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Uncle Sammy

Robin Slick
meets The Candyman
'Now you come here and give Uncle Sammy a great big hug'

My parents divorced when I was thirteen years old. It was no big deal to me at the time -- my father was a jazz musician and he was always out on the road touring, anyway. On the rare occasions he was around, he wanted to be left alone. He’d barricade himself in his bedroom with the door locked and Charlie Parker blasting on the record player. Sometimes I’d give a hopeful knock and ask to come in so we could talk a little, but he’d always holler for me to go away and not bother him.
"And please keep it down, will you? I’m listening to Bird! Have some respect!"
Charlie Parker was sacred to him; sadly, I was not.
After my parents broke up, my father moved to New York City, hoping that the jazz scene was still happening there. But back then the Beatles ruled the charts and mostly everyone he knew in the business had already relocated to Las Vegas, selling their souls to eke out livings playing crappy pop tunes in casino lounges. Apparently, it didn’t matter that he now had lots of free time on his hands; my father never showed up as promised for his weekend custody visits with me. He’d make the increasingly lame excuse that he had a gig.

We’d never had anything that even remotely resembled a normal dad/daughter relationship and yet I found myself really missing him. There were times the yearning for my father grew so intense I had imaginary conversations with him, spilling my soul instead to the poor family dog that sat on my bed and cocked his head at me in complete befuddlement.

"Dad, you should have seen what happened at school today, it was so awesome, I answered everything right in math class" or "Dad, you can’t believe it, I think Robert Duffy – you know, I told you about him yesterday, well, I think he likes me back! Dad, what do you think? And how does my hair look like this? Do you think I’m pretty?" I asked, studying myself in the mirror, piling my hair up like a movie star.
The dog offered me his paw, hoping for a bone.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t say these things to my mother; I just wanted a father like everyone else. Someone to tease me about boys. Someone to worry if my skirt was too short or if I was out too late at night. My mother cared about me plenty, but she worked full time, another rarity for women of that era, and she was terminally exhausted. I was alone a lot.

My unhappiness grew deeper day by day. I couldn’t express this pain to my mother; I really didn’t think she’d understand and I figured it would only make things worse. But she felt my misery and tried to cheer me up by asking me what I wanted for my upcoming fourteenth birthday.
"I want to take the train by myself to New York and visit Daddy," I blurted, even surprising myself. This wasn’t something I had been planning. It just came to me at that moment.
My mother recoiled in shock as well but quickly recovered. She’d recently discovered yoga and I saw her trying to take a deep cleansing breath.
"Oh god, can’t you ask for a gold necklace like a normal teenager?"
"I don’t want a gold necklace. I want my father."
"Sorry. You’re too young to take such a trip by yourself. How about a leather jacket?"
"Mom, I really miss him. This isn’t fair. You’re always telling me to act grown up, but whenever I ask if I can do something on my own, you act like I’m a little kid."
"Look, honey, if your father…" she stopped in mid-sentence and looked away red-faced, but it was too late. I knew exactly what she was thinking and I felt like I’d been struck. If your father really wanted to see you, he’d have visited you here.
She didn’t say it, of course. She couldn’t hurt me like that. But I didn’t have the same level of maturity.
"He doesn’t come here because he doesn’t want to see you!" I pointed a shaking finger at her accusingly.
She took another cleansing breath and I could practically hear her chanting her new relaxation mantra. Ohm shanti shanti…ohm shanti shanti.
Despite her attempts at a bohemian persona, my mother was straight arrow, the girl next door. It’s why the marriage failed. My father was hip; she was square.
"Yes," she said. "He doesn’t want to see me. Of course. I’m sure that’s it." There was no sarcasm in her voice, if anything; it was thick with pity, which was way worse.
"Mom. Seriously. Please let me go. You have no idea how much I want to talk to him about stuff."
"Stuff? What kind of stuff?" My mother was alarmed, I had no idea why, but I could sense she was nervous about something.
"School stuff. And about my friends, and Robert, that boy I like. Stuff that fathers and daughters usually talk about, Mom."
My mother shook her head and rolled her eyes.
"Whose father are we talking about?" she snorted.
"Mine, Mom. Mine. Come on, please let me go. Please, please, please".
"Don’t be ridiculous. It’s at least an hour ride from here. You’ve never even taken a train by yourself let alone go to a strange city. But it’s not just that. It’s…it’s...look, your father has problems. He’s not like other people. Trust me on this – it’s just not a good idea," she said, but then she looked really sad and I jumped on that immediately.
"I have no father," I whimpered. "I don’t have a daddy…no daddy for me." I was feeling so sorry for myself that a big fat tear formed easily at the corner of my eye and I let it slowly dribble down my cheek for effect. My mother didn’t have a chance.

Plans were made. My father would meet me at the information desk at the train station in New York. I was girl-scout prepared as I stepped off the platform; I clutched a small red vinyl purse stuffed with more money than I’d ever had in my life. But when I got to the allotted meeting place, my father was nowhere to be found.

I tried to stay calm and found a phone booth to call him at his room at the Algonquin Hotel. All I got was a busy signal. I dialed up my mother next, but I couldn’t reach her, either. I was rapidly turning into a puddle inside.

I forced myself to ride the escalator to the street exit. I was fourteen years old and seeing New York for the first time and I can’t even describe how I felt at the huge mass of humanity and flashing lights and crazy patchwork of colors all around me--I was completely beside myself, but somehow, I forced myself to focus. I needed a plan. And then I saw the line of taxis queued up and I almost started jumping up and down with relief. I was saved, though strangely confident for someone who had never even hailed or ridden in a cab before.

"The Algonquin Hotel, please," I instructed the cabbie, trying to sound blasé. I’d learned about the Algonquin’s notorious round table of writers from my eighth grade English teacher and I was bursting with excitement. Recently, I’d taken to pouring out my daily pubescent agonies in a composition book I carried with me at all times. I'd just read Catcher in the Rye and imagined myself a female Holden Caulfield.

We pulled up to the hotel and I opened up my little purse, carefully counting out some crumpled bills to pay the cab driver but no one ever told me about tipping and he gave me a horrible scowl as he almost slammed my fingers in the door. But not to worry, I was going to see my dad and all would soon be well.

I walked up to the check-in desk and a bored guy with a pockmarked face looked me over with a nasty sneer when I asked where to find my father. He sighed and shook his head in disgust, gave me the room number and said "Go on up, jail bait."
I didn't even know what jail bait meant, but looking back, I was pretty developed for my age. I’d just started menstruating the year before and sprouted some significant breasts. What’s more, having just read The Bell Jar, I’d taken to dressing completely in black because I also imagined myself to be Sylvia Plath.

I was quaking with the jitters but I managed to find the room without any problem. I gave a timid knock on the door. After a moment or two, my father cracked it open slightly with a stupefied expression. His eyes were wild and dodgy.
"Just a minute, just a minute," he rasped. There was no hello sweetheart, no hug, no kiss. My father actually tried to block the threshold. He wanted to keep me out. My brain couldn’t comprehend this.

I squeezed past his skinny frame. To say I was scared and upset would be putting it mildly. But as I entered the room, I saw my father had company -- an oily, bejeweled man who sat at a small table. He was staring at me with his mouth hanging open, obviously taken completely aback. In front of him was a hand mirror, and on the mirror were two thick lines of white powder. He hastily pulled a rolled up dollar bill out of one of his nostrils. For the first time, I realized that my father had a ring of that same powder circling the base of his nose, too. It looked like he’d eaten a jelly donut and forgotten to use a napkin. I also noticed that the phone on the night table next to the bed was off the hook.
"Say hello to my kid, Sam," my dad said, practically shoving me toward the surprised stranger. "Kid, meet Sammy."
"Well hello there, baby cakes," he drawled.
"Hi," I answered weakly.

He looked really familiar, but I was still so traumatized that it didn’t register at first. I glanced at him again and this time I noticed he had a glass eye. As hard as I tried otherwise, I couldn't stop staring at it. It looked real, and yet it didn't. In what little sunlight filtered in from the mostly closed blinds, it had an odd, almost supernatural glint. We all just stayed there like that for a few seconds – him at the table, giving me a silent appraisal; me standing opposite, ogling his fake orb; my father, all distressed, wringing his hands like a hysterical housewife who had just seen a mouse and jumped up on a chair. And then all of a sudden, I recognized my father’s friend. This was the man who was on TV almost every other day, crooning and coming on all gushy to the ancient blue haired ladies in the audience. Holy cow. He was the guy they called the Candyman.

The awkward silence in the room was nerve wracking. My dad didn't ask me about my trip, he didn't ask how I was doing, he still made no effort to embrace me. He just kept pacing back and forth, exchanging undecipherable glances with the Candyman. Finally, the best he could do was mumble "I could go for some beer. I think there’s a few bottles left in the tub." He turned on his heel and headed into the bathroom.

But they had already drunk it all. After wrestling with the decision for maybe a second, my father was elected to go for more. He hastily tied a ratty muffler around his neck, picked up my purse and helped himself to a wad of my mother’s cash and said, "I'll only be a minute. Uncle Sammy will keep you company while I'm gone." And with that, he was out the door.

Ah, so he was my Uncle Sammy now. I smiled at him, feeling a little more at ease. My father was the one who made me edgy and tongue-tied, with Uncle Sammy I could make small talk and ask him what it was like to be celebrity.
"How’re you doin’ there, little mama," he grinned. He stood up and walked toward me, the glass eye sparkling.
"Didn’t even know Joe had a daughter," he added. "You sure are one cute thing, aren’t you?"
"Well, thanks, Uncle Sammy," I replied, not really knowing what else to say. He kept on smiling, and moved a little closer. I could almost taste his after-shave, it was spicy and exotic and I liked it.
"You smell nice," I blurted.
Uncle Sammy gave his famous laugh.
"You are one sweet little gal. Now you come here and give Uncle Sammy a great big hug."
It seemed like the polite thing to do. I took a few steps, and let him wrap his arms around me. We were around the same height, the Candyman was not a big guy, which was something you didn’t realize from television. That was almost a big of a surprise as the glass eye.
The hug seemed endless. He held me close and brushed his fingers against my face; then he massaged the back of my neck. It felt good; it felt comforting. So when he pulled back for a minute and put his lips to mine, I kissed him back.

He stroked my hair and then he parted my lips with his tongue and snaked it down and around. I knew it was wrong, I knew that something terrible, something dangerous, was happening. It was my first taste of that particular torture – part of me wanted that warm feeling to go on forever, but the other part of me knew it had to stop immediately. I gave him a little shove and twisted out of his arms.
He smirked at me and laughed again.
"Oh, are you going to be something when you grow up, Little Miss. You are something else already. So tell Uncle Sammy. What did you think of that, hmmm? You know what I think, honey pie? I think you liked it. I think you liked it very much."
I struggled mightily to think of a quick comeback, a mature answer.
"I’m…I’m…I’m fascinated," was what I finally managed to say. That was it, that was my brilliant reply. And then my father walked in with the beer.
I said I was "fascinated". The word "violated" never even entered my brain.

The coke thing didn’t faze me, either. Drugs in the mainstream were just on the horizon, but back then, I didn’t have a clue. I would later learn that this was how my father earned a living once he couldn’t find work as a horn player and that he had several famous "clients". At one point in my life, I actually thought this was cool.
What can I tell you? These were very different times.

Anyway, back at the Algonquin, what happened next was this. My dad and Uncle Sammy chugged back a few brews, my father finally got loose, and we sat around making small talk. Mostly about music; nothing about me. Occasionally, I would look over at Uncle Sammy and flush, thinking about being in his arms, and he would wink at me with his good eye. My father never noticed. We ended up going out for some really bad Chinese food at an empty hole in the wall where it was guaranteed no one would recognize the Candyman and then my dad put me in a taxi and I caught the next train home. And that was that. I never told a soul, not even my mother, in spite of getting the grand interrogation upon my return.

"So? Did you have a good time?" she asked, looking as if she was bracing herself for the worst.
"Oh, I had the best time ever," I said.
"Really?" She sounded shocked. "What did you guys do?"
"Oh, just talked and had Chinese food. It was fine, Mom. Really."
Guess what, mom. An internationally famous man thinks I’m pretty and sweet.
My mother was not convinced, but she looked at me again and saw the joyful expression on my face and didn’t argue. She tried a few more questions but didn’t get anywhere, and finally let the subject drop.

My father still never came to visit; but I never asked to see him again, either. Robert Duffy became the first of an endless stream of over-adoring boyfriends with whom I would need to surround myself at all times.

As the years passed, from time to time I would catch Uncle Sammy singing and dancing on television or see his face plastered across a magazine. . I’d always pause for a moment and smile a bit, remembering the Algonquin. To this day, I have a fantasy that I’m part of that great round table, holding court with the story of my first kiss, my father a part of the spellbound audience.

© Robin Slick October 2002

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