My Dad (EJP) was the last of a generation, the man’s man without doing it in an over-machismo “something to prove” way. He grew up in the post-depression steel mill towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. There wasn’t much; anything you had, you either worked hard for the money to get it, you made it by building it yourself from found objects and raw materials, or you just didn’t have it all. He was lured down here to New Orleans by the sound of jazz and graduate school at Tulane. He met my mother at a social and soon they were married.
He could have been considered cheap, frugal or maybe just a good shopper. He taught me how to shop around for everything. Before the Internet, he knew how to go around big box stores and find these out-of-the-way places to go through distributors or direct sales guys to get a great deal. That also transferred over into gray and not-so-gray areas, like walking through Schwegmann’s, eating a bag of pistachios. If they were in a package he’d hand over the empty wrapper to pay for them, but when it came to the bulk bins? Well…
He would give me hell when I became a style-conscious, trend-following teenie bopper. He would scrutinize prices and shame me in front of clerks at clothing stores, embarrassing the hell out of me. Funny thing was that in the mid ‘80s, when I became a rebellious young punk rocker shopping at thrift stores, his pride got the best of him and he said, “we didn’t have to shop at those stores.” A few months after that, he read an interview with Ralph Lauren, who said he shopped at thrift stores for new clothing ideas. My father then gave me his approval and a $20 bill to “knock myself out” with, probably thinking I would become some millionaire clothing designer.
If you knew EJP for more than five minutes, chances are you were the recipient of a “shot.” He had an amazing ability to pick up on people’s mannerisms and little idiosyncrasies in a matter of seconds, and he would quickly work some pun relating that—and the conversation on hand—and just hit you with a six-inch jab in the breadbasket of your ego, then start laughing in a way that let you know it was a sincere and friendly joke that only a long time friend could make with you. In that instant, you knew EJP’s a son-of-a-bitch and great guy at the same time. His humor could take a dark side too, the most famous of stories which he related to me. One day, while having lunch at the airport and people-watching with a co-worker, he looked at a man who had extreme leg deformities and a very awkward gait, so he said to his friend in an endearing voice, “Oh man look at that, poor bastard.” To which his friend saw the man and expressed his agreement, shaking his head in sympathy. My Dad then followed with, “some people will do anything for attention, huh?”
He was a huge fan of comedy and raised us on Monty Python and the first Saturday Night Live cast. In fact, he always thought in ‘skits,’ saying, “That’d be a great skit” and then he’d tell a quick scenario based on something we had just seen in real life, complete with character and lines. He was extremely creative. I hope that’s not an early sign of Alzheimer’s; if so, I am screwed!
My Father carried the load—rarely asking for help—which sometimes got him in trouble. He’d laugh it off, sometimes bloody or bruised for taking stupid chances and damn near dying a few times. He also carried a lot inside. I know his mother was rough on him and his brothers. Sometimes he didn’t like “talking about things.” And I never pushed him on that; those issues were for him and his runs along the levee, where he dealt with his stresses. That’s not to say he never got angry, because he definitely knew the art of an argument. That was evident by him watching his favorite shows: CNN’s Crossfire and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. He’d listen and be agreeing at first: “Oh, good point, ah, yeah, he’s right… Ah, I don’t know about that. That’s bullshit and he knows it. Look at his face.” He was a true independent, seeing the points of both sides. He was a true diplomat.
He didn’t keep things too deep, though, and the story goes we have him to thank that the French Quarter doesn’t have an interstate running right through it, as the planners in DC who he was working with wanted. They asked him what he thought, knowing he was just a peon, but a peon that had lived in New Orleans nonetheless. He spoke up, the interstate was diverted, and consequently my father was demoted because some upper brass had a hard-on to run it right along the river for the docks. One historical cultural center was destroyed but another was saved, a decision that we’ll never know which was right or not, but was made.
You knew when he was really, really mad though, because he clammed up. Sure you’d get yelling sometimes, but that was mainly for continual screw-ups or frustration. But when he was really mad, you were totally cut-off and in emotional darkness. No shots, no joking around and none of the big hearty laughs. That would bum me out. So I tried not make him upset. I liked happy Dad.
He was a big time “do it yourselfer.” He made furniture, designed and helped build his own house. He did his own repairs on the house and his van: the indestructible 1983 Ford Econoline. That van was a cab for the fools and a workhorse tank until the end. It lasted just as long as my dad’s faculties. In fact, I bet the people who bought it from him are still driving it. Dad did some repairs that took special tools and he made do by making his own tools to do the job. One consisted of Popeyes’ straws, because they were the perfect size to hold a screw to change the headlight on a 1984 Honda Accord. Thrifty, crafty and wise.
He was an early believer in being healthy, too. I remember the whole cholesterol scare and when fiber was the big buzzword. He made up a combination of this fiber cereal that had the taste of reconstituted cardboard; he called it his “worms.” He mixed those with nuts and fruit, every morning. If he didn’t think a dish was healthy enough, he would add a few more vegetables to make sure that it was an all-in-one balanced meal. Crawfish fettuccini in cream sauce? Only if he added bell peppers and mushrooms to the onions and garlic, maybe even some broccoli too. He stayed fit in that EJP way. He loved having those sunset runs. Sure he’d have an apple and a beer on the way to the levee (and a few when he got back) but he still had a good three to six mile run every day. Some folks don’t even have that.
Cooking was a passion that happened later in Dad’s life, when Mom started teaching and he wanted to make sure we always had a meal, either fresh, in the fridge or in the freezer for us to eat. They were good meals; he may have been from Youngstown, Ohio but he cooked like a Coonass from the bayou, always making sure that he had the best ingredients. The biggest compliment he got was when his good friend (and registered coonass) Mr. JB could smell his smoked turkey and seafood gumbo in the car on the way to work; he ate it cold and said it was damn good. He beamed on that story always. To this day I yearn for the grits with cheese and ham in it that he had for us every morning for the years when I lived at home. My favorite treat he came up with was putting bourbon on his night-time ice cream. You’d probably only see that on some trendy restaurant menu in New York or some cooking show, but that was every friday night for Dad since who-knows- when.
He was a caring father, with love so damn big, almost as big as that big beer belly he carried around on those bird legs. I remember a fateful night when Mom was driving back from Hattiesburg and she was running late, and he was nervous. This was before cell phones, so all one could do was wait. When Mom showed
up home and he saw that she was fine, he was so relieved. That story lived in infamy, as Mom was late because she drove a rental car on a flat tire and pulled into the driveway with an almost wore-down rim and no evidence of a tire ever being on the car. To think of how often she made that drive and after that, how much he worried. He had that concern for us all, even our friends. Many friends found refuge in my father’s words and advice, sometimes our roof as well. He would listen to you, hear out your ideas and give you his thoughts. If they contradicted what he really felt you should do, he stood by all your decisions and encouraged you in everything you did, offering only constructive criticism… and a few humbling ‘shots.’
My father was the guy who broke up fights—even when he had no idea who was fighting or what the fight was over, something that could get you stabbed or shot these days. He’d jump right in, use his weight to separate people and be yelling “Hey cut it out; get the hell off of him; get out of here; break it up!” Anything to just separate the fight. And he wouldn’t insult anybody, he’d usually just say “You don’t want to go to jail, buddy. It’s not worth it.” I even saw him personally stop two potential suicides. He helped push many a stranded car that ran out of gas or were just trying to get off the street, a practice today that I continue even in the congested streets of Los Angeles. Fights or suicides I have yet to encounter, and at a buck 45, I’m not sure I could accomplish much.
“Try everything, See the world.” These are directions my father instilled in me and I know I’m continuing part of the path Dad started, leaving his home to see the world, landing in New Orleans and starting the family we are.
I realize now when Dad was slipping away. I was in a troubled time and was seeking guidance; and his once great advice became more than whimsical, deep or prophetic. It was just sage-ishly vague. Katrina confirmed what we thought could be signs and became a manifested realization at the worst of times. It’s been the good part of ten years of his decline, the last seven I’m not sure if he knew me since I wasn’t with him as much as I could be. I know this end is a bittersweet relief—much more bitter than sweet—but he is suffering no more, nor is my Mother watching her loved one slip slowly away from her. I wish my wife, Carla would have known my father when he was at his prime (maybe not the Urban Cowboy phase, though. We can all forget about that). He was the man that made me what I am today; a quasi-health conscious, hard-working, atlas-complex having, do-it-yourself, penny-pinching, quick-to- help-a-stranger, good-time loving, caring, diplomatic and loyal smart ass.