Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Purpose-Driven Life?

“You guys have to want it! You have to want it!” I turned to my sister, Emma, and laughed. We both did. Spread out in front of us was a football field filled with 7th-graders, my nephew included. I’m not sure which one of the players on the field claimed the person sitting above us as his father, but he had to be embarrassed. Or, maybe not. Maybe he used these loud, boisterous exclamations as inspiration. It seemed strange to be at a high school football stadium on a Sunday night, but this was Zachary’s scheduled ‘championship game’, and I wanted to see at least one of his games before the season ended. “Play with intensity!!” As the gentle mentoring continued from the seats above us, I looked out over the crowd. I had never been to GlenOak’s stadium before. But, like most of the people who attend the few St. Thomas games I’ve been to this year, all of them appeared to know each other. These social interactions almost always cause me to wonder whether being away from home for so long was, in the long run, the better decision, as opposed to being here and not moving away. Is it better to have had other experiences, in other places, in other states, than to not have left here at all? Am I further along than most of these people, who have probably never ventured out of Stark County, except, perhaps, for the week they spend at Myrtle Beach? Which of us will look at our lives and feel a sense of purpose: the person who ventures out to experience things away from home, or the person who stays here and maintains the consistency of friendships with those whom you grew up? “Take no prisoners, fellas!” I didn’t know anyone there, on that windy, drizzly evening. I barely know the sister who sat next to me, and I certainly don’t know Zack. Sure, I see him at holiday get-togethers, and he’s always been one of the most gentle, most sincere kids I’ve known. All of Emma’s children are well-mannered. But I don’t know them. And they don’t know me. Is that my fault? Donna and I always say that when we get the man-cave done in the basement that we’re going to have people up. ”We don’t do enough to be a part of peoples’ lives here,” she’s said to me, in the past. I agree, although I think it takes effort on both sides. But this is their life, here, in this part of town, in this city, amongst these people. People who know other people, based on a lifetime of school programs, charity events, job-related activities, and the thing that connects so many people in this town that I grew up in: football. “Let’s go, Southwest! Show ‘em, who’s boss, boys! Show ‘em who’s boss!” I had shorts on, and the wind was picking up. The drizzle had stopped, but I was cold. ”You look like you’re freezing,” Emma remarked. I was, and I told her I was going to go. Southwest had scored, but couldn’t convert the extra points. But I didn’t see it. I had to read about it in the text that Emma sent me later on in the evening. On the drive home, I thought about my former home and the people who inhabit it. And I wondered if I had had a stake in my hometown, and a child on the field, surrounded by people who I know and have known for decades, would I have been screaming, too? Maybe that’s what you do when you’re completely comfortable that you’ve lived your life with the same people, the same co-workers, the same family. A life lived with meaning. With certainty. With purpose. -30-

Monday, August 20, 2012

Yes, I'm still here....

Lately, I've been posting more regular thoughts on my other blog, "Piper Court". If you get a chance, check it out: http://pipercourt.wordpress.com Also, if you have a chance (and have an interest in craft-beer), check out my beer-blog, "Beer Epistle": http://beerepistle.wordpress.com Onward.......through the fog! :) Matthew

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The "Zeke" Method

(to appear in the September, 2011 issue of Radio and Production magazine)

In my short time on the globe, I have acknowledged three indisputable facts:

1. My wife makes the best fudge known to humankind.
2. A Cleveland team may not win a championship in my lifetime.
3. Customer service sucks.

Since the initial two don’t necessarily affect, first-hand, our chosen vocation, I thought I’d dwell on the third. (although I do notice that when the Indians take 2 out of 3 from the Yankees, my work does seem to project an added amount of warmth and sizzle!) For reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, my encounters with the general populace lately have magnified the customer-service experience. (Or minimized it, however you choose to look at it.) Microphone issues, computer dilemmas, cable-company problems...all of them have reared their ugly heads lately. (and I’m not counting the various run-ins with everyone from clerks at the big-box stores to servers at my favorite brewpub.)

Diminished expectations. Feeling comfort in the acceptance of mediocrity. Monsignor Leonard J. Fick, one of my old seminary instructors, as well as one of my all-time academic heroes, touched on these things during his commencement speech at our graduation almost 30 years ago. Some of those thoughts came flying back at me this weekend in, of all places, the grocery market.

I was waiting in line to pay for a few things after I left the gym on Friday evening. In front of me was a man who also purchased some items, including a bottle of wine. There were two young men working our line: a tow-headed, burly kid who operated the register, and a shorter, more slender one who did the bagging. I’m guessing that it must be the status quo these days for workers in these positions to have as little dialogue with customers as possible. Not that I have an obsessive interest in wanting to engage in conversation much past the standard, “I’m fine. How are you” or “Yes, I have my rewards card”, anyway. But it is nice to know that, although this person probably isn’t making much money, he or she is relatively pleased that I didn’t choose the competing supermarket down the street.

These two young men, although dressed smartly in white shirts and black ties, seemed to have, like most their age, the personality of a 2 x 4. Fine. I’m used to it. Especially at this store, which seems to only employ people who have as the “Objective” on their resume: “To remain in a catatonic state for as much of the waking hours as humanly possible”. Although they offered both me and the gentleman in front of me no greeting, they did, however, talk amongst themselves. I know how long they worked yesterday, when they’re getting off work today, and that they both dislike the chubby girl in the red hair two registers down.

As I mentioned, the customer in front of me had purchased a bottle of wine, which the bagger-boy had placed in a separate plastic bag. However, the man left the area after taking his change and forgot to pick up that bag. Both boys saw this. Now, in most countries where its citizens have a pulse, the normal decorum, I’m assuming, is that one of these young men, more than likely the slim one with the black hair and peach-fuzz on his upper lip, would suddenly say something profound, such as, “Sir, you forgot this!”

But, no. After all, we live in a world of diminished expectations. We assume and expect mediocrity. These two kids in their wrinkled white shirts and black ties joked to each other about how long it would take for this customer to suddenly realize that he’d forgotten his bottle of wine. “Did he turn around yet?” asked the more muscular, blond-headed kid who was scanning my rewards card. The other laughed, “Nope. Still going.” The blond-headed kid sneered and murmured, “Whatever”. But, the customer must have suddenly realized what he’d left behind. “Oh, here he comes!” cried out the bagger. “He almost got out the door, dude!” The customer returned to the area, mumbled something apologetically (as if he had something for which to apologize!), and was handed the bottle by the bagger-boy. This prompted a chorus of chuckles, as he slithered away.

Walking to my car, I was still trying to digest what I’d just witnessed. And as I drove home, I was a bit irate with myself, that I didn’t write down their names, that I didn’t say anything. I shared the story with Donna, and I made a mental note to locate both of them the next time I was in the store, to try to find out who they were. I see a framed picture of the store manger hanging up as I walk in each time, and I’ve seen him there in the store sometimes when I’ve visited. I thought about saying something to him the next time.

In our Voiceover and Imaging businesses, and in our dealings with clients at the stations for whom we work, do we resemble the kid behind the register? How about bagger-boy?

Kids texting while pushing the buttons on the register. Cashiers talking amongst themselves, completely oblivious to the customer in front of them. A member of the Geek Squad looking at the time on his phone and exclaiming, “An hour and a half more and I’m outta here”. It’s standard fare in most places. Consequently, the commendable customer service today really stands out. If you can find it. I suppose it’s the continuing sign of the times. In exchange for “made in China” prices, we sacrifice that warm, gooey feeling of being appreciated and wanted as a customer.

Although he didn’t hold a Ph.D. like Monsignor Fick, my grandfather was a good deal like him. Carmon “Zeke” DiBacco owned and operated a gas station with his brother in West Virginia for nearly a half-century. Aside from being impeccably honest, he, like Fick, was down-to-earth, jovial, caring, and not outwardly demonstrative about, what surely was, his strong faith. As a businessman, he held to several strictly-defined laws that made him a trusted, well-known, and beloved person in his community, and I can summarize them this way:

• give the customer the benefit of the doubt
• don’t make excuses if you’ve done something wrong
• do what you say you’re going to do
• then, go a little bit above and beyond that

I’ve seen my grandfather allow regular customers who have fallen on hard times to run up large amounts of credit, until they were able to pay it back. I’ve seen him give free gas to a family of 9 people in a station wagon who needed to get to Mississippi, but claimed to only have enough money to get them through the mountains of Virginia. But I’ve also seen him tell customers that a damaged tire couldn’t be repaired on the spot “because my grandson is here and we’re getting ready to have dinner”. I’ve also seen him take the ice-delivery man (yep, they delivered ice in huge blocks back then!) behind the building, away from others, to lecture him about being on time, because his customers expected to be able to purchase their ice, especially on hot days.

Try to do what you promise you’ll do. Don’t give excuses. Work with the customer to make the experience one that they’re going to remember.

Doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? I wish somebody would have explained these core concepts to the people who owned the bed-and-breakfast we stayed at recently. Because the main house was over-booked (over-booking a 1200-room hotel during a convention is something I can understand, I suppose...but how do you over-book a 7-room B&B?) we were placed in a nearby cottage that the owners also operated. Beautiful location. Idyllic scenery. And more filthy than any motor-lodge I’ve ever stayed in. No toilet paper. An uncleaned bathroom from the previous guest. Grease on the plates in the kitchen cabinets. Light bulbs missing.

After confronting the owners, the excuses began to roll out. Everything from “Well, my daughter stayed there over the weekend and she usually cleans before she leaves.”, to “Our water down here in the South is just different than up there. Everyone’s toilets look like that.”

We get used to accepting mediocrity because we’ve been trained to have diminished expectations.

What are we doing at our respective stations, or in our businesses, to turn the momentum the other way? “Well, I offer a quality product,” you say. “We put our promos together using Pro Tools. Plus, all of our studios use only Brauner microphones.” But sometimes it’s not about the product. Our customers expect it to sound good. They anticipate the rate being affordable.

Are you returning a phone call in a reasonable amount of time? If you’re scheduled to do a Source-Connect session with a client at 10 a.m., are you dialing in at 10:10, or at 9:55? Did you drop a quick email to a client because you saw that his favorite team just moved into first-place by a half-game? Have you dropped a quick note to a client who you haven’t heard from in awhile? Or, after reading All Access, did you fire off a quick message to someone who just got canned, offering help, even if you don’t know exactly how you can?

And a quick word about email: even if your customers aren’t particularly adept with their spelling prowess, make sure you are! Do you have a subject line? Do you address that person with their name at the beginning of the note, or do you just immediately type a response? Is the font legible? Is your “signature” longer than the average note? (is it longer than the average sequel to War and Peace?)

I’m not suggesting that you open a vein because someone is paying you $150.00 a month to be the voice for their station. And the axiom “the customer is always right” has its critics. But I am in favor of an approach that tilts in the favor of the person or client who’s demanding your expertise, and certainly one that’s far more accommodating than the approach used that says that it’s acceptable for a gentleman to have to drive several miles home before he realizes that he neglected to pick up his bottle of wine, or one that essentially says, “I think it’s cool that your guest-bathroom resembles the look of a stall in the men’s room after a game at Cleveland Browns Stadium!”

I think customer service should rock.

I’ve learned that sometimes you can’t bend over backwards for someone. Sometimes you can’t voice a promo at 4:40 in the afternoon because it needs to air at 4:50. Sure, you can try, but sometimes it can’t happen. I’ve learned that I’m very capable of carrying a portable recording device with me on vacation, but I don’t. What I can do, though, is promise to put that client’s project on top of the stack when I return, and then do my best to try to make sure that it happens. I’ve learned that while I don’t appreciate a client calling me (repeatedly) on a Friday evening at 9:30, demanding that I find a way to leave a ballgame I was attending with my brother so that I could do a correction to a promo that had been posted days earlier, I can offer to help out early on a Saturday morning before my weekend gets started.

Do your clients expect you not to give them the benefit of the doubt? Does an account executive anticipate infuriating you because some sponsor dropped out of a promotion and the tag needs to be re-cut? Are you known as the person who won’t do it, as opposed to finding a workable solution in order to eventually get it done?

Servers asking, “Do you need change back with this?” when scooping up the payment for my check. A computer-builder charging me again to load software that had already been paid for when they loaded it the first time, prior to the death of the system’s hard-drive. A sales representative of a company that builds microphones who waits three months to respond to an email regarding an update. The horror stories abound. That’s why I like Mike Holmes, the Canadian contractor, whose motto of “Make It Right”, should be tattooed on the forearms of every person involved in the customer service industry. And on mine.

But while it’s easy to point out the obvious tragedies, let me briefly mention Ron Marhofer GMC in North Canton, Ohio, the dealer who recently sold me a used Saturn. I had been trading emails about a particular vehicle with my sales-person, Marcus, and we scheduled a time to meet. When I arrived, there he was. He offered me a Diet Coke, shared some remarks about the car we were interested in, and reeled off a bit of small-talk about the Indians. We then drove the car, returned to the dealership, walked around it, learned about some of its features, and had some questions answered.

Then, we returned to his office and got down to business. He essentially said this: We don’t haggle here. The price is fair. Our reputation is solid, and we’d love to have you as our customer. I can knock a hundred dollars off this car, but that’s it. Here’s the Carfax, and I’d be happy to go over it with you.

I was a bit stunned. I’m not a good negotiator, and it’s simply against my religion to buy at sticker-price. But I knew what I wanted, I’d done a good deal of research, and the price was a fair one. Even if I truly didn’t get a good deal, I wanted to at least feel like I did, like I’d won.

“I can toss in a couple of oil changes, and as long as you have our dealer-frame around your back license-plate, free car washes are yours as long as you own the car.”

I nodded, and, honestly, I could find nothing else to say.

“Have I answered all your questions, Matthew?” I nodded that he had.

“Is there anything else you’d like to know about this vehicle?” I shook my head.

He leaned forward on his desk. “Would you like to buy the car?”

He asked it with such a matter-of-fact tone, with such Jedi-Warrior mind-control effectiveness and with such no-nonsense deductive reasoning that I had no choice but to mumble, “Sure.” He then replied, “Awesome!”, stood up and shook my hand. “Our experience during this total process is going to last about 45 minutes.” And sure enough, in less than an hour, I was driving away in a much-needed used vehicle.

The “Zeke Method”. I like it. Deliver what you promise, respect the customer, be realistic, go 100% and maybe a little more. I’ll think of it when I head to the supermarket again this evening in my used Saturn. Donna will need more fudge-making provisions, and it will give me a chance to listen to the ballgame on the way. I know I’m probably not going to get a “hello” or a “may I help you with something”, but I will look for that manager while I’m there. And if do have to listen to the cashiers recap their karaoke experience from the night before, I’m hoping we dispense with one thing: those stupid “reward cards”. They clog up my key-ring, and they never make my bill go down. I’d pay a few pennies more, anyway, if I received a “How are you today, sir?” instead.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Amber Waves of Grain

I'm sure it had something to do with the dismal weather. Or perhaps it was the sign at the Marathon station across the street from our Annapolis hotel that read "$3.87". Or it simply might have been the fact that, at almost 2 o'clock in the afternoon, my head felt like it was separating itself from my neck. But I was itchy. Antsy. Edgy. We were part of a tour-group, waiting in line to view a movie about the Capitol, prior to waiting in several more lines until finally occupying seats in the upper rows atop the House of Representatives. But all I could think about was finding a way to get over to the Capitol City Brewing Company.

Our excursion to Washington, D.C. had been in the planning stages for months. Donna and I used to live in the area. (twice!) So, we were acting as unofficial

tour-guides for our friends, Pat and Kathy Hedger, who were our next-door-neighbors when we lived in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. But it's difficult to see everything in our nation's Capital, especially if you only have a couple of days to do it.

By 2 o'clock, we were making a dent in the tour-book, but fatigue, a chilly drizzle, and a lack of malted barley in my system was beginning to have negative effects. So, by the time the tour ended, I had talked the group into some form of nourishment, and we were on our way down Louisiana Avenue.

Capitol City Brewing sits across the street from Union Station, in a federal building. I know this because our waiter asked to see our ID's. "Not because of drinking age," he said, smiling, "but because we're inside a federal building, we have to make sure you have a form of identification." Ok. I can go down D Street and buy a gun, but I have to flash a driver's license to have a beer. Such is life in "the District".

The building itself is awesome! I loved the high ceilings and all of the windows. And for a Thursday afternoon, it was pretty packed. (Spring Break will do that!) While waiting for our beers, Pat was telling me about a new brewery in St. Louis,

Ferguson Brewing Company, extolling the virtues of their Imperial IPA. Pat is a hop-head. Pat lives for hops. If Pat could find a way to spike his morning oatmeal with a few Cascade or Centennial pellets, he'd do it. Hearing his descriptions of that double IPA was making me thirsty.

I've been a fan of bitter since my college days. My appreciation of the style continued to be honed later on when I had the chance to sample steam beers and "California Common". I was anxious to try Capitol's ESB. It finally showed up, fairly cloudy and with little head-retention. That malty bite I expected was non-existent. Wet, yes. Superior? Hardly. Pat had better luck with his Pale Rider Ale. But I needed something with a refreshing bite, so I ordered a Capitol Kolsch, which turned out be fairly crisp and bracing. Using 10% wheat malt, I was surprised at its clarity. I liked the slightly sweet after-bite, which reminded me a bit of a younger cousin of a Maibock. Still, it came off a tad light for its style, a bit watery.

As I would discover, our jaunt over to Capital City Brewing would be a prelude to a regularly-recurring theme that would permeate the beer-portion of this trip. I liken it to the work of this Congress so far...or to Obama's presidency...or watching the Orioles at Camden Yards: some solid work, some high-notes, but nothing earth-shattering.

Later in the evening, once back in Annapolis, we stopped at McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster

Bar, at the City Dock in Annapolis. As a former resident of this extremely cool town, I'd spent many evenings watching tourists mingle with the Midshipmen, while slurping Fordham Brewing products sitting at tables outside of Middleton's Tavern or O'Briens. In the two years that we lived there, however, I couldn't remember visiting McGarvey's.

It's a cozy spot, indeed, but with a limited beer selection. Pat opted for a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. I wanted something local, and the only thing our server could say about McGarvey's Amber is that "someone locally brews it, but I'm not sure who it is". Her manager didn't know, either. No matter. It had the appearance of a Yuengling, though looks can be deceiving. So I was hoping for similarities to that of a Bell's Amber or at least the same style from Anderson Valley. It was similar to neither. It also seemed more highly carbonated than most amber ales I've had. Redemption occurred, though, when our server brought the crab dip. Personally, I wouldn't be opposed to bathing in crab dip. McGarvey's version was exceptional.

Like an adept politician, I felt like I had to strike a careful balance between visiting the regular tourist outposts and squeezing in some brewpub-time. This was, after all, a trip to Washington, DC, a place where our former neighbors had never visited. So while I had a secret yearning to fill up our days using a map of taverns rather than one for museums, I knew I had to be monument-sensitive. I'd have to give 'ole George and Abe their due!

Friday was filled with more rides on Metro, first to Arlington National Cemetery, followed by sprints through the rain to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and, later, the Air and Space Museum. By 5 o'clock, we were famished and soaked, so we jumped on

Metro and landed at Aria Pizzeria and Bar. Spotting a caipirinha on the menu, both Pat and Kathy opted to visit Brazil briefly, and since Donna disdains beer, I was on my own. Aria didn't offer a hefty beer list. Starr Hill products are not available to me in Ohio, so I decided on the Amber Ale while we waited for a few appetizers to arrive. I'd read good things about this Charlottesville brewery. I liked the subtle sweetness from the caramel malt; still, like the Museum of American History, I wasn't blown away. (though our quick trip through the museum may have been hampered by the enormous amount of people inside, who were trying to escape the almost-steady all-day drizzle.) It was well-balanced and structurally sound, but it wasn't a beer that would prompt me to dump Pat's caipirinha on the floor and scream, "You have to order one of these!"

Near-misses. Things that don't quite measure up. Solid, but uneventful. Our trip to Washington, as far as seeing the sights, was a great one, (and we really enjoyed catching up with our old friends!) but the beer-report from the front-lines of the greater Washington, DC area is average, at best. I had hoped to remedy things later that night at Mike's Crab House in Riva, just south of Annapolis. Our mood was tempered, however, when the weather reports signified that a tornado had ripped through St. Louis, making Pat and Kathy understandably nervous. And the beer-offerings

didn't help things. I had hoped for some other Virginia selections, or other East Coast beers. But Mike's disappointed me. "I don't even think we have any Fordham's," said our server, "But I'll check." She returned with the news that the only "local" offering would be a 60 Minute IPA. (Dogfish Head is located two hours from Annapolis) So, we pounded away at our crabs and monitored the weather report, keeping ourselves dry inside the plastic sheeting that protected us from both the rain and the views of the South River.

The majority of Saturday was spent in Baltimore. We strolled the Inner Harbor for a bit, and then took a boat over to Fell's Point. We made a bee-line to Max's Taphouse, which very well could have been the highlight of the whole weekend. It was crowded, and the Capitals playoff-game occupied all of the large-screen televisions. And once we figured out that we

needed to get in line in front of the bar to place our order, we were able to relax. Kathy and Donna left us for a bit to take in some of the shops, so Pat and I perused their extensive list.

It's the War and Peace of beer menus. I thought the 3-page draft list was huge, until the bar-keep handed me the bottle-selections. It looked like somebody's Ph.D. dissertation. After careful study, I decided on Old Court Ale from 16 Mile Brewing Company, from Georgetown, Delaware. I detected some residual citrus from the hops. I gleaned a bit of the caramel overtones. It was a solid choice for a brief escape from the maddening crowds outside. But did I text my beer-buddy, Jeff in Nashville, and exclaim, "Guess what I'm drinking!?" No. Like the Caps in the first period, it was consistent but not exciting. Nothing that demanded a slow-motion replay. Pat was a bit more adventurous, and, to be honest, a much more adept decision-maker when it came to the beer-menu of most of the places we visited. His Flying Dog Double Dog was spicy and laden with alcoholic goodness, fierce and on-target, like an Alex Ovechkin one-timer, top-shelf on the glove-side.

We reluctantly left, if for no other reason than the sheer amount from which to choose. I adored the selection at Max's. But I was beginning to think that the only disappointment of this trip, aside from Mother Nature, was my apparent inability to lock-on to a satisfying beverage. Were the offerings that much better in northeast Ohio? Or were the mind-blowing beer selections in the Mid-Atlantic region found only with some kind of special CIA-clearance?

We walked across the street to Alexander's Tavern to discuss it. I excused myself to use the restroom and

on the way thought I'd walk in front of the bar's tap-handles and beer coolers, to see if anything could get me out of my funk. And then I spotted it. An olive-green can, whose contents I know well. Finally! No, Oskar Blues is not brewed on this side of the country. It's also not available in my home state. But a warming helping of Old Chub was exactly what I needed, to both soothe my frazzled nerves and provide me with some clarity.

I had hoped that our late-night stop at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis would be my saving grace. Back in early 2000, when I wasn't

submerged in D.C. traffic or sitting in the bleachers at Camden Yards, I practically rented a stool at the bar when we lived here. I always liked the seasonal offerings of Fordham Brewing, in particular. I remember them making a phenomenal Maibock! But the menu on Saturday evening was pretty basic, the regular flagship selections, and not much more. Our server did remember that there was a Double IPA available, so I decided on that. It had a searing alcohol-burn, but had the color-consistency of an amber ale, or perhaps an Anchor Steam. I liked its floral nose, but I though it lacked the "pop" of other double IPA's. It certainly didn't match the taste-profile of the Double Dog that Pat had earlier in Baltimore. "It's good," Pat said, after sampling it, "but it's nothing like Double Dog or even Old 21. Needs more hops."

Needs more hops. Needs more....something. Yep, the weather-gods were perturbed, but the friends were perfect, the trains ran on time, and we managed to see more in three days than any normal person can probably expect to see. But as Donna can tell you, most of our journeys generally revolve around the libations that can be found. And as we motored towards BWI to drop the Hedgers off at the airport, I felt a tiny bit anxiety-filled. Sad that we

had to say goodbye, but also itchy. Antsy. Edgy. Like the Beltway bureaucracy, either the brewers need to get more ambitious, or I need to refine my beer-exploration skills.

I surely did not like those gas prices on the drive back. But there was an added bright spot, though. Hampton Beer Outlet sits at old exit 4 off the PA Turnpike, just north of Pittsburgh. Inside, there's a case of Old Chub with my name on it.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your Good Neighbor Station

It took me about an hour and ten minutes or so to make the drive each evening from

Mansfield over to Canton. Usually, though, when I arrived downtown at WHBC, I was pretty exhausted. Trying to hold down two full-time jobs will do that. But, we needed the extra money. We always need the extra money. Opportunities to work for the hometown radio station that I grew up listening to didn't happen very often. But I couldn't pass up the chance to work at the same station as Skip Hornyak.

We were living in Wadsworth at the time, so my day was a long one. I was doing the Midday show at Y-105 in Mansfield. It took about an hour to drive from home down to the station, which usually put me there at around 9 o'clock. I'd do my show, and then record commercials for a couple of hours in the production studio. At 5 o'clock or so, I'd jump back in my car and head directly east on Route 30 to Canton, about an hour away, into downtown where the WHBC studios resided.

At 'HBC, I basically played records, starting at 7 o'clock. The songs I played in the evening were remarkably different from the ones I'd played earlier in the day. I'd trade in Madonna, Taylor Dane, and Hootie and the Blowfish for Lou Rawls, Glen Campbell, and Ferrante and Teicher. Oh, the occasional Seals and Crofts tune would pop up, or perhaps something from the Beatles, but not very often. My show was interspersed with news every 15 minutes, read by the evening news person from another studio. Then, at 11:20, the music would end, and I would become the host of the long-running talk show "Viewpoint".

I hated being the host of "Viewpoint". Mainly because nobody called. I didn't know the first thing about doing a talk show, and it showed. The people who would occasionally pick up the phone were the same recognizable voices that had called the show when, as a kid, I used to lay in bed at night listening to Jim Roberts behind the microphone. Usually they were people proposing conspiracy-theories or tossing out Scripture quotes. But when I hosted the show, I'd rarely get callers. I'd suggest topics, look down at the phone bank, see all the open lines, and announce "we'll be right back", while dropping a PSA into the cart-deck or a commercial, if one was scheduled. I couldn't wait until the clock struck midnight, because "Viewpoint" would be over, as would my work-day, finally. I'd run over into the production studio, record my assigned-commercials, and then drive the 45 minutes back to Wadsworth, usually well after 1 o'clock in the morning.

It was during this work-saga that I finally met Skip Hornyak. That name will more than likely mean nothing to you, but to someone like me who knew exactly what they wanted to do from a very early age, this was magical. To me, Skip Hornyak was Canton radio. Sure, he had a good voice, but I could feel his enthusiasm and good-natured charm oozing through the speakers of my transistor radio. Skip was buttery smooth.

By the time I arrived at WHBC, the station had changed. Many of the announcers who I had grown up with had either moved on or had passed on. And I'm not sure what prompted the station to do it, but for some reason the legendary Skip Hornyak was sentenced to "run the board" on the overnight shift. Most stations don't have a need to have a "live body" in the building because of complex automation systems, but back then there was almost always someone in the building of a radio station. Being "the overnight guy" could mean a couple of things. Both of them were usually not good. Either the person was a newbie who couldn't be trusted to crack the microphone when "normal" people listened to the station, or the person was tossed out into the graveyard because management didn't know what to do with him. Skip was the latter, given the duty of reading the news at the top of the hour for 5 minutes before hitting the switch on the control console that would then put on the air the nationally-syndicated "Tom Snyder Show".

Skip, in person, was the exact identical person that he was on the air. Gracious, helpful, fun, and engaging. He seemed a bit embarrassed when I first told him that he was my idol growing up, but that's probably how I expected him to respond.

Skip would come in at about 11:15 in the evening, about 5 minutes before I'd start the "Viewpoint" show. To the left of the main on-air microphone was a window that looked out in to the lobby. To the right was another window where you could see broadcasting gear and other equipment. At almost the same time each evening, I'd see Skip in my peripheral vision, to my right. He'd smile, wave, and start his process of preparing the tapes that would be used to record and, later, playback the Tom Snyder Show. He'd also use some of that time to go into the production studio and record the commercials that had been assigned to him earlier in the day.

Sometimes after I'd finish my duties in the production studio, I'd hang out for a few minutes with Skip. We'd talk about his time at WHBC, about some of the other announcers he worked with. We'd talk about my situation, too, about my marathon work-days divided between Mansfield and Canton. Or about my goal to get to a little bigger radio market. I tried to get him to open up about why they sent him back to the Overnight show, anticipating some heated rhetoric about management. But never once did he say a disparaging thing about them. He wasn't happy about it, nor was his wife. But whatever disgruntlement he felt he kept to himself. Like me, he did, though, complain about the music. "Wouldn't it be great, " he said one night, "if we played some Dire Straits or Bob Seger? I wonder why they won't put some of those songs in?"

I was exhausted one evening as I prepared to do "Viewpoint". In addition to working at Y-105, I had to do a live broadcast for a client. I barely made it to Canton for my show at WHBC. The weekday grind was taking its toll. Skip must have sensed something. After another evening of limited phone calls, I was anxious for the clock to hit midnight so that I could jump in the production studio and then head for home. I walked over to my mailbox to retrieve my production orders, but my box was empty. It was strange, because I knew that I had work to do, having seen several orders lined up in it prior to the start of my show. "Did I leave my production stuff in here?", I asked Skip, as I walked back into the main on-air studio. "No, " he replied, "I knew you had a tough day and a long drive home so I went ahead and did your spots for you."

My idol did my production for me. In fact, he did my commercials for me for the remainder of my time at WHBC.

I regret not staying in touch with him after I left. After returning home from the CBS station I worked for in Washington, DC, my mother told me that she had read in the paper that Skip Hornyak had retired. And, like so many things that you think about doing but never get around to following up on, I neglected to contact him or find out how he was doing. The only other news I'd heard about Skip was the announcement on All Access last week that he had passed away.

If you open a book that chronicles the legendary announcers in broadcasting, you probably won't find Skip Hornyak listed. You more than likely won't find old airchecks of Skip archived in some vault on-line, either. And that's ok. None of those things have anything to say about the kind of person he was, or about the help that he gave to a young, struggling broadcaster. They don't make them any better than John W. "Skip" Hornyak.


Friday, March 4, 2011

My City of Ruin

There were about 14 or 15 of them, traveling very fast, all within a 3 or 4-block

area. Most of the bikes were of the 10-speed variety, racing-bikes with thin tires and a really small seat. All of the kids, including me, were sitting on our own bikes at the corner of Piper Court and 14th Street, mesmerized, watching them circle the blocks again and again. The riders were taller and older and more muscular than we were. An appointed person stood in the middle of 14th Street, watching for cars. As the bicyclists would come down Piper Court, the look-out would scan 14th Street in both directions, and, if absent of vehicles, would scream, "No cars!", so that the quick-moving cyclists could make the left on to 14th without slowing down and then continue on with their race.

I'm not sure who organized this event. And I'm not sure who won. But as I waited there with my friends for those cyclists to come around the corner again and pierce the humid August air like missiles, I recalled looking up at the green leaves swaying in the trees, the sun breaking through to the heavily shaded street. I paused to look at the huge, well-kept Colonial houses (although I didn't know what a "Colonial" house was at the time), with their manicured lawns and majestic porches, now filling with people who wanted a glimpse of the racers. And I felt content.

No, I wasn't raised on a boat-house in Key West, or at the base of some cattle-ranch in Wyoming. My father wasn't a diplomat in Paris or a jazz musician or a Hollywood actor. Our neighborhood is, to most, probably as bland and normal-looking as thousands of other neighborhoods in middle-America. But this area in the northwest end of Canton, Ohio, this three- or four-block patch of buildings,

lawns, telephone poles, fields, and driveways sits embedded in my mind to this day. It wasn't a tropical paradise or the back-lot of a movie set. But it also wasn't a collection of look-a-like row-houses or cement-block apartment complexes. It had character and warmth and diversity, complete with clever alleys and some tricky road-ways.

It was my neighborhood, my world-view. And it's dying a slow, painful death. Hell, it looks like it may already be dead.

A couple of weeks ago I went down to Canton to visit my parents. After leaving, I headed over to Brad's house, but he wasn't home. It was a cold day, but the sun made a brief appearance, so I thought I might go find some photo-opportunities. I had exhausted whatever interest had existed for photographing snow about 2 months ago, so this was a welcome relief.

After cruising down 12th Street, I turned left on Louisiana Avenue, the street that sits between what used to be Lemmons Market and Martin's Bakery. I had to slow down to a crawl, because of some severe, thick ice patches. It was demoralizing. Sure, in our neighborhood here, some of the streets are dotted with the occasional run-down house or the boarded-up window. But the streets immediately surrounding Lemmons Market seemed to have mutated with these scars. House after house in disrepair. As I turned left down Oby and made my way down the ice-floes towards Oxford Avenue, the few people I saw outside glared at me as if I were a reptile. Or perhaps they were angry that I wasn't purchasing meth from them. I couldn't be certain.

I'm not sure who owns or inhabits these homes, these once-majestic giants with their second-floor bedrooms and attics, their screened-in side porches. Slowly going down Oxford, I paused to glance down Hoover Place. It looked like Berlin after the war. And as I stopped at the corner of 14th and Oxford, even once-proud Lehman High School, the field that served as the site of so many baseball and football games for us, seemed to sink its huge shoulders in disgust at what it saw across the street, letting the decay wash over it, its dark-brown stare dampening an otherwise rare sunny day.

The corner of Oxford and 14th used to house a small candy store. Oh, I think you

could get other groceries, but we only walked down there to buy the candy. Later, during my years of walking past it en route to my job at Lemmons, it had become a printing and lithograph store. Now, it's nothing. The metal screens that once covered the windows have been ripped off, and the glass themselves covered by multiple "for sale" signs. Two house down was Mrs. Thomas's house, the mother of a grade-school class-mate of ours. Their house is no longer there! It's a blank space, separating two large, drooping Colonial behemoths.

Across the street from Lehman High School, on the Oxford side, sits the building that was the barber shop, it's barber's pole long since gone. In our day, if you hit a baseball over the fence into the street, you worried about hitting a car rolling down Oxford. But we worried even more because the rumor was that the owner of the barber shop would keep the baseball if it bounced up and hit his building. Of course, we didn't have to worry about that. Maybe Mark Lux could hit that building on the fly, but even the most herculean blast from us wouldn't even come close.

Around back, facing Reese Place, sits another of the fields we used to play on. It was a perfect little field! The outside walls of the school formed a "V" where home-plate resided. Whiffle Ball was the popular game here. One had to be careful, though. Behind

home-plate, against the building, were The Pits, three of them, measuring at least 8 feet in depth, running the length of the building at ground-level down to the basement of the structure. If a ball went down into The Pits, you had no other choice but to climb in and get it. I used to have nightmares about The Pits. Personally, I could never imagine myself tip-toeing across the ledge that separated each of them, performing the Spider-Man-esque dance that was required along the screens that covered the windows, dangling from them and then descending onto the stale-smelling cement floor, in order to recover the ball. Kenny Tessane would, though. He wasn't very good at baseball, but he held absolutely no fear about diving in to The Pits. If I swung and missed and the ball bounced up off the back of the school building and soared in to The Pits, an almost immediate choir of "Kenny!" would be screamed out over the field. Kenny would drop his glove and, without a word, sprint over to the wall and start his acrobatic descent into the catacombs below.

I didn't get out of my car to go have a look at The Pits, but I did stop and reminisce about playing there. If you could blast one from home-plate across Reese and into the lawn of the duplex across the street, it was an instant home run. That complex isn't there anymore. It's a dirt hill with trash strewn across it. I thought that if there's that much trash on that hill, I can only imagine how much refuse is inside The Pits.

Swinging around the back and taking a left on to Arnold produced more of the same. We used to enjoy riding our bikes down Arnold. Gordy Beyer used to live in the house on the corner of Reese and Arnold. He drove a delivery van for The Parisian, delivering dresses and other fabrics. His house now has a board for a front door.

Arnold Avenue was constructed of red-brick, and we loved the cool sound it made as your bicycle tires rolled over them, picking up speed as you descended the hill. We'd usually exit-right on to Harper Place, instead of rolling up to the stop-sign

at 14th Street. If you didn't spin out in the gravel, you could take that turn on to Harper and do a wheelie over the grate in front of Jim Campbell's drive-way. My friend, Jim Campbell, who committed suicide. As I moved down Arnold, I picked up a bit of speed to see if I could hear that sound again. I could. I paused briefly at the gate-opening in the fence, almost near the back of the goal-post in the other end-zone. I cut my hand trying to climb that fence. It took 7 stitches. I don't remember it hurting, although I do remember gawking at my hand, which was completely covered in blood.

I turned right on 14th Street and slowly moved past more of the dilapidated,

once-glorious homes from the neighborhood. Houses where I delivered papers, houses where I walked on to porches, rang doorbells, and attempted to sell things like subscriptions to the Catholic Exponent or candy bars to help cover the cost of our football equipment at St. Peter's. Past the Beyglides house, the Wise house, and Carl and Peggy Zwischa's house, who always bought the candy and Christmas cards we were selling. And then past the Whitmer house, which sat across the street from our house, at 1307 14th Street. I pulled over and parked briefly at the corner of Piper Court and 14th, that same corner where I sat on my bike, over 40 years ago. I looked at our crumbling house, the rented-house we called home for most of my grade-school years, before my father bought the house we moved to, two houses down, on Piper Court. The busted window, the peeling paint, the partially torn-out sun-porch. It didn't seem possible.

So with the sun blazing away on that cold Sunday, I gazed into those same trees above, thinking about how those bare limbs once held a canopy of green leaves,

dancing away on a sizzling, late August afternoon, eliciting a feeling of satisfaction. A feeling that everything was right in my world. Our world. Our neighborhood. Here in our little patch of the slowly-crumbling city.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Wanted: New Domicile for Opinionated Feline

She came on a late-evening flight into BWI, all the way from Missouri. We left our small apartment in Annapolis and made the 25-minute trek to the airport. I parked in a "no parking" zone and waited as Donna ran into the airport to retrieve her. This was just prior to 9-11, when rules and guidelines were a bit less strict, and sometimes the authorities didn't immediately harass you as long as you had your emergency-flashers on.

Out she walked with a carrying-case, and it looked heavier than I thought it would be. Inside was a frightened, constantly-jabbering Sabu Bengal cat. All the way back to Annapolis, the feline known as "Ruby Tuesday" kept up a constant conversation. All I could think of was how Yinny, our 12-year old Samoyed-mix dog ,would react. Amazingly, Ruby hasn't stopped talking since she's been with us.

After almost 10 years, it's time to find Ruby a new home. Although I suspect that these latest findings aren't particularly new, my current ENT, after allergy testing, has confirmed what we've known, but chose to ignore, some time ago: I'm deathly allergic to her.

My pulmonary doctor warned me when we lived in Pittsburgh. "I don't necessarily say

this because I'm not an animal-lover," he remarked, while going over my breathing-function tests, "but I gotta tell you that as an asthmatic, a cat is the worst animal that you can live with. Dander is a true enemy of people with breathing and allergy difficulties." I guess I thought that getting shots, as I do now, would do the trick. But my current ENT concurs: on my latest test results, from 1 to 10, my reaction to cats produced a 12! And what further disappointed me is that I really don't fare better with dogs. So although Donna immediately resisted, she's come to the conclusion that it's probably best for us to find Ruby a new home.

I'm not necessarily a "cat person". We've had a cat before when we lived here in Akron 15 years ago. His name was Gizmo, the archetype of a "black cat". Although I've always preferred dogs, I must admit that he was quite a character. He was obsessed with paper-napkins. When we'd order a pizza and sit in front of the TV with a movie on Friday night, Gizmo would sit next to me and wait for me to finish wiping my mouth. When I did that, he knew I'd crinkle it up into a ball. And I'd throw it. And he'd go get it. And he would bring it back to me so that I'd do it again. Just like a dog. It was beyond hilarious. Anywhere I'd toss it, he'd go after it. I enjoyed throwing it behind the sofa, because he'd jump up on to the cushions, dive behind the back, and amidst the scurrying underneath, emerge with it in his teeth, only to meander next to me and drop it by my feet.

Cats, for the most part, seem petulant and moody. They crave affection completely on their terms, and then toss you away like cantaloupe rind. Days can go by and I have absolutely no idea what Ruby is doing or where she is. Usually she'll come out at night, when I'm trying to relax with a beer or a book. She'll wander over to my chair, put her front paws on the arm, and look at me, with those green eyes as big as beach-balls. And then she'll talk. Ruby talking is akin to an infant in a store who seemingly won't stop until it's pacified. And she won't end her diatribe until I either shoo her away or give in and invite her to sit with me. I do this by draping a towel across my lap, to keep the cat hair from getting on me. Of course, dander has already worked its sinister magic, so the towel, I would imagine, is probably useless. But she squawks and waits for me to unfurl it. Then, she jumps up, walks around in a circle to find her comfort spot, and sits. My chair rocks, and Ruby loves to be rocked. I'll talk to her and ask her questions, and she responds to each one with a minor chirp. But then, as soon as I think we're making progress, up she stands, and off she darts, to another room or deep in the catacombs of the basement, to do whatever it is cats do in the dark for extended periods of time.

I understand dogs. Dogs make sense to me. Unless I'm screaming out of anger or as

a result of being upset at something, I think Maggie and Izzy actually like me. Ruby sometimes looks at me in disgust, like an elderly person looks at me when I arrive at Mass with shorts and flip-flops. The dogs like to hang out with me in the studio. They like to sit next to the chair while I yell at the screen during a hockey game. They like to observe me preparing eggs for breakfast. (hoping, of course, that I'll share a morsel of the cheese that I've just grated.) Once the immediate bliss of being rocked has subsided, however, Ruby stalks off, content to go at least three days without so much as looking in my direction.

Over the past several weeks, we've posted placards of Ruby on bulletin-boards in supermarkets and other places. We even had an interested party, a girl who owns several cats, along with a dog. She came to the house, immediately fell in love with Ruby, and walked out the door with her, while I loaded up Ruby's kennel, food, litter, and other cat-essentials in to her car. Donna was already sobbing when I came back into the house. But before her tears dried, the phone rang, and our visitor wanted to bring Ruby back. Apparently, her dog wasn't even hospitable enough to give Ruby the opportunity to leave the portable kennel.

But out of the blue, we have another person who is interested in giving Ruby a new home. While he was assisting me with the studio renovation this week, I could see Brad giving Ruby the eye. As we were having a drink after finishing with the studio, we were telling Brad about our saga in trying to find Ruby Tuesday permanent residence somewhere else. So when I received a text from him later in the evening, I wasn't surprised. "Donna," I said, "I think Brad wants Ruby."

So tomorrow is the day. Brad has a dog, too, so the longevity of their new relationship will depend much on how Ellie and Ruby co-mingle. As an animal-lover, I'll miss Ruby, and I hope things work out at Brad's house because it would be nice to know that Ruby has a place where she will be loved. Donna, I fear, will be crushed. Hopefully, she won't be too angry with me. If she spends 3 days in the basement without coming upstairs, though, I'll know why. For some reason, cats and cat-lovers have an affinity for giving me the cold shoulder.