The Blue Jacket
(continued from Jim Bibby)
It’s late February, the beginning of spring training, at least for pitchers and catchers. Everything is still to come. But sometimes it feels like everything has already gone. It’s almost always felt that way for me, the exception being the rare moments when I’m holding something strange and new and beautiful in my hands.
This Dave Rader card would have produced that sensation, back when I first held it in 1975. The close-up, intimate portrait of a man seemingly unaware that the camera is on him: it’s strikingly different from the occasional action shots and from the awkward, self-conscious wax figure portraits that were so common especially in that first year of my baseball card collecting. From the blurry backdrop, more likely some training compound trees than the stands of a major league park, it appears the figure in the extreme foreground must be at spring training, perhaps in the very early days of it, in late February, just pitchers and fellow catchers and him. Dave Rader is wondering about his place in it all, wondering if it’s all still to come or already gone. (As it turned out, he was just about in the middle of a decent ten-year career as a part-time catcher with an above average left-handed batting stroke.)
Many years earlier, in the 1950s, another young catcher in the Giants’ camp may have struck a similarly pensive pose, though no Topps photographer was around to document it. This catcher was a short, powerfully built young man from the Little Italy section of Manhattan, and his name was Larry. Larry didn’t end up lasting that long in pro ball, just a couple seasons in the Giants’ minor league system.
“Couldn’t hit,” he told me years later across the desk in the back of the liquor store. “If we really needed a baserunner I leaned into one and let it smack me in the arm.”
This was about four decades later, in the early 1990s, but it was still easy to imagine the now silver-haired Larry as a good-glove, no-bat catcher. He still had, as he crowded sixty, a squat, muscular build, featuring powerful shoulders and huge mitt-like hands. Every evening he came into the store to give his friend Morty shit and to usurp Morty’s seat behind the desk and drink a couple quarter pints of Smirnoff with Sprite, surveying the scene in front of him like a catcher perusing the field, sometimes barking out pointed, expletive-glutted commentary on the various occurrences at the store, sometimes just taking it all in quietly, as if wondering if it was all already gone. Whenever he came in I switched the store radio from Morty’s classical music to the oldies station. Once in a while a song from the fifties like Earth Angel or I Wonder Why or Why Do Fools Fall in Love would come on and Larry would smile and look up at the cracking paint on the ceiling and say, “Ah, Josh, this takes me back.”
I love to think of Larry drifting on the doo-wop harmonies back through the years. He may indeed have been a romantic at heart, like all the rest of us who ended up at that store, but by sheer force of will he managed to not let it influence the path he forged in his life. After his short foray into professional baseball came to an end, Larry quickly got on with his life in an unsentimental, undelayed way that surely made it difficult for him to understand the customary existential hemming and hawing by all the lazy romantic clerks who had come and gone at the store, including myself, all of us propped on a broom, waiting for our life to burst through the front door and shower us in kisses instead of going out and looking for it. On the contrary, when Larry had been a young man no longer connected to a childhood-inflected dream life, baseball, he promptly got an accountant’s degree and entered the business world. He became a very successful executive, eventually climbing high up the ladder in a worldwide tobacco conglomerate before being forced out in some kind of a political shakeup not long before I started working at the store.
Though he was still young enough to continue working, he had made more than enough money to stop, so he did. He spent his days as a man of leisure, in the summer rarely appearing in anything but tinted wire-rim glasses, a tank top, a gold necklace, shorts, flip-flops, and a tan that George Hamilton would have envied. He walked up and down 8th Street like its heaven-ordained ruler, slowly, his head at a slight upward tilt. He spent time at various stores, mostly hanging out for a while with the Greeks in the back of the florist shop down the block before moving on to the liquor store to bust Morty’s chops. Morty left for the day halfway through Larry’s “shift,” leaving Larry alone with me and whoever I was working with that evening. I was always sad to see him call it a night.
I am hoping that this story doesn’t turn out to be one digression after another, never arriving at the titular blue jacket, but I can’t help it, and anyway digressions are sometimes the only way I can get to my love of the world and all the people I’ve known. I can’t tell it straight. It has to spool out of me, one memory catching and pulling loose and unfurling the next.
I spoke to my father yesterday. It was his 85th birthday. We talked about health issues. My wife and I (and even one of our cats) have been sick with an initially violent, puke-filled, and, for a couple days, completely debilitating stomach problem; my dad’s begun having more and more trouble seeing out of his left eye. We talked about the liquor store. He lived on 11th Street back then, less than a five-minute walk away. He stopped by from time to time, talking with me and everyone else there. Morty usually swaggered up to the front to make my dad laugh by telling him what an asshole I was. After I stopped working there Dad asked me periodically about the people there, including the philosophy teacher Dave, and Morty, and Larry.
I’d started out thinking I was going to write yet another in a long line of my young man’s blues with this story The Blue Jacket, and I still intend to circle around to that feeling of being 22 or 23 and not knowing if it’s all still to come or already gone. But today, as I start to come out of my pulverizing stomach issues and scratch my chin like pensive Dave Rader and have a look around at this life, I don’t feel like singing that kind of blues but another, more complicated, more bittersweet song.
“Those were good days,” I said yesterday to my father, who was in his home in North Carolina as I spoke to him from mine in Chicago.
“Having you stop by the store,” I said. “That was really a great thing.”
“Yes,” he said. “It was a wonderful time.”
(to be continued)