The Salesman


A few months ago, I asked my father, now happily retired, what profession he would choose if he were starting over again.

"Oh, I’d do the same thing," Dad said. "I’d be a salesman."

"A salesman?"

"Yes. I’m good at it."

It’s Father’s Day, and I am so glad that Dad is around to read this: Dad, I had you wrong.

Do we ever really know our parents? Even if we’re giving their lives close scrutiny, can we understand the choices they made? Maybe no better than our children understand us.

I was certain my father regretted the limitations of his options that landed him selling industrial supplies, before starting his own small business catering to the booming Long Island aviation industry.

Where did I get that idea? He made more than a decent living, bought a home, and had the satisfaction of leaving a business someone wanted to buy.

Yet, he did give a certain impression. Some of it was his own griping each evening at dinner, sharing with my mother about the late-paying clients and the late-arriving employees. Right up to the day they sold the business, he had a word to sum up his rounds of calls and billing: "aggravation."

From a child’s view, adult life seemed so hard. I could measure his fatigue by the metal click of the key in the door each night, announcing he had come home. I heard the pounding of his shoes, ka-clump, ka-clump, ka-clump. He climbed 12 stairs, each footfall heavier than the next. Had he worked in a mine, he’d have been as weary.

I waited for his ascent in the living room, sitting on the couch in front of the green, wooden fish tank my father had designed and constructed with saw and paint. The fish tank revealed everything in Dad that selling did not: patience, tenderness and love. He never got angry when the fish died, or when the filter clogged, even if it was because I overfed them. He let me open the top of the tank, scoop out the latest victim. Then I opened the plastic bag and sent the new, fresh mollies, guppies and angel fish to swim free.

This was the world my father should be in, I thought. My mother liked working in insurance. But my father was an artist; he should be making fish tanks for a waiting world.

Little did I know that Dad had his own ideas about what life could offer. He had long ago made his peace with "aggravation" and the cost of making the most of one’s opportunities. And he, to my amazement, didn’t seem to mind.

I am at that age now — daughter left home, parents retired — where the last word has been said. Whatever attitudes toward work a parent can give a child, it’s well been expressed. I ask myself now, what will she make of my advice?

Stick around and see, is the best answer that life provides.

Parents have only so much influence. The world takes care of the rest.

One night in 1966, my family gathered in the playroom to watch Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" on television. We sat on the couch, silently. For more than two hours, we did not move. I thought I saw my life go by.

In my memory, it was as historic event as the assassination of JFK. Lee J. Cobb played the tragic Willie Loman, being laid off after 34 years in sales. Mildred Dunnock played his wife, Linda. Biff and Happy might have been played by my brother, Alan, and me. We were so caught up in the struggle of the Lomans it was as if all of America was watching us.

That was when it came together, my father’s profession and my American legacy.

In some Jewish homes, "Salesman" is more than a Broadway classic — it is a family saga, played out in our dining rooms and in our hearts. The play captured the economic euphoria of the postwar expansion and the anxiety that growth was somehow based on sand. I read somewhere that during the postwar decades, ‘salesman’ was America’s No. 1 non-agricultural and non-industrial job description. Here was Miller telling America, attention must be paid.

A playwright oversold the salesman’s tragedy. It’s taken me years to get the point. There is book-smart, and there is street-smart, my dad tried to teach me. One tells a story. The other lives a life.

7 Days in the Arts


30Saturday

The 50th anniversary revival of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” won four Tony awards on Broadway last year, including Best Revival, and Best Actor for Brian Dennehy’s portrayal of Willy Loman. Now that Broadway production has come to the Ahmanson Theatre for just eight weeks, and this is your chance to see the heartbreaking, powerful show with an award-winning cast. $15-$60. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Through November 5. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772. For lower-priced student group and educator tickets, call (213) 972-7231.

1Sunday

Actress and stand-up comic Heidi Joyce brings together some of L.A.’s funniest women each Sunday in October for Stand-Up Against Domestic Violence. Featuring comics Stephanie Hodge, Karen Rontowski, Danielle Koenig and a host of others, the performances benefit local women’s shelters and other programs sponsored by Theatre of Hope. $15. 2 p.m. Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (818) 766-9702.

2Monday

Russian immigrant artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, working and performing together for 35 years as Komar & Melamid, are held responsible for initiating the “Sots” art movement, the Soviet equivalent of Western Pop Art. Perhaps best known for using a professional polling team to discover and produce “America’s Most Wanted Painting” (dishwasher-size, pastoral scene, color blue) and “America’s Most Unwanted Painting” (sharp angles, paperback-book-size, color teal or peach), the duo will team up with two American authors for a performance tonight at LACMA. With Ian Frazier and Dave Eggers, Komar & Melamid present “The Healing Power of Art,” which will be followed on Thursday by an evening of conversation with all four participants. 7:30 p.m. Bing Theater, LACMA East, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (323) 857-6088.

3Tuesday

The Fine Arts Division of Pepperdine University tonight presents its fall choral concert, “Reflection and Folklore.” The Pepperdine University Concert Choir, conducted by Milton Pullen, will perform J.S. Bach’s Motet No. 2, along with three Israeli folk songs, “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” “Zum Gali” and “Bashana Haba’ah.” 7:30 p.m. $10 (general admission); free (Pepperdine students, staff and faculty). Smother’s Theatre, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. For tickets or more information, call (310) 456-4522.

4Wednesday

Author and journalist Amram Duchovny, known for his book “David Ben Gurion: In His Own Words,” and for the Broadway play “Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald,” will be at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles tonight to discuss and sign copies of his first novel, “Coney.” Part noir thriller and part coming-of-age story, the novel is also a chronicle of 1930s Coney Island. If the author’s name sounds strangely familiar, yes, he is the father of “X-Files” star David Duchovny. 7 p.m.-9 p.m. 6006 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (323) 761-8648.

5Thursday

Pianist Charles Fierro has recorded the piano works of Aaron Copland under the auspices of the great composer himself. Tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center, in honor of Copland’s centennial anniversary, Fierro performs an evening of his piano compositions, including the Passacaglia Piano Sonata, Piano Variations, and Piano Fantasy. 8 p.m. $15 (general admission); $12 (members); $10 (students). Magnin Auditorium, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is also having a gala and benefit concert in honor of a great musician’s birthday. Beloved violinist Issac Stern celebrates his 80th with the help of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The evening is the opening concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season. 7 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call (323) 850-2000. For Gala dinner information, call (213) 972-3051.

6Friday

For more music, in a less formal vein, catch a performance by Roy Zimmerman at the Beverly Hills Public Library, where the singing satirist’s political folk songs will kick off the library’s “October Surprise” series of political comedy shows. As a founder of funny folk heroes The Foremen, and in his own solo career, Zimmerman’s writing and performing have earned him constant comparisons to the master of the genre, Tom Lehrer. 8 p.m. $15. Beverly Hills Public Library, 444 N. Rexford Dr., Beverly Hills. For reservations or more information, call (310) 471-3979.