June 17, 2010

Dad and Me

Paper Moon had nothing on us 

    Although my dad and I loved each other, we certainly did not have a Hallmark card relationship. Long walks in the country, father/daughter teas, and hearts and flowers were for someone else. We hung out at ham radio shacks, haunted record stores for the latest vinyl, and had political “discussions” that had the neighbors quaking in fear. OK. We were a bit loud; but that’s Italian. However, when a teenage party got out of control, the drinking started, and the chaperones disappeared, I could give him a call and know that he would pick me up in a flash.
    Unfortunately, both my dad and I were pretty young when he died — he was only 46 and I was 22. We had known that he was on the way out for six and a half years, so we condensed our adult father-daughter relationship into a too-short time frame. We hung out together, we fought (Italian light entertainment), I ran away from home, and I came back. In between, we made many harrowing trips with him to the hospital emergency room. Mostly, though, we had fun. 

A Concentrated Education

    During the last two years of my dad's life, we spent endless hours in Italian nightclubs listening to mediocre lounge acts. He showed me what to drink and how to pace my liquor consumption. And he used the other club patrons and their behavior as a strange one-way mirror into the adult world. I was fascinated.
    Our favorite club was a place in Anaheim around the corner from Disneyland. We liked it because I could show up and sit at the piano bar by myself and no one would bother me. This was because the manager and bartenders looked out for the Italian girls like me and my friend Mary. If a guy even approached us before our fathers arrived, they were quietly told, “These are nice girls. You can send them a drink, but you have to wait for their fathers to get here so you can be properly introduced.” If anyone looked promising, we asked our dads to check them out. Of course, none of them were ever good enough to pass the dad test. But we didn’t care.

The Hustle
    Unfortunately, though, drinks and dinners out were pricey, and we didn't have much disposable cash. Dad was on disability, my mom worked at an aerospace plant, and I was an office drone at a big insurance company. We weren't poor, but we sure didn't have the kind of cash necessary to support our nightly forays into cafe society.
     One night, Dad suggested that we try a new bar. Someone had told him that it was a dive, but the bartenders were terrific and made their own mixers. This might have been true, but the place smelled like stale booze and cooking grease. I was pretty certain that, although the drinks were as good as reported, we were not going to linger over them.
    Just before we were to leave, Dad headed off to the bathroom, stopping to talk to some guy at the other side of the room. They chatted for a little bit and seemed to be staring at me a lot. As soon as their conversation ended, the man came over to my side of the room and began hitting on me. I tried to politely turn him down — like I was going to get picked up by someone while I was out with my father — but this fellow was amazingly persistent. Fortunately, before things got really ugly, my dad returned to the bar. Seeing him give me an emphatic head tilt (Italian sign language for "meet me at the car — now"), I excused myself, left the building, and headed out to wait at the car.
    A few minutes later, Dad joined me and handed me ten dollars.
    "What's this for?" I asked.
    "It's your cut."
    "Cut of what?"
    "Well, I just bet that jerk twenty bucks that he couldn't get you to go out with him."
    And like a bad comic strip, a thought balloon with flashing light bulbs appeared over our heads.
    It was our private joke. No one else knew that for the next year or so — until he became too ill to party — Dad and I would hit some sleazy dive (or two or three) and pull the same stunt. We made enough for dinner, drinks, and the occasional movie. We stayed out too late and confounded my mother with our seemingly endless ability to stretch our entertainment dollars.
    We had a great time.

 Originally published June 2009, La Voce News Magazine