How I became a designer

This new blog exists as a place for me to purge my Florida demons and the story of how I became a kitchen designer in the first place is one of my biggest. Let me start out by saying that I take great pride in my ability to avoid drama and craziness but sometimes, my vigilance isn’t enough.

In the year 2000, I was a handyman and a general contractor. I worked for a real estate agent and pretty much fixed up houses to be flipped. I hung and mudded drywall, set tile, installed cabinets and swapped out toilets. I loved working with my hands but it wasn’t enough.

The year 2000 marked the same hear that St. Pete was going to host its first-ever gay pride parade and festival. I had a background in promotions and advertising and I decided to volunteer. I ended up being the guy in charge of the handbook as well as the posters that we ended up plastering all over town.

We had a volunteer graphic designer and together, we developed an image package for St. Pete Pride. Though neither of us knew it at the time, we were forging new ground and setting a precedent for a festival that would grow to become the largest pride festival in the southeast. I wanted it to be a community thing, not an exclusively gay thing.  It worked. We built a sense of belonging and community without excluding anyone. Besides, it was good to use something other than my hands to put in a productive day.

During one of our early meetings, I met a guy named Carl. Carl had a kitchen showroom and we clicked as soon as we met. I remember telling my friend Kevin at the time that Carl didn’t know it, but someday Carl and I’d work together.

I never knew there was such a thing as a kitchen designer but in getting to know Carl, he invited me over to his studio. As soon as I sat at his computer and started to play around with space planning software I knew I’d come home. I love the aesthetic side of design sure enough, but I need the math and technical side of it too. Kitchen and bath design delivered both in spades.

Carl saw my potential and proceeded to teach me how to be a designer. He taught me the ins and outs of the business and it was Carl who gave me the confidence to go to work for the best kitchen showroom in town. I worked there for around two years. During which Carl’s business had taken off too.

It was the beginning of the housing bubble that vexes the US even now, but back then it was a free for all. While the housing bubble was at its peak, I left the shop where I’d been working and entered an agreement with Carl. By then he was a trusted friend and confidante, practically a brother.

We were once featured in the Tampa Bay Business Journal during happier times.

We were once featured in the Tampa Bay Business Journal during happier times.

Within three months, something shifted. He started to view me with suspicion and accused me of all manner of malfeasance.

Work became an exercise in crazy on his part and self-control on mine. Our once-robust friendship disintegrated completely. I made a decent living and had a non-compete contract I couldn’t afford to contest so I kept at it.

After a year or so, Carl and I were mutually suspicious strangers.

In 2008 the bottom fell out of the Florida housing market and I watched my income disappear. I knew I’d been working in a bubble but money was easy then and I could name my own price and get it. During the autumn of 2008 however, everything came to a standstill.

Carl was panicked about the future of his business and I was panicked about keeping myself fed. I started a blog then, something he took great offense to. I think he was worried that I’d air his dirty laundry the way I am now.

By 2009 we’d become a toxic brew of animosity and paranoia and I was desperate to get out of his business so I left and struck out on my own. I forged a new career for myself based on my blog and my Twitter following. It took a while but it stuck eventually and I morphed myself back into the Advertising/ PR/ Marketing guy I was born to be. I never gave Carl another thought other than to mourn the loss of a good friendship. Carl had become my personal boogeyman and delighted in calling me at odd hours to describe how terribly I’d wronged him. What had started as a friendship turned into a white hot hatred.

Eventually, he stopped calling and we got on with our lives.

On Good Friday, 2011 I got a phone call from our mutual friend Gabe. “Paul, are you watching the news?” he asked. I never watch local news so I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He told me to turn on my TV and tune to Bay News 9.

Bay News 9 is our local, 24-hour news channel. When I tuned in I saw Carl’s face.

He’d jumped to his death from the tallest bridge in this area, the Sunshine Skyway, that afternoon. It felt as if my pulse had stopped as I watched the report. “I knew and once loved that guy!” I screamed at my TV. It wasn’t possible, couldn’t be true. Carl was gone before I had the chance to forgive him and before he could forgive me.

I cannot imagine what was going through his mind that afternoon and I cannot imagine what his family went through in the aftermath. Despite our mutual distrust, I’d have intervened gladly. I’d have listened and helped him get the kind of medical care he needed. But Carl wasn’t one to lean on anybody, let alone me.

I’d pretty much shoved him out of my brain at that point anyhow. He was a poisonous influence I took great pains to avoid thinking about. His suicide threw him right back into the middle of my thoughts and my life.

I was used to people dying at that point. My friends who’ve died are people I remember fondly and I’m grateful that our lived collided. With Carl however, what I was left with was something new all together. I had to deal with the passing of someone I’d grown to loathe.

I hope he’s at peace wherever he is, but he brought about in me a part of myself I’d rather assume didn’t exist. To this day I have no fondness for the person of Carl. His attention-grabbing suicide sealed that. However, I can never forget the role he played in having me become who I am today.

But that was Carl. I owe him a debt of gratitude but at the same time, I resent him for being such a shit.

Der Kölner Dom

Due to the generosity of my sponsors Modenus, Axor, Mr. Steam, DuVerre, Blanco, Miele and the NKBA; I was in Cologne a mere week ago. I’m beyond grateful for the sights and sounds this latest European adventure threw into my lap. I was in Germany to attend IMM, one of the world’s largest and most important trade shows.

I flew to Cologne with seven other people: Brandon Smith, Todd Vendituoli, Alexandra Williams, Lisa Smith, Carmen Christiansen, Kathy Sandler and Courtney Mullins-Price. I’d been to Cologne and to IMM before, so I was appointed the bus monitor for that group by Tim Bogan from Modenus. It was my job to get everybody through the Dusseldorf airport and onto a van for the short drive to Cologne.

We flew out of Newark on a 4:30pm flight that had us on the ground in Dusseldorf at 6am the following morning. It was around 7:30 that morning when we rolled into our hotel in Cologne. Too early to check in of course and despite the jet lag, we had some time to explore before the rest of our group arrived from points in North America, Europe and the UK.

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After we’d settled into a hearty German breakfast, I announced that I was heading over to the Cologne Cathedral after breakfast and that anyone interested was welcome to join me. There was a 10am mass at the Cathedral that featured the grand organ and the men’s choir and I was determined to add that to my list of experiences over there. The whole group decided they were coming with me so it was off to the Cathedral we went.

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The Cologne Cathedral is massive on a scale that’s difficult to describe. Construction of it started in the year 1248 and it took another 600 years to complete. Its spires rise to a height of more than 500 feet and it’s the tallest structure in Cologne. Despite its massive scale, the Cathedral itself doesn’t feel overwhelming.

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If you find yourself in Cologne in the dead of winter, please note that the Cathedral is unheated and the degree of cold inside a Medieval stone building cannot be overstated.

We arrived at around 9am on an uncharacteristically sunny (though cold) morning. I’d been to the Cathedral twice before and on both occasions it was overcast and wet. On that morning however, the sun shown through the acres of stained glass and it made the grand building feel even lighter and more ethereal than it does usually. Despite the fact that my feet were frozen, it was a pretty moving sight to see.

It was a High Mass I’d dragged my travel-weary group to, many of whom had never attended a Catholic mass before, let alone a High one. No organization can pull off pomp and theater as well as the Roman Catholic Church does. The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop and was concelebrated by at least ten monsignors and a full compliment of altar servers.

I’d never heard the Cathedral’s organ before and it was powerful to the point of being almost overwhelming. The chants were sublime and I spent most of the Mass with my eyes closed in something like an ecstatic state. It felt for all the world as if we’d been transported to the 14th Century or so.

After the Communion prayers were said the sun hit the right side of the Cathedral perfectly and beams of multi-colored light flooded the entire transept. The clouds of incense smoke caught the light perfectly and the effect was pure magic.

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I have a great big place in my heart for old, sacred spaces and I love classical, liturgical music. Medieval Cathedrals deliver on both counts and I cannot walk past one without going inside. I see and feel the humanity of the people who built those structures on a very fundamental level. They represent the best that they were capable of and their fingerprints are everywhere if you know how to look.

Western Civilization stands on the shoulders of places like Der Kölner Dom and they’re as inspiring now as they were when they were built.

After mass, we walked along the Rhine until we found a warm cafe and I found a heaping serving of herring in cream sauce with boiled potatoes. Man, I love Germany.

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Being naked in public in Germany

ct_logoModenus.com‘s Blogtour Cologne had me in Cologne and Amsterdam last week. Wow, what a week it was. I saw a ton of my friends from the US and the EU, wallowed in good design and I was in Northern Europe for a week. Trust me, nobody knows how to contend with winter like the Germans and the Dutch. I’m sure the Swedes, the Danes, the Finns, the Norwegians and everybody else above the 50th parallel would claim they do it better; but all I know for sure is what I’ve experienced first hand.

One of the highlights of last week was my visit to the Claudius Therme in Cologne. Germans love a good thermal spa and it seems to me that it has to from the time that Germany was a Roman colony the Romans called Germania. Germania existed in the space east of the Rhine and north of the Danube by the way.

This is what the outdoor pool area looks like in warmer months.

This is what the outdoor pool area looks like in warmer months.

That doesn’t matter so much as the legacy the Romans left behind. Roman street plans are as common as Roman ruins in Germany, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble upon a Roman vestige.

Anyhow, my night at Claudius Therme was sponsored by Mr. Steam, a US-based steam shower manufacturer. Thank you Mr. Steam!

Here's what it looked like when I was there last week.

Here’s what it looked like when I was there last week.

I’d been at a trade show for three days and was still shaking off my jet lag when we arrived at the spa on Wednesday night. I changed into my bathing suit in the surprisingly co-ed dressing room and made a bee line for the pool. The water was around 35° C, salty and slightly effervescent. The main pool had a slight current and moving around in it was effortless. Provided I wanted to move in the direction of the current that is.

The pool extended through two small openings into the great outdoors. And I ventured outside almost immediately. It was around -5° C that night and it was snowing, a pretty brutal night under usual circumstances. However, I was in a 35° C pool and despite the fact that my hair froze within a couple of minutes, I was warm and comfortable.

The source of the current was pretty evident once I got outside. There was a circular section of the pool that surrounded a raised hot tub. The current whipping around that circle was pretty strong and the idea of it is to provide resistance for people who want to swim for exercise. I had other ideas.

I turned over onto my back and let the current lead me in a circle as I floated with my eyes closed. It’s the position I assume almost immediately when I’m in the Gulf of Mexico and I find it to be one of the ways to get me to relax completely. In the mineral-rich waters of the Claudius Therme, my face and chest were above the surface of the water and it was beyond incredible to be warm and to have snow falling on my face and chest at the same time. I floated like that for about an hour. It was the very definition of the term “bliss.”

Like most spas in Germany, the Claudius Therme has a no clothing policy when it comes to spending time in the saunas and steam baths. I’ve never thought of myself as a prude, but the idea of taking off my clothes in front of a room full of strangers was unsettling. My discomfort at the thought was all the cue I needed to know that I had to do it.

As I mentioned earlier, I never think of myself as a prude but my damn American comes out pretty regularly when I’m traveling. I went up to the sauna and steam area of the spa and my American assumption was that the clothing-free areas were segregated by sex. They weren’t.

But hey, I was in Germany and at a thermal bath for crying out loud. I’d probably never have the opportunity confronting me again, so I decided to just keep going with it.

When I let my bathrobe drop, something interesting happened inside my head. I wasn’t sure how I’d respond and after a moment of discomfort, I found that it was oddly empowering to be naked in public.

There were no gym bodies on display, let me tell you that. I was naked with a bunch of other middle-aged people and all of us had our best years behind us. It didn’t matter that none of us were perfect. All that mattered was that we were. As an American, I grew up with an inherent suspicion of nudity. In the American mind, nudity is always a prelude to sex. It’s a foolish and limiting way to see the world. To the Germans in whose midst I found my naked self, sexuality didn’t play into it at all.

Being naked in a spa is the absolute opposite of sexual. It’s deliberately anti-sexual and to my mind a bit of a paradox because it stood in such stark opposition to how I’d been raised and socialized. Yet there we were in all of our pot-bellied, sagging glory. The mood could be summed up as “this is what I look like, deal with it.”

It was a refreshing change from my native, appearances- and sex-obsessed culture. It seems to me to be a healthier way to approach life.

I noticed two men talking in the sauna, they were clearly friends and were catching up. Despite the healthier outlook I was forcing myself to adopt, I couldn’t imagine me sitting next to any of my friends while naked in a sauna. Some cultural baggage is just too ingrained.

Back where my family started

I’m sitting in my brother’s living room and I’m all packed and ready to go back to Germany. This time, I’m headed to Cologne (and later Amsterdam), because I’ve been selected to participate in another iteration of Modenus.com’s  internationally reknowned Blogtours.

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Anyhow, I was telling my brother that I needed to write a blog post here tonight but I was struggling with a title, he suggested “Back where my parents started;” the headline that adorns this post.

Briefly, Blogtour is an event organized by Modenus and this time sponsored by Miele, Blanco, Hansgrohe, the NKBA, DuVerre and Mr. Steam. Modenus selects 15 influential design bloggers from the US and Europe and together, Blogtourians attend a design trade show in an exotic locale. The last time I was on a Blogtour we went to London for the Design Festival and this time, we’re heading to Cologne for the IMM.

Anyhow, back to the headline.

My parents met when they were young, kids really, and my father had been drafted. It was in the early ’50s and Dad was going to be sent to Germany to be part of the Allied Occupation that followed the end of the Second World War.

Before he shipped out, he asked my mother to marry him. She said yes obviously. Before too long, my Mom joined my Dad in the little town of Wertheim am Main in the German State of Baden-Württemberg. It was in Wertheim that my parents married, set up house on a shoe string budget, and it’s where my oldest brother was born. My parents launched themselves into as rich and full a life as I can imagine in that little town and it also launched their lifelong love of Germany.

I grew up hearing stories about their lives over there and was surrounded by the things they’d bring back during their subsequent trips back there over the years.

My folks have a fondness for the Cologne Cathedral and I’ll never forget how it felt to walk into it for the first time two years ago. Ancient architecture makes me weak in the knees to begin with but add to it that my parents had been there years earlier and the Cathedral’s effect on me was multiplied by a couple orders of magnitude. Several orders more than even that because it was my mother’s birthday.

I lit a candle for her and had my friend Tim take this photo of me to send to her afterward.

me in the Dom

I’ll be back at the Cathedral in just a few days, Sunday morning in fact. It’ll be great to be surrounded by a massive building that took 600 years to construct. It’s beautiful and that’s pretty much a given. But what that Cathedral means to me is more than academic. My family’s imprinted on the place and it’s oddly wonderful to travel halfway around the world to a place and to feel reconnected to my folks and my siblings.

Bring on Blogtour!

Packing

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Anymore, it feels like I live out of a suitcase. Eventually this will settle down but for now I’m trying to pack for three weeks of winter weather in Pennsylvania, Germany and The Netherlands. Though it’s warm and sunny here right now, it won’t be in any of my ports of call.

This means that I have to pack a boatload of sweaters, jackets, scarves, etc.

I get it that my problem is a first world problem and I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that I travel as much as I do. But even so, that USAirways is going to nick me $60 for checking two bags tomorrow galls me. I get it, my big suitcase needs to be checked. My smaller one however, could be a carry-on if I made an issue out of it.

I won’t make an issue of it. When airlines started to charge for checked bags the whole idea of a carry-on exploded in the popular imagination. The crap I see being stowed in overhead compartments anymore is ridiculous. All those carry-ons do is make air travel even more inconvenient. Getting on and off a plane is a pain in the ass.

Overhead bin space gets used up almost immediately and makes people even crankier. Here’s an idea, charge me more for a ticket and let me check my bags for free. This nickel and diming thing has to end. All it does is encourage people to carry on bags and all that does is make it harder and more time-consuming to get on and off a plane. Enough already. It’s bad enough that I have to submit to the TSA’s absurd security measures (can anybody say “security theater?”) The airlines make air travel even more ridiculous. Charge me to check a bag and charge people who plan to do uncooperative things like recline their seats or travel with lap dogs.

Let me read and have ready access to the lavatory. I’m a good passenger, really.

The hounds of Lancaster

This is Molly, one of my favorite dogs on earth.

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Molly is a hundred pounds of good-natured Golden Retriever. When she’s in the house she’s the epitome of a house dog but let her outside and she’s a beast unhinged. She’ll dig out a ground hog, fell a deer and take down a damn cow if she’s given the chance. But indoors, she’s a lapdog and all she wants is to be petted and loved. My nephew Tony insists that should he die, in lieu of a funeral all of us have to pet Molly for a half an hour. If she sits next to me when I’m scratching her head she’ll lean into me. If I stop and walk away, she’ll fall over due to the trance head scratching puts her in. Her devotion to my brother Matt is awe-inspiring. Really. Molly pretty much sums up what a dog should be.

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This is Sadie, the grande dame of Lancaster dogs. Though she’s getting up in years she is the alpha. Nothing happens unless Sadie allows it to happen. She’s one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known despite her domineering nature.

Back in the day when she was young and spry, Sadie used to go out in the yard and bring back a single pebble. She’d drop it at my feet. I’d then pick it up and throw it back into the yard. She’d retrieve it and drop it at my feet again. We’d go on like this for hours.

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This is sweet and neurotic Lily. I’m convinced that she’s misunderstood and her crazed nature is all a misunderstanding. Poor Lily just wants to be loved, can’t everybody see that? She and Greta got into it over the summer and I’ll never forget my brother jumping between them and shouting “Asshole! Asshole!” as he dragged apart two dogs who were nearly as big as he is.

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This is Greta. Greta is the most neurotic dog I’ve ever met. Can a dog be autistic? Despite her many issues, she’s still a lovable lump of dog who makes sitting in front of a fireplace more enjoyable. That’s my brother Steve’s arm and his other half Christine’s leg in that shot. Were it not for them, Greta wouldn’t stand a chance. She used to be a normal dog but back when she was a puppy she was spooked by a neighbor’s Collie. She’s been a basket case ever since.

Greta, Lily and Sadie all sleep together every night but heaven help anybody who’s nearby when one of them touches another. Hell hath no fury as Lily and Greta when they’re getting into it. Those two need to take the chill pill Sadie takes or even better, learn to take it outside like Molly does.

I’ve been dog-less since the late ’90s and I’m looking forward to having the hounds of Lancaster to keep me company. Big dogs in the country get into all manner of trouble but so far as I’m concerned, that makes them all the more appealing. I’m dreading dealing with winter but having Molly, Sadie, Lily and Greta to curl up with will make it easier.

Looking ahead to January

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Christmas was wonderfully quiet and uneventful. I turned off all of my electronics and went off the grid for a couple of days. By yesterday however, I started to go through connectedness withdrawal as I thought about all the things I have to get done over the next few weeks.

I’m at home in St. Pete until Thursday when I fly back to Pennsylvania. I put myself on a 6am flight out of Tampa and I’ll arrive in Philly two and a half hours later. I loathe early morning flights and I’m not looking forward to being at the airport at 5am. But I’m committed to my job and equally committed to establishing myself in Pennsylvania so I’m doing what I need to do.

It snowed there yesterday and my Pennsylvania nieces filled up my in box with photos of their snowfall. It was pretty of course, but I grew up with snowy winters and I know that the pretty doesn’t last for very long. In fact, it was snowy winter avoidance that brought me to Florida in the first place. When I talked to my brother Steve yesterday he was waiting out the end of the snowfall in his living room. He was sprawled in front of a roaring fire and surrounded by a pack of German Shorthair Pointers. I’ll cling to that version of winter to get me through until May once I move back there for real in about a month. Big dogs and fireplaces make winter tolerable. Long underwear and wool sweaters help too. I’m ready for this, I’m really ready for this. If I keep repeating that it’ll become true, right?

BlogTour Badge Cologne (tan & white)

Anyhow, I’ll be in my office in Pennsylvania for about a week before I leave for Cologne, Germany on the 12th. I’m part of Blog Tour again and we’re headed to IMM, one of the world’s premier design trade shows. After Cologne I’m headed to Amsterdam for a couple of days. I’ll be gawking and marveling at the wonders I see there of course, but I’ll also be working the whole time. It won’t be a vacation by any stretch of the imagination (although I have a half day at a natural hot spring spa between Cologne and Hamburg scheduled), and I can’t wait to be back on the other side of the Atlantic.

I know a ton of people who’ll be in Cologne too and it’s going to be great to reconnect with friends from the US, Canada, the UK and the EU. The only time I see most of these people is at trade events. At this point in my life and career, trade shows are how I reconnect with friends no matter where they call home. It’s one of my favorite developments of the last five years.

Back in the day; I’d go to a trade show, walk the show floor, see cool stuff and then go back to my hotel. Anymore, trade shows take on the air of a family reunion. I spend as much time catching up as I do looking at new stuff. Truth be told, I spend more time catching up in the press room and at after parties than I do walking around.

Anyhow, after I return from Europe I’ll spend a couple of days in the office before I fly back to Florida. By then, January will be just about gone. I’m coming back here to pack up my belongings in earnest, fill up a POD and then get myself to Pennsylvania for good. One of my nieces is getting married in the middle of all of this so I have to throw that in too. Elena’s wedding will be a welcome breather for a day or two.

As much as I look ahead to all of this moving around, I’m reminded of the amount of work I have to do at the same time and it gets pretty daunting. So I just break it down into smaller tasks. If I keep myself zeroed in on the day to day stuff, the big picture stuff doesn’t seem so insurmountable.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to come down here at the end of January to help me pack you’re more than welcome. Hah!

The Woodman

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There’s a photo I keep on my fridge. It was taken on Christmas in 1998. My friends Tom and John were forever having people over on holidays and the photo on my fridge proves that. In that shot is John’s Mom, my friend Woody and cradled in Woody’s arms was Tom and John’s dog, Mimi. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but all three of those subjects would be dead within nine months from when I took the photo.

I first met Woody in early 1998. We were standing in a bar called the Eagle in St. Pete. I was waiting for my friend Mike to finish up whatever he was doing and I was just aching to go home. I’d had some good news that afternoon and I was ebullient that night. Clearly, it was something other people could see because Woody broke the ice by asking why I was in such high spirits.

He introduced himself first of course, but he wanted to know what was making me so giddy. I looked him in the eye and told him that I’d just received word that I was HIV negative. He looked down at his feet and said, “Would it be such a tragedy if you were positive?”

I’d known a ton of people who’d been diagnosed with HIV up until that point, but there was something about Woody’s delivery that drove it all home. HIV and AIDS were always something I could ignore and pretend weren’t real but there was something about Woody that made me want to see life through his eyes. By 1998 AIDS was becoming a manageable disease. The advances in the drugs used to treat it had turned the tide and people I knew didn’t drop like flies anymore. Though having it was hardly a picnic, a protracted, wasting death wasn’t anything most people who had it were left to face. Woody’s real name was Michael Woods by the way.

Woody lived in a “bad” part of town and shortly after we met he invited me over for dinner. He was a retired chef and the dinner he spread out for me was beyond belief. Woody was retired because he was sick and over the course of that dinner, he told me about his condition. He was one of the unfortunate ones whose body couldn’t tolerate the new treatment regimens. He was resolved to face his death with as much dignity as he could muster. It was odd to have that discussion when we did. He looked fine, even if he couldn’t work anymore.

Just prior to his arrival in St. Pete, he lived in Minneapolis with the great love of his life, Duncan. Dunkie died from complications related to AIDS about a year earlier, and a big part of Woody went with him. Woody kept Duncan’s ashes in a box he’d wrapped in beautiful Chinese paper. That box lived on Woody’s mantle and I came to see that he always put it in a place where he could see it.

Having Duncan’s remains around gave Woody comfort and strength.

Woody and I struck up a very close friendship after that dinner. I talked to John and Tom, my landlords at the time, and we agreed to get get Woody moved onto our block.

I’ll never forget the day we moved Woody in. He was all whacked out about being needy and that’s understandable. After a couple of hours of his whining, I threw my arms around him and promised that I’d never abandon him. He hugged back and wouldn’t let go. It was as if he knew what was in store.

Within a month of that shared moment in his kitchen, Woody started to develop liver problems. His belly distended with the fluids his body was retaining and every couple of days we’d go to the hospital to get his abdomen drained. Those trips to St. Anthony’s were always fun, if that’s the right word to use here. Woody had a tremendous sense of humor and before he could have the draining procedure he’d have to get a sonogram so the surgeon could find his liver.

The sonogram technician, Woody and I used to laugh as she joked around about taking a look at his baby. His distended abdomen did make him look like he was pregnant. All of us knew that Woody’s story wouldn’t have a happy ending but we kept laughing all the same.

Taking care of Woody became second nature to me. So much so that I couldn’t see that he was dying.

At some point that summer, somebody from Hospice cornered me in the hospital. Until then I was completely unwilling to see that Woody was a dead man. I thought that I could take care of everything, even though I had to take a leave of absence from work. He’d get through this I thought to myself. I’d will him back to health if that was the last thing I did.

When Hospice got involved I had to be removed forcibly from my duties as a primary care giver. I’d more or less stopped sleeping and the nurses from Hospice were as concerned about me as they were about Woody. They put me on a schedule that allowed me to take care of myself and to sit with Woody for a few hours every day.

As the summer wore on, Woody declined further and further.. The man I once loved to talk to began to turn into something else all together. Woody was dying and as much as I wanted to deny it, it was real. While he was still of his own mind, he used to take that box of Duncan’s ashes and just rest his hand on it.

I’ll always remember the afternoon toward the end when I walked into his apartment and I met his nurse. “Woody’s dying” she said. He kept getting up from his bed and pacing. The nurse called it terminal restlessness. Apparently, it’s a common thing as people approach the end of their lives. I took over my shift. Her matter of fact delivery  made me start to see the gravity of the situation. Now that I look back, just how bad he was is clear. Woody’d declined precipitously and it was difficult to see the him of him. He’d had me fill the birdbath he could see from his bedroom window the day before. He used to love to watch the birds but on this day he couldn’t concentrate well enough to pay attention to them.

We started to head into the final chapter and I started to get over my denial.

At that point Woody barely recognized me. “Mister!” he used to say. “Mister, I need to go to the bathroom!” was about all he could manage. Woody and I were as close as it’s possible to be and having him not remember my name was the stuff of nightmares. I can handle someone who needs help in the bathroom, but having a friend fail to recognize me was devastating.

When he had to go I’d take off his clothes and sit him on the toilet. He’d babble on and every once in a while some spark of him would come to the fore. I’d reach for that spark with everything I had but alas, there wasn’t really anything to grasp. My dear friend was gone and he wasn’t coming back. After I sat him on the toilet I’d put him in the shower to hose him off. Later that night when I was toweling him off, he looked up at me and said “shave.”

I shaved him and trimmed his hair.  I held it together while I was bathing and shaving him but barely. A couple of months earlier, he was a fully functioning adult. The person in front of me that night was a shell of who he’d once been.  After we were done I wrapped a towel around his shoulders and then I hugged him. I held onto him as tight as I could because I knew our time was running out. He hugged me back and we had to have stood there in his bathroom for a half an hour. Some part of him knew who I was and that same part knew I was there to help.

Woody died the next morning. He died and before he did so I was granted the opportunity to hold his hands and to thank him for being my friend. As I  was saying my final goodbyes, he reached out and held my face in his hands. “Thank you” he mouthed because he could no longer speak. And then he died.

That I’d held the hands of a dying man didn’t occur to me until weeks after the fact. I kept expecting him to appear some afternoon. He’d have Publix bags in his arms and he’d joke about how crappy the produce was that day. His coming back never happened, obviously. But still, I wished with all I had that he would just walk through the front door.

I miss him terribly and I hope that I gave him some comfort in his final moments. When it’s my time to go, I pray that someone will be there to hold onto me too.

Woody was one of the people who made St. Pete real, he was one of the people who anchored me here.

In and among all of the crap he left me to sort through, there was a brass bell. I keep it on my front porch now. Before Woody died, I told him that if it were possible, I needed for him to reach across the ether and to ring that bell. So far, he hasn’t.

Views from a kitchen window

I’m in Florida now and when I look out my kitchen window I see this.

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It’s a view of a bunch of areca, fishtail and fox palms. That view has become my normal over the course of the last 12 years or so and I don’t take my decision to leave all this lightly. It was foggy when I took that photo but even through the fog, I know that I live in the tropics.

A week ago, I was in Pennsylvania and trying on my new life for size. Tropical is one thing it isn’t. It was foggy last week there too and here’s what a foggy morning looks like in Landisville, PA.

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It wasn’t just foggy, it was also frosty. In fact, I saw it snow twice last Friday. I’ve never appreciated a fireplace as much as I’ve come to in the last few months. Being cold is the nature of the beast during a Pennsylvania winters and the only thing that can raise my core temperature is to sit in front of my brother Steve’s fireplace and just bake.

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When I look out his kitchen window, I usually see things like this. It’s rolling farmland from horizon to horizon. Here’s the view from his kitchen window.

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The fog softens things but for the most part, fog’s not something we have to deal with. Fog or no fog though, it’s cold in Pennsylvania at this time of year.

Even so, it’s about to become home again after an absence of more than 20 years. I have a great job lined up and a place to live. Still, I know there are things about Florida I’ll miss.

I will miss being within a reasonable driving distance to my folks’ place in Orlando for starters. For seconders, I’ll miss living in a state without an income tax. And oh yeah, I’ll miss the palms and the parrots and the 75 degree Februaries.

However, I’m getting something in this move that I’d never find otherwise. Namely, a coherent career path. I’m almost 50 and I don’t take things like career paths lightly. Palm trees are wonderful but they’re no substitute for consistency and security.

People here come and go like the wind, I’ve always been amazed by that. Now that I am one of those people who’s getting ready to leave I get it. AS much as I wanted to make this place stick, it just can’t. Florida’s viewed as a giant waiting room by the rest of the country for a good reason. Nothing really happens here aside from the sun setting on the Gulf and that reality kicks in at some point after someone leaves.

I’ve sat through more friends’ leavings  than I can count. It’s just odd that it’s my turn to leave now.

I used to tell now-dead Brian and Woody, Art and Bruce, Nivaldo, David and Carl that I’d leave this town in a pine box.

I’m packing now and there’s no pine box in sight. Sorry fellas, it’s just time to move on. I’ll continue to tell your stories and I’ll keep you real; they’ll just be stories I tell from somewhere else.

You guys touched my life and played an integral part in my becoming who I am now. I’ll miss everybody here of course, but it’s you guys whom I’ll miss the most.

I can’t give you a proper goodbye because you’re not here. However, I’ll always remember you. When I look across those frozen fields I’ll remember you Brian and your love of bread with hot peppers. I’ll never forget the look on your face when the Busch Gardens giraffes overtook us. My photos from that day still grace my dresser.

Woody, I’ll never forget the first time I ate Chayote — you sauteed it with butter and salt. Oh and Woody, I have your cookbooks and most of your crap. Would it be poor form to dump your crab forks?

Art and Bruce, you two knew tile like nobody else and man,could you squeeze a dime; Bruce especially.  Bruce, you were the only person I’d ever met who knew the routing number of his checking account.  Art, you were born in Poland and we never stopped harassing you about that. You were always a good sport.

Niva: you taught me what being Cuban really means and what it is to stand up for your heritage. I’ll never forget your memorial. The wind whipped through the trees that afternoon and it was as if you were there.

David, you showed me that someone could fall down and get back up. I bonded with your wife and your daughter at your funeral. You’d have approved. You and I  did some of the best work of my life together. I wish we’d had more time to just sit and talk. You were a good man David.

Carl, you were a piece of shit and you showed me that even pieces of shit can be lovable. My last interaction with you Carl was me kissing you on the top of your head and wishing you a merry Christmas. We may have wanted to kill each other at the time but I am forever in your debt. You taught me how to be a designer. Thank you. And you’re still a piece of shit, despite my gratitude.

The men I profiled just now left me a better man for knowing them. I miss those guys; they played a big role in my settling here and my feeling like I belonged on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I’m getting ready to leave this place for good and a big part of me will be left behind. Yet another lesson I never learned when I was a kid is that when you let other people in, they never really leave. Similarly, when you live somewhere for a period of time it becomes a part of you. St Pete’s definitely a part of me. It’s just time for me to move on.

Why Florida?

I was born in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania but from a very early age I dreamed of living in a place called Florida.

I remember drawing a map of Florida from memory when I was in second or third grade. Places like Tampa, Miami, Naples and Orlando loomed large in my childhood imagination. I knew that Busch Gardens in Tampa called itself “The Dark Continent” and in my mind then, I saw dense tropical foliage and a complete break from the life I knew. “Someday,” my 9-year-old self thought.

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I had to have been around 25 or 26 when the opportunity to move down here presented itself. I jumped at it.

I left for Orlando in early March. When I left Pennsylvania, it was in the throes of a huge snowstorm and it was a relief to get away from it. The farther away I traveled, the less likely it was that I’d have to deal with winter.

I drove that first day until I reached Walterboro, SC. In Walterboro, I booked a room at a Day’s Inn and set about looking for a place to eat dinner.

Next to the Day’s Inn was a Shoney’s and a local barbecue joint. I was in Walterboro again last summer and unfortunately, the barbecue joint I’m writing about no longer exists.

I wasn’t about to eat in a Shoney’s, so I decided to have dinner in the barbecue joint.

I walked into the restaurant and I was the only one there. I ordered a brisket sandwich and a plate of fried green tomatoes as an appetizer.

As a side note, I’d read “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” about a month earlier and I’d never had them. Seeing them on a menu made me want to give them a chance and in doing so, give myself a chance to be something other than the Yankee I was born to be. Fried green tomatoes are fantastic by the way.

Anyhow, my dinner was served by the woman who prepared it. I wish I could remember her name but alas, I cannot. She brought out my dinner and she was all full of attitude and hips. She not only brought out my dinner, she took a seat in the booth opposite me. She was full of life and her laughter was infectious.

As I tucked into my dinner, she proceeded to grill me on why I was moving to Florida. Once satisfied with my answers, she proceeded to tell me about her grandbabies and I confided my fears about starting over in a strange land. We talked about her experiences during hurricane Hugo and at some point she smacked me on the arm (hard!) for feeling sorry for her losses.

We came from different worlds all together, but during that hour-long meal, we stopped being the white guy from PA and the black woman from South Carolina. We became people, just people, and we were telling stories and letting ourselves be known.

After I was done eating and we were done talking, I took my leave and walked back to the Walterboro Day’s Inn.

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A day later I was in Orlando and I was ready to attack my new life there. However, I never forgot the interaction with the woman whose name I can’t remember in Walterboro. I learned from her that everybody in the world has a story to tell and that all of us have new experiences ahead of us, be they fried green tomatoes or cross-country moves. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, or whatever. What matters is that we’re all just people and all of us have stories to tell. Listen to those stories, for the love of God listen to them.

So long as all of us, and I mean all of us, continue to listen to those stories we’ll be OK. Sometimes, those stories will enrage you and sometimes they’ll humble you. It’s human to disagree with a lot of what you hear and that’s OK too. What’s important is to listen and not just to hear.