30 for 30 Rock: How Sports’ Biggest Suits Follow Jack Donaghy’s Lead

By Kyle Schmitt

(Twitter: @KyleRadioviolet)

You can’t blame Alec Baldwin for gradually morphing into Jack Donaghy. He’s starred in perhaps the funniest television comedy of this millennium, won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, and waged heroic battles against photographersairline attendants, and rude, thoughtless 11-year-old girls. With the tumultuous end of his MSNBC show, however, it appears that megalomania has won the day, and the foremost Baldwin brother has now sworn off public life. The blurred line between the actor who engaged in mortal combat with the “fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy” and the boardroom shark who authored the book Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business has finally disappeared.

But Jack Donaghy is more than just a man who “goes to Sbarro when he’s angry, the New York Stock Exchange when he’s horny, and Christie’s Auction House when he’s depressed”, as Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) refers to him. He’s also a gifted athlete who played football and baseball at Princeton University. Even as Jack exploits his mind-grapes to become head of NBC, he remains an avid sportsman who hits the links with his bourgeois buddies, takes in Knicks games via private skybox, and competes with Ryan Lochte for the attention of their shared paramour. Plus, he’s got inside information on how his cousin Tim fixed those NBA games.

Much as he mentors Liz, Jack provides business and life lessons to his fellow titans of capitalism in the sports world. As America mourns the sad death of his onscreen mother, Colleen Donaghy (the late, great Elaine Stritch), as well as the sad continued existence of Donald Sterling, we honor the ways in which sports’ biggest owners and front office talents have emulated Jack over the years. So put on your after-6 p.m. tuxedo, pour a glass of Donaghy Estates Sparkling Wine, and enjoy as 30 Rock’s top exec shows Chicago Typewriter how business really gets done.

Dual-Hatting Leads to Disasters

 Perhaps no team owner is more Donaghy than Dallas Cowboys honcho Jerry Jones. Jack could appreciate more than anyone the hubris that takes physical form in Jerry’s World, as well as the leadership instincts that drive Jones to serve as owner, president, and general manager of his team. Unfortunately, under Jones’ guidance, the Cowboys have won just a single playoff game since the 1996 season. And Tony Romo and Jason Garrett seem as permanently affixed to Dallas football as the 30-million light-bulb video screen hovering inside AT&T Stadium.

Jack Donaghy was once like Jerry Jones. He foists himself onto the TGS with Tracy Jordan writing staff, observing their work and then participating against their wishes. His script suggestions include co-opting the cartoon strip Dilbert into the show’s comedic fare and developing each nascent sketch by first coming up with a catchphrase, then working backward (his best offering, “Beep Beep Ribby Ribby!”, narrowly outpaces “Nuts to you, McGillicuddy!” and “Who ordered the wieners?”). Immediately after this chastening experience, Jack endures a TGS sketch appearance in order to support General Electric’s (GE) product placement directive. After these setbacks, he finally admits that he’s not qualified to perform these jobs, stepping down to allow trained professionals to do their work. Following Jack’s lead could allow Jerry’s team to once again dominate the NFL. But not bloody likely.

 Gender Relations (as practiced by Manhattan-based business tycoons in four easy steps)

  • Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks President of Basketball Operations, is accused of sexually harassing a team executive.
  • Knicks owner James L. Dolan fires the executive, allegedly for making accusations about said harassment.
  • Madison Square Garden foots the bill.
  • All truck parties are postponed until further notice.
  • Jack Donaghy: “Lemon, I’m impressed. You’re beginning to think like a businessman.”

Liz Lemon: “A businesswoman.”

Jack: “I don’t think that’s a word.”

  • Jack: “I like when a woman has ambition. It’s like seeing a dog wearing clothes.”
  • Jack: “I’m tired of talking this much to a woman I’m not having sex with.”
  • Jack to Liz: “Fire her. And don’t ever make me talk to a woman that old again.”

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

Only the Zen Master himself could teach Jack Donaghy something he didn’t already know about personnel management. New York Knicks President Phil Jackson is renowned for educating his star players by giving them books tailored toward their roles and personalities. For Kobe Bryant: Sun Tzu. For Shaquille O’Neal: Nietzsche. For Lamar Odom: a Walter Mosley book called “The Right Mistake”. What else could be expected from a former NBA player who once yearned to be a psychologist, and who titled his own 1995 book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior? His literary leadership influenced even Jack’s coaching style.

Jack speaking to Tracy Jordan (Morgan) about his little league team from Knuckle Beach, the worst fictional neighborhood in New York: “Phil Jackson likes to give books to his players to inspire them. Which biography of Winston Churchill do you think would improve Rashid’s bunting?”

Unfortunately for these coaches, Michael Jordan and Jerry Seinfeld are not walking through that door. Despite their high-minded applications of the written word, Jackson and Donaghy are stuck directing punchline franchises whose best days are far behind them. Even worse, they must supervise two self-destructive goofballs (J.R. Smith and Tracy Jordan) who now appear to have been separated at birth.

 Race Relations

Donald Sterling: Did some stuff. For a long time. Then someone finally took action.

Jack’s advice to Tracy’s Knuckle Beach little league charges: “Baseball is a wonderful sport, boys. I remember when my high school team won the Boston city championship. Everyone told us we were gonna lose, because our team was all white, and the other team was completely … uhh … uhh … ahh-anyway, we won, and I learned that anything is possible.”

 Avoid Explosive Promotions

This summer marked the 35th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, which proves that even the sharpest business minds can strike out on planning promotional events. Former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck gave baseball its first hitting little person, brought back Minnie Minoso to take a few at-bats in 1980 so the former star could boast of playing in five separate decades, and allowed St. Louis Brown fans to help manage a game. As his tenure wound down, however, Veeck allowed his son (Mike Veeck) to greenlight the notorious Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. Scheduled to take place between games during a July 1979 doubleheader, this promotion offered 98 cent admission to any fan bringing a disco record to the ballpark. The event drew an estimated 90,000 fans, many of them inebriated and some sneaking in with the use of ladders. After a radio personality blew up the offending vinyl, a legion of fans “stormed onto the field, tearing up clumps of sod, burning signs, knocking over a batting cage and flinging records like so many Frisbees.” The ensuing chaos led Detroit Tigers player representative Rusty Staub to claim, “I’ve never seen anything so dangerous in my life.” The White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader to the visiting Tigers, and the debacle became a public relations nightmare for the organization.

Jack also makes the mistake of setting off explosives in a major American city. Sensing a younger executive encroaching on his turf, Jack dreams up his own promotion: the Rockefeller Center Salute to Fireworks. What he fails to understand about a show involving three hours of continuous fireworks, however, is how they will look exploding in the midtown Manhattan skyline post-9/11. His signature television event is shut down almost immediately after a phone-call from the mayor. The resulting disaster costs Jack his oversight of the GE microwave division and earns him a stern talking-to from his boss, CEO Don Geiss (Rip Torn).

Rebounding from the Agony of Defeat

Not Like This: “As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his ‘decision’ unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment… “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”

Like This: “I’m certainly not perfect. No, no, no, it’s true. I’ve made mistakes, sacrificed happiness for a job I don’t think I’m ever going to get. We all have ways of coping. I use sex and awesomeness.

Watching the Detectives

 Whatever you do, don’t hire anybody on the down low to help undermine your own employees. George Steinbrenner learned this lesson the hard way when he paid a gambler $40,000 to turn up dirt on his own star player, future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Their arrangement went public when Steinbrenner’s new employee repeatedly asked for more money, leading to his conviction and prison sentence for extortion. Steinbrenner himself was banned for life from day-to-day operations of the Yankees, but reinstated in 1993.

 Similarly, Jack discovers that a man in his position cannot trust others to do his dirty work. When page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) accidentally receives Jack’s bonus check and finishes squealing at the number of zeroes, he instigates a strike to reclaim his colleagues’ lost overtime pay. Jack responds by hiring private investigator Lenny Wosniak (an extra squirrelly Steve Buscemi) to infiltrate the uprising and bring it down from the inside. This strategy fails as spectacularly as Steinbrenner’s dirty deeds. Everything Wosniak tries – including his effort to siphon off sympathizers by organizing a competing viral protest on “Tweeter and YouTubes” – fails miserably, leaving Jack to resolve the issue on his own. He is finally forced to comply with the page’s demand to sign a piece of paper admitting that he is “a big ol’ liar.” The moral is clear: never hire a PI who attempts to thwart a strike by cross-dressing (as “nympho coed” Charlene LaRue) and attempting to seduce its ringleader.

 

Proverbs from America’s Greatest Leaders of Men

On Values:

Vince Lombardi, former general manager and coach of the Green Bay Packers (as appropriated from UCLA football coach Red Sanders): “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Jack Donaghy: “Money can’t buy happiness, it is happiness.”

On Faith:

Vince Lombardi: “There are three things that are important to every man in this locker room. His god, his family, and the Green Bay Packers. In that order.”

Jack Donaghy: “I have faith, in things I can see and buy and deregulate. Capitalism is my religion.”

On Country:

Vince Lombardi: “It is and has always been an American zeal to be first in everything we do, and to win.”

Jack Donaghy: “When our founding fathers first set out, time and time again, our nation horizon. Prosperity, dreams, freedom. But, the spirit, journey, destiny. Mitt Romney values, Jenna values. I’ve met people. For this generation, and generations to come: Thank you, America.”

Reality Bites

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is an entertaining, personable impresario who searches out businesses and products for potential investments in the ABC reality series Shark Tank. But he made a poor business decision himself when he elected to tape episodes of his TV show instead of meeting face-to-face with free agent Deron Williams in 2012. Despite the fact that Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson were both present for the in-person pitch to Williams, it was, as Ball Don’t Lie writer Eric Freeman stated, “fairly shocking that Cuban won’t be present on a day that could change the course of the franchise for a decade.” Many observers thought that Cuban’s absence would be insulting to Williams and lessen the chances that the star point guard would sign with Dallas. After committing to remain with New Jersey, Williams himself confirmed these suspicions, stating, “I think (Cuban) would have been able to answer a lot of the questions me and my agent have for him that really didn’t get answered that day pertaining to the future.”

Clearly, Cuban missed Jack’s regrettable appearance on the Bravo reality series Queen of Jordan. An ill-timed fall, a plausibly deniable bout of gas, and a misinterpreted retelling of his collegiate athletics career (all caught on camera) lead to his casting as “Gay Jack”:

Jack: “Yeah, I was an athlete. Very graceful. Sports stories, I got some… When I was at Princeton, I played baseball and football. And back then, football players went both ways.”

Dot Com (Kevin Brown): “Really? So you went both ways?”

Jack: “Yeah. We all did. It was the 70s.”

Dot Com: “So, when you played baseball, were you ever on the DL?”

Jack: “Yeah… I was on the DL most of my junior year.”

Dot Com: “Hmmm.”

Jack: “When we were on the DL, we spent most of our time in the whirlpool – getting rubbed down.”

Dot Com: “You were a switch hitter?”

Jack: “Switch hitter. Pitcher. Catcher. Whatever the boys needed.”

Donaghy eventually disavows this “idiotic” show, proudly proclaiming that he is not a “clumsy gay flatulent.” If Cuban followed Jack’s lead, perhaps the Mavericks could win their first playoff series since the team’s 2011 NBA Championship.

What’s in a Name? (race edition)

Daniel Snyder on his Washington football franchise: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” Note: this remark was made before news reports that the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe in Arizona rejected finances from Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation, stating, “We know bribe money when we see it.”

Jack Donaghy: “I’ll tell you who has it the hardest: white men. We make the unpopular, difficult decisions, the tough choices. We land on the moon and Normandy Beach, and yet they resent us.”

Kenneth Parcell: “Well, sir, I’m sorry to disagree, but I am also a white man –“

Jack: “No, you are not. Socioeconomically speaking, you are more like an inner-city Latina.”

A short time later, after Kenneth attempts to shoot himself in a stuck elevator to allow fellow passengers to breathe his share of oxygen:

Jack: “Well, Kenneth, I give up. I thought pure morality died with Chuck Heston, but you proved me wrong. You are better than all of us. You are one Latina Fantastica.”

 Steer Clear of the Political Arena

Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon has been bitten by the political bug – and it is a costly illness. McMahon staged two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012, spending nearly $100 million total to run as a Republican candidate in deep-blue Connecticut. Presumably because there is no Senate seat to lose this year, she and husband Vince McMahon have donated almost $1 million to support their favored political candidates and causes in the current election cycle. Judging by Vince’s recent stock market losses, however, the first couple of the squared circle may want to hold off on signing any more checks for the time being.

When he’s not dating Condoleezza Rice and Skyping with Mitt Romney’s dressage horse, Rafalca, Jack Donaghy also dips his toes in the murky waters of political star-making. He decides to back independent candidate Steve Austin (John Slattery of Mad Men) in a Rhode Island congressional election against incumbent Regina Bookman (Queen Latifah), who opposes his desired NBC/Kabletown merger. Jack knows that his candidate is crazy, but is willing to sell out and support Austin’s platform of bringing back unpaved roads and building casinos on the moon in order to benefit his company. His change of heart is coerced by Liz reciting two of Tracy’s greatest movie lines – one of which is, “Die, werewolf zombie!” He urges Slattery, who is sequestered to avoid being heard in public, to speak his mind at a fundraiser and engage in verbal self-immolation. Contemplating the decision to erase his personal guilt by undermining vital business interests, Jack muses, “Letting morality get in the way of making money. I might as well go and … be a teacher.”

Tell ’em Who You Are

 San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt crowing after his team wins the 2014 NBA Championship: “The best people in the world, we’ve got ‘em. We’ve got the best fans, we’ve got the best city, we live in a great state, and we are in the United States of America! The greatest country in the world!”

Jack Donaghy psyching himself up before a public speaking engagement: “Well, buddy, here we come. Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth. Are you gonna step up? Oh yeah. Because it’s winning time, you magnificent son of a bitch! You go in there and show them. Make Mommy proud of her big boy because he’s the best! Just do it! Is it in you? I’m loving it!”

Fix a Major Sporting Event

This level of accomplishment takes masterful skill and unsurpassed egotism, so only the most elite authorities should even try. It helps to be FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who responded to a reporter’s question on corruption earlier this year by snapping, “Listen, lady, when you speak about corruption, then you have to present evidence.” There have long been allegations that the World Cup can be bought, and the locations of the next two tournaments do nothing to disprove this belief. The 2018 and 2022 tournaments will take place, respectively, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Qatar, the latter of which currently hosts migrant workers dying to build up the necessary infrastructure. New Republic piece goes so far as to state that, “After Brazil 2014, unless there is urgent and fundamental reform of a kind that would seem unlikely, the tournament is finished.”

For his own coup de grace, Jack helps to stage fake Olympic events so Team U.S.A. can win more medals. America’s success in synchronized running and octuples tennis raises patriotic spirits as well as NBC’s ratings. This scheme is nearly exposed, though, when the silver medalist in tetherball threatens to expose the lie. Fortunately, Jack buys his silence by offering him a role as the voice of Knight Rider (“the film”), then ensures Kenneth’s discretion by providing him with a free television and an opening to steal cable. Jack proves the only way to cover up massive ongoing fraud is with outright bribery – sadly, a lesson that both the business and sports worlds have learned well.

 Beware the Power of the Press

 Marge Schott on, uhh…“Everything you read, when he came in he was good… They built tremendous highways and got all the factories going… Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far.”

Jack Donaghy: “You know how the media are. They wait for a mistake, and that’s all you are. It happened to Hitler. No one eeee-ver talks about his paintings.”

Negotiate Ruthlessly

Owners and general managers deal constantly with greedy employees. Tight ends asking you for wide receiver money. Coaches demanding the payments that you guaranteed them. NFL players accusing you of illegally dispensing narcotics and NFL cheerleaders alleging that you are paying them less than minimum wage. These interminable issues can lead to holdouts, strikes, lawsuits, and acquiescence to give Allan Houston and Amar’e Stoudemire nine-figure contracts to observe games from the sidelines. Such are the fates awaiting each team’s front office – unless they follow the Jack Donaghy method of negotiating with their franchise talents:

– Utilize blackmail (preferably photographs involving the talent and an *NSYNC member frolicking at SeaWorld)

– Make a $1 pay raise offer (then lower it to 75 cents)

– Provide ridiculously uncomfortable office chairs for each contract discussion (then take them away)

– Fawn after their competitors to remind your stars that they can always be replaced

– Poison the well with any other prospective suitors looking to recruit the talent

Finally, give them an ultimatum of no extra money, ban them from pursuing any other career paths, and restrict their religious observances to one Jewish holiday per year. With these techniques, you’ll force even the whiniest superstar to degrade himself by performing the worm and yelling out five reasons why you’re better than him.

***

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleRadioviolet

Tragedies and Statistics

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in "The Fisher King."

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in “The Fisher King.”

Robin Williams died yesterday, killed in what was reported as a suicide. My breath caught when I heard, but I made a small mental readjustment and thought, “Nah, it’ll be like all the other fake celebrity deaths; I’ll go on eating my burrito.”

When later the Responsible Media (TM) started reporting it, I deflated. I don’t think I was the only one to shrink a little; my social media was swamped with tributes, statements of sadness, and memories of Robin Williams and his work. It was filled with something else, too: a counter-reaction.

There was a collection of people who lamented that there was so much attention being paid to the suicide of one druggie comedian instead of some other major world event, like poverty, Gaza, ISIS, police brutality, etc. I actually think theirs is a reasonable reaction, as the loss of one man cannot be equivalent to the loss of scores of people, so let me explain why I think my sadness at William’s death is just as reasonable.

In a nutshell, Robin Williams was like a friend, who popped into and out of my life with each movie, routine, and painful story of drug use or loss that I saw or read about.  If I lost a loved one, a cousin, sibling, or parent, no one would question my right to grieve, because we know that I “know” them, they were in my life and I in theirs. The loss of Williams is obviously less, since he was a performer and I was a stranger to him, but like most of my favorite authors, musicians, and artists, he was no stranger to me.

Many of my friends in stand-up have been able to meet and get to know Robin Williams, something I’ll sadly not be able to do. Even without that secondary personal connection, though, his movies mirrored my emotional development. I was a kid when he made Aladdin, I was a student when he made Good Will Hunting, and I knew grief when he made The Fisher King. With his passing, I feel like I lost an reliable emotional touchstone, like an old restaurant in your hometown that has somehow stayed in business decades longer than it should have. Was he a friend of mine? No, he was not, but he was there when I made friends, and when I lost them.

With a celebrity like Williams dies, it is easy to dismiss the crass celebrity culture that exists in the US, which celebrates the trite, the superficial, and the pretty over the deep and meaningful. The news cycle should have more substance and less style, more analysis and less Hollywood gossip; this is a totally valid, and damning, critique on modern celebrity culture. In the case of Robin Williams, though, feeling less bad about his death does not mean we would feel more bad about the loss of civilians in a civil conflict; I’d argue that becoming more callous about the loss of anyone, even just some actor, just gives us a little more practice in the art of callousness.

If we intend to be more empathetic with strangers across the world and in our own hometowns, the solution is not to ridicule people who feel emotional about the loss of a famous celebrity; it is to give us more reason to feel the loss of the non-famous, the anonymous.

When Robin Williams died, we saw a person who made us laugh, an actor who could make us cry, and the face of a loneliness and depression that far, far too many of us confront in the dark, alone. We know that face, we see in our family, in our friends, and in our mirror.

If we want more of us to feel the loss of the family in Aleppo shelled by mortar fire, or the baby in the hospital in Gaza who died from a rocket attack, or the young man caught in a Molotov cocktail attack on his synagogue in Frankfurt, then we have to tell their stories, too. Don’t simply pass on a news report about a nameless, faceless refugee camp; find one of them and tell me her name, tell me his dreams. Tell me what they wanted out of life before the men with guns came, before their home became a war zone. Tell me how they lived before they died.

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

“500 dead” is just a number, a collection of bodies. We are not just bodies, we are the souls and hopes and dreams that live in those bodies until the moment our hearts stop. We know what Robin Williams looked like when his heart was beating; we know how he smiled and we know how he spoke. Can we try to say the same for the Tsunami victim? For the flood victim?

Don’t get me wrong; we should care about the dozen that died from X, and the thousand that are fleeing for safety in Y, even if we don’t know their stories. But if we know their stories, then we are not just mourning a number, we are mourning a person, a person that could have been our friend, a person that could have been us.

People will shed their tears for strangers, but they will shed their blood for their friends. We should give the unnamed names, put faces on the faceless, because that is the only way we can start to see the friends we have, hidden in the numbers.


12 Aug 2014
by Mark Nabong

The “Decision” that Built a New World Order

How LeBron James and Hulk Hogan Legdropped Their Fans and Changed their Sports Forever

By Kyle Schmitt
Twitter: @Kyleradioviolet

LEBRON

This week marks the anniversary of two shocking moments that altered the history of their sports – LeBron James fleeing the Cavaliers to create Miami’s Big Three and Hulk Hogan’s declaration of a New World Order. Both superstars were the top talents in their industries, but chose to backstab their lame franchises – Cleveland and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) – on live television for a chance to win greater glories with cooler cliques. These epic narratives of alliance and betrayal, which climaxed one day apart in 1996 (July 7) and 2010 (July 8), upset the balance of power in their industries. James and Hogan defined their careers with these actions, transforming from fan favorites into the biggest villains in their sports.

Join us as we revisit the Decisions that changed professional basketball and wrestling forever.

The Settings

LeBron: ESPN’s “The Decision” TV special, broadcast from the Boys & Girls Club, Greenwich, CT

Hogan: WCW’s Bash at the Beach 1996 pay-per-view event, broadcast from the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, FL

The Prologue

2010 – James had just finished his seventh season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but had still yet to win an NBA Finals game. The Cavs were knocked out of the 2010 playoffs by the Boston Celtics, led by their Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. While James earned regular-season MVP honors and recorded a triple-double in the deciding game, Cavaliers fans dreaded their homegrown superstar’s impending free agency. During the summer of 2010, James embarked on a recruiting trip, meeting with six different franchises to determine where he would sign his contract. Following this courtship, news broke that James would announce his destination on a prime-time TV special airing on ESPN.

1996 – WCW was being terrorized by two ex-WWE superstars formerly known as Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall). Wearing a denim vest, Hall interrupted a televised WCW match on May 27 and spouted the instant-classic line, “You people, you know who I am. But you don’t know why I’m here.” He concluded his snarky monologue with a direct threat to WCW: “You want a war? You’re gonna get one.” He and Nash followed up on this boast by launching several sneak-attacks on rival wrestlers. Finally, a WCW all-star team consisting of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Sting, and Lex Luger combined their muscle at the annual Bash at the Beach event to fight Hall, Nash … and a mystery “third man”. Hall and Nash walked to the ring alone, but after they had laid out their opponents, a familiar face showed up to confront them …

Warning Signs

Basketball insiders immediately noted the significance of James removing his tank-top upon leaving the court following Cleveland’s season-ending loss to Boston. Play-by-play man Mike Breen wondered if this was the last time James would ever take off a Cavs uniform, providing epic foreshadowing by intoning, “If he leaves, it would be a disaster of enormous proportions for the Cavaliers.” Hogan showed similar signs of restlessness, shedding his trademark red-and-yellow garb in 1995 and sporting black wrestling gear to display his darker side. After losing the WCW World Championship at Halloween Havoc 1995, Hogan made sporadic in-ring appearances in 1996 while devoting time to his acting career.

Spoiler Alerts

While sports media fed an avalanche of rumors surrounding James’ free agency, Stephen A. Smith broke the news 10 days before “The Decision” that James and fellow Eastern Conference All-Star Chris Bosh would join 2006 NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade in Miami. Similarly, WCW color commentator Bobby “The Brain” Heenan sounded the alarm during Hogan’s walk to the ring at Bash at the Beach, repeatedly demanding, “Whose side is he on?” Fans still refused to lose hope in their saviors, disregarding both warnings as unthinkable.

Dirty Deeds

James jettisoned his organization and abandoned his diehard fans to join forces with Wade and Bosh in Miami. He ambushed his home-state team on national TV, telling the world that he was signing with the Heat. His announcement broke the hearts of a Cleveland fanbase that viewed James as the Chosen One who would lead their long-suffering city to a championship. His actions helped to establish the Heat as the presumptive frontrunner for the 2011 NBA Championship, while decimating a Cavaliers team that went from 61 wins in the 2009-2010 season to 19 victories in the 2010-2011 campaign. “The Decision” drew nearly 10 million viewers, and turned James into perhaps America’s most polarizing athlete. His move heralded a new era in which the league’s most talented stars would take less money, even in their primes, to combine forces with other great players for a better shot at winning titles. Suspicion persisted that James, Bosh, and Wade rigged the system to converge in a place of their choosing, reclaiming power for the players even as a new collective bargaining agreement eroded their share of basketball related income.

Hogan jettisoned his organization and abandoned his diehard fans to join forces with Hall and Nash. He cleared the ring of Hall and Nash to raucous cheers, only to double-cross WCW by leg-dropping a prone Savage. The Outsiders joined Hogan in decimating his co-Mega Power as a stunned crowd came to grips with what it had seen. Hogan then gave an interview to a livid “Mean” Gene Okerlund, proclaiming a New World Order (NWO) and telling his fans that “if it wasn’t for Hulk Hogan, you people wouldn’t be here.” His actions helped to establish Hogan as the presumptive frontrunner for the WCW World Championship (which he won a month later), and decimated a WCW stable reeling from the loss of its marquee talent. Hogan’s heel turn marked a sea change in professional wrestling, not just by having the most beloved wrestler of his generation break faith with millions of fans, but by signaling the end of an era of clearly defined heroes and villains and pointing the way toward the adult themes and grey shades of the Attitude Era.

The Outsiders

Both LeBron and Hogan formed an iron triangle with their top peers, colluding with a superstar widely detested by his colleagues (Wade/Hall) and a wisecracking 7-foot center (Bosh/Nash, the latter of whom played three seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers and enjoyed a professional basketball stint in Europe before entering the squared circle). Teaming with these Outsiders, King James and the Hulkster built the crews that would dominate their landscapes for years to come.

Media Presence

ESPN reporter Jim Gray, who asked James the preeminent question, “The answer to the question everybody wants to know: LeBron, what’s your decision?”

WCW reporter ”Mean” Gene Okerlund, who asked Hogan the preeminent question, “What in the world are you thinking?”

Signature Kiss-Off

LeBron: “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

Hogan: “You fans can stick it, brother!”

The Big Reveal – or, “What the hell is going on here!?” – WCW color commentator Dusty Rhodes

LeBron: “I can’t say it was always in my plans because I never thought it was possible. But the things that the Miami Heat franchise have done to be able to free up cap space and to be able to put themselves in a position this summer to have all three of us, you know, it was hard to turn down. Those are two great players, two of the greatest players that we have in this game today. And, you know, you add me, we’re gonna be a really good team.”

Hogan: “Well, the first thing you gotta realize, brother, is this right here is the future of wrestling. You can call this the New World Order of wrestling, brother.”

Why It Happened – or, “For you to join up with the likes of these two men absolutely makes me sick to my stomach… You want to put yourself in this group?” – “Mean” Gene Okerlund

LeBron: “I think the major factor and the major reason in my decision was the best opportunity for me to win. And to win now, and to win in the future… It’s about joining forces with the other two guys who I feel like I respect their game the most, and I feel like we have a great chance of winning and winning for multiple years.”

Hogan: “As far as Billionaire Ted goes, Eric Bischoff, and the whole WCW goes, I’m bored, brother. That’s why these two guys here, the so-called Outsiders, these are the men I want as my friends. They’re the new blood of professional wrestling, brother.”

Best OMG Moment of Realization that the Linchpin is Gone

Heenan: “Now what happens to us? What happens now to WCW? … What do we do now?”

Realist Fan on a Cleveland street talking about the Big Three: “They’re about to win a championship.”

But Really, How Bad Is It?

Heenan on the New World Order’s (NWO) formation: “Probably the lowest shot ever given to professional wrestling.”

Distraught Fan in Post-Decision Interview: “He’s one of our own; that’s what makes it so painful. Art Modell, you know, he was 65 years old, he went away and the Browns came back. LeBron can never come back.”

Ill Will and Bad Tidings

Rhodes: “A career of a lifetime, right down the drain, kid. I hope you love it – you just sold your soul to the devil.”

Angry Cavs Fan: “For him to go in there and drag us through the mud for seven years and stab us in the heart, he deserves everything he gets. I hope he never wins anything in Miami.”

Least Dignified Display of Physical Aggression

WCW Fans: Turning the Bash at the Beach ring into a landfill in their efforts to pelt Hogan with trash

Underemployed Fans: A protracted effort to burn Witness t-shirts and a Cavs #23 jersey while some guy off-camera mutters, “No integrity. No integrity.”

Least Dignified Display of Non-Physical Aggression

WCW Play-by-Play Announcer Tony Schiavone: “We have just seen the end of Hulkamania… Hulk Hogan, you can go to hell. Straight to hell.”

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert channels his petulant inner seven-year-old in an infamous open letter, which condemns the “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own”, calls James out for deserting the region, and contains the immortal phrase, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.“

Verdict of the Legends

NBA legend Michael Jordan on LeBron’s actions: “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry (Bird), called up Magic (Johnson), and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team.’”

NBA legend Charles Barkley on LeBron’s actions: “If you’re the two-time defending NBA MVP, you don’t leave anywhere. They come to you. That’s ridiculous.”

Retired WCW wrestler Larry “The Living Legend” Zbyszko on Hogan’s actions: “Unmanly.”

Highspots

Both James and “Hollywood” Hogan won multiple world championships due to help from their two new friends. The Big Three reached four consecutive NBA Finals, winning championships in 2012 and 2013. Hogan would win numerous WCW World Championships with the NWO, exploiting a hip new persona to jumpstart his stagnant career. The Heat and the NWO became simultaneously the most popular and hated teams in their sports, and they sent ratings and merchandise sales skyrocketing for their organizations. Despite millions of fans rooting for their comeuppance, victory always seemed assured for the red, white, and black bad guys. Strangely, both men battled the NBA’s best: while LeBron made quick work of Kevin Durant and Paul George, Hogan tag-teamed with Dennis Rodman and faced off against Karl Malone.

Best Braggadocio

LeBron: “Not one … not two … not three …”

Hogan: “Not only are we going to take over the whole wrestling business … we will destroy everything in our path.”

ODB Memorial “Wu-Tang is for the Children” Shout-Out

LeBron (in a letter to a Cleveland city councilman regarding the charitable funding stemming from advertising proceeds related to “The Decision”: “I am so excited that the renovated gym, new floor and computer lab at the Broadway Boys & Girls Club are finished, and I’ve been told that everything looks amazing. These additions are great for the neighborhood, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to give back to the Cleveland community.”

Hogan: “I held my head high. I did everything for the charities, I did everything for the kids.”

The Bench

To pad out their rosters, LeBron and the Hulkster relied on help from a motley cast of roleplayers. Both squads featured the following personnel:

Declining Veterans Willing to Forgo Personal Gain for Team Victories: Ray Allen and “Macho Man” Randy Savage

Tattooed Blond Big Men: “Birdman” Chris Andersen and “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner

Follically Blessed Executives: Pat Riley and Eric Bischoff

Unloved Whipping Boys: Mario Chalmers and Syxx, who claimed he was fired by Bischoff via a FedEx delivery because the boss was mad at his friends Nash and Hall

Canaries in the Coalmine: The acceptance of David Flair into the NWO vs. the Heat’s reliance on Michael Beasley in a Finals game

Biggest Jerk Moves

LeBron and Wade mocking Dirk Nowitski’s illness during the 2011 NBA Finals.

Hogan, Nash, and Hall attacking countless WCW wrestlers before spray-painting them with their trademark NWO tag.

Most Grandiose Displays of Divine Power

Miami’s Big Three being deified at a pep rally that eerily resembles a pro wrestling event.

The NWO remaking the WCW Monday Nitro set in its own graven image.

Best Bodyslam of Haters

LeBron: “All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today.”

Hogan: “As far as I’m concerned, all the crap in the ring represents these fans out here.”

Tapping Out

LeBron’s low point: Losing a humiliating five-game series to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. San Antonio’s dominance led Bosh to confess, “They played the best basketball I’ve ever seen.” Worse, James’ supporting cast collapsed during this series, prompting comedian Chris Rock to tweet, “When did the Heat become the Cavs.” (SIC) This lopsided defeat precipitated the Big Three opting out of their 2014-2015 contracts, leaving the future of Miami’s New World Order in doubt.

Hogan’s low point: The Fingerpoke of Doom, a match that saw Hogan “beat” Nash in a manner that has been debated as “the biggest mistake WCW ever made”. On January 4, 1999, Nash defended his WCW World Championship against Hogan. Although the two men had become bitter enemies during the past year, the match ended almost immediately when Hogan tapped Nash with his finger, causing the giant to drop like he’d been shot. Hogan proceeded to pin Nash as pro wrestling’s Big Three reunited to once again wreak havoc on WCW’s do-gooders. This ill-conceived “match” is widely considered to mark the beginning of WCW’s downfall, throwing the organization into a creative tailspin that ended only when Vince McMahon bought the organization in 2001.

The Way Ahead

LeBron James has two options: he can do what Hulk Hogan did in 1999 by reforming the Big Three and taking another stab at dominance. Or he can do what Hulk Hogan did later in 1999 after seeing the (scripted) light. The reformed Hulkster took a stand for heroism once more, reclaiming his yellow-red-white-and-blue babyface character and ultimately defeating his former blood-brother Nash to retain the WCW World Championship. The Hulkster’s babyface comeback shows there is still hope for James to return home as the prodigal son, and finally prove himself a Real American.

Reinvention and the Power of Community

Reinvention and the Power of Community
Five Lessons from Greendale’s Finest Students

Guest post by Kyle Schmitt

College is a time of personal growth and discovery, especially at Greendale Community College, where teenagers and seniors alike converge to seek education and learn who they really are. Greendale, the setting for the NBC sitcom Community, also serves as a haven for losers on their last chances. Called a “toilet” by its own students and promoted by the slogan, “You’re already accepted!”, the school provides a constant reminder of its denizens’ past failures and lack of opportunity for the future.

Greendale is a place, however, that allows for hard-won self-improvement. Some metamorphoses are just lateral movements – witness Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), who transforms from an incompetent Spanish professor to an incompetent math instructor. But the “Greendale Seven” study group members draw on themselves and their fellow students for courage and support in becoming the people they want to be.

Community shows how we all possess the power for personal reinvention. Here are five lessons the study group teaches us about how to become more ideal versions of ourselves:

Set your goals and pursue them vigorously. Shirley Bennett (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) entered Greendale after a traumatic event in her personal life. When her husband leaves her and their two sons for a stripper, she decides to attend community college to gain independence and a life outside of being an unappreciated homemaker. Shirley gains experience in cooking and promoting her own products. Her efforts culminate in the opening of Shirley’s Sandwiches, a small business she starts on Greendale’s campus. While she eventually reconciles with her husband, Shirley achieves personal growth and finds her own happiness by taking chances and discovering new skills that empower her.

Don’t be afraid to change paths. Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is your typical high-achieving, straight-A student – minus the Adderall addiction that landed her at a bottom-tier community college. She takes academics seriously and keeps a laser focus on the lucrative hospital administration career waiting for her after Greendale. We see periodic signs, however, that Annie is second-guessing her plans for life. And when a class-project yam is destroyed, causing the study group to band together for a Law & Order-style criminal investigation, she realizes a new interest. After graduating and finding no fulfillment in her healthcare industry job, Annie re-enrolls in Greendale to pursue her passion for forensic science. She throws away the rulebook that has restricted her throughout life, and embarks on a new journey that excites and challenges her.

Keep your values along the way. A disgraced lawyer who lost his job for lying about his non-existent college degree, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) creates the study group merely to hook up with his first recruit, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). His egotistical attitude leads him to act aloof and aim sarcastic barbs at group members who look up to him as being cooler and better than they are. Even after growing close with the other students, Jeff often struggles to prioritize his friends over his own selfish desires. His better angels consistently win out, however, as Jeff routinely postpones whatever he’d rather be doing to serve as a father figure to a group desperate for his leadership. He makes time to support Annie’s creation of a Model U.N. group, provide Shirley with pro bono legal help, and throw fellow group member Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party. Even when he gets his life back on-track, Jeff maintains tight connections with the classmates he once treated with contempt. These outcasts become a surrogate family for a man who finally learned to prize friendship over wealth and professional achievement.

It’s never too late to become the person you want to be. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) serves as a constant reminder to his younger cohorts of where poor decisions and failed relationships will eventually lead. He treats his fellow study group members with disrespect, then complains that the study group leaves him out of their outside activities. This vicious cycle leads him to act maliciously toward his friends, further driving a wedge between himself and those who should be closest to him. After his frustrations boil over into physical aggression between himself and Jeff, Pierce begins to let others into his heart. He sticks up for his fellow students when he believes they are being bullied, dials back the racist/sexist comments, and even saves Greendale from financial ruin by winning a campus-wide paintball competition, then giving the destroyed school his prize money. Pierce waits until after his own death, however, to openly share his feelings with his friends. In his written will, Pierce posthumously tells Shirley that he admired her business acumen and strength of character, and reveals that Britta’s passion for her various causes inspired him. He also provides a life-changing opportunity for Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who realizes that Pierce saw something in him that he never saw for himself. Accepting the friends he once kept at arm’s length, Pierce makes continued progress (even into eternity) in becoming a more considerate and appreciative person to those who care about him.

Challenge yourself. The show’s biggest transformation is made by Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), an obtuse ex-jock whose stated ambition is to wait until his best friend Abed strikes it rich with a social media innovation, then sue for a cut of his fortune. While the other study group members mature, Troy remains content to watch unwatchable b-movies and co-host Troy & Abed in the Morning, an early morning television program that no one bothers to film. But his stagnancy is shattered when Pierce offers him $14 million in stock options if he successfully sails around the world. Pierce tells Troy that he sees in him the “heart of a hero”, and challenges him to become the man he knows he can be. Whether induced by the lure of money or the opportunity for personal growth, Troy accepts this offer and sets sail with co-voyager LeVar Burton (per another provision in Pierce’s will). True to form, Troy cannot say goodbye to Greendale without playing an increasingly ridiculous game of “The floor is lava” that symbolizes his rite of passage into manhood. But, eventually, he sheds his lethargic state of no expectations and evolves into an adventurous adult whose best years are just beginning.

Reinvention doesn’t require enrollment at a community college that prides itself on its “Straight A’s” (two of which are “Air Conditioning” and “A Lot of Classes”) or which offers “certificates of completion” due to being legally prevented from awarding diplomas. The Greendale study group members demonstrate that setting goals, keeping an open mind to new ideas and opportunities, and recognizing the worth of those around you can help you live the life you want.

 

The author can be reached at kyleschmitt81 (at) gmail dot com.

OWIF 6: Dart

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.

***

The room was bright, much brighter than you’d think if you had entered into it using the unlit rusty steel staircase underneath the Cage.  There was a large bank of lights along the ceiling, throwing an incredibly bright, sickly blue light over the room.

The room itself was about twenty feet on a side, with bare concrete walls that had several layers of white-ish primer painted over them.  The walls were sweating with moisture, as the humidity in the hot room condensed on the cool surface of the concrete.  When we stepped out of the staircase I had had to duck to avoid cracking my head open on the large control box that was attached to the wall.  It ticked, like the timer in a cheap children’s board game.  George had fought with his employees, at least the ones that had worked upstairs, over every little nickel and dime.  Even down here, where the stakes were higher, he used the most inexpensive solution possible.

When I had last been in here George has used a timer from a Christmas display to turn the lights on and off; he needed to make sure that there was exactly a twelve hour “daylight” and twelve hour “nighttime” cycle to each day down here, because the residents would sicken and possibly die without it.  After George, Echo, and I entered this time around, had opened the door on the control box and, sure enough, there was the Christmas timer: a plastic reindeer with a wry smile and that was cartoonishly ball-shaped.  His bright red noise served as the dial and you set one antler to “on” and one antler to “off” for the timing cycle.  Wires ran out of the back, carrying orders from their reindeer master to the lights.  I left the door open when I walked out, hoping that the ridiculous sight of the timer would at least make Echo laugh.

“Where did you go?” Echo asked me when I walked back in.  She was still standing near the door, where I had last left her.

“Hiding the car.” I tilted my head back and exhaled.  “Echo, it’s been a long day for you.  George is going out to get food and said you can take a nap on the cot, if you like.  Now that the car is off the street, we can take some time and figure out exactly what we know.”  I pulled up a folding chair and motioned for her to sit on the cot, which George had placed down here as well as some extra large towels to be used as a blanket.  The blanket-towel was a mere formality; it was sweltering in here.

Echo sat down with a thud, still wearing the oversized coat and her knit hat.  She stared at me, occasionally darting her gaze at the other three or four hundred eyes that were looking at her and at me.

In the middle of the room was a rectangular grouping of fish tanks, big ones, stacked on metal shelves almost up to the ceiling lights.  Each tank was only partially filled with water, which a pile of sand and fake plastic trees filling the remainder of each tank.   Also in each tank were four or five dozen  small frogs, flecks of bright blue or orange or red that hopped around manically every time one of us moved.  All fully adult, they still had a wide-eyed cuteness to them when you leaned against the glass for a closer look.  They always stared back defiantly, as if they knew that the merest tiny amount of the poison that soaked their skins were enough to kill a full grown man.  An arrowhead raked across one of their backs would have enough toxin to drop a buffalo.

The room was normally filled with these tanks.  I recall having to suck my gut in to squeeze past the last time I was here, but since George’s legal troubles passed he’d tried to move his shipments in and out faster.  The person or persons who bought his last batch conveniently bought the tanks, too, giving us enough room to sit in here and set up a cot.

“I want to know what’s going on,” I said.  “Who is chasing you?  Where is your father?  Do you know?”  I asked as calmly as I could, but I felt the curl of a scowl cross my face.  “I checked the news while I was upstairs.  They’re reporting that a couple of cops were shot at the airport today, but that both are in good condition.  The suspect got away.”  Echo fidgeted.  “A guy had been shot in his car earlier in the day on his way to the airport.  They found him crashed into the median on the highway exit.”

“Did they catch anyone else?”  Echo asked flatly, staring at the buttons on my shirt.

“No,” I said.  “You said your father was with you at the airport.  Where would he go?  Would he go to the meeting place?  Do you remember anything about where it is?”

Echo looked up, suddenly smiling.  “Oh, thank goodness – no one caught my father!”

“I still don’t understand what’ve happening, Echo.  If you fill me in with some details, I’ll help you find him and find the meeting place.”  I took off my hat and scratched my head.  The heat and humidity in the room made my scalp sweat and beads of it ran down my temples.

Echo beamed, searching the pockets and pockets of the oversized coat. “Oh, don’t worry!” she chirped brightly.  She pulled out a metal cube, attached to a lanyard that stretched into the coat.  A small blue bulb on one of the faces of the cube glowed softly, even in the bright light of the terrarium room.

She stood up, holding the cube tightly in her hand.  “If they didn’t get him, my father will come looking for me.”

 

[End of Part 6]

OWIF 5: Smoke

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4.

***

The dark green car sped off, dropping pieces of cracked plastic and leaving a dark smear of rubber that stayed visible even through the light drizzle that came down.  Behind, the semi’s engine rumbled as it idled.  Too big to turn, the man had instead opted to brake after he had failed to crush the car and the two people inside it.

He was six foot four, or just a shade taller.  His muscles ached from the strain of the day; it had been years since a project had veered so far off the plan.  His thin, wiry frame was perspiring under his clothes, a heavy wool suit and black overcoat that seemed perfectly sensible for Chicago in the middle of autumn.

His had skin that was dry and grey, with a long face that didn’t grow a beard so much as grow hard.  When he was younger, his face would dull a razor blade in one sitting.  Now, grown and middle aged, he keeps keeps his razor blades sharp for reasons other than shaving.

The tall man turned back to the semi and walked up to it slowly.  He needed to know who was driving the girl and where they were going.  He closed his eyes and recalled the report he had been given that morning, the report that he read over and over until its details were burned into his memory.

Little girl, nine years old, wearing knit hat, light brown hair.  Flight 454 from Buffalo, New York, arrival at 8:34am.  Our Contact confirmed that she got on the flight and that the flight had taken off.   “One handler,” the Contact had stated. “Middle aged man, caucasian.  Five foot eight, 160 pounds.  Balding, dark brown hair.”

At the sound of sirens he snapped his eyes open.  The police were coming.  He needed to get off the road.  He whipped open the door to the cab of the semi and grabbed his satchel, a heavy nylon bag that caused him to grunt as he lifted its bulk off the floor.  He turned it over and inspected the bag.  A little blood from the previous driver had ended up on the bottom of the bag, but not so much that it was noticeable.  He wouldn’t attract attention with it, at least not until he could replace the satchel.

He jumped out and left the keys in the truck, engine running.  He couldn’t take the truck, as the shipping company that owned it and that employed the dearly departed driver would certainly have a GPS tracking chip on it.   He looked around the semi one time to make sure that he left nothing that could be traced to him, then sprinted for the edge of the highway.

There was a copse of trees beyond the chain link fence that marked off the interstate from the rest of the northwest side of the city.  Six, seven long steps and he was at the fence, climbing it with one smooth motion that barely broke his stride.  He was in the copse when the first police car arrived at the semi.  He crouched low in the trees, froze, and waited for the two cops to circle the truck, guns drawn and voices barking.

When he was sure that the copse of trees was not in the peripheral vision of either policeman, he made a beeline for the sidewalk.  He didn’t bother to run softly as he had been trained to do; the sound of the sirens swamped out any footfalls he made.  When he got to the sidewalk he slowed to an easy amble, taking care to mark anyone on the street that may have noticed him jump out from the trees.

The street was almost empty; the light rain had driven most people indoors.  When in Rome, he thought, as he pulled a free alternative music newspaper from a newsbox and held it over his head as most pedestrians would.  He also did his best to feign irritation at the rain, in case anyone in any of the storefronts saw.   As he walked, he kept his ears peeled to the sounds of police sirens heading to the now-empty truck.  He tried to clear his mind.

Contact says the handler has made arrangements for a driver to pick them up at O’Hare when the plane lands.  They have no luggage, so you must move fast to beat them to the driver.  Handler and girl have been told that the driver will be waiting for them a half hour before scheduled arrival to catch them in case the plane lands early.

He walked past an irritated young woman with a small lapdog.  Even in the rain, the dog sniffed at trees and benches, looking for a place to relieve itself.  The woman grumpily tugged at the dog’s leash. “Come on, Max, hurry up.”  The tall man discreetly covered his face with the newspaper as he passed her.  He needed a quiet place to make the phone connection.

After a block he passed a storefront without the lights on.  “Taco Burrito King,” the sign said, dark and faded.  A large handwritten placard was in the window. “Pardon our dust!  We’re renovating and will be back soon!”

The tall man stepped back.  The front of the building was all glass, and there was still enough light seeping through the clouds to make the front room dangerous.  He peered in.  The kitchen was walled off from the dining room.  That would have to do.

He walked around to service alley of the burrito place, past a shoe repair store, and walked up to the rear delivery door.  It had a standard deadbolt.  The tall man reached into his front pants pocket.  He fished past the cell phone he carried pulled out a pair of metal rods, one of them bent into a ninety degree angle at the very end.  He worked the straight rod into the bottom of the deadbolt, then the bent rod.

It took him twenty seconds to pick the lock,  or at most, thirty.  The deadbolt slid open with a click and he slipped into the door and closed it softly behind him.

Handler has already passed the package to the girl, and may separate from her to check path to driver before allowing her and package outside.

The tall man moved to the back of the kitchen and kneeled on the floor, pulling the cell phone out of his pocket.  Small drops of rainwater rain ran off his overcoat onto the floor.  He turned the phone on, then punched in the sixteen digit code needed to unlock it.

Handler is unarmed and is carrying false identification.  Girl is also carrying false identification.

The phone flashed softly as it looked for a signal.  Satellite phones always took a while to connect, and he was inside a building of unknown age.  Older buildings sometimes shielded the signal worse than newer buildings.

Driver is mostly likely armed, and mostly likely trained.  Contact says that driver will be picking up handler and girl using car of rare color, make, and model to reduce chance of mistake, mostly likely a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora or similar GM car.

The phone connected, and the tall man shook the water off his hand and typed.  GIRL AND DRIVER GOT AWAY.  UNKNOWN IF WE HIT THE WRONG DRIVER EARLIER OR IF THERE WERE TWO DRIVERS SENT.

The response came back within a minute.  RECEIVED. POLICE CONNECTION HAS ID OF 2ND DRIVER LICENSE PLATE.

The tall man heard the sound of jangling keys on the other side of the rear door as well as the sound of two adult men laughing.  He jumped up and grabbed a carving knife from the stack of clean dishes and moved silently to the door as it opened.

The satellite phone flashed on the floor where the tall man left it. 2ND CAR REGISTERED TO MARK N——,  4713 NORTH WILMONT AVENUE, CHICAGO.

Ten minutes later the tall man shook the rain off his coat and picked the phone up off the floor.

[end of part 5]

OWIF 4: I know why the caged bird sings

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2, Part 3.

***

The warehouse was different from how I remembered it; the laundry machines that had lined the walls were gone and the tables where the employees used to sort and fold the towels and sheets were also gone.  Large machines filled the center of the room and whirred rhythmically at some unknown task as we walked by.

“George?” I called out.  Echo has settled in behind me and looked around at the warehouse.  She didn’t flinch when one of the big engines sputtered (which they did every thirty seconds or so), but she glanced back nervously at the grey doors behind us once or twice. “George, it’s Mark.  I’ve got a favor to ask of ya.”

The room was about a hundred feet wide, and only slightly less deep.  The ceilings stretched up about twenty five feet above the floor, and the lazy spin of useless ceiling fans were the only other movement in the room other than the machines and Echo and I.  The only windows in the place were high up, a halo of frosted glass that let you know if it was daytime or nighttime outside but did absolutely nothing else; the light in the room came from sodium lights off the ceiling that has the weird effect of making everyone in the room seem jaundiced.  I often used to wonder if it made people who actually had jaundice look healthy.

I heard the scraping of chain links over concrete, and I knew that someone was coming out of the Cage.  That is what we used to call the little elevated half-office were George would sit, watching us fold and press airline towels, blankets, and pillow cases.  It was also were he kept his knife collection, since the Mrs. wouldn’t let him keep it in the house anymore, not after the last incident.

I heard the heavy wheezing and smell of cheap cigars that I knew all too well, and sure enough George poked his head around the forest of storage cabinets that had grown on the west side of the room.

“Ho-lee cow,” he said, scowling with his mouth and laughing with his eyes, “look who it is, come back to get his last fucking paycheck, probably.”  He was fat, but not a lazy, soft fat.  His bulk was tight under his skin, giving him the appearance of a billiard ball, albeit a billiard ball covered in grey body hair with the consistency of piano wire.

“How’s it going, George?  You’re looking the same as always, and for that you’ve got my sympathies,” I said, grinning.

“You’ve still got all the charm you always had, Mark, and that’s ’cause it’s not possible to have less than zero,” he barked, pulling a used cigar out of his breast pocket and relighting it.

I waited until he had the cigar going and had taken a big drag before I said, “George, I’ve got a problem and I’m not sure what to do at this point.”

He looked at me through the smoke of his cheap Dominican, popped it out of his mouth, then pointed at me with the ashy end. “Why I’m doing, fine, thanks.  Yes, it is interesting what I’ve done with the place,” he said, sweeping his arms out over the warehouse floor.  “I am so much happier now that my employees are all automated, and not a single one of them bitches about my smoking.”

He turned back towards me and opened his mouth to say something else, but then his eyes darted to Echo.  “Hey, girl,” he said, “you shouldn’t be listening to all this adult language.”  Echo, unlike her namesake, said nothing in reply.

“That’s what I’m here about, man,” I said, stepping aside so he could take a look at Echo.  “This kid is in trouble, and I have no idea what to do.”

“What the hell, pardon my French, are you doing?  Just call the cops.”  He barked his words out with authority, boss to employee, which is what the majority of our relationship was, and not like a client to his lawyer.

“I would, but here’s the thing: she insists that I can’t call the cops and that I need to find the place she’s meeting her dad.”  Echo nodded when I said this, little head inside huge coat.

He took a puff of his cigar and said, “I don’t see why you came to me with this, just drive her to the meeting place.”

“George, someone shot up a bunch of cops and tried to run me off the road with a semi to get to this kid.  The dude who knew where the meeting spot was is dead, probably killed by the same guys who are chasing us, and I haven’t more than 2 minutes to think all day.  I need your help, and I need to store the kid and the car in the room under the cage.”

George’s eyes lit up, mostly with sympathy but rimmed with a small amount of malice.  “Now I get it,” he said, flicking ash on the floor, “you want my, uh, special services.”

Echo looked at me with some concern, and looked at her with the same.  “Yeah, I think we do need your help.  The full package.”

George slapped his belly with his free hand and gave it a scratch for good measure.  He grinned, cigar in mouth.  “I gotcha, I gotcha.”  He let out a small laugh. “We’re clear after this, then?  I don’t owe you anything if I help you.  Our slates are clean, from now on.”

I fixed my eyes on him.  He was asking for a lot, but, then again, so was I. “Yeah.  Yeah,” I said, “we’re clear.  Even stevens.”

“All right, then!” he bellowed, suddenly animated.  “I’ll start the preparations. You have to call my wife and tell her that we’re doing something legitimate, that you needed me to do some followup.”  I nodded.  He continued, “You’re lucky, I just cleared some merchandise out of there, and we’re not due for any more shipments for a couple of days.”

Echo looked at me as George climbed back up into the cage, keys jangling. “What is he going to do?”  What’s going to happen?”

I glanced down at her and shrugged.  “He’s going to help us figure what to do.  What’s going to happen, that I’m not exactly sure.”

Echo stared at me for a minute, until a storage cabinet on the north wall shuddered, then slid to the right.  George came down out of the Cage with a ring of keys, a flashlight, and a satellite phone.

“Well, I guess I can tell you what I am sure about,” I said to Echo, my eyes fixed on George. “It’s going to get weird.”

[end of part 4]

OWIF part 3: Grey doors

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1, Part 2.

***

I hit the gas pedal as hard as I could  and jerked the steering wheel to the right as the truck plowed into the back of the Oldsmobile.  The driver meant to run into me, that’s for sure, and I wanted to make sure that he didn’t also run through me.

The truck slammed into my back left as I turned the car rightward as fast as I could.  I glanced at the speedometer on my dashboard at the moment of impact.  87 miles per hour.  If I hadn’t been worried about turning into a pancake on I-90 I’d have been impressed at how fast that bastard managed to get a semi to move.

After the initial crush and pop and metal on metal squealing, I felt the car turn and the rear end circle around; the semi steamed past, air brakes hissing and whining as the driver watched us, his prey, recede in his side mirror.  The Oldsmobile stopped facing into oncoming traffic, had there been any oncoming traffic, and the truck wheezed and shuddered past until coming to a halt under an overpass.

I sat there, staring the wrong way down the highway, for what felt like ten minutes but what was probably more like 2 seconds before the kid screamed, “He’s coming!”

The driver had gotten out about 150 yards down the road, the momentum of his truck carrying him too far down the road for his liking and still way, way too close to us for my liking.  I looked down at the dashboard; every possible warning light was flashing.  The car and I, united in distress, needed to get moving.

I took my foot off the brake.  I didn’t remember braking, I didn’t remember anything, and the only thought in my head was that the tall man was running straight at us, one arm up in the air.  I punched the accelerator as hard as I could and the  rear wheels spun and spun until enough rubber had been burned into the asphalt to overcome our inertia, the tires gripped the road, and we took off.

In the rearview mirror I saw pieces of metal and plastic fly off the end of the car, like a ticker tape parade for a championship sports team, except the only person there was the tall man, and I saw him hiss and curse something that was the opposite of a celebration.

***

The car was limping, the rear left wheel making a gawd-awful noise with each rotation.  We needed to get off the road, and we were still facing the wrong way.

I spun the car 175 degrees onto the exit ramp at Peterson.  There were, mercifully, few cars on the street and I turned into an alley behind a bagel and bialy shop, some restaurants, and a Greek furniture store.  After a half block, I stopped.

“Where are we?” the girl asked.

“In an alley, in the rain, driving a busted car and being chased by a killer.  But, other than that, you know, mostly safe.”

I jumped out of the car and looked at the trunk, crunched and ruined.  The pins holding it shut had come loose, and the mass of paper towels and energy bars I kept there for emergencies had fallen out.

I heard the sound of sirens race down the highway in the direction of the semi, and I opened the driver’s door and looked at the little girl huddled into the passenger seat. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Echo.  My name is Echo,” she said.

“Echo, I’m Mark.  I don’t know whats going on, but we’ve got a problem because I only know two people on earth who’d help me hide a kid without asking too many questions.  One of them is in Atlanta, and the other one is an insane asshole.”

She looked around at the alley, grey and dark red and slick with rain.  The place smelled like a Chinese restaurant was dumping its garbage into the storm drain on the pavement, and most weekdays that was exactly what was going on.  Pieces of broken chairs were piled up against the walls of the alley and a garbage dumpster stood next to the chairs, its doors missing and its belly gathering rain. “What are we going to do, then?”she said.

I pointed at the grey loading bay behind the furniture store.  “We’re going to ask the insane asshole for help.”

[end of part 3]

OWIF Part 2: Function over form

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1.

***

The Oldsmobile Aurora squealed out in front of a pair of minivans as the POP POP of handguns erupted and faded behind us.  I stole a glance at the rearview mirror in time to see chaos, mass confusion, and people scattering in all directions.  A mass of police lights converged on the spot where the tall man and the cops had been standing, a fast convergence of red and blue and sirens, like the big bang played backwards through a movie reel.

I took my eyes off the mirror and put them back on the road.  My hands tightened over the steering wheel when I saw the mass of police lights in front of me; in my haze I wasn’t sure if it was the scene we had just left behind.  Had I circled around already?

It wasn’t; these police cars were parked and empty.  The cops that drove them there were gathered around a car on the shoulder, broken glass strewn all over the road and barricades.   The drivers side window was missing, but the driver wasn’t.  He was sitting in the front seat, slumped over the steering wheel.  I don’t know exactly what happened to him but the spray of blood all over the interior of the vehicle and the spider-shaped bullet holes on the windshield gave me a good guess.  The car was a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, the identical twin of the car I was driving except that our car still had all its windows and I wasn’t carrying a pair of slugs in my head.

We cruised by, trying not to attract attention from the cops.  I don’t know why I ducked the cops; the proper thing to do would have been to pull over.  I didn’t know this kid, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be accused of kidnapping or being a part of whatever happened back there.

The girl was staring at my face, intent.  She watched my grimace as I stared at the police and emergency vehicles and must have picked up on my vibe. “Don’t stop here, I can’t stop here.”  Her voice was unsteady, but her stare wasn’t.

“We should stop, kid; these guys can help you.  They can take you back to your parents and keep you safe from that man with the gun.”

“No, they can’t.  No one can, anymore.”

I didn’t stop.  I drove for a couple of miles, brow as furrowed as could me.  I can’t stand silences, so I broke it.

“What do you want me to do, then?  Leave you at the CTA stop? I don’t have a gun and I don’t have a badge, kid.  You’re not safe with me.”

She had been looking out the window at the cold Chicago fall, and kept right on looking as she spoke. “I’m not safe anywhere.”

I felt drunk, which is odd because normally I’d feel scared or nervous, what with the gun fight and all.  “How old are you?  Nine?  Where should I take you?”

She sniffed, wiped her nose, and said, “I’m ten.  And my dad said that you’d take me to the meeting place.”

I turned the radio down, asked her to repeat what she said.  After she had, I said, “Dude, I don’t know your dad, and I don’t know what the meeting place is.”

She looked at me, startled. “But.  But.  Why did you pick me up?”

“I didn’t, you jumped in and then the bullets told me I should probably hit the gas.”

Tears started to well up under her eyes, but never quite formed fully. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I was supposed to go to the green Oldsmobile…”

“Yeah, probably,” I said, my hands fumbling for a cigarette I didn’t own for a smoke I’ve never had.  “And I’m guessing that the dude doing his best swiss cheese impression in the Oldsmobile we passed on the way out here was your ride.”

Now the tears started for real, great heaving sobs as we coasted down I-90 past the tire factories and industrial bakeries. She shuddered under her great oversized coat, and I I could do was offer her some napkins from a fast food joint I keep in the glove box.  She took them and blew her nose.  Damnation.  If my wife was here she’s know what to say; comforting the afflicted was always her thing.  I tried to dial her, but it went straight to voicemail.  She was still on the plane.

“Listen, kid,” I was going to say, “I’ll take you to the police station.  They’ll figure out what’s going on, and they’ll help you find you dad.”  I was going to say that, but I didn’t.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in the side mirror, a flash of light.  Not the insistent authority of a police car, but the light of a semi with its brights on, going way too fast.

“Oh crap,” was what actually came out of my mouth, as the red-and-rust Mack truck barreled down the right lane of the highway, past the surprised SUVs and sedans, and right into my car.

[end of part 2]

OWIF Part 1: Concrete movement

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

***

I dropped my wife off at the airport; the acid smell of jet fuel and coffee and travel drifted into the car as I watched her walk into the terminal.  She was wearing a coral-colored coat and towing a grey suitcase behind her.  As the electric door closed I realized I only know what the hell color “Coral” is because of her; without her it’s all just a faded orange.

I shifted the car, a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, into gear, slid backward to avoid a Korean family saying their tearful goodbyes – talk soon, call when you arrive, let’s Skype, blah blah.  In this day and age there is no permanent goodbyes, no dock-of-Belfast, last-call-to-Ellis-Island, only a “we’ll video call when you get back home.”   They’ll talk soon, but when is the next time we’ll touch?  When I’ll smell your cologne, your perfume?

I turned on the radio, took a sip of coffee and started to list the day, the soft imperfect planning of everything I’m supposed to do for the day, a list that will be the standard by which I jusdge the worth of my day that night.  Did I pick up the dry cleaning?  Did I get that work done?  Did I finish the grading? The car moved forward past a rental company bus, dark green and covered in soot, when a bright blue flash caused me to slam the breaks and spill my coffee.

She was a kid, about eight or nine years old, and she dashed in front of the bus just as it was pulling out and avoiding getting hit just in time to slam into the right side of my car.  She was wearing a winter hat, grey and hand-knitted, and an coat that was so big on her I thought she didn’t have arms at first.  It was a mens coat, a blue coat from one of those companies that sells camping gear to city folk that plan to go camping but never do.  I was so startled I squeezed my coffee cup, leaving hot coffee all over my steering wheel.

It turns out she had arms, and she used them to cushion her as she ran into my passenger side door.  Her face was pale, like the blood had run out of it, and she stood there, frozen, staring into my car as the rental truck pulled away, the driving cursing at us.  It’s not my fault, I wanted to signal to the driver, I don’t know her.  I didn’t know enough sign language to convey such a complex thought, so I just flicked him off.

The girl, still stuck in time, stared into the car as the bus pulled away.  Behind the bus was a man in a large black trenchcoat, short cropped hair and arms so long they extended past the sleeves of his coat by three or four inches.  He was tall, about six foot three or so, and as he looked in our direction he furrowed his brow, confused, for just a split second.

In his left hand he pulled up a walkie-talkie, and barked angrily into it.  I couldn’t make out what he said, as the windows were up and the radio was on, but by the expression on his face I could tell that he heard something back that he didn’t want to hear. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket; in it was a small pistol, like the kind that are often lighters and picked up as novelties by people in Las Vegas.

He pointed the pistol at me, no, no, not at me, at the kid, and yelled something in a language I don’t know, but the internal rosetta stone told me that he was yelling “Stop.”

The little girl turned around towards him, huge coat dangling off her like an poorly planned halloween costume.  They faced each other for what felt like, what, five seconds?  A minute?  Then the airport police started yelling.

There were four or five of them, running out of the terminal.  Shouting by airport cops is not unusual; it is in fact more weird to see an airport cop calming smiling.  These guys were not calmly doing anything – they were in full sprint towards the tall man.  As he turned he head to look at them the girl whirled around, pulled enough of the sleeves of her coat up to expose a little hand, then opened the car door and jumped in.

I confess I didn’t know what to say or do.  When unusual things happen we freeze, not necessarily out of cowardice but often out of confusion.  There is a buffering time when you put a new DVD into a player, or when you load a new video from the internet.  That was me; I was buffering.

“Drive,” she said, “please drive.”  Control-Alt-Delete.

I drove.  The sound of gunshots trailed off behind us.

 

[end of part 1]

[link to part 2]