Had my father, Irwin Rosen, lived, he would have turned 100 on September 23. But he left us in 2005, a vigorous man who had to be dragged to doctors and refused to take certain tests that might have saved his life. If it's true that everybody is born with a finite amount of courage, my father spent most of his on the battlefields of World War II and had little left over to face the verdicts rendered by men of medicine. My last memory of him when he was still healthy was playing touch football on my brother's front lawn. At age 80, he could still move and fling the ball with zip. I prefer not to think of him lying in a hospital bed.
My relationship with my father was challenging, and it was only after he was gone that I considered writing about it and trying to make sense of it. When I was a kid, he owned a candy store on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, around the corner from where we lived. He put in 12-hour days, then came home and went to sleep. Pretty much the only time I ever saw him awake was when he was behind the counter in the store, whipping up egg creams and malteds for his customers and selling them cigarettes. I worked in the store from the time I was seven, making change for newspapers and eventually graduating to the egg-cream bar. I liked listening to my father and his cronies talk about the war, football, and the dirty books he kept on a special rack in the back of the store. But I also got an advanced education in bigotry—I was carefully taught whom to hate. It was ugly stuff, some of the things they said, and I wrote about it in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir, which ends in 1964, when I was 12, just before my father sold the store.
Then came my teenage years, which I've yet to write a book about. My father was a law-and-order Republican, I was a hippie, and things in the Rosen household grew so strained, we froze each other out. It was a cold war. Months went by when I didn't exchange a word with my father or my mother. The root of the trouble was the length of my hair and my refusal to cut it. I spent as much time away from my parents as possible, while still technically living in the same house. I moved out in 1975, when I was 22.
By the time my parents moved to a retirement community near West Palm Beach, in 1995, my father had mellowed, even toning down the bigotry, and I'd become more accepting of his and my mother's flaws. We were talking again, and I enjoyed visiting them and spending time in Florida. Despite their adamant opposition to my career choice—"You'll starve!"—they were thrilled when Nowhere Man became a best-seller, and they kept a file of newspaper clippings about the book, in many languages. Though the thing that finally persuaded them that I'd achieved some degree of success was when Nowhere Man was a question on their favorite show, Jeopardy. ("Rock & Roll Bookstore for $400, Alex.")
Now, in my own advanced age, I find myself missing the old man and wishing he'd taken the damn medical tests so I could have had him around a few more years. And my mother, who's closing in on 97, misses him, too—despite their 56 years of bickering about everything. That's just the way it goes. The lucky ones get old and some of them do make it to 100.
So, on the occasion of my father's 100th birthday, I'll leave you with an excerpt of A Brooklyn Memoir. This is how Chapter 11, "Fragments of My Father," begins:
Yes, my father wore his hatred on his sleeve like a badge of honor—because that's what he wanted people to see. He thought it made him look like a tough son of a bitch who was not to be fucked with, and maybe it did. But it was possible for certain people—like me, my mother, and perhaps a few others—to occasionally get beyond this facade, and if you managed to do that, what you'd find lurking just beneath the surface was a seething mass of contradictions.
Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.
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