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Fyodor Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881 at the age of 59.
February 9, 2019
I spent the week after the Super Bowl back in Illinois, in Mattoon for a night and in Champaign for two nights, and lord knows, you’ll be hearing plenty about this trip in a future newsletter(s). I want to focus instead on another story from this week. This one is about my cousin Denny.
Denny is six months older than me, and the only son of my mom’s brother Ron. He grew up in Mattoon like I did, and I think it’s fair to say that other than my parents themselves, there is no one on this planet I have known longer. We used to spend whole weeks at each other’s houses, I’m pretty sure 35 percent of our first 1,000 baths were taken with each other, we graduated from high school together, we have driven across the country together twice. Denny and I are very different people, in a myriad ways, but here’s one: He’s a professional Motocross racer, and I think the only good thing about motorcycles is that they give life to millions of people in need of organ transplants by killing their riders at a remarkably consistent pace. (Seriously, my nurse mother told me once how people on the waiting list for transplants often stay near the phone on particularly sunny days because so many motorcyclists will be out, and thus crashing and dying, and thus available at a moment’ notice to give up whatever body parts they no longer need. Motorcycles!)
But Denny is as dear and loyal a friend as I’ve ever had: If I had an important job I needed a friend to do for me, no question asked, he’d be the person I’d go to, because I know he would do it, not blink twice and then never mention it again. Denny has been there from the very beginning and he’ll be there at the very end. It’s tough to find friends like that. Usually, like Denny, they’re family.
And I needed Denny most back in 2000. I moved out to New York City in January 2000, armed with a heady job at The New York Times Online, a fancy apartment in Greenwich Village and absolutely no idea what the real world was like, let alone New York City. I treated the city like the playground any 24-year-old kid would for my first six months, staying up all night, spending money like crazy, generally being irresponsible and stupid because I didn’t know any better and because I was under the dangerous illusion that I was hot shit. That all ended when the disastrous dot-com startup I’d left the Times for went under and laid us all off, and, suddenly, out of nowhere, I was no longer an ambitious kid having the time of his life in New York City: I was a broke unemployed dipshit who had no connections, no brand name and no marketable skills. And I was running out of money, fast.
So I took a timeout. I gathered up all my belongings — basically a couple of suitcases, some old copies of Might Magazine and my cat — and retreated to Mattoon. I couldn’t go home and stay with my parents: That would be admitting defeat. So I asked Denny if I could stay with him. He lived two houses away from his own parents in Mattoon, where he’d never left (and to this day never has), and he had some space on his couch. I ostensibly claimed I was there working on a book, and I occasionally did some typing, but mostly: I just needed to get my head clear, to figure out my next move and, most important, stop spending so much money. It’s difficult to overstate how quickly you can get underwater when you first move to New York: I used to call it “The New York Tax,” the way that, no matter what you do in any evening, whatever your plans are, there’s always at least 50 bucks less in your wallet when you come home than you thought there was going to be. You don’t know where it goes. It’s just gone.
I stayed at Denny’s for two months. It was not the most eventful two months. I did some odd jobs to save up some money, I wrote a little bit, I watched a lot of basketball with my dad. But mostly I just hung out with Denny, a couple of 25-year-old burnouts without much going on, without much to do, without much going for them. We drank a lot of beer, we watched a lot of old movies because Denny didn’t have cable (I think we watched “The Deer Hunter,” like, four times), we just sort of idled for a couple of months. It could have gone either way those two months, I think. Some of my NYC friends had a going-away party for me before I left in November, and no matter how much I insisted that I’d be coming back in January, none of them seemed to believe me. When I was in Mattoon those two months, I understood why they hadn’t. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a plan to get any money, and, as was clearer every night, I was light years away from New York City.
But I had two months to sit and think, to straight my life out, to formulate a plan, and I had that two months because of Denny. We didn’t sit and have deep conversations about how I’d crapped out of New York, or about why I had to stay at his place, or about how I was starting to worry that I might legitimately be a screwup who was never going to get his act together. We just sat and drank beer and played euchre and watched movies and didn’t talk about much of anything at all. I asked him if I could stay, he said “of course” and then I was there, and I was there until I was ready to leave, and that was all there was to it, no questions asked. That’s friendship. That’s family.
In January 2001, with the money I had saved up from my odd jobs in Mattoon, I brought a one-way bus ticket from Effingham, Illinois, to the Port Authority Bus Station in New York, to start my life over again. I don’t think I even said goodbye to Denny; I just left him a note on the fridge, “See You This Summer,” and then Dad drove me to the bus station and sent me off, as bewildered as he ever was by whatever I was doing. When I got to New York this time, I had a focus and seriousness of purpose that hadn’t been there before. I took temp jobs to pay my rent, I started my own website with friends that required diligence and discipline, I saved and scrounged and made prudent, grownup decisions about my money, my life and my career. It took me a few years, more than four in fact, to finally catch the break I’d been preparing for and counting on, but when I did, I was ready and mature enough to handle it. And that’s entirely because of the two months with Denny, time that I was allowed to get my shit right and get my life back on the correct course. I owed him so much of that. I still owe him today.
One of my proudest moments came in December 2004, when I received the first proof of my novel Catch, a book that’s about growing up in Mattoon and was in large part conceived while I was sitting in Denny’s home, just letting my brain roam and wander. It even features a character based directly on Denny, whom I named “Denny.” I asked my publisher for three copies of the proof: One for me, one for my parents and one for Denny. No one deserved one more than him. I mailed it to his house in Mattoon, with a note: “This only exists because of you. Thank you.”
I had completely forgotten I had done that until this last Monday, when I was back in Mattoon and went out to Denny’s place with a six-pack of beer. He’s a postman now, with a uniform and a route and angry dogs and everything. He’s gotten a little older, a little more wrinkled around the eyes, but he’s still the same wiry, quiet kid he always has been. He’s not married, and he doesn’t have any kids. He just delivers his mail and feeds his dog and tends to his land and tries to stay out of trouble. We sat in his kitchen and drank a case of Natural Light and got caught up, talking about our family and our old friends and Trump and how time passes by so goddamned fast. It was fantastic to see him. I’d missed him.
And then he smacked the table. “Oh yeah!” he said. “You know what I still have?” And then he brought out that manuscript of Catch, which was sitting in an old box in a crawlspace under his house. My jaw dropped. He still had it! It all came rushing back to me, the story I just told you, how vital it was to me that Denny have a copy of it, how much he was there for me at the time I needed him most. How that book was a representation of how far I’d gotten away from what I’d hoped to be doing, and how I’d found my way back. And how important it was for me that Denny read it.
“Oh,” he said, looking a little sheepish.
“What?” I said.
“Oh, I never read it,” he said. “Was I supposed to read it?”
Denny is the best. It’ll sit there, in that box, for another 50 years. I feel comfort knowing it is there, and that it always will be.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.
1. Lessons From a Very Bad Super Bowl, New York. Written on scene from Atlanta, though New York doesn’t do datelines for some reason, so you’d never know.
2. Your Big Massive 2019 AL West Preview, MLB.com. I’m tripling down on the Baseball Wonkery for the next six weeks, with huge previews of each division every week until the season starts. We’re that close.
3. Updated Steven Soderbergh Rankings, Vulture. Soderbergh runs his career like a good Gen-Xer, and I’ll always admire him for it.
4. What’s in Store for 2018's Worst Hitters, MLB.com. Oh, man, Chris Davis.
5. Debate Club: Best Netflix Horror Films, SYFY Wire. Some surprisingly good ones on there.
6. The Thirty: The Players With the Highest WAR for Their Current Teams, MLB.com. It’s a complex conceit, but it’s not a bad read.
7. Tortured NFL Fanbase Rankings, Medium. This was the other thing posted on Medium this week.
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
We tape the first episode of Season Two this Wednesday. Very exciting. Get caught up with the ones you missed on Amazon or on SI TV.
Grierson & Leitch, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” “Inherit the Wind” and the films of Steven Soderbergh.
Seeing Red, no show this week, but back on Monday.
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, the gents did a show without me this week, so you might like it.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I hit my first delay with these because of my Illinois trip, but we’re back on track now. Mailed out a ton this morning, in fact. Write here!
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Detlef Schrempf,” Band of Horses. I love this band so much. New album supposedly coming out this year!
My first Illini home game in six years and it was that one. That’ll work.
Have a great weekend, everyone. Be safe and good.