Sunday, December 16, 2018

Doctor heal thyself

I suppose an argument can be made that the ease with which I bought Atorvastatin in Mexico or that my friend Bob bought a sinus medication and a pain killer with a trace of an opiate in it exposes a gaping hole through which less disciplined folks might descend into the abyss of addiction. For sure it lends itself to self-diagnosis as was evidenced by a hilarious episode in Guatemala in February of 2017.

Three weeks into my four week stint at the estimable Ixchel Spanish School in Antigua I woke up with searing sciatica that felt like a red-hot poker shooting down my lower back through my hamstring and into my right foot. It’s always the right side for some reason. My diagnostic skills end with identifying the pain. Yes, it was sciatica. Been there before.

I dealt with the withering discomfort for a couple of days which meant I could make it to the bathroom, the shower, the breakfast room and my mezzanine table for class. Thankfully mi maestra Carmen and I sat five short steps from my treasured dormitorio 4. Or is it recamara, habitación or cuarto? Got me. The Spanish have too many words for bedroom as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, the important thing is that you get room 4. Settle for no other. And while you’re at it ask for a desk or purloin one from the roof deck as I did.

After dinner with Ana, Diego, Ana’s daughter Liliana, and my fellow students the lure of Antigua’s many watering holes demanded I limp and moan to the our bar of choice with my drinking partners. Camaraderie es muy importante. So, shuffle and whine it was for two harrowing days. I was on the brink of quitting school and booking an earlier flight back to Albuquerque when I remembered Sam Fees, my eighth-grade teacher, blistering me for quitting during a 100 yard dash in which I was a poor fifth out of six. My thirteen-year old self thought, “What’s the point?” He screamed, “Never quit, Immel. Never be a quitter.”

Taking that admonition to heart I summoned my inner doctor and repaired to the nearest farmacia on 6a Avenida Sur.  Look for the welcoming Green Cross or Cruz Verde. I described my plight and asked for a pain suppressant and a muscle relaxant. It wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve fought demons of the back and spine for half a lifetime. When I described my malady and asked for the aforementioned potions, the pharmacist presented two boxes and I realized that the muscle relaxant was a daily injection. In the fog of desperation, I bought it. I’d have performed back surgery on myself to get rid of the pain. Hell, I gave myself a shot in the abdomen every day for a year. How hard can it be? Reaching my right hip with the syringe would raise the degree of difficulty but surely I’d manage. Even dream of relief made me feel better.

When I got back to school for lunch, I described my problem to Ana. By this time, I was doubting my ability to reach half way around my body and plunge the magic elixir into my nalga. Ana told me she had a friend across the street who knew how to give shots since she had been doing it for one of her children. “Do you want me get her?” Ana asked. Did I ever.

“Absolutemente." I answered.

With that Ana walked across the street and brought back the muy amable Lucía. “Much gusto, Lucía. Muchas gracias por tu ayuda.” Glad to meet you. Thanks for the help. She asked if I wanted the first shot right then. I said that I did.

Lucía told me to drop my drawers and lean over my bed so she could administer the first injection into my lily white butt. All the while Ana is watching this unfold from the partially open door to my room. I was beyond embarrassment. Lucía could have brought a class of second graders to watch the show and I wouldn’t have cared less.

That process continued for four more days and I was enjoying my morning jog south down Ruta Nacional 10 toward San Juan Obispo that Saturday morning. Best of all I didn’t bail and was able to complete my second four weeks of Spanish immersion in beautiful Antigua.

You have to be resourceful in the third world and sometimes that means taking chances. These little bouts of risk and reward can become the highlights of your adventure.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Just the facts, ma'am

On our last day in San Miguel I decided to walk down the hill to the pharmacy to get a refill of my Atorvastatin, the medication formerly known as Lipitor. For some reason, I like to have an extra prescription period of all my drugs just in case. In case of what I’m not sure. Maybe the Chinese will stop exporting the drugs we know and love. I have a cushion of ninety days on my other two meds but not my cholesterol fighter.

There was something faintly clandestine about my mission. I had no prescription though I did have the pill canister. I skulked into the farmacia, took a big breath and whispered, “¿Puedo comprar esta medicina?”  The pharmacist gave me a furtive glance, went into the stacks and returned with a 90-dose box of the stuff. I asked, “¿Cuanto?” She told me, “171 pesos.” That’s $9.00 to you, gringo. Then came the dawning. A month earlier I had posed the same question at my local Walgreens and was told $342. I passed. I did not pass at $9.00.

When I had my annual check-up this week, I told the story to my primary care physician who launched into a dissertation on the price of drugs in Los Estados Unidos and the hammerlock Big Pharma has on drug prices and our complicit congress. Back in 2003 when the Republican congress created the Medicare drug benefit it allowed drug companies to set their own prices and denied the right of Medicare to negotiate lower ones for its 40 million clients. Makes perfect sense if you're in somebody's pocket.

Between 2006 and 2016 drug companies spent $2.3 billion, yes that’s a ‘b’, on lobbying and made $30 million in contributions per election cycle to both political parties. It's roughly 60% to Republicans and 40% to Democrats for the bean counters among you. In 2017 alone drug companies and their trade groups spent $171.5 million on lobbying and deployed 882 lobbyists into the backrooms of congress. So, we can predict with high confidence that drug prices will continue to rise despite pledges from both houses of congress and from the White House to rein in prices and though 80% of Americans believe that drug prices are unreasonably high. The means to rein in costs exist, of course. The will to do so does not, of course. Did you know that the drug companies employ consulting firms to tell them how high they can raise prices before patients can’t or won’t pay?

The standard drug industry excuse for high prices is the cost of research which proves to be a specious argument since the industry spends far more on marketing than on R&D.

I know this. There’s something seriously awry when you can get a garden variety medication like Atorvastatin for $9.00 in Mexico and pay $342 in the US.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Act your age

This rangy dude had nothing to do with the post except maybe sorta the aging part

You have good trips and not so good trips. This one was “más o menos.” San Miguel didn’t live up to our ten- year-old memories and the reasons are varied. We found that “living” in San Miguel was hard work, that shopping for groceries was long cab drive each way, that all of life’s necessities took effort and that I had picked a physically cold house that was too far from downtown and that the walk back up the hill from El Centro was a sweaty thirty-minute heart pounder. Take the inconvenience and add a house that you didn’t want to be in and you might as well have stayed in a hotel in the center of everything.

Our street. The gray facade is our casa.

It may be, too, that a month-long vacation is two weeks too long. I’ll take that on advisement. Having to plan payments a month ahead and find someone to mind the house is a stress giver that makes the trip too much of a job. There were highlights aplenty, but the living wasn’t easy, and we never felt we could just be. I arrived in San Miguel thinking it’s a place I could live. I left San Miguel knowing it is not.

The cliff leading to El Centro. It's steeper than it looks.

As is he case in the rest of Latin America, even Taos for that matter, the cultures are separate. In San Miguel the Anglo community is abundant and insular. And old. There were more bad facelifts than taxis and there were a lot of taxis. Restaurants and musical events in SMA reminded me of movie night at the Taos Community Auditorium, a sea of blue hairs with advanced degrees. I can tell you this, if I move anywhere it’ll be younger. I want to be the oddity not the norm.

Which brings up the subject of aging or being old. It’s cliché to say, “age is just a number” or “you’re as old as you feel.” It’s also more or less true. I’ve been asking the musical question, “When are you old?” for a couple of months.  I set up the subject with a disjointed preface that says something like, “I feel pretty much like I did when I was in my mid-forties. I still do the same physical exercise and hold myself to the same standard of effort as I did thirty years ago. But I know that one day something will set me back and I will be old and infirm. Presto chango. I also know that at 77 a very optimistic outlook is another ten years of being able to do the things I do now. I am not happy with the prognosis, Doctor. I don’t know any 90-year-old man-children. Strike that. Bob Cooley in his early nineties say he skies better than ever with his new knees and dances like a mad man. I want to be Bob Cooley when I grow up.

So, the question is this. Do you begin accepting the decline before it happens or hold out till it smacks you in the face? I see a lot of the former, the folks who acquit themselves as old people before their time. It even happens in middle age. Back in Lincoln, Massachusetts where we lived for 23 years, the housewives of the Radcliffe and Wellesley persuasion became matrons in their mid-forties replete with care free hairdos, scant makeup, formless attire and sensible shoes. I want to be my mother.

“Are to you still running?” is something I get asked a lot. I have the urge to answer, “Why wouldn’t I be?” I will till I can’t. And there you have it. Do it till you can’t. That goes for absolutely everything. And corollary to that is this bit of advice. Don’t stop (fill in the blank) because starting over again is a bitch. Every day you don’t do what you do makes it all the harder to start the old engine again. I’m testing that premise this very day. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Market Connections

This trip feels like one continuous meal with short breaks for sleep, study and sightseeing. Instead of exercise it’s been planning where to eat, when to eat and getting to and from the restaurant in question. I’d like to understand the malaise that has kept me from writing, photographing and running. It’s almost too late this trip to make things right on the whole-body front. But if I can reclaim the balance that I enjoy at home in Taos over the next few days I’ll consider it a victory.

There was an article in the New York Times a couple of days ago that reported on the discovery that septuagenarians who had exercised throughout their lives had muscles that are virtually indistinguishable from 25-year-olds. That was me until we came to Mexico. I’m not blaming my dissipation on the Mexico exactly.  I’ll take some of the credit.

The cold snap didn’t help. When night temperatures dipped to the low thirties for a few nights the house responded with highs below fifty. That is not a typo. My memories of the gulag had faded but living in a refrigerator brought them back with chilling clarity. Our rental house doesn’t have central heating, a condition not uncommon in these mild climes. So, the job of heating this barn was left to two incapable wall heaters one of which didn’t work. Responding to my desperate pleas for warmth, our alleged house manager sent a plumber with a new gas wall heater which, according to form, didn’t function.

Then there are the cobbles which make every step an adventure. To run on those bastards is to move slower than walking. Today I went for a 50 minute jog and tripped three times, one almost resulted in a face plant.

When you do nothing but eat and all of the eating is done in restaurants you run up a tab for starters. Do it enough and you’re bound to score a good meal from time to time though we’ve haven’t had any world beaters and I’ve had no food epiphanies. The single most memorable dish was carnitas in a plastic and Naugahyde emporium on the main drag of Dolores Hidalgo 35 miles north of San Miguel. Carnitas are best described as fall off the bone roasted pork. I love carnitas at Guadalajara Grill in Taos. They’re mighty fine, but Vicente Fernandez’s carnitas at Restaurante Carnitas Vicente take the art of carnitas to new heights. Beg your server to bring you Vicente’s pork rib carnitas and you will be transported. Those fatty flavor bombs are out of this world. Real carnitas, by the way, entail roasting the pork in lard till the lard melts and the spices are added. A direct shot to the artery would be quicker but not as much fun.

When you travel you learn as much about yourself as you do your new environs. I learned that simply being an observer doesn’t cut it. I found that I need a purpose and that, though the location may be new, I still want to do things I want to do. To write, photograph, run and lift just like at home. The theme of travel and how to do it has been the subject of many a dining room table discussion since we’ve had our capacious dwelling in Atascadero to ourselves. As I touched on last time, being a small part of the actual community is key. Engaging your waiter or taxi driver in their language is part of it. Putting yourself in places where that can happen is key. Moving out of your comfort zone is part of the deal.

I went to the enormous “Tuesday Market” this week. I wanted to do street photography, street portraits specifically, and can’t think of a better place to do it. The Tianguis Mercado sprawls for city blocks and is a trove of tchotchkes, new and used clothing (new clothes are ropa nuevo and used clothes that are new to you and are nueva ropa), housewares and food stalls. Even before I got there after a 15-minute walk from our house I was focused on carnitas. There were half a dozen stalls offering them but one stuck in my mind. Can’t tell you why. It was at the far reaches of the mercado and, even though I was still walking off breakfast, I made my way to Carnitas Guero at noon o’clock. That’s early for lunch in Mexico but what they hell. Restaurants at El Jardin don’t switch from breakfast to lunch until one o’clock.

There were three young men operating the establishment, one roasting the pork, one chopping the carnitas and preparing the plates and the other serving. I ordered two carnitas tacos and the server gave me an are you lost look. I was a stranger from a distant planet. He wrapped the tacos with packets of pico de gallo and salsa in a plastic bag when I told him, “Quiero comer aqui.” I want to eat here. His eyes brightened and he scootched the tacos onto a plastic plate. He seemed to appreciate that a lost old gringo would be ordering carnitas much less eating them at his rustic stall. His eyes kept shifting back to me as he worked. I was quite the novelty. What’s your story his eyes seemed to say. When I was half way through my first juicy taco, he pulled an orange Fanta out of the ice and raised it my direction with a lift of his head that said, “Want one?” I smiled and said, “Sí, por favor.” It was my third sugary drink with no food value on the trip. So far. I wouldn’t have had the thing if he hadn’t asked and I’m pleased that he did. Sugary drinks with carnitas rock. He was saying that you are welcome here and we’re surprised that you are. When I finished, the apparent boss who was manning the stove, came up to me as asked if it was good. I said, “Maravillosa. Donde esta la basura?” Wonderful. Where is the trash? He smiled and took my plate from me. I said, “Hasta luego.”

I have the feeling that if I visit Carnitas Guero a year from now I’ll be recognized. It’s like my favorite bar in Antigua, Guatemala where I guarantee the owner Carolina would give me a hug and pour me a dark Gallo beer before I had a chance to order.

That’s what hospitality is about.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Blessing the Carnitas

Held on the second weekend of November, The Blessing of the Horses or La Bendición de Los Caballos in San Martin de Terreros will be the most memorable experience of our month in central Mexico as it was ten years ago. I’m jumping the gun with a week left in our trip, but I’d make book on it. During the thousands of Blessings that are given the village of San Martin swells from 695 people to 60,000. It’s a sea of cars, campers, busses and tents. The cacophony of the massive mercado that leads to the church is an assault on the senses, overwhelming you with the sounds and smells of football fields full of gimcracks and foodstuffs and a crush of humanity that jostles you all the way to the church. 

In Mexico San Martin is called San Martin Caballero (Saint Martin Horseman) and is Mexico’s cowboy saint.

For days cowboys and girls ride across the campo for religious and temporal pleasures. A constant stream of riders can be seen along the highway as they seek blessings in San Martin and as they ride home to their ranchos strewn across El Bajio, the vast central plain of Mexico.

In Europe he is Saint Martin of Tour, a former Roman Centurion, monk and the Bishop of Tour. Saint Martin was born in Hungary in the early 300s and was conscripted into the Roman army as a young man. It was during his time as a soldier that he came across a half-naked beggar. According to legend he gave the beggar half of his red cape and that night dreamed that the unfortunate soul was an incarnation of Jesus. The next day he left the Roman legion to become a monk. Later, he became the bishop of Tour and devoted his life to the needy. When he died, he was buried with the remnants of his cape or capilla in Italian. Capilla became the word that means chapel in Spanish.

As in 2008 we were the only Anglos at the Blessing of the Horses. Why is a mystery. Though I suppose it’s a matter of pride to know you are the very special and intrepid travelers who have braved the hordes for a taste of the real Mexico.

There are many schools of thought about travel. There is the first-class option of four-star hotels and guided tours which, in my opinion, insulate you from the people and the culture and from the tastes and experiences that define a place. More meaningful is a step or two above steerage where you partake of life like a local. The case can be made that a blend of the approaches is ideal but if you don't get some downmarket reality you really haven't seen the place. I like a first-class experience as much as the next guy especially on the dining front. Yet, why is it that the dining experiences that we find most memorable where those enjoyed shoulder to shoulder with locals in their establishments of choice.

When I queried Peggy and Bob about their best or, better said, most memorable dining experience of the visit, Bob said it was the roast chicken with beans, rice, pico de gallo, fresh cilantro and homemade corn tortillas at an open-air restaurant under a tent at the Blessing of the Horses in San Martin. It was during that repast that I had the second of my honest to God Mexican Cokes. Those are the Coca Colas made with cane sugar not corn syrup. The last time I had one of those you needed a prescription for the stuff. The lunch in San Martin, I submit, was special because we had been transported into an alternative universe, temporary city of Mexicans celebrating La Bendición de Los Caballos. And to think we would have missed the event if I hadn’t seen riders traversing San Miguel de Allende the previous day. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I will go back in order to tell the story of the jaw dropping extravaganza. I find myself wanting to camp there but may not have the huevos.

In a similar spirit, Peggy said her favorite meal was the carnitas with all the trimmings at a plastic and Naugahyde establishment called Restaurant Carnitas Vicente across the street from the movie theatre in Dolores Hidalgo. Our guide Carlos who had led us through the village of Atotonilco in the morning asked if we wanted to eat in Atotonilco or up the road in Dolores. Thankfully we voted for Dolores. I’m a serious carnitas fan. It’s the dish I order at least once a week at Guadalajara Grill in Taos. But Vicente’s carnitas are in another league. At the front door of Vicente’s shrine to braised pork is a huge copper-bottomed cauldron in which pork butt is slowly simmered in lard. When the lard has melted, spices are added, and the meat is simmered till it can be pulled apart or chopped. When you go, as I know you will, be sure to ask for the ribs. They are the not so secret star of the show and are among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mas o Menos

We travelled to San Miguel de Allende, Travel and Leisure Magazine’s Best City in the World the last two years, so we’d be here for the raucous and colorful celebration of those who have left our midst. Just as it was ten years ago Los Dias de los Muertos were loud, crowded and memorable. To be at the El Jardin at night is to experience a Times Square New Year’s Eve in miniature.

The Spanish Colonial bones of the splendid city of 75,000 haven’t changed since we visited ten years ago. The historic buildings are still standing and assiduously protected, and San Miguel is still a Pueblo according our guide Carlos. The designation Ciudad or city is reserved for real sprawl. Yet, the pueblo bonito has become busier and more touristy and not for the better according to me. As a plodding student of the Spanish language, speaking the local lingo is an even less necessary than it was a decade ago. And so, I’d point you to Antigua, Guatemala for more immersion, better instruction, fewer English speakers and a cultural experience that rivals San Miguel. Smaller, more intimate and more comfortable for, dare I say, two thirds the price.

About four days into this visit I was touristed out. To quote the immortal Peggy Immel, “I get tired of wandering around looking at shit.” The woman has a way with words.

My sense of place comes from being in the culture not just an observer of it. It’s the reason that, like Bourdain, my fondest memories come from a food cart or a counter in the public market for a massive Cubano sandwich with every meat known to man including slices of hot dog. Need I mention that two of those suckers and two Boing fruit drinks set you back six bucks.

And to the subject of cost, depending on how you eat and drink, prices in the old Pueblo are creeping toward those of the US of A though an eight-course prix fixe dinner at the elegant Moxi in the Hotel Matilda was just $65. That’s half of a similar repast north of the border I’d say. But there may be more million-dollar homes in San Miguel than Santa Fe and that foretells something insidious.

When I look around in Spanish school, in better restaurants, galleries and music venues everybody is me, white and old. Might as well have stayed in Taos by that measure.

The drone of stores left me in shock by day four and our palatial if worn digs are just far enough up an unrelenting hill to make going to El Centro and back a workout and then some. My idea of a neighborhood is walking a couple of blocks for a baguette or a pastry, for a leisurely breakfast or a convivial drop in bar. Here it’s a twenty-minute proposition. Good thing taxis are cheap and plentiful. It’s roughly 60 pesos or $3.25 to downtown or back. Still Peggy and I try to walk to and from El Jardin unless it’s late night or we’re packing groceries.

Our neighborhood, Atascadero, is a kind of Gringo Gulch. It’s so Anglicized that there’s a croquet lawn at the top of the hill and half of the people we meet on the dreaded hill say “hello” not Buenos Dias.

Music has been a highlight of our trip so far. Our housemate, Bob Dempsey, made reservations to see the world class guitarist Gil Gutierrez and his trio play at the Instituto Allende the night after we arrived in San Miguel. We were excited to see Gutierrez whom we first heard play in 2008. Ten years ago we went to hear him thinking he’d be playing with Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s long-time band leader but Severinson was ill. Still we were treated to an otherworldly musical performance sin Doc but with Señor Cartas, Gutierrez's partner at the time.

This time Gutierrez was joined by a jazz violinist and a drummer both from Mexico City and a bassist from San Miguel. Each was outstanding. Bob and our other housemate, Jamie Hindman, said they’d never heard a better musical performance anywhere and those dudes have seen it all.

Then on the second night of Los Dias de Los Muertos we sat on the tile floor of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel to hear an orchestra and choir from Mexico City perform Mozart’s Requiem. That's the night that I almost got in a fight with a rude French jerk who tried to muscle a spot next to Peggy. I can see the headline now, "Elderly gringo clocks arrogant frog during Mozart performance."

Another night we watched a Flamenco troop in full Day of the Dead regalia dance, play and sing at Teatro Angela Peralta. Suffice it to say, there are more diversions in San Miguel than my simple mind and spirit can accommodate.

Until yesterday, we’ve had a paucity of time to just be. For me that’s writing, photographing and exercising. I’ve run exactly once, lifted precisely zero and that makes Steve a snippy SOB. It was the first time I felt I was “in” San Miguel and not watching a piece of performance art. I walked down to northeast corner of El Jardin for a breakfast of jugo de naranja, café Americano and Huevos Otomí, scrambled eggs in a white bean soup, I first tasted it in 2008 with my friend Lindsey Enderby and he never fails to mention it when we talk about San Miguel. This one’s for you, amigo.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Leather and Sinew

Sorry everybody. We haven’t had internet since Saturday morning meaning that I missed my first blog post in something like 12 years. That’s a little like getting the first ding on your new car. The next time will be easier.

I’m taking a small break from the string of posts that will allegedly be woven into a memoir before I croak. So, today a couple of street portraits are my feeble effort.

These sinewy gents were standing in front of the Mercado Publico a couple of blocks northeast of the Jardin. The Jardin or garden is the epicenter of San Miguel. The soul of the enchanting Spanish Colonial pueblo radiates out from its manicured beauty.

For you gearheads, these were a product of my oh so handy Sony RX100 Vl. Pretty happy with that bad boy.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Crisis Management

It wouldn’t be a trip without a crisis and, me being me, two crises are even better. Before we left the house I had the sinking feeling that I’d forgotten something critical. Pacemaker, check. Ambien, check. What the hell is it? “You know something’s missing, goat breath. What is it?”

When we checked in at the Egyptian Sands in Albuquerque the light went on, “I forgot all my chargers.” That’s a charger for my Canon 5D Mark lll, for my spanking new Sony RX 100 Vl, and for my iPhone, iPad and my defibrillator.

That’s on top of not being able to get United Airlines, swear word of your choice, to include our TSA Precheck numbers on our boarding passes. It was epic. Trying to do it took 1-1/2 hours during online check-in and, of course was unsuccessful. The alleged customer service person in Mumbai said she had added the precheck designation but when I loaded the boarding passes they still were incomplete. I hung up in frustration and redialed. Agent two also assured me the TSA Prechecks were on the passes but they were not. She told  me, “I show the precheck designation is on the passes. I don’t know why it’s not working. I guess you’ll just have to take care of it when you check in at the airport tomorrow morning.” Now I’m like a dog with a bone. I can’t leave it alone. I can think of nothing else. There’s no way I’m dealing with this crap on the morning of flight.

I tell Peggy that we have to go straight to the airport before checking into our hotel. My dream is that we’ll arrive at the ticket counter at 7:30pm, have the thing sorted out by 8 and are savoring Duck Confit at Chez Nous at 8:30.

It was ominous to turn the corner and walk into an empty United Airlines ticketing lobby, a row of one arm bandits with no players. There is nobody home. “We are so hosed.” I thought. That’s hosed as in fucked. Peggy is levitating with anger. We will be fighting for our rights as privileged flyers and trying to get through baggage check and to the gate for our 7:45am flight. It’s my worst or at least my most recent nightmare.

Just as we are about to give up, two weary and not so happy uniforms appear from a door behind the ticket counter. Peggy is on them like a cheap suit. “We just got our boarding passes and they don’t have our TSA prechecks. We’ve been trying to get this done all day.” Agent one, the short gray one, tells us that “There’s nobody working the counter tonight. There will be somebody here tomorrow morning two hours before flight time. You can get it fixed then.”

I’m pretty sure we were looking at two United agents unless they were apparitions. Peggy says, “That’s not going to get it. We want the corrected boarding passes done tonight.  It helps to bring muscle. The second agent, Patricia, tells us, “We’ve been here since 4am. We’re off.” But she comes over to the machine we’ve been using and starts the check-in process from scratch. She enters our confirmation number and a couple of steps later a page appears with a button that links to special traveler designations. Once she enters our Global Entry numbers we have lift off. We celebrate our victory with ordinary burgers at Fuddruckers. How far we have fallen. At least the beer was cold.

Back at the hotel I go through my bags with obsessive care. The chargers are not to be found. It does not prompt the best of sleeps. I am resigned to, one, having my chargers shipped to Mexico or, two, buying all new ones online or in Guanajuato.

6:15 check-in goes like clockwork. We're at the gate with an hour to spare, even time for breakfast. We do the internet busy work that plugged in seniors do. At 7:15 boarding starts and who takes our passes but our savior Patricia. That chick works some hours. We thank her profusely and she actually smiles.

Midway between Albuquerque and Houston I know where I put my chargers. They are in a black mesh bag in my black carry-on camera pack where I normally pack my black 70-200mm f.2.8 lens.

I have dodged two bullets in 24 hours. Life is good and I am finally on vacation. Now what I really need is good crisis

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Third Person Singular

He sat at the computer in his office rereading for the umpteenth time the memoir he was writing. The telling of his story was cathartic on some level but revealed wounds with startling clarity. Looking back catapulted him into the overarching melancholy that had been his life. The losses and rejections overshadowed by far the highs he’d experienced. His highs had never been high enough. He had been capable of so much more. “I was a gifted manager of people.  I should have been the CEO of a major company.” Harry Sykes told himself. Almost, close and second place were the themes of his story. He had made a career out of hitting doubles. He never hit a homer in his life.

Yet, on the wrong side of seventy-five he was happy. There were days when his chest swelled with good will and with the love he felt for his wife of more than 50 years. Most would say he’d had a successful career. He himself could objectively call it successful, just not as successful as it should have been. “Was coming up short all the time my fault? Was some of it really out of my control?” he wondered. “Or am I just making excuses?” Harry hated excuses. His wife Megan told him, “You must like wearing that hair shirt.  Give yourself a break for a change.”

They were financially secure but still had to be careful. He wished they didn’t have to think about money at all. “You’re lucky compared to most people.” he reminded himself. But Harry wasn’t most people.

He could blame his failure at Papa’s Restaurants in Canada on the Bank of New York when it reneged on its commitment to finance the turnaround of the concept. That was certainly part of it but, in his heart of hearts, he knew that his strategy to turn the company around had been a major stretch. He had aimed too high and expected too much as he always did. He never saw a concept that he didn’t want to make glossier and more upscale. He’d asked for more from Papa’s 108 managers than they could give. They just weren't that good. They couldn’t operate the struggling concept as it was never mind making it harder by adding deep dish pizza to the menu. His lofty plan bit him in the ass twice, once when the turnaround failed and the company went bankrupt and the second when his former partner at Primo Pizza in Boston sued him for breaching his non-compete agreement. Sykes won the case but lost the war and potentially millions of dollars.

Some of his middle managers at Papa’s, John Rainier came to mind, weren’t on board with his strategy. And in light of losing the financing to remodel the restaurants Rainier was quite right. In hindsight Harry could see that Rainier had actively sabotaged his efforts. The man had been one rolled eye short of insubordinate and Harry had tolerated it. A younger version of Harry Sykes would have fired the insolent prick on the spot. Ramesh Patel, the other operations guy, had been on his side and lobbied to replace Rainier as Director of Operations. He should have made that change. Why he hadn’t gone with his gut? Why couldn’t he pull the trigger? There’s no doubt, he thought, that I lost my confidence somewhere along the way. The turning point between decisiveness and hesitation was becoming clear in hindsight.

He joined Primo Pizza in October of 1979 after resigning as president of Zapata’s, the Mexican chain he had been operating in the Midwest. At the time there was one Primo on Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay. His new partner and boss Ron Spitz had opened restaurant in April and it showed promise. Oddly, it was Harry that suggested the location to Spitz eighteen months before. He thought the site near the corner of Boylston and Exeter was the best one in Boston. Spitz courted Harry for two years, but he turned down his offers on two occasions. When he got fed up with politics at Zapata’s he called Spitz at this house on Cape Cod to say he was ready to make the move if the offer was still on the table. The first words out of Spitz’ mouth were, “You want to do it don’t you?” Harry told him that he did. Then Spitz clarified the new terms of the deal, “You didn’t take my offer last year. So, the new deal is 10% of the company not the 20% I originally offered. "10% and 20% were abstract numbers to Harry so he took the hit.  Harry wanted out of Zapata’s and out of Louisville, Kentucky even more. He was in Boston two weeks later and began the task of fixing the operation of the seven-month old Primo Pizzeria at 731 Boylston Street.

When he arrived in Boston the first Primo was on a pace to do $850,000 in annual sales. That was decent for a 3,000 square foot, 80 seat pizza joint in 1979 but not stellar by any means. Throughput, the process of getting guests in and out was tragically slow. Part of that was poor staffing, training and inept management. And a big part of it was how long the pizza took to bake. Spitz had been trying to bake the pie in traditional Blodgett deck ovens Harry grew up with. They were simply too slow. The customer had a 50-50 chance of getting their pizza that week. An extra-large Uno with everything on it was 2 inches thick and weighed six pounds. The pizza took half an hour in the Blodgett. The concept was dead on arrival unless that ticket time was cut in half or better.

Harry had to give grudging credit to Spitz who came up with a conveyor belt oven that shortened the baking time to 8 minutes, 12 minutes or 15 minutes depending on the size of the pizza. It saved the concept.

When Sykes arrived on the scene, Primo Pizzeria was doing no lunch business whatsoever. First, nobody can waste 30 minutes of their lunch hour waiting for their food and, second, after one of those pies you needed a nap. So Harry introduced a “Personal Pizza”, a six incher with a tossed salad for $4.95. It came out in five minutes and had a lunch friendly price point. It blew the doors open and sales were at a $1,600,000 annual pace by April. He, Spitz and Primo Pizzeria were off to the races.

Despite the apparent success of his partnership with Spitz, a partnership that grew the concept to 26 units by 1985, it was very clear very early that it wasn’t going to end well for the junior partner in the firm.

Their deal was that Sykes would be the executive vice president of the company that operated Spitz’s twenty KFC stores and be president of Primo Restaurants, the company that would develop Primo Pizzerias across the country.

But a couple of weeks after he arrived Sykes and Spitz had lunch at the Primo on Boylston Street. Over salad and a Personal Pizza Spitz said, “I’ve been thinking. So there’s no confusion and so that there’s uniformity between the two companies I think you should be executive vice president and chief operating officer of both organizations instead of president of Primo’s. That work for you?” The letter of agreement between Spitz and Sykes clearly stated that Sykes would be president of Primo Pizzeria, but he didn’t stand his ground at the precise moment when their balance of power could have been established. It was early in their relationship and Sykes didn’t want to seem title happy. He wanted to be seen as a team player. It was a sign of weakness that Spitz exploited till they parted company five years later.

It was Spitz’s company. Employees called it "Ron's company." Harry was the hired help. Even as he found the locations and built the team that operated the restaurants, Spitz undermined his relationships with his direct reports. He micromanaged him. He bought Greg Shannon, Harry’s NYC district manager, a car without consulting with him. When Harry confronted Shannon about it, he yelled, “It’s Ron’s company, pal. That’s the deal I made with him. It’s none of your business.”

He made the mistake of mixing business and friendship. And he made it repeatedly. His closest friends were his subordinates. He could see now that closest and best are not the same thing. When you open restaurants and work 100-hour weeks there’s an intense but entirely superficial camaraderie. Drinking buddies and real friends are entirely different animals. Only one of his party hardy friendships stood the test of time and that was with Jake Moore who had worked for him at KFC and who became a Primo Pizzeria franchisee in Kansas City. He and Harry were still close. Harry found himself wondering why Jake was the only “employee” who hadn’t stabbed him in the back. He thought it might have been because Jake had followed a career path where he was not beholden to Harry and was his own man. He had rid himself of the conflict inherent in reporting to one person in an organization owned and controlled by another. On the other hand maybe Jake was the only true blue person on the planet. Except for Jake all of the direct reports that he thought were “best friends” sided with the money guy when push came to shove. Harry was remarkably naïve.

That’s the painful lesson that Harry was taught over and over again but never learned. It cost him his closest friends. Two of them, Marco Dellaraba and Bernie Berkowitz, offered half-hearted apologies decades later. Harry accepted both but couldn’t completely forgive when it came down to it. “I still have real affection for those guys” he thought to himself. Forgiveness is something else. 

Harry discovered Marco in the KFC training store in Brooklyn where he was the district training manager. He’d heard the he was smart, affable guy who’d served in the Army in VietNam and had been given a battlefield commission when his commanding officer was killed. Marco had been a sniper behind enemy lines, "a trained killer" Marco liked to say. Harry took an immediate liking to him. He promoted him to Area Manager in Queens then District Manager in Pittsburgh, When he joined Spitz at Primo Pizzeria he brought Marco aboard to operate their 22 KFC stores. And when they were spun off in 1984 Marco made a cool $425,000. Marco did not say, "Thanks for the opportunity." Harry made his career but Spitz got the loyalty. He who has the gold rules.

Twenty years later Harry and Marco met he for lunch when the latter was undergoing cancer treatment for advanced melanoma at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They doctors cut out seven inches of his trapezius and the prognosis wasn’t good. Marco had made the overture to reconnect and Harry said yes. They ate at Stan Frankenthaler’s trendy Salamander on Huntington Avenue near BU. Marco insisted on buying. He oozed insincerity. He was what a mutual friend called “greasy smooth.” Harry thought at the time that picking up the check was part of Marco’s mea culpa. Or it was a power move as if to say, ”Who’s the big dog now?” When he heard about Marco’s newest venture, Harry offered to help in any way he could. “That’s very nice of you. I’ll let you know.” They never spoke again. Marco died of cancer ten years ago. Harry felt nothing.

Like Marco, Bernie Berkowitz was one of Harry’s partners in crime. Bernie was his cohort in opening sixteen restaurants and in late nights in nameless bars across the country. He was a lapsed lawyer and the proprietor of the Wild Flower Café in Harvard Square.  Spitz bought the restaurant and it became second Primo Pizzeria in the summer of 1980. Bernie was a skilled restaurant operator who needed a job, so Harry hired him. He had grown up in the deli business in New York and had mad skills. Bernie helped open the Harvard Square Primo and quickly rose through the ranks. Later he went to work for the franchisee in Florida, owned and operated two restaurants in South Florida and retired as a vice president of a major hotel management company.

But when Bernie got married for the second time he didn’t invite Harry saying, “Listen I’m not inviting you to the wedding. I’d just have to cook for another person. I’m keeping it small.” Harry was just knew that Spitz was invited. But that may have been paranoia.

Spitz tried to demote Sykes in 1985 after Sykes had the temerity to introduce him as “This is my partner, Ron Spitz.” That happened at the opening of the Primo Pizzeria in Brentwood, California. A  week later he forced Harry to quit by telling him that he had brought in a new president and that Harry could remain as executive vice president and report to the new man, Greg Gillespie. Oh, and he would have to give up his ownership in the company. He told Harry that when he didn’t introduce him as “his boss” in Brentwood it was game over. No other reasons were given. Harry, of course, couldn’t and wouldn’t take the demotion as Spitz knew very well. "That's when I lost my mojo" Harry muttered. "My whole identity was running that company." He was broken. 

With few alternatives since Spitz wouldn't give him positive references, he embarked on a three year journey of self-discovery that may have saved his life. But he never found the magic touch and confidence he'd once had.

In 1988 Harry became president of Canada’s fourth largest chain. The short story is the turnaround of the troubled chain did not happen but, to add insult to injury, Papa’s had a Columbus, Ohio unit which Harry visited shortly after assuming his new position. On that visit he happened to be staying at the same hotel as Primo Pizzeria’s franchising manager, Annie Gold. Annie, who had worked for Harry in early seventies reported the sighting to Spitz, thinking nothing of it. Unfortunately, being employed by a “competitor” in the US or Canada within five years was technically a breach of Harry’s non-compete agreement and Spitz sued him for the breach.

The case went to a jury trial in 1989, and Spitz gave testimony about Harry that only a close associate could have known and the only associate close enough to know was Bernie Berkowitz. Harry’s testimony according to Spitz was stellar. He told Harry, “Good job. You were really good, really credible.” Harry didn’t know how to respond. He won the case, but his legal fees wiped out what was left of the paltry annual payments he was receiving for not competing. It was the definition of a pyrrhic victory.

In 2016 Harry and Bernie reconnected, Bernie told Harry that, “You were my favorite travelling companion ever. I had more good times with you than anybody in my life.” Harry couldn’t disagree. It had been a blast. He told Bernie, “You were the most gifted restaurant guy I ever knew.” Which was true.

He didn’t say the rest.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Cost Guy

Truth be told I became multi-unit operator before I knew how to operate a restaurant. In fact, I had never been restaurant general manager when I started Four n‘ 20 Pies, was Vice President of Sveden House smorgasbords, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Pewter Pot Restaurants or any of the companies I ran. I had opened and been an assistant manager of a pizza restaurant in Fort Lauderdale in 1966 but running a shift and putting the money in the safe is not the same thing as being a full charge manager responsible for every damn thing. Being a chain operator with no real grounding in the nuts and bolts of running a single unit would seem to be the very definition of the Peter Principle and yet there I was, a chain operator at 27. I was never a mechanic. I was always a manager of managers.  Which is not to say that being an accomplished unit manager wouldn’t have helped. It would have. A lot.

Someone told me years ago that the hardest move is from being a unit manager operating your own little fiefdom to operating two restaurants, meaning that you’re managing two managers. So maybe not being an experienced unit manager was a blessing in disguise. There's some spin for you.The tendency for new multi-unit managers who were presumably skilled unit managers is to attempt to be the manager of both units. I was spared that indignity. Learning to operate more than one restaurant through the manager, managing managers, is a real leap for normal humans but not for mutants. The same wise soul who told be about the dizzying leap from one to two restaurants said, “If you can manage two restaurants you can operate a hundred.” That’s a stretch but the principle of that old saw abides. The skills it takes to manage managers are totally different than the ones a unit manager employs. Never had the latter.

The only company that trained me to operate a store or restaurant was Baskin-Robbins. I trained in LA’s Larchmont store for a week though that was mostly learning how to scoop a perfect three-ounce ball of ice cream every time. That entailed putting a piece of wax paper on a Pelouze scale and scooping over and over again till you could scoop three ounces in your sleep. We were supposed to do it before every shift. The same kind of repetition applies to pouring a dependable 1-1/2 ounce shot of booze by feel and by sight. It’s the art called free pouring. A skilled bartender can pour the perfect shot, 1-1/2 half or 2 ounces, every time. She can tell by the feel and the motion of the bottle. An intermediate step is to count the pour, 1, 2,3, but a real pro just knows. Got a problem with liquor cost? Tell your bartenders and, if they’re real pros, they’ll shave every pour just a hair. Not to mention that real bartenders in real bars free pour. It looks cool and you think you’re getting more. You are not.

The essence of being a multi-unit manager is to convey expectations and to measure performance against those goals on a timely basis; be it sales performance, costs, food quality, service, or the physical condition of the restaurant. That’s the thing I called QSC in an earlier chapter, the three-legged stool of the restaurant business. It’s an oversimplification but defines the major components of the operation. Quality, Service and Cleanliness.

From the start I somehow recognized the importance of planning. So, as early as 1969 at Four n’ 20 Pies I asked my managers to plan daily sales based on recent performance and to allocate labor accordingly. Labor hours must reflect sales, period. I also required weekly inventories and food costs. Food cost is Beginning Inventory plus Purchases minus Ending Inventory. Right out of Accounting 101. As basic as that calculation is I found many a seasoned manager who couldn’t grasp the concept.

I brought those fundamentals to Betty Crocker Pie Shops and Sveden House Restaurants but when I became Executive Vice President and General Manager of Boston’s Pewter Pot Restaurants in 1973 I became a true expert in managing labor. KFC Corporation had purchased Pewter Pot, one of several flyers it took with small, promising chains. It had created the RVC, Retail Venture Corporation, to shepherd these companies, among them H. Salt Fish and Chips, The Original Pancake House and Pewter Pot. KFC bought Pewter Pot while it was in receivership and I, along with a bankruptcy consultant, became the receivers. We co-signed every check till I righted the ship. That took about six months.

The shallow breathing you hear is Pewter Pot on its deathbed. The 22-unit coffee shop concept had been founded by Vinny Catania who ran the enterprise like a mafia Don. That is not to suggest that Vinny was connected, and he was Sicilian after all, but he operated the struggling chain top down and without middle managers capable of managing managers. They were Vinny's lap dogs at best. Many of his unit managers were inept, dishonest and blind to the condition of their restaurants. And no one was requiring performance of any kind from them. Esprit de corps was null and void. The units were filthy, there were phantom inventories that masked the real food cost and labor was out of control. I recall that the Salem Pewter Pot had food in the walk-in refrigerator that was so old that there were maggots on the ground beef. The stench was horrific. We had to trash all the product, strip the joint down to the bare walls and start from scratch. I am understating the awfulness.

KFC was rabid about having me run the restaurants profitably from the get-go and shoved a team of efficiency experts down my throat. They were from the Alexander Proudfoot Company which I nicknamed “those fucking Indians.” I thought that I was already the world’s best cost manager. I was a grinder from birth. A grinder is a cost control freak, a person who might try to run costs below the level at which food quality, friendly timely service and a clean well-maintained establishment were possible. I teetered on the edge of too cheap.

But those fucking Indians showed me that I was an amateur. I had no idea how low labor costs could be. Senior management must have recognized my willingness to attempt the impossible. Or maybe they recognized hubris when they saw it. So, I found myself in the re-opened Salem Pewter Pot surrounded by gray men with stopwatches timing every activity. Our goal was 100% productivity. That’s 100% as in 100%. Not a wasted second. And we did that. 100% productivity. It’s possible no restaurant in the history of the world had ever accomplished that miracle. A doff of the hat to me.

I told my boss, Tom Frank, that the methodology that those fucking Indians used was brilliant but that achieving 100% productivity over the long haul wasn’t possible, that employees had to have time to go to the john. I suggested that we retain our humanity and aim for a sustainable 90% productivity instead. He bought my argument and I embarked on a journey that took my management system called Daily Operations Control or DOC to hundreds of restaurants over the next forty years.

First, I installed the Management System in all my Pewter Pot restaurants, took it with me when I became vice president of KFC, first in my 229 units, then in all 800 company owned and operated locations. At KFC our managers, area managers and district managers were extraordinarily skilled at making and adhering to hourly labor plans and to managing food costs against Ideal Food Cost. Ideal means no waste of any kind and is the fraternal twin of 100% labor efficiency. Neither is actually possible, but you can get really close. 90% labor productivity and 2% over Ideal Food Cost became our goals and we achieved them across the board whatever the concept; café, fried chicken, pizza, Italian, fusion or fine dining.

Not only did we deliver the costs, but we measured them on a timely basis; labor costs hourly with daily totals and food cost weekly. The managers tallied all of their costs each month and delivered a complete profit and loss statement before lunch the day after the month ended. In actual fact we used 4 week, 4 week, 5 week periods so we could compare year to year performance using the same number of days per period year to year. The day after the period ended I had unit, area and district income statements on microfiche on my desk. That was three weeks before “corporate” delivered its useless PandLs. You can’t wait three weeks to find out how you did last month. You need to know immediately so you can fix what’s broken. That means now. For labor cost that means daily and for product cost it means weekly. I always told my managers and clients, “You can’t screw up more than a day if you measure labor costs daily and you can’t have more than a week of bad food cost if you measure it weekly. In an emergency situation I’d require that food cost be calculated daily. That was rarely needed.

Our managers logged actual labor hours against planned labor hours by job function every hour of the day. Labor by job function was planned by the hour according to an established Labor Matrix. The sales and labor plans had to be approved by the area manager who called each unit every single morning to see if the plan had been met. Frequently, managers would boast of beating their sales goals and of using less labor than the plan. It was a game in which everybody won. Take care of the hours and the days will take care of themselves.

We were a juggernaut. Not only did we lead the country in costs and profitability but in sales growth and QSC, too. Appropo of which is this nugget: The best managers have the highest sales, the greatest sales growth, the highest standards, the lowest turnover and the lowest costs. “It’s the truth. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual.” The worst managers? The same thing in but in reverse.

The very essence of our collective performance in 1976 and 1977 was brought into focus at a monthly regional meeting held in Columbus, Ohio. We held monthly wrap-ups that rotated through the five districts. Wunderkind Bill Roquemore, still a close friend, was our DM in Columbus and was a superior performer across the board. Refer to the paragraph above. He is the point of reference for doing everything well.

Anyway, Hicks Waldron, the president of KFC’s parent company, Heublein, was in attendance as each District Manager presented his district’s performance using an overhead projector. In these presentations the DMs showed sales and costs compared to plan, compared to last year and compared to the accounting department’s useless because they were late income statements. We called it “reconciling.” This was done in spreadsheet format. I remember so clearly that the profit from one of Bill’s Columbus units was lower by $181.13 than the corporate PandL. Bill calmly showed that our higher costs were correct. Corporate accounting had missed a bill for straws and we could prove it.  Waldron was dazzled. Bill Roquemore was so confident in his numbers that he defended them even though accounting's income statement would have made his store, area and district $181.13 more profitable. We were a bunch of showoffs. Boy, we were a proud bunch.

From this and other such experiences comes this truism. “If your accountant knows the numbers better than you do you’re a lousy manager or owner.” Write it down. There'll be a quiz later.

As I recount this treatise on operating restaurants and especially the Hicks Waldron vignette, I realize that the meeting in Columbus and a similar one in New York marked me as one to watch. In the clarity of hindsight, it’s why Hicks Waldron pressed me so hard to become President of Zantigo a year later. The good news is that got I promoted. The bad news is that I would have been better off if I hadn’t.

Maybe you can be too good for your own good. Just saying.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Wannabe Me

Don’t you ever quit, Immel,” Sam Fees screamed. “Don’t you ever quit in the middle of a race. It’s weak and it’s cowardly and disrespectful. Don’t be a quitter!” I was thirteen when I quit running 75 yards into a 100-yard dash. When I saw the kid in first place had me by 10 yards I bailed. “What’s the point” I thought. Sam Fees, my eighth-grade teacher, taught me an important if embarrassing life lesson.

I wasn’t much of an athlete but wanted desperately to be one. From sixth grade through high school I tried to make the team in almost every sport. Except for basketball for some reason. Jocks sat at the head of the table at Tempe Union High School during the fifties I can tell you that.  Being a jock and being a BMOC were synonymous. Despite my meager efforts on the field and on the track, I existed on the periphery of the cool kids, not quite in but not out either. I was invited to the right parties but never felt part of them. It felt like I was looking in from the inside. In a pod within the sphere of the chosen ones.

High school is a fraught time for lots of kids and I would best describe my time as bitter sweet. First loves, in my case unrequited, the lack of success in sports and a checkered academic career constructed self-doubt that wasn’t erased until college when I grew into my body and started connecting with girls. I was a late bloomer who should have been redshirted in high school. I wonder how high school might have been if I’d been a year older all along the way. I wasn’t just emotionally immature but a total pencil neck through my junior year. I entered the summer of 1958 as a 5’-11” 128-pound scarecrow. That’s the body I brought to the gridiron with predictable results. Slow, skinny and clumsy is a deadly combination. In my freshman year Coach Chief Wynn gave me a crack as the starting halfback, so I promptly twisted my knee and he relegated me to the defensive line. A 120-pound tackle heaven forbid.

Tempe High was a jock school. We had great football teams that starred guys who went on to play major college football and made my chances slim and none. All-State Running backs Larry and Rob Royce played at Stanford, for example. They were also state champions in the 100-yard dash in successive years, 1958 and 1959.

Determined to finally make the varsity football team I committed myself to put on weight and give it a real go my senior year. I drove to Phoenix every other day to work out at a gym on North Central Avenue, one that was used by the best footballers in the Valley. Among them were the national record holder in the shotput Dallas Long and his North Phoenix High School mate, Karl Johnstone, the national champion in the javelin. These guys were behemoths and I was a twerp. Surely, I’d gain weight and coordination by osmosis.  Between May and August with grueling workouts and prodigious quantities of Hoffman high protein shakes I weighed 168 when football season started. Coach Wynn allowed that, “At least you’re big enough to play.” Big enough does not mean good enough. I was demoted to junior varsity as a senior. It still smarts.

My only letter was in golf. Laugh line. My best friend John Ellsworth, Jimmy Oakley and I bought clubs, mine were Wilson Sam Snead Blue Ridges, and all of us went out for the team. In the Phoenix area you can play golf all year round so we played every single day. Tempe didn’t have a golf course but we had the rights to play at South Mountain in Phoenix and that became our home course. John and I were dogged about learning the game. In our senior year we were the third and fourth players on the squad. I can’t tell you who was which. And we weren’t half bad for newbies. Both of us shot in the low-eighties and I had one 79 with a little help from my right foot.

In the dry and hot weather you can hit the ball a mile. I routinely drove 300-yard greens. The ball would roll forever. My short game was another matter. My opponents would play mind games like, “If I could drive that far I’d par for sure.” The pars came sparingly, of course. I was easily frustrated, quick to anger and was a noted club thrower. 

In my sixties I revisited golf as I had once a decade since high school. The teaching pro at a driving range in Waltham, Massachusetts told me, “You have the fastest swing I’ve ever seen. If you could slow it down a little you’d be dangerous.” She suggested a Nano second pause at the top of swing to gain some control. Didn’t happen.

One time I was playing a golf game with my business partners and James Boyce, our marketing guy and a three handicapper. James was an entitled prick but sure knew his golf. He told me, “You’ve got something that not very many amateurs have. You have pretty swing and it’s the same every single time. You could be a good golfer if you played enough.” Hey, where’s the fun in doing something you’re actually good at?

It wasn’t until I started running in March of 1976 that I flashed a glimmer of something athletic. It was the height of the running boom. Frank Shorter had won the marathon at the Munich Olympic and Bill Rogers, who came in second, sparked a distance running craze. Ever the early adaptor, I became part of the boom and running became a constant in my life. I had minimal athletic talent but was able to fashion some success through persistence. I was a plugger.

As I have reported, my first running steps as an adult human being were taken in New Canaan, Connecticut. At first, I could run precisely .8 of a mile before I’d be bent over double in the spasms of oxygen depletion. I would walk around the intersection and pant back to our house at 312 Mariomi Road. Two months later in May I summoned the nerve to try to run five miles. You’d have thought it as an ultra-marathon. I even enlisted Peggy to drive the ambulance I was sure I’d need.

So, on July 4th of 1976 I ran my first 10K just over the Hill in Wilton. I finished in 52 minutes or so, a little over eight minutes per mile. I was the king of the world. The hook was set. I was and still am a runner. Folks define themselves by what they do for a living. With running such a part of life, I began to call myself a restaurant operator and a runner. Today I say I’m a writer-photographer and, still, a runner. Note that "writer" preceded photographer.

I ran dozens of 10Ks after my maiden voyage in 1976. My times decreased through 1987 when I did a 38:51 on the running leg of the New England Triathlon series event in Bridgton, Maine. I was 46. After that my time slowed every year till I ran a 50-minute 10K in Berlin, New Hampshire in 2006. I had just turned 65. I haven’t run a timed race since but wouldn’t rule it out.

Along the way I ran one Marathon. The New York Marathon in 1982 was glorious. Gunnar Nilsson and I trained together in Columbus, Ohio. We did a 20 miler two weeks before New York. That was the key element of Jeff Galloway’s ten week training plan in which you’d average 50 miles a week for ten weeks culminating with the 20-mile run and a taper the last two weeks. That run was notable because I did a face plant and scraped the hell out of my right knee. There was no lasting damage save some soreness. When Gunnar and I met in Manhattan we abided the pre-race protocol of carbo loading but pushed the limits of alcohol intake the night before. Where, you ask, did we partake of our icy ales? P.J. Clarke’s, don’t you know.

We took busses to the start of the race on Staten Island and gathered at the bottom of the Verrazano Bridge to await the starter’s gun. With 8,000 runners, it’s 40,000 now, it took me eight minutes just to get to starting line. It was slow going over the bridge but on the downhill entering Brooklyn I hit my stride. A tour of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan at a runner’s pace is revelatory. A runner’s eye view of New York’s neighborhoods and cultures is an intimate look at the vibrance and diversity of a great city.

I will never forget the feeling I had as I ran down the 59th Street Bridge at the 16-mile marker. That view of the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the din of cheering onlookers as I came off the bridge and turned right onto First Avenue was pure, unfettered joy. Coming off the long descent into Manhattan and buoyed by cheering crowds I felt like a could run forever. I felt the unfamiliar feeling of speed. I was the wind. I was fast.

After the gritty cityscapes of Harlem, I turned south into enter leafy Central Park where I had run dozens of time. The course stiffened. The rolling terrain makes for a hard-fought last six miles, but I was so pumped that I finished the race at my fastest pace of the day. I passed half a dozen runners on the finishing straight. I do believe I was sprinting. It was a highlight of my life. I crossed the finish in 3:27:38 or a 7:47 per mile average. I was exhilarated and depleted and swore I’d never do it again. And I’m a man of my word if nothing else.