Saturday night at Petco Park, the Dodgers visiting the Padres, a cool breeze coming in off the ocean and the field is lit up like heaven. You’ll have to excuse me here if I choke up, I always get wistful for the old days at the ballpark, even if our family was not the kind of family that had money for baseball tickets, or the kind that would have gone if we had. We would have gone somewhere enlightening. Still, there is something from those days that I seem to want back. Is it possible, I wonder, to yearn for a childhood you never had?
Luckily for everybody, I am able however to snap out of the nostalgic mood. Budweiser is on draft at $11 a plastic cup, so it isn’t heaven.
A disorganized clutch of people materializes at the entrance to Section 122, a man and a woman and three boys, all seem each to be headed a different direction. It makes you think of the professional dog walkers you see coming out of apartment buildings in the city.
It looks like a family at first, but then, you notice that the mother’s high-heeled shoes are not the high-heeled shoes you ever saw on anybody’s mother. They are called stiletto heels, I think, but whatever they are called they are too tall for walking down stadium steps. You watch as she navigates the steps, thinking that if gravity still works the way it did back in ’59, mom is on the verge of pitching forward and rolling the rest of the way down the stairs and the world will finally get a look at what girls carry in those giant purses.
Mom wobbles, begins to tilt, and just in time clutches the man’s arm to her bosom in a way that reminds you of a dog humping somebody’s leg, and she does not fall. She looks up at him, saved. He looks down at her, pleased to be of service. Romance is in the air and the guess is that mom spent a long time in front of a mirror earlier in the evening glossing over nature’s little mistakes and then packed her thighs into her pants legs like soldiers you see sometimes in airports who have fit 80 pounds of gear into a 50-pound duffel bag. This is what the girls call making the most of what you have.
The boys have wandered out ahead. If they were on leashes, they would be pulling the dog walker off his feet, but they aren’t, which should not be taken to mean there shouldn’t be a law requiring it.
The family stops moving and congregates in the aisle, aiming for the five empty seats behind us. Us being the pluralized author(s) of this column and Mrs. Nale, of whom we can only say that a gentler, more soft-spoken, lovelier specimen of womanhood you will seldom meet. Think of her as a field of orchids, maybe with one land mine. Maybe two land mines.
Mom and Dad wait in the aisle until the boys are settled in and then dad looks them over—smiles for everybody—and says, “You dudes all cool?”
The blond boys say, “Yes sir,” and the man says, “C’mon, dude. Call me Jack.” And touches fists with each boy in turn before he slides an arm around mom and they head for the exit. She looks over her shoulder as they head back the way they came in, gives them that ta-ta wave, and they are gone.
So, we recalculate. This is probably not a family and this evening is not an outing that the boys will remember tenderly as childhood. This is date night. Jack wants to jump Mom’s bones (and from the quick glances at her shirt, so does Jack’s smaller version). And that fast all comes together and the true awfulness of the situation is revealed. This is not only a date; it is somebody’s idea of a chance for the boys to get better acquainted. That is, if Mom and Jack are serious about their relationship, it is important to bring the children into the decision. You do not want kids growing up thinking they are not the center of life on the planet.
For the first half an inning or so the dark-haired kid keeps looking back at the exit. He cannot believe what he is seeing. “Your mom just lets you go?”
This one is 11 or so, and cannot believe his good luck.
Out on the field the Dodgers’ pitcher strikes out one of the Padres’ batters with a 77-mph change-up. I have no idea when scoreboards began showing the speeds of pitches, or cartoons or headshots of players attached to dancing bodies from old-time music videos. I am not sure when management decided it is obligated to fill every pause in a baseball game with motion and noise. Mascots, dancing scoreboards.
The oldest boy is not much impressed by the 77-mph change-up. He plays ball himself, you know, and thinks the Dodgers’ pitcher looks about right for the junior varsity. “Dude,” he says, “seventy-seven miles an hour, anybody can hit that.”
The little dudes are impressed, being with a big dude who would own a 77-mph change-up should the Dodgers’ pitcher try to put it past him. And so, naturally enough, they go about the business of impressing each other.
What impresses 11-year-old kids?
Well, noise, disruption, disorder, anarchy. Clothes, money, shoes, video games. Defiance of grownups who don’t know who you are and can’t turn you in, or slide their fingers around your throat and strangle you even a little bit without getting in trouble themselves. Also everything cool you are still a little bit afraid of—drugs, sex, violence—and all the stuff on social media. Plus, anything you can get away with that you would not do if somebody grownup was there watching.
And for five innings, that is what happens. For five innings the collective minds of American youth, our hope for the future, is spilled out like the insides of the purse we were hoping to see scattered down to the wall that separates the field from the stands.
And then comes the sixth, and the Dodgers’ third baseman, Justin Turner, arrives at bat and that is when the cool dude who cannot believe his good luck runs out of luck. To put it another way, he has been tramping over Mrs. Nale’s orchid field for close to two hours, smirking at her when she turns to give him the look, and now—now he steps on the wrong orchid. He cups his hands around his mouth and screams: “Justin Turner, you faggot!”—and that fast, the world blows up.
Looking back on it later, the word was not necessarily more profane than “shit” or some of the other words the kids have been using—this stuff feeds on itself and gets stronger the longer it lasts—but at the same time, this is different. Hateful and stupid have been going together a long time, of course, but it’s probably best not to blow them off as if they were one and the same.
Anyway, this time nobody smirks when Mrs. Nale turns around.
One of them puts up his hands and says, “I didn’t say it…”
And she wears him out with the others anyway.
It starts like this: “I don’t care who said it, dude…” And there is enough contempt in “dude” to make up for the smirking.
And before she turns back she is red-faced and they are white-faced, scared straight.
An inning later the folks reappear. Mom is still wobbly but it isn’t the shoes anymore. The folks seem to have drunk a hole through Saturday night and not only is love in the air, the lads are sitting like choir boys, right where they left them.
“Everything cool?” the man asks.
For a long moment the boys are quiet, waiting for Mrs. Nale to turn them over to the authorities. Luckily for them, Mrs. Nale’s parents did not run off drinking and leave her alone at the ballgame. They were there all the time she was growing up, teaching her not to rat anybody out. I know this, being Mrs. Nale’s father.
“Yes sir,” says one of the blond boys, still glancing ahead, in the direction of disaster. “It was cool…”
The man studies the boys for a second longer than it takes to count heads, then smiles at the one who answered. “Dude,” says the man, giving mom a little squeeze, “call me Jack.”