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Gary Soto

The Winning Crowd

I like football best on television, in my own house, not at a sports bar where drinkers lift their eyes, the color of salmon eggs, when the crowd roars. I appreciate the ease of going to my own refrigerator, assessing what to eat and what to drink, and returning to the television, a Samsung, to watch what’s there to watch—wow, players in the air, no, players injured on the ground!

Then again, I don’t like TV football at all. I abandoned the gladiator spectacle years ago when I discovered there were more commercials than playing time, and discovered that the audience on Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) was young and crude, with faces painted in team colors—or for the Igors of Raiders Nation, sporting silvery spikes, shrunken heads, and fake (or real?) vomit. For some, every game is Halloween.

When my buddy David calls and says, “Let’s get stupid,” what he really means is let’s uncork a bottle of wine, preferably Napa Valley red, and watch football players do their high-paid magic on television, then ask each other, “What’s the score?” We’ll eat a deep-dish Zachary’s pizza, maybe get our veggies in the form of a Caesar salad, contemplate the meaning of life, then gaze up at the TV and ask, “Who’s playing?”

While I don’t really follow football, I have noticed that the crowds have been dressing down for years—slack jerseys hanging over wobbly guts and baseball caps worn backward or sideways but never as they should be. When David got tickets to the last game of the season, one between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, I decided to turn the sartorial tide, me against 40,000 other fans. The game itself didn’t matter—both teams were out of the playoff picture—but I intended to dress to the nines.

The drive over the Bay Bridge was smooth and the parking pricy but equally smooth. A young woman wielding a lit wand waved us into our parking spot. We got out, both David and I complaining goodheartedly about the cold. The sky was gray as cement, the wind blowing off the bay, seagulls crying above. A plastic bag, white as a gull, filled frantically with wind and was puffed away by the gusts.

But I wasn’t concerned about the weather. I had planned my wardrobe carefully, going item by item through my closet—actually, a mirrored armoire with cubbyholes for shoes and a secret drawer for cufflinks. I was wearing a relatively new purchase from Adam of London, a tastefully designed wool suit that’s chocolate colored, with very faint pinstripes. In another life, I might have been one of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965, when English band members dressed in three-piece suits, totally mod, totally groovy. And my shoes? Polished black leather high-tops, mirror bright at the tips. My hat? A black felt Borsalino, with a feather in its band. It would insulate my brain and conceal my receding hairline—a nice touch.

But you wouldn’t have noticed my suit because it was hidden beneath a long, maroon overcoat made by my wife in the late 1980s, when shoulder pads were all the rage and, in this case, nearly as big as pillows. The thick wool falls to my knees and, because of its heft, wearing the coat is a workout in itself. The buttons are football-shaped, made of polished walnut. The label inside says, “For my Sweetie.” That’s me, and there I was meandering through the parking lot, thirty minutes before kickoff, receiving stares from all the tailgaters—would-be jocks, or former jocks, or just fans out for a good time.

“Dude! Dude!” a bearded chap shouted. “You look hella strange.” He was holding a beer in one hand, a flaccid hotdog in the other—the frankfurter, I noticed, was nearly slipping from its holster of a bun and had a little yellow dot of mustard at the end.

“Go, Niners,” I offered with a clenched fist, ignoring his taunt. I gave him a peace sign, and a grin as I ducked through the smoke wafting from his hibachi. I could endure any insult to my attire, by far the sharpest within miles. And, hey, I might have said, “Look! Gold cufflinks on the T.M. Lewin 100 percent pima-cotton shirt I bought in London.” And over the weenies you’re flaying on the grill, I could have touched my scented throat and added, “Only the best—Le Male cologne.”

I shared more peace signs, then double-barrel peace signs, as I passed row after row of tipsy party goers, and bore with dignity the stares, the quips, “Oh, check out Grandpa,” the sound of beer cans crushed in wrench-like hands (what had I done?), and even a shower of peanuts.

“You’re causing trouble,” David smirked.

“True,” I agreed, dusting my sleeve of a clinging peanut. “A well-dressed man will do that.”

At my age (late fifties), you seldom get a chance to cause trouble, unless you lean on your horn and yell at another driver, “Hey, butt-face, use your turn signal!” Then speed away, eyes in the rearview mirror. Or unless on a lovely Saturday you are pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, and furrow your brow and mutter as you sign the ticket: I’m a naughty old man.

We made our way through security, where I had to unbutton my coat for a quick pat-down and permit security’s peek into my paper bag—two turkey sandwiches prepared by my wife, along with two Fuji apples, two bottles of water, and a small vial of antibacterial hand sanitizer. The bottled water was confiscated—no liquids allowed.

David had bought our tickets through Goldstar, an online retailer that offers 50 to 70 percent off the list price. We like a bargain; we like our entertainment cheap. But our seats were located in a section far from the action, and at such an angle that we were guaranteed stiff necks by halftime.

“Follow me,” I told David, who was shelling a couple of the peanuts he’d caught during the last barrage. I led the way to the lower level, now and then touching the brim of my hat as some fan smiled and pointed at me, the ambassador of good taste. One of the vendors, a young guy with a bluish tattoo on his neck, stopped his sales pitch. Excited, he sang, “You a hit man! You a hit man! Like in the movies, huh!”

“Young man, you have me all wrong,” I answered, slipping my right hand into my coat pocket. “I’m nothing more than a 49er faithful.”

The vendor shaped his hand into a pistol and I played along, my own hand rising pistol-shaped from my coat pocket, the trigger of my thumb pulled back. “Put yours back, buddy,” I warned, “and just walk away slowly.” He smiled and moved along, the bags of peanuts dangling from his fist, evidently unwilling to risk an encounter with this O.G.

 

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