The sun had already set when Charlie Saltzman locked the front door of his dental office and walked across the parking lot toward his car. It was one of those chilly February days in New Jersey. Certainly it was cold, but it was so much more. Raw. Blustery. Angry. Charlie never understood what “wind chill” was, but he knew that on that evening it was bad. The breeze was piercing straight through his coat and directly into his bones.
The parking lot was covered in salt. The landscapers he paid to trim his hedges in the warm months also took care of snow management, and as much as they loved their plows, they loved their calcium carbonate even more. The asphalt had a white, chalky look, more like the surface of the moon than any natural habitat in the Garden State.
Most days he parked his car on the far side of the lot, to give his patients the closer spaces, and at that moment he was regretting the kindness. Every step hurt. Charlie had to admit it: this was the absolute low point of the winter. Rock bottom.
He flipped on the ignition of his Nissan and sat behind the wheel. It would take a minute for the heat to kick in and for the seat warmer to make a difference. To pass the time he turned on the radio. And that was when he heard the newscaster say it.
“Port St. Lucie”
Those three magic words. He knew what they meant, as did every New York-area baseball fan. It meant that it was all going to be OK. The winter madness would soon end.
For Port St. Lucie, Florida, was where the Mets held spring training. Tomorrow pitchers and catchers were to report.
Charlie thought of a fortune he had once received in a cookie from Chopstix, the local kosher Chinese takeout joint:
“If winter is here, can spring be far behind?”
Truer words have never been written.
Soon he would turn on the radio and the Mets would be playing games down in Port St. Lucie at Tradition Field against the Cardinals and the Tigers. Meaningless games. Split squad games in the Grapefruit League. The sports reporters would be giving optimistic reports for the coming season. The pitchers looked good. The veteran’s rehab was a big success. The rookie is having a breakout season. And then, before Charlie knew it, the Mets would be back in Citi Field, in Queens. And it all started with the pitchers and catchers reporting. Sitting in his car in the tundra that was Paramus in February, he could almost smell the hot dogs. And he knew the worst had passed.
That was how he looked at life. Charlie was a naturally optimistic person. Even more than optimistic, he would have called himself hopeful.
It kind of reminded him of that week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa. The Israelites commit the Sin of the Golden Calf, Cheit Ha-Egel. Certainly they are at one of their lowest points—perhaps the lowest point—of their 40-year sojourn in the desert. They have grievously sinned. But Moshe prays for forgiveness, and God grants it. Things start to look up.
The whole Cheit Ha-Egel story takes place in the middle of the Torah portions about the construction of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. And according to Rashi, the entire construction of the Mishkan is intended as atonement for the sin of the golden calf. God gives the Israelites the Mishkan as a way to approach Him. It is a symbol of hope.
So the Tabernacle takes the low point of the Golden Calf and elevates it to one of Israel’s highest spiritual moments, the ability to become closer to God through sacrifices and worship. And as the Torah describes the construction of the Mishkan, the Israelites in the desert knew that they had survived the worst, and that from that point on things would get better. And anytime they approached the Mishkan it would remind them of God’s kindness to them. Just like the worst of winter in New Jersey gives way to spring training, and then eventually to major league baseball in the beautiful heat of a fine summer’s day. To Charlie, the connection made perfect sense.
He shifted his car into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. The thermometer on the car’s dashboard read 19 degrees, but Charlie didn’t care. Pitchers and catchers were reporting tomorrow. All would be forgiven.
By Larry Stiefel
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.