My Uncle Sam

The Biltmore was the last vestige of the city's former glory, and Sam seemed to have the entire upper floors to himself. The hallways stank of decades-old cigarette and cigar smoke, the walls a sickly beige, the brocade wallpaper fading and peeling.

We had an Uncle Sam in my family. If he was America's Uncle Sam, the whole country would be communist.

Technically, he was my Great-Uncle Sam, because he was my father Paul's uncle. But to family, friends and foes (categories as fluid as a Venn Diagram), he was just Uncle Sam.

Everything about him was solid and frightening. To me as a boy, he looked like a cross between a bear and a lion, with a voice equally ferocious. "What the hell are you doing?" Sam bellowed whenever I greeted him. "You call that a handshake?" My small hand disappeared in his grip. "Now this is a handshake!" He'd squeeze until my hand turned purple.

He descended from sturdy peasant stock. Family lore claimed he had come over on a tramp steamer from Russia when was 5, but getting the truth out of Sam was always a challenging task that depended on the time of day, how much he had been drinking and who his companions were.

One thing never in doubt was his power. He had a palpable presence, the kind of man you sensed walk in the room before you even set eyes on him. And once he opened his mouth, you couldn't take your eyes off him.

Sam liked to dress in dark suits, cut tight to show his ample chest. He drank Crown Royal whiskey by the tumbler. The bottle was elegant: voluptuously curved with beveled glass, the cap in the shape of a crown, encased in a regal, purple velvet sack with embroidered lettering and golden string. I used it to hold my marbles and toy soldiers.

Sam smoked incessantly, Camels, unfiltered. He was a bit of a dandy and had his hair cut once a week at his favorite barber, while a manicurist tended to the cuticles of his paws. The salon was located on the ground floor of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence, where he kept his bachelor apartment after selling his mansion in Fall River, a nearby town in Massachusetts that had seen better days.

Like other northern industrial towns during the '60s, Providence was also reeling from the throes of urban flight. A few decent Chinese restaurants and a venerable steakhouse tucked away on a side street gave my family and other members of the city's diaspora who had fled to the East Side and the suburbs a reason to come downtown. But the rest of the area was the inverted calculus of civilized city life: abandoned department stores; 24-hour donut shops filled with drunks, junkies, pimps and their girls; peep shows with rooms upstairs to spend quality time with the entertainers; and greasers racing their souped-up Camaros and Firebirds endlessly around the central plaza. There should have been a sign at the exit off I-95: "Welcome to Providence. Please lower your expectations."

The Biltmore was the last vestige of the city's former glory, and Sam seemed to have the entire upper floors to himself. The hallways stank of decades-old cigarette and cigar smoke, the walls a sickly beige, the brocade wallpaper fading and peeling. It gave me a feeling of dread and decay that I didn't experience again for decades, until I watched the scene from Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining," when the little boy rides his bike through the empty halls of an abandoned hotel, rounds a corner and comes face-to-face with ghostly twin sisters.

The only time the Biltmore stirred from its death-like slumber was during the annual jewelry show, Sam's suite its epicenter. Even though he wasn't in the business, Sam bought enough jewelry over the years to qualify as an owner. He had a lavish banquet set up in his apartment, tables groaning with shrimp, lobster and caviar. White-coated waiters served French champagne, while Sam reveled as host, grabbing hands and slapping backs of the local businessmen who ran the companies that made the diamond rings, pearl necklaces and gold bracelets that ended up on the hands, necks and wrists of his girlfriends.

A lifelong bachelor, Sam kept a revolving harem for years, most companions of dubious background. At one family gathering, Sam brought a date who had a scar all the way up her arm. Deep and red, the kind you get in a knife fight. "I wonder who gave it to her?" I whispered to my sister. "I wonder why they gave it to her," she whispered back. My mother, Riva, called him a "whoremonger," a term that made no sense to me as a 7-year-old, and still doesn't, because Sam didn't sell whores. He just enjoyed their company and services. She was an artist, not a writer, but Riva could be pretty artistic when it came to language. I had a better grasp of the term years later when she used it in a fight with Paul.

Sam's hair was the color of cornstarch, heavy on the pomade, and as substantial as his torso. His laugh was more of a threat than a pleasant release, a rapid, loud rasp. You knew that behind it lay another attack just waiting to be launched.

We all lived in fear of him. His brother, Morris, my father's father, was a gentle soul and partner in the family grocery business, but Sam's grip on the company was as crushing as his handshake.

When he entered his 30's and assumed more responsibilities, my father shared an office with Sam, spent all day in his company, sometimes working until 7:00 p.m. or later, and often on weekends. The abuse he had to endure was constant and unyielding. Sometimes he'd come home, look at me and say "Kid, I'm all beat up."

At least Sam taught my father how to run a large business, managing sales, marketing, purchasing, merchandising and accounting. Paul also learned other things from Sam's "big-shot-ism," Riva called outlandish purchases of boats and cars, a craving for attention and the big score. Sam imparted one more lesson to my father that I found out before anyone else in my family: the need to enjoy the company of other women. I discovered this at 9, when he started taking me to his mistress's house on Sundays.

Sam demanded and received complete attention from my father. It wasn't enough that Paul worked in the same office with him 10 hours a day. In those low-tech days of rotary phones, before multiple lines were common, Sam had a separate line with a dedicated number that ran directly to our house, used exclusively for business calls to my father. The phone was black, imposing, and looked like you could use it to bash someone's brains in. Dubbed the "hotline," it was in my father's bedroom, but the phone rested on my mother's nightstand. Paul wanted to keep Sam as far away as possible.

He never could. Every time that phone rang, it must have sounded like an air horn signaling a raid.

Once, my sister tied up the hotline to talk to a girlfriend. When Sam finally got through, he asked for her. Marcia came to the phone and he said: "If you ever use this phone again, I'll break your arm."

Yet like all tyrants, he could be charming. One summer when I was away at camp, I failed to write him as promptly as instructed. When I finally got around to sending Sam a letter a month late, I put in a little white lie, noting that I didn't know why he hadn't gotten the other letter I sent him. I soon received a response, asking if I got the 50 dollars he sent me. I immediately dashed off another letter saying I didn't get it. Of course, he hadn't sent any money; it was just his way of showing that no one knew his way around a lie better than he.

"You can't bullshit a bullshitter," my father used to say in one of his many aphorisms. Not that we didn't stop trying—either of us. We were both fans of a challenge, no matter how futile.

Sam spent money like a potentate, keeping himself in yachts, limousines, jewelry and trips to Europe. He was one of the first 10 men to fly a million miles on a commercial airliner, and went faithfully to Oktoberfest in Germany for many years, beginning right after World War II. He didn't give a damn if the country was still crawling with Nazis who had killed his people. Holocaust, Schmolocaust. He just wanted to empty beer steins and bang as many frauleins as possible.

He used the family business as a personal piggy bank, a technique my father learned all too well when he took over the business. Sam never let my father forget who gave him his opportunity, always reminding Paul of the source of his success.

In the mid-60s, a business magazine profiled his operation. Its description of his personality was dead-on: "Toughest of the tough is Sam Leviten, hard-bitten operator of Great Scott Supermarket chain." He didn't come by that reputation lightly. He had friends with names like Frankie the Hitman, and stories circulated that Sam and his associates thought sticking a man's head down a toilet was an effective negotiating tactic.

The article went on: "Sam's friends, and he has more than he knows about, and his enemies, which he needs more than he needs friends, have been waiting for years to see Sam topple off his wall."

They didn't have to wait long. In the early 70s he had a series of disabling strokes. My father was in the hospital room when Sam had his most debilitating stroke. In an ironic reversal of post-war power, our family entrusted control of Sam's life to a compassionate Austrian caregiver named Hans. Gone were the fancy cars, the luxurious apartment, the entourage of bimbos and sycophants. It was just Sam and Hans, in a modest efficiency apartment.

I exacted my own revenge on Sam by borrowing the one car my father gave him: a dilapidated Volvo left over from the business to use for drunken and drugged carousing with my teenage buddies. I cleaned the inside windshield of the residue from cartons of Camel smoke, and the paper towel was brown by the time I'd finished. Then my friends and I would re-stain the windows with our own unfiltered cigarettes--Panama Red and Acapulco Gold.

Hans made plaintive calls to me when I held on to the car for too long. "Peeeeeeeeeeter, I need the Vollllllllllllllvo so I can get your Unnnnncle his cheeeeeeeeeeeeeesecake," he would say beseechingly, his Teutonic accent only adding to my delight. I had a special treat I saved for the winter. When it snowed, I'd take the car out in the middle of the night and do "donuts" on the street outside Sam's apartment, turning the steering wheel first to the right, then to the left, skittering crazily in circles as I leaned out the window and shouted: "Cheeeeeeeeeeeeesecake! I need more cheeeeeeeeeeeeesecake!"

Sam returned the favor by continuing to abuse my father, despite his semi-vegetative state. Seeing the devastating effect it had on him, one day my mother went to Sam's apartment. She screamed at him: "Don't you ever talk to my husband that way again! You are not allowed to treat him like that!"

I don't know if she planned her next move, but I'll forever admire Riva's courage and family loyalty. Her eyes settled on the pictures of Priscilla, Marcia and me on his windowsill. She walked over, picked up each one, and hissed: "For the way you treat my husband, you don't deserve to have any photos of my children." She turned and walked out of his apartment for the last time.

When she got home, she sat down, exhausted from the emotions of her confrontation. She got up, walked into the living room and let out a scream. The portrait of Morris--the gentle patriarch and Sam's brother--which hung in a place of honor in the living room, had fallen off the wall.

From his front-row wheelchair seat, Sam watched the family business he had entrusted to my father suffer a similarly agonizing death. An aggressive expansion plan led to a series of fatal miscalculations, finally forcing my father to declare bankruptcy in 1976.

One day late in his life, my father drove by Sam's apartment building. Looking out the car window, Paul said: "That's where the meanest man in the world lived."

Sometimes, I think the pressure of outdoing Sam and avenging decades of mistreatment caused my father to reach too far. Paul wanted to show that bastard who was the best businessman.

Unfortunately, neither of them was.


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