Wednesday evening, a few hours before the tipoff for the Celtics-76ers fifth playoff game, I ran into my friend Jim. Jim is what the admen and the census takers call an upwardly mobile, normal young professional.
Translated, this means he pays his bills on time, wears button-down shirts and penny loafers, and does not go around to witchcraft meetings.
But Jim, a speech writer for a front-page politician, does have one unusual, enslaving vice. He must have a fix of basketball, Australian rugby or Saskatchewan-rules rodeo action several times a night. He calls himself a TV (speech writing taught him this one) narcoleptic. He is a junkie addicted to the newest opiate of the masses: cable sports.
It's gotten to the point where Jim still can cut it as a bachelor in polite society, but it's close. He follows games with the sound off while typing his boss' speeches. If he has to do some homework on a bill, he does it after prime time.
Wednesday, Jim's voice rose and he excitedly rubbed the arms of his chair in his U.S. Capitol office. Congress was running late. The tipoff at home was drawing nigh. "Sixers-Celtics!" he cried. "I can't believe the networks aren't carrying this! Thank God, my Betamax has been repaired."
Seeing Jim, I get the feeling I've just seen a sliver of the future. Washington proper doesn't have cable TV; only Arlington and a few other pockets of suburbia do. But someday soon, we'll all be watching Saskatchewan rodeo just like him.
How does it feel to get your fix in the darkness of your den? Jim is proud and embarrassed at the same time.
"I remember looking for my condo. The real estate agent says, 'You want a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom?' I said, 'Maybe.' He says, 'You want a townhouse instead of a high-rise?' I said, 'Maybe.' He says, 'Well, what do you really want?' I said, 'Cable!'
"That's why I live in Arlington. I had my cable TV installed before my phones.
"See, I can't sleep more than two hours at a time. The other night I woke up at 3:30 and put motocross on. You know, the bicycles racing on the dirt? I was watching motocross on ESPN without the sound and listening to 'Swan Lake' on my Sony Walkman. Kinda nice. Then I fall asleep, wake up at 7 in the morning and, what do you know, there are the (NCAA) girls swimming trials!"
Jim says he has no other vices. No betting the ponies. No bar scenes at 3 a.m. He's squeaky clean--except for this insatiable, compulsive appetite for cable.
"I was supposed to have brunch with some people at Clyde's last Sunday," he said. "I wake up and it's USC-UCLA men's volleyball. I used to wait in line to buy tickets to watch that. Now I'm laying in bed watching it for free. For free! I called up my friends and canceled the brunch."
If Jim is the future of cable sports in Washington, the present is embodied in another friend of mine, Bobby Abbo.
Abbo, the owner of Poor Robert's tavern on upper Connecticut Avenue, is a purveyor of fine spirits, fresh seafood and--most valuable fare of all--pirated television signals. This was Wednesday night, while the Celtics-76ers game on the USA Network was eliciting whoops and foot-stomping from viewers at the end of the bar.
"I missed every fad that ever happened," Abbo said. "I missed disco. I even missed the hula hoop. But I didn't miss this one."
Last November, he paid $15,000 for a satellite receiving dish that could bring in cable signals of sporting events around the clock. Even more signals than our speech-writer pal in Arlington can get. Abbo stuck the dish on the roof, and within a few weeks sports viewers from around the city were flocking in.
For all anyone knows, Poor Robert's may be the only spot in town where a Washingtonian in need of a cable fix can find relief.
No one has what he does. Cubs by day and, in striking contrast, a major event every night. Almost incredibly, Abbo claims he got all 47 NCAA basketball playoff games either live or on tape. Like the taverns that owned the only TV sets in the early 1950s, he's found the perfect video wave.
The only problem--and here's where living in the future can get you in trouble--Abbo is yanking USA's and ESPN's signals off the satellite without permission.
The way Abbo tells it, he's gone to USA and ESPN on bended knee, offering to pay them for their signals. He says he offered the same thing to Ted Turner for the use of Turner's WTBS (Atlanta Braves) superstation, and the great yachtsman pocketed the $75 "license fee." But USA and ESPN say forget it, they only allow entire cable systems to hook in. Small-timers like Abbo can forget it.
According to Abbo's way of reckoning, such haughtiness entitles him to use his dish, USA and ESPN be damned. Never mind that USA and ESPN do own the broadcast rights to the games.
"I admit it, I am a pirate," Abbo says. "But I'm an unwilling pirate. I want to pay. I want to show it with a clear conscience. It's like Abscam. It's like they're making me a criminal, almost."
So there we have it: cable sports in Washington, the spring of '82. A narcoleptic junkie on one hand and a pirate on the other. What to make of it? Simply that the new age is having strange effects indeed.
Would you believe the passing of Glenn, George, Tim and Bernie in five years?
Between quorum calls, our friend Jim explained it this way: "I really don't need Glenn Brenner, George Michael . . . See, cable never cheats on you. It's always there. I don't need to wait till 11:20 to find out who won the Islanders' game. I know. I mean, look, I just saw it."