Everyone has a crazy relative. That person that no one gets, that becomes ostracized. For my family, that was my Uncle Anthony.
My Uncle Anthony was my dad’s older brother, and he’d babysit us (my two brothers and me) when we were really young. We made up a nickname for him: The Boogan. Because he had a homeless look about him. He wore the exact same clothes all the time – dirty baggy pants way too big for him cinched up with a worn out belt and always the same plaid shirt.
But what really stood out was his hair. His hair was huge and a total mess. Like Einstein, but more homeless. It never looked brushed, despite him walking around with a black Ace comb in his pocket all the time. And he never really washed it.
During summers, Uncle Anthony would come down the shore to stay with us for a couple of weeks. First thing he’d do at the beginning of each visit, was offer us ten bucks to wash and cut his hair. Oooh, tough decision. My brothers never did it, but I always did. He’d hand me his black Ace comb, sit in the kitchen on the folding chair with a towel around his neck and a huge smile on his face.
Once the shampooing was over, I’d be grinning too, so happy to de-Boog-ify him. To give him this transformation.
Because underneath the Boogan was a really sweet man, playful and a child at heart. We played chess, laughed a ton, watched Popeye cartoons together. We’d go to the shore on the weekends, where he would take a bar of soap into the ocean to wash up. Yeah, that was the unsocialized part of him.
We were always just a bit scared of Uncle Anthony. It wasn’t just his appearance. He was so hotheaded. My dad said being in the war made him a bit crazy. I still have an image of him running around the yard chasing me with a big yard rake because I said motherfucker.
When I was thirteen, Uncle Anthony came to my holy confirmation, and it was the cleanest we ever saw him. He had slicked his hair back with byrlecreem and combed it back. He had a new lavender plaid shirt tucked into his pants. The black Ace comb tucked in his shirt pocket. He put his false teeth in. We took pictures.
And that was the last we saw of him for awhile. We were no longer kids who needed babysitting. We grew up, got busy. My parents split. No more summers at the shore.
Fourteen years later, my dad died. And I wanted to get back in touch with Uncle Anthony. He was like the next closest thing to my dad. So I called a distant cousin, who knew where Uncle Anthony was. I found out he was still living alone in the NJ suburbs. He hadn’t ever married, no kids, no job – he was living solely off Veteran’s disability.
I called him up, and he met us at Freehold racetrack where we were scattering my dad’s ashes. He was gentler – no more anger. Same homeless look though. It was good to see him, and connect with him as an adult.
I promised I’d come again.
About 5 years later, I travelled again from LA to NJ and visited his place for the first time. I was struck by how lonely his place felt. It was like a tribute to loneliness. Empty place, except a couch and a folding table nearby with some clipped coupons and a shop list, that just read: milk, bologna, bread.
Most striking was that the walls were completely bare except he put up magazine clippings of babies and kids happy and smiling all over one wall. It made me so sad. I interviewed him: “Why didn’t you ever marry?” “Never had money, couldn’t support a wife or family.” “Are you happy here?” “I like it here. There are no crowds.” Which is hysterical because the place is desolate, and he says he likes that there are no crowds.
I promised to visit again.
The next year, I went to see him again. This time, the place was even more bare but he had added a couple things. He now had a little doll with a washcloth over it, like a blanket. And another the exact same on the floor near his bed. And a standing fan in front of the taped magazine clippings on the wall, and he’d turn it on and watch the them flap in the breeze. He said, “They like that.” I kept thinking has he really gone crazy now? Are people going to think he’s a pedophile? Which was heartbreaking to me that he never got to nurture a family. Because he was always so great with kids and really good to us. He’s just been on his own. Not loved, not touched, not talked to.
I promised to visit again.
The next year on Christmas, I made him a pan of lasagna and wrapped a gift – a framed pic of him and me from my last visit. He answered the door in Longjohns and a winter coat. Crazy as ever hair. I tried to give him the picture but he refused. Maybe that was too much reality? He had a new pic up of Donald Trump’s baby with The Donald’s hair photoshopped on him. He’d take out his black Ace comb and do the combover. He’d sing little lessons: “One, two, buckle your shoe. You got no money, then ya got no honey.”
I remember he turned and looked at me at one point during this and in a different tone of voice said, “I know what I’m doing.”
It was a total lucid moment. This is how he managed his loneliness.
And I promised to visit again.