Brooklyn Is Also An Island

The New York Islanders have been both great and greatly sad on Long Island. What they'll be in Brooklyn is anyone's guess.
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Paul Cartier is an air traffic controller, and monitors flights around the country from an FAA facility at Long Island's MacArthur Airport. The job offers unique stress—a friend of his was manning the radar for the second plane hijacked on September 11, and understood the scale of that disaster before almost anyone else in the country—but it doesn't get to Cartier. In the morning, he is happy to get out of bed. At night, he goes to the Nassau Coliseum, to watch hockey and play the organ.

Paul Cartier has been playing the organ for the New York Islanders off and on since 1979. He was there during the Stanley Cup days, when "it was just the PA and the organ—no rock, no nothing, no DJ." He was there during the lean, leaner and eventually leanest years that followed, when recorded music took over a progressively more zombified coliseum and the organ was pushed to the sidelines. Today, he said, "I don't play a whole lot other than the clap stuff, and the little ditty to get the crowd going.

"I used to play a little bit for warm ups and stuff, but as with everything else, advertising becomes the key. So they kind of lost out on that."

On the second-to-last Saturday in September, in a place where advertising is not just lucrative subtext but something like the entire point, Cartier and his organ made their Brooklyn debut at Barclays Center. The Islanders came, too.

Barclays is not a stadium. It's not an arena, or a park or a field or a dome or a grounds or a bowl or a coliseum. It's a center—a place in the middle of other stuff—and it is best understood as a venue for brands to come and associate with other brands. Its facade is a massive advertisement for a bank that doesn't have branches in the United States; the concourses are sterile grey canvases blazing with logos. The halls are alive with the sound of synergy.

Luxury is the theme—not actual luxury, but the kind promoted in commercials for "luxury automobiles," which are the same as other cars but have English accents and superfluities of buttery beige leather. Below the main concourse is the Calvin Klein VIP area, which looks like a dimly-lit foodcourt; there's also the Vault, the Barc's "most exclusive destination," which was "inspired by Jay Z himself." What he did to inspire this cramped little room is not clear, but the crisscross of gold chain mail that hangs from the ceiling creates a space age jousting motif that must have required some serious inspiration indeed.

The Vault is so exclusive that it doesn't even offer a view of the court or ice or ring or anything else, really; most vaults don't come with views, after all. Which, in the end, makes it just like your living room, but notably more expensive to enter. Even more exclusive than the most exclusive destination is the Jay Z Suite, which features a couple of flatscreen TVs, some couches, and a two burner electric range, in case Beyoncé wants to make a grilled cheese and scrambled eggs at the same time.

None of this has any effect on the experience of the people upstairs, who are actually in the same room where the basketball or hockey or Justin Bieber fever dream is happening. But the Vault is the heart of the Barclays Center: metallic, inert, and decorated like David Lynch's Dune. It has corrupted the team that lives there. Like an outsider desperate to get behind the velvet rope, the Brooklyn Nets have debased themselves in order to associate with the Vault and all its luxuries. Trading youth for fading veterans is a lousy way to win championships—see: Anaheim, Los Angeles Angels Of—but, as has been explored here, the Nets are not really a basketball team. They are a brand, come to commingle with Calvin Klein and Stoli and all the rest.

The New York Islanders, for their part, came to play hockey.

***

There is, of course, little about sports that is not Brought To You By someone in this day and age. Met games are beamed out not from Citi Field, but "live from the Peerless Boilers broadcast booth—remember, Peerless builds America's best boilers." (As though I could ever forget.) But Paul Cartier's organ bears no logo but that of Rodgers, the company that made it. On Saturday afternoon, when the Islanders moved it from the Coliseum press box to the atrium of the Barclays Center, it was brought to you by Moving Truck.

Against the grey bulkheads of the concourse, the organ stood out like a tiny wooden soldier come to challenge a great steel castle. Within the vastness of the Barclays bowl, it looked smaller than it really is. Cartier, who also plays the organ at Yankee Stadium, was flattered that the Islanders "thought enough of the organ" to move it, and not just rely on recorded music.

"The organ really kicked ass in there," he said. "The speakers and stuff at the Coliseum aren't nearly as good. They've got subwoofers all over [this] building, so it gave it a really deep bass sound."

From his perch above the rink's western end, he could hear the complaints of fans who had unwittingly purchased obstructed view tickets. The Barc was not designed for hockey, and on the western end, a few rows of seats jutted out over the ice, blocking the view of the goal. Devils fans sitting in that section were forced, just like the Exclusives in the Vault, to watch two of their team's goals on the jumbotron. "I was surprised they sold those seats," said Cartier. But what else are the people who run Barclays going to do with seats?

And for those who could see the ice, the mood was merry. The crowd was split about evenly, it seemed, between Islanders fans, Devils fans, and curious Brooklynites eager to choose a side. One boy wore a jersey that was half New York and half Jersey, sewn together raggedly by his father's unsure hand. The atmosphere was good—Cartier called it "electric"—with an attentive, engaged crowd that made this preseason encounter more lively than any of the Nets games I saw last year, all of which came in decisively DOA.

The Islanders lost 3-0, and never really looked like they were going to get back into the game. Towards the end of the third period, they threw the crowd a bone: a couple of fights, more spirited than you would expect from preseason hockey. Ignoring the score, Cartier broke out one of his trademarks: "If You're Happy And You Know It," which Islanders fans have reworked as "If You Know The Rangers Suck."

"They sing it really loud," he said. "I'll tend not to play that unless we're winning or tied, because if you're down 2-0, you shouldn't be that happy. But we had to get that one in the building."

***

On October 7, 1972, the Islanders christened the Coliseum with a 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Flames—the first of 60 in an inaugural season even worse than that of the 1962 New York Mets. A 12 year-old Paul Cartier was in the stands, impressed by the new arena and awed by Long Island's new team. "I've bled orange and blue ever since," he said.

The Islanders are scheduled to move to Barclays for good in 2015, by which time the FAA will require Cartier to retire. He'll miss his day job, but is happy that he will have plenty of time to get to and from Brooklyn on game day. He'll also miss the Nassau Coliseum, whose intimacy and sightlines he insists are beautiful. He's also looking forward to playing with the subwoofers at the Barc. The franchise will survive.

"To hang in there, and go through the mostly down periods, and still be a real fan, that's gotta be the resiliency," he said. "Every year, being laughed at a lot, having to go through the whole 'We want fish sticks!' thing? Now we're gonna get laughed at again. You're in an arena where the sightlines are ridiculous, that wasn't built for hockey. That's just us."

The Nets came to town like a nerd on the first day of college, desperately trying to reinvent himself as champagne-room classy, but the Islanders have announced no plans to rebrand or re-imagine or otherwise change themselves for Brooklyn. If they are smart, they will come west with pride—pride for their four Stanley Cups, and also for the decades of lonesome failure on either side of those. The current iteration of the Isles is a stylish team, with an offensive flair far more watchable than the leaden competence of last year's Nets. If they don't try too hard to impress, they may charm Brooklyn in a way that the spendy, tryhard Nets have not yet managed. If they bring a little of the Coliseum spirit to the Barclays, they might yet succeed in making this Center a home, for themselves and everyone else.


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