Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cheers to designated drivers

I was remiss Friday in my telling of our Saturday mission to consume the world’s biggest burger. I glossed over the key element that made it all possible.

I barely mentioned the designated driver.

I fancy with the proper education and motivation I could do anything. I could dash into burning buildings to save singed poodles, I could fly risky spacewalk satellite repair missions and learn to say with dramatic fury, “Scalpel!” in an emergency operating room.

But I’ll never be the designated driver.

Certainly, not like the one we had Saturday. Our driver, Don, is a sober saint.

So Saturday was the perfect mix of the sacred and the profane. He was sacred.

We were profane as all hell.

Here’s how this works: We have a friend who has a friend with a big van. We pay him $20 each to drive us to our chosen debauchery, in this case to Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pa., home of the world’s biggest burger.

There were six of us. So that’s $120 for gas and we pay for his meals. It was two hours each way and we were at the tavern for three hours.

Of course, staying sober for seven hours is easy. But staying sober around six drinkers seems, to me, impossible.

Heck, staying sane in those circumstances seems impossible.

Let me explain. We met at the tavern at 10 a.m. and were offered shots of breakfast liquor. But not just any liquor.

Moonshine! Yes, someone had brought two giant jugs of homemade hootch and we all had a taste while we iced down two coolers of beer.

It was entirely unnecessary. Things like moonshine are meant to help loosen the tongue.

Our tongues were already so loose it’s surprising we didn’t scatter them up and down State Route 119. I remember laughing nearly non-stop from before Punxsutawney to clear past DuBois.

Through it all, Don never cracked a smile or made a single comment, devoting his full concentration to the wet and winding road. It was like we were floating along in some giant happy pod, the six most handsome and funny men on the planet and that feeling persisted throughout the day.

Luckily, we were in a place that nurtured such grand self-delusion -- incidentally only about an hour from the birthplace of Newt Gingrich.

Denny’s isn’t just home to the world’s largest burger. It’s also home to the world’s friendliest patrons and staff. I was thrilled when owner Denny Liegey made a big deal out of us being there and how he regaled my friends with stories about how pivotal my 2002 Enquirer story was to his global success.

This kind of friendly adulation is not uncommon with former story subjects of mine and it remains an enduring mystery to me why I can’t turn any of it into an even meager paycheck.

The pre-ordered burger was, of course, a revelation. My one buddy said I should have ordered the 15-pounder, but I wanted our guys to get a look at the original, the Ye Olde 96er, the six-pounder that started it all.

I was right. We had trouble finishing just the pickles.

It was the first time any meal I’d eaten became a tourist attraction. Strangers kept coming up to our table to take a picture of the burger and the six grown men who kept telling the funny stories that kept the whole room in stitches.

At least I think they were taking pictures of the burger.

And through it all, Don remained the steady stoic. When one of us asked if he needed a drink, he declined. He said he’d already had two.

Two Diet Cokes.

He was never once judgmental or disparaging of our behavior. He simple drove us to and from our destination safely and without wisecracks or preachiness.

So here’s to Don and the other good-hearted designated drivers who facilitate all our fun. We raise a glass to those of you who, for the sake of our silliness, never do.

I don’t know how they do it. Being around six giggly guys like us would drive me to drink.

And I know if it did, Don would be there to see I made it home safe.

Monday, January 30, 2012

America needs a snow day

Usually by this point in the winter I’ll already have posted three or four I-hate-winter screeds.

The theme is shoveling snow sucks, all snowmen are abominable and that people who enjoy being outside in sub-freezing weather don’t have the good sense God gives a cow.

That’s why I was struck by an alien emotion this morning. I woke up sad it hadn’t snowed.

It started around dinner last night. The day had been pleasant and moderate, much as this whole winter. I’ve had to shovel just twice. As recounted in this winter-blasting howl, I shoveled at least twice a day for three weeks straight in the record snow-hell of February 2010.

Then one of the kids looked out the window and exalted, “It’s snowing!”

Was it ever. We’d gotten an inch in the hour since the sun had gone down. And it was snowing like we’d be buried by dawn.

That seemed to promise one thing: Snow day!

If there’s one thing I love about winter, it’s the school-sanctioned laziness of the snow day.

It’s probably not like that for most employed folks who consider it an inconvenient disruption of their busy, productive lives.

But they’re mostly Type A bullies who won’t let acts of nature deter them from endless money-making missions.

I’m not at all like that. It’s been my custom since I started working for myself -- er, more like NOT working for myself -- to stay home and watch cartoons whenever the school declares a snow day.

I must be something like a Type P person.

I’ve never forgotten the juvenile euphoria of huddling around the radio to hear Jack Bogut on KDKA announce -- yippee! -- no tests or teachers that day. It was like a surprise parole for the wrongly convicted.

I’m of the mind that when the wise men and women who run the schools decide it’s too dangerous to run the buses, it should mean every thing in the whole district closes until at least noon.

It should be like martial law. The only people permitted to drive are operating snow ploughs or are responsible for making pizza or ensuring the state liquor stores are open and stocked.

Then the roads could be declared safe around noon for desperate pilgrims in need of the aforementioned essentials.

My daughters were crushed this morning there was no snow day, especially the sad little kindergartner.

The poor kid’s never had a snow day.

This is the first year Greater Latrobe has had full-day kindergarten. We can argue about whether this will put our kindergartners on equal footing with kindergartners in totalitarian countries that impose things like year-round school.

I’m dubious of the benefits, but who am I to say?

Maybe one day I’ll rejoice that my daughter had twice as much kindergarten as her Daddy. That means twice as many cookies, twice as much nap time and twice as much time gazing around the room to see which kids eat their boogers and which ones just wipe them on the desk.

Yet, with all that elementary education, I understand it’ll fall to me to home-school her in one realm at which I’ve always excelled -- the art of the well-deployed hookie day.

So one day if the weather doesn’t cooperate, we’re going to be like the indoor ski resorts I hear about in places like Dubai. We’re going to have an artificial snow day.

We’ll pretend there’s two-feet of snow outside and get the fireplace cooking right along with the Poptarts. We’ll watch “The Three Stooges,” “Finding Nemo,” and seasons 1 through 4 of “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

We’ll simmer some soup, pop some Orville Redenbacher and stay snug in our jammies clear through the hot dog dinner.

We could all benefit from some Mother Nature imposed down time, a little stretch where the roads are impassable, the lines are down and there’s no one there to tell us to sit up straight or risk missing recess.

Please stay tuned to this blog for frequent weather updates and reminders that you’re working too hard.

Friday, January 27, 2012

America's biggest hamburger & America's biggest ham

I suppose somewhere there is a group of stylish men who tomorrow will gather to discuss philosophy, the arts or maybe play some invigorating rails of squash.

But that ain’t my crowd.

So tomorrow I’ve accepted an invitation to roadtrip with my circle of friends to a more elemental pursuit where the only squashing being done will involve an industrial quad set of Monroe shock absorbers.

Tomorrow, me and six or so friends have hired a van and a sober driver to take us to Clearfield, Pennsylvania, and Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub, home of the world’s biggest burger, The Yee Olde 96er.

That means we’ll probably scratch about four of the seven deadly sins off the list by around noon.

Denny’s is often profiled on shows featuring consumptive missions impossible. The friendly tavern has been shown on David Letterman, The Food Network, The Travel Channel and dozens of other specials about competitive eaters.

It’s one of those bucket-list destinations that people are drawn to like the Grand Canyon.

Driving there about two hours from our home here in Latrobe is something my friends have discussed for years. This week they decided to go.

That meant I had to go.

Because I helped create the World’s Biggest Burger -- and by “create,” I mean I wrote a short story that helped publicize it around the world leading to mass exposure for a tiny central Pennsylvania tavern that has then on its own risen to global prominence.

But let’s not be picky.

It was in 2002 when I read a story in the Pittsburgh paper about the tavern with the six-pound hamburger -- and I wonder if that guy’s presumptuous enough to be walking around bragging that he helped “create” the phenomenon. Jerk.

It was among the last of more than 1,000 swashbuckling stories I ever wrote for National Enquirer.

Owners Denny and Jean Liegey started offering these meat monsters and challenging daring gluttons to eat the burger in 90 minutes. His quote from the original story:

“We’ve had 325 people order the 6-pounder and no one’s ever finished it,” Denny Liegey said. “We’ve had people come from Germany, England and Australia to try it. They all left with doggie bags.”

I was assigned to accept the challenge. If I finished it, I’d be rewarded with the twin totems of American motivation: a free meal and a T-shirt.

They told me I did better than 75 percent of the previous contestants. And that’s about how much of the burger I finished. It nearly killed me.

Later outside on the patio, I was recovering sprawled on the concrete, mustard and relish dripping off my face and onto my shirt. My blue jeans unbuckled and descending below my butt cheek equator long before it was fashionable.

My photographer said it looked like a mob hit.

The true hit was the story itself. It was just a little item with two pictures on the very last page of America’s most notorious tabloid.

But, boy, did it have an impact. It was in the days before competitive eating really took hold, and when the Enquirer had the market on offbeat news practically all to itself.

The Enquirer was where every producer from every TV and radio show in the world went to find and book offbeat stories.

The burger became an international media sensation. -- six pounds of meat (96 ounces), a three-pound bun, two tomatoes, two onions, a half-head of lettuce, 12 slices of American cheese, and rivers of pepper relish, mustard, ketchup and mayo.

In fact, the restaurant has added stunt burgers up to 123 pounds for $399.99, popular for charity events, graduation parties, etc. (Note: all the big burgers require at least 24-hour notice; consult the website).

Of course, none of us is foolhardy enough to try any of the beef beasts solo. We’ll split it up, sort of like a dainty bunch of ladies.

Our frolic won’t be philosophical, philanthropic or artistic, but in one slim regard -- and this will be the only thing slim about whole excursion -- it will be educational.

Next time anyone asks any of us, “Hey, buddy, where’s the beef?” we’ll all know the answer.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

We all love New York

I used to go to New York City so frequently that hick tourists would confuse me for a native and ask me how to get around.

And, like a native, I’d confidently rattle off detailed directions even when I had no idea of where the hell I was sending them.

I have two sets of friends who will soon be among the city’s 50 million annual visitors enriching New York with $47 billion in tourism dollars. One asked me for some friendly tips about things to do, which I’m happy to rattle off even as I have no real idea of what the hell I might be getting them into.

I do this because I’m an enormous fan of New York City and believe Americans should revel in it every chance we get. It has a vibrancy no where else can match.

I don’t know if I could live in New York, but I do know I can’t live without it.

Some omnibus tips:

• Offer Keanu Reeves pizza -- In Hollywood you see the cars carrying stars. In New York, you see stars. They are everywhere. I’ve seen Mike Meyers on the subway, Sarah Jessica Parker in Central Park, and Regis Philbin at the Guggenheim. And I saw Keanu signing a couple autographs on the sidewalk outside the RIHGA Royal Hotel when I was returning late one night with a pizza. I asked if he wanted a slice. He said, “No thanks, man, I just ate.” He may have been lying, but he was so cool about it I can almost overlook how many lousy films he’s made.

• Stay at the world’s greatest hotels . . . for 60 minutes -- One of my favorite things to do in New York is stop in heirloom hotel lobbies like the Waldorf=Astoria. I wrote this story that ran in The London Independent about how spending an afternoon touring hotel lobbies is one of the great hidden treasures of visiting New York. You may not be able to afford to stay at The Waldorf, but you can certainly afford a cocktail there.

• Eat or drink something wildly extravagant -- It was at the lavish rooftop bar atop the Peninsula Hotel on 5th Avenue in 2000, a few years before Rolling Rock vamoosed Latrobe, a crime that instigated my irrevokable lifelong boycott. I ordered two 12-ouncers and tossed a $20 on the bar. It wasn’t enough. They were $11.75 each. The day before, I’d paid 75-cents for one just down the street from the brewery. The $23.50 plus tip was worth every penny because I’ll tell that story the rest of my life. It goes without saying, of course, you should splurge on one really long and lavish lunch: three hours and at least two bottles of wine.

• Split it up, couples -- Every couple should build in a little alone time in New York. The girls can go shopping and the guys can smoke a cigar at Florio’s Grill & Cigar Bar in Little Italy on Grand between Mott and Mulberry. Here’s my 2008 story about the history of cigar smoking in New York.

• Walk the Brooklyn Bridge -- In a city of icons, this one often gets overlooked. But taking the pedestrian promenade above one of America’s greatest bridges on a sunny day is a strolling splendor. Do it at lunch and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting a seat at The River Cafe just below on the Brooklyn side. It’s where Johnny Sack and Paulie Walnuts discussed family business in “The Sopranos.”

• Dim Sum -- I never visit Manhattan without stopping by Chinatown and Little Italy, two Lower Manhattan neighborhoods that remain the immigrant essence of New York. Dim Sum is a feast so affordable it must not be missed. I like to follow that up with some alfresco red wine on the Mulberry Street, sight of many famous mob hits.

• Pizza at Ray’s -- This can get tricky. Ray’s Pizza is a New York institution. But which Ray’s? The name Ray appears in more than 56 Manhattan pizza restaurants with 24 distinct variations including the words Ray, Famous or Original.There’s Famous Original Ray’s Pizza, Original Ray’s Famous Pizza, Ray’s Pizza, Famous Ray’s, Ray’s Real Pizza, World’s Famous Ray’s Pizza and -- hold the apostrophe -- World Famous Ray’s Pizza. Here’s a 2010 story that explains the phenomenon and where to get the real famous Ray.

• At least two drinks in every tavern -- The people who tend bar in New York are some of the most interesting on the planet. They make dirt, yet choose to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Order one drink and they won’t waste their time on you. The second drink friendlies them right up and lets them know you’re there for more than the Statue of Liberty.

• Grand Central Oyster Bar -- The main floor of Grand Central is an art deco treat. But beneath is a bustling mall of restaurants and shops, the best being Two Boots Pizza (I actually prefer this to any of the Ray’s), and the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Be sure to go back to the right behind all the touristy tables to the bar section. Much cooler.

• Central Park -- One of my favorite things about the character of New York is that right there on that island, the priciest real estate in the world, is a non-commercial park so big it can be seen from space. It’s a testament to a driven city that doesn’t overlook quality of life issues. I’ve been through here a dozen or so times, to the museums, the zoo, the ice rink, to the old Tavern on the Green restaurant (now a gift shop) and I still see fresh wonders every visit.

• Squeeze in as many touristy things you can -- Do the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, The 9/11 Memorial, a Broadway play, ask the cabbie what he misses most about home and what he loves most about America. Never forget: you’re a tourist. Tour!

• One last tip . . . Take me!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why the closed casket for JoePa?

Tomorrow will be another reminder that I must have been born with a heart of stone. They’re burying Joe Paterno and I’ll shed not a single tear.

Not that I’ll be dancing any ghoulish jigs over the loss. On the contrary, I admired JoePa and the way people loved him. His was a life well-lived.

Evidence of that is all over the Keystone State today. They’re standing grief-stricken in the drizzle for three hours to pay their respects to the coach in the rose-bedecked coffin.

Or at least they say he’s in the coffin. I’m always suspicious whenever any public figure is memorialized with a closed coffin.

People could be lining up to memorialize laundry bags of old gym towels. We’ll never know.

The conspiracy nut in me believes rich and famous people aren’t buried, but are stored until, well, you figure it out.

Why the closed coffin? His death wasn’t disfiguring. I’m sure there are some skilled Happy Valley morticians who could pretty up his face and make him look at peace or, better, euphoric as if the Nittany Lions had just crushed Michigan.

I’m also interested in JoePa’s death apparel. Is he wearing a business suit? A Penn State sweater? Will he go to his great reward shaking a blue and white pom-pom or holding one of those big foam fingers?

What people wear in coffins has fascinated me since last year when I did this story about nude tourism. I spoke to one nudist who was mourning the death of her mother, also a nudist.

I had to ask her: did you bury mom in the nude?

“No! She wore her favorite formal dress! What kind of question is that?”

Well, situationally, it was the perfect question. Honest and concise, it would have laid the necessary groundwork for a story about whether or not heaven will be clothing optional.

Call it an expose!

Back to Paterno: what about his eyewear? I want to know if they’re burying him in those big dorky glasses. I would. Not for sentimental reasons or because I’d imagine he’d go unrecognized without them. I just wouldn’t want them around.

They’re too iconic to just throw away, but to keep them would risk one of the grandkids setting up some little stand where gameday fans could pay $5 to get their pictures taken wearing Joe’s glasses.

Governor Tom Corbett ordered the flags flown at half-staff throughout the state, more evidence to me that the man’s a pandering goofball. I think the lowering of flags should be restricted to honoring our fighting men and women and people like George Washington, a man with whom I have at least one thing in common.

We both insist on open caskets.

Washington, it was said, had a morbid fear of being buried alive (I’d call it a logical fear). He insisted he be kept under vigil in an open casket for three days before any burial.

What if someone hears a rhythmic thumping from inside the Paterno coffin?

My, it would make all Tebow’s comebacks look puny.

I try and make it a rule to never love anyone I don’t know, but I am I’m saddened it all had to end for Paterno like it did. He deserved so much better.

We Pennsylvanians did a lot of speculating over the past 10 years about whether it was time for Joe to go. Some wanted him fired. Some wanted him retired.

Me, I wanted him killed.

The perfect ending for JoePa would have been for him to win no. 409 on October 29, a sub-freezing day at Beaver Stadium. I was hoping as he basked in the pre-Sandusky adulation of 100,000 fans, an exuberant linebacker would celebrate by dumping a 30-gallon drum of Gatorade on the coach’s head.

And that he’d die right there of cardiac arrest.

I’m sorry it didn’t happen just like that, Joe.

I really am.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Personal space & Phil Collins's face

I imagine one day soon it’ll be like a switch is flipped and my daughter is going to tell me to get out of her face.

Who could blame her? Nearly everything my youngest and I say to one another is from a distance of about six inches, well inside the traditional boundary respecting personal space.

She’s perfectly cuddly. She has long eyelashes, perfect skin and big brown eyes warm and inviting as a cup of steaming cappuccino. Except for first thing in the morning where she has the death breath, her every exhalation recalls fresh baked cookies.

She’s at the age when children who have no real grasp of basic math are somehow adept at understanding one fraction.

She’s 5 and a 1/2.

Me, I’m 48 and 9/10. My eyes are bloodshot and my breath often recalls Milwaukee. From six inches, my pores look like facial kiddie pools.

Yet, our nearly every conversation comes at a distance which would cause any other two people to instinctively recoil from one another. And she’s fine with that.

Part of it comes from the compulsory affection I impose. If she asks me to do any little favor -- pour her some cereal -- I’ll arbitrarily sing out, “Eight and 12!”

She knows that means she must crawl up onto my lap and gives me eight kisses and 12 hugs, counting each out one by one.

Then I imprison her with hugs for the next five minutes. I ask her about kindergarten, her classmates and if she thinks one day the dog will learn to talk.

And the whole conversation takes place practically nose to nose.

It’s such a unique relationship, one I couldn’t duplicate with anyone else, not her older sister and certainly not her mother.

Like if Val said, geez, can you finally get around to re-tiling the bathroom floor, I might shout, “Two and three!” I know she’d respond with sarcastic scorn because she’d know I wouldn’t be talking about hugs and kisses.

Either way, that floor’s not getting done ‘til at least the Fourth of July.

So I’m going to enjoy this playful intimacy with Lucy while I can because I know one day she’s going to start to feel about me the way I felt about Phil Collins.

With me and rock stars, it’s rarely complicated. I either like them or not.

But Phil Collins has always troubled me.

It started in the 1980s when he released a series of about four strong solo albums and was the de facto face of mega-band Genesis.

He’s the voice of catchy hits “That’s All,” “Invisible Touch,” “In The Air Tonight,” “Abacab,” and “No Reply at All.”

But unlike Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger, he seemed to mope through rock stardom. His utter lack of swagger turned me off. He’d write an album of sappy ballads and say it was about his latest divorce when he could have easily written an upbeat collection about his newest mistress.

Worse, in a day when album cover art was something that mattered, all his solo albums featured facial close-ups so extreme you could detect without magnification the unevenness of that morning’s shave.

It was appalling. One I could maybe see. But four? It would have been one thing if it had been Olivia Newton John, but not Phil Collins.

He significantly faded over the past decade until he issued a surly retirement notice last year, saying, “"It's hardly surprising that people grew to hate me. I know people are sick of me.”

I imagine I’ll say something along those lines to my daughter when she realizes she can get up and pour her own damn cereal.

But what if it doesn’t? What if she and I share a special bond that endures through even the tumultuous dad-hating teen years?

Phil Collins would probably say that’s against all odds. He’d be right and one day I’ll have to face the music.

And when I do, I promise it’ll come from a distance respecting its personal space.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Re-run Sunday: I pranked the trash man today

It's always pleasing when a previously unheralded post starts getting gobbled up by huge chunks of readers. This true story earned little traction when it first appeared in August 2010. Now, everyday for the past two or three months, this one's drawing multiple readers. In the last six weeks it's climbed into all-time top 10 best read posts. I thought I'd re-run it today in case any new readers missed it.

I guess it all starts with me wanting to be a garbage man. Some would say I achieved that goal from 1992-2000 when I worked for National Enquirer, a job that required sifting through the occasional trash bin.
But I’m not talking about a journalistic trash man.
I’m talking about the real thing.
As a boy, I’d thrill every time the big truck with the burly men hanging off the back came roaring up the road. They were big, noisy and boisterous. They’d seize the big barrels, frisbee the lids into the hedges and dump all our stinking trash into the big maw in the back.
Then -- EERRRRGGGHH! -- they’d press the button and all the newspapers, food stuffs, bottles and cans we threw away before enlightened recycling began was devoured in the hungry maw.
I never dreamed of sitting in a small, still room all by myself spending hours crafting pointless stories destined to be ignored by the multitudes.
Geez, when I think of it in those stark terms, it’s a wonder I don’t run screaming over to Waste Management and beg them to let me jump on the back of a big green truck bound for the local dump.
And, really, why wouldn’t most men?
It’s real work.
Martin Luther King Jr. was slain while he was engaged trying to bestow common dignity to Memphis trash haulers. The association further ennobles my appreciation for the men who haul garbage.
That’s why this morning I’m feeling so ashamed. I played a malicious trick on a man who contributes so much more for society than I could ever hope to.
Yes, this morning I pranked the trash man.
I know every week on this day he shows up in pouring rain, sizzling sun and does his dirty duties. When the record February snows closed schools, streets and businesses, this two-man crew never missed a day or slipped off schedule.
And every day when they are out there behind The Pond, the tavern above which my office is strategically located, I stop whatever I’m doing and race to the window to watch.
It’s true. It takes them about 10 minutes to hook up the winch and raise the dumpster so all the bar trash falls into the truck. The two-man crew is so conscientious, I’ve never seen so much as a bottle cap drop onto the parking lot.
Then the shaven-headed guy with the sunny demeanor to match his tanned complexion reverses the procedure. The winch cable sets the dumpster back down near the fence between the lot and family home behind it.
It’s easier work than it used to be and safer, I’m sure, but there’s still potential to get a careless hand squashed by all the heavy lifting machinery.
Then chrome dome unhooks the cable, jumps back on the truck and is again on his merry way.
But earlier this spring I observed him adding a surprising natural function to the procedure.
He’d step behind the angled dumpster with his back to the fence. He’d remove his work gloves and set them on the big green bin. He’d look left. He’d look right. He’d look left again.
Even with his body concealed, any man and most worldly women could tell exactly what he was doing.
The trash man was urinating behind the dumpster!
It was broad daylight. It’s in a business parking lot that would soon be crowded with lunch patrons. It’s between two busy streets where people push strollers and walk their dogs.
It seemed so audacious. I was amazed. Certainly, I couldn’t begrudge him need for relief. It’s not likely a local restaurant or customer would welcome him into their homes to use the bathroom.
So a guy’s gonna do what a guy’s gotta to do.
Yet a surprisingly prim part of me felt compelled to signal that using my bar’s dumpster for a toilet was improper.
So today from behind the curtains of my second floor office, I lay in wait for him to answer nature’s call.
He did his job then he removed the gloves. He looked left. He looked right. He looked left again. I waited until he assumed the relaxed posture of a man whose bladder is beginning to spill.
Then I pushed the red panic button on my car fob. Not twenty feet to his left, the only car in the parking lot, my Saturn Vue, began rhythmically and loudly honking.
I don’t know how I expected him to react, but here’s what happened:
He jumped as if he’d been tased. His feet left the ground. His expression was similar to that of a jewel thief caught in the act.
A weekly routine of his that usually lasted in excess of 50 seconds was over in 8.
Startled, he zipped up and zipped back into the truck. In a flash, he and the truck were gone. Only an echo of the engine remained amid the swirling stink.
And there behind the cowardly curtain, I began to laugh. I laughed my ass off for about 10 minutes. And now an hour later, every couple of minutes, I’m still chuckling.
It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
And I feel small because of it.
It was a dirty, low-down trick on a noble, hard-working man doing a job few admire and fewer would do.
I know some day I’ll need to make amends.
One day I’ll see him in that parking lot and I’m going to apologize. I’ll tell him about my dirty trick and that the prankster in me just couldn’t resist.
Then I’ll offer my hand in apology and respect. I hope he’ll shake it.
And if he does, I know exactly what I’m going to do next.
I’ll rush straight to the bathroom and give that hand a really good scrubbing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In a world awash in pix, Kodak not the only bankruptcy

It’s become in one month one of my favorite keepsakes. It’s a just-found picture of my grandfather who died more than 30 years before I was born.

It’s formal picture of him and seven rifle-toting comrades serving under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing in the U.S. Second Army near Verdun during the First World War. It was taken Dec. 8, 1917, about 11 bloody months before the war’s conclusion.

It’s one of maybe six pictures I have of the warrior-poet I hope to one day embrace in heaven.

By contrast, I have maybe 10 pictures of me taken with a person dressed as Fiona from the Shrek movies, and nearly a dozen with me and the Bronz Fonz in Milwaukee.

I’ll bet there are maybe a thousand scattered pictures of me holding a golf club and maybe another thousand holding a glass of something alcoholic. There’s one or two full-frontals and a couple featuring the cheeky reverse that coincided with youthful nights of binge drinking.

We took maybe a dozen headshot pictures of me the other day before settling on the new profile picture that’ll appear on my various web sites.

It’s a good thing I was not raised in a culture that believes every time our picture is taken it steals a little bit of our souls.

Mine would now be empty, like the fortunes of the name that was once synonymous with pictures.

We live in an age when every aspect of our lives is on what used to be called film and a company named Kodak can’t earn a dime.

With all the seismic cultural shifts we endure near daily, it’s easy to forget that not that long ago a single perfect picture was something to cherish.

Now, they are much like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike and today there are about a billion of them waiting to cause chaos on the driveway outside my home.

For profligates, taking pictures has become like digital respiration. Nothing particularly distinguishing happened with the last one so you just reflexively take the next one.

Something we once cherished has been forever cheapened.

Let me tell you what little I know of Archibald W. Rodell.

He was the father of a young boy who worshipped him. He died at the age of, I think, 37, in the tuberculosis ward of a Pittsburgh veteran’s hospital, a latent result of the gassings he suffered at the hands of the Kaiser’s henchmen.

He left a notebook full of achingly beautiful hand-written poems about the 10-year-old little boy he was restricted for health reasons from hugging on the other side of the glass.

In an oddity I’ll never shake, I was reading through tears those poems late Jan. 11, 2004, the very night before my own father unexpectedly died. I hadn’t read them in decades.

In the few existing pictures I’ve seen of him, he looks dignified and happy. He is the only man smiling in what I now consider the defining photograph of him, the one in which he was was doing his part to help end The War to End All Wars.

Without any evidence to the contrary, I imagine he was a great man. He was a man of letters and art who fought to free the oppressed and came home to conceive and fleetingly raise the joyful man who so joyfully raised me.

Someday that man’s descendants will click on the trove of pictures of me and conclude grandpa liked to golf and drink, spent portions of his college years running around without pants and smiled like a sedated mental patient whenever anyone pointed a camera in his direction.

I don’t worry about each picture stealing some of my soul.

I wonder if I have any left to lose.