This all started on Father’s Day. I had given up baseball cards and jawbreakers for a full month. All to save enough money to buy my father a five-pack of his favorite cheroots. A pretty decent present coming from a 10-year-old kid.

“Put ’er there, pal,” my father said, extending his right hand. This was my father’s way of giving me a hug. In the 1950s, men just didn’t hug men, no matter how small they were.

But his smile quickly turned sour. “What kind of a handshake is that?” he said. “That’s a wet noodle. Men will laugh at you. Shake like a man. Grab that hand.”

I grabbed his hand.

“Now squeeze that hand. And never let up until the other guy does.”

I squeezed and squeezed.

“You know how you get a good handshake?” he said. “Practice.” Practice? We’re talkin’ about handshakes. “Now you go outside and you shake hands with every man you see. And as you shake, you squeeze a little longer each time.”

So, I went outside. Our next-door neighbor Abie was sitting on the patio reading “The Bulletin.” I liked Abie. He was a quiet man. Like me.

“What brings you out here, mister?” he said. I liked when he called me mister.

“My father said I should shake your hand.”

“What’s the occasion?” Abie asked.

“No occasion,” I said. “I just have to practice.”

“Well, put ’er there, buddy.” And he put out his hand. It was a beefy hand. But that made sense. Abie owned a deli.

So I squeezed his hand with all my might.

“Not bad,” he said. Not bad? This is it. This is all I have.

“Now you need to learn the pump,” Abie said.

“The pump?”

“Yes, you pump with your elbow. Once for strangers and twice for family.”

See, I always knew adults had a secret code. And now Abie was letting me in on it. This was better than my Dick Tracy decoder ring.

The handshake tradition started well before Dick Tracy. The ancient Greeks saw it as a symbol of peace by demonstrating that neither shaker had a weapon in his hand. If two men met and showed empty right hands, it showed a level of trust existed. And that neither would stab the other.

My handshake history grew as I got older. Once, when I extended my right hand to rock legend Lou Reed, he extended his left.

“Because I play guitar with my right hand,” he said. “And I don’t want some jerk squeezing it.”

Then there were people who really didn’t want to shake at all. I met TV regular Howie Mandel at a deli in Hollywood. I extended my right hand. He just looked at it.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t shake hands. Too many germs.”

“Too many germs?” I said. “Do I look like someone who has too many germs? But you will eat a corned beef sandwich made by a guy who hasn’t washed in three days and probably just sneezed on the rye bread.”

I don’t think he liked me.

Julius Erving had the biggest hands of anyone I knew. And I knew Darryl Dawkins. Dr. J’s hand enveloped mine. It just ate it. And when the shake was finally over, it spit it out like a whale belching up a flounder.

“That’s crazy,” I told him. “Your hand is like twice the size of mine.”

He just smiled. “You know what they say about white guys,” he said.

And then he put his hand up over his head.

“Gimme a high five,” he said. I jumped. I missed. He laughed.

June 2016
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