Note: This is the second in a memoir series I’m trying to put together.
You’ve probably heard someone say they were the first in their family to attend college. I hear that, and think of a family dream realized.
Well, I’m a family dream realized. Sort of. I am a son of the son of immigrant parents. My father did work two and sometimes three jobs at once. Mailman. Cab driver. Restauranteur. And me? I was the first in our family to go beyond grade 12.
Dad was a hard-working dreamer. He expected his family to work hard alongside him, and to share his dreams. He would establish a chain of Italian restaurants, and his wife and two sons would do their share to make it come true. He did not care so much about education beyond high school. I once told him about a psychology lecture I had found particularly fascinating during my junior year at SUNY Buffalo, and he dismissed it, calling the ideas and insights “silly college talk.”
College, to my father, led to a limited number of paths. College could turn you into a doctor, a dentist, or a lawyer. Beyond that, it could only make you silly. Dad hoped to make his little restaurants a successful business that he’d turn over to his sons. It was his project-of-a-lifetime, and it was doomed. It wasn’t merely that no one else in the family shared his dream. It wasn’t just that our metropolitan area had already passed its economic zenith when he opened his first store in October, 1964, and was headed into a period of long decline. It wasn’t only that Dad’s temper eclipsed his business skills and sometimes alienated the people he needed most.
My uncle, the one that married Dad’s favorite sister, was a “college boy” in Dad’s lingo. Uncle worked as a financial manager for truck companies, hospitals, the State of New York. Uncle did pretty well. Once at a family gathering, Uncle dropped a plate of something-or-other on the floor somewhere between the oven and the table. My father happened to witness the event. My aunt probably shrieked. My cousins and I probably laughed. But what I most clearly remember is Dad, standing near the kitchen sink, beginning to nod his head in the affirmative with his lips drawn into a straight line, like Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooner,” but thinner. Dad waited until the commotion died down so that we could hear his calmly-delivered indictment of Uncle’s failure, with an arm and an index finger extended toward the guilty one:
Some years later, I was in college. Dad’s money did not send me there. I managed to earn a partial scholarship, managed to get a loan from a sympathetic neighbor, managed to work in Dad’s restaurants to make up the rest. Dad’s dream for me was either to become a dentist, or to take over his business one day. My dream was neither. I didn’t know enough of life back then even have a dream. So I did my duty. My duties included making sixty pounds of pizza dough at a time and rolling them into balls for refrigeration two days before they would be used. The old gray dough mixer had four speeds, and a big lever that had to be set at the correct speed in order to mix the ingredients properly. The proper setting was “1,” the lowest speed. The dough mixer was positioned just inside the doorway that separated the customer-facing counters from the parts of a restaurant that customers typically are not supposed to see. In other words, it was in a pretty central location.
“Davey,” said Dad, “We’ve got about one day of dough left. Today you’ll need to make a batch.” I knew what to do. I’d done it for five years, twice or three time per week, in three different restaurants. Wipe the bowl clean. Secure the dough hook. Dump in the entire contents of a 50-lb. bag of flour. Measure the warm water, into which the yeast, sugar and salt were dissolved. Measure the cold water, and the shortening. After a few minutes, break up the clumps of yeast in the water, stir to dissolve whatever sugar might be remaining at the bottom of the warm water, add to the flour, and turn the machine on.
I flipped the switch, and immediately was reminded of the step I forgot. White powder flew in every direction while the dough mixer emitted a loud, metallic noise. The dough hook whirred about in the bowl at a velocity I had never before seen. I knew what I needed to do, but before I could translate thoughts into action my eyeglasses were coated with white, and I couldn’t see. Had I reached my hand forward to where I thought the power switch was, and missed, that violent dough hook would have taken my arm off.
I don’t know how many seconds passed when I heard Dad’s voice. Dad had the gift of an unbelievably loud voice when he thought the situation called for volume. One of us, I’m not sure which, managed to turn the machine off. There were four employees and a handful of customers in the restaurant. All of us were wearing flour. Not to mention the floors, tables and chairs, counters, and everything else inside the “Pizza Den” restaurant at the corner of Connecticut and West Avenues.
Dad looked at me, and softly shook his head. He said one word before he turned away.