This episode: The Adventures of Bell Man
This post has nothing to do with running. I know, I know, you come by here for deep running thoughts, advice, and tips so you’re probably feeling a bit lost. Unmoored. Floating in a sea of confusion and depression clutching the F.M.S. brand name as your only life preserver. Sweet, really, how you all look to me for advice. Hell, where else can one pretend to be a revered Professional Running Coach other than on the internet??? (After all, I can whip you up an authentic looking training plan with the best of ‘em.) But today I’m putting away my Bowerman series whistle and putting on my story time hat…
It’s the summer of 1991. My future of uninterrupted mediocrity is still ahead of me. Mrs. Nitmos and I are just a year into our courtship.* Back then, we still called it a courtship. We had class…and grunge music. You Gen-Y’ers (or Gen-Nexters?) might call it “tapping” or “hittin’ it” or “blumpkinery”. I’m not familiar with your weird, hip, post-Gen X vernacular. At any rate, we are dating.
To bank money for college (beer and grunge CD’s), I’m busy working my summer job at the Grand Traverse Resort, northern Michigan’s finest resort and home of the Michigan Open, as a bell man. Not a bell boy, mind you. Bell Man thankyouverymuch. Sounds more superhero-y that way….like I’m saving luggage from being displaced and/or lost while wearing spandex, mask, cape, and the giant letters ‘B.M.’ on my chest. (Hmmm, we need to work on the letters for the chest…) A bell boy would be my assistant. Think Robin.
Here I am slinging bags all summer. From airport shuttles to hotel lobby. From lobby to room. From room back to airport shuttles. Doing my small part to save the intrepid vacationer/businessman/professional golfer from a trip of misplaced clothing and toothbrushes. Without over-inflating my sense of self, isn’t a Bell Man really the backbone of the entire vacation experience?
In this position, a smile and thank you from a weary traveler is a generous reward. Of course, a more generous reward is a monetary tip (which the occasional asshole weary traveler would sometimes forget.**) A few bucks for the backbone isn’t much to ask, right? You’d tip your skeletal system if it meant the difference between standing upright or lying in a fleshy, gelatinous pool of skin, wouldn’t you?
Most of the passers-through and Samsonites went by anonymously with only the occasional What the F*ck Is In That Dude’s Suitcase? moment. There were a few that stood out though.
Metallica was in town for a concert and were rumored to be staying at one of the resort condo properties. A group of excited teens had me drive them around the resort grounds for over 45 minutes at two in the morning in vain search for Lars and James. Condo by condo we went. At each, I’d dutifully stop the van, let them out, and welcome their sad little faces back in a few moments later. It was funny really. They kept begging me to tell them Metallica’s actual location. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I, also, had no idea. So, instead I said, “If you give me a big enough tip, I’ll take you to their door.” They couldn’t come up with any money which, in hindsight, was just as well as I’d probably have had to kick them out the door at some random condo and then mash the accelerator with a cackle and a fistful of tens and twenties.
Then there was the time I didn’t pick up Stone Phillips (NBC, Dateline) from the airport. Well, I did…eventually. It was his misfortune to fly into a tiny, small town airport with the last flight at midnight. By then, the resort only has one Bell Man on duty. That night? Me. Unfortunately, for him, I was busy checking in some of the resort owners’ good friends. Who didn’t like their condo. Who had to be moved to another condo. Who also didn’t like that condo (discoloration on the carpet). Who had to be moved to the main hotel tower. And then have their car valet parked for them (another Bell Man duty.) By the time I got to the airport 90 minutes later, little ole Stone was standing under a street lamp outside of the airport lobby with his bag at his feet. They closed. Turned out the lights and went home. At this point, Stone was still a nobody. Just a reporter in to file a story for NBC on the local emergency helicopter service making some national news. Let me tell you, he was pissed. He took a few pot shots at me and the resort for our “service” as he called it sarcastically. I checked him in. No tip, as you would expect. But, the entire time, I had a smile on my face. The best I could have hoped for anyway from Stone was a fiver. The resort owners’ friends? $20! I win.
Finally, my most favorite brush with fame: Ernie Harwell. Those of you outside of Michigan might not know the name. Here, he’s one of our most famous and favorite sports figures who, well, never actually played a sport. The radio voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 years and a presence in the newspaper and TV for much longer. Baseball Hall of Famer, historian, and well known all around classy guy. I grew up with his voice painting the baseball game in my mind’s eye. Warm, friendly, filled with interesting stories, whatever your trouble, you knew the three hours spent listening would be a highlight for the day.
There are new Tigers announcers now but when they say “Home run!”, I still here Ernie’s “LOOOOONG GONE!”. When they say “struck him out”, I still hear “he stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” He is a Detroit and Michigan and baseball legend. I don’t really get into goofy hero worship of athletes, actors, or politicians but this guy is as close as it gets to pure reverence.
Ernie tapped me on the shoulder one fine summer day in 1991 and politely asked me to bring his car around. It was a modest car and it annoys me that I can’t remember the make or model. Chevy Caprice or a similarly styled Buick perhaps? Anyhow, I vividly recall repeating too myself, “I’m driving Ernie freakin’ Harwell’s car!” over and over again as I brought it to the front. He stood there chatting with the other Bell Men, shaking hands, and telling stories. I handed him the keys; he deposited a $5 bill in my hand. I felt embarrassed to take it actually. He shouldn’t be paying me. I’m pretty sure my Balance Due was pretty high by then.
He drove off with his wife and daughter and I never had another chance to meet him again though I listened often through 2002 when he finally retired for good.
These memories came flooding back recently as news broke that Harwell, now 91 years old and still active in various baseball media formats, was diagnosed with incurable bile duct cancer. No one lives forever but, if there ever was going to be a special exemption to that rule, I thought it just might be him. The Tigers held a special night for him Wednesday night where, in typical Ernie style, he came onto the field to thank the fans, smile, wave and depart with head held high.
Who knows how much time he has left? He made my summer of 1991. He made most of my summers brighter through childhood, the teen years, college, and, finally, as a married man with kids of my own.
Thank you, Mr. Harwell. And, though this post turned a bit more maudlin than I intended, here’s one more log for the fire: I still have that $5 bill. It’s hidden away in one of the deep folds of my wallet. A bit tattered and worn but still there as it has been for 18 years now.
Thus concludes the Adventures of Bell Man.
* She’s clearly still hoping my better days are ahead. Sorry to disappoint.
** Which, by the way, the experienced Bell Man can spot a mile away: The non-tipper. The Joker to our Batman. The Nelson to our Bart Simpson. The adult acting career to Gary Coleman. These folks got their cosmetic bags placed on the bottom of the luggage trolley with the heaviest piece purposely squashed on top if it. A Bell Man scorned is not a pleasant experience…for you or your shampoo.