My son has been a little melty lately. As in, he is prone to melt downs. I think it has something to do with his being at the cusp of language. Something in his world isn’t how he wants it to be, or some feeling wells up that he doesn’t quite know how to manage. He can say a few words and knows the meanings of several more, but there is an infinite number of things beyond his grasp. It’s beyond anyone’s grasp, forever, but eventually we learn to make some kind of truce with our inability to translate the world into words. He hasn’t gotten there yet. When there’s something that needs to be said and no way to say it, he gets upset. When this happens, I try to get him thinking about something else. This photo is from a few days ago, when I handed him a pack of the new 2013 baseball cards. He got quiet, attentive, interested in what was in his grasp. I had to get the flap open a little, but he took it from there. We’ve opened packs before. Thanks to Jack, baseball cards, present tense—baseball cards for pure fun—are back in my life for the first time since childhood. When Jack got the wrapper off, he took it over to the sink and pointed to the cupboard below, where we keep the garbage bin. I opened the child lock on the cupboard and he put the wrapper in the trash. He had the baseball cards in his other hand, but he knew that the wrapper and the cards were different. The cards mean something. He started handing them to me, and I read aloud the names of the guys we got.
Archive for the ‘Unsortable Prayers’ Category
I haven’t been sleeping much, writing much, or doing anything much except spotting my never-sleeping 1-year-old as he careens around on his wobbly new walking legs as if maniacally intent on smashing his head against every sharp corner in creation. I get a few minutes here and there and spend them working through the recently added Netflix stream of season 4 of Breaking Bad. (My one criticism of the show: the fucking baby on there is completely unrealistic, no more demanding to take care of than a cactus.) Anyway, it’s a weird life, living episode to episode, especially given that I worry about what happens when I run out of episodes. I’m so wrapped up in the story that it’s like being an addict. So this morning I was casting around in the Netflix streaming new arrivals, trying to line up my post-Breaking Bad methadone, and I noticed that The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training had joined the list. I already own the DVD, so this discovery didn’t make me whoop with joy, but it was nice, like seeing an old pal. And it worked on my mind in weird ways. Long story short, I got a multimillion dollar idea for a crossover project.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Bad thought #1: The Bears’ van would have passed through New Mexico on the way to the Dome.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Bad thought #2: How’d the Bears get home from the Dome?
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Bad thought #3: Maybe they get the van out of impound and go for one last adventure.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Bad thought #4: The van breaks down in New Mexico.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Bad thought #5: While going for help, Ogilvie and Engelberg stumble upon an RV.
Jesse [whispering]: I’m just sayin’, yo, we need a crew.
Walter [whispering]: But they’re just kids.
Ronzonni: Hey, whoa, who you callin’ a kid?
Jesse: Yo, I told you I don’t have any more of that shit.
Amanda: Come on, man, just a taste.
Ogilvie: To pay for Lupus’ treatment, we need to move 37 pounds of the product at a rate of—
Engelberg: I’m starving.
Engelberg: Three grande family meals, pronto.
Gus: Very good, sir. May I ask where did you acquire that very tight-fitting Kenny Rogers T-shirt?
Ahmad: We’re goin’ to the joint! We’re goin’ to the joint for sure!
Rudi [noticing ad on bench]: “Better call Saul”?
Rudi: But I don’t wanna get hit by a billy club.
Saul: Hit? Lightly grazed. Smooched, practically. Hey, kid, you wanna win this case, doncha?
Mike Ehrmentraut: If you’re gonna do something, you better not miss.
Kelly: I don’t miss.
Walter Jr.: Y-you guys s-suck at baseball.
Tanner: I’ll fucking kill you, you cruddy cripple.
Walter: Well, we finally meet.
Buttermaker: Look, mister, I clean pools, but this is ridiculous.
Buttermaker: Is that an eye?
For more on the inexhaustible wonders of the Bears, please check out my ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.
Over the past year I’ve seen my wife struggle and sweat through pregnancy, scream in searing pain and terror through a day and a night and a day of labor, and become the tirelessly loving albeit perpetually exhausted personal 24-hour 7-11 food store for our son. Witnessing all this in the slack-armed, mouth-breathing pose of the helpless bystander has confirmed suspicions I’ve long had about my gender’s limited biological purpose in terms of furthering human life on Earth. We men have balls. That’s about it. Balls and a dick, I guess.
This leaves plenty of time for other things, such as, chiefly, the ball-draining consumption of porn, but also the following of sports and the customizing of personal effects. The line between balls and porn is self-evident. Though slightly less obvious, a line also connects balls and sports. Sometimes the line in the latter case is made abundantly clear, such as when Derek Lowe, upon recording the final out in a 2003 playoff series against the A’s, looked to the Oakland dugout and histrionically grabbed his nuts. He was saying, I guess, “My testicles are splendid, clearly much more potent and desirable than yours; in fact, my balls are so excellent that they make your own balls irrelevant, and from here on out I will be handling all your impregnating duties, and you will in terms of species survival be rendered purposeless.”
The A’s reacted negatively to this assessment.
In fact, Lowe was generally criticized for pantomiming with such obviousness that he had superior testicles, but it seems possible that all sporting contests between males are aimed, at their core, at determining the relative worth of the testicles of the men involved in these contests and, by extension, the relative worth of the testicles of the men who are fans of the men involved in these contests. Lowe merely made this plain. His act was deemed “classless,” as if one’s place in the social strata is determined in part by the distance or lack thereof you are able to keep from openly acknowledging balls.
And on that note, consider the photo at the top of this page, which features large simulated testicles hanging from the back of a truck. I took the shot with my cheap cell phone yesterday while catching a ride home from work with Rob, author of the Blue Batting Helmet blog. Incredibly, the first thing I’d noticed about the truck was not the balls but the fake bullet holes in the paneling of the truck. Though difficult to see in the photo, there is also a wolf wilderness scene in the back window. An additional feature, not viewable in the picture, is an eagle license plate frame. I don’t know what this all means—wolves, bullet holes, eagles, balls—but it seems to be a distinctly American collection of imagery. In day to day American reality, life is absurd and tedious, like being stuck in traffic behind a moron. But in American dreams maybe life is full of purpose, a gun battle to be won by the wild and big-balled.
Here’s a photo of Morty Gaber, my friend and former boss, who died a month or so ago at the age of 87. I mention this photo in an essay up today on The Classical.
The last time I saw him was in the early 2000s. I ran into him on the street one day near his apartment on 9th Street by University Place. I was with my girlfriend, now my wife. I’m glad he got to meet her and that she got to meet him.
I first met Morty sometime in the mid-1980s. I must have come by the store he owned, located in Manhattan on the south side of 8th Street between Mercer and Greene, to visit my brother, who had gotten a job there through a posting on a bulletin board at the NYU employment office. I have written about first meeting Morty many times, but these writings, like much of my obsessive writing about the past, are fictions built out of a need to see life changing. I don’t remember meeting him. I look back, and at a certain point he was just there. Now he’s not.
I have always walked a lot, and though my life has changed considerably since my son was born last year I still walk a lot, now with him strapped to my chest. I wish I could say I spend the entirety of each walk marveling down at him, and though there is always at least a little marveling, the truth is I continue for the most part to spend my walks now as I have spent them for some time: scrutinizing one glimpse of trash after another in hopes that one of these pieces of trash is actually a baseball card. As I wrote recently in an essay for Chicago Side, I’ve found a few baseball cards lying in the street over the years, but I haven’t found any in quite a while, and the actual ratio of pieces of trash scrutinized to pieces of trash that turned out to be baseball cards is so infinitesimally small as to be statistically nonexistent, similar in that regard to the ratio of planets in the universe versus the planets that support human life. So far there’s been just one and we’re on it, ruining it I guess, what with all the littering and Happy Meals. I found this card some time ago and since it was a card, albeit not a baseball card, I picked it up and brought it home. I suppose it came in a Happy Meal or something, if they still have Happy Meals. Happy Meals sprung up after I was done with childhood, so I don’t recall ever getting one. Anyway, this movie looks fucking stupid. I vaguely remember it coming out but I can’t say when. Sometime in the vague slab of years that occurred and continues to occur after the more delineated progress of time in childhood. The character featured here can bend all four elements, according to the back of the card. I can’t bend elements. But I can break wind. Ha ha ha ha ha! Right? Oh, man. Where was I? Oh yeah, walking, looking. I wish I had spent my writing time this morning working on a prize-winning short story, but this is my one life, an absurd blue miracle: walking, looking, cardboard, fart jokes.
I received an advance copy of Baseball Fantography just as I was finishing the recent series on Cardboard Gods that had been inspired by a photo on the Fantography™ website of Padres pitcher Dave Freisleben and Topps photographer Doug McWilliams. I am dipping into the beautiful book slowly, savoring it. My favorite photo so far is one of Lou Brock in a leisure suit shaking hands with a couple 1970s yayos, one of whom is in a cutoff Black Sabbath T-shirt. And then there’s a section that expands on the “making of” photo of McWilliams snapping the baseball card portrait of Freisleben. Many more images from the 1975 Padres photo shoot (including one of Tito Fuentes with his “Tito” headband) surround an essay by none other than Doug McWilliams, the man behind many of the images that, weirdly, joyously, anchor my life. Baseball Fantography would be worth the price of purchase for that section alone, but the whole book is spilling over with colorful images from the beating heart of the game.
The author of Baseball Fantography, Andy Strasberg, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and about his long and eventful life in baseball.
1. I’m really looking forward to the Baseball Fantography book (due out April 1, 2012). It seems like a book that needs to exist, and one that will help highlight the unique voices of individual fans at a time when the big business of baseball is tending to flatten out and obscure those voices. What was the key moment in the development of the idea for the Fantography site and the book? When did you say to yourself something along the lines of “this idea has to be done, and I have to do it”?
1997 was the year that I came up with the concept and called Marty Appel who agreed immediately that it was good idea. Our plan was to have fans send their originals to a PO box and we would have them copied and then return them. We both agreed that it would not work because people would not risk sending their treasured photographs in the mail for the fear of it getting lost. Then in 2000 I thought that fans with photo could go into Kinko’s and have them scanned and emailed to me . . . but that too was a lot to ask of fans. Then in 2008 I felt that there were enough home scanners and people using digital photographer that they could do it from their home and I was right.
2. I know you’ve spent your whole life around the game, first as a supremely dedicated fan and later as a vice president for the Padres. Some would be tempted to assume that you’ve “seen it all.” In gathering the images for the site and the book, what photo most surprised you, and why?
I LOVE the snapshots of players before they enter the ball park. I have hundreds of snapshots of players walking down the street as far back as the 1940s. I can only imagine how excited a fan was to capture a photo of a player in street clothes walking down the street in Brooklyn on the way to Ebbets Field.
3. I believe that in your work with the Padres from the 1970s to the 1990s [Strasberg was the vice president of marketing for the team], you were involved in many promotional events. What part, if any, did you play in Kurt Bevacqua catching a ball thrown from the top of a building in downtown San Diego? What can you tell us about that immortal day?
I was given credit for the idea but actually adapted the concept from the 1908 Gabby Street Washington Monument event. My favorite part of setting up the event was that I asked permission from our GM Jack McKeon who said he was fine with it as long as Dick Williams our manager approved of it. So I went to Dick and asked him. He said it was OK and then I warned him that Kurt could possibly get hurt and Dick didn’t pause for a second and said, “I know.”
4. Also, when Bevacqua came to the Padres, he had already featured in one of the greatest moments in Topps baseball cards as the 1975 Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ. Did you ever witness any residue of this feat? I’m praying there are stories of young gunslingers constantly challenging the weary champ to bubble gum blowing duels. Short of that, any other anecdotes about Bevacqua would be greatly appreciated.
I never saw any one challenge Kurt in a Bubble blowing showdown.
One of my favorite “Dirty Kurt” stories happened during the 1984 World Series. We were in Detroit for game three and I was in the dugout just before introductions. Kurt bet me $10 that he would purposely slip coming out of the dugout. I told him he wouldn’t and the bet was on. His name was announced by the stadium PA and he tripped on the top step and then turned around and shouted at me that I owed him ten bucks.
5. I first became aware of the amazing Fantography website when a writer, Greg Hanlon, let me know about a particular photo on the site. It’s the one that you took of Doug McWilliams’ snapping the portrait that would appear on Dave Freisleben’s 1976 card. For someone like me, who has put such importance on the baseball cards of the 1970s, it is an amazing moment, a singular glimpse behind a magical curtain, and I thank you for capturing it. What are your memories of that moment?
I could not use a flash so all of my photos came out dark because of the shadows. I also tried to capture the exact moment that Doug shot his photos and from an off center angle. I knew that I wanted to capture the exact moment a baseball card photo was being born.
6. It seems from looking at the 1976 Padres cards that several photos may have been taken that day. Do you recall whether that was the case, and if so, can you give us some sense of how the photo shoot proceeded that day? Was there a lot of waiting around and/or bored horseplay? How long did McWilliams generally take with each of his subjects?
Doug took perhaps less than 3 minutes with each player but sometimes waited as long as 20 minutes waiting for the next guy. The entire shooting process took hours.
7. What did the players think of the baseball card photo shoots?
Most enjoyed it, others seemed to be somewhat bothered by the distraction and interruption of their spring training routine.
8. I love Doug McWilliams’ work. As someone who obviously also has a knack with baseball photos, what you can tell us about Doug McWilliams as an artist from what you saw that day or from other experiences with him?
Doug is one of the nicest and classiest guys in baseball. He’s kind, low-key and very considerate. We became friends quickly and have remained so after all these years. A baseball writer told me after I got my job with the Padres that even though he knew I was a collector of baseball memorabilia he said that the best thing I will collect will be the friends I make. At the time I thought he was crazy . . . but after 20 plus years he was right and Doug is one of those cherished friendships.
9. In addition to your work in the game and as a baseball historian and author, I believe you are also a passionate collector of baseball memorabilia. What piece from your collection would you be most reluctant to part with, and why?
When I was 17 years old Roger Maris gave me one of his bats in 1965. It was a confirmation from my childhood hero of a promise he made to me earlier that season. At that point it was the greatest day of my life!
Some tour I’m leading here, huh? Imagine going on such a tour, the guide leading the group past a few featured pieces in a steady rhythm and then just, like, stopping, maybe staring blankly off into space for minutes, hours, or, in this case, days. Were you on this tour, and several days had gone by without any guiding, you’d begin to wonder about its existence. What brought us here? What’s holding us together? Most of life, maybe all of it insofar as we are able to perceive it, is a construct no more impervious to dissolution than cardboard. I intended to get to this penultimate stop on this tour last week, before my seventh-month-old son started running a high fever that eventually led to trips to the doctor and a trip to a hospital and, finally (everything is okay now), a 4 a.m. trip to the ER. I just said it, but allow me to say it again, for my own sake: everything is okay now. But I’m still shaken up. Every once in a while you are shown that reality is actually shapeless. All art is a hoping in the face of this reckoning.
In the early 1970s, right around when Doug McWilliams began taking photographs of figures and blue sky for Topps, my mother painted the portrait at the top of this page. It was of her friend Beth. Beth and her family lived next door to us.
This is when we were all living in a house in Hopewell, New Jersey: me, my brother, my father, my mother, and my mother’s boyfriend, Tom. I don’t have the time right now to once again explain this experimental hippie-inflected arrangement, but it was imperfect and based in hope and love. It was a complicated, hopeful, loving, impossible moment. I see all that in my mom’s painting of human beauty and sky. Eventually, we splintered. Dad to Manhattan, the rest of us to Vermont. Cold winters, little money: my mom drifted away from painting.
Years later, with my brother and me out of the house, she came back to art, not as a creator but as a student. For her, more hard years and little money. Eventually, she made it to the big leagues. I remember the day. She had a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably the greatest museum on earth. It was a temporary position but it lasted long enough that it would have merited—if working in a museum were like major league baseball in all its particulars—an appearance on a baseball card. I was thinking this past week about the closest thing to an equivalent to a baseball card, the photo ID badge that allowed her to walk past security and into even the most hidden corridors of the museum. My mother happened to be visiting this past week while my son was sick. During one of the moments when he seemed to be feeling okay I asked my mom how it felt to wear that ID badge and walk into the greatest museum on earth as an insider, a pro.
“Nerve-racking,” she said. “I was nervous there.”
She explained that it was a charged, pressurized environment. People were climbing over one another to get ahead. Departments battled one another. Some years later, after that temporary position had given way to another and then another, she would finally get a permanent museum job, at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it would be more to her liking: there, everyone was in it together.
But she admitted it did feel good to have a moment within that pinnacle of the museum world. Her highlight there was her contribution to the museum’s retrospective on Honoré Daumier. She wrote the chronology for the exhibition catalog and led tours through the exhibit. I went one day and stood among the gathering looking to her as the tour began. My mom introduced herself. She was wearing a dress. When she finished her opening spiel on Daumier an old guy in the tour piped up, addressing my mom.
“Nice knees, Jenny,” he said.
There was a staggered pause, a kind of communal eye-blink, and then my mom, the pro, pressed on, launching into the body of her tour guide presentation, and though I don’t specifically remember anything she said, I remember that I was very proud of her and then I was simply engrossed in her talk. She was a great tour guide. She made Daumier come alive. People were looking at old art and laughing.
I walked my mom to the train on Monday. The 4 a.m. trip to the ER had come and gone. My son was starting to feel better. There was blue sky.
“It was so good that you were here for this,” I said.
She had not been a guide through the crisis, because no one could have been, but it was very good for my sanity that she was there. She had been through similar tribulations. Under a doctor’s recommendation, she’d once dunked my brother, when he’d been an infant, in ice cold water to try to bring his fever down. She’d lived through broken legs and broken arms (my brother) and a falls down a well and off a cliff (me). It didn’t translate to anything specific beyond a presence that I could feel. My mother knew what it was like to have a sick kid. I tried to tell her some short version of all this, my gratitude for her presence, as we said goodbye.
“Well, I wasn’t a perfect mother,” she said. Disparagement of her own mothering abilities is something of a mantra for her. Her fallibility, her mistakes. I don’t care about that. I try to tell her, but I know how it is to have self-lacerating mantras.
She was and is a good mother, and she was and is a good artist, too. Most recently, she painted something for my son, a beanstalk climbing into the sky. She affixed a length of measuring tape along the right-hand border of it. We put it on the wall of his room and have started to use it to measure his progress up into the blue.
A few days ago I finished a great book by Joe Bonomo on Highway to Hell, the AC/DC album that debuted in America five days before I saw my first concert. I put down the book, put on some headphones, and turned up some AC/DC so loud that for a few moments I couldn’t hear anything else. Bonomo tells the whole story of Highway to Hell, unearthing details of its creation, illuminating its magic, and revealing the absences and needs of both adolescence and adulthood that might keep bringing a deteriorating, searching mind back to that loud sound again and again. You should check it out. Here’s an excerpt:
There’s something eternal about adolescence, about its promises and deceits; and about the adolescence, blinking into light so bright that the horizon is obliterated. A teenager is pulled in many directions at once: between sensation and substance; between impulse and responsibility; between innocence and guilt; between shallowness and depth. Highway to Hell and the panting scenarios therein are sensational, impulsive, and shallow, and no less human because of it. When I listen to the songs now, my brain can go into sleep mode, and my body can listen and move, and that’s a great pleasure—one of the great pleasures that rock & roll gives us—and it’s a different thing altogether from pining for lost youth or regretting moves not made, girls not chased, drinks not downed. That Bon Scott was thirty-two when he wrote the lyrics suggests that he was an eternal adolescent, but the longer I live with the songs, the more I felt that he was blessed by this state more often than he was burdened by it. He allowed himself access to a youthful pulse that beat into a future lifting with fun, not collapsing under regret.
Somewhere in this giant expanding dumpheap of memories and obfuscations I’ve talked about the first concert I ever went to. I went back to that story in my book, in a chapter on, among other things, the 1980 card of White Sox pitcher Fred Howard and Disco Demolition night and my brother and my father and regret and disconnection and stupidity. I used to think my life was one story, some form locked within stone, and once I chipped away at the stone long enough and skillfully enough I’d have it, the truth, but now I understand that I’ll never be done telling what happened, and what happened will change each time I tell it, and each time I tell it new absences will form, and the absences will call me back for yet another return, and so, for example, I’ll always be 11 years old tagging along with my big brother with our father—his ears wadded with cotton—as chaperone to Madison Square Garden to see Ted Nugent only to find out afterward that we never saw Ted Nugent at all but only saw the warm-up band before our father led a ferocious charge toward the exits, all of us under the impression that the concert was over despite the lack of any other fellow attendees leaving. My brother was the first to put the story of that night in writing, for a ninth-grade English essay, and he was the first to alter it in the telling, still too ashamed at that point about missing Ted Nugent to admit our fuckup in the essay; the teacher praised the level of detail in the first part of the essay, which described the warm-up act, and critiqued the strange vagueness of the essay’s concluding sections. “More details needed,” she wrote in the margins next to my brother’s fraudulent Nugent bloviations. In a different age, time would have made every part of the story vague. Everything becomes vague anyway, but I think my generation, perhaps the most backward-looking generation yet to walk the earth, is the first blessed with ample concrete evidence and artifacts of what, in earlier times, would have been the utterly transient particulars of fleeting youthful experiences. Whenever the story starts to feel vague, more details can be found instantly, in video and audio and print form. The borders of my mind have deteriorated and merged with Google. I am constantly searching.
I can locate the exact date of my first concert. According to multiple sources, it was August 4, 1979, at Madison Square Garden. I have not been able to find the exact setlist of my first concert, but the band I saw appears to have played the same setlist throughout their summer tour, and so it is reasonable to assume that the setlist below corresponds to the sonic assault that terrified me and made me feel awful and regretful about my father’s suffering presence beside us. It was his worst nightmare come to life. The sheer piercing force of the sound—I couldn’t even understand it as music, and in some ways it was an experience so forceful as to be beyond memory, like the whiteout moment I experienced some years later after careening off the side of a cliff while mountain-biking. But I do remember a few things about the sound: 1) it’s loudness; 2) the older teenage and early 20s burnouts all around us nodding to one another approvingly about what they saw as the undeniable high quality of the warmup band (I could not hear what they were hearing but I distinctly remember witnessing this approval); 3) the presence of the repeatedly screamed lyric “Sin City.” This last detail was what allowed my brother and me to confirm the following day at Crazy Eddies on Sixth Avenue that we had officially not seen Ted Nugent but had seen the band who had a song called “Sin City” on one of their albums. All three of these memories may have become suspect, as all my memories are, but I am able to find corroboration for all three with my deteriorated searching co-opted mind. Taking the memories one at a time: Yes, they were fucking loud. This is corroborated in an explanation from the Ten Most site for the ranking of AC/DC as the second loudest band of all time:
No question regarding it these guys are systematically the loudest indoor arena rock band from the Bon Scott years all the way through the Brian Johnson era Angus and Malcolm Young are the loudest guitar combo running through their marshall stacks both sides of the stage running them clean & overdriven getting that pure marshall sound – you can’t top that.
And yes, they fucking rocked surprisingly hard as a warm-up act. The Ten Most appreciation of AC/DC continues:
I saw AC/DC with Bon Scott open for Ted Nugent at Madison Square Garden in 1979 and they altogether stole Ted’s thunder (altho Ted was very loud too)
And yes, in all likelihood they played “Sin City” when I saw them on August 4, 1979. Yes, I can even go back and watch a performance of every single one of the songs they performed that night, not from that night, exactly, but from that era.
One other thing I recall from that night is that the guitarist got up onto the shoulders of the singer. This memory was cast into some doubt when someone else who’d seen them back then recalled that when he saw them a roadie was the one giving Angus a piggy-back ride. But the photo at the top of this page, taken from the 1979 tour, suggests that what I thought I saw actually did occur. Bon Scott was not averse to carrying some weight in the name of rock & roll.
I can’t say I hated AC/DC the night of August 4, 1979, but it was something like that. I was not ready for it, and it hit me like violence. Our little trio of me and my brother and my father, it was fragile. We only saw our dad every so often and only saw him for an extended period once a year, a two-week visit every summer. We were in the middle of one of those visits, the first such visit where one of us, my brother, had edged over the border from childhood into something stranger and estranging. I liked the feeling, fragile as it was, of the three of us all being in something together, but that concert, that violent assault of sound in a huge arena of lidded-eye cool guys, disallowed any closeness between us. None of us understood what was happening, and none of us were happy, and nobody could say anything to anyone and nobody could be heard.
I don’t know why I soon gravitated to AC/DC. Within a year or two I had almost every record they’d produced. I’d been moving toward them anyway in my own musical tastes. I already owned several KISS records and was gradually commandeering my brother’s soon-to-fade interest in “hard rock” as my own, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. He never did become an AC/DC fan, branching off instead into bands more clearly marketed as punk and New Wave, so AC/DC became “my” band. I liked everything about them. I liked the simplicity, the loudness, the hooks. I blasted the songs in loneliness and confusion and they blasted loneliness and confusion, blew it away. I liked that the center of the band was an older brother and a younger brother. I still like that. It’s my favorite part of a band I still love. Two brothers putting down a twin riff so tight and together it is like an artery rushing beats of rich blood from one heart.
Welcome Back, Kotter debuted in 1975 and ran through 1979, the sweet spot of my childhood. It was my favorite show. I loved all the Sweathogs, Epstein most of all. He had a funny swagger, a giant afro, a maniacal look in his eyes, a (Chico) Marxian air of absurd careening pomposity-leveling chaos. He was half-Jewish, just like me, but unlike me he was proud of whatever parts made up all of him. I’ll stop there—I don’t want this to become some kind of serious sensitive self-exploration. Welcome Back, Kotter was no more and no less than exactly my idea of fun back when I was just becoming a member of the human race, and Juan Epstein was the heart and soul of the fun.
The man behind Juan Epstein, Robert Hegyes, died this past Thursday. I spent some hours yesterday and today poking around his website, where he has written several thoughtful and interesting notes about his life and about the show that made him famous. The site is organized in a somewhat unorthodox way, but be sure to check out the Kotter show section (start at this link and then click through to other pages with the “next” button at the bottom of the page). The highlight of that series of pages, at least for this constant searcher on the seas of memorabilia, is a scanned version of the feature on Hegyes, in its entirety, from Dynamite magazine. The only magazine that eclipsed Dynamite for me back in those days was Mad Magazine. On another page on Hegyes’ site I discovered that he, like me, had been raised on Mad:
I grew up reading Mad Magazine and laughing my ass off. Alfred E. Neuman for President, was my motto. I still think he could beat George W. Bush to this day. One day someone walked in and said, “Hey look, you guys are on the cover of Mad Magazine.” Forget TV Guide, People, and the National Enquirer. I knew I had made it.
In another section of the site, Hegyes writes with great warmth and humility of a chance meeting with George Harrison. If anyone has ever met a hero, they’ll recognize Hegyes’ internal monologue as he walked away from his brief moment with the Beatle. If I’d ever met the man behind Juan Epstein, I would have been reeling in the exact same way:
“I thought of a hundred things I wanted to say, but nothing I could have said was more important than, thank you.”
Here’s a little prayer to a wrapper. There was a moment a long time ago when this wrapper was fastened around a stack of brand new cards and a rectangular shard of gum. The cards were unknown. They could be any cards. Most likely the moment of possibilities was sped past, the wrapper torn open at the first touch.
Here’s a little prayer to the idea of slowing down, of waiting and listening and wondering. Days are marked inconsequentially with short bursts of shared babble. Most of this babble makes no impact before dissolving in thin air. Other babble has a narcotic hook that catches and tears at the attention momentarily. My mind is full of babble. The days go by.
Here’s a little prayer to the life behind all the babble. Here’s a little prayer to the hope that a wrapper torn open long ago might somehow enclose itself once again around a world of possibilities.
Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Carmen Ronzonni
Ever since my air conditioner died a few weeks ago I don’t trust any of the things humming and groaning in my home—the dishwasher, the fridge, the microwave, the computer: each seems on the brink of having some small, cheap, vitally important cog snap and cause the whole mechanism to seize up and go silent. I’ve lived a meandering life, awake only in stories, never forging any kind of direct, pragmatic connection to actual events, and my tendency for anxiety feeds into my literary dreaminess so that every possible setback seems not simply one problem to solve but an omen foreboding the inevitable unraveling of daily life into a tragedy, as if a broken toaster will lead, eventually, to me freezing to death on an ice chunk in Antarctica or gagging fatally on Elizabethan poison. More than once in the last few days I’ve thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the horrifying novel in which the whole of human civilization as we know it is shown in smoldering irrevocable cinders, in a state of tragic fall, and a father and a son walk through it together, barely surviving. I am a father now and I have a son. I am nervous; everything seems provisional; at the core of it all as always I feel fake.
I turn and have always turned to stories. Yesterday various stories travelled alongside me by chance or design. I read a book about how to calm unhappy babies, the story there being that several methods must be mastered and executed perfectly or there will be a house full of suffering. My son is too young still, just a couple weeks into his life, to have hit the period when some babies start wailing for hours on end, but he has had his fussy moments, and I’ve tried to bring the story of the book to life and have felt like I wasn’t quite doing it right, and my own son felt awkward in my hands and in the gap between the ideal story and the real fakery of life. I read that book on the bus but kept getting my attention coaxed away by two guys talking nearby, trading stories of things gone wrong to the point that litigation ensued. The story one of them told that I can recall now involved a man with cancer in one eye who went in for surgery to get the eye removed and the surgeon removed the other eye by mistake. Later, at lunch, I read a couple articles sent to me by my father and a friend, respectively, both articles concerned with identifying the narrative embedded behind certain current events. In the column my dad sent, the author traced the roots of the London riots to a sense of profound desperation, the riots a grab for power by the powerless. In the column my friend sent, the author criticized President Obama for failing to tell a pointed story in his words and actions, instead attempting to placate both sides and in doing so satisfying no one. My thought when I read the former article was that the roots of riot are everywhere now, and my thought when I read the second was that even the President is faking it, and not even that well. On the long, bumpy bus ride home I stared out the window at what seemed like imminent ruins.
In my mind, the specter of Carmen Ronzonni presides over the anxious flimsiness of all things. He is, as his teammates in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training quickly realize, a fake. That he is friends with Kelly Leak buys him a lot of time and credit with the team, but once he actually has to start pitching in game conditions, the ineptitude beneath his fakery becomes apparent, and it begins to dawn on the Bears that he and they are all doomed. He’s supposed to be their pitcher, the center of their hopes, but he is only a collection of imitations and bluster. He is insubstantial, a scarecrow stuffed only with stories.
Still, maybe there’s a place for guys like Carmen Ronzonni. When I first saw the movie back in 1977, I was drawn first and most strongly to Kelly, Ogilvie, and Tanner, and I think I sided with the general feelings of the team regarding Carmen. Even though I hadn’t even seen the first Bears movie yet, I understood that Carmen was an outsider, and though (or maybe because) I saw some of myself in his tendency to use imitation in place of anything real, I kept Carmen at arm’s length. He wasn’t quite one of us. But as I’ve watched the movie more recently and repeatedly, I’ve come to think of Carmen as a deeply important member of the team in terms of the sequel. I see him this way not only because the team needs a pitcher and not even because his persona of recycled bullshit is a crystalline microcosm of that deeply American genre, the sequel. It’s this: maybe a guy saturated in stories can help things feel more like a story and not just part of some mundane conveyer belt toward the bone yard.
This is not just an abstract thing, either. There are a couple of cases in which Carmen livens things up in a concrete way, such as when he swipes a couple of Playboys and brings them back to the guys in the hotel room. More importantly, he’s a key figure, along with Kelly, in procuring the van that takes the boys to Houston. Kelly is the driver of the van and we assume he was the driving force in the ballsy move to take possession of the van, but it seems there would be no van without Carmen’s mysterious connections (I believe Carmen’s explanation about where they got the van is an uncharacteristically terse statement along the lines of “From a guy I know”). Carmen, albeit a bullshitter, has bullshitted his way into the darker, more grown-up world that Kelly rides through. Though he comes off as a fake as a baseball-playing boy among the other boys, he seems, at least according to Kelly’s estimation of him as “cool,” as if he has been more successful at finding a legitimate place among the older hoodlums that we assume Kelly hangs out with when not smashing home runs with the Bears.
Carmen’s legitimacy as an experienced outlaw reaches its apex in one of the film’s best scenes. The Bears have made their getaway from their parents, but they still need to pass through one more barrier before truly embarking upon the Open Road, that barrier being a police car that starts to follow the van (this scene starts at about 6:30 in the clip below). When this police car is noticed by the team, almost everyone begins to panic. Kelly will become the hero of the moment, acting quickly and coolly, lighting a cigarette and putting on his hat and shades to make himself look older. (This transformation worked on me as a kid—back then, he really did suddenly look like an adult—but when I watch the film now Kelly’s stoned, acned leer as he salutes the cops marks him hilariously as the single most suspicious-looking driver in history). But while Kelly is leaping into action, Carmen is encouraging everyone to “stay cool.” It could read like another blowhard moment from the imitating interloper, but something about it rings true, as if Carmen, the boy made up entirely of stories, has been through moments like this before, charged moments, the heartbeats of a storied life. When the police move on without pulling the boys over, Kelly slumps and exhales, betraying a nervousness he had kept hidden, the boys exult, and Carmen smiles and nods in the center of it all like a happy maestro who knew how the song would go all along.
And speaking of songs, the makers of the sequel chose this happy moment (about 7:30 in the clip below) to unleash what they surely hoped (in vain, it turned out) would be a runaway hit song, James Rolleston’s “Life Is Looking Good.” Soaring, cheesy freedom! I chase that sweet lie through all disintegrations.
Special thanks to nunyer for creating Carmen’s card.
Giving Kelly Leak a player of the week award is kind of like handing Jesse Owens a “participant” ribbon at the end of the 1936 Summer Olympics. But this has been the happiest week of my life, so the player of this week could only go to Kelly Leak. I don’t have many words or much time to say them at the moment, but you can read some of my thoughts about Kelly Leak over at Deadspin, in a chapter from my book on The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training called “The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived.”
The back of Kelly’s baseball card would be mind-boggling, judging from the glimpses of his performances seen in The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Here’s what we know from those glimpses: in the seven plate appearances shown in those films, Kelly homered three times, tripled, doubled, singled, and was intentionally walked. These results suggest that he may have actually been underselling himself when he tried to hit on a woman in Amanda’s dance class by saying that he was hitting .841. Player of the week, player of the year, player of all recorded time.
Special thanks to nunyer for creating Kelly’s card.
Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Ahmad Abdul Rahim
“Don’t give me none of your honky bullshit, Buttermaker.” –Ahmad Abdul Rahim
Every once in a while over the last few months I’ve read to my wife’s belly. A friend suggested this would be a way to familiarize the kid in there with the sound of my voice. I recite from On the Road, at random, a page or so at a time. It is either my favorite book or one of my favorite books, depending on whether I’m in the thrall of one of my other bibles at a given time. When I first read it, as a seventeen-year-old freshly ejected from high school and with no marketable skills or college plans, it gave me some hope for the possibility of a joyous life. But I can’t really argue with anyone who would say that it is, as Ahmad Abdul Rahim might put it, at least if he was a grown-up extension of the incarnation of his character in the first Bears movie, honky bullshit. I would argue back that no matter how the book hits you, it’s at least a sincere attempt by the author to write what felt true, and taken in the context of the times it was a great leap forward in the pursuit of honest art, but it’s hard to miss now that it can also easily be summarized as a story of a bunch of white dudes with the privilege of that great but selective American power, mobility, careening around the country as tourists gawking at and romanticizing classes of people locked into societal positions that don’t allow mobility: south of the border or in the ghetto Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty “dig” the fellaheen masses. To their credit, Jack Kerouac and the protagonists in his book are pioneers of mainstream American culture in their championing—or even noticing—of people outside the margins of the prevailing popular conception of “real” America, that Leave It to Beaver fever dream. But the book entered that mainstream not on the strength of any reformative tendencies but because it tapped into and even defined a myth at the very heart of America, the road tale, breathing new life into the Whitmanesque lyricism of taking to the open highway just when the highway system was literally opening up the entire country, and just as the baby boom generation was on the cusp of reaching driving age. The book had great timing in proclaiming this message: the world is yours to explore. This message is why I read the book to the wriggling bulge inside my wife’s belly. The world should be open to everyone to explore.
Of course, the world is not open to everyone to explore, or rather there are varying degrees of openness, depending on who you are and where you are. If you’re a white guy, yes, certainly, have at it, explore. Who’s going to stop you? However, if you’re not white, certain restrictions may apply. You can try to explore, but at some point you’re probably going to be stopped, questioned, and in various other ways, some merely annoying and others terrible, reminded of the limitations of your mobility.
One of the reasons the Bears sequel resonated with me when I was a kid and still moves me now, despite its many flaws, is that it taps into that myth of the open road. More than that, it even could be seen to expand that myth to some extent, showing new protagonists at the wheel: children. This was more of a case of a film reflecting society than shaping it, however, as the movie was made primarily to continue cashing in on the success of the first movie, hence the decision to shape the plot to please the target audience: 9-year-old boys like I was at the time of the film’s release. Besides this profit-driven novelty of unsupervised youth loose on the road, the road narrative element of the movie was more or less inherited honky bullshit, a little white boy’s dream of unfettered, junk-food-glutted freedom. Unfortunately, Ahmad Abdul Rahim is no longer aware enough in his dumbed-down sequelized incarnation to make any kinds of cultural critiques of the going’s-on around him. In fact, practically the only moments in which his character is able to rise above the boisterous noise of the team chorus is when he squawks at various times that the Bears are about to get caught and will be “goin’ to the joint.”
There’s some aptness to his character, the only black player on the team, being the most aware that unauthorized mobility around America would seem destined to end up not in beatnick-style “kicks” but in the lockstep progression of suspicion, apprehension, and incarceration. Unfortunately, the “real” Ahmad Abdul Rahim—a sensitive and ebullient individual—is replaced in the sequel by a facsimile whose range of emotions has been diminished in most cases to a couple of broad strokes: wide-eyed enthusiasm and wide-eyed fear.
Underneath the limiting script, he’s still Ahmad. There are echoes of the liveliness of his character from the first film here and there, such as in his last at-bat of the Astrodome game when he smacks a triple, recites a Muhammad Ali rhyme at third base, and slaps five with probably the most awkward low-five slapper in history, third base coach Rudi Stein. An even better glimpse of Ahmad, perhaps the only true glimpse of the real three-dimensional Ahmad from the first movie, comes in the very beginning of the movie, when the new, militaristic coach of the team tells him that instead of bothering with Ahmad he’s going to be calling him Andy. Ahmad mouths the name to himself. Andy? You can see him thinking, wondering, worrying. It’s not easy to live in a world of honky bullshit.
Special thanks to nunyer for creating Ahmad’s card.
Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Toby Whitewood
The first two Bears to appear on screen in the 1976 film The Bad News Bears have strong connections to the adult world. The first of these boys shown, Kelly, is even taken for an adult, perhaps sardonically, by Buttermaker, who mutters “thanks, mister” to Kelly after the latter lights his cigarette for him. Kelly operates a motorized vehicle like an adult, smokes cigarettes like an adult, and even seems to be as freighted in his scowling silence with adult world troubles and history as the wrinkled, morning-boozing Buttermaker. After lighting his future coach’s cigarette, he rides off on his motorcycle, leaving the sunny little league field, the little boy world, to go back to his adult world burdens and mysteries.
The next Bear to appear, and the first to utter a line of dialogue, is Toby Whitewood, who arrives at the field with his shifty, unctuous politician father and so is the first of the Bears to witness that his new coach is an alcoholic mercenary rather than the altruistic caretaker that most children assume the adults in their lives to be. It’s unclear whether this information registers with Toby, who is sent away by his father from the decidedly adult conversation between coach and councilman, but later moments featuring Toby in both the first film and the sequel reveal that Toby absorbs at least some of the things he overhears while in the proximity of adult goings-on. For example, in the first Bears movie, he explains to Buttermaker (going on something that he overheard his father saying) that Jose and Miguel don’t speak English. For another example, in the sequel Toby arrives at the field with sole knowledge of the identity of the team’s new coach.
The Bears don’t have a team captain, but if they did you could make a case that it would be Toby. Of the Bears who lead in various ways, Kelly (the team’s superstar) is too much of a lone wolf to man that role, Ogilvie (the de facto assistant coach and, in the sequel, the team’s sober-minded co-parent, along with the stoic, worldly Kelly) not enough of an on-field presence, Tanner (the inspirational leader) too fiery and volatile. This leaves Toby, who knows things about the adult world without losing his essential identity as a boy, and who is able to speak for the boys to adults. He’s the one who informs Buttermaker that the guys took a vote and decided they don’t want to play anymore, and in the sequel he’s the one who tells Kelly’s dad that while they need him to pose as a coach they don’t really need him to coach. (Interestingly, in both cases these Toby-voiced team decisions to separate from the adult in charge lead very quickly to coaches Buttermaker and Leak finally and fully taking the reins and leading the boys.)
Not much is shown of Toby’s playing abilities in the first film, but in Breaking Training he blossoms into arguably the team’s second-best player, after Kelly. In the game in the Astrodome, he singles in both of his at-bats, the second of those hits sparking the big last-inning comeback. He also scores a run, and he records the most rousing put-out of the game, tagging out a Toro who falls for the ol’ hidden ball trick. (This trick, which is denigrated by the Toros’ coach as a “cheap cotton-picking faggot trick,” is predicated on one of the more noticeable of sequel’s many departures from standard little league rules, which don’t allow for runners to lead off, but then again with decidedly elongating and pubescent figures such as the sequelized versions of Kelly, Ogilvie, and Rudi, perhaps the Bears have somehow moved en masse and without explanation out of little league to Babe Ruth league.) The whole trick plays out like an illustration of Toby’s connection to the adult world, the ball that Coach Leak slips into Toby’s glove like an objectification of all the many bits of esoteric knowledge adults have passed along to Toby. Toby, unsurprisingly, handles this new adult-given secret like a pro, poker-facing the Toros runner into taking a lead.
But Toby’s true nature comes out not during the ruse but just after it has been revealed. If Kelly, a Bear you could easily imagine also donning a poker face, had been the one to tag the fooled runner out, he would have likely reacted afterward coolly, as if it was no big thing, but Toby is still a boy, and he roars and cheers and laughs as he shows that he had the ball the whole time. Throughout the sequel, Toby is one of the team’s most exuberant enthusiasts, a leader of what I have come to think of as the “wow, cool” chorus, the boys amazed by the van and the open road and motel rooms and nudie magazines and the Astrodome and the Astros and by simply having the chance to play. He knows things about the adult world, but he has not yet slipped into that dim, weary realm.
I found out this past weekend that I’m one hug removed from David Stambaugh, who played Toby Whitewood. Some years ago Stambaugh was a member of a touring acting company that also included my cousin Andrea, who had glowing things to say about her fellow actor’s good heart and warm personality. Stambaugh seems to have eventually given up acting for a life as a minister. In a Hollywood Interview feature from just a few months ago, the reverend reflected on his life as a Bear.
And speaking of Bears and interviews, Alex Belth at Bronx Banter was kind enough to lob a few questions my way about the new book.
My book on the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is officially out today. In honor of those sequelized Bears, I thought I’d share one of my favorite pictures ever, apparently from a publicity photo shoot around the time of the film’s release. Seeing Ogilvie with an angel on each arm makes me think there might yet be hope for the world.