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by Rachel Ida Buff
I AM MOST MY FATHER’S DAUGHTER when I am anywhere on the road. I channel his uncanny ability to find anything, anywhere: chicken soup for a cold in rural Oregon, a shortcut back to the motel in Flagstaff, Arizona. I steer my husband and daughters along back roads, trying to convince them as well as myself that I have inherited his itinerant proclivities.
My father’s grandparents, on both sides, were Eastern European Jewish peddlers and tailors. In search of markets for their wares, they traveled far west from their Ellis Island entry, winding up in small towns in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania that had few other Jews.
As my father’s story goes, one of his grandfathers would ride up into the mountains of West Virginia coal country and set up shop in small mining towns. He often used a church as an impromptu fitting room to measure miners and their families for clothing that he would stitch back in his shop in Charleston. He returned weeks later to deliver the goods.
His other grandfather was also a peddler, traveling west and south from Baltimore to hawk his wares. In the South of the early 20th century, these travelling grandfathers must have developed a careful eye for places that might or might not welcome a travelling Jew.
My father spent a lot of his time with his grandparents, those itinerant anxieties passing invisibly into him. As a teenager, he worked in the small shops they established, and was often chided by a tailor uncle for not pushing the merchandise harder onto customers standing before his shop mirror.
When he grew up and left the West Virginia of his childhood, my father studied business. He became a retail analyst for a brokerage firm on Wall Street. He deployed his inherited peddler’s hawk eye to scrutinize commercial franchises, at a time when national trends were moving away from small shops towards chains and big box stores.
Our family’s annual station-wagon odyssey from suburban New York to Cape Cod was prolonged each summer by my father’s attraction to out-of-the-way branches of arcane national chains: a Kresges outside of Providence; a Zayres in Taunton — the latter named, according to my father, by the two brothers who founded it. Every time they recounted their business plan to their father, he nodded his approval, muttering in Yiddish, “zayre gut!” I have no idea whether this story is true: what I remember is my father’s pleasure in recounting it, those itinerant frequencies broadcasting full-bore into my sister and me.
While the station wagon idled in the parking lot, my father would pace the aisles of these failing retail giants, nodding to himself. Back in the car, he would shake his head disapprovingly about overall cleanliness of the place, the merchandise displayed, the speed of employee response. Although he had avoided the life of a small-town merchant for himself, he was drawn inexorably back to it as an analyst instead of a shopkeeper. And what is an analyst other than an itinerant raconteur, a scrutinizer of out-of-the-way places, a teller of tales gathered in the course of the journey?
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, my father was frequently on the road. He would be gone for a few days at a time, and winter darkness would fall just a little closer to the windows of our suburban house. My mother, my sister and I would enjoy the TV dinners he disparaged, sometimes even consuming them in front of the television. And then he would return, bearing gifts: hotel soaps and shampoos; once, a perfect, tiny, sewing kit. He would recount stories of immaculate, well-run department stores in Chicago, and expensive, portable machines that could do simple arithmetic — early calculators.
These stories of wonder were subtly threaded with apprehension. Very often, my father was the only Jew in the boardroom or the supper club in Dallas or Seattle or Salt Lake City. Like his peddler grandparents, he had to assess an unfamiliar landscape. But it was not in the script of business practices for him to flee the scene. Instead, he deployed itinerant sonar to navigate these spaces, to make a joke or say nothing at all, in order to soothe any tensions.
Our household was governed by a sense of foreboding about how we appeared to the outside world and what our prospects might be in it. My parents were both small-town Jews who found themselves in suburban New York. Upwardly mobile, they deployed the ancient, itinerant arts of camouflage to navigate their Mad Men world of white Christian businessmen. While they were mostly successful at this, my father in particular retained a sense of himself as an outsider.
On a recent trip to Eastern California with my husband and daughters, I had a half hour to myself. I did what I most like to do when I am all alone with a car in a new place: I drove around and looked at houses, streets, and neighborhoods, wondering who lived there and what their lives were like. It’s what my father likes to do, to get a little lost in a strange town, speculate about who shops where, but don’t get so lost that he can’t find the best Chinese restaurant none of us even imagined could be there.
The view from the road is the itinerant’s standpoint. A habit of conjecturing about how other people live and how they might spend their money is what made my father a successful retail analyst.
It’s also what writers do. Poems my father wrote in longhand are scattered amidst the piles of yellow legal pads on which he took endless notes on various retail outlets during his career. My best friend refers to my father as “the Wall Street poet.”
As for me, I drive around unfamiliar places, thinking about my life and the ones being lived by strangers, often pulling over to take notes. That’s how I started writing this essay, my itinerant inheritance carrying me down the road in my writing life.