Tough Guy


Published: April 15, 2007


I play hockey. Actually, the words “play” and “hockey” are relative terms here. Yes, I am on the ice. Yes, I carry a stick while making my legs move in a motion that some people would recognize as skating. But I wouldn’t really call it “hockey.” I play in an adult beginners’ league, and I really learned to skate only two years ago. It is here that my story takes its pathetic turn. Because when I am on the subway going up to Central Park to play a game, no one knows that I am a beginner. All they see — or rather, what I sadly allow myself to believe they see — is a tough-guy hockey player.


Skip to next paragraph The charade begins with the gigantic hockey backpack that I carry for all of my gear. It’s a monster of a bag. Just massive. It looks as if I stole the regular, nonhockey backpack of a giant. To avoid feeling like an absolute jerk for shoehorning this beast onto a packed subway car at rush hour, I put up this cold, flat, emotionless wall of a face. A face that makes me look supertough in the minds of my fellow passengers. That is to say: as those passengers’ thoughts exist in my mind. That is to say: what I allow myself to believe they are thinking. That is to say: probably not what they are thinking at all.


So while I imagine the guy on my left to be thinking, Look at that guy. He plays hockey. Hard look. Set jaw. I’ll bet he’s amazing, he is probably thinking, The girl next to the guy with the obnoxious backpack is really cute. I feel bad for her that she has to be standing next to him, with his gigantic bag bumping up against her. My God, look at that thing. The more I look at it the angrier I get. God, I hate hockey.


(Note that in my example, I still arrogantly presume that the passenger would be thinking about me.)


I had a job that overlapped with a lot of the games this season, so I ended up missing most of them. But in my first game back, out of shape, having not skated in a long time, I scored twice, narrowly missing a hat trick. Granted, these goals were scored against the worst team in our league, but they only served to feed the monster that is my delusion: that I was indeed the stud I presume others on the subway think I am. The Subway Stud, if you will. Which I’m sure you won’t. Which is fine, because I will.


The following week, though, reality hit me. We played a pretty good team, at least for the beginners’ league. Not only did I not score, but my weak shot was easily brushed aside by their goalie. Nevertheless, with just a minute left, we were down by only one goal. My line ended up on the ice for this final charge. At some point, there was a loose puck in their zone, down in the left corner. My corner. Stud’s Corner.


I found myself in a race for the puck with one of their defensemen. It was going to be close. If ever there were a moment that called for all the skills of the player I allowed myself to believe I was in the eyes of people on the subway, this was it: beat my man to the puck; skate back toward the goal; and, as their remaining defensemen converge on me and leave Nick wide open, fling a pass to him right on the tape. Nick ties the game, and I ride home on the M train. The Macho train.


What actually happened should go down as the most pathetic collision in the history of hockey. Two grown men chugged clumsily down the ice: one possibly fueled by the childhood image of a fatherless set of bleachers; the other fueled perhaps by the image of his father actually sitting in the bleachers with yet another new girlfriend who always tried to be nice to the son, except it was always in vain because the son would not give any of the girlfriends a chance because they would never, ever take the place of his mother. (I won’t say which image was mine.)


Then they bumped into each other and fell down. I immediately hurt my back.


You’d think the ride home that night would not have been one of my cocky Tough Guy Hockey Player subway rides and would have been a more humble, eye-averting, shoe-gazing, No Big Deal, Just Going Home From My Adult Beginners’ Hockey League Game subway ride.


But like Malcolm McDowell at the end of “A Clockwork Orange,” I refused to reform. I allowed my mind to drift and indulge the thought that one of my goals from the week before — the week before! — was actually pretty sweet.


Yet where McDowell’s story ended with crazy, lusty sex in the snow, mine ended with a lonely man wearing a cartoon backpack riding the subway at 11 o’clock at night. Providing the perfect image for my own Kubrick movie: “Dr. Patheticlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Keep Pretending People on the Subway Think I’m Good at Hockey.”



Jon Glaser is a television writer in New York City. His last True-Life Tale was about judging S.U.V. drivers.