A 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. “He’s 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, Dad—Mark Frankel W’67 L’70—had 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 in Ardmore.
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 (GM’s share of the auto market went from 50 percent in the early eighties to 29 percent by 1998).
Now it’s December 1999, and Mom (Jill Maze Frankel CW’68), Dad and I are attending Dad’s farewell at Michael’s 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 haven’t 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 calls—in reference to the turtleneck’s thick collar—to 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 era.
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’ table.
“No, don’t be silly,” Mom and I insist. The couple remains seated. The new owner’s 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 can’t 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, we’ve 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, that’s 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 owner’s wife—but 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 (he’s partial to heavy red wines—only the ones as thick and crude as motor oil, Mom says—and has dragged us to most of the Morton’s and Laury’s 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 pilot’s license while a lawyer in the Navy, but after my brother Andrew C’96 and I were born he went back to model building. This spring, he began a refresher course to renew his pilot’s license.
His airplane models have wingspans of 10 feet and bodies of 12-13 feet. He’s 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, that’s 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. You’re still young.”
“Trust me, I’m not retired,” he responds, sounding annoyed.
At her apartment building, an attendant helps my grandmother out of Dad’s 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 an airplane.
“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 beginning—a transition. As Ray sang in his gravelly voice, “Here we go again.”
Erika Frankel C’00 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.