Remembering Greatness on the Worst Day of My Life
I buried my father today. He was more of a man than I’ll ever be.
I wouldn’t ever think of trying to work harder, do more or be as honorable as he — Jeffrey Hess — was. Even before he died so unexpectedly this week, I often thought to myself that maybe he laughed at what I did for a living… sitting at a desk or on my couch, typing pointless and mostly useless musings about entertainment and food. For his entire life, he toiled and trudged and bled for hours upon end with his butcher shop and wholesale business, working 15+ hours a day for pretty much my entire life. Manual labor to me is when I have to do laundry or paint a room. Manual labor to him was life. He did it so that I could sit on my ass at a keyboard.
My dad was a butcher. He was a butcher long before it was the hip thing to do. He was a butcher because his father and grandfather (and possibly even deeper into the Hess tree) were. That’s what pretty much what piqued the foundation of my love and curiosity of food and cooking.
From when I was 6 or 7 years old, I went to work with my dad whenever I could. Somehow he’d drag me out of bed at 3:30 in the morning and we’d be on our way to the meat markets at Hunts Point in the Bronx. For some incredible reason, all I can think of right now is how I’d be freezing in the pre-twilight morning darkness, and my dad would always have Little Debbie oatmeal cream cookies in his van. The first thing he did when I got into the truck was to hand me one before even starting the engine. It’s random and pretty goddamn brilliant how tiny little details like that stand out when all is said and done — a mediocre cookie sandwich is now one of my most cherished childhood memories when it comes to my father.
Post-cookie, my dad and I would then go to the meat markets to pick up sides of massive hunks of dead animal for him to take back to his store to break down and sell. There are so many memory triggers and things that I remember about the market: The smell (Oh, the mineral-y goodness of a frigid room packed with dry-aged beef and nasty bits), the massive hunks of flesh that my dad would convince someone to let me punch like ‘Rocky,’ … and most of all, how everyone there knew and loved my dad. Any and all of the vendors we hit up to buy the day’s wares, we were met with a “Jeff! How are you!” and unfathomable kindness toward me. Everyone was amazed to see “Little Jeff,” which to this day I know I can never be. I know now that these gestures weren’t because I was cute, it was due to the surplus of respect that my father had accrued with these blood-spattered fellows at the market and anyone else he’d spent time with in his life.
Even in middle and high school, I worked with my dad at his shop. At that point, he’d sold his shop in the Bronx and opened one up in New Jersey to be closer to home… you know, because rather than working 15 hours a day, now he could work 14 because his commute was shorter. It was a this point that I was slowly becoming obsessed with food. At the shop, my dad let me help with everything, and the sensory part of what goes down in a butcher shop is something I’ll forever cherish. The gruesome and curious sound of making fresh sausage, how I hated having to inject hams and turkeys with a brine gun during the holidays because my hands would get so cold (possibly the reason I hate ham now), the shrill scream of the bandsaw that on several occasions necessitated an urgent call home and a trip to the emergency room for my dad, picking tightly-packed wads of sawdust and fat out of my shoes after a day at the shop. Also, the vibrating hum of cold cut slicer that I used to make turkey sandwiches on, shaving the turkey so thin it would cause fowl shrapnel to pepper the entire device, leading to a more intensive clean-up than my dad would have preferred — a topic that didn’t go unspoken, trust me.
Somehow, during this time at the shop, I managed to convince my dad that he should sell hot lunches to the local businesses in town. Even more ridiculous is that I convinced him to let me cook the food. I wonder if the people in the nearby stores knew that a 14-year-old punk was the one who made their Reuben sandwich or fish and chips platter? Either way, the response was great and the lunch specials started flying out of the door … until the inspectors came in one day and told us that apparently one has to have fire extinguishing devices installed above deep fryers and grills that are inside storefronts. Who knew?!
So, my first cooking gig was shut down by the man, but the spark was lit.
Another incident that stands tantamount in my memory of my dad during those years is perhaps the lowest moment of my teen years. For some reason, one day I decided that I wanted to go buy some baseball cards, so I took $5 out of the register. Had I asked my dad for the money, I’m sure he would have gladly given it to me, but for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason, I just snagged it thinking my dad wasn’t looking. Turns out, he was, and rather than say anything to me, he stopped me before I could leave the store, pulled it out of my pocket, and gave me a stare that I’ll never forget. It said: You’ve let me down, son. You’ve betrayed my trust. “Druggies steal from their parents,” he told me. To this day, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve replayed this moment in my mind and felt like the asshole I was.
For weeks, there was an unspoken tension between me and my dad, yet he still drove me where I needed to be driven, still came to my baseball games … all the while, I knew I had broken a bond between us. That was the best characteristic of my dad. No matter what you did, how much you may have upset him on Tuesday, he was always still just as honorable, dedicated and loving on Wednesday.
His 63 years of life are something my pampered ass cannot fathom. He fought valiantly for his country in Vietnam, going AWOL shortly before being deployed to marry my mom. I asked him twice about the war, but he refused to speak to me about it. “You don’t want to know about that stuff,” he said. He was trying to protect me. He’d always avoid my questions as a young kid of “Did you kill anyone?” He was a badass nonetheless.
After the war, he bled, hurt and deprived himself of sleep so that me and my two sisters could all do what we want. One time, I mentioned that perhaps I’d just take over his butcher shop at some point. I was quickly met with that classic Jeff stare that could bore a hole through an armored truck. “Never,” he said. He told me that he worked his ass off so that I didn’t have to work as tirelessly as he did, and that I was better and smarter than a butcher.
No, dad. I’m not. Nobody could be better than you … I just hope you’re proud of me. I love you, dad.