This was their world, every inch, from one corner to the other. They were as relaxed and secure on ‘the block’ as most other people in their living rooms. As kids, they had thrown water balloons from the rooftops on to unsuspecting little girls. They’d played ‘army’ in the alleys and backyards. ‘Hide and Seek’ in the dark hallways. This was their turf.

No longer little kids, their desire to chase away little girls had evolved into the desire to catch them. Now the hallways served another purpose, ‘making out’.

Not quite adults, they had yet to discover the world of harsh realities. This was their time of unwanted innocence, with no concept that that it would ever be any other way.

kids playing skellys

They had been sitting on the stoop for an hour, watching the younger kids playing ‘skellys’ on the sidewalk, occasionally giving pointers on how they did it when they were young.

It was hot. Not that dirty, sticky heat that is Brooklynn at summers end, this way only July, but because it was the first hot day, it felt really hot. High school had let out weeks ago, things were slow... Bobby and Tony were bored.

Teddy bopped down the street in practiced rhythm with the brand new Spalding he was bouncing.

“Yo, what’s happen ‘en?”

“Nothin’. Wanna play me Kings?”

“Na, I always scrape my knuckles try’na make that perfect slice.”

“Man, you jus don’t know how ta play.”

“Yeah, right jerk-off.”

“Who ya talkn’ to asshole?”

“Aint nobody stand’n behind ya.”

“Gimme a cigartette num-nuts.”

“Fuck you.”

Fuck yo mama scumbag.”

Like a chorus – “oh they talkn ‘bout mamas now... Watch out!”

“Yo man, I heard yo mama got roaches so big, she gotta kill ‘em wit a machine gun!”

“Yeah, well, dey told me you got rats so big in yo house they carry switch-blades!”

“Is it true you gotta wait fo da sewer to back up before you know what you gonna eat for dinner?”

On they went, playing ‘the dozens’ verbally punching each other, testing the limits. They never came close. To lose your cool, was to lose the ‘game’.

“You seen Sammy, man?”

“Nah, not for a while.”

“Hey, four-eyes, you seen Sammy?”

Carlo looked up from the book he was reading, he was always reading something and hollered back across the street; “I seen ‘em yesterday at Gino’s Pizza.”

Freddy skid to a stop in his brand new, slightly used G.T.O. Gene Chandler’s The Duke of Earl blasting from the sleek machine. He stuck his head out of the window, acting much more mature than they, but only two years older. They were suitably impressed.

“What’s up fellas, seen Sammy?”

“Na man. What you doin?”

Going to Coney for franks and fries, maybe a stop under the boardwalk.”

“Who is she, man?”

“Non ya. Later.”

“Yeah, well catch ya.”

“Later man, be cool!”

As the acrid smoke from burnt rubber cleared, Bengi turned off the radio on the upstairs window silencing Martha and the Vandellas – Dancing in the Street, as the guys groaned their displeasure at having the sounds interrupted. He flew down the inside hallway steps three at a time, landing on the stoop beside them. He buttoned his shirt with obviously exaggerated movements.

“Hey lame, why’d ya shut the box?”

“Later fa you. It’s too hot upstairs.

“Must be... How’s Maria, hunh?

Maria was an ‘older woman’ all of twenty-eight. She smoked pot and would occasionally give one of the boys the time of his young life. It made up for the tease the girls their age constantly put them through.

At the far end of the block Little Pete stood by the ‘Johnny pump’ and inspected his can closely. He had cut both ends out as he’d seen the older kids do. Leaning over the neck of the fire hydrant, he held it from either side, with both hands. Slowly and carefully he inserted it in to the powerful stream of water, sending the cool liquid across the street in a graceful arc. Pete’s older brother Johnny, turned the corner and he saw him just in time to let the can go, so that the arc fell without dowsing his idol.

Johnny threw Pete the kind of nasty look that big brothers everywhere give their younger siblings, but kept running. When he reached the others on the stoop, he was breathing hard, obviously excited.

“Man, you guys seen Sammy?”

“No man. What’s up? You seen a ghost?”

“The Jaguars from 10th Street are on their way over here, talkin’ ‘bout they gonna kick our ass!”

“No way, we ready!”

“I got a new stick man, I’ll go get it”

Dig it, we’ll kill ‘em.”

They scattered, having agreed to meet at Johnny’s stoop, ready. Each sworn to do the best he was capable of, knowing in their hearts they didn’t stand a chance against 10th Street without Sammy. Things looked bad, real bad.

Knowing what was going to happen, a crowd gathered. Pretty girls in scanty outfits, chewed bubble-gum while sitting on the hoods of cars that lined both sides of the street. Each hoped her guy would take the day.

Fire Escape

Young children dangled their legs from the fire escapes that passed for balconies on the block, within easy sight of their mothers. Glancing admiringly at the scene below, each kid dreamed of the day they would be part of it.

Old Mrs. Fitzgerald, aka Fitz, sat staring out her window, elbows on the sill as usual and her spittle rolled down the face of the building as she called greetings to everyone walking up the block. Only now there was something to watch. There was finally something happening to brighten her life. There was going to be a stick-ball game!

Seizing the opportunity, the ‘skellys’ players set up a lemonade stand to hustle a few nickels. Bengi tuned his radio so that all could enjoy ‘Up On The Roof’ Everyone was having a good time. In the almost carnival atmosphere even the dogs barked expectantly.

Everyone except for the four athletes about to play that is. They needed a fifth to make a full team (1st, 2nd, 3rd, close infield & outfield) and Sammy was nowhere in sight.

“Who we gonna get to play first, man?”

“I don’t know, how ‘bout Ralphy?”

“He can’t play worth a crap!”

“Fuck’n A”

“How ‘bout Carlo? He can’t catch too tough, but he hits fa shit!” Some of them laughed halfheartedly at the double insult.

“He runs like a fag.”

“You got a betta idea asshole?”

“Yeah, well, he aint gonna play first.”

Reluctantly but with no other choice, they called Carlo over and re-arraigned the positions so that he played ‘close infield.’ Amid taunts and jeers 10th street arrived and chained their bikes to the railings around the ‘airy ways’ in front of each building.

The rules weren’t discussed, they were universally understood, at least in South Brooklyn, having been handed down from previous generations for who knows how long. The old New York Department of Sewers had conveniently spaced the manhole covers equally on every block. One served as ‘home plate’. The next was second base, with first and third drawn on the asphalt using oversized chalk bought from the local candy store. The third sewer was outfield. The fourth, a ‘home run’.

Tony yelled “chips on the ball, you roof it, you buy me a new one” and that acted in the same way the National Anthem does in the big leagues. He threw the pink, hollow rubber Spalding to 10th Street and the game began. This being a home game, they chose last up and took the ‘field’.

The first batter tossed the ball in to the air and let it bounce twice and swung. His ‘bat’ an old mop handle, rounded at both ends, one end wrapped in black tape for a grip, fell to the ground as he ran for first. Carlo could have made an easy catch of the pop-fly. He didn’t. The 10th street batter made it to second before being stopped. The guys looked at each other and just shook their heads.

10th street went through their line-up twice before they got their first chance at bat. Their hitting wasn’t bad but they were un-lucky and out fielded. 12 to 4 and they were taking the field again.

Sammy came around the corner and knew instantly what was happening. He had been staking soda crates all day at his new job. This was his element, he was home.

He walked directly up to Cherry, trying to act like he could ignore the game. Her girlfriend raised an eyebrow as Cherry removed the ‘Juicy Fruit’ gum long enough for Sammy’s tongue to slide down her throat. She then promptly resumed chewing.

“Hey babe, miss me?”

“Shua. They been looking for ya.”

“What’s the score?”

“How’d I know?”

“Riiight...”

She went back to talking about all the extremely important matters that girl’s discus while waiting for their guys. Sammy strutted over to ‘home plate’ cool as can be.

They all greeted the hero come to save them. He ‘slapped five’ with each and took his position. Carlo deferred gracefully, sat on a car, proud he had gotten a chance to play at all.

Having Sammy on the team improved morale. Fielding picked up style. Batting became accurate. At the bottom of the eighth the score was 15 to 12, for 10th Street.

Bases loaded, two outs and Sammy was up again. He had already hit two homers, no one doubted he would hit another and put them in the lead. In stickball you only get two strikes, Sammy had one. He tossed the ball high to give himself time to search for Cherry’s eyes, knowing she would be watching admiringly. She wasn’t. In fact, he couldn't see her at all. The ball bounced, three, four times, each time lower. He was out.

Walking back to their positions they told themselves and each other they would make it up in the final inning. Sammy was entitled to a mistake, wasn’t he? They were still confident.

Sammy on the other hand, was mad as hell. He had struck out. He still couldn’t find his girl. Numb with rage, the ball landing at his feet brought his mind back to the game. He bent over to pick it up. As he let the ball fly, he saw Cherry out of the corner of his eye. She was getting in to Freddy’s ‘Goat’. Blind with anger and oblivious to everything else going on around him, Sammy ran after the souped-up car, trying to catch the sound of the screeching tires.

Not understanding, the team and everyone else on the block stood with their mouths open and their eyes wide in disbelief.

“Where ya going Sammy?”

“We aint finished yet!” But they all just knew they were.

Slowly they regained their composure and tried to re-group. Carlo was called back in, the only one enthusiastic about playing the game to the now dreaded conclusion.

It was their last ‘at bat’. Tony hit long, but 10th street held him to first base. Bobby slammed in to the ground, luckily the third baseman dropped it and he was safe at first. Teddy hit a pop-fly that loaded the bases. Johnny was their last real chance. He smashed the ball to almost the fourth sewer but 10th street knew he could hit and had gone deep. Their outfielder caught it in the air.

Benji’s palms were sweating. He could hit well enough, you could always count on him to make it to base. But he had never hit better than a double. Today, he struck out. They all panicked. There was only one out left and Carlo was up.

He stepped to the ‘plate’ and tossed the ball into the air. It bounced once, twice. He swung. He missed.

Again, the ball went through its ritual dance, as silence covered the block. They watched the ball, transfixed. They looked at each other. They were frozen to the spot forever. They couldn’t understand. What was happening? They couldn’t believe it.

No one in South Brooklyn had ever seen a ball go five sewers.

Brooklyn stickball in the street

Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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