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.
Stoop-shouldered and sinisterly handsome, he slouches against the wall of the saloon, a filter cigarette in his teeth, collar open, perfectly happy and self-assured, gazing through the uneven darkness to sort out the winners from the losers. As the girls come by wearing their miniskirts, net stockings, big false eyelashes, long pressed hair and soulless expressions, he grins approvingly and says, "Hey, hold it, man — foxes." It is Joe Willie Namath at play. Relaxing. Night-timing. The boss mover studying the defensive tendencies of New York's off-duty secretaries, stewardesses, dancers, nurses, Playboy bunnies, actresses, shopgirls-all of the people who make life stimulating for a bachelor who can throw one of the best passes in pro football. He poses a question for us all: Would you rather be young, single, rich, famous, talented and happy-or president?
Joe Willie Namath is not to be fully understood by most of us, of course. We are ancient, being over 23, and perhaps a bit arthritic, seeing as how we can't do the Duck. We aren't comfortably tuned in to the Mamas and the Uncles-or whatever their names are. We have cuffs on our trousers and, freakiest of all, we have pockets we can get our hands into. But Joe is not pleading to be understood. He is youth, success, the clothes, the car, the penthouse, the big town, the girls, the autographs and the games on Sundays. He simply is, man. The best we can do is catch a slight glimpse of him as he speeds by us in this life and hope that he will in some way help prepare us for the day when we elect public officials who wear beanies and have term themes to write.
Right now, this moment, whatever Joe means to himself behind his wisecracks, his dark, rugged good looks and his flashy tailoring, he is mostly one thing-a big celebrity in a celebrity-conscious town. This adds up to a lot of things, some desirable, some not. It means a stack of autographs everywhere he goes ("Hey, Joe, for a friend of mine who's a priest, a little somethin' on the napkin, huh?"), a lot of TV and radio stuff, a lot of photography stills for ads and news, and continual interviews with the press. Such things he handles with beautiful nonchalance, friendliness — and lip.
Then comes the good part. It means he gets to sit at one of those key tables in Toots Shor's-1 and 1A, the joke goes — the ones just beyond the partition from the big circular bar where everyone from Des Moines can watch him eat his prime rib. It means that when he hits P.J. Clarke's, the maitre d' in the crowded back room, Frankie Ribando, will always find a place for him, while, out front, waiter Tommy Joyce, one of New York's best celebrity spotters, will tell everyone, "Joe's inside." It means he can crawl into the Pussy Cat during the late hours when the Copa girls and the bunnies are there having their after-work snacks, even though the line at the door may stretch from Second Avenue to the Triborough Bridge. It means he can get in just as easily at two of his other predawn haunts, Mister Laffs and Dudes 'n Dolls, places long ago ruled impenetrable by earth people or nonmembers of the Youth Cult.
Easing into the clubs and restaurants that he frequents, Joe Willie handles his role well. "Don't overdo it, man," he says. "I can hang around till 3 or 4 a.m. and still grab my seven or eight." He sits, he eats, he sips, he smokes, he talks, he looks, and maybe he scares up a female companion and maybe he doesn't. "I don't like to date so much as I just like to kind of, you know, run into somethin', man," he says.
"Sarajevo on the Potomac," by Dan Baum (chapter 15 of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, 1996)
Suggested readers: Press box drug warriors, Rep. Henry Waxman
On his way to work one swampy June morning that year, Eric Sterling noticed in the paper that Len Bias had died the night before. Strange, Sterling thought; Bias was so young. But not being a sports fan, Sterling wasn't much interested in the story.
Until he arrived at work.
It was like Pearl Harbor had just been bombed; nobody in the Longworth House Office Building was talking about anything but Bias.
Apparently, upon returning to his University of Maryland home after the Celtics signing ceremony in Boston, Bias had celebrated hard with some friends. Late on the night of June 18, he suddenly said he didn't feel well and went to lie down. He never got up.
His heart had failed, and it was the opinion of the Maryland medical examiner that cocaine poisoning had killed him. Because his stardom had hinged in part on a squeaky-clean image, the assumption was that the dose of cocaine that killed him had been his first. The press and public, primed to the idea of "instantaneous addiction," assume that first taste was crack. (It was never established what type of cocaine Bias took, or whether it was his first time.)
Congress's hometown basketball hero, the nation's model for healthy young black manhood, had been cheated out of his contract with the Speaker's championship hometown team, and the culprit was the most terrifying drug on the street. It isn't just a match in a tank of gasoline, Sterling thought, it's a blowtorch in a tank of nitroglycerin.
Immediately upon returning from the July 3 recess, [House Speaker] Tip O'Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-related committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today. The Republicans beat us to it in 1984, and I don't want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs. If we can do this fast enough, he said to the Democratic leadership arrayed around him, we can take the issue away from the White House.
In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs. What came before had been only skirmishing; the real Drug War had yet to begin. Within weeks the country would be marching, bayonets fixed.
"The Notorious Blago," by Scott Raab (from Esquire, 2010)
Suggested readers: George Ryan, Dan Walker, Dan Rostenkowski, Otto Kerner, Len Small, Big Bill Thompson, etc.
I've seen Blago render various iterations of this screed on television — to Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart and the ladies of The View — and I've read The Governor, the 264-page EP version of it, yet it's still invigorating to see it done like this — a live performance, so to speak, delivered in the office of one of his lawyers, a young man whose attention is evenly divided between his computer and Blago's soliloquy.
There is no question of sincerity here, no doubt in the depths of Rod Blagojevich's soul that Rod Blagojevich is innocent and that he and the citizens of his state are the true victims of a foul, foul crime. The man whose criminal behavior is alleged in the seventy-five-page indictment is a veritable Snidely Whiplash, conniving to strip funding from a children's hospital if he can't shake down its CEO for fifty large. But this chipmunk-cheeked fellow sitting here, his voice cracking with hurt and hope and gritty pride, is right out of a Frank Capra movie.
You sound like an optimistic guy, I tell him when his gums finally stop beating.
"I know what the truth is."
So did Galileo.
"But we still talk about Galileo today, don't we? And we do visit his grave at the church in Florence, don't we?"
"You know what's interesting? How about this — I believe Galileo and Machiavelli are buried in the same church."
"I believe so."
The young lawyer, Googling, confirms that Galileo is buried between Machiavelli and Michelangelo.
"Isn't it? Because a lot of what's happened to me is Machiavellian, and yet my vision and the rightness of what I've done is kind of Galilean."
Example of [Johnny] Carson when the spirit of pure, eccentric play descends upon him and he obeys its bidding, wherever it may lead: During the monologue on May 11, 1977, he finds, as sometimes happens, that certain words are emerging from his mouth in slightly garbled form. He wrinkles his brow in mock alarm, shrugs, and presses on to the next sentence: "Yetserday, U.S. Steel announced. . ." He pauses, realizing what he has said, turns quizzically to McMahon, and observes, " ‘Yesterday' is not a hard word to say." Facing the camera again, he goes on, "Yesterday — all my troubles seemed so far away . . ." Only now he is singing — singing, unaccompanied, the celebrated standard by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: "Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday." By this time, the band, which was clearly taken by surprise, has begun to join in, at first raggedly but soon improvising a respectable accompaniment. Warming to his berserk task, Carson does not stop until he has reached the end of the chorus. He resumes the monologue: "Now, what was I talking about? Oh, yes. Yesterday . . ." But no sooner has the word passed his lips than Doc's combo, determined not to let him off the hook, strikes up the melody again. Undaunted, Carson plunges into the second chorus. Having completed it, he silences the musicians with a karate chop. There is loud applause, followed by an extended pause. Where can he go from here? Cautiously feeling his way, he continues, "about twelve hours ago, U.S. Steel announced . . ." And successfully finishes the gag. Everyone in the studio is laughing, not so much at the joke as at the sight of Carson on the wing. Grinning, he addresses McMahon.
Carson: That's what makes this job what it is.
McMahon: What is it?
Carson: (frowning, genuinely puzzled): I don't know.
Two thoughts in conclusion:
(1) If the most we ask of live television is entertainment within the limits set by commercial sponsorship, then Carson, week in, week out, is the very best we shall get. If, on the other hand, we ask to be challenged, disturbed, or provoked at the same time that we are entertained, Carson must inevitably disappoint us. But to blame him for that would be to accuse him of breaking a promise he never made.
(2) Though the written and rehearsed portions of what Carson does can be edited together into an extremely effective cabaret act, the skill that makes him unique — the ability to run a talk show as he does — is intrinsically, exclusively televisual. Singers, actors, and dancers all have multiple choices: they can exercise their talents in the theatre, on TV, or in the movies. But a talk-show host can only become a more successful talk-show host. There is no place in the other media for the gifts that distinguish him — most specifically, for the gift of re-inventing himself, night after night, without rehearsal or repetition. Carson, in other words, is a grand master of the one show-business art that leads nowhere. He has painted himself not into a corner but onto the top of a mountain.
Long — or, at least, as long as the air at the summit continues to nourish and elate him — may he stay there.