On Not Going to the U.S. Open
It’s decompression time around the Tennis Magazine offices. For the first time in 16 or 17 or 18 days—or is it two years?—we aren’t making the stop-and-start journey to Flushing Meadows. For me, that means I don’t have to thread my way through three boroughs—underneath Brooklyn and Manhattan, over top of Queens—two times each day.
The first thing you notice is the amount of extra time you suddenly have. The second thing you notice is how much of that time you sudddenly waste. The Open, where there are always thousands of people whirling around you, is, in a paradoxical way, good for focusing your attention, especially if you have to think and write down an article every day. Now that I’m back at my desk, with no daily deadlines, I’m prey to the evil spell of the computer once again. Wow, Internet shopping, I’d forgotten all about it.
In the last two days I’ve also reacquainted myself with Slate, the PBS Newshour, David Brooks, Mad Men, Gossip Girl, the Great Gatsby, a pair of black office shoes, the Philadelphia Eagles, a classical musical station from Philly on ITunes, Vinny’s pizza by delivery, the roast beef sandwiches at the deli near my office, a local wine store, and the look and feel of my neighborhood in general. There are positives and negatives in all of this. Fall has a serious tone that’s refreshing—it feels literary, a time to use your brain. And coming back to the familiar can be soothing. But there’s also an undertow of disappointment to the process. You feel the old limits of your world narrowing in around you again.
That’s the beauty of the Open. You’re somewhere special, somewhere buzzing. Like all of the Slams, and at most other tennis tournaments in general, the place feels elevated above the normal run of life—richer, better-looking, more thoroughly tan, better-dressed, shinier, happier, richer. Even midtown Manhattan, the great concrete and metal hub of the universe, is a grubby freak show by comparison.
For someone who works in the sport, the Open also shrinks the world considerably. You’re surrounded by people on all sides, but there’s a small-town atmosphere. You might see a friend here, a player there, or a face you recognize out of the corner of your eye. But whether you know them or not, whether you look like them or not, you're linked by tennis. Sometimes it pays off to follow a niche sport; you can feel like you’ve found your own niche in it.
That explains the most noticeable feeling I have when the Open ends: An acute sense of anonymity. It’s the prevailing condition at all times in New York, of course, and while I’ve never liked it, I’ve adjusted to it. Every year when the tournament ends, though, it gets magnified for me. Away from the tennis bubble, other people in the street seem to have no relation to me whatsoever, and a depressing lack of significance. While I never exchange a word with 99 percent of the people I see at the Open, a connection exists. This is one of the unsung pleasures of a mass event: Even more than the forehands and backhands you see, it’s the sense of gathering that gives the place that extra energy that you don’t get in your daily life.
The subway is where it hits me. After standing in cars crowded with tennis fans from all over the world for two weeks, the New Yorkers I’ve seen coming to work the past couple of days have been absolute strangers to me. The black-haired woman reading Agatha Christie. The brown-haired woman reading Inc magazine. The Middle Eastern man with his arms folded. The black woman staring at her Kindle. The skinny punk kid in red Chuck Taylors. All of them hold the typical, expressionless pose of the subway rider; people in this city have turned the poker face into an art form. This would normally never bother me, but last night I found myself thinking: If you want to know exactly how distant every person is from every other person, ride a New York City subway. It reminded me of a friend who moved here from Pennsylvania a little after I did. Part of him expected, after reading about the downtown music scene for so many years in magazines, that everyone he met would be a massive Sonic Youth fan. It was the indifference—indifference right there, in your face, all around you, visible, passing you on the street—that he found most disorienting.
Like I said, there are positive and negatives. Yesterday, I got caught up listening to my IPod during my ride. It was one of those relatively rare days when I wasn’t sick of all 15,000 songs in there. For once I didn’t scroll past everything and finally click on Yo La Tengo out of desperation, just so I wouldn’t have to scroll back up. Maybe it was having that New York groove going again, but I stopped on Bruce Springsteen and dialed up his Hell’s Kitchen saga, “Incident on 57th Street.” It has the best intro and best fade out of any of his songs, though I found myself wondering what kind of “incident” could possibly happen on 57th these days—shoplifting at Bergdorf’s? I’d forgotten that the song melted into “Rosalita,” which I hadn’t heard since high school, on a Panasomic record player. Bruce's Jersey street characters made me start to laugh right there in the subway: “Dynamite’s in the belfry, baby, playing with the bats/Little Gun’s downtown in front of the Woolworth’s trying out his attitude on all the cats.”
The upshot is that I missed my stop and ended up heading over the bridge, across the East River, and into Williamsburg. I got out at the first stop and walked over to the other side of the platform, to catch the train back into Manhattan. After two weeks of heat and wind, the weather was finally perfect. So perfect, so comfortable, it made you feel safe. It was just after sunset, and from where I sat, I could see the Williamsburg Bridge, its curves lined with lights, and the lower city skyline behind it. I’ve lived in New York for almost 20 years and have never glimpsed this particular, beautifully industrial view. I wasn’t worried about getting anywhere. I didn’t even want the train to come right away. For the first time in a while, I felt like I had some extra time. It felt good to waste a little of it.