. . . Sunday January 22, 2012

Herschel Learns a Lesson

Today’s 49er game was a tough loss, but it was worth it because my 5 year-old son Herschel learned an important lesson about sports and life.

Right after the game, I took him to his room, sat him down, and gave him the speech.

Me: “Son, last year at this time, the 49ers were already home watching games on TV. Their team was terrible and had been for years. Everyone was sure that their quarterback Alex Smith would never amount to anything. San Franciscans had given up hope and the national media didn’t even care about the 49ers anymore. And now here we are. One year later. And that same team with that same supposedly hopeless quarterback got within one game of the Super Bowl. That teaches us an important lesson, son. So tell, me what lesson did you learn today?”

Herschel: “That you really need to hold on to the ball?”


. . . Friday December 16, 2011

Hitchens Stood

For several years I’ve been a member of a San Francisco group called the Luncheon society. Every month or so, the organizer invites some notable person — an author, a scientist, a politician, an astronaut — to join the group for lunch at a local restaurant.

In all the years I’ve been attending these luncheons, things pretty much work the same way. The guest is introduced, he talks for a minute or two, and then we all sit down to have a good discussion over lunch. That’s been the format for everyone I’ve seen come to these luncheons.

Except Christopher Hitchens.

Hitch stood.

We were in a private, upstairs room at a downtown restaurant. Hitch was invited to sit, but he said he’d prefer to stand. He then opened a couple windows, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, stood behind his chair, repeatedly lifted a glass of scotch to his lips, and proceded to lecture on a variety of topics for about two hours, interrupted only by a waiter who hopelessly informed him that this was a non-smoking restaurant.

We had to expect that the lunch would be a little different with Hitchens as the guest. Everything about Christopher Hitchens was, after all, different. His timing, his humor, his positions on the topics of the day, and of course, the magnitude of his intellect.

We were, for those two hours, riveted. After lunch, a handful of us walked across the street to sit at some outdoor tables and continue the drinking. This was back in the earlier days of the Internet, before the age of follows and likes, and at the time Hitchens knew very little about topics like blogging and linking. So he asked me questions on human history’s only subject matter about which I knew more than him.

There we were, buzzed at an outdoor cafe on a sunny San Francisco afternoon, and for two minutes, I was explaining something to Christopher Hitchens who puffed and sipped in that beige linen suit he wore everywhere in those days. Those are two minutes I’ll never forget.

And I’ll never forget the urgency with which I would head to sites that featured Hitch’s essays anytime something really big happened in the world. I’d refresh the pages over and over until I could read some analysis by a guy with the firepower to back up his positions (whether you agreed with them or not, they were always well-argued).

Now that Hitch is gone, I find myself returning to those sites and to the pages of magazines where I used to find him. I keep refreshing the sites and turning the pages looking for that one article that would be smart and funny enough to put his passing into perspective. But it’s no use. The only guy who could write that article was Hitch himself. But his furiously prolific words have stopped, and the world’s IQ has dropped about ten percent because of that.

I’ve spent many moments next to people who make one feel awe. Great athletes, famous celebrities, charismatic politicians, leaders of companies. Those moments are always memorable. But the moment is different when the awe you feel is for a person’s mind. And so the moments were always a little different with Christopher Hitchens.

Looking back, I guess it all made pefect sense. In a situation where everyone else sat down, Hitch stood.

. . . Monday November 28, 2011

The Return of Amigo

My hair was getting too long in back, so I took the same walk I’ve taken every now and then for the past twenty years. I went looking for Amigo.

I didn’t expect to find him. The last eight or ten times I’d walked the four or five blocks down to 2nd and Mission, I came up empty. Most of the time his barber chair sat empty. After a few months, there was another guy wearing a black velour sweatsuit and thick chains standing in his spot. I was desperate so I went in, sat down, and closed my eyes while this stranger worked his neon-striped clippers with one hand and took Android phone-calls with the other.

In between calls and clips I asked what happened to the man who used to cut in this chair. The guy, now with a few clumps of my gray on his black velour sleeves, told me he’d been in the hospital for awhile. Then he switched to Spanish and held the rest of his conversation with the other cutters. I picked up most of it. No one used any of the conjugated versions of word morir, but it didn’t sound good.

Over the next few months, as my hair grew, I took that same walk with that same purpose pretty often. By the time I hit the center of the crosswalk near the shop, I always had my answer. I could see his chair from there. It was either empty or occupied by the guy in velour. So I’d turn around and head back to my office, brushing my fingers through my ever longer hair, becoming more certain with each block that it was inevitable; Amigo was dead.

We shared decades together, me and Amigo, looking at my head in a dented mirror on the corner of 2nd and Mission. That mirror has recorded the silent movie version of my life. Me with brown hair. Me coming back to San Francisco. Me looking out at the rise of the Internet industry as it rushed across the streets South of Market. Me reading the day-old headlines pressed against the plastic windows of the newspaper racks that still attracted a few quarters on this corner that time forgot. Me the husband. Me the father. Me with gray hair. Me thinking of things to write while Amigo thought of things to cut.

I never knew his name. Our exchanges were always the same. I’d get the center of the crosswalk. He’d look up and motion me over to his chair and say: “OK, Amigo. Same ting, tapered in back?” I’d say yes and mumble something about leaving a little length on top, but by then he was already cutting.

For the first part of the cut my mind was back at the office. But by the time Amigo spread warm shaving cream across the back of my neck and pulled out his dulling straight edge, I’d have lost myself in the place. The shelves bowed with a history of brushes, gels, and tonics so old even Google wouldn’t know what I’m talking about; the original price tags covered with layers of dust older than my kids. No one ever bought any of the shampoos, ointments, or replacement blades for razors not sold since the 70s. The wall never changed.

These were the constants. The fans above the door surrounded by cracks of light coming from the San Francisco sky. A little hand broom. A stack of old newspapers. A push-letter board with a list of prices. A few spare jugs of that barbershop blue liquid. Embedded in the wall, a black and white clock with no minute hand. When a place has been around long enough, you stop measuring in minutes.

According to my more modern timekeeping devices, it was usually about fourteen minutes after I sat down when my barber would hold a hand mirror behind my head and say, “OK, Amigo, you like da taper?” I’d peel off a twenty, tell him to keep the change and head back to modern life with shorter hair and a clean neck.

The barbers behind the other chairs changed over the decades. For a few years, there was a Russian guy who wore a silk shirt and a thin gold chain. He once got a tip he considered too small, and when the customer left, he muttered something about him being a kike. I’d been pretty much silent in that chair until that moment.

“Hey,” I yelled, instant beads of sweat rolling over my now filled forehead veins, “I don’t want to hear that fucking word in here.”

There is no silence like a barbershop with the clippers turned off and the scissors still. The guy in silk waved his scissors in my direction. I thought of those Saturdays when my dad took me to the barbershop near my childhood home and repeated the same jokes about being nearly bald. That was before he was one of only two people in his Polish ghetto to survive the Holocaust and then spent years in the forest fighting back against the Nazis. Those are the things you think about when an angry Russian barber is waving scissors in your face. Then you just hold up a finger and say, “Don’t say that word again.”

A long pause. Then, finally, a snip. Amigo went back to tapering.

I’d given up on ever seeing Amigo again when I made my familiar walk down to 2nd and Mission, resigned to having my hair cut by whoever happened to be behind his chair. I got to the middle of the crosswalk, looked up, ready to be disappointed. That’s when I saw him. A little thinner. A little more frail. But it was Amigo, sitting in his own barber chair, waiting. I extended my open palms to my side to silently ask, “What are you doing back?” He raised his fists over his head.

When I walked through the door, we had our longest conversation. I asked him where he had been. He held his thumb and index finder a couple inches apart and said, “Dey take some ting out of my colon, dis big.”

I told him how good it was to have him back. He thanked me, sat me down, and said:

“OK, Amigo. Same ting, tapered in back?”

An older guy with a smoker’s cough walked in, sat down in another chair, and bellowed: “Listen. Let me make this as simple and clear as possible. A quarter inch off. Everywhere.”

I looked at the shelves of old hair tonics and the clock with no minute hand. I’d been meaning to include them in a story for months, but I always figured it would be a eulogy. Instead, there I was with shorter hair and cleaner neck thinking about a new story, the one about the return of amigo.

All of it rushed through my mind. The people crossing the street. The long ago retired hair products. Me as a kid sitting in a barbershop chair next to my dad. In a world that changes by the second, I just sat there for those fourteen minutes thinking about the greatness of constants. The same ting.

When he was done, my barber held up a hand mirror behind my head and said, “OK, Amigo, you like da taper in back?”

I didn’t even need to look.

More like this: Herschel’s Trophy Moment

. . . Wednesday November 23, 2011

Occupy Thanksgiving

A little Thanksgiving cheer courtesy of NextDraft.

. . . Wednesday November 16, 2011

Herschel’s Trophy Moment

There have been a few minor rough spots during our son Herschel’s first months of Kindergarten, so my wife and I were pleased to see him having so much fun during his soccer awards dinner, where he was set to receive his first trophy.

There were five tables of teams and the evening’s MC was asking a series of soccer-related trivia questions. The team that answered correctly would be next in line to come to the stage and receive their trophies.

Then came the question:

How do you spell teamwork?

About 10 hands went up.

My wife tugged at my arm, “Dude, why is Herschel raising his hand?”

See, Herschel doesn’t yet know how to spell teamwork.

For us, the room went silent and we heard the MC’s voice like it was coming from a slow motion reel as she called the name: “Herschel.”

He was told to stand on his chair so that the hundreds of people at the dinner could see and hear him clearly.

He climbed up, turned to the audience and said, T.

Followed by a pause. And some more pause. Panic swept across our table. I pulled out my iPhone and started googling for child psychologists.

And the T hung there. A breeze blew a ball of tumbleweed through that pause after that T.

Why did he raise his hand? What was he thinking? His whole team was depending on him and a silent room of kids and parents looked on, waiting for the second letter.

Sensing my panic, my wife covered my mouth as I tried to yell, E.

Then Hersch looked down. Was this the first sign of the public shame that would haunt him through adulthood? But wait, he was looking at his jersey sleeve. And I realized he knew something we didn’t. Just above his elbow, written in large black letters, was the word teamwork.

He looked back up. A twinkle in his eye. A thousand years of public speaking confidence in his voice.


You’re goddamn right E


That’s my son up there.


I don’t see any reason why Hollywood wouldn’t want this kid.


I wet the bed every night during two weeks of summer camp. But this kid is not me. And the fucking word is on his sleeve.


His three year-old sister blows a kiss towards the the front of the room and announces, “Herschel my brother.”


I should probably mention Herschel is, without a doubt, the most handsome and most wonderful guy on the planet. Seriously. He’s magic.


And the whole place erupted into applause as Hersch stepped off the chair to teammate hugs, and they all headed to the stage to get their first trophies.

I was relieved. I was proud. I was happy. I was in love. But honestly, who am I kidding?

Herschel had me at T.

Concentration is important!