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A Few Good Men: My Grandfather and Dick Tracy

by Kareem Tayyar

The first thing that struck me about Dick Tracy, the title character in Warren Beatty’s hit 1990 film, was the way he dressed. Long yellow trench coat, yellow fedora, a watch so fancy it doubled as a telephone, impeccably tailored three-piece suits that made him look like the American James Bond. No one I knew dressed like that. The men I was surrounded by wore jeans, khakis, polo shirts, ratty sneakers. My neighborhood was Ground Zero for Permanent Casual; the men of Fountain Valley did not dress to impress. If you had asked them what G.Q. stood for, they might have said it was a horse slated to run third at Santa Anita, or a street drug that had killed several teenagers in Santa Ana the summer before last. There were, of course, justifiable reasons for such disinterest in high fashion, not the least of them being it was too hot for suits-and-ties nine months out of the year. You couldn’t wear wool to the beach. But in my imagination, Dick Tracy would have dressed no differently had Los Angeles been his jurisdiction instead of Chicago. Twenty minutes into the film, I was certain he wore cufflinks even when he was only going to the post office.


Even at thirteen years old, I knew how old-fashioned a movie it was. There was no doubt who the good guys were. They wore bright colors, they worked long hours, they never swore. The bad guys had no table manners and they had lived on the wrong side of the law for so long it had mangled their looks. They were grotesques, Sons of Frankenstein who ran illegal casinos, killed each other in car bombings, in targeted assassinations. In Beatty’s film, there were no shades of gray. Subjectivity was nonexistent. Everything was what it said it was. The sign on a can of chili read, “Chili.” The sign outside of a restaurant advertised, “Restaurant.” The movie itself was composed of only seven colors. But what colors they were! Dick Tracy’s world was an expressionist painting. The past, the picture seemed to be saying, was even more gorgeous than we had dreamed it to be.


It was a past that my grandfather most certainly belonged to.


Everything about Francis Harmon seemed out of step with the world he lived in. He was, for starters, the lone style exception to the men I knew. He wore a suit to church every Sunday. Double-breasted, gray herringbone, often with a white handkerchief folded into the breast pocket. Shoes always perfectly shined. At weddings, he was more nattily outfitted than the groom. At funerals, the three-button black suit he wore reinforced the gravity of the occasion. There was never an Easter holiday where his tie was not done in a perfect Windsor knot.


As a surveyor for forty years, my grandfather had measured and mapped the streets of the City of Angels with the same devotion that Tracy had patrolled those of the Windy City. Los Angeles was a living being to my grandfather. He spoke of its sights the way one would his extended family. Union Station was an aging patriarch; the Rose Bowl a favored sister; Dodger Stadium a spoiled only son. Different parts of the city were like places out of myth. Downtown was Sodom and Gomorrah; Venice Beach was Avalon; Beverly Hills was Never-Never Land; Griffith Park was Eden. He would take me on long walks whenever I came to stay with him and my grandmother, and during the walks he would tell me stories about America, as it was:


“We would go to Rockaway Beach. Sometimes Coney Island. They used to lay the frozen hot dogs on the asphalt in front of the roller coaster to thaw them out each morning. We would swim for hours, and then we’d take a turn on the Ferris Wheel. At the top of the wheel’s rotation it seemed like the moon was close enough to touch…


“I don’t know why I wasn’t deployed. I still think about that. Most of the guys I served with went over. A lot of them didn’t come back. I wrote a letter to my superiors, saying that I wanted to go. It didn’t seem fair that everyone was risking their lives and I wasn’t being asked to risk mine. That’s not the way this country should work…


“That was when the ballplayers still lived in the neighborhood. I saw Babe Ruth once at a deli on 106th Street. Lou Gehrig I saw standing on the steps of the Public Library. Mel Ott was around. Tickets were 50 cents in those days. Can you believe that? We’d take the train to Yankee Stadium and sit in the bleachers. We’d go home with a sunburn and a memory of Ruth hitting one out…


“Bogart never used language like that in his pictures. Neither did Gary Cooper…


“There were tent cities all over the place. Veterans, mostly. The Jazz Age? I never saw it. Unless you were a Carnegie or a Rockefeller, this country has been in a Depression for going on a century…


“The World’s Fair was something else. We walked through the Perisphere. Rode a bullet train. Superman made an appearance. A friend of mine said he thought he’d be taller. But I didn’t think it mattered. You have the cape, it doesn’t really matter how tall you are.”


I saw a younger version of myself in the Kid, the young orphan Tracy takes care of, and who follows Tracy all over the city as Tracy dispenses justice. The Kid doesn’t simply admire Tracy; to him Tracy is an epic hero, the greatest man the world has ever seen. He wants to do as Tracy does. He walks alongside him, he mimics his patterns of speech, and ultimately gives himself the name, Dick Tracy, Jr. That was me on those walks with my grandfather. I was the Kid, certain that there was nothing in the world my grandfather did not know, nowhere he had not been, nothing he could not explain, no wrong he could not right.


I recognized Tracy’s inability to put his own interests before those of the public he served. The fact that he could not imagine a job that consigned him to a desk, even if it put him out of harm’s way. So it was with my grandfather. Even in retirement, after a life spent first as a member of the United States Navy and then as a surveyor for the City of Los Angeles, his days were spent as a driver for Meals on Wheels, as an usher at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, as a steady hand behind the counter at the local soup kitchen. He and my grandmother were part of a group that paired with the Braille Community for square-dancing parties a few times a month. Most mornings and evenings for the better part of a decade, my grandfather would walk down the street and open the blinds and windows for Lucy, a woman whose arthritis had so crippled her she could not perform those simple tasks for herself. He made sure she had everything she needed until the day nurse or a member of Lucy’s family would arrive.


Men like Tracy and my grandfather did not discuss their fears. It never seemed to occur to them to consider whether they were happy. Responsibility was the ultimate expression of citizenship. Loyalty the ultimate act of love. As I got older, the comic book heroes I would see onscreen were consumed with questions of identity. Batman wanted to be less tortured than he was. Superman wanted to run off with Lois Lane. The Shadow wanted a good night’s sleep, free from recurring nightmares. Wolverine did not want the near-immortality he had been given. Neither did Captain America. Iron Man wanted immortality and more.


Tracy would have thought such needs unseemly. Inappropriately self-centered. He only wanted to do an honest day’s work, and then to wake up the following morning and do it all over again. I remember sitting in the front row of that movie theater and thinking Dick Tracy was the brother my grandfather never had. I remember, in fact, during the scene when Tracy is chasing Big Boy Caprice through the deserted streets of after-hours Chicago, the New Year’s Eve fireworks lighting up the sky above him, that I wished my grandfather had been with him, that the two of them were pursuing the villain together. I don’t know why, exactly. But it was a thought that made me almost impossibly joyful as the film reached its climax, Tracy saving the day in a clock tower straight out of a story by Conan Doyle. Maybe it was because I felt that my grandfather deserved to have his heroism known; to have it borne witness to by the country at large. Or maybe it was simply because even though I was not The Kid, I was still A Kid, and that is always what kids want: to see the good men that they love be recognized as the gods they know them to be.


Kareem Tayyar’s most recent collection, Keats in San Francisco & Other Poems, was published in 2022 by Lily Poetry Review Books.

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