Eats, Shoots, And Leaves
October 16, 2012
— barclay's center, brooklyn nets, center court shots, newcastle united, nufc, pandas out of their natural habitat, poor grammar
As holidays go, this one hadn’t started off well, Mick remembered. Right out the gate, he’d ruined his second-best Nobby. He had thought to make the best of a bad situation by sampling a proper American hot dog as soon as the American Airlines flight lifted off the runway at Heathrow. The stewardess handed him a small foil packet with a smaller, slightly stale bun, and a skinny, overcooked piece of meat that looked like someone’s John Thomas after they’d fallen asleep in the tanning bed. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the mental image.
It was the little plastic mustard packs that had done the damage, though. They were nigh impossible to tear open, and when he finally ripped one apart with his teeth, it splashed a long yellow streak down his chin and right across the ‘ock’ in Northern Rock. Worse, there was still another seven hours at thirty-thousand feet for the stain to bed in. Tina was reclined next to him, her head resting on a pillow and a sleep mask over her eyes. She’d have something in her purse, but she woke up mornings like a junkyard dog on crack. Murderous thoughts ran through his mind, but the fasten seat belt light was still engaged.
Tina’s American cousin had invited them to spend the holidays in New York, but Mick hadn’t wanted to go. It was the worst possible time to fly off on holiday. The Toon were at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, and then down to the Emirates three days on. Tina wasn’t having it, though. She said that seeing the ball drop in Times Square was on her ‘bucket list.’
“Whenever did you get a bucket list?” he’d asked. “And who needs one? All I want to see in this life is a few balls dropping into the away netting with Fergie and Arsene looking on. That’d fill any Geordie’s bucket right proper. The two most famous noses in football, those!”
Tina’s smile had vanished like the bloke who owed you twenty quid on payday, and her sparkly green eyes darkened noticeably. She just stood there, hands on curvaceous hips, saying nothing and everything at the same time, until he went into the salon, and logged onto Expedia.
The Nobby was surely just the first casualty in all of this; he was certain of that. Thankfully, he hadn’t packed the signed, game-worn strip. Not that he could get his head through the tiny neckhole. Despite all the stick he took for it, he’d always went for the small players. Mick didn’t have a single Shearer or Carroll in his collection, but he had half a dozen Bartons, one or two Duffs and a Bellamy. He even had an Owen, not that he had the stones to wear it these days. Nobby was his favorite, however, and there was no end to the comments he heard everywhere he went in Newcastle, wondering why a twenty-two stone bloke would wear the kit of a dainty little Incan who could run circles around him.
“It’s envy, it is,” his mum-in-law had said more than once. “You’ve a small mind that wishes the rest of you was just as small.”
The bitch! He’d have half a mind to tell her that her daughter didn’t think he was all that small, but always thought better of it. Tina would hear of it first thing, and the sofa in the salon had never been a comfortable bed.
He wore the black and white virtually everywhere he went because he was Toon through and through. But combined with his portly belly, pasty complexion and big cauliflower ears popping out from under a shock of black hair, it had inspired more than one punter to liken him to a giant panda. That didn’t matter; Mick had always been good-natured and ready with a smile. They could take the piss with him all they liked so long as they respected the shirt. No one was going to disparage his club and get away with it. It was one of the two things in his life that were above reproach: Newcastle United Football Club and Tina. Although, he could never convince her that it wasn’t necessarily in that order.
When they landed, Tina made a huge fuss over the stain.
“Why didn’t you wake me, luv?”
Mick just smiled down at her. “You was sleeping like a regular princess, you was. Didn’t have the heart to disturb you.”
Tina rolled her eyes to indicate just how much she bought that bit of syrup, but slipped her arm around his waist and began dabbing at the splotch with a napkin. Never mind that it was much too late.
Her cousin Rita, and Rita’s Puerto Rican husband, Omar, were waiting at the gate. The Hispanic was short, and reed-thin. He was so tiny that he made Nobby look like a loosehead prop. Omar’s eyes momentarily widened into saucers when he caught sight of Mick, but, to his credit, he had control of himself. Tina dragged Mick across to the waiting area and ran into Rita’s arms. They looked like a pair of Barbie dolls, Tina with her blonde hair and long legs and Rita matching her, but with fiery red locks and freckles. The two began jumping up and down and screaming giddy affections at each other.
“Oh, you’re a sight for sore eyes!”
“You look gorgeous!”
“No, look at you, you’re slim as ever.”
Yes, please, Mick thought. A glance at Omar suggested he felt the same. Omar shook his hand, and offered a polite welcome, but Mick could see the laughter that was trying to break free from the edge of his eyes and the corner of his mouth as the little Latino sized up the bigger man. It was like the word panda was on the tip of his tongue. As always, Mick let it go. After all, Omar had shown the dignity not to give voice to his thoughts.
“Do you like football, then, Omar?” Mick asked, trying to make small talk.
“No, mano, the NFL isn’t, — how do you say it? — my cup of tea. I’m a big hoops freak, though.” He looked at Mick hopefully.
The Geordie just shook his head, and Omar shrugged. Mick couldn’t recall having ever touched a basketball in his life. He didn’t bother explaining the difference between proper football and the egg tossing that passed for it over here, either. Instead, he just nodded politely and followed the little man’s lead, patiently waiting until the girls settled down.
When they’d had enough of each other for the moment, the two women began extolling the virtues of each other’s ‘fine looking men,’ as Rita put it. Finally, when the pleasantries were exhausted, they headed out to short term parking and piled Mick and Tina’s luggage — mostly Tina’s if you must know — into the boot of a large SUV.
Rita made sure everyone’s seat belts were fastened It required quite a bit of fuss to loosen Mick’s sufficiently, not to mention a sly aside to Tina that, oh my, she had certainly caught herself a big one, hadn’t she. When she announced everyone was secure, Omar drove out onto the expressway. To her credit, Tina had shown nothing but pride, accepting the remark as the highest of compliments. She gave Mick a smile that made him hope Rita and Omar’s guest room was fully soundproofed. Mick, however, had also caught a glimpse of Omar’s eyes in the rear view mirror as they pulled out. They were full of mirth.
Everything in New York — except Omar — seemed to be large. Massively large, and loud. Sirens regularly mixed in with thumping hip-hop from passing cars. And the smell. That was large, too, even in the dead of winter. Mick wondered how the people stood it in the hot summers, and was thankful the window was rolled up as he peered out. There were tall buildings everywhere, even in the distance. At one point, the highway passed an industrial area with a few low lying factories and warehouses, a tiny desert in the middle of an oasis. On the horizon was Manhattan, with the Empire State Building centering a long row of towers. Did it never end?
Omar’s merriment quickly vanished, as he tried to deal with the insane traffic. There seemed to be no respect for the rules of the road; people drove fast and loose, leaning on their horns as they roared up behind, or switching lanes without any notice. That, at least, was no different than home. More than once Omar muttered under his breath that another driver was trying to kill them, and Mick learned a few choice Hispanic epithets. He wasn’t quite sure, but he was willing to put a few quid on the definition of ‘maricon.’
Gradually, Mick warmed to the holiday. He was able to pick up highlights from the Prem, and sightseeing around the city with Rita and Omar was pleasant. They were both quite nice, as it turned out, and never once asked if Mick might want to wear something other than a Newcastle kit. There were some breathtaking vantage points, both at the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, but the Ground Zero view of the new World Trade Center going up was the most profound of all.
As well, there was an amazing array of foods to sample. For Mick, it almost made up for missing the Red Devils and Gunners. All of them lunched and dined out every day, with no end to the variety of cuisine. There was Thai, Indian, French, Italian, Chinese, American, anything they could imagine, in fact. Mick’s ample stomach flourished.
The foursome even took in a play, “Wicked”, which had the girls talking well into the night, although neither Mick nor Omar could fathom what the fuss was about beyond it having something to do with the Wizard of Oz. Still, the benefit was that Rita and Tina were only too happy to accompany ‘the boys’ to Brooklyn to see a basketball game.
Omar was very excited. It turned out that the arena in Brooklyn was brand new, and the team had come over from Jersey to make it their new home. It was beyond Mick why any club would leave its fans behind for any reason. Omar looked at him in astonishment when he brought up the point.
“It was for the money, mano” he explained, without even the slightest hint of shame. Mick started to protest, but then just shook his head, keeping his peace. Oh well, he thought, this was America, wasn’t it? They had some strange ideas about life, Yanks did, and money topped the list.
The arena, like everything else in the city, was massive. Every bit of the inside was polished to a brilliant gleam. There were shops, concessions, bars, and big screen monitors everywhere.
“Hold on to your ticket stubs,” Rita said, as Omar passed them out. “They’re having a drawing tonight for a chance to win a million dollars.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Tina smiled, looking up at Mick and squeezing his arm.
Omar chuckled. “It’s not that easy,” he explained. “You have to hit a shot from center court and they only give you one chance.”
“Oh, well,” Mick laughed in turn. “Count me out then, mate.”
Rita laughed, too. “Omar’s been practicing ever since they announced the promotion.”
Their seats were near center court, and were roomy and comfortable, even for a big man like Mick. They weren’t exactly front row, but then Mick hadn’t expected them to be. The best seats at St James Park were very dear, and it certainly wouldn’t be any different in the land of the almighty dollar, would it? Still, when Omar had told him the price for a courtside seat, he’d nearly choked on his hot dog. This time, he took care to keep the mustard well away from the Barton he had selected for the occasion.
The four of them settled in, and Mick had to admit that the game was passably entertaining, if a bit tedious. After all, these tall giants went endlessly back and forth across the comparatively small court. One side would make or miss a shot, and then the other, and so on, and so on. They scored virtually every time, which made Mick feel that Americans were a bit greedy and spoiled. Goals were rare and therefore more appreciated in football.
The music, and the announcer’s long, drawn out celebration of each Brooklyn score, added to the experience, but it was difficult to work out just why the referees would blow the whistle, then sometimes give the fouled player a free shot — which was a lot like a free kick, Mick thought — and sometimes not. Still every once in awhile, one player or another would rush towards the basket and make an astonishing leap followed by an acrobatic twist. Each move was a little different, but was always capped off by a thundering slam dunk that brought even Mick to his feet.
When he did, though, the moment was tempered by some snickers from a few rows behind. One time, he distinctly heard the word ‘panda’ followed by a chorus of laughter. Omar became more visibly annoyed with as this went on, and one time, red-faced and with his hands balled into fists, he tried to rise and turn towards the hecklers. Rita had a strong grip on his shoulder, however, and wouldn’t allow it. Omar glanced at Mick.
“I am sorry, mano,” he growled. “You are my guest and these pendejos embarrass me.”
Mick smiled and gave the fiery little Latino a wink. “Don’t let it bother you, boyo. It doesn’t me. In fact, I take it as a point of pride to have been called a panda on two continents now!”
Omar hesitated for a moment, then laughed. “As you say, mano. Let’s enjoy the game.”
When Mick asked Omar what the announcer meant by ‘and one!’ he received a crash course in the history of the foul shot. Bigger players, he learned, often found this free opportunity difficult to take advantage of, and tended to have lower rates of success. Mick could sympathize. When he had still been spry enough to play in the beer leagues, he could never manage a throw-in of more than twenty feet or so, and that was before the beer in beer league had done its work on his midsection. Rory Delap, he wasn’t. He mentioned this to Omar who smiled and nodded.
“You sound like Shaq,” he said. Mick had no idea who this ‘Shack’ was, but Omar rushed on before he could ask. “He was the biggest and best big man of all time, but he couldn’t hit a free throw to save his life. Rick Barry offered to teach him to throw underhand once, but his pride wouldn’t let him.”
This time, Mick was quicker with his question. “Who’s Rick Barry, then?”
“Oh, he’s this white boy from back in the day who threw underhand all the time.” Suddenly, Omar realized what he had said, and blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.”
Mick waved off the slight with another smile and wink. “Didn’t he get the stick?” — Omar look confused — “You know, boyo, didn’t they laugh at him?”
“Oh si, all the time, mano, until they realized he was the best free throw shooter in the league.”
“So, why doesn’t everyone shoot underhand, then?”
Omar laughed. “We are men, mano, are we not? We have our pride.”
Then, apparently due to something that had happened on the court, Omar started in on the difference between flagrant and hard fouls. Mick was just beginning to wrap his brain around it when a bright spotlight suddenly shone on him. He blinked, confused. Two security men were rushing towards them, but, looking around, Mick could see no trouble. In fact, everyone seemed to be applauding him. What was going on?
Rita reached over and grabbed his arm excitedly. “Quick, quick, get out your ticket. You won the draw!”
“For the center court shot to win a million dollars! Don’t you remember?”
Mick blanched. He’d never make that shot. Scrambling to his feet, he fumbled in his pocket and tried to pass the ticket to Omar. “Here,” he said. “You know what you’re about.”
The two security men had arrived right at that moment, and one of them shook his head. “Sorry, everyone can come down to the floor, but it has to be the person sitting in the seat number drawn that takes the shot, and that’s you, sir.”
“Bollocks!” Mick muttered.
The security man cocked his head. “I’m sorry, sir, what was that?”
“Never mind,” Mick sighed. “Let’s get this farce over with. Lead on.”
As they descended to court level in a large steel elevator, Omar attempted to coach Mick on how to make the shot, but the big Geordie was obviously in despair. Tina put her arm around Mick and quietly tried to encourage him.
“I love you, you know, and it doesn’t matter to me if you make this shot or not. I didn’t marry you for your money, after all, did I?”
He gave her a weak smile. “Did you not, then?” All he could think of was the stick he’d be taking from her mum when this ended badly, as surely it would. It seemed as if Tina could read his thoughts.
“Oh shut up and relax,” she smiled, and let her hand slide down his back. To the bestartlement of the security men, and Omar and Rita, Mick suddenly jumped straight up in the air. He looked down at Tina, who had removed her arm and was looking completely innocent. Rita put a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. Their faces reddening to match Mick’s, Omar and the security men became intensely interested in the buffed walls of the elevator car.
There was scattered applause as Mick was walked out onto the court and introduced. Looking around, he realized that at least half the seats were empty, as many fans had headed for the loos or concession stands. There were still quite a few people looking on, however. Half of twenty-thousand or so wasn’t a small number. He felt the nerves creeping up again, but Tina squeezed his arm and offered him a reassuring smile.
In the center court circle, there were several people waiting. One was the emcee, holding a microphone in his hand. He welcomed Mick, then introduced Bobby Something-or-other, who was apparently a retired player who had grown up, and still lived, in Brooklyn. His graying hair said he was in his fifties, but he still looked athletic and trim outfitted in the Brooklyn team’s warm-up suit. He’d have had no trouble with the game-worn Nobby. The pair stood next to a metal rack that contained two basketballs. Around them stood two camera-men, a photographer, and more security personnel.
Under one basket, the Brooklyn cheerleaders, scantily clad in silver, red and blue, lined up on either side of the basket like a sexy set of runway lights. Mick allowed his eyes to take them in for perhaps a second too long, then looked towards Tina, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
“Mind yourself,” she warned, laughing.
The emcee threw his arm around Mick like a pub drunk and asked him some questions which echoed out over the public address system. Mick explained that he was from Newcastle, England, no he wasn’t much of a basketball fan but he was learning, and no he had never played, never touched a ball, in fact. That last brought some laughter from both the emcee and the crowd.
“Well, there’s no time like the present,” the emcee announced, and reached into the rack, handing Mick one of the two balls. He tossed the other to the ex-player, before giving Mick his full attention.
“Mick, the object is to throw the ball into the hoop guarded by our lovely Brooklyn Nets cheerleaders. Now, you only get one shot, and it has to be from this side of the center court line. If you make it though, you win a million dollars. What do you think? Can you handle being a millionaire?”
Mick shrugged in resignation. “It’ll only hurt for a little while,” he replied.
The emcee laughed along with the crowd, and then turned to Bobby Something-or-Other. “Bobby, why don’t you show Mick how it’s done?”
The other man smiled and stepped back. Then he bounced the ball casually next to his hip, gathering it in as he glided forward, planted his feet, and smoothly rose into the air, unleashing the ball at the top of his jump. The crowd’s cheer rose in a crescendo with the arc of the ball, but crashed into a collective groan when it clanged off the back of the rim, and bounced towards the left line of cheerleaders, who, unwilling to drop their pom-poms to catch it, scattered like pigeons.
Bobby turned to Mick, shrugging with palms up and offering a smile. “What can I say?” he asked. “I’m a bit rusty”
Right, Mick thought. Rusty.
“Okay, Mick,” the emcee spoke into the mike, and slapping him on the back. “Are you ready to give it a go?”
“Might as well,” Mick answered.
“That’s the right attitude!” the announcer joked. “Take your time, and good luck!”
Everyone backed out of the circle, allowing him some room. He felt like a goalkeeper waiting to face a penalty kick. One who knew he couldn’t save it because his legs had sunk into the ground up to his knees. This was a nightmare. To his surprise the crowd began to chant his name, offering him some support. He took heart and began to go over his options.
Disappearing into thin air was impossible, as was attempting to move like Bobby What’s-his-Name had done. Grace wasn’t in your arsenal when you weighed twenty-two stone, and a significant portion of that was concentrated disproportionately in one section of your body. He could try to throw it overhand like a cricket bowler, but the ball was too large to grip properly, and, according to the little advice he’d absorbed from Omar, you needed a much higher arc. Which left the Rick Barry method. Only, again, his massive midsection would be in the way of his arms if he tried to heave the ball forward from between his legs. There might be a way around that, though. He thought back to stories his da’ had told him as a boy, about his grandfather competing in the hammer throw at the Gaelic games. There was a way he could try this that, although it would never work, might at least give a sufficiently respectable effort to at least appease his ancestors.
His mind made up, he gave the ball a firm two handed bounce to get a feel for it. To his surprise, the blasted thing came back at him with such force it nearly went through his hands and smacked him in the gob. The crowd’s chant broke down into laughter for a moment, but picked up again when he took two more controlled bounces. Then, he placed his back to the net, and aligned himself with the opposite rim.
There was another momentary silence, and then the chants intensified as the crowd realized he intended to make a blind shot. What they took for audacity was utter cowardice, Mick thought, but nonetheless, their rhythmic chant of “Mick, Mick, Mick” began to be underscored by clapping and stomping. He used that rhythm to balance himself, rocking back and forth a few times, with the ball held two-handed between his knees. Then, he inhaled deeply as he rocked forward one last time, and exhaled as he launched the ball in a high arc backwards over his head.
Too afraid to watch the result of his effort he focused on the crowd behind the other basket. Time seemed to expand for him as their eyes followed the upward path of the ball, their mouths opening ever further as their gaze rose. When it reached its apex, the arena went silent. As their eyes descended, he expected to hear not the clang that had ended Bobby’s attempt — after all, how could he ever hope to hit the target even a glancing blow with no experience whatsoever — but the pinging bounce of the ball hitting the hardwood court, or if he was lucky the squeals of frightened cheerleaders attempting to avoid his incoming mortar round. Instead, his straining ears only caught a soft silky whoosh, and his eyes the momentarily stunned faces of the crowd in front of him. There was no bounce, no clang, only that whoosh followed by utter silence.
Then, it was bedlam.
Noise erupted from everywhere. People were cheering madly, the loudspeakers were playing John Philip Sousa to the explosion of fireworks, and Bobby Who’s-It and the emcee were clapping him on the back like old war buddies. In disbelief, he turned around. One of the Brooklyn ball boys was standing directly under the basket, holding the ball in his hands and looking at Mick in sheer amazement. Had he made it?
Glancing to one side, he saw Tina and Rita jumping up and down and screaming just as they had at the airport, only, this time, Omar had joined them. He had made it, then. Why couldn’t he feel anything?
The Emcee chose that moment to thrust the microphone in Mick’s face and ask him how it felt to be a millionaire, but Mick couldn’t speak either. The emcee laughed and handed him a massive cardboard banner. Mick flipped it over to read it. Sure enough, it was a giant cashier’s cheque, with a one and a large amount of zeroes on the right and the words “One Million” written dead center.
Tina ran over, still screaming. She leapt upon him, wrapping her arms around his neck, legs around his waist, and smothering him with kisses. There was no prying her away for several minutes. It was a moment of which she later said she’d never be ashamed, although she was very reluctant to allow anyone to view the YouTube clip that Rita would send, blushing profusely whenever it was aired at any gathering.
As she smothered him, it began to sink in for Mick. He wasn’t actually a millionaire, he realized. The taxman would see to that, and, of course, Rita and Omar deserved a fair share. He would have never had the opportunity to begin with had they not invited Tina and he to visit, and they were family after all. Those thoughts made the whole thing a bit easier to accept. Still, they should end up with a rather large boost to their bank account.
Now, as he sat on the homeward flight, he had come to grips with it all. Nothing important had changed, really. Tina was asleep again beside him, bedecked in the Owen shirt that he would never wear, and now covered in champagne stains from New Year’s Even in Times Square. He read over some of the congratulatory emails and tweets he had received. More members of his family than he remembered were regaling him, including his mum-in-law. That was no different than it had been at their wedding, when so many unfamiliar faces, that he hadn’t seen since, had been happy to come and share in the celebration. Still, there were two messages that truly filled him with pride. They had been sent by Newcastle United and Joey Barton — separately, of course — each saying how he had done the shirt proud.
This holiday may have begun like the apocalypse, but Mick supposed it had ended pretty well. He nibbled on a dry hot dog, and vowed to himself that he’d never stop wearing the black and white so long as he lived. Nor would he ever feel hurt when someone pointed at him, and called him a giant panda. He was beginning to see some similarities, after all. Eats, shoots, and leaves indeed.
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.