A musician friend texted me after episode three of The Bear. We talked about art and growth. It is one thing to improve alone. How rare is it to be part of an ensemble where everyone elevates?
He plays jazz saxophone and makes a million different decisions on when to enter, extend, or fade away.
You can love The Bear for the cast, relentless pace, the music, characterization, and the evocation of Chicago. I keep coming back to Carmy in the kitchen of the Original Beef of Chicagoland surrounded by his fellow chefs. How can he keep the group afloat? Better yet, how can they stabilize, find their balance, and grow?
My most vivid memory of Chicago occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were watching Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS (Cubs and Marlins). My friends were from San Jose (Giants fan) and Chicago’s South Side (Sox Fan) and Pueblo, New Mexico (Isotopes fan). We loved October baseball. We had no rooting interest.
Surrounding us at Saggios Italian Family restaurant, in the sports bar, were tables of Cubs fans.
As a Braves fan, I had met fellow Bravos in far-flung corners of the country. They’d been bitten by the daily SuperStation TBS bug as kids. But the energy from these tables was wider and weirder than a WGN diaspora. At the tables were Cubs votive candles, Mark Grace bobbleheads, and an array of stuffed Cub teddy bears with Harry Caray glasses. And none of it was ironic. They meant it.
Their psychic intensity was on the scale of SEC football fandom back home. I’d seen a group of LSU fans collectively levitate, a Steak ‘N Shake parking lot in Jacksonville descend into a Brooks Brothers Altamont, and grown men weep and grannies curse at an Iron Bowl. But these were backyard affairs. I was not ready for the spiritual high-wire act of adults clutching pieces of plastic ivy in the high desert of New Mexico.
Their voodoo followed Cubs ace Mark Prior into the eighth and a three-run lead. With one out, Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo hit a foul to left. Outfielder Moises Alou gave chase and leapt toward the stands into a sea of hands. The sea parted. Steve Bartman, a fan, reached out. The ball bounced and fell into the stands.
The count stayed 3-2.
But…wait…Alou raged at the stands. Prior stood, incredulous, on the mound in shock. Bartman blanched. A chorus of boos and beers rained down on Bartman.
At Saggios, the anger and accusations swelled. The Cub fans in the desert raged. It was not rational. The Cubs had a three-run lead. What was wrong with these people?
What was wrong is they were Cubs fans who were self-aware.
They were barely teens in ’89 when Will Clark read Greg Maddux’s lips (fastball, in) and smacked a moonshot to Sheffield Avenue. They were kids in the ’84 NLCS when the Cubs blew a three-run lead under the California sun in the deciding game against the Padres. Their grandparents had tales of Ruth in ’32, calling his shot.
At the Original Beef of Chicagoland, when the orders back up, the green tape curls, and the mixer breaks, each chef has an ample pool of frustration and past failure to call upon.
Carmy grieves his brother and the mess he left. Sydney dreams in debt and her failed catering business. Richie is Bad News. Ebra can recall the dissolution of his native Somalia. Marcus has memories of alienated labor at McDonald’s. Tina is frustrated with her kid. Gary keeps in his back pocket a failed tryout with the Cubs.
When things go wrong, how easy it is to let the past bleed into the present. Why not make a scene? Fall apart?
The Cubs give up eight runs in the inning.
The pilgrims at Saggios Italian Family Restaurant scream into the night.
The Cubs lose Game Six.
It’s you, Steve. It’s you.
The Cubs lose the series.
The first part of Don DeLilio’s novel Underworld depicts Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run in the 1951 NLCS. Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” at the Polo Grounds coincides with the Soviet’s first successful test of the hydrogen bomb.
DeLilo weaves one explosion with another and the rest of the book shows a series of cascading fallouts. There is the search for the ball and the diagnosis of a type of sickness in Cold War America. A paradoxical anxiety of consumer overindulgence in a nuclear age. In the land of plenty, why is so much falling apart?
But in the first 134 pages, there are ten-thousand textures of surprise, tension, and collective joy. DeLilo writes:
“When JFK was shot, people went inside. We watched TV in dark rooms and talked on the phone with friends and relatives. We were all separate and alone. But when Thomson hit that homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. The last time people spontaneously went out of their houses for something. Some wonder. Some amazement.”
Falling apart is easier than keeping it together. The refusal to fall apart creates the space for things to stabilize and perhaps improve. This requires faith. A code. A trusted system.
In episode one of The Bear, Carmy tries to retrain the chefs of The Original Beef of Chicagoland by introducing a system. The system is rooted in roles, trusted processes, a common language, and mutual respect. Richie, from the neighborhood, is having none of it. He challenges, questions, and curses. Holding it together, Carmy preps and explains the need for the system.
The music during this scene, ten minutes into the show, has locked a permanent groove inside my head.
“Don’t Blame Steve” by Chicago native David Cohn, aka, Serengeti, follows the afterlife of that foul ball shot into the stands. The 2012 song recites a litany of others who could be blamed…a list so wonderfully absurd it questions the very idea of blame. The track, which also serves as an homage to Andre “The Hawk”’ Dawson, recasts that fateful night and the universal need to calm it down, calm it down.
The fusion of song and scene here is beautiful. In this early moment, when the floor is about to open, and things threaten to fall apart, Carmy keeps it together.
(Re-watching this first episode again, after finishing the season, Richie’s repeated calls to make the spaghetti and Carmy’s insistence that the spaghetti won’t save them, hits different.)
The best art comes from loss. A show about two brothers opening a Chicago restaurant full of hijinks is one type of story. The Bear is another. Likewise, no one wants to hear an ode to the 2016 World Series Champs. Now, a track about giving up 8 runs in the 8th on errors, managerialing, vision mistakes…that’s good stuff.
And when things go south, don’t blame Steve.