Monday, March 21, 2011

My Criminal Past

There is something about being 7 years old that makes you feel like you can get away with anything.

Logic, evidence, eye witnesses … none of these matter in the case against you. But I'm getting ahead of myself a little here.

In my Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, I was one of the good little boys. There was that one time I jumped out of the bushes to attack the kid who had beaten me up the day before, but that was considered just part of the mean streets in the world of the urban single-digit-age set.

I had gotten noticed in the neighborhood a year or two earlier when I had taken to standing on our street corner in my new Superman costume – hands on hips, with bright red cape flowing in the wind. I can still remember that as a feeling of total joy that no drug or personal accomplishment could ever come close to matching.

But it seemed to make the adults a little nervous. More than one approached my parents saying that they just knew I was going to run into traffic one day, confident that I could stop anything from a two-ton Edsel to an 18-wheeler as long as I was wearing the suit. When mom and dad brought this to my attention, I really only could think of one response:

“I'm not a complete idiot.”

But it turns out that maybe I was.

In 1961 our main source of amusement on Reedland Street was flipping baseball cards. One boy (it was a completely gender exclusive activity) would flip his card, and the other boy could call “match” or “unmatch” and flip his own. It was a face up/face down situation, and if you called it right you got both cards.

It was pretty intense and, as much as 7-year-olds can, we focused on the rhythms of the game. You could get on a “match” roll and call that five times in a row, then toss in an “unmatch” given your vague knowledge of the laws of averages, then back to your lucky “match” run. It went along fast, and cards could be won or lost before either player knew for sure who was winning.

And that's where my plan came in.

I could sense that every opponent concentrated on the game at hand, rather than his stash of cards. It occurred to me that I could very easily take three-to-five cards from the top of his pile, all the while pretending to hone in on the flipping. So I did just that.

It was an enormous success, too.

In almost no time my collection of cards had nearly doubled, although no one could remember me having a great run of luck. The secret was to spread out the crime. No one person lost so many cards that he questioned how his pile had dwindled to such an extent.

You're probably thinking that I may well be a criminal genius, having concocted such a sophisticated ruse at such an early age. If you were to label me “The Mozart of Misdeeds” or a “Prodigy of Pilferage” I couldn't really argue with you.

But like the criminal enterprises of my predecessors Al Capone and John Dillinger, it all came crashing down.

My slight of hand had gotten so routine that I failed to pay attention to the dangers of parental supervision. One of my victim's dads caught me in the act. He didn't confront me, but he told my mom. She told dad. They couldn't believe that I would do anything like that.

So I denied it.

That resulted in a huge neighborhood summit, where despite adult witness testimony I continued to deny it. Even under the pressure of an entire block of grown-ups and their children scowling at me day and night, I still managed to create what I imagined to be reasonable doubt through the power of denial. Just the same, my cards were confiscated and I was banned from baseball cards for one full year.

I'm not really sure if I ever came clean on the Great Card Caper – until now, I guess.

The whole episode did cure me of my wayward ways. It takes a lot of energy to engage in nefarious activities. And so I come to you today an upstanding citizen. Partly due to morality lessons learned over the decades, partly due to a sense of fairness that comes with maturity and partly due to a third consideration:

A life of crime is just too much trouble.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Celebrity Encounters

Oh, I have had my brushes with the famous.

It began when I was around 8, and one of my best friends got to go on the Gene London kiddie show in Philadelphia. Granted, that wasn't me on the television, but it started my fascination with seeing those TV people in “real life.” I asked my friend to tell me the story of his day over and over. I couldn't get enough.

I think I was ahead of my time. It seems that infatuation with celebrity is the one overriding description that will define our era. There was the Paleolithic Age, the Ice Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age and now -- the Celebrity Age.

There have always been special people. The Greeks had their gods and the early Christians had their saints. Today we're crawling with them. In fact, between reality TV and politically slanted, opinionated blowhards … we may all be celebrities one day!

But before that happens, please bear with me as I attempt to inflate my own importance by bringing you the reflected glory of my celebrity encounters, shown here in chronological order:

Jack Dempsey
My father took my brother Dan and me to New York City in the summer of 1969, and it was a trip filled with memorable events. First, Phillies star Richie Allen failed to show up for a double-header we attended at Shea Stadium, and was suspended. But the main thrill was dinner at Jack Dempsey's Restaurant on Broadway.

He was the heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926 and, along with Babe Ruth, one of the most famous men in America at that time. And now … he was sitting at the dinner table with us! My dad had written a term paper on Dempsey's life years earlier and the champ was fascinated by that. He sat with us for about 15 minutes telling stories and even asked us what sports we liked best. I'm sure I didn't eat much with my mouth wide open the whole time. It's still hard for me to believe that dinner really happened.

Tom Poston
I think it was that same trip to New York where I saw this star of The Steve Allen Show (and years later handyman George on Newhart) crossing the street. I didn't say anything to him.

Harry Chapin
Dan, my cousin Michael and I went to The Main Point in Bryn Mawr to see Harry in 1972. That was an intimate, coffeehouse venue holding (I'm guessing) about 250-300 people with general seating – no assigned seats. Naturally we were late and when we arrived there were almost no seats left. Dan and Michael scrambled and found singles, far apart but just fine. I was the last man standing in a real-life game of musical chairs. There was a large speaker on a seat in the front row, however, which I moved to the stage and replaced with my derriere. There was a minor complaint from management, but seeing no other option they let me stay there.

Harry was an hour late, but his band put on a great show while we waited. When he arrived he was amazing. The show lasted about three hours, but the most amazing thing was that Harry spent each of his three breaks sitting next to me! Now, I had just seen him with Johnny Carson a week or so before, so when he asked me if the traffic was always this bad in Bryn Mawr, I responded “I don't know, heh-heh,” avoiding eye contact as much as I could. I was completely star-struck.

But Harry would have none of that. He kept talking to me, asked me what my favorite of his songs was (it was Taxi) then dedicated it to me on stage. Each break he was back in the seat next to me, telling a story or asking my opinion … generally treating me like an old friend. By the third break I was slapping him on the back and suggesting names for his next album. What an incredible man he was, and gone way too soon.

Vincent Price
In 1973 I was a freshman at Susquehanna University and one of my student jobs was to help set up the stage for guest speakers and various visiting dignitaries. We never got any dignitaries, but I suppose Vincent Price came fairly close. He certainly was the most dignified man I had ever met. Still is.
He chose me for the vital task of holding his coat while he gave his speech. His routine was to start out in his spooky voice with a spooky quote from Edgar Allan Poe while the auditorium was dark as night. Once the audience's spines were sufficiently chilled, he ever so slowly walked on stage in a spotlight in a long, black coat. At one point during his reminiscing about his career, he would say a predetermined word (which I now forget) and I would walk on and take his coat. When he was done (about 45 minutes later) I was to take (exactly) two steps on stage and hand him back his coat, folded over my left arm. He and I went over this procedure four times before the speech. I don't think he trusted me as a fellow performer. In spite of his lack of confidence, I performed flawlessly. As he passed me off stage, without looking at me even from the corner of his eye he said, "Well done, young man." Maybe it's just Mr. Price's eerie voice, but I have always wondered if he really meant that.

Larry Holmes
In 1975, I was an assistant manager at Wendy's in Phillipsburg, NJ, which is just across the Delaware River from Easton, PA, Larry's home town. Holmes was not yet a champion, but was a regular on TV fights. He loved Wendy's hamburgers and we gave him a “celebrity discount” if I remember correctly. I made it a point to shake his hand whenever he came in. (Harry had loosened me up a little.)

Henny Youngman
In 1980 I worked with a beautiful graphic artist named Lisa who moonlighted as a waitress at a swanky hotel restaurant on weekends. It was in that capacity that she waited on Mr. Youngman, who she reported was an avid flirter -- even as he approached 75 years of age. She flirted back to the extent that she got to design business cards for him and received two backstage passes to his show in Philadelphia.

And that's where I come in.

Lisa knew I was a sucker for Henny's old-style, rapid-fire act so she invited me to join her. Once backstage I was shocked at how bad he looked. He sat all alone before the show, looking very old, very pale and half asleep. He asked if I had any donuts, which I didn't. But as it happens, I always know where to get my hands on donuts ... so I got him a few.

Then stunningly, as soon as they called him to go on, he perked up, practically ran on stage and proceeded to do a good hour of material. When he came off stage he asked me if I had a car, and if so could I drive him to his hotel.

And so it came to be that I drove my Chevette piled with Henny's three violins and cases in the front passenger seat, and Lisa and Henny in the back about 10 blocks until I watched a comic legend and his violins walk off into the Center City Philadelphia night.

Lisa and I talked all the way back to her place about how we probably wouldn't see him around much longer. And sadly we were right ... he passed away 18 years later.

The Inn From the TV Show Newhart
On a trip to Vermont I visited the inn used for exterior shots on the show. The interior was completely different, and yes … a little disappointing.

Jon Stewart
In 1990, Jon was co-hosting Short Attention Span Theater on The Comedy Channel, a cable network almost no one watched … or even had, at that time. I was a big fan of the show, and I wrote a few little comedy bits that Jon actually used on air. I was thrilled, and when I saw that he was going to appear on a publicity gig at the King of Prussia Mall, I was not going to miss that.

I went there with two friends for moral support in case he blew me off, but when we got there he was all alone at a table in the middle of the mall. No one knew who he was. I walked up and introduced myself, starting with the very confident phrase, “You probably don't know me, but ...”

He shouted out (with very obvious over-enthusiasm), “Jack Huber! Jack Huber! I can't believe I'm meeting Jack Huber!” The walking traffic at the mall stopped, looked at the two of us, recognized neither and continued on their way.

Unfazed by all this non-recognition, he talked to me for about 30 minutes, encouraging me to keep writing and telling me that he really liked my work. He was about to get his first Letterman appearance and asked me to wish him luck. My level of fame has stayed about as it was then, but I hear that Jon has gotten more well known. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Joe Frazier
I was the biggest Joe Frazier fan I knew years before he ever fought Muhammad Ali. I followed each fight and even adopted as much of his training regimen as I could manage to do (significantly less that he did).

So when Smokin' Joe walked into the Erin Pub in Norwood in full tuxedo on St. Patrick's Day 1993, I was ready. He went from table to table, shaking hands and just generally interacting with the crowd. I had no idea why he was there but I didn't care. When he got to me I asked him about a fight he'd had when he was young.

Eddie Machen was a tough fighter, long past his prime, who was meant as a stepping stone to bigger fights to come. But the wily veteran managed to clip Joe, stunning him and threatening to derail the Joe Frazier Express.

Joe seemed eager to talk about a fight with someone other than Ali. “That old man hit me so hard I thought I was on the canvas! They told me later that I hadn't gone down!” The future champion came back to win that fight and I had a moment I still think about to this day.

John Gorka
If you don't know this singer/songwriter, you should check him out. I saw him at a lunch time concert at a bookstore in Bryn Mawr. I got there early and he was setting up chairs for the audience. I helped him out and wound up getting a song called Raven in the Storm dedicated to me for my troubles.

Thomas “They Blinded Me With Science” Dolby
I was working at Discovery Channel headquarters in Bethesda, MD in 1997, when one of MTV's earliest stars stopped by for a meeting. He was selling a new sound system for the Internet at the time, and gave an impressive presentation. There were about 10 of us in the meeting and we all introduced ourselves, as you do at those things. After the meeting he went to lunch with some Discovery higher-ups.

What impresses me to this day about Thomas Dolby is that about six hours later I ran into him on the elevator as we both were leaving the building … and he remembered my name, saying “It was a pleasure to meet you today, Jack.” Okay, maybe that's an old salesman's trick, but it's still working on me.

Well, if I've done my job correctly you're sitting there both dazzled by, and jealous of, all of my close relationships with these bigwigs, kahunas and VIPs. And isn't that really what it's all about these days?