Scraping hardened food off dishes with sweat and detergent-laden steam beading on me brow, emptying long-fermenting buckets of fish heads and guts amid a cloud of squawking, peckish gulls, stamping prices on canned goods for hours on end, collecting fetid restaurant refuse, piled haphazardly under a searing sun, and truckin’ it to the dump in a squeaking, rattling powder-blue pickup named “Gladys.”
With summer on the wane and Labor Day just one calendar sheet away, I’m drawn back to the seasonal employment of my youth, the trying tasks with soul-deadening repetition and piddling pay. With what I’m guessing is a less than optimum series of synapses firing inside me noggin, I ruminate over how those experiences, as unpleasant as they were, helped mold the man I am today.
Yet a question remains, one with a satisfactory answer that has eluded mankind for centuries unknown:
Why the hell wasn’t I born into money?
Yeah, fine, whatever. Don’t tell me, I know, an original thought it ain’t. Can’t help it, though. In spite of my Irish Catholic upbringing – more likely a direct result of it – I’m on the same page as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Lord who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?
Well, except that I’m not a dirt-poor father of five daughters trying to maintain his cultural and religious traditions under the crushing yoke and persecution of tsarist Russia in the early 20th Century.
Truth to tell, I sometimes channeled Tevye during my earlier newspaper days.
Wouldn’t go to Town Board.
Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
No, didn’t sing that out loud, nor did I favor the reporters in the newsroom with a goyishe version of Zero Mostel’s famous upper body shimmy-thing, entertaining as that would have been, for all the wrong reasons.
Lord, I hope I ain’t clapped in irons for, what’s that again? Oh, yeah, “cultural appropriation.” That term has no meaning to the Irish, who every March have to put up with green beer, guys partying in cheap leprechaun costumes, restaurants pushing corned beef and cabbage, (they don’t eat that stuff in the Ould Sod) and fools everywhere offering “top ‘o the mornin!”
We don’t get our knickers in a twist because, (1) We’ve got a sense of humor and, (2) there’s more important matters to ponder. You don’t hear anyone bitchin’ about Mel Brooks’ portrayal of a Yiddish-speaking Native American chief in “Blazing Saddles,” do ya?
“Fiddler” is a great show and the Tevye character speaks across cultural lines. Period.
Let’s consider my background for a minute. Ok, I lost my Dad to lung cancer when he was but 46 and I was just 14. Not your average teenage experience. But Ma Kelly kept a roof over our heads, (sans fiddler) food on the table and any of the seven siblings who wanted a college education got one.
How could me and This Missus fall short of that standard?
We didn’t. We did damn fine job raising a son and daughter, if I do say so meself.
At 30 our son became a vice president for a Fortune 100 Wall Street firm and our daughter earned her PhD. last year and is a university biology instructor.
They, too, once worked crap jobs.
Ryan Patrick’s first paying gig was cutting evergreens at a local Christmas tree farm. If a family from Nassau County assumed that as a local his arboreal knowledge knew no limits, he played along, but made sure they left happy.
Working just for tips, he came home after his first day wet and tired, but with 75 bucks in his pocket.
Later, as busboy and then a waiter, he made enough for a trip to Europe and purchased a POS Chevy Blazer. MacGyver would be amazed at how he kept that hunk ‘o junk on the road.
His career path opened up early on. In middle school he purchased cinnamon jawbreakers, called “Atomic Fireballs” if memory serves, at a local deli for five cents each and sold ‘em at school for a quarter a pop. That’s it, find or create a demand and provide the supply. Mark up the wholesale price to what the market will bear and always keep the customer wanting more.
Caitlin Anne, likewise was never one to lie about the house. When she wasn’t nose-deep in schoolwork, you’d find her ringing up the price of fruit and vegetables at an area farm stand or tallying the cost of kids clothing at a local shop. She became such an accomplished gift-wrapper that when home for Christmas she still wraps presents for a former customer.
The laborer is worthy of his hire.
We did our part, yet my driveway knows not the crunch of tires of a Lamborghini Adventador S Roadster, nor do my pockets hold the keys to the 15,000-square-foot main house on our estate overlooking the rock-strewn coast of Maine.
And why haven’t we been spotted cruising down Route 1 to our Key West manse in a cobalt blue 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280SE?
Really, now, I’m a man of modest needs. It’s not like I lust for a 200-foot yacht docked at Monaco or a 50,000-acre ranch in Montana. I’d settle for 120 feet and 10,000 acres if needs must.
“The Breakers” in Newport, R.I., the Vanderbilt’s 70-room summer “cottage,” would suffice. Wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been hit with, “How are you gonna vacuum a 70-room mansion?” That, I reply, is where Yvonne and Yvette come in.
That, they tell me, is the most unlikely aspect of the entire scenario.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
I know, I know, a polar bear attacking me in the middle of Central Park’s Great Lawn on the 4th of July is far more likely than the Publishers Clearing House prize van, or a Lamborghini Adventador S Roadster, pulling into my driveway.
You know, come to think of it, I don’t think “The Breakers” even has a pool.
To us and our good fortune
Be happy, be healthy, long life.
And if our good fortune never comes
Here’s to whatever comes.
Drink, L’Chaim, to life!
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.