We’d be in Giant Eagle, me in front, him trailing. He tried his best to keep up. He had a bum knee, arthritis and orthopedic shoes and a walker with two tennis balls where wheels should have been.
The walker squeaked. As he came along toward the deli section, it sounded like a man with a club foot was tailing me. The sound went, “Squee-eak … klump … squee-eak …klump … squee-eak … klump …”
It drove me crazy that sound. I’d grind my teeth as I waited impatiently for him to catch up. I was mad at him for getting old. Still, I tried my best to cover up my irritation.
In my best Oliver Hardy voice, I’d spit out a line from an old Laurel & Hardy routine that never failed to break him up. Would be an irritated Oliver (carrying an armful of boxes) saying with great exasperation to Laurel (who carried nothing but an air of indifference), “Why … don’t … you … do … something … to … help … me ?”
He’d be cracking up as he reached the deli counter. Soon, they’d all be out there to greet him. Mary and Julie and Frances and another woman whose name I didn’t know.
“Hey, Don,” Mary would say. “How are the balls of your feet?” Mary loved to toss one of his own lines back to him. He’d tell her not so good. “Can’t make that play from deep in the hole any more,” he’d say.
Then Mary would start in on President Bush or one of Dubya’s cronies, and he’d have to take his lumps in that area. Another bone of contention with me. How could he have stayed a Republican all those years, for cryin’ out loud?
Of all the guys in the world who shouldn’t have been a Republican it was him. The people he loved to stick the needle to or give a hard time were all Republicans: starched collars, stuffed shirts, humorless but Important Guys driving Buicks and Cadillacs. The ones he collected among his coterie of kidders and wise guys (and gals) were salesmen, waitresses, barbers, mailmen, deli workers, housepainters and clerks.
On the way out of Giant Eagle (squee-eak … klump … squee-eak … klump …) we had to go past the old guy who bagged the groceries. He’d say to him, “Whaddya say, Firpo? Tell me again about that time you knocked Dempsey out of the ring.”
The grocery bagger had heard that maybe 827 times before, but he always chuckled.
I started taking over the business of grocery shopping and paying his bills when I discovered he’d been writing checks to the political ghouls whose business is to send pleading letters to the old and retired, trying to get them to fork over their savings to The Party.
A really nasty, ugly business this fleecing of the old.
“I think I’m in over my head, Kid,” he said on the day I realized he was getting senile. On the table in front of him were 200 pieces of mail — maybe17 of them legit. The rest were from the ghouls.
“Gee, ya think?” I asked. It was when I first started getting mad at him for getting old.
When he was young, he sort of looked like Bogart … except better looking.
There’s this photo of him in a white dinner jacket that time he and my mom were at “21” in New York.
Another photo shows him on the clay courts at Culver Military Academy back when they played the U.S. Amateur Clay Court Championships there. He was one of three guys from Cleveland to qualify.
There were the usual ground balls in the backyard.
“Keep your head down … get in front of the ball,” he’d say.
I thought I was a pitcher, though, and he’d catch me. I had a big-time windup. Would do it like he did it, when he imitated Feller.
Little League tryouts up in the town. Instead of going out for infield, I tried to pitch. A lanky kid by the name of Devon Benson hit one off me over the center fielder’s head that’s still rolling toward Swarthmore.
Wasn’t until after I was playing shortstop on a team (No. 6 … Furillo’s number) that I found out I hadn’t really made it that day of the tryouts. But my dad had gone and talked to a guy. So the guy did him a favor and put the short kid who lived out on Crum Creek Road on a team. I never told him I found out about that.
We took in ball games at Philly’s Shibe Park. We’d buy scorecards, but didn’t keep score.
“You miss too much of the game that way,” he’d say.
Instead, we’d study the way Cox or Robinson would cheat in from third in case Ashburn laid down a bunt. Or watch the way Feller always held his arm out to the side like it was in a sling as he walked off the mound.
We saw ’em all: Robinson, Musial, Mays, Ted Williams, DiMag and Rizzuto and Raschi; Feller, Boudreau and Keltner. Having grown up in Lakewood, he preferred the American League. I was an N.L. guy.
Clifton Park was where he actually grew up. He played that one to the hilt.
Told his pals — Al and Doc and Bill — that he had a nanny AND a governess when he was a child. That they held his hand going to the park and made sure his bath water wasn’t too hot.
They’d be at Oerl’s Tavern in Rocky River, knocking back silver bullets and helping each other laugh. He always had himself a high time. My mom said he never grew up.
Al sold construction machinery, Doc was a veterinarian, Bill did the news on KYW radio and the guy who grew up with a nanny sold paint. They called him “Carload.”
A carload was a train car filled with paint drums. It was the largest order a salesman could sell. If you sold enough carloads you can maybe take the family to the seashore or the Poconos for vacation.
We did the seashore. Was where I first slurped foam off the top of a tall glass of beer.
He’d make a run over to Stone Harbor, which wasn’t dry, and bring back a six pack. He’d tilt the glass and fill it with the amber gold liquid, topping it off, then handing me the glass.
“DON!” my mom would yell, exasperated.
My friends called him “T.O.H.” Was because of the time he drove my sister and her girlfriends to a dance.
“Where to?” he asked.
“O.L.A,” they said in unison.
“O.L.A.? What the heck is that?” my dad, a non-church-going guy, asked.
“Our Lady of Angels,” the girls chorused.
My dad, without missing a beat, replied, “Yeah, well ... I’m headed out tonight myself. I’m going to T.O.H.”
“What’s that?” the girls asked.
“Tavern On the Hill,” he said.
The story made the rounds and my friends, some of whom would run into him in the bars, picked it up. He was “T.O.H.” to them ever since.
In the end, he went quick. Just slid away. Like Al and Doc and Bill before him. He was alone with his TV, which he kept on for company all night long.
He went before I had a chance to check on some stories.
There was this one about a guy with a knife this time in the locker room at DuPont back in Philly — and the old man took it away from him and clipped him one across the jaw. It might have been something like the nanny diaries, but there might have been something to it, too.
Some would say 90 was plenty long enough. I suppose it was.
My kid said, “Pa decided to check out before Bonds set the record. He wouldn’t have wanted to see that.”
We all laughed.
“Right now,” my wife said, “he’s standing at the bar with Al and Doc and Bill having a martini.”
I wouldn’t know about that. I just know that I wouldn’t mind hearing one more time the awful squeak of that walker with the two sad little tennis balls pretending to be wheels — and the irritating klump of that one foot coming along behind.
If I did hear it, I’d say, “Why … don’t … you …do …something …to … help … me?”
Listen to him chuckle as all his girlfriends lined up behind the deli counter to ask him how the balls of his feet were.
Contact Doug Clarke at email@example.com