Philly had boxed or maybe promoted boxers, or possibly just wanted to be thought of as someone who was associated with boxing and boxing promoters in some sort of way. He remains the only person ever to produce a quarter from behind my ear, a magic trick that once defined the absolute outer boundary of traditional uncle behavior. Ruth was warm and short and her hair was the twilight orange of a greenmarket carrot. I truly do not know where the two of them got the idea that I liked brisket, and can’t really even begin to guess.
My grandmother lived next door and they knew her; my father was friends with their children, at least in the way that you’re always friends with whoever lives next door. But also my grandmother never evinced any interest in or paid much attention to what I liked or didn’t like, and so can safely be ruled out in the investigation. We can rule me out, too, because I never have really cared for brisket in the boiled-in-a-pot-with-an-onion style that was apparently so popular in that part of Jersey City. In retrospect it’s possible that no one told them anything at all, and that Philly and Ruth just liked watching me eat brisket for reasons of their own. There was nothing that I was going to do about it either way. There was nothing for me to do but be there and do what being there required, and of course I was not there because I had asked to be or chosen to be.
If my family was visiting my grandparents, it meant that at some point I would be called next door and into Philly and Ruth’s home, through the densely carpeted living room and into their close and meat-scented kitchen, and then given a piece of brisket to eat. Good? they would ask and I would nod and say goob through a mouthful of chalky brown beef and they’d tell me I was a good boy or whatever and then I would go back next door. Often there would be brisket there, too. Until like 1998 everyone in the United States just ate the same three overcooked things on a loop.
All of this just kind of happened, and while I knew it was strange as it was happening and would have preferred that it not happen, there was nothing I could really do to steer or shape any of it, let alone stop it. I got in the car and was driven where we were going; I took the brisket when offered and complimented it when it was my turn to do so. It was and still is hard to tell what anyone was getting out of any of this, but the purpose was clear: to perform some sort of obeisance, and honor a tradition that no one involved really cared much for, and to do the things that we’d done last year and the year before on the terms of the host.
So the job is to do what the host—who is old and weird and plainly uninterested in your stuff beyond how it reflects on them—wants you to do, and to eat what they serve you. It will be the food they like to eat themselves, because they’ll have either convinced themselves that you like it too, or because they have not thought about you for even a moment. It all ends up in the same place, anyway. You get served what they’re serving and you thank them for it.
And what are you going to do? You can’t really leave and you can’t really say no, so you have to just kind of sit there while the elder in charge just does exactly what he or she is going to do. That might be reading from a prepared statement about your dramatic victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA Championship Game and adding some “and many people are telling me this” vamping for a personal touch. It might be serving you some room-temperature food that you don’t really want, but which your grandparent does want, and then eating it and saying “thank you” when you’re done.
It might involve some species of excruciating and opaque elder-brained banter that you just have to nod along with. It might be bad, like some real weird old guy shit that keeps seeming like it’s going to possibly get quite bad or maybe even gross but which in the end just kind of wheezes forward and in retrospect doesn’t really scan at all. You’ll know when to laugh. That’s when your host will have stopped talking and will be laughing, too.
Of course it’s not going to be fun. No one in the house is trying to make it fun for you, or thinking about what you’d like; they are looking over your head the whole time. They are doing their own thing, and you just have to be there while they do it. You’ll survive it. It’s not for you or about you, although you will be addressed periodically in ways that foreclose any sort of actual response. When everyone but you has gotten what they wanted from it all, and not a moment earlier, you will get to leave.