Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A young man in Saltillo.

When I was three months into my lone and lorn season playing ball for Hector Queztacoatl Padilla—Hector Quesadilla, as he became known, and the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League (AA), a young man walked into Estadio de Beisbol de Francisco I. Maduro and said he was ready to pitch.

This was not an entirely unusual happenstance. Like a small New England factory town in the early 19th Century receiving from the raw-boned countryside boys looking for more, off of their father’s farms, away from home, young men would come to the city and walk through the strange streets of its strangeness, see its strange people, smell its strange smokestacks and see the city as it was growing, changing, heaving up in the middle and spreading, strangely—heaving and spewing and befouling the darkened skies. I, myself, had been one of those boys, filled with nothing but ambition and sinew, and hoping I could strike the ancient horsehide with ash wood and somehow make a living wearing a 24th-hand, hand-me-down of an old flannel baseball uniform.

Secundo Secundus was only 15 when he came down from the parched hills and scraggly farms and crooked villages in the low mountains outside the desert of Monterey. He stood about 6’2” tall yet weighed, after a soaking rain, well south of 130 lbs, his pants held up with an old piece of rope against his distended hips. He had left his small village in the hills and had walked to Saltillo to try out for the Seraperos. He had on his feet sandals like the Tarahumara wore, made of the worn-out treads of old tires. His glove, brown and cracked like an old slab of calf’s liver was held together by string. Secundus carried the rest of his meager belongings in a brown paper sack. The bag contained a shirt, a pair of pants and a rosary. Those were his worldly possessions.

“Uno balero,” Secundus said, and he walked to the mound to throw. “I am a fireballer.”

The brain-trust of the team, which for whatever reason I lived on the fringes of, including Gordo Batista, Guilliermo Sisto, Hector and myself, looked on at the skinny teenager on the hill and laughed. Many boys came down from the hills thinking they could throw the ball with precision and velocity. It was a way away from the crushing death in a town where nothing ever happened and nothing ever would and there was no way out.

“Let us see,” one of the old wise men said, “Let us see, Senor Balero.” Someone threw Secundus a ball, someone stepped in to catch, someone else to swat. And Secundus, all arms and legs, flailing like a broken windmill facing Quixote, wound up and flung the ball to the crouching back-stop.

“Did you see that?” Batista said to Sisto.

“Throw another,” one of the boys yelled at him.

“I will,” said Secundus, “throw it with velocidad this time.” And he leaned back until his shoulders touched almost the grass behind the mound. He turned his body toward the plate and released an overhead fastball that cracked into the mitt of the man catching.

“And do you have a bender, too?” the Quesailla cried over to him, “Tell me you have a bender to go with your balero, and I will forever go to the church near the stadium and thank god until my knees bleed.”

Secundus tucked his old glove underneath his left arm, and with both his strong hands rubbed shiny the horsehide he was holding.

“Mi serpentina,” Secundus said. And he leaned back and threw a hard overhand curve. Again, the powerful pitch eluded the batter’s swing and landed with an assertive thud into the thick leather of the catcher’s mitt.

“Una curva,” Sisto exclaimed. “A god exists in heaven”

“Mi tirabuzon,” Secundus said, motioning like his wrist was broken. “My screwball.”

“You have also una tirabuzon? How is such a bounty to be received by men as low as we are? We are not worthy of uno balero, una serpentina y su tirabuzon.”

Secundus went into his wind-up again and delivered his screwball. It crossed the plate at speed, then bent into the knees of the batter he was facing who fell backward as he swung weakly at the sphere.

Hector had seen enough and walked over to the young boy on the mound.

“You are not pitching for anyone else,” Hector asked. He did not want to get into a battle over Secundus with another team.

“I pitch against the wind in the mountains only.”

Gordo Batista, our third-string catcher, bus-driver and erstwhile equipment manager came over to the boy.

“Come, let us get our uniform. And some shoes for your feet. We will then, my son, find you a place to sleep here in Saltillo, and introduce you to the ballclub.”

The tall thin boy and the old fat catcher walked into the clubhouse. I saw Batista reach up and put his heavy arm around the fragile scapula of the young righthander.

“He will make a difference in the club,” I said to Hector, as batting and infield practice continued.

Hector kicked at the mean grass with his spiked right foot.

“I have for 200 years seen this,” Hector spat. “A boy comes down from the distance, from over where the sounds of the cicadas come, from where the breeze goes at night and the lightning bugs hold their sparkling conventions of hopes and dreams. A boy comes from a crooked-built dusty town with half-finished concrete block homes and protruding bellies next to rusted-out Fords, he comes down from those mountains, carrying in a greasy paper sack the belongings he has in the world, scared and bearing scars having never before been more than five miles or 10 from the side of his mother, who loves him and his father who beats him. I have seen this 200 times before for 200 years.”

I grabbed a Hillerich and Bradsby, a 32-ouncer and took my licks against El Pollo Loco, the crazy chicken, our batting-practice pitcher. As I sprayed the slow-pitched sphere around the outfield, Hector kept speaking.

“He will pitch for us two games, and win them both. We will be excited and be thinking of winning the championship behind his arm here and the strong wing of Orestes Puente. Then Secundus’ father and a girl, a short pretty girl with large and sad eyes who the boy does love or did, they will come down from the mountains in a rusty Ford belching blue-yellow smoke and stirring grey dust.”

I hit a line-drive hard off the maroon wooden fence in left-centerfield. The concussion echoed through the ballpark and crack crack cracked, three times with the reverb.

“You pasted that one,” Hector said. 

"It is a good feeling to paste."

I swung at Loco’s next pitch, swinging to hit the ball out of the park, and missed badly, corkscrewing myself into the dirt around the plate.

“He will pitch for us two games, and win them both,” Hector repeated. “And then his life will come down from the hills. His life will say, ‘you do not wish to leave your past and all the past that ties you to the past. You do not wish to leave your yesterday, and win baseball games in front of twenty-thousand eyes and ten-thousand cheering throats.”

Finished batting, I had walked over to stand beside Hector, and kicked at the dirt and listened.

“No, he will do as boys like him have always done. As a dozen long-limbed boys and a dozen more have always done. You will scratch at the land, and wait for the corn to grow, sad and withered and desiccated. And you will take that corn and from it, tortilla will be made and stomachs will remain half-filled with hollow maize and half-filled with sadness and hate.”

The boy was out on the field now in a uniform probal seven-sizes too big for him, but still too short in the arms. Batista had found spikes for him, probably the first shoes he had ever worn, and a new fielder’s glove, this one not held together by old, fraying rope.

Secundus went off with six or eight of the boys to play pepper.

The sun filtered through the dust of the field and the sooty smoke of the factory. The boys played their boys’ games. Playing catch, or batting at the ball, or running their loping long strides in the outfield grass.

Hector threw his arm around my shoulders. He gave me the sort of hug men who don't hug give to each other.

“This is the way that the world spins,” Hector said.

“The way the world spins,” I said.

“People enter and leave. People are born and die. People shove and get shoved. People eat and get eaten.”

I kicked again with my spikes at the dirt.

“Changing always,” he said “While never changing at all.”

He kicked again at the dust.


Howl, 2019. (With apologies to Allen Ginsburg.)

I saw the best minds of my holding company destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through conference rooms at dawn looking for an angry deck,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry job-coded machinery of commerce,
who meeting after meeting, and twelve rounds of creative to hollow-out the wit and humor and life,
sat up in the supernatural darkness of open-plan offices floating across the tops of cities contemplating noise-cancellation,

who bared their brains to Heaven and under the Sorrell, saw Wrennish angels staggering on agency roofs illuminated,
who passed through ad schools with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Cannes and Archive’d tragedy among the scholars of ads,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & human resource odes on the windows of what had been souls,
who cowered in unshaven conference rooms in ripped jeans, burning their money on useless tattoos and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their Williamsburg flats, the non-running L-train, returning through Greenpoint with a belt of quinoa for New York,
who ate kale in paint hotels or drank pinot in the Ace bar, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and two percent raises every thirty-six months.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

An IM from out of the blue.

Yesterday, I got a Facebook IM from completely out of the blue, and it really knocked me for a loop.

It was from a guy who lived down the block from me when I was growing up. It started with the words, “You probably don’t remember me.” And he was right, I didn’t.

I have a compendious memory about certain things, and a near photographic memory about many others. But much of my benighted youth I have blocked—and why wouldn’t I? Between the neglect and the beatings, there were some bad times, too.

That said, I never did drugs and was never that interested in drinking. My way of dealing with the vicissitudes of my fractured up-bringing was to stick my nose inside a book and when I wasn’t reading, I’d be out playing ball somewhere—anywhere to escape my whereabouts.

But let me put all that behind me—it’s been almost fifty years. Instead, I’ll talk about the IM that threw me.

“George,” the note began, “George, I doubt you remember me, but I lived at __________, just across the bottom of your street. I was searching for people from the old neighborhood, including Nancy. I then came across the news of her passing 11 years ago. I’m sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful friend to many of us.”

Nancy, as many of my readers know, was my baby sister, two years my junior. She died on Mother’s Day in 2007 at the age of 47. (I was about to write "the too-young age of 47," but when your sister dies, the truth is, she would always be too-young.)

Nancy had just bought a large Ducati motorcycle and early Mother’s Day morning she was driving it up 12th Avenue. A drunk ran across the road against the light, as drunks do. She swerved to avoid him and, unused to the weight and the balance of the bike, and swerving and braking quickly, the bike tumbled on top of her crushing her to death.

The police told me she died almost instantly. Her face, when I saw her at the Chief Medical Examiners looked like she'd been on the receiving end of Sonny Liston's fists.

The IM I received brought all this home to me, though to be clear, my thoughts of Nancy are never far away. In fact, when I’m at the beach, playing with Whiskey, I often sense Nancy alongside me, laughing and smiling as I do, as Whiskey gallops in the surf after her toy rubber duck.

I think about Nancy when we have big family dinners, or steaming hot soup dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai down on Pell Street. Nancy knew how to eat and like me, there was little she enjoyed more than a good Chinese meal, or my wife’s brisket with some greasy kasha varnishkas along for the ride.

I think about Nancy when I’m with my own kids, up on the Cape, and just hanging out around the house, or playing in the too-cold surf, or burning the life out of meat on the charcoal grill.

I think about Nancy when things are shitty at work. When good people and friends leave, when you feel like things are collapsing around you, or when you just feel a deficit of life and enthusiasm, and life feels like less than living.

I think about Nancy.

As the IM I received yesterday morning said, “she was a wonderful friend to many of us.”

Me, especially.