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.
“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’.