A Concise History of My Father's Life

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…

A wonderful eulogy to a life now gone.

I’m sorry for your loss. Your dad may not have been the Best Bloke in the World, but he was definitely up there with the main contenders.

xx

Thank you for sharing, and I’m sorry for your loss.

Thanks for taking the time to post that, VarlosZ.

That was an awesome post, VarlosZ.

I’m sorry for your loss. I’m also grateful that you chose to share your father’s story with us; thank you.

Thank you VarlosZ. That was beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss.

Having recently lost my Dad, I know what losing yours must feel like.
My condolences - he sounds like both a good guy and a good father.

Hugs to you. He sounds like he was an incredible person.

RIP Billy Joe. VarloZ, may your wonderful memories be a comfort to you. Take care of yourself.

I’m so sorry for your loss…

Thanks to everyone for the kind words.
I spoke on the phone yesterday to one of my cousins down south, my father’s brother’s eldest son. This is notable since we haven’t had any contact with that side of the family in nearly 20 years. When I was a kid we used to head down to Florida for a couple weeks every other year or so, but after a while the visits stopped, and then I guess both sides just never got around to keeping in touch. I was probably about 14 years old the last time we made the trip, circa 1994.

(After all this time I could actually only remember two names from the family, but I was able to track him down on Facebook – the internet is amazing. Ironically he’s just purchased a funeral home.)

My cousin was extremely happy to hear from me. I felt so awful having these decades of total silence broken only because I had bad news. Still, it was amazing to talk to him again. He’s a very nice guy, seems to have his head screwed on straight. I loved catching up, hearing about what his life had been like, who in the family is drinking too much and living with the wrong girl, which cousin had morphed into a Christian fundamentalist Trump-supporter who’s buying her 9-year old a gun for Christmas, etc. We talked again tonight; he said he’d love for me to fly down for a visit and stay with him, and I suggested the same. I hope at least one of us takes the other one up on the offer.

When I told him I wish I’d reached out 10 years ago, I meant it. Partly just because it’s nice to have family, but mostly because, every time I think about it, my gut reaction is to run over to my Dad and say, “Guess who I just talked to!”. That would have been nice to share with him.

In fact, if I can use this thread to offer one piece of practical advice, it would be to stop putting it off if you’re in a similar situation with some of your family. Or friends, for that matter. Really, don’t wait until someone dies and you have to make *that *call.

Just wondering: did your dad ever act like a country bumpkin as a bluff while playing poker? Given his Alabama upbringing, I’d think that would have worked in his favor. “Gee y’all, ah’m just a ignorant country boy. Is this anything like Old Maid?”

My dad was at Stetson doing grad work then. I’d like to think they might have crossed paths. I’m sorry for your loss.

Sorry for your loss, and best wishes to your family.

That was a lovely tribute to your father, VarlosZ. Mine passed away in 1975 and I still think about him a lot. Thanks for telling us about your dad.

No, by the time I was born (probably long before) he had scrubbed his speech of almost any trace of his southern roots. I don’t know how much of that was conscious (part of running away from “Billy Joe”) and how much was simply living among proper-speaking Yankees for about 50 of his 72 years.

There’d be an odd word here and there that would let slip something.

“Hand me the pin in the glove box.”
“Uhh, where?”
“Right there in front.”
“I don’t see any pins.”
“Right there, on top of the note pad.”
“The … wait, you mean the PEN?”
“Yeah, the pin.”

Crappy life crappy death but I guess that is just how it works.

What the hell is wrong with you? Good God, someone can’t even post a tribute about their loved one passing away without acting a fool. 4Chan this ain’t.

Varlos, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your dad sounded amazing and I’m so glad of the time you had with him. May his memory bring you comfort and I hope their coming tough days ahead won’t be filled with overwhelming grief. Bless you, hon.

This is a warning for “being a jerk”. Don’t make posts like this again in this forum.

What a great life. Nice tribute.