My dear friend Michael Kruse let it be known today that he’s leaving the St. Pete Times to work for Politico. We’re sad and happy, which exist on the same end of the emotional spectrum. So, I’ve been drinking, and reading Michael’s old stories, and wanted to share a few of my favorites. Cool? (PS: I’m terribly sad. Don’t go, Michael.)
Pin Boy’s Job Is In The Pits: Shohola, Pa. — Across the Delaware at the Barryville bridge, behind a creaky door and through a smoky bar, up some dusty stairs and at the end of a shiny wood lane, there’s a kid with a buzz cut named J.C. Sommers.
Some call him Jerry. Others just call him J. But everybody calls him the pin boy.
And what he does is a job that all but no longer exists.
Sad Man Smiled: Miami — It was late Tuesday night in the Yankees’ clubhouse, after — in the morning, when Derek Jeter, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and navy satin-shiny shorts, walked by Hideki Matsui.
The team’s Japanese star was still talking to a handful of reporters.
“Hey hey HEY!” Jeter yelled on his way to the shower area.
Hideki always looks sad, someone said the other day, and it’s kind of true, if you really look, but here, in the early-morning hours after the Yanks’ Game — World Series win, Sad Man smiled.
A friendly young twentysomething named Roger Kahlon is Matsui’s personal translator, and he’s a huge help, but Roger wasn’t really needed right then.
What’s the Japanese word for clutch?
The Frog and the Cheese: TRINITY – Brian Utaski and Dave Epperson were drinking late the other night on the patio outside Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar when they decided to try to feed fried cheese to a tree frog.
The frog was sitting on a small gray electrical box on the brick wall of the restaurant. It was green and brown with stripes on its sides and was maybe an inch long or just a little longer.
Brian, who’s 25, pinched a small piece off a breaded cheese stick, dipped it in the marinara sauce and set it in front of the frog.
“Go ahead and eat it, my friend,” Brian said.
The frog was quiet.
The frog seemed to consider the cheese.
Jessie’s Story: HOMOSASSA
Before Feb. 24, 2005, before she was taken from her room in her home in the dark, before she was kept and raped and buried alive in black plastic trash bags, before her name and her face conjured a crime and a law and a cause, she was just Jessie.
Jessica Marie Lunsford was born Oct. 6, 1995, at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia, N.C. Her grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, said she wasn’t “red or wrinkled or nothing like that,” and her grandfather, Archie Lunsford, said he got butterflies in his stomach “the first time I seen her.” It was 11:41 p.m.
She started crawling at 5 months old.
She started walking at just under a year.
She moved to Citrus County the first time when she was 3, then went back and forth from North Carolina for a while, but mainly she lived here with her grandparents and then also with her dad when he moved down for good in 2004.
Mark Lunsford drove a truck and got divorced when Jessie was 1. She was known as a grandma’s girl.
Buddy Johnson is a Salesman of Himself: Buddy Johnson feels most comfortable in restaurants. He visits four a day sometimes. The chatter and the clatter of cutlery offer the illusion that he’s less alone. The restaurant he goes to most these days is BuddyFreddys, where the waitresses greet him by name and he eats for free. Sitting at his table, he can see the sign outside with his name on it, and inside, in a frame, his tiny blue and gold Cub Scout uniform hangs on the wall. “To this day,” he said one afternoon this spring, “people still say, ‘You’re the Buddy of BuddyFreddys?’ And I’m very proud of that.”
This restaurant remains the site of his best success. It is also now his most reliable refuge.
For most of the last six years, up until November, when he was voted out as Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections, Buddy was in charge of an office that became notorious for botched elections and mismanaged budgets. His personal real estate deals were ill-advised, at best, and maybe illegal.
He has been called a horror and his own punchline. That’s from the headlines. He has been called inattentive and incompetent, careless and unfocused, sneaky and paranoid. That’s from some of the people who know him and have worked with him. He’s also been called affable and intelligent and friendly and winsome. Same people.
Buddy Johnson says he is who he has always been.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m a salesman.”
The product never changes. The product is Buddy.
And that’s never been harder to sell than now.
Meet the Most Marketed 12-year-old in the World: The photographer from People magazine pointed his camera at Julian Newman. Stripped along one side of the basketball court by the gym’s few rows of metal bleachers was yellow tape that said CAUTION.
“Big smile,” the photographer said.
This kid over the last 14 or so months has been on local TV and national TV. He has been on ESPN and Conan O’Brien. He has been on the front of the sports section of the Sunday New York Times.
He plays on the varsity team at small Downey Christian School in Orlando even though he’s 12 years old and in the sixth grade. He’s 4 feet 9, weighs barely more than 90 pounds, and wears midshin, multicolored socks and size 6 Nikes.
So here was People, celebrity culture’s ultimate arbiter. A smiling Julian dribbled furiously, between his legs and back and forth, the sounds of the bouncing ball mixing with rapid camera clicks and brief, blinding bursts of flash.
“Turn yourself in toward the light,” the photographer said.
The next night, on the same court, Downey lost for the third time in four games. Julian hit one of his two free throws and one of his three 2-point shots and one of his six 3-point shots to finish with 6 points. It was a statistical output similar to that of the previous week’s losses.
“Way to play,” Jamie Newman, Julian’s coach, and also his father, who had put up the CAUTION tape for People, told his team.
A Brevard Woman Disappeared, But Never Left Home: Last year, a week before Thanksgiving, a man in Cape Canaveral bought in a foreclosure auction a two-story stucco run-down townhouse on a short, straight street called Cherie Down Lane. He went to see his purchase he hoped to fix up and sell.
He found in the kitchen dishes stacked so high on the counter they almost touched the bottoms of the cabinets. In the living room on the carpet was a towel with two plates of mold-covered cat food. Empty orange pill bottles were everywhere. In front of the couch, open on a single TV tray, was a Brevard County Hometown News, dated July 24, 2009.
Both bedrooms were the same: stuff strewn all over, clothes and fake flowers and plants and a dusty treadmill pushed into a far corner, a mattress propped against tightly shut drapes, and stacks and stacks of books, about religion, about weight loss, about wiping out debts and making fresh starts.
Next to the door to the garage was a bulletin board with a 13-year-old receipt from Home Depot and an inspirational quote: “I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent.”
He opened the door to the garage.
The Last Voyage of the Bounty: In the dark, in the wet, whirling roar of Hurricane Sandy, on a ship tipping so badly the deck felt like a steep, slick roof, the desperate, damaged sailor searched for a spot from which to jump. Close to the stern, he gripped the helm, now all but touching the water’s high black churn. He let go and paddled and kicked in the buoyant but clumsy blood-orange suit he had wiggled into not long before. The ship spat up a heavy wooden grating, and it landed on his head. Crack. His adrenaline surged. He thrashed, straining to get away from the heaving ship, her three masts of tree trunk heft rearing up and slamming down like lethal mallets, her thinner, sharper spars piercing the surface like darts, the ropes of the rigging like tentacles, grabbing, yanking. Pfffffft. The tip of a spar sliced down, catching the sailor, pushing him below. He gasped, choking on water, struggling back to where there was air.
His focus narrowed.