My Ben Wyatt Moment

I walked into the town transit authority office to pay for my train station parking and ended up living out a scene worthy of “Parks and Rec.”

Because this town hasn’t recognized electronic payment yet, you have to mail a check for $6 or stop by the office to pay with cash. I pull into the office at the end of this industrial park and enter through a door labeled “Employees,” because the door labeled “Office” is locked.

The space I step into is sparsely decorated, with a school cafeteria table right in front of the door. The only guy visible has his back toward me, talking to someone in a dark office. Visible Man turns around to greet me and I tell him I have to pay by cash because I don’t own a checkbook. I hand him a $5 bill and $1 bill, then he walks with the cash through an ajar door to get me a receipt. He shuts the door for some reason.

I stand alone in this office for a silent and awkward five minutes, waiting for him to come out of that door. The door eventually opens and he walks out with an expression that alternated between confused and apologetic.

“Sorry, I tried to copy the money you gave me for your receipt, but the machine wouldn’t print for some reason.”

I didn’t have a camera to look into, so I had to give him the famous Ben Wyatt Face. And because copy machines are smart, I walked out of that office with a blue post-it note that said “RECEIVED 6 DOLLARS 11 13 17”

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Saturday at New York Comic Con

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Before New York Comic Con 2017, the last time I was so invested in lines was my high school geometry class.

I steeled myself for the inevitable long lines during my prep work for the Saturday session of NYCC 2017. Other than a day spent at the merch hall of Anime Expo 2011—AX was a cheap way for me to get to Los Angeles for a week with two of my best friends from high school—NYCC 2017 would be my first experience in the crowded confines of a con. I circled important spots to hit on three maps of the Javits Center; packed my badge, snacks (two bags of beef jerky and a packet of fruit snacks), and a bottle of water into a backpack; and, most importantly, blocked in the time I’d be spending in lines for the panels I’d attend. By building in an additional 40 minutes for loafing in line into each panel’s hour-long block, I stole the airline practice of tacking on the time for taxiing onto the estimated arrival time for better on-time results, and used it for something good.

I arrived at the Javits Center at 8:15 am for a 9 am opening, passed through a security line as its only guest, picked up a program, got funneled into the Queue Hall, then shepherded alongside three guys with backpacks and a group of women in Game of Thrones cosplay into the front of the fourth line for the Show Floor, sifted through the program, and read that NYCC opened at 10 am.

All that prep work and I forgot to look up the start time for NYCC.

So what I thought would be a 45 minute wait turned into a 1.5 hour wait, complete with a half-eaten bag of Korean Barbecue beef jerky. Cheers all over the Queue Hall erupted at 9:40 am, when NYCC volunteers cut the yellow “Warning” tape holding back the first group of people lined up for the Show Floor. The celebrations continued as the badge-holders from that first line walked—not ran, for safety reasons—to the escalators that took them to the convention. When a NYCC volunteer cut my line’s tape 10 minutes later and set my group free, that walk felt like I was running into Disney World right when it opened.

Upon reaching the Show Floor on the third level of the Javits Center, I window shopped the Square Enix exhibit, powerwalked west to the 100 aisle of exhibitors, found the Sanrio booth, bought the Sanrio NYCC exclusives my sister requested (best brother ever amirite?), powerwalked back to the Square Enix exhibit at the center of the Show Floor, lined up to try the Final Fantasy Dissidia NT team battle demo, lost in the demo, then zipped back down to the first floor to line up for The Tick panel that began at 11 am.

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My Show Floor adventure occurred in a 30 minute window. I took my spot in line for the panel at 10:20 am, right on schedule and 40 minutes before the panel began, and I still ended up in the overflow section of the line.

I binged through Amazon’s The Tick in September and wanted to see the cast in-person, seated mere feet away from me. The wit in the show transferred to the panel, but they also provided valuable creative insight into how they grounded the absurd world of the story with the humanity of each character. After The Tick finished its hour, I remained in the room for the panel for The Shannara Chronicles—a show I had never seen before—just because.

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What a panel, though. The grateful audience and I saw the opening segment for the first episode of the upcoming second season, four days before the premiere, then Manu Bennett entertained everyone with his colorful behind the scenes stories that tip-toed the line between teasing and dropping a spoiler. I felt like I was a fan of the show by the time the panel ended.

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When the Shannara panel ended at 1:15, I had 40 minutes before I had to line up for the hallowed Twisted Toonz panel. Those 40 minutes flew by: I tried and failed to find a bathroom; took pictures of the Justice League film costumes; bought my first ever comic book, a NYCC-exclusive Justice League #15 featuring the film’s protagonists on the cover; then dashed back to the Queue Hall to—you guessed it—line up for Twisted Toonz.

The Twisted Toonz panel was the high point of my NYCC stay. The legendary voice actors Rob Paulsen (Yakko Warner and Pinky), Jess Harnell (Wakko Warner), Tress MacNeille (Babs Bunny and Dot Warner), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh), Troy Baker (The Joker and Snow on FFXIII), and Nolan North (uh, I know him from the soap opera Port Charles, but he’s apparently the voice of Nathan Drake in Uncharted) joined forces to read selected scenes of Ghostbusters in the voices of their adored characters and famous figures in pop culture.

It’s a visceral experience to hear the voices of Yakko and Dot drop an R-rated joke or see North drool water onto his shirt because he voiced Gary Busey for that scene. But as much as I laughed at hearing the beloved voices in my childhood cartoons drop their catch phrases into the nasty lines from Ghostbusters, the best part of the panel was seeing Harnell, North, and Baker cracking up together on the left side of the table after every line. At the craziest moments of the read—like when the reproduced voice of a famous male Disney character exclaimed “I want you inside me!”—Harnell covered his face with his hands and script, while North and Baker dropped their heads down on the table. The panel ran a few minutes long because of how often they broke from laughter.

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I was pooped when the Twisted Toonz panel ended after 3:30 pm, but mustered the energy for one last hour at the Show Floor. In that span, I got my ass kicked in another round of Dissidia NT, walked by The Tick’s Dangerboat, saw the Marvel NYCC exclusives, and marveled at the number of vendors and products present. I’d need another day to appreciate all that the Show Floor had to offer, but it would have to wait until 2018. After eight hours without a proper meal and a bathroom break, I had to call time on my Saturday at NYCC.

The biggest takeaway from my day at the con is that it’s good preparation for attending an Olympics. The Olympics give you such a large gathering of fans for a wide swath of sports—many of which you’d find niche because they’re not mainstream in the States—that it’s an opportunity to delve into what you love and to find more sports to fall for. At a con, the vast interests of comics, television, video games, and animation are concentrated in one location for a weekend under the umbrella of pop culture—and the fandom is just as infectious. Whether you’re at the Olympics or at a convention, the passion that the attendees show for their interests is impressive; it made me question what stokes my passion to their levels.

And, of course, both events are intense and exhausting.

But over the past two weeks, I’ve been unable to shake off a quote from a woman who sat next to me at the Twisted Toonz panel. When I asked her what brought her to NYCC, she has a simple response.

“I went for the first time four years ago and I just keep coming back now,” she said.

She’s right, because it’s fun to be surrounded by people who love their hobbies so much, that they spend the year planning the cosplay just for the weekend and wait in ridiculous lines to see the people who create the art that they love. I hope to return to NYCC next year for that passion, in tow with bags of beef jerky and a blocked time for a bathroom break.

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The Flag

It’s funny how we don’t have a word cap on Facebook, and yet everything attempting to be substantial seems to arrive in a meme or some piece of content taken from another source.

The currency of social media isn’t enough to move the conversation forward on why we saw more than 200 NFL players observe the pageantry of the national anthem by kneeling, locking arms, raising fists, remaining in the locker room, etc. this past weekend. Instead, they make it easy to immediately escalate a reaction to something hostile, with the reply directed at some faceless digital entity.

So this is my amateur attempt to try to redirect the conversation back to why these NFL players participated in some form of protest during the national anthem. No, the peaceful protests weren’t directed at the troops and soldiers who serve in uniform under our flag. The act of kneeling was always intended to be a respectful act to call attention to how our country has failed to live up to the ideal that every American will be treated equally well, especially concerning situations with law enforcement.

Just ask Eric Reid, one of Colin Kaepernick’s first teammates to join him in these protests in 2016, who wrote an eloquent column for The New York Times on Monday explaining why they chose to kneel to bring attention to this cause. (A Green Beret whom Kaepernick spoke to even recommended that kneeling was a proper and respectful form of action, in lieu of sitting on the bench.)

In the last few years, we’ve learned the names of a number of African Americans who perished after being confronted by law enforcement. Three of them follow, for review. As Eric Reid noted, Alton Sterling, while pinned on the ground, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Walter Scott, in a foot chase in South Carolina. Philando Castile, unarmed and in the act of producing his license during a traffic stop, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

And in a non-fatal incident, Orlando police stopped Florida attorney general Aramis Ayala on the odd combination of a random license plate check and tinted windows.

At a minimum, Kaepernick and Reid wanted to open a national dialogue on how society and our institutions can better treat black and brown Americans. Presumably, this dialogue would also produce reforms on how law enforcement can better fulfill their duty to minorities in a composed manner. This change would take time, though—America has been scarred by the legacy of a broken Reconstruction and the resulting Jim Crow Laws, which promoted inequity as a social and God-given (ack) “good” and empowered authorities to escalate interactions with black Americans to the point of violent punishment.

It’s been barely over 50 years since those Jim Crow Laws were dismantled by the Civil Rights Act and judicial rulings such as Brown v. Board (desegregating education) and Loving v. Virginia (eliminating anti-miscengenation laws and permitting interracial marriages). While we have the paperwork on hand for a more equal America, it’ll take years for the country to outgrow the poor cultural attitudes spawned by Jim Crow and passed down the generations—the ones you see when the broad stroke of “lazy” is painted on (non-white) welfare recipients, or when redlining (housing segregation) is sought because of that Not-in-my-Backyard attitude, or when a community is branded “SOBs” by an occupant in a position of power and gets cheered for that petty profanity.

For all the progress we’ve made, Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that we still haven’t fully escaped the grasp of Jim Crow. We can’t retreat from the conversation they’re trying to start because our interpretation of the flag blinds us from seeing that their peaceful protest is a patriotic exercise of the First Amendment. We can’t let our interpretations of the flag blind us to the inequities inflicted on minorities because of an historic inability to confront the elements of racism pervading society.

Stepping out of the comfort zone to see a different perspective of life here is just the next step in this trek toward achieving an America where everyone can view the flag in the same light.

The Benz

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The only way I can afford anything with the name “Mercedes-Benz” attached to it is to attend a Major League Soccer game at Atlanta’s sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Last Saturday, I joined an MLS record crowd of more than 70,000 people to watch expansion side Atlanta United host Orlando City in the third MLS game ever played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta dominated the lively match, but it ended in a 3-3 draw thanks to Orlando City’s strike partnership Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin, who made the most of their limited opportunities.

The stadium resembles a pinwheel from above, but when walking to the Benz from the nearby MARTA station, the new nest for the Falcons and Atlanta United resembles a spaceship. The exterior of the venue is a blend of shiny silver and spotless glass triangles that give the facade a jagged look. The size of the Benz adds to its extraterrestrial appearance; the new stadium dwarfs the neighboring Georgia Dome and Philips Arena, both of which come off as minions in the shadow of the Benz.

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And yet, despite its mammoth stature, there appears to be only one side of the Benz where the crowd can enter the stadium. After passing through the metal detectors, a soaring silver falcon grasping a football in its talons—hey, that looks familiar—and wearing an Atlanta United scarf greets fans before they cross through the doors of the stadium. The falcon—metallic and (wanting to be) menancing—looks like it came from the world of Cleatus the Robot.

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Step into the Benz and… wait, are we in church?

Dan Patrick (the former ESPNer, not the Lt. Governor of Texas, obviously.) called the retractable roof of the Benz a “halo”; my first thought upon seeing the transparent dome was that it resembled the dome of Washington DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The fact that everyone enters through the same front foyer to immediately see the dome added to the odd sensation that this was some religious pilgrimage.

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The real halo is the 360 degree video board that sits just below the transparent, retractable dome. That board is an achievement in stadium communications: the size is not overwhelming to the point where the board distracts from the action on the pitch, but the novelty of the shape gave it a futuristic feel. The annular video board is a flashy way to present in-game entertainment and stats—and to hold people’s attention for the advertisements. Whether or not you take this admittedly cynical view, the transparent dome is a pleasant sight under the sun.

My seat for the match was in the uppermost tier of the stadium, lined up directly with the center circle. I had a near-perfect view of the entire field; the halo board could fill me in on any play that occurred along the near sideline, which was obstructed from my view by the lower rows. The press box, which was on the opposite side of the stadium and curved along the top left corner (from my vantage point) of the pitch, could have been placed where my seat to give the reporters a more complete picture of the action. Comfort isn’t sacrificed for the view, though. Leg room is treated as a commodity here and the seat widths give everyone some leeway to fidget and maneuver around.

I congratulate Atlanta United and MLS for shattering the attendance record, but the size of the stadium dampened the supporter section’s efforts in generating a unified atmosphere for the match. Despite sitting along the center of the pitch, the singing and chants from the supporters’ section during mundane moments of the match often dissipated before I could hear them. To be fair, the random times the supporters began clapping “A-T-L…” was audible for me and the fans surrounding me, many of whom stood up and joined in. But outside of the “A-T-L…”, the celebrations for each of the goals in Josef Martinez’s hat trick (complete with a goal horn!), and the booing of the refs and Orlando City keeper Joe Bendik, the nosebleeds felt detached from the atmosphere.

Overall, the Benz is a good day out, especially with the quality of play that Tata Martino has implemented into Atlanta United. Even if you strip away the product on the pitch, the Benz has the amenities, architecture, and technology to make the game day experience fun for everyone. (If you’re getting dragged to a game there, but hate sports, buy a $4 souvenir soda cup and spend the entire game refilling it for free at any of the soda fountains scattered through the concourses.) Now it’s up to Atlanta’s supporters to shrink the Benz by creating an intimate and intimidating atmosphere that overcomes the size of the stadium.

Six Opens

 

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Muguruza (left) v. Kvitova

The US Open night sessions at Arthur Ashe Stadium are closest I ever get to clubbing each year. Lots of people are crammed into one space, people are dressed up way too nice for the occasion, alcoholic drinks abound, deafening music, loud people, and (before the matches) flashing colorful strobe lights in the dark.

Since 2012, I’ve seen the likes of Novak Djokovic, Li Na, Roger Federer, Venus Williams, and Petra Kvitova play under the lights of the centerpiece court at Billie Jean King Tennis Center. This year, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sam Querrey, and Mischa Zverev joined those ranks; Kvitova would become the second player after Djokovic whom I’ve seen more than once when she stepped onto the court to play Muguruza.

Whether it was the nearly 1.5-hour delay to start the night session—Venus Williams capped off the day session around 7:30 pm with a three-set victory over Carla Suárez Navarro—or unfamiliarity with the four night session players, this Ashe crowd was a little more subdued than past ones I’ve mixed in with. In the women’s Round of 16 match, the most vocal support either player got was the smattering of encouragement directed at Muguruza as she lost her grip on the match in the second set. Querrey got the loudest cheers out of the four for each point he won—and he won a lot of them in a short span of time—because he was the lone representative of the homeland that night. Otherwise, most of the applause during Sunday night’s play was of the courtesy type after each point won.

The celebrity roll call on the big boards reflected the down night in the stands. The stadium production crew highlighted only Rick Fox as the lone star presence, but his image beamed on the big screens elicited only apathy from the crowd. (I gave a polite clap in recognition of his NBA titles, because I’m not loud by nature.)

At least the standard of play by Kvitova and Muguruza on the court rose above the atmosphere for the night. Muguruza raced to a 4-1 lead in the first set, using her speed to rush through her half of the court and parry the ball back at Kvitova. The Spaniard’s defensive play from the baseline, which valued positioning and ball placement over shot power, put pressure on the Czech to make her shots. If Kvitova kept the ball in play, Muruguza reacted quick enough to sprint for the ball and put it back in play in Kvitova’s half. The pressure on Kvitova mounted with each successful reply from Muguruza until the error came from the former. Through those first five games, Kvitova could only hit the ball long or into the net in her attempts to uphold her end of the rallies.

However, Kvitova began to flip the match upside down in the seventh game of the first set, when Muguruza went into the game with the serve and led4-2. Kvitova finally settled into the match at this point; she now started to crush her forehands with strength and accuracy.

Muguruza had no response. The Spaniard could still track down the ball with her speed, but she had to reach just to make to contact. Her hits started to glide into the net or wide of Kvitova’s sidelines. And just like that, Kvitova broke Muguruza to cut the deficit to 4-3 and back on serve to tie it up.

Kvitova would hold her next serve to even the first set at 4 apiece, but the set went into a tiebreak because of calamitous serving games by both players after that. In the tiebreak, though, Kvitova asserted her control of the match with her forehand. The muscle that Kvitova pumped into each shot ran Muguruza ragged, and all the latter could do was flail at each ball she managed to get within her reach. Kvitova won the tiebreak to take the first set 7-6 (3) with the most emphatic of exclamation points in tennis: a forehand smash.

The tiebreak turned out to be a foreboding episode for Muguruza. Kvitova continued to dictate play with her forehand; Muguruza was boxed into playing a passive, reactive role with each ball in play. Muguruza held her serve in the game, but after Kvitova broke her next serve and consolidated the break, the body language from the forthcoming World No. 1 signaled she was done. (Yeah, it was bad enough that I could see the negative vibes from my perch on the 21st row out of 25 in my section.) Kvitova raced 4-1 lead into the second set before Muguruza rediscovered her service game.

Kvitova led 5-3 in the second set to serve for the match, but Muguruza handed her the win on a silver platter. The last three points that won Kvitova the match turned out to be an apt summary of how Muguruza lost her way in the match:

Muguruza loses her advantage with a backhand error.

Muguruza concedes Advantage to Kvitova with a forehand error.

Muguruza then lost the match with another forehand error.

Muguruza exited the tournament in sloppy fashion, but in some way, she won in the end. Karolina Pliskova’s loss to CoCo Vandeweghe was enough to push Muguruza to the World No. 1 spot, in spite of the Wimbledon champion’s failure to reach the quarterfinals. (Serena’s absence from the tour has created a wonderful vacuum of players cycling through to temporarily keep that No. 1 mantle warm until Williams returns.)

For Kvitova, it was another chapter in her storybook recovery from the injury she suffered to her racket hand when robbers attacked her at her home. She is a symbol of perseverance and of the power of modern medicine. We were all lucky to see Kvitova continue to rise above the trauma of that attack for another night.

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Querrey (right) serving to Zverev

The men’s match between Querrey and Zverev was the antithesis of the women’s match that preceded them.

If Muguruza and Kvitova represented the modern game—baseline play, shot placement, excellent movement—Querrey and Zverev harkened back to the by-gone days of Pete Sampras with the emphasis on serve and volley.

Well, in Querrey’s case, he dropped the volley because his serve was sufficient enough.

Querrey’s 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Zverev was as lopsided as the score indicated. The American—playing in his first night session match at Ashe—reeked of efficiency in his service game, hitting 18 aces and winning 92 percent of his first serve points. The cameras kept zooming in on the radar gun whenever he upped the limits of the speed of his first serve. The radar showed 132 mph… then 133 mph… oh, hey, Sam hit 134 mph… nope, he still hasn’t maxed out yet after reaching 135 mph… whoa, that’s 136 mph.

Whew.

He was ruthless in all other circumstances, though. To add on to his impressive service stats, Querrey hit 55 winners, won88 total points, and converted six of his 12 break point opportunities. This match resembled hitting practice rather than a Grand Slam nightcap with the destruction that Querrey wreaked on the court.

Poor Zverev tried to keep up with Querrey with his serve and volley approach, but the strength of the American foiled that plan, and the German had no back-up that he could rely on. Many of Zverev’s ventures to the net ended with him meekly dropping the ball into the net or serving up a meatball into Querrey’s service box. In the latter cases, Querrey ran up to the service box and used his forehand to blast the ball past a helpless Zverev.

Querrey won the first two sets in under an hour, and the third in just 21 minutes. The only drama in the match was whether or not Zverev would win a game in the final set.

When Zverev finally won a game in the third set—after Querrey was up 5-0—the crowd gave Zverev a loud cheer of sympathy and approval. In the following game, the most predictable outcome ever happened: Querrey won that game and the match with another forehand winner.

And with that final stroke, Querrey blasted the crowd out of Arthur Ashe Stadium and into the streaming into the bridge that led to the 7 train and the LIRR platform. We started nearly 1.5 hours late and still managed to start clearing out of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center before midnight.

The party ended too quickly this year. It better go long in 2018.

The Buzzer Beater

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Chris Chiozza redefined what March Madness means to me and more than 20,000 other people standing inside Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

With four seconds left in overtime and my Florida Gators down 81-83 to the Wisconsin Badgers in their Sweet 16 match, Chiozza sprinted from the left end of the court, slipped past Nigel Hayes at the center line, then lofted a one-handed Hail Mary of a floater from behind the arc as the clock hit 0.4 seconds. The ball began its descent from apogee as the light on the backboard clock flashed its white rectangular perimeter to show time’s up. But even from the nosebleeds of Section 209, an orange and blue oasis of Gators in the desert of Badger red that took over much of the Garden, the trajectory of the shot appeared—somehow—to be nothing but net.

Swish. Florida: 84 – 83: Wisconsin, 0.0 seconds.

Hooooooollllllyyyy crap.

Eat your heart out, Aaron Rodgers.

An eruption of screams and raised arms burst out of Section 209 as soon as the ball fell into the hoop. Then, the hugs poured in. A man in his 40s, who had stopped walking up the stairs to watch Chiozza’s one-man improv show unfurl, turned to me with outstretched arms and hugged me. I then turned to the seat to my right to hug a (rare) college student who made his way to New York for the weekend. Then, he, his buddy (another of that rare specimen of college student who made it this expensive extravaganza) to his right, and I shared a group hug, taking care to avoid falling into the row of folks in front of us.

Watching a buzzer beater play out on TV adds a layer of cushioning that softens the blow of the shock that follows. You see the play on screen and hear the commentator’s reaction simultaneously, which helps confirm or add questions to what you think you saw. No matter, you or someone seated to your side will say to wait for the replay before getting carried away. The instant replay shows up a couple seconds later to pound it in your head that you did, in fact, see things correctly. The shot did go in and that yes, the ball was released before the clock hit 0.0.

Inside the Garden, the suddenness of that One Shining Moment made it a hard party. The euphoria took over as soon as the ball fell into the hoop, and without the distraction of a replay of the shot looping on the giant video board above the court, the celebrations plowed forward unabated. We celebrated the result of the buzzer beater and the abrupt nature of it with anyone and everyone within reach. The head struggles to pump the brakes on the joy with the possibility that you may have seen the whole play incorrectly.

I mean, what if my eyes were wrong and Chiozza didn’t get the ball out his hand before the clock hit 0.0? Or what if there was a foul or some other stupid infraction away from the play that would have nullified the shot? What if you didn’t hear a ref’s whistle because everyone started screaming instantaneously?

The public address announcer’s words—“The call stands”—aren’t as emphatic as the NFL’s when seeking validation, but they were enough. The celebrations in Section 209 continued at full blast, trampling over the Wisconsin’s band performance of their alma mater. The only interlude came when the PA requested Florida fans to sing and sway along to “We are the Boys” to send the Florida basketball team back into the locker room. The high of celebrating then resumed from where it left off, with chants of “It’s Great to be a Florida Gator” starting in the arena and continuing into the concourse as people squeezed into the frozen escalators to walk to the exits of the Garden.

On Friday night, Florida lost the race for most fans in attendance, then Bucky Badger (who photobombed the Today show) defeated Albert the Alligator (who wore a Lady Liberty crown from a touristy store) in a dreadful mascot dance-off. But Chiozza rescued Saturday morning for the Gators with his buzzer beating heroics, just as the real-time clock struck 1 am.

And with that miraculous floater, Chiozza created One Shining Moment in the Garden and a lifetime’s worth of madness for the legion of Florida fans lucky enough to witness it in person.

The Supper Club

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We went into Angie’s Little Food Shop as strangers for roast Jerusalem artichoke soup, slow cooked venison, almond and orange cake, biscuits, cheese, and chocolate truffles, but left the restaurant together as a community.

I, along with 27 other souls from all over the globe who happened to be in London at the same time, met at the Chiswick restaurant on 28 January for a supper club dinner hosted by Grub Club’s A Little Lusciousness. The supper club trend in the United Kingdom is an interesting social experiment: a chef runs a pop-up restaurant for one night only and provides a full course dinner to a limited number of diners, who all occupy the same table (space permitting) for the night. When you’re sharing the same space for an extended period of time—three to four hours seems is a common window on Grub Club—the diners are forced to interact with one another, despite knowing nothing about each other before walking in.

Think of it like a group blind date.

But the beauty of this set-up is that it’s suitable for both extroverted and introverted individuals. The outgoing person will thrive from the thrill of meeting and entertaining new people, while the intimate environment of the pop-up restaurant will help a reserved person open up to the new individuals surrounding him or her.

I somehow made it to Angie’s Little Food Shop 10 minutes before the official start of the dinner. Traffic from the Madejski Stadium to the Reading train station almost caused me to miss the 1740 train to London—I hopped in the train as the doors were about to close. After the hour-long train ride into Paddington, I had to make a quick detour to a grocery store to do something new: wine shopping. Belated welcome to adulthood, me!

Grub Club dinners are Bring Your Own Bottle; the bottles of wine are shared by the diners. The chef recommended a bottle of Chianti to pair with the main course’s venison. It took me 15 minutes to Google how a bottle of Chianti would look like, get lost in the wine shelves looking for the red wines, find a cheap Chianti, then run to the back of the store to pick up a bottle of water and bottle of Lucozade Sport for myself, and pay.

I arrived at the restaurant at the same time as a middle-aged couple and a woman who looked like she was also in her late 20s. Four people were already seated in the square wooden table at the back for eight, so my quartet sat in the main table at the center of the restaurant. This table, which eventually sat 17 people, was a long wooden table across from the main counter, with the silverware, white saucers, and white napkins set at each seat.

Richard and Judy, the middle-aged couple, sat to my left. Richard is a former British journalist, while Judy is an American who was also born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. The couple and I had a lot more in common than Chicago, despite the age gap. They traveled to Florida a week before the dinner to buy a home in the Gulf Coast. (Florida: my gateway to talking to anyone with ease.) Their daughter got married in my Connecticut town; she lived in New York, but now lives in Los Angeles, which is nearly the reverse order of how I’ve moved around the country.

Claire, the woman about my age, took the seat across from me. She is a PhD holder from Australia who has spent the last five years in London conducting research on diseases. But the coolest thing about her is that when she travels, she likes learning about a place by grocery shopping.

Finally, I learn I’m not the only nerd who loves grocery shopping away from home. The fact that she has a PhD further validates this travel hobby of ours.

Ben and Sarah, a couple in their 30s, joined us a few minutes later and took the seats to my right. They live in Croydon, just minutes from the lovely Selhurst Park, but they’re northerners at heart. Ben is the first Manchester-born Manchester United supporter I’ve met and Sarah hails from Sheffield. Ben was so fascinated by me traveling all the way to England to watch soccer matches from Brentford to Palace that he gave me a quiz.

“What are the two clubs in Sheffield?” Ben asked.

I shot him a confused look. “Is this a trick question?”

“No, no! I’m curious.”

“Wednesday and United.”

“Wow, haven’t met anyone from another country who knew this much,” Ben said. He then turned to the Sheffield native, Sarah. “What are the two clubs in Sheffield?”

Sarah found the question incredulous, but told him Wednesday and United.

Seated to Ben’s right was Sonya; as an African-American, she was the only other person of color besides me at the table. She’s a Texas native—we exchanged Hook ‘Em Horns in what must have been an odd sight for the others—who lived in New York before her job sent her on a temporary two year assignment to London. Her tenure in London ends in the summer, so she’s trying to soak up as much of the city as possible before returning home. I asked her if that meant she was moving to Texas or New York.

“Texas will always be home because of my roots, but I’m moving back to New York,” she said. “Especially with the election results, Texas won’t be as welcoming now. I’m culturally more at home in New York.”

Across from Sonya and to Sarah’s left sat Annika, a Dutch national living in London. When she spoke, though, she sounded American. It turned out that she lived in California for a period of time before moving to London, which explained the slight, but noticeable, Southern California twang to her voice. She’s also the first person who ever greeted me with the European double kiss, which I thought I butchered at the time because for each cheek, my cheek bumped her cheek and I gave an air kiss. Two YouTube videos after the dinner told I had no need to be embarrassed about myself at the table.

At the head of the table, to my left, was Michael, who spoke with me as the four people between us (including Richard and Judy) cycled in and out of the bathroom. He was a native of Johannesburg who now called London home for the past seven years because of his work as a counselor.

Our varied backgrounds and the tense political climate created by the US Presidential Election and the Brexit made politics an inevitable topic in the table. (The wine also facilitated the chatter. Yes, Claire even talked subborn me into a glass of wine.) There was a general agreement that the isolation isn’t a good move for either country and we sifted through the reasons why the US and UK veered in that direction.

This was a calm and composed discussion on politics and immigration that felt poignant because of the occupants of the table and the timing of the dinner. Our dinner was on the day that the Executive Office of the US signed the first attempt at a travel ban, which was protested all over the globe before the US courts halted the Executive Order. And here we were—three Brits, three Americans, an Australian, a Netherlander, and a South African—in a tiny restaurant in one of the world’s financial capitals, sharing a meal and the incredible professional accomplishments that they’ve all made because they were able to leave their faraway homes and settle in London.

People can accomplish amazing feats if they have the opportunity.

Just as amazing as their professional accomplishments was the part where no one took out their phones (except to show pet photos). Everyone engaged with each other in conversation—the tiny restaurant had the noise level of a high school cafeteria—and made a sincere effort to listen, contribute, and get to know each other. It felt like all the folks seated near me and spoke to were friends of mine by the time we left, which always make it a tad tough to accept that you’ll never see them again. There was a lot of levity mined out of Richard and Judy’s life in the US before moving to London, Claire’s love for The Shins (I appreciate Richard’s wingman efforts to set me up as Claire’s plus-one for the two tickets she has for the band’s show in London, but alas, the show is in two weeks) and travels around the world, Ben and Sarah’s search for a home so they can adopt a dog, and my soccer trek through London and Leicester.

The food was excellent—can we get more restaurants in the US to serve venison?—but the people made the dinner an experience worth having. After all, the bonds we have or make with others are why we share meals.