Playing soccer at the University is an international experience. I’ve played with Serbs and Croats (not on the same field together, since their war), early (very early) Saturday morning games with Mormon missionaries from around the world, and in an Afro-Caribbean league (search on “Adventures of a White Guy”). I played with Chinese students abroad, where I was known for my determined defense. They called me “the Wall”, and the Chinese know a great wall when they see one.
Another time, another game. It’s an assorted group of various nationalities. The game’s over. We ‘re sitting around talking, recounting our stories, and so on. Sometimes these sessions move on to Jimmy’s, the local dive.
Ron, who had played for the Lits, the local Lithuanian team, was telling about one time when a talking session had ended up at Jimmy’s. Ron, another Lit, and two Jamaicans had drunk and talked til closing time, and kept on talking.
Then they got the munchies. The University of Chicago is on the South Side. Some of it’s ghetto, and there’s not a lot of places open through the night. So after cruising around they end up at State & 55th, famously, the worst crime district on the South Side. Ron’s driving and they pull up in front of some all night diner, under the El (elevated commuter train).
The two Jamaicans say: You gotta be crazy! We’re not gettin’ out here!”
The two Lits are past reasoning, and have the munchies bad. They go in. The two Jamaicans, showing much better sense, stay in the car.
Ron and his friend go up to the counter. They sober up enough to start noticing their surroundings. There’s maybe half a dozen guys at the counter.
And then a strange thing happens. Every guy wearing a hat, the hat comes down over his eyes. Every guy reading a paper, the paper comes up over his eyes.
Ron and his buddy look at each other. It dawns on them that they are perfectly safe. Two white guys, this relaxed, this place, this time of night. Everybody in the joint thinks they’re undercover cops!
So, I’m in one of those Turnpike ramp cut-rate gas stations, the kind where you have to pay inside. It’s also a convenience store.
The attendant, a girl, just about legal age, is behind a bullet-proof window (not an encouraging sign). Against the back wall you can see an array of cigarettes that she has to get for you once she knows you’re over 18.
There’s already a line of about half a dozen people. At the front of the line is a young Hispanic couple and a guy, maybe their Dad, running the show. He’s wearing a guayabera, unbuttoned to his breastbone, good tan, gold chain, tropical shorts, and sandals.
A very round and heavy black woman, the kind with that power-projection thing, gets in line behind me, with her teenage daughter.
The counter girl is going back and forth from the guy with the gold chain to the wall of cigarettes, and she keeps getting it wrong.
The woman behind me starts shouting (I think it’s just the way she talks)”Hey, get yo’ act togetha.”
Gold chain: “Mind your own business. We’re done when we’re done.”
The girl comes back from the wall with the wrong pack of cigarettes again.
Big Mama: “You come to this country, you learn to speak the language.”
Gold Chain and Big Mama are now shouting insults at each other, oblivious to the half-dozen people sandwiched between them, who are all trying to look like nothing’s happening.
Big Mama’s daughter has this blank look on her face, like she’s somewhere else.
Sensing that this is going to go on forever, and that the line is frozen until it’s over, I have an inspiration. I yell out “Hey, everybody! It’s the Jerry Springer Show!”
Big Mama: “Ain’t nobody talking to you.”
Me: “Well, it seems like it, lady, you’re shouting in my ear.” I notice half a dozen smiles on faces being careful not to make eye contact with Big Mama.
Big Mama quiets down for a moment.
Then the halftime entertainment’s over, and Big Mama and Gold Chain are right back at it.
It’s Thanksgiving Day in Maryland, a brisk November day. I’m about 12 or 13, so it’s 1967 or so.
I’m playing Little League football, American style. It’s the opening kick-off. I’m one of two men deep. I’m the blocker. My job is to get in front of the other guy when he lines up under the dropping ball, to run interference for him.
This is the worst part of the game for me.
On regular plays I’m a fullback if we’re on offense, a linebacker if we’re on defense. Most of my game is spent in the trenches, where mistakes are hidden in a cloud of colliding bodies. I’m good at what I do, but it’s nice to have your occasional mistakes buried invisibly in the flesh-pile.
But on a kick-off, any mistake you make is public property, and everybody’s looking at you when it happens.
I nervously hold my mouth guard at my knee, waiting for the last moment to pop it in.
It is a beautiful cold and crystal clear November day. I listen to the wind whistling through the holes in my helmet. I feel very alive, and deeply frightened.
What if the ball comes straight to me? Isn’t that what the kicker wants? I’m the dumb blocker, not a ball handler.
Mostly, it turns out fine — disaster averted. I don’t think I ever fumbled the ball to the other team.
Looking back, it seems magical. How invigorated I felt! How alive! Scared shitless, but soaking up every perception. On the trigger point for action!
It’s years later. I’m playing soccer on the Midway, in Chicago, at the University. It’s a pick-up game, and very international. Traveling without a passport. It was from here that I was recruited into the Afro-Caribbean league (see 4/13/2019 post).
I’m feeling good. It’s that first day of the year with that invigorating November breeze I remember so well from my childhood. I’m feeling it. Today, we’re gonna rock and roll. Fasten your seat belts!
Six guys go trotting by, a squad doing their drills. They’re Somalis. As the pass, they call out, good-humoredly “See you in the Spring, fellas, when it’s football weather again!”
My perfect day is their end of the season.
It’s a couple of years later. I’m in the Third World Football League. I play for Rainbow, a team of mostly Liberians and Haitians, with a sprinkling of other Africans. It’s a rainbow of nationalities. I’m the white guy, but that’s to the other teams, not my guys.
We’re playing Sahara, the Ghanaian team. It’s one of the hottest days on record in Chicago. The concrete and steel and asphalt of the city soak up the sun and bleed it back out. It’s like 104, and we’re playing near the Wooded Isle and Lake Michigan. It’s not just hot, it’s clammy humid.
Winged ants, the drones searching for their queen, are out in numbers. They stick to the sweat on my face, drowning in it.
I play soccer for fun, but this is not fun. It’s pure macho, stiff-upper-lip, I’m not gonna quit, but anybody who thinks this is fun is crazy!
Sahara is lovin’ it! This is ideal playing weather. Makes ’em feel like they’re back home.
Sahara. I guess the name tells it all. Good weather is just what you’re used to.
Our housekeeper is from Guatemala by way of Cuba. Let’s call her Eva. She’s here every 2 weeks for 6 hours. The third member of our family, really.
I used to get my cross-cultural newsfeed from soccer, which I called travel without a passport (back when few Americans played the sport). Now it’s Eva, and the occasional repairman.
So, I’m reading the morning news on the living room sofa and Eva passes by with her right sleeve wet. “You’re really getting into your work, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” Eva says, as she unplugs from her iPhone music track.
I repeat my playful question and Eva replies “Oh, when I turned on the faucet the shower was on. It never does that!”
“Oh,” I say, “My cousin was visiting last week and that’s the shower she used.” We both giggle. “She’s 12 years older than me. She was my only baby-sitter. She was really the fourth member of our family, which was very much a nuclear family, the way Dad wanted it. She was our fourth partly because we did a lot of stuff together, nature walks, hikes up Sugarloaf Mountain, trips to Gettysburg, the New York World’s Fair, the Bald Cypress Swamp, and partly because she didn’t get along well with her own mother, my Great Aunt Faye. Aunt Faye was quite fond of me, her favorite niece’s only child, but she was a bigot and could be an embarrassment if you were out and she drank. This was the early 60’s. She’d start talking about Jews and blacks, only that’s not what she called them. It was more than a 9-year-old could handle. You just tried to change the topic.” Aunt Faye called my cousin Sweetie, but by the age of 10 my cousin thought her name was Goddamnit Sweetie.
So, I told Eva all of this and Eva, the good Christian, said something along the lines of “Those were the times.”
I said, “It was still bigotry, and still a sin. Just because everybody else did it doesn’t mean it wasn’t evil. People, on average, are morally average. What their culture permits, they’ll turn a blind eye to, evil or not.”
This seemed to trouble Eva. She’s very family oriented, and probably has family of her own back in Nicaragua who are difficult and stuck in the past, from a contemporary Miami perspective. So, I said “I love seeing how my kids (I teach high school) are so oblivious to racial and ethnic differences and differences of gender and gender orientation. But I tell them that though those attitudes are wonderful, they’ll just be stupid about something else.” And then, addressing myself to Eva, or so I thought, I said “Very few people are Christ-like. Most are average. You can’t expect a whole generation to be angels.”
And then, the conversation, from my perspective, took a very strange turn. “You’re right. My two boys and their friends. They think it’s fine when the man is the Mommy. Maybe in 20, 30 years they’ll understand. Or maybe it will be the generation after. Everything changes. You don’t know what things will be like.”
Then Eva told me another thing, less surprising, but surprising in its degree.
“My younger boy, you know, is in the air force, in Turkey. He came back last month. They get leave and free travel. We had 25 kids in the house, in high school, middle school, and after high school, but not going to college. He told me that all of them, except for 2 or 3, weren’t doing anything. They lived with their parents. They played video games and listened to music and just hung around. They didn’t study. They didn’t work. My son said his decision to join the air force was a great blessing, thanks be to God. Otherwise, he would’ve just been hanging around, like so many of his friends.”
That’s one chilling view of the rising generation, whatever proportions it reflects of the viewer versus the viewed.
It also tells you something about the fears and dimmed prospects supplying Donald Trump with his base.
The first stop is a visit from the Assistant D.A. “Say only what I tell you; list the damage and the losses, period” he says. “The way we get these guys is by building a rap sheet; eventually, as the list lengthens, the cumulative weight works against them, and they go down.” “So,” I ask, “this guy has a rap sheet, already?” “Yeah”. “What’s on it?” “One count of battery, and one count of assault with a deadly weapon.” He wants me to testify against this guy in open court, and the guy’s likely to get kicked free with a gleaming new addition to his already impressive rap sheet. “And you were planning on telling me this when?” Am I exercising my civic duties or am I being used as a stage prop?
Next stop on the justice train. It’s the very pinnacle of politeness: the Courthouse pews. As you move toward the open spot in the pew, everyone makes way for you: perp, cop, victim, victim, cop, perp.
This is why no one presses charges. We’re all here together, just one big happy family: perp, cop, victim. They see you. You see them. If they’re from your neighborhood, how likely are you to do this?
And also, nothing much will happen. Juvis get kicked free, and gang-bangers get an addendum added to their rap sheet.
If I lived in the same neighborhood as these guys, I’d think twice about testifying. I bet the old black guys getting their windows replaced don’t. This reminds me of the time I heard a lively conversation among our lunch ladies down in Gables’s New Cafeteria. One lady was saying that some woman on her street called in some gang activity or drug dealing, and the next day a cop car drove up and parked outside her place to follow-up. The day after, someone fired a few warning shots at this lady’s windows. “They don’t care,” our lunch lady said, heatedly. I think she meant the cops; otherwise, why bother saying it?
So here we are in Court, and there’s my gang-banger, half a dozen pews in front of me and my ex-cop. On either side of him, two guys, 15-year-old muscle: the build of weight-lifters, the dead stares of low-grade Mafiosa, unlined faces with baby fat.
My ex-cop goes on a bathroom break. My gang-banger sees his chance. He walks back to face me in my pew, all good will and reasonableness. Not 15 feet from the judge on his raised dais, the banger holds his palm towards me, a folded Jackson showing, his knuckles toward the judge. “You know, don’cha, this all the green you gonna see?”
I tell him it’s not about the money. It’s about giving him a chance to straighten up and fly right before he flushes his life away. I watch his eyes glaze over as I say this. I know he’s thinking: “Just my luck; I get a fool from Planet Nowhere.”
The Final Scene. The Courthouse lavatory. Visualize it. Ladies, I know this is a stretch. Imagine dangling your tenderest parts over a spittoon with indoor plumbing. You’re staring at a wall with a 5% visual horizon of the room you’re in. You’re midstream, squirting out a fluid with a distinctive stink and stain. Now imagine three gang-bangers wanting to engage you in conversation. You can’t even turn around to see them without pissing yourself. Your first thought is that you’re poorly positioned for either fight or flight. Your second thought is, roughly, “Holy shit, I’m screwed!”
I was wrong. We just exchanged pleasantries. The Courthouse was a safe space. All the same, next time I have to go, I’m bringing the ex-cop with me: “Shall we powder our noses?”
The Afterword. The trial adjourned for some reason or other. We would be notified when a new date was set. My eventual notification of the new trial date arrived after I’d moved to Miami in 1995. I’d have had to pay my way to and from the Courthouse. I didn’t go.
The Tally. So the two lost causes remain lost. The gang-banger is out building up his resume/rap sheet. But maybe the 14-year old is going to church on Sundays and working weekday nights at Mickey D’s.
In Chicago, I lived on 50th Street, 3 short blocks south of 47th, which was the dividing line between the integrated mixed-race neighborhood of Hyde Park (home of the University of Chicago) and Oakland, whose core was a cluster of high-rise projects. South of 47th, nice homes and racquetball clubs, north of 47th, gated-up liquor stores.
Note: thinking about U. of Chicago? The neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park, within a few years of our leaving for Miami, were rezoned, the projects dynamited, and a struggling black lower middle-class became owners overnight of prime riverfront property. Social historians will, after a generation’s lag, trace a South Side Renaissance to that simple act of rezoning.
My high rise building had a proprietary parking lot two short blocks west. At the time, I drove a Toyota Camry, with a trunk-opening lever left of the driver’s seat. I had just hung from my rear-view mirror one of those little golden Buddhas in a small cylindrical plastic container with a bright red lanyard given me by my Thai friend and now world-renowned restaurateur Arun Sampanthavivat (if you’re ever in Chicago, want a meal fit for Thai royalty, and are prepared to drop a wad, visit Arun’s).
Within 9 days, I suffered two break-ins in which the driver’s side window was smashed, the lever flipped, and my emergency road kit pulled from the trunk and sold on the street for $10 or $15 bucks. The second time it happened, I looked around the lot, and there were small pools of shattered auto glass on the driver’s side of every Camry in the lot. Some crack-house north of 47th was using the lot as a kind of ATM: smash the window, flip the lever, grab and sell, buy another hit. I retired the Buddha to a rest home for cashiered gods. Sorry, Arun, but two beak-ins in 9 days? Who can afford that? Perhaps the Buddha sniffed out the skeptical humanist in me.
Those were the 4th and 5th times my car was broken into. I thought about getting a custom-made bumper sticker; “Hey, why not that Merc over there?” This time they got a pair of sunglasses and my $20 emergency stash. At the body car repair shop, it was me and a half dozen old black guys. They all said “They get $20 and I gotta spend $100 to replace the window.” It was just life in the hood.
But the 6th time was Waterloo for the forces of evil. Or so it seemed at the time. It happened at Stagg Field, one of my soccer venues, right across the street from the University’s power plant. The guys who worked there had spent many a Benjamin at car repair shops, so they called in the break-in to the police, and the cops caught the kids.
Responding to their call, I show up at a station in the 22nd Precinct, I think. There are 4 black kids — 3 kids about 12 -14, and one who was 19 — handcuffed to a long wooden bench. The cops seem a little surprised when I’m willing to do my civic duty and press charges. I later found out why.
I was assigned a retired cop from a program of the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), for the best of reasons: when I showed up in Court, I’d be the only one there who didn’t know how the game was played.
The first thing my ex-cop explained was the make-up of the group of kids. It was a training run. The 19-year old was in the gang. He was training the juvis (underage kids) to do the criminal work, because they’d be kicked free by the court system. Fagin, if you know your Dickens. He had the bad luck to get bagged on what was probably the last training run.
Next, he told me that the two youngest kids were brothers from a broken family with deadbeat parents, who’d been in and out of trouble from early on. They were a lost cause.
The 14-year-old was a different case. He showed up in Court in his Sunday best with a righteous Momma clearly pulling his strings. You could tell she was appalled at what he’d gotten himself mixed up with, and she was riding him hard. That kid had a chance.
The Court session began and then ended almost immediately. The law requires, in juvenile cases, that both parents receive notification. The father, I gather a ne’er-do-well who was separated from the mother, could not be found. I’m guessing Momma hunted him down and told him to do something good for his kids for once in his sorry life and get out of town til this blew over. I like to think that Momma got the kid to straighten up and fly right.
Coming Next Week: This the Only Green You Gonna See
Paddy Wagons got their name for routinely carting drunken, brawling Paddies (a put-down name for Irish), Dunn’s among them, to a quiet night in a holding cell.
My Dad’s Dad ended up in a cell for the night after a brawl. They didn’t need a paddy wagon, though — the brawl occurred right there in the police station. This was in the Bronx. The Depression had ruined my Grandad, who’d had a fleet of 3 taxi cabs until then. So the family was on welfare. In those days, you picked up welfare checks in the police station, where some WASPy lady would rub your nose in the fact that you were getting a handout. You’ve heard about the Irish temper, right? Well somebody said something they oughtn’t to have, and family legend has it that it took six of New York’s finest to calm my Grandad down and offer him lodgings for the night.
Well, when I was playing in the Third World Football League, there was this time a paddy wagon came onto our playing field during halftime so the game could continue. Let me set the stage.
We played on a field by the Golden Lady (the repurposed statue of Columbia from Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition) just across the Wooded Isle south of the Museum of Science & Industry.
Game day, Sunday, was like a county fair with a Caribbean/African flavor. There would be tables set up selling food items and trinkets, people milling about, and a pair of those big portable boom box speakers pumping out Caribbean soca music. So, when your team was playing, there would be like a sound track, giving you a little bit of the feeling of being a superhero in your own movie. I remember one time, our game was just about to begin and they put on “We are the world”, so all the guys on the two teams starting doing ironic kumbaya-style dancing in place, knowing that it would be full-on macho once the game started.
I’ve always found that games with teams playing far from home in ethnic leagues aren’t your typical “friendly” games. National honor seems to be at stake, and that’s even more so if the team is a sub-national ethnic group, like the Yoruba of Nigeria or the Ashanti of Ghana.
We were playing Gazelle, the Nigerian (Yoruba) team. The score was 1-1 and it was half-time. Well, at one of the tables, the bratty kid of one of the Nigerian midfielders had been annoying the wife of a player from Sahara, the Ghanaian team. She called the kid out, or slapped him, or something. He told his father, who came and publicly dressed the woman down. Her husband, now off for half time from his game on the other field, had just found out about it. He came storming out onto the field as our second half was just about to begin, with Gazelle already in place on the field. He made it to their midfield — three very big and sturdy guys — who started kicking him like he was a football, for dissing their mate.
This was my year as assistant coach. I couldn’t let this go on. But I also couldn’t race out onto the field to stop it; that would have made it worse. So I got up and walked slowly and deliberately onto the field, and my guys followed with me — but just walking. some Gazelle players came to us and said “Look this is between him and us, you don’t have to get involved”. I said we’re just all going to calm down. I don’t remember exactly how we got them apart. The Ghanaian had probably done what he had to do to preserve his honor, and didn’t really want to take on the whole Nigerian team single-handed. And the Nigerians had stood by their mate, so it all just kind of fizzled out. The Ghanaian left and everybody else stood around talking for a bit.
And then the lady herself showed up. She was a “traditional” African beauty, meaning she was nearly as round as a beach ball (in the manner of Mma. Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, from the delightful Botswana-based detective series). Anyway, she’s about 250 lbs. and she’s having hysterics, and flopping around on the ground. Someone must have called the cops, because about now a paddy wagon shows up, and two burly Chicago cops jump out and assess the situation. After futilely trying to talk the lady down from her hysterics, they pulled a wooden ramp out of the back of the wagon and, putting their shoulders into it, struggled to roll the still flopping lady up the ramp, presumably, to get her to an emergency room. It was not a pretty sight.
Now that the drama was over, the second half could begin. In two years, my team played Gazelle a total of four times. In two of those games, Gazelle was comfortably ahead by half time, and the game went without a hitch. On the other two occasions we were tied or in the lead. On both those occasions the scorer for our team was out of the game within minutes of the beginning of the second half. Usually the guy got kicked in the ankle. This time it was the stomach. Don’t ask me how; I didn’t see it. I just helped him off the field.
Once, after a friendly pick-up game back on the Midway, a Kenyan who had played professionally for Team Nairobi explained to me how you took the other team’s key scorer out of a key game. When he’s near you and you’re receiving a long ball pass, you seem to bobble it. As he comes up, his legs spread to steal the ball, you suddenly clear the ball, nutting him solidly in the process. Game over, for him.
Coming next week : See You in Court (Part 1: What You Get for a Hundred Bucks; Part 2: All the Green You Gonna See)