The First Baseball Glove

The trees have buds, spring training for the Little Leaguers has begun and Triangle Sports, across the street from the rising Barclay’s Center on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, is up for sale.

The entire Barclay’s Center/Flatbush neighborhood is up for sale, actually, as all the mom and pop store owners swoon at the sight of restaurateurs and boutique owners waving fistfuls of dollars at these aging entrepreneurs, who bravely stuck it out in Brooklyn through the lean years.

Triangle Sports has been in business for 96 years.  It is an anomaly in today’s big-box world.  It is a creaky, multi-level, place with a sagging staircase and dusty shelves, where you can still buy a fishing license.  Or get fitted for Red Wing work boots. 

Or buy a kid’s first baseball glove.

Was it really 20 years ago that I eagerly climbed Triangle’s stairs to their baseball department, to inspect their rows of Rawlings, Wilsons, Mizunos and MacGregors?  My quest: a first baseball glove for my five year old son, who suddenly, unexpectedly and happily professed a love of all things baseball and, specifically, all things Yankees.

I asked the clerk to see his offerings for a righthanded little kid and, understandably, he showed me a collection of little plastic gloves.  Toy gloves.

These would not do.  “What do you have that’s a little, uh, better?” I asked.  He drew me aside.  “Why spend the money until you know your kid is really into baseball?” he said, not unreasonably.

I wanted the good stuff.  He walked over to another row of gloves.  They were Rawlings, tiny little butter-soft Rawlings fielder’s gloves.  They looked like miniature pro models.

I suppose it was an extravagance, but this was the only one that would do.  “I’ll take it,” I said. 

My son was overjoyed.  He rarely took it off.  We played catch with a real hard ball (under-handed) for hour after hour in Prospect Park and, in years to come, he and his friends joined the 78th Pct. Little League.  His second team (age 7): The Wormy Pizzerias.  Don’t ask. They had a “real” name, but the goofy little kids on the team re-named it Wormy Pizzerias.  Those first years there were errors aplenty, lots of laughter, and parental bonding.  And, in congruence with those Park Slope years, his teams were made up of rich kids, poor kids, and kids in-between.

Over time, the kids grew and got better and stronger.  Their tiny little baseball bats were shelved for bigger, sleeker models and they hit the ball with real pop. 

And, of course, their gloves got bigger too.  But I still kept that first Rawlings, along with his first pair of little rubber cleats, no bigger than the palm of my hand.  Did he really scoot ’round the bases in these tiny Nikes?  I have them, to this day, in a red plastic shopping bag from Eagle Provisions, the old Polish supermarket on Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, in the South Slope.

So Triangle Sports is selling their store, after 96 years.  Maybe it will be to one of the high-profile celebrity chefs reportedly sniffing out locations across from the new sports arena.  Maybe it will be to the owner of a new mega screen sports bar, who hope to catch the pre- and post-game crowds that will mill about and spend money.  Maybe it will be to a high-rise condo developer. 

Freddy’s bar is gone, moved to a new location in the South Slope.  City Lighting is gone.  The tile and flooring store is gone.  The Pintchik family, who own the paint and hardware stores of the same name, are landlords for many desirable, nearby, Flatbush area properties and are supposedly wheeling and dealing.  It’s a new land rush.  The old makes way for the new.  And, as every Real New Yorker knows, the City is always a work-in-progress.  “Change” is the only constant. 

And yet.  Some things do not change, some things are perennial.  Again, there are buds on the trees, kids in the Park and carefree laughter.  They practice their fielding, in advance of the new Little League season.

Once upon a time, in just such a springtime, a young father bought his little boy his first real Rawlings at a creaky little mom-and-pop store on Flatbush Avenue, and there was sweetness in the air.

44 Years Make a Difference

What a difference 44 years make.  Real New Yorkers remember ’68 vividly.  The war.  The politics.  The drugs.  The riots.  The rip of our social fabric.

But what do you remember of the daily life?  What was it like, to live here in ’68?  Check this video out to see it all, in 2 minutes and 40 seconds. 

The German filmmaker flashes images on the way uptown to Central Park and we get a feeling, a vibe, via rapid-fire imagery, of the tone and tempo of NYC 44 years ago.

I was 17 that year. A dopey kid, in a fog.

See the video.  What are your net takeaways?  Here are some of mine:

Back then (compared to 2012) there was less glitz. Ours was a city steeped in a sort of decayed, 40s-ish look and feel.  The blocky look of the massive cars.  The still-visible hand-painted ads on the sides of buildings.  The whole black-and-white look of the place. Remember: The parks were threadbare.  More park schmutz. 

On the other hand: More “dressed up” people walking the streets of Manhattan.

Overall, I remember — or I think I remember — a less “modern” feel. This was the last legs of old school NYC, before it hit bottom with the mid-70s financial crisis. The city only started to transform into a shrink wrapped, sanitized Disney resort as crack burned itself out and the markets rebounded. Then the rising housing prices in Manhattan increased the velocity of movement to Brooklyn and, now, here we are: land of 1,000 dancing trustafarians on every brownstone block.

So, what’s my opinion, after viewing the video? I look back fondly at the things I did in those days (late shows at the Fillmore! Schafer concerts! $1 movies on 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, next to the library!). Me and all my friends were all in the same boat.  Sons and daughters of WWII vets still in the five boroughs.  No white flight for us.  We had no money, were worried sick about the war (and we all had friends who didn’t come back) and yet…maybe it’s the haze of time, maybe it’s a faulty memory, maybe I’m geezering out, but despite all the political upheaval back then, I still remember a feeling, a sense, that there was hope — and I don’t have that optimism these days. I dunno.  Maybe I’m worn out from the 24/7 bad news whirl of the Internet.  Maybe 9/11 just kicked my ass, mentally.  Or maybe, it’s just the reality that our country is split in two and rows in opposite direction, so that we go ’round in circles.

Yeah, NYC today is shiny, new, happening and hip, but it ain’t got no soul. Anyone out there know what I’m saying?

We Await Opening Day

             In just a few weeks, the Yankee home opener will mark the mental close of another winter.  Not a particularly hard one, but a Real New Yorker winter nonetheless.  The long new season, full of promise, lies ahead like a kid’s summer.  So much time, so much time.  How unlike the summers of adult life, which scoot by like the finger-flick of an iPad.

             Thinking back, I recall that the Yankee home openers of my youth were always midweek day games against Detroit.  It was an event.  The entire neighborhood would make plans to play hooky from work or school.  We’d take the #4 train down to 161st Street and run down the “el” stairs and down River Avenue to get on the ticket line for our non-reserved upper deck nosebleed seats.

            Leader of the pack would be Big Larry.  Larry, our superintendent so long ago, died a few years ago.  He mumbled when he spoke; my name is Marty — he would call me “Moh.”  I think back and remember him swabbing our hallways on Sunday mornings, his hair and white tee-shirt drenched with sweat.  I remember the tattoos on his forearms.  They were faded blue-green.  I think they were of anchors. 

He was in the Pacific in the Big One, double-ya double-ya two.  Sometimes when we were lucky, he would take out the Japanese sword he “found” during his tour in the Pacific and let us do dangerous, non-PC things with it. 

             My dad was in the European Theater and he had it tough.  But even he admits that the guys in the Pacific had it even tougher.  Heat, malaria, an enemy you couldn’t see.  Booby traps.  Crazies charging at you, screaming like banshees.  Japanese Zeros, kamikazees — no thanks, I’d take The Bulge too, like my dad.

             Larry’s kids were our best friends.  His son, Larry –Lawrence, they called him — was my buddy.  Joanne was my sister’s good friend and the youngest Cathy was, well, the hapless tag-along little sister.   

             Larry’s day job was on 48th Street, Music Row.  He repaired musical instruments.  He got his son a full set of Ludwig drums, Johnny Cash style, that is, one piece at a time, “out the back door” — a mismatched set.  In their basement super’s apartment Larry and I played drums loudly, and badly, along with the radio.

             I loved that apartment of theirs, and I was there at least as often as I was in my own.  There, we played music, as loudly as we wanted.  We ate sandwiches on the formica table without plates (horror of horrors!), we ate spaghetti until our stomachs burst — not boring old pot roast like we had.

             We talked sports, we talked about the Yankees and, in time, we talked about girls.  Time stretched before us and every spring Big Larry would take us all to the Big Ballpark in the Bronx.

             High up in the grandstand, surveying the subway, the Bronx County Courthouse, the Concourse Plaza Hotel (which wouldn’t let Elston Howard in, my father would always remind me), we were kings.  In our hands were pennants and pretzels, while the grownups tossed back beers.  We kids looked forward to the day when we, too, could call the beer guy and order a round.

             Big Larry was hardly rich — he probably couldn’t afford to take a gang to the new Stadium these days — but he was always generous.  Wherever that family went, I was invited along. Peach Lake,Jones Beach, Yankees opening day, I was always invited.  I loved when he asked me to help push-start his cars, which were always $50 clunkers. I was flattered that he thought I was big and strong enough to make a difference.

 My friend Larry would shrink in shame as we pushed these bombs down Webb Avenue until Big Larry popped the clutch, turned the ignition key and gassed it.  The engine caught and plumes of thick black exhaust smoke spiraled up to the Bronx heavens.

             Once underway, Big Larry would push the buttons of the radio until he found a song he could snap his fingers to.  “Toe-tappers,” he’d call them. He’d lean back, and to his wife say, “Annie…light me up a Lucky.”  Annie, my surrogate mother, would light up two in her mouth and pass one up front to her husband.  Cool.

             Annie passed away as well, just weeks after Big Larry.

             Big Larry always worked hard, and he knew how to party.  At big holidays, he’d spend a fortune on Christmas presents for the kids.  For Easter, they all had spiffy new outfits. 

             When their relatives came over, it was “game on.”  Big Larry would play Eddie Albert and other pop and/or country crooners on his high-fi and they’d dance and dance, shouting and drinking until early in the morning.  I marveled at the magic, as before my very eyes cases and cases of Rheingold would disappear over an afternoon and evening of party-time.

             And it was truly magic how my sullen demeanor would brighten once I went down to that dark, dank basement apartment.  There, I’d join Big Larry, Annie, Lawrence, JoAnn, Cathy and the rest of the clan.  We’d watch the grownups dance and drink in a swirl of cigarette smoke and good cheer.  One time, Larry’s Aunt Agnes got really drunk and, glass in hand, slowly bent to sit on her chair, only she missed it by a good two feet and ended up plopping down on the bare wood floor, laughing and laughing, so hard, and we all laughed too, because it was a holiday and we were having good mindless fun, and who cared if she laughed so hard she peed on the floor – which made us all laugh even harder.

 The Yankee home opener is only weeks away.  It marks the mental end of another dreary winter.

             Goodbye, Larry.  Goodbye, Annie.  I miss you.  Rest in peace.



(Note: this post is excerpted from my soon-to-be-published anthology of short fiction, Home Front: A Collection.)