A short story that acts as an ode to an aunt that opened a young man’s eyes to the ways of the word, a good bad-influence…
by: Alan Swyer
On the day I got my driver’s license, my father confronted me. In contrast to friends whose parents offered conventional advice — “Drive responsibly,” or “Don’t drink and drive” — what I got was a threat. “I know how much you like your Great-Aunt,” I was told. “But if you want my car keys, keep your distance.”
Even at seventeen, with raging hormones, I sensed what my father feared. His side of the family had a tradition of being shady, disreputable, at times even criminal. His Uncle Al, a lieutenant in the Longie Zwillman mob — the New Jersey wing of the Meyer Lansky/Bugsy Siegel gang — had fled New Jersey in the dead of night. As did his Uncle Lou. Plus Bobby, who married my dad’s cousin Harriet, then skipped town due to gambling debts.
As for my Great-Aunt Ethel, her special niche was running a high-stakes poker game nine months of the year in her Newark apartment, plus three winter months in Miami.
Having arrived from London as a lively 20-year-old, Ethel never applied for American citizenship, fearing that her means of support would result in her being denied admission. By far the family’s most colorful character, she was anarchic, larger-than-life, and in my eyes, altogether wonderful. All of this made Ethel antithetical to my parents’ relentless quest for respectability. Though I suspect that my father secretly got the same kick out of her that I did, he, like my kid sister and brother, was unwilling to stand up to the dominant force in our house. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants — exactly which country they were from depended on the politics and borders of any given moment — my mother desperately dreamed of, craved, and clawed for what she considered to be respectability. Her need, determination, and fury were such that no one under our roof was willing to stand up to her — no one, that is, but me. To hear relatives reminisce, it was almost as though I emerged from her womb with both middle fingers raised. Nor did relations between us ever improve. A seemingly innocuous conversation could escalate to screaming in seconds, so that even a brief phone call might register high on the Richter scale.
Yet as the first-born, it was nevertheless hoped that I would somehow, in some way, bring long sought-after legitimacy.
That hope, which usually involved my attending med school, law school, or at worst dental school, was constantly threatened. But never once did my parents consider what was clearly the cause of my rebellion against authority. Bored in school, I quickly became a trouble-maker. Rejecting what my parents considered the “good crowd,” I turned instead to those who were far more fun: the jocks, hoods, and fringe dwellers. That led to repeated lectures about being judged by the company I kept.
Sports, which my parents frowned on, became one of my key outlets. Even worse in their eyes was the music I embraced: Black stations like WNJR from Newark and WADO from Harlem featuring Ray Charles, Big Maybelle, and Bo Diddley, plus the record my parents understandably took as an attack on them, “Yakety-Yak (Don’t Talk Back)!”
What my parents and school administrators could never quite comprehend was the disconnect between my demeanor and my test scores. Their bewilderment increased exponentially when, as punishment at school, I was forced to enter essay contests. First came a county-wide contest, where the subject was Free Enterprise. Then a state challenge, with “The Importance Of Diversity” as the topic. Finally, a national competition, where the theme was Patriotism. Each time I wrote not from belief or conviction, but with eyes focused on the cash prize. All three times the seemingly hopeless reprobate shocked one and all by emerging victorious.
But far important to me than those triumphs was my Great-Aunt Ethel.
I knew that in her apartment, mornings were off-limits. While her husband, Herman, a meek but sweet soul, tiptoed off to work on weekdays, Ethel would lounge in bed until noon. That’s why when I didn’t have school — or felt like playing hooky — I would show up at 12:30. She and I would indulge in feasts unimaginable in my mother’s kitchen: lasagna, steak & eggs, blintzes, or on special days, pastries that my mother would have considered decadent.
Next, Ethel and I would take a seat at the card table, where she would provide what she considered to be a more useful kind of education. Dealing four or five hands, she would watch me play, then quiz me about every decision.
“A card game,” she loved to proclaim,” is the best place in the world to study human nature.” Though she acknowledged that the cards themselves mattered, she always maintained that far more important was learning how to read opponents. Spotting a “tell” — a tic, gesture, or quirk that signaled a great hand, a bluff, or some sort of squeamishness or elation — was the ultimate goal.
“Always assume the worst in people,” she also preached, defining cynicism as enlightened self-preservation. According to Ethel, being on the lookout for people dealing seconds, bottom-dealing, card-marking, shorting the pot, or colluding — all of which she taught me how to spot — was a metaphor for navigating successfully through life.
“Take your uncle Herman,” she said one afternoon in May. “Always trying to see the good in people. That makes him a sweetheart, but also kind of a schmuck. Your dad? Not a schmuck exactly, but too easy to manipulate.”
“How about my mother?” I asked.
Ethel shrugged. “Don’t quote me,” she stated with a smile. “Just don’t buy everything people tell you. Not at school, at home, or anywhere.”
“Except for here?” I teased.
“Except for here,” acknowledged Ethel with a smile. “And above all, never believe that nonsense about the meek inheriting the earth.”
Nights at my Great-Aunt’s apartment provided a privileged glimpse into what I later came to consider a demi-monde. Every so often, Herman would emerge from the bedroom to put out cold cuts, refill drinks, or clean ashtrays for the guys seated around the card table. Except for Ethel, the participants were always guys, but not the kind who would be welcomed at a kiddie playground, or anywhere near a Girl Scout meeting.
If anyone dared question why I was there, Ethel would bristle. “He’s my good luck charm,” she would respond. “Don’t like it? Find another game.”
No one ever chose to do so.
Though she could sit for hours on end without a bathroom break, my Great-Aunt never failed to walk me to the door when I announced I was ready to leave.
Invariably, she would tell me, “It’s a big world out there” as she gave me a hug. “Keep looking, and don’t settle.”
Taking her advice, I started making pilgrimages to New York City. Curious to see for myself Harlem’s playground basketball legends, my first forays were to the Rucker Tournament, where I got to view the likes of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Herman The Helicopter, and Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson.
Though I probably looked totally out of place, I immediately found myself feeling completely at home.
On those occasions when my parents asked where I’d been, my response was monosyllabic: “Out.”
Curious about another spot that sounded intriguing, I started exploring another realm where I looked equally out of place: Greenwich Village.
Soon I acquired two things that made those excursions even more enjoyable. First, a fake driver’s license — under the unlikely name Todd Gallagher — which, before photo ID’s, allowed me to pass for eighteen so as to enter bars and clubs. Next, a companion: a Black high school friend — Bixie — who shared my curiosity about the world of Jazz.
To subsidize our trips to see Dizzy, Mingus, or Sonny Rollins at the Village Gate, Vanguard, or Five Spot, the two of us developed a plan. On Saturday afternoon, we would bag mixtures of catnip, oregano, and twigs. Taking the bus to Port Authority, we immediately hopped a subway downtown. Once in the Village, we peddled our wares to kids to groups of rich kids from Long Island.
Were we afraid of being busted? No, because we had convinced ourselves that we were protected by not selling anything illegal.
Though I frustrated my parents by claiming I had zero interest in college, I ultimately talked into a university to keep from being drafted.
While college yielded an escape from home, it also meant considerable distance from my Great-Aunt Ethel, whom I made a point of visiting every time I returned.
“How’s life?” She always made a point of asking.
“So-so,” was my customary response, which she accepted begrudgingly until one afternoon she spoke up.
“So-so’s not good enough,” she insisted. “Not for you. You’re not happy? Then do something!”
Heeding her words, I started searching, then learned that Simon & Schuster was contemplating a travel guide for the youth market. Begging and pleading for a meeting with the editor, I somehow convinced him that instead of hiring an insider — someone who knew Paris — to write that section of the guidebook, it would be far better coming from a young American who was in the process of discovering the city…especially one who would be incognito and would work cheap!
Miraculously, I found myself the only impoverished American kid headed to Paris with a mandate to do everything imaginable, plus a modest expense account.
“I’m proud of you,” gushed Ethel when I told her. She was even prouder when I added that I’d scored an expiring ticket on the S.S. France for a pittance.
After making a short film while living in Paris, I returned a year later armed with an assignment to continue my travel writing by working on a sequel for the US. Immediately. I visited my Great-Aunt, then found myself cringing.
Ethel seemed to have aged considerably, and the poker game had turned seedy. Even more unsettling was the sight of Herman at the card table. Never a player, he was propped up by pillows and cushions, clearly in a daze, but with cards and poker chips lined up in front of him.
“What’s this about?” I whispered to my Great-Aunt.
Only when there was a break in the action did Ethel lead me into the kitchen.
“Herman has terminal cancer,” she whispered.
“We’re short a player, so the game must go on. So what’s next for you?”
“I’m moving to the Coast,” I told her.
“That’s my boy! Movies?”
“So your parents were right.”
“Me being a bad influence.”
“You’re the best influence ever!” I stated, giving her a hug.
Sadly, Ethel followed Herman to the grave before I was able to establish myself professionally. Still, I think she would have enjoyed the irony that my career was based primarily upon everything my parents warned against. Not only did I inevitably make films about the three sports I participated in — basketball, baseball, and boxing — one of them was actually about one of the Harlem legends I watched at the Rucker Tournament. As for the kind of music my parents rejected, it became the subject matter of a scripted film I worked on, as well as two of the documentaries I directed.
The greatest irony of all, due to my parents’ constant refrain about being judged by the company I kept, was that among the many people I wound up working with were three I would put in a category called notorious: Ike Turner, Pete Rose, and Jerry Lewis.
As for authority, I think my Great-aunt would be proud that it still brings out the rebel in me.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.