Category Archives: Inside Stories

The Power of a Smile

“Thank you,” she said to me as she sat on the steps, caressing her sore jaw.

“Me?” I said, turning to be sure she wasn’t talking to someone behind me, someone far more worthy of appreciation. “Oh, I’m just here to work with the media today.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. “Every person here made this possible. I can’t thank you enough.”

This was the unexpected exchange I had with a woman at the South Carolina Dental Association’s Dental Access Days, a two-day free dental clinic that was held last month in Rock Hill, SC and sponsored by our client, Delta Dental.

Dental Access Days brought together 300 dental professionals from all over South Carolina, aided by more than 700 volunteers from the Rock Hill area, to deliver more than $1.2 million in dental services to more than 1,400 adults.

When I arrived at First Baptist Church Rock Hill that morning at 5:00 a.m., there was already a long line of people waiting outside. This line of 250 individuals had been pre-screened the day before and had already obtained a color-coded wristband that designated the type of dental procedure they were to receive.

Working with reporters on this side of the building for more than an hour, it wasn’t until mid-morning that I realized the “bigger” line was on the opposite side of the building. That line contained more than 750 people who had just shown up that morning, hoping to have a long-awaited dental procedure performed.

Many of these folks have been in pain for years. None of them have dental insurance. Many of them are out of work, or between jobs, or retired. Or their job doesn’t pay enough, and they have to decide between putting food on the table or getting a tooth pulled.

Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients.

Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients.

Whether they needed an extraction, a filling or a professional cleaning, it was worth it to them to wait in the dark, and eventually into the heat of the day, and in the rain, in the hopes of receiving care that they currently can’t afford.

It was a powerful scene, and one that became even more so as I moved inside to observe the church sanctuary/multipurpose room that had been converted into a full surgical theater. Rows and rows of dental chairs and equipment waited for the hundreds of patients, many of whom had driven long distances with high hopes that they would be able to get through the line before it was cut off.

The best vantage point was the stage at the front of the room, from which TV reporters and photographers set up their equipment to try and capture the sheer magnitude of the event. Everywhere you looked, you saw dentists, periodontists, oral surgeons, endodontists, dental hygienists, assistants and dental students as they worked patiently but swiftly to treat each patient, and then quickly move to the next one.

The view of Dental Access Days from the stage.

The view of Dental Access Days from the stage.

And here I was, the PR person whose job was to greet and escort members of the media and local dignitaries. I felt an incredible responsibility to tell the story of the dental professionals who so selflessly gave of their time and expertise to help so many strangers, as well as preserving the dignity of patients while capturing and sharing their powerful personal stories.

In addition to the woman who greeted me on the steps, throughout the day I observed patients crying tears of gratitude, hugging “their” dentist as they completed their procedures, and even taking photos with the person who had pulled their teeth!

Most people probably underestimate the value of a smile, but as one of the event organizers pointed out to me, a healthy smile can greatly increase someone’s self esteem, giving them the added confidence they need to go on a job interview or to otherwise get involved in their community.

“It’s not just about the dental work,” he said to me. “It’s about giving people their smile back, and helping them become contributing members of society.”

Including this year, Dental Access Days has provided more than 8,900 adults with $4.5 million in free dental care since the event’s inception in 2009. Delta Dental has a social mission to improve oral health in the communities they serve. Learn more at www.deltadentalsc.com.

The Best Medicine

A story of siblings, cheesy ads, and my hard-won affection for both.

 

The most important exchange I will ever have with my sister was about drugs.

Neither of us were on any at the time (I was twelve years old; she nine). But there have been moments since when I’ve been tempted to claim otherwise. A chemical influence would go a long way in accounting for our bizarre behavior that day. It would also explain why neither of us can remember exactly how the whole mess started.

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The truth is, I honestly don’t know what offense landed Leslie and me in the clink of our respective bedrooms that second Sunday of January, 1994. But I am positive it was our father who put us there.

As in many family bureaucracies, my mother wore the Social Services badge. Whatever bone Leslie and I were scrapping over, Mom would have talked us through negotiations or diverted our attention before hard time had to be handed down. But on this particular afternoon, the social worker was out, and all cases were proceeding directly before the judge. The honorable Jeffrey A. Powelson, presiding. Ours being a decidedly middle-class republic, the judge also served as chief groundskeeper. And so my sister and I found ourselves at the mercy of a man with brush to burn, gutters to clean, and nary a damn to give about the origins of our dispute. There were no questions asked, nor statements given. Only an exasperated, “Go to your rooms.”

That’s probably just as well. Like my father before me, I could now care less what two caterwauling miscreants may or may not have done to be sent to their quarters. But culpability for what would happen once we got there is an entirely different matter—one that still breeds fierce debate.

I blame the Chinese.

WHY THE CAGED BIRD YODELS

To gain any insight into the strange behavior my sister and I were about to exhibit, you must first consider the narrative that had taken root in our collective subconscious over the preceding weeks. In addition to being the year that sibling violence peaked in our home, 1994 also boasted one of the worst cold & flu seasons in recent history, all thanks to a particularly vile strain called A-H3N2, or “The Beijing Flu.” Don’t ask me about the name. Maybe this bug quashed autoimmune revolt with particular zeal. Or maybe it just multiplied more efficiently than other flus. I couldn’t tell you because no one in our house was sick, nor was there any evidence to suggest we’d been exposed to the virus. What we had been exposed to was the barrage of television commercials for products claiming to fight it.

Suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, analgesics: You name it, it was on TV, being used as directed. As the pandemic gained momentum, the frequency of ads grew so intense that they began to blur together and assume a collective voice. By Christmas there were no more thirty-second spots, just two-minute commercial breaks speaking to you in pharmacological tongues like an over-the-counter Hunter Thompson. Cable became a fever dream where every eight minutes the tambourine man returned to paint Kleenex-littered rainbows of transcendent possibility. Relief was a given, you simply had to decide which way you wanted it. Up? Down? Internal? Topical? There were pills to open a person’s northern passages, liquids to clench the southern ones, and potions that promised to keep you just this side of comatose for the duration of your illness. The OTC industry and its media buyers had done their jobs well. Perhaps too well. The ironic side-effect of a single category dominating the airwaves was that nothing stood out. Well, almost nothing.

Alpine horns. Switzerland. Coughdrops.

You just heard it, didn’t you? Deep in the recesses of your brain, some sequence of neurons lit up and coaxed a long-neglected mountaineer to the edge of your frontal lobe where he cupped his mouth and released that spectacular, three-note warble into the hills. And four words were all it took. This is the beauty of lowbrow advertising. It’s like a kid before he understands cool and decides it’s something a person should be. There’s no vanity. No pretense. No apology. Cheesy ads simply do what they’re supposed to. They stick.

“REEE-COLA!”

I don’t remember which of us yelled it first. But I now realize that it couldn’t have happened had the gutters not been my father’s first priority that morning. You see Leslie’s bedroom was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and both offered the most convenient access to our home’s two rooflines. Thus, twice a year our windows were relieved of their screens allowing my father to purge six months of leaf sludge from the overhanging troughs. As domestic duties go, this is an unpleasant one, the home-improvement equivalent of removing a dip of snuff from someone else’s lower lip. Consequently, the man had worked himself into a genuinely special mood even before sentencing us for the initial offense. And that’s probably what made it so irresistible.

“REEE-COLA!” I would scream out over the front yard. The echo would linger for a few beats, then, right on cue, her response would circle around from the back.

“REEE-COLA!”

Oscar Wilde observed that, “Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.” Had he have driven down Cedar Lane that afternoon he could have completed the axiom, adding that “idiocy hangs out its second-story windows and yodels about Swiss throat drops.”

“REEE-COLA!”

You know that thing where you repeat a perfectly normal word so many times that it loses all meaning? Right, well, it turns out there is no inverse phenomenon. After twenty minutes of yodeling, my sister and I still couldn’t tell you what Riccola meant or why it had become the funniest damned thing we’d ever heard. Nor could we anticipate the quantity of hell that would soon be paid for our lack of explanation.

Good questions all, but they paled in comparison to what had become the larger mystery of this fiasco: How had Leslie and I ended up on the same side of anything?

 A HISTORY OF INDIFFERENCE

Some things just don’t make sense. Yes, incarceration breeds unlikely accord. But I’m not sure that explains why my sister and I passed a Swiss epithet, at the top of our lungs, for nearly half-an-hour.

That commercial was nothing new. We’d seen it together literally hundreds of times and never commented, never shared so much as a smirk. Yet here we were, nearly incontinent with laughter, yelling ourselves ironically hoarse and unknowingly compounding the terms of our punishment with each volley. It just happened. Random and organic and intuitive in a way that our relationship had never been. For herein lies the unflattering-yet-undeniable truth about Leslie and I, a truth that should have been confessed from the outset: We were terrible at being brother and sister.

It wasn’t so much a question of love. We had good parents. Neither of us were particularly stupid as children. So we caught on fairly quick to the idea that we were supposed to love each other, and, of course, on a purely fundamental level, we did. But as any decent counselor, or former Eagle drummer, will tell you, ‘sometimes love just ain’t enough.’

The truth is that my sister and I had just never really connected. Some relatives blame this on our age gap. Others suggest the gender difference or point to two polar personalities. But I often wonder if it was nothing more than luck. By that I’m not suggesting that Leslie and I weren’t blessed enough to be close. Quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps we were so lucky as individuals, cementing a strong sibling bond never became necessary.

Don’t ask me how or why, but the cards my sister and I drew in the existential lottery placed us in a genuinely warm, nurturing home that somehow still prepared us for the world outside its doors. In this sense, childhood gave us everything but a common threat. There was no angry drunk of a father to hide from, no philandering mother to resent or chronic illness to rally against. We were untouched by grief. Ungodly fortunate. Simply in each other’s way.

THE RECKONING

And then the judge became the warden.

If you’ve spent any time at all watching prison documentaries, you’re familiar with the “communication on the inside” segment. Invariably, special care is taken to point out the novel ways prisoners share information. Whether it’s lowering notes with twine braided from one’s own pubic hair, or relaying instructions through subversive bursts of slang, no one conspires more resourcefully than the residents of our nation’s correctional facilities. If reality television has anything to teach us, it’s that, in the joint, a seemingly nonsensical hoot or holler can incite disastrous revolt.

“REEE-COLA!”

This is exactly what my father feared and sought to stomp out as he took stairs two at a time en route to our rooms. From my window I’d seen him leave his post near one of the brushfires, but I underestimated his speed. Consequently, half of me was still hanging outside when my door burst open and the smell of kerosene and Levi-Garett proclaimed his arrival.

“What the hell is this Ricola crap?” he demanded, appropriately, of my hindquarters.

I wrangled myself back inside and turned as slowly as possible, hoping my face would straighten itself in time. This was a moot point once I took sight of him. Six feet and forty-one years standing atop the meanest pair of shit-kickers I’ve seen to this day. The down vest he wore overtop a flannel shirt leant extra heft to his shoulders, and its high collar scraped audibly against a beard flecked with sweat and sawdust. Red-faced and seething, he squinted behind a pair of thick, dark-tinted glasses ­­and demanded answers.

“What does it mean!?”

It was like some twisted, backwoods version of Pinocchio, where instead of a puppet conferring the gift of fatherhood, the cover of a Hank Williams Jr. album had come to life for the sole purpose of whooping my ass. As I bit down on the inside of my cheek, reaching for some hidden reserve of composure, Bocephus summoned his other youngin’.

“One of you is going to tell me what in God’s name this is about, and the other’s going to wish they’d spilled it first.”

“Now, damnit!”

What were we supposed to tell him? “You see Dad, there are these Alpinists, real hearty, Scandinavian types who know a thing or two about braving the elements and, well, calling in sick just isn’t an option at twelve-thousand feet…”

Lacking a succinct explanation, Leslie and I should have had the good sense to at least appear repentant. But the absurdity of this man asking these questions was too much. Unlike the rest of the family, my father does not average six hours of television viewing per day. Any more oblivious to popular culture and he’d sport half the beard and a calendar full of barn raisings.  His sense of humor, keen as it is, grips the literal with both hands. And so the idea of repeating something simply because you’d heard it before and it echoed nicely and your windows happened not to have screens that day—these were dots we had no chance of connecting for him.

So we laughed. Hard.

 THE END AND THE BEGINNING

Defining moments are hard to spot in real time. The first day Elvis left Sun Studio, all he had was a birthday present for his mama. Orville and Wilbur were up for less than sixty seconds. And when she realized she hadn’t made it to the dry cleaners at the end of a long February day, Monica Lewinsky probably just sighed and added another “to-do” to tomorrow’s list. Likewise, it’s not as if everything changed that day between my sister and I. Five years later you’d still have to squint to see the sprouts of an actual relationship breaking the surface of our day-today interactions. But step back far enough and it’s clear that seeds were planted amidst that afternoon’s shenanigans. Know it or not, we’d found our cause.

Granted, it’s no leukemia. It won’t trump a handsy uncle and probably doesn’t even register next to your average divorce or bankruptcy. But as rallying points go, the lampooning of one’s elders will more than suffice. Enough time passes and you accept that there’s nothing sensational or remotely tragic about it. You embrace that it’s common. There’s nothing wrong with common. Common ground is common. And wasn’t that all you were looking for in the first place?

The older Leslie and I get, the more our relationship looks the way it did that day inside our bedrooms. We’ve learned to be a little more proactive, that our garden of sarcasm and parental mockery can use tending from time to time. Still, there’s no need to force things. We take the victories as they come: A recent New Year’s resolution to “finally get serious about the jug band”. The platter of home-smoked (i.e. entirely inedible) meat on a particularly ambitious Thanksgiving. Any number of long-distance tutorials in online shopping.

Even today my sister and I don’t talk all that regularly. Most pertinent information is still relayed through our parents. But, at the very least, twice a year when another of our birthdays rolls around, I can look forward to placing or receiving a call that forgoes all conventional greetings and begins instead with an abrupt dispatch of recent, home-front oddities.

 

JUNE

— Hello?

Dad’s installing a gun safe in the powder room.

 

FEBRUARY

McGee residence…

— Mom taught the dogs to use the ice dispenser.

 

JUNE

— This is Michael—

—    Dad says he can’t hear the TV over the ice crunching and he’s tired of stepping in cold puddles.

—    Ha!

—    No. Not funny. Turn right out of the kitchen and where are you?

— The powder roo—oh Jesus.

 

The calls are treasure to me. They make it almost worth turning a year older. But they’re changing. And with each one it’s a little harder to ignore the tinge of caution that’s creeping into the exchange. It’s a silent hitch, right there in the few beats of dead air after we stop laughing and before we work towards “take care” or “see you soon”. Not sadness exactly, but something jagged and wistful. I know we both hear it. I know we ask ourselves what will happen when the father with the brush fires isn’t around to taunt. I know we dread the day that the mother who returned home and laughed with us seventeen years ago can’t be dragged in again to share the blame. I know we worry, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Yes, being parents, they are the only people who will ever love us that much, in that way. But they’re also our bridge, the filament that connects our current and makes the light come on. So we worry about what will become of us, as brother and sister, when that filament burns out. Will we recognize each other in the dark?

I like to think so, and there’s reason to be optimistic. New bridges are currently under construction. Last April, Leslie and her husband introduced me to a niece who laughs every bit as easy as her grandmother and flashes the same devil in her toddler’s grin. And in a few months I’ll stand up and swap promises with a beautifully disarming woman. All parties seem to enjoy each other’s company, perhaps simply because we want to, and I’m just about convinced it will stay that way. We’ll make the calls. Make the drives. Make the jokes. We’ll laugh, even if it hurts. It will almost be enough.

In the mean time, we’ll keep in touch the old-fashioned, lazy way. Just this morning, Mom tells me Leslie has come down with an especially brutal sinus infection, the kind that dumps broken glass down your throat when you charge your vocal chords with even the slightest whisper.

“Hmm, that sucks.” I say. I’ve always been the empathetic one.

But it does suck. Being sick isn’t the same for working moms. Getting time off will be difficult. She’ll worry about the baby catching it. The figurative headaches will rival the literal ones.

After considering all this, I waffle on whether or not to send the care package. “If she wanted them, she’d buy them herself,” I think. “This might not be the best time for an old joke.”

“Ah, what the hell,” I say, hearing the oversized envelope drum against the bottom of the mailbox. Tomorrow it will be alright. She’ll open the package, see the smaller one inside, hear the warble. And she’ll laugh. Even if it hurts.

#

This piece originally appeared at michaelpowelson.wordpress.com in 2011
 
 

the [cross]road ahead

Is this worth it? I could do hot yoga. I could go to a normal gym. I hear Piloxing is a thing. My ponytail is a mess. Good lord, even my hair follicles are sore. Maybe it’s time for something different.

I hit the floor for yet another burpee during today’s WOD (for the uninitiated: workout of the day). If I were to stretch my arms wide and wiggle, I’m fairly certain that I could create a shadow angel out of my own sweat. I push up, halfheartedly clap my hands above my head, repeat, repeat, repeat … I’m tired, and I just want to get this done.

It wasn’t always this way. I fell in love with CrossFit fast and hard, the way I imagine all cultists do when they find their raison d’être. I’ve never developed runner’s high (I find little joy in forcefully separating my shinbones from their tendons), but I regularly experience the CrossFit delirium. An intoxicating cocktail of Olympic weightlifting, high intensity interval training, and metabolic conditioning, CrossFit demands a lot of its devotees. That said, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. With its climbing ropes and rows of colorful medicine balls stacked like candy buttons, my box is essentially a jungle gym for big kids.

But what happens to the little girl who, after one too many falls from the monkey bars, becomes disenchanted with the jungle?

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In answering this question of disenchantment, I find myself comparing the personal and professional, one not-quite-new-anymore experience to another. I joined CrossFit nine months ago; I began work at Riggs Partners shortly thereafter. Although the challenges are different—writing perfectly crisp copy is hardly equivalent to a series of hanging squat cleans—postgraduate life and gym-goer ennui make interesting bedfellows.

My first few months at Riggs were nothing short of wonderful, albeit occasionally overwhelming. Every week, I grappled with a distinctive new challenge, a new learning opportunity, a new means of stretching my creative abilities. By contrast, the last few days have blurred together, one round of client edits into the next conference call into the next staring contest with a blinking cursor on a white page. I’ve begun wondering if I’ve finally settled into a certain rhythm and familiarity with the work, or if I’ve just settled. The writing comes more easily now than it did in January. But is it better? Have I embraced my most recent projects with the same intensity and curiosity that characterized my approach to earlier assignments? Has getting it done taken precedent over doing it well? Is comfortable synonymous with complacent? I don’t know, exactly.

What I do know is that some projects, much like some workouts, are more challenging than others. I know that sophomore slumps are real. And I know that meaningful self-evaluation is a necessary exercise in jumping this most recent hurdle. Perhaps the way to achieve something different is to forge our own gauntlet, to challenge ourselves to meet a higher standard. Perhaps we’re complacent only when we stop asking questions.

Disenchantment, then, is a misnomer: in freeing ourselves from the illusion of the new and exciting, we reach a place of greater honesty and a better vantage point from which to view the playground. We’re a little smarter, a little more experienced, and our eyes are open to the magic in the everyday.

So, here’s to disenchantment. And magical storytelling. And sweat angels. Here’s to the projects that are worth it.

Making PR Magic

While much of the nation was under snow last week, I had the fortune of spending the week in beautiful and sunny Orlando, Florida attending the PRConsultants Group conference, our annual gathering of senior-level PR professionals from around the country.

When we originally booked our conference hotel within the Walt Disney World Resort Area last year, we were told that they would be in the process of converting from the Royal Plaza Hotel to a new property, the B Resort. Renovations were expected to be completed by the time our group arrived, but as anyone who has ever built or renovated their home knows, construction doesn’t always happen on our personal timelines. As our conference approached, it became evident that they were a bit behind schedule. (The hotel is now slated for a grand opening in the summer of 2014.)

Since it would have been terribly difficult to find another location to suit the needs of our group on such short notice, the hotel agreed to accommodate us, with the understanding that they were in “soft opening” mode. You had to feel for them. They had potentially the worst set of critics around – a group full of outspoken PR people with extensive experience in event management and logistics, and national media contacts to boot.

What began as tempered expectations were quickly turned around and sustained throughout our stay by a staff that was committed to exceptional customer service and hospitality. From the moment each guest arrived to the moment we left, the staff went above and beyond to make us feel extra special. They were friendly, welcoming and accommodating. Their willingness to solve problems and to find quick resolutions to minor inconveniences demonstrated not only a customer-focused culture, but also a leadership team that empowered their employees to pursue any idea or remedy that would make our stay better.

Here are just a few examples of how they ensured that we had an experience that we would be proud to share:

  • Their culinary staff served a cooked-to-order breakfast and provided complimentary snacks, including custom-designed cookies.
  • They ordered and assembled stylish furniture for the lobby so that we would have somewhere to congregate in the evenings.
  • They arranged with nearby hotels for the use of pools and fitness rooms.
  • When winter weather along the east coast threatened some guests’ travel plans, they offered to accommodate anyone impacted by canceled flights.
  • When a staff member overheard one of our members lamenting a sore throat, he prepared a special, soothing “homemade recipe” with cucumbers and tonic water.
  • Minor maintenance issues were resolved within minutes, including one repairman who provided a guest with his name and personal extension in the case of further concerns.
  • Most notably, the general manager asked us to serve as a “test guest group” and report to him directly any suggestions that would be helpful for future travelers. It made us feel that our opinions mattered, and gave us the satisfaction of knowing that our input would help future hotel guests have an even better experience than we did.

In the end, this property created 40 ambassadors who came away feeling impressed, relaxed, pampered and appreciated. The PR value was immeasurable. The cost of making it right was priceless.

In a culture that is so resigned to bad customer service, shouldn’t we all shine the spotlight on those who go above and beyond? Share your stories of great customer service in the comments section below!

Of course we have favorites

Ninety-five percent of my professional energy is spent trying to avoid clichés. So it pains me that I won’t even get through the next sentence without revealing myself to be one.

I’m an advertising creative director, and my favorite client is a bar.

Hope the shock of that didn’t send anyone into atrial fib.

In all seriousness, the smart money says I really shouldn’t be admitting this. It would be better to whip up something frothy and unassuming about an airline whose industrial video unlocked the outer dimensions of my social consciousness. Or the accounting firm’s annual report that Hansel-and-Gretled me toward new heights of disciplined personal finance. I get it. The urge to spin that kind of “client-least-likely” yarn is tempting.

It’s just not true.

The not-so-sexy fact is, our degree of job fulfillment is oddly consistent: We meet up with nice people, stretch in all imaginable directions to get to the bottom of their situation, identify the opportunities therein, then work like hell to communicate that relevance in the most memorable way possible.

Cracking that nut is where the jollies lie. If you help a brand discover something about itself and get that thing noticed in the market, you feel good. If you don’t, well then, not so much. Still, nine times out of ten, the specific category of a client’s business is irrelevant to the ratio of smiles and frowns.

But this post isn’t about those nine times. So all I can hope is that an explanation of the tenth turns out to be less obvious than you might have thought.

In November of 2002, I arrived in Columbia from Morgantown, WV. Achingly homesick and too stubborn to admit it, I knew no one but the people who’d hired me. At that point, I was an all-together different cliché — 22 years old with the bank balance to prove it. So I moved into the kind of apartment complex whose parking lot is just as full on a Tuesday afternoon as it is on Sunday evening. Bed sheets hung in windows, beepers hung on belt loops, and folks paced bare spots in the grass waiting on the payphone to ring. The rent was right. But it became clear that unless I hoped to add “Miranda” to my small list of acquaintances, social needs would have to be met elsewhere.

Enter Yesterday’s Restaurant and Tavern. I walked in my first Friday night in town, knowing nothing about the place other than it was a RIGGS client – the first and oldest to be exact.

As in any decent pub, my approach to the bar was met with a smile and expectant expression from the young woman on the other side. Rounds passed and it became clear that the demeanor of this wait staff wasn’t the product of a well-studied handbook or strict managerial coaching. There were no scripted phrases, no upsell ploys or pandering stabs at personal conversation. Just a few kind words and the respect to leave patrons to their own private thoughts or company.

The result was a feeling of genuine acceptance, an easy belonging that sets drinkers and servers on truly equal footing. I knew my requests weren’t putting them out. They knew I assumed no sense of superiority accompanied a seat on the outside of the brass rail. This translates into an unspoken, organic equilibrium that is the hallmark of all Clean, Well Lighted Places — so many of which are literally neither. Settling my tab that first evening, I felt grateful to have located this in Columbia. But it wasn’t until I tried to leave that I realized what I’d really found.

Growing up in the rise of “casual dining” franchises, my generation has been long conditioned not to trust, or even notice, the “memorabilia” a restaurant nails to its walls. But something stopped me at the door that night.


Here I was, five hundred miles from home, awash in a sea of garnet and black and orange and purple. But just over the threshold were my own colors and this small salute to home. Trite as it sounds, I can’t tell you how validating that felt. Suddenly my new city seemed a little more open to its transplants.

Those ragged stickers snapped my funk long enough to hear just how loud the walls were talking. I registered the keepsakes from Michigan and Penn State. I read the hand written tributes to longtime customers and fallen Marines. I studied plaques and flags and oars and framed galleys of books that had presumably been written in the booths they now hung above. I began to understand that these weren’t decorations, but artifacts that told the age and history of this place as sure as the rings coiling to the center of an elderly tree trunk.

And then, of course, there were the photographs. For the next forty minutes I went to the walls.

I scanned the faces frozen in time, fixed in their celebration of birthdays, promotions, their own relationships and life in general. Here was proof that the allure of this place transcended most of the trivial ways we try to classify each other and claim there’s much difference between us. I saw white and black, locals and drifters, professors, dropouts, first loves and ex-wives. I saw folks who must look nothing like themselves now and some who were most surely gone all together.

But most importantly I saw reflections.

The majority of the snapshots chronicled Yesterdays late 1970s origins. And so the photos bore striking similarity to those in my parents’ old albums, the ones I used to spend hours examining, wondering what their lives had been like before me. These questions swirled even more now that I’d reached the age they were then. I took comfort in the belief that, just like all the strangers on the wall, the ones responsible for me had had their moments.

I pictured a time they may have drank too much or laughed too loud. I told myself they too were probably alone at some point, starting from scratch and hoping for the best. I used the faces on the wall and the loved ones they resembled to convince myself that things would work out for me too. And with that, a bar that claimed to be all about the past made it just a bit easier to face the future.

Several weeks ago, Yesterday’s asked for an appropriate way to celebrate its 35th anniversary in an outdoor campaign. For good measure, we took a few days and went in several different directions.

Then, of course, we went to the walls.

Hope you enjoy.