Monday, August 08, 2005

Uncles, Part I

I was brought up by uncles and aunts - mostly by aunts, but most profoundly by uncles. The two most important men in my life had the broad shouldered names of Bernard Charles Szymanski, and Louis Leon Kozlowski. Uncle Barney, and Fr. Louie. In my eyes, and between them, they were the whole world.

Barney was secular and worldly wise, an empiricist and agnostic, comfortable on boulevards and in alleyways, a G-man turned CPA. Fr. Louie, his brother–in-law, took his nourishment from earth, travel, and the arts, a working class son turned sophisticate priest. Barney was Broadway; Fr. Louie was the Metropolitan Opera, but they were both Fifth Avenue and the Waldorf Astoria. Barney was the ponies; Fr. Louie skied. Barney was Miami; Fr. Louie – Rome.

Uncle Barney was born in Erie, PA, and was one of the few family members to spend any time out of town. Like Fr. Louie, he was a first generation American. His dad was a laborer, his mother a housewife, and it was a Polish Catholic family; up until my generation that meant you split your loyalties between Rome, the US, and the old country. You lived Polish, worshipped Roman, worked American, and voted Democratic.

The only story of his own boyhood Uncle Barney ever told me seemed to be the defining story of his life. When he was in high school, his teacher brought him to the front of the class, called for attention, and told the class to take a good look at him because he was never going to amount to anything. That event fueled his every success, and he took particular pleasure in its telling.

As an adult, Barney would occasionally survey his domain, find it good, and launch into that story. And his domain was good. He was a Harvard Business School graduate and proudly wore his class ring. His marriage to Florence Kozlowski (whom he met in a TB hospital when she was in her late teens and he in his mid-twenties) brought him one son, Michael. He did government service during the Second World War as a Treasury Agent in Philadelphia, and once showed me the scar of a gunshot wound he had received in the line of duty. Whether it was a real scar or not I don’t know. Barney did like the odd story, and would often tell me I was part Cherokee Indian. I never believed that one, but it was fun to hear it. As far as Indians go, Barney was a real fan of the Seminole because they had never signed a peace treaty with the US government. That was a story I liked, and though I never understood the implications it did give me the idea you could be “bad” and still respected, and it’s a good guess to say that was the lesson. After Philadelphia and the Armistice he came back to Erie and started his own accounting practice. He had assimilated without loosing his moorings, and moved his family from Erie’s Polish Ghetto to the foot of Upper State Street. Upper State was the home of Erie’s nouveu riche - sons and daughters of immigrants who made good. He’d thought about buying and building there, but had his sights set on early retirement in Miami, so he opted for the foot rather than the leg. By the time I was fourteen, Barney was at the top of his game. Semi-annual shopping trips to New York City – and the hotels seemed to get better with each trip; winter months in Miami – to prepare himself for the upcoming income tax season; Saturdays at the track ; kids in private school. But the game killed him – a massive heart attack outside my bedroom door.

My God, it was like my whole boyhood was pulled out from under me, and I never did recover. My step-brother, Michael, and me in our separate beds in that dark bedroom, listening to the commotion in the hallway, afraid to move and knowing that something just too awful had happened. Voices: “Call the inhalator squad,” “Call Fr. Louis,” “Shhh, don’t wake the kids.” Oh, but I was awake, forcing myself back to sleep, and then again awake, and asleep, until Aunt Florence finally came into the room and brought us out into the hallway. The lights were preternaturally bright, and the hallway and bathroom opposite our door seemed so large, and hazy. The household was there. Uncle Andy from upstairs, Aunt Therese from the room next door, Fr. Louis and Busia from Fr. Louie’s downtown parish, Aunt Florence, and there was Uncle Barney, covered with a white comforter on the bathroom floor. “Michael, your daddy is dead; Richard, your Uncle Barney died. Don’t be afraid. Let’s kneel down and say the rosary.”

Was I awake, asleep, it didn’t matter; I was in shock that would last for years. And I don’t remember crying, not then, not at the funeral parlor, not at the gravesite, not ever, but it was the beginning of the sadness that all the sadness has attached itself to, and now it’s memories.

Between the ages of seven and nine, I was an easy kid to get along with. Most anyplace was comfortable for me, and I traveled well. Those were qualities Uncle Barney appreciated, and they put me in good stead as his companion. Most dads take their kids places like the zoo, the amusement park, or the ice-cream parlor. Barney would take me to the cigar stores - home of illegal off-track betting, the numbers racket, and who knows what else ; all- night restaurants, and the back offices of bars where he kept the books. The cigar stores were by far my favorite because they were loaded with comic books, magazines, and all the coke and potato chips I could handle. Urban’s was the best, and oddly, the only Polish Cigar Store in town. The Italians really controlled the market. Behind the huge front window of Urban’s was a cascading display of comic books, and whatever I could reach was mine to read. Uncle Barney would play pinochle in the back rooms, and I’d read comics and eat until I’d fall asleep on top of a pile of magazines, or in a big wooden chair in the back.

I’d hate to call Barney, “shady,” though some of his clients certainly were. Names like Carl Allessi, Jimmy Salamone, Al Marti; racketeers to be sure, but Dapper-Dans, and gentlemen each of them. My aunts would talk about them, talk about them to this day, and invariably the conversation ends with, “…but they were real gentleman.”

When Barney was a T-Man he investigated them. As a civilian he kept them out of jail by making sure they paid their taxes, hid their assets, and didn’t lord their ill-gotten gains.

We never called them gangsters, and didn’t think of them as crooks in any sense. We did call them “racketeers,” but it was not a pejorative. To me it seemed just like a name for a job, like a carpenter…or an accountant.

I think Al Marti was married. He was the Boss, and had a palace in the suburbs, and though I don’t remember meeting his wife, I do remember hanging out in what might have been the “family room” in the basement. He had his own jukebox, and I could play whatever I wanted, but there was nothing much I wanted to play. At that point I was listening to “The Purple People Eater,” and “The Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and I don’t recall that Al Marti had those on his play list. Whether or not the other guys were married I don’t know. It was a man’s world as far as I could see.

I was entranced by Carl Allessi - all these guys were referred to by first and last name. I don’t know why. For the longest time I thought his name was “Carlessi.” He had his own cigar store, and when we’d visit he would befriend me with silver dollars and handshakes. Whenever I’d see him, he’d shake my hand and the silver dollar would pass from his to mine. In those days silver dollars were big pieces of coin, and my little mitt could hardly grasp it. I thought it was the coolest thing: one that he’d shake my hand, and two that there’d be this hidden exchange. Carl’s place seemed a little shadier than Urban’s, maybe because it was smaller. No comic books, but a couple of those spinning racks of paperbacks. I bought my first two paperback books at Carl Allessi’s; biographies of George Gershwin, and Al Capone, and I seem to remember picking up a biography of Legs Diamond there later.

There was a particular topcoat Carl Allessi used to wear, Harris Tweed, with a velvet collar. By the time I was eight I had one of my own, as well as a few white-on-white silk shirts that I’d wear with white silk ties. My Aunt Therese would even give me manicures topped off with clear nail polish. I had pretensions of being the littlest racketeer, and both Uncle Barney and Aunt Florence thought it was cute.

When we weren’t at the cigar stores we’d make the rounds of other clients who were best contacted after dark. At Nicholson’s Diner I’d eat huge plates of midnight spaghetti; at the Black Angus Steak House I’d wait it out in plush, over-stuffed booths; at Taylor’s I’d hang out with the bartender while he was closing and Uncle Barney was up the back stairs doing books. I’d hang out back there as well, investigating the shelves full of number 10 cans of ketchup, or what have you. The desk in that office had a scotch-taped copy of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” with a pen-and-ink illustration of the boatman and his passenger. Mr. Taylor, the bar’s owner, had recently passed away and Barney was the executor of the estate. I must have read that lyric fifty times over the coarse of my visits, and it was creepy having all that death around, but somehow comfortable too. Bars are haunted places anyway, and I’ve enjoyed that feeling of closed bars, empty theaters and churches ever since.

My all time favorite excursions were the annual Christmas hooch deliveries. Uncle Barney would load the Oldsmobile’s trunk with top shelf whiskey and we’d make the rounds of clients’ homes handing out the Christmas cheer. Those were nice stretches with Barney reminding me of the importance of keeping an open mind about all things, and about keeping judgments to a minimum. We also had our “birds and bees” talk on one of those wintry nights. By then I knew more than I was admitting to, and Barney seemed to know it because the talk was about doing what I wanted, but not without a rubber.

Barney was also big on teaching me the importance of style and of maintaining the “common touch.” There were two lessons: 1, A gentleman never steps in a puddle; and, 2, “No matter how successful you become, remember, there will always be somebody smarter and better looking than you are.” I’m not a paragon of style, but I don’t step in puddles, or run for busses for that matter, and I don’t need a weatherman to remind me of the massive talent in this world. Barney also had an odd affection for the Seminole Indians, and every once in a while he’d remind me they were the only Indian nation that had never signed a peace treaty. Once, we visited their holdings in Florida, and it seemed like a wretched enough place, but the lesson that independence was its own reward stuck. And besides, they wrestled alligators for a living, and that struck me as being pretty cool.

Barney had a true affection for people, and his real social grace was the ability to rub elbows with everyone: racketeers, brick-layers, clergy, businessmen – even the Jews who Polish Catholics held in little esteem. I think Barney’s affection for Jews was based on Meyer Lansky who was the “numbers man,” for the big time mob.


With his openness for people and experience was openness for the life of the mind. Barney had a passion for numbers, and for getting the columns to add up – a good thing for an accountant. Whether it was pinochle and the horses, or Einstein and infinity he understood the angles and the odds – and he also understood the wiles of Lady Luck. He taught me chess, and how to shoot “straight pool,” both games of strategy, maneuver, and angles, but he also taught me craps – which is just that. He insisted I read the science section of the NY Sunday Times, but he’d hand me the theater section and the book reviews first. He knew what I needed, but he also knew what I liked. Barney died with the Sunday Times in hand and I’ve hardly missed a copy since. That was forty years ago.

Precocious lad that I was, I had one day started to read Clarence Darrow’s autobiography. It was a mini-scandal around the dinner table with aunts united to confiscate that “atheistical” volume. Fr. Louis was even consulted and Aunt Florence held his proxy. Barney weighed in with the pronouncement that I could read anything I liked, and there’d be no censorship in his house. If I loved him before, I worshipped him after. Later I taunted Fr. Louie by carrying around something by Bertrand Russell. I barely understood a word of it, but it was a badge of freedom I couldn’t easily put down.

Barney occupied an interesting niche by living out the immigrant son’s success story with his own particular twists and morality and he introduced me to the joys of non-conformity. Scrupulously honest in his business dealings, he took his pleasure on the other side of the law; a proud agnostic, he became the patriarch and role model of a Polish Catholic family; American middle class and a life-long Democrat, he maintained a touch of old-country aristocracy. He was a man of many parts and was aware of how each part reflected. Barney was a personality artist, and taught me you could make yourself according to your dreams. For an adopted son, torn between all the loyalties and realities of family, neighborhood, church, nation, and a world simultaneously expanding and contracting with the advent of mass media it was a valuable lesson.

Uncle Barney was a fabulous mix of the Old and New Worlds. Kielbasa and Lobster Newburg, bialys and Wonderbread, Orchard and Delancy and Lord &Taylor – he embraced it all, and he taught me to get my arms around as much as possible.

I’ve never stopped missing him.

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