Rules of Engagement

A balmy Saturday night in May is a godsend for sellers of potent potables in this town.  The main drag is swarmed by college kids looking for that one last hookup before a summer of menial work and the occasionally present police cruiser keeps the droves in check.  Every establishment is packed and there is rarely a bored bouncer in sight.  Window shopping for darts is made impossible by pinstripe dress shirts and fauxhawks.  Through the short skirts and stylized tees, Joe was on the clock and looking forward to “after bar”.

The joint itself is pretty standard – a vestibule leading into a large circle counter with a dance floor on one side and booths on the other.  At this time of night, two hours short of bar close, the gyrating gets serious and the liquor flows like stream water.  The four bartenders quickly shift from customer to tap.  Customer to bottle.  Customer to touchscreen.  That’s when I spot Joe, the man I’ve come to see from a throwaway line from another source.

A tall but thick gentleman, Joe runs this place – well, he does when the owner isn’t around.  The burly man’s voice seems to glide over the Top 40 soundtrack as well as his drunk paychecks.  Barking for new kegs and cleanups, the bearded manager doesn’t mess around when it comes to his job.  I make attempts to introduce myself a multitude of times, but I’m always pushed aside for another problem and another situation in need of remedying.

I reserve myself to a corner of the bar, calling for a vodka tonic and decide to wait it out until the busyness dies down.  One drink turns into two and suddenly I’m enthusiastically eavesdropping on the group of underage girls next to me.  Their complaining about “lame guys” and the deeds to be done – quite brash and unflattering for the lovely young ladies – makes me grateful to be out of the game.  By the end of their chatter, I’ve grown to love my girlfriend more and now finally understand why single people decry their nights out on the town.  Having to wade through all the disappointments and one-night stands must be exhausting.

With the ceremonious “last call” and following the twenty minutes of register jockeying, I finally am on Joe’s radar.  He throws a bar rag over his shoulder, and approaches me with a tired but professional look.  After the pleasantries, we settle down in a freshly cleaned booth as the staff put the place back in order for tomorrow’s brunch.

“For awhile, kickball was my life,” he explains as he sips from the remnants of a tall whiskey sour.  Joe was the captain of a fairly well-known team in the area, Scissor Me Timbers, for many years.  The team bounced between victory marches and blackouts for much of their existence, and even continues on today in name only.  But their heyday was with Joe at the helm.  The Joe in front of me resembles the one described from previous interviews, but there is something missing.  The stories of the “Karl Marx meets Chris Farley” character matches up in appearance but not quite in the boisterous nature of his legend.

“I guess there was a point when I was, like, 29 that I finally put down the ball and said ‘hey, I gotta get serious’,” he says with a raised arch of the brow.  I’ve encountered this a lot – intense guilt over something as carefree as a playground game.  The deeper you look, the more serious some of these teams and players get about winning – even about just living the lifestyle.  “I had my then-girlfriend telling me I can’t keep spending the spring and summer months like a college kid, and so I called it quits,” he continues, “but now I wouldn’t even know what to do if I wanted to get back into it.”

Honestly, I wasn’t here to discuss the guilt that comes with giving up something you love.  Leave that for late-night talk radio.  I wanted “The Rules of Engagement”, a mythical list developed by Joe and his cronies during one season as a Timber.  It took the perceived drunken, intimate lifestyle of the kickballer to the next level, as it was a strict code of conduct for teammates.  Ranging from initiation for new recruits to a specific outline for inter-squad “hook ups”, it shocked me when I was told of its probable existence.  As the Guinness starts filling our glasses, Joe chuckles at what I came for.

“It started off as a joke but some really took it to heart, but yeah, it is real,” he proudly proclaims as if we were talking about a lost manuscript.  “Do you want a copy?”

Originally a large pantry for the restaurant that came before it, the office is a complete mess – so, in a way, it perfectly matched its manager.  The shelves are cluttered with payroll slips, tax information, receipts – it is a CPA’s nightmare.  Joe reaches for a weathered attache from the side of the overflowing desk, removing a thick notebook computer from its insides.  Moving clutter to prop it up, it takes forever for the PC to boot.  In this time, I find out that Joe lives alone on the East Side and he’s thinking about hitting the casino instead of the A.B., but this doesn’t feel like it is a whimsical decision.  His tone seems to echo that this is a common occurrence, taking a strong turn into self-destructive that I only thought occasionally during our discussion.

“It’s a little ridiculous when you first read it, but you can imagine how some people embraced each rule completely,” he remarked as he fumbled to connect the Xerox’s USB cable to his bruised laptop.  “Not everyone took them seriously,” he prefaced, “but enough did.”  Cryptic indeed.

The bolded sections stood out before Joe even handed me the list.  “Hooking Up”, “Drinking”, “Jerseys”.  He let out a sigh and brought me into his former life.  Excusing himself from the office for a tap related issue, it was just me and the roughly five-hundred words I had been searching for.

“There will be no hand holding – no exceptions,” it said, almost exploding off the page.  Rule number one was a cold one – surprising that anyone found this to be funny.  The seven-subsections of the “Hooking Up” category illustrated proper etiquette when dealing sexually between teammates.  Hookups were only allowed on Friday nights but had to be dissolved by eight o’clock the following morning.  Substitute players did not adhere to these conditions and romantic relationships could be pursued if desired, but there was to be no inter-squad dating otherwise.

The “Drinking” set was where the humor gained a foothold as it depicted the wild nights this team must’ve had.  Attendance of post-game shenanigans was practically compulsory and this was in the name of “proper bonding time”.  It was also business as usual, as they were also required to put in some face-time with their sponsor bar.  Gotta pay for the next season somehow.

Some of the best things found on the ball diamond are the jerseys – be it funny names or crazy designs, they can really link a ragtag group and illuminate a personality.  To play for this team, however, you agreed to give up self-expression in favor of a nickname vote and matching accessories.  Senior members of the team had all the votes and picked out the gear.

Each section and each provision echoed a Jonestown-ian sentiment that I had never before thought of.  At least, this was going to be a comical read, but I didn’t know that the “at most” would be so frightening.  One could see that, taken out of context and put in the hands of a more psychologically-deficient player, these rules could hold water.

“Ready to get going?” Joe says as he returns for his satchel.  There’s more here than just a list, so it was off to wherever my bearded sherpa wanted to get his rocks off.

Moving from one vice to another, I discover quickly that Joe likes to gamble.  And that he’s actually pretty good at it.

“After games, a couple of us use to go from bar to [the casino],” he explains as he gets dealt a hand in blackjack.  “I never gambled before playing kickball, but I found out that I’m pretty decent at cards,” he concludes with a shrug of the shoulders, almost confused about his Rain Man-like control over the deck.  He leaves the table up almost five hundred dollars, and even I, the hardened anti-gambling advocate, began salivating at the mouth.  Suddenly he was the big man on campus again – untouchable in his realm.

We settle down in the bar area between games, and I ask him why he truly isn’t out there on the diamond anymore – the ex-girlfriend explanation was a nice story but that lays guilt at some girl’s door.  He comes around to the fact that his running the team ruined one potential prior relationship, and he never really recovered.  She was into him, he was into the rules.  He was young, she was in love.  It was like a sickening John Mellencamp song that wasn’t about farming or tractors or whatever he sings about.  Damn the knowledge that he knew the list was ninety-five percent bullshit, there was nothing more important in his world than operating this team.

“I loved throwing stats online, going out, making lineups – it was a huge part of my life,” he reminisces.  He was good at what he did, but it had consequences.  “I do think that it got in the way of a lot of things, but it’s no different than going to the casino,” he immaturely compares.  I never mistake Joe’s age for wiseness, especially after that remark.

“I got more into controlling teammates and strategies after that whole thing,” he admits, taking a sip from the first non-alcoholic drink of the night.  Those rules became a little more serious, and then enforceable.  Push Joe hard enough back then on rule 2.3 of “beer bitching” and you were suddenly without a team.  This rubbed some of the players the wrong way, and once loyal participants were quickly unavailable the next season.  “It was invigorating to be in charge, but everyone hates the person at the top,” he strangely boasts.

Somehow in the bustle from one table to another, I lost him in the almost 800,000 square feet of slot machines and dealers.  I never wanted to be here – no desire to lose the little money I did make.  Even at four-thirty in the morning, the old birds were out with their oxygen tanks and Rascal scooters – I guess early-risers get bigger payouts.

I finally locate him – after nearly ten minutes – sitting at another blackjack table, but running into a little more resistance than last time.  I get back to the root and ask about what he did after screwing the pooch on that “one true love”.  Joe launches into a tirade about the dreaded ex and how she threw down the ultimatum of kickball or her.  Seeing the fault in his last quasi-relationship, he gave up something he cared so deeply for that he created a near-cult mentality around it.  Needless to say, she didn’t find his sacrifice deserving of complete devotion.

“Then I asked her if it was him or me,” he quietly points out.  “She chose the other guy.  They have a kid now.”

Two relationships, both in ashes.  On the surface, it was the sad-sack tale of a guy who couldn’t catch a break.  In actuality, it was of an adolescent boy who doesn’t understand the principles of human respect and interaction.  If you don’t nurture something, it will die.  Joe came close to having realness, but sacrificed it in the name of comradeship.  He then changed completely to accommodate a toxic person, and got burned for that.  I understand his sad cycle of bar, casino, bar – he doesn’t want to go home.  I can see him with a beer in hand watching a baseball game and half-heartedly greeting his significant other as she walks through the door.  That’s probably the ideal for Joe, but he doesn’t even have that.  I wouldn’t want to go home either.

He’s lost what he’s won now, but you never see frustration flow through his face.  It’s just something that’s happening, as if he lacks the control to just get up and quit while he’s ahead.  If I wasn’t here – if he had no one to impress – god knows how long he would remain in this zombie-like trance.

“You live by the list, you die by the list,” Joe comments, completely unprovoked.  He chuckles, but then sadly returns to his cards.  I see now what I didn’t see the moment I found him through the barflies, as he jawed commands to his employees – it was that stare.  It wasn’t cold, nor was it inviting.  There was no purpose of direction or attempt to become lost.  It was a vacancy – something that somebody gets when they go wrong.  He helped create a simple list for a laugh or two, but it ended up wielding greater power than its creator meant.  Even within this plastic perfect, Joe didn’t feel at home.  He had lost that long ago.

Names, dates, and experiences in this piece have been modified to protect the sources.


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