The Curse of Toplitsky

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke…

“Mrs. Feinman, what a magnificent ring!”

“Yes, and it’s a legendary diamond!”

“Legendary?  Do you mean that it has a curse?”

“Of course it does… the curse is Mr. Feinman!”

The story I am going to relate has nothing to do with rare gems.  Nor with Mr. & Mrs. Feinman.  Nor is it part of a punchline.  Nor is it something that I have spun from the cobweb of my mind. No.  This is about a specific curse and it’s unique nature.  And unlike the imaginary curse of the Feinman Diamond, it is very real.

My familiarity with the details described here happened as a result of a chance occurrence while consuming a dram of whisky at the Ash Creek Saloon.  The events took place on a recent Thursday evening after I had concluded my labours of enlightening a few citizens about the brilliance of Chateauneuf du Pape 2007.

I made my way to the far end of the bar, reaching my perch to coincide with the arrival of a Wild Turkey Rye on the rocks and a cheerful greeting as a chaser, “Hi Jim Grapes!”  Once again proving that in this lifetime few things can surpass being recognized by capable bar staff.

“Kerry… your timing is impeccable.”

I think that it was somewhere between sip two and three when I took notice of the fellow sitting on the corner stool to my immediate right.  He was tucking into a stack of buffalo wings, which he washed down with a Sierra Nevada Ale.  After each wing, he dipped his fingers in a glass of water, he then took a paper napkin and meticulously cleaned his fingers.  This activity produced a pile of spent chicken bones and bigger pile of crumpled barbecue sauce stained paper napkins.  There was a surgical precision to his attack.  He reserved the single bone “drumette” wings for last and he carefully alternated the celery and carrot sticks as the intermezzo between each wing.

Having dispatched his order of wings, he ordered a bowl of onion soup and another Sierra Nevada.  While waiting the soup he proceeded to check his cuticles for offensive bits of sauce or chicken residue, wasting two more napkins in the process.

If I had any intentions of accomplishing something that evening besides reducing Ash Creek’s supply of Wild Turkey… doing some writing? Watching the Yankee game? Watching the NFL Draft? It soon became evident that anything else would play a deep second violin to observing this guy.  Geeze, if he was so fussy about cleanliness, why the hell did he order wings?

When his crock of onion soup arrived he carefully inspected its appearance and sent it back, telling Kerry to instruct the kitchen that he wanted the crock put back under the broiler to burn it’s crust of cheese black, and he also needed some fresh parmesan on the side.

Dutifully done to his wishes and returned, he put some parmesan on the blackened crust of the soup and then dipped his spoon underneath the thick blanket of cheese and toast to the murky broth below.  A slurp of soup. Then a sip of Ale…

If I thought I had escaped his notice, I was wrong.  He glimpsed the flat screen in back of me and asked, “Do you like football?”

Sounds like an innocuous question, no?  NFL Draft on TV… what could be bad?  After years of frequenting both sides of a bar, I have learned that there is no such thing as an innocuous question at a bar.  Answer the question the wrong way about the desirability of the Giants 1st Round Selection say, and three Sierra Nevada’s later a bar fight ensues.

Without waiting for my reply he offered, “My name is John Baffles.  You look like a regular here.”

I nodded.

“I love football.”  He paused to catch the Packers’ choice of Bryan Bulaga being discussed.  “It all began with a train ride.  In 1960 I was eight years old and my Father took me to watch Yale play Harvard in Cambridge.”

I put my drink down.  Stopped writing. Stopped looking at the TV screens.

“We pulled out of Union Station.  There were a whole bunch of people going to The Game.  Students. Alums.  And folks just like us.”

He got that right. I was one of those folks.  I was on that train.  I was there with my Dad.

“And my Father begins to tell me a story as we clattered along the Connecticut shore line, ‘Johnny, I was seventeen in 1929 when Army came to play Yale at the Bowl in New Haven.  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  It seemed like the entire Corps of Cadets must have detrained at Union Station.  I can remember standing on the corner of the Boulevard and Chapel St. when they marched by.  Rows of neat oxford grey uniforms trimmed in black… the black visors of their caps gleaming, the cadence call of the platoon leaders setting the pace of the march. I stood in amazement.  What chance did Yale stand against this impressive display?  The snap, snap, snap of a crisp step.  The precision.  The previous year against Army, Yale went down to defeat 18-6.’  I loved my Father’s stories.  There was a cadence in his story telling.  I watched Long Island Sound stream by in the window… but it was my Father’s words, his description… I could see it.”

1960. My, oh my.  I remember that year well.  In 1960 a quirk in scheduling had Yale playing home in eight in nine of its games.  I saw each of those games.  Most from General Admission seating in Portal 26.  I was ten years old.  My mother let me go by myself.  I would walk the five blocks from our Alston Ave home with $5.  $2 for the ticket. $1 for the program. The remainder would cover two hotdogs, one Coke & a bag of peanuts (for my return trip).  I would give Mom the change.

When my Dad and I boarded that train in New Haven, along with John Baffles and his Father, and the rest of the Eli faithful, Yale was undefeated and untied.  Only Harvard stood in their way to a perfect season.

John Baffles took a satisfying sip of his Sierra Nevada. “As I watched out the window, my Father carried on, ‘The Bowl filled.  This wasn’t Brown coming into New Haven!  This was Army!  A football power in those days!  I hurried to my General Admission seating at Portal 25 on the Chapel St. side. {How ’bout that! practically a neighbor separated by 31 years!} What a game!  Yale trailed 13 to nothing when a little scamp of a Yalie took hold of the game.  No bigger than a flea… only 5’6” and tipping the scales under 145, Albie Booth, one of New Haven’s own, would go on to rush for 200+ yards, score two rushing touchdowns, add another in electrifying punt return of 65 yards, breaking tackles, dodging defenders and streaking his way to the end zone.  He also kicked three extra points. Score? Army 13, Albie Booth 21!! Army upset by Yale!!  Johnny I was there!'”

John took a rest in his narrative to make note of the Cowboys picking Dez Bryant with their 1st Round Selection. “Figures.  Jerry Jones jumped on a headliner, and he got a “head case.”  He just shook his head and returned to his story.

“My Father kept on talking about the game.  I didn’t say one word, not one word.  Then my Father stopped, noticed my extended silence, looked at me and asked, ‘Say… you alright?’  I was just staring into space picturing in my mind Albie Booth dodging his way thru the Army defenders, stiff arming one guy, faking another guy out of his jock, the hometown crowd standing on the their feet shouting and cheering.  I was seeing it all… hearing it all.  I blinked, and said I was fine.  My Father smiled, ruffled my hair and said knowingly, ‘I see… you just have the Curse of Toplitsky!'”

I put my rye whisky down, “Curse of Toplitsky?”

“I guess you can call it the ability to visualize events in exact detail … the sights, sounds, smells all carved in vivid relief.”

“Curse?  Well, maybe it’s a gift or a blessing.”

“Blessing or a gift?  That’s a good thought.  The happy and beautiful things I see and feel are truly marvelous.  Funny things are just… well, funnier.  Tell me a good joke and I can’t stop laughing.  But it doesn’t stop there.  You see, the sad things are just as intense.  The things that hurt I will feel for days.  I just haven’t figured out the way to put a mute on those things that give pain.”

“And this Toplitsky?”

For the first time that evening I saw him break out into a broad grin, “Oh, I think that might have been just something that my Father made up… something to fit his own mind.  He never really told me where it came from.” 

He paused. Surveyed his crumpled napkins, and just waited.  And I knew that he was thinking of his Father.  Bringing him into clear focus. He looked back in my direction, “Yeah, Toplitsky… my Father had the curse, too.”

I bit my lip.  That night I didn’t have the mental stamina to share in his recollections and observations. That I was from New Haven.  That I had gone to the same Yale-Harvard game that he went to… and maybe other games, too? 

But it was too easy to slip back to the memories of that season, and my only visit to Harvard Stadium.  A “horseshoe” stadium… a poor cousin to Yale Bowl.  And what miserable seating… not the bench seats that the Bowl had… no, mere wooden planks on cement.  Dad and I had seats fairly low and near the end zone.  I can remember men wearing tweed jackets and the ladies wearing camel hair polo coats with blue mums pinned to their lapels.  And most, I can remember the valor of Tom Singleton, Yale’s QB from New Trier High School… his number 10, in traveling white for this game, bringing a successful conclusion to Yale’s undefeated and untied season.

After the game Dad took me to this place that he knew would be fun for dinner.  I could see that there were other folks who had been to the game, too.  I gripped my Game Program knowing that I would be able to dissect its every word and photograph on the train ride home. The detail of the restaurant’s name is lost to me. Oh, well…

When I looked up from my day-dream, there I was, a half empty whisky glass in front of me.  John Baffles was gone… Johnny “Clean Fingers”. A napkin or two yet to be cleared served as a reminder of his gustatory surgery.  I looked into my glass, examined the melting ice.  This business about the Curse of Toplitsky has got me thinking.  Do you believe it?  I do.

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1 Response to The Curse of Toplitsky

  1. DPHF says:

    Welcome back — it’s been way too long between posts! But the Curse of Toplitsky has been almost worth the wait….!

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