Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.
Too Fat To Fish
By Artie Lange
Hardcover, 320 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List Price: $24.95
As a child, as far as I was concerned, my dad had an amazing job and we had all the money we needed. My life was so fun and carefree that I didn't realize at all that we weren't rich - until I met someone rich. Still, I've never met a rich kid who grew up as happy as I did. When I started going to New York City to do comedy and later on, especially when I moved to LA to do Mad TV, I met plenty of people who grew up wealthy. These people grew up in families that had several homes, a staff of servants and took vacations in beautiful, exotic locations all around the world. For my entire childhood, my family had one house and no maid, although my mother did bitch all the time that she felt like one. When we vacationed there wasn't much of a debate between Fiji and Bora Bora - we relaxed strictly at the Jersey Shore. When I encountered rich people for the first time I discovered that not only do they holiday in places that are hard to find on a map, but that they also use the names of seasons as verbs. When they asked me, "Where did you summer and winter growing up?" I would usually say, "As a child? The same place I springed and autumned."
Our family's favorite destination down the shore was Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. We'd head out there for the last two weeks of every summer and check into the Crusader Motel, and sure, it was only a motel, but it was right on the beach. While my mother and sister sat on the sand, my father and I would play baseball for what seemed like all day.
As a kid, I was obsessed with baseball, and not much has changed since then. Like a lot of fathers with sons, my dad and I bonded over baseball more than anything else. Since my father spent his days climbing roofs and installing antennas, he was in great shape, which made it easier for him to keep up with an eleven year-old boy out on the baseball field all day long. We would start out playing catch, then he'd hit me grounders. After that he'd usually follow it up by hitting screaming line drives for me to chase down and that sort of stuff. Eventually he'd work up to what he'd call the scorchers, which were just shots he'd just slam into the field as hard as he could. Then he would pitch me batting practice for about an hour. He was the coolest ever, my old man. I'd hit balls all over the field and he would go shag them down. Then, after that, if you can believe it, he'd come back in from the outfield and hit me fly balls, which he'd call "sky-ers," for another hour or so. My father was a really good athlete so his pop-ups really were sky high. Eventually I learned how to judge them properly and catch them well. It was great training for when I started to play on teams, which I did all through school.
My dad and I were constantly in search of a perfect surface where we could get good hops. A lot of the time we would end up on private golf courses where he'd hit me grounders on one of the greens. That was hilarious. Let me tell you, the hops we'd get on these well-groomed putting greens were amazing but it was definitely challenging, mostly because I was in charge of watching out for cops coming to arrest us. My father, who grew up on 14th Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, was a real inner-city guy, so he had no concept that what we were doing was just so obviously wrong. He saw it as a slight inconvenience. Before he'd start hitting me balls, he'd tell me to look out for, as he'd put it, "the gay fags who will try to kick us off."
I liked to make my father laugh whenever I could, and during our practice I usually succeeded by doing play by play sportscasting as I ran around catching fly balls. Playing baseball with him was great, but being able to make him laugh was the best. It put me on top of the world: those moments were when I first realized the power you can have over people if you are able to make them laugh. If something pissed my father off - like usually me - I realized that I could get out of trouble if I could make him laugh when I 'fessed up to my crime. He'd always encourage me too: driving back from the ball park in his truck with the ladder between us resting on the dash he'd always say "Sport, if you don't make it in the majors, you'll probably have a career as a comedian." My dad's encouragement is definitely why those were the only two things I've ever wanted to do with my life. I never went through a period were I wanted to be a doctor, a cop or even a rock star. All I wanted to do was play short stop for the Yankees from the time I was about 5. Then I turned 15 and realized how silly that was and just gave up on it. And let's face it, that's the luckiest fucking break Derek Jeter ever got.
The second that my Yankees dream ended though, the other one kicked right in, and once it did, I was really fucked. Historically, a successful life in comedy is a dream that's as equally pondered and unpursued as being an astronaut. But it became an obsession that consumed my life, as you will soon see. Right now, I want to stick to baseball.
So I'm about to share with you the very craziest experience I ever had with my dad. Clearly, my father was as much like a best friend as he was a dad. And as you can probably tell by the golf course story, he had his own set of rules for everything.
On October 18th, 1977, my father took me to the final game of the World Series, the Yankees vs. the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium. That Yankee team of the late 70's has got to be one of the coolest clubs in the history of sports. They had Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Rivers, Pinnella and of course my favorite, Thurman Munson. He was by far my favorite: the day Thurman died, August 2nd, 1979, I do not mind telling you, I wept. I was 11 years old and it was devastating. If someone ever invents a time machine, my requested trip back in time is simple - I want to go back to 1977 and see any Yankees' home game so that I can witness Munson hit a two run double to right centerfield. I know what you are saying, "How do you know he will get one in the game you're transported to?" To me, this is a non-issue because as a fan, I recall that Munson hit two-run doubles in every game that year just as easily as he did show up to play.
I don't care what anybody says, 1977 was a magical year. The New York area was sweating through the hottest summer ever and a mid-summer blackout caused a lot of babies to be born in April of 1978. That year, the serial killer, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, terrorized the city. But every single thing that sucked that summer seemed to do nothing but make the Yankees better. The year before, they'd gotten to the World Series for the first time in 12 years. And when they did, they were swept four games straight by the fucking asshole Cincinnati Reds. Munson hit .529 in that series, and that fact alone, in addition to the fact that Johnny Bench batted .531 made me want to drive to Cincinnati and punch everyone in the city in the fucking face. I took that shit serious after that loss. I refused to even watch WKRP in Cincinnati - which is a perfectly acceptable show.
The next season, in '77, after falling behind some, the Yanks came on strong in September and won the division. And then they won the Pennant against George Brett and the Jerk Orioles, to get themselves in the Series again. And that time, they were playing against the Los Angeles Dodgers, another team that I could not fucking stand. The '77 Dodgers were nothing but clean cut, California dude players - chumps like Steve Garvey. I hate him. He had a haircut like a Marine for no good reason. He was always clean shaven and well groomed. Steve Garvey and the fucking L.A. Dodgers were the anti-Munson so I could not wait to see the Yanks kick their asses in the Series. That is how I felt, and how intensely I felt it back then at nine years old. Sure it was juvenile and the kind of reasoning that only a kid can have but please believe me when I assure you that nothing at all has changed.
In 1977, my father was 34 years old. He climbed roofs and installed antennas all day to pay the mortgage and support his wife and two kids and he had to work long hard hours to do it, but regardless of whatever stress was going on for him, he was always capable of acting enough like a kid when he was with me that that I never knew about it. He always ready to play no matter how tired he was and he was always planning something special - but his scheme that October took the cake. After the Yankees beat everyone and got into the World Series that year, my father told me that he had a surprise for me. This was right around my birthday, October 11th, so I figured it could have been anything - a new glove, a new bat - but it was much, much better than that. That day, my father walked up to me and pulled the impossible out of his back pocket - tickets to the Series; the Holy Grail for any boy about to turn ten in the Tri-State area. He had two tickets to every Yankee home game in the World Series that year.
My Dad was so far from a high roller his entire life - there was no way he'd won these tickets in a card game or scalped them from some exclusive ticket broker. In the middle of the year, he had sent away in the mail for them just in case the Yankees' made it to the Series again. He'd paid $10 for them and fittingly, they were in the very last row of the very last section of the very upper deck, right above third base. The seats were sky high, literally hovering above the South Bronx. But even if we saw nothing, that meant nothing: we were going to be inside the fucking stadium for the World goddamn Series of 1977, the Yankees versus the Dodgers.
I remember that my dad came home from work early every night that we had tickets for the games and he and I got ready together. I was unbelievably excited. We lived in Union, New Jersey, which is a basic working class suburb a few miles west of Newark. Without traffic, we could make it to Yankee Stadium in about half an hour. With traffic, it might take two days. My father hated public transportation so he insisted on driving into the stadium - for an 8 PM start, we had to leave at 6 PM - because we weren't going to miss anything. My father hated the thought of ever taking a bus or a train to get anywhere probably as a result of the fact that he was what some people call "Nigger Rich." No offense to African-Americans or anything - that's just how I've heard the phrase properly used. Please keep in mind that I do not make this shit up. Whatever you want to call it, the message was clear - my father was the kind of guy who never saved a dime. He behaved like a rapper who'd just gotten signed: he'd spend all of his cash on Cadillacs that he'd trade in every two years. Where my father was from, having the newest Caddy was a huge status symbol. So naturally, he liked to drive his car wherever he may have been going. On October 18, 1977, his Caddy du jour was a '76 Coupe de Ville and as young as I was, even I knew how he worshipped that car.
In the late 70's, on top of all the other crazy shit that was going on out in New York City, New York City itself was broke. Entire neighborhoods seemed like abandoned war zones. And the part of town that was the shining example of this problem, the one hit the worst of all, was the South Bronx. The blocks around the stadium were nothing but crumbling brick apartment houses with no residents. There were vacant lots full of cinder blocks and rubble everywhere. The area was full of drugs and drugs addicts and it seemed like heroin was slowly killing the whole town. But right in the middle of this pile of shit was the most famous address in the world of sports: 161 River Avenue, Yankee Stadium. All of this native scenery made it a very difficult job to park the Coup de Ville - no spot ever seemed to be safe enough or big enough. But there was no question about doing it any other way because my Dad thought parking garages were a huge rip off. And he was right - it was as true then as it is now.
Over the years, I have gotten some psychotherapy, mostly because I was ordered to do so by either the court or my job. During those few visits however, I figured out pretty soon after sharing just a few stories about me and my family that my father was definitely obsessive-compulsive. They did not have a name for it back then nor was it some commonly known affliction. But looking back, it's clear to me that he had it bad. A prime example of it was that for a guy who loved cash money and having it on him and around him all the time, he was completely grossed out by it. He considered all money to be filled with germs that could spread sickness. After he showered and got ready for a night out, my dad could not touch and would not touch money. Either my mother dealt with the money for the night or he wore gloves - always a brand new pair of the work gloves he'd wear to install antennas. It was crazy. If he and my mom went out with other people, they'd all be dressed up for a night, ready for a social experience and there he'd be with his hands covered in sparkling clean new work gloves. It was odd.
I remember him wearing a pair like that each night we went to the Series. He wore them to pay the tolls of course. He even planned ahead on how to further avoid touching money in spite of the gloves: before we left, he had me line up quarters on the dashboard. When we got to the George Washington bridge, all he had to do was reach over with his gloves on and grab them to pay the toll instead of having to fidget with his wallet. He had put a few extra quarters up there too, which were for the guys who squeegeed your car when you got off the Jerome Avenue exit in the Bronx - the exit that everyone going to the game had to take. When the kids asked for it, he just lowered the window and pointed to the quarters and let them reach in and grab the money themselves. Looking back, if one of those kids had a knife or any kind of weapon, they could have done serious damage. But stuff like that didn't concern my father. To say the least, he was more inner city and ghetto than anyone in the Bronx. He grew up on the streets of 14th Avenue in Newark. When it came to matters of the city street, he was always in control. He made you feel comfortable. If he was around, no one could hurt us. I still felt that way after his injury; even with him lying there paralyzed from the neck down, he gave me a feeling of security. If someone broke into the house while he was hurt, I thought he would somehow still be able to protect us. He was my hero and always capable in my eyes.
In any case, each of the games went like this: after we encountered the squeegee gangs and had driven around for what seemed like hours until my father found the one fucking parking spot in the South Bronx where it was impossible to get a door ding, we'd walk to the Stadium. And we always made it in time to catch some batting practice. I remember that before Game 1 we saw Bucky Dent take his warm up - he would become the World Series MVP in 1978 when the Yanks beat the Red Sox. We sat down about five rows behind third base and I remember my father marveling at how close to the field we were and how expensive those seats must be. Ironically, we were sitting exactly where my season tickets for the last few seasons are located - I got there permanently Pop. I know that he would love knowing that his son has those seats now. But I remember the night we were there, Bucky turned on one and hit a scorching line drive into the stands that hit a guy three rows in front of us right in the head. This man was probably about fifty years old and he was bald and I can still recall just how scary the sound was when the ball hit him smack in his temple: it was like a soft piece of wood cracking in two. The guy went unconscious immediately and my father helped the cops get him out of there. Stuff was getting crazy. I could not stop looking around at everything, the field, the players, all the action in the outfield. My father could tell that I was loving it. His son was as big of a baseball fan as he was and that made him ecstatic. To him it also meant I was probably not gay - talk about a perfect son!
The World Series that year was phenomenal. In the first game, we watched Paul Blair win it for the Yankees with an extra inning single between short and third that drove Randolph home. The place went nuts. We were in baseball heaven, even though our seats were geographically as far away from home plate as you could get; which technically was closer to heaven than they were home plate. But it didn't matter - in the '70's the upper deck at Yankee stadium had its own charm. That first game was the first time that I ever smelled weed. And it worked on me a little too well, because the contact high that I got cost my father at least $30 in hotdogs and pretzels.
Now I've told this story before, most publicly on Letterman, where I recalled how my father made me hold his beer while he rolled a joint. I'm embarrassed to admit it now, but I lied to Dave: that isn't true. The truth is, my father never touched drugs and barely drank. But the guy in front of me sure as hell did both, and he asked me to hold his burning joint by the roach clip while he put mustard on a hot dog. My dad looked on and smiled and did not care at all. He loved crazy people. Besides, what is more American than baseball, hot dogs and weed - especially all at the same time?
The Yanks and the Dodgers split the first two games and then the Yankees took two out of three in LA which brought it back to New York for game 6, with the Bronx Bombers up three games to two. They had the chance to take it all in that sixth game. As a fan, part of me was upset that we didn't finish them off out in L.A. on their own turf, but in a bigger way, I was thrilled to have the chance to see another game, possibly the final game, in our home stadium. If they took it, it would be their first World Series win in 15 years! So there we were, on October 18, 1977, ready to go, with the quarters on the dash and my father in a brand new set of work gloves as we drove the Coup de Ville once again into the Bronx. We dealt with the squeegee kids, found the best anti-door-ding parking spot, got in early to have a couple of hotdogs and watch batting practice and then we settled into our nose bleed seeds to watch what we didn't know would become the history-making game 6 of the 1977 World Series.
The great and controversial Reggie Jackson had already hit two home runs in the series and he seemed primed to do something big that night, because if there was one thing about Reggie, Number 44 did not disappoint. His first time up at bat, he walked. It seemed like the Dodgers wanted no part of him. They should have made way better sure of that because the rest of the game belonged to the man Thurman Munson called "Mr. October." Reggie's next up to bat, he hit a home run. His next two times to bat, he hit home runs, both of them screaming line drives into the stands behind the Yankee Stadium's famously short right field fence. By the time he got up for his fifth at bat, the whole place could smell victory. The Yankees had the lead. And as Reggie Jackson stepped up to the plate, Yankee fans, who can never get enough excitement, were not only rooting for a win - we all wanted a third Reggie Jackson home run.
My father and I were on our feet chanting, "One more time! One more time!" and "Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" Everyone else there was doing the same thing; it was pandemonium. My father put me on his shoulder so I could see better and Mr. Roach Clip looked back at us and said, "Man, can you imagine what's going to happen if he hits another one? We will fucking tear this place down!" Mr. Stoner's sentiment was cool and all, but thank God he was proven wrong on the destruction end of things. On the first pitch from Dodger relief pitcher, Bob Welch, Reggie unloaded that classic swing and hit a picture-perfect sky-high home run to dead center field. From the moment it left the bat, there was never a doubt where that ball was going. It touched down in black section of Yankee Stadium behind center, in the very furthest point from home plate - it's something that is hardly ever done. I think Reggie was only the second ever to have done so in the history of the park, the first being the Orioles' Designated Hitter and current Yankee announcer Ken Singleton.
We might not have torn the place down but it nearly collapsed all on its own. As soon as that ball left the park, the entire place started jumping up and down, screaming so hard, that you could feel the upper deck literally shaking as if there were an earthquake. It was actually pretty scary but none of that mattered. I was ten years old, sitting on my father's shoulders at Yankee stadium after watching Reggie Jackson round the base for the third straight time that night. I was in baseball little boy heaven - three homers off of three consecutive pitches. If I could somehow capture a fraction of that happiness again now, I would not be up at 3 AM on a work night writing this story down with a tall glass of whisky keeping me company.
With the Yanks up 8-4, the ninth inning was upon us and they were just three outs away from their 21st series title. To commemorate that title, my father saw the opportunity to do something that was so unbelievably and uniquely him that to hear the retelling is almost, but not quite as good as shaking his hand. My father was crazy, but in a wonderful and loving way; yet still, what he had in mind, if a teacher or a cop had overheard his plan, would have no doubt ended up with him being thrown in jail. But it was this kind of thing that defined who my father was, and lucky for him, this was New York in the crazy 70's, which was a time before the country had agreed to collectively stick an uptight ruler up it's ass.
Just being in the stadium for the last out was not enough for Artie Lange Sr.: he really wanted to see the end of the game from the front row. My father was a master at conning people and sneaking into places he was not allowed so this did not seem at all out of the question. Combined with the fact that, back then, security was nowhere near as stiff at baseball games as it is now, it wasn't very tough for anyone to bullshit or tip a guard to get up front. It was no effort at all for my dad, so before I knew it we had snuck and weaved our way up to the first row, just left of the Yankee dug out with just one out left. It was nothing short of amazing to be right there, with all of this exciting energy in the crowd all around us. You'd think that would be cool enough. Not for my old man, at least. He wanted more.
As Lee Lacy stepped up to the plate, the player who would end up making the series last out for the Dodgers, my father and I had the following one-sided conversation. He turned to me with this intense look on his face.
"Now listen, when the game ends I will not be able to get on the field," he said. "But you can."
"I can?" I said. "Really?"
I looked at the field and saw a bunch of New York City cops lined up with their bully clubs out just waiting to smack the shit out of anybody who tried to run on the field.
"Now listen," my father continued. "When the last out is made, I am going to throw you onto the field."
"Okay," I said, looking up at him, thinking that, since my dad was suggesting it, this plan was absolutely fine. "Okay! Yeah."
"Now when you get on the field, I want you to run to short stop and just wait for me there," he said, looking me in the eye. "The cops will not hit a kid. They never hit kids so you've got nothing to worry about. Now, eventually I will be able to get out there on the field and when I do, I will meet you at short stop, okay?"
I nodded my head. "I got it," I said.
"Remember," he said, pointing at the field. "Short stop."
There were two outs when, on the last pitch of the game, Lacy squared to bunt and popped it up right to Yankees pitcher Mike Torres. Torres caught the ball easily to end the game and he and Thurman Munson embraced at the mound and started the celebration. When I saw that they'd won, I practically went numb. I started screaming and jumping up and down uncontrollably; it was such an overwhelming feeling of elation that I had was incapable of containing myself in any way. To this day, I have never been as happy as I was at that moment ever again in my life. I think that deep down, subconsciously, I have been chasing that feeling ever since. That type of rush, the kind that overcomes every bit of your being, is the same rush you get when you first chase money and gamble. And heroin? Don't even get me started. I've done both of those over and over again and even at their best they didn't measure up to a fraction of my memory of what I felt that night. I think most people's happiest times occur when they're children. Whether you are rich or poor, we're all kids for a while; its a common experience we all share. From six to fifteen, nothing means shit no mater how you grow up - we are basically carefree. That is why the most despicable crime in the world is for an adult to mentally or physically abuse a child. Aside from the obvious wrong in that, anyone who does something inappropriate to a child also robs them of something they can never get back: the only time in life when anyone can ever be 100% happy. Not to sound like a negative prick, but once you become an adult, particularly if you do not have money, life becomes just one stressful, unending parade of depressing bullshit.
I didn't put all of that together as a ten year old - I was too busy losing my mind with joy. My heart was racing, and the fucking night just kept getting crazier. For a second, I thought my father forgot about his plan to storm the field. I thought I was off the hook. But no such luck. As I lost myself in celebrating, I felt my father's hand on my lower back.
He yelled in my ear: "I'll meet you at short!"
Then he threw me up over the line of cops and onto the field as naturally if he were shooting a free throw. I summersaulted into to the on-deck circle and looked back at my father. There he was, grinning ear to ear as he pointed at me and yelled, "Run to short!" I turned around and booked as hard as I could to short stop and I saw first hand that my dad was right about the cops. They didn't bother me at all but all around me they were taking down anyone who looked like they might be a member of the Eagles. No, it was worse than that: they were hitting any adult male on the field as hard as they could with their night sticks. It was a fucking war zone. Right next to me, some guy stole Willie Randolph's hat right off his head and I saw Reggie barreling into people looking like Earl Campbell running into line backers. I was confused, scared and ten years old. I felt like William Dafoe at the end of Platoon when the chopper takes off, leaving him to get shot to death. I wanted to drop to my knees in slow motion and raise my hands to heaven just like Dafoe. But I didn't do that; somehow I kept running. I made it to short stop and waited there just like my father said. It was really freaky, especially to a kid: I just kept staring at this fat guy who'd been knocked out and was lying on the ground by third base with blood coming out of his head.
After about 15 minutes, I was ready to start crying. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that my father was Superman and he would be showing up to handle the situation at any minute. Soon enough he did because just like Reggie, my father did not let me down. I felt a tap on my shoulder; I turned around and there he was.
"We won!" he yelled. He was beaming just as big as I ever saw him. Then he put me back on his shoulders and the tears that were seeping from my eyes immediately turned to tears of joy. After that we walked around the field until they turned the lights off and kicked us out. But before we left, my father told me to run into the Yankee dug out for a second and I did. When I got there, I snuck a quick drink from the water fountain. Then, like so many other people there, we dug up a patch of the infield grass to take with us.
We finally got home sometime around 3AM, and my father, being a good parent, laid down the law.
"Forget about going to school tomorrow," he said. "I don't care what your mother says." He was definitely in best friend mode at that point.
Instead of going to school, I spent the day with him and we planted the Yankee Stadium grass in our front yard. Our family is long gone from that house, but that patch of history is probably still part of the lawn at 433 Huntington Road in Union, New Jersey.
That night was the pinnacle of my childhood and I am so thankful to have shared that moment with my father. Exactly eight years later, on October 18, 1985, my childhood and the carefree part of my life officially ended. On the eighth anniversary of that day, my father fell off of a roof while installing an antenna and became a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. It happened one week after my eighteenth birthday. A week after my tenth birthday, I'd watched my father celebrate Reggie's three World Series homers with me. One week after my 18th birthday, I watched him spun around on a special bed with a metal halo screwed into his head to prevent further damage to his spine. Happy days for my family and I were over for a long, long time the moment that tragedy struck.
My father remained alive and suffering for four and a half years after the accident before passing away from an infection caused by a bad bed sore and complications from his Diabetes. He'd been diagnosed with Diabetes when he was 25 and administered himself a shot of insulin every day afterwards. Though it ultimately played a major role in his death, it never slowed him down in his life. My father died on February 1st, 1990 and those four and a half years between his accident and his death were nothing less than a living hell. Not a moment went by where I didn't feel an insanely crippling guilt for not being there with him, holding the ladder that day. I went out and worked with my dad a lot just as soon as I was old enough to not be in the way, and holding his ladder was usually my main function. It ate me up that if I'd gone to work with him that day, it never would have happened.
On the morning of October 18th, 1985, I wasn't with my dad because I did something unique, for me at least: I went to college. Even though I'd had to go to summer school to graduate from Union High, I was able to gain admission to Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. It had nothing to do with my non-existent academic prowess; my Uncle Frankie supposedly knew someone who knew someone in the Admissions Department. That's how I got in, and this was typical: with my family there was always a scam.
I went to college for exactly four weeks and the only grade I can speak of is an A that I received for an oral presentation I had to do in a class. I forget what the assignment was exactly, but I made my presentation about me and did what I've done in front of people ever since: I told stories about my family and about my life. It was the first time I got a bunch of laughs in front of a crowd of total strangers and it felt amazing to get that reaction from people; it's a power trip that you never get over.
I also tried out for the baseball team, which didn't work out so well. Seton Hall has an amazing program and walking on without a scholarship is pretty rough, but I did my best and even though nothing came of it, I realized how much I loved playing ball. During my one month college career, I also realized just how much I hated school. It bored me to death; literally the only highlight was the one day I got laughs in front of my class. But that was the only education that I really needed. That experience convinced me that I really could be a comedian. Just as soon as it happened I began to think up ways that I could quit college. I definitely couldn't just leave; I needed some kind of excuse to leave since my uncle basically got me in. And then fate handed me the perfect one that I wish it never did - namely helping my family deal with the tragedy of my father's accident.
That horrible Friday I daydreamed through my classes as usual, had lunch with some friends and then drove home at about 1:30pm. When I walked through the door I was greeted by the sight of my mother sitting in the kitchen, crying.
"Mom?" I said. "What is it? What's happened?"
"Daddy had an accident," she said through her sobs. "He fell off a roof."
I could tell by how hard she was crying that everything was not ok. "Ma," I said, afraid to ask my question. "Is he...dead?"
"No, Artie, he's alive...but it's not good," she said. "It's not good at all."
My father was laid up at St. Barnabas, the same hospital in Livingston, New Jersey where my sister and I had been born. I drove my mother and I over there in my car at the time: a fire engine red 1976 Buick Special that I would total precisely eight days later. It was the last decent car that she or I would have for the next ten years.
October 18, 1985 was the day of my dad's accident and my very last day at Seton Hall. For the next four and a half years, until my father's death, I dealt with the guilt of not being there to hold his ladder by engaging in every single piece of shitty, self-destructive, self-pitying Wah! Wah! Wah! type of behavior that there is. Drinking, drugging, gambling and bar fights that led to several arrests became my every day routine; that was just what I did at night. My mother and sister, however, responded by being strong - no, very strong - women.
While our family struggled to maintain even the slightest shred of the kind of life we were used to sharing together, my sister was able to put herself through F.I.T. in New York City by bar tending. Her hard work and achievement helped my mother's mood greatly because my mother did everything in her power to shield her children from this tragedy. But that was simply impossible. For those four and a half years, not a day went by where my mother did not look completely exhausted each and every day - and each and every day I hated that. But there was no escape, because in truth my mother was as exhausted as you can be.
Medicaid provided my father with the minimum care they could, which meant that at night my mother had to set alarm clocks to go off every two hours so that she could get up to turn my father in his bed. It was the only way to keep him from getting sores. My father was a well built, heavy man and she did it all by herself, every two fucking hours. That was her night. And her day was just as busy. It began at 6am, when she woke up, made him breakfast, fed him, got him ready for the nurse, then showered, got dressed and went off to work as a secretary. She'd come back home on her lunch hour to make sure that all was as well and that the nurse was doing her job properly before she returned to work for the afternoon. When she got off at 5pm, she'd come home, the nurse would leave, and my mother would make dinner for she and my father. Then the evening cycle began again. Medicaid did not provide for care on the weekends so for those two days my mother was on duty for 48 straight hours.
We weren't at all rich before, so to say the least we struggled then: on top of the strain of caring for my father and keeping our family afloat, my mother had to deal with shitty cars that always broke down and asshole government workers, because if the Welfare and Medicaid checks didn't keep coming we would have lost the house. I felt so helpless watching her deal with everything, all while she tried to uphold a brave facade so that my sister and I would never know just how bad it really was. Every single day I felt like such a failure. I was supposed to be the man of the family and I was so far from doing what even the generous might call a passable job of it.
After a relentless period of continuously fucking up, however, I got back on track and made making it in comedy my one and only obsession. It wasn't the promise of fame or of achieving a career or a purpose in life for myself; all I wanted to do was make enough money to buy my mother some relaxation and peace. That was the light at the end of the tunnel; that was the goal, that was how I kept the pressure on myself.
It's amazing how time plays tricks on you: when you're a kid, a day seems to take a year and a school year is an eternity. When you're an adult, when times are good, entire years go by in what feels like the space of one season. But the worst trick time plays on you is just how slowly the worst times in your life take you to live through. Those feel like one, endless, horrible moment that just won't stop.
The night before my father died I had dinner with him and we watched T.V. together for a while in his room. After a while, I told him that I was going to go to my friend Mike Lawlor's house to watch some college hoops. I made sure he was okay and said goodnight to him and started to leave. But as I got to the door, he did something he never did - he called me back.
"C'mon," he said, a genuine tone of sorrow in his voice. "Take a few more minutes and talk to your old man."
I gladly sat back down and we talked for a while. He had, from the moment that he'd been injured, done the best he could to keep up his sense of humor - which wasn't easy under the circumstances. But tonight he was very sad, much more so than usual, and he didn't try to hide it.
We talked a little, but for the mot part we sat there in silence together. I could tell that he didn't want to be alone.
"Well," he said, trying to smile, "you'd better get going if you want to catch the game." As I got up to go, my father made one more request.
"Put your hand on my hand, sport," he said.
I held his hand and watched him struggle to bring my hand up to his mouth to kiss it.
"I love you, son," he said. He started to cry.
"I love you too, Pop," I said, unable to hold back my own tears.
We cried together for a few minutes before we both got it together. Then I fixed his blankets and made him as comfortable as I could in preparation for a night's sleep - giving my mom a rare break. I said goodnight, went to the door, turned out the lights and that was the last time I saw him alive.
I went drinking over at my buddy's house, watched a couple of college basketball games I'd bet on and after losing both bets, returned home drunk at about 4am. On my way to my room I looked quickly toward my father's room and everything seemed calm and as normal as it could be. I went upstairs and fell asleep until three hours later, at 7am, when I awoke to the sound of my mother and my Uncle Rich knocking hard on my bedroom door. I was not happy about that at all.
"What?" I yelled. "What is it?"
"Artie, there's an ambulance outside for your father," my uncle said.
I opened the door and standing next to Uncle Rich was my mother, crying.
"He's gone, Artie," she said, sobbing. "He's...gone."
I ran downstairs to my father's room and found two paramedics and two police officers next to his bed. The police tried to stop me from coming into the room until I explained who I was; then they let me approach. And there was my hero, the toughest motherfucker I would ever know, lying there, lifeless. He had died sometime in the middle of the night while I was at my friend's house doing shot after shot to deal with the fact that I had lost a bet on a fucking college basketball game. Four and a half years of paralysis had transformed his powerful, muscular arms into jelly. His face looked fat and his stomach was distended like a starving African child in a Unicef ad.
I closed my eyes and started to cry just as hard as I ever have. It wasn't just the shock of the loss, it was the way that he'd gone - much too soon and so unlike the way that he'd lived. I wasn't going to accept that. I wasn't going to let that become my father in my mind. I wasn't going to open my eyes until I remembered him the way he was when I first got to know him. Standing there beside him, I fought back my sorrow until I saw him again: in the early Seventies, with his hair long, his face young, walking with a strut in his step like a typical guy from the streets of Newark who thought he was invincible. My dad was Superman to me and in my mind he always will be. And that's all that counts.
Even though my father was an Atheist, I think in his final years he came to believe in God and at least tried to make peace with him. So I did what I thought was right and what I thought he'd want me to do: I made the sign of the Cross. Then I grabbed his hand.
"I'll see you again someday, Pop," I said. "We'll play catch." I covered him with the bed sheets and that was the last time I ever saw his face.
My dad had asked us not to have a wake because of the condition that the accident had left him in. We complied and instead we had a mass in his honor at the Holy Spirit Church in Union, where I happened to raise hell as a CCD student 10 years before. My father was the type of guy who'd amassed a lot of friends over the years, so the service was very crowded. I delivered the eulogy and though it was hard to choose just one story to explain everything I wanted to say about my father, I chose to share the one that says it all to me: the night my dad and I went to Yankee Stadium and watched Reggie Jackson hit three homers to win the World Series.
What happened to my father is nothing you can prepare for and nothing you can predict, but as life-changing and devastating as it was to all of us, it could never rob us of our memories. I've got thousands of them to keep me smiling through the tears. And if it ever gets really bad, I've got a pretty simple, always reliable solution. If I want to stop crying and start laughing, all I need to do is recall October 18th, 1977. My dad and Mr. October never disappoint.
Copyright © 2008 Artie Lange. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All Rights Reserved.