An Unexpected Lunch With Dad
Father's Day came a little early for me this year, yet I haven't celebrated Father's Day in 24 years.
There are no coincidences.
In 1982, my father died way too soon, at the age of 37. It happened so fast. Before bed, he was debriefing me on my first date, an evening at the Bala movie theater ("The Wall" -- the Pink Floyd movie) with local boy Jimmy Bramson; by the next morning he was already gone, just a shell of the man I adored, my confidant, my teacher, my debate partner.
It was truly painful to say goodbye, and at the age of 16, it felt terribly unfair and cruel, yes. Over the past two decades, I've wondered what things would be like if he were still around to witness important events like graduation, marriage and heartbreak or to guide my younger brothers who were quickly succumbing to drugs.
But honestly, the vacancy created by my father's passing also created opportunities; I finally got to know my mother and I began the process of getting to know myself.
What's more, he didn't exactly go away; I wouldn't let him and he wouldn't let me. For years, I've had a direct line with my Dad; I could sit and meditate and talk to him when I needed an extra dose of his strength and love or a reminder to keep living life fully.
The line has been quiet for some time; maybe it was in need of repair or he had other work to do (the film Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" comes to mind).
Until last week.
I'm completely aware that I've written the above sentence earlier this week, as it relates to recent experiences in New Orleans, but that's what the dang place does to you. It stirs up that pot, it shakes you upside your head, it connects you with the spiritual and the ethereal, whether you like it or not.
And there he was, in the Crescent City, in a sandwich shop.
Last Friday, a friend offered to take me to lunch at Parkway Bakery and Tavern (538 Hagan Street; 504-482-3047) her favorite place in New Orleans for a po'boy. We were greeted by owner Jay Nix, a salt-of-the-earth guy who resurrected this neighborhood landmark dating to the early 1920s which was boarded up for many years. As he gives us a tour of the place, which is full of folks chowing down on sandwiches, Jay feels all-too familiar to me, in a way that I can't shake.
We sit at the bar; I order a fried catfish po'boy "dressed" (but hold the mayo, please) and Ashley orders roast beef, a unctuous mess of gravy and braised meat that requires two hands and many napkins. Throughout lunch, Jay checks on us periodically as he manages the lunch crowd, bringing us Parkway's signature banana pudding and rum cake.
I am completely stuffed but falling in love with Jay's sandwich shop, a place I knew I'd make a regular stop as a local. It's my father's kind of place, too.
Koch's Deli, a neighborhood institution in West Philadelphia, was one of his regular stops. A tiny storefront doing takeout orders only, the Koch brothers ran quite a show, slicing meat and cheese to order, making mile-high Jewish-style sandwiches while cracking jokes and passing out free samples to the devoted who were happy to wait in line for up to an hour.
How I loved to go to Koch's with my father. We'd order corned beef sandwiches for the whole family, complete with Dr. Brown's sodas and at least one slice of cheesecake. Yeah, I know, cholesterol city.
But back to Jay and his po'boy shop. He walks us out to the car, chatting about all kinds of things. He turns to Ashley, and his profile is in my line of vision. My father's profile.
I kept staring at Jay, trying to adjust my vision (and ascertain my sanity). But there he was, those crystal blue eyes, the smile, the pug nose, it was all Dad, just as I remembered him 25 years ago.
"I'm sorry, I have to interrupt you guys," I said. And I told them my chilling news.
"I take that as a compliment," he said, with grace, not missing a beat. "Maybe he's come by to say hello."
Happy Father's Day to all Dads, in living color, in the cosmic universe and in our memories.
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