Friday the 13th, Port Dover
The capper for my father was appearing on Letterman in his last year as managing editor of Luck. It was a welcome acknowledgement. My mother characterized it as a kind of vindication. Robert was never famous—he was an oddity to other journalists and his readership was small—but Elaine always expected he would be. He did too, I think. (More than once he sneered at the accolades awarded to colleagues he deemed puff-piece hacks.) But when the industry fell into decline his concerns had nothing at all to do with kudos. He worried about the loss of truth. This was the twilight of a time when truth still seemed an achievable thing, if just barely, and he despaired at the “new media” shift away from its guardians. The guardians of decency and judgment. Imagine his horror when I began to earn a paycheque from blogging. It was a betrayal that led to a long cold period between us. My mother, who had much sway over him—signing him on to this or that dietary fad, limiting him to a cigarette a day (though he’d smoke at the office or snatch illicit butts hanging out the bathroom window)—couldn’t even get him to come to the phone when I called. She was always on me to write him a letter.
Of course, Letterman didn’t ask him about any of that. No, he wanted to hear about the piece that launched Robert’s career with Luck. The article about the biker festival in Dover. Chronicling the “motorcycle gang” phenomenon was still something of a fad around this time and my father tolerated some low-hanging-fruit comparisons with the canon (Easy Rider & Hunter Thompson’s book). Then Letterman let him talk. This is the moment you see Robert scan offstage to find his wife. But he soon warmed into describing the Erie Beach Hotel, Dover’s antiquated downtown inn, which had two very different dining rooms. There was the dress-code-enforced, reservation-only Cove Room, where he’d promised to take my mother on the Friday evening; and the more plebeian Terrace Room, with its discount menu, plastic plants, and vast aquarium of tropical fish, where we ate the night we arrived, so he could begin his “research.” Then he described the subjects of this research: the couple at the table next to us. The guy, a boyish Neil Young; the gal, wrinkly-brown after decades on the back of a bike. They had identical Bruce Lee tattoos. Robert had been angling for casual entry to conversation when—here he re-enacted the exchange for Letterman—the man asked my mother about the fancy cocktail she was drinking. “It’s a Dover Dilly,” Elaine said, and the man ordered a pair. Their drinks arrived and the couple raised their glasses.
“I used to collect these baby umbrellas,” the man confided.
“Oh, shit,” the woman said, “he used to collect all sorts a things. Key chains. Licence plates. Little Pez guys. What else?” But she answered herself. “Beans. Christ, you should see—we’ve got about a zillion cans of those Heinz beans.”
“I stopped that,” the man grinned. “But there’s another holicaust, though, we’ll be fine.”
My father performed the whole bit right there on camera, and Letterman laughed his big laugh. “They were floored,” Robert said, “that I’d never been on a motorcycle.”
What Robert refused to talk about—to Letterman or anyone else—was his career before Luck. That first stint freelancing; the summer he quit writing and drank too much and dabbled in LSD. Elaine left him for a while and he lived for three weeks on a beach in Oregon with another woman. My mother took him back and he was hired on at the Spectator. I was born and we got the apartment on Clarence St. From what I understand, we ate a lot of instant potatoes in those days, but things were good. For several years things were pretty good.
Then, in the fall of 1983, he left the newspaper. It had been coming for a while. He was missing deadlines. He wasn’t going in to the office and when he did he was standoffish and rude, flew into arguments with the copy editors. Clay Wells, the publisher, offered to put him on leave, but Robert chose to quit.
He tried his hand at freelancing and independent projects. He wanted to prove how foolish they were for not seeing his greatness by composing something great. He worked through the night at the diner down the street or in their bedroom at his makeshift desk, a plank laid across the radiator. Some mornings he’d emerge while I was watching cartoons, bleary-eyed under his Tigers cap, a coffee mug in his bathrobe pocket, and stare dully at the screen. None of his stuff was selling; it was coming out all rants and drivel.
Shortly after this he got sick. He had a fever, felt ill and fatigued. He thought at first it was the flu but it went on for months. The malaise deepened and he developed pains all over his body, a persistent ache in his shoulders. He catalogued his ailments in a year-old day planner, listed the quality of his sleep, the location of his aches, and his energy level on a 1-8 scale. He was at a 2 or a 3 through much of this period. He had annotations to describe the condition:
Phantom pain resumed in shoulders. Anxious (no caffeine) & tingle in legs. Lightheaded. Generally about 3. Began iron pills.
When it didn’t pass, he went to see Dr. Hodder and tests were done. He was terrified it was cancer; his father had died of pancreatic cancer a few years before. But the tests came back negative. There was nothing wrong with him. He was relieved, of course, but my mother said that no result was almost worse than a diagnosis. “I guess it means I’m crazy,” he said.
Dr. Hodder put him on pills. He slept through entire weekends; he was up and down. My mother had taken a job waitressing at a Chinese buffet, but it was part time and she had to borrow rent money from her parents. Robert, against her wishes, began to take odd jobs, construction and janitorial; eventually, he got on at the Gates Rubber, where her father had worked for forty years. Elaine says that the first few months after he started at the plant things got easier. He was lighter. He was once again providing for his family and the menace of unpaid bills abated. I remember this period—if partly through the refraction of his journals. In the evenings while she was at work he’d boil hot dogs or do grilled cheese, and we’d talk, more than usual. Or watch baseball together. He’d mute the volume on the television and do the commentary in the voice of Foghorn Leghorn. “Here’s the wind-up, and the ah-ah pitch…and it’s a, I say, it’s a steeeee-rike!” I remember that.
He was drinking a lot then; I know this had something to do with it. But underneath something terrible was happening. She’d begged him to go back to freelancing but he was afraid to. I’d hear them whispering when she got in.
“How was your night with David?”
“It was good, it was good.”
A long pause. “Robert, what is it? Talk to me.” And I knew by her voice that he had that look on his face like he’d just seen horrors from the window. “Tell me about it,” she begged. But he couldn’t, she always said he couldn’t.
Not long after this Tom Belanger called. Tom was then an editor at Luck, which had printed some of Robert’s fragments and diatribes for their “Highlights” section, and he liked my father’s work. He said the magazine wanted a piece on the next Friday the 13th biker festival in Port Dover—that he’d intended to do it himself but was in the midst of a custody dispute. He also knew that my father was from the area and needed the work.
In fact, Robert had been summering on Lake Erie since he was a kid. The co-owner of my grandfather’s gas station, Jerry Azzopardi, had a prefab cottage overlooking Dover’s main beach, and my grandparents stayed there many a summer weekend. Robert had the run of the town. He and Johnny Azzopardi dove off the pier and broke into the rusted tugs beached along the canal. They blew their Christmas cash at the ice cream and chip stands, at the bowling alley or on the bumper cars at the Dodgem. And at the arcade. Back then it was the old carnival-style games—squirting tin clowns with water pistols, that sort of thing—and Robert passed whole afternoons in the cool gloom of the place, even on the sunniest of summer days.
It’s not a side note that his nostalgia derived from here, that he discovered his material and voice among the honest idylls of boyhood. And that the touchstones of that boyhood were swallowed up. These days, the beachside soft-serve stands have given way to surf shops. Teenagers patrol the streets in bikinis, ride longboards with their cell phones out, stink of pot. In the nineties, four palm trees were imported and installed on the strip athwart a family seafood restaurant. All the shop windows now teem with schlocky Friday the 13th paraphernalia. And even that signature event—which kicked off in ’81 when a handful of bikers met at the Commercial Hotel and got smashed—has lost its innocence. I went myself this past August. There were thousands of bikes. Choppers. Beemers. Kawasaki crotch rockets. Bobbers and rat bikes. Hogs. The noise was offensive. The crowd a motley of opportunists and hangers-on. Teenage boys in kilts blowing bagpipes for change. An auctioneer taking bids on a ’67 Dodge Dart. A cheese curd vendor. I have a photograph of a German shepherd sleeping in a sidehack shaped like a coffin; another of an elderly man in leather chaps led around on a leash by a pig-faced woman sporting a furry pink cowboy hat.
In 1985, the year of my father’s piece, it was still sort of intimate. A few Satan’s Choice, a few Angels—like a small-scale prison break of goatees and leather and long grey beards. That first night, the Thursday, he left us at the hotel and marched out into it. My mother and I didn’t see him until the next evening at dinner. We spent the morning on the beach—not oblivious to the insectoid machines grumbling and squealing and revving at red lights. We ordered perch from the lakeside booth—not immune to the whooping on bar stoops of grown men in Kiss t-shirts. But not bowled-over, either. My mother’s fixation remained directly upon our scheduled fancy dinner that evening at the Cove Room; and, despite the looming spirit of lawlessness, she let me chase the little windblown sand dunes on the sidewalk only begrudgingly.
Elaine expected my father to be late for dinner and so we took our reservation without him and went ahead and ordered our beverages. The Cove Room is as dated and ill-lit as my grandparents’ rec-room and to this day I am discomfited by the maître d’ and the host of docile waitresses in white uniforms who wheel up salad carts stocked with esoteric culinary delights. Sunshine salad and pickled pumpkin. Horseradish Jell-O—which looks like something you’d preserve an animal fetus in. But my unease back then was due to the plaid tie I’d had to put on and to the weightiness of my mother’s hopes for the dinner. Elaine considered this the height of decadence. That was impressed upon me.
What’s vaguer in my memory is what happened next and I’ve had to rely here on her special recall of the hundreds of occasions on which Robert disappointed her. She says he arrived just as it seemed we’d have to order without him. His entrance caused a disturbance. He was “loopy-eyed” and “boozed-up” and limped and staggered both. The maître d’ refused to let him pass. Robert waved her over, but she ignored him. Not because it was beneath her dignity. Rather, because her faith in him came with certain simple expectations. He’d promised to meet us for dinner and it was on him to make it so.
At last, he was ushered to our table. It was immediately apparent why the maître d’ had held him up: one leg of his jeans was torn and bloodied and didn’t remotely meet the conditions of the dress code. But he’d talked his way in somehow and now seated himself and opened his menu, oblivious to the censorious gazes of the staid, elderly diners at our flanks. His semblance of composure left him when my mother spoke.
“Where were you?”
He peered up from the menu, stalled with a series of mumbles, flagged down one of the waitresses and ordered the pickerel. He then slung his jacket over his chair and helped himself to the salads.
“Robert,” she said. “Where were you?”
“Just around. Around.”
But now it took just her steady gaze to elicit from him that at a tavern on the strip he’d run into the couple from the Terrace Room—he called them Wayne & Wanda—and that after a few beverages Wayne had suggested Robert try out his wife’s L. He lifted as proof a set of keys on a Sarasota, Florida keychain.
“You were riding around on a motorbike? Is that what happened to your leg?”
“It’s okay, really. I just fell over in the parking lot.”
This lie—so counter to his moral code, so flailingly delivered—produced a durable, ugly silence. Which, just as our meals arrived, he broke with a proclamation, “I’m going back, after.”
I picture my mother’s knife and fork hanging in midair for a full three minutes.
“Going back where? To that bar?”
“Please, Elaine. I’m getting the hang of the bike.”
“What bike? Jesus, Robert, you still have their motorcycle with you?” She leaned at him with clenched teeth. “You’re not driving that thing again. You’re drunk.”
“Elaine,” he said. But rather than angry it came out desperate—like a child forewarned of bedtime. (“You know how he’d get sulky.”) And though he’d eaten just a few bites, he stood as if to go. He hesitated, glared at her beseechingly. She told him to sit down.
“You’ll eat first,” she said. “Without rushing. And you’ll help David choose the pie.”
From there, she behaved as though it was the dinner she’d wanted. She chattered at him about the day we’d had and how moist the celery bread was and what a lot of lovely salads there were—now and then pausing, inviting him to add something. And he did, mechanically, or at least nodded when he was supposed to. It was always this way when he was working on a piece. He nodded merely to swat away the interruption of her voice. When I was in high school their dinner table exchanges were like a comedy shtick featuring a most civilized chat between a pleasant yet longsuffering wife and her mute, palsied husband. And it was just the same when I visited in the years after I married and moved to San Francisco. He was busy; he was only half there. Those days he went at me less about my work. The late night arguments we did squeeze in, however, returned inexorably to his “guardians of truth.” To my question of, yes, but whose decency? whose judgment? Eventually, though, he said something that stuck. It’s not who did the writing, he conceded, it’s who you’re writing to. Which I don’t think I properly understood until I remembered that my mother had read every one of his drafts.
We never got to hash it out further. He got sick again, those same phantom ailments, and was on and off a regimen of pills and therapy and alternative treatments like reiki. Once, without my mother knowing, he checked himself into the psychiatric ward at Toronto General; and the “illness” didn’t let up until long after his chat with Letterman. He’d never truly retired—he’d retained some undefined role with Luck, involving the receipt via snail mail of especially tricky pieces, which he perused, marked up with coloured pencils, and returned. When I visited, he did much of this on the golf course—me buzzing him from hole to hole in the cart, the manuscripts on his lap. Sometimes he’d lean over and show me a typo or read to me an especially garbled sentence. And if I had a reply he’d knock it away with a wave of his pen. It was just as it had been at all those dinner tables. All the thousand times he’d suddenly twist down the volume on the car radio, screech to the shoulder, and, while my mother sat next to him in tensed silence, scribble insanely on a grocery store receipt. He’d finally found the words to explain it all to her.