The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Remnants of All Things Dying

The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself.  I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended.  Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets.  They called this time of year “Spring.”

I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds.  My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw.  Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day.  The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America.  My dad called it “going to work.”

My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent.  A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home.  It started to drizzle.

I had hoped James and I could play some catch.  I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door.  I couldn’t say I blamed her.

James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did.  Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary.  He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen.  It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.

“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

James sighed a lot.  (Only my dad sighed more often.)  There were levels to his sighs.  Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great.  Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed.  Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.

What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom.  That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now.  A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence.  Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it.  Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.

When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story.  It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time.  So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James.  He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.

“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?”  he asked, because I was right-handed.

“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave.  What the hell difference does it make?”

Babe Ruth's grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

Babe Ruth’s grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building.  Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago.  Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.

I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it.  That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.)  I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.

“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.

I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.

“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips.  “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”

“With those Amazons?”  Christ, even the nuns looked better.

“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.”  He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.

“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back.  A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.

“Got one for you,” he warned.  But I knew what was coming.  A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt.  It felt like home.  Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass.  Home.

A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair.  James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.

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36 thoughts on “Remnants of All Things Dying

  1. I am watching the Mets/ O’s and thought I’d give your blog a visit. Great piece!

  2. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Outstanding writing and a marvelous post Bill; reminding us all of that adolescent age when we first learned that things we thought would last forever suddenly don’t. I’ ve also gained a new appreciation of Bridgeport from your work. Well done.

    Mike

  3. This is absoulutely first-rate writing, and top-shelf storytelling to boot; frnakly, I wish I’d written this.

    Did you know that Pat Jordan was born in Bridgeport? He grew up in Fairfield, but he wrote an excellent book (this was before he became an insufferable asswipe) called Chasing The Game about three high school hoops stars in Bridgeport in the early 70s. Very much worth seeking out.

    • Thanks very much, WK. I’ve heard of Pat Jordan, but somehow, the whole Bridgeport / Fairfield angle got by me. I definitely want to check out that book. Thanks for the tip!
      Cheers, Bill

    • Isn’t that the same Pat Jordan who wrote that book about being a minor leaguer with the Braves? I haven’t read too many basketball books. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is the “In Your Face Basketball Book,” but I’d like to read that Terry Pluto book about the ABA and now this one “Chasing The Game.” The wk reference list continues to grow. It’s becoming intestinal, stretches to the moon and back. God bless you wk!

      By the way, a side note. Bill, we’ve talked before about Native American Movies. Did you ever see Incident at Oglala? Not really a movie. More of a documentary and some even call it radical propaganda, but regardless. to me it’s one of the more interesting events in American history and I found it hard to not march up and down after seeing it, ready to carry a sign and what not.

      • I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book about pro basketball, so this my be a first.
        No, I haven’t seen Incident at Oglala, but it sounds like something I could be interested in. I’ll have to take a closer look at it on the IMDB data-base. Thanks for the tip.
        -Bill

      • Bill, the entire doc is on Vimeo. You might recognize John Trudell. That’s the same guy who appeared in the Val Kilmer film “Thunderheart” which I think is loosely based on Wounded Knee Part 2 on the Pine Ridge Res. I love the way Trudell uses eyes and head angles to express his point of view. Here’s the link https://vimeo.com/130041673

      • Thanks very much, Steve.

  4. glenrussellslater on said:

    Oh, yeah. I lived on Inverness Street, too, just off of Washington Avenue. What street did you live on that was right off of Washington Avenue again? I forgot, but I looked at Google Maps at the time and found out that we lived a couple of blocks away from each other at about the same time. By the way, did you ever play basketball at the “Y” on Forest Avenue between 1988 and 1989? If you did, you probably bumped into me! (Literally. And it must have hurt! You look like a big guy! I’m only 5’7″.) From your picture, you look a lot taller than that! Do you have any pictures of yourself from that era? Maybe I used to see you down at the “Y” basketball court. I used to play there about three or four times a week back then. I was working as a DJ overnights at WPOR-FM then, plus coordinating Boston Celtics (featuring the irrapressable Johnny Most) basketball broadcasts on the AM side, as well.

    Glen

    • Well, I lived off of West Kidder Street, and also over on the corner of Brackett and Spring Streets.
      Big guy! No, I wouldn’t say that. About 5’11”, 185 pounds. Your typical long-relief pitcher from about 1982.
      Never did make it over to the YMCA. Do remember WPOR, though. Very good radio station for country music fans.

      • glenrussellslater on said:

        To me, 5’11 is a big guy. Well, it’s big ENOUGH. Women like tall men. It’s just a fact.

        I lived at 90 High Street, on the corner of High Street and Pleasant Street, just about a third of a mile from Bracket Street and Spring Street. So you lived near Mercy Hospital and, I think, not at all far from that private school, the name of which I forgot. What year did you move to Portland?

        Glen

      • Well, my wife keeps me around, so I can’t complain. I lived in Portland I think from the late ’80’s into about the mid-’90’s. Also lived in several other towns in Maine over the years until we moved South a few years ago. Hard to believe it’s been about 20 years now (I think) since I last lived in Portland.

  5. glenrussellslater on said:

    If he worked there from ’91 to ’99, he probably knew my pal Jeff Palmer. Jeff got a job there in about 1996 or 1997. Then he moved down to Biddeford and got a job at Wonder/Hostess. He was also a shop steward at Wonder/Hostess. Luckily, he got out of there before they went out of business, and he got a job selling cars. Where, I don’t know. Maybe at Jolly John’s! (Remember those funny commercials?)

    Glen

  6. Your first two paragraphs had me hooked, Bill. I love the fuzzy-memory-stories and this one is quite entertaining. Keep up the good work and kudos for helping the Literacy group. Ω

  7. Wow. This is right up there with your best stuff. I love the reminiscences. This one speaks to me especially, because, at least in my own way, I understand being in a relationship with a friend that is one more of habit or of a shared long-ago experience than one which fulfills in any way. But it’s hard to admit that, and I’m not sure why. It’s hard to give up on these childhood friendships, and even when we do they stay with us. I had a friendship like that, and we reunited on Facebook and it didn’t go well. I was thinking of writing about that, but I don’t know if I will, ’cause you ruined it–this is beautiful, man.

    • And I hope you’ll take “ruined” as intended–there is nothing ruinous about this piece.

    • My old friendships are actually still in the process of decomposing around me. It is very hard to accept, but appears inevitable at this point. The hard part for me was that I naively believed that old friendships just got better with age. But sometimes, they atrophy and fade. On a positive note, there’s always room for fresh new friendships to develop, though it seems to get harder with age.
      Thanks very much for your kind words, man.
      -Bill

  8. Hm… sounds like any shot you might’ve had at professional ball you blew the moment you robbed Babe Ruth’s glove 😉 This is such a great story. I agree, you’re a good writer.

  9. Bill, great story, great writing. So many wonderful sentences!!…….”yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.” And that’s exactly what you’ve done here, found access to another time.

  10. glenrussellslater on said:

    You’re a very good writer, Bill. That’s a nice piece. I can feel the sadness and the sense of loss while reading it

    I’ll bet you were a good history teacher, too. I noticed the Civil War analogy. I remember a long time ago, you wrote a post about visiting Gettysburg. Are you a Civil War buff, sort of like how that first baseman for the Mets named Mex who should be in the Hall of Fame, is?

    Is P.J. Murphy, which is on the facade of a building that’s in that photo that accompanies your article, where your father worked?

    It’s a sad story about lost friendship. I can relate to that. It’s sad when friends go their separate ways. In fact, sometimes it’s been so long that you don’t even remember what you liked about that friend in the first place. Kind of like a lot of marriages.

    Speaking of factories, do you remember the Barber Foods factory in Portland? I worked there through a temp agency in 1988 or ’89, and I was the only one who had a good command of the English language; all the other laborers in there were Vietnamese. I’ve got a funny story about my work in that factory! It’ll either make you laugh or it’ll make you realize that I’m a total doofus, or both! It’s a pretty funny story, although kind of embarrassing.

    Glen

    • Hi Glen, Thanks very much for the kind words.
      Yeah, I was a history teacher for several years. Actually, I still volunteer as a history teacher at Greenville Literacy for people tying to get their G.E.D.’s. I still read a lot on the topic when I can.
      My dad worked for Remington Arms in Bridgeport for many year, then worked for Nissen Bakers in Portland, ME for several more after that. I do remember Barber Foods. Wasn’t that down near where the old Levinsky’s department store used to be?
      I’d be happy to hear your story whenever you want to share it.
      Thanks again,
      Bill

      • glenrussellslater on said:

        Yeah, I remember in another post you had mentioned that he worked for Remington Arms.

        As far as Levinsky’s, I used to go there to get clothing sometimes, just like, seemingly, everyone else, even though it wasn’t a particularly large place.

        I heard it went out of business some time ago, right?

        But, no, Levinsky’s was no where near Barber Foods. Levinsky’s was located on Congress Street, sort of halfway up Munjoy Hill, as I recall. Barber Foods, at least at the time, was right near Route 1, the same Route 1 that goes from Maine all the way down to Florida. Not anywhere near the Hill.

        I knew a few people who worked at JJ Nissen. Maybe they knew your father.

        Glen

      • Yeah, I think Levinsky’s did go out of business, but I don’t remember when. My Portland memories are already beginning to fade. I think my dad worked at Nissen’s sometime around ’91-’99, but I’m not sure.
        Take care,
        Bill

      • glenrussellslater on said:

        This figures. Just found this news item about Barber Foods:

        http://www.pressherald.com/2015/07/13/barber-foods-recalling-1-7-million-pounds-of-chicken-products/

        By the way, you mentioned in one of your posts that you worked for LL Bean up in Freeport. So did I, but just as a temp worker. I washed pots and pans in the employee cafeteria. Small world, eh?

        Plus, as you mentioned to me, you lived right off Washington Avenue, just a few blocks from where I lived. I also lived on High Street, Forest Avenue (the YMCA), Valley Street, and Norwood Street, which near Woodfords Corners, or, as they pronounce it up there, “Wudfuuds Connuhs”.

        Glen

      • Well, so much for Barber Foods.
        I also lived on Falmouth ST. directly across from the USM planetarium. Hell, I lived all over that town. I was at Bean’s for about 8 years. It was a good place to work, at the time. Not sure what it would be like today.

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