brushes with greatness

I've bumped into a few celebrities in my life. Alec Baldwin, you know about. When I was a chauffeur in college, I drove Jerry Seinfeld around for a weekend. Perhaps the unlikliest was childhood hero Terry Bradshaw. I've met many of my childhood Steelers, so that part wasn't remarkable. It was where I ran into him: a grocery store in remote Poulsbo, WA. Imagine a Steelers fan running into a Steelers great here, and you can imagine my surprise.

"Here?!" I eloquently said.

Pittsburgh friend Risa has met 'em all, and she's smoother than me. She was walking down an alley on her way to the downscale cigar shop when she came upon Denzel Washington, leaning up against a fence and smoking during a break in filming.

"Say," she said. "Has anyone ever told you—"

"Yeah," he nodded.

"—that you can't smoke here?"

He laughed, and they chatted. Pointing at the cigar perpetually bobbing on her lower lip, he said he really respected a cigar-chomping woman. She invited him to the cigar shop, where, she promised, everyone would leave him alone. He joined her, and they smoked together, and people left him alone. He probably mistakenly attributes this to the coolness of the customers. But I know it's because they were so engrossed in telling the same goddamned alimony stories for the umpteenth time, they didn't notice specifically who they were boring.

I missed meeting Denzel, naturally, but I showed up two hours later. Risa was lingering in her seat, her eyes still awash with estrogen.

I grabbed my normal seat next to her.

"Don't sit there," she snapped. "Not today."

glory days

This recent photo of my old basketball court features a steel beam too intimately acquainted with my left knee.

I was in the best shape of my life. Through hard work and my innumerable natural gifts, I had elevated my basketball game to "not always a liability." We were playing four on four on that old asphalt court, the threads of chain nets hanging from the now-gone rims. This was a brutally rough court. Blood flowed freely, not all of it mine.

On this day, I was leading a fast break.

Ahhhh. Let me type that sentence again.

On this day, I was leading a fast break.

One more time. Pardon my indulgence.

On this day, I was leading a fast break. I passed back and forth with the guy on my wing (who I'd like to say was d'Andre, but let's face it; the man was no doubt standing doubled over behind me, hands on his knees, gasping). I decided to lay it in myself. I beat my guy off the dribble, leaped for the rim, and for some inexplicable reason entertained the notion that I was capable of changing hands while mid-air. I was going for exactly this:

What actually happened was that I sort of schlubbed the ball in the general direction of the rim and, still at full sprint, rammed my extended knee into the solid iron pole. It didn't make the resounding GOOONG! sound a hollow aluminum pole would make. It instead made the exact same sound as a cantaloupe being dropped 20 stories on to pavement.

I could not stand, not that I tried very hard. The boys carried me and my broken patella home, depositing me on my couch unceremoniously and returning to their game.

"Did I make the shot?" I asked, hopeful.

Such a cruel, cruel laugh ensued. I had hit the bottom of the backboard, and the ball had ricocheted off and hit my head.

meow

After a number of celebrity near-misses these last three months—Emma Watson, Alec Baldwin, Vin Diesel, Jodie Foster, Will Smith, and countless Steelers—Mr. Baldwin plopped next to me at the upscale cigar bar. We nodded at one another, but I otherwise left him alone.

Remember when he was kicked off a plane for refusing to stop playing Words with Friends? You guessed it. He played all night on his gigantic iPhone 6, the use-case for which is now more clear to me. A little.

Cinematographers' framed shots are the man's friend. He's maybe 5'7" in heels, and his head is enormous. Gone in my memory is barrel-chested corporate titan Jack Donaghy. In his place is a shop teacher who ran out of water pills two weeks ago and hasn't had a chance to get to the store.

old world, new world

I was telling a neighbor about my recent visit to my old apartment complex, but I didn't get much traction. As soon as I mentioned entering my old building, she interrupted me.

"Wait, how did you get in?"

"The door to the building isn't locked."

"Wha-WHAT?!"

"It's not exactly a luxury complex. Which like I was saying, there in the hallway was—"

"I just don't understand. They just let anyone walk right in?"

Yes. Yes they do. Now kindly pull your silver spoon out of your ear and listen to my crappy story.

wiseguy

Longtime Stank Troll John and I had plans to see the Steelers-Ravens game together, but his wife fainted at work, and he felt compelled to stay home and watch her not faint again. As John's reward, Roethlisberger torched the Ravens for six TDs. Because Ben's a dick like that.

John's game ticket went elsewhere, but John felt compelled to ship me a bottle of bourbon anyway. When I thanked him, he replied, "I just try to stay good with made men."

For good measure he added, "Well, it is a well known fact to anyone who's ever watched The Godfather or Wiseguys that mobsters are neat freaks."

home alone

IMG_3267.JPGMy eyes were still stinging with imaginary pinkeye at 4am. I groaned, resigned to watching movies on my iPad until everyone else woke up. Or...White Castles for breakfast! 15 minutes later, I was inhaling the cheeseburgers of my youth. God bless the guy who thought of the 24 hour drive-through.

I had a lot of time on my hands, so I drove around Columbus, my hometown. I left Columbus shortly after I graduated from Ohio State, and I rarely visit. My sister and I had visited our childhood home the day before, so I set off for the homes that followed. My homes.

Post-parental divorce, I grew up poor. My go-to illustration is that in the sixth grade, I had four shirts. On Fridays, I had to decide which shirt to repeat, and I carefully repeated on a rotation, as if I would be more ridiculed if I wore a shirt four times in two weeks instead of merely three times. I remained poor until I left Columbus for grad school.

I knew this, of course. I knew solvent people didn't write personal checks against one another in a ponzi scheme to delay needing the rent money for as long as possible. But until last weekend, I don't think I fully felt it.

Everywhere I went, I saw perfectly unremarkable places that once had metaphorical "No Johns Allowed" signs in their windows. This included restaurants and Ohio State games, sure, but also mundane places. That's the expensive doughnut shop, I thought. I couldn't afford to go there. That's the car wash where people with nice cars went. That's...

You get the idea. Everywhere I went last weekend, I was reminded of just how poor I'd been.

The dogs and I went to Maddie's and my old apartment, the place where I balled with d'Andre and Mason. A crumpled box of Newports laid amid the filth in the hallway outside the apartment, and at some point, they gave up replacing the rims on our basketball court. And weeding it. We awkwardly used one of the cracks as the three-point line.

As I left my old neighborhood and slowly drove back to my present life, I was a bit numb. I was surprised how surprised I was about all the reminders of my poverty. I felt sheepish. And then I went to that doughnut store and bought my sister a dozen.


i need a black light in here, stat

I dropped a taco on the table at my downscale cigar bar. "Well, that's done," I said as I scooped it off to the side.

"Oh, she just wiped the table down a few minutes ago," said Risa. "It's fine."

No, it most certainly isn't fine. This shithole is home, but I'm not eating food off its table. I might as well lap water out of the toilet bowl.

"Eat it! It's fine!" she implored. I glanced over at the woman wiping down the tables with a revolting, tattered brown rag that used to be white, and I tossed the taco into the garbage. Risa was disgusted with me. "Okay, princess. Jesus Christ," she snarled.

Allie says I'm a germophobe. Her evidence:

  1. I wash my hands before eating, and
  2. I get a little woozy when her daughter wipes her butt, glances at the sink in passing, and then puts her hands all over my face.
If that's a germophobe, then I suppose I'm guilty, but to me this is just basic hygiene. Perhaps having poopy-kid-fingers in your mouth all day dulls a person's sense of remedial cleanilness. I am not so dulled.

When the dogs and I arrived at my sister's house, we were greeted by my sister and her four Labrador retrievers. Dex immediately christened the back yard, and when I asked for a shovel, I was told to just let it ride. This caused me to survey the backyard, the surface area of which was about a 60:40 grass-to-excrement ratio. The dogs ran around as dogs do, rooster tails of crap in their wakes. Then we went inside, and I was shown to my room. My sister's dogs gleefully leaped on to my bed and walked all over the pillows upon which my face would soon rest. I threw up in my mouth a little.

That night in the dark, as I combated psychosomatic pinkeye symptoms, I imagined Risa and Allie mocking me. "It's just a little dog shit in your face. Jesus Christ, princess."

mobster

I saw my first chardonnay spit-take at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Chris had turned to me and, apropos of nothing, blurted out, "So Stephanie thinks you might be in the mob."

"I'm what, now?" I said as Stephanie wiped her chin with her sleeve.

Her husband leaned forward with excitement about the upcoming conflict. A defensive Steph then presented her case. "Well, that explanation makes a lot more sense than you coming into town for five months just to see the Steelers." We all had to concede that this was a pretty good point.

"Plus look at you. Beard and shaved head, all black clothes, trenchcoat. We've never seen you actually work, yet you buy anything you want. You wear sweats, like, all the time. You love conflict. When you're angry with someone you calmly say things like 'Just FYI, I'm gonna punch you in the throat in 30 seconds if you're still here.'" (True story) And whenever we've told you that a restaurant or bar or neighborhood is sketchy, you're there that very night."

Everyone looked at me, smiling, expectant. And then I unleashed an irrefutable defense: "If I'm going to fabricate a cover story, out of all the options available to me, why on earth would I pretend to be a technical writer?"

Steph slumped, defeated.

what i'm stankful for

Before I venture off to Thanksgiving dinner, I want to note just how great yesterday was. My best day in years.

First of all, Amy was on vacation. Words cannot express how sick I am of talking to that woman every morning. Staying in the work realm, we officially landed a big contract for 2015, thereby ending our year of "I wonder if we'll have jobs next week."

Socially, the day started with Steph and Andy at the dog park, followed a few hours later by her capitulation on the vegetarian Thanksgiving issue. Then I went to the downscale cigar bar, where almost everyone I know in Pittsburgh had spontaneously gathered to load up on booze and nicotine before they had to deal with their families. The entire day was a whirlwind of people buying me bourbon and cigars, and finally the owner brought out a huge tub of free buffalo wings. While stuffing my face, I was introduced to "Les the Jew" and "Mick the Mick," and some inebriate asked Les, straight-faced, "Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving?" Everyone laughed, including Les. We regaled one another with stories for hours, until finally the owner said he had to go home to his family. Sadly, I schlepped off the the bar across the street, where the black guy seated next to me ordered a Jack and cranberry, then, noting my retching noises, insisted that I accept a free one. It was as disgusting as you're imagining, but free is free. And then I so hit it off with the lovely Italian girl seated on my other side, she insisted on running home to get me the best goddamned cannolis ever made.

So what am I stankful for this year? Not being in Seattle.

thankgiving

Surprising no one, I accepted the Thanksgiving offer that involved the least amount of effort on my part. So tomorrow I'll be venturing to Steph and Andy's for a vegetarian Thanksgiving. Or so I was resigned.

"FYI, I'm making a turkey," texted Steph just now. "You looked like you were going to cry."

That's rubbish, of course. I was weeping outwardly.

knightmare postscript

The morning after telling Liz's molester to "have at her," I went to a different cigar bar. I entered to a round of applause. So at least we know my Pittsburgh legacy.

knightmare

Last night I ventured to the neighborhood upscale cigar bar, where I found my two smoking buddies, Risa and Liz. The following skism between my perceptions and reality occurred.

What I thought happened   Reality
The women were sitting side by side in leather easy chairs, both facing the football game. A gentleman had pulled up a chair to face them. Judging my how closely he was huddled with Liz, they were clearly friends. The women introduced me. He told one mind-numbingly lame dirty joke after another. I zoned out.

"I don't think Liz's husband John here is going to much like that," Risa said, trying to draw me back into the conversation.

I would not be drawn back in. "I hardly know her," I shrugged at the guy. "Have at her."
  They didn't know the guy.

He had fixated on Liz's chest from the moment he walked in, and she had been playing whack-a-mole with his hands ever since. Not once, not twice, but three times, he slid his hand up her miniskirt and felt her up. That's what he was doing when Liz's knight in shining armor told the creep to "have at her."
     

"THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!" they screamed in unison as soon as he left. Even the appalled wait staff scolded me. It was my finest hour.

By the by, reasonable though the question is, it's probably best to wait a while before asking a woman why she didn't stop her molester herself.

I might be kind of stupid.



"What the Fucking Fuck?" awards 

  raven-symone

The Cosby Show's cousin Oliver decided to get ahead of any rumors. Unfortunately, she writes like an actress:

"I was NOT taking advantage of by Mr. Cosby when I was on the Cosby Show!"

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donner party, table for two

Miss Ava has apparently cultivated a taste for Polish food. This time, I was ready with my camera. The things I do for you people.

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my calvin and hobbes moment

I traveled to Minnesota last weekend to see the Ohio State/Minnesota game with Dirt. It was 5 degrees. I'm told I'll feel my feet again sometime in May.

I've known Dirt's German Shepherd, DJ, since he was a hairy little fetus. Back in Metamuville, we had a ritual. He would bark furiously, and I would yell "It's me, goddammit!" and he would charge me, snarling and snapping, and leap into my arms. It was cute. Five years ago.

Now 110 pounds, DJ didn't feel particularly compelled to amend our ritual. Barking murderously, he knocked the wind out of me before I even hit the ground, which then knocked next week's wind out of me, for good measure. I laid there, incapacitated, as every orifice in my head was tongue-raped by this toilet-guzzler.

There simply isn't enough Purell.

tundra

"While I'm back East, what say I shoot into Minneapolis for the Minnesota/Ohio State game?" I stupidly said back in August.

"Are you high?" Dirt sagely replied. "It will be 10 degrees."

"You pussy. C'mon, it'll be fun," I stupidly replied.

"Pass," Kiki smartly replied.

As I pack for tomorrow's outdoor game, I just checked the weather.

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Please tell every woman who ever rejected me that my last words were of her.

you don't know me

New buddy Andy was driving me around Pittsburgh, showing me different neighborhoods in which he thinks I might like to one day like to live. We were on the north side when he showed me a lovely brownstone near a cluster of adorable shops and taverns. "If you go a few blocks thataway, the neighborhood gets a little sketchy," he cautioned. I perked up a bit. He continued his thought. "But then...you're a little sketchy."

the cure for insecurity

I went out with Michelle last night. In the space of 75 minutes, I went from "she is entirely out of my league" to wishing she would contract hyena syphilis. Those would be the 75 minutes that she was late.

No apology was forthcoming from Miss Thang. Next.

adventures in babysitting, part deux

My regular bartender was telling the story of a creepy customer who tried to purchase a kiss from her. I'm not sure what mental defect compels some men to try to purchase the affections of non-hookers, but he was acutely symptomatic. At first he offered her $1000. When she demurred, he chased. He doggedly offered more and more money. Supposedly he went up to $10,000. 10 grand for a kiss.

"And you said no?" I said. "At a certain point, isn't he pricing you into doing it?"

The assembled women glared at me.

"I'm not being sexist." I explained. "For 10 grand, I'd rim the guy's dog."

Everyone recoiled. Everyone except Michelle, who guffawed and slapped my back.

Michelle is a fellow barfly. We've since had several of the long, drunken conversations typical of our species. At our bar, she's often the center of attention, so I share her with the world. Charismatic, pretty, highly educated, stylish and successful, she is entirely out of my league. I treat her accordingly. I'm often the only guy in the room not hitting on her.

It helps that she's 16 years younger than me. When we began hanging out, I'd thought she was 10 years older than she was, and she'd thought me 10 years younger. On the heels of the Sarah triumph, this has rattled my confidence in my ability to estimate age.

This morning at the dog park, I fell into a conversation with a woman I estimated to be in her late-20s. At one point, she mentioned how she brings her puppy to her football games, then runs the track with him later.

"Oh, neat. Wait..." I swallowed my face. Good god, I'm talking to a high school cheerleader!

But no. She simply plays in a football league. And I officially have a complex.

2 games, 12 touchdown passes, 0 picks

Half of my readership is non-American, so I've refrained from writing about football. But for the sake of posterity, allow me to note that in the Steelers' 80-something years of history, their quarterback has thrown for 5 touchdowns only six times. Four of those were Roethlisberger. And three of those, I've seen in person.

Whatever else happens this season, I've seen something truly historic.

getting maryed

I could hermetically seal myself alone in a sterile biodome in Antarctica for forty years, breathing nothing but bottled oxygen and being fed only Purell, intravenously through a HEPA filter, and some kid's mom would come for a visit, and then I would get sick, and when accused, her answer would still be an indignant "Well I'm not sick, so you must have gotten it somewhere else."

context is everything

On Tuesday, I read this article—okay, I admit, just the first two paragraphs—written by illustrious whackadoodle José Canseco.

Control the People, Not the Guns

By José Canseco

I truly believe, aggressively, that we have the right to bear arms. We should be able to carry guns to protect ourselves. Period.

The funny thing is I don’t own any guns, but I would love to have a few—an Uzi and a street sweeper and a machine gun, maybe. I’d love to be able to carry a 9mm on me in a holster and just walk around. That’d be great. But you can’t in California, the state in which I live. And that’s bogus.

Imagine my surprise when within 24 hours, I see the headline "Jose Canseco tweets pic of hand after blowing off finger while cleaning gun."

You'll have to imagine my surprise, because there was none.

post-racial

Ahead of their recent visit, d'Andre's wife Pam

We interrupt this sentence so that I might express my supreme annoyance at having to type two apostrophes in a name.
—called me. We chatted about Ohio State's football team, or as we like to call them, "our other common problem." When the call wrapped up, she implored both d'Andre and me to behave around their nine year old girl, Danielle.

"Can you two please curtail the racist crap around my daughter?"

"Sure," d'Andre said.

"Not a problem," I agreed. "We can pretend to be someone else."

CUT TO:
EXTERIOR - JOHN'S PITTSBURGH APARTMENT
THE NEXT DAY

I greeted Pam warmly at the door, and then d'Andre less warmly. I turned to Danielle, whom I have not seen since she was a baby.

I nodded and shook her tiny hand. "d'Sheni'qua," I said.

"Jeeeeezus," the kid said, glaring at her mother mid-handshake.

"That's your Uncle Egger," d'Andre said, visibly delighted that I broke character first. "Absolutely no relation."

solidarity

During my drive to Pittsburgh, I stopped by Minneapolis to visit Dirt and Kiki for a couple days. I hadn't seen their daughter, Ava, since they left Metamuville two years ago. Then seven, this autistic child only spoke the words "iPad," "no," "Nemo," and "blueberries." I often described her as Helen-Keller-kind-of-feral.

When Ava was born, Dirt and Kiki started calling me "Uncle John." As time passed, I became the boogey man. "You don't want to make Uncle John angry," Dirt would say when I wasn't even there. Eventually, I lost that title. Dirt renamed me after the sergeant in Stripes.

When I arrived last month, Ava walked past me on the front porch. "Uncle Hulka," she said blankly. She walked to my car and pointed. "Those are Washington license plates."

Who are you? I thought, amazed at the transformation. Nice to finally meet you.

Then a memory popped into her brain. "iPad?"

There's my girl.

She's far from normal, but she's also far from feral. Civilization and its attendant special education system have been very good for her. Ava still refuses to engage much of the time, but she can opt to engage now, and that's been life-transforming. We actually bicker now. Oh sure, it's not like how Katrina's kid and I can bicker for 127 hours without drawing a breath. Ava doesn't have that sort of focus. This goes for 5 minutes, tops. It's infinitely preferable.

The school has taught her to express her anger instead of biting people, or at least how to go through those motions. And express her anger she does. Any time she doesn't get her way, she screams "AVA IS FEELING ANGRY!!!" louder and louder. The only way to stop the escalations is to capitulate. We were in the back seat of the car when Uncle Hulka thought he would try another tactic.

"Ava is feeling....angry," she said.

"John doesn't care," I replied.

"AVA IS FEELING ANGRY!"

"JOHN STILL DOESN'T CARE!"

And so it went for about a dozen louder and louder iterations, until she grabbed my hand and chomped. I let her.

IMG_2430.jpg

"What is that?" I cooed sweetly, tears rolling down my cheek. "Did a butterfly just land on my hand? Because it kind of tickles."

I sent the photo to Katrina's kid, who asked what I'd done to deserve being bit. I replied that I'd told Ava to shut up.

"Yep. That'll do it."

The group with which I've worked for the last four years was just ruthlessly acquired and laid off. They paid me in advance, so I still owe the company some money. A guy with a sleazy reputation just cold-called me about working for him. I cut him off.

"I'm not interested in working with your company any longer."

He was taken aback but not derailed. "But we have a credit balance."

"Yes, you do. I'll write you a check."

Apparently fresh from Management 101, he went straight to flattery. "I really wish you would reconsider. Hal (the executive in charge) really values what your company does and very much wants to continue the relationship."

"Yeah. Well. Considering that he just fired the only remotely competent people you've got, that means slightly less than fuck-all to me."

"Oh. I, um, guess that's it, then."

I guess it is.

young spuds

Oh, how lackluster the Steelers are this season. Virtually every other team in the league looks faster. Smarter. Executes better. Wants to win more.

Wants to win at all.

Yep. I'm delighted to have spent a shitton of money and energy to be here. I'd hoped, failing their being a contender, I would at least get to see the young studs develop something more than neuroses.

missing netflix

I am officially suicidal at the thought going out. So that's the answer to an age-old question: you do get sick of going out for every meal, around the five-week point. Although to be fair, I'm mostly sick of wearing pants.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Costco to buy chicken breast. I sense a shut-in week or 12 coming.



"What the Fucking Fuck?" awards 

  rob motto

I don't speak for the movement, but I'm pretty sure they'd prefer the support of people who know the meaning of big SAT words like "equal" and "especially."

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this week in vomitous stupidity

Idiocy Cost
Saturday
Took dogs to park. Lost my wallet somewhere between the car and the gate. I have no driver's license, no insurance card, no credit card, no cash until Monday.
-$350 cash

-$75 for replacement parking pass

-$20 for replacement driver's license

Sunday
Dropped iPad on concrete, shattering it beyond repair.
-$850
Sunday
Lost prescription sunglasses during walk home from Steelers debacle.
-$360
Monday morning
Creditless, went to bank and got $1000 cash. Promptly lost money clip.
-$1000 cash

-$250 money clip

Monday morning
Go to Lenscrafters to get new sunglasses. Between Lenscrafters and home, promptly lose my regular glasses.
-$420
Monday afternoon
Stupidly change DNS settings on critical business server that I usually manage from a networked machine, then realize that I have no compatible monitor within 2200 miles. Hello, Amazon Prime.
-$140 new monitor

-$12 cable

-$5.99 for overnight shipping

Monday night
Found money clip in crevice of car. Holy fucking hell on a stick. Time to buy 1,250 lottery tickets.
+$1250
Total cost of stupidity vortex $1812.99
plus all remaining self-respect

why every app and website you use sucks lately

I was watching my dogs crap and talking with some hair-gelled guy whose name I've heard several times but cannot remember. He's about 28, a nice enough guy. He introduced me to his girlfriend, about the same age. She too shall remain nameless. She's the Senior Artistic Director Poobah Supremeus Grand Wizard at some local software company. Or some such conspicuously glittering job title. Millennial designers are all about minimalism right up until they're inventing imperious titles for themselves.

She and I talked shop for a while, and I told a story about how I collaborated with other groups at Microsoft to devise a set of user interface design guidelines. I wasn't 10 seconds into talking about translators' needs when she turned away and emitted the most horrific shriek.

You know the child at the grocery checkout whose mother denies him every bit of candy he can grab, who then explodes in exasperated, feral rage at not getting every single thing his heart desires? It was exactly that sound. It was that primal, that childish. I had blundered into a raw wound: it's a grotesque injustice that her designs should be accountable to anyone. She knows good design. As evidence, just ask her if her designs are good.

I don't know how much time she's spent in a usability lab, watching people struggle to change their credit card numbers, but I'm guessing it's several hundred hours short of my several hundred hours. Yet this fetus not only considers herself qualified to argue, she somehow considers others unqualified to argue back.

And this, dear reader, is why you cannot perform basic tasks lately. It's not you. It's the pouting chick with fewer hours spent in the lab than spent scraping hair gel from under her fingernails. Good design means "low-contrast, flat appearance that's so much like everything else cloned by the cool kids at the coffee shop, all your open windows blur together."

Me, I long for the days when good design meant "you don't have to fucking google how to use it."

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