Author: Patricia Alfano
Neighborhood: Ocean Beach
Age: over 40
Occupation: Administrative coordinator
I sit here in San Diego International Airport’s baggage claim area anxiously awaiting my father’s arrival from New Jersey for my birthday celebration. He plans to stay in Ocean Beach with me only three days because, in his words, he’s “gotta keep movin’.”
I am neurotic about being late so I’m an hour and a half early — and I am nervous.
The last time I saw my father was at my mother’s funeral almost two years ago. He had taken care of her for seven years, refusing to accept any help from the family. The ordeal had taken its toll, and his appearance was shockingly frail. I am wondering what he will look like now. Will he be as gaunt? Or will he be worse?
The wait is tedious.
My father is 91. The time we have left together is growing short. I’m hoping to convince him to come and live with me in O.B. but have no illusions that his stubborn, old Italian ways will allow him to even listen to my proposal.
I see a crowd descending the escalator. His plane must have landed. My heart is beating so fast I can feel it in my head. And my feet.
I look up and catch sight of him gliding downward on the escalator like some exotic bird searching for a perch. Standing tall, his chin is raised and his eyes scan the area for me.
He looks good, I think to myself. He put on weight. The frailness is gone, and his body more closely resembles the one I remember from my youth — strong, straight, and muscular. He’s dressed impeccably and wears a newsboy cap which makes him look like the character Uncle Junior from the HBO series The Sopranos. I cry and laugh at the same time.
I leap from my chair and dart in his direction. Waving my arms wildly, I jump up and down to get his attention. As if in some slow-motion movie, we run toward each other. He hugs me so hard I feel my ribs bend.
“Where we gonna go first?” he asks. “You know, I gotta keep movin’.”
“We’ll drive to my apartment. Then we’ll take a walk. I want to show you Ocean Beach,” I answer.
After a short time in my cramped studio we leave the apartment and head toward Collier Park, wending our way to Voltaire Street. I’m holding his hand, much like I did as a child. We look at each other while the surreal landscape opens before us. There is so much to say and so much not to say. We talk about my mother. He cries. Sixty-four years is a long time to be with someone and then lose her.
We talk about food and argue about whether the East or West Coast makes better spaghetti sauce. We talk about why I gave up on becoming a ballerina, lawyer, artist, and psychologist. The chatter is punctuated with periods of silence and an occasional hand squeeze.
We walk toward the beach. The discussion has now shifted to politics. He is as much to the right as I am to the left. We debate. I get upset. He laughs and gives me one of his I’m-just-jerking-your-chain looks. Easily we slip back in time. He is my hero. I am his spoiled principessa.
I want to impress him with my town and my life. On Voltaire I point a finger in a southerly direction and say, “Over there is O.B. People’s Co-op, where I shop.” I’m feeling extremely self-righteous as I preach about the merits of organic food cooperatives. “I refuse to give my money to the major grocery-store chains and greedy corporations,” I boast.
“What’s wrong with corporations?” he asks.
I launch into my corporations-are-killing-America speech and my military-industrial-complex-must-be-stopped lecture.
He listens intently.
“Why don’t you run for president?” he responds. “You would make a good president.”
My father sees no limits when it comes to what he thinks I could do.
We turn left on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and walk past all the churches.
“Is there a Catholic church here?” he wants to know.
“Yes,” I answer, “but we’re going to Little Italy on Sunday so you can hear the Mass in Italian.”
“Italian!” He stops walking and glares at me. His hands are slicing at the air. “I’m an American! I don’t want to speak Italian!”
“But Italian is your native tongue and our heritage...”
He cuts me off. “I’m an American! I fought for this country. This is my country.”
Here we go, I thought — first blunder. “We’re Italian-Americans,” I rebut.
“No!” His face is red now. “Only Americans!”
We reach Newport Avenue, and I let the Italian Mass discussion drop and start a new topic about education.
“I was a wise guy,” he says while peering in the window at the Portugalia restaurant. “The Army — the Army straightened me out and gave me an education.” He goes on, “Had to drop out in seventh grade to go pick beans in Jersey to feed the family.” He stops walking and lowers his head. “I have regrets,” he confesses, in a raspy voice.
I think about his life and how difficult it all must have been living through the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam — serving his country and struggling with the world, his family…himself.
We stop at Willie’s shoeshine stand, and I introduce him to Willie. Decorated with American and POW flags and all sorts of Marine memorabilia, the stand is a tribute to Willie’s unwavering patriotism. Willie is holding poppies to sell for the veterans in one hand while reaching out for a handshake with the other.
“Marines,” Willie says grabbing my father’s hand.
“Army,” my father responds.
We chat until hunger beckons us to find a place for lunch. We backtrack to Sunset Cliffs and decide to eat at Pepe’s. Before we turn the corner my father pauses and gestures in the direction of the shoeshine stand. “He wears the emblem,” he comments. “It’s on his hat,” he adds. “The Marines…you know, they’re the really tough guys,” he says softly.