This is an excerpt from my book, The Art of Surviving Prison, awaiting publication. It originally appeared as one of my Practically Religion columns in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Mourning My father, Warts And All (Part One)
By Jeff Grant
My Dad grew up in Brooklyn at a time when it seemed everybody was from Brooklyn. He was tall, smart, good looking – he joined the Navy and then went to Pace University. He was the captain of the tennis team, and went on to enroll at the Columbia University Business School. His own family business beckoned before he could complete school, a successful handbag company, and as the heir apparent Dad was to take it to unprecedented heights. He met my Mom, a beautiful Brooklyn girl seven years younger, and they married at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City, where the General Motors Building now stands across from Central Park. Shortly after their marriage, the handbag business folded and my parents decided to move to Boston to put some distance between them and Dad’s family.
In the 1950’s, Boston was not a city known for being overly hospitable to Jews, so my Dad sent out two groups of resumes: one group with his family name, Goldberg, and the other with a name he had gotten out of the phonebook, Grant. The story goes that he received five times the amount of replies under the name Grant than Goldberg, accepted a job, and had his and my mother’s name changed to Grant. I was born in Boston less than two years later; my brother and sister were born in the Boston suburbs in obligatory two-year intervals. But Boston proved no Promised Land and in 1961 the family moved to Merrick, Long Island looking for a fresh start.
Merrick was a culture of second and third generation Jews escaping Brooklyn, all moved en masse to their version the good life. Somehow, this entire generation collectively decided to become some sort of holocaust deniers. The war and the holocaust were never mentioned to any of us even though the war had ended less than ten years before many of we baby boomers were born. We all grew up without any real sense of history or family. South Merrick, where we lived, was a brand new town on the South Shore of Long Island, built on dirt and garbage dredged from the bottom of the East Bay. Merrick was pretty much like every other town that we would pass on those rare occasions that my Dad would take me into the city with him. Or later when I would go with my friends to a Mets game. We would hop on the Long Island Rail Road, the “largest commuter railroad in the country;” it was a sea of dads each morning going off to their brave new worlds in New York City. Or, perhaps, like mine, escaping their families.
Dad had taken out a V.A. loan in 1961 and we moved into our house in South Merrick. Ours was the only house on our street. The street would not be paved for a year or two, and the other houses were being built all around ours, like dinosaurs rising up out of the dunes. The roar of trucks and barges dredging was everywhere. Every kid in the neighborhood who moved into the neighborhood was about the same age, and had a brother or sister exactly two years older or younger. It was a kids’ paradise. The Dads took off early in the morning, and the Moms did whatever Moms did. We really didn’t know, because none of us ever saw our parents. It was a town completely devoid of history and rules; we had to make them up as we went along.
Like his father before him, my Dad had a business failure in his early forties that was a turning point and changed the fabric of our family. It proved to be a piece of prophecy and prescience that would haunt me for the rest of my life. My Dad had a business in Manhattan that had one huge claim to fame: it was the world’s first marketing agency. Back in the early sixties, when his eventual partner Sam and he both worked at Loft’s Candy Corp. in Long Island City, nobody even used the word “marketing.” But Sam and my Dad did the marketing for Loft’s, and built it into a powerhouse of early franchising. They left together with Loft’s as their first client, and then built a marketing agency that specialized in franchising. As a kid, I remember going to store openings for all sorts of companies whose jingles were on television or the radio; and, of course, we always had free stuff from them all over the house. But my Dad’s fame came from the fact that he was the marketing guy for Carvel Ice Cream. Our freezer was always stuffed with Brown Bonnets, Flying Saucers and Lollapaloozas.
Dad’s office on East 55th Street in Manhattan was set up with a glass top desk, wrap around sofa, and Barcelona chairs – for Dad, image was everything. On one of the few days that Dad took me into his office, I was sitting on the sofa when Tom Carvel called in. Tom Carvel was a very famous guy in New York back in the 60’ and 70’s. He was a cultural icon, as he appeared daily in hundreds of Carvel Ice Cream ads on television. He had a very distinctive low raspy voice. I’m certain that my Dad meant to impress me, and asked me to pick up the phone extension next to the sofa at the same time he picked up his phone on the desk.
“Stan, it’s Tom. How the hell are ya?”
“Great Tom. What’s doing?” Dad was proud, beaming.
“Hey, why don’t you hop in your car and drive up to Yonkers [Carvel’s headquarters], I’ll get us some hookers.’’
Dad’s face looked ashen, as he waived his arms for me to put down the phone.
The shit was all pretty much hitting the fan anyway. My father’s huffing and puffing was intolerable to my Mom, to his partner Sam, and to almost everyone around him. It wasn’t that he was arrogant; he was just full of a certain type of self-deception meets impunity meets righteous indignation, in which he thought that he could do things better than other people, but never quite delivered on his own promises. With business doing well, Dad marched into his partner Sam’s office and announced that he needed a better split of the profits since he was responsible for most of the sales. Sam calmly told him that a business needs a front room guy and a backroom guy, and that without both of them it would be closed within a year. Unimpressed, Dad pushed the issue. Sam left and, sure enough, the business collapsed. Dad soon started having health problems, perhaps coincident to when he found out that my Mom had been having an affair with his biggest client.
The last memory I have of my Dad in the Merrick house was him banging on the front door to be let in one night. My bedroom window was in front of the house, and as I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on, my Mom came up behind me and pulled me back in. She told me that my Dad didn’t live there anymore. There’s more to the story of how I became the adult of the family, and how this paradigm defines the eldest child’s life in these situations. I have never reconciled these issues with my brother or sister, both of whom were probably affected in ways I will never fully realize. Nonetheless, when my opportunity came to get out of Merrick, I jumped at the chance and never looked back.
Excerpted from Jeff Grant’s book, The Art of Surviving Prison, awaiting publication.