A Family Friend
I grew up in a 10-room apartment on Riverside Drive (often called the "Soters' palatial residence" by my friends). I lived there from 1967-1980, my brother Nick from 1967-1975, and my brother Peter from 1967-1988. My parents were there for 33 years, and it was heartbreaking when my dad, walking the long hallways of the place after we had all moved out, was forced to sell.
I thought about that today when I received an e-mail from an old friend in Egypt, whom I hadn't seen in years. He was writing because he wanted to know the rules of a card game my mother loved to play, one which anyone who became close to my family was eventually lassoed into playing. It was called "Onze." And although he couldn't remember the name of the game – "your parents always played a certain card game with me & I was wondering if you could in your spare time write down the rules for me" – he remembered the experience.
Indeed, what an experience: in an earlier e-mail, he fondly recalled his days as a guest at the Soters' home, referring to the tribute film I had made about my father called The Whole Catastrophe: "I shall never forget the good times we had and the good times we shared. Your film of George really touched my heart and I am honored to having had the pleasure of knowing and living with him. I miss those nights we played cards, I miss the Sunday nights we came to see you at Sunday Night Improv. Your family taught me how to be a better husband and father and I hope the day will come when I visit NYC with my wife and 3 kids and pay my sincere respect to both George & Effie for being my friends, may their souls rest in everlasting peace."
In fact, many friends had stayed there over the years, some for a few days, others for many years. My parents were as generous in their hospitality, as they were in everything else. My two brothers and I often brought home friends, girlfriends, and various "stray cats" looking for peace, understanding, or just a place to hang their hat -- usually briefly but sometimes not -- as they passed through our lives and into their future. After my high school girlfriend had a sort-of-nervous breakdown at college, for instance, she stayed with us (not her nagging mother) for a month or two; another time, the daughter-in-law of a longtime French chum of my parents stopped by with a female friend of hers on their way from Paris to Brazil, the friend stayed on with us for months, as she worked out some personal issues.
Apartment 10-S was like a way station for the emotionally hurting, the lonely, or those slightly nutty. My parents didn't ask questions, just accepted without judgment or recompense – except for what these ever-present guests lost at Onze (at a quarter a round, with seven rounds, that didn’t amount to much).
But there was one person who talked a good talk but betrayed the hospitality of the Soters. I’ll call him Chris, and when I first met him he was a young man of great charm whom my younger brother had met at college. After he dropped out, he apparently had problems with his own family in Buffalo, N.Y., and soon became a “fourth son,” living rent free at my parents’ home, eating their food and drinking their hospitality like the special brew that it was.
My younger brother, Peter, gave Chris his first job at his bookstore. They also traveled together and shared good and bad times together. But then life intruded. Years after Chris had quit my parents' home – where he had stayed for some four years – my brother was in the book business and his shop was failing. He asked Chris – who now ran a more successful bookstore nearby – to help him out. “Partner with me,” he said. But Chris’s attitude seemed to be, Why throw good money after bad? Easier to let Peter go bankrupt and take over the space then.
Easier for him – but for my brother? What did Chris, who had been nurtured by my brother and my parents, do for his old friend – a knowledgable, hardworking manager of bookstores and books who was done in by bad breaks as much as by bad business decisions? Chris reluctantly hired him for a near-minimum wage spot, let him be supervised and ordered about by Chris’s managers, young kids who didn’t know half of what Peter knew. And if that wasn’t humiliating enough, after some time on the job, Chris took my brother aside and told him that, “for his own good,” he was letting him go, terminating him – okay, call it what it is: he was firing his old friend, his "brother," his pal. And he had the balls to say that it was for Peter’s benefit. Peter, with two young kids, a wife, and a bad jobs market, who rarely complained of the humiliations he had to endure, and kept on smiling.
At my father’s memorial service, Chris talked movingly about what George had meant to him. He loved George, he said. But apparently Chris's brand of love stops at the business’s door. Firing him for his own good. Right.
July 25, 2014