We've all heard the one about slipping on a banana peel – Uncle Harold actually did. Harold worked the graveyard shift at Eastman Kodak, cleaning machines. He never learned to drive. To get a job at Canada Dry, he said he had a driver's license. Then, he promptly drove the delivery truck into the loading dock. Harold's career with Canada Dry lasted four hours.
Because neither he nor Aunt Ruth drove, they relied on taxis and the Rochester Transit System. Once, while driving them to their favorite restaurant, Red Lobster, the twenty-minute drive took forty-five. I couldn't understand why they were directing me down cul-de-sacs and through residential neighborhoods. Finally, when we arrived, I asked him about the route. He said, it's the way the bus goes; it's the only way to get there.
To get to work, Harold took three buses – a journey that began at 10 p.m., two hours before his shift. On Fridays, he'd arrive early for breakfast, at 11 p.m., and order pizzas for the cleaning crew. On his days off, he kept the same hours, breakfast by midnight, lunch, when most of us were brewing coffee. When I'd sleep over on weekends, he'd phone a cab in the middle of the night, to get a meatball sub.
Harold was afraid to fly alone, and when Ruthie was working and couldn't get time off to go on their yearly trip to Vegas, he took the train. The trip from Rochester to Vegas is sixty-five hours. So Ruthie and her sister, my Aunt Ethel, packed Harold a picnic basket with enough food for three days. At the station in Rochester, the train was delayed for hours. The entire family saw Harold off – Ruthie, Ethel, Uncle Irv, Ethel's husband, and Jerry, their son. Not knowing the train would be delayed, they left the station. By the time it left, Harold had eaten three days worth of food. By the time the train arrived in Chicago, Harold was using his gambling money for lunch.
Once in Vegas, by day two, Harold gambled away his gambling money, return-trip food money, and train ticket. The money was prepared by Ruthie, set out in clearly marked white envelopes Harold was told to keep with him at all times. He was so afraid the money would be stolen, he even brought it to the bathroom in his hotel. By the end of the second day in Vegas, Harold made a collect call home. Ruthie wired money for his ticket and food and told him it was time to leave.
I'd never seen a marriage like theirs. He was the handsome one. Ruthie was the brains. They never had kids, never learned to drive and were the happiest couple I knew. Harold would leave the house at night for work, and return a minimum of three times, locking and unlocking two doors, to kiss Ruthie goodbye again.
When Ruthie knew she was dying, she paid their rent up for a year and tried to explain banking to Harold. They'd lived in the same apartment for decades after selling their home. One night, while Harold was at work, Ruthie awoke to a man in their bedroom, she swung her night-table lamp at him and chased him out of the house. The next day, she put the house for sale.
When Ruth died, Harold stood in the hallway at Ethel and Irv's, between the bedrooms and bathroom, and sobbed. Every time he came back to join us in the living room, he ran back to the hallway crying.
He spent the years after Ruthie died, sleeping all day, ordering pizzas and subs in the middle of the night and watching Mets' games. We'd speak regularly, discussing his many ailments and his home remedies. He'd put Ben Gay in his ear for an ear-ache, leaving the Q-tip in, and between his toes for athlete's foot. Ethel tried to get him to eat better and to take him food shopping. But she shopped during the day, Harold took a cab across town to the 24-hour store, to shop in the middle of the night.
After Harold died, because he didn't trust banks, we knew to look through everything for money. We found thousands hidden under his mattress, in shoe boxes, winter coats, and Ruth's Cuisinart.
The night after Harold slipped on the banana peel and broke his leg, he still got on his bus and went to work, because, it was pizza night.