Bill BucknerApril 9, 2008
Soon after I moved to New York City in 1990 I began to follow the New York Rangers, spurred on by the contagious enthusiasm some of my friends had for the team. I hadn’t followed hockey growing up, but the Rangers’ story was a compelling one: years of great stars and great characters, years of heartbreak, fans who lived and died with the team. My connection, though it could never come close to the connection lifelong fans had, was cemented one day when I was at a game with my friend Ramblin’ Pete, and between periods in the smoke-filled stairwell behind our section in the Blue Seats Pete asked a short, thick guy from Staten Island what he would do if the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.
He took a drag off his cigarette, his eyes narrowing. He well knew the answer to the question, but he was taking his time anyway. He exhaled. He looked Pete straight in the eye.
“Run naked and put up a sign,” he said.
I kept a notebook for a while in those days that I called Josh Wilker’s Millions. I got the title from a piece of junkmail sent to my brother, who I was sharing an apartment with. It was one of those sweepstakes things, and it had his name in bold cerulean inserted into form letter text that talked about the life Ian Wilker could lead if only Ian Wilker had millions. Over and over it talked about Ian Wilker’s Millions, and it wondered how Ian Wilker could live with himself if he let this chance at riches pass, thus allowing someone else to “live the life of riley off Ian Wilker’s Millions.” The letter lay atop and eventually within the general clutter of the apartment long after we’d busted a gut over it. Beyond the laughter, the letter seemed to somehow cut to the heart of our tread-water lives, our no-money lives, our lives of missed and bungled and shrunken-from opportunities, our form-letter, mass-produced lives, our lives in which the only break from total obscurity was to have our names spat onto a letter by a computer.
The couple who lived below my brother and me fought almost all the time. We’d hear them screaming back and forth. The guy was a big Rangers fan. This was in 1994, when the Rangers were looking really strong, like they might finally do it. The couple had a little daughter, barely old enough to talk. One day, not long before the wife moved out and took the daughter with her, my brother and I ran into the father and the daughter on the stoop.
“Who’s number 27?” the dad was asking her, his voice soft.
“Right, sweetie,” the guy said. “And how about 28. Do you know who number 28 is?”
“Larmer!” she squealed.
They went through the whole team, father and daughter, name by name by name.
Around the time my brother got the letter warning him that someone was living the life of riley off his millions I heard a quote attributed to Isaac Bashevis Singer that said that everyone was a millionaire of emotions.
I wanted to find my fortune. I recall the notebook I started, Josh Wilker’s Millions, featured particularly fevered writing, long unbroken paragraphs suffocating all margins, the words no more eloquent than dumb blood surging through arteries, all of it part of what I imagined might be a novel called Josh Wilker’s Millions but all of it ultimately unusuable and shapeless and just desperate flailing or who knows, anyway the point is I loved then as now and maybe even more then in some wilder way to write and wrote like I was Jacob wrestling the angel and was tossed loose from it exhausted and buzzing and blessed yet still nowhere, just high from my own exertion and exhortation, a millionaire at last in an imaginary and completely solitary, secret, vanishing way, maybe the only true way considering everything, everything, ends in ashes.
Everything, everything, ends in glory. It ends like it did in 1994. I went with Ramblin’ Pete and my brother and our friend Ellen to watch Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals at the bar in the basement of the Penn Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, where the game was being played and where Ellen’s husband Mark sat in the Blue Seats.
I remember the last moment the best, a faceoff not far from the Rangers’ goal, the Rangers up by a goal, still enough time for something to go wrong. Steady, reliable Craig MacTavish, the last helmetless player (somewhere there’s a teenaged girl from a broken home who remembers, as I do, that he wore number 14), was sent out to take the faceoff, and he won it, and time ran out, and the place went berserk.
We spilled out onto the streets. Mark found us and he and Ellen embraced in a kiss reminiscent of the famous V-J Day kiss between the sailor and the girl in Times Square, although as I remember it Ellen’s superior height gave the famous picture’s echo a slight twist, Mark getting dipped. Pete had brought along a miniature Stanley Cup and somehow we suddenly had champagne and Pete kept pouring tiny portions into the Cup and raising it and toasting the names of Rangers from bygone years. The joy-dazed crowd filing by cheered each name. Stars, benchwarmers, failures, goons. Every single name redeemed.
This is what it’s going to be like, I remember thinking. This is exactly how I want it to be when the Red Sox win it all. Everyone, everyone, along for the ride.
In 2003 the Red Sox were looking pretty strong. During down time at my job I started writing the name of every single player I could think of who ever played for the Boston Red Sox. I destroyed the list not long after 2003 went down in ashes, but it reached well into the hundreds and covered every star and cup-of-coffee and has-been and never-was and nobody I could drag back into the world through the endless landfills of my mind, the last and most obscure names coming at a very slow rate. Near the end maybe once or twice a day a name would flash in my mind and hang there glowing and I’d write it down fast before I forgot, like a monk transcribing visions.
Yesterday as I came home from work on the train, just as I was wishing I could have thrown my voice into the voices cheering earlier in the day at Fenway Park for Bill Buckner, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” came on my radio.
“Love is not a victory march,” the song says. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
We rode through the rain, some of us with black ink from the free daily gossip rag staining our hands, some swaying half-asleep, some staring out at the crowded highways. Everyone is bound somewhere. Love. Millions. Ashes. Everyone is a name in bold cerulean.
(special thanks to Phil Michaels of Catfish Stew for supplying Bill Buckner’s 1986 card)