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daughter and father ponder their next moves. By Erika Frankel
2000. Dad and I drive up to New York City
for my first live Ray Charles concert at Lincoln Center. It was sad,
Dad says later. Hes not as important as he used to be, and a lot of
what he originated has been usurped by imitators. I hope he does more
signature work before he dies. He still has the creativity in his head.
I wonder if he is thinking
of himself as well as Ray. Six months earlier, DadMark Frankel W67 L70had
taken a last curtain call of his own. After two decades of running Frankel
Chevrolet, Buick, Geo at 125 East Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, he had
sold the dealership and left the car business.
This was the end of an era
for him and for the family. Dad comes from a long line of automotive entrepreneurs.
In the 1930s, my great-grandfather sold his South Philadelphia grocery
store and bought a garage at the suggestion of his young son, my grandfather
(aka Pop-pop). When Pop-pop grew up, he started his own automotive parts
store, machine shop, leasing business, Chrysler-Plymouth dealership (the
third largest in the country in the late 1940s-early 1950s) and Buick
dealership. In 1973, Pop-pop and my uncle Richard bought a Chevrolet dealership
At that time, Dad had no
intention of going into the car business. After he graduated from Penn
Law, my parents moved to Memphis, where Dad joined the navy as a judge
advocate general. But after a few years of practicing law in the private
sector, he saw the opportunity to have an executive position at an already
established business. He started working at Frankel Chevrolet in 1977,
was named dealer and head of the franchise in 1982 and managed it through
18 years of economic ups and downs, oil crises and General Motors decline
(GMs share of the auto market went from 50 percent in the early eighties
to 29 percent by 1998).
Now its December 1999,
and Mom (Jill Maze Frankel CW68), Dad and I are attending Dads farewell
at Michaels Restaurant in South Philadelphia. Arriving late, we make
our grand entrance out of breath after climbing up the narrow stairway
to the private banquet room on the second floor. The room is wood-paneled,
with a low ceiling and dim lighting. Dad enters first. Mom and I follow.
Eyes light up. Glasses are raised. Pats on the back. The room swirls with
70 employees and their spouses telling me that they havent seen me since
I was this tall, and asking me what I am going to do after my graduation
from Penn in May.
Dad mingles. In his white
wool turtleneck, sportcoat and gray wool pants, he is dressed more casually
than his workers in their suits and dresses. Hey, Mark, you break your
neck or something? one of the mechanics callsin reference to the turtlenecks
thick collarto nervous snickers from the mechanics and technicians. They
ask him how my brother is as they tilt their heads back and sip on open-bar,
bottom-shelf gin and vodka. They chat with Dad about the Eagles. The managers
and salesmen talk about their children. The atmosphere is a semi-sweet
combination of cocktails and holiday cheer and sorrow for the end of an
Dinner is served. Mom and
I wade through the sea of filling tables, trailed by the new owner and
his wife. We find one with five empty seats, and two already inhabited
by an octogenarian part-time janitor and his wife. We could move, the
elderly woman offers, feeling out of place at what has become the executives
No, dont be silly, Mom
and I insist. The couple remains seated. The new owners wife shoots a
saccharine smile at them. She winks and sparkles. Her blonde bouffant
seems perfectly coiffed for a beauty pageant tiara. She is to be the new
mother of this car-dealership family, and I cant help but wonder how
she will assume her new role. Will she water the plants at the showroom
like Mom used to do?
En medias cena, Dad
goes up to the front of the room and delivers his farewell address. Over
the past two decades, weve really become like a family, he says.
The room is scattered with
uh-huhs and yups.
Excuse me, Mark. I want
to say something too, Mom says and stands up. All heads turn to the back
of the room. Andrew, Erika and I want to thank all of you for what you
have done for us over the past years, she says to the crowd. The business
would be nothing without you. You have all meant a lot to us, and we have
really appreciated knowing you. Her voice shakes, and I know she is fighting
back tears because I am, too.
Dad introduces the new owner.
The rotund, balding fortysomething stranger sits in his dinner chair shaking
his head side to side. His face turns red. His wife smiles at him and
rubs his back, polishing her trophy. He is not prepared to address his
constituents. Oh, thats not necessary, he replies.
No, really, come up and
introduce yourself, Dad urges.
The man rises. The room
is silent. As he walks to the front, my gaze follows him. All of the faces
in the room are familiar except for these two strangers who will soon
assume their position at the helm of the ship. He clears his throat. Excuse
me, he begins. I just want to say that Mark has really done an impressive
job with this organization, and I have very large shoes to fill. I look
forward to meeting and working with you all.
A wave of polite, tentative
applause washes over the room, and I smile and bat my eyes at the owners
wifebut I am really thinking about how much this hurts. Dad stands in
the front of the room and says, Thank you, again and again. People reply,
Oh, thank you. There is mutual clapping. And, emotionally at least,
the business has been traded over.
In the months after the
sale of the franchise, Dad spends more time on other interests: music
(jazz, classical and bluegrass), flavorful food and drink (hes partial
to heavy red winesonly the ones as thick and crude as motor oil, Mom
saysand has dragged us to most of the Mortons and Laurys Steak Houses
across the country) and aviation.
Dad has been fascinated
with aviation since he was five and Pop-pop would take him to the Navy
Base, Philadelphia International Airport and Willow Grove Naval Air Base
to watch the planes. Dad got to see still-functioning World War II aircraft
and the beginning of the jet age. He started building airplane models
in elementary school and learned to fly real planes in high school, soloing
in his senior year, 1962. (Coincidentally, the same year he got to see
Ray Charles for the first time, which he calls a religious experience,
and which led, musician by musician, like an Internet virus, to his
wide knowledge of music.) He got his private pilots license while a lawyer
in the Navy, but after my brother Andrew C96 and I were born he went
back to model building. This spring, he began a refresher course to renew
his pilots license.
His airplane models have
wingspans of 10 feet and bodies of 12-13 feet. Hes been competing in
national and international aviation competitions for years. He has won
numerous awards, written 25 articles for aviation magazines and sells
his kits to other modelers. Our basement is stacked almost to the ceiling
with aviation magazines dating back to the 1940s; above them is a row
of trophies from various flying achievements. Andrew tells about meeting
Dad at the West Chester Radio Control Expo last February, walking through
a room crowded with aviation aficionados and hearing one man whisper to
his friend, Hey, thats Mark Frankel!
After a family dinner this
spring, Dad and I drive my grandmother home. She says to Dad, you better
not be retired for good, my boy. Youre still young.
Trust me, Im not retired,
he responds, sounding annoyed.
At her apartment building,
an attendant helps my grandmother out of Dads maroon Suburban and we
head home. We merge back onto the expressway. The buildings of Manayunk
and Roxborough look like miniatures, as if we are flying past them in
Dad, what are you going
to do next year? Go back to school? Get a job? I say in a funny voice,
imitating my grandmother and the innumerable other people who have been
asking me the same questions about my impending life after college.
Dad snickers, but as the words
come out of my mouth, it occurs to me that, in a way, we are at the same
stage in life, part ending, part beginninga transition. As Ray sang in
his gravelly voice, Here we go again.
Erika Frankel C00 graduated from Penn in May.
This essay is adapted from a longer profile of her father she wrote for
English 135: Creative Nonfiction Writing this past spring. This month
she began working on American Masters, a PBS television series
produced in New York.
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2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/22/00