February 28 will always tug at my heart. It's my Dad's birthday. And though he's been gone for some years now, I will never get over it. I just get on with it. Here's a tribute I wrote for him when he died. Happy Birthday, Popo.
My father used to irritate me no end. He was the kind of guy who’d talk to a busy signal (when we had busy signals). It didn’t matter who you were--a secretary in a doctor’s office, the paperboy, Osama Bin Laden--should he happen to be next to him on line in the drugstore. He’d be terrified to get up in front of a crowd and give a speech. Yet, if he bumped into you on the steps of town hall, he’d perform like George Burns on the Bob Hope Christmas special. He was a great kidder, my dad, a guy who spoke to anyone and everyone--whether they liked it or not. Most people liked it, though that took me a while to figure out.
For a long time, because his eyes were bad, I went with him everywhere. And, of course, when he’d start telling his stories, I’d get embarrassed, (try to) get him to stop, and rush him along.
Then I began to notice folks’ reactions. Everyone my dad chatted up walked away from us sporting a smile. So far from bothering people, in his own way, he had done two things: made a connection and given away a bit of good cheer. Indeed, this was how he let folks know Al Zobel was here, a little older perhaps, a little frailer definitely, but still with enough of what he called “his marbles” to make you laugh, or give you the scoop on a two-for-one sale of Turkey Hill ice cream.
This pattern of connecting with good cheer wasn’t developed overnight. My dad had it his whole life. But as time took away many of his other pleasures--working, driving, bowling, and walking three miles a day--he held on to this one joy tenaciously, perfecting it to almost an art form. I finally got smart, one day, and put two and two together. I can’t say as I never complained again when he’d tell the same story over and over. But, thank God, I developed tolerance. And as soon as I did, I began to enjoy the whole experience.
I even went so far as to be Dad’s “straight man,” adding to the fun by moaning about being his patient, long-suffering daughter, out for another errand with her crazy Popo. This made folks howl. I started creating my own set of stories. At the supermarket, I’d tell folks how Dad was “just visiting” the food-- not buying it; how he’d pick up an item, compare ounces and pounds and prices and labels, checked and cross-checked ingredients, hold it up to the light, then put it back on the shelf.
And when I'd ask him, "Why?" he'd say, “We don’t need it."
Or I’d whine about having to take him from bank to bank to bank in an effort to get the best deals on certificates of deposit or one-ninth of a point more interest on an account that would make him a dollar or two. “You’d think he was managing Donald Trump’s portfolio,” I’d quip, rolling my eyes up to heaven.
The guys at his men’s club gave Dad some fake business cards once. On them, they had printed his name and the title: “Free, Unsolicited Advice Consultant.” He loved handing them out on our excursions and watching folks crack up.
My Dad succumbed last week to pneumonia. But even in the hospital, during his last days, uncomfortable as all hell, he was still connecting with good cheer, telling stories, trying to make doctors, nurses, blood technicians, even the cleaning woman a little brighter for having come in his room.
He was an extraordinary man who lived an ordinary life. He owned a cab and drove it through the streets of New York, and while he did he listened to people, then he talked to them. He never made a million. There was no Ph.D. after his name. Yet he was as much a success as if he’d been first man on the moon. He shied away from negativity at all costs and touched as many people as he could with joy. He celebrated life by always being of good humor.
Best of all, though, he was an expert at connecting.