Last Laugh

My father was a big man, but so am I. If I had to handicap a fistfight between us, he would have been the favorite until about twenty years ago. Even up until a few years ago, he would have had a puncher’s chance. But if you took us both at our respective physical primes, he would have been a heavy favorite. He was tougher, had been in exponentially more fistfights.

This is not how my father would have written this story

JJ Bubbles

My father has a great laugh. It starts with a high-pitched cackle, a staccato, almost maniacal ha-ha-ha sound that’s followed by a rollicking descent into hysterics that grip his entire body, doubling him over. Sometimes, as he’s laughing, he brings his hands together in glee; tears occasionally show up in his eyes. The laugh ends with a slow roll back into composure, one hand coming to rest on his chest as he catches his breath. For a few minutes afterwards, you hear an occasional closemouthed snicker or a bemused chuckle, like the aftershocks of an earthquake.

My father has difficulty telling a coherent story. He forgets important details, fixates on less important ones. His segues have segues, his tangents have tangents. He drops names into stories without explaining who the name belongs to. He throws in random information that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what he’s talking about. He assumes you know everything he does, that you can see inside his head. When I was younger, I often acted as a translator for him, interjecting when he veered off course, filling in blanks, explaining who someone was, and so on.

My father is dead. I probably should have told you that at the beginning, but my father would have it thought it fairly ridiculous to tell a story in a linear way.

He passed away on April 9 due to complications from Covid-19. When I started writing this, he was in the ICU at Concord Hospital in New Hampshire, hooked up to a ventilator, under heavy sedation. He spent thirteen days on that ventilator.

I wrote this essay then because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t go see him, couldn’t talk to him. I edited it after he died, but I couldn’t bring myself to change those first two descriptions of him into the past tense.

My father’s name was Joe Joyce. He would have turned 75 on May 19. He was born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He was an only child. He married my mother in 1972. They bought an old, rundown house in Tottenville, the last town on Staten Island. They had three kids. I’m the oldest. My sister Kristen is three years younger than me. My brother Kevin is three years younger than her.

My father owned a bar called JJ Bubbles. He opened it in 1978, not long after my sister was born. Some people call it a shot and a beer bar. Others call it an old-man bar. It’s a blue-collar place, but not a dive. It’s nicer than that. There are all kinds of little knickknacks inside: a collection of beer trays from the ’50s, an enormous tuba, the stuffed head of an impala, an assortment of unusual signs, a naked picture of Marilyn Monroe. Every time I go there, I notice something new.

I started going to the bar with my father when I was 8 or 9. I loved going there when I was little, even though there wasn’t much for me to do, other than drink too many Shirley Temples and play pinball. When I got a little older, he put me to work: stocking beer bottles, wiping down tables in the back, cleaning ashtrays. When I was 17, he taught me how to bartend. At some point, I started sneaking peeks at the picture of Marilyn Monroe. At another, later point, I stopped noticing it.

When I was 14 years old, we spent Thanksgiving with family friends. At some point during dinner, the conversation turned to my plans for adulthood, to what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said that I wanted to go to South Africa to fight apartheid. A noble, absurd sentiment, uttered with no small degree of self-righteousness and sanctimony. The other adults around the table murmured polite approval, though deep down they must have been rolling their eyes. My father was more blunt.

“Don’t be an asshole, Ed,” he said.

That set the tone for our political discussions over the next thirty years.

My father had almost no interest in sports. Whenever he took me to a game growing up, he brought a book to read. I was obsessed with sports as a kid and still am, so this always baffled and occasionally embarrassed me.

My father needed to know everyone’s ethnicity. If I were telling him a story and mentioned a name, someone he didn’t know, he’d interrupt me to guess. “So I was with Joey and we—”

“Italian guy?”

Or:

“My buddy Sam had to go back to—”

“Jewish fella?”

The people in my father’s stories often had ridiculous names like Ratty Williams, or Angie Angelone.

In 1982, a bunch of guys from JJ Bubbles went to a Yankees game. My father tagged along, took me. I was 7 years old, and this was my first baseball game. Our seats were in the upper deck, on the third base side. The Yankees were playing the Royals, who were really good at the time; they had George Brett, Willie Wilson, and the reliever Dan Quisenberry, whose insane side-arm delivery was fun to imitate when playing Wiffleball.

The middle-aged man sitting behind me, who I suspect was inebriated, claimed that his cousin was the Royals outfielder Amos Otis. He kept calling him Famous Amos Otis, said he was gonna hit a home run. He razzed me, in a gentle, good-natured way. Sure enough, Amos Otis hit a home run. The guy behind me went crazy—stood up, did a little dance. It was a back and forth game, so one of the guys from Bubbles taught me how to razz back, especially when my favorite player, Dave Winfield, also hit a home run.

My father spent most of the game reading a magazine. During the middle innings, Don Slaught, the Royals rookie catcher, fouled a ball off. Someone nudged my father to alert him that the ball was flying in our direction. My father dropped his magazine, stood up, and caught it. He tossed the ball to me, sat back down, resumed reading.

My favorite sign in my father’s bar says: IF YOU CAN’T DAZZLE THEM WITH BRILLIANCE, BAFFLE THEM WITH BULLSHIT.

After my father got drafted, he was sent to Vietnam. As the only son of a widow, he wasn’t supposed to go to an active combat area, but his mother didn’t have her shit together and neither did he. Luckily, my mother, who he was engaged to by this point, did. She wrote a letter to President Nixon and got all her sorority sisters to do the same.

Amazingly, it worked.

He was pulled out of Vietnam and spent the rest of his service in Hawaii.

This is not how my father would have written this story. It would be even more incoherent, even less linear. There would be a random anecdote thrown in somewhere around here about Ducky Cole, an old friend of his with whom he had a falling out. Ducky was a police officer who also owned a bar. But my father wouldn’t have bothered to explain who Ducky Cole was.

Speaking of which, Ratty Williams was the name of a weird kid he grew up with. Angie Angelone was his college wrestling coach.

My father always said Angie Angelone’s full name.

Not Coach Angelone. Not Angie.

Angie Angelone.

Angie Angelone was apparently a real tough bastard, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when someone is telling you a story and keeps saying Angie Angelone, Angie Angelone.

My father had a strange sense of humor. Sometimes he found things funny that no one else did. He would be the only person laughing in a large group. People who didn’t know him could be forgiven for thinking he was a lunatic. Occasionally he was kind of a lunatic.

My father was in Vietnam for only seven weeks. I think he felt guilty about this. One time, I overheard him talking to a guy named Billy, another Vietnam vet. My father was downplaying his own experience, said he wasn’t there very long, only seven weeks.

“Long enough to catch a bullet,” Billy said.

I want to tell you that I still have that foul ball, that it’s on my desk right now as I write this, a cherished memento, but I don’t, and it’s not. I’ve never come close to catching a ball at a baseball game again.

My father went to wakes. If he had any connection to a person, no matter how attenuated, and that person passed away, he would attend their wake. It was one of his things. I have a theory about why my father went to so many wakes. I think he was worried that when he died, no one would go to his. This always seemed like a strange strategy to me. After all, the people whose wakes he attended wouldn’t be able to attend his.

JJ Bubbles is a pretty great name for a bar. You gotta give him that.

The thing that made my father’s laugh so wonderful was its authenticity. It was completely genuine, a spontaneous expression of joy. It startled some people; they would flinch, or even recoil. The downside was that he was constitutionally incapable of a courtesy chuckle. The man could not force himself to laugh. He couldn’t even offer up a disingenuous “That’s funny,” the way people do when they know they’re supposed to laugh but don’t. So making him laugh felt like an accomplishment.

I started trying to make my father laugh even before we started arguing about politics. When I was 12, I saw a plastic sign at the Staten Island mall that read: THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE, and below it, in smaller print: So I didn’t do it. I thought this was really clever and irreverent, a Monty Pythonesque send-up of bold, self-important proclamations. I bought it, hung it above my desk, and showed it to my father, certain he would love it. He looked at it for a moment, made a sour face. “I don’t get it,” he said, then walked out of my room.

You gotta give him that is a phrase my father used when giving someone a reluctant compliment.

My father stopped drinking almost forty years ago. Very occasionally, he would have a small sip of red wine, but never a proper drink.

For the vast majority of the time he owned Bubbles, he didn’t drink. That boggles my mind.

I asked him once whether he missed it. He said the only thing he missed was having a cold beer on a really hot day.

“But I never had just one,” he added. “And I sure as shit don’t miss the hangovers.”

By the way, about Vietnam, my father was grateful to my mother but also to President Nixon.

Tricky Dick got a bad rap, he said to me once, well before I understood what the hell he was talking about.

During Patrick Ewing’s rookie year, my dad took me to a Knicks game. We drove in from Staten Island, parked at a garage across the street from the Garden. After the game, my father wanted to let the crowd thin out, so we got hot dogs at a Nathan’s before heading to the parking garage. While we waited for our car, a very tall black man entered the garage, wearing a suit. My father had no idea who he was, only knew that he had to be a player. But I knew it was Bill Cartwright, who had just played what was probably the worst game of his professional career. He was obviously in a bad mood, which my father didn’t notice. Flustered but not wanting to miss the opportunity, my father approached Bill Cartwright, pulling me along. “Hey, great game, great game,” he said.

Bill Cartwright glared at him, trying to figure out whether he was busting balls or clueless.

“This is my son.” My father shoved me forward.

Bill Cartwright looked down at me and extended his hand. I shook it.

“Sorry,” I said softly.

“It’s OK, kid,” he said and smiled.

I always liked Bill Cartwright after that, even when he was on the Bulls and they kept beating the Knicks.

When my younger brother was born, my father went on a days long bender, during which he wore an oversized blue cowboy hat made out of foam that said It’s A Boy on the side. He stopped drinking shortly after that.

On the wall behind the bar at Bubbles, there is a picture of a man in a bar, drinking a short glass of beer, looking out the window. The bar in the picture looks very much like my father’s bar.

The thing about sports is that they give you something to talk about. If my father was a die-hard Giants fan, or a Yankees fan, or an anything fan, we could have talked about that. We could have commiserated after losses, celebrated after wins. We could have talked about who they should have drafted, whether they should have gotten rid of the coach.

My father was a truly terrible driver. He drove like it was an ancillary activity, not something that he needed to focus on. A normal person listens to the radio while they’re driving. My father drove while he listened to the radio. Or drank his coffee. Or pointed out places where Ratty Williams did something perverted.

A lot of what I write is written with my father in mind. Not just this, which he will never read. On some fundamental level, I’m trying to tell his stories. To tell his story.

When my father’s mother died, the priest who gave the blessing at her wake was a tiny, Vietnamese man with a very thick accent. No one could understand much of what he was saying other than “Jesus Christ.”

My father found this very funny, had to hold in his earthquake laugh, not an easy thing for him to do. He later explained that if his mother had been at the wake, she would have been in the back with her sister, shaking her head, horrified that they couldn’t find a proper Irish priest.

“I guess God always gets the last laugh,” he said to me.

He did get it. He just didn’t think it was funny. Would it have killed him to fake it? I’m talking about that sign I bought when I was 12.

One day, as my father was driving over the Verrazano Bridge, he noticed a car pulled over and a man out on one of the stanchions that harness the bridge’s cables, looking as though he was going to jump. My father pulled over and pleaded with him not to do it. The man was despondent; his wife had recently left him and had taken their kids. All he had left was his dog, which was sitting in the backseat of his car. What will happen to your dog? my father asked.

You take it, the man replied.

I can’t, my father lied, my kids are allergic.

And so it went for a while, the man threatening to jump, my father asking him to think about the dog. Eventually, the police showed up and asked my father to keep talking to the man, so my father stayed. After a while, the man came back onto the bridge and into police custody.

My father got back in his car and continued home.

When he came inside the house, he started sobbing. It was the first time I ever saw him cry.

It was pretty fucking cool that my father caught that ball. You gotta give him that.

Over the years, my father and I had many, many arguments about politics. Some have devolved into screaming matches. One came very close to getting physical. All of them seem silly now.

My father was a big man, but so am I. If I had to handicap a fistfight between us, he would have been the favorite until about twenty years ago. Even up until a few years ago, he would have had a puncher’s chance. But if you took us both at our respective physical primes, he would have been a heavy favorite. He was tougher, had been in exponentially more fistfights.

You’ve never thought about fighting your father? Fine. You’re a better person than I am. Or lying. Maybe both.

My father and I hadn’t argued about politics in over three years, since, well, you know. After the election, I told him that we shouldn’t talk politics anymore, and he agreed. We’d had similar agreements before but had always broken them. This time, though, I think we both understood that it might be fatal to our relationship to talk about the present political situation. It’s amazing that, for the most part, we abided by this rule.

When my father was in the hospital, my friends told me they were praying for him. I told them I appreciated it, that I don’t believe, but he does.

I don’t know why I did that.

Don’t be an asshole, Ed.

That’s what my father would have said if he knew I wasn’t praying.

The stories about my father drunken antics are legendary. Here’s one of them:

St. Patrick’s Day, sometime in the late ’60s. He and a friend are invited to a dinner party in the Village. He has to wear a coat and tie. For some reason, the food served at this party is spaghetti and meatballs, even though it’s St. Patrick’s Day. My father and his friend end up getting kicked out of the party. He doesn’t remember why. They are walking down Second Avenue, pass a couple holding hands. The woman is attractive. My father says something crass to her. He doesn’t remember what. The guy takes offense. My father takes his jacket off and hangs it on a parking meter. They square off. My father is bigger than the guy, and is also on his college wrestling team. He gets the guy in a headlock and screams “I’m gonna bite your ear off!” He has no intention of biting the man’s ear off. He’s just drunk. He’s still laughing when he realizes that the spaghetti and meatballs is not mixing well with all the booze he’s consumed, that his stomach does not appreciate the jostling that’s taking place. He vomits on the man’s head. The guy is horrified. So is the girl. So is my father. He apologizes profusely. They go inside the nearest bar and my father helps him clean up, sends him on his way. When my father comes back outside, his jacket is waiting for him, hanging on the parking meter. He puts it back on, continues on with his day.

Who am I kidding? This is how I pray. The present tense I originally wrote this in was intentional, even fervent.

If my father was eating at the type of restaurant that serves pickles, he always asked the server for a side plate of pickles. I told my wife—then my girlfriend—this just before she met my parents for the first time.

We had lunch with my parents at the kind of place that serves pickles. After she placed her order, my wife asked the waitress for a side plate of pickles. My father was flabbergasted.

“I like this girl, Ed,” he said.

When he saw my face, he realized that I’d told her, that we were having a little fun at his expense, and he laughed like a loon.

My father was closer to both my younger siblings. This bothers me, more than I like to admit. My sister and he had a nice father-daughter dynamic. He and my younger brother were basically best friends.

My father and I loved each other very much, but it was rarely easy between us. I don’t know why.

Years afterward, I asked my father whether he remembered the time we met Bill Cartwright. He had a vague recollection. I explained that Cartwright had played a terrible game, that when my father said “great game, great game” to him, he probably thought my father was being a prick.

My father found this very funny.

“He musta thought I was some kinda asshole,” he said, when he got his laughter under control.

“He probably still talks about it, that asshole in the garage.”

Even as he was experiencing early symptoms, my father expressed skepticism about the severity of “this whole thing.” I could sense politics creeping into our conversation. I changed the topic.

His condition escalated very quickly. For a few days, his back was bothering him and then his legs were achy. At the time, these symptoms weren’t really associated with Covid. One night, he started coughing. The next morning, when my sister called to check on him, he couldn’t catch his breath long enough to talk. She had an ambulance sent to the house.

He was intubated before I had a chance to speak to him.

We couldn’t go to the hospital. None of us could see him, not even my mother.

Twice a day, my sister got updates on his condition from the ICU nurse and texted us. Every few days, we had a conference call with a doctor we’d never met.

That time is already a blur, a bizarre limbo of waiting without any useful distractions. (Not even sports.) I wasn’t sure whether to be hopeful or to start preparing myself for the worst. One day, I would find myself prematurely mourning him. The next, I would feel wildly optimistic, certain he would pull through it. But the baseline was helplessness, a helplessness unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There was nothing to do, nothing that could be done.

I kept having the same thought: if he dies during this, we won’t be able to have a wake. I could hear God starting to snicker when I closed my eyes.

When I was a little boy, thunderstorms frightened me, especially at night. My father would come into my room to comfort me. I could feel his reassuring mass enter the room. He’d lay down in my bed, contorting his body around mine, engulfing me. He’d put his hands over my ears, to drown out the thunder.

“You’re OK, Ed,” he’d say, cupping his hand around one ear. He’d whisper this into my ear again and again until his warmth, animal and overwhelming, sent me back to sleep.

Even as my father lay in a hospital bed, heavily sedated, attached to a ventilator, unable to talk, it felt as though we were having an argument, one I desperately didn’t want to win.

My father was a tough bastard. A tough old bird. My friends kept reminding me of this when they texted to check on his condition.

And he was, but at some point in the past two years, he got old. Until then, his sturdiness reminded me of a line from Yeats: “a weather-worn, marble triton among the streams.” Sure, he was getting older, but the years were eroding the flabby stuff, leaving the hard parts in place.

Then it was another line from Yeats, the one about old men. He wasn’t yet a paltry thing, not yet a tattered coat on a stick, but he was getting there.

A few years ago, I think he would have beat it, would have come out of the coma and proclaimed that it wasn’t that bad, that everybody was overreacting.

Whenever I got frustrated with my father, I tried to remember this story:

During the summers, his family went to Coney Island, like everybody else in Brooklyn. One summer, on their first day at the beach, my father went into the locker room with his father to change. The locker room was a huge open area, and that was where everyone changed. My father started to undress—because that’s what they’d done the summer before, changed in the big room with everybody else—but his father stopped him. He pulled him to the side of the room, where there was a row of tiny changing rooms, like little cabanas that one or two people could step into, where they could close the door and change in privacy.

My grandfather had rented one for them for the whole summer. My father remembers thinking that this meant they were rich, even though they still lived in a one bedroom apartment. But something had changed, maybe his father had gotten a raise, because that day, he told my father, “Things are gonna be a little bit better from now on.”

He died that fall.

Things did not get better.

So, yes, my father was a tough bastard, but he was also a lonely little boy who lost his father.

During one of the last conversations I had with my father, I gave him a good laugh. “Thanks for the laugh, Ed,” he said, before handing the phone to my mother.

I wasn’t ready for God to get the last laugh.


And maybe he/she/it didn’t.

After my father died, there was an article about him in the New York Times, a nice tribute that generated a minor political stir because everything is political now, even death. The story was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, three websites my father never visited. People trolled him, a term which he wouldn’t have understood. He was mocked on the left as a Covidiot who got what was coming to him. He was mentioned on the A block of Sean Hannity’s show, who used the story to criticize the Times for daring to impugn his cavalier coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. He was also featured on the A block of Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, who used the story to criticize Fox News. For about two days, my father, who never owned a computer and only reluctantly carried a flip phone, was at the center of a political shitstorm on the Internet.

It infuriated me at first: the cruelty in the comments section, the inability of people across the political spectrum to demonstrate basic decency, basically everybody being an asshole. My anger was only grief in a different guise, a brief distraction from the emptiness I felt. Soon enough, the caravan moved on, as it always does, and I had the following realization: my father would have found the whole thing hysterical, an appropriately absurd coda to his life.

I could almost hear his lunatic cackle.

His death still doesn’t feel entirely real, it feels like an April Fool’s joke gone awry. For stretches of time, I forget that he’s gone and then it hits me: Oh, right, Dad is dead. I understand, in a way I never did before, the need for ritual to mark someone’s passing, whether it’s a wake or sitting shiva. People crave an acknowledgment of the loss and the great pain it has caused, but they also need the implicit reminder that life will go on, that this too shall pass. People need to move forward, or at least pretend to move forward, to slip back into some semblance of routine while they grieve. But there’s no routine to get lost in, no return to normalcy because there is no normal to return to right now. We try to mourn my father as best we can during this surreal time, meaning individually, not together, reminiscing over the phone, sharing pictures via text. We are in another limbo now, waiting for the world to make sense again, so we can make sense of his death, which is but one of what will undoubtedly be hundreds of thousands.

We won’t be able to have a wake. Not for a while anyway. We will, eventually.

A wake or something like it, probably at JJ Bubbles.

Everyone’s invited. That’s what my father would have wanted. Just don’t be an asshole.

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