My Friend Tony

Can I tell you the story of Tony? It would mean a lot if you would let me.

I spent a lot of years working at a restaurant. 17 to be exact. I have some great memories and I have some bad ones but overall it continues to be a formative period in my life. I made some great friends, learned some valuable skills and I met my wife there. The place is still there, as busy as ever, but I don’t go there as often as I used to. The food sucks, speaking as the former kitchen manager, and is too expensive. Additionally, my soon-to-be ex-wife still works there and I don’t want to go in and deal with all of the uncomfortable conversation. You see, we were a big story, a famous Prince (the name of the restaurant) couple. But there is one thing that I will always go there for, and that is to see my friend Tony. He works part time now, doing small chores to keep busy, He’s retired but he can’t sit still. Yesterday I went in to see him but he wasn’t there. He is in a Hospice…dying of Pancreatic Cancer.

Tony, now 80 years old, is the son of a Sicilian immigrant. He moved here when he was a teen, entered school as a senior, and despite a serious language disadvantage, graduated and joined the Army. His father worked on the docks in Boston and his mother dutifully cared for their modest home. Tony’s father never learned a word of English in his 92 years, his co-workers and his son worked around it. When Tony left the Army, he met a lovely young lady named Linda and he married her. Soon after he responded to a help-wanted ad posted on a little Northern Italian eatery in the town in which he lived. The owner was also an Italian immigrant who was glad to hire him. By the time I met Tony he had busted his ass, and I am understating this, for that man for 20 years.

When I first met Tony, I was a young college drop-out, freshly recovered from a motorcycle accident, hired as a “kitchen hand”. A title which entailed anything from prep-work to scrubbing pots. I hated it, the hours were long, the work was brutal and mind-numbing. I didn’t complain about the work because the after work beer was free and I was in the company of some very hard workers, most of them immigrants with limited English, big hands and bad tempers. They also didn’t speak to me. Tony was the first one. He called me a “slow Irish prick” and told me to “hurry the fuck up.” The fact that I was Scottish and going as fast as I could apparently irrelevant.

I didn’t know what “old school” really was until I started working at Prince. I came to understand their version of it as a rite of initiation. You must pay your dues, earn their respect, become worthy of them including you in conversation. If you are really “in” they will speak English in front of you. The golden ticket was a shot at working on the front line. Serving dinners for the laypeople out there. You must be worthy of their training and you had better be good. Sadly, at that time in my life my only goal was to move up to the line. I got my shot after a year of grunt work. I would be working next to Tony.

After my first few months on the line Tony did loosen up some and talked to me. I learned fast and I worked to his liking. It was if one day he realized I was for real (as a worker, maybe as a person). When that day came, and the curtain fell, I instantly liked him a lot. He was genuine and without pretense. And it was all about respect with him. Apparently, I earned it because before long we were laughing as we worked, enjoying the disapproving looks of the others. I became his protégé, although it felt more like “whipping boy” at times. Every shift we worked we were paired up. We would eventually become great friends but it took a while and several obstacles.

I would come to know Tony as a very nice, often obstinate, family-oriented and honest man. He believed in the American values of hard work, family and prosperity. He was respected at work and at home, but he did a tremendous job of keeping the two separated. His family was off-limits. No jokes about his wife were allowed, and no one who worked with him would ever date his beautiful daughter, or he would absolutely snap. If you could respect that Tony was easy. But there was one other thing, he didn’t like to be called stupid. Ever see Marty McFly when someone called him “chicken”? Yeah, something like that. I crossed that line a few times and the fights were awful. He would go days without talking to me. I hated it.

After 16 years of comraderie, hard work, a few fights and many after work drinks, Tony began to slow down. His age, a growing menu, my increasing skills and speed made it necessary that he and I would change places. I would become shift leader and he would assist me. It wasn’t my idea but I offered to be the one to tell him. To my surprise, he wasn’t upset, He was tired and welcomed the break. He would have been mad if I wasn’t the one given the position and he made that clear. We worked together exclusively until he slowed down further and was relegated to other responsibilities. He would retire soon after, not interested in a supporting role and more interested in enjoying time with his wife. He would stay on and do small jobs such as make salad dressings and take care of the hundreds of plants throughout the 700 seat restaurant. Working the line would never be the same, I missed having to repeat myself constantly. I missed listening to him tell the new help jokes that I had heard a hundred times. I missed having him tell me how I “wasn’t shit” compared to him in his day. He was probably right. Soon after, I found a full- time job in the world of business. My restaurant experience had gotten old.

I would visit Tony frequently at home and at work. I would time it so we could have a drink together and talk about the old day. What we did, who he hated, etc. It was always great to see him. I was really looking forward to having that drink, to update him on recent events, to see how he is feeling after he recently beat the odds (15%) with a bout of Pancreatic Cancer. I had sent him a long note about how much I loved him because he couldn’t have visitors. He called me and tearfully thanked me for the note.

When he recovered I was almost as happy as he was. I had recently heard from my wife that he was doing good for a while and that he was back to work. I now know that he isn’t. No one knows where he is, per his request. I want to see him so bad. I want to tell him again, in case he forgot, how much his friendship meant to me. To reflect on the thousands of conversations we had over the years. The world is losing a great man. What he taught me about hard work, being a simple and honest man, and to make the most of your situation will always be etched on my being.

If I don’t get to see him, I am comfortable that he knows how I feel about him. We’ve pretty much said everything to each other. But I will always be able to visualize him shrugging his shoulders, with his goofy self-effacing smile, saying  “After all, It’s just a job.”

Because it’s all I have

I was heading to the market this morning to grab some necessities. I take any opportunity I have to drive through the center of this little town and admire the old buildings. I have never spent a winter up here so it is still all new to me. It’s a beautiful town but it is very divided between old money and crushing poverty. For every restored farmhouse with smoke from the wood stove drifting lazily from chimneys, there is also one dilapidated house with one or more broken down cars in the driveway, also occupied by children without a proper winter coat.

As I drove by AD Auto Body I was prompted to turn around and say hi to Dave. Dave is another MA transplant who moved up here for a simpler life and eventual retirement. Dave is a friend of my mom and a close friend of my mom’s deceased second husband Frank. When I moved up here in August I had damage on my car that I needed to be fixed but couldn’t go through insurance. Mom brought me to Dave who said he would take care of it. He repaired over $1500.00 in damages for $286.00. I was amazed at this gesture, which he apparently does for everyone. “Never mind what the insurance estimate says, I will do it for what it really costs,” he told her. I was very grateful and thanked him repeatedly. Today. I felt compelled to stop in and say hi.

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I walked into the old, dusty shop and saw that Dave was with a customer. I waited patiently for him to finish (he is long-winded). When the customer walked out he looked at me and said “What’s up Bill? Crash your car again?” I laughed.

“I just stopped in to say Merry Christmas and acknowledge again how grateful I am for helping me out this year. You’re a real nice guy and I hope someone tells you that once in a while.”

He was touched,  but tried not to show it. A man like Dave deserves a thank you but doesn’t need it. And at this point in my life, I am unable to give him anything else but what is in my heart. It’s all I have.

Dave and I talked for a while, I shook his hand and left. “Say hi to your mom for me,” he said. I assured him that I would. I got in my car and felt whole. I could have committed to stopping in after I went shopping, on the way back. Or maybe later. But I might not have. I may have put it off. I’m glad I recognized that the time is now to say what is on my mind and acted on it. If all I have to offer is what is in my heart it is going to have to be enough. It can’t be bought in a store, and it can be given by many.

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No returns, please.

be careful what you wish for

You were a waitress, fresh out of school

Me, a lost soul, living for the moment

You loved me immediately

At least thought you did

You chased me, I rejected you, all part of the game

You were so much younger, what would people say?

You persisted and insisted, that I was the one

You wished for my attention, hoped that I would break

I warned you I was not good for you

My illness and demons would take us down

Remember when I met your mother?

The disapproving look on her face should have said it all

 

A few years passed and your interest had not faded

You were older, I was stagnant, I gave it a shot

We began to date, there was no turning back

You’d loved me so long I couldn’t hurt you

We became a great story, despite all the odds

But hard times would come sooner than later

The fighting began, worse all the time

Bad times outnumbered good,  cracks began to show

Out of nowhere,  you were off to Florida

I would later learn that you went to think

stay with him, or leave him, a decision needed to be made

You chose to stay, the rest is history

21 years of marriage and 4 beautiful kids later

our great story now comes to an end

We were never a good match, I tried to warn you

I couldn’t provide for you, I knew it even then

Years of bitterness and struggles, you could have avoided it all

Sleepless nights, foreclosure and bankruptcy all that remain

If regrets were currency we’d be rich

Tomorrow we go to court to make it official

The story is over, bring in the shovel

When we sign the papers, making it final

Will you be thinking about that trip to Florida?

It’s not your fault

Next time, and I hope that you have one…

Be careful what you wish for

Another anniversary

Six years ago, at this very hour, I was undergoing Kidney transplant surgery. My family and my donor’s family waited nervously in the waiting room and friends and co-workers at home anxiously waited to see how we were doing.

I woke many hours later. I woke to bustling nurses, the beep of numerous machines, flashing lights and tubes and wires coming out of everything. The incision area was very painful, but I quickly realized that I already felt better than I had in years. Kidney disease patients often complain about a “fuzzy head”, feeling “off”. My head was clear.

The next day my donor and I were flooded with visitors. She was in a lot of pain but mobile, I was not, so she hung out in my room. Because we were co-workers many came to see the both of us it worked out great. I was still really sore and heavily medicated but the company was welcome. We were all celebrating a truly amazing thing, a co-worker donating a vital organ to another is such a selfless act, I felt like I was witnessing a historic moment.

As my recovery progressed, I committed myself to be better than before. I wanted to get back the strength I had lost, to truly commit to good health and get the maximum out of the estimated 15-20 years that I could expect from this kidney.

While I did enjoy some physical milestones in hiking, basketball, mountain biking and weight training, a mere 4 years later  I hit a wall. I got sick again, and by the symptoms, I knew what it was. After several biopsies, it was determined that the original disease that had destroyed my original kidneys over the course of 30 years had come back and done a ton of damage in just one year.

I’ve struggled to reconcile this for the last 2 years. I feel angry that I wasn’t told of this possibility. I feel sad that I can’t do the physical activities that came easily to me a mere 2 years ago. I even feel bad that my donor’s generous gift wouldn’t last as long as she and I had hoped. But I do not feel bad for myself and I do not ask “why me?’ I got a shit hand, it happens.

Six years ago today my Facebook page virtually exploded with encouragement and positive messages. I have truly never experienced anything like that. Some people may never experience such an outpouring of support. Some people may never experience a second chance at anything. I did, and for that, I am grateful, regardless of what the future holds.

the Apple has a worm

I made myself get an iPhone this year when my upgrade was ready with Sprint. I did it reluctantly, my entire family and the rest of the known universe has one so I had to see what the big deal is. I am not impressed. As a guy who doesn’t play games, use a ton of apps and spend all day glued to it my phone needs are not a high priority. I use the internet, emails, social media, the camera and make calls. That’s it. I lose a lot of calls, the blue tooth is not working right and every time it updates it messes everything up. Part of this may be that I’m not tech-savvy. I know my way around a computer but I don’t care much otherwise. I’m old-fashioned like that, when I graduated HS the internet was barely a thing. Because I’m old-fashioned, I also like talking to a person when I have a problem. After my experiences with Apple and Itunes customer support’s phone system and customer service, I officially hate Apple. I may be the only person in the world to say this but it’s true.

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Voice-activated computerized menus suck. Theirs is the worst. None of the options given by the computer have ever been what I was calling about and getting the option to speak to a representative isn’t offered. I find myself screaming “CUSTOMER SERVICE REP” into the phone before I finally get someone. With the exception of maybe twice I have been connected with a gum-snapping, Starbuck’s Venti triple-swirl, cinnamon-laced-wheatgrass-infused with tiger semen sipping person who puts me on hold for twenty minutes only to give me a different number to call.

Resetting my password was an act of Congress because they couldn’t tell the difference between my son’s account and my own. But I dealt with them. I had to.

Today, while shoveling snow in white-out conditions my phone apparently fell out of my pocket. I looked everywhere, under mountains of snow as if someone had sneezed the coke off of the coffee table at Robert Downey’s house. It’s gone. So I called my carrier for my options. Sprint told me that I can get a new phone for $473.99 (in other words pay off my current plan). I said, “what about my protection plan?”

“Oh, you have AppleCare?”

They gave me the number to AppleCare. Surprise, surprise they don’t cover lost phones. Ugggghhhhh. Either way, I have to pay $473.99.

My mother called her provider and asked about adding me to hers. Good news, they can add me on cheaper, their protection plan covers lost phones and they will pay $375 towards paying off my other plan. I asked them what the deals were. They offered me a great deal on a Samsung 8 Note. I love that phone. I said “Great, let’s do that. How do I get the $375 to pay off Sprint.?”

“Oh, I’m sorry sir. That deal only applies if you get the iPhone.”

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Let me tell you about my children

Are you running yet? That is the typical response when someone talks about their kids.

I was never “that guy” who had a stack of pics to roll out like playing cards if someone asked if I had a family (this is before cell phones and uploaded photos of course). I would be happy to talk about them to someone really interested but I have always believed that people are really not interested, it’s just something to say, like “how are you today? “Trust me they don’t really want to know.

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My children are older now and I don’t have to deal with that anymore. But now I want to talk about them to anyone who will listen.

If this past year has taught me anything, it is that life’s meaning is not in the size of your house, your stock portfolio or how nice your car is. After being reduced to an unemployed, sick man with too much time on his hands I have come to value accomplishments as the measure of a man. To do this I had to contemplate the meaning of a real accomplishment. Here is what I came up with.

I worked at a restaurant for a long time. A family business where I met my wife. I rose to the top of the food chain in the kitchen to a manager, where I was responsible for thousands of meals. To be real, however, my only real accomplishment was establishing high standards that led to a reputation as a hard-working perfectionist.

I sold cars for many years. Aside from consistently meeting or exceeding goals for sales and satisfaction, my only real accomplishment was the testimonials of customers that left with a different, better impression of my much-maligned industry after they met me. They used words like nice, accessible, professional and my favorite “has integrity.”

I worked as a Collections and Liquidations (repo) manager for many years. I developed systems, reduced overall losses, and increased profitability for the entire ten years that I was there. I was considered the best in my industry. Despite that, my only real accomplishment was that I helped a lot of people. People who were struggling, confused how things worked and needed someone to talk to who would really listen. I was the person that worked with them and I know that at the end of the day I made a difference in someone’s life.

Nothing else I have done matters…except my children. I really accomplished something there.

My children are awesome. At 21, 20, 18 and 15 I have four decent, sarcastic, hardworking and nice kids. They are good citizens. Charitable, kind-hearted, polite to all, respectful of the elderly and authority figures and did I say nice? I am a truly blessed man. While I wasn’t able to afford a massive house, a car for each of them on their 18th birthday and a trust fund, I was able to give them a decent childhood despite constant financial hardship. We went to Disney, we went camping, they played sports and I spent every minute of daylight and energy that I had to throw the football, fling the frisbee or wrestle on the lawn. Fighting the clock, all the while knowing that they were going to grow up too fast.

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I was able to walk the line between parent and friend, being accessible while still in position to leverage the “Dad card” when necessary. They weren’t afraid to tell me things. I never shielded them from life, instead, I told them how the world really is. My girls dressed as Disney princesses once, but today they aren’t the types to wait around for a man to solve their problems. My boys aren’t fighters, but they knew enough to punch the school bully back and he would leave you alone. And if someone messed with their sisters, well watch out is all I can say. The other lessons they learned from me were unfortunate. They learned the value of saving money by seeing their family home auctioned off. They learned the value of hard work when I lost 6 months of work to illness and the older 2 had to get jobs in High School. They learned about sacrifice when they realized that I had tried to leave a terrible marriage ten years previous, but stayed because they deserved to have their father around. And finally, they learned that life is not all sunshine and rainbows when their mother and I finally split up after 21 years of marriage. Amazingly, they are all thriving. Strong, resilient, versatile and not expecting a damn thing from anyone.

That is truly an accomplishment.

So let me tell you about my kids. Despite all of my shortcomings, they were able to retain all of the good things, rise above the bad and cause person after person to tell me how great my kids are. Thank you, I say. If I were to die tomorrow, they are indeed my real contribution to the world. My legacy.

I just see trees

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the entire day with my youngest daughter on Saturday. Since the separation, the physical distance between us has been a real barrier. When we do see each other, it tends to be rushed because of time constraints. Saturday, we had 2 hours in the car and a day of binge-watching Netflix ahead of us.

I love riding in the car with the kids, one at a time or all at once. I have a ritual with each one. With my oldest, it’s radio off and let’s talk. With my second oldest it’s sports talk and name the car. With my youngest son, it’s all music, comparing Spotify playlists and playing for each other our favorite new artists. With my youngest, we only have one ritual. It’s called put the damn phone down. She kills me with how she cannot pull herself away from the endless snapchats, facetimes, and texts. She doesn’t mean to be rude, she’s just addicted. She is one of the millions I suppose. I am probably being selfish, I want as much quality time with her as I can get, and I want her to see what I see.

The ride to my place in NH from hers is an increasingly scenic one. As the odometer increases the number of houses dwindles. Four-lane highways become 2 lane roads. Imported, high-end cars are soon outnumbered by domestically produced vehicles. I can actually feel the stress wash off my body as I reach the halfway point of the 100-mile commute. At mile 57 comes my favorite part. There is a long stretch of climbing road, the type that has a slow lane for trucks and heavy equipment. Once the peak of this stretch is reached and you top the hill you are immediately hit with a vast, panoramic view of the White Mountains. You can see for 50 miles on a clear day from that spot. Layer after layer of hills, snowcapped in spots, fading in clarity as you strain to see the end of it. It takes my breath away every time. As can be expected, I prepped her ahead of time that I wanted her to put the phone down when we reached it because it diminishes fast once you are down the hill. My daughter took a look, said “nice” and went back to her phone.

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It’s not her fault, her generation was raised on screens. All of my kids are like that. My mother with her new dating app is too. Smartphones and staying inside are here to stay whether I like it or not. That’s extraordinarily difficult for me because I love the outdoors. One of my favorite movie scenes is from the Great Outdoors with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. They are in Canada on vacation, sitting on a deck overlooking a lake. Dan Aykroyd goes off on a tear about what he sees when he looks out. Future Industrialization, urban sprawl, forestry, medical waste dumps. John Candy’s character, when asked what he sees, says “I just see trees.” Then he is summarily insulted for being short-sighted and simple. Sorry to say, but that’s me, I just see trees.

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I want my kids to see trees. I want them to appreciate the power and beauty of nature. I want them to see crashing waves during hurricanes, starlit nights and sunsets, windy days and mountain views as I do; as a reminder of just how small we really are. To recognize the beauty, power, age and resilience of the tall mountain, the rushing river and the mighty Oak is to recognize our relative size and overall significance. No man is a match for the tide, despite his wealth, power and Instagram followers. It is a call to humility, a damper of ego and hubris, a wake-up call to recognize your smallness.

My children continue to marvel, and I suspect privately mock my newfound Spirituality. That’s fine with me, I was a pretty vocal agnostic for a long time so I have it coming. When I told them about my change of heart, it was a result of deciding between being honest, or not sharing something valuable for fear of being accused of flip-flopping. They are cautiously happy for me while still confused about my change of heart. I could explain it so easily if they let me.

Walk outdoors and look up. That’s all. Look to the top of the treeline, gaze up from the base of a mountain, stare at the stars on a cold winter night and you will see how small, not insignificant just small, we really are. When I did this, I offered myself up as a role player, a piece in the great puzzle. I made myself smaller so that my life could be bigger. I found the power to let down my guard and ask for help and guidance.

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Sure, I like screens. I’m working on one now. They serve their purpose. But given the choice…I still just see trees.