My Uncle Jack

My Uncle Jack was a ne’er do well, which meant, in his case, that it took him a long  time to settle into a career and into family life. He was drafted in the last days of World War II and never saw combat and reenlisted even though, as far as I could gather, he spent his time in the military losing his corporal’s stripes and residing in the stockade. When he left the Army, he used his G. I. Bill of Rights to study hairdressing, again for reasons I never understood, but he dropped that because, he said, it had too many fags in it, which even my early adolescent knowledge of the world told me he should have known going in. He took a job as a security guard at J. C. Penny and carried around with him a picture of the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton so that he might get a reward for identifying him if he ran across him in the street. Shortly afterwards, Sutton was indeed identified by Arnold Schuster, who was very proud of what he had accomplished and gave newspaper interviews about it, and Frank Costello, the mobster, thought Schuster was too proud of himself and had him murdered. Jack did not see the irony of this but my mother thought that it showed the wisdom of not wishing for something you might get.

I had my most contact with Uncle Jack during my early adolescence. He came over for dinner one night a week, just as he did to his three sisters who were also living in the Bronx. He would stay to watch some television and complain jokingly if the television wasn’t working properly that it was a “Jap” television, which meant that it was the inferior sort of electronics then manufactured by the Japanese, even though it was an RCA. He took me to his SRO hotel on the Grand Concourse to show me the transistor radio he kept in his bureau drawer wrapped in a cashmere sleeve. It was his proudest possession. He took me to ballgames and fed me my first ham sandwich, on which I gagged, and he commented that an interracial couple in the grandstands, rare at that time, was disgusting and unnatural, though it seemed to my clearheaded adolescent mind that miscegenation was the only way to end racial unrest in the country, though I kept this opinion to myself. He took me to old John Wayne war movies on 42nd Street and treated me to Italian Kitchen meals, all, I think, to pay back my parents for being so nice to him and also because he was lonely. He also promised to take me to a house of ill repute, but he never did. An aunt once approached me to say that Jack was not a very good influence and I broke through my general lack of candor to say that didn’t she think I knew that?

Jack once claimed that someone had stolen his wallet but returned it with all the cards enclosed but none of the money. My mother thought he was just lying, and that he had lost his money at the track. She gave him money to replace his losses. He once asked my father for a loan and my father had me advance the money out of my savings and my father explained to me that he thought that Jack was more likely to pay it back if he thought it came for me. Or maybe my father was making that up, just not having enough cash around to lend his brother money. Jack also once got my father involved in something that might have been a felony. Jack had taken a course to pass the entrance exam into the police department and  it was clear to me, on the basis of having recently arrived at an entrance exam high school, and having examined Jack’s booklet of sample questions, that Jack would not have been able to answer the questions on the police exam. My father must have drawn the same conclusion, so he paid an acquaintance who said he had a friend in the police department who could get Jack on the pass list, which I thought was unlikely, but I also kept that to myself, and it never worked out.

Shortly after that, Jack moved to Miami Beach where he took up work as a cabdriver. He came back to New York just a few times when I was in college, once to introduce us to his Cuban born wife, who seemed to me both dutiful and crude. My mother approved of the match even though she opposed Jews marrying gentiles because this was the best that Jack could do, he known around the house as “One Ball Jack”, because he had lost a testicle when as a child his own father had required him to lift something much too heavy for him to manage. He couldn’t have children, which my mother thought just as well.

My experiences with Jack intensified my own sense that you had to manage your life very carefully if you were going to be a success, and so I didn’t mess with the neighborhood girls because they might like it too much and then you get emotionally entangled and you never get out of the neighborhood. On the other hand, it was alright to mess with the girls who went to my high school because they lived in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, where I aspired to live. In fact, I married a girl who had gone to a different exam school and who lived in a swanky neighborhood, though she too had immigrant roots. Certainly, in married life, you move on to other issues, but social class and education is where it starts.

The experience of the other of my father’s younger brothers would have suggested that life  does not have to be planned out but pretty much takes care of itself-- at least in retrospect. My uncle Ben, just a few years older than Jack, had spent the war in Burma, where you went crazy waiting for the afternoon artillery barrage by the Japanese and picking jungle rot out from between your toes. He met a nice Jewish girl at a USO dance in Baltimore and came home to sleep on her family’s couch while he gathered himself together. They married and had two nice children and he worked for many years as a postman, just like the character in John Updike’s “In the Beauty of the Lilies”, who also could not handle too much stress.

My father was a married man with a child and older and so could not be drafted. It would never have occurred to him to volunteer. My future wife’s father, on the other hand, was from a family of long assimilated German Jews and was a chemical engineer and he felt obligated, as people of his social class and education did, to serve in the war. He became a bombardier on a B-29 serving in the Pacific theatre. I did not think the Vietnam War, the war of my generation, was a just war, and so I used my student deferments, protested the war, gave speeches against it, and signed a petition asserting that I was complicit with the people who burned their draft cards and so should be arrested if they were, which I knew was very unlikely to happen. I do not know what I would have done if I thought it had been a just war.

My mother’s brother, who was the only one of her family who had stayed behind in Europe who survived the concentration camps, came to America under my parents’ sponsorship, and became a successful cab driver, though he never got over the bitterness that, for all I know, kept him alive in the camps, and so thought, in the Sixties, and opined at a Passover Seder that I attended, that black people should be interned in camps until they learned how to behave themselves. He went around the table saying which of the people there would have made it through the camps and the only one he thought would have was my mother, who smiled, and took it for a compliment. When I, a married man and a graduate student, objected to his remarks about black people, he just looked with condescension at my unknowing face. He understood human nature and I didn’t. People are what they are, I now conclude, stereotypes of themselves, so experienced by others, even if, to one’s own consciousness, even to Uncle Jack, one is a vehicle of free will.