My father, Franz Kohout, turns eighty-six tomorrow. He is, I believe, a world-class eccentric—an opinion, I should add, shared by many. He still lives on Nob Hill in San Francisco, a half block down California Street from Grace Cathedral, in the same apartment he’s inhabited for almost forty years, since my parents divorced. That apartment is a shrine to his stubbornly anachronistic personality, and his by-now-legendary miserliness.
Here are some things you’ll find in his apartment:
- Several hundred kitchen knives, of varying sizes and intended uses but all of them razor sharp (“Don’t touch anything!” we used to tell the kids when we visited);
- Closets full of virtually identical tweed sport coats, all of them several decades old;
- Hundreds of vinyl LPs, most of them classical but also big band, Dixieland, Latin, easy listening, and pop;
- Thousands of books, which have long since overflowed their designated shelves and are stacked up on any available flat surface—the hallway, the bedroom floor, etc.
The books in particular are hard to ignore. For many years, his chief means of expanding his library was to buy paperbacks in bulk, for a dollar a bag, at the Goodwill. This has led inevitably to an eclectic collection, in which an acknowledged classic like, say, À la recherche du temps perdu can inhabit the same shelf as, say, a biography of Le Pétomane.
Here are some things you won’t find in his apartment:
- A television;
- A computer;
- A compact-disk player;
- A microwave;
- A bottle of wine costing more than eight dollars.
Seriously, it’s like the last forty or fifty years never happened.
Along with his eccentricities, however, he was (and is) a passionate outdoorsman. He was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, to a Scottish mother (the source of his cheapskatitude?) and an Austrian father. He and his younger brother Willi grew up speaking three languages: German, Portuguese, and, at home, English, because his father decided, in the midst of Depression-era Brazil, that English was the language of opportunity.
My father’s stories make growing up in that time and place sound like a tropical version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, consisting mostly of sailing on Guanabara Bay, camping on as-yet-uninhabited islands, encountering sloths and other exotic fauna, and the like. But somewhere along the way, with what I suspect was not always gentle encouragement from his father, he found time to crack the books, for he decided to become a doctor, and when he was twenty-five, with his father’s blessing, he came to the U.S. to complete his medical training at the University of Pennsylvania (and, incidentally, justified his father’s insistence on speaking English at home).
He met my mother, also an immigrant (from Italy) medical student, in Philadelphia, and they decided to marry, ending his plans to return to Brazil. Eventually they made their way to the San Francisco Bay Area, in some ways the American equivalent (albeit foggier and colder) of Rio, where they settled in idyllic Mill Valley; I was their only child.
In retrospect, I think my father tried to recapture some of the adventurous flavor of his own boyhood in California; we spent many weekends camping at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, and every summer we spent a couple of weeks at a rented cabin at Packer Lake, in the Sierra Nevadas. He was an early and enthusiastic cyclist long before Lance Armstrong made cycling trendy; he went on bicycle camping trips all over the country, and tried without much success to get me interested in cycling too, though I did complete at least one 100-mile ride with the Marin Cyclists.
More enjoyable for me were our excursions to Muir Beach, where the two of us (my mother, prone to carsickness, usually opted to skip the tortuous drive over Mount Tamalpais and back) went to harvest the abundant purplish-black, bearded mussels. Clambering over the sharp rocks, peering into tidepools, staring at starfish and sea urchins, prying the stubborn mussels loose with a crowbar… I loved everything about these expeditions except the end product, which was a dinner featuring steamed mussels—a disgusting thing to eat, I thought at the time. (I have since changed my mind.)
While he gave up the cycling several years ago, he and my stepmother Nancy (or, as we refer to her in the family, “St. Nancy”) still go hiking on Mount Tam almost every week with a group of friends, and spend several weeks a year at Nancy’s family’s beachfront cabin in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay. All in all, it’s not a bad way to live.
But when I was a kid, I’m sorry to say, my father sort of embarrassed me; he was too exotic, too foreign. I desperately wanted our family to be normal, like one of those bland WASPy sitcom families, and it wasn’t. (It took me years to realize that no family is actually like those families on TV.) And with his penchant for filling up any brief silence or lull in conversation by sighing, groaning, interjecting exclamations in Portuguese (“muito bem!” or “isso não!”), humming or whistling repeated brief musical phrases, making strange little popping or clicking noises, he was (and is) virtually a grown-up version of Gerald McBoing-Boing, the cartoon boy who could speak only in sound effects.
And when it’s not sound effects issuing from his mouth, it’s apt to be speech well-peppered with a certain four-letter Anglo-Saxonism commonly known as the F-bomb. How, I’ve often wondered, can such a sophisticated, cultured man, a man who speaks half a dozen languages, who’s had season tickets for the symphony and opera for decades, who’s read most of the classics of world literature—how can such a man swear like a longshoreman? It used to drive Heather to distraction when our kids were young; at one point she actually asked him if he could dial down the cursing, but it did little good. “In-f*ck-credible” is one of his highest and most frequently dispensed compliments, and he merely added to his own legend at our older daughter Elizabeth’s college graduation several years ago. The whole family had had a fine and bibulous dinner at Mezze, one of Williamstown’s finest restaurants, the night before the graduation ceremony. As we said goodnight out on the sidewalk, my father said to Tito, “Well, see you tomorrow, old man,” to which Tito replied, “Yes, sir.” Whereupon my father immediately responded, “Don’t ‘sir’ me, you f*cker, I’m your grandfather!”
He could (and can) be maddening in other respects as well. I believe he is a sentimentalist at heart, an easy weeper like me—he wept like a baby all through our wedding and reception—but he likes to disguise that perceived vulnerability with a veneer of callousness. He is much given to harsh, dismissive, and politically incorrect pronouncements (“Brazilians are savages” is one of his favorites), but while he is misanthropic in general he is actually quite generous in specific cases—though I imagine he’ll be furious with me for writing that.
Another apparent contradiction: for many years, he spent every summer backpacking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He always got his credencial stamped at each official refugio along the way so he could receive the special compostela reserved for completists, though he insisted that he couldn’t care less about the spiritual or religious implications of the trip, and only did it because he read an article in Gourmet that raved about the food along the way.
And make no mistake: food is a Very Big Deal for him. He walks or rides San Francisco’s abundant public transportation everywhere (ah, to live in a civilized city!), and does most of his grocery shopping down the hill in Chinatown, where he strolls up and down Grant Street, stopping in one shop for vegetables, another for fish, a third for poultry, and so on; sometimes he wanders over to North Beach to buy a dry salame at Molinari on Columbus. For a special treat, he walks down the hill in the other direction, to Polk Street for lunch at the fabulous Swan Oyster Depot (see above) and, when we come to visit, for breakfast at Bob’s Donuts. (He has a raging sweet tooth, another vestige of his Brazilian youth; his idea of a cup of coffee is a large mound of sugar with a little liquid floated on top.) No matter where or what he eats, though, you can bet that he will relish every scrap and ort with an agonizing thoughtfulness; beards will grow longer, faces wrinkle, seasons change, and rivers carve new canyons while waiting for him to finish what’s on his plate. And then he’ll order dessert.
He is, in other words, a man who truly knows how to savor life, a man who has taught me much about the beauties and pleasures of this world. So, dad, here’s wishing you an in-f*ck-credible birthday!
What we’re reading
Heather: Alexander McCall Smith, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
Martin: H. W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865–1900