I grew up in a city of dying elms called the Elm City, on a street with no willows named Willow Street. Uncelebrated trees shaded our part of the road, sturdy oaks and mature maples, their branches so thick with leaves that they created a blind curve just before the intersection where the street straightened past our house and made its hard line for the highway. Cars traveled at a clip down Willow Street, especially at night, and because of the curve it was impossible to see them until they’d nearly reached the streetlight glowing out beyond my bedroom window. Yet lying awake under the covers I could hear those cars coming, and never more distinctly than on rainy fall evenings when the wind had blown a scatter of acorns across the pavement. I’d be tensed against my pillow, listening to the whoosh of tires closing fast over wet asphalt, and then, an instant later, a brief, vivid flurry of noise, the rapid, popping eruptions of a dozen flattened acorns, before the whoosh receded into traceless silence as someone else hurried out of town. Long before I knew that I came from a place people wanted to leave, I saw how eager they were to get away.
Every so often a car wouldn’t make it to the highway. From my bed I’d hear the familiar swelling murmur of onrushing rubber—it was like nearing a riverbank through parted woods—and I’d be picturing the car flowing through the blind curve just as the night detonated in a cry of brakes and tremendous thudding impact. I’d crawl to the end of my bed where I could peer at the window glass, but all I could see was the fine silvery mist of rain drifting past the street lamp. Retreating, I’d tug the blankets over my face as my bedroom filled with the hiss of punctured radiators and revolving flashes of hot red light. My mother would come through my door and sit by my side for a few minutes. Then she would run her hand through my hair, give me a pat, tell me to sleep tight, and the door would close. My room felt remote, bigger than usual, and every shadow playing along the ceiling terrified me. By morning, when I went outside for a look, all remnants of the accident would have been swept away so that I might have doubted that anything had truly happened were it not for the chips of headlight glass or the laciniated chunk of engine grille that I’d find in the gutter with the acorns.
But before any of those investigations, there were hours of the night still to go, and as I tried to calm myself with less upsetting thoughts, invariably my mind turned to my favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. There in the dark I evaluated the feats and virtues of the players I liked best. This was the early and mid-1970s, and their names were Griffin, Siebert, Tiant, Aparicio, and Yastrzemski. We had no television, did not subscribe to the newspaper, and my bedtime was not long after the evening broadcasts of games began on the radio, so I knew very little about the Red Sox. In those days, everybody knew less about ballplayers. Yet my desire for familiarity with them was intense, and I arrived at strong impressions, most of which placed peculiar emphasis on the players’ own boyhoods. Griffin, for instance, I had heard was nicknamed “The Dude,” which led to my belief that he’d grown up playing second base in cowboy boots. Because Siebert was always called “Sonny,” my illogical conviction was that he’d been taught to pitch by his father, out behind the barn stalls on the family farm. The musically cadenced name Tiant led to my certainty that the pitcher had taken fife lessons as a child and entertained his teammates after games with Cuban melodies. The diminutive Aparicio, I knew, played shortstop by creeping forward on tiptoes as each pitch was released, an eccentric technique I supposed he had first employed in youth to make himself seem taller, and one that I—tinier than he and intimidating to nobody on the playground—slavishly imitated. I had yet to visit Fenway Park where the Red Sox played their games, and I thought of it as a public greensward, not unlike East Rock Park in my neighborhood, dappled with shade trees, seesaws, basketball courts, picnickers, the ball field itself surrounded by slatted city benches from which cheering citizens took in the game. Because very few of the player names on my baseball cards presented challenges to pronunciation, as a Dawidoff I was grateful to Yastrzemski. That someone had become the leader of the Red Sox despite that less-than-sibilant thicket soothed my concerns that I might somehow be held back in life on nominal grounds. I used to repeat Yastrzemski over and over, always with the tongue-rolling inflection that my Russian-born grandfather, Alexander Gerschenkron, used to make a diphthong.
Naturally, I wanted the best for all these Red Sox men, which in baseball terms meant winning the World Series. I spent a lot of time imagining how it would feel when this baseball apotheosis happened. The Red Sox had not won the World Series in a very long time and by now had something of an accumulating reputation for disappointment, but I was not deterred. Like most people who believe they are awaiting a miraculous occasion, my anticipation took on exalted forms. As I think back now on those moments, mysterious to me is the extent to which my private worldly desires were infiltrated by my aspirations for the Red Sox, how the team brought up the fundamental questions of possibility. At various moments of my early youth, the great victory was conflated with the news that a traveling circus with clowns, trapeze artists, and a sword-swallowing lady was coming to town to perform for an audience of one—me; word that my younger sister, Sally, would be going off to permanently live elsewhere, with another family; a declaration of love from a succession of adored female personages including: Mary Elizabeth, a girl I first encountered on the swings at nursery school and after whom I’d named my tabby cat; the haughty Claire, who had French parents and a propensity to be “out jump-roping” when I called up on the telephone to invite her over to play; and yellow-haired Christine, who wore colorful jumpers and, to my sorrow, moved away after third grade. The most recurrent of my Red Sox World Series reveries made me part of a large, noisy family gathered around a laden table for Thanksgiving dinner with a cheerful father at the head to say the blessing and carve my mother’s turkey.
There were plenty more variations on this theme, and on those sleepless nights, no matter what bumped and rolled outside my window, the Red Sox were there to stand by me. If things grew truly desperate, I had a fail-safe. I was no tabulator of sheep; I counted Yastrzemskis, a brief doxology that never amounted to much of a total before all anxieties faded and the terrible wakefulness was gone.