The Bocce Courts of Dyker Park

by

03/20/2011

Neighborhood: Dyker Heights

The Bocce Courts of Dyker Park

Nestled in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Dyker Park is renowned throughout New York City for its lush golf courses. Proud Brooklynites, always ready to boast about their home borough, might inform you that these Dyker courses spawned a legend: Tiger Woods’ father, Colonel Earl Woods, caught the golf bug there in 1972 while stationed at the nearby Fort Hamilton army base. Though Dyker Park stirs up similar pride and nostalgia in my own Brooklyn-bred soul, my best childhood memories there did not occur on the greens. Nor do I remember the basketball courts or the handball courts with any particular fondness. No, my recollections of my youth in Dyker Park are dominated by the dilapidated image of the stone bocce courts, smack in the center of the park.

When I was eight years old, nothing delighted me more than to watch wrinkled Italian men argue over the position of a green bocce ball. Donning fedoras in the summer and gray messenger caps in the winter, these men battled with a vigor that belied their advanced years. Geriatric lassitude seemed to melt away whenever a bocce player stepped onto the court, and a youthful gleam entered the eyes of any player who managed to drive the other team’s ball away from the target pallina. My friend Stephanie and I used to peep through the fence and giggle as we listened to these men curse animatedly in Italian (I had garnered an extensive knowledge of Italian profanities from Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ Brooklyn home).

To the left of the bocce courts was a giant, gnarled tree that I claimed as my own. Countless summer days passed in which I would purchase a dripping orange popsicle, scramble up to the third branch of the tree, and furtively watch the bocce players argue as I slurped. In between bocce games, I would devour a book along with my popsicle. As I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, I was sorely disappointed when Boo Radley failed to leave small presents in my tree like he did for Scout Finch. It would be a year, at least, before I stopped scouring the branches for a gold pocket-watch.

Last year, on Super Bowl Sunday, I believe, I trekked through Dyker Park in order to photograph the bocce courts for a nostalgic piece I was writing about Brooklyn. As I approached my childhood haunt, my digital camera threatening to fall out of my frozen fingers, I felt sure that the icy winds had driven every sane person indoors. The monkey bars that had blistered my hands so many times were deserted, and the concrete softball field where I used to practice pitching with my dad, who would call balls and strikes in a soft but clear voice, was conspicuously empty. I wondered vaguely whether my destination would even be recognizable under a mound of snow.

It turned out that I needn’t have worried. Even from many yards away, the familiar accented shouts accosted my ears on a gust of frigid air. I couldn’t help but smile slightly as I turned the corner of the handball courts and saw—under a newly renovated steel roof—a group of men in puffy coats standing around a cluster of bocce balls, apparently in a heated argument. Two men sat at the stone chess table nearby, thoroughly savoring a large prosciutto and mozzarella hero. For a second, they eyed me warily, as if I were a stranger trespassing on some kind of sacred ritual. Then their attention returned to the confrontation at hand.

“Our boccia is-a closer,” a man in a red coat asserted. His cheeks were as red as the ball he just threw, but whether from anger or the sharp wind, I couldn’t tell.

“Whaddaya, nuts?” an opposing player cried, holding up his hands to show just how far the ball was from the pallina.

A colorful variety of Italian expletives ensued. Finally, the first man who had spoken threw down his measuring stick in a rage and yelled, in native Brooklynese, “Fuhgeddaboudit!”

Like domestic Brooklyn, which is often overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of adjacent Manhattan, the crumbling bocce court in Dyker Park is often eclipsed by its flashier surroundings—especially the million-dollar catering hall just added to the golf course. However, the men who play bocce at Dyker have created an invaluable microcosm in which Italian heritage is preserved and traditions are passed on from generation to generation. The bocce courts, like the borough in which they are located, seem almost timeless: a perfect combination of old and new.

I have barely any recollections from my childhood, whether in the dead of winter or the blistering summer heat, whether from a Super Bowl Sunday or a Black Friday, of an empty bocce court. The men who play there exude a kind of persistence of existence, a tie to generations before and after, that can also be attributed to Brooklyn itself. Somehow, the Italian bocce enthusiasts continue to smoke cigarettes, drink steaming espresso, and gesticulate with their hands while they are surrounded on all sides by other ethnic enclaves. Whether they be African-American basketball players and Mexican soccer players, just like these Italians on the bocce court, they are all Brooklyn.

Sorting through all of my memories of Dyker Park, I can only recall a single time when the crumbling bocce court was empty and the wooden scoreboard was blank. It was a warm summer evening, and a men’s softball team had rudely invaded the field where I usually practiced. Quickly glancing around, my brown eyes lit upon the unusually empty bocce court, which just had new lights installed. Even now, if I concentrate, I can almost hear the echoing “pop” of my dad’s glove, carrying on the salty air to the outer edges of the park.

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