A Gift, of Sorts

In 1965 when I was 16 years old, I was living alone with my father who was very much a bachelor. He would have been 38 at that time and he was a car salesman who was successful in both his work and play. His male friends were kind of connected, if you know what I mean, and there were poker games where these goodfellas would play and drink and laugh quite a bit. In truth, they were a fun bunch, but there were always the dark secrets that came with these guys, and my father worked to stay on their good side. I’m not sure what his contribution was to this group but it probably had something to do with his work as a car salesman. He was more than a little interesting, my father, and his rough edges needed the kind of smoothing that would keep him away from the apartment for long periods at a time, and I was largely left to fend for myself. This was a lonely time in my life and I recall that I had made arrangements to visit my mother who was living in upstate New York. As the trip was approaching, my father told me to make sure I was home the following night as he had a “surprise” going away gift for me.

While I didn’t know for sure what was the surprise was going to be, I do recall thinking it was going to be most unusual, and my anticipation became quite intense as the day moved slowly into night. I was most excited when I heard the door open and my father coming up the stairs with someone else.

She was absolutely gorgeous, and her name was Ruth. Long blonde hair, 23 years old, and about 5 ft 4 inches. After a brief introduction, my father left the apartment and I was alone with Ruth. My heart was racing and my mind was numb when she started to kiss me. This kissing lasted for some time and she was very complimentary. Although I wasn’t a virgin (what can I say, call me lucky), I never imagined that I would be with a grown woman, and one this beautiful and sexy was beyond belief. After several minutes Ruth suggested that we move into my bedroom, and without any hesitation I stood to show her the way.

She undressed herself and then she undressed me. Her naked body was superb, and her breasts were perfect, arching slightly upward. I was so excited I could hardly breathe, and we were kissing when she climbed on top of me and guided my screaming penis inside of her. It lasted 6 seconds. Give or take 2 seconds. What, at 16 I should have known about restraint and timing? She was wonderful about it all and suggested that we wait a bit and try it again. I was kind of freaked at this point, having lost it so quickly and not really knowing what to do now. During the time that we spent in my bedroom, my father had returned and retreated to his bedroom, where he would wait for Ruth. She was very tender with me and very kind with her words. Right before she got dressed she kissed me for several minutes and told me she wanted to give me a piece of advice. “Always go down on a woman, you have fabulous lips”.

In the morning I peeked into my father’s room and saw them sleeping together. I wasn’t freaked out and wasn’t damaged. It was another era, a time when a misguided father might do something like that for his son. Today, of course, this would be considered way over the top. I never could arrange something like that for my son, and although he is a grown man now, when he was 16 he was, in my eyes, still a child.

My father didn’t know any better, and he just wanted to do something nice for his son. The gift was extended, accepted, consumed, and is forever a part of me. Many years ago I was attending some State sponsored training for social case workers, and I relayed this story during that training. It is fair to say that everyone was horrified that a father would do that to a boy of 16. I didn’t feel abused, but I also understood their outrage. My father was piece of work, and I still think about Ruth.

When I Was King

When I was a teenager in New York, I was unremarkable and full of doubt. I suffered from low self esteem, struggled with my weight, and had a bad temper and jealous heart. Like many young people, I was having a difficult time finding my place in the universe. This angst was softened some by having a girlfriend I adored, and my complete joy in playing baseball.

One variation to the game of baseball was something called stickball. There were two ways to play stickball. One version consisted of playing in the street and involved hitting a bounced pitch with a broom handle. This was not an easy thing to do as the bouncing ball came quickly and often had a weird spin to it. How far you hit the ball determined if it was a single, double, etc. The ball was either a Pensy Pinkie, or a Spauldeen. Both were firm, pink hollow balls and could travel a great distance.

The other way stickball was played involved chalking a square box on the side of a school or building. This created the strike zone, and if a pitcher threw a strike, the ball would have chalk on it. This was my preferred way to play stickball as it allowed the pitcher to actually pitch, and was brilliant in its simplicity. The ball would hit the wall, and bounce right back to the pitcher. Again, the quality of hits was determined by distance and there was generally a fence which would determine a homerun. This form of the game also used a broom handle (or stickball bat you could buy) and could be played one on one, or with an outfielder.

I took to the wall game very quickly and very hard. I played for years and became more than a little good. I could always play ball, and had a great stick, but those Pensy Pinkies were lethal weapons in my hand. I could throw from the side, throw overhand hard fast balls, and mixed speeds. I also had a curve that could make a hitter fall back sharply as the ball approached his head, and then would fall off a table and right into the plate. Kids would argue with me…”that couldn’t have been a strike”. And I’d show them the ball, covered with fresh yellow chalk. I froze batters, toyed with them, hardly ever walked anyone, and was dominate. As much fun as that was, hitting was even better.

Few kids could really pitch well. Most of them flat out sucked. I could hit from both sides of the plate, with equal ability, but from the right side I could do magic. A homerun was over the fence. That was a decent poke. Over the fence was a street, then someone’s yard, house, and backyard. I would load the bases batting left-handed and then switch to my power side. I would hit that ball as high as I did far. High into the sky and over the fence, street, and house. Many balls were never found and were no doubt on the next block. Then I would wait for the next fat pitch and hit bomb after bomb. I would also figure out the better pitchers and anticipate their next pitch. That would result in a rush of hits and runs, and at some point I would become tired from all the hitting and want to pitch again.

On that field, for those hours, I was really good at something. Sandy Koufax-like on the mound, I loved every moment, and found a transcendental place where I was something better than I could have ever imagined. It allowed me passage into an unknown world where I could pitch with almost magical powers, and assume control where it existed no where else.

Unfortunately I could not trade that skill in for something more useful. A gifted ball player, I had neither the confidence nor the motivation to play high school ball, and I largely stumbled through my teen years, finding respite in a simple game I loved and dominated, and the sweet promise of my girlfriend’s lips.

In my garage is a stickball bat I made 12 years ago, when, at the age of 50 I found some kids I could play with. The game is completely foreign in Colorado. I could just as soon find someone playing cricket (never have). I would play tomorrow, at age 62, and am willing to bet that I can still hit from both sides and could pitch with skill and confidence, albeit with less velocity.

To any and all older athletes out there, consider yourself challenged. Let’s get it on.

Jesus and the $20 Bill

I called him Jesus, because that was how it was spelled, but I am sure the correct way to say his name was hay-zus. I was only 8 years old, and didn’t know any better. He was Puerto Rican like many of the children in Brownsville, New York in 1957. The others were all black, except for my brother and me who I think were the only two white children in all of Brownsville. I guess that gave us some sort of status, or at least made us easy targets.

We lived on Bristol Street. Those who are old enough will remember the lyrics….”kids in Bristol are as sharp as a crystal, when they do the Bristol stomp”.

It was a wonderful neighborhood, if you thrived on murder and poverty, and the year we spent living there was torturous, fearful, and bizarre. My mother was married to a man named Al, and he liked to drink himself right out of a job, so we would move often and when it all bottomed out, there we were, in Brownsville. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to Los Angeles. Since they didn’t plan to take me with them, I was left to learn a bit about the streets, and I made one friend that I remember. Jesus was kind enough to never correct me while I called him by his anglicized name.

I believe Jesus was in my class, although I don’t know that for a fact. I only remember two kids in that class and got to know them in an intimate way. There was one black kid who was the class bully, and would pretty much push the rest of us around and get in our faces. One day I had had enough and we had a terrific fight which ended with me having that kid in a headlock while I punched her skull repeatedly. Yes, her. Her name was Shirley and after I gave her a small pounding she left me alone. But I was soon to discover that the life of the new champion brings with it certain pressures and expectations, and it wasn’t but a week later that a kid named Carlos found me outside of school and he I engaged in a very one sided boxing match. I didn’t know how to box. He did. After my pummeling I remember running home and looking at myself in the mirror. Like an overmatched prizefighter my entire face was swollen and there was more than one part of me oozing blood. Carlos, I realize now, did me a great favor, as I was, and remain, more a lover than a fighter, and it would have been hell to have to defend my lightweight title on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter my uncle, a former Golden Gloves boxer, taught me how to fight and the lessons that he and Carlos taught me have served to keep me safe for the rest of my fighting days.

Much of my spare time was spent making what we called zip guns. Jesus was part of this group and he showed me how to make my very own weapon. Zip guns today are crudely fashioned weapons that shoot real bullets. The kids I hung out with weren’t that sophisticated so our junior zip guns were more basic and made with rubber bands and wood. I don’t recall how they worked exactly but I do know they shot broken pieces of roofing shingle (readily abundant as the neighborhood was in a perpetual state of decay) and were very effective in ripping into flesh.

Another favorite activity was robbing parking meters. This was a very simple process as the lock boxes were all broken, and all one had to do was insert a popsicle stick into the slot where a dime would ordinarily be deposited and it would then push the last dime into the lock box which, since it was broken, could be opened by hand, thus allowing thieves, young and old, the occasional dime. This dime was enough for a soda, or two pickles pulled from a large pungent wooden pickle keg. It could buy a kid an ice cream on a hot day, and was enough for entry into the local movie theater that cost ten cents, but required you to bring your own soap box to sit on, as there were no seats. I remember feeling so guilty about my first heist that I ran home and buried that dime in the dirt in front of our apartment building. I suspect it is still there, waiting to be dug up. To be sure, you won’t find me returning to look for it.

When Jesus called me to say he took a $20 bill out of his mother’s purse I hurried to meet him at a subway stop where we boarded a train for a better shopping district. I don’t know for certain what a 1957 $20 bill would be worth today,  but it was a lot of money back then and Jesus was generous with his stolen loot and we ate a fine lunch and eventually found our way to a toy store where we took our time and shopped for the perfect toy. I ended up with a wooden ten inch model of a human that bent at the joints, and gave me more joy than you might imagine.

Jesus caught hell from his mother who I’m sure was a single parent working hard for every penny. I wish I could remember if I suffered any consequences for my eager partnership but I do not. Chances are I got away with it, and I suspect my mother never found out about my shopping trip and never even noticed my favorite toy.

We moved from that hell hole a year later and landed, briefly, in a much softer place. Life with mom ended in 1961 when she couldn’t care for us any longer and my brother and I  went to live with our father, and his wife. There I experienced athletics, girls, and a degree of comfort never felt before. Still, it is a fact that children are unable to understand how a parent can be toxic for them, and I missed my mother terribly. That feeling of loss became a permanent part of who I am, and I don’t have to reach far into my soul to feel it all over again.

Jesus, if you are alive and might by some great coincidence ever read this, I say to you thanks for a great adventure, and next time I’m buying.