Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The death of youth

Sunday, January 9, 9:00am.

"Every time I go to print somethin', the damn thing goes out on me!"

"It goes OUT on you, dad?"

"I get the damn black screen, and then the thing goes off, and then it comes back on..." I can almost see him, tilting his head this way and that as he speaks, gesturing with his free hand.

Dad is a true Italian: He's stocky, with jet black hair and dark skin. And he tends to eliminate h's, so that "thing" is pronounced "ting", and "the" is "da", just like the guys you see on The Sopranos.

And dad is hairy as hell. I tell him that he's always wearing a sweater, even when he's naked.

People are afraid of my father. He does look mean, and he can blow up if you harass him long enough, but mostly he is very calm and collected.

Once, when I was about 9, mom lost a contact lens and was shouting every word on the bathroom wall as she stormed around the house looking for it. Dad calmed her down as best he could, and started asking her questions like a seasoned detective. Somehow he decided that she had vacuumed the lens up, so he laid newspaper all across the kitchen table and pulled out the vacuum cleaner.

He removed the bag and dumped it out onto the table. Bit by bit, he pinched the little gray clumps, rubbing his fingers together over the trash pail and watching the dust and debris cascade down like dirty rain.

Almost two hours later, the pile was the size of an anthill, and it seemed all hope was lost. "I GOT IT!" he yelled suddenly, and sure enough, there it was.

Mom and dad didn't get along well, but she always told that story about him, even when they seemed to hate each other.

"You mean it reboots, dad?"

"Yeah, da damn ting REBOOTS on me! Can you fix it?"

"You mean today? "

"No, next year!"

"Alright, I'll take a ride down."

"Bring Stephanie!"

"So THAT'S why you want me down there! So you can see HER!"

"Yeah. Any chance she can come down without you?"

"She's busy all day today. She starts classes tomorrow. Those people are so crazy. They're already studying!"


I like driving to my dad's house. There's some highway, but it's mostly rural roads. The last few miles are curvy, winding and densely wooded, with nary a house in sight. There's not even a yellow line in the middle of the road. It's peaceful and scenic.

The trees are a dingy, corpselike grey, and the ground below is densely carpeted with the faded orange and yellow leaves that once adorned them. It's so cold, and the trees look so dead, that I wonder how they will ever come back to life. But they always do.

There's the Astorberry Farm, and the William Thomas house, an historic landmark from 1807. I make my turn. Just a mile to go.

I pull into dad's driveway and toot twice. I've always done this. I don't know why.

The garage door opens. Dad is there, keys in hand, wearing a button-down oxford and dress slacks. "Let's go get some bread," he says.

"What about your computer?"

"Forget that for now."

We drive for about 15 minutes to a busy urban section of town. We parallel park against a curb.

We walk about 100 feet down the cold white sidewalk and push open a heavy wood-and-glass door with the words TONY'S BAKERY painted on it. As the door opens, a bell rings, the same way it did in 1975. Instantly, the hearty smell of woodburning stoves is replaced with the warm, comforting scent of freshly-baked Italian bread.

Tony's Bakery has been in the same place since before I was born. Tony's got the same cash register that I remember, the same floor tile, and the same countertop that he's had ever since I was too small to see the top of it.

An aproned man with a salt-and-pepper beard peers out of the doorway. "Frankieeeee!"

"Hey, che si dice?" (It's pronounced keh-zeh-deech) They hug briefly. Tony shakes my hand.

Now watch. This bastard is gonna call me "Little Frankie". Always does.

"How you doing, Frank," Tony says, with a compassionate stare. It's not your usual "How you doing": It's the you've-been-through-hell-and-I'm-worried-about-you "How you doing".

Dad shrugs. "OK. It's hard sometimes."

"She was a good lady," Tony says, rubbing his hands idly together. "A funny lady."

He stares somberly down at the dingy floor tiles. "My honey died six years ago. No, seven now. It gets better after awhile. You get used to it."

I had no idea Tony's wife died. I probably haven't seen him since I was in college.

The two grieving men gaze away from each other, both near tears. I hurt for them; I wonder what it must be like to be so profoundly lonely.

Tony snaps upright as if he just remembered something. "Hey, little Frankie! whattayou up to these days?"

I used to be in awe of Tony. He seemed so tall to me when I was a boy, so big. He worked the oven door and that wide bread-spatula so effortlessly, managing to slide 3 or 4 loaves out of the oven at a time with one well-practiced flick of a sinewy forearm.

I would watch in silent amazement as he'd slip a fresh loaf of bread into a slender bag, then twist it closed and drop it onto a plastic crate with a single fluid turn of the wrist.

It occurs to me, now, that they could probably train a monkey to do those things. And I'm taller than Tony.

"LITTLE FRANKIE?!" I say, as if I've never heard it before. It's a funny thing about old-school Italians: They assume that all sons are named after their fathers, and address them accordingly.

"Wha- what?" he says with a nervous laugh. "Chista ca," (keesta-kaa) he says, looking at dad and nodding towards me. Loosely translated, it means "Look at this guy over here!"

"What's your name?" Tony says.


"Steeeeeve, Steve," he says, with a big nod.

"He came down to fix my computer," dad says.

"Dose tings are for da birds," Tony says. "I won't go near one."

Yeah, and I'm sure Bill Gates weeps every day about not being able to crack the over-sixty greaseball-baker market.

We buy two loaves of bread and a couple of pastries. Tony walks us to the door; dad goes out first, and Tony grabs my elbow.

"Your father's a good man," is all he says.


Dad has the wrong printer selected as his default. As soon as I change it, he is once again able to print to his heart's content. The whole fix takes 15 minutes from start to finish.

We sit at the dining room table and eat Chinese takeout.

I picked up dinner. I paid for it. I fixed dad's computer, and reminded him to have his carpet stretched and his gutters cleaned. I gave a paesan baker a piece of my mind, too. It feels different being home now. Dad isn't taking care of me anymore, or protecting me, or teaching me; if anything, it's the other way around. That makes me proud and sad.

I guess I'm not a kid anymore.