It’s three Sunday mornings ago and I’m crawling out of bed at 930 when I see the missed call. I don’t recognize the number. But there’s a voicemail, so probably not a robo-call.
The voicemail is from Steph, my buddy Dan’s wife. It’s short, a simple “hey, call me back” sort of thing.
As soon as I hear that I start to get an unpleasant feeling in my head that is the closest thing I have to a spidey-sense.
I think, why would Steph be calling me at 8 on a Sunday morning? Man, this can’t be good news.
Once I get fully woken up and have some coffee I call her back.
It isn’t good news.
It’s three years ago and I’m on a train with Tom, one of the New York Blues, and Dan. It’s late on a Saturday night and we’re heading back from a Devils game on my birthday. It’s been a pretty great night. We had some decent food before the game, had great seats down in the tenth row on the shoots-twice side, and the Devils shut out the Sabres.
It’s the second year in a row the three of us have gone to Devils-Sabres at the Rock, and I am regaling Tom with the story of the first time Dan and I went to a Devils game in Newark together. Through some kind of bizarre set of circumstances, the game ran long and went into overtime and Dan calculated that he wouldn’t get back in time for the last train to Delaware, so he ended up calling an aunt or something who lived nearby and crashing at her place, then taking the train home in the morning when I could pick him up in Holmesburg.
It was as unclear then as it is now why he couldn’t take the train all the way home the next morning – or ask to crash on my couch – but that’s what ended up happening.
I point out that at the time, when I picked him up at Holmesburg, his exact words as he got in the car were “thanks for showing up,” as though there were any chance I would have left him hanging.
Dan is looking at his phone and says, “Paul Walker died.”
I snort, “what, did he drive a Lamborghini into a fucking pole or something?” I have never seen a Fast and Furious movie and my knowledge of them consists of a) Paul Walker is in them, and b) they involve lots of car stuff.
Dan says, “uhm. Yeah.”
Tom and I, more or less in unison, both say, “whaaaaaaaaaat?”
Dan hands me his phone and I read about the unfortunate death of Paul Walker.
Dan says, “he lived his life a quarter mile at a time.”
Tom and I both give him blank stares.
Dan says, “neither of you have seen these movies? Come on. They’re great.”
I say, “they are not.” I will not know I am wrong for another year, but Dan meets my ignorance with equanimity.
“Don’t know what you’re missing, man,” he says. He starts tapping on his phone. “Give me a second, I need to send some jokes to Matt.” His brother.
“Yeah. ‘Paul Walker, cause of death, excessive irony,’” I say. “You can have that one.”
“On green, he went for it,” Dan says.
A year later I will get that joke.
It’s last Wednesday night and I am out to dinner with some friends. One of them is Tom, from the New York Blues. The other is an old friend from the Dark Horse (god rest her) who is one of only three Aston Villa fans I’ve ever met, who for purposes of identification is unfortunately also named Tom.
Chelsea Tom is talking about his upcoming trip to England with the New York Blues, and we’re joking about who he might end up having to share a room with. Thinking back on some of my own travels with those folks, I say: “here’s an awful thought, I realized yesterday that Munich was five years ago. Five years, Jesus.”
Villa Tom says, “that was a pretty good week for you guys.”
We laugh. “It was. Best week of my life,” I say. “Good company.” I laugh again. “For most of it, at least.”
Chelsea Tom gives me a look.
I say, “did I never tell you the story of how I actually watched the game?” He shakes his head.
It’s three years ago and Tim and I are at Dan and Steph’s wedding. We are at a table with a bunch of folks whose names I either don’t catch or don’t remember – I’m terrible with names – who are friends of Dan’s from college.
At one point Dan and Steph come over to our table and we are admiring his wedding ring which – I want to stress this part – looks an awful lot like it’s made of obsidian.
“Hey,” I say. “Is your wedding ring made of dragon glass?”
“Yes, John, it is,” he says. “My wedding ring can kill the White Walkers.”
I say, “that would actually be pretty rad. I once knew a guy who convinced his fiancee that their wedding rings should be the One Ring.”
One of the many not-single women my age at the table says, “oh, that sounds nice.”
I reply, “I can assure you it is not. For starters, the One Ring is, you know, evil. His cruelty and malice, and all that. I mean, Chrissakes, I’m such a goddamn nerd that I can recite the inscription on the ring in English AND the Black Speech of Mordor and -I- wouldn’t want a woman who would agree to the One Ring as a wedding band.”
I am about to roll into the Black Speech version when she says, “you wouldn’t?”
“No,” I say. “I want a woman who agrees to that when I ask for it but when we get to the jeweler says ‘are you out of your fucking mind?’”
Dan and Steph start laughing.
Much, much later that night the wedding afterparty has rolled up to a cheesesteak joint, one of those places that is famous for enormous sandwiches. Everyone is, not quite drunk, but having a good time. I am not at all drunk but I’m still having a good time. At a wedding, no less, even if it is relatively easy to enjoy the part of a wedding that involves getting cheesesteaks at 1130 at night.
Dan walks up to the menu, studies it, and says, “oh, I didn’t know you had small steaks on the dinner menu.”
The girl manning the counter cheerfully says, “yup!”
Dan makes a “huh” noise.
I say, “in fairness, you probably didn’t know because you only learned how to read last week.”
Dan glares at me.
The counter girl looks mortified and says, “you just learned how to read last week?”
I hold my arms up in a Touchdown Jesus pose and shout, loud enough for all of West Chester to hear, “MY VICTORY OVER THE JEDI IS COMPLETE!”
Everybody but Dan starts laughing.
About an hour later I look around frantically, then utter the two most dangerous words in the English language: “where’s Tim?”
Dan laughs at that.
It’s five years ago and me, Tim, and a group of our friends from the New York Blues are in Munich. The day of the game Tim and I are walking around in the neighborhood near the Lowenbrau biergarten in our Chelsea kits. It’s a beautiful day and Munich is an amazing city.
We’re walking down the street and a Turkish gentleman standing in the front door of a small restaurant starts pointing at us and shouting. We stop and stare for a bit, dumbfounded. He continues shouting and motioning at us to come inside.
Tim says, “what the fuck?” I continue to stare in silence, not sure what is happening.
Finally he runs out and grabs Tim by the arm and starts pulling him inside. I am trying to find the phrase “can we help you?” in the makeshift German I have spent the previous five weeks crash coursing, but eventually we just go inside.
The Turkish gentleman, who I believe owns the restaurant – which is sort of the German equivalent of the small diners you see in downtown US cities, as though Midtown III were in Munich instead of Rittenhouse Square – is shouting and wildly gesticulating, pointing back and forth at us and at something on the wall.
This guy is one of literally three people I have met in the entire country who doesn’t speak English, and apparently doesn’t speak German either, in a strange dark restaurant we have been dragged into against our will. This is vacation traveler hell.
Finally he stops shouting and flailing and starts pointing slowly, with authority.
He points at Tim’s Lampard kit.
He points at a blue flag on the wall.
He does this over and over again.
We realize it is an 1860 Munich flag.
Tim says, “oh, you guys are 1860 fans?”
The Turkish gentleman gets an enormous smile, points at Tim’s shirt again, and gives a thumbs up.
We all finally get what’s going on and start laughing.
The Turkish gentleman finally says what are apparently his only words in English: “Fuck Bayern!” And gives Tim a huge bear hug before he starts yammering in Turkish again.
Tim claps him on the shoulder and says “carefree, man!” and we head back out into the Munich sunshine.
More than almost anyplace in the world I have been, I want to find that restaurant again.
It’s three Sundays ago and I start making phone calls. By some strange coincidence a lot of our guys are on vacation, and it’s early on Sunday morning, so I’m leaving voice mails everywhere:
“Call me back. It’s important.”
About an hour after I left the message, Tim calls me back. He was in Pittsburgh with some of our friends from New York.
“What’s up?” he says.
“Hey man,” I say. “Are you driving? Is Mike with you?”
“No,” he says. “Mike went with Danny and Eugene, they’re in their car. I’m on the turnpike.”
I think, shit. I don’t want to do this while he’s driving.
I say, “listen, man, maybe stop driving and call me back.”
Tim pauses for a bit and then says, “yeah, okay.”
After he calls me back a few minutes later and I give him the news, he says, “as soon as you said to pull over I was thinking, ‘shit, man, this is bad news.’”
I say, “sorry, man. I didn’t want you to read about it on Facebook.”
“Right on, man, it’s just…” He stops again. “Man, this fucking sucks.”
“Yeah it does,” I say.
Tim says, “what happens now?”
I say, “I don’t know.”
It’s five years ago and I am in a park in Munich: the Hofgarten, just behind the Odeonsplatz. Three of us from the New York Blues made the trip without tickets and there are only two tickets to spare, so I am watching the game on TV someplace. Or at least I’m trying to. For how wonderful the Germans have been there aren’t a whole lot of places eager to get packed with Chelsea fans and I can’t get into any of the larger outdoor viewing areas like the Olympiastadion. Before the game I get a tip that there will be TVs set up with tables in the Hofgarten so I have set off that way.
I round the corner of the Starbucks we’ve been using to get on Wifi and check emails and find maybe a dozen long tables facing a bunch of big flatscreens. All of the tables are packed to the gills with Chelsea fans. I walk down to the end of the row. Not a single seat.
I am convinced I am not going to see the game.
I look down towards the other side of the garden and see a bunch of restaurants with outdoor seating. The restaurants are closed. The tables for outdoor seating remain, but unfortunately not the chairs.
I have an idea.
Five minutes later I am standing on a four-top that I have dragged over to the area with the televisions. I am pretty pleased with myself, though it’s still about 30 minutes until kickoff and I’m not relishing the idea of standing on a table for two hours and change. I continue not relishing this idea until I remember that I am standing on a table for two and a half hours in a park, in Germany, about to watch Chelsea in the Champions league final, and I determine that I can suck it up.
I am just barely too far from the Starbucks to get on their wifi, so I am staring at my phone out of mostly useless habit. Other Chelsea fans have since seen my idea and are heading over to the unfortunate restaurant that did not realize who they were dealing with, and the Chelsea fans are stealing tables of their own to stand on, so I can’t move any closer for better reception.
About ten minutes before gametime, a gentleman of an indeterminable South Asian extraction walks up to my table and looks up at me. He is wearing a rubgy shirt and glasses.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he asks in a middle of the road British accent, not West London but not East London either. He points to the table.
Without hesitation I say, “go for it,” which is immediately the most socially available I have ever been in my adult life. In America I would have glared at this unknown person until he got the hint and moved along. I am in a foreign country, I think, I might as well act in strange new ways. We strike up a conversation as we wait for the game to start. Again, the fact that I am in the presence of a person I’ve never met before and I’m not sullenly staring at my phone, inoperative or not, is somewhat extraordinary. It’s obvious why we’re there, and where we came from, more or less, so small talk can be safely skipped. I believe he tells me he is a doctor. I’m sure he tells me his name at some point, but it doesn’t stick. I’ve always been terrible with names.
The game begins and the game itself is, to put it mildly, awful. Even at the time, standing there on the table in Munich watching my beloved Chelsea play in the Champions League final, it is for eighty-eight minutes one of the most profoundly boring soccer games I have ever watched. For most of the game I make pleasant conversation with the nice British gentleman I am sharing my table with. He’s smart and pleasant. He has a good head for the game and is not the sort of insane, reputation ruining, this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things Chelsea fan that I am about to learn we are surrounded by.
Didier Drogba scores in the 88th minute – a goal which TIES the game, mind you – and the other Chelsea fans go nuts. They start trashing the place. That is not hyperbole. I mean that quite literally. There is still two minutes to go in regulation, plus extra time, plus likely 30 minutes of added time after that, and this is the point several dozen Chelsea fans decide to destroy the setup where we are watching the game.
When the first television gets knocked over I turn to the nice British gentleman and say, “I think we should probably get out of here.”
He says, “I think you’re probably right.”
We hop off the table and extract ourselves from the Hofgarten.
We end up watching added time through the picture window of a restaurant around the corner, standing on the sidewalk. This strikes me as terribly, quintessentially European, watching a soccer final from the street. We manage to get there just as the regulation whistle blows and we are the only ones. I am amazed by yet another good idea, my second in two hours. By the time the penalty shootout starts there will be about 40 people standing there watching the game through the windows of this restaurant. The nice British gentleman from the garden is standing on my left now. To my right is a British man who introduces himself as “The Geezer” – the only name I ever get from him – and he spends almost all of extra time wailing that Chelsea will lose and the world will end, in that order and in quick succession. When the penalty shootout starts he turns his back to the window. He literally can’t watch.
I look around and realize that no one else is watching either. All the English people have either turned their backs or knelt down on the ground.
When Didier Drogba’s penalty goes over the line, in the picosecond that follows I realize that of the several dozen Chelsea fans standing in close proximity, I am the only one who’s actually seen it happen.
I throw my hands up like Joe Montana and shout “we won!” The world is momentarily thrown off its axis. The nice British gentleman grabs me and hugs me and starts screaming. While he’s hugging me the Geezer grabs me from the side and starts hugging me and screaming, and then the three of us start jumping up and down and screaming incoherently together.
In the hours of singing and high fives and stranger-hugging that follows up and down the Odeonsplatz – I hug more strangers than I could have ever imagined possible – I lose track of the nice British gentleman and the Geezer.
I think, shit, I should have gotten their email addresses or something.
I get back to the Sheraton, and when my phone hits the hotel wifi a bunch of notifications pop up. Two of them are texts, sort of: I can’t get SMS over wifi but I can get iMessages from other iPhones. One is from my mother, telling me that she and my father watched the game, and are very happy for me, and that they hope I stay safe.
I chuckle at the notion of my father voluntarily watching a soccer game.
The other is from Dan. A bunch of texts from Dan, in fact, telling me about the celebrations back in Philadelphia, everyone who came out to the pub to watch and the party going on there, and how jealous they are that Tim and I are actually there. He demands to hear the entire story as soon as I get back, and expresses his own personal jealousy that he couldn’t make it.
I start tapping out a reply and think, I’ll have to write this story down someday, this is a good one. The thought doesn’t begin to cross my mind that it could possibly be five years before I manage to keep that promise to myself.
As I’m sending the reply I mutter to the empty room, “next one, buddy.” It is reasonable at the time to assume there will be a next one for us to go to together.
It’s that Sunday morning and Mike has called me back.
Mike was the boss of the New York Blues, the Chelsea supporter’s group, for years and years. He was the first Chelsea fan I met outside of our circle of guys in Philadelphia. He’s actually known Danny longer than I have, from back in the days before I hung out with the New York Blues and Dan lived and worked in North Jersey and watched games in the city.
“Hey man,” I say. “Are you driving?”
“Yeah,” he says. “What’s up?”
“Listen, give me a call back when you’re not driving anymore.”
“What’s going on?” he says. “Tell me.”
I think, fuck.
I tell him. There’s silence on the phone for a few seconds.
I say, “I told you to stop driving.”
“You did,” he says. He pauses for a few seconds. “Ah, that’s just so fucking sad.”
“Yeah.” I say.
I make a bunch more calls and texts like this to everyone who knew him. Over and over, for hours.
Our friend Matt says to me, “I know how close you guys were. I really appreciate hearing it from you and not on the internet or something.”
The only thing I can think to say is, “yeah.” Over and over, for hours, to everyone.
It’s six or seven years ago and the Philly Blues are at the Dark Horse on a Sunday morning. Dan is bringing the woman he’s currently dating to the pub to watch the game. This has become something of a running bit over the last couple years, Dan bringing a series of depressingly insane women to the pub to subject them to soccer and, I cannot tell if it’s more or less importantly, to us.
I always joked about running women I dated past my friends to see if they’d hold up. Dan actually does this – does it repeatedly – and it and it never seems to go very well, partially because he is on a string of rotten luck woman-wise and partially because of the friends he’s testing these women with.
This one is different.
She’s smart – very smart – and though she may not know soccer like us she’s at least interested. She’s not feigning interest to appease her date; if she isn’t necessarily an expert on the game she has an open mind at least. She is intellectually curious. She’s a sports fan. She talks about the 49ers a lot and she knows her stuff.
She also has some weirdly specific knowledge about things no normal person – that is, to say, someone who is not me – would or should know about.
I am sitting in my usual spot right in front of the door to the main bar and Dan and his date are sitting at the jukebox corner. At one point after the game the conversation somehow gets to the subject of NCAA shooting contests – possibly as a digression from a discussion of biathlon – and Tim says, “yeah, Army’s gotta win that all the time.”
I am about to correct him when she says, “nah, Navy always wins pistols.”
She says it in a way that for some reason reminds me of the farmer-type folks I have met traveling the midwest, a strange combination of laconic, disinterested, and utterly confident. I am so surprised that someone else has corrected him on this ridiculously obscure fact that I am standing there with my mouth partially open, with what I presume is a look of shock on my face.
She looks at me and smiles.
A little while later she heads off to the bathroom and Dan walks over and stands next to my barstool.
“So?” he says.
“Well,” I say. “She’s not nuts.”
“She’s not,” he says.
“And that’s a big step up for you.”
“Yes, thank you, John,” he says. “Your approval means everything to me.”
“I know,” I say.
Dan stares at me for a second or two. I break into a grin. “Nah, man, I like her. She’s pretty great.”
“Yeah,” Dan says. “I think so.”
“She’s definitely better than, whats her name, that psychotic helicopter mechanic.”
He questioningly says a name that flies in and out of my head.
“Her, yes,” I say. “Jesus, what a piece of fucking work.”
He jerks his head down the hall in the direction of the bathrooms. “Yeah, she’s… she’s not nuts.”
I say, with a slightly awkward pause at the beginning, “she doesn’t seem to be, no.”
Dan stares at me again.
“You can’t remember her name either, can you?”
“I, uh…” I make stalling noises for a little bit before deflating in my seat. “I’m sorry! I’m terrible with names.”
Dan smiles, a huge smile as wide as the bar, and claps his hand on my shoulder. “Stephanie,” he says. “Her name’s Stephanie.”
“I’ll try and remember,” I say.
“Yeah, might be worth your effort, I think she’s a keeper,” Dan says.
It’s now, weeks after that Sunday morning, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing.
In that first week our friends would call me, some to see how I was doing, some to ask some variation on the question, “should we do something?” An event for the New York and Philly Blues, a GoFundMe, something for Steph and the children.
Every time I say, “I need to talk to Steph, and Dan’s family, see what works for them, but yeah we should definitely do something.” And I mean that. I mean it every time I say it but keep finding myself unable to make those calls.
Every time I think about making those calls my thoughts get pulled somewhere else.
I think about a bunch of Devils games at the Rock, and when I think about going to another one I feel this dark, burning mass in the center of my chest. I think about how I never want to watch another Devils game for the rest of my life.
I think about how if we did do something for Steph and the kids and the family, if it was in Philadelphia it would probably be at the Dark Horse, and how I don’t think I ever want to set foot in there again either.
I think about the picture of the five of us, the old Philly Blues, taken ten years ago at the Dark Horse, and how only three of us in that picture are still around.
I think about that Turkish restaurant in Munich. I think of all the places in the world I’ve been, both amazing and common. I think of the Grand Canyon, and the Nymphenburg, and the Pacific Ocean, and dinner at Dan and Steph’s apartment in West Chester, and hockey games at the Rock, and weekend mornings at the Dark Horse, and still, more than anyplace else I’ve been, more even than all the places I wish I could go back to but never can because they’re gone now, I want to find that restaurant.
I want to go back to the Hofgarten.
I want to find the nice British gentleman, and the Geezer, and talk about how a silly thing like a soccer team can forge bonds that you never would have thought possible, whether for a night or a decade. About how it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a night or a decade when deep down you don’t really believe you can forge lasting bonds with anybody in the first place. About how the things and the people that change you, that change you for good, and make you better, are the ones that you never see coming.
I want to find those men, and sit with them on a spring day in the Hofgarten, and tell them about my friend, who made me better.