In the late summer of 1976, my family traveled up to Massachusetts to see my uncle and his family. It was always an epic journey. To a seven-year old, three hours in the car was longer than a movie, longer than a nap. It was ten Saturday morning cartoons. It was as long as a football game. As we got on the road, my mother told my father to pull over and let me go into the local shop so that I could buy something for me and my brother to read on the trip.
This shop sold both candy and cigars, and it smelled primarily of the latter. There was a soda fountain and a counter with revolving stools. The man working behind it seemed ancient and leather-faced. I loved it. I always knew as I walked in that I had entered the relic of a world nearly forgotten. Nothing looked like this anymore. There had been the 5 & 10 on the main avenue, with its wooden floors and large bins of inexpensive crap for sale, but it had been turned into a modernized Woolworth's and Woolco, minus the lunch counter. Our "candy store" in North Merrick, Long Island was a window into the kind of world in Queens where Dad and his brother had once worked as soda jerks, whatever that meant. The sign above the entrance to the store was bounded by the Coca Cola signs that suggested that you "Drink" not "Enjoy" the product in question. I loved any excuse to be there. Born as I was immediately in the wake of the Jets' past glories, I was in love with things that I had just missed and would probably not appear again.
Mom and Dad were waiting in the car, so I couldn't browse. I brought Charlie in with me, and I might have asked what he wanted to read. More likely not. He was four. I didn't know what he wanted to read. I looked at the myriad of magazines on a rack that definitely didn't stand at children's eye level. There may have been a prohibition against my buying another comic book. I had already put together a rather formidable collection. Sometimes when Dad and I would go into the candy store after Mass on Sunday, I would ask for a copy of Sports Illustrated. With that in mind, I took the couple of dollars my parents gave me and bought the August 30th issue, with Reggie Jackson on the cover.
Actually, I bought two. One for me and one for Charlie. I thought very literally, just as any knuckle-headed big brother would - one who had yet to recognize his sibling was a separate human being with a mind of his own. The leather-faced, lifetime filterless smoker behind the counter rang us up without a single change of expression. Why was a little boy buying two copies of the same magazine? The man was like the character of that Hemingway story who intones, Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. A boy with a similarly dressed smaller one in tow buys two issues of the same Sports Illustrated with Reggie Jackson on the cover. Give us this nada our daily nada...
Back in the car, Mom was horrified that I bought two identical copies. Dad laughed. I didn't understand what the problem was. Two were better than one. That's why there were two of us, me and Charlie. I didn't get it. This was an issue with Reggie Jackson on the cover. Former MVP. Former angry A. Reggie. I didn't even have a particular attachment to him, but I knew he was probably as important as the Fonz. Certainly more important than Gerald Ford. And now apparently until the end of time, Reggie Jackson was a Baltimore Oriole.
A what? An Oriole? That's right, citizens. You may not know/remember/care, but before he came to the New York Yankees, thereby forcing me to endure four years of a jealous Met fan's indignation, the A's traded Reggie Jackson to the Orioles. At the time I didn't know about his attitude toward Baltimore. He was previously the subject of large-print grade school biographies that I got out of the school library. I didn't read the small print of a major magazine. Back then, SI was still written somewhere at a junior high level. I looked at the pictures.
Had I read the article, I might have discovered why he would eventually move on to the Yankees. Once you're passed the surprise that Reggie even played for the Orioles, you're less surprised that he never wanted to be there. He held out at the beginning of the season and played poorly up to the All-Star Break. He would play out a season there and raise his numbers high enough to make himself tantalizing to the free agent market. He wanted, as he says in the article, to "go to a place with a liberal attitude." Interestingly enough, he specifically eliminated both the Mets and the Dodgers "because they emphasize organization over individuality." For a Mets fan this is hilarious to consider, especially when the Mets of the late 70's were so consistently bad. It's impossible to imagine their possessing a concrete organization of any kind, except for Tom Seaver, whose days on the team were numbered. Did Jackson consider staying in Baltimore in 1976? In the article, this remains inconclusive. We'll see, he seems to say. Right.
I have a slightly older friend who's a lifetime Orioles fan, one for whom the 70's were a time he recalls being filled with constantly great expectation. But when I ask him about Reggie Jackson in Baltimore, he replies with a shrug that conceals a slightly perceptible sense of hurt and shame. It hurt to know that Jackson didn't want to play there, so much so that the fans made him feel even less welcome after his initial holdout. This then only intensified Jackson's urge to get out of town and take off for somewhere like the Bronx. My friend didn't say it, but I recognize a fan's wounded pride. Before Gary Carter came to the Mets, the path to Flushing apparently seemed appealing only to the dour, stony-faced and grim George Foster, or the perennially frustrating Dave Kingman. Likewise, the Jets never got free agents. This feeling of being undeserving was like a sense memory, a Jungian archtype built into the subconscious of fan a former AFL team in a city where the Giants once played in Yankee Stadium.
Thus I was familiar with this feeling undeserving apprehension, even before Brett Favre - at the conclusion of his first Jets press conference - answered the question of whether or not he'll stay another season in New York with a lukewarm and hesitant, "We'll see."
We'll see. It's what Dad said when I asked if we would be going to anymore Jets games after he gave up his season tickets. It's what I say to kids when they ask if they can watch the film versions of the books we read in class. It's what I fruitlessly say to my wife when she says we need to get three dogs someday. Already feeling undeserving, I want to approach this season with the naivete of the boy who doesn't read the fine print. But one's own experience is unavoidable. When Favre moves his arm around, speaks of its feeling "tired," reminding everyone he's 38, he seems almost to be metaphorically looking at his watch. Like a one-time chronic mercy date and third wheel, I read such signs with an instinctive suspicion and paranoia. It's not just that it's getting late; it's just that he's got somewhere else he'd rather be.