Good storytellers are born, not made. I know, because I was born to one. My father delivers his aphorisms with the acerbity of Mark Twain and his tall tales with the folksy charm of Garrison Keillor. Early on, I was no match for my father’s unheralded talent, which is why I tried to follow him around with a tape recorder. The stories were too rich to forget. But when he caught on, he refused to speak, so I had to settle for listening and remembering, then recording as best I could. Now I know I was learning craft from a master, knowledge that would prepare me for one of two vocations: stand-up comic or writer.
You know which path I chose.
I was reminded of this recently while on my way to the dentist. Having given myself plenty of time to get there, including a shortcut through my old hometown, I was irritated when my plans were derailed by a traffic jam caused by roadwork. There were five cops and several DPW guys milling around with hands in their pockets while the line of traffic grew. I remembered my father’s many complaints about the waste of taxpayer dollars: “I’m paying five guys to stand around and look at hole in the ground,” he’d say.
Just as he would have done, I rolled down the window and a flagged a cop.
“What’s going on?”
A small excavator was stuck in a ditch; the operator was rocking it back and forth to try to get out.
“I’m really glad my dad’s not sitting in the front seat with me,” I said. “He operated a machine three times that size, and he’d have a thing or two to say.”
Of course he would. A real zinger, as he would describe it.
The cop gave me directions to detour the mess and I readily escaped, but I was prompted to call my father, who I telephoned most mornings to say hello. As usual, AM radio news—including the traffic report—was blaring.
“It keeps me company,” he had said about his new habit, instigated after my mother’s recent death.
“Guess what happened to me just now?” I said. “I saw an excavator stuck in the road, backing up traffic by about ten cars,” which was a slight exaggeration.
“Hold on a second, lemme lower the radio,” he said. “Okay, shoot.”
I repeated my report.
“Those guys don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” he said, “Were they union?”
How would I know? Would they have UNION stamped on their forehead? Was there some secret sign that he would pick up on that I did not?
Then he said, “You shouldn’t have cut through that area—it’s a shithole. Christ, I hate going over there, even to see your sister.”
I was listening when I spotted something completely gonzo.
An older construction worker standing by a dump truck: he had a white mustache divided into two braids, each reaching down to his chest and tied with ribbons.
“You are never going to believe what I just saw,” I said, barely able to contain myself. I was actually snorting, and that was a good thing. Two days before, I had found a breast lump and was in a three-week long queue for a diagnostic mammogram. I needed a good laugh.
“What the hell’s going on?” he asked.
I described the man with the mustache combed and plaited into two fifteen-inch long ropes.
“You’re kidding me,” my father said. “Say that again.”
“He had two long braids, kind of like Willie Nelson’s,” I said, still screeching, “except they were his mustache.”
“Jeezus H. Christ,” he said.
“If you had been sitting next to me,” I said, “you would have pissed your pants.”
“You get a lot of bumpkins in the construction industry,” he observed.
He was qualified to speak, having achieved a 50-year perfect safety record.
He continued, “Can you imagine having to wake up next to that each morning?”
I took a break long enough to say, “Maybe he braids it for safety reasons.”
“Safety reasons, my ass,” my father said. “He’s gonna get a big surprise when one of those braids wraps around the axle of a tire.”
I screamed with a little too much glee, “He’s gonna get his face ripped off!”
We were laughing so hard, I needed to pull over.
“Well,” my father said, “at least you got the day off with a good laugh,” not realizing that the biggest laugh I got wasn’t from the braided mustache. There had been a time when I wouldn’t have been able to call him up off the cuff, nor would I have found his wry observations amusing, since I was often the recipient of his criticism and sometimes sarcasm. From the Greek sarkazein, “to tear flesh.” And he tore mine.
“Tuna fish costs a buck a can—you couldn’t eat something else?” he shouted once, when I was a bulimic teenager. “Your ass looks like the back end of a truck.”
He said worse, but that’s enough to convey a sense of the power of his words.
I prefer to remember his impersonal observations. He gave instructions for fixing a radiator the way Jimmy Rogers sang “Pistol Packing Papa,” and toyed with language like a cowboy poet.
“I told you, it’s Trader Joe’s,” I said once, “not Trailer Joe’s.”
“Well, I like to say Trailer Joe’s,” he said, “and I can call it anything I want.”
“I wouldn’t give you a dime for Cambridge, and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for Boston.”
Or of my sister who “married up”:
“She likes to run with the high-rollers.”
Or his highest compliment for another man.
“That guy is a good lookin’ bastard.”
Sometimes he said a thing that wasn’t necessarily poetic, but the delivery was comic gold. Like the time I gave him a handheld blender to make smoothies; he was getting dental implants, and his mouth hurt. He took the blender out of the box, looking it up and down carefully, and gave a long slow whistle, almost as if he were examining a shiny new power tool. Then he frowned and looked at me sidelong.
“Do you think this thing would shred lettuce?”
Or the time I told him he should sit rather than stand in the Stanna chairlift we got for our mother, because his caregiver warned about falls.
“Falls, what do you mean, falls?” He marched over to the chairlift, a bottle of chocolate Ensure in one hand. “I call this ‘the trolley.’ Watch closely, because I’m gonna show you something.”
He flipped up the seat, stepped onto the footrest, and smacked the switch.
“That’s all there is too it,” he said in what I called his “man-voice,” the one he reserved for instruction on all things tools and mechanics. He let the chairlift take him up a few feet then stopped.
“Now pay attention,” he said, descending.
When he got to the landing, he stepped off.
“How the hell am I gonna I fall off? I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I used to jump off a tire twice your height, when I got off the machine.”
“Yes, and you broke your ankle,” I said. “I remember Mom had to cut the boot off your foot because it was so swollen.”
He pointed an index finger at me sharply.
“That happened exactly one time. Once.”
“Okay,” I said, “but what if—’
“I l-o-o-o-v-e this baby,” he sang. “Christ, I ride it upstairs just so I can find something up there to do.”
Then he laughed uproariously.
Before retirement, he had another “baby,” bright yellow with a toothy bucket the size of a boat. I was driving him to an appointment one day when he swiveled in his seat to stare longingly at a similar machine being hauled on a trailer.
“I miss being up high like that,” he has observed wistfully, “feeling all that power in my hands.”
Power in his hands. That was the chairlift’s switch, albeit a poor substitute.
“I give up,” I said, handing him a package of toilet paper. “This needs to go upstairs.”
The best of what he offered up is indelibly etched in memory because often, he was teaching a lesson. Like when I got my first car, a tiny cheaply made Mitsubishi that I guarded as if it were a Delorian. It was time for an oil change so I read the manual, then I called my father. I wanted to be economical, as I earning peanuts at the time. I asked, should take the car back to the dealership or the handyman garage down the street?
My father the union man was no fan of dealerships, corporate fat cats, Republicans, or the New York Yankees. All the same thing.
“Those bastards tell you to get the oil changed every 3,000 miles so they can make a buck,” he said. “It ain’t gonna hurt the engine if you wait until 3,500, or even 4,000, and any mechanic worth his salt can do an oil change.”
Okay, so local repair guy.
“I have one more question,” I continued. “When I get the oil changed, do I have to change the filter, too?”
Yes: I had a liberal arts education but zero knowledge of cars.
There was a pregnant pause, so long I wondered if the line had gone dead.
“Let me ask you this, Melanie,” he said finally. “After you take a shower, do you put your dirty underwear back on?”
That story is over 25 years old. I didn’t laugh then but I do now, because I appreciate his unmatched wit. And now I know where he got it, sitting in his father’s general store surrounded by fisherman warming their hands near a fire or sipping a bit of rum. He was a boy then, which accounts for the quality of innocence that comes through in the delicate emotions that surface in his face: he enters the story in order to tell it. Before I knew the story of his childhood in Nova Scotia, that quality told my father possessed the softness I yearned for. And it conveyed as well an attentiveness to the wonder in all things. A writing sensibility, if you are fussy; clear-eyed presence, if you are not.
A person of such singular talent can tell a tale that is raunchy and even offensive to some…because his listeners recognize in the telling the promise of the rare gift that is love. That’s the aim of any good writer, and in my father’s case, it almost always comes through, which is better than I can say for myself, with a hefty list of manuscript rejections to my name.
My favorite tales, by far, are the two he told at last Christmas celebration attended by the entire family, four daughters, their partners, and all seven grandchildren. At the dinner table, my sister Stephanie suggested we take turns expressing an appreciation or memory in lieu of grace. When my turn came, I rose to tell the assembled grandchildren that if they stood on the highest point of Boston Common, they see evidence of their grandfather in Boston landmarks: the Prudential Center, the Hancock Tower, and Beacon Hill.
“Papa is everywhere you look,” I said.
After dinner, I and my sister Jennifer and her husband were sitting by a fire as children tore around in the adjoining room, playing with their new toys. Still beaming from my dinnertime appreciation and warmed by a splash of red wine, our father embarked on stories about Boston from “before your time.”
“I had a boss from Winchester—” (Stephanie lived in Winchester) “and this guy was a real pain in the ass,” he began. “He gave me special parking in Boston, for the pickup, but I’d ruther go in on the train. It was January, and I used to get off at the Charles Street station and walk through the hospital, naturally, because it was warm.
“I get there one day, just coming daylight,” he continued, squinting as if he could see dawn sky, “go out through the sliders, and this guy, the superintendent, is waiting to open the gate so I can go in and warm up the machine.”
He turned his head as if something had caught his attention.
“I look down the street to my right, and here comes a black chick. I would say she’s forty years old, maybe forty-five, nice looking girl—big, probably five-ten—and she walks right up to me. She says, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’”
He feigned a stunned look.
“I says, ‘Can’t you see what I’m doing? I got my lunch bag, and I’m waiting for my boss to open the gate so I can get in there and start my machine.’ She says, ‘Do you want to get laid?’ ‘No, I don’t want to get laid,’ I says, ‘I’m going to work.’ She says, ‘C’mon, c’mon’—”
He stopped to chuckle and wipe his mouth.
“And what do you think she did next?” He looked at each of us in turn. “She had a full-length fur coat on, and she whipped it open. And she didn’t have one stitch of clothing on, not even underwear!”
Jennifer seemed always to be studying our father, as if he were a puzzle she was trying to figure out.
“Okay, so she’s nude,” she said expressionlessly, her foot tapping. “Then what?”
“You get what I’m saying?” He slapped his thigh. “She was bollocky bare-assed!”
“Yeah, we get it,” said Jennifer, “but what did you do?”
“What was I supposed to do? I says to myself, ‘Jeezus Christ, I’m on my way to work, I ain’t got time for this foolishness.’”
He leaned back and mimed pointing at something in the distance, his voice nearly a whisper.
“I tell her, ‘You see the guy over there unlocking the gate? It’s cold and his hands are freezing, and he can’t get the gate open. Just wait a minute, and when he gets the gate open, you walk up to him and say, ‘I’m looking for some action.’”
“So you punted her to your boss,” Jennifer said evenly. “You pimped her.”
He looked at my sister incredulously.
“How else was I gonna get rid of her? She walks up to the guy, and she whips it open on him, too!”
I was dying.
“And the boss figured out you did it?” Jennifer asked.
“Oh shit, he was all bent out of shape,” said our father. “He says to me, ‘Can you imagine these hookers roaming around come daylight, no clothes on and it’s cold enough to freeze the ass off a skunk?’”
The jig was up. Jennifer’s lips twitched, betraying a smile.
“I says to him, ‘everyone has a right to make a living.’”
But our father wasn’t finished.
“Around the same time, I was excavating a basement over in Roxbury, near the city hospital, and there was a rundown duplex next to the job. The boss told me that I could put all the dirt along the backside of this building.
“Pretty soon I had a mound of dirt about fifty feet high”—he motioned with his hand—“but I didn’t realize the dirt from the pile was going over the top and it was rolling down a hill, going right up to the back doors of this house. There was nobody in it as far as we knew. Anyhow, I finished my work, closed up for the day, and got on the train.”
He wiped his hands as if to say “that was that.”
“But as soon as I walked in the house,” he said, “the phone rang.”
“I pick up and I hear, ‘You gotta go back into Harrison Avenue right away.’ What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Why do I have to go back into Harrison Avenue right away?’”
“‘Well,’ the boss says, ‘you piled all this dirt that you excavated, and half of it is up against the side of this building,’ he says. ‘There are four or five Chinese hookers in there, and they’re screaming because they can’t get out.’”
Jennifer and I howled.
“This ain’t bullshit!” he said, as if we were laughing with disbelief. “I’m not making this us. I had to turn around go back in, and it was November, pitch-dark. We had to put up spotlights—they had two guys watching me—and I had to pull all the dirt back from the building so they could let the Chinese hookers out. Aw, Jeezus, you never saw anything so pathetic in your life.”
I wish I could so fearlessly tell a tall tale. I wish I had such stories to tell, as he does. There isn’t a shred of artifice about the man, just plain talk from a man who worked a plain job and lived a seemingly plain life—no drinking, carousing, or ill-gotten gains. Like many men who live upright lives, he worked hard, lamented his taxes, grew bent in old age, and watches too much cable news.
But those tales tell of an extraordinary life, in no smart part because he can captivate an audience with accounts of the ordinary, imparting a sparkle and depth that make all our lives richer.
It is a welcome legacy.