December 2, 2007

The Lambeau Leap of Doom


As we so often do, Morgan and I stopped into our home bar early Sunday afternoon. The minute we opened the door, however, I could tell something was different. Instead of jazz or early punk on the stereo, the air was filled with the sounds of ten football games, blasting at once from ten different televisions. That was a new development; the only time that place had ever felt like a sports bar before was during the World Cup. The bar was packed and ugly then, but it was packed with local sophisticates pretending they liked soccer in order to appear more cosmopolitan. They all went away after the World Cup was over and never came back, thank God.

            It was early and the place was still fairly empty, so we decided we could ignore the football for awhile and moved into our regular seats at the end of the bar.

            Two men sitting a few stools down from us were both staring at the giant flat screen television mounted just over our heads. It took a minute to realize that the game in question involved the Green Bay Packers playing the Minnesota Vikings. It was still early in the first quarter.

            I’m not a sports fan. I haven’t watched an entire baseball game since I was a kid (and even then I can’t say as I was paying that close attention). I don’t give a rat’s ass about basketball, hockey, soccer or NASCAR. I only care about horse racing when there’s money on the line (and then I care very, very deeply). And for the most part, I don’t care about football, either. But I will stop whatever I’m doing to watch a Packers game.

            Growing up in Green Bay—where, more than religion or politics or show business, the Packers were the defining cultural force, the glue that held the town together—things were different. Back then (out of sheer youthful contrariness) I was a Chicago Bears fan, which made me a target for regular beatings by complete strangers. The public mania surrounding the Packers drove me nuts. I refused to care about them.

            Once I moved away, however, my allegiances shifted back home. I’d grown up in a house filled with Packer memorabilia—throw rugs, photographs, bobbleheads, sweatshirts, autographed footballs. Over time, being a Packers fan had wormed its way into my genetic structure, but was never fully expressed until I had been removed from the source.

            To this day, my parents call me after every game if the Pack wins. If I didn’t see the game and don’t get a phone call, I know they’ve lost.

            My parents have always had season tickets, though these days it’s usually my mom and sister who go to the games. My dad tends to get a little too worked up, so he just stays home. He’s always gotten worked up over Packer games. I remember a lot of things being thrown when the team wasn’t doing well. In fact these days he won’t even watch a lot of the games. My mom will, but my dad has to take a long walk, or go upstairs and watch another game on another television in order to avoid any trouble.

            This is particularly true when they play the Vikings.

            See, my parents grew up in small towns not that far from Minneapolis. As a result, they still have a number of relatives and friends living in the Twin Cities area who—obviously—have become die-hard Vikings fans. That means every Packers/Vikings game brings with it lots of bets and gloating phone calls and tension. It’s not much fun to be on the losing end of a Packers/Vikings game when you’re a member of my extended family. And it’s far worse if you’re a member of my immediate family.

            It was another thing that I was glad to get away from when I left Green Bay, and another thing that still creeps into me every time they play.

            Being a football fan in New York is bad enough (unless you’re first and foremost a Yankees or Mets fan just slumming it through the winter months). Being specifically a Packers fan is akin to being some sort of retarded alien redneck. So Morgan and I drank and talked, and I only half-listened to the game on the television above us. I kept track of things, but held my enthusiasm in check.

            At one point in the first quarter the Packers got an important first down, and one of the two men sitting a few seats down the bar let out a cheer.

            The other man—they were both around thirty, and had clearly never met—turned to him and asked, “Are you a Packers fan?”

            The first guy confirmed that yes, indeed he was.

            “You don’t happen to be from Wisconsin, do you?” the first one asked.

            Sure enough, the first guy replied, he was from Milwaukee.

            “Really? I’m from Milwaukee too? Whereabouts in town?”

            I’ve learned over the years that meeting other Wisconsinites in New York is not that uncommon. In fact, our presence here may help explain a few things. Still, to find three of us sitting next to each other around the corner of an almost empty bar during a Packers game is a statistical improbability.

            So I did something I never, ever do. Once their attention had shifted back to the game, I leaned toward them.

            “Excuse me?” I said.

            The one sitting closest to me (the one who cheered, getting the whole ball rolling), pulled his eyes away from the screen for a second. “Yeah?” he said, more suspicious than I thought was necessary.

            “I’m sorry—but did I hear you guys say you were from Milwaukee?”

            “Yeah,” said the other guy, just as suspiciously. It seemed an innocent enough question to me, but sometimes I wonder if the creepy blind stare gives people the feeling that I’m up to something shifty.

            “Oh, well,” I said, “that’s something, because I’m from Green Bay.” For some reason, I thought this might interest or impress them, given how excited they were to learn that they were both from Milwaukee.

            “Oh,” one of them said. “So . . . are you just visiting or something?”

            What the hell kind of question is that?

            “Uh, no,” I said. “No, I’ve lived here for quite a few years . . . But I grew up in Green Bay. Was there until I was eighteen.”

            “Oh,” he said. “Is this where you come every week to watch the Packer games?”

            Perhaps it was a mistake on my part to admit that no, it was just a happy coincidence that my home bar happened to be showing the game that afternoon.

            After that, they continued talking to each other about the Packers and Milwaukee, but had nothing more to say to me, even though I was the one from the fucking town itself. The one who had fucking season tickets.

            (This, by the way, is why I never, ever do things like that.)

            Later I remembered something I should’ve remembered at the time—namely, that people from Milwaukee are big assholes who think they’re better than everyone. Especially us rubes from Green Bay. Like they’re all “Mr. Sophisticated” ‘cause they’re from Milwaukee. Fuckin’ jerks. If they’d been from Sturgeon Bay or Wausau, things would’ve been different.

            No matter. The Packers went on to destroy the Vikings that afternoon. Morgan and I had a pleasant time. And when I spoke with my folks later that evening, they were very excited to learn that I’d met a couple of guys from Milwaukee while watching a Packers game in a bar.


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