Mendel Letters 57 — Dangling Conversations
December 11, 2021
Maybe it was the culture of the times, men did not share their emotions, or just you, but I can only remember a few conversations that we had as I was growing up and even after. There was usually silence. We never spoke about Mommy being sick, about my brother Warren being gay, or your decision after my stepmother Fay died to move to Florida. You bore your burdens deep inside yourself; these things just happened.
But the thing is, the few conversations that we did have were very important to me.
I’ve told this story before but it bears repeating because it has often helped me keep perspective on things that are bothering me but that someone has no control over. I worked with you in your Queens luncheonette on Saturdays starting when I was 14. At 5 AM in the morning we would walk to the IRT subway stop near our Bronx apartment. But the longer walk was from the BMT stop in Astoria to the store. All winter you would complain, “I can’t stand the cold. Summer is okay, I just can’t stand the cold.” In the summer I heard, “I can’t stand the heat. Winter is okay, I just can’t stand the heat.” Finally, one year I said, “You realize that all winter you complain about the cold and say you don’t mind the summer heat and all summer you complain about the heat and say you don’t mind the winter cold?” You looked at me, paused for a few seconds, and said “Can’t a working man just complain?”
When I was seventeen, just before I started college, we had a very brief conversation about drugs and sex one morning while we were opening up the luncheonette. Basically you told me it was okay to have sex as long as I didn’t get the girl pregnant, but I should stay away from drugs. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had any sexual opportunities yet, and the reality was that my friends and I had been experimenting with drugs, mostly marijuana, for most of our senior year in high school. Later that year you forbade me to go to anti-war rallies, but of course I went anyway.
In college, I remember one particularly useful discussion and I owe you a lot of credit there, you told me I needed a “back-up plan.” The more deeply I became involved in anti-war and social justice activities, the more I was convinced that radical change was coming to the United States. I fancied myself a revolutionary. You pointed out that the revolution might not happen and I needed an alternative plan just in case. I was a history major and decided to take teacher certification classes, “just in case.” The revolution didn’t happen as planned and I’ve now been a teacher for about fifty years.
Another helpful discussion concerned my son Solomon, although I didn’t realize it at the time. When Sol was sixteen, he was driving his mother and me batty. You and I were having lunch in a local diner, I think we both had our favorite sandwich, chicken salad on seeded rye with lettuce and extra mayo, when I started to complain about Solomon. You listened and eventually started to laugh. I said, “I don’t get it, what’s so funny?” You laughed again and responded, “I had to live with you.”
One of our discussions went particularly badly and I have had to live with the outcome for a long time. My younger brother Warren dropped out of college after his first semester and when you and Mother moved to Coop City he got his own apartment. Maybe two years later the three of us were driving somewhere together when he asked you for money so he could go back to school. I suggested he start out with night classes so he could continue to work and see if that was what he really wanted to do. He blew up, told me it was none of my business, he wasn’t asking me for money, and I should shut up. You remained silent while we argued back and forth.
Warren eventually finished college and law school. Much later I realized that he saw my position on the money as rejection of him because he was gay. Over the next few years, Warren and I saw each other at family events including my wedding and my son’s symbolic bris, but we never reconciled. I tried to explain that at the time of the fight I didn’t know he was gay, but he didn’t buy it. You and Warren eventually grew close again. When he was dying at the age of 37 from HIV/AIDS we would go to visit him and his partner at their Battery Park City apartment. You would sit by his bedside and talk with him, but he did not want me to come in. I sat in the building lobby and his partner came down to keep me company.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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