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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Game of Inches

His name was Neil, and he was from Toronto, Canada. Early 40's, I guessed. Great smile, hard not to warm to.

"You're a long way from home," I said.
"So are you, brother. American?"
"Baltimore, originally."
"Lovely city," he said. "Know it well. Great baseball town-- you an Orioles fan?"

And we were away...

Like the weather for Brits, baseball is phatic talk for Americans (North and South). But this wasn't simply two fans shooting the breeze.

Neil tells me he played third base for the Toronto Blue Jays, actually in "the show", the big leagues, a utility infielder behind the seriously great Corrie Koskie, a young prospect and potential hall-of-famer. Neil made it to the show late in life at 29, after years in the minor leagues, brought in specifically as an old-timer to give the youngster the benefit of his experience, if not his talent. He got a little game time, drew the league minimum pay, but travelled to the big parks all over the US.

Including Baltimore's beautiful Camden Yards, perhaps the most beautiful ballpark there is. It's home plate marks the spot where Babe Ruth's father's bar stood.

There's no such seat as a bad seat here.
He says he played in my hometown park many times, waxed lyrical about the nearby Inner Harbor, where he and his team-mates wolfed crabcake dinners, washed down with ice-cold beer on the long balmy summer evenings. Loved Baltimore. Loved life in the show.

The thing is, we were having this conversation on a wet Tuesday night in Manchester England, at a bus stop on the Oxford Road. I had just come from seeing an arthouse film nearby, was heading back to my flat.

We boarded the bus together, and I could see by the interior lights that Neil had been living rough:  grimy hands, rugged clothes layered for warmth. Computer bag, sans laptop, but papers sticking out of every compartment.

We climbed to the top deck of the bus, and I sat, but Neil stood at the front against the big glass window and launched into his set piece speech for the assembled crowd, mostly of uni students heading back to their lodgings from the city, as well as uncomprehending Asian men, heading to the Curry Mile.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to have to do this. All I can do is tell you the truth, and ask for your help. I haven't always been as you see me now, I'm a father and a grandfather. But I've been having a hard time lately. I need 20 pounds today to get into St. James shelter tonight, where they'll give me a bed and a shower and food. But mostly security, because it's not safe out on the streets. I have 13 pounds, so if you..."

For 20 quid, this would be Neil's safe-at-home
He said all this looking down at his worn shoes mostly, only occasionally looking up as if he was remembering his media training. He worked the aisle, and finally came back to the front, where I was. I gave him 2.20, all the change I had. His take was still a little short of the 20 he needed.

Then he sat next to me and told me point-blank the story that had been hanging in the air for the last several minutes. A story about never quite making it in the show due to his late start (29 is elderly in pro sports if you ain't got runs of the board). Taking to drugs for consolation, which then took to him in a way he didn't expect. A bad and busted marriage that brought him to the UK. Divorce, bankruptcy, kids taken away. Then, the streets...

Neil's neighborhood.
But he was clean now, had been for 9 months, and was trying to put some kind of life back together.

Then he asked me what I was doing in the UK, so far from the Baltimore of his fond memories.

Deep breath: Unitarian ministry, I said.

He took my hand and wished me well, apologizing for the dirt, but that it had been 'a particularly hard day'.

And he said that there could be no more noble life than devoting yourself to the service of God and others. It was my turn to look down at my shoes.

He said that you've gotta have God or the Spirit or something at the centre of your life if you're gonna get yourself straight.

"There's no other way," he said, heading for the exit, flashing a smile that would have, at one time, been 100-watt.

And he swung off the bus and back out into the night, and was gone.

Baseball is often called a game of inches.

In a season of 400 or so at-bats, inches make or break you: to have just ten hit balls break an inch or two shy of being caught...or a pitch that hangs just an inch or so in a hit-able zone above the plate... or a half-step between making it to 1st base before the throw out from shortstop. These inches make up key playing statistics, and are all that separate a failed career from a  great one, a life on the rough from the sort of money that will mean you'll never again have to work a day in your life when you leave the game. Money that can buy a lot of rehab.
Well, there goes Easy Street...

Neil didn't get these inch-breaks, and didn't have the inner resources to take it well. And just like that, you're on the mean streets of Manchester trying to stay clean and, at a minimum, get indoors so you don't get rolled for what little cash you have. I'm sure it all seemed like yesterday to him--the big ball parks, the TV cameras, the hotels and airports, and beers with the boys on Baltimore harbor.

I'm glad of course that there are places like the St. James (Anglican) shelter, and quietly mortified that my own denomination offers NOTHING of the sort, and that all I could offer him was pocket change and an ear.

Because not all that long ago, at a very low point, it would have only taken one or two irrational decisions for me to be exactly where Neil is. I was just luckier, with better friends and family, in a country with better health care, maybe armed with a sturdier psychology, having been born to functional, loving parents. All factors beyond my absolute control, in the game of inches called 'life', which remind us of the truth of "there but for the grace of (fill in the blank), go I."

"There's no doubt life's a mystery, but so too is the human heart."
--Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Doe no. 24

So why is there no picture here of Neil in his heyday? After all, you don't need a degree in IT to find pics of pro sports players. Just a Google-search, which I ran when I got home, trying to find him, trying to get a little more insight into this strange, brief encounter on a Mancunian bus.

And it turns out there never was anyone named Neil that ever played for the Jays, not ever, not in any level of the Jays organisation. Not one, not ever.

New identity, name change? I scanned hundreds of player photos. Nope.

Did I get the Jays right? Maybe I misheard...maybe it was the Expos of Montreal. Nada.

Maybe this was the most elaborate shake-down ever by a professional beggar who's mastered the 'short con'.

But as I put this little blog post, and myself to  bed, it is hard to shake the feeling that this mystery man, who arrested my attention with his charm and his story--an up-beat, beat-up Canadian Ancient Mariner--this guy I met looking for shelter--is actually me. A version of myself that slipped out of a parallel universe created by different breaks and life choices, a fun-house-mirror view of the man I could easily have been, and at one time just missed becoming...by a matter of inches.

How precarious is this life, dear reader! How much our fortunes are finely tuned and balanced by powers not our own. Only when you know this, really know it, does the empathy and compassion required of us by Jesus, Buddha, and so many others, seem achievable.

"Hobo's lullaby", written by Woody Guthrie (mon hero) and sung by the amazing Emmylou Harris.

So g'night, "Neil"--or whoever you are. May you find peace and rest someday.

Donations can be made to the St James shelter--just click the links above.

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