I like to make jokes or exaggerate for humor. My quarantine room north of the border isn’t really just 8×14. Nope, it’s much, much larger. This room is at least 8×14.5, and since I’m in Canada, that means it is 2.4 x. 4.41 meters. Pittsburgh Hockey Now must complete 14 days since we’re a slightly unwelcome guest in Canada ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins participation in the 24-team NHL return in Toronto and Edmonton.
And so far, the walls are not yet closing in on me. It’s Day 6 of 14. I think.
I think so. Really.
The funny thing about being stuffed in a small room is you realize how few of the comforts and “stuff” around your house that you need or use. I certainly wouldn’t choose to live like this, but if the world took everything else (again), I could cope.
I’ve been through worse and found joy in it. The other funny thing about being locked in this broom closet is the memories it brings up. This room is the Shangri La compared to every summer growing up.
I’m the oldest grandson on my mother’s side, which is an old-school country group of people in Bedford County. They say things like, “Don’t cry about it, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and called me a city slicker for growing up within 30 miles of Pittsburgh.
My grandfather retired and decided to hit the carnival trail. Then he enlisted his oldest grandson as his employee. As a mouthy and directionless 13-year-old, he and my parents made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
All summer, every summer beginning the day after 8th grade, I lived in a small motorhome with my grandmother and “Pap.” For the first three or four years, we stuffed ourselves into a little 12 or 14-foot motorhome and traveled around the PA and New York boonies. We worked 12 hours a day, nearly every day, all summer.
Anything my lizard brain could ever learn about life, I learned there.
The carnival trail was full of people who made mistakes in life and found themselves on the lowest rung of the ladder trying to climb back up. They (we) were sometimes dirty or poorly educated. They were also the sweetest, most protective people with whom I’ve ever been associated. There were a few times I needed their protection, and it was there every time.
More on that later.
At 13-years-old, it was my first job, and my grandfather was not an easy man to please. He could be stern and gruff. And he had zero tolerance for screwing around when there was work to be done.
My innate need to fulfill an obligation kept me around long enough to get good at that life, but my grandfather’s voice could cut steel.
“God Damnit, Dan,” was an oft-repeated phrase as I failed to complete a task correctly or if I did it differently than him.
For the first two years, we towed a Mexican-food concession wagon around tiny parts of the world, including Dunkirk, NY, and Northeast, PA. There (was) zero Mexican blood in my family, which made El Curtez Mexican Food a running joke, but I became a darn good cook. If you’d like, I can singe the tastebuds off your tongue with a “Cayenne Dan” special.
On Sunday nights, we had “circus jumps.” That’s when you tear down everything, pack up as fast as possible, rush off to the next town and open by noon on Monday.
Work ethic? Ha. Writing hockey seven days a week, all day, is nothing compared to fighting 90-degree heat, on two hours sleep, while some townie tried to rip us off or screw with the carney kid, and my grandfather barked at me to do everything better.
My grandfather was the foot-in-the-ass I needed. When it’s 3 a.m, and I don’t have enough written for the next day, but my body only wants to sleep, I still hear his voice.
Eventually, I became a star employee. I could run the whole operation, and he even respected me. The barks became soft praise, “Ol’ Dannel can handle it.”
My younger brother and cousins would occasionally try to hang with us, but they were all fired and sent home pretty quickly. My younger brother was fired in Cuba, NY, after he took a six-hour lunch break to watch the full day of a demolition derby, but I digress.
After a couple of years of sneaking cayenne pepper into the tacos of annoying customers, the carnival owner and my grandfather agreed that my talents would best serve everyone in a bigger role.
Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried to see how fast you could throw a baseball or guess the speed to win a baseball hat? That’s what the show decided I should do, except they added twists in the form of a loudspeaker and full encouragement to put on a show.
Oh, I needled, teased, mocked, imitated, irritated, and entertained people. As a kid who watched A&E Evening at the Improv every night and could do Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, and Dana Carvey routines off the cuff, I made the midway my stage.
The crowds would gather five-deep for hours, and I loved every single moment. I also made more cash than I could spend. Don Rickles would have been proud (and I still remember parts of my base routine).
Those carnival folks protected me. A few times, marks, er, customers didn’t appreciate my humor, or like my sharp tongue, and wanted to spread my face on the nearest brick wall. That’s when the grizzled guys who ran the rides would stop the show and let the aggrieved know that it was time to leave either under their own power or the more fun way.
We returned to the small motorhome every night, all summer. For years, my bed was the bunk above the driver’s seat, or we removed the kitchen table each night after we counted the kitty (money).
For seven summers, Pap and I rolled through parts unknown. My grandmother died a few years into the endeavor, so it was just the two of us. We didn’t have Uber or Instacart to deliver food and groceries, as I do in this quarantine. Nope, Pap would wave 10 or 20 bucks and say, “Dan, go get us some of that chicken.”
He loved fried chicken, and I was the delivery service.
I also never realized how close we became until he passed when I was in my mid-20s. My family and cousins expressed some jealousy that I got to know the man beyond a father or grandfather. I knew stories and things no one else did. He could talk to anyone for an hour … or more. At his viewing, there was a line out the door with everyone from gas station attendants to the Masons.
I was about 14-years-old when I cracked a joke that stayed with us, too. I jokingly called our little operation, MGM, which stood for “My Grandfather’s Money.”
He laughed like hell, but he also put MGM on every possession, from the dollies to the stock truck, for the rest of his life.
So, here I am in this tiny room, preparing for what could be an adventure of a lifetime for a hockey writer. Can I handle a diet of lunchmeat, water, and a few cookies?
Hell yes. I can do this standing on my head, even if there is at least one NHL team that occasionally mutters, “Damnit, Dan.” And someday, this AirBnB owner will find initials MGM hidden in this room.
Also — the cost of this crazy venture is extreme, especially for an independent media outlet. We won’t say no to help to bring you the best Penguins coverage from the scene.