Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Under the Red Goose Sign

By Gerry Mandel

I stand on the littered sidewalk, staring through the grimy plate glass window into a dark and empty store. This was once my father’s shoe store, a business he ran for more than forty years and was as essential to him as food and air. The entire street once resonated with shoppers and colorful window decorations and a transcendent energy, all accompanied by a soundtrack of voices and traffic. Now the store, surrounded by deteriorating storefronts and struggling businesses, holds only ghosts and memories. Outside the entrance, over the name Proper Shoe Store, hangs a huge Red Goose Shoes sign. Suspended in immutable splendor, it is a happy reminder of the line of children’s shoes he once carried.

My father evolved from a four-year-old immigrant from Russia into a respected and well-liked businessman who made friends with aldermen and mayors, prize fighters and comedians, rabbis and priests, maitre-d’s and cops. Even now, twenty years after his death, I still am fascinated by the photographs he so proudly displayed: Dad with Jimmy Durante, Rocky Marciano, Joe Garagiola, Shecky Green, Henny Youngman, Rosemary Clooney and even Buster Workman, a notorious racketeer from across the river in East St. Louis.

Yes, Dad knew them all. But he did not know me. And I, sadly, did not know him. Over the years we went to ball games and boxing matches together, family dinners at restaurants and large dances at hotel ballrooms for organizations he and Mom supported. And we had lunch together, usually at his suggestion. But our conversations never seemed to go beneath the surface. The job is fine, business is good, the Cardinals are playing great, and Aunt Minnie isn’t doing so well. Even when I knew his heart was weakening and a fearful look in his eye had replaced the confident smile I had always associated with him - even then, we couldn’t get past the mundane. I must have been fifty years old before I could say ‘I love you” to my dad. It took him even longer to return the sentiment.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved him. He loved me. But it was unspoken. My entire life was, if anything, too easy. I never wanted for a car, a new suit, a college education, and - of course - shoes. He frequently would bring home shoes for me, even after I was grown and out of the house, shoes I didn’t need or like. They were his way, I think, of saying “I love you.” Shoes were his language.

Dad had a knack of associating people with the size of their feet. He forgot people’s names occasionally, but never their size.

“You see that guy over there?” he’d say to me. “Size nine Charlie.”

“Who is that, Dad?”

“I don’t remember his name but he wears a 9-C.”

Dad had everyone pegged by their shoe size, the waitress at the diner down the street with the petite 5-B, the cop in the neighborhood with the gigantic 14-EEE. Dad specialized in hard-to-fit feet, and drew customers from the entire St. Louis area. His name was Milt, his nicknames were Smiley and Uncle Miltie and Curly, even though he was bald.

He’d proudly introduce me as his son. I was the piano player. My brother was the baseball player. I gravitated more to mom, who also played piano. We knew each other better. But here’s the strange part: In my dreams today I dream about Dad frequently. Not Mom. In my dreams, Dad is with me, healthy and happy, as he was when I was growing up. Even as I talk with him, I know he is dead. But we are together and that’s all that counts. Sometimes the dream seems to go on for hours, and I fear his departure, but he stays. And I treasure each second, impossible though I know it is. I wake up still locked in the magic of the dream, feeling fulfilled and sad and privileged.

I often wonder why we have such difficulty getting in touch with our fathers. How and where the distance began. He was born on the other side of the world. He entered a strange land, made his way to St. Louis, learned the language, the hustle, the dos and don’ts of making it in America. He ran his own business for four decades, survived The Depression, recovered from a devastating fire that put him out of business for almost a year, at a time when Mom was pregnant with my brother and Pearl Harbor was just months away. Even then, he never stopped, never looked back. I don’t think I could have achieved what he did. At one of our lunches, instead of telling him I got a raise or was thinking about buying a new Monte Carlo, I wish - God, how I wish - I had told him what an incredibly beautiful job he had done with his life and mine.

So many people migrated to America during the early part of the last century, became men and women of respect and accomplishment. Many of them died without ever talking about how they did it, why they did it, how they felt about it. This is a personal loss of lore and legend we must now seek out in other people’s books and experiences, to see what, if anything, applies to our own lives.

I touch the cold glass. In the darkness I can see Dad pull a shoe box from a shelf, flip open the lid, pull out a size five beige pump and present it to a seated woman who has one shoe off. He looks up at the window, sees me, and smiles. Then he slips the shoe onto the woman’s foot.