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Stephen Kessler

With Jack in Seattle


     "He was as much my father as he was yours."

     My uncle Ackie is sitting across the table from me in a lakeside seafood restaurant, treating me to lunch and his recollections of the big brother he idolized. At seventy-two he brims with happy enthusiasm, physically a ringer for my dad at his age, bald except for a thin but untrimmed rim of silver hair, his forehead tanned from driving around all summer in his white Mercedes convertible. Ackie got his name from the way he said "Jack" as a baby—"Ack, Ack"—and he's been Ackie ever since. His comment strikes me as ironic because in some ways Jack was more his father than mine. When I was little he and my mother were consumed with their new business, a swimwear company born about the same time I was and growing faster. Louise, our housekeeper, my brother Rick and my mother's parents, who lived with us, looked after me day to day. But when Ackie was two and their father took off, leaving their mother with four kids to care for, Jack took over not only as the breadwinner but as the guiding light for his younger siblings. Henry, their other brother, now in his mid-seventies living in L.A., was a sensitive brooding introspective boy Jack never could understand, but Ackie's outwardness mirrored his own, and Jack was Ackie's god.

     "Everything I am I owe to him, " says Ackie. "He was the greatest teacher I ever had. The greatest friend." All his life he solicited Jack's advice on everything, which to him as a kid meant mainly sports, and later business. "I was the jock, and Jack made it possible for me to compete—in basketball, in tennis—he saw that I had the equipment, that I got to the games and the tournaments. He was my coach and he was my mentor. He bought me what I needed, drove me places." I'm getting the picture of a selfless older brother, a lovable guy of sterling character—the kind of description I've heard before, from my mother, from friends at his funeral, and the kind that's to be repeated by practically everyone I speak to in Seattle. A good man, no way around it. Without any evident demons. No darkness, even, for dramatic contrast. A shining example.

     It's not that I was looking for my father. I'd found him eight years ago on his deathbed, earlier in fact, his spirit opening gradually in his last years to embrace me after a lengthy stretch of mutual misunderstanding. What I needed now was to talk with people who'd known him in his boyhood. He had a history in this city that he'd scarcely alluded to his whole life. I wanted to hear the story from some eyewitnesses. Whatever was behind his success—he'd built permanent security for his family out of difficult beginnings and modest accomplishment as a salesman, winding up in his mature years running a multimillion-dollar corporation and retiring comfortably to the racetrack—the seeds of that success were bred on the street when he went out at twelve to pull his weight and everybody else's besides. Ackie and his older sister, Doree, were still alive and lucid here close to their roots by Lake Washington, and I had the numbers of a couple of old men, both friends from my father's school days, now in their eighties.

     Seattle has changed since then. In the teens and twenties when he was coming up it was a smallish town, a port to the Orient, with an independent western atmosphere charged with the adventurous energies of the fishing and lumber industries. It was a tough town, rugged, home of the original Skid Row, with strong unions, guys who worked with their hands and others who stopped on shore leave or shipped out; traders, hustlers. Skid Row is now an indoor shopping mall, the skyscrapers gleam, their reflections flashing over Puget Sound and across the lake to the suburbs, a city so clean the cops ride around on shiny bicycles giving tourists tickets for jaywalking. Since World War II, with Boeing's arrival as the dominant industry, and the computer boom of the eighties, the city is both prosperous and popular. It bustles but still feels little enough to find your way around. The people are friendly. I'm staying downtown and walking as much as possible. All I have to do to keep out of trouble is wait for the green light.

     "When I was eighteen," says Ackie, "just out of high school, I bought a little cigar store, with Jack's approval. A three-hundred-and-fifty-dollar investment. There was this dice game that customers could play, '26' I think it was called, and the chips were worth twelve-and-a-half cents each, redeemable for merchandise. Well, one day this slicker comes in—" Ackie puts extra emphasis on the word, says it with bitter relish—"and in the course of an afternoon wins fifteen dollars worth of chips. This is 1938. Fifteen dollars is a day's receipts. And somehow, since it's such a large amount, this slicker talks me into cashing his winnings. Well, I was sick. Heartbroken. I'd never felt so awful. So later, as every night, Jack stops by to ask me how it's going. I'm miserable, of course. I tell him what happened with the slicker. So he says, 'Who was this guy?'And I say, 'Oh I don't know —some schmuck.'And he says, 'Who was the schmuck?'

     "I never forgot that," Ackie declares in his tight yet genial nasal voice. "That's the last time I ever called anybody a schmuck."

     A classic teaching of the master: Don't blame the other guy for your own stupidity. And an equally important corollary: Stay positive, jettison negativity. That was Henry's problem, too many dark thoughts, doubts. "Henry resented life," says Ackie. "The world wasn't good enough for him. He had all these political ideas; he got so far left he didn't know where he was." Clearly a bad attitude. I see by contrast the glad-handing Ackie, everybody's friend, bantering with the restaurant owner, joking around with the young waiter, signing the back of the check and slipping him a fiver. "Sorry to stiff you, J.T." A generous tipper, just like Jack. A quick smile and a kind heart. No complaints.

     Just like Jack. This, he tells me frankly, has been the key to his success: doing as Jack would right down the line. Going into business for himself—sportswear sales, like Jack—instead of working for someone else, even his brother. Making a few good investments. "Now all I have to do is go into the office and read the papers. Open the checks as they come in." Everybody's secure. Whatever's in the papers presumably can't touch the family, thanks to smart planning and prudent living. I reflect that my father read the papers too, and that as far back as I can remember he was a pessimist—"You can always expect the unexpected"—was one of his favorite sayings. He anticipated the worst and considered himself lucky to have done as well as he had. Ackie seems instinctively to keep the dark thoughts down. The faithful acolyte has come of age as a happy patriarch: I see him that evening sitting on his porch on the lakefront, blissfully presiding over a family dinner, beaming in the glow of children and grandchildren, living the good life, the city in shadow across the water, sun going down over the lake in a flourish of clouds the color of salmon flesh. This is the fruit of so much work, so many trips to Asia pedaling underwear, fruit of an upbeat outlook and a gambling spirit willing to go on guts and horse sense, following Jack's example.

     The whole time I'm with Ackie I can't help wondering how he regards me, Jack's youngest, still fighting at forty-four to make it as a writer, the most impractical of professions. I have a history of nonconformity, of challenging authority, raising uncomfortable questions. I've spent my inheritance on profitless publishing ventures, putting out books and magazines and newspapers that couldn't support themselves. I have a companion but no wife or nuclear family, no home of my own anymore, just an apartment in rootless New York City, so little to show for all my efforts but a few heavy cartons of printed matter now in storage in a closet in California. Is my out-of-the-mainstream career, my crankiness, my individuality appreciated by this uncle who measures accomplishment by its material evidence? In his eyes am I a success or a failure for following my own path? Does it even matter to him what I've done with my father's legacy? He doesn't ask me about my life, my work; seems to accept me for what I am—whatever that is. Some kind of thinker, dreamer.

     Henry was a dreamer, his sister Doree informs me, not a realist like Jack and Ackie. "Henry had a chip on his shoulder." Doree, white-haired at eighty-three, is tough and earnest yet also somehow dismissive of just about everything. She too went to work as a kid to support her mother and little brothers. She is feared by the whole family for her uncompromising judgments, her temper and her drive to run everyone's lives. She and Henry still clash, according to Ackie. As we talk, she appears to be going easy on me, not living up to her terrible reputation, possibly because in her scheme of things I'm not "a going concern" and therefore not worth taking too seriously. She's willing to talk to me about Jack but doesn't have much to say, except to confirm the consensus—that he was a fine boy, exemplary, responsible, popular. I ask for specific examples, anecdotes that might illustrate his character, and she waves the question away. "No, I don't have examples, he was just good. You can ask anyone. What are you gonna do with this information?" I tell her I'm not sure, possibly nothing, possibly write a story; I'm trying to satisfy my curiosity. She regards me blankly, puzzled but patient, indulgent of my evident pointlessness. I ask about her father, Sam, the junk purveyor who abandoned them. She says she doesn't remember him, they scarcely saw him even when he was around. From her highrise apartment we look out over the sound. The port sparkles in afternoon sun, excellent August weather, ferries and freighters plowing the water. Her husband Charlie, retired fish-packing magnate, pulls out some old photos to show me. One is of my father at twenty-seven or so, holding my oldest brother, Bruce, an infant, on his lap. Bruce has a recognizable scowl on his face, grouchy in the harsh noon light. His own receding forehead shining under the bright sun, Jack is wearing a pinstripe suit, wide striped three-tone tie and crisp white collar. He has the same half-smile as in the picture taken thirty years later that's the first thing you see on entering Ackie's office. The smile of a modest man. Charlie tells me I can keep the picture.

     There's another photo that interests me even more. It shows a banquet table with several young couples relaxing after dinner: my parents, Jack and Nina; Doree and Charlie; Ackie and his wife, Charlette; and Henry and his first wife, Mary. Henry, with his vulnerable lips and dreamy eyes, looks out of place. By the time this picture was taken in the forties he'd given up his writing career—he'd worked for some years as a journalist—and from his wistful expression appears to have resigned himself to a life of commercial drudgery. Amid this group of prosperous or soon to be prosperous merchants, Henry has the face of a lost poet. Which begins to explain his question to me that long-ago Thanksgiving at my folks? house in L.A., when I, a young writer, was visiting from my home in the Santa Cruz Mountains:

     "What are you doing in this band of cutthroats?"

     I last saw Henry a year and a half ago. I'd sold my house in the Soquel hills and was on the way to New York, stopping in Los Angeles to visit family before proceeding east. Henry, the uncle with whom I felt most at ease, would be my first official source of historic gossip about his brother. He and Franki, his wife of many years, invited me to dinner at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, one of those old Italian-American grills that smell like cocktails and slow-cooked meats and high-priced cologne, with black leather booths, red tablecloths and veteran waitresses. Henry concurred that Jack was a most responsible father figure, taking control when the old man disappeared. But he was remote, impatient. He couldn't relate to Henry's inwardness, his moods. "Jack didn't understand me at all. I was too quiet. Too much of thinker, I guess. I wasn't outgoing like Ackie. Ackie was the one he was close to. You should talk to him."

     But Henry, the one who had started out as a writer, who had gone into sportswear sales like his brothers only out of desperation, and who later in life had gone back to school and gotten a degree in history—Henry had a perspective on my father that made room for more complex memories. His low, softly modulated voice was gentle and melancholy. "Sometime after our father left, he went to California. He was always moving around. He settled in Oakland and from there he sent for my mother. So we moved to Oakland. It was a horrible time. Ackie and I were out on the street selling papers one night and Ackie got run over by a car. Scared the hell out of me. Luckily he wasn't badly injured. Those were very rough years. Our father would move, so we would move. Oakland, Portland. He'd go away and then come back. Never stayed with us for long. Jack finally brought us back to Seattle. He always took care of us. I remember once I needed some dental work. He made sure I got it. Took me to the dentist himself, and of course paid the bill. But emotionally we were never that close. Not like he was with Ackie."

     When Henry was still a teenager their father returned to the family one last time. Emma, their mother, refused to see him. Jack and Doree told Sam to get lost. They never heard from him again. According to family lore, he died a few years later in Los Angeles at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Henry's tone as he told the stories was mournful but not evasive or apologetic. He wasn't ashamed. He was able to face the memory of those years with a certain honest regret that I respected. I was secretly relieved to hear him imply that my father had treated him less than ideally, that Jack was not the saintly figure of legend. My occasional clashes with him as I was coming up—over politics, my poetic vocation or my bohemian lifestyle—were evidence of his limited tolerance, but for all I knew that was only where I was concerned. Now Henry was offering a picture that felt more full than much of what I would hear in my Seattle interviews. Jack would have been the first to disavow the notion that he was flawless. In his later life he was well aware of his weak points and mistakes. He liked to say, "I got old too soon and smart too late."

     Frail and shrunken, with translucent skin, his voice trailing off, Mort Pinch is a pale shadow of whatever he once was. A stroke and maybe a touch of Alzheimer's have left him, in his wife Louise's words, a little goofy. I'm visiting him in his living room in the university district. The street is quiet and leafy, a settled neighborhood. The big armchair he sits in is draped with towels that are safety-pinned to the arms, back and padded seat of the chair. He loses the thread of the conversation easily, muses aloud, drops non sequiturs, keeps asking me who I am and why I'm here. But he's able to zero in on the old days. He was best man at Jack and Nina's wedding. "Nina saw something in Jack it was hard to figure. She had everything—looks, money—and he had nothing... They were a good team. Nina was the talker. They'd do anything for each other... That bathing suit business, Nina was the crux of it. She ran the business. She was the business... You know, he had plenty of chances to shack up with broads —models and all —but he never did. He was pure... Honest to a fault... He took everybody's word for what they said. He was an optimist without any justification.... I think he got in over his head and he didn't know it." Mort is referring to the later years when the business nearly went under but Jack finally managed to sell the company and retire. The problems he had, according to Mort, resulted from his "sloppiness in details, looseness with detail," and from getting involved with a fast crowd, "Los Angeles, Hollywood people. He put his confidence in people... Even when they didn't deserve it."

     The boy that Mort remembers "was always laughing, but I think it was more of a nervous laugh than a good-natured one. He hid his problems with laughter. He had that stutter. It made people stop and listen. Damnedest thing... Jack tried everything, he wasn't afraid... But he was loose with details... I think he was in over his head... What are you gonna do, write something about him?... How come you waited this long?... Jack had a brother who was a writer. What was his name?" Henry, I tell him. "Whose brother did you say you were?"

     A light mist, barely a drizzle, is falling on Lake Washington as I sit by the southwest shore on Kay Pearl's terrace. He's tall, bald on top. He hasn't shaved; gray stubble grizzles his face, which is long and thin with warm brown eyes. He's wearing casual slacks, an old wool pullover crewneck sweater, his shirt underneath sort of crumpled around the collar. Inside the large modern split-level house his three adult children are puttering. Their mother, Kay's wife, is in the hospital dying. Kay is reflective. He takes his time.

     "Jakie had a golden personality," he says. "Even when he was eight he had charisma. You know, he stuttered. But it was a beautiful stutter. People loved him."

     I can tell why my father was lifelong friends with this guy. He has that natural earthiness, the lack of pretention Pop appreciated, no doubt because he was that way, too. Kay says he knows why Jakie was such a good kid. "His mother was very kind. Never a bad word. I never met a more pleasant person. A very religious woman. Always welcomed us into her house. The kids get their sweetness from their mother."

     But Jakie was also "full of hell," a fiery kid who burned up the playgrounds with his intense competitiveness, ran wild on the streets, snuck into the ballpark to watch the big-leaguers play in the shipyard league during World War I, "took a liking to prizefighters" and became a boxer himself—"he was very clever with his hands, a good fighter"—and at eleven years old would steal his father's 1886 cigars and pass them around to his friends. He thrived on the action at Green's cigar store, a hangout for all the hot shots in Seattle. "He played every sport. Jakie means a guy with color, you know. He had a lot of gutso. He was always slow, the slowest guy on the team; he was a good hitter, good fielder, but he couldn't run. He had a big ass. We called him Lard Ass. He didn't care. Everybody loved the guy. There was this soccer game in the rain one time, the other team's goalie had a free kick and Jakie dived head-first and blocked it, landed in the mud, but the ball bounced back past the goalie, scored the winning goal. That's what I'd call him, gutso with a personality."

     Kay savors the recollections. He's enjoying this as much as I am. Maybe it's bringing back some of the life he's losing with his wife.

     "He was always a big eater, you know. Ate a bunch of crap. Great appetite. And always worried about constipation. Once I was working in a pharmacy and I gave him some pills I told him would help his digestion. They were really some kind of thing that turned his urine bright blue." Kay chuckles. "Another time this doctor, Dr. Schwellenbach, asked me to watch his apartment for the night, he was going out of town. So I invited Jakie over. We were jumping up and down on the bed—just horsing around—and the bed broke. Oh we were scared. We thought we were in trouble. But the doctor came back and said what the hell, he should have known better than to ask some youngster to watch his apartment. Something about that incident, we always remembered it. The last time we spoke we talked about it. Had a good laugh.

     "You know, he didn't have any discipline. That's why he wasn't religious like his mother. In order to be raised religiously you have to have discipline, from your father. Jakie had no discipline, no religion. What he had was courage. He was a gambler. He had that wholesale operation, K&L Distributors, it was very successful, and he left it to start the swimsuit business in Los Angeles. That took courage. Nina was very important in all that. A successful man has to have a wife that's cooperative. He was a great salesman. A great audience—a great listener. A great actor, in a way, but sincere. His word was as good as gold. He was a natural. You know, the greatest brains in history are the guys that never went to school. College would have spoiled him. When he was seventeen, eighteen, he was running with guys twenty-five, twenty-six. He always liked the action."

     Jake never talked about his father, says Kay, rarely discussed his problems. "His home life was all shmish, very confused, but he kept it to himself. But I remember one time, about ten years into his marriage, he was very depressed. He was in a car with my brother and he told him he was thinking about jumping off a bridge. I guess he pulled out of it."

     On his deathbed my father lay feeble and lifeless following post-operative radiation treatments. The surgeon hadn't been able to cut the whole tumor out of his brain, so they were blasting him with rays that wasted him away, turned him into a sagging skeleton with a tan. I was visiting him in this condition one afternoon when Kay Pearl telephoned. Suddenly Jack sprang up in bed, a smile flew into his face, he was excited, energized, laughing as they talked. At the end of the call he collapsed again. I tell Kay that I witnessed their last conversation. "Yes," he says. "I remember that. You know what I told him? I said, 'You know, Jake, you were at my birthday party every year, and you never brought me a present.'"

     Kay made his fortune in real estate and finance, but he has respect for people like me, "an intellect." It's a little hard for me to compare my minor literary accomplishments with those of guys like Pearl and my uncles Ackie and Charlie, "men of substance" who started from scratch or parlayed their resources into sizable holdings, homes, businesses, buildings, money-making machines. My father was one of the most successful of all, yet his perspective was philosophical. "Boy," he'd often tell me toward the end of his life, "you've got a good formula. You're gonna have a lot of fun. You appreciate the true values." He never said exactly what those values were, but they had something to do with knowing what really matters, being your own man, doing what you like doing, not being tricked or impressed or trapped by superficial measures of success.

     Kay says, "Jake was proud of you. He admired you. We'd talk on the phone and he'd say to me, 'You should see my son Steve. He writes poetry, he's got a beard out to here, he has a little house in the mountains—he really knows how to live!"


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