Friday, October 17, 2008


Yesterday morning, I left my doctor’s office with good news. I celebrated by walking through Central Park with a large coffee. Headed towards Columbus Circle, I sat on a bench in front of the Delacorte Theatre but kept looking left towards the Great Lawn to a particular spot in the middle of the field. I saw myself lying on the grass at nine years old. Throwing a ball as far as I could up in the air while making sure my back, firm to the ground, never left contact with the grass. Over, and over, and over.

Summer 1963, "Mom, please give me a quarter, I'm dying, come on, give me a quarter, I really need a quarter, I'm on my knee, Mom, I want a quarter!"

Mom gave me a dime and spun me towards the door out of the apartment. I had six other cents. I needed nine cents. Walking up 83rd Street, I went through everybody's garbage cans and found three Mission soda bottles and two Canada Dry bottles. That made ten cents. When Murray Parker passed me the deposit money, he made a face because I didn't buy anything. I had my quarter plus a penny. Why a quarter?

The quarter always triggered the “Triple Dilemma,” three of my favorite things each cost a quarter. This tickled me ~ that every time the bank account in my dungaree pocket hit twenty-five cents, my internal debate kicked in.

The first thing was food, I wanted crap, and my favorite crap combo was a 16-ounce Pepsi with Yankee Doodles, three to a pack, Brilliant! That gorgeous swirled bottle. What a grip, I never dropped it and I dropped everything. Your stomach was used to only getting 12 ounces with a soda, but then the 16 ouncer brought the extra soda surprise. And if other kids had 12 ounce sodas you’d torture them, finishing the 16 ouncer real slow with lots of sound effects, “Hmmmm,” “Oh, my God, that’s good,” “Ooooooooooooh!” That third Yankee Doodle was a gift. You never got three of anything, sometimes you’d sneak a second something, or someone would gift you a second thing, but, when other than a Yankee Doodle pack, did you know for sure you were getting three of anything? After the second item, your mouth’d be calming down, disappointed it was all over after a second something, sure nothing further was going in it, then all of a sudden your mouth is getting stuffed again, a third time, with fluffy chocolate cake filled with cavity-causing vanilla crème, and if your double lucky, a lob of crème stays on your upper lip for a while and you don’t realize it’s there till your tongue goes out for a walk and brings it back into your mouth. And that last crème lob goes down your throat like a royal coach.

Occasionally, I’d ignore my stomach and consider my second favorite thing, a balsa wood glider with propeller. They had names like “Hornet,” “Mustang” and “Scout.” The glider came in a plastic chute bag, same shape as a one-pound bag of imported spaghetti. The plane was a series of pieces with grooves for wing attachment and rudder. And one rubber band that powered your aircraft. The thing that intrigued me was the propeller. In a classroom, you could make a plane out of a sheet of loose leaf, and at best, clock a kid in the head four or five rows away, but with a propeller on your plane, you were going places. Exotic flight plans danced through your head before the first flight. Sometimes there was no maiden flight. The thing was made of balsa wood, fragile. Name something a kid handles delicately? Nothing, most things are slammed together. You can’t slam a glider together and even being careful, if someone distracted you while you were putting one together, it usually didn’t end well. This was a short life toy, like having a butterfly for a pet. Superb quick highs followed by swift devastating loss.

A glider might get through the assembly in one piece, despite kids walking all around me as I spread the pieces on the sidewalk trying to figure out what went where. Winding the propeller up all the way, I’d send her off. The glider sailed passed the German Butcher narrowly missing the store’s awning, climbing to the second story, it veered towards the corner where a wall of wind coming up 83rd Street met it, the blast banking it to the left, and with two quick loops it landed on Mrs. Sweeney’s fire escape, the single fire escape along the avenue without a reachable ladder even with a two kid push up. Kaput. That was the end of the glider, Mrs. Sweeney was a recluse and never answered her doorbell for anyone but her son, and he had a secret code that no one could crack.

The painful memory of lost aircraft, led me to my third favorite thing - a Spauldeen - a high bouncing reject tennis ball. You tested the quality of a spauldeen by dropping it from shoulder height. The higher the bounce, the better the ball. In Joe’s Candy Store I’d proceed with my ritual. Joe had lots of spauldeens, and they sat in a tall wire barrel near the cash register. Kids were always trying to sneak a ball in their pocket, so Joe kept a close eye on the bin. Spauldeen selection was serious business. The one you picked must have superior bounce and last through a wide variety of games. During a test, you developed immunity to being shoo-ed by Joe.

“Pick a ball and get out of here,” Joe said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” I said.
“They’re all good.” He grabbed one and squeezed it. “See?”
He almost smiled. This frightened me.
“Yes,” I said. “But one of them is better than all the others.”
He studied me, “You just tried that one,” he said.
“Not true. I have a system. I repeat no ball.”
“I repeat. Pick a friggin ball now!”
I found the ball, said, “Bye Joe,” and left a quarter on the counter.

Ball in hand; I worked my way down my street, joining games in progress that moved me. Play a little Ace, King, Queen, then some Off the Point. However, nothing made me happier than running straight up 83rd Street to Central Park to find a perfect spot in the middle of the Great Lawn to lie on my back and toss the ball as high as possible in the air over and over, and over again. Nothing eased loneliness like a good game of catch, ever when it was just my Spauldeen and me.


vjdutton said...

Your stories always transport me to a childhood I never experienced, yet seems so familiar!

Tommy Pryor said...

Thank you, vj, tommy