2020 — Part 1:
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway
— Tom Petty, Crawling Back to You | Wildflowers
This is the first day of 2020. It’s the 11th of March. Wednesday.
I’m sitting alone at a hockey game with 5,000 other fans. My friend Danielle should be next to me, but the water heater in her rental house just crapped out, and she’s there instead.
For more than a decade, I’ve shared season tickets to the Colorado Eagles, now the minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, who play 50 miles to the south. By birthright, I’m a Philadelphia Flyers fan. But I’ve also adopted the teams of my adopted home state.
My wife Dawn and I do most things together. And we do most things together well. We work together. We hike together. We travel together. We even somehow manage to do home improvement projects together. Hockey is not one of those things.
Before Danielle became my permanent hockey mate, I’d invite a rotating group of friends to games. At least once a season, someone would cancel at the last minute, and Dawn would join me. Until the ‘Doba Drop of ’17, that is.
For weeks we’ve been hearing about a new strain of flu spreading throughout China. There are a handful of cases in the United States, but the majority are on a cruise ship on the California coast. The president is trying to prevent passengers from coming ashore so as not to create a spike in U.S. cases.
Authorities have discouraged the public from buying face masks, fearing a run could create a shortage among the medical professionals who really need them. Instead, outreach messaging has been focused on washing our hands for twenty seconds. Even for a frequent hand-washer like me, that’s a hell of a long time. So we don’t have to bore ourselves counting; we’re encouraged to quietly sing Happy Birthday to ourselves. Twice.
Fearing a similar run on hand sanitizer, Dawn bought a few bottles of straight rubbing alcohol and turned a case of Costco flushable wipes into an arsenal of germ assassins, always within arm’s reach.
A minor league hockey team works hard to fill every waking moment of a game with wholesome family entertainment: kiss-cam, dancing fat guys, scantily-clad cheerleaders (the E-Gals), slightly less scantily-clad skaters (the Ice-Gals) shoveling snow off the ice during stoppages in play.
Somehow, even the advertising is fun. If the home team scores six goals, everyone in the arena gets a free QDOBA burrito. If your section makes the most noise during the Minute of Madness (Dawn’s favorite part of the game, by far), everyone gets a free QDOBA burrito. For a few years, Eagles players would appear on the scoreboard to introduce the promotion. But the athletes, being inevitably Canadian and unable to pronounce the letter Q, would instead introduce the Ka-DOBA minute of madness — to the crowd’s amusement and the sponsor’s dismay.
Sometimes the burritos rain down directly from heaven. Well, actual burritos raining down from actual heaven would violate the laws of nature, gravity and public health. Instead, gift cards and tee shirts are rolled up burrito-style and attached to parachutes. The little bombs of happiness are strategically placed in the rafters above the seats.
Tee shirts and burritos are only so exciting. But strap them to a parachute or shoot them from an air cannon, and grown men will fight for them. One such grown man — let’s call him Gordie — all 260 pounds of him, sitting in the row behind us, is whipped into a burrito-bomb frenzy this fateful evening.
Crazy Train blares from the sound system as a young black-clad Sports Management major sprints across the rafters above us. Just as the first Vibra-Slap note rattles our ear-holes, she releases the flying burrito. Oh yes, we are all aboard.
The party-time paratrooper spirals down. Slowly. Softly. The ‘DOBA Drop is carried not by gravity or air currents but by the very hopes and dreams of the huddled masses below. The burrito knows — and we know — this is as good as it gets. No free food or soft cotton/poly blend will feel or taste as good as this very moment in time.
Surely, Gordie is feeling all these existential feels as he stiff-arms the boy next to him and lunges, haplessly hopeful, at the faintly falling food.
But this will not be Gordie’s night.
I see him in my periphery and throw a defensive elbow. Despite my post-up, gravity wins, and Gordie — sans-burrito — falls into our row and on top of us. There are no injuries, but Dawn’s glasses are bent, and her attempt at hockey fandom perishes in the crash. We leave early.
My father left early. To beat the crowd. No matter the score. We’d listen to the rest of the game on the car radio. My parents had a pretty typical 1970s divorce. My mom got to take care of us, and my dad got to take us to ballgames and buy a speedboat.
All the world’s a spectrum
My father had a connection at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the multi-purpose arena, home to professional hockey and basketball, and host to touring concerts, ice shows, and circuses. He somehow never paid for parking. He’d tell the lot attendant he was a friend of Deputy Dog and zip right in. We had the same seats, regardless of the event — section 226, right above the tunnel where the Flyers would enter and exit the ice.
Early departures aside, I loved going to games with my dad. It was often just the two of us, and I rarely got one-on-one time with any of my folks. He was in the restaurant business and always seemed to be negotiating a deal or working an angle when I was with him. Sometimes we’d arrive early and walk the bowels of the Spectrum where he’d meet with some guy in some windowless office while I marveled at framed photos of the stars who played the arena: Elvis, Bobby Clarke, Led Zeppelin, Doctor J.
I spent enough time in bars as a kid to have a regular drink: the Roy Rogers (a Shirley Temple for boys). The good ones came with a little plastic sword speared through the maraschino cherry. Before a hockey game, my dad and I were sitting at the sparsely populated bar on the Spectrum’s ground floor. Bellied up to the bar, sipping my Roy Rogers, the man next to me asked me if I liked the Flyers. An icebreaking softball question. I could handle that. “Yes,” I replied. “Who’s your favorite player?” he asked next. “Um, Bobby Clarke.” I shot back. He was still playing, if a little past his prime, so that was a fine answer. So far, I’m two for two in winning conversational points with a man in a bar. “What do you think of Peter Zezel?” he asks, taking it to another level entirely.
Why does this man want an eleven-year-old’s opinion on a rookie I may or may not have even heard of? “Aw, he’s alright, I guess,” I respond. My dad and our new friend (Peter Zezel, naturally) had a nice chuckle. The man was really a 19-year-old kid in a suit, probably homesick and grabbing a pre-game Coke to calm his nerves.
At another game, a colleague of my father joined us in the stands. I was a pretty quiet kid, even more so around strangers. “Hey, kid, you want some ice cream?” the man asks me. I definitely want some ice cream. “No thank you,” I reply. “C’mon, have some ice cream. Let me buy you a Choco Taco.” He persists. I have never eaten a taco taco at this point, let alone a Choco Taco, whatever that is. After some reassurance from my dad, they flag down the roving ice cream man.
In 1983, Alan Drazen is working as a manager for the Philadelphia company, Jack & Jill — named after the nursery rhyme their ice cream trucks blast on a constant loop. He identifies a gap in their product offerings: Jack & Jill has no exclusive items. You can buy a popsicle or ice cream sandwich anywhere. Drumsticks are great, but you have to eat the chocolate-covered ice cream first and the cone last. What if you could eat them both at the same time? Capitalizing on the current Mexican food craze, he dreams up the perfect treat with the perfect name: the Choco Taco.
After some trial and error, Drazen’s treat becomes a Jack & Jill exclusive. Mister Softee can suck it. The company expands distribution of the product beyond their trucks to stores and venues throughout the Deleware Valley, including the Spectrum.
The ice cream man hands me a steaming silver sleeve. I pinch it open and slowly slip the frosty, waffly confection into my hand. My father and his associate stop talking business and stare at me intently. The classic middle child, I’d much rather be ignored than be the center of attention, but even their pensive gaze can’t dampen the happiness I’m about to shove into my face. I take my first bite. It’s spongy-soft and freezy-cold at the same time. Peanuts, chocolate coating, vanilla ice cream, and something sort of cone-like, all in the same bite, every bite. Taking treats from strangers is pretty good so far.
Looking back, as a grown man who takes kids to hockey games and doesn’t stare at them while they eat, my memory is tinged with just a little bit of suspicion. But I don’t think the man was some kind of ice cream perv. I think he was a foodservice guy just doing some market research on another foodservice guy’s kid. Hell, maybe I played some small part in helping the Choco Taco take over the world.
In these same seats, in 1982, my father sits with ten-year-old me and my twelve-year-old brother for our first concert: Van Halen.
During the opening act, a woman with flowing blond hair, dressed in a long white bathrobe emerges from the tunnel beneath our feet to watch the show. Turning back to return to the Spectrum bowels, she steals a glance at the crowd. Our eyes meet. She is a he. He is David Lee Roth.
In the spring of 1982, Van Halen recorded a cover of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, intended as a summertime single to keep the band on the radio. Instead, the record company milked Pretty Woman until an album came out. Diver Down was 31 minutes long and 53% original material. The album and the tour that followed wasn’t an assertion of dominance from America’s foremost party band as much as it was Van Halen (the corporation) testing how thinly Van Halen (the artists) could be stretched.
I’ve watched a few full concerts from that tour this year. There are some holes, to put it generously. Dave is more like a high-kicking hype man who sometimes sings than he is a lead singer. He hasn’t learned his own lyrics to the new material. When he does get around to singing, he’s so behind the beat; if it were karaoke, the DJ would restart the song and give him another shot. But the band plays through, and the band is so face-meltingly good, it doesn’t matter if the singer doesn’t sing.
But ten-year-old me doesn’t know any of this. Ten-year-old me is blown away. I don’t like crowds, but I love this feeling, this energy, the concrete beneath my feet rumbling with bass, the collective roar of the fans, the exotic new smells. The Spectrum is a cement and steel church built to honor all the things that matter: dancing elephants, Moses Malone, Pelle Lindbergh, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Micheal Anthony chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels.
We leave early.
Tonight’s game has an eerie vibe. The Eagles are winning as usual, but something is off. During the second intermission, I check the news on my phone. America’s dad, Tom Hanks, announces he and Rita Wilson have the disease. The NBA suspends their season. Instead of taking my usual few laps around the arena, I stay put. I start to worry. Who’s washing their hands for 20 seconds? Who’s been to China recently? What exactly is in the air tonight?
Worrying is one of the things I do exceedingly well. I used to worry about germs a lot, but I’ve gotten to a better place. I’ve found other, more productive things to worry about. Playing beer-league hockey has helped me coexist more comfortably with germs. It’s not possible to be both a goaltender and a germaphobe. You have to pick a team. The germs on hockey gear produce a fragrance found nowhere else in the world but in every hockey bag in the world.
The third period starts. The Minute of Madness is upon us. With my section mates, I leave my seat and stomp my feet. But my heart isn’t in it. Deservedly, the free burritos are awarded to another section. As the game goes on, I’m distracted. I’m worried. The more I worry, the more I worry about whether I’m worrying about the right things. For a couple of decades, I’ve been living in a state of stasis with my worries and irrational fears. Like Snoopy and the Red Baron on Christmas, we know we’ll live to fight another day. It’s starting to feel like today could be that day.
Let’s say you have an irrational fear of aircraft falling out of the sky and landing on you and your loved ones. You worry about this a lot, more than you’d admit, even to yourself. The carnage plays in your mind like newsreel footage — when you look at your loved ones, when you should be thinking pleasant thoughts. But you can’t just sit in your basement and worry (because a satellite would definitely fall on you then). You have stuff to do. You’re smart. You can rationally understand there is very little chance of such a thing happening. You might even look it up on the internet. Don’t do that. That never helps.
Equilibrium comes when you battle irrational fear with irrational action. Quiet little rituals help keep planes from falling on your loved ones. Set the car temperature to an even number, always carry a hanky in your right pocket, put your right sock on first. It does not matter what you do, just that you do it. You find rituals that are benign and don’t inconvenience others. You make them work for you, not the other way around.
Now imagine aircraft start falling out of the sky at alarming rates. Despite the world being mostly water and second-mostly open land, the crafts always fall on people. Every time. It goes from being the thing only you worry about to the only thing everyone worries about. Authorities encourage people to sit in their basements so planes don’t fall on them.
Alone in my seat, my mind flickers through four decades of concerts and games and Choco Tacos and flying burritos and my father’s speedboat with its deep red sparkly paint job. With a 3-1 Eagles lead and ten minutes left in the third period, I wait for a whistle and leave early to beat the crowd. I get to the car, bathe my hands in sanitizer, and catch the end of the game on the radio.