Hart-felt Thanks

Hollidaysburg Junior High Doug Rhodes Photo

It’s a steady right turn off Route 36 south from Altoona just past the YMCA. I’ve done it thousands of times. All of us locals have. We’ve soothed our way past Hewit Street to the north, passing the “Y”, to drive past the junior high. Beside Hart Street it sits with extended splendor in both daylight, or under night starlight with bright artificial gleaming. Always a sight. Always a memory passing through my mind.

In that building were awesome band rehearsals, fun math classes, classrooms converted to temporary art rooms full of goofy shaped clay bowls, a woodshop where crooked sanded towel racks were assembled, and silly pasty white uniformed, skinny legged boy-gym experiences including lingering emotional and physical bruises from stupid, stinging dodge ball games. An early morning cafeteria provided a sit-down place for me to learn a list of prepositions as I waited for a first bell’s permission to enter one of many hallways. Classmates drizzled in, some by pairs, many by bus.

Few would say I had the good fortune to walk from one block away as it allowed for extra sleep-in time. This wasn’t always the case. That early sunrise cafeteria year in the junior high was a drop-off, sixth-grade, scoot-as-scoot can group of days. Dad was the consummate, arrive early, beat the sun up, senior high teacher whose perfect plan was to drop-off not only me, but also an older sister. We weathered the drive from a few miles out town for our sixth and seventh grade years. He found his way over to his school, we sat in ours. This school. This one.

So many years ago. Countless memories cross my mind as I write a thankful note here – in the basement of a house dad purchased during the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years. This is a place barely a block away from a junior high where I can’t escape some “not so good” memories, but mostly fond ones. Notably, a bush outside the older gym where I was motivated to first kiss a girl. I sit here thinking over hallways where books ended up on cold, tile floors and I ended up in the Principal’s office defending my retaliatory actions from bullies who pushed me too far during recess.

Awkward years for all of us.

I have to stop and say, “Thanks”. After all, it is the day, right?

This is a remarkable building. Up until the early 1970’s, it was the Hollidaysburg Senior High. In my lifetime, I’ve only known it to be the junior high – a building with a gyms at either end, and a band room immediately inside a slightly curved, multi-door entrance. All of the physical bricks and mortar, labs, cafeteria trays, dungeon-like rooms in the far hallway, music stands, and stuff inside don’t make it remarkable, however. Those are reserved as vehicles for memories to come as the current inhabitants belly up to their lockers. Years from now, teenage roadsters, who now drive on the educational highways inside, will use those as emotional rest stops … reliving either a pleasant past, or torturous teenage time in their life.

It’s not a perfect building. As a structure standing as a part of anyone’s life who spent a few years sitting in uncomfortable seats, walking on hard, uneven floors, or “exercising” on creaky wooden slats in the old gym, it isn’t going to excite the annals of educational history museums. Decades ago, there were the usual cafeteria table colors, locker rooms of blandness personified, and uniformity with every left and right step taken when I – as a wanderer of sorts – bounced from room to room wondering if tenth grade would ever arrive. A sophomore September move to the senior high was highly anticipated.

I say, “thanks”, to this not-so-perfect building today: A place steps away from where I am, now. A part of my past I cannot erase. A site where good and bad happened. A site of sadness, happiness, transition, and confusion. A stop-by during a November errand-run when everything else seemed more important, but wasn’t.

This, to me, is what Thanksgiving, 2021 looks like … and our beautiful junior high isn’t just a building in my life. It’s all the special people who still stand with me in both daylight, or under night starlight with their bright light gleaming. They are only steps away from where I am now and will help at a moment’s notice. I have friends and relatives who are part of my past and present, with good and bad experiences of course, who are always helpful … always kind, always genuine. Many have been with me in the hallways of transition and confusion without the urge to punch books out from under my arms. Being supported, in life’s school, is the greatest “thanks” that be can offered by me this year.

I know you have a lot to be thankful for this day. Be you … and give thanks for all you have or can give. It is, certainly, a very individual day for all of us.

I will pass by this school many, many times on my way back out toward Route 36. Even though the address for our junior high is, officially, 1000 Hewit Street, I offer my Hart-felt thanks to this building. For it is on that street I found my thankfulness last night. A fourteen-year old Honda – with a significantly older occupant – pulled over and ran idle for a few minutes. Inside, a very grateful man turned off his car’s headlights and openly considered a beautiful eighty-four years old steady brick building parked forever by his side. No walkers strode by on the sidewalk. No cars passed. The minutes were quiet.

Today is Thanksgiving. My building isn’t perfect, neither is my past.

Pull over, sit for a few minutes with family and friends today – if you are able – and recognize their transitions, confusions, “goods and bads”, pasts and presents. I suspect they know yours and still love, respect, and guide you along.

The cafeteria sits empty today. There are no early young boy and sister thoughts, or prepositional phrases being considered for the day’s lessons. Over the next few days, hallways will be quiet, rooms have only the hum of really old heating systems kicking on – filling desk spaces with invisible warmth. Perhaps a teacher, or two, will enter to prepare something ahead for the following week. This building, for the most part, will remain empty.

… Physically empty, but filling hearts with memories. Some good, some not. I am thankful for all of it. This is today, 2021. A Hart-felt thanks to everyone in my life.

… and to all, a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thankful Evolutions

Back in March of 2005, I started. Just what at the time? Not real sure. It was the beginning of 10,000 baby steps that continues to this day. Over fifteen years later, I haven’t yet matured into adult strides, i.e. grown-up thinking about my business. My attitude is still childish, – like opening up a Christmas present every time I unlock the door to my concession trailer or slide the window wide open to greet a customer. Every day is new. Fresh. Exciting. Record sales or rainy, blah days, I’m ok. Five-thousand, five-hundred days flipped over on the calendar since diving in this unknown pool of figuring out how to stay financially afloat, I’m ok.

In this type of business – as in all I suspect – a re-investment of capital is necessary to grow. What’s left over after the bills are paid (not including our own paychecks early on) goes right back in for development, research, new(er) equipment, advertising, employee benefits/incentives, etc … all the stuff to help urge our businesses along. As owners, we have to stay positive. We must never lose our energy, drive, or focus. These are the intrinsic qualities fueling the engine. Cliche? Absolutely! True? Most assuredly.

Since that day in 2005, I lost a lot of money. Two failed restaurants within two years, a depleted savings, and lessons I didn’t want to learn but needed to. Everything was right at the start, however, I sucked at picking locations. Sucked. “If You Renovate It, They Will Come”, right? Shoeless Joe … you there? Purchased equipment sat lonely with me as cars swooned by at the second location, and people hastily walked by at the first. My recipes were (and continue to be) tasty, customer service is “me”, and cleanliness exemplary. I knew what I sucked at and had to admit it: location.

Everything else being fine, why not go mobile? Go to the customer. Problem fixed. Enter small cart #1. Then cart #2 shown above. Then the trailer seen far right … fifteen years later. A van, one commercial kitchen, two carts, one trailer … and one guy who is still pretty excited about his business.

Why these words a day before Thanksgiving, 2020, from a simple hotdawg selling, piano-playing, blog-writing, strangely strange fellow? Because, I’ve learned being thankful is a process, an evolutionary operation, with baby steps under foot. In the business of simply being you, be thankful for all the little things along the way contributing to your magnificent self.

I could list all the crappy stuff – even today – that isn’t right in my business. But, that’s today and all of it will right itself sometime soon. None of it has to do much with the pandemic shut-downs or customers not willing to be out. Heck, I live in an area where a larger than normal number of people don’t mask or social distance anyway. Our numbers are going up. Period. Whether you’re a believer in the science or not, the local hospital is experiencing an increase in cases and inpatient admittances. Too many haven’t been willing to take the necessary baby steps since March. But, I digress.

-My thankfulness comes in the form of each 4316-9. That is the current number on my sales book today. Every customer is a baby step. Without them, I don’t survive as a business.

-My thankfulness is for each supplier of the goods I provide. I can’t process hotdawgs, sausage, steaks, or chicken. The rolls nestled around these juicy delicacies don’t just appear in my hands, either.

-My thankfulness is extended toward all the landlords who rent spaces to me so I can be open. They are my lifeblood. Customers and suppliers are not relevant if I can’t set up anywhere.

-My thankfulness wraps around money provided to me in the form of credit and financial services offered through the local banks. Personal service and help when needed has been so valuable.

-My thankfulness to all the local businesses who have allowed me to set up and serve lunch to their employees on site. Word of mouth through these lunches has been a tremendous asset.

-And, finally, thanks to all my family and friends who’ve stepped in to help over the years in many different ways. You know where I am. You know how things are. You’ve been there for every baby step.

Everyone above is so important. Investing in them is as important as placing one dollar in a new refrigerator, ad campaign, or employee’s IRA. They are the process of my being thankful. I’ve evolved – in no small part – with the help of their support and encouragement in spite of my stubborn nature and crazy ideas.

Find those people in your life that have been part of your thankful process. You’re magnificent today because they were there for you – maybe when you didn’t even know. In those silent moments you felt encouraged, they sat away thinking of you. That amazing business phone call you didn’t expect? That was their referral. A customer stopped by because they heard … through the proverbial grapevine ….? Find them. Thank them. All.

Some friends, as they look over silly FB memes of mine … listen to goofy jokes, or my pontificating about political punditry so ever-present in our world today, assume I haven’t matured at all. I proudly wear this jacket emblazoned with young, fancifully unsophisticated lettering embroidered on my soul. It is because of who I am, I can appreciate where I’ve been and what the future looks like as it evolves.

So, tomorrow is a weird 2020 Thanksgiving holiday, but it doesn’t have to be. Stay socially distanced and masked if that’s what you feel is necessary. I am. That’s me.

The day isn’t weird at all if you take a minute, or a baby-second’s time, to ask yourself a simple question: “Who, in this process I call my life, has been there for me?”.

The answer(s) may not be sitting across from you – especially this year – but I guarantee they are thinking about you. They always are because of who they’ve evolved to be: folks who want you to be the very best you can be – even if you’re not real sure what that is when you open a business and have no idea what lies ahead. It may be 10,000 baby steps or more, so be open to anything.