This Howard Alber selfportrait, titled “Ideas,” has a blinking light bulb built into a box frame and a power
cord that plugs into an A/C outlet. Howard gave it to me when I was a kid living in Philadelphia, and it made me smile. As an adult, I’ve looked at it and felt nostalgic. Today, it makes me think about my future. I doubt the artist predicted his work would make such an impact.
My grandfather, Howard Alber, was born in Philadelphia in 1911, back when horses pulled barges up the Schuylkill River. Howard Taft was president at the time, Salvador Dali was 7, and Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t be born for another 15 years. Point is, that was a long time ago.
Also a long time ago, during the 1950s, Grandpop, a graphic and fine artist, designed the “P” for the Philadelphia Phillies. The team used his script letter on hats and jerseys when the Whiz Kids (Phillies’ nickname at the time) were in their heyday. I always thought that was pretty cool.
Grandpop was Grandmom’s third husband (first one - my real one - died before I was born; second one was a boob, or so I’m told). They married in 1975 at my parents’ house. I was the ring-bearer. One of my earliest memories of Howard was sitting around a coffee table at the wedding. (My brother and I, ages 4 and 6 at the time, thought it was fun to call him “How-weird.”) I was fumbling with a Triscuit, trying and failing to spread cheese on it without its crumbling in my hand. Howard took the cracker from me, ate it, and then began spreading cheese onto a new cracker. I watched in awe as the deft hands of an artist at work smoothed so much cheesy goodness in every direction. Not a crumb fell on the table. How did he do it?
With a smile, he handed me his masterpiece - a generous peak in the center, symmetrical on all sides. A perfect pyramid. I took a bite. Bliss.
For years, I lacked the manual dexterity to build myself an hors d’oeuvre of that caliber, so Grandpop often obliged. “Make me a pile. Make me a pile,” I said. Mom said he used too much cheese. Grandpop made them bigger when she wasn’t looking.
Eating a little too much was always one of Howard’s signature moves. He probably never weighed more than 180 pounds, but he was never taller than 5' 5", either. Cute and cuddly as a bear, with an appetite to match.
At age 95, Grandpop was still eating and drinking like there was no tomorrow. “In my case, there might
not be,” he said, slurping shrimp with lobster sauce at the Chinese restaurant near his house. “Don’t tell Mother I ate this much salt.” Not telling her about the Reese’s Pieces he hid in the glove compartment was another rule.
By this time, “Mother” referred to his fourth wife, the lovely Carolyn. My grandmother had checked out years before. Eventually, Carolyn died, too. Howard had outlived his fourth wife, and the loss devastated him. Carolyn, he told me, was his true love.
By the time he moved into a retirement community at age 81, he had long observed his daily ritual of drinking five fingers of scotch and an ice cube before lunch. “One drink a day,” he said. Two or
three of those drinks equals a bottle.
For decades, Grandpop never missed a meal or his late-morning drink. But on October 17, he never woke up.
I cried when I heard he died. It’s hard not to cry while writing this. But Grandpop didn’t want tears. He didn’t even want a memorial service. Instead, he wanted someone to display his favorite paintings in one big room, where everyone who loved him could come together around his art, sharing stories about his life
and creating lasting friendships over copious amounts of food and drink.
The party is this month in Philadelphia, so I dedicate this dining issue of PacificSD to Grandpop.
Please join me in raising a drink and a cracker with cheese to Howard Alber. If you’d met him, you’d have wanted to hug him. And he’d have wanted you to eat well.
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, David Perloff
June 13, 1911 - October 17, 2012
Old as hell, young at heart and gone too soon. Love you, Man.
See you on the other side.