By Abraham Weitzman for Kidspirit's Storytelling and Narative Issue.
I have one grandparent, my Papa Dan. He tells my family stories all the time.
Most of his stories come from his decades of working construction in New York City. He worked on bridges and in tunnels. He worked on schools and hospitals. He put the lights on top of the Citicorp building. My Papa worked everywhere. He tells us about these experiences because the stories are entertaining. They also teach us about the kind of person he is, and the kind of people we should be.
Stories connect us with family history. They show us our way home. They make us laugh until we cry. Papa's stories are how he exposes us to other worlds. We learned values by listening to him. His acceptance of people who were different from him is evident in all his stories. His family's importance and his sense of humor over propriety seem clear. Storytelling is often used to teach a lesson, like Aesop's fables with their morals at the end. Everyday people's stories have messages that are less explicit. Papa's stories are a collection, so their message is bigger than one single idea. They are a guide to living.
Papa worked at Goldwater Hospital on Welfare Island (now called Roosevelt Island). It was a hospital for people with chronic illnesses and severe disabilities. As the foreman, he supervised a crew of twelve men. Usually, construction workers take coffee in the morning around 10:00. This meal typically involves warm, sweetened beverages with one of the following: buttered roll, bagel with cream cheese, or bacon and egg on a roll. But at Goldwater, coffee break was different. The crew had a floating, somewhat sanctioned craps game in the corridors. Craps is a dice game where you bet on which numbers get rolled. The hospital staff looked the other way because the patients loved it. My Papa looked the other way because craps was faster than eating. He was the foreman, so the sooner the men got back to work, the better. We learned that being a gambler was okay as long as you included everyone and got your work done.
Papa wasn't always the foreman. At Citicorp he was just one of the workers. He has lots of stories from that job. They had a foreman nobody liked. He was a nasty grouch, and the guys were always looking for ways to mess with him. Lots of the pranks were pulled by an electrician, Harry. Harry cut off a tiny sliver of one leg of the foreman's chair every day. The chair was wobbling and slowly getting shorter, and the foreman knew it was Harry but could not prove it. Harry followed that with the cheese prank. Every day he hid a piece of limburger cheese somewhere behind a heater near the foreman's office. Harry did not get a whole lot of work done, but he was fun to have around. We learned many ways to get back at a rotten boss, and more importantly, we learned not to be the rotten boss.
My Papa spent many years building the Archer Avenue subway lines in Queens. Even though he retired many years ago, he stays in touch with friends he made on that job. He emails with Norman, who moved to Florida, and Fred, who went home to Ohio. He told us about when Fred came to New York. There was a recession in the early 1980s in America and lots of guys moved to the city for work. Fred left his wife and kids behind so he could work to support them. He lived with three other guys but he liked visiting my Papa's house. Fred stayed for two years, until he could get a job back in Dayton. We learned about the hard times that people experience in a bad economy.
Papa didn't always have a job. If he lost his job, he came home happy, with a bottle of wine. He liked being unemployed because he could spend more time with his family. He went to dance class with my grandma. He made origami with my mom. He went on class trips. Papa did not worry because he was a union man. He had health benefits and the B fund, an annuity he could use to augment his unemployment check. He knew the joint board would have a job for him soon enough. We learned to join the union and treasure time with family.
If Papa needed to, working off the books was always an option. He worked in the gay community. He worked on the baths in the Village and The Saint, a gay disco. This was before the AIDS epidemic, before gay superheros, before anyone thought about gender identity. Papa happily worked for and with men who loved men. He modeled an openness that many people could learn from today.
Papa is retired now, so his stories are less exciting. Some involve the post office or the Costco. Most are about his friends and comrades on the executive board of his community. Every story has a problem to be solved — someone who isn't paying their taxes, dams that may or may not need repairs. It does not matter what the story is about, I love listening to him. The community is small and many people have lived there since they were born in the 1950s. They do volunteer work for the lake, the barn, the water system and the newsletter. Papa is the secretary, so he takes the minutes at meetings. He says that he likes making sure they are done right and on time. He tells us about sales of houses. Often there are arguments over who has the right to buy a particular house. Sometimes someone sues the community and they have to go to court. No matter what happens, Papa stays calm. There is no point in getting all upset, he says. When things get heated, I try to stay calm, too, but he is naturally better at it.
The stories Papa tells do not have a moral at the end. They are centered around people and relationships. He tells them for our amusement or to share an experience. I listen to his stories because I love him. My love and admiration for him make his stories more meaningful. My connection to my Papa is strengthened with each story, now an unbreakable tether of life experiences. It is a lifetime of stories that I can think of when I miss him or I need some advice.
It is impossible to separate stories from the teller. We are initially drawn to stories because we are interested in the teller, who brings us into their world, intertwining it with our own. In this way we are all connected to each other. Each person has stories about their family that help define them as part of the group. They represent a common framework of experiences and values that form their identity. In my family, Papa's stories are the structure identities are scaffolded on. We are hardworking, pro-union, family-loving, open-minded, and we savor a good story, all because of Papa.
When he wrote this piece, Abraham Weitzman was a 14-year-old writer with a love for irony. And he has cerebral palsy, rendering him non-verbal (to learn more, check out his article Simply Speaking.) He types using his chest while standing. It is tiring and rewarding. Abraham enjoys traveling and staying home.