The planes, trains, automobiles and water-buses it took to get there had worn us out, but when you’ve only got a couple days to see Venice you get up early.
Alex woke first and took a shower. The sound of trickling water made me fall back to sleep. One of those deep, jet-lagged sleeps that only a loud noise or a scream could break: this one was a scream.
It was Alex, half-naked, and hiding from something just outside our window. I ran over, not sure what to expect. Through a neighboring window, almost within reaching distance, I saw two old Italian guys sitting at a breakfast table grinning like school boys who had just discovered their father’s stash of Playboys.
Venice is tight. And when I say tight, I mean the alleyways are barely wide enough for two people going opposite directions. You could understand the prevalence of large squares here where people can stretch their arms and breathe a bit.
We started our day meandering over small arched bridges, looking down narrow waterways running between old brick and stone buildings that stood like cliffs on either side. It was quiet at that early hour and the water and naturally aged color of the buildings reflected beautiful light. Everywhere we looked was a picture worth taking.
We grabbed a coffee that was so well-presented I almost didn’t want to drink it. The foam on top looked like a delicate flower.
We stumbled upon a shop nearby that had made masks for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The masks were so intricate and well-made that we had to get one. Alex found a mask that looked like a cat and she gave a little growly purr as she modeled it. “We’ll take it,” I said.
We hit all the sites, saw the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons of St. Marks, the Rialto bridge, etc., etc., but the most memorable for us were the more ordinary things in this extraordinary place. The boats filled to the brim with supplies, the floating vegetable market, the boat maker with beautiful wood hulls outside of his shop in different states of repair, the locals who lived and worked on these islands.
One of the locals we found in the middle of a maze of tight alleyways was an older man with an easel and paintbrush, painting intently. Just painting for the joy of painting it seemed. We could have been duped, like we’d once been in Paris, but it didn’t even look like this guy was selling his paintings.
Our first night in Paris, we’d come upon a guy with an easel on the banks of the Seine. We bought what we assumed was an original oil painting by the artist himself, signed Burnett. A few days later we realized there were Burnett’s everywhere, all selling similar “paintings”.
Back in Venice, Alex commented on the one this man was working on. “That’s beautiful.”
The man smiled a crooked smile of tobacco-stained teeth, “grazie” he answered, and got back to work.
I mean, at least this guy is actually putting brush to canvas here, I thought. And Alex seemed to like what she saw.
“Do you sell your work?” I asked.
“I teach art here,” he pointed to a nearby building, “and I sell my work.”
We agreed to what we considered a fair price for the piece he was working on and took the painting, still wet where he had put his final strokes and signature.
I never followed up to see if Kozlov’s kids made it any further than peewee hockey, but the NHL does have quite a few family dynasties: from my ex-host family the Fletchers, to the Hulls, Parises, Sutters and Suters.
I walked into Gold Medal Sports as a young Junior hockey prospect, the sound of a skate sharpener emanating from the back of the shop. Two young towheaded boys ran past wielding wooden hockey sticks like light-sabers. From out of nowhere came a stocky man with the same blond hair as these two kids and a mischievous grin. This was the owner of the shop and my new coach, Bobby Suter; he of the 1980 gold medal winning US Olympic hockey team.
The gravity of meeting someone that was part of such a historic moment didn’t hit me right away- maybe since I had just been to my own Olympic training camp- but it would hit me later.
I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin that summer of 1985 driving past two large lakes on either side of the city. A dock with boats and college kids walking around in shorts and T-shirts made it feel like one big giant summer camp. This was the end of the heavenly slice of thin summer pie that Madison was served yearly as a kind of treat for putting up with such long hard winters.
With the good weather, we began our training outdoors. Coach Suter’s brother Gary joined us for dry-land drills. He had just signed with the Calgary Flames and was using this opportunity to prepare himself for the NHL. Gary was only a couple years older, but he seemed to be more of a grown man than any of us. His solid physique was a lot like his brother’s. It was probably bitter-sweet for Bobby to watch Gary’s playing career take off, just as his ended. But Bobby wasn’t alone: many of his Team USA mates didn’t make it to the NHL.
With the change of seasons came our first game. Madison’s lakes weren’t yet as frozen as the sheet of ice in our home rink, but they would be. We lined up for the national anthem. I looked at the flag, then over at Coach Suter who’d stood on a podium some 5 years earlier listening to this anthem with 19 other amateur hockey players who had done the impossible by beating the professional Red Army team from Russia and taking gold from the Fins. As the song soared I thought I saw a teardrop in my tough coach’s eye.
Years later, when I was with Easton hockey, I was at an LA Kings practice the day before a home game against the Nashville Predators. The Pred’s bus pulled up and off walked a kid that looked just like Coach Suter. My boss introduced him as Ryan Suter.
“I met you as a little kid in your dad’s hockey shop,” I told him. “I almost had to call you out for a high-sticking.” He then gave me the same mischievous grin as his dad’s—the same one they both would flash on the ice just before taking someone hard to the boards. Like father like son.
Not long after the Kovalchuk whiff, I got a call from Slava Kozlov. “my kids need some equipment,” he said in his thick accent “and Kovy wants to try your skates. He wants them personalized like my VAMOS skates.”
We’d made Kozlov skates with VAMOS stitched into the back of the boot. I know, he’s Russian, but he wanted “let’s go” in Spanish on his skates so we put “let’s go” in Spanish on his skates. Kovalchuk’s personality however was a little more reserved, the opposite of his own playing style really. He just wanted his initials and his number on the boot: IK17.
Now, usually I would meet with the player in person and measure their feet or even have them step on a large piece of graph paper and draw an outline of each foot, but I knew this wouldn’t be the case with someone like Ilya Kovalchuk.
I called my boss and asked his opinion. “What size are his Bauer’s?” he shot back. “10.5 is what it says in his skates, but you never know.” “True, that could be a fake number to try to keep a company like ours from getting him to switch.” We didn’t put a flex on pro sticks for this very reason. “Let’s just make him a few different sizes, see what he likes” I was advised.
So, a few days later I had 4 pair of different sized custom skates to bring to Ilya Kovalchuk. Things happened fast for top tier players. Their next practice was that Sunday, and I planned to be there.
Being a pro rep, you could pretty much be working during the hockey season any day, any time. Once I got a call from a player during a game I was watching at home on TV. It was in between periods and he wanted to discuss the nuances of his recent batch of sticks. Actually, he just wanted to complain about them, the nuanced part was left for me to work out. Another night, my boss and I were having dinner when he got a call from a player’s agent who’s skates had basically broken mid-game, during a 2 on 1, when he was the 1: the result again of that delicate balance between equipment expected to be lightweight but also strong and of course responsive.
I found myself driving to the Thrashers practice rink that Sunday morning in good spirits. The skates looked great and with 4 sizes we’d definitely find a fit. It was normally about a 45 minute drive across the northern suburbs of Atlanta, but I had underestimated the church traffic in the bible-belt. I arrived with Kovy’s skates with only about 15 minutes for him to try them on before practice.
Equipment manager, Joey, was a nice guy but not a huge fan of carbon skate boots at the time- too hard to stitch he rightly complained- but this was the only material to approach the light/strong/responsive expectations of the day, so here we were.
“You’d better put yellow skate laces in them,” Joey said without much encouragement. I scrambled to take out the white laces that most player’s used and strap in the yellow that Kovy preferred. God-forbid he try on a pair of skates with white laces, I mean I wasn’t asking him to wear the white laces in a game or anything. But this was all part of the job, I had learned from experience, so I quickly changed out all 4 pair.
Kovy came into the equipment room about 10 minutes before he was supposed to be on ice. He tried on the first pair and he gave me a shake of the head- too small. The next size up I figured would also be too small so I skipped a size. These he liked. At least I thought so- he gave me a nod of the head.
Joey piped in: “Do they have to be baked?” he asked, meaning put in a skate oven to help mold the foot to the boot, “because we don’t have time for that.”
“They can be baked, but they don’t have to be baked,” I answered as I went into one of my personal anecdotes: “The first time I used these same skates, brand new right out of the box, I forgot my socks. I’d never skated without socks, even in my oldest most worn-in skates, but I did with these because I had no other choice, and it was like wearing a pair of house slippers, they were that comfortable.”
Sales pitch finished, Kovy just nodded again. He handed the skates to Joey and told him to bake them.
Because it was so close to the start of practice, he didn’t skate in them that day. In fact, I never did find out if he actually ever skated in them, but I did get a call from his buddy Slava Kozlov not long after: “Kirky, my kids are asking about their stuff?”
It wasn’t really a quid pro quo, more like a quid pro NO as far as the Kovalchuk skates went, but at least I knew Slava Kozlov and his kids would be using my equipment for the foreseeable future.
We sold a set of something to a guy on Craigslist the other day. He left carrying one cardboard box and one plastic bag with all the items in the set. He texted later and said he was missing something and he had checked the entire box. We reminded him there was a bag as well- he insisted there wasn’t- so we ended up texting him a picture from our Ring doorbell of him leaving our house carrying both box and bag. He subsequently found the bag in the trunk of his car.
Before Ring doorbells, Nest thermostats and automated assistants like Alexa and Google things were simpler weren’t they? There was a sense of community and oneness we seem to be missing today. People had to look out for one another a little more.
Case in point, the Honeywell Winter Watchman, which I found amongst our parent’s old relics. At first glance, I had no idea what this thing did. It plugs into a wall and has an analog dial with the numbers 30, 40, 50 , and 60 on the face.
The instructions on the back were too small for the naked eye, so I took a picture with my cellphone and zoomed in. Here’s what it says:
Plug the Winter Watchman into an electrical outlet located on an inside wall
Plug lamp cord into Winter Watchman (leave lamp switch on)
Set temperature dial 10 degrees below setting of your thermostat
Test the system by depressing the red button to light the lamp
And here’s the best part!
5. When the room temperature drops below the Winter Watchman setpoint, the lamp will light to warn your watchful neighbors to investigate
So, basically if you’re in a cold climate and going out of town, this thing lights a lamp in your house when the inside temperature drops 10 degrees below what you set your thermostat to. Additionally, you have to coordinate with a “watchful neighbor”, hoping they aren’t out of town too, when and if this happens, assuring they have a key and haven’t lost it, and they remember when a lamp lights up in the window of your house to take action. What kind of action it doesn’t say on the Honeywell Winter Watchman.
These days I can just rely on my virtual community: Nest, Google, Ring, Alexa, Apple Home. If I can just figure out which one to communicate with which one…. Ah, hell, maybe I’ll just go get to know my neighbor instead.
After struggling to get a good night’s rest for several years, Alex and I finally decided to splurge on a new mattress. The old one was basically a trampoline. If I as much as twitched, it felt like we were back in LA during an earthquake.
So we got a latex mattress that felt like it weighed 3,000 pounds, and if mattresses were sold by the pound this one cost about $1 per. It was expensive, but worth it… at least in the beginning.
Compared to the trampoline, this thing was a firm, yet surprisingly soft, slice of heaven. I can only hope that heaven’s warranty is as good.
A couple years later I felt like I was sleeping in a hole with a noticeable ridge separating me from my wife. Alex didn’t want to admit it, but it was happening to her side too.
“Can’t we just turn it over?” I suggested.
“It’s not that kind of mattress.”
“What’s the warranty?”
After several arguments with automated customer service phone-bots, I finally got through to a human being who asked me to email some pictures of the sags, the tags and copies of the original receipt. She told me she would have to send someone out to inspect the items before a decision could be made.
I opened the door to The Mattress Inspector. He was carrying a long black case like a professional pool player would keep his prized cue in. He was all business.
I still couldn’t believe there was an actual mattress inspector. I wished I’d have asked for his business card.
I took him to the room and he turned on all the lights, inspected the areas in question, checked the tags (thankfully we kept them on the bed) and then unzipped his black case to reveal the fanciest yardstick measuring-device I’d ever seen.
He placed the fancy yardstick in the worst noticeable sag and read the results:
“This mattress does not pass inspection!” he proclaimed like he was a judge giving a verdict. Then just as quickly he put his fancy yardstick back in its fancy case, told us we’d be hearing from customer service within 24-hours, and he was gone.
And it was as easy as that. They came a few days later and took the bed away.
We’ve since gone the other direction and are sleeping on a bed-in-a-box. We figured for the price of this one, we could just buy a new one every year if we had to.
It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, us included. I lost my dad and Alex lost hers.
So when a friend we hadn’t heard from in awhile called, I was hesitant to even pick up. I mean what to talk about: death, covid, politics? All topics seemed tinged with dread. But for some reason I answered.
“Is Alex there?!” he asked excitedly. I could tell he’d had a few.
I put her on speaker. “She’s right here.”
“Alex, you were one of the original Morganettes, right?” He was referring to a gig Alex had done many moons ago for Captain Morgan’s rum.
“I was,” she answered, never quite sure where things would lead with this friend of mine I had known since our late teens and who lived life like he was trying out for the Most Interesting Man In the World commercial. This guy had done a walkabout in Australia, built a cabin with his own hands on the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, run a fishing lodge on the Canadian border, played hockey in the USHL, was a self-made man, and was always there when you needed him.
“Text me a picture,” he almost shouted.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at a middle of nowhere bar just this side of the Canadian border that’s packed! It must be the only place open for miles.”
He either hung up, or lost service.
“I didn’t even know the Morganettes were still a thing,” Alex chuckled as I searched my computer and found an old video. We sent it. And about 5 minutes later we got the biggest jolt of happiness coming through the phone- a picture of a motley crew of guys at this bar in the middle of nowhere with giant smiles.
“You’ve got fans!” is all he texted.
Who knew a little gig from years gone by that we had basically forgotten about could provide such good feelings for us all.
We masked up and walked into Home Depot, where strangely half the customers weren’t wearing masks despite the ongoing pandemic. I say strangely because most of the maskless looked like they were straight off a construction site where masks are just another part of the sartorial ensemble of hardhats, gloves, tool-belts and butt-crack revealing jeans.
Alex went straight to the paint sample display and grabbed cards for anything within the gray family, wanting to move on from the yellowy-beiges of the early 2000’s. Who knew there were so many different shades of gray? By the time we walked out of there we needed two bags just for the sample cards.
Once home, we lined up the samples and honed in on three choices: Agreeable Gray, Notre Dame, and I can’t remember the third but it could have been anything so I’ll call it Coconut Clusters.
Well, of course you can’t decide on a paint color from a 2-inch square, so we trudged back to HD to buy sample cans. This time it was later in the evening, so we thought it would be safer, virus-wise. There were fewer customers, but the nighttime restocking had already begun and the huffing and puffing pallet movers were half-masked at best.
Once back home we excitedly swiped big paint swatches on the wall. I liked the Notre Dame immediately. Maybe it was my time spent in Paris not far from the cathedral I walked past almost daily. Alex shook her head, “I think it’s too blue, but these will look different in natural light tomorrow anyway.”
So we slept on it. I personally had nightmares. I mean I like coconut clusters in my cereal, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be surrounded by that color every day.
As usual, Alex was right: the colors looked different in the natural light coming through the windows: Notre Dame was more French country than Paris gargoyle and Coconut Clusters more General Mills than Sherwin Williams.
So Agreeable Gray it was.
I know, by name it sounds like a very boring choice, but for us it was the best gray/blue/green/beige, or “greige” option. In fact, the internet said it’s one of the most popular colors of the moment.
But… cut to many man-hours later, Agreeable Gray everywhere, and all of the sudden it looked a little more green than we originally thought. It reminded us of a color we had used years back in our home in LA. Everyone that came over wanted to know the name of that color, which was Garden Wall.
“I think this is Garden Wall,” Alex said in disbelief. I agreed, it did look a lot like our favorite color from years ago. “Hey, we liked it then,“ I said. “At least we didn’t do all this work for Coconut Clusters!”
New Year’s Eve would be a different experience without him. Kelly would not have a Ryan to chat with every day for the foreseeable future. And that famous pregnant pause between “this” and “is American Idol” would probably not exist.
Year’s back, in Atlanta, a friend was producing a game show with this likable young local kid, Ryan, with a freakishly grown-up voice as the host. We ended up taking him out to some Buckhead bars. We were of age, he was not. I can’t remember if we knew the doorman or if we just had Ryan speak in his deep radio voice, but we had no trouble getting him in.
A few years later, I had moved to LA and my producer friend invited me to lunch with a small group of starving-artist types, one of them being Ryan. It was appropriately Mongolian BBQ. The type of place where you take a bowl and smash as many ingredients into it as you can. You then hand your stuffed bowl to a guy standing over what’s basically a big flat wok. The guy dumps all your ingredients onto the wok and grills up a giant heaping of hot food for you at one low price.
Ryan had moved out to LA about the same time as me, not long after that Atlanta game show. Judging from our overfilled bowls, I’d say we were both at the starving point. He did, however, have a gig at the local radio station. Not the best time-slot, but a start. He was talking about attending community college as some kind of backup, I guess.
When my girlfriend heard that Ryan worked at the radio station, she had me call him to see about recording a voice-over reel for her. You know, the kind of thing that gets you jobs reading copy for commercials and such? Well, Ryan, being the nice guy that he was, said “sure thing, come on over to the studio while I’m working and I’ll set you up.”
When we got to the station he had on his headphones, on-air. He was going a mile-a-minute: talking, pushing buttons, flipping switches, multi-tasking. This guy was in his element. He saw us and smiled and waved us in. He held up his finger like “just a sec,” pushed another button or two, put down his headphones and greeted us both warmly.
He had us follow him into an empty studio next to his and showed me how to run the recorder in there to do the demo reel. It was actually easier than I thought. Ryan then bolted to get back to his next radio segment and left us in this studio all alone with the door closed.
About 15 minutes later we were almost done with the demo-reel when I saw a face in the little window in the door to our room. The face had a scowl. I heard a knock and I opened the door. “Who gave you permission to be in here?” the face asked angrily. “Uh, Ryan” I answered. “Ryan!” the guy turned and went to confront Ryan. I rushed to the board and pushed record. “Hurry up,” I said to my girlfriend, “let’s finish this last take before we get kicked out of here!”
Ryan got scolded, not fired, and we kind of lost touch. I hoped it wasn’t for the recording incident.
A few years later, I was in an LA restaurant with another friend who was not in the business of show whatsoever. Up comes this well-dressed kid with the brightest smile, and frosty tipped hair. It was Ryan. He asked how things were and I did the same, though I knew he’d been bumped up to the best time-slot in radio: the afternoon drive. I introduced my friend to Ryan who regaled us with some Hollywood chatter. Later, my friend said presciently, “that kid’s either going to make it big, or crash even bigger.”
I haven’t seen Ryan since…. Well, except everywhere.