My heart’s still here . . . .

My heart’s still here . . . .

 

I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.

I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.

So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.

I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.

I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.

Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”

I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:

Plink.

Plink.

Plink.

With an occasional:

Plunk.

Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.

***

When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.

***

I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.

Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.

Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.

Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?

***

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.

Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.

Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

On August 3, he turned 90 years old.

***

Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.

After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated.  He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.

San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

***

2016_08-19_Tony Bennett Statue Dedication_2

On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.

(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)

Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.

I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.

View from Fairmont
The view from our reception room at the Fairmont, 2008

Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”

The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!

***

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_3

That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_1

After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.

That night, the Giants won 8-1.

***

You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.

Shakin’ all over

Shakin’ all over

No, that isn’t me in the photo. It happens to be my niece Tara. A couple of weeks ago, Tara threw me into a fit of hysterical choking laughter when she texted this picture completely out of the blue. The photo references one of my many mortifying personal stories, and it must have stuck with her, because she spontaneously saw fit to do a reenactment. So I thought I would re-tell the story. I’ve been writing some fairly serious blogs lately and I thought I’d lighten things up this week, in keeping with my vow to periodically post little vignettes that capture the inane, embarrassing, and/or idiotic things I’ve done in the past.

(See, for example, “Broken windows and empty hallways.”)

It all started at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Northern Californians remember that day well. The Giants were about to start the third game of their first World Series in 27 years. They had lost the first two games, but of course there was still abundant hope circulating in the heart of Paula Bocciardi. I was working in the Civic Center and was desperate, of course, to get home for the start of the game. So, like the devoted but precise employee I was, I SHOT out the door at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. as if there were a rocket strapped to my back.

Paula with Honda PassportMy preferred mode of transportation at the time was my cherished “hog.” It was a red-and-white Honda C70 Passport motorcycle. Okay, it was only 70cc and its top speed was 44 miles an hour, but for the City it was perfect. A few people had dared to call it a “scooter” or, even worse, a “moped,” but I would quickly put those people in their place. First of all, you needed a motorcycle license to ride that bike. Second, the tires were motorcycle-sized so you had to lean into curves as you would on a real chopper. Finally, it had actual gears that you had to shift. I felt studly riding that thing, even though, to be honest, if it fell over I could pick it up with one hand.

So I hit that throttle and zoomed down Larkin Street, heading towards Geary to get home, when suddenly my bike was thrown into the next lane. And I mean thrown like kindling in a cyclone. I had just gotten a new tire, so I instantly assumed that the mechanic had done something terribly wrong. I hollered every expletive I knew into my helmet. Thankfully, I was still upright when I came to a stop. And it was then that I noticed that the ground was rolling, a burgeoning cloud of dust was filling the air, and people were streaming out onto the street. The air got thicker and browner, the traffic lights suddenly went out, and everyone was yelling. I finally figured it out. EARTHQUAKE.

It took me forever to get home, stopping at every intersection in the City because the lights were out. When I pulled up to my apartment building, one of the other tenants was standing outside. “Did you feel it?” he asked. I explained that I had been on my bike and hadn’t really understood what was happening at the moment it hit. To this day, I remember his exact response: “It’s a good thing you weren’t here in the apartment building,” he said, “because you would have lost your lunch.”

There really wasn’t much destruction in my apartment at all. My beloved 19-inch television, perched on top of a trunk, had been shaken off and onto the ground, and a few things on shelves had fallen and broken, but overall everything was okay.

My workplace was closed immediately after the quake because of structural damage, so I headed up to spend a few days with my parents in Clearlake, away from the aftershocks. All in all, then, I was fairly sheltered from experiencing the true drama of that devastating quake.

When I returned to my apartment on Friday night, I settled in to relax and watch television. Channel-surfing, I landed first upon a local news station that was running a montage of never-before-seen footage taken during the temblor from various video cameras around northern California. I started to absorb the horror of what I was seeing: the terrible shaking, the merchandise falling and shelves crashing onto the floors of local businesses, a panicked bartender racing out from behind a bar to escape shattering glass, customers screaming, a freeway collapsed.

Suddenly, I was petrified. It was three days after the event, everyone else was calming down and starting the work of healing, and I became paralyzed with fear. I concluded that there was going to be an imminent aftershock that would be stronger than the initial tremor on Tuesday, and that we were all destined to perish. It was terror delayed, but it was the kind of terror a child experiences when he knows that, the instant he closes his eyes at night, a monster will leap out of the closet.

I needed to take action to ensure my safety. That action, I concluded, was to place a motorcycle helmet on the bed next to me before I went to sleep. That would save my life.

For some reason I didn’t choose my black helmet that made me look like Darth Vader in tennis shoes. In a cool way. At the time, I had a passenger helmet that was a god-awful yellow hue, with no face guard or chin strap, and that’s the one I laid carefully next to my pillow that night.

Well, wouldn’t you know, I was slumbering peacefully when all of a sudden the most clamorous racket arose in my apartment. Wham! Clang! Bang bang bang! It was like John Henry hitting a piece of iron with his mighty hammer. Bang bang bang bang bang! My eyes flew open and the bed was shaking violently and I knew exactly what was happening.

“IT’S THE BIG ONE!!” I shrieked.

I snatched that helmet, crammed it on my head, and raced for the doorway, bracing my arms and legs against the jamb and preparing myself for the inevitable crumbling of the walls.

My doorway faced into the living room, and when I could finally focus, I noticed that my big heavy flower pot, suspended from the ceiling by a long macramé hanger, wasn’t moving. Not swaying a bit. In fact, nothing was moving. Nothing at all.

Hmm.

It seems that, since the power had gone out three days before, the automatic timers that worked the building heating system had been out of whack. The heat was now coming on in the middle of the night. And every apartment had the old-fashioned metal baseboard steam heaters that sound like hammers when water first starts to flow through them. So it was the radiators that were clanking.

And it was my pounding heart that had set the bed moving.

There I was, then, adorned in that yellow beehive of a helmet, pressed in fear against the doorway. I was facing out towards the street, and when I looked out my huge living room window, I saw two passers-by staring up at me.

Did I mention that I was naked?

 

 

 

You’re a good man, Leon Emmons

You’re a good man, Leon Emmons

 

Leon Emmons is going to kill me. If my body is found tomorrow morning at the bottom of a nearby river, please give his name to the police. You see, today is Leon’s birthday, and he has no idea that I am writing about him. He’s going to be mighty mad and I’m going to be in trouble.

***

Leon Emmons lives in Des Moines, Iowa. He and I have been friends for 14 years, but we met each other for the first time only two years ago.

The catalyst for our very unlikely friendship was the Thunderbird that I bought in the fall of 2001 and drove down Route 66 with Julie. It took Ford two years to produce the car after it was introduced in concept form at auto shows in 1999, and many of us around the country managed the wait by joining what were then called online “newsgroups.” Leon and I were both members of the Thunderbird newsgroup, but I didn’t know him at all. After my Route 66 journey, though, I submitted a long piece about the trip to the Vintage Thunderbird Club International for inclusion in its quarterly magazine. There was no money involved. All I requested was that I be sent a couple of copies of the magazine when my article was published. Unfortunately, the organization’s president fell out with his colleagues and refused to ever send the copies. I happened to mention this in a newsgroup post one day, and that’s when I became acquainted with the generous, decent Iowan I am writing about today.

Leon sent me an e-mail telling me that he had a bunch of copies and would send them to me. To this day I have no idea how he acquired those copies. When I profusely thanked him, he actually said he was grateful to me for having written the Route 66 story, especially because it had an uplifting ending. He told me that a few years earlier he had been in a hospital with bacterial pneumonia, fighting for his life after being given a 5 percent chance of recovery. He said that he continued to be thankful every day, and that “we all need to slow down and reflect, and your trip was a great way of showing lots of busy people the real meaning of life.”

Of course, I have no memory of what I wrote back then, so I had to go back to those now-dusty magazines and read the ending again:

Well, I’ve worn the same socks for a week; my cholesterol has GOT to be over 300; and my uncut hair looks like Ringo-Starr-meets-Bozo-the-Clown. This is the end of the line. A bittersweet end for me, but it was certainly a joyous ending for the Dust Bowl travelers who saw the orange groves of the L.A. basin for the first time. For me, my reward was to see the orange sky over the Pacific Ocean at sunset in Santa Monica.

One thing all of us have been brutally reminded of this year is that it is all too easy to make our way blindly through the minutiae of daily life. But we live in a gorgeous country whose past and present we need to respect and cherish. All of it is out there to experience: the roads, the burger joints, the friendly motels, the abandoned buildings, the farmhouses, the autumn leaves, the canyons, the desert, the sun setting over the ocean.

Okay, that settles it: The primary thing that Leon and I have in common is that we’re both a couple of saps.

***

Buster and Leon's football
Buster with Leon’s football

Since that time, Leon has periodically sent me newspaper articles and packages. They’re often Iowa-related. I’ve received food items like Maytag blue cheese and a kind of Norwegian crepe-like potato bread called lefse. He’s sent articles about the Iowa Cubs minor league team and about famous gymnasts who have trained in the state. When we got Buster, he sent a little stuffed football. And if I happen to mention something I like, he remembers it. He sent me a 49er jacket. He sent me a Route 66 book. When I mentioned that I watched “Mad Men,” he mailed me a DVD box set of season one, signed (and personalized) by January Jones because of course he knows her. Similarly, when I noted that I watched “Nashville” regularly, he sent me a personalized, signed photograph from one of the cast members because he somehow knows her, too.

For the past 28 years, Leon and a bunch of his buddies have rented a ski lodge for an annual get-together in the Rockies, and he mentioned once that they had brought a bottle of rye whiskey with them. When I responded that I had sampled my share of Kentucky bourbon but had never tried rye whiskey, of course a bottle of Templeton Rye arrived in the mail.

I’m afraid to ever tell him that I have never ridden in a fast, expensive car, because I fear that a few days later a Ferrari will show up on my doorstep!

***

Early in our friendship, after Leon started sending me things, I decided to Google him, because of course one never knows the intentions of strangers. What I found was an article in the Des Moines Register about a tragic accident in which a 13-year-old boy named Roger, riding on the back of his dad’s motorcycle, was seriously injured when they were hit by a truck. The dad died. The doctors told Roger that he was paralyzed from the neck down and would have to breathe through a tracheostomy the rest of his life. Leon somehow heard about the story and paid for the boy’s first month at the Ronald McDonald House. He also gave him a jersey signed by Vikings QB Dante Culpepper, organized a meeting with former running back Chuck Foreman, got one of the coaches to call, and promised Roger a trip to the Metrodome if he walked out of the hospital. According to the article, three months later Roger’s bones had miraculously fused, and sure enough, he walked out of that hospital.

Leon hadn’t mentioned this to me.

When I brought it up with him, he just said that we all need guardian angels.

***

Leon is a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner. He’s been married almost 40 years to Sherry, a “blond beauty,” he says, who is the absolute love of his life. (The story of their courtship and marriage actually made it onto the nationally syndicated Paul Harvey show.) They have two children and a couple of beautiful grandchildren. He’s a religious man – a man, I can attest, of tremendous faith.

The town of Emmons, Minnesota, is named after Leon’s family. Every year, Leon takes his mother to a Minnesota Vikings game. She is NINETY-SEVEN years old. When she turned 95, she asked Leon to buy her a push mower for her birthday. Man, they make ’em strong and tough in the Midwest.

I know that Leon has an attorney brother, so I should probably be doubly afraid that, if Leon doesn’t kill me when he sees this blog post, he may take me to court. I don’t know the brother’s name, so just for fun I will assume his nickname is “Lemons.” Lemons, please read this whole thing before you sue me for libel.

(By the way, just as an aside, Sherry’s maiden name was Clemens! And yes, she’s related to Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain]!)

So please forgive me, Leon Emmons, Lemons Emmons, and Sherry Clemens!

***

In 1981, Mickey Rooney starred in a made-for-TV movie called Bill, a true story about a sweet, charming, developmentally disabled man named Bill Sackter who was institutionalized at the age of seven and spent 44 years in a neglectful home, never seeing his family again, and not knowing the touch, affection, and love of other human beings. Forty-four years. Imagine that. Bill was doing menial work when he met Barry Morrow and his wife Beverly – two saints who would save his life. Barry Morrow was just out of college and starting a career then (he would dedicate his life to the disabled and go on to write the Oscar-winning screenplay of a little movie you may have seen called Rain Man), and he and Beverly befriended Bill, got him out of the institution, brought him to Iowa when Barry got a job at the university, and essentially saw to his care and development.

Bill was a funny guy; he would make everyone around him smile when he’d say things like “Be careful when you cross the street, because a car can kill you. And that isn’t good for anybody.”  He played a mean harmonica. He was a loving, giving, charismatic man, and as much as Barry and his circle of acquaintances taught Bill, Bill returned the favor by helping them all see the beauty in our differences.

In 2005, a director name Lane Wyrick made a documentary about Bill’s life called A Friend Indeed.  The documentary points out that the only times Bill would get sad would be when he obsessed over his wigs. Apparently, when he was living in the institution, a cruel worker had once grabbed his hair and thrown him down the stairs so violently that his hair was pulled out by the roots and never grew back. Bill was self-conscious about his baldness, and he always wore terrible-looking wigs, sprayed with a bottle’s worth of shellac-like wig spray, placed on his head in ways that could only generously be called “askew.” The documentary points out that an Iowa man in the hair restoration business saw a photograph of Bill in the newspaper and noted the god-awful condition of Bill’s wig. So the businessman volunteered his services to make a good-looking wig for Bill that would be stylish and match his beard. Bill absolutely adored his new wig and it marked a turning point of sorts in his life. His self-consciousness abated. That generous businessman was, of course, Leon Emmons.

A Friend Indeed is one of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen. At 90 minutes it’s a bit long, so it was edited into a one-hour version. It won a lot of independent film awards and was shown on various PBS stations throughout the Midwest. When I stopped weeping after I saw it, I decided to write to the public TV stations in San Francisco and Santa Rosa to ask if they would run it. The Santa Rosa station didn’t bother to respond, and the San Francisco station took a pass. I guess they figured that their viewers, with the attention spans of three-year-olds and all the empathy of speed bumps, wouldn’t care for it. It’s a real shame. That film is a wonderful reminder of the kindness of strangers.

***

Speaking of the kindness of strangers . . . . When Iiowa wine took my train trip in 2014, I started off on the California Zephyr, which runs from Emeryville to Chicago by way of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. One morning our attendant Lamar showed up at my room and delivered to me a bottle of red wine from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, along with a card from Leon and his buddy Bob. At Leon’s behest, Bob had actually driven to the Amtrak station, met the train, flagged down a conductor, and given instructions for me to receive the bottle. What a fantastic experience it was for me to be presented with a gift while traveling alone 2,000 miles from home. These Iowans are good folks.

***

I have to say, one thing not so good about Leon is his ability to predict the outcome of sporting events. Every year I participate in a March Madness pool, and as most people know, Iowa seems to breed some pretty rabid college basketball fans. A couple of years ago, Leon told me with great confidence that certain Iowa teams were going to go all the way. Knowing nothing about college basketball, I took his word for it when I filled out my bracket. And every single team he touted failed miserably in the first round. That’s the last time I’m going to take sports advice from Leon Emmons.

***

I finally met Leon, face-to-face, in October 2014. Julie and Buster and I were driving to Kentucky and at the last minute decided to detour and avoid Missouri, which was plagued at the time by bad weather, baseball playoff traffic (did I mention that the Giants beat both the Cardinals and the Royals to become champs that year?), and unrest in Ferguson. We ended up driving through Iowa close to Des Moines, and I decided to get in touch with Leon and meet him in person once and for all. I texted him and sure enough, he dropped everything and came to our hotel lobby, bringing some edible Iowa goodies with him.

***

When my mom passed away last fall, Leon sent me a card. I was sitting in our backyard on an uncommonly warm evening, drinking a glass of wine, when I opened it. Inside the envelope was some money that Leon specifically told me to use on a Giants game, because he knew that every year we brought Mom to one or two games in the fancy Club Level (where she wouldn’t have to climb any stairs). I’m sure the wine magnified my sentiments, but I burst into tears at the thoughtfulness of Leon’s gift. So on August 19, Julie and I will be at the game in Club Level. I chose that night because it is Tony Bennett Night at the ballpark, and Mom and I shared a love for him. Tony just celebrated his 90th birthday, and that morning the Fairmont hotel will be dedicating a new statue to him. Rumor has it that he also may be at the game and may even sing for the crowd. In any case, I’ll be thinking of Leon when I am in my seat at the ballpark.

***

One of Leon’s best friends was a gay man who lived in San Francisco. I’ll call him “Aaron.” Every year, Leon would come out to California and they would go to a 49er game together.  When Aaron died, Leon wrote to me in grief and said that he was glad that God had given him the opportunity to get to know the man. Aaron had been one of the ski buddies, and Leon told me that the guys were going to hold their own service in Iowa, at a synagogue up the street from his business. “What a sight that will be, a bunch of Baptist conservatives praying for the soul of someone with such a different lifestyle. When it comes to compassion, [Aaron] showed us and taught us the real meaning of love and not labeling people,” Leon wrote.

Barry Morrow said at the end of A Friend Indeed that it’s important that we value people who we might think are lesser than us. I would suggest that we also value people different from us. In this day and age when everyone judges everyone else, I hope that’s still possible. I suspect that Leon and I are different in many, many ways. But I believe him to be one of the greatest people on earth.

Leon, there is absolutely no reason for you ever to have been so kind to me. After all, I have done virtually nothing in return. So this is finally my gift to you, Leon. Happy Birthday.