My father often would bring the New York Times home after picking up bagels, donuts, and—if I was lucky—baseball cards on Sunday mornings. Despite hemorrhaging money, Sunday’s Times still intimidates today, but it was an entirely different beast in the 1980s, and I regarded it with a wary fascination. As if to demonstrate the paper’s depth, it seemed that every time I gathered the courage to pick it up, I’d find an article documenting the exploits of a New York City handball legend named Joe Durso. I never came across Durso’s name in any of the other New York papers, and I read them (or at least their sports sections) cover to cover every day for a good decade. But Durso, unless it really was all just some sort of cosmic coincidence, was a fixture in the ‘Old Gray Lady’. All the news that’s fit to print indeed.
The articles—well, at least my memory of them—were all remarkably similar, with Durso inevitably being described as a physical Adonis, whose skill was matched only by his verbal acuity. The image that came to my mind was that of a poor man’s Muhammad Ali (I’m talking pre-suspension Ali, of course, the Cleveland Williams/Ernie Terrell Ali) strutting around a handball court destroying his opponents while ridiculing them. History tells us that greatness may excuse or explain a lot, but Durso, quite frankly to this pre-adolescent, gave off the impression of being a self-absorbed jerk.
A few years ago—or perhaps months; keeping track of time isn’t as simple as it once was—I again picked up the New York Times on a Sunday, this time in a friend’s Forest Hills high rise, and was surprised to see another article documenting Durso’s exploits, written in the same style and ostensibly delivering the same message as its antecedents. Durso, deep into his 50s, is still playing, and playing quite well. While no longer number one, his tongue certainly hasn’t slipped any, and he spent the requisite time imitating Mike Tyson’s manner of denigrating his challengers’ primitive skills.
But this time around, Durso didn’t come across as a jerk to me. On the contrary, by the end of the article I felt sadness and even pity for him.
For one thing, Durso couldn’t help but slip into the past tense when describing his dominance:
‘I was the best, I was an artist, I was a higher grade human being, on a different plane than everyone else, etc, etc, etc…’
Well, he’s perhaps more than just a loudmouth, I thought, and appears at least subconsciously capable of self-reflection. But getting old stinks for everyone—get in line Durso—and it wasn’t even clear he was aware of what he was inferring here.
Durso wasn’t done talking though, and here is the money quote (that is to say, my recollection of the money quote, which may or may not have been buried somewhere in the New York Times in the past 6 to 24 months):
‘Can you believe this nonsense? Does anyone here appear to be paying attention? I should have been playing in Madison Square Garden on Friday nights, with 20,000 people screaming at my every move… instead of in a neglected playground in Brooklyn at 4:00 on a Tuesday in the company of a bum and a couple of high school dropouts….’
Durso not only never had a Frazier, he never had a Cosell. In fact, aside from the Times’s somewhat odd fascination with him, he never even had a ring. He didn’t exist. And he knew it.
In effect, he was saying, “can you imagine a crueler life than mine?”
No, no. Not many anyway. But I can think of one.