Memphis Part 4: All Good Things Must End, but if you can, end them with Booze and Rugby

His friend and assistant coach owned the loft on the river where we were going to watch the game.  Tim enthusiastically explained to me how they would often banter back and forth, casually arguing about the logistics of the game.  Dickie was a retired Eagle.

The kid inside of my head was losing his mind, had lost his mind, I was so excited to have found rugby people and to be having such an easy connection with a stranger. That’s how rugby is though. Rugby is family, no matter where you go.

The All Blacks vs Ireland game, at a loft, overlooking the Mississippi River in the home of a retired Eagle.  I was freaking out. And Tim shared my enthusiasm. As we bounced back and forth in conversation, our energies increased. We talked faster and more vividly. We made more bad jokes and laughed heartily.

“…yeah, and there’s a rooftop desk and we’re gonna have mimosas.  We’ll go up on the roof during halftime. And there’s a beautiful white couch…,” he joked, “…a beautiful white couch that no one’s allowed to sit on,” and he laughed, teasing about his assistant coach.

We talked and talked and talked some more, as continuously as possible while also eating, which is pretty continuous for a couple of rugby players.  We talked so much that his girlfriend was no longer involved in the conversation. There was a break for a minute, and I looked over at her,

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I pleaded a bit with her, knowing she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Tim said, “Yeah, she’s used to it.  It’s ok.”

She laughed pleasantly and nodded her head telling us that she knew when this man started talking to someone about rugby that he wasn’t going to stop, and she knew that with whomever he was talking also wouldn’t stop.  There’s an intensity about rugby players that I’ve never found in another group of people. It’s a passionate subculture, no doubt.

 

As 3 o’clock approached we paid our tabs, and got ready to go.

“How did you get here? How are you getting anywhere?” he asked me.

“I walked here,” I told him, “I had an uber drop me off in the Square earlier.”

An idea popped up and the expression on his face changed, revealing it.

“Do you wanna come with us? You could just catch a ride to the match with me.”

“Yes! Of course!  That would be so great!” I can’t believe how everything is lining up so well.

I grab my pack full of clothes, and follow him out the door.

I thank them both over and over, excited about the great opportunity and how wonderful it was that I found them, so kind and welcoming

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” I continued, “I mean, Saturday’s a rugby day.  I wanted it to be something, ya know?”

We piled into a Mini Cooper in the parking lot.  Before I realized what car were taking, his girl climbed into the backseat.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.  “I don’t mind.”

“Yeah yeah,” she assured while pulling the front seat back towards her, clicking it in place, “I’m small.  I fit back here just fine.”

We take the Cooper back to their house, Tim telling me, “We gotta get my car.”

I chuckled to myself and decided to tease a little, “Oh, so this isn’t yours?”

He laughed back at me, motioning to the backseat, “No, no, this is hers.”

 

Their house is a rancher in a cute suburbanish neighborhood.  It doesn’t seem like the city.

As I walk in the door, I’m greeted by a couple of dogs, wagging their butts and tails simultaneously.  One is young, and jumping up and down. I calm her, kneeling down to petting them both while I wait for Tim to get ready to leave.

He comes back out from the kitchen carrying a six pack with four left.  He’s ready to head to the loft. I tell his girlfriend it was very nice to meet her, which she reciprocates.

“Have fun,” she tells us, “I know it’ll be a good time,” smiling at us both.

Outside, we hop in his early 00’s Jeep Wrangler.  The top’s off. It’s a two door with no back seat, so I toss my pack over the frame and nestle it into the bed by the wheel well.  He jumps in, cracking a beer and offering me one. How can I say no?

He’s drinking Fat Tire.  I point it out, “Even you, there with your Colorado beer, New Belgium.  I see you.” We cheers to that.

On the way to the loft, we chat more about rugby.  Parked, I grab the two leftover beers in their cardboard cradle and the one I’m still sipping on, and my pack.  I wasn’t sure if it’d walk away. Maybe it wouldn’t have, but I thought it best to bring it with me.

At the bottom of what appears to be a warehouse, we ring the buzzer.  Dickie responds over a crackly speaker, buzzing us in.

Inside, we walk through a foyer area and up to the third floor, and into a beautiful pad with the kitchen and the office at the center of the layout sitting about four feet above the living and dining rooms which surrounded them.  On the opposite end of the loft, the living room and the beautiful white couch that is not for sitting.

It isn’t long before Tim sits down on it, crossing his legs out in front of him and extending his left arm across the back.  In his right hand, he raises a beer to his lips. It was all definitely a joke with the couch, now fully confirmed.

Behind him, a huge panoramic window, from ceiling to floor, overlooks a couple blocks of downtown and out to the Mississippi.  We’re only a couple blocks from the water, and seated high enough that we have a clear view of the sandbar and the bridge and the white foam that topples over itself on the river.  A dark green forest across the banks complete the scene.

Tim introduces me to Dickie, and I give a short overview.  I thank him so much for having me. I recognize his Irish accent.  He dismisses my appreciation in an accepting manner, waving his hand at me in a way that makes me know that he thinks I should expect such hospitality.  He’s probably 65 years old, maybe older, small and just a tad bit frail. He’s in good shape though, just past his hayday. His hair is stark white and he wears black rimmed glasses.  He’s proper.

He walks up into the kitchen and stands where the sink overlooks the living room.  He asks if we would like a mimosa.

“Of course,” I tell him, standing to receive it from above.

Throughout the match, he makes sure our mimosa glasses stay full until he run outs of champagne nearly at the end.  He doesn’t realize he’s running out either, until it’s gone and he’s already told me that he’s going to make me another.  He apologizes profusely, as I try to telling him it’s ok, but Tim saves us,

“Oh no, don’t worry, there’s another beer in the fridge.”

 

A few of the Memphis women had shown up and were drinking and watching with us.  One has a kid. She’s about six, an adorable blond headed girl. She runs around some, but also watches rugby wit us.  We chat back and forth about the game and our clubs, and I tell them that they should all come out to Denver to play or just hang out sometime.  I tell them about our D1 side and how we’d have a good match.

At halftime, we take the moment to climb the stairs up to the roof of the building.  It’s a flat roof, the kind of building that the stairwells ascending are the only thing that breaks the uniformity.  Now we’ve broken it too, leaning on the balconies at the edges where we gaze out on the Mississippi. We’re just south of a big accidental fork, where a road bridge splits the river.  The side closest to our bank is muddy, a dark khaki color, the surface water hugging tightly against the sandbar. The opposite side of the leg is deeper, wider water, still foggy but much more diluted.  The far bank is wooded, and sticks and branches are floating along with the river.

I am half drunk just staring at the water, in awe of its sheer power.  Down the balcony from me, a few of the girls are playfully chatting and the coaches are having a conversation of their own.  I look up to see this and for a split second feel very isolated and alone, but I am used to this feeling. It is something that I often inflict upon myself, but in this moment it is a contradiction.  I realize this quite quickly without having any deeper thoughts about it, and time saves me. I begin to walk towards the girls, thinking I’d like to be part of their play, but the coaches signal that it’s time to head back downstairs for the second half so we all follow.

The rest blurs by.  We settle into the white couch, watch parts of the game, and spin off into talking points concerning some game play or referees call as our little 6 year old friend takes turns sitting still and hopping up, to which her mother commands her back down.

Now, we’re nursing our beers.  We’ve all had quite a bit to drink.  We’re loose. We’re all friends now. That’s the real beauty of the rugby community.  Yes, there’s too much binge drinking, but it’s used as a tool for forming community. I can only qualify that as a redeeming quality.

Once the game has finished, the girls ask me what I’m doing, but I tell them I have a flight to catch back to Denver.  Kindly, they offer to drop me off, but I ask more than once if it’s out of the way, because I don’t want to be an inconvenience to them, but they insist.  I am so grateful for these wonderful people, especially in this moment, at a time when I didn’t think I could be more full of gratitude.

I realize that my experience of isolation on the roof was in part a feeling that I was separate from reality.  The magic of my afternoon was unbelievable, like nothing I could have ever dreamed up, and that I felt separate because I couldn’t realize that it was real.

 

At the airport drop off, I reach in my pocket and pull out the little bit of weed that Sal and I hadn’t smoked.

“Hey, do you want this?” I casually ask as I extended my arm into the front seat towards the girls.

One of them quickly grabs it from my hand, trying to keep my car seat bound backseat companion from seeing it.

“Yeah, thanks so much!”

“Nah, it’s nothing,” I reply, “Thanks so much from dropping me off.  It was so great to meet you all and your coach. I just can’t believe all that really happened.  I had such a great time.” I probably rambled on a bit more, saying we’ll see each other again soon, and make promises to come through from the Mardi Gras tournament.

“What’s that mommy?”  the little girl interrupts me.

“Oh nothing,” she replies, “…just some candy.”

I shut the car door behind me and wave back to my new friends as they pulled away from the curb.  Inside the airport I am full of joy, so much that I could’ve floated home to Denver on my own lightness.

 

Memphis Part 3: Alone but Never Lonely, A Survey of Rugby Culture

Saturday morning we woke up late with throbbing heads and we ventured out of the house, our packs on our backs, away from our tiny cottage towards Overton Square.  We’d heard there may be a rugby game going on in the adjacent park, but in asking around what we must see, Overton Square kept coming up. Our uber driver dropped us off on the corner of a block lined with restaurants, and we walked north to the park.  

We wandered through the park from one corner to the opposite and around the rest of the perimeter, but found no rugby field.  Beautiful old trees hung above our heads, their trunks spaced out, sharing the sunlight in the canopy above and providing geometric patches of shade along the great lawn.  

Sal’s flight left much earlier than mine, so she was really in the last moments of the trip.  For both of us, hungover was an understatement. We were really only getting by because of a special green plant, the realest of all hangover cures.  High, we floated around the park looking for a rugby field into our last moments together. We knew the airport was small, so she hung around longer and later than we could’ve back in Denver.  

We’d been trying to make Saturday a rugby day, to extend our adventure just a little bit longer, but to no avail.  It was the day of the first Chicago weekend, the All Blacks flying in from New Zealand to face off against Ireland.  No doubt it would be a hell of a match, and I was set on finding a place to watch it later, but now we were just trying to find some local teams.  Rugby undoubtedly fosters a wonderful community all across the States and we wanted to find them. We’d even heard about Overton through a women’s rugby group on social media.  We had to give it a try.

As we meandered, I told her the story of the night before, asking her what she’d already forgotten.  We laughed about the silly things. We wondered in awe about the crazy things. I asked her about her long conversation with the dishwasher.  She reminded me of our plan to go to the gay club. We giggled and giggled, sharing a wonderful lightness of existence that only two great friends can share.

There was a certain understanding between the two of us.  It had set in almost immediately at the opening of the trip.  The whole thing was gonna be easy. The two of us were gonna be easy.  And we were just gonna go, just gonna flow, with whatever energy led us around Memphis.  We were both completely fine with being out of control, with exploring and probably diverting from whatever loose plans we had set.

Suddenly, it was time.  Sal left.  I was alone.

My phone had started acting up.  The battery was dead or dying all the time.  And as was trying to message someone about finding a rugby match, but my phone died completely.

Sal had asked me just a few moments before, “What’re you gonna do for the rest of the day?”

I hadn’t really thought about it until she asked, but after a few moments I responded, “I dunno.  Maybe I’ll just get drunk.”

Now that my phone was dead, it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do.  I’d go to a bar, sit down, have the bartender put my phone on charge, and have a beer or two.  I decided to wander back down to the Square. We’d made our way nearly all the way around the Park, but I still hoped to find a hidden rugby field and a match.  Worst case, the end would drop me back down at the Square. I headed south.

Parts of Overton reminded me of Baltimore, at Patterson Park, the people out enjoying the day and the overall arrangement of things.  I reminisced a bit about laying in the grass on a blanket with old friends. I caught myself before I went too far. I was set on not being caught up in the past moment or in the future.  I wanted to be present.

One more block below the park, catty corner across the intersection from me, the sign for Huey’s broke up brick building faces.  It had been recommended to us more than a few times when talking to the locals. It wasn’t a barbeque place, though, so our interest had slipped out of the foreground.  Everyone said, ‘if you want a really great burger, you gotta go to Huey’s,’ so I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for a kind bartender.

Inside it was busy, most all of the dining tables and high tops were taken.  There were only six open seats at the bar, all singles between pairs, except the corner of the bar in front of me, where three chairs sat empty.  Initially, I lay my pack down below the bar and sat in the middle set of the three so that there was then a consistent checkered pattern of empty bar seats, but after I ordered a tall Wisacre IPA, I decided to move over around the corner, to leave the two seats open together in case another couple came through.  

It put me next to a pair of older women catching up over mouthwateringly juicy burgers, talking of very mild domestic things like their plans with their children for the holidays.  I only eavesdropped briefly, and with much lack of interest.

The bartender was cute, but I hadn’t started a conversation.  He was busy. His smile was kind, with dark eyes and dark hair, and a little button nose.  He was probably in his early thirties with no ring on his finger, but I was high and I was hungover and I wasn’t concerned.  I knew that three o’clock that afternoon, the most important rugby game in the US was about to be played, at least for 2016, and I really, really wanted to find the Memphis Rugby team before the game, because I knew they’d be watching it somewhere.  I sat there wondering what I would do. There were a couple bars that we’d been told would be playing the game, and I resolved to go one of them if I didn’t make any other headway.

For now, I sat and drank my beer, looked over the menu, and hoped my phone would charge and hold a charge long enough for me to survive the rest of the day.  There was a dull din of conversation around the restaurant, but no trigger words pulled my attention to listen. A nice blues mix played above us, floating around the restaurant, about the din of conversation.  

I ordered a burger with a fried egg on it, medium rare, because at what real burger joint should you get anything other than medium rare?  I mean, medium is acceptable, if you’re conservative burger eater, but I had no respect for those who order their burgers well done at a place that knew how to cook burgers, and dammit, if the locals were telling me that Huey’s knew how to cook a great burger, than I was gonna give it the best go.

Not long after I’d ordered, a couple came in and sat down at the two seats next to me at the bar, and I was happy that I had moved over leaving a place for them to sit.  By that time, I had started to try to entertain myself by staring up at the television where a college football game was on. It didn’t do much for me, but I thought it made me look a little less weird sitting there by myself, not talking, just drinking.  The bartender came by at the right time in perfect intervals, just to make sure I was ok, and when I needed a new beer. I was dull, but he was still very attentive.

In feigning interest for the football game, I couldn’t help but notice the couple beside me was a handsome pair.  She was quiet, but precise. I hadn’t yet figured out what they were talking about. He was very enthusiastic, a passionate man.  She often just listened to him speak.

I hadn’t made eye contact or given them a once over yet.  It’s a hard thing to do discreetly at a bar when someone sits down beside you.  After a while, I heard the ultimate trigger word, ‘rugby,’ and I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm.  

My burger had just come out, as had theirs.  We were eating together.

“Did you say rugby?” I asked the man.

“Yeah,” he said back.

“I’m a rugby player,” I told him.

“Really,” he asked, “What’re you doing later?”

“I don’t know,” I started, “I’m here visiting from Denver.  I wanted to see a match at Overton Park, but I didn’t find any.”

He replied, “Oh yeah, they don’t play there anymore,” breaking eye contact to look at his burger.  “They used to… But there weren’t any games today because of the All Blacks match.” He picked up his burger.

“Yeah, I did hear that,” I told him, “But I was still hoping to find a game.”

“Well, there was one at the college earlier,” he told me as I nodded to him affirmatively.  The conversation paused as we simultaneously bit into our burgers. Then he continued, “Wait! What are you doing later?  We’re going to my friend’s house to watch the All Blacks match.”

My face lit up.  I mean, my face had already lit up just to have someone to talk to about rugby, but the illumination grew when he mentioned the real spectacle, the event, the connection, the community.  

“You should come, you should come,” he invited me with vigor, “Here’s the address.  You should come!”

I beamed a smile at him.  “I would love to. I would love to,”  I repeated myself out of excitement, “I’m not doing anything.”  

Then we started in on all of the rugby talk, like we were old friends catching up.  We talked front row technique, comparing new and old. We spoke on East Coast rugby.  I apologized to his girl for being so dominant of the conversation, but she dismissed me.  I learned that he was the coach for the Memphis D2 women’s team. We formally introduced ourselves between burger bites.  He told me that some of his players were coming to an apartment on the river later to watch the game with his assistant coach.  He was so excited about the apartment and the match, and I was ecstatic to join.