I sat at the river earlier and thought about my father, about his life in the world of investment and Wall Street and downtown Manhattan; a life, I might add, I knew nothing about. Zero. I never asked him anything. It’s on my mind today because I’m working on a piece about Russia and occupations, and it occurs to me I’ve never asked anyone in Russia what he did for a living; and I do not recall anyone ever asking me, even when on the railroad thousands of miles from anywhere logical. If anyone was inquisitive, they certainly never let on. This was true as well when I taught in St. Petersburg in the nineties. Certainly at the college everyone knew, but at cafes or the market in brief conversation with people who back then wanted so desperately to try their English, no one tried the standard language-tape question, “What is your occupation?”
It is one of the first questions we ask strangers in America.
I know this: About ten percent of Russians work in agriculture and another twenty-seven percent in industry, and since there weren’t a lot of white-collar companions either on the railway or in Siberia, I’m guessing we were surrounded by mostly working-class people, even in second class. Siberia is very much a binary society. It is either city, like in Irkutsk or Vladivostok, with cafes and theaters and banks and festivals, or it is absolutely desolate, a random farmer’s shack or gutted gulag scattered through the wild landscape.
I talked to one man who had decent English when he wasn’t drinking and playing chess, and he struck me as a businessman, which would explain his command of language. Yet, he disembarked at one of the more remote stations we stopped at, apparently just to let him off. It almost seemed cruel to leave him alone since the station was a small, blue shack with no roads or paths. How does one breach that topic? “Is that his office?” “His home?” “His punishment?” Maybe it is my cold-war mentality hemorrhaging on occasion, but after nearly thirty trips to Russia, I came to accept that not asking is most appropriate, particularly since they never asked me. The older ones probably assumed from their cold-war youths that I was CIA or some left-wing leftover looking for remnants of Emma Goldman or John Reed. American tourists simply can’t be found in the remote regions of Siberia.
For my part I constantly filled in the blanks of not asking. Endless hours rolling along leads to rail-games like that. I kept thinking of Paul Simon singing, “She said the man in the Gabardine suit was a spy.”
I remember another father and son, much younger than us, in the dining car. The man was always reading papers and I wondered if he was a professor or a writer. He was dressed well. By the time I had decided to go and introduce myself, they had already disembarked. Michael talked to the son for a bit one morning when we first saw them, but neither of them ever recovered from that linguistic bloodbath. It wouldn’t be unusual for the boy not to know his father’s profession anyway.
And today I sat and realized I never asked my father what he did for a living. I mean I knew he was a “broker,” but I never inquired about his day, about what took place. Part of me was too busy growing up or playing with friends, and part of me didn’t want to bother him after doing it all day. But those are adult responses when I wonder why I didn’t ask, and the truth is I probably simply didn’t care. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing made my thing possible but even that was too complicated to contemplate when I was ten. So we talked about baseball.
I hear so many people when recalling their youth speak of their dads in absent terms, as if the man was never there or estranged for some emotional reason, or the younger one was just too rebellious to be around all that much. But that wasn’t the case with us, thank God. We got along absolutely fine. We just didn’t talk a lot because of our circles. My circles crossed paths with friends, sometimes with siblings, often with Mom. His circles crossed paths with colleagues or Mom or neighbors, or us when on the golf course or watching a Met’s game. This was old school; this was adults being one generation and the kids being another, and between those two generations lay one of the biggest abyss’ in American history. It was no big deal, at least not in our home. But I never asked him about his day, what he did at the office all day. I’m sorry for that. I wish I had.
I suppose I had to become a parent first to understand what kind of child I was. I needed a basis of comparison that goes beyond the parent-child relationships of cousins or friends. It had to be later, years later, when I finally understood what he would have wanted me to ask, what he wished I had shown interest in, how close—or not close—we were. Turns out we were so much closer than I knew. I discovered this much too late in his life, late at night when we’d have a Scotch and talk about nothing at all, and sometimes he’d confuse me for my brother, but that was alright too. Sitting quietly like that was fine, it really was.
Tonight I’m writing about trains. I’ve been doing so for a few years now; it seems the narrative arc keeps moving, and right now I’m finding myself as my own antagonist whose conflict lay somewhere between generations. I’m writing about my son and me on a train on the other side of the planet but can’t help but think of my father and me in a small village on the south shore of Long Island. Maybe because he’d leave early every morning for the Islip train station for the ride on the LIRR to his downtown office, and then home. I look up from my work and find myself filling in the blank spaces of my dad’s life at work, and it is empty, a well, a cavity.
I wish I had stopped him once or twice and just asked him…I don’t know what…something…about his day or what happened on the train or what the people were like. Most certainly he would have joked about it at first, made some humorous comment, but he would have found something to say. Not much, I’m sure, but something.
In later years I didn’t worry about any memories he might have had of rebelliousness on my part, or any overbearing presence on his; neither was even slightly true. No, my baggage on this ride is the idea he might have thought I was completely indifferent to his life, what he did, what it was he thought about when he’d sit on the back porch and stare out across the river.