Monday, April 27, 2009

Ninety-Four: Part Thirteen: Wherein I Foreshadow and Also Go To A Hockey Game.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 13; click here for the table of contents.

Most of Washington, D.C., is kind of a blur when I try to think back on it. Day after day blended in, just as day after day blends together now. Trying to remember exactly what differentiates one day from another, 15 years later, is difficult, especially when most days weren't all that different from one another.

Each day, I'd get up and head off to the showers to get ready for the day. Ordinarily, my "getting up" would involve having a cigarette, and maybe a warm diet Coke, to get going on the day. I can't remember if I smoked in the dorm room or not, but I'm pretty sure I did, because this was 1994 and that was before the era when smoking became so forbidden and prohibited and looked down on. Back in 1994, people could still smoke in a tiny enclosed room they shared with a nonsmoker and nobody thought anything of it; most nonsmokers even then did not complain.

After a cigarette and some warm soda and a shower, I'd put on my dress pants and one of the dress shirts I had, and a tie, and head downstairs to walk over to the Metro stop and ride the Metro over to my office in Virginia. I usually had a book with me to read, because there was no place between the dorms and the first Metro stop to buy a Washington Post. The nearest spot to get a Post, I learned, was a department store about 5 or 6 blocks away, off in what was said to be a bad neighborhood around Trinity College. I found the department store by wandering around one Sunday morning looking for a place that was open and at which I could get a newspaper and something with caffeine. The store might have been a Shopko, if memory serves rightly. I know it was a weird department store, in my memory, "weird" meaning "not one that I had seen before." Living the provincial life I had, I assumed that everywhere else had the same department stores and grocery stores and restaurants and businesses I'd grown up with (just as I'd once assumed that everyone else must be Catholic.) It had never occurred to me that I might go someplace and instead of a Target or Walgreens I might have to get socks at a Shopko and coffee at a Krogers. It was strange to do that -- the stores were both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The layouts, the clothes and books and magazines and shoes and potato chips were almost -- but not quite -- the same things available back in Wisconsin, and were almost -- but not quite -- laid out in the same order, but there were subtle little differences: weird, regional foods or sodas, styles that were a little off from the styles I was used to -- that marked these as not my stores.

If it was unsettling then, it's not anymore -- I like little differences now, I enjoy seeing the small things that separate my known world from the unknown world. Or maybe it's that I no longer think that small differences are anything to be unsettled about. In 1994, those differences loomed larger (maybe because ... foreshadowing... I had not yet experienced real differences) to me, and now they don't seem to big at all, and I enjoy seeing the differences when I go to other places, differences that sound silly and mundane but which tell me that I'm somewhere outside of the norm and which make it enjoyable to me -- fast food restaurants that I can't get to at home, streetlights hanging by wires over the intersection instead of standing on poles at the sides of the intersection, palm trees instead of pine trees, radio and television stations whose call letters begin with "K" instead of "W" -- all little things that perk me up when I travel now.

Sundays were days that didn't follow the routine of either weekdays or Saturdays in Washington. Sundays were days that moved in weird rhythms. They began strangely, continued weirdly, and ended soporifically.

Sundays, I didn't go to work and I usually didn't go sightseeing. Instead, most Sundays, I began by getting up and walking off to get the Sunday Washington Post, smoking a cigarette as I did so and looking at the bleak urban streets that I walked down and back to get the paper -- warehouses and small houses and nothing much scenic, the "backlot" of Washington D.C., the place where the people who were too unimportant or too poor to not live in D.C. spent their time.

I was still working on quitting smoking, defining "working on" as "thinking about it and not doing much else about it." I was also focused on losing 10 more pounds, something that I almost would do in the time between January and June, getting down to 162 pounds from a beginning of 170. (I would drop those other two pounds, and a few more, in Morocco, but not because I was trying to do so.) I didn't mind the walk to the Shopko because it let me be alone a bit, and it let me smoke a little bit, and it served kind of as exercise, but not really.

I've always, since I first got into shape (and then got back out of shape, and then almost back into shape) been suspicious of "easy" forms of exercise, but it was in 1994 that my suspicion really took root and shaped me. After working so hard to lose nearly a hundred pounds, I was in great shape in Washington -- seriously great shape. I was working out 5 or 6 days a week, for nearly an hour at a time, and I'd been doing that for over a year. My workouts were mostly running, and it was a serious amount of running. Weekdays, I would jog usually about 4 or 5 miles, going at a pace that most people would say was "pretty good," until they found out what my warmup and cool down consisted of, at which point they would say it was not just pretty good but phenomenal.

My warmup, and my cool down, consisted of having a Marlboro Light. Sometimes two. I smoked probably at least a pack a day then -- which by smoker algebra means almost two packs. (Anytime someone tells you how much they smoke, multiply it by at least 2. If they admit to smoking more than a pack a day, multiply it by three, because smokers always downplay how much they smoke. If they're comfortable admitting to a pack-and-a-half a day, say, that just means that 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes is so far below what they actually smoke that it seems reasonable.)

I would get ready to run by putting on my shorts and a t-shirt and shoes (sometimes -- later on, in Morocco, I would run barefoot, doing so because I didn't have any running shoes there) and then get my Walkman with a mixtape ready, and then would pace around while I smoked a cigarette and listened to music. No stretching, no warmup, no easing into it. Just dress-smoke-go.

And I went pretty fast. I didn't usually have a route measured out in Washington, but I knew from experience how fast I was going, and I was getting faster all the time. Later in 1994, I would break the 7-minute-mile mark for over 6 miles, and I would do so as a smoker with pneumonia.

I'm not making that up. After D.C., after Morocco, to flash forward, I lived in Shorewood, Wisconsin, as I finished up undergraduate school and waited to begin law school. I still went running 5 or 6 times a week, and I had a route that I ran, a route I assumed was about 5 miles or so. I timed myself as I ran, and got times, as the fall went on, of 44 minutes, 43 minutes, then 42 minutes, then 41 minutes. I was frustrated that I couldn't break the 8-minute mile mark, and I was also concerned because despite all my running and the fact that I only weighed about 165 pounds at the time, it was getting harder and harder to do things like walk to school, walk up the stairs, and, eventually, walk across the room.

The day I finally found out I had pneumonia was a day after I'd gone running and got a time of 40:00 and some seconds -- definitely under 41 minutes. I went to bed that night and the next day woke up tired and groggy and sore, which was nothing new for me. I puttered around my apartment for a while, listening to talk radio and reading (I didn't have a TV at the time, so I mostly listened to the radio for entertainment) and then went to the one class I had on Fridays. After that class, I was even more tired and my head hurt and I was exhausted, so exhausted that I didn't go for my usual Friday routine of gyros and Ben & Jerry's ice cream for lunch. Instead, I walked home (about a half-mile) and climbed the three flights of stairs up to my apartment, ignoring the elevator as I usually did.

I had to stop twice to get up them -- once leaning down to catch my breath. All I thought about it was man, I've got to quit smoking. (Which tells you, then, how I did in quitting smoking in D.C.) Then I got into my apartment and sat on the couch and turned on the radio and had a cigarette, and then I went and took a nap. I woke up about 4 in the afternoon, dizzy and hot and tired and headachey, and I got out of bed and went to the kitchen to make some coffee (by this time, I was drinking coffee -- remember, this is a flash forward).

By the time I got to the kitchen, I was sweating and gasping for breath, so I decided to go to the doctor on campus and see what was wrong. I had to walk there (I didn't have a car) and, of course, I took my cigarettes.

At the doctor's office, they told me I had pneumonia, and a serious case of it. "You were lucky to make it here," they said. They sent me home with a prescription and an admonition to call someone. I called my mom, a nurse, who said she'd come and pick me up and I could stay with her for the weekend, which I did. After the weekend, feeling a little better, I got her to drive me home and before we dropped me off, I had her go drive my running route so I could find out exactly how far it was.

It was 6.1 miles. I'd run under a seven minute mile as a heavy smoker with pneumonia.

In D.C., I was already getting that fit (or unfit, depending on whether you look at the running or the smoking) and I ran all the time. Weekends, I usually ran about 12-15 miles, walking down to the National Mall to jog around it five or six times, but running that far takes a lot of time, so I didn't go that far on weeknights.

Sundays, though, I didn't work out much: just that walk to Shopko, or wherever, a walk that technically was exercise, but if you've run 15 miles the day before, walking five or six blocks isn't anything at all-- it wasn't challenging. I'd walk down to the store, then walk back, and read the paper while I waited for the Trinity College cafeteria to open up.

Weekdays, my breakfast was always a raisin bran muffin with a diet Coke and a couple of cigarettes, while lunch was usually something from the oriental buffet that had "all-you-can-eat" lunches for something like $4.95-- a very cheap price, especially for all-you-can-eat. Dinners were typically something from the bar/cafeteria that they had on the Trinity campus, a hangout sort of place where you could get hot dogs or nachos or burgers. I had to watch what I spent because I didn't have any money coming in and I was trying to stretch my funds so that I woulnd't need to work beyond my internship (which didn't pay.)

That was why, on Sundays, I always ate at the Trinity cafeteria, where the other students who weren't part of the internship program but who did attend Trinity college, ate. The Trinity cafeteria was also all-you-could-eat, for breakfast and for lunch. I couldn't make it to breakfast or lunch during the week, but I could make it to brunch on the weekends, eventually opting to do so mostly on Sundays, when a lot of the tourist attractions were closed and when the brunch was especially good. I'd wait until 11 and then go there with the remainder of the Sunday paper (or, of course, a book) and I'd eat as much as I could, having it serve as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like a snake downing a boa constrictor, I'd linger as long as I felt human decency let me, pacing myself to make sure I could get almost a full day's worth of calories in me for the one price, and ignoring what I sometimes felt to be the looks given to me by the other students, who maybe (I thought) felt I was hanging around too long, taking advantage.

In that way -- pancakes galore -- I could eat on Sundays for about $3, but it took a lot of effort to do that, and it left me full and bloaty and tired the rest of the day. A small price to pay for saving a lot of money and for all-you-can-eat pancakes and syrup, and a price I was all-too-willing to pay. I'd eat until I couldn't, anymore, and then I'd go back and hang around the dorm room, reading and writing letters to famous people asking if I could meet them and talking on the phone to my then-girlfriend or my family, or just watching TV in the lounge.

Not every Sunday was like that. There was the Sunday, for example, that Dave from Pinkerton took me to a hockey game, to be followed later on by a visit to a bar to watch the Superbowl. That day sticks out in my mind as both the day I saw one of the two hockey games I've watched in my life, and as the day that I somehow became the center of attention of an entire barful of people who would call me "Buffalo Boy."

That Sunday was early on in the D.C. trip, near the end of January, so I was still disoriented and not familiar with most people. After a whole week of going into the office on my usual routine and spending the day halfheartedly translating Spanish newspapers, scanning documents in and proofreading them, and trying to get Rene to tell me his secrets, near the end of the week, Dave had offered to take me and Eden, the other intern, to a hockey game.

Dave Johns was Frank Johns' son, and a very nice guy who was also a computer guy back when computer guys were still relatively unknown and geeky. Dave was very into computers; he might have built his own, even, and he was always working on computers. In 1994, "working on" computers didn't mean making iPhone apps and Flash games and blogging -- it meant actually working on computers, taking them apart and putting circuit boards into them and wiring them up and then doing it all over, and Dave did those things around the office. Dave also liked hockey, for some reason. It's strange to meet anyone who likes hockey, in the United States. How did they get into it? How do they follow it? Why do they get into it or follow it? But it was stranger, still, to meet someone in Washington, D.C., who liked hockey, because you don't picture people in and around D.C. liking anything except politics and maybe the Redskins. D.C. isn't a wintry city -- far from it. It's not north, and it's not very sporty at all.

I was amazed, then, to not only find out that Dave liked hockey but also to find out that he liked a Washington hockey team. When he offered to take us to a hockey game, I jumped at the chance: "Well, okay," I said.

I wasn't terribly crazy about the idea of spending a day with people I hardly knew. I already was spending most days with people I hardly knew, and spending my Sunday that way imposed a sort of gloom on me, a gloom not dispersed in any way by the idea of going to a hockey game. I'd never seen a hockey game at that time, though, and that was part of why I went (the other part being it was free).

My only experience with hockey, at all, in fact, was "swamp hockey," which we'd played as kids, taking our ice skates and hockey sticks and pucks back to the swamp that used to be part of "the field" and "the woods" behind our house. From our house on Hartwood Lane, we'd walk back past the maybe-poisonous apple tree into "the field," which at that time (we were about 8) was not yet the tennis courts and baseball diamond, but was a real field filled with real stinging nettles and sumac bushes (but not in winter.) Across the field and around "the canyon" (which I remember as being a very deep and steep ravine, but which was probably just a depression in the ground) and over by Kill Hill was "the swamp," which was just a swamp that froze over every year. We'd clear it off and play hockey on it, skating and falling through sometimes and trying not to hit the puck into the various bushes and tall grass and cattails that surrounded our makeshift and oblong court. There were no real rules, unclear goals, lots of arguments, until it got dark and take off our skates and walk back home.

That experience, surprisingly, prepared me perfectly for my first professional hockey game. We sat far enough up that I could see the whole rink, or ice, or whatever it's called, and could see the guys, but had no real idea where the puck was at any given time. The goals were small and mostly blocked by the goalie. I still have no idea what the rules of hockey are, although I did learn that day what "icing the puck" is.

When we were kids, "icing the puck" was assumed to be "getting ice on the puck," a penalty that we knew existed but which never got called, other than sometimes if the puck was hit into the snow we might call it "icing" when it was really out-of-bounds. I learned that day with Eden and Dave that "icing" the puck means "hitting it the length of the rink," or something like that, which struck me as dumb. Any rule in any sport that limits the ability to throw a Hail Mary is a dumb rule. If you wanted to hit the puck all the way down the rink, why couldn't you?

Of more interest to me than the hockey game was the drive to the hockey game, when we got stuck in traffic on the Beltway. I was overly excited to learn that I was going to be driving on the Beltway. Anyone who's interested in politics knows "the Beltway," that highway that surrounds Washington and defines the boundaries of it, politically speaking. To be inside the Beltway was to be a player in politics, then and now -- so driving on the Beltway was going to be exciting.

Only it wasn't. You don't so much drive on the Beltway as you do sit. It took us what felt like hours to get to the hockey game, most of it spent creeping forward inch-by-inch. Dave assured us that traffic was like that, more or less always on the Beltway. He said that's why talk radio and books on tape were so popular in Washington, an assertion I had to take at face value, since I had no idea if it was true or not. It made sense to me, the way he explained it: People are sitting in traffic for hours a day, so they listen to talk radio and books on tape. That's what I think of whenever anyone says "Beltway" now -- people sitting in traffic listening to books on tape. Washington D.C. workers are, in my mind, a very literate and well-informed, albeit largely motionless, bunch.

I would remember Dave's words, by the way, later in my life, when I would commute 48 miles one way to my job as a law clerk. To kill the time, I began listening to talk radio, just as Dave said the bigshots that live in D.C. did. Because I drove from Madison to Baraboo, Wisconsin, talk radio would fade out about 40 miles into the trip, and so eventually I began listening to books on tape on the drive to and from work, too. I'd leave work and walk a block or two to the Baraboo library and get whatever book on tape they had that sounded good. It was pretty slim pickings, as you'd expect from the Baraboo, Wisconsin public library's "books on tape" selection in the 1990s. The main thing was to distract me, though, and make the time go a little faster.

The hockey game, which was boring and hard-to-follow, was one of the two sporting events I took in that day, as it was Superbowl Sunday (which should tell you just how bad traffic is on the Beltway: It was jammed up in the afternoon, on Superbowl Sunday) and Rip and I had made plans to go down and watch the game at a bar that was kind of near the Capitol.

That, too, is kind of a blur marked by a few clear-cut images, but it wasn't blurry because it was the same as any other day. It was blurry because of beer. All my money-saving and healthy-living and weight-dropping did not prevent me from watching the game and drinking beer, and enjoying myself immensely even though the entire bar at one point became focused on me.

I was, then and now, a Buffalo Bills fan, and the year that I was in Washington was the fourth consecutive year that the Bills went to the Superbowl. It was also the fourth consecutive year that I had taken the Bills in my annual bet with my brother, Matt, and I was not hopeful. I'd watched the Bills, in my first year of being a Bills fan, lose a close Superbowl, and had paid Matt the $50 and team jersey we'd bet. I'd then watched the next year as they'd lost a not-so-close game and had paid Matt the $50 and team jersey we'd bet. Then I'd watched the third year as they lost horribly to the Cowboys, and I'd paid Matt $50 and the team jersey we'd bet.

Each of those games had been watched in a different location and under different circumstances, which is one way to differentiate experiences: Mark them by what Superbowl I was watching and who I watched it with.

I'd watched the first Bills' Superbowl, Bills-Giants, sitting alone in my apartment on North 21st Street in Milwaukee. I don't remember why I didn't go anywhere, or where my roommate, Pat "Flan" Flanagan had gone, just that I had watched it alone, watching it in Flan's room because the TV in his room was better than the TV we had in the living room, and there were fewer mice in his room than the living room. I remember being tired near the end of the game and barely awake or alert when the kick went wide right and the Bills lost.

The second Bills' Superbowl, Bills-Redskins, I'd watched at my old house where I'd grown up, on Hartwood Lane. My mom and my sister Katie and my brother Matt were there, too. My dad was not, as he and my mom were in the early stages of their divorce at the time, making for a tense, sad Superbowl experience. We watched it on a TV that was set up in the living room, the room we never used as kids. We had a living room and a family room, and the living room was strictly for special occasions. It had the good furniture and the fancy books and the knickknacks and glass coffee table, and it was where we put the Christmas tree every year, and nobody sat in the living room, ever, unless it was a special occasion. The room felt so off-limits that it was weird to go out there and practice the piano when I was a kid. Watching the Superbowl out there might have been okay as a "special occasion," but having just the family over was not a "special occasion," and the TV had been put out there permanently -- Mom had moved it there and used the room all the time, which I didn't like. I didn't hang around long after the Bills lost that one.

The next year, Bills' Superbowl three, Bills-Cowboys, I watched at my Mom's apartment where she and Katie lived, bringing my then-girlfriend Laurie along on what would have been our first or second date. Our old house was sold, a result of the divorce, and Mom and Katie had moved to a duplex and then into the two-bedroom, small apartment Mom would live in for the next few years, at least until Katie graduated high school. I and both my brothers graduated from Hartland Arrowhead High School. Katie would graduate from Pewaukee High School, something I find weird to this day. I have to remind myself that she graduated from Pewaukee, not Arrowhead.

I had borrowed Mom's car to go pick up Laurie and brought her to the apartment, where we'd watched the game with Mom and Katie and Matt, again. Matt and I passed the time making little side bets on the game. At one point, Matt said I bet you a dollar that the next pass thrown is an interception. As the commercials dragged on, he said And another dollar that the Cowboys will be the next to score. The game came back, with the Bills having the ball, and Jim Kelly threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. I handed Matt $2 and watched as the Bills lost a third in a row.

The fourth Bills Superbowl, Bills-Cowboys Again, I watched at a sports bar with Rip, a sports bar full of Redskins fans who were, inexplicably, rooting for the Cowboys. I'd always thought the Redskins and Cowboys were archenemies and had assumed that the Bills would get the D.C. fans' support, but that wasn't the case. As the game started, Rip took no real position and the whole bar, except me, began backing the Cowboys. I was the only person rooting for the Bills, at all, and it showed because the Bills started doing well almost immediately.

Ever yell "Yeah!" in a giant crowded sports bar that had just fallen silent? I have, and it's strange: everyone in the room turned towards me. "You're rooting for the Bills?" one guy said.

"Yep," I told him. Rip, who knew why I rooted for them and all about my bet, then told some people about the bet with Matt ($50 and a jersey, again) and about the three years' consecutive losses, and word spread around.

Did that turn the bar to my side? It did not. I have never been someone that the mass of the public rallies around, for some reason. There's something about me -- maybe my innate dislike of people, in general, and fierce loner-ish-ness-- that keeps people from fully committing to my side. It's just as well that I never really went into politics; I doubt I could have ever built a base.

But the first half went by with everything going the Bills' way, and they were leading at halftime, and I was both drunk and deliriously happy, the kind of delirious happiness that can only result from something that is utterly meaningless, in the long run. The Bills' winning or losing meant, means, nothing to me beyond the $50 and the jersey, but at the same time, it meant a lot, at the time. (It no longer does; in fact, one of the greatest games I've ever watched, now, was a game the Bills inexplicably lost on Monday night. They lost, but the game was very entertaining.) I invested a lot of emotion in that first half, cheering and raising my fist and being outspoken and taunting people and generally making a happy ass of myself, putting the same level of emotion and effort into that totally useless, completely meaningless effort as I'd put into deciding to quit smoking, writing letters to NASA, and losing 10 pounds.

I'd have been better off, I suppose, putting at least some effort into doing something in my internship beyond bothering Rene, or working a job to earn money, or at least paying attention in the one class I was taking. But I didn't. I put effort into losing 10 pounds and rooting for the Bills, and for the first half of the game, at least, it seemed to work.

It worked so well, in fact, that at halftime "I" -- the Bills -- was ahead, and Rip said "You should call your brother and tease him." The bar got into it, then, people near us saying Yeah, call your brother and finally talking me into it, and the bartender let me use a phone, so I called and got Matt and drunkenly and stupidly taunted him that I was finally going to win $50 and a jersey, that I'd be wearing my Bills jersey around, telling him he needed my address to send it to me, and generally being an idiot.

Then, of course, the game came back and the Bills proceeded to blow it, again, as Dallas took charge and the crowd in the bar turned on me again and began cheering and I got quieter, until the Cowboys took the lead, finally, and the bar went nuts and then got very quiet, and in the midst of that quiet, a guy yelled out:

"What do you think of that, Buffalo Boy?"

I didn't think much of it at all. Of course, by then I was very drunk.

The Bills lost -- all my effort and glee were for nothing, and the trip home was a hazy blur, too, a cold walk that may or may not have included a ride on the Metro. I didn't call Matt back that night. I did, eventually, get him the $50 and his team jersey that he wanted.

The Bills haven't been back to the Superbowl since. I've been back to D.C. one time since that, trying on a trip with Sweetie to recreate, in my mind, where I went and what I did, just as I'm trying to do here -- then, as now, able to pick out bits and pieces that stand out in my memory, for one reason or another. Things like the overwhelming brunches, and "Buffalo Boy," and the walk to Shopko.

Who can say why some memories stick harder than others? Sometimes it's repetition: do something over and over and over every day, and you'll remember that you did it, every day, even if you can't remember any particular occasion that you did that thing. Other times, there's something about a memory that makes it cling to your mind. It might be getting called "Buffalo Boy," it might be the way the swamp looked covered in snow as dusk fell, it might be the fact that the TV was in the living room. Whatever it is, the memories fall into their places, resurrected from the blur of a lifetime, snapshots that help piece together who we are.

Or who we thought we were.

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