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My father is a son-of-a-bitch from Eastern Europe. Where he came from, getting as far as high school was a pretty big deal. He never made it. Neither did my mother, who is along similar lines to my father, although she came over when she was very young and doesn't speak with an accent. As far as my parents are concerned, when you hit high school you are an adult.
In my family, that means you are even more on your own than previously. My parents believe in the principle of "Sink or swim," or "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger—or it kills you." So, when I hit Riverview High School, all supervision stopped, all restrictions were lifted. I could go where I wanted, stay out as late as I wanted, hang out with anybody, do anything—officially, that is. Mom and Dad were never very consistent. Any privileges could be, and were, suspended whenever they felt like it, especially my father.
When I decided I would smoke, for example, my father smacked the cigarette out of my face—and my face. This did not mean I was not allowed to smoke—just that I was not allowed to smoke cigarettes, which my father associated with men who lived off the immoral earnings of women. I was allowed to smoke cigars, however.
"Only not dem little cigars vitch also makes you look like some pimp," my father said.
Great big stogies were manly, and perfectly all right with him, and he even gave me a five-pack of Wolf Brothers Rum-Soaked Crooks to get me started right.
As a high-schooler, I was now also permitted to buy my own clothes, out of my allowance—but I could buy them only in stores my father personally approved. This meant that I could purchase trousers only at Kupferman's Pants on Roosevelt Road, and Kupferman, a friend of my father's, would sell me only one kind, blue-gray worsted wool, with pleats, and raised black twisted wiggles woven into the fabric.
"Dese are deh poifect pants for a young man in high school," Kupferman, who talks just like my father, says. "Dey vear like iron." They also feel like iron. They make a noise when you walk, and chafe your thighs until you get used to them. You can strike matches on them.
My father gave me a brown leather briefcase, with straps, probably the only one like that in America, and a plaid scarf.
"Now you look like a sport," he said.
What I looked like was someone going to high school in maybe Lodz or Krakow, maybe twenty years ago, or my father's idea of such a person.
I forgot to mention that my father forced me to buy a pair of heavy black shoes with soles about an inch thick. They look like diver's boots and are supposed to last me the rest of my life. Which they will. Easily.
Thus, when I set out for my first day at Riverview, my appearance clearly marked me as a model geek. I was still getting used to the industrial footwear and developing the strength necessary to lift each foot. This gave me a sort of Frankenstein-monster gait. The briefcase, containing two brand- new notebooks and two Wolf Brothers Rum-Soaked Crooks cigars, bounced against my ironclad knee. I was sweating, and the extra-heavy-duty black hornrims, which my father's friend Julius the Optician had sold me, were slipping down my nose. I had the feeling—but set it down to first-day jitters— that I was about to descend into hell.
You should always trust your feelings.