Every week, I'll excerpt a handful of stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that I urge you to read for one reason or another. Send any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy (1961)
Suggested readers: New Orleanians, people like me who get mawkishly sentimental about New Orleans, moviegoers
Today I am in luck. Who should come out of Pirate's Alley half a block ahead of me but William Holden!
Holden crosses Royal and turns toward Canal. As yet he is unnoticed. The tourists are either browsing along antique shops or snapping pictures of balconies. No doubt he is on his way to Galatoire's for lunch. He is an attractive fellow with his ordinary good looks, very suntanned, walking along hands in pockets, raincoat slung over one shoulder. Presently he passes a young couple, who are now between me and him. Now we go along, the four of us, not twenty feet apart. It takes two seconds to size up the couple. They are twenty, twenty-one, and on their honeymoon. Not Southern. Probably Northeast. He wears a jacket with leather elbow patches, pipestem pants, dirty white shoes, and affects the kind of rolling seafaring gait you see in Northern college boys. Both are plain. He has thick lips, cropped reddish hair and skin to match. She is mousy. They are not really happy. He is afraid their honeymoon is too conventional, that they are just another honeymoon couple. No doubt he figured it would be fun to drive down the Shenandoah Valley to New Orleans and escape the honeymooners at Niagara Falls and Saratoga. Now fifteen hundred miles from home they find themselves surrounded by couples from Memphis and Chicago. He is anxious; he is threatened from every side. Each stranger he passes is a reproach to him, every doorway a threat. What is wrong? he wonders. She is unhappy but for a different reason, because he is unhappy and she knows it but doesn't know why.
Now they spot Holden. The girl nudges her companion. The boy perks up for a second, but seeing Holden doesn't really help him. On the contrary. He can only contrast Holden's resplendent reality with his own shadowy and precarious existence. Obviously he is more miserable than ever. What a deal, he must be thinking, trailing along behind a movie star — we might just as well be rubbernecking in Hollywood.
Holden slaps his pockets for a match. He has stopped behind some ladies looking at iron furniture on the sidewalk. They look like housewives from Hattiesburg come down for a day of shopping. He asks for a match; they shake their heads and then recognize him. There follows much blushing and confusion. But nobody can find a match for Holden. By now the couple have caught up with him. The boy holds out a light, nods briefly to Holden's thanks, then passes on without a flicker of recognition. Holden walks along between them for a second; he and the boy talk briefly, look up at the sky, shake their heads. Holden gives them a pat on the shoulder and moves on ahead.
The boy has done it! He has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden's, by refusing to be stampeded like the ladies from Hattiesburg. He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him. Nobody threatens from patio and alley. His girl is open to him too. He puts his arm around her neck, noodles her head. She feels the difference too. She had not known what was wrong nor how it was righted but she knows now that all is well.
Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes. An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.
"Now You See Him, Now You Don't," by E.M. Swift (from Sports Illustrated, 1986)
Suggested readers: Colts fans, Baltimoreans, drunks
[Bob] Irsay's first great public explosion came in the third game of the 1974 season, in Philadelphia. Marty Domres was the Colts quarterback, a player Irsay had once humiliated in front of his teammates by shouting, "Nice game, Marty, too bad most of the passes you completed were to the wrong team." In the third quarter, Irsay, prowling the sideline, tugged on Schnellenberger's arm and suggested he replace Domres with Bert Jones. Schnellenberger declined, adding — and here history becomes a little fuzzy — either that Irsay should mind his own business or that Irsay should attempt an anatomical impossibility while minding his own business. Whatever, Irsay took offense. "He just wanted to be part of the team, be the type of owner who would have a beer with the guys and maybe arm wrestle after the game," recalls Curtis. "He really wanted us to like him. That's why he was down on the field to begin with. And Howard was no diplomat. It was just bad luck."
Irsay, apparently inebriated, according to several team sources, stormed into the dressing room after the game — the team's third straight defeat — and announced to the players that Schnellenberger was fired and that Thomas would be their new coach. The team almost lynched him. In the coach's office, Schnellenberger asked Ernie Accorsi, the Colts public relations director, what the ruckus was about. "I think he just fired you," Accorsi replied. Irsay charged in and confirmed it. Then he left in his limo. Thomas, meanwhile, couldn't get into the dressing room; he was held at bay by a security guard who was under orders not to open the room to the press. "There's a guy named Thomas demanding to get in," the guard told Accorsi.
Thomas was right behind him. "What's going on in here?"
"Irsay just fired Howard."
"That's not the worst news. He named you as head coach."
"You're no head coach, for god's sake," Mike Curtis said.
"You shut up."
It was true, though. Thomas didn't even know the team's playbook. And for the rest of the season — the Colts ended at 2-12 — Thomas would ask startling things like "Do we have a halfback option pass?" in third-or fourth-down situations. To which someone would answer, "Yes, Coach, we have three of them."
(Hat tip commenter Lionel Osbourne)
"Total Loss Weekend," by Don DeLillo (from Sports Illustrated, 1972)
Suggested readers: The badly beaten
Kool tells me about the time he and CJ took the Redskins minus 14 against New Orleans. "We had them big," he says. "We were so sure they would romp we called in a second bet just before kickoff. Everything goes pretty much like we figured up to the last few minutes. Then the Saints begin to move. They can't win the game. They're out of the game. But if they get a touchdown, we lose. And now they're moving down the field. We can't look. We're afraid to watch. First we turn off the sound. Then we go into the kitchen and take turns peeking out at the game. The Saints are definitely moving. They're running, they're throwing, they're full of life. The Redskins don't care. They got the game won. CJ and me, we start arguing about who picked the Redskins. Then we start laughing. We're afraid to look and we start laughing and coughing. The Saints call time out to conserve the clock. I can't stop coughing. I take a peek and the Saints are still moving, and I'm laughing and coughing and my eyes are full of tears."
Grown men, they began tickling one another, then throwing punches to the arm and chest. Neither would volunteer to go out, look at the game and report back. The tickling intensified and they tried to push each other out of the kitchen. Forced into the living room, unable to stop coughing and laughing, Kool finally looked at the set long enough to see one of the Saints standing in the end zone with the football. The next day he woke up to find that his face had slid down on one side and gone completely numb. The right corner of his mouth hung open. His right eye was at a slant. His voice took on a faintly metallic tone and every time he spoke his mustache dipped far to the right but nothing else moved, making it seem as though some kind of mechanism had rusted in his head. The doctor said it was nothing more than a nervous condition brought on by anxiety, and in 10 days Kool was back to normal.
(Hat tip reader Mark M.)
"Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl," by Hunter S. Thompson (from Rolling Stone, 1973)
Suggested readers: Freak Power party members, 300-pound Samoan attorneys, Peter King
There is a dangerous kind of simple-minded Power/Precision worship at the root of the massive fascination with pro football in this country, and sportswriters are mainly responsible for it. With a few rare exceptions like Bob Lipsyte of The New York Times and Tom Quinn of the (now-defunct) Washington Daily News, sportswriters are a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover....
Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success as a sportswriter are: 1) A blind willingness to believe anything you're told by the coaches, flacks, hustlers and other "official spokesmen" for the team-owners who provide the free booze ... and: 2) A Roget's Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph.
Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said: "The precision-jack-hammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends...."
Right. And there was the genius of Grantland Rice. He carried a pocket thesaurus, so that "The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen" never echoed more than once in the same paragraph, and the "Granite-grey sky" in his lead was a "cold dark dusk" in the last lonely line of his heart-rending, nerve-ripping stories....