26 January 2015

When a Working Man Could Beat the System, A Memory of My Dad

I sometimes show half the students in a class a short film scene. The others wait in the hall. Then they come in and the students who watched the scene describe it to them. Then I have the students who were outside explain the scene as it was told to them. Finally we all watch the scene together. We then switch with the first group that was in going out and those who were out watching a different scene repeating the process. It's a good activity for ESL students.

Today I, not for the first time, used the famous steadicam shot from Goodfellas (1990) in which Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill takes his date, played by Lorraine Bracco, winding through the Copacabana’s kitchen to where they ultimately get a choice table up front. Hill greases the wheels the whole way dishing out big tips to whoever he sees.  I’ve watched the scene many times but on this occasion it brought back memories.

There’s a popular seafood restaurant in Berkeley called Spenger's that was the place to go when I was growing up. It was always packed and the wait for tables was well over an hour on weekends. As a consequence they made a fortune at their bar where customers cooled their heals until their table was ready. My dad was a regular at Spenger's and, although he could be tight with a penny in some ways, was always a generous tipper. He got to know some of the waiters on a personal basis and even did some carpentry work for one of them.

We never waited for a table.

We’d go there on a Saturday night when the wait was as much as an hour and three quarters. Spenger's had a take out section adjoining the restaurant. We'd go in there and dad would lead us through a side door and into the dining area. He’d catch the attention of a waiter and we’d snake our way to the bar. After five, ten minutes tops the waiter would find us and lead us to a table. I always thought that it was about the coolest thing in the world to get a table while all the suckers had to wait. On top of that we got first rate service, sometimes drinks were comped or the wine or appetizers and of course my dad left his usual humungous tip. I think what was especially nice about getting the royal treatment was that we weren't royalty or rich. It's like we got away with something, we were getting treated above our station and it may have technically been unfair but -- come on -- we weren't initiating a global financial crisis or taking money out of the poor box.

Those were different times. My father was a carpenter back when one salary could support a family. Mom was a housewife, we had a car and a truck, owned our own place and never wanted for anything. My dad was a working class stiff who could afford to go on the town with his wife or with friends. Men had fat wallets with big loads of cash in them. Nobody was paying for anything but gasoline with a lousy card. There were no ATMs. You made sure to hit the bank before it closed or you knew a place to cash a check. Men's pocket's jingled with change. Hell, you could actually buy something with coins then.

My dad was doing all right. Especially for someone who came from rural Finland. He had plenty of friends and even relatives, including a brother, to work and play with. There was no swagger among them, just a great sense of fun. Their chests would be puffed out a little after showering and putting on clean clothes at the end of a hard day’s work. They felt good about themselves and having the freedom and wherewithal to go out and spend some of their cash. Most, like my old man, could hold their liquor. Most, again like dad, would flirt harmlessly with pretty women, but would never philander no matter how much they might boast about their success with the ladies. They were great kidders and enjoyed as many belly laughs as possible. The humor was never mean spirited nor too raunchy. They could wax philosophical about politics, work, family or keys to happiness, but never dug into religious or existential questions. Sports was always a frequent topic of conversation.

My dad never thought of himself as a big shot. That would have been a form of self inflation that he didn’t believe in. He spoke admiringly of guys who were and looked forward to the day that I was a big shot. (I don’t think I ever qualified as such in my dad’s eyes but he didn’t love me any less as a result.) You don’t hear the term big shot much anymore. Nor do people work for an outfit. I was always hearing things like: "he’s a big shot for some outfit in San Francisco….” Being a big shot didn’t cut much ice with my dad if you weren't a decent fellow. He knew plenty of big shots who were jerks. The important thing for men was to be "a real gentleman."
Dad, like his cronies and kin, liked going to restaurants and loved going out on the town and loved to have parties and to go to football games, baseball games, track meets, ice hockey, soccer and basketball. They went hunting, fishing, camping and out on boats. It’s exhausting to think how they never sat still. Weekends, holidays and vacations were packed and this on top of solid 40 hour work weeks. Often there was overtime to boot. These were men who didn’t believe in phoning in sick even if they were on life support. They simply showed up. (This is an ethic that I’ve ascribed to and I’m constantly amazed at how many people I work with do pretty much the opposite.) All this on top of maintaining their own homes which always had something that needed fixing or adding to. My dad was a perpetual motion machine, which is largely why he lived to be 92 and would still be going if it weren't for an accident.

Another thing that comes to mind is how revelry was not reserved solely for weekends. If someone’s birthday fell on a weeknight the celebration was not delayed. It was not out of the ordinary to go to my uncle's house -- for example -- for a cousins’ birthday on a Tuesday night. For that matter we’d go out sometimes on a school night just to visit. Occasions were taken advantage of but not required.

Today people have TV shows recorded and movies shipped to their homes and computers to stare at and iPhones with which to send messages and photos and videos (some people still use them to talk with too). And they can always Facebook and Instagram. The personal touch has largely gone missing.

It was a hurried life but I don’t remember people complaining about it or being stressed with how hectic everything was. No one bragged or complained about being busy. They were glad for the ceaseless activity and anyway that's just the way it was. To live a sedentary life was unthinkable. There was too much to do. Although it was unconscious, a lot of it was because they'd come through a war alive and nothing was ever going to be as trying as that. Some aspects of all this were unique to Finns, but a lot of it was that generation. They'd come out of the war and before that the depression. Eking out a living had been difficult and now hard work was actually rewarded with a good living. There wasn't the cynicism that's prevalent today. There was also the sense that problems could be solved and the government was an actual source of strength and not an embarrassing place of non stop bickering.

Of course memories are selective and I was just a kid then and I’m leaving out of this narrative the whole business of my mother’s insanity. The Cold War had everyone a bit nervous and Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement  and the Hippies were creating some unease for the older generation just as the protest and counter culture were inspiring us kids.

Anyway I got to all this by remembering beating the system at Spenger's. You know as I think of it, it seems symbolic. Here was democracy at work. My old man, the regular joe who worked his tail off, could beat the system. Not because of being "somebody" with influence. He tossed some bills around, sure, but that was cash he worked hard and honestly for and besides it was as much about the relationships he built with the waiters as the dough. It's nice to think that a guy like my dad could be a big shot sometime. 

1 comment:

sirpa said...

Richard this is very timely for me. At Christmas time, the girls - and the little boys - in my family went there for a happy hour. Sofia (5) ordered a Shirley Temple and Maiju & Matlena told stories of their outings at Spenger's with ukki. A week later, I went there with a friend and told him about my Spenger's memories - the first place I was taken out to after arriving in California - on Robert's birthday 1976. Ukki's getting us in by a tight fist touching an older, distinguished-looking waiter's hand impressed me greatly. Yet two weeks later, I was telling these stories to some women friends - at a happy hour, including a surprise birthday party for me when Maiju was just 5 weeks old. My brother had taught everyone one to sing Happy Birthday in Finnish & the whole long table broke out in Paljon Onnea vaan when I walked in. Such sweet memories!! Kiitos Riku!!!