apprentice, n. A learner of a craft; one who is bound by agreement to serve an employer in the exercise of some profession with a view to learn its details and duties, in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition.
JANUARY 17th, 2002
DOWNTOWN MARRIOTT – SOUTH FIGUEROA ST. – LOS ANGELES
As I turned the corner, I couldn’t help but smile; working for CONCACAF is freaking heaven.
“That was the Sexy M.F.!” I blurted, bursting into the room. “Can you believe it?”
Felice whipped her head around, her raven hair following. “Who?”
“The sexy M.F.!,” I reiterated.
Confusion raced across Felice’s face, her pale features the most elegant chisel, while she pondered my outburst. At other times, times when she laughed, all that softened, but never did she look like she hadn’t been through the NYC/L.A. ringer; Felice was a veteran; scene-wise if not streetwise in that trust fund way about both coasts and their peril, their adventure.
A cute crease in her forehead revealed itself when she didn’t like or get what someone was saying, I noted.
“The sexy mother********er from Prince’s SEXY M.F. video” I persisted. “I just passed her in the hall. You sexy mutha********a,” I sang, in an off-key falsetto.
At this point, Chuck looked up from managing his stocks on his laptop. Chuck being Chuck Blazer, my boss, Felice’s boss, everyone’s boss, and, most significantly, one of the FIFA Twenty-Four. Our man in North America.
We were in his world, his West Coast office, his Secretariat-On-The-Road, and, him being the General Secretary he was, being at the downtown Marriott – one of the most expensive places to be in Los Angeles – made perfect sense.
What didn’t make sense was my being here, with him, at the highest levels of world football. What made even less sense was sitting next to Felice, a B-list actress I lusted after for half a decade, a woman who made me tolerant of Scott Baio in a movie. In anything, to be honest. None of it made sense, yet here I was, moving to access a laptop screen while my boss looked at me.
“Who?” Chuck bellowed.
By this time, I had pulled her up on the ‘net. “HER!” I beamed triumphantly, pointing at my laptop.
Prince’s video played, and a girl in a see-though faux-pearl dress and black undergarments featured prominently.
Felice came over, every step a goddamn enticement, looked me in the eye, and then leaned over the screen. She snatched the laptop off my desk and took it over to Chuck, the CONCACAF General Secretary, the FIFA Executive Committee member. After a moment, she and Chuck shot each other knowing glances, and Felice laughed.
“Oh, you mean Troy; Troy Beyer. Yeah, she’s my friend, she was just here; we were planning what we were going to do this weekend.”
“You know her?” I asked incredulously, not because it was ludicrous for Felice to know the sexy M.F., but because it was plainly ludicrous for me to have such free and easy access to more than one of my teen fantasies. Felice was enough. But the sexy M.F.? I mean, come on; it was becoming too much.
Felice noted the consternation on my face, and set to make me even more crazy: “we were talking about going over to the Mansion this weekend, after the games. Wanna come?”
“Mansion?” I asked slowly, hoping against hope.
“The Playboy Mansion,” Felice said breathily. “Have you ever been?”
Time stopped, or slowed to an imperceptible crawl. Ah, I thought. I’ve experienced this before; I’m dreaming. This is that ever-elusive dream moment author William Gibson once described; one chases it, fruitlessly, to unreachable conclusions. Sadly, Felice wouldn’t speak again. I would wake up.
“Ever been?” Felice asked again.
“No, Felice.” She smiled.
“Then you should go; I know you’re able, your schedule is my schedule. But are you willing?” While I let the idea of going the Hefner’s house marinate in my addled brain, I noticed Felice looking oddly out the corner of one eye. She seemed to sense about the same time I did that Chuck was staring at me, intently, as if he, too, were waiting on my answer.
I looked at Chuck, and his eyes peered out from between his bushy brows and his beard and at me as if he needed to know something about me, as if this decision, this choice, was somehow important…to him.
Not too weird, Chuck… I thought. Then my attention turned back to Felice.
“What the hell. It’s the Mansion!” I said, shrugging.
Felice and I laughed, and I proceeded to get as many details as I could from Teen Fantasy #1 on her apparent friendship with Teen Fantasy #2, while still looking like I was getting the work of world football done at my desk. Every now and then I glanced up at Chuck, who, every now and then, was, seemingly, still contemplating me.
Finally, after several minutes of what appeared to be some battle raging within him, some judgment was made, a Blazer-esque grunt reflecting some conclusion issued forth, and Chuck’s fullest attention went back to his stocks and the monitor, upon which CNBC was always playing.
The Mansion! I thought. With Felice on one arm and, maybe, Troy on the other? I fantasized. Once again, there’s nothing better than working in world football! My mind screamed.
Then I sighed, eyeing Chuck one more time. I gotta call Laurel.
HOME – GRAY ST. – TEANECK, NEW JERSEY
Laurel, my wife, straightened and adjusted my tie in the living room of our modest two –bedroom, one-bath home. Looking out the window as she worked the knot into my neck and helped me get ready, I was reminded of the blessing of good neighbors and good neighborhoods. The narrow street’s arbor swayed in the fall breeze, connoting the ostensible suburban American Dream. New Jersey: living just barely outside the city that never sleeps with our white picket fence; our dream, and we could no longer afford it. Quitting my job didn’t help.
“You look ready,” Laurel surmised, finally stepping back and taking me in. “Are you ready?”
“Indeed,” I said. “Both Sheldon and I.”
Sheldon – Sheldon Robinson – would, without doubt, meet me at Trump Tower’s front door with a look that would shame even my wife’s bold efforts to help me look good for this presentation. Sheldon was known for spending his last dollar – or that of his twin brother, Sherwin – on, say, a Kenneth Cole belt/shoe/watch combination that would, in his mind, present the perfect, final accessory to his package.
At least, until next week.
Sheldon Robinson – the cat who knew the cats who knew the cats who knew Chuck Blazer, and got us in the door.
The definitive clothes-hound, Sheldon would look great and know a little, while I would look the way I look, and know a little more about what we were proposing. But it was thanks to him, and his cousin Alvin, that we had this singular opportunity in any case.
Sheldon and I used to run the most prolific theme entertainment restaurants in the world, and we ran them in Times Square, where 39 million tourists a year might pass through. High pressure, high expectations, and that’s why when he said he knew someone who would help us to present a similar concept to FIFA, soccer’s one-world government, I took him at his word. We had been through too many days and nights in the industry to not trust one another.
And Sheldon came through. Three weeks prior, he called me to say that Alvin, a legend in cricket, table tennis and in soccer in Trinidad, had reached out to folks he knew at FIFA’s confederation in North America, CONCACAF, and made possible a meeting for us to present our Great Idea to a CONCACAF and FIFA executive, a man named Chuck Blazer.
The name sounded familiar, and after a moment, I remembered why; Blazer had been a reference for a young man who worked for me in production at ESPN/Disney Regional Entertainment, and I spoke with Blazer for some time on the phone, half checking references, half intrigued at this shadow world of football leadership.
Blazer, at that time, had been quite affable and forthcoming, always intimating that there was something on his side of the curtain that you’d rather know about, something you were missing by not being where he was. I never forgot that, and today, I hoped to offer him something he didn’t have, something at which I was quite expert.
I walked to the corner, and in seventeen minutes the bus had dropped me off in midtown Manhattan, at the Port Authority bus terminal. As was my tradition on the bus, I had given the middle finger to all those stuck in traffic at the Jersey-side entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, saying to myself “So long, suckers!” as we whisked by them all in the bus-only lane, leaving the daily morning blare of their collective car horns behind.
I had once been one of those suckers. Draw concentric circles successively ten miles further out from Midtown Manhattan. When you get eight or nine circles out, you’ll be where I was, the closest to the city I could afford, even – especially – on a Disney manager’s salary. I used to drive the 86 miles each way to go into the Big Apple, listening to – and memorizing – things like the Les Miserables soundtrack while sitting, like a sucker, in traffic at gateways to Manhattan like the Lincoln Tunnel, staring in envy at those on the bus, in the bus lane, wondering if a casual, comfortable ride into some meaningful work was ever in my future. Valjean | At Last | We See Each Other Plain | Monsieur Le Mere | You’ll Wear A Different Chain… hell, my chain was my commute, there were days where, given the Times Square parking, I would lose money coming to work…
Now, my attaché case in hand, my future in that case, I descended from bus to subway level, looking for the E train. A crowd gathered around an elderly man in a burgundy-red suit who was passed out, or dead, and on the ground, blood under his head. Two Port Authority officers stood in his midst, and they, along with a few of the crowd, offered up some gallows humor about the man, chuckling, while they waited for the dispatch they had radioed in to arrive, and I was reminded of the alternating greatness and horror that was life, everyday, in New York City.
I E trained-it from that scene on over to 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, where it was only three blocks’ walk to the black, golden and gaudy Trump Tower, within which CONCACAF – the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football – resides, where our meeting was to be held.
Trump Tower’s black glass exterior shot upward, dimming, only a little, the huge AVON signage itself above the TRUMP TOWER lettering, in gold. The bustle of cabs and pedestrians, some going into the Tower, others seemingly on their way to Tiffany’s, next door, presented one New York, typified.
“On time and ready sir,” said Sheldon, emerging from around the opposite corner of the building. “Lunch after?”
“Depends,” I said, “on how this goes,” and I made my way through the exterior doors and toward the commercial side elevators. It really did depend. Laurel and I agreed that, money being tight and me being unemployed, lunch was only to happen in the city if it looked truly promising. Otherwise, it was tuna fish and apple salad back home.
Now, those of you who have read some of the other fine work out there about world football will know: I’m a big guy. Smallish for the NBA, but big for, well, life. There are advantages and harms that come from being such a height. No more shopping at THE GAP, for example. Always being able to find folks over a crowd, there’s another.
James also knows these truths, because James is big too.
James led the door and building security for Trump Tower. A former New York Jet running back who had the typical career we never tell our young athletes about – in and out, for the most part – James’ big, bald head intimated his seriousness, a look he cultivated and an outcome he hoped for, since he was, deep down, an old softy. Today, his left lapel held not only the trump Tower pin but, above that, an American flag, like he was running for office or something. Behind James, a circular plaque embedded in the wall, shared that either the Tower, James, or the elevator shaft was a FIVE STAR DIAMOND AWARD winner. It glistened, James glistened, his pins glistened, and everything in that lobby was shiny, golden, and clean; a far cry from the dirt and blood of minutes ago under the old man outside the bus terminal.
“Where to, gentleman?” James boomed.
“CONCACAF, 17th floor, if you would,” I said.
“Not only did you get the name right – nobody does,” James said, hitting the button behind him, “but you know the floor – which nobody knows. Been here before?”
“No,” Sheldon submitted. “But we hope to be back.”
James laughed, a warm, deep sound, his beefy arm holding the elevator door from closing. “Whatever it is, good luck.”
We went in, then we went up.
CONCACAF – you’d never know. A plain stucco wall spanned the corridor to which Sheldon and I were dispatched, the elevator silently slipping away to another floor behind us. On small cylindrical daises, fake plants in golden canisters were placed about every four feet, and two ashcans in faux-marble ensured that those with a need to fulfill that nicotine addiction didn’t even have to wait for the elevator to take them downstairs. A bland gray carpet matched the off-white of the ceiling only in that both seemed imbued with decades of smoke and grime; history in desiccating layers both diminishing and black, outlining the ceiling. At the far end, two glass doors awaited us.
As we approached, Mildred Pastor, CONCACAF’s lobby phone girl, eyed us casually then buzzed us through. Mildred’s cornrows ended in curls, accentuating her round, happy face, expansive forehead and her genuine smile. Her ears and neck regularly strewn with gold, Mildred paused a conversation she was having over her earpiece-microphone headset long enough to assure us we were in the right place.
“Hello?” Mildred said.
“CONCACAF?” Sheldon inquired.
“Yes it is…Robinson and Brennan? Here for Mr. Blazer?”
“Indeed,” I submitted.
“Have a seat; Mr. Blazer will be down shortly.”
Down? I thought. How many floors of the damn building does CONCACAF have? I sat in the waiting area, oddly placed behind Mildred, while Sheldon tried to have a conversation with her, oblivious that she was hoping to return to her own conversation via that gray headset. Bereft of any football reading material, and already weary of the Marlboro-tainted décor, I began to think about the massive scale of CONCACAF, and of FIFA.
CONCACAF is comprised of the best football minds throughout forty nations, I rehearsed. My research on the confederation of FIFA made it clear how many nations there were; I decided that saying it like that would give the late-arriving General Secretary the sense that (1) I had done at least some homework, and (2) that I was giving the organization its proper respect.
No doubt, a comprehensive eating, dining and gaming experience has already occurred to you and the others who comprise the Twenty-Four, FIFA’s executive committee. Here’s how we can make any concept you have on the table even better… I became lost in the practiced presentation effort and Sheldon’s surprisingly extended conversation with Mildred, as the minutes ticked away.
Half an hour later, we were moved to the CONCACAF conference room; half a minute after that, Blazer arrived.
We did not see him at first; rather, we heard him. That is, we heard the rustle of energy and activity that signaled his coming. It was the first time I experienced what many would later refer to “staff getting into orbit” around Blazer. Imagine planets in orbit around a sun, all with varying speeds, angles, and rotations, and that’s what Blazer’s approach, that day and every day, was like. He was the sun – giver of light, warmth and very possibility of life – in the minds of many…most of all, I would come to learn, his own.
In the midst of the bustle and bother, we could hear grunts and gruffs and near-growls of varying length and intensity, and Sheldon and I could only assume that this was Chuck himself, confirming or denying some request, or contract point, or appointment, or any one of the 10,001 things a General Secretary and member of the Twenty-Four had to do everyday.
Finally, he entered, leaving most of the retinue behind.
Chuck Blazer was, and is, a man of authentically reasonable resemblance to, well, Santa Claus. A man of tremendous girth both physically and in terms of the intensity of his personality, you immediately get the sense that there’s a lot here to deal with. Now, again, I’m a big guy, so I know that I was less intimidated than Sheldon was, but that’s not to say I wasn’t intimidated; Chuck challenges you, his intellect, voice, style…hell, his very presence is not immediately easy to get one’s head – or arms – around. We were entirely awake to his importance: here was the most important American and North American in world football, for chrissakes! As he drew himself fully into the room, we moved to shake his hand, and he switched the hand holding his lit cigarette to shake hands with Sheldon and I in turn.
It was then I noticed that a staffer, one I would come to know – Doris – and one of those formerly in orbit, had entered behind Blazer, pulling his chair out far from the conference table and readying his space with coffee, ashtray and an earlier version of our proposal, sent a couple of days ago in preparation for this meeting. Doris’ engaging eyes were focused on provision for Blazer alone; she hardly noticed us, or, if she did, her manner was oriented to service of Blazer alone. This particular day, a baseball cap covered the beautiful hair with which I would come to associate her.
“Gentlemen,” said Blazer, easing down into his chair with Doris’ help, shooting me a quick glance. It looked like he wasn’t going to make it, so I bounded over to join in helping this man down into his seat. As I did so, I wondered if Chuck had eyed me with an expectation that I would help him sit. Well, hopefully I passed that test, if it was a test, I thought. It seemed, already, like Chuck was the kind of elite who would test you, just in that way, for secret reasons he would not often deign to reveal.
Satisfied, finally, with his admittedly precarious position on the chair, Chuck began. By coughing.
That session both abating and confirming the extent of his smoking habit, Chuck growled “So, you know Alvin?”
“My cousin sir,” Sheldon offered. “He knew this idea could stand on its own, so he reached out I guess to you. “ Sheldon waved away Blazer’s cigarette smoke.
That’s a mistake, I thought. I could see that Blazer thought so too; a subtle rebuke in an environment where it was easy to see that every little thing mattered to him, every little thing made an impression.
“Thank you for your time; we know it is indeed precious, and we’ll be quick” I ventured.
“No, no, I’m dressed and down here now,” Blazer countered. “After this, its questions and signatures; they’ll try to make me do work,” he gruffed, half laughing while pointing out the door. “Just be interesting.”
The meeting lasted forty minutes; Sheldon and I worked hard over the next twenty-five minutes to be make our proposal, THE FIFA EXPERIENCE, interesting as hell. Not once did I wave away the ever-encroaching smoke, a feat that stood against my twitchy desire to do so throughout. Blazer spent Minute Twenty-Six of our time together telling us that our proposal had very little chance to become a reality, then he spent the rest of the time offering his take on how FIFA works and making us promises.
“So, I was at Stamford Bridge,” Blazer began.
“Watching Chelsea play whom?” I offered.
Blazer smiled. With that one comment, I had entered a seemingly small but genuinely growing fraternity: American men who were NOT totally ignorant to world football. Blazer continued by telling us a story about how much of a quality human being Chelsea owner Ken Bates was, and how visionary his club-hotel-shopping project was.
“I hope to get there someday,” I sighed.
“Stamford Bridge?” asked Chuck.
“There, and all the Premiership grounds,” I answered.
“I’ll take you; I’ll take you soon.” Chuck offered.
“Really?” I asked, dubiously. Here’s a guy who just told us our idea was shit, now he’s promising us trips to London? And, interestingly, not us, but me?
“Sure,” Chuck replied, matter-of-factly. “Anytime.” Oddly, I believed him; that is, I had become sure that if I could figure out a way to make him taking me to London interesting, that he sure-as-hell would bring me along. In the back of my mind, a thought germinated, curled up and revealed itself: Entourage? That’s all you are to him? But such thinking was quickly squashed with other, more potent thoughts, like Do whatever it is you have to do, man! and Stamford Bridge. Cool. Finally, one thought dominated, desperately, over all others:
There’s no real reason for him to follow-up with you, or speak to you, ever again.
He moved to get up, signaling that this meeting, this opportunity, was over.
Doris had not yet returned, so Sheldon, he having caught a clue, and I moved expeditiously to facilitate Blazer’s rise. We walked him to his office, opposite the end of the corridor that would be our exit.
I noticed for the first time the interior hallway décor. Every few steps or so, a framed montage of Hanna-Barbera characters, executed and signed by the creators themselves, was on display. WELCOME TO ROCKVEGAS, the Flintstones montage offered. MICKEY’S WORLD TOUR was another, signed by a different creator, not Disney.
The fantastic world of HB and Disney, outside Chuck’s office Don’t ask me about the bull’s head.
Blazer reached his office and Doris met him there, ostensibly to walk us out. Blazer turned to us to say something, when I blurted, unthinking, “I need your cellphone number. I’d like to stay in contact.”
Blazer eyed me for a moment, then offered up the number, half-smiling. As Doris wrote the number down for me, I tested my luck even further: “What I’d really like to do is work in world football.” You idiot! You know that you don’t have the qualifications! What are you doing?
Silence. I cleared my throat. “Or at least,” I tried to recover, “I’d like to know what I have to do to become ready for a place like this.”
“We’ll talk soon,” Chuck replied cryptically. “Soon.”
Sheldon and I said our goodbyes, and turned up the hallway, Doris leading us to Mildred’s domain near the front door. As if he were processing the art in the hallway for the first time, Sheldon turned to me and mouthed “Like fantasyland here.”
In more ways than one.
HOME – GRAY ST.
I was still out of a job. For some reason that day, even though our concept was shot down by one of only twenty-four men who could give it life, I still felt personally successful. In spite of Laurel’s entreaty to refrain from spending without a clear win, I had taken Sheldon to Carnegie Deli anyway. Somehow it felt like a win, and those big-ass sandwiches inspire me to try audacious things myself.
I decided to give Blazer what ended up being a strategic series of calls. I followed up early on with a whole “thank you for your time,” exchange, then called another time about a week later to illuminate ILLUMINA LLC, my very nascent effort to try to do something to earn anything for my wife and son. The notion behind ILLUMINA was to garner investors to produce “Timeline DVDs” for sports clubs, allowing fans to experience historic video and other content from various eras of their favorite clubs. Given the fact there were 10 times more professional soccer clubs with their own history in Portugal alone then there have ever been in the NFL, soccer, with its international profile, was, to me, the place for ILLUMINA to start.
Chuck seemed mildly intrigued, but not enough to invest, or to share any investors he might know with me. He referred obliquely to the possibility of my coming to work not for CONCACAF directly, but for Nike, maybe, on an affiliated project he would direct, should it pan out. “But who knows,” Chuck said. “These possibilities come and go. Don’t wait for me to make your moves.” Oddly, having gotten to know me a little bit – having had me insert myself into Chuck’s world – it seemed that he felt a little sad, a little responsible, for not being able to bring me on-board, or do much for me at the time.
Chuck seemed particularly intrigued with my martial arts background. I’ve been involved in various styles since 1972, but my stint at the USAFA ninjutsu club intrigued him more than anything. But not enough to lead to steady work. Yet we talked, playing and positioning ourselves on the phone and in person, for the better part of a month. Foolishly, I thought I was cultivating him, when it was entirely the other way around.
Finally, I decided to spend money neither Laurel nor I had on what I described to Chuck as a last-ditch gamble before returning to the search for regular work: to take a prospectus of this Timeline DVD idea to Cannes, to FIFA’s Football Expo, where I might begin to associate myself with football’s decision-makers, and where I might garner a few investors for ILLUMINA. The Cannes event ran from 29 January to 1 February, and the most costly thing was not the air fare, but, rather, the lodging. Laurel and I spent money we could never spare on a decent place for me to stay in the south of France, and on Kinko’s presentations of the ILLUMINA idea to serve as handouts or prospecti.
Hours before I went to Cannes, the phone rang. Laurel picked it up. She looked at me, eyes wide.
“It’s Chuck Blazer” she said, hopefully. Chuck never – ever – called me. I always harassed him.
I took the phone. “My wife and son are getting ready to take me to the airport” I said. “You going to be there, in France?”
“No, no chance. Football Expo is Sepp’s thing, and boring. Yes, you’re going to Cannes, but not as a representative of that thing you are trying to do; instead, you’re going as a representative of CONCACAF, as my Special Projects Director, in fact.
I was in.
Into exactly what? I would find out.