Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Zen and the Art of Staring at a Blank Screen

It was the fifth shot that I’d sent soaring out into the rough, near the huge nets that were set up on both sides of the driving range. I had been asked by my new golf instructor to simply take a few swings, so that he might observe some rudimentary things about his new pupil. However, I was not making a very favorable impression on my teacher. If I didn’t dribble a few off the toe of my 9-iron, then I was consistently sending balls over towards the net on the right, cascading shots that resembled the arc of a boomerang, except the only way the balls were returning is if that guy in the pro-shop jumped in that caged-vehicle and retrieved them later in the afternoon. I was embarrassed.

“You know, I think it’s these clubs,” I said, wiping the perspiration from my forehead. "Golf magazine just had an article about this last month. You think fitted clubs might be part of the solution?”

He had been smoking while watching me, but then stood up, tossing his cigarette off to the side. “Let me see that club.” Flicking a ball from the pile that had rolled out of the wire-bucket on the ground to his right, he gazed down the middle of the fairway, lined the ball up just to the right of his left in-step, took a three-quarter back-swing, and released into that range-ball with one of the most effortless, mechanically pristine swings I had ever witnessed in person, projecting that white pimply-ball directly down the middle of that fairway, well-beyond several of the distance-markers, where it bounced a few times before coming to rest a bit short of the giant white numbers that read “200”. He coughed, walked towards me, handed me the club, sat down, and lit another cigarette. “There’s nothing wrong with that club.”

I thought of that episode earlier today. (Hearkening back to previous experiences that involve sunshine, humidity, and azure skies is a cheap and sometimes-effective remedy to appease the soul when what appears on the other side of my window consists of frigid temperatures and a rain-snow mix.) I was involved in a Facebook thread that eventually matriculated into an opinionated, and sometimes verging on volatile, discussion. It was the old “Mac vs. PC” war. And, of course, when the war has production or voice-over people as its combatants, the battle generally rolls on over the border towards “Pro Tools vs. Audition” and “Vegas vs. Logic” and so on.

Sure, we all have our preferences. Sometimes that preference is forced upon us, and sometimes we come across it by accident. When I was the Creative Services Director for Clear Channel’s AM stations in Washington, DC, I started using Audicy, because that’s what was in the building. Only until one of the Audicy machines expired did I switch over to Cool Edit Pro, and that’s only because I was the low man on the totem-pole and my production-counterpart preferred the Orban. By the time I had arrived at KDKA several years later, I was desperately in love with Adobe…until I discovered after accepting the position that the entire building only used Sony products, and I was forced to switch over to Vegas! I use it to this day.

I’m not the most technically-gifted producer. I’m also not the most talented golfer. In fact, I suck at golf. But I know enough about the production studio to be able to construct an air-worthy promo, and I have a similar amount of ability that enables me to not completely embarrass myself at a golf outing. My contention during the simmering escalation on Facebook, though, is that the feud really shouldn’t be about Mac vs. PC, or Oxford plug-ins vs. those designed by Chris Lord-Alge. I’ve worked with guys who could write a Ph.D. dissertation on Audio Spectrum Analysis but who couldn’t choose a suitable :60 music-bed for a restaurant spot. I’ve also played golf with guys who could blast a tee-shot 320 yards but who couldn’t break 100 because the putter was considered a foreign object. In fact, there shouldn’t be a feud at all. That elusive “something” that has plagued me since that day on the driving range and that has yet to be discovered, by contrast, has manifested itself within my chosen profession. It has very little to do with equalization or compression or polar-patterns and has everything to do with thinking and “hunting and pecking” and deleting…and probably thinking some more. I’m talking about the word-processor.

It’s the most basic of promo and imaging construction, the DNA of the well-done commercial. It doesn’t care whether it’s done on a Mac or PC, and whether or not its building-blocks get run through a Waves C1 Compressor or Ableton Live is miles down the road. Yet, it’s the crux of what we do, and is often-times treated like the red-headed step-child. I have the satisfying opportunity to work with dozens of stations; however, the imaging pieces and commercial-copy that really place the written word at the top of the food-chain really don’t float into my email in-box with a great deal of regularity. There are exceptions. Jeff Cecil, for instance, who is the PD at KDZZ-FM in Rochester, Minnesota, is a terrific writer of imaging pieces and promos. He’s fun, funny, and clever, with enough tongue-in-cheek snarl to let you know that you’re still listening to a rock station. I even look forward to his Facebook posts. But, sadly, most “writing” is an afterthought, a .doc file generally accompanying a hastily-written email with words such as, “Dude, can u reel these off ASAP? They need to air during the morning show. Thnx”.

When I first became interested in making the progression from “jock” to “prod guy”, I came across a cassette tape, a compilation of various imaging pieces and commercials. It changed my life. That was when I was first introduced to people like Joel Moss, Ann DeWig, and Ned Spindle. Sure, they’re technically-gifted producers, but the tool in their arsenal that most intrigued me was the typewriter. The soul of the work I heard stretched far beyond beat-mixing or choosing the appropriate DAW. I hoped in some way that I could later emulate them. I still do.

The same can be said for voice-over. The forums are filled with voice-artists who fill their day praising this preamp or lamenting that compressor, at the same time hoping and praying that they’ll one day discover a vintage Telefunken tube microphone tucked away behind a knee wall in the attic. Yet, as Beau Weaver remarked during a recent webinar, the “real” world of voice-over has very little to do with preamps or compressors. Yes, they have their place, but the proof-in-the-pudding lies on that piece of paper you’re holding while you’re standing in front of that Telefunken microphone. If you can’t give the words a soul, the most expensive Brauner microphone isn’t going to do it for you.

That makes it sound as if I don’t appreciate gear. I do. I love my Sennheiser 416 and my Avedis preamp, and yet I, like many, are also, so it seems, continually on the quest to find the holy grail of microphone chains. And I certainly admire and look up to those who have devoted their careers towards showing others in our business how to be more adept with the software and the audio technology at our disposal. But I think many of them would admit that the essence of the creative process rarely starts with a pair of monitors or a MIDI controller. It’s something in the gut, a kind of Zen satori that sometimes defies description…and once on paper, then, perhaps, the huge array of audio resources at our disposal helps to shape and form it into what we intended it to be. Those who recorded with the legendary producer, Bob Johnston, who has worked on epic albums like Blonde on Blonde from Bob Dylan and Songs of Love and Hate from Leonard Cohen, comment on his ability to help artists feel something beyond the technical side of the process. Once, when asked what type of microphone he wanted to use for a particular vocal, he responded, “Do you have any big ones?”

Love to write! Create time for it! Close the door and shut out the world. Spend time poring over the written word the same as you would painstakingly adjust the EQ on a vocal so that it jumps out of the mix. Don’t be afraid to invest time in thinking about what it is you want to write, even if nothing gets put down on paper. An account executive in Knoxville once nicknamed me “Leo Mazzone”, because, like the Braves former pitching coach, I have a tendency, when sitting and staring at my screen, to rock back and forth, until something of note finally gets splattered on to it. I shared this with the market manager in Pittsburgh during my interview process, when the position of Creative Services Director was being formulated for KDKA. He asked, “Can you take me through your typical day?” I replied that I spend at least twenty-five per-cent of my day sitting in front of the computer, staring at the screen, rocking back and forth, and waiting for words to emerge. He looked at me like I’d just answered him in Slovenian. But, as I explained, unless they come from a Program Director, the words have to come from somewhere!

The grip. The takeaway. Shifting weight on the downswing. Following through. The nicotine-stained hands of my golf instructor were proof-positive that these core elements have little to do with whether your bag contains titanium or persimmon woods. He doesn’t do it very often anymore, but watch Nick Faldo when he plays. Almost after every swing, after his either terrific, or terrifically-errant, shot has already landed, he stands there, taking a slow practice swing, re-tracing the movement of that shot to see if he can detect if anything went awry with those very basic fundamentals.

I haven’t figured out the great game of golf, and, in particular, why my shots continue to soar off to the right into the next county. And I certainly haven’t figured out all of the technical artistry needed to become a more proficient producer. I’ll keep reading Radio and Production like everyone else for that. But I have had an “A-ha” experience, and it’s presented itself in the form of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Before you slice, compress, buss, and mix, do some hunting and pecking, copy/pasting and deleting. Enlightenment, via staring at an empty screen while rocking back and forth. It’s time well-spent.

-30-

For more daily posts, visit my other blog, "Piper Court": http://pipercourt.wordpress.com

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wiping off the Dust

Apologies all around.  If you've wandered by "Onward Through the Fog" lately, you've probably surmised that I've been occupied.  I have.  New clients do that.  They utilize your time, and when down-time arrives, chores abound.

I have been writing, though.  Should withdrawal get the better of you, you can always bounce over to my other blog, "Piper Court":

http://pipercourt.wordpress.com

In the meantime, I'm off to shovel snow and ponder my next soon-to-be-written episode in the continuing saga that is "Onward Through the Fog".  Don't despair.

-30-

Friday, November 12, 2010

As Long as There's No Dead-Air

She paid almost $12.00 for those two packs.  They didn't look like brand-name cigarettes.  Or, maybe they were, and I didn't know it.  It's been over 15 years since I've smoked, so I'm not nearly as well-versed on tobacco products now.  As she was paying for them, I looked up at the racks holding the various cartons.  I didn't see my brand.  Maybe Kent Golden Lights weren't even made anymore.  All I know is that back then, $12.00 would have probably given me a whole carton of cigarettes in return.  I also know that Kent Golden Lights, and an Elton John song, almost ruined my radio career.

I was doing Afternoon Drive at Arrow 94.7 (now Fresh-FM) in Washington, DC, back in 1994.  It was the day before a Holiday, and most people had left the building early. (although, as I would find out, I had completely forgotten that)  I was a smoker back then, and a pretty heavy one, averaging almost 2 packs per-day.  It was a bit after 4 p.m. and I just hit the button to start “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.  It was a pretty good smoke song.  Not as good as "Stairway to Heaven".  And certainly not as good as "Do You Feel Like We Do".  Hell, you could squeeze in a "100" or two regular smokes when Peter Frampton would come up on the log.  But this one would do the trick.

We were required to smoke outside of the building back then. The station was located in Rockville, Maryland, within a series of 2-story office complexes.  The entrance to the station had three front-doors…the main door, a door on the left that looked in to the production studio but was never used, and had an Otari reel-to-reel deck placed in front of it, and another to the right of the main door that opened into the sales office, also one that was rarely used.

The day was overcast and extremely windy!  After starting Elton, I pulled out a cigarette, leaned against the door, lit it, opened the door, and started enjoying my smoke.  The wind was blowing me away from the door for some reason.  So I turned slightly to face the road, with my butt and heel of my foot keeping the door propped open, giving me a chance to both brace myself against the gusts and allow me to still hear my song, which was playing on the radio on top of the receptionist’s desk.  Suddenly, (and still not completely understanding the meteorological effect that occurred) a huge jolt of wind slapped against me, knocking me forward, and the door blew shut behind me, slamming loudly.  I silently cursed, took a final drag off the cigarette, tossed it, and turned to open the door.  It was locked.  “Damn,” I thought.  I started knocking on the metal-door, and then peered in through the small slivers of glass that surrounded the door, to see if anyone was hearing my knock.

Of course, I had forgotten that everyone had left early.

As anyone who’s been on the air will tell you after gaining some experience behind the microphone, one’s mental “song-length timer” can be acutely developed over a short period of time.  I knew, intuitively, that at least 3 minutes or more had elapsed from my Elton John tune.  Continued rapping on the metal-door produced nothing, so I moved down to the door on the left with the Otari in front of it.  I looked in and saw nobody.  More pounding, this time on the wood door, also elicited nothing.  Now, a tiny bit of panic was starting to settle in.  This was PM Drive, in the seventh largest market in the country, and I had a Program Director (Craig Ashwood) who thought two sins to be unforgivable:  murder, and dead-air.  I returned to the metal-door and tapped a bit harder on it, again and again.  Still nothing.  While standing there walking around in circles, muttering to myself, the heavy wind started to merge with a rain/sleet mix, making it somewhat difficult to see through my glasses, and quickly penetrating the front of my shirt and khakis.

I could see the Denon CD-deck in my mind, the red numbers counting-down backwards, and I figured I had about a minute and-a-half before my song ended.  And the panic started to increase a bit.

I raced down to the door on the right, peering in through the window to see if I spotted anyone in the sales department.  Empty.  I quickly thought of my mental-timer, which prompted even more nervousness.  I then ran back up to the steel-door, and with every ounce of strength that I could summon,  pounded on it with both fists, repeatedly.  "Why wasn't anyone hearing this?" I mumbled.  I figured I would either put a dent in the door or break my hand, whichever came first, but I was going to get somebody to answer this door!  No response. 

Now, I was in full panic-mode.  My mind was reeling.  I knew that Bill, the Overnight guy, lived in the tall apartment complex next-door, but there was no time to run over to see if I could contact him and get a key to get in.  And I couldn’t believe that Tammy, the Evening host, and always consistently early for her show, hadn’t yet arrived from Baltimore.  “What the hell, Tammy”, I thought.  “You’re always here by now.  Why not today?!”  Someone from one of the buildings next to ours was getting into his car and, while putting down his umbrella, watched my now-audible tirade, as I bounced from door to door, streaming panic-infused profanities, all the while keeping track of the clock-timer in my head.  “Can I help?”, he yelled through the now-pouring cold rain. 

I didn’t respond.  I didn’t have to.  Through my rain-soaked spectacles, I looked again at the door on the far-right, and I knew what I had to do. I had to get in to this building.

They say that adrenaline will enable the body to do miraculous and sometimes devastating things.  I’ve read of people who, while watching a friend or loved one become trapped underneath a car, for instance, will suddenly be able to lift up the back-end of that automobile, thus sparing that person’s life.  Or a person normally unable to swim will, after seeing somebody about to drown, jump in to the water without fear, to try to save them.  It’s a kind of laser-focused will-power, some bizarre phenomenon even seemingly beyond the scope of requesting divine intervention.  Insta-Zen.  It’s almost as if no mind exists.  No mind, except the constant threat of that damned Elton John song ending! 

With 40 seconds or so on my internal-countdown, I ran briskly down the small sidewalk, through the now-formed puddles, to the door on the far-right, in front of the sales department.  I wiped some of the water off the lenses of my glasses, stood back, sized up the entrance-way, and, breathing heavily, charged towards the wooden-door, right shoulder-first.  Nothing.  I did it again.  And again.  And again.  Suddenly, on the next try, I could hear wood along the dead-bolt beginning to pop.  I felt like an offensive lineman slamming into the blocking-sled on the practice-field, repeatedly banging into it under the watchful-eye of my coach.  The next attempt splintered the frame at the top of the door near the lintel.  I lunged again and again, completely oblivious as to what the repercussions would be from the authorities, the building-owners, or the management at CBS.  I didn't know if that man with the umbrella was watching me or whether he was calling the police.  I did know that my Elton John song was about to end, that Craig Ashwood was about 20 seconds from executing me, that the sun was going down on my career at WARW-FM, and that dead-air would soon grip the Nation's Capital, during my watch, on Washington D.C.'s only station playing rock 'n roll oldies.  I simply could not allow that to happen.
     
It was on my 11th or 12th try that the door began to give way.  The cheap dead-bolt was now pushed almost all the way through the jamb.  The framing at the top and to the right of the door was completely disengaged.  Sore, exhausted, and almost unable to see because of the pelting rain, I managed one last shoulder-pound.  With a sickening explosion, the door finally gave-way!  The blowing wind lifted papers and folders off their desks and on to the carpet.  Upon falling through the opening, I immediately tripped over a chair leg and bounced to the floor.  Scrambling quickly to get up, I leaped over several wastebaskets that were in my path, around several cubicle-dividers, into the hallway past the reception area, and down to the studio, jarring the door open with the same shoulder that had been used to break into the building.  The final strains of "Don't Let the Sun Down on Me" were fading out, the station processing pushing the last audible note into the air.  Leaning over the board, panting, I hit the "on" button on the cart-deck, fired the next sweeper, and pounded on the button that kicked off the next song.  I had done it.

Almost immediately, though, whatever elation I had felt was quickly snuffed-out when I realized that I had just demolished station property.  I had completely screwed up.  All over a cigarette.

Through the tiny speaker next to the cart-decks, I could hear the voice of Walt Starling, our esteemed traffic reporter, repeating, "Matt?  Matt?  Hey, Matt!"  Still panting, I pushed the talk-back button.  "Walt, I screwed up, man, big time!!  I really screwed up!  Craig is gonna fucking kill me!"  After trying to acknowledge his pleas to calm down, I rapidly explained to him the drama that had unfolded.  "OK, listen," he said, "after the last report, I can go by a Home Depot for you and get one of those heavy-duty door-stops, so nobody gets into the building overnight.  But, you know you're gonna have to call Craig and tell him what happened."

I knew I had to.  And just then, skipping merrily into the studio with her headphones under her arm and dinner tucked away in her Tupperware container, was Tammy Jett.  "Hey, what's going o-- WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU!?"  Between quick back-sells of songs, I recounted the afternoon's events, and then Tammy went to the other side of the building to inspect the damage.  "Oh, dude.  That's bad.  You, uh....you have to call Craig."

I continue to be amazed at the length of time that can pass when you're staring at a phone, stalling, attempting to put off a call that you know you have to make, but really don't want to.  You could be nervous about asking out a girl.  You could be apprehensive about passing on the bad news to somone that a mutual friend had died.  You could, as I've done, be frightened to call up the person who just hired you to tell that person that you've decided not to take the job after all.  Or you could feel unqualified terror at telling the person who just hired you that you just decimated station property because it was imperative that you fill your lungs up with nicotine during a 5:36 song.  So, after signing-off, I put my headphones in my assigned compartment and wandered over into the production studio with Craig's phone number in my hand, spending a long time staring at the phone and trying to rehearse the introduction and the lead-in to my tale. 

"Hey, Craig, it's Matt.  How's it going."  I was trembling.

"Hey, mate, what's up?"

I paused.  And then I completely abandoned my very logically-designed lead-in.  "Well, I screwed up."  I could feel my voice shaking.  "I locked myself out of the station and I had to break a door down to get in."

"You what!?", he screamed.

And I told him.  I gave him all the grisly details, hearing the occasional "um-hum" between segments.  As I recalled details about splintering wood and mangled dead-bolts, I simultaneously looked around the studio to see if there might be an empty box lying around, one that would contain all my belongings here, including my headphones.  One that would fit neatly in the trunk of my car.  I finally wrapped it up, and then Craig asked, quickly, "Did ya have any dead-air?"

I paused briefly.  "Uh, what?"

"Did you have any dead-air?"

I paused again.  "Uh, no.  No, I didn't.  None at all."

Craig quickly replied, "OK, cool, then.  Well, no worries, mate.  We'll get it fixed.  As long as you didn't miss a song or have any dead-air.  That lock probably needed replaced anyway.  Don't worry about it.  I'll tell Sarah when I get there in the morning and we'll get it fixed up.  We'll see you tomorrow."

There are those times when I can relate to  "Ralphie", Peter Billingsley, in A Christmas Story.  After almost shooting his eye out and breaking his glasses while trying out his new official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, he realized that he wasn't going to be destroyed by his parents.  Of course, Ralphie lied, and I didn't.  Still, that same gooey feeling washed over me as I stood there in the production studio, and it continued to splatter me as I made my way home that evening on 66 towards Manassas.  I wasn't going to be destroyed by Craig Ashwood.  I wasn't going to have to relinquish my slot as the PM Drive personality on "Arrow 94.7".  And I wasn't going to have to stand in the hallway of our apartment and explain to my wife that the job-search was on yet again.  Calmly inhaling the final remnants of my cigarette, I vowed to quit someday.  It would be another year-and-a-half before I would, but I knew that it was possible.  "Hell", I thought.  "If I can break down a door and not have any dead-air in the seventh-largest radio market in the country, then I should be able to do anything!"

-30-

Image: Sebastien Beliveau / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't Break the Wall

He looked like he could grace the label of an old bottle of Castor Oil, or someone who would be the owner of a vintage bicycle, the one with the huge front-wheel and the tiny wheel in the rear.  His handle-bar mustache was like something from a by-gone era, when men attended baseball games in suit, tie, and straw hat.  "Look at that," I said to Donna, "we haven't been in New Orleans even 15 minutes and already we're running into funky-looking characters."

We stood in line at the desk marked "Concierge", at one of the large chain-hotels in downtown New Orleans.  I won't say what hotel it was, because I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of verbally decimating a popular name on the Internet.  But nothing negative was going through my mind, yet, as we waited our turn to ask a couple of important questions of this quirky-looking uniformed gentleman behind the desk.

After spending the summer watching Treme on HBO, we both felt an urge to visit the Crescent City.  It had more than 20 years since I'd last seen New Orleans, in town for a convention, when I was a school administrator in Cleveland.  It had probably been as long for Donna, as well.  Coincidentally, the Browns were also playing the Saints, and since we really hadn't planned a vacation this year, we decided to make it a long weekend.  Donna had one requirement:  lots of beignets.  I had two:  consume authentic gumbo, and, of course, find some quality beer.  And we both wanted to see some of the damage that Katrina had left in her wake.

So, we waited in line to ask this concierge with the handle-bar mustache for some much-needed directions to a proper New Orleans eatery, preferably one with a generous beer-list.  Handle-Bar Mustache-Man, though, was not in a good mood.  He didn't look happy to be there.  In fact, he didn't look happy to be alive.  He tossed maps at people like he was dealing cards, with all the enthusiasm of someone handing over their co-pay during a doctor's visit.  As I peered down at the map, I recalled seeing, on the way in from the airport, what I thought was a Gordon Biersch brewery nearby.  "Are there any brewpubs around?", I asked.  He looked at me like I was Katrina.

"There's Gordon Biersch, right down on the next block," he replied.  His accent was decidedly un-Southern.

"Yeah, " I said, "I saw that coming in.  Have you ever been --"

"Don't know," he interrupted.  "I don't do chain-places."

I nodded.  "Yeah, me either," I said.  He glared at me again.  "Then why would you ask about it?"

Great.  A full-frontal display of Southern hospitality.  We picked up our map and headed down the street.  After waking up at the crack of dawn, sitting through an almost five-hour layover in Milwaukee, a traffic-snarled ride in from the New Orleans airport encased in a shuttle-van like illegal stowaways on a cargo ship, and now trading barbs with Louisiana's State Ambassador for Friendliness, I was ready for anything that even resembled fermented barley.

Our two-and-a-half days in New Orleans confirmed several things that I had already suspected:

1.  The boarded-up houses and destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward looked every bit as bad as it did on television.
2.  Gumbo is amazing pretty much wherever you get it.
3.  Being able to carry an open-container while walking down the street should be allowed in every city in the U.S., at least by the ones I visit.
4.  Being in a dome is really loud, until the visiting team gains 85 yards on a fake-punt.
5.  There are certain people who have absolutely no business working with the general public.

I would not hesitate to say that New Orleans, in many ways, is probably unlike any other city in the United States.  Whether it's the music, the cuisine, the quirky characters, the humidity, or a combination of them all, I don't know of another city that similarly celebrates gluttony and open public intoxication.  But there's one common thread that seems to be prevalent in just about every place I've lived or visited, and it was abundantly evident this past weekend:  some people simply dislike their jobs, and they're determined to foist their dismay, in copious amounts, on to any person with whom they come in to contact.

When I was involved in some community theater, back in the era when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Debra Winger were drawing customers to the box-office, I was once a part of a play where we "broke the 4th wall".  I'm not sure of its origin, but this technique, for it's time, was quite revolutionary.  Instead of "forgetting" that the audience was there, the technique allowed the actors to address the crowd if need be, to include them in the production, acknowledge their existence in order to alleviate the normal, agreed-upon barriers that would otherwise separate them.

In "customer service", this "4th wall" is broken all the time.  And I hate it.

I've spent time working with the public.  My first job was at Lemmons Market, a family-owned grocery store down the street from where I was raised.  I was a bag-boy, a person who packed grocery bags and then carried those bags to customers' cars.  My primary boss at that time was Rick Miller, a short, somewhat-rotund man with flaming red hair and a high-pitched voice.  He walked quickly and loudly, usually while whistling, and you could easily detect him coming around the corner if you were stacking cans or filling the dairy-case.  He would routinely ask, "What's goin' on?", but he would say it quickly, not really interested in your answer, but more as a preamble for what he was about to ask you to do or to correct something you hadn't done properly.

Sometimes, while placing items into the paper sacks, the bag-boys would talk amongst each other, about what they were going to do that weekend, about the Browns, or about other bag-boys.  One Saturday afternoon, Bob Watts and I were doing this during a busy rush of customers, and a whistling Rick Miller came around the corner after having stocked some fresh lettuce in the produce-case.  He dropped his empty box near the pop-coolers, blurted "What's goin' on", and then said, "Matt....Bob....c'mere".  We stopped what we were doing and he led us around the corner, near the stacked bags of water-softener pellets. "Listen," he said, pointing a finger, "while you're in front of customers, I don't want to hear you jabbering with each other.  These fucking people don't care what you think, don't wanna know what you're going to do later.  They just want their fucking groceries put in their fucking bags.  If they talk to you, you answer them politely, and then get on with your fucking job.  Got it?"  Rick also liked using the word "fuck".  A lot.

In other word, quit breaking the fucking 4th wall.

Same thing later at Pancho's.  To supplement my meager teacher's wages, I became a bartender on nights and weekends at a local Mexican restaurant.  Trevor was the assistant manager, and was usually in-charge when I worked.  Most of the staff and waitresses didn't like him, but I did.  He was a former military veteran, very precise in his organizational skills.  He called everyone "buddy", even the women.  He moved quickly and smiled a great deal.  He would approach a busboy, for instance, face him, place his hands on his shoulders, and say, "Steve, I want you to go back to the kitchen and ask Carlos to get Gretchen two of the large silver serving platters.  We have an 8-top coming in and we need to be ready.  Do you understand?"  Steve would nod, sheepishly, and then Trevor would ask him, "How do you feel about that?"  Most new employees would look at Trevor as if he spoke to them in Urdu, but Steve knew to say, "I'm fine with that", or "Sure, good", to which Trevor would forcefully pat him on the shoulder and, almost screaming, respond, "Great!"

It was slow one weekday evening and few customers were at the bar.  I had a particularly grueling day in the classroom earlier, and didn't really want to be slinging frozen margaritas until 11 o'clock in the evening.  A man in a suit plopped down on a bar-stool, tossed his keys and wallet on the bar, and ordered a margarita, asking me, "How you doin' tonight?"  I was already filling his glass up. "I'll be better once I get out of here tonight!"

Trevor heard me.  "Hey, buddy," he whispers, pulling me in to a corner behind the bar.  "If you're not having a good day, don't let customers know that, ok?  They're here to escape their troubles, so they don't need to hear any more complaining from the bartender.  Right?"  I nodded, embarrassed.  He dropped his hands on top of my shoulders.  "How do you feel about that?"  I tried to avert his gaze, but couldn't.  "No, you're right," I replied.  "No problem."  He pounded the top of my shoulder. "Great!"

The "Trevors" and "Rick Millers" of the world must have been downsized.  "Breaking the 4th Wall" is rampant, out of control, and, sometimes, infuriating. And, like beads, was all over the place in New Orleans.

Two girls whined about their boss directly in front of us at a Starbucks in the French Quarter.  While retrieving Donna's hot chocolate, one girl even said, "He's effed-up if he thinks I'm working Sunday!".  The two bartenders at Crescent City Brewing, instead of welcoming tourists to their restaurant or reeling off the list of seasonal brews available, continually wandered over to the coffee-pot area, commiserating with a waiter about something that each was upset about, one frantically waving his arms as if guiding a jet-liner into its space at an airport-gate.  Later, while shopping for some aspirin, the woman running the register at the drug store on Canal St. wanted nothing to do with out-of-town northerners, especially somewhat-intoxicated ones looking for aspirin.  The guy behind me sensed her delight, as well, playfully chiding her when it was his turn to pay for his item.  "You having a good night, hon?", to which she replied, "Yep, as soon as I get out of here".

The worst examples, though, occurred at our hotel.  Donna made an interesting point, that many Saints fans and New Orleans residents seemed fairly appreciative of the fact that we'd come to visit their city.  Even after the Browns stomped all over Drew Brees and the world champions, Saints fans, outside of the Superdome, continued to smile and show their gratitude, saying things like, "Ya'all played a great game" and "Appreciate ya comin' down to visit us".  Aside from clerks and bartenders, the people of New Orleans were wonderful hosts.

The only people who were not wonderful hosts were the ones who operated and worked for the hotel.  They were awful.  The "4th Wall" was obliterated hourly. so it seemed.  My inquiry at the Front Desk about printing off a boarding pass for our return-flight elicited a kind of grunting noise from the gentleman behind the counter.  He didn't really respond, instead pointed at the computer-terminal as if to say "this machine will do everything for you, you piece-of-shit.  Now leave me the fuck alone".

But the worst display came at the Concierge desk, after the Browns-Saints game.  As we were entering the lobby to go up to our room, a woman in front of us, dressed completely in brown-and-orange and carrying at least 7 plastic cups, that once held Superdome beer, was giddy over our triumph.  So much so that she made up her own chant: "We 'dat, we 'dat, we 'dat team dat beat dose Saints!"  As we went through the doors, she walked past the Concierge desk and continued to chant, loudly, and then annoyingly cackled after each verse.  Well, Handle-Bar Mustache-Man was there, along with another female-assistant.  They did not take kindly to this chant.  Instead of nodding, smiling, and leaving the "4th Wall" intact, they both decided to take a sledge-hammer and pound the living shit out of it.  "Hey!," they both screamed, at the top of their lungs, angrily, as the woman dressed in brown-and-orange made her way towards the elevators.  "We wouldn't do that to you if your team had lost!", chirped Handle-Bar-Mustache-Man.  "You hear me!?"  His assistant followed his tirade up with a soft, "Bitch!".

I could not believe my ears and eyes.  Two employees of a world-class hotel-chain in a major metropolitan city just screamed an obscenity directly at a paying-guest, in front of other paying-guests.  Where was Rick Miller?  Where was Trevor?

Sure, I wrote the hotel later in the week, after I'd returned.  But it's a cry in the wilderness.  There's rarely a distinction between "customer" and "employee" anymore.  And no, I have no interest in lording my "customer-ness" over a poor, defenseless waiter or hotel clerk.  And certainly not over the arrogant, curt woman who looked at me after I'd ordered Cafe Du Mond beignets to-go like I'd just stolen her iPhone.  All I ask is that when I'm standing in front of you scanning my debit card to pay for my groceries or waiting for you to come around to refill my mug, stop breaking the wall.  I don't care about your feelings for your boss, how long you have to work over the weekend, or whether "Cindy" or "Stacy" is going to be there on-time to relieve you.  I'll break the wall if I feel like it.  Because I'm the customer.  OK?

And if you scream at me about a Browns win, I may scream back.  The Browns don't win that often, so cut me some slack.  OK, buddy?

-30-   

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Great Animal Experiment


Well, it took about a week.

Donna was visiting relatives in Pennsylvania and mentioned that one of her aunts wanted to give her a dog.  This was not the first time that she had expressed her interest in giving Maggie a play-mate.  During a visit to Petco a couple of weeks ago, the people from the animal shelter were all there with their pets, trying to coerce shoppers to look into the dejected, homeless eyes of their four-legged friends and "adopt" them, either for temporary care or, hopefully, permanently.  Donna picked up a small  Lhasa Apso, cuddled it, and said, in front of everyone standing there, "Wouldn't he and Maggie go good together?  Can't we adopt him?"

Sure, make me look like the heartless goon, I thought.  As everyone stared, waiting breathlessly for my response, I looked into his eyes.  Yes, he was cute.  No, I did not want another dog, temporarily or permanently.  My non-answer was answer enough, as Donna put him down and trudged through the Petco aisles, crestfallen.

As she and her cousin Marlene made their way back from Pennsylvania, Donna called me to let me know where they were.  But when she ended the call by saying, "Don't be mad at me", I knew what she had done.  Within a couple of hours, Maggie wouldn't be the only dog in the corner house on Scotland Drive.

I was not happy.  Frankly, I had given up enough of my life to the animal cause over the past several weeks.  My attempt at experimenting with the vegan lifestyle was beginning to take its toll.  For over three weeks, I rejected all forms of meat, chicken, pork, and seafood.  I also neglected my love for cheese, milk and butter.  In trying to learn more about what I actually can eat, I visited many of the vegan sites.  Sure, the vegan diet is a healthy one because it eliminates every known gastronomical molecule of enjoyment.  Fat tastes good.  But vegans are also vehemently opposed to meat because eating animals means having to kill animals, sometimes in an extremely gruesome manner.  I also learned that many of them disdain even honey, because the bees are held captive while working their magic on all that sweet, gooey goodness.  So, for nearly a month, I've watched Donna munch happily on hamburgers and pork-steaks from the Ellet Meat Market, while I chewed on my vegetarian beans and hummus.  And now she was going to taunt me more by bringing another strange animal into the house!

He's small.  He's white.  He's a full-blooded West Highland White Terrier.  And in his face, he looks identical to Yinny, our dog of the past 17 years.  That freaked me out.  I'm not sure if it was the anger at Donna or the lack of sausage and asiago cheese, but I basically ignored him.  And he knew it.  Yes, he was cute, but I had done enough for animals this past month.  "We'll keep him until I can find him a home," she said.  "He's been neglected."

Hell, I've been neglected!  What about me!?  I'm ravenous!  My withdrawal symptoms are acute.  I need to make eggs with a heaping amount of cheddar cheese on top of them.  I need chili con queso.  I want cream in my coffee.  The synapses of the brain begin to disintegrate without the healing elixir of bacon.  If I eat one more legume or ingest any more soy, my LDL levels will plummet to the point of putting me into a salubrious, catatonic state.  Good grief, if I don't have a bratwurst soon, there may be no turning back.

But I made a salad, and he watched me eat it.   With that "aren't-you-at-least-going-to-pet-me" frown on his Yinny-look-a-like mug, he sat on that small piece of rug in front of the sink and glared at me.  He watched me open a beer.  He watched me walk to the bathroom.  He stared at me as I descended in to the basement to work in the studio, and he sat at the top of the steps waiting for me to come back up.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I could feel my rigid composure towards him soften.  The people in Pennsylvania had called him "Happy", but we thought that was dumb.  Driving to my photography class later in the evening, I began to think about names.  I thought that we at least should name him after his Scottish ancestry.  "Haggis" or "Rod Stewart" seemed inappropriate.  But naming him after something connected to single-malt scotch seemed brilliant!  I lean towards the distilleries in the Islay region, so why not "Izzy"?  Donna loved it.  Yet during class, I continued to ponder why it was that I was even thinking about a dog that I wasn't going to keep.

Soon, I was taking both Maggie and Izzy out in the morning as Donna slept.  As I'd read the paper in the morning, he'd wander over to his food bowl, gobble his breakfast, and then lay on my feet.  I noticed that he'd become much more comfortable around Maggie, and she, him.  I also noticed that Donna seemed to be making a limited effort in finding him his permanent home.  For some reason, I wasn't surprised.




Last Thursday, Donna decided to take him out to the backyard.  She also decided that she'd do this without putting him on a chain.  Bad mistake.  I was standing in the kitchen inhaling some Brazil nuts when I heard the pleas for help!  He took off past the deck and down the poison ivy-laden hillside that bottoms out on to Newton Circle.  Donna was in her bare-feet screaming at him, clutching on to tree branches in order to help guide herself down the hill without tumbling out on to the street below.  But it was a waste of time.  Izzy was vapor.  So I went flying through the front door, around the hillside, down Newton Circle and on to Newton Street.  Cars were flying by and school buses were roaring past filled with students as Izzy ran at full-gallop up Newton.  I took off after him, thinking those short, knobby legs were no match for my now healthy, detoxified body.  But a diet rich in pinto beans and broccoli provided no advantage, whatsoever.  Every time he stopped to turn around and look at me running towards him, he'd turn and sprint even faster.  I screamed his name as a bus came to a screeching halt in front of him, but nothing worked.  I even yelled "Happy" at one point, but that day he was answering to nothing.  Racing two blocks down from Newton, I'd get close to him as he stopped to urinate, but he'd only dash in another direction as I approached.

Around houses we went, through alley-ways, and back into the street.  At several points throughout the ordeal, I'd sprint at him with full horse-power, under the delusion that I could overcome those stubby limbs of his.  But that only made my chest burn more.  As I followed him around to the backyard of an abandoned house, I could feel my arms and back perspiring through my shirt.  I also felt that I was nearing the end of the line in terms of my physical ability to continue the chase. In Man vs. Dog, Dog was about to win, and, likely to become a new resident in somebody's house in the next county.  But in the backyard of that abandoned house was a fence that was in perfect condition, forming a "V" that provided no outlet for him.  He pawed at the metal but it gave him no opening.  Gasping for oxygen, I placed a hand on the top of his neck and scooped him up in my arms.  Panting and heaving, I saw Donna coming down the alley in the car.  As she approached us, I yelled, between breaths, "Bet you'll never do that again!!"  A half-hour after we were home, I was still breathing heavily.

Later that evening, as I unleashed the contents of a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, I glanced towards the base of my leather rocker-recliner, and there he sat, staring at me, again.  I stared back.  "Tired?", I asked him.  "I am".  He continued, transfixed, peeking at me through the white fur in his eyes.  Suddenly, for a brief moment, I was back at our apartment in Manassas, watching Yinny eat a treat as we watched the Winter Olympics from Lillehammer.  Then, I came back to my leather recliner.  And for some reason, without knowing why, I tapped the top of my thigh and said "C'mon".  That was all he needed.  Izzy was up in my lap, curled around me and my Punkin Ale.  Donna stood in the kitchen making herself a hamburger, smiling.  I knew right then that Izzy wasn't going anywhere.  "I'm gonna murder you, Donna," I said.

Animals.  What a nuisance.  We clean up their puke and their "accidents".  We walk them around the yard during a blizzard.  We vacuum up their hair and watch that they don't each others' food.  We pay their exorbidant bills at the vet and sometimes at the kennel.  They get in the way of our plans.  Interestingly, we also eat them.  They give us sustenance in so many ways.  So, for the time being, while I shun them as nutrition, I welcome one as a new acquaintance.  We'll see how each experiment turns out.  But until I decide to char-broil a T-Bone or drop a yolk into a sizzling pan, I am drawing the line on honey.  Sorry, vegans.  Sorry, bees.  Man cannot live by tofu, alone.

-30-       


Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Color Winter

I was panting heavily, over-heated underneath the winter blanket.  I must have awakened quite suddenly because Maggie had left her cushion on the floor at the end of the bed and had walked over to my side to see what was wrong.  I was still clutching my pillow as my breathing became more shallow.  I've had nightmares before, certainly, but this one left me shaking.  The only difference this time was that nobody was doing something sinister like chasing me with a machete through a dark alley or informing me through the glass of a locked door that the brewpub was closed for the evening.  The diabolical forces that woke me up in such abject terror belonged  to a cold front, a burst of arctic air trapped inside an Alberta Clipper that directed its bone-rattling, icy-steel breath directly in my face, sideways, driving me back against a mound of snow.  It was a grotesque, momentary reminder, a sick, twisted dream gone horribly wrong, causing me to wake up my dog, as well as cause me a couple of hours of early-morning restless turmoil.

I used to like Fall.  Growing up, it was my favorite time of year.  Midway through each September, well after  already knowing that the Indians would, again, be eliminated from playoff contention, it would start.  Tiny specks of red leaves would peek through green clusters of oak trees that dotted 14th Street.  In the late-afternoon, the sound of marching-band practice could be heard across the freeway over at Fawcett Stadium.  And my mother would take all of our shorts, swim-trunks, and short-sleeved t-shirts and pack them in a box that previously held jeans, corduroy slacks, and sweat-shirts, lining them up on the bed so that we could put them in the empty space in our dresser in the bedroom.

I liked the brown, burning smell in the air.  As we'd play touch-football on the street, we'd push each other into piles of leaves, or dive into them, pretending we were Tony Dorsett or Eric Dickerson, plunging into the end zone for a touchdown.  The neighbors who spent hours laboriously raking, sweeping, and forming these leaves into piles would run out on to their porches, yelling, swearing, and pleading with us to stop.  We usually did, only to move on to another pile.  In the evening, playing "Kick the Can", we'd bundle up in our thick jackets, occasionally run a gloved-hand across the front of our face to blot a runny nose, and breathe in the crisp, cool air, absorbing the sights of the porches dotted with pumpkins while inhaling the glory of the vibrant, multi-colored trees and crisp night.

This annual, bucolic seasonal love-fest came to an abrupt halt one day back in the mid-90's.  I was making my way down I-71 en route to WYHT-FM, the radio station in Mansfield that employed me.  I had been making the one-hour drive each day for several years, and on this day the Autumn explosion was on full display.  We had been experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, but even as I peeled off my jacket in the car, I was secretly ready for a Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Donna's famous pumpkin-square cakes, and some playoff baseball on television.  About halfway down on the drive, while admiring the blanket of colors that covered the rolling hills outside of Ashland, the wind started to pick up a bit and it began to rain.  That wind and rain didn't stop for 48 hours.  At the conclusion of that storm, virtually every leaf fell to the earth.  And as the final soggy, burgundy-coated foliage dropped heavily to the ground, another system arrived, just in time to dump a coating of a snow-sleet mix, draping the ground in a white linen, burying those piles of leaves underneath the swaying, empty, lifeless branches above.  That white linen would hang around for the next 5 months, effectively and forever destroying my love-affair with the Autumn Equinox, and fomenting within me a cavalcade of disdain and hatred for a season that brings nothing but emptiness and misery.

Oh, I tried to plead with the powers-that-be.  Like Salieri, staring up at the crucifix in Amadeus, I made my pact with the Divine.  "Take this Winter away from me, O Lord, " I cried out, "and I will be your instrument."  I hadn't a clue what exactly I would do to keep up my end of the bargain, but I'm sure it would have been magnanimous and unequaled.  But I never got the chance.  Sure, we had a somewhat brief reprieve while living in the South, but eventually that distant cousin of Darth Vader would eventually show his hand in some way.

Why they call it the "four seasons" escapes me.  Here, there are no "four seasons".  There's a somewhat-chilly Spring that quickly flows into a hazy, humid Summer.  There are some generously warm September weeks that give way to a lightning-quick Fall, which is a teasing prelude to 5 months of a cruel, lumbering, never-ending daily display of overcast skies, mind-numbing chill, and a repetitious, monotonous forecast where highly-coiffured weather-prognosticators robotically mumble the words, "cold, windy, and a chance of flurries with 1-2 inches of possible accumulation" with morbid efficiency.

Winter sucks.  Winter is like the New York Yankees celebrating after yet another World Series victory.  Winter is like getting a flat tire on the way to a job interview.  Winter is like developing diarrhea symptoms in the middle of watching a movie at the theater. Or in the middle of a long line at the BMV.  Come to think it, winter is like going to the BMV.  There's nothing remotely attractive or enlightening about Winter.  Winter kicks you in the groin, laughs about it, and then kicks you again.  Repeatedly.  With steel-toed boots.  For 5 months.  I routinely dismiss those who reel off vacuous platitudes like "It's so pretty!  How can you not like everything covered in white, especially at Christmas?"  Easy.  I pull out my cargo shorts and Indians t-shirt, lay them on the bed, stare at them, and ask myself, "Would I rather be in these, wiping perspiration off my brow after mowing the lawn, or standing out there slipping on ice as I attempt to remove the 8 inches of heavy, wet snow on top of it?"  Case closed.

So I had a nightmare.  It was actually a rewind of a day shortly after we moved back to Ohio.  We were unloading boxes, but we had no available space to break up the boxes and get them out of the way.  So Donna had me carry them out to the deck.  Almost ten inches of snow had fallen and more was on the way.  I shrugged off her suggestion to put on a coat and attempted to take a stack of cardboard out through the back-door.  But they wouldn't fit.  And I couldn't open the door because of the snow that had piled up.  So I had to go out the front and walk around.  The wind was blowing sideways, in huge, unannounced blasts.  My glasses were immediately soaked with water and ice pellets.  I trudged through the thick carpet of snow on the sidewalk and made my way around the house.  I slipped walking up the steps because I couldn't see them.  A few of the cardboard pieces caught the wind and, like a sail, soared across the front lawn.  My sneakers were no match for the huge drifts as I tried to retrieve the pieces, while at the same time trying not to drop the ones in my arm.  Wet, freezing, shoes filled with snow, and unable to see, I made it to the top step and began to walk around to the back deck.  Donna was standing by the sliding-glass doors with a compassionate smile.  As I caught the blunt-end of another arctic blast directly in my face, I imagined instantaneously that this is what hell must be like.  It's not hot.  It's not a furnace.  Not at all.  It's a sub-zero prison encased in ice, snow, and freezing rain where you're seperated from your loved ones by an impermeable wall, forced to carry unwieldy objects back and forth without ceasing and without proper footwear or a decent coat.

And it woke me up.  I'm still breathing heavily at the thought of it.  It's not a nightmare.  It's reality.  It's real and it's coming, and I'm powerless to stop it.  A few pretty leaves and a pieceof pumpkin pie might briefly take your mind off of it, but only for awhile.  Because I know what's out there.

-30-

   

Friday, September 17, 2010

It Happens on Friday

"Hey, sweetie, wanna go behind the stands so you can hug and kiss us?"

I admit that landing a new girlfriend during my first official St. Thomas Aquinas High School Friday night football game would be a tale of epic proportions in and of itself.  But three?  In one night?  But there I was, walking on the track that separated the sidelines from the Aquinas stands, and there they were, radiant in their senior-year voluptuousness.  The girl who posed this singular question walked briskly towards me, with her two equally-stunning companions behind her.  She was striking.  Long, flowing auburn hair, clear lip-gloss, cowl-neck sweater, boots, and black and gold Aquinas jacket.  She deftly grabbed my arm in hers and walked softly with me.  I looked up in the stands and there was Mr. Thomas, the father of one of my classmates from grade school and also a freshman at Aquinas.  He blurted out, "Hey, Matt.  You're doing alright, freshman!"  Yeah, I thought.  Not bad for an overweight guy with horn-rimmed glasses who barely knew the correct route to home-room.

Yet, here I was, on a brisk football-Friday night ( we wore proper Autumn gear back then, since, unlike nowadays, high school football games didn't start when the summer temps were still in the 90's!) parading not one but three ravenous beauties before the admiring home-field spectators.  Before I could hash out the evening's festivities with this obviously nubile trinity, though, the two ladies behind me suddenly, without warning, burst into loud laughter, as did the auburn-haired vixen who was now no longer glued to my arm.  "Yeah, right, Freshman.  Like we're gonna go do it behind the stands.  Fuck off!"  

Normal people would be permanently scarred by something of this magnitude.  But not me.  I would survive several similar events during my high school years.  I thought about that night, though, last Saturday as my brother Pat was induced into the St. Thomas Aquinas Athletic Hall of Fame.  As Mark, Mike, and I stood around slurping beers and waiting for the program to start, I looked around at the gymnasium and the hallways leading to the classrooms and I thought about high school.  Particularly, I thought about Friday night football.

I didn't much care for my high school years.  In the aggregate, I liked St. Thomas.  But I wasn't a part of it.  I tried, especially when it came to sports, but I learned early on that I was not even on the cusp of having enough athletic ability to compete at the high school level.  I skipped football because I basically disdained all-out physical contact in sports, unless it was "controlled chaos", like going for a tough rebound or trying to bowl-over the catcher on a close play at the plate.  St. Thomas didn't have a baseball team when I went there, so I was left with trying to land a spot on the basketball team.  But I wasn't quick, and I barely possessed the ability to jump over a painted-line in the parking lot, much less for a rebound.  I could put the ball in the rim, but I lacked a solid jump-shot because, as I mentioned, when it comes to elevation, I'm basically an immobile object.  In my four years at Aquinas, I heard the same speech from every coach at the same time every year, when they would pull me aside during pre-season tryouts to tell me that I would not be a part of the team:  "If I had 15 guys with your persistence and dedication," they would say, "we'd win every ballgame this year."

Some remember their high school years by their academic prowess, but I didn't possess much of that, either.  I was a C+ student, at best.  Loathing math, I tended to lean towards Literature, Journalism, and Speech, even though I was petrified most of the time to stand up in front of the class.  I tried joining a few clubs, but many of them met when I wasn't able to attend, and the ones I did like seemed populated with the same popular people.  Since I wasn't an athlete and I wasn't a particularly gifted student, I found myself hanging out with a few of the "burnouts", guys who favored smoking marijuana, cars, and, most of all, music.  We'd talk about bands, albums, guitarists, and car-stereo-systems.  We'd talk about which women we'd like to "do", although nobody in this group of burnouts ever had a date.  But, they were my group, my clique.  So during lunch-periods, I'd sit in the back right-hand corner of the lunch-room, away from the players, cheerleaders, and National Honor Society members, hum the intro to "Won't Get Fooled Again" or "Dazed and Confused", and count the days until high school would be over.  But I still missed Friday night football games.  And I couldn't go to them.  Not because of my failure with the Raquel Welch-triplets but because of my seven-year Friday-night standing-date with the a semi-truck at Lemmons Market.

Early in my sophomore year, I got a job at the grocery-market down the street from my house.  I was a "bag-boy", a guy who packed groceries in paper-sacks and carried them out to customers' cars.  Sometimes they'd even tip me.  I'd put in several hours during the week doing this after school, but the night that was a required work-shift for every Lemmons employee was Friday night.  That's when the truck would come in for the week's delivery.  Everything was off-limits on Friday night if you worked for Dick Lemmon.  Dates.  Parties.  And yes, Friday night football games.  The truck would arrive at around 6:30 p.m. and we'd routinely stay until midnight, unloading the truck, unpacking cartons of Stokely green beans or Tide laundry detergent, and stacking them neatly on the shelves.

Most of my co-workers were older than me, some out of high school, so they didn't care about Friday night football games.  But I did.  During the day on Friday, I'd hear the conversations about who the opponent was, who was driving whom to the game, and where they were going afterwards.  I'd be able to experience none of it.  I had a an engagement with a 2-wheeled dolly and an ink-price stamper.

But during my senior year, before the last game of the season, the huge rivalry-game between St. Thomas Aquinas and Central Catholic, I decided to call off sick.  The burnouts were hounding me in the lunch-room, challenging me with vicious taunts of  "if you don't go to the game, you must like Abba, or Andy Gibb, or, worse still, disco!"  Hey, I had some semblance of pride left, even amongst subterranean burnout-standards.  So I did it.  I marched over to the pay-phone, called the assistant-manager on duty, and told him that I had become ill during the school-day and would not be in to help unload the truck.

It was glorious.  Football on Friday nights in northeast Ohio is as sacred as any feast-day on the Church calendar.  And it was a Norman Rockwell-setting of a high-school football game that evening.  The sky was clear and the air was crisp.  Our side of the field was loaded in black-and-gold.  Their side of the field was filled with the reviled green-and-white that could only represent the sinister, unholy Central Catholic Crusaders.  The smell of popcorn and hot chocolate filled the air and kids threw tiny footballs back and forth over by the fence, near the blocking-sleds.  It seemed both strange and wonderful seeing some of my teachers there, too, nodding to me as I walked past them en route to my seat, dressed in black and gold gear, huddling with their mates.  The girls in my class who were cheerleaders looked even more radiant and un-touchable in their make-up, lip-gloss, and short skirts.  Heck, Sandy Shoup even waved to me once when I walked past.  Yes, this was truly a magical evening. 

Although not many burnouts went to the games, there were a few there.  Some of them had forged a party-alliance of sorts, the "Little Kings Gang", named after the small, seven-ounce bottles of beer that they would purchase by the metric ton each Friday and Saturday.  They were planning their itinerary for the evening, where they would ride around after games well into the night, draining the contents of those small bottles, crashing parties, and basically putting other Stark County drivers at risk.  I wasn't sure whether I would join them.  But I knew one thing.  I wasn't unloading 50-pound bags of water-softener salt or stacking infinite numbers of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup-cans on top of each other.  I was here.  I was also fairly sure that whomever I hung out with after the game, it would almost assuredly include a double-cheese-and sausage masterpiece from The Pizza Oven, the greatest pizza that has ever or will ever exist in this solar system.

I don't remember who won that game, but I do remember a controversial call, one where an apparent fumble dictated the outcome.  When I returned to work at Lemmons Market on Saturday, my supervisor, Tim Kazakis, was convinced that I wasn't sick, and that I had skipped truck-night in order to go to the game.  As we were bagging groceries, he would occasionally walk up to me and ask, "Hey, I heard that guy fumbled that ball on the 2-yard-line last night."  I continued to fill up the sack in front of me, mumbling, "I don't know.  My brother was there and he said it wasn't a fumble."  He would smile, walk away, and then return to the check-out area several minutes later.  "I heard there was a packed house last night at Central's stadium".  I continued to work.  "Well," I replied, "that's usually the case when Aquinas plays Central."  He wouldn't leave it alone, though.  Finally, after we had carried out several orders, he leaned against me, put his arm around my shoulder, and whispered, "You saw that fumble last night, didn't you? I thought Catholic kids weren't supposed to lie."  I smiled, untied my apron, re-tied it, and said, "I'm gonna go give them a hand in the dairy aisle.  I'm out of here at 4 o'clock."  I heard him burst into laughter as I walked away.

I thought about that the other day on the scooter as I made my way through Mogadore.  Like many small towns and villages across the Buckeye state, Mogadore lives for Friday nights.  Although the town only has about 4 thousand people, it has a rich football tradition and a long history of success.  The school has won 4 state championships and has won multiple league and regional titles.  During the start of football season, they post small signs on the front of telephone poles and trees which dot the main streets in and out of town.  I've never been to a Mogadore home-game but I hear it's a tough ticket.  I like riding through it when I'm done with work on Friday.  You can sense the seismic activity of excitement with people of all shapes and sizes decked out in green and white.  Parents litter their front porches with signs depicting their son's jersey number or "M.H.S. Cheerleader Lives Here".   It's a scene played out all over the counties that make up northeast Ohio, but it's particularly strong in and around my hometown.  In the cafe here on the corner next to the Speedway gas station, they've been talking about that night's game all day.  And over coffee and eggs the next morning, they'll continue to rewind play after play until somebody brings up next week's game.

Over the years, I've attended Aquinas football games.  Whenever we'd come home for a visit during the Fall, I'd usually go to a game or two.  Unless one of our nephews played throughout the years, though, I didn't really know anyone on the team or much about the team.  But I like standing near the fence on the other side of the track that surrounds the field.  Mark and I will usually be there, watching and talking.  Usually, acquaintances of his will come by, and they'll talk about St. Thomas or one of a number of other schools in the area, the same thing they've been doing for the last 30 years or so.  It gives me a second to peer up into the stands to see if I know anyone.  I usually don't, and if there was someone from my class, perhaps a burnout, I probably wouldn't be able to recognize them anyway.  But as the sun goes down along with the temperature, it doesn't matter if I'm familiar with the players or people from the past.  It also doesn't matter if I don't get an invitation again from a cute girl to go behind the stands. The smell of popcorn and hot chocolate is in the air.  And I'm here.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things To Do in Denver When You're Alive

John Elway greeted me as I made my way off the Frontier Airlines flight, shortly after landing in Denver.  I'm not so sure I feel good about that.  Just seeing his toothy smile pushing a Lasik procedure at me made me feel uncomfortable.  As a Cleveland sports fan, the words "the Drive" went catapulting through my mind, and harrowing memories of past therapy-sessions made me tremble.  But I dismissed it when I came to my altitude-affected senses that in a short time I'd be knee-deep in a cask-conditioned pale ale at Wynkoop Brewing Company.

I believe it's been more than 15 years since I'd visited the Mile High City, and that's probably a conservative estimate.  But the reason then was primarily the reason now: visit my good friend Ron, as well as meet, for the first time, Adam, my contact and the Program Director for the Classic Rock channel on the Dial Global Network.  I also wanted to see if I could squeeze in a few innings of the Rockies-Dodgers game, having never been to Coors Field.  That would depend on the timely and skilled driving expertise of the young Hispanic man behind the controls of the blue Super Shuttle bus that was waiting for me when I exited the airport into the surprisingly somewhat-muggy Denver air.

Riding in a large van with people whom you don't know always sounds like a good idea when you're making the reservation.  You don't have to deal with the cost of renting a car and having it valet-parked for two days, and, better yet, you don't have to pay some cab 60 bucks to take you downtown.  What you do need is a resident-friend or family-member willing to cart you around while you're there, or a myriad of things to do that are within walking distance.  I was hoping for the latter.  I don't like to put people out, you know.

As we waited for the others to fill up the van, I directed my gaze towards the now-setting sun in the west, which had created an Ansel Adams-esque silhouette-portrait of the Rocky Mountains.  I would be transfixed by these peaks for the remainder of the visit, not to mention those of the perky young Mexican lady seating people at the diner on Sunday morning.   But that's later.  Now, I would have to contend with an hour-and-fifteen minute ride stuffed like sausages into a van with people who uttered not one single word the whole trip!  About halfway into town, I pondered the ramifications of breaking into "Meet the Flintstones" in honor of the late, great John Candy, but I'm not the most gregarious person, and opted instead to watch the magnificent display gradually fading away on the horizon, surreptitiously holding my breath so as not to ingest the noxious fumes of whatever my fellow passengers consumed on their incoming flights which seemed to be  filling up the van as the miles piled up.

Luckily, my stop was third on the agenda, at The Curtis, which turned out to be a fun, quirky hotel, with bell-hops dressed in black shirts and orange ties.  The decor was splattered with TV, movie, and other pop-culture motifs.  I was on floor 7, and when the elevator door opened, a voice said, "Welcome to Floor 7, the laugh-out loud floor!"  I was hoping it was false advertising, after the horrible lodging experience I'd had earlier in the summer in Toronto.   My room was tastefully done but still bright with color, including a desk-clock in the shape of a yellow VW Beetle.  I tossed my bag on the bed and made a bee-line for Coors Field to see if I could make it to the Rockies game.

The area of downtown called "LoDo" is a bustling, lively section, complete with all of the bars and restaurants you'd come to expect with three sports facilities nearby.  I walked (and sometimes ran) the equivalent of about 9 city blocks to the ballpark, only to discover that it was already the top of the 9th.  Sweaty and a little dejected, I sough comfort and refuge in the form of Wynkoop Brewing Company.  Named after a former Arapahoe County sheriff from the 1850's, Wynkoop's elicits stellar reviews within the craft-brewing community.  Before I launched into a bison-burger, I soothed my parched, baseball-less nerves with a couple offerings of the cask-conditioned Monkey's Fist I.P.A.  As the game let out, the building became increasingly noisy, and the two-hour time-difference was catching up with me.

Brushing aside the drapes in my room the following morning, I stood in awe of those jagged hills that transfixed me so completely the night before.  Living in Knoxville, I'd spent a fair amount of time in the Smoky Mountains.  And while living in Annapolis, we'd sometimes drive a couple of hours into Virginia to gawk at the Shenandoah Mountains for an afternoon.  But there's something infinitely special about the Rocky Mountains.  I like the way the arid, desolate brown patches merge in with the green, and as the day goes along, the sun splashing against them to create exactly what Katharine Lee Bates saw when she exclaimed "purple mountian majesties".  I told Ron later that I can't believe you actually get to wake up and look at these every day.

I love mountains.  I also love my pillow.  I may love my pillow even more than I love mountains.  My pillow and I are one.  If it were not for Donna, I'd marry my pillow.  But Frontier Airlines charges $25.00 per bag, which meant that in order to take my pillow, I would have to pay $25.00.  Not a big price to pay for love, you're saying.  You're right.  And I was wrong.  Because without my pillow, I was downright miserable.  I tossed and turned all night.  So after worshiping a mountain range and checking the Indians score, I sought caffeine.

Adam and I were supposed to meet for breakfast, but a prior commitment moved up our time.  Ron wasn't getting off of work until 4:30, so I basically had a day to kill in Denver.  I thought I'd take some pictures with my new phone, so after my morning workout at the fitness center, I headed down again through LoDo.  It was hot.  Not St. Louis-hot, but warm nonetheless.  Like a magnet, I found myself in front of Coors Field praying that they would move the 7:05 p.m. first-pitch to an afternoon start.  But, the Divine must favor night-games.  I visited a couple gift stores, walked past Union Station, and strolled north towards some condos on a hill so that I could get a better picture of the mountains.  But nothing was working.  And, I was getting really over-heated.  I headed towards the Tattered Cover Book Store, a cool spot that I'd heard Ron talk about on numerous occasions.  After perusing the stacks and finally deciding on something from Augusten Burroughs, I left to meet Adam.

I've always been intrigued by the West.  Our trip to Arizona about 6 years ago ranks as one of my favorite.  I like a lack of humidity.  I like the expansiveness of this part of the country.  And, yes, as someone once told me, the sky does seem to be more blue here.  But I'm not sure this particular section of Denver denoted anything remarkably "western" for me.  Aside from that big mountain range, everything looked....fairly normal.  A Rite Aid pharmacy is a Rite Aid Pharmacy.  And a car can blast past with you with Eminem pulsating out of the speakers in any city in America.  Oh, sure, there's the rogue cowboy hat and, of course, a Tim Tebow jersey, but did I suspect anything particularly "Denver-ish" so far?  I put this question to Adam, a Eugene, Oregon native, when we finally sat down for a 5 Barrel Pale Ale from Odell Brewing Company of Fort Collins, while sitting outside at Ted's Montana Grill in Larimer Square.  I got the feeling from him that people here in general are more active, seem to enjoy the outdoors more, and tend to be more "green" in their approach.  But, he said, not any more than people in Oregon or Washington State.  "What you do have here," he said, "is a bunch of former Wisconsinites and Minnesotans.  Somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn and ended up in Colorado."  Sure enough, when asked, our waitress said she loved it here but sometimes missed her home...in La Crosse, Wisconsin!

I walked Adam to his train just in time to be picked up by Ron outside of The Curtis.  Damn, if he hadn't changed a bit!  He looks the same as he did when he was barreling through the door of an extremely smoke-filled room 132 at the Pontifical College Josephinum, ready to lay the smack-down on anything from Descartes to liberation theology.  Ron Valladao is one of the most well-read and most academically-gifted people I have ever met in my life.  And although I still consider us the best of friends, I do admit to being a bit sheepish, intellectually, in his presence.  Remember the Tyson-Spinks fight in '88?  It took all of 91 seconds for Mike to put Spinks on his backside and then hit the shower.  Same at the Josephinum.  I can recall a number of occasions over beverages in the make-shift pub in the bowels of the seminary when Spinks-like theologian wannabe's would scurry back to their dorm room with their breviary between their legs after a good brain-thrashing from Ron.

We made a mad dash for Pints Pub, a cool British-style watering-hole, complete with authentic English ale, served at proper temperature, some of them cask-conditioned and served via a real hand-pump.  As I expected, the time flew by too quickly.  Even on the plane-ride home, I thought of numerous subject-areas that we never even came close to touching.  Such is the case when you're trying to catch up on life-experiences stretched over some 20 years.  Although he's not a tenured professor at some prestigious university as I would have expected, he ought to be.  It's a shame that so much distance has to separate us.

Ron works weekends and rises early, so we strolled through the downtown capital area a bit and then said our goodbyes.  After Ron dropped me off, thirst got the best of me and I was determined to check out Falling Rock Tap House, a spot I noticed earlier in the day during my picture-taking spree and a beer-bar that a friend also suggested on Facebook.  It was packed, since the Rockies game had just let out.  I did manage to squeeze in an Alaskan Amber, a beer I've only tried one other time, via mail-order when we lived in Pittsburgh.  It's slightly-sweet texture and full mouth-feel was easy to enjoy.  After giving up my seat to a couple of inebriated female Rockies fans, I slowly made my way back to the hotel.  With a mild bit of hesitation, I did stop at the Rock Bottom Brewery, just down the street from The Curtis.  Surprisingly, I was impressed!  They won't get any awards for their names, but the "Red Ale" had nice malty, toffee overtones, and the "E.S.B." was hearty and flavorful.  I'll give credit where credit's due!

After another restless night without my beloved pillow,  I crawled over to a Starbucks next door to read the paper.  And before that big blue van came to pick me up, I decided to find some breakfast.  I love diners, and Sam's No. 3 was an ideal choice.  It was imperative that I sat at the counter.  Although I had some of the morning's paper with me, I was much more intrigued with the rapid-fire performance of the cooks and the take-no-prisoners display by the wait-staff.  And the chorizo sausage!  It's spicy flavor seared the top layer of my esophagus, but I figured it would grow back.  I couldn't get enough of it.  Or the delightfully well-endowed hostess who caught me gawking several times.  What can I say, I enjoy tempting scenery.

Trying to digest the essence of a city in less than 2 days can't be done.  But I like the feel of Colorado.  I can do 300 days of sunshine a year, low humidity, and an abundant supply of Dale's Pale Ale.  It would be cool to hang out with Ron more.  And I suppose I could even stomach the constant barrage of John Elway advertisements, too.  I'm sure Denver has a whole host of competent psychotherapists, though, if the need arises.  And if one of those guys can't help...or that hostess at Sam's No. 3 isn't working... I can always stare at those damned mountains.

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