Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lessons from my dad's bar by : Jason Calacanis

Jason Calacanis, we haven't requested your permission to publish this, but considering the warmth of the story, we don't think you'll mind :

Woke up today thinking about my dad and being a dad. This my second father’s day, but since my daughter was only six months old last year this feels like my first.
Many of you know I grew up in Brooklyn and that my dad owned a couple of bars in the 70s and 80s. Much of my philosophy of life, for better and sometimes worse, can be traced back to being an adolescent working in my dad’s bar on 83rd street and 3rd avenue in Brooklyn.
Two decades before the leading parenting philosophy was “everyone is a winner,” and long before the enforcement of child protection laws, my brothers and I worked in my dad’s bar. We started working some time between when we were able to stand and wipe our own asses, I can’t remember exactly when.
My work ethic is that of my father’s, and his sailor father before him. Greek immigrants in New York City in the period when my father and I grew up were considered hard-working to the point of being comical.
Uncle George worked my dad hard in his restaurant, and I suspect my dad felt it was his obligation to do the same for my two brothers and I.
At 10 years old one I learned one of the hardest lessons of my life while working at Beards (that was the name of my dad’s bar): never steal, never cheat and never lie.
The story of that lesson, to this day, makes my heart race and my back clench.
One of the ten most terrorizing moments of a terrifying adolescence, it’s difficult for me to even write this story down.
At the age of nine or ten years old I would attended 6:05AM mass every Saturday and Sunday at St. Anselm’s church in Bay Ridge with my Grandfather before walking to Beards to do the ‘porter work.’
Yep, at the age of nine or ten my dad gave me the worst job in the entire bar: cleaning the filth and detritus of what was, at its essence, a kick-ass, rock-and-roll biker bar.
And I loved it!
We would arrive at the bar right before 7AM. Two out of three times the bartenders Billy Murphy and Cousin Michael (my dad’s cousin) would still be there with my dad overseeing a poker or backgammon game--and a couple of empty bottles of port.
Murphy is still tending bar across the street from the original bar, but Cousin Michael didn’t make it. He lived way to hard, and after years of abusing, he died at the half-way mark. What a waste. We lost one of the few male Calacanis’ left on the planet, and a sweet, caring one at that.
I’d sweep up the floor desperately looking for quarters. When I’d find shiny George between bar naps, cocktail straws and cigarette butts, I’d run to the Asteroids, Breakout or Defender arcade game to get my fix.
Yes, at the age of ten I was addicted to arcade games as bad as my cousin Michael was to, well, you know. I’d find at least five bucks worth of quarters every day, almost twice the $3 my dad paid me to do three hours of porter work each day. They all made it into in the arcade game, of which my dad got half the money--so it wasn’t a total waste.
My day kept my $3 a day until it was the end of the month and I wanted to buy something big. Another lesson, of course.
One weekend I came in to find out that our Defender game has been replaced by Stargate--an even more addicting sequel!
After plowing through a couple of dollar in quarters I was broke, so I lifted a couple of Georges from the register. In those days they left a couple of extra quarters in there, and you always left the register wide open in case some addict wanted to break in after looking in the window (the hope being that they would see the registers open and understand they were largely empty). If they did break in they would take the ten bucks in change and beat it. Smart strategy my dad came up with there.
After using up those quarters, like a heroin addict I started thinking about how I would get my next fix. I remembered they kept a bag filled with a couple of rolls of quarters hidden next to the ice machine so that if they ran out of quarters during the night they could quickly fetch them. They kept other things ‘on ice,’ but that’s a whole other story.
My plan was to take two or three quarters per roll and play the game. No one would ever know right?
Grandpa and I were back at the apartment on 79th street when my dad called.
“It’s your father.” my grandmother said handing me the phone.
I felt dizzy. Like a death row inmate headed to their last meal I lowered my head and prepared for the punishment.
“Jason, I need to pick you up and we have to go to Beard’s. Billy Murphy stole money from the register and I have to fire him. Meet me downstairs.”
“Dad, I have to tell you something... “
It was too late, he hung up.
I waited downstairs and he picked me up. He was fuming.
“Billy stole from us and we have to go fire him. He took a bunch of quarters from the register and the stash by the ice machine.”
“Dad. I did it! I stole the quarters! You can’t fire Billy.” I pleaded. Tears were streaming down my face.
“It’s too late. He’s fired and it’s your fault. He won’t be able to find another job and he’s going to be homeless.” my dad told me.
I was hysterical now. My hands were shaking so violently that when I looked at them and tried to stop them from shacking it got worse. Snot and tears covered my face, neck and shirt.
My dad finally relented, “OK, if it was you and not ‘Murph, then you need to talk to Billy and maybe we won’t fire him.”
The Murph took me to the side of the building and we sat on the stoop. My chest was still heaving and I was still balling.
“Tell him.” my dad instructed.
“I. Took. The Quarters.” I gasped.
“it was me!!! I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re fired and you’re going to be homeless!” I balled.
Murphy looked at my dad like “What the f@#k dude?!?”
The both told me it would be OK but that I could never lie, cheat or steal again, because you never knew what the fallout would be from doing so. Innocent folks could get caught in the crosshairs of lies.
They added, that if I ever wanted some quarters to play the game all I had to do was ask.
Since that instance I could never consider lying, cheating or stealing.
The ramifications of those actions are somatically ingrained into me so deeply three decades later that on the occasions when a poker player next to me exposes their cards I have to look away and beg them to forgive me! I’ve actually folded my hand knowing that I have an unfair advantage and it wouldn’t be right to cheat.
Please protect your cards sir--please!
So, on this Father’s Day, I’d like to thank my dad for terrorizing me into being the man I am today.
I kid, I kid.
While I’d never suggest my dad’s insane parenting techniques, I’m grateful for the intent of the lesson and the barbarian spirit he instilled in me.
I love you dad!

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