Up until I was ten years old my life was mostly playing games in our street, Simpson Street in the Bronx. As I’ve written elsewhere, at that age I was small, wore glasses and had flat feet so couldn’t run fast. Despite all this I could hold my own in the street games and so was an accepted member of our “gang.” Then, I got into a handball game in the schoolyard (the wall was a side of the school building) and discovered I was pretty good at this game, maybe because you didn’t have to be big or run too fast. Eventually, word got around, as it does on the street, and one day my gang came over to the schoolyard and I played the two leading members and beat them both. My place was assured.
This event also was the beginning of a new phase in my street life. I found out somehow that the place to play handball in the Bronx was Crotona Park. I was familiar with Crotona Park because it was close to where we’d lived, on Wilkins Avenue, before moving, when I was about five, to Simpson Street. I even have a vague memory of my father taking me there, to a big rock up on a hill and saying this was “my mountain.”
I must have been twelve years old when I started going to the Crotona Park handball courts. I don’t remember how but I soon became a member of another “gang,” kids my age who lived around the park and played handball there. There was Bert H---, my usual partner, Irving E--- and Howie D---, A year older and already in high school, Bronx Science. The walk to Crotona Park was over a mile and over 20 blocks and is etched in my memory.
First, on a Saturday or Sunday, I’d wake up early and see if the sun was coming through the window shade. Then I’d quickly dress and go down to our neighborhood bakery. It was always crowded with a bunch of housewives trying to get their orders but my sister (five years younger) was friends with the daughter of one of the ladies who worked there and who knew me so she always took my order, a roll for my father, a salt stick for me and I forget what else. Back to the apartment by which time my mother would be up and would make breakfast for me, scrambled eggs. Then I’d put on some old pants and old shoes, no sneakers yet, and set out on my walk.
The IRT subway line had a stop on Simpson Street; it was an elevated at this point. I’d walk the length of Simpson Street and then walk beneath the subway to the next station, Freeman Street, then I’d veer off, walk past Wilkins Avenue, where my mother’s mother, my grandma, still lived, then up kind of a hill to Crotona Park. I’d pass the handball courts on the park’s lower level, where kids and old men played, walk past the lake and up the steps to the courts where the real handball players played. Every time I ascended those steps my legs were sped along with anticipation. I’d walk past the bocce court where the Italian men played, sometimes stop a minute to watch, then finally I’d be at the courts.
I don’t remember how many courts there were, at least a dozen. In the 1930’s, I believe, handball courts were built in all of the New York City parks and so handball, one-wall, was a city game before basketball became one. The courts were usually pretty full, but my gang was usually there and we’d play most of the morning. The front courts were reserved for the money players, who were guys in their twenties, maybe even some older ones around thirty. The best money player was Paul. I recall that once when the ball went over the adjoining chain link fence Paul scrambled up the fence as agile as a monkey to retrieve it. He was just as agile on the court and had a good kill shot. Another player was Champ, so-called because he’d won a city tournament some time in the past. There was a tall guy, Cliff, who was known for cheating whenever he could and a guy known simply as Lefty with the Hat. Then there was Manny the bookie, who took the bets and held the money.
The court on which the money games were played was lined with spectators, many of them betters; the courts on either side were kept empty. My gang and I would watch the games and then after a while go back to playing ourselves. Sometime during the day I’d go over to a delicatessen outside the park and get my lunch, two hot dogs with sauerkraut and a soda, 25 cents. I’d eat quickly and hurry back to the courts. Eventually, the day ended and I’d walk back to the end of the park where I’d located a candy store. I’d sit at the counter and have a malted milk, three or four glasses for maybe fifteen cents. Then I’d make the long walk back home. Sometimes I’d stop at Wilkins Avenue to visit my grandma, who was always happy to see me. One of the things I remember about the walk is that on hot days all of the apartment windows were open and I could hear the voice of Mel Allen, who announced Yankee games on the radio, floating on the warm air. Naturally, I went to Crotona Park all year. It must have been hot and humid in the summer but I don’t recall being bothered. I don’t think kids know about the weather. It must have been cold in the winter but we all went there anyway and, if there was snow on the courts, we found a broom somewhere and swept it away.
Up to this time all the handball I’d played had been with a pink rubber ball, a Spalding, known as a “Spaldeen.” Now I found out, by the same grapevine I’d found out about Crotona Park, that real handball, the kind played by the top players in tournaments, was a smaller and harder black ball. The top players in the Bronx, who played with this ball, were at the MacCombs Dam Park handball courts. And so another phase of my life, of my handball life anyway, was about to start.