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Meaning of life

"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." ~ Pablo Picasso

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Traditions

I had just finished an arduous day of last minute holiday shopping. It was Christmas Eve and I had treated myself to a lavish meal at Ernie's on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. This was THE most luxurious restaurant I had ever had the pleasure to dine in. My favorite of all my local hangouts.

The service was impeccable and the food outstanding. It was on the high end of the price range, but worth every penny to me. The famous mahogany bar with its intricate, stained-glass back was carved from a single tree, the walls were covered with maroon Scalamandre silk brocade, magnificent crystal chandeliers hung above the main dining area. The rooms were adorned with antiques procured from some of the greatest mansions in all of San Francisco.

Ernie's had the distinction of receiving 32 consecutive 5 star awards and Alfred Hitchcock chose the restaurant to be featured in his film Vertigo. To say this establishment epitomized fine dining would be an understatement. Ernie's opened around the turn of the 20th century, but sadly closed their doors in September 1995. I was honestly crushed. I have NEVER had a fine dining experience of that caliber since then. In fact I always wanted to own that type of high end dining establishment like Ernie's.

Screenshot of Ernie's from Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo" 1958

That night I dined like a king! I deserved it. I worked hard. I began with a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon. A plate of veal Oscar (sautéed veal on fresh asparagus tips, topped with Dungeness crab legs, and drizzled béarnaise sauce) magically appeared before me. Next to my delight the brandy caught fire, the blue flames shot aloft and an order of boffo crepes Suzette were summoned forth from a thin copper pan. The flames did their work, burned themselves out and vanished. It was theatrical heaven table side! And for the grand finale, a fine Cognac, or perhaps two to celebrate such a wonderful Christmas Eve.

After the $120 dining spectacle I was driving home in my new convertible Corvette. Life just couldn't get any better. I was on top of my game and thought nothing about spending that kind of cash for a meal. I had everything a person could ever want at my beck and call, monetarily speaking.

As I drove through the city making my way back to an overly grandiose home nestled in the foothills of the East Bay, I noticed an unusually large amount of homeless people sleeping under large pieces of cardboard and tattered rags, huddled in doorways trying to sleep on the cold cement stoops of homes and shops. It hit me hard how unfair life can be and how awful a life like that must be. I had everything and more and they had a cardboard box for comfort without a roof over their head.

I stopped the car and stared at one old man as he shivered before me, curled up in a ball, all alone. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing after thinking about the wonderful day I just had shopping and gorging myself on an overly priced meal. It was Christmas Eve and this poor man had nothing! I thought, "That could be me someday." The thought haunted me as I continued to stare in disbelief. I remembered I had a down comforter I just purchased that afternoon for my spare bedroom. A spare room...not even a necessity. There was nothing to think about. I grabbed the bag, got out of the car, and quietly shrouded the old bearded homeless man as he slept. I didn't wake him. I crept away and thought, "I need to do more." It felt good, and for years I told no one about what would become a Christmas tradition.

As I drove home that evening I promised myself I would begin to collect clean, used blankets from any source and every Christmas Eve I would drive into San Francisco and play Secret Santa to the homeless. I usually collected so many blankets that I needed to rent a van to deliver the tidings. It was my way of giving back. I would usually send out a press release for such an event to capitalize on it because I was a media whore in business. But this was personal and it felt so good to do it without anyone’s knowledge. It felt DAMN GOOD!

For years I did this until I became very ill for the first time in 1995. Around the same time Ernie's closed their doors for good. After that it was hit and miss although my company was involved in helping Glide Memorial Church feed the homeless in San Francisco and sponsoring the Easter Seals Telethons. I made sure there was always some charity we were giving to, but nothing has ever felt better than playing Secret Santa.

As I write this, I’m sequestered in bed fighting my second battle with cancer. I wish I had the energy to do more. There will always be someone who is in need of support and they might even be too proud to let anyone know how bad it is for them. Please do me a favor. Do something good in the world this year. Buy a stranger some coffee, leave an extra-large tip for the hard working wait staff, donate toys for a children’s charity, pay for a less than fortunate family’s entire holiday meal, or volunteer at a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. If you can’t manage that…keep a smile on your face as you pass others in the street and actually say, “Merry Christmas” or “Have a great day” to strangers.

Make a difference to someone this year. If you have the means to read this story you already know you have more than so many with real need in the world. Someone desperately needs your help. Your heart will be richly rewarded. I guarantee it!

It's time for me to settle in with my hot cocoa, a roaring fire, cuddle up with my little dog and watch “It's A Wonderful Life.” I need my wings! Anybody here a bell? Yes, life is wonderful...tonight let there be peace on Earth.

God bless you all, Merry Christmas!
Peace B

Sunday, December 14, 2014

THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Wish We Could Be Together At Christmas

I know some of you might have read this story before, but every year as the tree goes up I stop in peace to pay tribute to my wonder father. I think this Christmas story bears repeating. Happy Holidays! Peace B 

I grew up in Michigan. My aunt had a very realistic imitation Christmas tree manufactured by Mountain King, which I loved. I searched high and wide to find this tree, to place in the lobby of my new restaurant. When I was unable to locate one, I mentioned to my father during one of our nightly phone calls, “When I return home for the holidays this year, I’m buying a Mountain King to bring back to California.”

I searched for that Mountain King tree in California with no avail. It seemed the majority of Californians purchased real trees. I never agreed with the idea of cutting down a tree just for a few weeks of self gratification. I admit, they are beautiful and fill a home with a heavenly aroma, but I can’t kill a tree for that reason. Just the thought of the shear national number of trees cut only for this reason each year, makes me ill.

I was only in business for 6 months as the holidays approached. I wanted so badly to return home, to Detroit, to see my father for Christmas. I was born on this day and this has always been my favorite time of the year.

It wasn’t going to be easy, but I thought I could slip away between December 24 and 26. I was expecting business to be slow those days, but knew New Years was going to rock, so I had to return before. The crew was still green and I was still learning how to run a business. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was going home! I missed my dad.

Nightly, I spoke with my father on the phone to discuss the day’s events. I’d bitch or brag and he’d listen and offer advice when he could. My father was a good man with the best work ethic of anyone I’ve ever known. He was a good listener and always offered sound advice.

Al Starkey and his wife Marge were new Little Caesar franchisees and had come to my restaurant to learn, while they waited for their first location to open in Monterey, California. Al and Marge were much older. Well... all the other franchisees were much older. I was the youngest franchisee at the time. Al wanted more experience running a Carry-Out unit and I needed the help, so it was a win, win.

I remember that day so clearly. It was a busy dinner rush and I was working the register. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting anyone touch the money. We had 4 phone lines that were constantly ablaze during the dinner hour. As I opened the cash drawer to make change, I heard an employee say, “Brian, it’s for you.”

“Is it an emergency?” a question I would ask anytime a personal phone call came in during a busy hour. I always heard a no, but this time the employee said, “Yes, it is!”

I was handed the phone and had a bad feeling in my gut. It was my Aunt Carol. This is a woman who NEVER calls. All she said was, “Brian, are you sitting down?”

Instantly I knew there was something wrong with my father, but before I had a chance to calculate it, she tearfully said, “Your father is dead.” At that point everything stood still. All I remember is sinking to the floor behind the front counter with the cash drawer left wide open and unattended as Al swooped down like an enormous eagle and scooped me up in his arms as I screamed, “NO!” with tears streaming down my face.

I wasn’t supposed to fly back for a few days and I wasn’t near prepared to leave at this moment. How will the restaurant run while I’m gone? I will need to be away now for more than a few days and I only have one assistant manager in my employ. I had no manager since that was my role. Who will make the deposits, get bank change, place the food order, pay the bills? Who’s going to sign the payroll checks? I will be thousands of miles away and for how long? What am I going to do?

It was all a blur, but in less than 12 hours I was on my way to the airport and a Corporate Little Caesar Supervisor was being flown up from Los Angeles to run my restaurant until I returned. There wasn’t anybody else closer to help. My restaurant was the first in the Bay Area.

When I arrived at the San Francisco airport, there were people everywhere, sleeping on luggage. The airport looked like a homeless shelter. Dozens of flights were canceled due to inclement weather. I waited in such a long line staring blankly at everyone and everything, not knowing how I even got to the airport.

Al had called our corporate headquarters and made arrangements for the supervisor and then managed to get me packed and rushed to the airport. I was on autopilot without a clue what was happening.

As I approached the United Airlines ticket counter, I handed the lady my ticket. It was for a flight on the 24th of December and today was the 22nd. I vaguely recall the conversation, but it didn’t go well. She assumed I was just trying to get on an early flight, because of the holidays. All flights out of SFO to Detroit were booked for days because of the weather.

I explained my father had died and I had to return home today. She accused me of lying, sighting that I already had a ticket and that she was sure I was just trying to leave earlier. She asked for proof of his death and requested a copy of his death certificate. With that I exploded. All my emotions came spewing out. “I don’t have one! He just died!” I snapped. With authority she responded, “I need to see some type of proof.”

I became enraged, belligerent in fact. “My father is dead dammit! I’m not lying to you! What the hell is wrong with you? Why would I make something like that up?” I was so loud and she was so offended and scared from my anger she called security.

I was escorted, screaming, into a private room, calling everybody, "Crazy!” It was I that was falling off the deep end. The security officer calmed me down and asked if there was a way to call the funeral home for more information. Once they confirmed my father was indeed deceased, EVERYBODY’S demeanor changed. My coach ticket was exchanged for a first class seat and I was on the next plane to Detroit. They couldn't do enough to make up for their mistake.

Seated next to me was a young boy, perhaps five years old, traveling alone with a large bag of toys. The flight attendant was well aware of my dilemma and apologized for the seating arrangement, but that was all that was available. It didn’t matter, just keep feeding me drinks (Black Russians) for the next 5 hours and I’ll be fine. I just want to go home!

I drifted off to sleep and the young boy escaped from his seat. That was just fine with me, until a very angry man stood before me, screaming at me, “Keep your brat and his toys out of the isles! His sh*t is everywhere!"

Apparently the lone child took out all of his toys from the paper bag his mommy packed and had strewn them all over the coach cabin without a care. As the angry man verbally assaulted me, I stood up to explain he's not my kid and fired back at my assailant, telling him to go f*ck himself. I think it took the entire flight crew to restrain the two of us. If this would have happened today, with all the flight regulations they have, we both would have been jailed.

They escorted the man back to his coach seat, picked up all the toys throughout the cabin and instructed the boy not to leave his seat again. I requested yet another drink, as the little tyke said to me, “You don’t like me, do you?”

“Right now? NO, I don’t!” I scowled, and the little boy pouted as tears welled in his eyes. “Look,” I said to him, “Let's make a deal. I’ll make you a tent to play in if you just be good, deal?”

That made him happy and I pulled out his tray table and shrouded it with an over-sized blanket. He disappeared into the darkness of the blanket and quietly played with a toy. It was peace on Earth…well peace at 35,000 feet anyway!

When I arrived, I was pleasantly plumbed from all the free liquor. My Aunt Carol was waiting at the baggage claim to pick me up. I insisted on immediately going to the house where I grew up. My aunt didn’t think it was a good idea. “Your father died in that house.” She expressed with concern. My two aunts and a neighbor were the ones that found my father dead in his arm chair.

“I don’t care. I didn’t see it and it doesn’t bother me. I want to go home!” I insisted. When we arrived, I let myself in and closed the door leaving my aunt outside, so I could be alone with my thoughts. I don't even recall saying good-bye.

As I entered my home I was in awe. Before me, lit up so beautifully in the living room, was the most precious gift I have ever been given. There stood the most spectacular Mountain King Christmas tree I have ever seen. It was decorated in all blue and green. My father, being the perfectionist that he was, had purchased strings of blue and strings of green lights. But, to make it perfect, he managed to exchange every other bulb, so they were arranged: blue, green, blue, green, blue, green. He knew only I could appreciate such an effort. Can you imagine the time that took?

The Most Beautiful Christmas Tree EVER!

There were blue satin bells and blue satin balls hanging, yards of blue and green tinseled garland, blue tinsel icicles, all topped with a huge blue velvet bow. To perfectly finish it off, wrapped around the base was a tree skirt that was made for my first Christmas birthday by a loving aunt. It was spectacular! Through my tears I spied a Christmas card propped at the base of the tree. I felt my father in the room with me as I slowly reached down to read the card:

“Wish We Could Be Together At Christmas. You were the best Christmas present I ever had.   Love Dad”

As I read, endless tears streamed down my cheeks. I fell to my knees and whimpered uncontrollably, gasping for breath. How did he know we would never see each other again? "Wish We Could Be Together At Christmas???" He knew I had a ticket to come home. I reread the card over and over “Wish We Could Be Together” It still read the same. How did he know?

The Most Beautiful Christmas Card EVER!

I cried myself to sleep that night and quenched the moon with my tears, curled up like a baby beneath the shimmering blue and green until daybreak fell upon the room, the wetness in my eyes still present from my crescendo of tears.

After the funeral there was so much to arrange and many bills to pay. When my father’s credit card bill arrived, the story of the tree gained clarity. My father bought the tree and decorations the very day he died.

My father died after he finished putting up and decorating that wondrous tree. Judging by his time of death, 11:05 PM, December 20, he purchased the tree that afternoon, spent hours putting it up and decorating, and began his nightly ritual; getting ready for bed, showering, putting on his PJ’s, then sitting down to watch the 11 o'clock news in his favorite tangerine colored Naugahyde armchair, seated within his bedroom. He passed away in that chair of a heart attack. I was told it was so massive, he probably never knew what hit him.

Two years passed and I could not bare to reconstruct the tree. It never made it into my restaurant still dormant after being placed back into its original box. I kept it for myself thinking someday I might put it up in my home, but it hurt too much to even look at the box. Eventually I gave in and thought, “He wanted me to have this tree to enjoy. He died giving me this tree to enjoy. Dammit, start enjoying it!" So, every year you will find dad’s tree lovingly displayed at Christmas, decorated as he left it for me to find, with the tree skirt and his card beneath.

To Dad,
Wish we could be together at Christmas. You were the best father a son could ever have.

Love Brian

Words To Live By:

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others." -Mahatma Gandhi