Posted by Jenn Thorson at 7:00 AM Labels: autograph, custom car show, pittsburgh penguins, ron francis
It was a carnival of airbrushed wonders... Of whirling hubcabs and wheels... Of buxom bumper babes and NASCAR jackets.
It was the 1997 Pittsburgh Custom Car Show and I'd taken an on-ramp to the Unexpected.
My friend Scoobie and I looked around us with an uncertain gaze. Er... were we in the right place? Was this really where Pittsburgh Penguin Ron Francis-- my beloved hockey hero-- would be signing autographs?
I watched a fellow with a Dale Earnhardt tee stretched over his broad belly, his Earnhardt jacket over that, his Earnhardt hat topping off the ensemble of pure Earnhharted glory...
He chatted with a guy who'd taken months to paint intricate skulls, wings and barbed wire on his Harley. He smiled with teeth that resembled a large jagged gear.
"You're a good friend," I told Scoobie. "If it weren't for my deep Ron Francis appreciation..."
"I know.... I know," Scoobie nodded, patting my shoulder reassuringly. While I had my dear Penguins jersey draped over an arm, she cradled my other piece of Ron Francis memorabilia to be signed. I owed her big-time... Possibly of the chocolate bribery variety.
This would be the closest we'd ever gotten to actually meeting anyone from the team. I mean, sure, my friend Weasel had once gotten stepped on by Mario Lemieux.... Largely because, as a human skyscraper, he didn't spot Weasel in the dark canyon below.
But that wasn't exactly a feel-good moment for anyone.
This, this was my last chance to have my jersey signed before Ron would be traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Being more girlie than gearhead, I knew the event itself wouldn't be quite my scene. But with there being a Pens signing, I guess I'd just expected more... Er, less... er...
I averted my gaze from the virtually-naked booth chick standing there giving out fliers.
"And to think I left my leather string bikini, cowboy hat, and boots home today," I told my friend, looking at my poet blouse and jeans.
"If only 'bikini casual' had been written on our tickets," Scoobie said philosophically. "It's so hard to dress appropriately these days."
We got in line behind some fellow Pens fans and wound our way past the displays. Here was a replica of the Addams Family car-- both creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky. Well-done, folks-- 10 out of 10 for ookiness!
And, why, here was another Penguin-- well, the Penguin from Batman Returns, anyway. Along with the mighty Batman and the lady Cat, Danny DeVito's black-toothed Burtony likeness peered out at us from the side of a motorcycle.
We wound around A-Team vans and the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee... We shuffled past leopard-print, hot pink steering wheel covers and fuzzy dice... We marveled at muscle cars covered in sparkles and classics licked with flames. We even spied a mural of a hairy, hunky Magnum P.I. before a palm-treed Hawaiian landscape.
And then we could see the end of the line. There, at a table, on a podium, sat centerman Ron Francis, focused, just signing away, some official-looking dude next to him, moving the crowd forward.
And move us forward he did. What the process had in speed, it lacked in... well, humanity. We were brought one by one to the signing area, where we stepped sideways, handed our item to the Event Manager Dude, who handed the item to Ron Francis who, in turn, passed it back to us.
The manager was silent, stoic, a cold marble expression on his face. One look at him, and you knew he meant business.
He was a drill sergeant, a schoolmaster, or a cop who'd just pulled you over for speeding... He was an NHL referee or Seinfeld's Soup Nazi. He had no time for tomfoolery and he knew than any moment someone would try to fool the tom...
He wasn't about to have it.
You could see my fellow Pittsburghers tense. All the jovial fuzzy-dice-molesting and booth-babe-jibing of moments before evaporated from us all like hockey game beer buzz by the fourth quarter.
We became quiet. We turned into ten-year-old students queuing for a gym class scoliosis check...Or citizens accepting that ticket from Sheriff Little. We were tense, sullen, grey.
Finally, it was my turn. This Stern Schoolmaster, this Soup Nazi, this NHL referree took my jersey from my sweating fingers and presented it to Mr. Francis. And I knew any word but "thanks" would result in my speedy dismissal...
My "No Soup For You" of hockey encounters...
My expulsion from Custom Car Elementary School, empty-handed, hopes dashed.
Barely able to even glance at my favorite hockey player for the tension, I got my autograph, stepped sideways out of the line and waited for Scoobie, who also made the nervous sidestep to the exit and handed me my signed goods.
The air seemed to lighten. We'd made it through, mission accomplished.
But now I wonder... If Ron had gotten all jiggy and started actually chatting with the masses -- would he have gotten put in the penalty box and given five minutes for interference?
I think so, somehow... Ze Autograph Nazi, he had vays of making you Not Talk.