Saturday, August 15, 2015

Happy Birthday Uncle "I" - (1895-1975)

Today my Uncle Irving would be 120 years old if he were physically here. Perhaps because I was denied the opportunity to pay my respects when he passed away 40 years ago, he is still very much alive to me. Anyone who knows me well knows of Uncle “I” and the high regard in which I hold him. He is eternal.

One of the strangest things which happened; and pre ceded his final illness by several years was the time he didn’t die. I was about 17 and was at Mona Obrien’s house when I got a call from my Mom. This in itself was an indicator that something bad had happened.

My Mom had gotten a phone call from one of Uncle I’s circle of old friends; old as in age; who had not seen him at breakfast that morning in the restaurant where they all ate; the Stage Delicatessen on 7th Avenue where Max Asnas reigned supreme as the owner and somewhat of a celebrity. The walls there were covered with autographed photos of everyone of any consequence who had ever eaten there. Legendary comedian Jack E. Leonard once bought me a 12 cent bottle of ginger ale when I was sick on the sidewalk outside. (Note:My upset stomach had nothing to do with the food.)

Anyway, this friend had set about calling everyone who knew my Uncle and told them that he was dead; simply on the basis of having not seen him that morning; setting off a chain of events which ended a friendship that was twice as old as I was at the time. Uncle “I” went on to live several more years until his death in 1975. He was about 80 years old when he passed away.

If you have read the following before please indulge me. I had no Grandfathers, but Uncle “I” filled those 4 shoes and still had several feet left over as far as I’m concerned. He was small in stature but his heart was as expansive as the universe, and he had a mind as deep as space. And as far as his personality was concerned, if you have ever seen William Demarest on screen or TV, then you have known my Uncle. He was that kind of guy. 

This is the post from August 15, 2010. It was as true then, when I wrote it, as it is today.

This is my great Uncle Irving's 115th birthday. We called him Uncle "I" because it was easier than saying Irving when we were so small. But as we got older we took a secret delight in calling him Uncle "I" simply because it sounded like we were saying Uncle "Lie", in deference to some of the tall tales he told.

Irving lived alone in the "city", which meant Manhattan. He also lived in a hotel! This was so strange to me that it was almost shocking. He had lived with my Grandmother Dorothy (his sister) and their father, Max, along with my parents, until they got a place of their own. When Dorothy moved to California after Max passed away, Irving was left with no place to go. So he got a room in a hotel and lived that way for the next 25 years or so, until he passed away. It wasn't until years later, when I was bouncing around the world and staying in a lot of hotels myself, wishing that I were somewhere else, did I come to realize the singular loneliness of Uncle I's existence. He was kind of like a prisoner in a prison with no bars. He could roam at will, all over the city, but where did he will to roam?

Anyone who knows me knows of Uncle "I". Some of my oldest friends actually knew him. He was 68 years old in this photo, which was taken at Idewild (later JFK) Airport in October 1963. In the original photo he is holding both my brother and I. I was 9 at the time. Uncle "I" colored every aspect of my life as a kid. I couldn't wait for him to come over every Friday night. I would pepper him with questions about the old days, and he would regale me with stories, some of which were true, about his youth on the Lower East Side, his exceptional athletic achievements and his wit and cunning in the Garment Industry.

And every Friday night would end the same way. We would walk together on Avenue R to East 16th Street and then to the Quentin Rd. entrance of the Kings Highway Station, where he would catch the BMT back to Manhattan and his little hotel room. Then he would belong to the rest of the world for another week. But each Friday, he always came back, and I was always waiting. Happy Birthday Uncle “I” - and thanks for everything you gave, asking nothing in return.

And here is the link to the story of Uncle Irving's family and how they arrived from Russia in the early part of the 1890's.

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