B Rant: Foot Traffic

by Brantly Martin

27 June 2014

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The problem with writing about sports is the third eye Pandora’s box set that projects from my forehead the moment I assume I ought to write about sports. It’s a box set I forget I never recorded. I’ll think: this “sports thing” is oh-so-much in my wheelhouse I must have donated my oeuvre to Goodwill years ago. Lucky for me the American Psychiatric Association dropped narcissism as a personality disorder in 2010. Must have been too ubiquitous. The only other obstacle to a World Cup riff di B is my enmity of assumed authority: colonialism, occupation, Lewis and Clark to Jefferson fact findings, the Bush Family claiming Texas. God forbid I become the Curious George of the foot situation. That said…
     Style Guide a la B:
     Futbol works for me. Soccer sounds whack. Football is already taken “round these parts.” (And shouldn’t the American language have to concede something while still avoiding the Brit?) Calcio is too assuming. Futebol is nice in that bouncy Brazilian way that reminds me of my nightclub days (Brauntalee, we goey nightyclubby tonighty?) but is also annoying for the same reason. Fußball? That’s a bar game for me, mein freund. So: futbol with a u and not a ú. (Keeping the Tex in Tex-Mex.)
     Which reminds me…
     Hey Italians—especially you in the north—it’s “basketball” not “basket.” For a country that adds complications and syllables as often as burocrazia who knew the refusal of a simple ball could always manage to contort my face into an expression that screams: che palle. The one time you try to out-America America in the shorten-the-language game and it doesn’t work. Nice try.
     For me: futbol = poetry. I don’t refer to either one's beauty or flow or opacity-to-eureka rhythm. I refer to their equal remove from my caste. I mean for someone who’s native tongue and first addiction was 500 fastballs thrown into a duct taped strike zone against a chain-link fence before hours of batting practice or 100 made jumpers from each spot after an hour of Pistol Pete drills with only my left hand after chasing pick-up games around a 100 degree / 90% humidity Houston summer day (if you watched the USA vs. Portugal match you saw the first official “water break” in the World Cup and you heard the announcers explain that playing in the Amazon was much easier than an afternoon game in Houston) in a beat down 1988 Chevy Beretta with Oldsmobile hubcaps (that never saw better days) with not only no A/C but vents that couldn’t be blocked and somehow spit out air even hotter than the Gulf Coast offered while I (and three other shirts-off dudes) cruised into every stoplight at exactly 2 miles per hour and ignored all the honks and prayed the light would turn green at the Beltway 8 feeder road (because who could afford the tollway proper) so the Beretta wouldn’t die and force us to push-start it and jump back into the sweaty-stinky-maroon-box (and I was the one with the car!) only to do it all over again on the way to Hammerly for “next” (and the hope of taking a grown-man elbow and a “white boy”) or on the way to Sam Houston High-School on the north side between Tidwell and Parker for AAU games which would lead to tournaments in Dallas and Phoenix (and to…what?) the game of futbol will always be Other.  
     My reading jones was not unlike my hoops jones. A series of fixes administered somewhere between “where I could get them” and “how I wanted them.” The only self-imposed mandate—unbeknownst to me at the time—being that I do nothing, read nothing, respond to nothing I was “supposed to.” What one is supposed to read at a four-thousand-student public high-school in Texas I haven’t a clue. I suppose there were enough kids striving for “good grades” balanced out by enough teenage pregnancy to preoccupy any powers-that-were into tacitly allowing me to skip class “unnoticed” in order to play more basketball. (It might be worth mentioning that if I “look back” a few year earlier—I can’t recall if it was late elementary school or early junior-high—I can clearly see both a book and series of posters on the classroom wall that showed simian progression: little monkey…bigger monkey…caveman…me! “Texas Textbooks” appears to have become some rallying cry. I wondered into an Oliver Stone speech/talk thing at the 92nd Street Y about a year or so ago and sure enough: Texas Textbooks Teach Creationism! Well, I can’t speak for private schools or what the public schools are doing now, but in the 1980s ten/eleven-year-olds in public school were taught: Big Bang, Evolution.) My teenage found reading: Classics, Sports Biographies and—somehow and thank God—Science Fiction. I pursued this temporary Holy Trinity with the same gusto as the shot-fake-one-dribble-pull-up-jumper (usually going to my right). The deflation of hoop dreams coincided with “time to leave the house Brantly” (this is America not Italy) and left a void to be filled with bad behavior and more reading. My reading did not in any way “flower.” Being rudderless and mentorless it became something more in need of a weed-whacker. But this ain’t Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life. Let’s just say I haven’t read a “sports book” in 20 years and any “classics” read during that seventeen-to-twenty-something-years-old void would need a [qualifier-] in front of them. One book that, just now, pops into my head for some reason, is Maury Wills’ Autobiography. I can’t remember if it was Koufax or Drysdale that he’d go that extra one percent for, or if the obstacle to dating Doris Day was the race thing or something else, but I do remember the part where he talked about being a bed-wetter into adulthood. This blew my, maybe thirteen-year-old, mind for two reasons. First, I didn't know what a bed-wetter was. The second part has to do, as I recall, with him describing the last time he relieved himself while sleeping. He’d crashed either on the couch or in the guestroom of a new acquaintance and woke up to another mortification. Somehow the situation arose where he had to tell his host, who, as it turned out, was understanding, which led to them talking about it in detail. This lessened the shame and he never did it again. The “large concept” lesson escaped me at the time. Of course all this was before I realized that professional athletes probably didn’t write their own books and that memoirs and biographies, especially the best ones, are genres of fiction. To be honest, maybe that’s not even how the book had it. Does it matter? These baseball thoughts burst another memory vessel: The 1986 NLCS. As my brain has it, the Astros lost in 16 innings to the Mets. And we had the unhittable Mike Scott going in game 7! Right now I can see Jesse Orosco whiffing Kevin Bass on a breaking ball in the dirt to end the game after the Mets scored three in the top of the inning and we’d come back with two after we’d come back to tie it in the 14th inning on a solo homer by Billy Hatcher that hit the left field foul pole.
      These recollections were not harvested by passivity.
      The sports inoculation was strong enough to survive eight years where I avoided watching or discussing anything that began with foot, base or basket. With reading I eventually realized not only can one observe, one can play. (Why was I never told?) Here’s the thing: both of these early brain stamps—sports and words—were missing a root. I later came to poetry in the same pedestrian way many straight white male didn’t-have-that-sorta-schooling Americans do. And I’m fine with it.
     Every four years I’m all in with futbol. I think: I should pick a team, get a jersey, download the app, plan a trip. It feels important, but as soon as it’s over it’s over—like pleasuring yourself while loaded. My poetry consumption is not calendar-based but globetrots from intense to nada in much the same way. When I “discover” a poet I might grab one of their books from McNally Jackson, The Strand or St. Marks Books (relocating this week to east 3rd between 1st and A if you wanna know) and spend a week on a table by the East River (because you can’t smoke at Café Pick Me Up), and not devour it exactly, but assemble it for digestion the way a picky eater might do with a fajita. I’ll skip around in a way I wouldn’t dare do to, say, George Orwell’s Essays or Antonya Nelson’s new short story collection, Funny Once.
      (Fortunately, at Grey we have a genius Poetry Editor.)

My interest in “background” follows a similar rhythm. I know more about the innuendo, upbringing and gossip surrounding Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano than I ever did about Otis Thorpe. If a poem gets my juices flowing I’ll end up reading more about the poet than by the poet. Conversely, when the latest “definitive biography” of a novelist I’m known to like appears, a well intentioned friend might give me a copy along with: “I know how much you like ______.” I’ll say “thank you” but what I want to say is: “Because I like the writing of ______ I don’t want to meet her.”
      This love-it-then-leave-it-then-love-it-again relationship to futbol and poetry is possible because they’re not my tribe. Which makes the arrangement—as Aeronymous might say—mad liberating yo! Unlike other affairs/arts/points-of-entry, there is rarely a moment with futbol or poetry when part of me feels: I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s all pleasure and no pain. Who doesn't—if we’re being honest—want to have at least a couple relationships where you can take much and give little? Call me selfish. Marilyn Manson did a sick (meaning good) version of “I Put a Spell on You.” If I wasn't familiar with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (or Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival for that matter) would I enjoy it less/more? Who cares. In the Italy versus Uruguay game the other day an Italian player was sent off for what appeared, to my untrained eye, to be a normal play. Sure enough, the announcers jumped in with something like: “Twenty years ago that’s a no call.” Filtered through my NBA timeline: I know what you mean, pal.
      Here’s the problem with learning a new language from scratch in your thirties: the brain can’t help but enter its “advanced pattern recognition” mode, and at that age there are a lot of false patterns (and that’s not including my “lost period” in Southeast Asia). This may work for the mathematical but futbol is not a tech startup and poetry is not high-speed trading (and let’s not even talk about Italian). Of course I might soon have some aha moments, which would present a new dilemma: how to remain a contented selfish bastard. 

If you want some real deal, knowledge of a sports reporter, passion of a fan, flow of an emcee World Cup insight, our friend Rowan Ricardo Phillips—who has, perhaps, the exact opposite relationship with both futbol and poetry—is crushing it. For those of you who enjoy nothing more than the British press lacerating, obliterating and overall "sonning" their team (and, well, who doesn’t!) it’s your lucky week. If you need someone, anyone, to root for, go with the Mexican coach, Miguel Herrera

If you’re the only person in New York that doesn’t have “a spot” I’d recommend watching the German and USA matches at Zum Schneider and the Spanish speaking countries at Donostia.

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