On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when I was eight years old, my parents took Charlie and me to New York City to see the wicker angels and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, to walk through St. Patrick's across the street, and see if any of the stores on Fifth Avenue still put up their ornate window displays for the impending solstice. This is a ritual pilgrimage of many a Gentile at the holidays, and the mixture of these elements - sacred and secular - are the foreground to the dark, gothic city of my childhood's memory - a city covered in a grime now long since vanished.
It was a mild, overcast day. All of our visits to the city round the holidays back then are thrown together in my mind, so there is nothing unique I recall about the tourist ring in midtown that day. In St. Pat's I had already learned to look up for the Cardinal's red, tasseled caps hung from far above the High Altar. I was trained as a Jets fan to think about things that weren't there any more, like Cardinals, like wins. In a photo, Charlie looks at the giant tree from Dad's shoulders. All the windows from Bergdorf's and Altman's and Gimbel's are today gone because Bergdorf's, Altman's, and Gimbel's are themselves long gone. But their windows were once busy with an old miniatures and figures running on nothing more than gear boxes and ball bearings. Even without the contemporary urge to dazzle with digital effects, a motorized display of the "Night Before Christmas," with its decades-old fat, nighttime intruder being discovered by the poet still possessed a simultaneous ability to dazzle and make one feel uneasy. Such are the holidays.
Naturally, I do remember the day more specifically for what developed over its course - something more sacred to a fanatical boy. The Jets were hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at Shea for an early afternoon game. The Curtain, Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco, Rocky, Mel Blount, Ham and Lambert. The whole bag of hammers. This football season had been a first lesson in acceptance, most specifically because Dad had given up the season tickets the year before. I know he's tired of hearing about that; it has been 32 years now. At eight, I was a little angry at not seeing the Steelers ingest my team. I mean, I had seen the Steelers do it two years before, but there was nothing that could replace seeing my hapless 2-8 team, no matter how many times you saw them. They needed me. They needed every witness to their destruction.
Something else must have been amiss in me. The day before I had some kind of terrible argument with Jake Walsh, my neighborhood nemesis. I was always a little too slow, a little less big and formidable compared with Jake, yet he clearly thought that I was the person he needed to push to the limit of his senses. Who knows what lurked in his mind. I must have been an itch to feverishly scratch. I was an agitated, self-conscious, obsessive-compulsive. For an ambitious, pampered and competitive child, Jake must have seen me like a hobby. Like Albee's George and Martha, Jake and I beat up and taunted one another, and I usually came up on the losing end. I simply could not compete. Jake had variety bag of favorite football teams, depending on their record. I had one team, one focus and fascination. The purity of such an attachment to a losing cause must have made me as vulnerable to him as the newly awakened Gregor Samsa on his back, twitching and aching in vain to turn himself onto his little six legs. It smelled of weakness.
Of course, the season had been like that for my real doppelganger. The Jets may have beaten the Patriots at home on a last second Pat Leahy kick, but there were just too many problems for an acutely young team with many longtime veterans of many losing seasons. Things would get better, but not this year. It's just the way things are. I looked at the walls and windows of buildings in New York that were beaten by time and decay, and asked why things looked so bad. Dad said, "Just the way things are, Marty." There were lots of reasons, but no matter how you looked at it, Dad wasn't lying. Things are the way they are. Never mind the way they ought to be. What was was. All you could change was yourself.
So it looked that way as the game began. It wouldn't change by its end, but then one brief glimmer can cast a long-lasting spell. Such would this day proceed....
(To be continued)