Snow is falling by the time the fans board the train. This is the No. 4 subway headed uptown from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium for something called the Pinstripe Bowl. Syracuse vs. West Virginia, Saturday afternoon.
According to an online calendar, there are 625 other things to do in New York City today. "The Nutcracker" is still running, the Christmas show at Radio City is still up, the Nets are playing the Cavs out in Brooklyn, and The Russian & Turkish Baths open at 9 a.m. The Alexander Hamilton room at the Museum of American Finance opens at 10. Don't forget the store windows and Broadway and the restaurants. In fact, "625 other things to do in New York City" seems to understate the infinite.
College football in New York City hasn't been very important for a very long time. But if you're talking loudly and wearing orange on the subway as it rattles north to the Bronx, or wearing old gold and blue and bragging on your boys, you're here for the football. The nonsense news conferences are over, and the "practices" in the hotel ballrooms and the photo ops at the stock exchange and the team visits to local landmarks -- all done. Now there is only the game.
College football in New York City used to be the most important thing in America. To hear the sportswriters tell it, every game might have been the game of the century. The campaigns of Alexander or the last stand at Thermopylae had nothing on Army -- Notre Dame, 1924. Granny Rice rode his Four Horsemen into history that year, just across the Harlem River at the Polo Grounds.
In life and in sports, these fictions of history are a more seductive reality. This is especially so at Yankee Stadium, itself a time machine and a tomb and a shrine to better days, a replica of something impossible and mythological: the house that The House That Ruth Built built. So it is possible on a black afternoon in a 21st century December to look up into the lights and the streaming snow and to mourn things you've never known, like bootleg whiskey and nickel cigars, fedoras and shined shoes, hand-painted neckties and wet woolens, Schrafft's and the automat and Luchow's, Stillman's Gym and the Seven Blocks of Granite, Mel Allen and Toots Shor and Jack Dempsey, the Stork and El Morocco and the Copacabana, too. You say goodbye to places you've never been and to people you never met. Whole nations, generations gone, dead as real burlesque.
Maybe in the age of instantaneous disposability, the distance of history gives the illusion of meaning. By comparison, the new and the modern feel inauthentic. Artificial. Trumped up. Maybe in the 22nd century, people will look back on the third annual Pinstripe Bowl and know that this was the real thing. There are 39,098 paid seekers of the authentic shivering here.
And at halftime in the rain and the snow, the score is 12 to 7.
In the third quarter, the avalanche. Syracuse scores 23 more points. What was a close game an hour before is now slapstick, a series of wet pratfalls, an icy sidewalk covered in banana peels. Near the end of the period, West Virginia gives up a second safety. For Mountaineers fans, Geno Smith's last game is suddenly a terrible comedy.
Even the ensuing free kick is a punch line, a shank that wobbles a few yards then skids dead left and caroms out of bounds. On the way to running up more than 500 yards of total offense, Syracuse gets the ball again on the 50-yard line. Into the muffling quiet and the confusions of an indifferent universe, a single thick voice from the Morgantown end cries out "Damn boys, c'mon!"
The snow falls harder as folks shake their heads and make for the exits. They wait on the platform for that No. 4 train to take them back downtown, back to their hotels and to the restaurants in Times Square. Behind them the final is 38-14, Syracuse. They clap their hands and stamp their feet. Some are drunk and happy and some are drunk and sad and some aren't drunk at all but look tired and wary in all the slop and jostle and noise. Every one different and each the same; the car is packed solid.
Far behind them as they pull away, the snow pours into the lights of the stadium like every star falling from the sky.