Sunday, April 12, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 22 (Geoffrey Chaucer)

Chaucer, Geoffrey
The Canterbury Tales


Here's a Canterbury Tale:

I played soccer from the age of seven until the age of fourteen. The first league I played in was the P.A.L in Los Gatos, CA. Out team was called the "Spartans," presumably after U.S.C., but who knows, maybe the coach was a classics scholar. Our reversible uniform jerseys were orange and blue. They were made from a very soft nylon, punctured with tiny air holes. I loved the way those shirts felt. I only played one season in California before my family moved to Vienna, VA because my father had been transferred there (he worked for Ford).

My father immediately registered me in the Vienna Youth Soccer League. My team was called "The Red Tornados." Our jerseys were constructed of heavy cotton with wide white and red vertical stripes. Due very little if at all to my own soccer skills, which fell in the modestly above average range, this team was possibly the greatest soccer team in the history of Vienna Youth Soccer.

The Red Tornados won the championship. The following season, we were given solid maroon jerseys with white collars and were called "The Maroon Tornados." We won the championship again. After that, they gave everyone in the league heavy cotton, reversible jerseys, bright yellow with a green collar on one side and solid green on the other. We changed our name again. This time were just "The Tornados." We won the championship anyway.

That was the end of the Tornados. After that, they took all of the best players and formed a traveling soccer team. The traveling team had red jerseys and black shorts. They were called the Dynamos. I didn't make the traveling team. We got a new coach, and about half the players on the team were new. Our new name was "The Darth Vaders." We sucked.

After that year, they created a sort of minor league traveling team, The Rockets, which basically took the rest of the good players off the team. I tried out for the Rockets, but didn't make it. The following season, I played on an all new team -- new players, new coach, everything. Because the entire league had had all of it best players harvested by the traveling league, I was now one of the best. I was the star of the team. We won the championship, I scored the winning goal. The coach gave a speech about how they couldn't have done it without me. Etc.

But I had ambition, I wanted to make the traveling team. I wanted to play for the Dynamos, but they were just too good for me. I did make the Rockets that year, and thus ended my glory days. I became an average player again.

I was more than a little heartbroken at discovering I wasn't as talented as my peers. I was by now in the eighth grade, and the changes of puberty and so forth had made me terribly insecure. I was short, thin, underdeveloped in every way, weaker than most of my friends, and I had no known talent that set me apart from anyone, nothing upon which to hang my proverbial hat.

By the end of my eighth grade year, I had changed a great deal. I had started smoking, drinking, getting high, popping pills, etc. I used to buy speed with my lunch money -- six hits for a dollar -- and take it at the beginning of the day, which would leave me very not high and also very hungry by lunchtime. My grades began to suffer, and I sort of lost interest in sports. (After school special, anyone?)

Another habit I picked up was video games. There was a little hobby store in town called Executive Hobby. I don't know why they called it that. They mostly sold Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia. They also bought about five video game kiosks: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender, Scrambler, and Pac Man. I spent all of my time and all of my money there. My habit got so bad that I began stealing from my mother's purse on a regular basis in order to keep it up. 

I once got the all-time high score on Scrambler. The owner and everyone else there cheered for me and they wrote my name on a card that they stuck to the top of the machine.

It was about a mile walk from our house to Executive Hobby, and one or another of my clever friends taught me how to hitchhike. Whenever I walked to the hobby store, I would stick out my thumb to see if I could get a ride. Sometimes I did, other times no. In the spring before I graduated middle school, I was hitchhiking with a friend one day when we were picked up by the mother of the star of the Dynamos, Mrs. T. She was a very animated Philipino, and she was also the Team Mother.

She never even questioned the fact that we were hitchhiking, just asked us where we were going. She then very excitedly told me that the Dynamos were traveling in the summer to play four games in England, and that they needed two more players to fill out the roster, and that if my parents would let me go, I could be on the team. It's highly likely that I got out of the car and ran back home to demand that my parents allow me to go to England with the Dynamos.

Another dynamic was occurring at home simultaneous to this one. My parents, as I have mentioned previously, were planning to send me to a Catholic high school. They really wanted me to go to Gonzaga, but were willing to send me to Bishop O'Connell if I so chose. I put up such a stink about being separated from my public school friends that my parents became convinced I was going to deliberately fail the entrance tests to both.

When I came home to ask if I could go to England, we somehow found a mutual point of agreement -- a sort of passive blackmail from both sides. The implicit threat of my failing the test gave me a modicum of leverage against their holding the purse strings that would pay for me to go to England with the Dynamos. They told me that if I were accepted to Gonzaga and O'Connell, I could go to England that summer to play soccer.

I scored in the 99th percentile on both tests, as I recall.

I think we went to England in July or August. I was reunited with my old teammates, as well as some new ones. There was also a new assistant coach, an Armenian man named, Mr. P. He was one of those coaches that ride people non-stop, picking apart every mistake you make on the field -- and he did so in much the same way my father did, which is to say he was constantly yelling at me.

We stayed in a little village in Kent called Longfield. It was a very sleepy little hamlet that had a football club called the Longfield Tigers. This was the equivalent of the P.A.L. or Vienna Youth Soccer, with two exceptions. First, play continued into middle age. Second, and more importantly, the team was not based out of a community center or police department. It was based out of a pub. Every game began and ended in the pub, including the ones we played.

On our first visit, the coaches let us drink a little beer, and they also let us play the slot machines in the pub. On our second visit, they realized that this was not such a grand idea, so they banned alcohol, except for Shandies (a beer and seven-up mix), and they banned the slot machines.

I was staying with a nice family that had no players on the team. At night, I would smoke in my bedroom. No one said anything about this, but I guess they told the coach, Mr. S, because he let me know he knew later on.

This was 1982, so British punk and new wave were still pretty visible among the younger set. I remember meeting a bunch of punks in the village, who introduced me to the Cure's album, Pornography, which had just been released. One day, they took me on a double-decker bus to a place called Gravesend, where there was an arcade frequented by all sorts of kids with green and red and purple hair, and where I could play and smoke to my heart's delight. It was kind of like how I might have imagined heaven.

It could also have looked like a pub with a slot machine where 13 year olds could smoke and drink and gamble to the wee hours o' the morn. I can remember a night where I was very happy. I was standing at the slot machine with a pint of Guinness and a cigarette hanging from my lip. Yeah, kind of like heaven. Until in walked Mr. P., who immediately took me outside and in his thick Armenian accent began to yell.

What am I going to tell people when they ask me is Michael a good boy? Should I lie to them and tell them you are? etc.

Then things really got ugly. On a day between games, we went to London. I don't remember much of what we did beyond taking a train into the city and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I remember all the pigeons in Trafalgar square. We may have gone to a church or two. At the palace, I spent a considerable portion of my money on souvenirs. Somewhere along the way I lost all the souvenirs, as well as my camera. I was very upset. I became sullen. Mostly this was because I didn't have any more money to buy a camera or to replace the souvenirs, so I was not going to have anything to bring home to prove I had been there.

Next day, we went on another trip, this time to Canterbury Cathedral. I remember feeling kind of awed by the place, even though I knew almost nothing of its history. At one point I wandered alone into the gift shop. I saw a glazed coffee mug that I liked, which bore a cross and the words "Canterbury Cathedral" on the side. Since I had no money, I decided to steal it. I put it in my coat and walked out of the store. When we got back together with the group, I bragged about this to a few of my friends, one of whom was the son of a grocery store owner, and was violently and perhaps biologically opposed to shoplifting.

He immediately ran and told his father, who ran and told Mr. S. No one said anything at first, but they sat me out of the next game. And the one after that. We then went on a side trip to Paris, where we got into all kinds of trouble for stealing all the toilet paper from the maid's closet and using it to carpet bomb pedestrians five stories below us on the street.

When we returned to England, Mr. S took me aside and told me that everyone knew I stole a mug and that I was smoking and drinking and gambling and that I was through with Dynamos when we got back to the states. He was very, very angry, though he didn't yell at me. He let me play the last two minutes of the last game. It was probably the last time we ever spoke.

But the mug made it home with me. I can remember using it each morning to drink coffee with milk and lots of sugar in it, and dunking my buttered slices of wheat toast in the mixture. I think I had it into my mid-twenties, when I dropped it on the kitchen floor of my apartment in the East Village and it broke. I was very sad when it broke, but there was no point trying to fix it. It had shattered into a million pieces, so I swept it up and threw it away.

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