When someone asks where I’m from, I want to point to the box containing my childhood baseball cards. From an early age I’ve been moving, and I’m not really from anywhere. The cards have been with me through all the moves.
The first thirty years or so of this wandering occurred in the Northeast. I felt like a pinball trapped in the corner of a faulty machine. I wanted to go somewhere else altogether. In 2004, I carried my baseball cards to Chicago.
My girlfriend and I found an apartment on Oakley near Augusta. Instead of closeting my box of cards, as I’d been doing for years, I set it on my desk, hoping its proximity would inspire me in my ongoing attempt to Write Undying Prose.
Things fell into a routine. I woke early to write as crappily as ever, then went to my cubicle job, then came back to the apartment and watched TV. Friday nights we knocked pool balls around a table at the Black Beetle and got drunk, or at least buzzed.
In 2006 we drove several blocks to a hotel downtown and got drunk, or at least buzzed, and also married. We stayed the night on the 32nd floor, looking down on a city that still felt like one we were visiting, and the next day we drove back to our apartment.
We’d moved into another place by then, near Grand and Ashland. The building was falling apart, and our floor slanted like a villain’s hideout on the old Batman TV show. I finished work on the novel I’d been torturing for years, and it sat there, refusing to sprout magical wings and soar out into the world.
I restrained myself from smashing my head against the wall by opening the box on my desk. I pulled out a baseball card and started writing about it. When I was done writing about that card I pulled out another, and then another.
Everything about the one-block-long street we lived on, Hartland Court, seemed provisional, as if a decision would soon be made, or had been made already, to remove it from existence. As I began reaching with curiosity and desperation into the box of baseball cards on my desk the sounds of demolition came in through the window. Cranes were toppling the rickety houses all around us.
One Sunday in 2008, wanting to rid myself of a familiar, aching feeling that something was missing, I went for a long walk. By then we had moved yet again, to an apartment on Iowa near Western. I walked east from there for several miles, crossing over the highway, crossing over the river, and zigzagging through downtown to the Harold Washington library, where I filled a knapsack with old books roughly as thick as cinder blocks. On the way back to the apartment I walked even faster to try to pound the ache out of me, but even with all that walking and the penitent tome-weight on my shoulders I felt like I might float away, like nothing could hold me to my meandering life in this city.
But just as my walk was nearing its end, I started glimpsing the world around me. It was April. I saw some blue in the sky, some leaves budding on the trees. Birds were singing. I noticed a piece of trash embedded in the winter-beaten mud of a sidewalk rectangle of would-be grass. You might say it caught my eye, but it was more like a voice, a strange muted note amid the birdsong.
“Hey,” it murmured.
I crouched down to get closer. Half-buried in mud: a baseball card. I could barely make out the name. A brittle whisper. A question, an ache. Of all the players to find along this drifting path. Steve Howe.
I reached for a corner of the card with my thumb and forefinger and got the feeling that my baseball card collection was built upon, that excitement of finding a new card, a name that I knew but that was not yet part of the collection, that feeling that a hole was being filled, that something missing had been found. It was embedded in the mud, in the city, and as I gently tugged at it I felt some resistance, almost as if something were tugging back at me, trying to pull me in.
The next morning I didn’t have to pull an old card out of my shoebox. Steve Howe was already there, on my desk, faded and crumpled and covered in dried mud. The mostly obscured stats and text on the back wafted up to me in whispered fragments.
“…not pitched in the major leagues for three years…”
“…scintillating 1.52 ERA…”
I could barely make out the years Steve Howe pitched. His timeline had jagged gaps. He kept getting suspended for using cocaine, then reinstated because he had one of the best left-handed arms to ever grace a bullpen. Life a gift, life a curse. He went from place to place and sometimes clean disappeared.
I let go of the beaten card and went to work, sort of. Mostly I googled Steve Howe, trying to figure out the meaning of this strange tugging message from Chicago to me. A shiver ran through me with the discovery that exactly two years earlier, to the day, Steve Howe, high on crystal meth, had flipped his pickup truck and died.
After work I waited at the bus stop to start my long commute home. It was a nothing moment, in some ways a microcosm of my directionless days. Nothing to see but long low office buildings, rolling corporate lawns, an elevated highway to the east, and another elevated highway to the west. Nothing to hear but traffic. Everyone roaring past in a blur. This place no place, this moment no moment.
“Hey,” a voice said.
It was like the murmur I’d heard the day before. I crouched down to get closer.
It was a baseball card, or, more accurately, half of a baseball card. And there was another ripped piece of a baseball card a few feet away, and beyond that another, and beyond that another. There were ripped pieces of cards everywhere.
I lurched around grabbing up all the shreds I could find. After reading the name on the first piece I’d noticed—Brad Ausmus—I didn’t waste any more time looking at names. I just wanted to gather up everything I could before the bus came. The pieces weren’t weather-beaten, but they were slightly curled, like old photographs. As I gathered the fragments I noticed that they were physically different from the baseball cards of my childhood. The material seemed cheaper, flimsier, sharper-edged. They surely were easier to rip into pieces than a similar stack of cards from the 1970s would have been. It probably felt good, at least for a second, to shred them. To so easily say I don’t need you. I’d been saying something like that for a long time, floating, attached to nothing. It felt good for once to say the opposite, to gather every last piece I could find and then hold the small mass of ripped cards to my chest lightly, as if protecting a storm-damaged bird’s nest.
My day-to-day life in Chicago found a purpose: I started looking for baseball cards everywhere, wanting to hear more of the message from Chicago to me. Naturally, I found none. Several months went by. One day, after work, I passed a man who was in trouble. He was in his early sixties, a little pudgy, balding, with a slight facial resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. He braced himself against a metal gate and reached a cell phone toward me, groaning. He didn’t speak much English, but somehow I understood he needed me to call for help. As we waited for an ambulance, the man stammered stray words but managed only one complete sentence.
“I think I am dead,” he said.
Just before we heard sirens, I asked the man his name and told him mine. He was glad for this exchange and reached out and clasped my hand.
The last I saw of him, he was sitting on the back fender of a fire truck as firefighters tried to get him to explain the trouble. I thought about approaching him and looking him in the eye and telling him he’d be all right. Because of our exchange of names I was the least strange of the strangers. But I didn’t. I rationalized that the firefighters had it under control. I wanted to drain a beer and watch TV. It bothers me that I walked away, and it bothers me that I no longer remember his name.
But I do have a name from that day. As I was rounding the corner of Oakley and Walton I spotted something on the ground. It had rained hard the night before, and I had to carefully pry the wet pieces of cardboard from the pavement. Now the shoebox on my desk includes pieces of a player named—according to the back of the larger fragment—Christopher Lazarus Gust. Despite the miraculous intimations of his middle name, he never climbed any higher than the bush leagues. Yet the traces of his dream ended up in my lost and found, my strange collection of oblivion and ascension and forgetting and gusts.
A few months later, I was walking down Western Avenue. When I’d first moved to Chicago, I’d marveled at and recoiled from the length and repetition of Western Avenue. It went on and on, flat and riddled glumly with neon, Chicago’s battered spine, far removed from the glittering skyline. Since then I’d driven it and walked it so many times it had become just another familiar face, easily ignored. And then, through the numbness, a murmuring:
I crouched for a closer look, pried Roberto Hernandez from the sidewalk, and stood. I took a look around. On one side of me the traffic of Western Avenue lurched and seethed, on the other, a begrimed used car lot pleaded for attention with fraying tinsel on razor wire and faded yellow signs containing dubious promises.
I returned to the card, the first Chicago-based player among my finds. Was I getting closer to something? Back at my apartment, I studied my Western Avenue discovery. Only five pitchers in the history of baseball—Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffmann, John Franco, Lee Smith, and Dennis Eckersley—collected both more saves and more appearances than Roberto Hernandez. And yet he had wound up on Western Avenue. I could hear the avenue through my window. It sounded like a promise.
About a week after that, on my way to work: “Hey.”
The cards were getting better. First Hernandez, and now Pedro Guerrero, arguably the best all-around hitter of the 1980s.
I put the card in my knapsack. At work, feeling affirmed by this latest discovery of a quality ballplayer, I began fantasizing about quitting my job and taking up card scavenging full-time. I didn’t get much done that day.
After work, walking home, Pedro Guerrero in my knapsack, I kept hearing footsteps behind me, scuttling through the fallen leaves on the sidewalk. But when I finally snuck a look back I saw no one. I started imagining that my 10-year-old self was following me. In this scenario I’d eventually catch a glimpse of him when I looked back, and then I’d ask him why he was here, and he wouldn’t know but would start asking me about my life, i.e., his future, and I’d frighten and sadden him with a droning report of tedium, uncertainty, delusion, frustration, diminishment. The 10-year-old stares in disbelief at a pale cipher searching for messages in street detritus.
A year later, in 2010, the progression toward greatness suggested by Hernandez and Guerrero came to a halt with the polar opposite: a journeyman Cub.
Frank Castillo’s crumpled card was the last addition to our possessions before we moved once again, this time to a place on the far north side, near the lake. We needed more space because a baby was on the way. In some ways, the baby had already arrived; by then I had held a hand to my wife’s stomach and felt a tiny foot kicking.
We sprung for a moving company. One of the movers had a tattoo of an infant’s footprint on his calf. It was the first time I’d ever seen a tattoo and understood the impulse to get one. Everyone is a collector, one way or another.
I haven’t found a card since my son was born. Last week, while I was at work in the cubicle, my wife took him to the lake. She said he liked putting his feet in the mushy sand at the edge of the water. I went for a run the next morning along the lake and looked for his footprints. Trying to spot a baby’s day-old footprints on a city beach…I might as well have gone out looking for a mint T206 Honus Wagner card lying on Western Avenue.
I didn’t find his footprints.
When do you ever find what you’re looking for?
But it didn’t matter. I knew they were there, part of a trail of murmured miracles.
* * * * *
JOSH WILKER, author of “Cardboard Gods, An All-American Tale,” lives in Rogers Park and continues struggling with the Sisyphean boulder of his childhood baseball cards at cardboardgods.net. He’s on twitter @cardboardgods.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with shots of cards found by the writer. Background image of sidewalk slab courtesy Patrick Hoesly/cc.