Mike Elliott’s father disappeared when he was 13 years old. Not disappeared as in vanished mysteriously. Disappeared as in left and never came back. Some 27 years later, on a rainy afternoon, Mike drove through Pinellas County, Florida (1100 miles from his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey), in search of an address that might or might not belong to his father. He vacillated between hope and fear that whoever answered the door would be the man he was looking for. He decided that, if it was his father, he would give him a good “Fk you” and maybe a quick, hard fist to the jaw.
“As I’m driving,” Mike tells me from the safe distance of 13 years, “I’m trying to find this place, and the thing that sticks in my mind is that my father would be living in a good area. I remember his selfishness. So as I drove through these trashy little towns and trailer parks, I said, ‘He’s not going to be here.’ And then, sure enough, I pass the last big road, and then it becomes a really beautiful area. As soon as I saw all the beautiful palm trees and the nice houses, I said, ‘Aw, shit.’”
Mike sits at the edge of a cream-colored leather loveseat in a clean, light room with wooden floors. The decoration is sparse. On an end table, ice melts at the bottom of a blue highball glass that he filled with Tanqueray a half hour ago. “To loosen me up,” he’d said as he poured.
To fully appreciate that particular moment in Mike’s story, the one where he’s driving down an unfamiliar road, looking for an address he doesn’t want to find, it’s important to get to know Mike.
Mike bought a Harley with the money he inherited from his father.
The 53-year-old business systems analyst rides a grumbling Softail Deluxe Harley that awakens his neighbors at 6:00 a.m. Yes, he’s apologetic about the early morning noise, but still, he’s that guy.
Then there’s his chest-up, tough-guy walk, and his heavy brow. Everything most obvious about him suggests that he’d have a grittier interior design aesthetic than the Zen-like sanctuary of this City Heights condo. Potted plants stand in every corner. On the kitchen stove, a whole chicken floats in a stockpot full of mushrooms, celery, and carrots. Tonight, when his girlfriend Huong comes home, they’ll have homemade chicken soup for dinner. For now, however, it’s Tanqueray on ice, and maybe a few sips of the Fat Tire on the end table next to his glass.
Mike is perched at the edge of the loveseat, but a half-hour ago, when this story began, he was sitting back with his legs splayed, as if the particulars he was sharing were of little consequence. Outside, a rare San Diego storm was beginning to brew. He’d already pulled the plants off the balcony, bringing them inside to protect them from a wind that was whipping up the trees in the canyon behind the condo.
“In my town, fathers gravitated toward the bars,” he said. “That’s what we were famous for in Bayonne. A bar on every corner. We were all in the same boat. All the fathers were either missing in action or they lived at home and were drunks. I remember my friends’ fathers coming down the block and stumbling off the sidewalk, drunk out of their minds. To us, if you had one, it was, like, ‘Who cares?’ A father wasn’t something to respect.”
Bob Elliott with friend in September 1997.
As Mike shared tales of his father’s comings and goings throughout his childhood years, his tone of resignation and slumped posture gave me a glimpse into the kid he once was, and the attitude he’d had to adopt. Even good memories are tinged with disappointment.
“They had just started a Little League team in our town,” he said, beginning the story of his “best memory” of his father. “This was back in the early- to mid-’60s. They had basic tryouts. Then somebody would contact you, give you your uniform, and you’d show up. My father took me to my first game. Brand new Little League field. Brand new Little League gear. The coach had never seen any of the kids, so he had no idea who could play what. He puts me at catcher, and my number was ten.”
He raised a hand to demonstrate the way a catcher would hold up his mitt.
“I’m sitting there, catching, and the ball kept hitting my glove and falling out because I wasn’t strong enough to close the glove. And I made a couple of mistakes on the field…. Anyhow, long story short, we’re on the way home on the bus, and I swear to you, my father says to me, ‘Who was that catcher?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘That catcher stunk.’ And I said, ‘What catcher?’ and he said, ‘Number ten.’ I said, ‘I’m number ten.’”
Mike shook his head and reached for his drink.
“He didn’t even know that was me. The best part [of the day] was that he had come with me. The second part is that he also bought me one of those little Italian ices. That’s the only time I ever remember him giving me something.”
Then there was the time his father came around to show off a new car.
“Guess what kind it was,” Mike prodded. When I couldn’t, he said, “An MG Midget.” He paused for effect, then looked with incredulity over the rim of his highball glass. “He’s got five kids. It’s a two-seater.”
Mike wasn’t the kind of kid who asked questions. He didn’t know where his father spent his time, only that he wasn’t around much, and that when he was, he and Mike’s mother often fought about money. His mother was always asking for some.
Mike Elliott, second from left, with three of his four siblings.
“It wasn’t for her. It was for milk and food. [We were] five kids living in the projects,” he said of himself, his three brothers — one older, two younger — and his baby sister.
Eventually, Mike’s mother took his father to court to force him to pay child support. Mike was eight or nine at the time. His father gave the judge a sob story about how he didn’t have the money and couldn’t make the payments. But when the judge threatened him with a night in jail, Mike’s father took out his checkbook and wrote a check.
“He paid up what he owed, and then we didn’t see him again for years.”
Mike Elliott’s mother, on right.
Mike’s mother never received another payment. The family went on welfare and lived in subsistence housing. Every Saturday, Mike’s paternal grandmother and his father’s brother, Uncle Cookie, brought Spam and Velveeta to the kids. They sat together with Mike’s mother and talked in the kitchen all day.
“They would rave about my father. His name was Robert, but they called him Boobie.”
Mike sucks down the last of the gin in the blue glass.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, Boobie was so good.’ My mom sat there, and I think she was just tortured by that shit. Year after year of them telling her how great [my father] was, and he was nowhere to be found. But, on the reverse side, there they were every Saturday, taking time out of their day to come visit the grandkids and bring at least a little food. I don’t remember a Saturday without them being there.”
When Mike was 13 or 14, his father reached out to the family and invited the kids to south Jersey for Thanksgiving. His mom said, “Whoever wants to go can go.” By then, Mike’s oldest brother had established himself as Mom’s loyal protector and refused to go. He hated their father “like he was the devil,” and Mike’s sister “couldn’t be bothered.” But Mike and his two middle brothers decided to go and spend the weekend.
“We went to his house, which we thought was the greatest, because it was on farmland. He actually lived in a small apartment, but he had this girlfriend — beautiful girl, really sweet — who had a big house out in the country.”
Mike’s voice lightened with the memory. His face softened.
“We shot BB guns with him and stuff. It was fun to be around him. There was green grass and open land. We did outdoor things that we hadn’t done in the city. It was kind of cool. I actually had a good time.”
A couple of weeks later, his father called again and asked if the kids could come back for Christmas. This time, his mother said no.
“She blew up about it. She figured, ‘You took three of my kids for Thanksgiving, and now you want to take them for Christmas, too? You haven’t been around forever.’ I just remember she had a huge fight with him over the phone. The next thing I knew, he dropped off some gifts for us, and that was the day he disappeared.”
This time, Boobie disappeared for decades.
“While he was gone, he was gone. There was no change from what it was before. So, big deal. We were all mad as hell at him. To be honest, I think if he had come around when we were in those late-teenage, early-20s, early-30s years, he would have gotten his ass kicked. I think we were all pretty much united on that.”
At one point, Mike’s grandmother let it slip that his father might be in Florida, but by then, Mike and his brothers and sister had written Boobie off. As far as they were concerned, he no longer existed. The only time any of them had attempted to contact their father was when Mike’s sister got married. She sent Boobie a wedding invitation through their grandmother.
“When he didn’t come, she never talked about him again. In other words, that was the last opportunity he had, if he was ever going to participate in our family.”
Fast forward to 1998. Mike was living in San Diego. The company he worked for sent him all over the country to open regional offices and train new employees. This took him to Tampa, Florida, for a couple of weeks.
“I’m doing my job, and it hits me that I’m in Florida. That one thing that my grandmother said about Florida kind of stuck in my head.”
He asked around about the best way to look for someone. This led him to the real-estate assessors’ office in Pinellas County.
“I just happened to be in the right county. Sure enough, I make one phone call, and I say, ‘Hey, do you have anybody under the name of Robert Thomas Elliott that has property in this county?’ And the guy says, ‘Yeah, we have one person living at this address.’”
Mike wrote the information down and pocketed it. When the weekend came, he spent Saturday at the beach. He thought about the address, still unsure what he would do about it.
“At the beach, I had this kind of heavy feeling that I was in the vicinity of him. The fact that they found one person with his name spooked me a little bit.”
The next day, on his way back to the beach, it began to rain. He returned to his hotel, got the address, and made the 25-mile drive from Tampa to Seminole.
He drove through the cruddy trailer parks, thinking, No, my dad wouldn’t be here. Then the scenery changed. The houses were big and the palm trees tall, and Mike knew, This is where he would be.
Mike leans forward on the loveseat. He wrings his hands. Tension concentrates in his tightened neck.
“So, I drive down the block, and all the mailboxes are white. I get to the Elliott house, and it’s a black mailbox. With my name on it. All the way there, I was rehearsing what was going to happen. It was 27 years after I last saw him. I hadn’t really thought about him a whole lot, but when I was going to the beach that day, I said, ‘Oh, shit. Something’s going to happen.’”
Mike leans his elbows on his knees and closes his eyes. His head hangs for a second before he covers his face with his hand. Then he stands and leaves the room. He’s gone around the corner to pull himself together. I can hear him swallowing back his grief.
When he returns to the loveseat, he says, “Shit, I don’t like talking about it.” But he picks up the story again. “Anyhow…I get to the street, and I don’t want to go knock on the house. There’s a guy across the street mowing his lawn. I go over there, and I ask him, ‘Do you know Mr. Elliott? Is he an older guy?’ I was hoping he was going to give me an out. You know, maybe he’s a black guy or something. But he says, ‘Yeah, he’s an older guy.’”
So Mike crossed the street and knocked.
“He has this big plate-glass door, and I saw him [coming]. He had his shirt off, and I knew, because he kind of looked like my brother. Then I looked at his arm, and he had a paratrooper tattoo that I remembered.” Mike’s voice is shaking now. “I asked him…I asked him if he knew who I was. He said no, and I told him who I was. I told him that I was his son Michael, and he started crying.” Mike wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I didn’t cry. I was too stunned. But he was crying, and he said, ‘I always knew that one of you would come looking for me.’ And then we went inside his house.”
While his father went to put a shirt on, Mike stood in the middle of the foyer. He looked at a guitar in a corner, a parrot, the swimming pool out back, and he thought, Goddamn, I’m in my own father’s house, and I don’t even know who this guy is.
Boobie chatted nervously when he returned. He circled the room, offered a Coke or a snack and random facts about the objects in his home. Mike watched through a fog of disbelief.
“All the things I had rehearsed going over there, like, would I punch him in the face? Or give him some ‘Fk you’ or whatever I was going to tell him. All those things flew out the window.”
After a few minutes, Mike’s father suggested they go out for a drink. They went to his favorite local restaurant.
“I think he really needed some support. He knew the owner, and he knew some of the people in there, and he introduced me as his son and just totally lost it. It was the first time he’d said that in almost 30 years. He started crying again.”
The doorbell rings, interrupting the story. It’s Huong, Mike’s girlfriend. She lives here, but her hands are too full of packages to open the door. Mike tells her he has company, then returns to the loveseat as she heads up the stairs.
“So he introduces me as his son,” he continues, “and I could tell it hurt him to say it because I think it was a little bit revealing about him that he hadn’t had that contact with us.”
Mike let his father do the talking. The story Boobie told was that he’d moved originally to Tennessee, gotten a truck-driving job, and ended up with the Teamsters union. He took Valerie (the girl Mike and his brothers had met at Thanksgiving) with him to Tennessee, and then they ended up in Florida. Until six months prior to Mike’s arrival, Valerie had lived with him in the big house with the black mailbox.
But she left him after 26 1/2 years. Boobie confessed that Valerie had been after him for years to reach out to his kids.
“He said, ‘I wanted to reach out to you guys, but what are the chances of four boys growing up in the projects and none of them turning out to be criminals?’ He was afraid of us. He didn’t know what was going to happen as we got older or what we might have done to him.”
Mike’s eyes are dry now, though red. He stands up and goes into the kitchen to stir the pot of chicken soup. The warm salty scent intensifies.
“Maybe he was right in some way,” he says from the stove. “I don’t think we would’ve done anything violent to him, other than punch him in the face. But I think he was just a chicken-ass. I don’t think he had it in him to stand up and do the right thing.”
At one point, Boobie asked if anyone had ever gone looking for him.
“I said, ‘Nobody ever looked for you.’ I could see the air go out of him.”
Mike returns to the loveseat.
“Nobody was interested in him,” he says. “I could see him get deflated when he asked me that question. I think it hit him hard.”
They spent about two hours together. As they talked, Mike looked and listened for “anything that would foul him up, anything that would suggest he was just bullshitting me. I didn’t see anything.”
But hearing sincerity in his father’s voice wasn’t the most satisfying part of the visit. “The most satisfaction I got out of the whole thing was telling him that my mother was able to raise us — and do a good job of it — without him.”
After they left the bar, Mike dropped his father back at his house and asked if he could take a picture. Boobie let him and even smiled. Mike could tell it was forced, but he wasn’t going to let his father’s discomfort keep him from snapping the photograph.
“That was my evidence that the whole thing happened.” He still has the picture somewhere in his garage.
Then Mike left. Though his father had cried several times that afternoon, Mike stayed dry-eyed until he drove away.
“I got behind the wheel, and as soon as I got to the corner, I lost it. I mean, I fell apart. I was driving and bawling my eyes out.”
It occurs to Mike that he’s left out two important facts. One, Boobie asked for everyone’s Social Security numbers, so he could put them on his life insurance. Mike tells me this as if in passing, then describes his older brother’s reaction to the visit and the request (“That son of a bitch! He’ll never be a part of my life!”), his sister’s indifference, and his younger brothers’ curiosity and excitement. Then he tacks on the second important fact.
“Oh, yeah.” He reaches for the blue glass. He puts it back down when he finds it empty. “I guess I probably should have mentioned that he had slow-moving leukemia that he was fighting at the time.”
After Mike’s trip to Florida, the only other contact he had with his father was an occasional email. Three years later, Boobie died. Although he’d already signed the house over to Valerie, he left everything else to Mike’s mom (whom he’d never divorced) and their five children. The six of them received about $14,000 each.
On the phone several days after our conversation, Mike says, “Hey, I forgot to tell you. You know the money I inherited? The $14,000? I used it to buy my Harley.”
“I have to say that’s the best thing my father ever did for me.”