It might have been a hot and humid July night, in 1942, with air so thick you could climb it. Gnats came out in numbers sufficient to postpone the Dodger game. Now they covered the window of my father’s corner drugstore. The Ex-Lax sign disappeared behind a swarm of thousands. An agitated crowd gathered as if this was IT. The Orson Welles-staged radio invasion of aliens was still on their minds. German U-boats had been spotted off Rockaway Beach. My father, in his equanimity, quieted their apprehension. I witnessed him speak a few words with a reassuring grace in his manner which scattered the insects and sent the folks home settled, or so it seemed to this nine year-old kid.
Yes, I idealized my father. He was Yahweh, FDR and Spencer Tracy in one. God, in the way he drove locusts from pages of Exodus, Roosevelt in his fireside chats and Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg, Keeper of the Flame or Bad Day at Blackrock with his insistent, passionate calm. My Dad was imperturbable and deliberate by nature as if everything had been weighed on a torsion scale and come to equipoise within him.
There was something of the earth, an elemental knowing in my father. The air around him was a shaman's air of vapors escaped from apothecary jars, macerating leaves and aromatic oils as though he possessed an internal mortar and pestle ever at work grinding course matter into fine powder. He carried that breath of botanicals on his body, his overcoat, into my memory.
Many of the elixirs and emulsions he compounded would be deemed of negligent value years later but when he dispensed them the remedies worked. They were curative because he said so. Everything he believed went into each bottle. Patients were met. Listened to. They got the gift of his full presence. It was not the balsams, tinctures or infusions that healed. It was my father who transferred that power for self-healing.
He possessed a quiet authority, one in which you always felt safe. He tamed the loud unease my mother felt in this world. He would never violate your personhood, your sacred space. Yet he was unyielding in his convictions. I’m thinking now of his left-wing politics in terms of identifying with labor and oppressed minorities. During the anti-Communist hysteria in the late 40s he stood firm and closed-mouth when two F.B.I. agents at our door asked him to name names. His silence was his spine.
How he came to this centered place within shall ever remain a mystery. His mother died when he was two and his destitute father gave him away to be raised by an equally destitute uncle and aunt. His father later remarried and named one of his several sons Samuel, the same as my father. Did he forget he already had a Sam? Sam meet Sam. My father’s three new half-brothers were all raised in an orphanage while my father sold newspapers on the corner to get by.
I can almost see young Spencer Tracy shouting, Extra paper, read all about before he was Father Flanagan from Boy’s Town or Thomas Edison. Perhaps only in my eyes did my dad resemble Tracy. However if a movie were ever made entitled The Sam Levine Story it would have to be played by Spencer Tracy.
Of course off-screen Tracy was an incorrigible alcoholic while we had the same bottle of Manischewitz wine in our apartment for twelve years. While he didn’t touch the stuff many pharmacists got licensed during Prohibition years because they alone could dispense ethyl alcohol for so-called medicinal purposes. Among my father’s papers, long after he deceased, was a court order in which he admitted his guilt and was fined for apparently selling a four ounce bottle of alcohol for non-medicinal purpose. I admired his risk-taking which he so rarely allowed expression.
Was it Aristotle, Yogi Berra or I who said whenever we might think we have wrapped up a person in a tidy bundle there is always something hanging out, unaccounted for? So it was with my Dad; a piece that didn’t fit. He played the horses; not through a bookie but he would go off to the harness races every few weeks. My guess is he put two bucks on the favorite to show. One night he took me along, maybe for good luck. We still lost. But the ledger could never show the value of dreaming a jackpot.
My father died far too soon. He never read my poetry or blogs, never got to see the pharmacy I bought in 1980, didn’t see my daughters grow past their adolescence, and never met Peggy. I also regret all the questions I never asked. Yet I feel his presence guiding me. There are locusts in our midst which need to be expelled. Our present miscreant in the Oval Office would have sent him to his mortar and pestle grinding Fascists into dust.