04 November 2014

Look Toward the Future

When I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, my dad preferred to drive from the East Side to the West Side of town by the street and not the highway, mostly for sentimental reasons.  His sentimentality, mind you, was a many headed hydra.  One was wistful and memory laden, almost romantic about his own childhood in the twenties and thirties, when he'd visit his grandparents who had started on the East Side, in the ghetto, and then moved west of the lake to the more wide open expanses near Sherman Park.  He'd point out landmarks like old delis and grocers, parks and playgrounds where legendary games were played, and always the Kilbourn Reservoir, a wooded hill, fenced off and overgrown, the locus for a twenty million gallon tank which provided that section of Milwaukee with its drinking water.  The decrepit nature of the reservoir; its location in heart of the once Jewish and then African American ghetto, symbolized for him, in our passes around it, a city and a world in transition, the proverbial, prophetic waters dried up, chained off, in a state of decay.

This indulged Dad's most cynical calculus.  The mathematical formula for the Unmovable, the Insurmountable.  He voted as one who knew "something should be done about it" but was never counted among those who actually had any skin in the game for determining which steps could or would actually be taken.   And by "it" I mean the inexorable march toward the distinct separations between black and white that was coming to increasingly signify America--fueled by white upward mobility, the flight to the suburbs, vast disparities in educational and economic opportunities, the taken-for-granted belief in the future.  Already by the late 1960s and early 1970s, one could see and experience the steady and then precipitous decline of whole neighborhoods into depression and poverty as well as the bottomless pit of their fleeting, addicting salves, substance abuse and violence.

Dad had enough trouble keeping ahead of himself.  His anger and at times fragile emotional state were the challenging counterforce to his brilliance, humor and charisma, the latter qualities always the source for a great story.

One story he should have told was the story of the last ten years of his, a tragic descending spiral toward death that I tell; but there have been so many times in which I wish I could have heard it from his perspective.

In 1973, his father died.  In 1974, Mom filed for divorce.  In 1975, he moved out.  In 1976, he lost his job with CBS.  From 1977 to 1979 he failed as a real estate broker.  From 1980 to 1983, he was the assistant manager of a shoe store in town, a job he hated, except for the 40% discount he got on socks for everyone he knew.  Seriously.  The guy came to really love socks.

When he died of a heart attack in the cold, early spring of 1983, it was a surprise to no one but a shock nevertheless.  It's like he willed it to be the way Houdini would do a trick.  Mind over matter. The Reservoir, he must have figured, had gone dry.

But the measure of a man, at least as I've come to understand it, is how he tells the story of his life (particularly when he has the opportunity, the time and the perspective) from the spot where one can look back down into the pit--having pulled himself out of it--and reflect upon what that journey meant.

From the Biblical patriarchs to Ulysses and Heracles and on throughout the Western canon, there is a long tradition of the triumphant narrative, of great risk in the face of tragedy and enormous suffering but in the telling, in the survival, a kind of victory.  Primo Levi, in his dedicatory page to his book The Periodic Table, deployed the Yiddish proverb, "Troubles overcome are good to tell."  As Levi explained to Herbert Mitgang in a 1985 New York Times interview, "Life is a texture of victories and defeats.  If you haven't experienced at least a victory and a defeat, you are not a full-grown man."

Dad was two years gone by the time I read that and I was off on my own journey, seeking wisdom from other father figures, still living.  Neither fully formed nor fully aware of the dimensions at play, I slowly chronicled my dad's downfall as it was happening, knowledgable of its impending reality but never a real believer in his inevitable end.  After all, imagine being told as a kid:  these will be the last ten years that you will know this man.  How would you map out those conversations?  For me those the years between the ages of ten and twenty.  What the hell did I know?  It wasn't cancer, after all.  It was just life happening.

So I saved the pictures and the stories; the postcards, the letters, and the impressions.  And the driving routes, from east to west to north to south.  The short-cuts and scenic paths of his own past that before he could fully make sense of them himself he was already passing them on to me.  His life, his gift to me, a big box with a surprise at the bottom, musty, dusty and overflowing with half-finished drafts of a man's life: the beginning, the middle and then, like Buster Keaton stepping on a rake, hit between the eyes with the suddenness-of-death-at-the-end.

This past weekend, while canvassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, I walked up to the Kilbourn Reservoir to look out over the city where my dad raised me.  I looked south and a bit west where his grandparents settled after escaping Minsk for a better life in America; I looked east to where my grandfather opened his medical practice and where my dad excelled in school; I looked north toward where he he raised his family and then, slowly, year by year, toward the places where his life came apart.  Down the hill, at the base of the reservoir, aged oak trees and their drying leaves swayed slowly, like they were singing a memorial prayer.  And up on top, near where I stood, were saplings, newly rooted and hopeful, drawing from the waters that once were.

"Look away from the camera, son," I could hear Dad say.  "It looks better that way."  And so I looked, toward the future, just as he taught me.

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