The sweltering heat continues here in the Mid-Atlantic, but I wanted to mention two fellas who captured my imagination even as my clothes soaked with sweat.
I'd forgotten to mention in my previous post a highlight of my New York trip with Ned. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which pound for pound is my favorite art museum in the world. We'd checked out some 19th Century European masters from Cézanne and Manet to Picasso and Gauguin, and next headed for the 20th Century collection. I'd just been charmed by a massive Chuck Close portrait called simply "Mark" and was about to breeze past Georgia O'Keeffe symbolic flower bulbs when a security guard approached me. Clutching my camera, I was about to tell him, "I didn't use my flash!" But he wasn't interested in that.
"Ah you really from OH-ree-GONN?" he asked, eying my Ducks t-shirt. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked, "Do you know a town called Coos Bay?" He had a fairly strong African accent, and I was surprised to hear him speak the name of this little coastal burg where my dad was born. It turned out that the guard had been moved by a past exhibition of photographs of John F. Kennedy at the museum. He told me his favorite had been a shot of JFK visiting with a small group of fishermen there while campaigning for president in 1960.
Ned and I wound up talking to the guard for at least a quarter-hour. I've been in numerous museums over the years, and I've never had a security guard enthusiastically pull me into a conversation. But I loved his enthusiasm, and not just for the little Oregon town he'd never seen but in a photo. His name was Désiré Dahie, and he was from the Ivory Coast - or, more accurately, La Cote D'Ivoire as he called it. (Why does everything always sound better in French?) His eyes lit up when I said, "Isn't that the home of Didier Drogba?" (That's his country's most famous soccer player, whom I knew well because he plays striker for Chelsea Football Club in the English Premiere League that Valarie and I now watch religiously.) Poor Ned waited patiently as Désiré and I delved into World Cup talk for the next little while. Even though I'd only met him a few moments earlier, I suddenly wanted to invite Désiré to Oregon for a drive to Coos Bay.
Beyond his being an endearingly loquacious security guard with a shared soccer love and a curiosity about my home, Désiré also gave me a much-needed reminder about what I still love about New York. Even though I lived in New York for years, I never really took to the city. It's so unerringly harsh and grimy, and you can't see the horizon. But New York is also the prism through which those "huddled masses" of immigrants pass, and often stay. They're a special breed, those who travel from so far away to strive endlessly. Sure, it's a romantic view I have of people like Désiré, but it balances out the harsh unforgiving realities of this city in a way that makes me smile. I know this random little exchange with a security guard will remain burned into my memory banks. And unlike the sun's burn, this one feels refreshing.
Today in the little town of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania emerged the second star of this post, Valarie's nephew Mike. The occasion was his Bethlehem Catholic high school baseball team's playoff game with Schuylkill Haven. I can't stress enough how hot it was. When we arrived 45 minutes early for the game, Valarie and I wondered if we'd still be conscious for the first pitch. I mean, I was contemplating a quick jaunt to Bolivia or maybe Death Valley just to cool off. At least Death Valley's a dry heat! The game was on a neutral site at Northwestern Lehigh High School, and we actually got in trouble with school officials for sneaking into their building during classes just to siphon some of the air conditioning. When the game started, I must have looked like a major girlie-man huddled under an umbrella, but it was either that or turn my Nordic complexion into a sun magnet.
Luckily baseball theatrics eventually took our minds off God's convection oven. In the first few innings Mike's team fought a close battle with Schuylkill (which, no joke, is actually pronounced "school kill"). In the middle innings, however, Bethlehem Catholic (or Beca for short) jumped to a commanding 9-2 lead. But in the last couple innings, the other team cut the lead to 9-6, and in the final inning they actually put the tying run at the plate.
It seemed like a moment from an over-written Hollywood movie. As Schuylkill seemed poised to overcome what had appeared to be an insurmountable deficit, an ominously black cloud moved over the horizon. Thunder began to clap in the distance. But Beca held on, and the tying run struck out at the plate. I kid you not: No sooner had the last out been called than lighting bolts flashed and a summer storm began raining down over New Tripoli.
Mike was 3 for 4 in the game, and as usual seemed to have ice in his veins even as the pressure mounted. (If it really had been ice I'd have turned into a vampire on the spot.) He's got a scholarship to play Division 1 baseball next fall at West Virginia, and it was such a treat to see his team win the district championship -- they're on to the state championship playoffs come Monday. Mike's mom, Chris (Valarie's sister) was in tears as family and players met on the field afterward. But she wasn't the only one. I saw her heretofore collected son break down too as his coach put the district championship medal around his neck.
And speaking of the coach, Mike Grasso, I've got to say something about this guy. It's a coach's job to be a motivator, to keep encouraging his players when the pressure and adversity mount. But this guy was about the most relentlessly passionate, positive guy I've ever seen. What really sealed his heroism in my book, though, was how he showed that same passion in the post-game handshakes with the opposing team. While everybody else on both teams emptily went through the motions of this mandatory act of sportsmanship, the Beca coach looked every player in the opposing team right in the eye and said, "Hey, you guys had a great, great year." The coach also broke into tears himself. Valarie's mom told me last year, when his team also won district, he stayed long after the game was over, explaining later that he "just wanted to savor the moment." No matter what the endeavor, I really love anyone who brings such boundless passion to what he does.
I bring that same passion every time the air conditioner switches on.