My father was a tough guy. How tough, it’s hard to say. And when I say tough I mean it in the street-Brooklyn sort of way. Neighborhood-tough, man-tough, like that.
As I’ve grown older I’ve realized it’s much more powerful to be strong than it is to be tough.
Anyways, when I was a kid my father seemed invincible. Like a bullet-proof action hero. I’m pretty sure my father also saw himself in that way. He needed or wanted to believe it. Nothing or no one could hurt him.
My father lived recklessly: drugs, drinking, gambling, wild nights. His reckless lifestyle led to fights, car accidents, jail, hot-water situations, wars with my mother. From these situations he always walked away, if not entirely unscathed, then in good enough shape. Nothing that happened to him slowed him down, altered or reversed his course, he plunged ahead with reckless abandon.
As a child I didn’t consider my father’s inner landscape, what might be going on inside him, what haunts and scars, what demons drove and compelled him, what small deaths he suffered unseen. My father’s inner life wasn’t my business.
My friend Anthony used to say—Nothing will ever to happen to your father, he’s got the Glow. You have it too.
Anthony believed that my father and I both possessed what he called the Glow, and because of it we would always manage to skate around consequences, that we’d always land on our feet. I liked thinking that. It felt good to imagine that there this was this Glow, which we did nothing to earn, that would protect us and pardon us from difficult circumstances.
My father often said someone or thing was watching over him. He liked to believe it was his mother, whom he adored and was adored by.
I felt small and powerless as a child. Especially in the face of my father’s rages and tongue-lashings, or in the riot of storms that passed between him and my mother. My mother would sometimes call upon me to protect her—John, John, he’s going to kill me, help me, she’d scream—and she’d place me between them, the flesh-and-bones buffer that she hoped would soften my father’s rage, give him pause. In that respect, my small powerlessness functioned as a useful tactic.
I saw my father as a monster and a god. Whatever fear and anger I felt toward him was superseded by awe, by my wanting to be like him. He was one of the “cool” dads on the block, because he was wild, he embodied the spirit of rock n’ roll, he was the rebel with no causes of which to speak.
He drank, did drugs, listened to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd. When blitzed out of his mind he would crank up The Doors and sing along at the top of his lungs. He idolized Jim Morrison, whom he referred to as Big Jim. I grew up absorbing the spirit and fury of Big Jim, the dark musical carnival that was The Doors. They are the band I most associate with my childhood.
A lot of my friends’ fathers didn’t possess the same adolescent fervor of spirit that my father did. Or if they did, they didn’t showcase and exhibit it in the same way.
My friends were scared of my father. I was scared of my father. My father acted as if he wasn’t scared of anything, which probably meant that he was scared of a lot. Massive egos do a helluva job in hiding fears and defects.
My father, the four-packs-a-day smoker of Kools, guzzler of Budweiser and Heineken, my father, the rogue absentee who sometimes disappeared for days on end during his drug-and-booze-fueled binges, my father, the gambler who blew through money as if it were so much confetti, my father, the monster, the god, my father, the tough guy, the wounded, the fallible human being who harbored small secret deaths of which he never spoke, which impacted an inner life about which I knew nothing at all.