I fly to New York with Lonely Bunny in my pocket. Lonely Bunny is one of my daughter’s finger puppets. He makes the tip of your finger look like a white rabbit popping out of a gray top hat. I document Lonely Bunny’s trip and send the pictures to my wife’s phone for my daughter to look at. It’s a thing we do. I mean, originally it was a thing my wife did when she’d travel and now I’m doing it too. Successful co-parenting is all about stealing bits from your partner. My Lonely Bunny pictures are derivative of my wife’s work, albeit more accomplished photographically. Here’s Lonely Bunny looking out the window of an airplane. Here’s Lonely Bunny having a cup of coffee. Look at that depth of field.
My first breath of New York air outside the terminal. Cold wind, cigarette smoke. This is how my vacation tastes.
I’m in New York to see Erwin Schrodinger.* He and his wife are having a kid and I want to hang out with him before that happens. But I haven’t been back to this city since we moved a year and a half ago and I’m nervous about how being here is going to affect me. My wife and Richard Feynman both said when they came back that it was almost too heavy. I decide to steer into the skid. On the first morning I’m there I take the F train out to Brooklyn so I can wander around and feel things. I’m only here for 72 hours, and if I’m going to have an emotional breakdown this weekend I want to get it out of the way before the Bengals-Ravens game on Sunday. Clock management.
Here’s Lonely Bunny descending into the Second Avenue subway station. My heart beats faster. For a few years, when I lived here, every time I rode the subway and the train would slow down or stop between stations, I’d start to have a sweaty trapped-animal panic attack, the underlying theme of which was What if I poop my pants on the train? And when I thought about that, the fear of it would make me feel like I was going to do exactly that. And so went the loop.
Don’t worry; this is not a gross story. It never actually happened. If it had, maybe I’d be sanguine about the possibility of it happening again. As it was, I lived in fear of the possibility of being what the old subway-emergency-information posters called “the sick passenger,” as in “What if you are the sick passenger?” I only recently found out that in conductor-intercom-speak, the words “sick passenger” are usually code for someone dead or injured on the train itself. And “police investigation” means someone jumped in front of the train. Think about that next time either of these things makes you late for work.
Eventually I got so I could ward off the panic when it happened. I came to understand it as a crossed wire. The fear became a pop-up window I chose to ignore. Then we moved away. But I feel it again for a second, when I step on the platform. At least now if I poop my pants Lou Reed won’t be there to see it.
I get off in Carroll Gardens and walk across the Gowanus to where we used to live. Without even consciously realizing I’m doing it, I find myself Family Circusing my way past one personal landmark after another. My first New York girlfriend’s second apartment, where she’d play Joni Mitchell in the morning and we’d argue about whether Tom Scott ruined Miles of Aisles. The brick building on the corner, now a terrible-looking wine bar, formerly Great Lakes, where she and I sat at the bar one night in March and watched “shock and awe” on the little black-and-white TV they kept around for World Series games. A bald guy a few stools away, extravagantly drunk, said this was a good start, that we should keep killing fundamentalists and not stop until we’d bombed the Buddhists. I admired the consistency of his outlook.
And then a year or two later I was walking away from her apartment with a box of my stuff. Shirts and mixtapes. The Joan Didion book I’d just given her that Christmas. Go now. I remember the Didion because — again, without even thinking about what I was doing — I grabbed it off the shelf to read on the plane when I left L.A. to come here. She’d dog-eared Page 59; I broke up with her just as Joan was explaining the subdivision and development of the Irvine ranch in Orange County.
I’m writing about all this from a place that’s not a nostalgic place, or a wistful place. Partly because contra Drizzy, everything was the same. I figured gentrifugal force would have turned this neighborhood upside down, but Park Slope is still dumpy old Park Slope, mom-jeaned and dad-jeaned, stinking of autumn ginkgo. I have to file a story for work so I sit in our old coffee shop — here is Lonely Bunny with our old coffee guy — and listen to what our old coffee guy says is his seven-hour “Art School Rock Stars” playlist.
To the extent that I experience A Moment in the course of this day, it happens during Brian Eno’s “I’ll Come Running,” but it’s not a big dam-burst of emotion. It’s an endocrine seepage of some kind. I’m just moving through the feeling, or it’s moving through me. I am the healthy passenger.
I go meet Schrodinger for dinner. We talk about what it’s like to have a kid, and once that’s out of the way we talk about concussions and Richie Incognito, the Ken Kaniff from Connecticut of the NFL. If you’ve been waiting to make up your mind about these issues until you hear what the guy who writes the column about not knowing anything about football has to say, check this out: I don’t see how it’s possible to foster a culture of merciless aggression on the field without also creating that same culture in the locker room — without first creating that culture. I think purging players of empathy is part of football the same way brain trauma is part of football. I think the idea that it’s in any way ethically defensible to allow these things to keep happening is a joke, but so is the assertion that they’re somehow anomalous or extrinsic to the way the game is played, and I think that because I’ve seen the way the game is played.
If it turns out that CTE can result from a career’s worth of little hits, Schrodinger says, if you can get it without sustaining any one major traumatic injury, it’s over. High school football ends because no school in America will dare take on that insurance risk. Same with most colleges. And it’ll persist at the pro level, but it’ll be much smaller, and to some degree it’ll be an outlaw institution like boxing, in which you as a paying spectator can’t not know you’re underwriting blood sport.
Anyway. I don’t know if he’s right. I don’t think he knows if he’s right either. The idea of football spinning away from the sun is sort of thrilling and terrifying to contemplate. Would capitalism let it happen? The idea that I started watching this sport in time to see it end as we know it is weirdly exciting.
We walk across the street to the bar and everyone I used to work with at the rock magazine is there. We drink a hundred beers. Everyone seems to be doing great. Everyone has somehow managed to carry on despite my absence. This is why “Good-bye to All That” essays about New York — which are in large part Didion’s fault, even though it wasn’t her title first, even though she rules — are the worst literary genre. New York doesn’t need anyone. It depends on a constant influx of a certain type of person, but it can absorb the loss of any single individual. That’s the way the machine is designed. It’s a power grid, not a string of Christmas lights. This is how it teaches you about your insignificance.
Some philanthropist puts all of Alien Lanes on the jukebox and we yell at each other about how good Alien Lanes is, because goddamnit Alien Lanes has actually gotten better and I can prove it using science, or so it seems by about 10 o’clock. I stand by the Skee-Ball machine and my friend Joseph von Fraunhofer plays me a voice-mail message from a famous actor known for his phone calls. The actor sounds sexily irritated in a way that’s consistent with his onscreen persona, which is all you can really hope for. I don’t remember how I got home.
Hey, football! I’m staying — again, not on purpose — less than two blocks away from a bar called Phebe’s Tavern, which is the first place that comes up when you type “best Bengals bar New York” into Google, and that’s not just good SEO. Just before kickoff, they play this Marvin Lewis speech straight into “Welcome to the Jungle.” The room is choked with orange and black, tiger-striped scarves, Ochocinco jerseys, and IF YOU DON’T BLEED BLACK AND ORANGE TAKE YOUR BITCH ASS HOME T-shirts. And man are these people amped. This city’s eternal selling point: There’s always someone else there who’s into the weird thing you’re into, someone who’s so into it you can feel safe practicing your obsession in the shadow cast by theirs.
I’m sitting there watching the game and taking notes in a notebook and a guy sits down next to me and starts watching the game and taking notes in a notebook. He’s dressed like one of the Observers from Fringe — black coat, white shirt, short-brimmed black fedora, shaved head — and I spend at least a quarter of the game trying to read over his shoulder to see if he’s Future Me writing unkind things about Andy Dalton in his Moleskine. It turns out he’s a theater actor named Monty and he’s taking notes on Spalding Gray’s Sex and Death to the Age 14. Which still somehow feels close enough to what I’m doing that it’s weird. Maybe when America stops playing football, the only thing left for me will be one-man shows.
The Ravens score early. Joe Flacco — who’s been benched as QB of the Lords Disick today because of conflict of interest — throws a more-or-less unimpeded touchdown pass to Dallas Clark, and after that the game just slips away and slips away. Greg Gumbel keeps describing plays as “nothing to write home about,” as if he imagines Dalton has a purely epistolary relationship with the city of Cincinnati. Goes through a lot of quill pens, that Dalton. And yet everyone gets more amped as the game goes south. They cheer an interception intended for A.J. Green that causes no points to be put on the board. They cheer when the Ravens challenge a call and the call stands. I’m watching with Enrico Fermi and Schrodinger. “What would all these people be doing if this didn’t exist?” Fermi asks at one point, and it seems like the only important question. Where would all this energy go?
When the Bengals do somehow manage to tie it up and take the game into overtime, the room practically detonates. A guy who has spent the afternoon addressing comments incorporating the c-word to various Bengals falls to the floor, kicking his feet in the air, his change and his phone spilling from his pockets. Being there for that moment is almost better than winning. Which is good, because we lose.
*Most people’s names, as always, have been changed to the names of famous physicists, a running gag that seemed to have infinite potential as recently as 2012.