Capital Centre: a large concrete potato chip of a building, sunk 30 feet into Prince George's County just outside the beltway. The biggest frill is the "tre" on the end of its name.
In New York there's the Garden, in Montreal there's the Forum. They are imposing structures with personality and history. Capital Centre never imposes. It is imposed upon. It is a space, not a place. Its interior is shaped by events and its personality by the people who attend them. It has no smell.
Spectators: they care about the Bullets, and the LET'S GO CAPS. They don't care for paying $3 for parking. They light matches for Billy Joel. They know by heart the words to his songs and boogie ever so politely in their seats, never invading anyone's space. They connect with Aaron Pryor: "From the heels, sucker, from the heels." And they come from as far away as Kansas City to see white stallions who do everything but tap-dance.
All in a week.
Why they come: freedom of speech. Organize a halftime ceremony. Hang the First Amendment from the rafters next to Wes Unseld's jersey. People pay $2.20 for the biggest beer and the inalienable right to boo, to bait, to say whatever they please, in whatever language they please.
A woman's face -- vital, cheerful, expressive -- catches the eye from across the arena. Marie Boland, who is deaf, sits just below the TelScreen, so she can see the scoreboard. Spencer Haywood is her favorite player. Whenever he makes a basket, she makes the sign for love.
There is no sign for booing.
"I read in the newspaper that people boo," she said. "But I don't hear it."
Charlie Hodge, a patient man, has been a Capitals' season-ticket holder forever. Charlie Hodge is blind. He comes to the games with a friend, a former college player, who has mastered the art of play by play. One of the best, Hodge says. "Of course, he uses a couple of expletive deleteds."
Charlie Hodge listens for the sound of skates scraping to a halt, pushing off the ice. With the sound of the crowd, the sticks and the boards, he can tell where the puck is and who has it. He also senses the vastness of the place -- 5,600,000 cubic feet. He says, "It's well-designed. It's big. Every seat is a good seat. It is functional. The personality? Competent, sterile."
"The building doesn't have any character," said Boland, who has been a season-ticket holder for as long as she could afford to be. "But it has a lot of characters."
In-house characters: Smokey and Chief and Chris Mitchell, the organist, who sighs midway through a dead first period, "If 'Malaguena' didn't work, nothing will."
Izzy, Steve, and Mo Bach -- father, son, and uncle--who keep track of the time, the 24-second clock and personal fouls for the Bullets. Some of the Bullets were invited to Steve's bar mitzvah, but they were on the road.
Moo Cat, whose food is stored in the file cabinet in the guard's station downstairs. Tiny B.B., Chief's dachshund (heir to Alex the Bullet), who retired after 800 games, 15 seasons and one traumatic run-in with a Chicken. One night the Chicken wrapped Tiny in a hot-dog roll, squirted him with mustard and stuck him in his beak. Tiny Too now pulls the cannon and sits in the sneaker. Tiny B.B. sits in the stands.
Mike O'Hara is almost an in-house character. For two years, he was both a Bullets and a Capitals season-ticket holder. But he gave up hockey when his resolve and his funds thinned. By a recent count, he had seen 239 Capitals games and 200 consecutive Bullet home games. He figured he had spent 1,317 hours in the arena.
He met his wife in the parking lot. She locked her keys in her car one night and he and Mitch Kupchak jimmied the lock. Later, she left a note on his windshield.
O'Hara is 31 now. When he graduated from high school in Maine, he bought a plane ticket to Houston and went to see the Dome. He got a room across the street and stayed nine days.
He has been to every major league ballpark in the country except the Metrodome in Minneapolis. He likes Capital Centre.
"It's got a lot of charm," he said. "It kinda makes you feel important to look around and see all the dignitaries who have been there."
In nine years, approximately 23,500,000 have attended 2,250 events. Between January 1974 and June 1982, Capital Centre grossed $198 million, says the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
There have been 1,420 arrests (192 drug-related), 400-plus Bullets games, 300-plus Capitals games, one Inaugural Gala and one cable walk, 400 feet from one end of the building to the next, by the late Karl Wallenda.
Crazy Man, a.k.a. Brendan Ryan, is a Georgetown alumnus and a Capitals season-ticket holder. "I'm crazy," he says. How crazy? He went to the NCAA finals dressed in a Harlem Globetrotters uniform his friend, The Pig, stole one year when he hitched a ride from the team in Belgium.
At Capital Centre, Ryan sits by the ice, where the glass is low and the voices carry. One night at the end of the first period, Phil Esposito, a Ranger, was skating off the ice. Crazy Man had read in a magazine that he wore a rug. "Hey, Espo, nice rug," he yelled.
"He turned around and got (Don) 'Murder' Murdoch and they put their sticks over the glass and he said, 'Say that again and I'll take your head off.' I said, 'Try it.' The officials came over and told me they would revoke my seating privileges. I like to say strange stuff."
You can tell the day of the week by the roar of the crowd. There's a rasslin' roar, a mellow-bubblegum-teenybopper roar, a sneaker-squeaking-24-second roar, and a grunting-grinding-take-the-body roar.
"People always say, 'If you can't see, why spend the money, why not stay home and listen?' " Hodge said. "Hockey fans are more rabid than any others except Latin American soccer fans. The excitement in the building is tremendous."
The place has the biggest seating capacity of any arena on the East Coast. Noise always fills it even if people don't.
"You skate like a sissy."
"Hey Ray, earn your pay!"
"Beer person! Beer person! Here she comes. Beer person. Yessiree bub."
"Bruce, Bruce, he's not fighting his fight. Here he comes, Bruce. He knows how to fight 15! I told you, Bruce."
"I hate it when they bleed."
"Oh, Charles, the Ming vases are so lovely."
"That's why we live in America, you jerk."
"If Lew Alcindor had a name as cool as Moses, he probably wouldn't have changed it."
"Oh yeah. Cassius Marcellus Clay was a pretty cool name."
"We just come to get crazy, to yell and scream."
As the voices change, so does the scene. The week in brief. Six events, seven changes. Friday: basketball 8:05 p.m., followed by Arguello-Pryor on TelScreen. Temporary power failure, temporary stampede. Saturday: wrestling, 1:30 p.m., change to hockey, 8:05 p.m. John (Chief) Gentry, director of production, buys 12 gallons of milk, four cases of Michelob, two cases of Beck's and two cases of Lowenbrau for Billy Joel. (Fleetwood Mac wanted vodka. Mick Jagger brought a chef and two stoves.)
The changeover crew is taking down the wrestling ring, stacking 400 four-feet-by-eight-feet flooring sheets, getting the peanut shells out of the ice. There is a hockey game that night. They have three hours to do a six-hour job.
Sunday: rig Billy Joel.
Monday: concert 8 p.m. "Milquetoast crowd," says an Ogden vendor who can't sell a T-shirt. Joe, the roadie, takes a hand, offered in a handshake, and sucks on a knuckle.
Tuesday: 2:15 a.m. Billy Joel, equipment and floozies gone. Hockey 7:35 p.m. When the game ends, Everett (Smokey) Bowie, director of operations, directs the crew to begin melting the ice. It takes 20 hours and $3,000 to make a sheet of ice, $250 a day in electricity to maintain one. The zamboni (Zam the Sham) scrapes the ice down to a quarter-inch. The rest is dumped in a 12-foot pit behind the stands.
Wednesday: 2:30 a.m. Basketball floor laid, 225 pieces at 150 pounds each. 8:05 p.m. Bullets. Billy Ray Bates misses three-pointer at the buzzer and sprawls on the floor. Bill-y Ray Baaaates! Basketball floor removed. Bill-y Ray Baaaates! cut two weeks later.
Thursday: 60 loads of dirt arrive along with Brigadier Kurt Albrecht, director of the Spanish Riding School. He reaches down to feel the red geraniums his horses will use as markers in the ring. Plastic! He sighs. Chief picks up the rollaway cot for the groom who sleeps by the 27 stalls that have been built behind the stands. A wooden shingle hangs outside Chief's office: "The Last Resort."
Friday: 6 a.m., the Lippizaner Stallions arrive. There are stones in the dirt. The horses will wear shoes.
Saturday: 8 p.m. The black-tie party in the Capital Club is just finishing its bisque. "They will hold the performance 10 minutes for Mr. Weinberger, the Secretary of De-Fense," the Austrian host announces.
" 'Bougie' crowd," sniffed a waitress waiting on line for a hot dog.
How things change. Just a week earlier, the crowd was anything but bourgeois.
Saturday afternoon at the rasslin' matches. The smoke is rising and the beer is flowing. Hoarse and breathless, they come not to be seen but to be heard.
This is family entertainment. Big families, plump families, carbohydrate-loaded families together on a sunny afternoon, screaming in the darkness. See the 12-year-old girl in a tight-fitting T-shirt, shrieking with glee. She reads all the wrestling magazines but this is so much better. "The atmosphere is nice," she said. "I like the blood and the violence and the atmosphere."
By 5 p.m., most of the wrestlers are gone. But they leave their mark. "Hey, where's the ammonia?" a crew member asked. "They got fake blood all over the boards again."
Unbloodied and unbowed, Andre the Giant, 492 pounds of giant, made his way to a van waiting under the stands. The door at the top of the ramp opened. There were 1,500 down-home folks in down and flannel and plaid waiting for a glimpse of a 7-foot-4 Buddha in green polyester pants. The engine groaned, the van crawled foreward. Overcoming gravity and inertia, the Giant raised a thigh of an arm and offered a limp farewell in the manner of statesmen and dignitaries.
Andre the Giant is surprised people care as much as they do.