Beg, Borrow, Steal
My old man was like Zeus’s father Cronos: he couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him. Life radiated from the central pulse of his scrap-metal yard; the world beyond it seemed to make him defensive and nervous. Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, he took my bookishness as a personal affront. “Which do you think is worth more,” he once asked me, “a commodity or some goddamn idea?”
Among the family, my violent fights with him were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”
A week later, I moved away from home, supporting myself with a night job in a book store.
Nevertheless, when I was in my early twenties, driving a cab, with a newborn son at home, my father offered me a chance to join the family business. “You get all the major holidays,” he said. “You quit work every day at five. And to make a living you don’t have to be a genius.”
He seemed hurt when I turned him down. “Those notebooks you scribble in won’t get you on the goddam subway,” he said. He was right, and during the lean years that followed I sometimes imagined that he was eyeing me with satisfaction. I was getting what I deserved. The idea of writing for a living was ludicrous to him, unless you were as famous as Arthur Miller or cooked up gags for one of his revered television stars. My literary ambitions were self-destructive and pretentious.
The family metal business was not pretentious. Pig iron, scrap metal and cold roll steel were the deities of our household. They represented value stripped down to its zero point, tangible and unadorned. To get by in my father’s world, you had to be tough, like he was. He didn’t have colleagues, only enemies. Every dollar, he taught us, had to be pried from men who would just as soon see us starve.
My brothers, Larry and Jay, had accepted his offer to join the business, and when he died, nine years ago, they inherited it. More than a livelihood, it had become the source of our family’s identity; our New York achievement. Our immigrant grandfather had started with scrap metal back in the 1920s. Prior to that, in the Ukraine, iron work had been the family trade. Jay and Larry enjoyed a special status for keeping this tradition (and, by extension, our Jewish forefathers) alive.
I am stunned, therefore, when I learn that my brothers have decided to liquidate the business and retire while still in their prime. The news puts me in the untenable position of mourning the passing of something that I had strongly rejected. I ride the number 6 train to the South Bronx in order to see the place one last time. When I arrive, the cinder block warehouse is almost empty. “You’re looking at a carcass,” says Jay, reading my mind. The building has already been sold, he tells me. In a month the new owners will move in, a sprinkler company that used to be down in TriBeCa. Larry examines the remaining scraps of steel, doing his best to look busy. They seem embarrassed by the state of affairs, and uneasy about my being there for no apparent reason other than to scrutinize their lives. “What will you do now?” I ask. “Learn to cook,” says Jay sarcastically. “Climb mountains,” says Larry. A rat hurries along the warehouse wall. I am reminded of Freud’s remark that when rats appear in a dream, they usually stand for the dreamer’s siblings.
Sitting with them in their cramped, dusty office, I feel the presence of our father. His larger office was in the adjoining room. It looks much as he left it, except for the addition of an exercise bike which my brothers rarely use. Larry once had aspirations to be an artist and on the wall opposite our father’s old desk hangs a painting he did of the warehouse crammed with rolled coils of steel. The picture of prosperity. “I feel that I’m letting Dad down,” says Larry quietly. “He never would have allowed this to happen.” Our father’s stamp on him was enormous. A few weeks after he died, Larry started wearing his pinkie ring, a blue sapphire set in a square of gold. He took to smoking his cigars, driving his old, wheezy Mercedes, and thrusting his chin out like our father, growling at people without provocation. I thought of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley assuming the mannerisms of Dickie Greenleaf, though in Larry’s case this was a benign, seemingly unconscious homage.
A couple of months later, as if snapping out of a trance, he ditched the Mercedes, put away the pinkie ring, and returned to himself -solitary and shy. I realized then that this had been Larry’s way of mourning: he had been keeping our father alive in himself.
Jay has few misgivings about quitting. Liquidation, in fact, was his idea. “When I feel guilty,” he says, “I remember what I went through with the old man. And I think, to hell with it, I had enough. I can’t stand this place anymore.” As the eldest son, Jay felt coerced into joining the business. Expectations for him were higher than for the rest of us. Had the pressure been less, he believes, he might have led a more rewarding life doing something else. Our father punished him for that ambivalence. “He’d come in and slap his cane on my desk, spoiling for a fight. ‘So you want to get out of here?’ he’d ask. Everything I did was wrong.” For thirty years they tormented each other with accumulated rancor.
We go to a diner for lunch and return to the office. The afternoon drags slowly on. The phone is silent. The truck wants a buyer. The line cutter, which was used to shear rolls of steel into sheets like plywood, waits to be hauled to Mexico where metal work is thriving. My brothers worry about getting paid. The business has always been small, with rarely more than six employees. Two remain, hanging around with nothing to do, impatient to go home. They remember our father differently than we do. “We called him The Pigeon,” says one, “because every time the cutter went silent he’d stick his head out the office window to see what was going on.” One morning, eager to get to work, he jumped out of his car while it was still in gear. “It smashed into a fire hydrant, but your father didn’t notice. Or he didn’t give a damn. He wasn’t easy to work for, but that man had drive.” The drive kept the business going. My brothers, they believe, have broken a tacit contract.
I step outside for some air. The last time I was here, in the 1980s, barefoot crack whores prowled the streets in the freezing cold. Today, the neighborhood is slightly less dramatic, though ample signs of misery remain. Flanked by two enormous waste-burning plants, men in rags lower traps into the East River. One snares a blue claw crab. The man next to him looks on jealously. Squatter camps made of discarded car parts spill out from under the expressway.
Shortly before he died, my father recalled the day I turned down his offer to join the business. “It was just as well,” he said. “You wouldn’t have lasted. Your brothers do better.”