Prodigal Fathers

Fathers are universal.  We’ve all had one, and some of us have had more.  In my case I had the same one three times.  By that I mean…Well, maybe I ought to start from the beginning.My mother left my father once and then she left him again.  I suppose a good chapter in second semester psychology could be worked up on that fact alone, but for me the real issues lie somewhere in between those leave-takings of my mother’s.  What I know of the first departure I know only from hearsay.  It was 1947.  Apartments were impossible to get in New York City but my father pulled some strings my mother said, and got us one on Riverside Drive.  Shortly after moving into this apartment all hell broke out between my parents.  I was a year-and-a-half old, too young to grasp how my parents’ marriage lost its footing and tumbled to its last day.  Later my mother said that he had threatened to kill us by turning on the gas.  She said he had begun to seal the windows and stuff towels under the doors.  Mom fled to her mother’s apartment and waited until he calmed down before returning.  By then she had decided to leave him.  She planned an artful departure in cahoots with my maternal grandmother and aunt.  She left her purse conspicuously ajar, revealing a pair of train tickets to Miami, and then quietly left for the West Coast with me in tow.  Soon after our arrival my grandmother and aunt joined us there, the four of us living in a comfortable house in the Fairfax section of Los Angeles.  It was seven years later when my father finally found us.  Ike was President.  My mother and aunt had opened a corset and bra shop on a strip of Wilshire Boulevard known as the “Miracle Mile.” The afternoon my father arrived I was dressed in a cowboy suit.  He stood at the door with an armload of toys.  I studied his size.  I was at once wary, awed and confused.  I remember the following things: My father took my mother and me to the Sportsman’s Lodge in LA for dinner.  The restaurant was built in the center of an artificial lagoon which was stocked with trout.  Customers were given the opportunity to catch trout and have them prepared for their dinner.  I remember catching a few.  The next thing I remember is the flight back to New York.  My parents remarried and we moved into my father’s apartment.  That summer I was sent to sleep-away camp in New Jersey.  There I learned to canoe, play golf and dissect frogs.  In my memory I am walking with a group of campers down a rural road and into a red clapboard train station from the last century.  There were wanted posters on the bulletin board inside the station.  I am studying the posters, absorbed in the myths they evoke.

When I got home the second marriage was over.  Again, with me in tow, my mother left.  This time we moved across the Hudson to a housing project in Englewood, New Jersey.  My father became a Sunday Father.  The Sundays were few, and far between.  Somewhere beyond the range of my knowing, a decision had been reached and my mother and I were bound for Los Angeles.  This time there were no feints, dodges or diversions.  We just left.

It was difficult to get a divorce in New York during the early 50’s.  A common solution to the lengthy procedures was to obtain a Mexican divorce.  My memory grants me another signpost here.  A long weekend in Juarez, Mexico; sitting at a wooden bar eating Guava paste and toast for breakfast under a high ceiling and slow turning overhead fans.  Everything was painted white.  I remember my mom’s face, her figure and her shoes.  She stood out.  There was a bullfight.  We sat halfway up the bleachers.

It would be another seven years before I’d see my father again.  I had just turned sixteen and decided to visit him for two weeks.  He met me on the runway and when I saw him I was both embarrassed and a bit proud.  He was still bigger than life.  He had managed to pry his dreamworld open and he was sharing it with me.  He was a member of the New York Stock Exchange and had large cherry-wood paneled offices in the old Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City and another office in Washington, DC.  His wife had a national T.V. show, College News Conference, where a panel of college students interviewed world leaders every Sunday night.  There were private tours of Congress and the State Department.  I ate lunch in the senate dining room and collected signatures on the menu.  There were embassy parties.  People dressed up, there was always someone taking pictures.  When the two weeks were up I went back to California determined to return.

The next year I decided to drive east with a friend.  He would be the first of my friends to meet my father.  I was excited and no longer embarrassed.  That summer and the two summers to follow further marked the inevitable road leading to my father.  Halfway into our third summer’s visit my resentment flared.  I was his size now, we were on our feet facing each other in the living room of his apartment, the same one I’d left with my mother ten years earlier.  “Where the hell were you all those years,” I demanded to know.  Without waiting for an answer I turned and left; gathered my things, threw them into the car and my friend and I headed west.

Two years later when I graduated college he called.  He asked what I wanted for graduation.  I said I wanted a pickup truck.  I told him I planned to go to graduate school and needed a truck.  He bought it.  He was my dad.  Some weeks later I got the truck, loaded it up and set out for the Fine Arts Department at U.C. Davis.  My father and I kept our geographical and emotional distance, eyeing each other from across the continent.  “Art?,” he must have wondered.  Toward the end of graduate school I called my father and told him I was getting married.  There was a long pause.  He did not come to the wedding.   When he became a grandfather his interest perked up.  He and I had struck an emotional balance in spite of our separate orbits. That balance was preserved as my family grew by first one daughter and then another.  I acquired property and a job.

I found myself teaching public school in the Boys Division of Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall.  Thousands of children torn from their families; terminal childhoods.  I was part of a great male-dominated authority system.  “An arm of the Man,” the kids said.  It was a tough place, and it was tougher for me.  I had no role model, no emotional patrimony to draw on for the manning up the work demanded.

When I became a father I began to appreciate what fatherhood meant: from the view of the child as well as the father.  I often thought about what might have been had I grown up with mine.  My wife and I had trouble.  Systems failed.  We began to lose contact with each other.  We thought we needed a break.  I accepted a lectureship in the Art Department at the University of Washington in Seattle.  Finally the end came.  My lectureship was extended and I remained in Seattle.  I came to know how my father felt during his first separation.  No matter how many trips I made to Los Angeles that year, the raggedness of the separation from my children could not be smoothed.  Decisions were looming.  My divorce would be final soon.  I gave up my lectureship and returned to Los Angeles.

My mother found an old swim club, The Aloha Swim Club.  It had a beat-up nearly Olympic-sized swimming pool, a cinderblock office and dressing rooms, and a ragged tennis court.  A kind of trashed out Beverly Hills without the big house.   I bought it.

The next couple of years were spent fixing up the club and jumpstarting my career as an artist.  I began to do installations in a variety of places.  By the second year I had lined up several new locations for installations including the City Cafe, Beverly Hills Playhouse and Lions Gate Studios.  I’d found my stride.  I was making money.  Life was good.  The Club was close to where my girls were living and we saw each other nearly every day.   My mother and aunt also lived close by.   I’d heard nothing from my father since I’d given up my lectureship and moved back to LA.One afternoon my phone rings.  It’s my father.  He is crying.  His wife, the one with the national TV show, has just died.  They had been married twenty-five years.  He sounded bereft, desperate and human.  He was lost.  I was set back.   I said I would try to visit him soon.  When the conversation was over I was struck by how little I knew about my father.  He was just into his seventies and in my life until then I’d spent maybe eight weeks with him.

I quickly finished the installation I had been working on, bought a ticket and left for New York City.  My father let me stay in the studio apartment his wife had used as her office.  He asked that I pay him the maintenance.

I’d hang out in his office until my money ran out and then I’d go back to LA and do another installation, spend time with my kids and then return to New York.  On my third trip I bought a suit and some ties.  All the back and forth began to wear on me while at the same time the gravitational force of my need for my father continued to pull me towards him.

After my fourth or fifth trip I made up my mind.  I put my tools and art into storage, the Aloha into the hands of my mother, said goodbye to my girls and moved into the studio office.

The next several years were rough ones.  I stuck to my father like white on rice.  We spent every weekend together at his country house.   Him reading and me doing the yard work, organizing his garage, cleaning the car, and going with him to social events.  During the week I went with him every morning to the office.  I prepped for and passed several regulatory exams so I could be a stock broker.  Eventually I became a principal and President of my father’s firm, A.T. Brod & Co. Inc. and an adjunct Member of the New York Stock Exchange.  My urge to build things manifested itself in my expanding the business.  With the Stock Exchange’s approval, A.T. Brod eventually had offices in Denver and Ft. Lauderdale, Syracuse, and Phoenix.

My father began to show me off to his friends, his pride flowing like some great river into which I plunged with something like abandon.

When a rift seemed to open up between my father and me, I discounted it. The tension had to do with who my father had begun to associate with. He was fascinated by people who appeared to make easy money.  In the environment of Wall Street this included crooked brokers, crooked customers, crooked traders, crooked firms; the list is a long one.  I learned it was easier to dupe someone who lost money than dupe someone who made money.  Much of my attention was focused on dealing with the crooks my father attracted like iron filings to a magnet.  Sometimes he seemed to resent my efforts.  Once, after returning from a few days with my girls in LA, I discovered that our margin clerk had used the free credit balances of unsuspecting customers to buy a stock.  I canceled those trades, took the stock into a house account, put on a “beard” and sold the stock through another brokerage firm where I had some friends.  When the cleanup was finished, I held the door as my assistant–a big man, who’d started life out as a lobsterman off the coast of Maine–took the clerk by his collar and belt and threw him into the hall against the far wall.   Events like these were never reported to the Exchange or any other regulatory body.  Had they been reported the firm would’ve been fined or suspended for failure to supervise.

After this incident.I began to wonder if my wishful rapprochement with my father might be a risky deal. I sensed that as President of the firm I was providing cover for him and that if shit hit the fan it was me who was going to catch it.

We were almost wiped out in the crash of 1987.  One of our biggest customers, who was also a broker, was sold out of all of his positions prompting a run on our capital that turned into a flood.  On a handshake I obtained a loan from our clearing bank which kept us afloat while the customer attempted to trade his way out of his debt.   When, after a year with no pay-down in sight, my father came to me and said he would no longer approve my salary, that he couldn’t afford the $50,000.00 he had been paying me.  I was stunned.  My mother had said he was slippery, lied, and was only out for himself.  She said that he was reckless and had bankrupted his father’s business when he took it over.  It dawned on me that everything my mother had said about him was true. That thought sunk to the bottom of my soul like lead, but it was still not enough to fully drown my dream of a father.

By then I had married for a second time and had a new daughter.  My wife was from a well-known German Jewish family with a successful securities trading business.   My new father-in-law expected me to join his firm and made me a generous offer.   I told him I appreciated his offer but that I had come to New York to know my father and I had to remain working at his firm.

Before my second wife and I were married my future in-laws hosted an engagement dinner party in their Park Avenue apartment.  Just before the party, my father gave me the engagement ring he had given Ruth, his wife of twenty-five years.  It was a four carat pear-shaped diamond.  As toasts to our future together were being offered, I presented the ring to Daphne and slipped it on her finger.  It fit.  My father was beaming.  After the ceremony, my soon-to-be new bride decided she wanted to have the ring’s setting changed.  I asked my father to hold it in the firm’s safe-deposit box until we could choose a new setting.

A month or so later, after our marriage, we attended a black-tie charity affair with my father and his new girlfriend.  Shortly after sitting down I happened to notice she was wearing the engagement ring I had given Daphne.  I kicked my wife under the table and threw my glance toward the ring.  My father’s deepest sentiments were fungible.

I soldiered on for two more years administering the firm, trading my own account and advising.  At one point I’d made some introductions that resulted in a private financing.  The participants agreed to pay me a finders’ fee of $50,000.00, which, by law, had to be paid into the firm.  Once the check cleared I wrote myself a check for $50,000.00.

When my father found out what I’d done he went ballistic, demanding I return the money.   I refused.  All the anger and rage that I’d built up exploded.  “I’m doing all this work running the firm and not getting paid.  What kind of bullshit is this!”  “You don’t like it, you can leave,” was his reply.  I left.

He was bent on getting that money back.  An arbitration panel was convened, consisting of industry stalwarts from my father’s generation.  We were both represented by lawyers.  During the testimony my father broke down, sobbing that he had lost a son.  The panel found in his favor and I dutifully returned the money.

Shortly after this. my father decided to sell the firm.  Over the years he had given me, in lieu of money, an equity stake in the firm.  It came in three stock certificates that represented a total of forty percent of the firm’s outstanding stock.  He had found a buyer and now insisted that I give him back my equity in the firm.  I was beyond devastated.  Sure, I’d grabbed the commission without telling him but I hadn’t anticipated the final showdown.  I sought out legal advice.  Of course he had no claim on that equity.  I held the actual stock certificates that had been duly signed by him and given to me.  The next day I went into the office my father and I had shared for the past few years.  Each of us sat at opposite ends of a long conference table.  My rage and pain contained in the pressure cooker of my chest.  He looked up from his reading.  If I had had a gun I would have killed him.  Instead I took the three certificates, my forty percent of A.T. Brod & Co. Inc. and shot them down the table towards him like three playing cards.  My last words to him went with those certificates: “Here, shove ‘em up your ass, motherfucker.”

It was over.  My dream had drowned in a sea of green.  My mother heard what had happened and wrote to him, telling my father “…you didn’t lose a son, you traded him for money.”  We never saw one another again despite the efforts of several friends.   Ten years later he died.  He had been married six times and I was his only child.  His estate’s lawyer called several weeks after he died and told me that my father had disowned not just me, but his grandchildren as well.  A week later I got a copy of my father’s will.   The only thing my father had forgotten about was an old New York Stock Exchange life insurance policy.  My share was $50,000.00.