Life as a salesman, a tribute to dad

Ellen's Dad

Howard Futterman

Sorry to get all schmaltzy and sentimental on you, but sometimes that happens as Father’s Day draws near. My dad passed away at the age of 73 on Sept. 11, 2000, a year before “that Sept. 11th.” While he isn’t around to celebrate his day with us kids anymore, his imprint remains solid in my heart and in my memory.

Howard “Footsie” Futterman was a cross between a Damon Runyon character and Willy Loman. He grew up in the Bronx across the street from the old Yankee Stadium, but hated the ballclub because he thought the ownership was anti-Semitic. He did a stint in the Navy, which best as I can tell accounted for why he never asked for a cup of coffee but rather a cup of Joe. Also, whenever he drove us anywhere he would always, upon arrival, announce in a low, deep, resonating voice: “All ashore that’s going ashore.”

My dad had a lot of unique expressions and quirky ways of doing everyday things – Footsie-isms, as we called them. Endearing in retrospect, they drove my brother and me crazy when we were growing up. Like the way my dad took phone messages. Though he knew the first names of all my friends, he’d always relay the message using their last name followed by gender.

‘’Did you call the Bernstein girl back yet?’’ Dad would ask in his inimitable way, expecting me to return the call immediately. If I didn’t, he would hound me until I finally did.

My dad worked most of his adult life in the garment center of New York, commuting from our home in Westbury to Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad. When I was little, he sold “woolen piece goods,” as he called them, for his father’s wholesale house, but then found himself out of a job when my grandfather retired and closed the business. It seemed woolen piece goods couldn’t compete with less expensive, more versatile polyester and other synthetic fabrics.

My dad knew that, but my grandfather was set in his way and didn’t want to diversify. So after my grandfather’s business folded, dad had a series of salesmen jobs, none of which lasted more than a couple of years. As the last salesman hired, he often was the first to be let go as cheaper overseas labor and production marked the downsizing – and demise – of many garment center businesses.

Having nearly a dozen jobs in as many years took its toll on dad. Still, he had an animated side that was utterly charming, and which I reveled in when it shined. Like when he would sing.

My father is the only person I ever knew with a worse voice than mine. But that didn’t stop him, nor does it stop me, from belting out show tunes at the top of our lungs. Sometimes he would crank up the hi-fi and sing and dance with me to “With A Little Bit O’Luck” from “My Fair Lady.” I especially liked when he would mimic Zero Mostel’s Teyve in “Fiddler” performing “If I Were A Rich Man” with his arms stretched high above his head, fingers snapping in the air, hips gyrating side to side.

A highlight of junior high and high school was skipping school to spend the day in the city with my dad. He would take me to the various showrooms of clients, and buy me a couple of skirts and dresses (wholesale, of course!) at each. We’d stop for morning coffee at Chock full o’Nuts and lunch at a Horn and Hardart automat where I’d slip coins into the see-through window, giddily awaiting my meal to pop out.

While my mom took charge of our cultural education, dad was all about cultivating a love of sports in his kids. He taught me to swim when I was 3, bowl at 5 and ice skate at 6. Less successful were his attempts to teach me golf, mostly because I found his “helpful instruction” infuriating and walked off the course in a teenage huff at 16.

What stands out most about my dad was his unwavering faith in his children’s abilities and the fact that he would do anything for us. Money was tight in our household but both he and my mother made sure their kids had everything they needed, wanted and then some. As a parent now, I’m not quite sure how they did it, but I’m pretty sure no major laws were broken.

When I was about 11 or 12, my father became deeply involved in our Conservative synagogue, and eventually served in several capacities as an officer on its board. As president, he championed the granting of aliyahs for women in the congregation, thus allowing them the privilege of being called to the bimah to witness the reading of the Torah and recite blessings. This might not sound like a big deal today, but in the late 1960s, early ‘70s it was damn near pioneering.

Rabbi Carnie Rose mentioned this when he helped bury my father after cancer, and pneumonia, took him from us that September. Rabbi Rose’s position prior to his coming to B’nai Amoona in St. Louis had been as rabbi at my childhood synagogue, Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation.

Sometimes I wonder what my dad would say about me serving as editor of a Jewish newspaper. As crazy as it sounds, part of me thinks he might have had a hand, from above, nudging me in this direction. Regardless, I know he would be proud.

It makes me sad that my dad didn’t live long enough for his grandchildren to get to know him, or for him to see them grow up. Nothing would have delighted him more than watching my son sink a basketball or my niece dive like a swan.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe it’s with that in mind that I’ve learned ways to keep my father’s spirit alive. I taught my son to swim when he was 3, bowl at 5 and ice skate at 6. I continue to belt out show tunes much to his chagrin. And when his friends can’t reach him by cell and call the house phone instead, I never miss the opportunity to ask, “Did you call the Miller boy back yet?” and then hound him until he finally does.