I Suck at Football: Inebriates of the Air
Big week this week for my first-ever fantasy football team, the Lords Disick, which is remarkable because the Lords Disick are a terrible team. I’ve never been in an auction draft before and I blew all my fake money in the first two or three rounds and spent the rest of the draft picking up whatever players could be had for the peanuts I had left. Here is how well that process worked out: At one point I took a $2 flier on Tim Tebow, a young man I expect big things from this season. And yet because of math or cosmic storms or some other fantasy-impacting factors I won’t pretend to understand, I did actually win my matchup this week. I had Marshawn Lynch, and my sentimental investment in the Bengals D-line (also a bargain in the auction, believe it or not) ended up paying off, and the Lords Disick beat my colleague Daniel Bernoulli’s team, 76-67.
“I can’t believe I lost to your shitty team,” Bernoulli e-mails me on Monday night.
I write back: “The Lords would not be the Lords if we did not win based on something other than merit.”
I spend the afternoon before the Bengals play the Steelers on Monday Night Football alone at a driving range in South Pasadena, hitting golf balls into the setting sun. I’m no good at it. I always try to put as much space as possible between myself and whoever else is hitting that day so that my bad body mechanics won’t bum them out. I buy a bucket of balls and stand there whacking them into the distance — or the middle distance, anyway — until the bucket’s as empty as my mind. There’s a kind of meditative aspect to repetitive physical activity like this, and the glare of the sun blinds me to my surroundings. It’s just me and the ball and a driver I don’t quite know how to swing right, because I’ve only ever played on a par-3 course and you don’t use anything heavier than a 9-iron out there — it’s too much power. You’d hit everything over the fence, into the L.A. River.
At some point I start thinking about the upcoming game, and that leads to me saying the name “Andy Dalton” under my breath, and that leads to me making it a part of the ritual of hitting the balls: “Annnnndy [THWACK] DALTON!” Which is an absurd thing to be doing — it’s like shouting “Roy Scheider!” while you’re making love — but the second or third time I do it, the ball goes farther than it has all afternoon, past the 150-foot marker, and I suddenly feel like I’ve tapped into some mystical energy. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.
I didn’t set foot on a driving range for the first time until I was 28, and after the first time I think I avoided them on purpose. I was living in New York but I had come to California to do a story about these two guys who co-starred in a surfing documentary in the late ’60s, and about where their lives had taken them since then. The director of the movie wasn’t talking. Things weren’t going well for him. People said his wife was ill. They told me all the director did was sit up in his house watching the Speed Channel. But I’d found both of the surfers, who no longer spoke to each other but lived about an hour apart on the South Coast, and they’d both agreed to talk to me.
Or that was what I thought, anyway. The first guy I talked to, the guy who lived in Huntington Beach, was really nice. But when I went to meet the other guy in Oceanside things went awry fast. He didn’t want to tell the old sea stories. He was writing his autobiography, he said — it was all going to be in there. Then he asked if we’d be willing to pay him for his recollections. I told him the magazine didn’t pay people to be interviewed. “But you’re employed, right?” he asked me. “You got a MasterCard?”
All this went down on the front lawn of the surfer’s friend’s house. The surfer was dressed real cool, like an old-time South Beach hood. Flowered silk sport shirt, sharp slacks, pointy woven shoes. His top lip curled over some missing teeth. His friend took me aside, apologized, and said the surfer was on some new medication, that he wasn’t normally this loopy. I don’t know how loopy he actually was, though. I think he figured anyone he could intimidate was a waste of time to talk to. I think he could see how intimidated I was. I think he was testing my pain threshold as an interviewer, which back then was nonexistent. I’d been writing for a few years by then but I was used to having interviews plated and served to me by helpful publicists. I didn’t know how to push back when pushed.
At any rate, the surfer said, he couldn’t do the interview here. If we were going to do it we should do it out at the driving range. So we drove there. The surfer parked his Mercedes diagonally across two spaces. I bought him an $11 bucket of balls. It was a crisp day, the air temperature just a few degrees below perfect. The surfer told me he’d been golfing much longer than he’d been surfing. He walked stiffly, but on the range you could see muscle memory grabbing the wheel. He let his arms hang gently, swung easy through the ball.
His mood improved almost immediately once we got out there, but the interview didn’t go much better. I asked him the things I’d written down to ask him, and recorded whatever he felt like saying in response. Mostly I remember him trying to nail the guy driving the ball-return cart — cackling every time a ball clanged off that guy’s little cage — and answering my questions with questions I didn’t really know how to answer, like, “You ever get down in the rough areas of New York?”
I should have stuck around a few more days in hopes of catching him on a more amenable chemical updraft. Instead I flew home and failed rather dramatically to finish the piece. I blamed it on this obstinate old fucker and his useless meandering non-quotes. But the truth was I was new in my magazine job and too terrified of making a mistake to get off the blocks with this story. Back then I didn’t know what to do if a story didn’t just pour out of me perfectly onto the page. I hadn’t learned yet that the most important thing about writing anything is just writing the garbage version of that thing, the one that’s so bad it will make everyone hate you. And I still struggle every day to make myself do that. But at least now I know it’s what I’m supposed to do.
I wrote the opening paragraph of the surfer story a thousand times. I wrote the opening sentence a thousand times. There’s a folder on my old hard drive from the period I spent writing the surfer story. It contains at least ten Word documents consisting of nothing but false starts, plus one file that’s just the text of the Emily Dickinson poem “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” the one where the second stanza is “Inebriate of air am I / And Debauchee of Dew.” I don’t know why that’s in there; maybe I was going to try opening with a Dickinson epigram at one point. I tried everything.
I spent six months in a flat spin before dumping the story and walking away with my confidence destroyed. I don’t know how good a story it would have been if I’d ever finished it. I only feel bad about it because the other guy I talked to had been really open and generous. He’d really let me in. He had a little workroom at a custom-surfboard factory in Huntington Beach. Almost every day, he’d come in there, tune the radio to the jazz station or find a golf tournament on the crappy TV in the corner, and walk endless circles around a slab of foam, slowly carving and planing and air-gunning away everything that wasn’t a surfboard. He joked that he was the least productive of the five shapers who worked there. “They call me Juan,” he said, “because I only do juan a day.” But he’d shaped his 32,000th board that previous summer. It seemed like a good life.
He had a daughter and was in the process of obtaining custody. She lived down in Costa Rica. He showed me pictures of her — a little girl with his exact nose, rocking out with a Discman in her hand, jumping around in the ocean. When I went to his place for dinner he showed me the little bedroom he already had set up for her, the little twin-size bed. I remember understanding in that moment that I’d seen the key to who this guy was. I knew all I had to do to write the piece was make my way from the opening sentence to the image of that little bed, and the hope it represented. But somehow I could never get there.
The Bengals beat the Steelers, 20-10, and I witness the greatest eighty-sixing I’ve ever seen in my life as a bargoer. Sometime during the first quarter I hear one of the bartenders at Ye Rustic telling somebody they’re cut off, that they’ve had enough. It’s a little after 6 p.m. The people he’s cutting off are a couple in their thirties, after-workish and unremarkable-looking until you look closer and realize how thunderously wasted they both are. The woman looks like the second panel of R. Crumb’s “STONED AGIN!” and the guy’s moving his jaw around like he’s making a concerted effort not to make a drunk face. He keeps calling her his “girl,” as in “No one’s going to talk to my girl that way.” I’m thinking them getting cut off is the end of something, but it’s only the beginning.
They have a card down, and when they go to settle up there’s not enough money on the card to cover their $95 tab. The bartender won’t give them their card back until they produce some other form of payment, and man does this ever become a point of contention. At some point I hear the woman say the words “You think you’re the boss of me?” to the bartender, which is not a rhetorical question you hear uttered by people who are on the road to winning an argument. The ATM in the back of the bar is out of cash, the guy says, so it’s really the bar’s fault. Besides, it’s ridiculous that the card’s being declined, he says: “Our card has, like, $160 on it.”
Chances are you’ve seen drunk couples fighting in bars. You’ve maybe been in one of those couples, at least once, or a hundred times. But a drunk couple forming a united front to fight the bar itself is a whole different thing. All bets are off. They take turns drunkenly defending each other’s honor. They’re slurring and cursing and making demands. It’s a mess. Eventually the guy calls the bank and finds out they’re overdrawn. “We have zero funds,” he keeps telling his girl, who doesn’t take this as the cue to what it’s supposed to be. She’s still getting into it with the bartenders. She’s been coming here for years and she’s never been treated like this.
There’s this move you see guys do sometimes, out in the drinking world. My friend Niels Bohr, who identified and named it, calls it the Shut the Fuck Up Hug. It’s where a guy grabs an upset girl in an embrace that’s about 80 percent headlock, puts his face near her ear, and tells her in so many words that she needs to be quiet now, usually through clenched teeth. You saw Ronnie do it to Sammi a lot on Jersey Shore. Tonight, as the bar tab controversy rages on, Zero Funds gives Not the Boss of Me a vintage, vintage Shut the Fuck Up Hug. It’s almost glorious.
I almost miss Giovani Bernard doing a John Cleese goose-step into the end zone on a 27-yard touchdown because I’m so busy watching all this go down. And look: If your personal fortune totals less than $200, maybe drink at home until things pick up. But what gets to me is that this isn’t a couple of Charles Bukowski characters I’m looking at. I’m seeing them at their worst, but they’re regular people, by which I mean that they look like me. Who knows how they were before they came in here? Generally speaking, we’re always closer than we think we are to our worst night. Anything can bring you low, turn you desperate. One little thing going wrong can be the stray bullet that drains the gas tank. You’re naïve if you don’t see that.