Friday, November 27, 2009

Memory of a Writer

As close readers of The Best American Sports Writing know, the Guest Editor makes the final call each year. Unless I am asked, I stay out the selection process. That keeps the book from getting stale, but sometimes one gets away. The late Jeff Felshman of the Chicago Reader wrote a story in 1994 called Blind Alley, which was cited in “Notable Sports Writing of 1994.” I went to school with Jeff many years ago, and don't recall whether I had put 2 + 2 together at the time and realized that CR's Jeff Felshman was the same guy I had known in college, although I became aware of it later. It was an empathetic, slice of life account about a group of people who bowl, despite not being able to see.

Earlier this year Jeff Felshman contacted me through some mutual friends on Facebook, and reminded me that I had selected his story on the notable list, but what he really wanted to tell me was that some years ago he had interviewed a someone who had worked with me at the Boston Public Library, and Jeff just wanted me to know that this person had spoken highly of me, a kind gesture he did not need to make, but did, and also the kind that tells you a great deal about someone.

Two days ago Jeff Felshman passed away of a heart attack. This morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I looked up the story in the Reader archives and read it again. Now I wonder how the hell it didn’t make the book. The Best American Sports Writing 1995 was the shortest edition BASW ever published, and now I wish it had included one more story.

So what am I thankful for this season? Among many things, writers like this:

...There's been a steady stream to the bar, but even among those who don't drink the scores drop off as the day goes on. The third game is the worst. Diane hasn't struck once since the first. Howard hasn't yelled "Mark it!" in a while, either. Beverly dropped from 104 to 46, around Andre's average. Her partner Jim Regan, the only bowler wearing shades (besides Kai Okada, who can see), rolls at the same time as Andre, who says she can't tell which pins go down "but I can hear a gutter ball pretty well." Regan's roll was his last of the day, and he says it didn't make any difference that Andre was on the line next to him at the same time. Bowling in tandem doesn't bother the blind bowlers.

"It probably bothers the sighted bowlers," Regan points out, "but they haven't said anything."

"Well, they're probably just being polite," Beverly says, "but we should watch out for that."

"If they don't say anything, how are we going to know?" There's such a thing as being polite to a fault. Regan goes on, "It's the old thing where you're sitting in a restaurant with somebody and the waitress asks, 'And what does he want?'"

"What do you mean?"

"It's like you're not there--"

"Oh yes," Beverly laughs, "I know what you mean. My daughter has a good line for that. She says, 'She's blind, not brain dead!' I like that."

"Anyway," Beverly continues, "this game, it's just luck. I'm just waiting for these lying excuses about why things went wrong. I'll hear 'em before the end."

But the end is here. Kai collects the score sheets and reads them off to Virginia, who enters the scores into a hand-held tape recorder. The bowlers gather around the bar to wait for the results. Three couples take over a table to the right of the bar. Mike and Jodi are engaged to be married. Mike, a partial who bowls with a monocular, rolled a 242 in the midwest tournement, and with Jodi is odds-on favorites to win today. Jackie and Howard are swirling their stools, hugging and laughing. Howard's in high spirits. "I've been living with this woman for ten years, and still got no piece of paper. You know why? Because I love her, that's why! We don't need no goddamn piece of paper."

To read the rest of the story, or more of Jeff Felshman, a writer worth remembering, and reading, follow the link to the Reader archives or Jeff's own site.

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