My father, 85, called me the other day, choked up. “Dan, it’s Dad. Philly died.”
And then he sobbed.
He and Philly Grief were friends for 76 years. There were others: Herbie, Eddie Green, Morenis, Smiley, Wassy — a lifelong bunch of Brighton Beach pals who grew up in the 1930s. My dad, Al, and his friends played “touch” on the dirty lots near the boardwalk, stickball in “the gutter,” punchball in the dark “backyards” set between the six-story buildings. As teenagers they went overseas: my father to the Pacific, Philly to Europe. When they came home it was time to reap the benefits of victory. Some went to college to become teachers and accountants. Others married early, worked in the post office, drove a cab, bought a soda route or like my father, sold pots and pans door-to-door in the “colored neighborhoods.” These were men who came from immigrant Russian Jewish parents whose mission was to make life “better” for their children, a characteristic they themselves passed down. “The Dream” could work.
Eight of the friends started a ritual that continued for 50 years. Every six weeks at alternating homes or apartments, the “Friends Club” would get together on a Saturday night. The host couple would stock the place with bagels, lox and sturgeon. The men drank J & B; the wives occupied their own corner, blessed for their time away from their kids and routine. I was the first boy born into this circle — and the center of everyone’s attention — and well into my teenage years I made every excuse to be home on the given Saturday when Al and Esther hosted “The Friends.”
During the summers the group would vacation at bungalow colonies in Monticello and South Fallsburg. The men would come for weekends, then return to the city on Sunday nights for the workweek. When their own boomer children left home, “The Friends,” still close, made the move — Florida — first as “snowbirds,” all fun and games, the summer camp they never had. Later, their savings accounts and pensions bought them permanency: condos in West Palm, Boynton, Fort Lauderdale. And here too, they would meet, the men playing poker, the women mah jongg. There’d be early-bird specials, group movies at the mall, visits from the grandchildren.
Philly and my father liked to go fishing — a challenge for the latter, but second nature for Philly, who was always different. He attended an agricultural college in Utah, dreaming of becoming a farmer. He loved the land, animals, nature.
Family obligations derailed his hopes. Philly returned to New York where he taught high school science for 30 years.
In their mid-60s to 70s, “The Friends” took trips and cruises to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Alaska. Sometimes, the men went to Vegas. And then, it began to change. You’d visit after a year of being a self-absorbed son and they’d look different. Eddie was the first to go. After a jog, Leona found him on the kitchen floor, hoping he was joking. Herbie and Smiley were lost to Alzheimer’s. Joe Morenis, cancer. Then, my dad began to erode. A long list of serious medical problems led to a walker, then a wheelchair.
The reversal of roles snuck up on my brother and me; another trip, another emergency room, rehab center, social worker, a helpless mother, another Florida doctor who didn’t seem to care. Seen one old timer, seen ’em all — medicine as industry as opposed to age-old “house calls,” when the revered doc, carrying his black bag arrived; calm, patient and always right.
My father has no balance left, no strength in his legs or arms. He takes a hard fall at times. His better days are a bit less cruel. But he found relief in the visits from Philly. They would talk about doctors, about their bachelor days, about long deceased brothers — 76 years of talk. And then, as if from nowhere, “Dan,” he cried like a baby, “Philly died.”
Even I felt helpless, paralyzed — again. I could only listen, fighting back my own tears. Then, after we hung up I came to some temporary comfort in the form of a fantasy. Their next “Friends Club” meeting would take place, not far from now, on a Saturday night. The wives, young and slim on one side of the living room, the men, without any pretentions, relishing the stories of their Sacred Club, the hum of laughter. “Old Friends.” The venue doesn’t matter.
Dan Klores is a filmmaker and playwright. He is currently working on a new film, “Breslin: The Last Great One.”
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