For Father’s Day, I am posting the remembrance of my father I wrote upon his death in 2003. It is still my first inclination to phone him when I have something to discuss.
My father was a complex man in a very simple package.
Growing up, I heard the tales of his earlier life. An apartment on 26th Street in a building which still had an outhouse … the move to Sunnyside … summers in Carmel and weekends in Rockaway … Xavier High School – a Catholic military school – as a twelve year old “Jew” … Manhattan College at 15 … off to war as an enlisted sailor at 17 before returning to graduate.
Fordham Law … my mother … L.A. … Middle Bay Golf Club … the law practice in Jackson Heights.
I heard all the stories – most many times – and I loved to listen. But I never knew that guy. I’m sure others could better capture that Arthur Goldberg on paper. I did, however, know my father and he, too, inspired a few tales worth telling.
When I was young I could not imagine why he was not sitting in the Oval Office, hosting The Tonight Show and managing the New York Mets. To my child’s eyes he was regal, infallible and pretty funny to boot. He was the ultimate authority on everything. I wanted to be exactly like him.
But he was not like the other fathers.
For starters, he was always Arthur, never Dad. His parents were Dave and Nelly. He tipped the scales near 300 pounds and was distinguished by a progressively hunched back; the product of a severe arthritic condition. He often walked with a cane and smoked a cigar and he intrinsically understood how to use both for effective emphasis in his communications. If his outfits were ever coordinated it was certainly my mother’s doing and – though he owned dozens of fine neckties – he always seemed to wear a prominent stain in the general vicinity of his scrimshaw tiepin. He drove cars ranging from a semi-operable 1935 Rolls Royce to a never-ending series of fifteen-year-old Cadillacs in some of the most outrageous colors known to man. And he drove them poorly.
Yet people could never get enough of him.
Hollywood has created hundreds of lovable curmudgeons over the years, but my father proved truth is stranger than fiction. It was said of Babe Ruth that had he not existed you could not have made him up. Hollywood could never have made up Arthur Goldberg.
When I was small, my mother told a friend’s mother within my earshot that, “I’m married to the only man in New York who sits at the breakfast table in his underwear reading poetry aloud.” He loved Civil War battlefields and other historic sites. He read books and periodicals of every description; many a century old. He dined in fine restaurants and at sidewalk vendors with equal zeal. In many ways he was not social, but he always loved an audience. Important men would make time in busy schedules to spend an hour in his office simply because they knew they would emerge with a good story or two. He had an opinion on everything and it was invariably well-informed and delivered with a unique flair. He spoke history with historians, literature with authors, politics with politicians, sports with sportsmen and he more than held his own.
He also loved barrooms and the company of men. He was well known for simply hanging up the telephone when he had nothing more to say; many times with the other party in mid-sentence. He was razor sharp with an insult. He was generous with criticism and less so with praise. He slept through movies, religious services, court proceedings, conversations and occasionally behind the wheel. His table manners were less than courtly and common courtesy was never his long suit. He routinely barked orders at the person nearest him and expected total compliance.
And he knew everybody. Not the way that rich men know the people who can ensure acceptance at the best schools or entrée to Wall Street brokerages. He did know those power brokers – judges, congressmen and bankers – and they knew him. But he also knew waitresses and bartenders. He knew ushers. He knew the guy who ran the company and the guy who ran the loading dock. He knew coaches and athletes. He knew the guy at the newsstand and the mechanic at the garage.
He knew the kids from the neighborhood. Former classmates, teammates and playmates gleefully stopped him on the streets his entire life (He’d often respond by turning his back to his family; an unmistakable sign he had no idea who he was talking to). When entering a favorite restaurant he loved to use the back door, walk through the kitchen, greet the kitchen staff and see what looked good.
In a final bit of irony, it turns out he knew the undertaker – even though my mother chose the funeral home at random.
When Wilt Chamberlain passed away, it was noted that, “Wilt loved the world, but the world did not love him back.” My father had the totally opposite experience with the world. I’m quite sure he had no use for much of the world and there was so much out there he did not like. Yet the world loved him regardless.
One part of the world he did love was the world of sports. The emotions he never shared easily with those closest to him rushed to the surface where Tom Seaver, Jack Powers and Bobby Valentine were concerned. We all understood the correlation between the afternoon Mets score and my father’s disposition for the evening.
Playing youth league baseball and basketball for my father was undoubtedly the greatest time of my life. Yes, I was a whipping boy constantly open to his criticism (though the presence of a less-focused brother mollified that somewhat). But, I understood his ways and loved being a part of his teams as did so many other youngsters. I even loved being on the receiving end of his colorful rants. Later, he was a constant (and less critical) spectator at my games; present to watch teams on which I was a key player as well as teams on which I rarely played.
So many of my father-son memories revolve around sports … Shea Stadium … driving up and down the East Coast in search of arenas and fieldhouses without directions of any kind; often arriving at games after halftime … The World Series in 1969 and 1973 … Thursday and Saturday college doubleheaders at The Garden … sitting together in front of the television through countless games of baseball, football and basketball. As a spectator he was an unavoidable presence – loud, opinionated, often funny and sometimes obnoxious – an absolute annoyance to opposing fans, players and referees of every description. More than once, ushers and security guards were called to intervene as he told that evening’s nemesis what would have happened if they had tried such aggressive behavior “ten years ago”. I loved it all.
Even as he aged and his painful back kept him out of cinemas, theaters and houses of worship, we still took an occasional trip to Shea and even to Manhattan College where he managed to navigate Draddy Gym’s metal bleachers to watch his Jaspers play.
Our shared love of the Mets, the Giants and the Jaspers provided a bridge over many years that kept our relationship open and alive. It meant we would never be at a loss for words throughout our lives. I understood him better by hearing about the heroes of his youth – Carl Hubbel and Bill Terry … Chief Muller, Pete Waters, Frank McGuire and Mr. Iba … Tuffy Leemans and Bob Kurland. Later, I was able to share with him the stories I accumulated through my work in and around sports and he loved to hear and repeat them.
When my daughter was born, a friend told me that – unlike our parents – we had to find reasons to include our children in our activities rather than reasons to exclude them. It was good advice and Emily and I benefited by sharing business trips, restaurants, sponsor outings, commercial shoots and other quasi-business endeavors.
It wasn’t until I was a parent for several years that I realized how much I was actually emulating my father. I remembered being the “only child” among adults in barrooms for Giant telecasts pirated from Channel 3 in Connecticut. I remembered visiting courthouses and jails or a client’s home to “have some papers signed”. I visited the candy store that served as a front for his cousin’s bookmaking operation. I broke bread with felons. I watched television in one room while “the men” played cards in another. I’m not sure my father was actually looking for reasons to include me in those adventures. I suspect my mother occasionally forced his hand. But, I loved those days anyway and I loved those peeks at his world.
As I matured and became more aware, my father’s flaws became increasingly apparent. I saw the skeletons in the closet and began to realize that he was not a great man in the traditional sense of that term. Of course, I was a bit crestfallen, but not for long. In fact, when his transgressions, his limitations and his unrealized desires came into clearer focus, I appreciated him as a father that much more. I came to believe that while he may not be a great man, he was always a great father to me. To this day, I am often “accused” of being just like him in too many ways. I object to the characterization and respond in my own defense. But, somewhere inside of me those “accusations” have always made me proud. Much of what I like about myself comes to me from my father.
Like all men, as he grew older he became a symbol of a vanishing generation. His conversation was the giveaway; liberally peppered with references to places like “The Old Garden”, “The World’s Fairgrounds”, “under the El” and Walter B. Cooke’s. He still knew which blocks the churches and synagogues were on, but he had little chance of identifying a restaurant or club opened in the last decade or two. The West Side was simply the West Side and he never learned to call his old neighborhood Chelsea without a smirk.
He grew to love and take pride in his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. He again began to show up at ballgames and dance recitals. His was always an intriguing presence in their lives, but they never saw the whole picture. He was more subdued. His gruff exterior became a little more prevalent than his unique humor and his encyclopedic knowledge. Diminished hearing kept him on the periphery of too many conversations. He grew smaller – not just as his 6’2” frame became more and more hunched and the illness shed pound after pound – but also in his presence which had always dominated whatever room he had been in. Of course, there were flashes of the classic Arthur; even during the height of his illness when, frustrated by what he viewed as incompetent hospital care, he turned to his grandson and said within earshot of the medical staff, “R.J. would you run down to the toy store and buy me a doctor kit?”
I am sure that generation loved him, but I’ll always wish they had been able to see more.
Much of my father’s complexity stemmed from his multi-cultural background as the product of the Goldberg and Burns families. Despite a deep devotion to and admiration of his father, I’m certain he felt a greater sense of identity from the Burns branch of his family tree. His cousin Betty Cascio – a Burns herself – once told me: “All Burns children were expected to be free and independent thinkers who would always keep an open mind.” However, she said there were three exceptions to that rule. “From the moment they were born they were 1. Catholic, 2. Democrat and 3. Giant fans.” And my father was a true Burns – though Horace Stoneham’s heretical move to San Francisco replaced the beloved Giants of his youth with his newly-beloved Mets.
He loved to watch John Wayne movies, but he also loved to read The Village Voice. He was proud of his own military service, but he opposed the war in Vietnam and vehemently opposed more recent military actions. He sometimes struggled when the old mores met the new thinking, but his often stubborn mind was usually open enough to embrace civil rights and other prominent social issues. In fact, he could probably be described as an innate personal conservative who was nonetheless a political liberal. Whatever he was, he placed great value on small kindnesses. He brought socks, gloves and handouts to the homeless around Foley Square with little fanfare. He attended wakes and funerals with fervor. He visited the sick and he visited the imprisoned (often citing the biblical admonition to do so).
In the twenty-plus years since I left my parent’s home, I have often run across boys I grew up with; boys who are now men. After the initial greeting the first question never varied: “How’s Arthur?”
There were five children in our home – none without merit – and a beautiful, wonderful, kind mother. But questions about any of us were never more than an afterthought. And nobody asked after “your father” or “Mr. Goldberg”. Just “How’s Arthur?” Then, after hearing an answer, the old friend would glance in the direction of an accompanying wife or child to make sure they were listening and recount a favorite story. The stories were usually funny and familiar; filled with Little League fields, city streets, courtrooms and his constant inability to locate friend’s homes, outlying gymnasiums and other appointed destinations.
But many of the stories were more heartfelt. Young men he had kept out of jail. Life-altering jobs in which he had placed our friends – or our friends’ fathers. Good advice both professional and personal. One told me after twenty years to thank my father for being his father figure as a boy when his own father had not been around. Others undoubtedly felt the same way.
Oftentimes aging men ponder their legacy. “How have I changed the world?” and “Will I be remembered by future generations?” are the questions that serve as the barometer for greatness. I don’t know if my father asked those questions of himself in his latter days. I worry that if he did, he may not have liked the answers.
But I truly believe he did change the world; or at least lots of little parts of the world. And, while his name won’t be familiar to future generations, I’m quite sure nobody who actually met him will ever forget him.
Yes, it’s true he will never appear in the history books (and he probably would have liked it if he did). But it’s also true that if anyone were to write the histories of The Polo Lodge, the St. PiusX Little League, or the Gin Game at Westbury Manor his name would be prominent. These were a few small parts of his world; parts populated by his people … parts he touched and changed for the better.
And, most importantly, in the modest chronicles of the Irish-Jewish Goldbergs of New York, NY he will always be history’s most beloved figure. And that, above all else, marks a life well lived.