The first time I called on Uncle Tony at the Long Island supply house where he worked for most of his life (and this was went I was quite young and astonishingly stupid) I walked in without the donuts. Uncle Tony greeted me with a big, "Danny! How are you, kid? How's my sister?" He even gave me a hug.
Then he leaned around me, both sides. He stepped back, looked at the top of my head and then my feet and then again at my hands. "Where are the donuts?" he asked.
"I'm supposed to bring donuts?" I said.
Uncle Tony looked from me to the Mel, the other counterman. Mel shook his head and walked down an aisle. Then Uncle Tony looked at the contractors who were waiting at the counter. They all looked at me like I was something picked from a nose. They also shook their heads. Idiot.
And here's what happened next: Uncle Tony, who had the agility of a squirrel in those days, came around the counter like the place was on fire. He grabbed my arm with a meaty hand that felt like a four-foot wrench and dragged me out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
"Never come in here without the donuts," he said.
"Uncle Tony!" I said. "You're kidding, right?"
"EH!" he said, pointing a stiff finger at my mouth, which did the right thing and closed immediately. "Donuts," he snarled and went back inside. I stood on the sidewalk like an orphan and then went to get the donuts.
That was my first sales call on my Uncle Tony. It actually went better than it might have, but that was only because he was my mother's little brother. And he loved me.
I was in there one day when a contractor stopped by to ask Uncle Tony a question. The guy started going on and on about this job and how many times he had tried to get it right but it just wasn't working like it should. This was during the days before we had an Internet and when a contractor got into trouble on a job about the only place he could go if he didn't have a father in the business was to his wholesaler, who was supposed to have an answer for everything.
Uncle Tony stood there listening. He was as quiet as a medicine cabinet. Every now and then he would nod a bit. The more Uncle Tony listened, the more the contractor talked. Finally, Uncle Tony held out the palm of his right hand like a cop stopping traffic. "Is this going to take much longer?" he asked.
"Wadda ya mean?" the contractor asked.
"The story. Is it going to take much longer?"
"Yeah, a little bit longer," the contractor said.
"Minutes or hours?"
"I don't know yet," the contractor said.
"Okay, then hang on," Uncle Tony said. He reached under the counter and came up with a fuzzy blanket and a Teddy Bear that some kid had left in the place years ago when the kid's parents were in there looking at sinks. He climbed up on the counter and stretched out. He nuzzled the Teddy Bear, pulled the blanket up around his chin, said to the contractor, "Please. Go on." And then he stuck his thumb in his mouth and started to suck.
The contractor stood there with eyes as big as manhole covers.
And that's what I was thinking about when I was kneeling at the coffin. What a business this is that grown men can do stuff like that and be loved for it. What a wonderfully wacky business.
My father and Uncle Tony used to work together at a Manhattan supply house. Go to that neighborhood now and you can't believe there used to be such a place there. Uncle Tony moved way out onto Long Island and took a job at the place I've been telling you about. My father stayed on in the city, at the much bigger place. The man who owned Uncle Tony's supply house was an old fellow who seemed to be made out of spare parts from different Muppets. He was worth about a zillion dollars but he didn't spend any of it on clothes or hygiene. From time to time, he'd need something that he didn't carry at his Long Island supply house, so he'd get in his car, which looked about as weary as he did, and he'd drive to Manhattan, to my father's place.
"Nobody knew who he was," my father would tell me. "He'd stand at the counter and they'd wait on everybody except him. He was as patient as death."
My father was the shipping clerk and whenever he'd spot Uncle Tony's boss he'd leave his office and go wait on him. He'd call him by name, get all his stuff together, carry it out to his old beater and put it in the trunk, or the back seat, or the front seat. Or wherever. He'd chat a bit, show respect, and come away with a tip that was usually bigger than his weekly check.
He mentioned to me that there's a lesson there. Mentioned it more than a few times, may he rest in peace
But I digress.
Another time (and this was Uncle Tony with a different contractor): This guy is asking Uncle Tony a question about a job that the guy should never have taken on because he just didn't have the knowledge. He was replacing parts, one after another, without a clue, but that is also the wacky nature of this business, isn't it? Everyone gets to work on plumbing and heating in the U.S. of A.
Time goes by and Uncle Tony is being a medicine cabinet again - quiet and occasionally nodding. I'm waiting for the blanket and the bear, and sure enough, up comes the palm to stop the guy's words like an eight-inch globe valve.
"You are today's winner!" Uncle Tony says. "You can stop right there."
"Wadda ya mean?" the contractor says.
"Here," Uncle Tony says, handing the guy a toy sheriff's badge. "You can wear this for the rest of the day. Bring it back tomorrow."
The guy looks at the badge, which has a piece of masking tape over its front. On the masking tape, written with a thick felt-tipped marker are the letters D.F.
The guy looks at the badge and then pins it on his shirt. He smiles. "What does D.F. stand for?" he asks.
"Think about it," Uncle Tony says.
The guy thinks for a good long moment and then says, "Oh." And then he cracks up.
We all laugh. Uncle Tony helped the guy, of course. He gave him the advice he needed and the parts, just as he had done with the Teddy Bear guy. That was the thing about Uncle Tony and those times. There was a lot of chop-busting and I think much of that had to do with there not being an Internet. Contractors had fewer places to go back then, and their wholesaler was the technical center of their universe. I see less of what Uncle Tony and my father at his New York supply house used to get away with. Times change. People retire. They grow old and sometimes lose their memories, as was the case with Uncle Tony. They leave others to remember.
I really should have brought donuts to his wake.