Cardboard Gods: Morty

Share |

The primal act of catcher-hugging

Last month I got an email from my friend David, a philosophy professor I used to work with at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan back in the 1990s. I knew what the email was about without opening it. The subject line read “Morty.”

I used some credit card points to fly to New York for a memorial gathering. There were photos of Morty on the wall. Morty out in front of his store, arms crossed over his chest, the bald, fearless 70-year-old World War II combat veteran built like a linebacker from the leather-helmet era. Morty at the back of the store, behind his desk, the retail-business survivor, gnawing ferociously on his pipe and pounding on an adding machine. Morty yelling, Morty screaming, Morty cackling with laughter. Morty standing beside his friend Larry, 8th Street behind them, both of them with chins upraised, unbeatable.

The best photo was a simple close-up of the man. Everyone at the gathering gravitated toward it, had a moment with it. The photo showed just his bald head, his face, his eyes. Beneath all the toughness, the Yiddish insults and obscenities, the screaming, there was always something utterly gentle and watchful in his eyes. This came through in the picture. Morty was there when you most needed him. He took care of us.

“Be good to yourself, Joshua,” he said to me more than once through all those years when my formidable self-pummeling tendencies were at their worst. Morty was the only person who called me by my full first name. “If you won’t be good to yourself, Joshua, who else will?”

Most of the people at the gathering were ex-clerks like me, hired in our twenties, now all middle-aged. Morty’s silver-haired friend Larry came, too. The two of them used to sit in the back of the store together every day. When he saw the close-up of Morty, he said, “I miss you, you old fuck,” and began to cry.

***

I have spent most of the moments of my life wishing I was in some other moment. This affliction may have been at its peak during the slower lulls at the liquor store, when the only thing to do was stare across the counter at the vaguely Mrs. Butterworthian bottle of Frangelico liqueur on the opposite shelf while worrying that a gun-wielding maniac was about to burst in from the street. There was a bell above the entrance, the kind more often associated with the screen doors on general stores in cozy valleys where everyone says “y’all.” I perpetually imagined that the inevitable summons back into the Now would be that homey bell introducing something violent into the limits of my Frangelico trance.

I never did get held up. The worst thing that happened while I was there was when teenage shoplifters swept through the store, shouting and pointing and misdirecting and grabbing. This happened routinely. It was scary and, in the aftermath, enraging. After it was over, every time, I used to grab the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we kept behind the counter and imagine smashing heads.

One of the instances struck me worse than the others, maybe because the raids had simply happened one too many times, maybe because one of the shoplifters this time had addressed me directly as he was leaving. He looked me in the eyes. His own eyes narrowed to a squint.

“Ghost,” he said, his mouth a scowl. A bullet hole.

I sat down on a stack of boxes of wine. I sat there for a long time. Ghost. The next morning I took the train in from my apartment in Brooklyn and sat across from Morty at the desk in the back of the store and told him I was quitting. I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was 27, the age when rock stars frequently perish. This seemed significant to me, I guess because I was an idiot.

“Joshua, Joshua,” Morty said.

I didn’t know what to say. Where is the story of my life?

Ghost.

I walked back toward the front of the store, the door.

Ding!

A few months went by. I don’t feel like describing them. I went back to 8th Street, took a deep breath, put my hand to the door.

Ding!

***

Jason Isringhausen made it to the big leagues midway through that year when I quit and then, begging and pleading, unquit. There was a television up front, behind the counter. This sometimes helped pass the time. Jeopardy. Mets games. After I returned to the store, I must have seen some of Isringhausen’s earliest innings with his first team, the Mets. I vaguely remember the hoopla around him and a couple other young pitchers. Generation K, I think they were called.

I could easily look it up, but I worry my writing is deteriorating with my habit of bailing midsentence every sentence to graft Google discoveries onto my porous memory. I’ve already bailed on several sentences so far, most recently to see how Jason Isringhausen did when he was 27, and I found out that age 27 was a better year for him than it was for me, and much better than it was for D. Boon, Pigpen, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, etc.

When Jason Isringhausen turned 27, his narrative changed. Unlike those rock stars, his story changed for the better. His first public narrative, Here Comes a Fireballing Youngster Upon Which We Can Rebuild Our Franchise, had given way to a central role as a luckless brittle disappointment in the second narrative, Here We Go Again With The Fucking Mets. But at 27 Isringhausen landed with a new team and found a new role, that of the guy who gets to enact enthusiastic greeting rituals with the catcher at the end of wins.

***

Baseball was always a part of the store. At the memorial, on a table below the photos of Morty, there were two ticket stubs from the 1986 World Series. There was also a box of 2012 baseball cards. The day after I returned home from the trip to New York, I opened a pack of these new cards while sitting on the floor with my nine-month-old son.

He liked putting the cards in his mouth and gnawing on them. He did the most damage to this Jason Isringhausen card, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to form a bond with. The rest are still too much in their original condition of unreachable slickness. My connection with Now, which has been diminishing since my childhood, seems to be epitomized in my connection, or lack thereof, with the new cards. Everything in this world seems slick and shiny and unfathomable now. Most names I don’t even recognize.

But I do recall the name of the player who, courtesy of my son, now has a small chunk of his head missing. On the back of the card this gap has demolished most of the part where team names are listed. You can make out that his first team was the Mets, and you can see that this was not always true. But here he is, back again with the Mets. He got to return. He got to enact an enthusiastic greeting with a catcher.

He was not the primary catcher-greeter for the Mets last season, but he appears to have been the backup greeter, jumping in when the main guy was all hugged out. In one of his fill-in appearances, he recorded his 300th save. I imagine this is what is being captured in the photo on his 2012 baseball card. It’s a nice moment. A triumphant return. Some glory, some love.

***

Sometimes the bell above the door signaled the return of a friend of the store—a friend of Morty—who had been away for a while. Maybe it was a salesman, maybe it was someone who used to live in the neighborhood, maybe it was a former clerk.

Ding!

The returnee would stand inside the doorway for a moment, hurling obscenities at Morty, who would hurl them back, and then the returnee would gradually proceed down the center of the store, pausing to cast aspersions on the selection of wine in the racks, broadly suggesting that its presence was the product of some unseemly combination of Morty’s cheapness and a proclivity of foreigners to bottle their urination. Reaching the back of the store, the returnee would take a seat on the other side of the desk from Morty, like in a late night talk show. Jokes would be told. Morty would cackle apoplectically and slam the desk with his hand. Eventually, the voices would get quieter. Morty would listen to the returnee tell him about how he had been doing out there in the world.

I always hoped to make a happy return. I’d push open the door, making the bell ring, and start screaming obscenities at Morty from the doorway. I’d make my way down the center of the store. I’d sit down across from him. Somehow I’d have a joke to tell him. I’ve never been very good with jokes, but I once made Morty laugh by describing in painstaking detail how I was, during the ’88-’89 season, officially and mathematically the worst basketball player in America. Morty wouldn’t mind if I pulled that one out of the attic. He’d laugh and pound the table. He’d call me Joshua. Our voices would get quiet. I’d show him a picture of my son.


Share |

Comments

Manager Louis van Gaal moved to play down fears by claiming the substitution had been a "precautionary measure". "It does not seem to be too serious, but we did not want to take any risks," Van Gaal told Dutch broadbaster SBS6.Van Persie, 29, has scored four goals in three matches since joining United from Arsenal in a £24m deal last month. Coach Outlet Online Van Persie also scored in the Netherlands' 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory against Turkey on Friday.Shinji Kagawa is another injury worry for United having missed Japan's World Cup qualifying victory over Iraq with a back injury. Coach Outlet Online "I felt a twinge in the back during practice when I was on the ball. I had some treatment but didn't want to risk causing the team trouble by playing," Kagawa told the Kyodo news agency. Coach Factory Online "Obviously it's a shame I wasn't able to play. It's not that serious and I don't think it will keep me out for long." Coach Factory Online United play Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Saturday. Andy Murray's nerve-mangling, history-making US Open triumph over Novak Djokovic was many things: one of the great finals of the modern era, a late-night thriller from the city that never sleeps, a breath-taking demonstration of physical strength and mental fortitude. Coach Outlet Store This fairytale of New York was also the perfect bookend to a few months that British sport can scarcely believe and will never forget. Gucci Belts Hoodoos, holy grails and history books have all gone up in smoke: 29 Olympic golds, a Briton in yellow on the Champs-Elysees, and now the granddaddy of them all - a British male with his hands on a Grand Slam trophy. Louis Vuitton Belts In the end, after 76 years and a stomach-churning four hours 54 minutes, the wait ended in almost mundane fashion - a tired backhand return, Murray pulling his racquet aside, the yellow ball dropping gently beyond the baseline. Coach Factory Outlet No-one will be complaining. This was a moment many feared would never happen, not only in this extraordinary contest or Murray's so-nearly-man career but in lifetimes accustomed to British also-rans and plucky losers on a tennis court. Coach Factory Outlet Online Nit-pickers and day-dreamers might say the curse is never truly lifted until a British man wins Wimbledon. Let them take their caveats somewhere dark and unpleasant. Coach Bags Outlet By finding a way past the defending champion in this five-set classic 7-6 (12-10) 7-5 2-6 3-6 6-2, Coach Factory Outlet Online Murray at last stands astride the summit.

More great writing, Josh. You've spoken of Morty several times, and it's obvious he was much more than just the guy that ran a liquor store to those fortunate enough to work for him. It's the Morty's we run into that subtly shape us into the men we end up becoming. Thanks for letting us all get to know him.

That was lovely, thank you.

This is the first Classical article that has made me cry. I lost a close family member recently and this is just brilliant and affecting. Bravo.

This is beautiful in a way that makes the word beautiful completely insufficient.

Josh, you're a goddamn inspiration.

How beautiful! I suppose I have to buy the memoir now.

Thanks, Jake! And yes, that is the officially required course of action.