Friday, June 28, 2013

The Pond loses a really good Joe

The death of a friend is another blow to my opinion of the medical profession.

There’s no way Joe Schall, 49, could have died of a bad heart. His heart was beautiful and maybe his most outstanding feature.

Well, maybe besides his hair.

He had really great hair and that’s something to be admired in a bar where the heads of so many patrons lack even a little bit of it.

“People are always asking if it’s real or if I dye it,” he’d say. “I don’t do any of that. I just grow it.”

He was one of the eight Regular Joes at The Pond about whom I write so often because they’re all conveniently named Joe.

You’d think a bar with so many Joes could spare one or two, but you’d be mistaken. All our Joes are essential.

This one leaves an enormous hole.

He was Baseball Joe. He absolutely loved the game. Sure, win or lose he followed the Pirates. Most of us do. But he was also very knowledgable about college baseball and knew all the top players. 

I always liked watching the College World Series with him. He’d tell me which teams to root for and why. Heck, he knew stuff about the teams playing Little League World Series, another star-spangled piece of Americana he’d never miss.

We are all shocked at such a sudden and relatively youthful death, and dismayed it had to be him when there are so many older crabbier drinkers no one would miss.

“You know,” one friend said, “I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “He despised Darwin Barney.”

Barney plays second base for the eternally feckless Chicago Cubs. A career .258 hitter, Barney isn’t anyone’s idea of a villain.

“There’s just something about him that drives me nuts,” he’d say when any of us would try and divine why he could hate something so innocuous as a light-hitting, average-fielding Cub. “I can’t stand the guy.”

In fact, in baseball terms Barney’s play reminds me of how another Barney -- the big purple dinosaur -- would play if he could find a big purple mitt. 

Even Joe’s hatreds were charming.

He was one of the few Pond patrons anyone would describe as cuddly. He was a great big guy and he was always smiling and laughing. He absolutely adored his sons and talked about them with such animation I’m surprised the two boys weren’t named Pride and Joy.

To have a man like this ripped from our lives leaves you a little dazed.

I’ve said before that anytime we hear of anyone dying suddenly it should remind us to live more suddenly.

I guess the only thing we can do in times like this is to hug the ones we love a little more tightly, revel in the simple things that make us happy and try and live our lives so that when we die people will say as many nice things about us as today we’re all saying about our good friend Joe.

Oh, and one more thing.

Let’s all boo the daylights out of Darwin Barney anytime he comes to bat.

It’s what Joe would have wanted.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The long, true story of my epic Game 7 pool match

(1,389 words -- Yikes. Maybe my longest post ever. This should be a two-parter. I hope it’s worth your time)

The two most exciting words in all of sports: Game 7.

The NBA just had a dandy and we NHL fans were just seconds away from another.

Game 7 means incredible pressure, high stakes performance and the chance to etch yourself into sporting history.

The happenstance had me thinking of my involvement in one of Westmoreland County’s greatest Game 7s ever.

It was 1991, about 10 years after I’d done anything anyone would consider even remotely athletic.

In fact, at the time I was a credentialed journalist, something I haven’t been for what will on Sunday be 21 years. Yes, in just three days my string of willful unemployment will finally be old enough to walk into a bar and legally buy itself a drink.

I guess it’d be too much to ask it to buy me one, too.

Back then I worked down the street in what was then the Latrobe bureau office of The Tribune-Review.

It was just me and another guy, he being my buddy, Paul, the guy who in just two years ruined me for office work for the rest of my life.

We worked the shifts we wanted, went to ball games, and spent hour after hour in the little bar that was so near that when both doors were open we could hear from our bar stools the phone ring in our office.

We’d take turns running over to see if any news was breaking. Then one day as if by magic, things got even better.

Paul brought in an old answering machine. In one fell swoop, he’d freed us from the phone’s ringing tyranny and found a way for us to drink beer and shoot pool for as long as we wished.

We shot a lot of pool back then. In fact, when they against my will moved me to the big office and I got fed up enough to quit, I told everyone I was going to try and make a living hustling pool, something believed by everyone except the people who’d actually seen me shoot pool.

But this was before all that.

I was still a gainfully employed local reporter responsible for covering school board and municipal authority meetings and breaking news. And I did all that, at least when it was Paul’s turn to shoot.

Part of our duties included having to go encourage local school children about a career in journalism. It was dreadful.

I’m all for helping our youth, but it became tedious trying to convince students that in 1991 the future of print journalism was bright and there were no digital innovations on the horizon that might threaten the stability of long, lucrative careers in newspapers.

Neither of us wanted to go through that again.

We agreed the only way to decide who’d go would be a best of seven pool tournament. It would be on the big regulation table at Bull’s Tavern in Ligonier, a great bar that would provide the benefit of sporting neutrality.

We had lunch and rolled to break at 1 p.m. 

There were about a dozen people in there, none of them paying any attention to either of us.

But after Paul won the first game, the seriousness of our demeanors made some patrons start to watch. They asked about the stakes.

“We’re reporters,” Paul said, “trying to avoid having to stay sober long enough to go to the local high school to tell students they should become reporters. Loser goes.”

I won the second game; Paul games 3 and 4.

I’m not going to say the bar folk began calling friends to tell them they had to get to Bull’s to see what was shaping up to be an epic pool match, but it felt like that.

People began flowing in and each was told about the competition and the stakes.

Paul had his partisans, I had mine. Bets were being placed.

The pressure grew and grew as the rapt crowd would react to our successes and gaffes.

I fought back and won games 5 and 6.

That meant Game 7.

There were about 30 people in the bar by now and it had the feeling like any minute ESPN was going to break in with live coverage.

It was incredibly tense.

I remember as Paul racked for the decisive game, some guys who’d been strangers two hours previous were rubbing my shoulders and saying, “You can beat this guy. He thought he had you and now he’s scared. You got him right where you want him.”

I felt like Rocky Balboa getting the Round 15 pep talk from the Mick.

Then into the crucible we plunged.

It’s bound to seem like an exaggeration, but I do believe I now know what it’s like to play in a Stanley Cup Game 7 final. There was no room for error.

The match was past the 30-minute mark when I went on a run that looked sure to lead to victory.

I remember banking the four ball off the cushion and straight into the side pocket. The crowd went nuts.

But amidst the mayhem, only Paul and I noticed the overspin required to make the shot succeed sent the cut ball spinning clear down the table opposite the 8 ball.

I’d need to kiss the cue off the cushion nearly 9 full feet away or risk a scratch.

I chalked my stick and clapped a little talc on my hands. I was a trim 175 pounds back then, but it would have made perfect sense for all those people in Bull’s to call me Fats.

I stood back and surveyed the distance.

“That’s a lot of green, Mr. Gardner,” Paul said, his eyes gleaming.

I bent and drew back the cue. You could have heard a pin drop. I swear even the jukebox stopped to pay attention.

It took about four seconds for the ball to cover all that green. Damned, if it didn’t look like a sure thing. I can still today, more than two decades later, remember the ball slowly rolling toward the cushion. 

To this day, I don’t know how it missed.

But miss, it did, leaving Paul an easy lay up.

I was devastated.

Paul? He was moonwalking.

I like to think I’d have been a more gracious winner, but we’ll never know. I can’t blame him for being caught up in the moment. If there’d been a big bucket of Gatorade, someone surely would have dumped it on him.

It was a day all who were there, I’m sure, remember.

Now here, to borrow a phrase, is the rest of the story.

Two hours later, Paul and I toddled out of the bar and were surprised to see a tractor-trailer sitting on its side not 50 feet from Bull’s parking lot. The bar sits at the base of treacherous Laurel Mountain, where the previous year another runaway truck had torn through nearby Laughlintown.

We two crack reporters looked at each other and kind of shrugged like, gee, there’s something you don’t see every day. We left to return to the office to see if there’d been any messages.

There had. Eight of them. All from our editor.

The first at 2 p.m. said, “Paul! Chris! There’s been a runaway truck up that nearly plowed through Bull’s Tavern! We need you both up there right away!”

The messages after that profiled what I guess you’d all a Bell Curve of urgency.

Our old editor was sounding like he wanted to reach through the phone and drag us up to Ligonier by our ears. But by about the fifth call an hour later, he just sounded bewildered: “Hello? Hello? Either of you guys there? Helloooo?”

The final call was pure resignation: “Uh, never mind about that truck. We sent somebody else.”

So intent were we on our pool match that neither of us ever even noticed breaking news when it had nearly run us right over.

Later the next week I was at the high school telling students about what they’d need to know to be reporters.

I don’t remember everything I said, but I do recall saying that their job will be much less stressful when they realize they should never be in any rush to hit the rewind button on the office answering machine.

Related . . .

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thots on circular pizza & horny Hut waitresses

I contend simple geometry means eating pizza three times a day constitutes a well-rounded diet.

I’m not a fan of square pizzas. I think every slice ought to have at least a little crust so the consumer can know where to take that first bite.

Shapes aside, pizza is our most flexible meal. You can eat it hot for dinner or cold for breakfast. You can get it plain or with pepperoni -- the vanilla ice cream of pies -- or with exotic toppings.

Me and my buddies eat so much delicious pizza here at The Pond that we’re always thinking of ways to enliven our orders. Just the other night, me and one of the eight Regular Joes had a toppings draft.

It was like we were playground captains each picking sides for a game of pick-up basketball only in our game all the players would be on the same team, or crust as it were. He went first and chose anchovies.

I selected bacon.

Then he took black olives.

It was fun watching the anticipation in bartender Keith’s eyes grow as we’d each up the ante.

I again went with the meat option and chose sausage. He took pepperoni.

I said mushrooms and Joe said uncle. That was enough. More toppings might risk driving our taste buds insane. And together we enjoyed a pepperoni, bacon, sausage, anchovy, black olive and mushroom pizza. 

I’ll be ready with the knock-out selection next time. My topping?

Hot dog. With a side of fries.

Yes, now hot dog and fries is a trendy pizza topping, at least it is at Ribalta’s Pizza in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

The Neopolitan pizza joint is offering the “Americana” pie with decoratively cut Hebrew National franks and a sprinkling of French fries -- and what says America more than something that begins with French!

To be truly authentic, it ought to have ketchup instead of traditional sauce.

I know these things because I’m one of those guys with pizza sauce in his veins. Mostly because I had it staining all my clothes for about five years back in the early 1980s when I was western Pennsylvania’s greatest pizza cook.

I make the declaration because there’s no one else claiming the title and there’s no governing body to dispute the boast.

At 16, I was working the kitchen at the old Pub & Pizza on Castle Shannon Blvd. That’s where I learned to throw pizza dough the way the old Sicilians do.

It’s still maybe my greatest bar trick. I take the damp bar rag and expertly toss it above my head like I’m stretching the dough. 

I was so good at this great little neighborhood joint, I was soon summoned to the big leagues.

Yes, Pizza Hut!

I worked through high school and then summers at the Pizza Hut on Banksville Road. But that wasn’t it. Whenever a store was in trouble, the district manager called on The Kid to go straighten out the kitchen.

So if in the early ‘80s you were eating Pizza Hut pan pie in Carnegie, Bethel Park, Dormont or any other numerous South Hills locations, I’ve probably put food in your belly.

What do I remember most about those days?

I used to make out with a lot of Pizza Hut waitresses.

It was wonderful.

There is something about working in that stressful situation -- a busy Friday night, lines out the door, customers screaming for hot food -- that seemed to make young food service workers horny.

Many times these pretty young girls would storm into the kitchen on the verge of tears: “Table 4 is awful! They’re getting ready to walk. What are we gonna do!”

I’d slowly turn from the prep table and, me the picture of cool, say, “Calm down. I’m going to take care of you.”

Then I’d turn and in a controlled frenzy of activity I’d slice six pizzas like I was a samurai warrior, switch this one with that one and -- voila! -- problem solved.

She’d get her pizza, she’d get her tip and three hours later she and I would be making out right back there inside the walk-in cooler.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I ever quit a job like that.

Heck, there are many days I’ll bet my wife still wishes I had that job, waitresses and all.

Sure, nobody comes to kiss me after I write a really good blog, but no one’s giving me a minimum wage paycheck every two weeks either.

I thought of this Saturday as we went to a local Pizza Hut as part of darling Lucy’s 7th birthday shindig. There was about 11 of us there, eight of them screaming 7 year olds.

The manager, a pleasant woman of about 60, handled the whole thing with ample cheer and charm. She had a great attitude and was the kind of twinkly-eyed woman men from my Dad’s generation used to approvingly describe as “a broad.”

I told her I used to work for Pizza Hut about 30 years ago.

“Were you management?” she asked.

No, I said, I was just a cook.

She gave the boy a good long look.

“You know,” she said, “they don’t make cooks like they used to.”

The party was wonderful. The pizza was delicious and all the kids had a great time. We were there about an hour and then it was time to head off  to the next folic.

I’m glad we left when we did.

I could see where things were headed and I know I’d have had trouble explaining to my wife just what the Pizza Hut manager wanted to show me back there in the walk-in cooler.

Related . . .

Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm a disgraceful DIYer -- and I don't care!

My five favorite things to do, in no particular order are: giggle, have sex, drink, read and play golf.

In fact, those are sort of my priorities. I wake up every morning and think, “Now, how can I manage this day so it includes at least a little giggling, a little sex, a little drinking, a little reading and a little golf?”

The giggling’s usually a cinch. I have delightful children and we never spend our time together discussing things like Snowden, Obamacare or why the bees are dying.

We just laugh and love.

I can find a little time usually every day to have a drink, something I do because I enjoy it and to make up for all those cruel teen years when my fake IDs failed to convince the guys ringing the registers at Pennsylvania beer distributors.

Financial and time considerations usually restrict me from golfing more than once a week and that’s a pity. I love an afternoon playing golf.

Sex? My wife’s both busy and quick and now that school’s out our giggling kids are always within a few feet of her, once again reminding me that the ultimate result of having sex is the creation of the very things that make it seem like you’ll never get to enjoy it again.

And like most cerebral humans, reading for me will always be part of the daily routine for at least the time it takes to use the toilet.

More from the top 50: I like to walk, fly kites, grill and eat seafood, chop firewood, watch Drew Carey on “The Price is Right,” play tavern darts, write my blog, juggle, sit on the porch, see matinees with Val, play catch, chase fireflies and watch a baseball game.

As I don’t enjoy making lists we’ll never know exactly where “Retile the bathroom floor and install a new sink and commode” falls on the list, but I’ll bet it’s in the 5,000s. 

Yet, that No. 5000-ish is what I’m right now in the middle of.

I think it’s because “Try to be a good husband” is in the top 100.

I mean it’s, er, No. 6!

Of all my failings, that I’m not a competent Do-It-Yourselfer I believe most disappoints my wife.

I think she must have seen some Lifetime movie years ago where the young newlyweds don white painting duds and spend alternating weekends repainting the nursery pink then blue depending on the shape of her butt believing that’s a more deft indicator of a fetus’s sex than the common ultrasound.

There’s a playful splash of paint, a reciprocal oops and then a slow-motion frolic involving flying paint and a tickle fight that segues into playful lovemaking atop the freshly speckled tarps.

And it’s all done and tidied up in time for lunch picnics with the chicken salad croissants.

It’s difficult for me to convey without swearing how much I loathe that insidious sort of make believe.

It takes me most of the day to properly tape the corners up so the edges don’t look sloppy.

We live in a Do-It-Yourself age where entire cable networks backed by deep pocket advertisers are devoted to convincing homeowners that DIY is virtuous.

In fact, it is Satanic.

During the two weeks or so -- cross your fingers -- it takes me to complete this secondary bathroom project I will experience a severe reduction in all the many splendid things that make my life soulful.

Just the opposite, I’ll snap at my wife more, be short with the kids and be more prone to things like road rage and abdominal distemper.

But being a DIYer is now expected of a man, especially a husband.

It wasn’t like that with my father.

I have no recollection of him ever even painting a room. I remember him and Mom looking at houses until they found one they liked. I remember the house had white walls.

And those walls remained that color through the duration of our occupancy.

I don’t remember Dad ever re-tiling a bathroom floor, installing a basement drop ceiling or tearing up the shag carpet so he could lay down hardwood floors.

No, I remember Dad sitting in a room with white walls, sipping beer and listening to famed Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope. I remember him smiling.

Today, the man is like a god to me.

I removed and donated (Habitat for Humanity) the old commode, the old sink, busted up the tile and yanked the baseboards off. 

Soon we’ll go to select new tile and me and a buddy are going to try and puzzle out the chore. If all goes well, it ought to be done in about another week or so.

Until then I’ll feel like this part of my summer’s in the crapper, shut tight in a box.

That’s a particularly apt analogy right now, too, because until I do it myself, the crapper is sitting in a box in the basement.

Related . . . 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Re-run Sunday: A very touchy subject

I was talking with an author friend of mine and we were discussing the writer phenomenon of being unable to remember the last thing we've written. It's true. If someone comes up to me and says they really enjoyed today's blog, I usually have to reminded of the topic. My friend and I agreed it's because we're so focused on what we're going to write next, not on what we've last written.

That's why I'm always so glad to see strangers rummaging around in the blog's attic. Closing in on 1,000 posts, I often forget some of the little gems from a few years ago. Ones like this May 2011 about the week I spent hugging lots of mostly ugly men.

I first noticed the alarming trend in a burger joint where I ran into an old buddy. He was with his teenage daughter and I was in a hurry and by myself.

We’ve known each other for about 15 years. Been to games together, played a little golf, drank a lot of beer.

He’s a damn good guy and we’re friends, but it’s not like I’d dash into a burning building to save his butt if he owed me fewer than $20.

That’s why I was so surprised by my reaction to seeing him.

I couldn’t keep my hands off him. I slapped him on the back. I squeezed his shoulder. Gave his arm a friendly rub.

Guaranteed, he’s dated girls for six months and not gotten that much action.

And I can’t explain why I did it. It’s not like he’s even all that good looking.

I’m becoming more touchy-feely and I feel like hitting myself for it.

It wasn’t just this guy either. I’m tossing my arms around guys who until recently I wouldn’t have voluntarily sat next to without first donning HAZMAT gear.

So far, the grabbiness hasn’t extended to the fairer sex. This is probably because I understand the ground rules are different with women.

Me grabbing any woman the way I’m grabbing men might send mixed messages that would lead to me either infuriating the woman or instigating some sly reciprocal grabbing that would justifiably infuriate my wife.

I can’t explain it.

Sure, I’m going through this difficult time with my mother and it’s making me more empathetic to my fellow man. I see stoics and wonder if they’re having some below-the-surface difficulty and could use a soulful hug.

That, I understand, is what some trauma can do to a person. But that can’t be it.

The Steelers losing the Super Bowl was traumatic, too, but I didn’t run around the bar suggesting me and the boys engage in a great big group hug to ease the sting.

And hearing Republicans say nice things about Obama has been disorienting. But I’m reluctant to hug any male Republicans for fear they’ll either legislate something discriminatory or announce they’ve been living a lie and want me to move to Vermont with them and start tending blueberry patches.

My father was maybe the most touchy-feely man who ever lived. He was like Barney the Purple Dinosaur with a 16-ounce Budweiser.

He would put peoples’ faces in his hands and pull them closer to express fraternal affection.

And he was widely loved. No one seemed to mind he couldn’t keep his hands off them. I always thought he’d have made an outstanding pickpocket.

Me, I’d recoil from his constant touching. I’m ashamed of it now, but I felt we were so close he didn’t need to keep touching my arm to get my attention.

That was before I became a father. Now I have a better perspective of his eagerness to touch something so dear to him.

I have two little girls and I can’t keep my hands off them.

I tell them the ingredients to any good and loving relationship are simply, “Play, tickle, cuddle, kiss, hug.”

And they’re very affectionate. They still crawl up onto my lap to watch movies and just giggle.

That’s fine with me. I hope play, tickle, cuddle, kiss, hug remain part of our lives for years and years to come.

I just don’t like the thought that I may one day be exporting those intimacies to all my buddies.

So now, in addition to my other troubles, I have this new me to worry about.

I may not like this new guy very much, but of this I am certain:

He really likes you.

Related . . .

Friday, June 21, 2013

R.I.P. James Gandolfini

I’d argued for 10 years that the coolest guy on the planet was Steve Van Zandt.

It was because two of the truly coolest men on the planet -- Bruce Springsteen and James Gandolfini -- would approach Little Steven to ask what the other was really like.

I think most of us have a pretty good idea what Springsteen, Van Zandt’s long-time buddy, is like.

But we’re just starting to find out what Gandolfini was.

It sounds like he was a treasure.

Van Zandt tweeted yesterday: “I have lost a brother and a best friend. The world has lost on of the greatest actors of all time.”

Springsteen last night dedicated “Born to Run” to the late Gandolfini at a show in Coventry, England.

Fans of “The Sopranos” will recall a line from the song was once thrown in Tony Soprano’s face as the reason the nephew he would one day murder was late for an important family meeting.

What took him so long?

“Highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.”

Van Zandt, a man who was there for the song’s creation, didn’t flinch. It was very cool.

I’ve argued (see below) that “Breaking Bad” is the best TV show ever. But no one can argue that “The Sopranos” wasn't the first truly great show, and it couldn’t have happened without Gandolfini. Watching so many clips from yesterday was a fresh reminder of his genius.

To me, he was like Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront,” only instead of doing it  once for 108 minutes, Gandolfini did it for 86 hours over eight years.

Gandolfini and David Chase -- and I was surprised by how much generous credit for the show’s success Chase is bestowing on his friend -- together launched the golden age of television in which we’re all reveling. It just keeps getting better and better.

Val and I have a list of movies we’re eager to watch and know we never will.

It’s because we’re too busy feasting on these colossal TV shows that have emerged after “The Sopranos” raised the bar.

Who would have ever thought movies would be a secondary entertainment to television?

Here’s why: Even a great movie is like a cousin, nephew or niece -- and I would never dream of diminishing my love for those relations.

But for the most part we don’t see them but a couple times a year.

A great TV show is like one of our own children. We see them all the time and are invested in their success. We brag about them to our friends and boast our shows are better than theirs.

That’s all thanks to “The Sopranos.”

Funny, when I heard the shocking news of his death at just 51, the only other role I immediately thought of was the voice he did in the uneven 2009 film version of “Where The Wild Things Are.”

Gandolfini provided the voice for Carol, the biggest wild thing and the one with the anger management issues.

Brilliant casting, I tell you.

I remember how much sweet humanity he brought to even that role.

He appeared as Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie I’m eager to see again.

But every time I’d see him in anything, I’d wonder if he’d ever escape Tony’s immense shadow.

Now, we’ll never know.

What we do now know is what a true sweetheart this man must have been. He did so little press that most of us only knew him for menace.

But the news is full to brimming with stories about his kindness and deference. The man who played the mob boss wasn’t bossy at all.

I liked this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about venerable Pittsburgh watch maker Michael Kobold, who Gandolfini sought for a luxury time piece in 1999 when the show was just starting to break. Kobold heard the uncultured accent and figured Gandolfini was a cop eager to take advantage of the 20 percent discount he gives to police officers.

“No, I’m an actor,” Gandolfini said. “There is an HBO show called ‘The Sopranos.’ There is a big fat guy and I am the big fat guy.”

Who knew a man known for perpetuating so much mayhem, who killed and sinned with such joyful abandon could make us all feel so sad when the unexpected time came for his own mortal whacking?

Related . . .