In the summer of 1967, when I was 15, my "Uncle Paul," as I call him in Bobby in Naziland, took me on the road to make a few sales calls with him—an adventure I'd been looking forward to since school ended. He worked for Highlander, a women's suede and leather coat manufacturer. His territory was upstate New York.
One afternoon we were in a women's clothing store in Utica (or maybe Rome), in the buyer's office, sitting opposite his desk. Paul introduced me as his nephew and launched into his sales pitch, about fall's hot new suede fashions, which, if stained, could be easily cleaned with an ordinary pencil eraser—that was, supposedly, a big selling point.
The buyer—pudgy, middle-aged, and with a receding hairline—was resistant. There was too much inventory, he said. Other Highlander coats weren't selling as expected.
Had I been in my uncle's chic Italian size-nine loafers, I'd have given up then. I thought there was no chance the buyer was going to buy. I was ready to leave.
But my uncle kept pressing him, charming him with jokes about Cary Grant, stories about women and deep-sea fishing, wearing him down, veritably seducing him. By the time he was through, the buyer had agreed to buy 10,000 dollars' worth of suede coats, and my uncle had earned a 15 percent commission.
The buyer then looked at me and asked, "Do you know that your uncle's the greatest salesman in the world?"
"Yes," I said, swelling with pride, amazed at the turnaround I'd just witnessed. I thought that I, too, might want to be a salesman.
You won't find the above story in Bobby in Naziland. It occurred outside the book's time frame. But you will find other stories about my uncle. Some are not flattering, but all are true. What I wrote in the book about "Uncle Paul" was my way of coming to terms with a difficult relationship with an uncle who was like my older brother when I was a kid. I worshipped him because he was living proof that it was possible to escape from the kind of life I felt trapped in. With his salesmanship skills and "winning personality," he'd escaped from a similar life. My uncle represented everything a lower-middle-class kid might dream about: money, success, expensive cars, and exotic travel.
When I was 19, and in the throes of rebelling against everything, my illusions about my uncle fell away. I saw him for who he was—the deeply flawed man I'd write about in Bobby in Naziland. I was so angry at him, for reasons I won't go into here, I stopped talking to him; I cut him out of my life.
As I matured and became more accepting of people and their flaws, we reconciled to a degree. We talked and spent time together.
I'm writing this now because on July 20, my uncle, 81, died from Covid-19 in a Florida nursing home. I'd last spoken to him several months ago. He was unhappy with where life had ultimately taken him, and I'd gotten the feeling that he didn't want to talk, that there was nothing more to say.
Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral. So I sit here, in New York, sorting out a spectrum of emotions and memories accumulated over a lifetime. I prefer to dwell on the positive.
My earliest memories of my uncle are from 1956. He was a starting offensive guard on Brooklyn's James Madison High School football team, and my parents took me to games to watch him play, though I could never seem to pick him out on the field. His football career ended when he tore up his knee. I can picture him in an autograph-covered cast, recuperating on a green couch in my grandmother's living room.
When I was older, he sometimes took me deep-sea fishing, for blues, fluke, flounder, and porgies, on the charter boats at Sheepshead Bay. "Let's cut a slice of life," he'd say, as we set sail. Fishing was another thing he excelled at, and he was passionate about it. There were days, especially when we went for blues, when he was the only one on the boat who caught a fish. He once took me to Montauk to go cod fishing. It was my best fishing day ever. You dropped your line in the water and out came a fish. We caught hundreds of pounds of cod between us, which we gave away, except for a couple of fish we took home for our mothers to cook.
Also when I was 15, he took me on my first airplane ride, to Cleveland. He had to go there to pick up his car, a silver Cadillac, which he'd left in a parking lot when he had to fly back to New York for an emergency. He wanted me to keep him company on the drive home. Riding on a jet plane and spending an entire day with my uncle, traveling 465 miles in his Cadillac, was the most thrilling thing I'd done at that point in my life.
He took me to Ranger hockey games at Madison Square Garden and Titan football games at the Polo Grounds. We spent afternoons cruising around in his other car, an MG convertible, which was almost as exciting as flying in a jet. And he turned me on to the Beatles "White Album," though I don't think he ever got past side one.
My uncle might have been a salesman, but he was no Willy Loman. If anything he was more akin to an honorary member of the Rat Pack.
I hope what I've written will provide some comfort to those who knew him by his real name.