My father was born in 1943 in Dothan, Alabama, to white working-class parents – Southern Baptists. His given name was Billy Joe; though he would eventually embrace that name, he spent most of his life running from it (putting down “William” on official forms, etc.). His father was a bad alcoholic, going on epic binges and disappearing for weeks or months at a time. Once he disappeared for five years, with no contact whatsoever, before showing up out of the blue at a family funeral. He begged my grandmother to take him back, swearing that, if she did, he would limit himself to two beers per night. Amazingly, this actually worked, and the couple remained together until their deaths decades later, in the '80s.
Because of my grandfather’s absences, my father (like his mother) was forced to work a variety of small jobs as a teen, including for a brief time literally picking cotton. Nevertheless he excelled in school both academically and athletically. He attended Stetson University as an honors student (the honors dorm was air conditioned, a powerful incentive to keep your grades up in Central Florida). He won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and went to the University of Chicago to study for a doctorate in English Literature. His other option was the University of Miami; he ultimately chose Chicago, he later said, because he had never seen snow.
He hated U. Chicago. Hated their approach to the material, hated the back-biting politics in academia, hated the snow. So, when his friend called to say he was opening a bar in New York City and would my father like to come manage it, he jumped at the chance (the bar was Armstrong’s, in Hell’s Kitchen, for those who were in NYC in the '70s-'90s). Some time after arriving he met my mother – a nurse from WASP-y New England stock, a National Merit Scholar who’d gotten sidetracked by the '60s and spent her one year of college marching in protests and dropping acid.
After several years managing his friend’s bar, he decided to open his own. Most recently this bar was known as Druids (at 50th St. & 10th Ave.), but when my father owned it he called it BJ’s. (Prior to that, the bar had been a notorious hangout for the Westies and then closed for a long time; upon re-opening, Dad had to come up with a sly way of getting rid of the remnant of that clientele.)
Objectively, I suppose these would be considered the salad days. They’d weathered the worst of my mother’s addiction (opiates from her job as a nurse anesthetist), their first and only child was born in 1980 (that would be me), and the bar was a big success.
They sold the bar for several times the original purchase price under the pretense of buying a bigger place in a better location. It soon became apparent, however, that my father had no real intention of finding a new place – owning a bar was lot of work, a pain in the ass, and he just didn’t enjoy it. Instead, it was far easier and more seductive to fall back on his poker. He’d been making substantial money as a poker player on the side since college, and now it became his de facto profession. He played mostly at the Mayfair Club, six or seven nights a week (until Rudy Giuliani got a wild hair up his ass and had it raided by the police, thus dealing a serious blow to the scourge that is Old Men Playing Cards). He played poker responsibly, working out his own numbers and strategies in an era when good books on the subject were nearly non-existent, and earned a steady if unspectacular income throughout my childhood and adolescence.
The marriage didn’t make it. His part in that was his major lack of ambition and the fact that he’d been an alcoholic all this time. A functional alcoholic – never angry or out of control, able to hold down a job, etc. – but an alcoholic nonetheless. (His older brother, my namesake, was also a drinker, and died in a car accident before I was born.) They separated in '86, and it was as amiable as those things can be. They stayed in touch, shared custody, stayed friends. She eventually remarried and had two more boys during her 40s; he dated for a while but decided single life suited him better.
Eventually poker stopped paying off in the same way. It’s hard to say exactly why, but it would seem to be some combination of age-related decline, strategic changes in the game that were hard to keep up with, and a lengthy medical absence from playing when a bicyclist slammed into him and broke his hip & elbow. That last one also wiped out his savings and forced him to declare bankruptcy – poker has many things to recommend it as a profession, but the health plan kinda sucks, you know?
He did a few odd jobs to make ends meet after his poker career wound down, mostly tending bar and dealing poker in the rooms that sprang up to replace the Mayfair Club. He helped one of his poker buddies write & edit a (terrible) book; nothing ever came of it, of course, but the guy’s checks cleared. He didn’t need much income, having lucked into a rent-subsidized apartment around the time his bar was opening. His main expense was his share of my tuition, clothing, etc. Mom (good union job) and Step-Dad (a doctor) had a lot more money and would have let it slide, but he paid for half of almost everything. Eventually Social Security kicked in, and that was (barely) enough for him to get by in his “retired” years.
On Friday I went to apartment to check on him since he hadn’t been responding to calls or emails, and found that he’d passed away a few days before. He’d recently been hospitalized for congestive heart failure and was due to have double-bypass surgery within a few weeks, but apparently that wasn’t soon enough.
People often say that someone is “the nicest guy in the world,” but my Dad really was. Unfailingly calm, thoughtful, and considerate, I’ve never seen him raise his voice, and my mother swears he never did, never even spoke sharply to her, even when he had good reason to. Never an unkind word for anyone, excepting televangelists and Time Warner Cable, he was a true “gentle giant” (6’ 3", 250 lbs; “Big Bill” to his poker buddies).
I’m just going to miss him so much…