“3rd and Long” didn’t mean anything to me, I thought, fixing my gaze on the text on the caller ID after the first ring. What 3rd Street or 3rd Avenue did I know? What Long Street or Long Avenue?
The second ring happened fast on the heels of the first. I ran through all the numbered streets in cities where I had lived. I knew Third Avenue from New York, but no Long. The caller ID didn’t have the look of a crank call either. The third ring told me I was running out of time to think about answering or not. This ID was different. I had a nagging hope as to who it might be calling me.
I didn’t know then, but I do now, that Third and long is a football term that’s used when the offense faces a third down and is more than a short running play away from a first down, usually more than 5 yards. Third and long means that you have a chance of making a first down, but it won’t be easy. At that time, I just thought it was strange, or suspicious.The present and the past collided; for the moment life was caught in the balance. I had to make a choice. I had to answer.
I picked up the handset, held it to my ear.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Is this the little twelve-year-old girl at the Café Le Can Can?” a man’s voice asked.
Miami Beach’s Carillon Hotel had been buzzing with excitement and glitter that Christmas and New Year’s week. The large and luxurious Café le Can Can had filled to capacity for the evening show starring the vocal powerhouse topping the charts: Gene Pitney. Hotel guests and vacationers of all ages dressed in their finest were seated at their dinner tables anticipating the moment when the lights dim, the music would come on, the spotlights would illuminate the wide stage, and the gaily costumed nightclub Can Can dancers would make their way on stage.
A young child, I stood in the wide doorway to the café, facing the tables at the highest tier of the huge showroom but furthest from the stage. I yearned to be seated inside the Café, to be a part of the crowd, to be thrilled and entertained, to see the stage, to see the can can dancers with their feathers and frilly dresses, to see and hear Gene Pitney perform. But I stood alone, in a dark shadow that parents can cast over their children: That evening, Daddy, likely thinking he doesn’t like anybody to keep tabs on him, cast his shadow over me the night of the extravaganza: Right after dinner that night, hours earlier, my parents had gone out for the evening to attend a jai alai game and I was left, alone and unsupervised, at the hotel. I hadn’t challenged them on that decision before they left for the evening. I knew there was no point. I would do what I’d done often: I would figure life out for myself and fend for myself. I knew that after all of the regular nightclub guests were seated, fold-up chairs would be available to the rest of us for placement right by the stage.
But I was twelve years old and felt separate, and likely abandoned, though I did not have a word for that feeling then, as I stood looking at the other guests, and waiting.
As I stood in the hotel lobby at the entrance to the nightclub, waiting for permission to enter and get a fold-up chair by the stage, through the chorus of voices in genial conversation and glasses clanking I distinguished a voice calling my name. “Janie!” There at a finely set table on the top row sat a family, parents and two sons, smiling, looking my way, and waving me over to them. I recognized them right away. I recognized their warmth and good welcome feeling. I recognized the Wolman family. “Janie, do you want to sit here?” Jerry Wolman called from his table.
This was not a dream.
Dinner earlier that night had been memorable for me: Jerry Wolman had the status of prophet in Philadelphia. Revered there, he was the handsome owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, the youngest owner ever, and I was from Philadelphia and an Eagles fan.
Daddy had seen Jerry Wolman and his family also dining and had walked up to them and introduced himself and me. Smiling warmly and eyes bright, Jerry extended his hand, we shook, and my little heart soared, as if it were an eagle. As he and his wife left the restaurant, he called to me, “Goodbye, Janie.” I was swept away. “Jerry Wolman,” I wowed to myself with, repeatedly. “I met Jerry Wolman and he remembered my name.”
The heart remembers and answers the call.
As I stood at the entrance to the Cafe, shy though I was, there was no question where I was going to choose to sit. Even a front row seat had lost its appeal. I was going to accept the invitation to see Gene Pitney sing his hit songs “Town without Pity,” “Only Love Can Break a Heart” and many others while I sat as the guest of Jerry Wolman and family. I was going to belong somewhere, that evening.
The next morning after breakfast I waited for an elevator to go back up to my room; when the elevator doors opened, Jerry and his wife stepped out. “Good morning, Janie,” he addressed me. The elevator to my room on the 16th floor felt like an ascent to heaven. That night I confided all to my best friend and listener, my diary. In another few days I would be back home and back to school.
Football is not a gentleman’s game. Nor, for that matter, is life. Life has, I suppose, many third and long situations: Often, achieving one’s goal is not easy, but is possible. Miles and miles later in my life, my little diary, which I always held onto, tempted me to open its pages and read it. Maybe she’d reveal a jewel that had previously been hidden, or buried. Maybe something I’d forgotten, something that I hadn’t understood about myself as a youngster would now be exposed to me and would set me free.
I opened the pages. I read my young girl’s handwriting. And there was the jewel I sought. The jewel that helped me understand the pain that, as a young girl, I often felt and that also explained, although I could not articulate it at that time, what it was that I was looking for.
I had never stopped to wonder what had happened to Jerry Wolman after that vacation in Miami Beach, or what he had accomplished in his life beyond owning the Philadelphia Eagles. I had lost my interest in football, and the Eagles. Other things preoccupied this young girl’s mind and life. His life had taken a turn, and of this I had no inkling; but I was certain that Jerry Wolman had no idea how much he and his family had made somebody who felt insignificant and alone feel big and belonging. This time, now an adult who believed in possibilities, after reading my diary entries, I would reach out to him. It was thinkable and possible.
An online search for the name “Jerry Wolman” revealed a website with contact info: He was still alive. That was a good start. It was possible. His biography was available and for sale from his website. I selected “Contact.” I began typing:
“Dear Mr. Wolman: This is one of the odder emails I have ever sent…”
and on and on I wrote about my memories of him and that magical evening , my diary, on and on.
The following day I received an email that began:
Dear Jane: It is hard for me to tell you what your kind letter means to me. To receive a letter where you are kind enough to tell me that some little thing that I did was a meaningful thing for you in your life makes me feel better than good. What I did was not a big deal as I believe that kindness and consideration should be a way of life for all people….
“Is this the little twelve-year-old girl at the Café Le Can Can?” a man’s voice asked. It was uplifting and it reached across the miles, reached across the years, across the generations. I could barely contain my smile.
I also had to decide whether I was going to be twelve years old, or whether I was going to be living in the present.
“Yes! This is she, but a bit older now.”
The conversation was instant. No longer at the Cafe la Can Can, Jerry and I talked and talked, about my life and family, about his, about how life had presented each of us with tragedies and blessings. I asked about his wife, who had been similarly kind to me in Miami Beach so many years before, and he answered about his adored wife Anne who had become ill and passed on, that he had again found love and married… I heard his indomitable spirit. He offered to help my step-daughter, who had her own dreams she wished to pursue, find full- time work. He promised to take my husband and me out to dinner the next time he came to Boston to visit his granddaughter, who was at college up here. I was looking forward to that. He told me that he was going out to California to talk with movie people about a movie that was to be made about his book, that was about his life, that had been co-written with two sportswriters. He promised to send me the book, The World’s Richest Man.
After our telephone conversation with this easy-going man, whose manners and voice belied the life he had lived, I recalled the words of the prophet Micah:
“To what extent must a person endeavor to cling always to the trait of kindness, as Scripture states: ‘He told you, Oh man, how good, and what the L-rd requires of you, only doing justice and loving kindness… (Michah 6:8).”
Here was someone who had a love for this trait of kindness.”
And he kept his word. One week later the book arrived at my doorstep.
The book I found wholly fascinating and could not put down, all the more so in light of the character traits embedded in him as a person, no matter what his trials and tribulations. I learned about his beginnings in a Jewish community in Shenandoah. I drank up the stories he told. I had not known that he had been the vision and the driving force behind the Philadelphia Spectrum and the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. I had not known that he had been the brainchild and the developer behind Chicago’s John Hancock Building, and other architecturally significant real estate developments. I had not known that he’d been bankrupted and forced to sell the Eagles when bankruptcy threatened; that he had lost virtually everything material he and his wife owned. I had not known that he’d been celebrated for his kindnesses to people in need – the unemployed, the troubled… I had gone on in my life to dream, and to struggle, and to build. He had found new love and a new life: he had rebuilt.
The next time I emailed him, I didn’t hear back so quickly. I did, however, hear from his granddaughter: It wasn’t good news. Jerry had been diagnosed with cancer. In the months that followed, I marveled at his life and at his vision and creativity, at how he managed to energize a major American city, at how – despite the highs and the lows – he had managed to always live a life of caring, integrity, graciousness, giving, loving kindness, and gratitude for life’s gifts. And I prayed for him and for healing.
I waited for the right time to contact him again, and life went on.
One morning I received an email from my husband, who was already at work: It was the NYTimes obituary announcing Jerry’s passing. I was devastated, devastated to learn of the passing of my friend. Yes, my friend. I cried. I couldn’t get to Washington DC the following day in time to make the funeral, but at 1 pm, the time the funeral was scheduled to begin, I sat outside, by our local running track, and telephoned whoever I could to tell my story, my tribute and, sadly, my eulogy.
I never got to have dinner with Jerry in Boston, to see his genuine smile once again, to compare grey hairs, to talk about his and my dreams, and to marvel at how significant connections are made, lost, and made again, to be in the company of somebody who exemplified the prophet Micah’s words, while I merely tried to exemplify them. But I had had the good fortune of knowing somebody who exemplified the Prophet Micah’s words and who gave me an opportunity to share how important it is to do “some little thing” that will make a difference to somebody.
Third and long. Not always easy, but always possible.|
May his memory be for a blessing.