I was thinking about my dad in the night, and I remembered a night a very long time ago now, when he came to wake me up, smelling like cocktails and cigarettes, and said, “Happy New Year, bunny! It’s 1970!” And I remember how happy he seemed that it was 1970.

He was born in 1922, and in a way because of that, part of my childhood was spent in the '20s and '30s from all that he told me about from back then. He went to the movie theatre with his ma to hear Garbo speak.  He used to go the corner grocery and for a nickel he could get a Clark bar and a Mars bar. He told me that whenever some kid on his block had one of the dread childhood illnesses like scarlet fever, that house would put a colored sign on their door indicating that they were in quarantine, so beware. He said that when he'd see one of those signs he would cross the street and hold his breath until it was behind him. 

He remembered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in detail, and the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was from the Bronx. It was all on the radio. He talked about signing up for the navy after Pearl Harbor, and when I was eight or nine, he told me about the way Japanese Americans were treated, despite their being just as American as anybody else. I remember him saying, “They weren’t rounding up German Americans, and it would have been just as easy to figure out who they were by names and records. And that,” he told me, “is racism. That’s what that is.” 

When I was about seven, he told me about a friend of his, a lady named Mrs. Razorscum. He’d run into her down at the post office one day and had a great time talking with her there. He told me she wanted to meet me. She was someone he knew from a long time ago, and she lived in a place I’d never heard of, which I think he said was called the Bright Kentucky Hotel. 

We had a little Halloween party that year, and some of the neighborhood kids came with some of their parents. My dad had gone off with one of his friends to a bar, and when the doorbell rang in the middle of everything I went to answer it. There stood a lady I’d never met, beaming down at me, and I remember having a feeling about her and asking, “Are you Mrs. Razorscum?” And she said, why yes, she was! She was extremely ugly, with very heavy makeup and huge breasts—what they used to call torpedo tits, because of the pointy brassieres women would wear, I imagine—and she was packed into a flower-print dress and she wore a mink stole. I remember my mother coming up from behind me and exclaiming about how lovely she looked. And I remember at a certain moment, Mrs. Razorscum suddenly took a big handful of her long hair and pulled and it all came off in her hand, and the optical-illusion effect of my dad’s face sort of bubbling up from beneath all her pancake makeup. In the midst of all the hilarity, I remember my ma saying, “Oh, wow, I think you gave her a fever!” And that was the end of the party for me.  

I remember my dad tucking me in that night, a smidgen of makeup still on his face, and telling him that I felt disappointed that there was no Mrs. Razorscum, even though I wasn’t sure that I liked her. But she was real, he said. She’d lived in his favorite radio show from when he was a kid, called Vic and Sade, a show about a family of misfits who lived in a small house halfway up in the next block. Mrs. Razorscum was one of the characters. She was married, but nobody called her husband "Mr. Razorscum," just “Razorscum,” the way guys called each other. It was like Robert Ackley, in one of my dad’s favorite books, The Catcher in the Rye. Nobody called him Robert or Bob, my dad would tell me. Everybody just called him Ackley. And people called Mr. Razorscum "Razorscum."

My dad had “something wrong with him,” in that he had Tourettes Syndrome and something like Aspergers that made him stand out. He didn’t curse, but he repeated other sounds that got in the way of normal life for him sometimes. He was smart but not like other grownups. He was enthralled by the city. We walked and walked and walked. There were still a lot of secondhand bookshops in Manhattan when he came, and he loved Skyline Books on 18th Street. It was a great little bookstore with a cat who liked to drop down from the shelves onto dogs who came in with their people. I used to have Skyline do book searches for me. They had lists of book dealers to call, and it was an efficient system before the internet became what it did. Once I had them look for a book called The Small House Halfway Up in the Next Block, about that old radio show my dad liked. They found one for me, and he was so happy to get it. 

I remember sitting with him in his favorite spaghetti place down in Little Italy talking about Mrs. Razorscum and how unbelievably ugly she was. And when I told him the story, how I remembered him that night, for the thousandth time, we both laughed until we cried. He’d be almost a hundred now if he were still alive, and I wonder all the time what he’d think about everything the world is living through now. And I know he’d have a few things to say about the putzes who stormed the capitol yesterday. He kept all his curse words for stuff like that. 

Down on the street today, a man with his groceries

Copyright Romy AshbyJanuary 7, 2021 

1 comment:

  1. Romy, I could warm my hands at this as if it were a glowing fire on a January night. Bless you for making (and keeping) your father so alive to us.