I remember the days, the days when dreams were lightning and thunder was desire. I had a car back then, my very first car, the car I took to the drive-in movie, the car I drove to my job selling ratchets and sockets at Sears on the Boulevard, the Boulevard of broken promises. It was, at its best, a ’53 Dodge Coronet, with a smooth cream white body, and a rich royal blue roof. It was my father’s car, the car he drove to work on Market Street, the car that took us, with certainty and surety, to visit our family in South Philly and then again in Brooklyn.
By the time I got to drive it, on May 22nd, 1962, the day after my sixteenth birthday, the tires had been patched like an old football. “You take care of this car,” my father told me. “It has a lot of life left.” My father wasn’t big on buying new things when the old things would do. It made no sense to him. We begged for years for a color TV. “They’re not perfected yet,” my father would say. “And there’s nothing wrong with the black and white set. Ed Sullivan’s a white guy, Sammy Davis is a colored guy. What more is there to see?”
My father was a man of thrift. He didn’t trust the banks, because the banks had failed him. Didn’t trust the financial experts because the experts had lied to him. So he kept his money where all smart people did – in a Florsheim shoebox in the back of the hall closet, underneath a pair of black rubber galoshes, size 9 and a half, that he had bought from a guy who knew a guy.
I learned about saving from my father, who worked seven days a week and got paid for four. He sat me down one day, he in his recliner, me on the brushed brown slipcovers of the old gold sofa. “I want you to listen to me,” he said. “Don’t spend money that you don’t have.”
It was a simple philosophy, but one that had gotten him through three wars, a stock market crash and a Depression. He, like so many others, had lost everything when the banks closed. He had seen better times. At the wedding of my parents, white doves flew through the ballroom, a full orchestra played the Charleston. But those days were long gone.
He never had a credit card, my father. If he didn’t have enough money in the shoebox, he didn’t buy. This is why we were the last house on the block to have such luxuries as an air conditioner and an electric clothes drier.
There were times, and they weren’t the best of times, when I thought that I was smarter than my father. Like the time I took all the money that people had given me for my Bar Mitzvah and bought stock in General Motors. My father lost his patience. I lost my shirt.
Last month, I made a life decision that my father would be proud of. I gave up gambling. I took most of my money out of the stock market. The investment guys told me it was a big mistake. They said that I would be kicking myself for all the winnings I’d be losing. But I was never big on rollercoasters. Gas prices, terrorism, the floods, the war. I have no control over any of it. None of us do. But now I don’t wake up nights wondering how many years I’ll be able to live if I ever decide to retire. My father never had that decision to make. He never had enough money to retire. So one day he was working and the next day he was dead. I don’t think I want to do that.