Nonfiction | December 01, 1999
A Yankees Fan in the Floating World
WHILE I WAS AWAY at college, my parents bought and sold a couple of houses and changed their address three times, covering a distance of several hundred miles. By the time I graduated and moved back in with them, they were living on the twenty-ninth floor of a high-rise in midtown Manhattan. They’d taken a two-bedroom apartment, partly because of the significant expense involved if they went for something larger, but also as if they knew in advance that once the children went off to college none of them would ever come back to stay long. Both of my brothers had a couple of years to go at school, so there was maneuvering room. We staked out territory, my father occupying my parents’ bedroom, my mother the living room, I the spare bedroom.
I had majored in English, but it turned out to be even more useful that I had excelled at typing in junior high. I landed a job as an editorial assistant at a university press and set about the business of becoming a grown-up. My two bosses treated me as if I were bright enough, one in particular reminding me that she had started off as an editorial assistant herself. They acquired books, and I typed their correspondence with a variety of authors. They had interesting jobs, but I liked it better over in copyediting, a warren where women in glasses polished text like old silver, working in the intricacies of language until they brought it to a shine. There was a woman I liked particularly, with silvery blond hair and silvery blue eyes. She lived quietly by herself on Long Island and commuted to work every day on the train. In my head, I filed her away as someone I might grow up to be much later. Meanwhile, I wasn’t staying. I took a paycheck every two weeks and put most of it away. For the moment I didn’t want to be much of anything, and couldn’t imagine that I ever would.
In April I took my first sick day to go to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. During two years of remodeling, the Yankees had shared Shea Stadium with the Mets, but now they were coming back to the Bronx. I left the apartment a little after nine. The game was a sellout, but bleacher tickets were going on sale at eleven.
The 4 train runs underground up the East Side of Manhattan and into the Bronx, but at Yankee Stadium it rises out of the tunnel onto elevated tracks. That morning we burst into sunshine, and I could look into the stadium and see the differences. The view-blocking pillars were gone, and the blue of the seats was brighter. I stood on the platform for a moment, as people swirled around me, and waited while the train pulled out and I got another view of the stadium. I could see that the old façade had been pulled down, painted white, and made into trim in the outfield. I’d been away a long time.
The grass stretched out unblemished in front of the bleachers. The fences had been pulled in; the monuments, which had been a center fielder’s nightmare, were back behind the fence. Despite the changes, however, there was more the same than different: the green grass mowed into a grid of interlocking rectangles, the foul lines and batters’ boxes lined bright white against the dirt, the large, clean diamond laid out on the ground. For the first time, I felt like I’d come home from school.
Looking at the mostly unfamiliar names on the scorecard, I found out that the new young second baseman, Willie Randolph, was three months shy of his twenty-second birthday. I was three weeks older. I sat in the bleachers, watching batting practice, watching Randolph, number 30. All my life, I’d been used to thinking of ballplayers as grownups, myself as a kid, but that afternoon in Yankee Stadium, I realized that I was catching up to them. They’d solved the mystery, it seemed to me, of how to be, stumbled into it, or looked inside themselves and found it, or been tapped on the shoulder. They were able to go forward, not just because they were good at something but because they were able to devote themselves. Years later, I’d read an interview in which Randolph said that growing up, he hadn’t been the most talented player in his neighborhood, Bushwick, in Brooklyn, but he’d been one of the few to stay with it, work at it. But that afternoon I watched Willie Randolph take ground balls and shook my head. It was too hard a puzzle for me. I was just there to watch a baseball game.
With most of my old friends still away at school, I explored relations with my fellow editorial assistants. Some of the young women I hung around with were just passing through, too, bound back to Howard or Dartmouth when their publishing internships were over. Elaine Weissberg, though, was there for the long term. Elaine was very thin and favored baggy clothes that were too young for her, like big jumpers over blouses with Peter Pan collars carefully buttoned to the neck. I hadn’t yet known anyone with the big knees of anorexics, but I suspected Elaine was hiding, or hiding something under her clothes. She lived about twenty blocks south of my parents’ apartment and had converted a closet into a darkroom. Her pictures were posted all over her walls. There was a hairstylist on Elaine’s block, and there was a particular mannequin head in the window that was always being restyled. Elaine kept tabs on the mannequin, named her Justine, and photographed her short, dark, smooth, long, blond, curly, and every permutation in between. Elaine shot in black and white and then took special crayons to her pictures, touching up the lips, or the skin, or shadowing the eyes, or leaving colored marks in places that looked random. Elaine herself never wore makeup, and her light brown hair was always blunt cut around her jaw, carefully styleless. I loved the Justine series. I didn’t quite know what Elaine was getting at with it, but I knew enough to recognize, watching Elaine with her camera, a person absorbed in her work, givig herself to it wholeheartedly. Elaine didn’t talk much about herself, but from Justine she held nothing back.
If there was anything I was capable of feeling committed to, it was the Yankees. I could bribe no one I knew into going to the stadium with me, and once a week or so, when the Yankees were home, I’d sit by myself in the upper deck, frequently, in April and early May, in two or three sweaters. I’d eat ice cream, pretending it was summer already, and watch the game play out on the field below me. If I was lonely, I didn’t know it. I watched Thurman Munson control the game from behind the plate, Billy Martin kick dirt on umpires, Catfish Hunter give up some of the biggest home runs I’d ever seen, almost always in early innings with nobody on, then settle down and make the opposition look feeble for the rest of the game. Baseball had changed in some ways from when I was a kid: they had the designated hitter in the American League; it spared fans both the spectacle of the pitcher hitting and the intricacies of baseball strategy, which I missed. It tipped the balance toward hitting, and I had always preferred a good 1-0 or 2-1 pitchers’ duel. They had divisional play, which meant a team could have the best record across the 162-game season and still not make it to the World Series. I was used to thinking of myself as a rebel, but when it came to baseball, I was a traditionalist. Fortunately, the Yankees also retained one player from my childhood, Roy White-a quick, switch-hitting outfielder with a pigeon-toed stance–and that helped ease me through the changes. Despite the alterations, baseball still rested on a foundation of well-executed fundamentals: hitting the cutoff man, taking the extra base, throwing a first strike to a hitter. I sat in the upper deck, suspended above the field, and looked down like one waiting for mysteries to be revealed.
At the beginning of September, I had enough money. I gave notice at work, bought a round-trip ticket on Icelandic Airlines where the return half would be good for a year, and invested in a warm sleeping bag and a backpack. I had thrown over a promising job, and my father refused to give his blessing to my trip, but the only thing I regretted was the Yankees, who looked like they would be winning the American League East, and possibly their first pennant since 1964. If I left town, I’d miss it, but I couldn’t hang around any longer inside my own skin. I had to get out.
Once in Europe, I traveled hard every day, as if I feared entire countries would fold up their tents and disappear before I could get there. Gradually, I slowed down. Except for minimal traveler’s talk for food, youth hostel lodgings, train schedules, I went days without saying a word to anyone. I was the only person in the girls’ side of youth hostels in some of the smaller towns in Belgium; I walked the streets wrapped in the comforting solitude that comes from knowing I’d recognize no face, no street corner, and, in the Flemish part of the country, not even a spoken word. My time was my own; I ate and slept according to my own whims, modified by the youth hostels’ rules. If I arrived somewhere and decided I didn’t like it at first or second glance, I went someplace else immediately. Every day I wandered strange cities, admiring their art, their buildings, their monuments, their town squares. I ate their food, french fries wrapped in white paper cones, crepes from a street corner, coffee in small bowls.
I never read a newspaper or listened to a radio. I wondered about the Yankees now and then, but mostly it was as if the world I had left had ceased to exist. Behind the everyday sensations, though, a kind of clock had started ticking in my head. If I’d gone to Europe to find myself, or at least someone who looked familiar, I’d better get to it.
The farther north I went, the grayer the skies became. On my last day in London, in early October, it started to rain, and it continued to rain almost every day while I made my way up through England and into Scotland. In Edinburgh, I woke up with a throat so sore I could hardly swallow, and found my way to the local hospital. The doctor checked me out, said it was just a bad cold, recommended staying indoors and drinking lots of liquids for a day or two. When I asked how to pay the bill, he explained the concept of socialized medicine. I had my thumb out again by afternoon. I felt lousy, but it was worse if I stayed in one place.
It took nearly a month to loop through Scotland, Ireland, Wales and back to London, where there was a thick packet of mail waiting for me at the American Express office. Standing there with the stack of U.S. postmarks, I suddenly realized the World Series was over. I sorted through the envelopes, finally pausing at a fat one addressed to me by my father. I slit it open, and there, neatly batched by game, continuations of articles stapled together, were three New York papers’ coverage of the 1976 World Series. The Yankees had lost to the Big Red Machine in four straight, but I read through anyway, drinking tea and trying to stay warm. One of the reporters had asked Reds manager Sparky Anderson how Thurman Munson stacked up against Johnny Bench, the Reds’ future Hall-of-Fame catcher, and Sparky had said that he wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by comparing them with Johnny Bench. But Thurm wasn’t just anyone, and I felt a wave of righteous anger on his behalf, along with something else that just might have been homesickness.
Athens was where I was when I had less than fifty dollars in my pocket, and, according to a rule I’d set myself, that was the place where I looked for work. I cashed in the return half of my plane ticket for another seventy-five dollars and tried to orient myself. In the Athens youth hostel there was another young woman about my age, with long blond hair, an unfinished MA in architecture, and a kind of grim look around the mouth. She wasn’t going home either. Margaret spoke enough Greek that we were able to negotiate ourselves a basement apartment for forty dollars a month. I got work teaching English to two little girls, six days a week after school, and she got work cleaning house for the family of an American ex-astronaut who had once walked on the moon. In that basement apartment, with linoleum covering the water-stained walls, where the toilet made such strange noises we decided it was talking and named it Theobald, we hunkered down and saved our money. If Athens wore thin after a while, it didn’t matter; it was a cheap city to live in. We devoted ourselves to small pleasures: the libaray at the Hellenic-American Center; an occasional movie; the stupid deaths and dowry scams in the Athens Daily News. We were going to travel more, as much as we wanted, and we wouldn’t go home until we were ready, whenever that was. One October afternoon a little over a year from the day I’d left, I was standing in a small shop in the Plaka, that area of old, narrow streets and shops crunched at the foot of the Acropolis. I had enough money to travel for a few more months, but I’d be going home after that. The family I was looking to buy presents for I hadn’t seen in over a year. Considering the sweaters in the store, trying to think what my two brothers, my mother and father might like, I realized I was still inside my own skin. I’d lived on my own in a foreign country, I’d walked streets I’d previously only read or dreamed about, but if those experiences had changed me in any fundamental way, I had yet to see how.
I hadn’t expected a clear signpost, but with all the time I’d had to look inward, I’d have thought I would have gotten at least a hint as to what direction to take. Instead, I was going home, as far as I could tell, almost exactly the same person I had been when I left. I had my hand on a navy-blue cable sweater that might work for my brother Mike when the language on the radio station the shopkeeper had been playing finally penetrated my consciousness. English. It was the American Armed Forces Network, broadcasting the last game of the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers. “. . . Reggie Jackson,” the announcer was saying. “Jackson has two home runs already in this game.”
I stood still, listening to the call. Then I heard the familiar “tock,” the radio-filtered sound of a bat solidly hitting a ball. Reggie Jackson had hit three home runs in one World Series game, the first time it had ever been done. I hardly thought of Reggie as a Yankee, he was such a recent acquisition, but he was wearing a Yankees uniform, and the Yankees were winning. I looked out into the winding streets of the Plaka, my head full of the buzz of a stadium crowd and the announcers’ excited voices. For the first time in a year and a half, I could hear home calling me.
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