SATURDAY, JAN. 23 2016 | NEW YORK CITY – For the last 36 hours the streets of America’s largest and most iconic metropolis had been unrecognizable. They’d been bare, in fact, traffic-less. As a result of the frigid carnage brought about by winter storm Jonas, the City of New York had ordered all non-emergency vehicles to stay off the roads, as well as canceling busses, cabs, trains, and flights out of every surrounding airport throughout the weekend and into Monday. Even the subways were shut down. No, this wasn’t the New York City you see in movies or calendars. This more-or-less resembled a post-apocalyptic ice age. Civilians’ cars parked on the street, covered in the two feet of snow that fell overnight, were no longer identifiable by make or size. Instead, they appeared like a conveyor belt of rhino-sized marshmallows. Manhattan’s thigh-deep, un-shoveled sidewalks forced on-foot New Yorkers and tourists alike onto the main strips where cars the day before had lined up bumper to bumper. Moreover, the city was eerily quiet. There were no revving engines, no shrill bus breaks, no chorus of beeping horns. New York City was perturbingly, if not disturbingly, still.
Then there was me, standing twenty stories aloft on the Upper East Side the next morning, drinking a glass of water and looking out the balcony window at the chaos bellow. With my scarf wrapped tightly around my face and my hood turned up over my ball cap, my thoughts were linear yet irrational. I wasn’t going to let #snowpocalypse2k16 ruin the inaugural column of The Shaky Stool. There was no better way to kick off a narrative account of American soccer pub culture than Arsenal v Chelsea at New York City’s number one soccer bar, Nevada Smith’s. I’d only be in the city until Tuesday and I’d be damned if 67 blocks of ice and snow were going to come between The Away End and that experience.
So I went for it. And as the story goes, no snowstorm prevented me from watching the game at Nevada Smith’s that morning… What did was the law. It was only when I tugged on the pub’s doors, the same doors I’d pulled on 10 months previously to watch a Ligue 1 match between Marseille and Toulouse, that I discovered the property had been repossessed and that the doors were unquestionably locked. There were no jerseys or scarves on the wall this time for me to peruse, no band of 30 French immigrants sipping and singing, and most troubling, no plan B… yet.
This wasn’t the time to get down on myself, though, not standing there in the slush, pinning myself to the frosty glass of Nevada Smith’s locked door to let passerbyers walk through unimpeded. Luckily, after consulting my trusty iPhone, I discovered there was another one of the city’s soccer bars three blocks further south. So without hesitation I set off. When I rounded the corner toward Central Bar, my new destination, my mind was delicately teetering between optimism and pessimism. The rational part of me was chipping away at my probably misplaced hope:
‘You’re in the shadow of one of the biggest winter storms to hit the Eastern seaboard in years. How are fans supposed to get to the bar? Snow shoe? You think they’re as insane as you? They’re all holed up in their apartments amongst the crates of beer they bought in anticipation of the end of the world. Why did you even come? Is there any guarantee this place is even open? You idiot…'
I hadn’t thought of that of that last bit, actually. But when Central Bar’s door budged and the choppy wind was replaced by the comfort of indoor heating, those worries were burned away. And I knew I wouldn’t be leaving until the final whistle blew at the Emirates, regardless if anyone turned up for the match.
One guy? I take that last part back. One guy. When I trudged in stomping my feet on the doormat, there was one guy, poised at the end of the bar in a long sleeve Chelsea kit. It was five minutes before kickoff! Yes, I was warm now, but at what cost? Where was the atmosphere? Reluctantly I pulled up a stool, uneven as always, under the lone Chelsea scarf hung above the bar and waited until the match had started to order my Guinness. Even the bartenders looked a little sleepy. We can forgive them though. They probably thought the had the day off! But if nothing else, I’d have a Guinness, a seat at the bar, and 90 minutes of warmth and entertainment. It could be worse. Maybe my column would just have to wait.
Sure enough, however, the front door at my back continued to open and shut in the initial stages of the match. And every time it breached, it’d let in a burst of brisk air and a frozen football fan whose loyalties lay hidden beneath their layers. I had fun trying to guess who was red and who was blue. What really stood out was the diversity of the patrons. There were North Africans, Indians, and Chinese that had surely traveled up from Canal Street. There were blacks; there were whites and Hispanic fans too. New York, New York’s melting pot was reflected in the demographic of the Central Bar customers brave enough to trek through the snow to be there. It was a welcomed reminder of the sport’s ability to see past the differences the human mind has fabricated. The only color divide here was between red and blue. Furthermore, everyone was coexisting peacefully, even the two parties of fans. That is until a mistimed slide tackle upended Diego Costa on his route to goal.
The noise that followed was shapeless. All I can say it was loud. A Chelsea fan to a table at my right was standing arms outstretched, and his girlfriend who knew very little about soccer on the exterior wore a remark of shock on her face that said something along the lines of ‘maybe this really isn’t just a game.’ The red card was being brandished now and Per Mertesacker, the accused, was headed toward the changing room – no complaints. The Arsenal fans sitting in all the booths at the back of the bar groaned and protested, despite the fact that the decision by most accounts was the right one. Then with a voice like the crack of a whip, a young man stood behind my shaky stool unbeknownst to me hollered at them. I must confess that I jumped. “This is a Chelsea supporters’ bar! Fuck off. Get out!”
The tones of his dialect were unmistakably British. Predictably the Arsenal fans ignored him. You’d be a mad man to abandon your team after just 20 minutes only to wallow back out into the snow. The Chelsea fan seemed to accept this and marched over to where (what looked like) his sister was sitting playing solitaire at their table. Minutes after, Chelsea pulled ahead. Giroud was sacrificed for Gabriel to stabilize the home side’s defensive shape. And being so new to the pace of the match, the Brazilian defender didn’t communicate well enough with his center back pairing, Laurent Kocielny. Hence Diego Costa took full advantage of a mental hiccup, slipped between them, and poked in a cross at the near post: 0-1. The Brit with the vocal chords leaped from his seat and darted half way across the bar. The man accompanied by his girlfriend was on his feet again; for the second time she looked stunned, almost embarrassed. And finally, a peculiar rendition of “There’s only one team in London…” broke out at the far end of the bar from two Asian Chelsea fans, their passion not lost among their accents.
Supporters were still arriving to the pub late following the goal. It was easier to guess their allegiance now that the score line was in favor of the visitors. But where I thought the Chelsea goal would propel the mood from its fans in the bar, the opposite was true. They seemed oddly content a goal and a man up. And on the whole of things so did Guus Hiddink. Maybe it was because Arsenal had nothing to lose at this point, or maybe it was the Emirates crowd egging them on, but for the remainder of the contest Arsenal looked more likely to equalize than Chelsea did to put tie to bed. The chances were just falling to the wrong kind of players. Flamini in particular had snuck behind the Blues’ backline right on the whistle of halftime and wildly flicked a cross over Courtois’s goal when a more composed attacker could have made better use of the opportunity.
Much of the second half noise at Central Bar was emitted from the Arsenal supporters. A new face had snuck up behind me, this time a Gunners fan, and was having a coffee at the counter, all the while kicking every ball. His presence highlighted the Gunners’ amassing desperation, swearing and complaining about Diego Costa, the referee, and Diego Costa. Costa, Costa, Costa. It’s hard to imagine any club hates Diego Costa more than Arsenal after he enticed Gabriel into a red card last time these two clubs met. His substitution was met by applause from the Arsenal faithful who were happy to see the back of him as he went off injured with just over 20 minutes to play. Chelsea fans at Central didn’t really react to injury or substitution. My guess is that Costa leaves them red-faced too at times.
Shortly following his exit, John Obi Mikel left a stray arm out after passing the ball to which the diminutive Alexis Sanchez collided with. The Chelsea man was showed a yellow card but the coffee-drinker behind me felt the punishment was too lenient. “Are you freakin’ kidding me, man? A yellow?!” He barked. Then out of nothing, the Chelsea fan next to his date retorted. “And what? You think it should be a red?” he gasped. The two stared each other down for half a second before cooling off and subsequently pretending the other didn’t exist for the rest of the game. To me this fell in line with the setting. In New York City folks are quick to defend their position or opinion, but almost just as likely to be apathetic about another’s hard luck or misfortune. This conflict happened to exercise both those traits.
My bill was paid by the time the referee called time on the game. The Chelsea fans clapped. The break of their silence in stoppage time by urging their players to hold onto the ball confirmed their anxiety. Fear of blowing the result was too obvious. They could clearly find satisfaction in a result that prevented their London neighbors from going top of the league with Leicester City in lieu of the fact they were still in the bottom half. In a season when smiles have been scarce, Chelsea had reason to grin on Sunday. And as I exited Central Bar back out into the weather, I left behind another chorus of “There’s only one team in London…” being belted out in downtown Manhattan.