October 29. Day 29 of My Month of Hundreds.
Today would be my Dad’s 88th birthday. He was a year younger than Gina, although no one knew this because she lied about her age ever since I can remember.
My dad, Sidney Ginsberg, grew up in an extended Jewish family in Philadelphia and New York, had a thick Brooklyn accent, and loved to eat sardines and herring. In many ways he was an odd match for my cultured European mother.
He served in the Army, then went to law school on the GI bill. But he didn’t work as a lawyer till later. For most of my childhood he worked in the family business, a garage and gas station in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hoboken in those days was very different from the chic community it is today; it was grungy and kind of scary. The garage got burglarized a few times; an alarm would go off and then our phone would ring in the middle of the night, sending my dad hurrying out into the dark.
He worked six days a week and always had grease under his fingernails. A series of de-greasing products made their way through our bathroom, each one promising (and failing) to remove the telltale signs of the working life. On Saturdays, my dad would often take me with him to the gas station. The guys would open the soda machine for me and let me take whatever I wanted. When I was old enough I got to help wash cars and pump gas. Sometimes I got a 25¢ tip. Nothing I have ever done since was more fun; I adored my dad and it seemed like everyone else did, too. He was playful, warm and quick with a joke.
I did lots of “boy stuff” with my dad. I loved spending time with him at his workbench in the basement. I can’t remember anything that he ever built or even fixed, but he carried an aura of being a capable and handy guy and I wanted to be like that. He chopped wood in the backyard for our fireplace, pushed me around in the wheelbarrow and taught me how to use the axe.
Sometime in the late 1960s my dad went back to school and started working as an attorney for Legal Aid. He spoke fondly of his clients and considered them “underdogs” worth fighting for. At some point a grateful client started sending him a lottery ticket every week. He never found out who the client was but one time he got a winning ticket worth $50.
At his office and in the courtroom everyone referred to my father as “Tex”, because he was always wearing a cowboy hat. He shaved his head and only wore bow ties, which I found embarrassing at the time. Every year for his birthday I would get him a straight tie which he would wear once and then relegate to the back of his closet. As I got older I assumed the duty of his weekly “haircuts”, which consisted of using a clipper on the closest setting and shaving off what little hair he had. Sometimes I would leave a patch on the back in the shape of a triangle or square, especially if he had a PTA meeting to go to. I thought this was hilarious and he never got mad.
On November 15, 1974, my dad said he wasn’t feeling well, laid down on the floor, and died. I was 17 and a senior in high school. My mother was in shock, and quickly overwhelmed by the business aspects of managing the aftermath. She retreated deeply into her scarcity mentality. The family home became a sad and sorry place. As soon as I could, I got out on my own.
My dad would love this project. I think he pretty much would love everything about it. I wanted to honor him today with my gift, so I headed over to our local gas station. There’s a really sweet kid there who has pumped my gas before (in Oregon you don’t get to pump your own gas). I was hoping he might be there today.
Sure enough, as I pulled in I saw the mop of this young guy’s hair. He started filling my tank and was just finishing up with a couple of other cars. Pretty soon it was just the two of us. I got out of the car. I asked him how he was doing and he said he was good and what about me. I made a comment about how nice he always is and he smiled. “Have you always been like that?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he said. “Ever since my mother raised me. And my dad.” He’s 18 now. I said they must be proud of him and he said yeah, he thought so.
I told the kid I wanted to give him something and he said that was fine. I handed him the C-note and he stared. “You’re kidding, right? Are you serious? Is this for real?” I said it was and he said, “Dang! Thank you! Thank you so much!”
He was so happy and excited. I told him he might not realize how much of a difference he makes to people by being his sweet self. He said his name was Julian and asked me mine. “You’re pretty nice, too,” he said. “You just made my day!” Then he asked if he could give me a hug and wrapped his long arms around me. A car pulled in and he loped off to take care of business. He turned back and said, “Whenever I see you, I’m gonna say ‘Thank you, Jill!'” He waved at me, smiling, as I pulled out of the lot.
Yeah, I think Sidney “Tex” Ginsberg would have liked this a lot. Happy birthday, Dad.
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