When our daughters were small, we would wake them before dawn on Thanksgiving morning and drive into Manhattan to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from a spot on Central Park West, just across the street from The Dakota (the apartment building where John Lennon lived and died). I didn’t know then that I would someday be inside that building and looking at the heating system that had served tenants since 1884, but that’s how it worked out. Life’s funny that way.
The Dakota once had a steam engine in its basement. They made electricity with that engine and used the waste steam to heat the radiators. As other buildings arrived in the neighborhood, The Dakota became a co-gen plant for them. I stood in the footprint of that long-gone steam engine and felt very thankful for the experience.
One Thanksgiving, my father got up early and joined us at the parade. He volunteered to hold Meghan, who was about two years old at the time.
“Holding this kid is like holding a bag of water,” he said after about 15 minutes as Meghan squirmed and tried to see the entire parade all at once. He handed her to me and I held her for the rest of the morning. Dad was right about the bag of water.
We would park our car just off Fifth Avenue on the non-parade side of the park. Traffic was always light on Thanksgiving morning. We’d walk across the park and watch the girls race ahead to kick piles of fallen leaves and laugh. When we got to Central Park West, we’d push the four girls into the crowd at the curb so they could get a good view. The grown-ups closest to the street would keep an eye on all the kids. It’s a nice New York tradition and the little ones always seemed so thankful to be that close to the action.
Coming back through the park after the parade, we would stop at the much-needed restrooms under the Bethesda Terrace. The Bethesda Fountain appears in a lot of movies and TV shows, but you have to be a native New Yorker to know about those hidden restrooms under the terrace. When you have four little kids in Central Park on Thanksgiving morning and just about everything is closed, it’s one more thing for which to be thankful.
Meghan unknowingly taught me about patience the following spring. I was on my knees in our backyard digging weeds. She came out of the house and sat down next to me. “What are you doing, Dad?” she asked.
“Digging weeds, Meg,” I said.
“Digging weeds?” Meg asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“What are you doing, Dad?” she asked again.
“Digging weeds, Meg,” I answered.
And it went on like that for quite a while. She matched the pace of her simple question to the rhythm of my digging and she never let up. I practiced being patient because I love her and I sensed she would be grown up soon enough.
What are you doing, Dad?
A good question to ask on any day of my life.
Meg is now the mother of two great kids. She has her good days and her bad days, as we all do, but she has learned patience. She calls me every day and I ask what she’s doing. Her answer is often, “Digging weeds, Dad.” I smile and feel thankful whenever she says that. She taught me to be patient and we can all use more of that these days.
A few more years flew by and I was working hard. I decided to take up running as a hobby because it’s a great way to get rid of day-to-day stress. I especially liked the long runs on the weekends because of the slow rhythm of the thing. It was calming to put on the shoes and just run. I’d focus on the top of that faraway telephone pole and run toward it, pass it and then run toward the next one, pass it and do this again and again. I would match my breathing to my pace and slide into my thoughts. What are you doing, Dad? What are you doing, Dad?
I trained for some marathons and learned the technique of Run-Walk-Run. I’m too large to ever seriously compete in a marathon; I just wanted to finish healthy. Run-Walk-Run taught me that it’s okay to take regular breaks from the fast pace of anything in life before going back to it. I learned that you can go much further that way. Run. Walk. Run. Walk.
It’s a good way to live.
I’m also thankful for people who taught me how to write to you. Ed Tidd once wrote wonderful on-the-job stories for Bell & Gossett. I discovered him in a dusty binder on a warehouse shelf. He was long gone, but the collected stories he called Tidd Bits live on. He set me on the path to becoming a better storyteller. He taught me that if you wrap anything technical in a good story it will always be more delicious.
Rudolph Flesch arrived in my life at the same time as Ed Tidd, and also by way of print. He wrote a book called, “Say What You Mean.” He taught me how to talk on paper. I’m thankful for him and also for Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemmingway, all of whom taught me to hate adverbs.
My father, when he wasn’t holding bags of squirming children at parades, would smoke his pipe, sip his beer, and tell me stories. I’m thankful for him and for the times we had, even though each story he told me was one I had heard many times before. He had many stories and they were as worn as old work boots, but he knew how to make them irresistible.
My friend Dennis Bellanti once told me about his elderly neighbor who would say to Dennis as he launched into a story, “Don’t stop me if you heard this one before. I want to hear it again.” And Dennis never did stop him. He would have loved my father.
My father was a shipping clerk for a plumbing and heating supply house in Manhattan. In the 1950s, he ran 22 trucks. One of his drivers showed up one day with a mannequin he had pulled from the trash from behind the B. Altman department store. It had seen better days.
My father dressed it in work clothes and set it up on East 79th Street, like it was taking a leak on Big Jim Sheedy’s new car parked out front. Sheedy, who was built of cinder blocks and Irish fury, returned from making a quick local delivery and saw the mannequin peeing on his car. He jumped from his truck, stomped across the street and screamed, “Get offa me car you filthy rat!” He kicked the mannequin in its keister and then screamed in horror as the mannequin’s head sailed over the top of his shiny new Buick.
My father wiped tears of laughter and sipped his beer. He lit his pipe and let loose another laugh I can still hear.
I listened to that story about Big Jim Sheedy more times than I can count, and it got better each time I heard it.
One year, we all took the kids to the Bronx Zoo, and my father saw Sheedy driving a make-believe train filled with kids. Sheedy’s retirement job was a wonderful surprise. The big man pulled the train to the side of the walkway and shook hands with my father. The kids on the train just waited.
“Sheedy,” my father said. “Tell my kid about the mannequin.”
Sheedy laughed and called my father a name the kids on the train shouldn’t have heard, and then he told me the story that never got old.
I wish they were all still here, but they left behind so much to savor on days like this.
What are you doing, Dad?
I am still listening. I am still learning. And I am forever thankful for it all.