The Kindest Man I’ve Ever Known
1967 was not a a very good time for my family — I was 12, and the eldest child of seven. We were dirt poor, and if the world had an asshole — the half of a New Jersey house we rented for $75 a month was right there. My dad worked at a Hardware store for $75 a week, and had no car at the time. Kids made fun of the older of us for being dressed so badly, and rioting was going on a few miles away in Newark.
A few years earlier (1964) my family had been very happy, living in a new house, attending a new school in the Valley High area of San Antonio, and my father had landed a decent job. Within just a few months after moving into the new house, all of the wheels had come off my father’s wagon. He’d lost his job, and my parent’s marriage was in deep trouble from Middle aged craziness.
My father decided that we needed to make a clean break of Texas and start over again in New York City, which he’d visited with his grandmother decades earlier. So my father loaded up our 63 Valiant with the five kids, my again pregnant mother, and our dog — and pulled a small 4′X6′ U-haul trailer. The trailer contained every family possession (basically some clothes) we had remaining after a yard sale had us sell off everything else we had to finance the trip — and the rest being abandoned in the new home we’d disappeared from. Three miserable days later we were in New York City. It was then my father realized that NYC wasn’t city he’d remembered from the 40s. Rent controlled housing made it impossible to find a place to live. So we ultimately crossed the state line and rented a 2 bedroom duplex in Metuchen, New Jersey. From 1965 until we moved to Western New York in 1970 — every day was worse than the day before. Really more so for me than the other kids. My brother Doug, who is 14 months younger than I, had been hit by a car a few years earlier, and later caught Rheumatic Fever — so my parents coddled and overprotected him from the fear of losing him. The younger brothers and sisters were really too young still to fully understand the Hell we lived in.
In the house, the boys slept in one room, the girls in another, and my parents on the foldout couch. If the house wasn’t already crowded enough, my mother would take in anyone without a home. I remember a family with five kids, and a mother with her toddler staying with us at the same time. My grandfather on a couple of occasions stayed with us — and my brother and sister-in-law stayed with us after they returned from Germany — while he was waiting for his discharge from the Army. My father typically had a morning paper route that I helped him on, an evening security job, a Saturday job, and on Sunday we delivered newspapers from 3AM to noon (or later).
I would deliver papers in the morning with my dad, and then I had my own route in the afternoon. On that route there was an old man by the name of Mr. Irving. I didn’t know his last name — I just called him Mr. Irving. He lived in an old upstairs apartment by himself, as his wife had died years before. He was the last customer on my route — and I’d have a coke with him at his kitchen table before my long walk home.
Mr. Irving owned a Jewish Delicatessen, and asked if I would help on the evenings that he was open late — as he was getting too old to put stuff away and clean. I agreed, and while he didn’t pay me much (maybe nothing) — he did see that I came home with bread and bagels for my family.
A few months later, he sold the deli to a family of parents in their 40s, and their two sons in their early 20s. They kept the deli opened to 8pm, for the people getting off the train from NYC to eat dinner, and hired me to come after my paper route (about 6PM) to wash dishes and help close the deli. I don’t remember ever seeing Mr. Irving again, and don’t know what ever happened to him. The new owners were pretty good to me, paying me and sending me home with food.
Right after they had bought the deli, a new customer started coming there for dinner. He asked me to call him Mr. John. He was a nice man who had a new AMC Javelin — which I thought was a way cool car. I suppose the owners told him I was sort of a charity case that they sent home with food, and he took an interest in me. I didn’t wait on customers (I was a dishwasher) — but he insisted I wait on him, and he’d leave me a 25 cent tip. He told me that he had played for the Giants in the 20s, and that he was the NFL’s first Outside Linebacker. I knew he was a Jeweler in New York City. I suppose he took the train to the city and back, and since the Deli was close to the town’s train station — he had dinner at the deli before going home. I don’t know where he lived, but do know he lived alone as his wife had died, and I don’t believe he had kids.
In time, I introduced Mr. John to my family (the deli was across the street from the rented duplex we lived in), although I don’t remember the circumstances of the introduction 40+ years later. He took an immediate liking to the three youngest kids, and would come on many Saturdays to take them out for ice cream, the zoo, or some other little road trip. I’m sure he did it to give my mother a break, and brighten the day of the kids — but he may have also felt good seeing happy kids.
At the time, our home life was pretty rough, and my mother was always depressed. She was pretty much a recluse, who seldom left the house. I even had to take the family’s laundry in a wagon to the laundromat to wash, dry, and bring home — because she seldom left the house (I’m sure some of it because of three small children). Mr. John picked up on her sadness and bought her a huge hand carved Jade ring on one of his visits. Later he bought her a ring with a giant ruby. The stone was huge and even a kid like me could see the quality of its clarity. This was a man who did things for my mother and the three young kids for no other reason than to make their life a little better.
Happily, for me (I was running with a bad crowd I couldn’t get away from) we moved from Metuchen to Western New York in December 1970, and I never again heard of Mr. John. I went into the military in 1972, an only once ever drove through Metuchen again.
Over the last five decades, I have thought of the kindness of Mr. John often. Earlier in the month I was scanning old photos, and came across the photo above of Mr. John and the five youngest kids. I’d date the photo as being around 68 or 69. I suddenly remembered (I don’t know why) that Mr. John’s last name was Alexander, and searched the Internet for John Alexander and Giants. I came up with the below photo from 1927, and a story written about him in 1983.
I also found him on Wikipedia, and was happy to learn that he lived such a long and happy life. He truly was the kindest person I’ve ever known. He selected my mother and three youngest siblings to tuck under his wing and make their life a little more pleasant.
Update 4/29/2014 – I received the following
I googled my Grandfather tonight and saw what you had written about him.
I remember him speaking of you.
At the time you knew him we were living in Cherry Hill NJ…we always had close contacts in Metchen. We had lived there from 1948 to 1961. My mother moved back there around 1970. She had been married to two of the Seldow brothers.
Anyway, I called him Pop. He loved kids and loved helping anyone he could
I remember my mother telling me about the kids he liked to spend time with. He always wanted people to be happy and he loved being a part of it. He missed you and your siblings after you left…but was glad to have known you.
He later lived with my mother on Beverly Court until he passed away. He was about 93.
Well, I loved what you wrote and am glad to have found your blog.
I loved my Grandfather dearly, and still think of him all the time.
BTW, my name is pronounce Johnny. I was named after him.
There is so much more but life gets complicated and and I have rambled long enough.
Thanks for the wonderful memory.