This isn’t normally something that I do, but caitlinfaith tagged me and Caitlin is awesome and is one of my favorite Tumblr buddies, so here we go.
Name: Anthony Bergen
Selfie: This is a photo of me after reading half of the questions that I receive:
FAVORITES (du jour)
Food: Pizza. I’m 34 years old, and this isn’t going to change. Ever.
Drink: Hi, my name is Anthony, and I am a Pepsi-holic.
Book: Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents by Bob Greene (BOOK | KINDLE)
Author: Sam Shepard. I am a historian and 99% of what I read is non-fiction, but Sam Shepard is my favorite writer, whether it is his short stories, his poetry, or his plays. I say this nearly every time that I mention him, but Sam Shepard is a national treasure. If you’ve never read a Sam Shepard book, pick up a collection of his short stories and poetry, and then see how quickly it takes you to go back to the bookstore and buy the rest of his work.
Song: This depends on the day or my mood, but I’ll always love "Nuthin’ But A G Thang" by Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, "Triumph" by Wu-Tang, the "I Got 5 On It" Remix by Luniz (feat. Spice 1, E-40, Richie Rich, Shock G & Dru Down), "Ms. Fat Booty" by Mos Def, "Passin’ Me By" by The Pharcyde, everything by 2Pac ("Never Had a Friend Like Me" and "Blasphemy" are my two favorite ‘Pac songs), and that’s just a sampling of my favorites from hip-hop. I feel wrong leaving so many songs out, particularly anything from Jay-Z. Two songs that some of my readers might be surprised about my appreciation for are "Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny, and Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, which I wasn’t familiar with until 2009 despite the fact that it was released in 1997.
Movie: The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. I love everything about the film — the story, the visual beauty, the musical score — everything. I don’t normally re-watch movies or television show and I don’t re-read books, but I feel an almost physical need to watch this film again at least once a year, even though it’s damn near three hours long.
TV Show: The West Wing. Caitlin had the same answer in her post, so good work, Caitlin!
Band: The Wu-Tang Clan. For those who are not familiar, this particular group of musicians includes “The RZA, the GZA, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and…the M-E-T-H-O-D Man.” (And, for completists, Masta Killa and Cappadonna.)
Solo Artist: 2Pac.
Place: Capitol Park in Sacramento, California during the magic hour.
Subject: History. I hope this isn’t a shocking revelation.
Sport: Does professional wrestling count? Because, if so, professional wrestling. Otherwise, soccer and basketball.
Male Actor: I don’t really have a favorite actor that comes to mind — Johnny Depp, I guess?
Female Actor: Again, I don’t necessarily have a favorite. Meryl Streep is the easy answer because she’s always incredible in everything, but I don’t know if she’s my “favorite”. Let’s just go with her since I’ve spent way too much time on this question already.
Siblings: One younger brother. Three significantly younger half-sisters.
Dream Job: Chief of Staff/Chief political strategist to an executive branch politician. That doesn’t mean it would have to be at the federal level (President, Vice President, Cabinet secretary). I might even prefer working for a Governor.
Political Ideology: Liberal/Democrat, possibly bordering on Socialist. The reason why the previous question’s answer won’t ever come true is because declaring yourself as a “Fidel Castro/Che Guevara /Camilo Cienfuegos Democrat” can be troublesome.
Religion: Atheist. Wish I could believe, but my mind doesn’t allow me to. If it means anything, I love Pope Francis!
Languages: English. I can read Latin, understand a good amount of it by ear, but I can’t speak it or write purely in Latin myself (I can translate Latin to English). I can read quite a bit of Spanish, understand enough while listening to recognize what I’m being told, but I am a poor Spanish-speaker myself.
Reason Behind URL: When I first started Dead Presidents, I didn’t really have a game plan behind what I was going to use it for and had no idea that it would gain a following. Originally, I was going to post essays about how each of the Presidents died. I also thought it was a catchy and memorable title, and it tied in to my love and appreciation of hip-hop.
Reason Behind Icon: One of my fans (sorry, that sounds pretentious…one of my “readers”) customized the Presidential Seal to reference Tumblr.
Tracked tags: None.
Why You Joined: Honestly, I started it as a strictly personal place to write and archive essays about the Presidents and Presidency — initially, as I mentioned, planning to write essays focused on each President’s death, funeral, and lasting legacy. I had no idea that there would be an audience for my writing about Presidential history, especially since I definitely have a wordy, longform style. When I started, I simply liked Tumblr’s interface and basically decided to use it as an online word processor. Eventually, I expanded on the variety of aspects of the Presidents/Presidency that I wanted to write about, and started gaining a significant number of followers. Once I started answering questions from readers, it really took off, and the opportunity to capitalize on the blog’s popularity financially presented itself, and I took advantage of that because I am, at heart, a red-blooded, capitalistic, opportunistic American consumer with high hopes of being able to become fully materialistic. USA! USA! USA!
First URL: It’s always been deadpresidents, and it always will be.
Number of Blogs: I maintained a personal blog, which is still up and never updated (anthonybergen), and my real-life friend, Keith (dividedbyframes), and I used our blogs for evil instead of good by trying to write funny shit. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but for about a year-and-a-half, my personal blog was actually far more popular than deadpresidents. Unfortunately, Keith and I eventually realized that we had to grow up because he got married and had an adorable daughter, and I recognized that Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough probably didn’t have a personal blog apart from their normal websites where they did things like post their friend’s contact information and encourage people to send that friend explicit photographs of animal genitals and/or suggest that he was staying at a hotel in hopes of meeting another gentleman for sex (and sharing his contact information and immediate location) rather than staying at said hotel because he was actually out of town for work. Sorry, Keith. Anyway, I really had nothing to say on my personal blog that I couldn’t say here to a far bigger audience. I also started a companion blog to Dead Presidents called Dead Popes (deadpopes), and would love to have the time and energy to post updates there, but I can’t even clear out the questions in my Dead Presidents inbox.
This is where I end this exercise by tagging all of my other friends, but that would require “other friends”. I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Even if I don’t have “other friends” or “many friends” or “a friend”, I do have a lot of followers, and that helps to filter out the sadness and fill the emptiness with…something? Right? Am I sharing too much? Anyway, if you are one of those followers and want to do this, consider yourself tagged. Oh, and totaldrivel (who I’ve been Tumblr buddies with from almost the beginning), existentialandshit (my favorite Guamanian), overworked-wino (my favorite Jewish girl smart enough to escape Texas), and the recently-married jheath and irish-mexi (if they aren’t too exhausted from their grueling honeymoon). Or don’t do it. After all, as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote in his Oration On the Dignity of Man in 1486 (as I’m sure you all recall), “thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou prefer.” He also said, “Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish” and “Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the highest forms, which are divine.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s just an internet meme.
I have written millions of words about history and the Presidents here on Tumblr, but few of those words have been about me or my personal life. I answer questions about myself once in a while when people are curious about the guy behind my work, but most of my readers know that I very rarely post anything personal, and I don’t ever ask for anything from you; for me, your support and the kind feedback that I usually receive about my writing is enough and I always appreciate it.
But there are obviously things that I care about and have a personal interest in, and I recognize that I am fortunate enough to have a platform that gives me a certain amount of influence that might be able to make a difference when it comes to subjects that I have an interest in. I have well over 10,000 followers who see my posts on their Tumblr dashboards and upwards of 25,000 unique, non-Tumblr users who regularly visit this website every day. I would never abuse that audience by using my platform to spam my readers incessantly. However, I am taking advantage of that platform today and reaching out to you, my audience, on this one specific occasion because it means a lot to me.
When I was 19 years old, I started running an after-school program for elementary school children (ages 5-12) in Sacramento. It was a pilot program taking place in a half-dozen schools in our school district and it failed at six of the seven schools, so when the grant which funded the program expired after three years, the school district chose not to reapply for the grant. The program did not fail at my school, though; the students in my program showed continued improvement in attendance, behavior, classroom grades, and standardized test scores every year that they were in my program. My program was such a success, in fact, that our site re-applied for the grant’s recertification on our own, as a stand-alone program. And despite applying for another grant by ourselves, without any significant support from anyone but our school’s parents, students, and staff, we received approval for three more years of funding. It remains the most important and rewarding thing that I have ever done in my life.
Audreyanna was in my program throughout her time in elementary school, and I grew close to her and her mother over the years. I had wonderful relationships with the families and students in my program and within the community, and have always hoped that my former students were able to learn at least half as much from me as I learned from them. As the families and students have gotten older, many of them have lost touch, but Facebook helps me to see how far so many of my former students have come. Audreyanna and her mother were more than participants in my program, though; they became something like family to me, as quite a few of my former students did.
I’m sharing this GoFundMe effort because I know how hard Audreyanna has worked to get to where she is today. I’ve always known that she could do whatever she set herself out to do. I know that is one of those phrases that sounds like a cliche, but it is quite simply the truth. For years, Audreyanna was like a daughter to me and I can’t help but be immensely proud of her. Audreyanna’s GoFundMe project isn’t some crazy pipe dream; it’s a pragmatic step towards advancing further in the career field that she has chosen and has worked diligently to accomplish. She’s hoping to raise funds that would allow her to take the classes necessary for her to become a registered dental assistant.
My readers don’t know Audreyanna, but you know who I am, and since thousands of people will read this, I’m not going to hesitate for a second if I can write a few paragraphs that could possibly steer some support towards a person that I have always cared about as if she was my own daughter, have constantly been proud of, and who is working so hard to achieve her goals.
Please consider helping Audreyanna out via her GoFundMe page. I assure you that you would be supporting someone absolutely deserving of your help. You would also make me one very grateful Presidential historian — in fact, if you help turn Audreyanna’s dream into a reality and make a donation to Audreyanna’s GoFundMe project, I will send you a free PDF copy of my book, Tributes and Trash Talk: What Our Presidents Said About Each Other.
It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it? No, I didn’t create it — I can’t even draw stick figures, so the visual arts are not something that I do well. Or do at all.
This illustration was created by a reader in the United Kingdom named Callum who just randomly sent it to me and it totally blew me away. I love it, especially since the artist, who I’ve never met and who lives on a different continent, basically captured exactly what my workspace looks like when I’m deep in the middle of writing a really lengthy essay or magazine feature. There aren’t any photographs anywhere showing me work, and it’s almost eerie that he captured it so perfectly, right down to the books literally stacked up around me. Plus, it actually kind of looks like me!
I also love the small touches — the Presidential flag in the corner, the boom box nearby as an homage to my frequent hip-hop mentions, the computer monitor displaying the actual front page of my Dead Presidents website, and best of all, the fact that I’m working at the famous HMS Resolute desk that most modern Presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes — with the exception of LBJ, Nixon, and Ford — have used in the Oval Office.
(Sadly, I don’t actually have a Resolute desk to work at, but considering how much entertainment and education that I have brought to all of my readers over the years, I don’t think it is out of the question to think that you guys might want to band together and purchase this beautiful replica of the Resolute desk for me. I mean, it’s only $7,995 — a big discount from the original price of $12,000! I’ll go ahead and thank you now for such a generous gestured and will be pleased to give you an address to ship it to once you’ve made the purchase.)
Back to another generous gesture — the illustration that one of my British readers, Callum, created and sent to me. I was stoked when he sent it to me and wish I had more places to share it because it is fantastic. I asked Callum if he had a website that he wanted to plug when he sent me the illustration last year and he gave me a link to this site but said he hadn’t been updating it often. Hopefully, he’ll get back into the game and update it some more because he did some great work with the illustration of me and that was totally unsolicited and without knowing anything about me, so he certainly has the talent to do some creative things.
I am feeling pretty good — thanks for asking, and thanks for the concern and well-wishes from all the people who e-mailed me or sent messages via Tumblr and Facebook. I truly appreciate it.
For anyone who didn’t hear, I had a little health scare as I was in the process of moving back to California at the beginning of last month. It certainly wasn’t fun, but all in all, I was pretty lucky for a guy who was in cardiac arrest for as longer as I was. The biggest worry once I wasn’t dead anymore were my kidneys, but it seems like everything is functioning as they should be.
I’m actually still really sore in my chest and ribs, and I guess that’s still from the CPR. I’m positive that I don’t have any broken ribs, but they are badly bruised, even a month later. It’s definitely not as bad as it was a few weeks ago when any movement (or laughing, coughing, breathing, etc) was brutal, but the ribs and muscles in my sternum and right below my pectoral muscles are still pretty painful if I put much pressure on them.
That’s the main lingering issue from what happened. Obviously, I’m still recovering fully and I have a check-up in a couple of weeks to see where I’m at in my recovery. I don’t feel like there are any complications with my kidneys, thankfully. That was the major worry because they were only functioning at 25% of what they should have been when I was hospitalized in Denver. The best thing is that I quickly lost all of the weight I gained from the fluids they pumped me with in the hospital to flush my kidneys and get them functioning. When I left Denver, I looked like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka (except I wasn’t blue) because they had me hooked up to IVs constantly for a week and I weighed 210 lbs when I was released from the hospital. That was the first time in my life that I weighed more than 200 lbs and, a week earlier, before I was hospitalized, I only weighed about 160 lbs. Fortunately, I dropped that excess 50 lbs. even more quickly than I had gained it!
Actually, I guess the “best thing” doesn’t have anything to do with the excess water weight that I was able to lose. The real best thing is that I am still here, still a hopeless insomniac, and still able to answer your questions in the middle of the night because of it. Since I have no memory of my little health scare or what caused it, I have the tendency to downplay it because it doesn’t feel like I went through it, but that it just happened to me, if that makes any sense. I wasn’t aware of what happened until several days later when I woke up, so I almost feel removed from it. I’m also just not the type to really dwell on something after the fact which I wasn’t able to control or influence. But I do understand the significance of what happened. If I take the time to really consider it, I recognize how serious the situation was and I realize how lucky I am to have made it through it. Since I am feeling pretty good and the entire incident seems like a disconnected dream that I was unconsciously starring in, it takes some thought to fully digest it. Once I do, however, I know that I could have died…almost died…according to one doctor, should have died…and when I comprehend that, I realize how goddamn lucky I was.
I still have a few more weeks of recovering my strength and getting back to normal, but I’m definitely making progress. I’m back home in California, and that’s awesome. I’m really looking forward to fully getting back on my feet because I’m anxious to see and hang out with my friends. I’ve missed them and haven’t seen them for four years and, even though I am back home, I’ve had to postpone catching up with them until after I’m feeling closer to 100%. So, that’s definitely one of my big goals that I’m anxious to accomplish.
Thanks again for checking up on me. I do appreciate it and, with any luck, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future giving far lengthier answers to questions than anyone could ever possibly need.
Man, there are so many great examples of Presidents talking about each other — both positively and negatively — that the quotes could easily fill a book…
Oh, wait a second…there IS such a book available and I actually wrote it!
Get your copy of TRIBUTES AND TRASH TALK: WHAT OUR PRESIDENTS SAID ABOUT EACH OTHER for just $4.99. You’ll have over 300 pages of Presidents saying what they really felt about their fellow colleagues in the POTUS Club.
In my book, you’ll find a huge collection of quotes by our Presidents and about our Presidents. Quotes that include Presidential-style disses like:
•”He is a filthy, lying son-of-a-bitch, and a very dangerous man.” — John F. Kennedy, on Richard Nixon, 1960
•”A fathead…with the brains of a guinea pig.” — Theodore Roosevelt, on William Howard Taft, 1912
•”I would not be present to see my darling Harvard disgrace herself by conferring a Doctor’s degree upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name…” — John Quincy Adams, in a letter to Harvard President Josiah Quincy, protesting the University’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on President Andrew Jackson, June 1833
•”Information received…indicates the election of Gen’l Taylor as President of the U.S. Should this be so, it is deeply to be regretted. Without political information and without experience in civilian life, he is wholly unqualified for the station.” — James K. Polk, personal diary entry upon learning that Zachary Taylor was elected to succeed him, November 8, 1848
"If Lincoln had lived, he would have done no better than [Andrew] Johnson." — Harry Truman, on Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction
•”In two hundred years of history, he’s the most dishonest President we’ve ever had. I think he’s disgraced the Presidency. I’m a long-time Nixon hater from way back…” — Jimmy Carter, on Richard Nixon, 1974
Want more? Get TRIBUTES AND TRASH TALK instantly for quotes about every American Presidents from their fellow Presidents!
I don’t mind personal questions at all. If it’s something I don’t want to answer, I won’t, but I really don’t have much of a problem with most of the personal questions that I am asked.
I was born at 1:23 PM on January 20, 1980 at Sutter Memorial Hospital in downtown Sacramento, California. Oddly enough for what I would eventually do with my life, my birthday is Presidential Inauguration Day. While there wasn’t an inauguration on the day I was born in 1980 (Jimmy Carter was entering the final year of his Presidency; Ronald Reagan was inaugurated on my 1st birthday), I was born on the same day as Super Bowl XIV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.
There’s no need to calculate which Super Bowl that was and which Super Bowl just took place. It makes me sound old.
Theodore Roosevelt was a shooting star — 5’8” of barely controlled frenzy. An energetic workaholic, familyaholic, and lifeaholic who lived every day of his relatively short life to its fullest and savored each and every battle throughout 60 busy years on Earth. As Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, said, “Death had to take Roosevelt while he was sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
Every milestone in Roosevelt’s life was reached at a younger age than almost anyone else in American history. Elected to the New York State Assembly at 23; a delegate to the Republican National Convention at 25; a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory at 26; an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York City at 28; appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison at 31; elected president of the New York City Police Board to clean up corruption in the police force at the age of 37; and appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley before resigning to volunteer for the Spanish-American War and then returning from Cuba as a war hero to launch a successful campaign for Governor of New York, all before his 40th birthday in October 1898.
Initially supported by New York’s Republican party boss, Thomas Platt, Governor Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from Boss Platt by ignoring his advice and pushing through an agenda aimed at reform in government, and laws protecting worker’s rights. After the Governor signed a new law implementing a state tax on New York’s corporations, Boss Platt worked hard to get Roosevelt nominated as Vice President on President McKinley’s ticket in 1900, mostly to get Roosevelt out of New York state politics and into an office where he couldn’t do any damage — the weak Vice Presidency of the late-19th/early-20th century. Roosevelt was not interested in leaving Albany to take the boring job of Vice President, but changed his mind after the encouragement of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who felt that it would expand Roosevelt’s profile nationally and help set up a future bid for the Presidency. McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the 1900 election, and Roosevelt kept himself occupied during the campaign by speaking in 567 cities and towns throughout 24 of the 45 states.
Less than a year later, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States (and is still the youngest President in American history), thrust into the Presidency when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo. At his side as he moved into the White House was his wife, Edith, and his six children. Roosevelt leaped into the role of President and had fun with the job while continuing to live what he called “the strenuous life”. For the rest of that “strenuous life” — including a “retirement” which was a retirement in name only — Roosevelt continued to practice politics, hunt, look for new challenges, write, and fight. But there was one battle that Theodore Roosevelt could not fight and would not face — and it started on the saddest Valentine’s Day of all-time.
Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a tragic day for Theodore Roosevelt. On February 14, 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee, a beautiful girl from Massachusetts three years younger than he was. Theodore and Alice had met on October 18, 1878 when Theodore, a student at Harvard, encountered her at the home of Richard Saltonstall — Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s classmate and friend. Roosevelt was immediately taken by Alice’s beauty and intelligence, writing that “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.” A month later, he was convinced that he wanted to marry her, but it took him much longer to convince her. He proposed in June 1879 and Alice finally said yes at the beginning of 1880. On February 13, 1880, Roosevelt spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to announce their engagement. That night, as he often did, Roosevelt wrote in his pocket diary about his feelings for Alice:
“She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and loveable and pretty that I seem to love her more and more every time I see her, though I love her so much now that I really can not love her more. I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her; for a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her. And now I can scarcely realize that I can hold her in my arms and kiss her and caress her and love her as much as I choose.”
Theodore and Alice married on his 22nd birthday, October 27, 1880 at the home of Alice’s parents in Brookline, Massachusetts. Among the guests in attendance was Edith Kermit Carow, who later became Roosevelt’s second wife and the nation’s First Lady. The newly married couple spent their wedding night in Springfield, Massachusetts and a two-week honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York before Theodore plunged right back into his work. Despite his busy, frenetic lifestyle, Theodore’s love for Alice never wavered. He wrote her long, loving letters and spent as much time as possible doting on his young wife. As his political career took off and he served in the New York State Assembly, politicians who called at his home in New York City were charmed by Alice, and Theodore’s feelings for her were as strong as they were during their courtship in Cambridge. As the Roosevelts celebrated their third wedding anniversary in October 1883, Alice was pregnant with their first child and Roosevelt was preparing a run for Speaker of the New York State Assembly.
Running for the speakership was tough work for a 25-year-old that had spent barely two years in the Assembly, but Roosevelt and some of his supporters felt that he had the votes necessary to win the Speaker’s chair. This campaign required Roosevelt to spend even more time in Albany lining up votes, and he would rush home whenever possible to visit his pregnant wife. Alice felt lonely at times, but understood Theodore’s drive and ambition. She only saw her husband on weekends and Roosevelt tried to help Alice out by having her stay with his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (who had recently had a baby herself) and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles, at the family home in New York City on West 57th Street. It was difficult at times for Alice, but she loved her husband’s family and supported her husband’s ambitions, and tried to bear the separation cheerfully.
The separation wasn’t easy for Roosevelt, either. On February 6, 1884, he wrote to Alice, “How did I hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon! I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife. I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.” Roosevelt had lost the race for Speaker, but immediately threw himself into an investigation of corruption within the government of New York City. In Albany on February 11, Roosevelt adjourned his committee’s investigation for a week and headed home to New York City for the birth of his first child. Arriving there on February 12th, it appeared as if Alice was still a few days away from having the baby. Roosevelt left her in the care of Bamie since his mother, Mittie, seemed to be suffering from a heavy cold, and then rushed back to Albany to work on a bill which proposed to give more executive power to the Mayor of New York City. At the Capitol the next morning, Roosevelt received a telegram notifying him that Alice had given birth to a baby girl the previous night. The telegram noted that Alice was doing “only fairly well”, but Roosevelt chalked that up to the difficulties of a young mother’s first delivery in the rough 1880’s. Roosevelt continued to try to get some work done for a few more hours before he planned to catch a train back to New York City to greet his loving wife and his new daughter.
Just a few hours later, Theodore Roosevelt was on a train heading to New York City, but the joyous visage of the brand-new father had been replaced by a worrisome and “worn” look cemented upon his face after receiving a second telegram in Albany. The contents of this telegram are lost to history, but they caused Roosevelt to rush home to his 22-year-old wife and their newborn daughter. In perfect weather, the train ride from Albany-to-New York City took five hours in 1884, and the weather on February 13th was not perfect. It was foggy and cold and Roosevelt finally arrived at Grand Central Station at about 10:30 PM, rushing home through the foggy New York City streets and finding the home at 6 West 57th Street dark other than a gaslight on the third floor.
Upstairs, Theodore’s young wife and the mother of his newborn daughter, was gravely ill. The childbirth was rough, but Alice Roosevelt was also suffering from undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, a terminal illness during the time period, and an illness which was rapidly causing Alice’s kidneys to fail. Theodore held his love in his arms, barely noticing the new life that she brought into the world at the risk of losing her own. Alice fell in-and-out of consciousness, only sometimes recognizing the man at her bedside. As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was sickly, pale, and asthmatic and through sheer willpower and, yes, “strenuous” exercise, he built his body into a strong, robust, athletic man as solid as the bust that pays tribute to him today on Mount Rushmore. As February 14th — the fourth anniversary of his engagement to Alice — began, Theodore tried to summon that ability to conquer poor health in order to save the love of his life.
Downstairs, Theodore’s 48-year-old mother, Mittie, did not have a bad cold. She had typhoid fever, and in his rush to attempt to help nurse his wife back to health — if only with the ineffective tools of hope — Roosevelt had hardly noticed that his mother was also near-death. At 3:00 AM on February 14, 1884, the sadness in the Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street turned to devastation, when Mittie died shortly after Theodore kissed her goodbye. Before Theodore had arrived home from Albany, his brother Elliott left their mother’s home after telling Corinne, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.” As Theodore walked back upstairs to attend to Alice, he agreed with his brother’s statement: “There IS a curse on this house.”
Alice tried to fight, but her kidneys had failed her, childbirth had weakened her, and the melancholy mood in the house couldn’t help to strengthen anybody’s spirits. Theodore continued holding Alice in his arms and that’s where she was when she died at 2:00 PM on the fourth anniversary of their engagement announcement, less than two days after the birth of their still-unnamed daughter. Since he first cast his eyes upon Alice’s face in 1878, Theodore Roosevelt had filled pages of his diary by writing about her nearly as often as he thought about her. He noted the simplest expressions, the smallest acts of recognition, the quietest smiles, the loudest silences, and every action that resulted in a memory that they could replay again-and-again in the future that they had planned together. In his ever-present pocket diary on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt simply wrote an “X” above one striking sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
Two days later, the dazed widower sat expressionless in his pew at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as the two identical rosewood caskets of his mother and wife stood side-by-side at the altar. The day after the deaths, the New York State Assembly paid tribute by adjourning in sympathy after speakers eulogized the women and expressed support for their stricken colleague. In the days that followed, Theodore Roosevelt withdrew, unable to process the heavy pain he was feeling and showing no interest in his newborn baby, christened Alice Lee after her late mother. Friends worried about Roosevelt’s mindframe and newspapers predicted that he would never recover from the blow he had suffered.
We know now that he did recover. Just 27 years old when he lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, Roosevelt couldn’t even bear to say the name of his new daughter because it reminded him of her mother. Instead of “Alice Lee”, he called her “Baby Lee” in her infancy and turned her care over to Bamie so that he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory. There he remained for two years, working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff, writing and recovering from his sudden, tremendously heartbreaking loss. He returned to New York in October 1886 and re-launched his political career, not stopping until he handed the Presidency over to hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1908. Even then, he was still involved, challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, bolting the party when Taft was nominated and running as a third-party candidate that fall, hunting, writing books, and preparing for another run for the Presidency when he died suddenly in January 1919.
Theodore Roosevelt recovered and made history, but the pain that he felt probably never dissipated. It was also never again mentioned. Two days after the funeral, he wrote a short biography of Alice in his diary, ending “For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.” Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote that “Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice Lee from his soul. Nostalgia, a weakness to which he was abnormally vulnerable, could be indulged if it was pleasant, but if painful it must be suppressed, ‘until the memory is too dead to throb.’” Alice Hathaway Lee’s existence may have crossed his mind or remained in his heart, but her name never again passed through his lips. Their daughter — Alice’s namesake — entered adulthood without ever hearing her father speak of her mother. It was simply too painful for this, probably the bravest of Presidents. Following his Presidency, Roosevelt wrote his Autobiography, which was detailed and thorough, but he didn’t mention his first wife even once. Letters were destroyed, photographs were were burned, and Roosevelt’s only method of coping with her absence was pretending that she was never there in the first place. He once wrote of Alice that “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.” Once he did lose her, he certainly lost a part of himself.
Immediately following Alice’s death, Theodore told a friend that he was “beyond healing and time will never change me in that respect”. Roosevelt remarried in 1886 and had five more children, but his silence about Alice’s impact on his life is just as striking as the words he wrote about her while she was alive. In August 1974, President Richard Nixon — one of Roosevelt’s successors and biggest admirers — resigned from the Presidency and in his final speech as President, to White House staff gathered in the East Room, quoted from one of only two references that Roosevelt made to Alice following her death:
"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."
Theodore Roosevelt went on to achieve his ambitions and realize great success, but his tribute to Alice bears witness to his pain and gives extra symbolism to the lion’s last words before his heart gave out in 1919: “Please put out the light.”
Alright, alright, alright. A reader asked me a long time ago if I would answer the Proust Questionnaire and sent me the questions via e-mail. I copied and pasted them here so that I could answer. I’m kind of bummed because I thought that they were going to be the same questions James Lipton asks on Inside the Actor’s Studio, but apparently Marcel Proust wasn’t interested in my favorite cuss word (it’s “goddamn”).
Here we go:
•What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A pile of books, a cool breeze, and the ocean.
•What is your greatest fear?
•Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Wow…years of studying history and I’ve never really thought about this question! I’m certainly not as smart as him, but Bill Clinton to an extent — particularly the compartmentalizing of the more reckless aspects of his life that got in the way of his greatest accomplishments.
•Which living person do you most admire?
•What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
•What is the trait you most deplore in others?
•What is your greatest extravagance?
Rare or difficult-to-find books.
•What is your favorite journey?
Road trips with no particular destination, a full tank of gas, all the time in the world, and great music.
•What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
•On what occasion do you lie?
When I need to.
•What do you dislike most about your appearance?
When people mistake an intensity or thoughtful look in my eyes with anger.
•Which living person do you most despise?
It wouldn’t be right to name names here. Some things belong to me.
•Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
"Dude", "Awesome", "Great"
•What is your greatest regret?
Wasting time when I knew damn well that I was wasting it. Continuing to work at something that I recognize isn’t working.
•What or who is the greatest love of your life?
•When and where were you the happiest?
A place that always seems to be somewhere other than where I happen to be.
•Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could play the piano.
•What is your current state of mind?
•If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Almost everything that happened in 2004.
•If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I’d want to have asked more questions of those who I can’t ask questions to anymore.
•What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Writing a federal grant for an afterschool program in Sacramento that I ran for six of the happiest, most productive years of my life.
•If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
Hopefully a human with a chance to remake certain choices.
•If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Myself, but with all the answers and experiences I need within me from the beginning.
•What is your most treasured possession?
An external hard drive with backups of everything that I have written in the past 15 years.
•What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Disappointing people who counted on me.
•Where would you like to live?
A beachside villa in either Cuba or Southern Oregon.
•What is your favorite occupation?
•What is your most marked characteristic?
The important things that I have learned.
•What is the quality you most like in a man?
Loyal friendship, no matter what. Ride or die.
•What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Someone that I can love AND like.
•What do you most value in your friends?
•Who are your favorite writers?
John Steinbeck, David McCullough, Erik Larson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro.
•Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Omar from The Wire.
•Who are your heroes in real life?
Anyone who can teach me something.
•What are your favorite names?
Names? I don’t really have any favorite names.
•What is it that you most dislike?
Doubt. I hate it when someone doubts me or doesn’t believe in me. Not necessarily someone who doesn’t believe me, but someone who doesn’t believe in me. There’s a big difference. I dislike having to explain myself to someone who doesn’t deserve or need to know what they want to know.
•How would you like to die?
•What is your motto?
"He vivido días magnifícos" ("I have lived magnificent days") — a phrase used by Ché Guevara in his farewell letter to Fidel Castro and the Cuban people. When I am depressed or feeling unworthy, that sentence reminds me of what I have done in the past that is worth being proud of.
I finally finished the Proust Questionnaire! Seriously, though, thanks to the reader who sent me the questions months ago and was incredibly patient while I went month-after-month without answering them.
THE IRON SHEIK IS TRAPPED IN A CHARACTER HE CREATED
One of my best friends, Chris, is commonly referred to as a “shock jock”, although everyone referred to as a “shock jock” quickly and dismissively rolls their eyes at such a clichéd label. Since before we even became friends, Chris has hosted successful and controversial radio shows in places such as Syracuse, Wichita, Sacramento, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon, Atlanta, and, currently, Cincinnati.
The KiddChris Show is not for everyone. It is brutal, straightforward, random, offensive, and, more often than not, a four-hour-long inside joke. Since late-2001, I have been involved with Chris’s radio show on various levels, alternating between being intensely involved on a daily basis (in Sacramento), making infrequent appearances and/or helping behind-the-scenes (in San Antonio, Philadelphia/Pittsburgh), and not being involved on pretty much any level whatsoever (my current status). Through the radio show, I’ve met some very interesting people, found myself in unusual situations, and experienced some very surreal things, but nothing was as unusual or surreal and no one was as interesting of a character as the man who I spent the better part of three days talking to, listening to, and helping out in May 2006 — a man who many people know as the Iron Sheik.
In May 2006, I caught a flight for a trip to Philadelphia thanks to my friends at CBS Radio and the legendary rock station that Chris worked at, WYSP. Chris’s show was wildly successful in Philadelphia and had a bigger, more fervent fanbase in the Philly area than it had experienced in any other city it had been broadcast in. Philadelphia fans are viciously loyal as many people who follow sports know quite well (Philly is where Santa Claus was once heckled with boos and then pummeled by a barrage of batteries thrown by Eagles fans). When it comes to radio, the fans are just as loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy. They are so loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy that Chris’s Philly listeners became known as simply “The Underbelly”. The Underbelly helped make Chris’s show one of the top talk shows on-the-air in Philly, and I headed back to the City of Brotherly Love for Chris’s big birthday celebration at a local bar that would feature a live broadcast of the show, comedy, music, and the Iron Sheik.
As a little kid, I remembered the Iron Sheik as the terrible Iranian bad guy on WWF television with wrestling boots which curled into sharp points and made him look like he stole the shoes of a violent, sadistic elf. I remembered that prior to his matches, the Sheik would proudly wave the Iranian flag and stand at attention with his manager, Classy Freddie Blassie, while his tag team partner Nikolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem. After Volkoff’s rendition of the Soviet anthem was finished, the Sheik would inevitably take the microphone and amid a chorus of boos, yell, “Iran: number one! Russia: number one! USA: Hack-poot!” as he spit with disdain. I don’t remember how Iran and Russia could both be number one, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Iron Sheik in the 1980’s because he had pointy boots and he beat Bob Backlund with the Camel Clutch to win the WWF Championship in Madison Square Garden. I remember that detail because the Iron Sheik mentions it. Constantly. Each and every day, over twenty years later, the Iron Sheik seems to have an internal clock which prompts him every half-hour to say in his eternally broken English: “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world! I beat the Bob Backlund, the Howdy-Doody look-a-like Bob Backlund, with the Camel Clutch! I humbled him and won the Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff Championship! Most famous arena in the world, New York City!”.
Some people abuse the exclamation point when writing, and I do my best not to use that form of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. In the case of the Iron Sheik, it is constantly necessary. The Iron Sheik speaks in capital letters and exclamation points. Even now — long after his glory days — he is always speaking in sound bites, as if he is cutting one more big promotional monologue for one last big match. The Sheik has likely wrestled his last match. He is still a draw to wrestling fans on the minor league independent wrestling circuit, but it is because of his appearances on radio shows like those belonging to my friend or to Howard Stern, or because of the viral videos on YouTube of an intoxicated or otherwise under-the-influence Sheik profanely insulting and threatening former pro wrestling colleagues. The sad truth is that the Iron Sheik is comic relief, and probably never was much more than that to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans. He was, and is, a real-life cartoon character. And, today — much like he was when I spent time with him in 2006 — the Iron Sheik is a man in his mid-60’s who can barely walk but who is shuttled around from one place to the next to make a dollar for himself and five dollars for the people who take advantage of him; a man who lives paycheck-to-paycheck despite always working; a man who is best known for his long career in a fake sport despite the fact that he was an accomplished real athlete; and a man who people laugh at even though they think they are laughing with him.
In just three days, I realized that he is all of those things, but he is most importantly a man. He is not a cartoon character and there is nothing funny about the man behind the Iron Sheik character. The guy I watched on TV waving an Iranian flag as professional wrestling’s “evil foreigner” of the 1980’s — the symbolic Ayatollah Khomeini to Hulk Hogan’s Ronald Reagan — is a patriotic U.S. citizen who loves his adopted country, a country he immigrated to forty years ago. In the process, he embarked upon the quintessential American journey: he found a calling, he became rich, he became famous, and, of course, he lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his fame, he lost his family, and, somewhere along the way, he lost himself.
The Iron Sheik really seems to believe that he always has to be the Iron Sheik. I think that he forgot how to be Khosrow Vaziri, the man born in 1943 in Tehran. The Sheik gets paid to be the Sheik, but beneath the crazy, surreal surface that gets on the radio or on YouTube and calls Hulk Hogan a “Hollywood blonde jobroni” and threatens to “humble” former wrestling colleagues by raping them is an old man who is sad and tired and who nobody truly knows. He doesn’t wave an Iranian flag; he wears a gold medal that he legitimately won at the 1971 U.S. Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. He doesn’t praise the Ayatollah Khomeini while calling Iran the “greatest country in world”; he talks about guarding the Shah of Iran, praying for his family after the Iranian Revolution and working as an assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. He doesn’t wear curly, pointy boots or talk about breaking someone’s back with the Camel Clutch; he walks gingerly with the assistance of a cane in his New Balance sneakers and on knees and hips that need to be replaced due to decades of punishment. Most of all, he doesn’t yell non-sensically about humbling his enemies or talk with disdain about the United States (“hack-poot!”); he quietly talks about being a Muslim, being tired, about wanting to be back home in Atlanta, and, he sadly reminisces about his daughter, who was brutally murdered by her boyfriend in 2003.
And, yes, even when reflecting quietly and trying to remember about life as Khosrow, the man behind the Iron Sheik also still reminds us about beating Bob Backlund for the “Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff” championship in “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world!”. And when that happens, he is back to being the Iron Sheik.
I don’t know if he loses himself in his character because he wants to escape, or if he loses himself in his character because that’s the only place he can find himself. Either way, I think that the Iron Sheik character is pretty much the furthest thing away from who Khosrow Vaziri truly is, and that is exactly why he spends so much time there.
I already knew that I was going to meet the Iron Sheik when I flew to Philadelphia in May 2006. It was the first time I had been on an airplane in quite some time, and as my flight flew into darkness and we headed from day-to-night all I could think about was how it seems like the sun sets more quickly when you’re above the clouds.
There was a lot of excitement about my trip because I was visiting friends, seeing Philadelphia (a city I had always wanted to visit) for the first time, and looking forward to doing a couple of days of good radio before partying at my friend Chris’s big birthday celebration. I didn’t think much about the Iron Sheik. Like many people, I had largely forgotten about the Sheik until Chris recently began having him call-in to the radio show as a guest. The Sheik was entertaining, but also seemed completely out of his mind 88% of the time. The other 12% of the time, I just couldn’t understand what he was saying. I figured that meeting the Iron Sheik would be memorable, but for all of the wrong reasons.
My flight arrived in Philadelphia just before 10:00 PM, and I quickly claimed my luggage and turned my cell phone on to find out where another friend of mine, Thomas, was waiting for me. Thomas answered and said that he was at a restaurant and that there weren’t any interns from WYSP available to pick me up from the airport, either. Thomas said that I could just catch a cab and WYSP would reimburse me, so I said I would do that and asked where I should go. He said, “We’re at a restaurant called LaScala’s on Chestnut with the Iron Sheik. Meet us here — and hurry up, the Sheik is waiting for you.”
I assured Thomas that I would hurry and after hanging up, I thought, “The Sheik is waiting for you”? That sounded almost ominous, as if I were late for a meeting with Osama bin Laden. “The Sheik is waiting for you”. I definitely hoped that the NSA wasn’t listening in to cell phone conversations at Philadelphia International Airport at that very moment. I also wondered why the hell the Iron Sheik was waiting for me — a guy he had never met, spoken to, or heard of. I found a cab driver and told him where I needed to get to, and that I needed to get there quickly. I had been looking forward to taking in some of the sights of Philadelphia — one of the most history-filled cities in the United States and the birthplace of the Constitution — but not like the tour I got from my taxi ride from airport to the center city district. I’m not sure if the lights and sights of the city were racing past us, or if we were racing past the lights and sights of the city, but the cab driver followed through on his promise to get me to LaScala’s quickly despite Philadelphia’s old, narrow streets. The impact of seeing Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is certainly diminished when you drive past them in a cab at 50 mph over cobblestone. Nonetheless, the cab driver got me to LaScala’s as quickly as possible and after giving him a nice tip for taking me on a rocket ride through Philly, I headed inside.
LaScala’s looks like the last place you would meet a professional wrestler. It is a nice upscale Italian restaurant in the Center City neighborhood of downtown Philadelphia and they were nice enough to stay open later than usual for our visit that night. When I walked in, I saw Chris and Thomas at a big table with some people from the radio station WYSP, an avid listener/friend of the show named Constantine, our friend “the Reverend” Bob Levy, and, of course, the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was accompanied by his “business manager” whose name was “Double P”. Double P was, as you might imagine, somewhat shady, very sweaty, and nearly bursting through his button-up shirt with a large stomach.
The Iron Sheik was finishing up a large plate of pasta and drinking beer. He had a prominent beer-belly that seemed to be working against him as he attacked his food, and he had a replica of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt draped over his shoulder. Around his neck was a necklace with a medal attached to what looked like a cross made out of yellow electrical tape. The medal was dull and tarnished by age and years of handling, but when I looked at it later I realized that it was a gold medal from the 1971 AAU Greco-Roman Wrestling Championship. That’s not professional wrestling, by the way. That is real, amateur, Olympic-style wrestling. In the United States in 1971, there were no better Greco-Roman wrestlers in the 180.5 pound weight class than Khosrow Vaziri.
Oddly, the Sheik also seemed to think he was in Pittsburgh. Not just at the dinner, either. Over the next couple of days, he either forgot he was in Philadelphia, thought he was in Pittsburgh, or just didn’t care. At dinner, the Sheik wore a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie and a shirt paying tribute to Pittsburgh’s Kurt Angle, a former Olympic gold medalist and WWE wrestler. Many times throughout the next few days, the Sheik mentioned how much he loved Pittsburgh and Kurt Angle and Bruno Sammartino (another wrestling legend and Pittsburgh native). People corrected him many times over the next few days or pointed out that he was in Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh, but the Sheik kept mentioning Pittsburgh and I could never figure out why. He was in Philly at that moment, currently lives in Atlanta, spent most of his years in the U.S. in Minneapolis, and was born in Tehran, but the Iron Sheik just seemed to love Pittsburgh.
The Sheik could have left the dinner earlier, but Chris had told him that I wanted to meet him, so he said he would stay until I arrived. When I walked in to LaScala’s, the Sheik stood up and said, “This must be An-TONEE!”. He never called me “Anthony”; it was always “An-TONEE!”, and always with the exclamation point. When there are a lot of people around, the Iron Sheik still speaks as if he is trying to be heard over the boos of 23,000 in Madison Square Garden. I laughed and walked over to greet the Sheik before I even said hello to my friends because this poor guy was 63 years old — 50 years of which were spent beating his own body up in amateur and professional wrestling — had spent all day traveling, and yet was nice enough to hang out a little longer because Chris said I wanted to meet him.
When I shook his hand, I expected him to give me some tough-guy handshake. I knew he had a legitimate background in amateur wrestling and spent years wrestling professionally, so I figured he would give me a strong handshake like my grandfather used to give me. The kind of handshake that makes you wish you had just gone for the fist-bump. Instead, I was greeted with a soft, gentle handshake. He barely even squeezed my hand. I thought that maybe he had an injury or some sort of arthritic condition from years in the ring, but he told me later that the gentle handshake is kind of like a secret handshake of sorts amongst professional wrestlers. It’s called a “worker’s handshake”. In professional wrestling, the wrestlers basically put their safety in the hands of the people they work with and trust them to take care of them and not hurt them in the ring. With the gentle “worker’s handshake”, one wrestler or “worker” is telling his colleague “I work gently. I will not hurt you. You can trust that I will take care of you and protect your body in the ring.” I found that very interesting.
I also found it interesting that the Iron Sheik is very famous. People walking by LaScala’s would do a double-take when looking into the restaurant and knock on the window when they realized that they were looking at the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was definitely big in professional wrestling in the 1980’s and even appeared on Saturday morning cartoons, but I was surprised by how many people almost instantly recognized him. He would wave happily when he was recognized by fans, as if their recognition of him validated every silly thing he ever had to do in the ring. I think the Sheik was genuinely excited to be back in the spotlight, even if it was a much smaller spotlight than he was used to in the 1980’s.
Although I’d like to think that the Iron Sheik waited at LaScala’s later than he intended in order to meet me, that ended up not being completely true. It turns out that the Sheik likes beer, and at LaScala’s the radio station was paying for the beer. The Sheik also likes “medicine”, as he calls it. This love of “medicine” actually got him fired from the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 when he was arrested on drug charges along with on-screen rival Jim Duggan. The Sheik has struggled throughout the years with substance abuse problems, and this is why I started feeling sorry for him after I met him.
As funny as he could be, and as outrageous as the things are that he says, the truth is that he is under the influence of a lot of things when he says them. He is not Khosrow Vaziri, the quiet, proud Muslim. He is the Iron Sheik. He is the guy with the pointy boots and the curly mustache and the Iranian flag. He goes into character and cuts promos and gets lost in these random, hysterical, bizarre monologues because it is what the fans have always expected him to do. The Iron Sheik is never very far away from Khosrow Vaziri, but Khosrow is definitely still there, too. You can see it in his eyes when he starts to get lost in the Iron Sheik character. You can see that he would be ready to retire the gimmick and quit being a cartoon character if he knew how to be Khosrow all the time. You can see that he just doesn’t know how to do that.
And that’s why he needs his “medicine”, which is why he was still at LaScala’s when I arrived. Because someone was tracking down some “medicine” for him. So, until then, he was part-Khosrow, part-Sheik, and drank his beer and ate his pasta and took photos with us while regaling us with stories about life on the road.
When the “medicine man” arrived with his “medicine”, he got lost in the “medicine” and then got lost in the Sheik character again. Then he left. Dinner with the Sheik was over and I was mesmerized by this man and this character with all these stories and who had been all these different places. In the short time I spent with him that night, he seemed to be so many different people that I was fascinated.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he thought he was in Pittsburgh. If I didn’t know who I was, I wouldn’t know where I am, either.
Attempt for a moment to imagine this: You are standing on a 20’ x 20’ stage surrounded by 23,000 people screaming at you, booing you, reacting to who you are and what you are doing. You are wearing spandex tights and shiny boots, but you are not wearing a shirt. A spotlight is shining on you and you are inciting this crowd, eliciting exactly the type of reaction that you want to receive from them. You are the ringmaster in your own personal circus and the people who have their eyes on you have paid to see you pretend to fight another person dressed in gaudy underwear for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.
You are in control. You hold 23,000 people in your hand in the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. You are on the stage in the biggest city in the United States. At that moment, more people are watching you wave an Iranian flag and curse their hero than in any musical theater on Broadway. You are in control and it is addictive. It is a drug that you love, that you seek, that you need. It defines you and always will, no matter what you’ve done in the past, and no matter what you’ll do in the future. But, for that moment, in that arena, in that city, you are in control.
Your job is to lie to people and to trick people. You are surrounded by real-life cartoon characters. Some of them wear masks, some of them wear facepaint, some of them are incredibly muscular specimens, some of them are just freakishly fat. Some are great actors, some are great athletes, and some are neither actors nor athletes. These are your co-workers. These are your colleagues. When you work with them, though, they are considered your opponent.
Your job is to make it appear as if you are trying to hurt your opponent as badly as possible at the exact same time that you are actually trying to protect your opponent from getting hurt. Your goal is to pin the opponent for three seconds or make him submit to a referee that isn’t sanctioned by any athletic commission anywhere in the world. Your goal is to win every match, yet there are no standings and nobody keeps a record of who wins and loses.
Your job is to make people believe that you are solving a problem that you have with someone else in a 20’ x 20’ wrestling ring, breaking numerous criminal laws while your body somehow breaks the laws of physics in the process. You bounce off of ropes that are not actually ropes, but steel cables wrapped in rubber which have no give. You jump off turnbuckles that have no springs. You land flat on your back on a thick piece of plywood covered with a thin piece of canvas which is only there for aesthetic purposes. The plywood hurts and it has no give; it is constructed on top of steel beams which are supported by steel columns.
You wear a championship belt that you didn’t really win. You don’t get paid less money for losing. You sometimes have a manager who doesn’t actually manage anything, but might help you cheat at something that has no legitimate rulebook. There is a formula that you rarely deviate from. You will spend your match pretending that your left leg or left arm or left something is injured. You will try to injure something on the left side of your opponent’s body. You and your co-workers never hurt the right sides of your bodies for some reason, but no one really notices that.
You “sell” your apparent injury to the fans because selling results in money. You tell a story every night that builds up to a big conclusion because good storytelling results in money. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, you will bleed because bleeding equals money, red equals green. Your blood is not fake. It is not ketchup, it is not red paint, it is not corn syrup and red food coloring. Your blood is real. Your cut is self-inflicted with a sliver of a razor blade that you hide somewhere on your body and use to slice across your forehead. You will have scars on your forehead for the rest of your life, but those scars equaled money, so those scars are not regrets.
When you are in that ring, you are in control and you are experiencing a rush, a high, a feeling that cannot be replicated. You perform before packed houses and live crowds and you are an artist. Your profession is ridiculed, people think you are silly or cartoonish, but you are an artist. You and your colleagues are actors and athletes and stunt men. You are masters of improvisation and you are storytellers and you feel like you are on top of the world from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave the ring and return backstage. You head back to the dressing room and shake the hand of the man you just pretended to fight, you get congratulatory slaps on the back by your colleagues, you get complimented on your match or your performance by your supervisors. You are in control.
Then you go back to your hotel, in a city you’ve been to dozens of times; a city that is familiar, yet not home; a city that is distant even while you are present. You are in your hotel room and there are no more screaming fans, no more colleagues, no more noises. You are surrounded by a crippling silence — a silence which amplifies all of your other senses, spotlights your thoughts, magnifies your demons. You are confronted by fear — a fear about who you are and what you might become, a fear that scares the blood into rushing through your veins at abnormal speeds, a fear that forces your heart to race, your brain to get lost. You are losing control.
You are a professional wrestler and you make a lot of money, but you travel 350 days out of the year. You have a show each day where you put your body on the line and do indeed get hurt and then you travel to the next town and do it again. You have to do this 350 times a year in order to get paid. There is no vacation time, no off-season.
There is no employee’s union in professional wrestling. There are no healthcare benefits in professional wrestling. There is no pension plan in professional wrestling. You are an independent contractor. You pay for your own air travel, you rent your own car, you pay for your own hotel room, you pay for your own meals, and you do this 350 times a year because it is what you have to do — what you need to do — in order to get paid. You do not have a guaranteed contract. You could get hurt and get fired. You could get boring and get fired. You could simply not look as good as you used to look or be as entertaining as you used to be and get fired.
You love it, though. You need it. It is a drug. The adrenaline rush of performing without a net in front of thousands of people wearing your merchandise or your opponent’s merchandise cannot be replicated by anything synthetic or substantive. It is an experience you have to seek out every night and wake up seeking again the next morning.
You are hurting constantly, so you take pills to mask the pain. You are hyped up on adrenaline after your show, which usually ends late at night, so you find something to do while you come down. You go eat, you go to the gym, you might travel to the next town, and when you get into your hotel, you take more pills or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to calm down and sleep. You struggle to wake up, so you take pills or snort cocaine to awaken. Once you are awake, you realize that you are hurting once again and it’s back to the pain pills. This happens every day and every night for the remainder of your career, probably for the rest of your life.
Your job is to lie to people. Your job is to be someone you are not, to convince people of things that are not real, to do things that are seemingly impossible. When you are trying to be this other person who does these strange things, you are in control. When it is time to be yourself and live life normally, you lose control. You don’t know who you are. You don’t even know who you want to be.
This is the Iron Sheik’s dilemma. As he has aged, his ability to wrestle has diminished, if not completely evaporated. Physically, he is unable to perform in a wrestling ring because his body is broken-down from decades of punishment. In 2001, the Sheik participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania in Houston’s Astrodome with other retired or semi-retired wrestlers. The goal of a battle royal is to be the last man standing in the ring after every other wrestler has been thrown over the top rope and eliminated from the match. Winning the match was probably the last wrestling highlight of the Iron Sheik’s career and he stood victorious with a smile on his face after the match in front of 70,000 fans. However, the Sheik won the match for one reason only — because he was physically unable to be thrown over the top rope and to the arena floor due to his many injuries. The Iron Sheik could barely walk in 2001. When I met him in 2006, he was forced to get around using a cane.
Today, the Iron Sheik is still booked by independent wrestling companies throughout the United States. He is featured on radio shows and internet sites. He is arguably a bigger star in 2010 than he was in 1985. Yet, this is because he is a spectacle — a train-wreck at times. He gets drunk and curses former colleagues, threatens people, says outlandish things that are either belligerent rants or warning signs. There are more videos on YouTube of the Iron Sheik doing and saying something outrageous than there are of the Iron Sheik wrestling.
The thing is, I don’t know how much of that Iron Sheik is Khosrow Vaziri losing control and succumbing to his demons and how much of it is Khosrow Vaziri giving people what they want. Is he crazy or is he just compensating for his inability to wrestle to earn money by saying such insane things that people want to pay him in order to hear what he might say? In professional wrestling, “working” is the act of tricking a “mark” or fan into believing something or suspending their disbelief enough to be entertained by something. Is the Iron Sheik still just “working” everyone after all these years?
I didn’t spend enough time with him to figure it out, but I do know this. When I met the Iron Sheik, he was kind and generous, soft-spoken and quiet. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he wasn’t yelling about putting people in the Camel Clutch or calling Hulk Hogan a “faggot”. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he told me about his daughter, who was strangled by her boyfriend in 2003. He was sad while talking about it, obviously affected, and stated that he wished nothing more than to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. I expected him to rant about grabbing his daughter’s murderer and detailing everything he wanted to do to the man, but instead, the Sheik quietly pointed out that he knows he can’t do what he hoped to do, but that he is a Muslim and that he truly believed in an eye for an eye. It wasn’t bluster or bravado; it was a grieving father wanting revenge.
And, then, the “ON-AIR” light brightened and the Sheik entered the radio studio and he was the loud, wild, frantic Iron Sheik yelling about beating Bob Backlund for the “double-yoo-double-yoo-heff” championship in the “Madison Square Garden. Most famous arena in world!”. It was fascinating and unusual, and I don’t know which side of the Sheik was the character. If he was “working” us, he was a magician.
On the night of my friend Chris’s birthday party, over 1,000 people packed a bar in Philadelphia for a live broadcast, comedy show, musical performance, and special appearance by the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was positioned at a table near the stage and he sold t-shirts and photographs to a rabid crowd of radio show listeners. I was roaming the bar with a wireless microphone throughout the night, but one of my main responsibilities was interviewing the Sheik every once in a while and making sure he was doing okay.
I had taken a cab to the bar with the Sheik and his manager and he was quiet, thoughtful Khosrow during the ride. The Sheik was obviously tired and obviously not looking forward to four hours inside a packed bar with rabid Philadelphians surrounding him. Twenty years earlier, a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum would have excited him, but this was a bar gig with people who weren’t even old enough to know what the Iron Sheik was before he was a punchline. In the cab, the Sheik told me about his home in Atlanta and how he didn’t get to spend enough time there. He gave me one of his t-shirts. I was grateful for his generosity and was nice enough to resist telling him that I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would willingly wear a white shirt with a giant photo of the Iron Sheik in wrestling tights, an open robe and a kaffiyeh.
I thought it would be rough for the Sheik at the birthday party, and it was, but no one who met him or listened to him or watched him ever knew this. Throughout the night, Sheik signed hundreds of autographs and took scores of photographs. He would grab the microphone from me and rally the crowd or get the fans to make noise. He seemed energized and capable of being ringmaster for as long as he was needed. He was — without a doubt — the Iron Sheik.
As the night drew to a close, the crowds did not get any smaller, but the Sheik was exhausted. He continued signing autographs and greeting fans, but whispered to me at one point, “Sheik needs to get sleep, brother.” When he left after four hours at the party, I helped clear a path for him through the crowd of alcohol-soaked listeners and the Sheik looked just like he did when he’d enter an arena in the early-1980’s and interact with fans. He shook hands and commented to people and kept the act going, but would whisper every few seconds “I follow you, brother.”
When we finally got backstage, the Sheik sat down on a couch and said, “I am getting too old for the shows” and at that moment, he looked every moment of his 63 years. He leaned his scarred forehead against the handle of his cane. He pulled on the ends of his famous mustache. He looked weary and grandfatherly, lonely and lost. He didn’t look like a cartoon character. He looked every part that he had ever played all rolled into one elderly, broken-down, exhausted man.
I knew then that he was Khosrow Vaziri. Whatever he might say, whomever he might pretend to be, he knew who he was and wanted to be. He had “worked” everyone. He made them believe that he was the crazy Iron Sheik because that was his job and his job was to trick people. Really, though, he was Khosrow Vaziri and, for the first time, I called him by that name.
“Khosrow,” I said, “are you ready to go back to the hotel?”
He looked at me with tired eyes, his body language shifted upright, his head bolted upwards from the handle of his can, and he started to stand.
“Sheiky Baby needs his medicine,” he said. “Can you find a medicine man, brother?”
I could only laugh. Just when I thought I had figured him out, the Iron Sheik had “worked” me. I guess I should have known better. After all, the man is in a Hall of Fame devoted to the best tricksters in a business known for trickery. If he can’t figure himself out, I have no hope for doing so. My only hope is that he finds the answer someday, even if he makes us believe otherwise.
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