"Van" part II
I couldn't say for certain that Van and I were friends by most conventional definitions, but after our little walk that day I would like to believe we developed a relationship of understanding. We had very little, if anything, in common. Our political viewpoints were polar opposites. I never saw Van outside of our visits in the store. We rarely talked about anything that wasn't centered on his life. It was more of a one man show and frankly, I found great enjoyment out of being his audience. Although listening to your customers is a big part of being in a retail business with a high concentration of regulars, it was not always my favorite part. Van was one of the exceptions.
In addition to our one sided relationship, many others that I did consider friends were not big fans of Van. Some had such bad experiences that you could see the distaste take over their facial expressions as they recognized him. Others who had no direct experience found him to be unapproachable and hence just let him alone. He was an old crotchety man that wouldn't bother you if you didn't bother him. It was difficult at times when good friends gazed at me with utter confusion and then would inquire how I can be so pleasant to someone who was such an ass. On occasion I tried to defend my position but quickly realized that the damage was way too deep to sway most people’s opinion. I ended up just smiling and providing a noncommittal response such as “I don’t know, I just like the guy.”
The stories that surfaced about Van came from every direction. The security guards; his peers; lawyers who had argued cases in front of him; and even his law clerks who were usually there for a year or two. He had two sons, one living in the Boston area that came in to the store when he was visiting for work. The other worked down the block at the Eastman Kodak headquarters as head legal counsel. Gary, the local son, often passed by the store when out for his daily walk and saw his father and I sitting together having lunch. Most days he merely waved without concern for being seen. On a rare occasion he stopped in to say hello to his father. It seemed the only time he bought lunch were the days his father was not there. Always a chicken salad sandwich. Always. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, at least not in this example. Van also had three daughters, only one of which came in when the Boston brother was in town. They would meet for breakfast at the store (without the patriarch) and this is where I would learn the other perspective of the man. A perspective that was not always flattering but told with sincere smiles and laughter. He was as abrasive a father figure as a judge, but I could never sense any strong resentment in their voices.
On July 24, 2003, New York State started its ban on workplace smoking including bars and restaurants. I remember it quite well as I was in my cigar days, as were many others. As a general rule when out in a bar, I would ask the bartender (or the owner, if I knew him) if they minded an indulgence in a cigar. However, the last few weeks before the ban I was less concerned. Non smokers were getting pretty self righteous and bold during those last few weeks and I remember getting into it with many people about my cigars. Oddly, when we opened the store in 1991, I myself was adamant about the place being a non-smoking establishment. This pissed off a few people in the beginning, but I wanted the smells of bakery to be the first scent you encountered, not a cigarette.
One of the things that made me like Van so much was the story of his not so polite disregard for this new law. I was told that he was a cigar smoker, usually cheap cigars, and he would light up when he returned to work from lunch. Apparently this did not change just because some silly state law was enacted. He was told by the building managers, and even his peers, that he couldn't do this anymore, but he was unfazed. The building management went so far as to put a large smoke eater right above his desk, but the offices above him still complained. At first the irony of a federal judge disregarding this piece of legislation may seem out of character, but you had to know Van. He was “The Great Dissenter” on the bench. When a lawyer argues in front of the federal court of appeal there will be a three judge panel to hear the case. There are several judges that rotate in a district and the makeup up each panel varies. These cases are heard in New York City, and Van traveled there often for work. He almost always wrote the dissenting opinion, and as The New York Sun wrote, he usually did so “tartly.” One day I thought I would test this theory and offered him a cigar from my neighbor’s establishment. He accepted without hesitation and thanked me non-ceremoniously. He smoked it in his office, that day. I know because I asked him on his next visit.
I have a good friend who worked with Van. He is considerably younger than the snarky old coot and had the same feelings about him as I did. We were in the minority and my friend worked with Van throughout the years in different capacities. This is a story he tells and has given me permission to retell on his behalf. My friend was arguing a case in front of Van and his two peers. Within a short amount of the time allotted for each attorney to argue, Van removed his head phones (he was too deaf to hear without them), waved his hand at my friend and made a grunting noise of disinterest and disbelief. He then turned his swivel chair around so he could not see the “evil” either. This left no confusion as to where he stood on the matter. When my friend regained his composure he quickly realized he was down to two panelists to convince. I don’t remember the outcome of the case, but the memory of Van’s action stuck with both of us. My friend tells this story with great humor and absolutely no disdain. I honestly believe it made him like the man more.
The security guards would tell me how other employees would scatter in the parking lot when Van would fly in the lot with his late 1970’s Cadillac. The era when the cars where bigger than many of our grandparents first apartments. Other employees would lobby not to be assigned the spot next to his for fear of what they might find each day.
Van and I spent more time together on the weekends and this is when he would open up a bit more about his life. During the week he would entertain me with his confusion about some of the cases he was working on. His confusion wasn't over the legal issues, but rather the moral aspects of what had been presented. Just try to hold it together as an 85 year old cranky conservative man starts talking about the insurance implications of auto erotic asphyxiation with a look of seriousness and concern over the world. Now that’s entertainment and constraint. But weekends were different. We talked (and I really mean Van talked and I listened) about much more personal things. He spoke of raising his kids with the manner of a stern driving parent, who may not have known how to show his love any other way. He grew up during the depression and the impact of those times never seems to dissipate.
He told me stories of his brothers and how they used to help carry him in certain areas where he couldn't walk when he was 7 or 8. Van was in a full body cast for a period of time as a treatment for his scoliosis. He still went to school but there were certain limitations of movement. I think that was the reason he was so stubborn about walking daily. His wife and he would talk about who was going to die first and the impact on the other. He told me about the heated interactions with his wife as is it was happening right at the moment. It was less of a fight and more of a verbal outburst of two people who have been through the frustrations and successes of a long life together. He told me of the difficulties of having a mind that was still active while his body deteriorated. We talked of death quite regularly but the conversation wouldn't last long. On at least two occasions I recall him taking off his glasses and wiping a stray tear from his face. Neither of us commented on it, and Van would move the conversation in another direction without difficulty.
Van died on November 20, 2004. He fell down some stairs a few weeks earlier and never recovered. He fell into a coma and I don’t’ think his body was strong enough to recover. The service was to be over the thanksgiving weekend and I had plans to be in Boston for the holiday. It was difficult for me to be away that weekend. My friend from earlier spoke at the service and had asked me about our daily interactions. After I returned from my weekend, Van’s oldest son came by to visit me at the store. It was on a weekend afternoon and the place was quiet. I told him how sorry I was not only for his loss but for my absence as well. We talked briefly and he told me how much his father enjoyed coming in to the place and that he also knew what a notoriously bad tipper he was. He mentioned that his father frequented a few other places and he had stopped there as well. I thought he might be a nostalgia run. He handed me a white business envelope that was sealed with no markings on it. It was thicker than a letter and weightier as well. He didn’t say what was inside, but I assumed. He left after he handed me the envelope and I sat staring at it for a long time. When I finally opened the letter a few things dawned on me quickly. The first was that Gary had no idea about the relationship his father and I had. Next I was a little offended by his gesture. Gary had put 50 singles in that envelope to make up for what he thought was his father’s oversight. It surprised me how uncomfortable I was with his gesture. I chose to take the envelope for the staff not because I felt good about it but because I didn't want to offend Gary as he had offended me. After all, he had just lost his father.
A few weeks later when the family had gathered for the holidays, Van’s kids came in to have lunch. Only a few of them had been there prior and the rest wanted to check out his old stomping ground. I had a picture of Van that I took with my phone and hung it the store on the shelf after his death. I think this amazed the family as much as customers who knew the man. Gary and his brother continued to stop in the store for a few years after their father’s death and the picture stayed until I had to close the place due to my illness.
These events after his death have led me to change my mind about something. Van and I were friends. We were friends by my definition, and I think he might have said the same, if he said anything at all.