“It’s pretty hard to say goodbye to anything.”
—Terry Collins, September 26
On September 28, we were prepared to say goodbye to the 2014 baseball season and one of its featured players. If the Mets were listed like a movie cast, Bobby Abreu would have been presented last, with a generous “AND” preceding his credit. He was a Special Guest Star in our midst, a big name dropped in to provide wow factor. Abreu wasn’t in a position to dazzle us much with his play any longer, but he did come to us with a sparkling Baseball Reference résumé. Five years from now, when he’s being overlooked for Hall of Fame consideration, everybody who wasn’t following the Mets at the end of his career will likely offer a similar take on how his career ended:
“Bobby Abreu was a Met?”
Some Mets fans (most, probably) will eventually paddle the same boat, but on the last weekend of his last season, there was no doubt with whom Abreu was reaching the end of the line. Bobby gave a teary “adios” address to the press on Friday night the 26th. His manager, Terry Collins, the one who’d known him from his first month in the majors eighteen years earlier, let it be known that Abreu would be on the field before it was all over and that he’d “walk off with his head held high”.
So he did. Collins started Abreu in right field in Game 162, batting him second. Come the fifth inning, Bobby did what we in attendance wanted him to do. He connected for a base hit, reached first, tipped his cap and indeed walked off with his head held high. He had been a Met by mutual convenience. Abreu needed a place to conduct his unfinished business and the Mets weren’t beyond relying a little much on a 41-year-old who hadn’t played in the majors since he was 39. If all had truly worked out, Abreu would have proven himself a lefthanded pinch-hitter deluxe on the order of Kranepool and Staub and Lenny Harris. He might have produced a legendary bases-loaded line drive like Matt Franco or shocked the house as Marlon Anderson did via inside-the-park home run. Instead, other than serving as a venerable bookend to Bartolo Colon, he didn’t accomplish a load. It took one more favor from the front office to bring him back for September from Las Vegas after he proved ineffective off the bench by midsummer. On Closing Day , though, we decided he was our guy and we sent him off as such.
“Special,” Bobby called his final swing for a single off Houston righty Nick Tropeano. It was “the way that I wanted to end it — on the field.”
Abreu said farewell to the game he loved with Eisenhowerian élan and we, in turn, bid a heartfelt adieu to a player we took to heart at the very last minute of his tenure with us. Yet we never thought to as much as wave across the diamond to Eric Young, Jr. A year earlier on the same basic occasion in the same ballpark EY had reason to take a Closing Day bow. The son of a major leaguer — who grew up in New Jersey rooting for the Mets, for goodness sake — swiped two bases and brought a stolen base crown to Flushing, the only Met besides Jose Reyes to reign with his feet. The first eight bags were accumulated in Colorado garb, but it was as a Met that he broke out. For a while there in 2013, Eric’s alacrity was the catalyst that made the Mets go. Every cliché you remembered from the ’70s and ’80s seemed to come true. Our fastest man led off, got on, ran and we won. Speed didn’t slump.
Then it did. Young’s 2014 didn’t glitter. First the Mets would win with him in the lineup even if his numbers weren’t stacking up. Then they wouldn’t win. Then he didn’t play. By September 28, he was the pinch-runner for Abreu, the ex-Phillie and ex-Yankee who received the parting ovation; he scored in his stead, too, when Lucas Duda doubled him home. Five innings later, the final out of the Mets’ season landed in EY’s glove.
He was non-tendered on December 2, out of our lives as quickly as he’d go from first to third. We never did say goodbye.
No goodbye to or from Eric Young, Jr., save for social media . No goodbye to Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose last appearance as a Met came September 25. Dice-K, who morphed over time (but not as much time as we tended to attribute to him) from the worst of torpid Steve Trachsel to the best of handy Ray Sadecki , converted his free agency into a deal with the Softbank Hawks in Japan. No goodbye, either, to Gonzalez Germen, whose final throw for the Mets was fired in the same Nationals Park nightcap where Matsuzaka let loose his last Met pitch. The middle reliever with the two slightly confusing names, who was pretty good in 2013 and not quite so good in 2014, was sold to the Yankees just the week before Christmas. No goodbyes to Andrew Brown, who homered on Opening Day, or Juan Centeno, who threw out Billy Hamilton, or Buddy Carlyle, who soaked up innings. The sendoff Abreu got was the aberration, not the norm.
One of the strangest aspects of being a diehard fan of a given team is that we invest ourselves in the fortunes of total strangers and then, when they are removed from our laundry, we usually move on without as much as a goodbye. Abreu flashed us the sign that he was going and we executed the clap and run. Young, Matsuzaka, Germen and anybody else we didn’t realize we’d never see again as Mets weren’t able to extend any such hints.
It was just business. We’re cool with that, generally speaking. We get it. In our minds, we tinker with the roster without anybody asking our opinion. We’ll pull for any 25 Mets you put in front of us, but we’ll love the ones who win on a regular basis. The ones who don’t have to have left us with a pretty good reason to care that they’re gone. Attrition and deletion and transactions happen. They have to. It’s how nature renews itself. It’s how 79 wins might become more than 81.
It’s still strange that there’s no formalized separation process, no severance package that encompasses a standard amount of applause and atta-boys. You might luck into being a ticketholder on the day it is clear Bobby Abreu is done being a Met, but otherwise, it’s all very sudden and matter-of-course. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, as the Billy Joel lyric that accompanied scores of awkward head shots in the Long Island high school yearbooks of my adolescence went, I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again. Except the opportunity to say goodbye to the so many faces in and out of our lives is surprisingly rare.
In 2014, I said goodbye to Bobby Abreu, baseball fan to baseball player. I said a few other scattered goodbyes as well. Those on the other end of my sentiments had no idea that’s what I was doing, but that’s OK. These were for me as much as it was for them.
A POSTHUMOUS SALUTE
Richie the Cop (1964-2013)
A sizable plurality of the inscriptions I collected in my high school yearbook made reference to one of two distinguishing characteristics of my life in the spring of 1981: I had been editor of our school paper and I was the most obvious Mets fan going. If my yearbook was within easy reach (rather than buried in a box underneath a pile of other boxes), I could quote accurately and warmly my favorite bon voyage. As is, I remember the gist pretty well.
“I hope you get to write about the Mets for a big paper company like the Daily News.”
“A big paper company,” but not like Georgia-Pacific. I always liked that. I liked the guy who wrote it, too. He was a Mets fan, which I suppose was why I asked him to sign. We’d been to a game together in 1980, the year the Magic was said to be Back, a week or so after it became clear it had all gone “poof”. The Mets lost to the Giants that night. Mark Bomback pitched all right, but Lee Mazzilli got himself thrown out at home.
Anyway, the guy’s name was Richie the Cop. I could tell you his last name, but it seems superfluous. We all called him Richie the Cop, kind of as a joke, but not exactly. I’m 99% certain he signed my yearbook as Richie the Cop.
Richie the Cop might have wished me luck in a prospective career that meshed with what I’d been doing in high school, but Richie, a year behind me (so I didn’t get to return the favor, yearbookwise), never left any room for doubt as to what his future held. It was all there in his name.
He was going to be a cop. Hell, he might have already been a cop, and he was only sixteen. Seriously, he already had ins with the local police and fire departments; he was organizing a chapter of the Guardian Angels when they were hot stuff; I think he was captain of the Civil Air Patrol. Anytime I had to write a story that touched on school safety or security, I had to go-to sources: our principal and Richie the Cop.
Our shared fondness for the Mets and the time I watched Halloween at his house on WHT (that’s Wometco Home Theater for you young streamers out there) notwithstanding, most of my relationship with Richie was of a friends-in-law nature. He was a friend of a friend, so I can’t say I ever really got to know why he was determined to be a cop. Simply, he was Richie the Cop when I met him, he was Richie the Cop when he signed my yearbook, he was Richie the Cop a couple of times when his name came up in conversation post-graduation, which wasn’t very often.
Last weekend, as news broke about the awful shootings of two New York City police officers, my mind (probably instinctively wishing to avoid the sadly predictable grandstanding that followed) wandered to Richie the Cop. I wondered whatever happened to him. It didn’t take a ton of Googling to discover a) he became a cop — an NYPD detective — and remained a volunteer fireman; b) he threw himself full-bore into the rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center; c) he served 20 years on the force before retiring to Florida; d) he contracted lung cancer from prolonged exposure to the air at Ground Zero; and e) he died from it at 48 in 2013.
I read the truly heartfelt remembrances of him; found he was at the center of a petty homeowners association controversy  regarding the flag he chose to fly in front of his house; and listened to him describe to high school students in 2011 what it was like to be smack in the middle of the events of September 11, 2001 , and how for him and his fellow first responders it was a date that lasted unfathomably far beyond the day in question. Richie the Cop from high school wound up being Richie the Cop in every sense of the word.
Thirty-three years have passed since he wished me well writing about the Mets for a big paper company like the Daily News. Come to think of it, that may have been our final encounter. Still, when I learned of his passing, I felt like I lost more than a friend of a friend from a very long time ago. As a decent human being, I generated sympathy for his family and sorrow for his suffering, yet as someone who had come into contact with him on a recurring basis as he came of age, I registered little sense of surprise. This man, when he was a kid, was ready to serve when the rest of us hadn’t a clue as to what we were going to do with our lives. He knew what he’d do with his, and, ultimately, he’d give it in service to others.
To have died as a result of what he always wanted to do was a tragedy. To have lived doing what he always wanted to do…let’s just say there was no chance Richie the Cop was going to turn out to be merely a high school nickname.
FAREWELL WITH FAIR WARNING & a side of kasha
Adiós Edison (1980-2014)
Too often you don’t know you’re saying goodbye to the institutions you counted on to always be there. Got a place you like to eat? Maybe not a place you go every week or month but you knew it would be around forever because it had always been around forever? Then one day you hear it won’t be?
Maybe you heard about the Edison. It was tough to miss the coverage , if you were so inclined. Word came down in early November that the Edison — Cafe Edison at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street — was closing. It was the same story anybody who likes any place in Manhattan that isn’t overpriced runs into. Big Nick’s on the Upper West Side, where Stephanie and I continued our first date from Shea Stadium , went out because of high rents in 2013. Smith’s, in the West 40s, where now there’ll never be a plaque on the wall commemorating it as the spot I was offered my first book deal, went out  because of high rents in 2014. Inevitably it was the Edison’s turn.
Miles of homages were written to the Edison between the time it was known the doors would close and the time they closed on December 21. All hit essentially the same notes: anachronistically reasonable prices for Times Square; they’d let you sit and talk; locals didn’t feel outnumbered by tourists; Broadway types would casually come and go (we once saw Peter Gallagher chatting up the cashier while Tony Roberts kept to himself at the counter); great matzoh ball soup.
Yes to all that. Yes to a coffee shop that had been in action since 1980 but I would have guessed 1945. No sentimentality needed. When you sat down at the Edison, there were whiffs of disinfectant to be caught. The service was fast but not remarkably friendly. You were better off sticking to essentials than roaming the menu free-range. With all that taken into account, though, there was no need to dismiss it from the hotel to make room for another upscale eatery. But that’s what was going to happen by late December.
Stephanie and I, who’d been dining intermittently at the Edison since 1997 — before Chicago, after Mamma Mia, on the heels of the King Tut exhibit around the corner (geez, who’s a tourist now?) — were determined to make one last pilgrimage. We never thought we’d have to. Who’d get rid of the Edison?
Then again, who’d get rid of the Variety Store? The Variety Store was a staple of my childhood. It was on Park Street a few doors down from the Associated run by Murray the Goniff, as my parents called him. No goniffs at the Variety Store. Need school supplies? You’d go to the Variety Store. Want Colorforms? The Variety Store would hook you up. Overcome with the desire for a little paddleball with the string attached? The Variety Store would take care of you. Gotta blow bubbles? The Variety Store had all the fixings sealed in one handy little container for under a buck. There were adult things, kid things, most things. Maybe they sold carburetors in the back. The mostly infallible Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book gave an unnecessarily hard time to “variety stores completely lacking in variety”. Ours, on Park Street, had variety.
What they had less and less of, I noticed as fourth grade became fifth, was customers. When I made my way inside, which wasn’t as often as I had in first and second grades, I noticed I never had to wait in line. I hadn’t seen a line there in years. Maybe that was why the Variety Store didn’t last to sixth grade. They held a going-out-of-business sale. It was dandy. Oodles of people. Scores of sales being rung up. The store that seemed so sad unshopped brightened up at the end. The mom ‘n’ pop who ran the store never stopped smiling as long they had a bustling clientele.
It was only temporary. Just like the Edison when we visited the first week of December. But I picked up the same Variety Store vibe. Everybody was friendly to the point of being festive. We didn’t tell our waitress anything like “It’s such a shame you’re closing.” She knew it. We knew it. All that was worth saying, really, was a cup of matzoh ball soup, please, a matzoh brei and, oh what the hell, a side of kasha varnishkes, even though at the Edison, a side of kasha varnishkes is the metric equivalent of a side of beef.
It’s not that hard to find a good bowl of matzoh ball soup in New York. It’s damn near impossible to track down a matzoh brei. The kasha varnishkes, I’ll freely admit, was pouring it on. Still, as I rationalized to Stephanie, what’s the point of coming for one last meal at the Edison if it’s not going to be your last meal at the Edison? Perhaps if I’d finished every last bite of brei and varnishkes it would have been my last meal, but modest restraint in consumption, like our legs en route to our evening’s entertainment, was exercised.
I left one of my larger tips — if you’re not going to be a sport here now, then when? — and we ambled uptown for a play called “The Oldest Boy,” which was, in its way, also about saying goodbye. Reincarnation was at the heart of the plot. In a related development, the keepers of Cafe Edison suggest maybe they’ll reopen for blintzness elsewhere.
COLI-SEE-YA DOWN THE ROAD
Vaya con Dios Islanders (1972-2015)
For ten years, I’ve lived four miles from a venue where one of North America’s four major professional sports is played. For more than 30 years before that, I’ve never lived all that much farther away. Yet in the 42 National Hockey League seasons that unfolded at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum between 1972 and 2014, I attended exactly one New York Islanders game, on February 24, 1990, primarily at the behest of a friend who grew up in Rockland, moved away and had recently moved back to New York. He’d never seen the Islanders he’d listened to as a kid, the ones broadcast on radio by John Sterling on a station you could actually pick up throughout the Metropolitan Area. Neither had I. What the hell, I figured on that Saturday afternoon not quite a quarter-century ago. We drove over, parked, walked up to the box office and purchased two tickets. The Islanders and the Red Wings tied at three. I was glad to have done it once but, honestly, it didn’t strike me as all that exciting.
I wasn’t fully moved to return until I knew the 43rd season of Islander hockey at the Coliseum would be the last. I’d been thinking about going for a while, though. Caught up in the excitement of the Islanders’ conquest of the Capitals and Penguins in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, I suggested to Stephanie, “We should go to an Islanders game next year!” I believe the response was tepid.
This exchange was repeated every few winters until last month when between periods one night — “you sure are watching the Islanders a lot lately,” she noted with the accuracy of Mike Bossy in his prime — I finally got her. Well, Bobby Nystrom’s mini-locker got her. It was part of an ongoing promotion. You buy a special ticket to a given game, you get a mini-locker bearing the tiny sweater of a Hall of Fame Islander. They were showing an extended highlight of Nystrom’s game-winning goal from 1980 versus the Flyers, the one that brought Long Island its first of four Cups, which probably wouldn’t have attracted Stephanie’s attention, except a) I was treating the footage with Buckneresque reverence and b) they showed a picture of the mini-locker.
My lady apparently can’t resist a mini-locker. And I could no longer resist the pull of a place I hadn’t visited since Billy Joel rang in 1994. Funny, I resisted it for two decades just fine. We went to Billy’s New Year’s Eve concert in ’93. It was my 31st-birthday present to myself. The tickets had to be bought through a broker who advertised in Newsday. I want to say they cost me 80 bucks apiece, an absurd amount for a concert at the Nassau Coliseum, I thought, except it was my birthday and this was Billy Joel and he and I were both Long Islanders.
The concert was splendid. The Coliseum was frightening. Mostly the getting out. A jammed arena, narrow concourses, preternaturally impatient natives, a parking lot that didn’t easily give up its automobiles. I’d seen the lights go out on Hempstead Turnpike and it wasn’t pretty.
I didn’t need to go back there…except for one more Islanders game. Even though it was claustrophobic over there. Even though I was always hearing how the building was falling apart. Even though I had grown to fear and loathe driving and there was no rational public transit route from where I lived. Even though the sight of me watching hockey for more than five seconds at a clip was surprising enough to someone who’s lived with me for more than 24 years that she was moved to comment on the novelty of it. Some nights we have hockey on in the background so much that you could film a Kids In The Hall sketch in our living room.
The Islanders were finally good again, though I’d like to think bandwagoning was only a little of a motivator. It was mostly the goodbye. It seemed not quite right to ignore what was happening four miles away. Here was the descendant of one of the great sporting dynasties of my lifetime, my team (to the extent I’ve maintained one in my fourth-favorite sport), my home turf. Next year, the Islanders break away to Brooklyn to join the Nets. Brooklyn is Long Island like 2000 was part of the last millennium: technically, it’s true; really, it’s not.
No, not quite right. The mini-lockers with Nystrom’s name, the promised appearance of Mr. Islander himself, the resurgence in the standings, the electricity palpable when I watched on MSG+ and listened to Howie Rose and Butch Goring, the accommodating scheduling of a Saturday afternoon game on December 6 because, even though it’s only a four-mile trek, for me four miles of driving can be like 400 for you, the now-or-almost-never aspect, the wife’s curiosity piqued just enough to get a nod of “sure” when I said tickets were available.
So I bought ’em and we went. It rained that Saturday, which automatically makes me extra nervous behind the wheel, but my back roads of choice were familiar enough to nullify the inherent discomfort, and before we knew it — because four miles is 396 fewer than 400 — the Coliseum was in view. I crossed Hempstead Turnpike, made the right I had to make on Earle Ovington Boulevard, gave a fellow in a booth $8, asked if this is where I exit from when the game is over (it was), and found a space with no problem.
I hadn’t driven to a sporting event since 2005. How strange to do something you almost never do, something you might never do again unless you get over your anxieties (or the Mets move to the Town of Hempstead). My driving yips kicked in approximately two decades ago and never departed. Maybe if they hadn’t materialized I’d have driven to another Islanders game sooner. Maybe my lightly used car wouldn’t predate the last good Islanders playoff run, the one from 1993.
From the outside, the Coliseum looked no different from the one I put in my rearview mirror in the early hours of January 1, 1994. It looks no different from the one I saw when I got off the Long Beach Recreation Center bus on November 29, 1974, for my first and only ABA game (Nets 107 Colonels 98). That’s the disconnect I have with the idea that the Coliseum is old and outdated. Hockey types, usually with a mix of affection and resignation, have taken to calling the Coliseum “the old barn”. Barn is a compliment. But old? How could it be old? It looks like it did when it opened in 1972, and when it opened in 1972, it was state-of-the-art. That’s what I always see when I see the Coliseum from the outside. It’s also what I see when I see my 1992 Corolla that I drive as little as possible, thus it has far less mileage than the building next to where it was parked a few rainy Saturday afternoons ago. First impressions are hard for me to shake.
I expected Will Call to be a hassle. It wasn’t. Our tickets were waiting for us there, along with our mini-locker vouchers. I expected the fetching of mini-lockers to be a hassle. It wasn’t. I handed over our vouchers, I was cheerfully given our lockers. I expected to lean against a wall and chew on a pretzel for an hour before game time, but there are actually a couple of sit-down restaurants in the Coliseum basement (establishments that summon the shoehorned spirit of the Casey’s 37 deli in Loge, except with seats). The accommodations helped win Stephanie over since she hates when I bring her to sporting events where we wind up leaning against a wall and chewing on a pretzel for an hour before game time. I usually compound the unattractiveness of those situations by trying to convince her what fun she’s having.
Unlike the Alamo, the Coliseum has a basement. It’s ice level, I gathered, because it’s where everybody who has business on the ice who isn’t a player or a ref seems to loiter. Various youth groups would be ushered on and off the ice through the course of the day to sing patriotic anthems. I saw the first batch ahead of their moment in the spotlight, down in the basement before the game. I like that you can’t hide at the Nassau Coliseum. We’re all in this together.
We had our “bistro” lunch, which was appropriately overpriced but quality, and re-entered the real Coliseum, where there were no cutesy cafes, just concourses that, with a sellout crowd, are presumably designed to squeeze the ever-lovin’ life out of you. It could’ve been Billy Joel New Year’s Eve flashback time, but I think that experience worked to our advantage. We knew how it could get. Plus, Stephanie and I are both longtime Long Islanders now. The missus can throw an elbow or check a hip with the best of them.
Saving grace to the milling masses: many Mets caps dotted the concourse. Orange and blue go very well with blue and orange.
I learned later that one of Stephanie’s hesitations vis-à-vis live hockey was she assumed violence wasn’t confined to the ice or getting through the ladies room line. Maybe at a Flyers-Rangers game in the ’70s, but nah, not here. Didn’t even occur to me. If anything, the Coliseum atmosphere, as taken in once we climbed to our seats in section 309, was as warm as any I’d encountered at a sporting venue. Saturday afternoon in Uniondale. Lots of families, lots of kids, bushels of enthusiasm. Standing O for Bobby Nystrom when he dropped the ceremonial puck. “Jaro! Jaro!” for the hot goalie Halak I won’t pretend to have heard of until this season. The “Let’s Go I-lan-ders!” chant I always appreciated from afar in the dynasty days. Even a polite ripple of applause, us included, for Martin Brodeur when he alighted in a Blues uniform (boos, too, ’cause, c’mon). The only expression of approval I couldn’t get behind was the “YES! YES! YES!” thing that’s caught on after Islander goals because some idiot Phillies fan ruined that for me  back in May.
Islander goals were plentiful in the first period, which was outstanding because not only did it appear the home team was going to make us all happy, but it put the whole thing in a sweet light. See, the action said to Stephanie, this is ice hockey at its best. We’re all cheering and chanting and the weirdo in the Blues sweater in front of us can’t say anything and this is the Coliseum being the Coliseum as I’ve always understood it, the way Shea was Shea as I choose to remember it.
The game fell apart in the second period. The Blues matched the Islanders’ three goals in a blink. All the scoring, until John Tavares (no relation to Frank Taveras) grabbed the lead back late in the second, had occurred in our direction, making me think the Coliseum was unfairly titled the way a knock hockey table I recall from Camp Avnet was. But, no, the third period showed the Islanders couldn’t kill a penalty anywhere on this Saturday and St. Louis skated away with a 6-4 win, much to the sickening satisfaction of the weirdo Blues fan in front of me.
I properly despaired of the result because the Isles had been doing so well and I’d been paying attention and now it was all in front of me and maybe I was a jinx. But, y’know, it was just a game, and we had a disproportionate amount of fun compared to how much we know from hockey. I was surprised at how well I followed the action considering I’ve never been more than a dabbler in the sport. A loyal dabbler , to be sure. I’ve cared for the Islanders’ fate since they got off to a swell start in 1974-75 and held my limited allegiance forever after. But, as a friend put it to me when I admitted I could only commit to so much of anything that isn’t baseball, “You have enough on your plate with the Mets.”
True. Over the years, I’ve become reluctant to identify myself as “an Islanders fan” or “a Nets fan” or “a Giants fan,” no matter that those are my favorite franchises in their given endeavors, because I call myself a Mets fan and I know what goes into that. Let’s just say I’m a Mets fan who likes those teams, too, mostly on television. 2014 was the first year I was fortunate enough to see all of them in their respective buildings. When cheering for the Nets at Barclays Center, the Giants at MetLife Stadium and the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, I was legitimately part of the “we,” but still felt like a bit of a guest. These are other people’s habitats and I consciously respected their folkways. At Citi Field, despite its insistence on not being Shea Stadium, I’m in my habitat. I have my own ways.
When my second and Stephanie’s first Islanders game was over, we took our time departing 309. We snapped a few pictures, soaked in all the championship banners, then regained our bearings and visited the team store. We were intentionally pokey partly to let the arena and the lot clear out and partly because I wasn’t in the mood to abruptly sever my relationship with either the cheerful afternoon or the allegedly old barn. Though I briefly envisioned constructing a winter in which I garnered the confidence to make the four-mile trek on a few non-rainy weeknights — because, y’know, I’m so into the Islanders — I knew I wouldn’t. I knew this would be it. A year from now, the team will be situated two counties west in a facility that I find promising for basketball  but was by no means designed for hockey (though I can’t complain about its accessibility by train). The building we were in, the only one the team and its community have ever known, will attempt to schedule other attractions once the skates and sticks are loaded up and shipped to Brooklyn. Maybe we’ll come back for Ice Capades. Probably not.
The diehards who filled the amenity-deprived joint on this Saturday afternoon and have filed into it in fluctuating numbers but with bedrock passion since 1972 will be left to wonder what the hell was wrong with the way it had been. Fans of the New York Islanders — even those of us on the veritable fourth line of engagement — had just done what fans at a game are supposed to do. We were into it. Unlike my 2014 experience with the Giants and the Nets and the Mets, there wasn’t a lot of getting up and walking around and fiddling with phones. There was nowhere to walk around to. When you’re voluntarily in the middle of nowhere, you don’t really miss what isn’t there. The pedestrian traffic defies regulation and the bathroom capacities are counterintuitive considering the presence of a beverage-consuming public, yet not once in sixty minutes plus two intermissions did I think it would sure be great to be distracted by something else while I’m here. There was hockey. That’s what you paid for. That, and maybe a Bobby Nystrom mini-locker if you paid a little extra, is what you got.
It was a good deal.
A DO-OVER ADIEU
Hello Again, Goodbye Again, 653 (1962-1991)
I went home again in August. Screw you, Thomas Wolfe.
This was a one-shot, a one-off, a make-good, you might say. This was home in both the spiritual and physical sense, but it’s not where I live. Not now.
This was 653 — not to be confused with .653, which was Chris Young’s OPS at one point in late May. This 653 was the number on the door of the house I grew up in. I’ve had no legal entry to 653 since 1991, when my father sold it. I didn’t live there anymore and he didn’t want to live there anymore. It wasn’t in the family anymore.
So why would I be inside it?
I still spent a lot of time there in my dreams. I don’t mean I wistfully wished to while away my days at 653 on the East End of good old Long Beach. I mean whenever I had a dream that involved “home,” it almost invariably played out there. I assume that’s a common phenomenon. Your subconscious doesn’t necessarily receive change-of-address cards. Home doesn’t stop being home. Or so I’ve dreamed.
In my waking hours, 653 was consigned comfortably to the past from 1991 until 2012 when I consciously decided I kinda wanted back in one more time. 2012 was the summer I decided to get all sentimental journeyish about turning 50  and I went back to my hometown and my home street. I walked by once or twice or thrice on a sunny Sunday afternoon while listening to the Mets and Astros play their final National League game. I was like my friend from high school who used to drive by the house of this girl he liked. He wasn’t a stalker, but he acted like one. Like him, I don’t know what I would’ve done had the light been on and somebody stepped outside to issue an invitation in. In his case, the girl was a girl. In my case, the girl was a house.
I acted like a stalker toward 653 in the summer of 2012. I acted like a concerned stalker a few months later, after Sandy. I had to see if she…it was all right. It looked OK. I drove by it on a weekday afternoon. I don’t think anybody was home.
This past August, I found myself in Long Beach for what’s become something of an annual tradition. In 2012, I strolled the boardwalk and stalked the house. In 2013, I inspected the section of the boardwalk that had been rebuilt post-superstorm and stalked the house, though only fleetingly. In 2014, this time with that very same aforementioned friend from high school (who I’m pretty sure has stopped looking for that girl), I casually continued my quest.
Casually, as in we decided it would be nice to get together for brunch and catch up one Saturday morning that became a Saturday afternoon (because neither of us is a morning person) and it was plenty nice. He picked me up and we drove to the Laurel Luncheonette, one of the true culinary icons of Long Beach. I don’t know the last time we ate at the Laurel before that Saturday. It looked sort of different, it smelled exactly the same, it tasted great. We tasted enough so that we needed a full-on boardwalk stroll afterwards.
This year’s boardwalk was the completed version of the in-progress model from 2013. Sandy tore it apart. Our federal tax dollars (mostly) put it back together. In August of 2014, I considered it a fine investment. Like the Laurel, it’s not quite what it was but it’s essentially as good.
We strolled and we caught up and we reached the end of the boardwalk, a long nine blocks east. Our next stop was going to be my friend’s house, where his mother still lived, but since we were in the neighborhood — 653 isn’t far from the boardwalk’s eastern terminus — I said how about we make a little detour to “my house”?
I was stalking again. And this time a figurative light was on. That is to say that for the first time since 1991, I saw somebody sitting on the porch at 653. It wasn’t anybody related to me, but it wasn’t an apparition, either. It was a woman who by all indications lived where I used to live.
Now was my turn to be a Becker…and wouldn’t you like to be a Becker, too? The Beckers, you see, were the family who preceded us at 653. For years we received their junk mail. One time we received a couple of Beckers, maybe just passing through Long Beach, maybe on their own sentimental journey. I don’t remember the details. I just remember people showed up at our door explaining they used to live here, can we come in and have a look around? We were a suspicious bunch, but we said sure. We even did the same for the people who preceded the Beckers, people we wouldn’t have known from a hole in the head. Ever since 1991 and the abbreviated, dissatisfying goodbye I said to 653 — my father was selling because my mother had died the year before and nobody was in the mood to linger one sentimental second longer — I intermittently imagined a Becker moment for myself. It wasn’t really a thing for me until 2012. Not having it happen meant I kept thinking about it and kept dreaming about the house…the house that now had a person on the porch.
Here it was. My innate shyness didn’t stand a chance. This was no time for reticence or fear of rejection. This was 653 and a woman who could let me in so I could have the moment with it I didn’t get 23 years earlier.
“Excuse me,” I said after climbing the stairs. “I know this is going to sound strange, but I grew up in this house and…”
“You’re Prince?” she asked sans surprise, as if she’d been expecting me.
So it wasn’t strange. It wasn’t strange at all. Once a 653er, maybe always a 653er. Not only had Prince returned home, but I learned that somewhere between 1991 and 2014, an actual Becker had made one more sojourn. Home wheedles its way into everybody’s subconscious, I guess. Or maybe it was something in the pipes that affected the water we all drank. It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to produce any ID or scoot to my current digs to dig out an old report card. She took my word that I was a full-fledged member of Club 653.
“Do you want to come inside?”
And there I was. Me and my friend, who’d been in the house plenty when we were young but getting inexorably older. He made small talk with the woman. I searched for clues.
Was this really the house that wouldn’t leave my dreams? That I didn’t leave for good until I was 27? That left me when I was 28? The house where I witnessed two World Series being won and who knows how many mundane games being lost? Was this still home or is that sort of thinking nonsense? Would 653 recognize me?
The outside, which I had observed on my periodic walk ‘n’ stalks, had been spiffed up but there was no mistaking it was 653. The inside…that was a different story. This family, the very same one to whom my father sold, had been there a long time. They made their own choices. Lots of choices. Much was different.
It had to be. My mother, the self-styled interior decorator, had her own tastes. They weren’t for everybody. I doubt they were for anybody. I could tell they hadn’t been for these people. I could tell because the woman who let us in more or less said so. She laughed at the memory of the pink cabinets in the kitchen. That was my mother’s call, to match the pink fridge when she went on a painting binge. Little pink cabinets for you and me, apparently, but not for 653’s occupants after 1991.
The kitchen’s tones were more muted and its appliances more modern. Walls had been taken down. Space had been opened up. The living room and dining room were no longer separate entities. The room in the back we occasionally labeled “the den” but was just where all the junk got piled now operated as an actual den.
My friend and I were steered away from the upstairs, site of my room, which seemed appropriate. When the pre-Beckers visited us in the vicinity of 1977, we gave them the full tour. They remembered everything. When they got to my room, they drew a total blank. And now I couldn’t see it. Maybe it never existed except for me. Maybe my childhood, adolescence and deliberately developing adulthood were all figments of my imagination.
We were, however, offered the run of the basement, an area that never fully reached its potential in my day. The woman’s husband was down there, using the space that connected the garage to everything else as an office. I guess they solved the exhaust fumes problem. My friend asked about damage from Sandy (it’s the Long Beach equivalent of “what did you do in the war, Daddy?”). While they compared notes on what was bad and what could’ve been worse, I excused myself to use the basement bathroom. I didn’t need directions. I liked that I knew where things were even if they looked a lot better and therefore not as good in my eyes.
Only the seasoned visitor would feel out what were the constants. A door frame here, a stained glass window there, the cherry blossom tree that had been planted in the backyard when I was a kid and now seemed to expand upward and outward like the Astrodome. The most shocking constant was a rotary phone on the basement wall. It sat down there for 29 years unused in our day. It could have been mistaken for a prop from the Universal Studios tour. These clever people not only kept it but activated it. Go ahead, the woman said, pick up the receiver. There was a dial tone.
Our house was a big house by most standards, but even with three stories and a passel of rooms, it felt small in 2014. I suppose the house you grew up in is supposed to feel smaller when you’re in your fifties, but the more I stood there, the more I felt that if I took one more step, I might crush half a dollhouse. Perhaps 653’s mystique was receding. It still pops into my dreams now and then but not as frequently and usually in a less haunting manner.
When I said my 1991 goodbye to 653, the place was empty in advance of the closing. Dad was already moved out. Those pink cabinets had lost their shine. For the 2014 reunion, the house was simmering. People lived there. People were doing things. The current owners said something about maybe selling in a couple of years and moving down south before another superstorm hits — they had to replace the basement floors and don’t want to go through it again. For the time being, though, they were reassuringly entrenched. I don’t know if 653 recognized me, but it didn’t give me the cold shoulder it inadvertently showed me in 1991.
After saying thank you to these gracious folks and walking away, I was sated by a sense of closure or coda or simple yet overwhelming peace. Only Shea Stadium can challenge 653 for Most Mythic Structure in my backstory. It took me several years to realize I was, at least on a functional basis, over Shea’s demise. I still miss it, but I’ve accepted (grudgingly) that it will never again materialize as the Flushing-bound 7 express hums past 111th Street. Plus I had a genuine opportunity to kiss Shea goodbye in 2008. 653, on the other hand, was the place I didn’t realize how much I missed, not for living, but for leaving. I needed to leave — to say goodbye — on something approaching my own terms.
Delayed but definitive accord in this realm has been reached. My subconscious and I stalk no longer.