by Jacob Margolies
Over fifty years ago, when I was six years old, I began spending all of my free time in the two adjacent schoolyards on the New York block where I lived. The larger one had basketball courts and a handball wall, and it took up the entire eastern half of an East Village block on 3rd Street. The smaller space was essentially a courtyard bounded by the north, south, and west wings of Public School 63.
In the larger schoolyard older teenagers and young men played on the court on the northwest corner of the park and, when they weren’t playing, sat and gathered around the park bench that abutted the wall adjacent to that court. The other courts were for the younger kids. Games were three against three. If your team won, you stayed on the court. Losers had to sit and hope that whoever had the next game, which anyone with sufficient authority could claim by calling “next,” picked you on his team.
Older kids called me Shorty or Little Man. A teenager might honor a little boy by sending him to the bodega to buy and bring him back a soda and bag of potato chips. I was afforded this privilege several times. When I got to junior high school my nickname transitioned to Doc, homage to the 1970s hoop superstar Julius Erving, known as Doctor J, whose swooping basketball stylings I fantasized about emulating.
Many other children had schoolyard nicknames. Some I remember are: Shotgun, Windy, Fish Lips, Peachy, Boo Boo, Bubbles, Blanquito, Chocolate, Half Pint, Shap, Junior, and Jellybean.
Parents were rarely seen at our playing grounds. Consequently, children had considerable authority at an early age. In fact, an adult’s appearance was such an unusual event that to this day I can remember occasions when it happened.
Once Seymour Turkel, who worked as a butcher and lived in my apartment building, came down to the schoolyard to talk to a very large and truculent teenager named Dalbert who had groped his daughter. Thirteen-year-old Shari Turkel was sexy as hell in a gum chewing, mini skirt and denim jacket wearing kind of way. She had long silky brown hair and an indifferent pout. I was wild about her, although she hardly knew I existed. She knew Dalbert though. Mr. Turkel, a gentle and affable bald-headed man, said whatever had to be said. Then he slapped Dalbert in the face several times, and that was that.
On another occasion a group of men from the local social club which had a storefront space in our building, commandeered the schoolyard and practiced softball. They included Andy, our building’s superintendent, who would always rub my head when he saw me. They were middle-aged white guys and most of them had the red faced flush of heavy drinkers. I was fascinated by their easy camaraderie and how they whipped the ball around the asphalt infield. The only other time Andy came to the playground, it was to beat up a teenager named Kenny who had stolen the ball of a kid who lived in our building. For some reason, Andy never beat up anybody for me.
The more fortunate among us had bicycles. I got my first one when I was seven. I’d ride with my friends, around the block and across the schoolyard, meandering across the neighborhood, sometimes traveling all the way to the bottom of the island. Owning a bike, even the cheapest least flashy model, made you a target. A lesson learned early on was never let anyone ride your bike. If you lent it to a stranger or a casual acquaintance, it was almost certain you’d never ever get it back. One of my earliest memories is my brother getting in a fight on the 4th street side of the playground with an older kid who wouldn’t stop badgering him for a ride. He lost the fight, but kept his bike.
In the small school courtyard we played stickball. If you hit the pink rubber Spaldeen over the second floor lights on the building exterior and nobody caught the ball before it hit the ground, it was a double. But if you really whacked the ball hard, and it went over onto the roof, which in playground parlance was known as roofing it, you were out. Sometimes the Spaldeen would clear the roof entirely and land in the Village View parking lot west of the schoolyard where it could be retrieved, but other times the ball would stay on the roof and be lost to us. No matter how good a hitter you were, roofing it was not something you tried to do. A much larger child named Hector taught me this by punching me hard in the face after I roofed his Spaldeen. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said by way of explanation after hitting me.
When that evening my father inquired about my swollen face, I told him what had happened. He said, “If someone hits you, hit him back.” He then related to me the story of how when he was my age he had to fight the Irish anti-Semites every day on his way home from Hebrew school in Boston during the Depression. At the end of this story, he finished by helpfully repeating, “Someone hits you, you hit him back.”
During my elementary school years, when playing softball or stickball with my friends, it was understood we had to give up the schoolyard to any bigger kids who happened to show up. On countless occasions we’d have to quit our games when an older kid walked on to the middle of our playing ground and announced, “We’re taking over.”
This understanding was once bravely challenged by my friend Pavel. We were in the 3rd grade, and the injustice of being required to surrender the field in the middle of an exciting game so outraged him that the day came when he said, “No. We’re not moving.” There followed a long exchange of cursing and threats and pushing that went on for about an hour involving everybody before things progressed to Pavel and his chief antagonist Eddie smacking each other in the face with increasing fury as the rest of us stopped our pushing and shoving and looked on. Eventually, Hector, who had been observing everything from a distance, walked over and separated Eddie and Pavel and then punched Pavel in the face. Order had been restored, and the big kids started their game.
Poor Pavel. Injustice rankled him, and that wasn’t the only scrap he got in during those years. His father was the jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. On Pavel’s tenth birthday a group of us abandoned our usual schoolyard playing ground and, escorted by Mr. Shepp, walked across 6th Street past burned out and boarded up buildings to one of the grass baseball fields alongside the FDR Drive. We ended up in a pickup game against a team of Puerto Rican kids from the adjacent projects, who were suited up in uniforms. I pitched and we ended up losing the game 17-to-0. When one of my teammates suggested lifting me and bringing someone else to pitch, Mr. Shepp refused. “He’s doing great. You all just got to catch the ball,” he said.
Our schoolyard could be a cruel place, hovering between fun and games one day and atrocity the next. I was ten years old and playing stickball with two friends, Wade and Paul, at dusk one evening, when four teenagers led by a sadistic bully named Armando, shook us down for change, and not finding any announced they were going to challenge us. If we could strike out three of them out in a row they’d let us leave the schoolyard. In the event we didn’t strike them out, Armando explained that we’d be sodomized, although he used cruder language to describe the scenario. He and his friends thought this very funny, and his declaration was accompanied with guffaws of laughter.
It was decided that I would be pitching. Somehow, aided by adrenaline coursing through my prepubescent body, I managed to strike out the first batter. I had a pretty good sinkerball for a ten year old. Then I struck out the second batter. There was a hail of cursing with the hitter who had gone down swinging being heckled and taunted by his companions. The third batter up was Armando and on the first pitch he smacked a line drive past my head. After that, my friends and I were slammed up against the wall in the corner of the schoolyard and assaulted. With our attackers’ pants down, I managed to break away and escape the schoolyard. Fearing that I would summon a grown-up and that they could get in trouble, our attackers departed right after I ran off. My battered friends met up with me down the block, and we all headed to my apartment. After ascertaining what had happened, my parents had Wade and Paul call home and recount their stories.
And after that? Nothing as far as I can recall. The incident was never discussed or acknowledged again, and for nearly fifty years I’ve only mentioned it to two people The day after it happened I heard Armando’s taunts as I went down to the playground, but the day after that he and his accomplices disappeared. Had they moved on to terrorize children in a different schoolyard? Been confronted by avengers? Arrested for something else? Had this schoolyard transgression been beyond what could be allowed? I never asked and I’ll never know. But Armando and his friends were gone.
Thanks to the invention of the transistor radio most every New York schoolyard had a sound track. As the 60s turned into the 70s, the music got louder. Portable radios manufactured by Japanese companies became more powerful and the mid-70s saw the advent of the boom box. On East 3rd Street the popularity of the 50,000 megawatt WABC Top Forty station was supplanted by the advent of FM radio, and by 1973 the kids were listening to the R&B of WBLS. We played ball to Marvin Gaye’s sexual importuning on “Let’s Get it On;” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” with its cacophony of horns and rhythmic grunting; Teddy Pendergrass singing “Bad Luck,” a tale of woe propelled by Ronnie Baker’s superb bass line; and the Staple Singers promising deliverance on “I’ll Take You There.” The station’s DJs regularly declared their virtuosity. One announced he was “the best thing to happen to radio since Marconi…often imitated, but never duplicated.” Another baritone voice promised, “I’ll put a dip in your hip and a cut in your strut.”
Over thousands of hours, we played basketball to the rhythm of the music, improvising to our particular talents or lack thereof. Sweat and flow, fast and slow, give and go. The playground aesthetics of syncopation. A dip in your hip, a cut in your strut.
After thousands of hours you knew things, and reacted accordingly. Angel’s shot when it missed nearly always bounced off the far side of the rim. Freddy, when he had the ball and was stuck up in the air, always passed it backwards. Danny, unlike most players, always favored his left hand when he dribbled. Boo Boo was a great shooter. Just get to the basket and pass it to him in the corner. “You shake and I’ll bake,” he’d say. When you were with them, your friends seemed like brothers.
Who were we, the inhabitants of the schoolyard? An agglomeration of children representing mongrel Manhattan. Blacks and whites, Puerto Ricans, a few Chinese, and various admixtures. Jews, Christians, Muslims, heathens.
Some lived in the First Houses, the public housing project across the street from the schoolyard. There were the mostly Puerto Rican kids who attended the elementary school and their older siblings. And an assortment of tenement dwellers came from surrounding streets.
The toughest and wildest kids came from east of Avenue A. They lived on blocks marked by abandoned buildings. Drug addicts lined up on their street corners waiting to purchase heroin. Over a period of several years their neighborhood was largely deserted.
The schoolyard was surrounded by the middle income Village View Houses, seven large apartment towers running from 2nd to 6th Street that had opened in 1964. The mostly white residents had their own private playgrounds that were policed by security guards, and their children avoided our schoolyard.
During these years, there was a contingent of bohemians living in the East Village. Most of my friends’ parents didn’t have regular jobs or professions, and thought of themselves as artists of one kind or another. They included a playwright, a jazz musician, a disc jockey, a modern dancer, a classical music composer, an abstract expressionist painter, and an actor. Fathers, those who were around at all, were often unemployed, as they pursued creative pursuits. Mothers did all the housework, cooking, and childcare, and were also in many cases the breadwinners. The children of these bohemians were one more contingent in the schoolyard. I include myself as one of them, although my family’s economic situation was slightly more secure than that of most of my friends. We were connected and stuck together, just as others were connected by where they went to school, the block on which they lived, or a sense of racial or ethnic solidarity.
1974. 3:00 AM. 14 years old. I’m staying over at my friend Henry’s apartment on Avenue A. His mother, who is rarely home, is out and we have the place to ourselves. We’re drinking and smoking pot as teenagers of a certain ilk are wont to do. There are indications our judgement is clouded. Exhibit A being Henry’s proposal that we go out to the schoolyard and shoot some baskets. Exhibit B being that I agree to his brilliant suggestion.
The schoolyard gate is locked, and there’s a 12-foot chain-link fence that is spiked at the top. Henry tosses the ball over and the fence and climbs it effortlessly. I follow him laboriously, and narrowly avoid impaling myself on the top. Only after we’re inside the schoolyard do I notice a group of young men are already there, lined up on a bench. We ignore them because it seems the best alternative, and begin shooting baskets. After a couple of minutes we settle into a contest of HORSE, a game that involves two players alternating shots. When one player makes a basket, the other is obligated to duplicate the shot. If he misses, he gets a letter. The game continues until one person loses by accumulating five letters–H-O-R-S-E.
We’re hyped up, but our bodies aren’t working properly. It’s dark and we’re nervous. Our game is taking far too long to finish. For every shot one of us makes, there are half a dozen we miss. Free throw. Clank off the front rim. A bank shot from the right side. Way too hard. Jumper from the corner. Air ball. A ridiculous attempt at dunking the ball. Not even close. Miss after miss. I take a casual glance over at the bench sitters, and it looks to me like one of them is twirling a gun around his finger. Faces and bodies are obscured in the darkness. I imagine a bad guy in a TV western. Daily News headlines start running through my mind. Two Teens Killed Horsing Around. Kids Who Shot and Missed, Shot Dead.
My running hook shot rolls off the back of the rim. Henry launches the ball from the top of the key. It bounces around the rim before deciding not to go in. A voice calls out from the benches, “Make a fucking shot, already.” And then there’s a loud bang. Henry and I decide it’s time to leave. Game called on account of gunfire. Back over the fence we go. Henry bounding over it like a professional tree climber, while I clamber up. For what seems like a good 30 seconds, I’m caught with my pants stuck on the top of the spiked fence. Henry keeps telling me to hurry up in an increasingly agitated tone. Then at last I’m down and on the sidewalk and we’re off and running all the way back to his building. In his lobby, we are both doubled over in laughter and gasping for breath. Schoolyard high jinks. A story you’ll be able to tell your friends.
The universe expands as you grow. By the time I started attending Stuyvesant High School the schoolyard had already begun losing its hold on me. Anyone my age who would spend all their free time there lacked maturity and curiosity, I told myself. Friends who hadn’t moved on to bigger things were embarrassing. I felt sorry for them.
My new high school friends lived in distant parts of the city. I spent time in Forest Hills, Astoria, Corona, Whitestone, and Jamaica in Queens. I visited Bay Ridge, Flatbush, and Bushwick in Brooklyn. It was like exploring entirely new countries. Different neighborhoods had their own teenage rituals, musical preferences, and rules of territoriality. We’d all play ball together at a playground on 19th Street, near the high school, our exuberant games free from the shadow of complicated early childhood friendships and antagonisms.
Closer to home I was discovering, just a few blocks west of where I lived, a new world even more exotic than that of the single family homes of Forest Hills. Soho had once been a thriving manufacturing area, but now its commercial spaces were either vacant or only partially occupied by sweatshops and small factories. At night I’d take long solitary walks past rows of beautiful cast iron buildings shrouded in darkness. The streets were nearly entirely deserted, but in some of these buildings I could hear music. Climbing stairs to investigate, I discovered a little known corner of city nightlife. There was Studio Rivbea, Ali’s Alley, Environ and others that opened briefly and then disappeared. These loft spaces were run by the musicians themselves, most of whom were black. They played jazz in the broadest sense of the word. What I heard ranged from swinging big band arrangements to the dissonant wails of a single saxophone. Sitting on the floor with other musical acolytes, all strangers to me, I listened to Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Jaki Byard and the Apollo Stompers. In spite of my adolescent self-consciousness, when my mood was right, the music transported me. The spirit was touched. It was, I was quite sure, a big step up from anything I’d experienced before.
Still every day on my way to school and going home, I’d walk past that damn schoolyard and its adjacent courtyard. Two little patches of asphalt. Teasing, taunting and enticing. Reminding me of things that had happened there. Two patches of asphalt. Scenes of tenderness, torment, and tomfoolery. Sometimes it still dragged me in, and I’d find myself spending a weekend afternoon there playing basketball. Eventually I was tall enough that I could jump up and hang on the rim. Old enough that I could play with anyone without embarrassing myself. Senior enough that if I had wanted I could have sent a younger kid to the bodega to get me a soda and potato chips. But I didn’t even drink soda. A slice of pizza and a large red fruit punch with ice though. That was a different matter. I never sent a kid running off to the store for me. I was growing up and that king of the court act seemed pathetic to me now. I’d play a few games, working up a sweat and hunger, and then walk over to Mike’s Pizzeria on 4th Street and get my own slice. That was enough.
Postscript: Spring 2018
My friend Danny, who I have known since we were toddlers playing in the sandbox at Tompkins Square Park, and his son Teddy are in town and staying with us for the weekend. They are going to a Knicks game. It will be Teddy’s first visit to Madison Square Garden. Before the Sunday afternoon game, Danny suggests the three of us shoot some hoops. It’s a clear sunny morning, unseasonably warm for April. For some reason, rather than going to nearby courts in Brooklyn, I suggest we take the train into Manhattan and play at the old schoolyard. Or maybe Danny suggested it first. When we arrive late that morning there is nobody else there.
Danny hasn’t been on this court in 40 years, and for me it’s been about 30 years.
“Where is everybody?” Danny asks as his son starts launching shots from behind top of the key, which we dutifully retrieve and send back to him.
“Playing video games maybe. Or being cheered on by mom and dad at the youth soccer game.”
“Don’t talk like a grumpy old man,” he says as he releases a chest pass to his son.
“Lots of memories, and not all of them good ones,” he says while pushing me from under the basket and grabbing a shot that goes through the basket.
“You know we grew up in the most mythologized time in the most mythologized neighborhood in the history of New York, ” I say. Rebounding the ball, the dimples of the rubber ball on my fingertips are a familiar feeling.
“Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Ramones, CBGB, Keith Haring, Madonna. Broadway shows. Rent– the musical, Rent–the Bloomingdales boutique. And now these novels by young writers imagining what life was like here when we were kids. Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Discovering downtown. Or stumbling on to it. Alienation. Melodrama. Acts of creation. That’s a lot of imagining. But that’s not our story at all. It was different if you were a kid growing up here.
“They were pilgrims. We were natives,” Danny says as he rebounds a shot and dribbles out twenty feet, and then dribbles back inside the foul lane before doing that same little spin move that he did 40 years ago when he was the best player on his high school team. It’s the same goofy twirl except now it’s in slow motion. Super slow motion.
Looking up at the backboard, I notice all the grey paint that has peeled off of it. It looks like something by Jackson Pollack with a metal hoop attached to it.
“Imagine being an old man born here in 1910, and living on Avenue B all your life, and all the shit you’d have seen by 1980,” I say. “A seventy year old man living Avenue B in 1980 would have thought the end of the world was just around the corner.”
“You mean on 2nd Street,” Danny says.
“Jesus, it was something. Exhilaration and fear. Freedom and brutality. And I don’t even know if what I remember is how things actually happened.”
“Things happened. I remember it too,” he says.
*Some names in this have been changed.
Jacob Margolies reports on American society and politics for The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He is also the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, a site that publishes non-fiction stories that take place in New York City.