I was cutting across the street at Shattuck and Dwight on my way back up to Telegraph, when this black guy came out of the little grocery store on the corner and started waving his arms at me and calling out to me. I trotted over to see what he wanted.
“How you doing?” he said. “I haven’t seen you in a long time. Do you remember me?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I remember you from all those basketball games we used to play every afternoon at Ohlone Park.”
“Yep. When was the last time you were out there?” he said
“Oh man, that must have been about 25 years ago. 1994.”
“We should go back out there some day and play again.”
“Hell yeah. Show these damn kids nowadays how to really ball. Ha ha. Only I don’t think I could make it up and down the court twice these days. I’ve been drinking a lot of beer lately.” I put my hand on my beer belly in case he needed any proof of that statement.
It turned out the guy is the owner of the grocery store. He held out a 20 dollar bill to me. “Here let me buy you a good lunch,” he said.
“Oh no that’s OK I’m doing fine,” I said.
“No I insist. Let me buy you lunch.”
I protested a couple more times before I finally accepted the money. I was flattered and honored. But also a little embarrassed. I try not to look too “street” to avoid being stereotyped. But I guess I’m looking a little bummy these days. What with coronavirus and not going anywhere I haven’t been keeping up my appearance, stopped shaving my beard or trimming my hair and my clothes are a bit shabby. (My feral cats don’t seem to mind so why bother?)
We gossiped a bit about those bygone days. “Do you know whatever happened to Reggie?” I said. “He was a lot of fun to play with because he was so competitive and wanted to win so bad. He made the games exciting.”
“I remember one time when Reggie’s team lost he was so mad he was cursing everybody and he kicked the basketball 30 feet in the air and clear over the fence.”
“Ha ha. That was Reggie,” I said. “For some reason Reggie always called me Jim. And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that wasn’t my real name so I just became Jim. But he always picked me for his team because he knew I would pass him the ball. Unlike some of the guys out there.”
“Chester became a UC Berkeley cop.”
“Kenyatti is part of the People’s Park scene. I still see him around.”
“Those were some great games,” he said.
“Yeah, those were some of the best days of my life,” I said.
I thanked him again for the dough, and made my exit with this wistful feeling rattling around in my skull. . .
Those really were great days for me. Most of us were in our 20s or 30s. And we had jobs and bills to pay and some of them were married with kids and had mortgages and we were all dealing with adult concerns and adult pressures. But that playground basketball court was like a little haven from all that. A link back to when we were still kids and a link to something that most of us had been doing from when we could barely first walk. This game we played. It was a link to this pure and innocent things and to simpler times. And myself I was making a living as a cartoonist back then, so I spent most of my time drawing goofy pictures or trying to throw this ball into a hoop. So I really felt like I was a kid again.
Some writers tend to romanticize the playground basketball courts. Rhapsodize by comparing them to “heaven” or a “sacred” realm. . . They’re only exaggerating slightly.