Tuesday, February 27, 2007

As Close At It Gets

Another Texas day under my belt, another day filled with extraordinary visits with senior citizens and meetings with retirement-home activity directors. I’m excited, but tired. My daily yoga class finished, a Wendy’s salad in hand, it’s time to settle in for the night. In through the front door and … I’m home.


Well … not exactly. But it’s funny how that particular word has been flowing so easily over my tongue during the past few weeks.

My “home,” shall we say, since February 1st, has been the ExtendedStay Deluxe Hotel on Green Park Drive in Las Colinas, (part of Irving), Texas. This place has been a god-send. And I don’t use that term lightly.

I’m traveling across America’s midsection for the next four months, interviewing senior citizens for my Eldercation® project, committed to changing the way Americans think about aging and older people. It was a no-brainer when it was time to choose a hotel for the trip. I knew the ExtendedStay chain well and was convinced it would be the perfect choice.

Listen, I know it’s not the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton. But, you know what? It’s not supposed to be. And, certainly, the cost is nowhere remotely close to a bill from one of those fine hotels. The fact is, when you’re on the road, if you’re like me, what you want is simply a large clean bed, bathroom and shower and that pretty much does it. Anything else? It’s gravy. And at ExtendedStay Hotels – you get lots of gravy.

My Las Colinas room has a good-sized kitchen, complete with dishes, mugs, utensils, full refrigerator, stove, garbage disposal, and, get this … a dish-washer! I lived in NYC for 13 years and I’m telling you, I never had it so great. There is even a breakfast table on the side, with two ergonomically designed chairs, where I’m able to set up my laptop and video equipment. High speed wifi/internet service is provided for a one-time charge of only $4.95 and, to my surprise, the hotel even provides a “PrintMe” printing service, free of charge, where you upload documents to a website, they email a code to you within seconds, and then you walk to the lobby where you punch the code into a little machine and ‘voilĂ ,’ your documents shoot out of an HP laser printer. That’s come in handy whenever I needed Mapquest directions.

When it comes to laundry, two washers and dryers are within 20 feet of my door and it costs only a dollar for a wash and another dollar for the dryer. For exercise, there’s a fitness room downstairs, complete with a treadmill, stationary bike and elliptical machine. Every weekday morning, the staff serves up a continental breakfast spread with bagels, fresh fruit, jams, butter, cream cheese, coffee and orange juice. A nice woman, Hilda, tidies things up every fifteen minutes or so to keep things fresh.

Okay, so it’s easy to list these kinds of amenities, services and to snap off a few photos to show you a bit of the place. But you can easily research these things on the company’s website or in brochures. What those materials don’t tell you is something more about what I would call the company “culture.” I have never, and I mean never been to an ExtendedStay where I have not been treated anything less than special. And over the years I’ve probably stayed at more than fifty ExtendStay-related properties, at all kinds of locations.

Business courses often speak of the management pyramid and how a company’s character and business practices flow from the top management and permeate through the rest of the organization. Certainly, someone at the top of the ExtendedStay chain is doing something right … and it shows. At the more local level, Suzanne Villescas, (the Las Colinas manager) demonstrates that the pyramid theory is alive, well and working in Irving, Texas.

When I walk though the lobby door at day’s end, it’s a normal occurrence to bump into one of the hotel’s maintenance men, Sylvester or Domingo. We exchange smiles and “Como esta’s,” and, of course, this gives me a chance to dust off my 5½ years of high school and college Spanish to give them a solid, “Cinquenta, Cinquenta,” comeback. Both of these gentlemen were a big help the first few days as I was settling in. If something needed to be done - small things, like the disposal not working or a light bulb out - these guys took care of it immediately.

If it’s not Sylvester’s or Domingo’s smiles greeting me in the front lobby, it’s Radek, Maranda or Nesly, (Domingo’s daughter), three of the front desk clerks, telling me I received a package or left something in the printer. Radek initially checked me in at the beginning of the month and, when I explained I was a writer and was a concerned about room location, (after all, I was checking in for a month), he went through the trouble of letting me see a few rooms so I could make a choice. He suggested a corner room on the top floor. “A lot of sunlight,” he said, “with an extra set of windows off the kitchen area.” All I can say is, “Thank you for Room 303, Radek.” You were right on the money.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And so, it’s upstairs to rest, take a hot bath and watch a bit of TV (or a movie on the DVD player provided in the room, I forgot to mention). Most days, it’s time to let the day’s thoughts percolate and to write about exceptional seniors and exciting new places. Tonight, however, it’s time to do something different. Tonight, it’s time to write about ExtendedStay. It’s as close to home when you’re away from home. And that’s not an easy thing to find out here on the road.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hollis and Liberty Hill, Texas

Today was a very good day.

It started with an early morning drive north through Austin and then beyond, up to Liberty Hill. The Austin morning rush hour was pretty intense, Interstate 35 bearing a strange resemblance to the BQE on a Monday morning. At one point, nothing was moving, which was terrific, let me tell you. Still, I had pushed back my first interview to 10:00, so I had plenty of time.

Once I made it through Austin, I continued to the Route 29 exit, headed west and noticed immediately that there was a whole lot of nothing up ahead. Well, not nothing. But, let's just say this was quiet country, flat open land with a healthy smattering of new building going up. It felt good to finally move off the more urban trail and get out to the Texas countryside. I had some time so I drove around and looked at houses, checked out a dollar store, got some gas and picked up a cup of coffee. New houses were priced in the $230’s or so, which I found hard to believe. Who would live out in the middle of nowhere at those prices? Where do they work, earn money, I wondered?

When it got close to 10:00, I followed the Mapquest directions and headed for my first stop, which I found easily. Up a long gravel driveway, across a small bridge, over a dry brook-bed, I parked the car under a large oak tree. As soon as I shut the door and threw the bag over my shoulder, I looked up and saw a tall man in a cowboy hat strolling down the front walkway toward me. Big smile, white mustache. I knew this was the guy I'd been talking with over the phone during the past few days. This was Hollis Baker.

Instinctively, I figured I was in for a special time with Hollis and his wife, Alice, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. My introduction to Hollis came via emails with Antoinette Griffin from The Senior Source. She told me I'd be in store for something great. She wasn't kidding.

The Baker home was a beautiful, simple dark wood - wide open inside, almost cabin-like. Alice was waiting for us when we walked through the door and then, the three of us sat for a bit at the kitchen table and drank coffee together. After a few minutes, Alice slipped into the kitchen and returned holding a plate full of fresh chocolate chip cookies, which she placed in front of me and Hollis, so I was feeling pretty happy after that long, traffic-filled morning drive. The three of us talked about all kinds of things, but I didn’t want to get Hollis tired before the interview. I worry sometimes about these kind of pre-interview talks, for fear of the person spilling all the "important" stuff ahead of time. A silly concern, obviously, since there's nothing better than relaxing conversations with good people over chocolate chip cookies. Who could complain?

"Let's save something for the interview," I joked and, at that, Hollis motioned for us to move to the sitting area in back of us.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After we finished the interview (see "Tapping The Resource" for an excerpt), Hollis told Alice he was going to take me on the fifty-cent tour of the grounds. As we walked outside onto the front porch, we visited with a few of the twelve cats he and Alice have taken in over the years. (That's Freckles there on the right). Then we headed for the golf cart Hollis uses to get around the property. What a joy it must be to have land like that, where you can look around at the trees, soil, rocks and flowers and know every square inch of it is yours. As I sat beside him, it was fun to watch Hollis navigate the cart over the dirt path, often coming within a centimeter or two of a tree trunk. I had to pull in my leg a few times, but Hollis seemed unfazed, completely familiar with every inch of the layout. I pointed to what I recognized as a smoker, old and rusted, sitting by the edge of some brush.

“That thing,” Hollis laughs. “Could never get that one to work just right."

He then told me about his special brisket and, the more he talked about it, the hungrier I was getting.

As we drove to other spots on his land, each location came complete with a good story. That’s what I like so much about Hollis, he's filled with stories and knows how to tell them with his unique style. He's an excellent writer, I forgot to mention. During our introductory phone calls, we shared blog addresses, so we had a chance to read a bit of one another's writing ahead of time. Check out Hollis' blog at www.hollisbaker.blogspot.com.

Our last stop on the tour was the green house, where I noticed two or three of Hollis' signs leaning against the side of the building. One sign, in particular, grabbed my attention and we moved it together so I could get a better look. Hollis is a humble man, but I was able to catch just a glimpse of the talent he's so hesitant to show. I asked if I could take a photo of the sign before leaving so he promised we'd come back after going into town.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Alice gave me the front seat and the three of us started our car tour of Liberty Hill, which reminded me of what I thought Andy Griffith's Mayberry would look like, only smaller. As we drove around, Hollis and Alice filled me in on some of the Liberty Hill history and the current town goings-on. "Settlers figured, 'okay, so this is what the whole country's about - Liberty.' And then, they looked around and saw that hill over there," Hollis chuckled, as he pointed to the right. "So ... there you have it, then. Liberty Hill." (By the way, I smiled when I saw the town's main newspaper; they actually have two. Check out the line below the masthead on the right. Click on the photo to enlarge it).

We stopped at a few places to see some folks they knew, but since they weren't around, we decided it was time for lunch, or, as Hollis and Alice referred to it – dinner. I like calling the mid-day meal "dinner," since I’ve been trying to eat my larger meal earlier anyway. It works to put me in the proper mindset and I need all the help I can get.

The Hobo Depot. “Best Chicken Fried Steak In Texas” Hollis had said earlier. We walked into a small, diner-like place. A few tables were set up on the right – filled with happy, well-fed customers. As soon as Hollis and Alice walked in, people turned to say hi to them. A table with four men, all with cowboy hats, turned to visit with us as we sat down. Hollis was like the mayor and Alice the first lady. It was fun to watch; I could tell the townspeople genuinely liked both of them.

When it was time to order, it didn’t take long. I hadn’t had chicken fried steak since my days at Emory in Atlanta, so I figured, "Why the hell not? Great time for another go-round." Hollis ordered a half portion. “You can handle a full one, right?” “You can always take some home," Alice added. So, there it was. And you know what ? It really was great. A treat. But, here's the thing about fried anything, for me. After two or three bites, there's really no place to go, you know what I mean? It’s that rich and heavy. I get the same reaction from foods like lobster newberg and pancakes with syrup. The mashed potatoes and gravy were good, as were the green beans. Finally, I was eating something authentic in an authentic Texas town. But the best part wasn't the food. It was being there with the Bakers. Alice, by the way, ordered what the Hobo Depot people call a taco, but it didn't look like any kind of Taco I had ever seen. She wanted me to take a taste of it, moving her plate toward me. It was great.

After dinner, we continued the town tour and Hollis wanted me to see the sculpture garden he'd mentioned earlier. Alice stayed in the car and read a bit while Hollis and I took a look around. Stupidly, I forgot to charge the camcorder batteries and didn't have my still camera with me, so I was only able to get a few seconds worth of pics. And then, it was over to see Troy – that was a treat, too. The man is something like 88, I forget his age. And he goes into this kind of office every day - it's sort of a chamber of commerce. Hollis explained that Troy's not paid, but he accepts donations from people who pass through town, looking for all kinds of information, which Troy is so pleased to provide. I would call Troy Liberty Hill's ambassador of good will and I think he'd approve of and be honored by such a label. And people actually do drop in throughout day and say hi to him. He liked the company, I could tell. Every once in awhile, he’d reach out and touch my arm as he was telling me something. And he wanted Hollis and me to stay, but I knew Alice was in the car reading and that it'd probably be best to make a move to leave. Hollis' wink signaled he was aware of the same thing.

And that was that. It was time to go back to the house, snap off a few photos of the sign leaning against the green house and then ... preparation for the trip north. Of course, Alice was sure to supply me with a bag of extra chocolate chip cookies which certainly came in handy when I hit the Dallas rush hour traffic hours later.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

You know what? If I could blueprint what I would call a perfect day for a trip like the one I'm on, this would've been it. As I make my way out to other parts of Texas and then up to Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska over the coming weeks, I think it's important for me to venture out more; get away from the cities. It's time to mix it up a little.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Remember The Alamo

Today - it's about seeing San Antonio.

What a great looking downtown. I drove through the city, approaching it fom the South – it was so easy to navigate, just taking Interstate-10 all the way down and then heading left toward the tall buildings. I tried to find The Alamo by following the landmark signs, but couldn’t find it on the first go-around. So I parked the car at a meter and gave myself an hour (all the change I had), grabbed a chicken salad sandwich at a corner deli – pretty good, too - then walked until I found a part of The Riverwalk.

What a pretty set up. Howard told me about it and said I should check it out, which I did today. The Riverwalk is set down from the main street level so I walked down some stairs from Houston Street and followed the pathway as it wound down and around some shops, bars, restaurants. It was warm and sunny today, around 80, so I was able to sit on the grass for a bit and take in the sites, the quiet. This is the kind of city I’d love to be a part of again. Much less stressful. Sure, I miss NYC and found a kind of peace in Central Park when I’d run at the reservoir or sit near the Great Lawn. But, it’s not the same. You can feel the difference in the energy level, I swear it.

Anyway, I shot some photos, which you can see here.

I walked more and kept following signs to The Alamo, finally finding an entrance down to another section of Riverwalk, also beautiful. This section led me up some stairs and, when I came up to street level, I looked to my right and there it was. It’s funny how this always happens. You grow up reading about something, seeing photos in history books, seeing Davey Crockett movies and documentaries. Sure, I knew what the Alamo looked like and now, there it was, right in front of me.

I walked around the grounds, watching people make there way in and out of the building, (only a few spots of the actual Alamo are even left today. Much of the area has long been turned over to retail stores, sidewalks and new streets).

Flatbush Meets Texas
- Something funny happened on my visit. As I walked around the inside of the main building, I have to admit I found myself humming the Davey Crockett song while images of Fess Parker popped into my head. I walked into a side room, where there were some rifles on display, as well as a sheepskin vest and some law books that belonged to Davey Crockett. And there was a sign – “If you have any questions, feel free to ask “Arnold,” your guide for the day.” I looked up and saw a mid-sized, thin man, thinning hair, tan skin, glasses, wearing a red vest with a large name tag. Before I glanced down to the name tag, I had a hunch I was about to meet Arnold, who was smiling and fielding questions left and right as people passed through the small room. I could tell this man loved what he was doing and that he enjoyed history, as did most of the people moving through the Alamo, including me. I walked closer to Arnold as he answered questions. I always like to do that, sort of picking up on what others are asking and learning from the guide’s responses. As soon as I heard Arnold's voice, I knew I had to meet him but waited until there was an opening and no one was near him.

“So you’re a native Texan, huh?”

He laughed, looking down then back up at me, resting his hand on my shoulder.

“You know," he paused. "I’m from a little town called Brooklyn, USA. Ever hear of it?”

And that, of course, triggered one of the NYC bonding conversations, where I told him how both my folks were from Flatbush and Borough Park...

"Flatbush here," he smiled.

You gotta love it. Now who knew I’d come to The Alamo today and meet a nice Jewish guide from Flatbush, that he’d be 74 and possibly interested in Eldercation. I'm hoping he'll agree to let me do an interview with him, but we'll see. I gave him a card, shook his hand goodbye and took a slow stroll back up The Riverwalk, finding my car with about two minutes to spare. I didn't know what a parking ticket costs in San Antonio, but I didn't want to find out.

Monday, February 19, 2007

To South Texas

Happy Birthday, Dad. My father, Ramon, is 82 today.

The drive from Dallas to San Antonio was relaxing. I started out early so I could make to Granville's house on time for our 1:30 interview. The drive gave me a chance to think again, as I pulled out my music and proceeded to lose myself in yet another intra-auto concert. It was dark when I started out but soon the sun was coming up on the left and it was fun to watch the landscape change along the way. Not that the scenery was all that interesting since it’s all pretty flat. Still, as I moved south of Dallas, the area appeared to get a greener and more alive. Waco looked pretty nice, which kind of surprised me. I'll admit I’m one of those people who hears the word "Waco" and initially thinks, “Branch Davidians,” “David Koresh” and all that. The image of the burning compound, the government tanks – were those tanks? But the city looked much larger and more developed than I thought; I may stop by there on the way back up. And then, of course, Austin is a great city. I remember going there a bunch of times when I was active in the music business for the South by Southwest music conferences. Again, I’d like to stop by and spend more time, but there is so much to do and Dallas is a calling. After I finish in San Antonio, I want to get back up there so I can get some more writing done. It will be increasingly important for me to figure out a schedule where I can balance the writing with the interviewing. The more I think about it, that may be what this trip is all about. Figuring out the method for putting this together and able to do it in the relative quiet and isolation I'm able to find out on the road, away from the NYC mania. A good mania much of the time, but still mania.

When I got into San Antonio, I drove right over to the hotel just to see where it was located. I also did a drive by to Granville’s house, making sure I knew where it was so I’d be ready for him and on time. It turns out, the hotel is about 3 minutes from Granville’s house and the JCC isn’t much further up the road. Who knew?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my room was ready at 11:30, so I was able to check in and shower after the drive and organize a bit. The ExtendedStay people are so nice and accommodating. They have been the perfect on-the-road support system for me and I will most definitely post something on the website about them. People should know about this chain since they don't advertise all that much.

The rest of the day consisted of my interview with Granville and a quick trip over to The Waterford on Thousand Oaks to meet with its Activity Director, Kathy Greene. Kathy and I sat for awhile and talked about setting up a couple interviews for the following day - possibly with two sisters, which would be a first for me and a lot of fun. I was going to join Kathy with a small group of residents for a quick dinner at the local Outback, but I was soooo tired. The early morning drive had knocked me for a loop. Time for a nap.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I figured it would be good to drive over to the Barshop JCC of San Antonio to say hi to Cathy Pottorf since she told me she was working late and it would be a perfect time for a chat. The place was easy to find and only about five minutes up the road. As soon as I walked into the facility, I was pretty impressed; it's one of the nicest places I've ever seen. After asking where the Director's office was, I stopped for a minute on a long stairway and watched two full-court basketball league games in progress, through the glass windows. Then I weaved my way to Cathy's office and found her working behind her desk. Again, it was nice to finally meet a person who, until tonight, was only long-distance voice over the phone. Cathy gave me the VIP tour of the center and we talked about interview possibilities for the next few days. We decided I should come back the next afternoon after my interviews at The Waterford and then hang out in the senior center and card room.

Outside of Cathy's downstairs office, there was an exit to the outdoor pool and tennis courts so I walked outside to take a look. Immediately, I heard splashing - people swimming laps in the heated Olympic-size pool to my right. It was about 70 degrees out and the smells, the sounds, the warm breeze, the people playing tennis on the lit tennis courts. For a second I thought, "Yes, I could live here." But, come on. I've only been here what? 10 hours? Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Be My Valentine

Most of the morning was spent making some advance calls for San Antonio. I had my first conversation with Granville Coggs and, all I can say is, I can not wait to meet him. Cathy Pottorf, the Senior Games' Director from the Jewish Community Center in San Antonio introduced me to Granville. Cathy's been a great help to me in terms of possible contacts in the area and I'm looking forward to meeting her when I get down there.

The rest of the morning was spent mostly on doing some transcriptions, which means listening to the interviews again. I’ve always enjoyed this process since, in some ways, it feels like I’m meeting the seniors for the very first time. In time, when I hone my interviewing skills, I’ll hopefully feel that way when I’m actually sitting in front of them. That’s when I’ll know I’m becoming a better listener, something I’m working on now in a big way. The fact is, I come from a family of talkers, so if you wanted to get a word in edge-wise, you pretty much had to be always thinking of what you wanted to say, and you had to do it all the time. And, of course, this habit didn't strengthen those listening muscles, since I often found myself busy thinking about what I wanted to say whenever the other person was talking. My simple trick nowadays is to look at the person’s eyes and that signals me to focus on the person's words. Still, when I find myself alone in my room days later, the lights dimmed and able to listen to the recordings over and over again, this is when I'm really able to cull out special thoughts. This is when I'm able to do my very best resource “tapping."

Be My Valentine - Tonight I had a treat. Liz invited me to a Valentine's Day evening show at The Waterford, headlined by Richard Barry. Richard is Mary Francis Hansen's husband and is a well-known performer on the cruise ship circuit. He's also a former member of the group "Looking Glass." You remember the song, "Brandy?" ("...you're a fine girl, what a good wife, you would be...") As soon as Liz mentioned this tidbit to me, I started to sing, complete with full orchestration and background vocals, of course.

As soon as I walked into The Waterford, I saw Richard setting up his equipment and doing a sound check. He smiled, and I walked over to him to introduce myself.

“It’s so great to hear a NY accent!” I laughed when I heard that beautiful tri-state sound and Richard laughed. We talked while he worked, sharing stories about the music business, New York City, etc... Richard was immersed in the business when I would have wanted to be in it, during the 60’s and into the 70’s. We had dinner in, what I like dining area set aside at The Waterford for VIP’s, specialto call, the green room, a special birthday parties, etc… Liz joined us and it was a lot of fun hanging out with both of them. I felt right at home and … the food was actually pretty good, I have to say. They eat well at The Waterford.

When the show started, I slipped into a near-by phone booth and became the staff photographer for the evening. Here are a few shots showing the residents enjoying the talents of Richard Barry. I hope to see both Richard and Mary Frances again before I leave for Oklahoma.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pulled Pork Heaven

George & Charles - The day was off to a rousing start since I decided to head to the Bikram studio for an 8AM class. Little did I know that this early Saturday workout was going to come into play later in the day. My gastrointestinal system was about to take a delicious hit.

The first two interviews at the Waterford went great, George Walker and Charles Berndt, both set up with Liz's help, of course. George is 97 and the advance word on him was that he adored the game of golf, having played it from early childhood. That love was certainly evident as we sat for a half hour and he told me stories of how he knew and played with Byron Nelson.

While waiting for Charles to come by the room, I sat and read on a lobby couch, then saw Charles’ walking slowly down the hall toward me sporting a red and gray Texas sweatshirt, smiling, of course.

“I know who you are?” I smiled back at him. “Is your name Rocky?”

"You saw that?" he said, his eyes lighting up about eight levels.

Explanation: Yesterday, Liz showed me a special promotional poster, something to do with the opening of the latest "Rocky" movie. Some local radio folks came to the Waterford and shot a photo of Charles, complete in boxing gear, mimicking the look of the real "Rocky" poster with Sylvester Stallone. It was a cute idea and Charles looks terrific on the poster. If I can get a hold of a copy, I want to post it on here so you can see it.

[NOTE: A word about the Eldercation interviews. You'll notice I'm not going into too much depth in this, the "Blog" section of the site. To read about the seniors I'm meeting while on road, simply click on the links I'll provide in the posts or just go to www.eldercation.com and click on "Tapping The Resource." ]

After I packed up my gear and chatted with some folks by the door, I ran into Charles' daughter, Judy, who wanted to know how the interview went. I told her what a great smile her dad. "I know. Charley Brown smile," Judy agreed. "His eyes are so warm and when that smile breaks out, the grin is from ear-to-ear." Charles had a stroke a few years back and, from what Judy told me, he shouldn't even be here, it was that bad. But the fact is, he is here and he was able to share some special thoughts with me about his life as a dad; a role he never expected to play in his lifetime and a role that became very special for him.

I had a chance to show Judy a portion of his video and she started to cry while watching it; tears of joy, trust me. My eyes welled up while holding the camera so Judy could watch. Charles' story is a good one, so please take a look at his interview excerpt when I post it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Pulled Pork Heaven - After finishing up the two interviews, I had a chance to hang out in the lobby a bit with Liz, Judy and her husband, which gave me a chance to ask the three of them for recommendations for some real Texas barbecue.

Liz reacted immediately. Judy chimed right in behind Liz.

“Shelby’s” – right down the road.

I'd heard about Sonny Bryan’s, Anderson’s, Marshall’s and Dickey’s but “Shelby’s”? That wasn't on any list of mine.

“You wouldn’t have heard about it, necessarily. It’s this woman, Shelby, who has a small truck where she sells barbecue from, right off the road. She's only there on weekends and … only until she sells out. You have to have this, Harry! It’s right out here to the right and then down the road only about a mile or so on Town East just before the Belt Line." Judy said she and her husband would probably be right behind me.

Well, it didn't take me 48 seconds to find it and, as I took the turn off the road, four cars drove up just in front of me. The competitive eater in me came alive, as I pictured the last of the pulled pork being snagged my someone in one of those four cars. But, I’d made it on time. I walked up to the truck and introduced myself to a short-haired brunette woman in the window who was being helped by a young girl, perhaps her daughter? That older woman was Shelby and I told her Liz and the residents from The Waterford had suggested, no … they ordered me to come down and get something to eat.

One pulled pork sandwich, one red hot and some beans - that was my order, which, as it turned out was way too much to eat for me. (Those of you who really know me - can you believe I just said that?) It’s not that it wasn’t good. It really was the best barbecue I have ever tasted; I almost got into a Texas-sized accident when I took my first bite. But, now get this. I didn’t put it together until that first bite hit my taste buds. This is Shelby’s barbecue in Mesquite, Texas, and the smokiness, as delicious as it was, really started to work its magic on the drive back up to Las Colinas. It's now eight hours later and it's still going strong, and this is after downing four bottles of seltzer. Now don't get me wrong, there will be a return engagement at Shelby's, but I will order smarter and smaller next time.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Getting Down To Business

And to think I was concerned a few weeks ago that I'd be down in Texas, sitting in a Starbucks (or Chick-fil-A), twiddling my thumbs, no interviews in site. Things started out today with a bang. All the seeds planted during my advance work in November and December, they all appear to have hit their mark.

The Wellington At Arapaho - I drove up to Richardson in the morning to conduct some interviews set up by Terry Abshire, the Activity Director at The Wellington On Arapaho. What a beautiful facility and every employee I met was a nice as can be. After leading me into the day room - sort of a large sitting area/living room used for meetings - I was surprised to walk in and find four ladies, ready to go ... all at once. It was most likely my fault for not communicating to Terry that I do the interviews one-on-one. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to make the correction and, by the time I'd unpacked my equipment, four more people had arrived. Than another six. An audible at the line was in order. Before I knew it, I was walking around the room leading a kind of town meeting with about 20 of The Wellington residents. It was a lot of fun and I was able to video some of the folks by asking questions, while moving around the room. But it was unexpected. Still, the nice thing is, I was able to meet a few people who I decided to contact for follow-up visits, so this was a kind of appetizer for me.

The Waterford At Mesquite - This retirement community is another of the Capital Senior Living properties here in Dallas. (The Wellington is part of the same group). As soon as I walked into The Waterford, I was again struck by the beauty and overall setup of the place. It looked like a nice hotel, as did the Wellington. The dining room was directly to my right as I walked through the door and the attendants were setting up for dinner, laying out silverwear and napkins. Glen Miller music was playing in the background and, for a second, it felt like I was at The Concord, standing in their large dining room.

During the afternoon, I sat for awhile with Liz Hamlett, The Waterford's Activity Director, and we reviewed a long list of possible resident interviewees, which she prepared over the preceding week. I had already enjoyed several phone calls with Liz, so it was great to be finally sitting with her in Mesquite. As we sat in the small activity room, a dozen or so residents played their daily blackjack game. I stopped by a corner table where where one woman was working on the biggest jigsaw puzzle I’d ever seen.

“Everyday,” Liz smiled, telling me that the woman worked on some kind of puzzle every single day.

Liz and I completed our review and she was going to set up a couple of resident interviews for me for tomorrow. After that? We'd see how things would unfold. She also had some other ideas about some other folks, most notably a gentleman named Vernon and a former Ms. Senior Texas, Mary Frances Hansen. I told Liz I'd give them a call later in the evening to see if they'd be interested.
Finally, it was time to get down to business.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Birds?

It hasn’t taken long to settle in here. Once I found the public library and the Chick-fil-A’ (which is right around the corner) – I was all set. For those who don’t know what Chick-fil-A' is, you’re missing what may be the best chicken sandwich in the world. I decided it's important to have one a week for this entire trip as a kind of reward.

The area where I’m staying in Dallas is called Las Colinas; it’s part of Irving and so far it’s been very convenient to where I've needed to go for interviews. Earlier today, I scoped out the local Bikram yoga studios and lucked out in finding a pretty special space where I'll be able to practice for the entire month. Bikram Downtown Yoga is in the Arts District of downtown Dallas and one would never know looking at the building, what a huge and beautiful studio is located inside. Of course, the people who run it, Atina and Julie, are great, which is why the place is what it is. I haven’t made it to the 6:00 AM classes yet, but I’m sure I’ll make it one of these mornings. It’s good to know I have a place to practice and, as soon as a class begins, I feel like I'm right back in NYC at Chelsea Bikram. As far as yoga in the coming months ... I've already checked ahead and, with the exception of Nebraska, I'll be able to find a yoga studio everywhere I'm headed. When I get to the corn husker state? I'll just need a room with a thermostat control so I can raise the heat to 100 degrees. I'm sure the hotel will just love that.

The Birds? The funniest thing happened after class tonight. As I was showering I couldn’t help but notice a strange, kind of beautiful sound coming from outside the door. It kind of sounded like one of those new-agey CD's. When I said my goodbye to Julie and walked out the door, it was a scene right out from “The Birds.”

“Crazy, huh?" a woman laughed, lifting her yoga bag over her shoulder as she shut her car door. "Grackles," she added. I looked up and watched with the woman as these medium-sized black birds covered the power lines and poles. "Those fellas have really become a problem for a lotta folks down here."

You should have heard the sound. I mean, I wish everybody out here could've seen this. Here are some photos I managed to snap but they don't come close to giving you the same feel. At one point, the flash went off and the birds scattered. The woman with the yoga bag ran into the studio. I thought I was going to cause some kind of bird riot and then you would have seen the news report on the next day's Today Show. "Man swarmed by Grackles." And there'd be a photo of me doing my best Suzanne Pleshette* imitation. (*-for those who've seen the movie).

I made it out alive. My car, on the other hand, took quite the beating ... if you know what I mean.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Blog Has Been Sighted...

Patience, patience, patience. Good things take a bit of time. The postings will start as soon as I learn how to work this contraption. Seriously, Mr. Kevin Russell at Right Angle, Inc., up in Northampton, MA is working hard to help me get going. We're about to take off the training wheels as soon as I get a few skills under my belt.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Wichita Lineman

I started the drive around 7:00 AM, after loading my bags into the car. It was good to have them with me again. To my left, I watched the pale golden sun peek its way out from behind the low wispy clouds, bringing a bit of warmth to the cold, early morning winter sky; such a different look from its spring or summer counterpart. Finally, the chance to see a sky-view wider than West 87th Street, and the excitement in knowing there would be many more sights like it to come over the coming weeks. It was truly beautiful.

As I started my drive on I-35, (which was to be the only road of the day, all the way to Dallas), I looked out at the flat land, covered with about 6 inches of snow. The time was right to test out my newly downloaded iTunes music. It was time for ... well ... why not Glen Campbell? There was something just right about listening to "Wichita Lineman" as I rumbled down I-35. The fact is when I downloaded the Jimmy Webb song off of iTunes back in November, I pretty knew I'd be calling on it to join me for a moment like this morning's, with the sun rising on a cold Kansas morning, sipping my Dunkin Donut's coffee, (thank you for the DD coupons, Jeanette).

Fascinating photo, huh? By the time I snapped this, the snow was long gone and I was well into Oklahoma, "where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain." You see that hill up ahead? That was it in terms of a topography change. Still, it didn't matter. I'd never been on this road before and there is something special about driving on new roads, seeing new places. It gets my mind going - energizes me. It always has, as far back as I can remember.

The CD's certainly came in handy on their first go-round. I put together about 2 gigs worth and am pretty sure I made a run through every song at least one time this morning. And certain songs popped on at conspicuous times, too, which made me think about some of the reading I've been doing about vibrations and source energy. I know, earthy, crunchy and all that. Still, it's only been what? 24 hours and already certain things have happened to me on this trip that seemed somewhat strange in their timing. You know, the whole serendipity thing. Must be my imagination, huh?

There is nothing, I mean nothing better than singing at full voice in the car the way I did today. I don't think I've belted it out that way for over a decade now and it felt great. And it helps in terms of making time pass quickly. Before I knew it, five hours had passed and I was in Texas looking at signs for ham and sausage sandwiches.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Not In NYC Anymore

When the jet's wheels lifted off the LaGuardia runway, I wanted to feel something. After all, it was a pretty big moment. I was leaving New York City after 13 years and figured I should be feeling something.

As the plane started its right turn, I saw the new Shea Stadium... or should I say, Citi Field. The name didn't sound right as I moved up in my seat to get a better look. Steel beams, trucks, a few bulldozers, they say it's going to be ready by 2009. It's funny when I read something like that, it seems like it's so far away. Think about how much can happen in two years. And then, the next thing I know, I'm sitting in the new ballpark, reminiscing about staring at steel beams from a plane window.

I'm on my way to Wichita. After a year of planning the trip... After a year of selling my stuff on Craigslist, moving the remains into a DUMBO storage bin... After a two years of fighting a greedy new building owner and his family for the right to stay in a rent stabilized apartment... After 13 years - that's the second time I said that number but, to be honest, I haven't put pencil to paper to figure out the actual time I lived in the city - of living on W. 87th Street and four years of living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn before that... After more than a decade of living a dream and working in the music business as an attorney and personal manager, fairly successfully, I might add... After all this, I was finally on my way...to Wichita. Well, that's only because Wichita is where I got the best deal on a car rental (thank you, Enterprise -shameless plug - there will be more of these). Seriously, their quoted price was almost half of everywhere else I looked when I was doing the research. As it turns out, Kansas is right smack in the middle of my target area for the trip. I'm heading to America's heartland. And I'm very excited about it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

While reading a USA Today, waiting for my Wichita flight at my gate in Hartsfield (Atlanta) Airport, two men, both in cowboy hats sat next to and across from me. They looked like Marlboro men, tan, crinkled cheeks with the deep lines, manly men, wearing plaid shirts and worn jeans and old snakeskin boots. I offered part of my paper to one of them, he took it and grunted. A Midwest thank you? When I heard more grunting, I peeked to see what was going on next to me.

One man, the taller, older one with white hair, had his hands clasped around a light green, what looked like a Granny Smith apple. He winced and gnashed his teeth together as his fingers dug into the apple skin, forcing juice to run down the outside of his palms. It’s good to know the Festivus feats-of-strength thing had made it’s way out to this part of the country. When the apple finally exploded, a small chunk bounced off the gray airport carpet and landed in front of my left shoe.

“Lost that one,” the man laughed and winked at me as he handed a smaller piece to his cowboy friend. I smiled at him, nodded and went back to reading the sports section. That was a new one to me. Seriously, have any of you ever ripped apart an apple with your bare hands to share it with a friend?

* * * * * * * * * * *

Some of you already know this. The airline, Delta/Atlantic Southeast Airlines lost my baggage on the way from Atlanta to Wichita. So, the trip was off to a pretty strange start. I’d heard about this kind of thing happening. I know it happened to my brother once, but I wasn’t a member of that special club. Until today, that is.

It turns out, if the airline sees a particular plane is too heavy, they choose to arbitrarily remove baggage instead of removing passengers. But, of course, you don’t know any of this until you’re staring at an empty luggage carousel moving from left to right, the same three bags passing by, over and over again. Finally, a nice baggage handler, Alonzo, told me all the bags had been unloaded and it was probably a good idea to make a claim. Time: 1:38 PM. Enter - the Delta baggage tracking system, which I sorry to say, is not very sophisticated.

No matter who I called or asked, the airline simply had no idea where my bags were or when or
if I was ever doing to see them again. The good news is that I finally got my bags. Time: 11:22 PM. So much for getting down to Dallas for morning interviews. Still, Alonzo came through in a big way (I’m writing a letter to Delta to commend him) when he arranged for a voucher to stay at a Sheraton for the night, dinner included. Delta also gave me a voucher for future travel. How can I complain?

Some more good news - we'll put this under the "turning lemons into lemonade" column. While sitting at the airport bar I had a chance to chat with some fellow travelers and workers, some of whom lived in or near Wichita. I was able to pass out a few cards and, who knows? When I return to Kansas in a few weeks, I may have some interview opportunities ready to go. It turns out Alonzo wants to introduce me to his grandmother who lives in Kansas.

Overall, it was a good first day in spite the baggage thing. My guess is I'll be needing to roll with the punches as this trip unfolds. Today was only a first little test.

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