Bar None (concluded)

I don’t know if my neighborhood bar will return in a way that resembles its former self after the pandemic ends, but I hope that it does because I had many conversations there that expanded my life a bit. Some examples:

  1. Twenty-six years old and six foot six, Jordan said he had a beard because it hid his weak chin and his babyface. He was from Ohio, which got mentioned frequently. He seemed to be amazed that raised in Toledo and educated at Ohio State, he was now living in New York City. He wondered how long you had to live in New York before you could call yourself a New Yorker. He was a bit tipsy because he was celebrating having gotten a contract to teach middle school math in a Brooklyn charter school. He had learned about the opening while working at Trader Joe’s. He also took care of kids. He referred to this as a “manny,” a male nanny. He said he was a baseball pitcher with an 86-88 mph fastball. He had not been on the college team, but he played in a Central Park league that he said had ex-major leaguers.
  2. A tall, blonde server from southern Germany said that she was leaving to attend graduate school in Hawaii. I don’t remember what she was studying, but she was convinced that the program she was enrolling in was one of the best in the country. She was also confident that when she got her Ph.D., she would easily get a tenure track position at New York University. I bit my tongue so I would not dampen her enthusiasm, but I thought that she had a lot to learn about the academic world.
  3. I don’t know remember his name, but both his mother and father were half German and half Colombian. He said that there were many German-Colombian couples in Colombia. Although he was born in the U.S., he had also spent parts of his childhood in Colombia and Germany. He could speak English, Spanish, German, and Polish. He had lived in Poland when he was married to a Polish woman. At 33, he was now divorced.
  4. A woman came from a rear area up to the bar to order a beer. I asked who the group of young people in the back were. She told me that they had all been involved in film studies at Vassar. I asked how many of them were actually working in the industry, and she proudly replied that she had just finished co-directing a documentary about public health providers in New Mexico. She had been working on it for four years. In reply to my question, she said that it had taken six months to decide on the three providers that the film focused on. I asked for a brief synopsis and she referred to the “dog line,” a term I was not familiar with. She told me about documentary makers she admired and that her film had been selected by the Independent Lens series on PBS, but she did not yet know when it would air.
  5. A bit later a young man from the group was next to me. He was a producer of what he described as small independent films and listed three or four movies that he had been produced. I knew none of them or their directors. I said that I thought of producers as being rich. He replied that it certainly helped to be wealthy, but he was not. He said that he also produced commercials from which he made more income than from the movies. He had a new movie that had been shown at Sundance and was going to be the closing selection at the Brooklyn Academy of Music film festival that would open in a few days. I said that that must be a big honor and without looking overly proud he concurred. His film had been picked up for nationwide distribution. He had several other movies that were in their final editing phases. He recommended some recently opened commercial movies, but the one he was highest on sounded too scary for me. I told him about some of the films I had gone to over the last couple weeks that he had not yet seen. I enjoyed our conversation but have not seen him since then.

Bar None

          Every so often these days, I have a down feeling, as if I am under a black cloud. I call this mild Covid depression, a covpression. I fret about when the pandemic will end, but before that happy day I wonder whether I will be able to return to the life that I enjoyed. I expect that many of the joys of New York City will not immediately, if ever, return. So, for example, before Covid I had been going to the theater dozens of times a year. Broadway may come back, but I especially enjoyed small, often experimental, theater productions. I was amazed how many of the companies could exist, and I expect that at least some of them will have folded by the time vaccines and herd immunity will make it safe again to sit in a place with barely enough space for a hundred seats and a stage so small that the actors had to be careful not to bump into each other.

          I worry about more than the theater in a future New York. New York City may headquarter large corporations and have powerful investment and legal firms, but my New York is a city of small businesses. On my walks, I enjoy looking into the storefronts and browsing in the cramped stationery and book stores, popping into an ethnic or upscale food place, or having lunch in an establishment not much bigger than a living room. I value the convenience of getting screws at the local hardware store, milk at a corner grocery, and wine from an establishment all within a few blocks walk from home. But, I fear, that many of these small businesses will not have survived by the time I can stroll without a mask.

          I do know that the experience in my local bar will be different even if gets back into full operation. Before Covid, I went five or six times a month to a nearby biergarten. I didn’t go to drink much. Most times I would have one or two beers and never more than three. Instead, I went on the days when I had not done some other New York activity, for I believe that every day I should do something in the City. When I had not seen a movie or play or had lunch with friends or gone to a museum or the library, I would go to the bar. I always went with a book and was content to read, but I was always hoping that I would get into a conversation with someone I would not ordinarily talk with.

          I got to know some of the staff and had regular conversations with them, and although I have only seen one of them outside of the bar, I would label them friends. They, however, were laid off when the bar could only serve outdoors. They have had to find some other way to make an income, and it seems unlikely that they will return to bartending and serving at this establishment when, or if, it can fully reopen.

Some of the people who were at the bar frequently have become friends—the Buddhist chaplain raised in an army family from New Orleans; the mixed-race public defender raised by a white mother in Brooklyn who went to law school in Wisconsin—each with a cute kid. Will they be back, or will they have found some other way to spend that occasional hour or two?

These thoughts make me hesitant about returning to the bar. I know that these absences will make me sad and will perhaps bring back memories of the pandemic’s bad times that I will, no doubt, be wishing to keep at bay. If I’m going to feel down each time I enter, I may have to give up the biergarten.

          I may go back, however, if the place continues to attract people who interest me. It is not a singles bar. It is not in a business area of town bringing in people on the make as they pour out of office towers. Its communal tables encourage comradeship. Neighborhood families, especially with small children, come and feel comfortable. People going to one of the nearby arts institutions or the sports arena stop in before or after a performance or game. However it developed or for whatever reason, the place has attracted an eclectic group of Brooklynites, and Brooklyn has a wealth of interesting people.

          Although some of the people I have chatted with are of my generation—a couple from South Dakota; a fireman returning to New York City from his North Carolina retirement home; a father from Georgia waiting to meet his son living in Brooklyn—most I meet are much younger. They are at points in their lives that I have long passed, but the myriad possibilities and paths they present hold a fascination—a writer for CNBC; a commercial real estate leasing specialist; the man with the cover band and a standing gig at a tavern in Manhattan; the advertising guy; the vegan hairdresser; the woman who worked in ESPN films; the trivia-playing woman apparently jealous of me for talking to her pregnant wife. All have offered me glimpses into worlds different from my own.

          (And next time, on September 18, a few more examples.)

When the Government Was BIG (concluded)

I had partially dislocated my shoulder years before I had received a draft notice during the height of the Vietnam War. The dislocation was not a one-off, but something I had done many times since—putting on a coat, turning over in my sleep, placing a pizza in a car’s back seat, playing volleyball, basketball, softball. I knew it would partially dislocate any time I really threw a ball hard. It hurt like hell, but when it happened, I could grab the right elbow with my left hand, pull the arm, and seat the ball of the arm back into its socket. This was a condition I knew too well, but it was not one that had been certified by a doctor. I had gone to the college infirmary the day after it first happened, but by then the joint appeared to be back together properly. Nothing looked wrong to that general practitioner.

But now I started to fixate on the images of army training where recruits had to climb ropes and scale walls and throw decoy hand grenades. I knew that the shoulder would come apart, and all I could picture was the drill sergeant yelling at what he thought was the Ivy League malingerer writhing on the ground. I could not imagine how I was going to get through those first six army weeks. I decided I should see another doctor. I went to a local orthopedist and told him that if I threw a ball hard, I would dislocate the shoulder. He said, “Make the motion.” I told him what I already knew. With simulated throwing, I instinctively held back, and it would not happen. He said, “Try anyway.” Nothing happened, and I was sent on my way, with the “patriotic” doctor’s glance saying, “Hippie draft dodger.” (Yes, I did have both long hair and mutton chops.)

I reported for my army physical. I told the doctor my situation. He, too, told me to simulate throwing. Nothing happened. I was certified physically fit to be trained to kill.

A few months later, I was ordered to another physical in Chicago. After spending twelve hours in an atmosphere that only the finest novelist could capture (one potential draftee had inked antiwar slogans all over his body), I saw the doctor. I told him my situation. He looked at a form and said, “You already had a physical in Milwaukee.” He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I was ordered here.” He said, “I am not going to waste my time giving another physical to someone who has already had one.”

I had gotten the induction date changed from its original fall date until after the school year ended. During that hiatus, friends urged me to go to Canada. Friends urged me to go to jail. I felt too much an American to leave the country, and I never considered those escape routes.

Somehow, however, through the protest grapevine I was told about a doctor in Chicago who had antiwar views. A week before I was to go into the army, I saw him. I told him the situation. He said, “If there really is that problem, I will get you reclassified, but I will not lie.” I told him simulated throwing would not do it. But I came prepared with my baseball. With the doctor agreeing, I walked the three blocks to Grant Park and found a wall to throw the ball against.  I had to screw up my courage with a few easy tosses and then I finally threw as hard as I could. Pain in the shoulder; white flashes before my eyes; arm immobile, but for the first time I did not do what had become instinctive. I did not pull the arm back into place. Feeling the pain every step of the way, I went back to the doctor, up an elevator, and to an x-ray room with my hand stuck skyward. Blissfully, they quickly took the pictures, and I pulled the joint back together before the vomiting started.

When the doctor looked at the x-rays, he said, “You’re right. You have a problem. I’ll contact the army.” Then with a smile, he uttered words that only someone of my generation can truly appreciate, “You can have that fixed.” He waited a beat: “But there is no reason to until you are twenty-six.”

The draft gave men of my generation contact with big government’s bureaucracy and its control of lives. Even though I was not inducted, it still greatly affected me. While obsessing over what the army had in store for me, I had more and more difficulty paying attention to my second-year law-school coursework. I dropped from near the top of my class. A job after the second year of law school was considered an important step for most of us starting a legal career, but I never sought such a job because my induction date was July 1. But, of course, compared to many this was nothing. I did not spend two years in the army. I did not die in combat. I did not have to kill Vietnamese.

When you want to complain that our government is so big today (and only getting bigger) that it destroys the freedoms of Americans, go to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington. Look at the names on Maya Lin’s creation and ask yourself, “How many of these were draftees? How many enlisted because they expected to be drafted anyway?” And then reflect on the big government of today and yesterday.

When Government was BIG

          FDR had been dead for fifteen years, but my social studies teacher remained fixated on him. She would slip comments into class discussions that derided him and the big government of the New Deal. One day she said, “Whenever the government starts a program, the program never disappears. It just gets bigger and bigger.” I knew little about the New Deal then and was not interested in defending it or other government initiatives. Instead, I was a general wiseass, and my mind instinctively searched for counterexamples. I raised my hand and when she called on me, said, “What about prohibition? That was a huge government program, and we no longer have it.” She turned her back on me and did not call on me again for a week. I was not unhappy with that outcome.

She was from that American school of get-the-government-off-my-back, a strain of bitching that always seems to be with us. The examples seem ubiquitous, and we see it now with people denouncing required face masks as socialism. Underlying such complaints is that in the good old days, government was smaller, and Americans had more freedom. Of course, as with prohibition this has not always been true. Big government programs of the past are not all still with us now. Slavery and the many tentacles of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the lifetimes of many of us required a strong government for example, but those “programs” no longer are with us.

Because of my northern roots in a white small town, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow (nor was I directly affected by the myriad laws and government actions and policies that discriminated against women), but I, as were almost all Americans of a certain age, was affected by another, now defunct, freedom-restricting, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families, control their lives for years, and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. This was big government writ large.

Its reach was so pervasive that it routinely affected people’s behavior even before a military induction. I learned this early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” He was going to put his life on hold until after his forced military service.

The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation was public service and patriotism, but a self-interest was also at work. An enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. In a personal cost-benefit analysis, many concluded it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. There are fewer similar people today who are veterans.

The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not in Europe with a knapsack and a rail pass but backpacking in Vietnam using military transport. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. Go watch M*A*S*H).

If, however, you finished all this education by the ages of twenty-four or twenty-five, you still had to make it until twenty-six not to be drafted. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teaching was one. Teach until twenty-six, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as a middle-school teacher.

The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.

Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. As I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive in my mail with what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being in the army before—all males of my generation did–but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations or the tax code with the army looming. Part of my thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but many of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.

(continued September 14)

Snippets

Old joke: I dreamt God sneezed. I didn’t know what to say.

I grew up saying Gesundheit after someone sneezed. When I moved to New York, I taught myself to change this reflexive Germanic response to “God Bless You.”

Why do we say “God bless you” after someone sneezes but not after a cough? A hiccup? Or a fart?

“Truth rests with God alone, and a little bit with me.” Yiddish proverb.

I was watching The Simpsons show with the homage (or at least I think it was an homage) to My Fair Lady. After the Pygmalion transformation, however, the Groundskeeper Willie reverts from the new gentleman created by Lisa to his old self because he is happier that way. I realized that we have no sequel or updating to the classic musical or straight play where it is explained what happened with Eliza Doolittle for the rest of her life. How do you think she ended up?

There may be no free lunch, but apparently there is free shipping.

I am sparkling; you are unusually talkative; he is drunk.

A spokesperson for the FDA had posted on her Facebook page: “I prayed hard for God to use my professional and personal experiences with crisss (sic) to serve Him. . . . In May, the White House called me to ask and asked if I would consider a high level communication role at the FDA. I knew God was directing my path, and I had to come back to DC to work. . . . I will not lie. I will not do anything that violates my personal ethics and values. I ask all day that my Lord and Savior direct my words and actions to do what’s right and to help others through these difficult times for our nation.” Her personal ethics and values and her request that Jesus direct her words did not prevent her from promulgating misleading statements. She was dismissed a few weeks into her tenure. God, apparently, prescribed a short path for her. Or perhaps He slapped his knee and chuckled, “That was a good one.”

Was the Heavenly Father upset when His only Son converted to Christianity?

The right wing spews that Democrats are “socialists.” In the next breath, they shout that Democrats are “anarchists.” You can be neither. You can be one or the other. But you can’t be both at the same time. But then again, if facts don’t matter, why should language or logic?

A young friend told me that he was in a band that does a mashup of surf and punk music. And I wondered: Is this like the Sex Pistols performing Little Deuce Coupe?

Labor Day

On this Labor Day I am not going to labor over another witty, charming, and insightful post. Instead I am going to reflect on the many people who, by their labor, have made my life better. They are such an essential and routine part of my life that I take them very much for granted. This Labor Day I plan to remember their contributions with grateful thanks.

The Braves, Baseball, and Me (concluded)

Although my boyhood baseball team the Milwaukee Braves has been out of existence for a long time, I have remained a baseball fan, now of the New York Yankees. Of course, this has something to do with settling in New York City, but on the other hand, the Yankees beat my beloved Braves in a World Series. I can’t justify where my baseball loyalties ended up. I don’t try to. Being a sports fan is not a rational choice. You are a fan of a team or you are not. It can’t be fully explained, but being a Yankees fan has given me a community of sorts. Several friends are also Yankee fans, and our conversations which touch on many topics often include the fortunes of the baseball team, but none us ever have the delusion that the Yankees are “our” team. We are often reminded that they are part of corporate America. The intensity of my Yankee fandom has varied through the years, but at one stage it was almost killed by George Steinbrenner and his corporate tactics.

          I have seen many exciting and boring baseball games in person and on television and have read about many more, but they have shared a common purpose for me. Sporting events are ultimately trivial, but they draw me away for a while from other worldly concerns and cares. The baseball universe has a welcome separateness from the rest of my life, and I can escape to that other universe while the game is on or being discussed.

          Now with advent of September, a time when baseball should be entering the home stretch for possible pennant winners, baseball does not provide the relief it once did. Pitchers and batters still duel, but the games now bring a focus on national problems. It is impossible to blot out the pandemic watching a televised game in a stadium without fans. And, of course, games have been cancelled because of outbreaks among the players. Baseball, instead of providing a respite from other concerns, only highlights that the disease continues its insidious spread; that we are a nation that has not been able to contain it; and that the pandemic has, amazingly, become a partisan issue that divides us.

          And now shocking racial events have produced calls for cancelling or delaying games. I think back to September 11 and remember attending playoff games in the fall of 2001 when baseball resumed after its hiatus. There was a communal feeling that we Americans were all in that tragic time together and that if baseball could be played, all would be right again. And I look at that picture that hangs above my desk of Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron walking side by side towards the field where a multiracial team waited with a common goal. Where has that hope gone?

          These days watching a baseball game sooner or later makes me think of sickness, failed leadership, and the racial divisions in the country. Sooner or later I think about elections and contemplate dire outcomes. Right now baseball provides no relief.

          And on top of that, the Yankees have been playing poorly.

The Braves, Baseball, and Me (continued)

All sports fans learn that players and teams fail, and perhaps other boys my age were also too optimistic about race because sports teams were integrated. My baseball team, the Milwaukee Braves, also brought home to me another lesson not confronted by all sports fans. I encountered it when I was in college, that time when adulthood was supposed to be upon me, but aspects of boyhood still lingered.

At my college in those days, baseball was not considered to be cool. Few of my classmates indicated an attachment to a team. I did not broadcast that I was a Braves fan, but every day I sought out the box scores from the previous evening to see how the Braves, and more particularly, Henry Aaron had done. This often took some effort because the eastern school got early editions of New York City newspapers, and they often did not have the box scores from games not played on the East Coast. This would keep me scrambling to find later and later editions. Until I could find out what happened the night before, I felt something like I do now when I have not had my regular quotient of morning coffee.

Then it changed. A Chicago-based group bought the Braves, and they determined that they could make more money if they moved the team to Atlanta. In what increasingly became the norm for sports, television and radio were the controlling factors. While attendance in Milwaukee had dropped off since the Braves early days there, the crowds were still respectable. The Braves’ broadcast market, however, was limited largely to Wisconsin with no way to grow, and this was a fraction of the market available to an Atlanta team that could hope to capture fans, and ears and eyeballs, throughout the South.

I had assumed without really thinking about it that I would be a Milwaukee Braves fan all my life and that this would always bring back the joys and agonies of my boyish summers. Of course, I knew that money was involved in the game. Players got paid; admission got charged. The essence of baseball, however, was competition, the matchup of pitcher and batter, sunshine, cool evenings, radio voices, a community of fans.  Now I saw it differently. A community may have seen the Braves as their team, but they were wrong. It was not a communal team. Ownership and money triumphed over community.

 A court order required the Braves to stay in Milwaukee one more year, and I kept hoping that the move would not happen. I went to some games in that forlorn year and got some more baseball memories: I saw Don Drysdale hit Mike de la Hoz in the chest, producing a crack like a pistol shot. I watched Maury Wills get picked off first base twice in an afternoon. But it was all sadness, and at the end of the season the Braves decamped.

The Braves had taught me about ups and downs, human failings and successes. They taught me about the optimism of waiting until next year. They taught me that to succeed one had to risk failure and that everyone fails some of the time. But now the Braves set me on another path of understanding. I began the lifelong search for understanding the power of money and ownership.

When I viewed the Braves not as a baseball team, but as a profit-driven corporation, it made me more sensitive to other corporate decisions, especially the decision to move a factory out of a town. On the one hand, such corporate moves have usually been done for a seemingly different reason from the one given for the Braves move out of Wisconsin. The factory was relocated not to increase broadcast revenues, but because wages would be lower in the new place. And the moving of a plant does not dash the naïve fantasies of a boy, because few boys fantasize about the ups and downs of a factory. Nevertheless, the move of a factory, I came to realize, was quite similar to the move of a sports franchise. In both cases, those who have the money want to improve their bottom line; they simply want to have more money. And just as a sports team produces a community, a factory also produces a community that includes those who work there, their relatives and dependents, and others who more indirectly depend on the factory workers, such as owners of diners, taverns, gas stations, and grocery stores. The move of a factory so a few people can make more money crushes a community. But a lot has been written about the moves or retention of sports franchises; not enough has been written about the moves of other corporations, and their effects on communities. (A wonderful book about the effect of a factory closing on a community is Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.)

The Braves left, but even so, memories of the Milwaukee Braves are still part of my boyhood reminiscences. Those thoughts, however, seem isolating because they are shared or even known by few. If I tell a baseball fan that the best lefthanded pitcher, perhaps simply the best pitcher, of my lifetime was Warren Spahn, I am likely to be met with a blank look. I can talk about Bob “Hurricane” Hazle, and the listener has no idea who that is. But the memories, even if not widely shared are still important to me. They are part of my life and development. When I look at that picture of Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron on their last walk off the Milwaukee baseball field, I see the end of my childhood, but I also see that childhood. That white man and that black man walking off with their hips seemingly joined remind me of a hope and the many thrills those two men gave me. In case you did not know, the two still hold the career record for home runs hit by a pair of teammates.  They were a part of my life that I still cherish.

(concluded September 4)

The Braves, Baseball, and Me

          A black and white photograph hangs to the left and above my desk. It defines an era of my childhood. Two men in old baseball uniforms–stirrups, baggy pants, no names on the jersey–are walking with their backs to the camera in a narrow, concrete passageway with harsh ceiling lights. “41” is on the left and “44” on the right. The caption to this picture, which I reproduced from a book, said it was Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron’s last trip off the field as Milwaukee Braves from County Stadium. The team would soon move to Atlanta. The Milwaukee Braves would no longer exist.

          The Milwaukee Braves were my childhood team. Our radio, as were our neighbors’, was tuned to their games. I could walk down the street on a warm evening with everyone’s windows open and not miss a pitch. I knew not just the lineup but idiosyncrasies of the players.  (I did not know as much as some did. At one of our family’s yearly outings to a game, two young women sat in front of us. One said to the other, “Root for Frank Torre.”  Torre was the backup first baseman who sometimes came in as a defensive replacement, hardly the one with a large fan following. The woman went on, “He’s the only one who is single.”)

          I learned early that the mythic figures on the ball field were actually human. At my first major league game—Cardinals versus Braves—the youth group of which I was a part was in the right field bleachers where there was a low fence that we could stand next to. There he was—Stan Musial.  I had heard his name on the radio a gazillion times. I knew that he was a baseball god, and I guess I expected a god-like figure or at least someone as heroic-looking as the good guy in a cowboy movie. But as I stood a few yards away from him, my boyish eyes saw an old man in need of a shave. (It was low-scoring game, and I remember Musial hit a home run in the tenth inning to win the game. I have never tried to look for the box score in case my memory is wrong.) 

Baseball players were mortals and, as mortal, often failed. I heard a story that at a dinner honoring Stan Musial after he retired, Joe Garagiola said, “Stan was an all-time great. He batted .333 and got two thousand hits. (Pause.) Wait a minute. What are we doing honoring a man who made out four thousand times?” I learned that even the best made mistakes, and that all players made errors, struck out at inopportune times, gave up home run pitches.

          Individuals failed, and so did teams. Of course, the fan of any sports franchise learns that the season generally ends without winning the championship, but still some disappointments are larger than others. That was true for Milwaukee Braves fans. In a four year stretch of my childhood, the Braves finished one game out of first, won a world series, blew a world series, and ended up tied for the pennant but lost in a playoff.  Had a few outcomes been different in this stretch, the Braves would be remembered as the dominant team of an era, one of the all-time great teams. Instead, those clubs, the teams of my youth, are mostly forgotten by anybody who was not a fan.

These are lessons any sports fan learns. Players often fail; teams seldom win championships. These lessons remain with me and seem to speak to more of life than just sports. But the Braves also gave me a false lesson, one that was situated in that era of my boyhood. The Braves presented me an overly optimistic picture of race in the country.

Major league baseball had been integrated a few years before the Braves moved to Milwaukee. The team arrived just as the United States Supreme Court held that segregation of public schools violated the Constitution. I am not sure when I heard about Brown v. Board of Education, but to this third grader, integration was an abstract issue since my town–fifty miles north of Milwaukee–was all white. Even so, I and seemingly everyone I knew, were adamant anti-segregationists.

It took a while to realize that the whole country did not feel as we did. I think I came to that realization during the Little Rock school crisis. The hate on the faces screaming at that brave little girl in her simple dress filled me with fear and disgust. But I naïvely thought that such hatred could not last for long, and I thought that because of the Milwaukee Braves. How could you not want Henry Aaron–in my ten-year old (yet carefully considered) opinion probably the greatest ever to play the game–to be in your neighborhood, in your school, in your home? Maybe there were some problems with integration, but baseball seemed to indicate that the hatred would soon disappear. After all, that’s what happened on the ball field. That Lew Burdette was white and Billy Bruton was Black was not an issue. What mattered was whether the Braves won. And, of course, I saw that the Braves all worked together for that goal. Surely these teammates were not concerned about race. If that could happen on the ball field, surely it would soon happen everywhere. Right?

(continued September 2)

First Sentences

“Harry Truman needed a drink.” Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss, Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and 116 Days that Changed the World.

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.” Fredrick Backman, Beartown.

“It was no sensible place to build a great city.” Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.

“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.” James McBride, Deacon King Kong.

“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“Over twenty years ago a gentleman in Asbury Park, N. J. began manufacturing and advertising a preparation for the immediate and unfailing straightening of the most stubborn Negro hair.” George Schuyler, Black No More.

“William Moulton Marston, who believed women should rule the world, decided at the unnaturally early and altogether impetuous age of eighteen, that the time had come for him to die.” Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

“One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.” Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt.

“In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist.” John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.