Playing It Out

by

06/26/2022

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights, Upper West Side

Everything got worse in New York except my jump shot. Though I looked the part —  white, six foot and fair featured, like some towhead from the Midwest — shooting was not my ticket on the court. In the small school league in Washington where I had starred, I got my points going to the hoop. When I did hit from the outside, it was seldom pure. Even from the foul line, I tended to use a lot of the rim to get the ball to go in.

Now, after college, where I’d played for two years before quitting in frustration, and when it no longer mattered in any official capacity, I had found a jump shot. I found it the way one finds sleep, with just minimal participation of the conscious mind, in a gym at Columbia University in the noontime game, a full court affair of intermediate intensity. 

I played in that noon game in 1990 almost every day because I didn’t have a real job, or a plan, or any actionable idea of who I was or what to do about it. I’d quit an entry-level public relations job at an educational institution in the neighborhood that had a gym-sharing agreement with Columbia, and the ID was still good.

I was supposed to be freelancing, as if after a few months of working in the office, raw out of college, I knew what to do on my own. I was supposed to be living with my older brother, who had absconded to his girlfriend’s apartment on the East Side, abandoning the miniscule place on Amsterdam Avenue that he had unwisely let me find for the two of us during the summer while he was traveling in Europe. I was supposed to be writing poetry and becoming a writer, although it was too tender a thing to expose to serious scrutiny, least of all by me.

In college, I hadn’t been happy, but hid it from myself or anyone else, as if it was a failure of character. Now in New York that secret unhappiness hardened into a numbness that separated me more and more from people and the flow of the city. I was an involuntary introvert, and layers of an emotional shell thickened around me more quickly than I could shrug them off.

My upbringing had somehow taught me loneliness, but the further I got from childhood, the lonelier I became, because instead of leaving it, I played it out in more mature, which is to say, fixed, forms.

There were friends from college I could meet up with, but I had nothing new to say to them. I went to parties but had to force myself to converse. Sex was one channel still open. I had a fling with a friend of a friend, a girl with an emotionally collapsed dentist for a father. She was just out of college too, and working in a bank. A New York native, she suspected me of concealing a trust fund—who else would live like this? –when really I was just lost. When her boyfriend came back from wherever he’d been, she returned to him, and I was crushed out of all proportion to whatever had happened between us.

Meanwhile, I had a jump shot, an actual jump shot. In the noon game at Columbia I could dribble hard toward the foul line, and as the defense dropped off to protect the basket, I could pull up, bring the ball to just above the bridge of my nose, lock, load and score, over and over.

I scored coming and going. Step up to take away my shot, I go by you to the basket. Lay off me and I hit the shot. All day.

I knew there was something wrong with me, playing ball in the middle of the day, in the middle of New York. With no trust fund. I got a job in an after-school program. It wasn’t sustainable, but I lived on almost nothing, splitting the rent with my absent brother, and played it out, because I didn’t know what else to do and had no one around to tell me.

In the morning, I would get up to write, but not really. I’d get café con leche from the Dominican restaurant downstairs, and fantasize on the caffeine fumes, or read some Yeats and wait for his spirit to move me. But really, I was waiting for it to be time to walk up to Columbia to play ball.

Of course, a part of me knew I needed to grow up and get a life, or some such thing, but unhappy childhoods, and unhappy experiences in general, tend to drag on, as if by enduring they can still somehow be redeemed. And a part of me still wanted to see how good I could get at basketball. Even now, when it didn’t count anymore, I had white-kid-from-a-not-poor-family hoop dreams.

To this day, I still sometimes dream about rushing to a game, about being back on a team, and having a chance to play, to show how good I can be. If I could only find my shoes or, if once found, they would just hold together, which they never do, disintegrating into dust, leaving me to play in flip-flops, which I’m willing to do.

Sometimes, to my vague embarrassment, highlighting the utter vacuousness of my schedule, I played twice a day, adding the evening game at Columbia. That was a much more competitive scene with some serious city ballers lining the gym and waiting to play — apparently, they all worked for reciprocating educational institutions too. I didn’t dominate, like the noon game, but when I got my shot, I drained it as often as not.

As my game peaked—uselessly, it can’t be denied—the rhythms of work and life in the city continued to elude me. I took terrible interviews at major publishing houses, quitting in spirit even as I completed their application forms, my handwriting cramping to illegibility. At a staffing agency near Grand Central Station, a woman with a Long Island accent tested my typing speed and grilled me on grammar, and the full drudgery of adulthood seemed to beckon. Taking matters into my own uncertain hands, I took the train to some distant Brooklyn outpost, which turned out to be an ultra-orthodox Jewish publication, whose editors eyed me as the vile heretic I was.

Like Hemingway knew Paris, I sought to know New York, but I walked in the wrong places at the wrong times, getting banged into by midtown commuter crowds, graphically and repeatedly propositioned by cruising gay guys, and rushed through cross walks by rampant taxis.

Once on a Sunday morning train ride to Brooklyn Heights, two guys boarded just before the tunnel. As the train rattled under the East River, they sat either side of me, and one waved a straight edge razor in my face. Others down the train car either ignored it or didn’t see. Instead of robbing me, they just jumped off at Clark Street, leaving me shaking. 

I played other places too — a court in Riverside Park, further north, where I was resisted like a gentrifying force by an indigenous defense that was almost a physical assault; a complex on the East Side where the rims were impossibly tight but the metal backboards loose as a mattress; and the playground courts of schools throughout the Upper West Side.

I must have written something during that year because I applied to Columbia’s Poetry Writing and was accepted. Somehow this didn’t quite penetrate my shell either. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready to emerge from the protection of my isolation.

For a long time, I believed it was the knife incident on the train that had finally pushed me to leave New York and, in my own wandering way, get on with my life. But now I’m not so sure. It wasn’t until that pass to Columbia’s gym ran out that I left.

I moved to Tel Aviv, where my jump shot eventually faded again, and my life came into view. But not before a friend starting his professional career brought me to his team’s practice, and in the scrimmage, when I was finally allowed in, I promptly drove to the top of the key, stopped, popped and swished. To everyone’s surprise but my own.

***

Joseph Bardin is the author of the essay collection, Outlier Heart (IFERS Press). His nonfiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and been anthologized in the Transhumanism Handbook (Springer). A member of the Dramatists Guild, his plays have been produced both domestically and abroad. (joebardin.com).

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