He was a jovial Lower East Side gangster, wartime chemical researcher and secretive color television pioneer. An inquisitive daughter wants the full story, but this ninety-three-year-old would rather drink his coffee and read his book in peace.
Julius Shapiro wants no real dialogue about the Manhattan Project, but not for the reasons you might think. He is simply way too familiar with our long-running battle over what he’ll release from the past.
It’s October, a few days before Dad’s ninety-third birthday, and no, he doesn’t want a party. I have decided to gift him a biographical essay, but he has made it well known he doesn’t want that, either. His afternoon goals are to download a book on Kindle and have me get him a Devil Dog and a cup of tea.
The heat has not yet come on in my building. I’m fine, hot even, walking around in a tee and shorts while Dad is swaddled in front of his computer desk, in the discarded Dora comforter my sixth-grade daughter was all too happy to hand up to her grandfather.
“They found me through the American Chemical Society, and Columbia’s alumni office,” he finally says. “All that happened was that they asked me to come in and interview for the program, and it was way too mysterious. I guessed mostly correctly, and said ‘no way.’ They sent a small amount of radioactive material down to the lab I was already working at anyway, to be handled by a woman I was going to ask out. She worked down the hall, a nice-looking redhead, a bit flat-chested maybe, but I lost interest after that. Who wants to date a woman that’s radioactive?”
“You guessed the Manhattan Project was about the radioactivity? How could you not share this story before?” I ask.
“If I worked on it, that would be something, but not working on it is nothing. Okay, that’s good-bye already.”
“Wait! There were women scientists in your lab?”
“In the war people made exceptions. Women and Jews were hired. There was even a black man on our team, which was unheard of before that.”
“What did you do? Where was this?” I ask.
“Ore analysis. Ledoux & Company, 100 Spring Street.”
“What kind of ore were you analyzing? For who?”
“You get a boatload of tungsten in from China from a client, you analyze it to see if they made a good deal. Stuff like that.”
“You’re bothering me! Stop talking and let me buy my book.” I lay back on his bed and use my phone to look up the long history of Ledoux, indeed once located on Spring Street and now located in Teaneck, New Jersey. The firm’s website says they assayed gold during the Gold Rush and copper during the Statue of Liberty’s construction, and were “involved in a small way with the Manhattan Project.” Fact-checking done, I stare at the ceiling until it’s the floor. Now instead of Play-Doh and craft glue, my childhood room smells like Brut aftershave, the most Proustian scent for me: If I smell Brut, my father is near and I am happy.
Walter Matthau, with his cranky-lovable cadence and demeanor, would have been perfectly cast as the man who is currently ignoring me. No coincidence: Julius was a year ahead in high school from Walter—two men from the same time and place, the good old Lower East Side, that below-14th-Street Camelot where boys went to elementary school in news caps and knickerbockers, played stickball and handball, swam in the East River’s Central Lanes on summer days, went sledding in Seward Park on winter days, and ate penny candy and schtickles of pickles for nickels all year round.
My father has outlived Walter Matthau; he has outlived almost everybody he was friends with or dated, as well as two younger wives. His older brother, Sol the Professor, a heavy smoker, died in 1979 of a heart attack. The bright exceptions are his three younger sisters: Paula, ninety; Eva, eighty-five; and baby Esther, eighty-two. They love each other, talk every day, yet squabble as much as they did when they were close-but-competitive girls given the East Broadway railroad flat living room for their bedroom; each daughter was allotted a pullout bed. Occasionally my father gets successive teary calls on his cellphone, and refs who wronged who. He rolls his eyes at me, but on his face is a foxy grin—he still matters.
Dad has been handicapped since he was twenty, when he became partially paralyzed, yet he’s glossed over the details of how it happened for as long as I remember. Even my mother was hazy on what happened. He will talk, if just a bit, about the after: that by working hard in rehab, he recovered agility that astounded his doctors. When I was a child he dragged his left foot and could never piggyback me to my bedroom to tuck me in, but he taught me tennis in East River Park, where he also played basketball with my brother. Even as late as 1997, aided by my brother, he snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef.
With age, he’s atrophied. With each year that he got wobblier, everyone screamed louder at him to use a cane, but he balked, fearing dependence on it. In 1998, after a bad fall that happened while he was standing still hitting tennis balls served by a robot, my mother bought him one anyway, and then a walker. In 2013, he can hardly walk two steps, and needs a wheelchair or scooter. His arms are super-muscular; at the local court he even throws his newest Paragon basketball from his scooter, but his legs buckle.
Recently I discovered a box in the storage closet with mysterious 8mm film in it, and had the thirty-two three-minute films inside digitally transferred. I set up a screening for Dad in the kitchen. Most of the films are from the late ‘50s, around the time he met my mother, and he’s remarkably fit for a man who had been deemed paralyzed. Mom’s in Etsy-worthy boat-neck sheath dresses and culottes, as buoyant on film as she was until just days before her death. Dad swims, plays tennis and handball, and even runs around the Central Park Reservoir with my mother. “Jean saved me,” he said, popping open a Pepsi. “Her older brother was handicapped, so she knew how to be around me.”
My mother died in 2007 from ovarian cancer, diagnosed too late.
Since then, Dad has been living half the year with me, my husband Paul and our young daughter. Paul and I sleep in a cordoned-off section of our large living room, having a few months ago given our daughter the master bedroom so Violet, now a tween, can close the door on us.
Florida’s hurricane season is months long, and although Dad used to reside there year-round with my mother in a retirement community, now he’s down South from November to June, months generally free of hurricanes. Daphne and Pearl, the Jamaican sisters who share the job as Dad’s part-time winter attendants, are unflappable ladies. Pearl often drives him to Publix Supermarket with reggae music blasting. It cracks me up watching my father bob his head to “Get Up, Stand Up!”
As reliable as the sisters are, they might not be able to get to him in a severe storm. Last year the grand safety plan didn’t work out so well—the dangerous weather was in New York City, not Broward County. We live near the East River, ten feet from Hurricane Sandy’s mandatory evacuation Zone A. Given the option, most residents of my sturdy building chose to stay put. We soon rued that decision—in addition to the severe flooding on the ground floor, like all of Lower Manhattan, we lost power too. Without use of elevators, it was too risky to attempt to get Dad down twenty-one flights of stairs. So we ate Red Cross rations and talked in the dark.
As Dad watched his younger self on the kitchen iMac, he counted his blessings. He’s disease free, and his lungs are clear because he is the hypochondriac-who-never-went-to war-who-therefore-never-smoked. What ninety-three-year-old man has never had a cigarette?
Not vain about his wrinkle-free face, Dad does like to show off his spot-free hands. And, you have to give it to him, there’s no denying my dad has young hands.
When he’s sitting, you’d think he was in his early seventies, partly because he has significant hair left that he gets dyed salt-n-pepper by Sonja, the saintly tempered chesty Dominican hairdresser who comes to my house for her oldest client. She wheels him to the bathroom, his head emerging from a hole in a Hefty garbage bag so she can get down to business: a rinse in the sink, a clip of the bushy eyebrows and caterpillars that keep growing back on the ears. How he convinced her to come to the house regularly is still a mystery—all I know is that since a year or so after my mother’s death he has never met a pretty Latina he has not flirted with, and the most buxom crossing guards on his electric scooter route always ask after him.
Mental agility is a non-issue. Dad has ferocious online chess partners he has never met, and recently coded a ping pong video game from scratch because he couldn’t find any existing program that offered what he wanted. We both read an article I spotted on Twitter about mentally stimulating a 600-pound, 100-year-old Aldabra tortoise named Ralph; he was given a specially designed soccer ball by an Oakland zookeeper to keep him happy. Greatly empathizing with the tortoise, my father decided he needed a new game too, and a day later he started listing the names of every person he had ever worked with, as a chemist in the ’40s, a color television engineer in the ’50s and a computer operations specialist from the time man walked on the moon until his reluctant retirement at the age of 71. His Excel chart for this project is astonishingly long.
After the successful Kindle download, Dad looks up, surprised and slightly annoyed, I’m still there.
“What did you buy?”
“Stephen Grosz. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Got great reviews.”
“So examine the Manhattan Project some more,” I prod.
“I told you all I want you to know.”
“Give me more about Columbia in the ’40s.”
“Summa Cum Laude on a scholarship! That’s all you need to know! Stop stealing my material from my autobiography.”
This back room I grew up in, shared with my brother, is the only room suitable for a senior who needs to be close to a bathroom. When I walk to the window I can see the newly attached spire on the almost-ready Freedom Tower, which is a symbolic 1,776 feet high; I’ll be able to take my daughter to the new observation deck next year. In the same spot in which I’m standing, my brother and I saw the World Trade Center towers going up as young kids, and our born-in-the-19th-century grandmother (who was also our babysitter because Mom worked) caught us zinging frozen frankfurters out the 21st-floor window. We only wanted to see whose would go farthest but then the shit hit the fan; Grandma Ida called Dad’s office in the Municipal Building screaming something really scary in Yiddish.
* * *
My parents had children very late, in their forties; my dad was nearing fifty. Privately envious of her siblings, with their multiplying kin, Mom was eager to have her own grandkids to dote on. She was so anxious to have this happen that on my last day of pregnancy she was invited into the hospital room to help with the birth, and saw my only child before I did. Julius and Jean raised their two kids to believe in science and Jewish guilt, but my atheist Mom called participating in Violet’s birth a true miracle. I never saw her so happy in my life, except when my brother’s high-spirited toddler, Kal, came to visit her post-operation. She never met her delectable self-possessed third grandchild, Delancey, now almost five.
The true miracle, a religious person might argue, is that this older couple had two kids without turning to adoption in the first place.
My phenomenally energetic mother was bored out of her mind during her last weeks alive, stuck in her bed, and after trouncing me in Scrabble and refusing a rematch because she was going out a winner, she was willing to spill the beans on some final secrets. The biggest reveal was that when my father was bedridden himself in Beth Israel Hospital for six months after his spinal operation, the intern making the night rounds who glibly told him he would never walk again, also declared he would not have kids. For the next twenty-three years, my father didn’t think he could have any children. They didn’t even think about birth control. “When David was born, your father still had ridiculous doubts he was his,” my mom said. “But look at their faces—and of course you were born with your father’s feet.”
It’s the day after the non-conversation about the Manhattan Project, and after years of dancing around the topic, I refuse to exit my father’s room until I get a full explanation of what actually happened before he entered Columbia, that blurry time in 1940 shortly after his twentieth birthday.
Dad breathes hard. “I’m doing this so you’ll leave me alone. I’m not a good person for this essay. I’m a tight person. You need an open person.”
“Were you in an accident? Is it something you don’t want to relive?”
Finally, after extended silence: “A pustule on my back turned into a staph infection. The outer spine got infected and they didn’t have penicillin available because of the war we were entering.” He seems relieved to have begun, and it is a long story now about how his mother took him to Beth Israel in a cab with a 104-degree fever, and as the night progressed he got more and more paralyzed. Eventually the team at Beth Israel decided on a laminectomy, a surgical procedure to remove a portion of the vertebral bone called the lamina. “They took a spinal tap and I always blame Beth Israel for that. People didn’t sue for malpractice back then.”
He frowns when I read my laminectomy notes back to him.
“Recovery depended on never giving up. I was sick but I survived. The main thing is, don’t make me a sob story. Truth is, I never feel handicapped. I see a man who can’t walk and I feel for him—okay, that’s enough.”
* * *
Dad and his siblings grew up with a cat named Cat. (Any of the five little Shapiros who played with Cat too long was called a katzisher kop, a cat-brain.) Their parents, Sidney and Ida, were tiny kids when uprooted from Vilna and Grodno to Jerusalem in the 1880s. When my grandparents married in 1912, they had their first son, Sol, and then my grandfather traveled alone to New York in 1913, partly to escape conscription into the Turkish army during the Balkan War. Over the next few years, Ida worked in Jerusalem to send money to New York, while this grandfather I never met, whom my father always calls “the Abba,” searched for work.
According to my Aunt Paula, who remembers everything, Ida and seven-year-old Sol made their way from Jerusalem to the French port city of Le Havre, and sailed to Ellis Island on the S.S. La Touraine in 1919; a year later my father was born. It was not just the war that made the Abba leave. Aunt Paula says my grandfather, eager to be a pharmacist, was born into a prestigious rabbinical family; poor but supposedly directly descended from the Gaon of Vilna, a leader who held considerable sway over Russian Jews in the 1700s. The idea of a yeshiva boy yearning to become a pharmacist is not as dramatic as the plot of The Jazz Singer, but his growing tilt towards atheism caused much fury.
The Abba lived with the Ima in my once socialist (now very New Lower East Side capitalist) cooperative apartment complex at FDR Drive and Grand Street before my parents did; Dad bought my current apartment for them from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1955 with his earnings as an engineer. His parents were eligible to live in the then-bargain-priced co-ops that replaced nasty tenements because they were Union.
I find a box of my grandfather’s wide-ranging books in a big storage closet cleanup, with the Abba’s given name on the inside covers in Yiddish. (Sidney “Zundel” Shapiro was the first son born into a family of all girls, so in Yiddish they named him Little Son—Zundel is a corruption of Söhnlein.) Calculus and chemistry textbooks from the Great War era emerge, as well as dusty books of verse by Cowper and Tennyson and Keats, some editions from the late 1800s. My father and I inspect what the Abba underlined together. Is there any faster way to time travel than to pull a book and see what you or a loved one marked up years earlier, to reconsider what was thought was important?
“The Abba probably bought these on Fourth Avenue, in secondhand bookshops,” Dad speculates. “He started out as a door-to-door peddler, then specialized in menswear piping, and look, he read stuff like that. He took a second job as a night watchman. That’s when he would read his books.” Aunt Paula later emails that she thinks it was their mother’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was the night watchman, and the Abba continued to sell encyclopedias or paintbrushes as his second job.
Dad tells me once the Abba left his Talmud scholar past behind in Palestine, he couldn’t afford the time to retrain with the financial obligations of five kids. He explains my grandmother, Ida, could read and write very well, because my great-grandfather Yehuda was a teacher and my great-grandmother Chava had been a letter-writer-for-hire in the 1800s. “Normally they didn’t teach girls to read and write so well, but Ida was sharp, so her father taught her like a boy.” Like her mother, my grandmother also wrote letters for the illiterate for extra dollars, in Jerusalem and then the Lower East Side.
Grandma Ida primarily worked as a dressmaker in a bridal shop on the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street, a now trendy stretch that used to be Manhattan’s bridal district. I still have my early ‘70s Malibu Barbie she re-outfitted in a handmade bridal gown.
The memory of his mother draws a deep sigh from Dad. “She had done the same in Jerusalem when my father was studying Torah, sewed gowns to pay the bills. She was a resilient woman.”
* * *
I’m called away from my computer the next day, after Violet has gone to a friend’s and Paul has gone to work. Dad’s back from an athletic pep talk from Mark, his burly physical therapist who works in a ground-floor office of our building. Revved up, he desperately wants to talk about Nadal, and have me watch some month-old YouTube footage of the U.S. Open final.
“See why he won!”
“Why? I barely know who Nadal is.”
He puts a fist to his mouth. “How is that possible?”
As a fan, Dad is primarily invested in basketball and tennis, but there’s always the moment where he is sickened and cannot watch the last few minutes of big matches or games—especially in which the Miami Heat may or may not lose. He used to bring my brother to Knicks games, and once in a while I would be invited. I have vague memories of sitting next to them screaming on Earl the Pearl, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, but mostly I remember Dad handing over the roll of Royal Crown cherry sours in his pocket so he didn’t have to get a hot dog for me with his bad balance.
He has zero guilt about switching first allegiance from the Knicks to the Heat: there is no sentimentality for past team splendor there. “I live in Florida for winter, and LeBron is screwy but he is the best player.” But his true passion as a spectator is tennis, and he’s usually cheering for Roger Federer, because he’s the best. But now he’s re-watching Nadal’s victory because Federer is out and Nadal is the new best.
(Dad’s winners-only allegiance irks my easygoing husband, whose long-suffering Down Under family has barracked for an Aussie Rules football team with just one premiership pennant since 1897. I once overheard Paul catching up with his mother in Melbourne: “If the big asteroid was on its way to Earth, he’d root for the asteroid.”)
Dad looks up from his Nadal video. “You’re pale, let me take your blood pressure,” he says. He takes his own blood pressure repeatedly, and owns three machines his two doctors in New York and Florida have begged him to trash.
If I want to get real info out of my father, I must agree to let him take my blood pressure, which softens him up. But lately he’s onto this tactic. So I pretend to care about the video and let him talk about how great Nadal is and then get my blood pressure taken. I ignore his, “It’s too low!”—I’m pretty sure low blood pressure is a good thing, but I slip in that I want to fill in just a few more gaps for my essay on him.
“What are you asking about?”
I lob him an easy one. “I just heard from Aunt Paula that you were in a 1930s gang.”
He grins with teeth that are all his, if yellowed. “She remembered? The Signets. There were seven of us and later we joined forces with the Mohawks and merged into a more powerful force.”
“Did you actually roam the streets and attack people?”
“This was a Jewish gang. We played chess and handball, and sometimes Ping-Pong. We had jackets with Mohawks on the back.” After he beams at this forgotten recollection pried loose: “Okay, good-bye. I’m going to read the Times online.”
“One more topic.”
“Irene,” I say.
His first wife’s name punctures the mood. “Laurie, you’re nervy!” He’s royally pissed. “Why? I told you she died.”
“You never really talked about her.”
“You know what I call this stinking essay? My obituary! Why do you have to make me do this? Somebody should send you a schmuckogram.”
“I don’t want to write this when you’re dead. I want you to see this in print, and see how proud I am of you.”
* * *
When I was eight either my brother or I found an old guitar in his closet behind a box of Charles Atlas weights. We strummed it around the house and Dad went ballistic. He never hit us once, but man could he yell when we misbehaved. My mother looked like she wanted to tell us something but—very much against her nature—she didn’t. She looked frightened. I put the guitar back, never to touch it again. (It’s still there.) Did my mother play guitar? Did my father? Both of these ideas were unfathomable.
Then in the sixth grade, Roots was on the air and I became convinced that if Alex Haley could trace himself back to Chicken George, I could find a magnificent family past too—the worst past imaginable was Ordinariness. I discovered “Irene” by rifling through a file in his cabinet marked private and found a marriage certificate that indicated he was a widower before he married my mother. I went trembling into my shared room: “Do you think we have other brothers and sisters?”
David demanded I not say a word, but then admitted he didn’t know anything about Dad being married before, either. I obeyed, for a little while. I didn’t say anything for a year, at which point I couldn’t take the mystery anymore and told my mother. Although flabbergasted by my transgression, she explained that his first wife had been a school psychologist and an amateur folk singer, she died in the early 1950s from diabetes, that they had no kids, and that I should stop worrying. She forced me to fess up to Dad. He was motionless. All he would tell me, in a scary low voice, was that the guitar in the closet found a few years earlier was Irene’s.
I never stopped snooping, truth be told. One college summer just before they retired to Florida, I found a file of essays from a creative writing class Dad took at the New School after Irene’s death. He wrote that he met this blond woman at a party, saw her singing with her guitar for the crowd, and that before he worked up the courage to talk to her he thought she had a luminous tone to her voice. She was singing My Lover Was a Logger, and followed up with Jimmy Crack Corn and then Froggie Went a-Courtin’.
In an attempt to whole his fragmentary self after his wife died, he took many writing classes, and enrolled in life drawing at The Art Students League, ballroom dancing at a 57th Street dance studio (there’s excellent 8mm footage of him dancing a night before a live class television appearance—Muriel, his dancing partner and teacher insisted he had to perform too), and etiquette classes with an attractive entrepreneurial woman named Luella Cuming who taught social etiquette for engineers and “made us take her out to dinner”—he had read about her services in The New York Times.
This flurry of group activity seems improbable if you know my autonomous father, but it’s all in the 1950s filing cabinet in my foyer. He even took an acting class with the great Stella Adler through the New School. Stella Adler personally picked out a monologue for him, the role of the Gentleman Caller in Glass Menagerie. Dad said of the woman who taught Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro: “I took one class with her, and she liked me but wasn’t that impressed with my acting—why would anyone care?”
Another story my mother told me from her hospice bed: when she was dating my father she couldn’t figure out what had happened in his first marriage. He never said why he was single. He simply said she left him. Had they divorced? It was a full year before Dad told her Irene had died.
My mother, who was a career woman who had never married, chose a handsome infertile widower over no husband.
* * *
During her morning oatmeal, Violet announces that Grandpa Julie had a car once. What was this? My father has never driven me once, because of his unstable legs. And my mother failed the driver’s exam six times by talking through each test. I grew up with subways, taxis, and livery rides. “His own black car he drove around Manhattan and parked near Tenth Avenue,” declares Violet.
When she’s off to school, I head straight into Dad’s room for the story. “What kind of car was it?”
“C’mon! I just woke up.”
“You c’mon! What’s the big deal?”
“A Chevy. How much money are you getting for this article?”
“It’s not about the money,” I say indignantly.
“It should be about the money, how much per word are you getting? I’ll tell you more if you buy me an iPad Air from my life story.”
Then: “I’m going to write my own unauthorized essay with your dirty laundry. It will haunt you when you run for president.”
Then: “It was Irene’s car that I drove after she died. I was a reckless idiot for driving it. That’s all I’m going to goddamn give you. Good-bye. Get me a coffee by the way.”
A few years after his first wife died is when Dad joined Paramount’s secret color television program, and the race against RCA and Zenith for a viable color picture tube. I first fought him for information when he casually mentioned he had been involved with the invention of Sony’s Trinitron. He regrets ever telling me.
I have the clearest picture of him at mid-century, as I have been working at this specific story for years, convinced it could be an unknown slice of American history Smithsonian magazine would jump on. The four Jewish men who worked in an almost-secret division called Autometric for Paramount Pictures on the project then called Chromatron—which after a handshake became the Japanese “invention” the Trinitron—are barely a footnote on Wikipedia, while the engineers at Sony live on in glory. Nobutoshi Kihara, who in 2011 died in Tokyo at eighty-four, was as celebrated in Japan for his role in the Trinitron’s invention as he was for inventing the Walkman. The project was sold for a mere one million dollars in a deal cooked up at a cocktail party. Within a few years it made billions, the Trinitron dominating the world market. Sony tweaked five years of research for sure, but in this daughter’s opinion they should share credit. Even if in my father’s opinion: “Who cares? I don’t think about it, only you.”
The story as I have it so far, is that the stores wouldn’t stock color sets because the picture was so unsteady. Engineers were under fire to produce a bankable consumer model. The head office was always breathing down their necks. Someone was going to make a killing. If a man at RCA made the breakthrough, it would reestablish his company as the leader. The big executives visiting the floor would say things like, “That Tokyo fellow put SONY on top of the map with the transistor radio. Out of nowhere, they led the world.” Or: “Think bigggg. New ideas saved Ford, the ’49 Sedan was introduced in ’48 and saved the company from bankruptcy.”
Early on in my research I took the subway to the ziggurat-shaped Paramount Building, still a jewel in Times Square, and later described to my father what I saw: the gilt walls, the grand white marble titles and diamond-shaped polished insets, and the baroque clock.
“Golden elevators,” I said. “Some architect went all out.”
“It was the Paramount Building,” Dad replied, “there’s money in the movies.”
My mother was dating my father around this time and I’ve located several black-and-white photos she took of him at work in the laboratory, a secret “bit of a shithole” room in the otherwise glamorous building.
In one picture, circuit boards and tubes are scattered over a central workbench. In the middle of the bench is a half-built color TV set and an empty Maxwell House coffee can relabeled YOUR BUTTS; Mom rightly thought this hilarity needed to be documented for the ages. Two metal desks with swivel chairs and black rotary phones flank the workbench. My father is a fit, conservatively-dressed man with a cleft chin, jutting nose, dark hair, and horn-rimmed glasses.
After countless interrogations, there are many details I have filled notebooks with: the days the IRT was a mess, the mid-century coffee nooks with jars of Nestlé’s and iceboxes, and the color of safety goggles and where they stored their lab aprons.
I love the thought of engineers kibitzing over commissary coffeecake and discussing the news, like Khrushchev, and Charles Van Doren’s free-fall from quiz show fame, which led to his being sacked from Dad’s graduate school alma mater, Columbia. And conversations about who was getting to the moon first, and if the Russians were determined enough to organize their society to get there first, murder people if they had to.
My favorite tales are about a fast-talking team leader—someone he’ll only let me call “Harv” for print, and who in my mind looked like Alec Baldwin. “He got a lousy raise one year, so he starts taking individual TV parts home, convincing his wife that everyone has to build their own set in lieu of a large bonus. One day he takes an antenna, the next day the tuning knob, you get the picture. Slick guy, and marriage never stopped him from womanizing, I used to hear him in the coffee shops: ‘I work for Paramount Pictures, I can get you in the movies.’”
My other-favorite “Harv” story is the day he grabbed a hold of the line voltage and got knocked over because it touched his wedding band. “Right there and then he had a perfect excuse to tell his wife that a wedding ring is an occupational hazard.”
* * *
I have to be ready with a pencil when my father releases a tidbit; there’s no telling what will make him talk. When Phillip Roth announced his retirement last year Dad remembered being back in the color TV lab, arguing with three Jewish men over the merits of the controversial young Jewish author of Goodbye, Columbus.
A few days after that he called from Pearl’s car—I heard the telltale Bob Marley. “I just remembered the day Sy (his Paramount coworker) asked, ‘Did you hear Fourth Avenue became Park Avenue South?’ You want write that down that for something?”
But another time he remembered having Gilbey’s on the rocks with a less-liked coworker at a “titty bar” on Ninth Avenue. (This was more like it!) They both had nowhere to go for the holiday, and he convinced my dad to join him. This man, in his “unfortunate thirties,” tall and gangly, would arrive at the door in military parka and earmuffs. “A sad-sack.” He had a funny voice and a lunatic laugh. The Paramount security guard was on vacation and the substitute thought he was a bum. “Sy had to go down to the lobby and vouch that he knew him.”
“What was his name?”
“It’s gone—but I remember he commuted on the ferry from his house in Staten Island he shared with his mother and her cats. She read Cat Fancy to him sometimes. As far as we could tell that was his life, that and the job.”
I gave him the name Nuttinger, and Dad laughed. “Good enough.”
* * *
My first memory is being woken up at midnight to watch 1969 become 1970. I was three-and-a-half.
My dad was working as a civil servant by then, sick of the vagaries of corporate life. He took a pay cut and retrained as a computer programmer at the Municipal Building, eventually working his way up to Director of New York City’s Computer Operations, which gives him a decent monthly pension even today. I can’t forget the massive computers, straight out of a James Bond film. (“Your mother’s laptop has the power of the giant computers on that whole floor,” he told Violet earlier this year.) David and I would visit sometimes and play ring toss with the different colored plastic spools that were used to hold magnetic tape.
About this peaceful time in his life, he’s matter-of-fact. After his flirtation with TV engineering he thought the computer field was where opportunities would explode. “The public knew something was coming, but they didn’t know how important computers would be. My job at Paramount involved tubes. Computers back then used tubes for memory storage, like the Williamson tube over at MIT.”
“I passed the test at a very high grade. I was a trainee. Jean (my mother) supported my decision. The City of New York paid for my computer classes. They were confident my skills from chemical engineering and color television engineering would transfer over just fine. And it was better job protection. I didn’t want be kicked around by middle management and was tired of corporate politics. With two unexpected kids, I decided to play it safe, I didn’t think things would happen like they did with the whole Paramount team being let go after an executive has one drink with a Sony man. I thought you could hold a job for many years.”
* * *
My daughter rarely complains about having to share her home with her grandfather, except when MSNBC is on and Chris Matthews is screaming and Dad is screaming back. She has trained him to be nicer to our cat Cindy, who was terrified of him at first but now loves hanging out in his room because Violet and Dad have rigged a way for Cindy to practice her table tennis skills, by hanging a Ping-Pong ball duct-taped to a string from a press-on hook pushed onto the ceiling. Violet has been learning to code from him, and with this extra project together, lately she even sounds like him: “You don’t need an umbrella, Mom. It’s going to be a spritz maybe.” Unlike many eleven-year-olds, this girl has developed an insatiable craving for pickled herring, pistachio ice cream, seltzer, bialys and pound cake.
Likewise, there are not many ninety-three-year-olds who know the members of One Direction, or have learned to hold their temper when they almost drink a Styrofoam cup full of ladybugs. I have even seen him practicing the tricky fish-lip face she’s been teaching him.
This month Violet has been writing a school essay, a “Personal Narrative” about herself, and included my father’s two Big Rules for Living. 1) Lean pastrami is worthless and 2) Be nice to people when they are alive, not dead.
A few days ago my dad told me this Violet story when I got home from a movie: “She ran out of three-holed paper, and asked me if she could borrow some from me. I took some paper out of my printer tray, and reached for my hole punch. She said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘A hole punch.’ Can you imagine she never saw a hole punch? She said, ‘How do you use it?’ So I punched three holes in her paper for her. She was amazed.”
He passed me the 1950s hole punch. “Flip it over!”
It said Property of Paramount Pictures on the bottom.
That’s the kind of story my father, a widower at thirty-three and again at eighty-six, likes to tell unprompted.
Tomorrow I’m going to the funeral of a man I met once, at my bat mitzvah. Aside from my father, Joe T. had been the last surviving member of that terrifying chess-and-handball-playing Jewish gang, the Mohawks. Dad heard about the death from one of Joe’s granddaughters, a woman around my age. He didn’t want to talk about the funeral and quietly said he didn’t see the point of his going—but called me back in his room to add, “You should go and represent me, that would be a good thing. Ask questions.”
* * *
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker as well as a novelist. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book, about a Lower East Side teen stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica. (Simon & Schuster, 2015-16. Follow her: @LaurieStories and facebook.com/LaurieGwenShapiro)
Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.