My brother Bart died a couple of years ago. Today would have been his 65th birthday, an American milestone he never made.
We weren't really that close, especially in later years. He was 12 years older than me, and by the time I was 7 or 8 he was out on his own. But Bart was a formative influence on me in a number of ways. My father died when I was 2, so my two brothers, both somewhat older, filled in some of the father-figure slack. Once, on an outing to Sam Goody's record store, ca. 1964 (a Beatles-buying expedition), a clerk said to Bart, of me, "He's a cute kid. Is he your son?"
A passion for music is one of the things I got partly from Bart. He was an obsessive record collector. Like our father before him, Bart was a big fan of the Great American Songbook and its interpreters, especially Sinatra and his crowd. As I got older we found mutual territory in jazz singers. But when I was younger Bart encouraged my burgeoning musical interests, sparked largely by the seismic cultural effect of Beatlemania, when I was 8 years old.
He was also an adventurous and enthusiastic eater. I first tried calamari on Bart's recommendation, at a local Brooklyn Italian restaurant. Back in the mid-60s calamari was not the ubiquitous menu item it is today. Back then it was considered weird or exotic food.
My brother was never one to do anything in moderation. Many of my earliest experiences of regional Chinese cuisines, in the early-70s, were in his company. Bart was especially excited by the newly available spicy Szechuan cuisine. One time he went to a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown, Szechuan Taste, I think, and asked the waiter, "What's the spiciest dish you have?" The waiter named a dish and Bart said, "Give me one of those--and make it twice as hot."
Bart had a great sense of humor, which contributed greatly to his success in the sales game. Styrofoam is a pretty dry product line, but Bart kept his customers in stitches with an endless barrage of jokes. Whether they were good or bad, he really didn't care. In fact, he had a real talent for delivering bad jokes. His wit could be acerbic (a family trait, I think). Once, at a rare restaurant outing with both of my brothers, at least ten years ago, in Chinatown of course, I was reminiscing about the old neighborhood and our childhoods. I have a particularly acute long-term memory, and Harvey, the middle son, said, "How do you remember these things? You should go on Jeopardy." To which Bart replied, "What would his subject be? Dysfunctional family trivia?"
Today, on his birthday anniversary, I'm remembering my brother publicly.