June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Family Unicorns: Part 2

We have all heard the expression, “You can’t go home again.” You can, but the home you remember is no longer there. It only ever really existed in your mind as a memory. We filter out the “bad” and the “mundane,” because we want to hold onto the memory of our grandmother’s cooking or our grandfather’s aftershave. The grip of your grandfathers’ hand as you walked with him, or the warmth you felt from one of your grandmother’s hugs. We want to wrap ourselves in our memories like a warm, soft blanket, because it is comforting to know that at one point of your life, there were adults who kept you safe emotionally and physically. We have a word for this: nostalgia. It is a word that means to return “home to pain,” but for me, returning to my grandparents’ condo for the first time in 15 years was nothing but surreal. There were no painful memories on those family vacations, only adventures. Nothing was mundane or boring, because everything about Florida was different, even something as ordinary as furniture was different. My Palm Pilot said 1995, but it was like I had walked through the front door of the condo and stepped into 1975. My grandparents had an “electric blue” shag-carpet, a pea soup green rotary phone and plastic covers on the sofa. The plastic had long since been removed from the sofa, but just looking at the floral print caused a reflective twinge on the back of my thigh. Anyone who has ever parked themselves, in shorts, in summer, on one of these knows that getting up from there was akin to peeling a fruit roll up from its backing. As children, we had been told not to spin on (“cause we’d break em”) the dining room chairs. I never understood why my grandparents would buy chairs that could rotate like a bicycle wheel if they didn’t want their grandchildren to ride on them.

I didn’t spin on the chairs, but I wanted to. Some things never lose their appeal, no matter how old you get.

More powerful than my memories were my grandfather’s memories. Sitting at his dining room table after breakfast, he told me about the “unicorns.” Unicorns are the family stories so far beyond belief that they had to be true, because no one could make up a story that crazy, knowing no one would believe it. We all have them. Don’t think your family does? Well, find that one relative who when you wind them up, they spill out family memories faster than water from Niagara Falls. In his old age, Marco Polo said of his journeys, “I have not told half of what I saw.” So, as my grandfather spoke, I recorded. In an age before cell phones, I scribbled notes by hand.

I wanted to know everything about his parents and their parents. Apparently, my great grandmother had been a bootlegger in Brooklyn during Prohibition, and my grandfather had been the lookout. What was he looking for?

“The revenue agent.” I had to look that up when I got home. No time to ask questions that might sidetrack the story telling. My five foot three grandfather owned a newspaper stand on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, right next to the subway station. His business was sandwiched between the police station and the cab stand, where the mob held court, but they never bothered my grandfather.

“Every Christmas Eve I would walk into the police station and hand out cartons of cigarettes to the patrolmen. I would give the police chief box of cigars, but it got me in trouble with your grandmother. The police once gave me a lift home from work and your grandmother started yelling, “You got out of a police car, in front of our house! Do you know what the neighbors will say?”

We laughed.

“I even faced down a feller who tried to take a ‘free’ newspaper from my newsstand. I said, “You see the tire irons holding the newspapers in the wind? Try to take a free paper again and I will use it to part your hair down the middle.” It was only after he left, that my business partners said, ‘Aaron, he’s a gangster, you are going to get yourself killed.’ I didn’t care. I used to make the weekly deposit on Thursday night by myself. I’d wrap the bundle in newspapers.”

How much?

“Three thousand in cash and no one ever bothered me.”

At the time, I worked in retail and we had the weekly deposit picked up by an armed guard.

I guess keeping the local cops happy meant that no one was going to bother my grandfather.

It was only the first day in my grandfather’s apartment and I already learned more than I ever imagined possible. I only had one more question…


David Roher is a USAT certified triathlon and marathon coach. He is a multi-Ironman finisher and veteran special education teacher. He is on Instagram @David Roher140.6. He can be reached at [email protected]

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