1

In April 2008, a controversy stirred fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The two teams’ fans have a nearly ethnic enmity for each other, to the point that just the year before, when Boston’s football team won its league championship, immediately after the win, rather than cheering on their team, fans began a loud anapestic chant of “Yan-kees suck, Yan-kees suck.”

The following spring, the Yankees were in the midst of building a new and very expensive stadium in the Bronx. The Red Sox had just won two World Series in four years, and would win another in the autumn of 2013, after a dry spell of eighty-seven years—a period too long for any man to wholly hold in his head, or in many cases, his life. The Yankees’ new stadium was to be the third most expensive sports arena ever erected, costing taxpayers of that great city, now the cultural center of the U.S., more than two billion dollars. Construction of the stadium took more than two years. More than a thousand workers were employed. It was to be home to an epoch of memories not yet formed, individual and collective.

But on April 14 of that spring, a rumor began to surface. One of the workers who had poured the concrete for one of the cornerstones of the stadium was a Red Sox fan. He was going around his neighborhood in the Bronx telling people he’d buried the official playing jersey of Boston’s designated hitter David Ortiz, a hulking Dominican known as “Big Papi,” in the cement mix.

What began as a rumor quickly swelled into a controversy that reached the sports news media and then all the way to the administration of the Yankees. At some point in the sprawl, a reporter made a phone call to the construction worker who had claimed to have put the Red Sox jersey in the Yankee Stadium foundation. The man admitted immediately to having done so, and, having left the job the month before, suffered no repercussions.

“As I stuck it in,” the construction worker, whose name is Gino Castignoli, said, “I said, ‘The Yankees are done for the next thirty years.’ I only put a thirty-year curse because I’m forty-six and in thirty years I’ll be dead, and I won’t care if the Yankees win then.” It was unclear what he meant by a “curse”—there had for many decades been an idea in the national sports memory that the Boston team had suffered many years without winning a championship because they had famously traded the greatest player in baseball history to the Yankees. But since then the Boston team had won two championships, which either had confirmed the curse—it had been so many years since they’d won!—or had wholly dispelled it—the team had now won their league championship, and not once but twice, and then soon after a third time, and nothing relating to a trade or that player had shifted anything.

In a journal entry of March 13, 1841, Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I like better the surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature.” Surely there was nothing natural about the new two-billion-dollar stadium in the Bronx, but the space on which it was now to sit was at the time of Thoreau’s writing twenty-three acres of green field and marshland. “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six months later. Castignoli might not have practiced concision in the tradition of Hemingway, but he was concise.

I have long loved the idea of our sports teams—and my sports team, if I have a single sports team, is the Boston Red Sox—as the singular metaphor for our lives. When I need something and it is the summer, I feel more likely to get it if the Boston Red Sox have won the night before. When they are losing, it is possible my 401K will plummet, my kid will get the flu. After learning that Big Papi’s uniform jersey had been buried somewhere in the new stadium being erected, people across the city of New York—and let’s be frank, across the entire country and even across the globe, as by this time the New York Yankees had won enough championships that one could even see the team’s hats on heads in Budapest and Bucharest—were vocally and viscerally upset. It was not clear why Gino Castignoli thought burying a playing jersey in one two-foot-wide patch of concrete in the stadium would somehow make the New York team “done for the next thirty years,” but those who heard him say it seemed to fear it nonetheless. What is the idea of a curse, anyway? What’s the difference between collective memory, superstition, and tradition? When speaking of the Sox’ eighty-seven-year dry spell, reporters regularly noted that this was longer than most lives—and how do we know our lives but through our memories of them? Is collective memory meant to take the redolence of superstition, a kind of spiritual concern (a black cat should not cross my path, I’ll get seven years of bad luck if I break a mirror), or of a more practical tradition (I should not pass under a ladder in part because I know it to be “bad luck,” but also because I don’t want stuff dropped on my head)?

This kind of crossing of superstition, memory, and tradition always seems to grow muddier the more it’s interrogated. The first time I travelled to Budapest as an adult I sat with a group of my cousin Gabor’s Hungarian friends at an outdoor bar in a newly hip Pest neighborhood. We all ordered beers and shots of Unicum, an anise-based liqueur that burns in your chest like a small rodent has been planted there and is attempting to get free, and when they raised their glasses and shouted the Magyar toast—egészségedre—I clinked my glass to my cousin’s and then his friends’.

It was like I’d just killed all their cats.

People at tables next to us looked at me with their eyes narrowed.

While conversation picked back up my cousin explained that in Hungary, people don’t touch glasses. In 1848, when revolutions broke out across Europe, Hungary was under Habsburg rule. When the Austrians squelched the failed revolution in Budapest, while the leaders of the Budapest uprising sat in their jail cells awaiting execution, the Austrian generals sat outside those cells, toasting their victory by loudly tapping their glasses together. For the next 150 years, Hungarians vowed not to touch glasses.

Now, the night I touched Gabor’s glass with mine, it was the year 2004, six years after the period during which this tradition was meant to last. It stood to reason, I said the next night, that not only would it end, but that it might even be broken in a joyous celebration: an entire century and a half had passed! No more Austrians! The freedom of glass-clinking returned!

When I asked my cousin later why 150 years was chosen as the duration of this tradition, and how it was even possible that the executed leaders of the revolution could have told anyone about the toasting they’d heard, he simply looked at me with the same narrow-eyed stare I’d received in that Pest bar the night before.

“We not clink glasses in Hungary,” he said. “It is bad luck. And rude.”

One hundred and fifty years might simply be too many years for a tradition not to grow a kind of spiritual underpinning—that no matter how tangible the reason for that tradition might have been on a night in, say, 1892, by a night in 2004, it was simply a matter of the shift from memory to manners: one does not clink one’s glass to his friend’s glass. By the same logic, a record of futility that was begun for a sports team in 1918, when still in place in 1998, appears to be influenced by something metaphysical. It appears to have transcended the subjective truth of the individual memory. The curse which had befallen the Red Sox after their having traded Babe Ruth had an empirical basis which at least appeared as tangible as the no-glass-clinking, the codifying of emotional memory into something objective, collective: it was quite stupid to have traded Ruth, who not only became the greatest batter baseball would know for many, many years but had been one of the greatest pitchers in the game to that point as well.

But it’s not clear this logic exactly held. While Ruth was a great pitcher in his few seasons with the Red Sox, he’d not yet become the hitter who would one day hold both single-season and career records for home runs. In his last two seasons with Boston, Ruth had hit eleven and then twenty-nine home runs. Before that, he’d accrued home run totals only in the single-digits. But in his first season with the Yankees hit fifty-four home runs, almost twice the previous record. In the years to follow he would hit as many as sixty home runs, a number that would help the Yankees to win many championships.

So perhaps this, and not simply the duration of the Red Sox’ drought, was why the “curse” seemed more superstition than tradition: while Ruth was a formidable pitcher at the time of the trade, something remarkable happened in the sheer exponential improvement of his prowess in that first year with the Yankees, and continued until he retired in a New York uniform.

There was clearly no such logic to this burying of a David Ortiz shirt that had so riled the New York team, its fans, and its leadership nearly a hundred years later. The player to whom the shirt belonged had been a mediocre and endomorphic first baseman in Minnesota for a number of years before coming to Boston, but in the three or four years before Castignoli poured concrete on his shirt in the Yankees’ new stadium, he had seemed to hit a home run in nearly every game the two teams played—often at a point in the game that would make it appear that the Boston team had won because of his play. The same was true again this past fall, when Ortiz hit almost .700 in the Sox’ 2013 win.

And so, somehow, perhaps the tradition of believing in this “curse” itself was meant to be predicated on the idea that a jersey bearing that player’s number would be symbolic of a shift in Red Sox fate? Or because this player’s nickname was “Big Papi,” perhaps there was a sense that something ethnic or familial—and what is family but the privileging of collective memory over the individual?—to match the anger associated with the fans’ feelings toward each team would be evoked? Neither of these explanations seemed as direct as the expression that the Boston team had fared poorly for very close to a century because they’d made a horrible decision in trading their best player. It is believable that each successive decision-maker for that team might make poor decisions each time he was faced with a major move in player personnel because somewhere in his subconscious, where cautious memory reigns, he understood the effect of an executive in 1917 having made a historically bad decision. It is also not at all outside the realm of reason that the players on the team that had failed to win for so long, but which had come quite close to winning a number of times, actually came to have this idea of a “curse” so wholly accessible to their immediate conscious memory that each time they came near to winning, they simply tightened up and lost out of fear of losing—an unconscious response to a long-standing stimulus not wholly dissimilar from that moment when a Hungarian hears a glass clink with another and his face involuntarily turns to a scowl.

And yet, while Castignoli had buried the jersey more than a month earlier, on April 24, 2008, with the Yankees’ president and the CEO watching, construction workers used a jackhammer to drill into the spot where the jersey was meant to be buried. They drilled for five hours, down into two feet of concrete, and though Castignoli was not wholly complicit in the action, he did succumb to pressure to let team officials know where he’d done the conscious-curse-building, and they discovered the shirt. It was torn nearly to tatters from the jackhammering and the concrete which had attached itself to the shirt. It looked as if a corpse had been exhumed, its clothing torn.

But it was identifiable.

2

A number of years ago when I was working as an editor at Esquire magazine, I was given an assignment to interview the Oldest Man in the World. How it was arrived at that this man was in fact the oldest living male was never clear; the Associated Press had reported that a 114-year-old named Fred Hale was the oldest man, and so we would include him in the magazine. I’d been doing much of the reporting on an annual feature in the magazine in which we presented, in our subjects’ own words, what certain superlative experiences felt like—what the empirical experience was of being struck by lightning, for example, or being nearly burned alive—and so I rented a car and drove north from Brooklyn to Dewitt, New York. The Oldest Man was living at the time in the Nottingham Nursing Home, and I would find him there.

When I arrived at Nottingham, which was just outside of Syracuse, a nurse led me back to Fred Hale’s room. Nursing homes smell much like hospitals, antiseptic but not clean and weirdly like maple syrup, and I focused on getting the microcassette into my recorder. As I say, these stories were presented in their subjects’ own words, and so while on a trip when I was to write a story I might take notes on my surroundings, now all I needed was to prod the Oldest Man to tell me what it felt like to be very, very old.

This took more doing than I’d anticipated. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, Fred Hale did not tell me much. He couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast; no, he didn’t know what he’d be having for lunch. He couldn’t hear very well. His nurse, whose name I do not remember, had to translate my questions. The Oldest Man’s face was loose and jowly and much what you’d expect of a 114-year-old face: faint brown spots across it and those little skin tags people grow on their eyelids in time, though surely if asked they wouldn’t remember when they first saw them. Not much was evinced on this loose face but perturbation.

It grew increasingly apparent that the Oldest Man could not remember much of anything. No, he did not remember what he’d had for lunch yesterday, either. No, he didn’t have a favorite song. We couldn’t even get to a scene specific enough for me to ask him what it smelled like.

I stopped asking questions.

His nurse looked at me with a mixture of compassion and contempt.

“Well, c’mon, Freddie,” she said. “You love honey. Why don’t you tell this nice young man about your honey.”

The Oldest Man’s face drew taut, the skin around his mouth and eyes almost coming to flatten out its wrinkles. It wasn’t much progress, but I guessed it was getting somewhere.

“Well,” the oldest man said, “honey’s okay, I guess, long as you don’t disturb the bees. You let the bees alone, they’ll let you have it, all right.”

I asked the old man what he meant by leaving the bees alone—had he owned an apiary at some point? The nurse couldn’t quite translate this into a question Fred Hale could hear, but now something was swimming brighter in his rheumy eyes. He’d grown up on a farm in Northern Michigan, until he was eleven. There he went out every morning when the cock crowed and began to milk the cows. From there he’d slop the pigs or till the soil or harvest the wheat, depending on what season it was. For the next twenty minutes, Hale told me everything there was to know about working a Midwestern farm in 1901, more than a decade before the Boston Red Sox’ last World Series Championship at that time, and closer by a half-century to Thoreau’s writing life than to mine.

His memory worked in such a way that I think it’s unlikely that by the point I’d gotten him narrating his childhood days on the farm he could have remembered to tell me what I’d asked him ten minutes earlier. But now that he was talking about his early childhood, he conjured the particularities of a sylvan day unfamiliar to me, a life that took place decades before he would look up in the sky and see his first airplane flying across the sky, back to life in vivid detail. He described how when you shucked corn there was a way that you could pull the silk all off by breaking the stalk first, and told me something I couldn’t even begin to recount here, only ten years after that interview in Dewitt at the Nottingham Nursing Center, about the immiscibility of milk with other liquids.

A couple times during the Oldest Man’s narration I attempted to ask a question—what is immiscibility, anyway? How did he bathe back then?—but his hearing was nearly gone, and I wasn’t able to break in at all. His nurse might have, but I could see in the widening of her eyes that she’d never heard the Oldest Man speak so freely about his childhood herself. Finally, when we were both so fully enrapt in the story of Fred Hale’s youth on the farm that we had entered a space of imagination much like a shared memory, Fred Hale stopped mid-sentence and coughed something I couldn’t understand.

I asked the nurse what he was saying.

“A cardinal, he says,” the nurse said.

I asked her what she meant—was some story of childhood Catholicism about to be unearthed?—but as I said it, I looked out the window. About fifty yards off from the Oldest Man’s window was a single spruce tree, left to grow in the over-manicured lawn outside the nursing home. There, in its upper branches, was a cardinal, the very mascot of the team the Red Sox would defeat for both their 2004 and 2013 World Series victories. A female cardinal with traces of red in its wings, but mainly a body brown as the branches amid which it sat.

The Oldest Man said something else.

“He says he hasn’t seen a cardinal come through in ages,” the nurse said.

I just stared at her, and then again at him. For the first time I realized what it was that had been irking me about his loose face: he wore no glasses. I had glasses on; I’m nearly blind without them. His more-than-a-century-old face was wizened and liver-spotted, but it was natural as creek-water.

“He can’t hear much,” the nurse said. “But he can see like the day he was born.”

 

3

Later on the day jackhammers recovered the talisman Gino Castignoli had buried in concrete under the new Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox and the Yankees collaborated on putting the Ortiz jersey up for auction on eBay. They would not keep the jersey; it would go on display at a museum in Boston, a decision agreed upon by the administrations of both teams. No one in the sports media seemed to question any of this, or whether the jersey’s simply remaining intact and on Earth might not be blamed for any future Yankee futility anyway—construction workers did, after all, tear up the foundation of the house that two billion dollars in tax revenues was building, an act that would seem far more detrimental than a uniform being buried in concrete, an act that might as easily be perceived as a “curse” against the Red Sox as for them. Bids continued on the internet auction site for a week.

The jersey was sold for $175,000.

The uniform shirt was sold to a man who lived in the Boston suburbs, and who claimed initially that he’d bought it because his children had asked him to. Then he said that because the teams had both promised that the proceeds from the auction were going to a foundation that specialized in cancer research, he had decided it seemed more than worth the expenditure: to make sure a fan of the Boston baseball team had been the one to have secured ownership of the jersey, which was headed to a museum in Boston either way, and at the same time to have made a sizeable contribution to a good cause—to lengthen the lives of people who might otherwise be terminally ill. Both his father and stepfather had suffered from the disease, the man said. His father had actually died of prostate cancer years before. When he was interviewed about his purchase, and about having contributed to all this din over a curse that probably wouldn’t have mattered to begin with, the man said: “It’s a lot deeper than just the shirt.”

 

4

Can any of the details I’ve included from my description of my interview of the World’s Oldest Man be remembered exactly right? As I say, I have no notes left from the interview. The piece as it ran in the magazine had none of these details, just a transcript my editor cut down to the barest bones to go alongside a photo of the man, and which ran in part like this:

NURSE: What’s your secret to living so long?

FRED HALE: Keeping away from the women, I guess. You’ve got me down now, so I guess you’re all right. But, oh, honey was good. Well, I eat it every day now. Man was just here from, oh, I don’t know. Bee Association. He found me. He brought me some honey.

N: What’s the best way to eat honey?

FH: Leave it alone. A-yup. The bees will let you have it, you leave it alone. I eat it with my fingers. Flavors the applesauce and everything.

N: Did you drink?

FH: Plenty of water. Alcohol? Not good for you. I had cousins that drank some. They didn’t want me to follow their way. I didn’t drink but once a year. Only whiskey. Liquor and I don’t agree. Never smoked anything.

This version of the story does at least confirm my memory of the beekeeping conversation. And I’m reasonably sure it was a cardinal Fred Hale said he spotted. But why not an oriole (whose team the Red Sox play in a division with)? Because for some reason I thought the crimson of its back would convince or because my memory liked the association with the Sox’ victory? In a letter to his friend Harrison G. O. Blake, Thoreau once wrote, “I trust that you realized what an exaggerator I am,—that I lay myself out to exaggerate whenever I have an opportunity,—pile Pelion upon Ossa, to reach heaven so. Expect no trivial truth from me, unless I am on the witness stand. I will come as near to lying as you can drive a coach-and-four.” And I wonder now: what distinction has been made in Thoreau’s admission here? What even would a lie constitute for Thoreau, imagining himself not at the business of surveying as he did in the latter years of his life, but of giving courtroom testimony, if not a new appropriation of memory?

Emerson became one of his friend’s greatest critics late in life. In writing about Thoreau’s first book he said: “Henry Thoreau is like the woodgod who solicits the wandering poet & draws him into antres vast & desarts idle, & bereaves him of his memory, & leaves him naked, plaiting vines & with twigs in his hand. Very seductive are the first tapes from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness.”

Want and madness themselves reigned after the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years on October 27, 2004. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals in four games and fans essentially rioted across the streets of Boston. It was a sweep. The Red Sox had been down three games to none to their hated Yankees in the series before that final, but they came back, the first team ever to come back from down that many games in a League Championship Series, and by the time they came to play the Cardinals it seemed almost inevitable that they would win, although they hadn’t won in nearly a century.

Three weeks later, the World’s Oldest Man, Fred Hale, died. It was November 20, 2004, less than a year after I went to talk with him. Upon the news of his death, the stories filed in local newspapers and papers around the United States did not focus on his having been raised on a farm, or his having spent his final days in The Nottingham where I’d interviewed him, or his love of honey and penchant for spotting migratory birds.

The news reports focused on the fact that Fred Hale had been a fan of the Boston Red Sox. He’d grown up in Maine. He had been twenty-seven-years old when the Red Sox won their last championship before trading away Babe Ruth and, in the collective memory of a city and a nation, bringing a kind of curse that would make it impossible for them to win a championship again.

Reporters asked Fred Hale who was his favorite player from that Sox team.

He couldn’t say.

They asked him the most memorable moment from that World Series.

He didn’t have one.

Hale claimed not to remember the last World Series that the Red Sox had won more than eighty years earlier. This would make good sense for many reasons: it had been enough years before that it would be unreasonable for him really to remember any plays or players from a baseball team. Collective memory and records might contain that information, but games back then weren’t televised, and any images the World’s Oldest Man had retained from those games would have come from newspaper reports, photographs, at best a radio broadcast. Or better yet an entirely different kind of memory: his imagination.

It would be easy to conjecture that there’s also a deeper truth buried within Fred Hale’s not having a clear memory of the 1918 World Series: the Red Sox had been very good in the years preceding those games. They had Babe Ruth on their team, after all, and though he was mainly a pitcher at the time, he was, after all, the greatest player in the history of the game. The Red Sox’ win that year was just another win in what I’m sure appeared as if they would be wins and wins and wins in the years to come. Our memory in most instances is inductive; in the moment when our team is winning they are winners, and if we live in that moment we are freed if only momentarily from memory’s selective demands and thrust into the moment, and if our brains fly, they fly forward to those moments in the future—how far off can they be?—when that team will again win and win and win and win in some strange eternal present that contains nothing but victory and grandfathers and cardinals and honey.

In interviews, Fred Hale said that what kept him from remembering the 1918 World Series was none of these mealy-mouthed things I’ve listed above.

Fred Hale simply wasn’t much of a Red Sox fan when he was twenty-seven. It was his wife who, until she died in 1979, watched all the games she could and indoctrinated their five kids into the same.

Fred Hale gave his last interview to a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard just before the 2004 World Series began, exactly a month to the day before he died and gave way to the new oldest person in the world, a woman who lived somewhere in China. She possesses some entirely different set of memories—personal and collective, some we might even call a variant of luck known as superstition, or an ossified group memory we call tradition.

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