I should probably admit that I was a little confused when I was asked to write some stuff for SB Nation Chicago. I erroneously thought I was being asked to contribute to the new Bill Simmons fiasco, Grantland. Hey, I can sell out as quickly as the next guy, so I ran to my computer and furiously threw together my audition column for them. Only then did I realize I was actually being asked to fill the gaping hole left by George Castle at an entirely different site. Whoops.
Simmons wrote something very similar to this himself for the debut of the site. Very, very similar. But I wrote mine and, hell, I have to publish this someplace, so here goes.
On the day Pat Benkowski’s sports show debuted on SportsVision, he woke up in Alsip. Pat was hosting a bat mitzvah afterparty. We had driven down there in his conversion van and slept in the parking lot. You could practically smell the White Castle and Mickey’s Big Mouths. I remember cars honking at us as they passed, assuming that Pat was doing crazy stuff in the van. Nope. Unless you count Pat’s cat, Mitzy waiting for me to fall asleep so she could spray me for the 12ooth time.
Only Pat’s inner circle was invited: me, Mitzy and Les Grobstein’s younger brother Merv. We spent two days in that parking lot, mostly because Pat wanted to rehearse the new show in complete privacy.
We thought we were re-inventing the half-hour weekly sports highlights show, actually. Our test show had consisted of a 20 minute tirade Pat had yelled into a standard issue tape recorder. I don’t remember the exact subject of the tirade, but I do remember that it involved him making the case that there was “no way in Hell Dwight Smith wouldn’t win multiple batting titles.”
After the bat mitzvah we piled back in the van and Merv started to drive us up to the storage unit where we were meeting the Trio Video guys to record our first show.
We stopped at an Around The Clock so Merv could get some eggs and drop a deuce, and Pat and I found ourselves waiting outside the restaurant with the sun starting to come up and the tension mounting. I found it really hard to believe he wasn’t freaking out.
“Are you freaking out?’ I asked.
At this specific point in time, every member of Pat’s staff (Little Grobber, me and Mitzy) was chugging the Benkowski Kool-Aid. That’s the only way these things can work. Two of us (and an incontinent cat) had placed their careers in his hands, including me: I had (effectively) given up my Northern Star sports column, left DeKalb, left those awesome Lukulos beer nuggets, and stolen $40 out of my ex-girlfriend’s purse, simply because I had grown up idolizing Marv Albert’s three minute sports blooper segments on Letterman’s NBC show–like Pat, actually–and always wanted to write for something similarly hack and obvious. Pat and I had spent the summer of 1992 talking on the phone and trading postcards, and at some point, I made the decision, “This guy is fucking insane.” So on the biggest professional day of his life, with that shadow hanging over both of us, I needed a really good answer for the question, “Are you freaking out?”
19 years have passed and I’ll never forget Pat’s answer, and what his face looked like. You wouldn’t call it nervous, you wouldn’t call it overwhelmed, you wouldn’t call it anything…he just said, “Is Merv eating his eggs IN THE JOHN?”
Life will deliver a few moments when something substantial is about to happen, when you know it’s substantial, when you’ve done everything you could to prepare for the moment, but still, you just don’t know. And it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. I felt that way when I was getting married, when I realized that my wife’s parents hadn’t “accidentally” left their dog at our house and driven back to Arizona without her, and incredibly, when Pat and I were convinced that Merv was eating a plate of eggs over easy in the can at Around The Clock. Oh my God. There is no stopping this now. Please tell me this will all turn out all right. You take a leap of faith with life. You inhale and you exhale. And if you’re in the van with Mitzy when you do it, you throw up a little bit in your mouth, right J-Bug?
We made it back to the storage shed three hours later–Merv got lost, which isn’t surprising since he was 14 years old and had never driven a car before–with Pat becoming more and more quiet during the ride. The storage guys had double padlocked the gates because Pat had forgotten to actually pay for the shed, and as I first threw a t-shirt over the barbed wire and then shoved Merv over it so that the rottweilers could gnaw on him while Pat and I made a run for the shed, it was like someone had tossed 500 pounds of tension into our van. Turns out it was just one of the Zerang brothers.
While the dogs gnawed on Merv, Pat and I ran to the storage unit. The unit hugged the southern fence of a water treatment facility. I ended up sitting on that fence trying to write some timely jokes about how fucked up the spelling of Jim Lefebvre’s name was. (I know, some job.)
At the time, Confederate Railroad was threatening to become the biggest band in the world. (No one was listening to their threats, but that didn’t stop them from making them. And hell, they wrote “Trashy Women” so maybe…just maybe…they weren’t making idle threats.) Even if our guest list for that first show included Pat’s doppleganger Mike North, Rudy Law and a former second-team Catholic League punter arriving via Metra, filming a show in a storage unit filled with the smell of spoiled eggs would be that night’s haymaker. No half-hour sports highlight show had ever done anything like that. We were catching them at the perfect moment of their career: right after their first album had flown off the shelves (selling dozens of copies a week), right as people were wondering if they were the next Sawyer Brown, right before Danny Shirley started boasting a little too much and the inevitable apathy kicked in.
The third song on that album is “Jesus and Mama” the one that starts with the sounds of banjo being used to club a chicken to death (the defining hook of any song they’ve written). Merv and I were engrossed in two things 1) just why Lefebvre had a fucking “b” in it, and when or if Merv’s head wound would stop bleeding. Suddenly “Jesus and Mama” started cranking nine feet away from us. It was Confederate Railroad. Rehearsing. Really, really, loudly. The song went for about a minute (no vocals), then it stopped. There was a long pause. Then the pounding chicken murder started again. It went like that for about 25 minutes: the world’s 1,237th hottest band rehearsing its music, our lives just a few hours away from being changed, that shadow looming…and nobody knowing what would happen next.
Every time I hear “Jesus and Mama” (which thankfully, is never) I think of sitting on that water treatment wall and wondering how I got there. That’s still my most vivid memory from a frenzied first night. Even before we started the show, a drunk homeless guy in the alley threw up on Mitzy. (So much for the cat; by Monday she was gone. Although it did end up being funny fodder for that first show.) Pat’s open ended up being too loose; compared to other shows, it felt like he had wandered into a storage shed and just started winging it. (Which he had.) We somehow gave Rudy thirty seconds and North eight minutes, which made no sense, even as it was happening. At the same time, there was something refreshing about how we discarded the traditional half-hour sports highlights show format and did our own thing, sloppy producing and bad luck aside. Confederate Railroad’s two songs stood out more than anything, not just for the music, but the sheer spectacle of it all. When Pat screamed, “Ladies and gentlemen, Confederate Railroad!” to a throng of…us, he could barely contain his joy. It was all he ever wanted.
We were all delighted by that first show; you can’t maintain any semblance of objectivity when you’re that close. We packed into a deliriously happy greenroom afterward, a place that became our legacy for that entire three show season in Chicago homeless circles–maybe the show wasn’t catching on, but that van was a helluva place to hang out, hide from your probation officer or have a “soup kitchen” with three other homeless dudes. Somebody made a mix-tape that played the same sequence of songs after each show, with the first one being The Carpenters “Muskrat Love” one of the sappier efforts of any era. The right combination of toothless hookers, heroin addicts, TV executives and D-list celebrities were in place–and within a few days, once we stopped worrying about the show’s future (and started worrying about how curable hepatitis C was), I always looked forward to hearing “Muskrat Love” because it brought me back to that night when Merv’s head was bleeding, Mitzy was covered in vomit, Pat predicted that BJ Armstrong would become the NBA’s all-time assists leader and we weren’t worried about anything. We had successfully launched a short-lived, half-hour sports highlights show without accidentally setting the storage unit or van on fire. Everything would be fine.
Or so we thought.
Over the next three weeks we realized we that we needed to discard some of our edgier ideas; not because we didn’t like them, but because nobody else in the world did. People like continuity with half-hour sports highlights shows. They don’t want to see new ground broken. They don’t want reckless chances and unpredictability. They want to see a friendly-looking guy stroll out wearing pants, actually describe the highlights and not have to beat a rat to death with his shoe while the highlights show the Cubs blowing a four run lead in the ninth to to the Astros. They want this because they’re lying in bed, half-asleep and they can’t find the remote or they’d have turned us off ten minutes ago. And so our big ideas started disappearing one by one: pantless Pat, asking trivia questions to Merv and throwing syphilis filled balloons at him if he got them wrong, having North on as a guest…as if a network sniper was painstakingly picking them off.
I spent the first three weeks working for Pat and the next 19 years rooting for him. I returned to NIU and eventually, in 1997 started my own upstart venture, one which has failed miserably for 14 years. I didn’t want to be there with the cameras and the dog attacks and the constant threat of stepping on a nail covered with tetanus and several incurable sex diseases. I wanted to be there with a notebook (and steel toed boots and a HazMat suit). That’s when I knew I had to leave (that, and SportsVision canceled us), only I loved Pat so much I stayed until the end of the last taping…even thought it caused me to miss my bus. Pat and I remained friends. Merv died of rabies. Pat teases me that I left because I wanted to watch more TV. I tease him back that I left because his show was so completely unwatchable. Deep down he gets it. People should do what they were meant to do. I was meant to make poop jokes about the Cubs and have dozens of people read it. Over the past 14 years, that’s what I did. But there was always something nagging inside me…(thankfully it didn’t turn out to be Hep-C after all)
…this little thing that I had always wanted to do…
…this website that wouldn’t stop forming in Bill Simmons’ head…
Fast forward to 2011: here I am writing this audition piece for Grantland. It’s going to be huge. Bill sees where the Interwebs are headed. He has a vision. He’s going to get a bunch of dudes in their late 30s and 40s to pretend to still be hip and write ponderously long pieces of personal reflection like this. People are going to love it. I can’t wait until I get to read the piece Dave Eggers has promised to write about how Cubs fans don’t give a shit what the score is!
We haven’t had a Confederate Railroad/water treatment-storage unit moment yet, and honestly, I’m not holding my breath (though I should because just thinking about what that night smelled like makes me want to gag). But this staff has bonded much like Pat, Merv, Mitzy and I bonded 19 years ago, and regardless of how this plays out, nobody can take that away. Writing is a fundamentally lonely thing. Simmons actually writes his shit in Microsoft Word, still. No wonder. The process can drive people crazy. (And has…see Castle, George.) It’s much more fun to create something with other people. Apparently. I think other people suck most of the time, myself. Who needs them?
Enjoy Grantland. They worked hard on it. They believe in it. That’s all they know.
Prepare to be underwhelmed.
4,000 words at a time.