When I grow too old to play, will you still love me, will I still love you, and will I finally love me? The answer to all of the preceding is a large, fat YESS!!!
If we are what we eat, as some have suggested, then part of who I am is the breakfasts I eat with some of the guys I played football with in high school. They have friends I never knew and some I did but we all swirl together like the clouds in our coffees.
When I was a kid and there was no television, adults would religiously gather at the end of the day to discuss the day’s events: wins and losses were open to sympathy or ridicule. The confessionals were simply folding chairs on a porch or a lawn or a pavement in front of a house. In the summertime, these confessions were always done outdoors and always with an audience.
The high priests were wits, wise guys or gals, who made fun of everything, even death. Nothing was sacred and nothing was serious. It was pure entertainment unless it was your turn in the barrel. Then it was pure humiliation when your foibles were made public. If you couldn’t give as good as you got, you became the victim of laughter.
When I finally returned home after 40 years, I discovered that one of my teammates, actually my hero at my football position, Tom “Slam” Barrett, held court at breakfast every morning at Saylor’s Diner at 19th and Tilghman in Allentown. I was new in my old town so I decided to look him up.
I never belonged to a breakfast club before or any club before. I was like that Groucho Marx joke that I wouldn’t join any club that wanted me to join. So I never stuck with any group. I was a rolling stone who ate too much. But I never ate breakfast!
I had lived with less and less friends for the last 20 years and had become isolated from the outside world and had finally surrendered to the thought of companionship with someone other than myself (whom I get along with famously but we do have our issues but schizophrenic persons always have issues and everyone’s crazy anyway).
So I looked up “Slam” at Saylor’s Diner but he wasn’t there. Bruce Trotter, another ex-football friend, directed me down the block to Nick’s Diner where “Slam” had taken up residence because he had been “BANNED” from his usual lair.
The truth turned out to be that “Slam” had actually banned himself because the owner complained that “Slam’s Court” was taking up valuable seating space on busy Sundays. “Slam” took umbrage and moved his breakfast gang down the street. The waitresses were all upset because “Slam’s Court” were great tippers and the “BANNING” had left them financially short; however, the boss wanted more food orders from each seat.
I found “Slam” at Nick’s Diner but at first I didn’t recognize him. The dark curly hair was gone, replaced 45 years later with a thin shell of white hair much like my own. We had been acquaintances on the team who came from opposite ends of Allentown society. We were all tribal: the kids from the wealthy West Side didn’t hang out with the kids from the poorer East Side. We all stuck with our “homies from the hood”, rich or poor.
I had always admired “Slam” as a player and found him to be fair in his dealings with me and others but we had never “bonded”. At first, he didn’t recognize me. My black hair was white and mostly gone on top. Hair was important to “Slam” because he had been a barber; in fact he never went to college to go directly into barbering after high school. He could have gotten a football scholarship but he had had enough of school.
He ended up as a deputy sheriff and had retired when he had a massive heart attack with all the attendant surgery. He was supposed to stop smoking but he complained of chest pain that was only relieved by smoking. If you loved the guy, you wanted to stop him from shortening his precious life, but, if you loved him, you never said a word.
Now his routine was to eat breakfast everyday at this West Side diner near where he now lived on the wealthy end of town. His stay at Nick’s was short. There wasn’t enough room to accommodate his full team of up to 11 diners in a section where “Slam” could smoke and hold court. So, it was back to Saylor’s which had been named Hook’s years before and was my Mom’s favorite diner by either name.
It’s funny. Going to places that I went to long ago with my dead parents brings back pleasant memories. It’s almost like visiting their graves but they are alive in these places, not dead under a stone. One of my many joys of being home. In fact, I haven’t visited their graves. I prefer to visit their haunts that are still haunted by them.
The irony of “Slam” holding court was that as a deputy sheriff he had spent most of his time in courtrooms as a security figure; now, he was the master of ceremonies for a gathering of mostly gray or bald males. It was like a locker room for the aged.
The occasional female visitor was treated courteously and gossiped about when not around but then so were the guys except the guys were mercilessly ridiculed when they were still there. It was done with affection and no one was banned.
The talk was about sports and politics and gossip about the living and the dead but the bottom line was companionship. “Slam’s Court” was a sober place to go where eventually everybody knows your name.
“Slam” knew everybody’s name whether they sat with us or not. He noticed the guy who now used a walker as a healthy stranger going downhill, healthwise. We were all sitting very close to the shore between life and death. The waves of what the mystics call “The Akashic Sea of Consciousness” where the record of all incarnations are kept were lapping at our feet and some of us were afraid.
Every time I drive up to the diner, I always check to see if “Slam’s” car is there so that I know he’s still alive. I got there early on the day you’re supposed to turn the clocks ahead and he wasn’t there. I got scared and was relieved to discover my error. The person sitting in “Slam’s” seat told me of my error and when His Majesty arrived, he chased the interloper from his throne.
I am sure there are billions of “Slam’s Courts” all over the planet, speaking every language, of every race, religion and political opinion. It’s a human thing. What do I know? Maybe animals, insects and fish have their own versions. Only God knows what herds, hives and schools gossip about.
“Slam’s” nickname came to him because he had a permanent chip on his shoulder like a comic book character who was named “Slam”—a little tough guy! Our “Slam” grew up to be a big tough guy who suffers no nonsense. He was a sheriff before he was a sheriff.
I suffer from the same chip on the shoulder disease but I never was a sheriff, I was “A Lone Ranger”. Leo Gorcey, who played the kingpin in the Bowery Boys’ movies, was my tough guy hero and always wore a hat on his head and a chip on his shoulder. Standing up for the good and righteous. When he could.
“Slam’s Court” is ruled by a half-Syrian, half-Irish, All-American cynic who challenges some and courts others. He is a Master in the art of the Schmooze: lips are moving but nothing’s being said but good feelings are being exchanged. He is retired but still cuts a few heads but only for old friends.
“Slam” not only knows your name, he also knows your story. He’s the barber or hairdresser you tell your troubles to. He asks about your health, your well being and your latest blunder or good fortune. He seems interested in you and keeps his troubles to himself and his old ward buddies, “Muzzy” and “Eskie” who are barbers too. It’s a conspiracy of barbarous proportions !
I’m afraid when “Slam” goes, his court will go with him. He’s the magnet, the glue, the charming and generous host: in fact, the game here is to see who can pick up and pay the most checks. There is great generosity scattered about freely. Not a bad club to belong to. I dream of someday being flush enough to pick up everyone’s check and win their game, magnanimously.