The blessings of the spectator sport.
Grace Ndiritu, Post-Hippie Pop-Abstraction: Competition (detail), 2015. Courtesy the artist and Klowden Mann.
Yesterday afternoon, I was halfway through a bowl of menudo when Lionel Messi scored his first goal in El Clásico, the semiannual soccer match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The game is one of the globe’s most-watched sporting events, and I watch it every year, but this was my first time catching it in New Orleans. I’d landed in a Mexican restaurant in Mid-City, where some families loafed around me and some waiters loafed around them. Immediately after Messi whiffed his ball between the posts, this guy in chinos flew through the restaurant’s doors, looked up at the score, and groaned.
Messi’s shot looked beautiful, as it usually does. The guy in the doorway squinted at me, and I squinted back. A momentous thing had just happened, and we were on opposite sides of the argument, but no foghorns erupted and the kitchen’s ovens didn’t implode. The guy joined a sleepy family nestled under a mural of Guadalajara. The kid manning the register dinged a bell in supreme disgust. There wasn’t any cause for alarm, or even palpable excitement, but we were conjoined in a moment, and the game took on a physical significance—it became a whole and solid thing.
I’ve always been enamored of the environments cultivated by spectator sports: the high-school football stadium sweltering at high noon, the gay sports bar drenched in musk at midnight, the hundred-thousand-seater in Dallas. These places are as integral to sport as the games themselves. Wherever there’s a TV, there’s a chance for a place to be transformed; part of the fun of watching is seeing how a game changes a space. The NBA playoffs usually find me at my parents’ place; I’ve spaced my World Cup qualifiers throughout dives around the South; I’ve watched all my UFC matches in the same eponymous chicken-wing chain, although I do not and never have been able to stomach that particular part of the bird.
For a few years, I worked the parking lots surrounding Houston’s Reliant Stadium (since renamed NRG Stadium). It’s big as hell, sitting something like twenty minutes outside of the Houston’s epicenter. The job—telling people where to park, and making sure they did—was pretty shitty. The pay was next to nothing. The men I worked with were always exhausted or enraged or overburdened, and they couldn’t be bothered to give much of a fuck about anything.
But sometimes the sun would settle a bit, and as the traffic evaporated into trickles, a tailgating uncle or acquaintance or even someone’s mom might wander over to offer us some company by their tent. We’d catch the game’s second halves in the shade, over leftover ribs and watery margaritas. What had initially been a uniquely miserable experience dissolved into warmth and familiarity. And whenever our temporary hosts asked for details about our jobs, we’d hype up the experience, saying how great it was to be so close to the action, day after day—anything to remain in the holy breeze they’d sent our way, even if only for a little while longer.
I’m not a religious guy, but I’d call those gatherings obvious blessings. Even if the matches we worked were grimy, the grounds we viewed them on would occasionally reach the celestial. It’s a feeling I’ve caught all over the place, parceled out in small doses: I watched Marshawn Lynch tightrope the Cardinals’ sideline in the company of half-stoned computer scientists; I watched the Japanese women’s soccer team solidify their dominance the year after the tsunami in an overcrowded nail salon; and I watched Neymar’s penalty kick, in the culminating minutes of the last year’s Olympic championship, over the counter of an understocked grocery store, with an astoundingly pregnant mother eying the television behind me. In each case, for a moment, these strangers were my brothers and sisters. We spied the same beacons and followed the glimmering light.
I had a similar experience with the Super Bowl a few months back. I was out of Houston for the weekend, stuck in Louisiana. I’d told myself I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. I couldn’t name four players on those teams, and the joint I’d wandered into for dinner was closing in an hour anyway. But I’d leaned on the counter for a moment—just a second, to chat up some guy—when I caught the building’s emotion, and that finale’s now-famous political undertones. All of a sudden, right out of the fucking blue, nothing on this planet could have been more important.
My stomach had capsized several times before I decided enough was enough. Watching the damn thing felt like election night all over again. This, I decided, didn’t matter at all—except for the fact that it did. The bar had dissolved into tears. Real tears. Just like in fucking Texas. The dude sitting beside me stuffed his face into his hands. It was a reminder that a game is only just a game until it becomes something different, something more akin to everything else. That moment requires the company of others—an interweaving of narratives—to reach heights unseen.
We were well into the second half of El Clásico when my waiter started hovering. Real Madrid had tied the game. The dining room floor had cleared out. The cooks were getting antsy, so I paid the tab, left, and made it off the street and back to my apartment. My phone notified me that Messi had scored again, solidifying Barcelona’s win.
I live next to a church, but the bells didn’t go off. There were no sirens. No jeers. Just a blip over the crack on my screen. And the moment that’d been so momentous in company beforehand felt a little bit more banal, a little more artificial, like I’d missed out on some blessing all the same.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
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