wine and cheese and olives and shouting
I can't remember how we met Uncle Paul. Guessing my parents made the connection through work. I do remember it was the mid-90s, I'd have been about 7 or 8, not old enough to quite comprehend what "eccentric" meant, but old enough to sense that he was exotic, keeping "musician's hours," a concept I found very appealing at that age.
We only took a few trips to Manhattan during my childhood, and they were almost all with him. The Metropolitan, to see Monet's paintings of the French Riviera, which I mostly don't remember. The museum of Modern Art, which I do remember, because we stopped at McDonald's on the way in, Uncle Paul, in a fit of generosity, bought too many $1 apple pies, and my little brother ate three, and fell ill with a surfeit of pie and excitement. When he fell nauseously asleep, Paul made a joke about catching any potential barf on a canvas, and auctioning it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, as modern art.
He lived in a mansion - a 12,000 square foot, slowly decomposing hundred-year old beauty, which he worked on fitfully. Money would come in, and he'd hire a crew to fix the plaster falling off the exterior. The money would dry up, and the crews would leave, scaffolding still standing, plastic flapping in the wind.
The property was over a hundred acres, statuary crumbling on the grounds, the formal gardens overgrown and overrun, a Rolls Royce with white-wall tires disintegrating by the carriage house. In theory, you could come in through the iron gates, the short, fancy way, but the gates were always locked. You really came in the mile-long dirt driveway, twisting and turning through a pine forest, hand-painted signs tacked on the tree trunks, cautioning against guard dogs, warning of security cameras and systems, all of which didn't exist.
The mansion was mostly empty. The first floor was used for show, and recording, and dinner parties. The second floor was where he lived, and later, where his second wife and their son would live with him. The third floor was servant's quarters, which I saw only once, for a few minutes. Those rooms were about big enough to lie down in, the size of a closet, as contrasted with the grandeur and formality of the first floor.
Have I mentioned he was spontaneous? There would be phone calls, and he'd want company or an adventure, and we would go over, and there would be wine and cheese and olives and shouting (he was Albanian! There was lots of shouting, most of it fairly jolly).
I remember one dinner party in particular, not even sure what the occasion was, but he and his mother (who lived nearby) had been cooking for days. There were a dozen people there, none of whom we knew, I'm not sure if they even knew each other, but we all had him in common. Course after course, china, crystal, silver, candlelight. Must have been a good month, and he was generous.
Most of the time, though, it wasn't a good month. He'd enjoyed some moderate success in the late 60s and early 70s, and he'd kept working, but it came and went. I remember him always looking for some kind of jackpot. At one point the carriage house was filled with antique furniture removed from the mansion, that he had plans of refinishing, plus more he'd bought just in case.
"What's this?" said my mother, holding up some piece of brass that might have been part of a smoking stand once. 'It's a dinner weapon!" he shouted. "Guests boring? Hit them with the dinner weapon. Every house should have one."
He got into dealing rugs - Oriental, Persian, Turkish - so the mansion was filled with piles of hundreds of rugs. After the rugs came Gothic furniture, and then Italian cast-iron grave statuary, removed from a cemetery that got bulldozed so more graves could be put on top. Those jackpots never really panned out, and his investments generally ended up costing him.
By this time I was a teenager, and we'd stayed friendly enough so that he asked me to work in his shop, putting the smaller items on eBay. It wasn't the easiest time in our friendship - he was stressed, recently remarried, the business was new and struggling. We'd carpool to work, and he'd talk to me on the way up about what was bothering him, and his wife would drive me back, and tell me what was bothering her. I was 17. I kept my mouth shut, mostly.
They lived near a hospital, and they'd buy me lunch at the hospital cafeteria if it was a good week. Once I was in the kitchen with his wife and he wandered in, making a sour face and patting his belly.
"I gotta stop buying those pudding bowls", he said. The cafeteria sold these massive bowls of what they called "trifle". Cake, pudding, whipped cream, essentially a big pile of sugar. Paul ate one too many, and driving, blacked out, and drove across the lawn of a nearby private prep school. Almost hit a tree.
We lost touch for quite a few years after that job ended. I saw him maybe once more, and he was well, and happy, and flush - there was wine and cheese and olives and shouting. I'd heard he wasn't well, but I kind of thought he'd live forever.
He didn't. His widow called a few months after he passed, needed a hand cataloging the contents of the carriage house. All that grave statuary, still sitting there, because it wasn't the right jackpot. It was November, I think. No snow, but bitterly cold, in an open building, measuring and photographing iron, piece by piece. She invited me into the mansion after, and there was wine and cheese and olives and some quiet talk about how much we missed him, next to a fire, in the smallest corner of that big dining room.
He was Orthodox, and so was the memorial service the following April. Right there in the great hall of his mansion, chanting I couldn't understand, incense, a crush of Albanians in black and mafia-money New Yorkers in suits and heels. He'd have been pissed about the high heels on his floors. The orthodoxy got to me (there wasn't much talk of resurrection that I could discern), and after the service, I made a break for the marble steps outside, with a glass of wine. That was the last time I was there. The mansion sold last summer, and his widow and son moved away. Commercials with his songs come on now and then, and suddenly I want a glass of wine.