Fair-weather fans

Posted: May 21, 2012

We sat in the half-empty stadium, so high up that I couldn’t see the ball. At home, my dad would sit in his ancient vinyl La-Z-Boy and watch the game. I’d squeeze in beside him, scratching the backs of my legs on the duct-tape-covered cracks, and let the banter of Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas calling the play-by-play lull me into daydreams.

It really didn’t matter what happened on the field. I simply liked sitting next to my dad. The Phillies were in last place then, but Dad stood by his team. As they began the streak that led to their first World Series win, he scoffed at the swelling crowd of fair-weather fans.

It was the voice of Harry Kalas that first drew me to William. He was sitting on a bench listening to the game. He reminded me of my dad. It wasn’t so much a physical resemblance as it was his expression. Like my dad, he looked completely content in the moment, boyishly naive, as though expecting the next person he encountered to be a long-lost friend. Yet, under it all, there was a resigned sadness of missing something dear, the look my dad acquired after my mom passed away. Our eyes met, and I nodded to William as I walked by. As days passed, I noticed that, unless it was raining, he was always there, a fixture on the fourth bench to the left of the southeast entrance of Rittenhouse Square.

For the next couple of years, watching for William became a part of my daily routine. Sometimes I’d rush by with a quick wave or, if I had time, I’d stop to chat. Benign discussions about the weather (nice or chilly) and how my children were doing (just fine) sometimes turned to my timid inquiries — where did he spend the night (usually the train station) and where did he go when it rained (all around). I usually adhered to admonitions against giving money to the homeless, but I often passed William a few dollars so he could get some coffee or lunch.

I don’t know how many times I walked by without seeing him before it struck me that I hadn’t seen him for a while. A fall and a winter passed, and his bench remained empty.

Then, one cloudy February day, there he was back on his regular bench. He’d had a stroke, he said, and was having a hard time getting around. The next few times I entered the park, he hobbled toward me, as if frantic that I might miss him. He would ask if I could help him out. Sometimes I’d fumble through my purse, but more often I said, “I’m sorry,” and bolted away.

Seeing the stark reality of his life made William less like my dad and more like any of the other nameless homeless person who blended into the background. Watching for William took on a new meaning. When I saw his bulky outline in the distance, I avoided the path that would place me in his view.

Spring came early this year. As I walked toward the park, I heard the sounds of a preseason game wafting from the open door of a neighborhood pub. Philadelphia is full of Phillies fans these days, fans used to seeing wins. I smiled when I thought of what my dad would have said about how easy it is to root for a winning team. How many people so enthralled by a second World Series win will drift away when the inevitable decline occurs?

And then I saw William. I paused. What would my dad have said had he known what a fair-weather friend I had been? Instead of turning away, I made my way toward him.

He was listening to the game.

“Five runs behind,” he reported.

I turned my face toward the sun and recalled those hot summer days cheering from the nosebleed seats. I said, “I bet you still listen to every game, even when they’re in last place.”

“You bet I do!” he replied.

William is no fair-weather fan. I wish I was as sure about myself.

E-mail Christine Carlson at christine.carlson333@gmail.com.

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