December 28, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

My Hero

No man is esteemed for gay garments but by fools and women.

Sir Walter Raleigh

I was eight years old when my Uncle Harry moved in with us. How do I know how old I was? I looked up the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment in the Almanac. My Uncle wore a button that said "We Want Beer: Bring Back Prosperity." At that time, I knew what beer was, having tasted it when my father took me into a speakeasy. I had no idea what prosperity meant and still don't.

What I remember most about my uncle was his Saturday night ritual. He shaved with a straight razor which, to me, represented an act of unsurpassed courage. What's more, after he shaved he put on some lovely smelling lotion and followed that with perfumed talcum. He put on his shoes and polished and buffed them until they shone. He wore garters to hold up his socks and spats over his shoes. They were light gray and had a velvety feel. Of course he wore a white shirt and a colorful tie and finally the jacket of his suit. He covered his black shiny well-combed hair with a fedora. He was, to me, the epitome of sartorial elegance.

By comparison, my father was a slob; he never put on the dog the way that my Uncle Harry did on Saturday night. My father used a safety razor and didn't even own a pair of spats. Uncle Harry was going out with what he called a "shkape," which was what he called a woman. What was a shkape? My father told me that it was a female horse. It seemed funny to me to call a woman a female horse; but then, everything that grown-ups said seemed funny to me.

I once saw my Uncle Harry at work. He was a chicken plucker, or as they referred to it in the Jewish community, a chicken flicker, and he flicked chickens with speed and dexterity. My Uncle Moe, for whom Harry worked, was a butcher. To me, there was little difference between being a chicken plucker and a butcher or, for that matter, a linoleum layer, which was what my father did. I didn't realize what a gulf separated the menial employee( the chicken plucker) from the store owner, which was what my uncle Moe and my father both were. Besides, my Uncle Moe and my father were both family men, responsible citizens with families, while my uncle Harry was an irresponsible bachelor who, although a hero to me, was looked down upon by the world. How much he was looked down upon became apparent to me once when we had a family party. The booze flowed and everyone was happy except my Uncle Harry. He was unconscious. He had passed out and was carried by my father and another man into the bedroom, where he was allowed to sleep it off. I don't know how I knew, but I was made aware that my Uncle Harry was some kind of idiot. Who but an idiot would drink too much. It didn't matter to me; he was still my hero, and represented the great American dream of independence and sartorial splendor.

My Uncle Harry eventually settled down, married and raised a family. Some fifty years later, I was talking to my mother about things past.

"Do you remember," she said, "when my brother Harry lived with us?"

I told her of my memories of his getting dressed up on Saturday night."

"Did you know what he was getting dressed up for?" she asked.

"I assumed that he had a date," I replied.

She laughed, "Saturday night was the night that he visited the whorehouse."

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