Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Strong Island

After free agency, the next modern development in my life was Disco. Someone decided that the Hustle would be good exercise for gym class in the third grade. Conjure the sight of 50 small children in their gym clothes doing the modified two-step in rigid syncopation.
From somewhere out there on the seedy streets of the distant city, a Disco inferno began consuming the decent homes and families of the South Shore, and people weren't happy about it.

My friend Jake Walsh convinced Terry Corriccio and me to perform the Disco Robot to “Jive Talkin,’” for a school talent show (we had first seen it done on Dance Fever, hosted by the great Danny Terreo). We placed third. This was still innocuous until Jake underestimated the community’s resistance to the changing times when he and his fellow scouts performed “YMCA” in full regalia of the Village People during the den’s “Gong Show.”
They were immediately gonged by the Den Father.

“Sorry about that, boys,” said the corpulent man in a plaid shirt. “That song's about fairies meeting at the Y.” He returned to his seat. “That’s not what the scouts are about.”

So it seemed. Being manly was important on the South Shore, and there was anxiety everywhere about not being manly enough. Even Mom was beginning to worry about me, what with my obsessive love of football players. My parents talked about that over dinner. My father tried to be sensible with her. Mom tried to be discreet.

"You don't think he's G-A-Y, do you?" she asked.

"What?" Dad asked. "He's...what? Are you asking if he's happy? Ask him."

"No, you know." She made some kind of hand gesture.

“Don’t be silly,” I overheard Dad say about me, “I say to myself that he can’t be G-A-Y because he loves football.” They gave me enough credit to think I was already forming attachments, but wouldn't I at least have known how to spell a three letter word?

“Well, when Rosey Grier says it‘s alright to cry, I start top wonder about Rosey Grier myself,” my mother suggested.

“Roosevelt Grier?” my father corrected. Rosey was a staple of everyday American life at that time. Dad remembered Rosey from early precocious days as a Giants fan, in the days when men were men. "Rosey was crying? Why was he crying? What happened?”

"What do you mean what happened?"

"Well,...are we talking about Rosey Grier who played for the Giants?"

“I know who Rosey Grier is, Charles. I used to go to Giants games with Carl Smith before you and I got married.”

There was a pause. “You went to Giants games with Carl Smith?”

She nodded. “I didn’t like him,” she explained. “I was just being polite.” This was still not enough information. After a moment, she said, “He had very dirty fingernails.”

"Carl or Rosey?"


The New York football Giants always activated a little jealousy in Dad. He had come to associate their uniforms with the Episcopalian Blue Bloods who owned the company for which he worked. What did Carl Smith have that Dad didn’t? Dirty fingernails, apparently.

He changed the subject. “So what’s Rosey crying about?”

Mom made a dismissive sound. “He wasn’t crying. 'It‘s Alright to Cry’ is a song he sang on Free to Be You and Me. You’re not a mother. You don't know about these things.”

This was OK, then. “Well, Rosey Grier’s not g-a-y, though,” Dad insisted.

“OK, fine, he’s not g-a-y, Charles,” she said impatiently. “After all, he played for the Giants.”

Machismo was going through some redefinitions in the late 1970's that made male identity a bit...hmm, complicated.
But still, surreptitiously spelled words were not the fashion outside house. Things were a bit more cut and dry on the surface on Long Island. You were a fag, a homo, a sissy when you expressed yourself. Homophobia wasn't special to the Island, but the virile competitiveness throughout its culture was special in it own way. There were fights among boys that likely had their origins in the struggle among parents to accumulate the largest televisions, boats and cars - anything that expressed class superiority in a strictly middle class world. Nassau County was filled with people staying right where they were.

No wonder the boys at recess always tried to kill one another. They were learning to be fierce residents of the Strong Island. This certainly made my life more complicated, and manliness was already complicated by the fact that the very same people who sang "Macho Man" were also flamboyantly gay. If this is not proof that no one in the world who can make you gay, then I don't know what to tell you.

As it was, I had already decided to be honorably loyal to a losing cause. I was a Jets fan. This was a much graver vulnerability, and who the hell respected that? Not Jake Walsh.

No friend better represented Long Island than Jake. We were the same height and build, about as bright in school, and both in love with football. But while I saw a friend in Jake, he saw a competitor in me. He could have chosen anyone else, but he chose me perhaps because I was there. I felt the sting of this one autumn afternoon when he tripped me, and I fell onto the scaly, uneven sidewalk of Merrick Avenue. I was 8 now, on my way with Terry Corriccio, Eddie O’Fallon and Jake to the delicatessen to buy the latest round of football cards. Suddenly, I was on the ground, bleeding through the knee patch my mother had ironed over the hole in my Toughskins.

“You’re a loser,” Jake said, looking down. Terry laughed obligingly.

Rosie Grier had size and muscle. No matter what his assurances to the contrary, it was already inadvisable for boys in middle childhood to cry. I had cried after getting hurt once in front of Jake Walsh’s dad, who told me that “Girls cry, Marty.” Terry Corriccio’s dad was a fireman, so I assumed that Terry and his dad didn’t cry either. I held back as long as I could, but it was the trickery and mockery that hurt, so the font opened up. I had never experienced ambushes from mean older siblings the way Jake, Terry and Eddie might have, so there was no preparation. It got the sad out of you.

My tears only delighted Terry and Jake even more; each of them with their matching freckled faces looked like a pair of Dennis the Menaces. Then they marched together to the deli. Eddie O’Fallon quietly helped me up, and we slowly entered the store. The deli clerk observed my knee and asked if I needed help. Looking at Jake, I realized what to say.

“I’m OK,” I said.

We didn’t wait long to open the cards outside. It was too important. It had been two weeks since the last batch when I had gotten the Redskins’ Chris Hamburger, the Bills’ Reggie MacKenzie, and St. Louis’ Mel Gray. This time, while Jake got a Roger Staubach, Eddie got a Franco Harris (and an Ed Podolak), Terry got (crème de la crème) Walter Payton, I managed only a Ray Easterling, a Rufus Mayes (I had doubles of him already, and his 1973 card of him) a John James, a John Hill, a Bob Kowalkowski, an Eric Torkelson, and a Horst Muhlmann.

You might find some of those names in the sampling below. But who remembers Bob Kowalkowski today? Probably a lonely grown man who is reexaming his childhood, his love of his football team and the Detroit Lions of the late 1970's. Someone who keeps an obsessively detailed and verbose blog on growing up a Lions fan. Someone who associates Bob Kowalkowski with some trauma from his childhood. But with little boys, it's the big names that carry real currency.
I was mocked, again. Not only was I clumsy when pushed to the ground, but I hadn’t even managed a single All-Pro player. What was I supposed to do? What could I do? Trade an Easterling, a Mayes (Eddie had doubles of him already, too) and a Torkelson for a Staubach? Somehow I sensed it was my own fault.

Jake spat it out with a laugh: “You got shit.”

On the way back home, Eddie offered a consoling hand on my shoulder. “Thorry,” he said, lisping between the space left from his perennially missing front teeth, “Even if I had had doubleth of Payton, I would’ve kept him.” Eddie understood the value of football cards as currency.

But I was always inclined to take these things to the extreme. When I finally got Walter Payton weeks later, I put his card in the cubby space beneath my desk in class for safe keeping. Even in the third grade, I was already showing the signs of my compulsiveness through a hording problem. Where other compulsives may look at their world with the idea that everything has its specific place, mine was already developing into a world organized among infinite piles. Nothing fit easily in the cubby under my school desk because I had already jammed everything in there. Yet the compulsive’s piles can develop into vortexes where objects are transported into an entirely new dimension. Thus, I lost Walter Payton.

I lost Walter Payton. When I get to the afterlife, I will probably be handed objects irreparably lost to me in this life – that great mix tape stolen out of my car during grad school, a turtleneck sweater left behind after a drunken night at Madison Square Garden, and certainly the 1977 All-Pro Topps of Walter Payton that vanished in the pile under my desk in third grade. Sweetness himself may hand it to me with his characteristic smile. What the hell were you thinking? he’ll ask.

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