David Roth is a contributing editor at Vice Sports and co-founder of The Classical.
David Roth is younger in person. This is a thing on Twitter, the blurring of age, geography, career, or marital status (save pitcher Brandon McCarthy whose twitter bio reads, “My wife says to say that I’m married.”). Most of the time I can read between the tweets, but when he walks out of his Upper East Side building wearing a navy windbreaker, jeans and Chucks, I see immediately that he’s young enough to pull it off without irony. I think of the news he got that morning and resist the ever-present maternal urge to ask if he’s ok, give him a hug, or send him back inside for a heavier coat.
It’s gray and gloomy. We’d had a back and forth email conversation and a couple of schedule changes already so I double checked mid-morning and found this in my inbox:
So, the afternoon has sort of opened up, in the sense that I just got laid off from SB Nation. I am not really feeling very badly about it, although that might change. Anyway, I am down to meet whenever. Holler when you’re on the move.
My friend Hope hears me sigh and asks if everything is ok. I read the email and she says, “Talk about real life.”
I’ve written and rewritten an essay on David Roth so many times that it feels like a Rubik’s cube
It’s a strange thing to be writing this piece nine months after it happened, the memory of that gloomy NYC day basking in the sunshine of the opposite coast. Over the past months I’ve written and rewritten an essay on David Roth so many times that it feels like a Rubik’s cube—2,000 words jumbled badly enough that the thought of them makes me believe I’ll never write a decent paragraph again. I wasn’t sure what I was doing when I started this project, but by the fourth or fifth subject entry, I at least thought I had a system for documenting it:
- Describe the person
- Describe the events of the day
- Talk about why they matter to me on Twitter and why I think they are great
But every time I wrote that essay, it rang as hollow as a sales pitch. My system had ceased to function.
I see myself clearly now, hitting the highway with no idea I’d be yanked around like a toddler on the leash of an exuberant St. Bernard. There was so much I didn’t know, but I think there was also a lot I did know—mostly scary stuff about how late I was starting and how easy it would be to fail and maybe I hadn’t raised enough money, and wouldn’t it be better if I was part of a team? But I pushed it all aside because that’s what you do. You don’t listen to your fears. You Just Do It.
On that November morning though, my fears were catching up with me, a low hum running through every conversation I had, filling me with existential dread that didn’t let up until the moment David told me he’d been laid off.
His willingness to meet that day was a gift of the highest order.
Via Twitter, I’ve watched men and women share their grief while others offered comfort; I’ve heard good news met with rejoicing; and achievement greeted with all appropriate congratulations. It’s an extraordinary gathering space, and more and more I believe in it as the “parallel universe” that Kenny Anderson described when he and Tauheed and Zandria and I sat around the dinner table. But it is not real life.
It is not a shoulder to cry on, or a glass raised in honor. It is not a knock on the door to borrow sugar or deliver a meal because there is new life in the world, or to sit shiva because it has left. It is all the joy of a perfect email minus the heart skips a beat of familiar handwriting on an envelope in a mailbox. It is also protection – bulletproof glass or a hiding place when you just can’t handle the face-to-face harshness of life. It has taken me nine months to parse these differences, to see that my little project was in some kind of sacred space on a day when I really was IRL.
It feels like yesterday and it feels like a hundred years ago. But it was November 14, 2014. The drizzle had been steady all day.
Having prided myself for years on my ability to predict where people live in New York based on what I know about them (it’s very scientific) I’m shocked when DR tells me that his apartment is on the Upper East Side. I say I had him pegged as an Upper West Sider for sure and he ruefully notes that he would love to live on the west side of Central Park, if only for its wonderful selection of smoked fish.
This is a new one for me, but as a longtime Food is the Cure advocate, I decide that while I cannot change what the day brought him, I can add to it–smoked whitefish, apricot strudel, crackers, goat cheese, olives. My real life friend Lizzie used to say that she would peel potatoes any time she heard about someone getting sick or dying because when she was in high school and her dad had cancer, the deliveries of potato salad, pie, and pot roast were like love notes that carried them to his cure. I feel the same way now, bearing my offering on the crosstown bus–willing it to transubstantiate into hope and a new path.
There are school kids and people going home from work; a dad and his young son discussing their day. I feel some concern about the woman next to me, and spend half the trip wondering if I should offer food or money, but soon it doesn’t matter because there are so many riders I can’t move, much less lean down to get my bags. The bus driver continues to make stops but is hilariously unapologetic at each one. Whereas I would be “Sorrying” my way across 86th Street, he’s all, “There’s another bus coming. I SAID THERE’S NO ROOM.”
It doesn’t feel weird to have told you the stuff I told you. There’s something about the way you feel you know people on Twitter, so that it’s a shorter step even if you’re not someone who shares a lot.
David’s wife Kate is planning to join us later, so we walk to Carl Schurz park, past Gracie Mansion, and along the promenade overlooking the East River. It’s still cold, but the drizzle has stopped and the dog walkers are out so David points out his favorites from the neighborhood, sort of like bird watching but without the peering through binoculars and pretending to see. We begin the name, rank, and serial number exchange, typical of these conversations, and then a quick dive into some very real life experiences, a phenomenon he explains in a way that makes perfect sense.
“It doesn’t feel weird to have told you the stuff I told you. There’s something about the way you feel you know people on Twitter, so that it’s a shorter step even if you’re not someone who shares a lot.”
He tells of going on a trip to DC and getting a twitter invitation from one of his followers, inviting him to stop by and have a drink at the place where the guy was bartending.
“And what I know about this guy is basically that his handle is Dr. Ass and he gets sad about the Mets in the same way I do, but somehow that was enough to make me say to Kate , ‘I don’t know what his real name is and I wouldn’t know what he looks like unless he looks like a cartoon dog, but maybe we should go.’ Like if someone favorites and responds a few times, I think of them as a friend.”
I ask how he got started as a writer and he tells of growing up in New Jersey and going to college in California. Of writing for Topps baseball cards and the strain of being a freelancer barely making rent, coupled with the joy of seeing your byline in a magazine like GQ or a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal.
“The writing I’ve gotten to do online has been great and really, who knows what will happen to print publications. But I’ve got a hard copy of every magazine with my name in it. There’s a particular joy in seeing your byline at the top of something you can hold in your hand,” he says without the cynicism you might expect when that’s happened plenty of times.
By this time we are sitting in the warmth of his favorite bar in the neighborhood and the working theory with which I began the day – that David Roth’s sharp wit and sarcasm will be matched only by his kindness and humanity – is confirmed as fact. His 12,000 Twitter followers might come for the late night sports jokes and spoonerisms (yeah I don’t really get it either) but they stay because it’s a corner of the universe where they’ve found community.
I love that there are lawyers using pseudonyms who are hilarious and funnier than any comedians I follow
Hundreds of people coming at you with comments and jokes makes it easy to ignore the peanut gallery. But David Roth’s willingness to retweet the cleverness and humor of his followers is one of my favorite things (one caveat—see above) about following him on Twitter. Sharply funny, he’s always happy to share the microphone. It’s obvious that he enjoys the crew as much as they enjoy him.
“Like, I love that there are lawyers using pseudonyms who are hilarious and funnier than any comedians I follow,” he says as Kate arrives from work and joins us at our table. Petite and effervescent, she looks like she could still be the professional dancer she was in a former life.
DR loops her in quickly, ““I’ve been very on message. All I’ve talked about is the Affordable Care Act.”
Which makes me laugh of course, and reminds me of the time he told me in an email that he worked at a community vegetable garden, but didn’t talk about it on Twitter because it was “off brand.”
“But that is totally your brand,” says Kate, which is all I need to like her instantly.
“But not online,” he protests, “Online everybody still thinks I’m cool and don’t care about vegetables and all I eat is sports.”
Which is not entirely true. Because the other reason it’s important for me to follow David Roth is that I know he will talk about other things. Like most of the sportswriters I follow, his knowledge of players, games, and statistics is dizzyingly vast. But when things need saying, he steps up. The arena of sport is the ultimate intersection of society, yet not all sportswriters are willing to talk about other issues.
He’s gone in on Donald Trump and the payday loan industry and players who beat their wives and spoken up for the protests against police brutality. He’s opined about the abusive treatment women and people of color receive on Twitter. And because his vocabulary and facility with language are the sort where you have to read sentences out loud to be sure they are words and not knives, they have the weight we long for when the powerful need a takedown. But he may also love animal videos more than anyone I know. On sad days I still go back to the pieces he wrote and tweeted about llamas joyously skipping to a DMX soundtrack and two corgis playing tetherball.
We have another beer and some delicious pommes frites and by this time the place is packed with twenty-something guys talking so loudly that Kate doubts my recording will be anything more than unusable shouting. We exit onto a sidewalk silent by comparison and take the Tank 7 and food up to their apartment for a photo and farewell. My joy in leaving them with apricot strudel, smoked fish, and beer from Kansas City is enough to carry me through the rest of the evening.
I’ve been on Twitter since 2009. My goal was never to have a lot of followers, a good thing since I don’t. In fact, I didn’t have a goal at all. I just saw the conversations that were happening and I wanted to be a part of them. I wanted to connect with people in places I might never go; I wanted to expand my mind and get out of my narrow ways of thinking. I wanted to become a better human. I wanted to hear voices that had been shut down in big arenas, voices that were on the ground, rather than the distant reporting I’d been consuming for years. And the crazy thing is that in spite of the fact that I set no goals, all of those things happened.
It takes Twitter users who wave and offer a chair when you walk into that figurative internet bar, rather than huddling with their friends and cracking inside jokes while you eat peanuts and watch the game alone. David Roth is one of those people.
For me, Twitter has been a magical place. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be loud and it can be mean and you can feel like a nobody, especially at first when it’s like double dutch jump rope and you don’t know where to jump in. Sports was one of the first places I connected because it’s a pretty easy place to start when you’re not sure what to say. But it takes people making room for you. It takes Twitter users who wave and offer a chair when you walk into that figurative internet bar, rather than huddling with their friends and cracking inside jokes while you eat peanuts and watch the game alone. David Roth is one of those people.
When I posted the previous entry, I sent it, by way of explanation, to all of the IRL participants. The subject line was IRL Radio Silence. It was a difficult piece to write, and was sent with no small amount of shame over my perceived failures. Later that day I got an email from DR. I won’t share it all because it would destroy whatever remnants of street cred are left after this post, but here is an excerpt.
Kate and I were talking about you the other day. We were in Bondurants around the same time we were all there, that day I got sacked, and were having the same experience — the bar getting louder and fuller and progressively less ours.
But what we were talking about was mostly how much we enjoyed our time with you that night, and how much we were looking forward to your project. I’ll confess that I wasn’t sure what all you were doing before we talked — you were clearly a kind and smart person, but I wasn’t sure how it’d work out as a book thing. I was more sure when we parted ways, and I’m surer still after reading that last blog post of yours. It seemed almost impossibly daunting. So it should, I hope, mean something that both she and I believed not just that you would be able to pull it off, but that you’d be able to pull it together. None of this ever happens on the schedules we imagine; all our lives are testament to this. But you can do this.
In the midst of a project about community, I was at my loneliest and most cut off from my own tribe. Meeting with David and Kate that day brought me back to myself. It let me be a friend and a mom again. And today, it is the bridge between the Neat and Tidy Sure Thing that I thought this project would be and what it has become—a Player To Be Named Later.
Here’s to a bet on the unknown.