This time he really was in the last part of the very last part of the fourth quarter. Crazy thing was that doctors had been saying he’d be dead for what seemed forever. He had been a bartender in the years when they made you wear a white shirt and a thin black tie to serve working stiffs who came in, grabbed a bar stool, slammed 20 bucks down right next to a pack of their favorite smokes and a zippo lighter. At the end of the shift when he emptied out the tip cup he smelled like a human subsidiary of Phillip Morris, American Tobacco or R.J. Reynolds.
He breathed in Camel, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Winston, Kent. Ten hours a night, 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. And of course he drank some of the whiskey he poured because tipping customers would have it no other way. No fancy drinks. Shots and beers in the places he worked.
He hated much of his life. Felt for most of his time on the planet that he’s failed his four sons. Failed himself.
And now he was dying.
The kicker? When the terrorists flew their hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, his then apartment was a block east on Broadway. He had emphysema and whatever else the bars, cigarettes, whiskey and terrorist created toxic dust could give. And he died before his third wife. That was a real love affair, a successful marriage. Pancreatic cancer got her. Hang that one on the terrorists, too.
So, with his time almost up he calls and says he must meet. Something he has to say. Important. He says he did two things that he needed to share. One was good. And the other was very bad. For him.
Bad for him? He was 19 and he met a pretty 15-year-old girl. And of course they did what young people everywhere do. But there was no birth control pill, no morning after pill, no IUD in the years immediately after the second world war. The parents sent them off to South Carolina where the law allowed woman so young to marry.
They returned to the Bronx. Doctor Leff’s Hospital on the Grand Concourse was where that child was born. And then the couple took him home to an apartment on Powers Avenue in Mott Haven.
Bad for the former bartender? He married the 15-year-old woman. She would torture him for years, would abandon, walk away from the son born in Doctor Leff’s Hospital and two other children. They divorced. His kids were sent here and there because he couldn’t earn enough. Never got the education he wanted, couldn’t outlive his guilt.
And the good thing he did? He would not agree to aborting the fetus that became his first born son. Doctor Leff—who owned the hospital carrying his name, then a not uncommon occurrence–was later arrested, charged with performing abortions. It all happened years before the July 1, 1970 New York State law codifying the right to choose.
He wheezed his last breath at a lower Manhattan hospital and you could ask yourself what he might say today. He would say people can make their own decisions, their own choices. A bunch of fancy lawyers in black robes should keep out of all of our personal business.
He was my father. And I am that son.