Sports bars suck. Apart from the tendon-enriched chicken wings, nationwide they share debilitating acoustics, antiseptic interior design, and wait staff with an alarming incapacity for both basic eye contact and overall human connection.
Nevertheless, I went to one two Sundays ago for the first time in years. Peyton Manning was playing in Baltimore, and, more irritable than usual, I felt that I just couldn’t bear the network commercials. I also wanted to be around people, lots of people, to try to get into the flow of American life. The violence in our country had broken my spirit, and, despite the tawdriest of seasons in NFL history, I found myself needing football. Even knowing that Roger Goodell & Co. take that need to the bank, even knowing Goodell’s Putin eyes relentlessly identify our neediness, I went.
I found myself needing football
My original intent was to go to the actual game against Denver. I don’t buy on the Internet anymore because I’d rather look a guy who is robbing me blind straight in the eye. I wandered around Ravens Stadium’s scalper area hoping for a single seat at a price that my wife wouldn’t have apoplexy about later that evening. After half an hour, I was thoroughly spooked by the undeniably john-like flirtations with men of such extraordinary girth that they could only be undercover cops or petty criminals.
Then I remembered my sports bar days in New York a decade or so ago, meeting down at The Riviera Cafe with Baltimore transplants. We came to watch Kyle Boller invent new and acrobatic ways of tripping over his own feet and to marvel at Brian Billick twisting his face into grimaces that even the great facial contortionist Javier Bardem could not summon. I learned there the difference between sports bars and real bars: sports bars fostered collegiality instead of camaraderie, chatter not conversation, and proper distance over heartfelt sociability.
But this day even a sports bar would suffice for a bar romantic. I stopped to ask a group of tailgaters in the shadows of Ravens Stadium where the nearest one was. They were all drunk at noon, but still managed to grasp the absurdity of the question before I did. It took the portly wife of a guy decked head to boot in purple to pity me. She encouraged her husband to direct me to a place within walking distance of the stadium. I clenched my fists when I heard them imitating my question as I walked away. Passing two girls who were managing to stoop, de-thong, urinate, drink beer, chatter, and gesticulate all at once, I felt the inevitable compulsion to make the Sign of the Cross.
But as I approached the bar, two vivid memories banished the vision of those purple thongs. One was from the Riviera Cafe; the other was from the reading room in the New York Public Library; together they helped get me back into that American flow.
The first occurred on Dec. 19, 2004. Ray Lewis was at the pinnacle of his masterful middle linebacking career, and there was no Karpov-Kasparov match as enthralling as watching Ray Ray and Peyton Manning, the Colts’ grandmaster (I shall never name their city), stare at one another, smirk at one another, point at one another, and try to predict each other’s spot the field over and over all afternoon long. Baltimore always lost to Peyton, and Ray usually wore a look of resignation on his face as the fourth quarter ticked away. But Ray was everywhere that day, and as I watched him and Manning embrace at the end of the game, I could tell from Manning’s face that he considered Ray the baddest of men.
Around that time, I read for the first time “A Fan’s Notes,” by the late Frederick Exley. To get the book, I passed through the great ritual of the New York Library: print the book’s ticker, hand it to a devastatingly bookish attendant, wait and watch for the ticker number on a screen above the desk, and then walk up and try, fruitlessly, to establish some human connection with the attendant.
That day I walked past the rows of long tables populated by intent readers and crazed readers and a few crazy men staring at all the readers, and sat in at the last table on the end, always on the end. And I didn’t get up until Fred gives me his final word. I had never done that, and haven’t since – ignoring bodily needs and back pain and not even buying a coffee while I devoured an entire book at one sitting. I had lost myself in Fred’s descriptions of going to the Polo Grounds to watch the Giants, of the precision of the G-Men’s virtuoso defense, and of his admiration, not envy, for the golden boy Frank Gifford. Fred (if you have read the book, you understand why it is so easy to call him Fred; if you haven’t you will) redeems his alcoholism, brawling, hospitalizations, and misogyny with stunning self-evisceration, lovely sentences, and wit.
In a keen description of the singular reward of being a fan, Fred wrote:
“The nightmare of the week was over .... Why did football bring me so to life? …. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection ….There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity …. Whatever it was, I gave myself to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.”
Fred felt that aliveness most acutely when he watched halfback Frank Gifford, his favorite player and former classmate at USC:
“I told her how I had one each lonely Sunday to the Polo Grounds where Gifford, when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion that I could escape the bleak anonymity of life.”
Sundays bore grace; Gifford brought grace; the idea of being a part of a team, however removed and drab the sports bar was, bestowed grace upon Fred.
Ray Lewis has long been my Gifford, my distant connection to a rare, acute, unstoppable and unquestionable life force. Instead of watching the fate of the ball on each play, I usually watch Ray, trying to guess along with him where the ball will end up. His savvy, spirit, tenacity, and leadership diminish technology itself. He comes through the screen and for three hours makes you feel more alive. Some can’t stand his bombast – the dance, the pre-game woofing, the touch the sky celebration after making a tackle 5 yards past the line of scrimmage – but the life force, that is undeniable even to my Pittsburgh acquaintances.
Recently a friend, knowing my fascination with Ray’s energy, urged me to read the book “Flow” by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I began it half-heartedly, for I initially associated it with other books I couldn’t get in the flow of: “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Blink,” etc. etc. The time for self-improvement feels long past. But my buddy explicitly made the connection between the book and Ray, so I persevered. And the book struck me as spot on, not least for explaining to me Ray Lewis the football maniac. I realized that Ray, like Gifford for Fred, helped me approximate, and strive to emulate, what C (can’t type that name twice) describes as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” That is flow, and Ray flows springtime Rocky Mountain river hard. And once in a while, as a fan, you can just go along for the ride.
As I sat watching the Ravens muck it up against the Broncos, as Joe Flacco brought back visions of Kyle Boller’s clumsiness, as John Harbaugh’s countenance and gestures recalled the flabbergasted Brian Billick, I sipped a pint watching intently for glimpses of Ray, for a brief vision of some sort of sense on the sideline. We are awaiting his return from a torn bicep like a child pines for Christmas, of course. And even Ray of the superhuman spirit seemed crestfallen by the Raven’s listless play. He stared distantly at the field, as if realizing that he might have been able to do something about this mess 10 years ago, but not even he, not now, could change this game. I realized this might be my last sight of him on the field in Baltimore – age 38, fading but still presentable as a linebacker, he no doubt was wondering the same thing when he looked at himself up there on the Jumbotron.
And I fondly recalled an old-timer who latched on to our group back in the Riviera Cafe in New York years before. The guy reminded me of a poor man’s Fred Exley – slurring and sloppy, he nevertheless saw it his duty to offer us lads his wisdom on topics from the war in Iraq to the best Grand Szechuan in New York. My Baltimore friends and I tolerated him at first, but quickly came to cherish him. He had left Baltimore as a young man to work at Conn Edison, as I recall, and, retired, lived alone somewhere in the Bronx. And just about every Sunday in the fall he came to The Riviera Café and give us his Ray Lewis speech, utterly incomprehensible except for every third or fourth sentence when he would say lucidly and angrily, “I don’t care about Atlanta.”
The first time I heard this speech, I thought the booze had got the best of the old-timer when he ended his soliloquy by repeating the line over and over again, “I don’t care about Atlanta.”
“What do you mean?” I asked finally.
“Those Pittsburgh guys over there,” our friend said. “Every goddamn time I go to take a leak they tell me Ray is a murderer.”
Ah yes, I realized. Super Bowl XXXIV, Jan. 31, 2000, in Atlanta. The disappearing suit, the bloody knife, the obstruction of justice plea, Ray’s out-of-court settlements with the victims’ families. That Atlanta. That unique to Baltimore I-don’t-care.
Ray the Lionhearted will go out at the very least as this: the best middle linebacker of all time and a good citizen of Baltimore. That would have been enough for Fred Exley. Back in his day Gifford could be sanctified because America was, according to my dad, a less rageful place. But times are more trying, or at least we are more aware of the tricky American reality, and a latter-day “A Fan’s Notes” with Ray replacing Gifford would fail from the start.
I went home that night and took “A Fan’s Notes” off the shelf again. Suddenly, I hated the sports bar thing less. The afternoon had indeed made me feel better, and though nothing beats a real bar and the real wisdom that can be found there, I figured I’d get the wisdom from Fred. The book more or less held up, feeling like a football version of “Mad Men,” the core themes still intriguing and the era’s color still entertaining. But something had changed, for the admiration Fred held for Frank Gifford felt dated, romanticized, even trite.
Exley swore the book was fiction, asked that it be called fantasy, but those who knew him – and there were many, from countless bars across the land where he had held court – knew he wrote the truth about himself. My father once wisely said that only Holocaust survivors and people over 65 should be allowed to write memoirs. He was right, except in the case of Fred.
For Fred’s memoir achieves exemption not just because he wrote the truth about himself, but because he did that tangentially while writing the truth more ardently about so many things American: fame, football, addiction, depression, romance, the workplace, Chicago and L.A. and New York and Miami, and, most of all, about that fading American place of shelter and escape, the bar.
Fred would not have gone to sports bars. Were he with me last Sunday more than in spirit, he would have failed to instigate a bar fight by the middle of the second quarter in the antiseptic sports bar in downtown Baltimore. I say failed, because people in sports bars are too shockingly sunny to engage in tiffs, let alone the good old, American cleansing brawls that fill Exley’s book and filled his actual drinking career.
Fred went to bars to watch games and rabidly analyze them as they played out. Fred went to the bars through snowstorms and hangovers, mental collapse and marital catastrophes, and watched his G-Men because his needy self and the culture that overwhelmed him forced him to go there to escape. He needed the G-Men and Frank Gifford, and idolized them like minor gods. And his remove allowed him to do that – the media did not report their warts, let alone their sins, and Fred could fan away in a vacuum. A truth, but not the full truth, could feed his fascination.
But I kept finding myself pitying the poor man that night. If manic and frequently institutionalized Fred found America overwhelming then, how would he ever have negotiated our culture today? What’s worse, with all his sorts of bars boarded up or rehabbed into fancy pants joints, where would he go? And what would he make of the conundrum posed by Ray?
Commissioner Putin and Co.’s milking of every last dollar from our pockets, the Saints scandal and embarrassing mishandling of its punishment, the debate over the four-game exhibition schedule or 18-game season, the concussion epidemic, a murder and a manslaughter – shamefully none of that really has a role in the diminishment of my fandom. What has is the change in me, in light of this season’s sordidness and Ray’s impending retirement, of the idea of the star athlete’s obligations to his fans, or better, to the culture that fuels his stardom.
In a little covered news event two weeks ago, Terrell Suggs, the Ravens’ great outside linebacker, turned in an arsenal of weaponry including an AK-47 as part of a temporary protective order filed by the woman whom he would marry a short time later. Suggs approximates Ray in terms of his ability to flow and the effect it can have on a fan. He is pure energy on the field, menace couched as joy. Infectious, though not quite as charismatic as Ray, Suggs has the makings of a great replacement for the Baltimore sports bar crowd seeking a bit of Sunday afternoon forgetting once Ray retires.
The news of the AK-47 jarred me most, gnawed at me after Newtown. Suggs, and Ray, and many of their teammates and their NFL colleagues in cities across America, hold more sway over the citizens of their towns than any actor or politician or rock star. They are, now more than ever, the most definitive source of cultural power.
I had mastered the clichéd response whenever my mother criticized my devotion to Ray: he was never convicted of anything, I would say; he was a bystander; look at his transformation, all he does for the community; a court of law, mom! But the night of the Denver game, I sat wondering how I would describe Ray to my kids one day. I remembered that Ray had paid some sum to the daughter of a victim as a settlement. The girl was 4 months old when her father died that night in Atlanta. And conditioned to empathy for victims of deadly violence of late, I wondered where the girl was, how she felt, whether she had ever met with Ray or whether he had ever sought her out now that she’s got to be 12 years old or so.
I picked up “A Fan’s Notes” again and re-read the ending. And, the Sunday night game in America on in the background, I sat trying to imagine the perfect ending to my feel-better day. The announcers were talking about how Victor Cruz of the Giants was becoming the lifeline for a family in Newton whose murdered son idolized Cruz. In footage from that afternoon, Cruz had on his game face, but as he showed his cleats with the boy’s name written all over them, the camera cut back to his game face, and you could see clearly that Cruz wore his game face not because of the game but because of Newtown and his sudden, overwhelming connection to it.
We seek them out for solace, before even our President and our priests
And I realized that Cruz, and Ray in spades, given his career but also his intimate knowledge of American violence, have, more than our politicians and our actors, more than NRA vice presidents and the mayor of New York City, the power to sway us, rally us, and perhaps even change us. We seek them out for solace, before even our President and our priests. Fair or not, that’s the spot the sports stars are in. They may just want to play, flow, but the terms of the contract with us who want to flow along with them have changed.
Exley’s book ends with a dream, or a nightmare. In it, he is brawling, valiantly but overmatched, with a group of young men who symbolize the entire so-called military industrial complex of his day. They are the dapper-dressed best and brightest, the ones who fit in, and Fred battles for all the misfits.
As I closed the book, I smiled. Stunning prose like Fred’s, too, could trigger flow, and I was in that zone of contentment. I settled on a dream, a fantasy, and wrote it out in my head. I turned out the light hoping to dream it. Ray retires, rests a bit, does some business deals, but returns to public life, and working closely with Commissioner Putin and the league, taps into his arsenal of vitality, fame, and flow, and, having flourished at his violent game and tasted the heartbreak of homicide way back in college when his roommate was shot dead, comes out of the tunnel back into American life and shouts and shimmies and stomps and hectors us all to change our culture of violence. I hoped I would dream that I would become more a fan of Ray’s than ever as this life force became a force for life.
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