GOD'S AWAY ON BUSINESS

This year's opening piece is not last year's piece, and could not be after this offseason. Down the rabbit hole we go.

 

 

I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby

For a buck, for a buck

If you're looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch

You're out of luck, you're out of luck

 

This was the chair and desk of the newsdesk on Libyan state television on Sunday, August 21st, 2011.

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After years of streaming rivers of bullshit into the gutters of the people's ears, bemused LIbyans turned on their televisions on a Sunday night and saw nothing. An empty chair rotated to the side as if someone had just turned and left sat in the back. A champagne glass sat forlorn and abandoned on a doily. A teacup, apparently still half-full, waited for a refill that would never arrive. A framed picture of someone sat on the desk in front of a backdrop of the Tripoli skyline. I don't know who that is, but it doesn't matter. Their symbolism, their place in a system of meaning is now a vapor evaporated into the atmosphere of history.

None of this matters now. The man or woman in the desk is gone. They will not be returning anytime soon. Outside there are men roaming the streets. No one's wondering who's in charge, and that's why the doors are locked, and the children inside quivering. When the desk is empty, it means anarchy is at your door. There are no permissions or courtesies. Shit just happens, and it happens all the time, and there's no stopping it until everything you have is gone and bouncing out the door on the shoulders of thieves.

God, or anyone like him, is away on business.

 

Ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking

There's a leak, there's a leak in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves and lawyers

 

This, like most things, happened by accident. If college football were a business, we would be the Bluth Family Banana Stand. The humble banana stand, perched on the scenic pier, selling harmless frozen bananas to the happy, sunkissed masses for a quarter. Then one day the banana stand grew a cornballing business, and a real estate office, and a hedge fund, and a motivational speaking tape and accompanying book. It still claims the small business exemption on its taxes. It hides millions of dollars beneath the bricks of frozen fudge dip.

It is anything but a banana stand, but that's what it says on the taxes.

People like to say this is a fraud. They like to say it a lot. It's easy, because there is a fine, solid skein of truth to it. The world is filled with misdirected companies, banana stands that took a wrong turn, countries demarcated with borders drawn by tipsy colonials thousands of miles away. The entire state of Florida is a real estate scam no one ever bothered to stop. Georgia was and possibly still is a debtor's colony. The United States' largest and most populous state sits between wildfires and a fault line capable of cracking the state's inhabitable land into its own island in a matter of hours. Large tracts of the Western United States came from Mexico's attic. We hope they don't want it back any time soon.

There are people--con artists, visionaries, frauds, hucksters, geniuses, the mad, the clueless and monied--who leave in their wake elaborate, ambitious fakes. You call the aftermath "home," or your town, or your nation. A large chunk of your experience as a person involves elements created with the worst of intentions: fraud, the peculiar delusions of power, or desperate tax evasion writ large on the landscape in the form of homes, shops, and a long flight from the responsibilities of abandoned lives. 

Sometimes they leave you with a state. Sometimes they leave you with a sport.

 

Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick
It's a job, it's a job
Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood
Join the mob, join the mob

 

Florida. Tennessee. South Carolina. Georgia. The states changed but the houses never did: new, empty houses with unsodded yards and spotted with buckets of paint and spackle. We played in them as children, crawling up new plywood stairs without railings, walking through fiberglass insulation in unfinished walls that left subtle scarlet irritations blooming on the skin. They sat on roads with names saluting fantastical geographies. In one of the subdivisions we lived in had at least three roads titled "Something ridge." The highest point in the subdivision could not have been higher than 50 feet above sea level, and nothing so much as resembled a ridge. 

They were fake. Developers imagined them. Builders took the curlicued weavings of road and lots on plans and graded them into existence, pouring concrete flats where orange groves or cattle pastures once stood. They all smelled like drywall, freshly hung drywall shedding motes of powdered gypsum into the air. 

They aged poorly. In Georgia, the red clay stained the foundations. In Florida the exteriors grew mold like bread left in a petri dish. Water stains rippled in eccentric brown patterns through the ceiling after heavy rains. The yards became patchwork jungles after the first layer of sod died and the locals moved back in, salting the green with barbed seed pods and lurking hives of yellow jackets.

These places were fabricated, ersatz, unreal. Their roads and names were meaningless, parking places for cars and people surrounding factories, buildings, offices, and schools spilled across unincorporated land like the unwound wiring of a deconstructed motherboard. It was fraud, too. It is where I lived, and slept, and snuck from house to house as a teenager, and threw bricks through windows of homes no one owned when boredom required petty violence.  No one would stay here. No one ever did.

Like millions of others, we went where money's currents floated us. Those winds usually died somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, in a neighborhood built on nothing and sustained by attachment to a major road. There's one of these in Franklin, Tennessee that I drove past once. It is named Spencer Hall: an expensive, fictional nothing filled with homes sitting on streets named for things that never existed.

Places like this are where I lived, and loved, and slept ignorant sleep without dreams for 18 years of my life. 

 

It's all over, it's all over
It's all over

 

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One of those houses was our first in Florida. It was the house where I stepped out in the backyard and discovered that walking barefoot in Florida was a very bad idea. It was the house where we waited out the remnants of Hurricane Andrew. We slept in the living room with the television on all night. Around two in the morning the weathermen all ducked under their desks, still talking into their mikes and trembling as they read phonetic Spanish off of a script with a flashlight.

We had no idea what we had moved into, and still don't. I do remember being stunned when eating at a classmate's house for the first time when they used utensils to eat fried chicken. There was no weather, only rain, heat, and less of both. Everyone was either very old or very young. They were all from Long Island. They all thought we had accents despite being the ones who stretched the phrase "Oh My God" into an eight syllable phrase.

We bunkered. I never, at any point, felt more a part of my family than when we had just moved to Florida, mostly because none of us--my father, my sister, my brother, or my mother--knew what we were doing. We all hung out at home. We played boardgames like quaint families of the '50s. We swam in a strange pool someone had just left in our backyard. At Christmas we ate outside on the porch because we could, staring at the sun flashing off the water and watching lizards skitter across the Chattahoochee pebble porch. 

The last orange trees from the groves leveled for the trees stood in the backyard, dropping fruit on the ground that only the birds ate.

 

That January, while waiting for a winter that never came, I watched the 1993 Sugar Bowl with my whole family in the room. It might be the last time I can remember us all sitting down to watch a football game together, all in the same place.  Lamar Thomas ran a perfect nine route deep out of Miami territory. Keith Jackson clearly mentions the penalty flag early in the call, but Lamar Thomas did not have an in-form KJ in his ear telling him that this play was pretend, fake, ersatz, done before it ever started. He kept running. 

George Teague kept running, too. He didn't know none of this counted, either. 

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It is still the single most breathtaking play I have ever seen not because of the raw athleticism, but because it was never over for George Teague. To hell with the flags, or the angles, or the score: if Lamar Thomas were streaking toward an endzone a thousand miles away, guided toward it only by the sun, the stars, and a compass in his soul pointing towards the goal line, George Teague would have found him and stolen the ball and run the other way until he died exhausted and alone. 

It happened on a down that appears in no stat line, no sheet of formal records. The turf is Astroturf, the game a glorified exhibition put on by a corporation hiding under the guise of a non-profit, involving players likely violating the rules of amateurism, beaming through satellites to flicker on the television of a fake house in a fake neighborhood in a fake state to a family in the last stages of living under the same roof. And yet it still stops my heart when I watch it. George Teague doesn't give a shit what down it is. He gets the ball, or he dies. 

 


Godddamn there's always such a big temptation
To be good, to be good
There's always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby
It's a deal, it's a deal

 

There is no one in charge in college football. There likely never will be. One lie leading to another forms the bridge the present takes to the future, and your steps don't lie: it feels as solid as truth, and holds up for far longer in some cases.

The editing matters so much here. You can say the sport is rife with filth, and you would be right. The negligent policemen of the sport strike intermittently at thieves. One side makes up the law as they go while the other politiely ignores it. Bowl games grease the palms of venal public officials. Television networks buy off longtime allies and reconstruct the map as they fit, as drunken in their excesses as the mustachioed cartographers of any careless empire. Players steal what they can when they can. Coaches do the same, but to much greater effect.

We know this. This is not news. Please stop acting like it is. That's very ingenious that in the bombed-out church of football, you have figured out that there is no God, and someone is running out the door with the coffers. The only intrigue is in the variation, not in the repeated exaggerated reminders that this is a sport of charlatans, sweathouse labor conditions, and a thousand dodges behind the shield of amateurism. 

You can also give us other news to use if you're into creative editing. You will enter into a one-way contract upon birth. All goods are temporary, and your most personal property, you, will stop functioning completely without warning or refund. Your employer, despite what you believe, does not care about you, and is only interested in the capital you can help them accrue. Your home is a house, and is a good. Your organs can be sold for a certain dollar amount on the open market. The people in charge of the imaginary territory that someone made up to fill with saleable goods are, by all accounts, unqualified for their jobs and very much do not have your best interests at heart. Your wife or husband is under a chemical delusion that ends in six months, and likely continues for the convenience it provides in raising children.

There is always free cheddar in the mousetrap, and it is always a deal.

In this edit, Pinocchio is a story about bad firewood that ends with the whale, and George Teague's play didn't matter because it was cancelled by a penalty. 

There is another edit. The one between naivete and cynicism. It is a delicate one. You will first have to accept that this breaks your heart. You will have to accept that this is in some part a scam. You will have to accept that you are bad firewood walking: wooden, a puppet guided by strings pulling you in directions you can't always understand or accept. You'll have to accept, in one form or another, that God's away on business, and you will have to take care of this yourself no matter how long you have to run. You have to accept that the only redemption for the large, cheap machinations of life is the redemption of experience, the only thing you can control.

You will have to accept that any fraud can be redeemed with work, and the long determination to get things right. I don't know what the future of college football is. It could be gone in two decades, shorn off from universities completely when a court decides that yes, everything you're doing is bullshit, and unlike a thousand other obvious deceptions we will publicly declare yours to be what it is. It could be very much as it is. It could be played by trained Corgis fetching a ball in team colors. I don't know, and you don't know, and that's the only definite in all this: the unknown. 

I hope, like a thousand other fantasies making up my life, that the experience validates the unfeeling, sterile framework of things. I hope that I get that feeling of being slightly less wooden, of being something closer to being a real boy, that I got watching George Teague chase down the devil in New Orleans. I have this option, or I have cynicism. So do you. It is a choice you make every day, and it is the only one that matters.

The horizon is always hungry for daylight, and takes it ray by ray. Run one way or the other. Stay still and your choice is made for you anyway.

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