How I learned to be a man in a crowd of 80,000 people
Being adorned with tattoos has a predetermined set of pitfalls. Someday they will fade and shrivel and shrink and come to look more like a large mole than a work of art. Often they come with certain stigmas and despite tattoo culture’s meteoric rise in popularity and social acceptance, they’re still perceived as the exception.
But the worst part about having tattoos is how damn near impossible it is to get tattoo work done without having to answer the following, very specific, very stringent set of queries on a relatively constant basis:
“What is it? Did it hurt? How many do you have? Where’d you get it? I’ve always thought about getting one.”
And the ever present/ever fucking annoying
“What does it mean?”
In my mind I tell these people to fuck off and leave me alone time and time again but for niceties sake I resort to my well rehearsed set of responses:
“It’s a tattoo. Yes it hurt. They all hurt. Some much more than others but they all hurt. I have ten or eleven. Got it at a tattoo shop. Go for it. I don’t wanna talk about what it means.”
Luckily, my favorite tattoo, the one of many that means the most to me, is situated someplace the inquisitive type rarely see. And no, it’s not my ass — though that real estate is currently occupied by my one “funny” tattoo but that’s another story for another time.
High on my rib cage, near the pit of my left arm is a small tattoo, four or so inches in length, written in an almost hieroglyphic font. Its form is difficult to ascertain and somewhat alien to the eye. But when looked at closely, it becomes clear that my ribs bear the number “317.”
The unlucky few who have seen my flabby form prancing around shirtless ask immediately and without fail if that is the telephone area code of where I grew up.
“Nah,” I tell them. “That’s 609.”
“Oh. It’s a religious thing? Like John 316?”
“No. You see those have colons — like John 3:16 — to separate the chapter and verse. Plus, I’m an atheist.”
“Oh. Well what it is it?”
Sometimes they make me feel like an asshole for not wanting to discuss it. Some have even come right out and ask.
“Well why’d you get a tattoo if you don’t wanna tell people what it means?”
“First of all, asshole, it’s my body and I can put whatever the fuck I want on it without the concern of discussing its depth with your dumb ass.”
I’d like to pretend that’s what it sounds like. In reality I tell them sternly enough that they cease the line of questioning.
“It’s for my grandfather. And my dad. It’s where we used to sit at Giants Stadium. It was our section. Section 317.”
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s my grandfather — a stout Italian-American man known simply as “Ike” — was somewhat of a civic celebrity in Jersey City, New Jersey. He held myriad political, educational and city-sanctioned positions including the director of public works, dean of students at a local high school, city football coach and — most importantly in the history of my family — director of a medium-sized baseball stadium.
The saga of Ike is one of endless anecdotal ramblings. The stories of his alleged friendship with legendary football coach Vince Lombardi were never in short supply. The picture of him shaking O.J. Simpson’s hand the night Simpson won the Heisman Trophy, legendary sportscaster Howard Cossell standing beside the two, hangs somewhere in most of my relatives homes. The tale of the time Ike was on a podium in Jersey City seated next to former President Gerald Ford and the words “Hey who’s that guy talking to Ike?” were overheard in the crowd is told at every holiday dinner. It was hard to find someone in or near Hudson Country, New Jersey who didn’t know Ike personally, by name or by reputation.
For a time Ike ran Roosevelt Stadium, a 24,000-seat bowl situated on the west side of Jersey City that was used for baseball (Jackie Robinson as a member of the Montreal Royals made his professional debut at the stadium as they took on the Jersey City Giants), high school football and as a venue for rock and roll concerts along with other various city and countywide events.
In 1973 the New York Giants were in the process of moving from their then home of Yankee Stadium to the recently demolished Giants Stadium in East Rutherford (with short stints at the Yale Bowl and Shea Stadium in the interim) and they had nowhere to practice. I don’t know where, when or how it happened but at some point in that span the Giants front office got in touch with Ike, inquiring whether the team could use his stadium as a practice facility while Giants Stadium was being constructed in the nearby Meadowlands. Ike obliged and part of his compensation was access to season’s tickets once the new Giants Stadium was finished. He would have to pay for them, of course, but he would be given first crack.
Every year in early summer Ike would get a letter from the New York Football Giants asking if he’d be purchasing his lot of tickets for this season. Section 317. Row 15. Seats 12–15. Often this was the most exciting day of the year as phone calls would make the rounds throughout our family to figure out who could go to which games, who would miss the Eagles because they had to work, who could take their son to the Cowboys because two others had another family engagement that day (anyone who scheduled family gatherings on Sundays in the fall were cursed mightily by most of the men in our family, but as Italians generally regard family as paramount, there was little that could be done). Within a few days we had our schedule planned. Sometimes my uncle Timmy would make a game or two. Often it was my uncles John and Tony G. But the most consistent asses in those seats belonged to Ike, my father and me.
Those games were the highlight of my year and will forever remain highlights of my life. Not because I got to go to the game, eat a hot dog, take a sip of beer and watch the Giants in person. To me those were afterthoughts. Sitting there, wedged in between these two men was where I learned about everything from football to music to politics to food to manners to cheers to sportsmanship to chivalry to sadness to rage to utter joy. What I didn’t know at the time was that every other Sunday in the fall, wedged tightly between these two men who seemed to me be made of granite, I was learning how to be a man.
We had heard all over campus about the dorm raids that school security was performing that day. People were being kicked out of school left and right. A bag of weed here, a vial of cocaine there. For an art school, our university was incredibly conservative and they maintained a rather strict “one-strike and you’re out” policy when it came to drugs.
My roommate and I were at an off-campus party when we’d heard about the raids and we worried whether the bong we’d crafted a few weeks earlier — made from his motorized vaporizer (he had lung issues that required frequent use of an electric vaporizer. But apparently reefer was more important, which was fine by me) — would be found by campus cops.
A few hours after we rolled a twelve-inch long blunt and got incredibly, fantastically and unfathomably stoned my phone rang. It was my father.
“Fuck that,” I laughed. “I’m way too high to talk to my dad right now.”
Seconds later it rang again and again I ignored. Another minute or two passed and he called again. I began to worry that it might be serious so I picked up.
“Where are you?” he asked with a shaky voice.
“At my friend’s house in South Philly.”
“How soon can you be back at your dorm?” I immediately began to panic, as stoned kids are wont to do.
“Where is your friend’s? How soon can you be back at your dorm?”
“Fifteen minutes. But wait, what’s up?”
“I’m on my way there. I’ll be there in half an hour. Meet me at your dorm. Pack some things.”
I was now entrenched in a full-blown freakout, positive that they’d found the motorized super-bong. I immediately thought to myself “I’m getting kicked out of college. Fuck. I’ve been here three months and I’m getting kicked out. I’m so fucked. Fuck.”
“What happened,” I demanded.
“Just meet me there and we’ll talk about it.”
“What the fuck are you talking about,” I yelled. “Tell me what the hell is going on.”
“Ike died today. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you over the phone. Now can you be home in thirty minutes?”
I immediately wrote this off as a mistake as my grandmother — Ike’s wife –had spent several of the previous weeks in a coma, her death imminent.
“You mean Flutch died?
“No. She’s still here. Ike died.”
Gameday. Mid-fall. The roads were often a little moist with the previous night’s precipitation. Autumn in New Jersey is very wet season. The leaves were a palate of browns, yellows and reds. My father and I would wake early, pack the car with the sodas and sandwiches my mother had prepared and hit the road, often while the sun was still stretching to get up. We had to start as early as possible as our long routine consisted of driving up the Garden State Parkway from the southern Jersey Shore, battling the scads of Sunday tourists flocking to lower Manhattan, picking up Ike in Jersey City, getting ourselves down the 1 & 9 highway, over to Route 3 and into the parking lot before noon.
Nothing is as American as the football tailgate. Eighty thousand or more people with the common goal of eating, drinking and hoping the Giants would show up and hit someone. And hit them hard. After all, the infliction of maximum amounts of pain has long been the essence of Giants football.
But while most pre-gamers spent their mornings drinking beer out of their trunks and sucking down delicious Sabretts, our tailgates resembled something more in concert with an Italian family dinner. Chicken parm sandwiches, sopressata and mozzarella, olives, antipasta, fresh loaves of bread, vine-ripened tomatoes. The smells emanating from our car were not dissimilar of those from a Jersey City bakery.
After the tailgate, we’d make our way across the parking lot, through the gates, up the spiral walkways and into our seats. Hugs and salutations were exchanged with those seated around us, those families whom we sat amongst season after season.
Ike was referred to as “Coach” which hearkened less to his history as a high school football coach and more to his penchant for calling, with unbelievable accuracy, every single play in a game, moments before it happened.
“They’re gonna run a seven yard cross here.”
“Watch this. Halfback pass.”
“He’s gonna take this punt for a score.”
It was shocking to those around us the way Ike had some clairvoyant passage into the minds at work on the field of play but to me and my father it was just Ike doing what he did best; talking football.
Often a faceless shout would come from the left or right, above or below, “Hey Coach, what they gonna do here?”
When Ike was right, as he almost always was, the rows around us would burst into cheers and laughter and Ike would just sit, not smiling, his eyes locked on the field of play.
He played four years at Columbia when Ivy League football was a destination for some of the nation’s best high school players followed by a short stint with the NFL’s Boston Yanks (who would later become, in a very convoluted fashion, the Indianapolis Colts) and there was nothing in life Ike knew more than football. Of course the game had evolved greatly in the years since he’d left the sideline but at its core football was, and always will be, predicated on a few very simple ideas that Ike knew intimately.
Pick up yards on first down. Mitigate your mistakes. Set the edge.
His style of watching a game was incredibly proactive and even though he’d spent nearly every other Sunday at Giants Stadium, he was hardly a Giants fan.
“I just came to see a good game,” he’d say, often lauding the opposing team when they made a big play. If those surrounding us were upset when Ike would cheer with cool regard a Cowboys touchdown or a Redskins interception, they hid it well. I could only assume it was a product of their respect for the man who clearly dwarfed all in his presence with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game of football.
My father — or “Doc” as he was known in 317, due to his MD and therefore his ability to make a diagnosis right there in the stands — had a far more inquisitive way of watching. When he wasn’t being inundated with medical questions from the older crowd in 317, he would spend most of the game quizzing me, teaching me.
“4th and 4 at the 45. Punt? Or go for it?”
“It’s 1st and 5 with penalty, 2nd and 3 without. Would you take it?”
“Who’s covering the slot receiver on a cover two? Who’s got the tight end?”
While their styles of watching a football game couldn’t have been more polar — one a schemer, the other a student — the one thing they could always agree on was The Middle.
“The Middle is always open” was a mantra repeated throughout any given Sunday and anytime the Giants would pick up a first down or score on a pass over the field’s center, the section would burst into cheers, all eyes turning to the Coach and Doc.
“THE MIDDLE IS ALWAYS OPEN!!!” they’d all shout.
At the game’s conclusion we’d plod down the spirals walking in unison with the hordes of other fans who were, depending on the game’s outcome, exhausted or elated. Out past the arena where the Devils and the Nets played, back to the car, back into traffic, up Route 3, down 1 & 9, Concord Street to drop Ike off, down the Parkway, back to home. Game days were long and exhausting.
Game days were perfect.
“How the fuck did this happen?” I yelled into the phone at my father as I frantically rushed through South Philadelphia back toward my dormitory in Center City.
“We don’t know yet. He was with mom. She was bringing him back from the hospital. He just collapsed on the stoop. My guess is it was a heart-attack but no word yet.”
That afternoon, as she did most weeks, my mother had taken Ike to the hospital to spend the day with his comatose wife. They’d developed a routine to go, sit with her, talk, laugh, eat, stare at her body in silence. They did whatever it is we all do when we’re hovering over a near-dead body as the breaths in her chest pumped artificially and the tubes running in to and out of her nose kept her nourished.
For a man his age Ike handled the situation well. The near-daily grind back and forth, up and down the unforgiving highways of northern New Jersey seemed to be taking more of a toll on his accompanying children than Ike. However, he was a man of unfathomable strength so no one expected Ike’s body to show any type of wear.
Even in the last weeks of his life, as he neared his mid-eighties, Ike would often be found outside in the yard alone chopping up stumps, pushing and pulling wheelbarrows, hammering, sawing, digging. But what it didn’t yield on the outside, the weeks and months leading to his death, caring for his dying wife, were destroying Ike from the inside.
After one of their visits, my mother put Ike in the car to drive him home. On the way she played for him a Phil Collins song that reminded her of the two of them. Ike smiled and stared out the window, the concern for his wife digging the ditches in his cheeks deeper than normal.
“This is beautiful,” he said with his trademark rasp.
They pulled up to his house and my mother jumped out and hurried around the car to help him out of her high-riding SUV and up the stairs of his concrete stoop.
Not yet all the way to his front door Ike told my mother he was feeling dizzy and within seconds he was a heap in my mother’s arms, dead.
“I don’t know how I did it — don’t know where I got the strength — but I picked him up and put him in the lawn chair on his stoop,” she would later tell us. “I knew he was gone, I just didn’t want him to bruise his face. It was all I could think about.”
Within days Flutch was dead as well. The newspapers picked up on the story claiming that it was nothing short of phenomenal how two people could be so in love that they could quite literally not live without one another and die three days apart of completely separate causes.
“You fuckin’ believe this?” my cousin asked me, on the phone from her new home in Alaska. “Flutch and Ike are on CNN out here. ‘Everlasting Love’ is the headline.” We both marveled at how the news had spread.
Their wake was described to us by the funeral director “like nothing he’d ever seen before” as they lay there, their two caskets nearly touching at the heads. The hoards of people in attendance made two stops to pay their respects, first saying their farewells to Flutch, then stopping again two feet later to say goodbye to Ike.
He had scads of old friends, cronies, football players, teammates, co-workers, political allies and foils, and others whom no family member recognized but certainly knew and had a story about Ike who had made the trip to the funeral parlor in suburban Scotch Plains, New Jersey to pay their respects.
It really didn’t manifest in my brain until well after the viewing, the funeral and the repast but somewhere along the line it jumped into my consciousness like a shock of electricity and pained me more than any of those rites of death; who was going to come to the games?
Insensitive and shallow as I knew that feeling was, it just kept ringing in my head. If not Ike then who? Who would fill his seat? Who could? It was less of a logistical question than a hypothetical.
Every other fall Sunday in my young life I knew where I’d be far in advance but more importantly, I knew who I’d be with.
Being one of the oldest franchises in the NFL and possessing one of the most dedicated fan bases in sports has left the New York Football Giants with a quarter century waiting list for season’s tickets to which fathers often add their son’s names to shortly after their birth. I believe my sister’s children have eighteen or so years to go. But in an effort to actual turn those tickets over and get new buyers in those seats, the Giants have a set of sanctions that prevent the holding of season’s tickets. One of which is the inability to put your tickets in a will to a next-of-kin.
We flew under the radar for a few years after Ike died, the tickets being forwarded to the executors of his will and then being procured and distributed by “Ike” among our family. Somewhere in those years, the Giants ticketing office found out about Ike’s death and immediately rescinded our tickets, handing them over to whoever’s name sat at the top of the waiting list.
In the following handful of years, my father and I scored season tickets though mostly through ticket brokers or on websites. The cost was roughly the same but we’d never know, year-to-year or even game-to-game, where we’d be sitting. Sometimes we’ll head to Section 112 or Section 320. Sometimes we’d recognize a familiar old face walking up the spirals or at the beer stand and we’d nod and wave and chat briefly about the Giants while my father quickly diagnosed yet another ailment of an old friend. We broke the news more than a few times to old sectionmates of Ike’s passing. One man began to weep when he heard the news.
But just as many memories were built in 317, my father and I soon developed a new unspoken tradition which would always ensue as soon as we found our seats for the day: orient ourselves in our new environs, find 317 and see who was sitting in our old seats.
In 2010 the Giants — in partnership with their roommates the New York Jets — opened the shiny new monolith MetLife Stadium. Gone was the stout, sturdy, stoic Giants Stadium. Gone were the old scoreboards, the herculean speaker that jutted out about an entire upper end zone section and the cold, hard plastic seats (though we did buy a pair from the franchise. Of course we bought a pair from the franchise). Gone was the hallowed field that legend has it doubled as Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place. Gone were the famous spirals that led to the upper levels. Gone was Section 317.
It was also the first year in decades that we didn’t have season tickets. Due to new jobs, new babies and life, the Cowboys game was the only Sunday both my father and I were free. We got damn good seats twenty rows or so off the field. But just as the last few years in the old building were unfamiliar to me, so was this Sunday; new stadium, new seats, new people, new faces. For a while I attributed it to the virgin setting. Then I told myself that I was just growing up. I resigned the memories to the magic of childhood and hoped that the kid in the seat near me was sitting there, wedged in between the two giants in his life, discovering without knowing it how to be a good man and a decent human being. After all, that’s what going to a football game is all about.
In the ensuing years, before moving from New York City, I’d trek out to my parents’ home on Eastern Long Island on fall Sundays. I’d often hop on the Long Island Rail Road early on Sunday mornings and take the Ronkonkoma line out to its namesake stop where my father would wait in his little mid-life sports car that I pretended was a rocketship. We’d take the twenty-five minute drive to my parents low slung house and talk about the Giants. We’d play Sunday morning coach and discuss who needs to go, who needs to sign, which young players look good within the division. We’ talk about my mother and how her chemo treatments were going. We’d talk about my sister’s babies and how they kept my parents young. Eventually we’d pull up to their house where my mother would be waiting in the kitchen, pots of gravy bubbling, salads crisp and macaroni and meatballs steaming next to fresh piles of mozzarella and bottles red wine. She’d instruct us into the spare bedroom, where the big screen sat on a tall dresser, and my father and I would lounge on the bed, eating from a constant revolution of trays brought in by ma. The full-size mattress made for a tight squeeze as two grown men fight and jockey for position, passing bread and Twizzlers, olives and root beer floats back and forth. Our elbows would rub and our knees knocked into each other, just as they did in the ever-shrinking seats that always waited for us in Section 317.
I’m sure I’ll get more. There are at least four or five major pieces that I’ve been mulling for years. But for now the eleven tattoos smattered across my body represent eleven very real times and places and people in my life that even without the aid of permanently defacing my body I could never possibly forget. They’re there, sitting on my arms and chest and ribs (and ass cheek, but like I said, another story for another time) to celebrate those times and places and people in a fashion that no other memorial could. Just like those people and the moments and the memories they stand for, these tattoos will never leave me.
The wings of a pixie float inside my bicep, the feather of an angel’s wing sits encircled on my forearm, the recreation of Mary, Virgin of Guadalupe — who covers a section of my arm in silent perfection reminding me of my mother’s serenity and humility — are all memorials, figureheads of those things that are most important to me.
But nothing more so than the brisk fall Sundays spent bookended by my two favorite men in the world, taking football and learning life, and none more so than the “317” permanently etched in black ink, running down the side of me.
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