During the annual Bulls playoff frenzy we come under pressure from the youth of our neighborhood to repair our alley's basketball facilities. A phalanx of neutered backboards flank the alleyway, the rims slam-dunked and hang-timed to twisted wreckage by dreamy-eyed kids working through growth spurts.
Laura, my neighbor, got hers secondhand, a heavy-duty, homemade job, from the Sports Exchange, a local resale place. She asks me to help her put it up and when we finally do the place comes alive. I marvel at and appreciate Laura, her civic-mindedness and tolerance for chaos. You have to have inner peace to handle the sound of a basketball bombing your aluminum garage door into the Stone Age.
Then Laura moves. She leaves the board and hoop. Her landlady tells me I can have it for $5 if I take it down and take it away. I do and offer to patch the holes in the garage roof for $5. She agrees. She stops me, ladder in hand, on my way home.
"Let's just call it even," she suggests with the business savvy born of landladying.
"Good idea," I agree.
But I have no garage. The only household on the block with a homeless car. That's OK. My neighbor Cindy says we can put it on her garage. Wasting no time, I haul the rig down the alley on Jamal's skateboard. Jamal and Cindy help. Cindy's boys Julian and Jordan watch. Too young to throw the ball that high, they still enjoy the proximity to excitement.
We set the ladder and haul the backboard up. I mark the holes and chew through the tar paper and wood with a brace and bit. We're ready to mount it when Cindy's across-the-alley neighbors pull up in their car. A bald, pink man gets out, shielding his eyes from the sun. He looks at me like I am a mushroom cloud in the distance.
"Oh, Jesus. Oh Jesus. That's just what we need. Oh. Jesus. It'll draw'em like flies. Oh. God. I've seen it. It was bad enough down the alley there. But right here? Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." He stamps his foot. His face has ripened to an awful, purple, coronary red. His whole head is glowing like a pimple.
"They used to have an apple tree and those kids would come and pull the apples down. For no reason. For no reason! Just to throw them. Just to see them rot." He keeps turning away in despair, then returning with fresh arguments. "They don't care. They're not even from around here, those kids. Oh, Jesus. God."
We say nothing, but we know already that this is not going to work. For one thing these two garages are not situated face-to-face but staggered so the hoop would stand across from a waist-high fence. Behind the fence is a carefully tended garden, abloom with cosmos, roses, gladiolas, marigolds. Even with the kids' most earnest promises not to let the ball fall on the flowers--once play starts the fury of wild three-point shot tries, misdirected passes, and frustrated slams of the ball on the ground--those flowers are doomed. Jamal sits on the peak of the garage and I tell him to fetch the tar bucket. His eyes roll back. Cindy is sorry. I am sorry too.
I ask Jamal to find Eric and Erwin, the children who hang out at Grandmother Inai's house next door to mine.
"Guys, ask Inai if we can put the hoop up on her garage."
They go. Inai comes out. "It's yours, Pete? You?"
"Yes," I answer. "For all the kids."
She coos and nods, letting me know that she means yes.
The boys leap up. I caution them. "Not now. I don't have time now. As soon as I get a chance."
Later I ask the boys to get Inai to open the garage. I retrieve the backboard from my yard. It has left a shadow of yellow grass where it lay. I wait in the alley. I wait some more. Jamal comes out with his friends, shoulders slumped.
"Can't do it," Erwin says.
"Why?" I ask.
He shrugs. "My auntie said No."
I drag the board back into the yard to a fresh patch of grass.
A few days later I see Inai out front carefully removing herself from a car. She sees me and beckons, her face a sculpture of despair. She holds out her hands. "I am so ashame," she says, "so ashame." I assure her that it's OK. We'll find another place.
Across the alley my neighbor Steve has had a dead backboard on his roof for a couple years. I see him and ask. Steve has a couple kids who stay with him on the weekend. My son calls his son Mr. Johnson, as in Magic. So Steve says yes and I hold my breath. I tell Jamal.
"Yeah, sure," he grumbles. Then asks, "When?"
"As soon as we get a chance. Steve says this weekend."
Saturday I'm too busy. Sunday I knock on his back door. His mother answers. "Oh, I didn't know a thing about it. I'll get him." I wait. She comes back. "He's not there. He must have snuck out early."
But finally Steve makes good. We mount the hoop after suitable nagging delays. The kids swarm, just as old baldy had predicted, like flies.
The heroics of the alley court has the new net in tatters in a week. Occasionally the ball careens over Steve's chain-link onto his rows of radishes, carrots, and peppers. But Steve can handle the turbulence.
"It's alright, except for Charlie's bitching." Charlie lives next door to Steve. He wants the hoop down and has been lobbying Steve's mother. Elderly women are Charlie's forte. For years he delivered mail in our neighborhood, and for years the matrons swooned. A lifetime of this strutting has turned Charlie into a rooster of sorts, with lush silver plumage spilling out from his athletic shirt.
Charlie may love older women, but he hates kids. His garden is minimalist, lawn and chain-link. He'll be goddamned if these kids are gonna retrieve their basketball from there. He padlocks the gate. The kids beg for their ball.
"He said, 'Your goddamn ball's going in the garbage.'" Erwin reports to me. Then, slam dunk, it goes into the can.
Steve says Charlie just has nothing better to do, living on his postal service pension, still throbbing with unspent virility. "Maybe you need people like him to round out a kid's education," Steve suggests.
The kids and Charlie fight a war of attrition, the kids using cheaper and cheaper, more expendable basketballs. Charlie peeks out his back window when he hears the clamor of a pickup game. Another ball in the yard. Charlie lurks, crouching behind his curtains, waiting for one of the sonzabitches to jump the fence.
But these kids smell fish. They decide to be diplomatic and walk all the way around the block to ring his doorbell.
"Mister can I get our basketball from your yard?"
"No," Charlie shouts, jaw slacked, irritated. "And you ain't gonna get it back, either."
The kids hear and collectively groan. Eric starts to cry. It's his ball, this time a good one with hardly any tread wear. Charlie plods out back in his retirement costume, bermudas and athletic shirt. "I tol' ya's before. I want that hoop down. And you don't get your ball until it is."
There are howls and complaints.
"Go to the park if ya wanna play."
"There's gangs at the park. We can never get a court."
"Hey, so you go over there and kick their asses. Dat's what I did when I was yer age. Crybabies."
Charlie's torturing them. Cindy, returning home from some errand, hovers on the periphery picking up the story from assorted little voices.
"He called me an unmentionable," one frisky urchin says, smiling.
Cindy gets her resolve together and walks over to Charlie, but before she can speak he says, "Who asked you to butt in?"
One of the players thinks maybe a song will soften him up. He starts and the others join in singing "Jingle Bells" of all things. Nothing works. Steve sticks his head out the back door and hollers, "For Christ sake Charlie, grow up."
Eventually Charlie puts the ball in the middle of his backyard and warns everybody again that he'll call the police if they try to get it.
"My dad'll call the police cuz you got stolen property."
"This yard is private property. You trespass and I got the right to break your neck. Understand?"
That's the story they tell me, anyway, after abandoning the alley for the front yards again.
I suggest to Eric that he round up some of his 150 uncles to visit neighbor Charlie. Somebody else says, "Oh, well. Halloween's coming."
Cindy wonders if we should get a citizens' committee to intervene. But later, she steals out in the darkness, jumps Charlie's fence, and retrieves the ball.
The games begin again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Santow.