A few weekends ago, I was at my mother’s house and saw 500 Days of Summer for the first time. I found it alternately enjoyable and infuriating (just a tad too twee at times for my taste, like much indie-ish film fare), but stuck with it the whole way. The one scene that stuck with me was where the main characters are at a park, and Joseph Gordon Levitt starts doodling on Zooey Deschanel’s arm with a pen. It stuck with me because the pen he was using was the exact same one my father used for his crossword puzzles. A black Pilot with a thin plastic yellow top on the cap. I realized all at once that I was once surrounded by these pens, and that I hadn’t seen one since he died, to the point that I’d thought Pilot stopped production on them because he accounted for a large percentage of their sales. (They managed to soldier along without him, it turns out.)
My father had tons of these black pens, and their red brethren. When he did a New York Times crossword puzzle, he would write a letter in each space with his black pen in this italic, almost calligraphic script, where each character would have at least one open space. For instance, a “T” would have a very wide, outlined vertical base, topped by a flat horizontal line. At some point in the puzzle completion process, he would fill in these empty spaces with the red pen.
I’m not sure why he did this, if it was something he imitated or came up with his own. I’m not sure at what point in the puzzle completion process he would fill in each black letter with red–was it when he was sure of an answer, or just when he remembered to do it? Just a few of many questions it never occurred to me to ask when I might have been able to get answers.
This is the time of year when I think about my father. It’s also the time of year when I seem to be forcibly reminded of him by random encounters. I don’t think it’s anything cosmic, really; when you’re attuned to something, you’re bound to notice it more than usual, like when you first learn a word and suddenly it seems to appear in everything you read.
Last week on a lunch break–a rare one where I actually left the office–I found myself along a stretch of Sixth Avenue where I hardly ever go anymore. On my way back to the office, I passed by the Waverly Diner. My dad loved this place, and would all but demand we eat there when we would meet for lunch while I was going to NYU. Maybe because it was the kind of old school diner that’s harder and harder to find in the city, waiters in uniforms, cramped booths with coat racks, the ability to make decent stuffed mushrooms. He also had a soft spot for the Cafe Edison off of Times Square; much for the same reasons, I imagine. It’s a diner tucked away into a hotel lobby that you could never find unless you knew it was there.
Unfortunately, when I passed the Waverly, its windows were all taped up with pale beige butcher’s paper. I thought the place was closed, and my heart sank. As it turned out, the Waverly was simply being renovated. I stole a quick peek through the half-cracked front door. There was nothing inside but large, idle tools and sheetrock dust. That was almost worse than it being gone forever. More than once over the past few years, I’ve had this thought that I should go have lunch there on my father’s behalf. Now I can’t, even when the Waverly opens, because it will not be the Waverly he loved. Realizing this filled me with a very deep sense of failure.
And almost simultaneously, I experienced another event that filled me with–well, not pride. Maybe more like Bart Simpson’s “Not-Shame” he briefly felt for Homer. A while ago, I bought the entire Monty Python series on DVD because Amazon had it on sale for a criminally cheap amount. It arrived and sat atop my cable box for months, because I realized I’d burnt myself out these shows a long time ago and had no burning desire to watch them again, which was a depressing revelation (though not nearly as depressing as it would have been if I’d paid full price).
Then, a week or two ago, The Kid (cannot call her The Baby anymore, sadly) noticed the box set and its colorful illustrations, and said out of nowhere, “I wanna watch that!” I tried to dissuade her at first. Obviously, an almost-kindergarten-aged kid isn’t going to understand the vast majority of Monty Python’s humor, and there’s some bits you’d prefer they not understand. But I wasn’t all that much older than her when I saw Monty Python for the first time, thanks to my dad’s religious watching of it on PBS. (Not that I really got most of what I saw either.)
So I made a few judicious choices. I showed her some of the Terry Gilliam cartoons, which she loved as much as I did when I was a kid. And I showed her the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, which she has now demanded to rewatch almost every day since. Her Nerdening is nearly complete, if it wasn’t already. Seeing Monty Python with her (even in bite-sized chunks) felt a lot like taking her to a ballgame, like seeing something I love through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time.
And I also realized that the reason I don’t watch Monty Python anymore–other than the fact that I watched every single episode a katrillion times in high school–is that when I watch it, I hear my father imitating all the best lines. Long after my daughter had scampered out of the living room, I sat and watched the “Piranha Brothers” sketch for the first time in years, and all I could hear in my head was his mimicking of Michael Palin as an East End housewife (“Kids were different back then. They didn’t have their ‘eads filled up with all this Cartesian dualism…”) and John Cleese as Dinsdale Piranha’s paramour (“What’s more, he knew how to treat a female impersonator.”).
This morning, while waiting for the bus, I slipped in my iPod headphones and hit “shuffle.” I will swear on the holy book of your choice that the first two songs it spit out where these:
- “C.I.A.” by Ted Leo, which makes me think of him for a multitude of reasons
- “Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life” by Bobby Bare a country/gospel song written and perfomed in complete and utter sincerity, in which the singer asks The Lord to be “a part of your master game plan.” The title used to crack my dad up. I know Jean Shepherd mentioned it more than once on his radio show as a stellar example of American Slob Art.
So there I’m standing at the bus stop, trying to hold it together, and I suddenly remember that my dad didn’t even like music. He owned one album of doo-wop songs; every other record in his collection was comedy, Tom Lehrer, George Carlin. He’d listen to classical music on WQXR while doing work, but it was all background to him. And I’m ready to lose it listening to an art form he didn’t even like.
It’s strange, almost unfair, to feel my father’s absence so profoundly when he took almost nothing seriously. It feels like an ironic curse, like a glutton having his mouth sewn shut. And yet, this time of year, I have this crushing weight on me of someone who was light as air. The only explanation I have for it is the way he died, and my role in that.
I wrote this last year, on the fifth anniversary of his death. Today, it’s six years, and I feel almost exactly the same way now as I did when I wrote it. I imagine I’ll feel the same way 20 years from now, 50 years from now, whenever. Which is to say, the absolute worst feeling a nerd like me can have: I know little about him and will, in all likelihood, never know more.
I can only grasp at pens and diners and hope that something of him–the best parts of him–lives on when my daughter laughs at John Cleese whipping his gangly legs down a London sidewalk. Six years later, I still feel like he looks in that sketch: Stoic, teeth gritted, barely in control of my extremities, but moving forward nonetheless.