140: Family Business
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From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
And this is the story of the day that my dad fired his mother and sent her home from work. With her 13 inch black and white TV in the passenger seat. As if a sure sign that she was definitely not coming back, she was taking the TV with her.
There are two kinds of family stories, your tragedies and your comedies. This, you'll be glad to hear, is a comedy.
When Rory was growing up in Massachusetts, everybody in the family did some work for the family business, a machine shop. She and her sisters assembled tiny parts as kids at their kitchen table. Her grandfather ran the technical side. Her dad ran the business side.
And my grandmother, my father's mother, was the secretary in the shop. She sat in the front with my father, like right outside his office. And he couldn't stand, basically, that she always gave him what he calls "chin music." Which is she would always be like, why are you paying that person that amount of money? Or why are you lending that person that money? It was always about money. It was always about the business affairs of the shop that she felt like she had to say something and that drove him bats.
So one day, I guess he had asked her to order a bunch of liquor for a party. I think it was like a wintertime party, possibly a Christmas party. And it was a list of all the liquor that they needed to get. And she thought that there was too much gin on the list. She thought that gin was a summer drink, despite the fact that she doesn't drink. And so she said to my father, don't you think that that's too much gin? You should order something else or don't get that. Don't get that drink. And he said, no, we're going to get that. Just order what I wanted. And she sort of went at him again, I think. And then, as she says, it just grew into something much uglier.
I guess, basically, he just threw in her face that she was always second-guessing everything that he did. That drove him bats and he told her, basically, to get out.
Of course, second guessing is part of what being a parent is all about. You're supposed to second-guess your kids' decisions when they're little. And then, after 15, 20 years, who among us is so strong that they could just suddenly stop? It happens without thinking, without you even wanting it to. Your kid does something. You automatically calculate, is that the right thing or not? You can't just leave it aside because you and your kid happen to be at work.
And then, of course, there's the kid's side. Who wants to be second-guessed like that all the time? Some estimates say that 40% to 60% of our nation's gross domestic product is created by family businesses. And you just have to wonder, how? How is our economy holding together?
I would definitely wager that some of those families, I think that they probably become coworkers more than family. I mean that's just my guess. So I can imagine it. I think it's definitely like making money is more important than getting along at a certain point.
Isn't that the way it should be?
Now there's a big family values thought for all of us to share today.
In Rory's family, everybody forgave or forget within a week after her father fired her mother. But other families aren't so civilized. Today on our program, stories of family businesses. What happens when the tension of family dynamics collides with the pressure of capitalist market forces? It's money, intrigue, blood, everything. Act One of our program, What's a Grecian Urn? David Rakoff takes us inside the world of one Greek family restaurant. Act Two, Silent Partner. A family that started a family business because grief counseling didn't work. Because time did not heal. Because nothing else to seemed to solve their problem. Act Three, Family Photo Opp. Dave Eggers and what happens when politics suddenly becomes your family business. When your brother runs for office spouting political views that you do not usually agree with yourself. Act Four, Every Unhappy Family Cleaning Supplies Business is Unhappy in Its Own Way. We hear how an invitation to a business meeting sent through the mail in 1963 kept two sides of a family from speaking with each other for most of the second half of the 20th century. Stay with us.
Act One: What's A Grecian Urn?
Act One, What's a Grecian Urn? Writer David Rakoff says that every job that he's ever had was for a family business of one sort or another. They've usually been hot beds of family intrigue and melodrama. Except at one place where he worked as a teenager, where it was only in retrospect that he fully understood what had been going on around him among family members every day.
King Constantine the Second, the deposed monarch of Greece, was passionate about my French vanilla root beer floats. The French vanilla was definitely one of our better flavors. We charged $0.05 more per scoop. Not every ice cream parlor in Toronto in the summer of 1982 came equipped with lapsed royalty. But Athos and Melina, the married couple who owned the shop where I worked, were old friends of the king. They had known him ever since the good old days when Constantine was still ensconced in happy figurehead-hood, and when Athos and Melina were at the tippy-top of Athenian society, he, a drug company executive, she, a scientist in the perfume industry.
The sense one got was that this was a couple on the lam for some reason. From Athens, they had fled to the Sudan, where they continued their rarefied lifestyle. And where a few years later, the volatile politics of that region would send them into flight yet again, landing them here in Toronto, exhausted and vaguely punch-drunk, the stunned franchisees of a well known ice cream parlour chain. Regrouping, they settled into their new lives in this ersatz San Francisco gold rush saloon, with its faux Tiffany lamps, frosted mirrors, and wrought iron chairs. It was an aesthetic so relentless and so forced in its attempt to evoke those bygone days in the city by the bay, that it even went so far as to name its biggest and most vulgar sundae after a civic disaster where thousands upon thousands of San Franciscans were killed.
I know a special birthday boy. Will you be having the earthquake?
Imagine, if you will, Marie Antoinette, who instead of succumbing to the decapitory charms of the guillotine, is safely spirited away from France to England along with other fortunate aristocrats. Now resettled, she runs a fish and chips stand in Brighton, where daily the tiny, golden ship perched in the frothy waves of her high-powdered wig regularly topples into the deep fat fryer. This will give you a sense of how profoundly strange was Athos and Melina's presence in our midst.
Athos looked like a latter day Jean Paul Belmondo, a formerly handsome man whose features have gone rubbery and heavy with age. He was, for the most part, a surly, taciturn man, constantly trying to bilk us out of our near minimum wages by suddenly pretending to understand less English than he actually did. But despite his gruff manner, y chromosome, and ultimate control of our salaries, it was no secret who was truly in charge: Melina. Formidable, fire hydrant-sized Melina.
If she had ever decided to withhold our payment, she would have never resorted to falsely broken English. She would have simply told us outright. I adored her. She was smart as a whip, possessed of an appreciative and often bawdy sense of humor, and sounded not a little bit like Peter Laurie. She was also prone to moods so changeable-- from borderline inappropriate affection to homicidal seething rage in mere seconds-- that one gave up trying to guess her mental state and surrendered to the hurricane of emotion that was Melina.
Actually, Athos and Melina weren't even really aristocrats. They were meritocrats. Their position in that world of Levantine glamour from which they had been lately cast out was earned by dint of study, expertise, and labor. They definitely knew the meaning of hard work.
We all sought refuge in the back. The kitchen became a haven for us. It was the place where they kept the industrial-sized tank of nitrous oxide used to make the whipped cream.
As anyone who has ever worked in an ice cream parlor can tell you, two things end up happening really quickly. You get sick of ice cream almost immediately. And soon thereafter, you fall in love with nitrous oxide. You heart whippets.
This ardor eventually cools when you realize that it's been weeks since you've been able to subtract simple sums, use an adjective correctly, or spell your own last name. But at the first blush of narcotic romance, you merely wonder where whippets have been all your life.
We were frequently joined in our daily worship at the nozzle by Melina and Athos' son, Nick. I was desperate to be Nick.
In 1982, I was valiantly trying to manifest as alternative, eccentric, divo. Instead, with my hair in a short back and sides do with a long and floppy neuromantic quiff on top, framing a face of such poorly concealed sweetness and naivete, I looked about as threatening and alternative as a baby poodle, as complicated as one of the ice cream cones I spent my days scooping.
But Nick. Nick had perfected that epoche brand of [UNINTELLIGIBLE] with his eyelids at the perpetual half mast of weary disdain, his two-tone spiky hair and tapered jeans. Athos and Melina seemed as oblivious to his silent truculence as they were to each other.
If the front of the store was their putative living room, where they didn't feel the need to talk to one another except in the presence of company, then the kitchen in back was Nick's domain, where they almost never ventured. The teenage bedroom of one's dreams. Namely, one with a working refrigerator, a six foot tall tank of pressurized mind-altering gas, and a gaggle of stoners to laugh at everything you say. Athos and Melina's complacent disregard of their son seemed yet more proof of their European sophistication.
Aside from occasionally working the register, Nick slouched about curating the music, a seemingly constant running loop of Big Science by Laurie Anderson, giving special play to its hit song, "O Superman," with its obligato of metronomic aspirating laughter. But his true pride and joy was his self-published punk new wave magazine, Before and After Science. It was a cut and paste affair of black and white checkerboard backgrounds, ransom note typography, and sci-fi movie chicks in beehive hairdos with cats eye glasses.
It was available for sale at the front of the store at a cost of $5 for the premiere and, what was to sadly be, only issue. I think I'm the only person who bought a copy. But still, the pile of magazines provided a welcome counterpoint to the maudlin boosterism that invaded the store that summer. It was dubbed the summer of Annie by proclamation of the head office in honor of the release of the musical film adaptation of the Broadway show. Franchisees across North America had been encouraged to invest in Annie ice cream, a special tie-in flavor.
Annie ice cream was a noxious combination of strawberry and marshmallow, of such a vile and diabetic coma-inducing nature that it was too cloying even for its target market of little girls. Seven and eight year old angels would skip into the store, all pigtails and horse love, and the scales would fall from their eyes as they spied the pink and white tubs of Annie, seeing the concoction for what it was, insidious marketing, a pernicious inducement to submit to the patriarchy. These apple-cheeked youngsters became suddenly hardened and cynical. They took up smoking right there on line, laughing bitterly like baby [? peofs ?], derisively ordering futility shakes and double scoops of alienation chip. Or, perhaps memory exaggerates just a tad.
Available along with the ice cream and stacked into a doomed unpurchased pyramid were the Annie glasses. Drinking glasses emblazoned with the movie's logo and the likeness of Aileen Quinn, the little girl chosen in a nationwide search to portray the plucky iris and pupil-deprived orphan. Sales of these would benefit local charities. Even this altruism was not enough to move a single tumbler.
Melina employed her usual unctuous tricks. Are you wearing Anais Anais, madam, she would coo. Ah, yes. It's a lovely fragrance. I was one of the chemists who created it in Paris. Yes, thank you so much. Can I interest you in one of our Annie glasses? Of course, it's for charity. No? That's perfectly fine. I thank you, madam. Good day. Wheeling around the instant the door closed she would hiss at us.
Did you see the jewels dripping off of that woman and she would not even buy one Annie glass. This is a film directed by John Huston, the man who made The Maltese Falcon. What is wrong with you people?
We laughed, imitating her behind her back as I am doing now. But of course, Melina's rages had nothing to do with your customers' lack of appreciation for the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] of John Huston. At the age of 17, I was too young to smell the tang of flop sweat in the shop air. That smell of exertion that comes from trying to keep away the wolves of defeat. Looking back now, I can see in Melina's pendulum mood swings the desperation of a woman running out of ground beneath her feet where she could resettle and start over yet again.
It must have seemed so foolproof to them, an American ice cream parlour. And so close to America. And how perfect too, that summer's thematic undercurrent, the unloved cartoon urchin with her little mongrel, delivered from abandonment and privation to a life of love and untold riches. Nick's magazine might almost have been the story of their family, before and after science. Before was their tenure in the reliable field of chemistry where something as ethereal and intangible as a fragrance could be created through the sober logic of a recipe. After was this random, anarchic world of business, a world that was failing them.
A year later, away at college, I would be sent a small newspaper item. The story between the lines made only sadder by the clinical dispassion of the clipping. A precipitous disappearance, no forwarding address, thousands of dollars in loans and bills outstanding, a shuttered store with no plans to reopen, a sheriff's department notice of seizure taped to the window.
If I look carefully, I can see them on an airplane. Athos sleeps. Nick tampers with the smoke detector in the bathroom, so he can light up. And there is Melina's face at the small round window. Shielding her eyes against the glass, she stares out into the light, past the blinking wing lights, past the western edge of the continent, out over the ocean, scanning the horizon for the next piece of dry land.
David Rakoff. His new book, Don't Get Too Comfortable, comes out this September.
[MUSIC- "HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM)" BY JAY-Z]
Act Two: Silent Partner
Act Two, Silent Partner. Now in this story of another family business, Sean Cole visited Chad's Trading Post, a restaurant filled with frilly knick knacks in Southampton, Massachusetts.
The first my girlfriend Mary Ellen and I walked into Chad's Trading Post, she noticed that only boys worked there and thought it was weird. Normally, she said, in a place like this, a small country restaurant, you only see girls working. She pointed to the cover of the menu, which read "Dedicated to and operated proudly in the memory of Chad D. McDonald, 3/12/74 to 3/11/90."
She leaned in to me and whispered, do you think the owner hires only boys because they remind her of her son? I certainly thought this was possible and sad in a way that makes you feel embarrassed for that person. Then a man came over and poured us some coffee. And when he turned around, there, in huge white letters on the back of his blue polo shirt, it said, "Chad's Brother."
Do you think that's what they call all the managers here, I asked Mary Ellen. Do you think that's really Chad's brother?
Then another friendlier manager type came over and asked us how we were doing and if we needed more coffee. And I noticed his shirt.
My shirt says, "Chad's Best Friend." Logo over on the right-hand side. And it just tells the customers who we are. You got "Chad's Best Friend," you got "Chad's Brother," "Chad's Dad." And we had "Chad's Mom," too. But she's doing other things.
This is the story of Chad's Trading Post. From the time he was 12, Chad and his brothers and a few friends had always talked about starting a small restaurant together when they graduated high school. They had planned out menus, Chad's father took him looking for locations. But Chad died in a shooting accident two days before his 16th birthday. Chad's father, Glenn, his brothers Scott and Cory, and his best friend, Mike, tell the story.
The boy who shot and killed my son was his younger brother's best friend.
It was myself and my best friend at the time and Chad. And they were cleaning up the cellar for his birthday. Oh, you were there too.
Yeah, we were in the kitchen cooking sausage.
But they were downstairs cleaning, and I was upstairs. My mother had just left. And me and Cory were upstairs cooking dinner. And they came up for a break, went in the room. And then we heard like a little firecracker go off. Then the person came out of the room. He had blood on his hands. And he's freaking out. I shot Chad. I shot Chad.
The official ruling which was that Chad picked up a gun, pointed it at this fellow, said bang. The other fellow picked up a gun, pointed it back at Chad, pulled the trigger, and that was all.
So I called 911, then I paged my mother, and then the police got there.
I was charged for involuntary manslaughter because it was my handgun that ultimately killed Chad, and that I was not aware that he had two of my handguns out of my cabinet in his bedroom at the time. And frankly, that was something I should have been aware of.
In 1993, the year Chad would have graduated from high school, the year he and Mike and his brothers and his father had planned to open a restaurant, they decided to open Chad's Trading Post.
This is Chad's corner of the restaurant. Notice the menu board. It tells you to "Welcome to Chad's Trading Post Family Restaurant." It says, "Nobody leaves hungry" and lists all the specials of the day. It also has a claimer on the bottom that it's named in memory of Chad D. McDonald, and the date of his birth, which is 3/12/74.
In all of the interviews I've ever heard and seen of an emotional nature, the person answering questions doesn't begin to cry until well into the interview. Chad's dad began crying before I even turned on my tape recorder. I asked him for a quick tour of the restaurant.
It's a nice place. Homey, even froufy, though all the men who created it are tattooed, muscly, working class guys, Chad's father included.
To the left of that, shows you the last and most recent picture of my son, which was taken about six weeks before he died. And the picture of the two boys that were named in memory of him, his younger brother's son, who is Ian Chadwick, and his best friend's son who is named Chad Michael.
This photo originally showed the two babies in Glenn's arms. But they had the photographer alter the photo and insert Chad's head over Glenn's.
And what they did was took the picture and replaced, by computer, Chad's picture over mine. It's actually my arms holding them, but the rest of it's all Chad.
Glenn showed me a painting in another corner of the restaurant. It was the comedy and tragedy masks from the cover of Motley Crue's album, Theatre of Pain, Chad's favorite record. After he died, Chad's friends and brothers adapted the design into a memorial to him. It appears on their shirts. Two brass masks hang over the door smiling and frowning. A huge flag with the masks hangs in the breeze outside, too heavy to flutter. Chad's brother, Scott, calls them the faces.
This was my first tattoo I got, the comedy and tragedy faces with the in memory of Chad banner. And that was my first tattoo. And I got that for the obvious reason. That's pretty much the family symbol now. It started off with my father getting-- because this was the tattoo he wanted to get without the banners. But that's what he wanted to get. That's what he planned on getting the following year for his birthday. He already had it planned out.
So my father came home with it one day and he got it.
You and your dad though, aren't the only ones?
No, there's me and my father, Steve [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Mike [UNINTELLIGIBLE], who still works here. My grandmother has the sad face. Eric [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
Yeah, she has it on her chest too. And Eric [UNINTELLIGIBLE] who worked here has it also.
And it's good. It's nice to see people. There's probably, all together, 15 people that have his name tattooed on them. We used to sit around the kitchen table and take a needle and wrap thread around it and dip it in calligraphy ink and tattoo each other with it. And there's quite a few people who we masterfully tattooed Chad's name on their arm. Whether they like it now or not, it's still there.
They've tried to stay as close to Chad's vision of the restaurant as possible. He never specified decor, so they've had a free hand there. He and Mike actually drafted a menu for the place. And the family has kept about half of it. The other half was slow baking recipes that no customer would ever wait for.
Chad was also a lot of fun, everyone says. A lot of fun. A comedian. And they say that's why they joke around so much at Chad's Trading Post. Scott says when he sees a heavy set customer that comes in a lot he says, hey Tubby. He builds towers of little creamer packages on the bald head of another customer. Glenn throws crumpled up napkins at his employees. They have water fights. All this levity in a place that's essentially a large roadside memorial that serves massive omelets.
If Chad was here, we'd have the place upside down by now.
How do you mean?
Oh, it's in fun. We really have fun now. But I think if he was here, we wouldn't have all that tension of his passing on our shoulder. The only tension we'd have is, how much trouble are we going to get into?
I have got to say, when I was here with Mary Ellen and we didn't know anything about the restaurant either. Obviously, we just found it. The first thing we saw was the menu and then we saw the back of Scott's shirt. And it was a little creepy, in a way.
I've never gotten that response before, never gotten the response that that was creepy. I always got the response that that's a very nice thing to do. It's very genuine and it's heartwarming. I've never gotten creepy before.
Well, I just mean it's like there's somebody else here in the restaurant that's not really here. You know what I mean?
And that's exactly what it is. He's here. He's here with us. And we kind of have to yell at him once in a while, because every time something silly or stupid happens, you've got to blame somebody. And he's one to pull a prank on me for that. He's definitely here. But there's nothing creepy about it.
I think I can safely say I have never seen any other family keep someone alive to this degree. They've gone out of their way to construct a world where they couldn't possibly forget Chad. A jumbo-sized photo of Chad stood behind Scott and his wife at their wedding. They believe Chad has protected their lives in serious accidents, that he brought Mike's son through a recent infection unscathed. Chad's room is the same as it was the day he was shot in it, with two exceptions. They took down the girlie pictures from the wall and they replaced the carpet.
Before they did all this, right after Chad died, they all say they were lost. Mike said he wanted to crawl into a hole. Scott and his father had to make a deal with each other that neither would kill himself. Scott and Cory went into counseling. Scott says it didn't help much.
But that's how it was when it happened. You didn't know what to do. I had no idea what to do. I walked in the bathroom, I'd look in the mirror, and I'm staring at myself in the mirror. And I flipped out and started punching the mirror. So now both my hands are cut, and I'm bleeding all over the place, and sitting on the floor crying. And I have no idea why. When you're that old and something like that happens, you don't have any idea what to do in any circumstance.
Walking across a bridge looking down. Yeah, maybe. You sit there and think about it for a few minutes. It takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot out of your mind. And counseling made it worse for a while.
What made it better, what Glenn says saved them, was starting the family business, Chad's business.
I guess is it healthy? I mean, is it--
I think everybody grieves in a different way. For me it is, because I'm doing something constructive. I was semi-retired and disabled before. I'm still disabled, but I was just vegging. I was sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself, and doing nothing. When the restaurant idea came up from his brother Scott, and we started looking into it rather seriously, we found the place, it was almost like a breath of fresh air. It was something we could all do in memory of his brother and have some fun with it. And we have for seven years.
Healthy? I don't know. The psychiatrists say many different things. People who blithely say things will get better over time have never been here. Things never get better. They get a little less immediate. So we work this in memory of him as a way of keeping him immediate to us. Nobody forgets. We get along this way. We get by this way. The whole bunch of us get by this way.
In Northampton, where I used to live there was a couple, and they own a cafe. And at one point, they had a child who lived 19 days. And after they disconnected him from life support, they built a shrine in their restaurant for him. Pictures of him connected to white tubes dotted the walls and beams. And his father, a musician, would perform a song at the cafe-- weekly, as I remember it-- comparing his son to a [? salmon ?] and to the messiah. And some of us, at first, though we knew it had to be hard, felt a little embarrassed for them. As though this tragedy had driven them a little crazy.
I think it's hard for us to know exactly what to do or say when we see public mourning like this because we see it so rarely. The intensity of it is shocking. It's too naked. And usually we think that if you hold onto someone after their death this way, you can't live your own life. But clearly you can.
Sean Cole is a reporter at WBUR Radio in Boston. In the years since we first broadcast this story, Chad's Trading Post closed its doors. The family is keeping Chad's memory alive in a new restaurant, Chad's Good Table, 10 minutes away in Westfield, Massachusetts.
[MUSIC- "WITHOUT YOU" BY MOTLEY CRUE]
Coming up, what's more dangerous, a borrowed military vehicle filled with family members or the rough and tumble world of the cleaning supply business? That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three: Family Photo Opp
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of different people to take a whack at that theme with different kinds of stories. Today's program, family businesses, what happens when blood has to handle money. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Family Photo Opp.
This is the story of a family that lurched briefly into a new business, the business of politics.
Bill Eggers was 31, working for a free market think tank in Los Angeles, consulting with mayors, governors, and future presidents about privatizing and downsizing government services. He wrote a book on the subject, which Newt Gingrich endorsed on the cover at a time when that endorsement meant a whole lot. And then, well, his brother Dave tells what happened next.
No one is caring about the Hummer. We are driving by, smooth and shiny, but no one is caring. It is bright red, this Hummer. And is powerful and gorgeous, this Hummer. And we are driving it slow, its wheels new and inky black, through Manhattan Beach, through Redondo Beach, past the boardwalks and t-shirt shops and retailers of frog-shaped paper weights fashioned from seashells. And while we are driving, we are waving and honking gently. And every so often we are saying, vote for Eggers, because my brother Bill is running for state representative and the election is tomorrow.
The day is watercolor blue and I am with Bill, my younger brother, Toph, and this guy, Kevin, Bill's best friend from college who has taken a few weeks leave from his job as a toilet paper sales rep to help with the campaign's homestretch. This is the fall of 1998, and Bill is running in California's South Bay, just below Los Angeles, as a Republican against someone named George Nakano, a Democratic incumbent.
Kevin is driving us around in a Humvee because we are quite sure-- who could doubt it-- that everyone will like the Hummer, it being red and wide and shiny, imperious and yet oddly whimsical. They will like the Hummer and will then like my brother and will vote for him and he win.
We drive through an office park where a group of men in white shirts and ties are eating their lunch. They look at the Hummer as we go by. They are first surprised, surely by the startling beauty and power of this vehicle. And then they look at the signs papering the Hummer's sides, those bearing my brother's name. Then they go back to eating their lunch. Kevin waves. They were definitely impressed, he says. That's three votes right there, Bill says. We all laugh. Campaigns are fun.
We came out from New York for this. Bill had been asking gently for weeks if there was any way Toph and I could come out for the election. After telling him that we couldn't possibly make it-- Toph was right in the middle of his sophomore year in high school-- finally, we surprised him, flew out to help with the last couple days of the campaign.
When we got to LA, we were prepared for Bill to be edgy, wired with worry-- the details, the last minute polls, phone calls, all the money he had spent. The cumulative weight of a yearlong campaign. But then as were waiting for our luggage, Bill crept up behind us. Boo, he yelled, grabbing us both around the neck, then holding us in a double headlock, roaring. Good lord, there was no way we expected him to pick us up at the airport.
Didn't he have better things to do? Wouldn't he be desperately running from house to house yelling his name, bursting into crowded restaurants, reminding people of his presence? His message? His destiny? No, he was picking us up at the airport, in his convertible, in a polo shirt and khakis.
As we left airport and slid into the highway, I asked how things looked odds-wise.
Well, it's hard to tell, he said. Hard to tell. Hard to tell. Hey, you guys hungry? We should get us some burritos or something. So we got us some burritos.
Whoop, someone just noticed the Hummer. An older man walking in the crosswalk in front of us, himself in khakis and a polo shirt, just saw the signs and waved. We all waved back. Vote tomorrow, Kevin yells out the window. The man gives a thumbs up.
Kevin drives slow, honks repeatedly. He and Bill are waving. There is little in the way of waving back. Kevin debates whether he should be honking more, or maybe driving faster or slower. We all agree that so far his driving is fine, but that in the future, we need to be more discerning about the route.
For example, the trip through the high school parking lot might have been a bit unnecessary, so few of those kids being of voting age. Yeah, but the kids love the Hummer, he says. And it's true. Kids love the Hummer.
Midway through the campaign, even after garnering endorsements from Pete Wilson, Milton Friedman, and Drew Carey, even after one of Bill's consultants had linked his opponent, Nakano, to everything from drugs in schools to death of cancer patients to various bus accidents, Bill was still lagging about a dozen or so points behind. There was all kinds of speculation why.
Maybe Bill seemed too academic, too wonky. Maybe the anti-Republican sentiment-- this was just after the impeachment, remember-- was rubbing off on poor Bill. And maybe it was because Bill seemed rootless, lacking that comforting one of us feeling.
He was single, had grown up in Chicago. Had no kids in the schools. Didn't own a house. While Nakano was 60ish, a married man with children, a mortgage, a rock garden, everything.
Thus began a process of shoring up Bill's family side, a process that Bill entered reluctantly. My older sister Beth and I signed our name to a flyer that talked about how much Bill had helped out with the raising of young Toph since our parents passed on seven years earlier. And how the values instilled by our mom and dad-- may they rest in peace, sniff, sniff-- were being respected and carried out by Bill. And how he wanted only to create a community fit for the family he soon hoped to have, et cetera, et cetera. You get the idea.
And though Bill was nervous at first about whether or not Beth and I would lend our names to the campaign, given that politically I'm far left of Bill, and Beth's far left of me, neither of us blinked really, didn't think twice.
First of all, I had never in my life known the name of my own state representative. So I figured the office was mostly for the entertainment and advancement of its holder. Thus, the damage Bill could do would be pretty minimal.
In the Hummer, we drive through a major intersection, six lanes. A mall on one side, condos on the other. Bill points to the median. That's it. That's where I had to stand.
What do you mean, Toph asks.
The consultants said I had to go out there and stand, waving to the cars going by. I did it three times, six hours each time waving to every car.
We discussed this. We were often discussing the wisdom of the consultants' various ideas and initiatives. I'm beginning to wonder just how good these consultants could be if they think a candidate should be standing in the middle of a highway in a suit waving to people on their way to Radio Shack. This was endearing? This commanded the respect of voters?
Maybe they'll feel bad for you, Toph says. Bill laughs. He's been laughing a lot lately. This campaign has been killing him.
A few years ago, Bill lent his name to a conference in DC, one centered around the discussion of exactly where private companies might fit in should welfare or portions of its processes be privatized. Now, the conference was not planned so well. A meeting about poor people held at the swank Park Hyatt and costing $1,300 per participant. It was a PR nightmare. And easy pickings for someone like liberal bon vivant, Barbara Ehrenreich, who oozed in with an article more or less written before she darkened the doorway.
And after lambasting the whole affair, quite effectively and often justly by the way, she saved some of her most condescending vitriol for Bill, who never saw it coming. She describes him shrugging off policy questions while turning to his dessert. A quote, "Five inch high structure of ice cream and chocolate. Now dribbling promiscuously into a brown and white pool," end quote. Nice job, if obviously the work of a journalist desperately stretching an anecdote to fill a metaphorical void.
When he saw it, Bill couldn't believe it. He was angry and hurt, but nowhere near as angry as I was.
You have got to help me write a response, he said.
Yes, yes, please, I said. So we spent a few days working together on a letter. And oh, man, did I have some ideas.
First, we'd call the fact checkers and tear the thing to shreds. Was the cake really five inches high? Was it served as she claims just as she asked him about welfare, or was it slightly before? Did the ice cream really dribble promiscuously?
Then we'd dig into her other factual problems, then her politics, her agenda going in. Never mind that I had written the same kinds of articles, that I wasn't exactly on Bill's side of this issue, and that her piece was, for the most part, dead on. She had taken on the wrong family. Will the Eggers name be tarnished in the pages of Harper's magazine? No. The answer is no.
So I drafted a withering response, laser accurate and dripping with condescension. Every time I sat down, I added to it, injected more venom, more dismissals. She would cry. Her children would cry. Her pets would roll over and moan with agony.
But when I sent it to Bill for his approval, he had already gotten over it. I was still boiling, but he wasn't really mad anymore. He had put together his own letter, dry and curt, correcting a few facts and leaving it at that.
It drove me nuts. If only he had left it to me, the letter and now this campaign. The flyers? I could've done them better. The events I could've done better. The media relations surely. The mailers, the phone calls, the reminders. His brother should have been doing them. I should have come out for the campaign, the whole thing. Only I could have done it right. Only family knows how to sell family. There's a reason these things stay in the family and it has to do with passion and loyalty, ferocious loyalty. We would brand our family's values, bring them to a grateful LA, and then a grateful nation. We would be the Kennedys, the Bushs. I would be Bay Buchanan.
Kevin and Bill drop us off at the beach, so Toph and I can swim before sunset. Then they head back to headquarters to supervise the final phone bank, where they'll warn voters one last time that a vote for George Nakano will be a vote for corruption, the mafia, bus accidents, and drugs in the hands of all children over four. Tomorrow they will vote and Bill will not win. We'll go down to Manhattan's this cedary kind of bar and restaurant where we'll watch the results come in.
Toph and I will be wearing our khakis and light blue button downs, and we'll walk around and chat with the volunteers. On the big screen TV, the results for Bill's race will be shown infrequently. Buried between those for Senate, House, governorships. We will see Bill's returns when only 2% or 3% of the precincts have reported. Then we'll stand around for a while longer. And then suddenly his returns will be shown again, and the words on the screen will say that Eggers lost.
Later, I will find Bill downstairs alone, in his suit, with his young face watching a bank of TVs.
I'm sorry, I will say.
It's OK, he'll say. I knew it a while ago.
But why didn't you say so, I'll say. Why did you want us to come all the way out if you knew you were going to lose?
My brother has a beautiful smile.
Dave Eggers is the editor of McSweeney's at mcsweeneys.net. William Eggers is now a senior fellow at the New York based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. He's the author of two new books on transforming government. Most recent, Government 2.0.
Act Four: Every Unhappy Family Cleaning Supplies Business Is Unhappy In Its Own Way
Act Four, Every Unhappy Family Cleaning Supply Business is Unhappy in Its Own Way. People who study family businesses say that one of the biggest problems those companies face is the problem of secession. What happens when the younger generation comes into the business? These conflicts can last decades. This happened in Hillary Frank's family.
My grandfather and his brother stopped speaking to their sister in 1963. I've seen old tin type photographs of her as a young woman, but I have never met my great aunt or anyone in her family.
When I ask family members what happened, the answers are always foggy. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened. Something in the family business.
The only living character from this shrouded past on the side of the family we still speak to is Mo, my grandfather's brother, my great uncle. He got in the business in the '30s. The trouble began after his nephew was hired.
He was my protege. I was grooming him. He started out working in the warehouse. I was trying to teach him all the things that I knew and trying to get him into a role where at some point he could run that business.
Mo was in charge of the sales department. There were two or three salesman who worked under him.
Your grandfather came in in a slot that he was not qualified for. Had absolutely no right to be in that business. He was too nice a man. He had other interests that did not include the wear and tear of a dog-eat-dog business. And the other people felt that he was holding up progress, and probably felt that for the money he was drawing, for the work he was doing, it was not a good deal for the business. I was protecting him all the time.
One day in 1963, Mo got a letter from his nephew calling for a special meeting. Mo says this was unheard of in their business. He was certain that they were going to reduce his authority and fire my grandfather. So he and my grandfather never showed up at the meeting. He never discussed it with his nephew.
The treachery involved to me was the biggest factor. What I resented was the fact that my nephew, whom I had tutored, did not have the need or the desire to come and talk to me. Say, look, Uncle, let's talk about this thing. We're running a business here, not a family society. I could have understood that rather than a cold letter announcing a meeting. To me, that was a knife in my back from my nephew.
And I got mad enough to say, I never liked this business in the first place. And if I can get out now with my brother while the getting out is good, we'll do it. And within a month, we were out of there.
Everyone in the family has a different version of this story and who is in the wrong. You hear that Mo wanted to get out of the business anyway, that their side of the family blames the wives, not the men, for the following out.
The story I heard from my mother growing up is radically different from Mo's version.
It's very hard to imagine that my father was so ineffectual in his job that he needed to be protected. I know that he was a conscientious businessman. And it's also hard for me to understand, because I've spent all these years under the belief that it was my uncle who was being pushed out and it was my father who left in support of him.
You know, part of the mystique of this whole incident is that nobody really seems to understand what happened. And yet, it caused so much pain.
Shortly after we got out, I got an invitation to my nephew's son's bar mitzvah. I remember, in big red ink, writing on the invitation and sending it back, "Judas." Never attended the bar mitzvah. Never spoke to him again. Never spoke to my sister again.
The greatest effect that this had on the family was that my father had a heart attack a few months after the family dispute. It was pretty clear to everyone in the family that stress that he experienced, which was major, was a direct line cause of the heart attack.
The stress my mother is talking about had to do with family tension and what it's like to start over when you're 50. But mostly, it had to do with money. My grandfather was unemployed for two years. For the first time in his life, he was clipping coupons. He built his own storm windows from plastic sheeting and pieces of wood he found.
My mother was 17 when he left the business and had planned on applying to Ivy League schools, but ended up having to go to the free city college instead. And the family blamed my grandfather's sister.
Oh, bitterness is not the word. There was anger that was fostered and nurtured in that house every single day to the tune of a Jewish expression that my grandmother had that translates to a fire on her. The "her" being referred to was my aunt.
For example, my grandmother was a really expert cook and baker. And she was cooking on a stove in my parents' house that was really on its last legs. And they talked about what kind of stove they could afford and if my grandmother was present for this conversation she would have said, a fire [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. There was always a direct relationship between what we couldn't afford and whose fault it was.
Mo didn't talk to his sister or nephew for 35 years. Finally, when Mo's sister was, at the age of 90, going in for heart surgery, he got in touch with her. It took another year before he could bring himself to forgive his nephew.
I feel that I underwent a catharsis. I cleaned out of my system something insidious that was hurting me, which was my anger. I got rid of that. Life is short. You get to be this age, how many more years do you have? Why waste them on something that's not productive for happiness? Concentrate on the good things. But in self-analysis and self-evaluation I ask myself this question. If I had not done as well financially as I have done in the last three, four years, would I have reconciled? Would I not have remembered the bitterness? It was easier to reconcile with a full stomach.
Mo's been trying to get my mother to reconcile as well, but she doesn't want to.
We don't really see eye to eye in terms of this reconciliation. I don't feel any void in my life in not being in touch with the people who caused my parents and my grandmother and me so much pain.
Do you still feel angry?
I've gotten to the point where I feel indifferent. And I also feel a sense of loyalty to my parents. I think it would be presumptuous of me to supersede my parents in a way. And beside that, it was important for me to make peace with people that they were content to be alienated from.
This is like a lot of family conflicts. One generation carries its anger to the grave, or maybe takes the time to reconcile. But the children are a generation removed from the battle. Across that distance, anger can turn to indifference. And by the time it gets to the third generation, my generation, it's just an interesting story.
Hil, can I say one thing? The other thing about the family business is that my parents met there. My father used to tell the tale that he was walking in the warehouse, and he tripped over a bolt, and that my mother, who was the secretary of the business, happened to be there. And she came to his rescue, and saved him, and picked him up. And that's how they met.
It's very romantic. And that was the most wonderful thing that came out of that business.
Hillary Frank. When she's not doing radio stories, she writes novels for young people. Her most recent is called, I Can't Tell You.
[MUSIC- "TWO STORY HOUSE" BY GEORGE JONES AND TAMMY WYNETTE]
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