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.