You don't get a Stage-4 cancer diagnosis and go on your merry way. You just don't. Stage 4 means the cancer has metastasized. Stage 4 means it's spread. It means your body has surrendered and the question of giving up your personal ghost is likely not an "if" but a "when."
Dan Rogan's cancer entrenched itself in his esophagus and got comfortable. By the time he hauled ass to the emergency room four months ago at the insistence of his co-workers—he showed up to Lola for a night shift yellow in the face—his lymph nodes might as well have been cantaloupes.
He got shuffled around the Clinic for the requisite tests, and when a doctor finally touched base, he led with this potent nugget: if Rogan hadn't come in that day, he would've been dead by the end of the week.
Good news thus disbursed, the doctor went on to use the words "cancer," "incurable" and "inoperable" in the same sentence.
"Some people live three months, some less," the doc told Rogan. "But we think you'll live 12."
Rogan says he stopped listening after he heard the word 'cancer.' His friend Sue was there, asking the hard questions and gathering intel.
"Can he smoke?" she asked. "Can he still drink?"
"I didn't care what he said," Rogan admits. "All I thought was: I can do heroin now if I want to. Right? I mean, who cares? Why stop doing all the bad stuff? So I can die healthy?"
Four months ago, this Cleveland bartending legend started doing just exactly what he pleased. And here's what he did: he lived.
Dan Rogan was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago.
It's a Thursday evening in June, and Cleveland's heat has arrived with the force of a high-watt bulb. On the Fairmount Wine Bar's patio out back, patrons' forearms imprint themselves on the countertop as oblong diagonals of sweat. This is how they peel off: audibly.
But it's pleasantness that pervades, despite the humidity. Cleveland Heights could almost be the French Riviera as dusk descends: these tangled vines, this ambient music, these elegant shirts.
Rogan arrives in jeans and a short-sleeved button-up. He's attached via tube to a fanny pack with his chemo gear. He sits down gingerly at the bar and orders a vodka lemonade.
"I used to just drink vodka on the rocks," Rogan says," but I thought I ought to at least make some concessions to this disease."
He's been at chemo all day—one of those eight-hour marathon sessions—but remains astonishingly upbeat. He managed to get some shuteye after the clinic.
Rogan's as playful as a man in his twenties and as worldly wise as a man in his eighties, so 50—he reports his age without camouflage or remorse—makes a certain sort of mathematical sense. He wears a not-quite-ginger goatee with pizzazz.
When the drink arrives, tall and fragrant, Rogan regards it as one might a terrible infant—a thing both volatile and precious.
"It's gonna hurt going down," he admits, fingering his throat where the chemo's been pumping.
Rogan says the cancer's still there—"I don't think they ever really get rid of it"—but his doctor has been bewildered by the turnaround.
"Am I gonna be dead at the end of the year after all?" Rogan asked his doctor two weeks ago, when his lymph nodes had returned to normal size and he seemed, all theories to the contrary, sort of cured.
"I don't think so," the doctor replied. "You should be celebrating."
Rogan's more candid than most when talking about his illness, but he didn't tell his doctor that he'd been celebrating since he got the diagnosis.
Dan Rogan was supposed to get worse quickly.
"For me it started out terrible and then got better," Rogan says.
From the moment he received the bad news, Rogan entered a period of black days. He felt like hell and looked even worse. His friend Kathy Blackman—the revered owner of the Grog Shop and B-Side—took him in and presided over his descent.
He was vomiting and shitting everywhere. He lost 75 pounds in two weeks. He was hopped up on Morphine and couldn't see straight, walk straight, or put together a straight sentence. He recalls sliding down walls into fetal slumps on pretty much a daily basis.
"That whole two months is like a blur," Rogan says.
What was far worse than the physical ravages, though, was the new treatment he received at the hands of colleagues and friends. Here was a man who had devoted his life to customer satisfaction, a lifetime bartender who'd accrued a Godfather status in the service industry's most refined tiers. He was a man who had a posse, a man who did more than bring life to the party; he brought the party to life.
For Rogan, here's why his own was ending:
"People were bringing me chicken noodle soup and shit," Rogan says. "They'd been reading too much early American literature, I think. I mean they were actually bringing me blankets."
After he got a Snuggie, Rogan had a freak-out session with Kathy.
"I was on Facebook, looking up and down my feed and realizing how out of the loop I was. All these people who I knew and loved were going on with their lives, and it was like I was never there."
He'd had enough.
That's when Rogan started his cancer meet-and-greets. That's when he changed his attitude. That's when he dispensed with the pills and the soup and adopted a new regimen: Other than the chemo, his antidotes would be booze and company.
And Cleveland was ready to entertain.
Dan Rogan was supposed to be a John Carroll diving phenom.
Back in '84, Rogan was one of New Jersey's top five diving prospects. He grew up in Somerset, in a North Jersey region roughly equidistant from Rutgers and Princeton. And he would've been a JCU legend, if not for the horror that befell him the summer before his freshman year:
"We were doing this exhibition thing for all these kids who had joined the 'Y' to learn how to dive," Rogan says. Basically, he and the rest of New Jersey's aquatic studs were there to show off.
In an attempt to outdo his nemesis Buzzy Striker—whose name was, in fact, Buzzy Striker—Rogan leaped to the ceiling in a trampolinic burst and plummeted down much too close for comfort. He skinned his belly and legs on the board in a gruesome, bloody fall.—"I just swam under water all the way to the other side of the pool and went straight into the locker room. But I was bleeding, just, everywhere. I had to cut my bathing suit off."
"It's pretty funny looking back. All those kids—we're talking nine and 10 years old, went running screaming from the building. I think they all dropped out."
Though he was done with diving, he came to John Carroll anyway—"the ugliest girls you ever saw in your life, but I'm sure that's changed"—and graduated in '88 after studying communications, sociology and English.
Lee Road was a step down from Manhattan, where he'd partied in his teenage years, and he could only buy 3-2 beer for a while—"tastes as bad as actual beer but you can't get drunk on it." But something about Cleveland compelled him to stay.
It doesn't take long for him to identify what it was.
"The people," Rogan says. "Definitely the people."
Rogan worked at Piccolo Mondo with Michael Symon in the early '90s. He did a long tour of duty at Doug Katz's Fire on Shaker Square, and has been at Lola since it opened on East 4th.
"Michael Symon is the greatest guy in the world," says Rogan of his close friend. "I knew him back when he was a nobody, and he's still exactly the same as was then, silly as hell. All he does is laugh." Symon came to visit Rogan twice at Kathy's house and has been endlessly accommodating with schedules and insurance costs.
Both Lola and Fire made generous contributions of hors d'oeuvres when Kathy and some of Rogan's inner circle set up an "Ultimate Meet and Greet" at House of Blues last month.
Here's how many of Dan's personal friends attended: 600.
The meet-and-greet was supposed to be a goodbye party.
"At that point, they all thought I was dying," says Rogan. "Imagine being in a room with 600 people who all want to talk to you, and who all think it might be the last time."
But the spotlight isn't something Rogan shuns. He wore a studded white pimp suit and worked the crowd, a crowd so eager to donate to the cause and celebrate Dan's life that "all the House of Blues bartenders paid their rent that day," Rogan says. Six of his devoted family members trekked in from New Jersey to take part in the festivities as well.
His friends and colleagues continually try to pinpoint what's so magnetic and lovable about him.
"He has an amazing sense of humor," says Susan Smola, Rogan's longtime pal who worked with him Fire."He has the ability to make light of anything—even cancer—and can make anyone feel good. Had the not-sick Dan thrown the party, just as many people would've shown up."
Fire owner Doug Katz agrees. He says he's never met anyone quite like Rogan.
"He has the warmest heart. Everybody loves him," Katz wrote in an email. "I talk to a lot of people every day and many of my conversations end up being about Dan. People came to fire just to see him."
Kathy Blackman says that's true, and it's not just one or two people.
"It was a lot," she says over the phone on her way to the Grog shop. "When Dan cut back to just Saturdays at Fire, that's when everyone would go. He's just the sort of person you want to go to the bar and see, so engaging and funny. He's like the old-school bartender who makes you feel at home and cared for and special. Now, it's all about how crafty and fancy can your drinks be. But for Dan, it's more about personality."
Rogan is fond of saying, in fact, that bartending is 80 percent personality, 20 percent knowledge. And Scene's dining editor, Doug Trattner, agrees. He says that bartenders like Rogan make his job easier.
"People don't go to bars just to get drunk," Trattner writes in a note about Rogan. "We go to socialize—with friends, strangers and especially the bartender. I drink where Dan is working not only because he mixes a great drink, but because he's a fucking riot behind the rail."
And a generous soul, to boot.
"I bet he's clothed half the city," says Blackman. "You ask any female server that he knows, and they'll tell you he bought her a dress or a pair of shoes or a handbag. He's always given so much, and the fundraiser was just one small way we could give back."
"There's something magical about Dan," says Susan Smola, who said she's gone shopping with Dan a ton during the past few months. But it wasn't magic that fought his cancer and won.
"That was his attitude," Smola says. "When anyone is given that diagnosis, it's devastating. How do you wrap your head around it? A lot of people maybe turn to family or turn into themselves or feel sorry. Dan became Dan-tenfold.
And never more so than at the House of Blue meet-and-greet. With the generosity of downtown restaurants, festive friends, and mail-in checks from customers near and far, Rogan raised close to $25,000 to help defray the costs of his medical bills.
"People went above and beyond," says Kathy Blackman.
This was supposed to be an obituary.
Rogan says he was able to shop and dine and drink and socialize so much because all of a sudden, he had more time. That's one of many ironies that attends terminal illness. We're supposed to have less time, right?
He's bothered by the idea that his approach to death—which in many respects became his salvation—might offend others with serious diseases, the idea that he's been too cavalier or too imprudent with his health.
It's just that Rogan was hip to another irony or suspect logic that comes as part of the package with cancer: that we ought to change or reevaluate our lives' priorities in the final months, that we ought to become someone new to prepare for death. That didn't make sense to Rogan, whose life was already pretty good. He didn't want to change his life. He just wanted more.
And Rogan didn't go down without a fight. That is, without a drink.
"I'm getting fat again," says Rogan, after his third vodka lemonade. (They're going down smoother now.) "I guess that means I should get back to work."
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