Tuesday, March 24, 2015
From Fine Old Kegs…My Father, Glass by Glass
But now the days are short, I'm in the autumn of my years
And I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year
- Ervin Drake, IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR
What can one man say to another, when one of them is staring at the abyss? No bottle of wine, no glass of scotch, no draught of beer will assuage the pain, the fear, the anger.
I knew my father by his likes and dislikes. He liked John Wayne movies. He was a Sean Connery Bond man. He liked the New York Giants, the New York Knicks, and the New York Yankees. We shared those passions. His father was a DiMaggio, Crosetti and Lazzeri fan. He was a Mantle man. And I was a Nettles, Pinella, and Jackson guy.
In his youth my father, Philip Ferdinand De Vito was a cross between Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. He was always a dude. Always with a dozen suits, countless shirts and numberless dress shoes. He was always a sharp dressed man.
He had one steadfast rule - he felt sugar and sweetness had no real place in the world of alcohol. No matter he medium, he preferred his beverages dry. “Don’t give me any of that sweet shit,” he would repeatedly say.
He usually only had one glass of wine at dinner. He only drank a “nip” of beer. He usually only drank Manhattans or Rob Roys (light on the vermouth, little more on the bitters). He loved a couple of drinks before dinner. If he went to a restaurant, he would often prefer to go to the bar first, have his cocktails and chat with the crowd before being seated. He was excellent in this way, and could strike up a conversation easily with confidence. A talent and confidence I do not possess, and am very jealous of. He once came to one of my sons' baseball games, and by the end of one game, introduced me to several people in the town where WE lived, including famed sportswriter Clifton Brown, who I'd sat next to for several seasons, without knowing. My dad introduced me after one game!
My father loved cars in his 20s and 30s especially. He drove a list of cool cars: a long line of Cadillacs (including a light metallic blue El Dorado convertible with a white rag top), Thunderbirds, a Jaguar coupe, and many others. He always wore a pair of huge dark sunglasses while driving.
My father was a swinger. He was The Cool Guy. He was tall, at 6'2" and weighing in at about 200 lbs. He was Steve McQueen. He was Dino. Money. Cars. Looks. He loved to party. He could talk sports and politics with the guys. And he was an elegant dancer, much admired by the ladies. I only begin to realize now that had we met when we were the same age he would have been one of the cool guys, and I would have been the bookish geek. Nice guy, college boy, but probably not cool enough.
He was not a perfect man. But I loved him terribly despite it. For many years he gambled to the extreme. Thousands of dollars on baseball and football. Occasionally on basketball. My memories start in the kitchen. No matter how early you got up, he was always up first. Listening to scores on the radio. Cursing or celebrating as need arose. He played the pick three and pick four religiously. He won several times, big, and blew it as easily as he had made it. He often paid his debts with those winnings. I spent my childhood, sitting in the passenger seat, as we drove through Trenton in those days – it was like something out of the movie Diner or Tin Men - making drop offs mostly in Chambersburg, in the shadows of the massive, abandoned Roebling steel works. I would sit all alone in the showroom of a vending machine company, or at the bar with a Shirley Temple, or sitting in front of a gas station, for what seemed like an hour, while he went into the backrooms, to meet bookies and shylocks. I would sit and look around in absolute silence.
I loved my father no matter what. He has been and will be forever be, the voice in my head. He was loving and encouraging. There was no question, he cursed at me too. But there was always love, nothing but love, no matter how angry he might be. And he could be terribly comforting in my times of sadness or disappointment.
When I was a child I lived in Connecticut with my mother. I grew up in Southport and Westport and Greenwich. It was as picturesque, as Norman Rockwell as anyone could ask for. But he would make the two-and-a-half hour ride, to pick us up, bring us back to New Jersey with him, and then bring us back, usually for a three day weekend, without complaint. I remember watching him from the back of a station wagon. I as supposed to be asleep, since he would pick us up or drop us off early, often doing so before he had to be at work (he always tried to hold on to us for as long as he could).
He would take us to numerous family visits, Grandmom Kate, Grandmom Connie and Pop-pop Joe Rue. And of course we went to many of the best little small Italian restaurants that studded Chambersburg at the time. We could never just walk in and sit down for dinner. You had to first say hello to at least three or four tables of people, and have at least one drink at the bar, whether they asked you to wait or not. More often, he would, in his favorite restaurants, order his appetizers at the bar, and have them waiting for him at the table when he finally chose to sit down. And there were very few restaurants that wouldn't cook him something off menu or make something special just for him. There were several restaurants where he would just ask for his special salad, and they would bring him a concoction of antipasto with an extra addition of tuna fish and several other ingredients, and no cucumbers (which he hated). He walked into a dozen professional kitchens like they were his livingroom, and often knew the families, the chefs, and several people on the line. He might stay back there a good fifteen minutes or so talking food and sports, and he was always welcomed. Sometimes, if the chef or owner might be in the back, and he would in fact be summoned to the back of house. He loved it.
The second time I blew out my knee, in high school, I was in the hospital gurney, all trussed up, waiting for a parental signature, before they could put me under and force my knee back into place. My father rushed into the room. It was just a week before my 18th birthday. He raced in and wheeled around. “You had to do it again, didn’t you, jerk off!” he swore at me.
The doctor told him he had to sign the consent form so they could put me under and repair my knee, and my father bellowed, “Fuck him, let him suffer!” Of course, he signed the papers instantly. For the rest of our years together, we laughed about this story.
My father loved the Rat Pack. Sunday mornings were spent listening to William B. Williams, a disc jockey who played Sinatra, Dino, Sammy, Tony Bennett, and the other crooners of the era. As any son does, I refuted my background, and rebelled. I listened to loud music in 70s, punk rock in the 1980s, etc. In fact, I eschewed everything he stood for, I was embarrassed by him – for a while. I suppose my sons will do the same to me one day. It is happening already, as it should and must. But one Sunday morning, in my mid-20s, searching for something to listen to, alone in my apartment in New York City, with fresh H&H bagels and a fresh Sunday Times, I stumbled upon William B. Williams by accident, and left it there, humming along with the classic American standards. It was then I knew I was my father’s son, like it or not.
He was proud of my love of wine. He was not as swept up by its geekdom as I am. I once decanted a 1979 Mouton Rothchild only to watch him pour himself a full glass like it was iced tea. I wanted to scream. I explained to him that it was a treat for everyone to share. That we should all have just a taste. He shrugged. "I got there first."
He always wanted a nice glass of dry red or a cool glass of white. Always dry. Tasting a glass from the first bottle of homemade wine I produced (a sweet, dessert wine) made him wince, but he smiled and told me it was good anyway. He gently put it down and found a nice dry red to drink without saying anything. He was such a sweetheart.
In his later years, my father took on more of an Anthony Quinn type aspect His face broad and weathered, his voice loud and booming. As I grew older our tastes converged, and I made dry reds and whites he liked and was proud of. Those he drank, and never failed to mention to friends about his son's winery, or about the books I had written. A father's pride.
Several months ago he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Liver Cancer. His prognosis was not good. 2-4 months. When I first talked to him, not sure what to say, he shrugged his shoulders. "It's all part of life, kid. We all gotta do it." Privately, I cried. He said on several occasions, "I'm gonna see my dad." He was a better man than me all the way to the end. He rarely showed emotion. Angry yes. Weakness, rarely. He wanted no wake. To him, there was nothing worse than yet another stiff at a party.
A few weeks ago I was trying to help him shave his weathered face, bristling with gray, He clutched his belly in pain. Looking to diffuse the moment, I told him that it reminded me of the movie, "The Bucket List." He angrily asked what the hell I was talking about. There was real anger in his eyes as he grimaced again. I reminded him that in the movie Nicholson was throwing up on the floor of a bathroom. Jack was doubled over in pain from chemotherapy. When he finally stood up, he looked in the mirror and said to himself, "Boy, somewhere, some lucky guy is having a heart attack." My father burst out in his classic, loud laugh, slapping the bathroom counter and guffawing. It had done the trick. And he hugged me.
We sat with him a few few days ago, and in the hospital, hospice ward, watching him slowly fade. A big, strong handsome made laid low by time and disease. An endless parade of family and friends. All came to bid farewell. He slept through most of it. He would wake up saying the dog needed to be let out, or telling us to answer the door, Nonsense. After words, when he was given morphine, he fell asleep comfortably for the first time in days, when the rest of us decided to go out to dinner. Of course, we all went to the bar first. We all ordered cocktails.I can't drink Rob Roys or Manhattans. I had an Old Fashioned (he didn't like those - too sweet) but I toasted him nonetheless. The appetizers could wait.