That time I saw Dick Vitale in a parking lot


If you don’t know who Dick Vitale is, I envy you. He used to be a basketball-talking guy on the teevee box. He’s retired now (at least, I think he is; I don’t watch a lot of basketball) but back in the day—by which I mean the 1990s, in particular the years when I was in college and FSU was demonstrating an uncharacteristic level of competence in basketball, so we all watched it—Vitale was college hoops personified. He was everywhere. He was loaded full of catch-phrases like “it’s awesome baby!” and “diaper dandies” (his term for promising young players, one which never failed to get the bile rising in the back of my throat) and countless others. And my god, he was annoying.

As a writer, I feel like I should be able to describe Vitale’s voice and style, but I don’t think mere adjectives—shrill, grating, piercing, juvenile—can fully do it justice. I think it’s something you should experience for yourself.

At the time, Dick Vitale was everything I hated about the 1990s rolled up into an omnipresent flesh sack. He was overexposed, pointlessly loud, seemingly lacking in self-awareness, and completely content-free. And worst of all, he loved Duke University basketball. Fucking loved it, to the point where I began to strongly suspect he made his wife wear Christian Laettner and Grant Hill jerseys to bed once or twice a week.

That said, he never claimed to be more than he was, which was a basketball fan who loved his job talking about basketball. I can’t fault a person for loving their work. And by all accounts he’s a decent actual human being. He’s got a long history of charity work, and when I lived in Florida (he lived there too) I’d regularly see news stories about him getting involved in the community in some way or another. So, not a bad person, but an extremely annoying personality.

In the early 2000s, I was working for a software company in Sarasota, Florida. Our offices were on Siesta Key, a stunning little spit of bone-white sand and gently-swaying palms and rich Republican retirees. In other words, exactly the kind of place that would appeal to someone like New Jersey-born Dick Vitale.

One afternoon I took a stroll down to the convenience store a couple of blocks away to pick up an Arizona iced tea, which I used to do whenever I couldn’t stand being in my office for another second. I was rolling some work-related irritation over in my mind as I approached the parking lot when a candy-apple red Mercedes convertible cut me off and shot into an empty spot right in front of the store.

“He almost hit me,” I remember thinking. “What a prick.”

The driver was standard-issue Siesta Key archetype: old, male, kind of scrawny, wearing a matching royal blue outfit of polo shirt and tennis shorts, sunglasses, and a white ball cap that looked like the sort that would have a country club or a yacht club logo on the front. Without even turning off the engine, he threw open the driver’s side door and dialed a number on his car phone (this was long before you could link a smartphone to your car’s sound system). I could hear the phone ring on the other end, mostly because the stereo speakers were cranked as high as they could probably go.

“Hello?” a male voice on the other end said.

“Hey Tommy, how are you,” said the man in a near-shout, which he amped up for his next sentence: “It’s DICK VITALE.”

How about that, I thought. Celebrity sighting. You didn’t get many of those in that part of Florida. I took a closer look; yep, definitely him, though I never would have noticed, let alone recognized, him if he hadn’t said his own name so goddamn loud.

“Oh!” The voice on the other end of the line seemed genuinely surprised to hear from him. “Um, hi, Dick! What can I do for you?”

I went into the store, where I could hear the rest of their conversation as clearly as if I’d stayed outside. I’ve forgotten the specifics, other than it seemed to consist of nothing more than the two of them exchanging pleasantries back and forth for a few minutes. Then he hung up, finally turned off his car, and came into the store.

“Holy shit, Dick Vitale!” yelled the other customer. He was either a beach bum or someone working a construction job on the island—it could be tough to tell the two apart sometimes—and was pouring himself a gigantic fountain soda. He had a greasy brown mullet, a mustache and a cigarette tucked behind his right ear. “Love your work, sir!”

“Heyyyy, thank you, thank you,” Dick shot back instantly. “Love being out here, talking to the people, hearing from the fans. Great to meet you.”

And then he left. Without even buying anything.

It was pretty uneventful, as encounters with famous people go, but it stuck with me for one reason: he was clearly hoping to be spotted—otherwise, why make such a loud, public phone call in which he announced his name to anyone in earshot—which is why I was so puzzled that he’d first go to the trouble of hiding his face under that big hat and behind those wraparound shades.

And did he really have nothing better to do than drive around Sarasota all day trying to get people to recognize and fawn over him? I mean, there’s SO MUCH golf around there. Surely he could have gotten a tee time somewhere.

Meh. Famous people are weird.

Four More Years

Exactly four years ago today, after a three-and-a-half-day cross-country drive, I arrived in San Francisco for good.

My dreams of moving here had grown more and more powerful since 2007, when I first managed to visit, but I’d actually had it in my head that I wanted to live here since at least 1993, when during Coast Guard boot camp I requested an initial duty station anywhere in the Bay Area. (I got New Bedford, Massachusetts instead, which I hear has come a long way since then. But I digress.) I left Florida two days after the string of disappointments that were Election Day 2014 in the Sunshine State and Continue reading “Four More Years”

Things I miss about Florida, part 3: Thunderstorms

Florida summers are brutal. The double-whammy combination of high heat and humidity makes venturing outside for more than a few minutes at a time supremely uncomfortable, unless you like the sensation of having been basted in a thin slick coating of your own perspiration at all times (I, for one, do not). The sun is relentless, bright enough some days to give you a headache from just looking out the window. You will often find your steering wheel is too hot to touch without gloves.

But on the other hand, there are thunderstorms.

Image by William Carson

If you’ve never experienced a Florida thunderstorm, I can tell you they’re not like thunderstorms I’ve experienced elsewhere. Florida storms are Continue reading “Things I miss about Florida, part 3: Thunderstorms”

Things I miss about Florida #2: Beaches where you can swim

I’ve never really been a beach person. I don’t much care for sand, for one thing, and my Scotch-Polish heritage means I’m not big on sunbathing either, for obvious reasons. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two valid reasons to go to the beach at all: to play volleyball, or to swim. (Unless you have kids, in which case “letting the little buggers run wild outdoors for a couple of hours while you sit under an umbrella and try desperately to claw back some quiet time for yourself” also counts.)  But sometimes, when the weather was good and my mood was just so and I had a day off that most other people didn’t have, I would sometimes take advantage of my proximity to the coastline and actually visit, say, Fort DeSoto or St. Pete Beach or even all the way down to Siesta Key for an afternoon of flopping about in warm salt water until my eyes burned.

But as the great American poet Tom Kiefer so prophetically observed, you often don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. Beach swimming is all but impossible in California, which you’d never know based on the fact that the Beach Boys never mentioned having to put on rubber wetsuits before hopping on a surfboard, but nevertheless, it is so. (On a somewhat-recent trip to San Diego, all the surfers at Ocean Beach were wearing wetsuits, suggesting that swimming would have definitely been a no-go. Of course, it was March, so that could also have something to do with it.) I cannot go swimming at the beach here, and as a result, swimming at the beach sounds like the most enticing thing ever.

Of course, I visited a lovely beach in Italy last year and went for a short swim. It was … fine. And I know perfectly well that if I were to move back to St. Petersburg tomorrow, I’d probably stop caring about the damn beach before I even got clear of baggage claim. It’s just how I am. Still, I miss it now, and that’s the point.

Things I miss about Florida, part 1: Cuban sandwiches

Florida takes a hell of a lot of abuse these days. I lived there for 26 years, and I will readily concede that most of that abuse is well-deserved. When I packed up and lit out for the west coast four years ago, I thought I’d never miss anything about the Sunshine State once I got here.

Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out, Florida does have a few things that I can’t find or replicate easily (or at all) here in San Francisco. Like, for example, the Cuban sandwich.

It took me a while to warm up to the idea of the Cuban sandwich, mostly because Continue reading “Things I miss about Florida, part 1: Cuban sandwiches”