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Vision of Happiness

Dec. 30, 2002
Dec. 30, 2002

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Dec. 30, 2002

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Vision of Happiness

For years "Miriam from Forest Hills" has been one of the great
hockey callers in New York sports-talk radio. "Ya gotta beat that
goaltender top shelf!" she'd insist. "Why don't these guys know
that?"

This is an article from the Dec. 30, 2002 issue Original Layout

She lives for her New York Islanders, having missed only two of
their radio broadcasts in the team's 30-year history. In her tiny
apartment in the Forest Hills section of Queens, N.Y., score
books and audiotapes of Islanders games are stacked floor to
ceiling, so many that she has only half of her single bed to
sleep in.

Yet she had never attended an Islanders game.

When the team's vice president of communications, Chris Botta,
found that out not long ago, he vowed to get her to a game and
offered up two guest passes, hers for the taking. There was one
detail.

Miriam is blind--has been since birth.

Living with her cat, Joey, and on a fixed income, Miriam had
always thought that going to an Islanders game wasn't only too
expensive, it was also inconceivable. This is a woman who waits
for six-for-a-dollar sales on the spiral notebooks that she uses
to keep score in Braille. This is a woman who sticks her radio
between cans of chicken soup on the windowsill to get better
reception.

"The Islanders are a way for me to talk to the sighted world,"
says Miriam, a 51-year-old native of Queens who has ruddy cheeks,
short gray hair and gray eyes she doesn't hide behind sunglasses.
"It's something safe [to talk about], you know?"

It's how she kids the cop on the corner. "What happened to your
silly Rangers last night?" she'll chide him, as she crosses the
street with her white cane. And he'll kid back, "Yeah? They'll
still kill your Islanders next week!"

Sports gives her a family--the radio audience of Joe Benigno's
1-to-5:30 a.m. show on WFAN. She calls in regularly to be with
them. It's a family she knows like the floor plan of her
apartment but has never seen: Doris from Rego Park (she's had
some health problems) and Bruce from Bayside (he likes cats) and
Short Al from Brooklyn (his wife passed away recently).

So that was enough for Miriam--until Botta wouldn't take no for
an answer. He offered to pick her up at her apartment and take
her to Nassau Coliseum, home of the Islanders. Suddenly, Miriam
was about to go to a place where she'd gone for 30 years but had
never actually been to. "I think she was a little worried," Botta
recalls. "For 30 years she's had this ideal of what it was. She
was afraid that actually going there might ruin it for her."

Miriam swallowed hard and went.

As soon as Botta walked her up the steps into the arena, she
started noticing all the things that don't get through the little
speaker in her radio--"the smell of the hot dogs and potato chips
and coffee," she says. "And the fans chanting the same things I
chant at home: 'Let's go, Islanders!' It was great to know there
are people out there doing the same things I do at home."

She touched the arms of the men whose voices she'd spent
thousands of nights with--Howie Rose, the Islanders' TV voice,
and John Wiedeman, the radio voice. She sat in the team's
sky-high radio booth and tried to make herself believe she was
really there. "It's so weird to hear the fans' voices beneath
you," Miriam kept saying that night.

She hugged Islanders legend Clark Gilles. She held the hand of
star center Michael Peca, never letting go through the whole
conversation. She got to ask superstar scorer Alexei Yashin how
to say, "Will you help me cross the street?" in Russian, a phrase
that would come in handy in her heavily Russian neighborhood.

She was given an Islanders jersey, much too big, and she wears it
almost every day, constantly feeling the embroidered logo with
her right hand. She got an ISLANDERS MEDIA sticker to put on her
ski jacket. Botta took her into the Nassau Coliseum club, got the
crowd's attention and had the host of the postgame radio program
introduce the famous "Miriam from Forest Hills, here for her
first Islanders game ever!" The patrons gave her a standing O.

So who cared if the Islanders lost 3-2 that night?

Botta saved the best thing for last. He took her onto the ice,
where her heroes have fought for 30 years. Miriam bent down and
scooped up a handful of the ice shavings carved by the players'
skates and brought it to her face.

We forget sometimes what sports mean in this country. We get lost
in the players' salaries and the standings and who's going to pay
for a new arena. But sometimes, for people like Miriam, the
playing of the game is a joy in itself, win or lose. For them
it's a place where a square peg can fit into a round-hole world.

After 30 years, somebody cared enough to look into a cramped
little apartment and take her to a part of that world she never
dreamed she'd reach--let her smell it and hear it and touch it.
And when the night was over, on the ride home, a giddy Miriam
turned to Botta and said, "You know, everything was just like I
pictured." Botta just grinned.

Some Christmas gifts you keep forever.

B/W PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
We forget sometimes what sports mean in this country. For Miriam
the playing of a game is a joy in itself.