My Dad talked so seldom about his past that when I found him in a mood to revisit his younger days I slipped in saved up questions. Once in the winter, before I could drive, we were finishing up the chores. All we had to do was bed down the cows, shake straw under them in their stanchions to give them a nice dry bed for the night. We each had a pitchfork and there were two bales of straw waiting for us. But instead of cutting the twine and getting started, Dad sat down on his bale to have a Camel cigarette. I sat down with him, to see if I could get him to talk.
“What about the Italian guy in Chicago you used to visit with Uncle Harry? Spent evenings in his basement?”
“Who told you about that?”
“Well, she should be more careful who she’s telling stories to.”
“She didn’t tell me a story about it. She told me to ask you.”
“Oh she did, did she?"
I thought he wasn’t going to tell me anything. He looked down at his feet for a minute, then smiled and looked up.
“Well you don’t know anything about prohibition but it didn’t stop people from drinking, it just changed how they did it. I didn’t drink much, but Uncle Harry missed it quite a bit. He knew a guy who knew this Italian fella had a house on the west side in the city within walking distance of where we were living in Oak Park. We’d go there once in a while if we had money when he was dating your Aunt Dorothy. Aunt Dorothy and Irene, sometimes Aunt Fern, would do things together, sew and stuff, or bake, and the two of us, Uncle Vic once in a while but mostly just Uncle Harry and I, We’d say we were taking a long walk and we’d go see our Italian friend.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well he made wine, a lot of wine, and this stuff called grappa. We’d walk down his alley, go to his back door, knock, and he’d look out through the curtain. Seeing it was us, he’d take us on down to his basement. He had four little tables down there with tablecloths. We’d sit down and before you know it he would bring out a big pitcher of red wine and glasses for each of us. And that was it. We’d drink that pitcher of wine and if we thought we could handle it we’d drink another.”
I loved to hear him talk about the city.
“God it was good. We called it Dago red. Usually, his wife would bring down something to eat, bread with olive oil or tomato sauce or some such thing. Cheese maybe, with olives and hard salami. When we were ready to go we just paid for the pitchers. We’d walk home happy like we were big spenders who had just been at a big time downtown speakeasy.”
“Tell you the truth I’d rather have been there than all the fancy places in Chicago that were serving liquor back then. Closest I ever felt to being back home was in that family’s basement. We went once around Christmas and he brought out his accordion and sang songs in Italian. Even though his English was bad we felt like he was a friend. Then we’d get talking to the people at the other tables, telling stories, rehashing politics. It was great. Except for the drinking, I felt close to people like I did in Danvers. It was the best. Every time I’m in an Italian restaurant and have a glass of Chianti I think of that fella’s Dago red.”
“What are city people like Dad?”
“They’re like everybody else. Don’t think because you live in a small town and they’re from the city they’re somehow different."
"Here’s the thing, though. Here we live and work and lead our whole lives with one community. Up there it’s different. I’d ride the L downtown to work, spend all week with a good group of people, people I really liked, but when Friday came we all scattered. I didn’t know where they lived, didn’t know anything about the rest of their lives really, and they knew just as little about me. When I went home I had my family, of course, neighbors, and people at church, but they knew nothing about my work or those other people at work. It’s not like Danvers. Up there it’s like living in two worlds, three really. Because in between, on the train and on the street, you find yourself in a place where nobody knows you at all. It’s an odd feeling when you're a complete nobody.”
I’d thought about that place already, where nobody knows your name. I wanted that feeling. I thought it would be wonderful and free.
“What about the grappa? What’s that?”
“I never knew, but close as I can figure its Italian moonshine. White liquor, not much taste, and potent as all get out. We didn’t drink his grappa often, and when we did we tried not to drink much of it, because it packed a punch that grappa, and we had a ways to walk home. I’d rather had whiskey, but hey it was prohibition. You took what you could get and hoped whatever you drank wouldn’t make you go blind.”
“Did people really go blind from drinking rotgut stuff like they say?”
“No that's just something we used to say. I never knew anybody that went blind from drinking. They got sick but those were mostly hangovers. They talked about bad bathtub gin but I think those stories were Methodist propaganda. Drinking’s like anything else, too much of it is almost always a bad thing. But a little of its OK.”
He paused and looked at me closer.
“You’re not drinking are you?”
“Well, I hope that’s true because you are too young. But you probably will. Be careful when you do.”
My Dad never tried to steer me into a career, a course of study, or a way of life. He gave his advice on the sly. You had to listen closely. Mom would tell me, sometimes loudly, when she thought I was doing wrong but Dad rarely did. I believe he thought I could learn how to best live by living. Somehow I felt he always believed in me, and that my life would turn out all right. I think somehow he created that feeling. I don’t know how. He could have been so different. I gave him plenty of opportunities to doubt that approach, but he stayed the course. I loved him for that.