I saw my favorite bus driver this morning. I went to visit my brother and his family. I take the BX7 bus which picks me up on 236th street and Riverdale Avenue and lets me off on 207th street and Broadway, just a few blocks from their apartment. The trip takes between 15-25 minutes, depending on traffic.
The bus stops directly across the street from where I live so pretty much as soon as I walk out my door I know whether I can make a bus or not. I know exactly how much time it takes if I break out and haul ass in a sprint. Today, I started the sprint but didn't have a chance and missed the bus by a wide margin. Buddy, a fit, old wise guy that lives in my building--he's always out walking his little venomous dog--watched me sprint and then let up in defeat. I caught his eye and he laughed at me.
Took more than ten minutes for the next bus to show up. But when it did I saw that it was being driven by my man, Bobby Riggs. Bobby Riggs is a pale, lean man in his late fifites with glasses and pockmarked skin. He has a thick New York accent and a friendly disposition. Straight forward, open. But not soft. He's been driving long enough to have seniority and he only likes to work the 7 line. The first time we met we got to talking sports, cause I brought it up, but he didn't really care about sports. Somehow we got to tennis and the Billie Jean King celebrity match against...what was that guy's name again? When I left the bus that day, neither of us could remember the stupid guy's name.
Couple of hours after I left him that day, it hit me. And the next time I saw the guy, I was ready to pounce. He opens the door and points at me and goes, "Hey, Bobby Riggs." So we've always called each other Bobby Riggs ever since. He's a real good guy. Lives with his mother. She's 91 and has alzheimer's but he'll never turn her over to a home or an institution.
He was actually getting off the bus himself at 215th street, a shift-change stop for drivers. Time for lunch-o. Before he got off he turned to me and said, "By the way, my name is Paul."
I walked through the small farmer's market up the block from my brother's crib--apples, apples, all they've got is apples--and thought about what I like so much about Paul, aka Bobby Riggs. And part of it is just an appreciation of his professionalism. The way the guy goes about his business. He drives a bus and deals with the passengers in a professional manner. I feel the same way about my barber, Efrain, which is why I still schlepp all the way out to Brooklyn to get my hair cut. Because Efrain has been cutting heads since the early fifties and though he only works two days a week now, he is still a diligent craftsman, a consummate pro. It is always a pleasure to get a haircut from him. His sure, knowing hands and eyes. It's always a pleasure to ride with Bobby Riggs.
I feel the same attraction to professionals on any kind, ball players--we talk about that all the time around here--and writers too. The writing part has been on my mind the past few days since W.C. Heinz and Myron Cope died. William Nack, the accomplished takeout writer, wrote this to me in an e-mail:
The grand old world of sports writing lost two of its greatest literary lions in the passing of Bill Heinz and Myron Cope, and the fact that they departed on the same day leaves us all with a doubled sense of sadness and loss. Heinz brought qualities of precision and economy to the language that has been lost in this era of overwrought gasbags, and Cope was darn near unexcelled in the fineness and richness of his prose. And their tireless work as reporters was as estimable as the poetry in their writing. Both giants will be sorely missed.
The Professional was a book that showed me you can enjoy hard work if you're doing a good job. My philosophy of professionalism is that if there is a leak in the basement and you are a plumber and you are called in the middle of the night, then you go there and you handle that leak and weld that joint or whatever you have to do. And if you're soaking wet, then you go home and you clean your clothes, and you can sleep knowing that you did what you had to do. If everybody behaved this way, it would be a far better world. When The Professional came out, some of the critics said, "It's a fine book, but by a sportswriter." One day my editor called and read me a telegram over the phone. When I hung up, my wife, Betty, said, "Who was that?" and I said, "That was my editor. He read me a cable: TO EVAN THOMAS, HARPER BROS. QUOTE. THE PROFESSIONAL IS THE ONLY GOOD NOVEL I'VE READ ABOUT A FIGHTER AND AN EXCELLENT FIRST NOVEL IN ITS OWN RIGHT. ENDQUOTE. HEMINGWAY. So she said, "Well, I think we should have a drink about this." Our daughters were building a snowman on the front lawn. I made a fire in the fireplace and poured two bourbons on the rocks and sat down, and she said, "You know, I'm remembering those times when you were working five, six days a week at the Sun, and you were trying to do your short stories on a card table up in our bedroom. You'd work all day sometimes, and you'd come down looking so discouraged, and you'd go to the bookshelf and take down something of Hemingway's and read it. So this must be the greatest day of your life." And I said, "If you don't stop, I'm going to cry." And she said, "A tear just dropped in my drink."
...My all-time guy was a baseball player named Pete Reiser. When somebody risks his life the way he did, that to me is what professionalism is all about. Who knows how great Pete would have been if he hadn't wrecked himself running into all those outfield walls. But he was philosophical about it. He said, "If I hadn't played that way, how good would I have been?" So running into outfield walls was part of playing. He never regretted for a moment that he'd hit those walls. I never found anyone else who had professionalism as strong as Reiser, never saw anyone who had that much promise and then destroyed it. A professional is someone who makes every play. There's no compromise. Lombardi used to lecture on that: "There are approximately 150 different plays in a game that you have to make, and you have to be professional on every one of them."
He was a master of the crystalline sentence, an understated craftsman who put a human face on every subject from busted-luck ballplayers and boxers to surgeons and dogface soldiers. More than that, he was part of history. In the middle of the 20th century, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and the too-often-forgotten John Lardner as they turned sportswriting into something approaching literature, like water into wine.
When Bill died Wednesday at 93, after outliving all the others and almost every newspaper and magazine he worked for, you could look around and see his influence wherever words count for something. It's there in the books of David Halberstam and Elmore Leonard, and the newspaper columns of Jimmy Breslin and the stylized journalism of a new generation with no idea that Bill blazed the trail for them by applying the tools of fiction -- scenes, character, dialogue -- to his meticulous reporting.
...How fitting that in Bill's final years, two collections of his journalism were published, his sportswriting in "What a Time It Was" and his World War II correspondence in "When We Were One." There was no hiding how he felt about the pieces they contained, pieces dating all the way back to his days at the New York Sun. "I read them," he told me, "and I said, 'Hey, this is pretty good.' "
When he sent me a copy of "What a Time It Was," it wasn't just autographed, it was personally copy-edited. Failing eyesight be damned, he had tracked down every typographical error and corrected them all in blue ink and block letters as precise as his prose. That was Bill Heinz for you, a professional to the end.
Ever since I started this blog, I've tried to conduct myself in a professional manner, even though I have a casual, informal, writing style. Cliff and all of the other writers here are pro's too. I think it's just something that you can take pride in, striving to meet a certain level of competence. The blog presents a great challenge. I love it, but it's not always easy to maintain something day-in, day-out, consistently, over a course of years. Look at the job Jon Weisman does at Dodger Thoughts. Dag, imagine calling him an amateur? Man, that guy is the best. It's humbling, and I know the product here is far from perfect, but the effort is always authentic, and that's what being a professional is all about for me.