One of Allen Ginsberg’s more well-known poems is “A Supermarket in California,” in which he imagines himself side by side with Walt Whitman. “Where does your beard point tonight?” he asks his imaginary companion at one point. I also once wrote a poem about Walt Whitman, during college, and it was published in the campus newspaper, The Basement Medicine. That was during the one year I served as a benchwarmer on the college’s pathetic basketball team. The center on the team, a Laimbeer-shaped freshman named Sean, complimented me on the poem. I don’t know if it was then that I noticed he had pretty putrid breath, or maybe it was another time. A couple years later, I was in the stands when he was on the brink of scoring his thousandth point. I had a camera with me and when he scored his milestone bucket on a short jumper in the lane I caught it on film. I kept meaning to give the photo to him, as it was the only visual record of his feat, but I never got around to it. I still have the picture somewhere. I suppose I could try to Google him, but he has a common last name and would probably be pretty difficult to find. I was always grateful to him for his compliment about my Whitman poem, and also grateful to him for a pickup game that pitted the two of us and three other guys on the basketball team against five guys from the college’s championship soccer team. We were more skillful at basketball, having devoted much of our lives to playing it, but we were losers and the soccer guys were winners. I once overheard the athletic director, who was also the soccer coach, say as much one day around the time of the pickup game.”The basketball guys just don’t know how to win,” he boomed. He always boomed whatever he had to say. By contrast our coach, a disheveled English teacher, most often muttered. (Sometimes he whined.)
During the pickup game the soccer guys looked like they might be able to prove the athletic director’s point. I started to get flashbacks to similar semi-official demoralizing basketball contests from my youth. Twice the guys from the grade younger than my grade challenged us to a game, once when I was in 8th grade and once when I was in 10th grade, and both times they beat us. During a battle for a rebound in the grim late stages of the second game, my last contest before I went away to boarding school, my hand inadvertently landed on the face of their best big man and out of frustration I yanked down, throwing him to the ground. The varsity coach was watching from the risen stage behind the basket. He started screaming at me. Luckily the guy I threw down, who could have ripped me limb from limb if he’d wanted to, was one of those genial, slow-to-anger behemoths, and he just stared at me, stunned, as he got to his feet.
“Get out of the game, Wilker!” the varsity coach yelled. “Go cool down!” I went into the locker room and I think I cried a little. It was shameful to get beat by younger guys, especially since the beating was implicitly sanctioned by the varsity coach, who looked down on us with disgust. It made me feel like I was nothing.
So here we went again a few years later, the soccer champions matching us basket for basket even though basketball was just something they did once in a while when they weren’t winning soccer tournaments, raising championship banners, and having sex with all the prettiest coeds. But eventually we just started feeding our bad-breathed center the ball. Sean was considerably bigger than any of their players, and he had a nice turnaround jumper, which he hit several times in a row to give us a victory that, though it didn’t wipe the smirks off the soccer guys’ faces, at least spared us total humiliation.
Anyway, I guess that’s where Doug Bird’s beard is pointing today. I didn’t think that’s where it would lead but I’m like a saxaphone that’s been run over by a pickup truck. Everything comes out crooked, wheezing. I thought I would be able to capture my many feelings about the expression on Doug Bird’s face. His mirthful, somewhat unhinged expression and his unruly hair exploding from every available pore makes him look like one of the backwoods guys who used to sail past our house once a year in pickup trucks to get to the nearby Tunbridge Fair. They had girlie shows there in one of the tents that wasn’t being used for livestock displays, and though I never went I imagine the audience was full of guys who looked like Doug Bird, drunk, cackling, wearing jeans and red checkered hunting jackets and John Deere hats, stomping their dirty shitkickers on the sawdust to the rhythm of the music accompanying the disrobing dancers, the air laced with the rural carnival aromas of smoke and cotton candy and manure. I guess some people know how to win; the rest of us follow a more crooked path, taking our pleasures where we can.
“Yeehaw!” Doug Bird shouts, his beard pointed up at the show.