Thursday, March 23, 2017

My fantastic day in Philly

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Philadelphia is one of the city’s finest restaurants. Its menu features one seafood item that costs $79.50.

And, gulp, it’s only an appetizer.

So I can’t afford to eat there.

Heck, I can’t afford to valet park there.

That’s why what happened at Del Frisco’s on Monday evening was so odd.

I owned the joint.

At least that’s how it felt.

I drove five hours to present my “Use All The Crayons!” keynote to 43 members of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. They’d heard about me through a friendly meeting planner who’d brought me in to speak to the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

And I love it when word-of-mouth leads me to a really great steak house.

It’d been a while since I’d done any professional speaking. Val wondered if I was nervous. 

“Not at all,” I said. In fact, I was feeling cocky, impatient to score more keynotes with much bigger groups.

I’m tinkering with the idea of joining an organization that will smooth out some of the rough edges. See, I am indeed nervous at the start of every hour-long talk.

An audience of strangers can be very judgmental. What if I bore them? What if my jokes fail? What if my fly’s down?

So much can go wrong.

So I stumble and start right off with an unsettling number of “ums” — maybe it’s more accurate to say I “umble.” I feel cold sweat on my forehead.

Working with a professional speech makers group would eliminate these obvious flaws.

That’s why I think it might be a big mistake.

My initial umbles really lower the bar. The audience becomes nervous for me.

My intro actually encourages this fear. I tell them we’re going to spend the next hour talking about the really big questions: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where do we go when we die?

I pause for an excruciating 10 seconds to let that sink in.

Then I hit them with one of my biggest laugh lines: “Then there are the questions only important to me. Questions like: If fans of the Grateful Dead are called Deadheads, what does that make those of us who revere the book Moby Dick?”

They roar with laughter and relief. They won’t be existentially bored for the next hour. Hooray!

And I, too, am transformed by the laughter. My confidence surges and I become a preacher. 

I’ve learned in my talks that once you get people laughing you can talk to them about topics adults reflexively shun. Topics like suicide, depression, hopelessness, failure, death.

Truly, these are the themes of my talks — and everyone leaves saying they had a ball! 

It’s incredible to me that my experiences — my failures — have forged this resonant message for me.

That’s what happened Monday. It was a bases loaded home run. They loved it.

Afterwards, they lined up to thank me; 21 of them bought books.

I’ve read that if 10 percent of an audience buys books, it’s considered a success.

I was right at 50 percent.

Not enough, surely, to splurge on a Del Frisco’s filet, but I chowed on the hors d’oeuvers and guzzled plenty of free wine.

So it would have been a swell night if they’d have heckled me off the stage.

Later after I’d packed up and everyone from the reception was gone, I climbed the marble stairs to the elegant loft bar overlooking what used to be the old First Pennsylvania Bank. The bank clock is still there, but only now it was surrounded by dozens of iconic fire engine red wax-dipped bottles of Maker’s Mark bourbon.

When in Rome …

I ordered a double. 

It came in a rock’s glass that looked like the oaken head of a hangin’ judge’s gavel. It had heft, gravitas. It could double as a murder weapon.

I fell in love with it.

The bartender was sweet, too!

I ordered another double.

She asked about my day.

“It was fantastic,” I confessed. “I’ve had so many failures and disappointments in my professional life, but in the last few years I’ve crafted a message that can be inspirational to anyone who’s struggling. I just got a huge ovation from a group of friendly strangers who said hearing my story will make a real positive difference in their lives.”

“Sounds like a real day to remember.”

It was.

I’m sure I’ll remember it long after the details of other similar triumphs fade from my mind.

See, I stole that glass.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

My dollar on the wall forever at Flappers

Maybe the one bar honor that’s eluded me over the years was secured last month when Josh Starrett took over management of Flappers, the beguiling 1920’s speakeasy-style saloon on the second floor of the historic Tin Lizzy.

I was the first customer. 

Really, as bar feat’s go, it wasn’t like the time in ’87 at The Junction in Athens, Ohio, where George and I remained upright on our barstools for 15 straight hours, or in ’92 when I guzzled four yards of ale at Mario’s on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

There’ve been many, most of them now long forgotten.

That’s the thing about amazing drinking feats; they’re usually forgotten as a direct result of amazing drinking feats.

Being the first customer is another matter entirely. It’s just a matter of good timing. 

Josh is a well-liked area musician and is eager to turn Flappers into the thriving nightspot it deserves to be.

He has my full support.

He’s a great bartender because he’s both interesting and interested. He tells good stories and is eager to hear yours.

So on his first day I stopped in to wish him well, sip a double Wild Turkey and just shoot the shit.

Josh surprised me by sliding one of my dollars back and handing me an uncapped Sharpie.

“You’re my first customer,” he said. “I’d like you to sign your dollar so I can put it on the wall behind the bar.”

I was flattered.

“May this be the first of millions!” is what I wrote and I hope it comes true.

It’s been up there for about nearly a month now. I like to visit it.

I always look at it and point it to out to other drinkers, a fact that won’t be truly cool until it’s been up there for another 30 or 40 years.

It’d be helpful, of course, to business — both mine and Josh’s — if something would happen to make me overnight famous.

Then I could show people the dollar and say, “And here’s the dollar from back when all I had was a dollar.”
I wonder if Josh had any idea how risky it is to put up a dollar from a man who has historically had so few of them.

Like what’ll happen if I’m short on cash some night and need that dollar back?

Is it mine or is it Josh’s?

It still feels like it’s mine and it does have my name on it.

I’d suggest we could connive to have it settled by one of the TV judges. We could both wear bar T-shirts. It would be good publicity.

But I’d come off looking awfully cheap and cheapness is something I detest.

What’s odd is I’ve for years been known for leaving my very last dollar in bars and now in at least one cool place I’ll long be known for leaving the very first.

It’s a minuscule investment, one that’ll earn no interest, but is bound to be forever interesting.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thirsting for one last drink with Arnold Palmer

Last week I confessed to a crime I’ve yet to commit.

It’ll be retail theft, a judicial term that robs my crime of all its spirituality.

See, my theft will involve spirits.

I’m vowing to one day pilfer a half-full bottle of premium whisky from behind the bar at the Tin Lizzy and sip-by-sip over maybe an hour or two transfer its entire contents from their bottle to my belly.


My motive?

I’m missing Arnie.

Dead nearly six months, I’m beginning to realize Arnold Palmer may not be coming back. He’s overcome long odds to succeed all his life so I still refuse to be conclusive.

It’s a pity, one that has many of us here in Latrobe feeling mighty melancholy since September 25. He was 87.

The loss is especially poignant today, the first day of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando. The golf news is full of tributes and reminders that, yes, he’s really gone.

It feels like it felt the week before Christmas after some big meanie said Santa was make believe.

A friend said, “I knew he wasn’t going to live forever, but that reality didn’t prepare me for the day when he’d be gone — pfft! — just like that.”

Understand, my friend isn’t a country clubber, one of the local elite who’d rub elbows with Palmer at fundraisers or galas with bankers, surgeons and others in what for a blue collar town amount to high society.

He’s a plumber.

He’d see Palmer at local restaurants, at the airport and often driving his golf cart from Latrobe Country Club to his home. Over the years he’d done some work for him, but nothing consequential.

He is — and I mean no disparagement to my friend — a nobody.

Just not to Arnold Palmer.

“Yeah, no matter who you were or what you did he just had a way of making you feel special. That’s a nice thing to do if it’s just someone you know from church. But for a celebrity known around the world to do that is just really special.”

So true.

It’s why I’m eager to thieve Palmer’s hootch.

A reliable source told me the bar kept the bottle for Palmer who’d enjoy a nip anytime he’d come into the Tin Lizzy, which he often did.

“No one will ever drink from that bottle again. We’re keeping it in memory of Mr. Palmer.”

So now I covet it.

I want to snatch the bottle from behind the bar and sneak it and two shot glasses up here to my office and enjoy a real reverie.

Or maybe a seance. 

I’d like to conjure Palmer’s ghost.

Booze — and I know this from woozy experience — is helpful when it comes to conjuring. Palmer booze, I’d have to think, would render a particularly powerful assist.

I’d just like to spend a thoughtful hour or two recalling all he meant to me and Latrobe. I’d like to immerse myself in the memory of his boisterous laugh, his twinkle, his cheer, his playful warmth and ebullience.

He was a man so buoyant I always suspected his blood was carbonated.

Many of the golf tributes over the next four days will focus on the vacancy, how they can’t believe a man like that is really gone.

Maybe we all have it backwards.

What’s really difficult to believe is that a man like that ever really lived.

Related …

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fainting, again, at my routine physical

I went for a standard checkup yesterday; it was only my second in 23 years. 

The results? The doctor said in spite of my often self-destructive behaviors I’m in excellent shape for a man my age (54). 

And then he bought both my books!

So I was there about an hour, received a thorough check-up, had blood work done and left with a check for $30 in my pocket.

Long live Obamacare!

Of course, it wasn’t all prods and profits.

I nearly fainted. It’s highly embarrassing.

It’s an ironic fact that the only time I ever start feeling really sick is when I go to see a doctor. What always gets me is all the needles and ominous game plans involving other sorts of insertions.

I have a high pain tolerance, which is good, but it’s coupled with a lively imagination, which can lead to light-headedness and dark thoughts that the doctor is trying to murder me.

It started when he put his hands around my neck and began a text-book strangle.

“I’m checking your thyroid,” he said. “Swallow.”

His strong hands made it impossible. After several failures, I managed to choke down maybe a teaspoon of warm spit.


He had no motive, but that’s no impediment to someone who’s feeling kill crazy. Just last week I read about a guy who got killed in a dispute over a cheese sandwich.


Truly, I was feeling lightheaded. It lasted about a minute before he released.

So I’m already woozy when he says he’s detected what may or may not be a small node on my thyroid.

Who knew the thyroid was in the throat?

“I’m sure it’s nothing, but it’ll be good to have it checked out. I’m recommending an MRI. If it’s inconclusive we may have to take a needle…”


“… and stick it into your throat…”

I remember breaking into a cold sweat and beginning to fade when his discussion took another grim pivot with the word “colonoscopy.”

I can’t recall what was said next, but the near faint came precisely when he mentioned the words “rectal exam.”

It’s very odd. I have no fear of pain, but the talk of possible pain causes me to swoon.

The man who moments earlier I suspected was out to murder me began taking steps to provide necessary comfort.

He arranged the examination table so I could stretch out and he brought me a little drink box, the kind they give the kindergartners when they behave at recess.

I confessed my embarrassment.

“Oh, don’t be,” he said. “I should have backed off when I saw the color drain from your face when I mentioned the worst-case scenarios about your thyroid. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

This kind doctor was recommended when I began asking about a local physician for my mother. I observed his evident humor and concern for her and thought, now that’s the sort of doctor I want shepherding me to my grave. 

I hope he outlives me by about 2 years and I hope he lives another 35 or so.

Really, it was a great visit. I enjoy philosophizing with professional healers over why some of us are blessed with good health and how much of it is mindset.

It’s very mysterious.

And I was flattered by his genuine interest in my books. He was very excited to read them and I could tell they weren’t pity purchases — and I’d have been fine with it either way.

Anything to get the registers ringing.

Another mystery: I gave blood not 20 minutes after my exam and was fine. No sweat. No swoon.

My doctor said he’d never seen such a swift recovery. Remarkable, he said.

Or maybe he was being sarcastic.

A case of damning with faint praise. 

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