The River Café sits more or less under the eastern terminus of the Brooklyn Bridge, so people who dine there can look out across the East River at the Manhattan skyline while they enjoy expensive, well-made food. When my wife and I went there for brunch recently, armed with an about-to-expire gift certificate, we were at first impressed by the luxurious tag-team service. One waiter quickly brought our coffee; another waiter brought out hollowed egg shells filled with banana flan. As he set down the flan, the second waiter adjusted my coffee cup, spilling a drop. “Very sorry, sir,” the waiter said, “I’ll get you another.” Then he whisked away the java I hadn’t yet sipped, and a different waiter replaced it with an entirely new cup, freshly poured.
The view from our table was spectacular, but two men were seated next to us, against the window, creating a minor obstruction. One was older, with salt-and-pepper hair. I thought I heard him say, “Here, why don’t you sit here, I think the view’s better, Lando.” Lando, I heard. I wondered for a moment if the poor kid’s parents had named him after a Star Wars character. I restrained myself from looking over; young Lando had probably been stared at and mocked his whole life, with a name like that. But the older man spoke deferentially, in a reassuring, cheerful patter designed to make the young man comfortable and happy. “The view’s amazing, isn’t it? Wow, I love how you can see the Statue of Liberty.”
At some point, between my peeky-toe crab salad and the lobster omelet I’d ordered, I heard the salt-and-pepper-haired man, who was dressed casually but not too casually, mention Major League Soccer. I began to listen. This required me to split my attention, disengaging a little from the conversation I was having with my wife who was theorizing about a dysfunctional couple who’d just vacated the restaurant. I continued to look directly at her, nodding, noticing the Manhattan skyline over her left shoulder, while straining to eavesdrop on our neighbor’s monologue. He was saying something about bringing up talented American players in youth leagues.
The younger man, Lando, said, “Awesome.” Maybe he was a youth soccer league coach. My curiosity won out over my manners. I glanced over. It was Landon Donovan: not a J.V. coach named after the smooth-talking mayor of Cloud City, but the most recognizable and arguably the most effective American soccer player in the game. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a pair of those big-soled, spring-loaded Nike sneakers. The other guy was talking about the previous night’s MLS game between the LA Galaxy and the NY Red Bulls. I looked closer at him and realized it was the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati. You know, it was just Sunil and Landon, having brunch together the morning after Donovan’s game at Giant Stadium.
This put me in an awkward position. First of all, I knew who Landon Donovan was, but he didn’t know who I was. I’d spent hours of my life watching him play for the U.S. National Men’s Soccer team, seen him score a number of exciting, skillful goals. I’d stood in crowded soccer bars watching World Cup games, hoping fervently that Donovan would score, while beer was spilled on my shoes. I mean, I was a real damn fan—not just a soccer fan, but a fan of American soccer—and fate, in the guise of the head waiter at the River Café, had placed Landon Donovan about two feet away from me.
The other awkward thing was that I’m a writer. Sometimes I write about sports, and sometimes what I write about sports is posted on the Internet. I began wondering what I’d write about my experience eating brunch next to Landon Donovan and Sunil Gulati. In the same moment, I felt grossed out by my own surreptitious interest in their conversation. I was a true fan, a former player, passionate about the game; also I was scum-of-the-earth paparazzi, eavesdropping with impure intentions. I don’t particularly like the Instantaneous Age we live in, the camera phones and blogs and amateur-centric media that capture everything, turning the public sphere into tabloid drama. But what if Sunil Gulati dropped a bomb and revealed something that constituted a scoop? Something about the young players he felt were most likely to represent the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup? Or about David Beckham’s living room furniture?
In addition to being president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gulati is an economics professor, and, it turns out, he has the gift of gab. He spoke tirelessly about the MLS standings, about U.S. coach Bob Bradley, and about how hard he and his wife had to work to get their kids into good schools in New York City. Donovan gave mostly brief responses as he tucked into his bronzino fillet with smoked tomato petals and charred lemon confit. (Am I revealing too much? Am I not revealing enough?)
For a while I thought I might be the only one in the restaurant who knew the identities of the men sitting next to us. Then I noticed how often the Latino busboys were coming over to scrape the crumbs off Landon Donovan’s table. My wife and I were never once favored in this way; the crumbs littering our white linen tablecloth stayed right where they were, buttery flecks of banana bread and homemade English muffin casting their tiny shadows over our plebian lives. But the busboys’ attentions to Landon Donovan’s crumbs were constant and laborious. They knew exactly who he was, and that meant we were basically ignored for the rest of our meal.
For the busboys, the American striker’s presence may have been a complicated matter: Donovan was a legitimate international soccer star, and therefore a cause for excitement and admiration, but he was also emblematic of the United States’ rise as a regional soccer power, an extension of U.S. imperialism into the sacrosanct arena of fútbol. Donovan’s goals had caused a great deal of heartache in Mexico and Central America. Why not spill some coffee on him?
No coffee was spilled. The busboys were able to restrain themselves, just as I am striving to restrain myself now. I raised my eyebrows more than once at the nuggets Gulati disclosed to Donovan, but what good would it do to reveal them here? I’m moved to protect the interests not only of American soccer, but of polite society.
After the meal, as we walked out of the restaurant for a stroll along the river, my wife asked, “Who were those guys, exactly? What were they talking about? And why did the busboys keep scraping crumbs off their table?”
“I’m not sure it’s worth getting into,” I said. And then I told her everything.
Sunil certainly didn’t give Lando the pep talk he needed to perform well against Sweden yesterday. For long stretches, I wasn’t even sure he was on the pitch. That being said, he was much better than Cherundolo and the rest of the suspect back four.
So are those two guys dating?
— joe Aug 28, 07:23 PM #
I think they’re just friends with benefits.
— Russell Aug 29, 05:15 PM #