Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Bang the drum slowly, play the fife lowly
My father was cremated in North Bergen, New Jersey, where he grew up. This kind of cosmic coincidence would have amused him. His sense of humor ranged everywhere, and he was, thankfully, one of the least sanctimonious men who ever lived. He was a Jew but wanted no part in burials or funerals. Cemeteries are a waste of public space, he said. Celebrate the living, not the dead. Scatter my ashes in Sheepshead Bay, just outside the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.
The dead stay dead. This is the fundamental fact of existence, obvious and damning and stupid, that the presently grieving must learn, each in their own way. The dead stay dead. Today they are dead and tomorrow they are dead. My father had been alive, until the morning of August 31, for every game played in the history of the New York Mets. He had lived through 9,774 Mets games, from April 11, 1962 to August 30, 2023. The Mets now keep playing games. In my more demented moments, this feels like an injustice. Why do they keep going? Don’t they know? The Mets played an entire three game series against the Seattle Mariners with my father dead. They have the rest of September to go. Assuming all proceeds accordingly, they’ll have the 2024 season ahead of them and 2025 and 2026 … where will he be, for all of it?
These weren’t questions that bothered him. He was an atheist, and life was sandwiched between nothingness—what you were before you were born, and what you were afterwards. I never had, or have, the gumption for that. I’d like to believe in something else. Werner Von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist-turned-NASA hero, was quoted as saying, in the epigraph to Gravity’s Rainbow, that nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. It’s a comfort now, as I hear my father in my thoughts and pause to tell him about the hilarities and mundanities of my day. We were father and son and we were also best friends. I see that now.
He was a man of the midcentury. Like men of his era, he compartmentalized; he kept secrets. He was old enough to remember the end of World War II, the death of FDR. He was, as he always said, inordinately lucky: born into a working class New Jersey household, his father a traveling clothing salesman, he was old enough to have died in the Holocaust if his family hadn’t fled Europe decades before. He belonged to a remarkable generational cohort that defined the coming culture, much more than the heralded Boomers. Gaye (B. 1939), Lennon (B. 1940), Dylan (B. 1941), Baez (B. 1941), Simon (B. 1941), King (B. 1942), McCartney (B. 1942), Mayfield (B. 1942), Wilson (B. 1942), Reed (B. 1942), Mitchell (B. 1943), Hendrix (B. 1943), and Joplin (B. 1943) all arrived on Earth, like my father, before the end of the War. So did his favorite modern politician, Bernie Sanders (B. 1941), with whom he shared several affinities—Jewishness, public speaking, and an unbreakable belief in healthcare as a right, not a privilege.
My father smoked tobacco pipes. In my youth, he was rarely not seen in a dress shirt, red tie, and ironed slacks. If he wore shorts to take me to the park, they were “play” clothes or, to my toddler ear, “clay” clothes. He was an older father but didn’t act like it. For hours, he would join me in methodically digging holes in the wet dirt. When I wanted to know what was inside fire hydrants, he walked with me up and down the neighborhood, unscrewing the caps so I could peek into them. He stood at street corners so I could, at five, be sure when one side of the streetlight changed to red, another changed to green. He never lost patience.
He read tirelessly. Novels, nonfiction, all the newspapers, sports and local and international affairs. Since he grew up with the radio and not television, the hiss of a transistor was always in the background. He drank Diet Coke because he was a juvenile diabetic, as they called it in those days. His dreaded disease, he said with a smile. His mother, a hard-charging woman I never met, told him as a child to “suffer silently” and he took this lesson, perhaps too much, to heart. When he died, I learned there were friends of his who didn’t even know he was a diabetic, that he had spent more than a half century jabbing syringes into his skin. This was part of his good luck, he explained to me—had he been born just a little bit earlier, he would have surely died as a young boy or teenager, as many diabetics did. He had access to insulin and checked his blood sugar religiously. We joked that he was the world’s oldest type 1 diabetic, and that may have even been true. When he ordered sandwiches, he barely ate the bread because the body turns carbohydrates into sugar. He passed on pasta. Until age eighty, his body did not fail him. He never lost a toe or a leg.
What else? My father, an atheist and socialist, was a registered Republican for most of his life. He came up in the Lindsay and Rockefeller years, when Republicans were still liberal, and stuck with the party because he was someone who did care about keeping his nebulous, higher-level federal jobs, chiefly in the Department of Commerce. He told me a story—he told lots of stories, and I breathlessly waited for each to unspool—about first joining a Republican club, in Queens, sometime in the 1960s. He was vacillating, as was possible in those years, between the two parties. A friend told him he was going Republican and my father asked why. “Because the line is shorter.” Indeed, there were more cogs in the Democratic machine. The Republicans promised a quicker ascent and my father was mostly right. In the 1970s, he had a chance to head to Washington, and then Watergate was burbling up. He was glad, he said, to never have to work there. Not because he would have been ensnared in the Nixon operation, but because he never took Washington very seriously. By the 1990s, he was an adjunct history professor at the School of Visual Arts. It was there where he shone most, with his lectures, and there where I think he was happiest.
My father had a knack for finding his way into history. Before his government career, he was a public school teacher on Long Island, and he said to me he cherished this career the most. Had the pay been better then, he would have stuck with it. At Hicksville High School, he had an affable student with his first and middle name, only reversed. My father was Joel William. His student was William Joel. Billy, who went on to other things, was pretty good in his English class, my father said. A few years later, my father took a group of students to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the most famous and notorious political convention in history. And when Nixon, long disgraced, settled in New York, he took an office where my father worked. The 37th president of the United States and my father shared hallways and elevators, and didn’t park too far away from each other in the federal garage. Nixon and my father talked, but only about baseball. Nixon, by then, was living and dying with the Mets. My father had been a Mets fan since 1962, and rooted for the New York Giants before then. He hopped buses to the Polo Grounds, where he watched Willie Mays dash across the vast outfield, and could forever recite the starting lineups of every team of that era, along with most others. Nixon watched all the Mets games, as did my father. Why discuss geopolitics when you could talk Tom Seaver? Later, my father had a lovely office in the World Trade Center that was destroyed on 9/11. He would have died that day if he hadn’t had a doctor’s appointment that scuttled a breakfast with Neil Levin, the young executive director of the Port Authority. Levin never made it out.
My father, who had no interest in dates or numbers—everything, whether the 1990s or 1970s, was about “ten years ago”—might have been pleased to know he died on August 31, three years to the day Seaver, the Franchise, also died. Or he wouldn’t have cared because he was more interested in the narratives and the gossip, the stuff that made up an actual life. He was one of Philip Roth’s Jewish motormouths, trafficking in the tangible. The miraculous—symbols and signs, like the double rainbow over my childhood apartment building a few days ago—held little appeal. But he was a curious, questioning man. He went to a Jesuit university, Seton Hall, and bonded with the priests. His three favorite Americans were Paul Robeson, Roger Williams, and Gore Vidal. Williams came before the founding, but he was the only Puritan who wanted to learn the indigenous languages and coexist with the people who already lived here. My father, in his youth, mulled writing a play about Williams and Oliver Cromwell, and believed Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was the forgotten legend of the Americas. Vidal, his contemporary, shared his anti-imperialist politics and wrote the historical novels, especially Burr, that my father devoured. In my own straining to master the novel and the essay, I felt myself trying to be like my father’s hero. And finally there was Robeson, whom my father revered like no other. “The most talented American who ever lived,” he said solemnly. It is a tragedy that the recent reckoning over race in America could not, for whatever reason, resuscitate Robeson. Perhaps a Black communist burned too bright even for that alleged identitarian vanguard. I was the child, in the seventh grade, who presented on Robeson to a perplexed English teacher for our Harlem Renaissance project while my classmates took on safer fare. Robeson, for those who don’t know, did literally everything. He was a legendary singer and actor. He was a renowned civil rights activist. An All-American football player at Rutgers, he was the greatest end Walter Camp had ever seen. He earned a degree from Columbia Law School while playing professional football. He was an uncompromising leftist who hoped for better in the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted and lost his passport. Instead of joining the pantheon with King and X, he was effectively purged from popular history. My father never forgot; for him, I won’t either.
It has been hard writing this because I am a writer. I feel I must summon my talents to sum up, somehow, the enormity of his life. I feel the need to pay tribute. I feel it will be insufficient. I wish he could read this because he read, until the last few months, everything I wrote. I last heard his voice in April, before his tracheostomy, when the doctors at NYU Lutheran said they couldn’t keep intubating him. I hoped, more than anything, he’d talk again, and settled for his notebook scrawls, his encouragement of my reluctant monologues. My mother and I read to him, played him music. She stayed with him more. I did what I could, and struggled with the pain of seeing him that way and the guilt that came with not enjoying myself, in his presence, like I once did. When I ask for him back now, I ask for last year or the year before, when he was ensconced in his armchair, books piled high at his feet, the TV tuned to baseball or PBS. I ask for our rambling phone conversations. I ask for long car rides and WFAN, the intricacies and idiocies of professional sports shared between us. I ask to hear the stories about growing up on the middle of a hill in North Bergen or going to high school, in Queens, with George Vecsey, the longtime sportswriter, and the man who would become Michael Savage. I want to tell him so much. Last night, at the Yankee-Blue Jays game I covered, the designated hitter was Spencer Horwitz, the grandson of Jay Horwitz, the longtime Mets P.R. man. This was the trivia he reveled in, Jews and generations, and I could tell him too how I saw Michael Kay and John Sterling in the press cafeteria. I could tell him, and now I can’t. That’s what’s hardest with death.
One of his favorite movies, and one of mine, is Bang the Drum Slowly, which just passed its 50th anniversary. One of Robert DeNiro’s earliest films, it tells the story of a talented, brainy pitcher for a New York baseball team (Michael Moriarty) who befriends a back-up catcher and southern hick, played by DeNiro, who is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease. The film is funny and understated and deeply sad. In his final season, the catcher, Bruce Pearson, plays inordinately well, and the pitcher, Henry Wiggen, tries to keep the truth of the diagnosis from the team, even going as far as securing a special contract that would keep them both in the Major Leagues together. In the end, Bruce falters, though he manages to catch the last game of the season. The final baseball scene is not a long, light-shattering homerun; it is Bruce, staring up helplessly, at a pop fly that the first baseman catches several feet from home plate. By now, the boys on the team all know the truth that Bruce is dying and they’re much nicer to him for it. Earlier in the film, he had been the butt of most jokes. Bruce is too ill for the playoffs and asks Henry, as he’s flying home to Georgia, to send him a scorecard from the World Series. “I’ll be back in the spring and I’m gonna be in shape then, you’ll see,” Bruce says. Henry fights back tears. In the last scene, Henry is walking through a cemetery, telling us the team won the World Series and he left the scorecard on his shelf. He was one of Bruce’s pallbearers, he and a few local boys. “There were flowers from the club, but no person from the club. They could’ve sent somebody,” he says, before making his final vow: “From here on in, I rag nobody.” My father, I think, always followed that advice. He had an awareness of the fleetingness of life and treated people with the dignity they deserved. He wanted baseball teams to honor teachers and janitors, not just soldiers. He thought, by the twenty-fifth century or so, humanity would finally get it right. In a past year, we’d be going out to buy him his sugar-free cake. Today is his birthday.