I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was icy and wet, like wandering into a curtain of ice. Inside, people sucked in their guts and snapped pics...big grins and a whoop here and there: "Holy Shit! You made it again! What are you driving now, the 350?"
In the overheated lounge I met a man from Cleveland who said his name was something or other--"but just call me Sebastian"--and he was here to get it on. "I'm ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?" I ordered a beer, but he wouldn't hear of it: "Naw, naw...what the hell kind of drink is that for The National Football League? What's wrong with you, boy?" He grinned and winked at the bartender. "Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him a Red Bull and Pineapple Ciroc..."
I shrugged. "Okay." Sebastian nodded his approval.
"Look." He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. "I know this NFL crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I've learned--this is no town to be giving people the impression you're some kind of working-class hero. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they'll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have."
I thanked him and fired off a tweet on my phone. "Say," he said, "you look like you might be in the scouting business...am I right?"
"No," I said. "I'm a blogger."
"Oh yeah?" He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. "Is that what you got there--computers? Who you work for?"
"SB Nation," I said.
He laughed. "Well, goddam! What are you gonna blog about--reporters' hairstyles? Haw! I guess you'll be workin' pretty hard when Rich Eisen runs the 40." He was laughing wildly. "Hell yes! And he'll be more dressed up than you!"
I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. "There's going to be trouble," I said. "My assignment is to take pictures and blog about the riot."
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. "At the track. On Combine Day. Major League Soccer fans. Soccer is taking over in popularity and they want to snag a few of these players." I stared at him again. "Don't you read the websites?"
The grin on his face had collapsed. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Well...maybe I shouldn't be telling you..." I shrugged. "But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert in Chicago. They've warned us--all the press and photographers--to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting..."
"No!" he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. "Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The NFL Combine!" He kept shaking his head. "No! Jesus! That's almost too bad to believe!" Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. "Why? Why here? Don't they respect anything?"
I shrugged again. "It's not just the MLS fans. The FBI says busloads of colleg crazies are coming in from all over the country--to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They'll be dressed like everybody else. You know--turtlenecks and bluetooths and all that.
But when the trouble starts...well, that's why the cops are so worried."
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: "Oh...Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?"
"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the drink...and good luck."
I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young Iowa fan in charge said they didn't have any. "You can't rent one anywhere," he assured me. "Our Combine reservations have been booked for six weeks." I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Prius for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. "Maybe we'll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?"
I shrugged. "Where's the blog crowd staying? I want to be with my people."
He sighed. "My friend, you're in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Combine."
I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: "Look, I'm from SB Nation. How would you like a job?"
He backed off quickly. "What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?"
"Never mind," I said. "You just blew it." I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it--SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing--and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that says "Analyst. NFL.com." I bought it from a grifter in Destin, Florida, and he told me how to use it. "Never mention NFL.com until you're sure they've seen this thing first," he said. "Then, when you see them notice it, that's the time to strike. They'll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic."
The LucasOil concourse clubhouse bars on Combine Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, aspiring sideline reporters and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Indianapolis will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The TGIFriday bar is probably the best place in the building to sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that's what they're in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the concourse; they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing 40 times and vertical heights flash up and down on the big tote board outside the window. Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins out as people go back to their boxes.
Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the concourse tomorrow. But the "walkaround" press passes to LucasOil were only good for thirty minutes at a time, presumably to allow the respectable print types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent bloggers like me from spending all day in the concourse, harassing the gentry and rifling the odd handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or Macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Combine Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand. And since it took about ten minutes to get from the press box to the TGI Friday, and ten more minutes to get back, that didn't leave much time for serious people-watching. And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the realbeasts perform.
And did they perform. Thousands of scam pitches and conference calls being held right in the stadium seats. Next thing I knew I had Vined a sixty-year-old man in a tank top and tuxedo jacket doing pushups to demonstrate the protien powder he was hawking and security had gently escorted me to the frosty sidewalk throwing my tablet after me disdainfully. A disgrace to The League's Hallowed Halls I was.
Efficient white Prius blowing through traffic on the expressway.
The blogger fitfully weaves the tiny car through freeway lines and into a spot in front of the airport's drop-off lane. As he's clutching his laptop bag and weaving through the checkpoints he hears another burly cop shouting after him one last time. "That's right! Back to your mom's basement! We don't need your type covering The National. Football. League!"[RIP, Doctor]