Last Night’s Sopranos

My father was out of control.  You never knew when he’d snap, what would set him off.  It could be something recognizable, concrete, like wrecking the car, but he also reached over the dinner table and smacked me when he heard the tines of my fork hitting my teeth.  And if you fucked up a phone message, you’d be threatened, made aware that his LIVELIHOOD depended on what came out of the receiver.  Hell, sometimes I’d leave home just to avoid having to pick up the telephone.

Maybe he couldn’t be blamed.  A teenage brother was run over in the driveway.  A sister committed suicide.  His one-handed father died and left his estate to his first family, forcing my father to go to night school and support his mother.  He had nobody to complain to, no one to take his frustration out on, but his raw deal somehow stuck with him, it would come out of him with the slightest provocation.

There was the time I got bad grades in high school.  C’s instead of A’s.  He started yelling two staircases below.  He was bellowing for me to come.  And although Wendy, the littlest, could avoid responding, my older sister Jill and I had to obey.  I found him in the playroom almost foaming at the mouth.  And then he led me into the garage, where he banged my skis on the concrete floor repeatedly.  I’d like to tell you I was worried he would break them, but I was more worried about him.  It was like living in a horror movie.

A.J. Soprano is a loser.  At least as much as an 18 year old can be considered so.  He flunked out of community college.  He’s hanging with a bad element.  But he, himself, is not a bad kid.  He just wants to find his place, to fit in, in a world that makes no sense.  One within which his father flaunts the rules, but he has to play by them.  Where his father almost dies, but he can’t defend the family honor by exacting revenge.  What is the appropriate path for a Mafia Don’s son?  What’s the motivation, the ambition?  A.J. doesn’t know.  So he lolls around, doing nothing.  And this drives his parents crazy.

I drove my parents crazy.  I was a lazy no good son of a bitch.  That’s a quote.  I can still hear it in my head.  But I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to make the switch.  From being all I could be, the culture vulture my mother encouraged, to a working stiff.  Someone who suddenly put money above all else.

I heard in the nineties minimum wage jobs went begging.   But that was not my experience in the seventies.  You had to shine up your personality, make connections, lie about your experience and work the angles to get a job.  And all the foregoing is anathema to me.  I possess these skills not whatsoever.

I escaped by working at summer camps after high school and freshman year.  Where, in exchange for room and board, you get a minor salary.  And subsequent to my sophomore year of college, I went to Europe, which my mother believed would enrich my soul.  But after junior year, I was stuck.  I needed to work.  And I could not get a job.  After ten days home from Middlebury my father reached his limit.  He took matters into his own hands.  He got me a job working construction.

That’s what Tony got A.J.

Oh, Tony wanted to smack his son around.  As my father did to me.  But Carmela prevented this.  And Dr. Melfi pointed out that maybe if Tony’s mother had protected HIM, his life might have turned out differently.

Tony came home to A.J. and his buddies playing video games.  My father opened the door to my room to me lying on my bed listening to records.  Tony took A.J. into the garage.  And calmly explained to Anthony, Jr., that the following day, at the crack of dawn, he was going to show up at a work site.  Unlike myself, A.J. talked back.  You didn’t talk back to my dad.  Nothing pissed him off more.  My father told me I too would be waking up early, to be employed at E & F Construction.  I resigned myself to my fate.  And then Tony took A.J.’s abandoned football helmet and smashed it through the front window of his Xterra.

This was my dad.  When he was angry, nothing had any value other than his emotions.  Didn’t matter how much he’d spent on something, how rare it was, it was meaningless relative to the point he was making, it could be sacrificed.

We took a silent ride to the east end of Bridgeport the following morning.  Where my legendarily early to rise father dropped me off at E&F at 7:30 a.m.

I was not the only summer employee.  There were five others.  Who looked at me like I was, the only Jew in sight.  They laughed at my lunch, a hunk of Hebrew National salami, as they ate their white bread sandwiches.  No one spoke to me.  I lived inside my head.  And endured the first day like Vito endured his days working construction in New Hampshire.  Constantly studying my watch.

My father picked me up about an hour after we broke, when the lot was empty, and wore a shiteating grin all the way home to our house in Fairfield.

The next morning he pronounced that he could not give me a ride home that evening.  I had to find my own way.  I finally got up the gumption to ask one of my coworkers for a lift.  Reluctantly, he agreed to drop me off at the freeway exit.  I’ve blocked how I got home from there.  I might have hitchhiked, but I believe I walked, stewing the whole way.

Wednesday, we had to lift steel girders.  You know, of the type they use to build highway overpasses.  But what truly pushed me over the edge was the ride I took with the driver of a dumptruck.  Who waxed rhapsodic about the joys of construction, and said at the end of the summer, if I did a good job, they would give me a hardhat to keep.

After running the gauntlet and finally making my way home that evening, I told my father I was never going back.  I’d worn a back brace for five months the year before.  What kind of trial was this?

My father blew a gasket.  I don’t know what pissed him off more, the fact that I wouldn’t go back or having to face Kenny Zarrilli, whom he’d leaned on to get me the job.  No big deal to Ken I didn’t think, but despite constantly boasting about his relationships, my father almost never cashed them in.

The following morning he woke me up early.  He kept banging on my door.  Counting down the minutes till we were going to leave.

I stayed in bed.

For some reason, he didn’t lose control upon issuing the final warning, maybe he was worried about waking up my mother, still asleep in the next room in our split-level.  He just fired up a ton of intensity and shut the door.

I removed my backpack from the closet.  Filled it with clothes.  And then quietly slipped out the front door.  And journeyed down to Black Rock Turnpike.  Where I stuck out my thumb and eventually landed at my college roommate’s house on Cape Cod many hours later.

Lyndon was surprised to see me.

As for what my father thought, I don’t know.  This was decades before cell phones.  And I wasn’t about to reach out.

A week later I returned.  I found a non-lifting job working at the City Directory and E & F Construction was never mentioned again.  I’d like to tell you that was the end of my trauma, but I’d be lying.

I don’t know how it works out for A.J.  I always thought he’d join Tony’s crew.  I hope he stands his ground.  And finds his way to fulfillment.  Because doing what other people tell you to do is no way to live.  Then again, in this era where kids are attached to their parents until they die, it’s hard to forge your own path, never mind follow it.

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