DOWN BY THE SCHOOLYARD

When things got hectic around my apartment, I cut-out.

When I mean hectic, I’m talking about yelling and screaming. Hectic times usually occurred when my mom and her boyfriend would get into an argument;  all hell would break loose.  Didn’t matter what time of day. As a kid I witnessed fights morning, noon and night.

It would begin with an argument.  As they raised their voices, it got scarier and scarier.  “What the fuck is going on?” I thought to myself. One thing was for sure, I had no one to protect me.  I had no one to tell me it was okay that mom was just having a disagreement with her friend, that everything was cool.

It got so bad once that I hid in the closet.

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I’ll never forget when I was about twelve years old, Mom came home with her boyfriend around three in the morning.  That night, like many others I couldn’t sleep.  I’d watch T.V. all night then read Basketball Digest in my bedroom which faced ninth avenue. I also spent a lot of time hanging out the window watching the world pass me by.

A car service pulled up outside our apartment. I heard the doors open and close. Quickly getting up from my bed, I poked my head out the window.  I heard mom talking then watched the car pull away. They climbed the two flights of stairs and entered our apartment.  I heard them they arguing in the living room.  My younger sister was sleeping. How she never awakened from the yelling amazed me.

Looking through our railroad apartment I could see them standing face to face yelling at each other.  I could never make out what they fought about. As a kid mom never told me anything so I never found out.

This guy had long black hair and was a lot taller than mom had backed her into the kitchen. It was the perfect time to make my escape.

Thinking back on it, maybe I should have helped mom?  But I was twelve. Skinny and afraid.

I threw on a pair of jeans, slipped on a t-shirt and didn’t even bother to lace up my Chuck Taylor’s.

As I walked towards the front door, I grabbed my basketball from the closet.

Tip-toeing out the door I made my way down the stairs.

I closed the front door behind me and sprinted across ninth avenue to my destination; the boys schoolyard.

Heading down Windsor Place, I made a right turn on Howard Place.

The streets were quiet as I held my Voit rubber basketball tightly. I didn’t want to dribble because I didn’t want to wake the neighbors. My feet and my mind were racing.

When I got to the yard, I forgot all about the arguing taking place back at the apartment.  I walked in and looked up at the first basket. I had thoughts of dunking the ball on the taps court, but that would have made too much noise.

You were forbidden to be in the yard after ten. But I didn’t care. The priests would stick their head out the window of the red brick rectory building and scream at us. When I got to school the next day I was always called down to the office; it was there that I received a tongue lashing and sometimes hit across the ass with a paddle.  How they ever knew it was me in that yard, I’ll never know. Believe it or not, a few whacks from the wooden paddle never stopped me from going back to the yard after hours. I needed to be there.

I stood in front of the basket connected to the pole and shot the ball.

It went straight through the netless rim.

My form was perfect. Right hand behind the ball, left hand as the guide hand. Knees bent, and a nice high arc.  I loved to shoot the basketball.

I quickly caught the ball before it hit the ground.

Sliding two steps to my right, I shot the ball again this time using the backboard just like we were taught. Same form, never-changing the way you shoot.  At Holy Name we had the best coaches you could ask for; they taught us the fundamentals at an early age. It was all about repetitions when it came to shooting.

I stopped shooting for a moment and looked around the yard.

It was sort of scary but for some reason,  I felt safe. Maybe it was the silver, chain linked fence. Despite an open entrance where at any time, any one could walk in, I felt like I was in my own cage; like the boy in the plastic bubble only this was the boy in the chain linked schoolyard.

The boys schoolyard at Holy Name was the only place I felt safe.

It was my second home, a much better home than our apartment on the avenue to tell the truth. In the yard, there was no one to yell at me. Sure we’d argue with friends over foul calls, the score and who the ball went out-of-bounds off but we always moved forward.

After a few more shots around the key I sat down on the cold concrete.  Looking up into the dark sky I saw so many stars. Too many to count. I’d also take a glance at the moon which was shining bright as usual. When it was a full moon, they said crazy things happened. This night it was a half-moon.

I felt I owned the schoolyard. And nobody could come in.

As usual, I dreamt of playing for the New York Knicks. I treated the yard like it was Madison Square Garden.

I had it all planned out. I’d play for Ray Nash up at Bishop Ford high school where I’d help him win a City Championship. Then onto St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn where I could follow in the steps of my idol Gerard Trapp. I’d hop on the F train every day at 15th street, Prospect Park West and take it to Jay Street Boro Hall.  As I made my way to class, shuffling through the streets of downtown Brooklyn, the people on their way to work would glance at me and think to themselves;

“There goes Red, he plays guard for the Terriers.” 

I would ask the coach for jersey number four too.

As I sat there on the schoolyard ground dreaming, I kept glancing over towards the entrance to the yard. Despite feeling like the yard was all mine, I was really hoping someone would walk in.  It was fun being alone but deep down I think I wanted a friend with me.  I was also hoping my mother would come in to tell me to get home.  I stood up and moved over to the red brick, church wall.  I leaned against it feeling a bit tired.  I had never fallen asleep in the yard before so I looked over toward the beautiful houses on Howard Place, wishing I lived there. Plus, if I fell asleep, someone might come in and jump me.

I always admired the front porch of each house on Howard.  At times I’d see families sitting on chairs watching people walk up and down the street. I’m sure those houses were expensive, there was no way we were ever going to be able to afford our very own house. I had a couple of friends that lived in them, I was jealous of the fact that they lived there.

“Yo Red, shouldn’t you be home sleeping?” a voice called out to me.  It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the yard. I stood up to take a closer look; I couldn’t make out who it was.

“Who’s that?” I whispered as I began to walk towards the ramp which was over by Prospect Avenue.

“It’s me, Elroy,” the voice said.

“ELROY, WHAT THE FUCK MAN, YOU ALMOST SCARED THE SHIT OUTTA ME!’ I said as I walked towards him and noticed how messed up he looked.

“No Red, not almost scared the shit out of you, I did scare the shit out of you!”

“Ssssssshhhhhhh, you’ll wake the priests,” I said to him.

“Nah don’t worry about it,  they are sound asleep,” he answered as he slapped the ball from my hands and took off for the  basket dribbling the ball wildly. As he drove to the basket, he missed the lay-up.

“Nice shot,” I said sarcastically as I chased down the loose ball.

Elroy wasn’t  a good basketball player. He hung around the yard a lot and watched us play.

“Hey gimme a break, I just woke up from a nap,” he said.

“A nap? It’s fuckin four a.m.!” I replied.

“I’m like a vampire Red, I sleep in the day and play at night,” he said as he moved towards me and tried to play defense.

“C’mon chump, try to score,” Elroy said as he lifted his arms and jumped up and down like a wild man.

“Goddamn Elroy, you stink.”

Elroy never took a shower. I always tried to keep my distance whenever he was around. But he was harmless and a good guy who talked to me often.

I’m not sure how long we stayed in the yard that night, but I do know that I stayed there until it was light out and when I got home, everyone was asleep.

No one seemed to miss me.

Red

Hoops135@hotmail.com

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10 Responses to DOWN BY THE SCHOOLYARD

  1. Pat Fenton says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing, Steve. I know the schoolyard of our parochial school, Holy Name, very well. Clapped erasers for the nuns up against its brick wall, played basketball, there, and my mother from Williamstown, Ireland, County Galway, worked as a domestic in the rich houses that line Howard Place when I was a young kid.

    You caught in that one piece all the loneliness of the schoolyard at three in the morning. As the rest of the neighborhood sleeps. What a beautiful, haunting scene. Not easy to do. Just wonderful writing. Keep doing it.

    Your Windsor Terrace friend,
    Pat

    • hoopscoach says:

      Thanks so much Pat…

      It’s always uplifting to hear from you.

      We need to catch up one of these days via Ma Bell.

  2. mike slavin says:

    STEVE, I THINK EVERYONE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WENT TO THE BOYS SCHOOL YARD TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL. WHEN IS WAS YOUNG AND ON SATURDAY MORNINGS OR DURING THE SUMMER I WOULD GO TO THE YARD AT 8AM ALL BY MYSELF AND JUST RUN UP AND DOWN THE BIG COURT TAKING LAY UPS AND JUMP SHOTS. IT CLEARED MY HEAD . AND LIKE YOU SAID IT WAS LIKE OUR OWN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN.

  3. jiimyvac says:

    When stuff bugged me, shooting hoops was therapeutic. I could block things out. or it would clar my hrad to think more clearly. I know people
    that says running does the same thing. I rather shoot hoops or going back and forth full court.

  4. Glenn Thomas says:

    Wow! Elroy! What a blast from the past! I remember going to the Garden one night either for a Knick game or a College Doubleheader years later around 1981-82 and as I am walking through Penn Station enroute to the “A” train, I bump into none other than Elroy! He was so happy to see me that he hugs me and then proceeds to take the train with me all the way back to Brooklyn even though he lived in I believe Manhattan somewhere. I say goodbye to him at 15th St/PPW “F” train stop and he gets out and waits for his Manhattan bound “F” train. I never saw him again after that night.
    I lived near PS 154 and that was also an escape too to be able to play ball and forget one’s problems whether it was hoops, stickball, softball etc. As that song from the rock group Chicago once said “Everyone needs a little time away”. As Mike Slavin already wrote, yes we all needed to get away from it all.

  5. Maureen Rice (Flanagan) says:

    like the boy in the plastic bubble only this was the boy in the chain linked schoolyard. love that line….

    • hoopscoach says:

      Thanks Maureen…that’s how it really felt while you stood in the yard and looked around.

      Hope you are well.

  6. Joe Costantino says:

    Great stuff Steve

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