A New Orleans Boyhood

Ronnie Virgets looks back on neutral-ground football games, science experiments gone wrong, playground know-it-alls and the early allure of the track.



In the extremely fine Finding Neverland, the Sir James Barrie/Johnny Depp character informs a fledgling boy that a crystal moment comes when a child is grown and that from that moment there is no turning back.

It may well happen in just such a fashion for some, this stepping into another room and closing and locking the door behind us. But not all.

For some of us, the campaign for adulthood is one of alternating advance and retreat, improving and lapsing, learning the fundamentals of behavior and everything else until grownups spoil our appetite for learning. With each step forward and back -- if you are lucky -- there is a residue of things remembered from childhood and new adulthood and the bridge between them. This residue will be around -- if you are even luckier -- to guide the way along the far reaches of the trip, Proustian madeleines for our oldest hungers.

These tales, these memories, are part of the residue. You have the same. May you take the time and have the luck to recall yours ...

The Conspiracy

This is how the conspiracy unfolded.

It was Thanksgiving, and in my blue-collar neighborhood, that meant mainly this: Opening Day at the Fair Grounds. There had been more than a hundred of these before this one, but this one was ours.

After we had each gobbled our holiday meal at home, we met at Hagen Avenue and walked quickly and excitedly to the track. Well, not actually inside the track; we weren't old enough yet to be officially admitted. But we could be unofficial. We could climb up on some garages on Fortin Street and see the races as clearly as anyone.

To bet? Well, on Belfort, the street that ran parallel to the backstretch, there were several little bars and each of them contained at least one bookmaker. We picked the one where the bookie was named Stoltz because Johnny, who lived nearby, said his mama knew the guy. Of the six of us, A.J. and I were picked to walk over and go in and make the bet because we had the start of beards.

The six of us pooled our money and decided to bet it all in the Thanksgiving Handicap on Tenacious, a flaming chestnut with a delicious name and a breathtakingly unpredictable running style. A.J. and I made our way to the bar, opened the door and tentatively stepped into hell.

Inside was smoke and whiskey and coughing and cursing, and suddenly we were surrounded by unfriendly strangers whose adulthood was so overwhelming it was crushing our childhoods. The bartender regarded us suspiciously. "Whattaya want?" he growled. Me and A.J. got Cokes and Chee Wees and stood conspicuously against the wall. A.J. and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We finished our Cokes and slunk out.

On our way back, we discovered that we were not only too chicken to make the bet but too chicken to admit to our pals that we were too chicken. We decided to tell 'em we'd bet on Tenacious and book the bet ourselves.

We sat on the garages and waited. Inside the track, Opening Day women with black hats and white necklaces were smiling at the jokes of men who were washing down their pecan pie with highballs. Four of us were laughing with anticipation and incurable faith; me and A.J. -- no.

The autumn light looked warm and cool at the same time and fell across the church top in the distance like a sheet of afternoon gold folding back before gathering shadows. Then the muffled roar of the crowd and the sweet drumming of hooves on the backstretch and the swing around the turn and colors and horses going past and a chestnut flame outfinishing a horse named Shan-Pac in horrific slow motion.

"Tenacious! Tenacious! Go get our money!" they yelled. Back to Holtz's went A.J. and I for more Cokes, and out we came with more lies. They wouldn't pay us because we gave them the wrong number. "When my mama comes home, I'll tell her," promised Johnny.

A.J. and I met outside of school the next morning because we knew we'd have to fight four former friends. Johnny walked up grinning and handed me and A.J. a wad of bills. "Stoltz didn't want to give up the money at first, but my mama stayed on him till she got it."

We had learned some new facts of life on this Thanksgiving and its aftermath. That the dynamic of running thoroughbreds and the people who back them was a powerful dynamic involving vast amounts of adult concern and cash -- but not even a tiny barrier to the righteous wrath of an aggrieved working mother.

The Anointed

I was in kindergarten or first grade, traipsing across the schoolyard at recess when the booming sixth-grade voice froze me: "You in the cowboy shirt, freeze! Don't move!"

My two companions did what friends often do in times of trouble: They pretended not to notice and kept moving.

The sixth-grader was a "monitor" or "proctor" of us little kids' playground. How do some get anointed, put themselves into places where they'll get noticed when badges of authority are being passed out?

Anyhow, this proctor had ordered me to stop running and tie my shoe. Problem was, I didn't yet know how to tie the damn thing, so I was being mandated to stand stock still until a thousand other kids watched this sixth-grade meddler tie my shoe for me.

Her fingers -- capped off, incidentally, by nails painted with the unhurried precision of a mortician -- fairly flew over my babified Oxfords. Tug, pinch, loose and finish. I was looking down at a perfect butterfly of a shoe knot, and I was so humiliated I never wanted to look up again.

But looking back on that exquisite moment of schoolyard suffering, I see that the proctor with the perfect fingernails embodied not one but two of the traits I would rate right down there with cannibalism on the sociability scale. The first of these traits can be described as "Who died and left you in charge?" and invariably leads to this thought: "Ain't it about time you did the same for someone else?" The second trait is that of sharing your expertise completely with a fellow human being who has never shown the slightest interest in asking you to do so. "What good is a skill if no one knows you have it?" seems to be the prevalent attitude.

Myself, I have reserved some of my deepest admiration for those whose expertise is shared with the fewest number of people. Like taking a fine-smelling but ragged leaf of tobacco and rolling it into a wonderful Maduro cigar. This is something you may want to pass on to your first-born child. You do not want to share it with a guy in the check-out line at Dorignac's. This is knowledge for its own sake; this is pure.

Sadly, these are a clear minority in this place and time. Far more common is to find yourself at Emily's school on Grandparent's Day, sharing a cup of lukewarm Hawaiian Punch with someone who is prepared to spend a good half of your dwindling time remaining on this earth talking about how he handled the grout problem while retiling his sister's back bathroom. My solution is that no one be allowed to pass on unsought expertise until he or she can do it in impeccable and unaccented Ciceronian Latin.

Which brings us to that first trait, that filling the old authority vacuum. I think that positions of authority should be filled by those who seemed fully qualified to have them, but show absolutely no interest -- zip, zero, zilch -- in doing the job. You could have members of the City Council travel around to find these people and commandeer them for three-year terms. Naturally, anyone closer than a third cousin of any City Council member would be ineligible.

These are two traits that I have sworn to eradicate ever since that morning so long ago when my Oxfords got untied. I offer these solutions to you, my fellow citizens, freely and willingly. Your lasting gratitude is my best reward.

The Science Experiment

I remember exactly when I began to learn about the quicksilver nature of education.

Naturally, there was an urgency to the moment, the urgency that is the usual traveling companion of high school biology class. High school biology class late in the year. When half of your grade is dependent on your project.

For a student of my abilities, the key to passing your project was to get yourself paired with a student of Sal's abilities. I had been politically skilled enough to do that, so now we just had to wait for a dead cat to find its way into our busy lives.

One day I got the call. Sal had come into a very dead cat, thanks to a very live dog named Bruno, I believe. I hurried to Sal's backyard, where he had a 55-gallon drum loaded with about 50 gallons of water and a 6-pound cat cadaver.

"We'll boil the water and drop the cat in till all the meat melts off the bones," said Dr. Sal. "Then we'll have a perfect cat skeleton, and we'll have enough cards identifying the main groups of bones. I'll get the names of the bones, and you can print 'em on the cards."

Ah, education. I was starting to catch the flow.

I lost it soon thereafter. Sal went to get a Racing Form for his old man and left me to watch the meltdown process. Somehow the skin had not only come off the bones, but the bones had come off their hinges and now were resting at the bottom of the drum. All 4,219 of them.

It was time for Plan B. Sal told me to get out and capture the biggest bullfrog in Kenner. He would rig up the rest.

This was the rig we brought to biology class on the big day. On top of a tiny turning cylinder a can and wrapped around the can a piece of paper covered in soot. Nearby, a little cross-arm rig with one phonograph needle ready to engage the turning soot paper. On the other end of the rig, a string with a perch hook on the end.

"OK," Sal instructed. "When I give the sign, you stick a big hat pin into the frog's head and scramble his brain. I'll slice him open and hook into his still-beating heart. We'll have a cardiogram for a bullfrog. By the way, you can assassinate a bullfrog, can't you?"

"Anything for education," I lied. The lie got itself exposed at the moment when I aimed the large hat pin at the frog's medulla amber oblongata on the top. The hat pin went in, and out came a bellow that sounded awfully like a cow slipping into a deep ditch.

Quite naturally, I panicked just enough to turn loose of the frog, who hopped out of my hand, onto and out the window, taking the amber hat pin, protruding, with him. Along with my last chance for a "C."

Not long ago, I dreamed deeply. A couple of frogs, double-amputee types, are sitting around talking about how they'd given up their legs for the sake of fine dining. They look over at this bullfrog and ask why he had a large amber hat pin protruding from the top of his skull.

"Anything for education," replied the frog. "Anything for education."

The Game

In every athletic career, no matter how brief and forgettable, there is one moment when the buttery sun shines only on you, one elongated moment that will stretch for a lifetime if need be.

The time in my life was about 11 years old going on 12, and the place was the block-long median between the halves of Jeff Davis Parkway. We called them "the greens," and they were my neighborhood's football stadium, where boys my age played tackle without equipment and learned how much pain they were willing to accept in return for some very momentary glory.

But there were others who used the greens, too. Demi-gods, actually. Guys like Martinez and Kreegar and Shea and Migallaccio, guys 17 or 18 years old, guys who drove slow cars fast and seduced girls with their letter sweaters and did all other heroic acts attributed to one generation by those next in line.

Sometimes -- after they'd gotten their daily eviction from nearby Duker's Delicatessen -- these demi-gods would adjoin to the greens and lounge under a tree advertising their adolescent insolence. When they tired of that, somebody'd produce a football and they'd throw it around or maybe play a game of touch.

It was to one of those games that I found myself invited -- very unexpectedly invited -- to join that golden afternoon. The demi-gods felt like a little football and how could they not, the sky and the wind being so soft and snappy. But they were of an odd number so another body was needed to make two teams, and my spectator's body was summoned from the sidelines with the wordless crooking of an index finger.

It was an annoying expediency for my new teammates; it was athletic idolatry for me, a cultural elevation as undeserved as it was unexpected. Every time we huddled, I found myself looking out beyond the field, hoping that some kid my age was around to witness my temporary canonization.

But it hardly mattered. I ran every play with all available speed and concentration. The wind was up, it was exhilarating, it was in my nose, the pup permitted to run with the hounds.

Then the shadows lengthened, the darkness began to take over parts of the field. The struggle of the titans was dead even, and the teams agreed that the next score wins.

My team marched down the field and then stalled about 10 yards out. Fourth down, and I obediently ran to the middle and waited. My quarterback was being forced to his left. I broke that way and waved my arms. They were the only arms he could see, and just before being caught, he fired the football at them.

I was supposed to be covered by Jackie Warren, quarterback of the local high school and a fine athlete. But he had rightfully paid me little attention until now, and now it was too late. He bolted after me, and when he saw he'd never get there, he barked sharply, trying to startle me into a drop. But the ball was coming too smooth and fast for me to think of failure. As Jackie's body flew past my eyes, my fingers stretched, sought, secured. Winning touchdown!

There were no post-game interviews, only a few slaps on the back from some demi-gods.

As another Super Bowl comes and goes, it dawns on me how few of them are actually unforgettable. Then it dawns on me that I am the only one living who remembers that long-ago game on the greens. Does this say anything about the relative importance of the games? You betcha.

Versions of these essays were originally broadcast on the radio program Crescent City on 89.9 WWNO (


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