(This is a year of anniversaries, among them the 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. It also happens to be the 50th anniversary of my father’s death. As such, it seems an appropriate time to share a piece I wrote at the time.)
While my dad was alive, I’m afraid I gave him short shrift. We didn’t seem to have very much in common. We were like two friendly strangers who happened to live in the same boardinghouse. Only after he was gone did I become aware of my profound loss.
As a young man in America, Sam Prelutsky settled in a part of Illinois where the most popular organization going was the Ku Klux Klan. After the Cossacks, though, I guess a bunch of farmers wearing bedsheets weren’t such a big deal. Years later, he used to laugh about his former neighbors inviting him — with his nose and his accent — on Klan outings. Maybe they decided to overlook the obvious evidence in the belief that Jewish people didn’t raise chickens and candle eggs.
Later, after he was married, he moved to Chicago. For a while, he worked for a cigar company, rolling the stogies he couldn’t stand to smoke. But for most of those years he was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. He’d drive his truck to the big central market at 3 a.m., pick up his load, and spend the next 12 hours delivering produce. In the dead of winter, he’d be out on that truck schlepping sacks of potatoes. In the middle of summer, he’d be muscling crates of watermelons, just begging for the hernia he eventually got.
We moved to Los Angeles in 1946. At that point he came to the conclusion that the grocers he’d been delivering to over the years had been living the life of Riley, home in bed snoozing while he was up schlepping. He decided to tackle the retail end. A few months at a bad location ate up most of his savings and sent him back to the truck. But LA, being the massive sprawl that it was even then, was murder compared to the more compact Chicago.
His next venture was a cigar stand in the Harris Newmark Building at Ninth and Los Angeles. Not counting the round-trip downtown, it was still a 12-hour day, spent mostly on his feet. But at least the lifting and hauling was limited to soft-drink cases and trash barrels. On the other hand, you had to learn to live with the goniffs who swiped candy bars during the noon rush and the merchant princes of the garment industry who’d run up good-size cigar bills and let you stew until they were ready to pay up. And my father would stew because he couldn’t afford to offend the potbellied, cigar-chewing, fanny-pinching, sweatshop aristocrats.
My dad was not an educated man. He couldn’t correctly spell the names of those sodas and candy bars he sold six days a week. I don’t know if he read two dozen books in his life. He loved America, Israel, pinochle, FDR and the Democratic Party. He liked Willkie, Kuchel and Warren, but he could never bring himself to vote for a Republican.
He wanted me to get good grades, a college degree and have a profession, something safe and preferably lucrative like medicine or the law. He couldn’t imagine someone’s wanting to write for a living. Still, when I sold a poem for 50 cents, he cashed the check for me — and much, much later I found out he always carried that undeposited check folded up in his wallet.
The other day, we went to the mortuary. We went through the ritual of selecting a casket. “They start out at $300,” the salesman informed us, pointing at something that looked like an old Thom McAn shoe box, “and go up.” We passed on the coffin that cost as much as a new Cadillac and settled on an oak box you could swap for a ‘65 Chevy.
Then we had to sit there while some woman gathered data for the cosmetician. We tried to explain that it was to be a closed-casket ceremony, but she had not been programmed to receive such information. “Did he wear clear nail polish?” (Did Sam Prelutsky wear clear nail polish?! No, he never wore nail polish. But if he had, safe to say it would have been clear as opposed to purple or fire engine red.)
It was finally spelled out for her that they could save their rouge and polish and stupid questions. She turned pale at our impertinence. Her shock was reassuring; she was not a robot, after all.
We buried my father the other day. I didn’t think I would, but I shed tears. I cried because he had worked too hard for too long for too little. For many years, I had resented him because he had never told me he loved me; now I wept because I’d never told him.
The rabbi’s speech was short and simple. What is there, after all, to say at the funeral of such a man? Had the responsibility been mine, I would have said the following: Sam Prelutsky, who was born in a small village 7,000 miles from here 67 or 68 years ago, was a remarkable person. He was not a great man or a famous one, but he was the best man Sam Prelutsky could be.
Now, let there be no more tears today, for we are laying to rest a man who’s earned one.