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Portrait of my Father

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Richard Lethem

The picture floats. Someone took it in the Seventies, but the white backdrop gives no clue. My dad owned that wide-lapel trench coat for fifteen or twenty years, typical thrifty child of the Depression. (He probably tried to give it to me at some point.) The beard’s trim narrows the time frame slightly, that rakish full-goatee. So often in later years he wouldn’t have bothered to shave his jaw to shape it. Put this in the early Seventies. Somehow it floated into my collection of paper trinkets, ferried off to college, then to California for a decade. The only copy. By the time I showed it to my father, last week, he hadn’t seen the photograph for thirty-odd years. He couldn’t be sure of the photographer, guessing at three friends with comically overlapping names – Bobby Ramirez, Bob Brooks, Geoff Brooks. (I remember all three of them, beloved rascals from my parents’ hippie posse.) He settled at last on Geoff Brooks. The picture was never framed, nor mounted in an album, just shifted from file cabinet to cardboard box to file cabinet all this time. A scrap of Scotch tape on the left corner reminds me I had it taped up over a desk in Berkeley. In a family that, after my mother’s death, scattered itself and its memorabilia to far corners of the planet, and reassembles now sporadically and sloppily, the picture’s a survivor. But I’ve lived with it for thirty years, gazed into its eyes as often, strange to say, as I have my father’s living eyes.

And it shows Richard Lethem as I dream him, my idol. His Midwestern kindness, prairie-gazer’s soul, but come to the city, donning the beatnik garb, become the painter and poet and political activist he made himself, a man of the city. When I first knew my parents they were, paradoxically, just the two most exciting adults on the scene, part of a pantheon of artists and activists and students staying up late around the dinner table and often crashing afterwards in the extra rooms of the house. My parents were both the two I had the best access to and the coolest to know, the hub of the wheel. I wasn’t interested in childhood, I wanted to hang out with these guys. The picture shows my dad meeting the eyes of a member of his gang, both of them feeling their oats, knowing they were the leading edge of the world. I wanted him to look at me that way. He often did.