Monday, June 10, 2024

Latrobe Bulletin readers select favorite Local Author: It's me!


Thank you, Latrobe Bulletin readers for selecting me as your Favorite Local Author! Here's the letter-to-the-editor I wrote acknowledging the honor ...

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I must confess when my wife-to-be and I moved to Latrobe in ’92, it wasn’t because of the schools, the recreational opportunities, the history, or the character of the people, which I’ve come to regard as the most stellar on the planet.

No, I moved here because of the looming threat of Y2K pandemonium. Remember that panic? A numeric computer glitch was going to confuse all our critical machines into believing it was really the year 1900. That was three years before the Wright brothers first flight. Top experts warned the scenario would so befuddle modern aircraft that the machines would forget how to fly and begin to drop out of the sky.

Banks would fail, electricity would cease, our vehicles would  roll to a stop.

I read all this and my first thought was, “Hmmm, where in the world could I find a small town home that’s near a quality brewery that’ll ensure local residents have ready access to thirst quenching American lager?”

Hello, Latrobe!

I look back in hindsight and am amazed that a man so shallow-minded in every other way held such a deep capacity for cold beer. 

I jest, but Latrobe did have a unique set of intangibles appealing to a young writer eager to differentiate himself from the hordes of talented but indistinguishable freelancers working in NYC.

It had Arnold Palmer, Fred Rogers, Steeler training camp, Rolling Rock beer, banana splits and a host of other notables that made great ice breakers for Manhattan editors who were happy to take a look at stories included in the gift bags from “That Latrobe guy.”

In Manhattan I was that Latrobe guy. In Latrobe, I was just another guy.

But I grew to cherish the designation. Because I became pals with other Latrobe guys and some if them were giants. I had regular lunches with men like Vince Quatrini Sr., Ned Nakles Sr. Dennis Rafferty, and Mike and Terry Ferguson. We’d line up at the bar  at Baldonieri’s, the conversation often directed by Holly Baldonieri (now Holly Rutter Bush, incidentally one of my favorite “local” authors).

Now, many small towns can boast an austere line-up of bright leading citizens. I contend what makes Latrobe unique is the quality of our goofballs and misfits. They’re profane, witty, profound and capable of brilliant outbursts of confounding intellect that add volatile color to every conversation. They can be rude, crass, belligerent and leave you wondering how the same town that raised Fred Rogers could have produced these jackasses.

It’s why some visitor or new resident eager to make a flattering impression will mistakenly gush that “everyone here in Latrobe is just so nice.”

“If you think that about everyone in Latrobe,” I say ominously, “then you haven’t met everyone in Latrobe.”

It’s why I’m bracing myself for the ribbing I’m bound to endure when word gets around that Latrobe Bulletin readers voted me “Latrobe’s Favorite Local Author.”

Friends will wonder if there’s even a runner-up, if I voted for myself and the tally was me, 1, and “other,” nothing, etc.

That’s not fair to the many, many talented writers who struggle with priorities and yearn, like I still do, for a commercial or critical breakthrough that will justify all their dreams.

Joke all you want. I couldn’t be more pleased by the declaration. You know, at one time Arnold Palmer was likely The Bulletin readers’ “Favorite Local Golfer.” 

The vote count isn’t what makes it special. The title is all it needs. So I say this with all due humility.

I’m, ahem, special.

But only because you’re special.

Two of my most popular books are offbeat bios of local legends — take a wild guess — Arnold Palmer and Fred Rogers.

You have no idea how lucky purely as a writer that makes me. I got to spend more than two years inside the heads of Fred and Arnold, two of the most monumental men in history. Men who coincidently happen to be perfect gentlemen, both lively, creative, fun and wise.

Many of you helped put me there. My stories are your stories. I only knew them (mostly) through you.

A writer — any writer — producing a portrait must immerse themselves in the lives of his or her subject or the paint will smear.

Try and imagine how different I would be if I lived in, say, a small Long Island town where the local writers seeking to capitalize on notoriety had to choose between Bernie Madoff and Joey Buttafuccuo. Or Jeffrey Dahmer.

I’d be coarser, darker, more cynical. A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood?

More like a sinister one.

Check out the places that sell my books — and God bless ‘em! —Youngstown Grille, Eclectique, Pat’s Hair & Nail Place,  Latrobe Art Center, Greater Latrobe-Laurel Valley Chamber of Commerce, 512 Coffee & Ice Cream, Tin Lizzy (honorable mentions to neighbors in Ligonier and Greensburg, Second Chapter Books, DV8 Coffee and Barnes & Noble).

What do these places have in common?

They’re happy places where convivial folks go to do and enjoy things that nourish the soul.

And they welcome my books at these places.

So thank you, Latrobe Bulletin readers, for making me your Favorite Local Author.

And thank you, Latrobe, for making me the kind of writer worthy of the honor.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

May tweets (sorta) of the month (May)

 Remember when tweets used to be limited to 140 characters. Some of these are 140 words. I like being free to write what I feel but we're missing something. Not much, but something ...

Enjoy your weekend!

• Was looking forward to a rare night at home with just me and soon-to-be graduate when plans abruptly changed. It was not to be. So I was surprised to see her walking through the door asking me if I still had some grilled steak left. I did. She sat with me for 10 minutes saying how good each bite was. I would certainly have understood if she'd been a no show. Instead, she slowed down and took the time to make me feel special. I'll remember that longer and more touchingly than if everything had gone as planned. There's a lesson in there: Those who go out of their way to make others feel special are the ones who become special.

• Our right brains are creative; left practical. I’ve made left brain decisions with the right and right brain decisions with the left with no thoughtful result. Some decisions seem to have been made fully left brain and some the reverse. I look back on many major decisions in my life think I on the big questions I was at the time utterly brainless. I guess things have worked out decently because I somehow maneuvered the questions into what you’d call no brainers. And I have the perfect thought capacity to handle big no brainers

• “History repeats itself” and so do pompous observers eager to appear wise by offering dandy bromides involving redundancy of times gone by instead of fresh insight.

• Given the number of horses who win “by a nose,” I predict enterprising breeders will soon focus on breeding horses with really, really long noses. Like noses as long as a horse! Imagine the finish line advantages.

• Scientists who declare Earth is 4.5 billion years old are way off. It’s not even 1.That’s because every year Earth goes through the same wild growth spurt where unruly vegetation grows in unusual places, things become annoyingly loud and the lawns need mowed every 2 days. Earth cannot age. It’s in perpetual puberty. 

• I’m reluctant to wade into politics here, but yesterday’s trial left me confused. How does a woman who’s earned a living often on her knees or her back ever swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth while seated in a place called “the stand.”

• I need a car, but to afford a car I’d need to get a job and getting a job would cut into all the time I enjoy spent leaning against a bar. Solution! Enter one of those contests where whomever can touch or lean non-stop against the prize car longest gets to keep it. Sometimes it takes 3 straight days. Big whoop. I’ve been leaning against one bar or another for 4 straight decades. What’s truly amazing? Just two pee breaks.

• I’d rather be known as an offbeat writer with soft topics and little market penetration than one with hard topics and massive penetration. I guess it comes down to preferring to be an offbeat writer than being what I guess you could call a beatoff writer.

• I understand the comfort of believing Earth is flat but wonder about the whole package. For instance: What’s on the other side? Is it smooth? Convex? Or are there roots and shit?

• I’ve had some kind of spiced chicken everyday for the last week. Enough! I won’t take another bite. That’s right. I’m going cold turkey on hot chicken.

I know what some of you are thinking. You didn’t like that one. You’re thinking, “Fowl!”

• I caught myself mentally mocking a pear-shaped friend who claimed he spent an hour a day exercising and immediately felt shame. Who am I to judge? Me judging anyone is clearly a case of the pot (belly) calling the kettle (corn) black (velvet cake).

• I’ve long wondered how much more advanced humanity would be if we chose our partners based on shared interests rather than how nice one another’s butts look in tight jeans. Try this: Imagine how appealing you’d be to potential mates if they looked at you and saw only the textures of your brain. Alright, alright. Your brain in a Speedo.

• The internet has meant the demolition of permanence. Things we thought would be with us forever, they come and they go. Mark my words: In 10 years you’re going to say to some kid, “Let’s Google it” and the kid is going to say, “What’s google?” And you’ll feel yourself break out into a cold sweat when you realize your instinct is to google “Google.”

• We hear it sometimes in whispers, sometimes in shouts: “If you don’t make any money writing, why do it? Why? We write for all the times a  reader will smile at us` for something we’ve written and the smile will be so soulful and warm you know instantly it’s genuine. It’s the smile of an innocent who entrusted you with her virginity and is now aglow with the realization that the condition was dispensed of with skill and enthusiasm. Who among us is so crass that we’d take money for the privilege of merely being chosen for the randy role? Not me!

• I’m becoming so consumed with word games when I see a name like Alan Alda my mind immediately begins to deconstruct it to see how many points I can get for alternatives, A LAND ALA … DALA LAN … NADAL LA …

• Golfing with John Rusbosin and friends. Will take full advantage of their good natures to play numerous practical jokes like exaggerating my back pain until one of them offers to tee my ball for me. I’ll gratefully thank them then spend the next two minutes watching them all hunched over and growing more and more exasperated as I say, “Higher … higher … Lower … Higher … Too high … Lower … Higher”

I never dreamed I’d miss an artist the way I miss Tom Petty, who’ll be gone 7 years in October. It was Petty who personified America’s love/hate relationship with recreational drugs. In the 2007 rockumentary, “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” Petty is asked about the drugs that killed friends and bandmates. Looking fittingly forlorn, Petty laments, “Drugs are just awful. They suck the souls out of people. Put a big pile of drugs in front of people and it just leads to ruin.” But then you see a mischievous glint in his eye and he leans forward and with a conspiratorial cackle asks the off-camera reporter, “You don’t happen to have any drugs, do you?” So, of course, he died at the age of 66 of — wait for it — an accidental drug overdose! It’s ever since been my custom to end all family dinner prayers with, “… and please, God, be sure to tell Tom Petty we really miss him.” Amen

I’m fed up with the grinding tedium of grooming my finger and toe nails roughly every three weeks. It often takes me more than 20 minutes to maintain proper length. That’s 20 minutes of bending, leaning and writhing like a contortionist to get the job done. No more. Instead of doing them all at once as of today I will do just one toe or finger every day for 3 weeks or 21 days. Because I only have 20 tiny toe and finger nails and it’ll be spread out over 21 days, I’m going to need a Leap Nail Day to keep the sessions in sync. On that day, I’ll post here on Facebook that I’ll be available to trim one friend’s nail. Now, I’m sure I can get a nail, but just who is going to give me the finger? Anyone?

• I’m thinking I’m just not cut out to be the reclusive writer type. Why just the other day ‘i had an enterprising reader breach the compound guard walls, vault the moat, evade the rottweilers and knock on the front door of my house to buy 10 “Crayons!” books for future leaders. My response to this brazen invasion of my privacy? I said, “Sure you don’t wanna make it an even dozen!”

Friday, May 10, 2024

Parkinson's book excerpt:: "Me drunk in public"

I'm struggling to write the book, "The Art of Living Suddenly: How to Deal with a Parkinson's Diagnosis (and other things that suck)."The problem is my insistence on writing only books that have happy endings. With PD that's a challenge. But I think this one strikes a balance between the complex emotions I need to convey a story that compels without depressing. At least that's how I feel today. This is about me and last Saturday night when I got drunk in all three of the Tin Lizzy bars. Nothing depressing about that!

There are a number of places in the small town where I reside where it’s not unusual for me to be introduced as the “world famous writer.” I refute these glorious inaccuracies by pointing out you can’t be world famous if you need any introduction in a town so small the last mayoral election was decided by the relative landslide tally of something like 12 to 6.

We’re so small town we have the stereotypical hallmark of true small town USA.

Yes,  Youngstown, Pennsylvania, pop. 247, has just one stop light intersection.

But what distinguishes it from many other no-pulse civic realms is that while we have just one stop light, we can brag we have six liquor licenses. Six distinct whistle wetters!

And I’m famous in two of ‘em.

Latrobe Country Club is not one of them. They’re already filled to the brim there with leftover fame from being the parcel of land inseparably linked to Arnold Palmer —a truly world famous man who’d needs no introduction.

Nor am I famous in the Rainbow Inn, a popular family restaurant where we often took the kids on $5 spaghetti dinner night. But it’s not my corner tavern so, nope, not famous there.

Not famous at the Youngstown Social Club either.

But I am small town famous in two of the three bars in a building deserving of fame. That’d be, of course, the Tin Lizzy.

The Rathskeller may, in fact, be the most interesting bar in the building, but I warrant no fame there. It gets a later arriving crowd there and skews younger so it’s really not for me. So, no, I’m not famous in there.

I’m famous in Flappers, the second floor martini bar. My friends and I gather up there, particularly on Fridays. Even when I’m alone I can usually count on the bartenders to say who I am, what I’ve done and that, hey, that’s him napping at the end of the bar.

I remember one Friday night I was in there alone. It was for me later — maybe 9 p.m. — and I was all by myself amidst a bustling crowd of convivials. I have to tell you, I remember that night feeling a bit like a loser. There were little bouquets of happy friends flowering all over the bar.

And there I was all by my lonesome. I thought I should finish my drink, tip the bartender, and head home

That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The tapper introduced himself as Tim and asked if I was Chris Rodell. I told him I was.

“I want to buy 30 copies of your Arnold Palmer book.”

I slammed my palm so hard on the bar several patrons spilled their fancy drinks.

“I’m never leaving this bar again!”

The Main Bar is the Tin’s beating heart. It’s where the locals drink, where people meet to make plans, and where John “Buck” Pawlosky, bar owner since 1980 holds court. He’s so disdainful of current pop culture, he admits the last movie he’s ever seen was “Apollo 13” from 1995.

I tell people he thought it was a sequel.

He doesn’t think much of music the rest of us found agreeable.

Did he like ’70’s music? Elton John? The Bee Gees?

“Nahhhh …”

How about the ’60’s? Beatles? Stones? Creedence?

“It was all crap.”

Hmmm … What about the ’50’s? Elvis? Bobby Vinton?

“Bunch of punks.”

Fair enough. Let’s go back to the 40’s. What did you think of Sinatra? The Andrews Sister?

“Made me sick to my stomach.”

Man, we’re running out decades with any enduring recorded music. The ’30’s with, I dunno, Bing Crosby. Maybe Burl Ives?

“Look, I like real music. Music that really gets you going. I’m talking music from the ’20’s”

I remind him this IS the ’20’s. He doesn’t care. I guess I don’t either. He’s since 2015 let me keep an office in the coolest building, I say, in all western Pennsylvania. So I don’t give a crap what he thinks about pop culture as long as he keeps tolerating me.

I think he’s proud to have me as a building fixture and, yes, refers to me as “the world famous writer.”

I love it here, especially on nights like Saturday when I put time in at all three bars. It was Kentucky Derby Day. I love that day. Plus, I’d been to a golf exhibition and sold a dozen books. So I had folding money.

I started at Flappers drinking straight Wild Turkey and asking the bartender Kristen how much different the race would be if the rules stated the jockeys each had to weigh 300 pounds.

She said that would be animal abuse.

“What do you call you pouring shots of  straight Wild Turkey 101 down my throat for hours at a time and not even offering me so much as a Slim Jim for sustenance?”

She said she’d call that dumb animal abuse.

Now, I’d never want to be accused of discouraging wit, but I will confess when time came for her tip, I pushed a quarter across the bar and said, “Change, please.”

Then it was down, down, down  to the beguiling Rathskellar where Dawn was working. She poured me a double Wild Turkey on the rocks and pretended to be listening when I asked her how different the derby would be if the horses had no jockies.

(Trivial Aside: The bartenders on the basement and 2nd floors know to pour me Wild Turkey and have memorized my reasoning, which is: I drink the bourbon I most resemble; I’m not a Jack or a Daniel, a Jim nor a Beam. I’m a Turkey that sometimes gets Wild”).

I sipped on that for about an hour before saying goodnight. It was 8 o’clock and the younger crowd was beginning to arrive. Plus, Jimmy had started at 7 and Jimmy has the nimble brain of a free range chicken so I enjoy our banter.

He poured me a Yeungling draft while I asked him if he thought horse breeders would try and genetically engineer horses with really, really long noses to up the odds that winning by a nose became a sure thing for horses they’d inevitably name things like “Sir Schnoz Alot” and “Picks A Winner.”

We had a splendid time, but — speaking of sure bets — I’d reached my limit. Likely passed it in the basement.

But who, er, knows? I’m a seasoned drinker.

A seasoned drinker with Parkinson’s.

It’s becoming increasingly common for me to need physical assistance in getting off my bar stool. I don’t know whether it’s the height, the angle of bend at the knees  or the growing clumsiness but it happens about once a month. I’ll be sitting there and after maybe two beers and my lower body becomes immobilized. My friends are aware of my predicament and begin silently cheering me to achieve lift-off. I asked John what he’s thinking as he observes me struggle.

“First thing is ‘I hope he knows there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to help you.’ We love you and seeing you struggle kills us. Then we start to silently cheer with each sign of progress. Then, finally, relief, when you arise from your stool and take that first tentative step off and head toward the door.”

That’s me. Reliably entertaining bar company since 1981!

When it drags on too long, I surrender to my embarrassing fate and say, “Boys, I’m ready to be launched.” And “… 3… 2 … 1 … Blast off!” these burly, big-hearted men put their arms around me and heave me out of my stool. It’s joyous. Wonderfully invigorating.

Of course, I didn’t have my A-team cheering section with me in the Main Bar on Saturday night.

It was just me, my surgically healing left foot, my Parkinson’s and my still-escalating blood-alcohol content. I finally escape the stool, but now must navigate the path between me and the distant front door.

I sense every eye turn to me and every mouth close. I’m twice the age of everyone in the bar. I’ve become one of those pay-per-view live spectacles where half the audience is rooting for you to miraculously survive and half are hoping for gruesome splatter landing.

What I’m about to type is pure conjecture and based on what would have gone through my own head back 30 years ago had I witnessed an old coot like me, head down and immobile. Please don’t judge me.

“Wouldja look at that guy. He’s 60 if he’s a day. And look at him. He’s shitfaced. A guy that old should be home with his grandkids. He can’t even walk. I’ll bet he’s gonna stumble head first straight into the juke box.”

The son of a bitch is right on all counts. It’s all true. I should be home, sober and watching “Frozen” for the 248th time, but it was Derby Day and it’d been a while since I’d howled.

I’d been a spectacle. I’d embarrassed myself.

Jesse;d seen it all. She’d worked the day shift and had stuck around to socialize. I apologized for my sloppiness.

“Plus, I’m sure at least some of those people recognize me and now will always say they saw me stumbling drunk at the Tin Lizzy,” I say. After all, I’m a world famous author.”

She came back with the two syllable words of advice I always long to hear in any fretful situation.

“Fuck ‘em. You were fine.”

I thought about it and realized my mistake was selling my neighbors short. I should have announced:

“What you’re about to witness is not going to be pretty. I’ve had a lot to drink. And on top of that I’m awaiting my third foot surgery in 3 years. Oh, and I have Parkinson’s. But the good news is I’m not driving. Hell, I’m so broke, I don’t even own a car. My wife’s coming to get me.”

Then Jesse came up with a great idea. She said, “Tell them all that but at the end say instead, ‘I’m hoping someone can give me a ride up the hill.’ You’ll see a dozen hands shoot up. You can do it every night. They’ll argue about whose turn it is to drive you home.”

She’s absolutely correct. 

See, there are perks to being a world famous author.

It’s just none of them surpass the perks of living in a small town where the people all have big hearts