by Darryl Graff
The sign-in book at The Hamilton Arms nursing home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was filled with my signature: “Darryl Graff … Visitor … Jules Graff … Resident.” Sometimes, I would look through the pages of the sign- in book at the names of the other residents. They had so many visitors. My father only had me and my wife, Regina. It broke my heart, and my father… well, I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My brother, his first- born son, was too busy being a yuppie to see his own father dying in diapers, in a nursing home. Regina and I came every Sunday. An eight-hour round-trip train ride from Manhattan.
As had become my habit, I kissed my father on his head; it was soft, bald, and wrinkled.
“How you doing, tough guy?” I asked.
I started calling him “tough guy” when he first went into the nursing home. It was my way of making him feel stronger. I know a lot of things, about a lot of things; I know that once you hit that nursing home bed, if you don’t get out of that bed and walk around the room, the bed is going to get you. After a month, I could see the bed was going to win, but if anyone could get out of the bed and walk this thing off, it would be my father. I only remember him being sick one day in my entire life. He went to work every day to provide for his family, and he drank heavily every night for seventy years. I called him tough guy because, well, he was a tough eighty-nine-year-old guy.
“How’s your job?” he asked in a faint whisper.
The man who taught me how to cook was lying there with a feeding tube pumping liquid into his stomach.
I started to tell him details of the job, but that’s what I do six days a week. Details, everything is details. Everything has to be exact. I stopped talking about work. It was pretty clear to me he had no idea what I was saying anyway. So I decided to save the details for the job. Instead, he wished out loud for an adult scooter. So he could just get on the road and start driving, and not stop until he was far away from this place. Before he could get on the highway, he wanted to buy Regina and me lunch at the nursing home restaurant that didn’t exist.
When I was a kid, sometimes my father would have Chinese food delivered from the place on First Avenue. We’d shut off the lights and eat Chinese food by candlelight. Now, I was sitting under hot fluorescent lights next to my father’s bed. I held his hand; the feeding tube made a gurgling noise. This was my only day off. Some day off.
Thank God for Q’s Duke Bar on Liberty Street, a sad little bar. Mostly biker wannabes and long-ago burnt-out townie factory workers.
Regina and I went there every Sunday before catching the train back to New York City. How did my Jewish New York City father wind up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country? Well, it had to do with a woman. It usually does. If the Q’s Duke Bar had a sign-in book, I would have signed it every Sunday.
We got to Penn Station at 8:30 a.m. for the 9:15 to Lancaster. It was Christmas day. My father would be dead in a few weeks. We got in line at the Zabar’s in Penn Station and waited, in a slow, jerky line of tourists and junkies. I got some beer and Regina took care of the sandwiches for the trip. At the cash register, there was one lonely looking box of Christmas cookies. I threw them in the bag with the beer and the sandwiches—a little something for the women who worked at the nursing home.
After chain-smoking a few cigarettes on Eighth Avenue, Regina and I ran down the escalator and onto the 9:15 train to Pennsylvania. A half hour outside of Philadelphia, it started snowing, and kept snowing, and snowing. When we got to Lancaster, the city was shut down by the biggest blizzard in years.
“We’re never going to get a cab. How are we going to see your father?” Regina asked.
“I’ll flag down a car and explain, it’s Christmas day. My father’s dying in a nursing home. Somebody’s got to give us a ride.”
Regina waited in the train station. I stood on the street corner in knee-deep snow for an hour and never did see a car. We walked into the Q’s Duke Bar, wet, cold, and defeated. Dark, crowded, loud, Led Zeppelin, NASCAR racing, whores, tattoos, a pool table, and next to the pool table, a small buffet table. It was Christmas dinner at the bar. Ham in a crockpot, hot dog buns, potato salad, and paper plates.
“Merry Christmas!” some biker babe yelled as we sat down in front of a large-screen TV.
“Have some ham.” And we did.
We wound up sharing the Christmas cookies for the nurses with the whores and speed-freak bikers. “Merry Christmas!” they yelled as we left to catch the last train back to New York City.
The Biltmore Theater restoration project I was working on lasted nine months. My father’s nursing home project lasted five months. On February 14, 2004, at the Hamilton Arms Nursing home, I didn’t have to sign in. Instead, I had to fill out a personal items form. It wasn’t much, just a gold wrist watch. Forty years of dedicated service.
The Groff Funeral Home on Main Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was only six blocks from the Q’s Duke Bar. It was a very professional place. The “grief counselor,” or cashier, seemed nervous that we didn’t have a car in the parking lot.
“I’m from New York City,” I explained to her. “I don’t drive. I don’t have a car.”
She couldn’t give me my cremated father’s remains fast enough. I handed her a check. She gave me a small box in a paper bag. We walked to the Q’s Duke Bar and sat at a table. I went up to the bar and got two drinks.
“Get an extra glass. We’ll have a toast,” Regina said.
I poured some beer into Jules’ glass. Regina and I clinked glasses.
Back in New York City, it was freezing cold in Central Park. We kept walking until we came to the right spot, a big oak tree overlooking the Conservatory Pond.
I could sit for hours and watch those remote control ships go around and around the pond. One guy even had a remote-controlled submarine.
It was the 1960’s. Anything was possible. I wanted a remote-controlled boat badly. At the Gramercy Pharmacy on First Avenue and Twentieth Street, in the back was a single spinning rack of toys. One day, I saw a little plastic boat; it was orange and white. My mother bought it for me, and my father took me up to Central Park. He had rigged up the boat with a string wrapped around a stick, and told me it was a remote-controlled boat. I set my boat in the pond and let the string out. It was my maiden voyage. I passed the Mayflower, the Santa Maria, and the submarine. There I was, finally a sea captain. After about four minutes my ship took on water. It listed to the left and sank straight to the bottom. The string was tangled; I pulled and pulled, then gave up.
We spread Jules’ ashes on the hill overlooking the pond, under a big old oak tree.
“Rest in peace, tough guy,” were my last words.
I finished the Biltmore Theater. My boss, Josh Gray, gave me a $5,000 bonus.
“Thank you, Darryl. You did a great job,” he said. “I know it was especially hard for you, with your dad dying and all.”
Two months later, he laid me off.
Darryl Graff is a New York City construction worker and writer. His essays written about life in the city, have been published in Akashic Books, Heart & Mind Zine, Fat City Review, The Flexible Persona, Hippocampus, and Gravel. “Tough Guy” is an excerpt from his nonfiction narrative The Local, about a union construction worker who inadvertently lands in the middle of hostile Union takeover.