My grandfather has always been a fighter. When he was young, his grandfather, who was a local rabbi, was singing at a nearby synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and my grandfather tried to get in to hear him, despite not having a ticket. When he got kicked out by one of the ushers, he went around the side of the building, climbed up a wrought iron fence that was about a story-high, dropped down the other side, and climbed up a set of side stairs that put him in the women’s balcony, where he sat and listened to his grandfather sing.
When he was 17, his mother unexpectedly became pregnant with her fifth child. In a show of protest — because he thought she was too old to be pregnant — he ran away from home, jumping on a train that landed him in New Orleans.
In the family folklore, my grandfather once punched Danny Kaye. I don’t know where my grandfather punched him, or what the song and dance man might have done to provoke it, but I’m sure it was justified.
Some battles were waged inside my grandfather’s head. Others played out quite publicly. The longest and most visible was probably his war with the board of his condominium in Florida. He remained on the board well into his nineties, fighting what he saw as rampant corruption and waste.
“He stays up nights writing letters to himself about the board,” my grandmother told me on one of my visits down south. “It keeps him up at night. And it gets him up in the morning.”
At 92, after serving 12 years on the board, he was finally elected president. But he held the title only four months before he was stripped of it by unanimous vote. Among those voting against him were two of his oldest friends on the board, Yvonne McNamara and Julio Montoya.
My grandmother said he sat slumped in his chair as they read the vote.
“He looked like a little lost sheep,” she said.
It didn’t come as a surprise. A neighbor had knocked on his door a few weeks earlier to say she’d been asked to sign a petition calling for his removal as president.
My grandfather took it in stride. He knew why they were doing it. He’d driven them to it. That didn’t stop him from attempting a last minute coup, like a captured outlaw might make one last run for it even as the sheriff’s gun is aimed right at him.
My grandfather tossed and turned the night before the meeting, thinking of what he was going to say. When it was time for the meeting, he asked those who wanted him to remain as president to please stand up. More than half the room stood up.
“One of the women who was asked to sign the petition said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself to do something like that to a man like Mr. Taras. He’s so loved,’ “ my grandfather said. “It was really gratifying to see that most of the people were still with me.”
Minutes later, the board voted him out. They then named a man called Danny Ferris to be president. Ferris worked as an auditor for one of the hotel chains in Fort Lauderdale. He also worked for his church.
The board wanted someone who knew something about running the books. And they didn’t want any more controversy. My grandfather stokes controversy like little boys poke sticks at hives. In fact a month earlier, it was my grandfather who was standing before a crowded meeting hall ousting someone from the board. My grandfather was convinced his fellow board member, Bernice, was getting kickbacks from everyone with whom the board did business: the pool contractor, the condo management company, even new tenants. Bernice took prime parking spots from existing tenants and offered them to new tenants for $250, according to my grandfather. She would then tell the old tenants that the new fence posts recently installed had reduced the number of parking spaces and that people had to make do with what they could get.
And she allowed tenants with bad credit to buy into the condo complex — if they agreed to pay six months worth of maintenance in advance. And she asked for it in cash, my grandfather said, conspiratorially.
For years, Bernice was all my grandfather talked about. Bernice is stealing money. Bernice is taking over. Bernice is in charge of everything that has anything to do with money, he would say.
“She was a con artist,” my grandfather said.
He began investigating rumors he’d heard about Bernice, and like a detective, started to collect evidence.
The last straw for him was when Bernice threatened to have five cars towed from the condo’s parking lot for not having the proper sticker, even though she knew the condo complex had run out of them.
My grandfather says he called the board’s president and told him to call Bernice and instruct her to not have the cars towed. The call was made. She had the cars towed anyway. It turns out Bernice had asked those people for money for their new parking spots, and when they refused to pay, she had their cars towed, he said.
“I was so incensed by what she was doing that I sent a petition around to get her out,” my grandfather said.
There were board members willing to continue supporting Bernice, but there were 208 families in the condo complex, and my grandfather got 150 of them to sign on his petition. He presented it to the board.
“She came to the meeting, and when she heard they wanted her off, she picked herself up and left. And that was the end of her,” my grandmother said, with the pride of a damsel whose lover has just slain the dragon.
My grandfather’s activism didn’t begin with Bernice. He led a movement to oust the condo’s former management company, which he said was billing the condo for unnecessary services. For instance, the pool was repaired for $10,000 on account of a few broken tiles. He also said their work quality was poor. Exterior walls had to be repainted because the old color bled through. Sidewalks had to be repaired because in order to paint, the company placed heavy equipment on top of them, and the equipment busted right through.
“Let’s just say someone was in somebody’s pocket,” my grandfather said. “I said let’s get rid of this management company before they milk us dry.”
It took him two years to convince the rest of the board, but he eventually prevailed.
He led a movement to change the condo’s by-laws so people couldn’t rent their units to anyone under the age of 55 (He said school-age children were living in the building and making mischief, resulting in costly repairs). He fought to make sure tenants were creditworthy, after hearing a broker lent money to a prospective tenant for the application fee after the tenant’s first check bounced. He then barred that broker from doing business with the condo.
“The screening committee was a little upset with me,” he said.
It didn’t matter. At that point, my grandfather’s popularity was at an all-time high. Having worked with appliances all his life, he could fix anything in the complex. He was also in charge of the “code room,” where a spare set of everyone’s keys were kept. That meant any time anyone was locked out, they had to go to my grandfather to gain access to their apartment – putting him in an invaluable position. Just last week, a woman in a nightgown rang his bell at 7 a.m. saying she’d gone out to fetch the paper, and her apartment door closed behind her. Could he please let her back in?
“Anybody who has any problem comes down to Bob Taras because he’ll straighten it out for you. It’s always been like that,” he said proudly.
But poke enough hives, and you’re bound to get stung. Unpopular as Bernice was, she was friendly with some of the condo’s growing Canadian population, given that her Israeli husband spoke fluent French. And two of those Canadians now sat on the board.
“They were with her, the Frenchies,” my grandfather said. “It’s possible she was telling them what she was doing with the money.”
When the new board met in February to determine who would hold the various positions, my grandfather was named president.
“I was elected president because I was the most popular guy in the condo. No getting away from it,” my grandfather said.
One of the Canadians said he wanted to be financial secretary. The zeal with which he wanted the job fueled my grandfather’s suspicion that Bernice had told him what a cash cow that position could be. My grandfather also didn’t like the fact that the man was only in Florida six months out of the year. One can’t run a multi-million dollar business like a condo in six months, he said.
The problem was, several other board members were also out of town six months of the year. In the end, my grandfather was waging a battle with nearly half the board. He was also trying to obtain the board’s financial records for the last five years because he learned that $50,000 to $60,000 was missing.
My grandfather called an emergency meeting to discuss what was going on, but he didn’t inform the board’s two Canadian members. The Canadians accused him of convening an illegal meeting.
“It wasn’t really supposed to be a meeting, but the Canadians said it was a meeting,” my grandmother said.
“Why didn’t he invite them?” I asked.
“Because he wanted to talk about them,” my grandmother said, in that tone that says, “You must be joking. Isn’t it obvious?”
The board began circulating a petition to strip my grandfather of his title. They voted him out at the next meeting.
The following morning, a woman rang his bell at 10 a.m. to say she’d gone to the pool and had left her keys in the house. My grandfather was about to take a nap, but he got up, went to the code room and gave the woman her key so she could get back into her apartment.
“The new president is in here every day telling him everything that’s going on, and they’re working together,” my grandmother said. “What can I tell you. He’s still in exactly the same position. He’s egging this other fellow on.”
When I stopped by my grandparents house in Florida a couple of years later, my grandfather was then 96 and was no longer on the condo’s board. As we sat around their kitchen table, I began asking them questions about their parents. Soon, my grandmother was rooting through a closet in the guest room and emerged with a box of old photo albums. The albums were so old, every time we turned a page, photos fell onto the table like bird feathers.
My grandfather picked up a photograph of his mother, a stout woman with black eyes, a widow’s peak and wiry long hair wrapped around the top of her head like a crown.
She had a locket around her neck that was caught on a piece of lace and lay diagonally across her blouse. Her stare was vacant, as if she was looking at something in the distance that only she could see.
“She was a wonderful seamstress,” my grandmother said, looking over my grandfather’s shoulder.
“She could take a piece of cloth and cut out a design,” my grandfather said, pausing for a moment, “and from that she would make a dress.”
He often paused like that, in the middle of a thought, making even mundane observations seem important.
“But there was one thing she used to do that used to frighten me. And it made me very mad at my brother, Marty,” my grandfather said. “Marty would always sit down and draw. And me, I was mechanical. And my mother would say, ‘Why aren’t you more like him? Why don’t you sit down and draw?’ “
A deep rivalry developed between the two brothers that lasted until each of them got married. At that point, my grandfather says, they just began living their own lives and trying to support their families. My grandfather was busy fixing washing machines and vacuum cleaners, mechanical tasks, while his brother continued to toil away with his art, out in California. He eventually became an animator for Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures and several other studios and went on to create the cartoon character, “Baby Huey.”
“He was a big man out there,” my grandfather said.
I couldn’t tell if he was envious.
“What did Marty die of?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my grandfather said. His memory had grown a little sketchy. “He was in the hospital at the time he died. We were there. I’ll never forget—“
“You were there. I wasn’t,” my grandmother interjected.
“I’ll never forget how they had something down his throat, that permitted him to breathe. And after he passed away, I went over to the body, and I pulled it out,” my grandfather said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I didn’t like the thing sticking out of his mouth after he was dead,” he said.
This week, at the age of 98, it was my grandfather who lay in a hospital bed with tubes hanging out of him because he had stopped eating and could no longer swallow liquid. Over the last few years, his body parts were finally starting to give out. His hearing had deteriorated, preventing him from watching TV. And his eyesight had faded, making it impossible to read – though it didn’t stop him from going from eye doctor to eye doctor in search of eye glasses that worked. He insisted the problem was not his sight but with the skills of the technicians making the glasses. They didn’t know what they were doing, he said.
As he lay in the hospital, his body began to shut down. He had a few final bursts of fight in those last days, in which he ripped out one of his catheters and yanked out his heart monitor, but after a few days, he succumbed. When he died, my mother said his mouth was open, as if he had one more thing to say. But after a couple of minutes his mouth closed, and the fighter was finally at rest.