So I talked to the old man again. He called one night last week to bring me up to speed on the condition of his “estate”—and boy, did that not take a long time—before moving onto other subjects. Mainly, I was wondering about his health. In the first call he’d said he doesn’t have much time left, and I was still a little too dumbfounded to ask if it was a matter of mere feeling or based on an actual prognosis. Turns out that, though he does have emphysema, it’s more the former than the latter, but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know the clock is running when you’re 83, half-blind and tired as all hell. His talking about how dependent he is on others drove the point home, so I wasn’t shocked when he started talking openly of snuffing it after he concludes our business. (He actually asked the question “So what have I got to live for?” without it sounding like a plea for, well, anything—not even time.)
We talked some more about all that other jazz, and it was a chance to ask him some questions I’ve been harboring lo these many years, thanks in no small part to Mom’s propensity for spinning tales taller than Samuel Clemens’ eye. Liquor and insecurity are great fuel for loony tunes, and Mom was always embellishing stories—stories which often had a grain of truth—to make her or her kids stand out just a tad from the rest of the crowd. She delayed telling my sister and me that our father was illegitimate or adopted, which was the reasonable thing to do, even if it did make me think I was Jewish for the first nine or ten years of my life. One night, though, either because I was old enough or she was drunk enough, she finally disabused me of the notion, but not without immediately replacing it with a perfect blend of wish fulfillment and high camp. The new story went that my father’s actual parents had been the great alcoholic actor John Barrymore and a chorus-girl whom he’d knocked up; then, perhaps feeling the story still lacked a certain absurd pizzazz, Mom added that the go-between between the chorus girl and my foster grandparents was none other than Groucho Marx. She didn’t pass any of this off as fact, simply as a story she’d encountered at some pass—while reading Bulfinch, perhaps—but still, it’s nothing to dangle in front of children with already shaky identity issues. So that was one of the things I asked Dad about, and on the other end of the line I could hear him saying “Ahhhh…” in the tone people use when they’re shaking their head back and forth. All he knows is that Nanny and Pa—the Lithuanian Blocks, or Blockavitches, or whatever the hell we were called over there—took him home from the hospital and that his birth certificate listed the mother’s name as “Unknown”. According to him, though, my grandfather actually did know Groucho, and used to play cards with him. Talk about your gone worlds…
So there was stuff like that to go over, and there was also some catching up to do about my three half-brothers. Each of them was born to separate mothers, like Ben Cartwright’s sons, so they’ve always been scattered to hell and back. The oldest one is an insurance exec in New England; the one in line after me is a heroin addict and MIA; the youngest of all—Raul—apparently has his own ranch in Chihuahua state. (I did meet the junkie back in the ’80s, and he’s definitely the one who got Dad’s chick-magnet genes: while we sat at a table waiting for him to join us, he concentrated on his pinball game, totally ignoring both us and the cute young barmaid who stood entranced at his elbow.)
I wrote all that about ten days ago. Since then, well, shit’s been happening, plus my boss for some strange reason has been working my butt to the bone, leaving me hardly any time to stare into space and chew over these weird remains. The gears keep turning, though…
Anyway, I guess it was last Tuesday that I jumped on the elevator, heading downstairs for a smoke. It stopped on the sixth floor, though, and a woman got on—glasses, ponytail, attractive, with a couple creases at the corners of her mouth the only tip-off that she was anywhere close to my age. We were alone in the elevator, and she immediately started staring at me, first kind of slit-eyed, then with her mouth falling open as if to say, “Hey, dumbass, don’t you remember anything?” Finally she just asked outright, “Is your name Tom?” It was Laura, a woman I used to work with as paralegals; worked with, and dated, too, for a brief while back in the ’80s. She’s thinner than she was, and her hair’s a different color now, but it was her all right. She was one of the smarter women I ever went out with: she actually laughed at my damn Stalingrad jokes, and one morning in a North Beach diner, after eavesdropping on a quartet of 20-something dudes who were dropping their g’s at the next table, she whispered to me, “Listen—those guys are pretending to be stupid.” I haven’t seen her since ’87 or so (I don’t even remember exactly how it ended), but she told me she married some guy just a couple years later, and they’ve had three kids.
That was the night I happened to hunker down with a couple of Neil Young’s concert documentaries. The first one, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, is close to perfect as a musical experience, but it’s also the one where Young unwisely dressed his roadies as Jawas and had them bustle about onstage—in clogs—and slow-dance to “Like a Hurricane”. A disaster. Then I threw in Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which captured Young’s concert at the Ryman 3-4 years ago. I was still chewing over Laura telling me that her oldest son is 21 now. It was like, Jesus, forget how fast five years go by nowadays; we’ve hit the point where you run into an old friend and a whole life has transpired in the meantime. I couldn’t help but get a little masochistic and start toting it up like a scorecard. In the 23 years since I’d seen her, she’s been married, had someone waiting for her every night of her life, was busy with a career and raising kids and putting a home together, and all that time I was doing…What, exactly? When her first kid was turning 5, I was alone, dropping out of A.A., and starting to drink again. When he turned 10 I was futilely casting about for a change in my life—any change. When he turned 15 another relationship was falling apart and I was settling into what would be another half-decade of hardship and near solitude. And now here was Neil Young again, almost thirty years after Rust Never Sleeps. It was poignant enough to find him no longer the perfect convergence of face and voice and material he embodied my entire adult life, but rather a portlier, grayer, jowlier outline of that figure, a man incapable of hitting the high notes of his own songs any longer, and if I was 20 years old and seeing him for the first time, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that he once held out a world of riches. But he and his band were making their way through a lot of the old tunes as if none of that mattered, and the concert also marked the first public airing of material he wrote after the doctors found an aneurysm in his brain. Heart of Gold is brimming with Demme’s usual good sense and good taste, and with Young surrounded by a few close friends (including his wife) and running through a handful of songs frosty with the fleetingness of life, it works on you like a late Yeats poem.
At the moment, though, it just made me feel like Spinal Tap at Elvis’ grave—“Too much fucking perspective”—and somewhere in the middle of it I found myself crying out “Aw, shit!” to the empty livingroom. My original plan didn’t make a lick of sense to begin with, but listening to Young drove the fact home hard: What, I’m gonna wait until the old man croaks and then fly in, just in time to watch the estate liquidators cart away his old TVs? It’s past the point of being about who did what to whom or how anybody got hurt by it. At a high-water point of The Ambassadors, James says of his hero Lambert Strether, “That was the refinement of his supreme scruple—he wished so to leave what he had forfeited out of account. He wished not to do anything because he had missed something else, because he was sore or sorry or impoverished, because he was maltreated or desperate; he wished to do everything because he was lucid and quiet, just the same for himself on all essential points as he had ever been.” That’s advice any man can take to heart, and though I’ve spent most of my life pretty damn far from being either lucid or quiet, even I can see I need to visit him now just so I don’t spend the rest of my life wondering why I didn’t do it while I still had the chance.
So, the upshot, if not in a nutshell: I’m going to go spend a couple days with him next month, then fly on to Santa Fe and see my sister for the first time in 10 years. “Dad”—which is a strange damn word when you think about it—was almost giddy to hear the news, which was nice, but it also loosened that parental yakkiness gene that’s driven so many of my friends crazy over the years: now he’s hitting me with those “Something just occurred to me” calls, and even making one special call just to let me know that he managed to load my phone number into his speed-dial. Thank god we’re all going to be dead soon, that’s all I can say. I couldn’t begin to do this otherwise.