Five days in Vegas with Jack Friedman, my dad
My father was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 14, 1926, and in 1953, he married Florence Ulrich, also of Brooklyn. They had three children: Wayne, Barry and Susan. I’m Barry. After my mother died, my dad, a semi-retired accountant, moved to Las Vegas. I live in Tulsa, Okla., and visit about once a month.
Sometimes I hear my mother: “Go see your father.”
This is the story of a recent visit.
(Summerlin, Tumble Brook Drive, foyer)
My father is on the sofa; the television I could hear from his driveway.
“Ba, they’re buying us dinner at Fleming’s,” he says, as I stand in the hallway. “We just have to listen to a tax lecture.”
He had mentioned something about this on the phone.
“What? Hi. Oh, right. Can you turn the TV down?”
“What? Yeah.” He does, after pushing every button on the remote. “I told you, remember? They buy dinner, but you have to sit through a seminar. You’ll come. I’ll tell them you’re a business partner. Just don’t say we’re related — no, wait, you’re a partner. You could be related. Okay, tell them you’re my son, but not from Oklahoma. But eat something first, because they don’t serve till afterwards. You want to come?”
“Sure.” I don’t.
“You want a hardboiled egg?”
“Sure.” I don’t.
“You going to change?”
“No.” I do.
(Fleming’s, Charleston Boulevard)
The meeting starts at 6:30. We get here at 5:45.
The organization has rented a meeting room in the back. At the sign-in table, when asked our names, my father replies, “Jack Friedman. This is my son, my partner. We’re CPAs. I’m an accountant. He’s from Oklahoma.”
He’s blown his own cover.
We find an empty table in a room full of them. I sit in the chair in front of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, each shelf filled with wine.
“Put your cell phone away,” my father tells me.
“No way. I’m taking notes.”
A few seconds later. “Barry, grab a bottle,” he says, pointing to some wine above me.
Another couple joins us. The table seats eight; it is just the four of us. Other tables start filling up. I’m guessing 10 total.
A man bounds to the front of the room. His name is Berger.
“Gotta be Jewish,” my father says. “Who else wishes people a prosperous year in September?”
Berger is screaming. “Is money falling through the cracks of your fingers? Is it?”
“Let me check,” my dad whispers, holding out his hands. “No, nothing.”
Fast forward two hours …
Dinner comes with one nonalcoholic beverage. My father orders a root beer with his filet.
He tells the couple at the table a joke about a man who kills his wife’s lover, which ends with the guy’s wife saying, “You keep doing that, you’re going to lose all your friends.”
The man at the table doesn’t laugh, doesn’t smile, says he and his wife like Joel Osteen and, thus, do not like off-color jokes.
“My son’s a comedian,” he says, pointing to me, like it’s my fault.
That they laugh at.
Dessert comes. My dad asks for coffee.
He waits. No coffee.
He makes eye contact with the waitress, points at her and mimes drinking a cup.
“Sir,” she says, “you’ve had your beverage. I’m sorry. I can’t serve you coffee.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re only entitled to one beverage. You had a root beer, remember?”
Here it comes.
“One beverage? She got a refill of tea,” he says, pointing to the woman at our table. “Doesn’t that count as two beverages?”
The woman smiles but doesn’t want to get involved. The waitress, too, is unswayed.
On the way home:
“These miserable bastards! How do they not offer coffee? It’s standard.”
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(Southwest Medical Associates, Grand Montecito Parkway)
He’s not letting it go.
“It’s a lousy cup of coffee! I wouldn’t have had the root beer had I known.”
His appointment is at 9:30. It’s 8:20.
My father’s blood pressure dropped to 80/40 the previous week at a party after drinking, according to his friends, four glasses of wine. He was taken to the ER.
His physician, from Nigeria — he calls her “EZ Lou” — asks about that.
“I had a little wine,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, “but I don’t even like wine.” In Jack Friedman’s world, if you don’t like the alcohol you’re drinking, it doesn’t count.
“How much do you drink usually?”
I stare at my father. He still has upper body strength, but his skin has begun to sag. He’s asked if I notice. I lie, tell him I don’t.
“Maybe three drinks a night,” he tells her, “three times a week, but it’s only gin.”
EZ Lou face-palms.
(Red Rock Casino, Valet)
My father bounds towards me.
“I was flirting with the dealer,” he says, handing me a hundred. “Here … buy yourself something. Anyway, her husband is dying of cancer, but said he doesn’t interfere with her social life. I think she wanted my number.”
What other explanation could there be, for she’s a dealer, working mornings, and her husband’s dying — what could be better than getting the phone number of an octogenarian in black sweats, a blue Nike shirt and slip-ons?
Before his present girlfriend, he was dating a woman 20 years younger than he.
“Does that make me a pedophile?” he used to ask.
It’s funny, trust me, the first 117 times you hear it.
We have three more stops: First to Lowe’s for an oven (he’s been using Scotch Tape to keep the door closed on the one he has); then, to Dollar Tree for 3-liter bottles of pineapple soda (don’t ask); and finally to the Suncoast Casino for his Friday bowling league, where, he tells me, “If Judy says one more goddamn word about what I do wrong when I bowl, I’m going to start charging her for her tax returns.”
(Tumble Brook Drive, Living Room)
He keeps falling asleep in his recliner, watching I, Robot. My mother used to say that when she’d see him in front of the television, she’d look at his belly. “If it’s moving up and down, I know he’s breathing. I know he’s okay.”
It’s moving up and down.
He wakes up.
“Where’s your mother, Barry? Where’s your mother?”
Fourteen years she’s dead — breast to bone cancer, awful stuff — and he tells me he’s been thinking about her more and more. He didn’t want to move to Vegas in the first place, he told me, because if she came back to Jersey looking for him, she wouldn’t find him.
“She had a life, Ba. She wasn’t cut short, but she went too soon. She should have had another 10 years. Wouldn’t have killed anybody.”
(Tumble Brook Drive, in front of hats that hang on his office door)
“I’m not wearing this,” he says, taking off the beret, “it makes me look like an old man.”
This from a 87-year-old who wears toupees he buys online.
“Dad, the hairpieces don’t fit.”
“What do you want me to tell you? That’s the way they come.”
(Sometimes there are no comebacks)
We are going to Primm with his girlfriend, Jeannette, whose name he can’t always remember (but who, good sport that she is, answers to Jennifer). She’s not 20 years younger than he is — probably seven or eight — but he still uses the pedophile line.
Jeannette is bringing Barbara, her friend.
On the way to Jeannette’s I notice my dad’s car has no brakes. None — metal on metal. “Nah,” he says, when I ask if he hears the grinding, “that’s just the sound of the tires on these fakakta roads in Vegas.”
We ask Barbara if we can take her SUV. We’ll buy the gas.
She agrees. I drive.
On the way, she and Jeanette talk about a mutual friend, Enid, with whom they take casino trips and with whom they are both fed up.
“What’s the matter with Enid?” I ask.
“First off, she never stops telling jokes,” Barbara says, “but the big thing: She wears dresses that don’t cover her heinie.”
(Primm — Buffalo Bill’s Casino, Miss Ashley’s Boarding House Buffet)
“Where’s the meat on this chicken?” my father asks the server. He doesn’t suffer bad service gladly. And he’s right — this chicken not only has no meat, it’s so undercooked, it’s barely dead.
Okay, so we buy Barbara lunch in lieu of the gas — it’s $14.95. We believe we made this clear — in lieu of — however, when we get back to Vegas, she directs me to her favorite station, apparently thinking it was in addition to.
“Lunch and filling up her car?” my father says after we drop them off. “And we have to go to a special station? Oy!”
The Friedmans were played today.
(Southwest Medical Associates, Rancho Drive)
My father has another doctor’s appointment. This one’s scheduled for 8:20. We get there at 7:30.
He’s trying to flirt with his Russian cardiologist, who, at the moment, has a stethoscope pressed to his chest.
“How does Moses make tea?” my dad asks her. “He ... brews it.”
She asks if there is any violence in his home. My dad says he lives alone and doesn’t think so.
(On the 215 Beltway)
On the way to McCarran, my father asks, “So Barbara really expected gas, too, after we bought lunch? A fire on her.”
“And what about the coffee you didn’t get?” I remind him.
“The miserable bastards.”
We’re looking for my drop-off point. “Vegas keeps moving these roads, Ba. Give me the name of an airline, for Chrissakes! Terminal 1, Terminal 2, Terminal 3. How many goddamn terminals they got here?”
(“Why do you answer him?” I remember my mother asking.)
I hate saying goodbye to him because I never know if I’ll see him again.
I’ve done my best to be a good son but still don’t know who the man is who is my father. He’s agreed to move to Tulsa on his 88th birthday. “I want one more year on my own, Ba, one more year.” He needs to come now, but how do you argue with that?
I have him stand on the curb near baggage claim so when I hug and kiss him, which I do more and more these days, I won’t dwarf him — his stubble against my face I remember from when I was a little boy and he dwarfed me. In May, after we visited his 92-year-old brother in Delray Beach, Fla., I watched my dad walk down the jetway to his plane with a turkey sandwich in a bag I bought him.
The last thing he said to me that day:
“Did you remember the mustard?”
Today he gets into his car, pulls the seat closer to the steering wheel, and puts on the reading glasses he bought at Dollar Tree — the $700 ones he has from the optometrist aren’t as comfortable or as clear, he tells me — then waves and drives to the Suncoast Casino for his Tuesday bowling league.
He will get there two hours early.