Sunday, November 19, 2006

Please, No Elephants (Chapter 6)

I am not only witty in myself,
but the cause that wit is in other men.
     — William Shakespeare
          Falstaff, in Henry IV, I, i, 1598


As the frequency of Eddie’s drinking began to increase, so did the pattern of our lives. One consequence is that we began to eat out several times each week, but not at normal restaurants. A very common feature of the Pennsylvania landscape leftover from Colonial days was the all-in-one tavern, restaurant and hotel. Usually known as an inn, tavern or a hotel, there was at least one in most small rural towns that dotted the landscape around the greater Reading area. Eddie seemed to know them all and coupled with the bars in and around Reading that also served food, there were literally hundreds of them. Over several years, Eddie seemed to determined to visit them all, or so it seemed. Because the number of bars that I spend my evenings in as a child is truly staggering.

I think it began innocently enough, with Eddie trying to make up for his drunkenness of the night before. “Let’s go out to eat.” He’d tell my mother. “My treat.” As if it was a positive gesture and not one to placate his own earlier indiscretions. But Eddie was a charmer and my mother easily forgave everything, especially in the first few years. But in this, at least, she could not be faulted. Eddie charmed everyone. It was his gift. He could sell anybody anything. He had the gift of the gab. He loved to talk.

When he and my mother first married, Eddie worked at a nearby Firestone Tire factory. I don’t know what he did there, but whatever it was, it was not fulfilling. Whatever else Eddie was, he was not stupid though he had certainly neglected his education. I think the crowd he ran with and the environment he grew up in did not value being smart. Being tough was what mattered. It was Grease but without the singing. So I think Eddie suppressed a poet’s soul, a soul that wanted to be better than it was. And so in order to fit in, he gave up his chance to get out of that environment, at least through education. He barely finished high school. And though he read a lot — history and books on film primarily — I never once heard him talk about them with any of his friends from the old days. As a result, I think the work available to him when he returned from Vietnam was limited and beneath his innate intelligence. So his job undoubtedly bored him. I know it frustrated him. I know he was jealous of my mother because she had gone to Nurse’s school and so was more educated than he was.

So he left the job at the tire factory and wandered unhappily through one bad job after the next. They always started with great promise and optimism but never lasted long. There was always some excuse, but I think Eddie simply grew bored. There was a string of jobs that rarely lasted longer than a year. He sold tools to professional mechanics, driving around in a van from garage to garage. He was airline mechanic at the Reading Airport. He worked for the county welfare office checking up on people’s claims to insure they were legitimate. This job led to a side job in which he and an old buddy were paid to clean out the homes of people who died with no will and no heirs. Naturally, the silent understanding was that if something happened to not make it onto the inventory list but instead found it’s way, inadvertently of course, into our attic that the county would look the other way. This led to all manner of odd items being stored in our attic until a buyer could be found, from true antiques to a trunk filled with 16mm Swedish Erotica films.

He was a used car salesman off and on over the years. It was a job he kept returning to at different places, presumably because he was so good at it. It was definitely the type of job he was born to do, but I don’t think he liked using his gift for the benefit of others. Throughout this series of jobs, there was almost always a clunker in the garage that he was fixing up to sell. It would take him only a couple of sober weekends and it was in shape to sell. Then he’d take the money to by the next fixer-upper. He continued to do that even after he opened his own garage in downtown Reading to fix cars.

Eddie’s Auto Garage was not a spectacular name but apparently he really did have something of a reputation for being able to fix cars. That, or he just knew a lot of people in Reading, because people seemed to always be stopping by that he knew whenever I was stuck there. He seemed much more happy about being in business for himself and for a while after it first opened we thought perhaps he’d stopped drinking to excess. I think my mother believed that his drinking was linked to his being so frustrated in dead end jobs and that if had his own business that magically it would all go away and we’d all be one big happy family again. Of course, alcoholism doesn’t work that way, nor does co-dependency. So when my mother cleaned out my college fund without telling me to lend Eddie the money to open his garage, she was utterly convinced that it was the right thing to do to save her marriage. I didn’t find out about it until after she’d died when I had to go through her records for the probate. I’m convinced that he’d turned on his considerable charm to get at my money.

And it was that very same charm that allowed him to terrorize us for so long with nobody suspecting a thing, even though there was evidence all around. Not to mention us later coming right out and telling people, even then we were not to be believed. So my mother resigned herself — and me — to her fate. She was a classic enabler, blaming herself, and doing nothing whatsoever preferring to be with a monster than alone. I wish that I could say that was simply hyperbole, but she told me almost that exact sentiment many times, apparently she hated the idea of being alone more than almost anything else she could imagine. That I had no say in the matter and suffered as a result of her cowardice seemed lost on her and our own relationship — which had once been very close — began to deteriorate. By the time she died of cancer in 1981, we were hardly speaking.

So my mother felt she had no choice and our lives in a sense went on the road for a time. It some ways, it was exciting as a child to visits all of these strange places. That they were adult places only added to their mystery and wonder. I was generally free to explore them before and after our meals, and in some ways it was a great education and even fun. Many of the bars had pinball machines, shuffleboard, all manner of electronic games. Eddie when newly drunk was free with his money and often had a fistful of quarters for me to play to my heart’s content. Eddie was a crack pool player, too, and taught me much about how to play pool. I think if there had been a decathlon of bar events, Eddie would have been quite the athlete. Because if it was a common fixture of a bar, he could do it, and do it well. I can only imagine the hours he’d logged in bars over the years.

Another odd benefit of all this, especially at bars, was that many drunks found a kid being there a novelty of sorts and would talk to me, teach me to play cards or otherwise take the time to keep me amused while we were there. So I never really minded this development and in fact enjoyed it. It was far better than being at home, where Eddie was much more prone to reach that point where he would turn into a monster. It was such a transformation that it reminded me of the Incredible Hulk. Eddie would get this look in his eyes and then — wham — all hell would break loose like he’d just been uncorked. But this rarely happened in public with other people around. It was the reason he could pretend for so many years that he was a good person and just like everyone else. It was also the reason nobody ever believed my mother or me when we tried to explain what it was like living with Eddie.

Some of my own favorites that I can recall were the Sharltesville Hotel (best Pennsylvania Dutch food), the Conrad Weiser Inn, the Douglassville Hotel, Bowers Hotel, Haag’s Hotel, the Yellowhouse Hotel and Stahl’s Coachmen’s Inn, to name a few rattling around inside my head. And Birch Tavern, in Reading, was my mother’s favorite place for seafood, though the Sho-Boast was a close second.

But by far, my mother’s favorite place overall was the Peanut Bar in downtown Reading, near the Penn Street Bridge. An Reading institition since just after Prohibition, over time it became more of a restaurant with a bar than a bar that served food. The menu changed around a lot, but we always found something good to eat there. The Peanut Bar’s quirky novelty was that the bar and tables all had endless dishes of shelled peanuts which you were encouraged to shell and throw on the floor. The floors were generally covered in peanut shells so your feet crunched on them as you walked through the bar, almost like walking through a field of dry autumn leaves. I have no idea how often they swept the floor, but it couldn’t have been daily. For as long as I can remember t-shirts with the Peanut Bar logo on the front had a pretty funny slogan written on the back that read, “sorry, no elephants ….” Eddie knew the owner, Harold, of course, and he always found a table for us, even when it was packed.

The food in these places was often quite good and usually inexpensive. There were places in rural, landlocked Pennsylvania known for their seafood, and my mother loved crab cakes and lobster. So Eddie took a particular delight in finding these places. Whenever we went to them, it almost seemed like he invariably knew people there, as if he’d canvassed the place recently or he’d known them for years and years. It was hard to tell which it was, because he did seem to know everybody in the area and he was to the casual observer a “people person.” He always talked to strangers like they’d known each other for years, but he talked to people he did know for years the same way so you could really never tell at all. He was just the consummate salesman and was always “on,” even when he was just selling himself.

As a result, wherever we went, Eddie was the life of the party. To other drunks, he must have seemed positively like the Oscar Wilde of the bar scene. He was the wit among the witless, the prince of the plastered. When we studied Shakespeare in Junior High, the character Falstaff reminded me of Eddie, and it was ironic that I recalled sometimes seeing the beer Falstaff at a few of the more obscure bars we frequented. Falstaff’s boasting and high opinion of himself fit Eddie’s personality like a glove. And both were overweight and out of shape yet were stronger than they appeared.

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