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FICTION

Every System Has Its Bugs
By Marc Estrin

Editor's note: The character Gregor is Gregor Samsa, a six-foot, talking cockroach, escaped from Franz Kafka's short story "The Metamorphosis." This is his first date with a human.

Gregor and Alice made their way from the Woodlawn Avenue Elevated (an exciting trip!) to the north entrance and through the tunnel on the third base side. Gregor was unprepared for the explosion of green that greeted him. The cockroach eye is extremely sensitive in the green and yellow range, and after his morning of muted interiors, and his afternoon of gray sidewalk and steel, the young Blattarian was overwhelmed by the intensity and hue. Green-how-I-love-you-green charged through his giant neurons, the American frontier, the myth of innocence, the "fresh, green breast of the New World." This was the perfect American day, in the perfect American place, the mens sana of universities in the corpore sano of sport, and here he was with his newly beloved leading the way, das Ewig-Weibliche, Democracy in America!

They wended their way down the concrete steps to their box seats on the third base line. Gregor was almost speechless with the beauty, excitement, and joy of it all. A billboard for Ajax flypaper over the left center bleachers: Last Year Whitey Witt Caought 167 Flies, But Ajax Caught 19 Billion, 856 Million, 437 Thousand, 665.

So excited was he by this paradise of green and brown—dropped in the middle of a city, surrounded by apartments, served by the "El"—that he laughed at the message and did not shudder. Surely there was nothing in weary old Vienna to equal the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, America.

"Why is there a pile of earth in the middle of the field? Will not the baseball players run into it?" The only game he knew was soccer.

"I believe it's called the pitching mound," said Alice. "The players don't run across the field; they run around the bases. See them, the three bags? There's one right here in front of us."

"Ah, yes. In the expanse without the grass. Do they go around and around as long as they can?"

A vendor descended the steps toward them. "Hot dogs! Get your red hots! Hot dogs!"

"Mein Gott, Wienerschnitzeln! Oh, we must have. You would like? Yes? Two plates, please, with brown mustard."

"We don't got plates, bud. Just buns. Mustard we got."

"How much do they cost?"

"Ten cents. For you, two for a quarter."

"Gregor," Alice said, "thank you, but I'll pay for my own."

"Please, Miss Paul, let me pay. It is I have dragged you here . . . . Two, please, sir."

"You want sauerkraut? No extra charge."

"You speak German!" Gregor was pleased and excited.

"German? I wouldn't even talk to a Kraut. Here's your dogs."

"I'll have one, too, friend," said an older man in the next box. "My grandfather was German, and my grandmother was Austro-Hungarian. Will you still sell me a frankfurter?"

"Don't gimme a hard time, Charlie, I'm just tryin' to make a livin' like everybody else. Here's your dog. Mustard and sauerkraut."

"Vielen Dank." The man tipped his gray fedora.

Gregor leaned over. "Sie sind Deutsch?"

"No."

"But you have a German grandfather and Austrian grandmother . . . . Oh, excuse, me this is Miss Alice Paul . . . . and I am called Gregor Samsa."

"Charlie Ives. Glad to meet you. No, my grandfather and grandmother were American—both sides—and their grandfathers and grandmothers were American, all the way back. We came over on the Mayflower as they say. Practically founded the country. We did found Danbury, Connecticut."

"Why then you told the frankfurt man you were . . .?"

"He was being a jerk about not talking to Germans, standing there selling German food. Hell, Beethoven was German. Excuse me, ma'am. And Mozart was Austrian."

"You are a music person."

"Some might say so. Some would laugh. Here, I'll sing you a little song about hot dogs:

Oh the king held up his hot dog . . .

"Grover Cleveland—he was a president—took the king of Ethiopia to a baseball game in 1896.

and he faced it man to man . . .

"And he fed him a hot dog, see . . ."

As he sang, Charlie Ives beat out the rhythm with both hands on the rail in front of him. His sauerkraut fell off onto the field. "We don't believe in kings in America, and we don't believe in hating foreigners, either, because this is a country made of foreigners. So a guy like that really gets my goat."

"What is 'gets my goat'?"

Alice explained.

On June 26, 1923, Charles Edward Ives was forty-eight years old, partner and CEO of Ives and Myrick, the most innovative and successful insurance firm in America. He was also a composer whose technical inventions and fearless imagination anticipated and inspired much avant-garde twentieth-century music. But he had stopped composing.

"Sounds like you might need a little orientation to the national pastime, son. Where you from?"

"I'm from Prague, a big city in what is now Czecho-Slovakia, and Miss Paul is from . . . ?"

"Moorestown, New Jersey."

"Did you say she was Alice Paul? The Alice Paul? From the Nineteenth Amendment?" Alice nodded.

"Miss Paul," said Ives, "I'm honored to meet you!" He tipped his hat. Gregor beamed with pride, though he didn't know the Nineteenth Amendment from the Thirteenth. "I'm planning to organize for an amendment myself."

"Which is that?" asked Alice.

"The Twentieth Amendment. We need to get politics out of governing and give power to the real people. We don't need any more of these skins-thick, hands-slick, wits-quick, so-called leaders with their under-values. My amendment proposes a direct referendum beginning nine months before the election . . . ."

Just then, the Princeton team burst out onto the field.

"We need to talk more about this. Here's my card. Will you come see me?"

"I live in Washington."

"Well, I'll come see you in Washington, then. Do you have a card?"

"Just call the National Woman's Party."

Gregor chewed his hot dog and listened in amazement. Who were these people? Who was this woman who lived in the nation's capital? Oh, no, Washington. Is far away. How far away is Washington? Is there a train from New York to Washington? The Yale and Princeton megaphone men yelled, "Please rise and join in singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner'!"

It would be eight years before the old song became the obligatory National Anthem, but the college boys were early on to something big.

"Do you know this?" asked Alice.

"I don't know all the words . . ."

"Just move your mouth," said Ives, "and hold your hand over your heart." Gregor put his claw on his left chest and not over the wound in his central lower back.

During the singing, Ives, with hat in hand and stars in his eyes, sang a most remarkable obbligato to the awkward tune in his high, cracking tenor and ending fortissimo, brayed out "home of the brave" a convinced semitone above the tonic and bowed, humbly, to the cheering crowd.

"Mr. Samsa, switch seats with Miss Paul, so I can explain what's going on."

"No. I want her to hear, too, so she can later explain to me again."

Exhilarated talk went on throughout the game, often yelled over the roaring throng—the history of Ivy League rivalries, baseball as American myth, man love versus fairy love, Abner Doubleday and the fraudulent American origin of the game, hitting tricks, coaching strategy, fielding technique, pitching philosophy, advertising in the ballpark, comparison with the pros, baseball and the pursuit of innocence, the physics of curveballs, male bonding and its dangers, the new harder ball, why the bullpen is called the bullpen, likely trends of the coming post-Ruth era, the Common Law origins of the infield fly rule, the oppressive labor conditions brought about by the reserve clause, the Taftian origins of the seventh-inning stretch, American transcendentalism, the segregation of colored players to the Negro leagues and of colored fans to the bleachers (to bleach themselves, perhaps, in the unremitting sun), baseball idioms that have become part of everyday language: out in left field, three strikes, you're out, off-base, switch hitter, wild pitch, in the ballpark, to throw someone a curveball, unable to get to first base—with Gregor furiously taking notes.

He asked amazing things like, "Why do the men just sit in the clubhouse?" (He meant dugout.) "Why don't they run out and try to stop them from catching the baseball?" A not unreasonable question. Or, "What would happen if the batter would run to first base or to third base—whichever he wanted—and just make the same direction till he makes a home run?" (He meant a runner could advance clockwise, according to the same rules, until he scored.) What an addition that would be. What complex fielding it would cause!

Alice made anthropological remarks about the anthropoi on the field, their sexuality, their gestures, their politics, and about the anthropoi in the stands, their reactions, their sense of good and evil, their piggish eating behavior and slovenly treatment of the seating area, and their "baseball Sadies" mindlessly along for the ride.

Ives contributed detailed information on technique (he was a pitcher himself), baseball history, anecdote and myth, insurance problems concerning large crowds and fast-moving hard objects, balls, and bottles, and also some speculation on crowd noise as a model of complex sound for symphonic composition.

Even twenty years later, Gregor remembered one thread of the discussion, a theme he would encounter, significantly, to the end of his days. It began in the fourth inning when the plate umpire was hit and slightly injured by a ball fouled back. The crowd went wild with cheering. Gregor was puzzled as to why they should enjoy seeing someone hurt.

"It's not just 'someone'," corrected Ives. "It's the umpire."

Gregor didn't understand the distinction.

"The American psyche," Ives continued, "is stretched between its love of law and its love affair with lawlessness."

"Ah, the outlaw-hero," Gregor observed. "Jesse James, Billy the Kid."

"The batterer and rapist," added Alice.

"Ty Cobb, the basestealer. Precisely. Americans are a legalistic people, and baseball has a far more elaborate set of rules than any other sport. We like it that way, and we memorize all the statistics that go with it."

"And the umpires are like judges," Gregor concluded. "They wear special dark clothing like judges . . . ."

"And the ump is always right."

"Like men," said Alice. "You can argue, but they're always right."

"Kill the ump!" Ives continued. "We don't like transcendent authority. We want to make and interpret the rules. So the ump is a perfect target. He embodies the rules and enforces them. For this, the punishment is death. Oedipal father-fortissimo-furioso. Every damn batter and every runner a litigator. Argue the calls, appeal to another umpire. It's a loud dumb show of our contradictions. I wouldn't be surprised if baseball winds ups, twenty, thirty years from now, creating a land full of lawyers!"

"I'm sure these thick-necked patrons would like nothing better than a real fight on the field, some unconfined violence. . . ." Alice was in gentle high dudgeon.

"It is ironic," Gregor observed, "that these despised villains are the guaranteers of Unbescholtenheit—do you say integrity?"

"In America, freedom is more important than integrity," said Ives.

Gregor would have cause, often, to remember these words.

—EFQ

MARC ESTRIN is a writer, cellist, and activist living in Burlington, Vermont. This story is excerpted, in slightly different form, from his forthcoming book, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa (copyright © 2002 by Marc Estrin), and is reprinted with permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

© 2002 Marc Estrin

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