With so many living longer these days, there’s a new phenomenon that being “boomers” in their 60’s, placing their 80-something parents in assisted living facilities. I’m somehow reminded of a scene from Billy Crystal’s 1992 “Mr. Saturday Night” movie.
With their father already passed away, 60-something Billy and his brother have just buried their mother. Sardonically, Billy says, “Stan, we’re orphans now, what’s going to become of us?”
One of my closest friends, Margie, is former long time resident of Santa Monica. I refer to as “Daughter of the Century,” because somehow she juggles career and care of her ailing parents. Her mother, 89, has dementia and her father, 94, is similarly diagnosed. Complicating matters, her parents were bitterly divorced 55 years ago so the assisted living Margie placed them in had to be separate facilities.
Margie’s father was born into a poor family in 1919 in working class Chicago. With six siblings and money scarce, he led a hardscrabble life through prohibition and Depression days. Perhaps not completely surprising he wound up a charismatic “wiseguy” with the moniker “Little Joey.”
But in fact, Margie was raised solely, along with her late brother, by her hard-working mother. Margie hardly knew Joey until decades later she became responsible for his care. Not exactly the stuff of sit-coms, and yet amazingly there is some humor.
Now I’m going to digress to when I parked cars as a UCLA sophomore. I will tie these two seemingly unrelated subjects together so please bear with me.
In 1965, a buddy and I owned a valet parking concession at a small Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. Each night I’d average only about $25 in tips but it wasn’t far from campus and a free dinner came with the shift.
While the restaurant catered to many celebrities (Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, and George Raft) and numerous mobsters, we rarely had more than 30 cars a night. When a customer would come out they’d merely give me the make and model of their car and I’d dash off to retrieve it. It worked perfectly, that is, until it didn’t.
One morning I received an irate phone call from the co-owner of the restaurant. The night before I had apparently given the identical car to two different customers who had driven home without realizing it wasn’t theirs. One I remember because he was kind of drunk and the other because he had given me a $5 tip, which was like hitting the lottery.
Worse, one had driven to Arizona on business. My boss angrily gave me the number of his Phoenix motel and the number of the other customer who lived in L.A. I was to “Straighten this mess out immediately if not sooner you schmuck!”
The guy in Arizona was even angrier. He insisted I ditch school for a few days and drive his car to Phoenix to swap vehicles. I dialed the second customer, prepared for another angry onslaught. But he actually thought the whole thing was hysterical. “You gotta be kidding” he said in his tough guy voice. He insisted I stay on the line as he went to his garage.
When he returned he was laughing, “I can’t friggin’ believe I drove home in somebody else’s car!” He suggested that I give him the number in Arizona. I thought it futile but he insisted.
Fifteen minutes later the funny tough guy called me back. “It’s all taken care of, kid,” he said reassuringly. Somehow he had convinced the guy in Arizona to wait until he came back to L.A. and they’d swap then.
The real joy was calling my boss back. “You lucky son of a bitch” he barked angrily, pronouncing that from now on we’d give tickets to customers and hang keys on a box he already had installed. Now, we cut to almost 35 years later.
Margie calls me from the hospital where her father, despite having received “last rites,” has made a remarkable recovery but is bored. I gather he frequented the restaurant where I used to park cars. She puts him on the line as he loves to talk about the “good old days.”
The moment Margie’s father said, “You know what happened to me at that joint once?” I knew I was somehow involved. What are the odds, but Margie’s father was funny tough guy! “And worse,” he jokingly lamented, “I gave the kid a $5 tip.” On my behalf, Little Joey had obviously made the irritable guy in Arizona an offer he couldn’t refuse.
I immediately Joey to put Margie back on the phone. “Marge, do you have $5 in your purse? I asked. “Yes of course,” completely confused. “Good, give it to your father, I’ll explain later.” Joey immediately got back on the phone. “Did I say $5, I meant $500,” he said jokingly.
Margie’s mother, age 89, lives at a beautiful convalescent facility in E. Hollywood where Margie is Marketing Director. But sadly, her father, at age 95, passed away last week, just shy of Father’s Day. Despite all the difficulties in growing up, given the bitter divorce and Joey’s “line of work,” Margie is now at peace. “Somehow being there for him at the end, giving him what he never gave me, has helped me heal.”
Little Joey was many things in his colorful life. One of them was damn lucky to have had Margie for a daughter.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.