(Photo: Little Italy, July 9, 2006)
Today is the start of the World Cup, an event that always makes me flash back to my time in New York. In 2002, right after I moved to Astoria from Philly, Brazil won; I remember being woken up from a dead sleep by the screams outside my window. (Astoria has a reputation for being Greek, mostly, but there was a sizable South American population there as well.)
Most of my World Cup memories, though, involve my friend Greg. In 1998, when the tournament was held in France, Greg was my boss; we worked together at Barnes & Noble (bn.com, really) on a vague rubric of nonfiction subjects. (This job was where my disdain for business books, the seeds of which had been planted by The Baffler during my undergraduate years, fully flowered.) One of those subjects was, in fact, sports, and we used this as a cover to occasionally steal out of our office in the middle of the day and head to the bar around the corner—which served giant, delicious, blue-cheese-topped burgers and cheap, but good, beer—to do “research,” i.e. watch World Cup games, particularly those involving Italy.
In 2006 we watched the final together at Tom & Jerry, the New York net-cognoscenti-beloved bar just above Houston Street. By that time our social spheres had shifted some, with couplings and uncouplings and moves and moves back. (My nights-and-weekends work schedule from 2003-2005 had taken a subtle toll on my own relationships with everyone as well, although that had ended and I was working days; but I was pretty unhappy with the way things were going, and I’d recently heard of an opportunity at Gawker Media, of all places.) The place was packed like I’d never seen before and never would again; people from nearby Little Italy and others who I saw regularly during my weeknight trips there intermingled, tables were jammed together, getting a beer was like traveling through a maze. It was hot, July in New York in an overcrowded space, and I kept sticking to my seat. Every so often a tomato pie would get passed through the crowd, slices available for the plucking.
This was the game with the Zidane Headbutt, which caused a lot of emotions to course through the decidedly pro-Italy crowd, who eventually were given a positive outlet for those feelings—Italy won in the post-head-butt shootout. The bar’s crowd spilled into the streets, which were full of celebration of Italy’s victory. I remember walking down the street that day with the friends who I’d watched the game and soaking in the joy, weaving through the throngs of people who were thicker than the crowd at any street fair. It was a Good Day, maybe one of my favorite New York days of my entire time there.
When Cup time rolled around in 2010, things were very different. My relationship and my job imploded within months of one another; I was back in Astoria, but only after a stint at home, and I was living in a tiny room where I had to walk on my bed in order to get to my desk. Bills were being paid through a calculus of teaching, copyediting, and writing. And Greg was gone after a hospital stay that seemed a lot lengthier than it was. Italy got knocked out in the first round of that year’s World Cup; I definitely watched a few games, but the bulk of what I remember from that tournament involves Shakira’s song, which seemed like a grab for those fans who were alienated by She Wolf deploying the sexuality of a 30something woman as the topic for (a lot of quite good) pop tracks.
I still miss Greg a lot—I think about him every day, because he had so many lasting effects on my life, from hiring me after my first job out of college imploded to sparking my love affair with Nova Scotia. He was smart and kind, with a slew of wonderful people surrounding him. But he also had a nervy wit that would snap me to attention, and oh man did I need those wake-up calls when I was younger and much more naïve. He taught me a lot about parts of the world that I hadn’t seen (some of which I still haven’t), and he helped me break out of some of the molds that had invisibly settled around me during my ever-obedient youth. When I was negotiating my terms for the Idolator buyout over the phone, in the hallway of Long Island College Hospital’s intensive care unit, with a knocked-out Greg in a bed hooked up to tubes a couple of hallways away, I tried to summon his strength and bullshit-calling powers (the company wanted to cut my salary by a substantial margin and “make it up with stock options,” hahhahaha) and I succeeded, and even held off their directives for a while after that. I think he’d be proud of where I wound up, and I want to keep pushing forward as a way to honor his legacy.
So while I’m watching games during this World Cup I’m going to silently toast Greg, my friend and mentor, who helped me take friendship and football seriously and other things not as much. Thank you, Greg. I love you and miss you.
Maura’s the best.