Thursday, July 09, 2009

Let the Great World Spin

My uncle Nick died yesterday. It was sudden and completely unexpected. He was trim and fit and seemed to be in the prime of his life though he was in his mid-sixties. I expected another 20 years of visits with him at least. After all, his father, my grandfather, lived an active life until the age of 97.

The world seems strangely tilted to me today: the sidewalks slanted, the blue sky too low, the bird calls too loud, the grass in this strangely rainy season a too-brilliant green. I spent the night and early morning hours in a daze, pacing the hardwood floors of my apartment and intermittently lying on the couch trying to read Colum McCann's beautiful new novel Let the Great World Spin through the tears in my eyes. It's a novel suffused with death and grief (at least the first 115 pages) and each passage sent my mind reeling back to thoughts of Uncle Nick.

My father had three younger brothers, John, Nick and Ron, and a much younger sister, Ardelle, who is closer in age to me than to my dad. I was the first grandchild in the family, and thus some of my earliest memories are of lively family vacations at my paternal grandparents' house. My three uncles knelt on the floor and would bark at me like three big dogs. I turned with glee from one to the other, stumbling over the large oriental rug that covered the living room floor as I tried to find a safe haven from the doggies. They'd gradually close in on me until there was no escape. There was no getting away from their embraces of playful joy and love.

Throughout my childhood, my father would regale my sisters and I with the exploits of his childhood featuring the four brothers. In the room where I slept at my grandparents' house, there was a picture frame with four individual shots of the boys. My father was respectably buttoned-down forever in his role as the eldest brother, the characteristic wave in his hair already present even though I didn't quite recognize his face. Nick's photo I remember the best. He had a slight sneer. It was a look that he carried into adulthood. I would have recognized him anywhere.

I imagined the brothers as my own version of the Little Rascals. Four boys loose on the neighborhood, causing havoc; four boys getting into trouble down on the boardwalk every summer. It was Nick that played most prominently in these tales. He was the brother that my father was most closely bonded to, despite the fact that John was closer to him in age. At the center of many of these stories was the family's dry cleaning business. It was where they all came of age. In my teenage years, if I acted out at all, I was always threatened with a summer stint at one of the dry cleaning locations. "You don't know how easy you've got it," my dad would laugh. "I'll send you off with my father and you'll never complain again."

The brothers were in the family dry cleaning business, Frankford Associates founded in the early 1930s by my grandfather, at various times in their lives. My father became a lawyer -- he still practices -- and never spent time there after college. John, who was also my godfather, eventually moved out to California when I was in high school and died about 12 years later. Nick and Ron stayed in the business. They were joined at various times over the years by both of Nick's sons and Ardelle's boy. For a short time, I served as the parts manager of the business.

Frankford Associates was not a place I ever expected to find myself. I was off to college at the age of 17 and destined for a professional career. I wasn't going to look back. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and my family as possible. I didn't know what profession I might choose, but it was unimaginable to me that I'd spend it in the dry cleaning business. I must have been insufferable.

I ended up there because it was my only option when I was mired and paralyzed by pain and depression after a traumatic breakup. Somehow, I had lost the thread of my life. I couldn't understand how I had become the person I was. I moved back home after four years in college and a year in Houston. I had no prospects for a professional life, no ambition for one. My father talked to my Uncle Nick and my grandfather, and they installed me as the least-qualified parts manager in the history of the dry cleaning business.

Each day, I would drive down to the Frankford Associates office. I would sit in my office and mope. My grandfather and my uncle Nick would be working on deals on the phone, visiting clients, going back into the warehouse. I just waited for the phone to ring and for someone, usually with a heavy Korean accent, to tell me that their Multimatic cleaning machine was broken and they needed a part. I would consult the instruction manual, examining the diagram of the machine trying to locate the part. Finally, I'd plunge into the parts room. It was filled with hundreds of poorly labeled cardboard bins holding bolts, washers, elbow joints, and switches. I'd try in vain to find the broken piece.

My searches were almost always futile. I'd go back out to the main office and wait for Nick to get off the phone. Often, I was searching for the wrong part. He'd patiently show me the correct part in the manual and walk me into the parts room. The whole time I'd be looking down at the floor and wondering why I had to do anything in this world, tears nearly forming in my eyes as I thought about the life I expected and the pain that had derailed it. Sometimes, when he found the part, I wanted to hug him out of gratitude

It went on like that day after day. My father, who dropped by the office on occassion and my grandfather talked to me at times and told me to hang in there and to buck up. I knew they were right, but somehow it wasn't getting through. Nick rarely broached the topic of my breakup with me. However, every day he was the one who took me out to lunch. He was the one who treated me as if I really was somehow valuable to the business and who showed me how to do my job. Slowly, day by day, hour by hour, he brought me back into the present moment with simple conversations about politics, sports, the state of Philadelphia or anything else that two guys on a lunch break would talk about.

The weekends were a wasteland for me. Without the daily routine of going into the office, I just sank into my morass, my eyes glued to the television, not really comprehending even the most inane sitcoms. Soon, Nick was asking me if I wanted to make the rounds to the coin operated washing and drying machines that he owned at area schools on Saturdays. We drove around together. I must have been the worst company. I remember one drive where I leaned my forehead against the passenger window for miles, just watching the trees go by. Nick talked to me as if nothing was wrong. Slowly, I came to look forward to these drives.

Gradually, I began to learn the job despite myself. I even began to revel in some of the personalities of the office. The two repair guys that we employed were both gruff and alcoholic. One time I went out with Stanley, a man in his early 30s with stringy hair and pockmarked skin who had several girlfriends, if he was to be believed, to fix one of the machines. I didn't have the slightest idea of why I was going on this trip. I couldn't fix anything. Nick pulled me aside, "Just make sure he gets there and gets back. That's all you have to do."

It was 11 a.m. or so when we headed out in Stanley's van. Stanley looked like he hadn't slept in a week. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were wrinkled and his movements slow. The parts and tools rattled in the back as we pulled out onto North Philly's Torresdale Avenue. I buckled my seat belt and prayed I was smelling last night's alcohol on Stanley's shirt. Not five minutes into the drive, Stanley turned into a nearly deserted parking lot.

"Why are we stopping?" I asked.

"There's a club I want to visit," he said. "We've got plenty of time. I just have to replace a valve on that machine. It'll take me five minutes. No one has to know."

I looked at him like he was nuts. "Stanley, just fix the machine and get back to the office," I said.

He ran his hand through his hair and banged the steering wheel in an agitated manner. "I thought you were cool, man." He leaned back. "This is the best strip club and there's almost no one in there this early. We'll have all the girls."

I couldn't help but laugh. I think it was the first time I'd laughed in months. We pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards the dry cleaner. Stanley cursed me the whole way. When Stanley started fixing the machine, he was different man. His hands moved in the guts of the machine like a skilled surgeon. Not a single movement was wasted. We were out of there in five minutes. I couldn't wait to tell my Uncle Nick just how right he was to send me along on this mission.

Five months into my tenure at Frankford Associates, I landed a job as a sports reporter in southern Maryland. I thought my uncle would be overjoyed to be released from the burden of bringing me back to life. When I told him, his response was more complicated than I expected.

"Now that we are finally getting some work out of you, you're leaving us," he said. He seemed to mean it. I was surprised. But then he congratulated me and slapped me on the back.

I think, in a way, I have missed those times with my uncle for the last 20 years. The lunches, the drives in the country, the simple, quiet moments in the office when he was teaching me how to read a manual, or write a purchase order, or just find the right elbow joint. To work with him every day knowing how much he cared for me was one of the great blessings of my life.

In the small hours of this morning, I came across this passage in Let the Great World Spin: "Death, the greatest democracy of them all. The world's oldest complaint. Happens to us all. Rich and poor. Fat and thin. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons."

I put the book down and thought about uncles and nephews. It didn't seem very democratic to me. It seemed terribly unfair.

So today the world keeps spinning, but without my Uncle Nick it doesn't seem so great.