(This is an essay from my 2009 book Super Sunday in Newport. It’s about the Super Bowl, which is happening today.)
The sun rose brightly on our national holy day and by nine a.m. most of the flock had taken heavily to drink and barbecued flesh.
It was Super Sunday in Newport, Oregon, across the country, the continent, the hemisphere, the world, and the flock was ready to get it on in with domestic battery, driving under the influence, zero sex, lots of gambling, concussions, crass commercialism, and….wait…yes…football!
The flock would heroically overdo it, of course, but also heroically rise from the dead in the morning, stagger into work, the blood bank, or the arraignment, and pretty much feel like shit for the next 48 hours. But the pain and nausea would be worth it because they had worshiped their Idol on a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus Sunday. And it was good.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote, “An American writer has to know his land and the people if he is going to write about America.” Well, fucking A, I’m an American writer and I always want to know my land and people. Obviously, that meant watching the Super Bowl, something I hadn’t done in seven years.
Yes, football! The gridiron! Mean on Sunday. Paper Lion. Instant Replay. Joe Willie Namath. Bullet Bob Hayes. I wanted to come home to it all. I also knew Bruce Springsteen’s halftime show would send this secular spectacle over the top and make everyone born in the USA who was born to drink prove it all night until they went down to the river, dived in to sober up, only to resurrect for another night when it’s hard to be a saint in Newport when you drink at the jungle land known as the Sandbar to slur about the fucking glory days!
So Coach Steinbeck’s master game plan was: hit every dive bar on Newport’s Bayfront during the Super Bowl and write about America! I also figured I could use the time to grade 65 essays my seniors at Newport High School had turned in Friday afternoon.
First quarter—Mad Dog Tavern
Rainiers reigned inside as meat chili bubbled inside three crock pots. The tavern’s door rested wide open, doubtless to make it easier for fans to travel back and forth from the RV park across the parking lot.
I ordered a beer and read a newspaper.
The television showed the coin flip. The kickoff was seconds away. I couldn’t wait to see some idiot make a routine special teams tackle, jump up, thump himself madly on the chest, and then point to the crowd in celebration. God I miss Barry Sanders! When he scored a touchdown he just handed the football nonchalantly to the official and didn’t say a word. He knew he’d be back.
The bartender slipped outside to grab a smoke. She stood 20 inches from the door whereas the new state law mandated 20 feet. She looked at me. “Are you the smoking police?” she said, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
“No,” I said.
“Hey, try the chili!” she said.
“Sure, I’ll get right on that.”
I sampled the fresh shrimp and crab hor’dourves someone at the RV park had whipped up and brought over. Suddenly a cheer near the television went up. The Steelers had hit paydirt! Fuck! Shit! Son of a bitch! Money traded hands. More Rainiers all around, but not for me. I had to roll.
Second quarter—The Barge Inn
The place was packed and everyone watched the game on a flat screen television suspended from the ceiling in a far corner. A potluck feast on a pool table sat virtually untouched. A large crab hung out of a metal colander, right next to a super sized angel food cake. The foxy and husky bartender patrolled the joint wearing an oversized football jersey. I ordered an Oregon ale, sat at the bar, and immediately noticed her fingernails—long and painted Douglas fir green. She must love Oregon as much as I do!
The bartender didn’t wear a wedding ring and I heard her say she had two kids. This being America, the richest nation on earth, she naturally didn’t have any health insurance to fix their bad teeth, correct scoliosis or treat attention deficit disorder.
Hey baby, I can fix all that! I have full insurance courtesy of the taxpayers and never use it. The school district just enacted a policy that allows coverage of unmarried domestic partners—straight or gay. We can change your legal address, make it all legal and you would only have to hold me close once—ten seconds—about the average length of a football play.
Something happened on the field! A collective groan floated up from the far corner. The Cardinals scored and took the lead.
A couple to my right drank hard lemonade and talked about the commercials. People actually stopped fucking around when the commercials came on. They watched them with full critical attention.
I sipped my beer and looked out the window to the Bayfront. I saw a young high school couple holding hands skip by. Good for her. He’ll make a decent husband and probably want to have sex with her instead of watching sports on television.
A dilapidated patron barked an obnoxious order and the bartender turned to confront it. I watched her swivel away toward the old drunks eating slabs of angel food cake and drinking Bud in cans. I looked at her back and read—“Vick” and number 7. What the fuck? She wore the jersey of Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcon now in prison for running a dog fight operation out of his mansion. He electrocuted and shot the dogs himself. Sorry baby, my philanthropy only extends so far. Your kids are destined to have buck teeth, bad backs and lots of lonely time outs in school.
The two minute warning sounded and I drank my beer and left.
Halftime—Port Dock One
I walked up worn carpeted stairs, smelled fried food, and found a seat at the far end of the bar. Above me hung a television; in front of me a heat lamp blasted my face. I sat with my back to Yaquina Bay and waited for a bartender.
The first half finished on a wild interception return by the Steelers and then the first string commercials aired as the roadies prepared the field for rock and roll.
Score? I had no fucking idea.
Across the room, two elderly females split a huge glass of red wine and played Scrabble. In one far corner, a few old timers made their way to the restroom to empty their colostomy bags. Behind me, an argument captured my attention. I turned and saw a middle aged man and woman both sporting mullets making angry hand gestures. I caught exactly one line of dialogue, from the woman: “You’re not about my soul.” That stopped the man stone cold sober—for a few seconds—until he downed a shot of something viscous and brown and chased it with a Bud Light. The woman turned to stare at the bay and left her full margarita on the table. He reached for it.
At last the bartender emerged, smiling wider and sexier than any woman I’d ever seen smile. Her wavy brown hair and curvaceous figure rocketed me straight to the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
May I paraphrase Lord Byron? She walks in beauty like the night / Clad in black, nose ring her sole light
May I quote Brian Wilson from “Good Vibrations”: I don’t know where but she sends me there.
Baby, you could wear nothing but Confederate flag panties or a Hitler Youth wet t-shirt and I’d pay for all your kids’ health problems for time immemorial.
She angled toward me and took my order—a draft of Oregon ale. A man next to me ordered a fancy drink calling for Grand Marnier. She went to make the drink but returned shortly, declaring, “We’re out of Grand Marnier.” It was the most beautiful sentence ever uttered by a Newport bartender, even though it announced an alcoholic calamity.
“Ohhh Felicia,” the man wailed, “how can a bar run out of Grand Marnier during the Super Bowl?”
O Soft, what light through Port Dock One’s windows break! I know her name!
A raucous and strange non-football cheer exploded from the television. Shit, I’d almost forgot—Bruuuuuuuuuce! Felicia edged closer to me to get a better look at the television. I asked her to turn off the heat lamp. A man can only take so much.
“I hope he opens with something unique,” I said to her. She said something in reply but it was lost to me the minute she spoke.
The E Street Band ripped into “Tenth Avenue Freezeout”—something obscure and unique for sure. The Boss cut the song short and then launched into “Born to Run.” Felicia watched and all I could think about was her in context with the song’s immortal stanza: Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims / And strap your hands across my engines.
Baby we are born to run! And I’ve got health insurance in case we crash.
Two more songs by Bruce and the show concluded. Felicia slid down the bar to the foreign country of the Bud Light and Crown Royal drinkers.
Out came the 3-D glasses for a special commercial. I refused to wear them. If I did, I couldn’t see Felicia. A man sitting two chairs down from me put them on and leered Felicia’s way. “These aren’t x-ray glasses, I can’t see her boobs,” he said drinking a shot of well tequila.
I drained my ale. I wanted to stay and stare at Felicia forever but a mission was a mission and Coach Steinbeck gets really pissed if you put anything ahead of the writing.
Third Quarter—Hoover’s Bar and Grill
The third quarter was well underway when I stepped over a snoozing canine beast and into Hoover’s. What happened to everyone? Except for a gray-haired man apparently asleep while playing video poker, the joint was deserted. How could that be—on Super Sunday? Nonplussed, I walked toward the bar and as I sat down, Debbie the cook came bounding out of the kitchen. “I was going to be pissed if you didn’t show up,” she said.
“Now would I let you down? I’m a man of my word,” I said.
A week before, I’d asked Debbie to whip me up a pescetarian entrée I could feast upon during the game. She said she would oblige me.
“So what have you got?” I said.
“Give me a minute to get it ready,” she said.
“Okay. By the way, where is everybody?
“Out on the deck smoking. And I’m sick of these assholes calling in their drink orders.”
I ordered a glass of Oregon ale and sat down near the woodstove. It threw off outstanding heat and I settled in, eagerly anticipating what culinary magic Debbie would set in front of me. I looked at the television and saw a clever ad where a young man eats a corn chip and becomes possessed of supernatural powers, which enables him to blow the clothes off a super model walking down a crowded urban street.
The corn chip masterpiece ended and the action on the field resumed. The Cardinals executed a two-yard running play and an illegal procedure penalty when Debbie suddenly materialized holding a tray with a salad and a steaming dish of…?
“It’s an albacore casserole, with garlic and jalapeño,” said Debbie.
“Is the tuna fresh?” I said.
“Yes, but don’t tell anyone. Technically, it’s illegal.”
Fourth Quarter—Hoover’s Bar and Grill
I began to eat and watch the game in silence, except for the banality that passes as color commentary these days. Where have you gone Howard Cosell, a nation turns its lonely ears to you. A few minutes later, as the nicotine-dazed lunatics filtered back inside, ordered cheap shots and cheaper beers to gird their loins for the climax, I felt my stamina for observing the rest of the spectacle ebb. Coach Steinbeck would brand me a quitter but I was running out of gas. Reconnecting to America is exhausting.
Debbie came over. “How is it?”
“This is undoubtedly the best tuna casserole ever cooked in an American bar.”
She smiled. “By the way,” I said, “This is going to sound kind of weird, but can you cook up two hamburger patties for my dogs.”
“Oh, I get that all the time,” she said.
Debbie left to cook the meat and I drank my beer.
A few minutes later I drove home, fed the dogs their patties, cracked a novel, and drifted off to sleep with visions of Monday morning lesson plans in my head. I didn’t grade a single essay.
The next day I learned from a student I’d missed one of the most thrilling finishes in Super Bowl history. He told me the Steelers won. Then he asked if I’d graded his essay.