I was once arrested by a very small Chicago police officer. Like several other ridiculous moments in my life, this occurred because I am a Cubs fan. Going to jail for something you believe in can be honorable, even noble. Going to jail because you're a committed fan of a perpetual loser is to embody the term, 'sad clown.'
I was inside the Addison Street El station holding a cigarette. It wasn't lit, but I was. It was hard not to be after watching the Cubs lose again along with thirty friends I'd hosted before the game at a beery rooftop gathering, most of whom were coming back to my place afterward to continue the party.
Except it wasn't a party anymore, at least not for me. It was a wake.
Standing in the crowded train station with my wife and brother, rolling the cigarette between my fingers like it was a lonely wiener on a 7-11 grill, I was wallowing in disgust at my inability to quit two bad habits: smoking and the Cubs. The home team had stunk up Wrigley Field once again and I was tired of stinking like a Marlboro, and yet there I was, having attended another North Side homicide while craving a cigarette. It's undeniable that large doses of Old Style lead to moments of clarity, and I was suddenly aware of how stupid I looked in the sports shirt I wore. It was a loudmouth number designed from Cubs baseball cards, red, white, and blue rectangles decorated with little baseballs and little baseball players. In other words, something a clown would wear.
An uncle of mine once pointed to an NFL game on TV, at a fan standing bare-chested in subzero weather with his jiggling self painted red (think Norm from "Cheers") and a big yellow Afro wig on his head. The guy was screaming like he was wired to a car battery while his team got its ass kicked. My uncle said, "Can you guess how he's going to feel after they lose and he has to walk across the parking lot like that?" Yes. Yes, I could.
There are few emotional exercises as hypnotizing as navel-gazing and as I bobbed along on a current of self-loathing, I heard someone address me through the fog. It said, "Put that out."
I blinked at a stubby finger in my face. It was connected to an arm that belonged to a small thick cop with very little hair. He had tried to compensate by growing a bushy mustache which, in turn, was nullified by his Ben Franklin-style eyeglasses.
"Is he talking to me?" I asked to my wife.
"He means the cigarette."
"It's not lit."
"I said put it out."
I held it up. "It's not lit."
"Then put it away," the officer said.
"Just put it away," my brother mumbled.
I knew it was illegal to smoke in the station, so I said, "I'm not smoking it. I'm holding it. How am I breaking a law by holding a cigarette?"
He took a step forward with his hands on his hips. "Put it away."
"Just do it," my wife said, sensing genuine threat in Officer Tiny's demeanor that I chose to ignore, or ignite. It was beyond the fact that I hadn't done anything wrong, which I hadn't. And it was something other than the officer's short-guy exploitation of his gun and badge.
It was the Cubs and it was smoking.They were habitual twins that helped define who I was, which at the moment were making me feel strongly that I was a loser.
I wanted not only justice but justification that I was a good person who respected the law and obeyed it -- that he was wrong and I was right! - and that, despite my inclination to cheer for a team that lost like Picasso painted and an obvious desire to kill myself one burning turd at a time, I was in fact a self-directed individual who was not enslaved by habit. In retrospect, it was Fredo Corleone logic (I'm smart and I want respect!) and we all know how that ended.
I held up the cigarette. "It's not lit."
Anger bloomed red on his bald head and he glared at me a like an angry cherry tomato with a mustache. "Put it away or I'm taking you in," he said. An experienced-looking officer wearing a Glock too big for her hip who had been standing behind him during the incident now leaned in and said something in his ear, but he ignored her and put his face in mine.
It was as simple as reinserting the smoke among its cancerous brethren in a crush-proof coffin.
Afterward, I could hop a train home as if nothing had ever happened.
Understanding this, nodding in agreement, I said, "But it's not lit."
It's important to remember that a habit itself -- a thing done over and over again, sometimes for the simple sake of rote -- is not by definition a bad thing. Praying, ab-crunching, and charitable giving can be called habits if they are conducted on a regular basis. Even compulsive nose-exploring, nail-biting, and Blackberry-checking do little harm to the perpetrator, if annoying everyone else in his radius. By contrast, bad habits are by nature 'bad' due to overindulgence in something which is initially a lot of fun that may eventually kill you. Think drugs, unprotected sex, and gyros.
There are many people in the world who can dip a toe into the pool of potentially-lethal fun without forming a habit. These specimens are almost never Cubs fans. Yankees, yes. Cubs, rarely.
That's because, like smoking, being a Cubs fan means committing oneself to something that starts out hot, burns out at the midpoint, and turns to ashes at the end. The reward is a taste in the mouth like day-old dogshit and yet the craving for another one, another delightfully torturous season, seems never to cease.
On the other end of the spectrum, Yankees fans collectively yawned and looked at their watches as manager Joe Girardi stalled the team firmly in the middle of the AL East in 2008 and opened spring training this year with A-Rod transformed into A-Roid. This is because the Bombers have won 26 World Series titles, and because God loves the Bronx, and because they may win 26 more before the Cubs win their first in over a century. There's no risk in being a Yankees fan, no emotional tightrope-walking, while being a Cubs fan is like dating someone with Multiple Personality Disorder: today they're flirtatious and dependable, tomorrow mumbling to themselves and refusing to shower, the next day clinching their division, and shortly afterward being swept by the Dodgers.
A logical person would quit them. A logical person would look down at the burning tube of lethal chemicals between his fingers, spit out the toxins and phlegm, and crush it beneath his foot. There is no logic in being a Cubs fan or a smoker. There's only next season and the next cigarette.
This is the essence of being a Cubs fan, this delicate intermingling of hope and self-destructiveness, and yet there is a crucial difference between the two habits. One will only harm a person while the other will kill him. Which is which is entirely up to the individual.
I paced the 23rd District holding cell for five hours after being charged with nothing. It was the adult equivalent of the 'time-out' my wife and I sometimes give our two-year-old son when we count to ten while he contemplates his behavior. Dying for a smoke, I replayed over and over again what an idiot I'd been, attaining a new level of self-disgust while vowing to make the sort of personal changes that would never again get me arrested by little blue men.
While I was hating myself, the experienced-looking cop who had been backing up Officer Tiny stopped outside the cell. She told me that my brother, a lawyer, had pled my case to the desk sergeant based on the fact that the whole thing was stupid, and that I'd soon be released.
Then she chuckled and told me Officer Tiny wasn't even a 23rd District officer, that he was a loaner to help out with crowd control on game days, and that she had advised him to walk away. In no uncertain terms she informed me that his fellow cops considered him a complete asshole. I agreed wholeheartedly, and made the point that it didn't matter whether it was law enforcement or pork-farming, politicking or basket-weaving, every industry had its own power-drunk Napoleon who feels six inches taller by throwing around his authority. She nodded along, agreeing.
"Still," she said. "You could have just shut up."
She was so right for so many reasons that it finally shut me up. I should have just quit. Not smoking and not the Cubs, but talking.
The inner demon that landed me in jail wasn't nicotine addiction or obsession with a losing sports team. It was an undeniable impulse to make the point over and over again like a parrot with Tourette's Syndrome that I was in a ridiculous situation and its protagonist was a knucklehead. Normal people like my wife can just 'let it go,' a term she has whispered to me as many times as there teaspoons of water in Lake Michigan, and she's been right every time, and every time she may have well been whispering in Latvian. For example, I went right ahead and mumbled too loudly at the obese woman blocking the aisle to move her fat ass, and I explained with big slow words like he was deaf to the old man with the out-of-state plates how traffic lights worked in the big city, and when the guy in front of me at the currency exchange asked the clerk every single question that could ever possibly be formulated about a postage stamp, I reminded him not to forget to lick it first, and so on and on, for decades.
In theory, I am right to recognize and comment upon idiotic behavior. Civility, however, trumps me in practice. I've been instantly pilloried almost every time I've uttered aloud what is wildly true, crumbling to salt while I was still channeling Don Rickles.
While spending those lonely hours in jail I slowly realized that Gandhi had the right idea, which was to make a point quietly but forcefully, without the wisenheimer commentary. I also realized Gandhi wasn't a Cubs fan or a smoker, and that while some addictions could be broken and some brought under control, others were hardwired into one's identity.
Several months after my son was born I finally quit cigarettes, depositing a nearly-new pack into a garbage can like pushing away from a Thanksgiving table consisting only of Marlboro products, having consumed my fill. After several more truth-telling incidents in which my wife's whispers rose by a decibel and included pause-inducing terms like 'jerk' and 'divorce,' I placed my smart-assness on a short lease and have kept it there ever since, allowing it to roam free only when absolutely necessary.
And then there's the Cubs.
They keep losing spectacularly and I keep hoping against hope, inflicting harm upon myself like a sad clown, and I don't care. At least the pain lets me know that I'm alive.