Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Silver Beast: Part II

When Steve said, “Nice day, ain’t it?” the yuppie turned his nose, legged it fast from that green garbage can, the same way someone would when a hobo begs change. I watched my father stand there, button-down flannel and jeans, his few hairs flying every which way, mountain-man style. He shook his head with disgust, the only defense mechanism I ever saw him exhibit habitually. When he came back to the car, sat behind that faded-rubber wheel, he was silent. It was awkward. He’d been in such a good mood before the yuppie’s snub.

I so rarely spent time with the man without my mother playing buffer. But here we were. He’d been humiliated, and I no longer felt embarrassed for sitting prisoner in Rusty Jones’s worst nightmare. For a second I forgot the anger and fear I had for him. For a second we were together, father and son, and nothing else mattered. I felt embarrassed for him, and from that feeling surged a sense of loyalty and anger. This was my father and what just happened wasn’t right, even at 14, I knew that.

I’ll never forget what he said to me after that. He looked at me, and said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.” I said I wouldn’t, and he started the car, and homeward we were. It was the first piece of perfect advice he’d ever given me. It was the first time I felt he talked directly to me, mano a mano. I no longer wanted to avoid him. I wanted to penetrate that invisible field forever.

By the time we hit the highway, he’d forgotten the whole thing. He was singing the words to a rock/pop song on the radio. The song said, “There's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills, the bills.” He beat that faded-rubber wheel with his hands, sang out loud, and I’d never seen that side of him. I’ll never forget that yuppie in the park; that piece of advice, or my father singing those words as long as I live. That day lives like an island in our relationship, separate of the dynamic that otherwise existed. It was the greatest day we had together, because it marks our closest moment, even if the circumstance was less than ideal. And I wonder if it would’ve happened that way without the Granada.

The Granada hung around a few more years. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it sat driveway duty. When it hit 200,000 miles, Steve made us pose for a picture with the car, both my mother and I holding 100 Grand candy bars close together. By the time I graduated high school, it was gone, to the afterlife of Art Dell’s Junkyard. I was sad to see it go.

I wish I could say my attitude about the silver beast changed after that day in the park. I wish I could say I was never as embarrassed about climbing inside and backfiring from the high school lot. I wish I could say I borrowed it when I was sixteen to pick Rachel Sykes up for a Saturday night date, and made her hold the Hefty bag of beer cans while I drove, and she loved it. But I can’t say that because it never happened. I was a typical teenager: short sighted, self involved, stupid. No way the Granada was ever gonna cut snuff in my world.

I guess the lesson of that day at West Land Hills wasn’t learned till much later.

Fast forward thirteen years and I’m sleeping late on a snowy Saturday morning, a few days after the New Year, 2009. I’d heard my cell phone ring from the other room a few times, but ignored it. Finally after the fifth call, I stumbled from bed to see who it was. It was my mother calling, and she was crying, and asking me if I was ready, “Really ready” for what she had to say. My mother’s a dramatic woman and we had a family dog that had been sick, so naturally I assumed. When the line went silent, I thought she’d disconnected. I went to redial, and she said, “Steve’s dead.” Just like that. He’d gotten out of bed at 6A.M., gone downstairs, made a cup of tea, sat in his TV chair, the same chair he always sat in, and died; a massive heart attack. He was 54.

He’d been complaining of exhaustion, working overtime that weekend to secure a future vacation day from his union. But there would be no vacation day. By noon he was in the morgue, arrangements were underway, and the house was filled with friends and family. Two days later his wake brought out 700 of Albany’s finest, passing the casket, and telling me how great of guy my father was. I remembered when I was a teenager and I was sure he wasn’t a man I could look up to. I remembered being embarrassed by his balding head, and rust-filled Granada; how everyone thought I was poor when they saw it. But on that night, I met the man that everyone else already knew, the “great guy,” regardless of what he drove or the jeans he wore.

The material things mean nothing in the real world. Just ask the ones who stood two hours in a snow storm to say farewell to a man who never cared about flash. I was beginning to understand what Steve was trying to teach me when he said, “Don’t ever judge somebody by the way they look or what they drive.”

A few weeks later, I learned it some more. It was a Monday afternoon and I was with my mother when an insurance examiner called. He’d said my father had built several life policies that nobody knew about. He’d been shrewd with his savings, uncompromising in his vision for a bigger, better future, a day when motorboats and snowmobiles ran. It was the future he’d wanted for his family. It was the future he figured on a second-shift laborer’s job while driving a rusty Granada. The insurance man told my mother her mortgage was satisfied, and it was time for her to retire a few years ahead of schedule, since lacking money would no longer be a problem. His gift to her was the simple: all financial worries dashed, a promise to prolong her life as long as possible.

The other day I was driving with the sun roof down, and Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” came on. I recognized those lyrics, and remembered the day I ate McDonald’s with Steve in the Granada, and he told me about his dismissed dream of having go carts and being Mr. Fun. I remembered the way that yuppie snubbed my father over a green garbage can. I remembered on the highway how Steve sang that verse with such vigor. When the song made that same part, I hit the steering wheel of my "nice" car, and said, “There's winners and there's losers/But they ain't no big deal/'Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills, the bills.” I thought of the silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of soft balls. And, for the first time, I knew what the song said was true, I knew there were winners and losers in life, and I finally knew the difference between the two.

Brian Huba

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Silver Beast: Part I

When I was a teenager my father drove a silver 1978 Ford Granada with rust holes the size of softballs. At a time when being ‘cool’ was a gargantuan deal, the Granada was an embarrassment. I remember talking to girls outside the movie theatre on a Friday night, seeing the Granada coming across the parking lot like a smoke screen, and darting behind the bushes until the girls had gone off. In ninth grade when I had bi-weekly braces appointments that meant I’d leave school on early release, I’d shrink in shame as the Granada rounded past student parking, roared to a stop outside the senior wing. “Is that your ride?” the office secretary would ask. I’d say “I don’t think so. But let me see,” then make that death-row dash from the school’s front doors, praying that nobody watched through the classroom windows, but realizing a thousand eyes were probably on me, including Rachel Sykes’s, the cheerleading captain I had a heavyweight crush on.

My father kept garbage bags filled with empty beer cans on the seats; cans he always meant to recycle but never got around to. Before he backfired from the high school lot, the Hefty bags would be relocated to the trunk, to make room for me. He’d take care of that, and I’d nose dive though the open door onto the sun-cracked, maroon bucket, pull the creaky door shut, bury my head between my knees, eying the blue-collared G.E. shirts on the floor mat. My dad would climb behind the faded-rubber wheel, and say, “You feeling sick?” He’d put the car in gear with an irritated snicker, and off we went with a bang from the bad exhaust.

The Granada was in my life a little over a decade. When it r-r-r-ran, it could never be trusted, dying at red lights, submitting on the shoulder of a rural road. After that it sat at the side of the driveway like a monument in soft mud, beside the broken-down motorboat my father was perpetually fixing, and the ‘slightly used’ snowmobile he never made go. When he put some coin together, the neighborhood mechanic duct taped the silver beast back together, and the Granada was out of its open grave. I’d come home from school, and my mother would meet me at the house’s front door with a look that meant Oh my God, the Granada’s back. When she knew I’d read her expression right, she’d say, “Can you freakin’ believe it?” and raise both clenched fists above her head.

Before our summer vacations to New Hampshire, my father would spray paint the rust holes for the 4-hour drive to the Atlantic Ocean. Easter Sundays, he took mercy on my mother and me by parking at the far end of the church’s lot. He knew the truth: We hated the Granada. We didn’t understand the value in keeping something way past expiration. “Gotta get your money’s worth,” he’d always say. But, when church ended and the Easter pictures were posed for, he always drove straight through the gathered congregation on the way out. Check the back seat, beside the Hefty bag of Bud cans. That’s me, at 12 years old, donning a K-Mart necktie; face buried between the knees of my pleated slacks that would’ve looked oh-so cool without a rust box wrapped around them. When my uncle Jack and his blonde wife came to the house in his midnight blue Camaro with the 5-speed and mag wheels, he’d ask my father, “Steve, how come you don’t get something new?” Steve would give Jack a look like he just suggested shooting the President, then say, “What for?”

It was after one of those orthodontist appointments that my father brought me to McDonald's. I was 14 years old. He ordered his usual: three cheeseburgers, medium fry, medium soda. We drove to a little league park behind the Mickey-D’s called West Land Hills, parked the car and got busy with the grub. My father always ate his cheeseburgers the same way. He’d set the sandwich between the front seats, carefully pull off the yellow wrapping, hold it in his hand, biting in a clockwise circle till it was finished. In fact he always did everything the same way. Kept his wallet in the same spot on the counter with his car keys. Smoked Kool Ultra 100’s in the same chair at the table, played the same lotto numbers at the grocery store in town. He left for second-shift work at exactly 1.45P.M. Always. The. Same.

While we sat there that day, he told me about a time when he was much younger, and wanted to start a go-cart park behind that McDonald’s. It was his dream for the kids to call him Mr. Fun. When I asked him why it never happened, he said his father, Grandpa, said that idea was a dumb idea. “That was a long time ago,” my father said, and he went back to his lunch. After we ate, my father FINALLY decided to clean the car’s interior. He was a packrat by nature. But sometimes enough was enough. So he backed the Granada to a green garbage can; started filling the receptacle with old newspapers, plastic shopping bags, coffee cups, everything in between. I ate fries while he worked; all four passenger doors and the trunk popped open. As he carried another armful of crap to the garbage, a yuppie-looking guy with a pinstriped suit and stylish eye glasses, came to the can. Probably a State Worker on his 12PM break. But I didn’t know that then. I just saw the suit and got impressed. My father dropped his junk, looked at the yuppie, and said, “Nice day, ain’t it?”

Even when I was young I knew my father and I had very little in common. I wasn’t sure he was someone I could be proud of. Did I love him? Fear him? Hate him? All of the above. Growing up, I always made strategies to avoid him. If he was out back I went through the front. I hated saying happy birthday to him. One Father’s day I told him he wasn’t my dad. Why? I wanted attention. He had an invisible field around him that meant do not enter. Sometimes that field was no bigger than the kitchen, sometimes it was the size of Saturn. Steve came from a tough-guy bunch from the city of Albany. When they were teenagers, they hung by a convenience store called the Courtesy Mart, playing cards and smoking butts. As adults they worked hard, partied hard. My childhood was littered with memories of Stacky’s camp, Five Mile parties with bikers, and guys named Six Pack and Big John. My dad worked a labor job at General Electric I didn’t understand.

My parents were young. They argued a lot. We lived in a basement apartment with no windows for five years before buying in the country. He didn’t like tossing ball or shooting hoops. He was bald by twenty five. He grew a full beard and mustache, and looked like Homer Simpson the one time I saw him shaved clean. He didn’t care about material things or fancy clothes like my uncle Jack. He didn’t have a college degree or golf-club membership like his six brothers. I never imagined one day being like my dad. And I sure as hell would never drive a rust bucket on wheels . . .

The Silver Beast:Part II to follow

Brian Huba

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What Could've Been

My favorite sight in sports is watching NY Giants’ Head Coach, Tom Coughlin, stalk the sidelines during an NFL Game. And tomorrow I get to see it again for the first time in nine months, the first time for real that is. If I were an NFL Head Coach I would do it exactly like he does, play the part of Mr. Miserable, feign ignorance with the reporters when he wants to dodge a question, the only guy who could worry about the work that still needed to be done with Lombardi’s Superbowl Trophy in his hand. I love the way he’s handled this Plaxico Burress joke. All is right with the world if I guy like Tom Coughlin can still better loudmouths like Rex Ryan, and it’s my greatest hope that he will best him this upcoming season, but I also know that NFL Football is like life. Because of that I love the game of football more than any other. Because of that I worry about Big Blue’s 2011-12 chances. Let’s go back before we go forward.

Last December, the New Meadowlands Stadium, NYG’s up by 24pts against the hated Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants were about to do what nobody in the league thought they could: Punch their return ticket to the NFL playoffs. All they had to do was cling to that titanic 24pt lead, and the GB Packers, last year's champs, don’t even make the playoffs. All they have to do is protect the ball, play smart, and Coughlin gets a new contract, and this season’s injury issues aren’t such a big deal, because there’s a great chance the Giants would be fresh off a playoff run, and possibly a Superbowl berth. Why not? They were staring at a #2 seed if they could seal that gimme game. Fast forward fifteen football minutes, and Tom Coughlin slams his paperwork on the Giants’ sideline as DeShawn Jackson dashes past him towards the end zone, taking the game and everything I just mentioned away in one 65yrd punt return, a yard for every one of Coughlin's 65 years. What a turn of events and legacies.

And the only people the NYG’s could blame were themselves. For one moment, the always meticulous, always on-top-of-it Tom Coughlin let his guard down, and the Eagles wriggled an on-sides kick past the sleeping Giants, which began a meltdown of epic proportions, and gave the Eagles the victory in last year’s most impactful regular season game. The loss was so grandiose that it sort of blurred out the epic triumph of defeating the Perfect Patriots in the 2007-08 Superbowl. That’s how huge it was. A few days later Coughlin told the media he went home after that game, sat in the dark for six hours, trying to make sense of it. He promised the team would bounce back, move past it. No way, they never did, still haven’t. That fifteen minutes of football set the NY Giants back five years. They’re still reeling from it. And it’s my fear that shot of Coughlin chasing punter Matt Dodge onto the field will be the lasting and final image of him, the game that will haunt him forever, all that could have been.

Now the NY Giants MUST make the playoffs (can't miss it 3 straight seasons), and every football omen is screaming NOT THIS YEAR. The preseason injuries have been cartoonish, the Plaxico mess has been insane, the loss of key weapons on both sides of the ball unexplainable. Maybe this is the curse of the Patriots. Since that glorious night in Glendale the NY Giants have seemingly been cursed. Starting the ’08 season 11-1 till Plax shot himself and the organization out of contention, the ’09 season that saw so many injuries the Giants were beaten unrecognizable by the end of it, and last season’s everything-went-wrong reality, from fumbles, INT’s, blown leads, weather-delayed games, etc, etc. If the G-Men didn’t blow that mountainous lead against the Eagles, all that I just mentioned wouldn’t matter. Tom Coughlin would be sitting on a new contract and job security, and the Giants would be able to easily work through this mess of injuries, with a playoff berth from 2010-11 to ease the pain. But no such luck. If this injury-depleted team doesn’t somehow battle through a loaded NFC and make the playoffs, Coughlin will be gone, left only to ask what could’ve been. Then the blow up and rebuild will begin in the heart of Eli’s career.

That’s how football’s like life. You can be the smartest, hardest worker, with the best ideas, and longest resume, but if you fall asleep for a second, all that can get washed away, and you could end up on the short end of things. It’s unfair, perhaps, but football like life takes care of those who do ALL the little things, ALL the time, take the time to dot the I’s, cross the T’s. Don’t fumble the ball/Don’t waste your money, Don’t commit penalties/Don’t break the law, Protect yourself against injury/Take care of your health, Be a good teammate/Be a good person. Life, like football, is a smart man’s game, that’s why people like Plaxico Burress will always be bottom feeders. Because even the smart have to be smart ALL the time, and that’s impossible for the ignorant.

For one brief moment in time, Tom Coughlin let his guard down, blew a 24pt lead with everything to lose (symbolically drove drunk through a stop sign just once), and it could end up costing him his dream job. Is his NYG legacy intact? Of course. He beat an 18-0 team in the Superbowl. But . . . But it will take a lot to erase the image of him after that Eagles loss. Maybe more than this NYG’s team has right now, this season. Waste no opportunity in this life, suck the marrow out of every opening, and always over prepare for everything, never get blindsided. Tom Coughlin taught me that. Tom Coughlin forgot that for fifteen football minutes last December. Now what? We shall see. Enjoy the NFL season, the greatest game in the world.

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Brian Huba

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Go to the Villa Valenti, you fools

Last night we went to dinner at our favorite restaurant, the Villa Valenti, and we were the only two people in the place at 9.15PM, which was pretty great because of the real 1-to-1 service. (For the record, it was very busy earlier in the night, a 30 minute wait at the bar.) It was also weird having nobody else in a restaurant at that time on a Saturday night, while Lombardi’s parking lot, a mile down the road, looked like the outside of Giants’ Stadium ten minutes before kickoff (I mean Met Life Stadium). And it was a little sad, because the Villa Valenti is the best restaurant in the world, and I should know because I’m the greatest dishwasher the place ever had. You’re probably saying, “Brian, how can you say the Villa is the best restaurant in the world. Have you been to every restaurant in the world, even Europe?” Yes. Yes I have.

Here’s what I propose.

The economy is pretty rough, and my male-modeling career for Hollister is beginning to go dry, (How many shopping bags can your shirtless likeness appear on?) so I am submitting my letter of interest right here and now for the unadvertised opening as the Villa Valenti’s Marketing Director, working for Ralph Valenti and family. Prior experience? Greatest dishwasher ever. Need I say more?

My campaign would be a simple one. I’d tell Ralph to stop playing the game of dinner specials, blanket emails, and presentation over substance. I would tell Ralph to stop all the advertising and 4 for $20.00 dinner nights. Forget it. Under my direction, he would go in the newspapers, on the radio waves, and say, “You want specials, I don’t do specials. Here’s what I do. I SELL THE BEST FOOD IN THE WORLD, and I’m right down the road.” The second commercial would go like this. Cue Ralph Valenti saying, “Go to your so-called favorite restaurant and get your so-called favorite dinner. Then come to the Villa, get the same exact thing and I promise: YOU’LL NEVER GO BACK TO YOUR ‘FAVORITE’ RESTAURANT.’ Why? Because I SELL THE BEST FOOD IN THE WORLD!”

I’ve been everywhere in the Region. Sam’s, Lombardo’s, all those CafĂ© places in Albany, Verdile’s, the Brown Derby, D’Raymond’s, Ralph’s on Central, TJ’s, that place by Lark Street with the curbside seating, the Circus Cafe. NOBODY can touch the Villa. NOBODY. The place should have 1,000 people every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. The Villa bread and salad bar? Don't get me started. I could eat the Villa 8 days a week. If I was on Death Row, for last meal, I would send the Jailer Man and Sailor Sam to the Villa Valenti for their chicken parm, eat it, and die a happy man. Go to the Villa Valenti you fools.

You need a coupon offer, here it is: It's the best dinner you'll ever have. How much is it? I don't know: The fairest price on the planet. Less than its competition, I'm sure. And don't give me that crap, Averill Parkers, about how the Villa used to be good but now it's not. The Villa was the best in '81, '91, '01 and still in '11.

When I was 17, I washed dishes in the kitchen at the Villa, and it was the best job I ever had. I washed five feet from the restaurant’s matriarch, Emma Valenti, who would show up for work every day, except Tuesday, sit behind a pushcart and cut tomatoes, shred cheese, slice onions so thin they were invisible. From 2PM till 10PM she would pick apart every single thing I did wrong as I slaved over that dishwasher in a kitchen that would hit 100 degrees, and I loved every, single second of it. Then she rewarded you. Free food, bread, homemade dessert, it was great. Every 17 year old needs an Emma Valenti in their life. Maybe our younger generations wouldn’t feel so entitled, run so fast from hard work if they had an Emma Valenti telling them where the rubber hits the road. I betcha.

My greatest memory of Ralph Valenti is years later as I waited at the bar for a takeout order. He told me that night if he could work any other career it would be as a teacher. I won’t tell you how that influenced me, Hollister career aside. They are a great family, but more importantly they are the architects and engineers of the greatest restaurant menu in the business. If you have never eaten at the Villa, you have never eaten Italian-American food.

Every year on my birthday, the whole family goes to the Villa, of course. Right now I am staring at the receipt from the night of my 29th birthday. My father had such a great time that night, we all did, and he paid the entire $279.00 bill, a bargain for the seven of us, I promise you. I keep that receipt because it’s the last time we ever went out to family dinner with him, as he was gone 3 months later. Thank you, Villa, for that great final memory.

Go to the Villa Valenti, you fools.


Villa Website:

Brian Huba