It’s a Family Tradition


Sorry to put a quote from a Hank Jr. song into my blog post title. Not that I’m above a little shit kicking country (I’ve got some old Buck Owens in my CD rotation as we speak) it’s just that you never know what sort of trailer-trash-riff-raff it might attract to 20 Prospect. Although, come to think of it, trailer-trash-riff-raff is a pretty good description of the 20 Prospect clan. Even though we called my Dad’s folks “Ma and Pa”, we weren’t rural hillbilly types. We were brawling, hard drinking, blue collar enthicky types that worked in the factories, and mills of Tonawanda and North Buffalo, and blew the paycheck in the nearest corner bar.

In the case of my Granny (my Mom’s mom) she actually collected her paycheck in the corner bar. In fact, some of my earliest childhood memories are going up to Tonawanda to visit her in the apartment she lived in upstairs of Dick’s Bar, across from the Chevy Plant. She’d take us downstairs where she worked as a bar tender and let me sit on the barstool and drink pop and eat peanuts. So I guess you could say I come by it naturally. You’d better lock the liquor cabinet whenever I get together with my siblings, because we will surely empty it, and our discussion will proceed straight into the gutter.

Take the story behind my current Gravatar for instance.

Can you spot the hidden Mickey?

This is a close up of my forehead. It was taken at my nephew’s wedding reception at Disney World (Yes, my nephew got married at Disney World, someone here got a problem with that!?!) This was about four martinis, and a bottle of Cabernet into the evening. I was sitting at the table with my Bratty Big sister, and my Adorable Nieces, and we were playing “Hidden Mickey”. It was a game we had just invented where my sister was placing the little glitter Mickey’s in her cleavage and asking the cute waiters if they could “find the hidden Mickey”.

Meanwhile my mother was sitting at the table suffering in silence, adding the evening to a long list of offerings she is keeping track of, lest St. Peter miss a few and she fall just short of Gold Elite Martyr status. (Yes, I doubt she even trusts St. Peter to get his job right) She has a point. Even though she’s a conscientious, tea totaling, Saintly Martyr, and my Dad ‘s wild days were over long before they started the family, her children and grandchildren have all got a taste for the demon liquor. But as the title of this post is meant to imply, our taste for booze, and utter lack of taste in everything else, is a long standing family tradition.

When I look back to my grandparent’s generation, I am amazed at just how bat shit crazy they all were. Seriously. Growing up it just seemed perfectly natural that Granny tended bar, and that Pa had a fully stocked bar in his basement, and cases of Whiskey and Brandy in his pantry. Part of the whole fun of going to Ma’s house was to play bartender in the basement with Vernor’s Ginger Ale, and Pepsi, and go through Pa’s amazing collection of brat pack era swizzle sticks from Vegas casinos. (I think the Sahara one’s were the coolest). In fact, the whole basement bar just oozed 1960’s swankiness, right down to the mid 50’s “modern” sectional sofa, lamps and end tables.

Pa died when I was little, and Ma didn’t drink, so for most of my childhood those bottles of Corby’s and Three Feather’s Whiskey, just sat there gathering dust. (As I said before, back then I was a Black Velvet man). Since Ma didn’t drink, the booze meant nothing to her, and it was her standard practice to fill the punchbowl at the holidays with 2 cans of Hi-C and a fifth of whatever was handy. Usually this was a bottle of Pa’s whiskey. This being the 70’s, the parents were content to let the kids drink from the punchbowl, so unbeknownst to us, that slightly tart stingy taste in Ma’s fruit punch was making us little kids drunker than skunks. No wonder we usually fell asleep in the living room shortly after dinner.

You think I’m kidding? Sigh…

Granny moved in with us in the mid 70’s, when she was diagnosed with Emphysema. She slept on a roll away bed in our front living room, and spent her days hooked up to the oxygen tank, sitting in the recliner, crocheting doilies, watching soap operas, and sneaking cigarettes in the downstairs bathroom. Whenever one of my siblings graduated (which was an almost annual occurrence between 1976 and 1980) what was left of her 12 siblings and their kids would come to the party. There would be cases of Genny Cream ale, and packs of cigarettes smoked as they sat at the picnic tables playing Euchre and telling stories. As we got older, we came to understand that they edited out the good parts when we were in ear shot.

When my big bruddah came to visit this summer we sat out on the back porch drinking, and reminiscing. We began adding up the out of wedlock births, bizarre living situations, and bachelor uncles that we never really questioned until years later. Like “Uncle” Bobby.

Uncle Bobby wasn’t anyone’s Uncle, but he lived with Ma & Pa for our whole lives. He had his own bedroom, right between Ma’s and Pa’s, in the three bedroom ranch in Tonawanda. I think he originally had been a friend of Pa’s from his army days, but after Pa died, Uncle Bobby just stayed on living there with Ma as her roommate. Whenever we visited he sat in his recliner in the living room, while Ma puttered away in the kitchen. The men would sit around the TV discussing the latest Bills loss, or layoff at the Chevy plant, while the women pitched in with the cooking, and the kids went downstairs to play bartender. It never struck us as funny that Uncle Bobby was there. He had always been there, listening to his Don Ho eight track tapes, or watching the Bills game on Sunday afternoon.

Dad’s side of the family was the stable German & Croatian mix. Mom’s was the crazy Irish, and French-Italian mongrels that bred like rabbits, and always seemed on the edge of respectability. Assuming that we only know about 10% of all the crazy stuff that their generation did, we were amazed at what professional hell raisers they must have truly been.

Someday, I hope to learn the rest of the stories. Sitting there in the dark, sipping our beers in the flicker of the bug torches, we both agreed that when we die, we hope that heaven is something like this…

You wake on a cold snowy street in Buffalo. Snow is falling so fast and thick you cannot see your hand in front of your face. Through the white static you see a warm light, so you lean into the wind and start walking towards it as the flakes sting at your face like wasps. The light grows until you see it is the neon signs from the window of a corner bar. You walk up the short flight of stone steps, and push open the door, and a wave of steamy warmth washes over you. Shaking off the snow, you look up and see St. Peter standing behind the bar welcoming you in from the cold. You know that somewhere in back, Jesus is shooting pool with Gabriel, and you decide to have a drink to calm your nerves before you head on back to say hello. That’s when you look down the bar and see the faces of all of your parents and grandparents in the blush of their prime, smiling back at you and laughing at the look of shock on your face. The guy on the stool closest to you turns around, and you see that it’s your Dad and he’s got a tear in one corner of his eye as he hugs you, and asks “What are you drinking”. The three piece in the back corner kicks in with a new set of all your favorite tunes, as sung by the long dead singers you worshiped as a kid, and the camera slowly pulls back through the rainbow glow of the neon in the window, and the scene disappears into the snow.

I can’t speak for the rest of you, but that is the heaven that I hope is waiting for me, somewhere far down the road. Until then, I’ll just raise that glass to their memories. Peace.

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16 thoughts on “It’s a Family Tradition

  1. Oh good. I was under the impression I was going to have to sit through the unspeakable horror of watching my life on screen and then having to explain WHY I did those things, a la Albert Brooks Defending Your Life.
    Your idea of just showing up to play pool and meet the big guy sounds better.

  2. Jesus is a cool dude. You should see his tats. He’s got this awesome “Our Lady of Guadalupe on his back with “Mom” written under it.

    Don’t play him for money though. He always runs the table. Being the son of God has it’s priveledges.

  3. Seriously, this is the problem with Catholicism, your version of heaven has SNOW????!!!! This makes me even happier that in your eyes I am going to hell. Bring on the heat, baby!!! Plus, my great- grandmother, who I adored and am often told I am most like, was Greek, but she left the church in some bizarre set of circumstances that involved…I am not joking, what she referenced as “the ball of fire incident” and it has been all downhill for us since. So, I will meet her there, assuming you are correct. We will run from her balls of fire together! The afterlife will be interesting for all of us.

    • Sorry Sister, but you are most definitely not headed for Hell. That’s the place with fluffy clouds, Harp Muzak, and humorless scolds. No, I’m looking forward to having you introduce me to your Gram’s. I’m dying to hear how she inspired Jerry Lee Lewis!

      Well, not literally dying. Yet…

      Sent from my Windows Mobile phone

      • I have family members who hung out in radio stations and played fiddles with Hank Sr., he was a hard partier, often kicked out of homes by wives. (including my great-grandparents) My great-grandmother would adore you, right up until she tossed all of us out for drinking too much and being loud. Hehehehe

    • Not to defend Catholicism although like the illiterate townsfolk, I do like the colorful windows that tell good stories… I thought the snow would be fluffy and warm. It is heaven after all. Anything can happen. And seriously with all the drinking around, why would you be feeling any cold??!! And if you are shivering, the angels (who are androgynous but who cares they are all gorgeous!) will come and envelop you in their big giant wings (Ok, Tom, don’t tell me that angels don’t do that…)

      • Of course there’s snow in heaven. That’s why the angels wear cashmere! It feels oh so snuggly when they wrap those big wings around you.

  4. i’m with dufmanno. mine were brawling, hard drinking, blue collar enthicky types that worked in the factories and mills of binghamton and endicott johnson (EJ shoes). grandpa owned the shamrock inn on main street. grandma cooked cabbage and potatoes in the back. uncle john bartended while grandpa fraternized with the patrons. and by fraternized i mean bought them all drinks and drove the damn business into the ground.

    genny cream ale always saved the day though.

  5. What a great version of heaven. I always believed in coming in out of the cold too. It must have been because we walked home from school. All my Irish relatives in a bar at once though? That could get ugly.

    I prefer the ND guys trolling around in Midkiffs van.

    Great work Tommy! (I know, I hated the “MY” ending on all our names too)

    • Eh, I long ago accepted that being the baby in the family meant forever being called Tommy by siblings and family. You’re close enough to family I’ll let it pass. 😉

  6. Hanging out at a bar when you were but a wee lad is very very cool. And I am now longing for the good old days when you were allowed to spike the punch so the kids would STFU and leave the grownups to their merry-making. That’s what we are doing wrong people! That’s why all those housewives in the early days look so happy and relaxed, martini in hand!

    After reading your childhood story, I am now jealous and would now subscribe to one of the family lores that an ancestor was a pirate.

    • Why thank you. I’m not sure what color they are. Sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes gray. It depends on what I’m wearing. They are kind of like Mood Rings I guess.

  7. Pingback: And the silicon chip inside his head, get’s switched to overload… « 20 Prospect

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