Enrico Fermi is in town for a wedding. He has got a bunch of plans but he asks if he can watch football with me on Sunday. I tell him to meet me at 10, at Ye Rustic, my place of business. I’m there at 9:57. They’ve got the Bengals/Bills game on the TV in the back corner, the one that’s blocked by a pillar if you don’t choose your seat right. The only open seat at the bar with an unobstructed view of the TV is the one Janet saves for her plus-one, so I take a booth that’s big enough for five people.
The old jukebox is gone. The new one is a glowing LED slab bolted to the wall by the front door, one of those touchscreen models that looks like a giant Zune and beams down 3,600 new releases from Skynet every week. I haven’t checked but I’m assuming it has that feature that you can pay an extra dollar to have your song play immediately instead of waiting out the queue, an option I find ideologically repellent. I spent my 20s sitting in bars waiting for my songs to come on and so should everybody else. Letting somebody cut the line because they’ve got an extra dollar to blow is dictionary-definition antidemocratic. Might as well institute a policy that you can pay a buck to opt out of the rule about not spitting in other people’s drinks.
I was going to write about this last week, because the Patriots/Bengals game was on the TV over the new jukebox, and in between the ads for Washed Out and Miley Cyrus, the new jukebox kept showing this mini-commercial touting the reissue of Nirvana’s In Utero, which is Sad Bearded Jack Shephard’s favorite Nirvana record and mine, too. Every time I glanced away from the game I’d see flashes of Kurt Cobain grimacing into the camera in the “Heart-Shaped Box” video. I had a whole riff about Cobain’s spirit silently screaming Let me out of the classic-rock canon — or something along those lines; I never worked the premise all the way out.
Instead I ended up not writing a column at all. Well, that’s not true. I wrote approximately half a column approximately three times. I wrote about the Bengals finally putting the Patriots away with help from a rainstorm no one could resist describing as biblical, and about Tom Brady’s “No God Is Evident” face. But I’d actually left early and missed the end of the game, so I’d only seen all that stuff later, in the highlights, and it felt dishonest. It felt pro forma. I’m extremely conscious about these diaries not becoming me checking beats off a list: highbrow reference, movie reference, hip-hop reference, drunk-people-do-the-darndest things anecdote, Yo Mama joke except about Andy Dalton, regurgitated stat, joke about TV commercial, half-assed and/or overly tidy philosophical epiphany, awesome YouTube clip, hit “Send.”
And trust me when I say that version of the column isn’t any easier or faster to write than the good ones are. Instead I’m going to find the most embarrassing possible way to talk about this football game.
In the second quarter, Dalton passes the ball to Giovani Bernard — casually, the way you toss somebody the keys to a rented Camry — and Bernard tumbles through the Bills line and into the end zone like he’s dancing around lasers toward a fist-size emerald on a pedestal. I’m in my big empty booth, about to start eating my Ye Rustic breakfast burrito, which I prefer to eat when no one I know is watching. Then a woman in an orange Broncos shirt appears and asks me if she and the guy she’s with can share my booth. The bar’s filling up, and I’m starting to feel self-conscious about being a one-man Occupy a Four-Top movement. Sure, I say. I explain that I’m waiting for Enrico Fermi but they’re welcome to use the rest of the booth.
The woman’s name is Emily; the guy is Fernando. Fernando’s wearing a Packers T-shirt. He’s trying to watch the Packers/Ravens game, but it turns out this is the exact worst place in this bar to watch that game from, because from where we’re sitting the beer taps block the screen. It’s like watching the Bud Bowl.
Fernando sees me staring, tense and struggle-faced, at my game, and asks me if I’m rooting for the Bills. “Bengals,” I say. I guess I say it sheepishly, because Fernando says, “They look good,” immediately and encouragingly. “Yeah,” I say. “We’ll find a way to disappoint, though.” It’s now what I always say when someone tells me this; at this point it’s practically automatic, like a conversational “away” message. I have about 90 seconds of football-related small talk in me and once I burn through that material I start to panic about being found out as a fraud and pretend to suddenly be busy with my phone.
I’m a journalist who hates talking to people. That’s the pathetic truth about me. All the quotes in these columns are real, but I don’t get them by interacting with other humans. I sit there and I don’t talk and I listen to other people talk, like a creep, and I furtively write down what people are saying, and then I spin it into a narrative that makes it sound like these people are my peers, my peeps, when really I’m treating them like they’re as unreal as the action up there onscreen, like they’re not even characters but extras, put on Earth simply to illuminate some dumb point I have to make about how rich and complex my own experience of a Sunday football game is.
Writers are terrible people, in the sense that we’re often terrible at being people. I tell you (and myself) that I’ve become a football fan and therefore a participant in football fandom, but I’m lying to myself and to you. I haven’t really participated. I haven’t put myself out there as a fan. I don’t engage. I wore a Bengals hat to watch the games last Sunday and sat there terrified that somebody would ask me about it and I’d have to talk to them. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else who watches football at Ye Rustic on any given Sunday — at least in terms of my understanding of the game, I think I’m quantifiably worse, which is the whole point of this column — but I still cling to my separateness. I shoplift a sense of community.
I’m not a total hermit. But if I’m not hanging out with my wife or my kid I’m probably alone. And the more you’re able to disregard your own need for real interaction with other humans the more you’re able to ignore other people’s need for it. I know actual people, but I neglect them. Actual people are too hard. Something about letting someone else into my headspace feels dangerous, uncontrollable. Erwin Schrödinger and his wife are having a kid soon and I haven’t talked to him enough. I didn’t call Max Planck once when he had cancer and I didn’t call him once when he didn’t have it anymore. I hardly ever send Niels Bohr bullshit texts about rap music anymore. I don’t risk real human contact even with people I love, but I’m on Twitter every night sucking down the aspartame version of it. I can’t make room for it in my life but I recognize it as some kind of water I need to survive and every Sunday I’m at Ye Rustic sipping tiny puddles of it off a leaf.
And not to go from that to “This is also what’s wrong with the world,” but isn’t this also what’s wrong with the world? That we don’t ever risk talking to people who might challenge what we believe, let alone talking to those people in person, because we don’t have to, because the Internet lets us live that kind of walled-off, fearful existence while pretending we’re part of a society? I don’t know — all I’m saying is, sometimes I feel like my Twitter feed is just a long line of volleyballs with painted-on faces. And that’s why the government’s shut down, basically.
Today, though, there’s nowhere to hide. You can only be so aloof in a banquette. So I talk to these strangers. I tell them my name and I learn theirs. Fernando and Emily’s friends Patrick and Lillian sit down with us. Lillian, who’s wearing a sparkly dark-blue Cowboys jersey, asks who I’m rooting for, I tell her, she says, “They look good!” and Fernando says, “We’ve had this conversation already.” I tell him that it’s OK, that I know being a Bengals fan in Los Angeles is like walking around with a parrot on your shoulder — you can’t expect to not have to answer questions about the parrot. Good joke! I am competent at conversation!
Dalton throws a 23-yard pass to Dane Sanzenbacher, the player on the Bengals’ offense who looks the most like the rich-prick Porsche-driving antagonist from an ’80s teen movie. If Whiteboy Day were an actual holiday, the calendar page for the month of Whiteboy Day would be a picture of Dane Sanzenbacher catching an Andy Dalton pass one-handed. I talk to Fernando some more. It turns out Fernando’s originally from Mexico. I ask him if there were a lot of Packers fans in Mexico, and he says no, that when he was growing up everybody rooted for either the Cowboys or the Raiders. But Fernando had a conversion experience in high school, while watching Green Bay play Oakland on Monday Night Football in December 2003. Brett Favre’s father had died the night before; Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns and destroyed the Raiders, 41-7, and that’s why Fernando ended up here with a Packers shirt on, more or less.
We all talk. We talk about the varying fortunes of our various fantasy teams, about Barry Cofield’s club hand, about Halloween. Fernando and Emily and Patrick and Lillian are going as a Family Double Dare team, which is kind of brilliant. We start talking about Nickelodeon game shows and I realize they’re all a little bit younger than me, because they keep talking about Legends of the Hidden Temple and they sort of nod politely when I ask if anybody remembers Finders Keepers, the one where kids got to trash a giant dollhouse. I feel like Roger Greenberg pulling the Duran Duran out, but only a little. Later I’ll talk to Enrico Fermi about this, and he’ll tell me a story about being at a party and hearing “Get Lucky” — months ago, back when “Get Lucky” was new enough that people still freaked out when it came on — and realizing that he was in fact not up all night to get lucky, that he’d finally exited the whole U.A.N.T.G.L. demographic. It happens.
Enrico Fermi texts and says he’s running late. The bartender accidentally changes the channel on the Bengals game and suddenly we’re looking at gymnastics live from Antwerp. The people in the booth behind me start yelling at him to change it back and that’s how I realize the people in the booth behind mine have been rooting for the Bengals this whole time. I’m assuming they’re a couple. The guy’s got a Who Dey? T-shirt on, the girl’s in orange and black stripes. “I’ve got a Bengals pinwheel if you want to borrow it,” the girl says, holding up a Bengals pinwheel. I would have talked to them more, but I didn’t want to be rude to Fernando and Emily.
Overly tidy philosophical epiphany: It’s important to talk to people, because you may not be alone as you think in whatever your “rooting for the Bengals” is.
Joke about TV commercial: So that ad with the woman running down the rocky hill and the rocks turn into crabs and the crabs turn into jackrabbits — that’s a commercial for peyote, right?