready to go. Into the minivan they went.

I proceeded to pick up the relatives and get them over to the apartment. Even parking was not a problem that morning. For once, we were ahead of schedule. I felt totally empowered.

There is a Home Depot blocks away from my grandmother’s building. Patrons routinely abandon shopping carts on surrounding streets. I found one of these and brought it back to the apartment. Absent a convertible hand truck, it proved a godsend.

I had made an appointment with a commercial shredder to drop off the sensitive documents days prior. I loaded my Home Depot cart with four stuffed 50-gallon trash bags, grabbed my mom and bolted.

We returned to the apartment and loaded the minivan with donations to the Salvation Army. My cousin Arrielle and I made that trip.

We were beginning to see more carpet than stacked objects at the apartment. This had easily been our most productive day. I knew then that, no matter what, the clean out would be done by Friday, September 30.

I think Ruby would be proud.

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Forty-One Years Gone IV

How was I to manage the day to day logistics of the clean out? I tried to fashion from the first couple days of chaos a routine.

I knew I had to eat well and didn’t want to spend take-out money. My plan was, when I was home, to boil a box of spaghetti, cook a pot of sauce and take enough to feed me each day.

Wake up time was projected to be 4 AM, which theoretically gave me time to work out, cook and eat breakfast, then hit the road by 6 AM.

The 6 AM start to the 80-mile commute should have been early enough to beat most rush hour traffic and get me into New York City some time around 8 AM.

I had to pick up the relatives once I made it to the Bronx. I would call one or more while on the George Washington Bridge to give them time to get ready. There were typically two to three stops in various neighborhoods. Nothing too crazy, but local traffic added 45 minutes to the trip.

We would finally get to my grandmother’s building. My relatives would hop out of the minivan, find the building’s superintendent and go to the apartment. I was left the unenviable task of finding parking, which could take up to 30 minutes with walking.

I’d arrive at the apartment to find my relatives fully engaged in wading through my grandmother’s things. I was often indecisiveness about what I should tackle first, but once I made up my mind, I’d go all in.

Wrap up time was between 4 and 7 PM. The relatives selected the things they wanted to take with them on a given day, we loaded the minivan and we’d be off on the daily farewell tour. At each stop, there was the unloading of the parcels and the good night wishes.

Pennsylvania was to be the final stop. Relatives did offer to put me up for the night, but I knew I could only find peace in my own home. I needed this to be able to sleep, even if only for a few hours.

If only every day went according to plan. The reality was that 1,000 minor details conspired daily to disrupt any semblance of routine. The days typically spanned over 12 hours. I was getting home after 10 PM. I usually need two hours at home before I can fall asleep. A 4 AM wake-up after a few hours of deep sleep proved more aspiration than actuality. Waking up any time later than 4 AM virtually assured that my carefully laid out plans were wrecked.

Avalanches gain momentum as they roll down hill. An 8 AM start to my commute, for example, guaranteed a 3-hour nightmare in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a 11 AM arrival in New York, a 12 PM arrival at my grandmother’s place, a 12:30 PM start to an abbreviated working day and a restless night that would surely eat into the next day. This is not speculation. It happened. Twice.

Regardless, I kept trying to stay on track. I am nothing if not persistent.

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Forty-One Years Gone III

My grandmother raised me to stay out of “grown folks bid’ness”. I never looked through her closets or under her mattress. Now, she was gone and not there to protest. No matter. I wasn’t rummaging through her things out of curiosity. I was doing it to honor her memory.

Every sliver of paper I examined brought back memories, some good, some not-so-good. I felt like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, only I was guided through the past by documents rather than a guardian angel.

There in that apartment was the proof of life of no less than ten people, four of whom had taken her or his last breath on the premises. For most of the deceased, the papers I looked through were their only remaining connection to the corporeal world.

I found papers that elucidated observations I had made years before. The truth behind many innocuous family secrets had been exposed. Nothing was shocking; a few minor ah-has.

Time was not on our side. I had been overwhelmed upon first walking in the door, but by this time, I was all business. I had planned to take all sensitive documents to a commercial shredder the morning of Wednesday, September 21, but one look at the mass of papers left to sort made clear that this was not to be. Very well.

Clearing out the possessions of a deceased relative is tricky. None of us were professional movers and we all had an emotional attachment to my grandmother. We had spent the first two days digging in, but now we needed to figure out resolutions. Who was going to take what? What would go to charity? How much would a moving van cost? What would we do with things not claimed or donated?

Then, there were the diverse personalities of my relatives to consider. Four to six women to one or two men. Guys tend to focus on the task at hand, alpha male nonsense aside. Gals, however, get mixed up in esoteric things that guys grappling with furniture haven’t the time or inclination to decipher. Such was the case with this move.

I simply shrugged my shoulders and kept it moving when I sensed tension. I figured as long as no one was wrestling anyone else to the ground, things would work out fine.

Happily, there was plenty of laughter to overwhelm the politics. I have a gang of cousins with amazing senses of humor. I laughed plenty, but I sweated more.

Again, time was not on our side and we hadn’t come in with a plan, but things were finally taking shape. I am so grateful to my cousins. As disorganized as we had been, nothing at all would have happened without their help. Little by little, we were getting things done. Of greater importance, it was strictly a family affair.

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Forty-One Years Gone II

The night of Sunday, September 19, 2016, was a hard one for me. I couldn’t sleep. The following morning, I was due at my grandmother’s apartment to commence the clean-out. The magnitude of the move was front and center on my mind.

About 4:00 AM, I finally drifted off. Unfortunately, I needed to be up at 5:00 AM. I slept through my alarm. It was maybe 8:00 AM before my feet hit the floor. I wasn’t thrilled, but I dressed and hit the road.

The traffic was blasphemous. A 1.5 hour commute took twice as long. I spent most of the drive with my head resting on the steering wheel.

When I finally got to the Bronx, I had to stop at the various residences of my relatives to pick them up. I went from a long haul to a bus route.

At about 12:00 PM, we finally arrived at my grandmother’s apartment.

She had been a resident for 41 years. Maybe that’s why the building’s management company and its employees treated the place like a shrine. Save for a picnic table a dear cousin had left at her last visit, nothing was amiss. I was at once surprised and touched. An uninhabited apartment in New York City is typically a free-for-all for anyone with access.

There were five of us all together. We did a visual sweep of the place. What faced us was three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a cavernous living room, a foyer, an eat-in kitchen and a powder room full of all kinds of furniture, documents, trinkets, doodads, thingamabobs and God knows what else.  I was overwhelmed. What to do first? We needed a plan.

If I was confused, my cousin Renee was not. She was like a Marine: First to fight, last to leave. I keyed on her. Once she had made some inroads on the chaos, a rudimentary plan took shape in my mind.

Job 1: Documents. My grandmother had mail dating back to 1957. 1957! The oldest letter was one from my grandmother’s second husband to her. I couldn’t believe it. I saved this for my uncle as it was from his father to his mother. Beyond that, we had piles of billing statements, legal documents, birth certificates, social security cards and etcetera for at least ten people. How my grandmother crammed all that stuff into 1,300 square feet without looking like a hoarder is a minor miracle. We had to dispose of the documents containing sensitive information.

Among grandma’s possessions was a medium duty paper shredder. I ran a bunch of stuff through it, but it soon became clear that this shredder wouldn’t be enough. I had to stop what I was doing to look up commercial shredding outfits.

This paper issue might have been the first challenge we faced, but it certainly wasn’t the last. We were initially allotted five days, but we knew by Wednesday that we couldn’t clear the place out by Friday. No one panicked. I simply suggested to my mom that she call the management people and ask for an extension of a few days. Forty-one years should earn us a pass. That gamble paid off. We got an extra five days.

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Forty-One Years Gone I

No one lives forever. Not even matriarchs. But when matriarchs die, those who had been under their influence are buffeted by shock waves long after the event.

My grandmother Ruby had been perched atop my maternal family tree for some sixty years. She had six children. I am the only child of her eldest daughter, born three years after Ruby’s youngest. Ruby had been my guardian for so much of my childhood that, in the eyes of many of our relatives, I am her seventh child.

Ruby had a strong personality. Her difficult life demanded that. While I understand and respect this, to hone my personality, I needed to escape the umbrella of hers. And I did. I estranged myself from my maternal family for seven years.

I relocated my former wife and children to Pennsylvania during the estrangement. Then, the unthinkable happened: My marriage began to fail. The tension in my home had grown so intense, even months before papers were filed, I was compelled to live elsewhere for a time. My grandmother gave me shelter, no questions asked.

Eventually, I returned to my home. Despite counseling and making every reasonable effort I could to heal my home, nothing improved. In fact, things grew worse. And in the middle of this were the innocent babies I would never have brought into the world under such circumstances. The only family they had ever known was a shambles. Then, the papers were filed. Soon after that, I was evicted from my home…though I was still responsible for the mortgage.

This was the cruelest blow to me because I understood the implications for my children of our sudden, court-imposed separation. I was crushed. I called Ruby. Once again, she gave me shelter, no questions asked.

I stayed with Ruby for over a year as I fought to maintain my connection with the kids, worked, paid down bills and weathered the storm of a needlessly contentious divorce. I could see even through this deluge of issues that Ruby was fading, but I found it difficult to accept. She had been in and out of the hospital several times before eventually succumbing to a variety of ailments last August.

Neither I nor my immediate family were prepared for Ruby’s death. She had been the heart and soul of our family for so long, it was all but impossible to imagine a world without her. Ironically, she had equipped us so well with the tools to handle adversity that we jumped right into that world, strange place that it was.

I moved back to Pennsylvania and focused on establishing myself there not long after Ruby’s passing. I left her apartment vacant and, as I continued to deal with grief, the divorce and sustaining my life, failed to maintain tenancy. I needed to be close to my children. The decision for me was easy.

In seemingly the blink of an eye, a year went by. Ruby’s possessions remained in the apartment. I was the member of her immediate family living closest. No one appointed me to any role. Clearing out her place was something I simply had to do.

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TGIF

Tough week for me. Worst all summer, but my head feels right today. Time to jump back into the fray.

Could it be that it’s Friday? Who knows, but I won’t over think it. All of a sudden, I have a fledgling social media conglomerate to manage.

As far as the blog, I’m closing in on 100 posts, a huge milestone. For years, I had trouble maintaining the discipline to write daily. While I miss time here and there — e.g., Northampton County Corrections Officers don’t hand out laptops with jumpsuits — I’ve done pretty well.

I’ve proven to myself that I can follow things through. If I can do this, I can maintain my Twitter and FB pages. I can start an Instagram page and a YouTube channel as well. Once those are in place, I can resume my electronic assault on the media, who, on my grandma’s grave, will know my pain and that of fathers across the country. Those are next.

Then, there is the pièce de résistance, my holy grail — Damned Good Sense, the book I’ve tried to finish for years.

Chip away,
Chip away,
Rome wasn’t built in a day

Even as I continue to build the foundation for my Foundation, I face parallel challenges of at least that magnitude. I am a middle-class, suburban dad of two. Kids are expensive, though I never had a problem giving everything I could to them, and as any parent knows, that’s got to be plenty. Let’s review:

  • Shoes and clothing;
  • School supplies;
  • Organized activities;
  • Holidays, birthdays and occasions, not just for them, but for their peers and relatives as well;
  • Food;
  • Fun days; and
  • Toys, electronics and sundries

There is the house to think of. Owning a house isn’t simply about securing and paying a mortgage. Oh no. Houses have plenty of moving parts and related expenses. Here are just a few:

  • Utilities:
    • gas;
    • water;
    • electric; and
    • sewer
  • Maintenance:
    • cleaning;
    • painting;
    • home owners’ association fees;
    • Service contracts for the air conditioning unit and water heater;
    • various repairs to appliances and the structure itself; and
    • Landscaping, even in the limited fashion I do it
  • Improvements, whatever shape they might take and strictly subject to approval by the Home Owners’ Association

And out in the burbs, reliable transportation is a must. We all know about car notes, insurance, registration, tires, oil changes, emergency repairs and regular service. Of course, in my case, I’m forced to carry the note on a second car that doesn’t even run!

Then, there are the most important ongoing challenges of them all: the fight to maintain my relationship with the kids and cleaning up the legal mess of what should have been a simple, painless divorce.

The hands are full, the thoughts are presently clear, the body is willing and the flesh is strong. Do I somehow feel better because it’s Friday? Not really. I’m just happy I can get off the stool to face another round. Thank God for that.

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