One day a woman on a subway platform called out to me, “Go, Jets!” while raising her fist. Puzzled, I looked behind me and saw no one. Then I remembered: I was wearing a Jets cap.
A month ago I discovered the hat in my closet. It’s green, with the image of a white airplane labeled JETS. (The Jets are a New York football team.) I have no idea how the hat got there. It’s cloth, not polyester, and reasonably clean but a bad color for me, emphasizing my slightly greenish pallor. My last cap, which was bright red and advertised the Linux computer operating system, was more flattering but got lost at a Buddy Guy concert.
Another day on the subway I asked a guy for the time, and after saying, “Five-thirty,” he added, “You’re going down on Sunday!” When I looked befuddled, he explained that “my” team, the Jets, would lose to his team, the Chicago Bears. He was wearing a shirt decorated with a large orange C.
I didn’t even know it was football season. It’s remarkable that you can don a hat you found in your closet and suddenly have a new identity as a fan of a team you know nothing about.
Two weeks later, after a show at the Sidewalk Cafe in lower Manhattan, the bass player of the Deposit Returners said to me, “That was a heartbreaking game yesterday. Geno just fell apart, as usual.” I had to confess that I was ignorant about the team whose logo I wear on my head. My only goal is to shield my eyes from glare. Far from being a statement of my core beliefs, my Jets cap is evidence that I have no money, and my clothes come from thrift stores, yard sales, and friends.
Why do people assume I love the Jets because I wear their headgear? Can’t a hat just be a hat, devoid of meaning? If you see a hipster in Williamsburg with a J & H Lumber Company cap, you don’t ask him about the lumber business. Apparently no one wears Jets hats ironically except me.
Actually, ironically is the wrong word; what I mean is obliviously.
When I was eight years old, in 1961, the movie version of West Side Story was released. The musical reimagines Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a tale of two rival street gangs named the Jets and the Sharks. In my schoolyard boys would go around asking each other: “Are you a Jet or a Shark?” I probably chose Jet, because I was an obedient child, and the Sharks represented sinister violence. Now, by a quirk of fate, a Jet is on my forehead.
I have always hated football. I vividly remember seeing the game on television as a child and being baffled by the endless collisions between two lines of athletes. I found the heap of human bodies nauseating. Football players are absurd parodies of manliness, with helmets and massive shoulders, their features hidden behind face guards like Darth Vader’s troops.
Furthermore, I don’t drink alcohol, and what’s the point of watching football without being mildly buzzed on Budweiser? On Super Bowl Sundays I sit in a corner and read Proust. Also, as a vegetarian — and a Jew — I find the whole idea of a “pigskin” repulsive (though pigs are no longer used in the creation of footballs). I never even liked playing touch football as a boy, and playing a sport is always more fun than watching it.
One reason I am disdainful of football is that I grew up in Manhattan, and there aren’t any NFL stadiums within the city. (Both the Giants and the Jets play across the Hudson River, in “real” America.) In a metropolis like New York City, physical strength is almost useless. Success comes through street smarts and theatricality.
I have attended one football game in my life, at the age of eleven. My father took me to see the Columbia University Lions, who played in our neighborhood. Soon after I arrived, I met another kid my age, and together we explored the dark, subterranean world beneath the grandstands. (Columbia lost, as they generally did.) Afterward Dad yelled at me, “I take you to a football game, and all you do is play under the stands!” Did he fear I would become unmanly? If so, his fears were well-founded. I grew up to write poems and play the flutophone.
Though I despise real football, I love the phrase “fantasy football,” which refers to a complex type of gambling in which bettors assemble imaginary teams of real players and win or lose money based on the players’ performance in actual games. (Leave it to Americans to invent a “fantasy” with rigid rules.)
Here’s a recent poem of mine:
Fantasy Football My fantasy football team includes three ballerinas and a bearded Hindu swami.
Hey, if it’s a fantasy, why can’t I fantasize?
As evidence mounts about the long-term consequences of concussions among football players, the game is becoming less and less defensible. It’s heartening to think that I may live to see the utter collapse of this gruesome sport.
As a kid I was a baseball fan. Baseball is a slow, civilized, psychological game that mostly consists of waiting. The way a poet lolls beside a stream, hoping a deathless line of verse will enter her mind, so does a lonely outfielder wait amid verdant grass for a fly ball. Baseball is poetry; football is war.
Yet here I am in a Jets cap. (Even the term “cap” sounds wrong in reference to football. Football fans should wear helmets. This abusive sport has stolen the folksy headgear of baseball.) I first wore a sports cap as a youth in the leafy, bucolic neighborhood of Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan. My best friend, Bobby Marks, and I would ritually buy Yankees hats each spring. The price was a dollar, plus four cents tax. We bought them at the haberdashers on Nagle Avenue. (In 1962 there were still haberdashers.) I remember the deep, satisfying royal-blue color. I believed in the Yankees. They were the World Champions, and their august stadium stood just two and a half miles from my house. Though I didn’t have much money, I could afford to sit in the grandstand and watch Roger Maris hit home runs. After each game Bobby and I would wait near the dugout, hoping to spot the Yankees’ star player, Mickey Mantle, who never appeared — though Al Downing, the kindhearted pitcher, would often sign our programs.
For their logo the Yankees employ an elegant, interlocking N and Y that together resemble an occult symbol. My Jets cap, on the other hand, looks like it was designed by an eight-year-old: a crude airplane flying through an inexplicably green sky. A team with this hat is destined to lose, as the Jets typically do. (They haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1968.)
Teenagers sometimes wear sports caps just because they like the lettering or the colors. Likewise I am trying to embrace the aesthetics of my hat. Once in a while I ride in an airplane, and I do love gazing down on rural Idaho like a benign demigod. Green is also a color associated with heaven in Islam. The Koran says that the inhabitants of paradise “wear green garments of fine silk.” In 1987 I traveled in Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, visiting mosques in each nation. I came to love the Muslim style of devotion: prayer without prayer books, only the fluid sounds of Arabic and the simple act of bowing, of prostration, of surrendering the body and spirit to a merciful God. Though it sounds absurd, my Jets cap honors the sweetness of Islam.
I don’t consider myself an observant Jew, but it is traditional for Jews to cover their heads out of humility before the Divine. So, in a sense, I wear my hat to salute both Judaism and Islam.
A bright new sports cap advertises one’s allegiance to a team, but, like a human being, a hat eventually grows old and worn and loses its symbolic meaning. You just look like a guy wearing a shabby hat.
Soon my cap will become grimy, and my life as a fraudulent Jets fan will draw to a close. How sad! As a teetotaler, poet, socialist, and student of yoga, I have fewer masculine traits than Nicole Kidman. I’m tongue-tied around “real” men. Everything they enjoy — cars, sports, the Republican Party — is as foreign to me as Korean grammar. But this serendipitous cap has led to numerous minor incidents of male bonding. Wearing it, I appear to be a beer-gulping, Super Bowl–adoring American male. Real men — guys who fix cars and work as security guards — are my comrades. I have joined the Masculine World. Though their favorite sport continues to repel me, I’ll miss being one of them.