My Uncle Jerry is a white guy. The way it happened was he was best friends with my dad so we called him Uncle Jerry. My brother and I made our first and last visit to him in Long Island, New York, the outer edge of New York City that had the painted houses and cut lawns. It was the summer of 1994. Those ten days with him, as they say, changed the rest of my life.
Uncle Jerry was a tough no-nonsense type of guy, how you would imagine a rugged old sheriff retired after years of noble service in a dusty western town. The first thing he did when we got to his house was he handed me his business card. He said with a smirk and the tough-guy New York accent, “Put this card in your shoe so they can identify the body.” His wife snapped, “Jerry,” and he didn’t even laugh.
Uncle Jerry had two sons. Jimmy was about my age and he was completely brain dead. He laid in a crib, twisted and mangled and thoughtless. Jimmy cried when he was hungry and smiled if you tried really hard to get one out of him. Uncle Jerry loved his son to death. One night during the week he drove my brother and I to this shady looking tool store and my uncle spoke to the owner in another room. I overheard some of it: “This is my last shot. I almost killed that doctor, you know? Put a gun to his temple. You don’t know the things I’ve done for my Jimmy. I won’t let my son die like this.” Uncle Jerry was a lawyer so he could get out of those kinds of things.
He taught us how to street fight. Uncle Jerry was overweight but he could move as fast as he wanted to. He had trained with my dad back in the old days. He told us about the first time he met my dad: “I challenged your dad and he broke both my knees. I had bad knees before that but after he broke them they got better.” My uncle would fight us and throw overhand rights, stopping an inch before our face. Every time he would say, “You would’ve been dead right there. Dead.” And he didn’t laugh, not even a little.
Uncle Jerry told us about the time my dad had saved his life. My uncle was drowning in the ocean and my dad ran across a sandbar to save him. “Looked like your dad was running on water. I owe him my life, you know. I love him like my own flesh. Don’t ever forget the good people.”
My uncle was hot-blooded but somehow completely in tune with his emotions. One night we went to a Chinese restaurant. It was one of the finest in Manhattan. They served dim sum and chicken feet. The table next to us was filled with the loudest people on earth, and Uncle Jerry nearly stood up to fight the entire table. Only his wife Jeanie – the aloof, stoic, serene type of wife that every man like him needs – could calm Uncle Jerry down. When the bill came, Uncle Jerry called the waiter back. I thought he was going to refuse to pay. Instead, my uncle told the waiter that the bill was wrong: the restaurant had undercharged him. Uncle Jerry would never underpay anyone. He was hot-blooded but somehow so breezy, and he never even laughed.
He made it a quest for my brother and I to watch classic movies. We watched Seven Samurai and the western remake The Magnificent Seven. My uncle looked just like Steve McQueen from the movie, a chiseled face and easy demeanor. We saw Lethal Weapon 4, one of the manliest movies ever, and in the scene where the Chinese guy gets choked to death with a string, Uncle Jerry’s wife got upset because their son Matthew – only five years old or so – was with us. Uncle Jerry said, “So what? People choke each other. Better Matthew see it now than later.” No laughs, not one.
The day before we left, we trained in his backyard with fighting sticks. He told my brother and I to go full force. We almost broke our fingers. The sky went evening on us and fireflies lit up the backyard like floating lanterns. Not even a movie could be that good. My uncle tried to show us something and he ran into a table. His big toe turned a strange color, like sunset in a polluted sky. It looked broken. I think it was broken. But he shrugged and said, “Things break.” That was probably the manliest thing I had ever seen. He limped around on the last day we spent time together.
A few hours before we left, my uncle gave my brother and I a leather notebook. Inside he put a one dollar bill and a twenty dollar bill and marked it with a letter in purple ink. He said, “If you’re ever in an emergency, break this one dollar bill and call a payphone. And this twenty . . . hold onto this, and in ten years I’ll come to your birthday with ten times as much.” At the time, two-hundred dollars was a lot of money. I promised to keep the twenty dollar bill forever.
Five or six years later, I remember I was about to go on a date. I had no money for the movies, so I remembered that folded up twenty dollar bill. I decided to use the twenty dollar bill for the movies. Of course I felt terrible, but I had no money so I had no choice. Plus I had been trying to get with this girl for days.
I looked at the twenty dollar bill. He had written the letter “J” on there, my initial. His initial and also his son’s initial. My uncle seemed to be saying, Remember who you are. You’re better than money and you’re better than temptation. There’s more than that, you know. But I needed this twenty dollar bill. I needed this date.
The girl cancelled on me — but I never felt guiltier in my life. I was really ready to spend that money on her; I was ready to break a promise, one that I had made a lifetime ago, but a promise I had spoken out loud with my own two lips. Promises don’t have expiration dates. A man’s word is his word is his word.
Since then, I’ve carried that twenty dollar bill almost everywhere I go. It’s never been too far from my side. It’s a reminder that real men are about values and not what’s valued. My Uncle Jerry was one of the few real men I ever met. He taught me that maybe hot-blooded isn’t always so bad. He taught me that a good man is different than just a good guy.
When my twenty-second birthday came, I expected to see him there with two-hundred dollars. He never came, but I don’t blame him for that. He might have forgot, or maybe he was dead. He must have been dead, because a guy like him would rather die than break a promise.
Here’s to you, Uncle Jerry. Thanks for everything and more.