Postcards

Best Pizza Ever ….

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It’s probably slightly north of coincidental that the best pizza I can ever remember tasting in my life is associated with a last-day-of-school memory.

I was 11 years old.

And within minutes of the #12 black and yellow bus spitting us out for the last time as sixth graders at Hatfield Elementary, my buddies and I were mounted on our bikes … report cards in our back pockets and the whole of summer laid out before us (exactly) like an open road.

We left the neighborhood by way of Dawson Street (the sweetest, straightest avenue on our hill) down to Jamison, to minimize our time on busy Dixon Boulevard. Then, practicing a patience paid for in countless quarters at the Frogger table, we waited for the traffic to quiet enough on Dixon to allow us to skooch across the short bridge over Jamison Creek so we could hug the right side of Lebanon before ducking into its calm side streets. From there, it was just one single traffic light across Morgantown and a handful of stop signs before sneaking up behind the Uniontown Shopping Center and our pilgrimage’s DUAL destinations.

We locked our bikes together outside the Station Arcade and opened its door to let the glorious 8-bit symphony of all those beepy soundtracks wash over us. Without a hint of hyperbole, it was the 11-year-old, early-80’s equivalent of the Pearly Gate’s trumpets.

Pulled our report cards from our back pockets and presented them to the owner for inspection. He was a tall, black t-shirt wearing middle-aged mustachioed man with a receding hairline and a fat jangly ring dangling from his back pocket that held the keys to The Kingdom. As far as we were concerned, he was also The Most Powerful Man In The Universe.

Get this: for every single A on our report card, he rewarded us with a token. Doing the math, four nine weeks + a final grade = 5 possible tokens per class. So, a conscientious, black-and-gold-with-Mag-Wheels-Huffy-riding-straight-A-student could fill both front pockets of his (proly) Ocean Pacific shorts with 40 or so tokens.

To this day, I’m not sure I’ve come across a more powerful illustration of the importance of hitting the books than the sweet jingle of two pocketfulls of Station Arcade tokens.

Far from amateurs on the arcade circuit, we could more than make those tokens stretch across an entire afternoon. Galaga and Dig Dug were among my drugs of choice. I’d camp out at one until I wearied of it, lining up quarters on the bottom left of the screen to secure my spot for the next ½ hour or more. In my 11-year-old-prime, leveling up was as much memorization as hand-eye coordination.

After a few hours carving our initials across more than a few leaderboards, we pressed pause on our assaults and made the short walk across the alley (location, location, location) to the day’s other main destination: Pizza Town.

Owned by an Italian husband and wife who spoke broken English and exquisite pie, the humble establishment was little more than a counter, a handful of non-descript tables and a wise-old pizza oven that breathed piping hot crusty truth by the slice.

New York-style. Generous triangles served on tiny paper plates that made the pizza seem bigger and more appetizing. They made the pizza in advance, then added the toppings fresh before the husband slid the slices into that magic oven on The Big Wooden Paddle with a whoosh followed by the reverberating smack of the oven door closing behind.

I was and remain such a sucker for the human mastery of actions performed in daily repetition. (Washington peeps …  tell me there’s a more mesmerizing sequence than the lunch guy at Shorty’s dropping toppings in perfect measure onto the hot dogs lining the length of his forearm).

As an 11-year-old, I remember marveling at how the owner didn’t need a timer to know the precise moment to pull the pizza so the cheese was bubbly perfect, never burnt. And how he wielded his paddle like a ninja — sliding it one-armed under the pizza to rescue it from the oven and then, in the same motion, yanking it from under the crust to leave a single triangle perfectly squared on its tiny paper plate. Evidently, the owner knew from memorization and hand-eye coordination, too.

I can recall my exact order that day: two slices with pepperoni and the anchovies my parents would never let me get; large Coke served in an eponymous paper cup (the kind that always made the Coke taste better) with the tiny, chewable, kind of ice-machine ice chunks. Paid for with allowance money pulled from my back pocket, since both fronts were still token-stuffed.

While decades have fogged my recollection of the precise flavor profile of that exquisite pie, I can tell you with 100% certainty exactly what it tasted like to my 11-year-old self: freedom.

Achieved only via riding our bikes across town. Earning an afternoon’s worth of tokens. Paid for from money pulled from my own pocket. With toppings of my own choosing.

The experience is as vivid in my memory as it is incongruous with the present moment … Peter and Emma’s last day of 10th and 6th grades, respectively.

When I shared the above recollection with my wife Karry, she couldn’t believe our parents would ever allow us to do such a thing. I could’ve explained it a million different ways, but I just told her that we feared our parents exponentially more than any evil that might have befallen us on a cross-town bike ride to the Shopping Center.

I’m not sure we were any safer in those days. We just didn’t have as many digital media sources scaring us into believing we were in any appreciable danger.

Ignorance? Perhaps.

Ignorance as bliss? I’ll order it off the menu every day.

I don’t spend much time wishing my kids could have experienced my childhood (really I don’t).

But, if I could give them just a taste … I’m pretty sure I’d offer up a slice of Last-Day-of-Sixth-Grade-Biking-to-The Station Arcade-With-Your-Best-Friends-From-the-Neighborhood-To–Spend-a-Report-Card-Earned-Afternoon-Topped-Off-With-Paid-From-My-Pocket-Pizza-Town-Pizza.

To summer vacation.

And hoping the present generation carves their initials on its leaderboard as indelibly as their parents did.

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Postcards, The Road Ahead

Encore

 

I get this little tinge of expectation every time I go to the mailbox. It’s a dog-level expectation. No matter how many times I walk away disappointed, I still return the next time with a measure of hope.

Much like our old black lab, Sadie, who for years, and in vain, chased the chipmunks in our back yard. Though the chipmunks would always have a head start, always accelerate faster over short distances, and always make it safely back to their headquarters beneath the base of the basketball hoop, Sadie would invariably gather her poundage (which ranged between 80-102.5 in her mature years) into a full sprint, chase them back to HQ, and then feverishly paw and snort while the chipmunks mocked her from a safe distance (because chipmunks are, you know, punk bastards). She’d scratch at the base for literally minutes, oblivious to our calls, until we’d have to drag her away by the collar as she craned her head over her shoulder, let-me-at-‘em-style, all the while dog-growling the equivalent of “You wait. Next time, f*ckers. … next time.”

Like Sadie, no matter how often I return empty-pawed from the mailbox, I still think, there’s always a chance, as I stroll across the sidewalk and open the latch.

A chance for a letter, or a card. Or just something that catches my eye.

It rarely happens. And, it doesn’t take much. Karry will confirm that I’m nearly giggly when the Clipper Magazine arrives every month.

Couldn’t tell you the exact day, whether it was a weekday or weekend, but I do remember it was February 2016 … when I spied … THE CATALOG.

I remember plucking it from the bottom of the daily pile, and mindlessly scanning its pages looking for a single listing … from a lifetime ago.

That had no business still being there.

But, I’ll be damned … there it was.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

A smile took over my face. Not the immediate, in the moment, oh-that’s-funny grin that burns off as spontaneously as it erupts. But the one that kindles itself from a sweet memory triggered unexpectedly. The kind that sort of wells, then breaks gradually and stretches wide … hangs around for a little bit, and leaves its warm echo even when your cheeks return to their normal resting position.

And, just like it did when I first spotted the very same listing in the community college winter catalog twenty years ago, it sparked an idea ….

___

The late-90’s version of the idea was to twist my then-new bride’s arm (a precursor to my stepping on her toes) into signing up for the once-a-week evening course at Trinity High School.

My reason went deeper than trying something new and fun with my best friend, though that was a piece of it.

I wanted to ceremonially close a chapter.

I’d just relinquished the drum chair of the 10-piece, little-big-band style group that I’d played with, alongside my trumpet-playing father, since I was 14 years old.

Without exaggeration, it was my dad’s lifelong dream to raise a dance musician.

He’d tried hard with his first four children, producing two tremendous piano players, but wasn’t able to coax either of them onto a bandstand. Though I never confirmed this with him, I’m inclined to believe that among my Dad’s first thoughts when my 39-year-old mom gave birth to me, 10 years after the birth of my closest sibling (I was, um, a bit of a surprise), was, “yep, a drummer.” A secret that I believe he kept to himself until I came home one day from seventh grade and he summarily informed me that he’d signed me up for lessons. And not only that, he’d already given the teacher marching orders that I was to be taught a myriad of styles, ‘not just rock.’ My curriculum was to include foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova, and swing.

And that was that.

For the record, I’d never expressed any previous interest in the drums.

Yet a couple years later, I found myself spending my weekends riding in vans with musicians 40 and 50 years my elder, and entertaining senior citizens in dancehalls across southwestern Pennsylvania playing selections from the Great American Songbook.

And pretty much loving every minute of it.

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I still loved much of it when I finally quit 14 years later, after I’d started playing with a couple rock groups. I just wanted to try something different.

Dad was cool about it. He understood. He’d played with countless bands throughout his life. Knew the feeling when it was time to move on.

I had no intentions to even look over my shoulder, until one day I was mindlessly thumbing through a community college catalog when one listing in particular caught my eye.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

And I knew on the spot that there was one thing I had to do before closing that chapter in my life.

Karry was a trooper.

We were horrible (at first), but it was a blast.

In no small part due to our instructors, Ron and Ruth Sanders. To the 20-something version of our selves, they were this totally adorable older couple. It was obvious that they’d been teaching the course for some time. Their teasing, corny jokes were well-rehearsed and in the fashion of an old married couple … about the female always following the lead of the male, about trusting the male’s sense of direction around the dance floor, about the perils of ‘spaghetti arms.’ But, man, were they something to watch. I believe Ron was a stone mason (or did similar hard labor with his hands) for a living. Yet his dance posture was impeccable. He was the picture of elegance and grace as he rose up on his toes and led Ruthie (as he called her) and her signature high heels across the high school cafeteria’s floor. It was obvious that they just loved dancing with each other. The highlight of each class was during break, when they’d put on a song and show us how it was done. We’d just watch in awe and with the biggest smiles.

But they were most gracious instructors, too, and coached us up on our foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova and jitterbug. The toughest part for Karry was following my lead. She likes to be in control of things. Plus, she knows I have no sense of direction, and was (rightfully) dubious of my ability to navigate a circle.

It only got a little oogie those couple lessons when Ron and Ruth broke out the Lambada (the ‘forbidden dance’). I remember Karry and I dissolving into tears of laughter seconds into our first attempt, after I tried to look seductively into her eyes.

But gradually we got better and a bit more comfortable with all the (other) styles, deepening our arsenal with enough moves to soften the more mechanical edges of our technique.

Until we deemed ourselves more or less ready to take it to a real dance floor.

And dance to a certain little big band.

And, for me, to experience my Dad’s playing from the civilian side. For once, to be among the entertained, and not the entertainers.

I remember we picked a Saturday gig in Monessen. Can’t remember if it was a VFW, or an Elks, but I distinctly remember it bore that indescribable scent that all those old great halls have … that remains to this day among my favorite smells in the world (it’s like a built-over-decades building cologne of beer, smoke and men over the age of 50).

I didn’t tell my Dad we were coming.

I remember how happy he was to see us (incidentally, I don’t think there was ever a time when he was not happy to see Karry). How big a kick he got when we told him we’d been taking lessons for the sole purpose of coming to a gig.

I remember being the youngest ones on the dance floor.

I remember the band’s repertoire giving us ample opportunity to try out (read: exhaust) every step in ours.

I knew every song by heart.

I remember time standing still as Karry and I swooshed around the floor to Dad’s Harry James solo on “You Made Me Love You” … remember Alice, the singer, dedicating Nat King Cole’s “Love” to us, and working up a jitterbug sweat to “Woodchopper’s Ball,” which I discovered was just as fun to dance to as it was to play.

I remember kissing Karry a thank you on the night’s last foxtrot, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ before the band broke into their theme song, “I Still Get A Thrill.”

I remember a great Saturday night spent dancing with my best friend to my Dad’s horn.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect close to that chapter in my life.

___

I hadn’t had occasion to recall that sweet memory until that cold afternoon in February, last year.

I was taking a few days off in the aftermath of Dad’s funeral, and couldn’t separate the flood of memories from the music he taught me to love. The daily walk to the mailbox had suddenly become bittersweet, as my dogged expectation was now rewarded with handfuls of cards and handwritten letters of love and condolence (that I’ve kept ever since in a drawer next to my bed). Until one day I spied a community college catalog peeking from beneath the pile, and, mindlessly began thumbing through the pages.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

Couldn’t believe it.

And just like it did decades before, it sparked an idea.

I knew on the spot that there was one thing I now had to do before closing another chapter in my life.

But it didn’t feel right to ask Karry for an encore. It simply wasn’t a practical idea in the present circumstance, given schedules, given everything else she juggles in the unrelenting, herculean effort to keep the machinery of our existence functioning.

But …

… I had a daughter.

And, like my father before me, a responsibility — to ensure my child’s education included the finer points of the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the rhumba, the waltz, the samba and the jitterbug.

A little arm-twisting ensued (a precursor to my stepping on her toes).

But, like her mother before her, Em was a trooper.

And it was a blast.

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In no small part due to Ron and Ruthie. For the record, the intervening years had only added to their adorable-ness. They were telling versions of the very same jokes, still poking fun at the man’s sense of direction, still warning against the perils of “spaghetti arms.” And aside from Ron having a slight tremor in his right hand, and Ruthie occasionally having to pause to rest a sore knee, (though still defiantly rocking her super high heels), they remained a sight to behold in each other’s arms gliding across a cafeteria floor.

We were the youngest couple in the class (Emma, of course, by decades).

Though she’s a five-night-a-week dancer, Em found herself a bit out of her comfort zone. When it comes to her dancing, she’s used to being in control. Letting me lead took a little getting used to. Nonetheless, she was very patient with me.

However, I was surprised at how much I remembered, with a little refresher.

Her skill and my recall made us pretty quick studies, not to mention the darlings of the class.

The only slightly oogie part was the one session where Ron and Ruthie made us switch partners, and Em found herself coupled with a 50-year-old dude, an exchange that could not end quickly enough for her.

Aside from that … by the end of the class, we found ourselves fluent in Foxtrot, and cutting a reasonably mean jitterbug (our favorite).

And I’m proud to say, when it comes time for her wedding reception, my little girl will be able to educate her newlywed husband on the fundamentals of the polka.

The experience was the perfect reminder, with the perfect company, at the perfect moment, that loved ones who leave us never (ever) leave us. And that what they’ve planted in us are seeds for us to plant in others.

And so the best lives on.

The Great American Songbook.

Fathers and sons.

Wives and daughters.

And a chapter I now plan to keep open, and adding to, for years to come.

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Postcards

Mother’s Day, 2017

Mom never took a good picture. She either threw her hands in front of her face, or when the camera was too quick, found herself with her mouth open. But the world melted around her when she was with children (such as in the enclosed pic, when she met her Grandson Peter for the first time).

She taught me poker in the mornings before kindergarten … cheated, too. Couldn’t throw a baseball to save her soul, but didn’t let it stop her from grabbing a glove and a ball and ordering me outside one time when I wanted to play catch and none of my friends were around. She could bring entire civilizations to their knees (especially my father) with The Silent Treatment when she was pissed. She didn’t let rain, sleet or dead of night get in the way of stealing a smoke on the porch, though you were more than welcome to join her.

She believed you could accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.

Goodbyes used to take FOREVER at her house. You’d have to bake at least an extra 15 minutes (or longer) into your departure time at the front door when making your exit. Multiple rounds of hugs and kisses mixed with efforts to send you home with food or other mementoes. We used to call that intermediary phase, “Fixin’ To Leave,” which was a completely different animal than the actual leaving.

She had an ornery streak and a wicked sense of humor that were perfect around her kitchen table, if not for polite society.

One time she commented how the obituaries and the memorials in the Herald-Standard made the deceased sound like angels. She called B.S. on the practice.

My brother promised her when she passed, we’d write one about her saying, “You thought we’d miss you … but you were wrong.” We all laughed (Mom, included) FOR YEARS about that.

On the third Mother’s Day since her passing, I think she’d be pleased to know the remembrance still coaxes an ornery grin.

And also that her baby boy still finds himself saying his goodbyes.

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