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Name of the Game

Cartoon sketch of an angry man holding a bottle and throwing another as rolled up balls of paper soar overhead. Warehouse detritus including boxes and more bottles sit at his feet. Illustration by Earle Levenstein.

I was 12 when we moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan and I'd say, to me it was a different country. From a two-family house on Avenue S in Flatbush to a seventh floor apartment in a fifteen-story building with an elevator, a doorman, a public library on Amsterdam Avenue, a butcher on the corner, market after market, school a block away, the trolley car on Broadway, and movie theaters...

From a place where roller skates and bikes were how we got from here to there and—most importantly to me—where every game was played in the street: hockey, touch football, softball, with always enough kids to choose up sides and go.

To a place, Manhattan, where traffic made playing games in the street like Russian roulette and which one of the infinite number of cruising police cars would break up, anyway, scattering us; watching us go before driving on. Saving our lives, of course, but what do we do now?

Of course, Central Park was just a few blocks away and there were always games going on there: choose up sides, sometimes teams from different neighborhoods, not friends, but strangers; with, from time to time, disagreements: pushing, shoving, a punch in the nose. What's the fun in that? None.

So the go-to sport was stickball.

Right in the middle of our block; cops or not.

Safest version was not playing up and down the street, bouncing the Spalding to the batter, counting the sewers as the belted ball travelled, running around the chalked bases.

Pretty boring. I mean, standing there watching the ball bounce, hitting it sometimes, fielders moping around waiting for something to happen; to say nothing about the alert men in blue.

Enter, stickball: not up and down the block, but from one side of the street to the other. No bouncing ball. Chalk a rectangle on the building wall, with the pitcher on the opposite side of the street throwing the Spalding or tennis ball or whatever full speed; a strike if the batter swung and missed or, if you could see the ball whizzing by, a very satisfying Thunk!

The ball flying up against the building—a warehouse on our block—the first floor a single, the second floor a double and so on; no running, except, rarely, when the warehouse guy would hear the crash of a breaking window and come running out shouting and swearing and throwing bottles and cans and anything else he could grab. Needless to say, we'd scatter and that would be that for an hour or so until things calmed down.

Occasionally, too, if someone—the warehouse guy—called the cops, a patrol car would roll up and if we were still loitering around they'd take our broom-handle—sawed-off broom—and snap it on the rear bumper of a parked car, warn us against playing in the street and drive off.

No problem; there were plenty of unsawed-off brooms around.

Sidelight; interesting to me, of course. Although I was always right-handed, playing stickball like this, with a small ball moving fast from short distance, I'd bat lefty, with my right eye facing the pitcher and the oncoming ball. Obviously I sensed that sight in my left eye wasn't great, which was proved in later years—much later, like now; as I'm telling you this—by eye tests and visual distortion, and now by my ophthalmologist beginning treatment for the big MD—macular degeneration—in that eye.

Still have a great right eye, plus my unshakeable belief that right now I could grab the nearest broom handle and step up to the wall in front of that chalked rectangle and just nail that Spalding on a line right to and maybe through the first or second floor window of that warehouse across 89th Street.

Might even have enough zip left to make it around the block as the warehouse guy came racing out the door.

As for the cops, they have enough on their hands today to really not waste too much time running after kids playing stickball.

Have to say, I can still see that ball fly.

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