My dad could be flaky, but never quite flaky enough for it to matter. Sure, he could bullshit, but he wasn’t a master of the genre.
There’s a story about how after bankruptcy and divorce sent him fleeing New Jersey with his trophy-wife-to-be (my mom) and they had taken their production of Double-Lock Box on a tour of the midwestern dinner-theater circuit, that they ended up in St. Louis for a while.
Damn — in writing that it almost sounds like a beginning of a chapter in Genesis or something. Cool.
Anyway, my dad found it necessary (as creative people sometimes do) to get a job in the real-world. This one was at a used-car lot. It seemed it was a typical used car lot full of Machiavellian maneuvers. In fact, it might have been known as Machiavelli Motors.
My dad was at home in such surroundings. He was world-weary by that point, having braved New York as a talent agent for fifteen years. He was what Homer said about Odysseus: A man of many ways. He knew what was up.
As the new guy, my dad (who was close to 50 at the time) was sent out to greet a black family who had come to inquire about the recent-model Cadillac with a very low price on the windshield. It was on display on a rack lifted up above the other cars. Hey! Bargain Cadillac! Come on in! It’s likely his fellow salesmen sneered and laughed as they sent this Yankee out to waste time with these people from the wrong side of St. Louis, circa 1965.
So my dad (who was actually just as racist as anyone from his generation and still called Jews “kikes” but nevertheless knew how to make a sale) went out to greet the black family. The father wanted a test drive in the beautiful Cadillac. My dad grabbed the keys and took it down off the display, likely talking a good line about how it put to shame the other Caddies he had owned (he was a Cadillac man if one ever were).
With the car barely sustaining a lumpy idle, the black family climbed inside. My dad put the car in drive, and it barely moved forward. My dad put it in “park” and popped the hood. He remembered this problem, having had to fix it a few times over the forty years he had been driving by that point. He reconnected a vacuum line or twisted the distributor or reconnected some plug wires that had “fallen off” or whatever and the Cadillac suddenly started running like a Cadillac.
They returned, the black family completed the sales paperwork, and after my dad waved at them as they drove their lovely ’62 Sedan DeVille towards home, my dad’s boss came to him and fired him on the spot.
See, he could be a flake, but not flaky enough. He wasn’t taking a stand against deceptive sales practices or racism or anything like it. Nothing like that. Car was broken: He fixed. Made a sale. Yay! Never mind that he sold the bait car, and he could have made as much or more by redirecting the black family into a Dodge Dart that needed rings or a beaten-up, overpriced Chevy. He sold the come-on vehicle by “fixing” what they knew was broken because they had broken it. Mr. New York Businessman wasn’t in on the joke. And that possibility never crossed anyone’s mind. My dad had seen past the bullshit and — almost inadvertently — done the right thing.
He showed that approach again and again in the time I knew him. It seemed he was always one profitable decision away from being the equivalent of a criminal mastermind, and as we lived in 1970 Oldsmobiles and divvied up McDonald’s cheeseburgers and went without medical or dental care, we would wonder when dad’s extreme acumen would finally kick in and we could move to a villa in St. Tropez or something
But it never did.
The next example I remember was in about 1976. My mom and dad had their combo and were trying to make a living in the nightclubs around Dallas. Dallas is a great place for tire stores and concrete work, we learned. Music? Not so much. We weren’t doing well. Any signs of hope were welcome.
So a guy in a polo shirt came to my mom and dad with a proposal. He was the pastor at some non-denominational Bible church in the suburbs. He wanted to hire my mom and dad as the house band for the church. It was a steady living, and on top of a healthy base he would give them a “cut” of the proceeds each week. The more people they brought in, the bigger the take. There would be opportunities for side-gigs and even record sales.
This was it. This was the opportunity.
All they needed to do was to sing about the Lord that neither of them particularly cared to acknowledge. My dad (crypto anti-Semitic half-Jew that he was) kept religious people at the same distance he gave any other mentally-disturbed individuals. My dad tried to explain his faith in terms that didn’t oblige him to explain further. It really didn’t matter to the pastor. He was in the church business. He was looking for musicians who would play and sing songs about God to put asses in the seats and checks in the baskets. And he almost said so in so many words. Still, it made me recall sitting next to my dad in the few times we went to church and watching him barely mouthing the words to the hymns. He wasn’t a Lord fan.
But he could fake it for this, right? He could make this sale, right? Music is just notes. My mom could do the singing about the Lord, right? My mom had been brought up singing in a Methodist church. She hated it–reminding it as it did of her abusive mother–but the syllables were still on her tongue. She knew these people. She could do this. They could do this together.
But as I played on the floor of the living room with the pastor’s boy hearing him talk about peeing in interesting places and how horny toads gave you warts, I heard my dad’s conversation with the pastor change tone. He wasn’t submitting himself to the idea any more.
He couldn’t do it.
He had reached his bullshit limit.
We climbed back into the motorhome and trundled off to another dive where they’d earn $100 from the owner and maybe another $20 in tips playing a combination of pop and country, and hope for another gig the next night.
* * * * *