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Wild About Harry

One of my first memories of my Uncle Harry is of him sitting on the edge of my bed, just discharged from the Navy after World War II, emptying his duffel bag, extracting gifts for me, his only nephew: one of his white duty hats, a Japanese flag, a canteen, a duty belt, a couple of loose insignia, his dog tags. I was eleven and hadn’t seen him for the past four years, during which time he had served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. I remember at that moment thinking when I grew older I wanted to be just like him. Harry could have gone to college on the GI Bill, but after four years in the Navy, he wanted to get back into the world without further delay. His first job out of service was selling men’s clothes at a place in the Loop called Syd Jerome. Harry himself looked great in everything he wore. He was six feet tall, broad shouldered, with thick black hair, blue eyes, and a smile that got your attention. Women, my mother said, were crazy about him, always.

Harry was my mother’s brother, younger by eight years. Their mother died in my mother’s adolescence, so she and her older sister Lillian had a larger part than usual in helping to raise their brother Harold, or Heshie as they called him, then Harry as everyone later referred to him. They spoiled him terribly, according to my mother, but who wouldn’t have? He was such an attractive kid, and he became more attractive as he grew older. Nobody, my mother said, could refuse Harry anything.

Harry lived with us in our two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Road for his first few months after his discharge from the Navy. He shared my room, which had twin beds; he called me “Roomie.” We had in common a love of sports. My father, born in Canada, didn’t care about baseball or football, because he hadn’t grown up playing them as did my Uncle Harry. Before the war Harry, my mother told me, was a star on the Marshall High School basketball team.

The summer of 1945, the year of Harry’s return from the war, the Chicago Cubs, with a record of 98 wins and 56 losses, edged out the Cards for the pennant. Harry took me to nine games that summer. We always sat in the centerfield bleachers, where the small-time gamblers sat, betting on nearly every pitch. Harry would begin the afternoon laying down a twenty on the outcome of the game. “Always bet pitchers, never teams, Bobby,” he instructed me. During the game, he favored a bet called “two-bucks-no-reach,” which meant a bet that the team at bat would or wouldn’t have a runner reach second base during their raps. Occasionally, he would take a flyer on a 13-1 home run bet. “A real sucker bet, kid,” he told me, “but what the hell, everyone ought to try a long shot now and then.”

Everyone in the center-field bleachers knew Harry. He was a sport, buying beers for people and filling his nephew with hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, peanuts, pop. A guy named Lou Markowitz, also known as the Junk Man, who had a scrap-iron yard on Western, would arrive at the beginning of the sixth inning, always unshaven, wearing a fatigue jacket, and take layoff bets. Down on the field, Phil Cavarretta, Andy Pafko, Swish Nicholson, Stan Hack, and the other Cubs were crushing the ball, on their way to a World Series, where they met their defeat, as per Harry’s theory, at the hands of a great Detroit Tigers pitcher named Hal “Prince” Newhouse. It was the best summer of my boyhood.

After one of the games—Claude Passeau had pitched a three-hitter against the Reds—Harry took me with him to a crap game held in a storage shed in the Fulton Market. Six or seven fairly tough-looking working-class guys were in the game and three young blacks. Even at the age of eleven, I felt an atmosphere of menace. Harry didn’t feel it at all. He walked away more than four hundred dollars winner, and on the way home dropped two twenty-dollar bills on my lap. “That’s for being my lucky charm, Bobby,” he said. I hid the money in my sock drawer and never mentioned it to my parents.

Harry also took me to Windy City league softball games. He played for Midland Motors, one of the more prominent teams. He looked terrific in his gray uniform, with red and blue letters, outlined in white, a thick red strip on the outer seam of the pants. Harry played first base, and was a left-handed power hitter. He had acquired a cream-colored Plymouth convertible, and I used to carry his bats and spikes from the trunk of the car into the dugout. Harry arranged to get me a Midland Motors shirt, which I wore around the neighborhood and would have slept in had my father not frowned on it. The shirt was the only item of my clothes of which my father disapproved.

“What do you want to wear a shirt advertising someone else’s business?” he said. “I can get you sandwich boards advertising my own business, if that’s the kind of thing you go in for.”

I loved my father, though he didn’t always make it easy. I didn’t see all that much of him, for one thing. He worked a 70-hour week, including Saturdays. He was in the appliance-parts business, had a warehouse on West Irving Park, and, as I was later to discover when I saw him in action there, came most alive when at his “place,” as he called it. He had no hobbies, no recreations, no interests, really, outside his business, which he mastered through long hours of study and hard work. I once heard him say to a friend that, if he were to be gone from his business for a full year, his employees couldn’t cheat him out of more than nine percent.

My father was short (maybe 5’6”), stocky (about 180), with a heavy beard—he had to shave twice a day, if he and my mother went out in the evening—and his prematurely gray hair began receding early. He never cared much about clothes, or food, or material things generally. After we had gone to dinner one night at a restaurant called Grassfield’s, one of the car parkers asked him the kind and color of his car. “Oldsmobile,” he answered, but had to check with my mother for the car’s color (maroon).

My father saw it as his job to remind me how a man ought to act.  When I went up to kiss him for buying me a Rawlings baseball glove for my ninth birthday, he said, “Men don’t kiss, Bobby. They shake hands.” When I shook my father’s hand, he said: “You call that a handshake? I call that a dead fish you’ve put in my hand. Always give a man a firm handshake, Bobby.” He squeezed mine.

You didn’t have to be a genius to notice that my father wasn’t crazy about his brother-in-law. He never said anything against him, not in my presence anyhow. But I felt it, and it made sense, or so I told myself at the time. Here was this handsome guy, my Uncle Harry, to whom everything seemed to come easily, whereas my father scratched and struggled and planned for all that he had. I doubt my father ever mentioned his feeling about Harry even to my mother, whose admiring love for her younger brother was unwavering. If Harry sensed my father’s antipathy toward him, he never showed it. Had he known about it, I’m not sure he would have cared. Harry was accustomed to the world’s affection. What did he know about antipathy?

After he moved out of our apartment and into a place of his own on State Parkway, Harry continued to come over for Jewish holiday dinners, usually with a different knockout lady friend in tow. He had left Syd Jerome, was now selling Chryslers for Midland Motors, and apparently doing very well at it, or so I judged from the slight swagger of prosperity about him.

I naturally saw a lot less of him. He had asked that I drop the Uncle bit and just call him Harry—he was, he reminded me, only thirteen years older than I. From time to time, he would call to inquire if I wanted to go to a fight or a Blackhawks game at Chicago Stadium or a Bears game at Wrigley Field. The answer was invariably yes, of course I wanted to. Harry always had the best seats. He wore a suit and tie to Bears games, under a camel hair coat, with a white silk scarf, soft black kid gloves, a gleaming shine on his black loafers.

When I was sixteen, my friend Arnie Ginsburg reported to me that he saw my Uncle Harry driving slowly through heavy traffic on Rush Street early one evening in a red Chrysler Imperial convertible, top down, with Patti Page at his side. “It was like Cleopatra floating down the Nile in her barge with Mark Antony,” Arnie said. Miss Patti Page, the Singin’ Rage! Nothing was beyond Harry.

My father had to have known about my infatuation with his brother-in-law. He must have sensed my excitement on those nights when Harry was taking me to some sporting event or other. I don’t suppose he looked on Harry as a rival, exactly, but maybe, now that I look back on it, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.

I never bothered to formulate it at the time, but my father and his brother-in-law had two distinct and very different ideas about how the world worked. My father operated on the assumption that the world was a fairly orderly place and for the most part amenable to reason, control over which was found in the wisdom encapsulated in a small number of maxims, which he repeated from time to time as part of his continuing instruction to me on how to be a man: Nobody gives anything away. Work for someone else and your fate won’t be your own. You always want to put something aside; stay liquid. Pay your debts on time, if not ahead of time. A man’s word is his bond. People know more about you than you think.

I’m not sure Harry, presented with these maxims, would’ve known what the hell my father was talking about. If Harry had to write down his own notions about how the world worked—an unimaginable proposition to begin with—they might have included the following: Let Paris be gay, and the world is composed of winners and losers, your choice. I favored my Uncle Harry’s catechism over my father’s.

On my seventeenth birthday, Harry took me out for ribs at Singapore, on Rush Street. The bartender in the place didn’t have to ask but already knew what he drank: a Gibson, very dry. Harry and I talked sports, as usual, and he filled me in on the latest gossip about likely trades in the works for Chicago teams. He was always in possession of inside information in these matters. After dinner, Harry said there was someone he wanted me to meet.

We walked across the street to the Maryland Hotel and took an elevator to the ninth floor. Harry knocked on the door. A young blonde woman wearing a kimono and not much else invited us in. I walked into her apartment and heard the door close behind me. I looked back, and Harry was gone.

“Hi, Bobby,” she said. “I’m Jackie. Your uncle has arranged for me to be your seventeenth birthday present. Take off your jacket, sweetie, get comfortable.”

_____________

One morning my mother told me that Harry had moved to California. If she knew why, she didn’t say. All she said was that he had certain business opportunities in Los Angeles that he felt needed to be looked into. Now that he was living two thousand miles away, Harry’s was not a name much spoken of in our household. Whether my mother or his sister Lillian were in regular touch, I didn’t know. I only knew that I missed him.

I was twenty, about to finish my second year at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, and bored out of my gourd. If there was anything going on for me in those gray classrooms, I missed it.  My father, who had himself never gone to college, and who I sometimes felt thought that a college education tended to reduce a person’s perceptions of reality, had more than once told me that, when I was ready, there was a place for me in his expanding business. I had only to say the word. My father was a fair man, but I had seen him at his place and had a strong sense that he used up almost all the oxygen in the joint, and that there was likely to be little left over for his son or anyone else.

So, after not being in touch with him for more than two years, I called Harry in Los Angeles.

“Hey! Great to hear from you, Bobby,” he said, sounding very much his old self.

“You, too,” I said, and I never meant anything more in my life.

“What’s doing, kid?”

“That’s the problem, Harry, not much is doing. My life’s a kind of two-buck-no-reach bet, and I haven’t had anyone on first the whole game, if you know what I mean.”

“Look, why don’t you come out to the Coast? I’ll send you an airplane ticket. L.A. is a pretty amazing place. We’ll find something out here for you.”

This was exactly what I was hoping Harry would say. I thought it would be best to come on a bit cautious, though, so I told him that the idea seemed fine, but I needed a few days to think about it and would call him back.

When I told my father I was contemplating moving to Los Angeles to live with Harry for a while, he showed no uneasiness, but asked me what, precisely, I had in mind.

“I thought I’d hang around with Uncle Harry for a while and see what turns up.”

“You relying on Harry to find work for you?” he asked.

“I suppose I will be, yes.”

“Do you have any notion of why your uncle moved to California in the first place?”

When I told my father that I didn’t, he explained to me that one morning Harry had decided to bet twenty grand, spread around with five different bookies, on a baseball game—and lost. He didn’t have the money to pay up. Not a good position to be in with the Chicago mob; an unpaid debt of twenty thousand dollars figured to result in two shattered kneecaps, at a minimum. Harry, my father told me, borrowed the twenty grand from his sister, my Aunt Lillian, who had never married and wasn’t all that well off. My father told me that when he found out about it, he had given the money back to his sister-in-law with the understanding that when Harry had paid her, she would return it to him.

“Your Uncle Harry’s a man who has to grab the whole world,” my father said. “He’s not big on patience.”

“People are different, Dad,” I said. “It takes all kinds.”

“I suppose it does,” my father said, “but I wonder if a person shouldn’t be extra careful in choosing which kind in particular he wants to stake his future on.”

_____________

Off I went to Los Angeles, with six hundred dollars my father gave me to tide me over until I found work. Harry picked me up at the airport. He was driving a small black Mercedes convertible, with white leather seats. On the way to his apartment in Westwood, he told me that I was likely to find L.A. wildly different than Chicago.

“It’s not just a different place, Bobby,” Harry said, “it’s more like a different planet. Everyone here is some crazy combination of malcontent and dreamer. Everyone has a complaint and also a scheme. They were unhappy where they were, and so they came out here, lured by the weather, the glamour of Hollywood, who knows what else, to find what they didn’t find back home. The other day, the cops picked up a serial killer. The newspapers reported they discovered in the trunk of his car two screenplays the guy had written. Everyone here, but everyone, is on the hustle.”

I neglected to ask Harry what his own hustle was. He was working for the William Morris talent agency. He described his job as analogous to what an account executive does in an advertising agency. He looked after clients, amusing them, supplying their needs, massaging their egos. His current main client was a black singer-dancer who did impressions. I had seen him more than once on Ed Sullivan. I asked Harry what he did for him?

“You’re not going to believe this, but every afternoon, between two and four, I go over to his place and we strap on holsters with cap guns and practice fast-drawing. He’s obsessed with having a fast draw, please don’t ask me why. I also let him beat me at golf, a game I’ve had to learn since I came out here. And sometimes we go out on double dates together. I’m kinda his friend, except of course I’m not, and we both know it. As long as our firm is collecting large commissions on his television appearances, Vegas dates, and occasional movie roles, he retains the right to be a spoiled child. That’s the way it works.”

As Harry was telling me about the work he was doing, I was reminded of the joke my father liked to tell about the kid who runs away to join the circus. Some 20 years later, the circus returns to his hometown, and his family comes out to see him. At the end of the circus parade, as the elephants pass, the guy, no longer a kid, is sweeping up the elephant droppings with a wide broom. When, after the show, his older brother tells him that his work is degrading, not even up to undignified, and that he must find something else to do with his life, the guy, shocked, answers, “What! And leave show business!”

“What I really want to get into is movie production,” Harry said. “Big dough there, over-the-top dough, you wouldn’t believe the numbers. I need to find the angle. It could take some time.” I remembered what my father had said about his brother-in-law’s lack of patience and wondered if he would be able to ride out the wait.

Harry’s Mercedes, which turned out to be leased for him by the William Morris Agency, led me to think he would be living in a much grander place than his one-bedroom apartment in Westwood, which was small and dark. He said I could stay with him for a few days but fairly soon would need to find a place of my own, since he often had visitors there, by which I took him to mean women. He had inquired about the possibility of my working in the mailroom at William Morris, but the agency had nothing to offer at that moment. He wasn’t sure what else was out there for me but felt certain that there had to be something that would turn up soon. He would keep his eye peeled. If I needed him, needed him for anything at all, I was to call on him.

I bought an old car, a two-door 1947 Chevy, and rented the extra bedroom in the bungalow of an elderly widow named Susan Singer on Overland Street. (Whenever I saw her, I used to wonder if she, too, had a few screenplays of her own locked away somewhere.) The Los Angeles Times Help Wanted section had nothing in the way of work for me, and so I spent my days driving around, wasting gas and money, looking for help-wanted signs, and beginning to feel that maybe this move wasn’t such a hot idea. I had left my phone number for Harry at William Morris when I moved into Mrs. Singer’s bungalow but hadn’t heard a word from him in more than a week.

I cobbled together a resume of sorts—it was pretty pathetic, working for Sanders Drug Store in my teens and for my father’s business on Saturdays—and sent out copies of it to the various movie studios and large corporations I found in the Yellow Pages, with extreme doubt about why they would want to hire me to do what, in my introductory letter, I wasn’t very specific about wanting to do for them. Finally, I took a job at a subway-sandwich joint called Monty’s, just off the UCLA campus. I wore a paper hat and thin rubber gloves and behind a high counter chopped lettuce and sliced tomatoes and assembled sandwiches all day.

I can’t remember any days that seemed so long. My fellow workers at Monty’s were chiefly Mexicans, most without much English. I made no connection with the students at UCLA who came into the restaurant. As for girls, I figured luscious California co-eds were unlikely to find much to interest them in a guy wearing a paper hat.

At the end of another week, I still hadn’t heard from Harry. I went over to his apartment on three different occasions, rang the bell, but no answer. Nights I kept pretty much to my room, occasionally taking in a movie. Days went by when I barely spoke to anyone. This was my first encounter with extended loneliness, and I found it was not at all to my taste. I had no gift for solitude. Where the hell, I wondered, was Harry?

After the third week in L.A., I called again at William Morris and learned that Harry had left the agency and gone to Europe. The woman I spoke with said that she didn’t know why he had left and was sorry but she had no further information.

I didn’t want to return to Chicago, at least not too soon, if only because to do so would confirm my father in his judgment of Harry and of my foolishness in expecting anything of him. But what, exactly, had I expected? That he would help me find interesting work? That I would share his apartment and we should once again become roomies? That we would go to Dodgers games and win small bets? That he would pop girls from some L.A. equivalent of the Maryland Hotel into my bed? Harry was in his mid-thirties and intent on a career. A nephew around his neck was probably a drag he didn’t need, though why I didn’t think of that before I came out here I don’t know. Still, to leave for Europe without a word, that seemed, I don’t know, not quite right.

I continued at Monty’s, making subs during the day, and at night I read detective stories in my room. My landlady invited me to watch television with her, but I took a pass on the offer. On my days off I drove down to Laguna Beach, where I sat on the beach and stared at pretty girls. The days creaked slowly by, and still nothing from Harry. I was hoping he might call or send me a letter from Europe explaining why he had left Los Angeles without a word. The man who gave me the best summer of my boyhood was now giving me the worst summer of my life.

Toward the end of August, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I called my parents to announce that I was returning home. Over the phone my mother sounded pleased; my father didn’t say anything. The Chevy, which held up nearly the entire way back to Chicago, broke down just outside Hammond, Indiana. I had to call from a gas station to have my father wire me $140 to have something called a throw-out bearing replaced. Not exactly a triumphal return.

My father never said a word about my failed California adventure, which was a relief. When we were alone, my mother asked about her brother, and after I explained his disappearance, she allowed that Harry could sometimes act impulsively and said no more about it.

That fall I enrolled at Roosevelt University, where I declared myself a political science major. My interest in school was no greater than before, but I was determined to finish, and I did. After being drafted and spending two years in the Army, all of it in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas, I went into my father’s business.

I was wrong about my father’s using up all the oxygen in the joint, for he trained me carefully about the various aspects of his business and told me he hoped I would take it over some day, which I have now done. I have two sons of my own, and neither, I regret to report, is the least interested in going into what has proved a very profitable business, so what my father built and I carried on will probably die.

As for Harry, I learned from my Aunt Lillian, who kept in close touch with him, that when he had gone off to Europe, he did so with a client, a starlet thought promising at the time whose marriage was breaking up. Harry became her exclusive agent, and through her—I don’t know any of the intricate details—somehow worked his way into producing movies.

Watching late-night or Turner Classic Movies I sometimes note, under the title of associate or executive producer, and more rarely producer, the name Harold Abrams; you doubtless have seen and not noticed the name yourself, one of scores of such Jewish-sounding names that show up in movie credits. So far as I know, Harry worked exclusively on B or below films, nothing memorable, but he apparently made a very good living.

In his forties, Harry married a woman, a widow six years older than he, whose husband had been an important figure during the Hollywood studio days. Lillian flew out to the wedding and brought back a photograph that showed Harry in a cutaway wearing a mustache. Among the guests was Frank Sinatra. His wife had children from her first marriage, and they had no children together. They lived in her large house in Beverly Hills. When Lillian died, Harry sent flowers but didn’t come to Chicago for the funeral.

Harry died six years later, of pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-eight. My mother went, by herself, to his funeral. When I asked her what the funeral was like, she reported that her brother had twenty-seven ultra-suede sport jackets in his bedroom closet; she had counted. “Every color imaginable,” she said.

“Oh, and one thing more,” my mother said, “a lady friend of Harry’s, a woman who looked to be in her forties, apparently his mistress for several years, showed up at the funeral, which outraged his wife. Back at the house, after the burial, she stomped around and called him a son of a bitch, a bastard, and everything else she could think of. Who can blame her? But, you know, that’s Harry.”

When my mother left the room, my father took me aside to inform me that his brother-in-law had never repaid the twenty grand he had borrowed from his sister Lillian. “That’s Harry, too,” my father said, and walked out of the room.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, author of our monthly “Enter Laughing” column, last wrote for Commentary on T.S. Eliot and the demise of the literary culture.




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