“What is this . . . GENERATION WHINE?”

(From http://geography.about.com/)

When I started this blog, I had to decide whether to reveal that I work at Johnny D’s.

What if I had something negative to say about the customers, or the staff?

I decided if so, I’d just wait until the people involved had moved on.  This one group has been gone for a while now; here’s their story.

It was many years ago.  The band had finished, they’d packed up their equipment and headed home.  I was left with a handful of people at the bar — four employees, and one customer — all in their early twenties.

Before continuing, I’d like to say that I knew these five people did not represent an entire generation.  They were just individuals who happened to be sitting at the bar, and happened to be roughly the same age.  And who all happened to be on the same page . . . all of them whining.

I can kind of understand why.

The staff had just finished a difficult shift and it’s natural to bitch a little afterward.  Bitch about the customers who did this, the kitchen staff who did that, and about the managers they thought had their heads stuck up their asses.

But there was a customer there.

The staff didn’t care.  They launched into a litany of things that went wrong that night.  Legitimate complaints for the most part, but complaints nonetheless, and more than a few about the customers.

This customer didn’t mind.  He joined right in, agreeing with them about everything.

The five of them had a field day.  It was pretty funny actually; these were bright, energetic people and they cracked themselves up with the clever ways they tore some of the other customers to shreds.

Then it happened.

The customer sitting with them got up and went outside to have a cigarette.  He was barely out the door when the four remaining started in on him.

“He said yesterday he was going to quit smoking . . . Now look at him!

They talked about what he drank, the strange way he held his glass.  They laughed about how he danced, and the fact that at closing time he always left alone.

When he came back in, it was as though not a word had been said.

Somebody bought him a drink, and the five of them went back to trashing anyone who wasn’t present.

They carried on as though I wasn’t there, but I guess that’s the bartender’s persona.

I’ve seen customers look to the left, then look to the right . . . making make sure that no one can hear as they talk to the person next to them.  All the while, I’m standing right in front of them, an arm’s length away.

It’s natural for customers not to see us unless we’re serving a drink, or talking to them directly.  We’re invisible.

But I was there, and my thoughts went back to The Lark Tavern, and to Johnny La La, the old daytime bartender.

I was standing behind the bar with Johnny La La one afternoon, talking with two customers.  When one of them left, the one who remained started to complain about the other guy.  Trying to fit in, I went along with his complaints.

Later, Johnny pulled me to the side.

“Never bitch about one customer to another,” he said.  “Even if they start it, don’t go along with them.  They’ll think that when they leave, you’ll bad mouth them the same way.”

Back at Johnny D’s, the guy with the cigarette was gone for the night, and the four wait staff remaining once again went verbally up one side of him and down the other.

“Oh well,” I thought, “Maybe at the end of the night it’s a natural reaction to customers.”  Like a prostitute’s reaction to the johns afterward.

Then one of the staff left,  . . . and as soon as the front door closed behind the guy, the three remaining started in on him.

“He’s so strange, he gives me the creeps.  Don’t you hate the way he always fiddles with his collar!”

They complained about the clothes he wore.  They laughed about his awkward attempts to become part of their clique.

“Well,“ I thought, ”Even if they work together, maybe they just don’t like him.”

The three who remained began to complain about everything in general.  What was wrong with this, and what sucked about that.

“Jesus,” I thought, “What is this . . . Generation Whine?”

They were the BIG THREE, laughing hysterically, united in their mutual dislike of everything and everyone.  But always they returned to their co-worker, and the customer who had just left.

When it was time to close, the three of them got up.

One of them, a cute blond waitress, said, “I’ll be right with you . . . I just want to go to the ladies room first.”

The other two, one male and one female, watched her walk to the ladies room.  As soon as she was out of earshot, they began mocking her in a chiming tone, “ I just want to go to the ladies room first . . . I just want to go to the ladies room first!”

The two of them doubled up with laughter.

“My God,” I thought, “What will happen when there’s only one left?

That remaining one would have all the people in the world to complain about . . . everyone would be fair game . . . but there would be no one there to listen.  No one but me, behind the bar.

Fortunately when the blond came back from the ladies room they all left together

Over the next few days, I wondered if I should say something to the BIG THREE — something like Johnny La La said to me.  But those three never listened to anything I had to say.

Anyway, that customer never comes in anymore.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 15 Comments

TWO PART-TIME (Perhaps over-the-top) EMPLOYEES

One of the great things about working in bars and restaurants is the people you work with.

Restaurant employees are just not your typical working Janes and Joes.

Maybe it’s because this business is a little out of the mainstream.  Maybe it’s because so many restaurant workers have other jobs, or are just doing this until they reach a larger goal.  Musicians, artists, teachers, kids in law school.  They keep the place alive.

Today’s post is about two part-timers at Johnny D’s who consistently make work interesting.

Rick and The Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup . . . since 1893, the top prize in hockey. (Photo from http://todaysfacilitymanager.com)

Four weeks ago I posted a story about one of our doorman, Rick Sabbag (real profession, art landscaping; he works for himself).  I told you about his over-the-top reaction when after thirty-nine years the Boston Bruins finally won another Stanley Cup.

Checking IDs at the door the night of the final game, Rick’s couldn’t take his eyes off the large screen TV’s.  People had to stand and wait if a crucial play was in progress.

It had been a long wait for Rick.  He had cheered the Boston Bruins as a young boy, and then for thirty-nine long years afterwards suffered the Stanley Cup drought.  He’d gotten married, had three boys (Nick, Tim, and Brandon), and still no Stanley Cup.

When the Bruins finally won Rick went a little nuts.  He was bellowing at the top of his lungs, arms raised high, spinning around in circles to high-five complete strangers.

It turns out that was just the beginning of Rick’s celebration.

Two weeks later in his home town of Lincoln MA, there was a Fourth of July parade, and Rick and his buddies cobbled together a Boston Bruins float.

Rick rode through the streets balanced precariously on the front of the flatbed, clapping his two large paws together, yelling, “Go Bruins! . . . Go Bruins! . . . Go Bruins!”  Until he was hoarse.

The crowd that lined the streets cheered him wildly which prompted Rick to yell even louder, as if he needed encouragement.

Then somehow — maybe it was because Boston Bruin’s legendary player Cam Neely also lives in Lincoln, or because of some of Rick’s other connections that I won’t mention here — but Rick managed to get his picture taken with the coveted Stanley Cup.

(For a hockey fan, this is like touching The Holy Grail.)

Here’s Rick (on the left) with Cam Neely . . . and the mythic trophy.













Way to celebrate, Rick.


Henry Parker, Renaissance man

Henry Parker (our part-time house photographer) is an interesting guy.  He makes a living in custom woodwork, but on the side he films and produces documentaries for the local cable access network.  (SCATV just won a national award for Overall Excellence.)

Henry travels more than anyone I know, both for photography and pleasure.  He’s covered most of the United States, and he’s also been to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, India and the far east, Senegal, Cambria, Icenya and the Ivory Coast.

Photo by Henry Parker

When Henry’s in Africa he doesn’t rent a room in ordinary hotels.  He stays at the homes of local folks, and sometimes he visits the outlying areas.  On his last trip, he stayed with tribes who live in mud-and-grass huts — no running water, no plumbing, no electricity.

But for twenty years before all that, Henry’s background was in the martial arts.

This made for an interesting scene one day, in the park across from Johnny D’s.

Every year in that park, the Somerville Arts Council puts on “Art Beat”, a two-day festival filled with artisan booths.

Last summer a booth had been set up by a local martial arts academy.  They were offering free instruction, trying to entice people to join their school.

A black belt from that school was standing in front of the large crowd, demonstrating a variety of self-defense techniques.

For those of you who don’t know a lot about the martial arts, I have to explain one common misconception.  When most people hear the term “black belt” — they don’t know the whole story.  Certainly it’s a mark of merit, to be taken seriously, but having a black belt is a little like having a college degree.  Which school you receive it from is significant.

A degree from Harvard or MIT indicates a different level of competence than one from, say, Littleville Junior College.

I’m sure this black belt was skilled in his own right, but no way was he in Henry’s league.

Henry is a world-class fighter.  He studied with Grandmaster Suk Chung, a two-time world champion in Tae Kwon Do.  Henry himself has so many trophies he can barely close his closet door without one of them falling out.

(I finally persuaded Henry to haul out the first layer from his closet and take this photo.)

“That’s it?” I asked Henry one day in jest, “That’s all the trophies you have?”

“No,” he replied, apparently unaware I was busting his balls, “There’s more behind the couch and the chairs.”

“And I keep the plaques under the couch.”

Anyway, Henry was in the crowd watching as the black belt went through his demonstration.  Maybe something about the guy rubbed Henry the wrong way.  Maybe this black belt was just too self-assured, a little cocky.

Then the guy asked for a volunteer from the audience.  He wanted to demonstrate his techniques.

Henry stepped forward.

“Go ahead,” the black belt told him, dressed in his crisp white uniform as the two stood across from each other, “Go ahead.  Try to hit me.”

Henry was in street clothes; the instructor had no idea who he was.


Henry bounced a quick punch off the karate master’s forehead, pulling the punch expertly so the guy knew he’d been hit, but wasn’t harmed.

The guy was a little stunned as the crowd oowed and awwwed, but he recovered.

“Ok,” he told Henry.  “OK.  Not bad . . . not bad.”

He gathered himself once more into a fighting stance.

“OK,” he told Henry, “Now try that again.”

“Pop!”  “Pop!”  “Pop!”

Henry Parker, out of his "civilian" clothes.

Henry tapped him with three more karate strikes.

Now the guy was completely flustered and the crowd had become embarrassingly silent.

Then somehow he managed to switch back to demonstrating the techniques on his own.  Without help from the audience.

Later he pulled Henry aside.  “You show promise,” the black belt said, “You should join our school.”

“Naw,” Henry told him, “I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”

He never told the guy the whole story.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 11 Comments

GO BRUINS!!! (And way to go, David Hayden)

I apologize in advance because this post is going to be all over the place.  It’s just that two completely unrelated things happened this past week I feel compelled to talk about.

Goalie Tim Thomas raises The Stanley Cup! (http://www.newsday.com; photo credit Associated Press)

FIRST, THE BOSTON BRUINS finally won the Stanley Cup title after thirty-nine consecutive years of coming up short.  (The Stanley Cup is the “World Series” of professional hockey.)

I’m not a big hockey fan but our doorman Rick Sabbag is a Bruins fanatic and his unbridled enthusiasm during the playoffs was downright infectious.

Rick stands 5’ 7”, probably weights 260 lbs.  He’s a broad-shouldered mountain of a man compressed into a fireplug.  He’s a hockey player himself, skating for an amateur team in the Boston area.

It was 1972 when the Bruins won their last Stanley Cup, and Rick must have been around five years old.  I can picture his father carrying him to the Boston Garden on his shoulders.  I can imagine Rick’s dad telling him right after the game:  “The Bruins are going to win again next year, son!  We’ve got a great team!”

Well, thirty-nine years later the Bruins actually did win another Stanley Cup title.

The night of the final game Rick was working the door at Johnny D’s (I was off), and I heard later that throughout the entire game he paced uncontrollably back and forth in his Ray Bourque jersey, lifting his Bruins cap to wipe the sweat off his brow.

I heard that when the Boston Bruins finally won, Rick clapped his two large paws together non-stop for five minutes, bellowing loudly, pausing only to high-five anyone within his reach.  I was told that he had to be restrained from running naked through the streets.

(Maybe that last detail was a bit of exaggeration as the staff retold the story . . . I’m not sure because I wasn’t there, but knowing Rick I think it might be pretty accurate.)

Anyway, congratulations to the Boston Bruins, and congratulations Rick.

ALSO THIS WEEK, DAVID HAYDEN has published a new book (today is the official release date.)

That’s big news in my world.  I’m working on a book myself, and three of my favorite restaurant bloggers have also been planning books.  (Along with David Hayden of The Hospitality Formula, there’s Scribbler50 from Behind the Stick, and Patrick Maguire who pens Server not Servant.)  David is the first of us to get his book out there.

(David Hayden’s new book, available at http://www.tips2book.com/)

As a fellow-blogger, David and I exchange emails now and then, and he was kind enough to send me advance chapters.  I’ve been reading them non-stop.  Based on the exceptional quality of his weekly blog I expected his book to be good — but not this good.

This is a gem of a book.  It’s a detailed took at the guts and sinews of our business, full of tips and techniques that can easily make any restaurant shift more pleasant . . . and more profitable.  (In counterpoint, David also points out the things we unknowingly do that can make a shift hell.)

For example, I was skimming through the book, I hadn’t been reading for more than five minutes when I came across this suggestion:  “Leave your troubles at the front door.”

That’s classic, standard restaurant advice, but it’s something that’s overlooked far too often.  How many times behind the bar have I seen myself or those around me forget this time-honed wisdom?

I immediately thought of Tommy Talbor who worked with me in The Lark Tavern days.

Talk about bringing your problems to the job, . . . Tommy could have been a poster-boy for the “bitter-bartender” syndrome.  For Tommy, listening to a man talk about his boss, or a woman say something about balancing her job and her kids — for Tommy, to have to stand there and listen even for a few minutes was like a life-sentence in bartender’s hell.

I’m not saying Tommy wasn’t good bartender, or fun to work with.  His caustic, biting wit was sometimes a riot.

One night a thick-voiced man walked up from the crowd and bellowed, “Hey . . . HEY!!!  What does someone have to do to get a drink in this bar?”

Tommy strolled over to the man and folded his arms across his chest.  “What do you have to do to get a drink?” he asked the man. “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “well, a blow job would be nice.”

“Yes, actually a blow job would be very nice,” Tommy continued, leaning forward. “Just like last night . . . all of us.”

But behind this wit and bravado, Tommy was not a happy camper.  He hated his job.  And the job hated him equally in return.

David’s book would have helped.

A few minutes later while reading David’s book, I came across this — “Don’t be THE SERVER.”  He was encouraging us to relate to the customers as people (Chapter 14).

There’s been a lot of talk in this business lately about “human to human” service, and the need for everyone to remember that we’re all just people, even if we temporarily have different roles as “customers” and “servers” in restaurants and bars.

Most of the discussion so far has been about what customers do wrong, but Mr. Hayden correctly points out that it’s a two-way street.  If bartenders and wait staff choose to see the customers strictly as “Johns”, they shouldn’t be surprised if they’re treated like whores.

Author (and fellow blogger) David Hayden

David details specific ways that servers can at least start the ball rolling in the opposite direction.  This is great stuff . . .  everyone in the business should take this book to heart.

And while the book is sure to make life easier and more pleasant for restaurant workers, it’s stated goal is to make them more money.  (I imagine that’s why most people will buy it.)

In one email exchange I asked David, “In this tight economy, who should buy your book, . . . and why?”

He wrote back, in part:  “I put a great deal of thought into that and decided at the very beginning of the process that I would not charge more for the book than I felt a server could increase their tips by in the first week after implementing the techniques it teaches.”

“ . . . There are nearly 2.5 million tipped servers in the United States alone.  They are dependent on tips for their living, but no one is offering the [knowledge and skills they need to be successful] in a simple, understandable, and easily implemented manner.”

I don’t mean to go on and on this book, but I was delighted to find such a gold mine of great ideas in one place.  In chapter after chapter, David turns the complex task of serving customers well (and making more money) into a manageable science.

And, yes, as a fellow writer I was glad to see that David actually got his book out there, and that it came out so splendidly.

Which is why this week I just had to say, … Way to go, David Hayden!

Back next week with a more typical post for “Life on a Cocktail Napkin.”

6/24/11 update: Sorry, I forgot to mention a generous offer David made to readers of this blog — anyone who would like to purchase his book by July 1st can get a 20% discount by using the promo code “Napkin” when they order at Tips2book.com.  (You can also buy/order his book at bookstores, referencing ISBN-10: 0-9836393-0-2 or ISBN-13: 9780983639305.)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 9 Comments


“Is this way good for you?” she asked innocently as she shifted her body a little to the left.

With a playful tone, she broached the subject so easily it surprised me.

This was a rather awkward position for us.  We were pressed tightly together, just about wrapped around each other, with her right hip grinding into my side.  My face was only one quarter-of-an-inch from her bare shoulder.  Her blonde hair was falling over that shoulder, and it had such a delightful fragrance.

“Don’t even think about kissing her shoulder!” I told myself.   I knew it would be wrong . . . but being pressed so tightly against her somehow made me want to.

“I’m OK,” I told her speaking into her shoulder, “But thanks for asking.”

Photo from www.bu.edu

We were crammed together on the inside steps of an MBTA Green Line trolley headed from the Fenway stop to Boston’s Park Street Station.

While waiting for this train, our every-growing crowd had watched a dozen trolleys roll by in the opposite direction before this one lone train finally pulled up on our side.  Of course it was going to be crowded.  Total strangers, she and I happened to squeeze onto the trolley car at the same time and she was now one step above me as the doors closed behind us, pushing us even more firmly together.

She was in her mid-twenties, a striking young woman with long blonde hair, wearing a sleeveless beige dress.  She had a suitcase in one hand with her purse over her shoulder.  As we stood mashed against each other, she was speaking with two other young ladies standing on the step above us; the three of them talked rapidly in a foreign language, laughing about it all.

When we debarked at Park Street, I spoke with her for a minute.  She said she and her friends were from the Netherlands.  This was their first time in Boston.  I asked if she’d mind me retelling this story in a blog.

“I won’t use your name,” I said, “But given our situation I thought what you said was pretty funny.”

Is this way good for you?

Now she understood and threw her head back laughing.

Riding on the Boston MBTA is never dull, and without the sense of danger famous in NYC subways, when crazy stuff happens on the Boston lines you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Photo from www.bing.com

I remember being on a Mass Ave Bus headed to Harvard Square one afternoon when this very large, clearly crazy man got on.  As he walked down the aisle toward the back seats he glared at everyone and swore at some.

“What the hell are you looking at!” he snapped at a poor woman who had glanced in his direction.

Once seated he began talking to himself as he looked around, making threatening gestures with those massive hands and arms.

“That’s right!” he said loudly, glaring at the passengers seated in front of him, “That’s right . . . be very afraid!”

Now a strange little man with glasses boarded the bus.

He walked slowly toward the back as the large guy kept talking.

This small man sat down on the empty seat next to the big guy. He smiled up at him.

After a minute, he laid his head against the big man’s shoulder, like a child leaning against a loving parent.  Maybe he was drawn to the big guy’s power.

The big guy was completely freaked out.  As the small man sat with his head contentedly on his shoulder, the big guy had a terrified look on his face.  Suddenly he was desperate.  His expression said, “Wait a minute . . . what’s going on here?  I’m the one who’s supposed to be crazy!

He began looking around at the other passengers as though seeking help.

The little man continued to smile, and the big guy finally got up and took another seat.

“Did you see that?” he asked, turning to the other passengers.  His voice was half-panicked.  “Did you see what he did?”

Gotta love the Mass Ave bus.

(From www.projectplace.org)

Another time I was headed back home to Cambridge after working an overnight shift as a volunteer counselor at Project Place, a 24-hour crisis center on Washington Street in Boston.  I’d worked at a similar center in Albany NY (see Suzie Creamcake and Jerk-Off Joe) and when I came to Boston I worked four nights a weeks behind the bar and one night as a Project Place hotline volunteer.

I’d go in at midnight and leave at 8:00 A.M. the next morning, usually completely wiped out.

This particular morning I was on the way home to get some sleep when I saw an old housemate of mine step onto the bus.  I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years.

Eli and I had never really gotten along.  He was a lot bigger than me and he always wished he could push me around but with my training in Karate he was afraid to try.  So I liked to tease him.

Now on the bus, I saw him but he didn’t notice me sitting on the other side of the aisle.

Suddenly I thought of a good way to break Eli’s chops.  Over-tired and a little strung out I thought it would be just too funny if I did it . . . but embarrassing him this way would require that I totally embarrass myself as well.  Was it worth it?

I weighed the pros and cons of my prank for fifteen long minutes as the bus worked it’s way down Mass Ave.

Finally I summoned the courage to speak.  Eli was extremely sensitive about his manhood. This would be too perfect.

“Eli,” I said loudly, getting his attention.  “Eli,” I said again, waiting for everyone to start looking at us.

Then I put on a meek face, and said in a small voice, “Eli . . . I want you to come home.”

People’s reactions varied.  Some tried to hide their bemused smiles, while others simply looked away, perhaps embarrassed to be included in this clearly emotional moment between two men.

One old lady sitting across the aisle was incensed.  There was almost smoke coming out of her eyes and ears.  She was furious.  Her glare said, ‘You are both PERVERTS!  How dare you bring your vile perversions onto this bus!  There are children on this bus!”

I have to hand it to Eli, he didn’t blink.  He shook his head laughing, and said, “Mike, you haven’t changed.”

Boston’s MBTA is the oldest transit system in America, and it’s one of the busiest.  As with any mass transit, some of the Boston conductors and drivers can be real jerks.

Photo from www.bing.com

One day I’d been visiting my friend Gretchen in Boston and she was standing with me as I waited for the bus home.  We saw the bus pull up to the curb and we gave each other a quick hug goodbye while the line of passengers boarded.

But when I turned to get on, the bus driver tried to pull away.  I lept onto the first step and grabbed the handrails as he gunned the motor.  I was half in and half out, holding on for dear life as the bus started to pick up speed.

We were racing down the street and the parked cars were whizzing by behind me . . . when the driver began trying to shut the doors on my arms.

Whap!  Whap!  Whap!

The doors were bouncing off my arms as I clung onto the handrails just inside the doors.  It was as though he was trying to shake me off.

“What the hell were you doing?” I snapped when I’d finally pulled myself to safety inside“Are you fucking nuts?”

He stared straight ahead.  “Next time get on with everyone else or wait for another bus,” he said smugly, as though he’d done nothing wrong.

Dealing with the public can fray anyone’s nerves — but this guy was a real asshole.

I personally know several MBTA bus drivers and they’re regular Joes, at least when not driving.  One of them, a guy named Lenny, was a part-time doorman at Johnny D’s for a while.

Lenny drives the one of the Mass Ave busses.  He’s a big guy.  At one time he spent afternoons during football season as the weight coach for the Somerville High School Varsity squad.

I was on his bus one day sitting in front talking with him when this scanky-looking kid got on and walked right past him without paying the fare.

“Hey!” Lenny yelled at his back as the kid kept walking, “Hey, get back here and pay!”

The kid kept walking.

“Hey!” Lenny said, and then he slammed on the brakes hard, jammed the pedal to the floor.  The bus rocked back and forth almost throwing people out of their seats.

When the bus was completely stopped Lenny got up and walked toward the guy.  He stood in front of the kid, dwarfing him.

“When I talk to you,” Lenny said towering over the young guy, “You stop and listen!”

The kid paid his fare, and then Lenny and I began talking again as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I can’t resist telling one more story about my friend Lenny the bus driver.  Lenny was in a downtown bar one night when a customer next to him knocked over his drink.  The guy turned without looking, and splashed Lenny’s drink all over his new leather coat.

“Hey, . . . what the fuck do are you doing?” Lenny yelled, shaking the flaps of his coat.

The guy apologized, but apparently he was a bit of a wise-ass and he kept telling Lenny to calm down, don’t make such a big deal of it.

They continued to exchange sharp words, and Lenny was getting hotter and hotter under the collar.  He decided to smack the guy.

“I drew my arm back,” Lenny retold the story later, “And as I watched my fist heading for his face . . . I kept thinking to myself, why isn’t this guy ducking?”


The guy went down and everyone in the bar looked first at the poor man on the floor, then at Lenny.

“Congratulations, Lenny,” an old-timer at the bar said without looking up, “ . . . You just decked a blind man.”

The guy was still on the floor, his cane beside him.

Every time Lenny stops into Johnny D’s now we bust his balls for knocking a blind man off his bar stool.

The Boston transit system has gotten it’s share of press over the years.  Back in the late 1950’s there was a national top ten song about the MBTA.

“Charlie on the M(B)TA” was originally written for the 1949 Boston mayoral campaign.  Ten years later The Kingston Trio turned the song into one of their biggest hits.

Click this photo for a video of the Kingston Trio performing thier hit

Now when you ride the MBTA (known locally as the “T”), you have to buy a “Charlie Ticket” or an electronically upgradeable “CharlieCard.”

I can’t remember whether it was in The Boston Phoenix or The Boston Globe but there was a funny, funny newspaper article once about a race between a commuter on the “T”, and a pedestrian.

The commuter was dressed in sweats and running shoes while the person on foot was wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase.  They started out at the same point racing from Park Street to the Copley Station stop.  One of them rode the “T” as a passenger, while the other contestant walked.  He had to walk all the way on a hot summer day.

The guy on foot made it to Copley Station first.

His challenger — after waiting for the right trolley, than pausing at other stops for passengers to get on and off — the guy who took the “T” came in a distant second.

Colleen visiting her parents in Florida

My best friend Colleen is always good for a story or two, including those about the “T.”

She had driven into Boston to take her mom to Massachusetts General Hospital, and we decided that while her mom underwent the all-afternoon tests we should meet for lunch.  I took the red line into the Charles Street Station, about half a block from the MGH.  As Colleen walked from the hospital we were on our cell phones, and I tried to direct her to me — I could hear her speaking with people on the street.

“Excuse me,” I heard her say.  Colleen is a cute little 5’3” sweetee, but when frustrated she can have the vocabulary of a trucker.  She was having trouble finding the MBTA station where I was waiting.

“Excuse me,” I heard Colleen say. I imagined her talking with a little old lady.

“Excuse me,” she said to the woman on the street, “But could you please tell me which way to the fucking train station!”

To this day Colleen denies she said that, but between you and me that’s what I heard.

Anyway, enough of these MBTA stories.  I’ve got errands to run before I go to work — and I’m headed for the “T” now.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 10 Comments


Fenway Park (Photo by John Bonaccorso)

The day after Osama bin Laden was killed, John Bonaccorso (The Drowning Frog, The Chocolate Starfish) was at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  Just before game time the announcer asked everyone to rise for a moment of silence.

34,000 fans in the stadium stood and watched as a giant American flag was lowered over the famous Green Monster wall in left field.  “During that moment of silence,” John said, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

This has been a week for reflection  . . . and a temporary, collective sigh of relief.  It’s been a week to talk with friends near and far about about the events and emotions that have shaped us since 9/11.

Like most Americans I watched from the sidelines as 9/11 and its aftermath unfolded.  Over the next ten years I followed the news stories about the rise of Al-Qaeda and the search for Osama bin Laden.

But some of the friends I talked with on the phone this week did more than observe.

When I knew these friends in college they were just regular guys.  Many of them worked with me at the first bar I managed, The Mug in Cortland NY.  The bartenders and doormen were all from my fraternity (Beta Phi Epsilon; SUNY Cortland) — even the cleaning guy was a Beta buddy.  Jim “Cowboy” Van Wormer was a starting defensive end on the football team; he mopped the place up early each morning before heading to classes.

But when they left college, a lot of these buddies took jobs that led them directly into the tidal wave of events that followed 9/11.  Talking with them this week was like that first chill from the headlines — all over again

At the time of 9/11, Mike Galvin was Commander of a SWAT Unit in Florida while other fraternity brothers were with the FBI, or were State troopers and police officers — and all of their jobs took on a new and heightened dimension following the attacks.  Matt Quinn was with one of the largest banks in America, and the department he headed quickly switched it’s focus from tracking potential money laundering by organized crime to tracking the finances of terrorist groups.

Ground Zero NYC on 9/11 (Photo by Charlie “Buff” Kerrigan)

Charlie Kerrigan was at Ground Zero on 9/11.  With extensive training in “confined space and high angle rescue”, Charlie and his men from the Rockville Centre Fire Department on Long Island were called to the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks.

Charlie’s nickname is “Buff”, short for “Buffalo.”  At 6’5″, 250 lbs., he was an offensive lineman for the Cortland State football team, big number “75″.  He was blocking the opposition as Billy Shear kicked his historic field goal during the homecoming game against Hobart College.  (Shear’s 61-yard field goal was the first ever “over-sixty” kick recorded in football at any level — high school, college, or professional.  The first “60-yarder” in the NFL wouldn’t come until four years later, in 1970.)

For as long as I’ve known him, Charlie has been the big/quiet type.  His emails are short, typically only a sentence or two, sometimes only one word.  (Like”OK”, or “No.”)  But I’ll never forget the email he sent us after being thrust into the carnage at the WTC towers.  He wrote about thinking that he was on another planet, in a different world.  He said that the devastation was the most horrible scene he’d ever witnessed, and that he prayed he would never see anything like that again.

Bob Guzzo became US Navy SEAL after leaving Cortland State, and it was speaking with Bob this week that for me really put a human face on all of this — all the work and sacrifice it took to bring to justice the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden.

In his 25 years as a SEAL commando, Bob served in places like Croatia and El Salvador.  “I‘ve been all over the world,” he said, “There aren’t many countries I haven’t been to.”

Bob was assigned to the Navy SEAL’s “Red Cell” Team which conducted terrorist attack scenarios as well as vulnerability assessments for the Department of Defense on a world-wide basis.  (As we talked, he explained the difference between “anti-terrorism” which is working to prevent a terrorist attack, and “counter-terrorism” which is responding to such attacks.)

Late in his active career Bob was seriously injured and had to have both hips replaced.  “I figured it was time to give up the night missions,“ he told me, “Time to give up jumping out of helicopters and being a gunslinger.”

Bob’s new assignment was to the Pentagon as an Anti-terrorism Officer.  He and his team secured office space and were setting up the necessary equipment — they didn’t even have computers installed yet.

Some of Bob’s team members were still checking in when the Pentagon was struck during the 9/11 attacks.

The Pentagon on 9/11 (Photo by Mike Garcia)

One hundred eighty-four people were killed at the Pentagon that day.  As Bob rushed out to help secure the area and attempt to rescue survivors, his friend and fellow Anti-terrorism Officer Mike Garcia took this photo of the devastation.  (“Mike probably took 60% of the photos you see from the Pentagon that day,“ Bob told me. “Some of his photographs are in the Smithsonian.“)

Bob was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism for his efforts on 9/11.

For the next year Bob worked for the newly-established Pentagon Force Protection Agency, then spent a year at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency before being promoted to Deputy Chief of the Anti-terrorism and Force Protection Branch of the Security and Counterintelligence Directorate.

“We were running around like crazy after 9/11,” Bob recalls of his counterintelligence work in those days, “It was like chasing ghosts.”

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Bob’s son Rob Jr. was in college at his dad’s alma mater, Cortland State.  Rob had also joined his father’s fraternity, Beta Phi Epsilon.

“On the night of 9/11 Rob called me called me from the (Beta) house,” Bob Sr. said, “He told me he wanted to join the Navy SEALS after graduation. He wanted to go after these guys.”

“He’s my son,” Bob said, “And I was concerned about him getting involved . . . there’s no guarantee when you go in that you’ll come out alive.  But I supported his decision.”

Rob Guzzo Jr. during the Iraq War

Rob Jr. was in BUD/S class 251, and became a member of Navy SEAL Team 5.  Upon graduation he was awarded his dad’s old SEAL Trident, the first medal the commandos receive when they complete their training.

Rob Jr. went into battle at Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. His buddy Marc Lee lost his life there, the first Navy SEAL killed in the war.  Marc and Rob had gone though SEAL BUD/S training together.  (In background of the picture you can see the name LEE — the camp at Ramadi was renamed CAMP MARC LEE in Marc’s honor.)

Rob Jr. made it through the Iraq war and he’s back home now. He’s pursuing a career in acting (in action films, go figure.)

Picturing Charlie K at Ground Zero on 9/11, and talking with Bob Guzzo and Rob Jr. who were actively engaged in combat in this war on terrorism, I thought their lives have been so different . . . it’s a little scary.

I’ve never thought of myself as living a quiet life. During my years behind the bar, I’ve had my share of confrontations and scuffles, and I’ve had a few heart-pounding moments.

One night at The Mug, a guy walked up to the bar and pulled a gun on me.  He cocked the hammer back and put the end of the barrel against my forehead.  I remember weighing my options sort of calmly and analytically — then I took the gun away from him and knocked him down with a blow to the side of the head.  I wasn’t scared until after it was over.

“But that was simply reacting to something I couldn’t avoid,” I told Bob.  “I don‘t think I’d have the balls to do what those Navy SEALS did . . . to willingly jump into the shit when you could just as easily choose not to get involved.”

This wasn’t a movie or a video game.  Those Navy SEALS flew in under the radar, unannounced in a foreign country.  Two dozen of them repelled from their helicopters into darkness; they lowered themselves inside the enemy compound of the world’s most feared terrorist.

They knew they’d be facing enemy fire, but didn’t know when or where it might come from. They had to get in — win a life-or-death gun battle — and then get out without being shot down on the return flight by Pakistani fighter planes.

“They were just doing their job,” Bob said, “They were doing what they’d been trained to do.”

“On a mission,” he explained, “You’re not thinking about whether or not you’re going to make it back home.”

“You train and train,” he told me, “It’s unbelievable how difficult and tortuous the training is . . . but when the time comes, your body reacts.  You simply do what you have to in order to complete the mission.”

“An hour later, maybe two days later, you might think, “Holy Shit!” . . . but at the time you’re completely focused on the mission.”

That makes sense.  I can understand how it works . . . but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t know if I’d have guts to do it.  These guys are different; they’re flat-out heroes.

I can’t remember recent conversations that I’ve enjoyed more than talking with Bob Sr. on the phone this past week.  There were times as we talked that I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Bob Guzzo Sr. and Rob Jr. at their daughter/sister Danielle’s wedding

And throughout our conversations I heard the same thing time and again.  I heard Bob’s great pride in America and his willingness to put his life on the line for his country if he had to.

During one conversation he stopped and said, “I am very proud to be an American, a Navy Seal and a Beta man.”  His son Rob said the same thing in a follow-up email.

I guess it’s out of fashion nowadays to talk about your college frat — but I am proud to be a member of Beta Phi Epsilon and I’m proud to know these men.

Our fraternity is best known for its long string of All-American athletes, Olympic medalists and National Hall of Fame coaches.  It’s known for it’s high school and college teachers and administrators, and for outstanding contributions in many fields.   (I exchanged more emails this week with Beta alumnus and long-time friend Joe McInerney.  He spent two decades teaching and writing books on human genetics before becoming executive director of NCHPEG – the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics. He helped educate state and federal judges about genetic evidence and the law after the O. J. Simpson trial.)

But being jocks at heart, many from our fraternity went into the military, law enforcement and served as firemen — and that got them directly involved in the dedication and sacrifice that led to the events of this past week.

Today my hat is off to this group especially . . . these guys just have balls made of brass.

(Ed. note, 5/12:  Mike Garcia just sent us more photos.  Here are three of them.  Please feel free to leave a comment on this post below.)

Aerial view of the damage. (Photo by Mike Garcia)

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