You’ll recall when last we convened, I was waxing reminiscent about my return to my home state. Since then, we have closed the deal on the sale of Casa de McCullough, our former suburban Atlanta residence. Earlier this week, we signed the papers on our new digs: a modest, unpretentious Cape Cod-style home in New Jersey’s historic Gloucester County, a short hop across the Delaware from Philly.
Not to weigh you down with the sentimentality that comes with being 50-plus – I did enough of that in our last post, but there is something special about living (Dare I say settling down?) in a community that – for my wife – is just up the road from where she grew up, and for yours truly, a ride down the Expressway.
Our new domicile will need some work, a few sprinkles of sugar before it’s home sweet home. This, my friends, is kind of exciting, despite my recent adventures – which I may share later – in the world of plumbing. I don’t want to go all HGTV on you, but I am looking forward to doing that whole Bob Villa weekend warrior thing, starting my Saturday at the neighborhood big box home improvement store (after a Jersey diner breakfast, of course), picking paints and sampling swatches, measuring once and cutting twice (I didn’t take shop class), and essentially working side-by-side with Mrs. M to put our mark on the place. The child is on board, and she has already selected colors for her room (And keep this between us, but I may have found a spot to display my 25-year old collection of shot glasses!).
I think my aforementioned better half might be compiling a video diary of our journeys in renovation. I won’t go into spoiler land by posting any ‘before’ shots.
So if you see me in a tool belt and hard hat, it’s not that I’m decked out to audition for the Village People reunion (If so, I’d be the Cowboy, since he remains my favorite), it’s only me, enjoying the American dream, swinging my big hammer and trying not to lose any fingers!
P.S. For my comic book loving fellow geeks – and you know who you are! Check out the funky porch light the previous owner left behind. I looked around for a power ring to go along with it, but no luck!
I remember Easter Sundays strolling the Atlantic City Boardwalk decked out in a new suit straight off the boys’ husky rack at Lit’s. This, of course, followed a resurrection Sunday sermon at Union Baptist Church – the same house of worship where I would meet the love of my life on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1994.
I remember my third grade teacher at Holy Spirit Elementary School, Mrs. Phillips, who first taught me a lesson that still works today – if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all. It was during the summer before third grade when I screwed up my ankle, landing incorrectly, sliding down a pole pretending to be Adam West’s stuntman circa 1967. I remember three of my teachers at Atlantic City High School, Mrs. Garfield who instilled what’s become a three decade dislike of anything dealing with Math (Why couldn’t I get Mrs. Hudgins??). On a more positive note, Mrs. Fordham turned me on to journalism, and Mr. Murphy who opened my mind to creative writing (A pair of writing disciplines that have helped put food on the table over the past thirty plus years).
There are memories of John Sr’s side hustle (back when it was called moonlighting), helping him during catering gigs at the Ramada. I remember slinging hash at the Trop (as in Tropicana Casino), holding down the garnish station at Shumsky’s, interning for Elyse and Sandy (who are likely reading this) at WMID/Lucky 99, and later weekend overnights – with my first FCC license and meter checking clipboard in hand – running the board a few notches up the dial at WFPG, running down news stories a few notches up the Parkway at WJLK and covering lawmakers I’d soon be working for/with during a stint at “New Jersey’s Station”, 101.5.
Those youthful days were the backdrop for dirt cheap matinees at the Beach and Charles theaters, a sip or two of a margarita at Los Amigos, never being there when Bruce would drop in at the Stone Pony, a couple of summer visits to frat brother Joe’s beach house in Spring Lake, concerts at the old Brendan Byrne Arena and more than a few Ice Capades and WWWF (yes, long before WWE) shows at the even older Convention Hall in Atlantic City.
Then I grew up and did a turn in the public sector, in Asbury Park and Trenton. In Asbury (The locals don’t use ‘Park’), I staffed Police Chief/Mayor/Assemblyman Tom Smith, who taught me a great deal about integrity and standing up for what you believe (The same thing a future former manager tried to do not too long ago with, sadly, not the most favorable results).
I still have my autographed copy of Governor Tom Kean’s Politics of Inclusion.
It was in Trenton when I had the opportunity to work down the hall from the first N.J. governor named Christie, who was also the state’s first female governor. If things worked out differently she could have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (which is as close to talking about politics as I’ll go in these pages).
In the private sector, I punched a few clocks. I was a government affairs official for the state’s number two electric utility (And how ironic that 16 years later, I’m working at number one!), where I was assigned to spend New Year’s Eve 1999, waiting for the world to end, in a bunker at the N.J. State Police headquarters. My Jersey work life (present employment notwithstanding) culminated in a very cool gig at a big telco supplier whose name keeps changing.
And in true Big East fashion, this 2.8 S.U. Orangeman (Sorry, my S.U. memories will always be Big East) bachelors grad actually picked up a book to become a 3.8 and change Seton Hall Pirate masters grad (Funny how one takes one’s education more seriously when one is paying for it!).
The last Garden State memory I’ll share is that life-changing morning thirteen winters ago, when a little girl named Zoe ripped (inside joke) her way into the world in the delivery room at Plainfield N.J.’s Muhlenberg Hospital.
I share these memories to provide a deeper context for my friends and colleagues who questioned my motives for returning to my home state.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoyed the past ten years spent in Atlanta. The history and the culture are unparalleled, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet some spectacular individuals whose friendships I will cherish for the rest of my life (especially a couple of guys in white coats for whom I’ll be forever in debt).
It’s today’s family responsibilities that have willingly brought me home, but equally important and more impactful are the decades of memories that came rushing back as soon as the McCullough wagon train crossed the Delaware – many of these memories I’ve already shared over the years in these pages.
Yeah, I’ll pay higher taxes (with my, thankfully, slightly correspondingly higher salary), I’ll shovel snow (a little core work won’t hurt this dad bod, but I don’t think we’ll be paralyzed by a few flakes like a certain city was a couple of winters ago, cough – Snowmageddon – cough), and yeah, I’ll miss those life-decaying minutes stuck in traffic.
But that’s OK, because I’m home, and I’m looking forward to making new Jersey memories (Get it? ‘new’ Jersey) during what’s left of my middle ages and beyond.
That’s all for now. I’m going to have my car filled up (I can’t believe we still don’t have self-service in Jersey?!?! ), swing by the farmer’s market for some Jersey tomatoes, then hit Whitehouse for a sub and a bag of Herrs.
For those of you who remember the old Piscopo bit, I’ll save you the trouble. When you come to visit, take Turnpike exit 4!
Met an old friend for lunch at a meat and three joint near the 9 to 5. My friend, a former co-worker a year or two into retirement, and I were discussing money matters as we waited in line to place our orders. Our conversation continued as we approached the server. As I placed my order, which included mac and cheese, my friend said, “The best advice I can give you is stop eating macaroni and cheese.”
Sadly, by then, the portion of cheesy goodness had already landed on my plate. Even though I went ahead and ate that high caloric side dish, I still appreciate my friend for taking the time to caution me about a dish I probably eat more frequently than I should.
We continued our chat about personal finance and a wide assortment of additional issues but, as my friend (whose fitness level shows he practices what he preaches) correctly pointed out, the admonition to lay off the mac and cheese was the best advice of the afternoon.
I hope one day I can give a younger friend the same level of thoughtful, useful advice. Isn’t that the point of all this wisdom and experience we have hopefully accumulated as we enter the middle ages and beyond?
Will I go all Atkins/Paleo and stop eating mac and cheese? Probably not. But I will give cutting back on it some thought.
After all, what’s the point of building up a nest egg if at the same time you’re building up your LDL levels?
I don’t like to write about corporate matters, but I do like to write about my favorite musical artists – Daryl Hall and John Oates, so when an opportunity presents itself to leverage a Hall and Oates reference in the context of life at the 9:5, I’m willing to make an exception.
I was in a meeting where praise and plaudits were flowing like the Slurpree machine at 7-11 on a hot summer day.
After the backslapping session, I was asked by an associate why I didn’t take more credit for a successful high profile project of which I was an instrumental part.
I answered, “Just call me John Oates.” My colleague was a bit confused by my response.
I shared the story of Hall and Oates’ meteoric ascension to the top of the charts in the 80s, and how during that period, John came to accept the fact that Daryl’s voice had become the sound of Hall and Oates.
My co-worker still didn’t get it, so I continued.
John understood that Daryl sang the hits. The hits sold records. The records drew (and still do) revenue.
Even though he wrote, co-wrote and/or arranged a respectable number of their most memorable songs, John – a decent vocalist in his own right – saw the wisdom and good business sense in taking a back seat – vocally speaking – to Daryl.
And I told my colleague that’s what I did – metaphorically speaking – during our meeting, and in most aspects of my professional life.
Much like my soft spoken, spotlight-shunning idol, I don’t need to be the front man. I know my worth and what I bring to the table. Sadly, too often we encounter – shall we say – lead singers who would do a better job gassing up the tour bus than carrying a tune center stage.
With skin that fits me comfortably like a glove, I’m perfectly fine singing background vocals (of course until it’s time to embark on a solo tour – a story for another day).
With advancing age comes (if you’re lucky) advancing self-awareness. It’s just another positive side effect – The Oates effect – of life in the middle ages.
Back in college I had a summer job at Shumsky’s restaurant in Atlantic City. I was a porter and every now and then, I got the chance to work on the line. On Saturday nights and some weeknights we would get a big dinner crowd (Please remind me to share a few memories of Summer nights in Atlantic City in the early to mid 80s), and during those services when we got especially slammed, I remember one of the owners – the one who usually dealt with the front of the house – who would appear in the kitchen – seemingly out of nowhere.
He’d take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, throw on an apron and dive into the fray that was a busy kitchen during a hectic dinner service.
He didn’t ask if anyone needed assistance. He just helped.
He didn’t say – hey, I’m going to grab a stack of clean plates off the dishwasher and restock the line – he just helped. He didn’t ask if he could assemble a few orders and serve waiting customers – he just helped. He didn’t ponder over whether to dump a trash can and drop in a fresh liner – he just helped.
And when the rush was over, he didn’t stand in the center of the kitchen and await recognition or applause, he simply took off his apron, unrolled his sleeves, grabbed his jacket and went back to the front of the house.
Sure, you might argue, he stepped in because he’s an owner and an overwhelmed, backed up kitchen ain’t good for business. That may have been the case, but I will always remember the way Mr. Shumsky’s almost knowingly, proactively stepped in and just helped.
This is something I strive to do, but it’s not always easy.
We all can think of situations where by the time help is offered, we’re so deep into our situation (or as we said in the kitchen – in the weeds) that the help – although greatly appreciated – may not be enough.
This is why we shouldn’t wait until someone is struggling. If it’s within our range of ability – we should get involved. Don’t wait until your friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor, etc. has a garbage can that’s overflowing. Help them take out their trash and go a step further and assist them in starting over with a new liner.
Metaphorically speaking, that is.
How can you and I get better at this? We can pay greater attention. We can show empathy. We can aim to be selfless. And more importantly, we can simply get our cranial anatomy out of our lower bowel, rectal orifice and just help.
A week or so ago, I had two chances to win in a pair of separate 50-50 drawings.
But that following weekend, the nice lady at my neighborhood big box retailer got a little heavy-handed while slicing my cold cut order. She went a few slices past the pound I ordered. I wasn’t too bothered because the meat wouldn’t have gone to waste, but she took the extra slices off the scale, rang up a pound, and then put the overage back with the rest of my order.
I left the deli counter thinking that was a nice thing to do (Without a drop of remorse over getting nearly a quarter of a pound of on the house turkey from my big box grocery conglomerate!), and then I later thought, that made up for losing in the 50-50s earlier in the week.
As I drove home from the store, thoughts of similar lose win situations flowed through my brain.
Rewind the clock back some 40-plus years when I was a little guy. Actually, it was around this time of the year – summer – when I didn’t have the opportunity to go to day camp, get a cool t-shirt, swim, make crafts and do whatever else kids were doing in day camp. Instead I stayed home – balancing my time between hanging out with my grandmother and playing freeze tag, hide and seek and dodge ball with my neighborhood friends.
That was a lose win situation because to this day, I have great memories of both running the streets (When it was safe to run the streets and not end up a statistic or on a milk carton) and getting Ph.D. level life lessons from my grandmother.
Another lose win situation came in high school when I had my heart set on going to Temple University. I didn’t get in. I had to settle for my second choice – Syracuse University. I won because those four years at SU were four of the most entertaining…uh, I mean educational years of my life.
I’ve lost and won in the romance department. Without going into specifics, I lost a lot in my twenties, but as the song goes, I fooled around and fell in love a month or so after my 30th birthday, and I’ve been a winner ever since.
And of course no story about lose win would be complete without a discussion of my flowing ebony locks – which I slowly began to lose in my early 30s. Little did I know that in losing my hair, I would be winning because for the rest of my days, I get to hear how much I look like Steve Harvey!
What is my point, you might ask?
Life is a series of lose win situations. We may not always get what we want, but that’s OK. Just deal with it. Adapt and move on, because when we least expect it, a few extra slices of cold cuts or some other victory is usually just around the corner.
Pictured below is an assortment of pens I’ve had ever since I packed up the old Ford Escort and moved away from Drexel avenue way back in the winter of 86.
Over the years, this bunch of pens has contracted and expanded. Pens have come and pens have gone, but there’s been one writing instrument that I’ve seemed to have held on to all of these years. It’s an old pink Paper Mate pen that belonged to my paternal grandmother.
It’s a pretty basic pen – ink, not gel. It doesn’t have a stylus tip, and there is no squishy ergonomically correct cushioning to reduce the potential trauma of writing more than five words.
It caught my eye one morning not too long ago as I was grabbing a pen to toss in my pocket.
All was well until I was sitting in a meeting and had a cause to take notes. I attempted to write and realized this pen – I think first used when Carter was in office – was all dried out (Not to be confused with All Cried Out, that Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam 1985 hit). Always prepared (Truth be told, I’m one ink ruined shirt away from carrying a pocket protector – hey if fanny packs are coming back, why not?) I deployed my back up writing tool and commenced my note taking, in my never ending efforts to look professional (As I tried to avoid asphyxiation brought on by the cloud of pompous, hot air that sucked all breathable oxygen out of the room).
Normally if one of my old pens fails to perform I toss it out, but in this case I couldn’t bear to part with this relic from my younger days. I had to bring this old girl back to life.
As soon as I returned home, I gently dismantled the pen and removed the expended ink supply, and like CSI Gil Grissom at a crime scene, I tossed the empty ink vessel into a zip top plastic bag. Next stop, my neighborhood (Really, it is in my neighborhood, right down the road from Casa de McCullough) big box office supply store.
I found my way to the refill section on the writing instrument (Cause pen and pencil ain’t fancy enough) aisle. If there were any part numbers or similar descriptors on the old ink supply, I didn’t see them, so I had to rely on my sharp (Multi-focal contact lens enhanced) eyes to match the old ink to a new refill.
Suppressing the urge to yell “Eureka!” I found a refill that looked like it would fit. So I made the purchase and rushed back to my (Wannabe Tony Stark workshop) basement to perform the delicate reassembly.
The refill fit perfectly, and this venerable writing instrument was back in service.
Right about now I bet you’re wondering why I would take over 400 words to gush over replacing the ink in a 35+ year old pen.
Long time readers of these pages know I harbor a sentimental side. Bringing back to life a pen that wrote letters and completed crossword puzzles brought back memories of a time when people actually wrote letters and completed crossword puzzles.
I’m happy that this writing implement accompanies me to the 9 to 5 from time to time. It makes me feel like my grandmother – who didn’t get a lot of education and wore a domestic’s uniform gets to hang out with her grandson who got a lot of education (Some I even still use) and wears suits, ties and dress shirts.
And on that dress shirt is a pocket where I can carry a big piece of my youth close to my heart.