By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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We’re on this Greyhound bus heading down to an American football stadium in New Orleans for the England v. USA preliminaries of the World Soccer Championships. About ten of us all told, England supporters every last one. We’re feeling beery and belligerent as always, and we’re chanting the usual, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND.
The other side is supposed to chant back whatever they are. I’ll give you a For Instance. When we’re in Italy playing the fucking I-ties, they chant, ITA — LIA, ITA — LIA. In the land of spiked helmets and bratwurst, they give it, DEUTSCH — LAND, DEUTSCH — LAND. Sometimes you’ll get one clown in the German crowd who’ll stick his right arm in the air and shout back, “Sieg Heil!” So we beat the shit out of him because they’re not allowed to say that anymore. We hate the Germans. Always have.
But the Americans?
They were chanting for England! We couldn’t believe it. Here they are, our adversaries, giving it, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND. There was even someone at the back of the bus chanting, MAR — GARET THAT — CHER, MAR — GARET THAT — CHER.
I’ll never, ever forget that day.
Or the expression on Vic Stavski’s face. He was our Instigator. He was leaning over his seat, staring back at this mixture of faces, trying to detect a bit of the old El Sarcastico. But there wasn’t any. Then the Americans start telling us how much English and Welsh they’ve got in them. Stavski’s got this calculator his dad gave him, and he’s going up and down the aisle, laying a bit of the old El Provoko on them. He says, “OK, now what percentage Scotch did you say your old man had in him when you were created?” And they were going, “Oh! About a third Scotch. A quarter English. Little bit of Navajo. . . .”
Then they start asking us questions about our royal family. At first, Stavski was laying a bit of the old El Posho on them, telling them that Queen Elizabeth and us were neighbors, on account of the fact that our pub, the Old England, is about half a mile from Buckingham Palace. This one old dear sitting at the front of the bus is lapping it all up, she is. What Stavski was saying, though, was true. It’s just that you don’t think of the royal family and people like us being neighbors. Whenever we talk about the royals it’s like they’re a million miles away. It’s THEM and US.
But then Stavski gets annoyed, because people in America eat up stuff on royalty like pizza, but they don’t know anything about us. So he shouts out, “THERE ARE TWO ENGLANDS, YOU KNOW!” And everyone’s staring at him, like they don’t know how to respond to that one. So he gets up from his seat, and he shouts in their faces practically, “Anyone heard of Gary Linekar?” He’s England’s number one soccer player. “Paul Gasquione? Barnesy?” He went through the whole England Eleven, and they were chanting, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND.
The bus driver was looking at us in that big mirror. He put on his microphone a couple of times, but before he could say anything, we were back in our seats behaving ourselves. We just couldn’t get anyone riled up, though. It was like they were disarming us of our ammunition. Until this one wanker comes out of the lavatory at the back and says, “I say, old chap. Jolly hockey sticks. Pip, pip and all that. . . .” That did have a whiff of the old El Derogatory about it, and we had to struggle to keep Stavski off him or he would’ve eaten him alive. Victor Stavski’s only five-foot-six, but he’ll just dive into your face with his head, no messing about. He looks like James Cagney. That was his nickname when we were kids, and he’s got a tattoo that says JC on his right arm.
We made a pit stop in Memphis, Tennessee, and someone pointed out it’s where Graceland is, and the bus got real quiet. It was like we were paying our due respects to the One and Only. Stavski’s got every record Elvis Aaron ever made, and he got everyone started on “It’s Now Or Never.” He never forgave Elvis, though, for not coming to England, and the Germans never let us forget that Elvis spent a lot of time there when he was a GI. Stavski was telling this to someone standing next to him in the men’s room one time and this bloke said, “Yeah, but Elvis is still alive.” Stavi said, “Yeah. Well, maybe there’s still hope!” And when he turned around to look at who he was talking to, this bloke looked just like the King.
We went into this 7-11 right next to the bus depot. The bus driver said we couldn’t take beer back on the bus, so we got some soft drinks. Stavski pays for his, and he’s almost out the door when the shopkeeper shouts, “Come right back, y’hear?”
Stavski’s just standing there, mentally searching his pockets for something he might’ve lifted. (Afterward, when we were all laughing about it, he said the only thing he could think of was that he took a couple of gulps on his drink and filled it back up on account of all the ice they use in America.) Anyway, the shopkeeper keeps looking over at him, and Stavi’s just standing there with one foot in the door. Technically, they can’t get you for anything until you actually leave the premises. Then Stavski shouts, “What’s your problem, mate?” You knew just by his tone of voice that something’s about to happen. Me and some of the lads are dragging him out, but just as we’re leaving the shop, Stavski notices that the shopkeeper was wearing a toupee, and he’s shouting,“He’s wearing a fucking wig! Look at him! A fucking homo!” I did feel a bit sorry for the shopkeeper, because Stavski was right about the toupee.
Some high-school basketball kids got on the bus in Memphis. They were also real friendly, which was just as well because they looked like walking skyscrapers. Stavski was really getting into it with them, going up and down the aisle, hand-jiving all those different ways there are to shake hands in America. Then the bus driver, who had been eyeing Stavski in his big mirror, says, “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to sit yourself down.”
The bus got quiet, real quiet.
First off, no one that I know of (and I’ve known Stavski for — what? — twenty-nine years all told) had ever called him “sir” before. Not unless they’re trying to be sarcastic, and then we just clout them around the headgear. There’s nothing we hate more than sarcasm. It’s not honest. On top of that, we already had a bit of a run-in with this driver fellow when he told us we couldn’t spread out our ENGLAND banner. Now he’s asking Stavski to sit down, but what makes matters worse is that the whole bus is listening in. It’s like the Gunfight At The OK Corral as we travel through the middle of America on a Greyhound bus. Not a murmur coming from anybody.
But Stavi wouldn’t sit down.
He’s just standing there, staring down at the driver from deep inside his mind, and his mind had been doing some weird things ever since we arrived in America. It was his idea to take the Greyhound bus in the first place.
“What’s your problem, mate?” Stavski says. The driver doesn’t say anything for a few minutes, then he says, “Sir, I’m not gonna ask you again. If you don’t sit yourself down I’m gonna pull over, and there’ll be one sorry person standing on the sidewalk looking at the back of a Greyhound bus.”
Stavski just looks at me, and I look at him, and then I look back at everyone else. I know exactly what Stavski is thinking, but the driver was not being sarcastic.
He puts on the turn signals, slowing down to pull over. You could hear those turn signals right at the back of the bus. Tick, tick. Tick, tick. Tick, tick.
Everybody’s waiting for something to happen. But just as the driver begins to pull over, Stavski sits down, and the Gunfight at the Greyhound Corral fades into history. For the first time in his life, Stavski does what he’s told to do and no handcuffs or straightjackets are involved. He continues to stare at the driver, though, real blatantly, like he’s going to salvage some pride that way.
After about five minutes, the bus driver calls out, “Hey, Stavski. Come on down front, will you?” Real friendly-like. “I want to talk to you for a minute.”
Stavski stares at him hard for a minute or so, but then he goes down front. I follow him.
The driver leans to one side, pulls his wallet from his back pocket and hands it to Stavski. We couldn’t believe it! That was a turn-up for the books if ever there was one, someone giving Victor Stavski their wallet!
The driver says, “Take a look at the name on the driver’s license.” Stavski pulls the driver’s license out, and now everyone’s leaning over their seats trying to see what’s going on. “See,” said the driver, “I’m just an old Polack myself!”
His name was Stavski.
They weren’t related, it turned out, but Stavski and him were really getting into it, talking about all kinds of things. It turned out the driver’s son was an architect, which is what Stavi always wanted to be before he became a soccer hooligan, at least that’s what he always used to tell our probation officer. Then they start talking about Stavski’s old man, and he’s never, ever talked about his old man before.
His old man was a Polish immigrant to England. I remember when Vic used to get real embarrassed about introducing him to people. He used to pretend his old man was someone else’s dad at the Old England, because he always spoke with a Polish accent. Stavski smashed him in the face once and told him never to come down to the pub again. That was after the England v. Poland match that Poland won. His old man had supported Poland.
Victor Stavski was a real England freak. He believed in England. He followed the team everywhere. The only games he ever missed was when they banned us from Europe after a bunch of fucking I-ties got trampled to death in that stadium in Belgium. He loved England, and if anybody said anything that had a whiff of the old El Derogatory about him being English he’d deck ’em. One time at the German border, the Customs guard’s looking at his British passport and says, “So you are not an Englishman. You are a Polish man.” That was real snide, but since we can’t clout uniforms, Stavi just looks up at him and says, “Yeah, but where I’m from we don’t put people in gas chambers!”
But here he is, talking to the bus driver about his old man, like all of a sudden he was proud to be Polish, and his old man wasn’t even alive no more, though he would’ve really liked it in the States. Everywhere we went in America, people were friendly. Stavski said, how can you smash people in the face when they’re trying to be so nice? Some college students were telling us that the only reason people were friendly was because of business. Stavski told them, you gotta eat, and if people at the burger joint are nice to you when they serve you, then that’s a bit of extra gravy. Nothing wrong with that!
The driver reminded us of John Wayne because he had a deep voice and he talked real slow. Course, once we started calling him Duke, though, he started talking even slower and his voice got deeper. He was telling us all about the cattle trails in America, and where they were driving all those cows on Rawhide every Wednesday night on BBC, because none of us knew. He’d point out the window every now and then and say, “Know who they hanged from that there tree?” He talked about Billy the Kid and Al Capone like he knew them.
Stavski asks him how come outlaws in America got to be heroes. Duke couldn’t explain it, except that nobody was all bad, that there was a little bit of good and bad in everyone. Stavski really liked that, because, like I was saying, in England there’s only THEM and US. THEM is good, and US is bad, and in between you have all these pathetic white-collar people, who just bow and curtsy to THEM and run a mile when they see US coming. Then just to confuse things even more, one of those basketball kids was telling me and Stavski that in America bad was good. They kept saying, “You bad, man,” but they really liked him.
There for a while, it was like Trivial Pursuit without the board, because we were asking each other questions back and forth. Stavski got the bus driver and he got him good. He says, “Who said this: ‘Look at it, Adam. Feast thine eyes on a sight that approaches heaven itself!’ ”
“Gotta be something outta the Bible, right?” fast-talking Duke says after about ten minutes.
Stavski came right out and told him, “It was Ben Cartwright talking to Adam back in 1959, in that very first episode of Bonanza!”
Duke says, “Are you shittin’ me?” and everyone on the bus is going, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND, ENG — LAND.
We won the match.
It was England 4, USA 0. We avenged the 1950 defeat when the United States knocked England out of the World Cup. But even before the match, by the time we got to New Orleans it was like Stavski had forgotten why we were there, like he had forgotten all about England. He didn’t even see the match. He was shooting the breeze with the locals on Jackson Square, drinking coffee refills, and making free local calls from our hotel room. If you want to know the God’s honest truth, Stavski was really getting hooked on America. He told me that people in America talked to the real him, which was kind of strange because he never, ever knew who the real him was. We used to talk about that a lot with our probation officer.
Back on the bus, going back up to Chicago, Stavski was the quietest I’ve ever known him to be. He was just staring out at America, watching the wheat fields, and the riverboats moving southward in slow motion. It felt like someone had just died. I should’ve known something was going to happen, because usually by this time he’s tearing up the seats and tossing a few of the locals out the window.
We had a different driver. He was all right, but nothing like Duke. Duke gave Stavski his phone number and told him to look him up when he was in Chicago again.
About a hundred miles shy of Chicago, everyone on the bus is asleep, except me and Stavski. It was dark and all you could see in the night sky was McDonald’s golden arches. Stavski turns to me and says, “If Gothic cathedrals could talk, what accent would they have?” I say, “Posh,” and I get a smile out of him. It’s something we used to say when we were kids sitting on the steps, watching people go into Westminster Abbey. I was surprised that he even remembered. Then, for the rest of the journey, he’s comparing Gothic cathedrals back home with these golden arches. He was going on and on about how easy it was to understand things in America, and how Americans speak our language.
The next day at O’Hare airport, as they’re calling the passengers for our flight back to calling London, Stavski’s nowhere to be seen. We’re searching everywhere for him — the lavatory, the pinball room — and then I see him, over by a circular postcard rack near a phone booth, looking at a huge telephone directory.
“Stavi!” I scream. “The plane’s about to take off.”
He doesn’t even look up and I’m getting a bit embarrassed, because for a split-second I’m thinking it isn’t him, and everyone’s looking at me. I walk up to him. “Stav,” I say, realizing something’s wrong. “What’s the matter?”
He won’t even look at me. He’s shaking. “Stav?” I say, “the plane’s about to leave.”
All of a sudden he turns to me and shouts, “I’M DEFECTING!”
“You’re what? What do you think you are, Russian?”
I tried to put my arm around him, and that was when he smashed into my face with his forehead. All I remember is falling over, blood pouring out of my nose, picture postcards flying through the air, and my mate Victor Stavski running back into America.