Archive for the ‘Loose in the Shoebox’ Category


Tim Krauss

March 1, 2016

Tim Krauss

This card from 1986 feels different than a major league card, flimsier, promotional, disposable. The player’s name is spelled differently on the front than it is on the back (“Krausse”), and on the back instead of the somehow comforting stack of years that you see on a major leaguer’s card there’s just one line of statistics, from the player’s previous season, which occurred with another team from a different organization, in another league, in another city, in another country. The numbers from that year, 1985, are without promise—3 homers, 2 steals, a .244 average. Above them are some other numbers for height, weight, and birth date that further fill in the portrait of a slight, plodding, light-hitting Triple A infielder who’ll turn 28 before the year is done.

But what gets me the most is the stray comma after the birthday info: 9-09-57,

The comma seems to be from the same disordered reality as the figures in the photo on the front of the card. The photo’s ostensible subject strikes a polite pose and smiles, but the slippage in focus of his gaze away from the camera loosens any possible ability of the figure to center the presentation. You aren’t drawn to any one thing in this world, and so you bounce from thing to thing randomly, from the necklace of the infielder to the blotchy sky to the other figures scattered around, all seeming to look with slackened boredom at various unremarkable occurrences.

I listened to a lecture on the drive to work today by a Buddhist teacher named Gil Fronsdal. He talked about how it’s important to pay attention to your body, to really feel moment by moment what you’re doing. There’s a part in my drive when I pull into the left-hand turn lane on Touhy to make a left on Elmhurst. I’m always in a long line of cars for this turn. It was at this point in the lecture when Fronsdal talked about what a waste of time it is to wait. When you are standing there, just feel yourself standing. Pay attention to the moment. Meditate. Breathe. Don’t cast yourself forward in time or strain against the expectations you brought into the moment, the disappointments those expectations bring.

There’s a huge billboard above the lights for that turn for a “gentleman’s club.” It advertises that it’s “full liquor” and “full contact” and that the “dancers work free.” I’m not sure what any of this means except for the liquor part, which I suppose means you can get hammered on any type of liquor you want. I guess you can grope the woman who work there at will and you don’t have to lure them toward you by waving money in the air. I’ve gone to strip clubs two or three times in my life, back when I was the age Tim Krauss is here, and there did seem to be customs around money and contact. On the billboard there was a large photo of a woman’s face. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was hanging open. Her eyelids were almost shut. She looked as if she’d been drugged. The other billboards on this strip of road sell other consumables and services, cheeseburgers, lawyers, liquidation.

The green arrow came on and it was my turn to go. The lecture ended and Fronsdal asked for questions. After some loud feedback a man in the audience ignored the request for questions and made a faintly but flintily challenging statement about how it seemed easy to follow the precepts of mindfulness when things were going OK, but when the body started breaking down or other life crises occurred it got a lot harder. Fronsdal said—he didn’t use these words, but this was the gist—that everyone would be wise to train the mind for when things inevitably start to suck. You’ll never be able to do it if you wait until the end.

And things will start to suck. You’ll lose whatever intermittent ability you might have had to turn on the inside fastball. And that will just be the first of it. All day at work I felt like I had been dropped from a height. I was woozy, weakened. This is closer to the norm than the exception. I never really feel that great anymore, physically, and yet I’m always waiting to somehow become 27 again going on 26, or 25, or 24, on one of those days back then when every muscle felt good and like the next card I drew was going to feel solid in my hand, not some discordant fortune of meaningless punctuation, anchorless desire.


Glen Bockhorn

February 25, 2016

Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
–Townes Van Zandt, “To Live’s to Fly”

I’d never turn a baseball card away, but days are a different story. Take today. I didn’t want to be anything that I am. An employee, a father, a friend, a husband, a son, a writer, a scooper of cat shit, a registered voter, an operator of an automobile, a chewer and swallower of food, a speaker of words, a breather of air. I’m not saying I wanted to not exist. I’m of a mind with my father on that.

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to die,” he said. This was yesterday. I’d called to wish him a happy birthday. He’s now 91.

“I want to live,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

“I can’t hear you very well,” Dad said. We talked for a little while, mostly him talking and me listening. He told me about how he thought he might not ever again be able to walk up the steep hill outside my parents’ house and about an article on Bernie Sanders’ chances and about how humans will have to live through very dark times before a necessary revolution can occur that could save humanity from complete environmental destruction.

“I worry about the future for my boys,” I said, trying to chime in agreeably. It was true, generally, but not really true on a daily basis. On a daily basis, as a father of two intense, unstoppable boys under five, I usually don’t have the energy to look beyond the borders of each pressurized, exhausting moment.

“Well, my hearing aid must not be working so well,” my dad said.

That was yesterday, and today a ferocious wind was blowing all day and the sky was drained of light and I thought a lot about how old I was—not as old as my dad but older than I ever imagined myself being—and this wasn’t so much something that caused me to worry about death but to grow weary of life, of all the gray days. Here I am, closing in on 50, and I’m the same fleshy sack of limitations I’ve always been. I’m never going to make the major leagues. I’m not talking here about any kind of material success but about something else. Early in life you believe that one day you’ll bloom into some perfected version of yourself.


I’d never turn a baseball card away, which is why Glen Bockhorn is in my collection. I don’t even remember exactly when he entered the collection, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I would refuse him.

He was a member of the 1986 Buffalo Bisons. It was the last of his eight seasons in pro ball. He was 29, and it must have begun to occur to him that he wasn’t going to make the majors. He’d hit decently throughout his career, thumping over a hundred home runs in professional baseball, and he’d done whatever he could to make himself useful, playing every position on the field except pitcher. None of this would ever lead him to the big leagues.

But Glen Bockhorn is enjoying the moment. Why wouldn’t he be?

“Hey, Glen,” someone with a camera has just said.

Glen Bockhorn turns toward the voice. He’s got a bat in his hands, a shirt with his name on the back. Who couldn’t imagine that everything is still to come?

“We’re going to put you on a baseball card,” the cameraman says, “so get ready.”



Rich Camarillo

January 29, 2016

Rich Camarillo

Even in a 46 to 10 thrashing there is hope. It doesn’t seem that way in retrospect, but as you’re living through it—and this goes for life too—you’ll constantly be buoyed by possibilities, even as they transform more and more into preposterous myths.

For example, the Patriots took a lead in Super Bowl XX, and after they relinquished it a few minutes into the game they clung to a tie for a few minutes more, and then when the lead was given up it was only by a margin of another field goal. With the first quarter almost complete, the Patriots were down just 6 to 3.

It was my first day of college, and I was out of my mind on throat-shredding hits of potent marijuana from my new friend Tom’s chest-high Graphics bong by that point, so I can’t tell you exactly how much I believed the Patriots could scratch out an improbable win, but knowing my general approach to life—which despite all my complaining is actually pretty hopeful—I’m sure I still believed such a win could happen.

I do remember believing in Steve Grogan. The swashbuckling Grogan—whose specialty in my memory was faking handoffs and then bootlegging for big yardage before either being demolished by angered defenders or, occasionally, scooting all the way in for thrilling touchdowns—had been the Patriots quarterback for as long as I’d been a fan of the Patriots, but by the time of Super Bowl XX he was backing up the functional uninteresting football bureaucrat Tony Eason. I had envisioned before the game that the Patriots would fall behind and that the old pro would then enter the fray to lead a stirring comeback. I got teary-eyed even imagining it, such was my love for stories of stirring old-guy comebacks.

So judging from when Grogan entered the game. I still had hope in a Patriots’ victory even after the Bears had upped their lead to 20 to 3 and, furthermore, had shown ample evidence that the Patriots moving the ball even inches forward would be hard to do. Tony Eason’s last series underscored this perfectly, even suggesting that keeping from moving backwards would be a tall order:

James run left, no gain (Dent).

Collins sweep right, loss of 2 (Marshall).

Eason sacked, loss of 11 (Wilson).

And for a moment, there really was some hope. The Patriots recovered a fumble and Steve Grogan ambled onto the field and, after getting his first pass batted down, completed two passes in a row, for eight and six yards, respectively, achieving a New England first down, which in the context of the game at that point was something like me now, at age forty-seven, dunking on Bill Russell in his prime. The legendary Bears defense quickly shut down any further progress on that drive, and then the Bears scored a field goal on the next possession, upping the lead to 23 to 3.

Grogan completed another 8-yarder to set up another first down on his team’s next possession, and then came a sack, a penalty against the Patriots, and another sack to set up a third and 33. The notion of a third down with 33 yards needed to make a first down pretty much sums up the feel of that Super Bowl in retrospect, but as it unfolded I’m sure I took heart in Grogan’s next play, a 24-yard pass completion, even if it didn’t really do any good.

I probably took even more heart in the following play, a 62-yard punt from the fellow shown at the top of this page, Rich Camarillo. As it turned out, the punt set a new Super Bowl record. More crucially, it pinned the Bears down at their own 4-yard-line. Just stop them now, I prayed, or whatever it is you do when you are hoping life works out despite your current status as a pot-addled seventeen-year-old boob starting college halfway through the year on a mountain in Vermont, just stop them now, and Grogan is within bootlegging distance from the end zone, and after that maybe the team gets on a roll and the Bears start to get tight, etc. This was an incredibly short-lived series of thoughts, as I was reminded of today while perusing the play-by-play:

Camarillo 62 punt downed at Chicago 4-yard-line.

McMahon 60 pass to Gault deep right (Marion).

Soon after that historic-punt nullifier, the Bears punched it in for another touchdown, and it was 30 to 3, the kind of score that has an insurmountable steepness to it. Hope settled down inside me, losing itself in the more generalized tangle of inebriation and confusion. Those were some aimless days.

Sometimes I miss them. But for the most part I guess I have to admit that I’m now in a stage of my life where every day I’m consciously flooded with thoughts of gratitude. I’ve got two kids, four and a half and one and a half, and every day they make me think of Bill Murray’s line about having kids from Lost in Translation:

Your life, as you know it . . . is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk . . . and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I still believe life is more or less like being on the short end of a 46 to 10 thrashing. I’m not trying to be gloomy, but how else could it be otherwise when the deal is that you suffer (everyone agrees on this—Jesus, Buddha, etc.) and then it’s over (and what happens after that point isn’t the subject of this essay)? This is not to say that life is not without hope or delight or not to be clung to with deep gratitude. The problem isn’t finding things to be grateful for but finding a way to voice that gratitude. This is why I took some time today to thank Rich Camarillo, record-setting punter, one-rung-helmet aficionado, beacon of hope in the face of the relentless sacking that is life.


Rolf Benirschke

January 21, 2016

Rolf Benirschke

Three things about this card that I love:

The single bar on his helmet. You still saw these when I was a kid. I think Billy Kilmer, the Washington quarterback, was the last non-kicker to wear one. When he was gone it was just the kickers who wore them. What was the point of them? I guess I love things that are pointless and gone.

The rain gear. Can it even be called a coat? I remember these too from my childhood, slightly modified garbage bags draped over the shoulders of kickers and quarterbacks, giving them a brooding, melancholy air as they stood there on the sidelines, waiting. Really the air that they gave off was of impending defeat. You don’t imagine a player flinging one off to charge onto the field for a winning play but instead to watch time run out, powerlessly, and then to move with a slight, lurching limp out of sight.  I don’t know what this says about the things I love.

The name of the player. Kickers all seemed to be from some far off land in my childhood, such completely separate entities from their hulking teammates that it seemed almost a requirement that they speak a different language and hew to odd, Old World customs. This was not the case with Rolf Benirschke, who was born in America, but I don’t think I knew that. I lumped him with all the other guys named Garo and Efren and Fuad and figured he sat aloof in the locker room at halftime eating pickled herring and reading Kierkegaard.

He almost perished in 1978, did Benirschke, but Raiders’ All-Pro Lester Hayes apparently saved his life by tackling him with such customary savagery that it caused the kicker’s ribs to shatter. He was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered that, unrelated to the hit from “the Molester,” Benirchke’s colon was in an advanced state of distress due to Crohn’s Disease. Benirschke nearly died despite the lucky medical intervention, losing 57 pounds to drop down to 123 pounds, perhaps attaining the status of the NFL player closest in weight to nothing since the days of Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. He regained his health and went on to set all kinds of Chargers’ records for scoring and, just after his football career came to an end, briefly hosted Wheel of Fortune. Vanna White turned the letters for him.

What a day I had, is all I really wanted to tell you. It was like any other day, which means I worried about dying, marveled at the beauty, hilarity, and exasperating qualities of my two boys, four and a half and one and a half, felt guilty about not staying in close enough touch with other loved ones, worked pretty hard at my job, and got involved in an email thread with some friends in which the discussion focused on what rock star deaths have affected us the most over our lives but then evolved into an argument about the precise level to which the Eagles (the band, not the football team) suck. Near the end of the day I bought some gum from a vending machine. It had gotten hard from sitting in the machine a long time, a little like the gum that used to come with these cards.


Pork Chop Pough

August 30, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422660 days until my next book comes out.

I have a lot of work still to do before my next book comes out. That’s why it’s 660 days from coming out and not about 365 days fewer than that, as was originally planned. Earlier this summer I officially missed the original deadline for turning in the manuscript of my book.

“Maybe I can still get everything together soon,” I said to my editor. My mental state was a little bit like that of the Henry Hill character in the latter stages of Goodfellas. Helicopters were following me. Still, I did not yet quite see that everything was falling apart.

“It sounds like you’re not that close,” he said. “Why don’t we just take our time?”

Is this exactly what he said? Probably not. But something like that. He was the reasonable person in the conversation, and I was the desperate one.

Writing a book in desperation doesn’t work so well with me. I have a lot of shredded notebooks dating back over the years to prove this. It’s better if I approach the writing playfully. The book I’m working on has grown only when I’ve been able to do this, and then whenever I try to force it forward, it stalls. It goes silent. I go silent. I start counting the days, as if I’m in prison.

It’s no way to go through life. Better to take notice of the here and now.

So here on the first day of my official countdown of the days, and before I turn to my manuscript, and as a way to try to turn to my manuscript in a playful mood, is Pork Chop Pough, who never quite made it to majors. He played in the minors for a long time. Near the end of his career he was a big part of an ESPN article on the Nashua Pride. He is asked in the article why he continues to chase a dream that appears to have expired.

“I still love the game,” he says.

In the background of the photo is my son dropping baseball cards into my guitar. The picture is a few months old. He used to do this more. My guitar was always full of baseball cards. He hasn’t done it much since. It was a little annoying to always be shaking baseball cards out of my guitar, but someday I’ll miss it, I’m sure. I’ll miss making a pork chop for him and cutting it into small pieces, like I did yesterday evening. He was out in the back of our building, playing with his grandma, my mother-in-law. He didn’t eat any of the pork chop chunks. He was too interested in wandering over to parked cars and touching the tires so that his hands turned black with tire grime. All he had on was a diaper and some sandals. He smeared his hands on his stomach.

“Good god, you’re growing up in a parking lot,” I said. I still had the plate of chopped-up pork chops in my hands.


The Last Airbender

June 2, 2012

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.


1976 wrapper

January 12, 2012

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.