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Dad’s Last Visit

He spent his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Now he wanted me to know the real deal.

Here is PJ at his best. This essay about his father first ran in the November/December issue of AARP in 2006 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Dad’s Last Visit

By Pat Jordan

My father died in the spring of 2005, a year and a half after my mother died, and a week after he visited my wife and me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 95. She was 97.

My niece was with my father when he died in a hospital room in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She told me at his funeral that he had awakened from a coma and began shouting for me, “Patty! I have to call Patty!” Then he died.

My father’s visit was my brother George’s idea. “To connect with Dad one last time,” he said. Actually, he’s my half brother. We have the same mother but different fathers. His father left him and our mother a few years after my brother was born. Then my father married our mother and raised my brother as his natural son, although he never adopted him legally. I came along 14 years later.

I went to the airport early to meet Dad. My brother told me to get him a wheelchair. I said, “He’s too vigorous for that. It’ll embarrass him.” He said, “No, he likes the attention.” I pushed the wheelchair to the gate and asked one of the exiting passengers if he remembered an old man on the flight.

“He’s bald, with a white mustache,” I said. The man said, “You’re the writer! He talked my ear off about you the entire flight.” I said, “That’s him.”

Finally Dad came hobbling out of the jetway, clutching a small bag in one hand and, in the other, a paperback book. I hadn’t seen him since my mother’s funeral. He looked the same, only more halt. He wore a navy blazer, rep tie, and gray slacks. His con. “I always dressed Ivy League,” he once said.

“The suckers bought it.”

“Curly!” I said. He looked up with his opaque, gray-blue eyes. We kissed on the lips as did all the men in our Italian family. “I got you a wheelchair, Pop. But you won’t need, will you?”

“I’d like it,” he said in a weak voice. I settled him in the wheelchair and began pushing him through the crowded airport. He arranged the paperback book on his lap so that its cover showed. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. People smiled down at him, and then up at me, the dutiful son, also an old man with his white beard.

I leaned over him and said, “How does it feel to be 95, Pop?”

“Not like I felt at 80.”

We stood outside in the hot sunshine and disorienting traffic. “Wanna wait here while I bring the car around?” I said.

“No, I can walk.”

A sheriff’s deputy stopped traffic so Dad and I could cross the street to the parking garage. It was dark and cool in the garage. I sat him down on a bench near the elevator. “I’ll get the car,” I said.

As I walked toward the car, I called Susan. “How is he?” she said.

“The same,” I said. “Only older.”

When we got home Susan greeted Dad at the front door with a kiss. “Wait here, Dad,” she said. “I’ll put the dogs in the backyard.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “I want to see the orphan.” He meant Matthew, our mutt, the one we’d rescued. Our other five dogs were thoroughbred Shiba Inus we’d bought. Matthew was always deliriously happy. Our Shibas were aloof. They thought we were lucky to have them.

Dad had never met Matthew, but he identified with him from the first moment we got him. “An orphan, like me,” Dad said. Dad never knew his mother or his father. His mother was a 16-year-old girl from Italy who gave him up to an orphanage the moment he was born to her in a strange land. Dad lived in the orphanage for 15 years, then he got a job sweeping out a pool hall. He slept on the green felt tables. Over the years he became a great pool shooter for money, and then an expert with dice and cards, and every form of gambling. That’s how he made his living. His secret, he said, was that he always looked for the edge. Marked cards, shaved dice, and an affected intellectualism that was a masquerade. He would hustle the Palm Beach swells for inside information at their private club box at Hialeah Park racetrack during the Flamingo Stakes, flaunting a Jay Gatsby-esque manner of speaking and a superficial knowledge of the Greek philosophers, without any notion of what they meant, except to use them in his con to separate the “suckers” from their money. But he gave his money away, to his cronies, his wife, his sons. It was the con he loved.

Shortly before I was born, Dad went to a judge to get his name legally changed from Pasquale Giordano to Pat Jordan so I would be born “an American.” The judge said, “That’ll be $17.” Dad said, “I don’t have the money.” The judge felt sorry for this poor Italian, with his lowered eyes and deferential slouch, so he changed my father’s name for nothing. What the judge would never know was that my father had over a thousand dollars in his pocket in that courtroom. Dad’s con gave him his sense of worth as a human being. Every time he conned the “suckers” out of money, or love, or intimacy, it was proof in his mind’s eye that he was someone special, smarter, better. Dad’s con was the most important thing in his life.

Matthew was a con, too, but in a more elemental way. He ran out of the North Carolina woods one night and up onto the porch of our cabin with his two brothers. They were straggly, starving, flea- and tick-infested mountain puppies no more than 12 weeks old. We fed them all. Matthew’s two brothers wolfed down the food and ran back into the woods. Matthew stayed. He tried to climb into our laps. He licked our hands. He lay on the deck on his back with his legs spread, his pink belly and tiny balls exposed. So, we adopted him. Our Shibas resented him at first, this interloper, until he conned them, too, and they accepted him into the pack.

Susan opened the front door wide and Dad stepped inside. Our dogs came running. Our Shibas sniffed at Dad’s shoes and pants and then lost interest. Matthew leaped up on Dad with his paws, whimpering and wagging his tail, as if he had been waiting for Dad all his life. Dad giggled. “See!” he said. “My fellow orphan loves me.” I didn’t tell Dad that Matthew loved everyone; that was his con.

We got Dad seated at the dining room table. Matthew stood up on his hind legs and draped his front paws over Dad’s knees. He stared up at Dad with his huge brown eyes filled with such love that Dad was almost moved to tears. “He loves me,” he said, and petted Matthew’s floppy ears. I made Dad a drink, a Tanqueray martini. “You remembered, son,” he said. He sipped his drink. Matthew lay at his feet. Dad smiled down on him. “He won’t leave me.” Susan brought a tray of cheese and crackers. Matthew perked up. Dad took a bite of cheese and crackers, and a crumb fell to the floor. Matthew licked it up.

We put Dad’s bag in the guest room. Susan set the table for dinner. I heated up the sausage and peppers. I had cooked in the morning, and served it to Dad with hot garlic bread and a glass of red wine. Dad ate methodically, silently, and when he finished, he said, “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep.” He went into the guest room as Susan cleared the table.

“So far, so good,” she said.

“So far,” I said.

Susan went to sleep in the bedroom with the dogs. I lay down on the sofa in the Florida room where I could see into the house in case Dad woke and didn’t know where he was. I watched TV late into the night, glancing toward the guest room, until I fell asleep.


Gun Smoke

Ah, now Grantland has something here that really smokes. They are running a “Director’s Cut” series reprinting old pieces of sports writing. First up, is Tony Kornheiser’s profile of Nolan Ryan from the debut issue of Inside Sports.  Kornheiser was a wonderful long-form writer, first at Newsday, then the New York Times, where he covered basketball and wrote, “That Damned Yankees,” which stands as one the finest stories on George Steinbrenner.

For the first year-and-a-half of its run, Inside Sports was terrific. It was run by John Walsh. Tom Boswell was their baseball guy, Pete Axthelm contributed a column. Diane K. Shah was there. Gary Smith got his start as a magazine writer there and once wrote a wonderful basketball story called “Tinkerbell and Sweet Lou.”  Kornheiser did several bonus pieces, including a classic one on Joe Nameth, and the great Pete Dexter also did takeouts for them–on Jim Brown, Randy White, Daryl Dawkins, and the Tooz. Len Shapiro wrote about Bill James, John Schulian about Mark Aguirre and Gary Fencik, George Kimball on George Brett, and Dick Young wrote a fine piece on Duke Snider. Oh, yeah, Leonard Gardner, who wrote perhaps the finest boxing novel of them all, covered Duran Leonard.

Pat Jordan wrote the most celebrated story in the magazine’s history, a profile of Steve and Cyndi Garvey. The Garvey’s sued Inside Sports’ parent company (The Washington Post) and the ordeal put Jordan’s career on hold for more than a year (though he wrote two more pieces for them: a spring training story on the Yankees, and a profile of Steve Dalkowski). The suit, however, kept the magazine going longer than expected, according to Jay Lovinger, one of its editors. The case was eventually settled, the Garveys got divorced, and the Post sold the magazine. It was never the same.

I’m looking forward to this series. It’s a real mitzvah when you consider that the majority of the greatest sports writing is not available on-line.

Fearsome Foursome (Plus One)

This week, Gary Smith profiled the Phillies starting rotation in SI’s Baseball Preview issue.

And in the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine, Pat Jordan takes on Philadelphia’s four aces:

Mike Schmidt was standing behind a batting cage, still as trim as during his playing days. A handsome, middle-aged man with swept-back, silvery hair and a thick mustache. I asked him what he thought of the four Phillies pitchers.

“Well,” he said, “now when the Phillies come to town, the other team knows they’re being challenged by four No. 1 pitchers. They have to amp up their mental game. I used to see my at-bats the night before a game when I laid my head down on the pillow. Gibson, Seaver, Ryan. I had to have a plan. When I went to Houston, they had three good pitchers. The fourth was Nolan Ryan. I could go to sleep with the other three, but Ryan kept me awake. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! My plan was, don’t miss his fastball if he threw it over the plate. If he got two strikes on me, I’d have to face his curveball.” He turned and looked at me with his small blue eyes, which had fear in them. “Ryan was scary!” he said. He shook his head, as if seeing Ryan on the mound. Ryan began his motion and fired the ball at his head. Schmidt had a split second to make a decision. Was it a 100 m.p.h. fastball that could kill him if it hit him in the head, or was it that wicked curveball? If he dove away from the plate and the pitch was a curveball that broke over the plate, he’d look like a fool and a coward. But if it wasn’t a curveball, if it was that 100 m.p.h. fastball, and he didn’t dive away from the plate . . . well, he didn’t even want to think about that.

“Ryan, Gibson, Seaver, they made you defensive,” he said. “Does that make sense? You were afraid of the ball. There’s no fear of the ball today with cutters, splitters and changeups.”

“What about the Phillies’ four pitchers?” I said.

“They’re not scary,” he said. “Even if they all win 20 games, the Phillies don’t have a pitcher who strikes fear in a hitter.”

Two very different takes on “the best rotation in baseball” from two very different writers.

And while we are talking pitching, here’s Steve Rushin’s piece on the Braves’ five aces from the 1993 SI Baseball Preview.

Bo Knows Booty

Over at Deadspin, here’s my guy Pat Jordan on Bo Belinsky:

No character in sports was more authentic than Robert “Bo” Belinsky, a left-handed pitcher in the ’60s. Bo personified “cool,” real cool that was intrinsic to his nature, not his public persona. As a rookie, Bo pitched the first no-hitter in California major league history for the Angels. It made him a star and an instant celebrity whose name became synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling. But that no-hitter was the high point of Bo’s career, which, after eight years, saw him leave baseball with a 28-51 record.

After his no-hitter in 1962, Bo said, “If music be the food of love, by all means let the band play on.” Bo instantly became the first original playboy-athlete. He f**ked Ann-Margret, Mamie Van Doren, Tina Louise, Connie Stevens, and he partied with Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin, and Henry Fonda. But in those days f**king Hollywood starlets and showing up at his team’s hotel at 5 a.m., “reeking of bitch and booze,” was not exactly what team owners, managers, sportswriters, and fans expected from their idols. Bo was suspended, arrested, banished to the minor leagues, traded, and traded again and again, which confused him. Bo never understood an essential fact of celebrity in those days. He never had that knack of later, more beloved playboy athletes like Joe Namath of cultivating his persona precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which his public would become annoyed, bored, and eventually furious with him. By the time Bo left baseball his name had become synonymous with dissipated talent.

Welcome to My Nightmare

Pat Jordan loves to trash the Yankees because he knows I’m so easy to wind up. He could not care less about the fortunes of any team in any sport other than his beloved Miami Hurricanes (and since I could not care less about college football, giving it back to him is less than fun). So we talk about the Yankees and he gets his digs in.

Last night he goes, “Hey Al, what are you going to do when Carl Pavano goes 2-0 in the playoffs against you guys? Hey, didn’t Pavano once pitch for the Yankees?”

Roars with laughter. “What? He win like three games in five years? Hey, Al isn’t he going for his 17th win tonight?” More laughter.

I tell him that Pavano winning two games agains the Yankees in the playoffs is my worst nightmare. Not even losing to the Twins–how can you be hard-on against the Twins?–just Pavano, who bilked the Yankees out of $40 million and is now pitching well while sporting the worst mustache of the decade.

“Tell you what, Al,” Pat said. “I’ll clean and polish my Glock 9mm and load the clip with hollow point bullets so you can come down here put it in your mouth and pull the fuggin trigger after Pavano beats the Yankees.”

More roaring.

[Photo Credit: Nam Y. Huh/AP]

“I. Have. Striven. For. Genius. All. My. Life. But I have known failure.”

Pat Jordan is 69 years old and still writing. He jokingly refers to himself as the “Last Knight of the Freelance,” and it’s true, he’s the last guy of his generation to still make a living as a freelance magazine writer. He writes for the dough but he also writes because that’s what he does, that’s who he is–he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t working.

Jordan takes on another old pro, William Shatner in a profile that appears in this week’s New York Times Magazine:

Shatner was interviewed once by a snarky British talk-show host, who showed scenes from Shatner’s TV cop show, “T. J. Hooker,” and asked, “What do you think about your acting?” Shatner replied: “Oh, I was terrible. How could I have played it that way?” Outside Starbucks, Shatner said to me: “If someone criticizes my acting, they may be right. Sometimes you shouldn’t work so hard” to entertain. Then, softly, he said: “I never thought of myself as a great actor, like Olivier. I was a working actor. I entertained people and always tried to be terrific at whatever it was.” His problem and his salvation. He played so many different roles that “people couldn’t define me like they could De Niro. I took whatever work came my way to pay the bills, even if it wasn’t a decent role.” His motto was “Work equals work,” which destroyed any hope he had of being taken seriously as an actor but also brought him longevity, wealth and fame. “I was always grubbing,” he said. “But I was saying the words somewhere.” He leaned toward me and said, with mock import, “I love to evoke the bones and meat and thoughts of characters.” He put his hand on my knee, squeezed gently, then said with breathless intimacy: “I said this one line for Priceline 20 times. I struggled to get the nuance. My silence reverberated in the ether.” His face was close to mine, as if imparting a great secret. “If you add a car and a hotel room, you will get an even better price from Priceline.com.” I nodded. “See! You got it!” Then, matter-of-factly, he straightened up and emphasized how much satisfaction that one line gave him. “A pro takes the job knowing it’s not a great role, just a paying job. But every word has music in it. My satisfaction is trying to reach that music.”

In the Name of the Father

Good piece by Pat Jordan on Dale Earnhardt, Jr in the New York Times Magazine this week:

Earnhardt and I were sitting on the sofa talking; his publicist sat on another sofa. We talked for two hours, while his publicist fidgeted, casting expectant glances at us. Earnhardt said nobody calls him Junior or Little E anymore, except his fans. “That’s off my back,” he said. He looked down at his hands while he talked. When I asked him why he races, he said: “I didn’t want to work for a living. What the hell am I gonna do with my life as Dale Earnhardt’s son if I don’t race? I was a mechanic in Dad’s dealership at 18, and those were some of my happiest days. But my name was Dale Earnhardt Jr., man. Working as a mechanic would’ve been a real pain. People saying: ‘What happened to you? You’re Dale Earnhardt’s son.’ ”

…What has been the hardest thing for him to deal with in his career?

He stared at his hands and said: “All my life I’ve been the smaller measure of the man. When my Dad died, I wanted to honor him. But I wanted to distance myself from him too. I wanted to get out from under being Dale Earnhardt’s son.”

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Here’s Pat Jordan at his best. A first-person essay on his relationship with his brother:

My brother doesn’t know where I live. He doesn’t know who my friends are. He doesn’t know I have two new puppies. He doesn’t know I am talking again to my daughter after 20 years. He doesn’t know if Susan is still well and free from cancer. He doesn’t know if I am well or sick, working or not, vigorous or an old man. I know nothing about him either. I have not talked to him in three years. I have not seen him in five. I have seen him only three times in the last 12 years, at my house in Florida in 2000, at our mother’s funeral in 2002, and at my father’s funeral in 2005. He doesn’t know what I look like now, at 69, whether I have gained or lost weight, whether I have lost my hair like Dad, or still have it like him. But I know what he looks like because he has never aged. He looked old when he was young, but when he got old he looked the same. He’s 83 now. With short hair like Brillo, a long horsey face, and small eyes (his friends called him “Moose”). A tall, sturdily built man with a vise-like handshake that made me wince, his reminder that he would always be stronger than me, like a solid oak unbending in the wind, while I would always be a sapling whipped by the wind until uprooted.

At my mother’s funeral in 2002, my father, my brother, and I greeted mourners in the back of the church in our hometown of Fairfield, Conn. My brother, 6’4″, wore his Ivy League suit from J. Press Clothiers in New Haven, and his wing-tipped cordovan shoes, as sturdy as Dutch clogs. My father, 5’6″, at 92, wore his navy blazer with brass buttons and his regimentally striped tie. I, 6’1″, wore my black leather sport jacket, jeans, and work boots. I had long gray hair and a white beard. My father looked at me and said, “You look like a bum.” My brother said, “Leave the kid alone, Dad. He came all this way.” My brother always defended me to my father. That’s why he always called me “the kid.” It was a sign of affection. To him, I would always be “the kid”; it was his way of excusing my behavior among adults. And whether my brother realized it or not, it was a way to diminish me. Which was the problem, one of them anyway, which is also why, at 69, I have reconciled myself to the possibility that I will never see my brother again.

Breaking the Wall

[Editor’s Note: Here’s another one from the Pat Jordan vaults, a short, cutting profile of Burt Reynolds, from the late Eighties. While Pat reserves his harshest criticism for himself, but he’s especially hard on jockish, so-called tough guy actors like Reynolds and Tom Selleck. He thought Reynolds wasted his talent and was willfully lazy for easy money and fame.

When this story was published Reyonlds’ publicist called Pat and called him the “evilest man in the world, the anti-christ.” Pat said, “Then I’ll see you in Hell.”

No business like show business. Enjoy.]

By Pat Jordan

It was just a wink. But it defined the rest of his career.

“They told me I couldn’t do it,” he says. “It would break down the wall between the actor and his audience. But the movie was just a cartoon. Smokey and the Bandit. Cotton Candy. I just wanted to say to the audience, I hope you’re having as much fun as I am. So I looked in the camera, and winked.”

Audiences loved it. That conspiratorial wink united them with the actor in his inside joke. This movie was just a lark. He didn’t take it seriously. He wasn’t really acting. He was just partying with friends in front of a camera, and he invited the audience to join in. His fans were so grateful they made his movie one of the biggest grosser of the year, 1977, and they made him a No 1 Box Office Attraction. A Star. But more than that. Their favorite actor. The actor they liked the most. Which was his problem.

“I thought acting was synonymous with being liked,” he says. “I courted my fans. I passionately wanted them to like me. I thought being liked meant I was a good actor.”

The critics weren’t so accepting as his fans. That wink didn’t play well with them. They read into it, not the actor’s good-spirits toward his fans, but his contempt for them, and his craft. It wasn’t an actor’s role to be liked by his fans. It was to entertain them. Just because he was having fun with his friends – Jackie Gleason, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, etc. – in a host of Sophomoric movies (Smokey and the Bandit, Iⅈ Cannonball Run, I&II) that actually did seem to be filmed parties of actors acting silly, that didn’t mean his audiences were having fun. They would have fun only as long as that wink deceived them into believing they were inside those parties. That they were getting drunk, cracking inside jokes, oogling beautiful girls, and crashing expensive cars with the actor and his friends. But the truth was, they weren’t and never would be. They were irrelevant to those parties, except that they made them possible by the vast sums of money they paid to see them on screen. When, and if, they woke to the deceit of that wink, how it made the actor rich at their expense, they’d stop paying to see such movies. Which they did. But not until after they made him a No 1 Box Office Attraction for five consecutive years.


C’MMMMMOONNNNN (That’s a Terrible Call)

The Pat Jordan pick of the week is a profile he did on the ol’ red-headed Deadhead for the New York Times Magazine back in 2001. Here’s Bill Walton’s Inside Game:

Back at the house, Walton goes to practice his piano while his sons go outside to play one of their fierce two-on-two basketball games. Nate and Bruk Vandeweghe, who has lived with the family for 20 years, team up against Chris and a friend. Luke, limping from an ankle sprain he suffered in one of the boys’ recent games, sits in a chair and mimics his father broadcasting the game that is filled with rough play and profanity.

Nate fakes under the basket and tosses in a hook shot. “Nice utilization of the body,” Luke intones. Chris immediately hits a long jumper. “But Chris will not go away,” Luke says.

Chris drives toward the basket and tosses a pass behind his back that goes out of bounds. “A good look,” Luke says, “but a little too fancy.”

Nate and Chris dive for a loose ball and bang heads. Chris screams a profanity at Nate, and Nate curses back. As play resumes, Walton hobbles out on his crutches to watch. “What are you doing here?” Nate says. The boys’ game is deflated. They continue to play, but without their previous fury; no more curses, just a lot of uncontested jump shots until the game expires.

After the game, Vandeweghe sits by the pool and talks about his life with the Waltons. He acts as their unofficial manservant, serving drinks, giving the boys massages on the living-room table and running errands. “This house is in a time warp,” he says. “Like a monastery. Still, there’s a lot going on here you don’t know.” He smiles. “Bill wants everyone to have a good time. At his parties, there are three girls to every guy. Bill lets you do anything with girls as long as you don’t talk about it in front of Lori. She’s subservient, like a geisha. She serves her purpose for Bill. She’s thrilled to be with a star.” He says that the Waltons’ divorce was hard on Susie. “She was like my second mom. She can’t lie. Bill can’t talk about her because he knows she’s right.”

At that moment, Nate, furious, comes out of the house toward Vandeweghe. “Same old garbage!” he snaps. “I told Bill I was gonna see Mom, and he says he wants to talk to me for five minutes, and it goes on and on, nowhere.”

Not everybody loved Jordan’s story. Here is a letter the Times published on November 25, 2001:

In the 20 years since I wrote about the Portland Trail Blazers in an earlier book, Bill Walton and I have become good friends, and I have spent a good deal of time with him and with his sons (Pat Jordan, Oct. 28). The relationship between father and sons has always struck me as loving, supportive and mutually generous; I think it is not unimportant that in a home where the father let all of his sons follow their own stars, all four wanted to play basketball. More important, what Pat Jordan missed was the story right in front of him: the rarest kind of courage and exuberance on the part of an athlete, once gifted, whose ability to maximize the uses of his body is so critical to his psyche but is now so seriously jeopardized by the cruelest kind of injuries to both feet.

David Halberstam
New York

Clearly, Pat never read How to Wins Friends and Influence People.

[Photo Credit: L.A. Times]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver