ne Wednesday in the fall of 1980, the start of my high-school senior year, I returned home within
minutes of a dump truck’s delivery: an entire load of cement chunks piled like a ransacked Maya
ruin. The deposit filled an empty space by a fire hydrant just a few yards from our New York
brownstone. My father stood wide-eyed before the mass, and I walked to his side.
“Put your things inside the house and get back out here,” he said. “We’ve got to get this the hell outta here
before the police come.”
In my typically slavish response, I didn’t ask many questions and got to work quickly. (If the mountain
will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain.) I feared the police—or rather, I feared
the thought of my father being charged with a fine—and his mortality influenced my young adulthood
immeasurably. Just half a year earlier, my mother had died of cancer at the age of 47. My father was 65, and
although he retained the driving energy of a Ukrainian immigrant, my image of him as an indestructible
force had faded to sepia three years earlier when he suffered a massive heart attack. Lifting and lugging
chunks of concrete could threaten his life.
But he insisted we remove the wreckage before his art students arrived at seven that evening, and I knew
his tone: no discussion. So I dumped my book bag and began the vigorous schlepping. Being New Yorkers,
few people seemed particularly intrigued, although a Jewish woman down the block stopped in front of the
heap, glanced up and down the sidewalk, and asked, “Ver did it come from?” It was a reasonable question,
but I didn’t have the time or knowledge to answer what no doubt would have been a series of follow-ups had
I engaged her: “Ver are you going to put this?” “Vut are you going to do vit it all?” How many times would I
have to say, “I don’t know”?
But I could answer her now. A block away from our home, my father had spotted workers
jackhammering the sidewalk and loading their dump truck. The moment coincided with plans he had for
building a wall at the far end of the courtyard behind our brownstone. He wanted sheer bulk to defray
the cost and time of shaping fresh cement, so he asked if they’d be willing to deliver part of a load. “Sure,
Mister.” And why not? It would save them a trip to the landfill and the dumping fee. He had planned to
limit the deposit, but the truck had tipped its bed before releasing the back flap and belched the entire haul
onto the city street.
Reaching the courtyard would have meant moving each hunk another sixty or seventy feet, and we
didn’t have the time. Instead, we piled each piece in a semicircle outside the brownstone, an entryway used
in other buildings for a stairway to the second floor. Fearing the strain on my father’s heart, I focused on
the largest pieces, some the width of my body, most of them three or four inches thick. I’d been physically
active that summer, swimming and playing tennis daily, but I began to tire before we’d made a significant
dent. And then, like an apparition, one of my father’s students arrived—he’d been telephoned—and his
presence renewed my resolve, even my strength.
We finished before dark. I washed up and started dinner, but before we ate, I asked my father to take a
Polaroid of me sitting in the center of the reshaped rubble. My hair’s long and full—shoulder length—and
I’ve retained the summer’s tan. My body’s two-toned: brown socks match my brown shirt; blue sneakers
match my jeans. The walls of broken cement rise as high as six feet behind me, and I’m smiling broadly, my
elbow casually positioned on an accidentally constructed armrest. I could easily be digitally transferred
onto a sofa.
My Father’s Legacy of Art & Junk
to be published
in February 2017.
is a professor
of English and
at Lycoming, and
a poet, essayist
and editor. This is
his 11th book.
CON N E C T