Monday, November 26, 2012

End of the Season

This past weekend the Penn State football team closed out its 8-4 season with an over-time win against Wisconsin.  Of the four losses, two were against major teams (Ohio State and Nebraska) and two were the first games of the season, when the team was taking baby steps after the year-long media blitzkrieg over the nightmarish Sandusky situation.  I recall how awful I felt after the second loss to Virginia, when the team clearly played well on the road, should have won, but got torpedoed by special teams play, particularly numerous missed field goals by placekicker Sam Ficken, who was replacing Anthony Fera, one of the high-profile starters who left the team under the NCAA open-door policy.

There was a lot of black humor floating around, with the team 0-2 and headed for the dismal season that everyone was predicting, and a lot of people were hoping for as some type of karmic punishment for the university.  There were jokes about Ficken trying to commit suicide the morning following the game, but the six times he fired the pistol, he missed wide right.

Well, a strange thing happened after that.  Ficken was still the kicker, and it took him a few more frustrating games to get his bearings.  (He eventually won the game against Wisconsin.)  Those first few games when he still could barely function as a place kicker, the team rallied around him.  He wasn’t ignored, or treated like an outcast.  Guys would gather around him, pat him on the back, tell him not to give up because he was needed.  Coach O’Brien didn’t give up on him, kept him in there despite fans calling for his head (although I suspect the team’s penchant for routinely going for it on fourth down had a lot to do with this).

Ficken is emblematic of the team, the program and the season itself.  He failed terribly, and he hung around.  And he got better, as did the team, visibly with each passing week.  To the point where a team everyone had left for dead ended up having a solid season, far better than anyone had hoped for or predicted.  While not a perfect season, it was enough to show everyone Penn State football was not going to be a wasteland of harsh NCAA sanctions and marquee players jumping ship every other week.  It was crucial for the program to have a season like this, with nearly every game receiving more media coverage than it warranted, and the entire country seeing that these guys were fighting every step of the way, growing more confident with each game.  It was the perfect advertisement for recruits: a team that in no uncertain terms had been told to go fuck itself by the NCAA (and the sports world at large) managing to have a solid year against enormous odds.  An exciting team with a no-holds-barred offense and traditionally solid defense.

From a fan’s point of view?  Barring the two years Paterno guided them to national championships, this was the most rewarding season I’ve had as a fan.  In ways, it was more rewarding, not just because the team overcame such steep odds, but because Bill O’Brien clearly fell in love with the town and program, sensed the community was behind him as head coach and made the best possible transition from what can only be described as a world of shit to a competitive football program still facing sanctions that are going to make his job difficult for years to come.  Where once I could never imagine a Penn State football team without Joe Paterno, I now look forward to the next decade with Bill O’Brien.

Even before the world of shit blew into town, I was hoping Paterno would hang it up.  It seemed clear that his offensive and defensive coordinators were running the show, and he was hanging around because he simply couldn’t envision life without being the head coach of a powerful Division I-A college football program.  As much as I had trained myself to dislike Paterno’s main competitor Bobby Bowden, I couldn’t help but see the guy in retirement and think, “Bowden has it right: relax, rest on your laurels, god damn it, in your 70s, with nothing to prove to anyone anymore.  Go fishing and dote on the grandchildren.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

And he stayed too long, too!  Knowing when to leave is an art form worth cultivating.

I don’t know.  Should I feel guilt-ridden now that I’m still part of the “Penn State football culture that glorifies sports over academics, even over morality”?  I’m still not quite sure what people mean by that, what judgment they hope to impart over someone who either goes to, watches or listens to these games.  (I’ve spent the past two seasons listening on the radio as I had no cable TV while living in temporary housing after the house fire.)  I sure don’t feel like a lesser human being for being a fan.  I know I’m not.  This team had nothing to do with that shit.  Frankly, the only person in the whole program who did was Paterno, and from what I’ve seen thus far, his greatest sin was not being proactive enough and using his power to correct a wrong situation with a former coach still using his premises. 

I’ve got no mea culpa regarding the Sandusky situation.  It was a horrible thing to happen on anyone’s watch, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the new year about what really happened.  I’m sure the moral vanguards who were carrying on earlier this year are going to start tree-stump speechifying again come January and the upcoming trials.  It’s been pure pleasure the past few months to have these jerk-offs butt out and let the football team stand or fall on its own merits.  I’m sure there have been many other moral crises since then requiring the profound wisdom and guidance of the sort only hack newspaper columnists can provide.  I suspect after the trials they’ll be gone for good from the Penn State landscape, unless it’s to write puff pieces about what a decent man O’Brien is, the same way they did about Paterno for decades, and then wonder why there was a culture of reverence surrounding him.

This has been a great season to be Penn State football fan.  Which I surely did not see coming.  After the first two games, I thought, “Here were go.  This team is going to suck and have a lopsided losing record.  All these dogshit sports columnists who crucified Paterno are going to take it a step further and make some stupid, hackneyed connection between the Sandusky mess and how poorly the team performed this year, and will do so for years to come, as spiritual punishment for men of power who did nothing when they had the responsibility to correct a horribly criminal situation.”

Well, that didn’t happen.  I saw my team move forward into a new era (with a coach everyone thought was nuts for accepting the job), play with heart, against all odds, with the world hoping they would fail.  They didn’t, and they reinforced that it makes sense to go on living with a vengeance when you’ve been left for dead, unless you quit all together, which more than a few people suggested was a viable option for this team and football program.  I’m glad these guys didn’t.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Return to Astoria

Coming back into Astoria, the first thing I noticed was the smell of cowshit.  This is really nothing new.  People have complained about “that smell” for years.  I’ve caught wind of it a few times myself, usually in deep summer.  Most people put it down to the sewage treatment plant about a mile from here, which always seems to be in various stages of disrepair.

Coming back in a car, with all the stuff I’ve been using to live the past year and three months piled into the back seat and trunk.  I was shocked by how much kitchen and bathroom stuff I had, two laundry baskets worth.  Otherwise, it was a large suitcase filled with clothes, a smaller travel duffel with the laptop, Kindle, ipod, DVDs, shoes and such, and gym bag with the sort of stuff you scatter on counter tops.  Left behind the lawn chair and fold-out bed.

Slept in my own bed for the first time since late August 2011.  Felt weird.  Got used to that wire-frame bed sagging in the middle, which played hell on my lower back some nights, but made reading in bed easier.  The landlord’s been living here the past few months and feeding some stray cats, so every now and then, I’d hear one yowling in the night.

It hasn’t been the red carpet rolling out with a mob of people cheering under a banner reading, “Welcome back, Bill!”  But the landlord was sure glad to see me.  She’s been feuding with everyone in the family, raising holy hell over how long this ordeal has taken to play out, still, months after moving back in herself but still waiting for major furniture to arrive, just not letting it go.  I can understand this as it’s her house, the first and only place she’s lived after coming to America in the early 60’s.  The family members, of course, have had a bellyful, but what can they do.

There are large weeds sprouting from the sidewalk, and just like old times, some errant douche bag had dumped a few square feet of dirty clothes onto the sidewalk.  The curb is rotten with packed-in leaves, and the shrubs need trimming before it snows, otherwise the overhang will be hard for pedestrians to deal with.

I came into the apartment to find a plumber fixing the stove, which had proved more problematic than expected, as evidenced by the hole in the ceiling and adjacent walls so he could get at the gas pipes.  Dusty boxes of landlord’s long-forgotten artifacts still take up the kitchen counter, waiting to be waded through and taken upstairs or discarded.  The landlord’s huge paintings and wall art are still in the closet, particularly the “macramé stagecoach at night” that used to hang down here, but the one day she asked me what I thought of it, I said I didn’t like it, and she said the frame alone for that painting cost $200, so I said wouldn’t it make more sense for you to have it in your apartment, and the next day it was gone.

A big plus: the TV wasn’t stolen!  The workers had placed it in a tarp and wedged it in the crawl space beneath the stairs, so I was relieved to realize I wouldn’t have to plunk down a few hundred bucks on a new one, and felt guilty that I pondered the likelihood of someone working here in any capacity using the five-finger discount.

So, even after a year and three months, still waiting in a sense for this thing to wrap up.  But, make no mistake, this is my glorious return.

The streets are rotten with hipsters and yuppies in training … seemingly more than a year ago, but that might be an illusion.  I’ve just spent a year in a far more suburban place, with a broader age range of people, many more kids and full families, so it just might be the culture shock of being plunged back into a place where there are so many apartment renters. 

Can someone explain to me the attachment to the word “like” so many people up through the age of 30 have?  I’m not saying that in some curmudgeonly, “damn these kids and their crazy lingo” way.  I’m saying it in a way to demonstrate how creepy and annoying it is to hear it all the time.  It’s disturbing to hear, routinely, over and over, from hipsters, from teenagers, from young women and men who are clearly neither, but don’t seem to recognize how dumb they sound.  Every third word is “like.”  Used in a completely superfluous manner, the same way people who don’t know what to say go “uhhh” before saying what they mean to say. I’ve known this for a long time, but it seemed like yesterday, like, everyone was, like, using the word “like,” like, you know, in every conversation, you know, like, I heard on the, like, street, you know?

To be, or, like, not to be, you know, like, that is the question?

I have to learn how to deal with these folks, because they’re clearly going to be a permanent fixture of this place.  In a way, I was one of these people years ago: I moved to New York from a small town in Pennsylvania in the 80s and no doubt had people 10-20 years older over-hear me in conversation and think, “Christ, what a pompous ass.”  They probably still think it now!  But I'm half the horse's ass I was coming straight out of college, that much is true.

That decade in the Bronx was crucial in terms of learning how to live in New York, or anywhere, that it’s important to humble yourself to a place, to shut the fuck up, for once, and listen, and look, and realize you’re there to learn, to weave yourself into a community as much as you can.  That’s the essential difference I see between someone like me moving here in the 80s and the people moving here now.  They have that suburban sense of expectation, that this place should succumb to their wishes and lifestyles, that this neighborhood, like, would be a whole lot better with a really good frozen yogurt place and, like, a cool used book store.  Not to mention I moved to the Bronx, and then here for one over-riding reason: they were working-class neighborhoods and affordable.  I’m sure the Bronx still is, but this place isn’t.  You get a whole different breed of people when the reasons to move to a given neighborhood are hipness quotient and exclusionary rents, and it's a breed I never much cared for, going all the way back to my first exposure to them in the late 80s.

The past year has taught me there’s only so much you can attribute to a given neighborhood in terms of how you live your life, and the real deal, what your life is about, is how you choose to live it, regardless of where you live.  Or how much you have.  Or don’t have.  Whether you’re 25, or 45, or 65.  It’s not so much wearing blinders as realizing the things floating around you aren’t you, and there’s no point in focusing on things that don’t sit well with you, but you have no control over.  It’s clear to me now if I really have that hard a time with the genuinely annoying people who’ve moved here in droves, I can always leave.

Hell, I did for over a year, if not by choice, and life surely went on.  That far edge of Queens is such an odd place to live, nice in so many ways, much more quiet, far fewer assholes to deal with directly, and cleaner.  But such a huge hassle in terms of transportation for anyone who works in Manhattan, literally an hour and half ride, each way.  Even if I had a car, I suspect pointing it towards Manhattan during rush hour wouldn’t be that breezy 30-minute jaunt it is in off hours, not to mention the prospect of parking garages that equal many people’s monthly rents.

And the car culture!  Most Americans need cars to get by, and I’ve realized it’s a luxury and a pleasure to live somewhere where one isn’t necessary.  On Long Island, that culture is taken to the nth degree, very few people walk anywhere, and the driving style is eternally crazed, people who forever appear to be on the verge of nervous breakdowns behind the wheel, and drive accordingly in that “fuck everybody else” style infamous to the tri-state area.  Post-hurricane, this became even more obvious.  There was no gas.  Not a drop to be found anywhere on Long Island.  For an entire week.  The rare instance when a station would open, word spread, and there would be a 3-4 mile line of cars waiting to get in, with the station invariably running out of gas within an hour or two, while various riots nearly played out with the typical line-jumping scum you find in any emergency situation.

Yet … the volume of traffic did not let up all week.  I would ask people at work from Long Island if they were driving, and they would say no, how could I, there’s no gas.  Well, you had an entire culture of people there who … could … not … stop … driving … even … though … there … was … no … gas.  Ponder being stranded on a desert island, with someone who ate all of the meager amount of food you could forage the first night.  That was your typical Long Island car driver the week after Hurricane Sandy.  Public transportation is such out there, particularly with buses, that if you need to get somewhere, anywhere, you can get there.  Might be a pain in the ass, but it will work.

But I swear to you, the traffic volume the day after hurricane (Tuesday) through Saturday, was virtually no different than it was before the storm.  Sunday, I did notice, there seemed to be far fewer drivers on the road, as the realization sank in that this gas thing wasn’t going to work itself out immediately.  Here we are, two weeks later, with rationing, and it does seem to have worked itself out.  There are no more lines, and people are getting the gas they need to get around.

If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here now typing this in my old apartment.  That damn storm pushed back my return by two weeks, first with its destruction and then with the ensuing gas crisis.  I was contemplating dragging my bags and suitcases onto the Q46 bus and then the E/F train, then the R/M train, then the Steinway Avenue bus to move back, implying two round trips totaling six hours, but luckily the gas situation let up enough that the landlord’s daughter could give me a ride back.

This past weekend has been exhausting: emotionally and physically.  I don’t know what it is about moving, but it tends to inspire the full range of emotions.  All save a mild angry under-current subside once you realize you need to get a ton of shit done before you can feel even remotely settled in.  It’s going to be at least another week or two before that happens.  There’s a constant layer of grit on my feet now from the recent holes punched in the ceiling and walls, and I spent last night rummaging through the cabinets under the kitchen countertop, discarding three black garbage bags of unclaimed vases, ponderously heavy ceramic ash trays, rusted metal ice cube trays, old AM/FM clock radios … just a mess of shit that I can’t even tell if they belonged to the landlord or previous tenants.  All I know is I’ve been living here since the late 90s, none of it’s mine, and it’s got to go, if only to make space for my clutter.

That’s another key thing I learned.  Man, throw shit out.  I’m not just talking physical things like junk in cabinets.  I mean everything that doesn’t serve a recognizable purpose in your life.  Throw it out.  I will surely take this advice to heart with my feelings towards the new landed gentry – I think this is going to be the last time I mention them, and you can hold me to it.  All the bitching in the world, much like King Canute ordering back the sea, isn’t going to change a damn thing on that front.

Anti-climactic?  That’s how life tends to be, save for the grand climax, which I have reason to believe won’t be the gloriously inspired ending as portrayed in the obituaries of celebrities and heads of state.  Your time comes, you go.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good to be back here, for any number of reasons.  The main one being the fire didn’t kill any of us that night, and we’re back to reclaim what was a stinking, wet hulk of charred wood and broken glass that harsh morning after.  It's time to be how we are, again, and this is a major victory.