The rare time I had enough money in my pocket as a kid to cause a dilemma over what to buy, the same three items recurred in my mind. Our Town & The West Side Spirit published my column on this situation titled, "My Spauldeen & Me."
Yesterday, I strolled through Central Park. Resting on a bench in front of the Delacorte Theater, I turned my eyes to the center of the Great Lawn. I saw myself lying face up on the grass at 9 years old, throwing a ball up in the air as far as I could, never letting my back lose contact with the ground.
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, Uncle Mommy, I want a quarter!”
Mom gave me a dime and spun me toward the door out of the apartment. I’d already had six cents. Walking up 83rd Street, I went through everybody’s garbage and found five soda bottles. That made 10 cents. When Murray Parker passed me the deposit money, he made a face because I didn’t buy anything from him. I had my quarter plus a penny. The quarter triggered my dilemma: three of my favorite things cost 25 cents.
My first consideration was crap. 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. If other kids had 12-ounce sodas you’d torture them, finishing the 16-ouncer real slow with sound effects, “Hmmm,” “Oh my God, that’s good,” “Oooooh!” The third Yankee Doodle was a gift. You never got three things. After the second doodle, your mouth would calm down, disappointed nothing further was going in it. Then, all of a sudden, your mouth is being stuffed for a third time with fluffy chocolate cake and cavity-causing vanilla crème. If you’re lucky, a gob of crème stays on your upper lip for a while and you don’t realize it’s there until your tongue goes out for a walk and brings it back into your mouth. The third cupcake went down your throat like a royal coach.
Occasionally, I’d ignore my stomach and consider choice number two: a balsa wood glider. They all had names—“Hornet,” “Mustang” or “Scout.” The aircraft’s propeller was powered by a rubber band. In a classroom, you could make a plane out of a sheet of loose leaf and, at best, clock a kid in the noggin four or five rows away. With a propeller on your plane, you were going places. Exotic flight plans danced through my head before the first journey. Sometimes there was no second flight. The plane was fragile. This was a short-lived toy, like having a butterfly for a pet.
Winding the propeller up, 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 left, hitting a wall of wind, did two quick loops and landed on a fire escape.
The painful memory of these lost aircraft led me to door number three: a Spauldeen. A high-bouncing, reject tennis ball. You tested its quality by dropping it from shoulder height—the one you picked must have superior bounce.
In Joe’s Candy Store, I’d proceed with my ritual. During a test, you developed immunity to being shooed away.
“Pick a ball and get out of here.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“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.”
“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 one, said, “Bye, Joe,” and left a quarter on the counter.
Working my way down my street, I joined games in progress that moved me:Ace, King, Queen, and then some Off the Point. Finally, I’d run over to Central Park and find a perfect spot in the middle of the Great Lawn, lie on my back and toss the ball as high as possible, over, over and over again. Nothing eased loneliness like a game of catch—even when it was just my Spauldeen and me.