Season of the Creep

The Giants lost their opener to the Cowboys, and for the first time in memory, I didn’t really care.  Don’t get me wrong—I watched every second of the game in my quiet, simmering way.  But in times past, a loss to a hated rival would have robbed me of sleep.  Not so on opening night, when the only sleep-thief in my bedroom was prostatic discomfort.

It’s another kind of loss that has made me relatively indifferent to the fortunes of Big Blue.  In May of this year Lee Skorko, a boyhood friend and a Giants fan extraordinaire, succumbed to a fatal illness.  For all of our adult lives we had a ritual: after every game one of us would phone the other, and we would share a bitter post-mortem.  Even if the Giants won, we would find something to carp about—penalties, missed tackles, dropped passes. Last season’s improbable playoff run was the exception. We crowed and gloried in the wins. After the Super Bowl I called him and we spoke for a good thirty minutes about the wonder of it all.  I had no idea it was the last game he would see.

Lee and I called each other “Creep,” as in, “Hey, Creep, how’s it going?” I think I gave him the nickname first, but he threw it right back at me.  It suited us both in our coming-of-age days of the mid-1960s, when we awkwardly sought female companionship in the erotic wastelands of Binghamton, New York.  We pranked each other in ways that gave substance to the nickname. There was the night when Lee ogled a pair of teenage girls frolicking on a trampoline in a neighbor’s yard.  He stood at the back window of his parents’ unlit garage, hidden by the shadows. I crept in through the front door and flicked on the light. Lee dove to the floor, but not before the girls turned their heads and saw his staring face.  In the decades that followed, Lee stayed in Binghamton and distinguished himself in the field of computer programming. He married, bought a house, traveled the world, and lived an exemplary life.  A gregarious type, he watched Giant games with friends, in a basement decorated with Giant memorabilia. Miles away in Ohio, New England, or Pennsylvania (depending on the year), I watched the same games in brooding solitude.  And always afterwards, the call. After Lee died, his wife told me that he was buried in his Giant T-shirt.  “How like a creep,” I said.

I do have other friends I can talk with about the Giants.  One of them is Ray Rankis, who prefers to record the games and watch them hours later, when his clamorous family has settled in for the night.  I would call and he would shout into the phone, “Don’t say anything—I haven’t watched it yet!”  So we developed a code.  When I hear his “Hello?” I will ask, “Is it safe?” Cineastes will recognize the cryptic phrase uttered by Laurence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, as he prepares to interrogate Dustin Hoffman. How apt to quote a torturer, considering the pain of Giant fans during the long reign of folly and ineptitude that stretched from 1964 until 1986, the year of the team’s first Super Bowl victory. Ray and I have lively conversations about the Giants, but it’s not the same.  I feel Lee’s absence acutely.

I am no longer drawn to the back pages of the New York tabloids.  The talk-radio outcries of Giant fans—once my brethren, singers of the same dirge—have lost their appeal.  I will watch all the games, and I will root hard in the moment, but it feels different now. I am a solitary type, content to be alone in my TV room, taking vicarious pleasure from panning shots of Giant fans in numbered jerseys and plastic hard hats, imagining myself among them, high-fiving after an Eli-to-Cruz touchdown.  That’s how it’s always been for me.  But I wonder…

What memories would I have now if I had visited Lee more often, and even watched some of the games in his basement, with other Giant fans?  Forget the games—we could have played tennis or gone hiking, activities we both enjoyed.  I will not denigrate the status of fanhood, which brings verve to our leisure time.  But suddenly I feel the need for something more.  Like Ray, I’ll record the games and spend Sunday afternoons on the tennis court, or hunting puffballs in the autumn woods.

Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon liked to say he worked in the toy department.  These days I often think of St. Paul putting away childish things.  Age happens.  The hooded fellow with the scythe, having claimed our friends, presents his calling card in anticipation of a future meeting.  And then what?  If the “Who-I-Am” part of us does not wink Aout with our last breath, is it possible that we retain some measure of passion for the pursuits we cherished in the temporal state?  Believers will say, sure, why not?  Atheists will smile at the notion.  I have no answer, but plan to honor Lee’s memory by inviting his spirit to watch the games with me.  I’m not going to go all dotty about it.  There won’t be an empty chair and a tray of uneaten snacks next to my La-Z-Boy.  But when the Giants do something great, I might very well hear myself say out loud, “Helluva play, Creep.  Helluva play…”

Larry Gaffney is the author of two novels, One Good Year, about football, and Abaddon, about the end of the world. He believes the topics are somehow related.