Fa­ther’s Day — Michael Chabon on his own ‘Pop’

For Fa­ther’s Day, an ex­tract from novelist Michael Chabon’s es­say re­call­ing house vis­its, as a small boy with his fa­ther, a doc­tor.

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“LIKE FA­THER, LIKE son?” the pa­tient adds help­fully.

My fa­ther has fit­ted the ear­pieces of his stetho­scope to his ears. He slides its di­aphragm un­der the blood pres­sure cuff. One eye­brow arched, he lis­tens to the pa­tient’s pulse with an ex­pres­sion of calm in­ten­sity that to this day re­mains the badge in my imag­i­na­tion of an en­gaged and cu­ri­ous mind. A few years later I will watch Leonard Ni­moy, as Mr Spock, look up from his scan­ner on the bridge of the USS En­ter­prise, and catch the echo of my fa­ther’s face.

“I don’t know about that,” my fa­ther replies, fi­nally, un­cuff­ing the pa­tient’s fore­arm. “He might be a lit­tle too squea­mish.”

This is a new word to me, but I grasp its mean­ing im­me­di­ately. Doc­tors stick peo­ple with nee­dles, cut them open, take their blood, lay bare their bones and or­gans. In­evitably, doc­tors — even doc­tors with gen­tle and re­as­sur­ing man­ners, like my fa­ther — in­flict pain.

“Is that right?” The pa­tient looks at me. (In my rec­ol­lec­tion of that night, I see from his ex­pres­sion that I have dis­ap­pointed him, or let him down, but maybe what I saw on the pa­tient’s face was only baf­fle­ment? If I didn’t want to grow up to be a doc­tor, then why was I in the man’s kitchen at seven o’clock on a week night, with a doc­tor’s bag?) “So, what do you want to be?”

I think back to the sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween my fa­ther and me in our booth at Ricardo’s ear­lier this evening. Ricardo’s is the only Mex­i­can restau­rant I have ever been to at this point in my life (Mex­i­can restau­rants be­ing nowhere near as com­mon­place then as now) and so I have no point of com­par­i­son, but decades later, liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, I will come to un­der­stand that Ricardo’s was a Mex­i­can restau­rant of the old school: half-el­e­gant, red Nau­gahyde and dark wood trimmed in wrought iron, a throw­back even then to an era when white peo­ple still thought of Mex­ico as an ex­otic land in­hab­ited by cacti, bur­ros, men in som­breros, and Lupe Vélez. For my fa­ther, a Brooklyn boy, there was still some­thing ex­otic in 1967 about tacos and tamales. To me, there was a solem­nity in the iron and wood in­te­rior, the chill air, the shad­owed booths. Meals there took on an adult air of sig­nif­i­cance. At the front of the restau­rant, the cashier sat be­hind an old-school glass dis­play case well stocked with candy, gum, cig­a­rettes, and es­pe­cially cigars laid out in their or­nate and colour­ful boxes that de­picted great gen­er­als and queens, gods of an­cient Egypt, In­di­ans in full re­galia.

Over our din­ner tonight my fa­ther re­marked that when he was a boy, al­most ev­ery de­cent restau­rant had fea­tured a cab­i­net of won­ders of this kind; now al­most none of them did. This ob­ser­va­tion prompted me to ask his other ques­tions about the world of his boy­hood, long ago. He told me about the el­e­vated trains of Brooklyn, about the all-day pro­grammes at his lo­cal movie the­atre, a news­reel, a car­toon, a se­rial, a com­edy short, the B pic­ture and fi­nally, the A pic­ture, all for a dime.

He talked about comic books, ra­dio dra­mas, As­tound­ing mag­a­zine, and the sto­ries they had told: rocket-pow­ered heroes, bug-eyed mon­sters, mad sci­en­tists bent on us­ing science to save the world. He de­scribed to me how he had saved box tops from cold ce­re­als like Post Toasties, and re­deemed them by mail for Ju­nior G-Man badges or card­board Fly­ing Fortresses that car­ried pay­loads of black mar­bles. He told me about play­ing games like potsy, stick­ball, hand­ball, ringole­vio, and for the first but by no means the last time, about an en­chanted pas­try called a char­lotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scal­loped pa­per cup, topped with a maraschino cherry.

He de­scribed hav­ing spent weeks in the cel­lar of his Flat­bush apart­ment build­ing as a young teenager, try­ing and fail­ing, with some mail-or­der chem­i­cals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern bat­tery, to re-cre­ate “the orig­i­nal recipe for life on earth,” as given in the pages of As­tound­ing.

In the air-con­di­tioned red dark­ness of Ricardo’s, across from the cigar case, the past and the fu­ture be­come al­loyed in my imag­i­na­tion magic and science, heroes and vil­lains, brick-and­steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of to­mor­row. my fa­ther, an in­vet­er­ate list maker, rat­tled off the names of games, trains and ra­dio shows, stop­ping to give lit­tle in the way of de­scrip­tion, yet it all came to life for me, as gaudy and vivid and fra­grant as those boxes of cigars. Be­yond the min­i­mal con­tours that my fa­ther hastily sketched — we had a pa­tient to get to — some quirk in me, in the wiring of my brain or the ca­pa­bil­ity of my heart, en­abled me to ride the bare rails of his mem­ory into the past.

In my head, in what I was just com­ing to un­der­stand with­out even putting a name to it, as my imag­i­na­tion, I felt that I was, or had been present on Flat­bush Av­enue at the pass­ing of his vivid, van­ished child­hood. I did not know how I was man­ag­ing the trick or what it might be good for — I was not even nec­es­sar­ily aware I was do­ing it— but I knew im­me­di­ately that it was my se­cret su­per­power.

Fair enough: So, what do I want to be? How to an­swer the pa­tient, who is now tak­ing breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the drum of the stetho­scope makes check­ers moves across his back. I put away the plas­tic sphyg­mo­manome­ter and snap the flimsy clasp of my coun­ter­feit black bag.

Let my fa­ther be the doc­tor — when I grow up, I want to tell the pa­tient, I will be­come a guy who gets to live in­side and out­side of his own mind and body at the same time, trav­el­ling, with­out mov­ing, into other worlds, other places, other lives. But I don’t know quite how to put it, or ex­actly what kind of work the proper de­ploy­ment of my su­per­power might suit me for or en­tail.

“I’m prob­a­bly go­ing to be a mad sci­en­tist,” I an­nounce to the pa­tient, to my fa­ther, and, a lit­tle won­der­ingly, to my­self. “And make the orig­i­nal recipe for cre­at­ing life on earth.”

He tried to make the orig­i­nal recipe for life on earth


Michael Chabon: re­call­ing a key mo­ment with his fa­ther

Pops: Fa­ther­hood in Pieces by Michael Chabon is pub­lished by Fourth Estate. This is an ex­tract from the es­say ‘Pops’.

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