Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My father died a year ago

My father, Bertram "Bud" Marcus, died a year ago at age 87. He was one of the world's greatest storytellers and is a big influence on my writing and I miss him a lot. Here's what I said at his funeral:

About 30 years ago, my father was anticipating today.

Pop said that he wanted to get drunk on Canadian Club, smoke a Garcia y Vega cigar, and make a tape recording to be played at his funeral.

I don’t know if he wanted to reveal a secret or tell people off. Maybe he just wanted to sing some songs and tell some jokes to insure that we would be properly entertained.

I don’t think he ever made the recording. So in lieu of a cassette, you get me, Buddy Marcus’s first-born son.

My father had a very full life. It was so full, in fact, that by last spring, after 87 years, Pop had done all that he had wanted to do. He had checked off every item on his “Honey Do” list, and had simply run out of things to look forward to.

He had seen it all, done it all, heard it all and read it all. He probably even ate it all. Even lox wings. Even snails.

Pop was tired, worn down and worn out. Life was seldom fun anymore, and he frequently upset those of us who love him, by telling us that he had lived long enough.

It’s hard to argue with Dad about anything, and extremely hard to win the argument.

When I last visited my father, he asked what day it was. I said it was Saturday. Dad responded that Sunday would be a nice day to die. I couldn’t argue with that. I couldn’t even find words to say to him.

We could not convince Dad to hang on a while longer. A brand-new pill or a new injection or new exercise wouldn’t help. There’s no miracle cure for my father’s feeling that “enough is enough.”

In his jokes, Dad frequently spoke of “taking a dirt nap.” Today he gets to start his. And it’s exactly what he wants to do.

For my first few years I was Buddy Marcus’s only kid and despite his long hours at work I got plenty of attention. Dad wheeled me all over the Bronx in a huge heavy baby carriage.

We’d hang out on an overpass to watch trains pass under us. He’d stop at a barber shop and schmooze in Italian, or talk Greek to the owner of a luncheonette, or tell jokes in Yiddish to pals and to strangers.

Starting when I was three years old we’d schlep from the Bronx to Montauk to go deep-sea fishing.

I remember the first car Dad brought home to our apartment in the Bronx. There was a strange noise coming from under the hood. Dad opened it up and found a nearly new pliers rattling on the air cleaner.

It was an important part of Dad’s tool collection until I borrowed it to build a fort in the swamp at Brooklawn Circle years later. I dropped it into the ooze and we never saw it again.

Dad loved to go for rides when we lived in the Bronx. I remember trips to Jones Beach and Peach Lake, and deep into Pennsylvania. And deep into Brooklyn.

That’s where I got to meet my father’s grandfather, my Great Grandpa Joe. All I remember was that he wore long underwear with a flap in the back. Until I saw Grandpa Joe, I thought butt flaps existed only in cartoons.

In first grade Dad and I built a telegraph set, and he taught me how to splice wires to fix my bicycle horn. They were my first lessons in what has turned out to be a life-long love of technology.

Almost every sentence from the mouth of Buddy Marcus was part of a lesson.

Dad was driven to explain things, but he was also driven to keep talking long after the point was made.

I’m the same way. I’m pedantic like my Pop. I don’t like listeners who cheat and figure out the ending before I perform the finale.

Last year, with Dad’s guidance, I investigated the origins of the Marcus clan in Sopotskin.

Since 1991, Sopotskin has been in Belarus. When our family left town in 1906, it was in Poland. It’s also been in six other countries. Its address depended on who had the most powerful army, or who made the map. Back then, the name that would later be Marcus, began with DZM and ended with SKI. It has many more consonants than vowels. Today you can’t find even one Dzmichivitski in a Google search. But there are lots of Marcuses.

I inherited a lot of things from my father and the Sopotskin genes.

When I was in high school Dad gave me a hard time when he discovered that I was collecting street signs. He stopped his tirades after I discovered a photo of young Buddy Marcus with his collection of signs.

I was the bad kid who stole signs, lost or broke Dad’s tools and got lousy report cards. I was the son of two super-scholars and I was the chronic underachiever. Dad graduated from college, with honors, when he was just 19. I’m 63 and am still an undergraduate.

When I was a teenager, I fought a lot with my parents.

One time Dad said, “I know you think I’m a schmuck, but when I was your age I was a pretty smart kid.” I’m sure he really was a smart kid and a smart adult, but I could not appreciate it until years later.

It was like Mark Twain, who said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.”

When I was around 16, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist. After a while, the shrink said that he wanted them to come in so he could hear their side of the story.

My father refused to go. He said, “I’m not going to pay $25 an hour to be told it’s MY fault that you’re messed up.” I never found out whose fault it was.

Pop taught us great songs like “The Sheik of Araby,” where we’d insert the phrase “with no pants on” after every legitimate lyric in the song,

And he taught us the song about a herring salesman who was frozen in the snow, and far above his carcass, the herring breezes blow. And another favorite was “A personal friend of the tsar was I. A personal friend of the great Nicolai. We frequently slept in the same double bed. I’m at the foot and him at the head.”

Despite Dad’s love of singing, he never did much listening to music at home. Mom and Dad frequently went to Schubert Theater for drama and musicals, but the only phonograph record (those were kind of like big black CDs) I can remember him buying was “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

It was a hit in 1953 when Dad was 31 years old. I was seven at the time. When I was 31, I listened to the Stones and Dylan and the Doors. Now my iPods have the Stones and Dylan and the Doors, a dozen versions of "Rumenye, Rumenye," and, of course, that doggie in the window. Thanks, Dad.

In addition to music, Dad shared his discoveries in language, history, science and math.

He showed me how the digits in the nine times table always add up to nine.

Nine times three is 27. The two plus the seven equals nine. Not very useful--but definitely cool.

And do you know that if you scrunch up the paper wrapper from a drinking straw in a restaurant, and then pull it off the straw, put it on the table, and let a little bit of soda drip on it, it will wiggle like a worm?

Dad was very creative. He made up his own knock-knock jokes that included the family. Dad also taught some more useful things. I helped him finish the basement on Brooklawn Circle, which prepared me to improve my own basements.

I may have surpassed Pop’s carpentry skills. When we lived in the Bronx he drilled a hole to hang a picture on the wall in the master bedroom. The end of the drill came out in the middle of the living room wall.

I’ve never done that.

Dad’s retail business connections gave him powers and abilities far beyond those of other kids’ fathers.

I got the very first Daniel Boone coonskin cap in all of New York. I even posed for pictures in a book about boys’ clothing.

Back then I wasn’t such a sexy model. But the clothing manufacturers knew that if they wanted to sell pants and shirts to McCreery’s department store, they’d better butter up Buddy Marcus by using yours truly as a model.

Dad’s connections easily got me into the audience of Captain Video and Howdy Doody--something that the sons of dentists had to wait years to accomplish.

In New Haven, Dad had an endless supply of movie passes, and my buddies and I spent almost every Saturday afternoon at the Roger Sherman or Lowes Poli theater.

I thought my father was important and famous.

One time when I was a kid, we went to Alpert’s hardware store on Legion Avenue. The owner, Herman Alpert, came over to help Dad get what he needed. Herman addressed him as “Buddy,” and I was very impressed.

I was less impressed a few minutes later when Herman called his next customer "Buddy."

My life as the son of a retailer was different from other kids in other ways.

During Chanukah, most kids got clothes on a lot of nights. Since I had an almost unlimited clothing budget throughout the year, there was no point in giving me a sweater for Chanukah. I usually did pretty well for the first three or four nights, but not for all eight.

One year on night-seven I got a beautifully-wrapped pair of my old man’s old underpants. On night eight I got a roll of string.

I started campaigning for a toboggan when I was about 12. I got it when I was 17--the same time my friend Howie got a little green sports car.

Dad and I love hoaxes and pranks.

When I was a kid and there was a bad snow storm, he'd call a radio station to have them announce a cancellation of the Fafnir Society meeting at the Hotel Taft. There was no such organization. Fafnir was the name of his partner's dog.

Another time Pop was in a department store in Manhattan and convinced employees to move pocketbooks from one counter to another. It wasn't his store and he wasn't their boss.

This taught me valuable lessons. If you act like you have authority, you have authority. And most people would rather accept authority than challenge it.

Dad, like Mom, was an avid reader. He’d frequently fall asleep leaning into a book, and he had tall stacks of unread newspapers. So do I.

My father is the source of my interests in business, building things, technology, travel, history, maps, music, food, collecting, cigars, pranks, photography, law, language, tropical fish, and probably everything else I care about.

Dad was one of the world’s funniest story-tellers and a major influence on my writing. We both include lots of details.

The Catskill Mountains--the Borscht Belt--are where such comedians as Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis first got famous, and where Buddy Marcus worked as a waiter.

Pop told me that if he was “waiting a table” with eight people who ordered steaks with a mix of rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well and well-done, he’d tell the chef to make them all medium. His scam made all the meals ready at the same time and made it much faster and easier to pass out the plates. Only a small percentage of guests would notice and none would want to wait for a replacement. If anyone complained, Pop blamed the chef.

Although he was hauling trays of food from the kitchen to the tables, Dad was funny enough to have been on the stage.

There was a lot of laughter in our home even before we got a television, and we were one of the first families to get a television. Pop introduced me to MAD magazine. All fathers should do that. It’s as important as teaching about the birds and the bees.

I felt sorry for Pop when he taught me the facts of life.

My old man was obviously and uncharacteristically nervous and he badly messed up my sex lesson. He skipped the fun part.

He never told me how the “pollen” got from the daddy to the mommy. I first thought it flew through the air and I couldn’t figure out how it reached the right mommy. I eventually figured it out.

Buddy Marcus was a great story teller, with perfect accents in whatever language the joke called for. My accents are not nearly as good, and it would be an insult to try to mimic my father’s delivery, so I’ll give you this one straight.

One of Dad’s greatest hits involved a transaction between a lady of the evening and the great actor Boris Tomaschevsky of the famed Second Avenue Theater in Manhattan.

After their physical encounter, the beautiful young woman asked Boris for her money, but he gave her a ticket to see his show.

She was greatly disappointed and said, "But Mr. Tomaschevsky, I need money to buy bread."

Boris responded, "I am the great Tomaschevsky, star of the Second Avenue Thee-ay-ter. I am an actor. I pay with tickets. If you need bread, go bang a baker."

Pop was my best teacher and best resource and I felt both deprived and deserted when he retired to Florida, because I had so much more to ask him about business and about life.

But it was his right to decide to move on then, and to move on now.

Goodbye Pop. Enjoy your nap in this fine Connecticut dirt.


  1. Thanks for sharing the life of your father, Marcus.

  2. This is a very sweet story. My grandmother was like that, towards the end. My father, on the other hand, will outlive me, because he's as mean as hell. He will live to be over 100, I'm sure of it.

  3. I loved this story... and I bet your dad did, too! And as for that name that began with DZ and ended with SKI, and became Marcus: boy, did that resonate for me! I still use my first husband's surname, Gordon, which originated with his grandfather at Ellis Island. The Immigration official didn't want to bother with NIZGORETSKI. Thanks, Michael.