Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Your father had this friend..."

To hear my mother explain it, the reason why we really don’t have that many family photographs comes down to one reason: “you father had this friend, and…” Ask her how the antique loveseat that was an antique got "antiqued", you get the same answer, or a close variant: ”your father had a friend and the friend had this brother in law…”

My father had a lot of friends, and many of them reputable men in Cleveland’s growing eastside Jewish gentry. They weren’t the problem. To the contrary, Dad had connections and his real friends were generous to a fault. If you needed an Oldsmobile, you bought from Abe Palunis. Wanted a chocolate phosphate? You went to Danny Boudin. If you needed a can of paint you went down to Pekot's Hardware on Buckeye Road. Never mind if it was out of the way, these guys would take care of you. And if dad didn't know you, then we didn't need what you had. He never knew a Pontiac dealer, so we never had a Pontiac.

My dad's friends weren’t the problem.

The problem was that my father knew a lot of other people, and he tried to believe the best in these people, even if he had met them just once. He would sing the praises of these guys based on his belief that they were the greatest people in the world simply because they had a good handshake, or had said hello during a steam bath at the country club. To hear him talk, these folks could have been his long lost best friend from grade school.

Even though he’s been dead a while, I still hear my father raving about the talents of his buddies. “You know Mort! Yes you do. Mort Rivkin...He took the pictures at the Rosenblatt’s daughter in law's parents 50th anniversary. The guy's work should be hanging in the museum with his own gallery…I'm telling you, he's a Master…”

The guy taking the pictures could have been an axe murderer, but because Dad “knew him” meant that he was a "straight shooter", or it meant that the guy was struggling and had cut my father a deal. More often than not, it meant that the guy was one of Dad’s legal clients and he had to be working as a condition of their parole.

The “photographers” were the worst. They usually showed up without their cameras, and father would "just" happened to have my mother’s slide camera in the car “and what do you know, Mister its your lucky day because its loaded with film,” and off the guy would go with some fuzzy instructions.

The pictures were always horrible, the type of horrible that you can’t share with other people who were at the same event because they were caught doing unladylike things like straighting their slips, or things that gentlemen do like scratching the inside of their noses in an attempt to pick it on the sly, but make it look like a drive by scratching instead.

There’s a reason why these pictures weren't flattering: the guys taking the pictures would get crocked. The Jews of my father’s era were notorious for not drinking, because if you get drunk, “someone can make off with your goods.” But because the Jewish gentry of my father’s era wanted to impress people with their middle class "class", formal functions always had an open bar, like your find at an Episcopalian or Presbyterian guys function. Since dad's "friends" were usually not Jews, when offered an open bar, they drank, and they usually drank a great deal, only to stumble about snapping pictures that they insisted were “action shots”.

This how my mother ended up in my eldest brother’s Bar Mitzvah pictures lacking the top of her head, or just had the back of her head captured in a moment of rare rage given off by my father's sister. Or, how a family picture didn’t get shot at another function because the “photographer” was hitting on my dad’s secretary. Or how every picture at my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary was taken with people’s eye lids closed. "Say what you will, but at least the guy was consist ant," my mother would say.

After the events, we waited to see the pictures, which dad would take the film to a photo lab on the west side of Cleveland. Why did my dad drive forty miles out of his way? “Your father knew this guy who had a photo lab," my mother explained. "I used to call him ‘Vlad The Impaler" because he was always in the dark room doing God knows what. He never came to the front counter – like he would melt in the store light. You had to wait for his wife who was Slovenian to come to the counter she and didn’t speak English, and she couldn't spell.”

What pictures we do have from era are either really good (because my mom hired a professional photographer before my dad could find another guy that "he knew") or really bad, and rose colored. The coloring is a testament to my father's thriftiness. Instead of buying the better Kodachrome film, which was stable and recorded magnificent color, my dad would spring for the less expensive Ektachrome, which, when it breaks down over time, turns everything muddy RED. Forty or fifty years after an event, everyone is pink, ladies lipstick has turned brown and nowhere is there anything green or blue. Even with today's imagining technology, its just easier to switch off the color completely and look at the images as black and white because the color correction would take hours.

By the late 1960s my father had a friend who sold him a Polaroid camera. This did nothing to solve the problem of family event pictures. My father would go through pack after pack of film, yet the pictures don't exist. After that point, my mother has a different explanation: “Your father had this Polaroid. Because there were no negatives, there were no reprints. And he would give these pictures away. No original, no picture. Thank your father.”

What follows are some memories from that 1962 Bar Mitzvah, muddy red, and unflattering. Thanks Dad.

I have no idea what got my Aunt's panties in a knot for this picture. But my mother is listening patiently, probably saying something like "Yes, Evie...You're so right Evie...Whatever you say Evie...I don't think he meant that like that Evie..."

Mom takes a Kent break (without the top of her head) while my Aunt Gladys (my mother's side of the family - a Methodist from down on the farm) nurses a glass of water. My Aunt Shirley (father's side of the family) is seated next to her, enjoying a refreshment; go Shirley, GO!"

Again, my mother is missing the top of her head. But its her face that captures the imagination. What could our Rabbi, lower left in the picture, have said to get that look? "Sol Shenkman's got a deal on bris' - two for one! Know anyone with twins?"

The other thing about this image - she's touching my father. "We" are not a touchy family. Not huggy at all. No "I love" you's. Its just the way it is. So to have proof that my mother is touching my father, even in passing before they started having marriage problems, sends a message that is both poignant and uncomfortable for me.


  1. when my folks played their own version of "leaving las vegas", loading the cars & heading back east, my moron father placed the box of old 8MM home movies on the very top of the pile in the trunk of the car. needless to say, when the box emerged, the films were a melted, destroyed mess. a fucking genius.

  2. Luckily I was able to get the family films back from the Shark (my final step mother) shortly before my Dad died in 1994. I had them all transferred to video, and repacked the films carefully in the basement.

    When I got them back, the video company had overlaid a classical music soundtrack onto them. When I popped them into the TV I was HORRIFIED to discover that watching them with the music made me feel like I was watching Schindler's List.

    If I redo them onto DVD, I thinking I'm either going with Bluegrass...

  3. and by the way....tell me about the rosenblatts.

  4. I will post in the blog about the Rosenblatts.