Sunday, September 16, 2012

Re-run Sunday! A great fan, a better man

That’s my very good buddy, Angelo Cammarata, above and on the front of this week’s Steeler ticket. The team has declared this “The Year of The Fan” and is honoring noteworthy fans on tickets each week.

Calling this gentleman a great Steeler fan diminishes his remarkable life.

To me, he’s one of the kindest and warmest men I’ve ever met.

You can read what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about him in this link, and what I wrote about him in 2009 right here.

(647 words)

I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I have more soulful revelations in taverns than I ever do in church. Happened again Saturday.

That was last call for Angelo Cammarata, the man who is arguably the world’s most historic bartender.

Guinness declared Cammarata, 95, the world’s longest serving bartender way back in 1987.

Ange poured his first beer when he was 19. It was the stroke of midnight on April 7, 1933, the exact instant that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a thirsty America that -- hallelujah -- killjoy Prohibition was over.

He’s been pouring them ever since. There may be older bartenders, but none who’ve tended longer. He’s known no other job.

The streak came to an end Saturday. Cammarata’s in the West View neighborhood near Pittsburgh, is closing for health reasons.

Not his.

His 59-year-old son John suffered a heart attack last year and can no longer keep up with the demands. The family sold the bar.

I wrote about Ange in 1999 for National Enquirer. This man born in 1915 (he remembers seeing disabled Civil War veterans in military parades) holds a sort of world record for me, too, as my most evergreen subject. Every year he kept persevering, I’d pitch his story to someone else, eventually landing profiles in Playboy, Men’s Health and a handful of other publications.

Ange was the final exam in 2006 when I taught a non-fiction writing class at Point Park University. I wanted to see if the students had learned to detect a magnificent story where none appeared to exist.

Tell a group of 20-somethings that they’re final grade will be based on a two-hour full-class question-and-answer session with a 92-year-old man and three-quarters of them will look like they want to heave their holstered cell phones at your head.

Not when a final grade’s on the line.

I sat and listened to 15-minutes of perfunctory questions about where he lived and what he did, before one exasperated student blurted out impatiently, “Just what makes you so special?”

That’s when the place began to fill with magic.

He told us about what it’s like to be married to the same woman, Mary, for 70 years, that beer once cost a nickel, and that Negro League legend and Cammarata customer Josh Gibson was a pretty cool dude.

He told us about the simple joy of making a new friend, that he considers himself living proof that second-hand smoke dangers are overrated, and that he believes he’s the luckiest man in the world.

Afterwards, we all went to his bar and he poured us beers. If nothing else, at least some of those students will look up from text messaging and wonder about the life experiences of that unassuming stranger at the bus stop.

CBS news reporter, Steve Hartman was there Saturday to do a story. He does the Evening News slice of life pieces and that wonderful “Everybody Has A Story” segment. I told him my favorite Camm quote came after I asked him to pinpoint the best years of his life. Camm’s response: “For me, it was the years from when I was 40 to about 75. Those were really great years.”

I’m truly blessed to have him call me a friend.

He went out of his way to introduce me to his family and all the friendly customers who consider him part of theirs.

He made me feel like a big shot.

That this gentleman always duplicated that sort of lavish treatment with each and every customer does nothing to diminish the honor.

I didn’t go to church the next day. Not that I was hungover. Far from it.

I didn’t go because I believe those two hours in that bar bestowed me with a lifetime’s worth of proper religious education.

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