Photo: Jordan Cassway
Becoming A Man
By Bryan Schwartzman
We didn’t light Shabbat candles on Friday nights or go to synagogue on Saturday mornings but, with religious procession, we assembled in front of the TV on Football Sundays. Thirty minutes before kickoff, my father would call Angelo’s, the Sicilian-owned pizzeria on Francis Lewis Boulevard, mumbling instructions for the broccoli and pepperoni pie to be delivered by halftime. In the minutes that followed, school work, bill paying, work on our postage stamp yard, and all productive activity would cease. Sodas and pretzels in hand, my mother, father, and I would take our seats in the den filled with overgrown houseplants and bathed in beams of light. All our senses focused on the TV. Since the room wasn’t big enough for three chairs, my parents would claim their respective recliners while I was relegated to the carpeted floor, delicately balancing a plate and drink.
My mother, a high school guidance counselor, had long studied her x’s and o’s like an academic, eager to prove—to whom, I never quite knew—that she possessed as much knowledge of the gridiron as any man. As soon as the game began, she demanded silence, allowing the words of John Madden and Pat Summerall to carry throughout the house. Guests played no part in our football routine. My mother, who had little interest in playing hostess, felt called to cheer with her whole being, reacting to devastating hits with as much compassion as General Patton. She didn’t want anyone outside the family watching her watch football. Like one of those churchgoers who are moved by the spirit, she would yell zealously so that the men on the field might heed her words, and be mystically moved by her will to hold the line, hit hard, and avoid the needless penalties that deflate player and fan alike. Once, after the Giants managed a crucial interception, my mother took a celebratory leap out of her recliner and sliced her hand on the low hanging ceiling lamp. The incident required a trip to the emergency room and six stitches.
Absorbed by the last minutes of the pre-game show, I nonetheless heard the doorbell ring followed by a voice that sounded as if it belonged to a manic sportscaster. My mother let him inside. I stood, because a boy of twelve is expected to stand and greet a visitor. My dad, though, remained affixed to his recliner, hand on his Pepsi, his long week of ferrying commuters to and from Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad manifesting itself in full-body weariness.
“You must be Benji,” the man who introduced himself as Patrick said to me, as our Dachshund L.T., named for the Giants’ great linebacker Lawrence Taylor, yipped at his toes.
Patrick had a bony, sunken face and eyes that seemed to recede into their sockets. He must have been about six foot three but appeared to lack the strength to stand fully upright. Wearing tattered jeans and a stained, long-sleeved Giants shirt, he could easily have passed for a subway panhandler. I’d never talked to him, but knew he lived in the red brick apartment building that shared our street in the Bayside section of Queens. I’d seen him a few times sitting outside the building with a book open and headphones on his ears, seemingly oblivious to the world. In my mind I labeled him one of my mother’s charity cases. Sporadically, my mother would return home from school with a student carrying a bag or suitcase. The pregnant, abused, or homeless girls would sometimes stay as long as a month. She’d never before chosen an adult man.
“Sorry to crash but my TV’s broke and I just have to see the Giants and I don’t drink anymore so I can’t exactly go to a bar, and your mother was kind enough to invite me,” he said, standing awkwardly in our living room, refusing to acknowledge the dog’s presence. “You like the Giants, Benji? The ’86 team saved my life. That was just as close to perfect football as I’ve ever seen.”
“I wish my dad had been alive to see it,” my mother said. “He was a tailor, and Sunday was his only day off. He’d go down to the park outside our apartment in the Bronx and listen to the games on his transistor. Sometimes he’d ask me to join him.”
My father craned his neck in our direction, and the two of us exchanged glances that said Who the hell is this guy? My mother motioned us all into the den. The popcorn-ceilinged room never sat three comfortably and now it needed to hold four. My dad slowly rose, trudging into the living room and, bending down awkwardly, wheeled the ottoman towards the den. Patrick reluctantly offered to assist, and my dad’s gesture communicated something between “Please, it’s no bother” and “I wouldn’t accept your help if my life depended on it.”
My parents took their seats and Patrick eased his way onto the ottoman, his long legs stretching nearly to the television. L.T. and I huddled near my dad’s chair, effectively cut off from the rest of the house. My dad placed his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t brush it aside.
“Whaddaya think, another Super Bowl this year?” Patrick asked after the opening kickoff return. “My spirits could use another jolt, how about yours? But who will the injury gods take? Everybody pays attention to market players. Sure, if Simms or Taylor goes down, that’s the season. But what about Jim Burt, Jumbo Elliott? The ones that make the unglamorous blocks that win games?”
My dad cracked his knuckles, as if that alone could enforce the unwritten rule demanding silence. Then he said, his words almost inaudible, his speech impeded by the half dozen pretzels in his mouth, “Patrick, don’t mean to be rude, but Joy here, she likes it real quiet during the games.”
“As long as we’re talking about football, it’s okay,” my mother said, not breaking her eye-lock with the TV. “Football is about the offensive and defensive lines. Quarterbacks get their names in the papers, but everything depends on the men who do battle in the trenches. The guys who block, who know how to read the other team’s line, who can protect a quarterback with their lives. That is who we need to stay healthy. If they do, if they work together, if there’s a balance of personalities and egos, then we have a chance. If they don’t, it’s not our year.”
Patrick began a belly laugh that collapsed under its own weight, ending as a near-violent cough.
“Joel,” he said, breathing heavily as he addressed my father. “You are one lucky man.”
My dad squinted his eyes and scrunched his nose in a way that didn’t appear menacing but signaled to me he was fighting to control anger. If Patrick kept up his flirting, I wondered if my dad might bearhug the life out of him.
Patrick and I didn’t talk much until my parents started cleaning the table after our halftime pizza. He asked if I liked music, to which I declared my unapologetic love for the Swedish glam-band Europe. I mean, they had a song about ninjas. What twelve-year-old boy wouldn’t be into that?
“I heard of Asia, but Europe?” he said. “You like glam? Do I call you Glam Boy? Joel, we’ve got to get your kid listening to the classics.”
“I’d rather see him read the classics,” my dad bellowed from the other room. My dad religiously consulted The Daily News sports section, though I’d never seen him pick up a book. Apparently, it was important to him that I did.
The Giants won that day, defeating the Washington Redskins by a final score of 27-10. When Patrick left, my mother handed him a bag containing two slices of pizza, four apples, and leftover meatloaf.
“I was going to eat that,” my dad said minutes later as my mother scrubbed the dishes. “The pizza’s fine, I get it, the man’s missed a few meals. But did you have to give him my meatloaf?”
No trouble understanding my father now. He projected and enunciated so well, it sounded like a public-address system blasting into your ears.
“Did you make the meatloaf? Besides, the man is hungry,” my mother shot back over the noise of water running from the faucet. “I just may have given him the best meal he’ll eat this week. It’s a mitzvah.”
I’d usually tune out when they’d argue about money, retreating to my room. This time, I lay on the living room floor with L.T.
“Mitzvah, ha,” Dad said, almost cackling. Unlike Mom, he’d grown up in a religious family; my grandparents kept kosher, Shabbat, all of it. My father wasn’t exactly a revolutionary freethinker, but he had little use for a belief system that didn’t help him pay the bills. “I love how you get all Jewish when it suits you. You don’t care about Friday night or doing anything at the Seder besides making matzah balls, but suddenly you’re all up on your mitzvot.”
I peeked into the kitchen to see my dad tower over my mother like a superior fighter, taunting an opponent to come in close.
“You know he was in ’nam, right?” she asked.
My mother placed the emphasis on he, reminding my dad, without saying it directly, that his own contribution to the Vietnam war effort consisted of driving a truck at Fort Dix in New Jersey, thousands of miles away from enemy fire. Me, I’m grateful he stayed out of harm’s way and brought me into existence.
“He could be a hero for all I care. He could have killed babies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the man is a junkie,” my dad said, his voice rising even louder. When he got this way, he could seem unhinged, as if his rage could kidnap his body and turn it to violence, though screaming at us was all he ever did. “I’ve been driving trains in the city long enough to know a junkie when I see one. I don’t want that man back in my home. I don’t want us to have anything to do with him.”
My dad marched out of the room to preempt any reply as I scrambled to get out of the way. He looked at me accusingly as he headed for his chair, as if I’d already chosen to side against him, which of course I had.
Patrick never returned for another game, never again set foot in our house. But a week later, my mother told me to grab the mashed potatoes and London broil from the fridge. As she leashed the dog, I understood where we were going.
“What about Dad?” I asked. “He’ll know.”
“We’ve reached a compromise,” she said conspiratorially. “We won’t talk about what we’ve done with our leftovers, and he won’t ask.”
Patrick buzzed us in as if he’d been expecting us. Shaved and still wearing his B & J Electronics uniform, he accepted the Tupperware containers and invited us into his one-bedroom apartment, apologizing for the mess. Piles of books and records took up half the living room; a broken TV sat alone near filthy windows. Large speakers hung from the ceiling, shaking the place with vibrations.
“Who’s this playing?” I asked near the top of my voice.
“Santana,” my mother answered.
“That’s right,” Patrick added. “The third album. Crazy fusion of jazz, funk and Latin. Genius, really. After this, he went off the deep end and got involved with that guru, Sri Chinmoy. Joy, I think your son needs a musical education.”
“Tell me about it,” she laughed, blushing.
“I ain’t got nobody that I can depend on,” Patrick sang, accompanying the record.
“Tenga a nadie,” my mother chimed in.
It was as if they had been trading verses and sharing private jokes for years. I’d never heard her and my dad sing Lennon and McCartney together, though both professed an eternal love of the Fab Four.
“You got a record player?” he asked, turning towards me. I did have one in my room, more of a toy than the real thing, originally used for listening to recorded storybooks. But it worked, translating ridges into transcendent notes. He handed me the debut albums of the Doors and Led Zeppelin, as well as Sergeant Pepper’s.
“You got greatness in your hands. Treat them like the Bible,” he said.
Throughout the fall months, Mom and I would deliver leftovers to Patrick once every week or so, always while Dad was on a shift. One weekday in December, my mother asked me to go alone. She was slated to give a presentation at the community school board meeting, and my dad was in Florida visiting my granddad who’d broken his leg in a fall on a shuffleboard court. Not without reason, she figured Patrick might suffer if the food deliveries were interrupted. I also believe she was trying to teach me about the importance of helping others, of following through on commitments, or something less easy to define about the world being fundamentally unfair and the need to do just a little bit to help the have-nots.
Why did I want to go? I could have said no; claimed the need to do homework or practice bar mitzvah prayers or the Torah portion. Yet Patrick was the closest thing I had in our immediate neighborhood to a friend. The Greek and Italian kids either considered me too nerdy, or too Jewish, or both, and had taken to dispersing when I’d attempt to get into a stickball or football game. After I’d been pelted with a stone, opening a gash above my left eye that soaked the ground, I stayed clear of those guys.
Patrick invited me in, and I handed him the bag before sitting on the half of his couch that was clear of books. The fabric felt scratchy and an itch spread across my legs. My eyes darted around, searching for evidence of insects, sure that I was just too slow to spot them. He offered me a flat, warm Coke. I shifted uncomfortably, unsure how I long I wanted to linger in this world.
“So, Mets or Yankees?” I asked him, unsure of what else to say.
“I don’t watch baseball, only football, Glam Boy.” Professional baseball, he said, depressed him, reminded him of a major league career that might have been, of his blown-out knee, the loss of his Ohio State scholarship and his induction into the army. “Never any chance I was gonna play linebacker in the NFL. I don’t ever watch a football game and not think it could have been me out there. Now baseball, there’s a whole lot of would’ve, should’ve, could’ve there.”
I didn’t give him time to stare and dare me to ask something else.
“Do you, you know, mind taking this stuff?” I hadn’t been thinking about asking this question. It just escaped my mouth like an ill-conceived remark to a teacher.
He sat down so close that, if he’d wanted, he could have reached out and snapped my neck, or touched any part of me he liked. Instead, he answered me.
“Like charity, you mean? Do I mind taking charity?” He turned toward me, then looked back at the fridge, as if he were imagining the taste of the lasagna he’d just deposited there. “Handouts? Do I feel like a beggar? Glam Boy, I sure wish I didn’t need it. I wish a lot of things hadn’t happened. But do I feel bad taking these leftovers from your family? No. I’m thankful, appreciative, happy that there are people in the world like your family, who look out for others. Your mother’s a remarkable woman. You know that, don’t you?” he asked. “Has she said anything about me, Glam Boy?”
“No,” I said definitively. “Can you call me Benji?” I continued, in almost a whisper.
“That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?” he said, stroking his chin like The Thinker. “And your dad, I bet he said I’m strung out on smack. He did, didn’t he? Well, I’ve been off it for two years. Hardest monster I’ve ever had to beat back.”
With the New Year came a New York winter: a layer of gray clouds permanently perched atop the city, snow the color of soot piled around cars and bus stops, slicing wind propelled by the shafts between buildings. New Year’s usually evokes beginnings. This would be the year I’d be called to the Torah and dance the Horawith my family and friends, get a tree planted in Israel in my honor, receive, as a gift from the temple, my very own copy of the Hebrew Bible. But with the Giants, it meant a disappointing end to their season: With a heartbreaking 27-21 loss to the Jets, the Giants would miss the playoffs for a second straight season. There would be no Super Bowl title to give Patrick a fleeting sense that life was still full of possibilities, to temporarily lift my mother above her prosaic labors.
True to my mother’s predictions, my dad never mentioned the missing leftovers, though I felt the accusations ooze out of him, the ledger encoded in a series of grunts. More and more, my mother asked me to go to Patrick’s on my own. He seemed as grateful for the company as for the contents of my deliveries. The conversations grew more in-depth, my questions grew bolder, and he delved more deeply into his own story. Without offering up much in terms of my own seventh-grade dramas, I learned all kinds of wanted and unwanted details about his abusive father, his historical analysis of American policy in Southeast Asia, and his thoughts of suicide—which he claimed not to have conquered so much as to have kept at bay.
“You’ve really thought about it?”
“Killing myself? I have to say the thought’s crossed my mind.”
“You don’t think about it anymore?” I asked, fascinated that I could ask any question I wanted and receive an honest answer.
“The bullets, old age, or liver failure didn’t take me down. The Viet Cong couldn’t do me in. My ex-wife couldn’t drive me to jump off a bridge, so I ain’t gonna do it myself. No way. Not by my own hand.”
“But you still think about the war?” I asked him.
“Glam Boy, this war has lived in me for twenty-two years,” he said. “It’s like an abscess, an abscess that never stops growing. I hope you never know what it’s like, to hurt so much that you want it all to just go away. I hope you realize how lucky you are.”
With the coming of March and another season of Little League about to commence, Patrick had declared it an injustice that I couldn’t properly swing a bat, and insisted he coach me in the art of hitting. My dad and the team’s manager had all tried to instruct me and failed. I didn’t hold much hope, but figured I had little to lose by trying. My dad was out on a shift on the Port Washington line that Saturday. I’m not sure what I would have told him I was doing if he were home. I never lied well.
Our walk to the park was christened by bells from the Greek Orthodox church that sung and soared. The Catholic nursing home across the street cast a chilling shade, keeping watch over the neighborhood like a nun. Our synagogue was a mile’s walk away but might as well as have been in another constellation. Row homes and smaller apartment buildings lined our three-block walk to the schoolyard. The Long Island Railroad rumbled in the distance and I wondered if my dad sat at the train’s helm.
A few crack vials and discarded condoms marked the space unsafe for children after dark. Chalk and tape outlined the strike zone on the school’s wall. Miraculously, in a city covered with graffiti, the zone remained unblemished. Two hundred feet of asphalt stood between the wall and the chain link fence separating the schoolyard from a basketball court, property of the New York City Parks Department. Clearing the fence meant a home run. Patrick and I were the only two people in the park.
“Eyes on the ball, hands together,” he yelled as he walked out to a line of chalk on the asphalt that demarcated the pitcher’s mound. The wind and the distance between pitcher and hitter made him difficult to hear.
He threw me dozens of pitches and I failed to make substantial contact.
“It’s no use,” I said.
The windswept trash across the asphalt like stones skipping across a pond. The sun hid behind clouds, making it hard to stand in one spot without shivering.
“Your dad tried to teach you, but he didn’t play for the Buckeyes,” he said, using his hands to create a megaphone and amplify his voice. “Balance, equilibrium, drive. I want that bat to become an extension of your arms.”
Shivering, I wanted to go home. I thought about the Torah portion I hadn’t memorized, the bar mitzvah speech I still needed to write. Mastering Hebrew prayers seemed no easier than hitting a ball.
“I’m trying,” I said, unconvincingly.
“I don’t care how long we have to stay here, I’m going to see you make good contact.”
I felt the anger in my arms and chest, and imagined the ball was his head. I swung harder, cutting through the wind like an oar moving water. The harder I swung, the further my bat got from the ball, the bigger my whiff.
“What’s the use?” I said, unintentionally offering my best Charlie Brown impression.
“Look at the seams. This is about your eyes and the ball. The bat will take care of itself. Breathe. Remember to breathe.” He no longer yelled but I somehow managed to hear him.
Breathe. Okay. I closed my eyes, took the first conscious breath of my life, and something indeed happened. It sounds so simple it is impossible to believe, but a transformative and Zen sensation came over me; for an instant I became a kind of junior high school cross between a Buddhist monk and Ted Williams. Everything felt different, as if the properties of physics had been altered.
Patrick tossed the tennis ball again, imbuing the sphere with wicked underspin, and the fuzz and seams rotated in the fading light. A cluster of dampness mixed with the chill, but I blocked it out, concentrating on that ball’s rotation with time-bending intensity, as if the seams were the only image that mattered. My swing felt as natural as breath, and the impact I made with the ball was a perfect transfer of energy and force. The ball floated upward like a bird in flight, rising above the shabby park as if it were free of the city, of the constraints of childhood, of the memories of war. The ball struck the top of the chain link fence and became lodged. Neither of us climbed to retrieve it, as if it had become a sword encased in stone.
“Whoa!” he said, hands dropped to his side, staring at the spot where the ball had landed, before charging me like a pitcher embracing his catcher after recording the final out of the World Series. “Nice shot,” he said, slapping my hand so hard it nearly knocked me to the asphaL.T.,
“That felt amazing,” I said, breathless. “How did you do that? I’ve never swung like that. How’d you get me to swing like that?”
“You did it, Glam Boy,” he said. “You did it.”
I had this feeling that, as my thirteenth birthday approached, my life really seemed to be coming together. In that moment, I knew I could memorize the damn Hebrew words and say them convincingly in front of people. Could this be the difference between childhood and manhood? I wondered. Would things suddenly start to come more naturally? Overcome with gratitude, I almost asked my mother if I could invite Patrick to the bar mitzvah, but then I envisioned my father’s reaction and knew it would never happen.
One school night, I was sitting at the kitchen table perplexed by math homework. My dad, of course, was out on a shift, working more and more overtime hours to pay for the bar mitzvah reception at a Great Neck catering hall. I heard the door swing open and the dog bark, followed by a burst of angry steps. My mother marched in and started talking without offering a hug or kiss. She walked toward me, a honing look in her eye, as if she were the linebacker zeroing in on her target: the quarterback.
“Your father was right. You are not to see Patrick again. No discussion. End of story,” she said, powering forward to her endpoint. I stood, aware that in a matter of seconds I’d come face-to-face with my mother.
“Is he using again?” I asked without missing a beat. “Doesn’t he need help?”
“He’s proven that he can’t be trusted,” she said. “Not around me, not around you, not around any of us. My job is to protect this family. Now promise me, promise me, you won’t see him again.”
“What did he do?” I pleaded. “I’ve gotten to know him. You wanted me to get to know him, to help him. You can’t just tell me never to see him again and not tell me why.”
“End of discussion.”
“You sound just like Dad. This is fucked up is what it is.” That was the only time I’d ever cursed at my mother. I braced for a face slap. None came, but she left the room and her silence landed heavier than any blow.
By going to see Patrick that day, I not only defied my dad, I was now defying my mother, as well. She must have heard me but didn’t try to stop me. To this day, I don’t know why she failed to barricade the door.
I found him curled on his apartment floor, his sobriety discarded. Sideways he took a long gulp from a whiskey bottle, then put it down, revealing bloody lips. I looked for a trace of heroin use, wondering if I’d know it if I saw it. Smashed plates and glasses snaked across the mildew-stained carpet. His books and records lay in heaps. Santana’s Abraxas album blasted on the ancient phonograph, the apartment quaking to Latin beats.
I stood above him, almost like a master reprimanding a guilty dog.
He sat up and took another drink. I looked for signs of heroin but realized that I was a child and didn’t know what to look for, other than a needle sticking out of his arm.
“With my life? Where do you want to start?” he asked, spit projecting out of his mouth.
“What happened with my mother? What did you do?”
He maneuvered himself to his knees, propping himself against the section of wall that divided the living room from his tiny kitchen. On his feet, he looked like a staggering fighter trying to resume a bout following a knockdown.
“You gotta understand, Glam Boy, I never expected anything,” he said, his words slurred and uneven. “Just being near your family, a good family, a loving family, well, it was more than I expected, more than I deserve.”
With bravado, I got right up into his face or actually his chest, because of the height difference. I looked up into the blood and void of his eyes. I’d been in a few middle school fights and knew I was just escalating things, inching toward a fight I could not win. But whatever had happened—and I’d never know exactly what Patrick had said or done—didn’t I owe it to the woman who brought me into the world, nurtured me, loved me, to get pummeled fighting in her honor?
“What did you do?” I asked.
He moved like a soldier who’d lain in waiting, taking two lightning steps toward me. He placed his hands my shoulders. He eased my head closer to his body, like a quarterback addressing a receiver in the huddle.
“It’s not what I did; it’s what I said. I get so lonely. And your mother, well, the universe is cruel, putting me so close to a woman like her.”
He collapsed to the floor in a controlled fashion, reaching for a drink. No longer threatening, his animal-like sobs echoed off the apartment walls.
“Did you hurt her? Did you hurt my mother?”
“I said things, told her things…” he said, with a mix of tears and heavy, drunken breathing.
I knew then what rage felt like, for his evasion, for what I imagined he could have said, an imagination that has only grown more graphic. I envisioned myself delivering a sharp boot or a vicious punch. I had my chance, the man was defenseless. I could have struck.
“Benji,” he said, eyes and voice still. “My friend, please let me drink alone.”
I turned around and, for a second, met his sunken eyes before walking out, knowing it would be the last time I’d see him.
The next day, when I got home from school, I discovered the box by our back door. Cutting through the cardboard and masking tape, I found myself alone with a half a dozen records: The Doors, Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Janis, Santana, and Jefferson Airplane. I’d also inherited a few books on Vietnam too advanced for a twelve-year-old, including The Best and the Brightest, Dispatches, and The Bright Shining Lie, along with a biography of the Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and a history of the New York Giants. It also contained a single green tie and a few suit hangers; the meager contents of a life.
A note was taped to the inside. It wasn’t a suicide note.
Since that day, I’ve tried, and sometimes succeeded, to hate Patrick. I’ve also sought in vain to track him down and offer a measure of forgiveness, though I am quite sure it wasn’t mine to give. He’s likely been dead for many years, though Google offers no evidence of his passing.
For years, until her retirement, my mother continued to offer our home as a place of refuge for teenage girls in crisis. Now that she’s gone, devoured by cancer, my father, long retired himself, volunteers through his synagogue at a homeless shelter. Though he never said so, I believe he does this as a kind of homage to his departed wife.
It’s been twenty-five years since I first read from the Torah in front of the congregation and, in the eyes of my tradition, became a man. A father now myself, I know that some questions never get answered, that no matter who we are and what befalls us, some form of abscess builds up inside us. This pain can be relieved but it can’t be removed. Sometimes I pray that my son will never become a man, or at least a man with a burdensome past to carry, and then I realize the futility of a parent trying to shield a child from all wounds.
You’d think that, in my grief, or as a way to honor my mother’s memory, I would have torn up the faded yellow note that I’d kept so long. Sometimes, in the moments when I’m overcome by my own abscess, I remove the note from a drawer in my home office and, diving into bittersweet words from another time, relive the moment of my perfect swing.
Dear Glam Boy, Patrick began, good luck at your bar mitzvah. Take a moment during the ceremony to pray for the Giants. I’m going to be getting outta New York, got a friend in Baltimore with an extra couch. Remember, keep your eyes on the seams. Never go anywhere without some good rock and roll. When you’re older and in a position of power, do all you can to make sure we don’t have another Vietnam. Remember, your dad’s a good man. I’ll always appreciate your mother’s kindness. Sorry that I proved undeserving.