Saturday, March 10, 2012
--I DON’T WANNA LET GO
…I thought about John yesterday. For no reason. Or maybe there was a reason.
I might have had a spark of loneliness. It might have been an anniversary I didn’t recall.
No matter: his face was like the blink of a power outage--there one second, then not.
I miss him.
It’s been 12 years now, and still I do.
When you grow up confused about loyalties, about basic concepts like love and family and the essence of what it means to be nurtured, you don’t become mistrustful of others so much as you lower your expectations—no one can disappoint you if you don’t expect a whole lot, right?
That’s more or less how I meandered through my first twenty years of living.
But then there was John.
I met him at a pivotal moment in my life.
He was already an industry legend.
He was six foot six, a tree of a man whose size you forgot almost at once.
He had a damaged knee from his NFL days. He had a bad hip, too, so he walked with a stilted gait like a tree bent by the wind, an accordion pinch at the waist.
His grin was what did you in. It was utterly boyish and unabashed, so authentic. You saw that, you saw John, you heard him laugh and saw him look you in the eye as if maybe you might be Jesus come back to earth and you immediately knew that he was the r e a l thing.
In some ways, John was like my best friend, an older brother, my Dad, a personal trainer-teacher-tutor-coach-confidant-mentor.
Do you have someone in your life like that? Have you ever? If you do or did, I think you’re pretty lucky. I think that’s a very rare thing, indeed.
I’d never met a person like John before then, and I haven’t since.
He was CEO of the fourth biggest retail company in America, yet he gave the very same attention to a stock kid as he did the President of a subdivision.
He loved the odd, quirky employees that the rest us shied—or ran--away from.
He was a freakishly good listener.
He was remarkably smart but had an “Aw shucks” Colombo quality.
He was a hugger.
He was always, always making people feel special.
He would say to a female employee, “Your hair sure looks pretty.”
He would say to a male employee, “You’re sure a handsome young buck. Do you know how lucky you are?”
He would say, “I don’t know how we’d get through this if you weren’t here.” He’d say that, looking you square in the eyes, and he’d mean it.
At an extremely swanky party in Manhattan, John once stood up (sober) atop a bar counter and shouted to a crowd of tight-assed analysts, “I LOVE RETAIL!!” so loud that the chandelier heaved and drinks toppled all across the room.
The balls on that man.
But he did love retail.
He loved people and life, too, and he taught me how to do the same.
He taught me that you shouldn’t be ashamed to express your love for the things you cherish. In fact, he saw it as a kind of duty—(which is why here, and other places, I always share the discoveries of a great book or movie or album...)
Some folks wish they were this or that celebrity, a sports star maybe. Me, I just want to be more like John.
After he left the company, John started rowing.
Evidentially, he was in such superb condition, that at age 50 (fifty!), he would have been considered for the Olympic Crew team.
I’m not sure if it was the strain of training which was the cause, but I do remember the time and weather, where I was and what was said to me and who said it, on the day I was told he’d died.
John was the first person I’d ever been close to who passed away. Before then, death was an aloof event, horrible to be sure, yet unfamiliar and distant.
John’s death shredded me.
At the funeral—only the second I’d ever attended—I couldn’t speak or look anyone in the eye. People in the pews chatted and smiled and gestured. It felt like blasphemy to me. I didn’t understand then that funerals are also rare occasions when old friends gather not only to celebrate the passing, but to reconnect with one another.
I hadn’t expected to write about John now, and certainly not here. It may not even make sense to you. You might think me a little nuts.
But that’s okay. I miss him, and the things he taught me. Here are a few off the top of my head:
--“Len, when people give you a compliment, don’t shake it off. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s okay to let people make you feel good about yourself.”
--“Twice a day, for thirty seconds, find someone and tell them how much you love them and why.”
--“I think business would be a lot better if the executives in this ____ing company answered their own goddamn phone instead of saying on voicemail that they’re going to be busy all day in meetings.”
--“You should just go somewhere. Take a few hours--or the whole day, I don’t care--and dream. It doesn’t have to be anyplace special, just quiet. It can even be the library. I think you’ll be surprised by what you discover.”
--“You are a bright light.”
--“It’s not the managers, it’s the salespeople that know. Forget the fucking managers. From the mouths of babes, Len. From the mouths of babes.”
--“As a leader, you should really just be a jacket that gets thrown in the mud so your people don’t get dirty. Why else do you exist?”
--“Don’t you feel like you were just born for this?”
--“There are a lot of people counting on you. That right there should tell you something about yourself.”
--“If we’re going to do this, then damn it, we’re going to do it the best we can.”
-- “Soon everyone will know what a great leader you are.”
--“You can see who believes it. All you have to do is look into their eyes.”
--“All I ever wanted was my own Kool-Aid stand. I can do the rest.”
--“Bob Marley has a lot of answers. People just need to listen.”
--“Do you have a second? I want to show you something.”
--“You are really special. Do you know that? You are.”