Friday, July 27, 2007

A Little Maniac

The very fact that the Jets were winning as many as they would lose over the course of 1978 was still such a new experience that each weekend remains like a snapshot. Over the years (too few unfortunately) the Jets have posted records better than 8-8, but it would be another 20 years before I would experience a season so new like that again.

After the opener against Miami, there was a win at Buffalo; Todd threw to Barkum for the winner within a minute to play, and Mr. Fitzgerald from across the street, who loved to drunkenly needle Dad, called us up on the phone and said, “Guess it was a stupid idea to give those tickets away, eh?” Dad laughed on the phone and then muttered his real feelings under his breath after he hung up. "Stupid jackass."

He didn't mean himself. In the weeks to come he didn't have any further evidence to convince himself he was wrong.

The Jets dropped three in a row - first to Seattle, at home, 24-17. This shot of Steve Niehaus overwhelming a nameless Jet offers an apt metaphor of the Jets futility that day. The Jets wore white at home, presumably to draw attention to the need to avenge the humiliating 17-0 loss to the Seahawks the year before. At least the Jets scored 17 themselves this time. Dad and I drove to Queens to visit his aunt in Woodside that day. It was a strange existential experience for an autumn afternoon to be so beautiful and clear while I felt so bleak about the Jets. You mean other people aren’t devastated by this? I thought. What kind of people are they?

They were people like my cousin Aidan from Hollis, Queens, who came visiting the week the Jets played John Riggins and the Redskins. Aidan was my age. He couldn’t have cared less that the Jets lived in the same borough as he. Dad took us to get pizza on Merrick Avenue. Aidan was looking through the jukebox at Joe’s Pizza, finding the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I kept standing on my tiptoes at the register and watching the Jets-Redskins game on the black and white TV set behind the counter. Dad told me it was rude to not pay attention to family, but Aidan was sophisticated; he cared about things that didn’t matter to me yet, like music. I was a neurotic kid.

All I cared about was the only thing that mattered - that Richard Todd had broken his wrist and was out for six weeks while the Jets lost to the Redskins, 23-3.

The next week, I was forced to play outside with some friends because Dad forbid me to listen to the Jets game on the radio. The Jets were playing Pittsburgh. The autumn that year was so beautiful. “If I had wanted you to stay inside,” Dad said, “we would have stayed in Queens. Now get outside, play with your buddies, dammit.”

Fine, I thought. I endured another round of playing in the street with a few kids in the neighborhood. The Jets lost, but then I expected it; they were playing Pittsburgh, for God’s sake. As yet another fistfight broke out among the kids, I snuck inside and saw that the final of the game was 28-17. Funny how I don’t need the online archives of Jets history to look up the score, yet I don’t even remember what kind game we were playing outside.

Then, when the Jets beat up on Buffalo at home 45-14, we traveled to visit the Walsh’s summer house in Sag Harbor, out at the Island’s end. Again, Dad kept me away from the game. But I privately asked Mr. Walsh to check the radio for me and give me the score from time to time. When he reported that the Jets were killing the Bills, I thought that at first it must have been a trick. Mr. Walsh was lying. He was fucking with me. He must have been. I remembered how he had told me to stop crying a while back. For some reason, I got the sense he encouraged Jake to be the way he was toward me.

“Don’t lie to me, Mr. Walsh,” I said.

“Don’t - what?” he asked, appropriately confused. “I’m not lying to you.”

“You mean it? For real?” I was pointing at him, threatening.

“Yes,” he said, huffing, resentful. “What the hell you talking about? You think I’m lying?”

“So they are winning?!”

“God,” he said, startled now. “Yes. You little maniac.”

I jumped up and down. It was the best news of the week. If I had possessed the wherewithal to reflect upon it, I might have noticed that the simple news that they were routing the Buffalo Bills made me happier than I, a child, had been all week. If that wasn’t a sign of a mild dysfunction, I don’t know what is. I did a victory dance in front of Mr. Walsh that made him look at me even more peculiarly. How did he interpret my actions? What was I doing, anyway? “You’re a troubled boy,” Mr. Walsh said, walking away. Like his own son the tattle, Mr. Walsh reported my behavior back to my parents, and on our drive home to Merrick, Dad eyed me warily in the rear view mirror.

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