The Bracket Boys emerged one March in my sophomore year of high school, wearing the same sweaty jerseys for days on end and trading wrinkled dollar bills under the lab tables in chemistry class. Or maybe they had always been there, furiously scribbling on those all-important flowcharts, and I had simply never noticed them before. After all, I had only just realized that March Madness was not, in fact, an insanity-inducing disease brought on by a seasonal resurgence in bacteria.
That month, papers torn by too much pencil erasure circulated through the classrooms. Teachers either didn’t notice or didn’t mind, possibly because from a distance the brackets looked similar enough to the periodic table.
As for me, I had never watched a basketball game in my life, and the chart on my desk really was for chemistry class. I was only a spectator of spectators, orbiting this strange cultural phenomenon like the outermost ring of electrons around a nucleus.
This year, I was assigned to enter that nucleus, to cheer on Harvard’s team and observe fans in a New York City sports bar. I imagined them as the grown-up versions of the Bracket Boys: same torn papers in hand, just more facial hair and the legal drinking age. I decided to watch the game at a bar in the East Village known for its New England clientele—“Professor Thom’s.”
The bar itself is flanked by at least five large screens, all showing the Harvard-Cincinnati game. A group of about 20 men sit around it, and if I squint, they do sort of look like the Bracket Boys. Something dramatic happens on screen, they cheer uproariously, and I inwardly congratulate myself on finding the perfect spot.
I realize that I don’t know where to sit. I have the sense that all of the grown-up Bracket Boys know each other, and that taking a seat at the counter would be intrusive. The booths, though, seem a bit removed from the action. I settle for walking into the middle of bar and waiting awkwardly for something to happen.
The manager approaches me, and I think that he’s going to solve my problem by telling me where to sit. He has an unshaven, jowly chin that bobs a few inches above the collar of his plain white t-shirt.
“Oh, I’m not planning to drink—“
“Doesn’t matter. Can’t be in the bar if you’re under 21. It’s a liability.”
My stomach sinks, but then I realize that I will be fine. I’m a journalist! Journalists always manage to go places they’re officially barred from. Warzones and the like. As soon as he sees that I’m on a mission for the noble cause of the written word…
“But I go to Harvard,” I start, and as soon as the words leave my mouth I realize how awful they sound. I know before the next two minutes of begging ensues that I will fail. The man’s chin shakes in the opposite direction of his head as he points toward the door while I claim desperately that “I just want to write.”
I walk outside, outraged that I have just been told I am not old enough to do something. Then, I do what any independent adult would: break down, and call my dad to ask for advice. He recommends a bar on 7th Street.
I enter “Standings,” where college pennants dangle in clusters from the ceiling like colorful grape vines. In a space no larger than twenty square feet, it seems that these Bracket Boys have brought their girlfriends, their girlfriends’ girlfriends, and even that weird guy from work. The Harvard game is on, but muted and ignored, and the shouting seems more enthusiastic during commercials. It’s so crowded that I can barely push half of my body through the door before being pushed out by the sheer force of sweaty bodies. I am spared, at least, a request for an ID.
I trudge back down 2nd Ave., ready to enter any bar out of sheer desperation, Harvard fans or not. I see one flanked by two large men with walkie-talkies and bulky arms pressed against their chests. Smoke spills out from behind two roped off doors. I don’t even have to ask—I’m a liability.
Two doors down, I spot a bar called “The Travelling Scholar.” It sounds Harvard-esque, and perhaps my nobility-of-journalism speech will go down better here. It doesn’t, but the barman takes pity on me. He points me toward Ryan’s Irish Pub, next door, where they serve lunch and allow minors, though it soon proves to lack the atmosphere I’m looking for. The gold-countered bar is flanked by only four customers: a beanie-wearing hipster smoking a cigarette, a man with one earring who’s trying to pick up the barmaid, and a couple bent over an iPhone game of Flappy Bird. No one watches the game on the larger screen.
I sit down anyway, and try to enjoy the game alone. I realize, as I watch the tall figures on screen circle around each other, that I have absolutely no idea what’s happening. I can’t even read the score, having left my glasses at home.
The bartender, a short, pretty blond woman who looks vaguely like Amanda Seyfried, asks me what I’d like to drink. I order a Virgin Mary, which I think sounds mature, if not alcoholic.
They’re out of the mix. She asks me if a Shirley Temple would be all right. Because there’s nothing else to be done, I accept.
I try to compensate by taking out my notebook and writing at the bar. Just when I am beginning to feel appealingly like Hemingway, I see that the beanie-wearing hipster has also opened his Moleskine. Would I like a refill of that Shirley Temple? Absolutely. With nothing else to lose, I eat the candied cherry.
On the train ride home, I check my phone and see that Harvard has won the game. I find this out the same way I always have: the Bracket Boys have Facebook statuses.