FRANKLIN IS GOD

The Fourth of July is the best day to show off what is, for many Texans, our secret super-power: barbecuing. On the outside, we look like ordinary citizens. But, give us a hot grill and some hamburger patties and, buddy, prepare to be dazzled. And people love us for it. What else can you do for family and friends that makes them as happy as cooking up a mess of BBQ?
But for the more devoted of us, that’s not enough. We seek to ascend to a higher realm. So, we graduate to smokers. And smokers inevitably, tragically lead to that most thorny of all barbecue riddles: brisket.
Now, we find ourselves waking before dawn to light the fire and lovingly massage our brisket with the latest sure-fire dry rub from HEB. All day long, like a punctilious steelworker, we stoke the fire in the blazing Texas sun struggling to keep it at the exact temperature recommended by the latest internet guru, and, in the process – as our spouses love to remind us – wind up smoking ourselves as much as the brisket.
And then, after way too many hours of toil and trouble, the great moment finally arrives when we cut into our beloved, only to find that it’s edible, but just too dry, too tough, too fatty, too smoky, too whatever. But rather than do the sensible thing and quit, we grimly accept the faint praise of our guests as they glumly saw and gnaw away, and silently resolve that next time we’ll lower the smoker temperature two degrees and try that new rub with the pineapple tenderizer.
Some of the more devout among us have made the barbecue stations of the cross by journeying to Central Texas to sample Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, City Market, et. al. hoping to discover their smoke-ringed secrets. You can easily spot us; we’re the ones poking at the moist brisket slices with our knives and studying them from different angles, like a desperate doctor in search of an elusive diagnosis. We’ll occasionally even hold one up to the light as we wonder how they managed to achieve such excellence.
And so things remained in the barbecue world for many years, until one day – like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky – Aaron Franklin, The Chosen One, appeared.
Several years ago, rumors began spreading out of Austin about a new barbecue joint that was serving the brisket of the gods. The story was that because Franklin’s closed as soon as the food ran out, scores of acolytes lined up every day before sunrise to wait for the place to open at 11:00.
I scoffed and dismissed the reports as mere hipster hysteria. That is, until I watched a cooking show about Mr. Franklin. During the interview, he tossed one of his smoked briskets onto a cutting board, and – I swear this is true – it jiggled like a water balloon. “No way!” I shouted as I replayed it, “That’s not possible!” If you did that to one of mine, it would jiggle nearly as much as a slab of granite. I immediately resolved to make a pilgrimage to Austin.
I got to Franklin Barbecue at 6:15 AM, and there were already twenty people ahead of me. At first, the waiting isn’t so bad. The whole thing has the cool, analog vibe of lining up to buy Zeppelin tickets in 1977, and it’s kind of fun to commiserate with your fellow postulants: The young, foodie couple behind me had flown from Kentucky just to try the brisket.
But, by the time the doors finally opened, I was completely over it; no barbecue could ever be worth this much time and trouble.
As the line slowly progressed through the ordinary looking dining room, I carefully examined the plates of the customers who’d already been served. After five hours of waiting, I half expected the brisket slices to be levitating and have halos around them, but they pretty much looked just like mine.
I finally made it to the counter, got my slices, and beelined for one of the communal tables. Filled with skepticism and feeling duped, I finally tasted The Chosen One’s brisket.
I’ve only eaten at one three-star Michelin restaurant; I splurged on lunch at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in NYC. What I remember most about that remarkable meal is the moment I realized that if a supremely talented person devotes their life to it and brings a manic attention to detail, cooking can approach the level of an art form. I was struck by that same realization at Franklin Barbecue.
My advice: Get on The Pilgrim’s Trail.

AIR TRAVEL AS CATTLE DRIVE

With one word, one of my fellow passengers perfectly described the experience of modern air travel.

I was recently waiting to board a 737 in yet another cookie-cutter terminal located somewhere in the USA. The flight had already been delayed three times, so when it was finally announced we’d be departing shortly, all 150 of us rushed expectantly toward the boarding area.

We stood there for another 20 minutes in an angry, sweltering mob with no explanation for the additional delay from the harried gate attendant. I locked eyes with the guy next to me who smiled wanly and said, “Moo.” That pretty much sums it all up.

Ten years ago, airlines sold 73% of their seats. Today, thanks to algorithms, they’re filling 84%. This increase has led to higher profits, but at the price of customer sanity. More passengers mean overcrowded boarding areas, slower boarding times, less room in overhead bins, stressed-out flight attendants, and a general, dehumanizing feeling of being herded.

My recent flight delay caused me to miss the last late-night connecting flight to Corpus Christi. As I stepped off the plane at DFW, an airline employee hurried by and handed me a boarding pass for a flight at 9 the next morning. “What am I supposed to do for the next 10 hours?” I asked as she rushed away. She shouted over her shoulder that she’d try to find me a hotel, and then promptly disappeared for a half-hour.

When she finally came back, she said the only nearby hotel with a vacancy was located in another terminal inside the airport. I told her that sounded great and asked for directions.

The hotel was hard to spot because it was just a retail storefront among many others in the terminal. As I approached the front desk, the pretty, perky clerk gave me a big smile and asked,”Are you planning to take a shower?”

After a hard day on the road, I figured I probably didn’t smell great, but still the question struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s $20 more to take a shower.”

“How would you know if I took a shower in my bathroom?”

“There’s no bathroom in your room. There’s only one shower, and it’s located down the hall.”

“What if I need to use the restroom in the middle of the night?”

“There’s a men’s room in the terminal.”

There’s a men’s room in the terminal?

She gave me another big smile, and said, “We’re not really a hotel. We’re more like a place to take a nap.”

Suffice it to say I spent a sleepless night in a tiny, frigid room curled up on a five-foot-long plastic upholstered couch shivering under the kind of blanket they give you for free if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The long night was interrupted only by my middle of the night, sleepwalking, sleep-haired trek through the terminal to get to the men’s room, which greatly amused everyone in the vicinity, except me.

The next morning, I was sitting bleary-eyed in my tiny window seat on a tiny jet to Corpus Christi watching as a very nice, very huge man was shimmying his hips like Shakira to try to fit between the armrests of the tiny seat next to me. It soon became apparent that this was impossible, so the stewardess reached over and raised the armrest between us. As he crashed into his seat, I was smashed up against the bulkhead like a swatted fly. For the next hour and sixteen minutes, our bodies were in constant, intimate, sweaty contact. As I finally deplaned, I thought the least the airline could have done was offered me a cigarette.

Believe me, I appreciate the speed of air travel and its relative affordability. And I also understand that narrow seats and full planes help keep ticket prices low. I’m just suggesting that the airline industry keep in mind that the cold, hard numbers in their algorithms represent human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

THE DAY I WON THE LOTTERY

Even if your whole life has been nothing but luckless drudgery, the fact is you can never be completely sure what will happen tomorrow. Maybe the cards will finally turn in your favor. One crazy day, they turned in mine – a little bit.
For years, I’d always driven to the same convenience store at lunchtime to get a printout of the winning lottery numbers to check against my losing numbers. There was a ritualistic sameness to it as I’d sit in my car sucking on a 32 ounce drink, checking the numbers, tearing up my losing ticket, and cursing myself for being stupid enough to keep playing this sucker’s game.
But on this day, I quickly saw I had picked three of the numbers. I opened the car door to go get my $3, but fell back into the seat when I saw I had four numbers. I thought I had somehow gotten hold of two winning number printouts, but no, it was actually my ticket. And then I suddenly realized I had five of the numbers.
My shocky, fevered brain then determined that I had picked all six numbers.
The tattered remnants of my soul shot out of my body and flew over the Circle K. I was free in a way I hadn’t been since I was a barefoot five year old running around my backyard.
But then stern reality reimposed itself, and I realized that I had misread the sixth number. There was an immediate physical sensation of crashing back to earth. After a minute or so, I looked at the printout and saw that I had won $1063 for picking five numbers. It was a long, long way from the 20-something million that would have almost gotten me completely out of debt, depending on whether my wife had gone shopping that afternoon.
I went back to work and tried to play it cool, but the ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Was this little scrap of paper really worth $1063? I told my boss what happened, and he gave me the rest of the afternoon off. I made a beeline for the lottery office on Corona.
I walked in the door, and the lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “Let me guess, five out of six numbers, right?”
“How did you know?”
“Because every other winner who walks in here is happy, happy, happy. The only ones who look like their dog just died are the five-out-of-sixers.”
I cashed the check and went to pick up my kids early from after-school daycare. You have to understand that the father of a 6 and a 9 year old spends most of his time explaining to them why he can’t afford to buy them the thousands of things they’re always wanting. So when they came running up to me, and I shouted, “Tell me what you want me to buy for you,” they both skidded to a stop and stared at me as if I’d been body snatched.
That night I was careful to tell my wife “$1063, that’s how much I won in the lottery,” in that order, because I didn’t want her to go through anything like my ordeal in the car.
Some hijinks ensued the next day after my kids told everyone at school that their dad had won the lottery, but we weathered it.
Overall, my advice is to play the billion dollar lottery. But, have somebody else check your numbers.

Just Another Childbirth, No Big Deal

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As I watched the most beautiful girl in her class walk across the stage to collect her college diploma, I thought back to the first time I saw her 22 years ago.

Her mother and I had driven to the hospital very early that morning, running red lights (!) the whole way, but the doctor sent us home because she wasn’t far enough along. So we’d spent the rest of the day trudging up and down hills and walking around and around our apartment complex trying to speed things up, but nothing  seemed to work. When I told her I’d read about a woman who had climbed stairs carrying two heavy suitcases until things started moving along, she made a face, rolled her eyes, and went to bed.

By then it was 10 at night, and I was hungry. I searched the freezer and found a lobster frozen in a tube of seawater that I’d bought months before as a joke. I dropped it into a pot of boiling water and instantly the entire apartment reeked like Boston Harbor at low tide. That did it. She came into the kitchen, green at the gills, and announced we were immediately going back to the hospital. (More red lights!)  We were broke and had no insurance, so the plan was natural child birth: in and out of the hospital in 24 hours.

At first it was kind of fun. They put us in a homey “birthing room”, MTV was on, and the doctors and nurses were laughing and making jokes. Then about 4 in the morning the laughter stopped.  The baby’s blood pressure was too high and there was some danger the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Suddenly the comfy bed turned into a gurney, and I was running beside it careening toward an operating room.

The doctor gave my wife one more chance to push. She tried, but she was too far gone. The half asleep anesthesiologist on call ran in, his bare feet covered by blue doctor’s footies. Trays and other equipment were quickly wheeled in, and several O.R. nurses appeared. The prep for the C-section looked like something being thrown together at the last minute, which is exactly what it was.

A nurse noticed my ashen gray, sweaty face, quickly grabbed my arm, and dragged me back to the birthing room. A low pitched, keening sound I’d never made before or since emerged involuntarily from the back of my throat. “It always looks like that,” she assured me, “but they know what they‘re doing.” She left, and after a few minutes of taking deep breaths and feeling ashamed because I’d left my wife alone, I staggered back to the operating room. I held my wife’s hand and tried to appear calm. There was a ripping sound, a baby’s cry, and the doctor happily shouted, “How about a girl?” Nurses rushed the baby off and I was led back to the birthing room.

After a while, they took me to see my daughter. There she was in a clear plastic basinet with a McDonald’s warming light overhead. The nurse picked her up and handed her to me. I stared into those sky blue eyes, and saw everything all at once: loving, smiling, sleeping, laughing, crying, crawling, walking, falling, rising, running, playing, learning, dreaming, studying, leaving, graduating, working, struggling, marrying, mothering, nurturing, worrying, aging, dying, and loving.

As for me, my beloved, insatiable, all consuming self shattered like a windowpane hit by a Nolan Ryan fastball, and all that remained was the perfect baby girl I held in my arms.

How I Made Saint John Paul II Laugh, Twice

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In 1979, I spent a semester at the University of Dallas, Rome campus. A few days after we arrived, five or six of us decided to wander around the city to get our bearings. We wound up in St. Peter’s Square where we saw two parallel lines of barricades running down its center about twenty feet apart. When we asked why, we were told that when John Paul II returned that night from Mexico, he would be driven through the square in an open car. We hustled over to a spot right next to a barricade and began the long vigil.

As we waited, I thumbed  through  a little book of helpful foreign phrases for English speaking travelers. I sat up straight when I realized that some of them were in Polish. What better way to  stand out to a Pole in a crowd of screaming Italians than to yell something in Polish? We carefully studied the  book to choose just the right phrase and practiced it together all afternoon.

The huge crowd became electric when the Pope finally arrived. As his car drove slowly by, our little group shouted out in Polish, in unison, “Where are you going with our luggage?”  His head snapped around, and for a second his eyes flared with the burning indignation that would eventually smelt the Iron Curtain. But, when he saw it was a group of smiling, dumb – probably American – students  desperately trying to attract his attention, he laughed and gave us a blessing .

A couple of months later, we were working our way back to campus from the train station after a 5 day trip through several countries.  We were too broke even for youth hostels, but we did have Eurail passes, so we had slept on the trains.  We were tired, hungry, and didn’t smell great.

As we walked behind the Vatican, we saw several people obviously waiting for something. They told us the Pope was coming back from a dinner in town, and that this road led to his private drive. Just then, a large car drove up and stopped right in front of us. John Paul II popped out of the sunroof and everyone began taking pictures and wishing him a good night.
I threw my suitcase down, knelt beside it, and began frantically searching for my camera. I couldn’t find it. In desperation, I dumped its contents onto the street, but it was no use; it wasn’t in there. Then I noticed that all the cameras had stopped flashing, and that our little group had fallen into an awkward silence.

I looked up and saw that the Pope was patiently waiting for me to find my camera. As I knelt in the gutter, surrounded  by my dirty socks and underwear, I threw my arms out wide and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “That’s life.” And then the Pope, the Occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ threw out his arms wide and shrugged his shoulders as if to agree, “Yeah, that’s life.” He laughed, threw me a quick blessing, got back in the car and was driven away.

I miss him.

The Bad Dad Diaries, Volume I

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When the kids were little, I was badly sleep deprived, so I wouldn’t actually “wake up” until a half hour or so after getting out of bed. It was a weird, semi-dream state that left me incapable of communicating beyond grunting, nodding, and hearing every third word. My wife, on the other hand, was immediately wide awake and ready to organize the new day.

Every morning I’d rush – half comatose – out to the car, still fumbling with the buttons on my shirt, racing to get the kids to school on time. My wife would follow behind, herding the kids ahead of her while deftly fixing Erin’s hair or stuffing Matt’s homework into his backpack.

As I’d back the car out of the driveway, she’d hold on to the window frame sidestepping and shouting instructions like a NASCAR crew chief. “Pick them up from daycare at 5:30 and get Matt to soccer practice by 5:45. Erin needs to be at choir by 6, so it’s going to be close, and you know how they are if she’s late. I put an after school snack in their backpacks so don’t buy them any junk food. I’ll make spaghetti when I get home from work.” Watching her recede in the rearview mirror, I often thought I should buy her semaphore flags so she could get off one last signal before I turned the corner.

Amazingly, it usually worked. Except for that time when I got home about 7, and she asked, “Where are the kids?” Thinking it was some kind of fun, new guessing game, I smiled, looked around, and replied,” I don’t know. Where are they?”

“The daycare closed an hour ago,” she growled.

“I thought you…were…supposed…to…,” I quavered. Apparently I‘d missed a signal that morning. But, a quick trip across town to the daycare director’s home and a steep fine later all was well.

Most of the time though, thanks entirely to my wife, our morning routine worked well, and we all arrived wherever we were going on time. The first time she was out of town; however, there were a few snags.

I had no idea what she did every morning, but I figured waking up 10 minutes earlier would give me plenty of time to do whatever it was. After my alarm clock went off, I woke the kids, told them to get dressed for school, and went off to get ready for work. When I came back, I was surprised to find them in the living room sitting on the bottoms of their feet (as only those under 8 can do without requiring emergency dual knee replacement surgery) watching cartoons in their underwear. When I asked them why they weren’t dressed, Erin, without taking her eyes off the screen, said, “Mommy always gives us stuff to wear”

I ran to their rooms and found everything but Matt’s right sneaker. I tossed them their school clothes as I sped past them on my way to the kitchen, where I poured two glasses of orange juice, popped two glazed toaster pastries into the toaster, and hustled back to Matt’s room to find his lost sneaker. I’d looked everywhere and was looking there again when I spied it cowering in the black recesses of the farthest corner under his bed.

I was shimmying like Shakira under the bed and just managed to brush it with my finger when an alarm I’d never heard before went off. I lurched forward, banging my head on the underside of the box spring, and grabbed the shoe just as Matt yelled,

“It’s smoky.”

I again raced past them, their eyes still locked on the TV now blaring the Looney Tunes theme song, to find two bright orange tongues of fire from the toaster licking the underside of the wooden kitchen cabinets like twin flamethrowers. Forgetting whatever they taught me in Cub Scouts about fighting fires, I picked up the glasses and splashed OJ on the toaster. Fourth of July sparks burst from the toaster and the wall socket – but the fire was out. I pulled out the plug – more sparks – picked up the toaster and threw it into the sink.

That very second, my wife called. “Hi. You should have left for school 5 minutes ago.” Bang! I slammed down the phone and ran to the car dragging along two hungry, confused kids, their shirts on inside out.

My Miserable Marathon, Part II

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In 1968 I was a 9 year old head-over-heels Jets fan living just outside NYC. One sunny day I was flipping through a sports magazine and saw a picture of Joe Namath with the ring and index fingers of his right hand taped together. So, naturally, I taped my fingers together.

I walked around like that for a few days until my mother asked me, Why? So, I told her about the picture. She asked me why I wanted to be like Joe Namath. I just stared at her amazed that she didn’t know the truth: I was Joe Namath. After several seconds of her silent, wide-eyed glare, she snapped, “Take off the tape.”

In 51 years, I’ve never known a moment of athletic success, let alone glory. And yet those childhood dreams persisted. So, I decided to enter my creaky body in the 2011 Houston Marathon, because there’s a measure of glory in even finishing a 26 mile race and I thought I still might have a shot at that.

If you want to finish 10,998th out of 11,000 runners, it’s important that things start going wrong before you even get out of the car. It was 5:30 a.m. on January 30th, and the temperature was 61. All of my long training runs had been under much colder conditions, and I feared this portended disaster.

At first it was sublime, like being a herd animal during one of the great African migrations; 11,000 pumped up runners streamed toward the rising sun. There were rock, country, and marching bands and even a fat Elvis impersonator to entertain us along the way.

Best of all were the huge crowds lining the course. My race bib had my name written in big letters, so all along the way people shouted, “You got this, Pete!” “Looking good, Pete!” “You the man, Pete!” Many, especially kids, with real admiration in their eyes, vied for me to high-five them as I ran by. It was as far from my everyday life as I’ve ever been.

But the day kept getting hotter, and around mile 17 I was hit with a searing cramp down the length of my right leg. I found myself spread-eagled on the hood of a parked police car desperately trying to stretch the cramp out. The startled officer told me his high school track coach made him drink pickle juice to avoid cramps, which caused me to suddenly remember that there were two energy gels in my pocket; I quickly sucked them down.

Slowly the pain started to ease, and I stood up. Instantly, it cramped-up again and the gel packet shot out of my hand and hit the officer in the chest. I was again writhing on the hood of the patrol car when a paramedic approached and asked me to get in the bus carrying injured runners to the finish line. It seemed like a terrific idea, until I noticed all the sullen, disappointed faces in the bus. The cramp abated slightly, and the tattered remnants of the boy who was Joe Namath stood up and kept going.

I made it another three miles until the cramps stopped me again. A police officer walked over to me and said, “The belly dancers under the bridge have bananas.” I’d never heard those words strung together in a sentence before and looked at him like he was crazy. But under an overpass about fifty yards ahead, jiggling dancers were handing out cramp-killing bananas. I choked one down, felt better, and pushed on.

About a half mile later, both of my hips completely locked up due to a previously undiagnosed condition that picked a particularly inopportune time to manifest itself. I was reduced to slowly waddling along side-to-side like a six foot penguin. Literally thousands of runners sped past me; it was like riding a tricycle in the Indy 500.

Two paramedics on bikes began to circle me like vultures waiting for a wounded elk to keel over. The bus filled with injured runners crawled alongside as the paramedics urged me to quit. They warned me that the water stations had closed, that the streets were now open to traffic, and that they were no longer responsible for my safety. I told them there was no way I could stop only 4 miles from the finish. They shook their heads in disgust and finally rode off, followed sulkily by the bus.

The last several miles were a blur of pain and thirst. Picnickers in a park handed me a beer and a Coke, which I quickly knocked back. My son found me and gave me a sports drink and several energy gel packs. A woman took pictures of me and said my determination was inspiring. In the now wide open streets of downtown Houston, people shouted from cars,” Don’t give up, Pete!” and “Keep going, Pete!” An elderly woman at a bus stop remarked,” It doesn’t look like the race was much fun for you, Pete.”

As I limped toward the towering, ornate finish line, workers were tearing it down. My wife ran up to help me across, but one of the workers told her to let me finish on my own. My time was 7:10:21, a mere 5 hours and 7 minutes off the world record.

My family rushed me off to the hotel room, where, despite drinking a river of sports drinks, I shook on the bed in an agony of muscle cramps and spasms. As a last resort before heading for the hospital, I told them what the police officer had said.

My son went looking for the nearest convenience store and came back with several individually wrapped dill pickles. I couldn’t lift my head, so my daughter stuck a straw through the plastic wrapper, held it up to my mouth, and I sucked down the bitter liquid. Incredibly, within three minutes, the pain and the shaking stopped. I said a silent prayer of thanks for the HPD and fell asleep happily dreaming, at long, long last, of my own small feat of athletic glory.