By (c) Thomas J. Hubschman
I sit beside my father in a bar next to the old 168th Street bus terminal across from Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital where the American flag atop its tower—not the Empire State Building in the distant haze—Is the most impressive object I see whenever my mother and I cross the George Washington Bridge to catch the “A” train down to Macy’s for more blue shirts and pants at the start of each new school semester. My mother’s brothers will all eventually end up in Columbia-Presbyterian when their arteries become blocked after twenty-plus years of booze and cigarettes as part of New York’s Finest, and most will die there as well. But this is still 1947, a hot August Sunday afternoon when my uncles, like my father and mother, are still young, though of course I don’t know that.
I sip my Coke and stare at the rows of green and gold bottles below the big mirror behind the bar, their images replicated so prolifically it seems there is more liquor there than anyone can drink in a lifetime. My father is in the mirror as well, his eyes glazed by his first beer of the day. Right behind him is his double, reflected from a second mirror on the wall behind us, and behind his double yet another double and then another, the image reproduced each time smaller and smaller, until it seems the last of them must be miles away.
I am there to insure he does not linger while my mother waits for us on the broiling sidewalk outside. It’s a mission I’ve been sent on before, most usually when Sunday dinner is ready and my father has not returned from McGuire’s tavern, which has a black-and-white television with a blue filter. I enter the bar through the back screen door, and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. While they do I am bribed with a glass of Coca-Cola and the antics of the tiny figures on the TV screen, our beloved baseball Giants or a college football game. I don’t know there is anything else to watch on television until four years later when we get a set of our own.
The way my father’s face changes Lon Chaney-like as the first sip of beer passes through his gullet is a phenomenon as grotesque and fascinating as anything in the movies, his Adam’s apple rising like a valve to receive the bitter liquid, the loud swallowing sounds he makes palpable with pleasure but not yet irritating to me as they will be when I get older. Dr. Jekyl turning into Mr. Hyde, his thick Bavarian lips moist with the anticipation of more to come, his brown-flecked green eyes already under the spell of the subterranean man set free by the mere tincture of alcohol contained in that first sip, far less alcohol than a priest consumes during mass without showing any ill effects, the blood of Christ having less visible consequence than an ounce of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It is cool and dark in that bar, in all the bars he takes me to. I like their smell and still inhale deeply every time I pass a gin mill like McGuire’s, the rancid beer odor that saturates the walls and sawdust floors putting them beyond any scrubbing or painting and making that particular piece of real estate useless for anything but another gin mill or the wrecking ball. I have little appetite and even less tolerance for alcohol, but the smell of beer is the willy-nilly fragrance of my childhood. It lingers in our house, in the thin glass tumbler my father forbids me to use for milk, in the pool of piss-colored liquid at its bottom that I sniff like a mouse and then test disappointingly on my tongue. I much prefer the tart Tom Collinses my mother lets me sip from a spoon when company comes to visit, her own countenance unchanged even by hard liquor, no mystery to plumb at the bottom of her own tall frosted glass, just a kind of enhanced lemonade and then a lightheadedness that ends in headache and early bedtime. But no evil potion, no Beelzebub-on-tap.
I glance toward the bar’s one small window that discretely peeps out onto the baking street, but there is no sign of my mother. I feel a giddy contraction of my bowels, the same that I feel when I pretend I’m lost at a Macy’s white sale or when I think how close Christmas is, or when my mother has abandoned us as she occasionally does, flying off to her cousin’s in the Bronx while I stand balling at the front door, restrained from running after her by my big sister who seems to take sadistic pleasure in my anguish. My mother has never herself entered a bar, not even to retrieve a dallying husband, and there is not much chance she will do so today. So I declare to my father’s balding head, its Sitting Bull nose waxy yellow in the gloom, “Mommy’s waiting.”
For reply, he raises the fluted ten-cent-beer glass and drinks, his throat rising and falling with the same precision he brings to the balancing of his checkbook or his toenail-clipping. “In a minute.”
Not spoken in anger or threat, he mouths it from the corner of his lips to avoid confronting me, as if I were a disembodied voice that cannot be ignored and will not be appeased beyond the half-finished Coca-Cola rapidly turning into ice water. But there is a threat in his tone that will keep me from saying anything more until he is halfway through his second glass.
I feel I should leave him and go out to my mother before she abandons us both. But returning to her without my father means failing to achieve what she has sent me in here to do and so risk her own anger, or tears. I hate to see my mother cry. She never sheds a false tear, and the ones she does are horribly disfiguring. Her high straight nose is all that remains as the rest of her face collapses into grief, her nearsighted gray-blue eyes flooding with misery, her long thin lips yanked downward as if an implement of torture is being applied. Until I am a grown man I don’t know a woman can weep for anything but deep, tragic reasons.
“In a minute,” he says and waves his empty glass at the bartender who is reading a racing form at the bar’s end. My father and a gray, rumpled man whose gaze has never left the inside of his own glass are the bar’s only customers. I never see my father speak to anyone in bars but bartenders, though he is garrulous as a young Labrador every place else, never stopping for a gallon of gasoline without getting out of the car to chat up the station attendant. It is obvious to me that bartenders only reply to him because it is their job. Of course, I am not privy to what goes on when he visits these places by himself.
I make frequent “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament, the purpose of which is also redemption. And both empty bars and darkened churches are redolent with the odors of why they exist. Stale beer and spilled whiskey in one, incense and candle wax in the other. Virtue is the object of my mission in both places: doing the will of God or my mother, which are really much the same thing. In a few years I will be an altar boy. Already I have begun to say mass on the kitchen table, using teacups and Dugan’s white bread for the species. I even give sermons, imitations of the crazy Irish pastor that amuse my mother who, despite the vale of tears she walks in and the hopes she has for my career in the clergy, loves a good laugh.
Sometimes when no real altar boy shows up for mass or is more than a few minutes late, my father rises from the church pew where he has been kneeling with his missal opened to the day’s Introit, approaches the steps of the altar where the priest has begun making the Latin responses for himself, kneels down beside his white or green or rose-colored chasuble, a big cross and the letters “IHS” stitched elegantly into the fabric, and begins the acolyte’s responses. The priest doesn’t even turn to see who it is who has come forward, as if my father has been sent by God like the “strangers” in the Bible stories my mother reads me about Abraham and old Sarah who has a baby at the age of ninety even though she has laughed at the angle-messenger’s prophecy. Later, after I have been accepted into the fraternity of acolytes, I will come forward as well at such times like an off-duty cop stopping to direct traffic during an emergency or foil a robbery in progress. Even then, my father will still join me when the boy I am scheduled to serve with does not show up, though one server can easily handle the responses as well as the cruets and other duties. He will kneel across from me on the altar step with never a glance my way, dressed in his Sunday suit or in hot weather a white starched open-neck shirt, his expression full of piety, my pius Aeneas.
As a child he suffered from such bad headaches his mother had relics applied to his skull. A momma’s boy, the darling of a saintly woman who prayed he would one day be ordained a priest, his own father died before I was born. That grandfather, Anthony, was a short man with a big black mustache, standing in the brown photos I’ve seen next to a seated terrified woman who looks very much like my Aunt Francie, one of the few Seifferts I am permitted to get to know and, so to speak, embrace. Anthony spent as much time away from home and his family as he could, “home” being a wood-frame house on Maple Street in the section of town known as West Fort Lee. My grandfather, whom my father detested, made frequent trips back to what he still considered the old country, though he was born and lived in Manhattan before moving to Fort Lee—mostly on 125th Street back when Harlem was a German enclave, so much so that my father, a third-generation American, didn’t speak English until he was five.
My father’s maternal grandfather, an immigrant from a small town in Bavaria, kept a vegetable garden after the family moved to New Jersey, and throughout his life my father couldn’t resist sticking a tomato plant into any unclaimed patch of dirt he came upon. The day we took that bus to 168th Street, our yard in Fort Lee was burgeoning with green beans, yellow squash, wax beans, tomatoes, potatoes and even four-foot-high corn, all in a bit of ground no bigger than a modest backyard swimming pool. I ate it all right off the vine and begged to be allowed to water the garden in the long summer evenings, something I was allowed to do only under my father’s close supervision.
It was his mother who determined the sort of boy, and then man, he would be, though he didn’t last more than a year in a Carmelite seminary, the priesthood being her fondest hope for him, just as it was my mother’s for her own three sons. My father’s maternal aunt produced both a priest and a nun, the nun becoming a kind of living saint whose heart sometimes stopped for much longer periods of time than her doctors believed it was possible to do and survive. By the time I met her, Cousin Julia was already retired from the convent for medical reasons, though still a relatively young woman.
My mother once told me it was a good thing my father didn’t become a priest because he would have been a bad one. I understood what she meant: he would have been a bad anything, just as he was a bad husband and a bad father, not to say a bad employee to the uncle who hired him out of compassion in the depths of the Depression, and a bad brother to my Uncle Joe whom he once ejected from our front porch for being “inebriated”—my father liked to use big and even foreign words, though he frequently mistook their meaning (“in lieu of” for “in view of,”) and prefaced his sententious malapropisms with “speaking in the vernacular,” though his intent was to do just the opposite.
I came home from playing one Sunday afternoon to find Uncle Joe sitting on our front porch talking with my mother. My father was out of the house, probably at McGuire’s. I remember the occasion so well partly because Joe, who rarely came by and probably was never invited to do so, was in tears and the only other grown man I had seen cry was my father. Joe was a quiet, sweet-tempered man who worked as a gravedigger for his brother-in-law, Aunt Francie’s husband, in the parish cemetery. He never failed to wave to me on the street or to ask me to give his regards to my mother. All he was guilty of that warm afternoon my father found him weeping on our front porch was drunken grief: the woman he loved had dumped him.
Joe must have been in his middle or late thirties at the time, too old to be having girlfriends, it seemed to me. But my mother was talking to him in a way I had never heard her talk to my father, a man who required discipline not compassion. “There’s more than one pebble on the beach,” she said, “more than one fish in the ocean.” Both of these aphorisms were new to me and seemed a startling, enigmatic use of language. There were thousands, even millions of pebbles on a beach. Was it possible there were so many women to choose from, even for a drunk like Joe? And what was it about the sea and its environs that love thwarted and the hope of new love suggested?
This was the scene my father walked into when he returned from McGuire’s. He was right about one thing: Joe was “inebriated,” barely able to sit up in the green desk chair which, along with my brother’s old desk, occupied the small square porch where I spent so many of my afternoons, especially when it rained. The porch was my chapel, parlor and laboratory. I played board games there with friends for six and eight hours at a stretch. I sheltered wounded birds until they were strong enough to fly again. Two kittens my sister brought home, whom I named Mary and Kitty for my mother and her cousin in the Bronx, clawed their way up the tall screens. When I was out of sorts I sat on the shelf beneath the green desk like a monk in the lotus position until my anxiety passed.
As soon as my father saw the state his brother was in, he ordered him to leave, though he had himself come home in states equally disabled, one time passing out on the staircase where he spent the rest of the night unnoticed. Joe was in no condition to protest, and as the younger brother stood in some fear of my father who like many older siblings was a bit of a bully. He struggled to his feet and somehow made it down our steep front stoop, then staggered the half block to Main Street and the bus stop outside Kaplan’s drugstore. Joe still lived in West Fort Lee, a good mile away, so there was no question of his walking home, and on a Sunday afternoon you could wait quite a while for the 82 bus to come along. After my parents had gone back in the house I continued to sit on the porch and watch him try to keep himself upright by holding onto the pole supporting the bus sign, a round black-and-white silhouette of a young woman, her shapely calf placed confidently onto a bus’s first step—the same sign that marked bus stops all the way from the George Washington Bridge to the end of the run in Hackensack.
In my memory there is no one else out on the street that afternoon, and hardly any traffic. Just Uncle Joe, who was hardly an uncle at all because he had no status in our house or in my life, merely the shadowy existence cast upon all my father’s family, the bad seed from West Fort lee. When the bus finally arrived it slowed down as if to stop, but when the driver saw the condition Joe was in, accelerated again and left my uncle stumbling and reeling in its wake. I have no idea how he got home that afternoon.
So, I understood why my father was a bad husband and a bad father: You didn’t come home drunk the way he did if you were a caring spouse, and you didn’t come home that way if you were any kind of decent father. Bad employee had to be explained to me many years later, because he did get up and go to work each morning, no matter in what condition he came home the previous night. One of the family legends was about how the morning after a blizzard he wrapped his legs in newspapers before setting out to walk all the way into Manhattan, since the buses were not running and the George Washington Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic.
Early on I recognized my father was a lower form of life than other men, certainly a lower form of human life than my mother. By reference, his entire family became untermenschen, not just morally inferior but sub-par in every way—Innately and incorrigibly lacking in judgment, intelligence, trustworthiness, table manners and even physical appearance. His hooked nose was ugly, his thick lips indicative of base sensuality, his white hairless legs an embarrassment in public locker rooms. And all of this was inextricably tied to his being German. Never mind that he was three times removed from the immigrant, that he bore no responsibility for the Nazi death camps, that he didn’t even know what part of Germany he came from until my oldest brother tracked down that side of the family after Roots inspired a generation of Americans to dig up their long-buried and probably best-left-alone ancestors. In our house German meant everything bad, just as Irish meant everything good. No racist ideas have ever gone further in simplistically categorizing human beings. “Irish” and “German” amounted to what “white ” and “black” were supposed to mean in the greater society I lived in (a society still very much removed—we rarely saw an African American passing through Fort Lee, never mind lived near one). This was Manicheanism of a very basic variety, light and dark, good and evil, male and female. Needless to say, German-male-bad versus Irish-female-good translated into my own emerging identity a decade later with disastrous consequences.
When my father was nine years old the Austro-Hungarian Empire along with its German and Italian allies began a mutual blood bath with their British, French and Russian cousins that would radically change the face of Europe, the world itself and a young boy’s idea of what it meant to be German-American. One of his earlier memories was of a poster depicting a German soldier hoisting the body of a young baby on the end of his bayonet. During the war years the predecessor to the FBI openly spied on German Americans—ordinary people going about their business of making a living and raising a family—looking for signs of allegiance to the enemy. To be German no longer meant being the son of a high European culture, a center of scholarship, music and philosophy, its universities educating not just its own brilliant students but the world’s best and brightest. Being German now suddenly meant being under automatic suspicion, in possible league with the evil men who slaughtered babies and raped Belgian nuns—all the propaganda that made the reports about what was actually happening to Jews during the second world war too fantastic to believe for those who remembered how they had been gulled twenty years earlier.
But my father didn’t give much conscious thought to these matters when he was ten years old, delivering groceries up and down the hills of West Fort Lee in a second-hand wagon, his dog Prince at his side. His thoughts were on the pleasures of golf and, to a lesser extent, a career in the priesthood. Fort Lee was a big baseball town, but there was a private golf course abutting the cemetery behind the parish church that sat at the highest point of the plateau atop the Palisades. The terrain fell off sharply from there, making for spectacular sunsets, especially during the Saturday-evening May processions Catholic schoolchildren were required to attend. The steep drop also made for technical problems both for my Uncle Frank who was responsible for maintaining the gravesites as well as for the owners of the golf course that occupied the rest of the sloping territory westward.
Young John Seiffert discovered the golf course soon after he first entered the old—old even in his own childhood—parish church, a brownstone English chapel that could hold no more than a couple hundred people. Even in my father’s childhood there were more than that many Catholics in Fort Lee, so there had to be multiple masses on Sunday to accommodate them. As an altar boy, he was required to serve at least one of those masses, usually more, as well as to be available for weddings and funerals. He was frequently taken out of school to serve a midweek funeral, and the cemetery afforded an excellent view of the sixth and ninth fairways of the golf course, a detail that caught my father’s attention when he was standing next to an open grave, holding a censer and a bucket of holy water. On bright spring and autumn mornings the lush green lawns and undulating greens were bathed in sunlight, with a twosome putting out and a foursome just teeing off.
The golf course also became a source of income as he grew older and stronger and could offer his services as a caddy. He learned the game by watching and then by picking up pointers from the course pro, who seemed to enjoy his work and didn’t mind having youngsters like my father hanging about, especially youngsters with a natural ability for the game. By the time my father was fifteen and looking for his first job in New York, he was scoring in the low eighties and had dreams of being sponsored by some rich old duffer so he could enter something more ambitious than the local tournaments where he was already winning or placing second or third, competing against much older boys. It was golf he missed most when he was away for that year at seminary. Not girls, not his mother’s cooking. His longing for those green fairways even became a point of discussion with his confessor, who told him the devil was using golf as a lure to pry him away from his vocation. Perhaps if he had chosen a less ascetic order than the Carmelites or had gone away to the diocesan seminary at Darlington in the northern part of his home state, he would not have felt such a keen sense of loss. It was not unheard of, after all, for a parish curate to play a round now and then, something no Carmelite did in those days.
On the other hand, it wasn’t just the bright sunlight on the green fairways or the smell of freshly watered greens that had such a firm grip on his young imagination. Even when he was still little more than a caddy, he had already glimpsed the easy life inside the club house, especially on weekends when members brought their wives to have dinner and dance the new jazz music to a hired orchestra. This was a life he had never imagined, had barely glimpsed in silent movies, many of which were made right there in Fort lee, the original Hollywood. He also heard stories about how the actors and actresses carried on in the taverns of Coytesville at the northern end of town. Like most other young men he had been ordered to stay away from that part of town, especially at night. But he still heard stories about Theta Barra cavorting in a tank of water with nothing on but a skin-tight bathing suit, of drunken parties that went on until it was time for the revelers to be back on the set for the new day’s shooting. Some of those movie stars played golf on the same course where my father caddied. He had caddied a threesome for a young John Barrymore and was given a five dollar tip, an unheard of amount of money that he promptly turned over to his mother.
“Who gave you this?” she demanded in her heavy Brooklyn accent, assuming no one would part with that amount of money for merely being helped to play a game. She recognized the actor’s name, though she had never gone to a movie herself and had no idea of the man’s reputation on and off the screen as a lovable reprobate. “If he asks you to do anything funny, you tell him no, you understand?”
“Yes, mom,” my father said, not having the slightest idea what sort of “funny” thing the man could ask of him. Probably his mother didn’t either, certainly not the kind of “funny” things that boys got thrown out of seminary for doing with other boys or grown men got thrown into jail for doing with other men. It was just that his mother’s command of the English language was as hobbled as his own by the disability of not having learned it until she was almost school age, so words like “funny” had to serve a multitude of purposes, leaving her son to divine what she was really talking about, just as later on I had to construe as best I could what my father meant when he turned red and referred to “you-know-what.”
All things considered, the odds seem to have been heavily against heaven and in favor of the devil, between the lure of the links and Theta Barra’s aquatics. Only a natural or God-made eunuch could have remained untouched by those twin sirens, not to mention the proximity of the great city across the Hudson just a ferry ride away. By the time my mother met him in a bank on Wall Street where they both were working as tellers at the respective ages of seventeen and twenty, he was so dark from playing golf that, combined with his hook nose and jet black hair, she took him for Italian.