The Napkin

In 1992 my brother started working as a paperboy. It was in time for the Eagles playoffs and the following year’s Phillies World Series run. He always had leftover newspapers, which meant there were extra Daily News sports pages for me to cut up and put on my bedroom wall. I taped pictures of quarterback Randall Cunningham and running back Herschel Walker to the wood paneling, next to my thin fleecy Eagles pennant. In ’93, I added Phillies lefties John Kruk and Darren Daulton. Not long after, I stood in line on a hot July afternoon in a neighborhood beer distributor parking lot to get Richie Ashburn’s autograph (centerfield icon; radio sportscaster).

 

In 2001 I kept clippings from Allen Iverson’s Sixers championship series against the Lakers. I saved the glossy Inquirer keepsake poster from the ’05 Eagles Super Bowl heartbreaker against the Patriots. In ’08, I was at Citizens Bank Park with a standing room ticket the night the Phillies won the Series. I handed my rally towel to one of the groundsmen to rub in the baseline dirt.

 

So none of this means anything to you. That’s okay. The point is, when you grow up in Philly, at least one area of your house serves as a dedicated museum celebrating hometown teams. You have to start curating your collection as a child. If you do a respectable job, you should have a decent start by the time you move out of your parents’ house. 

 

A friend told me about Marie Kondo’s decluttering book when it came out, and I read it in one sitting. It was a small book with a cloudy blue hardback cover. Marie was earnest about keeping only the things you love. She said you should thank each item before getting rid of it, and she promised you wouldn’t regret throwing anything away. I dumped letters I had saved for decades, papers written in college, photos from high school dances, and pounds of t-shirts. I brought carloads of donations to the thrift store. 

 

I kept my sports memorabilia. 

 

Not long after I had Kondoed, I started talking to a guy on a dating app who happened to work on the coaching staff of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

 

Yes. I know. 

 

It was the era under head coach Chip Kelly. The city had a love/hate relationship with Chip alternating week to week. The guy was either trash or a Christ figure. (Christ figure isn’t the better position. Everybody knows that after worship comes being tossed for sacrifice.) In case it’s not clear, home team devotion in Philly leans violent. During the '93 Series, closing pitcher Mitch Williams got death threats from his own fans. 

 

Now, with Chip in his third season and the city on edge with overdue hopes for a Super Bowl, I had a direct line to one of his guys, someone on the inside. 

 

For a week, I exchanged messages with my coach over the app. I was aware I had to exercise ultimate restraint. I made clear I was a football fan, but I knew there was a delicate line between acknowledging his work and acting no more impressed than if he repaired HVAC. I couldn’t have him think the Eagles thing was the only reason I was talking to him. (Was it? Do not think too much about this.) When I walked into the bar to meet my coach in person for the first time, I yelled at myself in my head. PLAY. IT. COOL. 

 

The date was fun. We chatted during that next week, and went on to see each other regularly over the course of the season. It wasn’t anything serious. But for me, it carried the mental burden of a full time job. 

 

I already watched weekly games and read the sports page write-ups after, but now I felt on assignment to get in the weeds with the injury reports for the entire NFL, just to make sure he knew that I knew my shit if it came up. I stalked the team Twitter feed on a regular basis and screen-grabbed photos of my coach at practice, in case anybody asked for proof. I studied a Rand McNally of the continental U.S. to decide how far I’d be willing to move if he got recruited to head coach in Middle America. (Still not sure if Green Bay is worth it.) 

 

The thing is...the team was not doing well. Was it my fault? Was my coach doing a poor job breaking tape because we stayed up too late the other night, causing a foggily judged play call and Miami’s interception in the fourth quarter? Dunkin’ Donuts gave out free coffee on Mondays when the Eagles won. How could I bear being the one responsible for everyone grumping into work with a cracked thermos of instant instead of getting in the victory line? It felt like the weight of the city’s happiness was on my shoulders. What if my coach got publicly shamed for being pinpointed as the root of the team’s failure? What if protesters came to my house? What if my picture was in the paper? Would they get a good shot? 

 

One Sunday I was at my parents’ house to watch the game. The cameras zoomed in on the coaches’ box, and there was my coach, on his feet, all worked up and yelling through his headset. I was thrilled but also terrified. If my extended family found out I was hanging out with someone within the organization, they’d demand I bring him to Christmas, then grill him on what the hell is going on with the offensive strategy and insist he deliver their suggestions and hand-drawn football play cards along with threatening messages to Chip Kelly. I envisioned him accosted over the bowl of homemade cannoli filling, unable to finish loading up his shell because everyone was on his ass. It would be embarrassing. 

 

Another thing was bothering me. There was something on my bookshelf that I didn’t want my coach to notice. 

 

A year earlier I had worked a catering shift serving appetizers at an event for the Philadelphia Eagles owners and higher-ups. VIP events weren’t unusual for our company. I had done a Sixers Foundation event attended by Dr. Oz (he ambled by my buffet spread of pork fried dumplings and cheesesteak egg rolls, shooting the messenger with a judgy smile). I’d worked a bar mitzvah for a kid with his own sneaker company (hordes of thirteen-year-olds hopped up on Mexican Cokes, moving at ninety miles an hour for fear of being left behind by the pack). I’d presented a plate of bleeding steak to the mayor’s wife (she looked at me coolly and said, “I don’t eat red meat”).    

 

Our manager had warned us at orientation that we’d be fired on the spot if we ever behaved inappropriately around famous guests. No ogling, no acting weird, no talking besides “You’re welcome” or answering a question. If it would even cross your mind to ask for a selfie, leave now. 

 

There hadn’t been any events where that warning would be relevant to me, until now. A few Eagles players were there doing photo ops in front of the team-logo step and repeat: center Jason Kelce, cornerback Brandon Boykin, and tight end Brent Celek.

 

I didn’t forget -- you might not care about sports. Whatever you do care about, imagine being in the same room with the big names. Terry Gross, say. Or Dr. Fauci. I don’t know. That’s for you to come up with. The point is, it was pretty exciting. 

 

I was on appetizers. Waiting for the chef to put platters under the countertop warmer, I circled the room casually, pretending to collect empty glasses but in reality homing in on my target like a buzzard. I was aware of the players’ every move the same way you would track a high school crush from cafeteria to biology lab. I walked from the floor to the kitchen to the bar and back, tray in hand. Cool, detached waitress. Just gliding along…gliiiiiiiding along. 

 

The appetizers came out of the kitchen. I grabbed my platter of toothpick-spiked, goat cheese-stuffed dates and bolted straight for Kelce, Boykin, and Celek.

 

The guys smiled gratefully and plucked three dates per hand.  I took a step back. Timing was everything. As they bit fruit from toothpicks and swallowed, I swooped back in with the empty platter: “I can take those.” 

 

It was a cardinal sin on the floor to collect used toothpicks onto a serving platter instead of waiting for someone to come by with a clearing tray. We have rules, dammit. If you wanna rack-’em-and-stack-’em, go work at TGI Fridays. But nobody saw me. I got a handful of appetizer sticks and -- jackpot -- Brent Celek’s dirty napkin. 

 

I had my memorabilia. I stuffed everything into my apron pocket. 

 

In catering, the apron pocket is a black hole. It runs deep in the long black butler-style apron, which is double-tied in the back over black pants and black button-down. At the end of a shift when you empty the pocket, all the memories good and bad from the night’s timeline come flooding back. Trash, the menu specifying details of the vegetarian risotto option (limited supply! Make sure it was requested ahead of time!), a Parker House roll painted with butter that you salvaged and planned to swallow without chewing when you got a chance to duck behind a stone pillar. Things get dirty in the apron pocket. Things get lost. I couldn’t take any chances.

 

I went to the bar and leaned over the shiny granite. “Do you have any baggies?”

 

Our bartender was cutting limes. “No, I got gloves though.”

 

He handed me a box of clear plastic food gloves.

 

“Perfect.” I put the napkin and appetizer sticks into a glove and tied it closed as he watched. 

 

“What are you doing?” he asked. 

 

“I got Brent Celek’s napkin,” I said, excited. 

 

Next to me, another server overheard. She warned, “Do not post a picture of that.” 

 

What kind of person did she think I was? I put the glove bag into my pocket and for the rest of the night was aware of its presence as if it were a living creature. When I got home, I took off my apron and laid it carefully on the floor, too exhausted to properly extract my prize. The next morning, I emptied the pocket. I found a plastic sandwich bag that was sturdier than the food glove. I put the appetizer sticks and the napkin into the bag and sealed it, and I put the bag on my bookshelf in a little cardboard tray.

 

You know what happened next. I read Marie Kondo and turned into Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I kept all my sports mementos. Including the napkin bag. 

 

The first time my Eagles coach saw my place, he said, “What are you, a minimalist?” I explained Marie Kondo.

 

“I only kept things that are deeply meaningful to me,” I said. As I said it, my eyes passed over my bookshelf, where the napkin bag sat in the cardboard tray.

 

Crap. 

 

If he saw the napkin bag and I admitted what it was, he would think I had some kind of thing where sports players were gods and he was only one step away from that and that was the only reason I was hanging out with him. (Was it? Do not think too much about this.)

 

I could hide the bag in the medicine cabinet. Or in a drawer, or under the bed. But people look in medicine cabinets. Or he might go in the drawer, or find himself under the bed. What if I emerged one day from the bathroom to find my coach holding up the baggie in victory, shouting “Oh ho ho! What’s THIS?!” What is my explanation for hoarding trash? It would be weirder to keep it under the bed than on the shelf, right? 

 

The team wasn’t looking good at 6 wins, 8 losses, and the napkin bag was ripe for discovery.

 

On December 26th, the Eagles lost to Washington. No playoffs. After the game, I went to my coach’s house to commiserate over a drink. Wandering around the apartment, I noticed an unopened Christmas present on the floor next to his bed with a computer-printed label reading FROM: CHIP in Garamond font. In the open closet was a stack of fresh, tagged team apparel.

 

Marie Kondo talked about how it was essential to get rid of things from your past to make room for the new. If I couldn’t let go of the old, my hands wouldn’t be open to receive a signed jersey or (hang in there) a championship ring.

 

I went home. I thanked the napkin bag for the joy it had given me, and threw it out. 

 

Three days later Chip Kelly was fired.

 

The dominoes fell down the line. My coach got the axe. He left the state, and I never saw him again. The napkin bag was gone forever.

 

I regret it.