I Suck at Football 2.7: The Mirror Game

Your wife is too good at recognizing actors’ faces. Since moving to L.A. she keeps experiencing false-positive IDs. Sometimes she’ll see someone in a store or across a crowded restaurant and become convinced it’s someone she knows, maybe an old coworker, a friend of a friend, and then she realizes it’s a third-season Top Chef loser, or the suspiciously grief-stricken father from an old CSI. Never mind. Forget it, it’s Silver Lake. You tell people it doesn’t feel like the rest of L.A. because it’s not an industry crowd, but a third of the moms at your kid’s school probably have at least a pilot on their résumés.

The cousin of that phenomenon: You keep seeing West Coast versions of East Coast people. You know this is because you moved from the actual Park Slope to Los Angeles’s Park Slope. Or from Brooklyn’s Park Slope to Los Angeles’s Carroll Gardens. Same kind of milieu ergo same kind of hip beardy dads and tastefully tattooed moms. But it feels at least a little bit supernatural when it happens. Like for example there’s a West Coast version of C. who comes to Ye Rustic some Sundays. One of the people Janet saves a stool for. She’s a whole head taller and probably five years older, but that somehow makes it more eerie, like you’re seeing two different actors playing the same character.

Then on Friday night you’re walking down Sunset with your wife, because you and she still enjoy the socially frowned-upon act of walking to a restaurant. For half a second in the smeary Killing of a Chinese Bookie light of early-evening Sunset you think you see S. in front of the tattoo shop, talking to the girl he was dating when you moved in together. It’s not them, of course. You know that. But if you had to swear to it in that half-second, you might not.

It’s kind of a fun brush with the uncanny. A glitch in the matrix, a corner of Los Santos where you can walk through a wall. God is a hacky Filmation animator who figures kids won’t notice if he recycles some backgrounds in a He-Man every once in a while.

You have that S. sighting and think about Brooklyn for the next five blocks. Later you wind up eating dinner in the bar at Café Stella. Your wife immediately spots Michael C. Hall sitting down at the end of the bar with a friend, but she’s not convinced the guy sitting a few seats closer to the two of you is Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia rather than just some guy with a “Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” beard. She’s stubborn about these things.

Years ago, walking to the F train by your place in Brooklyn, you saw a guy with one arm crossing the street. He was young, prematurely bald, in a navy sweater with the sleeve pinned up. That afternoon you flew to Los Angeles for work, checked into the Sunset Tower, walked out to get coffee and saw the same one-armed guy in front of Carney’s. Your wife refuses to believe this ever happened. You still argue about it. “Really?” she’ll say. “A one-armed man?” You know how it sounds.

On Wednesday you get a fantasy-league e-mail. Trade proposal from Heinrich Hertz. He’ll give you Victor Cruz and Lamar Miller for Arian Foster and Greg Little.

You’ve never heard of Victor Cruz or Lamar Miller, so you immediately suspect Hertz of trying to pick your pocket. Having played you and won last week, he’s familiar with your hands-off approach to managing the Lords Disick. You keep forgetting to make changes to your starting lineup before the Thursday deadline. You fielded Denarius Moore at wide receiver again this weekend even though the Raiders were on a bye week. And Foster, despite being one of the star running backs on whom you blew all your auction money, has languished on your bench all season. There is a strong case to be made that Hertz is treating you like a rube because you’re playing like one.

You don’t accept the trade. You e-mail Hertz a few days later: “Just want it known that I didn’t not notice you trying to trade me a handful of magic beans for Arian Foster and FANTASY SLEEPER GREG LITTLE the other day.”

Of course you didn’t know who Greg Little was when Hertz proposed the trade. You clicked on his name and read his file. “It’s hard to recommend starting him in anything but the most desperate of situations,” raves RotoWire.com. But when you Google him, you see his name associated more than once with the phrase “fantasy sleeper,” and this combined with Hertz’s interest in him is enough to convince you that despite having been suspiciously affordable in the draft, Greg Little is a player to keep.

“It was not that bad of an offer!” Hertz writes back. “A top-five wide receiver for a top-five running back, essentially. And Greg Little has not been a fantasy sleeper since 2011.”

You tell Hertz that you’re not buying it, that Greg Little is just a very, very deep fantasy sleeper. He sleeps down in a crack in the earth, like a kaiju waiting to rise up and lay waste to Sydney or Hong Kong. You tell Hertz that you’re going to field the All-Hertz Team, featuring Arian Foster at running back and Greg Little at wide receiver, just to protest his attempt to rob you. But of course by the time you remember promising to do this, it’s too late to change your roster and Greg Little slumbers on.

The last day Enrico Fermi’s in town you get dinner and watch the end of Game 3 of the Sox-Tigers series. “Nobody in L.A. is doing their actual job,” Fermi says as you’re both trying to wish hard enough to make your waitress reappear. Of course that’s a cliché; it’s been low-hanging observational-comedy fruit for decades. MC Shan in L.A. Story as Steve Martin’s rapping waiter. But to live here is to be confronted with the reality at the core of clichés.

The valet parking guy who’d rather be choreographing, the bookstore counterperson who’s irked when your need to pay for your books and be on your way requires you to interrupt the neo-Didion essay she’s clearly composing in her head, the poofy-haired dink bartender who seems angry that you’re not a camera filming a reality show called Cocktail Kingz. It’s not that any of them are bad at what they do, but every interaction takes a few seconds longer because first they have to accept once again that this (sigh) is their job. The valet guy has long limbs, is for some reason wearing knee pads, and there’s the hint of a twirl in his step as he goes to move some orange cones from one side of the lot to the other.

And then on Saturday you’re in an art-supply store. Your wife is paying for construction paper and poster paint so she and your daughter can make Halloween decorations. Your wife is settling up at the counter and you’re trying to keep your daughter from writing on other customers’ legs with permanent markers. You apologize on your daughter’s behalf to the lady who’s next in line and she says it’s all right, she’s a teacher, she knows how it is. She likes this age. “It’s like they’re from another planet. You should be writing down everything they say.”

Then the lady turns to your wife, compliments her skin. Turns out in addition to being a teacher she sells some kind of miracle rejuvenation product. She gives your wife a card with mountains and the not-suspicious-at-all phrase REAL SCIENCE on it. She says she’s 60 years old, but you wouldn’t know it, and it’s true, you wouldn’t. She tells your wife to check out the website. “It works even better than they say,” she says. “It’s illegal to tell you everything it does.”

The guy behind the counter has been listening to all this. He looks up and says, “Does it bring fingers back?” You look down and he’s missing one. Ring finger, right hand. It’s an awkward moment for everybody but the miracle-rejuvenation lady and your daughter, who is busy trying to shoplift the books of temporary tattoos this craft store cleverly stocks at child-eye level.

You take out your notebook and write down “Everyone here is either missing something or selling something.” You can’t decide if it’s a good line or a terrible line. You might have to write a whole column in Second Person Pretentious just to have an excuse to use it.

Out from the stockroom comes an older guy with a nice head of dark hair in a blue apron. “Nice finger,” he says to the guy behind the counter, and the guy behind the counter says, “Hey, c’mon, guapo, that’s not nice.”

You’ve read that Sunday’s Bengals–Detroit Lions matchup is what’s called a “mirror game,” because the two teams are so evenly matched. You’re trying to read more about the games before you watch them, so that each one won’t feel so much like a test you haven’t studied for. It’s helping: You’ve learned that the Bengals and the Lions have both been Searching For Their Identity and are now, perhaps, ready to prove themselves Elite.

Ye Rustic is standing-room-only, so you get back in the car and drive a few blocks over to try your luck at the Public House on Vermont Avenue. The first time you ever set foot in Los Feliz, you came to this block. You drove down from San Francisco with your dad to look at colleges and made him take you to the X-Large store, retail presence of a Beastie Boys–endorsed clothing line. You thought maybe Mike D would be in the back, pressing the shirts himself. Only now do you realize how far out of the way it was. That day they were playing “Me and My Bitch,” probably from a promo copy of the as-yet-unreleased Ready to Die — you didn’t know it, but you were hearing Biggie for the first time. “You look so good, I’d suck on your daddy’s dick,” said Biggie. Your dad grimaced. “I’ll be in the car,” he said. Not his steelo.

Like a lot of L.A. cocktail lounges, Ye Rustic is a bunker so dark you could safely develop film at your barstool, but the Public House is open to the street, high-ceilinged and airy on the inside, like television’s idea of a sports bar, and quiet as a library except when someone scores. You sit next to a sandy-haired guy in a white T-shirt who’ll spend the next few hours drinking Bitburger after Bitburger and getting slowly voodoo-dolled by his Miami Dolphins. You bond over shared quarterback-related suffering — Ryan Tannehill is to this guy what Andy Dalton is to you, it turns out. Our Feckless Ginger QB — that’s the one line of football-related banter you have in your arsenal. Hell’s bells, that Dalton’s a bum. And so forth.

Dalton has a day that, by Andy Dalton standards, qualifies as commanding. But the mirror game turns out to be pretty mirror-y. The score is tied 24-24 until Mike Nugent kicks a field goal with seconds left on the clock and wins it for the Bengals. Another week as Kings in the (AFC) North. The Bengals’ apparent transformation from an improbably successful bad team to an occasionally underachieving good team has made rooting for them less fun, somehow. But the larger issue is you’re starting to feel like just rooting for one team — cursing one quarterback you hate because his limited sense of the field reminds you of your own limited sense of the entire game, not to mention your own lack of courage and conviction in life as a whole — is a chump activity.

The lesson of the Hertz trade is that you still know next to nothing. You’ve managed to teach yourself how to watch like a fan, but that wasn’t really that hard. (Like Robert Redford says to Paul Newman in The Sting: “I already know how to drink.”) There’s this vast knowledge-economy surrounding the fantasy game, powered by a universe of statistics, and you don’t understand either of these things. It’s time to change that. It’s time for the Lords Disick to find their Identity as an Elite fantasy team. Shut the door and have a seat, Greg Little.

Filed Under: Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers, Fantasy Football, NFL

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.