Russell Shorto

My Life on Darts

I am not a warrior by nature. Except, of course, on Friday nights. Then, with the dusky odor of adrenaline in the air, I can be spotted arching forward, taut but loose, fingertips gripping hard steel, the world reduced to a single spot seven feet nine and a quarter inches away. As a hush envelopes the five fellow combatants ranged around me, I let my weapon fly…and, by God, see it strike home, quivering, sinking deeply and satisfyingly into a red patch of sisal fibers known as the triple-twenty: a surrogate enemy heart, a stand-in for the warm red center of every desirable female on the planet.

Or else I miss and say, softly but vehemently, “Shit.”

The sensation of raw pleasure on hitting the perfect dart is elemental—for a moment, you share a channel with Early Man—but it fades fast. So, fortunately, does the shame of fucking up. Last week, after I blew three tries at a double that would have won the game, Dave said in his offhandedly grating way, “I thought you’d stopped choking.” But before I could begin to gnash my teeth, Ken was back from the bar with a fresh round of Bud longnecks. Then Mike made a comment, sparked by the song on the jukebox, about the unheralded rank of Graham Parker in the rock ’n’ roll pantheon, and Tim launched into a baroque adventure he’d had recently involving a bottle of bourbon and the pert young Howard Dean staffer he’s currently dating. Failure was forgotten. This is the essence of barroom darts: as vital as the twin male needs—to penetrate and to vanquish, and as meaningless as beer.

But hold on. In this case, I am here to report, there’s more to it. For seven years, I’ve been part of this particular cosa nostra—not a league, but the same clutch of men who for the most part associate only through these weekly sessions and always in the same deeply urban setting: the Grassroots Tavern on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, a throwback saloon incongruously located on a punk circus of a block, a place of sagging tin ceilings and Day-Glo barflies. The world turns, but year upon year, like something that in another era would be extolled by troubadours, the blood sport rages.

The strange thing is, this isn’t like me at all. I’ve never been one to engage in male-bonding rituals. “Watching the game with the guys” is a phrase that has never crossed my lips. Whatever emotional nutrient is abundant in huddles and fraternities, my system has never craved it. And yet darts has become sacrosanct, a social pole around which my week revolves. Does the allure have something to do with my fellow gladiators? There is a certain rawboned, shirts-untucked charm, a good dark wit and the sort of weathered lovability that a couple of decades taking the city’s best shots will engender. Collectively, the group hails from four continents, comprises three artists and three writers (and a gamut of day jobs that runs from white-collar to blue) and encompasses the three stages of man: single, married, divorced. The bases, in other words, are covered.

True, but the real reason for the attraction lies elsewhere. Let me back up.

Once, ladies and gentlemen, I was single. I was living the kind of life people dream about (okay, I dream about it): with my girlfriend in a groovy, quirky shoebox of an apartment in Lower Manhattan. A short stagger in any direction brought me to an arch art gallery or a proper dive of a bar; on waking, I would slide a few doors to the right and enter a ruinously hip French café whose owner would greet me by name (Roo-sell!) as he set a vast bowl of café au lait before me. We so loved our urban life that we bought into it: My girlfriend opened what instantly became a successful Asian noodle shop whose clientele ran from celebrities to bicycle messengers; we bought a co-op in that most downtown of neighborhoods, the East Village. There, amid the studied grunge, I took root. Second Avenue grime attaching to my skin on a hot August day was a thing to value, a carbon monoxide chain mail. My memories of this period—the way the light fell on the crackheads slumped on our doorstep in the morning—are some of the finest I possess. I see it all as Cézanne might have.

You know what’s coming. Somewhere along the way, we reached the fork in the road and chose our path: the one that is paved with diapers. There was that moment that will stand forever as a fault line in my life, when, amid my wife’s cries and my idiotic blubbering, a new human being—a miracle, honestly—squirted into our lives. And then the long darkness descended. The two of us did our best to hang on to the life we had built, but especially after the second child, nothing was right anymore. With a newborn in your arms and a toddler clutching your pant leg, the slumped druggies on the doorstep look more like an obstacle than a painting. For the first time in my life, concrete was offensive; we developed an irrational craving for forest-clad hills. Like preprogrammed robots, we carried out the next phase: sold our co-op and bought a house in the country. That was five years ago. It’s a fine house that has the advantage of being only an hour from Manhattan but rural in its surroundings—turkeys and deer trundling by, the Appalachian Trail cutting through the woods just behind. And it has to be said that watching the fruit of your loins cavort on your own piece of woodsy turf triggers freak spasms of wholeness that make a man feel momentarily sibling to the birch and the mighty oak, his very tissues humming nature’s song.

And yet. Not an hour passes in which, in maybe a half-dozen ways, I don’t rue the decision to leave the city. Oh, yeah, sure, I’m there all the time, but you and I both know that being a day visitor is not the same: I am fooling no one, least of all myself. In truth, I have become a different person.

Or no—that is a lie. I reject it. I am not a man who owns patio furniture and a Vigoro grass-seed spreader. I am merely playing the part for an undisclosed period of time. Within, I am, I remain, City Boy, liable at any moment to scavenge with hipsters; to slap on formal attire, slick back my hair and make my entrance at a Function; to throw open an apartment window, à la Ralph Kramden, and rant at the upstairs neighbor.

This battle for my soul started within six or seven minutes of our move to the country. For the year or so before, I’d been an irregular member of the darts gang—dropping in on the boys was something to do if there was nothing to do. But after the move, I found myself increasingly, almost unconsciously, saddling up on Friday afternoon and riding into town. Stepping into the bar—with its dim lighting and weathered infrastructure, walls and tabletops incised with graffiti carved during the Ford administration by people with names like SAFARI—the suburban lawnscape vanished from my mind. Often now I would be the first to arrive. The sight of Mike entering the bar—imposingly trench-coated, with the unintentionally menacing air of an extortionist on holiday—is one that might elicit tears from a small child, but it now caused a little skip of joy in me, the promise of thick combat and thicker conversation. Mike hails from Durban, South Africa, and survived the psyche-lashing formative experience of forced service in the army of the apartheid regime by decamping to Brooklyn and becoming a civil rights radical, a pro-labor radical and, generally, a radical. Mike has stories to tell.

So does Tim, but of a completely different kind. While I was busy marrying, siring and moving, Tim provided a counterpoint by staying single and in the East Village, maintaining what ought to be an award-winning series of girlfriends and amassing a stockpile of urban adventures—both of the you-lucky-stiff and the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God variety. Then there’s Matthias, a six-foot-four German artist who grew up in Hameln, the Pied Piper’s town, where his mother was an Avon lady, then moved to Berlin during the wall’s heyday—a warping combination of forces he attempts to deal with by painting, over and over, exquisitely wrought ruins. Ken is Australian and has the windswept, sunny disposition unique to that race. He garners respect in part because he is a freak among us: an actual athlete, equally adept with surfboard, tennis racket and 9-iron. Finally there is David, who has broken our unwritten rule of darts: Thou shalt not improve. Among the rest of us, though the years roll by, ability with the steel tips remains remarkably consistent—that is to say, average. But when not brooding in his Brooklyn studio over what are purported to be starkly minimalist canvases (so minimalist that none of us have ever seen them), Dave plays in a league, and a couple of years ago reached the rank of number two player in Brooklyn. Result: Both in the savage quality of his play and in his taunting dismissiveness of that of the rest of us, he can royally piss a person off. Which only adds to the texture of things. The rising of the blood is, after all, an integral part of the male convivium.

That’s the lot, and a fairly tight one it is. Still, a chasm separates me from the other members of the circle. The weekly huddle is my attempt at bridging it, or at briefly pretending it doesn’t exist. Of the six of us, three live in Lower Manhattan, two in Brooklyn; I am the only one who has committed parenthood and who has abandoned the urban core. I’m the one who has crossed into the netherworld of Home Depot and Applebee’s and, thus, whose darting presence has real urgency to it. I’m the one, shall we say, who needs it.

And what is it? Competition? Friendship? Say rather, a hybrid. The game we play is a homegrown blend of rules and innovations the arcaneness of which sharpens both the communal spirit and the competitive ardor. There will usually come a climactic point in the evening, a particular game in which the testosterone alchemy happens and all of us are locked in one channel of intensity, honor (or whatever) at stake. But then in a flash of steel it’s over, and we’re seated again, reaching the table just as another round arrives. This is the rhythm of the evening and the key to the ritual’s longevity: the simultaneous satisfaction of the low appetite to conquer and of the higher need to commune, to figure out what the fuck. Since there isn’t enough time between games to dip too deeply into the talk soup, things never thicken into ponderousness. And yet, over time, the underlayer emerges: career stabs, torments inflicted by spouse or girlfriend or self. There’s no bellowing of wounded mastodons but, in this rhythm that’s invented itself among us, a rumbling give-and-take that’s plenty loaded with meaning. Ken was off in Australia for six months last year, dealing with the serious wake-up call of both parents dying within a short span; on his return, the subject was neither belabored nor ignored. The fact that it was handled between feral lunges at a corkboard in no way diminished the solemnity.

My own central issue is there for all to see. I’m the one who switches to ice water early in the evening so as to be sober for the drive home. I’m the one who, once a year, shows up (unabashedly: a sign, I occasionally think, of my having come to terms with the suburban father role) with a Girl Scout–cookie order form. And, God bless them, the lads dutifully pass the incongruously colorful little rectangle among them, lay it gingerly between the beer puddles, squint in the hazy light at the narrow lines and put themselves down for boxes of Thin Mints and Trefoils. Propitiating the gods, maybe, their way of warding off the demon that got me. Or no: That estimation is too cheap, not fair to any of those involved. The fact is, we’re all past the midpoint (40), with the roar of life sounding in our ears, the echoes of the paths taken and not. We know who we are. Or pretend we do.

This all began a really long time ago—sometime in the late ’80s, when young and frolicsome versions of Matt, Tim and Mike converged on the bar and began timorously tossing a few—so that it now has a life of its own: It survived 9/11 and the 2003 blackout (though we missed the Friday immediately after both events). Much of it has become ritualized, without need for words; from start to finish, it follows a serene logic, like a Japanese tea ceremony with beer bottles. And it always ends the same way: the others off into their endless urban night, to consume even vaster quantities of liquor, to screw handfuls of women, to bay at the neon horizon. And then I’m alone on the streets of a neighborhood whose ragged hipness I see through, for I know it too well to be impressed by its present-tense facade. I used to encounter neighbors Allen Ginsberg, Quentin Crisp and Joey Ramone on these streets. In other eras, Trotsky, Auden and Charlie Parker did the same prowl. More to the point, it was once my home, and some foolish stubborn core of me maintains that it still is.

But an hour and fifteen minutes later, I open the car door in my driveway, and every time it’s a bracing shock: ten degrees chillier; a smear of stars in the sky; the air heavy with spruce needle; the rush of the stream; the screech of the resident barn owl in the copse in front of the house. Inside, I find my daughters’ beautiful bodies, vibrant and resonant with life even in the sprawl of sleep. My wife’s body shifts in bed, a somnolent, peaceable acknowledgment: Hi, you’re back. At first she begrudged this weekly disappearing act. But, the female wisdom kicking in, she came to see before I did that darts was a condensed form of the urban elixir the male being requires, that without it dark changes would follow. Certain chemicals in the bloodstream would flood into the red zone; she would wake one dawn to find the creature that had been her husband naked on the lawn, body streaked with foreign substances, expression frozen in what the poet called a Wild Surmise. Getting by, you might say, is the trick of working out the small but crucial compromises.

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About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar