Gotham Girls in the Burbs

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10/31/2010

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

Gotham Girls in the Burbs
Photo by Michael Johnson

This was the first year we had joined the Westchester Youth Soccer League, and the urban parents on our daughters’ travel team were business executives, academics, social workers, and creative directors—just like they were. Some of us had left our parents’ Westchester or Long Island suburbs to raise our children in the “inner” city of Greenwich Village.

We’d heard stereotypes about suburban soccer parents too: sports was their life—they pushed their kids into competitive sports and demanding travel teams, whereas we spent our free evenings at the theatre or in book clubs. It turned out we were all more alike than we’d have imagined: some of us lived in houses with basements and backyards, and others lived in high-rise co-ops always short on closet space. But our greatest similarity was the excitement and devotion we felt for our daughters: how we enjoyed the teams’ wins, suffered through their losses, and always brought folding chairs and blankets for inclement weather (a lesson we’d learned from our Westchester opponents).

Years ago, when I first enrolled Amy in a recreational soccer league run by parent volunteers, we emphasized “having fun” and “building skills.” When the score became one-sided, we’d slow down the offense. Our kids attended a Quaker school, where meetings were held to debate whether Quaker values can co-exist with athletic competition.

Eventually our girls wanted a greater challenge. Our solution: forming a tournament team who practiced once a week (if you could make it). Timidly–and naively–we left our cement world and entered our first regional tournament, 30 miles away in Teaneck, New Jersey. We were used to subways and roller-blading as modes of transportation, but we rounded up cars to pool the girls to Soccer Palace, an armory turned into an indoor weekend stadium. There were tanks outside, and a dire sign at the entrance: LEAVE YOUR BODY ARMOR HERE. Military men in camouflage patrolled. Last week our girls had participated in Peace Week at their Quaker school, and here we were in fighting territory.

We knew we were out of our league when the other teams arrived in their snazzy uniforms with matching warm-up suits. We’d avoided the hefty fee to purchase uniforms with each girl’s name on the back, using an extra set leftover from recreational soccer (maroon–the boring color no team had wanted). The sleeves were too long on many girls, and they wore soccer socks in every color of the rainbow. Other teams had cool names, like Torpedoes, emblazoned even on their matching socks! We didn’t even have a name, listed unromantically as DUSC (Downtown United Soccer Club).

I nicknamed them the Rag Tag Team. The Torpedoes jogged into Soccer Palace, two-by-two, in perfectly fit formation. Our girls lazed on the floor, chatting. Cheese dripped from Emma’s mouth as she noshed on a slice of pizza. “Don’t complain to me of a bellyache,” admonished our coach, whom we’d hired just a month ago.

The other teams practiced four times a week on expansive suburban fields, whereas we scrounged around for the few ratty playing fields available in the city. They recruited the oldest and biggest girls within the Under 12 age group. We let anyone play who had a lot of enthusiasm and a moderate amount of skill. Except for Riana, a lanky sixth grader, we were 11- and 10-year-olds plus one tiny but tenacious 9.

We faced our first team, and these giants humiliated us 9-0. “Size doesn’t matter, speed does,” the coach said, but our girls named themselves “The Wee Ones Plus Riana.”

They lost all four games. Our best score was 0-0.

It was painful to watch our daughters get trounced; hadn’t they looked so talented in our little city league? Yet they were undeterred. Lucy summed it up this way: “It gave us a chance to be little kids again.”

Two weeks later, back at Soccer Palace, our girls had only one goal: not to win a game, but to score one goal. Just one. Without a coach. He’d let his vacation schedule interfere with their soccer career; he was in Sweden, leaving us alone in New Jersey. A parent volunteer stepped in. The Wee Ones played their best against formidable opponents in Game 1, losing 2-0. The parents worried how another rout would feel, but our daughters were resilient.

During Game 2, a harrowing alarm penetrated the armory. Should we worry? The military men paraded back and forth, nonchalant. The soccer ball had hit a mat on the side wall, covering the weapons vault; this always triggered the alarm, but the tournament must go on.

Game 2: 0-0. Game 3: 5-0, against another tough–and very tall–team.

Our girls guzzled Gatorade, ate snacks high in trans fats, and returned with heads high for the last match at 9:15 PM. Alice, who claimed she was “pretty tired,” refused to let up. Beckham ran the equivalent of 8.8 miles in every soccer game, but our Alice must have clocked 15. She kept taking shots at the goal…and just missing. Our usually quiet section of the grandstand rooted for Alice and The Wee Ones as if this were a Yankees-Mets subway series.

Alice’s umpteenth attempt. She made the goal! She dove flat onto the field in celebratory relief. Our girls jumped up and down in ecstasy. A girl on the opposing team said, “You’re acting like you never scored a goal before.”

And our team responded in unison: “We haven’t!”

We were winning 1-0–with a long 10 minutes left. My daughter scored the second goal, assisted by one of our smallest players who was celebrating her 10th birthday. I was surprised, and embarrassed, by the tears in my eyes.

Back to the city for an 11:30 PM victory dinner, way past their bedtime (and ours). Over dumplings and lo mein, they made a pact to wear their jerseys to school on Monday.

“My mom’s away this week, and she’s the only one who does laundry in our house,” the birthday girl said.

“Air your jersey out by hanging it out your window tonight,” suggested my daughter.

It was a thrill for underdogs to taste victory, and all week I found myself daydreaming about our entire team wearing matching socks–not with their team name on it or anything…just the same color.

That day has come. The Gotham Girls, appropriately dressed in black uniforms with matching yellow socks, have practiced hard enough to join the Westchester league. When the Westchester teams come to our “home” field, they must be startled to find a large green turf on Pier 40, floating atop the Hudson River—and surrounded by a multi-level parking lot filled with trucks. I happen to prefer our away games, when we car pool north (whereas many of us joke that we avoid going above Fourteenth Street if possible). Grandmothers and aunts who live in neighboring towns come to watch our girls play.

On the sidelines we all look alike—with our containers of thirst-quenching cut-up fruit, biting our nails and trying hard not to behave like folding chair coaches. Our daughters are amazed by the high school fields we play on, which look like college campuses. And real grass! We douse ourselves in sun block and enjoy a few hours in nature’s backyard, where birds sing louder than car horns.

After a close game, we refueled at the infamous 89-year-old Walter’s in Larchmont, the roadside stand under a Chinese pagoda known for hot dogs and curly fries. We always knew great places to have lunch because several parents on our team had grown up in Westchester. A friendly couple ahead of us on line told us they worked in the city. “We play in the suburbs,” we told them. “Reverse commuters.” We never imagined ourselves turning into avid soccer moms and dads—weren’t we city mice, after all? Yes…and no. Next weekend we’re facing the Scarsdale Lightning, and I’m dreaming of getting a double hot dog to go with homemade mustard. The taste might linger until we hit the Triboro Bridge.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in Salon.com, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and many other publications. She is an associate writing professor at The New School and has completed a Young Adult novel.

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