Six days a week he rose early, dressed, ate breakfast alone, put on his hat, and walked to his barbershop at 207 Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about half a mile from our apartment. He returned after dark. The family ate dinner together on Sundays and Jewish holidays. Mainly he ate alone. I don’t remember him staying home from work because of illness or bad weather. He took few vacations, but once we spent a week in Miami and he tried to enjoy himself, wading into the ocean, being brave, stepping, inch by inch, into the warm blue unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back to the beach on skinny white legs. ‘I nearly drowned,’ he said, very exhilarated. He never went into the water again. I think he preferred his barbershop to the natural world. He retired after thirty-five years, when his hands trembled too much for scissors and razors and angina made it impossible for him to stand up for long periods. Then he took walks in the neighbourhood and carried a vial of whisky in his shirt pocket. When pain stopped him in the street, he’d stand very still and sip his whisky. A few times I stood beside him, as still as he, waiting for the pain to end, both of us speechless and frightened.
He was vice-president of his synagogue society, keeping records, attending to the maintenance of the synagogue’s building. He spoke Yiddish, Polish, maybe some Russian, and had the Hebrew necessary for prayers. He spoke to me in Yiddish until I began, at about the age of six, speaking to him mainly in English. Sometimes, when he switched from one language to the other, I’d not even notice. He could play the violin and mandolin. As a youth in Poland, he’d been in a band. When old friends visited our apartment, he’d drink a schnaps with them. He smoked cigars and pipes. He read the Yiddish newspaper the Forward and the Daily News. He voted Democratic but had no faith in politicians, political systems, or ‘the people’. Aside from family, work, and synagogue, his passion was friends. My mother reminded me, when I behaved badly, of his friends. She’d say, ‘Nobody will like you.’ Everybody liked Leon Michaels.
He was slightly more than five feet tall. My mother is barely five feet. Because I’m five-ten, she thinks I’m a giant. She came from Brest Litovsk. He came from Drohiczyn, a town on the river Bug near the Russian border. When I visited Poland in 1979, I asked my hosts about Drohiczyn. They said, ‘You’ll see new buildings and Russian troops. No reason to go there.’ So I didn’t go there. It would have been a sentimental experience, essentially empty. My father never talked about the town, rarely said anything about his past. We also never had any long, deep talks of the father-and-son kind, but when I was fifteen, I fell in love and he said a memorable thing to me.