Dad's Business and Uncle Nun by Andria Alefhi

I come from a large, let's say ethnic family.  My father's side 9; my mother's side 5.  I had more aunts and uncles than my friends had combined in total.  You wanna talk about cousins, forget it.  And second cousins, wouldn't even know them if they walked down the street.

All the men in the family have a wide stance on what constitutes income and who wants to know? Meet Uncle Nun.  I didn't know he had a first name, or that Nun wasn't a first name, till I saw it on his mass card when he passed away.  The man lived in a worn out wife beater, and I never saw him standing up.  He was retired since the day I was born.  A lot of my family went out on government disability when it was easier to claim.  Nun was a man of few words.  All I remember him saying in my whole life is "whattya want?" and "it ain't hot". Mostly he was watching the game, a game, on TV.  That's called being a bookie.  People run bets through you for all kinds of sports and you pay out a win or collect a loss. Cash.  It's a full-time job.  There are a lot of sporting events out there.

We went to Nun's to visit my Aunt Avita, not really to chat with Nun.  If we did, it was to buy something that fell off the truck.  No one ever taught the meaning of this directly to me, I think I just picked it up naturally, the way kids do.  Everyone we knew bought stuff that fell off the truck, even my mom, who was generally against gambling and alternative employment.  Schmucks paid full price.  He specialized in small items that were easily boosted and transported, rarely missed.  Batteries, razor blades, small appliances.  I never asked how the items were procured, I guess none of us cared.  Aunt Avita got her own business going for many years, in the late 80s, of trips to NY to buy up as many hot purses as she could stuff in large trash bags and haul on a greyhound bus back to our small town, far away, to re-sell.  That was a great gig.  All those women were hooked and she had no shortage of repeat customers who wanted to look like they shopped in NYC.

The secret to getting ahead in America is cash business.  No one had white collar work or college degrees, but everyone had a 1st generation American dose of entrepreneurialism.  In an earlier story I talk about my dad's poker games where we had steady income not dependent on his winnings, but a cut for just housing and feeding the players.  I mention booking there and in more detail here.  My dad never went in for that - too much drama, too illegal.  You had to have muscle in case someone didn't pay up, and you had to give up your life for the endless phone calls placing bets and keeping track of who won what.  But many of my uncles had this trade.  My dad had clean businesses.  The poker game was technically illegal, but like, parking ticket illegal.  My dad grew up in stores.  His dad had a small corner store.  His brothers had small corner stores.  My dad outdid everyone by combining ready-to-eat food with dry good products - what we now see all over NY as bodegas and delis, but which was nonexistent in his time.  My dad invented the submarine sandwich in our area.  It literally did not exist.  Not that he called it a sub.  He said to himself, 'hey, I sell bread, I sell lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and cold cut meat and cheese that I slice and sell by the pound anyway.  Why don't I use all these to make sandwiches and sell them for a huge profit?'  And it worked.  In another business, not at the same time, he owned a diner. He bought all the supplies, he got there at 5am, he cooked everything, it was a full menu for breakfast and lunch.  He hired 2 waitresses, then would call his sister or mother on super busy days to come help out.  I worked summers.  The nice thing about that place was he closed up by 3pm and on weekends and holidays, so he had time with his family.  The secret to all his businesses was that he was there - he owned, ran, managed.  When he got tired of it, he sold it and got something new.  He never had someone run a place for him, therefore he never could have more than one business.

I personally learned a lot in the two summers I worked there, part-time.  I learned about life, life lessons other kids might have learned going to summer camp or 4H or something.  My father was fast and it was impressive, he had 10 different egg orders going on the grill at the same time, just food everywhere. He always cleaned immediately.  I met lesbians for the first time, where they were labeled and it was explained to me.  I saw how a smile got you a nice tip. I also saw how men looked at me, at 13 and 14, when I would walk in through Uncle Nun's Uncle's bar to the diner.  I barely knew what it meant to be a woman.  I was a young girl turning dirty old man heads, but I didn't realize the sex in it.  I felt pride in coming to work and helping out.  Also though, some shady shit was going down that I didn't realize.  One of the waitresses, Angie, was especially sweet to me.  I remember her bringing me back a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, a sexy half shirt really, from Disneyworld.  One night, she asked my dad if she could take me out to dinner, just us.  Looking back, I wonder why he let me go.  My mom must have been crushed.  Because, my dad was having an affair with her.  Of course I didn't know that, I was just excited for the attention.  I had no idea my dad was sleeping with the waitress.  I think the money and power went to his head.  I didn't out about this until many years later, but this was the start of the great demise between my parents.  Also, someone was stealing cash from the register, which I also didn't know was the reason he quit and sold the diner.
This second diner was his last business.  After this came the poker games, and then finally ending in working for a company where he had to punch in and out with a time card.  This was hard on him.  Meanwhile, all these years, my mom was neutrally working for the bank, getting a paycheck and benefits and never begrudging not being her own boss.

Andria curates the fantastic literary magazine, We'll Never Have Paris

Image: In Memory of D. Pearl by Ricky Romain