THE BEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BINGAT 75, HE WALKS THE WALK AND TALKS THE TALK
The guy everyone calls Bing is bantering with the pizza man.
"You get that Italian beef sandwich on your menu, you'll have them lining up," Bing tells Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, a fabulous little eatery at Phoenix's Town & Country Shopping Center.
"Okay, okay, you got it," Bianco bellows from behind the counter. "I got my game face on just for you, Bing. We'll call it the Roast Bing sandwich."
Bianco's fiance, Susan Pool, asks Bing if he'd like something to eat. Bing politely declines, as usual. Normally, he'd volunteer to do odd jobs for his friends the pizza proprietors--taking out garbage, running a few errands.
But not today. He's got lots of walking to do, and a rainstorm seems imminent.
"I may be by later," Bing tells the couple. "Got to get my exercise in before it gets to pouring on me. You kids have a nice day."
They will, because that's pretty much what Bing does--help people have nice days. His daily presence provides a refreshing departure from the brief, often meaningless encounters that taint urban life.
He adjusts his shocking-pink ball cap--the one with the inscription "Bing" stitched across it--then steps out of the restaurant into the chilly air.
Bing stops briefly at the Cobbler's Den, a little shop tucked into the southeast corner of the shopping center. There, Bing greets owner Ed Piotrowski, a veteran shoemaker for whom he's done chores for years.
He won't accept money for his labors, either at the pizza joint, the shoe shop or at any of the other small businesses he regularly visits and assists.
"I just like being around these people," Bing says. "It makes me feel special when kids like Chris and Susan, and gentlemen like Ed smile and wave at me. If I can make myself useful a little, that's enough for me."
Bing and Piotrowski chat easily for a few minutes, touching on the Super Bowl, their health, the weather. The cobbler turns to an onlooker. "There aren't too many guys like this in the world," Piotrowski says. "He just makes a lot of people around here feel really good."
Bing is a 75-year-old retired printer from Chicago. He has ten children, 23 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a wife of 49 years. Bing says she still lives in Illinois because "she doesn't want to leave the nest, the flock. But she visits."
Bing became Bing years ago as a tribute to his lifelong hero, Bing Crosby, the famed crooner/actor/golfer whose given name was Harry Lillis Crosby Jr.
For the record, this Bing's real name is Jim Keegan.
Habitus of the Camelback Corridor sound a familiar refrain: They speak of the twinkle in Bing's eye and of his positive outlook, which gives even grouches cause to smile.
"Phoenix is a vanilla, air-conditioned world with a lot of vanilla, air-conditioned people," pizza man Chris Bianco says. "But here's this guy who smells the smog and the orange blossoms every day, who's out there on the streets. I don't care how old he is. He knows what's goin' on. He feels it."
Bing leads a simple life: He subsists on social security and a modest pension from his 45-year stint as a hot-metal printer. He says he quit drinking a quarter-century ago because he was getting too fat.
Only one of his offspring, a son, lives in Arizona, so Bing satisfies most of his social needs with friends he's made while walking--a tobacconist, a yogurt maker, the cashiers at a Smitty's, the cobbler, the pizza maker, and passers-by.
He doesn't own a car, never has. In the late 1930s, Bing recalls, he got behind the wheel for a driving lesson. Once.
And he's not keen on Phoenix's public transportation system, either. So day after day, after he attends Mass and Communion at St. Thomas the Apostle, Bing walks and walks and walks.
His gait is steady, fast-paced, purposeful, and with good reason.
"Knock on wood, no one has given me trouble yet," he says, referring to his 15 years of walking in Phoenix. "Maybe because I look like I know where I'm going."
He varies his route daily just to keep things fresh, but Bing's trek usually goes something like this: He leaves his two-room apartment on 24th Street south of Camelback in the morning, heading first to the Town & Country Shopping Center. (If he needs provisions, he'll shop at the Smitty's at 20th Street and Highland, walk the mile or so back home, then start again.)
After checking in with his pals at Town & Country, Bing heads to Christown Mall, about five miles to the northwest. He catches his breath there, watching the patrons rush by him for a spell, and does a bit of window-shopping.
Then he walks back home, maybe stepping past the Pizzeria Bianco to say hi and see how business is. He covers this route--at least ten miles a day--year-round. Only extremely inclement weather or illness stops him.
"Walking is one of the few things that's still free," Bing says, "and I'm not the kind of guy who sits in a rocking chair. You need to work your mind and body or you'll die sooner than later."
At home, Bing reads, does crossword puzzles, watches the tube--sports and movies are his favorites--and dreams of someday having the space to surround himself with his vast collection of Bing Crosby memorabilia. Most of it is in storage.
You've heard of "Deadheads," that subculture of Greatful Dead fans who covet concert tapes and anything else to do with the venerable rock group.
Bing is, well, a Binghead: He's collected more than 3,000 of Bing's tunes on cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, and on vinyl. (Just a few titles: "El Seor Bing," "Hey Jude/Hey Bing!" and "Bing N' Basie.")
"I was regarded as the number two Bing collector in the Chicago area," he says. "I've always wanted to know everything about him."
His love affair with Crosby started, Bing says, by happenstance, when he was about 11 and the dulcet tones of an unknown big-band singer oozed out of his radio speakers. It was Bing Crosby, singing with Gus Arnheim and His Coconut Grove Orchestra.
"My older brothers were always asking me, 'Who's your favorite? Who's your favorite?'" Bing recalls. "When this nobody came on the radio, I heard something I liked--he was smooth, clear, one of a kind. I told them, 'That's the guy for me.'"
Bing says he met Bing Crosby twice, once at a hotel in Chicago during World War II and again around that time at a golf tournament near the Windy City.
But he says his biggest thrill came in 1972, when he, his wife and a few of their children stopped at Crosby's mansion while vacationing in the San Francisco area. Bing's game plan was to present Crosby with rare photos taken of the crooner as a youth. But Crosby wasn't home. A housekeeper took pity and invited Bing and company into the 26-room home.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Bing says, relishing the chance to tell the story again. "I got to see his study, his hat collection, everything. I even got to sit on his bed and put my head on his pillow. She let us take pictures, as long as we promised not to sell them to one of those tabloid things. It was a great day."
Bing left the rare photos behind and requested in a note that Crosby autograph and send them to him in Illinois. The signed photos that Crosby returned later that year occupy a special place in Bing's extensive collection.
Bing Crosby died in 1977, after playing a round of golf in Spain. Elvis Presley preceded him in death by two months.
"I know a lot of people consider Elvis the king, and that's okay," Bing says. "For me, it's Mr. Crosby. He always was young at heart. You got to think young, babe, if you're gonna be happy in this life.
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