THE NATIONAL PASTIME
QUESTIONS. Do you have any questions? In order to get answers you have to ask questions. In order to get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Pure and simple logic. Did we do it? Was it an error, an act of fate, or was it preordained who won, who lost, who laughed all the way to the bank?
Yo, sports, are you reading this on automatic or are you waitin’ for me to slip on my tongue and give you a headline out of boredom?
TWOSOME CLAIM THEY LEFT THE PLANET LOOKING FOR SAFE SEX!
Is that what you wanna hear? All the extenuating circumstances fit to print. It’s obvious you’re not for a minute gonna believe what really happened, what we were really doin’ in the Seventh Inning stretch, even if you see it every 15 minutes on the hour on Sports Center.
I’m honored though. At first I was wounded, but now I’m honored. It’s not every day you’re accused of being intrinsically involved in altering the course of history. Pissing on the altar, the sacred cow of escape from reality.
What can I say? Thanks for the memory. I’m not young anymore, but I’m still guilty for not livin’ up to my potential. Is that what you wanna hear? Odds are meant to be bucked. Where there’s a will there’s a legacy, no matter what it’s worth on the memorabilia circuit. Those who do not understand history are doomed to miss out on the lies. When the tough get goin’ it’s best to look the other way. It’s an ugly world out there, and you’ve got nothin’ better to do with your time than watch US! Well, don’t!
Look outside instead. The city’s Crazy now. It’s goin’ on 10 days over 98 in the shade. The hookers have been doin’ crack ever since the heat wave started. When they swish down the street their bodies break up, vacillate like the heat risin’ off the sidewalk.
All-American that I am, all my attention’s normally on baseball at this time of the year, sports, but when my mind wanders, when I take my eye off the ball, this dirty old man thinks of sex. Remember, sex? These days, if you’re ridin’ single, there’s not much you can do about it but think about it, so I step out of the box, and just like you up in the peanut gallery, watch one human time bomb stalkin’ after another in the shadow of dinosaurs.
It may not be the only way left to keep cool on the street, not that it makes any difference, the sign of the X is definitely in what remains of the air. But for those of you isolated from out-of-control weather in unnaturalistic temperature controlled ivory towers, hang in, what Booster and me discovered poundin’ the pavement the other night may just be your ticket to ride, if you’re lucky enough to get on the train.
I’ll be the first to admit it was an accident, purely a quirk of fate that I fell into the good stuff for a change. Normally I’d be out at the Stadium, hooked into The National Pastime. I needed to melt back into the history of the growth of the grand old game too. The rookies were startin’ to blow my circuits. Two years in a row. Too big, too strong, too good to be real. My fantasy apparatus was breakin’ down just like it did right back before they started juicin’ their corks. As a Scout, what I’m lookin’ for is one natural every 10 years not 10 every one year. The same thing with love, or sex, whatever you wanna call it, this is not a good time to be doin’ 10 every year. The accumulation factor has become overwhelmin’, while the odds get shorter and shorter. As we in the trade say, if you wanna be one step ahead you gotta be aware of the trends, then let ’em go, let ’em go, let ’em go.
The old neighborhood’s a good example; it ain’t what it used to be either. They’re about to change the name from Hell’s Kitchen to Hell’s Charcuterie so it’ll be tres-tres divine for all these upwardly mobile corperoonies movin’ into all those new ivory tower skyscrapers with their eight-figure views of dirty little Jersey stagnating the great American Dream machine. Why I’m still here, why old Happy Felton ain’t gone back down to the ranch where he belongs, is the action. I’m just an old cowhand from the Rio Grande, but after the Dodgers cut out a different lifetime ago, and the Mrs. followed close behind in her own black hole, Mr. Veeck (as in wreck) said to me, he said, “Happy, you’re not happy. Come aboard the ship. Ride point for the B-Bar-B. Go out into America, its nooks and crannies, its bedrooms and barrooms, its picnics and parties, anyplace people are havin’ a hard time a good time is sure to follow, and that’s where you’ll be, ridin’ for the B-Bar-B.” So I sold the house, all its memories of the past, and moved the act from Flatbush to Broadway. Got a suite at the Hotel Edison, been here ever since. Long after Mr. Veeck went down with the game’s dirty Sox.
And oh yeah, I know you remember I didn’t help Stengel at the bat, but the Mets were as hopelessly in-love with hapless in those days as they are today, so I did a little free-lance doggin’ for Charley O., but it wadn’t my fault he signed that mule or wanted to change the color of the ball to orange. And it wadn’t my fault CBS didn’t know a sacrifice fly from a flyin’ BLEEP either. When They shoved The Designated Hitter through on us all those seems-just-like-yesterdays ago, it was enough to convince me The Game had passed me by. So ya see, comin’ back to work for The Junior Boss was an afterthought. I know I made some enemies that didn’t wanna see me back, but hey, I didn’t need the aggravation either! Booster and me made a few good investments. Back in the old days, O’Calcutta alone paid the rent for 20 years. So it had to be somethin’ else that brought me back again. Probably the next Phenom on the horizon. The thrill of discovery. What’s on the other side of the hill has always kept me climbin’. And that’s what’s kept me in the neighborhood too.
To the east or the west, the north or the south, hookers for every proclivity intermingle their palm pilots with tourists from all over the world and take their cuts. You can never tell. In this neighborhood, sometimes the best lookin’ women are men. That is if you don’t count the actresses who live over at those big twin bimbo towers along Theatre Row. Those dollies are always somethin’ else inside than what you’re lookin’ at outside. Our friend A. Wipe the screenwrite found out the hard way. Fell in-love with one at the joint we used to take breakfast. Mooned over her for six months, then did another six writin’ her her own star vehicle, before the silver tongued devil got up the nerve to stutter those immortal words, “Ha-ha-have y-y-you ever th-th-thought ab-b-b-bout being in the mo-o-o-o-vies?”
Of course his heart throb hadn’t thought about much else from the time she was six on, but as fate would have it, she had a speech impediment. Sounded like she had a croissant implanted in her nose after daddy got it fixed for her when she turned 15. She couldn’t speak his lines. Kept changin’ the script, until finally, in deepest, darkest despair, A. Wipe threw it in, sent his script out to his Corpse on the Coast, and BINGO, the next thing you know they say that the Goddess herself is gonna come back from a double-dose of motherhood obscurity and do the role!
Funny, those twists of fate. That’s almost the way I discovered the Gamer down in Oklahoma, 40 odd years ago, when I was green and he was greener. I’d gone down to Waxahatchie to check out this Cy Young, this ambidextrous rubber arm who’s gonna make all you trivia hogs forget Clint Hartung, but it turns out he ain’t Egg Foo Jung after Gamer takes him 6,000 feet downtown, just north of Wichita Falls, on the bounce, of course.
I’ve only been in-love three times in my life. The Gamer was the second. Just a beautiful kid! Looked like he come right out of a cornflakes box. He could hit, run, throw, hit with power, and as you may have noticed if you’ve watched him on all them beer commercials, he don’t screw up the flow by thinkin’. A “Natural” is what he was. And years later, as a baldin’ 312 pound keg of beer doin’ post game color, he hadn’t lost his touch. But I digress.
These days, these times, it’s good to be my age. I don’t think about anything anymore unless it actually happens. Then I go, hmm. . . A gift to unwrap. That’s when me and Booster celebrate. Go on what you might call a bender. Squeeze what’s left of the toothpaste outta the tube. Or at least we did until all this fear of viruses snuffin’ out our vital forces started to dull the initiative.
What we used to do when we was young and frisky was head uptown to Harlem. Two old red-as-Georgia-clay-necks, from the panhandle. Not racist, sexist, elitist, but 100% pure diddy-wa-diddyists, jus’ doin’ what our Daddies did before us; lookin’ for that prime cut. Make what you will of the language, but actions are everything. You’re either street smart or dumber’n’ dirt. It helps to be lucky either way.
Booster now, he plays the angles, corners the action, makes the odds, if you wanna know the truth. There are things I can’t say, names I won’t drop, but for the last 40-odd-years we have not exactly been two lonely old men locked in our rooms makin’ love to our dirty socks.
Nothin’ would surprise me, and I’m gullible compared to him.
Naturally you don’t believe me, but I swear I saw what I saw one time before this time. Back before Toots cashed, and his joint was the hottest ask-me-no-questions-I’ll-tell-you-no-lies in town. Everybody was there. Booster and me were with The Clipper. He had a charity golf tournament up in Westchester the next day. For the first time in ages he wadn’t down. Hard to forget that. Normally there wadn’t nothin’ you could say to take away the pain of The Goddess’s death. But on this night it was like she was with him again, hoverin’ above him like a blue fluorescent spotlight. Oh how he glowed! Could’ve been a regular standup. Could’ve been Berle showin’ us what he’dve been like as a switcher. Oh my, what would he’ve done if he’d been based in Boston?
Everybody, I suppose, has their could’a, should’a and would’a beens, and we of the Hot Stove League are probably more guilty than the rest of ya, yet, I’d like to believe in my advancin’ years, whenever it came down to the full count, Happy Felton never fell asleep with dead wood on his shoulder. I took my cuts, sometimes when I shouldn’tve, and looked like a fool. I’ve thrown to the wrong base, missed my share of cutoff men, for sure, but I never once in all my years as a bird dog mistook shit for shineola.
This was no exception.
There are, I admit, certain Acts of God, injuries, unforeseen tragedies, both physical and psychological, that warp a man and fix him in time. He becomes The Event he experiences. Spooner, Reiser, that kid who talked to the baseball, the names come and go, whatever the sport. And if you start addin’ the rubes addicted to first white line fever, then roids, you’ve got an epidemic, if not an almanac of dumbass to ponder.
Booster don’t fall in none of those categories, despite charges of using performance enhancing substances to the contrary, though his condition, I’m sure qualifies him as a typical case, and a few more other kind straight out of Rod Serling’s ole time Twilight Zone.
How do I say this without comin’ off like some kind’a Publicity Pig?
HAPPY FELTON REFUSES TO BE A HEADLINE IN THE POST! Wants to go out with the dignity of The Clipper. Oh yeah, GOOD BLEEPIN’ LUCK! I know how you’ll twist that one: WE DID IT, YEAH, I CONFESS, BOOSTER AND ME GOT BEAMED UP! Which we did kind’a, in a manner of speakin’, Scotty. Though the trajectory was down, then up, and down again.
It ain’t the McGuffin, buffs. It’s the real deal! But I can’t tell you how to cut it. Look at my oldest friend, he couldn’t handle it. Flipped his cork, dropped his cookies, and I’m not even sure what it was from. Could’ve been pleasure, could’ve been pain. We never had a chance to talk until we got back; by then it was too late. They BLEEPED with his programming. Gave him the dubious distinction of sellin’ doubt on the dime, about everything that ever went down.
According to Booster: “For years, Sinatra controlled everything. It was a payoff from the Kennedys for keeping his mouth shut about Marilyn and Castro. Didn’t know that, did ya? Well that’s why Son of Sam killed him. We wouldn’t give Cuba an NFL franchise, which is why Mary Jo went down at Chappaquidec, and Nixon became President, and we sent Pepsi to China so we could get control of Vietnam, knock out the Godfather’s competition, and start franchises to sell McDope to the kiddies on the corner. Didn’t know that, did ya? Well, everytime there’s a blackout They change things around while we’re not lookin’ and blame the terrorists, just like they used to blame the Russians, or the Germans, or FDR for lettin’ six million Jews go down the shoot in Poland, but really it was Mr. Rickey who said, ‘Call me Lime if I’m wrong, but the future of the grand old game looks black.’ Didn’t know that, did ya?”
Up until then it was such a good, such a special, just really special night. Like a party of returnin’ Astronauts until You asked him what we had planned for an encore, and he started boastin’ we were fixin’ to fix the World Series, like we’d done every year for the last 23.
Me! The Silver Eagle. The Great White Bird Dog. I love this game! I love this game! I can’t speak for him, but I don’t wanna know how it ends! That’s what I like about it. That’s what I love about it! It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”
Yogi said somethin’ else too. Though ole Diz might’a said it better. You know what I’m talkin’ about. It’s teeterin’ on the edge of the moment, waitin’ to go off. And it was all night on the night in question.
If you must know, we started pre-game as usual in Tin Pan Alley. Booster and me, and Gamer makes three. The old knothole gang themselves. Lookin’ from the outside in! It’s not exactly your out of the ordinary ride up to the Stadium, but add A. Wipe.
Glory be, glory be, it’s an honor and a pleasure, it really is, for the first time we’re finally allowin’ him to meet his boyhood hero in the flesh. Gush, gush…He’ll never be able to repay, he knows now what he’s gotta do, it’s now or never, Cecil B., he has to make his move, he’s sick of bein’ treated like just a writer, he wants to TA-TA, produce! He wants to make a movie out of the Gamer’s life. And all Gamer has to do is sign his X on the dotted line, and Mr. A’ll wipe his palm with the first installment, which just happens to equal the $50,000 Gamer owes Booster for backin’ his Marina down in Key-Loco.
Not quite, but that’s how these things are done. Or almost done.
“Today,” Gamer grunts, “is the happiest day of my life. “But. . .” But there’s a problem with who’s gonna play the Gamer. He’d always pictured The Duke, couldn’t see nobody else in the role. In fact, whenever the count got to three and two, he always saw himself as The Duke. Now there’s a warm glowin’ anecdote for ya to pass on to the fans, sports. One for the book, as we say in the trade. Of course it really don’t help solve the dilemma, since as we all know, The Duke’s off on Seventh Inning stretch and ain’t comin’ back anytime this lifetime. Which sort’a relieves A. Wipe, since he was thinkin’ more in terms of Jack anyway. But WHOA! No way! The Gamer come out of a cornflakes box, the prodigal son of the heartland. Jack’s too dark. He might be perfect for dirty little Billy, he might even be able to play me.
Why not? You can’t make a movie about the Gamer’s life without Happy in it, ’cause without Happy there’d be no Gamer. Though Mr. Wipe don’t see it that way himself. He sees that role too big, too strong, and that combined with Billy’s influence takes the focus off Gamer. So while it’s a well known fact that Billy and Happy ain’t been able to sit in the same room for the last 22 years without spittin’ in each others’ faces, and while this is a true story, what Mr. Wipe has decided to do to make it even truer, is combine the characters of Billy and Happy into one. He sees somebody conciliatory, like what’s his name, that sort’a angelic goofy lookin’ three named Billy Bob, Jimmy John character actor who’s in all them art movies nobody wants to see anyway. Not exactly who my Mama had in mind to portray me on the big screen, but since it ain’t gonna be me anyway, who but my lawyer cares?
Back in the 50’s when I was workin’ for Trader Lane he swapped Managers – remember that one? And then he traded Rocky for Harvey, a Home Run King for a Batting Champ, both in the snap of his fingers. The buck stopped somewhere and you knew where it was. Not like today. You meet someone and fall into Like, Love, Lust, whatever the L, you don’t know who they’ve been with before, or who they been with have been with before they were with them, and it goes on and on, if you wanna drive yourself crazy tracin’ the linage back to some West African green monkey demon copulatin’ in the soft gray matter of your fear.
Like I said, it don’t matter whether you’re street smart or dumber’n’dirt, it helps to be lucky either way, which probably has more to do with why Booster and me didn’t go to the game than A. Rod sittin’ out with a bum hammie. In truth, we just felt like goin’ downtown instead of uptown for a change. Felt like lookin’ at all the little girlies in their black leotards and flattop haircuts, take in some borscht and perogees at B & H Dairy. . .And that was the last time I saw the Gamer alive.
Picture this: Booster and me are goin’ downtown, Gamer and Mr. Wipe, up. We go down the stairs on 49th, and Booster and me go underground to get to the downtown side. They’re standin’ on one side, we’re standin’ on the other. Wipe is still bendin’ The Gamer’s ear, tryin’ to sell him on Jack, or maybe by this time he’s switched to all the other oldies but goldies, DeNiro or Dusty or Redford or even Beatty, since he’s never been at a loss to hotstove the talent, even if the deal’s gone south for the winter in the breathless dog days of summer. Somewhere in the middle of whatever he’s pitchin’ the uptown comes whinin’ into the station, and the Gamer waves goodbye to us. From where I’m standing I can see it’s an old train, and not just from the graffiti cryin’ out for museum recognition. When the doors open, only one side moves. Which is no problem for Wipe, but Gamer ain’t exactly the same kid who fit in a cornflakes box 30 years ago. In fact, he’s more a Monsanto cornfield than a cornflake at this point. And he’s stuck! Can’t get through the door. Wipe’s got his arm pullin’ him, and Gamer’s gruntin’, stompin’, diggin’ in just like he would after they’d dust him and try to steal the inside of the plate. And then the train takes off. Now my eyes ain’t what they used to be, I’ll admit that. And from where I’m standin’ I can’t exactly be sure, but it looks like to me his back side’s out there on the platform just like it used to hang outta all those hotel windows moonin’ the American League skyline.
Booster didn’t see a thing, he says. He was markin’ off Gamer’s debt in his little black book. And then the downtown pulls into the station. Normally, after what I had seen, or thought I’d seen, I wouldn’tve got on. But Booster did, without even lookin’ up from his book. And it was so cool in there, like ice, to me out there meltin’ in the grunge, that when Booster looks up and snaps, “Yo, Hap, our ride!” I zombie aboard behind him.
“Did you see what I saw?” I ask him.
“I saw nothin’, man. Nothin’,” he says, then starts playin’ with his calculator.
“If anybody asks ya, that’s what you seen too. Me and you are about to get out of this rat race for good, Champ.”
Sometimes his perception’s really off, but I can’t deny his instincts. The minute he said it I knew he was right. Though definitely not the way he meant it.
It took a little longer to realize there was somethin’ different, somethin’ strange about the train we were on. For one thing, it wadn’t stoppin’ at all. Blasted right through Times Square! And when I looked around to see what everyone else’s reaction was, I realized we were the only ones on board! But I wadn’t scared. The word is doomed. Doomed & Calm. Unusually calm. And tingling. Felt it in every pore, from my toes to my primal fundament. It was anticipation. Pure anticipation.
Call it deja vu. An old memory sayin’ hello, then goodbye again before the image could solidify and be carried into the future.
Guess that energy was too much for Booster. He leaps up then, and starts screamin’, “ARE YOU READY TO GIVE UP SUFFERING, Champ?” Then throwin’ punches in short three riff combinations, he starts singin’, “Three Mile Island here we come, here we come, here we come,” and screams, “YOU SHOULD’VE QUIT WHILE YOU WERE AHEAD, LENNY!” Then he sticks his face flush up against the window and commences babblin’ a mile-a-minute about Syria, Iraq, Iran, humus and babaganoush. “They tried to shut me up so They could start a Club Med in the friendly skys, but some people can’t be bought off the rack no matter how many buttons They push the only demographic groundswell we know about is racist, sexist, classist, elitist, what in it for me, baby?” He turns to me and screams, “NOTHIN’! Obviously nothin'” That’s why all us old mutants, we’re gonna be the ones They send up to test the new Star Wars. Didn’t know that did ya?”
“It seems I heard it somewhere before, but I’m not exactly sure where. Though I do remember they were debatin’ whether to use drones to deliver the mail instead.”
He grunts, but the idea of takin’ postal out of the human psyche seems to mollify him. In fact, totally chill him. But then suddenly he starts skippin’ up and down the car like he’s in-love or got too much air in the bubble or somethin’, and begins singin’, “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…” Which is when the train began crossin’ the bridge into Brooklyn and I lost track of everything else.
Lookin’ out at the city, back at the skyline juttin’ up to the stars gave me an understanding of music. Though I can’t explain it in anything so pointed as words, my life, its mistakes, its rewards, the joys, sorrow and pain of living were a symphony orchestrated in time by a conductor without a watch.
As the train started to rise above the bridge I finally understood for the first time that it’s all preordained, sports. Complex or simple, the story makes no difference. What matters is the choices that are made.
You do have a choice. Even as you eye the box you’re gonna end up in you can see the choice; the loss of self you have to sacrifice to the process in order to connect and be part of the greater movement of things, or you can hold, you can hold that singularity, slicing through the nothingness but maintaining your identity. The trick, of course, is not to think too much. Just approach the box, your instrument, tool of the trade, ready to do its thing. Take a deep breath, try to get comfortable and dig in, dig down, plant yourself firmly in Mother Earth, and feel a part, not separate from the whole.
Of course the more you dig the more you feel like you’re being swallowed, sucked into the quagmire, just a speck, a seed lost in the swirl of contradictions that make up that delicate balance right down the center of that illusive home plate. Die for it or live for it, it always comes down to whether you go for what looks most inviting in the moment or wait for what you’re lookin’ for. Call it Yes or call it No, to swing or not to swing appears to be the only room left to move in the script, though make no mistake, that’s bein’ shaved out too. The Big Fix is obviously in whether you’re able to ride the grease or not. Hang in against the grain as long as you can, sports, but the mainstream is inevitable, even if it is totally polluted. Despite Booster’s confession to the contrary, we of course could not go with the flow. Not even make a last ditch effort to fit in.
True. True. We’re unbearable little anachronisms, sports! Out of time, out of place. Like tiny knots of calcium deposits, we’re almost invisible air bubbles, awkward little pockets of purity swimmin’ in an overwhelmin’ sea of cancer. Sentimental beyond good reason, we cannot help blessing the future, even as we pray to release the past, and stumble into apocalypse as willing sacrifices to a new order.
After that realization lit up the old scoreboard, the blue light came and took me by the hand. She was beautiful, sports, if in fact this vision had a gender. Like I say, it’s kind’a hard to put in words, it’s easier to confess than to describe something so delicate as feelings.
I’ll try again: She was beautiful! To me she was The Goddess, because those are the contours of my programmin’. Too late to change now. Whatever it was it was love, it was sex, it was supreme orgasm worth dyin’ for from every pore and fiber of my body. Flowing light, a rainbow dancin’ outside and spiralin’ in, like the October shadows crawlin’ out of left field of the old Stadium. If I blinked my eyes she was gone, disappearing in time like The American Dream, a figment suddenly breakin’ down and away, kissin’ the outside of the plate goodbye, sucker. Which of course was exactly how she left me.
Don’t quote me on this. This is off-the-record, sports, but she said the same thing that turncoat O’Malley said to me when he decided to take ‘de bums to La-La Land: “A hundred years from now you won’t even remember we were here.”
© 2014 Mike Golden
| originally published
in Between C&D in 1989
under the title Safe As Sex