Welcome to another episode of Pointless Introspection Theater. This is where I tell you a long, boring story about my life that has weighed on my mind, but which will seem overblown and ridiculous once I write it down and publish it for the whole Internet to see. Let's go!
This story revolves around one of my most prized possessions: the HawksPhone. What is the HawksPhone? I'll show you, presently.
Yes, it's a beat-up old Nokia 5150. The kind of cell phone that was all the rage in, like, 1998 or something. (Thus, HawksPhone is InterCapitalized, since that was also all the rage at the time.)
The HawksPhone was more than just a phone, though... it was special. For one thing, I came in possession of the phone by winning it at a Braves game in 1999.
At the time, my then-girlfriend-now-wife was working for a business magazine in Atlanta, and they had group tickets to a game, so there were about 30 of her co-workers there; some of them I knew, because I had previously worked at a part-time job in the same office for a Braves fan magazine. We had shown up early for the catered food before the game, and gone up to our seats ahead of time to watch some BP. One of the Braves PR people, who was in charge of contests, noticed me in the seats wearing an old ESPN shirt, and invited me to enter the trivia contest to win a cell phone. The contest involved giving the trivia answer over a cell phone during the game, while simultaneously being shown on the big screen for everyone to see. So, obviously, I said yes.
The contest may have been a little fixed; he fed me the question ahead of time to see if I knew it. The question was, "Who is the Braves all-time winningest left-handed pitcher?" Amusingly, I was intimately familiar with this stat after having paged through the media guide multiple times while doing research for the team's fan magazine, so I knew the answer was Tom Glavine. The PR person, perhaps glad he wouldn't have to give me any hints, prompty gave me a certificate for a new cell phone, and explained how the big-screen stunt would work.
When I walked up to the front of my section in the fourth inning, my former co-workers were surprised and wowed. I answered the question on the big screen and got applause from them, and they all congratulated me. It was a great conversational item for days, and something my wife and I will always remember. I'm still grateful to the Braves for giving one of their biggest fans a chance to impress his friends. (Later, I was also randomly awarded a jersey just for attending a game. I still wear it all the time.)
You know what? In retrospect, the "award" for winning the trivia contest probably wasn't that great. The phone might have been free anyway for signing up with the celluar provider. But I certainly didn't know any better at the time, and just thought it was cool that I finally was joining the ranks of cell-phone owners (they weren't quite as ubiquitous back then as they are now, but they were getting there).
It turned out to be extra fortunate, because right about then I was starting graduate school. Now I would have a way to call my girlfriend after class. I have fond memories of doing that, while walking from the Georgia Tech campus, toward the Varsity and the North Avenue MARTA station. I remember that she called me one time, all excited because it was snowing in Atlanta. She's cute that way.
In 2000, I decided the phone needed some customization. First, I found an inexpensive vibrating battery on eBay; that would allow me to know the phone was ringing without disrupting class. But then came the real eBay find: the customized Atlanta Hawks cell phone cover. I had to have it.
Any knowledgeable hoops fan will know that "having to have" an Atlanta Hawks cell phone cover is completely ridiculous and without reason. Of course, I am a ridiculous person. But I did have a good reason; I had some great memories of attending Hawks games as an undergrad. I was a huge NBA fan growing up in a non-NBA town; I especially loved the great Seattle SuperSonics teams of the early '90s. But I had never attended an NBA game until I started going to college in Atlanta in 1994. Suddenly, live NBA games were readily accessible. After a hard week of classes and reporting for the campus paper, I really looked forward to weekends when the Hawks would have a home game. I would get $60 in spending cash from the financial center, and drive down to Candler Park for some cheap Fellini's pizza. Then I'd get on the westbound MARTA train towards downtown, and marvel at the incredible, lit-up Atlanta skyline as we approached at dusk.
The train stopped right underneath the Omni, a 1960s-era arena that was past its prime. NOBODY attended Hawks game; they had the second-lowest attendance in the league at the time, beating only the woeful L.A. Clippers. But because of that, it was super-easy for a poor college student to get cheap tickets; in fact, they were the cheapest in the league. On game nights, I would march right up to the ticket window, plunk down $20, and stroll inside to a front-row seat in the upper level. (Or, if I was feeling especially cheap, it was just $15 or $10 for lesser seats.) I would bring my walkman and listen to the FM feed of WGST, which broadcast the games. That made me feel like I was courtside, even though I was upstairs; I could hear every clang, every swish, and every sneaker squeak. I loved it.
Plus, even though the games were sparsely attended, the team was actually quite good. There were no superstars, but by the mid-'90s there was a good starting four who consistently made the playoffs: Mookie Blaylock at point, Steve Smith at the two, and later on Christian Laettner and Dikembe Mutumbo down low. Not a murderer's row by any stretch, but still a team that consistently made the second round of the playoffs. I remember attending several playoff games, including one in particular against Indiana; I splurged on a great lower-level seat, for a whopping $37. (Note: that's less than the Wizards currently charge for an upper-level seat on the ends during the regular season: $40.)
Eventually, over time, with well-played games, cheap tickets and readily available seats, the Hawks won me over. I may have been the only person sad to see the Omni demolished after the Olympics in 1996. The new arena was OK, if more expensive, but it just wasn't the same, and not just because the team disastrously decided to sign Isiah "J.R." Rider before the '99 season.
Anyway, with all these good memories, I decided to bid on the cell phone cover, and bid it all the way up to $2.25, which is what it sold for. It arrived, and I happily snapped it on, thus creating the HawksPhone I know and love today. The best part was that it was completely unique; never before or since have I seen an Atlanta Hawks cell phone cover for sale, even in Atlanta. That kind of accessory, if made at all, was reserved for the most popular teams, a group the Hawks have never belonged to. This almost seemed like a custom-made piece, or a test item that some company had decided to make a few of but not mass-produce. It was a rare, quirky/kitchsy find, like an in-joke to myself. It was the kind of thing only I would appreciate.
I kept the phone for years, through grad school and my first job; I didn't really need anything fancier, since I only ever used it to talk to one or two people. Eventually it became the beat-up, scratched monstrosity you see in the picture, with dust particles under the display window and a battery that wouldn't hold a charge for longer than a day. But I still liked the memories associated with it; it reminded me of the good times I'd had in Atlanta, even while I was miserable in Washington.
As Alanis might say, we'll fast forward to a few years laaaayyyyterrr. Specifically, it was Sunday, October 27, 2002. I'd been here a little over a year, and was pretty much desperate to make a friend or two. I really missed hanging out with my brother in Atlanta, and felt pretty lonely. Nobody I worked with was anywhere near my age, and besides, I'm just not good at breaking the ice with strangers. The two or three people in the area I knew from college couldn't or didn't want to hang out with me on a regular basis, for various reasons.
Except... there was one acquaintance from the old college paper, who I knew was a native Washingtonian. We hadn't really hung out a lot but for working together, yet we both sort of had a snarky, sarcastic sense of humor. He had returned to D.C. to attend law school (as had, like 80 percent of my friends). I happened to run into him one morning while waiting in line for breakfast at a diner. I knew he was a Redskins fan, and '02 was the year that I had managed to fulfill my stupid dream of having NFL season tickets, so I invited him to a game.
The particular game we went to was Redskins-Colts, a Sunday night ESPN game. It happened to fall on the same night as Game 7 of the World Series that year between the Angels and Giants, but even though I was interested in seeing that, I was so happy to be going to the football game with a friend that cancelling never even crossed my mind.
I had always taken Metro to the games; it was more convenient, cheaper and maybe a bit quicker than trying to drive over the Wilson bridge and into the stadium area (and back). But for some reason I can't remember, my friend insisted on picking me up and driving to the stadium. He took us south on 395 and east on the Beltway, where of course we got stuck in miles of Wilson bridge backup. In the meantime, I talked with him about some of my frustrations with living in Washington, and got the usual polite nodding (and the usual absence of sympathy). I didn't expect a native Washingtonian to understand any of my qualms with this city anyway, so that didn't really upset me. I was just happy to have someone to talk to.
Eventually, we inched our way to the [product-placed shipping company] Field area, and into the cash parking lot, where, as documented here in the past, you have to pay an incredible $25 to park in the middle of nowhere. My friend was a little surprised, even though I think I had warned him that it would be expensive to park even this far from the stadium. He didn't have enough cash on him, so I took care of most of the charge. No biggie. (I think I also absorbed the cost of the ticket; again, no big deal, since I had offered, and was happy to have someone to talk with anyway.)
We parked by the old Capital Centre, a.k.a. [product-placed bankrupt airline] Arena, and took a shuttle bus to the main parking lot... area... thingy. My friend now wanted to track down some of his law school friends who were tailgating in the parking lot. After wandering around the dark, expansive pre-paid parking lot, we finally tracked them down. They were nice enough; they offered me a beer and a brat, which was tasty. But something about them rubbed me the wrong way. They had that private-school mean-spiritedness air about them. They were a little bit elitist, as rich white kids, lawyers, and future lawyers sometimes are. I've probably repressed most of what made me uncomfortable around them; I just got the sense that money and status were very important to them.
I didn't buy Redskins season tickets that year to impress anyone; I just really liked the NFL, and wanted to be a part of that experience in person. I had struggled with the decision to spend $1,200 on the two tickets, since that was (and still is) a lot of money in the James scheme of things. These kids surely liked the team as well, but they seemed to be there more to show off to each other. Even though they appeared to be attending on their families' long standing season tickets (and their families' $40-a-game parking passes), and not their own dimes.
I know the Redskins aren't a non-profit organization, or anything close to it. They make money hand-over-fist because people are willing to pay those ridiculous prices to watch their games. But it always makes me uneasy to ride the bus from Landover station, through some sad-looking, economically depressed neighborhoods in Prince George's County, to get to the multi-hundred-million-dollar shiny football complex where I would be given the privilege of buying a $7 beer. That money's all going into the team; much of it surely goes into Daniel Snyder's helicopter. It ain't going back into the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium.
My sense of economic justice gets upset when I observe things like that. But I got the feeling that these law school kids didn't have any sense of that, or maybe even revelled in it; they enjoyed being economically superior to those around them, no matter how artificial a superiority it was. At one point while we were tailgating, an old Chevy Caprice drove by, and the kids made fun of it for looking like the beat-up old Beltway Sniper car (that whole terrifying fiasco had recently come to an end; thanks again for making it possible, NRA). The implication being that it was the kind of car a poor person would drive (and didn't belong in the tony Redskins parking lot? I don't know).
But then, came the One Shining Moment that has been haunting me more and more, of late. I don't know why I keep going back to this moment in time in my mind. This is what happened:
It was about time to head into the stadium, and I took the HawksPhone out of my pocket to check for any messages I might have had. I don't even really know why, since nobody would have called in the couple hours I had been away from home, but I checked anyway. My friend noticed the phone, replete with its Atlanta Hawks cover, and said, loud enough for his law school buddies to hear:
"That's awfully ghetto of you, James."
I kind of blinked at him, not sure what to say. The HawksPhone? Is "ghetto?"
Well, sure. I suppose a four-year-old model with an Atlanta Hawks cover is somewhat ghetto. That's also one of the reasons it's fucking awesome. But the way he had said it was not the "hey, that's kind of cool" way. It was more in the derisive "you're a broke-ass loser, aren't you? And, also, if you don't mind, I'm going to point that fact out to my awful friends in order to impress them" way.
After all the elitism I had endured already, this was the heartbreaking puncuation mark. How could he insult the HawksPhone, which had such good memories attached to it?
The remark didn't even bother me all that much at the time. But it grew and grew n my mind the more I thought about it. We walked up the ramp to our seats (a little late because of all the delays), and I put on my walkman to listen to the baseball game while watching the Redskins. I had brought people with me to Redskins games before, and it was never easy to sit back and relax and chat with each other the during the game, since the speakers right over our heads were so loud, even during the time outs. But after a while I wasn't even really making an effort at conversation. I kept my walkman on so I wouldn't have to talk to him so much, except to keep him posted on the baseball score. My heart was no longer in trying to be social.
When the game was over, I decided to take the Metro home rather than drive back with him in the car.
"Are you sure?" he kept asking me. Yeah, I was sure.
I didn't want to have to truck all the way back to where the car was parked, and then sit through all of that traffic, awkwardly trying to make conversation with yet another one of the billions of people in this world to whom quirkiness and individuality are alien concepts. Instead, I rode the train home, and solemnly sat alone with my thoughts once again.
I never contacted or heard from my friend again after that night.
That's a pretty lame story, eh?
I think about all my crazy stories of things that have happened to me in Washington... getting screwed by the lie detector at NSA, having the movers cheat us out of $2,000, being unable to find a job, getting stuck in a police dragnet after the snipers had struck, and getting into that humiliating smoothie-covered car accident. After all that... why is this the story that sticks with me the most? It's not even all that concrete a memory, and I know that I'll meet elitist creeps in the future throughout the world, not just in Washington. But maybe that night keeps haunting because this is the one memory that's closest to encapsulating what's off about the culture here.
The HawksPhone, meanwhile, has been retired, and sits in the secret ticket drawer in my desk at home (that would be the top drawer... shhhh!). It's still got the Hawks cover, dust stuck under the display, and the vibrating battery that no longer holds a charge. I keep it because I still always associate it with all those great memories.
But now, also, one disturbing one.