The Blue Jacket
(continued from Burt Hooton)
I hadn’t planned to include thoughts on Jim Bibby, who died on Tuesday, in this story of a blue jacket, but as the Yiddish saying goes: man plans, god laughs.
Jim Bibby is wearing a blue jacket, but it’s not the blue jacket I was planning to tell you about. I was going to start talking about the latter blue jacket yesterday, but I didn’t have any time to write because I had to take my cat Marty to the vet. He’s doing better today, but you never know how these things are going to go. While I sat alone in the vet examination room, Marty out of my sight in a back room getting various shots, I thought about a quote from a Zen guy named Shunryu Suzuki. I’d happened upon Suzuki’s words a few days ago while leafing through a book by another Zen practitioner. I can’t find the quote now, but it went something like this: Renunciation is not giving up all things but realizing that all things go away.
It’s the type of shit you can swallow with calm piety while lazing around your cozy beer-stocked apartment, but if you’re sitting on a metal chair in a vet examination room alone, wondering if you might have to take an empty cat carrier home, well, forget it. I had cat hair all over my coat from when Marty had climbed all over me, purring, the second I’d opened his cat carrier so that the technician could weigh him. As another Zen master once said, this one of the Yiddish-inflected variety, “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.”
Man plans, god laughs. I wonder if I first heard that saying at the liquor store where I worked during my twenties. It’s possible, and there’s even a slight chance I heard the Yiddish version, which from the looks of it may have the added zing that comes from rhyming: Mann traoch, Gott Lauch. Scraps of the language were periodically bazooka-ed from my boss Morty’s loud mouth as he sat behind his desk at the back of the store, his lexicon rarely venturing from the extensive Yiddish subcategory of insults. Schliemel, schmendrick, putz, gonif, schmutz-boy (one of his terms, along with “asshole,” “prick,” and, simply, “boy” for me and the other slumping young clerks), and schnorrer were among his favorites, but none could hold a candle to schmuck, which he relied on in his verbal interactions like Nolan Ryan relied on a fastball. When the word needed added emphasis, Morty would refer to someone as a “schmuck with ears.”
I believe he, like my dad, grew up hearing Yiddish in the house, so he probably retained some of the language beyond the various words that could be used to compare an offensive or idiotic person to part or all of a male reproductive organ. He was also, on rare occasions, given over to philosophizing, so it wouldn’t shock me if he ever tried to tell me, during one of the lengthy lulls in the day’s business at the struggling store, that man plans and god laughs.
But really, Morty, despite his deserved reputation as an all-day-long yeller, was actually at his core a watcher. He sat at the back of the store and watched what went on. He had seen the rise and fall of things all through his life. When he saw someone riding high, he watched, and when he saw them guttering, he watched. Over the years, I felt him watching, and the watching hit me for what it was: kindness.
Once in a while, he broke from merely watching to speak to me. I mean beyond all the yelling and insults, which was of course also a way to speak to me and to let me know he was watching.
“May that be the worst thing that happens to you,” he said to me once. It was after a particularly low point in my twenties, and it’s the point I’m planning to get to, eventually, in this story of a blue jacket.
It’s a risky thing to say to a person who’s hurting, but coming from Morty to me it worked, lightening the weight on my shoulders just a little, releasing some of the tension on the knot in my gut. The message was twofold: one, things feel bad right now, but at least it’s already happened and behind you, and two, all things considered, things aren’t so bad. They could be much worse. I was in my early twenties. I was untouched.
When Morty was in his early twenties, he’d been to war. So had Jim Bibby, who served for two years in Vietnam. Bibby didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 28 years old, despite having, according to Whitey Herzog, the best fastball in the Mets’ organization besides the aforementioned Nolan Ryan. Like Burt Hooton, Bibby pitched a no-hitter very early in his major league career (his 25th game), and came close to repeating the feat several other times in a rollercoaster career in which, as Joe Posnanski put it in his recent requiem for the talented, mercurial Bibby, it “seemed like most days when he went out there to pitch, a team would say ‘Oh man, we don’t stand a chance tonight.’ Trouble is, you never knew which team.”
He stood at the pinnacle of the sport in 1979, earning the Game 7 start in the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched well for four innings before being pulled for a pinch-hitter (and the Pirates’ dominant bullpen) with the Pirates down 1-0. He didn’t get the win in the game that the Pirates came back to win, but he may have deserved it, carrying the heaviest load for the night with his four strong innings. He finished the 1979 postseason with a 2.08 ERA. The following year he made the All-Star team.
I’ve written about Bibby before on this site, right near the beginning of my efforts here to hold on to all the things I’ve ever touched and felt and heard and seen. I feel like I failed to get down the happiness embedded in the mere idea of Jim Bibby, but how could I not? You can never say all you want to say. Then, as now, I wanted to simply say that there was something about Jim Bibby. The name, the size, the Afro. He helped anchor some key, ineffable part of childhood. Still does.
So here he is again, his Afro bulging from below his Indians’ cap, a smile on his face. Underneath his uniform: a blue jacket. Not the blue jacket I originally planned to talk about, but a blue jacket nonetheless. He looks happy in his blue jacket. It’s the earliest days of spring training, everything still to come.
(to be continued)