Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dad and I Play Basketball, Not Well

            My father was Saul Mark. He went to college, the only one in his family to do so, and got his BS and MS in Chemistry. He worked very hard to put bread on the table for my mother, sister, and me. I think about him doing three of his favorite things: sitting at the bedroom window of our seventh-floor apartment on Grand Street, Lower East Side, New York City, with the window open so he could get some fresh air, looking out at the people sitting on the courtyard benches, listening to the News Stations on his little black-and-gold plastic transistor radio—either WINS or Newsradio-88, and reading The New York Times. He also loved to go to shul, but I will write about that somewhere else. He also yelled at me when he tried to tutor me in Math, but that’s another subject, too. I’m going to write about Dad and Sports.
            Dad didn’t really like sports. There is one story from when I was a baby about how he propped me up on the couch with pillows and told my mother we were watching a Yankees game, but I don’t really think either of us were watching. Sports wasn’t much of a big deal in our house. He would read his papers—the Times, The Daily News, and The New York Post, and I would read books and comics.
            I belonged to a Sports Club from the shul, where they made us go to the East River Drive every Sunday and either shoot hoops or play softball, depending on the season. He did go with me to Haber’s Sporting Goods Store on Essex St. to buy me a baseball glove—a lefty’s glove, at that—but he never showed me how to use it. I actually thought you had to catch the ball in the palm, not the webbing. And he never showed me how to throw a ball properly; I don’t think he knew how to do it, himself. This did not help me in baseball, but I didn’t really care; I spent more time reading at home or in the library, and he spent most of his time on the subway or in buses going or coming from work. We didn’t really see that much of each other, except on weekends, or in shul.
            I do remember getting really frustrated over my inability to shoot hoops. Basketball was an urban Jewish game. I had a basketball, and I would go around the neighborhood looking for a place to practice, but every time I found a vacant place to play, a gang of local kids—this isn’t racist; it isn’t intended to be racist, but they happened to be Puerto Rican—tried to take my ball away. One time, I ran into the Co-op Supermarket to hide from them, and had to stay there for almost a half hour. This was, to me, a terrible waste of time I could better spend reading, so I quietly gave up basketball practice. I relegated the basketball to my closet.
            There was one particular Sunday, I recall, when I was upset about my inability to practice shooting hoops—it was clear that a guy my height (5’8”) and girth was not going to be a basketball star, but I felt I should, at least, have some kind of respectable foul shot. I was jealous of other short guys who played decently—one guy I knew from Yeshiva High had developed a style where he jumped up and folded up his legs like a frog—the other guys laughed at him, but he made his shots. I could not sink a basket, froglike or not.
It was clear that I needed to visit the best and most tantalizing basketball courts in the neighborhood, which were also the most dangerous: the East River Drive Park, down by the river. Everyone knew that you took your life into your hands if you went to the East River Drive by yourself; THEY—meaning the nameless, bloodthirsty, indescribable gangs of anti-semitic hoodlums that nobody had ever seen, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist—would cut your throat, steal your ball and money, and dump your lifeless body into the East River—and so, I went to my poor father and poured out my bitter heart on him, like a True Jewish Son:
            “You never want to play ball with me,” I said, pouring on the Parental Guilt in High Style, “and, because of you, I will never, ever be able to play basketball, for my Entire Life,” or words of this nature.
            Dad was shocked—truly shocked. He had never heard me speak about sports, not at all, and he felt truly guilty. It was a gorgeous spring day, and all he wanted to do, poor man, was sit by the open window, read his paper, and listen to the radio. But I was his son, and Duty was Duty. He sighed, put the paper down, I took my basketball in hand—I might even have dribbled it a little; you know, to impress him—and we went together to the East River Drive, my feeling safe and protected because my Old Man was with me, to fight off the Bloodthirsty Gangs of Anti-Semites.
            We went to one of the deserted basketball courts with the holes in the chicken-wire fences, shot hoops, dribbled, passed the ball back and forth, and played for about an hour. We both worked up a sweat, and got thoroughly bored. I missed my books; he missed his paper, window view, and radio news.
            Finally, as if by silent, mutual agreement, we went home, and washed up, in separate bathrooms. Mom and my sister were out, and I don’t know if we ever told them about our Dad & Son Adventure. I do remember feeling relieved as I sat down to whatever book I was engrossed in, and I know Dad was very happy to get back to his paper and sit by the window, again.
            We never spoke of it, ever. I wonder now what sort of relationship Dad had with his Dad, my Zayde Yankel from the Old Country, where fathers certainly didn’t play ball with their sons. I know that Dad loved me, and the last twenty years of Dad’s life, after he retired and didn’t have to slog from home to work day after day, were much more relaxed. We spoke on the phone at least once a week, and said “I love you” a lot more to each other. Oh, and we hugged. That always felt good.

            So, this is a “Happy Father’s Day,” to my Dad. Thanks for shooting hoops with me, that day, even though you didn’t want to. Neither did I. But I’m glad we did it.