“Girls, girls, come quick!” my father shouted from the bathroom where he was shaving. My sister Mary and I, aged 10 and 11 at the time, scrambled up from the floor where we were watching TV and rushed to the bathroom. “What Dad?” we said. “I can’t believe it!” he replied, face half covered in shaving cream, eyes twinkling and wide with wonder. “I just got better looking!” He did this to us about once a month; we fell for it every time.
Fast-forward forty years to last autumn. While shaving, my father said to me, “My God, Stephie. When did I get so old? One day you’re a young man, the next day you look in the mirror and you’re old. I don’t know how it happened.” His eyes again wide with wonder, he seemed mystified by his image, as if old age had crept up on him on cat’s paws. It seemed just that moment to have occurred to him that he had passed eighty years old. “Stephie”, he said. “Whatever you do, don’t grow old.” “Okay Dad”, I said, with that knowing smile every daughter reserves for her father. “I’ll try my best.”
Doesn’t stuff like this happen in every American family? Doesn’t every father crack corny jokes, try to be the house entertainer, take on an image before his young children that is if not larger than life then unique to it—and then have the good fortune to grow old? Isn’t all this really as American as apple pie?
I know it is, even if it often isn’t in an age of so many broken families and broken down, humorless people. It’s the way it should be. It’s part and parcel of the video and sound track of the American Dream.
But that dream comes with a twist for immigrants and their families. It is one thing to be born in the American nest, another to search it out and land in it from afar. While the newly alighted may have been timorous and ill at ease beyond their front doors, first-generation Americans usually wanted to be totally, completely, utterly, and authentically American—or at least they used to in my parents’ generation. Whether in the Irish or Polish or Italian or Jewish or Greek immigrant communities, being a first-generation American frequently meant living large and living out loud. The same went, apparently, for Arab immigrant scions. In this my father succeeded, albeit somewhat unintentionally.
Duane Abbajay was born in 1933 to (Christian) Syrian immigrant parents who met and married in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. According to family lore, when Dad’s maternal grandfather came through Ellis Island, authorities asked his last name. “Hood”, he replied in a heavy Arabic accent. “What?” said the official. “Hood”, said my great-grandfather again. “What?” said the official. “Hood! Hood!” he replied. So the name was written as Hood-Hood rather than Hood.
Duane’s mother Geneva Hood-Hood married Charles Abbajay in 1915, and they settled on a farm in Ada, Michigan. They had 16 children, 11 of whom survived. My dad is the second youngest. Geneva and Charles wanted their children to be American through and through, so they all got American names. No Mahmoods or Naajas for them. Instead it was Florence, Donald, Margery, Genie, James, Josephine, Richard, Elizabeth, Dolores, Duane, and Shirley. And the children were required to speak only English—no Arabic—a common if deeply unfortunate form of theft among immigrant families.
In 1936, the Abbajays moved to downtown Toledo and settled into an enormous neo-Gothic house on Superior Street, near the banks of the Maumee River. The house had three stories, twenty bedrooms, three kitchens, and plenty of room for a huge brood like the Abbajays. Geneva cooked, cleaned, and took in borders from the local butcher academy. The parents and seven girls lived on the first floor, the four boys lived on the second floor, and the borders lived on the third floor. Charles opened a bar down the street. Through grade school, middle school, and high school, Duane worked there nights and weekends, sweeping, cleaning bathrooms, and restocking the coolers. He hated it.
In 1951, Duane Abbajay went to the University of Wisconsin on a football scholarship, but soon returned to Toledo after being sidelined by a back injury. After he recovered (though a bad back would plague him for the rest of his life), he didn’t go back to college. He got a job at the local Jeep factory and took a course in construction management. After a year, he quit Jeep to work for a construction company in sales and management, where he met his first wife, Marie. They married and had a child, my brother Dino. In 1958 Dad started his own company, Abbajay Construction. In 1959, Marie was killed in an automobile accident.
Over the next few years, Dad cared for his infant son with the help of his many sisters and continued to grow his business. In 1961, he injured his leg on one of his construction sites. In the emergency room he fell in love with the nurse who cared for him—my mother, Mary McCarthy Baldwin. Mary was an ivory-skinned, red haired, green-eyed Irish beauty, fresh out of nursing school. They eloped six weeks later, honeymooning in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Dad’s favorite place.
The next year Duane bailed older brother Donny out of a jam, taking over a struggling, debt-riddled nightclub he had ill-advisedly opened. Duane didn’t want his brother’s bad business dragging the Abbajay name through the Toledo mud, so he stepped in, paid Donny’s debts, and took over the Peppermint Club. “I didn’t know anything about the bar business except what I learned from working around my father’s place”, he said. “But I was better at business than my brother, so I figured I could make it work.”
At age 29, then, Duane was married (for the second time), had one child and another on the way, ran a construction company by day and managed a nightclub at night. It was a tough time but he and my mother were focused on a goal—to turn the club around, sell it for a profit, and live a quiet family life. It didn’t work out that way.
Dad renovated the club and re-opened it as a live music venue. Located on the corner of Jefferson and Ontario in downtown Toledo, it was a prime spot, with seating for about 500. He booked big-name acts, including the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Four Seasons, the Platters, and Chubby Checker. The Peppermint Club soon became the hottest spot in Toledo, with crowds packing the place every night.
“Then it started to be fun”, my father told me. “I quickly reached my financial goal, but it got harder and harder to walk away.” He owned and operated the Peppermint Club for nearly thirty years, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he came to love it. “It was thrilling to turn it around, to accomplish something no one thought I could.” More than that, the Peppermint Club made my father a kind of pioneer impresario of American rock and roll, at least in Toledo.
Not that his judgment as an impresario was perfect. The club had two distinct periods of immense popularity. The first was soon after he took it over, in the 1960s. His favorite act was Jerry Lee Lewis. Once, in 1964, Jerry Lee showed up for his gig at the Peppermint Club with a Welsh newcomer named Tom Jones. Lewis had just met Jones at a show in Chicago. Both were on their way to perform in Detroit, and Lewis offered Jones a ride, stopping in Toledo for Lewis’s performance at the Peppermint Club. Tom Jones asked my father if he could perform, too. But Duane heard his funny accent and took in Jones’s frilly shirt, long curly hair, and tight black pants and said no way. Indeed, fearing for Jones’s safety (and perhaps for the club’s fixtures) in rough and tumble Toledo, Dad asked Jones to sit quietly in the corner until Jerry Lee finished his set. One year later, Jones became an international sensation with his smash hit, “It’s Not Unusual.” Dad still howls when he tells that story: “Boy, did I call that one wrong!”
In the mid-1970s, when Country and Western started becoming mainstream, Dad shifted gears. He knew nothing about the genre, but he shut down the club for two weeks and redecorated it with wagon wheels, moonshine murals, lassos, and saddles. Despite our constant nagging, Dad refused to get a mechanical bull, but otherwise he went whole hog on the C&W thing. He reopened the club as the Country Palace, and so began his second wave of nightclub business success. Again he booked the stars: Charlie Rich, Charlie Pride, Crystal Gayle, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings.
Then one day in 1977 a songwriter named Hal Bynum wrote a number about a sad scene he witnessed at the Country Palace one night. The song was “Lucille.” Kenny Rogers recorded it and it became a monster hit. It made Kenny Rogers a star and the Country Palace famous. People came from all over the country to see the spot where, “In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a bar stool she took off her ring.”
Kenny Rogers never sang at the club, though he did perform at the Toledo Sports Arena. Before that show, however, he came by the County Palace to immortalize the home of “Lucille” by giving Dad a signed copy of the record and putting his hands and feet in a block of cement. His shoes got stuck in the cement and he had to leave them there, embedded in the block. He left the club in his stocking feet. I was 12 years old, and I remember our entire family crowding around Rogers as he sat in Dad’s office, with his stockinged feet on Dad’s desk.
When I think of those club years I think of cash, big American stacks of it. These days, when virtually all payments are electronic or plastic, it’s hard to imagine how back then it was all cash. And if you were in the bar business and you were successful, you were swimming in it. Dad’s favorite story illustrates the point nicely.
By 1967, the Peppermint Club was doing extremely well and Dad was rolling in dough. By then, Mom and Dad had four kids, ranging in age from a two-year old (me) to an eight-year old (Dino). That fall they bought a nice house on leafy Douglas Road. After moving in, Mom immediately began renovating the kitchen. The American Dream very often involves preliminary demolition.
At the same time, Dad had just sold a business called the 3-D Club, a lesser bar he had opened the year before to build house bands for the Peppermint Club. The 3-D Club was very popular and he sold it for $40,000—a lot of money in the late 1960s. The buyers paid the entire amount in cash, and they brought the money to the house in a brown paper bag.
Before the buyers arrived, Mom and Dad were having a heated argument. He had just announced that he and his buddies were going on a two-day golfing trip to Akron. Mom wasn’t happy about it: The house was a wreck and he was going to leave her there, in a construction site, with four small children? He claimed he didn’t want to go but didn’t want to appear weak in front of his friends. Dad’s friends were a cast of characters with names like Joe Crash, Johnny Freddy, Whitey Bissessy, and Gary Shamus. None of us knew what they did for a living. We were not sure we wanted to know. But they were as colorful as their names, and Dad couldn’t refuse them. It was in this atmosphere that the buyers arrived with the bag of money. Dad handed Mom the bag, told her to hide it, kissed her good-bye, and left. She was fuming.
Dad and his buddies headed off to Akron, but it started to snow, so they caught a flight to Palm Beach instead. Dad knew Mom was going to be furious, but what could he do? “I wasn’t going to be the only guy out of eight saying I couldn’t go because my wife wouldn’t let me, so I went.” Dad called Mom from Florida; she hung up on him. When Dad got back about five days later, Mom wouldn’t speak to him. “She was so mad”, Dad explained to me, “that I couldn’t ask her about the money, so I never did. I just took that as my penalty for going on the trip. I figured she spent the 40 grand on something. Or other. Or not. Who knew?”
As it turned out, or not. Mom passed away in 1986. By 1993, we were all grown and gone, so Dad sold the house. The first thing the new owners did was renovate the kitchen—a new dream, more loud crashing noises. When they removed the drop ceiling they found a brown paper bag resting on one of the supports; inside the bag was $40,000 in cash, smelling a little like cooking oil but otherwise none the worse for its 26-year repose. They told the realtor, who told my brother, who marched over there to claim it, but finder’s keepers: They refused to give it back. Dad thinks this story is hilarious. What it and his hilarity both show is that my parents used to have so much cash on hand that they could somehow forget about $40,000.
Cash was indeed king, and Dad spoiled us kids royally rotten. In 1980, when I was 15 years old, my weekly allowance was $75. Dad was generous to everyone. He over-tipped everybody: coat check girls, busboys, waiters, valets, delivery guys, paperboys, the people working the concession stands at my brother’s high school football games. He even tipped our boyfriends. In college, we would bring our boyfriends home for the weekend, and Dad would slip each of them a hundred bucks and say, “Here, take care of the girls.”
Dad did everything big and weird, including shopping. For years, he shopped almost exclusively from the trunks of cars. Men would pull up to our house in giant Cadillacs and pop open their trunks to reveal stacks of silky evening shirts, piles of double-knit slacks, and stacks of V-neck sweaters. Dad bought more than he could ever wear, and his closet came to look like something out of the movie Casino. So many double knits, so little time.
We all reaped the benefits of this mysterious way of shopping. From the trunks of cars we got stuffed animals, toys, clothes, and jewelry…lots and lots of jewelry. Men would come by the house with suitcases full of gold, silver and turquoise. Dad would invite them in, and they would open their black cases on the dining room table. “Pick what you want, girls”, Dad would say. We had matching turquoise lightning bracelets that snaked up our arms and 24-carat gold bangles that jangled when we walked. Where did all this stuff come from? We didn’t ask.
Everybody delivered to us. In addition to home delivery of tins of cookies, chips, and pretzels from Charles Chips, we had Coke and Pepsi delivered right from the distributor to our door. Our neighbors would stand in their driveways, stunned, as the delivery guys would wheel case after case of pop into the basement. When Coke came out with New Coke and announced it would discontinue its original formula, Dad had 200 cases of the original delivered to our house. Dad bought in bulk. Our freezers bulged with whole cows, processed in steaks and pre-made patties. Fruits, vegetables, and lobster tails came by the case.
And he loved a bargain: We were routinely pressed into service when something good was on sale, be it toothpaste or tuna fish. Dad would make all six of us go to the local Rink’s Bargain City. If the sale was “limit two per customer”, we would each get our two items and check out separately. We would then take the items to the car, come back in, get two more items, and go to the next lane, until each of us had hit every lane. The math is staggering: eight lanes x two items x six people = 96 tubes of Crest, or whatever was on sale. Our basement came to look like a store itself, with shelves groaning from all of Dad’s bargain purchases. We never ran out of anything. Even now, his spare bedroom is entirely given over to storing his many bargains: toilet paper and other goods are stacked to the ceiling. At last count, he had 72 bottles of fabric softener. And they say that Americans are materialists…
The Peppermint Club was the absolute center of our family life. That’s where we kids grew up. On Saturday mornings, while Dad counted money and restocked the bar, we’d play bartender, making Shirley Temples for each other. We’d dance on the stage and play pool. We’d nose around in the dressing rooms, where there was a condom dispenser on which someone had written, “This gum tastes funny.”
Our favorite place to poke around was Dad’s office. The shelves were stacked with cash, coins, and other treasures, including a loaded pistol and a private stash of Mrs. See’s Candies, sent to him by relatives in Phoenix. The walls were covered with black and white eight-by-tens of Dad with the performers and yellowed posters of old shows. The floor was covered with boxes of cigarettes, matches, cocktail napkins, booze. El Toro Tequila was our favorite because each bottle came topped with a little red plastic sombrero, which my sister and I collected and added to the wardrobes of our Barbies and Kens.
We didn’t go down to the club at night very often. Night was for adults only, and Dad was working. But if a big star were performing Mom would bring us down to meet him. They would come to the side door so we didn’t have to go inside. But the few times we did get to go inside at night were magical. The excitement was infectious, and Dad was in his element. When we left, Dad would walk us out to our car and kiss us goodnight. I would watch him walk back to the club. I always wondered if he was happy going back inside, or did he want to come home with us? Probably both, I hope.
Like all successful people, Dad made sacrifices. He went to work every night at seven p.m. and came home at three in the morning. Then he went back to the club for a few hours around ten a.m. every day. The club was open every day—Sundays, Christmas, our graduations. We all saw how much work it took, what long hours were involved, and all the things Dad had to miss (my basketball games, for example). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my mother. She had her own full-time nursing career, plus four children, and her husband went to work every night, just a few hours after she got home from work. They kept opposite schedules for their entire marriage. Now that I’m married with children I want to ask her about what it was like with Dad always at the club, but she died in 1986, and, back then, when I was 21, I never thought to ask.
As exciting as Dad’s life was, tragedy played its part, too. Aside from his first wife’s death in a horrific car accident, his second-oldest son, my brother Bobby, died of sleep apnea when he was a junior in college in 1983. Nothing made my Dad prouder than to come to Kenyon College (where Bobby, my sister Mary, and I all went to school), watch Bobby play football, and then take all of us out to dinner. He loved the Betas, Bobby’s fraternity brothers. He loved Gambier, Ohio. He loved it all. Bobby’s death absolutely crushed him. He was never the same.
Three years later my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 46. That pretty much did it for Dad. He was heartbroken, inconsolable. He was only 53 then (just four years older than I am now), but he was done. The bar business was winding down, his wife had just died, his kids were grown and gone, and he just ran out of steam. He sold the club in 1989 and retired, spending his days playing golf, until he could no longer swing a club.
He was depressed for years until his friend Nicky Hadeed finally wore him down. Nicky had nagged Dad for ages to come to one of his club’s monthly Widow & Widowers’ Suppers, but Dad always refused because they only served fried chicken, and he hated chicken. He only agreed to go once because the club was serving meatloaf. He met Karol, who after 21 years is still his girlfriend. They travel, eat out, go to church, and visit each other’s families. She has taken good care of Dad, kept him social, and has wisely maintained a separate residence.
So Dad has lived alone in Toledo and has never wanted to move in with me in St. Louis, Mary in DC, or with Dino in Scottsdale. For the past 25 years he has spent his winters in Scottsdale and in Palm Springs with his girlfriend, and his summers in his hometown of Toledo, which he adores. He used to drive out west from Toledo every year after Thanksgiving, but two years ago he started flying after he realized that he could no longer make the 1,900-mile drive alone.
Mary and I had road-tripped with him the previous year. “It’ll be fun!” we thought. It was not fun. Dad refused to let us drive, so he drove the entire way himself. In two days. He drove eighty-plus miles an hour, sometimes riding inches from the bumpers of the cars in front of him, shocked—shocked!—at the ineptitude of the other drivers. At the end of every day, Mary and I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough and into the hotel bar to ease our frayed nerves. We vowed “never again.” The following year, Mary bought him first-class tickets and Dino bought him a car to drive while he was out in Arizona.
Until last year Dad was remarkably fit for someone who hasn’t been terribly conscientious about his health over the years. At 81, no one would say he’s young for his age. A bad back, bad hips, and bad knees have plagued him all his life, and he lists forward and to the side when he walks. He smoked for more than 65 years. Though he is slim, sugar has been his favorite food group. He’s never met a pudding, peanut chew, or cupcake he didn’t like. His current diet consists of fruit in the morning, followed by copious amounts of candy, cookies, and microwavable, single-serve pastas.
He was and remains an exotically handsome guy, with dark, Syrian good looks, but he has very few teeth left and hasn’t seen a dentist in 15 years. He’s never taken yoga or water aerobics or any trendy fitness classes; his daily exercise has been pushing a shopping cart through his local Meijer every morning, which, to be fair, is about a two-mile walk if you go up and down every aisle twice, which he does. He does the crosswords and Sudoku and reads the papers every day, but he has trouble remembering directions and what he was going to order for dinner.
Still, he was perfectly fine to live on this own until a terrible injury last winter nearly killed him. While walking in Palm Springs, Dad tripped over a curb and fell face down, cracking his head open, breaking his nose, both cheekbones, and knocking out all of his teeth (the seven that were left). He was seen in the ER and then released. Three weeks later in Phoenix, he passed out while driving, veered off the road, and hit a tree head on. The airbags deployed. The EMTs arrived, checked him out, and sent him home. Two days later he passed out in his bedroom at my brother’s house and was taken to the ER where a CT scan revealed two subdural hematomas. He spent ten days in the neuro-cardio ICU where he had two separate cranial surgeries to drain the blood that had collected around his brain. He suffered severe head trauma, and the doctors warned of a long, slow recovery.
That was seven months ago; today he is more active, stable, and healthier than he was two years ago. His recovery has been astounding, due in large measure to his profound stubbornness at being “babied”, as he put it, and to a doctor in the ICU who realized that he had been taking—for years, it turns out—twice as much blood pressure medicine as he needed, which is what caused to him pass out and fall in Palm Springs and then pass out and hit that tree in Phoenix. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill himself or anyone else.
His amazing recovery, in my view, owes much to the fact that he’s healthy emotionally. He has loved his life. He’s very pleased with who he is, and if he’s the least bit wistful or melancholy he hides it well. He still lives a life he loves, a quiet life of couponing, bargain hunting, watching baseball, and dining with old golfing buddies. He seems pretty damned happy about it.
We’ve spent a lot of time together lately. I’ve been back and forth to Scottsdale and Toledo for the past several months, and in September he asked me to help him clean out his closets and cabinets in Toledo. My God, he saved everything. For days, I went through piles of papers, faded newspaper announcements, cards and photographs. I found stacks of family photos: my mother and us kids, all skinny and young, romping in the Black Hills. An enormous stack of handwritten notes to himself about his golf swing: “Head down, knees soft, elbows in, follow THROUGH!” Pictures of him with minor celebrities: Jamie Farr, Kenny Rogers. Piles of faded newspaper clippings from his nightclub days: “One Night Only! The Everly Brothers LIVE at Duane Abbajay’s World Famous Peppermint Club!” A bulging file folder of death announcements and prayer cards: his first wife, his second wife, his son, his parents, eight of his siblings.
I found it all slightly overwhelming, his life, our life, there on the table. I looked at my father, bent over the kitchen table, sorting his beloved coupons, and I asked him, “Hey Dad, when you look back, do you have any regrets? Anything that you always wanted to do but never did?” Despite his selectively fading hearing, this he registers clear as a bell and says, with the most genuine expression I’ve ever seen on his face, “Are you kidding me? I have had the most amazing life. Who’s had a better life than me?”
I smile, look at all the papers and pictures and clippings and think, Dad may be a quiet man, but he has certainly lived out loud. After I finish packing things away, he asks me if I’m ready to go to supper. “Let’s go to Max and Erma’s”, he says. “I have a coupon!”