Tonight, I am in a band. I am only a guest musician. But the guys on stage are my friends.

It’s a great night. Bright lights are shining in my face. There are happy people in the audience. And I can’t think of many things I love more than playing music with my friends.

Bruce is on the harmonica. George is on the lap steel. Jack is on bass. Steven is on the drums. Another Stephen is on Hammond. Jerry is tearing the keys off his saxophone. Mike is playing congas. And I am playing piano.

There’s an old saying about bands. The quickest way to get the band to sound good is to shoot the piano player.

Old joke. One I’ve heard many times. But then, I’ve heard them all throughout the years.

Q: What do you call a piano player without a girlfriend?

A: Homeless.

Q: What do you throw a drowning keyboard player?

A: His amplifier.

I’ve been playing piano since age 9. The way I started playing piano was, my father bought an

old spinet from the classified section.

One December afternoon, Daddy and three of his fellow ironworkers hauled the piano into our home and put the instrument into our dank basement, just beside the water heater, beneath the framed embroidery which read:

“Watch ye therefore: ye know not when the master of the house cometh.”

My father bribed his friends to help him move this piano by paying them with beer. His friends were feeling no pain. As a result, by the time the piano got to the basement, the thing looked as though it had fallen down three flights of stairs. Because, of course, it had.

But it sounded great. I was over the moon to have MY VERY OWN PIANO.

Mama asked Daddy whether he was going to buy me piano lessons. He replied, “If the boy wants to play bad enough,…

It’s raining on Saint Patrick’s Day. Birmingham is caught in a mess of grayish fog. Sort of the way you’d imagine Ireland might be.

I went to a tavern to meet friends so that we could engage in the cherished American pastime of drinking green beer.

I’ve been drinking green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day ever since I was old enough to watch Mister Rogers. I am Scots-Irish. We are beer fans.

My mother’s roots come from Northern Ireland where beer was probably invented. Which is why my mother chose a traditional Gaelic first name for me.

As a boy, the name Sean was always a source of great confusion for classmates who didn’t happen to speak second-century Gaelic. They couldn't figure out the pronunciation.

In third grade, for example, on the playground, a young street tough named Vinny Stepnowski asked, “Why do you spell your name like that, dorkface?”

“That’s what my mother named me.”

“It’s a stupid name,” Vinny said. “Why would anyone name their kid Sean?”

“Because if she’d named me Vinny, I would’ve had to wear a bra.”

I was in a body cast

for nine weeks.

I walked into the beer joint. The place was packed for Saint Paddy’s Day. TVs everywhere. Music blaring. My friends weren’t there yet, so I waited at the bar.

I sat next to a guy who was using a wheelchair. I’ll call him Patrick because this is my column and I can do whatever I want.

Patrick was drinking beer through a straw because holding the glass proved to be a chore with his weakened hands. He was alone.

“Pull up a stool,” said Pat.

Patrick and I shook hands. His grip was light, but he squeezed. He had a thick beard and he wore a UAB Medicine sweatshirt.

“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day,” he said.

“Same to you.”

“You Irish?” he asked.


“So you must like Guiness?”


Brenda’s Barbecue Pit is about the size of a walk-in closet, only smaller. The nano-building stands on Mobile Road near Washington Park in Montgomery. It’s a working class neighborhood. They do take-out only.

No credit cards.

There is a line of customers four miles long today. Some customers look like they came directly from work. There is a man in custodial blues. A woman in medical scrubs. A guy in a suit.

It’s a sunny afternoon. Birds chirping. A souped-up Cadillac passes by, windows tinted in roofing tar, with a booming stereo loud enough to crack dental fillings. And I am drunk on pecan smoke.

There is an old woman in the car parked beside mine, windows down, smoking a cigar. She smiles her few teeth at me.

I ask her if the food here is good.

“Good ain’t the word, baby.”

I ask how long Brenda’s has been here.

“Long time,” she replies, smoke wafting from her nostrils. “Longer than I am old.”

I’ve eaten barbecue in 44 different states; everywhere except North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and New

Hampshire. People tell me Brenda’s is the best of all time.

Bold words. Especially when considering some of the barbecue joints this vast country has to offer. I’ll start with a few unlikely winners.

Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas, located in an ordinary strip mall. The line was out the door. Once inside, a waitress offered me free beer while I waited. I repeat, free beer. The food was spiritual.

Ubon’s barbecue joint. Yazoo City, Mississippi. My booth featured duct tape on the upholstery. The ribs tasted exactly like cherubs singing Handel.

Kaiser’s Barbecue in Salt Lake City. The joint looks like either a former tattoo parlor or a repurposed strip joint. The prime rib was so good my wife slapped me. Twice.

Suzy Q’s, in Buffalo, New York. The staff thought I talked funny. Long ago, you would have termed…

“It’s my birthday,” the email said, “and my dad forgot me…”

The young man writing to me just turned 14 years old. We’re going to call him Mark.

Mark lives outside New Orleans. His parents are divorced. Mark lives with his mom. Mark’s mom had to work late this year for his birthday.

Last night, Mark’s father was supposed to cover for her. His father was supposed to swing by and pick up Mark to hang out. They were going to celebrate the big One-Four together. See a movie. Get some pizza. Do guy stuff.

But Mark’s dad never showed.

It was a Tuesday evening. Mark got dressed up for his birthday. He sat on the porch, waiting dutifully. Mark was wearing his nice clothes. He kept checking the time on his phone. He kept peering down the street, to see if his father’s car was coming. But no cigar.

Finally, at sundown, Mark went back inside and watched some television. Then he wrote to me because—you have to worry about this boy—he likes my writing.

“My dad

doesn’t love me,” his message began.

Well, Mark, before I say anything else, let me wish you a happy birthday, kiddo. Congratulations. Fourteen is a huge birthday. It’s the period of life when you’re not quite a man, not quite a boy.

At age 14, you exist in a phase of life we call “Man-Boy Phase.” It’s a phase where you are keenly aware of things like newly sprouted body hair and armpit odor, but you also still unwind at the end of a long day by using fresh boogers to terrorize your little sister.

You’re still a kid who loves Legos. But on the other hand: You currently spend the same amount of time fixing your hair as it took to complete the Sistine chapel.

Fourteen. A heck of a year.

I remember when I turned 14. What a tough year…

Hi, God,

It’s me again. I know it’s been a while since my last prayer, so I don’t blame you if you choose not to listen to a hopeless sinner like me.

The truth is, I’m just not a very great guy. I wish I had a better excuse than this, but I don’t. And if I offered you a better excuse, you’d know I was lying.

I’m slothful, plain and simple. I have bad habits. Sometimes I don’t do the right thing. And oftentimes, I just plum forget to pray.

The reason for this is because I grew up in a Baptist fundamentalist household. My mother forced me to pray each night at gunpoint. We uttered morbid prayers that struck terror into the hearts of children.

I prayed each night, for instance, that if the Rapture were to occur, and Gabriel blew his trumpet, that I wouldn’t be left behind. I prayed this every night, without exception. I was terrified that if I wasn’t taken in the Rapture, I’d be left here on earth to suffer with

all the Methodists.

And then there was the prayer Granny made me memorize. “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.” There has never been a more sadistic prayer than this childhood classic.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
“If I should die before I wake,
“It’s because I was a bad little boy and I truly deserved to be asphyxiated in my sleep.”

My wife. Now there’s a true prayer warrior. She keeps a handwritten list. Every night before supper, my wife prays for each person she’s ever met since third grade.

My wife prays for everyone. From the Vietnamese exchange student she met in preschool, to former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

I have a difficult time staying alert during her suppertime prayers. My head sinks lower with each passing…

The old dog was found walking on the highway. She had no name. No home. Nobody.

The guy who found her was a guy we’ll call Peter. I call him this because this is his name.

Peter was 67 years old at the time. He was riding in a cab, leaving a doctor’s appointment.

He had just been diagnosed with a congenital eye disease that was getting worse. Soon he would be blind.

To complicate Peter’s life further, Peter was also Deaf. He spoke sign language. But the blindness was a game changer.

“It was pretty hard to communicate,” said Peter. “And it was about to get harder.”

Peter told the cab driver to stop the car.

“What?” said the driver, who was doing 65 mph.

“I said stop!” Peter shouted.

“Okay, Jeez,” said the driver (Peter could read lips). “You don’t have to shout.”

Peter doesn’t mean to shout. When Peter speaks, he uses a loud, moanful voice, because Peter has never heard his own voice.

The cab driver pulled over. Peter leapt out and trotted to the dog. The old

girl came right to him. She had some cocker spaniel in her. She let Peter pick her up.

He carried her back to the cab. She was covered in grime and funk.

“I don’t allow pets in my cab,” said the driver.

Peter begged.

“Rules are rules, pal.”

Peter offered to pay extra.

The cab driver rolled his eyes and told him to get in.

The first order of business was to bathe the dog. The poor girl had mange. Mange is caused by microscopic mites that live just under the surface of the skin. If dogs don’t bathe, dogs can get mange.

Mange is no joke. Even people can even get mange. My uncle Tommy Lee, for example, once caught red mange. His pals at the Legion hall thought this was hysterical. He got free drinks for…

A crowded plane. I had an aisle seat. The guy beside me was snorting. I say “snorting” because he was actually making swine-like sounds as he slept.

I am a frequent flyer, I’ve heard lots of snoring. But it had been a long time since I heard anyone snort. Not since I was in first grade and our class reenacted the Holy Nativity. Benny Hodges and I played the roles of pigs that were present at Christ’s birth. Our only line was “OINK!”

The poor flight attendants. They were the ones who had to wake this snorting guy and tell him he was disturbing passengers. The attendants also had to deal with the man’s horrible attitude. He nearly bit their heads off.


Only he didn’t say “dangit.” He waved his hands. He insulted them. And the attendants took the abuse like champs.

Meantime, two women behind me were having a conversation in voices so loud that people in First Class were forced to interrupt their deep-tissue massages.

“You remember my friend Anne?” said the first


“Yes,” said the other. “What about her?”

“She has a new dog.”

“Really? What kind?”

“I don’t know, but he keeps peeing inside.”


“Yep. It’s an expensive dog, but he pees.”

“Dogs pee so much.”

“I know, what’s up with all that peeing?”

“Peeing is gross.”

“I hate pee.”

“Me too. I wish we didn’t have to pee.”

“I don’t know, peeing can be kinda relaxing sometimes.”

Shoot me.

Once again, it was the flight attendants who had to tell these women to lower their voices. One of the loud-talking women was not happy about the rebuke. She tore the flight attendant a new one.

And then there was the beverage service.

Beverage service is the part of every flight that’s both exciting and dreadful.

Exciting, because for…