Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The Beach

In Long form, Soccer on July 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm

The Saturday twilight, cold and fading,  shown through the plate glass window behind the offering table. The church was called the Star of the Sea and smelled of the salt air.

“A lot of you grew up under Vatican two, so you don’t remember how it was during World War One,” the priest said. It was the feast of Corpus Christi and the homilie was about a Russian priest in a Nazi concentration camp that would perform mass every Sunday. Before Vatican two, Catholics supposedly fasted for twenty four hours before receiving the Eucharist.

“Nowadays, you only have to fast one hour before receiving the Eucharist,” the priest said. “The catholic church saw how people were going to mass and sitting in the pews but were not getting up for communion.”

The parishioners looked well fed and tanned. Four sections of pews, two in the middle and one on each side of the alter, giving the alter a theater in the round feel, were filled with tourists on vacation. Adolescent boys in mesh shorts and cotton t-shirts sitting next to mothers with sun-baked rolls of fat gently spilling out of light pastoral blouses. Little girls with light, rubber flip flops making cluck-clack, cluck-clack noises on the baby blue floor tiles as they walked down the aisle to find their seats. Everyone’s hair stringy and straw-like, as if they just got out of the hotel pool or the ocean an hour or so before.

A few navy fathers sat in the back, their tight cropped military fade haircuts distinguishing them from other parishioners. Most of them had tattoos on the inside of their forearms, tribal symbols in green or black ink. No one wore black and no one wore long pants. Few people knew each other.

“Too often we don’t spend enough time reflecting on what we experience here in mass,” the preacher said. He was short and bald and new to the city. The year before he served as the Parish priest in Stamford, Connecticut before enlisting in the military ministry. He had just returned from deployment on an aircraft carrier which was now docked thirty miles down the road at the main military base.

He was a surgeon, this priest. Factual, clinical, matter-of-fact. At the beginning of mass, he went over to the lectern and asked that all cell phones be turned off. During the Eucharist, he administered all of the sacraments to the ministers himself.

“We’re in a hurry to get out and check the latest baseball score, we don’t spend time thinking about what actually happened,” the priest said. “We’re already out the door.”

Families with fathers deployed at sea, mother and daughters attending mass by themselves, exited directly after communion. Red-tinged tourists, satisfied with their spiritual salvation for the week, left next. Only the church regulars remained–portly women, dour men and the elderly. As soon as a woman ascended the alter to read from the church bulletin, that is when I knew I should leave.

I drove down to the beach to grab a quick dinner and walk along the boardwalk. Volleyball nets dotted the beach like candles on a birthday cake. There had been a beach volleyball tournament earlier, where beachcombers could sign up teams of two to compete in the hot afternoon sun. Now it was sunset. The young children began to put on their shirts. Families strolled the boardwalk in packs, ice cream in hand. A pair of Hispanic couples played a friendly game of beach volleyball on the center court as official volunteers removed the netting around them.

Further up the beach was an official soccer bar, the type of bar that played matches from England on big screen television sets at 10 in the morning on Sundays as worldly college students with limited vocabularies and Hispanic immigrants looked on. A United States national team flag flew on top of the bar right next to the stars and stripes. That night both flags were at full mast. United States was playing Mexico in a championship match.

For weeks I had been throwing myself into soccer. I did it for the same reason that I had been throwing myself into religion; I was away from home and alone and wanted to unlock the mysteries of happiness which seem to exist in large crowds. My part time job required little thought and left a fair number of free hours during the day, so I read as much as I could on my own. About liberation theology and Champions League history; about attacking midfielders and meditation techniques. But I was no closer to understanding the meaning of either institution. Inspiration may come at the wee hours of the morning, but poetry only comes when in groups.

The bar was called Murphy’s and was a cross between a tiki hut and an Irish pub. Outside there was a patio with torches and thatched roof that overlooked the ocean. Families wandering up the boardwalk came to sit outside and enjoy a late Irish dinner of Mahi and chips.

Inside there were two bars, one dark and trendy with floors of faux-marble, the other kitschy and light with badges of different military divisions hanging on the walls behind the bar above the liquor bottles. Four men sat in the center of the second bar. The one sat on the outside edge, closest to the taps. He wore a white shirt and black shorts, his air a ratted mess of black fiber growing in any direction down to his shoulder. He was loud and quick and a little bit overweight and most definitely single. On the other end of this little cadre sat a quiet man in a blue shirt and kahki shorts. He wore a dark blue baseball cap, no insignia, pulled halfway down his forehead. He spoke little and mostly laughed at the jokes of the others. Only their talk of Premier League relegation and counter attacks separated them from the rest of the bar.

Each of the two men in the middle of the group wore their patriotism around their necks. The first had a national team scarf, red white and blue with the letters U.S.A above an accelerating soccer ball, draped around his neck. He was overweight and pale and one of his teeth was missing on the left side of the top row. When it came time for the national anthem, he proudly extended his scarf in front of his face and sang along.

The other man was short and hairy and bald. He wore flips flops, white shorts and a red vest with no shirt to cover his tanned, hairy barrel chest underneath. Tied around his neck was an American flag which he wore as a cape. He had an Uncle Sam top hat which he would occasionally forget on others’ tables as he talked to them around the bar, or if he was chatting with a pretty girl.

The four men traded bets as to which players would score first and which shots they would order if any of their predictions came true. As they were talking, an image of Mexico’s best player appeared on the screen.

“I tell you what, if Mexico wins this game, nobody in LA is getting their grass cut tomorrow.”

“And if they lose, a lot of rich people are going to have zig zag patterns cut in their lawn.”

By now the bar began to fill up, although the families and children remained outside, well out of ear shot.

“Are we allowed to be doing this?”

“It’s ok. It’s soccer so it’s not racist.”

The United States scored the game’s first goal. The bar burst into a round of applause as a young blond woman in a low cut red blouse at the end of the bar turned from her conversation with her friend to see what had occurred. An older couple next to her watched the highlight as they continued to feed crumpled up dollar bills into the video poker machine.

The four men at the center of the bar ordered their first shot.

“I owe you one. You said we’d get three goals before the game.”

“I called it. I called three. You guys didn’t believe me.”

“There’s no way I thought we would score first.”

The bartender poured out four shots of whiskey and the men chanted USA to the tune of “Country Roads” as they drank the shots.

They repeated the routine after the United States second its second goal. A pair of black men with thick Spanish accents entered the bar and traded fist bumps with the Uncle Sam character. When Mexico scored its first goal, they began chanting the name of the squad’s best player in mockery of the USA chants.

“They’re just mad because their team is no longer in it,” the man dressed as Uncle Sam said. He then cursed at the men in Spanish and all three of them laughed. After Mexico’s second goal tied the game right before the half, the two Spanish speaking men offered to buy another round of shots.

The second half was quiet and sober. Mexico scored two quick goals and the four men closed their bar tabs.

“If we lose this game, we’re burning down every Mexican restaurant,” the man with the scarf said in jest, but he was quieter than before. Uncle Sam and the Spanish speaking men began a side conversation unrelated to soccer as the three other men began wondering about the locations of friends not present. The blonde at the end of the bar had stopped paying attention to the game completely.

I left in the game’s 89th minute, the outcome already decided. As I did, I turned back to take one last look at the scene. The bar was quickly reaching capacity, although few were watching the end of the match. Most had formed larger groups centered around tables or near the makeshift stage which had been assembled at the end of the bar. A band was scheduled to play later that evening.

Alone at the bar sat the man dressed as Uncle Sam. The other three men had already left. In one hand he held a half-finished beer. His bald head rested in his other hand, his elbow atop the bar. Next to him was his hat.

He was silent, hardly looking up at the television screen as time ran out. I shook his hand as I left and watched him from the door way. Quiet. Alone. Reflective.


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